When I was a child I was diagnosed with ADHD. The doctors told me that I couldn’t focus and that I was a “hyperactive” child.
As a teenager they tried to give me adderall and it turned me into a zombie. I hated it. Felt like it stripped me of my personality.
Needless to say I stopped taking it, and instead had to rely on more natural methods of managing my ADHD ridden mind.
Over time though, through taking this natural approach, I’ve learned a lot about managing distractions, focusing for extended periods of time, and how all of this correlates to what INTERESTS me most.
You see, if you have ADHD the problem is not that you can’t focus – it’s actually the opposite. It’s that you get bored easily.
If the work isn’t stimulating enough, if the work isn’t engaging enough, if it doesn’t grab my attention and keep me locked in, that is when I am most susceptible to distractions, boredom, and disengagement.
And this is natural for all of us. Whether you have ADHD or not, I GUARANTEE that at some point you’ve struggled with boredom at work.
Whether it’s getting through the mountain of emails that you have, mundane data analysis, or any other form of “grunt work” that needs to get done, boredom is likely to strike us at some point and we will need a way to fight through it.
Managing boredom (especially in our stimulation rich society of social media) is a key skill to learn and cultivate in today’s workforce.
So, what do we do when our work is too easy? What do we do when we’re managing boredom? What can we do when we’re disengaged?
This is where the science of “flow states” comes into play to help us out.
In the world of Flow States and the science of peak performance there is something called the “The Challenge Skills Equation”
This equation/framework is as follows – Challenge plays a huge role in performance. If something is too difficult we get stressed. If it’s too easy we get bored.
More or less, your ability to get into flow is a factor of How hard is the challenge Vs. Do I have the skills for it?
You want to be neither stressed nor bored. Just like Goldilocks and the three bears, not too hard, not too easy, juuuuuust right!
Ideally it’s something that should make you say, “that sounds challenging but I think I could pull it off.”
Here’s a graph of what this looks like –
For the purposes of this article, we’re focused on the bottom half of the challenge to skills equation.
How can we make our work more interesting, engaging, or difficult in order to sufficiently increase that challenge and get ourselves out of boredom?
Here’s how I do it –
The vast majority of my day is spent on the phone. I do a lot of calls and meetings and time interacting with other people.
While I love it because I’m a people person, it’s easy for me to zone out sometimes. It’s hard to maintain my attention if I have a boring client or someone who doesn’t really engage me. I’m also likely to zone out after I’ve already done say 10 calls for the day and fatigue is starting to set in.
In these situations what do I do?
For one I always use a standing desk. A standing desk is a very subtle way of keeping me engaged just because of the slight additional energy it takes to remain standing.
This usually isn’t enough though, so another technique that I will use is rolling a golf-ball under my foot while I’m standing and taking a call. That slight challenge/pain of the golfball under my foot is enough to keep my attention engaged in the present moment and prevent me from zoning out.
If these two don’t work, I’ll take out my HRV monitor and track my heart rate and HRV while I’m on the call. If the call is so easy, I should have great HRV and be really relaxed, right?! Easier said than done…
This slight challenge is usually enough to snap me back into the zone and remain engaged with the customer. I don’t even have to look at my score on the HRV monitor either, just knowing that I’m hooked up to it makes me much more conscious of my attention and performance.
I’m also a furious note-taker. I find that writing the conversation down keeps me engaged throughout. Another slight challenge that ups the ante if I’m veering out of the flow channel and into boredom.
Still not enough for you? Still need to up the challenge a bit more?
This one is for the meditators – Sometimes I’ll try to watch my breath and listen at the same time. Remain engaged and present and with my breath and bodily sensations while trying to observe my own impatience. I pay attention to how what they say makes me FEEL.
This one is a very tough challenge though, so it’s easy for it to become TOO difficult too quickly, and now I’m so focused on my breathing that I’ve stopped paying attention to the call.
Remember, we want to up the challenge but not up it so much that it becomes too difficult and triggers overwhelm or anxiety.
What about if I’m not on a call though? What if I need to do the small tasks? The cleanup and maintenance. The tasks where it’s easy for me to get distracted because it’s not that hard to do BUT, I know it’s necessary.
In these situations I put a timer on.
Sometimes I’ll press go just to see how fast I can get it done. Other times I’ll set a limit for myself like 30 minutes and I’ll see if I can get everything done in that 30 minute window.
Knowing that the timer is ticking adds a slight challenge (and also plays with the flow trigger of risk) and is enough to keep me engaged and get through the work without getting distracted and wasting time.
Closing Thoughts and Summary
All of these are simple examples of how to play with the challenge to skills balance when something is too easy or disengaging.
In all of these scenarios I’m making the task slightly more difficult or challenging to try and cope with the fact that this task isn’t grabbing enough of my attention.
Keep in mind that these are what work for me. You might need other ways of increasing the challenge to make it work for you.
Get creative! I came up with all of these more or less on my own through my own experimentation. I took the understanding of the challenge to skills equation and I used it as a principle that I can apply to my work.
You can do the same.
The next time you’re at work and you’re bored or your work is too easy, try to experiment with some of these techniques. Try your own techniques. Experiment, measure, repeat again and again and again until you isolate what works best for you.
Now get out there and kill the dragons of boredom one flow technique at a time!