Understanding the psychology of distraction can help you stay on task

Could your urge to check emails — instead of finishing that major project — be a response to an uncomfortable emotional state?

  • It's easy to stumble down a rabbit hole when we consider the action beneficial like checking emails, stock prices, or sports scores.
  • However, if these seemingly beneficial actions take the place of something else we intended to do, they're just distractions. And we've been moved to these distraction as a psychological response to discomfort.
  • The truth is that distraction comes from within, and time management is just another form of pain management.
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Microsoft Japan switched to four-day workweek — sales skyrocketed 40%

Maybe it's time to show this report your employer?

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  • Microsoft Japan recently completed its experimental "Work-Life Choice Challenge Summer 2019" program.
  • The program involved giving employees five consecutive Fridays off, cutting the duration of meetings, and encouraging online chats instead of face-to-face ones.
  • Some research echoes Microsoft Japan's recent report, suggesting that cutting the workweek can boost productivity.
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To make laziness work for you, put some effort into it

If laziness is written into our genes, why not embrace it?

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We are being lazy if there's something that we ought to do but are reluctant to do because of the effort involved.

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Why more play is the key to creativity and productivity

Adult recess and other apparently ridiculous activities may be one of the best ways to feel, work, and be better.

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  • Play is one of the primary ways that children learn.
  • As we get older, however, we begin to worry more about the opinions of others. Gradually, we stop playing quite so much.
  • This could be a grave mistake. Research has shown that adults who make time for play reap the benefits in terms of greater productivity, more creativity, and greater health and happiness.

Some adults with high-powered jobs aren't spending their lunch breaks meeting with clients, but are playing kickball and hopscotch instead. Still other adults are buying coloring books — not to develop a skill, but to mindlessly shade in pre-drawn lines in bright primary colors. There are even consultants whose careers are based on teaching businesses how to incorporate more playtime into the workday.

It might be tempting to dismiss this craving for play as another quirk of the ostensibly over-coddled millennial generation, but if recent research is to be believed, more playtime actually keeps us healthy and makes us more productive and creative. Unsurprisingly, humanity's natural condition isn't to stuff themselves into suits and ties and manipulate spreadsheets all day. Human beings like and need to be creative, and sometimes that creative spark needs to be nourished, even with something as apparently insane as adult recess or coloring books.

All work and no play

For many, the only thing they need to hear about play is that it feels good and is good for you. Play reduces cortisol — the hormone responsible for stress, which can increase your risk for heart disease in excess — and releases endorphins. It also helps to keep depression at bay, improves your cognitive health, and lowers the risk of developing age-related neurodegenerative conditions like dementia.

That's all well and good, but plenty of adults have reached the conclusion that they'd rather work and earn more than play more. However, there are good reasons for even the most diehard grinches to make time for play in their schedule.

Tim Brown, the CEO of the design firm IDEO explained that there's a pragmatic side to playfulness in his TED talk. "We think playfulness helps us to get to better solutions. Helps us do our jobs better and helps us feel better when we do them."

This makes sense when you consider the function of play from a developmental perspective. For the group that's typically associated with recess (children), play is a method for learning about the world. Children learn about spatial relationships, concepts and ideas, motor skills, and even social roles and interpersonal interaction through play, whether that's playing with action figures, blocks, or just a stick and some dirt. Play is fun, but its "purpose" is serious stuff; it's one of the very first ways that we go about learning. Most importantly, studies have shown that play facilitates insightful, divergent thinking — in other words, creativity.

Bring the Power of Play to the Workplace, with Jane McGonigal

Despite these benefits to well-being, learning, and innovation, many adults react to adult recess or coloring books the same way they do when a relative makes an off-color joke at Thanksgiving, even though these were perfectly acceptable activities to engage in as kids. "But as kids learn to become adults," says Brown, "they become much more sensitive to the opinions of others, and they lose that freedom and they do start to become embarrassed. And in studies of kids playing, it's been shown time after time that kids who feel secure, who are in a kind of trusted environment — they're the ones that feel most free to play."

This sense of embarrassment may be getting in the way of some serious innovation. Studies have shown that even in the workplace, play increases creativity, productivity, and group cohesion. Apparently frivolous doodling helps people to learn and remember salient details better and increases functional connections in the brain. Physical exercise and sports like kickball, for instance, have been shown to improve workplace productivity. Businesses have known about these effects for years, too. There's a reason why Google's campus is scattered with ping pong, billiards, and foosball tables. So, if a sense of shame is holding you back from making room for more play in your life, just remember: The benefits far outweigh the risks.


Bored to death: What is boreout syndrome?

The under-recognized condition affects workers in offices across the globe.

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  • Boreout syndrome is akin to burnout syndrome, but rather than arising from an excess of challenging work, it arises from a surfeit of it.
  • Many would scoff at the idea that not having enough work to do would be anything to complain about, but boreout can have some serious impacts on your physical and mental health.
  • One man was so distressed about his boreout that he sued his employer, claiming that he had been deliberately put in a meaningless position.

You've been refreshing Reddit for the past hour, mindlessly scrolling through images of dogs and cats apparently having a significantly more engaging time than you are. You finished your tasks for the day in the first hour, and now you've got to figure out how to kill seven more. You could ask your manager for more tasks, but this happens so often, what if they start thinking that they don't need a full-time employee in your position? No, better to just wait for somebody to give you something to do. But having nothing to do is intolerable, because buzzing underneath the pervasive sense of boredom you're feeling is a low-level anxiety over whether somebody is going to discover your lack of activity.

This experience was what caused Frédéric Desnard to sue his former employer for €360,000 (roughly $400,000) after he had been mis au placard, or "put in the cupboard." The English equivalent of this term is to send an undesirable employee to the so-called "banishment room," a department so meaningless and unpleasant that the employee eventually quits, saving the manager from having to fire them. Desnard claimed that the stress of having no work to do sent him into an epileptic fit once while driving. He described it as "a descent into hell."

"I was ashamed of being paid for doing nothing," he said.

Desnard lost his suit, as it became apparent that the lawsuit was borne more out of spite than for any actual damages his employer had caused, but the suit alluded to a very real condition: boreout syndrome.

Bored out of your mind at work? Your brain is trying to tell you something. | Dan Cable

Where burnout syndrome results from overwork and an inability to manage excessive workplace stress, boreout comes about due to a lack of an adequate number of tasks or adequately challenging tasks. While complaining about not having enough work to do may inspire envy in some overworked employees, boreout can be equally distressing as burnout. And both conditions hurt employer and employee alike.

Bored-out individuals also tend to have lower job satisfaction. One study found that employees with monotonous jobs had significantly greater risk for heart attacks. Another conducted on over 7,500 British civil servants found that frequently bored individuals were between two and three times more likely to die of cardiovascular disease. While the stress associated with boredom may play a role, the researchers believe this is more due to the unhealthy habits that the chronically bored turn to as a means of making their life more interesting, like drinking and smoking.

One might think that a worker bored to tears would jump at the opportunity to get a task done and done well, but bored-out individuals actually have worse job performance and make more errors. And of course, in order to avoid engaging with the source of their boredom, bored-out individuals have higher absenteeism.

Clearly, boreout is something that we want to avoid, both as employees and employers. In Diagnose Boreout, the book which first described the syndrome, Swiss business consultants Peter Werdner and Philippe Rothin laid out methods for avoiding the condition. Employers can make an effort to distribute challenging, non-repetitive tasks to their employees. They can also ensure that their employees can talk to them about needing a new task or role without the fear of being laid off. Ultimately, however, the responsibility of ending boreout lies with the employee — they have to find a way to make their work meaningful or, failing that, find a new job that has a better chance of keeping them satisfied. Often, the risk and potential loss of income prevents dissatisfied employees from switching jobs. But it's important to remember that not switching your job when it's boring you to tears doesn't actually avoid any costs; it just transforms a financial cost into a cost to your mental and physical health.