Finding interest, purpose, and meaning in boring moments can enable us to play the long game with our career.
Photo by WOCinTech Chat/Flickr.
No job is immune from the mundane.
It may be a long early morning commute or sitting through the fifth presentation of the same material in two days. Our ability to find interest, purpose — and even meaning — in these moments can enable us to play the long game with our career and to endure and learn from essential skill-building jobs that may be kind of boring.
So, what can you do to get over these boring moments?
There are two parts to this practice that can transform any job.
The first part begins by noticing the details. When we are bored, our natural tendency is to do the exact opposite. We zone out and resign ourselves to loop-thinking, questioning our choices, or letting our minds wander. Instead, go the other direction. Pay extra attention to the mundane parts.
For example, if your task is to photocopy and fold 500 booklets, pay attention to the arc that your hand makes when taking things from the photocopier to the table and back. Challenge yourself try to make your movements as smooth and uniform as possible. The benefits of this type of thinking don’t reveal themselves in 10 minutes, they reveal themselves over a sustained period of time.
Sustaining this type of practice doesn’t feel like more work, it actually transforms these boring moments into something new and sets you up for the second part of this practice:
Asking a question and finding the answer within the details and insights you have begun to uncover.
Your question can be anything.
It can be something profound and philosophical — if you tend toward that type of thinking — or it can be as simple as figuring out what you want to eat for lunch.
In his book “The Shallows,” Nicholas Carr uses the term “combining machines” to explain our brain’s ability to take disparate types of information and find unique connections between them. This is the magic of our neural networks, composed of hundreds of thousands of overlapping wires crossing and sending signals back and forth. By asking a question of this previously meaningless activity and continuing to do so over time, you will find an answer and the insight may be surprising.
As we pursue “nonlinear careers,” we need to take unconventional steps to find and build careers that sustain and nourish us. It is why I wrote the book “50 Ways to Get a Job: An Unconventional Guide to Finding Work on Your Terms,” and it is the grounding that this exercise rests on.
Here are some steps, one by one, that will help you transform even the most boring of moments.
PART 1: NOTICE THE DETAILS
- Identify your moment of boredom
Identify one moment in your everyday routine that currently has no meaning. Set constraints around this moment of boredom — these could be physical constraints or time-based constraints.
- Decide what to focus on
Choose one aspect of your boring moment to focus on. This step narrows your range of potential outcomes, helping you manage the creative challenge of finding meaning in the mundane.
- Notice the details
Begin noticing the details. Notice the smells, sounds, sights, or temperature. Pay attention to the way that you move or attempt to notice the materials present and how they relate to each other.
- Continue for two weeks
Practice this for two weeks. If you lose interest after the first week chose another boring moment to explore and recommit to this new topic of focus for another two weeks.
PART 2: ANSWER A QUESTION
- Choose a question
Your question can be anything — simple, philosophical, or timely. You also have permission to change your question as you begin to get answers. The question shouldn’t have anything directly to do with the specific moment you chose above.
- Give the task power
Give power to the moment that you chose in Part 1. Treat it as something that contains an important answer a task that is worth revering. This moment holds the answer, but first, you have to believe it: You have to give this moment power. Entertain the belief that your coffee run or time in the copy room could hold the answer to a question that you’ve been struggling with your whole life.
- Ask the question
This part that will feel like a stretch. You may feel embarrassed or awkward at first, but that will change over time. Ask yourself what can this task teach you about the question that you are asking? What answers does it hold — think laterally. However simple the task may be, whether it is walking out the door or answering phones, know there is something to be learned. Look for answers in the way that you are doing the task; how your body moves or feels throughout it. Look for answers in the outcomes and results of your work. Consider folding paper, let your mind move from the specific — the act of folding and creasing paper — to the general — where did the trees that were used to make this paper come from? How can the paper-making process inform your inquiry?
The answers we come to are not the important part of this exercise. The important part of this practice comes from the act of noticing, and the realization that even in the most boring of moments there is something we can learn. There is a career to be built and we are already in the middle of it.