“Boreout” – What it is and how to avoid it

I recently came across an interesting documentary about the effects of boredom on individuals’ psychological well-being. If you speak German, you might like to take a look: http://www.3sat.de/mediathek/?mode=play&obj=45606

Most media platforms nowadays are full of stories and information about how stress, trying to do too much, and spreading one’s energy too thinly among multiple tasks can lead to the condition ‘burnout’, with pretty serious physical and psychological consequences for the individual involved. But how many of us had every heard of the term ‘boreout’? This term describes the opposite state to burnout. The documentary and other research sources have recently shown that boreout – i.e. intense boredom, total under-stimulation – can also make people ill, in similar ways to burnout. It gives a whole new meaning to the saying ‘bored to death’!

Depending on an individual’s personality profile, they will be stimulated and motivated by various activities, and once these activities are removed from their lives, they will start to feel various symptoms of boredom. For some, it can be as simple as limited communication with others. Other individuals are more able to occupy themselves, but if their means of doing this are removed, they too will start to feel bored. A few minutes of ‘down time’ probably won’t bring about any worrying, or even noticeable, symptoms. In fact, for those used to working under stress, it may feel a bit like a holiday, though some might have a slight guilty conscience at not having ‘done enough’. But intense boredom due to a total lack of stimulation is what can lead to ‘boreout’; in its mildest form it will mean that the individual gets nothing done, and mentally starts to ‘switch off’, but over a prolonged period it can even lead to depression and physical illness, just like burnout. Working adults may start to realise that they are suffering from ‘boreout’ if having lunch with colleagues becomes the highlight of their day. They may also sleep poorly, having trouble getting going in the morning, not be able to concentrate properly, and not be motivated to start their working day. The most common cause of ‘boreout’ is not being challenged by the activities we are set. If activities are too easy, or particularly repetitive, our brains are not stimulated and we feel no sense of reward on having completed the tasks.

But boredom is not only found in the workplace; it also rears its head also in schools and classrooms around the globe – . and this is where we as teachers come in. Here’s what we can learn from the documentary:

– Long monologues by the teacher lead to boredom.

– A lack of external stimulation leads to boredom.

– More intelligent people get bored more easily.

– Individuals need to recognise when they have completed a challenge well, so that they feel psychological reward. This can be strengthened by external recognition which leads to pride in one’s work.

– Autonomy and individual responsibility lead to more creativity, and to more psychological reward. Feeling powerless and useless leads to distancing and dejection.

– ‘Boreout’ doesn’t just occur in the classroom (or at work), but can extend to other areas of life and cause a general feeling of frustration and lethargy.

– We mustn’t let our drive for efficiency oust room for creativity.

– There is a fine line between satisfying routine which shows learning/progress more clearly, and repetitive tasks which lead to boredom.

– The combination of challenge/stimulation with down time allows people to work most effectively.

Balanced correctly, this combination leads to ‘Flow’ – the ideal balance between an individual’s ability and the challenge of the tasks set. Both ‘burnout’ and ‘boreout’ are caused by imbalances between ability and the challenge of one’s work, and both lead to similar symptoms. To avoid this, we need to aim for the situation called ‘Flow’ and experiencing a sense of meaning in what we do. When we are in ‘Flow’, we can forget everything around us and ‘lose ourselves’ in our activity, losing track of time and ignoring external distractions. And afterwards enjoying the glowing feeling of psychological (internal) reward and satisfaction caused by our happy hormones.

A colleague of mine, Dr Michaela Brohm, researches in the area of motivation and positive psychology. Her blog post on this topic can be found here (in German): http://www.scilogs.de/positive-psychologie-und-lernen/alles-fliesst-ueber-die-optimale-leistungserfahrung-und-den-weg-dahin/  She explains that, in order to reach ‘Flow’, we (or our students) must feel a certain challenge in the tasks we do, but still feel that we are able to manage them. Flow is a psychological state, which can only be achieved within the individual, not by external rewards. It gives a sense of satisfaction when we have mastered a task, and enables us to go the course on longer tasks and projects.

Ideally, then, we as teachers would give our learners tasks to do which match their current ability. With large heterogeneous groups, though, this might be more difficult. If we target everything at the top learners, the others will be over-challenged and feel stress, but if we target activity below the top learners’ abilities, they will eventually experience boreout. Indeed, this is probably why some studies have found that learners are more likely to be bored in a larger class group than a smaller one. Michaela Brohm explains ideas (from Grenville-Cleave (2012): Introducing Positive Psychology. A Practical Guide.) for making simple tasks slightly more challenging, which we can employ to improve the chances that more students reach Flow:

– set a time limit for tasks which makes students work more quickly than usual, e.g. against the clock, before a song ends.

– get students to do tasks with their eyes closed, one hand behind their backs, etc. (i.e. add a physically challenging element)

– do tasks backwards or in a different order from usual

– remove external help (e.g. mobile phones, internet, dictionaries)

– get students to do tasks in a team, add a competitive element

– get students to show others how to do a task / explain the answers or solutions

– let students decide which tasks they wish to work on.

I’m sure we’ve all been ‘bored to death’ at some point in our lives, and this is not a state we’d like our learners to sink into during our lessons! Sadly, some studies have shown that around a third of students feel ‘more bored than average’ during school lessons. I hope that I’ve been able to draw more attention to the lesser known concept of ‘boreout’ here, and given some useful tips for how to get your lessons and students Flowing!

Further Reading

Csikzentmihalyi, M. (1990): Flow. The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.

Dörnyei, Z. (2001): Motivational Strategies in the Language Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grenville-Cleave, B. (2012): Introducing Positive Psychology. A Practical Guide. London: Icon Books

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