George is bored. Work has been in a lull for months without any new challenges or interesting activities. His days are filled with routine tasks. He is lethargic and has a foggy brain. He is worried he will lose his edge and also wonders why he is so tired when he isn't working very hard.
If you're feeling like George, chances are your brain could use a little mojo boost. While many of us complain of having too much stress at work, the fact is, the opposite can be just as debilitating. Not enough stress or stimulation can equally have adverse affects on our brain – and ultimately our productivity and overall mojo at work.
Stress is not necessarily a bad thing. We need some pressure to energize us and focus our attention. Athletes and performers often do their best when the heat is on in competition and live performances. Deadlines, challenging workloads and new demands can also provide a healthy dose of stimulus at work to inspire us to dig in and give our best.
The Goldilocks effect
Just as too much stimulation can suppress the functioning of our higher-thinking brain, not enough can put you to sleep at the work wheel and compromise your ability to make decisions, set goals, control your impulses and put information into context.
Neuroscientist Amy Arnsten, a professor of neurobiology and psychology at Yale University, says the prefrontal cortex is the "Goldilocks" part of the brain – it needs everything to be "just right" for optimal performance.
Just as Goldilocks seeks the porridge, chair and bed that's "just right," our brains need the just right balance of stress hormones such as dopamine and norepinephrine. When we are bored, uninspired or tired, we release only very small amounts of these hormones, but when overly stressed, we release significantly larger and more constant doses. Neither too little nor too much is good as both compromise the functioning of our brain and ultimately affect our thinking, energy and behaviour.
So if you are feeling a little underwhelmed by your work, try these strategies to give your brain – and career – the boost it needs.
Create a new goal
Goals challenge and inspire us, and provide stimulation to our brains. To add a spark to your work, create or refresh goals that energize and engage you. They can be smaller, short-term goals or bigger, long-term objectives. Consider learning goals as well as performance goals. Perhaps you want to learn a new skill, acquire a designation, expand your productivity or broaden your network. The possibilities are endless.
Find ways to move into a slightly uncomfortable place that will allow you to grow and test yourself. Sometimes we find ourselves on easy-and-safe street, and while this can be nice for a while, it can also contribute to boredom and underwhelm your brain. Consider joining a committee at work outside your usual duties; identify a need and then volunteer to spearhead a new initiative; try on roles in different departments if that opportunity is available to you. Or find ways to stretch yourself in a given task.
Shake things up
Our brains like novelty and, in fact, wake up and respond well to the right dose of something new. If you tend to be a creature of habit, find ways to change things up a bit. It might be as simple as doing same old tasks a little differently; spending time with new people at work; or learning a new software program or skill.
You don't necessarily have to change jobs to develop new goals, stretch yourself or shake things up. Amy Wrzesniewski, associate professor of organizational behaviour at Yale University's School of Management, recommends "job crafting" – redesigning aspects of your current job, where appropriate and possible, to increase satisfaction and engagement. Go ahead and give it a try. You and your brain will be grateful for the inspiration. And your work will be the better for it.
Eileen Chadnick is a work-life and career coach and principal of Big Cheese Coaching in Toronto. Follow her at Twitter@Chadnick. Her book, Ease, will be available later this fall. You can hear more about "job crafting" strategies in a webinar she gave for the CPA that was made available to the public.