When the job isn't giving you what it once was.

We’ve all been there. Bored. Going through the motions. Working on autopilot. Clock-watching even. Yearning for a chance to get away from what we’re doing and inevitably wondering where it’s all heading. Passing phases of boredom or disinterest are something all professionals naturally experience through their careers.

Defined simply as a ‘tendency to do nothing or to remain unchanged’, inertia starts to take hold of us largely unnoticed, yet over time it can gradually incapacitate us, often without us realising it’s deepening impact. Most notably, inertia can rob us of that most precious ingredient in our careers, time.

With a few years’ experience under the belt, inertia is something most of us become susceptible to at one point or another. And when it grips us, it really can grip us. We can feel busy yet somehow still be bored and likewise feel productive yet nonetheless like we’re standing still. Occasionally we have a sense of this. Fleeting thoughts in the back of our mind that something isn’t quite right can serve as prompts, but we might be too pre-occupied with the day to day to systematically address things. Like the words the song, ‘Inertia creeps, moving up slowly…’ without us truly realising it. We slowly get stuck and it can go on for months!

Defining it.

There is no single trick to avoiding or escaping inertia, though simply recognising it helps a lot. Bringing it to the forefront of our minds and becoming consciously aware of the threat of inertia is an obvious first step, though this is more difficult than it seems.

Signs of inertia might include prolonged boredom, or a sense that we’re going through the motions at work. Likewise, if you’ve ever struggled to think of anything in the previous three months that have helped to advance your role or career, then perhaps this is a sign. When projects start to blur into one and meetings seem to cover the same ground, uniform monotony becomes the order of the day and this does nothing for our development.

Plod on, until the feeling passes?

When inertia has a hold on us, what usually happens? Well, that’s the thing with inertia, because its effects generally go unnoticed for long periods, we tend to do nothing about it. Sometimes we have our heads down and push-on, operating in a semi-zoned out state – until after a prolonged period – inertia starts to subside and gives way to more recognisable forms of frustration and resentment. At that point we might become more conscious of what is happening to us. We might recognise we’ve wasted opportunities us or lost time, simply as a result of being passive or not entirely tuned in to what has been happening.

The frustrations and negative emotions created by inertia can start to adversely influence our judgment and decisions. We often want some form of revenge on inertia! This might lead us to look to blame our managers, colleagues or employers for our boredom and their failure to stimulate us, rather than looking at our own incapacity to act on the inertia. Often this leads or to start looking for the door… There is a something of a link between boredom and employees leaving exists, though studies are few in number. Steinauer (1999) reported that 45 per cent of hiring experts reported companies to have lost top workers simply because they were bored at work, but is looking for pastures new always the answer?

A cue to look elsewhere?

Understandably, seeking a new challenge might well provide us with the fresh new opportunity we need to kick start ourselves again. But is that initial judgement or gut reaction always correct?

Not wanting to stir up debate about the notion that the ‘grass is always greener’ on the other side, there is an equally important consideration for us. If one of our primary responses to inertia, manifested primarily through boredom or growing disinterest, is to look for another job, then surely we limit our ability to develop? Fresh starts and the anticipated development opportunities often associated, are few and far between. Even the most fervent job hoppers only change jobs every couple of years, so the first issue here is that opportunities to develop by changing job are less accessible than we might think.

Second, taking on a new role is stressful. Yes a new role is invigorating – we feel energised and welcome the new challenge – but the weight of expectation, the fear of failure or sense being an impostor all combine to constrain our development. We’ve new people to meet, customers to prove our worth to and new technology to learn to use. We also prioritise making an impact. All of this leads us to focus on the short term as we look to survive the first months in a new job. No wonder then, that when asked the question ‘how’s the new job going?’ so often our cautious ‘so far… so good!’ is tinged with hesitation.

If not a new job, then what?

Of course, this is not to say that we shouldn’t be taking on new roles and challenges. Of course we should! On the contrary, stretching ourselves to do things we haven’t done before can be the making of us. By going outside of our comfort zone we learn things about ourselves that we never will if we stay in the same roles.

However, surely there is more to gain by tackling inertia in our current roles? Surely a focus on the warning signs of inertia means we stand a better chance of making the most of the time immediately available to us? We can always consider new opportunities as well?

Also, the potential for boredom in particular to be utilised positively is becoming an increasingly fascinating area for researchers. There is a swath of research linking the experience of feeling bored, to greater creative thinking in individuals. Mann and Cadman (2014) for example, found participants did better on creative tasks if they had been predisposed to a boring writing activity first (compared to those who had not). So perhaps ‘being bored’ provides an opportunity for creative reflection? Moreover perhaps we stand a better chance of developing when we have time to dedicate to creative reflection? Certainly this is something we might have less time for when asked to ‘hit the ground running’ in a new role…

Can we get help from others?

Research is light on the extent to which peers can help us wrestle boredom, disinterest or full-blown inertia, but worker-manager relations are more routinely assessed in survey research. In Gallup’s 2015 State of the American Manager: Analytics and Advice for Leaders, of over 7000 respondents, only half of employees describing themselves as ‘engaged’ at work felt their manager was open and approachable. Compare this with those categorised as ‘actively disengaged’, only 2% of respondents described managers in the same way.

Lets put this into a global context. Gallup also report that only 13% of employees are ‘classified’ as engaged (yes, 87% are not. Can see a ‘we are the 87%’ chant coming on). We can immediately see a problem. In effect, the opportunity to speak to our managers about feelings of inertia at work depends on the relatively small probability that our managers are actually open to having such conversations.

So, what can we do to give ourselves the best chance of beating inertia?

It’s up to us to face inertia head on, ourselves.

It is hard to identify when inertia might be taking hold. The complex root causes are unique for each of us and its symptoms manifest in different ways. However, building in regular periods of reflection is a start in combating the precursors to inertia. Such reflection helps us to create a timeline from which to chart our development, including monitoring our levels of interest and stimulation. Ultimately this increase our chances of staying on course. Like in any journey, there is always someone who has an idea of the estimated time of arrival, the current location or the speed we might be travelling – even if driving on a boring straight road for 4 hours on a bank holiday… It should be no different when tackling development and thus combating inertia?

In the absence of any ringing bells or flashing lights to warn of inertia setting in, it might serve us well to try some of the following:

Have conversations with others about our roles and where we’re going.

  • Speak to trusted colleagues and friends about our feelings and where we’re at in our roles and careers. It helps if people themselves have experienced the feeling of inertia, but that’s a difficult filter to apply ahead of a chat(!) More often than not people have a view or opinion, especially if they’re working closely with you or experiencing the same culture or working environment. This doesn’t have to be too formal. Have a coffee, tell them you’re bored, or a bit stuck. See if they’ve experienced anything similar and ask how they’ve overcome it. As each case is unique, speak to different people.
  • Get vocal with your manager too. What’s the worst that can happen? If they present you with new opportunities or additional responsibilities, the fact that you’ve raised it first means you’re already in a negotiation and can make requests. Managers will always give you more responsibilities with or without your consultation – it just depends on whether you drive the conversation. Hopefully you’ll be one of the lucky few that has a manager who you can talk to about this and get some help from.

Go outside of the comfort zone

  • Routine advice we know, but highly effective. Where possible, doing less of what we’re used to and exploring new challenges in our current workplace can test us in ways that are both safer and less time-consuming than testing the waters in a new job entirely.
  • Get involved in different projects, with different people, with different rewards or stretches. Think carefully about what the new experiences might provide you, what can you gain from them and equally how this will aid your personal or professional development in tangible terms.
  • Check how often you go outside your comfort zone. If it’s rare that you do either do something about it, or don’t be surprised if you suddenly find yourself at a dead end.

Build in routine reflection and a plan that is at the forefront of our mind

  • Put time in the diary on a frequent basis to reflect on your development – and have a plan that is front of mind. Ponder regularly both the intellectual and interpersonal areas of your development as well as the extent to which you are able to flex to different experiences and ultimately get things done and achieve.
  • Consider the original reasons for joining the current role or organisation. Are you getting what you originally set out to? Is it still rewarding you in the way you anticipated and at the pace you expected? If not, are there any slight deviations in path that could reignite you and your current? (Exactly how far down the path towards breaking-up with your employer are you?!)
  • Consider the people around you. How can working more closely with specific individuals help you to develop further or even enjoy your role more? What about those slightly further away from you within the organisation? Will they be able to provide a new perspective or give you something new and interesting?
  • Go back to your first principles. How does your role fit into your broader aspirations? Where do you want to go? Does the role still fit in to the wider jigsaw?
  • Ultimately, make the most of your time. Do whatever you can to avoid that feeling of having wasted six months of your life!

Of course, all of this depends too on whether we see our roles as a job, career or calling (Wrzesniewski et all, 1997). Some of us will be more prone to inertia than others and some won’t care at all. That, however, is a post for another day.

Hope you’ve enjoyed the post. At WiseAmigo we’re building tools to help individuals think differently about their development. Download the iOS app now.

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