Every working hour feels like an eternity. After your workday, you wallow in complete listlessness. Thinking about tomorrow brings a feeling of dread and eternal repetition. Ever had days like that? I have, but there is an aspect that bothers me in admitting it.
You most likely know that some people may start to cumulate work and when the load becomes unbearable, they burn out. This was not my experience. I achieved this state by being bored out of my mind. This is called boreout syndrome, where the quality of work is not adequate for your desires and expectations.
In this blog post, I’ll try to explain what is boreout and reflect on my personal experiences. Be aware that I’m not professionally qualified to write about this due to being a software developer and not a psychologist.
Boreout is the lesser-known sibling of burnout. It is usually the effect of elongated and continuous stress due to the quality of work. Some of the symptoms might include:
- a feeling of helplessness
- lack of confidence
- sleeping troubles
- impostor syndrome
If you’ve heard about burnout, the list above is eerily similar. We could say that boreout and burnout have the same symptoms but different causes.
A toxic aspect in our working culture is to place individuals and their work performances on a pedestal skewing our views on these disorders in perverse ways. Burning out is something that I feel is more socially acceptable. Burnout victims are seen as heroes reaching for the sun and landing amongst the stars. On the contrary, victims of boreout could be seen as lazy and ungrateful.
It requires a certain amount of hubris to say that your assigned work does not meet your requirements. Combined with the imminent impostor syndrome one has achieved is a perfect match made in misery. The desire for adequate work is hindered by feeling unqualified. A vicious circle indeed.
Recipes for boreout
From here onwards I will write about my personal experiences with boring out. What are my main factors when boring out and how to cope with them? For me, there are three main driving forces for boreout, and for each of them, I write a scenario on how the given driver causes one to boreout. Keep in mind these are written from my point of view; there is no guilt assigned.
As an aside, please excuse the rather poetic tone of these parts. I’m dealing with rather personal and highly subjective bundles of emotions. Wording them in a precise engineering way is impossible for me.
Lack of learning
Do you know the feeling you get when presented with a new problem to solve? Excited to learn what makes the given problem tick and how to best tackle it with your spice of grace and fervor?
You feel it all; excitement, joy, catharsis wrapped into one neat emotional package for you to enjoy. Weeks turn into months. At some point, the problem lies bare before your eyes.
The emotional package has changed to a more rich flavor. You have now scratched the surface and understand how the problem works on an adequate level. Now how does this thing tick on the inside? Months turn into years; the learning opportunities have receded into the fringes.
The emotional package has aged and turned into vinegar. You know every nook and cranny of the problem. You have nibbled its core until it has become hollow, all the while trying to pour your soul into it for filling in vain. The only thing void of meaning is you.
You have learned everything you feel you need to know. Now what? You are on autopilot, working on pure routine while your mind wanders around. At some point, you turn that inner eye on yourself and realize you haven’t learned anything new in a while. Doubt creeps in your soul asking nasty questions. Are you stagnating? Are your skills applicable when emergent tech has replaced the old ones? Do You still have it?
Doubt does not work from 9-to-5. It is a constant companion that feasts on your inner being. Even when you try to sleep, that part of you is fully awake, leering at you from the corner of your mind. It stalks patiently to consume you whole.
Lack of meaning
Imagine a project you want to make a reality. You work hard learning the ways of working and domain. Every day is exhilarating; after all, you’re changing the world for the better with the eventual end product.
Orientation is over; you feel like taking on the world. There is work to be done. Things to learn. Problems to investigate. Tickets to move.
Yet this is not your experience. You are missing something. You are missing assigned work. Still early in the project, it is still ok for the product owner to prioritize other things. You are only one cog in this clockwork mechanism.
The sprint ends with most work done. A sense of false accomplishment takes hold as this is a team effort. Sprint planning time, you ask for more work yet receive none. You start working on finding work. Working for work, you feel the situation is unsustainable.
All the work you find comes with multiple rolls of red tape. All work requires multiple steps to begin. You keep searching for people to contact about getting things done and bounce around the organization like a ping pong ball. Start doubting if this cog has a place in this mechanism.
Sprints go by; daily routines start to lose their meaning. You never have anything to share. Your team members seem to be speaking in a language you do not understand. Your contributions fade away as you find a residence on the fringes of the project. A scribble in the margins of the project annals highlighting a mistake.
You feel alone, isolated, discarded. “Give me something” you lash out in vain. Yet your cries echo with silence.
Anticipation of changing the world turns into antipathy. You feel like an unfitting toothless cog, useless and discarded. As your professionally meaningless existence slips to your personal life, you blame yourself for not listening to your subconscious self; unsustainable.
Lack of difference
Starting in an established team is a great way for getting into your career. You get plenty of people to provide you with valuable lessons.
Learning the project is valuable, but learning professionalism and career development are vital. You enjoy getting mentored and appreciate the lessons you can extract from their experience. You listen to their stories and lessons with glee with the hope to pass on that knowledge someday.
Advancing your career is gradual. Sometimes you realize your advancement months later than it has already happened. You start to form your own opinions, and more importantly, you question the lessons.
You start to notice tiny problems in your workflow that are holding back the performance. Providing input on improving things is exciting. You feel you are no longer a student but an equal member.
You actively discuss things to improve upon, and these discussions feel constructive. However, they seldom result in concrete action. At best, your suggestions get thrown into an endless to-do list; unworthy of higher prioritization. At worst, your suggestions unfold as “good discussions” as if that is enough to swipe the issues aside.
Increasingly frustrated, nefarious thoughts arise. You start noticing more problems in the ways of working. You are not in control of your work; you are just a mere conduit for someone’s vision. You realize that the product you are building is not from your hands. You only try to mirror the perfect solution you are supposed to produce.
You are no longer a player, but a pawn. Waiting to move one square forwards or be sacrificed in the hopes of better trade. Indifference settles in. Nothing will change.
Personally boring out is unavoidable; I need new things to tinker with to keep my sanity in check. I have learned multiple ways for mitigating, postponing, and avoiding boreout.
Sometimes speaking out is the hardest part. There are multiple reasons not to speak out about personal issues in the workplace. But in my opinion, none of those reasons are valid if the issue impacts you as an employee.
Get a confidante who listens to your venting. Speaking out forces you to concretize your thoughts and gives you insight into why you feel this way.
If you are the one who is listening to a venting, never attempt to solve the venting person’s problems unless asked. Most of the time you should be a rubber duck in these scenarios. There is nothing more patronizing than providing simple solutions to complex problems during venting.
Diversify your work
Never be afraid of broadening your horizons professionally. Here I am writing a blog post. While in the past I disliked writing, I have to admit being wrong. I do enjoy this. Without prior experiences with boring out, I would never have written any of this. Forever I would have been deprived of this enjoyment.
I have also dipped into marketing, recruitment, mentoring, and “janitorial” work. Create a habit of having professional “me-time”. Take control of your work; be it customer work, self-improvement, or helping others. In our line of work, we are the most valuable assets companies have.
The point is to try new things. If the things make you feel warm and fuzzy inside, they’re worth continuing.
When it comes to the eventual impostor syndrome we feel from time to time. My advice is this.
No one knows what they’re doing. Some only hide it better than others.
A motto I have incorporated in my daily work. It might seem cynical and misanthropic, but this motto has been the most monumental and professionally formative thing for me. Whether the statement is true or not is secondary.
This realization has freed me to pursue self-improvement over maintaining a facade of infallible professionalism. There is no shame in having unrefined skills. Every time you freely admit not knowing something creates a learning opportunity. You are more valuable if your focus shifts from proving yourself to improving yourself.
Change of scenery could also be an option. Working in a big company has its perks, and personally, the biggest is being able to rotate work. There is always a project where I’m needed either as a temporary gig or a more permanent actor.
During my latest stint with boreout, I whipped up multiple angles for working outside my project boundaries by speaking out about my working status. Temporary gigs are perfect companions to break some of the boreout symptoms and maybe avoid it altogether.
Is it better to burn out than fade away? Neither. Burnout and boreout are both debilitating states and neither of them are worse than the other. But the fact that knowledge of boreout amongst people is so much less than burnout bothers me. All I can do is pry on the lid of this pandora’s box.
Working in a big company might have some advantage in combatting boreout. Plenty of people means plenty of ears that listen and understand your problems. Also, it might make diversifying and switching projects a lot easier.
I’m a human first and a professional second. I hope I have managed to transfer some of the anxiety and hopelessness that those afflicted with boreout may feel.
Writing this post has been a cathartic experience. If you’ve managed to get this far with me in this journey - I’m glad that you tagged along.