How to Fight Boredom with Curiosity
Stray thoughts that turn into big ideas. Hazy-eyed daydreaming, or unconscious problem-solving. Why? How? Why not!
As the Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, Francesca Gino works to understand the psychology that drives our decisions and the tools that help people live fulfilled lives. According to Gino, curiosity spurs innovation, improves performance, and encourages authenticity. And: A rebellious spirit helps.
Sadly, research shows that our propensity toward curiosity declines steadily with age as optimization culture sets in and querying anything is off the agenda. Millions of us are sheltering at home today without rigid schedules. The steadfast pursuit of whatever was next on the calendar is canceled. Suddenly, some of us have empty hours in which to wonder, to learn something new, to tumble down a rabbit hole of…whatever piques our interest. But how? Years of workplace conditioning, rising performance demands, and sheer busyness mean we’ve lost the art of curiosity. To rediscover the joys of wonder, Gino tells us to look to children and follow their inquisitive lead, even if it makes a mess. In the long term, this rediscovery of the childhood ability to be surprised, the utter absence of boredom, the rebellious thrill of asking “why” or “how” is better for society. The research proves it. And now, we just may have the time.
A Q&A with Francesca Gino, PhD
If you look at the data, curiosity peaks at the age of four and five and declines steadily from then on, until you start a new job. As an academic I was puzzled by this. When people start new roles, across industries, across the globe, curiosity at first tends to soar. But if you return to the same people nine months later, curiosity has dropped by at least 20 percent across the entire sample.
This raised interesting questions around what it is about the working world that drastically stunts curiosity? The simple answer is that it’s very easy to fall into humdrum routines and optimizing systems, which organizations and managers encourage. But that routine sameness comes at the expense of the curiosity, awe, and wonder that we all had as little kids. And it’s bad for business.
There are several strategies to trigger curiosity and, hopefully, mute boredom. One is an idea we’re all familiar with: performance goals. Set a daily learning goal. It can be related to work or a home project—ultimately it doesn’t matter what it is. My research shows that if we can set and follow through with learning goals, performance is higher, and curiosity as a trait is more present.
Ask yourself: What do I want to make sure I learn today? What am I curious about? Adopt this strategy and learn a new language, tackle a project. You’ll get more done, pass the time, and improve general levels of happiness.
I think a lot of people feel paralyzed, and for good reason. Working from home, and just being at home, during this crisis means managing a family, or loved ones, which you didn’t have to do at the office. It’s a more complex situation because it’s not just you; everyone is suddenly under one roof at the same time.
People need to shift from this mindset of feeling paralyzed and overwhelmed by accepting the reality that right now, they’re doing five jobs (home, kids, distractions, work, etc.)—not one. But try to see the situation as an opportunity, instead of following your in-the-office playbook at home, practice a little self-reflection. Are the regular meetings you’re still having productive? Even my students tell me they don’t miss their usual coffee routine as much as they thought. Instead, allow a moment of reflection during this strange time to refocus on what really gives you energy.
I’ve conducted some research that shows that when we focus our energies in a way that plays to our strengths, we feel more authentic. This authenticity has only good repercussions. We feel happier, we perform better in our jobs, we are better able to persist and find resilience in these tough times, and we don’t feel as stressed. We develop better relationships with others. There is so much power in shifting our mindset from paralysis to authentic curiosity.
On a personal level, take this time to make the choices that allow you to show your strengths and foster curiosity. We need to be more thoughtful about everything. Don’t muddle through the day following the usual routine; instead, look for those moments where there’s potential to learn something new, expand an interest, or see a perspective in a way you haven’t or wouldn’t have previously.
Absolutely. My biggest motivation for writing the book was to show that we all have rebel elements within us. We just need to find the courage and an effective way to express them in our lives and work more often. To help people on the journey to finding and fostering their inner rebel, I created the Rebel Test. It’s been really interesting to witness test-takers discovering whether curiosity and authenticity come more or less naturally to them. Upon completion, every user receives a rebel type (pirate, traveler, climber, guard) and some feedback on how to think differently about their actions going forward. It all started when I considered that being a rebel means being willing to be on a journey. We all have the capacity and ability to embrace these ideas with the right tools.
Knowing that curiosity peaks at four or five and then rapidly declines forced me to examine my own curiosity level. I started paying more attention to the way I interact with my kids. I remember when the older two of my four children would run around the kitchen opening cabinets and pulling all the contents while I’m trying to make my morning cappuccino. Suddenly the colander becomes a hat, next they’re throwing it like a football and having a blast. I remember having the instinct to stop them and clean up the mess immediately.
One memory that sticks out is my two-year-old rushing toward me excitedly, exclaiming, “Mom, Mom, it’s snowing!” Meanwhile, the sun is blazing outside. I walk into the kitchen, and she is flinging an open salt jar from side to side, scattering salty “snow” all over the place. Sure, I had to clean the mess up afterward, but the curiosity and creativity value was worth it.
Now, knowing what I know about the benefits of curiosity, I’m much more patient. I sip my coffee and leave the kids be, observing what their exploration of the kitchen cupboards turns into, and what questions they have.
It’s amazing to see how kids naturally lean toward things because of their inherent propensity to explore. When I consider my two younger kids: One is a builder; the other one is a destroyer. But the destroyer destroys things only because she wants to understand how that particular object or toy works. Once you examine her behavior through the lens of curiosity, the reaction to the destruction of whatever it was she pulled apart changes. She is following her inquisition.
When my kids ask me a question, instead of merely answering it, I ask a question back, and we find the answer together. Prepandemic, we often went on bike rides, and the children would want to stop and pick every flower, play with every twig, and look at every bug. My inclination was to say, “No! We have to go.” And rush them on. But I learned to embrace it. Realistically, frequently we have nowhere to go. We have time, especially now. I try to engage with them and let them follow their own natural curiosity. We, as adults, can do the same.
With small children, boredom is rare. Having said that, I’m a native Italian, and with everything happening there, emotions are high. I sat down with my husband and oldest child, and we decided to try to dispense with the mindset of “Let’s wait for this to end.” This situation will be with us for a long time, so let’s try to find the silver linings. Now, when I’m working, I try to make the best of the time I have to work, connecting with colleagues, pushing forward on research that I find exciting and moving clients toward online training, rather than in person.
And then, when it comes to family time, I’m fully engaged. It’s been interesting to notice that a lot of the things we previously relied on are not as much of a source of happiness as we thought. It turns out that being able to go to the Children’s Museum is simply not that important.
That’s right. One of the things I studied with Adam Grant was what feeling grateful and expressing gratitude does to your brain (it increases dopamine, enhances productivity, encourages well-being), and I try to be more mindful of that. When it’s time for reading books before going to bed with my kids, I always ask them what’s one thing they’re most grateful for that day. It helps them—and me—get into a healthy mindset to focus on what’s important. With curiosity and a rebel spirit, the possibilities are endless.
Francesca Gino is the Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration in the negotiation, organizations, and markets unit at Harvard Business School. Gino specializes in human behavior, namely, why people make the decisions they do. Her research has led to the publication of two books, Sidetracked and Rebel Talent.
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