Zoning Out

Chapter 46 of the book Self-Help Stuff That Works

by Adam Khan

AT ONE EXTREME, work can be overwhelmingly stressful. At the other end of the spectrum, work can be completely boring. Somewhere in the middle, the work is challenging enough to compel your attention and yet not enough to completely outstrip your ability. When you hit that perfect middle zone, work becomes a pleasure.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi at the University of Chicago discovered that people reach this zone more often at work (54 percent of the time) than in leisure (18 percent of the time). When in this zone, people feel creative, active, concentrated, strong and happy - more so than when they're not in that zone.

Work has gotten a bad reputation, probably from the beginning of this century when working conditions were horrible. But those days are over and clearly we have the opportunity to experience a lot of satisfaction while working. The key is matching our skill to the challenge confronting us. When challenges and skills are well matched, we enter the zone. When they are not matched, it's unpleasant - too much challenge is stressful; not enough is boring.

If you are experiencing stress and tension at work, the solution is to increase your skill until it matches your challenge. For example, a typist buried in a backlog of unfinished work feels overwhelmed and tense. The feeling of tension tells him something: He has too much challenge. The solution is more skill, so he asks himself, "What skill could I improve to help me catch up on my backlog?" Maybe his answer is "Typing speed." He buys a typing-tutor program and practices after work. His typing speed increases (and his stress level decreases) until eventually his skill level matches the challenge of the job, and his work enters The Enjoyment Zone.

To cure boredom on the job, you go the other way: Increase the challenge. The way to increase the challenge is to set and pursue goals beyond what is required by the job. Get the job done well and attain some other targets simultaneously. Let's say our typist's program of self-improvement worked so well that it's now a year later and he no longer has any backlog. In fact, he's getting all his work done ahead of time! His job is no longer stressful. Now it's boring.


Boredom makes you feel tired and even apathetic. You feel like you need rest, but what you really need is more challenge.

There are hundreds of ways our typist could increase his challenge. I'll give you two. First, he could try to make his typing as perfect as possible: using the correct finger for every letter, never looking at the keyboard, making no spelling errors, etc. And then, keeping these high standards, he could try to continuously increase his speed. Second, he could look around and see what other challenges (related to the job) he could tackle - reorganizing, making systems more efficient, etc.

Now here's the catch. You knew there was a catch, didn't you? In the pursuit of The Enjoyment Zone, your skills keep increasing. So you need to keep increasing the challenge to keep up with it or you slip out of the zone and into boredom.

But keeping a good match between skills and challenges isn't as hard as it sounds, and the result is more enjoyment, so it's worth the trouble. And since increasing skills are usually associated with increased opportunities for promotions and raises, there is another possible side effect you might enjoy: More money.

If you're bored, increase your challenge.
If you're stressed, increase your skill.

Work is a form of therapy, or at least can be looked at (and used) that way. Find out how and why:
Work is Good Therapy

There's another way to enter the flow experience and enjoy it during your leisure time. Read about it here:
Wasting Time...The Old-Fashioned Way

Dale Carnegie, who wrote the famous book How to Win Friends and Influence People, left a chapter out of his book. Find out what he meant to say but didn't about people you cannot win over:
The Bad Apples

An extremely important thing to keep in mind is that judging people will harm you. Learn here how to prevent yourself from making this all-too-human mistake:
Here Comes the Judge

The art of controlling the meanings you're making is an important skill to master. It will literally determine the quality of your life. Read more about it in:
Master the Art of Making Meaning

Here's a profound and life-changing way to gain the respect and the trust of others:
As Good As Gold

What if you already knew you ought to change and in what way? And what if that insight has made no difference so far? Here's how to make your insights make a difference:
From Hope to Change

next: Time Management Made Simple

APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, October 8). Zoning Out, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 21 from

Last Updated: March 30, 2016

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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