Being ‘Stress Bored’ Is a Real Thing

Recently a colleague of mine shared this brilliant Farnam Street blog piece called Efficiency is the Enemy. A nice combination of supply chain management and workplace dynamics, the article describes how workers need some amount of free time or “slack” to be productive.

Reading this piece was the nudge I needed to get my thoughts around “stress boredom” written down. This is what I call the feeling that tends to creep up when I run out of slack at work, and usually coincides with a feeling that my work isn’t important, or that I could be doing something more meaningful, if only I was in another role. 

I’m here to tell you that, no matter what job you have, it’s there for a reason and the work you do helps people in some way or another. While I’ll focus on my experience in a project management/scrum master role, I’m certain these feelings can apply to people in any job.

Can You Relate?

You end your day and feel as though you were very busy and rushed, but somehow have nothing to show for it. There are so many tasks lined up that you had to leave for tomorrow that you’re left asking yourself, “Am I super inefficient? Am I just bad at my job?” 

Stress boredom is a combination of (you guessed it!) feelings of stress or anxiety, and also of boredom or loss of interest. You are completing tasks and “being productive,” yet seemingly get nowhere. Much of the time, my personal flavor of stress boredom flares up when I have to complete a lot of “administrative tasks,” like filling out project documentation or updating certain people about open requests or inquiries, like running a help desk or triaging software bugs. If only a few of these tasks need to happen in a given day or week, and they’re interspersed with work that feels more meaningful, stress boredom isn’t usually a worry. 

That said, sometimes stress boredom has to be factored into the job itself. As a project manager, when customers report issues with our software, I am usually able to help document the issue, test if I can reproduce it, and gather the parties needed to investigate and solve it, but I am not the person making the fix. Being on the periphery of “real work” can sometimes provoke stress boredom, since you’re so close yet so far away from having the power to do something on your own, and you feel at the mercy of the universe to help you out.

Right away, you can see there’s something wrong with this feeling. For starters, that supporting role is valuable since without it, many projects lack a “switchboard operator” who can ensure issues are routed properly and resolved in a timely manner. Similarly, while there is some benefit to being a generalist, you don’t typically want software engineers running meetings, or project managers committing code to your repositories. It’s good to have some specialization! Engineers, designers, product managers, and project managers all have an important role to play on a team, and they must trust each other to contribute, or else the team would never ship anything.

Destigmatize Stress Boredom

Stress boredom is hard to talk about, especially with anyone above your pay grade. Why? We don’t want to look like a bunch of whiners! A bunch of underachievers! If we really loved our jobs, we’d be happy to slog through any amount of minutiae, and since someone asked for it, it must be important, right?

Nope. 

At one point last week, I got so many “pings” or “check-ins” about different projects that I had to just stop responding altogether. I started writing responses like, “I haven’t had a chance to do XYZ because I am still working on ABC that you asked about before.” That’s not a nice thing to say! You might as well type, “Go away! Take a number!” In the end, I waited 24 hours before sending any replies. Most of them just said, “No, I haven’t finished that yet, but I appreciate the reminder and I’ll let you know if I need any help in the meantime.” 

As a competent person who knows how to do their job, you shouldn’t ever need to say “I haven’t gotten to it yet, since…. <insert justification>.” You should be trusted to set your own priorities and manage your work based on what’s most important at any given moment. Simply talking this through with my manager revealed that, surprise surprise, this is not only reasonable, but the entire reason why I am trusted with a lot of responsibility! I have good judgement and understand how to shift my energies to get the most critical work done first.

The next time you’re feeling stress bored, I encourage you to do a “control F” on that bad boy and be a little curious about where it’s coming from. Was it all those emails piled up in your inbox? A specific meeting or conversation that set you off? A misunderstanding that took way too long to resolve asynchronously? Understanding the factors that contribute to feelings of stress boredom will hopefully help you build awareness and resilience to them in the future. For me, speaking with my manager and mentors about these feelings helped me get a “reality check.” 

  • Yes, it’s completely normal to feel overwhelmed by any kind of work, especially work that feels unimportant.
  • Yes, as a competent and important member of the team, it’s up to you to set priorities for yourself and tell others how they can help reduce the weight of whatever is causing you stress boredom. 

Stress Boredom at the Team Level

While I’ve described the individual’s feeling of rushing around and getting nowhere in the process, there’s also a version of stress boredom that afflicts teams. The number one way you see this is through bureaucracy, approvals, or anything that limits a team’s ability to complete work independently, or more simply put, limits their autonomy. What I am not talking about: Sometimes dependencies between one team and another cannot be helped. It could be that you need subject matter expertise from somewhere else, like an engineer familiar with a given codebase, or a designer who previously worked on a feature that your team is looking to modify. These moments are ripe for collaboration, and not my main concern.

The real litmus for team stress boredom can be viewed in two ways. When a team decides they want to change something, watch how far that decision needs to travel in order for work to start. Watch how much waterfall prep you have to put into the product spec (aka requirements doc) or the technical investigations before work can begin. Now, as a project manager, I would almost never advocate for teams to skip planning and go right into coding. That said, the more forms you have to fill and people you have to ask before a project can start significantly impacts a team’s ability to deliver independently, and in my mind, this risks organizational stress boredom; teams are busy, but not particularly productive. 

So What? The TLDR

  1. Stress boredom is a real thing
    1. It’s okay to feel this way (and now you have the words to describe this feeling!)
    2. You can learn to identify it and overcome it 
  2. In order to combat stress boredom
    1. As an individual, you need to be able to prioritize work and say no to things that aren’t important
    2. As a company, giving people and teams autonomy to do their work independent of bureaucratic approval processes reduces the likelihood of stress boredom