Q: I recently returned to the workforce after being a stay-at-home dad for many years. After bouncing around a couple of jobs, I landed one I thought was great —good pay, short commute (currently remote) and regular hours. My supervisor is wonderful to work with in almost every way and a great person. However, the content of my job is stupefyingly boring, as in I cannot concentrate on it for more than about 10 minutes before my mind wanders. I am frustrated and bored, sometimes almost to tears. It is also affecting my job performance; I am a subpar employee for the first time in my life. I cannot imagine doing this for six more months, let alone six more years.
However, I also cannot face having to start over with applications, interviews and becoming the most junior member of a team again. I also am concerned about switching jobs four times in four years at age 50. And I know my spouse would be very frustrated were I to quit. There is no way to make this job interesting — trust me — and yet no way out without significant pain on a variety of levels. I feel stuck and without any recourse. This is a really lousy way to spend my days. Maybe you have some thoughts?
A: It does feel unfair, at 50, to be put in the position of a child having to plow through busywork. But surely, as an at-home dad, you’re a veteran of mind-numbing and repetitive tasks: changing diapers, washing bottles, packing lunches, sorting clothes, reading the same books every night. There’s nothing stimulating about these tasks, but they have to be performed to a particular standard, day after day. The payoff is in the form of clean, well-fed, well-loved little humans who may not ever thank you for your toil.
Now you’re buried in a new kind of drudgery for which you’re being financially compensated. Most jobs have some element of tedium; far fewer include a great boss and no commute. Plus, as you say, quitting would jeopardize your professional progress and possibly your marriage. Your spouse probably endured their share of frustration and boredom over the years at work as your family’s breadwinner. So you owe it to them and yourself to try to make this work just a bit longer, or at least not abandon it until you have a firm grasp on something demonstrably better.
I believe you that the work itself can’t be made more interesting, but strategizing about how to tackle the job can make it less overwhelming. For example, there’s nothing like a looming deadline to help sharpen focus, whether it comes from a calendar or a clock or a napping baby. (Ask me how I know.) Sometimes you have to invent artificial deadlines; one popular approach is the Pomodoro technique, which involves breaking your day into strict 25-minute segments followed by five-minute breaks. The key is that you don’t let distractions interrupt your brief work shifts, and you spend your breaks doing something entirely different from work. Instead of gazing in despair at the months or years ahead, you’re focused just on getting through the next 25 minutes.
Compressing your overall work day is another idea. When I transitioned from maternity leave back to full-time work via a week of half days, it was surprising how efficient I became when I knew I didn’t have a full eight hours to get the work done. Reducing your daily hours may not be feasible, but you may be able to break up your eight-hour daily marathon into sprints of two or four hours with clean breaks in between to rest or play or tackle a chore. This will probably mean starting and ending your day outside traditional business hours — something many of us working from home during the pandemic have been doing anyway — so make sure you clear it with your boss and make your availability known.
Finally, are there any tasks you could take on in addition to your primary job that will expand your skills or fix a problematic process or expand your in-house network? I’m leery of “hustle culture” that involves juggling multiple fragments of jobs 24/7, but sometimes a temporary side quest can provide a challenging foil to your daily grind.
You also might be combating the comforts and distractions of working from home, when the reward of completing the task on your computer screen seems abstract in comparison to, say, tackling some dishes or fixing something to eat. Without a commute or change of scenery, you’re not making the physical transition that switches your brain from home to work mode. You might be able to force that flip with a daily walk, workout, shave or other ritual.
Finally — and this is completely outside my wheelhouse — if none of these techniques helps you make any headway, and especially if this inability to complete tedious tasks is a long-term issue, you may want to consult a doctor to see if therapeutic or medical intervention could help you break through.