Effort Aversion: Comfort, Boredom, Change

On the eve of my first half marathon of the season, I am keeping off my feet and trying to relax as much as possible in preparation for my effort tomorrow morning. I want to try and maintain an 8 minute pace but the effort involved in doing so does not excite me. Nevertheless, I will likely try and see what happens. I have a tendency mid-way through races to give in to the discomfort and decide the effort and result is not worth the pain, even though the pain is transitory. I am working on this mental flaw.

As I have shared before, I love the NPR show Hidden Brain, and the most recent podcast that I listened to was about boredom. I listened to this podcast while running 4 miles on a treadmill after a snow storm sent me inside. As my feet thumped rhythmically on the human conveyer belt, the monotony of the treadmill got to me within about a minute and I turned on my podcasts. The treadmill, lovingly nicknamed the "dreadmill" by runners, is a site of boredom for me and I suspect many others. I have never understood why runners at any level would choose to run on a treadmill inside when they could go outside. However, this podcast gave me some new insight. 

The concept of "effort aversion" explained in the podcast applies here. Our aversion to effort, makes us often choose boring things - jobs, tasks, activities - because we perceive them to be easier even though they are by and large, less fun. The treadmill in many ways involves less effort than running outside overall, especially if it's snowing. If I want to go for a run to reap the physical rewards of exercise, how can I do that with the least amount of effort? The gym is easy. I don't have to map a route, the temperature is constant, my nose hairs don't freeze, and I don't have to deal with wind or hills. I can also stop and use the bathroom without risking arrest for indecent exposure. I am sure the list goes on. The amount of perceived effort involved in running outside outweighs the boredom I might experience by staring at a wall while running on a treadmill. This can also be applied to folks who have the ability to walk to close by locations such as a neighbor's house or a local store, and choose to drive. Driving involves less (perceived) effort.

Effort aversion, the podcast shares, is why many people get stuck in boring jobs for years, where complacency sets in and you no longer seek change, professional development, or innovation. Even though boredom for many is unbearable, the idea of putting in additional effort for the same amount of pay is less desirable. Why work harder when I don't have to? Even if we are mildly to moderately unhappy in our current job, the effort involved in a job search is a deterrent to trying something new. We tell ourselves that if we can stay doing the same thing that is low risk and doesn't involve much effort, at a salary we can manage, why change? The effort involved in changing the status quo is not desirable, even though we are not super jazzed about the work and not very challenged. Comfort, the enemy of organizational change and creativity, is linked with "effort aversion" and works to keep us in the same place. 

As my coaching training has taught me, if all you do is run 8 minute miles, then you will get very good at running 8 minute miles. You become comfortable at that pace, and the effort involved to improve may not feel worth it. The initial effort curve to get to the 8 minute mile might be tough, like when you start a new job. It can feel challenging and overwhelming as you learn the role but then after enough practice you settle in and your effort to get the job done decreases significantly. Once you are comfortable, it's like you have settled into your favorite sofa, and quite honestly, why change that? Your job/8 minute mile works just fine for you. Sort of. The memory of the previously exerted effort to learn your job or race at that pace is enough to keep you from exerting effort again to get you to the next step.

I don't like to be bored, and yet I definitely run up against this concept of "effort aversion" in my running, triathloning, and work where I will sometimes take boring over effort. Yet, we also go to great lengths to avoid being bored too. It's such an odd phenomenon. Case in point: A study featured in this Hidden Brain podcast involved folks being locked in a room with nothing but their thoughts for 15 minutes. However, they were also given the opportunity to shock themselves rather than just sit there. Of the participants, about 1/4 of women and over 2/3 of men chose to shock themselves rather than just sit and do nothing. We choose to do bizarre things in the face of boredom yet when our jobs are boring or uninspiring, the effort involved with changing the status quo shuts us down. Or when we want to get to the next level athletically we let mental effort aversion hold us back even if we are getting bored with our same training routine and paces. Why this inconsistency?

I don't have an answer to fix this but I do know that "effort aversion" is detrimental to us individually and for our organizations. We have to harness the desire to avoid boredom (sans electric shocks of course) to move out of our comfort zone and out of complacency. Thinking about the why can be helpful: Why is boredom or status quo more acceptable than change in our professional and personal lives? If we manage an organization, is having a team of long term staff who just kick the can down the road the most effective set up for the future of the organization? If we are bored with our training regime, why is the effort involved in changing it too much? If we want to get faster in our running, swimming, and biking, how can we reconcile the fact that to do so requires more effort even when our sofa's invitation is quite compelling? More effort can equal fun even if the "pay" is the same, we just have to be willing to try.

As an aside, Runner's World just posted on Facebook as I was writing this blog an article called "This is what effort looks like." It features a 63 year old Irish runner at the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Portland, Oregon finishing the 800 meters who pulled out everything to finish. Effort doesn't of course have to look exactly like this, but the reward for him, and for us, can be well worth it.


Listen to the Hidden Brain podcast on Boredom from March 15, 2016