HS2 tunnel boring machine

Last week, not far from the M25 in Buckinghamshire, the biggest-ever boring machine in the UK started its slow churn through the Chiltern hills to dig a tunnel for the HS2 rail system. It will take three years for the device to complete the 10-mile tunnel in a non-stop effort. We can marvel at the technology and the feat of engineering. But ultimately, all it is doing is creating a hole. It is boring in more than one sense of the word.

Often, things that seem exciting at first glance are rather boring. Remember when we went into lockdown, and we were all excited by the wonders of Zoom? Not so exciting now, is it? If I have to say “you’re on mute” one more time, I’ll probably have to mute myself, so I can scream.

And do you recall the giddy excitement we once had for the thrill of an immediate response to our early Tweets from someone on the other side of the planet within seconds? Yeah, that’s not so exciting nowadays, is it?

Things that start out to be thrilling tend to get rather boring before long. Indeed, the 17 employees who will work for 12-hour shifts onboard the HS2 tunnelling machine could find the work much less interesting three years from now than they do at the moment. It will have literally become a boring job.

I mention this because it reminds me of a classic piece of psychology research which was a boring task. People were asked to spend an hour placing pegs in a pegboard. That’s all they had to do. There was no “trick”. They were not being asked to do anything other than put pegs in holes. It was really boring. However, one group of people was offered $1 for taking part. The second group of participants in the study were offered $20.

After the task was over, the participants were asked to tell others how interesting it was. The result was clear-cut. The people who were paid $1 said it was interesting, while those paid $20 disagreed. They said the task was boring but were happy to tell others that it was interesting as they had been paid enough to lie.

The study shows that the people paid $1 were not given enough to lie. So the only way they could say the task was enjoyable was to adjust their belief. Otherwise, if they were to say the task was interesting, they would be uncomfortable doing that if they actually believed it to be boring.

At the heart of this research is the notion of cognitive dissonance. This happens when our behaviour is different to our attitudes or beliefs. That is an uncomfortable feeling, so we adjust our behaviour to match our thoughts, or instead, we change our thinking.

But how do you change your attitude to something you find boring? More than a year of lockdown has become boring for many people. They find working at home boring, but accept that it is necessary, perhaps even good for their business. That will cause cognitive dissonance. So, either these people need to change their behaviour and stop working from home. Or they could change their attitude to working from home. But that is a big ask unless you take a tip from the pegboard study of 1959.

Often people realise they need to change what they think or do. So, they offer themselves some kind of reward. “When I’ve mastered the ins and outs of Zoom, I’m having a week’s holiday to take a lovely break.” That’s too big a reward. It will not resolve the cognitive dissonance. Instead, small rewards will work better. That way, the gap between the reward and the change in attitude needed is small.

We’ve all become bored with many aspects of working from home or the digital world. Yet we accept we need to use them. This is cognitive dissonance. We can reinvigorate our interest in what we know is good for us by using small rewards to help change our attitudes, just like the pegboard study.

Your attitude to many aspects of your working life can be changed easily if you give yourself small rewards for doing the things you currently find difficult or boring. It will help the cognitive dissonance disappear much more quickly than digging a tunnel under the Chilterns. You certainly can do boring tasks, but you may well need to change your attitude to them to stop them seem boring. Small rewards are all you need. Your subconscious brain will do the rest for you.