You may have loved your job when you started, but it’s not unusual to get in a rut. If you’re experiencing burnout, changing your mindset can bypass it, says Daniel M. Cable, author of Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do.
“Our brains are not wired for routine and repetition at work,” he says. “Disengagement isn’t a motivation problem; it’s a biological one.”
Cable was a professor at the University of North Carolina when he says he lost his zest for his own job and slowly descended into boredom. After being diagnosed and treated for Hodgkin lymphoma, his perspective changed, and he found a sense of gratitude for his job. He stumbled on research about the part of the brain called the ventral striatum, also called the “seeking system,” and its role in being your best self.
“This part of our brain urges us from the time we’re babies to explore what we don’t know,” he says. “Little kids can be given an awesome toy with noises and buttons and they’ll be really into it for a week or few days. Then they find something else that hadn’t seen before, like car keys, and they find that way more interesting. It wasn’t because the thing is cool; it’s because the thing is new.”
When we succumb to these urges, our brain delivers dopamine to reward us and that makes us feel more alive, and the same thing can happen at work, says Cable, currently a professor of organizational behavior at London Business School.
“When we’re in the rut of routine for the 502nd time, this part of the brain shuts off,” says Cable. “Your brain is saying, ‘You’re better than this. We’re not built of this. We’re built for bigger things.’ Then the brain stops the release of dopamine, which makes it seem not only boring but that it takes forever.”
There are three ways you can trigger your brain release dopamine, and get out of your rut, says Cable.
1. Play to your strengths
Identify your signature strengths and the impact you can have by using them on a daily basis. “How can you bring value to the team by using your unique strength?” asks Cable.
When he started tapping into his strength—humor—Cable says he regained an appreciation for his job. “It made me feel good and I saw my students lean in when I used humor,” he says. “As a professor, it was something unique to me. I decided to bring it when I teach class instead of leaving it at home.”
Think of your job as a flexible vehicle and determine how you can bring your strength to it.
2. Be willing to experiment
Avoid the risk of routine by shaking things up. Cable decided to develop new classes instead of teaching the same class over and over.
“A sales manager who was promoted and never got a chance to get out in the field might start going into the field again to talk to clients,” suggests Cable. “It’s just a way to refresh and learn new things.”
Activate that seeking system by going outside of your comfort zone, suggests Cable.
3. Tap into purpose
Finally, analyze cause and effect in your role. We all want to see the impact of our actions, says Cable. Leaders can help employees personalize the purpose of work by providing direct conversations with the people who use work as well as internal decision makers.
“Try to think about the story you want to tell yourself about why you do your job,” says Cable. He admits that part of the boredom he felt with is job is that he was telling himself that his job as a professor was helping rich, entitled kids double their salary by earning an MBA.
“It wasn’t bad or illegal, but it was not inspiring to me and not worth my time,” he says. “I asked myself why I was telling that story? What if use teaching as a platform for a different purpose? I started teaching executives on leading change. The job didn’t change; I repurposed it around what I cared about. Doesn’t make it more true or right, more energizing to me.”
Design your workplace to provide at least one of these triggers daily or weekly, suggests Cable. “You can’t reenergize your workday and your team with a flash-in-the-pan, one-off offsite,” says Cable. “Engagement requires bringing your best self to work.”