One of the eight factors in the 4Cs mental toughness concept is Achievement Orientation. This describes our mental approach to making an effort when we have something to do.
It is, like all the factors in the 4Cs concept, a spectrum with varying levels of achievement orientation between the two extremes. At one end, the more mentally tough will typically do whatever it takes to complete the task.
Visualization plays a part here. They can imagine what the completed task looks like and what it feels like to achieve it. Then they want it in reality. It can be a significant source of motivation.
At the other end, the more mentally sensitive are often averse to making a lot of effort and may not complete the task. For them, the feeling associated with attainment isn’t worth the pain and effort of getting there.
We know that the more mentally tough can approach tasks in such a determined way that they focus entirely on the task and don’t recognise the warning signs of burnout.
What is less well understood is that those with high levels of achievement orientation can suffer from “brownout” if they do not have enough to do.
As Robert Wu at the University of British Columbia and colleagues* found that although much has been made of the aversiveness of effort, being bored is at least as unpleasant — if not more so.
The team carried out studies on a significant number of people where they gave them a choice between carrying out a simple task or watching the task being done (by a computer).
The results of one set of experiments showed that in general people preferred harder tasks but not easy tasks to doing nothing. “This suggests that people do not necessarily prefer to do anything when faced with doing nothing,” the team reports. “Instead, people may prefer only tasks that require some effort, suggesting that effort is sometimes valuable.”
What the study didn’t do of course is assess the participants to determine which were more mentally tough in terms of achievement orientation and which were more mentally sensitive. This would have added another valuable dimension.
Other experiments found that repeating an easy task could also be perceived as boring. The study indicated that there might be limits to our approach to choosing effort over doing nothing. The choice then becomes a choice between two different kinds of boredom – doing nothing or doing some easy task repeatedly.
When the different exercises and their data were reviewed, the researchers observed that studies by other researchers had suggested that people in general may tend to avoid cognitive effort.
The studies now indicated that “participants did not choose to avoid effort to do nothing and, interestingly, chose effort significantly more than chance” — though that effect was small. “Together, our findings demonstrate that doing nothing can be just as aversive — and sometimes more aversive — than exerting cognitive effort,”.
Earlier research has also indicated that, in order to avoid boredom, some of us will do almost anything.
Curiously, just to illustrate that nothing in human nature or psychology is one or even two-dimensional, studies have shown that boredom, especially in young people, can be a catalyst for curiosity, reflection, creativity and new ideas. It can drive the search for novelty, including setting a new goal or embarking on a new adventure.
Curiosity and creativity have been identified by the World Economic Forum as two of the characteristics of a successful person in the 21st Century.
However we approach burnout, brownout or boredom, these are consequences of an individual’s mental response to what happens to them or around them. That is, our level of mental toughness/mental sensitivity.
It would seem, as is often the case, that self-awareness about one’s level of mental toughness, in this case, our mental approach to achievement, to getting things done, might well be useful in avoiding the consequences of both burnout and brownout.
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*Wu, R., Ferguson, A. M., & Inzlicht, M. (2022). Do humans prefer cognitive effort over doing nothing? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0001320*