Get bored - how doing nothing fosters learning

Tomorrows success depends on your ability to learn today, day after day. But what influences our ability to learn today? Be it digital or analogue, this question has to be addressed by everyone who either aims to be successful himself or would like to have successful employees in their company (that is to say, would like to enable employees in their company to become successful thus making the company successful).

Like any motivation, there are two forms of learning:

Intrinsic motivation comes from within.You are simply fascinated by the subject and enjoy finding out more about it. It comes from inside yourself, and either exists or it just doesn't.

Extrinsic motivation springs from external factors. Be it as positive motivation (e.g. rewards, such as money or recognition) or negative motivation (e.g. punishments, such as the fear of being fired).


The big problem: extrinsic motivation drives off any intrinsic motivation over time. As soon as you have to do something, it becomes a chore, even if you used to enjoy it.

You can become dependent on positive extrinsic motivation in the long term, and quickly come to crave it.

The danger of negative extrinsic motivation is that you begin to associate this encroachment on your own free will with what you are being forced to do (in this case learning).

This in turn means that, in the long term, a company cannot motivate anyone extrinsically to learn without damaging their intrinsic motivation. This poses a real problem. Not only is intrinsic motivation much more effective, extrinsic motivation will decrease and disappear over time - unless you keep investing more and more in the trigger - which has a natural limit.

An example: praise from the boss

(first intrinsic, then extrinsic)

  1. One trigger is e.g. the boss, who acknowledges the fact you happened to have learned something (through intrinsic motivation) that turned out to be valuable in a particular situation.
  2. The next time you know something in a situation like that, you expect the same praise (extrinsic positive motivation).
  3. However, the more often this praise is expressed, the less meaning it has in and of itself.
  4. The boss would therefore have to show ever greater levels of recognition (shift in scale), which is simply not possible.
  5. As a result, you reach a point where you are not getting as much praise as you would like.
  6. Once this has happened a couple of times, you start to ask yourself, “What’s the point in making the effort to learn new things? Nobody cares, anyway.” (Swing from motivation to demotivation)
  7. The boss, however, has now raised his expectations of his employee.
  8. If the employee now stops learning, this will quickly become a point of criticism, possibly combined with the threat of consequences (“If you don’t keep learning you will have no chance of achieving your career goals.”)
  9. The employee therefore starts learning again, but without any real enthusiasm because the thread is not a meaningful reason (start of negative extrinsic motivation).
  10. With time, however, the employee becomes used to the threat of not being able to make career progress without learning (second shift in scale, loss of negative extrinsic motivation).

The employee now has 2 ways out of this dilemma:

To resign inwardly

(and devote intrinsic motivation to a polka band or do-it-your self projects at home).

To resign

(and start the whole cycle all over again in another department / company).

Would you like a few more things to think about?

Examples of positive extrinsic motivators:

  • Salary bonus (especially for sales staff)
  • Awards and "Employee of the Month" schemes
  • The prospect of promotion

Examples of negative extrinsic motivators:

  • Performance review discussions
  • Upcoming reorganizations
  • Boring tasks / projects


The only effective method involves creating intrinsic motivation

However, as already mentioned, intrinsic motivation comes from within the individual. By definition, it cannot be created externally. What you can do, however, is to create the environmental setting that allows someone to develop intrinsic motivation.

The ingredients: boredom and opportunity

This can be observed particularly well in children, especially babies. If you set babies down somewhere in the living room, and stop actively “entertaining” them, the lack of other options will, in 80 percent of cases, lead to them starting to entertain themselves. That could involve building bricks, the books on the shelf or even their own feet. If they enjoy it, they continue. If not, they stop and look for something else. But whatever it is they end up doing to occupy themselves, they are intrinsically motivated to do it.

We can create intrinsic motivation at Deutsche Telekom if we are brave enough

All we have to do is provide our employees with the opportunity. That includes time that they don’t have to spend on other things and the resources to learn new things at their own speed and in line with their own interests. Providing digital learning formats is a good start, but so far we have lacked the courage to give our employees dedicated paid time where they can decide for themselves what to do.

Let us change that!


Discuss this topic with us on LinkedIn and Twitter. We are looking forward to your opinions!

    Martin Betz

    Senior Expert HR Automation & Innovation
    Deutsche Telekom AG


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