The Productivity Box: Overcome Rust-Out to Stay Engaged and Inspired at Work

Over the past few years, burnout has become a major topic of conversation—especially in the wake of COVID-19 as chronic stress, overwhelm, and exhaustion reached alarming new levels. But there’s another less talked about phenomenon that could be even more detrimental to your work performance (and other facets of your life, too). This silent saboteur is called rust-out, and almost 70 percent of employees have dealt with it.

The Productivity Box Overcome Rust-Out to Stay Engaged and Inspired at Work

So, what is rust-out? And more importantly, how can you avoid its stealth-like effects?

In this installment of The Productivity Box, we’ll dive into these questions, so you can recognize and overcome rust-out in all the areas where it might show up.

What does it mean to experience rust-out?

If burnout is a consequence of excess pressure or chronic overstimulation, rust-out is basically the opposite. It occurs when daily tasks are too easy, boring, or repetitive, causing you to feel a lack of interest, enthusiasm, and motivation.

The literal definition of rust is to corrode away over time, and we can think of rust-out in those same terms. And it’s even more insidious than burnout. Rather than an ambush of emotional and mental fatigue, rust-out creeps in sneakily. You might not even notice its impact until your whole routine has become monotonous and uninspiring.

How can you identify the signs of rust-out?

Rust-out often flies under the radar, but you can spot it once you learn which signs to look for. If your skills and cognitive resources aren’t being used to their full potential, you might not see a reason to put forth your best efforts or strive to reach the highest outcomes.

As such, the main question to ask yourself is: “What do I feel—momentum or stagnation?

The PLOS One Journal found that goals should present a challenge to yield proactive results. Similarly, work should be meaningful to boost creativity, satisfaction, commitment, innovation, and performance quality, according to this report. Without these components, rust-out could begin to take root.

Here are some indications that you’re on the verge of this subtle but forceful productivity thief:

  • You are not interested in any of the tasks on your schedule.
  • Your routine is predictable or lacks excitement and stimulation.
  • You feel apathetic toward your organization’s values or mission.
  • You are no longer fulfilled in your professional and personal life.
  • Your career development seems to be stuck in a holding pattern.
  • You don’t feel motivated to pursue goals or tackle new challenges.

Why is rust-out harmful to your performance?

Rust-out is a problem because, if unchecked, it can harm your engagement levels on the job.

Active engagement creates a sense of connection and enthusiasm for your work. Yet only 33 percent of U.S. employees describe themselves as engaged, a recent Gallup survey indicates. Meanwhile, 50 percent are quietly quitting (i.e. doing the bare minimum without showing any extra initiative or taking pride in your contributions).

A lack of engagement accounts for $1.9 trillion in national productivity loss, Gallup finds. Not to mention, this phenomenon could affect anyone—from the most senior executive to the newest hire. Disengagement can feel like a relentless cycle that squelches all the enjoyment and excitement out of a once thriving career. However, you don’t have to accept it as the inevitable status quo.

How to overcome rust-out and reclaim engagement

If you’re exhibiting the symptoms of rust-out, there are actionable steps you can take to reverse these harmful effects and restore your engagement. According to another recent analysis from Gallup, active engagement will lead to the following benefits:

  • 81 percent less employee absenteeism
  • 61 percent lower employee turnover rates
  • 23 percent more organizational profitability
  • 18 percent higher productivity levels

So, how do you overcome rust-out to invigorate your work performance and inject your whole life with a fresh dose of satisfaction? These four tips will get you started.

1. Reflect on areas of disconnect, then look for solutions

Think about which factors contribute to your low morale or lack of motivation. Do expectations feel unclear? Are the tasks too easy? Is the company mission out of alignment with your passions or values? Is your routine stuck in a boring rut?

Once you determine the issue, you can brainstorm practical solutions to shake off the monotony.

2. Set performance goals that you feel inspired to achieve

Identify a specific, tangible objective that fills you with excitement. It can be a career ambition (for example be chosen to lead the next team project) or a personal desire (train to run a half-marathon this year).

Just make sure it’s something that will challenge you to push for success and to perform at your highest level. Goals create determination and momentum.

3. Challenge yourself to contribute in new, different ways

Reimagine how you move through the workday. What is an aspect of the job that you can experiment with? How can you step outside your comfort zone or switch up your normal flow? For example, you could be more vocal in a team meeting or take on a more active role with the upcoming client pitch. Stretch yourself to seek out bold new opportunities.

4. Find activities that fulfill you outside of the workplace

Ask yourself what brings joy and fun into your life. Is it volunteering for a cause you feel passionate about, unwinding with a creative outlet, or joining a local intramural sports league?

Whatever hobbies or activities speak to you, carve out a space removed from your work to do those things. This will replenish your mental, emotional, and physical stamina.

Don’t allow rust-out to sabotage your productivity

Rust-out is one of the most insidious enemies of productivity, one which most of us didn’t even know we had. With self-awareness and a few intentional, actionable steps, you can overcome it.

Don’t allow rust-out to steal your enthusiasm and leave you feeling apathetic. Reclaim what energizes and inspires you, then watch as your engagement and performance soars.

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