Nick Ang profile picture

Nick Ang

How to slay boredom with boredom

It’s not often that a YouTube video makes you pause to think, oh shit, that sounds right, why the heck did I not see it before… THIS IS HUGE!!!

Well, today, while procrastinating on writing peer reviews at work, I stumbled upon one such video:

The procrastination cure you don’t want to hear

In the video, Joey Schweitzer purports the following:

You know what you want to do with your life at any moment, to help you fulfill your life goals. You just don’t do it.

Instead, in almost every moment, you do something more entertaining (i.e. less boring) than that thing you’re supposed to do.

We behave this way because we hate boredom. There’s an article in Science from 2014 about a study finding that some people prefer electrocuting themselves than sit and do nothing:

The results were startling: Even though all participants had previously stated that they would pay money to avoid being shocked with electricity, 67% of men and 25% of women chose to inflict it on themselves rather than just sit there quietly and think, the team reports online today in Science.

We already hate boredom, so we keep looking for more entertaining things to do.

Okay, here, let’s pause and reframe that.

We already hate boredom, yet we keep looking for more entertaining things to do.

Yet? That doesn’t make sense.

Oh, but it does… because here’s the juice: our senses work by contrasts. By fighting boredom with entertainment, you’re inadvertently increasing your boredom when you’re off entertainment.

Joey Schweitzer explains this with the example of our bathroom light. Your bathroom light has the same brightness during the day as it is at night, yet, it feels the brightest when you wake up in the middle of the night to pee. ah OMG THIS SHiT IS SO BRIGHT WTF!

That happens because our senses — in this case, our eyes — went from seeing 10 lumens to 600 lumens in a second. That contrast hits you hard.

So the same applies to entertainment and boredom. We measure light in lumens. How do we measure levels of psycho-emotional stimulation? I don’t know, but maybe gratification units? GUs? (I’m making this up.)

At the start of a day, I’d have a baseline of 1 GU.

I get dressed for work, send my kid to school, and head home. My mind stirs with thoughts about yesterday’s code review and today’s chores. My baseline might rise to 10 GUs.

I go home and I start work. I hit a roadblock; someone forgot to follow up on the thing I’d been expecting to be followed up on so I could follow up on the follow-up. Arggh, now I’m stuck and bored. Let me just take a sneak peek at the new Tesla Model 3 reviews on YouTube…

Suddenly, my baseline GUs go way up.

1 video, 20 GUs…

2 videos, 40 GUs…

5 videos later, I’m at 100 GUs.

Oh shit, look at the time.

I go back to the task at work, and wow, it looks EVEN more boring than before!

That’s contrast, baby:

  • 10 GUs baseline -> 10 GUs work task => Okay, let’s do this…

  • 10 GUs baseline -> 20 GUs watch video => This will be fun, let’s watch a video

  • 100 GUs baseline -> 10 GUs work task => Holy crap my work is boring I want to die

The units of gratification concept is a clumsy crutch because these numbers don’t only fill up like water in a bucket. It’s more like a slowly leaking bucket. I think I’ll create a simple website to illustrate that better soon.

But I think it illustrates the point quite well. This is why we procrastinate so much.

The solution does sound to me as simple as Joey Schweitzer suggests: bring your baseline GUs down. In other words, make your life boring as shit. Like sitting in a room with absolutely nothing you can do to kill the boredom kind of boring.

Almost every task becomes instantly “entertaining.” Even the thought of electrocuting ourselves becomes more gratifying than doing nothing.

Nick Ang profile picture
Husband, dad, and software engineer that writes. Big on learning something everyday and trying to have fun before the lights go out.
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