Embracing boredom as exploratory overhead cost

(Follow-up to Fun does not preclude burnout)

Sometimes I decide to spend a few weeks or months putting some of my social needs on hold in favor of something specific, like a deadline. But after that’s done, and I “have free time” again, I often find myself leaning toward work as a default pass-time. When I ask my intuition “What’s a fun thing to do this weekend?”, I get a resounding “Work!”

I’m highly dubious of this intuition. It seems more like my mind has simply lost the habits/affordances to do other things I’d value highly upon reflection. So to remedy this, I usually decide to not work and just be bored instead. Not to rest or relax; those are also important, and I might need to do those first. But after I’m rested, it’s time to actually experience boredom long enough for my mind to start proposing non-work alternatives.

So, what quiet urges have faded into the background these past few weeks to let me slog away at my Big Project?

To answer that, I usually end up doing some explicit brainstorming — with friends, notebooks, whiteboards, or whatever — to figure out what I might want or need that isn’t my job. Otherwise I might just fall into a rut of lethargy. But I do find the brainstorming much more effective after I’ve given my System 1 long enough to feel the need for ideas… i.e, boredom. After a long project, it can take a weekend or sometimes several weekends of boring non-work activities and explicit brainstorming before I actually find something that feels as rewarding as work, but it usually happens.

And the answer is always different. This I can’t emphasize enough. My cached assumptions about what I “should do” with my free time are usually wrong by the time I’ve gone through an intensive work period of weeks or months. My inner priorities have changed, and if I didn’t devote some time — even if it’s boring at first — to figuring out what they’ve changed to, I’d fail at exploration-exploration tradeoff and just end up working all the time for lack of a better idea. So I just embrace the boredom for a little while, just long enough to get inspired.

Since my last post was “Hey, watch out, work addiction!”, this one says “Here’s how you might deal with work addiction once you have it.” Personally, I find temporary addictions to work can be quite helpful; I just make sure not to stay addicted for too long. In any case, if you’ve never entertained the possibility that some important-in-the-long-run part of you is being drowned out by a recent obsession, maybe give boredom-as-exploration a try and let me know how it goes 🙂

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