Scott H Young

Boredom is the Enemy


“Boredom is the enemy, not some abstract ‘failure.’”
Tim Ferriss

“People tolerate waaaay too much boredom in their lives.”
Ben Casnocha

If you measured your life, not by achievements, but by how much boredom you could avoid, would you live life differently? Would you accomplish less? Or, by eliminating the things that dull you, would you end up completing more interesting things?

Life is too short to waste on uninteresting pursuits. Too many people have the false idea that success requires putting up with years of boredom to get what you want. I’d argue the opposite: the more boredom you tolerate in your life, the fewer meaningful things you are accomplishing.

Boredom is NOT a Virtue

People grow up being taught that persevering through boredom is the recipe for success. As a result, they study boring subjects in school, take boring extra-curricular activities to be accepted into a boring graduate school, spend more time studying boring subjects, get hired to work at a boring job, marry a boring spouse, raise boring kids, retire and die without accomplishing anything worth mentioning.

Interesting pursuits are worth having. Pursuits that scare you are worth having. Challenging pursuits are worth having. Boring pursuits are just the admission that instead of failing at something remarkable, you didn’t bother to try.

Tolerate Frustration, Not Boredom

Frustration and boredom are not the same thing. Many people confuse the two, when they are actually opposites. Frustration is the result of a challenge being too hard, boredom is the result of a challenge being too easy. Facing those “abstract failures” makes you better, tolerating boredom makes you dull.

Starting an online business can be frustrating, but it’s rarely boring. Watching television is often boring, but it’s almost never frustrating. Boring activities are mentally under-stimulating. Under-stimulus means there is less chance for learning and growth. But, under-stimulus also means there is a lower chance of failure, so given a choice between boredom and frustration, many people pick the former.

Boring Jobs

I’m amazed at how many of my graduating friends are so eager to start working at a job. Yes, financially, most people will have to work at a job for at least part of their life. Also, there are jobs that are genuinely challenging, interesting and meaningful. I don’t want to degrade an entire category of income generation, just because it isn’t my personal preference.

But what amazes me isn’t the search for a job, but the eagerness to spend ten years working in dull, uninteresting positions. The thought of failing or going bankrupt running my own business doesn’t scare me nearly as much as selling away a decade of my life.

A friend of mine was the volunteer leader of a student sponsorship group. She managed a team of six volunteers to raise just under a quarter of a million dollars in sponsorship, coordinating communication between dozens of groups and managing a team of people who weren’t being paid.

She recently graduated and is now receiving a decent income doing mostly data entry for human resources. She recently commented that most of her workday is spent on the internet, because her job is far less demanding than the forty hours she’s required to be at work for. What’s worse is that many people I know are actually hunting down work like this, not as a temporary means, but as an end.

Do you think doing data entry and spending half your time on YouTube is building experience? Working at a start-up or launching a business might inevitably fail, but you would learn more. Even if you needed the job for the money, your excess time could be spent on something interesting and challenging.

Eliminate Boredom

If, on average, your degree program isn’t interesting, you’re in the wrong program. When you sum up the total of your classes and projects, and don’t find it to be interesting, you should probably transfer into something else or stop wasting money on school.

The same approach applies to almost any pursuit. Unfortunately, many complex activities are mixed bags, they have some interesting and some non-interesting components. It’s important to separate activities that are:

  1. Boring and not mentally stimulating
  2. Frustrating and uninteresting
  3. Frustrating, but interesting
  4. Genuinely interesting

If you’re faced with a genuinely boring activity, your goal should be to reduce the amount of effort applied to a bare minimum. These are the pursuits that drain energy out of life and kill you slowly, they are the enemy.

Pursuits that are frustrating, but uninteresting often deserve a second look. I’ve been in classes that first appear to fit this category. But that’s often because I didn’t invest in developing an appreciation for the ideas. If something is mentally stimulating it is often also useful. There are cases when a pursuit is both frustrating and genuinely boring, even after introspection, then it’s usually best to apply the same approach to boring activities –  get it out of your life.

Frustrating, interesting activities are worth your attention. Frustration and interestingness often go together because interesting activities that aren’t challenging soon lose their novelty and become boring. Not only are these activities more fun, but they make you better than when you started them.

Pursuing Interestingness

What would happen if you chose pursuits because of how interesting they were, not because you felt you should do them?

I suspect that you would be more successful, not less. Interesting activities are easier to put effort towards. If your life is full of boring pursuits you do because you should, not because they engage you, you’re probably using closer to 20% of your energy, not 100%.

Just in case you’re worried that interestingness as a criterion of decision making will result in a lack of discipline and laziness, I want you to do a quick experiment. Rate the following activities in terms of their perceived interestingness:

  • Watching television
  • Writing a book
  • Starting a business
  • Playing a computer game
  • Learning a foreign language
  • Getting drunk
  • Writing an email to your favorite author
  • Studying a martial art
  • Taking a nap
  • Looking through pictures on Facebook

Although this is a small sample of activities, my guess is that the most productive activities are also the most interesting. The easiest activities are also the least remarkable.

Conquer Boredom, Have Fun

If you aren’t having fun, you’re doing it wrong. Either you’ve picked a boring pursuit, which you should drop immediately, or your expectations are causing you to feel frustrated, which you should step back and reevaluate. Don’t tolerate boredom to compensate for a fear of failing at something remarkable.


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19 Responses to “Boredom is the Enemy”

  1. Vlad Dolezal says:

    Spot on, Scott!

    I had a big breakthrough when I realized I don’t HAVE TO be bored, even in boring situations.

    For example, right now I have a half-hour bus commute every day, and there’s nothing I can do about it until summer. I spent the first two or three weeks of my commuting mostly being bored. Then I mentally kicked myself in the butt and went like “Dude, what the hell are you doing? You don’t HAVE TO be bored!” So I downloaded some podcasts and audiobooks, and now my commute is actually one of the most productive times of my day, as far as absorbing new ideas.

    I also realized that just because I have some boring lectures, it doesn’t mean I don’t have to be bored there. So I bring along a book, and only listen to the lecturer intermittently, when something interesting comes up. “Be gone, boredom!” And boredom was gone :)

  2. [...] Scott H. Young – Boredom is the Enemy [...]

  3. Sofi says:

    Dear my favorite blogger, Scott,

    I’m really amazed on your skill of reading my mind, maybe others too. Just a few minute ago, I feel damn bored. And as usual, when I’m bored, I just open your blog. Then…”What the hell! How can this man know my feeling.” Thanks for everything, your articles inspire a lot. I hope you can keep inspiring people like me.

  4. Gary says:

    Oh, how this rings true for my job! I’m writing from work where I spend every day bored out of my skull. Yet, I stay here because I have financial obligations to fulfill. I have to make loan repayments every week, and as such I find myself having to form a security blanket of a job which is terribly unfulfilling. I realize I made a mistake, and yet what to do? The options seem few and far between. As you suggested, this is sucking the life out of me, I go to bed at night realizing that in totality this was another largely wasted day.

    May the god of resourcefulness give me the insight I need to move on!

    Gary

  5. andres jimenez says:

    I wonder why quoting Tim Ferris. That person seems quite fake imho, and his writing is so vague; 4 hr work week, learn any language in 3 months.

    Anyways, I agree with boredom not really helping on developing oneself and not stimulating in all aspects, however it seems to be essential for us to have some small periods of boredom; 1 or 2 days at most!

  6. andres jimenez says:

    Forgot to mention,
    sometimes boredom is excellent because it allows you to figure out creative activities with out having to push yourself for them. The contrary will be to always set yourself to “do something” in order to avoid boredom.
    Just like you said recently in the podcast interview how important is to make a list of “goals” for the day/week
    and once finished stop working… same here,
    let yourself have a period of total calm until boredom itself brings you that creativity.

  7. Joan says:

    Hi Scott,

    Interesting article. I’ve given a lot of thought to boredom myself. While nobody should hide in boredom because they’re afraid, the FEAR of BOREDOM is another problem.

    Many people run around like chickens with their heads cut off because they’re terrified of being bored.

    Boredom forces you to look at yourself. To be alone with yourself. To experience silence and stillness. If you don’t like yourself much, you’ll run from those opportunities…but a lot of good can come from these moments.

    When you’re not bored, you don’t have to confront anything about yourself. When you ARE bored, you have to sit with some amount of discomfort. In our society, we’ve been taught to avoid discomfort at all costs. It’s a form of denial.

    Anyway, keep up the good work!

  8. Paqui says:

    Thank you Scott for this great article!!

  9. Scott Young says:

    Vlad,

    Great idea. I used to listed to a lot of audio/spoken word material when I was waiting for things, now I’ve mostly stopped because I prefer the time to think over my own ideas, but I agree it’s a great way to learn.

    -Scott

  10. Loren says:

    Sometimes I find that even though I have a decent job, the lack of spontanaity in my day to day life, leaves me craving for New Adventures. It’s a feeling of leaving it all behind for Sun, travel and every day being new and unknown. Especially in the winter months, we need a break in the routines of life. Sitting all day on a computer needs to be replaced by a trip to the beach, island, road trips etc. I like to think of it as my “recharging the batteries” phase. Also, for the guy with a job that makes him feel dead, save up, set a date and get out ASAP! Better to be exploring new possibilities and moving forward than just rotting away. We are meant for more…BELIEVE IT.

  11. [...] days ago, I argued that boredom is the enemy of success and productivity. Instead of trying to discipline yourself to push through boredom, you [...]

  12. g says:

    I like the spirit of this post, but not the condescension toward “boring jobs”.

    My dad spent 30 years of his life battling traffic jams, corporate mediocrity, and the monotony of the daily grind, toiling away so he could support his children and provide for their future. I’m grateful for his effort, and see myself now as a young man how important it is to eventually put down your dreams and pick up your responsibilities when your time is called to do so.

    Financial and family obligations can make it difficult to “avoid boredom”, as not everyone is in the privileged position to adapt a risker entrepreneurial lifestyle compared to the “daily grind” for a steady paycheck. But don’t knock it: Life gets a lot more complicated that way, but also a lot simpler… Sometimes, at the end of the day, it’s not about self-improvement, challenging yourself or the status quo, or embracing all the wonderful possibility of the world – it’s about keeping the lights on and your children fed.

    Keep up the good work, Scott, but try not to make enemies out of reality, or alienate those who share it with you. It makes the journey so much harder.

  13. Scott Young says:

    g,

    Many people aren’t in a position to do everything, because of commitments and I can respect that. But just because some people have to use a wheelchair doesn’t mean I’m going to avoid writing about running.

    My argument against boring jobs is targeted at the people who do have control, namely, recent university graduates from middle to upper-class households. Some people don’t have that opportunity, and work boring, grinding jobs to feed themselves and their family. There is no shame in that, but if it isn’t a requirement, that’s when accepting boredom becomes a sign of weakness, not of strength.

    -Scott

  14. [...] Our Tolerance for Boredom – In an interesting article, Cal refutes the basic premise I argued in Boredom is the Enemy. While I argued that we tolerate too much boredom, Cal claims the opposite, we tolerate too [...]

  15. [...] both Scott H. Young and Cal Newport wrote articles about boredom. But I remain unconvinced that boredom is the real problem [...]

  16. [...] Boredom can kill, and Scott H Young knows a thing or two about it: [...]

  17. misswasted says:

    nice…
    need to ponder all these things to eliminate the boredom that am feeling now…

  18. hermes handbags says:

    Many people aren’t in a position to do everything, because of commitments and I can respect that. But just because some people have to use a wheelchair doesn’t mean I’m going to avoid writing about running.

    My argument against boring jobs is targeted at the people who do have control, namely, recent university graduates from middle to upper-class households. Some people don’t have that opportunity, and work boring, grinding jobs to feed themselves and their family. There is no shame in that, but if it isn’t a requirement, that’s when accepting boredom becomes a sign of weakness, not of strength.

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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