Boredom, attention, and production

Monday, August 23 2021

It’s easy to become bored. It’s easy to become bored when reading, it’s easy to become bored waiting in line, it’s easy to become bored eating your lunch. In fact, our attention is perhaps the most valuable thing we have. Even moreso than our time, when you’re not paying attention to where you are or what you’re doing, you may as well be anywhere.1

Boredom is probably a good thing, improving our creativity and encouraging us to plan our lives, probably in a meaningful way. But beyond that, what should we do with our attention, with our capacity to fidget when we lose interest? Nassim Taleb advocates that we pick up another book as soon as we put one down. Rather than reading, losing interest after half an hour, and picking up your phone, he intends for boredom to evaporate as you read about something completely different, from a different author with a different style.

This feels similar to the rotation method coined by Kirkegaard, where you change what you’re doing constantly in order to avoid boredom. Ideally this would be a mixture of challenging things: reading difficult fiction, listening to complex jazz, eating nuanced food.

But still we face two problems:

  1. You’re not letting yourself be bored.
  2. This is all consumptive, rather than productive.

Kirkegaard hints at this himself: he goes on to say that the rotation method will lead to a lack of a meaningful life as everything becomes mundane and nothing is novel. I disagree with this premise and perhaps I haven’t read enough, but let’s tackle the second point.

We’re consuming literature, music, news, rather than producing. We read at least as much as we did twenty years ago, and probably more than fifty but contemporary society is overgeared towards excessive consumption: there are countless piecemeal articles, and music is absurdly various and abundant if we only search for it. But have we dulled our production? Have we stopped creating things now that there are endless online micro courses to consume, MOOCs2 to take, blogs at our fingertips? I’m inclined to say no: there has been an equal explosion in memes and tik toks created, and virality means that great pieces of creativity are being discovered and publicised from socially remote and rural creators. It’s a cornucopia of creation. Are these creations lower quality than fifty years ago? Perhaps. But probably not, I would guess that even if ‘quality’ has decreased by some amount, quantity has increased by far more.

Is consumption even intrinsically worse than production? Returning to the rotation method, could you just as easily rotate through writing essays, building a shed, composing music? Probably not, which suggests that there is something intrinsically cognitively difficult about production therefore it is more worthwhile. Part of the problem is the way that people treat consumption: consider annotating a book as you read it, diligently considering the arguments and almost having a conversation with the author, compared to reading it at eight in the morning on your commute to work, tired and bleary-eyed. The latter is unlikely to be as challenging and stimulating, despite it being quite a tax on your willpower. People often rally against consumption with phrases like ‘how many articles do you remember reading from The Economist?’ (or whatever you book your read three months ago). Consumption doesn’t even have to have to same effect as production, for example people often talk about consumption as if it’s a memory exercise. Remembering the main villains of a recent conflict in Ethiopia is beside the point, such consumption will influence your understanding of the world in a gestaltic way.

So how do we compare focused production with consumption that may be focused, but is often subdivided? It’s well known that taking breaks while learning, every thirty minutes or so, can greatly boost your learning, far outweighing the learning lost during the break. However in books like Deep Work by Cal Newport, we’re extolled the values of Flow and focusing for hours, even days perhaps without distraction, and it’s well known that switching tasks is suboptimal and leaves you thinking about the prior task.

So what should we do: rotate tasks to keep our interest high - but lose focus, take breaks or not take breaks, and how should we value each of these? For the latter, it’s likely that both are true: focusing intensely is great but can only be done infrequently with the right conditions, and for the most part we have to employ suitable rest breaks. I have no basis for the former, but would argue that from personal experience switching between two difficult tasks is refreshing and stimulating, as long as you spend at least half an hour on each task.

In conclusion, I don’t think consumption is a terrible thing. I think it’s a great thing, as long as we do it well. There’s not nearly enough consumption in the world, of the right kind. Given that, we should all try to produce more. Production is difficult, at least for the majority of us that don’t do it nearly as much as we should. We don’t do much of it because it’s hard, but hard things are generally good for us, and we should do far more of them.

As well as your thoughts on this, I would love to hear more from you about:

  1. Better resources quantifying time spent reading in the general population over a fifty year time period or longer
  2. Whether consumption and production train independent mental muscles. Most great authors are prodigious readers, but there are many examples of artists in all domains who have consumed very little.

  1. This suggests distractions beyond looking at your phone, and encompasses being merely distracted, thinking about the future, and perhaps even daydreaming. ↩︎

  2. Massive Online Open Course ↩︎