On Boredom

David Foster Wallace wrote that boring tasks are less boring when you focus intently on them. This is an obviously correct and important statement, and it’s interesting to me why.

First, here’s why it’s important to me (because everything is about me, it’s my blog, get your own if you don’t like it): I am intensely bad at completing boring tasks. If you tell me a task is truly mindless, I’m okay at it (think stuffing envelopes). These tasks aren’t boring because they’re really just an excuse to let your mind wander guilt-free, since you can tell yourself you’re “being productive.” I can stuff envelopes forever. Alternately, If you tell me a task is intensely difficult, only fit for the finest minds, you can bet t I will be there, although in this case it’s because I like the challenge and like feeling smart.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of tasks engage somewhere between 15% and 90% of the mind. These tasks aren’t “hard” — no one’s wondering if you can do them — but aren’t easy enough that you can do them while wholly occupied by something else. Writing cover letters, reading a crotchety case about partnership law, responding to an email, figuring out a detail for a student loan, washing out a nasty dish with lots of nooks and crannies. The boring, important stuff that accumulates into a life. I’m bad at it! I hate it so much, sometimes I just don’t do it! Not doing these things is a source of intense anxiety. The solution’s easy, right? If I do the damn thing, I won’t be anxious about it anymore. So true! Pat yourself on the back for that one. But consider my response: Fine! Gosh! I’ll do it…tomorrow.

It sounds like a joke, but this is basically the monologue in my head for 15% of the day.

Back to DFW. His answer gets to why we hate boring tasks: Completing boring tasks is, in its usual course, an absolute waste of our big and dramatic and all-important minds. The waste of a bored mind makes us sad in a way we can barely name. Nobody, when asked what was on their mind that day, truly wants to answer that they spent it in a low-energy haze, moving from easily-scalable task to easily-scalable task. A runner, if capable of running one mile, tries to run two. Then six, then 13.1, then 26.2, then who knows, my cousin ran 110 last summer. They don’t run a mile, forever. They couldn’t — it would be absolute death. Yet so much of what we are required to do on a day to day basis, in school and work and life, amounts to being asked to run a mile, again and again and again.

The solution is to focus intently, the idea being to forget that each discrete task is definitely scalable using less than your all. If you focus 100% of yourself on writing that email, or washing that dish, or writing that cover letter, your big beautiful mind will find the interesting bits, the parts that are creative and beautiful and transporting. Not only will you do better at these tasks (always room for improvement!), not only will you be less bored and fugue state-y, but you will no longer feel like you are suffering a death of the soul.

Easier said than done, natch. But it’s a good insight.

For those keeping score, this might be why I need to read every day. A good book is the only place I reliably feel I am not wasting my mind. Also conversation! With some people! The thing about some people: They don’t always want to talk to you. Too bad.

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