There’s an old Freakonomics podcast about the cost of boredom that I think about and re-listen to regularly. It starts with a fascinating study performed around the First World War. Britain created the Industrial Fatigue Research Board which sought to measure the productivity of fatigued factory workers and whether or not things like environmental factors related to a general loss of productivity. In that study they found, as Amanda Markey stated succinctly
“It’s really not fatigue that’s the limiting factor of production. It’s boredom.”
Interestingly, from the podcast and subsequent research about the “scarce-capacity” theory, it stands to reason that boredom begets boredom. If you’re bored at work, there’s entropy towards becoming more bored and less productive. Anecdotally, this seems to be true in my own life. When I’m bored on a job doing uninteresting tasks or endless meetings, I spin in my chair and end up drifting over to YouTube. In more extreme circumstances I can become depressed or filled with anxiety. Even velocity on my side projects comes to a halt, which should be a refuge from boring work. It’s hard to summon energy when you’ve spent the day toiling on meaningless tasks.
The podcast covers a lot of interesting little behavioral science experiments to reduce boredom. More money? Yup. Real time chart of progress? Yup. Telling people a manager is watching you? Yup. Altruism? Nope. All of these seem like little capitalistic productivity hacks, but are interesting nonetheless as to what stimuli create responses in humans.
If boredom begets boredom, I began to wonder if the inverse is true… does productivity beget productivity? Again, I see a trend in my own life. If I find traction in one task, I typically end up with a lot of traction in many tasks. I wrote about this before, but for me it all relates to Flow and the research found in Kamikaze Biker, a sociological study about Japanese bosozoku biker gangs. Starting with smaller, easier tasks and progressively raising the level difficulty is a great way to achieve group flow. Productivity snowballs and before I know it I’m spinning plates on a half-dozen tasks at once… and then I’m overwhelmed again and the cycle resets. 🙃
Obviously I don’t have a pile of psychology research to back up any bold claims and spinning plates do sometimes fall on my head, but I now see this snowballing in other parts of my life: depression begets depression, anxiety begets anxiety, the list goes on. Some of those slopes are slipperier than others but it all reminds me, if I’m feeling bored or unproductive maybe it’s the boredom itself causing it to exist. And maybe some amount of boredom is just great.
Boredom is really one of the few, and maybe even the only emotion that says, “This isn’t a good use of your time. Direct your attention to something else. Like, get out of this situation.”
This concludes my story about a thing I heard on a podcast once.