Boredom as a Human Drive

Published: Apr 24, 2021
Updated: May 3, 2021

I was listening to Lex Fridman interview Cal Newport. They talk for 3 hours, and it’s interesting all the way through. They cover deep work, social media usage, history of email, and much more.

The following part of their conversation really stood out to me. I had never thought of boredom in this way, as an action instinct.

Lex: … I think David Foster Wallace said the key to life is to be unborable. I’ve always kind of taken that to heart, which is like you should be able to, maybe artificially, generate anything. Like find something in your environment, your surroundings that’s a source of joy. Like everything is fun.

Cal: Yeah. Did you read the Pale King? It goes deep on boredom. I mean it’s uncomfortable, it’s like an uncomfortable meditation on boredom. Like the characters in that are just driven to the extremes … I just bought 3 books on boredom the other day. So, I’m really interested in this topic. Because I was anxious about my book launch happening this week. So, I was like okay I need something else. So, I have this idea, that I might do as an article first, then as a book. Like okay, I need something cool to be thinking about because I was worried about is the launch gonna work with the pandemic? What’s going to happen? This is exactly what I’m talking about. So, I went out and bought a bunch of books, and I’m beginning like whole sort of intellectual exploration.

Lex: Well, I think that’s one of the profound ideas in deep work that you don’t expand on too much, is boredom.

Cal: Yeah. Well, so Deep Work had a superficial idea about boredom, which was I had this chapter called Embrace Boredom. The very functionalist idea was basically you have to have some boredom in your regular schedule, or your mind is gonna form a Pavlovian connection between “as soon as I feel boredom, I get stimuli”. And once it forms that connection it’s never gonna tolerate deep work. So, there’s this very pragmatic treatment of boredom of your mind better get used to the idea that sometimes you don’t get stimuli because otherwise you can’t write for 3 hours. Like it’s just not gonna tolerate it. But more recently what I’m interested in with boredom, is it as a fundamental human drive. Right, because it’s incredibly uncomfortable. And think about the other things that are incredibly uncomfortable like hunger or thirst. They serve a really important purpose for our species, right. Like if something is really distressing, there’s a reason pain is really uncomfortable because we need to worry about getting injured. Thirst is really uncomfortable because we need water to survive. So, what’s boredom? Why is that uncomfortable? And I’ve been interested in this notion that boredom is about driving us towards productive action. Like as a species. I mean think about it. What got us to actually take advantage of these brains? What got us to actually work with fire? What got us to start shaping stones into hand axes and figure out if we could actually sharpen a stick enough that we could throw it as a melee weapon or a distance weapon for hunting Mammoth? Right. Boredom drives us towards action. So now I’m fascinated by this fundamental action instinct, because I have this theory that I’m working on that we’re out of sync with it. Just like we have this drive for hunger, but we introduced junk food and got out of sync with hunger, and it makes us really unhealthy. We have this drive towards action but when we overload ourselves and have all of these distractions then that causes like a cognitive action obesity type thing. Because it short circuits this system that wants us to do things, but we put more things on our plate than we can possibly do and then we’re really frustrated we can’t do them. And we’re short circuiting all of our wires. So, it all comes back to this question: What would be the ideal amount of stuff to do and type of things to do. Like if we wanted to look back at our ancestral environment and say, “If I could just build from scratch what type of work I do and what I work on, to be as in touch with that as like paleo people are trying to get their diets in touch with that”. Like this is something I made up. But now I’m going deep on it and one of my podcast listeners, I was trying to learn about animals and boredom, and she sent me this cool article from an animal behaviorist journal about what we know about human boredom vs animal boredom. So, trying to figure out that puzzle is the wave that’s high so I can get through the wave that’s low of like, “I don’t know about this pandemic book launch” …