in Tech

Intense Fun is worth Moderate Boredom

I recently finished Nick Winter‘s fun and informative book, “The Motivation Hacker“. The book is ostensibly about how to hack your motivation habits in order to get more done and enjoy yourself while doing it, but I found it instead to be a fascinating look into the singular mind of Mr. Winter himself. One day last summer I agreed to drive into San Francisco and hug an internet stranger for 15 minutes nonstop in order to help him get over his discomfort with physical contact. That man turned out to be Nick, and the rest of him is just as  focused and logical as his approach to fixing his defective hugs.

Indeed,  his though process comes across as a shining example of how to systematically demolish your weaknesses one by one or all at once. The book was a firsthand look at what methods he uses to do this, through the lens of a couple months where he tried to do knock out several goals at once. It’s a worthy read and has introduced me to several new concepts and experiments I’m tangentially interested in, like lucid dreaming and the Less Wrong community. I’d highly recommend it to anyone interested in productivity, lifelogging, or life hacking in general.

However,  one aspect I took issue with during the read was Nick’s measurement of happiness. He would ping himself several times a day through his smartphone and rate his current level of happiness on a level of one to ten, along with what he was doing at the moment. He acknowledges that this is an imprecise measurement calculated on a nonlinear scale, but claims that since it is the same measurer making the call each time, the measurements should remain relatively constant.

His measurement of happiness helped him identify which parts of his life gave him the most and the least joy, and thus helped him focus on maximizing the former and minimizing the latter. It also helped him identify which of his activities were truly fun versus those which of them were mere leisure, done in order to ward off other work or out of boredom. In regards to living with his startup founders (when they prescheduled an hour of Super Smash Brothers playtime together every night) he writes:

“We knew we were going to max out on fun together after dinner, so why would we waste work time playing a mildly fun tower defense game (during the day)? Collect fun-dense activities, then do those instead of spending more time on wimpy leisure distractions.”

I’m certainly vulnerable to the threat mildly fun internet distractions pose to the things I actually want to get done. After a few hours of killing it through writing or knocking out to-dos, I often find my focus wavering, and eventually toppling into Reddit or (god forbid) OneMoreLevel territory. I know when I fall into these pitfalls that I’m not doing it because I really want to, but because its an easy distraction that lets me turn my mind off for a small respite. They’re the same kinds of sites that all the slackers frequent on their laptops in college lectures – fun enough to hold your attention, boring enough that you could still pay half attention to the professor, but not so enjoyable that you’d ever do it after class ended.

Nick’s solution to low level fun encroaching on work is to schedule your play before you schedule work, so that you have  high quality fun time to look forward to rather than falling prey to wimpy leisure options.

However, I think his measurement of happiness is flawed because it does not take into account the fact that all fun time is not created equal. After confronting his fear of skydiving, he notes that he was glad to have done it, but that he won’t do it again because the fun density is too low – two hours of driving for one minute of action. I’d argue that that one minute of action is more worthwhile than the fun you could have at home – even high quality home fun like a dinner with friends.

The riddle of how much driving time is too much to pay for exceptionally fun-dense activities (adrenaline options like skydiving, concerts, or world famous travel destinations) is one I’ve faced often. My rule of thumb has been: “If the opportunity is time sensitive, and is something I want to do, then go for it.” Certainly it wouldn’t make sense to go skydiving every weekend, but assuming the novelty doesn’t wear off, something like once a month would be reasonable according to this maxim, even after factoring in the accumulated driving hours.

Time spent in transit isn’t fun, but it isn’t all that worse than, say, being stuck at home with no internet. When invested towards exceptionally fun dense activities like those above, I think that it is always worth it. You’ve got to think about how everything will look in hindsight. Will you remember the hours spent getting there better, or those few seconds of insane fun at the end? Both will eventually shrink down to comparable memory blips in your mind, and the flashbulb emotion highlight of the stronger memory will certainly overpower the default boredom of the ride there. Nick’s numerical happiness record would disagree, what with maybe four different counts of 4 coupled with one of 10, at best, but with time those 4s will blur together into one. Would you rather have a life full of 6s, or one filled with mostly 4s sprinkled in with some 9s?

I’m willing to pay the price of discomfort in order to receive the benefit of lifetime experiences – indeed, I think travel often boils down to exactly that. Just like productive work time sustained with pending Super Smash Brothers time in mind,  length moderate boredom spent in order to facilitate short intense fun is worthy.

Just as long as it’s not online flash games.