Boring + Boring = Pleasant?!

I've read that Aristotle taught his students while they walked around. It seemed to enhance learning and make the activity more enjoyable. The self-experimenter Seth Roberts has found that doing two boring things together -- walking on a treadmill and studying flash cards -- results in a pleasant experience.
Fact 1: For the last few weeks, I’ve been studying Chinese using a flashcard program called Anki. It’s an excellent program but boring. I’ve never liked studying – maybe no one does. Fact 2: I’ve had a treadmill for a very long time. Walking on a treadmill is boring so I always combine it with something pleasant – like watching American Idol. That makes it bearable. I don’t think listening to music would be enough.

Two days ago I discovered something that stunned me: Using Anki WHILE walking on my treadmill was enjoyable. I easily did it for an hour and the next day (yesterday) did it for an hour again. The time goes by quickly. Two boring activities, done together, became pleasant. Anki alone I can do maybe ten minutes. Treadmill alone I can do only a few minutes before I want to stop. In both cases I’d have to be pushed to do it at all. Yet the combination I want to do; 60 minutes feels like a good length of time.

His thoughts on why this might be so are really interesting:

The evolutionary reason for this might be to push people to walk in new places (which provide something to learn) rather than old places (which don’t). To push them to explore. David Owen noticed it was much more fun  for both him and his small daughter to walk in the city than in the country. He was surprised. When I drive somewhere, and am not listening to a book or something, I prefer a new route over a familiar one. If I am listening to a book I prefer the familiar route because it makes it easier to understand the book.
Boring + Boring = Pleasant?!


  1. I invent stuff in my head while sweeping the floor, which I do a lot of these days. Having a repetitive activity to do seems to help me focus. I imagine this varies from person to person like listening to music (like) having the TV on (hate) do.

  2. Interesting. I find running on a treadmill so boring I want to crawl out of my skin. Music doesn’t help; time seems to expand and I get bored with each song after a few seconds. I can’t read books or magazines; running prevents me from focusing enough to lose myself in the words. Audiobooks, or lecture podcasts, present the same problem. Car Talk and Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me podcasts are the only things that seem to make time pass (probably because of the easy conversational nature of those shows).

    But flash cards don’t require sustained mental effort. By their nature, they’re little bits and pieces. Maybe that engages the brain differently, distracting from the boredom of a repetitive activity.

    Maybe I should make flash cards of French vocabulary I want to study, and do that on the treadmill.

    I find running very different from walking, though. Walking is physically pleasant for me, whereas running is somewhat physically unpleasant. I could walk on a treadmill or outdoors for a long time, just thinking and daydreaming — walking is a total state of flow for me. It’s only when I run that seconds start to feel like hours.

  3. I think the key thing is not “boring + boring” but rather the particular act of movement + something else. Particularly in men, we seem somewhat wired to actually do some level of additional thinking while in motion. This has been observed in little boys in the classroom; often they’ll squirm when asked a question, and the teacher thinks they are being difficult, but in fact the child is trying to work it out and reacting in an evolutionary way, at least on a base level.

  4. Makes sense if you consider that boredom is often just a simple lack of mental stimulation. When you join two activities that aren’t quite stimulating enough into a single activity, their combined stimulation is enough to make you feel not bored.

    Really it’s about as surprising as the phenomenon that a few slices of deli meat for lunch doesn’t fill me up, and a few slices of bread doesn’t either. But when you combine them into a sandwich, I feel like I’ve actually had a satisfying lunch!

    1. Makes sense if you consider that boredom is often just a simple lack of mental stimulation. When you join two activities that aren’t quite stimulating enough into a single activity, their combined stimulation is enough to make you feel not bored.

      I think that’s it exactly. Not only are they two activities that aren’t quite interesting or challenging, they’re very different activities. Co-ordinating the two makes them both slightly more challenging, which can tip the scales to “enough challenge to engage your interest”.

      Like rubbing your tummy while patting your head – neither motion is particularly hard to do, co-ordinating the two takes some focus. Replace one with a mild intellectual challenge to provide interest.

  5. Walking on a treadmill is boring so I always combine it with something HORRIBLE — like watching American Idol.

  6. One assumes that his cardiovascular fitness is either maintained or improved, but does he get any better at Chinese?

  7. Maybe the key is a [physically] boring task + a [mentally] boring task = pleasant so that both mind and body are occupied.

    1. I’m with MrsBug on this one. Because he is doing something mental and something physical, his entire body is kept entertained. Purely physical strain without any mental work is boring and feels like it will never end. Adding the mental work gives his mind something to do, so it isn’t bored by concentrating on the physical work.

      I’m not sure that the opposite is true. Personally, I can focus on mental tasks for hours at a time without physical activity, but I can’t perform physical activity for more than five minutes without some sort of mental distraction (even just daydreaming). The worst physical activities are those which demand attention, but no real thought, like cleaning.

      On the other hand, during long stretches of mental focus, I eventually find myself growing physically restless. Perhaps this is because I’m not really moving, because I’m confined to a chair. Walking around and thinking seems to fix this, because I get a chance to stretch my legs. It’s not that physical activity makes us think better, but that we need to move around periodically, and if we don’t, the rising need to do so distracts us from thought.

  8. I like Boing Boing:
    Not Boring Boring.

    That being said:

    One should “embrace the boredom”, if there really is no choice.
    Hopefully, it will turn out to be more pleasant than “embracing the suck”.
    OTOH, maybe it’s the really just the same thing.
    I also suspect that one’s age may have something to do with what is considered to be “boring”.

    1. remembering a story told by some linguistics prof:
      “In some languages, a double negative is a positive. In some languages, a double negative is a negative. But in no language is a double positive a negative.”
      and from the back of the lecture hall comes the voice of the disaffected student … “yeah, right.”

  9. Somehwat related: I’ve tried solving a Rubiks Cube on the treadmill. As I increase the speed of the treadmill, I find that my ability to solve the cube diminishes.

    Treadmill is also a great place to enjoy podcasts of Jean Shephard’s radio broadcasts. Sometimes his digressions are long enough for me to run 5k without him actually getting the story started.

  10. Adding an older laptop and Civilization IV to my treadmill time has greatly increased my mileage in any given week….

  11. I did 90 half hour Pimsleur Portuguese lessons on the elliptical trainer, and the effect was amazing to me. I really believe that the combination of physical exertion and the mental gymnastics of rapid-fire language learning is a great combination. By the time I got to Brazil I felt very comfortable with the language. That may say something about the language course (no connection to them, btw), but what’s interesting to me is that when I get into some vocabulary and conjugations, I can recall the physical sensation and the place in the elliptical trainer routine I was.

    The only thing was that you have to vocalize the responses, so i treated my co-workers-out to blurted Portuguese phrases, often repeated endlessly. I decided that I didn’t care — which is, I think, also part of learning things, deciding that you don’t mind looking foolish doing them.

    BTW, I plan to do the same thing with Spanish this year…

  12. During first year of law school and in prep for the bar exam, there were scores of obscure rules for Property and Civil Procedure that needed to be committed to memory. Walking around with a deck of flash cards was exactly how I did it. It’s very effective.

  13. 1) I pace when I talk on the phone, especially when I’m trying to figure things out;
    2) I pace when I really need to think, to figure something out;
    3) I’m a theatre director, and I find moving/wandering about (in a way that does not interfere with the performers’ concentration) while I watch the action from different angles (sightlines) really helps me to shake loose new ideas, or solve difficult problems.

    The walking somehow both burns off the nervous energy that tends to get in the way of the flow of my ideas and their articulation, and mirrors the ‘kinetics’ of how my mind and intuition are making connections. It lets me make connections/achieve understandings that skip several steps of process, opens doors and clears the way in a fashion I cannot really parse but am very grateful for.

  14. Funny, I was just reading about this in John Medina’s “Brain Rules.” He hypothesizes that we learn/remember better while moving; he’s rigged up a treadmill-desk combo for himself and advocates research on similar rigs for schools and businesses…dang, how am I going to fit a treadmill in my desk space???

  15. I work at a treadmill desk at work. I’ve noticed that the treadmill can be nearly unbearable around 4:00-5:00 unless I have something to work on. And conversely even boring code maintenance is less annoying if I’m strolling along at 1.5 MPH.

  16. If only there was some way I could combine cleaning the bathroom and mopping with writing my thesis… dictation perhaps.

  17. Your comment about wanting to learn new places by walking around (or traveling in some way) is bang on.

    I still have wonderful memories of driving with my family when I was a child and discovering roads through Canadian woods, or along the Lebanese coast, or elsewhere, which were made all the more wondrous because I had no idea where we were or how we got there.

    Sadly perhaps in later years my OCD forced me to become very good at self-orientation and navigation, so now I almost always know where I am. But I will never forget those mysterious roads of my youth. Even now I wish I knew where they were, but secretly I hope I never find out.

  18. It’s interesting to hear this – I ride my bicycle over Sydney harbour bridge several times a week as a bit of exercise, and it’s a nice ride but I’m getting to know it really well and it was getting boring, despite being incredibly picturesque… but recently I’ve done it while listening to Yale’s course on Game Theory, taught by Ben Polak, from iTunes U and it’s brilliant. It really does make it easy to concentrate on some fairly complex ideas while riding a familiar road. The course itself is definitely not boring, but it’s not the kind of thing you would sit in your living room to listen to – my attention would drift far too easily. Riding is just about the only thing i can imagine where I would really bother to spend the time required.

    To prove it even more, when i get home and try and cook up a new recipe with the lecture on in the background i have no chance, just can’t concentrate on it.

  19. When prepping for a bar exam, I spent one to two hours a day on an elliptical runner reviewing my condensed topic outlines, which I needed to commit to memory. It worked well for me.

  20. 25 years ago when I was learning mainframe computer programming we had an assistance department that did training and helped with tech issues. They were all the way at the opposite end of the building from the rest of the programming area, down a 200 yard hallway. I complained about this once and was told they did it on purpose to make people with stuck brains take a walk. After that I can’t tell you how many programmers I saw walk halfway down that hall, snap their fingers, turn around and march smartly back to their desks with a solution worked out just by getting up and walking. Also it may have helped that they were thinking of the problem in terms of how to explain it to someone else, which always aids clarity.

  21. I used to get my best ideas while I was cutting grass. When I started grad school, I moved to an apartment where I no longer had to cut the yard, but I found I could still focus on studying for my exams by kneading bread dough.

  22. I listen to Dutch audio lessons while working out in the gym. It’s important to keep trying out your pronuciation though, which gets me weird looks.

  23. I would love to see a graph of Anon#15’s experiment; Rubik’s cube solving time versus treadmill speed! This should be an XKCD strip.

    Interesting how different people find different things boring, different things relatively enjoyable, and different levels of synergy between different things (walking running, bike riding… audiobooks/lectures, brainless tv shows, language flash cards). I, for one, enjoy running while listening to the swing/waltz/polka music that I often dance to (I imagine that I am dancing, and this activates the part of my brain that has to creatively improvise moves, so I’m always thinking “What do I do next? No, not that, I did that already” just like when I’m actually dancing to those songs), or walking while listening to audiobooks or NPR podcasts. I did recently buy a treadmill and am experimenting with exercising + TV watching. (So far, it’s not as enjoyable. I find myself looking at my watch or at the distance counter more often than when listening to dance music or podcasts). I’m definitely going to try this exercise + language study idea.

    Let me point out the following: Some people are saying “physical activity + mental activity” as though “mental activity” only uses up one resource. But that’s inaccurate. Just as physical activity can use just the legs, or just the arms (and this means that you can sometimes do two different kinds of physical activity at once, but sometimes not), mental activity may or may not require resources that are also required by some physical activity. This reminds me of one of Feynman’s autobiographies where he talks about how some people can count and talk at the same time, and some people can count and draw at the same time, but for each person it tends to be one but not the other, since some people count verbally (saying the names of numbers in their minds) while others count visually (imagining a belt of numbers going by, or a display that shows one number and then the next). So depending on what kind of exercise you like and what mental capacities it draws upon, the mental activity that best synergizes with the exercise might be the one that uses the same mental capacities… or the mental capacities “left over”. I wonder which one.

    On a somewhat unrelated note: I love RossInDetroit’s story (#29) about the required 200m walk to get tech support, and figuring things out yourself on the way. Thinking about how to explain my problem to someone often makes the solution clear. When I’m working through a personal issue I will often write a long email to 1-4 close friends about it, but less than half of those emails end up actually getting sent, because as I write the email it often becomes clear to me what my reasonable friends would advise. It works in my professional life too. My group regularly meets so we can tell each other about our work, issues we have been having, discoveries we have made, etc. (We develop Fracture Mechanics models through lab tests and computer simulations). One could easily dismiss these meetings as a waste of time, having a “Just let me get back to work instead of having to document it and make Powerpoints about it” attitude… but it’s always surprising how much progress is made in the week before you have to present. In those meetings we often hear “The project ran into this and that problems a couple weeks ago, but as I was putting this presentation together, it occurred to me to try such and such approaches to overcome those obstacles. That’s next on the to-do list”.

  24. I’m a business analyst. I do .NET programming, use Excel and Access, and Microsoft RS as part of my job. I think I am more efficient at these tasks while on my treadmill. Go figure.

    I wrote a blog post about this:

Comments are closed.