Metacognition

Making Something Happen vs. Something Happening

Why are we sad sometimes when we get what we want? What do we really want?


Today, I checked my personal email, only to be disappointed when there was not much there. I have seen email inboxes with over 10,000 unread messages. My inbox, on the other hand, had two emails I wanted to read and nothing else. Nothing. This bummed me out – but why?


Since 2015 I have almost always been able to keep the mythical Inbox 0, but in the past year, I noticed it was harder and harder to maintain. I started cleaning out my subscriptions, one by one, opting to gradually reduce my actual incoming email until it was near zero. I go into more detail as to the exact system I use in the post Do More Better.


Today was different; I want new information and novelty. Like Harold Crick in Stranger Than Fiction, I wanted the storyline to continue without doing anything. I wanted something to happen to me.


Wait, what?


I started to think about my thinking. I wanted to have a cleaner inbox… now I am bummed because I don’t have any email. I wanted something to happen to me. But why?


I think the answer is that if something happened to me, I wouldn’t have to make something happen. Think about it. All this stuff – Netflix Watch List, Incoming Emails, Blog Posts, Podcasts – aren’t they all just ever-growing to-do lists we impose on ourselves?



I recently had a routine where I would not drink caffeine on weekdays, and I could drink as much as I want on weekends. My productivity skyrocketed. How does this even make sense? Caffeine is the poster child for productivity! However, when I started my weekday without caffeine, I had the same recurring thoughts: “I am SO bored” and “This day feels as long as a week!”


I actually believe that caffeine makes my brain feel “busy,” or at least, busier than it actually was. So, somehow, I was getting less done with more enthusiasm. When the caffeine went away, my brain was so bored I had to turn to productive things to engage it and combat the boredom. Could this be true for you as well? If you believe what everyone says, caffeine indeed does increase productivity. Some studies, however, say that it doesn’t – it just establishes a new baseline once tolerance is reached. Others, like this one, seem to indicate that smaller doses of caffeine are beneficial while larger doses show no change or detrimental change.



Sherry Turkle, in her book Reclaiming Conversation, included an interesting observation: That boredom and anxiety are not things to try and eliminate, but signs that are telling us to give more attention to something. When looking at our technological advances throughout the last few centuries, I think much of our progress can be attributed to boredom. Once upon a time, we had to spend most of our time just hunting, gathering, or working to make enough to eat that day. Naturally, as the effort involved in my providing food now only requires a trip to the grocery store, I have more time on my hands.


Before we could stick a screen in our faces and access an endless amount of effortless entertainment, we got bored, and so we created for its own sake -and made incredible progress. As our lives got more comfortable and easier, we needed more entertainment. Now, the few people are creating that entertainment, and the masses are consuming it.


More and more, I am trying to consume less and create more. I think boredom (and maybe even anxiety) is a good sign that I am headed in the right direction.

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