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On boredom and productivity

Having fewer students to supervise this semester than I’d expected, I found myself sitting in my office wondering what to do. Since I’ve committed to working a certain number of hours each week for my academic employer, I picked up an academic project I’d been toying with for a while but not made much progress on. But had I not been in the office—or at least at home during a period reserved for doing academic work—I suspect I would have gone for a walk or done some non-academic busywork, leaving the project to be toyed with some more rather than making any progress on it.

I’ve had similar experiences on weekends, stuck at home due to the weather or the pandemic, wondering how I’d fill them. But with some time to think and to review my list of projects to be done, I can almost always find something worth doing that might not otherwise have been done.

Of course sitting in an office with nothing to do is likely to have diminishing returns, and one of the purposes of this blog is to not sit in an office simply for the sake of putting in the standard number of hours each week. And while having time to think can be excellent for dreaming up new ideas, or returning attention to old ones, eventually I have to get on with executing the ideas if I want anything to come of them. So how much time ought I to spend being bored before giving up and doing something else?

Given that I work a certain number of hours a week for my university, the obvious answer is that I should spend that number of hours; but even here I have some flexibility to say that if I’m not doing anything useful this week, I might as well take the time off and do a few more hours in a week in which I’ve got more to do. At home, however, I don’t have any such guidance; and people working in less flexible workplaces might be told they ought to be working rather than letting their minds wander.

A recent ABC article on career changes addresses the problem of how much time to spend on one’s current job versus how much to time spend exploring new options. The informal suggestion is about 80% on the first and 20% on the second. Maybe my situation isn’t too far off this, doing 3-4 days paid work each week and leaving a day or so do some private research or writing that might eventually become my next project.

I don’t know of many employers, though, who build in 20% (or even 10% or 5%) of the work week for experimentation—one memorable complaint I heard came from a philosopher frustrated that his university didn’t recognise sitting in his office and thinking as “work”. Of course no employer is likely to build in 20% for employees to explore career changes; but at least in work like mine, some time to explore new projects is valuable.

Whatever the proper amount of time might be, I’d like to think that setting aside some time like this helps break out of a pattern of thinking in which one must always be producing something. Churning through marking, or student enquiries, or household chores has its uses and feels productive; but if that’s all I did I’d never have the opportunity to contemplate what might be better.

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