Embracing Boredom, Demanding Respect, and Saying No to the Yes-Worthy

 

A couple of weeks back I hit the wall.

Hard.

I literally could bring myself to do nothing but lie on my bed and watch random YouTube clips for five hours straight. That was the lowest point. The entire burnout phase lasted several days, and even now, almost two weeks after I hit bottom, it continues to linger. I’m still not quite back to my usual active, motivated self.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what went wrong. Not getting angry at myself or anything, but thinking about what led me to that slump and trying to figure out how to avoid similar in future. And if I’m being honest, a lot of what led me there was following my own advice from this post: How I’ve Become More Productive Than Ever.

There’s nothing I’d remove from that post. I still think it’s all good advice. But I know now that I was missing a few key things. I’ve identified three and listed them below. Mostly these additions are about managing energy levels, and helping to ensure they never get too low in the first place.

Embracing Boredom

I used to view boredom as an enemy. I’d ask people incredulously, How does anyone ever get bored? There are so many cool things to see and do and learn and experience in the world! I had boredom pegged as a synonym for laziness. Boredom was a lack of initiative, a lack of creativity. Boredom was a choice, and I always chose something else.

Then I read the following words from Richard Carlson

“…if you allow yourself to be bored, even for an hour–or less–and don’t fight it, the feelings of boredom will be replaced with feelings of peace. And after a little practice, you’ll learn to relax.”

I’m seeing now the value of allowing yourself to be bored on occasion. I used to try schedule something productive into every hour of the day. If I had ninety minutes free on Thursday afternoon, I’d try squeeze in lunch with a friend.

Not much work on my plate this week? Why not start a big new project!?

Being proactive and making the most of your free time is great and everything, but I’ve now learned the hard way that it can be taken too far. If I try to make the most of every hour of every day, I inevitably end up burning out and falling into another ugly YouTube coma.

My proposed solution is to embrace boredom. Instead of trying to do something productive with every free hour I come across, I’ll just let myself be. Maybe I’ll go take a relaxing walk, sit in a park and watch the world go by, or kick back and listen to some music. The idea here is that I’ll give myself more time to relax and recharge, rather than constantly pushing to be productive 1.

A further remedy to this is to avoid scheduling too much in the first place…

Saying No to the Yes-Worthy

If success is a catalyst for failure because it leads to the “undisciplined pursuit of more,” then one simple antidote is the disciplined pursuit of less. Not just haphazardly saying no, but purposefully, deliberately, and strategically eliminating the nonessentials. Not just once a year as part of a planning meeting, but constantly reducing, focusing and simplifying. Not just getting rid of the obvious time wasters, but being willing to cut out really terrific opportunities as well. Few appear to have the courage to live this principle, which may be why it differentiates successful people and organizations from the very successful ones. - Greg McKeown

A few years back I had to get good at saying no to demands on my time that I considered wasteful. Helping people fix their computers was a good example. I wasn’t good at it and I didn’t enjoy it, but I found it hard to say no. Eventually though I learned to stand up for myself and refuse to spend time on such things.

Nowadays I again find myself needing to say no regularly. But not just to bad stuff. I’ve become fortunate enough that more appealing offers and opportunities come my way than I can possibly say yes to. The only way to handle this is to become pretty ruthless and accept that I’m going to piss some people off by turning down the great opportunities they were kind enough to present to me.

This is a challenge. If someone wants to meet up with me for lunch and a chat, I feel like an asshole saying no. They took the initiative to reach out and were willing to give up some of their own valuable time so they could spend it with me. Hard to say no to that. But at a certain point you have to. There are only so many lunches in a week. You have to get selective about who you spend your time with. And again, you have to be pretty ruthless about this. You start weighing up the pros and cons of building relationships with certain people.

Which brings me to…

Demanding Respect

“I would like to make a generational impact on the world. This requires that everyone around me treat me very well, or get out of my life.” – Sebastian Marshall

Last week I changed the commenting policy here on the blog. Disrespectful comments are no longer tolerated. If I can help it, I’ll never even see them in the first place; they’ll be filtered straight to spam.

There is often value in disrespectful comments. You learn to separate the emotional, childish digs and accusations from the helpful nuggets of criticism. Or at least, you get better at doing that. I’ve realized it’s impossible not to let the insults and disrespect affect you on some level. They chip away at your confidence and self-esteem. Often the chips are so small that you don’t even notice. Or you try to pretend it’s not a problem because you’re a big boy and above all that. But at least in my case, I had to acknowledge that the trade-off was no longer worth it. Accept and invite regular disrespect in exchange for the occasional ah-ha moment? No thanks. I can just as easily get my fill of ah-ha’s from respectful people.

This policy doesn’t just apply to comments. Same offline. If someone doesn’t treat me very well, we’re done. Life’s too short. There are so many cool people in the world that it makes no sense to tolerate anyone disrespectful.

Of course many times it will be a tough call. Very few people are flat out disrespectful. And others drain your energy in different ways, maybe by being overly needy or whatever. I’m looking forward to this challenge though. It will require me to be more assertive and further overcome my people-pleasing tendencies.

Thoughts on the above? Anything you’re planning to do differently in 2013?

Show 1 footnote

  1. A great article by Cal Newport related to this: If You’re Busy, You’re Doing Something Wrong

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30 Comments

  1. I finished your Kindle book yesterday, Niall, and I vividly remember the section on what stoicism can teach us about enemies. My first instinct was to think you were backtracking with this post, but I realize you’ve simply added to your mental toolkit. I’m proud of you and wish you less burnout in 2013. Cheers, Scott

  2. Happy Holiday and great words from you. go easy on yourself, love who and what you are. I always enjoy your words. You are truely, true. Kind Regards, Clare

  3. I’ve found that if I need a netflix/youtube binge, it’s a sign I’ve overextended myself recently. Then allowing for that down time is essential to bounce back. I wouldn’t chalk it up to boredom though. I would agree you’ve probably overscheduled yourself and a possible solution is to allow for more regular rest/relaxation. That’s what I’ve noticed personally at least.

    An alternative to only doing lunch with new acquaintances is asking/suggesting to do an activity together. If you’re new to the area and they from the area, arrange to DO more stuff instead of the same talking/eating routine. I agree with you though, it is important to know when to just say “no, thank you.”

    I used to read Sebastian Marshall a couple years ago, I am not a fan of his. That quote is a good example of why. “This requires that everyone around me treat me very well, or get out of my life.” In the first clause, he demands respect, yet in the second clause, he uses a disrespectful tone. The contradiction may be subtely attractive to the reader, but I don’t appreciate it. If you want respect, you have to earn it by being respectful yourself. And yes, if someone is disrespectful towards you, you have every right to dismiss them, but if you do it disrespectfully, you are acting hypocritical. (Perhaps you are aware that Sebastian used to teach pickup? Being contradictory is an attention-gaining strategy. It isn’t a type of attention I would like to attract though.)

  4. Niall, I completely agree that one should demand respect, learn to say “no” at times (good friends will always understand) and accept boredom. However, we need to keep dreaming, hoping and working on relationships.

    I loved your blog “How I’ve Become More Productive Than Ever”. Thank you. Keep up the good work.

    Essentially, we need to be kind to one another, try to forgive, live life without regrets. Indeed life is too short. Indeed happiness comes from within. I am a firm believer that we need to love ourselves first so that we can find the resources to love others. Too selfish?

    I love this quote ““Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” – John F Kennedy

    It gets me going when I find myself without goals.

    Give yourself some downtime. It will allow you to come back stronger. Happy 2013!!

  5. Totally agree with you about not tolerating abusive comments on here.

    There are plenty of other places online that people can be rude an abusive towards you if they so wish (hell, I abuse you almost daily) but this is your online home, and in the same way you wouldn’t allow somebody to tell you to “Go fuck yourself” in your home you shouldn’t allow them to say it on here.

    Also, from a more continual/self improvement point of view, this point reminded me of this Manic Street Preachers song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cX8szNPgrEs

  6. I’m with you Niall.

    I have a few relationships that I’ve been finding don’t work for me, as things stand. As you say, we deserve more and as tough as it is, sometimes these things need to be done. I sacked my Dad about 7 years which is pretty extreme and one of the hardest/easiest decisions to make. I’ll let you know how it goes with the recent ones!

    Enjoy exploring the various ways to relax. It can be difficult when there always seems so much to do but as you’ve found it’s a must!

    Have you tried yoga? I found it really hard at first and some days, it just ain’t happening but it helps me to relax, focus and rejuvenate. Plus it ties in with the daily stretching!

    Be well!

  7. Very true. It´s about recharging our selves by doing things that give us a break. If that is being unsociable, watching kitten videos on youtube or binging on bad food for a bit (comes from a vegan, so vegan bad food, still not really bad :)), then so be it.

    Once you recharged yourself, you´ll be much more efficient / productive / better friend / sociable.

    There´s nothing bad with that, as long as you return back to your active you after some time.

    A burnout is your body´s way of saying – “Oi mate, take it easy, I can only handle this much.”

    How about seing it (watching silly you tube videos for example) as a reward for being very active earlier.

    All the best in 2013!
    Lukas

  8. I think learning to say no has got to be my thing for 2013. As for those who do not respect me, I have no problem as long it is not personal. I look forward to reading your in 2103.

  9. Oh Niall, I just loved this post so much I had to comment on it. A few years ago I chose a Word for the Year. My word was Courage – I thought it was courage for work things and to start my business path. I was wrong.

    That year I ended a very toxic relationship with a very close family member and it was one of the hardest things I have ever done.

    I remember thinking, “no one else in my life treats me this way. The only reason I allow it is because of the family connection. I would never accept this behavior from anyone else.”

    The energy that has been freed up from letting go of that relationship has been life-shifting – I went back to college got my Associates Degree, President Obama was the Commencement Speaker, I became a Life Coach, started a blog and changed jobs.

    There are tangible results from the energy you release when you set powerful boundaries.

    Thank you for sharing this part of your journey!

    HUG
    Maggie

  10. Good stuff Niall, but bad timing! I’m headed to Bangkok and Chiangmai in 9 days and was hoping to meet you in Chiangmai for a bite to eat (First time to Asia, staying almost 2 months).

    All kidding aside, I still plan on dropping you an email when I get to Chiangmai and no, I won’t think you are an A-hole if you can’t meet up.

    Keep up the good work.

  11. Very interesting approach to the need of the body and mind to rest.

    I’ve always had this natural tendency to relax when I’m stressed or anxious. I usually do that by reading light stuff (Sh*t My Dad Says, by Justin Halpern is good material), listening music, or just sitting at the park and watch people and events around me. Allows my mind to wander off on new stuff and take the attention off the regular stuff.

    I wouldn’t call it boredom though. I don’t know how could I call it, but boredom to me is the lack of interest on everything. And I’m always interested in something, even if its funny/silly youtube clips.

    And, I always have a fallback plan to relax my mind: PS3. I know it’s a waste of my time, but allows me to disconnect from the world for a few minutes and when I’m back, everything seems normal again.

    Cheers man! Don’t work too much!

    • The word “boredom” doesn’t quite hit upon what I mean, but that’s the best I could think of. What I really aim to do is create opportunities to be bored. That is, leave large gaps in my schedule that I don’t quickly try to fill with some “productive” activity. In those stretches I doubt I’ll actually feel bored though.

      Hmm, not sure that makes it any clearer either.

  12. Hey Niall! It’s been a while since I’ve been to your blog. Great to see you still at it. I enjoyed your post.

    On Boredom: I don’t think the words boredom and relaxation are interchangeable. When people mention they are bored it typically means they want something to occupy their time but think they have nothing to do. Relaxing, on the other hand, is intentional and an imperative part of being an effective person. I think too many people run themselves to the ground and end up crashing (maybe this is what happened to you?). Balance is essential, and I find meditation to be an integral part of living a balanced life.

    On Saying No: Great to hear! I actually wrote a post about this when I used to write a graphic design blog. (http://michelledavella.com/2011/07/saying-no/) Saying No is one of the most important things I learned in order to be successful.

    On Demanding Respect: Amen! You should not tolerate any negativity in your and on your blog. It’s unproductive and unnecessary. I heard Seth Godin talk about why he doesn’t allow comments at all on his blog, and it really made me think differently. I currently don’t allow commenting on Pushing Beauty, but I do think it’s valuable for many blogs- especially since I’m commenting on one right now. ;)

  13. As one of your older (more ancient) readers, it is interesting to read your thoughts on burnout, the slump and boredom.

    Embracing boredom gets easier with age. Perhaps because by the time we are old enough to slow down, we have a longer lifetime of memories to contemplate.

    Two things helped me cope with periods of enforced idleness when I was younger. Firstly, living in a country with military conscription meant regular 4 or 6 weeks army callups. Long periods of boredom interspersed with short periods of terror.

    The second was when while training for ultra-marathons, I became fit enough to run for hours relatively effortlessly.

    In both, I quickly learned to use the “idle” time for creative thinking. It is amazing how much planning I did both for life and business.

    I understand your desire to weed out the negative, disrespectful comments, but try and accept that not every one will always agree with you. Respectful disagreement can add to the conversation.

  14. Hey Niall,
    I haven’t been following you for long but I have read quite a bit of your stuff. I find most of it very helpful and thought-provoking. You have a kind of “i am going to try to get you upset so that you think about it” thing going on and I like that. I must say, though, that this post does disappoint me. Of course, I do not know exactly where you are at in your life but for me this advice seems unsound. I hope it works for you and if it does not then I hope you find what does. I will continue to follow you because I think you will get things sorted out and I look forward to the many positive things I am sure you will do with your remarkable life. My criticism is that you seem to be headed down a more negative path than I had previously thought. It seems that you have always been pushing the limits of in-your-faceness but for me I guess this is something a bit too much over on the dark side. Respectfully, Jack Zeeff

  15. I think I got boredom down pat :P
    I could probably use a little more productivity. But I find it’s a balance. Too much of one thing (boredom vs. productivity) and not another will cause you to hit a rut, no matter what spectrum you’re on. You kind of sound like my ex who would say he’s NEVER bored and seemed to treat boredom with disdain. Nothing disrespectful, just an observation I had while reading. :)

  16. Niall,
    Like most if your posts, I find that I can relate to some level, but I can especially relate to the demanding respect part of this post. As my 2011 New Years resolution, I decided I was going to do just that. But I called it “trimming the fat.” I eliminated (or tried to) all the toxic people in my life, which for the most part I was successful doing. But what happens when the disrespect comes from family members, or worse, family members of your significant others?! Things got pretty complicated!

    • Yeah, that’s really tough. Can’t say I’ve had much experience with that. I know some folks though who’ve cut off contact with certain family members because they felt the relationship was doing them far more harm than good. I guess that’s what it comes down to, weighing up the pros and cons and making a decision. Still not an easy decision though, and even harder to implement.

  17. Hello Niall
    Well written, l entirely agree with you.
    Love your website and your blogs.
    I am a traveller myself it would be so cool if we could meet up sometime.
    Where are you heading to next after Thailand?
    Best
    Melissa

    • Hey Melissa. Next stop, not sure! I’ll be in Thailand for at least the next three months, likely longer. I plan to stay around SE Asia for most of 2013. Where are you going to be this year?

  18. “But at least in my case, I had to acknowledge that the trade-off was no longer worth it. Accept and invite regular disrespect in exchange for the occasional ah-ha moment? No thanks. I can just as easily get my fill of ah-ha’s from respectful people.”

    An interesting point, Niall. I recently had a post that went viral and ended up with a few trolls on my blog (I confess I broke one of my big rules: never speak politics). Generally I just tend to try to ignore them, to grow a thicker skin. I’ve always thought I’m too sensitive, I’ve always been ashamed that I let them get to me. But your article has made me think. Is it really acceptable? Should I allow a complete stranger to enter my space and call me names, to disagree with me, using full capital letters (yeah, even basic internet etiquette is breached)? I’m all for civilised debate, but the moment you realise someone is deliberately trying to make you feel inferior…

    Well, deep down it made me feel a bit sorry for that person, for all that hate and anger. But now I wonder. Maybe it doesn’t get better? Maybe I’ll never stop being sensitive, and maybe that’s a good thing?

    I’m a bit confused, to tell you the truth. Thanks for this post. As always, your honesty and introspection is refreshing.

    And remember, you’re allowed to fail. It’s what makes us keep coming back: the fact that you acknowledge your ups and downs and share them with us :)

  19. Niall,

    Great post, as usual. When I first read your account of crashing, I wondered if you had suffered a mild depression there. But, you don’t strike me as depressive and if you’re up and about again in just two shorts weeks, I don’t think it was depression. As several posters correctly observed above, it sounds like you just burned yourself out. Your earlier productivity post makes this “burnout” diagnosis easier to make. By engaging in scheduled, structured and productive activities for most of your waking hours, you were exhausting yourself. You were running out of something that some might call willpower, others might call it good conscience, still others motivation.

    I read an interesting post on Tim Ferriss’s blog recently in which a guest poster wrote about how our levels of this mysterious “substance” vary significantly throughout the day and can actually get almost totally used up at various points by being overused.

    I think it’s especially important for someone as driven as yourself to open up some time in your schedule. Not necessarily to be bored, but to allow yourself to recharge your willpower batteries. This means doing just about anything that doesn’t feel like it’s productive or consciously directed. Could be just staring into space. Could be getting a massage (you’re in Thailand, after all). Could be reading a book. Could even be YouTubing. The important thing is not feeling guilty about this and understanding this as an important part of your entire process.

    You might also consider the importance of play. How often do you really play? I mean, play for fun. This could be anything from bodysurfing to dancing to basketball to flirting with someone (as long as it feels like play and not like something you force yourself to do to push barriers etc).

    As for negative and disrespectful people: Who needs them? Your entire project is positive. Surround yourself with positivity.

    In the words of a popular movie a few years back:

    Chill Winston!

    By the way, email me when you get to Bangkok.

    • Hey Johnny. Thanks for that. Wise words.

      I’m already in Bangkok, been here for a week now. Been all over the place trying to find an apartment with some friends, looking forward to getting settled.

  20. Hello Niall,

    I often learn something your posts & I really like this bit about embracing boredom.

    I even find this to be an issue during the workday in my job as a software developer. There are points during the day when there is a brief pause when the machine needs to do something that takes a minute or so – e.g. compile, deploy a large file.

    During this break, you have a choice: wait for a bit OR fill the gap by context switching (this may include switching to some other task, checking Facebook/email/blogs, etc). Inevitably when I context switch, I end up losing a lot more time on the original task than if I’d simply relaxed for 30 seconds.

    Curious to know if you’ve experienced the same & have similar strategies to deal with this?

    Thanks,
    -Ed

    • Hey Ed. I sometimes fall into the same trap with this, deciding to check Facebook for a few minutes instead of just waiting. One thing I’ve tried in the past is to just sit there and take a few deep breaths and then get back to the original task. Usually works a lot better.

  21. Hi Niall,

    Somehow missed this post originally. Have found the section on demanding respect very enlightening in regards to a situation I have found myself in at work.

    I am head of design team for a large company, and recently found out that a designer with only a few years experience was employed on a salary exceeding Ten thousand pounds more than my own.

    Whilst I am not particularly materialistic in that sense and knew that it was a genuine corporate f-up, that kind of thing can leave you feeling slightly undervalued.

    To rub salt into the wound, I have just been asked to run a series of workshops to improve the design team’s skillset – basically teach people who are on significantly more money than me how to design properly. It brought to mind this post and I drew upon this to Politely tell them to p**s off.

    I’m now looking to change my job and do more consultancy based design work from home, freeing up more time to focus on fun stuff.

    Thanks Niall!