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Ask HN: Why do we want to learn something new when we don't have time?
280 points by uvu 62 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 66 comments
While you are in busy, you want to learn or create something new. But, not when you have free time. It's always happened to me. And I ask some of my few friends and they said the same thing as well.

Can HN explain me why and how to overcome that?




When you're busy, perhaps you're bored with whatever you're busy with, and so your brain wants to do something creative.

Conversely, when you have free time, are you filling your free time with stimulus that take away the boredom? (e.g. browsing the web, video games, substances) If so, that's why the creativity and desire to learn are then disappearing.

When you have free time, try not allowing yourself to succumb to stimulus, and allow yourself to be bored. Then see if the desire to be creative returns.


I agree, and I think there's another aspect to it: When you're busy, you want to learn something new because you know you can't actually do it. So you get all the upside ("feeling good about your resolutions") without the downside ( "actually having to do it")


Wow. That honestly blew my mind. And it rings so true. Do you have some articles with more details on this?


My free time definitely gets zapped by internet/smartphone/social media/ubiquitous computing, which is a hell of a drug and addiction to beat.

I've been struggling with it since my fascination of computers turned into a career, a catch-22 of sorts, where your livelihood forces you to sit in front of a computer screen, constantly teaching and reinforcing your neural reward pathways in a way that using technology is pleasurable, should you want to actually enjoy doing your job.

Mindfulness and meditation is the only way I can break the association but it gets mentally fatiguing having to constantly break the cycle, then reinforcing it at work, then breaking it again at home every few days.

Anyone experience this phenomenon/have a good solution that works for them, short of abandoning tech and becoming a monk?


Here's an idea:

If you run across something that intrigues you, wade into it ASAP to see if it could be 'big enough' to keep you engaged. Could be an idea, a place, a thing, an event or era, a technique ... that branches out ... or in, towards a trunk or 'stronger current'.

Each of those branches can be surveyed briefly. If the sum of your intrigues (and your notes) keeps growing as you explore, it will eventually be a stronger pull than the 'quick fixes' of modern life that aren't truly meaningful -to you-. I'm always happy to find such a thing, not worrying whether something concrete will follow or not. Exploring can be its own reward.


This is excellent advice and I seem to do it on a subconscious level in the form of hyperfocus, where an activity will consume me for hours if it strikes the right balance of serendipity and intrigue.

Maybe when I am ready to start a family, raising children will fill this void organically?


While there's some truth in this I'd advice caution in trying to avoid everything that can stave off boredom. You do need to be careful with it, but there's no problem with e.g. browsing hackernews for a while. Who knows, you might learn something.

Although if you overdo it then things like browsing social media don't so much stave off boredom but merely become a way of spending time bored.


That makes sense. When I am free, I am browsing on the web or using social media. But, when I am in a tight schedule or have to prepare for something big(Eg, exam), I want to learn something new. Will try this method.


You've read my mind. I did a 4 day week for a bit and goofed off for the extra day. I think the reason is we are overworked and really your body and mind needs a rest. Given the opportunity you want to take rest over more work.

What has helped is pacing t work, take more breaks. Chatting to colleagues socially for 10 minutes a couple of times a day for example is a break from coding that seems culturally acceptable (but sitting in your car might be seen as slacking)

The save same energy for personal projects.

Also your personal projects should be super fun. I almost gave up on one because I wanted to use a similar stack to work - typescript, web pack, npm, browserify, mocha, plugins for browserify to work with type script, npm configs, typescript configs to name a few. Glad i didnt have to set all that shit up at work!

Then I thought fuck it I'll use Elm. The generated code might be less efficient but I need to enjoy the project.

With Elm I was producing in 60 seconds and had a basic app up in a few hours.

Now I need discipline to STOP working on this project because its very enjoyable.

I'm not saying use Elm. But use and do things that are actually fun and connect you with why you enjoy this stuff. Let someone pay you to do grunt work.

Pun intended.


I agree with this. At work I do (mostly) Java (with some semi-liberal sprinklings of Clojure).

Despite the fact that I do Java full-time, I despise the language, so I do all my personal projects in Chicken Scheme. It may not create the fastest programs ever (at least if you use the cool dynamic parts of Lisp like I try to do), but I have a lot of fun doing it, and as a result I end up getting much farther in the project. To me, a program that exists and works is inherently faster than the program I never finished writing.


There's an interesting summary that MIT news did of a study done in 2005[1] that explains habits which might be helpful.

The part I found most interesting was:

> "It is as though somehow, the brain retains a memory of the habit context, and this pattern can be triggered if the right habit cues come back," Graybiel said. "This situation is familiar to anyone who is trying to lose weight or to control a well-engrained habit. Just the sight of a piece of chocolate cake can reset all those good intentions."

> Graybiel speculates the beginning and ending spike patterns reflect the nature of a routine behavior: Once we start, we run on autopilot -- until we stop."

So this could explain a few things. One is that when you're in the mode of getting things done at work, it's easy to ride this wave into inspiration for learning. But when you're at home after work it's easy to ride that wave into distraction.

So a potential fix might be to trigger your brain with a stimulus to get back into inspiration mode. For instance, make a simple note of cool things you learned this week, month, or year, and reflect on it for a few minutes. This might kickstart you into action for learning.

1. http://news.mit.edu/2005/habit


Because when you imagine learning something, you probably imagine setting up a conv net on a camera to recognize your guests and say their names.

But when you start, you realize the camera was delivered to the wrong address and you spend 2 hours on the phone getting it to arrive.

When it does you realize that you can’t just use the python code but have to download some C++ patch and that the version is incompatible with your new Ubuntu LTS.

Fine, you use virtual box to use an older Ubuntu but now you have to roll back to Python 2.6 which breaks your conv net.

Or maybe you want to write a novel hoping to win major awards and be chatted up by journalists.

But after 2 pages of a pretty exciting coder’s life you aren’t even sure how to describe his mom and you’re wondering if you should start the scene at night and you’re unhappy with the corny language.

It’s the gap between the ideal done form you see and the boring work to get there.


That horrible yak shaving is why I use NixOS.


it's great as long as everything you need is already in their repository. if you actually have to write your own code to build things, though, you're looking at one extremely hirsute yak.


Just like many things in life, its all about building that habit in the first place. The most important thing is to be fiercely disciplined when it comes to carving out dedicated time for the task. Start off small: maybe 30 minutes a week to read new articles, every week. Don’t ever miss it. When that becomes easy and part of your routine, make it 40. So forth and so on until it’s something you don’t even have to think about.

Building up your habit is a long process, and it can’t be rushed. Don’t start off too big (i.e. start off spending 8 hours on a project in one day). I mean you can, but if it feels like a drag then you’re biting off more than you can chew. Prioritize on sustainability and consistency; otherwise you’ll unconsciously tell yourself that it’s too hard and set yourself up for failure.

EDIT 1: I realize the post is more about having feeling inspired/creative vs wanting to learn, so my thoughts may not be answering OP’s original question.

EDIT 2: I think a better way to frame the question is how to bring creative ideas to reality. If that’s the primary goal, building up the habit of trying to apply our ideas is IMO really important. Otherwise, ideas will just remain ideas.


I call this escapism. It is the inability to be mindful and focus on what is happening in front of us right at this moment but rather distracting ourselves with thoughts of a better situation.

Better situation is relative to the situation you find yourself in. So it changes with every situation you find yourself in.


Creativity thrives on diverse and novel combinations of inputs.

So, if all the physicists in your office play tennis, except that one guy who collects butterflies as his hobby, that one guy will have more novel ideas than possibly all the others combined. Everyone else will think more or less alike. He's the one who will be going "But what if black holes are kind of like cocoons?" -- which may make him a laughing stock, but probably no one else is making that comparison and it may be fertile ground for new and exciting discoveries.

So it's possible that being busy is when your mind is getting sufficient diverse inputs to spark new ideas and maybe you recognize they are half-baked and you need more info about X to have any hope of fleshing it out. So you wish you could delve into it.

Starting an idea file and jotting stuff down when busy, then following up later might help.

Alternately, it's a general truism that people have kind of an internal quota.

Maybe they have an internal need to read 4 hours a day. If their job involves reading 4 hours a day, they are happy and won't read much after work. If their job involves reading two hours a day, they are going to read in bed two hours a night. If their job involves reading five hours a day sometimes, they are going to start going stir crazy that last hour and want to do anything but read.

So it can be a case of "I want to do anything else, just not this. I can't stand another minute of this -- and it's going to last all week, dagnabbit."


There is probably too much closed mode with your current project, so you seek the open mode.

John Cleese has a talk on this [1], that open mode is for creativity and blocked out time for just that, and closed mode is for shipping and staying focused.

If you stay too long in the closed mode, you desire the open mode but there may not be enough on your current project to fulfill that.

The solution is side projects, compartmentalizing your time, or finding something creative in your current project for more open mode time if possible with time/budget.

However, you can't force creativity in the closed mode though so if you aren't given enough room to be creative and play then it won't fulfill the open mode time needed. Modern day project management is heavy on closed mode and rarely allows open mode play, that is a big problem with today's project management and time/budget constraints, it is why games/movies are shipped late, why software sucks today, why work is drab with little control and more, when you force creativity it isn't.

[1] https://genius.com/John-cleese-lecture-on-creativity-annotat...


I can concoct a couple of explanations:

1) in an environment of oppression, manipulation or negligence, where a perpetrator, manipulator, or guardian/parent realizes that a victim will come to realize the cause or shirked responsibility surrounding their injustice, the manipulator has an advantage to change your mind or subject before you realize what happened, before you can formalize a pattern or solution or worse attribution. Those who got manipulated survived less or prospered less so had less offspring. The fact that we exist means our ancestors were then probably those who had slight predispositions to not allow "business therapy" change your train of thought.

2) this is HN, so plenty of us were terminally bored in high school, where we created the habit of postponing exams and task till the very last minute (a sort of handicap move?), at which point we had little time left and started finally doing the task or study. we grew up associating a lack of time with starting to study? perhaps it's also what gives us a good idea of estimating workloads of unperformed tasks?


I've been working on a problem for years. It's particularly vexatious, but some pieces fell into place think week and a solution is nearly in hand. It helps that I have a false deadline to toil under. Had, anyway; I digress.

I'm a daydreaming mathematician who works with very pragmatic physicists and engineers. I caught wind that the physicists have an unsolved problem, so rather than toil at my project, I spent the morning reading wikipedia in search of obnoxious questions for physicists, and split the afternoon between asking those questions and coding up my putative solution to the problem I'm supposed to solve. It fails.

Mulling over cryptic statements from physicists on the bus, a thought strikes in a flash. I get off the bus, talking to myself out loud, repeating the new inspiration until issues arise and solutions follow. I've been looking at it wrong.

When I arrive home, I understand that my new inspiration is the right approach, to a problem that isn't blocking my deadline. Another problem, just as hard and just as old, is. A solution strikes me in a flash, and I know I won't sleep that night, because it's still too big to fit the complete solution in my head.

There's a point where it's a bad idea to procrastinate with learning. But used judiciously, it distracts from the challenge -- the problem-solving processes are still running in the background but the foreground is engaged and full of wonder.


I can empathize.

I have hundreds of tabs open in my phone’s browser. Stuff that sounds really interesting and that I’m going to read Any Day Now™.

But when Hacker News and CNN ‘run out’, do I read the open tabs?

Nope. I just continuously click Refresh.


The window to edit my comment has closed, so I’ll reply to say:

I think some part of it is the Paradox of Choice. Given 2 options, we can easily choose between them. Given 200 options, we want to choose the perfect option... and so we spend so much time evaluating the options that we choose none of them.

And well, hell, we’ve already discovered 200 options, but given the wide range of digital media available to us, there must be more options. And maybe the “perfect” option is in that set. And so we seek even more options - browser tabs, bookmarks, items in our Netflix queue...


This is a huge problem for me. Still havent quite cracked it, but iOS Screen Time is helping a bit.


This is a problem for me too. I wonder if there is a solution?


I just take a holiday. I use (Mozilla's) Pocket and shove a lot of things in there. When on holiday, I go through my articles.



I read about the book description and don't understand the connection with the question. Can you please describe a little description or connection with the question?


Not the OP but: it’s all about learning to build habits in order to break this inconsistent “flow” of motivation.


> While you are in busy, you want to learn or create something new. But, not when you have free time. It's always happened to me.

The book is almost entirely about this feeling it calls Resistance.


Solving real problems is often boring and or difficult. Tedious mass refactoring, fixing bugs in horribly entangled code you didn’t write, convincing groups of people they need to make a painful change now for a better future, keeping a team of engineers happy and busy.

Learning is always more fun and easy. You can read a tutorial and make progress. Even a rigorous online course is still easier than real life problems because the direction you go in is on rails. You don’t have to do that hard part of deciding what to do and why to do it; the instructor did that already.

I often see people divert their attention to busy work that’s easy to make progress on instead of the real and immediate problems. Examples would be fixing all the warnings in a large project, optimizing things that are already fast enough.

The real stars of engineering resist these tempting short term buzzes somehow .



Yes, I was going to say, procrastination.

I came across a piece of writing about Perry's theory years ago and thought "Gee, that's deep, the guy must be a philosopher" - and he is. The idea is to have such an impressive To Do[0] list that even when you do the things lower down on it - "procrastinate" - they're still not a bad use of your time, and maybe better than the urgent, important things at the top.

[0] I just can't write 'Todo', as seems universal in English, because 'todo' = 'everything' in Spanish.


"This is my everything list. It's everything I wanna get done."


Maybe it'd be useful to unpack what "busy" and "have free time" really mean. Maybe "have free time" means that you just worked very hard on something, and need down time. Or maybe it means that you're looking for a job, and feeling stressed.

Maybe "busy" means that you have lots to do, but it all bores you. Or maybe it means that your mind is fully engaged, and new ideas just naturally spin off.

I've had about five distinct careers. And at each transition, I went through a period of resisting what I was supposed to be doing. And doing something else, which seemed more interesting. And then that new thing turned into a career. Not every time, of course. There were some dead ends, and I crashed and burned a couple times. But hey, I'm still alive, as Logen says.


Spending 1 hour on learning a new subject makes you feel instantly better/improved easily since 101 stuff offers high exp/time spent ratio. If you don't have time you are probably stuck, cant progress etc. And that feeling you got from 1 hour lecture on a new subject makes you think you are making progress that you strive for on some things at least, thats how I explain it to myself.


I tend to have this impulse when I’m unhappy with the things keeping me busy (e.g. low value work). My mind will try to drift into new areas to create alternative work that’s more fulfilling. Ironically, my capacity for learning and creativity seems to diminish when I’m busiest while my desire for those things grows.


Most people find it easier to keep commitments to other people than to themselves, because they know other people are going to hold them to account for commitments they care about.


When you are busy, take at least minimal time to journal. It feels creative and will give you a chance to capture the creative ideas you will surely forget. That way you have a list of interesting things when you have free time.


I just sacrifice sleep. A few months ago I thought it would be a great idea to audit Steven Skiena's algorithms course and see if I could implement it in JavaScript - 2 months later and a lot of sleep lost... https://www.userinterfacing.com/tag/algorithms/


I would love to have taken his course. My algorithms course was taught using Skiena's text, and that little red book (algorithm design manual) is still a joy to flip through and reference whenever I need it. If only it came in hardcover, my paperback copy has seen better days.


For me, it's because the thing I'm doing right now is boring, and doing some other project instead (a) seems more interesting by comparison and (b) lets me convince myself that I'm still being productive.

When I'm not busy, I can play a game or read a book, and those are way more entertaining than a new project, even a relatively interesting one.


It sounds like you have not practiced discipline, it's not innate. Luckily life is the perfect teacher.

Take up a hobby for purpose of being disciplined. For me it used to be weight lifting, then wood working, now music. Make a realistic schedule and set of objectives. Then execute. You can only modify your plan rarely.


Save up, take a vacation. Stay on the vacation until you start getting the itch to work on something. Oh, hey, look. Here's your list of cool ideas you had when you were busy! Nah, that's a dumb idea, that one's super expensive, ooh, this one looks like fun.


Regardless of other reasons for this observation, I think sampling bias, or the inspection paradox probably contributes to it.

Assuming that you are:

- equally likely to have the desire to learn/create something new during any given time period

- busy for the majority of your time (e.g. you are employed in a time-consuming job)

Then you are more likely to find that you want to learn something new while you are busy (since whenever you randomly find something you want to learn, you are more likely to be busy than not).

If you swap the second assumption to "idle for the majority of your time (e.g. you are unemployed, or employed at a more relaxing job)", then you are probably more likely to make the opposite observation.


I guess it's a simple distraction to give your brain a break from monotony.

A friend of mine used to search (and share!) some really strange things on Wikipedia like stuff about Rome and Julius Caesar in middle of programming session. I think it just a way to avoid boredom when you've been doing something for some time.

As for the cure I think there is nothing wrong with small breaks. It's the big distractions which cause problems. For that a lot of things can help you keep track like an accountability partner, list of tasks broken down into small tasks, a simple spreadsheet where you mark your work times and break times, etc.


Never think about it. The brain is asking for a break. How do you think about the idea that appears at the middle of the busy stuff?


Yes fully agree with what @temporal said above. I too have a huge Gdrive folder just filled with ideas categorised under b2b, b2c, fun, etc. Jotting down an idea free us the hold it has on your brain and your fear of losing it also goes away.

One side effect of doing this is what i call my ideas are marinating. Something which may sound way awesome at a moment may lose all its appeal in a month's time. So it's good to let your ideas sit for a while anyway.


For me what often works is to immediately note the idea down. My brain stops feeling the need to keep the idea warm in cache if it knows it's safely stored for later.


We always have time. It's just a matter of priorities.

Also "busy" is a relative term. Many people call themselves busy, and whether they really are busy (or productive) is a different story.


This is the great spirit rising inside of you. Listen to the great spirit or it will abandon you.


Others already mentioned the escapist desire. I agree with that to an extent. We do want to run away from difficult tasks and one way is to think of what else we could be doing. Learning is usually thought of as universally positive, which makes it as guilt-free a distraction as you can get. You're not escaping. You're learning!

But I think something else could also contribute. Self drive is really difficult, which is why we waste so much of our free time. We built really good structures with incentives and penalties that force us to be productive even when we don't want to. Those are generally workplaces and classrooms, or just general life responsibilities and chores.

When you get productive doing something you don't want, naturally your first thought is what would I do with this productivity if I had a choice? Essentially, there are structures that motivates us to be productive in areas we don't want, and we wish we could use that in the areas we do want because our self drive is weak.

That's my theory any way.


The broader question is: why are people never fully satisfied for long?

The answer is simple: that's just how humans are. You can do this and that, in all areas of life to be less dissatisfied. Just don't believe for one second that it'll lead to some ultimate state of lasting satisfaction.


I guess its like Larry Page says "The only cost is opportunity cost". You've opted to do something and you feel the pain of the other options you gave up, so you yearn for them. When you aren't doing anything you still have all the options open.


I can say this: As much as I believe anything, I believe I was born to write a widely acclaimed novel. But I'm also a rational person who recognizes this is ridiculous. Even a person seriously dedicated to writing a novel faces a long shot. I'm not a serious person, even though I've made a decent living as a journalist/propagandist. Now I'm of an age that my failure bothers me. But I just don't have the time--or, more accurately, I don't have the wil--to forego pleasant distractions. Priorities. Make a call.

More practically, maybe a counterpoint, maybe not: My wife's constant scrolling of her social media feed drives me crazy. What a waste of a time, I insist. Yet moments ago she shows me the below. Does it qualify as learning something new, a diversion worthwhile? It's a lifesaving technique I didn't know; arguably an investment of a few minutes that's more valuable to me than the weeks/months/years I might spend to craft a piece of fiction that likely would be unread.

tl;dr: utility has limits in making life choices.

https://youtu.be/VUsnmGXJ70E


When I take breaks from coding I generally spend some time learning about things I'm curious about. This kind of clears my head for the next round of coding and satiates my desire to learn something new at the same time.


Freedom. It's like an escape from work. So when you're not working, you don't need an escape anymore since you get more freedom.


When I'm busy with a project, the things I don't understand very well make me curious and cause me to think of things to learn/make. I recently began to combat this by keeping a list of things that would be cool to learn and/or build and referring it when I'm bored. So far its been working pretty well


For me the feeling is quite different, for example when I am in busy and I want to learn new language. At that time, I can't. But, I write it down. Later, when I have free time. I am not that active like when I am in busy. Does that happened to you?


Yes, that happened to me as well. How do you solve it out that?


It's worked for me. Few of my tangential studies have been useful, but the ones that were made me very productive at my job. I discovered programming through messing with games instead of studying in college, then learned to automate reporting instead of hammering away at an Excel workbook. Thank goodness I did.


For myself, I make creative plans when busy -- I write out my ideas, draw some sketches of what I have in mind, and then leave it all in a Trello board. Later, when I have free time, I peruse my own ideas, see which ones still look good, and do it.


I can't explain the reason for this. But you describe me really well. Realising the problem is first step to solving it. And I am going to make this post my homepage to remind me When I'm goofing off. Thanks OP!


I do too. The solution is to write those ideas into one place, always the same place. And read the place once in a while. Then when you have time, read the list often and force yourself do small (very very small) thing. Suddenly big ones will look attractive.

But also, partly it happen because you don't really think about those ideas into detail while you don't have time - while simultaneously your brain have tons of inputs from projects you need to work on. So it is easier for them to look cool. When you have time, your brain considers reality of it more.

Plus, what you can't have is always more attractive then what you can have.


It's about the novelty and associated dopamine ;-)


Not everybody is like this.


novelty is addictive




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