Boring + Boring = Pleasant!?

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.

I’ve noticed several related things: 1. I could easily study flashcards while walking. This was less mysterious because I coded walking as pleasant. 2. I can’ t bear to watch TV sitting down. Walking on a treadmill makes it bearable. This didn’t puzzle me because I coded TV watching as pleasant and sitting as unpleasant (although I sit by choice while doing many other things). 3. I have Pimsler Chinese lessons (audio). I can painlessly listen to them while walking. While stationary (sitting or standing), it’s hard to listen to them. 4. When writing (during which I sit), it’s very effective to work for 40 minutes and then walk on my treadmill watching something enjoyable for 20 minutes. I can repeat that cycle many times. 5. Allen Neuringer found he was better at memorization while moving than while stationary. 6. There’s some sort of movement/thinking connection — we move our arms when we talk, we may like to walk while we talk, maybe walking makes it easier to think, and so on.

You could say that walking causes a “thirst” for learning or learning causes a “thirst” for walking. Except that the “thirst” is so hidden I discovered it only by accident. Whereas actual thirst is obvious. The usual idea is that what’s pleasant shows what’s good for us — e.g., water is pleasant when we are thirsty. Yet if walking is good for us — a common idea — why isn’t it pleasant all by itself? And if Anki is good for us, why isn’t it pleasant all by itself? The Anki/treadmill symmetry is odd because lots of people think we need exercise to be healthy but I’ve never heard someone say we need to study to be healthy.

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.

Maybe the practical lesson is that we enjoy learning dry stuff when walking but not when stationary. Pity the 99.9% of students who study stationary. Ideally you’d listen to a lecture while walking somewhere, perhaps around a track. Now and then I’ve interviewed people while walking; it worked much better than the usual interview format (seated). The old reason was I disliked sitting. Now I have a better reason.

30 Replies to “Boring + Boring = Pleasant!?”

  1. i’ve always studied while walking. it’s one of the reasons i studied math. i could memorize some stuff without a lot of understanding and then think about it while walking for a few hours until i understood it.

  2. I’ve been using Anki for Chines for about a year now. I sometimes do it standing up, which is good. I don’t have the technology to use it walking – an iphone might help in that regard. One problem is that I often annotate the cards as I review them which would be hard when walking.

    One way to spice up your Chinese Anki decks is to use subs2srs — a program that allows you to chop up (Chinese) movies into flashcards!

  3. When I’m reading on a bus or on a train, I have no problem zipping through my book. Sitting down and reading I want to get up and walk. When I was in grad school I thought about getting on the train in the morning and just riding to the end of the line and back to get some work done . . . never did it, though.

  4. Seth,

    I find that I read via my iPhone — novels, primarily, but some nonfiction — while on the elliptical trainer, bicycle or treadmill. I also have a set up at home with a treadmill and exercise bike where I can put my laptop in front of me and surf and write, as well. I am, in fact, writing this note while on the exercise bike.

    I do it primarily because — as you mention — it makes something enjoyable that I might avoid otherwise (for me, it’s exercise. I have to fight being sedentary, and I’m a full-time novelist.)

    You might enjoy this — Dr. John Medina is a developmental molecular biologist focusing on genes related to human brain development. In this area of his website, he talks about exercise and learning:

    So perhaps the combination of study and exercise together is enjoyable because, in fact, that’s exactly how the brain is supposed to work. I love studying and I hate exercising. But I LOVE exercising when I’m learning something or actively writing at the same time.

  5. Using Anki on a treadmill is a little complicated. I put a board across the handlebars. On the board I put a stand on top of which I put my laptop, which is now at eye level.

  6. Interesting that you would have this post the same day as another one, with different but interesting insights:

    And this quote:
    Like anger and other emotions, boredom most often fools us into diverting our energies entirely to an external situation. Thus it keeps us from liberating ourselves by seeing our relationship to the emotion itself. We make a great mistake about boredom when we think that it comes because of a particular person or situation or activity.

    So much of the restlessness in our meditation practice and in our daily lives derives from this fundamental misunderstanding. How often do we try something new to recapture our interest, something more stimulating or more exciting? And how often does that too quickly become boring and dull, so that we range off again, looking for something “better”?

    To realize that boredom does not come from the object of our attention but rather from the quality of our attention is truly a transforming insight. Fritz Perls, one of those who brought Gestalt therapy to America, said, “Boredom is lack of attention.” Understanding this reality brings profound changes in our lives.

    Then boredom becomes a tremendously useful feedback for us. It is telling us not that the situation or person or meditation object is somehow lacking, but rather that our attention at that time is halfhearted. Instead of wallowing in boredom or complaining about it, we can see it as a friend saying to us, “Pay more attention. Get closer. Listen more carefully.”

    -Insight Meditation: The Practice of Freedom (pg. 80)

    My 80-year-old mother says that she likes to drive long distances in the country because “driving takes just enough of my attention to allow me to really think about important things.”

    So maybe the walking is taking just enough attention to free your mind? And then the interesting question becomes what is that other mental/physical activity that we need to engage that allows higher functions to flower?

  7. Walking gets a little bit of blood moving, a little arousal, which probably keeps you focused compared to just sitting down and drifting off into a book.

    Also Michael Kane has some work on mind-wandering that suggests people have an optimal amount of mental busyness, and people try to match. So maybe the walking + learning chinese keeps your brain occupied enough to not wander off to other tasks.

  8. I am generally unable to force myself to do the dishes unless I have a podcast or audio book going on my mp3 player, it’s just too mind numbing. The same is true for working out with heavy weights and taking a shower.

    What’s weird is I can’t focus on those auditory information sources by themselves without a mindless task to focus on. So, like your example, they go together. I guess that’s why all cars have radios, but space shuttles, less so.

  9. Hi Seth,

    As an undergraduate, in the hours before a midterm or final, I would walk around quite parts of campus with my notes to prepare. It worked well. I also recorded lectures so I could listen to them while walking and doing yard work (and listen in the car). That was very efficient.



  10. I’ve found that the use of Anki is highly dependent on keeping the daily volume of cards low: this is an incentive to keep learning, and stops it becoming drudgery. This does mean learning more slowly (by adding cards less often), or doing a few cards now and again throughout the day (using the web interface on my iphone).

    I did a little talk about my use of anki that you can watch:

    (I start at 36m)

  11. Seth,

    This fits in with flow-type theory. Ideal functioning requires using lots of one’s available resources. If one is not using all the resources, you have a concern.

    I also note that the examples you gave are both cases of mixing moderate physical activity with moderate mental activity. This may be relevant to your findings.

  12. Seth,

    Nice discovery. You might check out this site:

    I have one myself. Currently attached to the handles, but this causes too much vibration. I’m going to make a free standing desk. They’re also available from Steelcase, but fairly expensive, ~$5K.


  13. I think that this is a stimulation issue: only by combining two undemanding activities can one’s attention be satisfied.

    The uber-polyglot Alexander Arguelles recommends doing language work whilst walking briskly and upright (he cites arousal):

    MikeY’s reference to an optimum level of mental business is interesting: in social situations I risk becoming temporarily mute if the interactions are not intense enough (I disengage completely), so I try to keep the heat up by starting debates or bantering.

  14. I thought you might want to check out Skritter. It’s this sweet site that helps you learn Chinese (and Japanese) characters by actually writing them and tracking your progress.

    You can sign up for a free trial using my referral link (
    ), and if after the two-week free trial you decide to buy a subscription, we’ll each get a free two weeks of Skritter.

  15. Practise the instrument by playing along to your favourite music. Once you have a piece nailed, you can modify it to your taste and develop your improvisational skills as well as your musical ear. It’s also cooler to have a repertoire drawn from the rich variety of modern popular music than to know a bunch of fusty old standards by those dead guys in wigs.

  16. I put a shelf on my treadmill so I can put my laptop there and edit academic texts while walking. It is the best thing to do while treadmilling because it takes so much concentration. Win-win!

  17. Seth, I remember learning in my M.Ed that people learn better while moving and that we should therefore incorporate kinesthetic activites into instructional design. I thought it was flaky until we had to read the research on it… amazing!

  18. I’m surprised it hasn’t been obvious to most people that movement is good for thinking and learning. Perhaps what we really need is to overcome bias in perceptions about ourselves in order to better recognize these performance factors. I believe trying to improve performance at sports through training and diet helps us become more accurate evaluators of performance factors. It has made a difference for me but I think you have to push yourself to the limit. If you’re winning every race without trying, you probably won’t be striving for accurate evaluations.

    Your blog topic reminds me of one of Richard Feynman’s anecdotes about walking in order to think about physics, but doing it in the middle of the night. He was stopped by police that wanted to know why he was out walking at an unusual hour.

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