Over the past few days, I’ve been exchanging messages on Facebook with an old friend of mine. This person (that we’ll call Chris) has spent virtually every weekend (and many weeknights) getting completely drunk since Chris was in college more than a decade ago.
At one point, Chris told me the following:
Most of the last decade is a giant blur. I don’t remember any of the parties that I went to except as part of a giant flood of them. They were all basically the same thing. Every good memory I have of the last decade was from doing something besides partying. The only parties I remember were a couple from college and it seems like every weekend I just try to recapture that magic and fail.
Chris is experiencing what I like to think of as the diminishing returns of repetitive experience.
Most of the things a person chooses to do has some set of positives and negatives associated with it. Going to a party, for example, can be a wonderful social experience, but it can sometimes make it difficult to build lasting one-on-one relationships within a party crowd.
If you do what amounts to the same thing over and over, eventually it ceases to be something special and enjoyable. It just becomes the norm, and when that happens, you begin to find that the negatives weigh you down more than the positives bring you up. The wonderful social experience of a party begins to feel completely normal, and then you reach a point where you feel your life is lacking deep individual relationships, like Chris is doing right now.
I’ve gone through this cycle many times, where something that was a great experience became substantially less so through repetition.
Around 2005 and 2006, I used to often go out after work with a few different groups of people. It was fun at first, but after a while, it just began to feel like the same old thing. I’d feel a bit hung over and I’d feel like I wasn’t building any really worthwhile relationships that would last, so I stopped going.
In 2003 and 2004, there was a coffee shop that I loved going to in the mornings. I would go there each day, recognize the staff there, enjoy my cup of coffee, and read the morning paper. After a while, though, the experience became just a routine, and all I could see is the money just flowing out of my pocket.
I used to love the experience of shopping in a bookstore, but in 2004 and 2005, it became a several times a week experience for me. I wound up with a pile of books that I hadn’t read yet and I no longer felt that happy little twinge that I once felt when I would walk into a bookstore with a few extra dollars in my pocket.
Repetition of a great experience eventually dulls that experience. The joy slips away and you find yourself wondering how you could have wasted that time, money, and energy.
The only way a repetitive experience can stay fresh and new is if you’re constantly looking for something new in that experience. For example, I play board games with a small circle of friends every week. When we play a new game, there’s fun in exploring the rules. When we play a game we’ve played before, there’s fun in exploring the strategy within those rules. I get to learn more about how I think, as well as how my closest friends think.
If I just looked at it as sitting down at the same old table and moving the same old pieces around with the same old people, it would get boring. I make an effort to look for new angles and freshness, and when you look for that, new and interesting experiences about.
Obviously, another valuable tool in this process is simply exploring a variety of things. I’ve mentioned recently that my list of things I want to do for personal enrichment is much longer than I have time to do.
There are many days when I look at that list and find that I have little interest in doing many of the things on it right at that moment, but eventually I do find something that excites me. If it does not make me feel excited in that moment, I skip it.
I also relish in trying something new, which is particularly useful considering there is an infinite variety of things to try. Even if you apply a filter to that list – for example, sticking with things that are free or very low cost as well as things that in some way teach you a skill – there’s often an incredibly long list of things to do. Just go through that list and spend your free time tackling some of them.
For me, I find that filling my life with a variety of activities makes the individual activities much more pleasureful. I don’t suffer the burnout of getting a daily coffee if I only get it once a month, in which case it’s a fun experience. The same is true for bookstores or parties or anything else in life.
We spend a lot of our life working and sleeping so that we have the ability to spend some of our time doing what we want to do. Why fill that time with experiences that aren’t memorable or pleasures that have been dulled by repetition?
Find something new to do today. Learn something new. Go outside and wander until you find something intriguing. Take care of something that’s been bothering you. There are thousands of possibilities here, and most of them are new and exciting and don’t involve opening your wallet.