I have a friend whose life had become stale. Work had become repetitive, life had become mundane, and even his relationship and sex had become routine.
Everything used to be awesome though – what gives?
He told me how he was beginning to hate his job, and even though it was awesome when he was hired, 4 years in he wanted to get out – fast.
But here’s the thing – It wasn’t just his work. His entire life had become mundane.
Out of work time sucked.
What was even scarier was that his relationship with his wife had grown stale too – he used to be crazy in love with her, and just a few years after getting married he was kinda “eh” about the whole thing.
Even sex had become plain (which was the scariest part to him). “Is this even possible?”
He was never like this previously, he was always a happy guy that was challenged, loved his life, and couldn’t wait to see what next.
But overall he was worried about this general malaise that had overcome him in life. He was wondering if he was maybe depressed.
And then I shared the three words that ultimately changed my life, and would change his: increase the complexity.
Here’s how that changes everything.
The Universal Principal That Will Wake up Your Life, Relationships, And Work (And yes… your sex)
Increase the complexity.
If you know me well, you know that I have a huge love for Doc. C. and his theory of Flow. I’ve spent many years reading religious, mystical, scientific and psychological literature trying to see if anyone codified happiness or life enjoyment into a process. Doc C. has.
Life goes a little like this: it fluctuates between boredom and anxiety. Most of the time, we stay in the comfort (and thus boredom) zone.
Almost everything we do can be artificially broken down into “comfort-zone” activities, “Anxiety-producing/difficult/” activities, or something along the spectrum in-between.
Let me give you an example: If you’re just learning tennis, you’re in flow a lot of the time. Hitting the ball over the net is tough, you need to change how you hold the racket, how you swing, how you follow through, and in general there’s a lot for your mind to learn.
But after a few weeks or a month you have that basic stuff down pat. You start hitting the ball over the net regularly, it’s not really very difficult and you start getting a little bit bored because it’s easy.
So how do you make it fun again? And how do you get better? You up the ante.
Now you have to hit it across the net into one of the serving boxes. Now it takes you a few weeks to hit that mark every time again. Flow returns, you’re having fun, and all the while you’re getting better.
But at some point, that’ll become easy too. So what do you do?
Start learning how to serve. Serving is tough and will take some time, so you spend a couple weeks and get better at serving it into that box. Then you increase the speed and force with which you serve…
In other words, what we need to do is increase the complexity and difficulty of what’s going on.
When we’ve reached the “boredom” state, it means that the task has become too routine, too easy for the brain and body to process and act out.
You re-introduce flow by introducing a fresh challenge. A fresh challenge will A. make it much more enjoyable, since flow is inherently a pleasant experience, and B. Also increase your skill in the given subject.
So what does this have to do with my relationship, work and life?
Alright. Important question.
So – let’s start with relationships.
And let’s niche it down even more; sex. People that haven’t been married often don’t realize how routine sex can become. They don’t think it’s possible. Well, it is. (I’m not married FYI – but I hear this joke enough from older friends).
Sex can become routine.
At the beginning in a relationship it’s great. Explosive, passionate, rough, varied, exciting. But somewhere down the line it can become everything except that for some people.
Like work, leisure time, or any aspect of life, it can get too plain. You are stuck in the “boredom” part of the flow spectrum (see above). You’ve done this routine a thousand times and it’s all unconscious now.
So how do you re-introduce the fun and excitement of flow? Increase the complexity.
You increase the complexity by introducing some kind of new challenge that involves pushing yourself.
Introduce new things: positions (hello kama sutra?), places (hello hippie sex), toys (use your imagination), hand cuffs (just kidding…or maybe not), or routines. They all increase the “difficulty” and require you to learn something new.
All of these seek to do that ONE thing: increase the complexity of your sex: when you are learning more and taking yourself out of the state of boredom, you will re-enter flow.
Thankfully, I haven’t gotten to that point yet. My handcuffs are still in the shoebox in the closet.
“Why has my relationship gotten boring? It used to be so good…”
A crazy common story I hear is of the couple who were “madly in love” three, four, five years ago, but now their relationship has grown stale. They’re happy but kinda of “eh” about the whole thing, and they’re at the point where they might break up just because they are craving something new.
Think about it: at the beginning of a relationship when you’re courting each other, there’s lots unknown.
Past history, past partners, past escapades, past travels, current thoughts, current experiences, future plans, etc. There’s a lot to learn. There’s tons of stimuli to take in. It’s fresh.
But after three years, you’re tired of hearing about your husband or boyfriend’s story about taking acid and holding garden gnomes hostage. It used to be hilarious, but now you’re in wifey mode thinking “oh god, please not again.”
So how do you bring this thing back to life?
Increase the complexity.
You can do this in a couple ways:
- Take up a shared hobby together – health, religion/spirituality, yoga, nature walks, gardening, cooking classes
- Start playing games – pick a date night once a week where the other person has to pick something unusual to do for the date
- Revive your sex (see above)
- Breach new subjects you haven’t before – if you’re a very “earthly plane” couple, start talking about conspiracy theories, angels and demons, buddha and lao tzu
Increasing the complexity means you have to introduce a new challenge, stimulus, or some kind of novelty that will help you grow (ideally together).
Boredom generally means learning and growth isn’t happening. Re-introduce some kind of learning and growth, and you will re-enter flow.
My work used to be fine (or awesome), now it kinda sucks
Some of my friends got jobs they could actually tolerate out of college. Lucky them.
However, a few years later it had all become pretty routine? Why?
At the beginning there’s lots to learn – which is why you’re in flow much of the time.
But as time goes along, as you get better and learn more, there is less to learn unless you keep moving forward. Most people don’t (or can’t).
So how do you make work awesome again?
I have a personal rule where I ask for a promotion every 12 months in addition to increased work responsibilities (depending on your work environment, work pace, kind of job e.g. corporate/startup).
Every single time I feel stuck in a job (where I’ve learned it all for the time being), I ask for increased responsibilities in addition to a promotion (or I quit).
It goes something like this. “Yo, I’m getting bored. But I want to learn XYZ skill to keep learning and increase my value for you guys. Can I work on XYZ project, take on more responsibilities, and earn a few extra pennies on my paycheck?”
(Actually, that’s a lie: make sure you ask for much more than the raise you want – psychologically people often will meet you in the middle, so make sure you account for that. If you make 20/hr and you want to hit 23/hr, ask for 26. It works.)
So maybe you’re doing a data entry job most of your time (aka bitch work) and you want a job that monkeys can’t do – maybe your company has an app coming out, and you want to learn a bit about marketing. Say you’ve been taking some night classes on the side for marketing, and you would love to learn more about it and help market that app… and you are ready for more responsibilities for more $$$.
Tell your boss-man or boss-woman that, and hustle.
Increase the complexity.
When you’re in the boredom state, you need to introduce more complexity to your work. New skills. New challenges. New things to learn. You’ll be a lot happier too.
Sometimes it’s the perfect indicator that you need to quit and move on.
“My life is just… eh… so mundane. So routine. So mediocre.”
You probably realize where I’m going with this too, right?
If your leisure time sucks… you need to introduce new challenges.
Increase the complexity of your leisure time.
If your leisure time consists of hours of mindless TV… then your answer is easy. You’re not being challenged or engaging in any activities that even bring you beyond the brink of boredom.
Maybe you used to hang out and read in Cafes in the afternoon, but you’re not feeling it anymore. Maybe you need to take up a new hobby: learn a language, learn video editing, learn falconry (or some other badass medieval hobby), or just pick a new thing to learn every month (like I do).
For example, when I moved back into the US with virtually no friends and job, I was crazy unhappy. I had way too much non-flow time where I could be thinking.
So instead, I deliberately crafted my daily schedule around flow:
I took up a new sport: Judo. Every day was an ass whooping and I had to learn very quickly. That was an extra 1.5 hours of flow, where my afternoon was usually one of the lowest points of the day.
In the evening, I started a young entrepreneurs meet up. After doing my 30 day flow test I knew that after dinner was the second lowest point of my day, so I scheduled a flow-producing activity at that time.
There are a million ways to make your leisure time enjoyable (interestingly enough, leisure time is often cited as one of the least enjoyable times of the day from a flow perspective).
(Even though people are ‘off work’ and we think about that being enjoyable, Doc C. found that people were less engaged, less happy, less frequently in flow, and less challenged during their leisure time = unfulfilled)
My hunch is that this is why there’s such trend towards running marathons when people want to get their life back in shape: challenges make it easy to get in flow.
But it doesn’t mean you have to do something difficult.
If you’ve always wanted to knit, learn how to knit. It’s not pushing your cardio ability, but it’s pushing your mental faculties. Learning is often the easiest way to get into flow (if you like what you’re learning).
So, here’s what to do if your leisure time sucks:
- Set an arbitrary challenge; the classic couch to 5k is a good example.
- Learn a new skill that you can use; martial arts? gardening? knitting? flying a plane? rock climbing? personal training? blogging? The point is that you have to be learning and not reading. Although reading tends to also be flow producing, learning gives you an infinite ability to stay in flow over the long term
- Avoid the dreaded passive consumption: mindless social media use, and TV. Personally I watch 0 hours of TV a week because I don’t see how it contributes to my life. To each their own. It’s all just a tool.
The single easiest thing to revolutionize your entire life satisfaction
Increase the complexity.
Increase the complexity of your life experiences. Remember this chart below:
When life has entered the boredom zone. You need to increase the difficulty and complexity of what you’re doing. If you stay comfortable too long, you get bored. When you get bored, you get unhappy.
Just like the tennis player that needs to keep pushing the envelope to get better and better (and stay in flow), you need to keep pushing yourself to improve whatever facet of your life has gotten stale.
Everything form sex to work to relationships to leisure time can and will become stale if you don’t introduce new challenges or learning.