How To Make Anything Interesting

The key to making anything interesting is to make the task involved just hard enough.

The brain likes solvable problems. Too easy, and it gets bored. Too hard, and it gets frustrated. Either way, your engagement and attention flag and you lose your motivation to keep going.

It helps, of course, if you are genuinely interested in a topic, but it's not necessary. Sometimes we have to pass a class we don't like. Sometimes we have to work on a project that doesn't grab us. We can still make it interesting by arranging the work involved to be just challenging enough, and by keeping the edge of the challenge sharp.

Think about video games. Do players really care whether the dragons get killed or the princess gets saved? (Well, maybe some of them do.) But in general video games succeed in making you work hard to solve problems that are imaginary and essentially meaningless -- by maintaining the challenge at exactly the right level to keep you engaged and moving forward. We like the feeling of mastery, and we're willing to work for it.

This insight has important implications for learning. When we're learning, whether at school, at the office or on our own time, it should feel like "hard fun" -- an enjoyable activity that requires effort. That means constantly adjusting the difficulty of the task so it is just at the edge of your ability. Young children do this naturally. Good teachers and managers have always done it. Increasingly, computers are able to do it. But it's essential to learn how to calibrate challenges for yourself if you want to keep yourself motivated.

If you find yourself bored while learning, you can ratchet up the difficulty in several ways:

  1. time yourself and try to be as fast, and as accurate, as possible;
  2. compete against someone else;
  3. mix up different types of problems.

If you find yourself frustrated while learning, it's usually because the task is too difficult or confusing. The solution here is to break the task down into the shortest steps possible. Break it down, then break it down again, into micro-steps. Identify exactly where your confusion occurs, and ask someone to help you understand.

Start with the smallest, simplest piece that you can do and still get right 80 percent of the time. Keep practicing until you're consistently getting close to 100 percent right and starting to feel a little bored. Then raise the bar. Add difficulty, complexity and speed. Use the emotions of boredom and frustration as signals -- guides to managing your motivation. Once you learn how to calibrate a challenge, there's nothing in the world that's not interesting.