I’ve recently become aware that I classify time spent away from my career as being one of two activities—distraction or exploration.
Distraction is the more familiar of the two; watching Netflix, playing video games or another form of temporarily diverting my attention. It is, in a sense, seeking to reduce cognitive load to rest and recover from extended periods of concentration or to delay thought on an unsolved issue.
Exploration, to me, is not necessarily in opposition to distraction but is undertaken with an entirely different mindset and objective. It is a deliberate effort to seek new knowledge, connect ideas and reason with problems. Most of the time this constitutes a cognitively-demanding endeavour based on a higher-level objective or purpose.
Consider these two activities:
- Option A: Distraction
- Option B: Exploration
It is fair to say that striving through exploratory periods yields an occasional payoff of increased understanding or development, demanding a guaranteed use of cognitive energy. Engaging in a distracting activity will instead use very little to no cognitive energy and thus typically allow me to regenerate my concentration and prepare for a later exploratory session.
Thus far, both activities have been articulated such that the desired outcome, a beneficial objective, is clear. To achieve these desired outcomes, I must engage them in a similarly positive state. I refer to this engaged state as being optimal.
If I engage with activity without being in an optimal state, a state where I am forcing myself to undertake an activity without the motivation, purpose or desire to do so, I will find myself in a suboptimal state.
This complication has typically caused a great deal of frustration and anxiety over the past few years: Engaging in a distracting activity when I know I have the cognitive capacity to be exploratory, I feel disappointed knowing I am purposefully reaching below my potential limits. Forcing myself to be exploratory has often led me to not only lacking in further understanding but feeling frustrated that I did not pursue the more pleasurable, regenerative distraction.
Two activities, each with two unique states, results in four possible mood combinations.
Below are those moods ranked from most enjoyable to least:
- Exploratoryoptimal → Excited & Curious
- Distractionoptimal → Relaxation & Recovery
- Distractionsuboptimal → Anxious & Disappointed
- Exploratorysuboptimal → Frustrated & Bored
Informally, I believe that I am more likely to have an enjoyable time in a distracting activity but the upper bound on the utility (a combination of outputs and mood) resulting from optimal exploratory sessions is so high that any actions I can take to maximise this state must be explored and exploited moving into the future. One effective strategy has been learning to switch options when I recognise a mood arising from a suboptimal state. If I feel anxious and disappointed that I am ‘wasting’ my time on a tv show or game then clearly I have not done enough cognitively-demanding, exploratory work to warrant the relaxation.
By continually being mindful of my mood during each activity, I have become more proficient in recognising when I am in a suboptimal state; I’m now at the point where my mind is keeping score fairly accurately about when it is appropriate to rest and when to work. As easy as this mindful switching process is, I think the reason this has become effective in recent times is because I feel I have matured enough to accurately determine that my brain is telling me the truth. Without a long period of disciplining your mind to encourage exploration, I believe it is quite straightforward for your brain to convince you to choose the guaranteed relaxation option. Without understanding the benefits that may result from an exploratory session, doing so tends to yield an expected outcome of guaranteed loss of cognitive energy. In other words, for exploration to be a viable and effective choice we must fully realise the utility that comes from a successful session—often requiring many unfruitful sessions before a breakthrough.
Indeed, it seems as though until you have full control over your desires and have enough of a vision for your life that you can pursue meaningful progress, it is extremely difficult to not only stop a distracting activity but to convince yourself that engaging in the exploratory activity will be more worthwhile.
Moving forward, I am aiming to adhere to the following rules in order to maximise the beneficial outcomes:
- Ensure I have a clear high-level vision and purpose for my life
- Have well-defined operating principles
- Set long-term (25yrs+) goals
- Record desired outcomes for each exploratory session
- Be honest about cognitive energy levels
- Do not multitask or combine activity types—commit fully to one mode
- Be mindful about mood and switch activities without judgement or delay