A human life, no matter how long, has a limited amount of brain cycles available. A limited number of thoughts that can be thought. A limited amount of time for processing information and coming to conclusions. In AI terms this is called Bounded Rationality:
Bounded rationality is the idea that when individuals make decisions, their rationality is limited by the tractability of the decision problem, the cognitive limitations of their minds, and the time available to make the decision.Wikipedia
This really means three things somewhat scary things for us humans. First that there is only a certain total capacity for thought in a single human’s lifetime. Second, although it is not predetermined which thoughts you might have, you have no hope of even deducing all the things you could deduce even from the facts you already know today (your computational processes just aren’t fast enough and the number of things you already know is already vast!).
Last, but not least, those limited brain cycles have to be shared between a whole range of activities. At a crude level those activities can be groups into 1) reading/listening/learning and generally ingesting information, 2) processing information, reaching new conclusions, thinking
You might occasionally want to sleep as well and find periods to quiet down your mind.
This split seems obvious but it’s challenging to find balance. In the modern
This video post by CPGrey resonated with me on this topic: the constant stream of information really is like being hacked. The endorphin rush of new information gives us an artificial sense of being on top of things and generates anxiety that we are not.
Although I consider myself relatively disciplined when it comes to media / social media I still find myself browsing for information or just “what’s new”. Recently traveling to China and reducing Internet usage brought this home to me. There was a sense of deprivation of the usual information, but also more space to talk to people, think through ideas and make plans: and that was during days packed with meetings!
Even high quality information can be distracting
I’m truly grateful for some of the things I read and learn, but I can clearly see that it sometimes crowds out other things. I used to listen to audiobooks when running or long flights. While I still do that sometimes, I do it much less now. Often now I’ll even run relatively long distances not just without audio books, but without music. In the absence of input your brain picks up on your surroundings, how you are feeling and turns over ideas of its own.
- Turn off notifications from messaging apps and social media on your phone and try to make sure close family and friends always use one channel (which you can leave notifications on for).
- Group your media, news and social media apps into a folder that you have to click into first before opening one of them.
- Turn off mobile data on your device for most of the day unless you’re waiting for some notification or another. Both this and the previous two add just a little more friction to just clicking and “seeing what’s new”.
- Consider going on a general “information diet” to reduce the sources you regularly check to just a small number. If something big happens, someone is sure to tell you!
- Do something manual or physical that requires you to focus enough to exclude distractions (running, playing a team sport, painting, etc.)
- Spend time with friends and family other than watching a show together.
- Train your problem-solving muscles by regularly writing down your top 2-3 problems to solve (at work, financially or otherwise) and turning over solutions in your mind or with a piece of paper.
- Stimulate your capacity for action by acting on a few of those good ideas and getting them done (you have a holiday to book remember?)
- Try a regular short meditation practice.
I don’t stick to these all of the time. However, it’s often the case when I’m feeling bugged by something by something or just generally un-productive that shutting down new information flows and dedicating time to puzzling over something, writing something down or doing something non-cognitive sets things right again.
None of the above are rocket science but I guess I’d leave you with one thought:
If you find yourself listening to podcasts in the shower, you might want to consider re-assessing how to spend your thought cycles.
You might be stifling the life or world-changing idea that could have come to you if only the audio had been off!
(*) For that matter so is me writing this post!