It is usually the case that before a big life change, I find myself in some sort of transition period with time to introspect. I think that introspection is important for both learning and reflection, so I feel lucky to have this small break to do so.
Discovery and Balance
Two years ago I graduated from Duke and chose to enter a domain of work that spanned my two interests: neuroscience and computer science. I was not certain if academia was the right fit for me, and I most surely did not want to enter graduate school without being certain of my passion for a field of study. Fast forward two years, and I know that I’ve found my niche in terms of lifestyle and topic. I feel excited, (a little nervous!), and empowered to transition into being a full time research scientist. I feel very strongly that hard work and a committment to proactively pursue my goals, even if there are bumps and challenges along the way, will lead to good things. I know that I have much to learn, and I don’t have all the answers, but I feel confident in my ability to do what is right to be the best researcher that I can be.
More equal distribution between work and social stuffs is still something that many have articulated is an important component of a “balanced life,” and if this is true, I still am lacking the life experience or incentives to drastically shift my priorities. I still am more excited to relaxedly work over a weekend than take an impromptu beach trip that would eat up the entirety of the time. And I’m not sure that the idea of going out and drinking at some sort of happy hour is ever going to be my idea of fun. At this time in my life I still feel social fulfillment from interactions in with classmates or colleagues, and I balance out time sitting in front of a computer by going for an adventure run or bike ride. I think that there isn’t a “right” way to be as long as you are productive and happy with how you are. I cannot say if I will be as work focused in fifteen or twenty years as I am now, but given that I am about to start on what I hope to be a long and fulfilling career in academia, I think my mental state and priorities are just right.
I read an article recently titled “The Cognitive Cost of Doing Things” that made me reflect on my own cognitive resources and energy, and for the second part of this post I’d like to review some of the ideas discussed.
Most Things Require A Catalyst, or Activation Energy: I agree that it can be a challenge to get started on doing just about anything. I’d call this motivation, and one of my greatest fears is not having the motivation to do something that I either must do, or should do because it’s important. I manage this fear by starting on most things early so that I can always work on things that I want to be working on, maximize efficiency, and not work on things when I don’t want to work on them. I also start early because it probably takes more cognitive energy to suppress working on something that excites me, given that I can allocate some time.
** Manage Time Based on Present Desire:** In the case that I don’t want to work on project vanilla, there is a pretty good chance that I want to work on chocolate, and I might return to vanilla when my desires again shift. You only get into trouble when you haven’t allocated enough time to take fluctuating levels and foci of motivation into account, and you really have to force yourself to make an entire sundae when you don’t fancy vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry. Ice cream headache! This is why I think that getting started on things promptly is important – you want to avoid associating your work with any sort of negative mental state that says “I have to do this NOW and I don’t want to.” The same idea can be applied to running (forcing yourself to run up a hill when you aren’t feeling it) or what you have for dinner. Forcing yourself to run up those hills, slowly over time, may make it so you can’t muster up the cognitive energy to put your sneakers on in the first place, which is a much worse eventual outcome.
Every decision tree that we conceptualize definitely takes into account how decisions influence present and future happiness, and alter future incentive structures. I tend to be less impulsive for the present, more future oriented, and I place a high value on efficiency and “getting stuff done,” so my advice to be kinder to yourself in the present and direct work and behavior based on present incentives may not be best for someone who would apply this mindset and only have it lead to procrastination. This is of course not a good mindset to have if you never reach a mental state where you want to jump into an activity.
** When the pool is cold, just jump in:** Another phenomenon I’ve noticed is when there are too many good things to work on, and I enter a mental state I like to call ‘analysis paralysis.’ It’s like being in line at the Loop (or your favorite dinner place) and being unable to order because I can only choose one thing, and there are too many choices. So I stand there and… do nothing, when the reality of the situation is that many choices would make me happy, and I just need to pick one and move on. In these situations, whether I am standing in line for dinner or staring at my to-do list, it’s good to be able to identify that I am spiraling into analysis paralysis, and I need to stop thinking and attempting to optimize, and just pick one. If motivation is an issue and my cognitive resources are pooping out, I can do the same thing. I try to start working on something small without thinking too much, and my brain usually gets immersed.
**Distinguish between overall fit and sentiment for the task at hand: **I would also venture to say that it’s completely normal to love some aspects of work, and not care so much for others. I think that good evidence of not being matched well with a job is probably a strong desire to not do most of what someone in that job should be doing most of the time. On the contrary, I think that losing track of time and experiencing that lovely state called “flow” serve as evidence that I love what I do. To again bring up the idea of working based on current desire, I would say that the right time to work on anything is exactly when I am excited to do so, and to stop working on something when I lose interest. And when I get to the point when something distracts me, then is a good time to take a break, or stop entirely. Working when I don’t want to is neither productive nor a good mental state to associate with work, period.
Slowing-Down Energy: The article talks about inertia as “keep(ing) doing what you’ve been doing” in the context of getting comfortable with routine. I’d like to distinguish between the idea of getting stuck and comfortable with a routine, and someone’s ability to disconnect from a task. Both could be considered the opposite of “activation energy” in that it’s what keeps you going – but the difference is the level of engagement. I have a hard time disconnecting from a task not because I am stuck in a mindless routine, but because I can’t break my engagement. I cannot, and do not want, to peel away from things that I’m working on until I’ve reached “the right” point when something else becomes more interesting, or my cognitive fuel tank needs a trip to the mental gas station. Breaking away from something that I want to be working on is more stressful and cognitively demanding than starting in the first place. If I stop too early, some component of fulfillment is missing, and the neglected task sits right on top of my mind. If I stop for the day with a lingering question, I will likely think about the problem throughout the evening, and into my run the next morning, and if I’m lucky my mind will stumble over something new to try.
**Opportunity Cost: **My brain always considers opportunity cost with regard to what else I might be doing with the time. I don’t have the right neural connections so that money comes into the equation, and I will sheepishly admit that I’ll usually chose work tasks over social things. Since time and productivity are the primary drivers of my incentive machine, I prioritize them above all else. If I need to or am asked to do activity X, I will always consider what else I might be doing with that time, say activity Y, and I will choose the activity that maximizes productivity or learning to improve future productivity. I will need to work hard to try and look at the world and my choices from a less practical angle, because In many situations (especially unstructured ones in an academic environment) I need to recognize that I cannot always predict what might come out of any sort of interaction. It might “make more sense” beforehand to spend an evening coding or reading papers over attending a social event, but I could never predict meeting a new person or an interesting conversation that leads to an awesome new collaboration. This is a way of thinking that I have decided to proactively work on.
Altering hormonal balance: The article talks about how we don’t think about how things like stress, hormones, digestion, or breathing (basically environmental influences on our unique biochemistry) have huge implications for cognitive energy. I have three words for how I feel about this: running fixes everything! But in all seriousness, I like to think about how my living environment and people in it tax my cognitive resources, or energize them. There are people that I’ve noticed make me happy and give me energy, and other people that leave me ruminating about something silly and negative, and wasting my cognitive resources. The same is true of small daily activities, or choices that I make. Going out for a morning run, regardless of how I feel beforehand, gives me energy. Staying up too late or forcing myself to do something that I don’t want to do drains me of energy. Breaking from work and spending time with friends, even if it isn’t the most productive choice, gives me energy. I take all these things into account. A lot of life is largely about maximizing the things that give me energy, and minimizing the things that sap me of it.
The BIG WHY: But to dig a little deeper into this ogre onion, the next logical question is, what is the motivation underlying all of these things? Why should I even think or care about my cognitive resources, or be interested in anything at all?
My underlying motivation is a desire to understand systems so I can build them myself. If I can break something into pieces, then I can understand each one, and make something on my own, either similar or modified by putting the pieces together in a different way. If I can make things and solve problems, then I feel useful and productive, and that makes me a happy human being. So in a sense, understanding = empowerment / control to change my environment –> verification of purpose –> happiness. I know that when I am presented with a system or idea and I don’t understand it, it’s very troubling / upsetting, and I know that I am happiest when I feel challenged, and I have many things to work on and think about.
In a nutshell: I appreciate articles like this because they remind me to think about myself, what makes me tick, and why I do things that I do. They also remind me that when I disagree with someone, or don’t understand why said person’s behavior differs from my own, I can usually understand the difference if I try to understand the underlying values and motivations. And on the flip side, when I perceive that someone doesn’t agree with my choices as how to spend my time or allocate my cognitive resources, I hope that they consider what my incentives and values are. Even in light of disagreement, I think that people can try to logically understand one another. Given that people change, are inconsistent, and arguably more difficult to understand than a mechanical process, it is definitely worth taking the time to think about these things.
For now, I’d like to close this thought bubble by saying that I am grateful for my past experience, really enjoying the present, and (I will say this in true New Englander, frontal-lobe dominant style) – “I am wicked excited for the future!” :OD