Balancing Acts

Some people work better when they are devoting their attention on solely one thing in their lives at a time, focusing all their mental energy and physical efforts to a project or job. They are able to make that project their priority and as a result their work is all the better for it. I am not that way. I have discovered over thirty years of living, of which fifteen or so years working and studying, that I perform much better when I have several projects going on at once. Life works out better when I am balancing many things rather than one thing at a time.

In college, a routine that I became very proud of myself for was the following. Wake up at 5am to go for a twelve mile run (in hindsight I should have did some weight training and not torn up my back and knees on the pavement like that) get to the library at 8am and proceed to read and study straight out of the textbooks, making notes and outlines of everything I read, eat a sandwich composed of two slices of bread, cheap meat, and cheese; go to classes, go to tutoring if I had a tutoring session to teach, go to work my afternoon job at the Signing Agency(where you find mobile notaries and assigned cases for them); go back to the library and continue studying. During this period I worked roughly 20-30 hours a week, got close to a 4.0 grade point average, and ran a marathon; all while double majoring. Compared to my classmates that got 4.0 GPAs, they did not work 20-30 hours per week. Of course partially I was so focused because I had been dumped by my girl friend at the time, but that is a different story. Through this experience I found that I worked better when I was focusing on more things at once. Partially I can explain this through the idea of momentum or creating links or chain reactions in your own accomplishments. Say how diet and exercise can influence the rest of your daily activities, but I definitely perform better when overloaded with work. I found that I was happier in this mode of working.

One reason why I think I am this way is because I have a bit of an obsessive compulsive personality. That is to say, unless I am working on more than one thing at once, my mental criticism for that one thing will be too intense, thereby debilitating the project. Working on multiple things at once allows me to take a step back, and not put all my eggs in one basket. I am able to more often see the big picture and not beat myself up about something. If I am doing well at work, I don’t put too much pressure on my writing; if I am writing well, I don’t put too much pressure on myself at work. This creates a great dynamic. In fact the more different things I became good at, the better I was at other things. Even if they were extremely different.

As Ryan Holiday highlighted in his blog, this is the power of Analogical thinking:

Analogical thinking is what we do when we use information from one domain (the source or analogy) to help solve a problem in another domain (the target). Experts often use analogies during the process of problem solving, and analogies have been involved in numerous scientific discoveries. However, studies of novice problem solvers show that they often have difficulty in recognizing that one problem can be used to solve another. A problem that has been studied by several researchers is Duncker’s (1945) radiation problem. In this problem, a doctor has a patient with a malignant tumor. The patient cannot be operated upon, but the doctor can use a particular type of ray to destroy the tumor. However, the ray will also destroy healthy tissue. At a lower intensity the rays would not damage the healthy tissue but would also not destroy the tumor. What can be done to destroy the tumor?

Only about 10% of people manage to spontaneously generate a solution to this problem. In two papers Gick and Holyoak (1980 and 1983) explored the conditions under which participants would solve the radiation problem following exposure to an analogy. Some participants were presented with the following story:

A small country was ruled from a strong fortress by a dictator. The fortress was situated in the middle of the country, surrounded by farms and villages. Many roads led to the fortress through the countryside. A rebel general vowed to capture the fortress. The general knew that an attack by his entire army would capture the fortress. He gathered his army at the head of one of the roads, ready to launch a full-scale direct attack. However, the general then learned that the dictator had planted mines on each of the roads. The mines were set so that small bodies of men could pass over them safely, since the dictator needed to move his troops and workers to and from the fortress. However, any large force would detonate the mines. Not only would this blow up the road, but it would also destroy many neighboring villages. It therefore seemed impossible to capture the fortress. However, the general devised a simple plan. He divided his army into small groups and dispatched each group to the head of a different road. When all was ready he gave the signal and each group marched down a different road. Each group continued down its road to the fortress so that the entire army arrived together at the fortress at the same time. In this way, the general captured the fortress and overthrew the dictator.

Reading this story led to a slightly higher, though not much higher, proportion of people thinking of the convergence solution – about 30%. When given a hint that the story might be of use in solving the radiation problem, but without making explicit reference to a possible analogy, then the solution rate was 92%. Solutions were also facilitated by asking participants to read two, rather than just one, problem analogues.

The second idea on why this works is what Ryan Holiday calls energy distribution, where you allocate your energy more appropriately, thereby creating parietal efficiency (80/20) in a task or area of your life where it was unevenly distributed before. I definitely see this in my personal relationships. If I am busy at work I stop obsessing over personal conflicts in my relationships. I see this principle all the time in one hobby of mine: weight training. Like running for a lot of people, weight training becomes a metaphor that is analogous to other aspects of my life. The principles of building something with physical changes from small steps or actions, focusing on each rep translates to focusing on each task or moment, the idea of attrition over time, etc. Doing multiple things at once reinforces the idea that everything is indeed connected; the whole is made up of the sum of its parts.

The third idea on why it works is from Robert Greene and it is the idea of alternative currents:

Creative breakthroughs happen, he says, at a “particular high point of tension” when we “let go for a moment.” For some of us, this is going to the gym. For others, it’s putting one project down for another. It’s taking a break and going to our other office. It’s picking up the guitar or a language book–whatever those other things we happen to be good at are. Then, as Robert writes, “with the feeling of tightness gone, the brain can momentarily return to that initial feeling of excitement and aliveness, which by now been greatly enhanced by all our hard work.”

The idea is that a man is not a machine that runs continuously, no matter how cerebral we can get and how advanced our thinking can get, it is a product of a physical body made of flesh and bones. As such, you need (your body actually has biologically built in necessities) periods of rest in between periods of work. This means that working towards something continuously often times does not equate getting the best result, this is why a lot of great epiphanies and inventions occurred when the person that had practiced his craft took time off to do a separate analogous activity. That isn’t to say you be shitty at all your task and great things will happen, this means that you should try to do your best at all tasks, but switch between them when you sense it is the time to do so.

The problem is that I often will go away from what works for me. I forget to listen to myself and go back to what I feel is the right process for me, either out of laziness or yes just laziness. Part of that is failing to plan and incorporate a strategy into my life, which is essential. Hopefully this will be a reminder.