Why Does Thinking Feel Like Hard Work?
“…it is one thing to think and quite another to understand the nature of thought. Just as eagles fly without any grasp of the principles of aerodynamics and dolphins swim without understanding the physics of flotation, so too most of us think without having any real insight into the nature of thought.” — Tim Bayne
Welcome. What you’re doing right now is quite special. You’re taking squiggly black lines and extracting meaning from them. No other creature on earth can do that like you can. What’s more, you can probably achieve it with relative ease. You see the words and process them in an instant, never really thinking of the words themselves, only what they represent.
It wasn’t always easy to read, though, was it? It might be a long time ago, but when you were first learning how to do this, you would have had to put a great deal of effort into it. Different words would have been obstacles, you would have stumbled along, having to focus on the letters and how they are pronounced. It’s impressive just how far you’ve come.
Most things follow this trajectory. You learn, and the learning requires effort, but the knowledge you form afterwards gets easier to use. You’ve been a student of life for a few years now, and you’ve picked up many skills along the way. You can read, walk, use a knife and fork, brush your teeth, and all with little effort. Most of your daily activities can now be done while you think of something entirely detached from the activity itself. This is pretty incredible.
What’s more, you probably have special skills and knowledge that most other people don’t have. Maybe you have an interest in physics or math, design, psychology, or cooking. You are your own unique mixture of facts and memories and abilities and concepts. When you think, the content of your mind is like your fingerprint, it’s yours and only yours. Your thoughts make you you.
But you had to work to get here, you had to work to become you. And, you’ll probably have to work to become your future self, too. I’m sure you see the benefits of doing so. Gaining new knowledge is refining the mind, making it more accurate, making it more versatile, making it more efficient. Good though it may be, learning isn’t always a pleasant experience. Becoming our future selves requires some discomfort.
In the coming chapters, I want to explore what’s happening in your mind as you invest effort, what that often uncomfortable feeling behind your thoughts represents. I’m spurred by questions like whether we can invest more than we do, if we can learn to enjoy the experience, whether it has downsides, and what the experience of mental effort even is. We might be familiar with thinking, but many of us aren’t that clued in to what’s happening when we rely on it.
The first chapter delves into what type of thoughts feel effortful; the second chapter examines whether thinking uses up some limited resource; the third chapter looks at effort from the angle of doing nothing; the last chapter takes into consideration the balance between intuition and cognition.
I’m by no means an expert, just a curious reader that likes to think, and wants to know what that even means. There are many experts out there that I have tried to draw upon, so by all means, follow the links and formulate your own thoughts. This was a journey I thoroughly enjoyed and hope you will too. After all, it’s always good to learn a little more about who you are and how you work. Let’s get into it.
A BURDENED MIND
To kick things off, I think it makes sense to have a look into what situations or ways of thinking lend themselves to a sense of effort. What is it that we appear to struggle with? I can’t be sure that it’s a comprehensive list, but I’ve identified four ways in which you can put your mind to the test:
1. The Mental Workspace
One obvious situation that elicits a sense of effort is holding and manipulating information in your mind. It makes use of your mental workspace, or what psychologists call working memory. You use up this limited space when you try to keep a shopping list or phone number in mind, or when doing a math problem requires manipulating some numbers while taking care not to forget others.
I suppose it could basically be described as whatever you’re thinking of right now, which most of the time isn’t more than a few items. As you read this your mental workspace might consist only of a few meaningful extractions, each word disappearing quickly after being read, giving way to a single summary of the message I’m trying to get across. If I’m doing my job well, your working memory isn’t too burdened by this.
Every now and again this little workspace is put under pressure. Some problem comes around that requires information to be brought together, turned, pulled apart, and rearranged.
Try this: without writing anything down or using your fingers, how many instances of the letter ‘e’ are there in the numbers one through twenty, assuming, of course, we are talking about the word (one, not 1)?
It isn’t easy. To achieve it, we must mentally spell the word, pick out any e’s, and keep track of how many we find without confusing that number for the word we’re at. It’s certainly much easier to use your fingers, it allows you to externalise some information, somewhat freeing your mind. The correct answer is 33.
George Miller published one of the most cited papers in psychology in 1956, suggesting this workspace has a limit of between 5 and 9 objects or items or whatever it is we should call them. Keeping an 8 digit phone number would then be close to the limit of what we can store at once.
Given there are human rocket scientists, chess grandmasters, and even memory champions, it would be easy to expect this mental capacity to be both important and a defining feature of human intelligence. Oddly, a 2007 study found that chimpanzees have a larger mental workspace than we do.
Fear not, for humans have a trick up their sleeves. When we talk about storing items, or objects, or digits, or whatever, what constitutes these things isn’t always clearly defined. It could be a number, or a letter, an image, or a word, perhaps even a whole sentence or concept.
If I asked you to remember ‘xuhhsoejayshkifgsn,’ you would dislike me for it. If, on the other hand, I asked you to remember ‘coffee and cake make my belly happy,’ well that’s a lot easier. There are more letters involved, there’s more information contained within, but we store it with greater ease.
As we learn we quite often group basic units into more complex things, something conveniently called ‘chunking.’ As Daniel Bor writes, “The process of combining more primitive pieces of information to create something more meaningful is a crucial aspect both of learning and of consciousness and is one of the defining features of human experience.”
The mind groups sections of knowledge together so that instead of having to think of the smaller elements, everything’s woven together. Now your mental workspace doesn’t have to store every word of this article in order to understand it, you take the points and store them in a more abstract form. The effort of working with information is thus reduced the more experienced and knowledgeable we get with the information involved.
You probably remember one of your old phone numbers or addresses, the names of friends that are no longer friends, some notable experiences of your first few years in school — all despite the majority of your experience fading into nothingness. All those memories that stuck around did so in long-term memory.
As William James writes, “The stream of thought flows on; but most of its segments fall into the bottomless abyss of oblivion. Of some, no memory survives the instant of their passage. Of others, it is confined to a few moments, hours, or days. Others, again, leave vestiges which are indestructible, and by means of which they may be recalled as long as life endures.”
How do you know when something is properly stored? Well, quite simply, you can recall it, particularly after some time has passed. Recalling things that have not yet been properly stored can feel very effortful — try to remember what the weather was like last Tuesday morning, or what you had for lunch on Friday. Unless there was something special about the weather or meal, it won’t easy remembering them.
When it comes to getting things to stick around, a common activity is battering the desired information into our skulls with repetition. Many students study by rereading their notes, endlessly scanning, highlighting, re-consuming information like it’s food at a buffet table.
It turns out a more effective way of storing information is to take a test. While the predominant way of determining when someone knows something is to test them, the struggle to recall actually helps cement the memory more firmly. So, if you put in the effort to recall what you had for lunch last week, you’ll then remember it better than if someone simply told you.
Psychologist Robert Bjork called recall a desirable difficulty. Reading is easy compared to recalling. There is greater mental effort involved in bringing forth partly forgotten knowledge than in consuming nicely presented information. Learning and memory are enhanced through this effort.
Making recall that little bit more difficult is the internet. It should come as no surprise that there are answers to almost all your questions somewhere online, so whenever you have a niggling curiosity, your devices are there to satiate your mental hunger.
Yet relying on this form of consumption tends to leave you with a memory only of where you found the information, not what the information actually was — termed both digital amnesia and the Google effect. If you want to be able to recall something, it’s a good idea to put the effort in and practice recalling it.
You make a lot of decisions every day, from what to wear, what to eat, and what to say all the way to what you want to do with your life. Some are clearly so insignificant you don’t think all that much about them, while others can be so anxiety-inducing they can inhibit you from making any decision at all.
Some decisions require you to analyse information in a logical way — how do you get from Paris to Berlin on a certain budget and without taking too much time? In such a case you can take the available information and swirl it around in your mental workspace until you come to an answer that satisfies the constraints.
Other times the problems will be more ambiguous. Take the scenario of Buridan’s Ass — an ass (donkey) stands between a barrel of hay and a barrel of water. He’s equally hungry and thirsty, but that makes both barrels equally appetising, to the point that he cannot decide which one to go for, and ends up dying on the spot. Death by indecision.
This seems like just a fancy thought-experiment. We don’t have too much trouble choosing which beer to pick up in the supermarket, even if they do seem equally appealing. Somehow we just make a choice. But when the stakes get high trouble can arise.
Choosing what to study, who to date, or where to live, can prove endlessly difficult if you’re trying to make the most perfect, logical choice possible. There are too many variables to consider. At some point you have to let your gut decide and just go with it. Otherwise it can leave you sitting in a dark corner, pulling hair out of your head, making an ass of yourself.
In a similar story, a fox and cat are sitting and discussing their methods of escaping danger. The fox boasts of many tricks and techniques for getting himself out of trouble, while the cat confesses to having only one way — to climb a tree. When some hunters turn up with their dogs, the cat climbs a tree while the fox gets stuck deciding which option to use, and gets caught.
This problem coincides with what psychologist Barry Schwartz calls the paradox of choice. It is not uncommon for people to want options, we want to have a wide selection to freely choose from, there is something empowering about it. Yet at the same time, it is rather stifling.
It is easier to choose between a vanilla or chocolate ice cream, than it is when the selection tops 30 flavours. When there are too many options, you can get stuck in analysis paralysis, a state of inaction from an overload of, well, freedom.
“Autonomy and Freedom of choice are critical to our well being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don’t seem to be benefiting from it psychologically.” — Barry Schwartz
When our options are easily distinguished we can easily choose between them. When the number of options grows and the boundary between desirable and undesirable narrows, the decision becomes more difficult and greater effort is required to finally make a choice.
4. Mind Control
I’m going to lump a lot of things together under this umbrella — attention, self-control, focus, concentration, willpower, and some I’m likely missing. What ties them together is that they all tend to revolve around keeping our mind on a task despite distractions or temptations trying to tug us in another direction.
“Every one knows what attention is,” writes William James. “It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought.”
When you have to listen to someone in a crowded bar, there is more effort involved in blocking out the unwanted noise. When you need to get work done on the computer, the temptations of social media can be overwhelming. Even your own mind can be distracting, with unwanted thoughts popping up and jostling for your attention — particularly noticeable when you first decide to give meditation a go.
Attention is a scarce resource, and when it’s fully invested in one task, it can be blind to things it would otherwise make apparent to us. In an interesting study, a video was shown of a group of people throwing a couple of balls around. There were three people in white shirts passing a ball among each other, and three people in black shirts doing the same, so there was a lot happening on screen. The participants watching this video had one job: to count the number of passes between people wearing white.
In the middle of the video, a man in a gorilla costume wandered through the group of people passing the balls around, batted his chest, and walked out of shot. When the researchers asked the participants if they had noticed him, about half of them did not. In a later variation of the video, one of the people in a black shirt leaves the frame, never to return, and the background to the video changes colour subtly from red to gold. Even fewer people notice these events.
For some people the gorilla was virtually invisible, their attention was too occupied with counting passes that they failed to notice something that in most other situations would be very apparent. On the flip side, when you aren’t fully engaging your attentional resources, there can instead be a distraction that you struggle to keep out of our mind.
Take the famous marshmallow experiment. Walter Mischel wanted to test the self-control of children by placing something tasty in front of them — often but not always a marshmallow — instructing them that if they could resist eating it for some amount of time, they would get a second.
What did the kids do? They would turn away, cover their eyes, and try different methods of getting the desirable object out of their head. They knew they would have a hard time resisting the treat if it was allowed free access to their mind, but keeping it out necessitated a strong will.
Interestingly, in the years that followed, it was discovered that those kids that resisted most effectively went on to be successful in more areas of life, such as in body mass and scholastic achievements.
It appears that willpower is an important factor in making the most of life. And why wouldn’t it be? You’re bombarded with temptations every day — you have to resist eating unhealthy foods, buying unnecessary products, saying something you think but that might be offensive, watching television when you have to work, paying attention when your mind wants to wander, and so forth.
Surely those that can keep their mind on track will be more successful in achieving what they want, but we all know that doing so isn’t always easy. Yet other researchers have challenged the idea that successful people are just endowed with a stronger will. As we’ll see in the next chapter, the notion of willpower has come under heavy criticism.
RUNNING OUT OF STEAM
When talking about effort, it seems natural to compare mental effort to physical effort. There are limits to how much mental work you can do at once, just as there are limits to how much weight you can lift.
So, if there is a limit to the length of time you can work your muscles for, it might seem appropriate to conclude that there are limits to the length of time you can think effortfully for; and if working out strengthens your muscles, perhaps mental work eventually makes you better able to think later on.
Such were the thoughts of Roy Baumeister, who coined the term ego depletion in reference to research indicating that making decisions and exerting willpower would wear us down, to the point that our decisions and ability to concentrate degrade.
“The central idea is that self-control operates on the basis of a limited resource, akin to energy or strength, that can become depleted through use. The depleted self is then less able to carry out further acts of self-control.” — Roy Baumeister
He highlighted studies that found that after an act of will — such as suppressing emotions during a sad or distressing movie, or trying not to think certain thoughts (don’t think of a white bear), or eating radishes while in the presence of chocolates and cookies — people would subsequently give up faster in other activities, like squeezing a handgrip or solving unsolvable anagrams.
Baumeister also argues that rather than stopping when we run out of energy, we stop to conserve what’s left. When certain incentives appear, we push ourselves further than usual, suggesting we have more to give. Unless what we’re doing is worth total expenditure, we prefer to keep some mental energy left in the tank.
He writes, “one could read these findings as indicating conservation rather than exhaustion. According to this view, the initial exercise does deplete the self’s resources, not to a catastrophic degree, but enough to motivate the person to conserve what is left.”
Conservation cannot be the only way to ensure our self-control lasts. Clearly you replenish this resource somehow, otherwise, after some time you’d get stuck on empty, and self-control would become impossibly difficult. Rest and good food seem to be the likely candidates.
“Few self-control failures occur first thing in the morning, when people have had a good night’s sleep. On the contrary, self-control seems to grow gradually weaker as the day wears on. Diets are broken in the evening, impulsive crimes and violent acts occur most often after midnight, addictive relapses occur later in the day, and so forth.”
Charging the Batteries
The question thus becomes: what is the resource that maintains all of this? The brain, in most cases, derives energy from glucose. One study found that judges are far less likely to grant parole just before their lunch break than they are immediately after it. Milkshakes seem to restore willpower, and dogs — who also seem to suffer from ego-depletion — get their self-control back after a dose of glucose.
There are a few issues with this notion, however. For starters, your brain uses about the same amount of energy whether you’re doing math problems or lounging in your chair thinking about nothing in particular — about 20% of the bodies supply, or as much as your thigh during a marathon.
Perhaps it’s not that your whole brain’s use of glucose changes, but that specific areas do. Throughout the day you think in different ways, from concentrated effort to laid back contemplation, and the brain regions responsible for these activities will light up and die down in accordance.
One paper noted that in those brain regions that you rely on as you perform tasks, demand can likely exceed supply, leading to fatigue. However, glucose will still require time to be absorbed, and each region is only going to receive a small fraction of what you consume. It’s an open question as to how long it takes to return to normal after you’ve been sufficiently depleted.
“…even after concentrated efforts of self-control, people may not give into temptation if sufficiently motivated,” write the authors of a 2018 article. “This suggests that people may not fail at self-control because they run out of glucose. Likewise, research has found that consuming beverages that contain fructose, which takes some time to be metabolized into glucose, or even merely gargling but not swallowing sweet liquids can lead to better self-control performance. Thus, glucose metabolism on its own probably cannot explain the vagaries of mental performance.”
Baumeister himself notes in his paper that the observed effects are rather small, but others have questioned whether there is an effect at all. Many of the initial studies into ego depletion have failed to be reliably replicated. A 2010 meta-analyses concluded that the effect probably doesn’t exist, or is at least far less significant than other reports suggest.
“Willpower may simply be a pre-scientific idea — one that was born from social attitudes and philosophical speculation rather than research, and enshrined before rigorous experimental evaluation of it became possible. The term has persisted into modern psychology because it has a strong intuitive hold on our imagination: Seeing willpower as a muscle-like force does seem to match up with some limited examples, such as resisting cravings, and the analogy is reinforced by social expectations stretching back to Victorian moralizing. But these ideas also have a pernicious effect, distracting us from more accurate ways of understanding human psychology and even detracting from our efforts toward meaningful self-control. The best way forward may be to let go of “willpower” altogether.” — Carl Erik Fisher in Nautilus
The research into ego-depletion seems intuitive — making decisions certainly feels effortful, and effort requires energy, how could you not get rundown after using up your reserves? However, it hasn’t stood up to scrutiny all that well, and the research has left me rather confused. Glucose seems to be one issue, though not the only issue. And how much of an issue there is also seems debatable.
Your sense of cognitive effort and feeling of mental fatigue might not come from the brain burning energy. Maybe we’re just a little reluctant to push ourselves as far as we can. Maybe effort is something else entirely.
What’s in it for Me?
When you decide to do something, you must, on some level, measure the expected reward against the difficulty or aversiveness of doing it. For instance, working in an office carries an expected monetary reward, while the activity itself can be so mundane as to drive one crazy. If the money is worth the effort, you’ll work away at it until you decide that it isn’t. Of course, you will at some point need to eat or sleep, but that would be the case whether you exerted effort or not.
Taking a closer look at some of the research conducted on willpower, it is not always clear how rewarding these activities are to participants — what incentive do they have to really push themselves in a handgrip test after other tests of their will? Uncertain or ambiguous benefits aren’t likely to find out how far people can go.
As you get further into the task at hand, your priorities can change. If you start to feel hungry or tired, your current activities might suddenly not offer the same subjective reward as food or sleep, and so you decide to stop what you’re doing and relieve these other symptoms. Perhaps the task you’re on becomes more difficult than you were anticipating, there are obstacles you didn’t foresee, time you didn’t want to invest, and so the expected reward becomes less appealing, or deemed not worth the effort.
Even when you’re tired or stressed or hungry or nauseous, deciding to continue with what you’re doing or to switch tasks is still a choice. When you want something enough, you can push yourself pretty far, but you must want it more than all the niggling desires and feelings that your body and environment throw at you.
Because there are limits to how much you can pay attention to, and how much information you can process at any one time, you naturally have to prioritise your mental activity. When you decide to direct your resources towards one goal, you are simultaneously admitting that other goals you might pursue are currently not worth the effort.
All those goals you relegate to a future time or write off altogether can be referred to as opportunity costs. They’re the price you pay for choosing to do what you do right now. Some researchers think that the sensation of mental effort is a measurement of these opportunity costs.
They point out that the brain seems to effortlessly maintain your heart rate and body temperature, it also has little trouble taking visual input and recognising objects and colours. The sensation of effort doesn’t seem to apply to all mental activity, but rather to the executive functions, which consist of those resources discussed in part one — attention and working memory and so forth.
“Because some systems, especially those associated with executive function, have multiple uses to which they can be put, the use of these systems carries opportunity costs. We propose that these costs are experienced as “effort,” and have the effect of reducing task performance.”
The more thoughts and sensations you have tugging at your attention, from noisy colleagues to hunger cramps to unfinished tasks that keep swirling in your mind, the more effort will be needed to focus on something else. All those variables can change from moment to moment, and so the sense of effort can also change.
It’s an interesting idea, but it certainly has not settled the debate on mental effort. For now, I feel, it might be a better explanation than willpower resting on an expendable energy source. Mental effort doesn’t seem to be as analogous to physical effort as first imagined. It’s also possible the belief that it is could do harm — if you think effort comes in limited batches, you might be excessively stingy in how you apply it, opting to reserve it for those times you deem it absolutely necessary, when it could benefit you at many other times.
The Fruits of Labor
While exerting effort might appear to grow more difficult over time, there is another point at which the sensation of effort might stifle you — the very beginning. Before even starting some task, you inevitably look at it and comprehend just how much effort will be involved. From this starting point, when you are at rest, when you are comfortable, the notion of pushing yourself can be off-putting. Starting is often the hardest part.
It’s likely for this reason we often fall short of our own expectations. We complain that we procrastinate too often, we rue the fact we’re too lazy to meet our full potential. Piers Steel notes that more than 80% of students procrastinate in over one-third of their daily activities. “Although virtually all of us have at least dallied with dallying, some have made it a way of life,” he writes.
A 2013 study found that some people would accept lower wages to work at an effortless job, even when they expect to enjoy the more effortful alternative. If one can earn more money while enjoying the experience, the preference for a mundane and cheaper option is odd. Effort in this instance appears to be exceptionally objectionable.
Naturally, this doesn’t stop you from doing everything. You understand that life will be better if you go out and accomplish things. But the perceived rewards have to overcome the startlingly negative view of effort before you’ll get up and act. If you do muster the strength to get yourself going, some interesting results might come your way when you reach the finish line.
We tend to think the things we own are worth more than they are, something referred to as the endowment effect. But if you make those things, the effect is kicked up a notch. For instance, people who put together IKEA boxes valued their creations at $0.78, while those put together by experts equated to $0.48. The effect only occurs when you actually finish the task, but it occurs even if the end result isn’t very good. The effect “is sufficient in magnitude that consumers believe that their self-made products rival those of experts,” write the researchers.
Now, these were IKEA boxes, what does this effect say about the car you modify, the house you renovate, the business you start, the knowledge you accrue, or the beliefs you form?
However, in line with the notion that effort is initially unpleasant, the IKEA paper found that 92% of participants would pay more for the preassembled products. They would hand over money to avoid investing the time and effort, even though they would feel more fondly about something they created themselves.
From the outset, you have accomplished nothing, you’re looking from the outside-in at everything you’re going to have to do, and it’s daunting. But then, once you get started, once you start moving and see the task slowly diminish as you work your way through it, it gets easier and easier to continue. You build momentum.
How we perceive and then experience effort likely differs between us. Some people are more comfortable being uncomfortable. Some relish the chance to push their mind a little further, learn something new, experience something different. There are several terms to describe such qualities: need for cognition, typical intellectual engagement, openness to experience, and epistemic curiosity. They differ in some regards, but each describes some quality of exploring and enjoying some level of cognition.
“Some individuals tend to act as cognitive misers in circumstances that call forth effortful problem solving in most individuals, whereas others tend to be concentrated cognizers even in situations that lull most individuals into a cognitive repose,” state the authors of a 1996 paper.
There is also some research suggesting that those people less inclined to invest effort can change their ways. Robert Eisenberger found that people reinforced for exerting effort can form a feeling of reward for that effort, and become more likely to invest in other activities. He termed it learned industriousness, and it occurs in both people and other animals. The sensation of effort can become a reward in itself. You can learn to seek it out, to enjoy the overcoming of obstacles.
Where to From Here?
I find this all rather difficult to reconcile. It appears like effort is not dependant on some expendable resource, not to a very significant extent at least. You can make use of your faculties for a lengthy period of time if you think the end result is going to be worth it — and most often, it will be.
Perhaps depletion isn’t much of a factor. Maybe the effort necessary to succeed doesn’t rise as you run out of energy, but as the demands of the task change, and as other goals make themselves apparent to you, which can happen all the time — you get tired, hungry, your phone gets a message, or you get an urge to check social media.
Holding your attention upon something was only one of the faculties that produced a sense of effort, the others (manipulating information in mind, recalling memories, making decisions under uncertainty) also require effort in the moment. The important thing might be the limited attention and space the mind has to work out its problems and achieve its goals. These faculties are scarce, and they are valuable, so you must be sure they are put to proper use.
If this is the case, it might explain why thinking can be a difficult experience — it wouldn’t be a good idea to feel too good working on one goal if another becomes more important. Say you’re working on your thesis all night and neglect food and sleep. At some point, those desires will have to outweigh the thesis.
It is problematic to have too many goals, leaving you unable to focus on any particular one for long enough to achieve it, and there are plenty of unhealthy distractions masquerading as goals, but thankfully you have the ability to exert effort and ignore them. Maybe procrastination is just an unfortunate byproduct of a mind making sure it isn’t using precious resources until absolutely necessary. Good thing you have the option to invest effort and get those tasks done earlier, as difficult as that may seem.
I can’t be sure that effort is a result of variable goals and limited resources, but it seems plausible. We need to put it to another test. In the next chapter, we’ll explore our common aversion to something of the opposite to effort.
THE ABSENCE OF EFFORT
What does the mind do when it has nothing to do? It certainly doesn’t go blank, there are still thoughts, there is still someone there experiencing, but that experience is rather different.
Something > Nothing
In terms of effort, the easiest of the easy is to do absolutely nothing. I don’t mean watching videos or those sort of mindless things you do to relax. I mean absolutely nothing. Not meditation either, because for most of us meditation requires some effort to keep your attention on track. No, in this instance, nothing is more like sitting and staring at the wall, not making any effort to do anything.
Chances are, you’ll get bored. This is an interesting point. If we’re so reluctant to invest cognitive effort, the sensation of boredom is strange. Why would you feel what might be described as a compulsion to do something?
A heavy mental burden is uncomfortable, yet so is a lack of mental stimulation. When there’s no obvious task or goal to occupy your mind, you get antsy, you’re suddenly motivated to find something to think about. If cognitive effort is unpleasant, perhaps Arthur Schopenhauer was right in saying that, “life swings like a pendulum backward and forward between pain and boredom.”
A mind that is investing no effort at all is an uncomfortable mind. We want to keep moving, exploring, thinking about something. Boredom and it’s more positive cousin curiosity suggest your mind likes to invest some effort. But let’s return to the room, you’re sitting there staring at the wall, bored, but not absent of thought. Your mind does not shut down, it creates something, suggests something. It wanders.
Your mind is quite capable of drifting on its own path, disconnecting from the mundane reality you’re subjecting it to. Mind wandering and daydreaming tend to suggest that when your mind isn’t given information to process, it can quite easily make up its own.
This tends to happen a lot. Some reports suggest our mind’s leave reality up to 50% of our waking hours. You don’t have to be doing nothing, you could be driving a car, reading a book, sitting in a classroom listening to a teacher. Suddenly you become aware that what you’ve been thinking has detoured substantially from where you began, and little do you know for how long this detour has occurred.
Your awareness of the outside world didn’t completely disappear, something of an autopilot took over. You didn’t drive off the side of the road, you might even have a general sense of what was happening in the book or classroom, but you are certainly missing important pieces, the memory is incomplete.
A wandering mind could be occupied with past memories, future possibilities, unfinished tasks and goals, fantasy worlds or other conceptions largely unrelated to what’s happening around you at that moment. Plenty of people complain about this, they say we should remain in the present moment, that daydreaming is for lazy people, that mind wandering makes us unhappy. There are, however, many benefits to giving the mind the freedom to roam.
Daydreaming helps you set goals and plan for the future, and is also associated with increased creativity and the mystical a-ha moments of insight. The authors of one study write that mind wandering “involves a complex balance of costs and benefits: Its association with various kinds of error underlines its cost, whereas its relationship to creativity and future planning suggest its potential value.”
This feature of the mind, to disconnect from reality and stroll through the imagination, has been used to great effect by artists and creative types. Salvador Dali used to hold keys in his hand as he sat in his chair, drifting slowly into a gentle slumber. Before he would go fully under, he would drop the keys, waking himself up. In the moments before this happened his mind would contain many dream-like images and thoughts that he could then use in his art.
Many problems, particularly those requiring creative solutions, will often only be solved after a period of incubation. When confronted with a complex or difficult challenge, it’s been suggested that you try as hard as you can to learn and overcome the problem, and if nothing comes of this attempt, then take your mind off the problem and find something else to occupy your thoughts. Wash the dishes, go for a run, take a shower. It’s during this downtime that you might strike upon an insight, the answer suddenly thrusting itself upon your mind.
Attention generally requires effort, but it’s also able to focus on only a small sliver of your experience. By letting go you open yourself up to the strange and random thoughts that for the most part might not have much to offer, but every so often they’ll provide something we were blind to while paying attention. You could think of attention as being inside the box, daydreaming as moving outside it.
“Allowing the brain to rest opens the system to exploiting these mechanisms of nonlinearity and randomness, and amplifies the brain’s natural tendency to combine percepts and memories into new concepts.” — Andrew Smart in Autopilot.
When Effort Fades
Staring at the wall, I hope, is not how you spend most of your day. Generally you do things, you process the outside world in some way. You walk, talk, pick things up, think things through. You have jobs, a social life, entertainment, and chores to take care of. Some of this will feel more effortful than other aspects. But the more you do them, the less effort they seem to require.
The more familiar you get with certain tasks and objects, the easier they become for your mind to process, to the extent you will cease to think of or even be aware of them. It takes all of your mental effort to learn to drive, or to speak a language you’ve only begun to grasp. But over time these things become easier, your mind rearranges itself such that this new information can pass more easily through it. Behaviours become habits. Information becomes knowledge.
As mentioned in section one, you chunk information together to help you think about more. You learn the letters before the words, and then the grammar, so that your mind ceases to be burdened by the smaller elements and can instead form larger conceptual ideas. The more you learn, the more you can think about, but also, the less you need to think to achieve certain things.
“The more we remember, the better we are at processing the world. And the better we are at processing the world, the more we can remember about it.” — Joshua Foer in Moonwalking with Einstein
Sometimes we want to reacquaint ourselves with our almost-forgotten surroundings. You might sit and look into your coffee, contemplating the soft mist dancing above it, or the bitter taste as it sinks into your taste buds. You may want to slow down and take a more nuanced view of the weather, to bring your attention to the clouds and breeze that would otherwise have passed by unnoticed. You may even decide that your thoughts need more attention, and so you sit, close our eyes, and become more aware of the ideas, images, and visions flowing through your mind. To do this, of course, requires effort, you must direct your attention and hold it upon something.
While a lot can be gained from being mindful of such experiences, for the most part, this shift of awareness is beneficial. It helps you move up what you might call a cognitive hierarchy. When walking down the street, you don’t want to have to focus on your leg movements in the same way a child does when learning to walk. You can move on, you can turn your attention to other things, until those things become automatic, and you move on once more.
Interesting things eventually become dull and boring, yet things that were previously too difficult or complex to grasp enter the realm of possibility. To appease the boredom you find something new to occupy your mind. You branch out a little further, raise the difficulty, you entertain your mind with something it hasn’t yet grown tired of.
There are some obvious ways you can keep our mind away from boredom. Games, videos, movies, music, social media, and the like. They might not push your mental effort into the red, but they will keep your mind from becoming too idle. They offer you a balance between intuition and cognition, giving you the chance to process some information, but to not be overwhelmed by it.
This balance between the absence and investment of mental effort seems to be important. One study found that babies and children seem to prefer a middle ground between novelty and familiarity. They write that, “infants allocate their greatest amount of attention to events of intermediate surprisingness–events that are likely to have just enough complexity so that they are interesting, but not so much that they cannot be understood.”
What you learn must branch out from what you know. You need the basics before you get into the complexities, you need a foundation before going into the details. Exploring the middle ground is how you keep yourself ever expanding on your mental horizons, with less risk of finding yourself in a mess of information you can’t make sense of.
Many forms of media make use of this. Movies and books and video games selectively provide you information, never too much or you’ll get confused, never too little or you’ll get bored. Their goal is to keep you interested, occupied, thinking about what’s to come. While getting hooked on certain shows might not be the best use of your time, it does highlight the fact that the mind, while reluctant to put in a lot of work, does not want to remain inert. There is a goldilocks zone of information processing — none too little, none too much.
Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that people often say the moments they are happiest are when they’re doing something to the best of their ability. When you face a challenge that you’re capable of overcoming, you can enter what he called a state of flow, also known as the zone. Such states are characterised by a deep absorption in the task, you lose your sense of time and self, you’re just a ball of focused energy fully intent on achieving one thing.
He writes in his book Flow, “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.”
Both your abilities and the difficulty of the task must align if you’re to enter this flow state. If the difficulty outweighs your abilities, you’re more likely to become anxious and less likely to succeed. If your abilities outweigh the difficulty of the task, you’ll succeed, but it will be a dull trip that fails to engage your mental muscles.
Another important characteristic of flow is that directing your attention feels effortless, you don’t need to try to focus or think too much. Formula 1 champion Ayrton Senna once said of his driving, “…suddenly I realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel.”
Musicians can enter flow when shredding through an improvised solo, just as skiers riding the slopes, or programmers whizzing through keystrokes. Anybody can enter the tunnel when their abilities and the task align in such the right way. When it happens, the effort generally required of us dissipates into absorption. It becomes easy to keep going, we are compelled to keep going.
But of course, we are still thinking, right? The basketball player in the zone must still process what happens around them, they must make decisions, they still calculate angles and trajectories. As we drive a familiar road, we might switch to autopilot and let our minds wander, but a formula 1 driver likely doesn’t. They’re present, their mind is active, so are they still on autopilot? Can we really think accurately, quickly, and effortlessly?
“Decision making in flow is fast and precise, implicating automatic action, but also creative and flexible, implicating processes that are normally associated with executive control — though executive control processes are generally considered slow,” writes Brian Bruya.
If the mind prefers to process a moderate amount of information, then the balance between challenge and skills when in flow would seem to gel well. Under certain circumstances, once you get going, the going gets easier. It can get so easy as to feel effortless. It can get so easy that it would be more difficult to stop than keep going.
How does this relate to the idea in the previous chapter — that variable goals and limited resources are what promote a sense of effort? In flow you have a challenging environment placing a heavy demand on your cognitive faculties, but effort seems to be missing. It could be that your mind is so involved that no other thoughts or sensations could be worth entertaining, and so the opportunity costs (and the effort of ignoring them) become negligent.
Flow, boredom, and mind wandering make the notion that thinking consumes a limited supply of energy seem even less likely. They could work within a theory of effort equating to the costs of ignoring other goals and activities. An ideal range of information processing would be sought out when you’re bored and satisfied when in flow. There is one other feature worth wrapping our heads around before we conclude — the interplay between intuition and cognition.
TRIGGERING A THOUGHT
Maintaining your attention and loading up your mental workspace feels effortful, but it’s uncertain how much of a factor time is. We’ve also established that while effort might not be enjoyable, doing nothing isn’t a great alternative. In this chapter, let’s look into the interplay of cognition and intuition.
Whether we call it intuition, or autopilot, habit, instinct, or others I’m probably missing, I’m just going to lump them under a single framework because they are each outside the realm of mental effort, or cognition, and that’s what’s important here. They’re reactions to the world or to other thoughts that don’t require any contemplation or effort. You just do or think them. Cognition is something you experience first hand, you see it before your internal eye, whereas intuition happens behind the scenes.
Thinking About Thinking
In the dance between intuition and cognition, what exactly makes you shift from one to the other? What triggers your investment of effort, and on the other hand, what assures you that you’ve invested all you need — or that you don’t need to invest anything to begin with?
Sometimes you just trust your thought processes to be on the right track. Answers flow in naturally, information appears the moment you need it, instincts and habits react appropriately to whatever demands exist in your environment. Then there are those thoughts that you turn around and think about. Something in them seems to require your attention, there’s an inclination that your intuitive response wasn’t accurate, or there was no intuitive response at all.
When you start thinking about thinking, you engage in what psychologists call metacognition. When you learn something or think through some problem, it pays to evaluate the accuracy of your mind and what it’s doing. When a solution or idea pops up, you don’t just accept it, you question why it’s there and how good it is. You think about whether the thought processes you used were the best ones for the job.
Sometimes evaluating your thoughts isn’t very hard. Say you walk up to a familiar door and a friend opens it to greet you. You respond with “hi Pete.” But how do you know that you got their name correct? Perhaps you have a vivid memory of them introducing themselves and other times when you’ve used their name without receiving strange looks. You’ve probably also been around other people who call him by the same name. It seems reasonable to be confident that Pete is the right name.
Of course, you could be mistaken. You might be dreaming, this could be a twin instead of your friend, or maybe your memories were erased and replaced by an alien. Maybe you weren’t paying much attention and said the name of someone else that happens to look kind of similar — in this case, a little more metacognition would help.
The thing is, if they’re a friend you see often, you won’t think about any of this. There’s no recognition that you could be dreaming or have been abducted by aliens. You also probably don’t think of the past experiences that assure you of their name. Rather, you just say it, the word comes to mind with force, with certainty. You knew before you knew why.
Now your friend lets you inside, then heads into the kitchen to make coffee. As they do, you pick up a magazine and start reading a passage about how bicycles were invented. You reach the end feeling as though you understood everything. How do you know you understood everything? What happens in your mind that convinces you there weren’t any logical errors or important information missing? Do you judge your interpretation on a feeling or a critical analysis? Sometimes the distinction isn’t so obvious.
Some researchers speculate that intuitions are accompanied by a feeling-of-rightness that signals whether or not you should engage more effortful thought. They had people answer a series of questions, first giving their gut response, then estimating the ‘rightness’ of that response, following this the participants could spend as much time as they needed to reconsider their answer and put more work in. They found that low confidence in the intuitive answer correlated with more time spent on the logical analysis, as one would hope.
However, that initial confidence appeared to be generated by the speed of the intuition — the faster an answer appeared, the more they relied upon it. What’s more, the time spent rethinking the problem didn’t necessarily make them more likely to find the correct answer, sometimes people stuck with their first response. “In these instances,” the researchers write, “we speculate that reasoners spend the rethinking period confabulating their initial answer.”
It would appear that intuitive and automatic thoughts arrive quickly, effortlessly, and as such with a strong sense of confidence. When based on prior knowledge and experience, these intuitions allow you to accurately and efficiently navigate your task or environment. The familiar friend’s name springs forth with no inclination of doubt. But experience isn’t the only way to have thoughts appear quickly.
The problem with intuition is that often you’re not aware of the reasons or logic behind it. It just appears, and when it does, you tend to trust it, because it feels like what knowing feels like. You’re not given any reason to question it.
“Intuition is defined as knowing without knowing how you know,” says Daniel Kahneman. “That’s the wrong definition. Because by that definition, you cannot have the wrong intuition.”
Kahneman has a reputation for proving our intuition wrong. He upended the traditional economic theory that people are rational decision-makers, finding that certain situations lead to systematic and predictable errors. He won a noble prize in economics for his work, despite being a psychologist. Holding a special place in my memory is his book Thinking Fast and Slow, in which he writes that many accurate intuitions owe their speed to experience, but others arise for very different reasons.
Take this question: If a bat and a ball together cost $1.20, and the bat costs $1.00 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?
Take a moment to answer that and pay attention to what happens in your mind as you do. If you’re like most people, an answer comes surging up from your gut — twenty cents! But of course this is a trick question, and only through a little extra effort can you reject the intuitive answer to find the correct one — which is $0.10 (the bat then costs $1.10, altogether making it $1.20).
In this case the intuition was wrong. The quick answer was wrong, and if, as the aforementioned study suggests, the quick answer comes with greater confidence, that confidence would have misled you. The fact we’re here discussing errors of intuition likely planted a seed of doubt, but in other domains and times when such errors are not the centre of attention, these gut responses can be more convincing.
Intuition isn’t only based on how easy relevant memories are to retrieve, but in how easily information can be processed more generally. Patterns, easy-to-read fonts, simple language, repeated phrases, rhymes, easy-to-pronounce words and syllables, can all be processed with greater ease than their counterparts, and as such, instil a sense of confidence in whatever information they might present. Take these two questions, and while reading them, pay attention to your automatic responses:
- If it takes 5 machines 5 min to make 5 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?
- If it takes 5 machines 2 min to make 10 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?
The first question prompts a response of 100, but again it’s misleading, as the correct answer is 5 minutes. The second question doesn’t as easily lend itself to an intuitive response, so it’s more likely to suggest you put in some effort to figure it out. The difference in the two questions seems only to be the pattern of numbers, with the first question making for a more predictable sequence than the second.
Researchers use the term processing fluency when talking about the speed with which you comprehend certain information or stimuli. Anything that makes your environment easy to perceive and understand contributes to this fluency, and there are some interesting, if not slightly disconcerting, studies that highlight it.
When asked, “how many animals of each type did Moses take on the ark?” people are more likely to respond ‘2’ when the font is clear and legible. When it’s printed in writing that is more difficult to read, more people realise that Moses didn’t take any animals on the ark, Noah did. When researchers presented people with statements such as “Osorno is in Chile,” the contrast between the text and background made a difference in how believable people found it — when the text is more visible, the statements were more often judged as true.
When you struggle to process information, it slows the mind down, reduces the chance of intuitive responses, and makes you more critical of what’s being absorbed. The smoother your thoughts flow, the less likely it is you’ll question them, but different qualities of the information can promote fluency and mask potential pitfalls. The authors of one analysis of this fluency effect conclude that, “Whether a stimulus is easy to perceive visually, easy to process linguistically, easy to retrieve from memory, or semantically activated, people believe that it is truer than its less fluently processed counterparts.”
Where intuition is fast and automatic, cognition is slow and effortful. Cognition can rise and fall, and is mostly concentrated on one problem or piece of information at a time, whereas intuition is broad and active almost all the time, receiving inputs of many varieties, and calling our attention to things that can’t be processed fluently.
Unfortunately intuition is prone to missing things, of skipping over problems when they’re hidden in pleasing patterns. Choosing to put greater effort into what you’re doing is really the only way to make sure you get everything right, but it can prove rather difficult to know when and where that effort should be placed. Even in situations where you would expect cognition to be in greater demand, a preference for gut feelings can be seen. For instance, some researchers found that stocks with easy-to-pronounce names (RIN) can outperform stocks that are harder to pronounce (FGF). This is an odd way to predict economic success.
In a particularly fascinating case, people that had to recall 12 instances of when they displayed assertive behaviour subsequently rated themselves as less assertive than those who had to think up only 6 examples. When they switched to examples of unassertive behaviour, the group that recalled 12 instances judged themselves more assertive than the group who recalled 6. A greater number of examples should reinforce certain descriptions, but in this case, the difficulty of coming up with those examples made people less likely to agree with them.
Questioning your gut isn’t easy. It can be quite uncomfortable. There is something very reassuring about those automatic thoughts. This is probably for a good reason — an environment that is quickly understood makes for a situation you can easily navigate. When the flow begins to get rough, when errors or uncertainties seep in, it might suggest there is something you should be concerned about. Memories that are hard to recall are probably less reliable, text that is difficult to understand requires more questioning, an environment that is unfamiliar necessitates greater vigilance.
It’s all well and good to demonstrate how we can be lead astray, to suggest that intuition is trusted but not always trustworthy, fast but not always accurate. However, we don’t exactly get ourselves into that much trouble in everyday life. Rather, intuition generally serves us remarkably well. These are examples and studies selected purely because they point out a possible way in which your thoughts flow from the intuitive side to the effortful side. It isn’t perfect, but we’ve built rockets, so it can’t be as bad as I might have made it seem.
What does seem to be the case is that intuition is confidence-inspiring. We don’t like having nothing to do and we don’t like a heavy burden either, intuition looks to be the middle ground here. Those high performers who enter a state of flow are operating on instinct, but it’s an instinct they’ve acquired and refined through many years of practice. Rookie intuition, or intuition within an area that isn’t regular enough to be predicted, is going to be less reliable, in which case more thought will be required.
Effort then occurs when you challenge your intuition, when the flow isn’t up to the task and so you have to force your mind in another direction. To quote Williams James:
“The stream of our thought is like a river. On the whole easy simple flowing predominates in it, the drift of things is with the pull of gravity, and effortless attention is the rule. But at intervals an obstruction, a set-back, a log-jam occurs, stops the current, creates an eddy, and makes things temporarily move the other way. If a real river could feel, it would feel these eddies and set-backs as places of effort. ‘I am here flowing,’ it would say, ‘in the direction of greatest resistance, instead of flowing, as usual, in the direction of least. My effort is what enables me to perform this feat.’”
A FINAL THOUGHT ON THINKING
I’m going out on a limb to assume that you are a conscious being, and as thoughts are a defining feature of consciousness, I’m sure you are familiar with them. Mental effort generally occurs when you try to do a lot with those thoughts. The benefit of this is that you can see what’s involved. You can monitor the processes and choose the next step in achieving your goal. Thinking is the means by which the central character in your life takes control.
Thinking, however, takes time. Unconscious processes like habit and intuition are fast, they’re efficient, but they’re rigid and hard to control. Your conscious processes give you the ability to adapt to new and complex circumstances, provided there is time to do so, and you are adequately motivated.
You can’t invest effort into everything you do, because you’d spend so much time mulling over little details and decisions you’d never get anywhere. To get the most out of life you have to be somewhat brisk.
“Solving a problem in a hundred years is, practically speaking, the same as not solving it at all. In fact, the requirements on an intelligent agent are even more stringent. Life is a series of deadlines. Perception and behavior take place in real time, such as in hunting an animal or keeping up one’s end of a conversation. And since computation itself takes time, information processing can be part of the problem rather than part of the solution.” — Steven Pinker
The limitation of time not only occurs in how much you can get done each day, but in how much you can get done in the moment. Thinking is slow, and the information you hold in your mind decays. If someone gives you a list of numbers to remember, you’ll often have to rehearse them in your mind, otherwise they fade away. When solving problems, you have to work against the clock.
“The most important type of time-pressure is that which is inherent in the structure of the task. Thus, severe time-pressure necessarily arises in any task which imposes a significant load on short-term memory, because the subject’s rate of activity must be paced by the rate of decay of the stored elements. In mental arithmetic, for instance, one must keep track of the initial problem, of partial results already obtained, and of the next step. Stopping or slowing even for an instant usually forces one to return to the beginning and start again.” — Daniel Kahneman
Time pressure occurs over both the long and the short-term. Your thoughts are transient, if you don’t act to hold them in place, you’ll quickly lose them and have to start over. You also wouldn’t want to go spending too much time on each problem, because it could mean neglecting other important goals or missing opportunities.
We’re built, it seems, to prefer thinking quickly. Our ancestors had to make quick decisions to survive harsh and unforgiving conditions. A bad decision might cost you your life when you’re hunting or being hunted — but making no decision isn’t much better. So we favour intuition when it’s available, or do just enough thinking to arrive at a reasonable level of confidence.
From what I can tell, there are two relevant differences between the world those ancestors lived in and the one you occupy: (1) you have far more information at your disposal, and (2) you have more time to accumulate it.
There’s more information available to you than 99% of the people to have ever walked the Earth. When people ran around in small groups of hunter-gatherers, most members of the group could probably learn all there was to know at that point. There’s nobody who could come close to that today. Now you have to specialise, you have to create a unique knowledge base. The things you know that others don’t give you an advantage.
Our modern luxuries have also reduced the risks of slow thinking considerably. Now you can afford to take your time. You can spend years absorbing information to get a degree, or just sit in the grass reading a book. You can read at night. Ordering a pizza or turning the heater on means you don’t have to waste time finding other sources of food or warmth. You can just learn stuff.
What a time to be alive. Our thoughts have more to work with and more time to work through it. This is not to say we take full advantage of it. There are several ways the abundance of time and information can turn into a disadvantage.
We are still built to be quick thinkers. We prefer intuition, while effort is still rather aversive. This might cause us to jump to conclusions, to consume a small amount of what’s out there and assume we have a full account, to trust our intuition just because we processed something fluently. Or, given the lack of risk in taking our time, we might just slow to a stop — it’s a decent excuse to be lazy.
On the flip-side, there is so much information to be consumed that we can end up feeling like we never really grasp anything. It’s information overload. If you make a concerted effort to read up on everything you can, you’ll quickly realise it’s untenable, there’s too much, so you can never be sure you haven’t missed something important. At some point you have to be happy with what you have, or live in constant doubt.
“The individual is becoming a tiny chip inside a giant system that nobody really understands. Every day I absorb countless data bits through emails, phone calls and articles; process the data; and transmit back new bits through more emails, phone calls and articles. I don’t really know where I fit into the great scheme of things, and how my bits of data connect with the bits produced by billions of other humans and computers.” — Yuval Noah Harari
Navigating the labyrinth of information we find ourselves in means we can take our own unique path, but it leaves us susceptible to missing things, and to exacerbating certain biases — for instance, the fact you can’t look at everything could incline you to look for evidence that supports the things you already think.
I think it’s also important to mention multitasking here. You probably aren’t interested in just one thing. There’s a lot of topics that you’d like to learn, a lot of places to invest some of your effort. But under time pressure, it’s easy to fall into the habit of flicking back and forth between them. Have you ever found yourself looking at a browser with some ridiculous number of tabs open? You can’t even see the title of the page anymore, just an icon, and you jump back and forth without giving any one of them your full attention.
You need time to focus, and focus functions better when it’s directed at one thing for as long as that thing requires. Reading half an article before switching to another does a disservice to the information, and your memory for it will suffer as a result. Even when you finish, it’s ideal to take a break from consuming and give your subconscious a chance to do its thing with what you just dealt it, this has been shown to improve our memory.
“Multitasking, in short, is not only not thinking, it impairs your ability to think. Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.” — William Deresiewicz
It occurs to me as I write this that I fall into this boat. Before I’ve finished reading one article or book, I’m already half-thinking of what I want to do next. It feels good at the time (Oh I could read about AI! Or listen to a new podcast! Or start that new book!), but in reality it means I’m not giving the present task my full attention. It’s inspiring to think about all the knowledge you can gain online, but gaining it isn’t as simple as searching Google and opening a tab. It will take the effort of paying attention and thinking it through, and that means temporarily neglecting all the alternatives.
Now more than ever, learning is about opportunity costs. You can only do one thing at a time, you certainly can only think about one thing at a time, and that means you have to choose carefully where to place your attention. With so much information at your disposal, there is a lot you have to ignore. The costs are high.
Thinking is often uncomfortable, but it’s not always necessary. We can’t think about everything, and there are plenty of times and tasks which we can perform perfectly well with intuition. The important thing is that you should be looking to push yourself further, to expand your knowledge base, to consider what you don’t know, and to be critical of what you think you know — every so often. Doing this will help to refine those intuitions, so they’ll become more reliable.
From what I can tell, the feeling of mental effort is insisting you to hurry up or change your path. Sometimes that’s ok, sometimes you have to ignore it. Only you really know, and only you can muster the strength to push on through when you need to. You’re more capable of this than you might realise. Acknowledge that your attention needs to be directed somewhere and that distractions can afford to wait, recognise that there is no limited resource in your brain and that you can push yourself for a hefty period of time. Starting is the hardest part, so take one small step and get the momentum rolling.
Also, remember, it’s ok and at this point in time should be expected that you can’t know everything — the same goes for everyone else. We’re all trying to form our own little ball of knowledge from the ever-increasing data pool. Nobody can know it all, it’s likely nobody knows the same things you do. But then, you won’t know what they do either. If we can internalise this then we might be more considerate when people don’t share the same opinions as we do. It’s good to have a little doubt, to trust your gut but remain a little sceptical. Accept that for all you know there is a lot more you don’t, and spend your precious time thinking about the things most important to you.
“Each of us is in the world for no very long time, and within the few years of his life has to acquire whatever he is to know of this strange planet and its place in the universe. To ignore our opportunities for knowledge, imperfect as they are, is like going to the theatre and not listening to the play.” — Bertrand Russell
Thanks for going on that journey into mental effort with me. I hope it gave you something to think about, as it did me.
If you’d like to check out some of my other writing, you could start with Connecting the Dots, my book on learning how to learn. After that, my blog is the best place to read my most recent ponderings. There’s a series on the relationship between people and technology that I’m proud of, called the Digital Brain.