Why we are thinking about time optimisation completely wrong

Technology has caused a radical change in the way we live our lives. Our eyes are opening to the damage apps like facebook and twitter do to us. We know that the infinite scroll was something we shouldn’t be engaging in.

I’ve enjoyed the headspace of turning my phone into a device that doesn’t have social media on it. I then went one step further and removed email for a ‘month’ challenge. Two weeks into the challenge I stopped even thinking about the challenge and my phone is just a device that doesn’t do email anymore. It’s totally great, I don’t have a burning to-do list of people talking to me in my pocket 24/7. I feel odd that I ever wanted that or felt proud about being such a productive person. Regardless this is not what this blog is about.

The brilliant rise of ‘Edutainment’ with fantastic podcasts and the ability to listen to Audiobooks is not something that we have really scrutinised. But it is worth investigating. I will explain why even using your phone for education should be limited. Your creativity and mental health will blossom and you will thank me for it. This blog will cover why limiting education time will make you a smarter and happier person.

An Extreme Example

There is a ratio of how much time you should spend studying and consuming new content in comparison to how effective you will be. In simple terms, this is astoundingly obvious.

If you spent 0% of your time studying or learning anything you would be clueless. You would get nothing done.

Conversely, if you spent 100% of your time studying and learning. There would be no time at all for having idea’s or doing anything with them. You would be a highly intelligent but equally useless entity. A net drain on humanity. No one wants that. Least of all you.

The Modern Problem

However, in the modern-day, we are surrounded by increasingly mountainous volumes of information that we can never keep up with. We are also surrounded by tech that can supply this information to us in a low-cost manner. We can instantly plug ourselves into learning at every spare moment. You feel wise as you ignore Facebook and other social media distractions to put on a podcast when you walk to work, make your food or hit the gym. You can watch educational videos during your lunch break. This all contributes to making a minor dent in the overwhelming amount of information you aren’t keeping up with.

But where is the time to process this information and make connections, have ideas or use it?

The Argument for 'Edutainment' and Plugging In

If you are studying, building a business, or trying to stay at the top of your field you don’t want to miss opportunities. You want to use the massive amounts of dead time that you have to learn more.

There is so much time in a day to consume the huge variety of useful information available on audio and video. It can give you different opinions about your field or help you learn complex ideas about new things.
You can also learn about humans by even listening to fiction. It shows you how to create a good story or a bad story, and you can even learn about love from 50 Shades of Grey when you are looking for it.

By not using all the extra time to learn you will unlikely be a change-maker in your field.

Before you Press Play

There is a happy medium between optimising your life for learning new stuff and spending spare time with an unoccupied brain. It is hard to find exactly but crucially important.

Like the endless scroll of social media, we have an infinite scroll of edutainment available to us. I started a list of books to read this year from recommendations and 6 months in it is already 350 books long and I’m certain they are all pretty awesome. A ten-minute session looking in my podcast feed easily gives me 100 new podcasts to get through. I get bombarded with lists of amazing blogs that grow my mind and science journalists and (some) newspapers produce brilliant content. Then there’s also politics, the economy, and of course the news. Let’s not even talk about the great content available on the BBC, Youtube and Netflix.

We feel we need to keep up with it. As you start your walk to work and you aren’t listening or doing something, your brain is free to roam around. It feels inefficient to just do nothing, you can instantly solve that with your readily available edutainment and can constantly feel productive.

The Unrecognised Value of Doing Nothing

Doing ‘nothing’ doesn’t provide an instant reward of productivity. You never ‘know’ that you are going to have good ideas if you do nothing for the next 20 minutes of walking. Leaving your brain at peace is setting sail into the unknown with perhaps zero rewards, and it all seems very boring and pointless.

We need to train our brains to not require instant gratification, this feeling of needing to do something is what kicks the brain into gear. It can trigger the brain to do awesome things all by itself if you let it. If you hear that trigger of the brain wanting to do something and just stick on someone else’s thoughts to listen to then you are turning off your brain instead of firing it up.

I will go as fire as stating that you are pissing on your own bonfire instead of adding fuel to it.

You need to learn to like that feeling of an unoccupied brain and embrace it instead of quickly finding a way to suppress it. You need to recognise the brains' inbuilt hunger to do cool stuff for what it is. Let your brain wrestle with the world's problems like the innovator your podcasts are telling you it be.

Body Analogies

Exercise for your brain

If every time you started to feel slightly out of breath someone sat you down and did everything for you, you would not be fit. You would get no exercise at all. This would be grossly unhealthy for your body and produce a feedback loop of decreasing fitness, even getting out of your chair would begin to challenge you. You would end up never using your muscles that would waste away. You would stop being able to walk and become a bed-bound bag of uselessness.

My question to ask yourself. As soon as your brain is about to do some work by itself, should you be sitting it down and making it rest?

Over-Feeding

If you spent all day surrounded by sweets and biscuits you would be constantly reminded of the available food. You would become obese if every time you had a passing thought that perhaps you could eat one of those biscuits you then ate one.

The human is designed to be able to overeat whilst food is available. This prevents it from starving in periods of no food. Humans need to stop their innate behaviour to eat when food is available to be able to stay healthy.

We now live with a device in our pocket that is a constant reminder that we can be learning more things. Our brains are designed to feel a need to satisfy that hunger. Our brain is used to an environment of low information. It was engineered in a time when books didn’t exist and the odd occasion you found something new in your environment you investigated the crap out of it. If once a blue moon someone turned up with news about anything, you listened as if your life depended on it because sometimes it did.

Thus your brain wants to learn about every new thing in its environment to stay up to date so it doesn’t get killed.

That is a powerful innate behaviour optimised to keep your genes going to the next generation. The reason you exist today is directly because your ancestors were better at obsessing about new things in their environment than their peers.

However, the modern world is not going to kill you if you don’t know every new thing. Just like with food, if you let your brain operate on default behaviour it will make you incredibly unhealthy. You need to stop trying to learn everything.

What Even is 'Being Productive'

We need to learn that actually doing nothing is doing something. Your brain is making connections and its best ideas come when you do things like meditating, menial work or exercise without anything else going on. You need to learn to hear your inner voice and become good friends with it.

Focussed vs. Diffuse Thinking

In the science of learning, you need to spend focussed time on new material to understand things. But the magic happens when you stop thinking about it and let the brain go into a 'diffuse' mode of thinking where it makes connections happen between different ideas. This is where billion-dollar ideas like AirBnB and Uber came from, uniting two different bodies of knowledge in the brain into a novel concept. This simply doesn't happen whilst you are in focussed mode.

Learning vs. Rating

You learn much more from a book or podcast if you try and recall it than if you were to just listen to it again. Yet madly most of us consume all this stuff just once and then never revisit it. We quickly forget all the specifics, we can vaguely remember how it made us feel if we remember it at all. So you are basically just creating a pile of ratings in your head by optimising all this time for consuming.

If you spend some time after each podcast or book chapter to think about what you just learnt and test yourself on why it’s useful, you will genuinely gain twice as much from it. That takes 5 minutes but it doubles the effectiveness of the hour you just spent listening to it.

Life Processing

Then there is everything else in your life that you are learning about and dealing with that needs its own processing time. If you don't put time into thinking about what's going on and learning from it and how to improve, then surprisingly you don't learn from it or improve. Tools like journaling can radically increase your rate of improvement and benefit your levels of happiness and well-being.

Playtime

Imagine you are at work and for some odd reason a toddler appears out of nowhere and wants to play with you. It wants to go for a walk and look at flowers and jump in puddles. (or in my own experience, look at puddles and jump in flowers). Then it asks annoying things that are hard to answer:
"why is the sky is blue?
Why are Spaghettis O’s unhealthy and Baked Beans healthy, they grow on the same tree?
And then why does anyone even care about flowers in the first place if they aren’t for jumping in?"

It wants to explore the world and it seems to want to explore your mind and put things together. This is tragically unhelpful for you and so you give it an iPad and hope that it occupies itself and won’t disturb you.

This distraction technique in the hope of getting more work done is what you are doing to your own brain. When your own inner voice pops up and lets you know that you aren’t doing anything you realise you have some spare time. You feel like you could be ‘doing work’ by sticking on a podcast. Your brain will just do pointless stuff otherwise and you’ve got an endless list of things to get through.

When you do this you are turning off your actual consciousness. And yes when you first listen to your consciousness it does pretty dumb stuff as it explores the contents of the environment and your mind. Sometimes it is a whiney bitch and sometimes it is obsessing about the wrong things. But if you let it play around and listen to it and take it seriously, it will reward you back. Let it explore the environment and let it explore the contents of your mind and just like the toddler it will learn profound things.

This isn't a toddler but I saw a puppy and then it magically ended up here for no sensible reason

Change What you Think

When there is a spare moment and you start thinking for yourself for a second, you need to hear your inner voice and say:

"SHOOT. Hello me. Wow, it’s great to find some time together. What’s going on buddy. Let’s have a chat"

Instead of the current:

"SHOOT. I was hoping to get work done. Let’s give you something to do. So I can carry on working"

Your inner voice is not a toddler that you have nothing in common with. This is not a massive drag on your day that you need to escape from but instead a blessing to make the most of.

We need to stop feeling like we are constantly at work and we need to stop feeling like our inner voice is a bad thing to spend time with.

This is important, because your inner voice isn’t just your best friend. It is literally the actual real you. You need to get to know it, listen to it and take it seriously. It’s essential that you stop treating it like a pathetic things that needs distracting. Stop putting stuff in front of it in the hope it never bothers you.

Find out what you actually think and know. Explore ideas and actually take useful thoughts to the next level.

Exercise time

The combination of exercise and not having other stuff going on in your brain is the perfect breeding ground for good ideas.

Exercise very mildly occupies the brain but leaves a lot of space for thinking. It also releases hormones that make you think more positively. This prevents any negative doubts from blocking potential good ideas before you have given time to think about it further. It provides a golden period where your brain can just explore random stuff that it knows and make connections.

Optimising all your exercise time for learning keeps your brain in a focussed mode where it never has ideas. You have to unplug and let your brain think it’s own thoughts instead of permanently listening to those of others.

Man running into scenery

The Minimum Requirements

Depending on your current situation there are different guidelines. As I mentioned at the start you will fall behind if you never engage in learning useful stuff. The books I have read on my list of 350 this year have done incredible things to how I think. But I’ve also found that unplugging is where I put all that information together and do something useful with it.

I think you should have an obligatory 20 minutes a day where you are completely in touch with yourself. Meditation is brilliant, but if you want to do yoga or walking or cooking it really doesn’t matter. And this is just minimum to be a human.

The Thinking vs. Listen Ratio

After the minimum requirements are filled I think shooting for a balanced ratio is the best strategy. The same as the saying of two ears and one mouth. I think two-thirds of your time listening to info is fine. But you should block out one third for actually thinking your own thoughts.

This depends on the person and the situation. Sometimes I feel like I do just want to do nothing and that my brain has too many ideas anyway. Sometimes having something to listen to is what gets me out the door to go for a run in the first place. But other-times you can feel overwhelmed by problems and you should use all your time available to think.

Conclusion

Based on the best research on how to learn, giving your brain unfocussed time is key. This time is the ultimate source of creativity and brightest ideas.

Stop distracting yourself with other peoples thoughts and give yourself time to listen to your own thoughts.

This is an ironic conclusion as I run the Growth Mindset Podcast which I'd like to think is Edutainment at it's finest. Hopefully this proves I'm not trying to sell you anything except a better life. This wasn't driven by some anti-Apple anti-Amazon complex and just a product of my studies in evolutionary psychology and general anthropology. (human watching). Putting one domain of knowledge together with another and having ideas.

Effects

I was in Tel Aviv last week and wanted to go for a run to the beach and have a swim. Not wanting to leave my phone on the beach I went for an hour run with just myself. An actual human with no device attached to it running around a city it's never been in. How did this become a rare thing so quickly? (ten years ago I drove around America with just a compass...)
It was one of the most lovely mornings ever. I came back with more solutions to my problems and writing ideas than I thought possible. It seems crazy that I usually spend so much of this valuable time with myself having someone else’s thoughts permanently distracting my brain.

I don’t know how far I ran, how many steps I did or where I even went. But that doesn't actually matter. I focussed on new metrics of success for a productive run, number of ideas and sweatiness. I smashed both records.

Question Yourself

I think we should all step back and define what our phone is actually for. As we realise the importance of our mental health and the problems our devices are causing us, this is more important than ever.  We need to let go of our FOMO to keep up with the world to spend more time with ourselves.

Simply put. No one else is going to think for you and solve your problems. If you stop being able to think for yourself you are screwed.


Enjoyed this? You might like these similar posts on the topic of being more sensible:

Subscribe

This will form part of a five part "pentalogy" (learnt a new word). Be sure to not miss out on the rest of it!