The Joy of Wasting Time: The Exploration/Exploitation Tradeoff of Life

January 26, 2021
3 min read

Saturday was an awfully unproductive day for me. After a long meeting in the morning, I ate and watched YouTube until mid-afternoon, then read for two hours, ate dinner, played Chess, played poker, and speedran a video game until 1 AM. There are three main buckets I want to advance in: building Updately, doing physics research, and creating content, and on Saturday I made progress on exactly none of those.

At first, I felt as awful about the day as you would think. Days, weeks, months, seasons, three months at this community house, eight months left of my gap year, and the lifetime beyond that are all finite, and short. Meaningful experiences and opportunities can slip by without a sound if you’re not diligent about seeking them out.

But as I reflected on the day at 2 AM, my feelings soon took a turn. The idea that I had wasted so much time was…thrilling. It filled me with a sense of excitement and even pride: damn, I was able to waste AN ENTIRE DAY away!

The excitement wasn’t about the act of wasting time, of course, but my ability to do so and not have my world fall apart. I didn’t make progress on any of my three buckets, but those three buckets are all within my control, and I have faith that on aggregate I’ll be able to push through and make good progress. My reading, for example, turned into a blog post I published the next day. This is in comparison to the deadline-driven life I was living before. A full time job, an event I was organizing, two other projects I was a part of…there were always more things to do, more deadlines to get ahead on, and critically they were out of my control.

External deadlines can be great. They push you beyond what you would have accomplished normally, and enable collaboration and group organization. But stacking up too many commitments quickly throws your life out of control, leading you farther and farther down paths you don’t have chances to deviate from.

Passion is the driver of all good work, especially in entrepreneurship and research. The process of finding passion requires trying lots of things out, but also crucially reflecting on your experiences and making changes to your direction based on your reflections. In external commitments, you’re rooted to your interlocking with the rest of the structure. When you’re unrooted, with no job descriptions or deadlines pressuring you to do one specific thing or another, you’ll naturally drift towards the things you care about. If you can handle three buckets at a time and you’ve got five, you’ll constantly be shuffling through them, but if you’ve got two or three, your energy will naturally flow into a third bucket of new meaning and opportunity.

The ideal is to find an equilibrium point between external pulls and internal pushes, between exploitation (of your current opportunities via external pulls) and exploration (of your actual passions via internal pushes). As I’ve written about previously, the process of finding equilibrium often takes the form of a damped oscillation over time:

At the start, we have a hobby or skill we’re developing purely for our own enjoyment. As we get good at it, we seek external applications of it. For dev work, for example, looking for jobs and projects to take on. It’s very likely – at least for me – that we’ll take on too much work and too many projects, and suddenly find ourselves without time or energy to do what we actually care about, be it interesting personal dev projects or other pursuits. So, we 180, cutting off commitments and projects in favor of personal pursuits once again. It’s likely that we’ll again overshoot and end up looking for new external opportunities soon enough, and when we take them on we may overshoot again, but by much less. When we cut down, it’ll also be by much less, until over time we reach that fulfilling balance of external commitments and personal exploration.

This is an idealized model, of course. There are most likely many more things than your own desire keeping you from dropping external commitments, and self-evaluations of when you’ve overshot and need to adjust are often unclear. Yet I find this model incredibly useful. It tells us that, in the long run, overshooting is a good thing, that we need to overshoot to train our exploitation/exploration balance until we reach something sustainable.

In December, I wrote a post very much at the exploitation peak of the oscillation, working on a massive stack of projects I had taken on after feeling like I wasn’t doing enough before. Consequently I failed to do most of the projects well, and also didn’t sleep more than six hours a night for an entire month. I made a commitment then to aggressively cut down. Since then, I quit my full time job, dropped a research project, and shut down a consulting contract negotiation.

This blog post, then, is written at the corresponding oscillatory trough of exploration. The realization that I had reached this trough is what made my reflection on a wasted day so euphoric. When I was at the exploitative peak, I felt like I would never be able to escape all my commitments and get back down to the ground. But now I’ve done it, and like a hiker after a treacherous climb I kiss the ground with relief. Having tossed aside the dozen buckets I was flailingly trying to keep hold of, my energy flows into (aside from Chess and speedrunning video games) a ridiculous amount of writing, a revolutionary reading club, and morning workouts with housemates, the true little sources of joyful fulfillment in life.