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Curiosity Management – Love Your Work, Episode 284

July 28 2022 – 07:30am

 curiosity managementDo you ever feel like you don’t have the time and energy to learn about everything you want to know? Is it hard to stay focused on reading one book, when there’s ten others you want to read? You need curiosity management.

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Curiosity management is the management of your thirst to know things. In a world with unlimited access to information, and finite time and energy, it’s impossible to read every book, watch every documentary, or take every online course.

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Unmanaged curiosity leads to “curiosity pressure”

This leads to a feeling of “curiosity pressure.” Curiosity pressure is the feeling you’ll never learn all the things you want to learn.

When you’re under time pressure – curiosity pressure’s close cousin – and feel you don’t have enough time to do everything, your anxiety makes it hard to do one thing. When you’re under curiosity pressure and feel you can’t learn everything, your anxiety makes it hard to learn one thing.

A good curiosity-management system matches your level of curiosity with an appropriate level of engagement with the topic, given your available time and energy.

The downward spiral of poor retention, & feelings of inadequacy

A day in the life of a curious mind looks like this:

Surplus curiosity

When you don’t satisfy your curiosity, despite doing the activities of investigation – such as reading or watching videos – you’re overcome with “surplus curiosity.” Surplus curiosity is a feeling you should always be investigating more topics.

The anxiety and inadequacy you feel from not satisfying your curiosity cause you to be curious about even more things. This drives a downward spiral: You feel bad for not knowing all you want to know, you want to know more things, but poorly managing your curiosity makes it impossible to satisfy your natural curiosities, much less your surplus curiosities.

The goal of curiosity management: Learn just enough, and remember it

You’re not going to stop being curious. Your curiosity is a good thing. But if you can manage your curiosity, you can remember more of what you consume and reduce curiosity pressure. If you successfully reduce curiosity pressure, you’ll reduce the anxiety and feelings of inadequacy that actually drive some surplus curiosity.

The fundamental error: All-or-nothing curiosity

The fundamental error most curious minds make is they want to learn everything about a topic the moment they become curious about it. Instead of spending five minutes perusing the Wikipedia page, they watch the four-hour documentary. Instead of reading the book summary, they try to read the whole book.

This drives the downward cycle: At some point, the media they’re engaged with calls for more time and energy than their actual curiosity for the topic merits. This causes fatigue and frustration. Yet there are still so many things they want to learn about, and feelings of anxiety and inadequacy flare up. The most immediate solution seems to be to read more, watch more, consume more – surplus curiosity. Yet little of it is absorbed, and the original curiosity that began the cycle is only vaguely satisfied.

The right engagement for the level of curiosity

To engage appropriately with what you’re curious about, first assess the level of curiosity. There are three:

Of course, as you learn about topics, your level of curiosity may progress. You try TikTok a few minutes and are intrigued. You read the Marie Curie Wikipedia page, and want to learn much more. Your compulsive curiosity may be more intense for one topic than another, or change from day to day.

Three basic components of curiosity management

The main mechanism behind curiosity management is categorizing topics about which you’re curious according to the level of curiosity, and engaging with those topics only to the point that your curiosity is either satisfied, or further aroused (with some exceptions).

I propose four components to a good modern curiosity-management system:

  1. A rule: Never consume information upon first encountering it: (With one exception, coming up.) Take only a quick glance to assess your level of curiosity about the information, and the informations’ potential for satisfying that curiosity. Then put it in the appropriate place, for later processing.
  2. Keep a “crumb-time” list: Your crumb-time list has things about which you have either compulsory or cursory curiosity, with a simple action that will satisfy that level of curiosity. Use your crumb-time list during “crumb-time” – those little pockets of time of indefinite shape and size with which you normally do unproductive activities such as check social media or play Wordle. An example list item would be: “Watch a YouTube video on the chemical processes behind making soap.”
  3. Deep curiosity time blocks: Have regular time blocks for deep investigation about things that have reached the level of compulsive curiosity. Give yourself time to read books, and watch documentaries.
  4. ”Cheat” pockets: Freewheeling engagement with your curiosity is fun. If you never allow yourself to open a hundred tabs on your browser again, you’ll do it anyway and drive the downward spiral. Much like some diets allow a “cheat day,” a good curiosity-management system has pockets of time during which you allow yourself to be at the whim of your curiosity. It might be Friday afternoons, or fifteen minutes after lunch – so long as you’re actually able to prevent yourself from slipping into internet-induced comas.

Using your curiosity-management system

That’s the basic structure of a curiosity-management system, now, some examples of how to use it.

Note-taking supports curiosity management

You’ll better satisfy your curiosity if you don’t forget what you’ve just learned. So, a note-taking system, such as a zettelkasten, supports a curiosity-management system.

Take notes even on items for which you have merely compulsory or cursory curiosity. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. You don’t even have to take perfect notes. You’ve just invested time and energy in learning about this topic, so you’ll never remember more than you do right now. Jot down a few of the things you remember. It could be as simple and informal as “saponification uses a strong base to break apart fat molecules and make soap.”

Start managing your curiosity

Those are my initial thoughts on curiosity management – why it matters, what it consists of, and how to construct a system for managing your curiosity. There are of course many details and inner workings I didn’t include, or that would vary from one person to another. Do you find this idea useful? Say hello on Twitter, or email me.

Image: Red Waistcoat, by Paul Klee

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