Honing Your Interests

14 April 2020 ☼ opinion

I’ve always had an affinity for novel things: ideas, books, gadgets, etc. I chase interests hard. I’d buy things which would lose their novelty after a few months. I expertly crafted rationalizations for how I would make use of the new hobby or gadget to improve my life.

This craving for new experiences exposed me to many ideas and perspectives. It opened up new ways of thinking about problems I already thought a lot about. For example, I am fasinated with programming languages and their history. When I discovered functional programming, it changed how I thought about writing software.

As I get older, my free time gets eaten one slice at a time, and it’s becoming more precious. On top of that, there’s a cost to giving up these hobbies or interests when they lose their luster. When you look at that bag of golf clubs that you used four times, you feel bad. This is the sunk cost fallacy at work. You believe you should have gotten more use out of them and so you won’t get rid of them. Meanwhile, they collect dust in the corner. (This is a real anecdote by the way, I have that set of golf clubs and they sit in a corner of my living room, judging me. I intend to get rid of them, I swear.)

Quitting interests is draining, you feel like you’ve given up. In reality, it was a passing interest and it didn’t happen to stick. You got something out of the experience, however brief it was, even if it was to find out that it wasn’t for you. But, we shouldn’t avoid new experiences because they might not stick. They’ll bring new perspectives and ideas to the rest of life.

For example, I’m fascinated by woodworking. I’ve bought a couple of books and flipped through them. I own some basic woodworking tools, but I’ve never sat down and tried to do anything serious. While I’d love to, it doesn’t have enough overlap with other activities in my life to get priority.

On the other hand, I’ve recently gone back to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ). I have been doing some form of martial arts most of my life. It’s both a hobby and a form of exercise I enjoy. I’ve leaned into BJJ and invested in higher quality gear. I know that I’ll be doing this for the long haul.

Ok, so what to do?

In the last couple of years, I’ve thought a lot about honing my interests. I’ve tried to focus on how to prevent wasting money and time on things I’m only curious about. I’ve realized that there are couple of key factors in building sustainable interests.

Tie your new interest into a larger group of interests. It helps ground it to a solid foundation of existing habits for practicing that interest. In my case, BJJ dovetails into my existing interests because it’s a martial art and it’s exercise. I enjoy doing both and I would make time to do some form of exercise, so it may as well be BJJ.

2. What’s the friction to investing in the interest?

If your new interest is surfing and you live in Colorado, you’ve got a problem. You either need to move to a coastal area or you need to find a new hobby. That’s a contrived example, but the point stands. A more anecdotal example is the woodworking story above. I am interested and I can do it. I could even try and make space for it or rent space in a larger workspace. All these are barriers and they increase the activation energy required to invest in it. At the end of the day, I decided this was all too high cost if I didn’t have ample free time for it.

3. Did the interest pass the 2 week test?

When I was a kid, we weren’t rich but we also weren’t poor. I had some nice toys but my parents worked hard so that they could send me to private school. My school had its fair share of rich kids and I was always chasing whatever the new toy was. My mom, infuriatingly, used to make me wait two weeks before I bought whatever the new toy was with my allowance. If in two weeks, the novelty hadn’t faded then I could go and buy that toy. Often times though, the novelty had faded.

In my hobbies and interests now, I use a similar test. Because I’m a dinosaur, my workflow revolves around email. I use my email in box as a way to track quick reminders or thoughts that I’ll file away into other programs. When I come across a new idea or book, I’ll shoot a quick email to myself with some context about the thing. I have a rule setup with my email that will put these emails into a To File folder that I triage every few weeks.

I probably send about 10 emails a week to myself. When I went to prune it today, I found that I had around 50 emails in there. At the end of pruning, I had:

This system has helped me prune out a lot of passing interests. If the idea is that interesting, I’ll still find it interesting in a week. If it isn’t, then it’s not worth pursuing.

Great, I’m convinced! Now what?

I mean, you do you. Don’t let me tell you how to live your best life.

I developed the three aforementioned techniques over the last couple of years. Utilizing them has helped me improve my focus. I’m still nowhere near proficient at it, but I’m better than I used to be. For example, I’m writing more which has always been a goal. I used to feel like there was never time but now I’ve eschewed other passing interests in favor of writing more.

>> fin <<