explore vs exploit: a decision making refresher
timeless productivity problem solving
☆: Sunday, November 3, 2019. ∆: Saturday, November 9, 2019. Belief: very likely.

I have a habit that I well and truly hate, and it’s recommending podcasts to people. Most of the time, it’s a single episode, but rarely it’s an entire show. I hate it because almost always people just ignore my suggestion and continue on their merry way. I’m not frustrated because they didn’t check out the podcast I suggested, but rather because they don’t currently listen to podcasts.

Podcasts are a really hard medium to enjoy. Everyone who makes a remark that podcasts are exploding or are soon to start exploding doesn’t take this into account. It’s profoundly difficult for someone to get into podcasts. You need a podcatcher, which usually means downloading an app from an app store, or else falling back to something built in and never used. That part is relatively easy, but the next part is terrible: finding time to actually listen to the damn things. They’re long form audio, usually requiring full or very close to full attention for the full effect. A long time investment + constant attention = absolutely zero chance for someone who doesn’t already know how to handle them to listen.

Two of the most common times people have that are uninterrupted for long periods of time are travelling and chores. I wedge podcasts into walks outdoors, which take long amounts of time and require minimal active attention. Others do laundry and listen to podcasts. Both of these are not rare times – they’re shared human experiences.

And yet, the podcasts don’t get listened to. Why? People are too damn set in their ways. Music usually fills these gaps, and people are reluctant to try branching out. Podcasts represent a prime example of this phenomena, because they’re really damn high quality forms of entertainment with a huge cost. Nothing will make your drive better than wishing it continued for longer. A podcast will do that, but people don’t try them and continue to have miserable drives.

It’s all because people aren’t willing to explore.

should you read the rest of this?

If you already listen to podcasts, maybe you’re thinking this is all about podcasts. It’s not. You should continue reading if you frequently ignore friend recommendations of things. I’m not talking your crazy coworker who suggests you watch every new movie. I’m talking your best friend or your lover that you already know isn’t a crackpot. If you ignore their advice on news articles, science journal articles, podcasts, movies, or toilet products, you should read this.

If you don’t listen to podcasts, then you should listen to them, and read this1.

the premise of exploiting

Explore versus exploit is a way of modeling decision making, primarily used in reference to biological and ecological systems. In practice, it’s helpful to extrapolate it out because it has real implications outside of scientific fields. On a primal level it’s easy: Do you forage for food in the same old spot, knowing that you’ve already taken a lot and the supply is diminishing, or go in search of new bountiful lands? The first choice is exploiting, taking the known path and certainty. The second is exploring: branching out and looking for something new, with the risk of reaching a worse spot.

People make this decision subconsciously each day. As creatures of habit, it’s easy to buy the same shampoo, commute on the same road, cook the same food, use the same phone, and talk to the same people. As time goes on, more and more people look at the existing ways of doing things and say “that’s good for me!” and move on with their life. This is exploitation: taking advantage of known good solutions to problems and using as little effort as possible to pass them. After all, if it works and you’re happy, there’s no reason to change things, right?

You can probably guess that the real answer is no – there’s every reason to change things. In terms of survival, exploring often has a large risk associated. In this day and age, there’s relatively low risk: either exploring is a waste of time, or there’s a rewarding payoff. Maybe the reward isn’t huge, but even a small positive change is a good change.

Unless you’ve already spent your life doing this, then there are probably super simple, high reward payoffs just waiting to happen.

why explore

When was the last time you looked at your furnace/AC filter? How often do you change it? Is it working? Why do you even have one? What even is air quality? Preliminary research from the Harvard School of Public Health on air quality was published in 2016, and noted that:

These [air quality related] findings have wide-ranging implications because this study was designed to reflect conditions that are commonly encountered every day in many indoor environments.

I picked air quality here because it’s easy to show the importance of this type of thinking. Most people don’t change their air filters often enough. They’re usually out of the way, and many thermostats don’t even trigger an alarm when you need to change them. Even if they do, or if you have a schedule on a calendar, it’s the type of task that’s easily ignored, put off, or done without much thought. Yet, in this very real Harvard study, early research showed that people in buildings that had less particulate matter in the air had higher cognitive performance.

In other words, you might literally be dumber because of poor air quality, all as a result of not changing a filter that often.

This isn’t a cut and dry example of course, but it’s an example of why exploring is so important: obvious, background things in your day to day life might be subtly sabotaging you without you perceiving it, and a trivial thing like changing the air filter might dramatically increase your cognitive function.

Maybe that sounds too dramatic.

Do you grill, or consume food cooked on a grill? Consumer Reports noted that between 2002 and 2014, 1,700 people went to the ER after ingesting wire from a metal grill brush. Nylon brushes, which pose no danger, are available for $10 on Amazon. Did you even think about this before?

Did you know that cooking with non-stick pans increases your risk of toxic teflon contamination, and that you should make sure they don’t go above 500 degrees fahrenheit? Yep. That’s another good fact.

In other words: you should explore because the world is changing. The knowledge of the world changes, and sometimes even the most basic underlying assumptions you have can be flawed or outdated. Even if they’re not, you might just be doing something in an extremely hard way that other people have found better methods for. You might be unhappy just because your existing framework for living leads you to be so.

You should explore because you’re human, damn it. Humans try to make things better. If you’re not challenging the world you live in, you’re missing out.

applying the principle

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! You’ve read some interesting text. You might be thinking that this is too much work or that you can’t do it. That’s your exploitation sense kicking in! Resist it. Now is the time to take real action.

A good way to start exploring is to look at the things in your life that you’re unhappy with. If you always feel dead in the morning: Are you sleeping enough? Are you eating a good breakfast? Do you even eat breakfast?

Start by challenging the key assumptions you have about yourself and working from there. If you’re having trouble of thinking of some, answer this: What do you normally tell people as a joke when you’re making idle chit chat? Do you say that you’re a coffee addict? That you’re always tired or awkward? That you’re terrible at math? All of these are good questions that’ll set you on the right track. Maybe consider making a list of all of the things on your mind.

Next up, go grab some habit tracking app from an app store, and set it up. Pick one of the things you thought about before, and add it as an item in the tracking app. Frame it positively, though. Instead of “why am I so terrible at math?” try “do one google search for a math concept that I don’t know” and set the habit up for each day. Go forth and conquer this: you can change yourself quite easily if you believe it’s possible. Hint hint: it is.

We live in a pretty cool world where Google is ubiquitous. You can almost instantly figure out something you’re curious about. Start researching what’s going on in your life and you’re bound to discover quick ways to make things better.

go explore

Looking at the future, remember that it’s really easy to see things as fine the way they are. Happiness always regresses to the mean, i.e., you become a sort of baseline happy as time goes on. It’s important to remember that this is natural, but that exploring will always lead you into new, uncharted territory. Embrace it.

The best way to take advantage of exploration as a hobby is to tackle the biggest problems you have and work your way down. The biggest problems are usually the ones that take the most amount of time, create the most amount of unhappiness, or cost the most in terms of some other resource. Here are a few big areas to consider:

  • Tools. Do you use any type of tool? Cooking utensils, plates, pots, and pans are often made of metals or composites and last longer than their material worth. Consider whether or not you’re using the best tools for the things you do.
  • Electronics. Do you use a phone made by Google or Apple, and have you never tried an alternative? If you’ve never tried another brand, consider it. Did you only try an alternative a long time ago? Try again now. Electronics change very quickly and can be completely different even a year or two later. You might be missing out on something you didn’t even know you could have because you never looked.
  • Techniques. Do you always drive the same way each day? The same type of car? Walk the same path? Write the same way? Give yourself a chance to think of an alternative or try a new technique.
  • Time. Where do you spend your time? Are you okay with spending that much time on something? Do you spend too little time on something? Do you feel like you never have enough time? What’s taking up all of your time? Feel free to explore and play with how you schedule your days.
  • People. Do you hate someone? Is there just one reason, or a lot? Does it stress you out to interact with someone? Why do you think they are the way they are? Is someone overly negative, or overly positive? How can you be a better friend, or how can they be a better friend to you?

The most important thing to you need to remember is that while you may live your life in a habitual and constant way, the world is always changing. If you don’t at least pay attention, you’re missing out on a key part of the human experience: changing things for the better.

And go listen to a podcast. Trust me, it’s worth it.

appendix: notable examples

Most people stop exploring early on in some really critical areas. These are the ones that everyone should consider rethinking, basically without question. My rule of thumb is this: if you’ve tried all of the available options for a lengthy amount of time, you probably don’t need to try any of them again. You can be extra sure if you can name specific, prominent examples that back up your thinking.

If not, you’re probably missing out.

  • Most political arguments presented with two sides. It’s really easily to feel personally attacked if your preferred side is the one being criticized. This can make you quite easily reject otherwise good ideas on principle alone. Think clearly about arguments from other groups of people and why they support the ideas they do. They might actually have merit.
    • An aside: Historically speaking, we know the Nazis are a bad cause, and we know sexism and racism are bad outright. You don’t need to listen to people who are overtly delusional, like neo-nazis. That won’t really help you.
  • Most operating system choices. People often use iOS, Android, macOS, or Windows by way of convenience or familiarity, and defend vigorously out of familiarity. If you ever hear people saying they’ll never use an android device because they like iPhones, but can’t explain why, that’s an example of this. The truth is that you should really try them all and find the tradeoffs that best suit you.
  • Long held but rarely tested axioms about the self. If you ever hear someone saying “I just can’t” followed by “think straight,” “read,” “understand particle physics,” “use computers,” or “focus”, you know what this is. It’s really easy to have a bad experience that leads to this type of thinking, but humans change much more often and subtly in the background for these to be always constant. If you find yourself saying this, consider what you’re shutting down as a result.
    • For example, let’s talk math. A lot of people “hate math” because of poor school experiences. I’m pretty famous for saying that math hates me. In truth, the things I hate about math are memorization and arithmetic, both of which are side effects of poor education, not the actual field. Math is pretty dang fundamental for a lot of things, like making computers faster, understanding the world, etc. Thanks to computers, needing to memorize or calculate by hand is pretty much not needed. It’s pretty logical to say that I don’t hate math – I just dislike certain aspects of math education.

  1. I expect people to stop reading if they don’t listen to podcasts and they read this sentence. These people prove my point. [return]