Reflections on Different Ground-States

The way you spend idle time can greatly change over the years, and can be influenced

In Wednesday’s post, I discussed the tremendous value of already being an incumbent in one’s field of expertise. Today I continue this topic. I recommend reading Wednesday’s post first.


From Patrick Shyu, probably paraphrased:

What you’re doing at 8 PM determines where you will be in ten years.

My ground-state

What do people actually want to do with free time? Never fear—we have a survey for that! The American Time Use Survey asks detailed questions about how people spend every hour of their day. It’s worth a skim.

The highlight I want to focus on is that TV accounted for just over half of all leisure time. The TV is many things: passive entertainer, background noise machine, boredom alleviator. I have a generally negative view of TV in isolation; except for highlights suggested to me by a few friends, I never used to watch it. I enjoy it much more as a shared leisure activity with my girlfriend, where we can enjoy and react to a story together, but outside of this context I’m not interested and prefer reading and podcasts.

I’ve noticed over time that this contrasts quite strongly with the habits of most other people. The survey notwithstanding, I constantly hear from everyone about TV shows I have no interest in: first it was Big Bang Theory, now it’s Young Sheldon. Game of Thrones lasted a while and ended in a manner that made everyone lose interest, so that was okay with me. Some shows piqued my interest, like Master of None—we truly were in a golden age of television! But perhaps a short distance off the beaten path. There weren’t all that many of those.

There’s a loose vocabulary around this time. I’ve heard it called “leisure time,” “idle time,” “unallocated time” and other things. I’ll call it “ambient time” here, but with no particular preference for the term. Another term of importance is the “ground-state”, by which I mean the base state-of-mind that is easy for an individual to access: after I conclude a ten-minute mindfulness meditation, or after I get home and settle into idleness, before long I will be in a ground-state, and if I have no particular pressing use of the following time, that time is ambient time. This vocabulary is just to ease discussion of this topic.

Anyway, I find that my ground-state self is quite active and easily bored unless reading or otherwise consuming some sort of high-density information. Sometimes I’m exhausted and can’t do that, which usually means I want to sleep right away. In total, I estimate I probably spend 70% of my time working or wanting to work on something active and mentally stimulating, 20% in thoughtful reflection or meditation, and 10% wanting or preparing to sleep. Reading nonfiction is great for this, and so are domain-specific podcasts and several mailing lists. Thanks to the below thread from Kanjun Qiu, I’ve begun to think recently about boredom about a topic as a function of information density:

I’m also quite introverted to boot, so often I prefer reading a book to socializing, and my preferred activity outside the house is to go somewhere and engage in deep conversation with a friend over dinner or drinks, perhaps once or twice a week.

This combination of traits has suited me well in professional life, because I tend to enjoy spending time outside of work learning things that become relevant to work, like new technologies or concepts. I first got into crypto entirely on the side this way. In my early 20s I also tried and abandoned so many hobbies that I’ve accumulated a decent general knowledge of several domains, from music production to 3D printing to world geography—and, of course, I’m highly interested in both domestic and international politics and travel. Since age 21, I’ve traveled 75,000 miles by plane on a total of 74 flights (and yes, I’ve meticulously kept the statistics).

The laundry list of interests and general knowledge above is fun for me to reflect on and may appear outright desirable, but it’s important to note that it represents trade-offs I’ve made with my time. We are all constrained by the hours in a day, and to spend my time this way I miss out on other options. Outside of years-stale experience with tennis and racquetball, I have no experience with any sport, I’m not as fit as I could be, and I haven’t gone to very many parties. Of course, as I’ve matured I’ve become confident that this particular set of trade-offs suits me, which is why I continue to select it and not another possible set.

The trade-offs of different ground-states

Of particular note is my travel history. I point it out because it’s something that other people are often jealous of. I have this to say in response: I traveled during around 37 weekends1 over four and a half years. That’s almost one of every five weekends. Each weekend represents most of the available social time in a given week, so that’s a lot of time to not be present with friends and family in my home city—and my density of travel was highest when I was around 22. That’s an early age to be so absent from social life at home!

This is a hidden trade-off of what is often considered a desirable experience (frequent travel). Certainly it gave me some interesting stories to tell, and I’m grateful that I got most of that travel done prior to the existence of COVID-19, but it represents a strongly skewed, atypical response to one of the countless trade-offs throughout life. The fact it was so skewed meant other people didn’t understand me, which cost me friends and opportunities in some circles. This was especially true in college, where I wasn’t very well-liked or understood and was repeatedly passed over for student group leadership positions for two years.

I have a friend who cooks every day. Even when it’s inconvenient, he cooks every day and is brilliant at it. It’s a skill I would love to have, but as much as I think about that, I don’t enjoy the act of cooking. In this brilliant video, Alex O’Connor discusses enjoying having read much more than reading, and so he reads. For me, I’m sure I would enjoy having cooked, but not enough to go through the process of cooking, so I don’t cook.

My friend and I are different people making different trade-offs.

These are, by and large, not decisions made with some ulterior motive in mind—the entire point of the ground-state is that it is how you act when you lack a particular goal for a certain block of time.

Say you don’t do all that much after work and are generally bored or apathetic during ambient time, which bothers you. It’s a rather entrenched ground-state now. Can it be changed? I believe so! For most of my teenage years I couldn’t bear to get through a book—I was unconscionably bored by all books. I played video games, which I absolutely don’t enjoy now for more than a few minutes at a time. I read all kinds of fiction books, which for the past couple years I wouldn’t be caught dead doing (with a special exception for The Broom of the System).

At some point I became obsessed with the thought that I was wasting my time—I think it hit during sophomore year of college when everyone I met seemed to be doing more stuff outside class than I was—and I began to try to fill every minute of my time with anything interesting I could find. I found new student groups and studied much more, sometimes beyond what was necessary for a class. I tinkered with computers a bit and set up some servers for myself. At one point I worked three jobs at once even though I didn’t really need the money (not that it wasn’t nice). This mindset also kicked off my travel habit, which I formulated as a desire to see every major city in the United States.

This is where I return to the Patrick Shyu quote above. Over the course of half a decade, I distilled these myriad habits into more moderate, consistent ones, but I still get very excited by novel experiences and novel information, and I very much like to be doing something active at 8pm most of the time. This is how I explain my insatiable interest in reading and learning.

As a teenager I chose one set of trade-offs: I was optimizing for time spent on social life, self-reflection, and dinners and weekends at home with my family. I sacrificed a great deal of personal productivity by doing this, but it was the right choice for me at the time. As an adult I chose a new set of trade-offs more resembling how I am now.

Over time, these deliberate choices solidified themselves into my ground-state. At some point I no longer needed to think about them. I’m not quite sure, but I posit this is some sort of habit-forming a la the latter part of “thoughts become actions become habits become your personality.” It’s because I went through this enormous shift that I believe anyone sufficiently motivated can do it too.

I’ve enjoyed reflecting on this for a few years. I hesitate to say there are advantages of a certain ground-state per se, as I’m not convinced that any certain way of living life is better than any other way,2 but it is certainly pleasant to be able to look at the trade-offs you’re making and know that they’re deliberate and helping you bring about the life you want for yourself.

1

A rough estimate based on 74 flights with 2 flights per weekend (to and from home).

2

Barring the obvious like not getting addicted to drugs, not becoming homeless, not going bankrupt, etc.