When in doubt: explore, experiment & build capacity

Happy Sunday (or Monday if you’re on a similar longitude to me).

First up: My latest video Digital Minimalism – How to Thrive in a Distracted World is an expansion on what I wrote in a recent newsletter. I’d love for you to check it out and leave a comment with your thoughts!

When the path ahead of you is clear, execution is the highest leverage thing you can focus on.

The faster and deeper you can execute, the better.

When you’re in this season:

  • Exploration is mostly a distraction. Side projects and other interesting opportunities might seem exciting, but they’re a distraction from the clear path. Which is why…
  • Saying NO becomes twice as important.
  • Momentum is everything. Cultivate it, maintain it, avoid disruption.
  • Speed and intensity are an advantage.
  • Strategy is overrated.
  • Reading books is overrated.

But what about when the path isn’t clear?

What if you don’t know what to do? Don’t know what to work on?

I recommend a three-pronged approach:

  • Explore: spend time thinking, researching, exposing yourself to new ideas and fields. Go wide. Follow curiosity. Don’t blindly force yourself on to one path (it rarely works when you’re in a season of doubt—you end up abandoning it and feel disappointed).
  • Experiment: convert curiosity into tangible projects. Take action without the long-term commitment baggage. Think 2-week sprints instead of 3-year goals.
  • Build capacity: throughout this time, build skills, habits, and mental frameworks that will enable you to double down on the clear path when its presented to you. In other words: train for the battle before it arrives.

This is not a sequential list. You should swap these in and out, combine them, lean into certain aspects at certain times.

Sometimes you’ll be reading a book (exploring) and you’ll have an idea for an experiment (say, a digital product you want to build). So you jump into experimentation mode and abandon exploration while you do so.

But you should always be building capacity, regardless of whether you’re exploring or experimenting.

Exploration: Curiosity as the North Star

When you’re in doubt, overthinking, in a state of analysis paralysis—exploration helps you escape.

You do need to explore with some intentionality and degree of exertion. It’s easier to stay at home and watch Netflix than explore the wilderness, even though the latter is intrinsically more rewarding.

Your only guide should be curiosity.

Which sounds vague and elusive, so let’s run through an example.

James is stuck. In life, and work.

12 months ago, he exited the business he spent 6 years building. He’s in his early 30s. He has enough money to survive for the next 10 years doing nothing.

But he doesn’t want to do nothing.

He misses building. The challenge of creating something from nothing but the ideas in his own head. He misses the struggle, the social aspect of building a team, the problem-solving required, the pressure.

The problem is, he keeps getting stuck. When he started his first company, there was pressure. He needed to make money. There wasn’t a choice. He didn’t have the luxury to overthink the situation.

Now? He’s good. At least for a while. If he doesn’t make money next week—no issue. There’s little pressure or urgency.

He thinks of potential business ideas, gets excited for a day or two, and then comes down from the motivational high—only to end up back at square one.

He’s trying to find the “one idea” that will pull him out of his malaise.

Then he reads Sam Matla’s newsletter, and while he’s skeptical of a late 20s male from some country he can’t even place on the map (is it part of Australia?), he decides to treat curiosity as his North Star.

He abandons the pursuit of the “big idea”, and instead decides to read some of the books that have been sitting on the shelf.

He gives himself permission to go down rabbit holes. To abandon books halfway through when something more curious and exciting grabs his attention. To lean into the curiosity regardless of how weird or silly it seems.

Some paths fizzle out. Some paths lead to crossroads. Some paths lead to a vast area to explore.

A week into his pursuit of curiosity, James finds that he’s no longer as anxious. He’s not overthinking anywhere near as much. And while he’s not exactly clear on what he wants to do next, he’s confident he’ll find the answer. But for now, he’s enjoying this exploratory phase.

Experimentation: Converting Curiosity into Action

Exploration without experimentation is mental masturbation.

You do not want to be the person who exists purely in the theoretical world. Constantly reading, thinking, talking, but not producing anything of value.

Fortunately, when you follow your curiosity, experimentation comes naturally.

Experimentation is a short-term commitment. It’s trying something out.

My business, EDMProd, initially started as an experiment 9 years ago. I decided I’d start a blog on music production and see where it lead. It changed my life.

Publishing productivity/personal development content on my YouTube channel was an experiment borne out of exploration (I was spending hours every day reading about performance psychology, productivity, mental models, and more). I decided I’d publish a video once every two weeks or so. And here we are, 11,000 subscribers later.

But not all experiments succeed. That’s why they’re experiments.

For example, in the past 12 months I’ve also:

  • Spent months working on two products (under another business) that gained little traction and I’ve now discontinued.
  • Ran 2x WorkSprint cohorts that, while they’ve been fun, haven’t hit the market as I would have liked.

The mental orientation you want to have towards experiments is: This seems useful to work on. If it succeeds, great. If it doesn’t, I’ll learn something—or at least gain more clarity on where I need to go.

Building Capacity: You as Leverage

“Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world” – Archimedes

There are many forms of leverage.

Idea leverage. Strategy leverage. Market leverage. Network leverage. Information leverage. The list goes on.

But you, as the individual, are a form of leverage.

Regardless of whether the path is clear for you, you should always be building capacity. Because capacity = leverage.

In concrete terms, this means that:

  • You should relentlessly improve your ability to focus for long periods of time (deep work capability).
  • You should improve and maintain your engine. Eat well, sleep well, lift weights, do cardio, get sunlight, move, etc.
  • You should reduce net-negative stressors in your life as much as possible. Those that don’t grow you or benefit you. They might be relationships, annoying client projects that you need to wrap up, tasks that are piling up. Identify the stressors and deal with them.
  • You should develop mental toughness and resilience.

You don’t need clarity to build capacity. You can do it regardless of how bad your overthinking and analysis paralysis problem is.

When you eventually do get clear, you’ll be able to pursue your goal with more intensity, aggression, and focus. You’ve built the capacity to do so.

Also, you’re not just building capacity to better pursue your goals. You building capacity to win at life. It’s a worthwhile endeavour in and of itself.

Bringing it all together

You explore, relentlessly following your curiosity. This creates positive momentum and mental energy.

Your exploration leads to experimentation. You try things. Some work. Some don’t. You learn in the process. You dip in and out of exploration and experimentation, often combining the two.

As you do this, you build capacity. You force yourself to focus on what you’re doing, whether it’s reading books for hours on end (exploring), or working on a project (experimentation). You take care of your engine, build good habits, build skills.

One of your experiments gains traction, either due to external results, or internal clarity and confidence.

You double down. The capacity you’ve built enables you to do so with speed and intensity.

What does the future hold? No one knows. But it’s a hell of a lot more exciting than sitting in limbo.

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