Productivity

Default Mode Mindset

Nick Saraev English

In neuroscience, a default mode network is an activity pattern characterized by certain illuminations on an fMRI. These patterns denote the activity of your brain at rest—that is, the average activation level of each of your brain areas when not focused on a particular task.

In short, it's what your mind looks like when stresses, projects, and demands are peeled away. It's you, at your purest.

Today, I want to propose a different kind of default mode: a default mode mindset. One that, while certainly reliant on your neuroscience, has less to do with your biology and more to do with your penchant for productivity and ambition.


The majority of people, when not 'forced' to work due to financial or social obligation, tend to quickly begin maximizing hedonic pleasure. We're like rats in a cage between experiments—when there's no pressing demand for our time, we want to rest, watch our favorite television show, drink, travel exuberantly, and so on.

This is the default mode mindset of most people. Absent an explicit driving or motivating force (like an experiment or a task), we begin optimizing the closest tertiary metric to life satisfaction that we can find: pleasure.

However, while optimizing for pleasure certainly does improve satisfaction (for some length of time, anyway), it is a local maximum. After a certain number of moments enjoying yourself, things quickly turn dull and monotonous as you start searching for the next hit: you take longer scrolling through Netflix to find the right show; you need to drink more to achieve the same level of buzz; you need to find increasingly exotic and dangerous places to travel to capture that same sense of excitement.


On the other hand, there's a small fraction of people that do the exact opposite. When their work ends, when they're between projects, or when they have no pressing demand on their time, they begin increasing their productive output instead. They begin writing that book they've always wanted to write, they begin learning computer programming, or perhaps they begin exercising and improving their physical fitness. Without an external motivating force, they find an internal one—they possess their own forge that burns with or without outside fuel.

These people tend to achieve big things. Jobs and Wozniak, in between shifts at Atari, developed the first Apple computer. They could have certainly elected to use that time to watch television, relax, or do something otherwise unproductive, but their minds didn't let them, and now Apple is one of the most influential companies on Earth. JK Rowling, as a poor single mother in the UK, hastily wrote Harry Potter in the free moments she could get away from her baby daughter. Her default mode mindset was producing, not consuming; and we now have her to thank for the multi-billion dollar series on witches & wizardry.


The point is, some have a default mode mindset that steers them towards hedonic consumption and complacency. Others have a default mode mindset that pushes them towards challenging tasks that provide delayed gratification. A bulk of the people that have made some of the biggest impacts in the world are of the latter camp. Thus, if your goal is to join them, you should take note of and begin improving your default mode mindset to better approximate theirs.

If, instead of 'an object at rest stays at rest', Newton's law of motion was instead applied to people and their penchant for productivity, perhaps it would be closer to 'a person at rest writes books, creates companies, and changes the world'.

What's your default mode?

© Nick Saraev 2021