Momentum as explore-exploit heuristic in creative work

In my creative work, I’m always managing this tension: do I chase this new curiosity, sketch on this new idea; or do I keep pushing on my current “main project”? The Explore-exploit problem. I’ve struggled to find good heuristics here. If I center on expansive generativity, nothing ever gets the deep focus it needs to mature. If I single-mindedly pursue my primary project, I’ll feel creatively suffocated, and my ideas will become too narrow.

At least for me, it’s tough to rapidly switch between these modes. The depth-y mode, in particular, really suffers from context switching: if I dedicate a couple days a week to open-ended exploration, velocity on my primary work drops precipitously.

The best heuristic I’ve found so far is to steer by the tides of momentum. When my main project’s chugging along, that’s precious, and I’ll give it my full attention. But momentum naturally ebbs regularly—for instance, when a piece of the project falls into place, and I find myself wanting to swap a bunch of the context I have loaded into my mind. Those moments are a great time to fall down a rabbit hole or spin up a side project.

What I really like about this heuristic is that it resolves the internal conflict without a zero-sum mentality. My “creative expansiveness” impulse and my “diligent focus” impulse used to be emotionally irreconcilable because it felt like they were competing for the same resource; a concession to one is an injury to the other. But if I shift “diligent focus” goal from “producing mature work” to “cultivating and protecting momentum,” the conflict mostly falls away. Each side knows there’s a natural rhythmic tide to momentum. They don’t need to interrupt each other.



Last updated 2023-12-17.