Is it possible to have too many interests?
I think the answer to that depends on your goals.
If your goal is to advance your career and reach excellence in a specific field, then too many interests can distract you from your goal.
If your goal is to live an expansive life full of diverse experiences, then ‘how many interests’ might be the wrong question entirely.
Because where you’re a multi-passionate person, turning off that passion for learning and experiencing new things would be like cutting out your soul.
But what if you’re interested in everything?
Can You Have Too Many Interests?
Whether you call yourself a dilettante, multipotentialite, generalist, or any other number of monikers, the temptation is to pursue all the many interests that catch your eye.
The question is, is it possible to pursue as many interests as take your fancy?
Science says probably not. There’s a limit to how many interests our brains can juggle at once before becoming overwhelmed. However, there are some caveats, which I’ll outline below.
But first, the science.
A 2022 workplace study by Anatoli Colicev and Tuuli Hakkarainen of the University of Liverpool found that five simultaneous projects are the sweet spot to maximise effective work practices. They studied over nine thousand workers within the context of new product development in a multinational organisation.
Fewer than five projects prevented companies from achieving maximum productivity. More than five projects increased the risk of lack of focus and stretched brain capacity. People get stressed, burn out, and make errors when juggling too many things.
Employees also struggled with ‘attention residue,’ where they were still thinking about other projects instead of focusing on the task at hand. According to Dr Sophie Leroy, who studies attention residue, “We have a fundamental need for cognitive completion, so when things aren’t completed or when we don’t have full closure, our brain is going to fight us to complete that.” [source]
For this reason, and others, constantly switching between tasks can be cognitively draining. And if you believe the ‘four hours of focus’ rule, which is popular on the internet although it has little evidence to support it, we only have a limited capacity (four hours) for concentrated work per day. Overloading our day with many projects can lead to overwhelm and brain drain.
Now, the Caveats – Permission to Pursue Many Interests
It’s important to note that this study is about the workplace, where the goal is efficiency, productivity and profit.
So how does this apply to our personal life, where we have the luxury to pursue interests for fun and not have to be efficient and productive?
Several culture-wide errors of thinking keep us from enjoying a wide range of interests without feeling guilty.
The first error is thinking that everything we do must have a financial end goal.
Let’s correct that.
Doing stuff just for fun, without any mercurial benefit, is legitimate.
You wouldn’t think so; just about every article on the topic argues you must stop dabbling, focus your attention, become an expert, earn more money, and any hobbies that get in the way should be dropped.
But unless you’re aiming for an Olympic gold medal, a Nobel prize, or a specific promotion, then that simply isn’t true.
Say it with me: not everything in life is about making money.
If you want to spend your spare time painting watercolour flowers, jet skiing, or learning chess moves purely for your own joy, that sounds wonderful.
The second error is that we often think we need to reach a high level of mastery; otherwise, pursuing an interest is not worth our while.
Rubbish, I say! Throw that thought out the window! Get out your paints and enjoy your Sunday afternoon. You don’t need to become a master painter. You can enjoy your hobby.
The third error is that we think we must do everything right now.
The average lifespan of someone living in the wealthy west is around eighty years old. That’s plenty of time to pursue a range of passions. It’s also ok to let some fall to the wayside and maybe pick them up again later in life.
It’s often surprising how skills from many years ago can be used in new and unexpected ways. That random class you took years ago may enable you to help a friend in need today. Or it might build fundamental skills that you can piggyback for something else. Or it might have taught you an important life lesson about dealing with difficult people.
Nothing is wasted.
How to Leverage Multiple Interests
One way to leverage multiple interests is to pursue projects and learning opportunities that complement your primary interests.
For example, if you do graphic and website design for a living, you might learn about search engine optimisation to expand your knowledge and broaden your expertise. It’s close enough to your current area of experience that it’s useful, but still enough outside your expertise to expand your breadth of knowledge.
The benefit of pursuing ‘satellite’ interests is they can make you better at doing your current job. They can also become an additional source of income, leverage to negotiate increased pay, and give you agility in a changing market.
An alternative is to become a T-shaped person. A T-shaped person masters one area of interest (usually a primary or career interest) and has knowledge in many other areas but in a much shallower way.
While most people are T-shaped anyway, the benefit for a dilettante is that it stops you from feeling guilty about pursuing fascinating and unrelated topics in your spare time.
You’re free to work on your primary interests and then pursue diverse interests in your spare time just for fun.
Create a Hierarchy of Interests to Priorities
When you’re juggling multiple interests, some will naturally take precedence. They fall under three categories:
- Primary interests
- Secondary interests
- Someday-maybe interests
- Not interested at all
When you have many interests, it can be easy to think everything is a primary interest and hard to believe there’s anything you’re not interested in.
Depending on your time in life, primary interests usually relate to your work and career, current and aspirational, education, health, personal development, and home life. These are interests and projects related to the bottom rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Secondary interests are fun hobbies, pursuits, projects, and topics we enjoy reading about and discussing. No, they don’t need to become side hustles! They fit into the higher rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy and are things we do for fun. For enjoyment.
Someday-maybe interests are things you would like to try but don’t have time to yet.
And yes, there will be things that don’t interest you and probably never will.
When managing multiple interests, it’s important to acknowledge whether they are a primary, secondary, or someday project and allocate time according to their importance while maintaining balance (all work and no play makes for a shit life).
How to Manage Many Interests and Projects
Let’s talk practicalities because we only have 24 hours a day, and most of those hours are taken up by work and sleep.
The productivity tools and techniques can help you juggle multiple interests. But just remember, you don’t have to be productive every waking hour.
Time is On Your Side – Schedule Your Projects
We often overestimate how much we can do in a day and underestimate how much we can get done in a week, month, or year.
If you have many interests, you probably want to do so many things simultaneously that you’re not sure how you will fit it all in.
This is where planning out your time comes in.
I find quarterly planning helpful. When you divide the year into quarters, you can spread your interests and projects across the year, giving you a more realistic timeline.
I then use a weekly plan to break my quarter projects into smaller milestones and a daily task planner to action the baby steps.
Baby steps build to weekly milestones, that build to quarterly projects, that build to meet your yearly goals.
Block your time
Time blocking is where you set aside a certain amount of time to work on a specific task or related tasks.
For example, Sunday afternoons, you might work on your woodworking project. Or Tuesday nights might be coding nights. Or maybe you block an hour between 5 am and 6 am each day to write your novel.
When you’re juggling many interests, and you find yourself with some spare time, it’s easy to do nothing because you’re not sure where to focus your attention.
By pre-planning your spare time and blocking out sessions during the week, you avoid that decision fatigue.
Use a Free Project Management Tool
Project management tools can be a great way to keep track of all your personal projects and interests, the next steps you need to take on them, and notes.
There are many project management tools on the market, but two options that are both free and easy to use include:
Make a Note of Next Steps at the End of a Session
One of the hardest things about picking a project again, especially if there has been some time since you worked on it, is figuring out where you left off and what you need to do next.
Making notes when you finish a session will prevent this problem.
Every time you take a break from a project, note down:
- Where you’re up to
- Your next steps
- Current thinking and planning
Use a Notes App to Quickly Capture Thoughts and Ideas on the Fly
You probably have many thoughts, ideas, and flashes of inspiration about current and potential future interests throughout the day (and night).
These flashes of inspiration often get forgotten if not written down.
In days of old, the advice would be to carry a notebook and pen around. But now there’s an app for that, and most of us already carry around our phones all day.
Apple Notes, Google Keep, or any other note app with a quick-add widget is perfect for capturing ideas on the fly. A quick widget on the home screen lets you add a note without needing to open the app first.
These note apps aren’t meant for permanently storing notes, just getting notes down quickly. When writing a note, make it complete, like you’re writing it for someone else, so that future you will understand what you meant.
Build a Personal Knowledge Management System
If you’re spending time reading, learning, and expanding your interests, you don’t want to waste that knowledge by forgetting it later.
That’s where a personal knowledge management (PKM) system is useful.
A PKM is a modern notetaking system built using a notetaking app like Evernote, Obsidian, Bear, Notion, or many other notetaking software options. Digital notes are easily accessible, searchable, and taggable, and some software options allow you to build a network of links between your notes.
The Book, ‘How to Take Smart Notes’, is a comprehensive introduction to creating a paper PKM, which can easily be translated into a digital format.
Leave Your Project Materials Out
If you have the space in your home, leaving out your projects, materials and tools needed to continue work makes it easier to pick up where you left off.
For example, if you’re creating a scrapbook of family photos, leaving everything on a table in a spare room makes it easier to work on the project whenever you have some spare time. You’re not wasting time digging out materials.
If like me, you live in a small space, packing everything together in a box, tools included, means everything you have is on hand when you’re ready to resume your project. It’s not as efficient, but you’re not digging in the bottom of multiple cupboards looking for stuff.
Enjoy Regular Downtime
Earlier in this article, I mentioned ‘attention residue’ and how thinking about other projects can mean a lack of attention on the current task.
But creatives have been using attention residue to their advantage for centuries. If you’ve ever heard that you should ‘sleep on a problem’, or ‘go for a walk and the problem will sort itself out’, or ‘do something completely different, and the solution will just come to you’ (usually in the shower, right?!), then that’s attention residue working in your favour.
We shouldn’t have to validate rest and relaxation. Enjoying leisure time is a legitimate way to pass the time. But if you need validation – because of our modern culture’s obsession with productivity – then R&R will make you less stressed, give you better clarity of mind, increase creativity, and will, overall, make you more productive.
Managing multiple interests and hobbies has its challenges. But it also comes with many benefits. You’re never bored or boring when you find everything in life interesting. While our brain might not handle too many interests at once, if you’re a dilettante, you can’t have too many interests.