Beautiful Systems: (Practical) Oscillation

To turn it on, learn to turn it off. (Josh Waitzkin)

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“What do you mean by oscillation? It makes me think of waves, and breathing.”

“I mean a regular rhythmic pattern of alternating between two things.”

“So a dichotomy pattern.”

“Yes. The notation I like to use is ‘A/B’, where A and B are variables.”

“So something like Up/Down, High/Low, In/Out, On/Off?”


I’m focusing on four areas in particular, where oscillation has practical application: 


As concerns Energy, the basic oscillation pattern is On/Off.

On/Off Oscillation => Quality of performance

The optimal oscillation pattern – where peak performance happens – is Full Engagement/Full Disengagement. Deep work, followed by equally deep rest. Being either 100% On, or 100% Off.

Now, 100% Off means total disengagement from the work, not being totally passive. Some activities and settings can help you actively recover energy faster. Things like movement, nature, movement in nature, napping, etc.

So, adding a bit more nuance to it, the optimal oscillation pattern is Deep Focus/Active Recovery.

As concerns Growth, the basic oscillation pattern is Stress/Recovery.

Stress/Recovery Oscillation => Rate of growth

Venturing past the limits of your comfort zone, breaking through a homeostatic plateau, produces a stress response. By taking time to recover afterwards, growth occurs. 

In physical training this process is called supercompensation. Muscles break down after intense training, and given time to rest, they become stronger. 

If stress is not followed by recovery however, if it’s not flushed out of the system, so to speak, it adds up and becomes chronic, which produces negative results.

As concerns Learning, the basic oscillation pattern is Input/Output. Alternating between absorbing knowledge and acting on the knowledge.

Input/Output Oscillation => Quality of learning

That may mean reviewing what you’ve learned (active recall), or testing your understanding by explaining what you’ve learned to yourself (constructive learning), or to others (interactive learning).

That may mean reflecting on an experience afterwards to extract the lessons within (learning cycles).

That may mean taking steps towards implementing what you’ve learned, by engaging in habit design. For instance through the creation of drill-games for practicing specific skills, or the creation of specific behavior patterns (behavior design). 

As concerns Creativity, there’s two basic oscillation patterns: Focused/Diffuse, and Generative/Evaluative

The Focused/Diffuse oscillation refers to the two modes of thinking:
Focused mode, when you’re consciously engaged in a mental activity.
Diffuse mode, when, after disengaging from the activity, the subconscious continues to work on it in the background.

Focused/Diffuse Oscillation => Creative insights

“So it’s the same engagement/disengagement pattern.”

“Yes, it’s the same pattern, used for different ends.

In the energy context, it’s used to recover energy.
In the creativity context, it’s used for making creative leaps.

The Generative/Evaluative pattern refers to the two stages of the creative process: generating creative output, and sifting through it to discover value. We can metaphorically think of it as Expansion/Contraction.

Generative/Evaluative Oscillation => Conversion of creative output into useful output

I call all these oscillation patterns combined, the oscillation system.”

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About Dani Trusca

Life-Artist, Thinker, Mover (Traceur)

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