Fatigue, part two

First off, let’s call the beast by its name: burnout. When I’m working on things, my natural state is to use an unsustainable amount of brainpower. Sometimes I get recharge moments and everything works out ok, but at other times I reach the bottom and cease to be effective. Once I reach that point it’s damn hard to get out of it. It takes weeks or even months to return back to the mindset of peak performance after burnout. I’ve experienced burnout quite a few times in the past, and I know exactly what to do to get myself back from it. But preventing it from happening in the first place, that appears to be a lot trickier. You need willpower to tell yourself to stop working on something interesting, and if you continue working at that point your willpower slowly slips away. It’s easy to get lost. Especially if you’re faced with the exact thing that would keep your brain busy.

An interesting problem is like a burnout virus for the mind. All you need is a problem that is challenging, exciting and complex, but also not complex enough to seem too daunting. Maybe you’ll know how to solve 90% of it and the challenge of solving the remaining 10% is what motivates you to keep working on it. Then after you’ve worked it on for a while you start to realize that the remaining 10% of the problem is actually another problem that is as difficult as the original one. Once again, you know how to solve 90% of that problem and the remaining 10% is a challenge. Repeat ad infinitum. Or until your willpower is gone and you’ve achieved peak burnout. Congratulations.

Recognizing that you’re about to get stuck in this loop is important. It’s the mindset of believing that you’ll solve these kinds of problems immediately, or by just devoting more brain-time to them, because then you’ll get into the willpower-draining self-loop that eventually leads to burnout. There’s always one more thing to solve; one more thing that needs fixing or thinking about. What matters more than solving the problem is keeping yourself in a state where you’re able to solve problems. And draining yourself towards burnout is the exact opposite of what you should be doing. Take time off. Think about other things. Don’t worry if you still think about the problem in the shower or before going to sleep, it’ll drain itself from your brain eventually. No problem is as important as keeping your mental self in its best possible state.

(Yes, this post was totally advice to myself. Felt good to write about it though.)

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Fatigue

I read a great article the other day about how Navy Seals are trained to ignore their body’s signals for pain, because in reality muscles can be pushed a lot harder than when the safety signal goes off. The article also mentioned a seal who did a marathon and ended up breaking his foot because he ignored his pain signals. It doesn’t even seem to be an uncommon thing with pro-athletes. If you’ve got a strong mind then you can force yourself to endure things that are not healthy to endure in the long term.

Yesterday my co-workers and I kicked off an exciting new thing, and we spent several hours thinking of a technical design for what we’re going to program. When the day ended there were still things left undone so I felt excited (at first) to work a little more on the idea to get some important bits fleshed out. As time went on that excitement dissipated, but I forced myself to continue anyway because I was nearing the end. I managed to get a lot done before I went home, but in the evening some of the problems were still stuck in my head, and I found it hard to stop thinking about them.

Today I went to work at the usual time, did all the usual things, and continued deeper into the new idea. But at around 3 o’clock my brain just.. stopped. I ceased to be able to solve problems or find creative solutions to things. I tried forcing myself again to do a little bit more, but the results were not as effective as yesterday. I think I’ve reached a point where it’s just not useful to try to do more. I don’t think that forcing myself to work longer trains my brain to be more effective for a longer period of time. I’ve tried that for over 10 years now, and it just does not work. When my brain runs out of energy then the best thing to do is to just stop, walk away and do something else. Passive entertainment or a braindead session of Minecraft usually does the trick of keeping my mind occupied without feeling bored. But when the energy’s gone I just don’t feel like doing much else.

It seems much easier for me to hit my mental limits than it is to hit my physical limits. During cycling trips there were a few moments during which I really just felt all my muscle strength disappearing, and the only thing I could do was stop and have a snack before I could go on. But those moments were quite rare, whereas I hit my mind’s limits just about every other day at work. It seems like my mind is permanently limited to under 7 hours of useful time when I’m at max capacity. the obvious thing to do is to not push myself so much and spread out the workload a bit more, which in the end is probably more productive. Sometimes you can’t avoid getting fired up for a problem though. Next time I’ll try to spread out my mental load a bit more. Pacing is key. Sustainability improves satisfaction.

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The Brexit

I swore to myself I wouldn’t let this crap get into my head, but I am bombarded my brexit-ness in my daily life so I might as well write a bit about it. Is it a good idea? I have no fucking clue. I’m not allowed to vote, despite being a EU citizen who has lived in the UK for over five years already. I never bothered to do the required research about whether or not the UK leaving the EU is a good idea. My gut instinct says it’s a bad idea, but I have not poured across the countless articles and documents describing what the effects of leaving versus staying would be. But I am really annoyed at how politicians and media are turning something that could be a purely rational decision based on empirical data and facts into one of bullshit propaganda and dumbing-down of the issue to appeal to the mass public. It utterly disgusts me how this turned out. A politician got stabbed because of her position on the brexit, other politicians are using it for their own personal gain and the more ignorant among the population are using it as an excuse to spew some generic anti-foreigner hate. Regardless of the final outcome, I already am not happy about how this turned out.

Seriously though, do people really see the world as a whole being a better place if the UK and the EU go their separate ways? Even if the UK gets stronger in the short term, I believe if you look at it in a timespan of 10-20 years, the UK won’t be stronger from leaving. I have no hard arguments for this, it’s all probabilities based on reading stuff on the internet and talking to people who know more about it than me. It might be the best game-theoretical decision to maximize your own benefits right now, and then later, as soon as you get more benefit from rejoining, get back in. But the whole would suffer from that, and the end result could be better for everyone involved if the UK stays in. In the long term.

Also, why the hell are votes not weighted? There should be a general political knowledge test to see how much a voter understands about politics in general, and then another specific one about whichever problem or party or thing being voted on. People who have more knowledge about the issues should be better able to predict what would be the best course of action, and they should get votes that weigh heavier than those of people who know nothing and just vote whatever their family or friends are voting. I seriously don’t get why this is not a thing yet. Would love to hear counterarguments to this.

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Lazy context switcher

I often hear programmers complain about being interrupted by people, breaking their concentration. Strangely enough I rarely have that issue. Every time people interrupt me my current context doesn’t really get ‘switched’, rather I just do away with the interruption with the bare minimum of effort while keeping the context in my head. It takes a pretty big interruption to really disrupt my context, but as a consequence I probably seem a bit ‘away’ when responding to people while I’m trying to hold in the context. In some occasions when I’ve walked to the kitchen to get a drink, while concentrating on a difficult programming problem, I somehow lose the ability to have regular conversation, and I can only come up with standard replies to things. The same thing has happened to me in the elevator on the way out right after work, especially on days where I had to leave a problem unsolved. Oops. There’s pros and cons to not being easily disruptable, I guess.

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A day without a phone

The other day I wrote about how my opinion on mobile phones is shifting. I realize I’m not the first hipster to call out mobile phones on being too mainstream, but it’s genuinely how my opinion seems to swing these days. During most days since I’m back from cycling I’ve tried to limit my usage, keeping it in my bag or facing down in silent mode so it can’t disturb me. A few days ago I tried to go all radical and actually left my phone at home.

It’s probably too short to form any serious opinion on this, but I can definitely say that it didn’t feel quite as liberating as I imagined. It was quite easy to adjust to not having it in the morning; I just put on some nice music on my ipod classic and enjoyed a peaceful train ride in to work, and some pleasant mindwanderings that I wouldn’t have had if I was reading Hacker News articles or if I was browsing 9gag.

But it was after the working day that I missed my phone the most, on the commute back. I didn’t have much mental energy left and would quite have liked to do mindless activities on the phone. Somehow I’ve gotten so used to the phone that it costs more mental energy to not use it. That’s definitely not right. In practical terms I did not ‘miss out’ on anything. No important messages were had, and they could have been delivered via email instead. My lack of ‘connection’ throughout the day did not result in a horrible social catastrophe like being too late to wish someone a happy birthday on Facebook. (By the way I don’t do that).

Even on the way back, with a tired mind, I enjoyed more mindwanderings than usual, and felt more refreshed than usual when I got home. Not being preoccupied with the phone is likely a large factor in this, but also the fact that I used noise cancelling earphones to listen to music on the way home, something I never do when I’m playing around with my phone. I’m not sure if a combination of phone play and music is too much, but for the moment at least I don’t feel the urge to use both.

Not having a phone with me for the day felt good, but I think it did cost me willpower. But then again, what  kind of self-improvement does not cost willpower? Worth a try.

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Energy

The more things stay the same, the more I change. I’m back at work now. I felt quite energetic and fresh today, which I’m guessing is thanks to the weight loss and exercise. I really need to keep that up. Anyway, here’s some short thoughts.

For the past year or so I have been coming completely around on my opinion about mobile phones. I hated my first Android phone, then got a Galaxy S4 which I still absolutely love, but now that I’ve gotten used to the presence of a reliable phone and internet access all the time, all I can think of is that I no longer want that any more. The mobile phone is a device that seemingly has the power to disturb you at any given moment. I don’t give that right to nearly anyone or anything, and my mobile phone certainly does not deserve that privilege. It’s merely a device of distraction that does not really better my life in any way, other than as a tool for navigation. I’m going to really try to avoid using it from now on. I might even leave it at home on some days.

Today was my first day back at the old workplace. I walked past the ugly building that I walk past every time on my way to work; the building that had come to represent the worst possible life I could imagine. But it has no power over me now. I no longer look it at with dread or disgust or any other kind of strong feeling. It’s just a building now. I used to play with the thought that one day I too would have an apartment, a mortgage, a commute, a girlfriend/wife, a car, a 9-to-5 job and all the other things that I at the time thought would change my life from ‘super fucking awesome’ to ‘normal’. That ugly building that I passed every morning represented that idea to me. I was in the process of gaining all those normal things that I thought would make my life meh-er, but the only reason my life ever was meh was because of my own attitude. I’ve become used to the change in lifestyle and have realized that at the end of it all I am still myself. The idea represented by the building has proven to be false. So now I walk past it without giving it a second thought. Except today, because I felt the need to blog about it. Feels good.

I’ve blogged before about my love-hate relationship with time. I had another good moment today on the overground, where instead of playing on my phone I decided to listen to some music instead, which always promotes good thoughts. I somehow ended up imagining how a particular situation that happened today could have played out a million times more awkwardly for me, and then I realized that even if that did happen, it wouldn’t affect me negatively in any way whatsoever in the future. All that would remain is the strong memory a terrible day, which I’m starting to think is worth more than a weak memory of an average day. Relating this back to time – if you think about things this way, you can use the power of time to your advantage to get out of your comfort zone and do crazy things, knowing that after a while it’ll just be a good, or bad, memory. But at least it’ll be a strong one.

Perhaps the above paragraph sounds like obvious, maybe even cheesy life advice. I’ve heard or read something similar many times myself, but my brain needs to connects the dots for itself, it needs to relate the ‘generic life lesson’ to actual life experiences that I’ve had, and it’s only after those experiences that everything really clicks into place. It’s like you’re pre-loading your brain with knowledge for later, to be unlocked once you gain experience, which turns the knowledge into wisdom. I wouldn’t dare presume to call myself wise in any way, but the words sounds pleasantly descriptive for the concepts I’m describing.

Real life numbs. Keep stepping out of your comfort zone to slap yourself awake. I hope I can keep this post-holiday energy for as long as I can. Thanks everyone for telling me that you’re reading this blog! That means a lot to me. I will keep writing for as long as my energy and mindset allows

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Starting over

This week I’ll restart my old job after a break period. It might have changed a bit, but I’ll be working again with the people I love to work with. I’m genuinely happy about that, and I’m also looking forward to having the next real goal day. I’ve had plenty of side goals during my break period, but now that it’s nearing its end it’s pretty clear that the next big goal for me is to just get back to work again. I’m very ok with that. It was a good break, but now it’s time to get some work done again. Before I do that though, here’s some random thoughts to get out of my brain while I’m still in full awake mode.

I’m not sure if it’s the break period, the cycling trip, the weight loss, finally having a decent apartment, or all of the above, but I am feeling supremely comfortable in my own head right now. More comfortable than I’ve felt in a long time. This current mental state is absolutely worth however long it takes to achieve it. My main goal for my break period was to lose weight; I’ve gotten started on that, but still have a long way to go. I can already feel the physical and mental effects. I get tired less quickly. I can hop on my bike and do a hill without too much effort. I’ll need to keep up the cycling though, otherwise those muscles will disappear very quickly again. Mentally I feel more awake and aware, although that also slips when I don’t exercise regularly. Still, I feel like I’ve made good progress over the past months.

Pursuing extreme emotions is a goal I’ve recently regained interest in. Apathy is my worst enemy, and when it hits me I don’t even realize it. In retrospect, at this current moment of non-apathetic-ness, I can tell that I’ve been somewhat apathetic about my own life in the past. Not to the point where it affected my decisions; even if I feel less emotionally involved in something I’m still rational enough to make the same choice as I otherwise would have made with my emotions. But I recognize now that some moments in my past have felt more numb than they should have felt. I’m aware of that right now, and it feels like I’m catching up on all those previous experiences, which feels amazing. I hope I can hang on to this awareness. I wish I knew how to make some of the people I know aware of their apathy towards their own lives. But even if I told them, they couldn’t care. It doesn’t bother me as much as it should. I’ve never been much of an influencer of other people, and I don’t lie awake at night worrying about it. It’s everyone’s responsibility to save themselves, you can’t rely on others to do it for you.

Mind reset. Body reset. Time for the next thing. Epic new first times await.

 

(and epic new first second times, and epic new first third times, and..)

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Goal days, wait days

A day in your average cycling trip can be boiled down to one thing: you’re either heading towards your goal, or you’re not making any progress. You can fill in the days that you’re not cycling from A to B with any activity you like, of course. A lot of the activities you can do, such as sightseeing, relaxing, finding nice restaurants, indulging in the finer things of life, are absolutely fun to pursue. Days like that provide happiness, but not fulfillment. That’s why sometimes a day cycling in the rain in absolutely misery feels better than spending a day sightseeing in a place you don’t really care about.

Real life is, as can be expected, nowhere near as straightforward. The obvious first problem is: what exactly is the goal? And even if you know the goal, it’s highly unlikely that there’s a completely unambiguous, obviously right way of attaining it. Often you’ll have some kind of vague goal, such as “I want to earn more money”, with many different ways to go about achieving that. Getting better at your current job and aiming for a promotion is one way, but an even more directly fulfilling way is applying to jobs with a higher salary than your current one. I’m definitely not saying that that’s the rational thing to do, but it’s definitely something that will make you feel like you’re moving towards your goal. The rational thing to do would be to make sure you learn new skills first, get a good reputation, and all kinds of other things that will increase the likelihood of getting hired. That’s a lot harder to quantify, but ultimately just as important.

Real life is about opportunity. Even if you’ve got all the skills in the world, nothing is going to happen unless someone gives you a chance. And the more people you know or are in contact with, the more likely that becomes. But even with that there is a trade-off: if you spend all your time networking then you’ve got no time then you don’t have to polish those skills. And sometimes you just end up being out with a friend who introduces you to someone who offers you a dream job, so the act of going out ends up paying out more than hours and hours of studying.

Like I said, there’s a lot of nuance. And randomness. No one ever has only one goal on their mind either. Everyone’s always balancing a multitude of goals that they are trying to attain, either long term or short term, passively or actively.

The best moments of my life have been where my goals and the ways of attaining them were completely obvious. Even if things got really difficult, knowing what to fight for, and how, just makes every moment seem valuable. It’s important to take a step back every once in a while and think about what you are trying to attain; what you are working for.

I’m not sure how to turn this into some obvious advice piece, but here’s how it seems to work for me: schedule times in your week/month where you do absolutely nothing. Don’t expose yourself to technology during that time. Especially not the internet. The internet distracts. Just listen to some music while looking out at a nice bit of scenery. Write down the random thoughts that enter your head. Eventually you’ll process through all of those thoughts, and what’s left behind will be what drives you. Once you know what you want, you can think about how to get it. If it seems too big or too vague, subdivide it into obvious goals. Even if it doesn’t seem that you can get to your final goal by attaining all your sub-goals, do them anyway. A clearer picture will emerge as you accomplish things.

I didn’t want to make it sound easy, and it definitely isn’t easy for me. The periods of my life where I had only a few obvious and supremely important goals are long gone. It’s all about nuance and grey areas now. I take solace in the fact that, although I worry about my future choices, at least I won’t have the opportunity to seriously destroy my life in any way that was previously possible when I was younger and had less experience. The chances of me turning into a total idiot from where I am now are pretty slim. The more years of experience I have in life, the harder it is to disrupt that foundation. I no longer have to worry about that foundation crumbling or sinking into the ground, but I do have to think about what to build on top of it.

Plenty of time to think about that.

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