How do you do it all day?

Predictability

“How do you sit in front of a computer all day long?”

I used to be asked this question a lot. What’s the big deal, sitting in front of a computer all day — being practically immersed in fascinating worlds of numbers and systems, mostly predictable systems. Systems which were far easier for me to think about than to interact with actual human beings — predictability that goes from ehh… to omg.. Why would you do that. About 2 years ago, I had a realization that even so computer systems are way more predictable than humans, it didn’t matter how hard I tried, I kept bumping into the need of dealing with the unpredictability of other fellow humans. My frustration kept accumulating for many years, and after doing computers for almost a decade, I decided to explore the other realm or to be honest, I was practically forced into that other realm.

The other realm

I took a break working as software developer for almost 1.5 years. I haven’t completely let go of the computer world, though my usage went down significantly and was mostly limited to reading and pretending to write my resume. That last one was practically my hobby for over a year, when someone asks me what I’m up while I’m sitting at my computer, most of the time my answer would be “I’m working on my resume”.

In this time period, I have discovered fascination with understanding myself through learning about other people and the more I have learned, the more I was surprised by the way my mind and body started to change.

One of the first things I have started to notice that to being able to be good at communication I need to do the reverse of what I have done with computers. I needed to stop thinking. Thinking with my conscious mind and analyzing every possible outcome is what lead to many episodes of social anxiety and inability to talk to people.

Let me give you an example of my usual behavior: Imagine a group event, like a software developer Meetup (in those times those would be the only events I attend). I would sit in a corner and observe the group, especially if I didn’t have friends in that group. And the more I observed, the more anxious I became as my mind raced through different possibilities of trying to predict what to say, what other people like, and how to make a good impression. Even so, I have managed to keep incredibly complicated inner workings of computer systems in my head — the world of humans had way too many permutations. The sheer amount of situations that could happen when one starts a conversation can easily overwhelm you.

As I kept all this tension in my mind it started to affect my body. It started with a jaw pain — my jaw would feel heavy and hurt more and more over time. After going to chiropractor she did explain that I most likely clung my jaw at night and it causes the pain. Though, she did necessary not explain the reason of why does this happen. In addition to that even so I have exercises rigorously for years my body kept “fat reserves”.

The final nail in the coffin was back pain which suddenly started to appear in my last job, my last job which involved lots of stress I was essentially stepping into the shoes of technical cofounder and trying to do everything at once.

And at one point it all reached the boiling point and I snapped. I quit my job, left my marriage and went to travel around the world in search of something. To this day I still don’t know what something is, though recently I’m starting to see that maybe the something was here all along.

Finding The Flow

As I was travelling around meeting people and diving deep into trusting my own subconscious mind. I started to see surprising thing that consciously, I might not be able to predict what humans would do, by my subconscious mind is actually perfectly capable to do it for me. Here is an analogy I like to use when I think about it:

When I started driving a car I kept thinking that it’s practically impossible task as in practically 5 seconds, you need to turn the wheel, turn on indicator, check blind spots, all of those things while travelling 100+km/h. And as many beginner drivers I kept doing wrong instead at the wrong time, from turning on a wrong indicator to pressing a wrong pedal. After many hours of driving with an instructor something changes — a moment when you go from “omg this is crazy” to “oh shit I’m doing it…” is the moment of so called “Flow”.

Popularised by the Social Network movie, it seemed to involve laser like focus and requires no distraction environment. But what if I tell that I think that the flow happens even in simple situations like driving — for me the flow is a state where you stop thinking about what you are doing and trust yourself to be perfectly capable of doing it. When this moment of trust happens, I find myself feeling like a superhero. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t able to fly and do superhero jumps, my subconscious was still limited by knowledge that I have in my mind. I don’t believe that you can “download” the information from the universe which is quite popular saying amongst new age people. To me a download happens when your subconscious creates surprising connections, an unexpected aha moment when you two seemingly unrelated pieces of information fall together to create a work of a genius.

Pull back

And so my life turned into hanging out with unicorns between rainbows — that’s what you actually see when you explore the other realm — for real!

All this was good and well until I found myself in credit card debt and feeling that I would like to have more than a single pay check behind me. After some searching for good opportunities for remote software developers I soon discovered that a platform Codementor I mentor for, actually offers freelance jobs. One of the stages of the interview is a code project assignment.

There are different exercises; designed for different types of developers and I have chosen to do one in React the technology I mentor in. Keep in mind before that, before that my workday, mostly consisted of reading some material about technology — talking to it about my students and helping them understand it and implement it. Meanwhile, I wasn’t actually building anything consistent myself, I toyed around with some small projects with LiveEdu (live streaming) and they would only require like 2 hours of my time per week.

That assignment that I was given was something else. As I was getting ready to start working on it for the first time my personal life hit me in the back and provided lots of space for thinking about non software related things. So I postponed it and while I did that I thought that I must do something very cool. Something very cool for me meant going outside of my comfort zone — I teach the React + Babbel + Redux technology stack which is quite popular and I was getting quite bored of it.

As I started working on the assignment on I have decided to see how far I can stretch myself, and try not just one but two things. The two things are TypeScript(different language — practically like switching between Italian and Spanish) and not using Redux.

In afterthought, if I was my own student, I would have stopped myself immediately and be very persistent on not doing too many new things at once. I even tell my students who are eager to try something beside redux on their final projects.

Use the thing that you have learned and after you have done that you can try something else.

As you can see I haven’t followed my own advice. To say the least I have bitten a way bigger piece that I could chew and the more I worked on it the more it stressed me out. My days turned from 2–3 hours of student teaching to suddenly 9+ hours which consisted of me hinged over my laptop and reading tons of articles on how to avoid redux and fight less with typescript. My girlfriend would occasionally ask “what’s going on?” To which my response would be simple “Eh… uh… I’m stressed”. My hope was that it would just be for a week and then things come back to normal, though I’m starting to notice a very rapid change.

Day 1 — hey its going to be awesome

The first thing is my own communication changed — I started to feel more anxious and less present in moments of talking to other people. I would not pay attention to what my friends would say as I kept thinking about how to solve that problem I was trying to deal with. The more anxious I felt about the deadline the less I communicated with people around me and soon it turned into them trying to turn to me and I’m just ignoring them completely. I still went to hang out a bit, though the mind kept coming back to the problems I was trying to solve.

Day 2 — oh shit

I stopped taking breaks and just try to do as much as I can, all the time, which lead to even more anxiety as I kept feeling that I’m not going to make it. My communication to my friends and girlfriend was practically cut off with “I’m busy” excuse.

Day 3 — faster..faster….faster……

At some point during the day I find myself starting at the screen blank not knowing what the hell I’m doing and the only feeling I had was panic about upcoming deadlines andthe amountt of progress I have made. And the more hours I put the worse it became. I stopped going for a walk to take a break and even ate in my room all the time to minimise the amount of distractions. Meanwhile, my body is kicking back in with massive neck pain and pimples on my skin.

Day 4 — reflection

I wake up barely being able to move my neck and try to do morning yoga(the only habit I have managed to keep during this week), and it just hurts too much. So I stop and think. Think about what I have done in the last 5 days to myself and to people close to me. And it terrified me, I’ve started to remember that I was practically like that most of my time as a software developer. I would come home and think about the problems I was trying to solve back in the office while I’m talking to people around me, and the only way to escape those problems was to play video games. To escape from one fantasy to the other one.

My body was definitely not in better shape in the past, though I learned how to be so disconnected from it that I would only feel pain when it hits 8–9. Think… think…think… and over think. In trying to make a good first impression I over think what I would say to a stranger and not do anything instead. In overthinking this project, in trying to impress I practically did the same — I’ve done nothing in comparison to the amount of hours I have put in.

So I’ve realised that I’ve managed to burn out within just 4 days on a simple assignment which suppose to be walking in a park for me. As my realisation settled, I started to question one thing — the way I work.

Day 5 — action… less

As I have learned from smart people like David Allen(GTD) and Francesco Cirillo (Pomodoro) I just need to put all my tasks in the list, do them in 25min chunks and the things will be alright. My obsession with buying all possible task management systems from Omnifocus, Things, Clear, Reminders, Nirvana, RTM, and the list goes on… helped me to do all those things and it was working fine, until it didn’t. One missing piece for me in all those systems is the reflection part. The Pomodoro technique is focused on 25 min chunks, and 5 min break in which you question the task and continue if it’s still relevant. Let me give you a specific example:

I have a task “Create a registration form” which I have been working on… so 25min expires, now… the task is still relevant as I haven’t completed it so I continue for another 25 min… The 5 min breaks I’d use to quick toilet and water check and practically nothing else — it’s 5 min after all. So what I found that for me in my current state of mind that system doesn’t work anymore — I kept getting stuck in action which eventually overwhelms me and I get lost in the mud of trying to do something irrelevant. I decided to try something different I broke an hour into 45 min of action, 5 min of break and 10 min of reflection.

Act-Break-Reflect

I used 45 min over 25 to help me to regain focus as especially for intense work like programming is easier when the time interval is bigger.

I use the break specifically to disconnect completely from what I’m doing — meditation, breath, walk around or answer those annoying social media on a different device. Anything to clear the mind. And after that I comeback, and this time before jumping into action I spend 10 minutes reflecting on what I have spent the last 45 min on. Mostly it looks like journaling with a pen to understand where I’m getting stuck and what are the things I can do differently, an example:

I find those 10 minutes to often be the most valuable part of the hour for me and over last two days it helped me to catch myself being stuck in overthinking over and over again. It also helps me to me mindful of amount of time that I’m spending on a task as it’s incredibly easy to just keep doing for hours. Last but not least I define 3 tasks that I can finish within a day and put a dot next to each every time I spend an hour on each. I decided to limit myself to 6 chunks per day max and it allows me to be flexible and adjust myself if I’m getting stuck on one task for too long.

I’m still experimenting with exact visual display for that and being flexible for now.

Day 7 — peace

In the last two days I have practically done most of the work on the assignment.

Even so I have realised that I’m not going to finish the project on time, there was a strange feeling. A feeling of letting go of anxiety and just letting things be like they are. I have learned so much from that experience and my body giving me almost instance signals on stopping the toxic pattern of behaviour is great indicator for me to listen to it more. Being stuck in constant action is a very common pattern of our lives and I believe that it creates way more stress than we realise. Maybe we need to think deeper not about how to do more and be more productive, but how to do less and be more happy.

Final note

To me it seem that we almost need to learn how to do things less like robots and more like humans. When I create a list of tasks to do it feels I feel like a machine with no feelings and no emotions. Lists of tasks work great for certain things like packing list or grocery list, the problem I see is when we make those lists to drive our entire life. In my opinion, we need tools(either digital or not) which helps us to learn how to be mindful about our productivity addiction.