the step back
I’m building shelves right now. I mean, not at this exact moment, obviously – I’m typing a blog post. But that’s the thing I need to get done this weekend. And you might wonder, if I need to get it done, why am I sitting here typing a blog post?
I finished cutting the vertical pieces of the frame. The long horizontal pieces are already the correct size. A little short, actually, but they’ll be capped on the outside by other 2x4s that will bring the total width of the shelves out to the width of the wall they go on so they can be anchored. Now I need to carefully measure where the horizontal pieces will meet up with the vertical ones so that the shelves are level and stable. The current temperature is 97º, the hottest it’s supposed to get today, and I’ve been out in the backyard with my chop saw. I was bent over the wood I’d laid out on the floor, sweaty and shaking, pencil poised 24″ from the end of a board, when I decided I better take a shower and a step back. So that’s why I’m sitting here writing a blog post.
Last night I met up with a friend who’s also a developer and we talked about work. We disagree strongly about the value of an 80-hour work week. He sees it as a side effect of caring about your work. I see it as detrimental to your work. He said he dislikes being confined to a 9-to-5 because he wants the freedom to stay up until the middle of the night getting something working. I said that staying up until the middle of the night getting something working can lead to spending a lot of time solving the wrong problem.
I like the 9-to-5 because I think it’s crucial to take a step back. To be forced to, even. The space between actually working gives you an opportunity to think before putting fingers to keyboard (or stud to chop saw), but it also recontextualizes everything you’re doing. Our work, which has no direct customers and a thousand different potential solutions for every problem, makes us very susceptible to rabbit holes. We hold a problem in our minds and it frequently exists nowhere else in as descriptive a form. That can be really difficult, because things we hold in our mind and nowhere else have the tendency to change subtly every time we examine them, like reading a book in a dream. Trying to hold a detailed, complex idea in your mind for extended periods of time is basically impossible without progress that allows you to transfer the idea to something concrete and stop remembering it.
The step back is valuable because it forces that progress, and if it can’t force progress, it gives you impetus to make some notes. It gets your idea out of your head and puts it someplace where it can’t shift around on you. It allows you to break very large tasks up into small ones, so that you only need to be aware of the details of one piece at a time. When you come back to your work, everything you’ve done has settled and become concrete. You can loosen your mental grip on all that stuff and focus on the next step without the nagging feeling that builds over time and increases with fatigue that you’re missing something.
That’s why it freaks me out when I see people in our profession working and working with no breaks. Not that it doesn’t sometimes lead to brilliant and unexpected results; it certainly can. But more often than not, my experience has been that people working without a break for long hours have stopped solving the problem they’d meant to solve and are trudging toward a finish line that keeps moving further away from them.
There are studies that show the inverse relationship between productivity and hours worked. I don’t think they’re very surprising. With a frequency only a contrarian could love, the best way to get something done is to take a step back and stop doing it.