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 97ยบ, 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.

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3 Responses to “the step back”

  1. Isaac Schlueter Says:

    Yes, this.

    This is why I try to spend a few hours each day doing something physical, where 100% of the focus is here in meatspace, my body being in reality, concrete and breathing and not touching a keyboard or looking at the internet. Usually it’s yoga, but sometimes it’s riding my bike somewhere, or cleaning, or cooking, or just forcing myself to lay on the floor and be still until a timer goes “ding”.

    At first, when I started taking about 3 hours out of each day to go to a yoga class, I worried a little that I’d lose productivity, and my employer would wonder why I was running off to do not-work in the middle of work-time. Now, I’m acutely aware of how little I get done when I don’t keep to that ritual, and I wonder no one noticed how unproductive I was before!

  2. Isaac Schlueter Says:

    Also, this is why, in a completely cane-shaking “you kids get off my lawn” kind of way, I think Google Glass is probably a Bad Thing, on par with HFCS and crystal meth.

  3. Amy Hendrix Says:

    I’m firmly convinced that long hours are unhealthy for humans and absolutely terrible for quality work — but the other part that often gets overlooked is how easy it is for people to slip into false equivalencies. Even if it’s true (and I think it can be, in some cases and in some circumstances) that long hours are “a side effect of caring about your work”, it doesn’t follow that all those who work themselves into the ground care in the same way, or even that they should. It doesn’t follow that people who don’t or can’t keep crazy hours don’t really care. It doesn’t even follow that everyone’s caring manifests itself the same way.

    We have a cultural norm of working in unsustainable ways; I suspect a lot more people work long hours because they don’t want to be the person who stands out for not being at the keyboard, than because they’re really in a wonderful state of idea-flow at every moment. That’s clearly not good for either the people or the work.