Culture

Code n00b: Hocus, Focus

15 Feb 2019 5:00pm, by

A universal truth of modern life is that there is never enough time. We have this same truth in software production life, with the additional pressure of irrational deadlines and neverending Jira tickets. Don’t get me started on the subject of scrum sprints. My fellow devs mutter this truth to themselves in between gulps of preferred caffeinated beverage: “We need more time to do that right but we barely have time to do it at all. I wish I could do more than slap a patch on this, but ain’t nobody got time for that.

Our brave new fragmented world of endless emails and incessant Slack messages has now spawned what can euphemistically be called the focus-based economy. Everybody wants us to focus more so we can deliver faster, and oh by the way they’ve got a snappy new idea how we can do just that, you just got invited to the Slack channel! Pomodoro clocks, four hour work weeks (ha, as if), “deep thought sprints” — Jeebus, talk about your oxymorons, one thing the focus economy truly lacks is irony — productivity hacks are springing up everywhere. And they are most alluring to those of us toiling away in the software developer industrial complex feeling constant pressure to do more, faster. The company I currently work for has a neon sign in the break room that gently glows forth the words SLEEP FASTER. It’s right over the coffee machine, which itself automatically cues up double espresso drinks.

So there’s no question about the pressure. The real question before us, loyal Code N00b readers, is, do any of these less distraction/more productivity/time-saving hacks actually, you know, save us time? Help us hack our own habits to make us more productive meat machines? Harness the power of the four hour sleep week? OPTIMIZE OUR BRAINZ FOR MAXIMUM EFFICIENCY?

Honestly, I’m a sucker for those “you’ll be X times better/faster/more focused if you just try Y” articles. I’m always happy to waste ten minutes of work time reading about yet another way to make better use of my time. And god knows I will try to actually apply them: I am a compulsive maker of lists, tilt at the Inbox Zero windmill daily, and have a Trello board to organize my Trello boards.

The very first JavaScript app I built was a Pomodoro counter that is always open in the top left corner of my screen (though after the first few weeks I went back in and added a snooze button feature, boy 25 minutes goes by fast). I listen to Tim Ferriss podcasts while grocery shopping or driving to glean the tools, tactics and tricks of world-class performers. But has any of this actually helped?

Probably not, honestly. I have to say I have genuinely, truly tried most of them, and aside from the Pomodoro — which at this point is just to remind me to get up and move around, because sitting at our desks all day is killing us — abandoned them just as quickly as ineffective or useless. Which brings us to the ultimate lie of the “focus economy” craze and the productivity tools that enable it: you end up wasting a ridiculous amount of time reading about, downloading, and implementing them. How many articles do I read each week about new ways to be less distracted when the real hack is just sitting down to focus on the work at hand and getting it fucking done?  How much time do I spend feeling bad about being less productive than it seems like the world thinks I ought to be?

The real kicker: How much time do I waste making my daily laser-targeted To Do list when I rarely get that deep deep satisfaction of checking off items as To Done?  After all, meticulous to-do lists go right out the window as soon as there’s a new JIRA ticket, marked urgent and flagged with your name.

You can’t hack that which you can’t predict.

When you build things for a living, especially software, it’s a creative process with way more ambiguity than any of us typically recognize. Less about steady predictable progress and more about embracing chaos. All these hacks are attempts to control this chaos, hammer the ambiguities into deliverables, but the longer I’ve been doing this the clearer it has become that the chaos is an essential part of the process. It’s built in. The true path to producing good work and staying sane lies in accepting this and learning to respond accordingly rather than endless trying — and failing — to tame it. Organization and tools are important. Sanity, though — that is essential.

So the new hack I’ve decided to try out in 2019 is being satisfied with accomplishing whatever I can do each day. To stop obsessing over optimization and productivity and just, you know, do my work. Allow for the fact that some days are diamonds, some days are rocks, and not beating myself up about it.

The new productivity tool I’ve decided to try out in 2019 is free: take it easy on myself.

Feature image by Mathieu Stern on Unsplash.

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