A Necessary Step to Creativity

The brain is a marvellous thing, the most complex organ in the human body, and the most important for everything we do. Why do we so often treat it like a drill press?

During my years as a software engineer, I’ve seen more brain abuse than I care to think about. (How’s that for irony?) And I’ve even committed a little myself.

Software development is closely akin to writing. Some even say it’s a form of writing, creating a non-physical work product that only has meaning when you read it (or run it), though in a different industry, in different languages, with different goals, requiring a different skill set… I think I’ll stick with “closely akin.” Like writers, software developers have a passion for their craft. Their work is primarily thought-work. The industry measures their output in words (or lines of code), because that’s a metric non-writers (or non-programmers) can understand. And like writers, software developers can burn themselves out, frequently with the help of their managers.

As John Carlton pointed out, you need to be fully rested in order to operate at peak effectiveness and efficiency. And the more you push yourself, the more tired you get, and the worse you will perform. We assume that if we work an extra hour, we can just get that last chapter done, or get that last feature implemented. And everything in our industries push us to that conclusion. But it’s wrong, dead wrong.

I was working at one company, doing software development. During a couple of weeks I became very excited about a project I was working on. I wanted to finish it to a certain point. I passionately wanted to. I took work home. I worked weekends. Unlike most software engineers, I keep track of how I spend my time, and so I know that I worked 60 hours a week for a week and a half. And not 60 hours where you spend the first 20 of them in meetings, the next 15 surfing the web, and 10 more drinking coffee. These were thought-heavy hours full of productive work.

I finished the project to the point I needed in order to satisfy my passion, and I was ready to take it easy. I was ready to come in late, leave early, goof off a little, take a creative break. That’s when hell boiled over. They needed me on another project to write some software so that they could figure out what was wrong with our custom electronics. This issue was holding up production. Everything else had second priority.

On Thursday of that week, one of the hardware engineers was telling me what he needed, and I was telling him of the software challenges I was facing getting it done. He said, “Why can’t you just do this?” and explained an approach I knew wouldn’t work. So I told him so, or rather I tried. I looked for the words. I’ve practiced for years ingesting technical concepts, applying them, and communicating them even to laymen. It should be much easier to get another engineer to understand. But I was so mentally exhausted, I couldn’t even put together a simple English sentence.

It was about 2 in the afternoon. I told him I needed to leave to pick up my kids and I would not be back that day. (That was true, though what I didn’t tell him is that I could have picked up the kids as late as 6.) On the way home, enlightenment. I realized that there are few crises so urgent that they can’t wait 18 hours for me to get a good night’s sleep. And since I don’t work in the emergency services, none of the crises I encounter are likely ever to be that urgent.

Nothing I do is so urgent that it can’t wait for me to get a good night’s sleep. No one will die. No one will starve. No one’s life will be ruined. Remember this the next time you feel you must work a few extra hours to get another article written, or a blog posting done, or a podcast out. Yes, there is some work that needs to be done by a deadline. So get that done first, long before the deadline. The rest will wait for you. Your brain is not a drill press. If you push it hard enough, it will not just keep drilling holes. It will deteriorate, subtly at first, but noticeably. Except you won’t notice it until you’ve churned out pages and pages of garbage.

I did go home. I slept well. The next morning, I woke up, and I reflected on the challenges that had seemed so mountainous the previous afternoon. The answer was obvious, and it was simple to implement. I went into work, and within a half-hour, I had the software they needed. Unfortunately, I don’t think they actually used that software to diagnose the problem they were facing. They must have done so through some other means.






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