Producing Day 16: Modeling my Energy Modes

Today’s report on the producing versus consuming challenge continues with the first “stumble of the month”: a lapse in productivity despite my “best” efforts. This is followed by observations, assessment, and a list of the motivating factors that actually seem to work for me. Tomorrow, I plan on brainstorming a new approach to my day planning based on today’s musings. Maybe not a form, but certainly a list of “attitude changers”.

Monday Monday Monday

I woke up late, having slept in the guest bedroom to see if the reported dust problem was still there. It was, and I woke up with a sore throat and to the other bedroom. I couldn’t fall back to sleep, so I wrote the big 10-day summary post and fell back asleep at around 4AM. Didn’t hear the alarm, which meant I was late getting to the studio to record the weekly unnamed podcast that I have with my friend Sid. After recording and having the traditional post-podcast lunch, it was around 2PM. I ran two more errands: dropping by my printer Papergraphics in Merrimack, where I chatted with the owner Frank for a bit, and then to pick up my dry cleaning at Anton’s a few miles away. I got home around 2:45PM, where I logged in and connected with my programming partner Ben to set the tone for the week. This week is pretty much dedicated to programming, I have decided. So…let’s get to it!

I have been keeping a “continuity log” for development, which tersely lists what got done every day. This helps me get back into synch with the project, because it helps me reconstruct the train of thinking behind it. The immediate task at hand was to refactor a module, VisualFactory, so it was easier to use in our next round of changes. “Refactoring” is making this module of code, which is used by other code modules, easier to use by simplifying or clarifying its visible parts. It’s sort of like streamlining workflow by reordering or renaming subprocesses so they better-match the reality of day-to-day work, or picking better “brand keywords” for your marketing campaign so people clearly know what you’re selling and what the benefit is to them.

So I start this work at 3PM on the dot. The first step, I realize, is quite simple: just create a new base object and expose a constructor function that inherits from it, then change the existing modules to use the new syntax. That last bit, actually, might be quite complicated, but one things at a time. I started to get very sleepy. I noticed how QUIET the house was, without the background cleaning and organization going on. My eyelids drooped and I fell asleep. Since I was sitting in a wooden chair, my neck became strained and I sort of slipped to the floor. I woke up again at 5PM and then 7PM, not moving but thinking that I should move. I finally got off the floor when I recognized that my brain wasn’t helping, so I “turned it off” by disengaging my reactions to thoughts, and allowed my body to take control. It was hungry, or bored, or maybe both. I got up (or my body did), and started cooking dinner. I suppressed any thoughts that might have gone anywhere until I was engaged in the cooking activity (reheating some Trader Joe’s naan and lamb vindaloo), then puttered in the kitchen. Then, I checked mail, Facebook, and Twitter. I reviewed the key news sites of the day (Massively, Polygon, Wired, Ars Technica) and tidied the living room for a while. At 9PM, I started playing WildStar, and kept going until around 3AM when I felt exhausted enough to fall asleep. In the game, I gained enough experience points to reach level 28. I spent some time in my WildStar house, rearranging some large trees so they looked more like a forest. On-planet, I spent most of my time exploring a very large crater filled with mutated creatures that required careful navigation. I tried different combinations of combat abilities that were new to me so I could develop a more versatile set of tactics. While I was completing a side quest, I stumbled upon a group of adventurers that were fighting a giant (and I mean GIANT) warbot, and practiced my new abilities to heal groups and not get flattened in the process, gaining a nice hat in the process. I explored beautiful and dangerous snowbound hills where fish aliens were extracting primal water from the planet, which had caused the entire area to freeze, according to a communication I had covertly monitored. All the while, I eavesdropped on the roleplayer’s “out of character” chat channel to see what they were talking about and what they were doing. I saw a few of them out in the “world”, and read their biographies if they had them. I earned about 15 gold pieces along the way, which is not bad. I spent some of it on repairing gear and buying a new bag so I could carry more stuff as I wandered from camp to camp building improvements to help other players.

But I did not refactor the VisualFactory code. Doh!


I found it interesting that at 3PM, I could not stay focused, pay attention, will myself to work, for what is a small technical challenge that is actually quite interesting—and necessary for long-term development. I’m not feeling the time pressure on this project at the moment, I suppose. And also, at the time I was facing the problem I did NOT think of it as interesting. I thought of it as SOMETHING I HAD TO DO SO I HAD BETTER DO IT.

Here are some reflections, in no particular order:

  • I have been aware that shifting my mindset from negative to positive is one of the keys to managing my “executive functions”, which are the cognitive processes that enable me to make choices and initiate action (I am probably paraphrasing the concept poorly, but I think it is “in the ballpark” conceptually speaking). My initial reaction was negative as something I have to do. If I had framed it better, maybe I would have done it. Like it or not, there are MANY things I have to do to survive and to meet my obligations. I know, technically I don’t have to do ANYTHING for ANYONE, but I am a part of a social-economic pact with people, and it’s important to me to maintain good standing within it.

  • I am also aware that I have an extreme aversion to LOSS OF FREEDOM. Perhaps as the day goes on (and 3PM is toward the end of the day), I am aware of the small number of remaining hours to “do work”. From past self-analysis, I know I like to have the feeling of having MANY hours to spend any way I want. Also, I don’t like feeling that I have to do something, at all, because this seems to diminish the pool of possibility. It’s so strong that I am feeling the negative reaction in my gut RIGHT NOW as I describe it. It’s a weird freedom thing. This makes me think of loss aversion, the theory that we respond more strongly to loss of something than we do the gain of it. I may not understand this exactly, but I believe the idea is that loss aversion theory explains why someone might exert more effort to PREVENT LOSS compared with what he might do to GAIN something of equal value.

  • Another possibility is that I was just out of juice for the day, after running the morning and afternoon errands. As I mentioned, I had woken up late after sleeping poorly. After the podcast recording, I walked from the studio to the restaurant and back again in the hot afternoon sun. I had been social, engaged, and outgoing. As an introvert, I might be expected to require a lot of time to recharge, and perhaps this is what happened. I also note that yesterday was around the 14-day mark for doing a whirlwind of elevated (for me) activity in the house; this is typically when I find I hit a wall and need to take a break.

  • The house is empty this week, VERY QUIET compared to last week. I thought it might be a relief, to have the house all to myself again, but it just seems like less is going on and I am back to doing my old boring routines. I am feeling a bit understimulating and bored, yet I am unable to initiate the “I HAVE TO” action items.

  • Compounding the energy / positive mindedness challenge is the fact that I’m not naturally a programmer. I like knowing how things work, and I like the possibility of creating better things, but I don’t find the practice of programming itself enjoyable when I am doing it by myself. Mostly I find it tedious because it’s necessary for getting some RESULT I want. Also, I am realizing that I prefer to program in the company of others who share my desire to make something interesting and can appreciate the problems that we are facing, then share what we’re doing. There is also an informal competition, where each of us are pushing to create something greater for greater glory. This is a feeling I miss a lot from high school, actually, when those of us who were in the computer room all the time were discovering our talents and sharing what we were learning. I miss this from art school too, when we would stay up all night in the computer lab working on our MFA thesis projects. Looking at this pattern of “not being a programmer who loves exploring code, but being a programmer anyway to enable ideas”, I can see that this correlates with what I do enjoy doing, which is learning and sharing technique with an appreciative and knowledgable audience. Those are KEY ELEMENTS of my happiness/productivity cycle. I do not have that with the typical programming chore.

  • Maybe it is a chemical brain thing, ADD Inattentive Type, some failing of discipline, who knows.

  • I find it interesting how my play session in WildStar seems much more detailed than the rest of what I got done. While it was purely a consuming activity, there was a lot of problem solving combined with exploration. If only I could harness that power in my day-to-day work.


As I look at the list above, I keep thinking that there is an attitude adjustment I need to make. I have a negative reaction to the perceived loss of freedom (“I have to do this, instead of doing something else”), and in the absence of strong external motivators I have the freedom to just feel negative about it. If I was in a local team, I would have the external motivation to maintain a positive and forward-looking demeanor because it is a huge factor in company culture. When I am by myself, I am free to stew, unmindful of the effect it has on my motivation. All I know is that I’m not excited, and energy drops precipitously. So let me iterate a few hard truths about myself:

  • I don’t like the lack of certainty in outcome. I don’t like the lack of a guaranteed reward. The programming work I had in front of me yesterday didn’t promise anything in return, other than more work. As much as I would like to be an explorer, I have to say that I’m not one to explore for the sake of it. I don’t like it. I am more like a resource gatherer; exploration is part of the job, because that’s where the unexploited resources are, and I prepare myself to endure the adventure rather than run into it.

  • I possess a limited amount of attention or motivational energy. Once it is gone, it is gone. There’s the notion of decision fatigue, which suggests that we are fatigued by making choices as we exercise our “executive function muscles”. Or perhaps it’s related to the introvert stereotype, where an hour of “out in the world” time means there are eight hours of “recharge time”. This is true for me. On a side note, I stumbled upon an interesting theory that the “energy model” for introverts was related not simply to IN versus OUT, but return on energy investment. This blog post was written five years ago regarding grad student Jennifer Grimes with regard to some research in cognitive science. I’ll have to see if I can dig up the additional findings, but in the meantime I am noting an interesting similarity to my aversion to “non-payoff” in certain tasks.

  • I only have three ways to motivate myself. And self-motivation is the most expensive, least effective way.

Speaking of motivation, here are the three ways that I’m motivated to initiate an action (or so I believe):

  1. When there is an external deadline that is combined with a LAUNCH or DEPLOYMENT date that has been set by a third party to make an impression on the public. That is tangible, and I hate missing launch windows. I actually find them kind of exciting. Arbitrary deadlines? Not a motivation. Deadlines without a good execution plan? Also not a motivation, and meaningless.

  2. When there is experimental data gathering involved to test a hypothesis, combined with the ability to share the results with an interested audience in a matter of minutes to hours, but not longer than a day. Even an audience that might be interested is good enough; seeing if there is a reaction to my results is an experiment in itself. A lot of my blogging is built around this, and I would blog all the time about my experiments if I could.

  3. When there is enough energy available to start a big project, combined with an immediate opportunity to get a jump ahead on it. This can take weeks, months, or even years to gather enough juice to pull the trigger by myself. It is the slowest, least productive way I work. However, it may also be the natural way that I work, slowly piecing things together. These kind of projects, in my mind, are huge commitments that require the sweeping-away of lesser commitments.


p>And that’s pretty much it. The first motivation adds time pressure and performance. The second motivation invokes my sense of play, weirdly enough, because I just like knowing things like “how long did this take?” and “what are the main parts and how do they work together?” And the last motivation is really more like a kind of adventure planning, by myself the reluctant explorer, who would prefer to just buy off-the-shelf but is forced to act.

Of course, there are other factors that help nudge me toward action: the desire to be a competent designer of noteworthy objects, the desire to be a good citizen, the desire to be generous with what I have when others need it, and so on. But these are not complete motivators in themselves, and I am particularly careful of commitments that are likely to be constant drains on my limited store of energy.

I’ll talk about revising my mental framework with regards to what “productive” means in the next post; I wanted to capture these thoughts so I could mull them over tomorrow morning.


A message from Dave:

I believe we all benefit when we respectfully share our perspectives on common experiences. My house rules are "please be respectful of divergent views" and "enjoy the flow of ideas!"

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