2018 Goals Review 06 Part I: Brutal Focus and Crunch Mode

New Horizons in Conan:Exiles In the video game world of CONAN: EXILES, you are given but one directive: SURVIVE. The way I feel about the game is a good match for my working mood. About 14 days ago I put myself into Programmer Autistic Mode to get over a critical code milestone, which involves blocking all other projects and social obligations. It’s similar to crunch time/crunch mode but without the extended forced labor that goes with it in the video game industry. Personally, I love the stark clarity of being in the crunch—MAKE FEATURE! CODE WHAT IS NECESSARY! SURVIVE!—but there are social costs that I have to account for.

I just finished my crunch mode yesterday, and now I have time for sixth monthly review of my 2018 Groundhog Day Resolutions. As with every monthly review, I want to see if I’m on-track with the personal goals I set on February 2nd. It seems that while I’m pretty good at the process of conducting these reviews, I’m not particularly good at meeting the goals themselves. This recent work push, though, may have given me a clue on how to approach them.

Since this analysis got so long, I’m going to break it into two parts. This part talks mostly about being in my version of CRUNCH MODE for a couple of weeks, and what I might learn from it. Part II is the actual report.

An Unusually Difficult July

There were two exceptional concerns that I dealt with in July:

  • UNEXPECTED DEATH-RELATED TRAVEL – I attended a memorial service in California for the untimely passing of cousin Brian, also producing a small video segment for inclusion in the service. I got back from California on Tuesday the 17th, and spent the rest of the week catching up.

  • LOOMING PROJECT DEADLINES – On July 26th, it became apparent that I needed to snap out of my funk and focus on finishing big features for August 8. I entered Programmer Autistic Mode (PAM), where no other thoughts were allowed for ten days, and I suspended any hope of having a “regular sleep schedule” or “work-life balance”.

At first glance the above might seem like a terrible experience, but there were some good things to come from it. First, it is always affirming to spend time with my extended family in times of need, and I was glad to go despite the hit to my schedule and finances. Secondly, being in PAM-crunch reminded me how brutal focus can be very productive. I think there might be a way to get many of the benefits of being in programmer autistic mode + crunch mode without as many drawbacks.

Revisiting the 2018 Goals

Before I get too deep into methodology, I will review what my 2018 Groundhog Day Resolution Goals are. To do that, I have to look at the GUIDANCE TAB of my Accrual Log, which is where I wrote down the checklist for remembering what the heck I was doing.

Accrual Log:Guidance Worksheet The pertinent section is the REWRITTEN RESOLUTIONS for APRIL, which were an attempt to reduce the number of resolutions as originally defined.

After finishing my PAM-CRUNCH, I’m finding the APRIL RESOLUTIONS hard to relate to, which is FASCINATING. Here they are again:

  • Resolution: “The Way of Dave” – persona, brand identity/mission broadcasting, shareable methodologies
  • Resolution: “Neat Side Business” – figuring out business, making cool stuff, making money, making a difference
  • Resolution: “Javascript Development” – bread-and-butter technology skill, highly relevant platform

I think they’re hard for me to relate to because while they accurately reflect what will bring me lasting benefits (and presumably some happiness), they don’t have the brutal clarity that I have just experienced in my last phase of work.

There is a related list of projects on the GHDR 2018 Highlights Summary in the 2018 Initiatives section, which I will relist here with further annotation:

  • Project: “Happy Bubble Time” – a methodology that I want to write down (related to “The Way of Dave”)
  • Project: “Gathering Style Productivity” – a methodology that I am developing (related to “The Way of Dave”)
  • Project: “Stationery Business” – a fun business that brings in revenue to support me and my work, ultimately able to employ people in good jobs (related to “The Way of Dave” and “Neat Side Business”
  • Project: “Coworking Communities” – a place for like-minded people can meet, share, support each other on their dream work (related to “The Way of Dave”)
  • Project: “Mastering Javascript Web App Development” – a basic technology skill (is already a resolution)

I won’t go into the details of why these resolutions and projects are here because I’ve written about these topics at length, so take me at my word that they are the product of a decade of experimental personal development. For those of you who are unfamiliar with my process, though, I am the kind of person who wants to have meaning and reason established before I start any work. I hate doing work that does not have a solid rationale founded firmly on a true understanding of the individuals involved. I recognize that acquiring this level of knowledge this can be a hindrance to actually STARTING the work, so I am also the kind of person who identifies uncertainties and then applies targeted experimentation against them to learn more. Certainty lies BEHIND uncertainty, and thus it is necessary to engage and challenge it. Very few things will actually kill or embarrass you to death, after all. And even if failure FEELS embarrassing, fear not: I have your back. If you learned something, it is not a failure at all, but part of the success to come (thanks, Queer Eye, for that excellent turn of phrase!)

I have tons of certainty now about how I work and how I think I can make some cool things that create the kind of community I want to work and live with. I even know what kind of skills that I am good at. What I am missing is not certainty, but brutal project focus that pairs well with my weird spazzy brain.

The Dilemma: Focus vs Novelty

There are two modes that I seem to have, which may be familiar to people who are diagnosed with ADHD Inattentive Type traits:

  • I thrive on novelty, newness, and variety of experience. I love being able to put ideas together in new configurations and see what happens. I love the speed at which I can fly through my simulation of an awesome universe, and I constantly add to it by incorporate new experience data to the model. This is what makes me a good designer, I believe, because it is easy for me to imagine what is “better not boring”.

  • I have an enormous appreciation for mastery, competence, skill, arcane knowledge, and efficiency. To be able to combine these skills together as my own is a dream, to become a practical magician capable of wielding enormous power. The ability to create change comes from the ability to make tangible goods, which is what makes it possible to MAKE the world “better not boring”.

My version of happiness as not being bored or trapped. I avoid most situations where mediocrity is acceptable, and get angry when I have to deal with it. I also recognize that to become the “practical magician”, there is a lot of failure and uncertainty to deal with. It’s draining, but necessary. This is where I tend to get stuck, historically. If the learning materials are inaccessible or poor quality, I quickly get bored or angry. If I have to deal with people who are not generous and insightful with their knowledge, I am disappointed. As I mentioned before, I seek meaning and reason in my work. Bad documentation, teachers, and team members suck the energy from me. It really is something I should get over, and maybe brutal focus is the way to do it. To crush boredom and see mediocrity driven away from me, and to hear the lamentations of the willfully incompetent!

Before I had gone into PAM/CRUNCH, the non-brutal approach I was trying to incorporate was embracing slowness and small steps. I told myself that “learning takes time” as does “quality work”, and because that is true I also accepted that sometimes work goes very slowly. Recognizing small steps by logging them and reviewing them periodically was a perfectly good path to excellence, so RELAX and just keep doing it. To keep boredom from setting in, I invented concepts like Happy Bubble Time and the Accrual Bucket to go with slow-work concepts like Gathering Style Productivity. Community is also significant part of my work habit now, thanks to running the Virtual Coworking Chatroom where I share my musings on work and life with like-minded people facing their own interesting challenges. However, even here regulars have to take time-off from the chat to get tough stuff done, coming back once they have vanquished whatever task they set before them. Another thing that worked for me was livestreaming my work as I did it, because that added the element of trying to explain what I was doing on top of what was a bit boring, and I felt less trapped in the work box.

In hindsight, all these changes are an attempt to balance boring work with structured procrastination of a pleasant nature. I guess the idea is that the “fun” stuff would “recharge me” so I would have the reserve of energy to do the “boring-but-necessary” work. This works for a lot of people, and I see nothing wrong with it. Now, though, the “brutal focus” approach offers I see a glimpse of another deployable model that might work better for getting unstuck, similar to harnessing the hyperfocus that ADHD/Inattentive types are said to have.

My working definition of focus is “not being distracted”, which comes from “not being bored”. If I am interested, I am focused. This is different than being motivated, which comes from wanting to do something for someone else. If I am both interested and motivated, then that is a reliable work mode trigger.

Let’s see if I can remix all this into something useful.

Detoxifying Crunch Mode

There is something brutally pleasurable about not worrying about the grand scheme of things and just hammering on stuff until it works. I don’t naturally approach challenges/uncertainties like that. Going into crunch mode in July unlocked this achievement. So why have I avoided it?

I used to believe that crunch time was inherently bad. Before I started the July crunch, I didn’t want to do it because (1) I would lose contact with all my friends for 14 days and (2) I would not be allowed to “play” or (3) speculatively explore other subjects that presented themselves. As these are affirming and delightful experiences, the thought of going without them for even 10 days was depressing even though it felt necessary.

Perhaps more tellingly, I used to work at Electronic Arts and have experienced what crunch time can do to people. It took just one time for me to leave the game industry, because if I felt I stayed I would become a terrible person. Showing your dedication to the crunch was also the way to demonstrate how “hardcore” you were, which affected how you were valued as an employee. If you didn’t commit to the crunch, you weren’t part of the “real” company, and you probably would get fired or you would just have to leave so you could spend time with your own family and not feel guilty. I don’t think this was intentially malicious; it is simply what management believed (myself included) what we had to do to make the hard manufacturing deadline that would make or break the company. I left when I realized I didn’t have the constitution for it.

Fast-forward to now, and I’m thinking there are a couple of modifications I can make to it. In the past, CRUNCH MODE was externally imposed upon me, not something that I would gladly chose. Perhaps I can reframe it as a way of regaining personal control? Consider the following applications:

  • Crunch Mode as a form of business triage, during which one can devote available energy ONLY to what needs to happen. This is important because a lot of my personal goals don’t actually “need” to happen (the universe will continue to exist) and don’t impose many external pressures (no one cares but me, and if I am bored I tend not to care despite my desire). Still, these personal goals are a constant source of concern and frustration because they linger…the desires must be resolved, or burned out of me. I suspect they aren’t going away.

  • Crunch Mode as a form of willfulness as a way to add epicness to the endeavor. This feels very different from the more “measured and balanced” approach I was trying before, where wise and far-sighted people anticipate need before it becomes a problem and act accordingly given a reasonable amount of time. Sounds great, but I am terrible at living it. While I can do the analysis and see into the future really well, I would much rather engineer some drama into the process because that is less boring. As a bonus, the constraints and resulting forced detours taken often give rise to novel solutions! It is sometimes FUN to work this way, and the STORY that arises is far more interesting to retell around the campfire.

  • Crunch Mode as a brutal test lab for tools, skill, and experience. The brutality of Crunch Mode also helps reveal what is really important. Operating in Crunch Mode provides the scenario in which outstanding clarity of purpose can arise, because you don’t want to spend the time farting around with bullshit tools and crappy process. If you have the mindset of growing stronger, then you have everything you need to make you get smarter and then make better tooling that results in exceptional work.

  • Perhaps the “crunch” in crunch mode is another way of demonstrating one’s obsessive passion for something?

  • Perhaps this is what I need to inject into my remaining 2018 Groundhog Day Resolutions efforts?

I love all these elements of work, but I don’t miss the dehumanization of people. I want to be part of a system where we all grow stronger, making what is in our hearts for the benefit of everyone.

End of Part I

The actual July Report is in part 2, because I need a break :-)


About this Article Series

For my 2018 Groundhog Day Resolutions, I'm challenging myself to develop "gathering-style productivity" as I pursue the year's goals. You'll find the related posts on the 2018 Groundhog Day Resolutions page.