Tech Life An Insidious Situation

A Precious Hour

I am told that the manner by which others understand that I am busy is when my writing coherence suffers. This primarily occurs in email when whole words are dropped, sentences become jumbled, and logic falls on the floor. Rands, I literally did not understand what you were asking in that email.

Poorly written emails are an early warning of intense busy. Yes, I lack the time to proofread an email, but the mail is sent. At least I accomplished something. The step beyond this is when shit is truly falling on the floor, and while shit on the floor is professionally unacceptable, there used to be a point of irrational pride in my head during this situation: Look at me, how important I must be, with all the… busy.

It’s this irrational pride I want to examine because hidden inside of it is an insidious red alert situation.

The State of Busy is Seductive

7:15am. I sit down at my desk, fire up my calendar, and examine my day. Six meetings starting in 45 minutes. All are compelling, all are likely to lead to progress. Good. Switch to Things and examine the backlog. I’ve got 45 minutes and 23 open tasks. Which of these should I prune? Which of these stay… Say, I’ve been meaning to call Joe for a week. I’ll call him now.

7:25am. Joe and I are on similar morning caffeination plans, so the call is high bandwidth. We’re done with our three topics in 10 minutes, and I’m now sporting the rush of not just completing a task, but completing it at speed. I need to parlay this intense rush — what’s next? Where else can I exceed my productivity expectations?

7:30am. Ok, now I’m rolling. I’ve skimmed my email and as I think of them, I’m writing tasks on a paper next to my keyboard, because I’ve somehow convinced myself that writing the task down on paper is faster than putting it in Things. (Huh?) No matter – all hail the rush of getting things done. The cycle continues. Another task is knocked off, a sip of coffee, and now I’m headed into my 8am with a head full of palpable busy.

The Zone is a well understood mental state where you are fully dedicated to the problem in front of you. First, you take the time to get the complete state of the problem in your head, which then allows you to make massive, creative mental leaps using a precious type of focus that is fleeting. In the 45 minutes leading up to my 8am meeting, I did not get in the Zone. However, don’t tell my brain because I’ve worked hard to create the illusion that I am: massive amounts of data flowing about, a sense of purpose, and scads of coffee, but I am not in the Zone. I’m just busy.

The Faux-Zone

When an engineer becomes a lead or a manager, they create a professional satisfaction gap. They’ve observed this gap long before they became a lead with the question: “What does my boss do all day? I see him running around like something is on fire, but… what does he actually do?” The question gets personal when the now freshly minted manager begins to understand that life as a lead is an endless list of little things that collectively keep you busy, but, in aggregate, don’t feel much like progress.

The positive feedback an engineer receives in the Zone is the sensation that you literally performed magic. From the complete problem set in your mind combined with your weapons-grade focus, you build a thing that you immediately recognize as disproportionately valuable. And you see this value instantaneously – that’s the high.

I believe that leads and managers are forever chasing the high associated with the Zone, but rarely achieve them because their job responsibilities are in direct contradiction to the requirements to achieve it. We often lack the time to have the intimate knowledge of a problem space because we rarely have 10-15 minutes free to consider it.

The amazing set of skills we’ve built to compensate for this utter lack of context is impressive. You would not believe how many times your boss has walked into a meeting with absolutely no clue what is supposed to happen during that meeting. Managers have developed aggressive context acquisition skills. They walk into the room and immediately assess whose meeting it is, listen intensely for the first five minutes to figure out why they’re all there, while sporting a well-rehearsed facial expression that conveys to the entire room, “Yes, yes, I certainly know what is going on here”.

Like these context acquisition skills, we’ve also convinced ourselves that we have built a mental process that gives us the high that we’re missing in our interrupt-driven lifestyles. We’ve created the Faux-Zone.

In my 45 minutes before my 8am meeting, I did not enter the Zone, but I am in the Faux-Zone. It is a place intended to create the same rewarding sense of productivity and satisfaction as the Zone, but it is an absolutely fake Zone complete with the addictive mental and chemical feedback, but there is little creative value. In the Faux-Zone, you aren’t really building anything.

A Precious Hour

As a frequent occupant of the Faux-Zone, I can attest to its fake productive deliciousness. There is actual value for me in ripping through to my to-do list. I am getting important things done. I am unblocking others. I am moving an important piece of information from Point A to Point B. I am crossing this item off… just so. Yum. However, while essential to getting things done, the Faux-Zone is not a replacement for the actual Zone, and no matter how many meetings I have or how many to-dos are crossed off… just so… the sensation that I am truly being productive, that I am building a thing, is false.

My deep-rooted fear of becoming irrelevant is based on decades of watching those in the tech industry around me doing just that – sitting there busily doing things they’ve convinced themselves are relevant, but are just Faux-things-to-do wrapped in a distracting sense of busy. One day, they look up from their keyboard and honestly ask, “Right, so, what’s Dropbox?”

Screw that.

Other than spending time with my family, my absolute favorite time of the week is Saturday morning. I sleep in a little bit, walk upstairs, start the coffee process, and wander over to the computer. There’s a Dropbox folder titled “Latest Rands Articles” and right this moment there are 65 articles in progress there. After a brief stumble of the Internet, a precious time begins. I have precisely the right music on, in the center of my screen is a wall of words, and in that moment I’m decidedly not busy, I’m not working – I am building a thing and I need this time every single day.

Starting at the beginning of February, I made a change. Each day I blocked off a precious hour to build something.

Every day. One hour. No matter what.

Every day? Yup. Including weekends.

A hour? Yup, 60 full minutes. More if I can afford it.

Doing what? The definition of “building a thing” is loose. All I know is that I get rid of my to-do list, I tuck the iPhone safely away, and if there is a door, I close it. Whether it’s an hour of Choose_your_own_adventure Wikipedia research, an intense writing session, or endlessly tinkering with the typography on the site, it’s an hour well spent.

No matter what? Since I’ve started I’ve had roughly a 50% success rate of actually getting to my hour. The excuses are varied, but the data is compelling. Even at a 50% hit rate, I’ve written more, I’ve tinkered more, and, most importantly, I’ve spent over eight hours this month alone exercising the part of my brain I care about the most: the part that allows me create.

What would you create if you had eight uninterrupted hours – every month?

An Insidious Situation

There is a time and place for the purposeful noisiness of busy. The work surrounding a group of people building an impressive thing contains essential and unavoidable busy and you will be rewarded for consistently performing this work well. This positive feedback can feed the erroneous assumption, “Well, the more busy I am, the more rewards forthcoming.” This is compounded by the insidious fact that part of being busy is you aren’t actually aware that you’re busy because you’re too busy being busy. You have no internal measurement of the amount of time you’ve actually spent being busy.

In my precious hour, I am aware that it is quiet. During this silence, maybe nothing at all is built other than the room I’ve given myself to think. I break the flow of enticing small things to do, I separate myself from the bright people on similarly impressive busy quests, and I listen to what I’m thinking.

Every day, for an hour, no matter what.

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13 Responses

  1. Chris Galli 12 years ago

    After a year of being in the Faux-Zone I’ve been thinking I need to carve out time to build things again. Well-timed reading for me. Especially since I just installed Dropbox last night. Ouch.

  2. Last two paragraphs: perfect. That’s all there really is, and that’s all I really need.

  3. This. This is why I refer to myself as a “recovering manager”. I did well, but the craving to build stuff and get in the zone was too much.

  4. theo geer 12 years ago

    Rands: You are my hero. This is exactly what I needed today. I’m in the process of transitioning from being one of our most productive developers to being a lead. The amount of time I spend being busy has been killing me lately. Between code-reviews, writing specs, and keeping my fingers in all the pots so I can make decisions when I need to I no longer have time on the job to build. And I miss it something fierce.

    I already make time to write every day, but making time to build is a great thing on top of that. Time to rearrange some stuff! Thank you!

  5. The “sit for an hour a day and be creative” concept is frequently (if not always) taught in creative writing courses. It’s further suggested that it be at the same time every day in order to develop a habit of those “creative” brain patterns – before breakfast, after dinner, etc. It’s similar to what happens when you eat at the same time every day or sleep at the same time – your body knows when it’s time to eat/sleep/write.

  6. Great article. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this concept of “busyness”, what it means and how to identify it before it becomes normal.

    I love your idea of an hour a day for creative work (or whatever keeps you away from the busyness)

  7. Awesome!!!

    Really a great thing to think.

    Since in this profession slowly-slowly everyone reaches to that busy condition, without even knowing that.

    You reminded to all of us that what we can do and try with that “busyness”, to improve ourselves.

  8. Doug Bracey III 12 years ago

    In my job, I’m also a manager who no longer makes anything (except decisions). Last September, I rearranged my daily routine to get up an hour early, 7 days a week, to teach myself iOS programming. I’ve had a better than 90% success rate of sticking to that schedule. As a result, I’m now doing market research to prepare to write and publish my first app. I’m literally building a new career for myself in one hour a day. It’s amazing to step back and see the power of that kind of concentrated, consistent focus. That sacred hour makes the rest of my day a lot more palatable, too.

  9. Joel Spolsky recently said something along the lines of a managers job is to handle interruptions and distractions.

    Before I heard that it really hadn’t occurred to me, but at least in my job it’s true. I too only get those 10 to 15 minute periods a day to try and focus and longingly wish for more but without some time distortion system it isn’t going to happen.

    One thing that I do regularly is run or bike and I find that alone time quite satisfying in allowing me to think about various problems. However it isn’t quite the same as being able to actually work directly on a problem for that hour.

    Excellent article!


  10. Wow man. You literraly “touched me”…

    I am also en engineer. I experienced the transition you mention some time ago, and I literally failed my first try because my entire organization was totally out to follow that craziness. I needed to rebuild my organization, and later on I found a way to organize such amount of little things that I am impressing myself.

    However I began to feel exactly what you mention about the feeling of “not doing anything valuable”. And finally arrived to the same stuff. I created a project just for my own pleasure where I use my creativity. It´s a blog, but it´s shutting up a lot of ideas and that beautiful feeling of making something really valuable.

    Thanks for sharing this. I Really appretiate it.

    Best Regards


    Twitter: @ComoMeOrganizo

    Ultima Nota: ¿Cuánta Planificación Necesitamos?

  11. Cassidy Michaels O'Shea 12 years ago

    I’m in love with this concept.

    I’m also a perpetual slave to the “Faux-Busy” & “To-Do Lists” which get made and checked daily with the same mad, over-caffeinated enthusiasm. Likewise I suffer the same curiosity over massive hours burned yet strangely so little actually gets accomplished.

    The discipline of establishing said creative hour and sticking to it appeals to me. The challenge of following through will be true test.

    Good luck to both of us!

  12. You’re all a bunch of wussies.

    I’ve been a manager for a little over 5 years now after having “graduated” from individual contributorship. I’ve had enough exposure to see both sides and adapt myself to get satisfaction from a different angle of delivering added value to both customer and company.

    I see that each member of my team, pure techies, are on a different planet. *They* are the ones doing all the work, right? Yet, they don’t have to talk or report to customers and are not interested in customer long term strategies. Delivery is at the end of the chain. It’s more interesting, at least to me, to be at the source of decisions: you’re part of planning the direction, you’re effectively building the future. And you’re there to follow-up and steer on the execution. What more can you ask for?

    I was once one of them. And I was forced out due to massive and repeated offshoring projects. I’m pretty sure I’m not that special to be the only one able to see and appreciate the qualities of different roles in an organisation, right? Maybe they are short sighted.

    I’m exaggerating just to give some counterweight to the post/feedback above. Still, get over it, your effort is very much worth your while: engineers are not into bringing structure to an organisation and thinking long-term customer centred. They need you to think about that.

    I’m afraid most of the feelings above originate from feelings of shame (I’m not allowed to wear jeans anymore…). And maybe there’s a need to spend some time on gaining insight on how companies work. There’s more to earning a salary than plain hands-on developing/admin/whatever.

    Even Sales reps have a right to existence. Sometimes.

    There shall not be a single minute I will feel myself as described in the first few paragraphs of the Faux-Zone. It would mean the peter principle…

  13. Evangelina Marchak 11 years ago

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