How do you decide when to *not* solve a problem?

| 5 min read
#productivity #personal

Hard(core) Work

There’s often a debate in software engineering (well, in the startup wing of it anyway) about how important working more than other people versus being more talented or being in the right place at the right time. This has especially come to the forefront at twitter where only the "hardcore" employees are being asked to stick around. And while number of hours spent matters for a variety of professional and political reasons, I don't think it has much informative value for someone trying to be thoughtful about the work they do and how it relates to the rest of their life. How hard and how long you work often has more to do with the specific requirements and expectations of your employment than a specific decision or change you can make about your career. I believe it is more often the peculiarities and talents that have the possibility of making us successful in a given area. And, those same traits are often the ones that impose burdens on other parts of our lives.

I'm someone who ruminates frequently. Rumination, or the ability to let go of thoughts (often especially harmful ones) is part and parcel of anxiety, which I definitely have, and is also common enough among people with ADHD or other attention disorders (I have never been diagnosed, but am suspicious). It’s also the type of thing that, well, has immensely benefitted my career. I don’t know if (and I doubt) I work significantly more than other people. However, I would be willing to put a large bet that I spend way more time thinking about problems.

For example, just before this Thanksgiving break (about 30 minutes before work ended) I got a ping in a thread about a bug that might come my team’s way on Monday. I suspect for most people, this might have been a minor annoyance. For me, it meant this thing, that I thought I had fixed, was now back at the top of my head. I wouldn’t be able to settle down until I understood the why and how to fix it.

So, here I am, just before thanksgiving, when I’m supposed to be on vacation, thinking about work. I can’t help but wonder, would I be better off if I just let the problem go? It feels like a stark example of a choice between professional success and personal happiness, but I'm not sure the answer is so simple.

Problem Focus

It’s this weird overlap where my inability to disconnect from challenging thoughts all of a sudden becomes a considerable benefit. Because that thing that means I can’t disconnect from thoughts also means that I won’t be satisfied with half measures until I come out of a situation feeling very confident that I can come to a successful resolution. It means I’ll keep tossing an idea around in my brain until I’m happy with where it lands. This has helped me tackle challenges that might be over my head, helped me deliver on complex and challenging projects, and has made me a trustworthy resource across multiple teams and companies.

The Whole Quality of Life Thing

But this comes at a cost. It means that, often, I will be stuck in firefighter mode, when I should be thinking more expansively, which is a real problem. It also means I might not be spending time I need to rest and recharge, instead on continuing to plow through work. It means, occasionally, when I’m supposed to be on vacation or out of the office, I’m at my computer or at a notebook thinking about work.

Successful People Are Weird

I’d like to think, privilege set aside, I’ve achieved some small measure of success. And what I’ve learned, and had reinforced, is that successful people are fundamentally weird. One of my biggest takeaways from Cork Dork, of all places, was the idea that as you grow more focused on a certain area of your life, how you actually think and exist in the world fundamentally changes. Your brain chemistry re-orients itself around those new needs.

And while to the outside world it might look like a fully formed whole that can be broadly applied, it’s really a set of support structures combined with skill that gets them there. For example, one thing I’m doing to try to help with prioritization, is framing everything in terms of the immediate problem, so I can help myself get the urgency from the framing while still focusing on longer-term issues.

This isn’t to discount the success or say it has any less to do with hard work, just that… well… it’s really hard to draw straight line conclusions between positive and negative behavior and what will actually lead to a successful outcome. It’s easy to look at a set of personal behaviors within ourselves as things we should try to get rid of, and completely ignore what type of life we actually want to create. And this also isn't to discount the role of privilege. Often privilege is what helps create and maintain those support structures for success in other avenues.

The “Bank Shot”

The “eliminate bad behavior” (in this case working before a holiday) also creates a perverse narrative where behavioral change is as easy and controlled as simply recognizing a problem and then taking “obvious” and “concrete” steps to eliminate it.

But there was this concept that a political analyst I followed on Twitter a while back called “the bank shot”. The point was that more parts of the political process were effectively “bank shots” than we would like to admit. It’s basically this idea that things we think are carefully constructed chains of events are actually closer to someone who is trying to make a basketball shot by bouncing the ball off the backboard: something you can do repeatedly and well, but decidedly less certain and less straightforward than just taking a direct shot.

Our behaviors are like that too. Things we think we can carefully construct are often more the result of directed (but still) chance that occurs at the end of a plan, rather than a Rube Goldberg machine of outcomes. We would like to believe we can subtly sand away the less ideal parts of ourselves while keeping “everything that makes us good”. But we fail to recognize just how intertwined the stuff we get frustrated with is with the stuff we actually appreciate.

Letting Go of Problems

While I found the book How to Keep House While Drowning a bit repetitive, I did like one specific takeaway. It’s the concept that the house exists to support your needs, desires, and life, not the other way around. And I would apply this concept to things like mental health, and work/life balance as well.

Basically, where I landed is, I enjoy thinking about these problems, and I think they’re an important part of my professional goals. However, I want to be certain they don’t crowd out other critical parts of my life. So, I ended up putting together a comprehensive(ish) list of questions and potential solutions to the problem, scheduled them to send when they wouldn’t impact the rest of my team, and felt comfortable with not thinking about them, so I could fully enjoy Thanksgiving with my family.