People are interesting. We know so little about ourselves compared to what we’d like to think we know. We’re all subtly different even though we’re, on a whole, overwhelmingly predictable. There are copious studies to back up “average” data from people, and plenty of arm-chair anthropologists and psychologists that have very nice theories on how we tick. But most of us aren’t ‘average,’ and perhaps some of us tock more than we tick (mark this as the first of many “stretches” in this post).
I’d like to take the chance, while we’re still mostly clueless, to write some of my non-scientific theories on cognitive ability and “focus” (the noun) in the context of creating and building things (or “shipping,” as it were).
Motive and Privilege
I see a thin thread woven through everything that I do, and everything that I see my peers do.
We’re all creative, and many of us want to “build things.” I hear it often in interviews, and over beers, that it’s just built into the core of many of us to want to “create something from nothing.” It often takes shape as some other pleasant-sounding turn of phrase, but the “need to create” seems to be innate in all but the most blissful of us. In my experience, this can often be traced back to the desire for someone to ‘make their mark,’ or as I previously alluded, the desire to pursue a legacy.
I’m all for this. This feeling is built in to my DNA as well. And while I would hope to have purely selfless reasons for wanting to create things, I’m certain that my ego, and my human-nature drive me to want to live longer than my bones.
I can’t help but lead with “ego” and “legacy” because the entire ability to create something from nothing (programming) and to get disproportionally rewarded for doing so (programming salaries) comes along with more than a touch of blind privilege. It’s a pretty good spot to be in to be hacking your mental focus levels so you can build bigger and better websites. Blindness to our privilege is mostly to be expected as long as we fight to improve our own awareness and adjust our actions appropriately. Read on now, forewarned of my ego, blindness to privilege, and extreme lack of brevity.
Caffeine is a Zero-Sum Game
Ostensibly, this is a graph of my potential “focus” levels during a day.
I read a fascinating blog post several years ago by Arvind Narayanan called The Calculus of Caffeine Consumption. It was pretty eye-opening for me to see my “focus” levels throughout the day graphed out as a sine wave. Naturally, it’s a massive over-simplification, but in my personal experience, not an entirely incorrect approximation of my energy levels in a day. I am tired, perk up, get hungry and eat and dip down, then hit a stride, rinse and repeat. It’s not a sine wave, but it’s a wave alright.
Like my Uncle Ray always says, “Any wave is sinusoidal with a sufficiently low sampling rate!”, though I think eventually it becomes a straight line. (Which I guess is a wave with an amplitude of zero?)
Our wave of “focus”/energy has all the normal properties of a wave: a wavelength, a period, and an amplitude. The premise of the article is that caffeine, a stimulant, is often consumed during the low points in our day. So we drink coffee when we wake up or when we feel tired after lunch in order to boost our ability to concentrate and sometimes even function. The effect of this decision that is lost on us, is that this reduces the total amplitude of our “focus” wave.
In other words, by consuming caffeine to reduce how low we get during the low points, we inherently reduce our high points as well.
Narayanan states that this type of consumption actually works pretty well for people who are trying keep from falling below a threshold of “focus” or energy. Consider a construction worker, data-entry employee, truck-driver, or similar, where the time put into the task is important, and dipping below a certain level of energy would be dangerous/deadly.
Creative workers, however, don’t have the same limitations. They often need “a moment of clarity” to spark their work, or to break out of “writer’s block.” They would want the absolute highest amplitude of focus, regardless of the consequences on the downside, and to be working while at their highs.
Narayanan, a true hacker spirit (read: CS Ph.D. and Assistant Professor at Princeton), attempts to exploit this relationship to his advantage. Could he use caffeine to increase the amplitude of his “focus?” A conclusive answer here would take quite a few more double blind studies, but in my experience, and seemingly in Dr. Narayanan’s as well, the answer is a resounding “yes.”
Drink a latte 30 minutes before a high point, work as hard as you can, and then use the warmth of your laptop to take a nap a few hours later, because you’ll be spent.
Caffeine is a zero-sum game, but you can use that to your advantage. Consuming caffeine in time for it to affect you at the exact peak of your “focus wave” effectively makes the highs higher, and the lows lower. The rich get richer, while the poor get poorer. It’s like the sad state of our socioeconomic classes, except not awful, and for brain power!
You Require More Vespene Gas
The experiment, led by Baba Shiv at Stanford University, is pretty simple. Half the students are asked to remember a 2 digit number, and half are asked to remember a 7-digit number. They walk down a hall, are told they’re done, and are asked if they want chocolate cake, or fruit salad as a refreshment. The students who were asked to remember the 7-digit number were nearly twice as likely to choose the chocolate cake. Why is this?
Simply put, we have a finite amount of mental energy. The students who spent their energy on remembering 7-digit numbers had no more energy left to spend on avoiding cake.
The prefrontal cortex is primarily responsible for the things that creative people crave, like focus, but also other functions like short-term memory, abstract problem solving, and willpower. The conclusion of the chocolate cake experiment implies that there is a finite amount of resources in the prefrontal cortex, and that one system’s use of those resources could directly affect the available resources of another function.
In the context of our sine-wave, I’m pretty sure I could make a good reference to calculus, because this concept has a lot to do with the area under the curve, but I’ll get it wrong, and I won’t hear the end of it in the comments.
This plays into our first theory quite well. If we use more mental energy in a quick burst (because we have a higher amplitude), we’ll need deeper rest in order to recharge this energy. During our rest periods, the troughs in our sine-wave, we have to refill the energy that we spent during our peaks.
I can’t safely postulate much about how to best do this, except for that studies show that naps are increasingly good for doing such things. Since you’re probably not going to have your big break during a lull in your cognitive ability, why not speed up the process of getting to another high point? Nap away! Refuel the exact part of your brain that will allow you to get in the zone again.
Some folks will recommend a caffeine nap. I don’t have a ton of intentional experience with caffeine naps, but the idea is that if you consume caffeine just prior to taking a nap, you’ll sleep until it kicks in (usually takes at least 30min for caffeine to metabolize), and then it’ll allow you to skip some of the groggier steps on your way back to productivity. It probably works.
 Apparently, I can’t write the word ‘grog’ without thinking about Guybrush Threepwood.
I would add, finally, that Dr. Narayanan found that the body adjusts to regular caffeine intake in as little as 2 to 3 weeks. That means that if you’re a long-time coffee-drinker, you really do need that cup of coffee to get going in the morning in order to get up to your pre-caffeine addiction baseline.
He notes that it takes 5 days to reach adenosine normality (good) if you’re not consuming caffeine. He retrospectively adds that he initially did not place enough value in these ‘quitting cycles’ (hinting that perhaps you should not repeat his mistakes).
Most of this should be obvious at this point, so I won’t drag on.
- Plan your high points, work during them
- Refuel during low points instead of stretching them out with forced work
- Slingshot your amplitude with caffeine; 3 weeks on and 1 week off
- Avoid non-intentional caffeine, only drink it on schedule
- Don’t ignore the people you love
The Nap Month
I have nothing but my own personal experience to back this up, but I find that my motivation and passion levels work in a similar way on a yearly cycle as they do on a daily cycle. For parts of the year, I’m excited by work, and go out of my way to build things in my free time, and other parts of the year, I just want to come home and binge watch a season of a TV show on Netflix.
For this reason I have to wonder if some of the same energy principles apply. Can I increase the intensity and duration of the productive months? If so, at what cost?
I really struggle (in a not very serious kind of way) during the month or two when I feel like I can’t get anything done, but I think we can use a similar trick to help our productivity pick up again. Specifically, we need to A) simulate caffeine on a macro scale, and B) simulate naps on a macro scale.
I find that an interesting, new passion project gets my creative energy flowing much better than jumping into old work. If I really want to get in the mood to program, I’ll hop off my projects with deadlines and build something that I know probably won’t ever even get finished, but that I’m just excited to build.
Caffeine blocks adenosine (a sleep chemical) receptors in our brain, causing us to avoid sleep longer. If we substitute the current list of things we have to do, with a temporarily more engaging list, it may give us the same slingshot effect that caffeine does for our energy on a micro level.
This one seems a little bit more straight forward to me.
Just stop working so much.
Take a nap from your work. I understand that this is not a viable solution for businesses that intend to make money, but I think there can be some good compromises here. Namely, most hip tech companies have very generous vacation allowances already. Use your vacation during a low point, and in perfect cliché form, “recharge.”
Additionally, companies with large enough teams can have two modes of employment that employees could ideally opt into. “Passion-mode” and “coast-mode.” Someone who is on an upswing should get put on a big project that’s going to take a lot of energy. Someone who is burnt out from the last big project should be given work that will allow them to show up a little late, and leave a little early.
There’s lots of work like this. The support team at your company would probably love it if developers frequently did 6-hour customer support stints. In no way do I imply that the support team doesn’t regularly break its back working very demanding hours/problems and doesn’t deserve their own down-time. There’s also plenty of documentation that I’m happy to churn out during my down month.
The point is to allow employees to be maximally lazy while still maintaining their minimum required value. The more quickly I’m able to get through the less motivated time, the more quickly I’ll be able to jump back into a difficult and challenging project and do it well.
A Final Moment of Clarity
I have very few projects and accomplishments that haven’t come to me in a “moment of clarity.” Naturally, I want to maximize the amount of these moments, and increase the odds that I’ll be working on something that I love when they occur. I have no idea if hacking your body is a good long-term strategy for making this happen, but I find that researching all of this sleep stuff is an excellent tool for procrastinating during my focus droughts.
I can’t guarantee that any of this will resonate with you, or work for you if you try it. But I do think that everyone goes through the motivational recessions, and we should be actively attempting to eliminate or reduce them. What is Quantitative Easing for the Soul?
I simply want my hard work to be spent most efficiently.
Special thanks to Michelle Bu for reading this ahead of time.