Performative work is a disaster. I worked in a stuffy IT office of a company before I got my degree and became a software engineer. It took YEARS to deprogram performative work. I still hide when I take a nap. I suspect that if my current company found out I was sleeping on the job they'd still be upset with me. However, my output is so good the results speak for themselves. It would be difficult to fire me for napping.
1.) Sitting in a park sketching solutions on a notebook.
2.) Laying at the beach on vacation.
3.) Playing Legos with my daughter.
Without these ideas, I doubt there would've even been a PhD, or even a paper publication.
(There was a period of 2 years in my life where I did not have any significant ideas, at all. During that time, I was employed at a company which offered a constant stream of urgent TODO emails and tickets. I worked until exhaustion for 2 years, but did not get any work done.)
The 'big idea' came when I was on campus, standing outside smoking. Hit me like a bombshell. I literally ran to see my supervisor, blurted out IT'S JUST A F**G MOLECULE, cleared off his whiteboard and spent the next hour sketching out what turned out to be another 5 years of work.
Those eureka moments are where true creativity turns up, I find it impossible to solve problems through dedicated, stare-at-the-screen thought, but I'll get a brainwave at e.g. the gym and nearly drop the weights on my head.
Companies need to promote creative problem-solving spaces, and I'm not talking about a beanbag area with free lattes, but a sit-and-think, light, non-social way of working that promotes this kind of thing. No idea how this could be done in practice, though.
Would that really solve the problem? I feel like when you're standing in front of your computer screen searching for a solution, it's because you're switching to some different and unplanned activity that you are able to get an eureka! moment. Creating a specific place where employees can go to think would defeat the whole purpose IMHO, because then people would go there and would do the exact same thing as when they're in front of their computer screen.
What may work is promoting short breaks during which employees can do any activity of their liking, whether it be playing video games, walking, smoking a cigarette... Basically anything that takes their mind off work. That guarantees development in creativity.
Unfortunately, there are people that do not understand how this concept works. These are the same employees that stare at screens trying to for a square peg into a round hole, but then see other employees trying it the other way and complain about how so many people are doing nothing when so much is to be done.
These complaints tend to percolate up, and these creative problem solving spaces end up getting removed to be replaced by more work space for the additional head count to solve all of the work to be done
I’m working at a place like that now and it’s been an eye roller. After ten years on the project one of the problem people has finally seen this as a problem (though I haven’t heard him admit that he contributes). He’s looking at code now written by two people who have been copying his code style for years, and suddenly feeling the pain of it. It’s great he’s growing, but he’s over forty and should have learned this years ago. I blame a mix of things including staying at one place for far too long.
And I keep telling him this code used to be worse, but I’ve been chipping away at it for some time.
Sometimes I want to put my hands up in defeat and leave but there is also a satisfaction and growth from simplifying the Rube Goldberg machine.
It still sucks though.
I should clarify that I didn't mean concurrent or consecutive here, but across several different projects. Different preconditions can sink a strategy. It's hard to get any signal when you apply multiple unsuccessful strategies to the same 'experiment'.
Govts get caught up in the latest emergency in the social/media and completely forget about innovation and long term planning. It's particularly acute in the UK at the moment.
David Lynch analogizes his sitting-with-cigarettes-and-a-notepad-to-catch-ideas to fishing. You can't chase after them but once in a while a big one will come along.
“Nature has not intended mankind to work from eight in the morning until midnight without that refreshment of blessed oblivion which, even if it only lasts twenty minutes, is sufficient to renew all the vital forces… Don’t think you will be doing less work because you sleep during the day. That’s a foolish notion held by people who have no imaginations. You will be able to accomplish more. You get two days in one — well, at least one and a half,”
-- The Gathering Storm
Everybody else chugs coffee and is expected to work 9-18 without pause, like the rest of the Western world.
If you happen to see someone having a cappuccino at lunch, or, yikes! with their dinner, they're probably a tourist.
When I last lived there, Starbucks and the lattes and pumpkin spice big mugs were a "weird American novelty" for teens in major city centres.
> Individually, an American coffee drinker consumes about three cups of coffee per day.
> Italians drink an average of 3 coffees a day
It seems that the averages are roughly equal. Of course there are outliers everywhere.
A lot of people who are working in precarious situations actually work two or more jobs at less than 30 hours each, because 30 is when you qualify for employer provided health insurance.
Churchill: "Nancy, if I were your husband, I'd drink it.”
Somehow that doesn't make me feel much better
Many of the hard problems in my career have been solved while having a long warm shower in the middle of the work day.
In general, my own productivity trick is understanding and leveraging the Eureka effect. Your subconscious is still working on the problem when your conscious mind is doing something else. Often, if pointed focus doesn't work, just leave it in the back burner to stew. Then wait for the proverbial light bulb to show you the way, out of nowhere. It never fails, yet I have never heard anyone mention this phenomenon.
My empirical explanation is hard problems benefit from unrelated stimuli, so they're able to be approached from an oblique direction. In other words, to think out of the box, stop thinking and do something else.
So it worked then, it works now. A 20 to 30 minute nap during the work day has a ton of benefits, including stress reduction. I don't know why it is frowned upon. I have fallen asleep many times at my desk and have been made fun of, but who gives a damn. I would rather be stress free and have some good ideas come about.
If anyone is interested, the yoga tradition has extensively developed this technique – it’s called Yoga Nidra.
The latter is associated with aging and physical decline.
I remember doing this, too. I would often nap 2-3 times a day in crunch time and sleep less during the night, solving many problems.
I think the problem as you say is the performative part of work, and napping really doesn't look good in that sense.
Since COVID WFH I often also nap instead of eating lunch, which is a double power boost, since a big lunch can make you almost comatose.
(And most of my favorite papers came about from ideas that I'd had while on vacation.)
I get it that it works but wonder what could be the logical explanation of this. I remember this method was also mentioned in the movie Turner & Hooch.
I think another commonality is physical activity: walking, playing, washing. There may be some chemical thing going on with muscle activity but also subjectively I have a suspicion that these sorts of activities are essentially pumping noise into your cognitive processes, helping divergent thinking, while also keeping your attention sufficiently occupied to achieve the “non-vigilant” posture toward those ideas.
When you dream the constraint on your consciousness (simulation) are lifted to allow more divergent scenario. That’s why dreams can be a bit crazy.
It’s a bit like brainstorming on steroid, letting loose of more constraints.
John Cleese on creativity
So, recent R&D into sleep tech has come along ways in the past 20 years. Basically research has shown that during nap/sleep cycles our brain moves around memories (from short-term to long-term and prioitization) and connections between memories. Also, this process optimizes information in the brain to make the access faster and more efficient thus providing opportunity for neuralogical advanced thought sessions given the datasets after a nap/sleep session.
Some basic take aways include +20% memory capacity per 8-hour sleep cycle and longer un-interrupted access to memory collections. It's also been shown that it's possible to tag the day's memories and then prioritize them during the next nap/sleep session. Significant results have shown that groups that take 30-minutes nap have stronger memory capacity versus groups with no naps.
The face of the R&D seems to be Matt Walker - PhD Brit with intense accent - you've been warned!
TL:DR - The brains basically recharges AND rewires during nap/sleep sessions.
Here's the links:
podcast: The Matt Walker Podcast
So the most important thing on a software team (or really any team creating high technology products or services) is an environment where team members feel safe to be themselves– psychologically safe, where they can try out new things, make mistakes, fail, and not be punished or belittled. Say their ideas and have them improved by others, not criticized. It's an environment where team members take care of themselves so they can be creative– sleep enough, exercise enough, be with friends and family enough, play enough.
You have to be at your keyboard or lab bench or whatever enough to make things. But if you are there too much your creativity plummets. This is what I try to get across to my teams.
I agree, one of the ideas that I started applying from the book "steal like an artist" involved having an analog and a digital desk for work.
You have creative ideas and brainstorm at the analog desk, then document, iterate, and refine your ideas at the digital desk.
One of them is using the Voiceliner app during times where it's not convenient to write things down. It also forces me to express my idea in natural language.
People use "research says" to add gravity to ideas, but it's important to share (and check) the sources.
I think it's important as the poster above you said, not just take the word research at face value. I'm sure that there may be studies that show collaboration can lead to good ideation and outcomes also, I just don't think this one is that.
Some notes from the abstract:
> ... examined cues that evoke a psychological state of working together ... which increased intrinsic motivation as people worked alone.
> Outcomes were diverse, e.g., task persistence, enjoyment and, 1–2 weeks later, choice.
> These cues also increased feelings of working together but not other processes.
> The results suggest that cues of working together can inspire intrinsic motivation, turning work into play. The discussion addresses the social–relational bases of motivation and implications for the self and application.
Does innovation come from running, showering, lying in bed? Absolutely, no question.
But at the same time, when you get a diverse group of people to solve particular problems, they generally come up with far better solutions than any one of them would have on their own.
Because these are really about two totally different types of problems. The first "private innovation" one is often about finding a clever solution to a relatively well-defined problem that is "puzzle-like" -- math, code, chemistry, whatever.
The second "group collaboration" one is often about finding a workable solution to a relatively ill-defined problem that is people/organizational/product -- what is the right marketing campaign, right new product, right new vacation policy? Where the most valuable contribution is "wait, but have you thought of this?" or "wait, but if we do that <bad thing happens>" and everyone says "oh good point, I didn't know that was a constraint/solution!"
The obvious answer is that both are valuable. The idea that they are somehow at odds, or that only the first one is "work", is ludicrous. It's true that "individual contributor" jobs often fall more into the first category. But to denigrate the second category as "not work" is both disrespectful and, frankly, just idiotic.
But let's be honest. Most mantras try to force all work into the "group collaboration" bucket. If HR and other management-training groups value isolated work and individual contributions they sure don't show it. Literally every piece of training I've received about working effectively has been about collaboration.*
I think that's because most work training material is not really about innovation or productivity at all; it's about avoiding HR gaffes and workplace conflict.
*Don't get me wrong; collaboration is a superpower, and many ineffective work relationships I've observed were hampered by someone's inability to collaborate well.
I think that's because isolated/individual work is so obvious and default that there's nothing to train.
People know how to work alone. They often have to be actively encouraged to collaborate, however. HR isn't trying to force "all" work into collaboration, that's silly. But the right way to collaborate often isn't remotely obvious, when there are so many types of collaboration and so many different types of tasks/projects. So training makes sense and pays off here.
And clever ideas often benefit from a round of annealing to smooth out corner cases and ergonomics. This can either be direct feedback or the result of asking questions about the solution, triggering the author to refine the idea while explaining it.
But we have another name for that process, requirements gathering.
It's not work in any meaningful sense outside of it being something that needs to happen before implementation. But it's output isn't all that useful unless you ARE an implementer. And that's the rub.
The PROBLEM is that people love to talk and wax eloquent to show their intelligence and you get pulled into stupid conversations as a result.
"The mantra of sharing your work and involving everyone in decisions naturally leads to inviting and copying people into things that add no value to them, or you."
Fred Brooks, in his book The Design Of Design, includes a section on "The Magic Power of Teams Of Two". In his opinion, large teams cannot get anything done, and most innovation comes from individuals, but Brooks feels that teams of two people are the sweet spot for innovation. You and one other person -- if that other person can challenge you in the right way, offer a different perspective, or fill in holes in your knowledge, then instead of slowing you down, they speed you up.
I personally have found that meetings of two people (me and one other person) are where all the most important conversations happen about solving problems or plotting strategy. I wrote about that in "Truly Agile development revolves around one-on-one meetings, not daily standups":
I often try to recreate that with interns and juniors at my current job, but everyone is so anxious about not typing or not submitting commits they don't stay and watch me work. Plus I think I'm less comfortable with silence than my old mentor was. He didn't care if I was sitting beside him for a hour while he was quietly hacking away. I tend to feel the need to explain a bit too much about my thought processes.
I feel the one-on-one relationship can work well in both situations where the individuals are peers and when it is more of a mentor-mentee relationship. In grad school I had a close friend that was on more of a VLSI track while I was on an RF track. We had different expertise, but a shared a common background of electrical engineering. This allowed us to bounce ideas off each other where there was enough competence to provide meaningful feedback and just enough diversity to provide a different perspectives/approaches.
I recently gave a listen to the BBC podcast The Bomb and some of the work done in the era seemed to also follow pairing of minds. Maybe it was just the way the material was presented, but there seemed to primarily be a team of two tackling each of the major components needed for the various atomic programs to succeed.
There was an article linked here a while back about tacit knowledge that I feel applies in a way to the mentor-mentee relationship. Many comments about skills learned by observation and imitation from one-on-one work. https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=23465862
Using that exponent, two people can do 1.6 times as much work as one person so each is about 80% as productive.
Ten people can do 5 times as much work as one person, so each is half as productive.
Twenty five people can do 9.5 times as much work, and each member is 38% as productive as single person.
Split those twenty five into five non-interacting teams of five people, and they can do 15.4 times as much work as one person.
Obviously real life isn't as precise as these formulas, but they provide some guidance.
This book https://www.microsoftpressstore.com/store/rapid-development-... has tables about the limits of what can be done. The biggest takeaway is that some projects simply can't be done faster than a certain way limit.
The only way around those limits is to find a way to reduce the size of the project. Either cut scope, or find a way to write less code, typically with a more powerful programming environment.
But I found that the pressure of pairing shuts down a lot of thought. Long silences are forbidden in pairing; you must vocalize your thought process. I found myself searching for gaps in the conversation where I could think for a second and blurt out my thoughts before it’s too late to turn the train around. I believe pairing can lead to local maxima this way because there’s no room in the conversation for deep thought.
Pair programming in moderation can be enlightening. Much like traveling to a different town as an artist to learn from other artists. Too much of it and you lose your identity. It is completely possible to remain detached from your work but still desire to work mostly alone on your own tickets. Code ownership is a silly concept. On one hand everyone suggests being detached from your work. Yet everyone simultaneously realizes having your name in a PR matters. I make a habit of crediting people who worked with me in the PR message. It's pretty simple.
I guess something ideal for me would be roughly 70% pair programming, 30% alone time - but I have not been able to test this guess because I have always worked on teams where pair programming is the exception, not the norm.
Over time, I could overcome this „weird“ feeling of not sitting at my desk while working. It went quite a bit like the author describes:
- Load up on context and information.
- Start outlining the problem.
- When stuck, try for a while. If no progress is to be made, go for a walk, do laundry, buy groceries. Stuff _away_ from the computer.
- When potential solution inevitably form in my mind, write them down wherever I am.
I often find that when I arrive at potential
solutions this way, I’m usually a lot more motivated as opposed to banging my head against the wall. It’s not only more productive, it’s better for your mental and physical health, it keeps you engaged and satisfied with your work. Many times I simply cannot wait to return to the desk to try the ideas out.
It’s also important to know when to stop. Occasionally there are days where I can get nothing creative done. I have learned the hard way that when I force myself through, more often than not I mess something up so terribly that I need at least half a productive day following up, rectifying what I broke. It may feel like cheating yourself at first but sometimes it’s better to just stop for the day entirely.
However, while employed, have you tried to go out for an extended walk or do something else away from your computer, outside of the building you are required to work in? Deciding to do so without permission can get you a citation and asking for permission leads to blank stares from your co-workers and managers. For many, that’s apparently akin to asking for paid time off whenever you feel like it. The conclusion here can only be that many employers are more interested in owning your time than results, whether they realize this or not. Which brings us to a larger point about work culture and insistence on presence at all times but that’s a huge, separate discussion.
I'm 2 decades into my career amongst multiple different employers in different industries (including traditional stuffy ones), and I've never had anyone even raise an eyebrow at people wandering off for a few hours unannounced
if you're billing the client by the minute then maybe I can see why they'd get upset, but otherwise, as long as you're delivering, who cares?
I had a gig in a tiny company where the ritual was always to have a cup of tea/coffee at hand. People took it in turns to brew up. Which meant, with 3-4 people in the office, an enforced tea round every 45-60 minutes. If you were doing something, tough. TEA ROUND!! They'd literally come over and tap you on the shoulder. I spent more time at the kettle than I did working. I had the solace of daily pay, but when the time came to renew the contract, noped right out of there.
When you said "teams", did you mean the Microsoft Teams app, or like your actual co-workers? Because if its your co-workers; damn, sorry to state it, but that's pretty toxic environment.
And, er, um...If your workplace does not lock down the computer too much, you may want to look up "mouse jiggler" or mouse mover" to help keep the Teams snitch at bay. ;-)
wandering off for *a few hours* he said ...
Wow, you must be one lucky sir.
Due to limited office space, very quickly these turned into 30mins to 1 hour walks - so each week I'd get 5 really impactful conversations with my peers, through the medium of a walk.
Sometimes the focus would be on connecting as two humans (which helped our working life massively) other times it would be totally work/problem focused. But the space away from the office, and with the privacy that came from being away from everyone else, we got loads done.
Really valued that way of working, I've tried to get it going in my current role, and had some success with Teams 'remote' walks with my last manager (each of us took our phone for a walk in our local areas) but for various reasons this didn't work out well for us.
I don't think so. It's basically just the tragedy of the commons. Most workers are responsible and a 20-30 minute nap/walk break would make them more productive. 20% will abuse it endlessly.
Someone who doesn’t nap at work gets home to find Season 3 of Ted Lasso has landed, stays up to watch it because they can just nap at work if six hours of sleep turns out to be a bad idea. But then they have a good afternoon because of the nap and decide to try it again.
You can see this in many places in our society. The security theater in airports don't make air travel that much safer, but it does send a signal to the group "look, we're doing something about it!". Same goes for the war on drugs, notoriously ineffective and seemingly only makes things worse. The hunt for benefits fraud is often not quite effective, hurts the ones that actually need the benefits, but the fear of the freeloader is big enough one must be seen to be tough on fraudsters. Or school, where doing what you're told is much more important than any learning you might do along the way. Or the way China is now burying itself with Xi's everlasting reign.
If you think humans are meant to be effective and efficient, you are very much mistaken. Everything we manage do, we do in spite of it.
One only has to look at places that value such measures to see they DO work.
Israeli airports for example or Singapore's drug policies. Both of which employ draconians measures to ensure effectiveness but they do boast success rates.
I'll say policies lose effectiveness when the populace don't value it or when the neighborhood has powerful bad actors that oppose it, like trying to reinforce gun laws in Canada.
Bill: "There's nothing to do."
Boss: "Well, you pretend like you're working."
Perhaps the biggest sink on the economy and environment is perfomative
work that David Graeber calls "bullshit jobs". Commuting 100 miles to
sit in an office to be seen to perform is tragic and borne of
insecurity of both manager and worker colluding in a game.
I think what constitutes work exists at a deep, invisible level that
approximates to something like loyalty or duty. It is whether one
holds the task/company in mind. And it happens 24/7.
Some of the most important work I've done for clients happened while
out walking, or shopping. I've cut short social events or vacations to
rush back and test an idea I had.
Problem is, you can't measure that. And even if you could, I
wouldn't let you. It's a private space. The more any "boss" tries to
intrude, observe or manage that process, the faster it evaporates.
That's not to say that structured tools, planning, presentation and
other forms of explicating and evidence aren't part of work. They're
just not the most important parts, and actually play very little role
in the big leaps and "paradigm shifts" in creative work.
By "problem" I mean problem for someone whose only role is to monitor
and report what others do. "I'm still thinking about it" is something
they don't want to hear.
For years (5+), at my job there's often nothing to do, so after lunch I just go home, and declare 4 hours worked that day (8-12, instead of normal 8) at the end of a month. Of 5 of us employees I am the only one doing that. Never once has my boss confronted me about it, neither subtracted from my full salary. I feel kinda blessed.
Thankfully I now have a job that autoreports 8 hours. I never even opened the software to edit hours.
> I feel kinda blessed.
I think nothing illustrates this better, than the productivity output of Japan vs other developed nations. In Japan, there's a lot that you need to do at your job performatively: strict schedules, logging what you do have been doing in small intervals like 30 minutes, checking in and out formally, having to keep up with coworkers outside of work, tons of pressure and appearances, and long hours. And yet, productivity is not great.
Btw, even if they are a problem, their impact on the economy pales in comparison with restrictions on migration and construction.
I think that's true and it's a shame Graeber's choice of language
basically offends. Who wants to hear that their job is "bullshit"?
And let's face it, sometimes we feel good name-calling all those people
whose work we don't understand.
Unfortunately that over-hyping subtracts from real and serious
questions about why we're burning resources (human and material) doing
Even the things you mention, like mobility and development regulation
can be "perfomative", as "acting out" of things we think we ought to
be seen to do but no longer have the courage to examine.
This is down to the cult of "the system" as a Big Other, which must be
appeased - something I'm not sure Graeber articulated well. But it was
a key step in the unravelling of the Soviet system, and I think we are
repeating it now in the West.
A very large number of people who already believe that about their job.
All I can figure is people who bristle at the term or at the notion that there might indeed be a whole lot of bullshit jobs haven't had a very broad set of work experience, and run in a social circle that's very similar to them. It seems impossible not to notice, otherwise.
There probably exist jobs that are entirely bullshit or entirely not-bullshit, but if they exist, they are extremely rare.
Aaron Sorkin has also touched on this:
> Most of the time, me writing looks—to the untrained eye—like someone watching ESPN. The truth is if you did a pie chart of the writing process, most of the time is spent thinking. When you’re loaded up and ready to go—when you’ve got that intention and obstacle for the first scene that’s all you need. For me at least, getting started is 90% of the battle. The difference between page zero and page two is all the difference in the world.
Going for "a run" has become such an integral part of "work" for me (software eng), I consider my career choices one of the main factors in my subsequently becoming a distance runner.
I began my foray into software development almost 5 years ago, and in the last 2 - not unconnectedly also my first 2 years working 100% remotely - I've run 2 half marathons (officially, several more in training), a marathon relay, a 10k, and just a couple of weeks ago my first marathon.
Bragging about this because with all the time spent training I developed an even deeper connection between the "work" (solving whatever current problem for my job) and the time I spend running. At this point I often deliberately wait to go for the run until I've really got my mind around the code/feature/bug I'm working on. Once I'm actually moving, I don't really try and actively think about it, but more often than not at some point on my run something will click, and I'll return to my desk with a clearer path forward.
Gets the blood pumping and overclocks your brain.
I too have been working from home since covid started. What I find, take a break from sitting and move around. Do some chores. It gets your blood pumping and when you sit back at your desk you receive a +20 IQ points temporary boost.
I went through a particularly dangerous phase in college where ideas would come to me while I was crossing the street. I used to joke that if I wasn’t careful my best idea would end up getting me run over by a bus.
I'm IT and not a doctor and do realize 'alternative medicine' is amongst my original post. I'm not against modern medicine, but I do also realize modern medcine is not perfect and has been corrupted in many ways.
I've given up trying to innovate or give new ideas. They're obviously not valued at all. How often does management actually listen to ICs and give credit? Next to never unless they're a puppet. Your peers and team lead might like what you propose but management is incredibly risk averse and wants "innovations" to come from their puppets. You're not one of their puppets and start proposing things? You're just putting your job at risk because it undermines their leadership decisions. ("Why is X in charge when Y is proposing better ideas?" is a statement that starts getting thrown around a lot - it happens very fast)
SV is incredibly political. Maybe some parts of the world aren't and you can get some freetime in where you work "creatively". Maybe when you're not working in engineering anymore you can get more freedom in these realms but for eng ICs - the motto is shut up.
Also: this is why hourly billing is pointless. You bill for the low value activity and can't bill for the high value activity.
She talks about focused and diffused mode of thinking. The main idea is that to create new neuron connections (memory or understanding) you've to work hard on a topic - the focused mode - and then take a break - the diffused mode.
By switching modes you help your brain. Of course, you can't just go do something else without working hard first ... :)
I live in a consensus culture (Sweden) and have a slightly more cynical take on this: I think the main reason Business loves collaboration is that it legitimizes a system where the Business (and Business people) capture most of the value from innovation.
People vary greatly in their capacity for creative innovative thinking. Those that don’t have that capacity benefit from making innovation a “team sport” where they can play a leading role without exposing their ineptitude.
One data point that has convinced me of this hypothesis is how emotional people het around the counter examples. Talk about some fantastic mathematician (e.g. Galois) or “lone genius” scientist and many people go ballistic. Why would this be so sensitive if it wasn’t perceived as a threat to the ego?
That way, you focus on leverage and impact, not on "time on desk".
Also worth noting that sometimes there's no substitute to just sitting down and grinding away.
I guess I've just had different experiences, but for me, 'collaboration' means 'understanding that this project/task does not exist in isolation and looping in those relevant stakeholders early to make sure they decide with you as opposed to discovering roadblocks too late'. I can't imagine how someone can be against that.
From context, I feel like the author is using that word to mean 'gather people in a room and pretend to work'... is that how it's used normally?
It doesn’t mean you never sit at your desk and work, just that sitting at your desk doesn’t mean you’re working. Likewise for collaboration.
It's easy to overlook this part of the article. The loading of the brain is essential for me. That part may actually look like work. It may involve discussions, meetings drawing sketches or prototyping code. Those things may actually look like work, but the purpose is not necessarily to produce the final product (unless it turns out to be trivial), but to build understanding.
If something really requires creativity, THIS is the time to pull in the oars, take some time off and allow the brain to process. It's important to avoid other activities that grab the attention too much. The best thing is to try to avoid screen time. Maybe go for walks, take naps, spend time with friends or family, etc.
Within 1-2 days, ideas are likely to pop up, often in the middle of the night. That's the time to get out of bed, do some quick sanity checks for the ideas (a sketch, a few google searches, etc), and ideally go back to bed if possible. The next morning, the first 4-16 hours may be as productive as a month or more of "normal work".
If more difficulties are encountered, this can be repeated after a day or work or so. Eventually, though, the creative parts of a task are likely to have been solved, meaning it makes sense to spend several days (or weeks) with a more regular schedule, whether I do the job myself or spend the time destilling it into something that can be scaled out to coworkers (the ones that prefer to have detailed specifications of what to do).
This is not unlike physical exercise. A muscle doesn't get stronger from exercise, but rather from the rest that comes after the exercise. The resting alone provides no benefit, but too much exercise is equally bad. For those who need to do heavy lifting, it may be better to work fewer hours and let the body recover between each session.
He claimed that’s where he got his best ideas.
I don’t think with todays developer salaries, there’s any space left for that good old “work is slavery” message you’re sending. The HN crowd is huge so I’m sure there are exceptions, but most people reading your comment can switch jobs whenever they want. Not without stress, but without real risk.
Sure, the company can't avoid paying you. But in exchange they get 2/3 of your waking life for 30-40 years and 100% of your production. Some companies are better, some are worse. All of them have lawyers that, should you cross them, will make you regret everything. I am at a relatively relaxed company (compared to FAANGs) and even here I had to go through a ton of channels and sign paperwork to even begin work on an open source project.
It doesn't mean you are stuck in a room but it does mean updating people on what you've found out and asking the questions that come into your mind. Very often someone else comes up with an idea that advances the state of knowledge until the bug is solved. What happens when you don't know all you need to know to solve a problem? Sometimes you have to involve other people.
As for "is looking out of the window work" well yes of course it can be and you do need to be alone to think often.
I just feel that when I'm stuck in my own perspective and not moving forward much, it can help to get someone else's just as it can help to do some totally different thing and come back at the problem freshly.
I then decided that I won't be progressing with it at this rate (I would wake up at 5, study for 3 hours, go to work, work for 8 hrs, come home, eat, study another hour or two). So I just decided to not study for a week (it felt extremely stressful at the time because it felt like I won't be progressing with the coursework unless I'm staring at the screen figuring it out).
I came back and finished the entire coursework a week after that in one day. I went on to complete the remainder work within a couple more days for the other courses. Since then I've been trying to remind myself that trying to do the same thing over and over and expecting different results is very much the definition of insanity. I also understood that sometimes the problem needs a different angle, maybe you need to just wipe the slate clean and go for a walk/run. You need to switch the context and let your brain wonder a bit.
Once you do that, you might open yourself up and become more receptive to new approaches and new ideas. Sometimes it's better to map out a problem in your head, twist and turn it on all of its facets and then decide how to proceed. This idea that you're not productive unless your Teams activity icon is green and you're moving your mouse and typing away furiously, is ludicrous.
For those who play games, I used to play Warcraft 3 (semi competitively). A friend said that APM (actions per minute) = skill, so the higher the APM the higher the skill level of the player. And that to reach level 50 (the max at a point on the ladder) you need APM 300-350+. I said that it doesn't matter if you have 500 or 100, how you spend those actions is more important. We played a series of games, he ended up averaging 380-390 APM and I averaged (on purpose below my average) 180 APM. I won 5 games in a row and we left it at that. Looking busy does not equal being productive. Seeing "stuff happen" doesn't mean its useful stuff.
I've seen brainstorming variants where the team thinks for themselves first in silence in the same room and then present their ideas in form of post-it notes. In the end though, people tend to select the safest ideas, but I feel it also depends on how many "radical thinkers" are really on the team.
When I’m confident in myself I can do this and be effective. Go think about a problem not sitting at my desk.
When I’m not confident in myself, I act like an impostor and try to look like I’m doing work.
The hard part is remaining confident in myself, when myself has not always given me reason to be confident in it.
I use it to “triage” the day’s tasks.
I often figure out solutions to blockers, during this time.
Not offended in the least. Perfectly good question.
"An American technique where ideas are graded by how loudly the person who thought them up shouts"
My company measures performance based on the company reaching its sales target, but as a lonely software engineer whose projects can still be months once I've finished them until they reach customers, my impact on that measure (in the short term) is basically nothing. We also do OKRs but somehow my team never get assigned any. Sure as an engineering team you can try to estimate cards and measure your velociy at the end of the sprint, but how do you do the same for a product manager or creative roles like a copywriter?
This rings _so true_ to me. You go into a meeting, one person says some idea. You spend three quarters of the meeting discussing that idea, discovering its pitfalls and warts, and then you come up with answers to those.
And then that's it.
Nobody likes the written word, write up a proposal discussing a bunch of options for the problem at hand, let me read it, and _then_ let's all go into a meeting together.
But most times when I write out a few paragraphs on any medium people skim it or ignore it, and then ask questions that were already covered, or don't read it at all and need to be brought up to speed during the meeting wasting everyone's time whose already spent a few minutes alone with some ideas first.
It's just... so ineffective, and yet _so hard to change_.
- i raise my desk so i can stand
- i pace around the house talking to myself
- we all asynchronously type different weird ideas to each other and discuss each one, then go back to pacing
I've never been as creative as I have been with this setup.
Some things can be coached or solved with tools but 99% of the problems I experienced boil down to the people involved, team dynamics.
Some problems can be surprisingly easy to solve with a decent facilitator, e.g. the loudest voices can be balanced a little bit.
The hardest problem (imho): sacrificing creativity for the lowest-common-denominator approach (so everyone is sort-of-kinda-happy yay). In my experience this is way more common at startups than more established teams.
Sometimes I think that as much as large businesses struggle with red-tape/slow implementation, startups struggle with decision-making. I know it sounds counter-intuitive.
Another reason it's a red flag: it's a signal that the company has a somewhat dated approach to hiring.
The current generation seems much better at noticing this kind of bullshit than mine.
People tend to lash out at whichever one seems like a problem: "You can't get anything done around here without some stupid committee harassing you!" "The left hand doesn't even know what the right hand is doing!" They don't understand that yes, you have to balance these opposing values, and that "opposing" doesn't mean right vs. wrong.
I always thought big tech companies knew this with how many "fun" activities they have in the office, but it seems like nobody utilizes it as much as they should. At least my experience.
There's a cap on active work each day. Yet we work through that cap thinking we're some type of hero and end up doing pretty poor work.
This is very "left brain, right brain" thinking. There's a number of books on this topic. I think one of the better ones is Barbara Oakley's books on how to teach yourself.
If you read any famous creative's memoirs, you'll see similar patterns where the best stuff came at the oddest times. You'll probably even see that cliche story about Edison falling asleep with metal balls to wake up and write his inventions down.
Peter Drucker and many before him knew that "knowledge work" was a whole different ballgame. They were quite ahead of their time thinking back now in 2022:
A brilliant idea coming from an individual is less trustworthy than a mediocre idea coming out of a group effort. Management has little idea how to judge the quality of a new idea, and worse, the risks of adopting it. When the idea comes from a group, it is much "safer" because if it were dangerously risky, or likely to cost 10 times as much as proposed and fail anyway, or step on toes, someone in the group would have noticed and nixed it, supposedly.
In a collaborative situation, you'd not only need to come up with the idea, but then sell it to others with different outlooks, who favor their own idea instead, or their friends' idea, or with a desire to change your idea to appropriate partial credit for it.
That's not to say in a small group of like-minded people, collaboration can't be great. At its best, that becomes actual brain-storming and the idea can evolve organically into something better than any of the individual ideas. But that is not the usual big-corp cross-functional collaborative team.
This is a management-being-incompetent problem, which is likely not a universal problem
As far as collaborative creativity, that's a whole other thing. The challenge is that often everyone has somewhat different goals, assumptions, and knowledge.
That's a reason that solo development can be an advantage. Component-based systems might help to some degree.
Steve Jobs is also famous for promoting work spaces / floor plans designed to encourage serendipitous (or at least spontaneous) interactions between people and groups. Notably at Pixar, but then again at Apple Park.
There's a tension between the two. Probably the "ideal", if such a thing could exist at all, varies between individuals and teams, the nature of their work, and over time.
This is a completely boring idea though, one which will inspire no blog posts!
- Bike-shedding 
- the Law of Triviality 
- "Hammock-Driven Design" - a 2010 talk by Rich Hickey 
It lessens the likelihood that the wrong person is left to solve the problem by themselves because you have the input from others too. Even if they are the person who eventually carries selected idea through to implementation at least they’ve been exposed to insights and conversations from other ‘stakeholders’.
Often consultancies will involve more people (e.g. the customer) in the idea generation activity to bring them along on the journey. Brainstorms can definitely be done badly but also managed well by experienced facilitators.
The human brain is amazing at background processing, but at least in my case it doesn't drip out solutions, you get everything at once.
In Design Thinking, team members diverge and ideate privately. Later the team converges by discussing ideas as a group to refine or combine ideas.
Ironically, isn't this basically the argument for why Business People play golf? That their jobs involve "big picture thinking" and that's hard to do in an office? I feel like I've heard that justification before.
But the common denominator is that it happens away from the keyboard and is not visible to an outside observer.
At the keyboard I work on different, easier stuff in the meantime and regular go back to the difficult problem in my mind when doing mundane things.
Walking is a favorite. Forests/nature works best, parks are fine. City is kinda ok.
When someone can see you at your desk hitting keys or standing in front of a white board drawing diagrams there is the perception thaat you're doing something. When you're staring out a window or go for walk during "work" time the perception is that you're goofing off because there is no visible evidence of the mental processes going on.
So the interessting question is how can we change the perception?
With that, I get a clearer mental picture and implementation goes much much faster than when I'm alone.
Further, I can't think everything through so being able to bounce ideas off coworkers as I'm implementing is invaluable
If I'm doing rote grunt work then I don't need to discuss
After those ideas come up when solo though?
To me it's like music. I can't jam without people to jam with live.
This is not a straight cascade, but different phases influencing each other. I also want to point out that its not a value statement. All phases have their own merit, and all of them pose their own challenges.
At least for me, doing without any of them will grind creative productivity to a halt.
The interesting part is that most companies don’t want to keep learning even through this pandemic.
I see most of them as dinosaurs by now. Unexpected to be the case by many but soon to be extinct and replaced by smarter collectives, working towards their respective common goals.
The world desperately needs this kind of change on all decks.
We can’t stubbornly brute force ourselves out of this mess with the same kind of thinking that created it.
I would go even farther: I even dread the typical "1 hour lunch break" because it is anything but leisure. It's just "rush to reenergize your body to be able to do more work later, but f your mind and soul which are yearning for actual leisure".
You end up doing what people asked, not what was processed, as you say - in the shower, and lit up as the best thing forward
Even as a business owner, sometimes I sit at my desk "working" but on nothing in particular. I should be walking.
But, sure, there’s a lot of boilerplate and routine work to be done - that’s the low-effort stuff.
Better to figure out shit in IT before going in too deep and needing to redo the design. Especially databases!
People are expected to be at a desk for X hours a day so they can be managed, monitored and measured.
“Walk out of a meeting or drop off a call as soon as it is obvious you aren't adding value.”
I was happy when doing databases on a whiteboard or collecting coffee and fruit from the canteen. Needless to say, I did not feel like sitting in place and hurting my back just to be looking productive.
the solution to a thorny problem is often conceived alone, and then refined with a set of motivated engineers.
Regarding your point though, my spellchecking sense is telling me the author probably meant to type: "...that’s too often our mental image of “working” " .