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What “work” looks like (jim-nielsen.com)
788 points by LordNibbler 34 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 226 comments

I've had more ideas come to me after hiding in my office to take a nap than sitting at my desk. It got to be such a gold mine of solutions that I still to this day allocate 30 minutes of my day to a nap. Non-negotiable. So many hard problems that have been brought to me, or complicated needs for architecture, etc were solved by simply turning my active brain off. When I was in graduate school I'd regularly get stuck on some stupid thing I didn't understand and slamming my head against the paper/book/whatever didn't help. Again, a quick nap and I was good (or at least better than I was).

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.

The three fundamental ideas of my PhD came to while:

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.)

Snap. Whenever I sat down to cast about for ideas on how to develop the initial form of my PhD, nada, zip. Deliberate concentration on one thing was a shortcut to procrastination.

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.

I also vividly remember the moment I had idea 1 from my list above. It was such a nice warm autumn day in the last months of a very turbulent year: I struggled finding something worth doing a PhD on, and in the 10 weeks before, I got married, my wife got pregnant, was rushed into emergency for a suspected ectopic pregnancy a few days later, which then suddenly turned out to be a completely normal pregnancy. I also had an upcoming conference talk a week later, for which I was completely unprepared. Suddenly the idea was there, and it was like a door to a wide avenue opened, with follow-up ideas left and right all along the way. It turned out quite beautiful in the end, and when we published 6 months later, one of the reviewers found the idea "elegant", which was by far the most positive thing I ever read in a paper review.

Yeah man, don't leave us hanging!

What was the idea/paper/phd about???!

> 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.

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.

>Companies need to promote creative problem-solving spaces,

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

This is similar to that ai researcher, Kenneth Stanely, and his talk/book about how planning and having an objective sabotages reaching it. "Greatness cannot be planned" I think was the title.


The question is would you be able to still get those spontaneous ideas at a background level without also the staring at the screen and deliberate work?

I know the castration of ideas in the "Everything-is-an-Emergency" company culture. If you're not careful, it will condition you to delay work because the next "emergency" and shift in priority is imminent.

This is exactly how my working days looked like in the last 12 months before I quit. Sitting in front of the screen waiting for the next emergency ticket. Why even bother to start some deep work? It will be interrupted, possibly for days, in the next hour anyhow. It was corporately-enforced procrastination, non-stop, for 2 years. At the same time, the technical debt grew and grew, until it towered above everything. It felt like torture. A miserable experience. At some point, my partner mentioned something like "I sure hope you will smile again some time"; around the same time I noticed that I took immense risks in traffic, especially as a pedestrian. Getting up in the morning was extremely difficult. 2 weeks after I left, the ideas came flowing again (ironically for problems we struggled with for months and months at the company).

Creativity and experimentation are not needed for survival, so stress hormons flow and the nice things are postponed.

I kept my sanity at one place by working on refactoring every moment there wasn’t an emergency. I was trying to make all the changes easier. But that was after having tried several other solutions, including the dreaded Infinite Configurability, which has to be the absolutely best way to punish most of the team for how clever two or three of them are.

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.

I empathize deeply with you. I have been dealing with a system of "infinite configurability" for the last couple years and it's playing out the same way. The best I've been able to do is slowly codify the most problematic corners and put guard rails as many places as possible.

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.

"Code coverage" and code that does everything and thus nothing are a potent cocktail as well. You can have 90% 'coverage' on a file and still only be covering 5% of the actual code paths (that's unfortunately not hyperbole, but a real number from a real analysis I did. When the numbers disagree that much, people tend to ignore the terrifying one)

> But that was after having tried several other solutions,

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'.

Hi, do you have some resources I could check out to understand the concept of what infinite configurability is, and how to recognize it ?

This is also happening in government, IMO.

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.

Slightly off-topic, but as a father of two (toddlers), I can relate to this. I have plenty of ideas but if I have (say) 15min available, my brain won't even start because it "knows" the next emergency / interrupt will probably occur within that time period. A bit sad I confess...

Yes, this is undervalued. It is called the diffuse mode of thinking (as opposed to the focused mode). Walk around in the park during lunch break is work, too.

I got an Apple Watch in the endgame of my PhD to catch all the thoughts I'd have out and about, particularly on runs. I rarely reviewed them and a lot was adrenaline-induced ranting and raving, but the act of documenting helped cement them better and drastically cut out the anxiety of potentially forgetting something really good.

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.

Many top novelists, scientists, engineers, etc., have come up with ideas doing something other than work. We’ve all had ideas at odd times and contexts. Sometimes good and occasionally outstanding ideas or solutions.

Churchill also saw the value of the nap:

“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

If I was drinking whiskey for breakfast I'd probably need to take a nap in the afternoon as well.

If you were not drinking coffee, perhaps you might as well. I wonder if our cultural addiction with caffeine, an effective sleep inhibitor, is the reason why napping and siestas feels so weird and exotic to our modern minds. "Oh you're from Italy? I heard they take lunchtime naps over there." Sadly only my grandma had such a luxury.

Everybody else chugs coffee and is expected to work 9-18 without pause, like the rest of the Western world.

Aren't the Italians known for their coffee?

From what I've seen, Italian coffee consumption is nothing like American coffee consumption. They don't sip at enormous cups of drip coffee while working, but instead quickly drink small amounts of espresso as a break. It seems to me that leads both to less caffeine consumption and more actual enjoyment of the beverage.

Italians drink small cups of espresso or moka (if homemade), and maybe a cappuccino at breakfast. The morning and lunch time ones are mandatory, then maybe one mid afternoon or in the evening.

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.

Certainly not conclusive at all, but... Top results from a Google search:

> 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.

Presumably the American is having a cup of drip coffee (100mg caffeine) whereas the Italian is having a shot of espresso (60mg).

More likely these days, the American is having some kind of warm, sweet milkshake with a couple of shots of espresso in it.

I drink plenty of coffee and still take naps. Its hard for people to remember these days but the "lazy nappers" meme started during the industrial revolution. We've only had a 40 hour week, for example, for a (relatively) small amount of time here in America.

Do the majority of American workers even cap at 40?

At one job? It’s possible and doable.

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.

non-coffee drinker here, never been able to nap during the daytime. I reckon it's mostly just differences between people.

>>“Lady Nancy Astor: Winston, if you were my husband, I'd poison your tea."

Churchill: "Nancy, if I were your husband, I'd drink it.”

More to the point, there is evidence that a 10-20 minute nap at the middle of the day, such that you don't go into deep sleep, improves cognitive function and subjective alertness.

> from eight in the morning until midnight

Somehow that doesn't make me feel much better

I'm the same except with guitar. I always keep a guitar next to my desk, and when I start getting frustrated or stuck with work I'll noodle around for 20 minutes. Usually I feel very refreshed after doing this. Working from home has been a godsend for me.

> I've had more ideas come to me after hiding in my office to take a nap than sitting at my desk. It got to be such a gold mine of solutions that I still to this day allocate 30 minutes of my day to a nap.

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.

Hammock Driven Development by Rich Hickey [1] is a presentation that dives into why taking a step back from the immediacy of a problem often leads to clarity.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f84n5oFoZBc

The urge to invoice a Hammock for my home office to my employer

Just buy it. Look at it as an investment for your future mental health.

Benjamin Franklin had this amazing idea of having ball bearings in his hand while solving and thinking about hard problems. The thinking would eventually make him fall asleep and as he fell into a slumber, the ball bearings would roll off his hands startling him up. It is at this precipice, the fine line between awake and asleep states that most of his ideas came to life. He would start penning down his ideas in this state.

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.

Leveraging the hypnagogic state.

If anyone is interested, the yoga tradition has extensively developed this technique – it’s called Yoga Nidra.

It’s pandemic popular as “non sleep deep rest” if you want to try it by following a YouTube guide. Great nap replacement for when you’re too wired to fully fall asleep.

My guess is it's frowned upon because there's a difference in choosing to take a nap, and needing to take a nap.

The latter is associated with aging and physical decline.

>When I was in graduate school I'd regularly get stuck on some stupid thing I didn't understand and slamming my head against the paper/book/whatever didn't help. Again, a quick nap and I was good (or at least better than I was).

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.

During my PhD, I had a friend famous for having a pillow on his desk. He would take a nap everyday and went on to finish his PhD 6 months earlier than all prognostications and with some great ideas.

At the grad school that I went to, senior grad students were offered a chance to move out of the lab and into a private "dissertating office" as they became available. With a couch I could nap on, an incredible window view to gaze out from, and a door I could shut for focus work, it was amazingly productive for finishing my dissertation. Those few months were the only time that I've ever had a private office and to this day I still rather miss it.

(And most of my favorite papers came about from ideas that I'd had while on vacation.)

> So many hard problems that have been brought to me, or complicated needs for architecture, etc were solved by simply turning my active brain off.

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.

My working hypothesis is that the conscious and subconscious mind cannot access the same part of the brain at the same time (sort of like bus conflicts). So, counterintuitively, to let your subconscious mind churn on a problem, you have to actively focus elsewhere. This, at least, seems to be how it works for me.

Not sure at all, but one thing that strikes me is when you’re purposely “thinking really hard,” you’re probably in a state akin to vigilance. You’re trying to assess ideas quickly and move to the next one. If you’re playing with legos, an idea can just sit there in the back of your mind and tumble about a little bit into different configurations and orientations.

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 are focused on a problem your left side of the brain take over (thinking in worlds and steps) When you relax, draw, daydream or sleep your left brain can take over and think in parallel, images, abstractions.

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.

This! The human mind never fails to amaze me, so often the solution to a work problem pops into my head right after waking up, without even remembering what I was dreaming about.

You’ll like this - https://youtu.be/toWQ_BQF8Aw

John Cleese on creativity

Late to the party but going to post anyways...

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

book: https://www.amazon.com/Why-We-Sleep-Unlocking-Dreams/dp/1501...

Software development is creative work. Creative insight can come anywhere, any time. Better ideas can make difficult things easy. And make the impossible– possible.

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.

> 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.

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.

It seems that no matter what ideas I come up with for capturing creative moments, it becomes vastly simpler if I just use pencil and paper. But I have started finding ways to capture with tech in a low-friction way.

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.

Can't agree more :)

Just FYI, you're being downvoted because generally on HN you should just upvote if you have a contentless agreement comment to post, AKA a "this"-style post.

These ideas are intuitive, but I can't find the research backing them. The blog quotes another blog [1] which claims research but doesn't reference it. That one uses a quote from an MIT article [2], which is a perspective piece with no actual experiments.

People use "research says" to add gravity to ideas, but it's important to share (and check) the sources.

[1] https://paulitaylor.com/2022/05/06/the-case-against-collabor...

[2] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/226279557_A_Complex...

Agreed, while I prefer deep work in solitude, there is a lot of literature which suggests that collaboration enhances outcomes. Random example: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S00221...

Not sure that literature really contradicts the original hypothesis. The abstract (can't download the full text without buying it) seems to be implying that they found there is motivation for working in groups and made work more fun (or rather, even just providing cues that make people feel like they are working in groups) but didn't really touch on innovation or collaboration as it relates to brainstorming/ideation.

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.

In my opinion, collaboration certainly enhances outcomes, but only when it alternates with solitary work.

This is one of the most absurd, black-and-white things I've ever read.

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.

> 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.

> 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 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.

Group collaboration can rely on cleverness when someone builds a hypothetical on top of a set of assumptions that sound reasonable but contain elements that are foreign to everyone on the team.

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.

What the group is good at in your second category is precisely defining the shape of the problem. In my experience the solution is then still born from an individual's creative efforts, even during this group effort. I prefer the sandwich model of cooperation: get together to define the problem, separate to work on it, get together to review solutions, iterate.

I disagree, the value of a group is in keeping people grounded. That security person is going to overvalue security, that web person is going to overvalue the frontend and that cloud advocate is going to overvalue microservices.

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.

I think design by committee rarely turns out well. However, listening to the groups response to an already working product/demo can be very valuable before the next release.

I strongly agree:

"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":


It often feels like “teams” of 1.5 work really well. Basically this is one person doing the work, with one other person who is very much in the loop but not actually on the hook. The worker is getting the job done, and the consultant is offering ideas, questioning some decisions, reviewing WIP, and generally supporting the worker. Having been on both sides of this, I think that the little bit of distance that the consultant has from the immediate problems of the job, while still having awareness of a lot of the context, can really accelerate the work.

Great insight! I always look back at my high-school internship at a real software company back in the 90's. I spent at least half my day sitting in the cube of the old unix greybeard (literally) just watching him code and once in a while asking what he was doing. It seemed like a waste of time, but 1) I became a really good c programmer from multiple summers of watching an expert, and 2) since I really wasn't in charge of typing, I had a second stack going in my head and when he would ask "what was the query we just sent to the database" or something like that, I'd remember and keep him going. So I think I helped him as much as he helped me.

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 had a similar experience in my last position. I was helping to lead a very green second shift team and had very little experience on the system we were testing. I ended up shifting my hours to split them between first and second shift and would spend the first part of the day just watching a very experienced operator. All I really I did was just help him plot and interpret data in excel or matlab. When we transitioned to second shift I would be already be familiar with the issues of the day and got to practice the things I observed earlier in the day. Having the time to sit back and observe allowed me to ramp up extremely quickly on the program.

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

I think you're onto something - I have a friend with whom I collaborate a lot where it feels like that. We're always working on our own thing, rarely on a truly shared project, so we're basically two "1.5 sized" teams. It's amazing

Someone, I can't remember who, wrote an article where he said that 1.5 is the optimum team size.

Once when two co-workers needed help with something I had more knowledge of, I sat between them so I could look over both of their laptops and jump in as needed. When a manager was confused about what was going on I called it "double-pairing" and got a funny look back.

Not Brooks, but someone estimated productivity goes up about as the 0.7 power of team size.

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.

I, personally, feel that instead of two it would need to be three to have a more diverse set of opinions and to break any stalemates. I've worked for many years with just one other person and the number of times where we had ideological differences and not enough exposure to alternatives are innumerable.

Yes, to be sure, I need to be more careful how I phrase this. I recently consulted with a VP of engineering who liked to bring 9 engineers together to review a database schema. I suggested more one-on-one meetings. He said, "Yes, I know you like less chefs in the kitchen." But that was not true, so I clarified with him: "I think it is great that you meet with those 9 engineers, but you should consider meeting with them either one at a time or maybe in groups of twos. The problem is that with nine people, on one video call, the conversation will either last 6 hours or some people won't be able to voice their concerns. There is a risk that the comments will remain at a general level. If you want to dive into the details, and surface the real risks of a given model, then hold smaller meetings. And really, the only purpose of those meetings is to surface the risks you face, so there is really no point to those larger meetings. Hold smaller meetings and surface the risk. But I am 100% okay with the idea of meeting with all 9 engineers, if you have the time to do that. Just meet with them in small groups. (And if you don't have the time to hold 7 or 8 or 9 separate meetings, then be strategic about who you meet with --- that is one of the most basic skills of leadership, knowing how to invest your time."

For anyone interested, I did write a small book on the theme of personal connections and face-to-face communication, being more important than processes or tools:


The one-on-one meetings don't always have to be with the same person. And of course, the particular person matters, some can be more of a hindrance than a benefit.

I can attest to this. Furthermore, teams of two make it more difficult to check out of a shared problem and allow the other team members to do the work, thus it improves the overall performance.

For the past 3 years I’ve worked in an almost 100% pair programming environment. It works wonders for a lot of problems, especially around “code ownership”. It’s much harder to get precious with your code, or point fingers at someone else’s code, when the responsibility for every line is shared by at least two people.

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.

I'm shocked you made it 3 years. I did a stint trying to do what they call "mob programming" and felt borderline suicidal. I couldn't think because I was constantly vocalizing what I was doing. Nothing added up and every ticket felt like it was just a hodge-podge of different ideas with no real flow. Lord help you if someone wanted to disagree. Now you have to completely stop your worker thread and handle that. There was no art to it. Its just one robot and two guys standing behind you ordering you to do this or that. I found it impossible to reach a flow state and produce actual good work. I left every session feeling like I accomplished nothing for myself. I am not attached to my code, but I am attached to my accomplishments. When all your work is atomized between people you are effectively no one. In this case, I believe, it's better off to leave.

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 everyone is different and appreciates a different amount of collaboration!

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.

This is a helpful reminder to me. Thanks.

I've read a sentence somewhere that comes to mind: "You need the possibility of silence to say something unheard-of."

Were you required to pair? I'm always curious about this kind of arrangement, and fear that it can often be a sort of crutch, especially for more Jr engineers who don't yet have the experience writing a large amount of code on their own.

Back when I started as a freelancer, I initially copied the 9-to-5 rhythm of „working“. That, despite having viewed this forced window of work as one of the biggest annoyances that come with a job.

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.

> 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?

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've been recently reprimanded for being seen too often drinking water at the kitchen.

Leave. Honestly.

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.



I started working from home four years ago and I have less ability to step away from my desk now than I ever had working from the office. It got even worse in 2020 after most of the office started working from home. Not to mention that teams snitches on me if I am away from my computer for five minutes.

> "...Not to mention that teams snitches on me if I am away from my computer for five minutes..."

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.

Sorry I should have said Microsoft Teams.

Whew, that's a relief!

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. ;-)

The company I worked for complained I was away for two hours during lunch. That's including, you know, driving somewhere to sit in a restaurant and wait for food. I quit after a month.

> I've never had anyone even raise an eyebrow at people wandering off for a few hours unannounced

wandering off for *a few hours* he said ...

Wow, you must be one lucky sir.

I was very lucky at a previous company to be able to do this - I had weekly or fortnightly meetings with the CTA, Snr Dev Manager and a few others where we would meet to agree strategies and issues.

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.

Concerns like this are a big part of why you need to charge double your normal rate when contracting. You might not get paid for travel to and between job sites. You also aren’t working performatively so there’s little or negative value to padding your hours to match a 40 hour schedule every single week. Work 30 hours except during crunch time. Sharpen your saw.

> that’s a huge, separate discussion.

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.

I think some would think they are abusing it and discover they benefit from it.

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.

I hear this argument repeatedly. What’s missing is the question _why_ said people do this. I feel it’s not sufficient to lump them together under “some people are leeches” and be done with it. I’d argue that if they had a meaningful responsibility, they wouldn’t bug off.

Because humans are social beings, we need to signal to the others that we belong to the group and are doing our part. Our loyalty is prized more than our effectiveness or efficiency. It doesn't matter how productive you are, the feelings of the group are more important.

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.

While I agree with the overall point, that view of airport security and drug control being ineffective shows the power of Hollywood propaganda than valid points supporting the issue of the human condition.

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.

The thing is, Israel legitimately has to fear terrorism. Western countries only keep that ridiculous security theatre because it's politically very hard to get rid of something that got introduced for "safety" even if it has proven to be pointless.

FriedrichN? Is that an allusion to Nietzsche? It would certainly be fitting the sharpness of your observation. Wouldn’t be surprised to find the thought you expressed here in “Human, All Too Human”.

I guess this would comport with his concept of slave morality that states that the collective is more important than the individual and tends to trend towards the lowest common denominator.

This puts the independent operator (lone contractor, entrepreneur...) in an interesting position. For him , effectiveness matters more than loyalty displays. His world is different from that of the "solid tribe member".

Boss: "Hicks, how come you're not working."

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.

>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.

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.

I do the same, but report 8 hours. I automated this task in every job that required to report hours. I refuse to work in a clock in clock out fashion.

Thankfully I now have a job that autoreports 8 hours. I never even opened the software to edit hours.

Man I wish everyone did that. I managed a team of twenty with a layer of managers and it was just impossible to get a pulse on workload. The truth is there is always work to be done. It doesn’t have to be feature work but it could be product health, process health, or pie in the sky thinking work. Some employees were great about utilizing downtime to tackle these but many were not. I loved the ones who were confident to tell me “hey boss I got some time. What do you want me to focus on ?”

  > I feel kinda blessed. 
you should

How did you declare the hours? An email? "Unpaid time off" submission?

In many companies, there are systems into which you enter how many hours you worked each day. (often you also need to break down the work per department/budget, so that you as an expense can be tracked across multiple company budgets).

>Perhaps the biggest sink on the economy and environment is perfomative work

I think nothing illustrates this better, than the productivity output of Japan vs other developed nations[0]. 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.

[0] https://www.nippon.com/en/japan-data/h01196/

The topic of bullshit jobs has been overhyped.

Btw, even if they are a problem, their impact on the economy pales in comparison with restrictions on migration and construction.

> The topic of bullshit jobs has been overhyped.

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 perfomative acts.

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.

> it's a shame Graeber's choice of language basically offends. Who wants to hear that their job is "bullshit"?

A very large number of people who already believe that about their job.

Indeed, the core of the book is built on interviews with people who self-report that their jobs are bullshit. Graeber goes on to cover some systemically-bullshit jobs (largely escalating zero-sum games like advertising or the military—"we had to spend more because the other guy spent more, so the status quo is preserved") but all the stuff about ordinary jobs at ordinary companies that are bullshit come from surveys and interviews.

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.

It's also a language that implies that entire jobs are it, and entire jobs are not.

There probably exist jobs that are entirely bullshit or entirely not-bullshit, but if they exist, they are extremely rare.

Rich Hickey talks about this, calling it "hammock-driven development."


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.

In the context of such a short post, the fact the author mentions going for "a run" twice doesn't seem trivial to me.

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.

>In the context of such a short post, the fact the author mentions going for "a run" twice doesn't seem trivial to me.

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.

It’s more than that if you have ADHD or are on the spectrum. Repetitive activities help upregulate the brain in ways that allow for these sorts of random connections between seemingly disparate data to happen more reliably. Some people think better when fidgeting, walking, brushing teeth, washing their hair, walking through doorways.

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.

>It’s more than that if you have ADHD or are on the spectrum.

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 think this really depends on the type of work you're doing. I've found that often the work I'm paid to do at many jobs is one step away from pure code monkey - even if that job is pulling me $1m+/yr. It seems like the author here is more on the design side and isn't working as an IC anymore. So they probably are making big decisions rather than having to implement others decisions. (I loathe implementing others but they pay me the big bucks to shut up and do it)

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.

If you pull in a million+ a year... why not just become financially independent and do the work you want to do?

Lean FIRE wouldn’t be hard. But I’m more of a fatFIRE type.

I mean, this is all hypothetical to me as I'll never make this much. I just don't understand how time (in particular time spent while in good health) does not become the most precious asset once you have the financial means to escape most societal constraints

Work: going for a 2 hour run over the weekend, thinking about some problem between the 60th and 80 minute, spending the next week implementing it. (typing it in, telling others about it on meetings, whatever)

Also: this is why hourly billing is pointless. You bill for the low value activity and can't bill for the high value activity.

There is a good MOOC on coursera on the topic of learning and creative working: Learning How To Learn by Barbara Oakley (there is also a book).

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 was hoping someone would mention "Learning How To Learn" as I was immediately reminded of this as well. The process described in this article aligns completely with portions of Barbara's research and teaching.

Recommend this. It’s excellent.

> I think Business with a capital B loves “collaboration” because of the seeming evidence of the feat: the potential for innovation is visible, even palpable when people are in a room — “I can see people meeting and talking and there are sticky notes all over the wall!”

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's one of the reasons I think being a founder is probably the most freeing job title one can have. There's no single human making judgements about your performance. Instead, the market is the judge.

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.

Many founders report to their shareholders though.

That’s true, but, in my experience, shareholders are way more likely to judge you for impact rather than “grind time”, especially because they cannot measure “grind time” anyway.

I agree with the message overall: impactful work might not 'look' like work, but I'm not sure what the author's deal is with conflating 'collaboration' with 'meaningless meetings'.

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?

I was thinking his point was how there is a lot of collaboration that isn’t actually useful, just as there is a lot of sitting at your desk “working” that isn’t useful.

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.

> Load my brain with all the context of a problem.

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.

Seymour Cray dug a tunnel to nowhere from his basement out into his backyard.

He claimed that’s where he got his best ideas.

IMHO why companies don't push the 'step away and let the problem gestate in your brain' message is that it blurs the lines between 'payable time' and 'free time'. For my creative work, a lot of solutions occur in the evenings after I've clocked out. Since I'm developing solutions for work do they not owe me money for the hours worked?

I don't think it's that at all. If you're salary the company quite literally owns you, every thought no matter how inconsequential, etc. I can see how that could be a problem for hourly. It's really about control. You give the appearance of work to appease the PHB who signs your paycheck. You know, after plenty of experience, the person who appears to be the hardest worker is often times the least likely to be put on the chopping block. It's a very primal hierarchical reaction to this kind of thing.

They don’t own you, they rent you.

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.

PHB = Pointy Haired Boss, for anyone else not familiar with Dilbert.

company quite literally owns you. yes, modulo the actual law

If you dont believe it I encourage you to try to start your own company while working somewhere else. You'll be mired in legal nonsense so deep you wont even be able to see clearly. When you become an employee you sign just about every right away you have to anything you do, ever, while working for the company. NDAs, Non-Competes, Invention Agreements, etc.

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 is probably different in the US? I can see why starting a company would be hard. But if you had ideas no reason you can’t do stealth stuff, like gain skills, do courses, market research. But when cutting code etc. sound like you would need to be free of the job.

I find collaborative debugging to be quite powerful. Whether it's duck debugging your own code or working with other people to solve a problem that isn't of your own making.

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.

A few years back I was doing work for a university course and working full time. I was burned out and exhausted mentally. The problem was staring me in the face for weeks and I felt powerless and unable to progress at all.

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 kind of see collaboration as a way to ensure you don't go off on some idea that doesn't align with the rest of the team. In the blog post he mentions that he presents his idea with the team in step 4, isn't that when it becomes collaboration and his idea is potentially scaled back or enhanced?

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.

I identify with what he is saying.

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 do a 5K walk each morning. Takes most of an hour (I’m just getting up, now, and will be walking in a few minutes). I put on headphones, and listen to fairly mindless techno music, while I walk.

I use it to “triage” the day’s tasks.

I often figure out solutions to blockers, during this time.

Honest question (as in, I'm not insinuating what I expect the answer to be): do you think you'd be less efficient or more efficient if you triaged the day's tasks at your desk?

Maybe, but I’d be less healthy. I do the walk anyway, so I like to use the time.

Not offended in the least. Perfectly good question.

I like the Alan Partridge definition of brainstorming:

"An American technique where ideas are graded by how loudly the person who thought them up shouts"


The problem isn't so much what work looks like, but how to measure it. I'm kind of surprised with the shift to work from home (and in some cases back again) we haven't seen any large companies come out with analytical data about what is more effective and how they measure it. I'm guessing the reason why is because they don't, and any return to office policies are driven soley by pointy haired managers with no real data.

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?

Well, the joke's on those PHBs, because soon we'll have the data available in the form of aggregate performance data for companies implementing return to office policies versus those that have not. I do not foresee the results favoring the "everybody in the office all the time" model.

Do we then get to lay off large swaths of PHBs and replace them with people whose titles describe the actual value some of them can add and be respected for: clerk, administrator, evangelist, etc?

“reduced creativity due to the tendency to incrementally modify known successful designs rather than explore radically different and potentially superior ones.”

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_.

So true. My best quality time is when first reading hard problem and going for a walk to attack it at every angle.

Recently, working from home, this is what brainstorming looks like to me:

- 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.

I agree with the sentiment, but brainstorming is a difficult skill and most teams are not really good at it.

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.

Having worked at two start-ups, I agree. I think the "we are all one happy family" is directly driving the "we cannot come to decissions". Both are driving me crazy at the moment.

What I've learned is that having a team of passionate, driven people has nothing to do with treating it "like a family" which is both sinister and creepy.

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.

I've always loved brainstorming sessions but I have also noticed they often don't produce much in the way of results. I attribute this to the fact that nobody else (except me) would prepare for the sessions. Ideally the session would be announced a week or a month in advance, and people would be told to think about the problem and come up with some possible ideas or interesting aspects of the problem. Then at the actual session there is something to discuss. Too often people felt overwhelmed with meetings and would just show up and try to come up with ideas on the spot, which never worked well. Retreats are closer to my ideal and they seem to work better than brainstorming sessions. Weekly brainstorming sessions when you have months to come up with new ideas can work well also since they tend to start building on the best ideas that come up.

The catch is that empowerment (this is the correct word that everyone seems to be looking for) and collaboration are opposites: I trust you to solve this vs. let's solve this together.

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.

Diffused time is needed for creativity to come. The best ideas always come while not actively working on it. Working out, going on a walk, taking a shower, or even before going to sleep can have your subconscious do the work for you.

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:


Collaboration may be attractive to management teams due to reasons apart from productivity. Management may even know and accept that productivity suffers.

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.

>management has little idea how to judge the quality of an individual idea

This is a management-being-incompetent problem, which is likely not a universal problem

I also used to say I have to sleep over it, and had the best ideas when I was in the shower in the morning. But since I had almost a burnout I really seperate work and life. So I never think about work things bevor I start to work, so I need a lot more time on work for solutions and they are never as good as the solutions from the morning shower. But yeah, my private life is sooo much better now.

Well, you can actually think in front of a computer also, whether you are just sitting there or typing outlines or whatever.

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.

I worked at Apple during the second, golden Steve Jobs era. It's easy to assume that the culture of secrecy and need-to-know disclosure was for marketing/PR benefit and/or old-school Silicon Valley "only the paranoid survive" mindset, and perhaps that's true, but a very real side effect is that you have very tight loops of communication, so you can focus and move quickly without being stuck in tons of meetings or drown in mass emails or otherwise become easily distracted. Of course there are downsides, but when it works, it's beautiful. It's the best "case against collaboration" I have experienced.

> It's the best "case against collaboration" I have experienced.

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!

For some related ideas:

  - Bike-shedding [0]
  - the Law of Triviality [1]
  - "Hammock-Driven Design" - a 2010 talk by Rich Hickey [2]
[0] https://thedecisionlab.com/biases/bikeshedding

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law_of_triviality

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f84n5oFoZBc

Part of the brainstorming method with a room full of people is to extract insights that should have already have been gathered in research.

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.

My mind is apparently a bit more brutal, but much the same. Load the problem, meaning read on the problem, do a few test implementations of the basics, maybe do a rough object oriented solution, then a functional, get stuck and go do something else. Then at any random point here after, but mostly when completely relaxed my mind swing into action with: Hey buddy, remember that thing you where working on? Well, here you go, here's ALL OF IT in 20 seconds, so pay attention.

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.

That's why remote work is so liberating. You don't have to stay at your desk but you can move your body and free your mind as much as you like. When I get back to the office I feel stuck. Physically and mentally.

I never felt constrained or locked out even at office. I would go for a walk. I would space out at desk. I would chat with people. No one got offended. Of course it probably helped that mg boss was not in the same states.

I agree. Packing people in a room to "brainstorm" doesn't work.

In Design Thinking, team members diverge and ideate privately. Later the team converges by discussing ideas as a group to refine or combine ideas.

Another reason Businesses love "collaboration" is that it has a much higher bus factor, so as much as we all love to "go dark", it's not predictable and therefore risky. Shitty but predictable work is often profitable, whereas great but unpredictable work is only sometimes profitable.

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.

I forget who said it, but this reminds me of something one famous scientist said, about how most of his best ideas came to him in one of four places: the bath, bus, bed, or bar.

This is exactly how I 'work' and always have. Sometimes the process of distilling a solution in my mind for some more difficult problem can even take days.

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.

A big part of the problem is the perception of what work is.

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?

I find I'm way more productive when I can discuss solutions with coworkers often. Run ideas buy them, etc. My thinking gets clearified and they often suggest things that lead to better designs.

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

> so being able to bounce ideas off coworkers

After those ideas come up when solo though?

No, if I have to do it solo and then wait until non-solo to discuss I lose the flow.

To me it's like music. I can't jam without people to jam with live.

These people going for walks, taking showers, napping and solving problems: I don’t have this experience. Instead for me it is using pen and paper that does it for me. And it seems more efficient to have a computer nearby to browse code or docs while I do it. Breaks are helpful for maintaining energy but not for eurekas. But I agree that if walks make you more productive and you are thinking about work then that is actual work.

I think the key is being able to genuinely relax from focusing on the problem to help your thinking. To allow an opportunity for those competing thoughts that aren't making it to your awareness because they are beaten by whatever train of thought you are stuck on. Little rituals like taking a shower (or sitting on the toilet is a popular one) distract you so you can relax. Or they should. If it isn't working for you maybe you are too good as staying focused and aren't getting the benefit from relaxing. Thinking about work while walking would defeat the purpose.

For me it is the reverse. My best creative time is the sauna, followed by the shower, and lying in bed in third position. Pen and paper work great for fleshing out stuff, but not for the original insights. Once we get to the keyboard and screen that is the implementation of ideas already formed elsewhere.

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.

Cue Cal Newport’s Deep Thinking movement.

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.

Look how many comments here are something like: "Well, of course leisure is good - because it helps me work harder!" It's sad. It's that "work-is-noble" ethos. These people are effectively saying that they are at-lesiure in order to work better - they have it backwards! I don't know about you, but I work in order to be-at-leisure; I am only ever not-at-leisure in order to be-at-leisure. Refreshing and recharging is good - because it's the end, not the means!. But so many here seem to be framing leisure as the means, the end being work itself. Work itself is not noble.

Hey let me just say I'm totally with you and you put it very well.

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".

I disagree. My leisure is almost always unproductive, and I personally find productivity to be virtuous.

Some people honestly enjoy work. I enjoy making stuff for myself and for others.

Some people enjoy creating things and solving problems.

I think this is true and I use my "background brain" a lot, specially overnight to deal with problems. Sometimes I'll even intentionally not give any thought to a problem of the day because I know I'll wake up with the answer tomorrow anyway, why waste time with my "primary brain" train of thought on it?

It actually does not matter what work looks like the important part are the results. I think that's generaly one of the worst problem at job. People being "busy" without any results and people that seems to calmly delivere. Usually management favors the first kind as it feels like no struggle no work is being done.

Dismissing collaboration because a few people didn't find it useful is equally dumb as thinking everyone can just sit in solitude and come up with great ideas. Treat everything as a tool, if it isn't producing results, use something else. The most important thing is to be honest with yourself.

Love it! as a Product Manager there's always the tension between being inclusive and collaborative and turning into product-by-committee, which never ends well.

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

I liked this line "still felt a strange obligation to be at his computer because that’s too often our the metal image of “working”."

Even as a business owner, sometimes I sit at my desk "working" but on nothing in particular. I should be walking.

I installed Steam on my work computer and I play a bit of something that’s fun but also engages my engineering brain when I need a break from work but want to keep flow state going somewhat, like a city builder.

Software development can be viewed as creative work. Bad things happen when creative workers and assembly line managers clash.

But, sure, there’s a lot of boilerplate and routine work to be done - that’s the low-effort stuff.

Sometimes the solutions don't come while I'm vacuuming or doing the dishes. Then I'm hours further along without having "worked" on the problem.

Like the quote goes, a week of hard work can save you hours of deep thinking.

Better to figure out shit in IT before going in too deep and needing to redo the design. Especially databases!

This goes for most "work" that requires a bit of thought and planning.

People are expected to be at a desk for X hours a day so they can be managed, monitored and measured.

I think this article overestimates the average ability for people to work autonomously. A lot of people need external input to process the context.

Very interesting read. I was always a fan of the way Tesla conducts meetings.

“Walk out of a meeting or drop off a call as soon as it is obvious you aren't adding value.”

People love fantasy, theatre of all types. there's a sense of productivity in a good performance, even in collaboration theatre.

Hey, I've been fired for step two. I'll quote "you aren't paid to walk around and think".

This. My old first boss told us that he is happy if we sit at our work places and are deep in the trenches of coding.

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.

Hell, I had one complete a*hole of a boss who, one time when I was sitting at my desk, in front of my computer, leaning back in my chair trying to figure out how to make something work, say "there's not a terminal in the ceiling, commandlinefan".

I like that 5 step process. It gives one’s brain time and space to process and integrate.

I liked how Rich Hickey described this - "hammock driven development".

collaboration for me is tremendously helpful to remove blind spots, and learn how others think about the problem.

the solution to a thorny problem is often conceived alone, and then refined with a set of motivated engineers.

This fits my sense of things. I've been in software since the 80's.



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” " .

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