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Rabbit holes: Why being smart hurts your productivity (sridattalabs.com)
299 points by sthatipamala on Mar 12, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 67 comments



Truth is, most of the things I know about the world in general and programming in particular is due to procrastination and rabbit-holing. Big chunks of my understanding of physics come from randomly reading stuff on Wikipedia while procrastinating in high school. I discovered HN and learned Lisp when shying away from doing an university project in PHP, which in result got me a job in Erlang and also led to being widely recognized at the university as 'the Lisp guy'. Here I discovered pg's essays and LessWrong, both of which helped me grow, and many other things. I owe much of who I am now to rabbit-holing. And also being a person who always has three solution candidates to any problem in 30 seconds ("you know, there was this startup/library/tool featured on HN last month...") is a result of that random learning.

I do sometimes feel that it's not the optimal way of learning things. I try to find the balance between random-walking and systematized learning, but one thing I'm sure of, it's that the optimum is not on the side of formal education, at least not for me.

After trying, again and again, to force and fit myself into 'the System' of traditional, formalized learning I discovered that it is almost impossible for me, and it always have been. Learning what I'm told to learn for sake of tests and exams just repells me, causing almost physical pain. So I'm not trying to force myself anymore, I decided to do what I have to do with minimum effort, and spend the rest of the time learning what I want, the way I want, and allowing myself time for rabbit-holing and procrastinating.


I feel the same way, and I like to have an approach I call just-in-time-learning. If you focus on formal education methods you often end up with a lot of time spent in knowledge that's not very interesting to you or that doesn't fall within your work/hobby real needs. In a just-in-time-learning methodology, you roll up your sleeves at the first sign of a lacking area in your knowledge that you need to tackle right now.

Of course that isn't without it's own pitfalls. That lacking area might need a bunch of pre-requisite knowledge you also don't have and would do if you had adopted a traditional approach early on. It also may lead you further into the rabbit hole if you don't put a stop to it somewhere along the way and turn back to the original problem.

Right now I feel that you have to be able to mix and match the approaches. Reserve some time for just-in-time and rabbit holes, but also remember to reserve some time for fundamentals too, in order to prepare for future lessons. So it is important to do a bit of studying about the subject in order to understand if that's the right fit or not for you.

Actually, I think the real drive for any kind of learning is about the same for anyone: curiosity.


I think edw519 used to write in length about 'just-in-time-learning', calling it 'pull learning' (as opposed to 'push'). See, for instance, comment 71 in [1].

My rabbit-holing doesn't always resemble your approach; I often end up reading a book on a topic I'm just interested in, without a particular project or feeling of lacking knowledge. However, I try to transition myself into more JIT-learning/pull-learning style, so that I learn things at the same time I try to get something useful&interesting done. This mindshift is probably mostly due to HN (and we're looping back to rabbit-holing :)) - especially the prevailing emphasis on 'shipping the damn thing'.

[1] - http://edweissman.com/53640595


"Truth is, most of the things I know about the world in general and programming in particular is due to procrastination and rabbit-holing". Excepting hobby areas (where it doesn't matter) I think you're kidding yourself as without a disciplined framework for learning any knowledge you acquire is at best accidental, there will be too many gaps for you to even comprehend what you don't know.

Tests and exams are there to ensure you have done the hard non-fun-stuff as well as the fun-stuff and to "prove" you have understood, not just regurgitating half-comprehended factoids. You are advocating the equivalent of a educational junk food diet, the only thing you'll absorb is the superficially interesting and the crap.

Serendipity has its place but if it is your principal approach then you are delusional.


I'd suggest that not following rabbit holes can lead to a shallow understanding. If you descend into a rabbit hole, it's because you realized there was a gap in your comprehension and decided to look into the matter and fill in that gap. If you successfully resolve the issue and then return to solve the original issue, your end result is a complete working demonstration of your improved end-to-end understanding.


Maybe you're just creative enough to find a way to use the things in recent memory. When your tool is an infinite swiss army knife, the world's problems don't really look like anything they aren't.


rabbit-holing

New favorite word.


I have quit university when I realized that the only difference between reading books on my own and reading books for a uni course was that university is a place where you learn how to work. You are spoon-fed work discipline and research methodology. I already had all of that, and so I quit. At that point it wasn't difficult at all to continue on my own.


I was thinking about quitting university after taking part in Stanford's AI Class and then realizing that they have around 12 courses planned for the next semester. I don't believe that any university in my country could beat the quality level of what's offered now by Stanford, MIT and others. I decided to stay, but I'm not lying to myself anymore about the reasons. I stayed not to get knowledge - which I can get faster and of better quality elsewhere - but because of:

  - Master degree (as in, formal title; it may come in handy)
  - Access to expensive/difficult to get equipment - for all those
    crazy ideas of mine that involve e.g. a piece of custom hardware
  - Access to people who know some particular area inside out
  - All the smart people who study at the university - there won't be
    any other chance to meet so many amazing people and maybe Build
    Something Amazing with them, and then keep contact for the future.
  - Cheaper tickets for public transport.
But as I said, I'm not there for the knowledge. Not anymore.


"I'm not there for the knowledge. Not anymore."

I'd argue that you ARE there for knowledge just not the kind that universities tend to say they give you.

Rather it's the kind of knowledge that the University system was supposed to give you before they all turned into job training, especially telling is "Access to people who know some particular area inside out". That's what university is supposed to be about.

Of course cheap bus is nice too.


I did the same. Plus the education was an expensive proposition that had no return as just about everyone I studied with now understands.

I know a qualified BSc mechanical engineer who works in a supermarket for wage scraps.


I don't think this is necessarily limited just to smart people but it's just more a trait of curious people (perhaps there is a correlation there?) or just the intellectually insecure.

For example I don't consider myself an especially intelligent person (on the right side of average I hope), however I know people who are very intelligent and can talk at length with authority on a vast number of topics and are seemingly able to absorb and retain information instantly. Also I am exposed to forums like HN which are full of smart people.

So naturally whenever a conversation or thread comes up where I feel that I don't have anything to contribute but I know it sounds fascinating I can't help but to try and learn everything I can about it so I can weigh in next time, which in turn leads to finding gaps in my prerequisite knowledge of the subject (and interesting offshoot subjects). Which of course leads to having 12 tabs open.

This is why I think it is better to pick a few subjects that you decide you will learn in some detail and buy books on the subject.

The great thing about books is that they follow a linear progression and most importantly they end.

The problem with HN is that you can read every article on the front page along with a bunch of wikipedia, but the next day there will just be more.


> The great thing about books is that they follow a linear progression and most importantly they end.

That's the usual case, but I've found myself a few times sitting in a university library reading books in a Wikipedia-esque way. Read a few chapters of one, find an interesting footnote, grab the book it references off the shelf and follow up on that, and soon there's a pile of 15 books on my desk...


This is true for reference books.

But not for other kinds of books like Novels, tutorials.

If somebody is reading a Reference book, then they are reading it the way you describe.

But if you are learning something/trying to get enough information for the moment you must know what information to neglect else the 'rabbit hole' problem is inevitable.


Another major advantage of books is structure. Well written books tend to follow a high level framework or narrative which makes it a lot easier to remember large quantities of information. I can recall significant amounts of what I read in Building the Perfect PC, and it gives me a great framework for buying components. But before I read that book I spent many more hours reading about which computers to buy online, and I recall very little from that research.


This is especially true with consumer gaming hardware blogs (apart from the obvious good ones like tom's hardware etc).

There is so much stuff written by COD/WoW obsessed teenagers that basically just regurgitates marketing points along with weird theories about how things actually work.

Luckily a rudimentary CS education does help sort the wheat from the chaff here.


This definitely isn't constrained to just smart people or curious people. I'd conjecture the vast majority of people are subjected to tangential distraction - youtube, facebook, wikipedia, reddit, hackernews, tumbler, twitter, whatever your poison.

The question is merely the quality of the distraction - if there is something such as 'distract better', perhaps we should be exploring that. Sadly, my general experience has been that the vast majority of distracted time yields negligible gain compared to concentrated pursuit of a field.

Serendipity, yes, but I find I'm far more prone to serendipity when I'm concentrated than when I'm not. Firm believer that you always find what you're looking for - and the more concretely you know what you're looking for, the faster you'll find it.


As one great example of productive rabbit-holing, Knuth was frustrated by the computer-typesetting tools available to write a computer science book, so he wrote TeX; and then there weren't good fonts for it so he started designing one; but he needed a font-designing tool so he wrote METAFONT; etc. Eventually he got back to his book.

But he was: 1) already a tenured professor at the time; and 2) had a sabbatical year in the middle as well. So he was able to choose to delay one kind of productivity to follow this other rabbit hole instead, and ultimately probably end up more productive as a result. The normal productive solution, of course, would've been to just muddle through with whatever typesetting system his publisher was using, and stay focused on the book.


Hmm, I think its more scratching the 'itch'. I can think of one more case like this Larry Wall's 'Perl'.

Perl was invented because of some form of rabit holing. Actually productive rabit holing can make a good business.


On my second day of practice, I felt the urge to find a better Haskell syntax highlighting extension for Vim. I managed to find one that was distributed in a package called a "Vimball". I spent 10 minutes trying to figure out how to install a Vimball and then another 10 customizing the plugin's settings.

This is also referred to as Yak Shaving.

http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2005/03/dont_shave_t...


Fellow HN'ers, don't click that link! You may soon find yourself reading a Seth Godin post about a Joi Ito post about an MAKE magazine article about a jargon file page about a Wiktionary Talk page about a MIT CSAIL post about a Ren & Stimpy episode.


Not quite the same. Finding an extension was not blocking his main task, whereas in Seth Godin's story it is a chain of dependencies.

By the way, what is the solution for Yak shaving? Seth Godin's advice is "don't go to home depot", but in his metaphor this was a necessity to get the job done. Is the idea to give up on the task or at least postpone it, or to try and find a different way to get the job done?


I don't consider them the same at all. Yak Shaving is a social phenomenon where a group of people get bogged down by minutia and irrelevant decisions. The Rabbit Hole is private, caused by becoming easily and repeatedly engrossed in tangential topics.


You're confusing yak shaving with bikeshedding.


The whole reason I end up commenting on HN, just like I am doing right now, is because I'm drifting from my intended research path and start thinking that maybe someone has posted some interesting story related to what I'm supposed to be looking at.

Most recently, my intent to look into writing a compiler frontend for LLVM led me to install a dozen new modes in emacs, explore OCaml and Go, download the source code for several major projects with the intent of examining their garbage collection strategies and roughly 60 new papers in my "To Read" folder.

:(


I understand the true spirit of this post. But regarding finding the right tools for the job(which in this case is syntax highlighting) is worth chasing.

I was once helping out a relative of mine. Who was doing some freelance project in electronics. As a deliverable we had to ship some soldered boards in four days. We didn't quite have a organized working shop. The first night we worked it was a disaster. Nothing was in place, and we spent great deal of time solving confusions and finding scattered tools. Then the next day we spent all the day getting organized and finished the entire job the very next day. Getting organized helps.

But I noticed a strange thing during that project. As we were soldering, I realized apart from talking to each other about some topic intermittently. We never really got distracted and got off our seats and we were never distracted. We only took food and rest room breaks nothing more. How did that happen, I did simple analysis:

    1. We were not spoiled by choice. Like in software where there are gazillion things and standards to choose from.
    2. Focused task, Solder, pick components, debug, multimeter.
    3. No such thing like a browser to distract.
    4. Ability to measure goals. Something that is difficult to do in software.
    5. Doing and exploring new things have a little higher barrier to entry. Thereby you don't shift tasks until you complete the current one completely.
    6. Information available is to the point and not like software where every other blog has a hello,world program posted. Thereby doing something new requires iterations of focussed reading, implementing, testing.
Having said, this model is a little difficult to create in software. I guess Electronic engineers at a time were plagued with same problems decades back when they had 50 free PIC projects magazines near every door way. And having to worry about every new precision voltmeter that comes very other week.

Many of our problems will resolve automatically with some quality standardization in our industry.

We still quarrel about Text editors, things like syntax highlighting. Most technology communities should by now figure out that if you are releasing something cool, you also need to take care of the tooling.


This makes me want to cry. I see myself going down the rabbit holes recently. I had this great idea that I was investigating. Then I saw one of the functionality can become a product by itself. Hey, let me do that quickly. While doing it, I needed to build a library. Hey, let me generalized it quickly and released it as open source.

And that's how JSODA came into existence, https://github.com/williamw520/jsoda

But I'm still longing at popping the stack two levels up back to the original idea.


But how do you know you shouldn't switch to a new idea?


Good question. I guess it would require at least doing some due diligence before dismissing an idea. For me the OS library is generic and I can always reuse for other projects. The other two ideas require much more extensive tryout.


I've always felt that life is not about getting as much boring stuff done as fast as possible, which seems to be a common definition of productivity.

On the other hand, everyone's definition of "boring" is different, and we should each be true to our own, regardless of anyone else's opinion.


Rabbit holes are only a problem if you desperately have to get something finished and get stuck doing other things that seem more interesting. Otherwise, you can learn interesting things that widen your world view. Or maybe even find something that is a better use of your time than what you were doing in the first place. There is more to life than being productive.


Sometimes a tunnel vision on productivity alone, can become a case of premature optimization.

I'm a lot productive today because of the many things I got introduced when falling through many 'rabit holes'.

But there happens to a be balance that needs to be stuck. And in many peoples cases rabit holes keep expanding to bottom less pits.


I agree, but for me, its really hard to figure out what that is, so i just keep drifting along just picking up information as it piques my interest.

any suggestions? i like CS/engineering but i feel like these days people are looking for the next app or the next crappy product, and i can't be bother to want to spend time making one. i want to do something helpful for the world using my technical/computing expertise. college is a joke, mainly party and bullshit.


If you find college to just be a joke, it probably means you're either at the wrong college, approaching it the wrong way, or both.

My suggestion is to pick a general field you're interested in (e.g. CS), get a good survey of different specialities in it (like AI, machine learning, databases, compilers...etc) and choose the one you like best. You'll probably find it much easier to focus your curiosity on one speciality within CS, and it will probably be easier to do something interesting and non-trivial within some speciality like this.

Coincidentally, this is exactly where college is great--it gives you a nice structured overview of a bunch of different fields within your chosen subject and also lets you dive more deeply into whatever interests you most. College also gives you the general background needed to learn about the more specialized material--you're forced to learn more about subjects like math and EE than you would learn by yourself, which will help you in doing something non-trivial.


Little apps are the least common denominator of startups. Just about anyone has the technical capability to get one started quickly, so for people who are interested in the kind of social and business creativity that has driven many of the biggest startups in the last decade, they form a common ground where everyone can meet and talk about their startup aspirations. Hanging around HN will give you the impression that scaling successful web apps is the major technical challenge in the industry today, and that's partly correct, but a lot of computing centers around entirely different topics, so if building the next successful iPhone app or social web site isn't your cup of tea, don't worry.

You're on the right track asking questions of people who are already working. Keep doing that, and ask your professors, too. My personal story is that I majored in mathematics, programmed as a hobby, and became a professional programmer almost by accident. My math background has been a major plus in getting jobs where I work with scientists and mathematicians, not because they need me to do math (it actually doesn't come up much) but because math is a common language that lets them communicate with me easier than they could communicate with the average programmer. Skills in applied math, computer science, and practical software development will get you in the door in a lot of interesting jobs. My last three jobs could be roughly summed up as scientific computing, mildly distributed systems programming, and finance.

I would suggest you pick a field you're interested in that requires a lot of computing power and find out if there is a career for someone with CS expertise in that field. Possibly pick up another major -- applied math would be an excellent idea if you have no particular field in mind. But even if you stick with CS, it's an excellent field for someone who hasn't figured out what kind of work you want to do in the long term. If you were getting a law degree and had doubts about being a lawyer, you'd be in a much worse situation :-)

Good luck!


People need to decide if they're staying on top of things or trying to get to the bottom of something.

Yes, I stole that from Donald Knuth.

http://lifehacker.com/398112/neo+amish-drop-outs-eschew-emai...

http://www-cs-faculty.stanford.edu/~uno/email.html


This happens way too often with me. I just pull the lan cable out. No internet. It means I probably end up taking about 10-15 minutes to do something that would take a couple of minutes if I googled but I end up saving time because I don't just google for what I'm looking for and then close the tab.


HN is a great example of this. Down down down the page goes the thread and my productivity.

It takes discipline to apply what you've discovered during an intellectual deep dive. Discipline, by its very nature, is a learned behavior. And it can be very hard to learn for the easily distracted ultra-curious types that tend to make up most of the "smart" population.

Take it as a challenge, learn then apply, learn then apply. I frequently find that I've learned something down a rabbit hole someplace that, when I apply it, impresses many of my co-workers. When all I think I'm doing is regurgitating some fact.

Note: don't forget that other people may have gone down different rabbit holes and have an entirely different set of apply-potential knowledge just waiting to make the world better.


I heard the phrase "yak shearing" as the term for what this author calls "rabbit holing".

The essay cites Hamming, "I notice that if you have the door to your office closed, you get more work done today and tomorrow, and you are more productive than most. But 10 years later somehow you don't know quite know what problems are worth working on."

This reminds me of a quote by Rab Butler (British Chancellor of the Exchequer, 1951—1955) "It is more important to be generous than to be efficient — that is what I learned at the Treasury." It's about more or less the same thing: generosity of either your time or support gets you involved with other people and their concerns, and that is very important to making contributions of real importance.


What I have started to do is to write a short to-do list at the start of each day. If I don't finish it that is fine but it helps me at least set up some tasks I need to do and get to them as quickly as I can.

However, one thing. Hard problems are FUN. Double for hard problems that have some bearing on current work, even if it isn't critically important to the immediate moment. So I think it is important to allow for a certain amount of productive distractions.

I would also add one more thing. These rabbit holes can be good for another reason when running a business: they keep you on your toes regarding to what you need to do to succeed and sometimes the solutions are important ones to pursue as a business strategy.


I totally agree. As a developer in my startup, my job involves cranking out code. But as a founder in my startup, I need maintain a giant reverse index of things that are happening in technology. These two goals can be conflicting at times.


Absolutely agree with you on the task ahead. Sticky notes does the job when you can actually finish them on time or even complete. There is a complete discord on what we set out to achieve and what needed to be done - on the task.

What do you think of trello and task based applications in this case?


What seems most insidious is that the tasks that lead you down the rabbit hole make you feel like you are actually being productive, which is probably why it is so hard to intrinsically determine when you are heading down that hole in the first place.

I have noticed that most of these tasks relate to web-browsing and have experimented with just turning off my wireless while I am working. This usually means that when I need to do something "unproductive", I need to make a little bit of an extra effort to get online, which is generally enough to think to myself, "Hey, I should really get back to coding..."


Important to note that this isn't just a issue of digital rabbit holes. Freshman year I spent two days teaching myself to juggle with the oranges I was supposed to be growing mold on.


I've found this is the biggest productivity gain of working in pairs (designing or programming) - it avoids a lot of rabbit hole-ing, Yak shaving, gold plating, etc


Compare and contrast: rabbit holes vs. yak shaving.

Rabbit holes are basically unproductive-on-current-task lines of research (working on something, seeing something shiny on wikipedia, ...). Yak shaving is setting up a really long critical path for the current task (wanting to install a package, it not being available, building a new physical machine to host a virtualization environment to install a new OS to install the packages...)


This sums it up for me, and usually everyone else (smart or not)...

http://i.imgur.com/h4K5c.gif


I find that I need these periods of intense rabbit-holing, in order to fuel my work. Even when aimlessly strolling the internet, I'll somehow link that information to a later project or conversation I have later on. As we know, this can often become aimless and we feel a certain amount of guilt, or in extreme cases mental fatigue from focusing on too little. It's a bit of sensory overload.

On the other hand, if I've been intensely working on a project, I can often times feel as though I'm burning out; I have trouble finding further breakthroughs and I lack inspiration to push a project forward.

I certainly feel that I can get stuck in either environment, so often times it is about being able to know when to transition before reaching that fatigue. Like others have mentioned, making lists to prioritize my tasks often times will help me manage this. Staring at a list that has nothing crossed off is a very effective deterrent from internet use.


So I got halfway through reading the XKCD cartoon but got distracted by the infinite grid problem, caught myself, and managed to finish reading the cartoon before going off to google the solution to the infinite grid problem. It was some time later before I cam back and realised I hadn't actually read the blog post. Oh the irony!


I am always thinking about just how productive I'm going to be, and just how satisfying it will be to commit one improvement after another, gaining speed as progress leverages earlier progress, once I hit the bottom of my current giant yak shave and start unrolling it, all the way back up the technology stack.


"But they also had the advantage of working at the top of their games at MIT and Bell Labs, respectively."

Feynman was at mostly at Caltech, of course, although he attended MIT as an undergrad and was at Cornell and Los Alamos for a time. Presumably the quote came from his Caltech years.


Ahh, sorry. I was aware of this but I have no idea why I might have typed MIT while I wrote this. Pushing an edit now.


Emily Litella: "What's wrong with holding rabbits? They're cute and cuddly and just awfully good pets. Sure they make messes and eat the lettuce out of your garden. But when you hold that cute little fuzzy bunny with his little wiggling nose..."

Jane Curtain: "Ms. Litella, that's rabbit holding, not rabbit holing..."

Emily: "Nevermind"

In all seriousness, if you don't allow yourself to go down a few rabbit holes and be "unproductive", you'll sell yourself short in the future. The place where "rabbit holing" is dangerous is in meetings where what should be a quick & efficient get-together gets drawn out into a debate over meaningless details.

Context matters.


Oh man I should hand this article to anyone who wonders how I scraped through school with a lit degree and somehow became a software engineer.

My pinboard solution is intentionally low-tech. A yellow pad of note paper I can take with me anywhere. First page is the things I want to accomPlish for the week. Following pages are things I learn or want to add to the list. On Friday I make a new to do page, consolidating and removing previous pages.

I keep the pad on my desk in front of me. I can look at without opening my computer or phone. This usually preempts frivolity.


My god, it's like I'm looking in a looking glass.


In college I spent too much time playing around with the (newly created) World Wide Web instead of studying for my degree. I didn't exactly graduate with honors, but it doesn't matter since I ended up working on the web. So for me, there was a great career at the end of that particular rabbit hole.


So we procrastinate because we're intelligent? This should massage every hackers ego on Hacker News :) "Ah, I see, it is because I'm smart that I can't get things done. It's not that bad after all". To me it seems that most people procrastinate, whether they're are intelligent or not.


Unfortunately, it's often easier to get away with it when you're "smart" because when someone looks at your screen they don't see a Facebook game - they see "research".


Wow this is pretty incredible - I guess it's about finding that perfect balance between hard working and serendipity. So where does social media and television fall in this equation?


Rabbit-holing and yak shaving happen when you're still committed to working on the problem domain but struggling with some aspect of it. Social media and TV happen when you've explicitly given up for the time being.


Sometimes you overestimate yourself.....Thus you inhibit your learning curve.....You do not mingle with other people.....Thereby limiting your global perception


This sounds like ADD.

> Errata: Feynman had a career at Caltech, not MIT.

Obviously you haven't read any of Feynman's great books about his life! Get at it, quick!


Feynman was an undergraduate at MIT and his graduate studies were at Princeton. He never held a position at MIT.


Another great solution: thoughtback.com


That's why you need a system for recording all the things you can do, what context you should do them in, and keep working on your main task. Once the time is right, you go back to the things you wanted to do.

I can't claim to be an expert at this but I recently watched these vids thesecretweapon.org and coupled with what I already know from GTD and the Pomodoro technique its going well.


True. That's why I've started using a variant of Autofocus[1] (a task system, much simpler than GTD) and am intending to try Pomodoro.

Ultimately when you see the various things you need to do on a list, your intuitive mind automatically prioritises certain things over others. That's how you can reduce yak shaving and bikeshedding; by attacking tasks with shorter 'dependency chains' and higher urgency.

[1] http://lifehacker.com/5151111/autofocus-is-a-single-paper+ba...


One aspect of the "rabbit hole" problem is when you're doing work and you find a detail you want to read up on a bit more. You're doing Lisp and you want to read up on the best way to do a specific thing, then the best way to do a specific part of that, etc. The good old argument of parsing an infinite tree (graph) of information: Depth-first or breadth-first? Let's assume "breadth" means getting things done, and every new level of depth is going into a (maybe tangential) detail.

The great thing about a teacher is that they can find cycles in such graphs of related topics. They can use your attention to detail to steer you back on topic. Reading up on the trigonometric identities leads you to hyperbolic functions which leads you to holomorphic functions which leads you to linear algebra which leads you to a simple proof of trigonometric identities. It's a great thing if you figure something like this on your own.

There are other strategies to following the graph around. In fact, there's a topic called "computational strategies", which is fairly popular stuff if you're into supercomputing. Then on the other hand there are organizational measures like Time-Division Multiplexing, prioritizing, QoS, etc.. It's all been worked out, we really make computers in our own image. They can teach us a lot about ourselves.

I can equate reading up on new things (e.g. following HN closely every day) to juggling. Every time I read something new and interesting there's a new topic up in the air. It's there for some time until I've made my peace with it and integrated it into my consciousness.

I find that in my brain there's a certain amount of resource that I can dedicate to this sort of juggling, after which I gradually start getting tired, and "burnt out on news". At this point I start doing some fairly mechanical tasks. It often involves cleaning my flat, sports, shopping. Those are things which in some way tick boxes and they are a change for me which is the next step in the cycle. (Compare this to hanging out with friends or watching a movie or listening to music, which are passive tasks that do not advance the cycle for me.) After doing some of this practical stuff, I usually slow down reading up new stuff, forget about HN or whatever I was parsing, get caught up in real life. At this point I save all links, close it all off, and shelve it away. One thing that helps is that I have a structured database of resources (ok, just some dirs in dirs in dirs) where I save notes or webpages. This helps a lot to offload me from the burden of feeling I HAVE to read those articles. It's good because in the end most of this "catching up" that I do on HN is just to cross-reference topics and get new ideas; if two files are in the same dir (e.g. an "Parsers" dir) then I will end up looking at them two at the same time the next time I am working with parsers.

I have never been on a drinking binge, but externally - and as a voluntary social worker I've been a lot around people who have had strong problems with alcoholism - such a "research cycle" is very similar to a drinking binge. It starts with one sip, just let me look at the headlines on HN. Then I start taking shot after shot of reading the articles. Then I do it so much that I forget about everything. I'm in the zone. I'm in the flow. The world does not exist, I am GOD, the clarity is amazing. Escapism at its very best. At some point the high becomes tiring and I am unable to keep up. I get real-lifed. I start sobering up. By moving into doing something constructive I completely mitigate the crash.

So the cycle is start -> get infected -> totally binge out until you can't go further -> sober up -> do real life stuff -> back to start.

Of course, that's just one of the layers of my life, but it's a fairly well defined one at this point.

The cool thing is that, unlike sucking on the juice, this actually gets me to places. Maybe we should teach alcoholics Agda as rehab: http://i.imgur.com/njf59.png




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