A few weeks ago Douglas Gregor wrote to me to ask:
How does someone break out of a dry spell? How do you remain focused on things? I'm sure you have many things going on simultaneously, so do they raise and fall in priority? How does work affect your focus? Is work a downer or an upper? I need to figure out how to break out of the funk. Do you have any hobbies other than computers? Where can I find smart people who want to do amazing things? Do they still exist out there?I've been feeling in a dry spell myself for a couple of months, but I might be coming out of it, so I thought I might try answering a few of these questions.
How does someone break out of a dry spell?
I wish I knew a reliable, predictable way to do that. It may be that you just have to wait it out. It is frustrating, but these things happen. On the other hand, dry spells do eventually end. I try these tricks:
- Relax — worrying and fretting just make it seem longer.
- Have some mindless, non-intellectual fun. I'll watch television or play some video games. The activity is distracting enough so that I'm not thinking about the dry spell, but not so engaging that I'm not thinking at all. It lets my mind wander a bit.
- Sometimes it isn't really a dry spell. There's something you want to do but you can't justify the effort or the reason. You want to redesign the entire system, but your assigned task is to fix 5 high-priority stupid bugs. Be irresponsible. Start the system redesign. A brand new system won't have those bugs, right?
- Revisit a fun project from the past. I love Lisp machines and operating systems and I know I have fun with them. When I'm trying to think of something to get my creative juices flowing I aim my thoughts in this direction.
- Work on something completely outside your field. I went down to the local community access television station, learned how to make and edit some video, and made a few music videos for local bands several years back. You can find interesting ways to think about things by looking at how people solve problems unrelated to computing. (You'll also find some amazingly obvious applications for simple computer programs that no one has noticed before.)
- Go out and meet people. A few of the regulars that hang at the pub that I frequent are building a dirigible. I'm not entirely convinced that this is a good idea, but it is an interesting one.
- Do something wacky. Whether it succeeds or fails, you'll get a good story out of it.
How do you remain focused on things?
I really don't. If it's a hard or interesting problem, then I tend to obsess on it until I get it. If it is a boring problem, then it depends. If it isn't too tedious, I just do it. If it is more than a little tedious, then I try to get my computer to do it. If it is tedious, boring, and not amenable to a software solution, well, I might just lame out or blow it off. If possible, I'd delegate it to someone who found it more interesting. I've never been able to force myself to focus, though.
I'm sure you have many things going on simultaneously, so do they raise and fall in priority?
All the time.
How does work affect your focus? Is work a downer or an upper?
That depends, too. For me, work has to be an upper. This isn't a ‘lifestyle choice’; it's a simple observation. When I'm working on something interesting and challenging I'll put in hours of overtime and drive the project forward. When it's uninteresting I'll either get pissed off and quit or get fired within a few months. But I've also found that whether work is interesting or not depends a fair amount (but not completely!) on whether you can find the interesting parts of it. Recently I was working on a rather mundane problem of estimating market penetration of a particular product. It's relatively easy to get the Forrester or Gartner report on such things, but is there any way to verify the accuracy via an independent measurement? It turns out that if you have access to certain statistics about the web, you can do some analysis to find the right information. The statistics were plentiful, but the analysis was intractable, so I had to learn how to manipulate the data and extract the answers to the questions I had. Market research: boring. Data mining: really interesting!
Do you have any hobbies other than computers?
Film and cinema, reading, history, skiing, blacksmithing, people watching, and hanging at the pub and talking.
Where can I find smart people who want to do amazing things? Do they still exist out there?
They do! But you might have to go looking. A bigger city is going to have a lot more possibility than a smaller town (even in this day where everyone is on line). Boston and San Francisco are just overflowing with a number of smart people doing all sorts of crazy things. Go to a conference or submit a paper. I meet a lot of interesting people that way. Be a bit eccentric and attract interesting people.
Ob scheme/lisp: I'm working on a problem that I don't quite understand yet, so this is a good opportunity to blog about it. I should have an upcoming post in a bit.