Coffee Behavioural TherapyJan 2013 5 minute read
Always have more than one hobby.
Getting paid to do your hobby is usually seen as a brilliant thing but life’s seldom that straightforward - grow tired of your work and there’s not much left to take its place. Putting myself through university while holding down a full-time job, I took the conscious decision to let work, study and hobby to overlap - seemed like a great idea at the time - but towards the end of the year I’d started to lose interest. It was subtle at first but slowly and surely it progressed to the stage where there was no pleasure to be wrung from the process, not the micro-achievements of problem-solving along the way, the eventual completion of a long-term aim or even, towards the end of the sequence, any kind of thinking or reading about work-related stuff at all. I didn’t care, couldn’t care and a good day was one where I could get by on autopilot. I wasn’t really sleeping and I hadn’t let my laptop shut down in months in case I “lost my place” and couldn’t work out how to get all the editor windows and browser tabs open again. Burnout.
This isn’t my first time: previously I’d had times where I’d complete a project I’d been completely wrapped up in and then slumped, overwhelmed by something like regret, and even a sense of loss, that the interesting thing has gone away. The “yay, finished!” buzz evaporated in a microsecond; a bit like reaching the end of a really good book - sure you found out what happened but your brain doesn’t get to hang out with its new imaginary friends anymore, boo. But this time was different, it was about more than just a single project and wasn’t going to be brushed aside by a new shiny - a new book/project/puzzle to play with. I was stuck.
I should say at this point that my boss noticed - possibly before I did - where this was going and suggested applying the brakes. But I’m no good with brakes - lack of practice? - and couldn’t stand the thought of putting a thing down unfinished (for the sake of the thing, probably just as well as returning to it would have been beyond difficult although I have been reminded that “the thing” is the least important issue at stake here). With the benefit of hindsight, I dread to think when this actually started - it could have been a contributing factor to me getting sick at the beginning of last year.
An unlikely solution
A coder who can’t code anymore; a problem solver whose brain keeps dropping the puzzle it’s supposed to be turning over to see what it looks like from different angles, like a misfiring flint lighter that refuses to catch. Hmmm.
Turns out that learning how to pull a decent espresso shot is a lot like writing good code:
- there’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes
- you have to be prepared to throw your early efforts away - repeatedly - until you end up with something you’re happy with
- knowing when to stop for a bit is healthy (cup of tea anyone?)
- it really helps to be able to hold the problem in your mind and gently obsess over “how can I tweak the process to fix the problem I’m currently encountering?”
Eureka! I’ve managed to trick my brain into thinking in that way again by learning how to use my espresso machine. It looks simple enough but there’s a lot more to it, my hands are kept busy with the mechanics while my brain tries to spin up and I get to wander away with a coffee-like substance to drink while I obsess gently over the details.
The top pro baristas can rest easy but I have achieved drinkable espresso. And my brain’s starting to wake up again (and not just because of the caffeine hit). The internet’s perfect for this - advice on how to fix a bitter brew or the science behind getting the water to flow evenly (or not) through the ground coffee is just a quick search away and sourcing great beans and new accessory toys is a doddle. Oh and if you want to join me, buy one of these if you’re into espresso, makes things so much easier - and quieter - when it comes to dealing with the spent grounds and cleans up like new in the top rack of the dishwasher.
I’m still working through it. I’m not about to be thrown straight back in the deep end at work (in fact I’m probably banned from the deep end for the time being), as long as I stay in touch I’m being allowed to report from the paddling pool; my colleagues know me well enough to realise that my low boredom threshold will have me back up and running as soon as I’m able to. I have good people around me who are somehow putting up with my short fuse and tendency to snap for no good reason. And when I mess up, I can always make it up to them with a half-decent coffee (or at least a share of the beans).