When you find that you are getting overwhelmed, or you think that you are literally reaching for the end of your rope, do you find yourself doing something, anything, that might be seen as an escape hatch? What I mean is, what do you do when you need mental clarity, or you need to get a break, but still need to be "on"?
I've been thinking about this and seeing some patterns in what I do. If I want to be mentally sharp, and I want to tackle a big problem, I wake up super early (any time between 3:00 AM and 7:00 AM) and I can focus like nobody's business. The problem is, I don't always have the luxury of tackling a problem at that time. I may need to meet a deadline that expires earlier than that, during regular business hours, or before bedtime, or some other time that I cannot really move. In this instance, I do something that's somewhat OCD... I clean. Anything! Whatever is near me to be cleaned, organized, collated, tabulated, whatever.
Why do I do this? I'm not entirely sure, except to say that I know I've done it for a long time. When I went back to school the first time in the late 90's, my wife would joke that she knew when finals were looming... because the house was never so clean as it was the week before finals. I think the reason I do this is because it's a somewhat mindless diversion, but it's something that lets me feel like I'm being productive at something. But why cleaning? I think it has a lot to do with when I was performing as a musician. My day job during those years, before I got a real adult type job, was as a house cleaner. Often, I'd find myself working out the biggest problems I was considering related to music (songs I was writing, lyrics I was struggling with, marketing decisions we had to make, showcases we needed to book, etc.) and all of these things I would consider, ponder, and take notes about (either talking into a little micro cassette recorder or jotting down notes) while I was cleaning houses. In some ways I think I imprinted this behavior, and action, as a way to let my body and mind run in neutral while my deeper thinking was allowed to explore ideas and consider creative options.
I am perfectly willing to believe that I might be crazy, or that this is truly an OCD type behavior. Still, the more I talk with other testers or developers, and other creative types, I think this is more common than many people let on. Maybe it's going to the gym. Maybe it's taking a long walk. Maybe it's jumping in the shower or while they are shaving. Regardless of the activity, I think many of us do need that physical diversion, something we can do at a low level physical exertion. This way, we can fuel the brain to do its deepest thinking. Do you fit this category? If so, what do you do when you find yourself staring down a big challenge? What's your "mental reset"?
My mental reset is to hit the road on my bike. I usually find that at some point, my wheels are spinning, but my mind even more. As my body gets tired, the issues worked out and the endorphins flowing, I am left at the end of the spin with a clear mind, decisions taken, plans made and a smile on my face.
And I thought I was the only one...
When I need a mental recharge, I find something to do that is physical, with a minimum of brainpower required.
A long brisk walk works well for me in good weather. In bad weather, it might be an hour on the elliptical machine if I'm home, or even cleaning up any clutter in my office if I'm at work.
I too look for a physical activity, sometimes it's a long walk (preferred), sometime a good workout, sometimes fixing something around the house (there always seems to be something broken)
The week after 9/11 I cleaned everything in the house. Same after a death in the family. Cleaning is how I worked out being upset. This is a relatively well-studied phenomenon called "nesting". When I need to think something through I will often do chores such as weeding, raking, or mowing. It feels a little different than the cleaning, which was truly unnecessary.
You know what this reminded me of? Gever Tulley's TED talk about tinkering school - where he comments that when the kids get stuck on a problem when they're building something, they switch to decorating for a while instead. Then they go back to the problem, fix stuff, and carry on.
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