Beyond the Storm

Image by Dieter_G from Pixabay

The 5th of June 2020 bore similarities, for me, to the 29th of June 2016, the 6th of October 2015 and the 4th of January 2012. What is common between these dates is that they are the days just after a large – or as is the case with the most recent instance – intense project or series of projects were completed (the first and third were work related; the second was MCMAS-Dynamic, and the fourth was my full-time national service in Singapore). The final stages of these projects usually involve blatantly unsustainable working practices in the pursuit of excellence, quality, and/or tying up all loose ends. Interestingly, all but the most recent instance were tied to hard timelines of some kind.

It might seem like finishing a large or intense project would be a cause for celebration. That’s certainly true, both because of the extrinsic value of a project (performance improvements, new features, research contributions, or even some peace of mind) as well as the intrinsic sense of accomplishment from having completed (or at least survived) it. However, I find that there’s also a degree of emptiness that tends to grow in the few days after. The projects were inherently challenging and would have taken a large amount of my time, especially when considered in terms of the fraction of my hours they’d take up in their final weeks. There is also often a more significant amount of mental bandwidth and fortitude required for these projects to be successfully completed. Thus, when they’re finished, there’s going to invariably be a large disruption to the routine I’d have had in the days leading up to completion. While my attitude towards downtime and rest periods has grown into a more defensive and I think healthier position over time (so that I’m not immediately thinking “what’s the next productive thing to focus on?”), they can still only last for so long before a fear of laziness and indolence creeps back in, and I need to determine what I should look at next.

This would lead us to one possible strategy for dealing with these down periods: always having something lined up. This was serendipitously true in the 2015 instance; that day, a Friday, was my final day as a Palantir intern, and I began my final year of university on the Monday, with a fresh set of difficult modules and the beginning of MCMAS-Dynamic. We were required to take seven modules across the two terms, and I decided to front-load my modules. There was definitely a drop in intensity from the first week of October to the second, but it was relatively small. I’d say of the four instances here, this was the one that affected me the least. This is on a much smaller scale, but I didn’t feel any downtime after taking or passing the A1 Goethe-Institut exam because I knew I wanted to learn German to at least a B2 standard. I can often get overly focused on the task at hand to the exclusion of this. Pre-planning may not always be possible or optimal, as well: especially at work project selection is more often driven by business requirements and telemetry with a dose of intuition, which can change rapidly. Nonetheless, I think this is a good strategy especially for personal projects.

There is a natural extension of the above: if one maintains a portfolio of parallel projects, then finishing a large project would have less of an impact. This sounds good in theory, but I am slightly skeptical, mainly because in my experience these projects demand so much attention and time especially in their tail that there is often little productive capacity left to look at others. Furthermore, these “surges” in demand at the end often result in an elevated level of work that needs to be paused to maintain one’s sanity. In a sense, although I don’t particularly like the down periods, they are important and necessary (incidentally I’m strongly reminded of a phrase I’ve learnt in German class: wichtig und notwendig). Also, if one prioritises some (possibly one) of these projects substantially more highly than the others, it can be difficult to find the motivation to work on the lower-priority projects while there is still productive work that can be done on the important ones. I do do this for personal projects (maintaining friendships, learning German, competitive puzzles, writing and personal finance all run in parallel), but these are rarely the ones which call for massive, aggressive surges. (I won’t say that there weren’t any, though: the end of uni was where I focused on the first, and around the change of the tax year I do sometimes need to look at the fifth.)

An alternative approach is to avoid these last-minute pushes to reduce the delta between an intense final surge and not having the project at all. This is plausible, though I’m not certain the last-minute pushes are always avoidable, or for that matter a bad thing. A large amount of the stress in the 2016 instance was because with two weeks left, my supervisor Prof. Alessio Lomuscio and I decided to begin formally attacking LDLK on finite traces; the end would have been fairly relaxed if we didn’t do that, I’m happy I did it, though: this was an interesting (and publishable!) part of the investigation. In the 2020 instance, the deadlines were synthetic but getting those projects done quickly was important to reduce the amount of concurrent context I needed to track.

In summary, I’ve become more used to down periods after intense stretches of work and/or large projects are delivered; I think these are to some extent necessary even though I don’t find them particularly enjoyable. Making an effort to have something else planned, and/or working on multiple projects in parallel, where possible is usually helpful. Though these aren’t always possible, and in some cases if rigidly adhered to might limit the complexity of projects that one can successfully undertake. These down periods can be unpleasant, but I don’t think changing one’s projects is necessarily worth that tradeoff.

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