James Riley bio photo

James Riley

Ruby, Javascript and Friends. Part of the SupaDupa team. Living a life of learning. Join me.


“it’s dangerous to go alone, take this…”

It’s 2017. Having read the thoughts and reflections of others over the downtime of the Christmas break - I took a moment to ponder on what lessons I’ve learnt. To ruminate over what nugget of wisdom I would pass down to my younger self. Admittedly, this post is just as much a note for the ‘me’ of three months from now, who will no doubt find himself deep in the trenches, only coming up for air for a sip of butter coffee before diving back under.

The lesson is this: You are not a robot.

Thanks for reading.

I’ll explain. My life as a web developer at many periods has been a loop of early starts, late nights, with the hours in between filled with study or work. I love what I do. It gives me a huge sense of purpose. I live for the pursuit of excellence in my craft, and positive impact of the projects I put my time to - to the extent that all too often it consumes me, to the detriment of other areas of my life. Through trial and error, I’ve come to appreciate the need for balance, and crucially, the impact to which is affects my productivity, enabling me to achieve more over the same period even if judged solely on my technical output.

Let’s say you have a hugely important deadline due 4 hours from now, that demands every second till then to reach. It would be foolish to decide to have a workout in that time, or pick up a novel - and you would be forgiven for opting for fast food as to not lose a single minute. But what if the deadline was two weeks away? Perhaps even six months? And what if we are not talking about a deadline, but a career or company milestone, that has no fixed date other than ‘as soon as possible’. We’re dealing with a marathon, but often treat it as a sprint.

You are not a robot, you are not a creature of logic, but an unstable ball of emotions. Your output as a programmer is not a result of the number of hours put in. It’s a creative endeavour, and your growth and efficiency is largely dependent on the state of how ‘on form’ you are.

What does it mean to be on form? Well, you probably know well what being ‘off form’ feels like. You know what it’s like to suffer from a lack of sleep, or be hungover, or unwell. Motivation is low, energy is lacking, you’re stubborn with your creative decisions, attention span is short. Being ‘on form’, to me is the opposite - it’s a feeling of confidence, of high energy, drive and youthful exhuberance. Where answers come easily, mood is heightened, where you’re able to work smart, and hard and find yourself on a seemingly endless upward spiral.

How do you get on form? I feel it comes down to two key categories: your health and your interests, with there being overlap between the two. That means, your physical and mental health, and your passions. I may delve into this in later posts, but some questions to ask yourself: Do you work out frequently? Are you eating healthily? Are you getting enough rest? Do you socialise often? Have you made fun plans for the months ahead? Do you often make time for friends and family? Do you meditate? Do you pursue other interests?

If your mental or physical health is suffering, you cannot make up for the drop in efficiency by coding away for longer periods. This is like taking out a high interest loan, and putting it all into a low-interest savings account. And yet you do not need to be ‘unwell’ for your health to be holding you back. If you answered ‘no’ to most of the questions above, then you may find that at the very least, it’s taken the edge off of you - and is reducing your productivity just enough to the point where you are barely managing to stay afloat, as opposed to thriving. That being, you are not on form.

Tim Ferris, author and entrepreneur, has spoken of the need to ‘diversify your identity’ - the idea that you should not put all your eggs in one basket. Doing so, ties your emotional wellbeing to that one focus - and if matters aren’t going your way or you encounter a temporary set back, perhaps from factors outside of your control - then it can take a severe toll on your happiness, confidence and self-esteem. Give yourself multiple avenues for progression and ‘wins’ throughout the week.

I’ve increasingly come to the realisation that your technical skill is only half of the value you bring to a project or company. I have a love for the craft, but to some extent, the skill is a tool to help fulfil the aims of the project you are currently working on. Your product is built with other people, your team, for other people - your users. This requires you to leave the tech bubble, and put just as much work into yourself as a person. Take a moment to consider what will best prepare you for forming key relationships, understanding the bigger picture, and the people who’s needs you are aiming to fulfil. Frequently venture outside, spend more time learning that instrument, read up on seemingly unrelated topics that interest you, work on your physical fitness, see more of friends and family, and take care of your mental health. As a programmer, I’ve found being an obsessive thinker to be helpful when channelled, but damaging if left unsupervised.

I’ve found time and time again, that neglecting my health and other interests, will only begin to show a negative effect a few days down the line, and gradually decline over weeks. So you initially fool yourself into thinking that you can pour more time into work and further heighten your output, without any downsides. But sooner or later it catches up with you. You suffer from lazy afternoons, unproductive mornings, and a growing acknowledgement that you’re not at your best. Till you hit a wall. You then work to address the matter, to get back on form… then the cycle repeats. Or you go on indefinitely, operating far from your potential. The transition between being at your best, compared to the you who is coasting along, is so gradual that you may not see it coming, or even know it’s happening. If you are serious about wanting to achieve a high state of productivity - then you will achieve more by being on form and being disciplined with regards to balance in your life.

Admittedly, my ‘monkey mind’ would occasionally feel a sense of guilt at times when doing anything but coding. The idea of doing less of something, in order to better the results appears counter-intuitive, and yet it’s crucial in order to do so. Life is short, the future is unpredictable, you may not even be a programmer five years from now. There are no right answers on how to live. You’d be forgiven for thinking short term. But take a moment to reflect. Take control of your time. Battle for balance. You owe it to yourself.