Are you doing okay out there? I hope that you’re well and not running yourself thin with all the craziness still going on. Sometimes it seems like we can’t catch a break and that work and everything keep us going all the time. In fact, that specific feeling and the resulting drive around it is what I wanted to talk about today.
People have drive. We want to be better. We want to learn and grow and change. Whether it’s getting a faster time running a 5K or learning new skills to help our career along. Humans can do amazing things given the right motivation and resource availability. I know because I taught myself a semester of macroeconomics in a Waffle House the night before the final exam. Sure, I was groggy and crashed for a 10-hour nap after the final but I did pass!
It’s that kind of ability to push ourselves past our limits that both defines us and threatens to destroy us. I’m a huge fan of reading and fiction. Growing up I latched on to the Battletech novels, especially those written by Michael A. Stackpole. In his book Lost Destiny there is a great discussion about honing your skills and what it may end up costing you:
Were we to proceed, it would be the battle of the knife against the grindstone. Yes, we would get sharper, we would win great victories, but in the end, we would be ground away to nothing.
Running in Place
That quote hit home for me during my CCIE lab attempt training. I spent my free time after work labbing everything I could get my hands on. I would log on about 8pm every night after my eldest went to sleep and lab until midnight. Every night was the same chore. No time for television or reading anything other than a Cisco Press book. Instead, I drilled until I could provision EtherChannels in my sleep and could redistribute routes without a second thought in four different ways. I felt like I was getting so much accomplished!
I also felt tired all the time. I had no outlet to relax. I spent every waking minute of my free time focused on sharpening my skills. As above, you could practically hear the edge of the knife on the grindstone. I was razor-focused on completing this task. As I learned later in life, the joys of hyper focus in ADHD had a lot to do with that.
It wasn’t until I got through my lab that the true measure of this honing process hit home. I spent the weekend after my attempt hanging out with some friends away from technology and the whole time I felt unsettled. I watched horrible movies on the Sci-Fi channel and couldn’t get comfortable. I was antsy and wound up, even though I’d just completed a huge milestone! It wasn’t until about a week later that I was finally able to put a name to this anxiety. I listened to the little voice in my head repeating over and over again in my downtime: “You really should be studying something right now.”
I was in search of my next grindstone. My knife was sharp, but I knew it could be sharper still with the next certification or piece of knowledge. It took me a while before I could quiet that voice and focus on restoring some semblance of my life as I had known it before my lab attempts. Even now there are times when I feel like I should be studying or writing or creating something instead of unwinding with a book or a camping trip to the woods.
The rush of dopamine that we get from learning new things or performing skills to perfection cannot be understated. It makes us feel good. It makes us want to keep doing it to continue that stream of good feelings. We could focus on it to the detriment of our other hobbies or our social lives. And that was in the time before when we could go out whenever we wanted! In the current state of the pandemic it’s easy to get wrapped up in something without the ability to force yourself to walk away from it, as anyone with a half-filled room full of a new hobby can tell you.
Setting Goals with Limits
What’s the solution then? Do we just keep grinding away until there’s nothing left? Do we become the best left-handed underwater basket weaver that has ever existed? Do we keep forcing ourselves to run the same video game level over and over again until we’re perfect, even if that means not getting out of our house for weeks at a time? Can we do something repeatedly until we are destroyed by it?
The key is to set goals but to make them in such a way as to set limits on them. We do this all the time in the opposite direction. When we have a task we don’t like to do we force ourselves to do it for a set amount of time. Maybe it’s an hour of reconciling the checkbook or thirty minutes of exercise. But if it’s something you enjoy you have to set limits on it as well to avoid that burnout.
Find something you really like to do, such as reading a book. However, instead of devouring that book until it’s finished in one sitting and staying up until 4am to finish it, set an alarm to cut yourself off after an hour or two. Be honest with yourself. When the alarm goes off, stop reading and do something else. You could even pair it with a task you like less to use the little dopamine boost to help you through your other activity.
It’s not fun to stop doing something we like doing even when it’s something that is going to make us a better person or better employee. However, you’ll soon see that having that extra time to reinforce what you’ve learned or collect your thoughts does more for you that just binging something until you’re completely exhausted by it.
Remember when TV shows came out weekly? We had to wait until next Thursday for the new episode? Remember how much you looked forward to that day? Or maybe even the return of the new season in the fall? That kind of anticipation helps motivate you. Being able to consume all the content in one sitting for 8-10 hours leaves you feeling great at first. Later, when your dopamine goes back to normal you’re going to feel down. You’ll also realize you can’t get the same hit again because you have consumed your current resource of it. By limiting what you can do at one time you’re going to find that you can keep that great feeling going without burning yourself out.
Yes, this does absolutely apply to studying for things. Your brain needs time to lock in the knowledge. If you’ve ever tried to memorize something you know that you need to spend time thinking of something else and come back to that item before you really learn it. The only thing that transfers knowledge from short-term memory to long-term memory is time. There are no shortcuts. And the more you press the edge of the knife agains the stone the more you lose in the long run because the available resources are just gone.
I’m not qualified to delve into the psychoanalysis part of all this stuff. I just know how it works for me because that’s who I am. I can shut out the world and plow through something for hours at a time if I want. I’ve done it many times in my career with both work and personal tasks. But it’s taken a long time for me to finally realize that sprinting like that for extended periods of time will eventually wear you away to nothing. Even the best runners in the world need to rest. Even the smartest people in the industry need to not think about things for a while. You do too. Take some time today or tomorrow or even next week to set goals and limits for yourself. You’ll find that you enjoy the things you do and learn more with those limits in place and you’ll wind up a happier, healthier person. You’ll be sharp and ready instead of a pile of dust under the grindstone.