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Levels of Enthusiasm

You ever notice how your level of enthusiasm can vary quite widely during various times of software development? It seems that I go through a number of phases that can vary quite drastically which also have a drastic effect on the quality and quantity of what I get done.

Here are some of my enthusiasm levels.

Inspired and Wired

This is that rare state when I have some bright eyed idea and I sit down think over the concept, kick out a design and start heads down coding to implement the code. For me this can be a fun project or some new idea how to solve an old problem more elegantly or more efficiently. When in this state I get totally immersed - I'm 'in the zone' and very little (short of going windsurfing maybe <g>) can get me out of it and even when something does I'm right back into it shortly after - distractions barely register. This state takes me over and while working I sometimes marvel in retrospect how I managed to get as much done as I did in a relatively short time span.

Everything else often becomes side lined or at least minimized to the bare essentials. Just get the 'obstructions' out of the way and then on with the wired task at hand. It can become highly addictive and I often barely notice that I've spent 12 hours plus at the keyboard.

This is the state everyone would love to be in in terms of creativity and just for the plain productivity it can afford. Living in the Now where that happens to be some abstract code project I'm working on. I write my best code here by a long shot and it usually comes out right the first time (which is not usually the case <g>).

But unfortunately - for me at least - this highly inspirational state happens only rarely. It usually occurs after some downtime or having been away from just heads down work for a while or when I'm in a "I've had enough of the day to day crap" mood. And off it goes.

Rat Race

By far the most common common state of enthusiasm for me is what I call the Rat Race. That sounds bad, but it really isn't. This a typical day where you deal with your day to coding tasks where you get a few new things done, but mostly deal with maintenance and refactoring tasks that are for the most part mundane. This typically involves dealing with support requests and fixing various bugs, and in the process cleaning up incidental code here and there plus possibly re-testing related scenarios.

This state sounds mundane - and it is - but it's clearly a necessary evil. This is what keeps everything moving smoothly and allows products to grow, keep customers happy. A lot gets done here too, but the growth and level of change is relatively slow and more predictable. The inspiration level is much lower, but this state can be maintained much more consistently and longer than the Inspired and Wired level.

Pressure Cooker

I'm sure most of you can identify with the Pressure Cooker. You have several deadlines looming and you're constantly thinking about how the hell you're going to get all the shit you're supposed to be getting done finished. I suppose I'm lucky in that I don't end up here very often and often when I do it's due to my own procrastination and putting things off until the last minute and then having to cram loooong days with work that isn't necessarily enjoyable.

Bad as all that sounds, the pressure cooker can often be conducive to getting a lot of work done. Unlike when you're inspired though the work is often forced and so the quality frequently - for me - is not as high. For code this often means several additional paths through to clean up code, refactor etc. But nevertheless, under pressure I can be pretty productive, and certainly more productive than under Rat Race conditions. Pressure tends to focus the mind and I don't end up wasting time on often unessential side project related tasks.

So in a way I'm more and more forcing myself into this situation on purpose with procrastination. How's that for an excuse? For certain things it actually pays to be under time pressure or doing things at the last minute. For example, for conference related stuff it's actually best to do things as closely before conferences as possible so it's fresh in my mind when time comes to present topics.

From an emotional level though the Pressure Cooker takes its toll in restlessness, difficulty of turning off and going to sleep and a few other stress related symptoms. Not good for the physical body for sure, but yet I end up here more frequently than I have to. I'm working on normalizing between Rat Race and Pressure Cooker.

In a Rut

sign to make some life changesIf there's been a prolonged time in the Pressure Cooker or there's been too much uninspired time continuously in the Rat Race I tend to get listless and end up having a hard time focusing on anything beyond the absolute necessary work in front of me. For coding this means I do almost only maintenance/refactoring work and if I do anything else it tends to be mechanical and often uninspired.

This by far my least productive state when I feel like I'm just going through the motions.

This state is often dangerous in that it can become very complacent for me. Since I work independently and often without any sort of deadlines it's easy to get stuck here and keep working on stuff that's not that important or worse yet get distracted while doing administrative work (email, looking up stuff, paying bills etc.) and getting off on a completely different tangent.

This is where I subliminally try to do anything to distract myself from work or get away from it. Take a lunch break for 2 hours, sit down and read a book instead of work, read an email click a Web link and research to the finest detail that CostCo ad that just arrived. You probably know it - complete distraction and no motivation at all to get back to work. The joy of it is gone.

For me this feeling comes on often when I have too many things to do and can't get excited about any of them. I end up working a little bit on everything, leaving the really difficult tasks for later and as a result getting very little done in the process.

Thankfully I don't end up in this state very often, but when it hits it's often not easy to get out of this rut.

Down Time

nadiamessage Every once in a while it's really necessary to take a step back and put on the brakes. Software development and coding are inspirational as much as they are technical and to me at least it has many characteristics of art. I don't think I'd be doing what I do if it wasn't to some degree of this aspect. I also play music and one thing I've long ago learned is to never play when I'm not in the right frame of mind. If I'm distracted and play it's frustrating and nothing good comes out (literally). To a large degree this is also true of coding.

When my inspirational level is down and I'm 'just going through the motions' I get very little done and while some of it is necessary and gets me by with what I have to do, it's inefficient in terms of time and effort. So it really pays to refresh the mental state and come back to a more active inspirational level where there's some excitement or at least enjoyment in the job at hand.

I tend to reach the burnout stage every two years or so I think and I tend to take a few months "off" and get away. Since I am independent that doesn't mean no work at all hiding at a mountain top in meditation (although that sounds like fun!), since I still have to take care of business. But it does mean cutting back on commitments and reducing the amount of have to do work explicitly.

I'm there right now - I've taken off the summer so to speak and am hanging out in Europe in part to get away from house and hearth. While I'm gone the work environment is such that it's not conducive to work which makes for more of an incentive NOT to work. And that's the idea. It's not necessarily to turn off completely, but to remove the stress and drive for a while to have time to shut down the mind and NOT think about code and architecture all the time. For me it's mostly about clearing the mind and getting away from thinking about code or architectual problems all the time and instead allow the mind to go off in different directions for a while.

Heck I shouldn't be here writing this I suppose <g>...

For me the effects of down time - or rather the time after down time - can be quite remarkable. I tend to get back to work refreshed, full of enthusiasm and more importantly fresh ideas. All of this translates into better quality of work and job satisfaction and generally it'll last another two years until the next total meltdown occurs that requires another down time.

What about you?

So where do you fit? Can you identify your levels of excitement for the work you do? Do you have a chance to get away and 'take a break' mentally even if it just means a lighter or different work load and more importantly does it help you?

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# re: Levels of Enthusiasm
by Andrew Rea June 03, 2008 @ 5:56am
I am definately in the Pressure Cooker at the present time. Trying to finish off work before a Holiday comes along in 1 weeks time. My girlfriend will not allow me to take the laptop away as she says I will not enjoy the holiday, true and untrue at the same time like, which means thousands of emails on my return. JOY!!

Oh Well. Hows the trip round Europe going?
# re: Levels of Enthusiasm
by Brian Vander Plaats June 03, 2008 @ 7:15am
What you say about being "in a rut" is very true. But I rarely hear about companies that really understand this fact. The standard 1-3 weeks most companies give is not enough when someone is in this state. What happens is that the person leaves (if money not an immediate issue), or continues on working far below their capacity. Both of these situations hurt the company, so why not do something about it and make everyone happy? If someone with a good service record of 3+ years is feeling perpetually unmotivated and possibly looking at leaving, why doesn't the company offer a 1-2 month holiday instead? If hiring programmers it will take at least that long to get through the first round of interviews. And the end result of that will be an unproven employee that you need to train all over again. The only possible benefit from an employer not allowing extended leave is the replacement of an underperforming employee (And if careful hires are made this should only be a small percentage of employees).

Obviously, this type of flexibility is a major plus of working independantly, but not everyone is cut out to do that. In fact there are many benefits to working for a company, but sadly this is not one of them.

I guess you could say I'm in a rut at the moment, so this hits a little closer to home (especially since I can't go to Europe for the summer :P)
# re: Levels of Enthusiasm
by Chris June 03, 2008 @ 7:17am
I get every one of those stages, having been through most of them once or twice (with the exception of the 'Downtime' phase - that means leaving a job! To be self employed :)

At the moment though - I fear I'm in the 'Rut' stage, 3 projects, all high priority, none of which is enticing me. Visual Basic 6 translating is NEVER gonna get me to 'Inspired and Wired'...
# re: Levels of Enthusiasm
by Luca June 03, 2008 @ 10:32am
Actually I think to be in "a rut" state...after beeing "inside" the pressure cooker for a while.

What I usually do is to trying to get into "Inspired and Wired" state as much as possible. For example: start new projects trying and experimenting the latest tecnology; stay tuned reading expert's blogs like this, and so on.

I've to admit that all of that above is quite stressful and I tend to reach a moment in which I need to get a Rick write...stop to thinking about code, architecture and such a things.

But that's another story...
(for example, now it's 7.30 pm and it would better to go home :) )
# Levels of Enthusiasm
by June 03, 2008 @ 11:15am
You've been kicked (a good thing) - Trackback from
# re: Levels of Enthusiasm
by Lee Brandt June 03, 2008 @ 11:59am
I think that these are all right on for me. The Pressure Cooker is usually the thing that pulls me out of The Rut. I get very little done, very little done and very little done. All of a sudden deadlines are looming an I go into Pressure Cooker mode. I code like my ass was on fire until the deadline (or after! *yikes*) and then I need Downtime. Like you, I am often at my most Wired and Inspired after this downtime. So I think it may be cyclical. A change in project/job can also create a Wired & Inspired mindset as well.

The question is, how can we create a "Wired and Inspired" midset most of the time?

# re: Levels of Enthusiasm
by Adam Kahtava June 03, 2008 @ 12:10pm
I'm somewhere between the "Rut" and the "Pressure Cooker". I'm looking forward to my "Down Time" which coincidentally, also seems to happen every two years.

Great post.
# re: Levels of Enthusiasm
by alberto June 03, 2008 @ 1:26pm
+1 on the pressure cooker here. Going gold in two days, but the only coding tasks I get to do lately are rat-race like, nothing inspiring, so I am really "not in the zone", but just getting stuff done and helping other people do it, too. It's really burning me up, both physically and psychically, but I am afraid I won't have the chance to get such downtime (except by changing jobs :-/ ).
# re: Levels of Enthusiasm
by Steve from Pleasant Hill June 03, 2008 @ 2:41pm
Somewhat akin to my enjoyment of ripping out old plants and things and putting in new, but detesting the maintenance gardening of clipping, raking, tossing.

I think it's important to, when in a rut, write down all the things you would rather be doing -- read a book, hike, walk, write your congress, start a new hobby, take a vacation to Hawaii -- oops, you live there -- so when you're in the rut you know what to dive into and don't feel that your whole life is tapping a keyboard. I think one has fewer 'small regrets' that way.

I'm getting around to it. Have had a goal for many years of learning a martial art, and finally at age 53 last year I started Hapkido. Next is ocean kayaking!
# re: Levels of Enthusiasm
by dean poulin June 03, 2008 @ 3:38pm
Rick, this is an excellent post! I've found myself in each of these states as well, and you hit every state on the head! I wonder what state most readers find themselves in. Would be an interesting statistic.
# re: Levels of Enthusiasm
by Mike Gale June 03, 2008 @ 6:54pm
Projects can go through more than one phase.

An interesting idea gets you riveted. You're in the zone (inspired and wired) and going great.

Then along comes maybe the third gotcha. Like a well known component that you thought did the job. It does, but so badly that you can't use it.

You press on but the life and light haver gone.

Committment of a type remains but work is in slump mode (your rut). It's hard to get started. You allow blogs to distract. Productivity is small. (i.e. the state that many people never seem to leave!)

One answer is to induce deadline pressure. (pressure cooker). Promise a completion time to somebody then feel obliged to make it happen.

Good article thanks.
# Levels of Enthusiasm
by Migo's COMSA Blog June 04, 2008 @ 3:35am
Levels of Enthusiasm
# re: Levels of Enthusiasm
by Guy Harwood June 04, 2008 @ 6:45am
i was thinking about this just the other day...

last month i had a full 2 weeks of "inspired & wired"
then a massive lull
then a week off (thank god!)
now its rat race!

excellent post
# re: Levels of Enthusiasm
by Ryan Haney June 04, 2008 @ 8:22am
Gee, I have absolutely no idea what you are talking about....this never happens to me!

Actually, I go through all of these stages at some point. I just came back from a week long vacation, and now I am wired and inspired :-).

Agreed....great post.
# re: Levels of Enthusiasm
by T-bone June 04, 2008 @ 11:00am
I’m in a rut BIG time. Been doing maintenance for over a year and the code I have been working is really bad.

I don’t see this changing unfortunately. Seriously think of going independant to keep things fresh because I really feel the skills getting rusty.

# re: Levels of Enthusiasm
by Victor Sergienko June 04, 2008 @ 1:34pm
In a rut now. And the whole 2 month till I can afford downtime - a vacation.

I believe these are quite common for our kind of job. More interesting question for me is - how long does the cycle take for different people? Looks like some can do full cycle in 3 weeks, some - several years.
# re: Levels of Enthusiasm
by Dave June 04, 2008 @ 6:16pm
In a rut of bad code - the company don't want to spend $ on fixing it properly - they just want it hacked with the least touch to get their crazy ideas implemented
# re: Levels of Enthusiasm
by Glyn June 05, 2008 @ 6:55am
In a rut here... that's why I am browsing this website - putting off the inevitable work I have to do :-)
# re: Levels of Enthusiasm
by Rick Strahl June 05, 2008 @ 7:08am
@Victor - the cycle time can vary I suspect on the type of projects people do. I'd expect when you start a new project - long term or short - you don't start off in a rut. That comes later.

What I'd be interested in is how people keep themselves excited on long term projects.

I have several tool that are going on 15 years old and excitement can be had by either refactoring some old code to make it much more elegant or performant, or by reducing code bases significantly. New features as well, but it's getting harder in old tools.
# re: Levels of Enthusiasm
by Russ Brown June 05, 2008 @ 7:16am
I keep the enthusiam up by juggling many different projects at work and outside of work.

I go out of the way to learn something new every day and make sure it isn't all work related. Right now I'm learning Mandarin Chinese just for the challenge and fun of it, for example. I also try to learn a little bit about a lot of programming related stuff I don't get a chance to work with on the job (Python, Ruby on Rails, jQuery for example).

I use your HTML Help Builder and will soon start using some other products of yours as soon as I can find the time.

It would be great if you could put some pictures of on your website or in your blog - I can't ever see me going to Europe for quite awhile with a wife and 3 girls to worry about raising.

Also, are you thinking about writing any books to sell on Hentzenwerke's site or anywhere else?
# re: Levels of Enthusiasm
by James June 05, 2008 @ 10:28am
Where do your travels in Europe take you?

You should tell us more about how you are achieving down time on your vacation.
# re: Levels of Enthusiasm
by William Plander June 05, 2008 @ 11:18am
rat races are cool......if you're a cat
# re: Levels of Enthusiasm
by Vasim June 05, 2008 @ 6:34pm
Yup, I go through all stages, I too am an independent, however currently I am stuck in the Rut! and this is even after a 2 week vacation that I took in Europe (Prague, Czech Republic).

The Rut started about 1.5 years ago, when I worked on projects that I thought should have been done by more than one person; I am still working on that project!

I am still looking for a way to get out of it :(

Great post :)
# Weekly Web Nuggets #15
by Code Monkey Labs June 06, 2008 @ 11:46am

General The Design Is Never Right The First Time : This is hands down the best reason why an iterative approach to software development is the way to go...get something working in front of the decision makers early and often. Phil Haack presents an example from the development of ASP.NET MVC. Levels...

# re: Levels of Enthusiasm
by Milo June 09, 2008 @ 12:53am
Inspired and wired, is like a drug, beer-chocolate and cheese cake all in one. I've been on that ride for a few years, with a "make it happen NOW" .com company. Of course the balance is being corrected now.. :(

Hope your considering visiting Wales.
# re: Levels of Enthusiasm
by Ben June 09, 2008 @ 10:37pm
Rick - Glad to hear you're taking some time off, but does that mean no Hood? We missed you in Maui also -- had some good wavesailing. I'm recharging by working 1/2 days in Maui and this summer. It's super windy (and cold) in HR right now. Arlington has been firing with *big* swell. We're back in Maui for Oct. Hope to see you on the water soon...
# re: Levels of Enthusiasm
by Charles June 10, 2008 @ 2:16pm
I notice that my levels have a very regular order. There has to be something causing them. But what? Does anyone here notice thier levels syncing with other outside experience? Do things like food, excercise, rest, season, sunlight exposure, etc. push you one way or another? For me, rest and sunlight are definite boosters. Do you guys know of anything else that helps? Sex?
# Levels of Enthusiasm
by cutting June 16, 2008 @ 3:40pm
Bookmarked your post over at Blog!
# re: Levels of Enthusiasm
by Dean Radcliffe June 16, 2008 @ 5:05pm
"Since I am independent that doesn't mean no work at all" - this is the one that jumped out at me, though your whole article really helped me not feel so alone in my current (and deepest yet) burnout stage.

I won't get too into all the things that facilitate burnout in a coding career, just that without constant challenges - which clients invariably are never kind enough to consider OUR need for (lol) - it can come on really fast in this career.

You were writing about linq-to-sql - you burned out (no causal chain implied) - then you studied jQuery. I was burning out on CMS's including SharePoint - so started teaching myself Ruby on Rails !! It's funny how we shift paradigms, yet stay within our general career area.

Thanks for the post Rick, <g> Dean
# re: Levels of Enthusiasm
by Andrew D August 01, 2008 @ 1:22am
That is right on the money squire.
# Weekly Web Nuggets #15
by Code Monkey Labs February 22, 2009 @ 7:48pm

General The Design Is Never Right The First Time : This is hands down the best reason why an iterative approach to software development is the way to go...get something working in front of the decision makers early and often. Phil Haack presents an example from the development of ASP.NET MVC. Levels...

# re: Levels of Enthusiasm
by Sumanth Kumar February 22, 2013 @ 12:38pm
I am sometimes in a state very similar to Inspired and Wired, but this state is sandwiched between that and Rat Race. It usually starts with being in the Rat Race state, where I have ample time to fix relatively easy bugs and other housekeeping tasks, but I am dragging my feet. Then suddenly a bright new idea or project appears on the horizon. So now I am in an Inspired and Wired state to finish the tasks in the Rat Race state in order to get to the real Inspired and Wired state.

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