Software, Community, Dogs, and Chocolate Cake

We've all been given projects to build something that—while it makes all the difference in the world to whomever is paying us—we could not possibly care less about. And yet, we do it, because, well, we gotta get paid. At the end of the day though, we're drained. We can't be bothered with user groups, can't be bothered with training, can't be bothered with anything extra. You get home, eat dinner, and crash.

Other times, we have a project we're excited about. Whether it's the technology, the project, or the people we're building it for, something about it has us motivated, and knocking it out all day every day is easy as pie. At the end of the day, you still have plenty of energy to hit that user group, stop by that meetup, or dig into that new bit of technology after dinner. You might be tired physically, but mentally, you're ready to go.

Did you ever stop to think why that is? Why some times you're able to get it all done, and sometimes you feel like you're stuck in molasses? Well, it turns out in those down days you're double-dipping into the same resource pool in your brain, and by the end of the day, it's no wonder the best you can do is collapse in the easy chair and watch whatever godforsaken reality TV show is on. The fact is, cognitive ability and willpower are both drawn from the same pool. If you've using up all your willpower to just sit there and do the work, there's precious little left to do the actual cognitive heavy-lifting to get that work done.

Don't believe me? Here's an example recently brought to bear by Kathy Sierra:

In 1999, Professor Baba Shiv (currently at Stanford) and his co-author Alex Fedorikhin did a simple experiment on 165 grad students.They asked half to memorize a seven-digit number and the other half to memorize a two-digit number. After completing the memorization task, participants were told the experiment was over, and then offered a snack choice of either chocolate cake or a fruit bowl. The participants who memorized the seven-digit number were nearly 50% more likely than the other group to choose cake over fruit. Researchers were astonished by a pile of experiments that led to one bizarre conclusion: Willpower and cognitive processing draw from the same pool of resources. Spend hours at work on a tricky design problem? You’re more likely to stop at Burger King on the drive home. Hold back from saying what you really think during one of those long-ass, painful meetings? You’ll struggle with the code you write later that day. Since both willpower/self-control and cognitive tasks drain the same tank, deplete it over here, pay the price over there. One pool.  One pool of scarce, precious, easily-depleted resources. If you spend the day exercising self-control (angry customers, clueless co-workers), by the time you get home your cog resource tank is flashing E. The tank is empty. And even if you loved solving tough puzzles at work, the drain on your self-control still happens. One pool. Whether the drain was from something you love or hate doesn't matter.

Cognitive resource tank don’t care.

You snap at the kids or dog over the tiniest thing.

– Kathy Sierra, "Your app makes me fat"

That's just those students, though, right? Because their brains are already caught up in class work, projects, yada yada yada. Well, it's also your dog. Back to Kathy:

An experiment asked one group of dogs to sit, just sit, nothing else, for a few minutes before being released to play with their favorite treat “puzzle” toy (the ones where the dog has to work at getting the treats out of it). The other group of dogs were allowed to just hang out in their crates before getting the treat puzzle. You know where this goes: the dogs that had to sit — exercising self-control — gave up on the puzzle much earlier than the dogs that were just hanging out in their crate.The dogs that were NOT burning cognitive resources being obedient had more determination and mental/emotional energy for solving the puzzle. Think about that next time you ask Sparky to be patient. His cognitive resources are easily-depleted too.

– Kathy Sierra, "Your app makes me fat"

Even though I'm sure if read this somewhere else recently about willpower, Kathy's article landing yesterday, immediately after I'd finished something very fulfilling while at the same time being stuck in a project that sucks away my very will to live at every turn, hit me at such a nexus of circumstance that everything about my current situation just fell into place.

Most of the time for a few years now, I've been able to find plenty of time and energy to present at community conferences, run a user group, run SharePoint Saturday NYC (SPSNYC), and do so to the best of my ability. In the last couple months though, it's taken a consider amount of effort (read: non-zero) to sit down and get my SPSNYC tasks done. I wanted to do the work, I enjoyed the work, but getting over that hump of getting started was harder than it ever was. In addition, my user group became a thing I had to do, external circumstances and lethargy kept me from attending most east coast  SharePoint Saturdays this year, and I was starting to wonder if I was just burning out on the whole community thing. This bummed me out in a serious way.

At the same time, my day job has been crashing into a brick wall, backing up, and crashing again over and over, and I've been left feeling like I was trapped between that project and the wall. Of course, since this is how I pay the bills, there was no quitting. So day after day, weekend after weekend, I worked long hours wrestling with the technology to please, for the love of god, just do what it's supposed to do. The work was incredibly mentally taxing, but the willpower required to do that work was through the proverbial roof.

Combine that with the mountain of work that it takes to lead the effort to put on SharePoint Saturday NYC, and it's no small wonder that the day before I had to leave for NYC to get the event rolling, I sat on my couch having just eaten dinner, and experienced an odd feeling. I wasn't physically tired, I wasn't mentally tired, I was, as I said to a friend this past weekend, just completely out of fucks left to give. My give a damn was pegged at 0. My supply of willpower was GONE. It's possible that I'd also used up some hidden emergency supply too, because I'd never cared less about everything all at once like that.

However now, 4 days later, I can see how the pieces fit together. I can see how they interact. I can see the outcomes generated when mixed in different ways. I believe I'll be able to use this knowledge going forward to help guide how I do not just my community work but my paid work as well, to the betterment of both.

My hope, if you've bothered to read this far, is that you will too. Even better, that you'll be able to newly find time to attend those user groups, attend those weekend community events, and check out those Meetups, because once you do, you'll never look back.

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