During my time here at New Relic, I have had more family time, given back to the local community with my family, contributed more to open source, created more software with my kids, and enjoyed the outdoors more than I have in my 20-year career. Why is this? What changed? Surely it was not just moving the family to Portland and working for New Relic—was it?
While that could be the most probable answer, I decided to test, measure, and observe hacks on my life to see how and what I was doing that was so different from those years before.
I focused on three areas: health, environment, and mind. My findings surprised me a bit because I saw myself as a different kind of nerd—the nocturnal, antisocial, Red Bull-chugging, Pringles-eating developer. Stereotypes aside, I think of these areas as the “Nerd’s hierarchy of needs.” When any of them are misaligned, then you’ll find mediocrity not far behind.
I thought that I’d share my findings with the hope that they might inspire you to discover how to hack your own life. Some of the ideas below are supported by books and applications that I constantly use (you can see a full list here). Keep in mind that the mileage will vary for every individual and all of the hacks may or may not work for you—the point is to find the things that do.
Hack your health
When I began deconstructing my inner nerd, one of the obvious places for me to start was sleep versus wake. Years ago, I was able to throw code 100 hours per week, get a little sleep, drink a Mountain Dew, rinse and repeat. To put this to the test, I enlisted the help of two amazing applications: RescueTime and Sleep Cycle. I used one to track my “active time” and the other to track my “null time” (i.e. sleep). Here’s what I did:
- Week 1: Come into work a little later, go home / have family time; then, after everyone was sleeping, write code from 10:00pm – 2:00am
- Week 2: Come into work around 6:00 – 7:00am and leave at 4:00pm; go home with a closed laptop and go to sleep at a consistent time
Much to my chagrin, I was 15% more productive and less distracted during Week Two than Week One and it kept getting better and better. I also exhibited a consistent sleep pattern and went from 3 cups of coffee and 2 Red Bulls a day to 1 cup of coffee per day. It turns out that I am a far more functional morning person than I am a “night owl.”
Another thing to note is that during Week Two, the laptop stayed closed and my phone was put in a corner as soon as I got home. If I got inspired to hack, I would write just enough code to establish the idea then close up.
Hack your environment
We only have a set amount of mental capital to spend on any given set of things. I define mental capital as the amount of virtual “thought” currency you get to spend on processing thoughts in a given timeframe. Some have more than others; I tend to have very little, so when there are distractions, my wheels often come completely off and I become waylaid by a random code problem that may not apply to what I am currently work on. There are distractions or “triggers” that surround our environments that set each of us off differently; the following are some that I tracked down and refactored.
Reduce the clutter.
For me, messes on my desk or at home are extremely distracting. If I walk by one, I will be thinking about it as I am trying to complete something else. My ideal workspace? A laptop at 2880 x 1800 and a desk with nothing on it. I like clean code as well. It doesn’t have to be witty or something only Gandalf could understand, just simple and clean. I’d like to think that type of behavior tells others around me that I respect their time and mental capital. I cannot think of a time where I was told that something was way too clean or simple and that was a bad thing.
Achieve (apps)olute zero.
I discovered two very interesting things about my behaviors with devices and software. First, I like apps, especially when they are free. Second, I really don’t use them, ever. So I took my devices and removed all the apps from them (that I could). Then, as I found myself needing a particular app over the course of the week, I would get it. After seven days, I realized I only really used a third of the apps that I originally had. Having clean devices helped me to reduce the mental capital it took when I turned them on and looked for something.
Avoid overtime enablers.
“Work” at New Relic often does not seem like work, which can make it very addicting. If you work for a great company with great leaders, they should be telling you that they want you for the long run and they don’t want you to burn out. They will be sensitive to your work-life balance. (If you don’t work for a company like this, you might want to check out our hiring page). It also helps to have an amazing team that will all but shut my laptop on my fingers when it’s time to wrap up. They do this because we trust and depend on each other. There will always be crunch time, but that should be the exception, not the rule.
Share your passion.
Oftentimes the things that make you say “wow” are things that will probably make your kids, spouse or friends say the same. If your kids are interested in games, for example, code something up in voxel.js, green foot, or have a look at a week of game building I did with my kids. Sharing my passion for making things has completely enabled my kids to figure things out. They solder their broken toys and hack games they play with abandon—they have become makers whom I love solving problems side-by-side with.
Hack your mind
Now for the mind-hacking part. These are some of the main changes I’ve made in the last few years to maintain my nerd life balance:
Scrum-board your day.
I am sometimes taken aback by how much I plan the software I write but how little I plan my day. Make a plan at the beginning of every day to get two or three things done that day; you find that after a few weeks you’ll have more of that mental capital to spend on things that provide value to your life like friends and family.
Work in achievable chunks and bits.
Have you ever written an app that had a memory leak or connection leak? Perhaps overtime the app would absorb a huge amount of resources like memory or TCP connections, making either the app itself or the server fall over, leaving you wondering what happened. Just like distractions in your environment can absorb mental capital, things rattling around in your head can eventually absorb all of your available threads. Try breaking up the things you do into iterative bits that you could swallow and not choke on. Make the end of the day satisfying by marking off several little wins. It will help you close any open threads that might hold open connections to your day, and pull your attention away from other really important things such as hacking with your kids or enjoying your bike ride home.
Address problems now versus later.
Say you’re on a beach having an awesome time with friends and family. You realize that you’ve collected some sand in your shorts but pay no attention to it. Because you put off cleaning out your shorts, you are greeted with a painful rash at the end of the day and the remainder of the night is shot. This is much like irritating issues that crop up in our software environments, our local machines, and our IDEs; we can “click” ignore or we can address the issue right away and never see it again.
Stop saying and start doing.
How many times have you said, “I have an idea,” and never followed through with it? We as humans are extraordinarily great at being creative and we should use that super power for good! Instead of simply saying, “I have an idea,” why not start a project? In software, the difference between nothing and a chance to start something truly exceptional is simply: git init, git commit, git push. Try it, see what happens when you forsake ideas and start projects with the enthusiasm that made you start them in the first place.
For More Nerd Life Balance Wisdom
And check back next week for Part 4 in the Nerd Life Balance series!