Two weeks working by myself, direct with our customer, and I feel phenomenal. During this time I’ve broken down two relatively large technical projects, pushed forward with four user groups, and opened up another few use-cases. It’s been busy and productive. My sense of personal satisfaction is through the roof, and I’m feeling calmer than ever.

On top of this, it is the holiday season, so I’ve worked four-day weeks. Friends were in town so I didn’t work at night. I did work hard, long hours, coupled with flying, but I also had space for socialising, exercise, music, and writing.

All of this lies in sharp contrast to my recent struggles. So what’s the difference?

What changed?

Do I simply prefer working without people or colleagues? Absolutely not. The team aspects of work are among my favourite. However, absent people meant an absence of many external factors. That’s what I’ll unpack here: what made this period so freaking awesome?

I planned. Entering each week my path was clear. Diversions were minimal, aside from the usual customer requests, which are mostly expected.

I was close to our customer. When my non-technical colleagues are around I spend more time in code and less time with users. There’s a fallacy to this and skipping user facing work means missing the chance to sanitise our priorities. Spotting the problems we can solve neatly versus those that are rabbit holes is something technical people are suited for.

I created a lot. When users were stuck I’d make small demos. I spent time training new users, who are learning very quickly. It takes me back to being a teaching assistant in uni. Very rewarding.

I experienced flow. I blocked off a couple of days for larger technical tasks I’d neglected in previous weeks. Instead of flapping at problems in stolen 30-minute windows between other stuff, I was free to sit and think them over, apply logic, and get to smart solutions. The value of this in itself is immeasurable; a couple of hours deep thought can save weeks of effort. My state of mind also, being calm and thoughtful, primed me to enter the world of flow.

I socialised. My head was calm during evenings so conversation could go anywhere. Being relaxed and happy meant being fun to be around. Even during the day or at work, the type of conversation was different. My interest in the people around me was just greater. When I stopped working I did so with a clear head. There’s a strong positive feedback loop at play here.

I exercised. Not a huge amount, but I took long walks, and did daily yoga and push-up-type-things. You carry these benefits with you all day and all week. Another positive feedback loop.

I cooked and ate well. I spent time shopping for, then cooking dinner. I went out and ate well. There were way fewer hurried meals eaten in transit.

What went away?

My immediate team were not present. Communication was not required. However, I did write more documentation, and more email status updates than usual. What was missing were random questions and context switches.

My wider teams were not present. This meant no video meetings. I’m based in Asia so these tend to happen at night. Significant hours are lost to these, first to the direct time it takes to do them, but second to the gaps between these syncs; dead time that’s tough to make good use of. They also kill evenings and with it the exercise, the hobbies, the social time.

Email and Slack were quiet. I almost entirely forgot about their presence. I was able to open up my email to keep notes or draft reports. Doing so didn’t cost me a context switch.

Nobody else worked late. Even with the best intentions, it can be difficult to switch off when teammates are online. They’re changing code at midnight and asking questions on Slack. Leaving work was easy and there was almost zero chance of distraction once you did.

History Repeating

Now here’s the thing that perturbs me. None of this is new to me. I’ve been through the same a few times before. I understand deeply the pros and cons listed above. Even with this awareness I managed to fall for all the bad habits and forget the good ones.

What’s important now is to carry the environment of the last two weeks to the next fifty and to transfer these behaviours to the team.

Where to focus

Environment is first. I started on this at the end of last year and plan to continue. That means getting ahead of planning with my immediate team. It means arranging outings in the week so we’re forced to detach from our laptops.

Meetings are next. I’ll need to measure this, but my intuition is that 60% of them are low value. Considering the distraction to everybody I’d guess there’s a compounding negative value that adds up to major downside. The difficult part will be communicating this to those who set up said meetings.

Tactical steps in my daily habits can also be changed. Email and Slack are the first on this list. I plan to:

  • mute notifications on Slack when I want to focus
  • check my email only two or three times per day

Keep up the social engagement, exercises, and good diet. This can all be imposed via my calendar.

Let’s see how it pans out.