It’s me, facing a hard to solve problem. It’s a difficult one, and I’m having problems focusing. I make some coffee, I move to another room, and I’m already thinking of running to some coffee shop, forgetting that we’re still in a pandemic. I sometimes find it hard to focus, it can be hard to start, I procrastinate a lot, or I’m just too damn lazy.
The problems I’m dealing with can require an extreme attention to details, as you have to load all of those fine-grained interactions between components, all of those side effects, all the system’s responsibilities and limitations; you go over the problem repeatedly, maybe you can understand it, maybe you can simplify it, maybe you don’t need to solve it at all. When things don’t work, you try a change in perspective.
My 10-year-old son is often imitating my computer posture. He wants to grow up to be just like me, but the jury is still out on whether that’s a good thing 🤷♂️
People can’t solve multiple problems in parallel. When we do, we only do it for superficial problems. Yes, we can drive a car while talking on the phone, or thinking about some argument with a colleague. But that’s only because of the autonomic nervous system, which can be trained to make us do things out of reflex, putting us in auto-pilot. It’s like when breathing, we don’t think about breathing in or out.
When I drive alone, I’m so deep in my own thoughts, that I’m in full auto-pilot, changing gears, making turns, stopping at the red light, avoiding obstacles. I sometimes awaken while driving towards the office, even if we are still during the pandemic, it’s weekend, and my trip was to the supermarket, in the opposite direction. Funny enough I get the same effect when ridding my bike, or my kick scooter, in spite of the increased effort, the constant motion of my legs, and the increased awareness needed to avoid traffic accidents.
Hard problems demand focus. A single word from a colleague, or from my wife or kid, a single runaway thought could destroy my focus. Working from home can be hard, especially when you have a son that wants to play, and you can’t say no to his puppy eyes.
To help focus I often play some tune on repeat, over and over again. Or maybe there’s some inertia, the problem is exciting, and that magic moment finally comes …
And the world around me vanishes …
All other problems, my hopes, my dreams, my worries about tomorrow, the world’s hum, everything becomes irrelevant and silent, feeling as if I’ve migrated to another reality, being just me and the algorithm I’m working on. A reality in which the problems are solvable, and the solutions are born out of thin air. It’s like a vice; if I ever had one that I can’t quit, this is it.
It’s the reason for why I never liked alcohol, as it prevents me from going there. I remember being junior year in high-school, and getting drunk with my gang. It’s a memory that got imprinted on me, because the national “Olympiad in Informatics” was in a couple of days, and drunk as I was, I kept repeating the recipe for “killed backtracking”, out of fear I’d forget it. Fun times, got third prize.
I remembered this intense feeling of focus while browsing my music library, and finding a gem. I give you the sound-track of Monix, a tune I played over and over again during some of the most focused days I’ve ever had:
Tonight I worked on a hard problem, playing this tune on auto-repeat.
I’ll probably fail to go to sleep too soon, as this dumb tune is going to keep ringing in my ears. But it’s not really the music that’s keeping me awake, but the problem I’ve been working on, with the tune being just its echo. Oh well, my brain will have to calm down eventually.