On Pushing Too Far

2022-12-07 | Shiplet

As much as I may like to think so, I don't have an infinite supply of mental energy or focus. Whether it's ADHD, some other undiagnosed neurological condition, or just the basic limitations of my extremely human abilities, for any given task requiring a moderate amount of mental focus and acuity, I will inevitably reach a point where:

  1. I'm near enough to completion of the task that I feel compelled to finish the task
  2. My ability to finish the task rapidly degrades with each additional attempt to do so
  3. My ability to complete, or even approach, any non-related task also rapidly degrades, often to the point that I'll reach a momentary period (5-50+ minutes) of something like a total system shutdown

For example: today I spent nearly 8 hours reading technical specifications for a new programming language and in that time managed to get through 75% of the total volume of documentation available. For the duration of that time I was sharp, absorbent, and able to rapidly incorporate a significant amount of the available information into my existing mental taxonomy of programming languages. Given that I'd already gotten through 18 of 24 chapters in the book, getting through the remaining 6 chapters felt imminently possible.

However, irrespective of any increase or decrease in the complexity of the information, I reached a point where my brain-sponge had saturated. Earlier in the day I could read a sentence like, "This is extremely important for these reasons: ..." and not only would I recognize both the importance and application of the very important information, I'd actually anticipate what was coming next: "Oh, given this, these issues or use-cases will become important." Having those kinds of brainwave moments is addictive - it's like the rapid progression model most video games employ: it sets up mechanics and challenges and quickly rewards you for anticipating and correctly applying your prior learnings.

But once I'd reached saturation, I could legitimately read the sentence "It's important to breathe because your body runs on oxygen" and all I'd remember is that there was something like... existentially important in Chapter 19. Like. So important that if I didn't know it and were talking to somebody very knowledgeable on the subject of being alive, and I didn't know this information, they'd instantly mark me as a doofus, a charlatan, a pretender, a poser, a fakely alive person.

The next problem arises because I've recognized this. I don't want to seem like a fakely alive person, so I panic and re-read the oxygen sentence 35 times, each time getting closer and closer to maintaining the encompassing context that gives heft to the importance of the information, until I finally get it. I've fit that last nugget into my already saturated brain-sponge.

And then I get up to take a break and realize it's past dinner time, my partner is starving and angry, my dog is also starving and needs to poop, and I've forgotten to do any kind of meaningful prep for the evening or, you know, anything in general.

At which point I completely shut down, my low blood-sugar catches up to me and I start shaking violently. Then the cold-sweats come and all I can think about is getting glucose, carbohydrates, protein, and anything else I can find, stuffed down my throat as fast as humanly and safely possible. Yes, I know the indigestion is gonna suck. I know my digestion and elimination tomorrow is also gonna suck. But if I don't eat as much as I possibly can right now I'm not entirely convinced I won't die where I stand.

Which is why I'm writing this. I've recognized this meta-pattern, and this brain-dump is an opportunity to put on some music, think critically about my day and experiences, and see what things I can do to prevent this total system failure from happening in the future. So far writing like this has been very effective, because it's like coasting the bike down the canyon pass after having spent the entire day climbing to the top. I'm still technically working, but I'm working by letting go. I'm letting the pent-up and neglected non-directional parts of my brain spring out and have their say.

It's super liberating actually. You've probably already noticed this, but you can even see the releasing of tension as represented by the change in my tone. The beginning of this post is very academic & technical - compressing lots of information into as few words as possible. And then starting somewhere around the end of the 4th and beginning of the 5th chapters (it was "brain-sponge," that was the moment), I started letting go. The tone shifted, as well as the rigidity & pressure of the piece.

And now here I am. I'm still a bit wordy, but I'm grooving. I'm back in the flow and excited again, but for reasons totally unrelated to the inner workings of a particular programming language. I can't guarantee this is what'll happen every time I try to short-circuit a total system shutdown, but it happened this time which means there's opportunities to explore here.

My usual come-down methods used to involve exercise, playing music or video games, or jumping right into a long list of house chores.

Of those 4, here's how things would typically go:

  1. exercise => I push way too hard, like body-harmingly hard
  2. music => I play way too hard, like shred my fingers and melt my ears hard
  3. video games => I play way too long, like lose myself in escapist fantasy lands until I'm shaken back to reality by bodily functions (mine or otherwise)
  4. chores => these actually tend to go okay, but what suffers is the prioritization; i.e. it could be well past time to start preparing dinner, but for some reason I'm cleaning the back porch, or I've gone to the grocery store and come back with a box of cereal, a couple protein bars, and some frozen waffles...

So here I am. It's 4:55 PM and I've spent nearly 8 consecutive hours reading documentation, and instead of spiraling into one of those 4 whirlpools, I wrote this. I feel good. I feel ready to handle the rest of the night, and do so in a way that supports not only myself, but the people around me as well.

Now all I have to do is post this to my 2-years-out-of-date Next.js blog and resist every urge I have to fix all the warnings that just showed up in my terminal...