Cognitive Endurance Basics for Software Developers
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A few weeks ago Michael published a post called Product Software Development Is a Marathon. The message of this post is: if you want to come up with a decent product, you’ve got to brace yourself up for a long-distance marathon run. I agree to the point of long-distance and endurance, but I’d rather compare this not to a marathon but to a triathlon race. Triathlon requires diverse skills, you not only have to run, but to swim and to bike, and, as we know, good software developers need diverse skills, too. By the way, quite a few IT guys I know, they do triathlon as a hobby, so there really must be something to it.
As in triathlon, diverse skills needed to develop a software product require that you keep up your endurance with all of them, learning to alternate your activities, such as coding, researching, coming up with solutions and empathizing with others while keeping a workable race rate. Success in a faster-faster-faster race comes as a by-product of following some smart endurance tips and tricks. Our brains are our most indispensable tools, and we need to exercise a caring attitude to them… and to our colleagues’ brains, too. I’m saying this time and time again: there’s nothing ever more important to us as professionals than taking good care of our brains (well, and bodies, obviously, because brains work better after some good physical exercise, and that’s apparently what the folks that do triathlon are sensing as well :) . I’ve touched upon that subject one way or another in a number of my previous posts, and this caring attitude would ideally stem from the company’s culture in many subtle ways. It’s a paradox, but very often we’re unaware of how those small bummers at work are killing our performance and draining our cognitive powers. For quick reference, cognitive is anything related to mental processes: attention, memory, talking, listening, learning, reasoning, problem solving, and decision making. This diagram shows the interrelated network of the processes going on in our brains as we work. If you come across some bummers disrupting those processes, the performance of your brain wanes for any given day at work, and unless you do something non-mental for a change (like, hang out with your family, or do some triathlon training), your brain powers would not restore just so.
The insidious sources of cognitive bummers can be broken down into 3 groups:
- Process-related. Anything that has to do with the glitches and communication issues arising from a sloppy development process, e.g. too many meetings, unfocused online messaging as opposed to face-to-face talks, not knowing who to go to and where to report to if there’s an issue that needs to be solved. These would be purely cognitive disruptions.
- Workspace-related. That’s more about the general feeling good, although in the end it boils down to cognition, as all those kinds of workspace-related stresses would end up in the brain as well. What if someone prefers to sit with the air-conditioning off and just with the flow of fresh air? Or the lights? What if someone prefers natural light to the LED lights? The most notorious workspace-related disruption wouldn’t be the lights or air, though. It’s the noise produced either by colleagues discussing a solution to a problem, or can be some of them wants to listen to music from the speakers while a few others prefer to work just quietly. Workspace-related disruptions depend on personal sensitivity. Someone can sense them very acutely, feeling that this something is really tiring their brain. Others may be unaware of the direct impact, but they are affected all the same, regardless of the awareness or unawareness. I wish everyone could have such a plate by their desk:
- Individual. This is about personal time management skills and will power. Things like: if you start your day with Facebook, or browsing news, or reading some casual stuff, don’t be surprised if you’re drained by noon, when it occurs to you that you never got down to doing the things that would actually make you call your day a productive one.
Of those 3 kinds of disruptions, the first two are enrooted in the company’s culture, and need to be cured at a company level first. In fact, if a company nurtures the culture of keeping everyone’s flow and takes care of the good workspace, then it’s a lot easier for people to perform at their best on an individual level. I mean, not everyone is a personal productivity guru. Well, of course, it’s in one’s own power to stay away from all kinds of online time wasters, and do things successively, one after another, but it’s a company who can literally lend a helping hand and contribute a lot to cutting down on multi-tasking as much as possible.
I will write more about those disruptions, and what can be done to tackle them both at a company level and at an individual level in my future posts.