I often stay late at work.
Last year I did that a lot, and it quite likely caused a slight health problem that could have turned nasty. I don’t want that to happen again.
This isn’t caused directly by external factors. It seems to mostly be caused by something psychological, and so there’s value in understanding what that might be and learning how to tackle it. If I do nothing, I’ll probably be staying late a lot again especially as we have an important deadline coming up in April.
Today I indicated to the team that I was going to be working on a task, let’s call it “load test instrumentation”. I didn’t actually do that – firstly I found some things that needed documenting, and then I started working on a script to automate a task that we often do and happened to be needed for the load test instrumentation. This may of course not have been the right thing to do at this point. Automation can pay off in the long run, but in the short term it adds a few hours to something which would otherwise be very simple to do manually. I was conscious that I was falling into this behaviour pattern, and that doesn’t make it right necessarily but it isn’t the main focus of this post. The fact remains, what I said I’d do remains pretty much unstarted.
It’s 20:49 right now.
As I was arriving home, it occurred to me that while continuing to work from home on this task seemed to be the obvious thing to do, it wasn’t the only option. I brought up the issue of yucky paperwork in the last post, and mentioned that I thought that a more rational version of myself would be picking this up as the obvious top priority. The rational me would also not be working late at every available opportunity, given what happened last year. So there were some strong arrows pointing towards, if not tackling the paperwork head on, at least coming up with a strategy to start breaking the ice on it.
On the other hand. I did tell people at work that I’d do this and I know they’ll be sad if they don’t, and that I’ll pick up on that tomorrow. It’s possible that I’ll be able to do some catching up in the morning, since the team as a whole usually starts the day late, but the fact remains. It seems pretty useful to be aware that this is acting as a consideration in my mind: maybe that’s something which helps drive my staying late behaviour? Overpromising and then feeling I have to deliver anyway? I am not sure, but noticing when it happens seems useful.
It also helps with strategies. If I decide not to tackle any more work tonight, then I can say that right now on Slack and people are likely to be more understanding. If instead I avoided it without really thinking why, it might not have occurred to me to do that.
What I’ve created for myself, by explicitly introducing awareness of two competing options, is a decision point. I can feel a tug in each direction, and I just need to decide which way to go. From what I’ve said so far, you can probably guess I’m leaning more towards the “paperwork strategy” than the “load test instrumentation” option, and that’s probably right and the way that the decision will go this time. But I thought it was worth taking a note of it here just because it wasn’t what I would have done if I’d just gone ahead without thinking.
What would I have done?
It’s possible it would have been load test instrumentation. It’s what this imaginary version of myself was sitting down intending to do, after all. But intentions don’t always come to fruition, and it’s also occurred to me that there’s a tug in a third direction: messing around on Facebook.
There are some minor things happening on Facebook so it wouldn’t be a total waste of time. But I don’t really feel that it’s justified as a use of my time, especially as I had a quick peek before I left work and there didn’t seem to be anything that demanded my attention right now. In fact I closed down the tab and other distracting tabs in order to write this.
I’ve brought up before the effect when there’s two competing aversive tasks, and instead you end up doing a less aversive but significantly less valuable task, in a game which is possibly analogous to rock-paper-scissors but also possibly not.
Anyway, decision points seem a useful concept. While each decision is about something different, we probably use some of the same parts of our brain for each. Even recognizing that something is a decision can open up options that were previously hidden. And each possible choice comes with the possibility of habit formation or breaking: if you choose something that isn’t usual for you, you might find yourself doing more of that in the future.
I imagine that different people encounter decision points at different frequencies, and experience them differently. I also imagine that living examples of the sort of person I’d like to be, experience them more than I do. Generally I exhibit very little novelty-seeking behaviour, for example.
So I will tell people at work why the task isn’t done, and not try and take on any more of that tonight. I’ll see if I can leave Facebook alone, and I’ll try to tackle the annoying paperwork task in the same way that I did for the previous rather less annoying paperwork task, by thinking up some strategies, tabulating how I feel about each and then starting on it when I have a strategy I feel good about.