Economies of Scaling Back

Posted by Matt Farmer on June 21, 2014 · 6 mins read

A few of you who have followed me for awhile know that I’m a Christian. Part of my faith includes periodically reading things from other believers who have come before me. A few days back a contemporary Christian publication posted an excellent collection of quotes by Charles Spurgeon, a well respected Baptist preacher. There was one selection in particular that seemed to relate to me, especially as a member of today’s technology industry. Spurgeon writes,

The way to do a great deal is to keep on doing a little. The way to do nothing at all is to be continually resolving that you will do everything.

Many of us are guilty of this: getting so excited by a new idea that we dive headlong into it without much regard for whether or not it’s something we can actually commit time to. The result is project abandonment in most cases, which in the grand scheme of things isn’t a huge problem. However, in the past six months I’ve experienced the extreme where a lot of little things – constantly stressing me out because they’re not done yet – roll up into one big batch of burn out. And that, my friends, is a huge problem.

As a result, I’ve recently come to the point where I have had to acknowledge the following: I am a human. Before you discard this statement as obvious, let us consider what it means for a moment. Specifically this: that contrary to the fact that my brain spends a good chunk of time contorted into thinking like a computer, it does not in fact function like a computer. It needs long periods of rest to appropriately recharge. It won’t work like every other brain out there in the world. It needs emotional and intellectual fuel to keep me healthy and creative, as opposed to being a mindless drone punching a clock. It is incredibly bad at multitasking on the average, as much as we would like to believe otherwise, and will likely to continue to get worse as I get older. Most of all, it needs much less stress than I’ve put on it in recent months and it needs more time with the family and friends, my time with whom is far more important than whatever I contribute to technology or society by running myself ragged.

Naturally I’m a problem solver, and this is nothing more than another problem. So, I say to myself, what’s the solution? Well, there are two parts: the reactive and the proactive.

On the reactive side, it’s a top priority to scale back the things I’m committed to. About a month ago I tweeted that I was interested in finding someone who can help spearhead the Georgia Open Data Project moving forward (see the tweet here). I’ve additionally canceled a few side projects that were lined up for Crazy Goat Creative, and have scaled back my role in Anchor Tab for awhile. As of today the two efforts I’m spending non-work time on are the Get Open Mentorship Initiative and Depend On. This has opened up a good amount of time for spontaneous events, reading, blogging, bike riding, and the like.

On the proactive side, I’m working on iterating on a weekly structure. Right now, it’s formulated to the point of having a few mandatory things (e.g. full time job, time with my community) on the top half of the list, and then at the bottom having a section named “Pick 1” with Lift, Get Open, and Depend On listed. That should, ideally, leave plenty of unscheduled time to “go with the flow.” Tonight that consisted of a Skype call with a friend who lives in another state and binging on old episodes of Covert Affairs.

But to be honest, the most proactive thing that I’m doing is accepting the fact that as much as I want to build all the amazing things I concoct that I am not someone who can eat, drink, and breathe code seven days a week and be happy. It’s not how I have been designed to function, and trying to function that way is detrimental to me and everyone that relies on me to get things done. This means that I can’t try to spearhead five side projects at once. It means that I shouldn’t make any employment shifts where more than 40 hours of work per week would become the regular working hours. And, most of all, it means that whatever great things I have the privilege of doing in the seemingly short amount of time I’m here will almost certainly be done in little bits for a long while.

Coming to the above conclusions has been a long time in the making, and I will likely iterate on them in the months and years ahead. It’s a painful process, especially when you have to cut back on things that you would really enjoy. But it’s a process worth going through. Fortunately Spurgeon has some wisdom for us on that front as well:

There is hardship in everything except eating pancakes.

So, I implore you to take the opportunity to evaluate for yourself what boundaries you need to impose to prevent yourself from reaching burn out.

Then go eat some pancakes.