Enjoying Your Work

How can you organize your life so that you look forward to work?

People are bad at predicting how much they’ll enjoy an activity. They (subconsciously) use heuristics like how much they enjoyed that activity in the past. That memory is biased in exploitable ways: weighted toward the peak and end of the experience. This is the peak–end rule. So if you want to remember having a good time, then it’s crucial that you’re having a good time near the end.

This has practical implications. When I was learning to program, I would often “push through” frustration. It followed a particular pattern:

  1. I would start with an unrealistic expectation for how long a programming task would take.
  2. I had fun at first, but then time started to pass, and I would realize that the task was going to take at least twice as long as I thought.
  3. Because I’m stubborn, I would insist on finishing it in one go.
  4. So I would keep programming far past when I should, and I would start to get stupid (this happens when you program for too long).
  5. As I felt myself growing stupider, my frustration increased.
  6. Best case, I worked on it long after it stopped being fun and started being annoying. Worst case I would “fail” by giving up for that day. When I finished the task, any satisfaction of completion was overshadowed by all the negative emotion.

And all that negativity was weighted to the end.

I do things differently now. I break the work into tiny chunks: many small victories, all easy to accomplish. Whenever I sense frustration, I force myself to take a step back and re-evaluate. Sometimes I take a break, but I always change my perspective. Instead of focusing on the end goal, I shift my focus to whatever isn’t working the way I expect. My goal becomes to play with it, shifting the variables and trying things until I fully understand what’s going on. Only then do I proceed.

But we can take this principle further. It’s one thing to avoid negative emotion near the end of an activity, but what if we work to ensure we’re having a great time at the end? What would that look like?

If I follow my inclination, I tend to quit working on a problem when I reach a natural stopping point and I don’t feel like working on it anymore. You know when I’m least likely to stop? When I’m having the most fun. But maybe that’s just when we should stop?

I remember reading about a writer who always quit in the middle of a scene, when it was obvious what would happen next. He did it because he wanted to make it easy to get started the next time. By accident, he was also stopping when things were easy.

I started thinking about this because I’ve been following (a modified version of) Alexey Guzey’s schedule, which involves taking frequent breaks (a 5 minute break after every 25 minute block of working). Instead of working on something until I was sick of it or needed a break, I took breaks long before I needed them. I quit when I was having fun, over and over again. I immediately started dreading work less (and dreading it always bothered me because I do genuinely enjoy the work).

All this is still a bit half-baked, and so I’d be curious what other people think. Does this line up with your own experiences? How can we organize our work so that we enjoy it more? And so we’re eager to start next time?

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