🌧 Rainier Ababaolast updated: 10/29/21
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Spirals and their Antidotes

Rainier Ababao · May 03, 2020 · 9 min read

Time during shelter-in-place (day 48 as I'm writing this) has been interesting for me as I've had incredible control over my time.

And I don't mean control in the sense of self-control. If you know me, I'm definitely far from perfect, quite far in fact, from the "SF optimizer" archetype¹. Yes, particularly in this stressful time, I don't think I'm the only one who's ordered 20 McNuggets, 2 McDoubles, and an Oreo McFlurry a few hours into their weed-infused gummy.

By control over my time, I mean that I get to do what I want, when I want to. My days are largely unstructured and I don't have set work hours. The only constraint is a generally-accepted range of time for meetings with my team and an uninterrupted block or two each day to get my work done. I no longer have to consider:

  • The daily commute
  • Showing up to the office for lunch and being with my co-workers
  • Time spent getting ready to visit friends or meet at restaurants
  • The cost of context-switching between those activities. As Paul Graham says in Maker's Schedule, Manager's Schedule:

    If I know the afternoon is going to be broken up, I'm slightly less likely to start something ambitious in the morning. I know this may sound oversensitive, but if you're a maker, think of your own case. Don't your spirits rise at the thought of having an entire day free to work, with no appointments at all? Well, that means your spirits are correspondingly depressed when you don't. And ambitious projects are by definition close to the limits of your capacity. A small decrease in morale is enough to kill them off.

With control of my time and so much time alone, I've been able to introspect more and tease out what some of my common failure modes, or spirals, are. The following thoughts have percolated in my mind for the past 3 years of having deep, swinging levels of self-directed productivity and medium introspection (now high introspection—no pun intended).

What is a spiral?

A spiral is defined as a pattern of consumption that, if pursued indefinitely, leads to self-sabotage. And self-sabotage is when you're the one preventing yourself from reaching your goals. Spiraling is when you're not being productive, there's low or negative long-term payoff from this position, and sometimes it's unclear when it'll stop.

I call them spirals because they're recurring and indefinite. Like Netflix and B2B enterprise SaaS subscriptions. Left unchecked, they can suck up your time on Earth or leave a hole in your wallet.

The 5 (Sometimes Very Bad) Spirals

[...of Rainier]. I own these. Maybe our spirals overlap, or you never spiral! Let me know 😀🍥

1. The hedonistic spiral

Can be done with friends or by oneself. Characterized by medium-to-large amounts of alcohol and recreational drug (read: weed) use, consumption of comfort and fast food, etc.

Is it purely bad, and why?

It's not 100% bad. Bonding with your friends is good. It's "living a little". Some of my friends who do it will be the most successful people in their pursuits. I believe that altered states—low or in moderation—prevent you from "overfitting" on your models of the world, and that reduced giving-a-shit thresholds can be great in some social situations.

But it's undoubtedly bad in excess, like a bunch at one time or for multiple nights straight.

What's the antidote?

For me, it's a night of rest, a shower, and at least a 16-hour fast (with the exception of black coffee) from the last time I ate. To be clear, I endorse a healthy relationship with food. There is some solid science behind intermittent fasting and autophagy. Anyway, doesn't matter much in that it works for me.

2. The conceited nostalgic spiral

This happens when I post something on social media and wait for other people to like and comment on it. I scroll through my About page on Facebook, polish up my LinkedIn, reminisce on my old tweets, etc.

Is it purely bad, and why?

It's not harmful per se, but there's absolutely zero value to this activity, besides the effects of comparing yourself to the best versions of other people on social media. It's healthy to reminisce once in a while to see how far you've come with your friends, but there ought to be a limit.

And if people are replying to your posts, reading those replies can wait. Trust me.

What's the antidote?

Limiting social media time. Getting over yourself. Before I properly identified it and stamped it out, it probably took man-weeks out of my teenage years that could've been spent reading, building, or hanging out with friends.

Largely, I just had to get over myself.

3. The Wikipedia rabbit hole spiral

Characterized by a bunch of tabs you'll never get to and maybe some level of paralysis. It's 3 AM and you're reading about the spy that inspired Vesper Lynd's character in Casino Royale, or watching 60-year-old MRE unboxing videos on YouTube.

Is it purely bad, and why?

This isn't bad in the sense of destroying your body (besides maybe sleep) or self-worth or anything, but can suck up time from other, deeper work.

What's the antidote?

Again this is the most innocent of spirals. Being curious about the world is a sparkly personality trait ✨. Recognize the spiraling and move on, or limit your time (e.g., going back to what you were doing at the end of the clock hour).

4. The "OCD"/over-engineering-this spiral

(Note: this might not make sense if you are not an engineer, so feel free to skip.)

This is the cousin of the Wikipedia rabbit hole spiral. This happens when you're working on a project. I've generalized this to two types I've experienced over and over again:

  • "Over-engineering" a solution to a problem. I don't need Kubernetes to host a virtual trivia game site. (Yet.)
  • Being stuck on a problem (my old CTO called this "rat-holing") for too long without having asked for help or back-tracking to evaluate other potential "branches" that could lead to a solution.

Is it purely bad, and why?

Definitely not. Being in "explore" mode in the realm of personal projects is fine, until you have accomplished nothing or sunk time into an arcane framework that no one will interact with except yourself because you did not ship anything.

What's the antidote?

I have an angel on my shoulder that repeatedly asks me every few hours (nerds would call this some sort of "mental cron job"):

👼👨‍💻 "Am I delivering value to my [potential] users right now? Or am I wasting time over a technical decision that won't affect anyone besides me?"

This one also helps:

👼👨‍💻 "So what exactly is the end goal here?"

When you're working on a project with a lot of moving parts, it's easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees, as they say.

In the case of being stuck on a problem, I sometimes change what I'm working on, like moving to the frontend if I'm stuck on a backend issue, vice-versa, or I'll go for a run instead. Pretty typical problem-solving advice.

Setting aggressive timelines for yourself (see Setting Your Goals Publicly at the bottom—maybe an aggressive launch date for your projects) could force you to weigh the tradeoffs of taking a shortcut here and there. As an attendee of 13 hackathons in college, I should understand this well, but I still fall into this spiral occasionally!

5. The akrasiac spiral

Sort of a catch-all for spirals in my life. You don't want to get out of bed. There is so much to do or can be done, but you just won't do it. You might be overwhelmed, but that is not a necessary condition for akrasia.

Is it purely bad, and why?

It's terrifying. It's hard to pin it down.

What's the antidote?

This is probably closer to burn out or depression. What do I do? I go out for a walk, a run, set up early calls with my family and friends (not necessarily talking about it) so I have a reason to get up earlier. Maybe watch an episode of a great show like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt or Arrested Development to get into a relaxed state.

Broad Interventions

What if the antidotes don't work as well as you wanted them to? Try introducing habits gradually, a drastic change of pace, setting goals publicly, or seeing a coach and/or therapist!

  • Developing a routine. Start with small, micro-habits. I sleep away from my phone, set my running gear in front of my bedroom door the night before, and I've found these to be fairly effective.
  • Joining an early-to-mid stage startup. There's nothing like a drastic (and possibly intentional) change to your circumstances to "reboot" your "motivation drive". It could be one of the most meaningful arcs of your career.
  • Setting your goals publicly, or sharing your goals with a friend. This overlaps with the coach or therapist in that they're a sort of "accountability" buddy—but you should be careful not to over-burden your friends who are in their own lane.
  • A coach or therapist can "tease out" the weird patterns in your life in a few sessions as opposed to taking years for oneself. I'm extremely lucky to have met a coach I work well with during this time.

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¹ The SF-optimizer archetype: mid-to-late-20s keto Stanford graduate who splits their time between Equinox, bikes across the Golden Gate Bridge, scheduled 30-min syncs with their East Coast parentals, and flow time. See this tweet:

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