We Are All Addicts

Think of this as an opinion piece, none of this is Harvard referenced, just a bunch of information I’ve strung together from my time at the coal face that helps me get through the day. Take a seat. I’ve got a story to tell you.

Some years ago I got myself into a bit of a mess mentally. I was doing too much and as a result my mind was racing away and seemingly out of control. Part of me getting out of this "spiral of doom" was to try to better understand myself and how I worked (or in this case didn't). This took the form of me reading lots and lots of books about how the brain and emotions do what they do. I talked to some folks too and shared which did wonders hence me telling you this now, its good to talk.

Coming out the other side of this spiral I worked out that I wasn't having enough ”Pete time”. Everyone else got my focus and attention. I put everything before myself. Be that my boy, my wife, my work, doing up the house, going to a few to many Umbraco meetups, etc. and always putting myself at the back of the queue. If you've been following me on twitter this is the reason for my new workshop I've been building, play time. During all this reading I learnt an awful lot about the brain, personality types, motivators, how we think, how we react and why. Some of this stuff has been amazing to know and has changed how I go about my day at home and at work and I'm much happier as a result.

I'd like to share one or two bits of it with you now, come on, grab a drink it will only take a few minutes. It all began with jigsaws…

It is that time of year where I like to get a jigsaw out and go through the motions of trying to put it together with family and friends. Ideally with some Christmas tunes on, a slow cooking dinner in the oven and a glass of wine. For the record jigsaws are a completely useless activity. You make a picture (which you already know what it looks like) from hundreds of pieces and then once complete you tip it back it its box until next year. Pointless. Yet I get great enjoyment out of doing them and have done since I was a small boy.

Collecting all the edge pieces, the joy of finding a corner, then the pride when all the edge goes together. Every time I find another bit of reindeer (its a Christmas jigsaw btw) I get excited and each piece that goes together feels good. Working together to complete the picture. Its good in a very funny way.

The “good” comes from my body which is releasing a drug into my system every time I make a bit of progress. That drug is Dopamine and its a powerful little stimulant, its job is to keep you going with a task. It is the reward in the feedback loop of life. It is also the drug that gives cocaine and others their "buzz" and the reason gambling is addictive. I blame my mum. She got me into jigsaws, she got me hooked on chasing the dopamine hit! Who knew jigsaws were a gateway drug?

As hunter gatherers dopamine is what allowed us to stand still for ages while waiting for fish to come into spearing distance or hunt around for hours looking for enough mushrooms to eat. Every time you got close you got a small release of dopamine and when you speared the fish or found a big crop of mushrooms you get a big hit as a reward. It is your body rewarding you for sticking with it and doing the task or activity you did. The nice hit of dopamine makes you want to repeat the task or activity (as a bonus you got food out of it too). Its how we learn and why we repeat things we “enjoy” …but part of that enjoyment is the release of dopamine itself.

The trouble is dopamine can be made to fire for any activities that you do, it is easy to get it tricked and its very powerful. Don't believe me? Think about your love of social media, pulling down and refreshing to see who has liked your tweet or commented on your Facebook post. A little hit of dopamine released into your brain every time someone interacts. And now you are addicted to checking updates and online 24/7 looking for another little hit.

Tip number one: delete social media and any games from your phone, break the cycle and ensure you are “present” (no Christmas pun intended) in the company of family and friends. They bring their own rewards as friends and family help release two other chemicals called oxytocin and serotonin which give us our sense of belonging, of wellbeing, of safety in our tribe and of love. Why wouldn’t we want these in our life? Get off the bloody phone.

Not enough time to code

In recent years I’ve been wrestling with the transition from developer to Managing Director…aka being the boss. Its not been one I’ve enjoyed much until lately. I missed coding. I was good at it and enjoyed it and I longed to get back into it more. But then I started thinking about this longing to code, this grief at not being able to do it. Was I missing the coding or the hit?

Programming or coding is the perfect framework for releasing dopamine. Every few lines of code you can compile or reload and see the results and get a hit. Every for loop you optimise, every bug you hunt for and find all come with a nice rush of the feel good juice. This got me thinking. Programming can be a bit addictive. How many times have you stayed up until 4am working on something and then going to bed shivering because the heating turned off 5 hours ago and you didn’t even notice? We can say we enjoy it but is it IT that we enjoy or the hit we get when we do it? We’ve all also had those disappointing nights where nothing quite went together and go to bed feeling a bit deflated…we didn’t get the hit we wanted.

Once I realised why I had a desire to code and that it wasn’t because I was born a coding genius and was a chosen one it was more because I got into it and my body rewarded me with drugs when I kept doing it. I’m sure I missed the crafting of it, the feeling of creating but I also now know that that is exactly what releases my drug of choice.

Knowledge is power. Once I learnt that there was another reason I enjoyed coding I did two things.

  • I got really annoyed that my coding time might not have been all it was meant to be, that in a way I was a bit of a druggy and with nearly 30 years of doing it a longtime addict, I didn’t really like that. Maybe I wasn’t missing it so much as missing my hit.
  • I wondered how I might be able to use this knowledge to get me to “like” doing all the Managing Director stuff? Could there be a way I could get a hit from doing that?

I started playing around with the idea some more. I now try to "Game" my day to play to my hard wired nature, my inner cave man. I make todo lists and get a hit each time I strike one off, to ease in gently I add on some easy ones like “open the mail” and “make a cup of tea” which both give me the feel good factor for little effort! I count how many Trello cards I move around and comment on like it’s a game and score myself. Suddenly I’m getting the same feel good hit. I do a little happy dance when we convert a lead for a job. In effect I’ve become “a suit”, I enjoy none programming tasks! I also love helping my team. Building them up, celebrating their work and protecting them from clients and the day to day business stuff they don’t need to know about. In return it builds up that sense of a strong tribe and that causes oxytocin and serotonin flow freely which makes us all feel better and work together for the greater good. Turning our hunter gatherer hard wiring to our advantage and our collective wellbeing.

Tip number 2: be aware of what your body can do to you, double check its something you want it to do. Don’t let it keep you up until 4am and miss a morning walk with friends or make you fix one more bug which makes you late to pick up your kids. This is chasing the hit. Go enjoy the other drugs by hanging out with friends and family instead. Say it quietly…its not all about the coding.

Thanks for listening to an old timer like me and making the time for me, I feel we’ve bonded a little. Have a fantastic Christmas, stay of social media on the big days off and away from the laptop as much as you can…the code will still be there in the new year.

Pete Duncanson

Founder and Managing Director at Offroadcode, Pete is a problem solving, project managing, new business winning developing machine who makes the company tick and ensures his team is always able to do their best work.

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