Bursts of productivity are fun

I spent most of today slacking off at work, reading about astrophysics and paying only casual attention to actual work. But an hour or two past noon, a bug caught my eye — a simple mathematical matter of correctness, which I could feel good about fixing. It proved harder than I expected, and I soon filled a whiteboard with data structure diagrams and equations. After some frustration, I noticed other people leaving, and looked at a clock, which was obviously broken, since it said 5:00.

I turned back to the whiteboard, and saw that my previous approach was unnecessarily complicated. So I fixed that bug, and found another, and fixed it, and after fixing six bugs in a little over an hour, I lost interest and went back to reading.

Sound familiar? Most programmers (and most creative workers of any kind) are accustomed to seeing their productivity vary wildly over time. On one day you get nothing done and feel guilty for not trying very hard; the next day is the same except for a brief burst in which you seemingly do a week's work in two hours. The Internet is full of programmers lamenting this situation, and wishing they could have these bursts every day.

I suspect this unwelcome variation accounts for part of the fun of programming. The periods of apathy and frustration lower your expectations, so when the bursts of activity arrive, they seem far beyond your normal ability — a contrast that can make even the most boring problems exiting. I noticed this effect today: that one hour when everything went right, and everything worked on the first try, would not have been so impressive if it hadn't been preceded by a few hours of frustration. If you were modestly productive all the time, you might get the same total work done, but it would be more predictable, and you would have fewer moments of unexpected triumph. Mightn't that be less fun?

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