I recently wrote about my beginning efforts with a quantified self experiment. I want to measure and improve my ability to build software systems. The scale I’m using to measure that is doing fairly well:

  • Complexity: rounded log10 scale of the number of moving parts in a system I’m working on (usually 2 or 3)
  • Similarity: estimate of how much of the work is new to me ([.2, .5, .8])
  • Criticality: how do I see the system? (1=trivial, 2=good effort, 3=professional, 4=critical)
  • Time: how many hours was this activity?

There are a few things I’ve notice about this scale:

  • There’s a natural goal of about 9.6 / hour (work on new problems that are critical and complex).
  • The overall number isn’t long-term maintainable if I’m getting high numbers through long hours.
  • The course grained input is useful at this stage, I’m not wasting time getting picky with myself.
  • Criticality and Complexity are roughly balanced. This leads to natural tradeoffs and choices while I’m trying to improve my overall output.

That means I may convert my logs to use the average hourly output. That will probably help me cut back on short-term abuse of my system. Other things I could do is count how many caffeinated drinks I consume a day or how many hours of sleep I had. Lots to count, I’m having fun with it.

Even as it is, though, it’s starting to show me a baseline of about where I am:

There might be an uptick in how I’m performing, but there really isn’t much data here yet. I could be dealing with cycles or short-term pushes on projects or refinements on how I estimate my daily production. In a few months I’ll have a real idea of what I’m up to and whether it’s working out for me. To put the problem in context, here is the same graph with a 9.6 output over 12 hours (115.2) as the maximum output in the graph:

It shows that I may be doing better, but I’m less than half of what I think I can do on a long-term basis. If I project my recent performance, I see that something is going to have to change soon:

That is, I won’t be able to sustain sharp uptakes in my mental capacity indefinitely. I suspect that my actual performance has been flatter than it appears and is more cyclical with sleep patterns. Also, I’m in the middle of taking on quite a few systems that are mostly new to me. I may not have that benefit a lot of the time, though I think I’d like to always challenge myself.

My guess is these numbers will asymptotically reach 9.6 x some optimal work day. I’m excited to learn more about what that may be. As I get closer to that idea of performance, it will be time to take a harder look at how complex the systems really are, how well I’m actually delivering working solutions and better questions to keep improving.

Now that I’m measuring things, what’s actually different?

The generic idea for improving anything is to measure it. Pearson’s law is:

That which is measured improves. That which is measured and reported improves exponentially.

This might have actually come from Lord Kelvin who said:

If you can not measure it, you can not improve it.

So, blindly, just by writing it down, things will improve. Probably because I care about it more. Probably because it gamifies things for me a little (I get competitive and creative to improve my score). Probably because it reduces some of the stress about whether I’m missing something important in my complicated life. This metric covers about what I want to be doing with my life right now, so it’s a kindness I’m giving myself.

What about tDCS?

I’ve also been using tDCS starting at this time. I’ve worked with three montages so far. I do all my tDCS training every few days at 2mA for 30 minutes right now.

Accelerated learning montage from Kruse (PDF). It takes an anode placement at F10 and a cathode placement on my left shoulder. Something was happening, but results reported were accelerated visual learning which may be more appropriate for people reading medical images or screening baggage at a security checkpoint.

Decreased depression montage related to this resource (I couldn’t find the original study I used on this one). It takes an anode placement at F3 and a cathode placement on my right shoulder. I haven’t really felt depressed, but I was curious what it would feel like.

Attention improvement montage from Gladwina, et al. It takes an anode placement at Fp1 or Fp2 and a cathode placement on the opposite shoulder. I didn’t bother reading this paper since it’s behind a pay wall. I just worked from the node placement summary. I really like this one, and think that the kind of general committed performance that I’m looking for right now might be a good fit for this montage.

Most montages had a bit of prickling at the anode and cathode sites. I tended to have a little bit of a metallic taste in my mouth as well. With the attention improvement montage the metallic taste was more pronounced.

I’m a little loose with how I do things now. The first time I hooked the nodes up I was shaking and dropping things. It’s a big deal pumping electricity through the brain, even little bits. Now, I realize that none of the studies are conclusive or generally applicable. I’m going to have to try what works for me and see if I can live with those consequences.

An important thing that’s happened during this time has been that I’ve become more aware of my choices. I may be increasing intellectual stimulation generally, or I may just be trading concentration in one part of my brain for others. These are choices I’m making and I have the responsibility for their outcomes.

Where do I go from here?

Since I’ve been writing software for about 20 years, most of my time isn’t about learning how to be creative or insightful. It’s just learning how to get deep into the program flow quickly and consistently. Overall, I’m not very interested in distractions when I’m trying to work these days. That mental resistance to leaning in and doing my utmost best is much lower than it typically can be when I’m tired or have had a hard week.

The goal from here will to get some important systems in production and keep my performance somewhere near a sustainable position. As I get closer to that limit I’ll look into ways to improve it and measure it more effectively. I imagine different cycles, task limits, activities, diets and challenges will all be fruitful steps on this journey.