Pen{g}sieve Vol 4: Experiencing Reboot (Part I)

Unlike my previous posts that have been distilled from events in the past months, in this post, I will share my experience of starting in a new environment, a reboot as I call it, while it is still unfolding.

Design guard-rails against a new environment

Recently my sister commented that my last newsletter seemed a little less polished and read more like research notes. In fact, I almost missed posting the last newsletter, sending it out on the Monday after the scheduled weekend. So what happened?

Well, I started a new job.  Three weeks into it, I already feel the gravity pull of a demanding new environment. Not only did I experience a dip in my creativity, but I also missed yoga for two full weeks, broke my reading streak, and missed two prior commitments. Yes, good habits can be fragile under the weight of adapting to a new environment.

So how can we go through major changes without losing the good habits that lead us to those changes in the first place?

In fact, the very first guard-rail against the stress of a new environment is to anticipate the stress and even appreciate it. Stress is a natural by-product of achieving. According to this article, activation in a brain circuitry called the Task-Positive-Network (TPN) triggers our natural flight-and-fight responses, thus producing stress. As the name suggests, TPN is enabled by activities that are task-oriented and especially when the outcome is uncertain (Bingo! trademark of modern professional life).

On the other hand, the very essence of a new environment is the freshness and the uncertainty it injects into our lives. In fact, a moderate amount of stress is essential for peak performance (so-called flow states) as shown in the Figure below. Compared to the tail-end of my previous job, I clearly experienced a renewed source of energy and heightened cognitive function at this new job, all thanks to stress.

Having understood the necessity of stress in a high-functioning environment, it is important to design safety valves against over-stress. My approach is to deliberately introduce pause into the system to allow re-calibration and to fine-tune our pressure valves. As it happens, I got an unexpected week-long break for this Thanksgiving week. That gave me the much-needed pause to adjust the pace and set the house in order. At the end of the break, I resumed yoga and reading, published this newsletter on time, finished a long procrastinated personal task, and even caught up on a bit of work.

Since everyday activities generate stress, it is also essential to introduce daily pauses to counter its effect. So what can serve as daily antidotes to stress? According to Positive Renewal, another brain circuitry called the Default-Mode-Network (DMN) neutralizes TPN's effect, thus having a renewal benefit. Activities that light up the DMN include meditation, play, experiencing art, and even helping others. In essence, DMN activities are all about being, whereas TPN activities are all about achieving. It feels almost Zen.

Now I feel great whenever I take a walk, meditate, or talk to a friend because I know I am doing my share of filling up the well and paying dividends to optimal performance.

Leverage the beginner's eyes

The period where we adapt to a new environment is often unsettling, but at the same time precious. Thanks to stress, our sensory and cognitive functions are on high alert, our focus is heightened, our energy level is elevated, and we are unburdened by the legacy. This is called the beginners’ eye effect. It would be a huge waste to blindly go through this time period and wish it be over as soon as possible. Instead, we should use the ramp-up period to re-calibrate our system to work effectively in the new environment.

In the first three weeks, the beginners’ eye effect offers me the rare opportunity to examine my system in a fresh new light, such as

  • When and where did my ego show up? (Much less than before, a huge progress)

  • What frustrates me, what stresses me, and what triggers negative emotions such as fear and insecurity? (Emotional trigger is a huge topic, elaborate more later)

  • How well does my productivity system work the new environment? (Time-boxing, energy management, daily goal setting and reflection all seem effective)

  • How do I learn a new code-base? (Learn from written documents first, debug through a specific problem, take notes, interleave learning)

  • How do I deal with information overload? (Turn off most notifications, apply the 80/20 rule to select what to read and read with focus, take notes)

  • How do I solve open-ended problems such as technical planning for next quarter? (First formulating what problems we are trying to solve, then elaborate the ideas in writing)

Among these questions, diving into one’s emotional triggers is a big part of re-calibrating our system to a new environment. For example, during the Boot Camp activities, I learned that I was easily frustrated by issues encountered during software setup. It was frustrating because I never knew how long it would take, and when I did resolve it, it was often due to a small human error. Hence, I got no satisfaction in spending all this time solving this problem.

As soon as this emotional trigger was identified, I adjusted my strategy regarding setup tasks.

  • First, I made sure setup tasks were done during my high-energy time and without any multitasking. Even though software setup following given steps is often mechanical, the emotional and time cost of fixing something due to a human mistake is high, so I am going to avoid it as much as possible.

  • Secondly, whenever I encountered a setup issue, I reframed it as an exercise to enhance or test my problem-solving skills. Such reframing gives meaning to the time spent on the task.

  • Lastly, I found that my frustration in fixing setup issues often stemmed from not being able to reason about what was happening in the system so even if a solution was found I got no sense of closure or satisfaction. The remedy is to spend some time understanding the underlying system even though it meant a delay in resolving the issue at hand.

As such, a VSCode setup problem cost me the better part of two days to resolve. After much digging, I was proud to have discovered and reported a bug in the company’s version of VSCode. Though not wish to encounter another setup issue, I do think the effort was not wasted because such emotional triggers are common in debugging any problems and this experience gave me the tools to deal with them.

A cautionary tale

As I summarize the lessons learned during my first three weeks at a new job, I want to point out that no methods or rationalization can eliminate the discomfort of adapting to a new environment. As I think of the tasks awaiting me on Monday, I still get an uneasy feeling in my stomach.

Furthermore, since these thoughts are captured just-in-time, I have no idea if my principled (idealistic) approach will work, especially in a company that prides itself in moving fast. I am not even sure if this newsletter would read less like research notes after a week of renewal :). But if they do not quite work as expected, it will be another great learning opportunity to figure it out.

Changes are messy despite the best of intentions. Stay tuned to Part II of experiencing reboot.