How to Compile Your Brain

Have you ever wondered why software companies are able to crank out so many innovative products while also creating cultures where people really want to come to work?

I think it’s because of the compiler.

Unlike in other professions, a programmer’s workday includes mandatory down-time.  After writing a batch of code, programmers have to take a break while the computer compiles–translates their work from human readable language to machine readable language.  Without this step, the program won’t run.

While the computer does its work, programmers are not expected to feign busyness.  They are allowed, even encouraged, to slack off until the computer finishes.  Thus, when they return to work, not only has the computer had time to compile, but so has the programmer.

The rest of us also write code for a very specialized computer everyday:  our brains.  But unlike computer programmers, we don’t have mandatory compiling opportunities built into our day; we need to create them. 

Work in short bursts

When coders are working on a particularly sticky problem, it’s not uncommon to code for 10 minutes, compile, and then come back to see what they were able to fix and where they still have work to do.

The same concept applies to your work.  When progress seems impossible, try working on your project for 10 minutes and then doing something else for ten minutes.  MaryAnn calls this process layer-caking and it’s my favorite  Secret Playdate activity.

Diversify your interests

The not-computer-related definition of compile is:

to put together or compose from materials gathered from several sources

If you only ever expose your brain to one subject or way of thinking, it’s going to be hard to get any real compilation done.  Branch out!  Read new sections of the paper (or add new sections to your FlipBoard app).  Go see a movie about which you know nothing.  Start really paying attention when your partner or friends talk about their work.  You’ll be amazed at the connections the computer between your ears will be able to draw.

Give it time

Compiling takes the time that it takes and there is nothing you can do to speed up the process.  So build time into your schedule to take extended breaks where you don’t consciously work.  Instead of expecting yourself to finish a project in one sitting, create an outline to capture your ideas, go play disc golf*.  When you return, chances are you’ll be better prepared to flesh out your ideas.

If you just can’t bring yourself to actually slack off , try switching to “mindless” work.  It’s not as effective as play because even envelope stuffing requires some of your processing power, and you’ll forgo the energy boost that taking time off gives you, but if you just can’t bring yourself to play (or your boss absolutely won’t have it) it’s better than nothing.

Your Turn

Do you allow yourself some slack time?  How do you spend it?  Share your favorite slacking activities– as well as their results– in the comments!

*I’m on a disc golf kick.  You can play what ever you want.

3 thoughts on “How to Compile Your Brain

  1. Do you really play disc golf now?! We are brainstorming building a bridge over that muddy creek so you can finish that course with us… Tell J. it’s A Project and he should come supervise…

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