Ben Barbersmith

Continuing Education

— Posted on Apr 12, 2013

In general I’m a very motivated person. But during my free time, my motivation is cyclical – it waxes and wanes over the course of 9-12 months. I’ve started to think of this as the hacker lifecycle.

For the last 2-3 months of the cycle, I am content to spend my free time playing video games, catching up on the few good shows on television, and reading fiction. But for the other 7-10 months of my motivational cycle, I spend the every second of my spare time being trying to achieve something. I learn voraciously, I practice my new skills, I build, I create, I hack. I try to do something productive with my time. I am a doer.

When I look at my habits with hindsight, it is clear to me that I’ve spent the last five years in a repeating patten of continuing education. But I’ve subconsciously settled into a cycle that is rather different to the typical term structures found in British universities. Instead, my cycle has four phases, each of which last 2-3 months:

  1. Focussed efforts towards a life goal
  2. Structured self-education
  3. Side projects to practice new skills
  4. Burnout and rest

This motivational cycle has dominated my personal life for a long time now, and I feel sure that I can’t be alone in experiencing this pattern.

It’s time to think a little more deeply about the cycle and what can be done either to gain more benefit from it or break free of it altogether.

Phase 1: Focussed efforts towards a life goal

The productive periods of my life often start with a strong desire to change something about my life. It was during my first year of university early in 2006 that I first set a series of long-term goals for myself. Although I’ve achieved a good number of them, one or two remain elusive. Those goals still form the focus of my motivation, even 7 years after I first wrote them down. One of the most important is financial independence – I want my day job to be a lifestyle choice, not a requirement.

As my motivation waxes at the beginning of a cycle, I find myself with a craving to take steps towards that goal. I do so by starting a project which focuses on one thing only: building a new income stream. As a result of this single-mindedness, the content or subject of the project is often less interesting than it otherwise might have been.

If I’m honest, during these projects I find myself working on things that I am not even remotely interested in just to make it easier to build income. Naturally this has an impact on the longevity of the project; the lack of intellectual stimulation means that I find myself losing interest after 2-3 months. My work rate dwindles. The first phase of my motivational cycle ends.

By this point I have usually got far enough into my project that I have learnt some useful lessons about the reality of making money online. What’s more, the project is usually bringing in some some extra income too.

Most of the projects I work on during this phase still provide me with pocket money today. Unfortunately, the short time spent on each project due to a lack of interest means that the magnitude of the income is far lower than I had hoped for – and realistically, lower than could have been achieved with persistent effort.

Phase 2: Structured self-education

Having ceased work on the passive income project from phase 1, I find myself keen to be productive but hungry for intellectual stimulation. At this point, I almost always decide to teach myself a new technical skill or pick up some new technology. Earlier this year, I enrolled and completed a Coursera course (Dan Grossman’s wonderful Programming Languages module) and learnt all about functional programming concepts via SML and Racket. A few cycles ago when I was less familiar with modern web technologies, I took the Javascript course on Codecademy and ran through Michael Hart’s wonderful Ruby on Rails Tutorial.

This is usually the most satisfying period of my cycle. I am learning a new skill or technology which I know will enhance my employability, allow me to build things I previously could only have daydreamed about, and will ultimately be useful for many years to come. The period only comes to an end as I finish the course or set of tutorials I’ve been working through and find myself desperate to practice the skills I’ve been acquiring.

Phase 3: Side projects

These courses and tutorials are almost inevitably followed by phase 3 of the cycle: practicing what I’ve learnt. At this point, I build something that scratches my own itch (like Sundial or oh!vents, or I build something that seems like fun (like Grokily).

This phase provides a lot of great experience from practicing a new skill and (sometimes) shipping code. It’s always great fun, but after a few months of this, a voice in the back of my head starts to pipe up. Why are you working so hard on this project when it doesn’t bring you any closer to your goal of financial independence?

I find myself questioning the value of the project. Where’s the money? What’s the business model? How can we take this beyond a toy and into the marketplace? And so after a few iterations of fun development, I let the goal-focussed part of my personality bully my creative self back towards business.

And at last, after 6-9 months of hard work in every spare second of free time, I find myself burning out. I want to push back towards revenue-generation, projects that have a viable business plan attached. Thinking them up isn’t the problem. The problem is the timescale attached. Having worked for so many months without much significant relaxation or downtime, I find myself unable to commit to a new project with a 12 month lead-time. And so, at last, the motivated phases of my cycle are over.

Phase 4: Burnout and rest

At this point I find myself unwilling to embark on a new project that doesn’t excite me (phase 1), unable to teach myself another new set of skills without feeling like I should be working towards my life goals instead (phase 2), and unable to commit to a new viable business project with a long timeline (phase 3). My options are all boring or guilt-ridden, and so – trapped in a snare of my own devising – I submit to the siren call of escapism and dive into video games and TV.

In many ways, I’ll spend this period as ferociously devoted to my leisure activities as I was to my productive tasks. I’ll sink deep into a complex RTS, obsessively challenge myself to beat harder difficulties on FPS games, or watch full seasons of TV shows in mere weeks.

But after a few months of this, I start to feel an itch. I should be achieving something. I want more than this. And so the cycle begins anew…

Breaking the cycle

Over time I’ve come to understand this cycle and accept it for what it is. But now that I can hear the rhythms controlling my free time, should I try to change them? Should I break the cycle that traps me?

In many ways, I’m happy with this state of affairs. Each cycle I emerge with some concrete benefits:

  1. I have a new passive income stream (albeit minor)
  2. I have experience of a new skill or technology
  3. I have another project to demonstrate my competencies
  4. I have a better understanding of what motivates me

These are all great, and I’m genuinely pleased that I can look back on the last 8 years of my life and see that I spent majority of my free time productively. What’s more, I really do believe that my continuing education enables me to make many small steps towards my life goals.

But could I have spent that productive time more wisely? Could my small steps have been great strides?

Arguably, I need to temper myself as I drive back into phase 1 of a new cycle. If I can be patient and embark on a longer-term and more interesting project rather than a boring one that will earn me a quick buck, maybe I can avoid the internal conflict that ultimately leads to my burnout.

Is it just me?

Overall, I’m not unhappy with the hacker lifecycle that has dominated my free time since I graduated. It brings me concrete benefits and improves my life. But perhaps by combining all three phases I can make greater progress towards my goals in a shorter time – and that’s surely worth aiming for.

In the meantime, I’m interested as to whether the pattern I’ve described above is familiar to other wannabe-hackers and wantrepreneurs out there. Does anyone else recognise this pattern? How have you adapted it, broken free of it, or used it to your own benefit?

Apr 12, 2013 @benbarbersmith