In which good problems to have are still problems

Today I missed an appointment and now I feel like a total mess.

I used to write about this stuff all the time. Back when this journal was a LiveJournal and that’s what you did with a LiveJournal. Of course, back then the only people reading it were friends I’d made at goth clubs and on (don’t laugh) OKCupid (OK, laugh).

Now I’m going to hit “submit” and gosh only knows how many people are going to see this. Yeah, I know. I don’t have to post this to Twitter and to Facebook. I don’t even have to make it public. I don’t even need to be writing this into WordPress. Hell, somewhere around here I probably still have a notebook.

But I’m probably going to post it. Because writing is therapy, and there’s a part of my mind that doesn’t believe something has really been said until it’s been heard.

Because I’m afraid of you believing I have my shit together.

Because every time I write publicly about things that are way too private, someone emails me and tells me how much it helped them.

Because I don’t know if I’m more ashamed of the oversharing sap I used to be, or of the two-dimensional figure I’m becoming.

(And yes, the privilege of spilling my guts without having to fear someone using it as proof that I’m “too emo for tech” is not lost on me.)

I missed an appointment because I was up until 4:30AM playing Halo 3. I was up playing Halo because after a day spent trying and failing to get through my email for the second day running, smacking Brute chieftans with a grav-hammer is about the only thing I want to do. And late at night is the only time I have to do it.

I still feel guilty for not using that time to deal with more email though.

I use “email” as a catch-all. It really means all the little and big tasks that make their way to me via my inbox: deal with customer support (the issues I haven’t yet figured out how to delegate). Give feedback on a cover design. Organize guest hosts. Make flight reservations. Research and then try to cancel a scammy service I got suckered into when I was 18 and clueless. Talk to my accountant. Email a friend about a random idea. Email my assistant about changes to invoicing. Set up a lunch with a friend. Sort out WordPress issues; get sidetracked by WordPress plugins I keep meaning to get working. Fix a broken video on a book website.

That’s just a small selection of highlights from yesterday.

And all of this interspersed with compulsive visits to social media. I know that I’m addicted. I can feel the dopamine drop as soon as I see that non-zero unread count. I can feel the relief when someone posts an interesting article that will take my mind away from my inbox for a little while.

I also know that it’s avoidant behavior; that it’s not as simple as saying “OK, no more social media!”. Procrastination is a stress handling mechanism. And this stuff stresses me out more than I like to admit; more than I can even understand.

It’s not so much all the little tasks, as the decisions.  How do I reply to this email? What do I think of the cover design? When should we have lunch? What emails can I defer until later?

Every decision has a cost. I wonder if other people feel this as keenly as I do. It’s as real as the ache in my legs when I run up a steep hill on a trail run. Every choice takes something out of me.

And that’s just the direct cost. Every decision also adds stress. Deferring an email, I feel sympathetic stress for the me-of-tomorrow who will have to think about it again. I feel that email take up residence in the snarling queue of demons I can hear right outside a door in my mind labeled NOT YET HANDLED.

Scheduling an appointment, I wonder: will Friday-me be even more overloaded than today-me? Will he hate me for this?

The conference invitations are the hardest. The stress of knowing that someone—multiple someones—are waiting on my response in order to make plans. The stress of worrying that if I say “no”, I’ll never have this opportunity again. The bubble of techies-who-care-what-I-have-to-say will burst and I will be an old guy trying to impress people with tales of the places I almost visited.

Not to mention the knowledge that I’ll disappoint people if I say no.

On the other hand, the stress of knowing that if I say yes, I’ve put myself in for weeks of overwork before and after the conf. And on the hook to say something Really Very Clever Indeed. And overshadowing all of that, the looming knowledge that I will have to once again see my kids sadly waving goodbye in a few weeks or months. Which gets harder every year.

Yeah, I know, poor me, gets invited to conferences. Must be rough.

And then there’s the stuff that makes me feel like I never learned how to be a real adult. Filling out forms and making phone calls fills me with a level of apprehension that seems completely irrational. I keep thinking that if I keep doing these grown-up things long enough, they’ll just feel normal and mundane. But they never do. The fear of talking to someone on the phone never dissipates.

What’s that inbox? I need to call the auto mechanic? Hang on a sec, I think Twitter is calling me…

I feel like I’m getting something wrong and I don’t know what it is. There are people with way more responsibilities than I have, and they seem to cope just fine. They even answer my emails promptly.

I feel like a total mess. I feel like I’ll never get to the projects that are the most important.

I feel like an impostor, because I can ship videos about code but I hardly ever ship features.

I haven’t yet mentioned the stress and avoidance triggered by needing to come up with something novel and clever and useful twice a week.

And then there’s that book which I haven’t written any more of for weeks. Partly because I want to improve the book generation software first. Hello, Yak, you are looking very hairy this week. Also, it’s been so long since I shaved you that it’ll probably take me a couple of days to remember where to start.

Then there is the small matter of the new baby due in less than 8 weeks. No biggie. As usual, I feel guilty for being underprepared for this. And like I’m not doing enough to help my wife.

Maybe I should read Getting Things Done again.

Maybe I should do pomodoros.

I miss pairing with people.

I miss user groups.

I miss having a life outside of programming.

I feel like somehow, if I knew how to play the piano, I’d be able to deal with all this a lot better.

I tell myself that the running is going to pay off in the long run, in better health and energy and brain function and focus and stamina. Then I lose half a day to a deeply satisfying run, and the rest of the week is the more frantic for it.

I’m a mess and I don’t know how to fix it. But it sure as hell feels good to get this off my chest.

View All


  1. Joshua Ballanco October 15, 2014 at 16:17

    I’ve been there. In fact, I was there not 4 or 5 weeks ago. Then I got sick — nothing serious, just a little head-cold — and that gave me just enough of a break to remember back to my time as a grad student. There was a professor who had a routine he would follow: at 1pm he closed his email, stepped away from the computer, and went to work in the lab.

    At the time, I didn’t think much of it. Email was email, but lab experiments were his life’s work. The problem we, as programmers, have is that our lab sits right next to email (using that term, as you did, as a generalization). We forget that email is not our work. We don’t “get up” and go to the lab because the lab is *right here*.

    But maybe we should. I’ve started actually *closing* my email (it’s not open now) and twitter (closed it after I saw your tweet and clicked this link). I’m tempted to take it a step further and create a dedicated VM I can escape to.

    Maybe I’ll name it “Lab”.

  2. in fact it has been a while that I feel like you about my life (or non-life) and I am trying and failing at getting out of the mess… I do understand what you mean.

  3. Christopher Patti October 16, 2014 at 13:06

    This hit close to home in a number of ways. As to the social media addiction, I tend to use it like a reward. Do some useful quanta of work, and then check email, Twitter or whatever. Feeling out of control happens to all of us no matter what kind of life we lead. I have found that where some of the ‘responsibility anxiety’ is concerned, talking to my wife can be amazingly helpful, theraputic, and perspective adjusting in all the right ways 🙂 Good luck and be well!

  4. Matthew Grecar October 17, 2014 at 14:06

    Though I have a different set of problems, I feel pretty much the same way. There’s always more to do than I can ever get done. I can’t ever really relax or enjoy myself, because I feel guilty about everything else I’m putting off. The best I can do is to just disconnect with a few drinks and some video games. Even the prospect of triaging and prioritizing things is often taxing. I barely leave the house anymore, the prospect of managing a social event or even visiting friends has become prohibitively exhausting. The dread of additional obligations is paralyzing, and everything feels like an obligation and a duty, even things I used to enjoy. It feels like I’m missing some basic ability to sanely manage life, that everyone else somehow picked up, somewhere. If I find any answers, I’ll let you know.

  5. Anonymous Coward October 17, 2014 at 15:30

    This sounds all too familiar. You are definitely not alone. I had been in denial about my low-grade anxiety disorder for a dozen or more years. Finally, I stopped fighting it, admitted it to myself, and am feeling much better on an SSRI (specifically, Zoloft). I don’t like the idea that I need this medication, but I was self medicating anyway with other intoxicants, with not as good results.

    I’m not saying that just because your post rings familiar to me that you also suffer from some form of anxiety disorder… but maybe? Anyway, it is a crappy feeling and only you know if it is manageable or not.

    Best Wishes.

Comments are closed.