Harnessing the Awesome Powers of Discipline & Mindful Chaos during Lockdown WFH (with Special Guest Oleg Pantsjoha)

TL;DR 

During the stresses of lockdown people are finding it hard to focus and create new memories, making work in thought industries harder. A number of different studies and research show that both mindfulness and novelty can help with different aspects of the “lockdown brain” in different ways. These approaches are a reminder to not only create heuristics and ways of working whilst testing, but also to remove bias by injecting chaos and novelty into your tests.

If this peaks your interest, grab a cup of your favourite brew (it’s okay we’ll wait…) and enjoy impromptu comedy with saged and flavoured advice.

Introduction

As we continue into the COVID 19 pandemic we are getting to a point where our brains are starting to shut down due to fatigue. The stresses and anxiety of the current climate are exhausting and take up a lot of the mental energy we’d be using for work. What can we be doing, as members of a thought industry, to train our brains into being able to think again? Can routine, or structured chaos, help us to continue working from home successfully?

Recently I’ve found myself becoming frustrated with how hard it feels to be able to think about things. I’m feeling that tasks which I’d be able to do easily are much harder and my concentration span is really reduced. It’s almost as if my brain is trying to wade through cotton wool as I try to formulate test ideas, or learn about a new part of the system.

After speaking to my awesome co-author Oleg Pantsjoha about this very topic we’ve decided to share our different yet complementary approaches that helped us deal with this issue. You can find his version of the post here.

Disclaimer: Although this article is backed by research, as referenced, we should still note that it’s still driven by our biases (don’t @ us). We totally recommend that people should do their research and not just take what we say at face value.

How habits, heuristics & discipline can help

As humans we have innate ability to perform all sorts of tasks in the “automagic” mode. Our subconscious governs this and allows us to perform the basic everyday things such as breathing, talking while walking, taking the trash out while daydreaming about a holiday, without breaking too much of mental sweat.

Now imagine if you could train your subconscious to carry out certain types of complex tasks, wouldn’t that be incredible. Well fortunately for you, it’s very much possible! 

The one with “expert” intuition

We’ve managed achieve it with driving, flying, playing musical instruments and there is even an incredible story about a commander firefighter using his “sixth sense” to recognise an imminent threat and save his team, this phenomenon was explained as “expert intuition” in the “Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow” book by professor Daniel Khaneman1.

What is this forbidden magic, I hear you ask? Well, expert intuition is thought to be part of subconscious ability to recognize a pattern and produce a response to a complex situation. Another way to look at it is that it is an experience based decision making process that becomes habitual. So how does one develop their “expert intuition” abilities in the domain of their choice?

Imagine watching a grand master chess player or a black belt martial arts sensei practice their moves. It is said that they develop their lightning fast cognitive ability through training and repetition of the fundamentals. 

Queens Gambit by Flitcraft Ltd and Wonderful Films productions and The Karate Kid by Delphi II and
Jerry Weintraub Productions
Queens Gambit by Flitcraft Ltd and Wonderful Films productions and The Karate Kid by Delphi II and Jerry Weintraub Productions

If you read the research, you’ll notice that the same principles apply to developing “expert intuition”. But don’t get ahead of yourself, you won’t be able to bend spoons with your mind just yet. What is this spoon you speak of?

The Matrix by Warner Bros.and Village Roadshow Pictures

The one with cognitive load

No matter how experienced we are at something, when we pick a novel task that requires thought process we incur some cognitive load, there are multiple factors in our lives that can contribute or take away from the strain of completing a task at hand. 

Try to recall yourself as a kid attempting to learn your multiplications tables; or your first weeks in your new role, the first time someone explained their business model, marketing strategy, infrastructure design, agile practices, design system, coding conventions, testing techniques, and the list goes on. 

How much effort did it take you before it almost became a second nature to respond 25 for 5 x 5 multiplication questions? Or to recognise the best solution for a problem at hand?

The cognitive load reduces overtime as your brain learns to recognise and process these patterns habitually.

The one with biases

A quick interjection if I may, with great power comes great problems or something of those sorts… there’s always a flip side to the good stuff. Our brains are able to do things automagiacally for a reason, it makes our lives simpler by reducing the cognitive load of certain tasks. Those “tasks” fall into the bucket of intuitive decision making. Overtime we develop a mental model of the world, each one of us with a unique perception of reality… “Mr Anderson”, sorry I couldn’t resist.

The Matrix by Warner Bros.and Village Roadshow Pictures

We’re going down the rabbit hole and there’s no turning back now. Cognitive bias is seen as systematic error in thinking, it’s a deviation from norm or rationality in judgement and these occur in the subconscious part of our brain. A prime example would be if you’ve ever been burnt by fire it’s very likely you’re going to be cautious of any sight of any form of fire even if it’s digital – this would be governed by at least two biases, confirmation and availability bias. 

There are over a 100 cognitive biases out there, you can explore a lot of them in this cognitive bias codex by Wikipedia. A great place to start trying to overcome these fallacies is by learning about them and identifying them in our thinking. If you’re trying to figure out how we got here and what this has to do with expert intuition or habits? Let me try to explain…

The Hangover by  Legendary Pictures, Green Hat Films & BenderSpink

The cognitive biases live and occur in the subconscious realm of our minds, just like expert intuition and habits. In theory you can think of cognitive bias as a naturally developed habit, or a more suitable word would be a heuristic (aka a mental shortcut). You will undoubtedly come across heuristics if you start to look into this subject, it can be used as a technique to develop mental shortcuts but be warned it can lead to becoming a bias if you don’t keep it in check. We will discuss heuristics and how you can use them in testing further down in this article.

The one with habits

With that in mind let’s press on and learn about how we can utilise habits to our gain. A key driving factor in the development of habits is craving, but more often than not it’s attributed to negative habits, such as eating unhealthy food, smoking or spending too much time on social media. Yes, I’m looking at you dopamine pumping, tiger loving, binge watching, sassy dancers…

Schitts Creek by Not a Real Company Productions and CBC

So, what’s the cure? No, it’s not the 80s rock band…although, the jury is still out on the science. Unfortunately, it’s self discipline, it may not bring out the feeling of excitement as much as the word craving does, but that’s due to the anchoring effect and all the late night take-aways. 

I’m not going to sugar coat it, self discipline is hard work and it’s the critical part to committing to a routine which develops or changes a habit. There are plenty of studies out there to show how long it takes for a habit to take hold, i.e. in the British Journal of General Practice it states it took their participants about 66 days2. Yet it is critical to note that it may differ for each person or habit that you want to develop, so stick at it even if it takes you a year, in that time you should develop a natural craving for carrying out the routine.

Something else that can help you further establish and solidify those good habits is positive reinforcement, yes it’s not just for kids. We can use this technique to correct or encourage certain behaviour. If you are struggling to go for an early morning run, try encouraging your future self with a promise of a treat, obviously as long as it is not detrimental to your run.

Here are a couple of diagrams from “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg that help demonstrate the habit loop and support my ramblings…

Aside from being able to make a cup of tea while checking the news with Alexa, there are other incredible benefits of having routines, especially during a pandemic. Routines give you structure to your day and it makes you feel like you have some control in your life, given current circumstances we need some of that right now. Structure can help with productivity, focus and lower those stress hormones. 

Routines, routine, routines…am I doing it right?

It’s important to note that some routines are better than others, like waking up before the sunrise just to zombie your way into a train carriage is not a routine many of us will miss. On the other hand there are keystone habits that have a positive subconscious knock on effect on other healthy routines. A great example of one is exercising, doing regular training overtime will have a knock on effect on eating healthy foods as well as having better regular sleep. Now, who doesn’t like sweating like an original Krispy Kreme doughnut? The Body Coach –  Joe Wicks certainly doesn’t mind… #injoke

Joe Wicks  by The Body Coach

If you’re interested in learning more about keystone habits or how you can change existing bad habits a good starting point is “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg.

The one with the mid season recap

Let’s take a quick breather and have a recap, we’ve gone over…

  • Automagic abilities of our subconscious
  • Cognitive prowess that is expert intuition
  • Rabbit hole that is cognitive biases and heuristics
  • Habits, the good and the bad ones
  • How to develop habits with self discipline and repetition
  • A list of important benefits that routines can offer you
  • How keystone habits can be a triple threat

Okay, KitKat time is over. You know, “life is like a box of chocolates…” the movie line uttered by our beloved character Forrest Gump is just packed full of sweet interpretations, and it’s very fitting for my next example of how life is not binary but a spectrum of sounds, emotions, flavours, colours, moments, decisions, and much much more…

Forrest Gump by Paramount Pictures

It’s important to understand that one size does not fit all and you should experiment with what works for you. One of the great habits you can apply here is journaling, writing down your observations, comparing results every so often and tweaking your routines. The same technique is applied by scientists in their experiments, by psychiatrists using CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) to treat patients and other great disciplines like testing, which will cover in a bit more detail later.

In the next section we will explore how routines and self discipline can be its own worst enemy, an impediment to a healthy and productive mind and what you can do to counteract the negative side.

How chaos and novelty can help

When somebody mentions chaos, you probably think about an untidy room or a villain like the Joker who just destroys things for fun. It conjures up images of something unstructured and likely stressful, with numerous articles telling us to “bring order to the chaos” in order to create harmony and unity.

Star Trek the Next Generation by Paramount Pictures

Having structure, predictability and order in our lives might sound like a good idea on paper but the human brain thrives on novelty3. Without new stimuli and experiences in order to remain healthy and active our brains start to shut down, something that’s happening a lot now in lockdown. The Lockdown Brain where you start to have trouble making decisions, find it hard to remember things or cannot focus can be attributed to a lack of novelty in our lives.

The one who needs novelty but it’s distracting

Usually we’d have lots of new sights, sounds and people on our commutes and in our working day, giving our brains something to focus on and process. But where we’re now working and living in the same place each day we’re not seeing or experiencing new things.

Silent Hill 4: The Room by Konami

A lack of new sensory input means that we’re very sensitive to any kind of new sensory information and makes us easy to distract. Partially this is because novel stimuli can support and help learning4 so becoming focused on things around us to get a sweet hit of dopamine to boost our learning. This does mean that every notification popup, movement out of the window or sound in the flat becomes our focus and creates countless context switches breaking concentration on our work which is tiring and stressful.

The one who’s so bored their brain breaks

Every day in lockdown we live the same routine, get up, go to the same room and use the computer, have the same Zoom calls, sit in the same room and watch TV, bed. It’s boring!

Having the same routine and environment is boring which can lead to burn out’s apathetic cousin rust out5. If burn out is having too much going on for your brain power to be able to deal with, rust out is having too much brain power for the small number of things happening. This means that our boring lives are making us less interested in doing and learning things and is causing us to not exercise the problem solving parts of the brain. Not only that, the human brain is built to process memories through whatever else was happening at the time6 so a boring routine, where every day is the same, is making it hard for us to be able to remember things.

The one where we harness the chaos to survive

To survive, if not thrive, in the current situation we need to be able to reduce stress, prevent distraction and increase our ability to create memories. To this end, I recommend doing something unexpected; shake things up by injecting some chaos into your life.

Change your routine: Do something simple to break out of routines and make your brain more active. Have breakfast for dinner, start talking walks in the middle of the day, exercise or do yoga. By changing your day to something that’s not done every day you move away from your brain acting on auto pilot and reinvigorate the creative parts of your brain. Be careful to not do too many new things though as you may get burnt out from context switching.

Change your workspace: To assist with temporal anchoring, change your work and living space in a way that’ll help your brain to remember “Oh that was that month…”. Decorate for the month, like we do for Christmas, to give your brain something to remember or move the furniture around in your office / living room / workspace. Many offices are sending their employees houseplants to decorate their desk, so why not decorate your desk with cool things?

Do something unexpected: We’re craving novelty and new sensory inputs so do something that you wouldn’t usually do. Pick a direction and take a walk to see something new, try a colouring book, listen to new music, have someone else decide what you’re going to do today (parents, let your kids decide how you dress and what you eat).

How can this help with Working in a Thought Industry?

All that we’ve covered up to this point is incredibly relevant to building great quality products, it takes a collaborative team to do this effectively and efficiently. Read on to understand how you can utilise the above learnings in your professional setting to improve your own effectiveness and efficiency and in turn your teams.

Using mindfulness and routine

Our systems are getting more complex by the day, just take a gander at the Netflix’s or amazon’s micro services model that eerily resembles the death star.

As the complexity of the systems increase, so too does the need for our expertise to evolve. Ingeniously, we’ve found ways to build extremely complex systems out of smaller self-contained subsystems by utilising micro-services architecture structure style and AWS Lambdas technology. This doesn’t come without the cost to our mindfulness; overtime as a result of dealing with such complexity we get in the habit of relying on our intuitive expertise. 

We recognise patterns in problems and respond with best practices. It greatly reduces our cognitive load but on the flip side introduces bias. I’d like to go over some of the techniques, practices and processes that occur naturally over time, introduced or developed by us, and cover how we can keep a healthy balance of utilisation of our conscious and subconscious.

  • ShuHaRi is a process of developing your expertise. As you go through each stage there are certain biases that we need to watch out for
    • Shu is the first stage of learning a new skill, as a student you don’t worry too much about the theory and just focus on repeating what your teacher does. Wax on, wax off… minimum thinking required. Over time you’ll be an expert at the basics and it will become a second nature. 
      • Now, it’s all great but what if you’ve followed a school of thought that you realised down the line you no longer agree with? Some good heuristics to utilise here is to “try before you buy”, “measure ten times cut once”, “check yourself before you…”; you get the gist, do your due diligence before you religiously follow instructions. 
      • Once you’ve selected a technique that you want to learn, immerse yourself but don’t switch off your critical thinking. Check in with yourself that you’re not developing confirmation bias or halo effect. Keep an open mind, it will help you ensure you have a tool belt full of different techniques and tools with a variety of problems, instead of being a one trick pony.
    • Ha is the second stage of learning a new skill. If you’ve mastered the basics and have kept your critical thinking intact you will go on to explore other schools of thoughts, techniques, tools, etc;
      • The danger here you have to look out for is trying to look for patterns in new things from previous learnings. As the old sages say “empty your cup…”, in other words try to look at new ideas from a fresh perspective. This is not to say that you should completely disregard your previous knowledge.
      • Debating, collaborating with people of opposing schools of thought and testing out ideas will help ensure you cover the subconscious blind spots.
    • Ri is the final stage of developing a new skill. This is someone who operates at a high level of expertise, no longer requires step by step instructions and has acquired a spectrum of opposing or complementary knowledge. Here you experiment with the skill you have accumulated and make it your own.
      • When operating a skill at this level, it becomes a second nature to you. You can fall into the trap of having the same level expectations of everyone around you as you. You may write documentation with very high level details or too much technical detail where only high level is required. You may use acronyms everywhere that all select few understand.
      • Stay mindful of other people, we all have different levels of knowledge and abilities, remind yourself every so often how you got here.
  • Agile ceremonies provide structure and routine to our work, this is incredibly helpful as it can reduce the cognitive load and we can focus more on solving complex problems. 
    • Unfortunately the downside is that individually and as a team we can fall into the trap of becoming too complacent and forget to question if the ways of working are still applicable. 
    • The retrospectives or ways of working sessions can help the team review agile practices and tweak them to fit their context.
  • A heuristic is a fallible method of solving a problem or making a decision, a great definition by the context driven school of thought. Other definitions include, a rule of thumb or a shortcut. However this can be fallible for example, when you cross the road you should always check both sides before crossing. It’s fallible because it doesn’t yield the same results all the time. Context is critical when utilising heuristics.
    • Utilising heuristics can help with triggering the right mindset and warms up your brain. We use this a lot in our testing activities, next time you’re having a pairing session or 3 amigos and thinking or talking about testing the test heuristic cheatsheet open. You can create your own heuristics to help you think about how you can solve problems.

Using chaos and embracing novelty

We know that we need a little bit of novelty every day to help unlock critical thinking and memory, both things important for testing. But what other aspects of chaos can we harness into our testing during this time?

  • Being too comfortable with a heuristic leads to confirmation / availability biases. If we keep doing the same thing over and over we just expect to see the same results, regardless of what’s really happening. Let’s research and start to use new heuristics as part of our testing. Or better yet, can we create new heuristics formed from our own testing to help others?
  • We can add some chaos engineering into our testing approaches:
    1. Define a ‘steady state’ with a  measurable output through automated tests.
    2. Hypothesise that this steady state will continue by having the automated tests be repeatable.
    3. Introduce variables to behaviour and the system that the automated tests are running with. Change an input by adding or removing data or throttle the network and increase packet losses using clumsy.
    4. Validate the hypothesis by looking to see that the steady state (of the tests passing) continues.
  • The harder it is to disrupt the steady state, the more confidence we have in the behavior of the system
  • Shake up your exploratory testing by having a desk of cards on your desk that describes heuristics, personas, test ideas or risks and pull one whilst running a testing charter to change the direction of your testing. 
  • We can use temporal anchoring as part of learning and retaining system knowledge. Change your location when you’re testing to help build a relationship between the new environment and what you’ve learned in your testing. If you have a day with a lot of learning to do, decorate with a new bunch of flowers on your desk to help build memories anchored to this new stimulus.
  • Change up your agile ceremonies by picking a different format for each of them to promote different ways of thinking and prevent your thoughts from becoming stale. Plan a Fun Retrospective or change up how we run stand ups to include new elements like alliteration or having to use a word of the day. Suggest breaking up the routine by hosting meetings at different times or having calls where we can also take a walk during them.
  • Pair with someone from a different team to help them solve a novel problem, or to test something that you haven’t seen before. Seeing something new will help you to engage your brain and thinking patterns and stop you relying on the same heuristics and working patterns you’ve been using during lockdown. Hosting a bug bash for your team could be a great way to get people doing something they wouldn’t usually do, plus it’ll provide you with the insights of users who wouldn’t usually use your product.

Okay we’re Otter here… take it away Ramone the Testing Otter™ 

“So what does all this mean?”

Great question Ramone the Testing Otter™! In life as in testing we have to achieve balance; we need to be able to have the tools that’ll help us to plan and achieve things whilst also embracing that spark of chaos that comes from the unknown. Having habits and routine can bring comfort and clarity to our ways of thinking, but too much of that can leave us with biases that we forget to overcome. Likewise a little chaos and novelty can shake up our brains and help with learning, but too much ends up in an unpredictable mess. We need to be able to harness both during this period to relieve the anxieties and stresses of working during lockdown.

 “Like keeping to a schedule but changing things up within it?”

Exactly right Ramone the Testing Otter™! Make those little changes whilst also being mindful and sticking to the habits and patterns that work for you. Look for little places where you can add something new each day and claim that as a victory!

 “I’m gonna wear a hat during work today!”

That’s great Ramone.

References

  1. https://escholarship.org/uc/item/7nk534tm; Dreyfus, SE 2015
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3505409/; Benjamin Gardner, Phillippa Lally & Jane Wardle 2012
  3. Absolute Coding of Stimulus Novelty in the Human Substantia Nigra/VTA; Bunzec & Duzel 2006
  4. Novelty speeds up learning thanks to dopamine activation; Haesler 2020
  5. Boredom at Work; Mann 2007
  6. Temporal Landmarks; Peetz & Davydenko 2019

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