Option paralysis

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a long-standing fantasy about being a professional musician (among other occupations like an architect or chef). Unlike software development, though, the idea of playing professionally never took. The feeling I have when I’m writing code or designing something just isn’t there with music. I still pick up my guitar a few times a week, but rarely invest the time to write a song; I just noodle for an hour or two, halfheartedly investing in a riff until the moment evaporates.

Occasionally, whenever I find myself up late at night, I start to drift back toward the fantasy of musicianship. I’ll read news about my favorite musicians, watch interviews with bands, and even spend a little bit of time watching live performances. The other night—following an extended work day that lasted from 8 or 9am until almost midnight—I found my focus drifting from the task at hand and went on one of these jaunts.

Something about the energy of a punk rock or metal show always captivated me. People throwing each other around, musicians smashing instruments. A form of church that in almost any other environment would be grounds for arrest. One of my favorite bands fitting this description is The Dillinger Escape Plan. Aside from having the perfect name for a band that sounds like the chase following a botched bank robbery, their live performances—if chaos is your thing—are a real treat (a friend and I saw them a few years back in which he left with a gash above his eyelid he so warmly nicknamed “The Dillinger”).

When you listen to the band at first pass it just sounds like noise. If you tune in a bit closer, though, you’ll notice that the songs are incredibly complex. Difficult jazz parts that even a seasoned musician would struggle with, disguised as bullshit because they’re run through several layers of distortion before meeting your ear. Coupled with on-stage acrobatics, it’s always fascinated me how the band manages to play the songs live without compromising their integrity.

The other night, I found myself watching an interview with the founder and guitarist of the band, Ben Weinman, talking about his live guitar rig. In it, he walks the interviewer through his set up and some of the choices he made about different equipment that fits into the nature of the band’s live performances. When he talked about his pedal board, he touched on a feeling that’s all too familiar: option paralysis (the name of the album they released a few years prior to the interview).

He alluded to stripping a lot of equipment out of his rig in an effort to simplify the translation of the band’s songs from the record to a live show. Hearing this, I started to think about all of the different little “things” I find myself interacting with as I work. While certain tools have definitely made my work simpler, few of those things are truly essential. Build systems, libraries, frameworks; recently it’s felt like I spend more time getting ready to write code than actually writing it (and I’m not alone).

This has been one of my favorite parts of working with Meteor, whose core focus is on eliminating a lot of the weight around getting up and running. Even with this approach, the team building Meteor has struggled against the greater web development community’s tendency toward complexity. Even with the intent of not complicating everything, they’ve still found themselves introducing things that—while incredibly powerful and useful in the right context—still add thought-weight to the developer’s process.

All of this has had me thinking about where I can trim things down. Do I really need to use this thing, or am I just using it because other people are and it’s deemed “cool?” Beyond code, I’ve asked the same about what I pay attention to. Do I really need to read that article or check up on this news site, or can I just drop it altogether? Answering in the latter option, this week I forcefully blocked websites that I found myself wasting inordinate amounts of time and energy on and focused on diverting that energy back into my work.

The moral of all this—if there is one—is to reduce. Eliminate unnecessary steps and distractions wherever possible. Ask if it is really improving the situation, or just adding yet another thing you’ll have to worry about. Pay close attention to what you’re doing just because others are doing it and ask whether or not changing your mind will hurt you or help you.