Saturday, June 24, 2023

Code therapy (AKA: Lessons from a "mental health" Hack Day)

I'm halfway through my drive to the event and have stopped at a well-known coffee chain. While I wait for my drink, I see a poster on the "community noticeboard" advertising an art therapy course. It strikes me that there's a similarity between such events and how I'm planning to spend my day.

It starts a few months earlier when lamenting how depressing it can feel when work isn't satisfying.

Part of the reason I'm a software developer is that I like the job. I like the aspects that are creative problem-solving. 

I get pleasure from creating something that makes other people's lives better or easier. Even if only in a small way.

The satisfaction I get from shipping something new (even if only an update) energizes me.

But sometimes work is tough.

Sometimes it feels like days or weeks go by without real progress.

Sometimes a task that can bring joy and energy can suck!

Sometimes, the bad parts of the day can be offset by doing personal, fun projects in the evening.

But then there can be extended periods when life, family, and other responsibilities take priority.

So, we hatched a plan. What if we set aside a day to focus only on fun personal side projects? It doesn't matter what you work on as long as it makes you happy.

And for a few people, in certain circumstances, it can be a lifesaver.

Sitting on a bus heading into Cambridge, I'm excited about what today may bring.

I have a whole day (the room booking is for 8 hours) and can do whatever I want.

I've got quite an extensive list.

I know I won't even get halfway through it, but the prospect of completing any of these things that have been in the back of my mind, waiting for the right opportunity to get started, excites me.

This is going to be a great day.

It doesn't matter that only half a dozen people are expected.

Selfishly, this is all about me. It's my chance to do the things I want to do.

That I don't need to worry about the logistics of managing lots of other people is a blessing.

We booked a bigger room than we need and invited lots of other people in the hope it might benefit them too, but if no one else turns up, it's better for me as I'll have more time to focus on my projects.

The reason for booking a room somewhere is that it helps avoid the distractions of home. There's no Xbox or TV here to tempt my attention. There are no family members to knock on the door.

That this is weeks in coming means, I've primed myself to think that today is special. Days like this don't come around often, so I want to make the most of it.

That others have thought the same and turned up is an additional encouragement to make the most of this opportunity. Plus, we have the time and space to have niche, technical conversations that we don't get the chance to have elsewhere.

I knew my list was unrealistic. I knew that as I added more items to it, I will end up crossing off fewer things than I initially hoped.

But I also knew that doesn't matter.

Because, as time goes by, I am getting things done. The project that's been niggling away in the back of my mind for the last few months is slowly creaking out of my fingers, through the keyboard, and into my laptop.

And it works. In my mind, I always knew it would, but now I can prove it. I can see it running in front of me. 

It's far from finished. Far from something other people could use. Yet. But it's slowly taking shape.

I'm well beyond proving this concept. This is going to be a "real" project.

Can't stop for lunch.

No time.

Don't want to stop. 

Making this progress feels too good to interrupt.

That list I started writing last night (and added to this morning) no longer matters.

I know I'm not going to cross anything off it.

But the sub-list for the first thing I chose to work on has more items completed than not. And I know that more ticks are coming soon.

It's not a "proper" hackathon, but I start to get into a hackathon mindset.

As we start to think about when we'll have to leave, I decide I need to treat these last two hours as if I was preparing for an end-of-hack presentation.

How much can I get done before time runs out?

How can I best get this in a position to demonstrate it to others?

There's no competition. There are no prizes.

But I know that feedback from others will encourage me to keep working on this in the weeks ahead. (Whenever I get the opportunity.) The encouragement of others is likely to help me strive to make some opportunities.

The entry in my calendar for today says "destress hack." This is the placeholder I put in when we first booked the venue.

Officially we called it a "mental health hack." I assumed that "mental health" was more appropriate for communicating the idea as it's such a widely used term and--in my mind at least--more socially acceptable and supported.

Regardless of the name, this was unlike other hackathons. No theme or topic. No competition. Simply a challenge to myself.

But really, it was like the activity on the poster I saw this morning.

This was therapy.

It might not be art, but I feel better for it.

This has made me feel better about life. And work. And myself.


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