Problem-Solving Via Repetitive Work And The Back Of My Mind

I spent my entire afternoon turning something on and then off and then on again. That’s kind of par-to-the-course for my job, since I’m a tester and sometimes what I’m testing is what happens when I turn a thing off and back on. This time, I was helping a coworker chase down a really bad issue he ran into a couple times in the last twenty-four hours. The likelihood of it ever happening was low, but it was a significant enough issue that the off-chance of it happen was so bad that we dropped everything to work on hunting this bug down. After a few hours of work, though, we never managed to reproduce it, which usually means there is another hidden step somewhere in the process that we missed during today’s work. Such is the nature of testing, though. Lots of effort for zero pay off, sometimes, paired with the possibility that we’re going to find the issue the instant we stop looking for it. It can be a tiring, frustrating job at times.

Still, I can appreciate the level of focus something like this requires. It might seem boring to turn something off and on again, watching various displays in order to monitor the results as we watch for something to go wrong, but it’s all-consuming. You can’t really let your mind or attention wander. If you’re not attentive, you might miss something significant or miss an unrelated issue that crops up during your testing. Sometimes I listen to podcasts or music when I’m doing stuff like this, since I don’t really need to think when I’m working. I just need to watch. And count, usually, since there’s an eventual point where it is time to move on to something else. Mostly, though, I can just let myself fall deeply into whatever repetitive steps I’m taking and zone out for a while. It can be pleasant, even if it’s not particularly fulfilling or rewarding work to do.

I frequently get pulled into this kind of stuff because I don’t mind repetitive tasks and I have a tendency to figure things out when doing something like this over and over again. When my mind wanders, it tends to work through things without my direction. I’ve always thought of this as putting things on the backburner, a way of slowly working through an idea, issue, or puzzle without needing to actively think about it. It’s a useful skill to have, this kind of background thinking, since it frequently means that ignoring a problem isn’t entirely ignoring it. Eventually, my mind will present me with a fully thought-out solution or answer and usually with a lot less stress than if I’d spent all my time working through the problem on my own.

I haven’t been able to do this much, recently, since most of my problems can’t be solved without active effort or a minimum required passage of time. There wasn’t anything to figure out for apartment hunting. There was no solution to work towards in regards to saving up enough money for the various trips I’ve had this year. There’s nothing to consider at this point about how to solve the problems I face in my apartment, of upstairs noise and drafty windows. Sure, when I eventually get back to working on making social connections and trying to make friends, I’m sure it will come in handy again, but most of the problems I’ve faced in this pandemic are either so big that I can’t think about anything else (they take up the whole stovetop, to return to the metaphor) or something that no amount of thought on my part will resolve.

It’s been frustrating since I built so much of my problem-solving and emotional processing on this ability that I’ve had to learn new coping mechanisms. Avoiding thoughts about a topic these days usually means that nothing changes until I can make the time to return to it and actually work through it. Most of the time, anyway. It worked really well for figuring out if I was going to buy a house or rent for another year. It did not work well for figuring out what to do now that my potential roommate situation fell through or for trying to work through how I feel about my geographic social isolation (since I need to figure out what I want before I can figure out what to do about it). Once I’ve moved and had a chance to settle into a living situation that doesn’t feel as uncomfortable as my current one does, I’ll hopefully be able to get back to more of the “figure out what to do” type of problems rather than the “wait for the time to act” type problems. It’d be nice to finally be able to solve some problems instead of being forced to just wait them out/endure my way through them like I have been.

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