Obsessive Frenzy

I like to think that I understand myself very well. But there are bits of me that even I don’t get. Over the past three weeks, the online advertising world had been rocked by massive incidences of fraud and malware. As part of my day job I have traced the sources of malware and fraud and we have ceased working with those companies behind them. At the same time I was also involved in a … let’s just call it consulting capacity to another potential fraud case (not within online advertising). I got into a frenzy working on both projects at the same time. Usually I would be happy that I’m highly productive, but this time round I felt rather miserable.

The bits of me that I don’t quite get about myself is my capacity to become super obsessed with the work. The pattern is the same all the time: I would get excited over the work, and obsessively work on it with little to no rest. My productivity would be at a high, and I would be very very efficient and effective at doing my work. Then comes the crash. The obsession suddenly vaporizes. The motivation drops, and I stop caring. My productivity drops while I slink back into the background.

The worst part is that I could see the drop coming miles away. I know the drop would come, and I would dread it because I know when the drop comes, I won’t be productive. I don’t like being unproductive.

Right now I’m in the middle of a drop. I don’t know how long this will last. Sometimes it lasts a few days, sometimes a few months. After a while, I would find a new obsession and this cycle repeats.

I used to use the period of drops as a down time to pick up new skills. I loved reading statistics, economics and mathematics. I picked up all sorts of skills – lockpicking (for the fun of it), learning enough about electronics to build my own sous vide unit, cipher breaking, drawing up new (and mostly useless) encryption schemes, inventing or reinventing new (and again, mostly useless) communications and identity protocols. Basically, doing trivial stuff like learning a new language without any pressure to do so would often be the key to me finding another new obsession to stick my head into. That was how I spent my drops, until this year.

I’ve had 2 drops so far this year (including this one), and now I realize it is a problem. Previously when learning new skills, I would be able to focus on the tasks at hand. This year though, something changed. I can no longer hold my attention long enough to finish one task. This blog post took 5 days to write, for example. I tried studying homomorphic encryption on the way back from the office today, and my mind could not stop roving.

This year’s drops so far felt different: I felt like I need to move but am somehow unable to move when I attempt to, as if some form of paralysis had taken over my motivation. More than once I thought I had found a new obsession. The moment I tried getting started on it, I find myself unable to start.

I have considered a few things. The first is depression. Having been through a bout in 2007 (and got help), I would say this feels rather different – this doesn’t feel like the dull laziness and apathy, but rather it feels a lot more like frustration that I’m unable to get my arse moving. I’m not by any means feeling sad, or guilty or hopeless, or any of the classical signs of depression. But I shan’t rule it out yet.

Another thing I considered was that I was not doing enough things for myself. Let’s face it, the last 3-4 weeks were pretty much the most miserable I’ve felt in 2013 so far. Not quite the losing-faith-in-humanity miserable (that was more like feeling angry), this 3-4 weeks were pretty much me being upset that I hadn’t done anything to further improve myself. The internal lines of argument would go “instead of spending all your obsessive energy on this ‘consulting gig’, you should be working on something for Pressyo instead”.

But really, I took on the consulting gig because I was interested in the topic at hand – it involved fancy statistics, simulations and game theory – what’s not to like? But really, at the end of it, it was pointless fun. There wasn’t even a reward at the end of the gig. Still did it anyway, had my fun, and walked away.

I thought then perhaps that I should have been doing something meaningful for myself. By then, the drop had hit, and I set off to learn a new language. Nope. Couldn’t focus. Went to read up the latest microeconomics papers. Nope, couldn’t focus. Tried to learn more about homomorphic encryption – couldn’t focus. I had instead found myself very good at whiling my time away.

I am tired of this. I just want a constant productivity. I used to think that the downtimes were good for me, enabling me to learn a wide variety of skills. But if the new down times are just going to be of me being unable to focus, and struggling to get my focus back, I would rather not. I just want it to stop.

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