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Multiplicative time

Pushing through your problems, most of the time, isn’t the best solution

February 8, 2023


In the face of a difficult problem, my approach has been to beat it into submission: try every possible approach I can think of and never give up.

It has been surprisingly effective. I have used this approach for school work, writing, and coding. My hope, and assumption, is that I am more stubborn than the problem at hand. By concentrating for a continuous period of time, it will yield under my sheer awesomeness.

But one day, you will meet your match, and work ethic alone will not cut it anymore. I feared this thought and prayed that it wasn’t true. Unfortunately, it is.

It is not enough to outrun the fastest, most cunning, and unfamiliar prey. If you see something that looks like a cheetah, but all of a sudden it starts swimming in the ocean, maybe it is time to take a step back, re-evaluate your life choices, and hope it does not eat you. You should not start swimming after it like a madman. You go back to your tribe, ask for help, and go build a freakin’ boat.

Classic advice

It is tried and true advice to sleep on your problems.

Taking a break away from what you are working on is very effective at making you feel refreshed and getting a new perspective on things. While it is better than continuing to work, sometimes sleeping or taking a break will not cut it, especially if are dealing with a challenging and new problem.

This has played out time and time again in my own life. Recently, while I was coding my website, I stumbled across a cryptic error message. I was trying to make my website to look nice, but the library I was using was not behaving whatsoever.

I followed the documentation word for word, but got completely different results. I could not wrap my head around the problem because I was under the assumption I was the problem. Maybe I had some random semicolon, or an improper configuration. I did not even consider the possibility that it was the developer’s fault or poor documentation.

I spent probably 3 days tracking down this stupid bug. It was stupid because all I wanted was for it to work the instructions said! It was not that much to ask. In the end, I narrowed down the problem enough to know that it was not my fault.

I could have spent another few days researching, trying to track down the issue myself. Instead, I spent an hour assembling an entire page description of everything not working, with screenshots, code, and everything. I posted on the library’s forum with all of my hard won knowledge, expecting to discover some convoluted bug.

Instead all I got was a once sentence response back:

Github issue
Github issue
God damn it.

This person probably looked at my post for 15 seconds and was like, “oh that’s easy, just change this”. Meanwhile I wasted hours of my life when all I needed to do was talk to another human being, which brings me to the thesis of this post.

Ask for help, especially on the internet

Sometimes, I feel like the entirety internet is just a room filled with 8 super-geniuses who are responsible for all the solutions on StackOverflow or Reddit.

Then I look at Twitter to convince myself otherwise.

But the point of the matter is you can probably speak to someone with a Ph.D in Horology or any other absurdly obscure field. You just have to find them. Additionally, if you have a specific question, forums are literally your best friend.

By doing this, not only are you taking a break, but you’re making time work for you. I can spend 20 minutes writing a thoughtful question and someone, within a day or two, gets back to me with, at minimum, pointers in the right direction. Sometimes a stranger solves your problem in a single sentence.

You are multiplying the effectiveness of your time. For every minute spent finding the right question and place to ask, that’s the equivalent of probably an hour of research. The relationship may not even be linear. The more obscure the problem is, the more insightful an answer online could be.

From now on, if I spend more than two hours debugging something, I’m asking someone smarter than me on the internet for help. Screw my pride.