Solving Puzzles is like Testing

I have always loved a good puzzle. You know there’s a problem, and a solution, and you just have to figure out how to get from one to the other. Lately I’ve been especially enjoying puzzle games where the problem itself is part of the mystery — you’re given some information and have to figure out where to start.

My brother is especially good at finding these kinds of puzzle games. For Christmas, he gave me a subscription to Hunt a Killer. It’s a detective game in a box, but no one tells you what you’re trying to solve. You just get puzzles and clues to put together, and each month (for 6 months) a new box arrives with more details. There are “aha!” moments when you solve an individual puzzle, and the slow burn of fitting together clues and piecing together theories about the underlying story.

Another game that came from my brother is Gorogoa, a computer puzzle game with beautiful illustrations and simple yet incredibly clever gameplay. Once again, you enter the game with no idea of what’s happening, but as it continues you get a sense of the logic and storyline. This one is relatively short but full of enjoyable moments.

In many ways, this is similar to how I approach testing. I want to know just enough about what I’m testing to have a purpose, but not so much that I am just blindly following someone’s directions. I try things out, see where my intuition leads me, and watch for the places where I get stuck. I look for the story, the journey taking me from one screen to another. My challenges turn into opportunities to improve the product, and my “aha!” moments are the places where I see why I’m having trouble. In my testing I may not always arrive at a solution (although I enjoy being part of those discussions, as well!) but the satisfaction is in the hunt, in putting myself in the right frame of mind to uncover what I’m looking for.

Do you enjoy puzzles? Any good ones you’d recommend?

Find the best time for different kinds of work

I was recently listening to the Inquiring Minds podcast as they interviewed Daniel Pink about his work on the science of perfect timing. One point that really stood out to me is that you are good at different kinds of work at different times of day.

Previously, I’d thought of my work in two ways: busy/mindless work that I do when my brain isn’t functioning at its best and deep work that I do when my brain is firing on all cylinders. But Pink shared that deep work isn’t all alike — specifically, we are good at creative or insightful work and analytical work at different times of day. The exact time of day depends on your chronotype (I’m a night owl) but, regardless, the type of work aligns with whether you’re in what he calls a trough, peak, or recovery period.

Your trough is the time when you’re sluggish or not so quick — for me that’s first thing in the morning — and is best for busy work like checking email or filing expenses. Your peak is when you’re fully mentally engaged (high mental acuity), and that’s when you’re best at analytical work. But your peak isn’t when you’re best at deeply creative or insightful work — that’s best done during your recovery period, where your mood (but not your mental acuity) improves and you have a little more mental space for thinking laterally or having those “aha!” moments.

I’ve been thinking lately about how I’ve optimized my schedule for smaller chunks of analytical work that I push through at my peak times, but how I have more trouble getting into a flow state with more insightful work. Using Pink’s model, I can try to block out those times when I’m mostly likely to do that work well — for me that should be in the middle of my day, before or after lunch (after I get over my “uhhhh what’s happening?” time but before I hit my “I can do all the things!” burst of mental energy late in the afternoon). I’d really like to build sustainable habits that take into account the creative and insightful work that I find myself doing more of these days.

How about you? Does this model make sense for your work? Any tips or habits that work well for you when you have to switch between these types of work?

Support Driven Expo Europe

I’m happy to share that I’ll be giving a workshop at Support Driven Expo Europe in April! I’ll be sharing about mental models and how you can use them to better support and troubleshoot a product.

Sound familiar? I wrote about mental models a while back and used them to give a round of internal workshops in the Automattic support division. I got great feedback about those workshops and am excited to share them with a wider audience.

I truly believe that great communication between support and product teams is a key piece of product quality, and solid troubleshooting skills (and all that those skills entail) help facilitate those conversations!

Know Your Strengths

Recently I took the CliftonStrengths assessment — about 170 questions designed to identify your top strengths so you can use them to be more effective. I had first heard about it in a conversation about community organizing, in terms of knowing what you bring to the table when getting involved with a new organization. But it had also come up at work, and I decided it would be at least interesting to see what I might learn from this assessment.

I worried a little about inadvertently gaming the system. I’m a good test-taker and, for example, I can’t take the MBTI anymore without knowing exactly what personality traits I’m indicating with each answer. (I’m solidly INFJ, by the way.) So I didn’t look too much at the possible strengths or how the assessment worked; I just sat down and for about 30 minutes answered each question as honestly (not aspirationally) as I could.

In the end I was given 5 strengths: Achiever, Responsibility, Intellection, Input, and Relator. At first glance, the first three seemed spot on and the last two seemed a bit iffy. I’m a Relator, as introverted as I am? But as I read their explanations all five made sense to me:

I also have a report with even more detail, and advice about how to make these strengths work even better for me. This is great timing, because I have been especially conscious lately of my first two strengths (and the challenges they bring) — traits that mean I work hard, strive to be the best, hold myself to high standards, and have trouble saying no or letting things be less-than-excellent once I feel ownership of them. I’m still thinking about what these strengths mean for me going forward, but I’m interested in challenging myself to make use of them in work, in volunteering, and throughout my life.

How about you? Do you have experience with CliftonStrengths or other similar assessments? I always try to maintain a healthy skepticism about letting classifications like this determine how I see myself and the world, so I’m curious how others make use of them.