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I think it is kinda strange but I just noticed that I have this odd habit of feeling tired, sleepy and dizzy when I encounter a (programming) problem that I can't solve after a while of trying. It generally shows up when I'm dealing with svn, reading someone else's code or resolving regression issues (old bug reappearing again).

To my understanding, this has nothing to do with being exhausted or tired because I just felt brilliant like 30 minutes ago and now, after 30 minutes of wrestling with a problem that I can't (apparently) solve, I suddenly feel an urge to go to sleep. And I really can go to sleep when I feel like that. If I shift my focus to something else or just leave it, then after like 10 minutes or so I feel normal again and am ready to continue.

I finally managed to talk about it to a colleague who sits just next to me and he sometimes feels the same way in some extreme cases of constant failures and he also finds it strange and new but there is another person who sits a little farther but he isn't feeling anything like this when he encounters difficulty



EDIT : After much thought I realized the fear of failure is at the root of the problem. I'm used to be the know-it-all person (I'm the project manager, knowledge patron and mentor of my team) and I either know the answer immediately or I start to think, if the problem is potent enough, the whole project is gonna fail!!

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This sounds a lot like me trying to learn stuff that I'm not super-excited about. I get hungry or sleepy. Hungry leads to eating, followed by sleeping and feeling sleepy afterwards and sleepy goes the direct route without the detour via eating. And it is sure linked to some dopamine stuff but unless you have a way to increase your dopamine this information isn't going to help you.

What happens inside of you (I think) is that your subconscious is telling you that it is scared that you won't find the answer. So your maladaptive coping strategy is escaping from that situation no matter what. Which is normal, I guess, but still maladaptive.

Fighting procrastination is best done like getting a mule to go forward: pushing from behind and baiting from the front.

Pushing can be done by listening to really aggressive music with lots of screaming and playing a few (!) rounds of some first-person-shooter with a heavy emphasis on rushing (instead of camping). To get myself quit the game I set an alarm clock. Drink some coffee with sugar before the game, too. The caffeine will kick in after about 15 minutes and will help you fight your fatigue. Also imagine how bad it will be if you don't finish the task.

The baiting part can be dealt with by rewarding yourself for completing the task. E.g. by having a break, listening to music, eating a candy bar, etc.

If you continue to tackle the problem and still find that you have difficulties, talk to colleagues. Often just by explaining to others what your problem is, you find a solution. (See "rubber ducking".)

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Apparently in my case it is fear. But I'm wondering how fear can possibly lead to sleepiness and mental tiredness. I think it should make me more alert an anxious rather than inert. – ashy_32bit Nov 4 '11 at 19:18
I don't know if "fight-or-flight response" is a good analogy here but I guess it is at least similar: even though you are not immediately in danger, there is this uncertainty and you ("your mind") has to choose between fight (tackling the task) and flight (escaping the situation). The nice thing about flight (procrastination) is that it always pays off immediately. Fighting does not so we learn to escape. – xmjx Nov 5 '11 at 14:58
@xmjx: In biology, it's not just "fight or flight"; there are other possible reactions including "freeze". Feeling tired and sleepy is probably how the nature triggers this reaction. However, if this is true, then "imagine how bad it will be if you don't finish the task" will only make the problem worse. (Essentially, you don't remove fear by imagining the horrible consequences of NOT removing fear.) – Viliam Búr Oct 8 '12 at 11:03

What you're noticing is that you are easily exhausted by mental challenges, which is not unusual. The exact reason is hard to pin down, but the direct cause is probably related to the balance of hormones and neurotransmitters in your body.

For example, dopamine is what controls your reward system, which allows you to get motivated to work. A surge of excitement (e.g. because you solved a difficult problem) is simply a spike of dopamine in your reward system. This reward system can adjust its sensitivity over time, depending on many factors such as blood flow, time of day, dopamine levels, nutrition, and so on. When its sensitivity goes way down, you'll find it hard to get excited about anything, and you'll get tired.

Dopamine activity also depends on how close the reward seems to you. If the reward is near, your reward system will push you no matter what, but if the reward is far off it takes a strong and healthy brain to keep working towards it. When you face especially frustrating problems, your brain is simply not up for the task, the reward system breaks down and you feel terrible. Some people, however, are so strong that they get motivated by even the tiniest hope of success, and this strength you can only acquire by improving your body.

What I would recommend therefore is to make a rigorous assessment of your regular exercise, your nutrition, and other health-related factors and see if there's any room for improvement. I can personally tell you that going from zero exercise to regular high-intensity exercise will give you a substantial productivity boost, and as a result you'll be able to work longer and harder, with more motivation, and you'll rarely get tired. I used to be half asleep in front of my desk sometimes, but now I never so much as yawn. Exercise, reducing fat, adjusting your nutrition, getting enough sleep, reducing stress levels are all proven solutions to consider.

What you have is a physiological problem, so it requires physiological solutions.

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Excellent answer. +1 – josh-fuggle Nov 4 '11 at 9:39

I have a rather different viewpoint although it's hard to implement in work environments - my subconscious is really really good at solving things.

So I've learned, when this feeling has kicked in, that it is often a sign that I really need to have a short nap to let it work.

That used to be fine when I worked from home. It's really hard in an open-plan office.

Note that there's a danger if you are pushing sleep deprivation that you're also just genuinely stupidly tired and this is an overload flag. That means you will find your nap turning into an embarrassingly deep and long sleep.

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