The Garbage Man Stan Complex

(3 minute read) – The Garbage Man Stan complex is that moment when you’ve crossed the point of no return and failure is imminent. You have to be aware of your own limits and make the right decisions to avoid getting trapped into that situation.

There are times when you have to disconnect mentally just to handle all the things in front of you to keep them from blowing up. Eventually this becomes a game that you will inevitably lose. I call this the Garbage Man Stan Complex.

Garbage Man Stan?
I’ve participated in a handful of game jams (i.e. developing a game from scratch over a small set of hours) in my past. I don’t get too as often since career, family and side projects dominate my life now. But, every once in a while, I make a concerted effort to join a community of indie developers and create something tangible, maybe even presentable, within an impossible timeframe. The sense of accomplishment of turning something in within time is rewarding enough considering my side projects take years to complete. For more reasons why, Martijn says it best in his post, The Many Benefits of Speedhacking.

There’s one game that I made during TINS 2007 (yes, an exact decade ago) that I’m particularly proud of. It was called, you guessed it, Garbage Man Stan. Marvel at its next gen level graphics:


The randomly generated rules (it’s a game development competition…are you surprised?) called for a theme about garbage, using current news events and utilizing smoke and flame effects. I started with the following synopsis:

The player, playing the part of Garbage Man Stan, will maximize their revenue by incinerating a steadily increasing flow of delivered garbage for as long as possible until one burner inevitably overflows thus ending the game.

The most exciting game ever, right? That is quite literally THE game. Everything else I did beyond that point was to add a factor of fun or make it more of a novelty. The trucks bounced like they came straight out of a 1930’s cartoon classic. Side note, who’s playing Cuphead right now? Anyway, proud to say I placed in the top three in Technical, Genre and Artistical in a group of 20-ish people with this game.

The Complex
Getting back to the day-to-day, it often feels like stuff is being dumped on my plate faster and faster and it is up to me to address it before it overflows and I lose the game, so to speak. I am not talking just work or life, but everything, the “a billion and one things” conundrum. I’m sure most can relate. I know my strengths and I am better at depth than breadth. I prefer to focus in, consume all the data and think deeply about what something means and what should be done about it. I am also happier when this is what I get to do. Nonetheless, life for me currently is more about how well I can package up chaos and make it look beautiful. It’s taken a while to adapt to this, but discovering I can do this, and do it well, has been very rewarding in itself.

The Garbage Man Stan complex is that moment when you’ve crossed the point of no return and failure is imminent. You have to be aware of your own limits and make the right decisions to avoid getting trapped into that situation. Failure to do so can lead to anxiety, panic attacks, mistakes and/or poor project outcomes. Not to mention the overflow is just that: a negative impact to others’ lives.

While we’re on the theme of games, consider the Sims. A Sim has needs that are constantly depleting at different rates based on the Sim’s personality. This is true of work too, but at a more abstract level. How long have you sat on that email? How long have you been ignoring that co-worker? How long have you let a bug live in production? Even though you’re hitting the highest priority items as fast as you can, inaction on another can also cause you to lose the game.

If you’re in an impossible situation and there’s too much to do, the best you can do is all you can offer. Even if you end up in checkmate, the good thing about life is that it does go on. Expel the feelings of defeat, learn from what went wrong and go on as a better version of yourself. That’s called experience. You’re going to be just fine, but you have to keep going.

Speaking of game competitions, I’m participating in TINS 2017 coming up on October 20th! If you’re a developer, whether you’ve done any game development or not, you should consider joining! The last competition I did was in 2015, so I’m a bit rusty. And my time to “just code” has also taken a significant hit recently. I’m excited to see if I’ve still got it. Follow me on twitter @supersilvey and cheer me on!


Overwhelmed? How to Balance a Billion and One Things

There’s one rule to balancing a billion and one things: you can’t.

A “billion” is a large number.  Duh.  We know that it’s large.  We know it’s considerably bigger than a million.  But when you literally try to picture its scale, it’s mind-boggling.  If you could count 10 numbers per second (which is really quite fast), it would take you over 3 years to get to a billion.  No sleeping or eating along the way!

So clearly, you alone cannot balance a billion things.  Which implies there must be a limit to how many things you CAN handle. I wonder what that quantity is?  And how do you improve to get to that “and one”?

What is a thing?
One of my top 5 favorite movies is Inception.  I liken the idea of each dream layer tier being a developer’s ability to work through deep, complicated problems at peak levels.  The deeper a passionate developer gets, the more zen it is for them.  And any distraction is the “kick” which halts the momentum and requires the time needed for accelerating back to that zen-speed.

One of my goals is to make the team happy and thus, as best as possible, buffer them from those incoming “kicks”.  This means I’m getting kicked all the time.  And when you add children to the mix, this all becomes quite literal.

These “kicks”, the “things” I’m talking about, they’re anything that you have to use a brain cycle for.  It’s that surprise phone call, someone striking a conversation, a growing email queue, reviewing a creative deck, planning a vacation, getting milk on the way home, checking the latest score, picking your nose.  All. The. Things.  You’ll notice I’m not just talking about work items.  Very quickly you find you are simply surviving, not thriving.

Why are there so many things?
Life has very little regard for our well-crafted schedules.  Bad days are undoubtedly in our future, whether tomorrow or years from now.  And when work starts to spill out of your nurturing hands, Life has a tendency to make it pour.  It’s how Life rolls.

As we know, projects go through ebbs and flows as they proceed and as portfolios evolve.  There are a lot of forces that can turn a project sideways.  Before you realize it, you discover you are on the wrong side of your threshold of keeping it together.  This isn’t necessarily you failing at your role, just the nature of software development chaos.  Increased demand doesn’t equal reduced complexity.  How you respond to this pressure is the key to excelling at this role.

Okay, but HOW does one deal with all these things?
Dealing with a lot of things is a skill.  You can only get better at it by doing it.  I’m no master, but I’ve improved considerably.  Most importantly, I’m vastly better at keeping the stress levels down and taking inevitable chaos in stride.  And don’t confuse dealing with a lot of things as improving your ability to multitask.  Science basically says more multitasking equals reduced IQ.

Here’s the set of tricks I do:

1. Clear my mind
Being overwhelmed is a state of mind.  The first reaction of most inexperienced managers who are presented with an overflowing plate is to go into reaction mode.  They get to the end of the day exhausted and not really sure what they’ve accomplished.  It’s important to stay calm and make sure the right stuff is getting done and the right stuff is falling off.  I’ll take five minutes to meditate or get a big, deep breath of fresh air.  It might seem weird to pause before tackling what is growing around you, but it can bring a calm that lets you conqueror the important stuff with haste.

2. Protect my time
It’s good to be friendly and available.  But this can be costly and when push comes to shove, undisturbed time is the key to knocking things out.  I’ll put on some headphones, set Do Not Disturb on my instant messenger, shut down email, flip a light switch, whatever gets the point across.  If people still swing by, I’ll ask them if it can be discussed later.  If they are persistent, I am stern but apologetic.  I’ve got a billion things in front of me and I’m in damage control mode, some people are just going to have to wait.  Remember, you’re not doing these things because of them, but for them.

3. Escalate
When a project is showing signs of going south and I see an uptick in hurdles, I’ll raise a flag.  It’s not the red flag of “oh crap” and it’s not the white flag of “all is lost”, just a flag to indicate that something is up.  My leadership and peers greatly appreciate knowing that the cup is dangerously full and might become directly their problem.  It’s also good for them to know I am actively working on it.  If it can’t be contained, the next level of escalation becomes easier and they are more willing to help than being frustrated at it becoming their burden.

4. Delegate
Delegation in itself is a thing and can be time-consuming.  This often leads managers from ever handing something out because they decide they’ll take it on themselves. And then they never get around to it because it’s too low on their totem pole.  But it’s high enough to look bad that it didn’t get done.  Delegation takes trust and letting someone answer it in their way.  I will attempt to serve it up to the right person and challenge them to fill in the blanks as they see fit with a contained amount of direction.  Either it works great or it doesn’t pan out so well.  If the latter, I’ll figure out why and learn from it.

5. Hyper-prioritize
I write down all the things floating around in my head and separate them out into groups of when they need to be done.  Then I do it again.  I want to know what I need to do before lunch or the next meeting.  What has to be in a good place before I can go home?  What can wait for tomorrow even if it seems like a today item?  Then I’ll go grab a drink or talk with a coworker for 5 minutes.  One last time, I’ll look at the immediate list again and see if it can shrink at all.  Then, it’s time to bust out my favorite “get stuff done” done playlist and have at it.

6. Set alarms
Time flies in “get stuff done” mode.  Whatever list I’ve made, if it’s a “get done before the meeting at 2:00pm” or “by the end of the day”, I put one or two forced stopping points.  Am I still on track when those points occur?  No?  I’ll reconsider my plan.  If I’m in an impossible situation, I’ll own it, think through the repercussions and start planning for those instead.  Sometimes battles are lost no matter what you do.  I’ll seek a silver lining, even if it’s simply learning from my mistakes.

7. Use Tools for Organization
There are a billion organizational tools.  Well, maybe not a billion (e.g. see explanation above), but there’s certainly a lot.  Personally, I recommend Trello.  I need to get things out of my head and into a format where I can quickly drag and drop them in a way of sequential priority.  Every second something stays in my head is a second of opportunity for something else to come in and push that something out.

Ideally, as a manager, the goal is to prevent chaos.  But real life scenarios tend to unfold in unexpected ways.  If work becomes overloaded, your work-life balance and peace of mind will be put at risk.  Sometimes you have to buckle down and get things done but it should only be a relatively minor tunnel, one that you could manage holding your breath through.  One day your going to look back and reflect on the sum of your life and I’m willing to bet most of those things around you now won’t be significant enough to remember then.  So step outside, take a big, deep breath, go back in with your head held high, point to the light at the end of the tunnel and run full speed.  You got this.