RAMPS – Rhythm is Tension and Release

Rhythm is about sequences of alternating tension and release.

Noticing, orchestrating, and managing the levels and timing of those sequences is one way I can affect the motivation of myself and others.

Take a second right now give yourself a nice full-bodied stretch, complete with a yawn.

Feels good, yeah?

Some of you are at the end of your day, others the middle, and to be honest I’ve only been up for a couple of hours.

But it still feels good.

That’s tension & release. During the stretch, you bring some of your muscles into tension, and at the end of it, you release them, and it feels good.

A tension & release like that good stretch, I’m gonna call’em t&r’s, is a one-off. But rhythm is about creating groups of overlapping, multi-modal t&r’s, and using them to keep oneself in a reliable state of "feels good".

I wish I could take it for granted that everyone understood that "feels good" is a powerful and direct predictor of productivity. I can’t, though.

I’m going to sidestep it for the moment, though, and just point out that you can’t possibly think "motivation" is critical to performance and not think "feeling good" is. If you’re alert enough to think your team "lacks a sense of urgency", you already should know this.

If you string some t&r’s together, you get something like this:

t0 r0 t1 r1 t2 r2

A lot of folks stop thinking about rhythm right there, and they think that’s the limit of it as a concept. Straight sequences like that are really "meter", or "beat", not the fullness of rhythm.

I mentioned overlapping. So let’s see what that looks like:

t0 t1 r1 t2 r2 r0

See that? two tensions, 0 and 1 start, and one of them is released, then another whole t&r, then a final r.

Notice that the two t’s that are neighbors and the two r’s that are neighbors could occur in time extremely close together. In fact, if they’re close enough in time the order doesn’t much matter. The experience is effectively that you get t0&t1 at the beginning and r2&r0 at end.

The order doesn’t matter, but the fact that there are strings of t’s or r’s together matters very much. 2 t’s is more tension than 1, 2 r’s is more release than 1.

You can do amazing thiungs using the order of t’s and r’s. Do you have a favorite long-running TV show? The next time you binge it — I’m binging "West Wing" (again) just now — you will see some of the greatest non-musical artists of tension & release at their everyday labor.

The rules of the game: you must r every t. there must be at least one t that starts at the beginning of the episode and ends at the end of it. Otherwise, how you distribute the t’s and r’s is the artistry.

t’s can start anywhere, and r’s can end anywhere. The broad mission is to get to an ending where the compressed power of all the open t’s climaxes in an r-frenzy. Note that those endings can be episode endings, season endings, and series-endings.

Writers use terminology like "point" and "arc" to describe the action in their stories. A point is a place where we advance one of the open t’s. We often do that without closing them. The arc is the stretch from the t to the r of a particular pair. It’s fascinating stuff.

What about multi-modal? Here — I’ve resisted going to music, because tho I’m a complete music junkie, I know that many folks aren’t — we go to music.

Music is really thick. It has a whole bunch of ways to do t&r. You can do it with rhyme. You can do it with meaning. You can do it with beat. You can do it with chords. You can do it with melody. You can do it with instruments. You can do it with timing. That’s some of it.

And you can do it all at once, because you can make all the modes hit an R at exactly the same moment in time. Anthropologists have gone to great length to demonstrate that there are no known true universals in human culture. There are 98%’ers tho. And music is one of them.

Can you do too many t’s in a row? Yes. In the trade, it’s so common we have a name for it: we call it a death march.

Can you do too many r’s in a row? Yes. It’s much less common, no clever name, but it amounts to a kind of creative desert, and endless boring horizon.

Interestingly, both too many t’s and too many r’s often look the same. "My team lacks a sense of urgency."

People are listless. They seem indifferent. They’re not having fun. They’re working barely enough to get by. Turnover is rampant. Every interaction becomes money.

Here’s how I put all this together in my head: I think of the available supply of "feels good" as being approximately fixed.

Rhythm is about how and when that supply is distributed to me.

(You can change the overall supply of "feels good", but it’s slow going, and it’s easy to create mechanical "feels good" that costs a lot and doesn’t do much for you. It’s much easier to alter the distribution than the supply.)

For every person, there’s an optimal distribution pattern. Think of the instructions you might give your pet-sitter: "He gets one packet of the good stuff every morning. At noon, it’s a large spoonful of peanut butter. In the evenings, he can have exactly one treat".

The extent to which my optimal distribution pattern of "feels good" influences my motivation is exactly my signature for R in the RAMPS idea. (Mine’s quite high, an 8, you might recall.)

The exact nature of that optimal distribution pattern is absolutely custom to me, too. It’s the details of that signature R. When we notice that R is really high for me, we have to invest in those details and figure out ways to shape the real distribution close to my ideal one.

I do it a bunch of ways. They include elements of the modern synthesis, like TDD and CI. They include the fact that my TDD is microtested and my CI is really CD. They include things like the effort I take to devise step-by-step refactoring plans.

I do it by breaks, short pacing around smoking breaks, and long Tiger Patrol with the dog breaks. I do it by making tasks I hate distribute in teensy little bites that spread all across the day (or days).

I do it by stories, and by features, and by bug investigations. I have been known to do it by restricting the moments at which I get a bite of banana bread. I do it by my form of meeting discipline. All of these things are ways I distribute the "feels good" supply in my job.

I’mo let you go, here. We’ll talk about some advice in a later muse. As usual, there’s homework, and as usual, the homework is a matter of noticing and imagining.

This week, starting tomorrow, notice the t’s & r’s you experience at work. What they are. How they happen. When they happen, and how are they distributed? Notice especially the way the "feels good"s fall. Notice whether you feel they’re set up well. That’s the noticing part.

This week, starting tomorrow, imagine you were writing a TV show (or a song), one whose audience would be limited to just the other people who are "like" you. What t’s would you introduce? What distribution of points & arcs would you use? What modes? What lulls and climaxes?

It’s another slow soaking-rain day here, and it could be grim, but I see it as a nice lull, cool and organic and just part of the rhythm.

Have a cool organic rhythmic Sunday!


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