I Need A Hackation

In recent times, the “staycation” became a popular alternative to forays far afield: you could take time off and enjoy your local surroundings without having to get stamps in your passport. But I don’t need to go to a museum or visit an amusement park, much less catch up on Stranger Things. I’ve got a project burning in my brain, and what I need is a few days of good solid time in the basement workshop to make some headway. What I need is a Hackation.

Some projects make great after-work distractions, but this one is hard and requires my full brainpower. It’s just not a beer-and-a-project project. So during the week is out. That leaves weekends, but that’s prime time for hanging out with the family. Sure, I can get work in a few hours of good mid-day think/work time in on a Saturday or Sunday when my son is out playing with friends, but there’s something about devoting a whole day or more to cracking a tough nut.

Of course, I’m fully aware that I’ll probably not get it finished in just a day, and that I’ll want another day, or yet another. So be it. Isn’t that the way it is when you’re at the beach in the summer as well? Shouldn’t hacking be at least as high on the priority list as a trip to Disneyland?

Have you ever taken a Hackation? Because that’s what I need. And please tell me there’s a better name for it.

45 thoughts on “I Need A Hackation

  1. Thank you for this term and concept, Elliot.

    I’m on the last day of an 8-day staycation, which has been mostly housework. I did some project-type stuff in the initial days, but quickly came to reckon with all the mundane stuff that I was behind on, and spent a lot of time just doing that. While I feel “fine”, I guess, I certainly don’t feel as recharged as I’d expect after a vacation.

    I think this “hackation” idea, a dedicated couple of days to just go hard on a project — housework can wait — might be exactly what I was missing. Prioritizing, pushing aside distractions, and reveling in the thrill of focus and accomplishment. Yessssss. Time management never was my strong suit, but this might help.

    Very curious to see if others have successfully implemented something like this, and if so, if they have any tips to share.

    1. Psychologically-speaking, it’s important to make time for fun things (like making and hacking).

      Suggestions to fit serious make/hack projects into normal life:
      – good planning. I’ve found that it’s important to take a non-trivial project that I’m serious about, and divide it into smaller self-contained steps that are easier to fit
      – notes and research. I generally do 2+ hours of research and exploration before taking any steps. Often I disappear down rabbitholes that lead me to better alternatives or more insight. I log every useful URL into a text file, as well as copying useful passages, saving images, datasheets, PDFs etc. I also keep paper records, print some schematics to doodle on, do some preliminary sketching, etc.

      When a project has been studied, researched and broken into smaller tasks, then it’s easier to fit project work into a busy life. I can use otherwise “empty” time (commuting, washing dishes, cleaning, etc) as time to think about the project, I take advantage of normal travel for short detours to pick up supplies, and I can take opportunities as they come to tackle individual steps. And as smaller steps are completed, I can justify setting aside a day or three to go hard, to finish the project.

      1. It’s hard to start any project when in my country every single Rasberry Pi is scalped to prices of mountain bike or sometimes even cheap chinese 2 stroke bike. Last week I had saw Raspi 1A (aka prehistoric crap) sold for equivalent of about $380.

        1. Really, damn for that money I’d sell my old ones even though most of them are still in use…
          The mess that is the supply chain for electronics really does suck though, its not like anything much is as available or priced as you would really expect still.

      1. Tried the retirement route. Wife said “If I’m going to spend all day in the garage workshop, I need to get paid for it!”. So, I did. Put myself out there as a firmware engineer and that worked. Now I still need a Vacation as My projects are languishing….

  2. Retire. Then life is an endless “hackation”.

    Or get the right kind of job so you are essentially getting paid for hacking.

    That has been the story of my life, though not in that order.

    1. Many people have the wrong idea about retirement. Retirement is freedom. Retirement is being able to choose exactly what you do every day. It is setting your own priorities. If you are retired and doing stuff you don’t want to be doing, you have screwed up big time somewhere. Sometimes I have stuff I have to do that I call duties and responsibilities, but I have big blocks of time to work on “my projects”.

      If you thing of retiring as checking out of life and doing nothing, I think you have the wrong idea entirely and I doubt if you are a “hacker”.

    2. “Or get the right kind of job so you are essentially getting paid for hacking.”

      Definitely not the same. Actually, I would say making a hobby into a career is the surest way to ruin a hobby. There’s a big difference between working on the project that interests you today and working on the one the customers or boss demand. And then there’s the monotony of endlessly iterating through new versions of the same product for years on end vs starting something new. On the other hand, the work you do as work might be just similar enough to the hobby you want to be doing that when you get home at night you are never really in the mood to start on that idea that has been growing in the back of your head for years now.

      Nope. If you want to be working on hardware or software for your own enjoyment… go get a job working with people or animals or something. [the animals are probably more pleasant] That adage “find a job you love and you will never work again” or however it goes… that’s a damn lie!

      1. It depends: if creativity or research is part of the hobby, you will probably ruin it by making it your job, because of times when you don’t feel creative or the experiments don’t work out. If you have a no-brain (or low-brain) hobby, there is no problem in making it your day-to-day job. Example: you love being an engineer, go build machines as a hobby and drive trains as job. Doing it the other way around will be much harder.

  3. >I’ve got a project burning in my brain

    You are lucky, my brain is empty from constant bombardment of internation conflicts and climate on TV and the internet. On top a noisy neighbourhood. Bad surroundings are an absolute creativity killer for me. I cannot wait to be in France next spring just to calm down.

    1. A few days ago (one of the few project-projects I did do at the beginning of my staycation), I tore down the old crap shelf that had been holding my cablemodem and router and stuff for the last few years, bolted a nice rack to the wall, and moved all the equipment into it.

      I happened to take lunch during that time when it was all unplugged, and I decided to read a chapter of a book while eating. A paper book. It was weird. I could feel myself wanting to check for comments and responses on various sites where I post, but I had to just let those things go.

      Try unplugging, literally, yank the cord out of the thing, for a few hours a day. I dare ya.

      1. Wise words. Anything (internet included) that subjects you to interruptions can kill the focus required by a non-trivial project. When I have something to work on, I’m in the basement, with radio or tunes running, and my phone and other interrupters remain upstairs.

        1. Thanks you two, this is what I need as well: Some good old digital detox. It is far from a buzzword. At this point even a sabbatical abroad. If you reach the point where a single phone notification makes you lose focus for 15 minutes, you know how far I am gone.

  4. Yes! Definitely yes!
    I had the chance once to spend almost an entire week building a kind of rocket stove heater for a tent. Loved to get time to do something most people find useless or at least think that I’ve lost my time.
    However that time (medical leave of several months after a burn out) was costly on a lot of my life aspects. Now I think everyone who needs to take that kind of time should prioritize it. I’m saying need because if you are like I am, which I think a lot of people reading this blog are, it indeed is a need…
    Be happy doing what you were created for! And many thanks for sharing!

  5. I feel like there hasn’t been a time in my life that I’ve got less done than in the last 2 years. Just everyone on top of me all the time, the lockdowns weren’t a break, they were prolonged cabin fever. Even before that though, I had determined that if I tried a home based gig, I would need an additional home, at least half an hour drive away and not on the way to anywhere. Inter-frigging-ruption hell. Either that or I need to reconfigure my basement with defense in depth, a meter of soundproofing, a piranha filled moat, barbed wire, dobermans, half a dozen sturdy locked doors. That’s how ppl turn Evil Genius with lair in a volcano you know, just trying to keep ppl away so you can get. crap. done.

  6. i took it for granted when it was part of my life…but all through my 20s, extended vacations (christmas, thanksgiving, etc) always turned into hackations…i’d get bored of ‘recreational’ activities and accidentally stumble into some project.

    it’s the thing i miss the most now that i have kids. it is an absolute struggle to get any uninterrupted time. even a 2-week vacation from work turns into just a couple hours here and there. it still happens — kind of as a rebellion against it all — but the projects keep getting smaller and less-completed. and lately, i have a run of projects where i put off responsibilities to finish them, but then once they reach that usable state, i simply don’t play with them. write the software so i can use it, but then i never use it. so when i do *finally* sit down to use it i have to fix the code rot from literal years of unrelated software & hardware upgrades before i can even get to the point of figuring out where i left off. the rapid spate of bug fixes and tiny feature improvements that typify the first 10 hours of using bespoke software got put off for so long that i need to load it all back into my head before i can do any of it. and then i get interrupted again before i even get through that process once.

    using home-rolled solutions always involves a little bit of “ugh it’s broken again” iteration over time but that cost becomes so much more prohibitive when you only have a couple hours before you have to go pick up the kids or chores or errands. sigh.

    of course some of the hacks are useful to the whole family and those become priority interrupts on their own. so hacks become chores :(

    1. haha right after posting that, i realized it was unduly negative…there is a silver lining.

      i’ve had so much experience picking up a project and trying to remember where i left off that it’s driven a lot of documentation. every project has its own diary in a NOTES file sitting there. and even more importantly, just about anything that is GUI, i press ‘h’ and it pops up on-screen key summary. or commandlines have ‘help’.

      for a long time, if i picked up an old project and only did a couple hours of work on it, that time was spent adding the ‘h’ function. but now, i’ve been doing it long enough, more often than not, it’s already there. huge time saver for the infrequent hacker!

      1. Your two posts articulate how I feel too.

        Another side effect I’ve observed as I’ve gotten older (early 40s now): I’ve become more OCD about my documentation. I’m proud of my doco but I feel like it’s starting to become the focus more than the actual deliverables of the project itself. I don’t know what to do about that. I’m writing a story which at the time is intended to be showing off (or educating) others, but actually just ends up being something that I alone reflect on and feel proud about, but then disappointed that “those were the good ol’ days!” — I wish I knew how to NOT document things, and just get things done.

        1. Oh buddy when iwas a few years younger i would just make things and never document them and i thought that was the way to go….. all the way up to when the thing broke and they always broke. Now im starring at something brand new again knowing i figured out all these problems before and i have to relearn it all. If i had simply spent the half a hour to write the configuration steps i wouldnt of had to spend 2 days learning everything again.

          Always document, genius isnt the ability to store knowledge in your head, it is knowing where to find information and act upon it.

  7. If Im not mistaken Elliott, you have at least one offspring. GOODLUCK :lol:

    I found the best way was to have a work trip of a few days and take the necessary tools and set up in the hotel room – Im sure there are some hotel workers that were close to calling the police when they made up the room during the day. but those the risks you need to take.
    it limits you to after house but atleast you can get 5 to 6 hours straight and be able to order in food.

  8. I’ve been thinking about this since this popped up this morning, I like things that provoke thinking.

    1 – To the people who are saying you are buried and badgered and bombarded. I say disconnect. Learn to say no to things. Take charge of your life! You can do it and only you can.

    2 – As far as blocks of time for projects, this just underscores the conclusion that “multitasking sucks and doesn’t work”. Way back when I was an undergraduate I was frustrated by having to bounce from one class to another to another when I wanted to focus on one. As my career progressed I got into positions where I was more and more in charge of my schedule and could focus on one project in the way I wanted to and that I enjoyed. It is something to aim for. It takes time to earn trust and confidence and have that freedom.

      1. It cannot be better said better than this:

        Do not confuse “duty” with what other people expect of you; they are utterly different. Duty is a debt you owe to yourself to fulfill obligations you have assumed voluntarily. Paying that debt can entail anything from years of patient work to instant willingness to die. Difficult it may be, but the reward is self-respect.
        But there is no reward at all for doing what other people expect of you, and to do so is not merely difficult, but impossible. It is easier to deal with a footpad than it is with the leech who wants “just a few minutes of your time, please—this won’t take long.” Time is your total capital, and the minutes of your life are painfully few. If you allow yourself to fall into the vice of agreeing to such requests, they quickly snowball to the point where these parasites will use up 100 percent of your time—and squawk for more!
        So learn to say No—and to be rude about it when necessary. Otherwise you will not have time to carry out your duty, or to do your own work, and certainly no time for love and happiness. The termites will nibble away your life and leave none of it for you.
        (This rule does not mean that you must not do a favor for a friend, or even a stranger. But let the choice be yours. Don’t do it because it is “expected” of you.)”
        ― Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

        1. Absolutely right. You can let other people run you around the tree. When I talk about duty I am thinking about paying bills, fixing broken things around the house, maintaining cars — all the stuff that gets in the way of working on projects!

          There is of course nothing wrong with doing things for other people — when you choose to do so! If my friends or immediate family ask for help, I respond. The are not leaches and parasites (I got rid of those sorts of “friends” a long time ago). If they are asking for help it is a real and genuine need and I am happy to help out.

          On the other hand, turning my phone off and sticking it in a drawer for a few days can be a great way to get some hacking done.

  9. Great article and thought provoking. Until April this year I worked for 2 years as a multi-drop delivery driver – I’ve never had any job for more than 2 years and (beware any future employers reading this) 2 years is defo my 7 year itch. I absolutely loved delivering parcels – it was easy and a constant stream of banter with all the shoppers. After 2 years, the main challenge was to constantly be able to improvise new jokes on the doorstep or accurately remember which jokes I had already used at which doorstep to avoid the cringe-worthy error of saying the same joke to the same household. Certain jokes became more and more elaborate and dis-connected from reality – but nobody seemed to notice. Since April I just done whatever I wanted to and some days just nothing at all. A good deal of hacking has taken place and now I’m looking for some work over the Winter. Sadly, word must have got ’round my ‘hood about why/how I finished my last job and nobody will employ me as a delivery driver :(

  10. My biggest contributions to open source projects have always happened on vacations. Chipping away at a project in the evenings can be productive, but it’s no match for a few days of real focus. Or better yet, a couple weeks.

    A token amount of sightseeing isn’t bad either. :)

  11. 1. Social media, phones, TVs, PCs – are all a distraction. Show some self discipline and disconnect
    2. Multi-tasking is a lie. Focus on one task before moving to the next.
    3. Empty your mind to let ideas in.
    4. Exercise is important. Your brain is housed in a meat sack linked to it. Both body and mind are required for effective thought.

    1. Yes indeed. I think I’ll go on a bike ride right now.

      Social media (and media in general) is very much like a cheap drug thrill. Wastes your time with little if any lasting benefit. Just say no.

  12. There are times when the best thing to do is chill. Take a walk or in my case go paddling in season. Answers to dilemmas or new insights often but unequivocally not always will appear unannounced.
    I’m blessed to be deep in retirement with a never ending trail of “projects” which take second place to the day to day living with others.

  13. Since early 2020, my wife and I have been planning and going on an annual “mental health holiday” which is almost exactly as you describe. We use it to get some deep focus on those projects that get pushed aside for work and daily obligations. Here’s what we do:

    – We usually rent a cabin a good distance from home, so we can’t be distracted with home / community obligations.
    – We rent for about two weeks, with one of us going up for a week, then trade off in the middle (saves a bit of money)
    – We bring whatever we want to work on or unwind with – could be a tinkering project, a book to read, or whatever.
    – We text each other very little during this time so as not to interrupt the one trying to focus.

    It costs a bit of money and you probably can’t bring heavy equipment with you but it’s 100% worth it to feel like we’re finally making some progress on those personal projects always sitting on the back burner!

  14. I do this during Lunar New Year. My suppliers are closed, my clients are closed, my neighbors have returned to their ancestral homes in the countryside.

    As an immigrant to Asia, I have a somewhat less busy schedule during Lunar New Year, so I try to get a project done.

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