Surviving an attack from the Chaos Monkey

Our Chief Technical Architect, Ugo Cupcic, explores how to survive an attack from the ‘Chaos Monkey’…

After 5 years of being a remoty in different positions for the Shadow Robot Company — from Head of Software to Chief Technical Architect — I’ve spent some time and effort perfecting my routine to achieve great productivity and focus while at work, and maintain an amazing work-life balance at the same time. But sometimes that beautifully crafted routine goes south…

Starting 2017, my family and I decided to embrace minimalism. This — amongst other factors — led to a decision: selling our flat to rent another one close by. Not only will this make us more flexible, it’s also the perfect occasion to go through our stuff and donate or sell all the unnecessary things we’ve accumulated. Plus the kids get a bathtub in the new flat!

This has made for a crazy start of the year. Not only did I have to juggle work taking-off after the festive season, the kids being sick, and me being away most weekends for my water polo games, but we also needed to put the finishing touches to bring our flat to the market and organise the move… Plenty of these things don’t go well with a routine: early appointments that make it impossible for me to do my cardio-catchup, renovation work that needs to be done during the day while the kids are at school, strict proposal submission deadlines to get funding for work…

So in a word, I was hit by the Chaos Monkey pretty hard. Here’s how my productivity and I survived the attack.

Who’s the Monkey

The Chaos Monkey is a term employed by Netflix as part of their plan to improve reliability and availability. They’ve basically implemented a service that terminates some of their virtual machines randomly, introducing chaos on purpose to make sure that their system is good enough to cope with it.

We have found that the best defence against major unexpected failures is to fail often.

Life has a tendency to do the same to a routine set in stone. If your internal belief model is not flexible enough to get you to a productive state no matter what, then you should rethink the model. Don’t get me wrong, I’m convinced that having a finely tuned routine for the quiet days does wonder. It’s a superb way to get in that focus zone in comfort while optimising your life. But sometimes, it’s not possible to stick to it, and you have to accept that.

Surviving the attack

The keywords here are being prepared, flexibility and acceptance. 

The first reflex I tend to have in this situation is to fret about missing the steps in my routine, worrying I wouldn’t have as productive a day as I should have. But this time, I was prepared.

When I started having a well tuned routine, trying out different ideas from different people, exchanging with the amazing Remotive Slack community — yes, you should join — on what worked and what didn’t, Fernando Garrido Vaz shared this eye opening article with me, introducing me to the concept of the Chaos Monkey. I reflected on my routine, knowing it was nice to have, but I could be just as productive without it.

My approach for those hectic times is to use my routine as a common frame instead of a strictly defined process. For example, I know that I really enjoy exercising in the morning. In the current case, I replaced exercising by doing some renovation work in the flat. I still kept this as the first thing I did once the kids left for the day.

I’m also aware that I’m most productive in the mornings, so I booked four hour long slots of productive times in my calendar to make sure I wasn’t interrupted by a meeting in those precious moments. I’m lucky to be able to focus for extended period of times. So, for once, instead of doing my usual pomodoro, I went for longer periods of deep concentration during those four hours slots. I know that when I stick to a controlled pomodoro, it is more sustainable for me in the long run, but in this case, I just had to survive that monkey attack, and then I’d go back to my balanced routine.

Since I needed to find enough time to work between all the necessary chores, I was also able to shorten my lunch breaks by eating some healthy food in front of the computer while doing some less demanding tasks, catching-up on emails for example. Again, this is something that I don’t usually do — I prefer to eat with friends or whilst reading a good book to be more refreshed for the afternoon — but I can sustain this rhythm for a few weeks easily.

And finally, probably the most important point for me, was to accept the fact that having to deal with all those things at once would impact my energy levels. So I went easy on myself by working-out less, going to bed as early as I could, going for some short walks to get some much needed sun light… instead of increasing my caffeine levels! My 10min daily meditationusing Headspace helped tremendously with the acceptance.

Final words

To summarise, having a well-tuned routine is crucial to achieve a sustainable balance. But for those times when you’re under heavy attack from a crazy monkey, you have to be prepared to be flexible and use your routine as a generic guideline rather than a strict process. You also have to accept that some of your hardly-won balance will be lost during those times — so you’ll have to adapt not to be too unbalanced.

And you, what’s your trick when you receive a visit from the Chaos Monkey? Let’s connect on Twitter! Find us at @UgoCupcic and @ShadowRobot