On motivation and brain rust

Things at work have been slow lately. Really slow. The fact is we're severely over-staffed and there just isn't enough work to go around right now. This has left me with an amount of down-time that I find...uncomfortable.

You'd think this might be a good position to be in. After all, it leaves me plenty of time to read up on development practices, the latest technologies, and keep up on my tech blogs. I have spare time to experiment with Ruby on Rails and play with Mono. I can browse through Code Complete or Refactoring at my leisure. What more could a programmer want?

As I've been discovering, this isn't quite as nice in practice as it seemed at first. For starters, there are still the miscellaneous menial tasks that need to be done - software installations, security and configuration changes, and just general support calls. These are excellent for knocking you out of the zone. Furthermore, the constant threat of them makes it a bit harder to concentrate in the first place.

Second, while reading and experimenting to build your skill-set is great, you need the right environment to make it truly profitable. You need some degree of freedom and some goal to work towards. Or at least I do. I find I learn the most when I have something I'm trying to accomplish. I also need periodic breaks to process and assimilate what I'm studying. It just doesn't seem to work as well when my "goal" is to stave off boredom and my breaks are scheduled.

Last, I've found that it's becoming a challenge just to stay sharp at times like this. You see, I need some sense of purpose to stay sharp. I feel like I'm chained in a room for 8 hours a day being forced to do nothing but pour water back and forth from one bucket into another. It feels like my brain is starting to rust.

This is exactly the opposite of how to motivate programmers. We need crave interesting progblems to solve. Or, at the very least, some problems to solve. Playing the point-and-click Windows monkey won't do it and I can only stand to read so many hours a day.

The problem is, the more I try to spend my time improving my knowledge and skills, the more unbearable I find my condition. I feel like I should be "out there" putting what I learn to use, but instead I have to sit at my desk for...no particular purpose. And what's worse, it's sapping my mental and emotional energy. After being stuck in the office all day, trying to keep from going stir-crazy, I feel like I've got nothing left when I get home. It's turning into a vicious cycle.

Have other people been in a situation like this? How do you deal with it? I mean, short of quitting (which I'd do if not for that damn mortgage). Are their any coping strategies to hold me over until I can get out?

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