Powering Up with Capacity Tests

First Published: May 28, 2021

My wife and I recently did a really difficult day hike at a place called Dog Mountain. Dog Mountain is about 3.5 miles one way, but gains 2800 feet in elevation. The entire thing is uphill with varying degrees of difficulty and some parts are extremely steep. You can imagine what that means for the way down, too – it's not exactly easy on the knees. On the bright side, we got to see a ton of wildflowers on the side of a mountain.

Dog Mountain

We hiked Dog Mountain as a capacity test. My wife is preparing for a major backpacking trip at the end of August with some friends, so we're doing some prep work now. We've been doing easy-to-medium hikes for a few weeks, so we needed to establish a baseline and push our limits to figure out where we're at in our training.

Learning to notice capacity tests, look for them, or even create them yourself can be a very handy tool in your tool belt to help you level up. Let's look at what they are, why they're valuable, and how to create them.

What is capacity?

What do I mean by capacity, anyway? Is it just a meaningless corporate word like "synergy"? I use the word capacity on purpose. When I talk about capacity, I am thinking of its relationship to power, not in the Marxist sense, but in the physics sense. Power is the time-rate of doing work. You usually see it measured in watts or horsepower. Another form of measuring power is this formula:

P = F × v

Power is force times velocity or "how much effort I can expend at a given speed." This is why "powerlifting" is a sport; it tests control over heavy objects moving. This is the way I like to think of my ability to do work that moves the needle, whether it's with my day job, side projects, or personal goals.

Ideally, your day-to-day work ought to run you at about 70-80% capacity on average. This should fill your time so you don't get bored, but there should be some gas left in your tank in case you have a sudden deadline or a crisis. It's a tough balance to strike (and sometimes life demands long stretches of less than ideal work habits), but if you're always going all out at 110%, you're going to burn out and things are going to drop. We're just not built to run hot 24/7.

How do you increase your capacity? The trick isn't working more hours, it's figuring out how to get more from that 70-80% rate so you're able to move more in the same amount of time. Whether it's with work, creative output, home projects, or health, the underpinnings of that 70-80% are systems and processes that generate regular, habitual work. If you can upgrade those systems and processes, the effects cascade and compound day by day. It's kind of like how if you're used to writing vanilla JavaScript all the time, the leap to a framework can be a huge game-changer. Suddenly you're able to do much more in the same amount of time.

One way to force a change and upgrade your capacity is by running periodic capacity tests.

What's a capacity test?

A capacity test is a stress test of those daily systems and it's kind of magical how well they can cause transformation.

Capacity tests tend to happen as either crises or opportunities. Some capacity tests are imposed on you:

  • You have a crisis at work
  • You suddenly lose your job and have to scramble to find a new one
  • You have a health issue
  • Your boss tells you about a new project due in 48 hours

Sometimes you choose to do capacity tests:

  • You sign up for a marathon
  • You audition for a musical
  • You take on a big project at work you think will be a big win

In any of these cases, you're doing something challenging quickly, which forces you to perform and gets you out of your head. You rely on muscle memory, systems you have in place, and habits you've built to do your best to get a huge amount of work done in a short amount of time.

For the capacity tests that are imposed on you without a choice, it can be surprisingly helpful just to recognize them for what they are. There's a reason you're feeling stressed, and whether you're having to react to something positive or negative, it's good and healthy to recognize that and give yourself the freedom to feel that way.

Why do capacity tests help?

I'm not here to tell you that losing your job or having a health crisis is a good thing, don't worry. Those are just examples of things that causes us to react and grow. For situations where you have some amount of control or there's nothing inherently bad happening, capacity tests can do a lot of things for us:

  • They set a new standard. Lots of future hikes my wife and I do are going to seem like a breeze compared to Dog Mountain.
  • They reveal cracks and imbalances in your systems. When you have to move quickly and rely on your systems and habits, it becomes obvious which ones are working and which ones aren't.
  • They help you realize what you're capable of. I had been meaning to write a book about getting into developer relations but wasn't sure I could pull it off. By setting a deadline and being public about it, I pushed myself to a new level.

Once you recognize these benefits, you can repurpose a formula that you normally experience in a negative, reactive way as a proactive and positive way to grow.

DIY Capacity Tests (and how to make the most of them)

A capacity test is really another type of Tiny Experiment that's fine-tuned for growth. Here's how to put one together if you're feeling stagnant:

  1. Pick something ambitious that you've been wanting to accomplish.
  2. Give it a timeline. Shorter is better since you are going to be working extra hard. Anything past a month is going to be tough to sustain.
  3. Let people know about the experiment and its timeline (this is the scary part). This could be your family, your audience, or some friends, but it's important that you feel a little scared to do it because there's some amount of accountability involved.
  4. Give it your best shot and pay attention to how it goes. Don't look at this in terms of success and failure, just see it as an experiment.
  5. Write down observations. I jot things down as I go so I don't forget and then come back afterwards to flesh them out. What went well? What kinds of things dropped from my routine?

Remember, these capacity tests are just a tool you can use for growth. You don't need to feel obligated to do these at any particular frequency. Right now, I find I can't really pull off more than one of these per quarter outside of my day job. Producing Guide to Tiny Experiments and recording my egghead course Deploying Ghost to AWS are my most recent examples. (Note that the groundwork for these was laid already, it was only the production that was the capacity test.) For you it could might be more or less.

Give this a try and let me know how it goes. What worked? What didn't work?

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