The Asymptote

Many years ago, I did my first lot of site work for a project in South Australia. In the middle of nowhere in South Australia. Do you know where Broken Hill is? There’s a town far outside Broken Hill called Cockburn (according to the locals it’s pronounced “Co Burn”, but… well, if you lived there you would call it that, right?), do you know where Cockburn is? No, that’s because it’s the middle of nowhere. Well, to get to this project, you go to the middle of no-where, then you keep driving. Then you take an unmarked turn. Then you take an unmarked turn on a dirt track. Driving down this road makes you feel like you might be the unfortunate victim of something, and end up a character in a made for TV movie.

So I was on site for the early works portion of a construction project. Here’s an indisputable fact for you: When you’re a mechanical engineer, overseeing early works electrical and civil works is one of the least fulfilling jobs there is. Dirt and cables. Great. To make matters worse, the team at that stage was quite small, and I was the youngest person on site by at least a decade. Not very exciting times.

Anyway, eventually things picked up, more work started happening on site. I finally saw some mechanical equipment installed: a sewage treatment plant. That actually counted as an exciting week.

We also had some younger team members join us, which made things easier. Never the less, working on site is tough. No matter how good the work or the team you are doing it with, it’s always hard being away from your girlfriend, friends, family, hobbies, bed, and a decent restaurant. It especially doesn’t help when the uplift that you receive (increase in your hourly pay) is only 10%… “Here you go. Your entire life outside work is only worth 10%”. That feels a little insulting, if you’re not in a good mood. Add to all of this the stress associated with the work and dealing with the idiots that you get paid to deal with, and you can feel a bit worn out.

To help deal with these kinds of stressful situations, one will find a number of ways to cope, for example:

  • Finding someone like minded and of a similar age, to talk rubbish with, go for a run with after work, and generally hang out with in the evenings.
  • Get in good with the nice old ladies in catering, so that you can be sure of a good meal, and maybe get the occasional leftover steak put aside for you for lunch the next day
  • Pilfer biscuits for your room
  • Get decent at darts (when the dart playing contracts administrator is on site), ping-pong (when the table tennis playing civil supervisor is on site), or whatever other entertainment is available in the middle of nowhere.
  • Find a good coffee supply.

When none of that is enough to stop you getting stressed, you just find ways of venting like:

  • Walking out into the field after work has ceased, to inspect the day’s work, and swearing. Loudly.
  • Waiting until a your closest workmate returns to site a few days before you go out on R&R, then emailing him a html file containing a countdown timer showing how soon you’re going on leave, and how LONG they have until they go on leave again. Sure, schadenfreude isn’t pretty, but sometimes it’s okay. Okay?

And if that doesn’t work, hopefully you have a good team who will:

  • Supply you with Pepsi Max and peanuts, and
  • Hide the sharp objects when things just get too much.

These all helped, and I strongly recommend all of them to anyone struggling on site.

And yet…

There’s a certain phenomenon…

I noticed this phenomenon fairly early on, but it wasn’t until I was talking to a work mate one day, and he just got it, that I thought “Maybe it’s an actual thing?”

You see, I’d get to site and be a little bit grumpy about being there. As the days wore on, I’d get incrementally more stressed and angry. Then after a couple of weeks of dealing with idiots, and stress, and stressed idiots, it would feel like the anger would begin to increase exponentially. This is about the time that I lost my “big boy scissors” privileges and be stuck cutting with those plastic bladed toddler scissors. Okay, so maybe it didn’t ACTUALLY come to that, but there were one or two occasions, when my blood sugar went low during this part of the site rotation, that I’m sure my co-workers considered it. So the stress/anger would build until it felt like I was going to explode, and then… I’d hit the asymptote. Suddenly I didn’t care anymore, I was going home in a day or two, it wasn’t my problem. I’d book a table at a nice restaurant with my girlfriend. And I’d dance around the site office saying “hey, I’m going on R&R tomorrow, so F**K the lot of you! HAHAHAHAHAAAA!” In short, all that negative emotion suddenly turned into positive emotion. This feeling would then decline into the normal happiness of being on break, until a day or so before I returned to site, where I’d realise that my break was almost over, and I’d “come down” and get a little depressed. Until I got back to site, at which point my stress/anger level reached unity.

Being an engineer, my first instinct, when confronted with a new “thing”, is to make a graph. Even if I don’t draw a graph, chances are a graph will start trying to plot itself inside my mind. So while talking to this friend, I grabbed a whiteboard marker, and drew a simple graph: Anger versus Time.  It looked like this:

the original asymptote

Okay, so the one I drew wasn’t quite so neat, but the key points were all there.

The most important thing is the “I don’t give a f**k asymptote”, which is it’s scientific name. This is the point where something inside your head changes and you just don’t care, because you are going home soon. This work mate and I had a running joke about “the asymptote”, even though he isn’t particularly mathematical and didn’t know what an asymptote was until I explained it to him.

It’s important to note that when I say “anger”, I’m really talking about any negative emotion. Really, what the graph is showing is the “anger equivalent” of the sum of your mental state. Things like stress, anger, hunger, etc all increase the “anger equivalent”, while things like relaxation, satisfaction, happiness, etc make the equivalent a negative value (any point below the x-axis is a “happy” reading).

I’ve had this in my mind every time I’ve gone to work on site, and I’m sure some people (depending on what your job is like) have even experienced it on a weekly basis.

I recently decided to put some numbers to the asymptote, and here are the equations that I came up with.



Note: The graph shown above was based on a 3 & 1 roster (3 weeks on, 1 week off), which gives inputs of Cycle Time = 28 (days) and Off Time = 7.

General form of the curve

general form of curve

Derived inputs

derived inputs

I assumed a starting anger level of 1, to normalise the curve. As far as I know there is no SI unit for measuring anger or stress. This allowed me to derive d:

derived d

I then adjusted the value of “a” to get the comedown time, represented by the X intercept, to match the observed come down time stated above. The result is:

derived aThese equations and the selected value of “a” gives a curve that works for all of the standard site rosters that I’ve worked (10&4, 3&1, etc) and even possibly the normal weekly cycle.

So, what inspired me to finally put numbers to this graph that’s been sitting in my head for years? My wife was telling me about the politics at her work, and how she thought that since she’s going on maternity leave in a couple of months she thought that she’d feel happy, but if anything she is just getting more worked up about it, which didn’t make sense. did it?

I grabbed a notepad and pen. “I know what this is,” I said. “It’s a phenomenon I’ve seen before. I think it’s still a while away for you, but when it come’s you’re going to know it. You’re going to hate it briefly, and then you’re going to love it…”

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the I Don’t Give A F**K Asymptote.


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