Hacker's Block and CTF Mental Fatigue

Lately, I've been learning about the vague and nebulous thing called hacking more, over on CTF sites and the like.

Sometimes, I'll run into an obstacle when trying to solve something.

I hear this is common. But do you know the symptoms of hacker's block?

Symptoms

After basic attempts at finding more clues fail, and initial pathways to the solution all hit what seem like dead ends, the puzzle appears to grow in difficulty with the passage of time.

You may experience the following symptoms after a few hours pass with zero meaningful progress:

After many hours or days with no progress whatsoever:

You may find yourself unable to do anything but stare blankly at the screen and repeat your previous attempts to avail.

But it doesn't have to be like this.

Treatment

The most effective technique known to science is to... change your feel.

Most people view the whole CTF thing through the lens of a competitive game. This is fun, and can be motivating for some. Typically, a fun and challenging game involves doing something repeatedly and not giving up until you get through the enemy or obstacle.

The only issue is you may not be well-equipped to pass or defeat the foe, and it isn't as easy as going back to grinding on weaker enemies and leveling up.

Hacking is different – after enumeration and scanning, you usually have to think creatively rather than try to bash your way through with brute force (even if that may work in some situations, and in most cases when attacking vulnerable systems in real life).

Some challenges will require you to question the very nature of what you know, and think about a certain thing differently from how you normally do.

The optimal learning situation:

  1. You have a target or puzzle and you enumerate and investigate it as needed.
  2. You come up with some solutions – some fail, but you continue to think of new things to try, hopefully with some serious effort required.
  3. Every once in a while you learn something new and make progress.
  4. You manage to solve the puzzle while remaining mostly engaged the entire time.

You feel happy and motivated, and you move up in difficultly as you feel comfortable with more of a challenge.

The “Throes of Perdition” situation:

  1. You no longer make any progress or you haven't made any actual progress for a long time, and it feels like you have absolutely nothing else to go on – you've hit every dead-end you could find.
  2. You take shots in the dark over and over in the hopes that you'll figure out what else there is to the puzzle.
  3. You begin to feel like you're guessing/fuzzing, desperately trying to find something, anything, without end in sight.
  4. Bags form under your eyes from stress and your wrists ache more than usual. You have not been drinking water or eating well while painfully struggling to make progress.
  5. You begin to hear voices tell you it would be nice to become a mediocre normal human being, and Consume Entertainment™ as somesuch escapist distractions beckon you to them.

God, please, end the pain!

When it feels like you're stuck and have absolutely no idea what to try, and you feel like you've exhausted all of your options long ago, DON'T keep going endlessly into the abyss.

Give yourself a mental break, go do something else. Switch challenges, learn about something in the same vein as the challenge, or ask a friend around the same level as you what they would do in your scenario.

By dwelling on the problem and what you currently know and what information you have at the moment, you are very likely closing yourself into repetitive thoughts.

You probably aren't addressing the root cause; there is something you don't know that you have yet to figure out. In this state, your mind begins to fog over like an old grandmother's front lawn on Halloween (those fog machines were expensive – should've invested the money in SpaceX instead).

A desperate hacker's clouded mind:

This can keep happening for a long time. Maybe even a long, long time.

Just remember what you started doing this for, and think about whether or not it's worthwhile to continue going this way without gaining any new knowledge or skill.

There are better things you could be doing with your time. There are endless resources online that can help you get closer to your end goals, this isn't your only option to improve.

It'd be better to revisit difficult and unsolved problems with fresh eyes and a clear mind than battering away for days at the same problem.

That's not to say that sometimes it may make sense – and even be a necessary step in developing the hard-earned grit and determination that is required to be truly 1337 – but in most cases, you shouldn't beat yourself up over what you don't know, and move on.