The Juggling Act

11 Nov
November 11, 2014


I was asked a question by Daniel in the comments of my last post, about how I juggle my leisure time and work. Do I go full coder-hermit, or take regular breaks?

So I thought I’d turn my answer into a blog post, since the answer might help someone, somewhere.

First, let’s set the scene. I work full time as a programmer, putting in a standard 40 hours most weeks. I work remotely though, so that saves me burning time I would otherwise sit in traffic, which is nice. I don’t have any kids or other dependents. I do have a girlfriend, who I mostly see on weekends. For the first year and a half of System Crash’s development, I worked full time on it, burning my savings until they started running out. The start of this month, November, marks the third year that SC has been in development, though I would put the total man-years at approximately two, as my progress working after hours is about a third or a quarter or what it would be working full time.

The first thing I’m going to say is that game development is for the long haul. Except for extremely small, simple games (which you should be making if you’re a beginner), anything you build is going to take a few months to finish, minimum. You may be tempted to burn on all thrusters as hard as possible, to banish all social contact and code late into the night, chain-drinking caffeinated drinks in the hope that enthusiasm and a fierce work ethic will take you across the finish line. But that is almost certainly not going to be the case. You will burn out long before the game is done, that way.

You have to approach it as a marathon runner would. You must pace yourself for the long haul, carefully managing your internal resources. Your goal is to come up with a strategy which will set a moderate but sustainable pace, and which will see you across the finish line in a reasonable amount of time.

The human body is also not a machine. We are analogue beings, our bodies follow ancient rhythms and cycles. And those rhythms vary across people. What works for me, won’t necessarily work for anyone else. You have to start with self-analysis. When are you most productive during the day? How much sleep do you need? How much social contact? How much time for chores?

For me, I have found that I struggle to work in the early evening. My energy levels climb through the morning, peaking at midday, then falling again after lunch. By early evening, I’ve fully shifted into unwind mode, recuperating, relaxing, having some supper. And, once I’m in that mode, I find it hard to pull myself back into work focus again. It’ll usually be 9 or 10 before I get back into the swing of work, if I go that way. Which leaves me working past midnight.

These days, I tend not to work in the evening, though. At least, not much. What I’ve found works best for me is to get up a few hours earlier in the morning, instead. I’ll make sure I don’t open any email or check twitter, anything that could lead to procrastination, and I’ll get a few good productive hours in, first thing. Not only am I fresher in the morning, it’s motivating to feel like you’ve gotten the work you wanted to do out of the way first thing.

Then, when you’re relaxing in the evening after working all day, you don’t feel any guilt. It’s the pleasure of knowing the day is over, that you’ve done all you can, and that you can rest.

It requires careful discipline on my part, since I’m naturally a night owl. If I let myself, I’ll stay up past midnight. But if I do that, I wake up too late to get my early morning session of work in, requiring me to work in the evenings instead, which leads to me staying up late again and so on and so forth in a cascade. Or, I might still wake up early, but without my 8 hours I’m sluggish and prone to procrastinate instead of working efficiently. It requires careful discipline.

When I pull it off, it’s great! I get between 2 and 3 good hours work a day in during the week, and in the evenings I play games or read for a few hours before I hit the hay. On the weekend I’ll put in about 10-12 hours, distributed around the time I spend with my girlfriend and social events (she watches her shows while I code on my laptop). So somewhere north of 20 hours a week, on average, is what I put into SC.

Now, this is not to say that careful time management is all that’s required. I have had to give up many things. I go out less, and don’t see my friends as often. I don’t play games anywhere near as much as I used to, ironically, and I haven’t got the time to invest in any game that’s going to waste my time with filler or stuff I’ve seen a hundred times. I’m not getting enough exercise, really, and have gained a fair bit of weight in the last three years. My back and legs get sore from sitting at a desk too much, which was the main driver for me to move to a standing desk. I dropped taekwon-do lessons, which I enjoyed. And my relationship survives in part because my girlfriend is incredibly understanding and supportive of my goals.

It’s pretty demanding. I’m working 60 hour+ weeks, every week, month after month, with no guarantee or reward at the end. My body and mind suffer the effects of permanent, self-imposed crunch, and I still hit the occasional wall, physically and mentally. When that happens, it’s best just to take the weekend off and chill. Do the things you love that help to fill the well again, then come back to it and keep working. Just so long as you don’t take too long a break, or lose focus and drift onto something else. That falls under “knowing yourself” again, being able to take enough of a break when you need it to restore your batteries, without falling out of a regular routine.

It’s like gym, you can skip a day or even a week, but skip a month and you’ll find it hard to start up again. Beware that trap.

So the take-away is this:

1) Plan for the long-term. It’s consistent, sustained effort that gets you there, not a quick dash. Don’t try to outrace burnout.
2) Work around your own rhythms and constraints. No two people are quite the same. Know yourself.
3) Your body is not a machine. Schedule recharge/down time.
4) Manage your time effectively so that you get the most out of your hours. This requires discipline.
5) You’ll have to make sacrifices, regardless. Anything worth doing will require something in exchange. Work out what you can give up or cut back on, and what you can’t.
6) Recognize when you reach breaking point and give yourself time off to recuperate.
7) But know the difference between taking a break and losing focus. Make sure you you don’t lose your momentum.

I hope that helps. 🙂

4 replies
  1. Daniel says:

    Thanks for the advice Gareth, I was struggling to find where to put the flag-post when it comes to know when to rest and when to work. I definitely suffer from that “rushing” syndrome, thinking I make an asset is it good enough? No? then F-it let’s move on.

    And a lot of the time I think, I must make this asset look good, because I’m the sort of person to throw something together and struggle to perfect my art.

    So the upshot is feeling impatient I suppose, and wanting to charge into battle like a Berserking Norseman.

  2. MaximillionMiles says:

    Great advice there, Gareth. Honest and direct, and coming from experience. I hope it will all be worth it when System Crash is done.

  3. gareth says:

    Thanks man!


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] glad I did. It’s going to be a big, challenging year for me, and it’s important that I take my own advice here and don’t push myself to the breaking […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *