I’ve spent years criticizing leaders, executives, and other management-types, insisting that their “death-march crunch mode” approach to production is harmful, wasteful, and counter-productive.
Maybe it works for ditch-diggers or truck driversI’m not saying it does. I’m saying I don’t know. I try not to do jobs that involve dangerous tasks like driving, lifting heavy things, or being too far from a coffeemaker., but for jobs that focus on mental acuity – particularly creative tasks – you suffer from a massive drop-off in quality above a certain limit. The limit is a little bit different for everyone. Some people hit it at 45 hours, some people at 50, and a few (mostly young people) are good until 60 or so. But once you go above the limit, you’re not going to get any more good work out of them. Worse, if you push them too far then it will lower the quality of all of their work.
The effect ramps up gradually over time. You can probably get away with a couple of 60 hour weeks without any serious drawbacks, but as weeks turn into months, the problem intensifies dramatically. Usually. For most people. As far as we can tell. Look, like a lot of organic processes, it’s variable, unpredictable, and hard to measure. The point is…
Sometimes Less is More
The idea is that in a creative jobs, people can do more in a 40 hour work week than they can in a 60 hour work week. Above the limit, they burn out. Their passion dies. They spend more time mindlessly clicking on Twitter and less time doing the job. They lower their personal standards for quality. And if they’re not getting paid overtime, then all of these problems are likely worse. So when you work some poor grunt 70 hours a week, you’re ruining their home life, making them hate the job, lowering the quality of their work, and to top it all off you’re not even getting the project done any fasterAnd possibly much slower, if we count shoddy work that needs to be re-done..
As if this wasn’t bad enough, Office Hell pushes people to look for jobs elsewhere, and the first people to leave will be the ones with the most mobility, meaning the ones who are most desirable to other companies. You’re literally filtering out the talent and keeping the dregsIf you’ve ever been stuck in development hell: I’m not saying YOU are untalented. But I am saying the talent density was higher at the start of the project than at the end. It’s a trend, not a rule..
I know all this. Which makes it all the more surprising that I’ve behaving as though I didn’t know it, or as if it shouldn’t apply to me for some reason.
When Overworking Isn’t Working
I’ve been cranking up my workload over the past couple of months. The column. The Mass Effect series. Programming Good Robot. Making music. Recording the Diecast and Spoiler Warning, and then writing their attendant posts. Occasional special topic posts. I eventually nudged my work hours above the productivity threshold without noticing it.
Then I noticed this happening:
Bad:You're procrastinating by surfing for content. Worse:There isn't any new content, so you keep reflexively opening the same dozen sites.
— Shamus Young (@shamusyoung) August 30, 2015
"Hmph. Nothing good on YouTube. Same as five minutes ago. I should stop opening it." Five minutes later: "Hmph. Nothing good on YouTube…"
— Shamus Young (@shamusyoung) August 30, 2015
This is just the tip of the iceberg, in terms of my dysfunction. But I’m sure you’ve been there and know what I’m talking about.
This should have tipped me off that I was in trouble. I had a ton of work to do, and it was all stimulating, interesting, rewarding work. And yet I was stuck in some sort of obsessive time-wasting behavior loop. I kept needing mental breaks because I was burning out. I was getting cranky, not thinking clearly, and my sleep was all over the place.
When you write code, you usually spend most of your time reading code. You can’t keep hundreds of thousands of lines of codeOr in a larger project, millions of lines. in your head at once. But you can’t work on code until it’s in your head, which means reading it. As our software has grown more complex over the decades, more of our focus has been spent on mitigating the cost of reading code.
As I burned out, I’d find myself reading the same code multiple times before it “stuck” and I could actually work on it. When I switched to writing prose, I kept mentally stalling. I’d stop writing to think of a word, zone out, and lose my train of thought entirely. And then it would take me ten minutes to get going again. I kept opening new browser tabs and then forgetting why I opened them. I made so many typos you’d think I was face-typing.
When you’re physically exhausted, it’s really painful and you can tell when your body is reaching the limits of its endurance. But when you’re mentally exhausted you just get cranky and stupid, so self-diagnosis is more difficult.
I think I’ve got a handle on it now. Last week I spent a couple of days letting the projects slide and consuming passive entertainment. (I’ll talk about it on the Diecast tomorrow.) I’m still in a bit of a bad mood and my sleep is still happening in random fits and starts, but I’m gradually returning to normal.
So this post is just a gentle reminder that creative limits exist, there are consequences for pushing too hard, and if you’re not careful you can burn out without realizing it. And all of this goes double if you happen to be the boss. It’s very easy, and possibly tempting, to oblige (or simply allow) people to work until their output suffers.
I’m going to go watch Netflix or maybe just stare at the wall and enjoy the sensation of not thinking about anything. I may drool on myself. It’ll be awesome.
 I’m not saying it does. I’m saying I don’t know. I try not to do jobs that involve dangerous tasks like driving, lifting heavy things, or being too far from a coffeemaker.
 And possibly much slower, if we count shoddy work that needs to be re-done.
 If you’ve ever been stuck in development hell: I’m not saying YOU are untalented. But I am saying the talent density was higher at the start of the project than at the end. It’s a trend, not a rule.
 Or in a larger project, millions of lines.
Artless in Alderaan
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A programming project where I set out to make a Minecraft-style world so I can experiment with Octree data.
Grand Theft Railroad
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C++ is a wonderful language for making horrible code.