Work Habits

May 7th, 2012

I received an email today from Maximilian Fleischmann asking me how I manage my time. I started composing an email answering his question, but as I wrote I realized that my answer might be of utility to others, so I’m putting it here.

Mr. Fleischmann was under the impression that I work 12 hours a day. That’s not strictly true. Yes, I spend about 12 hours a day working on tasks, but some of those tasks aren’t game design work. Here’s how I spend my time on a typical day. This is an average; every day is different.

0700: get up. feed dogs. make tea
0715: check and respond to email. read Internet news
0800: computer work
1100: housework
1130: lunch; read The Economist
1200: outside work
1400: computer work
1600: nap
1630: outside work
1800: dinner, watch TV with Kathy
2000: computer work
2200: reading in bed
2300: go to sleep

This schedule (which I remind you is a rough average of many different days) shows me doing computer work only 7 hours a day. Working with the computer is intense and exhausting. When I was in my 20s, I could get in perhaps 10 hours of computer work, but now that I’m in my 60s, I’ve slowed down and can’t handle that much mental intensity.

On the other hand, I maintain this schedule 7 days a week. I rarely take vacations; I don’t really need any vacations and I’m usually able to add a few days on either side of my occasional lecture trips to play tourist. I work on Christmas day just like any other day. Bah, humbug!

Permit me to defend my intellectual pride by rushing to point out that watching TV is a social activity, not an entertainment activity. My wife Kathy loves to watch TV, because she does tax work during the day and needs to unwind with some mindless entertainment in the evening. If you want a happy marriage (we’ve been married 40 years), you need to put time into it. Of course, after 40 years, there’s not a whole lot of new stuff to talk about, but it’s still important to spend time together, and the solution we’ve worked out is to eat dinner while watching TV.

Note the hour I set aside in the evening for reading. People ask me, how do I find the time to read all those books? You don’t find time, you make  time! Time isn’t something that you find hiding in nooks and crannies, it’s something you allocate among your interests. If you don’t allocate time to reading, then it must not be very important to you – and you won’t learn much, will you?

Here’s the most important single trick I use: I break up the computer work into short periods. When I was young, I wasted countless hours on twelve-hour programming marathons, taking pride in my work ethic. What a fool I was! I didn’t understand how the mind works. You can only work productively on a difficult problem for a few hours; eventually you get stuck in your own wrong thinking and the hours race past as you beat your head against the brick wall of your own mistakes. Your mind works much better when you step away from the problem for a few hours, allowing your mind to let go of its mindset and approach the problem from a different angle.

This is important! Your mind is not a computer that just runs and runs and runs. It’s an extremely complicated system that has a great many limitations, one of which is that it gets stuck on a hard problem and can’t get out of its rut. You need to let go of the problem, do something entirely different, and let your mind mull over the problem unconsciously. Many times I have done this and, while doing something completely different, suddenly had a thought pop into my mind out of nowhere. I drop whatever I’m doing and rush back to the computer to try out the new idea.

Remember, your work isn’t programming: it’s thinking! Your fundamental task is to come up with new and better ideas. You can’t force your mind to come up with new ideas by sitting in front of the computer with your fingers on the keyboard, staring intensely at the screen and ordering yourself to think. Sorry, your mind doesn’t work that way.

The second most important trick I use is to alternate mental work with physical work. The best way to clear your mind is to get hot and sweaty in physical labor. Here I have two big advantages over most people: I own 40 acres of forest land that require more physical labor than I can ever provide. Yesterday I spent hours repairing the net over the duck pen to prevent raptors from eating the ducks. Before that I was cutting and clearing brush in a nasty thicket, piling it up in a tall pile. Today, I’ll burn that brush pile. It’s important for fire safety to reduce the amount of fuel on the forest floor. That way, when a fire comes through, it stays low to the ground and doesn’t affect the trees themselves. Burning a ton of brush now can save a hundred tons of timber later.

There are always fences and gates to repair; last week I set a new fencepost to support a heavy gate. I went into the forest and found a dead oak tree that had a straight segment about seven feet long. I cut down the tree and trimmed out the seven-foot section, then dragged it to the gate. I dug a narrow hole 2 feet deep, just wide enough for the oak post to fit into. Then I set the oak post into it and pounded dirt into the space around it. When I was done, I had a strong, heavy post that won’t sag. Next week, I’ll be digging up some pipe that was broken by the roots of a growing tree and lay new pipe circling around the tree. Lots of digging work here.

My second big advantage is complete freedom to schedule my own time. I don’t have some idiot boss demanding to know why I wasn’t at my desk at 8:00 AM. Since I’m my own boss, I can take breaks whenever I feel like it. Of course, since I’m my own boss, I don’t tolerate any wasted time at all. Life would, all in all, be easier working for a boss, but it wouldn’t be anywhere near as productive.

All this physical labor is important to my creativity, my mental health, and my physical health. Few people realize just how closely the mind and the body are intertwined. Your mind cannot function well if you neglect your body. If you’re in your 20s, your body is working just fine without effort on your part, but don’t think this lasts forever. You are at the peak of your physical condition and it’s all downhill from here. Get to work on keeping healthy now and you can delay the decline – and keep your mind fresher.

A personal opinion: I don’t think much of artificial exercise. Using exercise machines, doing the same thing over and over is not smart exercise. You need to engage your entire body as a unit rather than just moving a set of muscles back and forth. You can do this by playing tennis or racquetball. Dancing is good. Even better: chop down dead trees with a chainsaw. clear the slash (broken branches) off them, cut them up, and drag the pieces to the woodpile. That’s good exercise!

Another trick: nap. There’s lots of evidence that a short nap in the afternoon is good for the body. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors in Africa found that it was wise to stay out of the sun during the hottest part of the day, so they developed the habit of napping. Medical experts recommend a half-hour to 45 minutes.

Another important recommendation: get your sleep. Have you ever wondered why we sleep in the first place? Yes, we need to rest, but it’s not our bodies that need to rest, it’s our brains. The human brain must integrate the day’s experiences into long-term memory and that’s an extremely complicated process requiring the participation of the entire brain. Since the integration process requires the entire brain, it has to shut down the body for this “periodic maintenance”. We call this shutdown “sleep”. And what happens to a computer system that doesn’t get periodic maintenance? It slows down, starts dropping bits, and eventually crashes. Depriving a human being of sleep for a week will kill them. Don’t deprive yourself of the sleep your brain needs to maintain its health. “Pulling an all-nighter” is for ignorant fools (and cramming for a test is just about the worst possible strategy). Bosses who do not insure that their workers are getting enough sleep should be fired for gross incompetence.

Note how my computer work is broken up between programming, writing, and other tasks. Just as it’s helpful to alternate brain work with body work, it’s helpful to vary the kinds of brain work you do.

Lastly, remember that each person is unique and will require different combinations of the above strategies. If you live in Manhattan, it just won’t do to cut down an elm in Central Park and cut it up for firewood. You may be able to do just as well with more than eight hours of sleep – or you may need more than that. In general, the younger you are, the more sleep you need, because your brain has more new experiences each day to integrate into its overall memory. Moreover, your schedule must vary with circumstances. In the winter I do more computer work and less outside work, because it’s cold and wet outside. In the summer I reverse the emphasis. Sometimes my naps stretch out to 90 minutes – and sometimes I skip the nap altogether. Sometimes I’m hot and can work for five hours on programming. Other times my mind just isn’t in it and I turn to writing or some other task. Monitor your own performance carefully to see what works.