Life can be better (part 3 of 3)

Original Author: Amir Ebrahimi

previous article was a deep dive into my own personal experience of burnout and depression and what it took me to regain my own health, vitality, and enthusiasm for the work that we all do. In this final article, I take a look at conditions of the work environment, share some practical things that I do to conserve willpower throughout the day, talk a bit about how I get quality sleep, and tie up some loose ends with the series.

Environment

When it comes to being creative and productive, I think that setting the conditions to succeed are important:

A solid work day

I’ve worked at numerous studios that did not respect my time. My commitment to anyone who works at our studio – put in a solid eight hour day and I won’t ask any more from you. Our policy: I will come in anytime between 8-9am and leave between 5-6pm. If I am running late, then I will email the team as part of being accountable to myself and my other team members. By sending an email as soon as I know I will be late, it allows me to reflect on why I can’t get in to work on time. The email is not meant to shame me in any way. I simply make up the time either that day or the next. What doesn’t work with this policy – long lunches, inefficient meetings, catching up on personal email, stepping away for personal calls, and/or hour-long Halo breaks. While the policy is clear, life is not always simple and it is understood that sometimes it is necessary to take care of things in order to focus on work.

Leave the laptop (and work) at work

We all have laptops for the off-chance that one of us needs the flexibility to work at home and in the event that we are all at a conference that requires us to be mobile. I found that when I first started working in our new office I was lugging the laptop back and forth between home and work. When I was a freelance contractor prior to starting the company, I didn’t have clear boundaries for work. So, naturally, I continued that behavior for part of the first year after we moved into our office (even though I did not expect this of employees). I have since changed this behavior to be balanced: I focus on getting my work done at work and leave it there.

Sit in a good chair

When I was working out of the home office, I went through a few cheap chairs that all seemed to cause back problems. When I hired the first employee, I knew that it was time to respect both my own well-being and that of others who would be sitting for most of the day. I researched chairs for more than two weeks, visited many different high-end stores, and sat in many different chairs (including ones that were way out of our price range at the time). Unfortunately, I can’t recommend to you “The Best Chair”. We currently have a bunch of Steelcase Amias, but I think the Leap would have been a better choice. My suggestion is to try out different ones or have your team try out ones until you find one that works for everyone. If you’re just staffing up and don’t know what people will want, then it’s good to find one that has adjustable lumbar support, a sliding seat pan to accommodate different leg lengths, and adjustable height at the very least. Having a good chair is one of the best investments you’ll make.

Other ergonomic / hardware requests
At some of the prior companies I’ve worked, hardware or other ergonomic requests were not easy to come by. What’s odd to me as a business owner is why there is any hesitation. While it might seem like a lot to spend $1000 more for better computer hardware or $300 on a keyboard or $100 on computer vision glasses or $80 on a special type of mouse, these are all fixed costs. On the balance sheet, these costs will be miniscule compared to the recurring costs of payroll or office space. I do realize that across a large studio these costs can add up. However, I think it speaks a lot to the people who work with you to see that you care about their well-being in the office.

Amazon Prime / Costco / Safeway / etc.

This might seem like an odd one to put in this list, but it goes in part with the previous condition immediately above. I was a latecomer to Amazon Prime for personal purchases. Then, upon suggestion from an employee, I decided to set up a company account. We would have, once a month, a collection of all the snacks/items people wanted to have in the office by having each employee login with the company account and add things to a wish list. Then, I’d confirm the purchase and submit the final order. Finally, we reached a point where it made no sense to wait to put together a big order and my co-founder and I decided to give a trial run to make it available for any employee to order/reorder anything that they wanted. So far this works well and doesn’t seem to get abused. This comes down primarily to trusting the people you work with. If you don’t, then why are they at the company?

No crunch periods

Just as I found out firsthand the lasting effects that crunch had on my personal health, I also think that it translates to the team as well. If you crunch at your studio, then know that whatever you get out of the team comes at a cost. My advice: don’t do it. For one, I think it creates an unhealthy environment of competing for the Workhorse Award. I think it’s better to reward working smarter rather than working longer. Secondly, it reinforces poor scheduling instead of sobering up to the reality of the actual time it takes to make a high-quality game. If anything, it has been my co-founder and I who have worked a few weekends here and there (we’re both software engineers by trade) from our miscalculations instead of passing that on to our employees. If we’re habitually missing our own deadlines, then it is a sign that we are not estimating as well as we could be or scoping the work properly.

Willpower

willpower. In an effort to conserve my own willpower, here are some of the things that I do:

Do the most important thing first; in the morning
This one is challenging to me because it’s easier to spend all of my energy trying to reduce my inbox to zero or catching up on industry news or watching recorded talks from the last industry conference that just passed. So, if that is how I spend my morning and I finally get around to that something important at 3pm in the afternoon, assuming no further distractions come, then what is left in the tank? Yeah, not much. So, I schedule one important thing to do daily, do it as early as I can, and avoid disruptions. I leave the afternoon stresses that naturally come to get what is left over. In short, I think I do my best work in the morning, so I choose where that goes.

Don’t check work email outside of work hours
I use to have push email to my phone, getting that ding every other minute. Then, I switched to pull to avoid the Pavlovian response. However, I’d still check my work email constantly even after going home for the day or on the weekend. And you know what? I’d get that distressed email from one of our clients about a project we were working on. I’d get all worked up about things that I knew I couldn’t deal with until Monday morning when we could all get on a conference call. Then, it dawned on me – leave the work email at work. I know that I’ll deal with whatever comes up when I’m at work because I work a solid day when I’m there. So, until then why not give myself a break? I consciously choose to not check my work email when I’m sitting on a bus, idle (my bicycle got stolen recently). I’ll deal with all of whatever is waiting in my inbox when I get to work. This rule is not a hard and fast rule though. Sometimes I get bored and can’t help it, but at least I’m conscious about it.

Shift meetings to the afternoon
So, if I do my best work in the morning, then why not schedule meetings in the afternoon? Otherwise, I’ll be in conflict between starting that something important and picking off smaller tasks in an effort to not get into a flow before I get interrupted for a morning meeting. Additionally, I try and push meetings either to directly after lunch or the end of the day. Otherwise, I’ll be in the same dilemma as before. However, this rule is not hard-and-fast as it is possible that the most important thing for the day is the meeting.

Better meetings; courtesy of Google
Google Ventures recently released a session online: Meetings that Don’t Suck. Some of the nuggets of wisdom I extracted were: to not have a meeting if we don’t have a decision to be made, have the decision to be made clear and specific, know who to have at the meeting, know who is the decision maker, schedule the meeting for the right amount of time, try leaving the laptop at the desk, and leave a day for everyone where no meetings are scheduled. In practice, this has been challenging to unlearn the ways we have been having meetings up until now, but we’re trying!

Sleep

This one is a no-brainer and yet I managed for many, many years to not get enough sleep, cover it with coffee, and continue to not get enough sleep. This one is important enough that it deserves a separate mention from the rest of the conditions to succeed.

Shift to an earlier schedule
When I started my journey towards better health, I was still working at home. As part of eating regular, energy-packed meals it was easy to stop and cook a meal at any point. However, I hadn’t reeled in my sleep schedule and was still working late. Once we moved into to an office and hired our first employee, I realized that getting to and from work would require me getting up earlier. So, I had to shift my hours forward.

Give time to rest my overstimulated brain
Shifting to an earlier sleep schedule was and is sometimes still challenging because it’s easy to stay entertained with Netflix, YouTube, email, and books until late hours into the night. I’ve done the introspective work to look at what shadow belief was driving this behavior and found it to be that “I am not doing enough for myself.” In other words, I owe it to myself to stay up late and watch back-to-back episodes of Mad Men or Breaking Bad until I am completely exhausted. No, what I actually owe to myself is to get a good night’s rest, so I don’t feel like shit the next day. Another poor sleep habit I kicked a while ago: leaving the TV running while falling asleep.

Dim lights as I get ready for sleep
Serotonin and melatonin are flip-sides of each other. Serotonin helps regulate moods during the day and melatonin can help you get a good night’s sleep. I learned that bright lights in the room or from an LCD screen could be reducing melatonin production right before bed. So, it’s easy enough for me to shut off a few lights as I wind down for the day.

Sleep on a good bed
I had an old box-spring mattress from five years ago that had a deep sag on the side where I had been sleeping. Needless to say it was uncomfortable. I finally invested in a good quality mattress after doing quite a bit of research on SLTD. I was tempted to buy one of the low-cost memory foam mattresses on Amazon and decided against it due to the off-gassing and potentially toxic materials that get used in those mattresses. In the end, I opted for a more firm, 100% natural Talalay latex bed. Find what works for you, but if you’re trying to be mindful of the environment, then beware of some of the “eco-friendly” versions of mattresses that simply put an “organic” layer on top of a stack of toxic polyurethane foam.

Sleep in a dark room

I’ve actually been sleeping this way for years and I find having light levels dark as possible allow me to sleep better through the night. Recently, I decided to cover some of the blinking / bright LED lights from electronic equipment in the room. I have white roller shades that I pull down behind blinds, but I still get light leakage and may opt for black-out shades in the future.

Leave my alarm clock (i.e. iPhone) across the room
I started leaving my alarm clock across the room instead of next to my head on the night stand for the main reason that it requires me to get up out of bed to turn off the alarm, which usually defeats the purpose of snoozing. I think because I know I’ll have to do this it reinforces getting to bed early enough where i won’t feel the need to snooze.

Challenge: wake up without an alarm
I’ve only managed to do this one for a short period of time because it requires an added level of discipline. However, it’s pretty cool when it works. I’ll set my alarm for the latest possible time that I can get up and then make sure to get to bed early enough where I get 8 hours of sleep. Usually this is in the range of 10-11pm. If I manage to get up before my alarm clock, then I get to start my morning calmly without “jump-starting” my body to an alert state.

Loose Ends

Tying up a few loose ends, I wouldn’t feel complete unless I mentioned a few more things to round out the series.

Water
I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ll emphasize it again. I drink plenty of water in the day (roughly 3 quarts) and mostly in the morning. If what comes out of my body is clear, then I know I’m good. If it’s yellow, then that’s indicative of a warning.

Sunlight
I’ve spent most of my time indoors as a software engineer and didn’t quite get why people are outside. It feels good dammit! It’s no surprise that my vitamin D levels are still low. So, I try and get out for at least a few minutes a day to get some sun. Requiring water and sunlight, we aren’t too much unlike plants.

Team Outings
We try to get out once a month as a team to do something outside of the office. We use part of a workday to do this, but if that is cost-prohibitive, then there’s no reason why it couldn’t be done on a weekend. At first we started with a movie outing. We tried a never-ending Diplomacy board game another time. Then, we did a Magic: The Gathering constructed deck tournament with a newly purchased box of boosters. Now, we’re moving on to more active outings as it is summertime: we recently hiked up Mt. Tam up in Mill Valley, CA.

Summary

The Healthy Programmer: Get Fit, Feel Better, and Keep Coding. In the book the author states that “one of the most important points you can take away from this book: your mind and body are not independent entities. They are intimately coupled, and for one to perform at its best, both must be healthy.” I certainly learned that lesson the hard way.

I hoped you’ve enjoyed a topic that is important to me and that I think hasn’t gotten much focus in our industry. I didn’t integrate all of the things that I’ve suggested immediately, but I did decide that I was willing to experience something different, so that life could be better.