008 — How not to drown
(Justin ⇒ Jasdev, 7/13/20)
Have you been able to pace yourself while building Buttondown and Spoonbill? Are there ways you’ve kept the infinite duffle bag of GitHub issues at your desk?
I wrote a draft of this answer where I tried to couch my answer in a number of different feints: “well, pace is relative, and there is positive stress and negative stress, and the thing with sprinting is that —“.
Let’s try with a second draft and a second answer.
I have found a number of tactics have helped me manage my commitments to projects over the past few years, but I’m still not very good at it. Thankfully, this has been mostly okay: as I wrote a few weeks ago, one smart move I made was that I chose projects that don’t require a lot of constant upkeep so if I get burnt out too badly I can step away and recharge for a few weeks (or a few months).
One tactic is keeping as strict a schedule as possible. (This came from my stint as a remote worker in 2016, and as I have sadly returned to remote work for the indefinite future, it has been doubly useful.). It is fairly LinkedIn-core:
- I wake up at 6.
- I futz around with my morning routine (emails, YNAB, content diet, Duolingo, et cetera) until 7, and then I bring my partner some coffee and we get ready together.
- I work out at 8.
- I work on Stripe stuff until 5. Five exactly. no wiggle room.
- I work on Buttondown stuff until 7. Seven exactly. No wiggle room.
- I then have to immediately shift into non-screens mode. There’s a tendency to "escape into good screen", as it were, but I need to either go on a walk or cook dinner or do something that completely eliminates the possibility for me of tabbing back into Gmail or Notion or Slack.
- And then I’m done! I’m usually pretty exhausted by 8. I’ll allow myself a little bit of iPad work, but I can’t go downstairs. (Did I mention that all of my “serious work” has to take place in the office, no exceptions? This is a constraint borne of privilege — not everyone has a dedicated work room — but it’s been an important one.)
Weekends are a bit of a grab bag: there are some weekends, like two weekends ago, where I am essentially working a full day on Buttondown (albeit with a very late start). But yesterday I spent exactly fifteen minutes in front of a screen: weekends are where I’m the most comfortable with volatility, and so if I get work done it’s a happy accident.
Having a rough understanding of how much time I can spend on work helps me organize and triage stuff. I will elide the boring details of whether you should use GitHub or Linear or Notion or just your GTD app of choice because, having used all four for the exact same project, it just doesn’t matter. The system matters — you should know how to identify work that is high urgency and high impact, and how to slot in the low urgency work in a way that doesn’t keep you infinitely working on bug fixes instead of revamping your pricing model — but the tool doesn’t. You’re going to end up with a backlog of a couple hundred things to do anyway: it doesn’t matter where it lives so long as you have a cogent argument against your own personal evil Kermit as to why you should step away from the computer.
Speaking of which: I would be remiss if I didn’t also thank my partner, who is probably the single strongest balancing force in my life. (We joke — and by joke I mean correctly presume — that if I was quarantining on my own the past three months I would be coding for twelve hours a day.)
Even with a solid schedule and adequate organization I get burnt out.
Hemingway wrote that you go bankrupt in two ways, “gradually, and then suddenly”, and that describes my relationship with burnout. At noon, it’s a soft ache that burns on the back of my neck: at five, it’s a paroxysm of angst accentuated by every failing test case or incoming email.
Like this past Friday. This was my calendar:
None of these were “bad” meetings. I got to teach some new Stripes about interviewing; I had a pair of 1-on-1s, an interview and an interview debrief, some pair programming with Unloop, that sort of thing. But I was coming off of a taxing week and there is nothing more draining to me than being “on” for the vast majority of the day.
I looked at my schedule, then I looked at my to-do list, and — for lack of a better phrase: I felt like was drowning. So I do what I always do when I feel like I am drowning: I make a promise to myself and my partner to not work for a split second after my last meeting of the day.
I spent Friday evening eating gnocchi, making martinis, reading Postwar, and playing Slay the Spire. I completely turned my brain off, which is exactly what it needed — a cheat night.
(And sure, a cheat night can turn into a cheat weekend can turn into a cheat week, if you need it.)
Good systems and good routines are important, but you are an ambitious person for whom those good systems and routines are going to be taxing. My advice is to figure out exactly what the break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option is, and to use it very liberally. And my question in return to you is: what does that look like for you? When you really need to disconnect, how do you do it?