Burn-out, in shortest possible, is a state of physical and mental exhaustion. Is is caused by too much work and stress, and not enough rest and sleep. It can lead to severe health problems, with the smallest one being clinical depression. Apparently, it is very common in game development professions.
I started working on Rick Henderson And The Artifact Of Gods a year and a half ago. First, everything was going fine. Fueled by passion and motivation, i stayed late many nights and used weekends to recover from that maniacal tempo. Then the weekends weren’t enough. I started barely waking up and functioning very lousy. Eating too much to get energy, drinking too much coffee. Quality of work started to fall, and it took me more and more time to finish stuff. My concentration was going down. I got frustrated when i simply couldn’t stay up anymore because i lacked energy. When i did stay up, it was a torture of mind and body with work quality falling down even more. Depression started to creep in. A vicious circle of guilt and exhaustion that ultimately led to a month pause during which i couldn’t even look at my game. After one big and one smaller burnout (the other one was a reminder) i experienced, i learned a good lesson. Making a game is not a 100 meters sprint of passion, it is a 42 kilometer marathon that requires perseverance, determination and motivation. To stay determined and motivated we need to take care of our bodies and minds. Typical, a bit satirized, representation of a programmer is a skinny or a fat bold guy with glasses and a generally neglected appearance (stubble, lousy wardrobe and so on).
Turns out, there’s a grain of truth in every joke. This type of work takes an enormous amount of time and while not physically demanding it DOES impact the body, and with it the mind enormously. I am determined to avoid burnouts in the future, and here is what i can recommend to you to avoid them too.
Developing games can be addictive, especially when you get into The Flow (or in the zone, as it is sometimes referred to). As i already have a full-time job and family, the flow usually comes late at night, when family is asleep and after an hour or two already in the works. I get completely immersed and have a distorted feeling of time and space, hyperfocus and increased productivity. If you think you can use this time well, make sure you can be absent from the work tomorrow so you can regenerate and have a good night of sleep. However, i wouldn’t recommend doing this often. It’s better to save that energy when you’re close to some goal that requires a large amount of work that you feel you must do in one push or you will lose focus if you split it in chunks.
Sleeping less than 6 hours increases obesity (you feel like eating more to compensate for lack of energy), chance of stroke, heart diseases and diabetes. Not to mention that you will be forgetful, need lots of coffee or caffeine drinks to make it through the day and be irritable as hell. Depression also creeps in. Make sure you sleep at least 7 hours and try sleeping in on weekends if you can.
I know it sounds obvious and like a cliché, but if you are mid thirties like i am, this fact needs to be repeated all the time. Make time to prepare a healthy, balanced meal. Eat vegetables, fruits, fish and meat. Besides making your own meals is the healthiest choice of all, it helps rest the mind by physically and mentally distancing you from computer. I find cooking relaxing and sometimes similar to long bicycle rides when my mind wanders off.
Drink water and tea, not sodas full of sugar.
Avoid too much caffeine, it actually makes you harder to concentrate if you overdo it, makes your brain foggy, causes caffeine crash and messes up your sleep quality when taken too late (if you manage to fall asleep). While we all love coffee as a stimulant, don’t forget that it is addicting and withdrawal symptoms can last very long, so it’s best to consume it in reasonable amounts.
Besides sleeping enough and eating healthy, exercise is one of the most important things in whole thing of staying mentally stable when working on a game. Get your juices flowing, ride a bike, pump some iron, run, cross fit, whatever makes you sweat. You will feel better, happier, healthier, have more energy to work, need less sleep, wake more rested and most important of all, have your brain functioning better due to improved blood flow. If you are like me, sitting in the office for 8 hours staring at a screen (like most of us actually) and then doing that again in the afternoon, be realistic, it does horrible things to your body and mind and you must be fit to endure it.
Don’t forget friends and family
Life doesn’t just stop because you are working on something that takes an enormous chunk of your spare time. You’ve got a family to spend time with and take care off and friendships you have to cherish. Socializing helps to take the mind off of your work, relax or perhaps vocalize the things that worry you or you are having problems with in your development. Even if someone is not into that, a fresh and naive look at your problem can be an eye opener.
After all, friends and family is all that matters in the end.
Take days off
No matter how great your passion and motivation are, being involved in anything 24/7 is just not good. You will get saturated, lose objectivity of your work and ultimately repelled by the sole sight of computer. Make goals on which you are working on, and say to yourself “when i finish this boss design, i’m going to treat myself with 3 days off”. And do it, feel satisfied with the work you’ve done and enjoy in your days off without guilt because you deserved them.
Relax (away from screen if possible)
Since you are probably already a full-time screen starer and you stare some more when you get home, i recommend you get some relaxation that doesn’t include staring at any type of screen. Cooking is a great way to relax, walk your dog without your smartphone, pet your cat for hours, read a book or a magazine, make a bubble bath, lay on the floor and stare at ceiling thinking about nothing, ride a bike out of town. It’s all relaxing and helps soothe your exhausted and work saturated mind.
Work on something different
If you really feel the need for working on your project, switching between the things you do often helps to avoid saturation. When i got bored of working on enemy waves, i switched to searching for sound effects and making some music. This development blog is also part of my avoiding burnout by doing something different. When you get sick of coding you can do some drawing if you’re apt at it, making music, writing a storyline, whatever jingles your bells. Just make sure you track your goals and don’t spread yourself too thin as it lowers the productivity and quality of work.
Managing it all
That’s all nice and dandy, taking care of yourself, but when you will find the time to work on the game with all this relaxing, exercising and cooking? It’s up to you to figure it out and integrate it into your lifestyle. It’s probably not going to translate into a lot of work hours, but what matters is the quality of those work hours. Most helpful thing if you are not able to work regularly on your game (i.e. have a family and a job) is to run a development log. Not just any, but a very tight one, with clear goals cut into smaller chunks you can handle and work on whenever you can grab some spare time. Besides knowing where to continue with your work after a few days of AFK, it will be motivating to track your progress. I’ll probably write more about it next time.
Stay healthy and take it easy!