Monday, December 17, 2012

Stress and Release Schedules

I'm a bit of a workaholic. Not a complete one, mind you. I keep pretty rigid workday hours, and have no problem walking away from my work at the end of each day. I'm even good at not working weekends or during vacation. However, as I've noted before, I seem to have a problem with scheduling time off.

The Guilt Release Cycle

I think my issue is related to a sense of guilt or obligation. I find that I am happiest when I have just released a new build, with new features or content. I think that during that time, and for a brief while after, I feel like I've fulfilled my obligations, and can relax a bit.

Gradually, as that new build gets further into the past, my sense of guilt/obligation grows, and I start to get stressed that I haven't released anything recently. That stress increase may vary depending on how much progress I am making towards the next build. It also can be tempered if I'm really confident in what I'm building. But by the time a month has passed since the last build, I feel a self-imposed pressure to get something out soon.

Vacation and Release Timing

With Christmas coming up, I have plans to take time off. Unfortunately, my last uploaded build was November 8th, which means I'm deep in the emotional trough phase of my release cycle. So I've been feeling a tremendous amount of pressure to get a new build released.

I was under the illusion that I could have a new one wrapped up last week, before starting vacation this week. However, that seems highly unlikely now. I suppose I could release what I have, but I ultimately decided that I'd be even more stressed if I just released something incomplete or buggy.

In fact, it's completely counter-intuitive to try and release something before a vacation in order to reduce stress while on vacation. The fresh build would inevitably have issues that need fixing. I'd actually be making my vacation more stressful by having to babysit the new build through its teething period.

Admitting that the new build wouldn't happen before vacation turned out to be a big stress-relief. I still have some stress about being late, but at least the sense of helpless urgency on top of it is gone. I'm no longer facing down an impossible deadline or the decision about whether to release work I'm not completely confident in.

Anxiety and Prioritization

What's more, I find that my approach to work shifts with the reduction in stress. During those urgent days before a release, I discard anything that can't be done in a day or less. I'm in "quick win" mode, and can't commit to any significant changes, sometimes even important ones.

Quick-wins are valuable, but sometimes, they're not the highest priorities. Iterative development teaches us that we should constantly be working on reducing the biggest risk, which is not always the task with the shortest completion time.

When urgency is relaxed, I find it easier to gauge my work, and focus on things that need doing most, instead of things that can be done quickly. I stop thinking so much about time, and focus more on the question of "what adds the greatest value right now?"

Vacation as a Business Owner vs. Employee

Something else I've noticed about vacation anxiety is the sharp contrast between going on vacation as a business owner and as an employee.

As an employee, I can remember looking forward to vacation. Most of the time, I was able to leave work at work, and enjoy my vacation as my time. I did feel a little guilt when taking a vacation while others were working (as opposed to a company holiday, for example). However, I usually didn't feel any urgency while on vacation. I just left work behind.

As a manager within a company, I think more anxiety was introduced to my vacations. I had a harder time walking away, probably because of a sense of responsibility and ownership. Quite often, I would make excuses not to go on vacation, because I "needed" to be there for something, or to finish something.

This sense was amplified when I became a business owner. Now that I am in control of everything, and all responsibility rests on my shoulders, I don't feel excited about upcoming vacations. I feel nervous, and stressed.

Being an internet-based business probably makes that worse, since the business is technically running 24/7, with me as the sole employee. I've had to learn to set hours of unavailability, or else I'll constantly be checking messages and forums.

What To Do About It

I'm still too new to this to have a solid prescription. And I don't have a lot of experience-based data to use as a reference. So I'm still guessing, at this point.

However, observing the above pattern was a good first step. Now that I know it's an issue, I can start paying attention to my behavior in relation to it.

And I've decided to take a vacation without releasing anything in advance. That was already implied above, but I'm repeating it just to be clear. I'll have to make that clear to customers as well, but they seem to already be pretty understanding.

I guess most importantly, take a step back, and look at the situation. Look for signs that you might be letting work creep into your personal life. And if it is, make some adjustments. One of the most powerful tools I've discovered for self-regulating my work/life balance is reminding myself that "crunch is detrimental." Overworking oneself is going to lead to lower quality work, and lower quality of life. By telling myself that, I'm able to use my workaholism to my advantage, since I don't want to detract from my precious work.

And when you do finally take a vacation, make sure the vacation is a vacation. It might not be possible to ignore your business for 168 hours in a row, but at least leave the stress behind, and minimize contact with it. Designate your vacation as a "safe zone," where it's okay not to get work done. Build the week's vacation into your release schedule.

In the end, this is mostly a self-imposed anxiety. I don't think others hold us to as high a standard as we hold ourselves. And in the case of video games, many of the most-lauded studios are those that err on the side of taking necessary time to do their products right.

So this is a note to myself as much as anyone else: take some time off. Use it to relax. Step away from the product and producing for a while. You'll come back refreshed, and ready to make your creation even better.


  1. I know just what you're talking about. We're finding that as we are closing our second year, our anxiety is less, and our feelings of needing to work and be available 24/7 are less. Part of it is that such a large part of our work demands communication with other companies (who are usually off work at this time of year), but I think part of it for us too is just settling into a comfortable rhythm of work intensity.

  2. My two year mark is coming in a few months, so there's hope the anxiety will subside for me soon, too :)