Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Dealing with a workaholic temperament

There is a huge perception gap between how people perceive those who are wealthy/successful/accomplished, and how those people really feel. I’m not a billionaire, or a nobel prize winner, but by the narrow criteria of solo indie game developer, I’ve had a lot of profitable games, certainly made decent money, and should be feeing pretty content, stable, secure and pretty much able to enjoy life in the way most people would choose to do so. The ‘me’ that people who do not really know me see, is someone with a stupidly fast car, nice house, decent income, and on the face of it, no worries whatsoever. He must be really chill, and really happy.

This is a superficial view.

The reason I’ve done so well in indie games (and other earlier careers like IT), is that I have a completely obsessive workaholic nature. I always overwork, and aim to overachieve. When I was trying to be a heavy rock guitar player, I didn’t set my goals at anything other than the very top. At the time, the best guitar teacher in the country was Shaun Baxter, so I took weekly lessons with him (involving 3 hours each way train journey with a guitar case) at great expense. I saved up to do a course at the Guitar Institute. I bought books of guitar-tab by yngwie malmsteen and steve vai. I read about steves 10 hours a day scales-exercise regime and tried to copy it. I was playing guitar all-the-time.

When I worked in IT, I was told that the ultimate qualification was the MCSE. I studied really hard, and got top marks in practically every exam towards it, getting an MCSE really early, and allowing me to earn a cushy £54,000 a year as an IT contractor (about 20 years ago). When I had an MCSE hardly anybody had one, it was seriously hard to get.

So obviously with programming I’ve taken it equally ridiculously. I code a LOT, and I don’t trust other peoples code. I use C++ and STL, and tbh I’ve spent a lot of time profiling some STL stuff to ensure I am not compromising performance by using it (some iterator stuff *is* slow.). I code my own engine (obviously) and even rewrite my own versions of some of D3DX because they were hilariously slow. I work a LOT, and I think about work a LOT. My bookshelf is 95% code/business and 5% science fiction.

Now the end result of this is great if you judge someone by their bank balance, but health/quality of life wise it can be *pretty bad*. Annoyingly for anyone reading this with physical health problems, I am fine. My heart was described by a doctor as ‘pristine’. my BMI is in the normal range. I am rarely ill. Physically I am not in bad shape, although my cholesterol is highish. But as for my state of mind: thats more kinda frazzled, and bizarrely, its not by alcohol!

Being a workaholic/perfectionist can be very negative because you see the world through faults, problems, errors, failings and potential disasters. I can be very depressed by the state of the world. I can be very negative about the quality of my own work and my prospects. Always worrying about the future is something I’ve kind of had since childhood, but throwing yourself massively into work does not make it better. They say the best things for your mental health and your lifespan are to forge many meaningful relationships with people. Not Facebook friends, but people you physically hang out with. I don’t do nearly enough of that, partly due to being an introvert.

The best thing for my lifestyle in the last year has been falling into a habit of regularly playing online games with buddies whist we voice chat on discord. This is the equiv of a pub for me, and its great, as my game buddies are all indies (we have a lot to chat about) and all work from home, so we are all basically seeking the same kind of sociability. No amount of self-help books or meditation will give me the same feel-good effect as regularly ‘hanging out’, even if its over voice, and not physically.

I’m trying hard to cut out other things in my life that are causing me negative feelings. For years I used the BBC radio 4 today program as an alarm, but its basically politicians shouting, and I don’t need to start my day like that. I’m going to experiment with various gentle alarm apps or soundtracks.  I also consume way too much chocolate, alcohol and do too much day-trading for my ideal mental health. I eat chocolate and drink wine for the short-term serotonin bump, and its self-defeating. I’ll keep doing both, but I’m going to moderate them.

Day trading is a weird one, because although I’m not bad at it (if you ignore my current live trades, I’m £8k up this year), and I do ‘enjoy’ it in some ways, its an extra level of stress, and ties me to a roller-coaster of emotions over which I have zero control. Its a needless ‘game’ that I play with real world consequences and ties me to real world market and political news which I should avoid for my mental health anyway. Again, I’m planning to moderate this, almost certainly quitting for good when/if my current live trades turn positive. At my height, I was playing Battlefield 1 on one monitor and checking day trade charts whilst respawning. That was my ‘relaxing’ time.

Managing my mental state is, for me at least WAY harder than managing finances. If you gave me a choice of having to earn an extra £200k somehow, or learning to work less hard and relax more, I’d probably take the former as I’d find it way easier. That has to change, which means I need to take the idea of work/life balance a lot more seriously. Its hard as hell, but I’m trying.



8 thoughts on Dealing with a workaholic temperament

  1. Looking after the mind is important. A few friends recommended meditation and I’ve been using the Headspace app daily on my commute to work. It has slowly changed my perception and acceptance of my own negativity. I would recommend it.

  2. My suggestion would be to not have your phone/radio/electrical equipment in your bedroom and use one of those battery operated silent clock alarms. I have used one for years and they are great.
    There was a lady giving a TED talk, via you tube, I watched a while back. It was more about motivation I think, but it was also about starting your day in a positive mindset/position. It boiled down to when you first wake up countdown from 5 to 1 and then so “Go” and get up. It’s surprising how this technique as a positive impact on your mental health and day.
    So, have a search for it on You Tube Cliffski and get yourself one of those clocks and banish the electricals in the bedroom.

  3. What do you do for exercise? Maybe a sport can take away some of that workaholic energy. I’ve started doing triathlons (with no sports base ever) a year ago and it’s very addictive. Others have converted their drug addictions into triathlon. Watch Chasing The Lion (about Lionel Sanders). I find triathlon’s physical energy requirements to complement well a computer-based job.

  4. I can certainly relate to this. At first, it wasn’t a problem (‘look, I can earn as much as back when I was an employee and I only need to make 37.5 hours per week!’) and then it started, slowly… that ugly thoughts ‘but I could be making more work, more games, more everything’. Then, soon enough, there’s no limit, so long as I’m awake, I can pour in an extra hour here, do some extra work there, followup on that, polish this thing, I’m almost don– 4AM again, I can almost hear the birds chirping… 3 kids waking up to go to school in just a bit, that whole world is a damned mess, **** Trudeau (Busted: I’m Canadian), not even bothering to smile at my wife… back to it…

    Then, like you, there’s the realization that it could be a problem, all that pessimism (things are never good enough), deciding to trust other people for your own good, and knowing fully you don’t genuinely trust anyone or anything to be as thorough as you can be… Even though you know the problem, that brain refuses to change, like any other addiction, it is so deeply rooted in everything that you are…

    TL;DR: I know the feeling!

  5. Have a holiday.
    One week, preferably two.
    Doesn’t matter where, as long as it’s not at home.

    It gives you back the distance to get your head out of details and see things clearly, and recharges your ideas/emotional state.

    I know it’s difficult, especially when self-employed, but doing less for a while really does increase the impact of your work when you get back to it.

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