I suspect that everyone reading this has worked truly insane hours at one time or another. And you've probably suffered the consequences.
So as my first post for Charlie's blog, here's something slightly different: a survival guide to working insane hours, based on many years in the film industry watching dawn break from my chair in the edit suite.
Whilst I've been thinking about topics for guest-posting, I've spent some time considering what writers like Charlie and moviemakers like me have in common. And one thing that sprang to mind immediately was the ubiquitous death march. I've seen Charlie go through more than a few 10,000 word a day writing sprints, and I've pulled some pretty manic stunts on that line myself.
I'd say I recall staying up for more than 72 hours to finish the trailer for my first film. However, that would be a lie, because by the end I was so exhausted all that's left in my memory is a rather Hunter S. Thompson-esque dream sequence.
The trailer was bloody terrible, too.
Since then, I've ended up in the hundred-hour work week club at least once a year for various things. It's not necessarily a very good idea (although death marches, used judiciously, do work) but it's a situation a lot of us end up in.
And right at the moment, I personally know at least three readers of this blog who are doing massive death marches on individual projects. That includes me, as I rush to finish the biggest project of my career. (More on that in a day or so.)
So I thought I'd share some tips I've picked up over the years of injudicious working hours...
Should You Death March In The First Place?
Long term, death marches don't give you more productive time.
This has been proved time and time again, notably in "Peopleware". Few people can profitably work more than 40 hours a week for any length of time.
(Personally, I've observed that amongst people who genuinely find their work relaxing and enjoyable, that number is sometimes a bit higher, but even amongst them it peaks at around 60 hours max.)
If you work more time than your comfortable maximum and keep doing it, your productivity will drop and keep dropping. Quite rapidly, you will become less productive than you would be if you worked 40 hours. Working 80 hours a week for a year might feel productive, but you'll be getting less done than if you worked 30.
(This is probably a good reason not to buy shares in the computer games industry.)
So what's a death march good for?
A death march lets you steal time.
You can't work 80 hours for the next three months and double your productivity.
But you can work 80 hours a week for the next three weeks and double what you get done - provided you're willing to accept that in the three weeks after that, your output will be functionally identical to that of a lightly-reheated blancmange.
If you have a deadline three weeks and a day away, that's sometimes a good trade.
If You're Death Marching, You Are An Athlete
For years, whenever I death-marched, I'd ignore health. During the release window of my first feature film, I cancelled all my exercise classes and ate, essentially, sugar. I figured I could pick things up after my life had calmed down.
Rule #2 of Death Marches: that dog don't hunt. In fact, it fails to hunt to such an extent that it joins the anti-hunting protesters, graffitis the local gentry's Land Rover, and spends the next three years resurfacing local roads as part of its court-imposed community service.
If you're doing a death march, congratulations: you're an athlete. You're deliberately choosing an activity which will push your body beyond its normal endurance limits. As anyone who has suffered with a repetitive strain injury can tell you, sitting in a chair typing for 14 hours a day puts a real physical strain on your muscles, tendons, nervous system, hormonal balance, and circulation, just like any other challenging physical activity.
Deciding that you'll worry about your health later is a bit like a marathon runner deciding that he'll stop for oranges and water after he's finished the race.
In fact, if you're doing a death march, you should increase all of your health-related activities appropriately to the fact you're effectively participating in an endurance sport. Take ten minutes at the start of the day to stretch - here are some good ones to start with. Definitely don't skip whatever regular exercise you do - in fact, aim to increase it if at all possible, preferably in a way that will be very hard for you to get out of later. (Personal training sessions are great if you can afford them.)
It's worth spending money on this if you possibly can: personal care during a death march is one of those areas where small quantities of money can have extremely high utility value.
You can spend it on stuff that will support or repair your muscles and skeleton: Pilates or yoga if you're willing to give those a go, deep tissue massage, myofascial massage. If all else fails, book a session with a private physiotherapist and say "I'm about to work a hundred hours a week for a month. Please stop me falling apart.". (I've done this. It works.)
As previously mentioned, personal training sessions are also good.
You can also support yourself by buying good food that won't make you ill. Increasing your weekly food budget by 50% and buying in things that are quick to prepare, healthy, and you enjoy can prevent the Sugar Spiral Of Doom. I tend to find this works particularly well if you buy yourself all the treats you usually feel you can't afford: steak, asparagus, really high-quality ready meals from Whole Foods, whatever.
In this death march I've been careful to prioritise my health, and the results are already very obvious. The Pilates lesson I took last week, for example, dealt with half a dozen niggling aches which past experience suggests would have by now been fighting for the title of "crippling".
The Annoying Truth: Meditation Works
If you read anything even tangentially associated with productivity, chances are you've become well and truly fed up with all the articles about meditation. It's scientifically proven! Famous people do it and it works! That smug-looking guy from the famous lifestyle blog does it for an hour a day before writing his blog posts in his minimalist office sitting in the lotus position!
Well, here's the terrible truth of all this: people keep going on about bloody meditation because it bloody works.
As you may have gathered, meditation is not exactly my favourite activity. It's boring, it's difficult, and it slightly freaks me out. Nonetheless, in a death march it's my best friend. If you're doing a death march, there's a good chance that you a) have enough priorities simultaneously clamouring for your attention to completely paralyse you and b) have at least one thing on your mind that's stressing the living crap out of you.
Meditation essentially functions as a reboot for the brain. It stops the processes that are eating all your memory, kills the background task that's unhelpfully eating your CPU cycles with endless repetitions of "what if", and lets you re-instantiate only the processes that you actually need to Get Stuff Done.
Even five minutes a day makes a phenomenal difference when you're pushing the death march envelope. Concentrate on your breathing, do a body scan, repeat a mantra or visualise an image, whatever. It's an astonishingly effective way to counteract the buildup of death march stress and cruft.
In fact, I should go and do 5 minutes of meditation now.
The Only Reliable Way To Take Breaks
"Take breaks" is pretty obvious advice. Unfortunately it's also pretty useless.
If you're doing a death march, there's a good chance you're really into what you're doing. You're in flow. And when you're in flow, hours can pass like minutes.
For your body, those hours still feel like hours. Hours of shallow breathing, insufficient blinking, repetitive micromovements, and static posture. Hours for muscles to get over-strained, spasm, be supported by other muscles which then also go into spasm, and so on.
And then you get up to make a coffee, bend down injudiciously, and everything goes twang. And not in a fun way.
I've only ever found one solution to this, and it sucks. Get yourself a program - here's the one I use - that forces you to take breaks on a regular interval. 30 minutes is good (as recommended by the Pomodoro Technique people). Make sure there is no way you can possibly stop it from doing its thing: disable all "postpone" buttons. And then let it run, and prepare to hate it with a blazing fury.
Being interrupted every half hour will feel hideous. But after a week, you'll notice the effects. And after a month, you'll still be able to stand up straight without screaming. And interestingly, despite how it may feel, there's evidence that it improves your focus too.
That's half the equation. The other half is what you do with your breaks.
In previous death marches, I've tried to keep up a stretching routine, but only once a day. That works, but what I've found to be supremely effective this time around is making sure to use each and every one of my five-minute breaks to perform a couple of stretches.
And I'm incredibly impressed by the results. Let's put it this way: I've been working 12-14 hours a day for all of the past month, some of it in pretty stressful conditions. Under normal circumstances, I'd expect to be a physical wreck by now. Instead, my flexibility is actually improving - I've been able to shake a nasty mid-back spasm without it slowing me down.
Of course, it helps to know what stretches to do. Personally, I'd recommend stretching your neck, shoulders, lats, and general spinal area: I linked a few good basic stretches above, but if you possibly can I'd recommend getting a couple of sessions with a competent physiotherapist or Pilates trainer. It's also very worth investing in a good book on trigger point therapy - here's one - and doing some trigger point massage in your breaks as well.
And that's it!
So far, touch wood, I'm managing to survive my current death march - but I'd be very interested to hear any other tips you have, so please feel free to drop 'em in below.
I shall be back on Tuesday and Wednesday, talking about the Future and Technology, and specifically the past, present, and future of virtual filmmaking and Machinima!