Issue № 387

A Moment to Breathe

The look on her face was frantic, her motions frenetic as she exited her office. Somehow I knew she would be approaching my desk. “What’s that?” I asked, removing my headphones and trying to remain calm. I already dreaded the answer. “The site’s down. No one can log on,” said our CEO again in a panic-stricken voice.

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As I absorbed those words—words feared and loathed by developers everywhere—I opened the file where I suspected I’d find the culprit. I had a pretty good guess: the one I had just deployed to our production environment. Before long, our phone began to ring, the oncology clinics that depend on our software to care for their patients every bit as frantic as our CEO.

I quickly fixed the bug and committed the changes, watching anxiously as our deploy script spat out its log messages. I switched back to my web browser and refreshed. The page loaded successfully, and I went outside for some fresh air. I paced back and forth in front of our building, my hunched shoulders refusing to relax. The weight I felt on my chest constrained my breathing.

Like most of the colleagues I related this story to, this was neither the first nor the last time I sacrificed my own physical and emotional health for the fleeting promise of startup work: the chance to get in early in a company destined for an enormous IPO. But this time, my body’s warning signs were impossible to ignore.

This is your brain on four hours of sleep#section2

I had always assumed that a brain scan taken while I worked would read like an aerial view of a forest fire: intense, bright orange and red activity engulfing the whole area. In reality, however, one region in particular is uniquely triggered. The prefrontal cortex, the roughly fist-sized, foremost region of the brain that sits behind the forehead on the left and right hemispheres, is at work when we sit at our computers and bang out code. Scientists note that this region is responsible for “executive function,” an umbrella term that includes everything from organizing and planning to goal setting, problem-solving, and abstract thinking.

The prefrontal cortex consumes a disproportionately large amount of energy for its size: more than six of every 100 calories you eat are reserved for this cerebral region, impressive if you consider the number of other bodily systems vying for that energy. Unfortunately for the typical startup worker, the performance of the prefrontal cortex is also directly linked to our sleep habits.

In a recent study from the Sleep Neuroimaging Research Program at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, researchers found that the prefrontal cortex is preferentially impaired following a night of particularly poor sleep. In other words, the sleep-deprived brain diverts its resources away from more energy-consuming and higher-order regions like the prefrontal cortex and toward areas like the basal ganglia, which is responsible for vital life functions such as swallowing and breathing.

In other words, while you may think you’re building your advantage by skipping out on sleep in order to get more work done, your brain will eventually be too starved to be of use.

Fortunately, the brain can begin to be renewed after even a single night of what the University of Pittsburgh researchers refer to as “recovery sleep”—the deep, dreamless kind that leaves you sleeping until the afternoon on Saturdays.

This research seemed to confirm my own findings. I found that the cognitive toll of sleep deprivation was most evident when I was working closely with a coworker. In these pair programming sessions, I struggled not only to write coherent code, but to communicate the deeper intentions of my work. This was the point at which I became the most distressed: no amount of coffee could diminish the difficulty of putting words together.

Suddenly, I realized that something had to give. I was forced to come to terms with how unsustainable my work-life balance had become. At one point, I had thought that my capacity for productivity was limitless. But now both science and my own body were directly contradicting the myth of the superhuman startup worker.

Human, all too human#section3

Coming to the realization that people have limitations is much easier than concretely recognizing our own. We spend so much of our time communicating with computers that it’s easy to begin expecting the same superhuman things from ourselves as we do from our machines. Extraordinary feats like 99 percent-plus uptime, a flawless ability to perform complex calculations, and a logarithmically expanding memory become our goals.

But in order to continue to work, I ultimately had to put a greater focus on taking care of myself. This turned out to be both more difficult and more rewarding than I had anticipated.

Knowing how self-defeating my cycles of lack of sleep and increased need for sleep were, I decided to propose a conference talk on this very subject. I knew that I would have to speak from the experience of having shifted the focus from software to my own well-being, and this talk would keep me accountable. When I received the invitation to speak, I had about three months to prepare, which allowed for a deep exploration of the effectiveness of my habits at work and at home.

My two immediate goals were to get a full eight hours of sleep every night and to explore meditation. I found sleep to be the easier of the two to implement, and after I came to terms with the anxiety of not learning quickly enough, I was able to sleep well regularly. But while I had always been drawn to the idea of meditation, I found it difficult to incorporate into my life consistently. It helped me to redefine meditation not necessarily as a religious or spiritual practice, but rather, a single-minded focus on one thing. In this case, my breath.

I found that running the automated test suite on our application’s Ruby code gave me a perfect opportunity to pull my hands away from the keyboard, place them on my knees, straighten my posture, close my eyes, and begin breathing deeply. Prone as I am to racing thoughts, this practice helped me not only manage the stress I felt during the day, but also to focus on a single train of thought more consistently. Once I found this window of time to meditate, more began to crop up: starting up my machine, waiting for my lunch to heat up in the microwave, watching my local server start the Rails environment. Anywhere I had time to check my phone, I had time to breathe.

It wasn’t the easiest habit to cultivate, though. At first, my immediate impulse was to check Twitter, open my email, or switch back to the code I was testing and try to anticipate a failure before reading the command line output. I thought these impulses were saving me from focusing on my erratic and sometimes chaotic thoughts, but I came to realize that over time, they were just adding to the chaos. The more often I overcame the instinct to switch immediately to a new task, the more prolonged my sense of calm was when I went to take deep breaths.

All work and no play?#section4

To my surprise, this sense of calm led to an increased awareness of my level of work-related stress and its effects on my emotional health. That is, the slowing of my thoughts allowed me to pay especially close attention to my moods, my energy, my ability to engage and to communicate well, and the overall sense of personal satisfaction I derived from my work.

I had always enjoyed my job, and was exhilarated by the initial investment it required in forward-thinking technologies. Recognizing a dramatic jump in my learning curve from week to week had given me a profound source of motivation. But when I began meditating, slowing my thoughts to a speed at which they could form a coherent stream, I realized I was overwhelmed by all those extra hours. My emotional burnout was rivaling my sleep-deprivation-induced physical one.

In the long term, I believe—and the research I uncovered supports—that focusing on my emotional stability was perhaps more effective at ensuring my success as a developer than staying up all night reading books on object-oriented design patterns would have been. But in the interim, I started to miss the previous pace of my learning progression. I wondered if I would ever rediscover my passion for programming.

But I was also emerging from my shell, re-exploring the activities I used to love. I went out for drinks with friends. I played board games with my wife instead of incessantly reading JavaScript framework documentation.

I felt better than I had in months.

Finding harmony#section5

Only in the past month have I begun feeling inspired again. I’ve started waking up an hour or two early each morning to explore some of the new topics in JavaScript that cropped up over the summer while I was taking a break from extracurricular exploration. My complexion has regained some of its color, and I feel both more motivated and less stressed at work.

I would love to say that this pause, this perspective-broadening sabbatical I took from the overwhelming workload of the web, fundamentally changed my career and the way I work. But ultimately, it can be difficult to justify spending too much time recovering from burnout when our industry continues to fetishize productivity and the breakneck pace of web technologies.

Like most things in life, it’s about striking a balance: an equilibrium between the frantic tempo of our industry and our own internal rhythms. This year, I learned that my body knows this balance—and it will help me find it if I listen.

About the Author

Nick Cox

Nick Cox is a front-end web developer and designer located in Seattle, where he lives with his wife and two cats. He works as a software engineer at Navigating Cancer, helping to humanize the future of oncology software. He occasionally writes about Ruby, JavaScript, and related technologies on his blog and tweets from @everydaytype.

29 Reader Comments

  1. Nice to read your thoughts on that topic. It’s quite useful to read how different people try to cope with all their work to do. Than one can make his own decision which parts helps themselfes.

  2. Many times I find myself having a particularly productive day, so I decide to forego the gym and work an extra hour or two. But by the end of the day I’m mentally worn and make poor decisions like a couple drinks or staying up too late as a way to “wind down” since I didn’t do it at the gym. That extra hour of “productivity” isn’t nearly as valuable than the extra hour of sleep.

  3. Good article, taking time off work is really important. Hobbies like sports also works well to take your mind off work since you have to focus on the game.

  4. It’s ironic that I find myself reading this at 3 am, and in fact, while taking a break from Addy Osmani’s ‘Learning JavaScript Design Patterns‘.

    The article struck several chords for me. I just got into web development in the past year and a half, and I discovered that it’s both a passion and a hobby. But constantly, I feel like I’m playing catch-up for lost time. Starting at 24, the same time when I started hip hop and break dancing, I wonder if it’s all a little too late. Now 26, my body is noticeably less capable of enduring the injuries I could merely two years ago, so I’ve all but quit dancing–the only thing that’s kept me even remotely in shape. Instead, I’ve put my full attention on learning web dev and design.

    Recently, I fell into the short, abnormal, and broken sleep patterns reminiscent of the high school years. Unlike my teenage self, though, is that I have developed much more meaningful relationships with people around me, some of which I’ve begun to neglect without realizing.

    While, admittedly, I have been aware the physical and emotional tolls of a sleep-deprived, unbalanced life, this article and Lyza Danger Gardner’s ‘Never Heard of It‘ are inspirations to correct my current lifestyle.
    Thank you.

  5. The ball-busting pace too often demanded also taxes priorities other than sleep.

    In August, I withstood an epic hospital visit. I may not be able to blame that on impaired executive function per se; what I can say is that I spent years putting off the lifestyle changes that would have forestalled that visit, thinking to myself, “oh, when I get enough distance from work I’ll make up for it.”

    …That went well. In the wake of my recent experience stand a long file of offended clients and and prospects, all wondering why I’ve suddenly ceased to put up with their crap.

    The moral of my story: you can’t do this job and expect to stay healthy unless you possess both the means and the will that yield successful time management, which in turn yields strong mind and body both.

  6. Very inspiring article. My own solution to this problem is to take a white page and start drawing for as long as I can, anything that crosses my imagination, it’s the closest thing to meditation I managed to find.

  7. I liked your article but I don’t agree with everything you’ve been told or believe. I am pushing 66, been professionally in the computer industry since the age of 12. It’s 2:03 am CST right now and I’m still up. I’ll be going to bed in an hour then I’ll be up again at 7-8am (4 to 5 hours sleep). All my life I’ve only required 4-5 hours sleep. At 65 I look, dare I guess? 48-50 maybe. No one ever gives me the ‘sr citizen’ rate until I show them my ID. Does my creativity suffer from lack of sleep? ha ha ha ha ha that would be ‘no’. ha ha, that always amuses me. People DIFFER, genetically and brainpower-wise as well. Someone commented about needing an extra hour of sleep more than an ‘hour at the gym’. I’ll agree with that. No one ‘needs’ any time at a gym, gosh almighty. I walk (not jog, not run, but WALK) 4 to 6 miles every single day. Since I WFH and have meetings late at night but hardly ever very early am, I tend to get up, eat a bowl of quinoa with barley, walnuts & blueberries, no milk, 1 cup of lipton’s tea and then go for a 2 mile walk to the grocery store where I buy the veggies for my evening meal (or I just walk on the nature trail and look out for the bobcat and/or coyote, who are my ‘buds’). Then when I get home I work on an SOW or maybe I meet with a client (I’m the Global Head of Delivery now), etc. etc. Then I play my keyboards or trumpet for an hour, then more meetings then back out for my afternoon walk on the nature trail (another 2 to 4 miles depending on the weather and if I have enought time for the longer circuit). The thing about walking is that I don’t walk on the sidewalk if there is a grassy area next to it, that’s where I walk. When you walk on a treadmill you are not exercising your entire body AND your brain, you ARE when you walk outside ‘cross country’ as twere. You NEVER needs to jog or run unless you are training for the olympics, otherwise WHY? You get all the exercise you need from walking, briskly, swinging your arms (unless you are carrying a couple bags of groceries of course) and looking out and around at the world. My resting pulse is 54-58, my resting bpm is 106-110/62-70 and my blood sugar is average of 4.8. Am I an anomaly? Brainwise. Yes. Physically? Oh I come from good stock, both grannies lived until 106 and 110, respectively. But I have younger siblings who look and act old. I don’t. How to stay young and mentally fresh. 1. get rid of your tv, totally. I don’t have one (unless you call this 45-inch monitor a tv which other people think it is, but it isn’t). 2. believe in God and TRUST Him. 3. Discipline what you say to yourself, since YOUR thoughts have the biggest influence on YOU. 4. Watch what you eat… no fast food, no white anything, no processed foods. 5. Don’t let yourself get upset over things you cannot change. 6. Marry wisely, someone you know a LONG time and not just because the ‘sex is good’ (the sex is always good, so that’s not a good reason). Get the number of hours of sleep that your body needs, 4 to 8, whatever is right for you. Don’t over caffeinate yourself. Seek JOY not ‘love’. And break up your workday (if you have a sedentary job) with forays outside into the fresh air, and if you live where there is NO fresh air, MOVE. Don’t drink, smoke or do drugs. Don’t be promiscuous past the age of 19 (that should be obvious). And mentor someone less experienced than you are.

  8. Thank you for researching and writing about this topic. It’s an especially wonderful read at year-end, when many developers and designers are emerging from their busy heads-down hives and realize there is a life to be had. Though I’m still guilty of slipping into workaholic habits and pushing my body to its limits, the occasional reminder is good to have – so thank you.

  9. I used to take large amounts of ADHD meds and it allowed me to stay awake for long periods of time, 3 days being the most. My work was good until about day 2 then the rest would be repetitive junk, but the most interesting thing (as mentioned above) was by day 3 my breathing wasn’t automatic. I would have to physically make myself breathe in and out, just like stepping over something large where you had to pay attention to the position of your legs. I would make these strange huffing noises all night which kept my girlfriend awake. It would take about 2 full 8 hour rest to return to normal. The worst side effect being a numbness in the front of my forehead that make any thought impossible to complete. In short the above is very accurate in my experience, sleep (even though we don’t really know what it is) is extremely important to mental health.

    My theory… sleep was/is a way to pass time during day/night cycles to keep from being super bored when it’s dark out and found a way to include necessary functions that allowed the body to adjust to a cycle.

  10. Can relate to that, the mind just gets so absorbed we forget how long we’ve been in the same position. I keep needing to remind myself to get up stretch, take a break. I’m fortunate to have plenty of the organic world around me when I need to balance out the artificial one.

    Sometimes it’s quite good going on a mini-sabbatical, there’s pros to not always being ahead of the game. Especially in this industry where we’re all sharing our work. There’s a time to push through and there’s a time to go with the flow, most of the time the latter for me.

  11. I once read in a personal development book that for super successful people (think bill gates, Donald trump), work-life balance doesn’t exists. You always have to sacrifice something to get to the very top.

  12. This felt personal, which I really appreciated as a rarity here at “A List Apart”. It also resonated with me. I’ve never been a particularly busy person. Even in college, I gave myself an eight-hour day, which was a rarity among my peers. I worked hard and studied hard and wrote like mad from 8 am to 5 pm, but after that, I was done. The result? I’m a pretty happy person, and perhaps a well-rounded one. But I wouldn’t call myself an exceptionally high achiever.

    Realizing this, I’ve actually spent the last few months turning up the pace, doing more, sleeping less, and working tirelessly to make up for my underachieving years, only to realize that I was losing something more important: happiness. My balance as I begin 2014 is one that does involve a sense of urgency and industry about my life, but also one that takes into account that extremes are self-defeating. This article brought that insight further into focus for me. Thanks!

  13. A great piece of advice for sure! I was taken by almost the same reasons you tell. Overwhelmed by tech, anxious and kind of stressed for a long time. This hype industry creates makes all these feelings come alive. One of the key activities to relief me was jogging always I can – lost some pounds and I’m living better. Now I’m trying to stay more with my family, hanging out with friends and talk about life, inspiration, to hear more what people have to say. Keep up this way and thanks for the nice words!

  14. Great article Nick, glad to see things have eased up. Im sure many of us have experienced similar situations as the one mentioned at the opening of the article and your right, we all need to take a step back and find alternative things to do. Having a good work, personal life relationship is key.

    Great read.

  15. Nick thank for the reminder that a work life balance is critical. Sometimes we get so focused on the tasks that lay ahead we forget to take a moment and breathe.

  16. “Like most of the colleagues I related this story to, this was neither the first nor the last time I sacrificed my own physical and emotional health for the fleeting promise of startup work”

    Look, I don’t want to be “that guy” but this was a problem entirely of your own making. This has nothing to do with sleep deprivation and certainly not caffeine, finding the right woman or “god”.

    You uploaded a file to a live server. A file that didn’t work. And what’s more, you KNEW where the problem was because you KNEW you hadn’t sufficiently tested it.

    This could all have been avoided if you’d uploaded and tested properly on a Staging site. Plenty of sleep, no caffeine and a pointless belief in a deity are no substitution for well structured and properly followed practices.

    I might only get three hours of sleep but I still know that a file doesn’t go live until it’s been properly tested, peer-reviewed and signed off by all the key stakeholders. Not ever.

    You don’t require eight hours of sleep to know that stupid is as stupid does…

  17. Great story, many of identify with that dilema: if you love your job but this love turns into health damage, then you start hating it. I guess that, as you said, finding the equilibrium is the smart job.

  18. Just this morning I experienced this myself, waking up ready to jump on the computer to continue my work I just felt unable to do so. The tiredness just seemed to overwhelm me and I knew that my create juices were just not present. Staying up later than expected I knew that this was a major factor.

    The three things I have found for myself is making sure that I get enough sleep, I had to have a nap this morning to catch up. Spending time praying, reading the bible which is meditating and keeping fit, something I have started to do more since the new year. Combined these three things help my creativity and just get my thinking before I just go at it on desktop. I totally get the science behind it makes total sense and something I will certainly keep in mind, thanks for the prompt.

    Simon flegg @ hubgraphics

  19. I’ve been wondering about this topic a lot. I work hard, but on my own schedule and I always sleep 8 hours. The other day I took off ‘working’ because the blizzard here forced me to stay up 27 hours and my mind was hazy the next morning. I only began web development 10 weeks ago. I study 10 hours a day, however, I am the only developer I know and so I stay on schedule with the non web-eople around me. I’ve wondered if the fact that I shut off for 8 hours a night was a blessing or a curse because I always read about late night “coffee” sessions from articles online and wonder if I should get out of bed every time inspiration strikes regardless of the time. Thanks to your results I feel it is a blessing to get that shut-eye. I’m going to try to continue getting eight.
    I would also gamble that when people push long hours they may also practice bad eating, whether it’s snacks, caffeine or perhaps not being able to metabolize properly due to exhaustion. I think it’s good you recommended meditation. I may not know much about late nights and fast-pace environments, but I know a lot about positive thinking and maintaining a balanced ‘head space’. Sleep less, more stress… it can be dangerous. Speaking of, it’s my bedtime. Great article.

  20. Nick your article is so good, this remember me when I was working long hours to accomplish with my work. Nowadays after a stressed year to finish my working days, I can say that the balance in your life is crucial when you want to get a family and good life. Thanks to refresh my mind about this.
    And glad that people not involved in health topics like you are now writing and making others think about meditation or breathing. Congratulations for this.
    You can find some topics related to meditation here.

  21. I have noticed when I take a nice walk or hit the gym my creativity starts to come out. If I need to get some good ideas just getting out for some quiet alone time helps a ton. If I have been going non stop for 16 hours and my brain is fried, I have realized that I started being less productive around hours 10-12. Nothing beats a good nights rest but I know how hard it is to stop when you are on a roll or frustrated trying to figure something out or fix a problem.

  22. Thank you for the post Nick. Unfortunately, I also experienced what you mentioned in your article. Recently, I spend a decent amount of time and energy on working on my business. I get up very early in the morning to write business plan, talk to designers and contractors, searching for good locations etc. As a result, my sleeping time and quality decrease dramatically, which cased me physically and mentally exhausted. I can also tell that my body is sending signals to warn me.

    Here are some of the drawbacks of lack of appropriate rest from my personal experience that I want to share with those who put work as the priority in their lives. First of all, headache. Due to continuous and high intensity of work, your brain will be overwhelmed and lack of oxygen, which can easily cause bad headache. Second, dry eyes. Your eyes will be very dry and sensitive to lights after staring at computers and other electronic devices. It can have very bad impact such as losing vision if you don’t pay attention to it. Last but not the least, long-time sitting can cause lumbar, spinal, and other related diseases.

    There are lots more of drawbacks of work-life imbalance. I believe most of people like me who work hard for better life. No matter how important a job is, we need to realize that our health is always more important. It really doesn’t matter how much money you make if you scarifies your health for it. Take some time out from your work to get rest will not only improve your energy recovery efficiency, but also keep you stay in a healthy life.

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