Just go to sleep

The understated productivity hack that I use as a Software Engineer

Sleep makes all the difference but its value is often undervalued. I’m not talking about getting those few extra minutes before your alarm goes off for the third time. Sleep for software engineers is often forgone for productivity. In my experience, a lack of sleep doesn’t help anyone. Staying up late to code doesn’t mean you’ve got more to show for it.

The lies we tell ourselves

I’ve struggled with this in recent years but whenever I stray, I’m promptly reminded why sleep is vital. We don’t do it to intentionally harm ourselves but we don’t give it the importance it deserves. Next time you want to stay up a few more hours, ask yourself is it really worth it or can it be done tomorrow?

When you’re struggling through a complex problem and you want to do that bit extra into the night, you’re sacrificing relaxation and sleep. That lack of sleep is a debt that needs to be paid. When there is a production outage that only you can fix by staying up until 2:00 am, you’re sacrificing the next day. Not only will you need to wake up later to get some more shuteye but you’ll also be really unproductive. Even worse, you’ve been up all night coding, it’s probable your code is riddled with bugs. You’ll spend a few more hours trying to figure out what the hell you were thinking. Instead of being more productive and getting more done, you’ve just made more work for yourself. All because you gave up a few hours of sleep, was it worth it? No, it never is.

Challenging your assumptions

The human brain needs rest. It needs time to structure your thoughts from the day. It needs time to recover from an intense day of coding. This time can be negotiated but, it comes at a cost. Here are some of the techniques I use to help me a more productive engineer and a better person to be around.

  1. Try and form habits around sleep.
    A consistent schedule can help prepare the body for rest and get to sleep sooner.

  2. Avoid working into the night!
    Set strict rules around when you work and when you don’t. If you don’t set boundaries, work will fill that space.

  3. Ask yourself what you’re sacrificing.
    When you forgo sleep to “get something done”, it may not be worth it if you lose the next day in productivity and end up with low-quality code that needs to be thrown out.

Take care of yourself and prioritise sleep, the difference a good night’s sleep can make is incredible. It’s the best productivity hack there is, you don’t need to get up at 5:00 AM or follow everything your favourite entrepreneur does - just get some sleep.

Ergonomics for engineers

Why proper posture is important

My biggest regret as a software engineer was when I was 22 and I found myself incapacitated. After work, I tried to walk a few hundred meters to my house but every step I took sent excruciating pain up my legs and radiated from the base of my spine. It took me over 45 minutes to get home and I was in agony. What lead to this painful experience? To put it simply, poor posture. I want to let this be a warning to myself and others the dangers of ignoring posture and ergonomics. It’s a lesson I won’t soon forget and its effects still impact me even now, 4 years later.

How I dug myself into a hole

I was a web developer part-time throughout university and during the holidays in between semesters I’d work full time: 7:00 am to 5:00 pm weekdays. I would sit down at a desk all day. If that wasn’t bad enough, I’d get home, do some exercise and then sit down again for the evening or lay down in bed and use my laptop. Ergonomics wasn’t something that entered my mind, even when I felt a slight pain in my hands or back I’d just ignore it. It didn’t last long enough to be a concern.

What really exacerbated my back pain was a gap-year I took to just work full-time. This is when I really started to notice back pain. It wasn’t too painful but I decided to visit a physiotherapist just to be safe. After a single session which I hoped would make me better, it actually made it much worse. I was in agony for the next week until it finally got to the point where I could walk properly again. It was time to seek help.

How I kept calm and carried on

After months of GP visits, physio exercises, chiropractic support, full back massage and copious amounts of pain killers that I was properly diagnosed with multiple slipped discs. I’m grateful to the physio who recommended me to a specialist where I finally had an MRI. At last, I knew what it was and how to approach getting better. Over the next year, I worked on daily stretches and exercises to help relieve the pain and strengthen my back. Some days, the pain was so immense, it was a struggle even to get out of bed.

4 years on, I’m not pain-free but I know when it flares up and how to correct it. I can manage it. I have adapted my environment so I can avoid pain. I now know ways to avoid further flare-ups and exercises to strengthen the areas of my body to reduce strain on my lower back. I’m happy I am at a point where the pain is manageable but I’m still frustrated with myself for not doing something sooner. So, to my past self and to any young programmers, what piece of advice would I give?

Advice for young software engineers

Here is some advice I wish I had when I was younger. It would have saved hundreds of dollars of medical expenses, avoided living with pain and helped me more than I could have ever imagined. It may seem like common sense but it can be difficult to see the forest for the trees. When you’re so immersed in what you’re doing, it’s not easy to disengage and look inward. It’s easy to make excuses or simply ignore it and hope for the best.

Take lots of breaks

The most important piece of advice is to take breaks. You read it everywhere. If you work in an office, you’re likely sitting at a desk for long hours. Get up and move. It’s great for your body in so many ways. Standing up and stretching is exactly what I was not doing, I would sit for hours working through problems because I thought that’s what productivity looks like. It’s a lie. You’re more productive when you’re physically and mentally fit. Take breaks every 45 minutes. I have an Apple Watch which constantly reminds me to stand up and move around for when I’m most stubborn. It’s the simplest habit you can form that will help you avoid the excruciating consequences I faced.

Make use of a standing desk

My next job was for a small software consultancy and there were a few perks I really appreciated. The hours were shorter, a more comfortable 9:00 am to 5:00 pm and the desks were adjustable. I made it a habit to alternate between standing and sitting twice a day. This adjustment is great because it redistributes the strain on your back. I also tense my abs while standing to help strengthen my core to support my back. The key is to ensure you’re never in the same position for extended periods of time. If you' don’t have the luxury of a standing desk, try and make the most of your chair.

A chair is your best asset

When looking at the prices of chairs, it’s easy to skimp and go for something cheap. After all, it’s only a chair. Wrong. A good chair is the most important piece of office equipment you can own. I never realised how important until it was until I had a slipped disc. You spend hours in your office chair at work, it had better be comfortable, adjustable and supporting. I will never cheap-out on an office chair again and I suggest you don’t either. It doesn’t have to be brand new, but it does have to be good. A chair is an investment in your long-term health, it’s worth every cent and your body will thank you.

Listen to your body

The whole reason I got into this situation is that I didn’t pay attention to what my body was telling me. I ignored the pains in my back as temporary annoyances. I put the pain in my legs down to not enough walking sleeping in an odd position. When I finally listened to what my body was screaming at me to fix, it was too little too late. When you take breaks, take note of how you feel. Are your hands or feet sore, is there any discomfort, are your muscles tight? Simply check-in with your body and do something about it. Do some stretches, check and adjust your posture, walk around for a bit. These little things make a difference. Do them.

I hope these tips help you avoid the same mistakes I did. Although my back is much better than it was in the first 6 months, I still have to work hard to make sure it never regresses backwards to that point. It’s not just your back you should watch out for, there are things we do every day that impact our bodies. It’s vital to make sure you don’t develop RSI, save your eyes from strain and keep your body flexible. Do a bit each day and don’t ignore your body for the sake of productivity.

Achieving zen: one bug, fish or fossil at a time

Therapy through gaming and staying sane during lockdown

Animal Crossing: New Horizons was recently released for the Nintendo Switch and it’s helping me, my wife and my colleagues through the lockdown. I ‘ve always loved video games but I don’t get to play them as much as I did when I was younger. I’m happy if I can get a few hours in every other month. Until now. The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown have meant time commuting are now spent at home, indoors. We have different worries and stressors in this new world we’ve found ourselves in. Animal Crossing offers some respite from the situation and is a breath of digital fresh air.

The therapeutic quality of Animal Crossing in lockdown

I normally don’t play games like Animal Crossing but times aren’t normal. Games usually have a higher component of stress. You’re racing against the clock or fighting a challenging an enemy. It’s a good kind of stress but it can definitely be avoided for the time being. Animal Crossing is the opposite. It’s relaxed, slow-paced and refreshing. Its therapeutic qualities make it enjoyable and habit forming. I come back every day and spend 15 minutes collecting bugs, catching fish and excavating fossils. And that’s all I need. In a time where we have less agency than before, this game offers a small island to call your own. Where you can explore freely and decorate how you see fit. An island where you can escape reality even if it’s only for a minute.

Gathering around the watercooler

I’m working from home as are my colleagues. Many of them also bought Animal Crossing to see them through isolation. Although we can’t meet in person, it’s fun to catch up via video call and share tips or show off our islands. It’s a little slice of shared experience which is helping connect us. More than ever it’s vital to keep in touch with family, friends and colleagues. Games are just one way of bringing people together across vast distances and trying to find normality again.

Finding reasons to relax

It’s important to keep yourself sane during this difficult time. Playing Animal Crossing is one of the outlets I use but it doesn’t have to be yours.

Games empower you.

Books transport you elsewhere.

Movies take you on a journey of wonder.

Music alters your mood.

They all have their place in providing an escape. Worrying all the time takes a toll on your mental wellbeing. Having an outlet is an important part of taking a load off your mind and breaking the monotony you might be experiencing stuck indoors.

Escape through gaming is just one of the ways I have been dealing with the lockdown. I may be restricted to my small London flat but that won’t stop me from exploring the outdoors (digitally, of course).

What is this all about?

Why I'm starting benevolent(self) on substack

Throughout my career, I have been learning constantly. I’m a software engineer, it’s part of the job but it’s also been part of my life for the past 7 years professionally. I try and learn something new or expand my understanding every single day. I have an insatiable appetite for my craft but I’ve been blind to some aspects that are easy to ignore.

It’s the things in-between programming.

It’s soft skills.

It’s a work-life balance.

It’s the things they don’t tell you at university.

I usually blog about technical subjects and create tutorials to help others but one of the areas I’m excited about now is sharing tools to help programmers/hackers/developers/engineers/makers like myself to improve in areas outside of the console. Join me on this journey!

Let’s be better, healthier, more resilient and well-rounded as professionals.

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