How to push the limits of how much you work
A little over a week ago, I heard about the death of Monty Oum, the brilliant mind behind the animated show, RWBY. One of the things I’ve always admired about him is the drive and passion he showed towards animation, and he became famous for pulling 18 hour days of work. Roosterteeth encouraged people to dedicate themselves to creating something in remembrance, which made me resolve to attempt one of these 18 hour days myself.
The rules were simple: I had to work for 18 hours. This included no more than 30 cumulative minutes of breaks for cooking (read: microwaving) food, which I would eat while mashing at a keyboard. I had to work on development – coding which would push the project further to its completion. No marketing, no blog post writing, and no setting up any of the miscellaneous business stuff I have to do every now and again. I always aspired to applying myself to game development as much as possible, and pushing past an 8 hour day seemed to be a good first step.
To spoil the ending, I learnt a lot. I highly recommend it to anyone to try.
My expectations going into it was that this would teach me to be able to work for longer, and focus more, but that wasn’t the main takeaway here. I thought that by the end, every line of code would be a labour to write, but this was the easiest part. In fact, the hard parts were after I completed a feature or fixed a bug. If I could convince myself to push past the need to take a break in these in-between moments, I found within 5 minutes of starting to solve the next problem, I didn’t feel I needed a break at all, even after 17 hours of programming! This made me examine myself: What really was holding me back?
Well, I’ve always been aware of momentum, and the necessity to maintain it. Ostensibly, this is why it’s harder to start fixing a new problem than it is to continue working on the one you’re currently knee deep in. After a feature is finished, you cathartically take in your first vision of the feature as it might be in the final game. It’s a moment to catch your breath. But you lose momentum, and I previously would have recommended that you avoid focusing on this catharsis, so that you lose as little momentum as possible. But in my experience, it’s difficult not to revel in the glory of a well-done chunk of work, and as you rightfully should – it sets up an excellent and natural reward system; and I wouldn’t be the first to say that a reward system may help you out more than you may guess. So the problem isn’t momentum, or not exactly. The problem is urgency.
In an 18 hour day, there is no time for messing around. The moment I woke up at 9:10 am (which may as well be the crack of dawn for me), I knew that even if I started work right away I could only hope to finish at 3:00 am the next morning. So I got to it. There was never a question of what I’d do next, the answer was always: “Exactly as much as I need to do before I get back to making games again.” The situation demanded my attention because it was urgent, as if I didn’t give it my full attention, I would have to work for even longer.
This sense of urgency made fixing this problem of momentum so simple. Whenever I had that moment after finishing a block of work, there wasn’t anything wrong with playtesting and feeling good about myself. But I needed to get back to work – and to do so quickly. In a normal, not 18 hour day, I would recommend taking a ten minute break here, but too often in my normal routine would I get coaxed into taking unnecessarily long breaks instead, ranging 30 minutes to 2 hours, and just working for longer hours to compensate. Each 10-minute video seemed like it wouldn’t cut into development that much. But of course, it turns into a slippery slope. Things needed to be urgent for me to get past that – perhaps things are the same for you.
When I finished that day, I felt sore and tired, but I couldn’t believe how easy it was for me to do when I put my mind to it. It wasn’t climbing Mount Everest, and many people will scoff at my suggestion it was a trial in the first place. And I wouldn’t dream of doing it regularly – there’s just no time for sleep. But if you’re reading this right now thinking, “I couldn’t possibly do that,” try it. It doesn’t have to be every day of your life from here on out, but at least you’ll be able to say you tried. And you might even be able to say you succeeded.