On Exhaustion

It's so easy to push yourself so hard for so long that you lose touch with what you really need. Like sleep.

Last week, I'd just rolled out of a full-time job and into a new contract role at a local game studio when my body sort of just...gave out. I got home that night around 5:30pm, sat down for a moment on my bed, and woke up again at 9:45pm. I was too tired to eat, so I just brushed my teeth and went back to bed.

I woke up the next day at 8am. Fourteen hours of sleep. Last time that happened, I was a teenager with way too much on his plate.

Honestly, I was kind of alarmed when I woke up the next day. Why did I sleep for so long? How was I that exhausted?

I started thinking about it, and I took a look at how I'd been feeling over the last few months. Busy. Right, but everyone's busy, aren't they? But busy is relative, and everyone's different.

I added up where my time had been going:

  • Wake up: 6:30 a.m.
  • Exercise: 30 minutes
  • Get ready: 30 minutes
  • Commute to work: 45 minutes
  • Work: 9 hours
  • Commute back home: 45 minutes
  • Make, eat, and clean up from dinner: 1 hour
  • Game development (work, meetups, etc.): 2 hours

And now it's like 9pm. I have, what, an hour for relaxing? So I burned the candle at both ends. I stayed up later to try to squeeze in more time for myself, but that just staggered my week to where I'd wake up a little later each day, stay up a bit later, and by Friday I'd just want to collapse.

I did this for nearly five years straight without a single vacation to just rest. I took a couple trips during that time to relax and take it easy, of course, but I couldn't shake off the desire — the need — to be building something during my downtime. During the end-of-the-year holidays, I'd spend my days writing and editing up a storm for the Silicon Sasquatch annual feature — the one thing we've kept up on that blog.

It's been a week since that marathon sleep session, and I'm still trying to understand just how tired I was — and what habits I can change to prevent that from happening again. So far, these things seem to be working well:

  • Exercising every day, first thing in the morning. I don't always feel like doing it, but I feel so much better, physically and mentally, for the rest of the day when I do.
  • Charging my phone and other devices in a different room than my bedroom. My mom always told me to do this, but I never listened. Well, it makes a huge difference. Now, when I go to bed, I don't reflexively check my phone six times before I finally drift off to sleep. I'm not tempted to throw on a video as background noise. I just lay there and think. And it's good thinking — it's important. I forgot about that thing brains want to do before bed, where they sort through the thoughts from the day and try to put things in order before you go to sleep. No wonder I've felt so fuzzed-out and disconnected for so long.
  • Listening to my body. This is, like, therapy 101, but remembering to stop and take stock of how you're feeling is a really handy skill to develop. How do I feel? Stressed? Ok, that's fine. Do I know what's making me feel stressed? Is there anything I can do about it? Ok, cool. It's absolutely elementary stuff, but, like, dang, what a difference it can make.

What works well for you?