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Opinion: Convergence, And Maintaining A Work-Life Balance

In this reprinted #altdevblogaday-opinion piece, Hogrocket's Ben Ward discusses how always being connected online on smartphones can create problems in one's work-life balance.
[In this reprinted #altdevblogaday-opinion piece, Hogrocket's Ben Ward discusses how always being connected online on smartphones can create problems in one's work-life balance.] Over the past few months of running Hogrocket, I've discovered that running a business is a full-time job. By that I don't mean 9-5 – it's more like 24 hours a day. If you're not sat at a desk actively working, you're on conference call or scribbling notes or just thinking about the business. If your mind isn't struggling through the latest programming problem or game design issue, you'll be thinking about whether you've got enough in your savings to make it to the end of the year. Money is a big one, and I've spent far too much time implementing cost-saving measures throughout all aspects of my life to be as lean and mean as possible. Anybody who's run their own self-funded business before will be like "well, yeah. Duh". It's something that's obvious to people who have done it, and it's likely that everybody has their own way of compartmentalizing or marginalizing the stress. It's an important thing to do, because if you have no downtime then it's extremely difficult to relax. Many of the things that will stress you out will be self-inflicted pressures, and you'll find yourself saying something like "if I just worked a little harder, I'd be more successful/make more money/have more downloads/get a better margin/whatever". This isn't hard to dispute… in the early days of a new business, success is largely reliant on a butt load of hard work. This isn't a new thing – business has always been like this. However, there are probably a few modern day twists that make it a little more complex to achieve a decent work-life balance nowadays. The main one for me is that introduction of smartphones into both work and play. More specifically it's the convergence of these Internet-enabled devices, and the prevalence of the Internet in general, that makes me connected to my work all the time. I can now do my job whenever I need to and from almost any location, and if something important and urgent happens then I'm only 30 seconds away from reading about it. All of my e-mails, my appointments, my Twitter feed, and everything else I need is now in the palm of my hand. Oh and if it's not in my palm (Xcode, for example), then it's on my laptop and only about 20 seconds away in my backpack. In business terms we live in a world of instant access to everything we care about. It's pretty cool. However, there's quite a lot of overlap on these devices. I don't just use my iPhone to read my e-mail, I also use it to play games in my spare time. It's not just a device to book meetings, it's also a vital way of staying in touch with my friends. I don't just read my Hogrocket-related XML feeds on my iPhone, but also use it to read fiction books or look up hockey fixtures or get directions to a national park or any number of other recreational activities. You get the idea – these devices aren't just for work… they're for everything. The down side of the self-inflicted stress I mentioned earlier is that it begins to taint everything on the iPhone, or at least it does for me. Whenever I'm only a finger tap away from my e-mails, I develop a strange obsession with checking them whenever I pick up the phone, even if I know there's nothing new to read.
If I try to play a game, I'm often distracted by work-based things, and it makes it difficult to lose myself in the entertainment. This is something that's made even worse with notifications and pop-ups (the iPhone e-mail and Twitter clients are notoriously effective at pulling you back in). The temptation is always there to get pulled back into work, and it's happened to me hundreds of times. Usually I don't even realise I'm doing it. I guess my particular situation is a little worse than most, as I also create games for these devices. Sometimes when I'm playing games for pleasure on the iPhone it feels a bit like I'm debugging, or doing some research on competitors, or being motivated by something other than pure enjoyment. This nagging feeling makes me feel guilty for trying to relax and unwind with a game. The bad side of my brain says it's a waste of time, and unproductive. This is completely untrue though – if there's no disconnect from work then there is no downtime, and no rest period. If we don't rest then there's a good chance we'll get stressed, and then lose objectivity, and ultimately make poorer decisions when it matters. All of these things aren't a deficiency of the device – the iPhone is one of the greatest things ever invented – but it's more a deficiency of our thinking. As the world converges and our work/play times become intertwined it's going to be harder for our generation to make that separation in our heads. Mentally we need to compartmentalize our thinking, and put a firm barrier between work and play. Of course working is important, and of course we need these tools to be better connected and more agile as we work. However, we need to remember that play is important too, and trying to work 100 percent of the time will only lead to stress and burnout. Having a constantly connected Internet device is a powerful tool, but (as Spiderman's granddaddy says) with great power comes great responsibility. We had better start getting this balance right, because new generations won't have this problem. It will always have been like this for them, and they'll grow up in a world where being connected has always been the norm. They'll learn to balance their own lives in spite of the looming menace of infinite distraction: the Internet. And they won't even think of it as a thing, because it'll be completely normal. Looking toward the future, wouldn't it be interesting if we discovered that the human race was more productive doing it this way? What if the next generation (or the one after that) actually gets more done by dipping in and out of work as and when they need to, rather than sticking to rigid working hours? In a world of instant communication and instant feedback, wouldn't it be better to work when you need to, and play whenever you see fit? In one hundred years will technology enable some of us to be more agile in our working hours, and be better off for it? It's an interesting idea, and food for thought… [This piece was reprinted from #AltDevBlogADay, a shared blog initiative started by @mike_acton devoted to giving game developers of all disciplines a place to motivate each other to write regularly about their personal game development passions.]

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