Bytes: Exhaustion Disguised as Stress

Some thoughts about what I see as the core difficulty of running your own business. Hopefully not dwelling on the obvious!

bill gates is NOT happy about newman sleeping on his shoulder.

It will be three years in August since I quit my job as a codemonkey, bought a house, and got married, all in the same month.  Since then I've used my flexible schedule to take up a fairly rigorous rock climbing hobby.  My first company focused on freelance game art, something I had no professional experience doing. 

Later, near the end of that company's lifecycle, I transitioned to making Flash games, which I had no experience making, and even a Silverlight game, which I also had no experience with.  Recently I co-founded an iPhone games company, something I (gasp!) had no experience with either.

I have not, even for a minute, at any point in the last three years, ever considered going back to what you would call a "normal" job, where I have people above me making the hard decisions and taking on the big accountability and choosing what will happen and where we will go.  At the same time, I have been coping with something that I have been calling "stress" for most of this three years. 

This sometimes takes the form of me laying in bed at 4am wondering if the choices I've made will pan out or if they will doom me to the kind of job that I will hate forever.  Sometimes it is me being unbearable to live with or talk to for days if not weeks at a time (sorry, Bekah!).  Frequently it led to bad business decisions or rushed executions of client projects.

So lately I've been thinking that what I've been bashing my head against for the last few years isn't actually stress, but exhaustion.  And not in like a hardcore, boy I'm just burned out from crunching sense.  More like "I've done too many pushups" burned out.  It goes away in a day or two, as long as you take a break.

The thing about this exhaustion is, for me, it has almost nothing to do with the actual work.  It is implicit in the venture of bootstrapping a small business and self-funding your projects.  It is caused by that constant background hum of "you're running out of time you're running out of money you're not spending enough time with your family you're not doing enough chores you forgot to do your quarterly paperwork is this game really original enough is this what you should be doing with your life."

That makes it sound like normal stress, I just realized.  But it's really different!  This is not a negative feeling; it's not despair, or misery.  It is excitement and adrenaline!  But it is still draining and exhausting.  The reason I mentioned that I'd started rock climbing is because this is the thing that crystallized it for me. 

Rock climbing is really exciting - there's nothing like risking a 40 foot fall for no good reason at all to get your heart going.  It's addictive and really satisfying, and a serious adventure...but the focus and concentration required can be a massive mental drain.  So when I say that work is exhausting but not stressful, that's what I mean!

Like anybody who runs their own company knows (and like everyone else can easily imagine), you don't have a lot of explicit encouragement to take a break.  You're your own boss; if you get the project done a month early, you can sit around and do whatever you want for a month!  It's pretty awesome. 

The nature of independent development is such that you make your next game from the profits of your last project, so every month of rent and groceries that you burn has real implications.  Plus, if you work at home like I do, you are always at work.  It's right there.  You just shuffle past the kitchen and voila, you're back at the office.  Not to mention if you're running your own company, you tend to be pretty passionate about your projects!  All of these things tend to create a kind of work-a-holic environment.

These two forces are in perpetual, direct conflict.  Does anybody have any tips about how to modulate or mediate the effects of these things?  Or do we just need to man up?

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