Tim Steele

Tim Steele

Web Developer

Columbus, OH

  • January 27, 2014

I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: A Tale of a Tired Web Developer

I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: A Tale of a Tired Web Developer

Headaches. Nausea. Caffeine induced hallucinations. These are just some of the things I would begin to complain about. “You need sleep,” my wife would nonchalantly utter. “This happens every time.”

“I will sleep when I’m dead.” That has always been my response. I have become familiar with exhaustion. We are unfortunate friends. I finally decided I am going to do something about it, and the results have been promising.
Burning the candle at both ends is something I am very familiar with. I feel my best when I am busy. Unfortunately, sometimes (a lot of time) I am overly ambitious, and I turn busy into overloaded.

Once I am overloaded, life becomes a balancing act – juggling multiple projects at the same time as going back to school, staying on top of the new “goings-on” with the Internet that my job requires, as well as trying to be a husband and not an office hermit.

My brain becomes a Gantt chart: prioritizing, planning, detailing, and trying to milk every minute of every day to make sure I am efficiently using my time. Unfortunately, this leaves little time for mistakes or spontaneity. My homework is taking longer than anticipated. The client is requesting another round of changes. My wife is tired of looking at the back of my head and wants to go to dinner and a movie. To do this, I take time from the only place I can: my sleep.

Due to a wonderful, accidental collision of circumstances, December became an experiment. School went on break and the holidays kicked in so my work relaxed and projects went on hiatus. I had time. I had free time. I decided that with all this time I was going to catch up on all that sleep I had been putting off for months. I was going to fix my exhaustion problem.

It wasn’t working.

I was getting a minimum of eight hours of sleep a night, but I still needed three cups of coffee just to improve from the “fell out of a plane” feeling I had waking up to the “hit by a bus” feeling I needed to function. By two in the afternoon, my brain still felt like a lava lamp. Did I accidently break myself by neglecting sleep for so long?

I needed answers, so I went to a modern day oracle – Google.

Apparently, I needed more than just sleep. I needed quality sleep. Quality sleep is sleep that is free from distractions, such as light, noise, and disturbances.

The light distraction wasn’t a problem for me. I prefer to have every light in the house completely off so I am shrouded in darkness. This does present a problem if I need to get up in the middle of the night. I have to choose between stumbling through the black like a drunken Batman or turning on the lights and blinding myself with what feels like the power of a thousand suns. I enjoy a challenge.

External noise wasn’t an issue – we live in suburbia. The loudest thing we have heard from outside our window is the wind from sub-zero Chicago winters reminding us that we may want to rethink our decision to live in the Midwest.

Internal noise was a problem. I sleep with two phones next to my bed: one for work, one for personal. These phones would go off through out the night as I received emails from Woot, Banana Republic, and other like retailers who email me in hopes that I may sleep shop at 3 a.m.?

Fixing the phone issue was simple. I enabled the do not disturb settings on my phones. That way, if someone who I deemed is important tries to call me in the middle of the night it will ring, but everything else is silenced. This did help my sleep, but did not go far enough.

The big culprit in my sleep deprivation was my twenty-year-old mattress. My wife has a tendency to sleep like Taz from Looney Tunes. The last disturbance to overcome was sharing a bed with a hurricane on a mattress older than the Internet.

I bought a new mattress: one of the memory foam, jump-up-and-down-don’t-spill-your-wine, seven-layer, gel-infused mattresses. I look at it as an investment in my ability to function as a human being.

The investment didn’t take long to pay off. After two nights, I started waking up and I no longer felt like I was a zombie, rising from the dead to feast on caffeine.

The December experiment is over: work is busy again, school started back up, and my wife is already planning a weekend getaway for us. I decided to still keep a focus on sleep though, and the results have been surprising: my mood is better and my work is better.

The work is the biggest surprise to me. I can get more done in less time. My brain feels sharp, and I am focused. This heightened cognitive state leads to better planning and faster decisions. The improvement has been so dramatic that I have shifted my focus to making sure that quality sleep is just as important as my other responsibilities.

I leave this experiment with two takeaways:

First is how accepted exhaustion is in the web development industry. My entire professional career – as deadlines loomed, projects fell behind schedule, and delays happened – it almost always meant long hours for developers. Sometimes the long hours lasted for weeks. The sleepless, zombie developer is an accepted stereotype. I am not surprised that after any major project launch that requires massive overtime from developers is immediately followed up by bug-fixing and code re-writing to fix the mistakes of coders that were existing on coffee and determination. Wouldn’t it be more efficient to adjust timelines and have rested, more effective developers?

And second, I am going to dial back the ambition. My dreams of becoming the next billion-dollar Internet tycoon aren’t worth the slow transformation into the “Working Dead”. Take it slow, I got time. Just make sure I am using some of that time to get a good night’s rest. My work – and wife – will thank me.