Breaking The Wheel

A woman with so much anxiety and stress that she's trying to eat her laptop. Ouch!

Anxiety And Stress Managment For Game Developers: Some Practical Tools

The video games industry is a fertile breeding ground for anxiety and stress. Almost every game is an entrepreneurial endeavor. Expeditionary. And uncertain. Uncertain  schedules, uncertain results, uncertain job security. It’s not for the faint of heart. In this article, I’m going to take a break from the usual managerial tone of Breaking The Wheel in order to focus on something more important than any game: your mental health.

Image source: GraphicStock. Used under license.

By Reading This Post, You Will Learn

  • Why you shouldn’t check email first thing in the morning
  • Why multitasking is not only a myth but also terrible for your stress level
  • What “mindfulness” is
  • How to use small amounts of exercise to snap your mind out of an anxiety spiral
  • Why Sunday night, not Friday or Saturday, is an awesome night for going out to eat
  • Practical tools for improving your sleep

Hello Darkness, My Old Friend

I want to cover a topic that’s near and dear to my heart: anxiety and stress management. Keeping your head on straight is critical when dealing with the complexities and complications of game development. Anxiety can have you jumping at shadows and doubting your every move.

I’m no stranger to it. I was stressed and anxious as a game developer, then I ratcheted that up when I added fatherhood and graduate school into the mix. Then I got hit with a layoff, was out of work for three months and switched industries out of necessity. Then I stressed endlessly about how my career was in the toilet. Oh, and then son #2 showed up with a year to go in school.

Long story short, I have experienced no dearth of anxiety and stress in my life (although being done with that whole grad school thing certainly takes the edge off). So I’ve spent no small amount of time and energy figuring out how to reduce, control, and manage my anxiety and stress without resorting to medication.* In this post, I’m going to share the tools that provided the biggest bang for the buck (or the time spent).

Don’t Check Email in the Morning

Too many of us have the bad habit of checking email right when we wake up. This is a recipe for anxiety and stress. Before you’ve even taken a whiz or had a cup of coffee, you’re already letting someone else dictate what you should think about. What you need to get done. What your priorities for the day are.

In short, checking your email first thing in the morning puts you into a reactive, versus a proactive, state.

What to Do Instead

Figure out your own priorities and agenda. Decide what you need to accomplish today to sleep well tonight. What are the accomplishments that would most reduce your anxiety and stress or would have the largest impact on your goals (professional or otherwise)? What are the things that you HAVE to do today, personally or professionally?

If you have trouble prioritizing or keeping track of all of the various agenda items in your life, lots of companies want to help you. I’ve actually resorted to using a JIRA board to track and categorize all of my to-dos. The time invested to get organized is more than worth its weight in anxiety and stress reduction.

Once you have a game plan for the day, THEN check your email. Think about where you can fit any action items from your inbox, or what might be higher priority than the items you previously slotted on your agenda.

Google Has You Covered

Google’s Inbox service is a remarkable tool in this regard. For one, it can parse and batch emails by topic – eg, finance, social, forums, and trips – with a high degree of accuracy (Google Mail can also do this). This significantly cuts spammy noise from your primary inbox. But the real kicker is that you can set any one of these groups to only delivery mail once a day or once a week.

I have mine setup so that the main inbox updates as new messages come in. And, because I have Google batch categorical emails, anything that comes to the main inbox tends to be relatively important (and sparse). The Social, Finance, and Forums inboxes update once a day at 7:00am, and the Purchases and Updates inboxes show up once a week on Monday mornings (also at 7:00am).

The batching keeps a lot of noise out of sight and it also allows me to easily delete large quantities of junk mail all at once. When the batch comes through, I can quickly scan the list of messages to see if there’s anything I actually need/want to read. For everything else: Select All > Trash

I’m not quite ready to embrace Tim Ferriss’s “check email once a week” protocol…but it’s something to strive for.

Stop Multi-Tasking

Sorry, fellow Millenials. I know we have a reputation for being adroit multi-taskers, but it’s bullshit. Multi-tasking is, quite literally, physically impossible. And I mean the literal form of literally. Not the bastardized, colloquial form.

See, your conscious brain is not a multi-threaded processor. Oh sure, your unconscious brain can handle all kinds of parallel processes. It filters out myriad sights, sounds, sensations, and smells for you. But it has to do that because your conscious brain is a single core Pentium. It’s blazingly fast, and can handle incomprehensibly complex analyses. But it can only do one thing at a time.

For instance, if you are reading this sentence on the bus, and the gentlemen next to you sneezes precisely as you read the word “peanut butter”, then you will not perceive the two events as occurring simultaneously. Your brain will process the image of the words “peanut butter” and then it will process the sound of the sneeze. As a result, you will perceive the two events as having happened at different points in time even though they occurred simultaneously.

Context Switching is Bad for You

Your brain can very quickly context switch between stimuli, but it’s stressful. And if you are trying to actually focus on two things simultaneously, it’s incredibly stressful, not to mention inefficient. And that inefficiency only triggers more stress, increasing inefficiency. On and on.

And it doesn’t have to be two “productive” or mentally intensive things. If you’re sculpting a character model and simultaneously binge-watching Stranger Things, you are actually stressing your brain out – you’re doing the cerebral equivalent of making your conscious brain Mario Cement Factory:

Focus

I made a conscious decision to stop multi-tasking right after my second son was born. The specific motivator was that I now had to get through A LOT of graduate school homework in the too-short, glorious window of beatific bliss known as “nap time”. With two children, one a newborn, I could no longer ask my wife to cover for me while I finished an assignment.

So I stopped trying to multi-task in any way. No more constantly running Retronauts podcasts or streaming Angry Video Game Nerd play lists. I was shocked by how much work I could complete in 90 minutes when I removed all other major stimuli.

For much of my adult life, I thought I possibly had an undiagnosed case of ADHD. Turns out I was just context switching my brain into short-attention-span oblivion.

Do one thing at a time. Put your phone out of site, and turn off the notifications your computer fires at you. They’re well intended, but, in action, they merely serve to disrupt and randomize your attention.

Listen to Music Without Lyrics

Once I got into my anti-multitasking kick, I realized that even lyrics can disrupt to my focus. My brain naturally tries to follow the sentences and parse them out. You might have a similar problem. But music also helps me drown other distractions (not to mention the fact that I tend to have a song stuck in my head 24/7). So I started compiling a list of albums for focusing on work:

  • Boards of Canada
    • Tomorrow’s Harvest
  • A Winged Victory for the Sullen
    • A Winged Victory for the Sullen
    • Atomos
  • Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
    • The Social Network Soundtrack
    • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Soundtrack
    • Gone Girl Soundtrack
    • Before the Flood Soundtrack
  • Disasterpeace
    • It Follows Soundtrack
    • Hyper Light Drifter Soundtrack
  • Ben Salisbury & Geoff Barrow
    • Ex Machina Soundtrack
  • Nine Inch Nails
    • Ghosts I-IV
  • MG
    • MG
  • Michael McCann
    • Deus Ex: Human Revolution Soundtrack
  • Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein
    • Stranger Things, Vol. 1 Soundtrack
  • Stars of the Lid
    • Avec Laudenum
    • And Their Refinement of the Decline
  • Sarah Schachner
    • Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare Soundtrack
  • Luminist
    • Metroid: Resynthesized

Practice and Cultivate Mindfulness

Mindfulness is one of the most helpful tools I’ve found while working to manage my anxiety. Mindfulness is a meditative practice based, in part, on Buddhism. Your stress and anxiety will try to pull you out of the present and get you mired in irrational or only semi-rational fears about the future. Or it can throw you into a hole of wallowing self-doubt (I’m speaking from a lifetime of experience here).

Making rational decisions in the face of uncertainty or adversity is hard enough. Throw some negative self-talk in there and you have a potent black hole of indecision.

The purpose of mindfulness isn’t to prevent anxiety from happening, but to recognize it for what it is: an emotion. Not fact. Not reality. Not prophecy. Just an emotion. In short, the goal of mindfulness isn’t to control or suppress your thoughts, but to prevent them from controlling you. It was a personal game-changer for me. And it doesn’t take years of practice or hour long sessions. I saw benefits after a few, focused 10-minute sessions.

Two meditation apps can help you get started with mindfulness: Headspace and Calm. They’re functional equivalents, and each has a free intro/beginner series. Headspace’s subscriptions are significantly more expensive, but it does a better job explaining mindfulness in practice. Plus, the narrator (and Headspace founder) Andy Puddicombe has one of the most soothing voices of any human being that I’ve ever encountered.


Resources That Informed And Influenced This Post

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Engage in Physically Demanding Exercise

Disclaimer (this being the readily litigious society we live in): consult a healthcare professional before engaging in any strenuous exercise program, especially if you have any known medical issues. And please don’t do stupid shit to your body in an effort to calm your mind. If you’re not an experienced athlete, and your body says “Hey there, time to stop!” then it’s time to stop.

It’s no secret that exercise serves as stress release. In fact, one study found that consistent exercise routines can serve as a substitute for anti-depresents in some cases. But aside from long-term physical and mental benefits, I’ve also noticed an immediate, tactical effect on anxiety.

I like lifting weights, but really slowly. I shoot for five seconds up, five seconds down. I’m enough of a dork that I actually lift to a metronome. At that speed, I can only get through a handful of reps – usually 8 to 12 – before hitting failure. And those last few reps BURN. Like, they BUUUUUUUUUUURRRRRRN. Pushing through the pain, right to the point of failure is a challenge. I requires all my focus to not to yield to the discomfort while, at the same time, maintaining form and tempo.

And if I’m entirely focused on pushing a hunk of metal up and down, guess what I’m not thinking about? The future. It’s hard for your anxiety to run away with your brain when you consume all of your mental bandwidth with an intense physiological experience.

But I Hate Lifting Weights!

Intense exercise can pull your focus into the reality of the present instead of the dark unknown of the future. But it doesn’t have to be weight lifting. Cross-Fit will do the trick. Or boxing, or martial arts, or wall climbing, or sprinting, or surfing, or yoga, or gymnastics, or skiing. Anything that requires all of your attention and heavy physical exertion. More generally, anything that grounds your focus in the current moment.

If you find yourself locked in a particularly intense anxiety spiral, make time to engage in the activity of your choice. Focus your attention on the moment, on the physical act you are trying to perform. I’ve found that just focusing on all of the sensations in my feet as I walk can bring my focus back to the present. It’s a great way to crowbar your head our of a nasty feedback loop.

Stress Relief in a Jiffy

But what if you don’t have an hour to spend in the gym (not counting changing, showering etc)? You don’t need an hour. You just need 15 minutes on a treadmill or stationary bike or elliptical machine. Just go at it with intensity. I do intervals at varying speeds, shifting back and fourth between a light jog and hard sprints for 10-15 minutes. I also wear a heart monitor to make sure I’m not doing anything that puts my health at risk. And, believe me, it’ll snap me out of a funk like nobody’s business.

What, your don’t even have 15 minutes? Well, first off, yes you do. But fine, how about 7? If you’re stressed but really in a bind for time, then try this free app: 7-Minute Workout. You can do it in your home with a floor mat and a ordinary chair. No, you won’t get Chris Evans ripped. But fitness isn’t the goal – mindfulness is. And, trust me: if you go through the exercises with intensity it will get your heart rate up and bring your head back into the moment.

And I don’t care how busy you are. You have 7 minutes. No, fuck you, you do.

Go Out for Dinner on Sunday Nights

This is one of my personal favorites. Most folks choose Friday or Saturday night to go out, but I put it to you that Sunday is the best night for dinner at a restaurant. It’s no secret that Sunday nights are a major drag unless you LOVE your job. So why compound that drag with extra chores like cooking and washing dishes? Pay someone else to worry about that stuff for the night. My family and I routinely go out for dinner on Sunday nights, and it really, REALLY takes the edge off.

Improve your Sleep ROI

Modern society’s obsession with “Sleep when you’re dead” is completely asinine. Sleep is so critical to everything your do. Mental health. Emotion regulation. Physical health. Fat loss. Muscle growth. Problem solving. Processing waste from the food you consume. Learning. Stress management. Ad infinitum.

Modern society is also highly adroit at streamlining your ability to screw up your own sleep. Gadgets make it easy to watch any movie until any hour from anywhere, answer any email right as it comes in, and check Facebook or Twitter at the slightest impulse.

Here are the changes I made to drastically improve my quality of sleep, even in periods of high stress.

Don’t drink away stress

Even moderate alcohol consumption can severely impact the quality and quantity of sleep you get. I am no stranger to booze (University of Miami, Class of 2003, thank you very much). But it is not your sleepy time friend. Alcohol can help you fall asleep faster, but it totally borks your deep, REM sleep – the kind of sleep that makes you feel like you actually, you know, slept.

I went from moderate consumption to very light (or none) and I sleep way better now. No more waking up at 4:00am with headaches, sweats, or a booze-driven guilty conscience.

What to do instead

Get yourself a big, ol’ tea bag of chamomile. I’m a big fan of Sleepy Time Extra, myself.

Stop Watching TV or Playing Video Games At Least 30 Minutes Before You Go To Sleep

There is a palpable difference both in how quickly I fall asleep and the quality of sleep I get when I go straight from gaming to bed, versus when I allow a half-hour to de-stimulate myself. I know some people can pass right the F out while watching TV (my wife among them). But if you’re having trouble falling asleep, TV and games may be the culprit, especially if you’re already stressed out.

Why are TV and games so counterproductive to sleep? Part of it is the stimulation. Sneaking around Sevastopol Station while a xenomorph tries to slam it’s mandible through your virtual skull isn’t exactly conducive to shut-eye (again, speaking from experience here). But there’s also a more basic reason: light. We evolved to set our circadian rhythms according to the ambient light. Sun goes down, you sleep. Sun comes up, you wake. And when a screen bombards your eyeballs with photons, your body can get really confused.

What to do instead

Hop in bed and read until you get drowsy. Any genre of the written word will do. Fiction, history, self-improvement. Whatever. Reading a physical copy is preferable – less light getting shot directly into your eyes – but I find I can get just as drowsy reading on my iPad. I try to read one comic book a night on the Marvel Unlimited e-reader, but I often start conking out within 10-12 pages.

Put Your Phone on “Do Not Disturb” Before You Go To Sleep

Few things can be as jarring as getting a text or email in the middle of the night. And few things can be as tempting as just reaching out, unlocking your phone and reading the message. And then responding. And then thinking about the message for the next 40 minutes. And anticipating the reply. And before you know it, you’ve just jacked up your whole night of sleep.

Putting your phone on vibrate isn’t enough. The buzz can still disrupt your sleep cycle, even if you don’t fully wake-up. Put your phone on “Do Not Disturb” instead. Unless you work in emergency services or are dealing with a medical problem in the family, there are few things can’t wait until the morning.

I setup my iPhone to automatically switch to DND mode from 10:00pm to 7:00am every night (Settings > Do Not Disturb > Scheduled). While in DND mode, anyone on my favorites list can get right through with a phone call. Anyone else can get through if they call twice within three minutes. Basically, if it’s an actual emergency, you can get a hold of me. Otherwise, I’ll talk to you tomorrow.

This was one of the best decisions I have made in recent years. That may sound ridiculous, but ask anyone with kids – anything that improves sleep is a god damned game changer. I used to be a chronic late night email/text/Facebook update reader. Couldn’t resist. Now, it’s outta sight, outta mind.

And If All Else Fails, Seek Professional Help

The above are simple tools you can try today. But I am not a mental health professional and some issues are too severe for any form of lifestyle mitigation. There is zero shame in consulting a professional psychiatrist, psychologist, or licensed clinical social worker. I regularly see a therapist as I work to get a handle on my anxiety issues. Just as you would see a physician for a bad infection, you should see a mental health professional if you feel that your anxiety, stress, or any other aspect of your mental health is causing you to experience existential suffering.

Please don’t wait. Reach out for help today.

Always Looking For More Tools!

That’s my list. What’s yours? Got a balm or an elixir for anxiety (literally or figuratively) I didn’t mention, I’d love to hear about it. Leave a comment with your personal anxiety tonic below. And please sign up for the mailing list!

*I hold no animosity towards medication. If a medical professional feels it’s warranted and it’s the right decision for you, then you should absolutely pursue better living through chemistry. My personal choice was to seek relief in other forms, but that’s just me.

Looking for more info about self-improvement? Check out the Productivity and Self-Improvement Resources Page!

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“Anxiety And Stress Managment For Game Developers: Some Practical Tools” by Justin Fischer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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