Coding for yourself when not at work
June 30, 2015 6:15 PM   Subscribe

Have you found that your ability to write code for yourself, in your spare time, dries up when you are programming full time for a living? How do you deal with that? or is it just an inevitable cost of coding for a living?

For years I balanced a productive creative life outside of full-time non-programming jobs. But I was surprised to find myself unable to keep doing this after getting hired as a programmer seven months ago. And many programmer-friends report the same difficulty I am now experiencing — they basically can't make themselves write code outside of work. Getting up early and working for several hours in the morning seems to be a promising solution, but I'd be interested in hearing about other people's experiences.

My work day is around eight or nine hours. Although I have plenty of alert waking time before and after work and on weekends, I suddenly find myself unable to use it the way I am accustomed to doing. Specifically, I seem to have vastly more trouble concentrating in the way I need to do to write code, when not at work.
posted by aestival to Computers & Internet (29 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
You definitely aren't alone in this.
posted by town of cats at 6:20 PM on June 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yeah, it's common. A lot of it is that programming is a creative act and one that takes time and energy, things that are often lacking once you leave work.

I find that after about day 3 of vacation, I'm able to sit down and work on pet projects if I so choose. I have also found that my ability to work on side projects is in inverse proportion to how much I care about my day job. Love my day job? No interest in projects. Hating my day job? Bring on the compiler.
posted by plinth at 6:24 PM on June 30, 2015 [3 favorites]

I think this extends to all kinds of work. People only have so much capacity for doing the same thing for hours and hours day in and day out, which goes down sharply when your life doesn't depend on it. You have to find some way to trick your brain, like having some ritualized rest period after work or on weekends to restart the work counter.
posted by bleep at 6:33 PM on June 30, 2015 [4 favorites]

Yes, this is a thing. I will say that the best programmers I know seem to be completely immune to it. On top of that, having a very specific interest or niche within programming, based on genuine interest and not historical inertia* or $$$, also correlates pretty well with being able to keep doing outside projects. So does being really, really picky and perfectionistic about your tools, if your tools happen to be open source projects and/or a sufficient solution doesn't happen to exist yet and you decide to make one and open source it.

* "hey we need someone to do the netcode"
"uhhh ok i guess i will if there's no one else"
"hooray now you are The Network Bitch no takebacks forever and ever amen"

posted by The Master and Margarita Mix at 6:40 PM on June 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

Not a programmer, I cook, and we get the same thing. Chefs eat like toddlers if we're only cooking for ourselves. One thing that really helps is having to cook for others; do you have coder friends you could trade projects with?
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 6:49 PM on June 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

Do you mean coding for fun or to accomplish a task that you actually need to accomplish? I write code for a living, and don't generally find myself wanting to write much code outside of work unless it's to accomplish a specific goal or solve a specific problem, or is small enough in scale to knock out in an afternoon of hacking. One-offs aside, anything with a certain amount of scale/complexity will start to require lots of things that just aren't fun to deal with. Revision control and build scripting and utility/helper-code implementation and so on. Plus, those un-fun things are often problems I've solved before (at work) and re-implementing a solution that isn't owned by my employer is just tedious busy work.

But this is totally okay, because my coding itch gets scratched by work, so I don't feel like I'm missing anything. No, I don't code for fun anymore, but that's because some bozos have decided to pay me for it instead. Win-win.
posted by axiom at 6:53 PM on June 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

This has definitely been my experience. I very rarely work on my few little coding projects outside work; I kind of doubt I ever will seriously do them. My attitude may change one day, but I think it just is the case that doing it all day makes me inclined to do other stuff the rest of the time.

I don't think most people in other professions work on their work in their spare time, although it does make me a little nervous that my skillset may not be as up to date as it should be.

Coding is, for one thing, really cognitively difficult, even when you're in the groove and really productive. I don't do 40 hours of active coding a week at work even; other tasks (documentation, meetings, planning, etc.) need to be done but they also provide some welcome relief from continually working on tough problems.
posted by mister pointy at 6:57 PM on June 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I haven't done personal projects outside of a few very small important-task kind of things in a long time. Some of it is mental energy, and some of it is that I enjoy lots of things besides programming. So given that I already spend 40-50 hours a week coding, I'd rather use my time outside work to do the million other things I'm interested in.

The people I know who really don't have any other interests seem to keep doing personal stuff regardless of how long they've been working, but thats a small %.
posted by thefoxgod at 7:08 PM on June 30, 2015

Yes. (I don't have the energy for a longer answer).
posted by fedward at 7:30 PM on June 30, 2015 [5 favorites]

+1 on this syndrome. Energy is not infinite. What helps me is in the weekends, i try to lose track of the concept of time and hustle bustle. Going on hikes without a watch, Lie in a park all day. Leisure is the only thing that helps me get recharged.
posted by gadget_gal at 7:39 PM on June 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

The term for this is "busman's holiday":
Free time spent in much the same pursuit as one's work. For example, Weather permitting, the lifeguard spent all her days off at the beach—a real busman's holiday. The term alludes to a bus driver spending his day off taking a long bus ride.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:42 PM on June 30, 2015


Most days I barely want to touch a computer when I'm not work.
posted by steinwald at 7:45 PM on June 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

I used to code a lot more projects at home (I love VB.Net but I don't get paid to code in it), but it was because the apps didn't exist, or weren't of the quality I wanted. Today with Open Source and just the march of years, what I can accomplish in my non-work time usually doesn't measure up to what is readily available.

Now I find myself doing niche projects where I customize everything to my exact desires (e.g., GUI just how I like it, or interfaced with my exact home needs, or to play with my new Raspberry Pi, etc.)

Also, I saved a link to this great answer by another metafilter user to a question similar to yours.
posted by forthright at 8:13 PM on June 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

As an animator and visual effects artist I can say that when I'm not working I want to be as far away from Maya as I can be. I do like to make sound effects for animation to relax, though.
posted by cleroy at 8:53 PM on June 30, 2015

I find my ability to work on outside projects is inversely proportional to how hard I'm having to work at work. If I am in a relatively easy place at work -- what I'm doing is relatively straightforward and not too unlike what I've done plenty of times before, then I can write a lot of that sort of "easy" code at work, and come home and write more code for myself. Though even in those situations there will be stretches of tough going, debugging hard problems or whatever. Recently I started a new job that is radically different than what I'd done for the previous decade-plus -- still programming -- but radically different, with an almost unbelievable sheer volume of new things to learn. And consequently, working on the side projects has been very slow to non-existent lately.
posted by smcameron at 9:10 PM on June 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have the same problem. I will program at home to accomplish a specific task, but the days of "I should add a GUI to this... hmm, I guess I should write a 3D graphics engine from scratch except for calls to some system-provided DrawPixel(x,y,r,g,b) type function!" are long over.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 9:22 PM on June 30, 2015

Also have the same problem. I've found that any outside work programming has to be very different for me to feel motivated to do it. Work is mostly imperative style, statically typed database string shoving. Free time programming is LISP ALL THE THINGS or assembly, must manage much memory. When energy is too low for even that, reading papers about programming language design and related research can be fun.

Recently, though, I've taken up drawing for free time creativeness. Sometimes not feeling motivated is really your brain saying that it's just not interested in doing that particular thing.
posted by Mister Cheese at 9:50 PM on June 30, 2015

I'm gonna chime in and agree here. I've got a drawer full of Raspberry Pi cards, old laptops and the like that's not ever going anywhere, I suspect. I've done exactly one programming project in the last few years: a small Windows game to teach my daughter the clock.
posted by Harald74 at 11:59 PM on June 30, 2015

Agreed, this extends to all fields. The worst thing I ever did for my writing was to become a professional writer/ editor.
posted by tavegyl at 12:34 AM on July 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Yep, last night I started a project that will become the next gen Metafilter, but this comment is probably as far as that will go...
posted by sammyo at 5:27 AM on July 1, 2015

Taking stock of the answers so far:

* Question 1: most posters agree that this particular kind of burnout is a phenomenon, and some add that it is not limited to coding;
* Question 3: a number of posters suggest that it is inevitable.

But I am most interested in Question 2: what I can do about it, so that I can code for myself when not at work.

There hasn't really be a satisfactory answer to this yet. Granted plinth and smcameron suggest that dissatisfaction or overexertion at work helps motivate coding for oneself, but I would like to find tactics I can apply right now — I'm not particularly happy at work in any case. Also, gadget_gal recommends relaxation and plinth says things improve "after about day 3 of vacation" — and I absolutely agree — but I want to write code for myself during my work week, not get my mind off of code or have to take time off work.

I mentioned the prospect of using early morning time, when my mind is fresh. Does anyone have experience with that? It certainly reduces the amount of energy and motivation I have for work-work!

I've also thought hard about shifting into a different kind of work. It seems possible that my company is going to transfer me into a more mindless and less intense set of assignments soon — although that would be annoying under ordinary circumstances, maybe it will leave me more motivated to write code for myself.
posted by aestival at 8:15 AM on July 1, 2015

On question # 2, I tend to assume I have, say, 35 hours of solid coding in me in the average week. If I'm really deep into something I might end up putting more time into it than that, but that could very well drain the reservoir so much the next week is short by some amount. If you're like me, the first thing to do is figure out how many hours of coding you can really do in a week, based on concentration, focus, energy, etc. Then if you want to go above that number, you've got to figure out now to do that sustainably (whether it's exercise, meditation, better sleep, or whatever it is that works for you).

When I run past my limit, I can totally tell. I can't concentrate on the thing I'm doing, and I start to get really fidgety, sometimes even sweaty and itchy. At that point I have to go take a walk and do something that isn't remotely code or work related, and try to let the part of my brain that handles focus have a break. After that I can sometimes come back the same day, but sometimes (perhaps the majority of the time) the whole day is just burned. My daily limit can stretch up to ten or twelve hours if I'm really in the zone, but I run out of energy before the end of the week if I do that. And frankly, I think there's probably even a limit on a longer time scale, so there's a daily limit (8-10 hours or so), a weekly limit (~35), and maybe a six week counter? Something like that?

I haven't found that there's anything that reliably lets me sustain more than a week's worth of working hours in a week, without some sort of concentration/energy crash that comes afterward. For some people exercise really helps that, but if I hit a daily or weekly burnout I have a really hard time coming back after an exercise break. This is especially true if I've been running a deficit for a few weeks already (such as in that last big push before a deadline). The thing that helps me recover, more than anything else, is just time.
posted by fedward at 9:41 AM on July 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also, some coding work is a little bit self-sustaining, if it's fun, interesting, exciting, whatever, and other coding work is just draining. So you may find that your personal projects drain the energy reserve more slowly than paying work does, or perhaps even replenish the reservoir a bit. On the other hand, tracking down bugs the week before go-live is especially hard.
posted by fedward at 9:45 AM on July 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Collaborating on personal projects with other people is the only way I've found to get around this. Having a shared sense of purpose and accountability gives me the motivational nudge that I need to open up my laptop again when I get home from work.

Pair programming with friends is most motivating, because it also helps meet my social needs, so I don't feel like the extracurricular coding is preventing me from spending my free time on other things that I value.
posted by introcosm at 10:55 AM on July 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Coding is a means to the end. You will do the coding when the end merits the effort. That could be professional development, learning the new tools, or it could be in pursuit of a hobby of other personal interest.
posted by SemiSalt at 11:29 AM on July 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Like other answerers, I just can't summon the mental energy for coding outside of work, which, quite honestly, is unfortunately damaging to my chances of finding coding work outside of my current niche sphere. When asked "What private projects do you like to work on outside of work", which is a sadly common question, I don't feel like the honest answer of "What? None. I have too much reading/drumming/writing/running/cycling/guitar playing/decompressing/cooking/chores/netflix/comics/online banking/calls with parents/partner/friends/siblings/internetting/hanging out with friends/drinking / synth programming/going to shows/going to interesting weird art events/vacationing/travel to do" achieves the impression of being a well rounded and interesting normal human being who would be an excellent contributor to a team that I would like. Oh well. Their loss.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 11:48 PM on July 2, 2015

On balance, I don't feel this question was resolved by the answers here. The best conclusion I have come to is a combination of things:

1. Let my frustration increase until I'm still more motivated.
2. Some of my stress at work eased, and as a result I've found myself able to do more of my own work.
3. It's been very helpful to make lists of what I want to get done and keep them absolutely up to date and on my person at all times.
4. It's also been very helpful to make lists of what I actually have gotten done, so that I can look them over and not feel the paralysis is hopeless.
posted by aestival at 3:00 PM on August 9, 2015

And I forgot to add that it is indeed useful to steal the first hours of the day for my own selfish work and leave the later morning, deflowered and soiled, for the company, along with the afternoon. In the evenings, probably, all I can do is heal.
posted by aestival at 5:11 AM on August 11, 2015

And thanks to all for your help with this question.
posted by aestival at 4:19 AM on August 12, 2015

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