33p! h4lp me survive 80-hour weeks at code school!
March 27, 2019 12:10 PM   Subscribe

I'm in a competitive programming bootcamp where 10-14 hour days are required to pass. Like, don't-flinch, don't-leave-your-seat, hands-on-the-keyboard, lunch breaks don't count. Is this wise or conducive to learning? Questionable! Still, I'm going to do it. How can I make this work?

This is my second attempt. I've got one month to go. I failed the first try because I didn't log enough hours or score enough points on assignments. It's a stressful environment, my health was in shambles by the time I finished. I'm back for one reason: the rewards are great if I pass. I'll have access to free education for three years, comparable to a good C.S. degree, with a curriculum I can work through at a reasonable pace.

I really want to make it this time.

It's day three and I'm already exhausted. Things I am struggling with:

1) I have some health conditions and executive dysfunction (possibly ADHD?). Even in the best of times I fight fatigue, irregular wake-sleep cycles and sensory issues. The more stressed I am, the worse it all gets. I can engage my hyperfocus during the day with some regularity but it comes at a cost... I'm wired for the rest of the night, making it hard to sleep when I get home. However if I don't force that mode my attention falls off and I'm wasting time at the screen, distracted by the bright lights of monitors and the sounds and movements of 300 other people.

2) I'm a night owl and a 9-hour-a-night sleeper. Even worse, I have a severe dip in the afternoon from about 3-7PM. Caffeine and exercise don't help much, though I try to time them to buy me a couple more work hours. Cat naps are good if I can relax enough to get them but I'm not really alert until much later. If I work too late in the night I start slipping forward until my schedule is totally reversed (advanced sleep phase disorder)... plus I'm very sensitive to light and the screens keep me awake. I need to be in class by 8AM every day to grab a good seat.

3) I seem to learn differently than my peers? It's a collaborative environment to the extreme, but I do much better going it alone with occasional check-ins. I also have total aphantasia so my mind is kind of a black box. A typical learning path for me is "I don't get it, what is this, I can't even remember the vocabulary, fail, fail, fail... click! For some reason it suddenly makes sense! I am awesome at this from here on out, with a deep and thorough understanding!" Other people seem to accumulate knowledge at a steadier pace, with a staircase of small jumps and plateaus. It seems like the curriculum is made to test these kinds of learners, with slow steady accretion every day? I don't work like this and I kept failing assignments last time because I didn't get that "click!" until a day or two after we get the material. You get new information the same day exercises on it are due. Sadly the assignments are different this round, so I can't carry over my past work. I prefer to write lots of little tests to learn new programming techniques, but the workload is so intense we rarely have time for that.

4) I just don't have enough hours in the day. 8-9 for sleep, 10-14 for work, 1 each for AM/PM prep, 2 total between lunch, dinner and an afternoon nap... plus laundry, grocery shopping, cooking, dishes... no time at all for myself. It's a lot.

How I'm succeeding already:

- I have a meticulously planned schedule and meal plan. I cook all my food twice a week, since I have a lot of allergies and can't order out very easily. I have eliminated as many brain-draining choices as possible. I wear the same thing every day, eat the same healthy meal for lunch and dinner, have the same morning and night routines, etc. Last time I went off schedule because I was so tired I was falling asleep at the wrong times!

- I get up early to grab a seat near the windows where there's sunshine to keep me awake and fewer people. Thick headphones and sunglasses help block out stimuli but it's not perfect. It's all open plan, there are no quiet or private work stations in the whole building.

- Paced caffeine via tea. I start with black in the morning, switch to white in the afternoon and then cut myself off by 5PM.

- I walk to and from school, so I get a brisk 30 minute walk twice a day. I take a few breaks to stretch, do squats and enjoy fresh air outside.

- I found a dark room in the basement where no one goes. Yay introvert hidey hole!

- I take great notes, build in as much review time as possible, and I've got lots of friends who want to help me with assignments.

Give me your best tips for inhumane workloads!

- How can I calm down faster at night so I can sleep?
- How do I keep my focus and energy high during the day?
- How can I adapt my learning style to this curriculum?
posted by aw jeez to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
For sleeping, start training yourself on this method.
posted by Diddly at 12:55 PM on March 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

If you are eating healthily, two square meals, at bootcamp, there's almost certainly no way you're feeding your brain enough to get through 14 hours of intense mental effort each day, *especially* when you're sleep-deprived. You need snacks that are *high carb*, so sugary or super-starchy, for quick energy boosts when you notice your attention starting to flag and fatigue creep in - like full-sugar soda or chocolate milk, trail mix/dried fruit, etc. Your brain needs glucose to work and if you're doing that much thinking, you'll burn through your body's supply fast. Low blood sugar will definitely contribute to problems with executive function as well.
posted by aiglet at 1:02 PM on March 27, 2019 [10 favorites]

Cut out cooking and dishes. Now is the time for convenience foods and paper plates. When I did a code boot camp I lived on rotisserie chicken, canned beans, frozen veg, greek yogurt, and salad bar.
posted by mskyle at 1:02 PM on March 27, 2019 [18 favorites]

Keep lights dim or off at home a few hours before bedtime. Use a lamp with a red or orange bulb at that time, to cut out blue light and have your melatonin kick in when it’s supposed to.

Can you make it through the afternoon dip without caffeine?
posted by cotton dress sock at 1:19 PM on March 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

Who says you have to work 14 hours a day at this? If there are required hours, and it's an educational institution they are probably required to accommodate your learning disabilities. Focus on learning the material. When I took programming classes, it made my brain hurt, so much information that was unconnected to anything. But it came together with diligent study. If there are braggarts, ignore them; I found that many of the over-confident students were doing poorly. are you able to study on the weekend? If you put in 12 hours every day M-F, and 8 hours on Sat & Sun., that's 76 hours.

Minimize laundry. Find ways to get the food you need quickly, and don't skimp on on nutrition.
posted by theora55 at 1:48 PM on March 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

For you:
Laundry outsource, delivery if possible
Paper plates and plastic cutlery
Buy extra towels and sheets and underwear to stretch the time between laundry deliveries
Meditation apps/melatonin/low light/only sleep in bed no other activities
Bring fruits, veggies, and nuts for snacking
Order your groceries online if you can time deliveries
Stand up at least once an hour
Do eye strain and physical exercises at least once an hour
Get outdoors for fresh air on lunch break

For everyone else:
Burn this boot camp to the ground. They do not deserve to continue treating people this way.
posted by bilabial at 1:56 PM on March 27, 2019 [43 favorites]

I was able to keep up a similar schedule for a week with a one year old. I don’t know if I could have done it for longer. What I remember from that time:

- Mr. eirias took care of everything that had to do with the house or Little eirias for that week. That included feeding me, I think.
- I took vacation at work, set up an auto reply on all my email accounts, and deactivated all social media for that week.
- I probably did not shower every day.

The context was a “realistic” capstone for my second grad degree. I kicked ass outputwise, but it left me with the impression that this is a fairly stupid way to evaluate people. I have been employed in this field for almost ten years and I can tell you it’s not a normal working mode, which gives the lie to the purported realism of this capstone experience.

Which is all to say, why is your program structured like this? Are they screening for people who are willing to put in absurd amounts of work for little to no immediate payoff? Or are they screening for people whose background or aptitude is such that they are able to do the same quality of work in less time? Or, bluntly, are they screening for youth, in a way that can fly under the legal radar? Or do they just not understand what they’re asking of their students? Or what?
posted by eirias at 2:39 PM on March 27, 2019 [11 favorites]

Back when I was clocking hours like this in media production, we used Visine - the bath in a bottle - to help us through the hours of staring at our screens.
posted by ouke at 2:43 PM on March 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

- How can I calm down faster at night so I can sleep?

A shot of alcohol, or some weed works for some people. Maybe cut the caffeine out an hour earlier?
posted by the agents of KAOS at 2:51 PM on March 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

- How can I calm down faster at night so I can sleep?

as soon as the day is over, turn off your phone. turn off your computer. no more light-up brain stimulation before bed.

- How do I keep my focus and energy high during the day?

caffeine. avoiding sugar crashes. stepping away from the kbd every hour or two or so to stretch, walk, and refocus. more time at the keyboard doesn't equal more productivity. some of the best thinking about a hard problem comes while you are away from the keyboard.
posted by zippy at 2:58 PM on March 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

Get those glasses that block out blue light and use them all day or at least into the afternoon and evening so it’s easier for you to fall asleep.

Overall melatonin gummies can mess with my quality of sleep but they do help me get to sleep. I think they can be particularly useful to help get you on a bedtime schedule (including weekends!). I like the gummies because sometime I just bit off/eat half of them
posted by raccoon409 at 3:02 PM on March 27, 2019

I’m in a pretty rigorous academic program (though nothing as intense as a boot camp!), and I’m older and grumpier and can’t do things other people in my program rely on like pulling allnighters, using energy drinks, skipping meals, etc. I do pretty well, and this is what I’ve found works:

- First, it sounds like you’re a big picture thinker, like me! I tend to feel like my understanding is pretty binary - either I completely understand the concept and how all of the details fit together, or I feel like I don’t understand anything all the little details won’t stick in my head and I’m going to fail (this isn’t true, but it feels that way). I know many people who are good at remembering details and bad at understanding why or how they fit together. It’s definitely a trade-off.
- If I need to remember a lot of details, what works for me is writing them over and over again instead of looking at them and thinking “yep, makes sense.” I have a whiteboard and I just write things out a few times a day. It’s not pretty but it gets it done.
- If I need to understand something, what works best for me is explaining (or pretending to explain) to someone else in very simple terms. If there are any parts that I suddenly realize are fuzzy, that’s what I need to go back and study. It sounds like your little test programs fill a similar role.
- One thing that’s really helpful for both your memory and morale is taking 10-20 minutes at the end of every day to go over what you did or learned, in as much detail as you like. It helps reinforce what you learned, helps you feel good about how much you did (as opposed to stress about how much more you need to do), and can also help you identify any lingering questions (“I worked on x but I don’t feel good about it, feels like I still don't understand y”)
- I do a lot of things you do that keep me sane - I walk to transit, take lots of stretching breaks, make sure I eat meals, don’t do any work after 8, make sure I’m in bed by 9:30 and getting enough sleep.

Honestly, it sounds like you’re doing really well and you should be proud of what you’ve done! You’re getting walks in, meal planning, cooking, and sleeping, which is really amazing. It’s also OK if you can’t keep that up forever. It’s stressful if you have to prioritize ALL the things (money, home-cooked food, healthy food, cleanliness, etc.), so remember it’s just a month and it’s OK to run up an Uber Eats bill and never do laundry and take too many naps.
posted by autolykos at 4:07 PM on March 27, 2019 [5 favorites]

If you try melatonin, start with a very low dose (like half a gummy) and do it on the weekend. You don't want to discover that you're one of the people who feel really groggy the day after taking it.

I'd also suggest high-protein snacks, like string cheese or almonds.
posted by belladonna at 4:08 PM on March 27, 2019

When I did a demanding coding program I chugged coffee, kept myself going on candy and diet coke, un-quit smoking, ate way more takeout and processed garbage than usual and got to sleep every night with a spliff. I'm not endorsing any of this behavior, but at some level of overwork, your health and fiscal responsibility are gonna have to suffer.
posted by noxperpetua at 5:26 PM on March 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

Are you getting enough protein and other brain foods? You need them! Cut off caffeine earlier that you are - there's no way to get the ramp down to sleep drinking it right up until 5pm. Can you alternate standing and sitting? Even if there aren't standing desks, doing reading or whatever you can where you aren't typing will help.

Do chair exercises and stretches. You want your blood moving.
posted by stoneweaver at 5:46 PM on March 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

I've been working hours like this lately and it sucks, quite frankly.

Regarding sleep, definitely cut out the screen time when you get close to bedtime. If you must, try a blue-light filter (I know my Samsung phone has one, not sure about other devices).

Melatonin works wonders, but use it strategically and start with a small dose. Take it only if you really need it, if you overuse it it's less effective. I travel a lot on top of working long hours (did I mention that I really hate my job?) and Melatonin has saved my sanity, makes jetlag & schedule adjustments far easier.

Also an aside - I'm not that familiar with coding bootcamps or the developer industry in general, but the hours seem a bit off. Are they trying to screen out the people with healthy work/life boundaries? My own situation is making me miserable but I'm sucking it up because it will improve for sure in the very near future (+ a golden handcuffs situation of sorts). Guess I'm just trying to say be careful not to allow yourself to be worked like this long-term, it's not substanable no matter how hard you try.
posted by photo guy at 6:13 PM on March 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

I'm back for one reason: the rewards are great if I pass. I'll have access to free education for three years, comparable to a good C.S. degree, with a curriculum I can work through at a reasonable pace.

Please take some time evaluate whether this is, in fact, a great reward. It certainly doesn't sound like it to me.
posted by Kwine at 10:52 PM on March 27, 2019

School philosophy: Golden handcuffs for sure. It's a trashfire of toxic silicon valley Work = Life bullshit. But I like my cohort and it won't be like this forever. They are screening for persistence and a "game the system" mentality. After I pass bootcamp it's 35h a week, at my leisure, with housing and two paid internships. I can do that. No days off or accommodations until then.

Crap choices: If I could I might? But, allergic to weed and cigs. Coffee, alcohol, nuts and sugar do bad things. Immune flare --> three weeks in bed. I'm a hothouse flower :(

Melatonin: I am of the groggy persuasion even on 0.3 mg!

Food/tea: I eat a big, high fat + protein breakfast. Meals are similar, more veg. Snacks like sweet potato chips, yogurt, larabars. Will add string cheese and low-sugar fruit. Can't get through slump without caff, I'll try cutting down and adding more movement?

Money: Tight budget, hence DIY.
posted by aw jeez at 12:30 AM on March 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

If tight budget requires you to diy this, my next suggestion is lean on your support network for things like laundry. Even if you only can enlist one friend to come over and fold clothes, that’s still better than having to do the whole thing yourself.

Next step, buy 6 five packs of inexpensive underwear and as many pairs of extra socks as you need to get to 30 ALL THE SAME. Order online for delivery, brick and mortar store might not have as many packs as you need. Also buy 10 or 15 inexpensive tee shirts. Go for thrift store half price stuff if there’s one on the way home, otherwise order with the socks and undies. Wash them all together now with the socks and underwear. You can wear each shirt 2 times before washing again if you’re not especially sweaty. If you are especially sweaty you still have some of your Before times clothes to alternate. Increase the number of garments for your bottom half accordingly. Congrats. You’ve solved laundry for the month.

If there exists even ONE microwave dinner that meets your dietary restrictions, buy a dozen or as many will ft in your freezer.

Once a week, eat something that feels special and celebratory. Take a few minutes to celebrate what you’ve accomplished each week.

Get a rubber duck or other avatar (rubber duck is ‘traditional’) to explain things to or ask questions of when you’re struggling.

If you get or give yourself manicure pedicure, schedule one for some point. Same with other ritualized home bathing things. Face masks. Foot peel. Put them on your calendar and do them. Order any needed supplies when you get the socks and underwear.
posted by bilabial at 5:42 AM on March 28, 2019

Are you in contact with anyone who’s actually made it to the other side of this weird hurdle and is living the dream now? Can you get a sense of whether that’s really 35 hours, or nominally 35 but actually usually some larger number? I would hate to see you jeopardize your health for a scam, and this just doesn’t smell right to me. (What happens to your output now? Is it really just coursework? Or is someone other than you making money from it?)
posted by eirias at 6:20 AM on March 28, 2019 [5 favorites]

Two other things I forgot to add that have helped me:

- I don't know if your budget allows for it, but outsource anything and everything. I pay for a cleaning service every other week, eat a lot of Wegman's heat-and-eat type meals to minimize prep time, and have paid for laundry service in the past. I pay a handyman for most home repairs/upkeep other than the most basic stuff. It's not the most economical, but makes my life way easier.

- Exercise to fight those mid-afternoon lulls, even a brief walk can help. A fitness tracker can help if you need motivation or just tend to forget.
posted by photo guy at 8:52 AM on March 28, 2019

I passed!! Thank you all for your great suggestions. You saved my sanity and my health :)

Here are the hacks that helped the most:
- I found a few microwave meals that worked with my dietary restrictions and ate mass quantities of yogurt, rotisserie chicken and frozen veggies. Added string cheese, jerky, dried apricots, celery and mini bell peppers for snacks.
- After my 30m nap in the afternoon I drank my last caffeine for the day and took a brisk walk.
- More stretches, squats and jumping jacks.
- Eye drops and regular focus breaks to fight screen glare.
- Bought 30 pairs of identical black socks online and got 10 cheap black t-shirts at a thrift store.
- I reviewed my progress every morning, got a little white board for drawing out problems and talked to my new rubber ducky friend!
- Drank valerian tea and wore a sleep mask and earplugs to bed. Diddly's relaxation techniques are amazing! I didn't fall asleep in two minutes flat but I did segue out of that wired/tired feeling much faster.
- I made Fridays my "celebration nights"... I ate a nice dinner out and watched some trash tv. Having something special to look forward to gave me the oomph to keep on!
posted by aw jeez at 9:42 PM on April 24, 2019 [4 favorites]

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