Nick Ang profile picture

Nick Ang

Don't do unhealthy work

It’s ok to be busy at work, but being overly engrossed is almost never worth it. Perhaps the only exception is when the deadline is the next day, or when you know that if you stopped, you would cut the tap and never experience the same flow again.

At the end of a short vacation four days ago, the family and I were in Hong Kong airport waiting for our flight home when Mei came up with an interesting business idea.

Because this weekend is significant to me (tomorrow I’m hosting an alumni event, and next Monday I start my 3 months long programming course), I found myself unable to focus. So I decided to let my mind roam free by doodling product ideas on my notebook for a while.

Not long into sketching I found myself in a completely different state of mind. Diagrams and arrows started appearing everywhere on the paper. It felt like flow, and it felt fun.

As I was sketching I was aware that even though the ideas were becoming more concrete as they went from untouchable neural matter to ink on paper, the real work hasn’t even started. Nevertheless I found myself feeling okay, even happy to know that fact. Real joy is derived from actual work, like writing programmes that do as they are designed to, and I haven’t even started!

The moment I felt that my sketches made some sense, I capped my pen and flipped open my Macbook, and started to write code. The plan was simple: write the programme in manageable chunks first and worry about integration later. This was my first time trying to make a pure-software project idea become reality and I wanted to go gradually and steadily and not miss any stops along the way.

But when I started to write my first HTML tags on Codepen, the world around me slowed, fading into a soft humdrum. Tag after tag, line after line, I checked the live preview window to see my project go from one box in the web browser to two coloured ones, and then to two clickable sections of the page that were properly positioned, and then to…

Programming is fascinating because the programmer can sit alone in a room and create something out of nothing but electricity and coffee. I may be romanticising it slightly here but today, though only briefly, I felt its whole beauty, and I’m mesmerised.

In fact I was so enthralled, so zoned out that I had completely forgotten to have lunch. Eating just didn’t occur to me. But being a creature of biology, I needed food to keep going. It was only at about 2pm when my body came abruptly to a halt that I remembered where I was and that I needed to eat.

I was home, but I didn’t eat until my body ceased to function. All but the most basic of my cognitive abilities were disabled.

Lucky for me, we had pastries lying around the house that we’d gotten from Hong Kong. I devoured three different types of pastries—for nutritional diversity—in less than five minutes and sat in my balcony mentally and physically paralysed. It took me half an hour to get back on my feet, literally, and that was after my cold sweat had evaporated.

Was it worth it, mistreating my body this way to get work done? I don’t know if a clear answer exists. For me though, today’s experience helped me see that my answer is ‘no’. It’s not worth starving to finish up work. To do good work requires a healthy body and a mind unrestrained by survival instincts.

Besides, I could have better spent that half an hour that I was zombified preparing a quick healthy meal, and probably with extra time left to work.

Nick Ang profile picture
Senior software engineer, dad, writer-thinker type. Big on learning something everyday and trying to have fun before the lights go out.
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