Finding the Time: Perspective

So I'm writing this series of blog posts based on a short talk I gave at C4[3] to people interested in becoming independent Mac/iPhone developers or in improving their practice in that area.

"Someone else" pseudonymously left a comment on the first article, which I think is genuinely important:

"Dont you think that working all day and then getting your kids to bed at 7, and then working till 12 would seem just as futile, to someone other than yourself, as sitting watching the tv or surfing the internet or on a console. Surely a balanced life is the key. I know that what your saying is hypothetical really but it seems a little strange to have an opinion on what people do with their free time espicially if they are not using it to sin. I suppose someone else could put it like this if they wanted "And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it reading clay shirky". ps. that wasn't a dig i promise just trying to emphasise the point that we all have opposing views."

Perfectly valid point to make. Perfectly valid. This comment reminds me that I haven't really set the scene for this series. Let me do that now.

I was speaking to people who are or want to be independent software developers. Many of these people are trapped in jobs they don't particularly like because of the inertia of the family-oriented consumer lifestyles we all lead these days.

The first thing you need to understand, coming to this blog out of context, is that I am absolutely not advocating the behaviours I describe as a path to a happy, relaxed, broadly-based lifestyle.

A dinner conversation with Mike Lee brought this home to me. Mike made the observation that software development is quite possibly the psychologically worst job in the developed world. Think about it: long hours, often alone, working on problems of hellish complexity that are probably beyond the capacity of the human mind to solve.

When you've spent ninety hours on a two-character fix, there are two kinds of personality that come through. The first says "That was agonising and pointless", the second says "That was great! What's next?".

Depending on which side of Mike's observation you land on, your response to what I'm writing here is probably similar. Why on earth would you deny yourself TV? Why not play computer games?

The answer, for me, is because I'm compelled elsewhere. I'm a workaholic with a family that I love and what I'm presenting here are some of the tips I've developed to get that work done and spend time with my family.

You're all very welcome to argue that you prefer to do something else with your time, but I strongly argue that you're not going to transition out of your current job and into indie software development without at least some of the focus and sacrifice that I'm writing about here.

Finding the Time, Part 1: No TV, No Console

This post is part of an elaboration of my C4 blitz talk, "Finding the Time".

Everything I could say on this topic has probably already been said by Clay Shirky in his brilliant speech and then essay entitled "Gin, Television and Social Surplus".

I was recently reminded of some reading I did in college, way back in the last century, by a British historian arguing that the critical technology, for the early phase of the industrial revolution, was gin.

The transformation from rural to urban life was so sudden, and so wrenching, that the only thing society could do to manage was to drink itself into a stupor for a generation. The stories from that era are amazing-- there were gin pushcarts working their way through the streets of London.

And it wasn't until society woke up from that collective bender that we actually started to get the institutional structures that we associate with the industrial revolution today. Things like public libraries and museums, increasingly broad education for children, elected leaders--a lot of things we like--didn't happen until having all of those people together stopped seeming like a crisis and started seeming like an asset.

It wasn't until people started thinking of this as a vast civic surplus, one they could design for rather than just dissipate, that we started to get what we think of now as an industrial society.

_If I had to pick the critical technology for the 20th century, the bit of social lubricant without which the wheels would've come off the whole enterprise, I'd say it was the sitcom. Starting with the Second World War a whole series of things happened--rising GDP per capita, rising educational attainment, rising life expectancy and, critically, a rising number of people who were working five-day work weeks. For the first time, society forced onto an enormous number of its citizens the requirement to manage something they had never had to manage before--free time. _

And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it watching TV.

That's where my first observation comes from: kill your TV.

Now, I'm not saying that I never watch any moving pictures. I get tired like the next guy and I occasionally need to let my brain rot for a while. What I do not do is take the attitude that evenings are, by default, for entertainment. Evenings are sometimes for entertainment, but sometimes they're for work too.

Think about it. Even if you have young children as I do, you still have 7pm through till midnight every day. That's five hours of working time. Twenty five hours in the course of a working week. Don't tell me you can't do some damage in a day a week.

The question, as with many things, is how much do you want it.