Surviving Crunch Time

From ‘Avalanche’ – Zoic Studios/Jeep Wrangler. I often feel like this.

In games, in tech, in many professions, there’s the idea of “crunch time,” where you need to work a considerable amount of overtime in order to make deadlines, where you feel like you’re racing against an avalanche of work and struggling to keep from being buried worse than you currently at. In tabletop games, there’s even a season for it: the lead-up to Gen Con. I’ve been dealing with crunches in games and tech for several years, and have some tips for getting through crunch time — mainly from the freelancer perspective, but there’s stuff here that’s generally applicable.

Before I start on the list, let’s be clear about something: Crunch working is never good. It’s not “free” productivity. It’s borrowing productivity from near-future you, and at an unfavorable exchange rate. You won’t do your best work during it, and you’ll have a crash at the end (if not before).

(Caveat regarding the forthcoming advice: I’m not a doctor. I’m just someone who has done this a few times in different fields.)

First off, sleep! There will be the temptation to constantly “burn the midnight oil,” and in fact American work culture has taken that idea to be a positive virtue. Avoid that as much as possible! Not only will sleeping keep you sharp during your work day, it’ll also help stave off mood swings, emotional breakdowns, and other signs of psychological stress. That will lead to bad decisions and poorer health. (Personally, I’m going to start taking melatonin in order to help get myself to sleep, especially on those nights where stress from crunch season will otherwise keep me up.)

It generally helps if you put some distance between work and sleep, both physically (in that working where you sleep is frequently cited as an unhealthy situation) and time-wise (in that giving yourself time to wind down before going to bed will make your chances of sleep better–at least it does for me).

Also, f.lux is a godsend. It’s software for OS X & Windows that shifts the color of your monitor in tune with the sunset, and many use it to help them get to sleep after a long day of staring at the screen.

Structure your day and week with to-do lists. There are many different ideas on how to do that. When I’m freelancing on the nights and weekends, I write a to-do list that fits in the time I have, and write down how much time I’m going to spend on the project and what my goal hopefully is. I then check things off as I accomplish them. Specific tips here:

  • Make them as checklists. Feel the joy of checking them off.
  • Rank them by priority. And no, there are  no multiple “number-one priorities,” no matter what crap people try to shovel you.
  • Significantly large tasks should be broken up into subtasks. If something can’t be, then break it up in units of time, like:
    • [_] Write character creation chapter (90 minutes)
    • [_] Write character creation chapter (90 minutes)
    • [_] Write character creation chapter (90 minutes)
    • And add more as needed.

Go outside. Leave your home and office. Anything from going to a coffee shop for a couple hours to taking a notebook to a park, leaving your home or office can do wonders in short-term morale. This is especially true of the weather is nice (whatever you consider “nice” to be). By leaving the house, it also gives some more structure to the day, rather than feeling like a massive dozen-hour blob of potential work time.

Take days (or half-days) off, deliberately. Build time for yourself into your schedule. If you don’t, you’ll find that your body and mind will eventually have different plans, and you’ll have an “unscheduled crash” during a really bad time. Time off also makes your work better and staves off some of the longer-term effects of stress.

Related, leaving the house is not a reward! Taking time off is not a reward! Many people treat acts of self-health as “rewards” for dealing with a work slog, and doing that is part of the problem. Often, getting away from a slog for a short time gives your mind the space to chew on a problem. More importantly, self-care cannot be seen as a reward for work done, because then it turns those moments where you have to do self-care into moments of guilt that you “didn’t get enough done to deserve it.”

Communicate! Talk with the people you’re working with and for about the crunch and expectations. Yes, communicating non-good news can be scary, but that’s also an important responsibility. It’s far better to explain a situation before it becomes a problem than afterward. Plus, those people have their own crunch and situations to deal with. (I’m personally a bit bad at this at times, as it’s a massive anxiety spike that I attempt to remedy by foolish acts of overcommitting…which just exasperates the problem. It’s something I work on every year, and in fact have reminders for.)

Accept project triage. Sometimes, you’ll have to postpone or cancel a project because you cannot reasonably fit it into your crunch time. Just today, I cancelled on one and told another that I can pick the project back up after crunch. This is all a part of knowing and respecting your limitations. Yes, I know that there’s guilt in throwing in the towel or disappointing others, but this is far better than holding to the project and turning in something half-done or half-good when that’s not what you were hired for.

Avoid working through meals. Use meals as a time away from working, when you can. It’s a huge temptation to each lunch at your desk and be relentless in your pursuit of crunch, but breaks for lunch and dinner are good moments to rest your mind. Not only that, but taking the moment to sit and enjoy food gives you something to focus on that isn’t the job.

If you’re an at-home freelancer, try the buddy system. Find other people to work nearby, such as gathering at a coffee shop or someone’s home, and use that your together to focus on working. (Though, I’d avoid doing this with people you’re directly working with or for, if you’re going to work on a variety of projects for various clients. It can feel like a weird pressure to work solely on what someone else physically nearby needs you to, regardless of your own priority list.) For couples who freelance, this is probably something you’re already doing; Lillian Cohen-Moore and I do this on the weekends.

For those who work in publishing and where word counts are your metrics, all words are not equal. Some me, writing 1000 words on a blog post like this isn’t the same as writing 1000 words on system mechanics versus 1000 words on stat blocks versus 1000 words on individual character options, etc. Beware of setting your metrics for getting work done entirely by word count, because the time and energy investment will vary wildly, whether that’s writing, editing, layout, whatever.

Last on my list is to give yourself permission to work on something fun. That can recharge the batteries — I tinker with completely unrelated games as a way to unwind my mind. Be careful, though, as fun projects can become stressors after a certain point, once it takes effort to get progress done. At that point, shelve the game for the future, because working on it will become a liability as it drains from the same batteries that your crunch work uses.


Those of you who have survived your share of crunches, what advice would you give?

– Ryan

[Image from Zoic Studios’ Jeep Wrangler ad. I so often feel like that during crunch time.]

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8 Responses to Surviving Crunch Time

  1. Jobe says:

    Good advice. I’m crunching hard right now leading up to Garycon. Another deadline looms as soon as I get back too. My usual crunch time routine is going to bed as soon as possible (8PM-sh) and wake up at 2:30AM to write until its time to go to work. I don’t get tired until end of day at work, but seriously – fuck work. Those people are trying to kill me.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I hear you. You know those people who say “Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life?” Those people have never done crunch. Even what you love gets brutal then.

      – Ryan

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Also, you’re not the only person to talk about shifting freelance work hours into the morning. I do a little bit of that myself, getting in around 30 minutes before I go to work on days where I’m not carpooling. Still, that’s a far cry from the complete shift you’ve got. Admittedly, I’m impressed. Also, I wish you strength and speed, yo.

      – Ryan

  2. Matt Troedson says:

    I would stress being gentle with your self. Looking out for your own health is not a sign of weakness but a sign of awareness and strength. When everyone around you is working 16+ hour days and you need to go home and sleep, don’t kick yourself for leaving them.

    That said, try to be gentle with them, too. I wouldn’t say that you’d have to walk on eggshells, but remember you’re all in the same boat and it doesn’t help to add to their stress.

  3. Ryan Macklin says:

    Levi Miles on Twitter also said that this is good advice for college crunch time. It’s been so long since college that I totally didn’t think of that. :D

  4. Jaym Gates says:

    Healthy food, and hydration! This is something I’m really bad about. The temptation is to just throw something in the microwave so you can eat as fast as possible, but the taste and nutrition are lacking.

    I’ve been on crunch time since November, unexpectedly, and the best thing for me is to plan out a menu ahead of time, and focus on stuff that I can make in half an hour. If possible, I’ll make some extra of the basics that can be combined for healthy lunches the next couple of days. Stuff like rice, noodles, meat, sweet potatoes, vegetable, beans, rich soups, stuff that’s tasty and comforting, but also has the right nutrients.

    Taking time to package everything into meal-sized containers also helps a lot, keeps me from overeating.

    I also try to drink tea instead of coffee, and keep water bottles by my desk. (The water around here frequently tastes AWFUL, with overtones of fertilizer, even with filtration.)

    Varying work space, and taking short breaks between to-do lists helps, too, I’ve found.

  5. blackcoat says:

    Note: All of mine if from the tech world, not the creative world. How helpful it is for creative work, I don’t know.

    A method I”ve found useful is to project swap every couple of tasks [1] Or, if that’s not available, to context swap within the project. So I’ll work on project A until I’ve finished say, writing unit tests for a section of it, then either move on to project B, or move on to writing new models, or deployment or even writing documentation. Just so that I’m working a different part of my brain.

    This can even work in small chunks, so if I have say, 8 of those “write unit test, 90min” tasks, I”ll do one, then a 15 minute other task, then go back and do another one.

    Do not over caffinate.[2] Not only does it make sleeping hard at night, but means that you have get up more often to pee, and intteruption can mean losing the thread on what you were working on.

    I’ve also found that, when sitting down to work for extended stretches, having a small dense snack helps. (I fill a big mug with dried fruit and nuts) This really helps with the “Oh shit, it’s 3pm and I forgot to eat lunch, no wonder I’ve been struggling with this simple problem for the last hour” problem.

    I second work groups. Make sure that your group is cool with you asking the occasional question (And be okay with them asking you!). Even if they don’t have an answer, (or you can’t give them enough context to help, due to NDA) you framing the question will often give you enough context to solve the problem yourself.

    [1] This assumes that they’re all on track to get finished ontime. YMMV

    [2] The level of “over” is personal.

  6. Jeff Cales says:

    Great article. I try to use most of these as it is. Currently working on three different board games to launch at different times on crowdfunding sites while working a regular career isn’t easy.

    I especially like the “Give yourself permission to work on something fun”

    I work as a motion graphics artists at a local news station. We have a “crunch” called Seeps. This happens four times a year, and for my department, it runs for at least five weeks. We still use the Nielson ratings system, and yes it’s a terribly outdated metrics system. I stopped staying late and working extra hard. I just found ways to work more efficiently to achieve the same results. I was tired of working 14 hour days for five weeks in a row,

    Hence, the in progress plans to start a new game publishing company… as if we need another. LOL