I Need to Stop Dreaming in Code

February 14, 2016

Ever since I started programming I’ve been dreaming in code. Talking to other programmers I quickly learned I was not alone. Initially, I embraced these dreams as signs of focus and dedication. I get a sense that other developers feel this way as well. I’ve come to realize these dreams are not healthy. They result in restless sleep and deprive my mind of the time it needs to be at rest. I want to trade logic and classes for rainbows and unicorns.

Why such analytical dreams?

It’s not a coincidence that “in the zone” or “wired in” is used to describe a programmer who is working. For most developers, it takes a block of undisturbed time to get focused and work on a problem. I’ve heard programming compared to building a glass house in your head. Every time you start working you need to construct a map of the environment and the steps you need to take to solve the problem. This process takes time, and if you get distracted or take a break the house falls down. This level of focus makes it difficult to step away or “unwire.” You might be physically away from your screen, but your mind is still consumed. Whatever your mind is consumed with will drive what you dream about.

This demand for large blocks of time to be productive is shared between writers, designers, developers, and all other makers. This results in what’s known as a makers schedule popularized by Paul Graham. This schedule often translates into working late since it is easier to find large chunks of solitary time at night than during the day. Programmers are notorious for being night owls, and I fall victim to this more often than I’d like. When you go from writing lines to laying down it is only natural that your brain is going to have trouble turning off.

These last two reasons are mostly out of your control if you are a programmer. However, I don’t believe these two factors are enough to elicit dreams of code. For me, the real trigger is the sense of urgency that I have for my work. As a startup founder there is a constant looming pressure to be moving and hitting the next milestone. This is what makes being an entrepreneur so exciting and fulfilling but also so consuming and defeating. This restlessness that I have during the day is what causes my restless sleep. I imagine I’m not the only one in this cycle.

What do these dreams mean?

Simple — I’m not living in balance. The fact that I can’t get out of work mode when sleeping tells me that I’m not getting out of it when I’m awake. It’s easy to fall trap to the fallacy that more hours will yield more results. As much as I enjoy my work it is still a means to an end. It is meant to enable other experiences that I hope for in my lifetime. This is something I frequently try to remind myself, however these dreams in code mean I’m not following through.

This article is dedicated to my future wife, Jackie, on the day when most people just get flowers :). She is a constant reminder of the balance I’m striving for in my life.

Ben Bartling

Ben Bartling

I'm an indie maker, full-stack developer, believer in product-led growth, and somewhat of a designer. I've been an entrepreneur my entire life. I built, grew, and sold my bootstrapped SaaS business – ZoomShift. I'm currently building my next venture and helping others do the same via Recurium. Reach out if I can help.

I write as a personal outlet, and I publish what may be helpful for others. I live in Milwaukee with my wife, son, and daughter on the way.

Feel free to contact me by email or on Twitter. 👋