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John Carmack’s Deep Nights

Late Night Depth

I recently reread Masters of Doom — David Kushner’s entertaining (though cheesily dialogued) history of id Software.

Something new caught my attention this time through the book.

Kushner revealed that id’s ace coder, John Carmack, adopted an aggressive tactic to increase his effectiveness while working on his breakthrough Quake engine: Carmack, seeking a break from distraction, began to shift the start of his workday one hour at a time, until eventually he was starting his programming in the evening and finishing before dawn.

The uninterrupted depth provided by this odd habit allowed Carmack (with help from graphics guru Michael Abrash) to reinvent electronic entertainment with the first lightening fast, fully 3D PC game engine.

I mention this example because I think it supports my prediction that high impact computer programming will be one of the first places we start to see a major revolt from the standard knowledge work approach of spending most of your day tending inboxes and chat channels. For the Carmacks of the world, the value of what they can produce if left to operate at full cognitive capacity (Quake sold 1.8 million copies), far outweighs the inconveniences of them becoming hard to reach.

These initial revolts will be important — not because we will want to mimic the exact habits they produce, but because they’ll help spread the idea that how we work in the knowledge sector is much more flexible than we might currently imagine.

19 thoughts on “John Carmack’s Deep Nights”

  1. Just wondering if you’ve heard of “second sleep,” the practice of waking in the middle of the night for a few hours. Apparently, it was more popular in the 1700-1800’s. Wondering if this would be a alternative: rather than adjusting your entire sleep cycle, get a few productive hours in.

    Search Google with “second sleep 18th century” for a bunch of articles about it.

    • Second sleep is also known as preindustrial sleep and was common at a time when the sun governed our activities more than it does today, and people had to go to bed earlier to save on candles and lamps, and thus were more likely to be awake after a few hours before returning to sleep. (Necessity, not popularity.) I often use the preindustrial sleep pattern to knock off a few tasks between 2 and 3, or between 3 and 4. It’s wonderful to arise at 6 or 7 and find the day’s work partly done.

      • I have only read a few articles but I understand first sleep to be taking the edge off of physical exhaustion; people did not always go to bed at sunset as they enjoyed staying up, when not tired, for the same social reasons we do now as well as the ordinary ‘problems’ like being pre-occupied with something or being too bored to go to bed.

        Regardless, I enjoy reading in the middle of the night, but using a screen (my work) is too likely to prolong it and ruin the next day.

        I enjoyed reading Masters of Doom the first time and this article has prompted me to read it again. Other ‘study hacks’ of Carmack’s I liked were taking his Next cube and CS papers to a cheap motel, and only playing music when he was focusing and seeing how many CDs he could get through. It also mentions he lifted weights, which probably prevented some of the fatigue and chronic pain of prolonged sitting.

    • Great question,

      I’ve known about second sleep for a while. I read a really interesting article on it a few years back.

      I’ve been thinking seriously about it for a while now. Would love a couple of hours in the dark of night to spend time learning Coding, actually.

      A couple obvious benefits that spring to mind
      – It’s an explicit block of time you can use specifically for one important task
      – Almost no chance of distraction
      – You can plan your time before you go to bed so you know exactly what you’re doing with your time

  2. When I was in Grad school in the late 80’s, all the computer science and engineering majors worked through the night on weekdays in a massive room of terminals. I only discovered this when I arrived one morning bright and early to grab a station only to find groups of fellow students finishing up and looking ready for bed.

    They needed to take this schedule because bandwidth and computer capabilities were much greater at night while California slept. This became institutionalized as many computer related classes shifted to late afternoon and evening to accommodate this environment.

  3. Wonderful post! I remember how Carmack was described as laser focused in the book, being seemingly uninterrupted by office visitors, raging deathmatches by his teammates, heavy metal on speakers, and even pranks like trying to make Carmack take note of porn played at full volume on the office TV.

  4. Later he takes things further by fleeing from the disruptive office environment of the fast growing company into a hotel room to be able to work in peace and finish the game engine.

  5. I like this idea if it suits the individual. People vary on their sleep needs (how much and when). There are several people at my company who shred deep into the night. It’s like the elves that leave the exquisite shoes on the workbench for the next morning. I work much better early, so I enjoy taking up the work after the night owls have contributed. I have heard that night shift work does increase the injury rate, but judging from the output of the night owls, I can see the advantages.

  6. If you’re very good, there’s a similar solution that doesn’t require shifting your hours: Be militantly unresponsive. Many of the “genius” programmers I’ve known are rude or unresponsive at work, refuse to do most meetings, and won’t answer e-mail most of the time. Bump into them on a Saturday, though, and they’re likely to invite you home for dinner and/or video games late into the night. They’re using personality — instead of diurnal cycles — to create space for depth. Interesting.

  7. Hello Cal and everyone. I know there’s a long time you do not write here on blog about study tips, but I am desperate for help.

    I’ll have in four months one of the most important test/exam in my life. People that do well on this, start studying 10 or 11 months before the exam.

    I’m running out of time but want to do my best in this exam. But here’s my problem. I have a lack of theory knowledge on some subjects.

    What should I do in terms os study methods in this situation? Focus on theory or doing a lot of practice and trying to notice what kind of theory study i need?

    Sorry for this question and for my English mistakes( English is not my first language). But I’m really really really desperate for help. I’ll be thankful if someone answer

    • Jose, hello!

      That’s Albert, and I’m not here to give you a silver-buller method to solve all your problems. It’s like from your answers you’ve already figured out the situation and all what you need to do is read “DEEP WORK” and apply the strategies you’ve mentioned along with others you’ll find in the book.

      P.S. If you didn’t read it yet, of course.

  8. This game is a classics game, built and diversified in terms of image, the game is very unique, this is also a game that will be hot if there is a lot of creativity in the gameplay.


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