For powerlifters, overtraining generally involves training the same muscle group(s) at a higher than normal rate with the expectation that the increased training volume will result in increased strength gains. For game developers, crunching is typically a point in a project that requires developers to work extra hours to reach a milestone, the belief being that that the extra time put in will result in higher quantity and quality of work.
In my experience with both powerlifting and game development, the main factor in overtime having beneficial vs. negative results has been how far away the target result is; i.e., how long you are working overtime, and what you hope to accomplish by doing so. Our ability to cope with such overtime hinges heavily on the amount of time we have to recover from engaging in it. This recovery, whether or active (by, say, deep tissue massage or engaging in an unrelated interest) or passive (by relaxing on the couch or playing video games), can only work if those needing it are given the proper amount of time and resources to ALLOW it to work.
Personally, I’ve experienced both bad and good overtime.
I’ve overtrained my deadlift (by either training too frequently or using too much weight) to the point where I ruptured a disc in my back (multiple times), and I’ve crunched for 100 hours a week, 7 days a week, for 9 months straight (again, multiple times). Each time this occurred, I took a week off. Yes, A WEEK. For training, my ego took over- I felt invincible (and I surely could recover quickly, right?) For game dev, that’s what I was given for my efforts, and so that’s what I took. Plus, I was in a culture that required being present in order to thrive. In both cases, after that first week I went a little lighter on my weights and my hours for a few more weeks, but my true recovery period was only ONE WEEK.
I have also experienced good overtime. I've overtrained my deadlift and seen incredible gains by pushing myself on heavy days and taking a month away from the next heavy session. I've worked 50-60 hour weeks, with 5 (and rarely 6) days a week for no longer than 2 or 3 weeks to get a deliverable out the door, and have produced work that was higher quality and more rewarding, with no negative effect on my health or marriage.
What made the good overtime better than the bad?
After the bad overtime, I was done. I thought I had recovered enough, so when I tried to (physically and mentally) get back into both activities, I couldn’t. I was done, and wanted out. I considered quitting both powerlifting and game development after the last bad overtime experience with each.
In the case of the good overtime experiences, I was able to take the proper amount of time off that both my body and mind needed to recover not just AFTER the overtime, but DURING it. The work I put during these smaller pushes was of higher quality, more rewarding in the end, and most importantly, kept me engaged in I was doing and looking forward to getting back to it at full tilt as soon as I could.
It can be argued that if we want to be successful, we have to push ourselves harder than the average in our fields. It doesn’t, however, have to have a negative affect on the things we are passionate about. We’ve all read the reports, seen the opinion pieces, heard about EA Spouses and Kaos’ “thousand yard stare.” I’ve read articles on how overtraining has blown out knees, biceps, backs, and worse. Everyone universally agrees that too much overtime is bad- Bad for your health, bad for relationships, bad for studio morale, bad bad bad.
Overtime exists and it’s not going away. I’m not suggesting that it does. I’m not going to rant about crunch time ruining lives. I’m not going to claim that my life has been horribly affected by working overtime or training too hard.
I am, however, going to say this- we all need to manage it better.
I don’t mean that we need to plan better (we know), or avoid feature/exercise creep (we try), or never put in overtime (we will). I mean that we as individuals need to manage how we represent ourselves while working overtime. We need to be conscious of the fact that people who are interested in what we do (powerlifting, game development, insert-your-interest-here) are going to look at us as an example. They’ll see us doing stupid things in the gym or working 100 hours a week, and see us wearing both of those things like honor badges. They’ll see us tweeting about how we’re “crunching to make the game better for you, the consumer!”, or read our Facebook post about how we just totally killed a training session and can’t walk right now- but hey, "no pain no gain!"
Those people will enter our fields and expect that to be the norm, the right way to do things, and they will never question those methods until they too are burnt out. And that’s a damn shame, because we can prevent it. We can teach these newcomers a different lesson- to not make the mistakes that we did. We need to encourage them to come into our industries and change them for the better.
When all is said and done, people will only remember the 4-million-on-day-one sellers, and not the people who worked hard and sacrificed to get the game to that point. We’ll only remember the monster numbers that a powerlifter put up at Worlds, but we’ll never see the training that was put in to achieve that. So let’s take back that part. Let’s do it smarter. Let’s follow the Law of Diminishing Returns.