Work/Life Balance

Work super hard…if you look at the maths, if someone is working 50 hours a week then you’ll get twice as much done over the course of a year by working 100 hours per week – Elon Musk

The other week was pretty tough. I wasn’t sleeping as well as I normally do. By Thursday afternoon, I was making some basic logical errors and I couldn’t understand how that could be happening. By Friday afternoon I felt completely wiped out. I was like the living dead.

I felt a lot better after just one full day completely off, but it got me thinking a lot more about work/life balance and how to get it right. Why is it, and how is it that some people are able to work brutal hours without any ill effects while others work half as many hours and quickly crash and burn?

Typically, my weekend involves watching a couple of Pluralsight courses, taking the assessments, reading tweets and a dozen or so blog posts, reading a few chapters of a programming book. I don’t think of this as working, per se, it’s just studying. However it is work related studying. It’s not putting the pedal to the metal, but it’s not taking the foot off the gas either. I think of it as cruise control and it most of the time it works well.

John Sonmez and Troy Hunt are a couple of examples of people who have achieved considerable success by working long into the night after a full working day over a long period. Both have managed it without major harm to their health or family life, and they both still look young. I have also heard many stories of very smart people falling ill either mentally and/or physically working much fewer hours than this.

“Stop running away from hard work and start embracing it.” – John Sonmez

I am frequently updating this post as I learn more. I want to collect all of the best advice for you. While I think a complete treatment of this subject requires several books, I am finding the key concepts are simple. This is probably the most important topic that I’ve ever blogged about so I’m determined to do it justice.

Update 19th July: I’ve since read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, 4 hour work week by Tim Ferris, Soft Skills by John Sonmez, The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield and How To Make Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. All of these books have helped in many ways and I recommend them.

There are a number of things that I’ve already learned that I want to share:

48 hour work limit

48 hours a week is the maximum usually allowed in the EU for health and safety reasons. If your employer wants you to work longer than that over a significant amount of time, then they need you to sign a disclaimer saying that you are happy with this. I have signed this disclaimer in the past, but it was not actually enforced. The employer may just be trying to cover themselves in the very unlikely event that they need to do this. However I recommend thinking very carefully before signing this. This law is in place for your own protection and I think it is a sensible one. I would only recommend signing a disclaimer under the following circumstances:

  • Your employer or potential employer is a startup that you’re super excited about
  • You 100% believe that you can help it become the next big thing and the chances of success are good
  • The deal involves stock options that will very well compensate you if things go well
  • You don’t have too many family commitments or other things in your life that you can’t sacrifice for the next couple of years or so.

“If you have the entrepreneurial spirit, are risk averse and adventurous, you have a gift. Don’t squander this gift by giving in to doubts. Come up with a scalable product that people will pay for, and sail on to success” – Roy Nicholus (sleep is for quitters)

Bare in mind that most startups fail. You need to weigh up the risk of working brutal hours for low pay and eventual crushing failure against the chance of earning fame and fortune by building the next hot company.

“I never took a day off in my twenties. Not one. And I’m still fanatical, but now I’m a little less fanatical.” – Bill Gates

The reason I think of startups differently is simply because its sometimes a necessary evil to make staff work very long hours because there isn’t enough money to hire more people. Its a race to find a scalable business model before the money runs out.

“Expecting people to work long hours is short-sighted, counter-productive, and potentially dangerous.” – PicardTips

If its not a startup, you should ask them why they are expecting such long hours from you? Find out what the expectations are and consider what is reasonable for you to commit to.

Mythical Man Month

Various forms of the mythical man month are still being perpetuated in and this can be dangerous. One person 100 hours work in a week will not produce twice as much work of the same quality as the work of two equally skilled professionals working well together for 50 hours a week, at least not for very long.

Its not just the number of hours

Sometimes it looks like people with great self-control aren’t working hard – but that’s because they’ve made it automatic. Their willpower occurs without them having to think about it – Angela Duckworth, University of Pennsylvania

The number of hours is only a small part of the equation. A major part of it is psychological, and there are a huge number of elements to this including:

  • How much are you enjoying what you are doing?
  • Are things going well or not?
  • How much pressure do you feel that you are you under?
  • Where does the pressure come from; is it external or internal, or both?
  • How do you deal with that pressure?
  • Are you taking on too much responsibility?
  • Is there anything that could be delegated?
  • Are you too hard on yourself?
  • Do you aim for perfection or just improvement?
  • Is any of your reasoning irrational. Virtually everyone is irrational in one way or another.
  • How do you feel about yourself when you fall short of your own expectations for yourself?

How would your priorities and decisions change if you could never retire? – Timothy Ferriss

Another part of it is diet and exercise. I find getting out of the house isn’t just good for relaxation, it also aids the creative process. A lot of ideas come to me while on a walk that I would probably never have otherwise. Taking time to reflect quietly can lead to the best solutions. I find working 45 hours in a week for an employer that goes smoothly and steadily is less tiring than working for 35 hours on a week when nothing is going smoothly.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket

With most success stories, you find that the entrepreneur had a number of different things on the go that didn’t interfere with each other too much. The 60 hours a week, or whatever it is, didn’t come just from the main job, but there were also a number of other interesting things that taught the entrepreneur important lessons. Working for yourself and your own deadlines is much less stressful than working for others. Have your own goals but give yourself enough freedom to be able to take a day off when you need it.

“The 40 hour work week arose from hundreds of workplace studies that demonstrated that as humans we have limited mental capital to devote to tasks before we deplete it.” – Volker

So in summary, I believe that everyone has their own point where work becomes too much for them, but I don’t think that limit is set in stone for anyone. If we can learn to understand what things are sapping our energy the most and eliminate as much of those things as possible, then we become more resilient to the effects of hard work. But we always need to take our health seriously, take care of ourselves and value our free time as much as our work time.

Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle

Also it’s important to be clear about what our goals are. There are diminishing returns in terms of high quality work, but with your employer there may also be diminishing financial returns. You might be better off Winning by losing

Further Reading

Maximum weekly working hours and opting out
Work Life Balance
Stop working so hard (Kyle Bragger makes some good points)
Bad advice: stop working so hard (there are a number of good comments at the bottom of this article, especially from Volker)
The importance of habits
Troy Hunt: How I Optimized My Life To Make My job Redundant

3 thoughts on “Work/Life Balance

  1. I never realized this before but it is actually quite similar to doing weight training sets – you can do high reps at first but the more sets you do the less reps you can do per set. Similarly in the morning its easy to go most of the morning without needing a break but by the end of the day its hard to maintain much concentration at all. Many times I have spent the last 15 minutes of the day trying to root out a bug to no avail despite great effort. The next morning I have spotted and fixed it within the first minute of sitting down!

  2. Pingback: The Software Craftsman Book Review | Zombie Code Kill

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