Work/Life Balance in Tech

Hey! Keeping a healthy work/life balance has become an increasingly important topic and is something I really am passionate about, especially as so much of our time is spent sitting down, inside and in front of screens.
I’d love to find out how everyone keeps a healthy work/life balance? What activities or hobbies allow for deep thinking and processing? Do you have specific rules about when you’re online or available? What routines and rhythms do you keep to make sure you’re stayin’ alive!

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Work/life balance was never an issue for me until my last job.

The intrusion began with midnight software deployments. That was when it was usually discovered that someone had not thoroughly unit-tested their code and the bug had also somehow made it past integration testing. Trying to find and fix a bug in someone else’s code when bleary-eyed was the beginning of the unfun.

I wrote test scripts and thoroughly tested my code, but usually I was asked to help someone else (usually the same person, who didn’t use test scripts and never considered the bigger picture of how their changes might affect the code), who had so many bugs at the last minute before deployment that I had to bail them out on my own time to meet the deadline. That became vexing fast.

The real intrusion started with an off-hours on-call week every two-and-a-half months or so. A common reason for being woken up was in response to phone service going down at an office. Why the regular night staff couldn’t use their cell phones to call the phone company instead of calling me was never satisfactorily explained to me. It was felt they needed to wake up a programmer to do it. My seething began.

Next was introduced a week of help desk aka “hell desk” every five weeks. This was a week of working-hours on-call for responding to bugs in (usually someone else’s) code. At some point I learned that this culture was the result of something called “DevOps”, where support people don’t code but coders are expected to provide support. Resentment grew.

The final straw was a quarterly meeting which was scheduled during our lunch time. The last one I attended conflicted with my monthly lunch with submarine veterans. I was enraged that even my lunch time was subjected to arbitrary appropriation.

My way of dealing with it was to retire.

Nowadays, when I (or someone else) feels I’m spending too much time on the computer, I go for a walk, or read a book, or stream something, or play tennis, or go out to eat, or go out for a day trip, or take a nap.

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Work/life balance has been a constant struggle for me.

I think it’s partly because I get really sucked into what I’m doing, and it’s hard to step away from it (even if I step away and do other things, my mind tends to go back to whatever it is I’m working on). This can sometimes be exciting and energizing, but it can sometimes be unhealthy—not let work problems stay at work.

For me what has helped the most is picking up a hobby that has nothing to do with programming. It’s something that I get sucked into, but that never has any stressful bits to it because nobody is expecting anything from me, and I haven’t made any promises or even goals.

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Yes, I sometimes have a solution to a difficult problem come to me while doing some mundane task, or in a dream. Usually it is when I have stopped thinking about the problem. There is something to be said for concentrating on a problem, and then relaxing away from it. Sometimes both phases are needed.

My other hobby is writing poetry. Several of my poems have been published in literary magazines and online journals.

In one way it is different from programming, but in another way it is still about putting the right words in the right phrase (“the best words in the best order” as Coleridge defined poetry), which is very much what we try to do with code. The main difference is the emotional content is different in poetry than in code, even if the same control of expression is used.

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Even though I don’t strictly adhere to this advice myself, whenever it comes to work and life and the balance between those two, my one advice is:

you work to live, not live to work

Both enforced partially in law but moreso in culture, with an average workweek of 30 hours, and a high appreciation for “having a life outside work”, we started paying our employees a 40h/week salary for 32/h a week before COVID (and stuck with it). Productivity has not fallen.

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This is indeed a very Dutch way of looking at one’s work/life balance and I’ve always adhered to it quite strictly. Doing overtime is not something I enjoy and have only rarely done in my entire career. I love what I for work, but I also love so many things outside of work that I also love to engage in that I try to be strict about my number of hours worked. This has become more pressing with me becoming a dad a little over a year ago, as I both want to spend time with my son and protect any possible free time as well as I can.

In my career, I’ve only really worked for companies that respected this attitude (although not all approved). One of the few times where I struggled was with this voting application I had developed. Once every year, student elections were held at the university I was working for and during that time 10.000+ students used my application (website) to vote. And as students take these elections very serious (for many of them it is a way of showcasing their abilities), it meant that my boss and other managers also took it very seriously. They coaxed me into being standby 24/7 for a week, which I absolutely hated. My anxiety was compounded by the fact that there weren’t any other colleagues to help me out when things went sideways (which they did occasionally). I was really glad to move on to a different company where I got to share responsibilities.

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I am handling this the same way as Erik. I love my job and I am fully engaged during the hours I have in my employment contract but I rarely do overtime. I write down my working hours even if my employer does not require it so I know where I stand and can e.g. stop working earlier on Friday if I had some longer days before.

I never understood how this “only results matter, not hours” approach is supposed to work that some companies advertise. Imo this not playing out in favor of the employee. As a developer, there is usually always more work you could be doing, there is always another ticket on the backlog to be picked up etc. So let’s say I was super productive for 5h. Now who can say whether my work was potentially equivalent to what someone else would do in 8h. I wouldn’T know for sure so I would continue working for the remaining 2h. Then on the other hand, if I felt like I was below average productive that day, I would work more than 8h to get my result. In the end, I would end up working lots of overtime.
So for me, this “only results matter” approach doesn’t work and I stay away from companies with that attitude. I am doing my hours to the best of my ability each day and that’s it, that’s me fulfilling my end of the contract I have with the employer.

TLDR: My “one weird trick” for keeping a good work-life balance is to track working hours and stick to the amount in the contract.

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I’ve been wrestling with this topic for years, and have hesitated to share my thoughts here because I fear they might be seen as unrelatable, utter fantasy, or possibly even dangerous.

Admittedly, I haven’t quite figured out work, or life for that matter, largely because my neurodivergent mind actually struggles to distinguish between the two. What is work? What is life? Why must they be perpetually in conflict with each other?

Work is nothing more than engaging in some activity that benefits ourselves and others. It is fundamentally social and cooperative. It is the means by which we realize our potential and sustain our existence. I don’t think anyone would argue with that.

Here’s the unrelatable part: I seem to have a completely foreign concept of fun. For example, I don’t play games or watch movies. I don’t even pursue romantic relationships (sorry, Tinder). Most things that people enjoy I find tedious, and the things I enjoy… are the things “normal” people call work.

I wasn’t always like this. I grew up spending all my time making music, and resisted any form of academic activity. I dropped out of high school (college in UK terms) and was not interested in formal education. This began changing when I was in my twenties when I started studying Jewish philosophy, which led me to the sciences, like physics and mathematics. From that point on, I’ve been kind of making up for lost time - after so many years of just having fun, I wanted to better understand how things work and be able to engage in intelligent matters.

After stopping my Rabbinical studies in Israel, I returned to the states and decided to go to university, and majored in music. I could never really imagine doing anything else for a living. But after a few years, something changed and I felt a desire to use my brain more. I always loved science, so I studied mathematics, psychology, and finally computer science, which represented the final synthesis of all of my experiences. I realized that anything in the world can be expressed in code and written in applications that transform our lives in the most efficient way humans are capable of.

The remarkable thing about this realization is that for the first time in my life, I was immensely passionate about something that was not only a realistic occupation, but something that can be applied to any occupation. For this, I consider myself extremely lucky. Very few people ever discover something that they truly love that could earn them a good living.

So what happened to music? Well… I started writing a software music sequencer so I can write music in code. So I guess that’s my work-life balance. When my head starts to get too fuzzy on a project… I just switch to a different project! But I’m always coding, so I never quite step outside of “work”, or at least “work-adjacent” things. And I’d never want to, because I seem to have fused my entire identity into my productive output. The very concept of work is no longer adversarial.

This might sound like a fantasy, but it’s far from all figured out. Of course, to build a responsible, sustainable life there are going to have to be times that I spend doing things when I’d rather be doing something else. And this requires balance, the same way it applies to everyone. But even though I’ve struggled more than many people have to get here, I am incredibly fortunate to have somehow managed to avoid what nearly everyone begrudgingly accepts as an inevitable fact of life - that we have to spend a significant amount of time doing something that sucks.

I really wish this was a more common story.

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The saying is “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” So I totally get the blurring of work into life thing.

To Franziska’s point, I also recognize that work is one of life’s activities, and that you must sometimes defend the time for spending on other activities besides work, no matter how much you may enjoy the work.

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“If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.”

It’s really funny that you mention that quote, because I recently watched a talk in which somebody used it and iirc had some rather critical thoughts about it. But wouldn’t you know it… I can’t remember which talk it was, and this has been bothering me.

Hold on… I think… it might have been Jeremy!

Baruco 2013: Refactoring Your Productivity, by Jeremy Walker - YouTube

Edit: hmm… I guess it wasn’t, though the whole talk is highly relevant to this thread. But now… that means I have to keep searching :sweat_smile:

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I do this as well, I write down my hours and stick to them, but I’m in the unusual position that I basically have no meetings, so in theory I could spend all my time on programming. If I would work in an office / a bigger company I wouldn’t be able to write code all day, and being really focused for 5h on programming can be really draining for me. Right now I try to mix up my activities, doing some research / documentation / server administration in between, but it’s also hard for me to switch task once I’m dialed in on something. How would you folks handle this?

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