Category Archives: General

Two simple rules for managing my work life

I have two simple rules for managing my work life:

  • Don’t think about work after office hours
  • Ask why, and don’t be afraid to say no

As simple as these two rules are, they’re invaluable for maintaining some semblance of sanity and a reasonable work-life balance. These were my only two pieces of advice to a new employee, and I wish someone had told them to me.

Don’t think about work after office hours

It’s important to “check out” if you’re not actually supposed to be working. Weekends, vacations, sick days, whatever. Don’t give your time away for nothing, because that’s what your time will end up being worth: nothing.

When I first started at my current company, it didn’t take long to get sucked into the department culture of working all the time. Emails from managers at 3am on a Sunday weren’t uncommon. It was exhausting, and burnout was frequent. It’s not sustainable. You have to set boundaries.

Unless lives are literally depending on you, your work can wait. Once you leave the office (or finish your set work hours), turn it all off. Don’t check your email. Set your work phone to silent. Do whatever you have to do to switch work off and your personal time on.

Ask why, and don’t be afraid to say “no”

If you find yourself having to do something that you honestly believe provides no value to the company or your customers, don't just go with the flow and do it. Ask why it has to be done. Ask why it has to be done that way. What value does it add? Maybe there's a good answer, maybe not, but you won’t know unless you ask.

If you do get a valid answer that justifies the task, make sure you document the why, not just the how. If no one can reasonably justify the task, find a way to kill it.

Sometimes the reason is that someone with a sufficiently large paycheck said you have to do it, and there’s not much you can do about that. But you should still ask. As long as you’re genuinely concerned about quality, and not just trying to get out of work, eventually this will (or should) be respected.

The second part of this is the importance of learning to say no. Sometimes you have to stand your ground and tell people “no, I can’t do that right now”. An inability to say “no” will lead only to overwork, poor results and eventually burnout.

→ Basically: Work to support your life. Don't die to support your work.

Document the Why, not just the How

Documentation is important. Everyone knows this, everyone agrees with this, it’s not really a topic of debate. It’s important to have your processes written down in some format to make ongoing work easier. If Person X wins the lottery and promptly quits, never to be seen again, can their duties be picked up by someone else relatively quickly? If you have good documentation, hopefully the answer is yes.

Unfortunately, documentation is too often confined to the how of the work, and leaves out the why.

Sure, you can lay out a step-by-step process of how to do a given task. That’s easy. I’ve written a great deal of process documentation in the last several years, with the intent of making life just that much easier for the next guy who fills that role.

What’s too often lacking is an explanation of why something is set up the way it is, or why a process has to be done a particular way. Maybe there’s a lot of tribal knowledge in your organization that covers these questions, but until someone documents that, it’s essentially useless.

If we don’t explain why a decision was made that led to the current state, it becomes much harder to work towards something better. Maybe there was a significant problem discovered along the way that required doing it a particular way. Maybe it was a budget constraint or lack of available resources. Maybe it’s just that no one thought of doing it any other way and that’s the way it’s always been done.

If no one documents the reasons, you’re condemning the next person to re-invent the wheel, to catch Sisyphus’s boulder and roll it back up the mountain themselves.

// 
// Dear maintainer:
// 
// Once you are done trying to 'optimize' this routine,
// and have realized what a terrible mistake that was,
// please increment the following counter as a warning
// to the next guy:
// 
// total_hours_wasted_here = 35
// 

What is the best comment in source code you have ever encountered?” on stackoverflow, via the Internet Archive since the original thread was removed

I’ll be making an effort to include more of the why in my own documentation as part of my ongoing work, and for great justice the sake of your sanity and your successors, I’d encourage you to do the same.

It’s not easy to “check out” but you should do it anyway

Julie at Boelter + Lincoln writes:

Here I am on vacation in the Northwoods writing this blog. I will be on vacation all week and will check my email every day – several times. I will log in to check on client campaigns and meet deadlines that could probably wait a few days. I am not an on-call rescue person, I work in advertising. But we have been conditioned to be connected all the time. What if I miss something?

– Can you “check out”?

My rule is very simple: if I’m not in the office, I’m not working. Obvious exceptions apply: those days when I’m just sick enough to stay home rather than infecting everyone else but not sick enough to be bedridden, days when last night’s blizzard buried my car in three feet of snow, and so on. But otherwise: no office, no work.

When I leave at the end of the day, my work laptop gets turned off and put in its bag. I don’t have a corporate-issue cellphone, so there’s nothing to persistently ding with each incoming email. The laptop doesn’t come out of its bag until the next workday morning. Once I’m across the front lobby threshold and into the parking lot, it’s me time.

However… I recognize that there will occasionally be instances where something needs to get done outside of business hours. If that happens, someone has to contact me directly. There needs to be a phone call, or a text message, or – depending on who’s asking – a Twitter mention or message. It needs to be initiated by someone from work; I won’t be actively looking for something.

It’s simple, but actually quite effective. My boss is well aware of this policy – it was made quite clear my first day on the job. If you really need me to do something, no problem, but it’s not happening unless you get in touch directly. I’m checked out otherwise.