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Maybe you should do less “work”

Working in tech, I've observed developers who work as hard as possible when they don't need to. I’m here today to tell you that it's a bad idea and you shouldn't do it.

What do I mean by working as hard as possible? I mean someone who can finish all the work that is expected of them in less than the total time that they are meant to spend working and then asks for more, similar, work to do. I also mean someone who has no real sense of how much work is expected of them and then drives themself at an unsustainable pace trying to meet a standard which they can never meet because they already met it a long time ago and never realised and they are still worried about how others will perceive them and oops now they're burned out I guess.

I believe that:

  • you should try and figure out what expectations your colleagues and managers have of you. And also what you expect of yourself.
  • If you can meet these expectations in fewer hours than you are supposed to work, then you shouldn't just find more to do. Instead you should do something different.

How do you figure out what people expect of you?

If you haven’t been fired, and no one has taken you aside to ask about your performance, then probably you're meeting expectations. You can also look at what your peers are doing or you can just ask people how they perceive you. It's also probably good to exceed expectations instead of just meeting them. But in most tech companies this is probably easier than you think.

Why shouldn’t you spend as much time as possible doing 'work' work.

If you optimally fill your time at work doing 'work' work, then this means that you are likely:

  • Not developing other skills
  • Not building your network inside the company as well as you could
  • Probably working less efficiently than you could
  • Unable to respond to new or changing demands without working longer hours or stopping something else that you think you need to do. See the ongoing supply chain crisis for why you should have some slack in your system.

What should you do with the time that I’m suggesting you shouldn't spend doing more work?

You should try and spend your time in ways that will benefit you and your employer.

How you do this will vary a lot based on where you are in your career, what you value, and what your company values. If you're new in your career - then I think it makes sense to dedicate a good chunk of your time to learning and broadening your horizons. For example, at my first tech job, where I was a Frontend JavaScript developer, I spent about 20% of my time learning Haskell. This didn't offer any immediate value to me, or the company. But it got me outside of my box of frontend development, and I think generally made me fitter, smarter and more productive. You should choose to learn things that help you move towards the role that you want in the future.

If you're later in your career, and don't feel like there's anything you desperately need to learn - there might still be better ways to spend your time than just taking more tasks off a todo list. You should mentor more junior staff. You should use your experience and understanding to figure out what important things aren't being focused on. Sometimes you should just stare into space until you remember that everything is going to go catastrophically wrong once you record more than 4.29 billion events in that one table, I know five years ago we said it'll never happen and if it does, well we'll worry about it when we get to it, and anyway that's a good problem to have it means we're really racking up the users, so how about a game of table tennis.

Obviously I don't practise any of what I talk about here, and diligently ensure that I spend all my time at work delivering business value.


A Mind For Numbers contains a lot of useful ideas for how to work more effectively.

Dan Luu talking about reading books at work

Ex-pro magic the gathering player on slack, no not that Slack

Julia Evans talks about learning at work here.. I remembered reading something about spending time learning while working remotely because 'no one knows what I'm doing anyway', but now that I look it up, this article says a lot more, and I think covers everything I've said here but better. So I guess there was no reason to write this oh well. good bye


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