Work life balance isn’t just about hours posted on 08 April 2024

Growing as an engineer: Work life balance isn’t just about hours

There are often two misconceptions I hear about work life balance (WLB):

  • It only boils down to how many hours of work you pour into your job
  • There’s little you can do to improve it beside switching job

WLB is how well your professional life is balanced with your personal one. Having a strong and fulfilling personal life is part of the equation here but for this post I’ll focus on the professional side here – and some of the misunderstanding I see.

How many hours you work is not a good proxy for what WLB is in my opinion – what matters is more why you spend these extra hours. If you feel constrained to work long hours because you are pressured to deliver projects, this is not a great WLB. You can do a few things here to improve the situation

  • Set better expectations when deadlines are set – keep a buffer for unexpected issues. The reality is that you need this time to build proper software (e.g. to refactor some pieces for a better long term state).
  • Communicate early if you think you won’t meet the deadline and push them back. Most of the deadlines are arbitrary made – very few are hard ones that can’t be moved.

One more reason time spent at work is not a good proxy is that it doesn’t factor how difficult the work is. For software engineers, it mostly boils down to how good your infrastructure is/how much tech debt there is. No one really wants to work if they have to fight flaky tests to be able to merge their changes, wait weeks for their code to be deployed, or spend all their time playing politics. This is one of the many reasons cleaning tech debt and investing in infrastructure is important – it doesn’t just make your system correct, reliable and efficient, it also makes your engineering org happier/more efficient.

Similarly to the point made above, you can reduce stress incurred from your job and how difficult it is to disconnect:

  • Make sure your team can cover for you – spend the time to write documentation and teach them what you are working on
  • Make sure your system is reliable – I wrote about this in the past, but oncall rotations should be light. Being paged at night should be rare.

What other advice/tips do you have to improve your work life balance?

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