I've been thinking a lot lately about time - how to manage it better, how to track it, and how I spend it. The reality is that all time is "spent": it's a currency far more valuable than dollars, but it shares a similarity with money. A challenge I've faced myself, and heard from others, is managing time with regards to one's job.

It's all Work.

We all spend a lot of time at "work". Some of this is "deep work" - head down, headphones in, focused on a task and making long strides in short periods. Some, on the other hand, is "shallow work": catching up on communication & social media, necessary-but-unassigned office chores, waiting on compilers. It's easy to separate your day into deep and shallow bits, but the reality is that every minute you spend on job-related tasks, even the tangential, is a minute you're giving to your employer.

Of course, your employer has purchased a block of your time - but how much? There's a great two-part question to ask in an interview that can be very revealing. Here's a sample exchange to explain:

  • You: "What's the daily schedule here?"
  • Interviewer: "We work from nine to five. We really value our team's personal time."
  • You: "Cool, that sounds great! About how long did you work yesterday?"
  • Interviewer: "Oh, well there was a problem with some servers so I came in around 7 to help out and then ended up here a little late playing catch-up from all that..."

Boom. Gotcha. The first answer will almost always be a company line, and the second answer will almost always be honest - but it's not the answers you want to pay attention to, it's the difference between them!

A company that targets people with long hours to give will usually be up-front about this, and that's okay! Those sorts of offices can be great fits for people seeking to grow quickly and make a big difference fast. If, however, a company places value on strict hours but employees are working far beyond expected hours, that's a sign of misalignment - and a warning sign that other company values may be out-of-sync with reality.

Invest in yourself, don't donate to others.

One of the difficulties with time management in the development sector specifically is that many of us join this career track with a passion for the work. My history speaks to this - I was a hobby dev for 20 years, building side projects and running tutorials, before anyone paid me for it. I was incredulous that this could be a fulltime job when I first started, but I quickly found that once it became a job, I had a hard time stopping. Because coding had been my "free time' hobby for so long, I would start coding at work, and come home and continue, without considering my own mental health or how much time above and beyond what my employer was purchasing from me I was "donating".

Ultimately, that's what free overtime is - it's a donation to the company. If your hourly rate is $20, then every additional hour you work on a problem outside of business hours is a free donation of $20 to your employer.

It's okay if you're comfortable with that. Especially if you feel strongly about your company's mission, or you're on a team that works particularly well together, occasional donations of your time can be a great way to build camaraderie and invest in the company's goals. But it can quickly spiral out-of-hand when others are willing to take advantage of your donations, even considering them part of your regular expectations. It's important when choosing to donate time that you remain aware that it's a choice, and that you can choose to stop donating as you please.

If you struggle with separating your hobby from your job, consider this: it's far better to invest in yourself than it is to donate to your company. Instead of giving those hours directly to company tasks, why not work through a tutorial on a new topic, or read up on a subject you're hazy on? The time you spend investing in yourself will pay off as you grow faster, and your investments will still benefit your company as you bring those new skills to bear on increasingly challenging projects. Spending time building yourself is guaranteed to benefit EVERYONE - donating time to others will often only suit the beneficiary.

There's always more work

That's a crass headline there - it implies work should be taken for granted, which is definitely NOT the case. You're fortunate if someone values your skills enough to pay you for them! However, it's important to temper your gratitude for work with the realization that "work" is a never-ending task. Generally, someone who values your expertise enough to pay for it will also find as many ways as possible to benefit from their investment in you. If you're lucky, work will always be available to you - which is why your goal should b to grow and improve as a human, not to "finish" work. There's no finish line to hit!

There's a great set of rules I've found, often mistakenly attributed to former president of India APJ Abdul Kalam, regarding a healthy approach to work:

ALWAYS LEAVE OFFICE ON TIME

  • Work is a never-ending process. It can never be completed.
  • Interest of a client is important, so is your family.
  • If you fall in your life, neither your boss nor client will offer you a helping hand; your family and friends will.
  • Life is not only about work, office and client. There is more to life. You need time to socialize, entertain, relax and exercise. Don’t let life be meaningless.
  • A person who stays late at the office is not a hardworking person. Instead he/she is a fool who does not know how to manage work within the stipulated time. He/She is inefficient and incompetent in his work.
  • You did not study hard and struggle in life to become a machine.
  • If your boss forces you to work late, he/she may be ineffective and have a meaningless life too; so forward this to him/her.

While I don't agree with all the attitudes espoused in this list, I find it to be a tempering read when I'm planning my time, especially when in the midst of big projects. As a general workaholic, it's good to have a callous, no-nonsense alternative to keep my plans in perspective.

Your turn

I'd love to know how you manage your own time decisions - how do you balance your own growth with that of your team or company? Ping me on twitter or drop me a line - I'm always open to advice!