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I have spent my career working in the high-tech industry. The high-tech industry has provided me with steady work and great opportunities to grow and succeed for more than 20 years. During my career, one of the greatest struggles I've had is the management of my personal work-life balance. In this post I'm going to explain a few things I've done as part of effectively managing myself to achieve my desired work-life balance.
Work-life balance is almost a joke in many companies. Most of high-tech industry has set the work hours between 45 and 50 per week. I'm not talking about expected overtime. This 45-50 is the normal work week. Add on top of that the expectation of extra effort and you are finding yourself working 60 hour weeks.
Early in my career, I started out as a software engineer and then moved into project management. I remember one especially tough time in my career when, for a period of two years, I worked more than 60 hours per week. Sometimes I would work more than 40 hours in a row. The longest single working session was 68 hours without stopping.
As you can imagine this kind of workload was due to many factors that also increased my personal stress load. Eventually I had a 3 am panic attack at work.
This led to a recalibration of my work-life balance. In the re-calibration I did find a lot of relief from many of the factors that impacted project performance. I was relieved from much of my stress and I'm glad to say I've never had a repeat of the events that led to my panic attack.
The following are a set of rights and their corresponding boundaries I developed to help me avoid the kind of catastrophic issues that led to my sense of overwhelm at work. These boundaries evolved from many things but their core comes from the "Teflon Coating" I talked about in my blog post on Commitment and the Developer's Bill Of Rights identified by Steve McConnell in his book The Software Project Survival Guide. You can find them referenced in this article on the Tales of Agile Software Development blog.
These personal boundaries helped me in moving away from 60+ hour work weeks, the overwhelming feelings of inadequacy, and the failure to produce top quality work products. They are:
- It is expected that the project sponsors, customers, and leadership will set the project objectives and clarify priorities. -- Boundary: I will not work in an environment where objectives and priorities are not clear.
- It is expected that I will be given detailed descriptions in enough clarity for me to understand the products I am to create. -- Boundary: I will not work on tasks where the requirements and specifications are unclear to me.
- It is expected that I will be allowed to work with customers, managers, and other team members where the entire organization is held to the same project commitments. -- Boundary: I will not be held to project deadlines that are not shared by all of the team members, customers, and leadership team members.
- It is expected that I am allowed to work in a technically responsible way, so as not to be forced to implement the product until the design is completed. -- Boundary: I will not start coding before the design is completed.
- I will determine the effort and schedule estimates for any work I am to perform. -- Boundary: I will not be held to deadlines determined by estimates I did not create.
- I am allowed to accurately report my work effort so that the entire team can review the estimates and commitments during the execution of the project. -- Boundary #1: I will not work on projects where there is no allowed estimation error; Boundary #2: When additional requirements are revealed to me I will re-estimate my effort and update my estimate for completion.
- I will work in a productive environment free from frequent interruptions and distractions, especially during critical parts of the project. -- Boundary: I will not work if my environment is not conducive to effective work effort. Specifically, my environment should be clear of any distractions be they sights, sounds, or smells.
- My involvement in activities (training, meetings, etc..) that do not directly affect my work products will be minimal, and I will be supported in reducing effort on tasks that do not add value to the execution of my work, unless to do so would cause potential financial harm to the company. -- Boundary: I will not allow anyone to add additional work to my plate that is not scheduled into my normal work time.
- My teammates are responsible for holding their own boundaries and obtaining the levels of productivity they commit to. -- Boundary: I will not be held responsible for the lack of productivity or boundaries of others.
- When I am working on creating estimates, it’s my responsibility to ensure that I have thought through the entire problem I'm having presented to me, and to ensure that my estimates are accurate and complete to the best of my knowledge. -- Boundary: I will not commit to estimates that I do not believe I can complete.
- When my actual effort and schedule do not match my estimates I will notify the management of my project as soon as possible so they are aware and can take the appropriate action. -- Boundary: I will not act like I'm making effective progress when I am not.
- Progress towards any significant work effort is completed in manageable work tasks. I will decompose the project into a set of work products using an effective work methodology that allows me to finish visible and complete work products at least once every two weeks. -- Boundary: I will produce a solid work product that others can review and use at least as frequently as once every two weeks.
By implementing and holding to these boundaries I have found that two things happen:
- My efforts are more directed, focused, and effective. I achieve greater results for my efforts.
- With these boundaries I am taking responsibility of my work load and commitments.
This means that if I am having trouble maintaining a work-life balance, it is up to me to fix the problem, either by living by my boundaries, or by changing my commitments.
I know that as you read this you may have strong reactions as to why these boundaries are hard. You may feel that the company you work for won't allow you to hold them.
You have hundreds if not thousands of reasons to think that. I can only offer that, like you, I also felt that way. But by doing my best at holding my boundaries and taking ownership of the problems I face, I have transformed my experiences and found great relief from the anxiety that led me to a poor work-life balance.
Thank you so much for coming to read this post. I hope that you are feeling blessed, and your life is filled with hope.