I recently read a post on social media about modern people who are always chasing themselves as they are always late. It also reminded me of what one of my first bosses told me. According to the mentioned post, we all live as if we were late all the time. We keep complaining that we have no time and wherever we are, whatever we are doing, we just keep thinking about the next thing to do. Therefore we are not present even in our own lives.
If we are always late then we are anxious all the time. Being late is vastly different from waiting for something. While the latter is often positive - oh, I’m waiting for meeting my partner at this nice restaurant - the former is always negative - oh, I’m late from that bloody restaurant and my partner will be pissed off once again!
I feel this too. I don’t have enough time. Neither at work nor in my personal life.
I have many ideas on what to do, but I simply don’t have enough time to implement them. By now, I reached the point where I don’t even have an idea how I could find significantly more time.
But is that normal?
There is the other idea that Béla told me, one of my first managers. He said that I should not worry about finishing all my tasks. There will be always more work at a corporation than time to finish it.
After 13 years of working for bigger companies, I’m sure that he was right. I don’t remember a case where I would have had to think for more than a few seconds to find another task.
But isn’t this stressful?
For many it is stressful because they think that they cannot stop, they should do whatever is lined up as soon as possible.
Personally, I don’t find this stressful at all.
Let me explain why.
First of all, I see it as a challenge and an opportunity to learn. If you have more work than time, you have to prioritize. Knowing how to prioritize is a valuable skill in all domains of your life. If you had more time than tasks, you’d not be able to learn this skill.
Secondly, people are greedy. Including stakeholders. They always want more and more and they often want it for less and less. You shouldn’t feel bad because you cannot satisfy greedy people’s ideas.
But it’s not all that negative. The excess of tasks does not only come because of greed, it’s also a sign of creativity and care. You and your team know how to improve the code, how to make your product better, hence you have a bigger backlog that needs prioritization. Then it’s up to the product owner/manager to decide on the priorities and up to the team to see how many tasks they can take. But rest assured there will be more tasks than you can take on.
How do I deal with it in my personal life?
In my own life, I’m both the product owner and the person who gets to implement the tasks. I have a chip in the game. I want to complete as many tasks as possible to get forward. I don’t have a boss who understands that one cannot get everything done.
Or to put it differently, I am the boss and I’m a demanding one - demanding towards myself.
Does this mean that I’m always unhappy with my results, with my progress? Not exactly, I’m usually happy with my progress, I always try to see how far I got and not how far I’m still from my goals. But at the same time, I find it frustrating that I cannot spend more time on things that I’d like to do.
Here is my biggest mental pain. I find it extremely difficult to accept that I have almost no personal time at all apart from the time that I allocate from my sleep time. I get up about 90 minutes earlier than the rest of the family and I try to stay up later than I would normally do to be able to spend time on writing, reading, and learning.
Then I also feel humbled and grateful that at least I can manage this. There are many single and probably non-single parents who have to use even these parts of the day to provide. To do the chores, to cook for the next day, and so on.
I try to think about Toni Morrison who as a divorced mother with 2 little kids and with a day job managed to write her first book in the late evenings.
I know that I’m in a very good situation even considering my free time, but it’s a hard job to remind myself about and accept that this is good. This is realistic.
How do I deal with it at work?
At work, I have understood what are realistic expectations and I do my best to live up to them. I understand that we cannot do everything and that we sell our time to our employer and we should do our best during the contracted time and stop when it ends.
It doesn’t mean it’s easy to stop. If you like your job, if you like what you’re doing, then it’s difficult to stop. Sometimes it’s difficult for me to stop, but I remind myself that there are other things in life. Actually, many other things that I cannot complete.
But that’s only one side of the story. The other side is that I regularly talk about what can be done, and how much I can do with my manager and/or with my peers so that we are on the same page. If I get a new task and I feel that it’s getting too much, I remind the manager or PO about it and I ask what should be deprioritized from the other tasks. I usually propose a few to choose from. Most of the management I’ve worked with understood this and picked something, sometimes the task once understood that it’s not so much important.
When it comes to the quantity of work, it’s worth keeping in mind two things.
- The average office worker spends around 3 hours a day at productive work
- 50% of the work is done by the square root of the total number of people who participate in the work
Try to aim to be somewhere in between the two groups. Even though the 3 hours might be higher in certain companies. I think it’s higher at Spotify, partly because you can survive with fewer meetings (most of the time), so you have more time to work.
At the same time, I think it’s not worth being in the other group. Those people are not paid that much better, but they work a lot more. I’d say that the value of extra work is diminishing.
It might seem ridiculous to think about these things, but it helps set both your goals and boundaries.
What’s the difference?
And that’s why most people feel stressed about their long list of tasks. Most of us are not clear on our boundaries and therefore we are uncomfortable saying no. Partly because we are afraid that by saying no, we might be dismissed and also because we see it as a personal failure.
Managing this is difficult. I cannot do it well in my private life. I essentially sleep less to be able to do a bit more, but at least I know my limits. I know what’s the point that if I bypass, I won’t be able to get up on time and I’ll feel shit the whole day. Even though I respect that in most cases, I don’t think I have enough sleep time.
Work is easier because I realise I don’t work for myself there. Don’t get me wrong. I put in a fair quality and quantity of work. I don’t think that I take advantage of the company or that the company takes advantage of me.
I don’t feel bad that I could still continue working, that I still have many to do at the end of the day. But
- if I work more, I won’t get paid more
- if I work more, it won’t make a big difference on the scale of the company
- if I work more, my family will feel it and it’ll have bad consequences for us.
The key is that you have to understand your limits and also to communicate those limits with your peers and your managers so that they won’t have false expectations towards you. This is so important. It’s better to get 10 units if you communicate 10 than get 15 if you set the expectation to 20. In the latter case, you’ll likely feel exhausted and disappointed. The others will simply be disappointed.
“I need good people not tonight, but also in a year. If you keep working like that, you’ll burn out. Please, go home now.” - This is what one of my former senior managers used to tell a colleague who always stayed late and worked overtime. He didn’t only care about the product, but also about the people. We loved him so much for a reason.
Today we discussed the relationship between available time and work to do. The latter is always more abundant than the former. If not, I think your job is at stake and you have other problems to focus on.
My advice is that don’t overwork and do not feel late or bad about the work lined up. It’s not your fault that there is more work than time. It’s natural at the companies. If you’re a developer and you’re stressed out because of this, you are probably not shielded enough and your product owner is not setting priorities well.
In your personal life, it’s more difficult to set the right boundaries and not to feel bad, but try to remind yourself about your professional approach and maybe you find some help and reassurance in that.
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