Productivity and Balance

Balance enhances productivity. When balance tanks, so does productivity eventually.

Oct. 29, 2020

Story time

Some years ago, I was working on a project that turned into a death march. What originated with unclear scope and lack of up-front design turned into an extended sprint. I was relatively new in my career and felt that working extra hours was the best way to handle the problem. After a couple weeks, things had deteriorated. One Saturday, after weeks of overtime, I headed into work. I had pushed changes the day before and needed to verify that the new code hadn’t broken anything in the nightly build. I still remember the feeling of jittery dread that I might find out I needed to fix one more thing. Luckily, that Saturday was near the end of that release cycle, and I soon moved on to another project.

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there. In addition to the mental and emotional strain, the extended overtime took a toll on my productivity and my code. I accrued more technical debt during that 2-month stretch than I have at any other point in my career. A couple years later, I was still paying the price for the technical decisions made -- decisions made due to a lack of forethought and design, and due to looming deadlines.

Contrast that with a different project a year later. I was given a longer timeframe and had less pressure. I worked normal hours with little stress. The code I produced during that time is some of the best code I’ve ever written. My passion for the project was strong. And I improved my craft more during that 2-month period than any other 2 months in my career thus far.


We are engineers. But we are also human beings with a finite amount of time, energy, and sanity.

Burnout is real. After extended periods of pushing your body and mind past its optimal speed, your productivity tanks. You make poor decisions. You have difficulty seeing how to pull yourself out of the rut. And more importantly, your non-work life suffers as well, as you spend less time focusing on family, health, hobbies, and other obligations. Even after the pressure is past, you find yourself struggling to be productive for a while. How do you get out of this rut? And more importantly, how do you avoid getting in that rut to begin with?

Protect non-work life

How can burnout (and extended sprinting) be avoided? I believe in the adage “A place for everything, and everything in its place”. Work has a place, but also needs to be put (and kept) in its place.

One of the best ways I know for maintaining balance and productivity is to have clear boundaries between work and personal life. When you are off the clock, be off the clock. Protect your off-work hours from workplace intrusions such as email and instant messaging (and don’t send messages to coworkers that could wait for the following morning or workweek). Unless there is an urgent/important need to bring a ship into the harbor, don’t stay past your normal going-home time.

This isn’t to say that springing loose in the middle of a task at exactly 5:01 PM is a must. Some of my happiest work memories are when I look up and it’s later than I thought, or when I stay a little longer to finish a compelling task. But the question is how often and how long the staying-late happens for, and for what reason. If I’m staying late by 30 minutes occasionally to finish up an exciting task, or to have an insightful conversation with a coworker, that’s a lot different than working long hours, day after day, to chip away at a mammoth project that’s behind schedule.

Another way to protect balance is by setting a precedent through actions that you value work-life balance. If you typically push code or answer email late into the evening, coworkers are likely to expect that you will be online and available during that time in the future and they will rely on you then. This isn’t to say that urgent work should be turned down when help is needed, just that habits send a message to others about your availability outside of working hours.

With many working from home during the current COVID-19 pandemic, work-life balance can be more challenging to strike. I’ve been fortunate to have a room to myself where I can work with few interruptions, which I leave after finishing the workday and which I generally avoid until resuming work the following morning.

Challenges to work-life balance

Here are my thoughts on a few challenges to protecting time off-work, and some possible ways to address them:

Make work focused

On the flip side, “A place for everything, and everything in its place” applies to work as well. As stated in The Art of Agile Development (by Shore and Warden), “If quality time off is the yin of energized work, focused work is the yang” (I recommend that book’s entire section on Energized Work). Balance makes work more productive. I find I am the most productive when I’ve had a weekend to relax, refresh, and regroup. Or the day after a fun outing, or the morning after reading a really interesting book. How do you protect your work environment so you are able to make the most of your time?

Do what you can to foster focus in your workday. Good software is not written in an interrupt-driven environment. Take time to be fully disconnected from the rest of the world, and even the rest of your team, where feasible. I try to set aside a few hours each day to close down email, put my work IM into “do not disturb” mode, and crank things out. I come up for air every once in a while to make sure no-one has pinged me with something urgent. So far this has worked well, though I’m not high enough up on the org chart to get pulled into lots of meetings anyway. I’ve thought of having ”office hours” where I ask/field questions, do code reviews, etc at a set time as a way to balance the “head down, headphones in” part of my day. I find that time directly before/after recurring meetings (like a daily standup) is a good time to make myself available (and ping others) since there’s less chance of throwing people off their groove.

Not all coworkers appreciate or understand the importance of flow-based work, either because they haven’t discovered it for themselves, or because their role and tasks are more interrupt-driven. Sometimes it takes some clear, friendly communication to get the point across that you need to focus or that non-blocking/non-urgent things need to wait until later (end of day, or the next standup) to be addressed.

In closing

Work is important, fulfilling, challenging, rewarding, and a structured way to contribute to society. But it’s only meant to be part of life, and life is too short to be one-dimensional. Be sure to make (and protect) time for the things that stick around after your career has finished -- family, friends, health, hobbies, etc.