Less stress, more productivity: why working fewer hours is better for you and your employer

Update: This post got to #1 on Hacker News and the /r/programming subreddit, and had over 40,000 views. Given that level of interest in the subject I've decided to write The Programmer's Guide to a Sane Workweek.

There's always too much work to be done on software projects, too many features to implement, too many bugs to fix. Some days you're just not going through the backlog fast enough, you're not producing enough code, and it's taking too long to fix a seemingly-impossible bug. And to make things worse you're wasting time in pointless meetings instead of getting work done.

Once it gets bad enough you can find yourself always scrambling, working overtime just to keep up. Pretty soon it's just expected, and you need to be available to answer emails at all hours even when there are no emergencies. You're tired and burnt out and there's still just as much work as before.

The real solution is not working even harder or even longer, but rather the complete opposite: working fewer hours.

Some caveats first:

  • The more experienced you are the better this will work. If this is your first year working after school you may need to just deal with it until you can find a better job, which you should do ASAP.
  • Working fewer hours is effectively a new deal you are negotiating with your employer. If you're living from paycheck to paycheck you have no negotiating leverage, so the first thing you need to do is make sure you have some savings in the bank.

Fewer hours, more productivity

Why does working longer hours not improve the situation? Because working longer makes you less productive at the same time that it encourages bad practices by your boss. Working fewer hours does the opposite.

1. A shorter work-week improves your ability to focus

As I've discussed before, working while tired is counter-productive. It takes longer and longer to solve problems, and you very quickly hit the point of diminishing returns. And working consistently for long hours is even worse for your mental focus, since you will quickly burn out.

Long hours: "It's 5 o'clock and I should be done with work, but I just need to finish this problem, just one more try," you tell yourself. But being tired it actually takes you another three hours to solve. The next day you go to work tired and unfocused.

Shorter hours: "It's 5 o'clock and I wish I had this fixed, but I guess I'll try tomorrow morning." The next morning, refreshed, you solve the problem in 10 minutes.

2. A shorter work-week promotes smarter solutions

Working longer hours encourages bad programming habits: you start thinking that the way to solve problems is just forcing yourself to get through the work. But programming is all about automation, about building abstractions to reduce work. Often you can get huge reductions in effort by figuring out a better way to implement an API, or that a particular piece of functionality is not actually necessary.

Let's imagine your boss hands you a task that must ship to your customer in 2 weeks. And you estimate that optimistically it will take you 3 weeks to implement.

Long hours: "This needs to ship in two weeks, but I think it's 120 hours to complete... so I guess I'm working evenings and weekends again." You end up even more burnt out, and probably the feature will still ship late.

Shorter hours: "I've got two weeks, but this is way too much work. What can I do to reduce the scope? Guess I'll spend a couple hours thinking about it."

And soon: "Oh, if I do this restructuring I can get 80% of the feature done in one week, and that'll probably keep the customer happy until I finish the rest. And even if I underestimated I've still got the second week to get that part done."

3. A shorter work-week discourages bad management practices

If your response to any issue is to work longer hours you are encouraging bad management practices. You are effectively telling your manager that your time is not valuable, and that they need not prioritize accordingly.

Long hours: If your manager isn't sure whether you should go to a meeting, they might tell themselves that "it might waste an hour of time, but they'll just work an extra hour in the evening to make it up." If your manager can't decide between two features, they'll just hand you both instead of making a hard decision.

Shorter hours: With shorter hours your time becomes more scarce and valuable. If your manager is at all reasonable less important meetings will get skipped and more important features will be prioritized.

Getting to fewer hours

A short work-week mean different things to different people. One programmer I know made clear when she started a job at a startup that she worked 40-45 hours a week and that's it. Everyone else worked much longer hours, but that was her personal limit. Personally I have negotiated a 35-hour work week.

Whatever the number that makes sense to you, the key is to clearly explain your limits and then stick to them. Tell you manager "I am going to be working a 40-hour work week, unless it's a real emergency." Once you've explained your limits you need to stick to them: no answering emails after hours, no agreeing to do just one little thing on the weekend.

And then you need to prove yourself by still being productive, and making sure that when you are working you are working. Spending a couple hours a day at work watching cat videos probably won't go well with shorter hours.

There are companies where this won't fly, of course, where management is so bad or norms are so out of whack that even a 40-hour work week by a productive team member won't be acceptable. In those cases you need to look for a new job, and as part of the interview figure out the work culture and project management practices of prospective employers. Do people work short hours or long hours? Is everything always on fire or do projects get delivered on time?

Whether you're negotiating your hours at your existing job or at a new job, you'll do better the more experienced and skilled of a programmer you are. If you want to learn how to get there check out The Programmer's Guide to a Sane Workweek.

You shouldn't have to work evenings or weekends to succeed as a software engineer. Read the Programmer's Guide to a Sane Workweek.