Introducing the Programmer’s Guide to a Sane Workweek

I’m working on a book: The Programmer’s Guide to a Sane Workweek, a guide to how you can achieve a saner, shorter workweek. If you want to get a free course based on the the book signup in the email subscription at the end of the post. Meanwhile, here’s the first excerpt from the book:

  • Are you tired of working evenings and weekends, of late projects and unrealistic deadlines?
  • Do you have children you want to see for more than just an hour in the evening after work?
  • Or do you want more time for side projects or to improve your programming skills?
  • In short, do you want a sane workweek?

A sane workweek is achievable: for the past 4 years I’ve been working less than 40 hours a week.

Soon after my daughter was born I quit my job as a product manager at Google and became a part-time consultant, writing software for clients. I wrote code for 20-something hours each week while our child was in daycare, and I spent the rest of my time taking care of our kid.

Later I got a job with one of my clients, a startup, where I worked as an employee but had a 28-hour workweek. These days I work at another startup, with a 35-hour workweek.

I’m not the only software engineer who has chosen to work a saner, shorter workweek. There are contractors who work part-time, spending the rest of their time starting their own business. There are employees with specialized skills who only work two days a week. There are even entrepreneurs who have deliberately created a business that isn’t all-consuming.

Would you like to join us?

If you’re a software developer working crazy hours then this book can help you get to a saner schedule. Of course what makes a schedule sane or crazy won’t be the same for me as it is for you. You should spend some time thinking about what exactly it is that you want.

How much time do you want to spend working each week?

  • 40 hours?
  • 32 hours?
  • 20 hours?
  • Or do you never want to work again?

Depending on what you want there are different paths you can pursue.

Some paths to a saner workweek

Here are some ways you can reduce your workweek; I’ll cover them in far more detail in later chapters of the book:

Normalizing your workweek

If you’re working a lot more than 40 hours a week you always have the option of unilaterally normalizing your hours. That is, reducing your hours down to 40 hours or 45 hours or whatever you think is fair. Chances are your productivity and output will actually increase. You might face problems, however, if your employer cares more about hours “worked” than about output.

Reducing overhead

Chances are that the hours your employer counts as your work are just part of the time you spend on your job. In particular, commuting can take another large bite out your free time. Cut down on commuting and long lunch breaks and you’ve gotten some of that time back without any reduction in the hours your boss cares about.

Negotiating a shorter workweek at your current job

If you want a shorter-than-normal workweek you can try to negotiate that at your current job. Your manager doesn’t want to replace a valued, trained employee: hiring new people is expensive and risky. That means you have an opening to negotiate shorter hours. This is one of the most common ways software engineers I know have reduced their hours.

Find a shorter workweek at a new job

If you’re looking for a 40-hour workweek this is mostly about screening for a good company culture as part of your interview process. If you want a shorter-than-normal workweek you will need to negotiate a better job offer. That usually means your salary but you can sometimes negotiate shorter working hours. This path can be tricky; I’ve managed to do it, but have also been turned down, and I know of other people who have failed. It’s easier if you’ve already worked for the company as a consultant, so they know what they’re getting. Alternatively if your previous (ideally, your current) job gave you a shorter workweek you’ll have better negotiating leverage.

Long-term contracts

Instead of working as an employee you can take on long-term contract work, often through an agency. The contract can specify how many hours you will work, and shorter workweeks are sometimes possible. You can even get paid overtime!

Consulting

Instead of taking on long-term work, which is similar in many ways to being an employee, you go out and find project work for yourself. That means you need to spend something like half your time on marketing. By marketing well and providing high value to your clients you can charge high rates, allowing you to work reasonable hours.

Product business

All the paths so far involved exchanging money for time, in one form or another. As a software engineer you have another choice: you can make a product once and easily sell that same product multiple times. That means your income is no longer directly tied to how many hours you work. You’ll need marketing and other business skills to do so, and you won’t just be writing code.

Early retirement

Finally, if you don’t want to work ever again there is the path of early retirement. That doesn’t mean you can’t get make money afterwards; it means you no longer have to make a living, you’ve earned enough that your time is your own. To get there you’ll need very low living expenses, and a high saving rate while you’re still working. Luckily programmers tend to get paid well.

Which path will you take?

Each of these paths has its own set of requirements and trade-offs, so it’s worth considering which one fits your needs. At different times of your life you might prefer one path, and later you might prefer another. For example, I’ve worked as both a consultant and a part-time employee.

What kind of work environment do you want right now?

  • Do you want to work from your spare bedroom?
  • Do you like having co-workers?
  • Do you want to start your own business?
  • Do you want to just code, or do you want to expand your skills beyond that?

A later chapter will cover choosing your path in more detail. For now, take a little time to think it through and imagine what your ideal job would be like. Combine that with your weekly hours goal you should get some sense of which path is best for you.

It won’t be easy

Working a sane workweek is not something corporate culture encourages, at least in the US. That means you won’t be following the default, easy path that most workers do: you’re going to need to do some work to get to your destination. In later chapters I’ll explain how you can acquire the prerequisites for your chosen path, but for now here’s a summary:

  • You’ll need to get your engineering skills to a place where you’re both productive and can work independently. As an employee this will help you negotiate with your employer. As a contractor or consultant it will help get you work.
  • You’ll need to reduce your living expenses. You can then afford to work fewer hours, and the larger your savings in the bank the more time you can take to look for a new job. Plus it makes for a better negotiating position.
  • You’ll need to be able to negotiate successfully, whether it’s with your employer or with clients.
  • Finally, you’ll need to have the self-confidence or stubbornness to choose and stick to a path that most people don’t take.

How much do you really want to work a sane workweek? Do you care enough to make the necessary effort?

It won’t be easy, but I think it’s worth it.

Shall we get started? Sign up below to get a free course that will take you through the first steps of your journey.


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