Work/life balance will make you a better software engineer

It’s tempting to believe that taking your work home will make you a better software engineer, and that work/life balance will limit your learning.

  • For some software developers programming isn’t just a job: it’s something to do for fun, sometimes even a reason for being. If you love coding and coding is your job, why not keep working over the weekend? It’s more practice of the skills you need.
  • When you don’t have the motivation or ability to take work home on the weekends you might feel you’re never going to be as good a software engineer as those who do.

But the truth is that if you want to be a good software engineer you shouldn’t take your work home.

What makes a good software engineer? The ability to build solutions for hard, complex problems. Here’s why spending extra hours on your normal job won’t help you do that.

New problems, new solutions

If you have the time and motivation to write software in your free time you could write more software for your job. But that restricts you to a particular kind of problem and limits the solution space you can consider.

If you take your work home you will end up solving the same kinds of problems that you work on during your normal workweek. You’ll need to use technologies that meet your employer’s business goals, and you’ll need to use the same standards of quality your employer expects. But if you take on a personal programming project you’ll have no such constraints.

  • If your company has low quality standards, you can learn how to test really well.
  • Or you can write complete hacks just to learn something new.
  • You can use and learn completely different areas of technology.

I once wrote a Python Global Interpreter Lock profiler, using LD_PRELOAD to override the Python process’ interactions with operating system locks and the gdb debugger to look at the live program’s C stack. It never worked well enough to be truly useful… but building it was very educational.

The additional learning you’ll get from working on different projects will make you a better software engineer. But even if you don’t have the time or motivation to code at home, fear not: work/life balance can still make you a better software engineer.

Learning other skills

Being a good software engineer isn’t just about churning out code. There are many other skills you need, and time spent doing things other than coding can still improve your abilities.

When I was younger and had more free time I spent my evenings studying at a university for a liberals art degree. Among other things I learned how to write: how to find abstractions that mattered, how to marshal evidence, how to explain complex ideas, how to extract nuances from text I read. This has been immensely useful when working on harder problems, where good abstractions are critical and design documents are a must.

These days I’m spending more of my time with my child, and as a side-effect I’m learning other things. For example, explaining the world to a 4-year-old requires the ability to take complex concepts and simplify them to their essential core.

You need a hammock to solve hard problems

Though additional learning will help you, much of the benefit of work/life balance is that you’re not working. Hard problems require downtime, time when you’re explicitly not thinking about solutions, time for your brain to sort things out in the background. Rich Hickey, the creator of Clojure, has a great talk on the subject called Hammock Driven Development.

The gist is that hard problems require a lot of research, of alternatives and existing solutions and the problem definition, and then a lot of time letting your intuition sort things out on its own. And that takes time, time when you’re not actively thinking about the problem.

At one point I was my kid’s primary caregiver when I wasn’t at work. I’m not up to Hickey’s standard of hard problems, and taking care of an infant and toddler wasn’t as restful as a hammock. But I still found that time spent not thinking about work was helpful in solving the hard problems I went back to the next day.

Learning to do more with less

The final benefit of work/life balance is attitude: the way you think about your job. If you work extra hours on your normal job you are training yourself to do your work with more time than necessary. To improve as a software engineer you want to learn how to do your work in less time, which is important if you want to take on bigger, harder projects.

Working a reasonable, limited work week will help focus you on becoming a more productive programmer rather than trying to solve problems the hard, slow way.

Given the choice you shouldn’t take your work home with you. If you want to keep coding you should have no trouble finding interesting projects to work on, untrammeled by the requirements of your job. If can’t or won’t code in your free time, that’s fine too.

But what if that isn’t a choice you can make? What if you don’t have work/life balance as a software engineer because of pressure from your boss, or constant emergencies at work? In that case you should sign up for my free 6-part email course, which will show you how to get a to a saner, shorter workweek.


You shouldn't have to work evenings or weekends to succeed as a software engineer. Get to a better place by reading The Programmer's Guide to a Sane Workweek.


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