Get productive faster at your new job—without working overtime

You’ve just started a new job and you’re not productive yet: you get stuck, you need help, you don’t know enough. You need to learn a new codebase, a new set of conventions, a new set of business problems. You might even need to learn a new programming language.

And so now you feel anxious—

Are you doing well enough?

Are you producing enough code?

How is your manager feeling about your progress?

It’s natural to make yourself feel more comfortable by working overtime. You’re showing your manager that you’re trying, at least, and by working long hours you might get a little bit more done. You don’t want to work overtime in the long run, of course, but you can worry about that in the future.

Unfortunately, working long hours is—as you might suspect—the wrong solution: at best it won’t help, and it might even make your situation worse. Let’s see why overtime isn’t helpful, and then move on to a better solution: a solution that will make you more productive and make you look good to your manager.

Long hours won’t solve your problem

Working overtime might make you feel a little better. Unfortunately it’s also a bad solution in the short run, and a big problem in the long run.

In the short run, you’re not actually going to get more done. Long hours will just tire you out, won’t help you learn any faster, and pretty much are never the solution to producing more (here’s some research if you don’t believe me). Even worse, you might end up giving your manager the wrong impression: you’re working long hours and you’re still not productive yet?

In the long run, you’re setting bad expectations about your work hours. If you have a mediocre manager, let alone a bad one, they will often expect you to keep working those long hours. You need to set boundaries from the start: “here are my work hours, I won’t work more outside of emergencies.”

There’s a better solution: focusing on your real goal, which is learning everything you need to know about your new project.

The real solution: learning with feedback

You have two core problems:

  1. You need to learn a lot, and you don’t necessarily even know what you need to learn.
  2. You can’t demonstrate you’re being productive to your manager the usual way, by fixing bugs or adding features.

You can solve both problems at once with the following process:

  1. Every Friday, with your week’s work still fresh in your mind, write down:
    • Everything you’ve learned that week.
    • What you think you need to learn next.
  2. First thing Monday morning when you get back to work, send an email to your manager with what you wrote Friday, and an additional question: “What is missing from this list? What else do I need to learn?”
  3. Your manager can now provide you with feedback about additional things you need to learn.
  4. When you get stuck and don’t want to ask for help just yet, take a break and go learn something on your list.

If you follow this process:

  • Your manager will know you’re not slacking off.
  • You’ll get feedback about your progress and what to do next.
  • You’ll be better focused on learning the right things first, which will make you productive faster.

And of course, no overtime required.

Want more suggestions for getting started on your best foot? Last time I started a new programming job I created a personal checklist: all the things I should be doing on my first few days at work. If you’d like to read it, you can download it here.


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