Setting boundaries at your job as a programmer
There’s always another bug, another feature, another deadline. So it’s easy to fall into the trap of taking on too much, saying “yes” one time too many, staying at the office a little later, answering a work email on the weekend…
If you’re not careful you can end up setting unreasonable expectations, and ending up tethered to your work email and Slack. Your manager will expect you to work weekends, and your teammates will expect you to reply to bug reports in the middle of your vacation.
What you want is the opposite: when you’re at home or on vacation, you should be spending your time however you want, merry and free.
You need to set boundaries, which is what I’ll be discussing in the rest of this article.
Prepping for a new job
Imagine you’re starting a new job in a week, you enjoy programming for fun, and you want to be productive as soon as possible. Personally, I wouldn’t do any advance preparation for a new job: ongoing learning is part of a programmer’s work, and employers ought to budget time for it. But you might choose differently.
If so, it’s tempting to ask for some learning material so you can spend a few days beforehand getting up to speed. But you’re failing to set boundaries if you do that, and they might give you company-specific material, in which case you’re just doing work for free.
Learning general technologies is less of a problem—knowing more technologies is useful in your career in general, and maybe you enjoy programming for fun. So instead of asking for learning material, you can go on your own and learn the technologies you know they use, without telling them you’re doing so.
Work email and Slack
Never set up work email or Slack on your phone or personal computer:
- It will tempt you to engage with work in your free time.
- When you do engage, you’ll be setting expectations that you’re available to answer questions 24/7.
While you’re at work you’ll always have your computer, so you don’t need access on your phone. If you do need to set up work email on your phone for travel, remove the account when you’re back home.
And if you want to have your work calendar on your phone, you can share it with your personal calendar account; that way you’re sharing only your calendar, nothing else.
When you’re on vacation, you’re on vacation: no work allowed. That means you’re not taking your work laptop with you, or turning it on if you’re at home.
A week or so in advance of your vacation, explain to your team that you won’t be online, and that you won’t have access to work files. Figure out what information they might need—documentation, in-progress work you want to hand off, and the like—and write it all down where they can find it.
If you must, give your personal phone number for emergencies: given you lack access to your work credentials and email, the chances of your being called for something unimportant are quite low.
You’re paid for your normal work hours (and that’s it)
A standard workweek in the US is 40 hours a week; elsewhere it can be a little less. Whatever it is, outside those hours you shouldn’t be working, because you’re not being paid for that work. Your evenings, your weekends, your holidays, your vacations—all of these belong to you, not your employer.
If you don’t enforce that boundary between work and non-work, you are sending the message that your time doesn’t belong to you. And if you have a bad manager, they’re going to take advantage of that—or you might end up working long hours out of a misplaced sense of obligation.
So unless you’re dealing with an emergency, you should forget your job exists when your workday ends—and unless you’re on your on-call rotation, you should make sure you’re inaccessible by normal work channels.