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How to Recognize When to Go Home

Computer programming is an activity that is also a culture. The unfortunate fact is that it is not a culture that values mental or physical health very much. For both cultural/historical reasons (the need to work at night on unloaded computers, for example) and because of overwhelming time-to-market pressure and the scarcity of programmers, computer programmers are traditionally overworked. I don't think you can trust all the stories you hear, but I think 60 hours a week is common, and 50 is pretty much a minimum. This means that often much more than that is required. This is a serious problem for a good programmer, who is responsible not only for themselves but their team-mates as well. You have to recognize when to go home, and sometimes when to suggest that other people go home. There can't be any fixed rules for solving this problem, anymore than there can be fixed rules for raising a child, for the same reason---every human being is different.

Beyond 60 hours a week is an extraordinary effort for me, which I can apply for short periods of time (about one week), and that is sometimes expected of me. I don't know if it is fair to expect 60 hours of work from a person; I don't even know if 40 is fair. I am sure, however, that it is stupid to work so much that you are getting little out of that extra hour you work. For me personally, that's any more than 60 hours a week. I personally think a programmer should exercise noblesse oblige and shoulder a heavy burden. However, it is not a programmer's duty to be a patsy. The sad fact is programmers are often asked to be patsies in order to put on a show for somebody, for example a manager trying to impress an executive. Programmers often succumb to this because they are eager to please and not very good at saying no. There are four defences against this:

  • Communicate as much as possible with everyone in the company so that no one can mislead the executives about what is going on,
  • Learn to estimate and schedule defensively and explicitly and give everyone visibility into what the schedule is and where it stands,
  • Learn to say no, and say no as a team when necessary, and
  • Quit if you have to.

Most programmers are good programmers, and good programmers want to get a lot done. To do that, they have to manage their time effectively. There is a certain amount of mental inertia associated with getting warmed-up to a problem and deeply involved in it. Many programmers find they work best when they have long, uninterrupted blocks of time in which to get warmed-up and concentrate. However, people must sleep and perform other duties. Each person needs to find a way to satisfy both their human rhythm and their work rhythm. Each programmer needs to do whatever it takes to procure efficient work periods, such as reserving certain days in which you will attend only the most critical meetings.

Since I have children, I try to spend evenings with them sometimes. The rhythm that works best for me is to work a very long day, sleep in the office or near the office (I have a long commute from home to work) then go home early enough the next day to spend time with my children before they go to bed. I am not comfortable with this, but it is the best compromise I have been able to work out. Go home if you have a contagious disease. You should go home if you are thinking suicidal thoughts. You should take a break or go home if you think homicidal thoughts for more than a few seconds. You should send someone home if they show serious mental malfunctioning or signs of mental illness beyond mild depression. If you are tempted to be dishonest or deceptive in a way that you normally are not due to fatigue, you should take a break. Don't use cocaine or amphetamines to combat fatigue. Don't abuse caffeine.

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