In-Depth

Find Balance in Your Work

Your activities outside of your job can be as beneficial as your activities within the workplace.

A 2006 survey by Money magazine determined that the most desirable job today is the job of the software developer. This job combines low stress with high pay, and most developers find their work both engaging and fulfilling, said the magazine.

These survey results are good news for the tech industry. The not-so-good news is that perhaps you find the role of software developer too desirable. Many developers spend untold hours trying to solve complex programming issues, or making their code just a little bit more efficient. They also often have side jobs or hobbies that involve writing, debugging, and testing still more code.

You probably find coding and its associated activities an enjoyable challenge. The concentration required to complete these tasks lets you shut out stresses in the rest of the world. And the ability to solve a complex technical problem invariably results in feelings of satisfaction and intellectual prowess.

This type of concentration is useful and good for short periods of time. It offers the focus necessary for tackling difficult problems, and often enables you to achieve high levels of productivity.

But this level of focus can be addicting, especially if your high performance is recognized, rewarded, and reinforced by superiors and peers. Its simplicity also creates refuge from the more complex uncertainties of life in general that can sometimes be difficult to face head-on. A single-minded pursuit of a single activity can damage your physical health.

It is easy to take an enjoyable job at which you excel and use it as the foundation of your life. But letting a job consume you removes much of the enjoyment and fulfillment from your day-to-day existence. And the loss of that fulfillment—whether through job loss, accident, or other unexpected event—can leave an intellectual and emotional hole that may prove impossible to fill.

Coding has an attraction for some developers that can form the root of obsessive behaviors, which are almost always bad in nature. Solving difficult coding problems successfully is not a bad habit by itself, but spending far more time working on coding problems than your peers is a bad habit. The physical and psychological issues aside, life is simply more enjoyable if you have many things to engage you, rather than just a single one.

You won't find a silver bullet for achieving a balance in your life, but here are four changes that you can make to move in the right direction.

Set and keep regular work hours for yourself. It is common to focus on programming issues late into the night and then arrive late to work the next day. This habit removes you from the day-to-day practices and teamwork of the group, and reinforces itself through irregular sleeping and eating patterns. By keeping hours and other patterns that are similar to the norm of your team and the rest of the organization, you can avoid this bad habit.

While setting expectations of behavior might initially seem restrictive, they can integrate you more closely into the mission of your team and organization in the long run. In addition, they put you on a similar schedule to other working professionals outside of your office. And, you can always modify your schedule for short periods in response to unusual work demands, if necessary.

Find a hobby that engages you. A hobby gives you something to look forward to outside of work. Preferably, your hobby is not related to your work and opens up additional interests that provide you with multiple outlets from pressures on the job.

If your outside interests are few, experiment with a number of new things to find one that fits your lifestyle and temperament. Check out a variety of sports and outdoor activities, or something that challenges your intellect or dexterity in unique and different ways. For example, bicycling when working eighty-hour weeks provides a very different activity, while also helping out with the next recommendation.

Eat well and exercise. These seem like odd recommendations on finding and maintaining a work-life balance, but they add to the life part of the equation. If you are healthy, you are feeling better in general, both physically and emotionally. You are able to engage in more activities outside of your job and have the energy to do more without getting fatigued. And eating healthy and exercising will, interestingly enough, also make you sharper and more proficient as a coder.

Make friends outside of your place of employment. You're likely to find this to be the most difficult part of achieving balance in your life. People tend to gather with other people with whom they have a lot in common, and in many cases these are the same people with whom they spend long hours on the same project at work. Friendships with your coworkers make for a comfortable and familiar environment, even when you are not at work.

However, people tend to learn more and have more interesting experiences with those who are different from them. These more challenging relationships can also help you in your jobs. Different experiences offer you different perspectives by which to view a problem and potential solutions. You might become a better coder through outside experiences with others.

If you follow these four guidelines and other similar practices, will you get the same fulfillment and satisfaction out of your coding achievements that you do today? Absolutely. You will be more highly satisfied with your life. The ability to change gears and do several different types of engaging activities often makes you sharper in doing each one of them. And while there are certainly crises in the job that occasionally require extraordinary effort, it is a poor job, or a poor outlook, that makes these types of efforts the norm. It is an old saw, but recall that no one on their deathbed decries not spending enough time in the office.

About the Author

Peter Varhol is a principal at Technology Strategy Research LLC, an industry analysis and consulting firm.

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