Work to live — Managing work-life balance in the remote-work era
We’ve all been there. It’s 6 pm. You’re trying to close out this last task for the day or finish going through all your emails. But things aren’t going quite as smoothly as you’d hoped. Suddenly it’s 8 pm and you haven’t even made a dent in your inbox. In the tech industry, this is a common occurrence.
When I first joined the workforce as a software engineer, I wanted to write as much code as possible. I felt like I had something to prove, and I was willing to go out of my way to make everyone notice my determination. My efforts succeeded, but not in the way that I had hoped.
Contrary to my beliefs, not everyone admires people who work overtime or come into the office on weekends. This behavior can set bad precedents and harm team culture. Managers usually don’t expect their reports to consistently work overtime. Overworking exaggerates your actual velocity to the point where you need to keep burning the midnight oil to keep up.
Truthfully, the quantity of work does not always make a substantial difference in the end. If you are good at your job or at least willing to keep learning, you’ll naturally progress in your career at a healthy rate over time. Pushing yourself past your limits likely won’t get you promoted significantly faster in the long run unless you make a substantial impact. This phenomenon especially holds true in large companies.
I can understand why some might disagree with this take. Some people like the fast-paced environment of a startup or the rigorous demands of a quant firm. If you seriously subscribe to “live to work” and want to seek a challenging environment, then go for it. It’s ok to find fulfillment in that lifestyle. But that path isn’t for everyone. Over time I’ve learned to see the value in work-life balance. Now I can’t see myself going back.
At some point, I had an epiphany and realized that my life had become monotonous. I had spent so much time developing technical skills that I had forgotten to grow my personal life. It’s a common joke that software engineers are only ever capable of talking about their jobs outside of working hours, and I finally understood why. I decided I needed to take a step back and spend more time focusing on myself.
I’ve always been a fan of learning new skills. I relate character development to the popular role-playing game Skyrim. In the game, you increase your overall character level by strengthening your individual skills, such as blacksmithing and archery. Less-developed skills will gain levels much faster than higher-level skills, which bears a striking resemblance to the real world. The lesson here is that it’s always worth trying new things to quickly gain experience in those neglected skills. I’ll never pass up an opportunity to try something new, whether it be some wacky activity or a trendy new restaurant. I live and die by the motto “I’ll try anything once.”
I started spending more time putting myself out there after work. I’d go out for dinner and drinks with friends, hike the mountains on the weekends, hit the gym with a partner, and try new sports. I even started fencing again and joined a club up in Oakland.
Of course, as an introvert, I still need time to myself. I also added some solitary skills to my repertoire. I learned how to play the piano, spent more time cooking and baking, and even learned how to pick locks. I try to limit the amount of time I spend on idle activities like gaming or watching TV.
My pursuit of excitement and growth has made my life more interesting to talk about. It’s difficult to hold a conversation when you’re existence is one-dimensional. Now it’s much easier to connect with people and have enlightening conversations. I’m in the best physical shape of my life, I have a great network of friends, and I’m more confident than ever before.
Honestly, my performance at work hasn’t even been affected by my decision to spend more time on myself. I find that even though the number of hours I spend working decreased, the quality of those working hours increased. I’m more motivated and effective when I work a reasonable amount of time and my output reflects it.
Sometimes I’ll hunker down and go into grind mode if my job demands it but those situations are generally uncommon. I’m always putting myself first without feeling guilty about it.
One caveat I’ll add is that I think that new grads should put forth a bit more effort when they first start. For software engineers, knowledge is almost like investing in some ways. The earlier you can establish your skillset, the more it pays off down the road. I attribute much of my success to my eagerness to grow and develop my technical abilities when I was a new hire.
Achieving a good work-life balance isn’t something that can be done overnight. You have to find the balance that works for you. The values for this balance vary from person to person, but two changes made a significant difference to me.
Working remote is awesome, but it can be challenging to maintain a healthy work-life balance. As much as I love having the option to work from home, I find it hurts my work-life balance.
It’s much harder to unplug when your workstation constantly looms over you. Going to an office establishes a clear separation between work and home. Leaving the office means that work is finished for the day. Remote work doesn’t offer this separation, so it takes more discipline to switch off from working mode.
I’ll also add that I’ve made several great friends by going to the office. Remote work can be a very lonely existence if you don’t already have a strong network of friends in place. As someone who moved to the bay area recently when COVID started, I found myself quite reclusive when working from home. Without anything to do, I ended up spending more time working.
It’s tempting to add a work profile to your personal phone to keep track of emails and messages from work, but I think it’s a mistake.
I found myself responding to work messages and emails outside of normal working hours regularly. It didn’t take long to realize this habit wasn’t sustainable, so I requested a corporate-managed device.
Keeping separate phones for my personal life and work life has been a tremendous help.
My coworkers make fun of me for carrying two phones around all the time, but having that clear separation makes a substantial difference. Of course, not every company will offer a corporate phone as a benefit. I
f it’s not offered, then don’t bother adding your work email to your phone. You shouldn’t be forced to contaminate your personal devices with work accounts. It’s easier to build habits out of convenience.
Forcing yourself to dig out a company laptop to check emails will discourage you from checking your mail and help you disconnect from work.
I believe in finding joy and fulfillment through my job. I love how challenging working in the tech industry can be. However, I don’t let it define my life.
I’ve realized that it’s ok to put myself and my interests first instead of attempting to maximize my code output.
Life has so much to offer that trying to squeeze everything out of one tiny part of it seems inefficient in my eyes.
So close your laptop, set your working hours on your calendar, and try something new. I hope this was helpful. Thanks for reading.