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The Upside of Downtime

brewsterbhg profile image Keith Brewster ・3 min read

I know you've heard it a thousand times before. But it's true - hard work pays off. If you want to be good, you have to practice, practice, practice. If you don't love something, then don't do it. - Ray Bradbury

There's this prevailing line of thought that you can achieve anything if you work hard enough. It's the foundation of the American Dream🇺🇸 (or at least the best that I can understand it as a maple syrup-chugging Canuck). And I believe (for the most part) it's true; hard work and perseverance does pay off. I'm a cookie cutter example of this—I was homeless for two years in my early twenties, and I've worked my way up to become a software engineer. But I'm not here to debate the ethos of the American Dream🇺🇸, I'm here to talk about the side effects of continual hard work. These side effects manifest themselves in a number of different ways; if you're not careful it could negatively impact you, your relationships, and your mental health.

I think this mindset is nowhere more evident than in the field of software development. You have recruiters and job postings searching for "rock star programmers". You hear stories of companies who purposely keep deadlines short; expecting their developers to work long hours to get the work completed. It can be intimidating for new developers to see these high expectations being set—we've all joked about the entry-level developer role that requires 3+ years experience—but this can feel overwhelming to someone on their first job hunt. And it's not just jobs that can drive these expectations of hard work, but programmers themselves as well. Our field is constantly changing, there's tons of skills to develop and improve on. I think most people get into programming because they love to solve problems, and with a constantly growing selection of tools and resources to solve these problems with—the learning never ends.

Sometimes it's difficult for me to know when to turn off. If I wasn't using my free time to work on side projects, read articles, or do research for blog posts, I'd feel a tremendous amount of guilt. I was spending less time with my wife and dogs in order to watch tutorial videos on new technologies I wanted to learn. The time I'd usually spend with my hobbies turned into hours of reading articles I had bookmarked throughout the day. And this worked—for a while. But over the past few weeks, I've been carrying an exhaustion that no amount of sleep nor exercise could make a dent in. I've been irritable, moody, and finding myself too worn out by the time I got home from work to be productive.

So this weekend, I decided to turn off. No Twitter, no side projects, no courses. Instead my wife and I watched movies, spent time relaxing, and had friends over for wine and board games. Now, there were times I wanted to pick up my laptop and jump into some work—and more than once I had to close Twitter after instinctively opening it to check my notifications—but for the most part I was completely disconnected. And something funny happened: that feeling of exhaustion slipped away. I wasn't irritable, I felt relaxed. I had a clear head for the first time in what felt like months. As a result, it bolstered the relationships I had been ignoring. I can now go into the work week with a fresh mind and a good attitude.

If I can leave you with any piece of advice, it's that we need to start collectively putting a larger focus on work–life balance. It's important to work hard, to push yourself and learn new things. But you also need to know when to shut off. Make time for your friends and family. Pick up your hobby (or whatever you love to do). Understand your limits and be careful not to push them. In exercise, there's something known as overtraining syndrome. It's when you push your body too much without adequate periods of rest. Not only will it affect your health, but it also counteracts any progress you'd see as a result from working out. I think this same idea exists with development. If you try and push yourself too much, it will negatively impact your ability to absorb the concepts you're trying to learn. Make time for yourself to rest, and stay healthy.

Until next time,
Keith Brewster

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Mayuran

Too much of anything is harmful, be it work or free time. Everyone knows this, but it is really easy to forget it because we are always chasing after something. Reminders like these are very important for any person regardless of profession. Balance is key.

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Jan Król

Great article, and I agree with you 100%. Nowadays there are so many different technologies, that we don't even know when to stop learning. I decided to change my job for the first time recently and I changed the technologies completely, this resulted in two months of hard learning and ignoring everyone around me just to learn those new things. This was not healthy and I wouldn't do that again.

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Bjorn Micallef

It's good to stay up to date or work more hours if the deadline is tight, but doing it on a daily basis is so wrong. I rarely use the laptop for work as soon as I get home and like the author says it's good to have a hobby outside of work. Honestly I can never understand certain developers who all they think about from the moment they open their eyes until they close them, is the software dev world. There's so much more to life than work

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Duc Le

How about the downside of uptime?