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Setting boundaries at your job as a programmer

itamarst profile image Itamar Turner-Trauring Originally published at codewithoutrules.com on ・3 min read

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:

  1. It will tempt you to engage with work in your free time.
  2. 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.

Vacations

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.


Struggling with a 40-hour workweek? Too tired by the end of the day to do anything but collapse on the sofa and watch TV?

Learn how you can get a 3-day weekend, every single week.

Discussion (1)

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Scott Simontis

It sounds nice in practice, but companies will hold it against you for following your legal boundaries. At my last job, we had a project that was a total failure - we didn't have the budget we needed, the salesperson had had made all sorts of promises (his commission should have been used to fix our budget imo), and most team members were totally ineffective. The project's manager micromanaged more frequently when he got stressed out, so he wasted probably a day a week with all his BS.

I got asked to save the project before a demo. Over the course of 4 days, I worked 70 hours. I was going to get the standard $50/hour the company offered for billable overtime, so I was happy to make a ton of money because I really needed it right then and there. But it had to be off the books so the client wasn't billed...I had to enter a plain 40 on my timesheet and I kept a separate timesheet with the department VP.

The BS continued. I wasn't allowed to take a day off to recover because the manager promised all bugs from the demo would be fixed in 24 hours. I knew I was unable to make any progress, that I was damaging the codebase everytime I touched it, that I couldn't even remember what I was trying to work on when he would grill me for estimates. I grabbed my backpack and left and told him to call my boss if it was a problem. The next morning I already had several e-mails demanding status updates in my phone, so I drafted up a quick letter of resignation and went back to sleep.

I don't feel bad about quitting at all. I live in a right to work state so I can terminate employment at any time. It was during my 90-day probation period so I didn't feel ad about quitting instantly. They did it to themselves. Someone screwed up big time promising deliverables but management was determined to deflect that onto someone else or make it succeed at any cost.

I didn't get any overtime. I made sure I kept a copy of the off-the-books hours just in case. I technically should have earned around $3000 of overtime. I could really use the money so I'm conflicted if I should try to collect it, but that's another story. If I refused to work all those hours, it would have been my fault for the failure of the project because the manager was willing to throw me under the bus to save himself.

If I wanted to get raises or promotions, I had to say yes to insane hours. I feel terrible for the people at that company who are on a visa because I can't imagine how terrifying and stressful it must be when they hold your visa over your head to get you to work 80 hours a week. Some companies value profit far more than human life or dignity.