Is Work Life Balance a Myth for Software Engineers?
My ERP framework to manage work-life balance.
As someone in a leadership position, how do you manage your work-life balance? How can you juggle work and family responsibilities and still deliver excellence at work?
I have received this question a few times now. So, today I am sharing what work-life balance (WLB) means to me and my framework for managing it.
I used to think managing WLB was just about managing my time.
It was more about proactively managing my energy levels and ruthlessly prioritizing, and delegating to conserve my energy. I use the ERP framework to predict my energy levels and determine if the upcoming weeks are going to be relaxed or hectic.
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⚖️ How I view work life balance?
For some, it is a perfect separation of 9-5 versus personal time, and for others, it may be something else. For me, I can't treat work as a detached part of my life that I can completely shut off during my "personal time".
I could be working 9-5 and still disrupt my work-life balance, and there are days when I overwork but still feel accomplished on both work and personal fronts. Not all days are equal, so I monitor my energy levels on a weekly basis.
Having said that, core boundaries are very important. Here are mine:
I need to drop my kid off at daycare at 9am and pick up at 5pm.
Weekends are mostly my time to relax and spend time with family.
No expectations to be online after 5pm (if not oncall) on weekdays. Though, I tend to do some heads-down work later in the evening.
🛠️ The ERP Framework
I like to break down all my commitments(across personal & work life) along three main dimensions (ERP)
E - EFFORT it takes
R - REWARD when accomplished
P - PENALTY when not done
💪 Energy / Effort
This is how much a particular task drains me out mentally or physically. Knowing this helps me anticipate how I will feel after doing this task. Some high effort task are also long running. So, it could stress me out for a days, weeks or months.
Rewards energize me. Some high reward tasks can recharge me for a very long time. So, I like having those come by at some cadence.
This is the impact of not finishing a task. I like to know how penalties for all tasks compare against each other. This helps with prioritization.
Also, higher penalty tasks tend to make me risk-averse or feel afraid, which drains my energy more. Knowing this helps me manage my anxieties upfront.
📜 Framework Rules
Once I know ERPs for all my tasks, I apply the following rules on an ongoing basis to achieve my WLB.
🔋 1. Not too many high energy tasks
My tasks, both personal and work-related, can drain me. When I am drained, I become frustrated, tired, and anxious. So, I must manage what I can do (across personal & work tasks) on a daily or weekly basis. You need to determine what works for you.
For my tasks - One high-energy task is good, two is okay, and anything more makes me tired. Similarly, there is a limit to how many medium or low-energy tasks I can do.
High-energy & long-running tasks are harder to manage. They can drain me for days, weeks, or even months. Breaking them into sub-tasks can help conserve my energy or drain me in smaller chunks.
🤝 2. Delegate or Punt high-penalty tasks
High-penalty items feel like must-dos. However, when there are too many of them, it becomes overwhelming. Forcing myself to tackle all of them only results in sub-optimal outcomes. In fact, high-penalty tasks can instill a fear of failure. So, I have to delegate or even postpone them to manage my load.
I work with my team to delegate critical tasks, and I tag-team with my spouse to share personal responsibilities.
🏠 3. Don’t punt personal tasks for a long time
It's easy to expend all energy at work and leave none for personal responsibilities. This can result in neglecting high-priority personal tasks. If this continues, it can deteriorate personal life. For me, when I postpone too many personal tasks, it can overload my spouse and stress her out. This affects happiness for both of us.
So, I make sure to prioritize my personal tasks. In fact, my happiness & family time should generally triumph over career aspirations.
🌟 4. Rewards energize me, so keep them coming.
Rewards rejuvenate me. High rewards tasks boost my motivation which helps me accomplish more. Some examples of high rewards are - hitting a major project milestone and being recognized for it, helping someone unblock a project or even getting 50+ likes on a newsletter post ;)
High-reward tasks don't come often. Typically, they also involve a lot of high-energy tasks, so a stream of low-reward ones can help. These tasks may not require much effort, but they can help energize me. Some examples - listening to music, watching a movie, fun evening with my kid or just getting some fresh air.
Taking time off work is an excellent way to disconnect. I take occasional PTOs to have a long weekend and get over Monday blues.
💡5. Invest in reducing effort
You have to break out of the cycle of doing high-effort tasks all the time. Identifying why something is high-effort is an important aspect that is easy to overlook. Learn tricks and tips that reduce the effort it takes you to do the high-energy tasks.
At work, I look for ways to automate or simplify my workflow. On a personal front, maybe I buy some tools or services to simplify things.
📖 Parting Story
When I started my newsletter, it required a lot of energy and the reward seemed quite low. However, I was on paternity leave and taking care of my child, so I didn't have many high-energy tasks from work competing for my attention. So, I could spare the energy to invest in aggressively growing my newsletter.
I invested in learning tricks to make my newsletter-writing medium to low energy. Also, with the amazing growth my newsletter has seen, I find it highly rewarding. So, I can still keep my newsletter going without getting tired while working full time.
Note, I don't follow the framework to the tee. That would be absurd. It is merely a guiding mechanism for me to identify what will energize me versus what will drain me. It helps me plan better. Everyone’s situation and priorities are different so adapt this to what WLB means to you!
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