So far I have been saying how important it is to look after our careers and that we should dedicate loads of time outside working hours to practice and learn. However, we all have family, friends, and other interests in life. I have a wife and two kids, whom I love to bits and want to spend a lot of quality time with. It is never easy to balance work and personal life because we spend more than 50 percent of our waking hours at work, including all the time commuting to and from it.
The most common thing I hear every time I talk about investing time in our own careers outside working hours is, “I don’t have time.” And if you say or agree with that, you are probably right. That’s what you decided to believe and that, in turn, became your reality. But the truth is, we all have time. We are just not very good at optimizing it. Maybe we prefer to spend our time with something else that may or may not be as important as our careers.
Stop reading now and think about what you did yesterday, from the time you woke up to when you went to bed. What did you do the day before yesterday? Seriously. Stop and really think about that. Now think about how much of it was waste? How much of it was productive? By productive we can mean many things, from learning something new to spending time with our loved ones. If you took some time to rest, this is also important, especially after a busy day or a busy week. Our bodies need to recharge and we should cater to that as well. Some people genuinely do not have a lot of time. I once met a German speaker at a conference who told me he had a wife and five kids. Talking about learning and practicing outside working hours, he told me that his only alternative was to be very smart in how he uses the very limited amount of time he has. Despite his tough situation, he managed to present at a conference.
Quite often, lack of time is used as an excuse for our own laziness. People are different. Some live in large cities, some in small villages, some have family, and some live on their own. Some people have hobbies. Some love going to the gym. Some are young and love going out with friends; others are older and prefer to stay at home. Some are morning people; some go to bed very late and hate to wake up early. By no means do the following tips apply to everyone; they are just a collection of things that we can do to create time and use it to invest in our careers.
I realized that I used to waste a lot of time in front of the TV, aimlessly browsing the Internet, checking all the uninteresting things my friends publish on social networks, playing computer games, or watching sports. I decided to cut down on the number of hours spent on these things. That doesn’t mean I don’t do them anymore. It just means that I do them in moderation. Although they are great ways to relax and switch off, we do not need to do them every night, all night.
Your local coffee shop is your friend. Find a coffee shop near your workplace with a good Internet connection. If there isn’t one, find one along the way. Even if your company has a coffee area, I would avoid that since we can be tempted to do work during this time or may be interrupted by colleagues. Take one day a week and try to get to a coffee shop one or two hours before you start working. Use this time to write code, read a technical book, blogs, or whatever you think you need to do to learn and move your career forward.
Lunchtime is another great opportunity we have to practice and learn something new. Once or twice a week just grab a sandwich and your laptop, and go somewhere quiet. It is amazing what we can do in such a small period of time when we are focused.
Check if there is a user group or tech community in your city and join them. Usually user groups meet regularly; many operate on a monthly schedule. Make a commitment to go to the meetings at least once or twice a month. Meetings tend to last between one to three hours so I’m sure the vast majority of us can plan for that. The advantage of attending user group meetings is that we usually can learn a huge amount in a very short period of time, either from a presentation or from speaking or coding with other developers. There is a limit to what we can learn on our own. Although we all feel we can learn anything, sometimes we don’t know where to start. It’s also worth remembering that it can be a lot faster to learn something from someone with more experience than trying to learn on our own.
Go to bed 30 minutes earlier than normal and use this time to read a book, look at blogs, or watch technical screencasts before falling asleep. This is something that works really well for me. Every single night I try to read at least a few pages, regardless of the time I go to bed.
Buy yourself a Kindle, iPad, or another e-book reader, and carry it with you at all times. Use it every time you have some dead time, like commuting or waiting for your dentist, doctor, or hairdresser appointment.
I believe every developer has a good smartphone today but if you do not have one, buy one now. Use Twitter or any other information aggregator when you have a break or dead time. This is a great way to quickly read something or keep up with the latest news and trends. Being able to go to a single place and get all the information you want is key when you want to optimize time.
Focus: The Pomodoro Technique
In order to use our time outside working hours wisely, it is extremely important that we focus. A good technique is to decide beforehand what we want to do before we actually use this time slot. It is like deciding the agenda before scheduling a meeting. It does not need to be strict, but we need at least to have a good idea of what we want to achieve. Once this is done, we must ensure we can focus and get it done. One way we can achieve this is by using the Pomodoro technique. There are five basic steps to implement this technique:
- Decide on the task to be done.
- Set the Pomodoro (timer) to 25 minutes.
- Work on the task until the timer rings.
- Take a short break (normally 5 minutes).
- Every four “Pomodoros,” take a longer break (15–30 minutes).
During a Pomodoro (25 minutes), we focus on the task and nothing else. The breaks between Pomodoros are for a quick rest, coffee, checking emails, making a phone call, checking your Twitter, or whatever you feel like. We should do whatever we can to finish the Pomodoro with no interruptions but in case it needs to be interrupted (there is an important call we need to take or we really need to speak to someone), then the Pomodoro must be terminated and not paused. A new one should be created when we are ready to work on the task again. There are many Pomodoro tools available out there. Some are very sophisticated where you can keep track of all the tasks you completed, interrupted Pomodoros, and many other statistics. I, personally, prefer the simple ones but feel free to use one that suits you better.
Whatever you do, a sustainable pace is key. Keeping a healthy work-life balance is tough but not impossible. If you are the type of person that says, “I don’t want to touch a computer outside work,” you probably should think again about your career choice; maybe software development is not for you. For the majority of us, software development—besides being our job—is also a hobby, which makes it relatively easy to find enough spare time to practice and better ourselves.
Keeping our professional life healthy is essential for a healthy family life. An unhealthy professional life, where we are constantly worried about not being paid well, or that we may not find another well-paid and interesting job if we are made redundant, may seriously damage our personal lives. Being at the top of our game, with good connections and with skills that are in demand in the market, puts us in a good position not to worry too much about our professional lives and give our family and friends the attention they very much deserve.