Rock Paper Coding: Chapter Three - Refuse to be Outworked

After reading the chapter on competition being useless, this chapter must jump out as an apparent contradiction. How can the concept of being outworked not be perceived as competition? While this may appear to be a blatant offense, I want to issue a challenge for you to hear me out before coming to any conclusions. In many ways, competition is always on the horizon, but the opponent isn’t Sarah in the next cubicle. The competition is yourself. In this chapter, we’ll dive into this notion that the only real competition is yourself. You are the only person worth competing with in the context of work and the team. Any other focus leads to energy wasting energy and missing opportunities.

I’m completely aware of how many fields this thought pattern or philosophy (you choose) applies. Because this concept is universal, we in the technology community shouldn’t ignore it and instead should find ways to implement it within our craft. Refusing to be outworked is not a conversation promoting unhealthy work habits. We are not talking about progressively adding to our hours worked in the office until we’ve consistently arrived at working 70 hour weeks. For most people, those patterns and habits are not sustainable, and for many people, it will lead to burnout. The critical idea is that one should be willing to invest in oneself outside of work. The deposits into the skill bank allow us to keep progressing towards being better than the previous version of the engineer we were yesterday. As a kid, I played a lot of video games (duh!), and one of my favorite games was called Pitfall. I played that game from start to finish weekly with the intention of further perfecting my “run” through the levels. I’d try to discover areas where I could shave precious seconds off of my competition time. To do this, it required me to make my best effort at getting better at the things I assumed I had already mastered. I was in the constant pursuit of a better “run.” I want you to think of your careers in this same manner. Think of your career and personal development as the pursuit of a new “best run.”

A common area that we can increase our efficacy and continue the hunt for a new personal high score is to find ways to be more focused at work. I don’t believe in droning on and on in front of the keyboard (my mind and habits don’t work that way). I do, however, believe in focus when situations and tasks call for it. We live in a world of instant access and constant distraction. With the pocket computers we all carry around (and no doubt that some of you are reading this book on) everyone in our social circle has access to us at all times. Even grandma Joan has learned to tag us in a post on social media. Because of this ever growing monster of a distraction, it is easy to do a little bit less work and a little more surfing. I’m not going to say we are subtly stealing time (but we are!) I’d rather call it an inefficient use of our time at work and suggest that we may or may not be stealing. The first step towards getting better at this is first to acknowledge that we should be better and the second step is to be better. Disconnect from the social media world. I can already hear the objections to shutting down the Facebook Messenger app and muting other notifications. I get it - emergencies do happen, and we do want to be available if we are needed. Most smartphones have features that allow us to have priority contacts that can break through the “do not disturb” settings. This issue is bigger than social media; it’s more about distractions. According to Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers’s annual Internet Trends report, people check their phones a whopping 150 times per day. This report is from 2013, so there’s a likely chance that this number has increased with the advancements in technology. Checking one’s phone that many times a day means that we are regularly picking it up which leads to taking our attention away from the task at hand. is what The pattern of behavior that I’m describing encourages me to propose a recommendation that we should disconnect for a bit and use that time more productively. It is perfectly reasonable to give yourself a “texting/social” break a few times a day. Get up from your desk and walk to the lounge area and check your phone and communicate as you so desire! My suggestion is that we do this with proper etiquette and for a reasonable amount of time (I’m thinking 10 minutes). The walk will add to your daily step count, and the act of giving yourself some freedom to responsibly connect with the outside world will hopefully prevent from communication binging. The issue with the binge period is that it leads us down the internet (Reddit!) rabbit hole for (at least) 20 minutes. We suddenly realize that we are still at work and more time has passed than we anticipated. Staring at us is the reminder that we need to get back on task, but we can’t quite remember where we left off. There’s a time cost associated with this process. While I’ve survived many of these events, I know that my overall productivity takes a hit.

Sitting in front of a computer with (usually fast) internet also challenges our focused time. If our pocket computers distract us one can only imagine the impact of actual computers will have. Since none of us are robots, it is in our nature to get bored with a task that we don’t find ourselves entirely engaged. At one point or another during your career, you’ll be in a situation where you’ll be assigned to a project that is as thrilling as watching paint dry. Whenever it happens to me, my first inclination is to start surfing the web. My mentor once told me always to find a way to stay productive during the work hours - even when you aren’t directly on task. He encouraged me to be creative and find ways to do something that contributes to the overall goal of improving myself, the team, or the company. One of the ways I have tackled this hurdle is to spend my off-task time reading about relevant technology. When I worked as a Java developer, this meant reading more about the Spring framework or learning about dependency injection. My mind was invigorated by the sudden influx of new and shiny knowledge and that in turn gave me more motivation to work on the less-than-thrilling project I needed to complete. The key here is spending time learning about related technology so that we can still work on improving ourselves and our surrounding environment. Learning about virtual reality while you work for an accounting software company doesn’t directly relate to the stack of technologies in use, so it’s not contributing to your career growth. If virtual reality is intriguing to you then, by all means, spend time learning about it - just not here and now. Another solution to this boredom problem is switching to another task on your list. Perhaps there is a more appealing duty you can spend time on while you recharge your tolerance for the mundane. Warning here: remember your priorities. If the task you are avoiding is due sooner than the item you’d rather be completing ensure that you balance your time appropriately so that you don’t find yourself missing important deadlines. I do not necessarily recommend the free time on your work computer be carried out in the same way I do for the cell phone usage. Companies usually have guidelines in place as to what is the appropriate use of their equipment. These guidelines may not strictly be enforced by your employer, but you can avoid any risk altogether and save your private browsing for your phone or home instead.

Let me be clear: I am not advocating long work weeks. Work life balance is a critical component of a healthy, long-lasting career. Instead, I am advocating proper perspective. If you are fortunate enough to work a salaried position you are well aware of the idea that your hours worked usually doesn’t affect your salary. You may even find yourself extremely fatigued after a particularly challenging release and end up wanting to call it an early night. That “early night” may leave you with less than 40 hours logged for the week. Perhaps you take a longer lunch which results in the same thing - less than 40 hours. In any case, salaried positions typically come with a bit of freedom that allows for some flexibility in the number of hours worked. A dear engineering friend of mine had a very simple policy. If she found herself surfing the internet a little too much or her motivation too low to continue working efficiently she’d leave for home with the intentions of coming back the next day refreshed and ready to rock. She is against wasting time at work as well as not being her best self. I, at first, questioned this because I felt like it was better to be “butt-in-chair” instead. But after seeing her work ethic and the boost the next day, I began to realize the true advantage in that approach. By avoiding wasting time, she found ways to improve her overall quality of work.

All of this is in an attempt to equip you with the right mindset when approaching work and your careers. Refusing to be outworked is more than looking at the highest performing person on the team and trying to find ways to defeat her; we are aiming to outdo the previous day’s version of ourselves. As a kid, I loved racing games. My favorite racing games were the ones that included the feature to allow you to save your ghost. That ghost represented your last successful attempt at completing the track. As you started a new session, the ghost would be right there on the track performing all the same moves you did in your last attempt. The point of these game modes was to show you your previous best and then encourage you to try best your previous record. When you are at your desk, imagine that ghost and all of the habits from the prior day and do better. What are the areas where the ghost is inefficient and wasteful? Notice have many times the ghost got distracted and pull your attention back to the center and be more focused. Continue this path, and eventually, you’ll create a perfect run that will represent your optimal day. You and your team will benefit. This could even lead to less stress overall. The phrase “work smarter not harder” echoes in my mind when I think about applying these techniques. Working smart, to me, means not being outworked.