Overtime isn't an elixir, it's a bandaid

Overtime isn't a magical elixir. It's a band-aid, a tolerable patch in the short-term, but hiding bigger problems if it's needed for a long time or repeatedly.

Overtime isn't an elixir, it's a bandaid
Photo by Agê Barros / Unsplash

I wish there were more hours in the day.

We've all said it at times. Maybe you've said it since you woke up today. It feels like we could do so much more if only we had a few more hours. Or twenty. It's silly of course. If days were extended to 40 hours, we'd need longer nights to recoup, or we'd die after a fewer number of years. Or if days could be extended and everything else stayed the same, we'd fill them up with more stuff - more work, more hobbies, more diy projects, more youtube and netflix binges - and we'd be right back in the same spot again, wishing there were even more hours in the day.

I've never owned one, but it's obvious businesses feel the same crunch. If there were more hours in the day, just think how many more products could be dreamt up, created, sold. The thing is though, they sorta can have more hours in the day. 20 employees working 40 hours a week is 800 hours to Do Stuff. Ask everyone to work 2 extra hours a day, and you have 1000 hours to Do Stuff! But we've all read articles time after time about how that's unsustainable in the long run.

All I've got to offer is my personal, subjective experience. I have had to work long stretches of overtime in the past, and I have experienced the diminishing returns of long and seemingly endless hours - punchiness, exhaustion, defeatism, thoughts of finding another job. It all builds up and interfers with my ability to do the job that I'm spending extra hours trying to complete.

After a relatively short time, it becomes heavily counter productive. When there's no end in sight, and the ask is to work extra hours in perpetuity on whatever requirements are left (weeks or even months worth), to pivot when things change or there's scope creep (as they seem to do), and to fix the bugs that rear their ugly heads (all the more after long hours and being tired), the whole thing becomes ineffectual.

There is one thing that's true for me, and I'd bet it's true for quite a few software developers, and anyone who finds themselves lucky to be working in a field that scratches their particular itch. We're problem solvers by nature, and we'll work a little overtime to solve a problem. If there's a piece of work that's interesting, challenging, and we're just that close to getting it, we'll put in the extra effort to see it through. Scratch, meet itch.

xkcd: Nerd Sniping

Okay hopefully none of us is as bad as that xkcd comic, but presented with something we can take pride in, that we're trusted to complete and given some level of creative control over, we'll go the extra mile.

But after going through excessive overtime a few times in the past, and having the threat of it loom a few more, I think there have to be a few ground rules. It's the only way I can see doing it and not completely resenting it.

  • Overtime should be well-defined. Goals can't keep shifting. Requirements can't keep changing. The finish line shouldn't keep moving. People want to see light at the end of the tunnel, and it better not be a train.
  • Overtime should be short-term. If it's excessive or open-ended, then someone's screwing up the scope, or planning poorly, or overpromising, or the team is stuck and communication has broken down. Whatever it is, there'll be even more disappointment and less to deliver if people burn out and leave. And that's a real possibility.
  • Overtime should be rare. If every project ends with a promise that overtime won't happen again, and half-way through the next project it is, then something's wrong. Too much to do and too few people to do it. Too much complexity and not enough focus. It can't be a leader's first go-to. It shouldn't even be in the middle of the list. If every other possibility has been exhausted, fine, but only then.

What do you think? Do you agree? Disagree? Ever found yourself in the middle of overtime, and you can hardly remember when it ramped up to the point it's at, or see an end to it? Did you just suck it up and keep going, throw in the towel, or completely revel in it? I'd love to hear about it!