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Overtime Addiction: How to Quit

We’ve worked in software our whole lives, and we are not strangers to overtime. In fact it seems our industry (and a few others) are addicted to it. But one day we just decided to stop doing it. A bit like quitting smoking, occasionally you relapse, but you know the only person who can break the cycle is you.

We so often encounter teams caught up in the vicious cycle of overtime, who ask for advice on what to do. They believe it is unavoidable. I like to share my story with them.

I have been booked off for severe burnout, not once, but twice in my career. I spent about 5 years working 60 hours a week. After some professional help I realised the problem wasn’t me, it was the industry and environments I worked in, but I was the only one I could change. I used to think I was super efficient and able to multitask like a legend. The ironic truth I discovered after taking a long break was that multitasking was my way of dealing with the fact that I had no attention span because I was exhausted.

Sometime after this I started working somewhere else that was addicted to overtime. In my first month the teams worked 3 weekends in a row, and releases went out after midnight. In retrospecting with the teams they knew it didn’t work, but they didn’t know how to stop. They had more bugs at the end of the weekend than they did at the start. People were tired, people were sloppy, no one was motivated. So I told them we would stop doing it. They told me they had heard that before. I made a promise that we would never ship after 6pm again.

I made 3 rules:

  1. I would never ask the team to work overtime or expect them to do it.
  2. We would make the final build of release at 12pm on release day because sanity testing the final build and burning the image took a few hours, any critical bugs at that point would be released as patches the next day.
  3. We would fix bugs when we found them rather than letting them accumulate to the end of the release.

It was hard to enforce these rules. I nearly resigned over the first one when my boss was pressured into overtime for an important client. It took several releases of reminding the team of the second rule, before it became a habit. I constantly had to defend the third one to the Product Owners keen to get just one more feature in. But I knew it was the right thing to do. Once people realised I was serious it became less difficult.

The best part?

6 Months later….
Staff satisfaction increased 60% percent (measured by an anonymous Net Promoters Score).
Quality increased 50% percent (measured by number of issues raised per customer, issues dropped to half the previous count).
And most importantly we never shipped after 6pm again.

But I’m not a manager – I can ‘make’ rules!

You need to think carefully here. Some companies have an overtime culture and do not want to change that. This is where you are your own boss. Look at yourself and introspect. What is right for you? When are you at your best? What makes you happy? Dig deep, get to the true reasons.

Often this is a make or break point – perhaps you need to do something else, a different role, a different organisation, a different career. But don’t give in too soon. Organisations can change – you just need to be willing to fight for a cause you truly believe in and value.

It only takes one person to change this in an organisation. That person can be you.