Give a Mouse a Cookie…

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This last year at work at that-corporation-which-shall-not-be-named has been one of the most challenging ones yet. Without going in to too many details, I’ve been helping lead architecture on a multi-million dollar project with over 100 teams involved in some way. It’s been nuts. An average day is 7-8 straight hours of virtual meetings followed by updating and writing documentation when the east coast (darn them and their 6 AM calls) goes home. Lunch, breaks, training, and the like have been put on indefinite hold for nearly a year.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with working hard. There are always going to be periods of time (like the end of a release) where we just need to do what we need to do to get the project out the door on time and in good shape. Heck, if it wasn’t for my boss holding me back I would probably work even more.

However, this only works if those periods of time are temporary- things have to “go back to normal” at some point. It’s like a quest- in “The Hobbit,” Bilbo had to work really hard for a time, then was rewarded, then went back to normal until his next adventure.

What I have experienced has been the opposite- instead of hard work being rewarded with an eventual reprieve, it has been rewarded with more work. The extra effort becomes the expected effort. Things just escalate until someone breaks.

In my project, folks have started realizing that the extra effort our team put in is something that we should be doing all the time (and they’re right; what we’re doing is awesome and helpful). The problem is that the techniques and processes we’ve been implementing are being taken even further, and the amount of work we’re being asked to do is multiplying. We need more people (of course we have been needing more people pretty much the entire time I’ve worked here).

So what am I to do? I want to do a good job, I want to be helpful, and I won’t want to be a whiner (contrary to what it might seem in this post). However, I also have a fixed set of resources to work with.

First, I’m going to set some boundaries. No more 5 AM calls, no more new projects, no more staying at the office until 7 PM. Naturally there will be exceptions, and I’ll be flexible, but I have to reverse a few of the new norms I set. I’m not trying to slack off, not trying to be difficult, but if I burn myself out or take on more than I can physically do, none of it is going to get done and nobody is going to be happy.

Second, I’m investing in “Smart Time.” One of our SVPs said something this year which stuck with me- “Working really really hard just isn’t enough any more … you’re expected to learn and keep up [outside of the office].” At first that sounded incredibly unfair- weren’t VPs like him responsible for saddling us with so much work we couldn’t take time for training in the first place? But later I realized he was referring to this concept of balancing short term necessities with long term investments.

I’m going to take a note from Stephen Covey’s classic “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” and make sure I purposefully set aside time to make long-term investments. Do I have a weekly task which takes an hour? I’ll set aside two hours to automate it. Is there an area of the architecture which has been hurting? I will set up a small group to make sure we have a long-term plan in place to fix the design.

Third, I’m going to train my coworkers, not enable them. I truly want to be helpful. I consider that one of my few virtues. I also want to do things my way. That’s probably one of my many vices. The combination of these two leads me to say “Let me help you with that” or “Sure, I can just do that for you real quick” more often than I should. It hurts me because I take on more work than I can handle, and it hurts my coworkers because they don’t reap the benefit of learning our new tools and processes.

One of the investments that I will need to make this coming year is to purposefully spend time providing documentation and training to my coworkers so that they are empowered to help themselves instead of depending on me for everything.

What do you guys think? Have you experienced this difficulty before? Is this the right way to respond? Let me know what you think in the comments section below.