IT Employment optimize

10 things you can do to keep your IT job from taking over your life


IT professionals don't hold a monopoly on working excessively long hours or having job responsibilities cast a shadow over their personal lives. But for many reasons, it's a field that invites long hours, persistent worries, and a reluctance -- or inability -- to mentally clock out when the workday should be over.

Some IT pros are all-but-indentured to a company that expects 24/7 availability. Some face a staggering gap between resources and work to be done. Others discover that effective time management is out of reach because of project volatility and constantly changing priorities.

For those trying to rein in their runaway professional lives, it doesn't help that "You won't be able to reach me" has lost its power. Cell phones, PDAs, and remote access tools have all but eliminated the refuge of inaccessibility. They might make your job easier, but they also make your job omnipresent.

All of these factors play into the phenomenon we call the pervasive workplace -- when your job seems to permeate every corner of your life.

Discussion threads abound with horror stories of oppressive company regimes that keep IT pros stretched impossibly thin, pager-enslaved, and fearful of retribution (i.e., no more job) if they don't live to fulfill the organization's tech needs. If you're stuck working for a company like that -- and assuming that's not your ideal state -- it could be time to hit the job boards. On the other hand, you may be working for a great outfit that has enabled you to maintain perfect work-life balance. But if you're somewhere in between, wishing you could scale back your work obligations to make a little more room for your personal life, here are a few ways to help keep the workplace at bay.

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

#1: Learn to dismiss or delegate

Managing your workload is one key to preventing chores from spilling over into your personal time. If your to-do list is busting at the seams and adding countless hours to your workweek, you have a couple of choices. One possibility is to toss a few things overboard. Maybe they'll drift back. But if you carefully choose what to jettison, those things may not resurface for a long time -- if ever. Candidates for dismissal include things in the "It would be nice to..." category -- tasks that aren't critical to daily operations or maintaining a secure and stable environment. ("It would be nice to update the company intranet to include end user resources... but it can wait.")

Another possibility is to delegate tasks when you can. This can be tough -- especially if it's work you would have enjoyed doing if you had time or if you assume no one can handle the job as well as you could. But if you're swamped, you need help. And there are benefits beyond lightening your workload. For one thing, you'll break the habit of hanging onto everything until you can see to it personally (which may never happen). For another, you'll be helping co-workers or subordinates expand their knowledge and skills, making them more valuable to the company (and happily, to you as well).

We're not talking here about dumping a bunch of work on some poor hapless associate. There's some upfront effort involved in selecting the best tasks to delegate, finding the best person to handle the tasks, and making sure that person has what's needed to get the job done. But it should become an automatic part of your thinking when you're thinking, "How can I get all this done?"

#2: Prioritize like crazy

This one goes hand in hand with the previous strategy: To make realistic decisions about what to dismiss or delegate, you have to be able to determine which items are critical (vs. trivial or even unnecessary) and what's needed to execute on them. The more experienced you are, and the more familiar you are with your organization's technology and business processes, the easier it will be to target the essential tasks on your list. But you may still find it helpful to develop a set of questions to help you figure out what has to get done and what can slide. It's a good analytical discipline to develop and it will remind you to step back occasionally instead of just allowing yourself to get swept up in an endless succession of chores.

Here are some questions to help with the triage process:

  • What will happen if this doesn't get done this week (month, quarter, year)? Who will be affected?
  • Are there dependencies that make it vital to complete this task?
  • Can you do part of the project now and defer the rest until you have more resources?
  • Can you permanently reduce the scope of the task or project or implement a simpler solution?

You may need to talk to a lot of people to make your determination, but that's actually a good thing -- someone may come up with a perfect alternative you'd never considered (or volunteer to help).

#3: Cross-train and document

Make sure you aren't indispensable. If no one is equipped to cover for you during your vacation, what kind of vacation do you think you're going to have? You'll be checking e-mail, fielding questions, and putting in an extra week's worth of work before you leave and after you get back. If you're a manager, you need a lieutenant -- someone who understands the processes, projects, and relationships you handle, even though it's likely to be at a superficial level. That person can keep an eye on the day-to-day concerns while you're gone (whether you're on vacation, attending a conference, dealing with a crisis, or consumed with a full-time project) and worst-case, he or she can escalate matters to your attention or to someone at your level or above.

If you're not a manager, you may be able to spread your knowledge and expertise by showing co-workers specific aspects of your job and parceling out your chores. Your colleagues should be doing this as well. In fact, a good manager will make sure your team operates this way, providing opportunities to cross-train and sub for each other in appropriate aspects of your work.

If you don't have time to train someone to fill your shoes, or even a small portion of one shoe, documentation can help. Nothing elaborate -- a checklist ("I have to do these nine things before leaving on Fridays"), a cheat sheet ("I follow these steps to double-check backups for the accounting database"), or a simple walk-through of a certain configuration procedure, maybe with screen shots inserted (however sloppily) in a Word doc.

#4: Don't overpromise

It's natural to want to look unassailable in our ability to give customers, co-workers, and bosses whatever they ask for. Sometimes, even an outrageous request seems doable because saying, "I can't get that much done by then" sounds so lame. Don't fall into this trap. If you're a seasoned project manager, you know how to make a realistic estimate and establish a work plan that reflects what's feasible, even given setbacks. But most of us are sitting ducks for misjudging our bandwidth.

No matter how hard it is, try to assume that everything is going to take longer than you think and that there will be obstacles that slow you down. Give yourself wiggle room on your commitments. ("I'll try to get this done by next week, unless I get pulled into the final phase of UA testing. If that happens, I'll let you know.") Of course, not everyone is driven to meet their deadlines and fulfill their promises. But those folks probably don't have a big pervasive workplace problem anyway. The rest of us need to be careful here.

#5: Nail down expectations before you take a job -- or take corrective action

Do your clients or company management expect you to be available 24 hours a day? If you accepted a job knowing that would be the deal, you can either live with your commitment, try to renegotiate the arrangement, or quit altogether. But if you didn't sign on for that kind of availability, you'll need to take steps to redirect the terms of your employment.

First, make sure the boundaries are in place. You might tell consulting clients something along the lines of, "You can contact me between 8:00 AM and 6:00 PM. I may pick up messages outside those hours, but I can't guarantee it." Or you might tell your manager, "When I was hired, we agreed on some overtime for special projects, but nothing was said about 24/7 availability. That schedule isn't going to work for me." Obviously, this may be a difficult conversation to have, and there could be negative fallout. But if your situation is becoming untenable -- your work is eclipsing your personal life and driving your stress levels off the charts -- you have to be resolute, honest, and clear in what you're willing to commit to.

Once you make your case, you'll need to stick to your guns. It's likely that you'll be asked to make special concessions at some point (maybe on a regular basis). You can bend your rules where it seems appropriate, but be aware of the effect on the boundaries you're trying to establish. For your own sanity, sometimes No is going to have to mean No.

#6: Implement a rotation to cover special projects and to staff after-hours duties

Because IT usually requires full-time monitoring and crisis response, as well as entailing work at odd hours to avoid disruptions during business hours, staff scheduling requires extra attention to make sure the burden is distributed reasonably. Things may get crazy periodically and require bursts of overtime -- that comes with the territory. But if you're routinely asked to pull all-nighters and work all weekend on top of your regular hours, something's gotta give.

Most tech managers are well aware that driving their staff to the brink of burnout and beyond is not the way to establish a smooth-running, productive operation. So if you bring the situation to their attention, it's likely that they'll try to work with you to help ease your schedule and build in a decent amount of downtime for you. Does this work for everybody? Nah. There are some stinkers out there who will dismiss your most reasonable request as lack of initiative. But if you approach the conversation with some possible solutions in hand, you may be surprised at the results.

What kind of solutions can you bring to the table? Maybe you can get together with your co-workers and hammer out a rough schedule that spells out a rotation for weekend coverage, a tag-team approach for next weekend's server room relocation, and a comp day for each person the following month. Maybe you can make the case for an intern to be brought in and then take over the responsibility for hiring and training that person to cover some of the routine tasks that keep you working late most evenings. Maybe you can offer a more efficient plan for handling a major deployment that will mean that nobody has to work all night Friday.

#7: Don't telecommute unless you're very good at compartmentalizing

Accessibility is a double-edged sword. No one can argue that being able to handle some of your IT tasks remotely rather than being forced to drive to the office in the middle of the night is a step in the right direction. But if you routinely do all or most of your work from home, you should be alert to the possibility of work seeping into various aspects of your home life.

There's no shortage of resources available offering pointers for effectively managing your telecommuting environment and practices. One key recommendation is to make a clear separation between work and non-work so that you can focus steadily and productively on job-related activities and then turn them off, disengage, and be fully present in your home life. As a telecommuter myself, I'm especially amused by one prescription that suggests you should dress for the office, get in your car, drive around the block, and return to your house as though you were arriving at work. But as extreme as that gimmick appears, the objective is valid.

If your work is sitting in the next room and there's something you'd really like to finish, you may find yourself saying no to Frisbee with your kids after supper so that you can knock out that task. "It'll just take a minute" becomes another lost evening.

Maybe you don't want to stage a phony drive to the office to put yourself in work mode. But unless you want your job to infiltrate your personal life -- with potentially destructive consequences -- you should consider adopting these tactics:

  • Set up a dedicated area for working.
  • Establish a work schedule and stick to it.
  • Take breaks just as you would in an office environment.
  • When it's quitting time, quit.

#8: Help users become more self sufficient

If you're being run ragged by users paging you at all hours, one solution is to try to educate them to handle some situations on their own. Teaching people how to do their own basic troubleshooting will improve their efficiency and decrease your support time and after-hours calls. The most efficient way to handle this education may be to put together a series of tips as HTML pages, organized by category so users can find the information they need quickly without having to scan a whole list. You can publish the tips on your internal network and provide a shortcut to them on users' desktops or push them to their machines. Alternatively, you can burn the documents onto CDs and distribute them or simply print them out, although that makes updating the information more cumbersome.

It's also helpful to make sure users understand when it's appropriate to use the after-hours pager and when it's not. This can best be accomplished with some written guidelines distributed in a handout. If you send out a regular IT department bulletin or newsletter, this information can be featured prominently as a reminder.

#9: Build in real downtime (and disconnect yourself)

You've probably heard reports citing statistics on all that unused vacation time -- and how detrimental it is for worker health, productivity, and emotional well being to work without taking a break here and there. Yet time off may seem like a total impossibility, with projects stacked up as far as you can see, staff shortages, or business upheavals requiring all hands on deck. Nevertheless, you need to carve out some vacation time periodically. You'll be vastly better equipped to wade back into the fray and to take on fresh challenges once you've recharged your batteries. And don't vacation by sitting at home reading e-mails and fretting that you aren't at work as myriad problems accumulate. DO NOT check your work e-mail when you're on your own time. Make sure all your clients, bosses, co-workers, and partners know that you're on vacation and unavailable. No IMs, no cell phone calls, no pages, nothing.

#10: Invest time and energy in building your personal life

Some people are truly passionate about the work they do and seem content to devote themselves to it single-mindedly. But most of us are likely to get a little sick of our work, even the aspects we truly enjoy, if that's the only thing we have going on. It's important to have a life outside work, something satisfying and engaging, whether it's a sport, a hobby, social activities, or family relationships. Maybe you do have those things. If so, you're done here. But if you're drained and uninspired and bored when you get home from work, it's time to shift gears. You need something to look forward to after work so that you can put work out of your thoughts for a while. That's a good thing.

About

Jody Gilbert has been writing and editing technical articles for the past 25 years. She was part of the team that launched TechRepublic and is now senior editor for Tech Pro Research.

24 comments
ps.techrep
ps.techrep

Wait it out. Within the next 10 years, most of the so-called IT jobs will vanish, their functions absorbed into other more general business support jobs. If you are in your 20's now, before you reach the age of 60 you will either find yourself 'working' a 0 hour week, or doing a series of hourly contract jobs. The question won't be stopping an IT job from taking over your life, it will be finding _any_ job to support your life.

jk2001
jk2001

This was a good article. I'm re-reading it to get details out of it. I'd like to add a bit here, especially for workaholics who can't manage their workload. It's important to document. Keep a log of when you start and stop tasks. If you forget to log, you can try to do an end-of-day summary. Keep this in a separate notebook -- I use a "single entry ledger" that's small enough to keep by the keyboard. The notes are an objective measure of how long things take. Transfer it into a spreadsheet, and it's a database you can use to make accurate estimates about how long projects will take. It's also a reminder of how much you're working, and how far over the standard 40 hours you're working. It'll help keep things in check, especially if you're prone to working too late, or too much. Personally, I also do work breakdowns in detail, and keep a to-do list, on paper, with me to keep me on track. It also gives you knowledge. Some weeks, I get an obscene amount of work done. Other weeks, I get little done, but it doesn't seem so mysterious why.

john_ludlow
john_ludlow

It's a good list, though I already do #4 and #5 - and get told off for it. "I'm not sure how that can be done" or "I can do that but there are caveats" somehow turns into "don't be silly I'm not going to do that in a million years". Everyone wants the moon on a stick... yesterday.

jamestaylorfan
jamestaylorfan

I made the mistake of thinking I could go on vacation for Christmas - even though my boss approved it. So I left the state. I no sooner get to my destination than I get a call about a facility down and my 'backup' not being permitted to travel to said facility to assist. It wasn't her fault - she has her own boss - but it irritated me that I had to drive 800 miles back the day after Christmas to fix something that could've been easily handled without me there. The problem? A blade went out and needed to be replaced - the replacement was put in by the facility manager who did a very good job, but it wouldn't work because he didn't understand how to assign it's IP address on the network. Oh well.. so this year, I'm doing preemptive visits to all my facilities and hoping for the best.

sjohnson175
sjohnson175

I feel the need to share this new, radical concept. It isn't making the traction I hoped it would. Probably because it makes too much sense. I have railed against management having 19th century ideas about work. I'm beginning to think most employees do too. http://www.culturerx.com/

jmarkovic32
jmarkovic32

Remember that you work to live and not the other way around. That's my only advice. Sometimes you have to stop and break things down to an atomic level. Why the hell do you have a job in the first place? It it because you enjoy being away from home and enjoying life for 40+ hours a week? Or do you work to support a comfortable and enjoyable lifestyle for both yourself and your family?

AlphaW
AlphaW

Too many departments with too many priorities. These priorities can change on a week to week or day to day basis. Your boss will most likely side with the manager who "just needs to get his work done." Good luck setting boundaries unless you want to work the unemployment line. If you enter the IT field you learn quickly about this, or you leave the industry.

angry_white_male
angry_white_male

If you're single/no kids, get paid hourly with overtime - then IT is a wonderful field to work in if you're a workaholic. However, once you have a family, it all changes and you become a candidate for divorce. Know when to say no. If you're salaried and expected to work 60-70 hours on routine IT stuff (non-project hard deadline related work), it's clear you are being taken advantage of. Update your resume and move on. Many people fall into the trap of putting work before family. Without a healthy work/life balance, it can and will lead to a mulititude of problems such as stress, poor diet, addiction (drug/alcohol), divorce, alienation from your family, etc. Most employers are understanding of personal needs. Red flags are places that don't foster family-friendly policies. If your CEO is working 80-hour weeks and has a knack for divorces and extramarital affairs - you're not going to score any points by putting in a 40-hour week and taking time off to tend to family things.

metalpro2005
metalpro2005

Situation: Application development doing project Role: programmer, architect, technical projectmanager ad 1: Delegate: Work is delegated to different persons. After a while work gets back and needs to be fixed by you. Which will increase the workload effect for a later date : postponing work Dismiss: If there is no prioritization disimissing work is not an option. (see 2) ad 2: What if the priorities for all stakeholder is different, so a priority list can not be produced without people getting upset. End result : no priority list and all the priorities are still ???high??? and completion date is still the same. You are the only one aware of the consequences but can not convince the stakeholders that something needs to be done. Furthermore, if you are also responsible for a team of people, you are letting down your co-workers here aswell???. (which will add to your sense of responsibility and stresslevels???.) ad 3: What if there is no budget for documenting and you are not in a position to change it? When you address this issue to management with a list of all things which can go wrong it is simply ignored with the words : ???we will deal with it when it occurs???. Needless to say that the persons meant by ???we??? is a group of persons containing only one human being : you. ad 4: There is no time for impact analysis. So every request (how complex it may be) is a problem to someone else that needs to be fixed. There needs to be a time estimate for the work necessary within 5 minutes. Denying this estimate is unacceptable. ad 5: This is a great piece of advise. But if your main motivation is problem solving (goes for most techies) and you are good at it, expectations are automatically very high. ???all problems are safe with this guy/girl??? and this is where the expectation is getting out of control. You are becoming the victim of your own success. Even more so when eventually people are getting hired to assist you and management is expecting the same problem solving skills. When they do not deliver , you have to manage these people which will add to your workload. ad 9: This is so important ! It is very easy to get addicted to stress. I think it has something to do with having a ???purpose??? in life : people depend on you. Letting go of it might feel like you are getting ???less important to humanity.??? ad 10: #9 and #10 are heavily related. I think that if you have a bigger purpose in life (such as a family) you are able to see your work problems in perspective and deal with it more effectively. My 2 cents

williamsmytheiii
williamsmytheiii

Jody, Excellent advice! Unfortunately, management doesn't always understand IT burnout, nor the dedication most IT pro's invest in their job. This is a double edge sword - "I worked 70 hrs for three weeks to get the project complete, and didn't get a thanks". This is not the way to approach your job. If you are investing that much time, talk to your boss after the first week. Either ask for assistance or ask for comp time. If both are 'no', then look for another job quickly. At least you know where you stand. Thanks again, Bill

vicky.spelshaus
vicky.spelshaus

good ideas, but useless if you work for the public and you are the entire IT staff.....

armando.costilla
armando.costilla

The company I work for gave us a BB a couple of months ago -it's being substracted off our salary though. When I first began using it I thought: WOW, I can go have a beer, etc. and kind of show I'm aware of our customers' and my boss's inquiries. At first I quickly responded any email message I received and kind of liked the -Sent from my BB message showing on my emails. I use it to check the news and even my horoscope, and began using it as my personal cell phone and gave that same no. to my friends and family. BIG MISTAKE. Just like telecommuting, having a BB can prove a double-edged sword as Jody says. Your boss, coworkers and some customers (yeh... their guts to call you Sunday morning) will truly "realize" you're available 24x7. It'll be some time before I can turn it of completely for the weekend for instance, as everybody has this as MY cell phone no....

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Most employees are not allowed to have other than 19th-century ideas about work. As for ROWE not making traction in the workplace, most supervisors/managers aren't confident enough in themselves, much less their employees, to give up control in this manner.

Too Old For IT
Too Old For IT

I keep "What time does my manager go home in the evening?" and "How many hours a week does my manager work?" as handy questions for job interviews. Generally I just get sheepish looks, especialy if the interviewer has just had to read off the work-life balance statement from management.

DaveDXB
DaveDXB

Simply didnt answer the calls to the people who dont pay me for my extra services. My boss...thats different..but he hardly calls... Others...i tell them straight forward that i do not provide telephone services free of charge. And guess what...when you give them a slap in the face...they actually start paying . Hence, i receive a cheque :) Your not be rude, your just being professional about it.

jwyckstrom
jwyckstrom

When I got hired, I knew I would be the sole IT person. But unless it is inflames I leave it till the morning. I have a life to.

JohnGPMP
JohnGPMP

Unless you are the entire IT staff within a highly regulated IT department, then some of these points will not apply. For example, delegation is a luxury when you are at the bottom of the heap. Prioritize and negotiation is the best things you can do. Coming up with which task it the most important (at the time) and what you and the user has agreed upon as the task is the best thing you can do not to drive you nuts on the job.

juliebeman
juliebeman

...was the day I shut off that Blackberry for good. I still feel good thinking about it, and it was over a year ago.

MelissaK
MelissaK

I would never take a blackberry if I had to pay for it. It's a convenience more to the employer than it is to me. At my last job, I was able to squeak under the radar as the last person on my team to get a blackberry. They finally caught on and I was given one. However, I knew from the many others that had them on my team that if I was not on call, the BB was off. I didn't bring it with me on vacations either. My employer had my home number and my boss (and only my boss) had my personal cell phone number "in case". I've seen what the BB/Job burn out does to people and I've worked very hard not to be one. I'm sure some of you ask, how did I get away with that? Well, there were several on the management team I worked on with the same habits (i.e. no bb on vacation, personal numbers in emergency only, etc). So, I figured, what's good for the goose! I think if you start turning the bb off now and then, people will figure out that's not always your best way to be reached. :-) Good luck "detatching"!

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

The one thing I haven't done is give my Blackberry number to everybody. I gave it to my wife and son as an emergency contact only, but nobody else outside work has it. On the other hand, I knew going in that I would be pulling a lot of on-call time, but as it turns out, I am the only tech in my area. Thus, I am on call 24/7/364. I get Christmas off. Isn't that nice?

ps.techrep
ps.techrep

Time to wake up and drink the coffee that IT has been brewing the last 15 years. If it hasn't already, your company is likely to adopt an application that requires a particular device and carrier, and a security policy that requires your device to be centrally managed. Insisting on using a personal device puts you in the same category as those detested 'users' who make IT life miserable by using personal PCs, installing cr*p and then expecting IT to fix the problems. Unless you are in a management position and your services aren't easily available in the open market, "declining" to carry the company's specified device will probably limit your career opportunities with that emplotyer and bump you up their layoff list.

armando.costilla
armando.costilla

You'll always sigh for whom has to be on duty in Christmas. You did it right from the beginning: your closest relatives should be the only ones having this no. Everyone else should get your personal number. I've learned that the tough way I guess. Good luck Nick.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

So nobody works Christmas. I used to enjoy working Christmas when I was in the USAF because we always got New Year's off!