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Ben Nadel
On User Experience (UX) Design, JavaScript, ColdFusion, Node.js, Life, and Love.

The Deleterious Effects Of Working At Full Utilization

By Ben Nadel on
Tags: Work

At work, I'm on the Rainbow Team. Historically, my team's strategy has always been to allocate about 70% of our time to the planned work; and then, to leave the other 30% of time open for the inevitable unplanned / interrupt-driven work which is an inescapable fact of life. In the past, I've illustrated the criticality of this approach using a Sand in the Gears metaphor. Over the last few months, however, members of my team have been reallocated, leaving me as the last fully-dedicated engineer in a large area of our application landscape. This has taken me from my usual 70/30 time-split up to 100% utilization. And, it has had a surprisingly negative impact on my life.

Ani DiFranco lyrics from Buildings and Bridges: Buildings and bridges, Are made to bend in the wind, To withstand the world, That's what it takes, All that steel and stone, Are no match for the air, my friend, What doesn't bend breaks, What doesn't bend breaks

The beauty of intentionally setting aside 30% of your time for interrupt driven work is that you actually have the ability to absorb some of that work as it is brought up. Obviously, you can't handle massive amounts of extra load. But, you'd be quite impressed to see how much you can cram into that time-box.

At 100% utilization, however, there is no wiggle room. Every interruption represents a breaking-change to your schedule; and, to the schedule of everyone who depends on you. Just the other day, I felt compelled to apologize - again - to one of our lead PMs (Product Managers) for not being able to deliver on his ask:

Ben Nadel apologizes for not being effective: I feel bad - you haven't got to see 'Effective Ben' yet :smile: I'm normally more on point; but, there's been an unprecedented amount of interrupt work; and, I'm really the only one left.

As an engineer who, in large part, identifies as someone who can get shit done, working at full capacity is pulling me away from my actualized self. It's pulling me away from my identity. It's putting distance between the person I am today and the person I know I can be.

It's not nearly as bad as it was in 2013; but, my work-life is bleeding into my personal-life, which adds an air of urgency to the matter. Here are some observations and reflections:

  • I'm not sleeping well. I lay awake at night finding myself going over the day; reliving conversations I had; mulling over thoughts. I've been trying to self-medicate with Melatonin and Advil PMs. But, even that seems to be losing its effectiveness. This lack of sleep, in turn, effects my every waking hour.

  • I've lost my creativity. I believe that my creativity lives in the free space of my mind. When I have the capacity to day-dream and to wonder, that's where the magic happens. That's where my insights and connections come from. But, when my brain is taxed, my creative muse goes on a sabbatical. You may have noticed that I haven't been blogging much lately - this is why.

  • I have nothing to say. At night, when I sit down with the missus and eat dinner, my brain is empty and exhausted. I've been so preoccupied with work that I've collected no interesting non-work topics to discuss. I just sit there and stare into space.

  • Every decision feels like a zero-sum trade-off. When you have room to absorb work, the decision to take-on that work is an exciting moment: an opportunity to solve a problem, to help a teammate, to provide a better experience for a customer. But, when there is no room, every decision to work on something becomes an implicit decision to not work on something else. This makes every decision feel unnecessarily stressful. And, the very time it takes to make said decision feels like time wasted.

  • It's harder to roll with the punches. Even in my personal life, I find it harder to just go with the flow. Doing so requires flexibility; which, for me, is one of the first things to fail when I'm stressed. Everything becomes harder when I'm stressed.

  • I've been putting in over-time. Not being able to absorb work has been very challenging for me, emotionally. As such, I've been putting in extra hours at work, trying to manifest that 30% wiggle-room out of thin-air. I hate to do this. I think it's toxic; and if people see me doing this, I fear that it will create a toxic culture. But, putting in some extra time gives me the illusion that I'm in control. Which is ironic, because I'm clearly out of control; but, at least in that over-time, no one can tell me what to work on - I'm the boss! I get to choose my destiny.

  • I panic that I'm not being productive. When time becomes scarce, the time that you do have becomes more important. But, of course, being stressed means that I can't motivate to maximize my time as effectively as I know I could under better circumstances. Which stresses me out even more; and I panic that I'm not making the most of the time that I do have. Which quickly becomes a self-propagating emotional merry-go-round.

I'm not trying to whine about this stuff. I'm sharing this openly because I think it's fascinating to see how work allocation affects everything both at work and at home. I don't know if this experience is true for everyone. I only know that it is true for me; which means that it's likely true for at least some other people.

This whole blog is about learning in public. And, this is me learning about myself and how I react to different work scenarios.

I don't have a plan. I don't have any words of wisdom. Right now, I'm just trying to muscle through it with the assumption that if I can get some large projects done then things will return to normal. Part of this post is me venting in order to free-up emotional space to keep on grinding.

I know that I have a lot of value left to add. I'm nowhere near done yet.



Reader Comments

@Gavin,

That's sometimes the hardest ask :D Even now, I'm looking at this post and realizing that with the recent font-family change, the body content looks too small. I really need to make time to update my CSS and start using rem units (which I've never done before and need to learn about). So, now I've got that weighing down on me.

And the treadmill continues!

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I hear you man. I try and simplify my life as much as possible because that reduces stress for me. But boy oh boy.. life has a way of adding complexities no matter how hard I try. Then I find myself spinning plates.

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I can soooo relate. Thankfully though, my life is much closer to the 70/30 which allows me to spontaneously meet a friend for drinks/dinner on the living life side of my life. I do love those super busy days though...I feel superhuman in those times, looking back at my day amazed by how much I accomplished.

I find some truth in Lucille Ball's quote...

If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it. The more things you do, the more you can do.

But only in short spurts. I certainly don't want to live my life in the mindset

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@Ron,

I keep trying to reduce and simplify in my life. It's hard! Especially when you're introverted, because then even the people in your life can be "stressful". I haven't had a lot of time to just be alone lately, which I think I need a bit more of to allow me to "reset" a bit.

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@Chris,

1000% on that quote! That is also quoted in one of my favorite books, The Magic of Thinking Big. People are busy don't have time to dilly-dally on random stuff, they just need to get stuff done. This is why I've never bought into the old adage that a "Task expands to fit the time allotted". Not for me - get stuff done, move on, repeat!

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Yes to all of this. Your list of bullets are particularly spot-on, Ben. In fact, it's a decent checklist for future you (or future me): "If you start seeing all or most of these behaviors in yourself, then you're probably burning the candle at 1 too many ends."

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Since I switched to being an Angular developer, I have felt the same way. I haven't even had time to think. I now realise how tough front end development is, in comparison to my life as a relaxed ColdFusion dev. But maybe it's because I have a lot more knowledge & experience, in server side development. I feel that front end development is a lot more competitive. I never felt replaceable as a back end engineer, but now I feel a vast amount of pressure on my shoulders. It is not a nice feeling, but I feel it is something that I must try and overcome, if I am going to further my objectives, as an Angular developer. I hope it is just a phase, like the many stages I have already experienced in my career.

And, I really hope you find some breathing space, as well.
It is truly not a nice place to be.

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@Charles,

I know how you feel. I've been very focused on back-end development for the last few years. I do love Angular; but, it just hasn't been my focus lately and I fear that I am falling behind. I am very thankful for podcasts and being able to at least feel like I am part of the ongoing conversation; but, I am definitely slipping.

Even when I do work on front-end stuff, though, I am definitely not good at the "sexy" stuff. I don't love animations, I don't know anything (really) about design systems like Material, and I just don't have practice doing the glitsy/glammy things. Mostly, I like CRUD (Create, Read, Update, Delete) type interfaces and data-fetching.

I really need to get some sort of side-project going where I can focus on front-end stuff more.

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In this business now for more than 30 years and except for a short time in college, what you are describing is (to lesser and some greater degrees) how I have felt and behaved all my professional life. I have learned that when I struggled or fought to find balance, it always eluded me and in many cases, I eventually had to quit a job or abandon something I thought I loved.

I have fought with this, abandon my sense of control, threw up my hands and pretended not to care, worked harder not smarter, lost or ruined relationships and ultimately embraced insomnia like my favorite comforter. I want so badly for you to find any kind of balance because I understand this kind of hurt so intimately.

For me, abandoning the fear of being judged unworthy or being thought of as fraudulent helped in a powerful way (and don't get me wrong...that was YEARS in the making). As I've gotten older, much nearer now to retirement age, I've found myself actually being able to just not give a f*@k. Bad mouth me, fire me, belittle me, try and cut my salary...I don't care. I know my worth. I know the value I bring to a company and having chosen this profession, I truly believe I have never worked a day in my life.

I try to remain humble in the face of so much "smart" for this old dog. I will do what I need to do for me to stay sane and happy. I now have a job where I actually feel like "this could be the one" where my boss would rather see me be happy and successful in living first. As an eternal pessimist, I'm expecting and fearful that this will change. But I have said ALL these things before. How could I possible hope for "this time it will be different?" Easily now...I had to change ME.

My wish for ANY developer who truly has a passion and love for all things "development" is to find similar solutions or states-of-mind more quickly than I have.

I've learned a lot but still have a long way to go. I think you are pretty awesome guy and a great developer for whatever worth that may be to you.

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@Ben, Whoa, hold on there! Your tutorials on Angular are extremely advanced. I still use them as a reference. You could easily get a top job as an Angular developer. I know this, because I am part of a 20 strong Angular team. We have all sorts of skill levels. I am somewhere in the middle, but I can promise you that you would be at the top.
Seriously, please do not put yourself down. I have learnt so much from you, by reading your Coldfusion and Angular posts.

And I am kind of disappointed that your employer has put you in such a difficult situation. However, I am also realistic and I understand that corporations can be ruthless, at times.
These challenges can actually be beneficial. They teach us about how much inner strength we can actually draw upon.
I have a feeling that if you stick with it, eventually good things will come back to you!

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@Charles,

Thank you for the kind words. It's all a journey!

Re: my company, yeah, it's a strange situation. We're currently in the process of migrating users from the legacy platform (that I work on) to the new platform. And, I'm basically the last full-time dedicated engineer on the legacy platform, which is - in no small part - driven by the fact that leadership sort of just ignores the fact that we have so many people still using the legacy platform (and probably will for some time to come). It's frustrating. I think people have made very questionable decisions about certain prioritization.

All I can do is show up every day and try to crush it as best I can. Everything else is sort of out of my control at this point.

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@Mike,

Great insights! It's funny, just the other day I saw someone post a meme on Facebook that was something like:

90% of becoming an adult is realizing you don't have to explain yourself to anyone.

Which I think, in some ways, aligns with what you're saying. Be kind to yourself and embrace the things that make you happy; and, if other people don't get that, well, that's on them. I'm trying to be more like that. And, we're having some churn in our leadership-level positions, which I am going to use an opportunity to not care what people think. Basically, to take comfort in the chaos :D

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