Time Is Your Most Valuable Resource

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Updated August 7, 2023

You sell your time to your employer in exchange for money in the form of a salary. That might sound weird at first, but this is true for most people who work for a living. For people earning an hourly wage, it’s pretty straightforward: The number of hours they work directly correlates to the amount of money they make. More hours equal more money.

exampleLet’s look at some numbers:

Hourly wage: $50 per hour

Earnings per week: 40 hours x $50 per hour = $2,000 per week before taxes

Earnings per year: 52 weeks x 40 hours x $50 per hour = $104,000 per year before taxes

Pretty simple—more hours worked equal more money earned. For people on a salary, however, it’s a bit different. You and your employer agreed to a predetermined salary, usually on an annual basis, when you signed your employment agreement. If you’re on a salary, you’re not paid directly for the number of hours you work, but you’re expected to put in a certain amount of work and produce a certain amount of output.

exampleLet’s assume a 40-hour workweek:

Earnings per year: $104,000 before taxes

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Earnings per week: $104,000 / 52 weeks = $2,000 per week before taxes

Hourly wage: $104,000 / 52 weeks / 40 hours = $50 per hour

On a $104K annual salary and assuming a 40-hour workweek, an hourly employee and a salaried employee will earn the same amount. But unlike someone earning an hourly wage, if you’re on a salary and work longer workweeks in order to meet deadlines, the numbers aren’t in your favor.

exampleLet’s look at what happens if you work a 50-hour week on the same salary:

Earnings per year: $104,000

Earnings per week: $104,000 / 52 weeks = $2,000 per week

Hourly wage: $104,000 / 52 weeks / 50 hours = $40 per hour

And what about working a 60-hour week?

Hourly wage: $104,000 / 52 weeks / 60 hours = $33.33 per hour

While there are many benefits that come with a salary, the reality is that your income for the year is fixed, which means you’ll be paid the same regardless of how many hours you work. Unlike an hourly wage, more hours do not equal more money. In fact, more hours equal less money on a per-hour basis. It’s not because you’re earning less, but because you’re using more of your time to earn the same amount.

caution Just to be clear, I’m not advocating for slacking off or working as little as possible to maximize your earnings per hour. My goal is simply to illustrate the relationship between salary and hours worked per week so that you are more conscious about how they affect each other. Knowing this will hopefully encourage you to work smarter when you are in the office so that you can avoid long nights and weekends when you need to hit a deadline.

In some cases, however, you may have no choice but to put in extra hours. As programmers, we deal with issues when our software fails, and it can fail at any time. You may get a phone call or a chat notification that the server is down, and you’ll need to hop on the computer in the middle of the night to help get the server back online. Or you may be working on a big project and need to have a working demo before an investor meeting, so you may have some long nights during crunch time. Lastly, you may need to work long nights and weekends so you don’t get fired. If you can’t get your work done during normal business hours, your job may be at risk.

There are a number of good reasons why you should work more than 40 hours a week, and everyone’s situation is different, so it’s something you’ll need to figure out on your own. It’s okay to work long hours every now and then, but when you find yourself working long hours week after week, it will start to affect your work-life balance.

It’s important to be aware of when your work starts to affect your personal life. If you’re canceling plans with friends or family, haven’t taken any time off in months, or haven’t been able to find any time for your hobbies because you’re too busy with work, try to take a step back and reflect on your work-life balance.

important Your job does not define your life.

We program for a living, but that doesn’t mean we should be coding all day every day to earn that living. It’s important to create a life outside of work for your own mental health, and to build relationships you can lean on if needed.

You weren’t meant to stare at a screen your whole life. There are plenty of benefits to getting away from the computer and unwinding in the analog world, and in the end, you’ll want to look back on your life and the incredible memories you made, not that you wrote the perfect algorithm or solved a tough programming problem for your employer.

It’s good to focus on increasing your salary early in your career, but you’ll soon realize that with a higher salary comes greater responsibility. You’ll be responsible for keeping projects on schedule, keeping systems up and running, and keeping your team’s throughput high so that they can continue to ship code to production, and so much more. A lot of these responsibilities don’t involve any coding, and some of them will involve sitting in more meetings and spending more time planning and writing feature specs and bug reports. You may have long nights and weekends rotating as the on-call engineer, or triaging and fixing bugs in the middle of the night.

The responsibilities that come with a higher salary are not the most glorious parts of being a programmer, and not everyone is cut out for them. You may not like doing these things, but you’ll justify it because the pay is so good. What’s important to realize though is that higher pay does not always bring happiness. What’s the point of sitting in meeting after meeting if you’re not happy at the end of the day? Is it worth the higher salary if you’re missing out on experiences with friends because you have too much work?

At some point, you’ll need to decide what’s best for yourself and your mental health. You’ll need to find a balance between your work life and your personal life, and that may mean taking a lower salary if it means you’ll be happier and have more time to spend with friends and family. Or it may mean that you stick to the individual contributor route rather than the manager path so that you can continue to write code. It’s up to you to figure out what makes you happy.

You’ll need to decide if it’s really worth it to spend late nights in the office, or if you’d be happier with less responsibility and the freedom to head home earlier in the day. Again, it’s okay to work late hours occasionally if it means keeping an important project on schedule, but if you find yourself working late week after week, even when there are no upcoming project deadlines, you may want to step back and ask yourself if that is really what you want.

More Hours != More Work

A common misconception is that the more hours you spend in the office, or working from home late at night, the more work you’ll get done. While it may feel this way, it can actually have the opposite effect and lead to a negative impact on the quality of your work.

Working longer has diminishing returns, because at some point your brain will hit a wall where you’ll start to drift and lose your ability to focus. A 60-hour workweek is not the same as two 30-hour workweeks. While it may feel like you’re getting more done in half the time, it may be lower-quality work.

Instead, focus on working smarter and more efficiently during your workweek so you can get all your work done in 40 hours. Distractions and context switching can kill your productivity.

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