Our False Enemy, Time

In the tech industry, we act like time is our enemy. But time is a constraint – a necessary one. It means you can’t do everything, and you are going to have to choose battles.

If you treat time like an enemy, like something you can only fight by throwing yourself at the problem until you’re exhausted, you will not achieve what you want. You’ll just get sleep deprived, emotionally short, and physically exhausted. And all this while you’ll be chiding others for not working as hard as you.

After all, the premise of Silicon Valley work — the “hustle,” the “grind,” is working beyond 9-5. It’s a practice encouraged both by corporate leadership that wants more from less and by a culture that prioritizes the “hustle” over what makes great teams.

Scope. Efficiency. Balance. Pace. Rest. Feedback. They’re what make great teams. Great teams obsess over a problem and fall in love with it. But they also understand the need to step away and reconsider, to be retrospective and combine a steady march with an occasional sprint.

I’ve seen a lot of startups fail despite the number of hours they throw at a problem. The first one I worked for failed in the dotcom crash, despite my 90 hour weeks. The one that burned me out would succeed despite my 90 hour weeks there. They installed a team that worked hard, but also worked smart and maximized their 40 hour weeks.

I’m not one who tells people to “follow their passion,” but I do think people don’t have to hate their work. A job you don’t hate includes not feeling like you’re in a drug shooting gallery looking for the next rush. It’s one where you push hard, then stop pushing.

We think in these post-blue collar days that perhaps 40 hour week is a lie. After all, white collar work won’t kill you if you’re scattered or sleep deprived (I mean, who’s ever died because they didn’t strap in a saftey harness before working on a spreadsheet?)

But you can get brain-tired from too much creative work. And the idea of resting from work is ancient. Religious sabbaths existed to get adherents to stop working. Weekends exist because labor unions demanded workers spend time with their families or on leisure. Vacations exist so people can do something else besides obsess with work. Sabbaticals exist so brain workers can rotate their mental crops and try doing something else.

We can choose to work for better places where smart work is more important than time logged. It’s up to us to choose sustainable work over the lie that time is our enemy and can only become with crushing superhuman effort. And yes, not every company with a good culture survives, and a lot of places with terrible work cultures live on. But in a world where luck and smart work are as important as effort, supporting sane working cultures helps increase the odds the good cultures will survive — and transform.

It’s not worthwhile to work long hours on an ongoing basis — one study showed working more than 55 hours a week greatly increased health problems in workers. Choose to work smart, to focus on delivery on sane timescales, on regenerating your creativity. And choose work cultures that treat time not as a thing to be fought but as a constraint, a precious resource to be used wisely.


Author: Dylan Wilbanks

Dylan Wilbanks is a web roustabout, raconteur, and curmudgeon currently practicing as a user experience designer in Seattle. He’s spent nearly 20 years designing, building, and perfecting online experiences, and every once in a while does a good job. Occasionally, he speaks at conferences like SXSW and Webvisions. He created one of the first Twitter accounts used in higher education, but that was an accident, and he's really sorry about it. With Kyle Weems, he co-hosts Squirrel And Moose, a podcast about designing and building the web, when they remember to talk about it. He likes nectarines. You can read his tweets at @dylanw and learn more at dylanwilbanks.com.