Monday, June 04, 2012

A Project Manager's View of Long Hours

The comments thread on my recent work-life balance post and Nicoleandmaggie's recent post about productivity have me thinking about the extent to which my experience as a project manager informs my opinions about work hours and work-life balance. The answer is: a lot.

As a project manager, I view long hours by my team (and, by extension, by myself) as both a risk and a failure.

Long hours are a risk because of the issues I discuss in my work limit post. To put it simply, longer hours correlate strongly with more mistakes. I primarily manage software and other technology projects, and I would argue that mistakes (in the form of bugs) can be the biggest risk to those projects. They are certainly one of the hardest risks to manage. There is no point in the project at which we can consider ourselves past the risk caused by bugs, and there is almost no limit to the schedule and budget damage they can do. At any point, we might uncover a new bug. Most bugs are easily tracked down and resolved. But some are hard to find, and I have seen projects put months behind schedule by particularly nasty ones.

I firmly believe that an exhausted, over-stressed programmer is much more likely to make a mistake that introduces a bug than a well-rested, happy one. I know, I know. You're different. You can work long hours and stay productive! I have worked with many, many people in my 10+ years as a project manager. A lot of them thought they were the exception to the work limit rule. None were. I have never worked with anyone whose work quality didn't drop off as the hours crept up over extended periods of time.

The only exception I've seen to the work limit rule is a partial one: if you have two sets of tasks that are significantly different from each other, sometimes one can serve as a "refresher" for the other. This probably works best if one of the two sets of tasks is fairly mindless, but I've seen it work for two sets of "intense" tasks, too, if they are sufficiently different. So, if you have to both write code and produce status reports, time spent filling in the status reports may help refresh you to write more code. I don't think it refreshes you anywhere near as much as going to a movie or going home and playing with your kids would, though.

I've actually been thinking about this "two types of tasks" effect quite a bit, in relationship to writing and my job. Writing uses a very different set of skills than my day job, and I do, in fact, find that it "refreshes" me for my work. However, writing is seen as work by a lot of people, and rightfully so. So when I put in a 40-45 hour work week and another 5-10 hours writing, am I really working a 45-55 hour week? I don't think so, because for me, writing is a hobby. It is not what I depend on to feed my family or pay our bills. I might set deadlines and goals for myself (and I do!) but there is no real pressure on me. If a blog post sucks and no one likes it, no big deal. If I decide I'd rather catch up on the episodes of Sherlock we have recorded than write a new post, so what? Still, this potential issue is one of the things I'm cognizant of as I think about doing more and more formal types of writing. I can't let it start contributing to my work limit, because I use all of that on my day job. So I'm proceeding carefully.

Anyway, because I believe strongly that all people have work limits, that working past these limits leads to an increase in errors, and that those errors have the potential to delay or otherwise hurt my project, I think of long hours as a risk to be avoided. Incidentally, I'm not the only one who thinks this. And, while I've written primarily about software projects, I think other types of work have the same issues. In fact, the most spectacular demonstration of this effect I've ever seen was on a science project at a biotech company. A project needed a certain amount of purified protein by a given date, in order to supply crucial assays. Protein production was laborious and time-consuming, for both the usual reasons and more specialized reasons that I cannot discuss. A prep came ready for purification late in the day, and a lab tech was pressured by his boss to stay late and start the purification going. This lab tech was chronically overworked, partly because he had a bit of a hero complex, but mostly because his boss was a jerk and/or was clueless about how to actually manage. He was well past his work limit, and had been for weeks, possibly months. But he stayed late, and started the prep. When the rest of the team came in the next morning, they discovered that he'd put the prep on the wrong column, and essentially destroyed it. Meanwhile, the team that made the source material had to move on to another project or risk missing a contractual deadline worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, and therefore couldn't produce more protein for this project right away. When all was said and done, the first project took an approximately three month delay because of this one mistake.

Now, that is an extreme example. But I actually think the more usual case is worse. Usually, small errors just get absorbed by the team, silently adding to the workload, and putting everyone under more stress. They might start working longer hours to deal with the extra work, and then more mistakes happen, and the cycle repeats. Before you know it, the project is three weeks behind schedule and you have no idea why. Ask yourself: is this sort of delay a risk you need to take?

One of the key parts of a project manager's job is the management of risk. We think about likely issues and try to put controls in place to eliminate them or at least mitigate the damage they can do. I think long hours are a risk, and luckily, there is a fairly straightforward mitigation: proper planning. When I am planning out a project (or set of projects using the same resources), I do so with the assumption that everyone is working their usual 40 hour work week- or less for the part time contractors. I plan in buffer ("slop", or to use the fancy term "risk reserve") so that little issues do not immediately send us into long hours mode. I carefully identify dependent tasks, so that unforeseen dependencies do not bounce us into long hours mode. I try to think of other potential risks and manage those. In short, I do everything I can to make sure that my team has the time and money it needs to complete the work without resorting to insane hours. While the project is running, I keep an eye on all of these things, and I actively manage communications both within my team and with other stakeholders, all with a goal of keeping us on schedule, under budget, and out of long hours mode.

Of course, I can't control for the work habits of my team members. For instance, a chronic procrastinator will often bump him or herself into long hours mode. But, as a project manager, I can recognize this work trait and try to set up intermediate deadlines so that this behavior doesn't spill over onto the rest of the team.

So when something happens, and my team ends up working long hours for more than the crunch in the last couple of weeks before release? I consider that a failure. I missed something or misplanned something, because otherwise, the extra hours would not be needed. I try to figure out what went wrong and learn from it, so that I can do a better job on future projects.

All of this means that I do not view people who routinely work long hours as heroes, or a standard by which we should all measure ourselves.If they are doing it to themselves, I think they are risks to their projects and I try to keep them off projects I run. If they are working the hours because they "have" to, I think they have crappy managers. Why would anyone aspire to either condition?


  1. Anonymous6:02 PM

    Like I think I mentioned before, I can work longer hours during the school year when I have teaching and service in addition to research. My brain gets fried after about 8 hours in the summer (faster if I don't take a lunch break or 15 min breaks every 3 hours). That's about all the thinking I can do. Also I try to work on two separate projects at a time (though recently I haven't been able to do that, and my productivity has been suffering for it). Ideally I spend almost half the day on one project, almost have the day on another, and then an hour of errandy things (like referee reports or commenting on a colleague's work). When I have more than two projects going in a day I tend to get frazzled and scattered, even though I get a lot done in those 8 hours, I tend to crash and burn as soon as I get home. When I only have one project going I tend to get distracted easily in the afternoon.

    So I definitely agree with task switching!

    1. I find it impressive you can work for eight hours in the summer. I worked for 8 hours on Monday and was completely brain-fried. I think I can write for three hours in the morning and read or do reviews for two hours in the afternoon and that is the most I can do on a consistent basis.

    2. Anonymous4:49 AM

      It depends on the kind of work and how much task switching there is. These past few days I haven't been able to task-switch so yesterday I went home completely fried after spending a good portion of the day goofing off. (Exception: writing up the powerpoint. I was totally able to focus on that.) This is why I hate deadlines.

      Today, thankfully, I present on that project so I get to go back to Boicing.

  2. Anonymous6:04 PM

    as another academic, i totally agree about task switching and work limits. perhaps when you make your own schedule, you become much more attuned to efficiency.

  3. The (large, software company) place where I used to work? Never learned this lesson. Efficient, happy workers are sustainable workers who don't miss blue-screen-crash issues. (This happened every month, affecting literally millions of real people. No, it was not Microsoft...). It was part of why I left- though I never worked more than 45 hours in one week, not once. I'm not a fantastic coder; tired me is a SPECTACULARLY bad coder.

    There was a huge crunch before every deadline, and very few people with management skills to speak of. Also a lot of mission creep- programmers should not run huge conversion projects alone!- and, well, a lot of stuff. If they had more project managers like you at [Pseudonymous Bicycle Repair Shop]*, it would be better software.

    *Nothing to do with bicycles.

    1. Project management is an under appreciated skill, I think. I know a lot of programmers who roll their eyes at project management- until they actually work with a project manager who knows what he or she is doing. Project management done badly may be worse than no project management at all, really.

      And yeah, there is a lot of really bad scientific software out there. If I weren't committed to staying at least sort of anonymous, I could tell a lot of stories of the sort that are funny in retrospect/if they aren't happening to you....

  4. Anonymous7:40 PM

    Actually for many of us academics, our research is a hobby. Teaching and service is work. That is the secret of how we can work long hours and still stay productive.

    1. Really? So if your research program started to go poorly, and no one wanted to fund it, that would have no impact on your livelihood? You could just decide to not do any research for a week or two, and nothing bad would happen to your career?

      I'm sorry, I call bullshit. I suspect that you are either trolling or deluded. If it is the former, please go elsewhere. If it is the latter, I feel a bit sorry for the people who have to work with you.

    2. Anonymous9:55 PM

      So if your research program started to go poorly, and no one wanted to fund it, that would have no impact on your livelihood?

      Actually, no. Of course this holds once one is tenured, and holds more in a theoretical field than in an applied field, but this is true. If I had no funding for a couple of years, my students could simply TA for a while, and they will be fine. In a theoretical field such as mine, we don't need as much funding.

      You could just decide to not do any research for a week or two, and nothing bad would happen to your career?

      Absolutely! Even when I was untenured, I went several weeks at a stretch doing no research, because I was simply feeling uninspired. That was the time I focused on teaching and service, and did an 11-4 job. I even took several afternoons off and went to see movies. No one in my department even noticed!

      But when inspiration struck, I worked long hours and I worked days at a stretch and churned out the papers. And I got tenure.

      If it is the latter, I feel a bit sorry for the people who have to work with you.

      Pardon me, but you don't know anything about me at all. This is simply based on your preconceived notions.

      I have always advised my students not to work if they are not feeling inspired or excited about the problem. I strongly believe that there's no point hanging around sitting at the computer forcing yourself to work, if you don't feel like doing it at all.

      And you know what? When my students felt inspired, when the deadline was close, they have worked very very hard, completely of their own volition, because they were excited by the problem. I have never had to tell them to stay longer hours, or work harder. I have only had to tell students to work less, because they took research as a hobby.

    3. What you are describing is not the sort of long hours for months and years at a time that a lot of jobs expect. To be blunt, it is not actually relevant to what I was discussing in this post at all. You are working in punctuated bursts of productivity that would not be tolerated in most industry jobs. I can't actually think of an industry job that would tolerate that work style.

      I know you academics are used to having all the science blogs be academia centric, but this one is not. This is a blog written primarily about my life, and I work in industry. If some people find some of my observations pertinent to academia, that is great. From what I saw back when I was in academia and from what some of my friends tell me now, certain types of academic labs could do with some better project management techniques. Perhaps yours is not one of them. It sounds like you and your students primarily work independently. Hooray for you. That is not how my type of work is done. My type of work requires teams working together toward a common goal, and that sort of work can't really tolerate one person deciding that the inspiration has left him, so he's going to hang out at the beach for a few weeks until it comes back. We have to learn how to work in a steadier style.

      In short, not everything is about you. It seems this blog post was not. I would have thought that would have been obvious to you, and therefore you would not have bothered leaving your first comment, which frankly, was sort of obnoxious. So I replied in kind.

    4. Anonymous10:27 PM

      I never claimed that my first comment was relevant to your life at all. You said for you, writing was like a hobby. I simply said that for me (and many other academics) research is like a hobby, just as writing is to you. That's why we don't count it as work sometimes, just as you don't count writing as work.

      I know full well that my style of work would not go down well in the industry. I have never claimed that everyone all over the world should adopt my style; on the contrary, I realize that different people have different styles of work, and so long as they are productive, all styles are equally valid. Please check any of my comments -- I have never said otherwise.

    5. Look, you left a moderately inflammatory comment that turns out to be almost entirely irrelevant to the situation discussed in the post, and you're surprised I'm annoyed by it. But here's the back story: I am sick of reading sanctimonious bullshit from academic scientists about how they do the work for the love of it, with the implication that this is how all "real" scientists should feel so everyone should be happy- ecstatic, even- to work really long hours, because see? It isn't really work at all! Perhaps that is not how you meant your comment, but coming on a post like this, that is how it came across. To the extent that I am blasting you for the sins of others, I apologize. But really, there are gazillions of academic science blogs where the "it is not a job, it is a calling" sort of mindset would be more than welcome. I don't want that crap here, because I think it hurts the vast majority of scientists, for whom their job is, you know, A JOB. One they may really, really like, but still A JOB.

      If your research is really a hobby to you, hooray for you. But it still seems that comparing something *that is your primary job function* and whose long term success is crucial to the success of your career to something I do for fun at most 10 hours per week and could drop completely forever and ever amen with absolutely no career impact is a bit of a stretch. But hey, I won't tell you what your research means to you.

    6. Anonymous4:35 AM

      That seems a bit harsh-- especially since you've often said you don't mind tangents!

      In non-research institutions, teaching and service both take over life so much that research is largely irrelevant and it is a hobby--something many professors don't do and that is snuck around 40+ hour a week obligations of something that is completely different. It's one reason that some folks burn out at those kinds of schools.

      I don't know if you read the blogs of humanities professors, but it's something many of them talk about... getting some research in around 4/4 teaching loads, crushing service, low salaries, no institutional support, etc. Because that's why they got their PhDs, to do humanities research work. But they generally do that in addition to a full-time job of teaching and administration.

      If folks were able to do research for 40+ hrs/week it would seem less like a hobby and more like a job, like it does at most R1 institutions. A fun job, but still a job.

    7. I work in academia, in a theoretical field, and I still have to second basically everything that Cloud is saying. The difference is that my group is usually around 8 people, and I need to make sure they are funded (few TA-ships in my department, an applied field) and that they progress towards their degrees and that the science gets done.

      For instance, I have been feeling bored (or burned out, not sure which, probably both) by my research for a couple of years now. I could not, however, just lay back and wait for the inspiration to come back. Group needs to be supported, grants need to be written, students need advice and oversight, papers need to be written. I need to keep working steadily even if I don't feel like it, even if I'd much rather just spend months on a couch watching Netflix. Who wouldn't?

      To me, my professorial job at a research-intensive institution -- yes, I mean all its aspects including research -- is a job. Once you have a sizable group to manage, you have obligations to others, and you cannot really afford to slack off.

      Some of my students probably work more in a burst/downtime pattern. However, those who are the most productive are actually those who come in in the morning, leave in the afternoon, maybe go to the gym at lunch, in general have a regular schedule. Those of my students who I know to work in bursts and consistently put in crazy hours and lack sleep end up being sick more often than most and actually don't produce as much as I think their potential would allow. I know working in bursts is actually intoxicating and enjoyable (adrenaline, I suppose?). However, from experience working with other people (students and postdocs) I guarantee that's NOT the optimal way from a productivity standpoint, that's NOT how you produce as much as your potential allows. Working regular hours, while seeming boring, is a better strategy in the long run. Anyway, didn't someone say that inspiration comes from doing, not the other way around?

    8. @nicoleandmaggie- you are probably right. I wasn't in the best mood last night, and anonymous' initial comment rang too much like the nonsense you see so much in science about how research is so fun and satisfying that REAL scientists just want to work long hours, and if you don't, well then, you're not a REAL scientist.

      After a good night's sleep, and re-reading the second comment- what anonymous is describing is not what I consider working long hours. It is short bursts of long hours, which a lot of us do for deadlines. And after a burst, you're wiped out and need time to recover. That pattern is actually described in the old research in that white paper I linked to, I think.

      Also, I get tired of people who won't even think of a pseudonym swooping in on blogs and leaving snarky almost troll-like comments. But again, that may not have been what this particular anonymous was doing. And since OTHER anonymouses leave good comments, I am loathe to turn off anonymous commenting.

      So, this anonymous- if I over-reacted, I am sorry. A little more context on your comment probably would have kept me from losing my cool.

    9. Anonymous6:45 AM

      We give our anonymous commenters names if they can't think of one. "Tiny Penis Man" being a favorite. :) (Though if the comment is fine, we stick with anon2 etc.) We're evil like that.

    10. @GMP- I'm just coming out of a motivational slump. It has been the longest one if my career, and is still not completely "better". It is hard to work through a slump, isn't it?

    11. Even at an R1, though, research isn't 100% of one's job. At mine, our merit reviews/salary are based 45% research, 40% teaching, 15% service...

      In actual weeks, though, I'd say spent closer to 90% of my TIME on teaching/service. Then I do research/writing over the summer. Maybe over the course of the year that balances out to 45%? (Not going to try to do that math)

    12. Anonymous7:21 AM

      At ours, merit is 100% on research (you know, back in the days when we had raises... which was many years ago), so long as you're doing a small amount of service. With teaching we just instituted a remediation thing that sounds like it's going to be a nasty time-suck, but won't affect me because I'm well above that low bar when it kicks in.

      I think I spend about 25% of my time on teaching and related tasks during the school year (more when I'm prepping a new course). Service is a bit less than that time-wise, but tends to be lumpy because I tend to choose things like admissions (so I'll do 40+ hrs of service all in one week, including the weekend). Supposedly next year I start getting to be on more committees because my time will no longer be as protected. Joy.

    13. Anonymous8:29 AM

      This is the other half of nicoleandmaggie. I have a much higher teaching load than she does, and no merit raises in living memory. I don't even know what they would be based on because they're in the so-distant past. Service is a constant time-suck, though I keep on saying no, but there's a lot of it to do. We have way too many students in our department. Even managing that interaction is a time-suck. Actually, managing interaction with people is probably the biggest time-suck in any given week for me.

    14. @GMP: "However, from experience working with other people (students and postdocs) I guarantee that's NOT the optimal way from a productivity standpoint, that's NOT how you produce as much as your potential allows."

      What a ridiculous thing to say! Do you really think that you can prescribe what the best working style is for *everyone*?! What you claim might be true for you, it may even be true for most people, but it certainly does not apply to all. If I’m honest, I’m much more of a burst-type worker than a steady one. But I hide it well, because I know there are people out there that would judge me for that. Fortunately, my advisor couldn’t care less about my personal habits, as long as I keep my commitments to the group and continue to be a top producer. I’m also rarely sick. But thanks for telling me how I’m doing it all wrong….

    15. Anon2, I am speaking statistically, the sample being my students and postdocs. My best students, in terms of productivity and graduation speed, have been people with regular work habits. I have had three group members with really erratic sleep/work habits and two of them have been sick much more often than average (apparently, sustaining oneself on a diet of coffee and coffee is bad for one's health). None of those three have been the group's top producers.

      But on my (granted not very large) statistical sample, and of course without controlling for variation in aptitude etc., if I were to infer what's better for productivity -- working in bursts or working steadily, I have to conclude that working steadily takes the cake.

      I am not saying anything about you or your habits because I don't know you. Of course, as long as you are healthy and productive, you should do whatever works for you.

  5. Anonymous5:08 AM

    The funny thing about this topic is that everything rings true for me. but I've always assumed that OTHER people don't have the same work limit issues.

    1. On the contrary, I've never worked with someone who DIDN'T have a work limit. People who don't recognize it in themselves often start taking breaks at work without really acknowledging it- i.e., surfing the web, hanging out and talking with colleagues, just sitting and staring into space and thinking about going on vacation....

    2. This is very true- the number of people I have known who boast about working 80+ hour weeks, whilst spending much of this "work" time in coffee rooms or surfing the net. Part of the problem is the kudos attached to long hour work cultures; I'd prefer to do my tasks without fuss and then dedicate a longer continuous block of time to doing my own thing.

  6. This was a really interesting post. I have almost no experience / system for thinking about project management in the little org. I work for, and it's cool to see how you apply it.

    To start a whole other tangent ... it's interesting to think about how some of these ideas apply to parenting. I wish it didn't seem radical to discuss a "work limit" with regard to spending time with one's kids -- it's telling, I think, that it's such a shift from the usual discourse about parenting. I can clearly see how it works in my life, though. I'm sure such a conversation would prompt a large number of parents to swoop in and say that parenting is more like a hobby/calling than a job ;-)

    1. Anonymous5:35 AM


      I love my son dearly, but cannot keep up 24/7.

      At a talk I went to from a top female academic on work-life balance or something similar... she said that serious academics are allowed one hobby, and for many people that hobby was their kids. It's something totally acceptable to say if you're in a room with only economists... probably wouldn't fly so well on a mommy forum.

    2. That would be an interesting post to do sometime. I do think I have a parenting limit, too. Whiny/challenging behavior shortens it, but even when both kids are perfect angels, they suck a lot of energy from me.

    3. Nicoleandmaggie - funny that calling parenting a "hobby" could be just as much a hot button as calling it work.

      Or, maybe it's not "work" that's the issue (pretty sure all parents would agree there is work involved in raising kids), but discussing the work of parenting using the terms, principles, etc. of the workplace. There is such a pervasive expectation that the work of parenting be immune from the limitations, problems, etc. that workers in paid ("real") jobs encounter. It's actually sort of an intriguing parallel to the mystique that academic work tries to spin around itself. (It is motivated by love; therefore, it is governed by different laws than other realms of activity.)

    4. One nice thing about being an economist is that we don't believe in vocations (we do believe in compensating differentials-- more pleasant jobs are paid less all other things equal), and there isn't any sort of separation in how theory works for home production and labor production. We fit the same models to everything.

      What is weird is when male economists put blinders on and stop applying those models to anything gendered (and then accuse women of being hysterical when they just apply standard economic tools). *Sigh*

      That's a tangent. I'm not doing a very good job being focused on work today. Mainly because I'm NOT doing a good job of task switching because I have a thing that I was supposed to finish on (fake deadline) Monday that HAS to be done by (real deadline) lunch tomorrow. I'd be happier if I would just finish this thing. Unfortunately I can't turn the internet off because the program I'm using is server-based.

      Maybe I should allow leechblock more leeway... have it block all of firefox for a couple of hours.

    5. Anonymous4:51 AM

      One of DH's friend's wives is leaving work to be at home with their child. We asked DC if he would want that and he said no (for either parent) because he likes to go to school and daycamp. So I think he'd get tired of just us too.

  7. Perpetua6:53 AM

    I'm an academic (as you know) and I also really relate the idea of work limits, even though my day and work expectations are structured very differently from yours and those in industry. I really feel my own limitations, and notice that if I am too tired to work, then I spend my day sitting around goofing off on the internet or staring into space. But for me, the rhythms of productivity can go in longer cycles than daily (that is, sometimes I have periods of intense productivity and ones of low productivity, but over all I am quite productive, if that makes sense). One of my fears of ever leaving academia is being in a position where I have to pretend like my limits don't exist/ conform to someone else's ideas of my limits. (But I used to suffer from depression, so I'm super aware of my limitations and need for self-care.)

    1. One of my fears of ever leaving academia is being in a position where I have to pretend like my limits don't exist/ conform to someone else's ideas of my limits.

      This. I am in a field that has very good employability in industry, yet the prospect of working for someone else completely terrifies me on multiple levels. I really don't tolerate well people telling me what to do, I never have... Thank God that I was able to get a faculty position, as I fear I would be a really poor fit in industry.

      Most students, however, tell me that being a professor is the terrifying prospect to them (is it writing grants? advising students? the fact that I look frazzled?) and that they think working for a company is easier. To each their own, I suppose.

  8. I'm also an academic (humanities type). I really appreciate what you have to say about work limits. When I am entirely in control of my time, as over the summer, I do switch gears and work on different kinds of projects. Or, if I can't, stop and do something else entirely for a little while (like laundry, as I'm working from home). During the year, there's always another project, in the form of teaching/service/etc.

  9. Anonymous8:58 AM

    This is the anon from last night. I have followed your blog for the past year or so, and I like your thought-provoking posts, although I haven't read all your comment threads in much detail (you get way too many comments!). If you have gotten many trolls about this topic, I can understand why you got upset. If anything, let me say again that I didn't mean to troll.

    1. I misinterpreted your original comment, and overreacted. I'm sorry.

      I'm glad you've liked my posts!

    2. Anonymous6:28 PM

      No worries, I completely understand. We all have bad days. :-)

  10. Anonymous12:09 PM

    I am very happy to read this. I have my own one person company and my work is creatively and intellectually demanding.
    I have observed that when I work more than 8 hours one day, the next day suffers and I have resigned myself to taking weekends and evenings off.
    I thought I just had less capacity than others (since I had often heard from other entrepreneurs about working incredible long days).
    This article helps to calm my inner hero that wants to always do more.

  11. I agree that working long hours are a risk because it can affect the quality of one’s work which might affect the project as well. It is good that as a project manager you try to control the procrastinating of your team members and plan ahead to mitigate the damage. I also agree that active communication between you, your team, and the stakeholders helps in attaining your goal within budget and schedule.

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  13. Where does the need for hands-on experience end, and the need for rigorous and structured project management ability begin?
    informative post


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