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By Jack Ganssle

Killing Time

Published 2/05/2004

How hard are you working?

When I was a young engineer my boss measured our progress by checking in at night to see who was there. Utterly capricious schedules meant we were always late; slipping a delivery was the company's entire zeitgeist. But the boss knew we were working hard if we were working late.

But that was then, we were all young, unmarried, no kids, and generally free of responsibilities.

Real life is a lot more complicated. Bills, school transportation, soccer-moming or dadding, calling the insurance company, schools and doctor eats a chunk out of the work day. Most of these are activities that simply cannot be done during non-business hours. So (duh!) we sneak a few minutes here and there, because these activities simply cannot be ignored.

Perhaps in the old days of the stay-at-home mom things were different. Dad could essentially shrug off all roles except that of breadwinner. Of course, back then Dad was so divorced from his parenting role he could hardly remember the kids' names, so any nostalgia for the Camelot years of Ward and June Cleaver (http://www.leaveittobeaver.org/gang/gang_ward.htm) is surely misplaced.

Fred Brooks claims developers spend 55% of their day actively working on a project. That's 22 of the 40 hours in a normal work-week (or 44 of the 80 hour norm at software sweatshops). The rest of the week passes spent in non-project meetings, adminstrivia, taking care of personal business and rehashing the Superbowl's halftime show by the water cooler.

Fact is, we simply cannot stay 100% engaged all the time. We drift in and out of a state of flow, that period where we're one with the project, when C code flies from our fingertips to the keyboard. But sometimes we're daydreaming or distracted. Or there's only 5 minutes till the next meeting, certainly not enough time to crank some more code, so why not what's new on Slashdot (http://slashdot.org/)?

Yet despite these distractions our productivity is up (http://www.bls.gov/lpc/home.htm). So maybe sneaking a little time for personal matters isn't a problem.

When we're not compensated for overtime (81% of us aren't according to
http://embedded.com/pollArchive/?surveyno=5900008) a certain natural resentment sets in around 8 PM. "Why the heck am I doing this? I've GOT to balance the checkbook today!" The not unexpected result, confirmed by many (http://www.stevemcconnell.com/rdvolot.htm), is that lots of hours at the office may not translate into lots of productive hours.

A Zen saying recognizes the inevitability of real life, our inability to transcend the mundane: "First enlightenment. Then the laundry."