Working Smarter, not Harder

This is a post I've been meaning to write for eight and a half years. Inspired by this tweet from Ceora, I'm finally doing it.

I have a question for parents in tech, especially moms.

How has having children impacted your career?

I wanna hear the good, the bad and the ugly. Tell me whatever you’re comfortable sharing 😛

— ceora🌸🌺 (@ceeoreo_) May 15, 2024

The most immediate impact having a baby had on my career is I needed to work much smarter not harder. Babies (and children) take up all that so-called free time, and and almost all of your not-free-time, that you used to have.

So, as soon as I went back to work after my first child, it was clear to me that I needed to update my working practices. Let's set the scene though so you understand that my situation might not apply to everyone:

I went back to work when the first child was 4 months old. But I was already working from home, so I didn't need to leave my child for hours at a time, or commute, or pump, or anything like that. I did have to feed her every 2-3 hours or so (or every 90 minutes when she was going through one of those phases). We also did wean her onto formula quite soon after I went back to work because even working from home, just a room away from the baby, breastfeeding was not really something I wanted to carry on doing.

I don't remember my exact routine when I went back to work, but definitely didn't have a solid 8 hours for working, I probably managed 4-6 hours a day, interrupted by feeding and other baby-related activities. This is where the work-smarter thing came from. I needed to get a good day's-worth of work done in those few hours.

Removing "filler" activities

Firstly, I remember that's when I stopped checking Facebook so frequently. At the time, as I was living in a different country to my family and friends, I was using it a lot for personal connections and to share what was going on with my family. Seems weird thinking about it now, I don't use it at all anymore, but when I moved to Spain my maternal grandparents, all my aunts and uncles, and my Mum, were all still alive, and active on Facebook. So anyway, I ditched Facebook during work hours and I spent a lot less time chatting on Twitter, reading the news or following random links.

Note: if you do currently blend work time with catching up with friends and family and you remove that from your work time, you will need to make the effort to connect with them at other times. This is also much harder when you have a baby or children taking up all your "free" time. But do it, because honestly who knows how much time you have left with them.


Secondly, I was much more focused on what needed to be done. I would aim to work on one thing for the day and not get distracted by something else. I probably time-boxed my email-checking to a short time first thing in the day, and I would close Slack when I was working. I'd open Slack every hour or so to take a quick brain-break and check no-one was screaming for something, but these breaks were short. As I evolved my working practices post-children I got much better at focusing my work. My particular job (developer advocacy) can be made of a number of different types of work on varying topics. As you know, context-switching is a killer, and also research and learning for new topics is what takes the time, rather than the implementation. So a trick I used, and developed, since having kids is theming my work to minimise context switching and maximise output.

For example, instead of working on a blog post about Java 8, then doing a What's New Video, then presenting about code reviews at a conference, I tried to keep to similar topics in window of time. So if I was working on Java features, I'd try to do a blog post, a video and some Twitter tips on the topic over a couple of weeks, and I'd try to reuse content from presentations I was giving. This "theming" of work has probably been my most effective way of increasing my productivity given a limited amount of available time.

Reuse has also become key. Now, over 8 years after my first child was born, and 10+ years doing developer advocacy, I have a backlog of content with a range of themes, I have demo projects that cover the types of technologies I tend to talk about, I have a portfolio of talks on the topics I enjoy talking about. I can reuse some of these ideas or demo projects for new things I work on. One of the reasons I took my current job at Gradle is that I wouldn't have to step away completely from all the expertise I'd developed as a Java-and-tooling expert at JetBrains. I've been using my demo projects from that time to show Gradle and Maven integrations, and I've been digging up old presentations and blog posts to inspire me for videos for Dave's Continuous Delivery channel - the last thing I want to do is spend lots of time researching something new, only to throw it away after one piece of content.

Work cannot bleed out of work-time

Thirdly, it became impossible to work extra hours. If there was a deadline to meet, I'd have to have a clear idea of how long that work was going to take and exactly which days I'd be working on it. Work would be time-boxed and iterative, so if I ran out of time, it would go out as it was - lower-priority items in the same piece of work simply got cut.

Let me give you an example: the most aggressive deadlines were always getting the "What's New in IntelliJ IDEA" videos out in time for the release. You can't start them early, because the early access versions of the features aren't ready, and you can't do it late because the video goes out at release time. The features I needed to cover in the video would be listed and prioritised (by the business and to some extent by me), and I usually had a good feel for how long each feature would take to cover. I would work on big-ticket high-priority stuff first, then quick wins/easy features, then add anything else I had time for. When the deadline rolled around, I would cut off the work there, and features often didn't make it into the video. The What's New videos were a style evolved to support this - usually my videos have a story and flow, whereas What's New videos are simply feature-feature-feature, grouped by some logical grouping. This way, features could be added or cut from the video as needed. This approach applies to development work too - break the work into smaller tasks, and some tasks will simply not get done, like the nice-to-haves (please don't drop testing though!).

I have always, since my early twenties, had a policy of not working weekends and never working after 9pm (in fact I got into trouble for this at one place I worked. I didn't last long there). However, I didn't realise that I was used to being able to work an extra 30 minutes, an extra hour or two, or work through lunch, if I was in the flow or if something really needed doing. With the baby, that became impossible. Now my kids are at school it's even more difficult, because the school day dictates most of my daily schedule. It was a bit of a shock to realise that I was in the habit of using my own time to make up for poor estimations on my part, or for not concentrating during the day, or to make up for overcommitting, or simply having the luxury of using my time when I finally hit my flow. I mostly like my job so I didn't see this as a problem, but as soon as I no longer had the luxury of my time being my time (because it belongs to the family), I chose to put more conscious effort into using work-time only for work, instead of letting work bleed into my life.

I do remember running performance benchmarks for my Refactoring to Java 8 talk overnight, sat on the floor of my hotel room, the night before my talk, while my husband and 6-month-old slept in the bed. That was because I had last-minute ideas on how to improve the talk but no time to implement them between work and my fair share of childcare. As a single person at the conference, making these changes would have been "just" a case of spending more hours on it, working on it on the plane or during free time. As a mother, there were no more hours. This year, at DevoxxUK, I had ideas on how to improve or update the talks I was giving. I pushed myself to focus only on presenting what I had, not thinking about what I could do - echoes of that night of running benchmarks running through my head. And honestly, I was much happier. The talks went fine, and I was much less stressed.

If you're interested in specific time-management tips for how I manage focus and keeping work within work time, I wrote a huge post about that: Time Management for Parents.

Prioritise Progress

This final tip comes from my husband. I asked him what has changed about the way he works since having the kids, and he gave me a great tip. As already discussed, your time is not your own, and you can't always control when you have time to work on something. You can, however, assume you will not get that lovely block of continuous flow-time. You know, that time you need to "work on this properly" or to "really think about that". 

My husband recommends taking all the tiny pieces of time you have, 5 minutes here, half an hour there, and focusing on making some progress. Whether that's doing a bit of reading while you're in the bathroom, or making that one change to the code when you have 5 minutes between meetings. He reminded me that the goal is progress, not "get it all done now". I am bad at this. I like focus time. I have not blogged for years because I Need A Proper Amount Of Time To Sit And Think And Write. But you will definitely make much more progress doing 10 minutes here or there than you will waiting for this mythical flow-time to appear.

Final Thoughts

So. Yes, being a parent changed the way I work. I feel I really do achieve a lot more in a shorter amount of time. During Covid lock-downs I only had 2 hours a day for work with the kids at home (they were 2 and 4 and the time) and my output was only slightly impacted, because I was hyper-focused during those hours

However, I do want to caveat all of this - I'm such a fan of efficiency that since having kids I strove for 100% efficiency with my working time. When things went wrong, when people got sick, when hardware or software broke, when flights were delayed or cancelled, I had NO buffer in my plans for that stuff, and it led to a lot of extra stress for me. I also had very little downtime for being creative and exploring ideas (see my presentation with Holly on Developer Joy to see why that's important). And ultimately, I left JetBrains because I burnt out. On the plus side, I guess it took me 6 years to burn out so... yay?

It's very hard for me to separate my personal worth from my performance, particularly at work. Despite frequent urging from my husband to ease back from work and to take more personal time for myself at weekends, I have found it extremely difficult to make that space for myself, to not push myself AS HARD AS I CAN. I do not recommend following in my footsteps. Some of the tips in this post might help you, parent or not, if you are struggling to organise yourself at work. But despite what society tells us, there's no need to put in 110%. If you have kids, use them to remind you that there's life outside of work.

They'll only be kids for a short time, not all your friends and family will be there forever, and work will always expand to fill the time you give it.


  • Trisha Gee

    Trisha is a software engineer, Java Champion and author. Trisha has developed Java applications for finance, manufacturing and non-profit organisations, and she's a lead developer advocate at Gradle.

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