What Percent of Your Career have you Wasted?

Note to people who know me, these examples span years and I haven’t had much wasted time recently

When I graduated college I got a programming job that wasn’t that challenge. It was in the middle of the Great Recession and it was at a government contractor so it had the virtue of being fairly safe. After the two years I wasn’t learning much except intricacies of the win32 API.

I had plenty of time for side projects and hobbies but my 40 hours a week at work felt ‘wasted’.

Since then I’ve been careful to make sure my jobs haven’t been like that. (If you need advice on how to avoid these situation check out Patrick McKenzie’s “Dont End the Week with Nothing”. Now no project is a complete waste of time. You almost always learn something and as one boss once told me after the third cancelled project in a row “You still got paid.”

But if you imagine a scale where 1 is being paid $1,000,000 to write space shuttle control software in Haskell and 0 is hand editing XML files to configure a proprietary PHP compiler for desktop commercial insurance selling software. Let’s arbitrarily set “wasted time” equal to anything below ~0.2.

Even at the great jobs I’ve had there’s still time that’s felt wasted. The quarter I spent learning and building a project in ScriptSharp that was then thrown away, the month I spent configuring a custom change data capture tool in XML, or the hours I spent trying to figure out the ancient source control software that I no longer remember the name of. These were all projects where I didn’t learn anything interesting and I also didn’t create much value either.

They were all unpleasant experiences without much ‘impact’

During one of these incidents I vented to a coworker “I must have spent 1% of my career fighting with this source control tool.”

Being a programmer he took that literally and responded: “No, it’s not that bad.”

Being programmers of course we needed to find out exactly which of us was right

Let’s assume a 40 year career. A year has 52 weeks. There are ten national holidays in the U.S. which equates to 2 work weeks of holidays. Add in 2 weeks of vacation and you’re left with 48 weeks. Assuming you only working a 40 hour week.

That gives you:

40 years * (52 weeks - 2 weeks national holiday - 2 weeks vacation) * 40 hours a week = 76800 hours

Here’s a spreadsheet if you want to play around with the numbers in case your numbers are different.

First off my coworker was right I hadn’t spent 1% of my career. 1% of your career is 768 hours, or 19.2 weeks. I had probably only spent a day or two fighting with the source control system. Even if I had spent an entire week fighting with it that would only have been .05% of my career, which doesn’t sound so bad.

But if you look at what percent of a year you spend on something it seems like much more. 1% of a year is 19.2 hours.

I you spend two and a half days debugging GWT generated code that 1% of your year wasted.

I’m worried that this essay will come off as more negative than I intended. Actually sitting down and doing the math had two complimentary effects. Looking at a unit of wasted time as a percentage of my career gave me perspective on how bad it actually was. Looking at the unit of wasted time as a percentage of a year had me more actively looking for other solutions when I felt I was wasting time. Either using a different tool, searching stack overflow or asking a coworker. The two perspectives form a virtuous circle wherein less time is wasted on fighting with bad tools and the time that is wasted is less painful.

But it’s important to know how you’re spending your time.