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Beyond the Code: Balancing Work, Growth, and Passion in Programming

Bartek Witczak
Bartek Witczak

Programming is far more than just writing code; it's fundamentally about solving complex problems and continually adapting to new challenges. In the pursuit of a sustainable and fulfilling career, finding the right balance is crucial – it's a long game where the goal is to remain productive and passionate not just for the current job, but for years to come. Kent Beck wrote about 80/15/5 rule. That's what made me thing about my journey. Two of my top 5 talents from Gallup Strength Finder are Input & Learner. In this blog, I’ll share my experiences with this rule, exploring how it has helped me maintain this crucial balance and thrive in the ever-evolving world of programming.

The 80% - Daily Work

In any programmer's career, the bulk of time – 80% – is inevitably spent on what I like to call the bread and butter of our profession. This includes implementing features, debugging, attending meetings, and preparing reports. It's the core of our day-to-day responsibilities that keeps the wheels turning in any tech organization.

From my experience, this 80% isn't just about routine tasks. It's where much of the practical learning happens. While working on various projects, I've encountered numerous challenges and opportunities that have honed my problem-solving skills. For instance, implementing a complex feature or resolving a tricky bug often requires not only technical acumen but also creativity and persistence.

However, it's essential to keep in mind that this 80% should not become a comfort zone that limits growth. It's the foundation upon which we build our careers, but it's just as important to look beyond these daily tasks. In my journey, I've learned that balancing this 80% with the other aspects of the 80/15/5 rule is key to a fulfilling and dynamic career in programming.

The 15% - Stepping Outside the Comfort Zone

The transformative 15% of a developer's time is about stepping into the realm of "High Risk-High Reward". This is where growth and preparation for future roles take the forefront. It's not just about excelling in your current position, but about gearing up for the next big leap in your career.

In my own career, dedicating this portion of time to growth-oriented activities has been a pivotal move. Here are some of the key undertakings that have significantly contributed to my professional development:

  • Introducing New Tools and Processes: Implementing new solutions that streamline development, such as feature flag systems for frontend management.
  • System Upgrades: Taking on major projects like migrating to the latest version of Next.js, which not only updates the system but also enhances my skill set.
  • Architectural Refactoring: Engaging in tasks that improve the overall codebase, like rethinking module architecture or introducing more efficient development tools for GraphQL.
  • Exploratory Analysis: Investing time in analyzing potential improvements, such as evaluating nx and turborepo solutions or updating dependency policies.

Innovative Experimentation: Trying out new methodologies or technologies that might be outside the current scope of work but have the potential to bring significant rewards in the long term.

This segment is about going beyond day-to-day responsibilities and embracing challenges with a broader vision. It’s an investment in your future self and the systems you’re a part of.

The 5% - Fueling Curiosity

The remaining 5% of a programmer's time, as per the 80/15/5 rule, is perhaps the most unique and personalized. This is the segment dedicated to igniting your programming curiosity – pursuing interests that fascinate you, even if they don't directly relate to your current job responsibilities. It's about keeping the flame of your passion for technology alive and burning brightly.

In my experience, this 5% is essential for staying engaged and inspired in the ever-changing landscape of technology. Here are some of the ways I've utilized this time:

  • Exploring New Frameworks: Diving into how different frameworks operate, understanding their internal mechanisms, and experimenting with them in small projects.
  • Learning New Programming Languages: Venturing into languages that I haven't used professionally but find intriguing.
  • Studying Advanced Concepts: Delving into complex topics like blockchain internals or the nuances of AI, which broaden my understanding of technology as a whole.
  • Personal Projects: Building small applications or tools that pique my interest, providing a creative outlet and a practical way to apply new knowledge.

This 5% is not just about learning; it's about exploration and enjoyment. It's a reminder that at its core, programming is a creative and intellectually stimulating field. By dedicating time to what genuinely interests you, you ensure that your passion for technology continues to grow along with your skills.

Flexibility of the 80/15/5 Split

While the 80/15/5 rule provides a structured framework, it's important to recognize that it's not a one-size-fits-all solution. The distribution of time can and should be tailored to fit individual schedules, career goals, and personal circumstances.

  • Finding Your Own Balance: The 80/15/5 split is a guideline, not a strict rule. Depending on your current projects, career phase, and personal life, the distribution might shift. For some, a 70/20/10 split might work better, allowing more time for exploration or professional development.
  • Weekly vs. Monthly Allocation: I’ve found that maintaining this balance on a weekly basis works best for me. It helps in forming consistent habits, makes it easier to track progress, and allows for more immediate adjustments. However, some may prefer a monthly or even quarterly approach, especially if their work involves longer-term projects.
  • Adapting to Changing Needs: As your career evolves, so should your approach to time management. Early in your career, you might focus more on the 80% to gain experience. As you grow, shifting more time to the 15% and 5% can help in advancing to new roles or exploring new interests.

Ultimately, the key is to find a rhythm that works for you – one that fosters continuous learning and growth while keeping you engaged and motivated in your work. The 80/15/5 rule is a starting point, a framework to be molded according to your unique journey in the world of programming.

Is 80/15/5 Enough?

When we talk about the 80/15/5 rule, a key question arises: is this time allocation sufficient for impactful career progression and skill development? In a standard 40-hour workweek, this translates to 32 hours on your primary work tasks, 6 hours on growth and learning activities, and 2 hours on personal curiosity-driven projects. It’s a framework that encourages a balanced approach, blending daily responsibilities with personal and professional growth.

From my perspective, it's the quality of time spent, rather than just the quantity, that makes the difference. Focused and purposeful engagement in each segment, even if they are time-constrained, can lead to significant advancements. Remember, these are still work hours, and the focus should primarily be on tasks and responsibilities that align with your role and the organization's goals.

However, the effectiveness of the 80/15/5 rule lies in its cumulative impact. Consistently dedicating time to each of these areas, week after week, builds a foundation for long-term success and satisfaction. It’s about creating a sustainable routine that fosters ongoing learning and development without leading to burnout.

Peter Attia's philosophy that 'something is better than nothing' aligns perfectly with this approach. Regular, small efforts in learning and personal projects are what drive progress over time. The key is consistency, not volume.

Considering an occasional sabbatical or an extended break for deeper learning can also be part of this journey. While it requires a significant level of commitment, such a break can offer an opportunity for substantial growth and rejuvenation.

In essence, the 80/15/5 rule serves as a guiding framework for structuring your work and development in programming. It's about finding a balance that not only keeps you engaged and growing but also aligns with your career aspirations and personal interests.

TL;DR - Embracing the 80/15/5 Rule in Your Programming Career

If you’re doing what you’re told to do, they are paying you too much.

- Kent Beck

The 80/15/5 rule is more than just a time management strategy; it's a holistic approach to fostering a sustainable and fulfilling career in programming. This framework balances the demands of your day-to-day job with the need for ongoing professional development and personal exploration.

The 80% ensures that you are consistently delivering value in your current role, handling the core responsibilities that form the foundation of your career. The 15% is about growth and stepping outside your comfort zone. It’s here that you prepare for future opportunities and challenges, investing in your long-term career trajectory. The 5% is your gateway to innovation and passion. It keeps the flame of curiosity alive, reminding you why you fell in love with programming in the first place. While the rule is a guideline, its effectiveness lies in its adaptability. Tailoring it to your individual needs and career stage can make all the difference. The cumulative effect of consistently dedicating time to each of these areas is what drives long-term success and satisfaction in the field of programming.

As you navigate your career, remember that finding a balance that works for you is key. The 80/15/5 rule is not just about managing your time; it's about managing your growth, your skills, and ultimately, your passion for programming.