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Maintaining Work-Life Balance In Open Source | Dirk Hohndel 

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Guest: Dirk Hohndel (LinkedIn, Twitter)
Show: Dirk & Swap: Conversations on Open Source

Open source is about not just code, but also passion for code, connecting with a community and contributing to something larger than yourself. This is why most open source projects are powered by developers who love to create solutions. But there are many aspects of open source development that are less handled as typical 9-to-5 work in an office environment, thus stretching working hours and also impacting work-life balance. So if open source inherently is this asynchronous disconnected work, how does one find boundaries or breakpoints? In this episode of Dirk & Swap: Conversations on Open Source, I chat with Dirk Hohndel about the criticality of managing time and energy in the open source world to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

“I think it’s really important for everyone including developers to identify ways to task switch, to context switch during the day, over a week, to understand that doing the same thing over and over again is unhealthy for you in the long term,” said Hohndel. “That’s where these social relationships, different hobbies, activities, interests, and the willingness to reflect about what you’re doing really come in. Because if all that you do is work, your quality of life suffers.”

Highlights of the show:

  • What kind of unique challenges does open source create in terms of maintaining a good work-life balance?
  • How to tackle the blurring line between: ‘Your work is your hobby, so you’re actually never working’, and ‘your work is your hobby, so you’re always working’?

About Dirk Hohndel: A world leader covering the intersection of business and open source software. Thirty years as developer, maintainer, business leader and community influencer. Highly respected public speaker who can connect to a wide variety of audiences.

The summary of the show is written by Monika Chauhan.


Here is the full unedited transcript of the show:

  • Swapnil Bhartiya: Hi, this is your host Swapnil Bhartiya and Dirk Hohndel. Once again, a third series, if I’m not wrong, of Dirk and Swap: Conversations on Open Source. And today we are going to talk about a topic. We talked about that problem just before we started recording, which is work-life balance with open source. In most cases its more or less people’s passion. So, the line between your office hours and personal work is blurred. And sometimes a lot of developers, if you look, they do contribute to a lot of open source projects in their free time, at night. Even if you are not, sometimes you get so passionate about it that your office hours extend. And initially it’s good, you’re excited. But once you have a family, when you’ve kids and then eventually you burn out. And then, suddenly the job that you once loved, it becomes kind of, a chore or a challenge. But if you maintain a good balance between work life and personal, you can actually go on forever. So, first of all, Dirk, let’s quickly talk about the unique challenge open source creates, where it is not just your nine to five job, where maintaining that balance becomes a kind of impossible task.

Dirk Hohndel: I think this is a really big problem for a lot of open source developers. Because open source inherently is this asynchronous disconnected work, where you have people working with you often around the world. So your main collaborators, maybe many time zones away from you. So, you’re trying to get overlapped with them, get a little bit of back and forth. You may have people in different timezones, so you start early in the morning. You continue until late at night. There may be team meetings in the open source project, or a weekly developer call that may happen at 2:00 AM in your timezone.

There are a lot of aspects of open source development that are less controlled as typical work in an office environment that tends to revolve around the time zone that you’re in versus around people in other time zones. But you actually pointed out what I think is the biggest problem, which is the fact that we get excited, that we love the things that we are doing. And so, it’s sometimes really hard to just turn it off and to walk away from it. You want to continue to dig into a problem, you want to work on this pull request and get it into the shape that the maintainer wants it. So, there is a very high personal motivation that gets people to maybe work more on this than they would on, if it’s just a job.

  • Swapnil Bhartiya: A lot of open source folks, they also work remotely. They mostly work from home. So when you do go to the office at nine, and when you come back at five, you do know there’s a line, which is drawn, “now, it’s family time”. But if you’re working from home where your office is just two steps away from your bedroom or your living room, you don’t know when you will be in your office or when you’ll be in the living room. That becomes more challenging here, which means that you need more discipline there.

Dirk Hohndel: So, if you look at what happened in the last year and a half with the global pandemic, where everyone, regardless, whether they have an office job or not, ended up working from home. And this has been a very common complaint, not just in the tech industry, people said that their work-life balance has suffered because of it. I think, in open source developer circles, that is far more common. A lot of open source developers, even if there is an office here in town, they would still mostly work from home. Because, they may not be working a lot with the people in the same office. They may be working much more with other people. And now, if we go back to the people who do go to the office, as I said earlier, often, even if you come home at five, you still have things that you want to work on.

So, I think the home office aspect is one of them, but the bigger aspect is your personal engagement, your personal feelings about what you’re working on versus having a job. And this is where the psychology of all this comes in. Because, if you are thinking about a job that you’re doing, because you’re getting paid, especially if you’re thinking more about a corporate job, maybe, you and I talked about the difference with startups, where there is so much more inherent energy, often that drives people to work longer hours. But, if you compare it to a regular corporate job where you have certain goals and the goals should be designed, that they’re achievable within a 40 hour work week or however this is organized. But there is far more of a perception of, “okay, I’m done for today. I have done the things I was supposed to do for today.”

And if I look at my open source engagements, if I look at the projects that I still work with, I never ever feel I’m done. I always feel I’m out of time, I need to stop. But I never feel I’m done. There are always so many more things that I want to work on. And talking to other developers, that seems to be very, very common among open source developers, that we see all these things that are, bugs that need fixing maybe not super exciting. But, “Oh, here’s this new feature. Here’s this integration. Here’s this new thing I want to try. Oh, I read about this thing. I wanted to learn more.” There is this seemingly never ending list of… Let’s call them opportunities, opportunities to do something that result in us not stopping. Which, in a normal corporate job, there are far more of these systems in place that make you stop and say, “and the rest, I’ll do tomorrow” or “next week”.

  • Swapnil Bhartiya: Yeah. I mean, you touched upon so many points, which touched us all personally. Let’s just zoom out of open source and look at regular life. Most of us get passionate about some things and we do it. So it doesn’t matter if you are somebody who loves your time in nature, so you can build a house in nature and live in nature. There’s nothing wrong with that. So, when it comes to open source or software development, it’s just one of the many things that we do in this world. You can be a sportsman, you can be an open developer as well, there is nothing wrong with that. But, I think the problem starts when it starts to have an impact on your life in general.Now, that leads to a big question. What is life to you working on these projects? Is it taking away from your family? Is it taking time away from your kids? Is it taking time away from a lot of things that you would have done, maybe travel or eat your food? If you’re spending all your time on the table, eating pizza while writing a code, there is nothing wrong with that also. But, is it going to have an impact? If it does impact, then it’s a problem. Otherwise, there’s no problem. So talk about, why should we even worry about it?

Dirk Hohndel: You bring up exactly the point that I try to get to in conversations about work life balance. And the point is, so what do you like doing? What do you like spending time on? What are your hobbies? What are the things that hold your attention besides working open source? And the people who don’t know how to answer those questions are typically the people who are most at risk, that their work life balance goes completely out of whack. If you have a kid, small child, if you have an outside hobby, a sport that you do and a vocation that you like, be it woodworking, be it underwater photography, so many hobbies that people have. If you have other hobbies, likely you yourself will force yourself to balance these things. But very often for open source developers, if you think about it, they turned their hobby into their job.

So, very often they started at college or soon after college to work in open source projects on the side, and then turned that into their job. So, suddenly your job and your hobby are the same thing, which makes it so much harder to take a step back and find something else. So, I often ask people, “So what do you do for sports?” Because, that’s healthy, that’s good, that’s reasonable to do, but also it’s a natural way to find this end point, “Oh, I’m going to my Taekwondo class. So I need to stop working on this and change into my Dobok and be ready to do that”. It’s, “I go running in the morning”.

Whatever it is that people like to do, or you talk about, do you like to read, do you like to play music? What are the things that could create this break point where you say, “Oh, and now I do this other thing that I want to engage in.” And it used to be it’s, “Oh, I love going out to restaurants.” Well, that’s not so hot right now with COVID, but having these forcing functions that put an end to that arc of your work during the day, and that make you change, what you’re focused on is incredibly helpful and incredibly healthy.

  • Swapnil Bhartiya: Once again, you said something which is close to my heart… I remember in my early days of journalism, back in India, I met an athlete who became a chess player. And I asked him, “So, why did you choose this?” In India, what happens is, if you’re a good athlete, the Indian government, they give you a job so that you don’t have to leave that. So, how many times do you get lucky that you get paid to live your hobbies? Serving is my hobby, playing chess is my hobby. So, now somebody’s paying me so I can pursue my hobby. And same is the case with me also, this open source film production, whatever, that used to be my hobby. So, I tell people I’m never working, I am always doing things that I would do in my part-time, but that point is fine.

The point that you also need to make is that you cannot be just a one issue person that, “Hey, this is the only thing I want to do. And sometimes, you can be a passionate gamer, right? But you still have to take a break from gaming and do other things. So there is nothing wrong with that, but you do have to draw a line. So, I think it’s very important for people who do make this, “My hobby is my job now, so I’m never working.” That is fine, but you have a life, you have a social everything else. So, can you also talk about the importance of drawing the line?

Dirk Hohndel: Swap, what you just said is so interesting. You said, your work is your hobby, so you’re actually never working, or you could say, your work is your hobby, so always working. And that’s really the big risk. So, we talked about mental health before, right? And, there are a few things that people say in the mental health context that are really helpful. For example, having social engagements, having good friends, having patterns of interacting with people that aren’t related to your job, but going out with friends, having engagements with other people, because what that does is it forces this evaluation of, “Where do I want to spend my time?” And it makes you talk to other people about how you spend your time. Because, what is the most common conversation opener when you hang out with friends? The weather, or, “Hey, what have you done today?” Or “what are you doing tonight” or whatever.

So, this conversation about what you’re doing, it’s a great way to review with others, with trusted friends. How much of your time is spent on just doing one thing? I actually posted on LinkedIn just last week, about having a gratitude journal. Seems totally unrelated to the topic at hand. But in reality, if every evening you want to write a couple of notes of what am I grateful for today? That is a wonderful reminder. “Oh, the only thing I’ve done today is work on this open source project.” So if you’re only gratefulness entries are about, “I solved this bug in my project”, that can be really a wake up call to say, “I need to do other things. I need to find that moment where I stop”.

And, so you said, “Do I need to find boundaries? Do I need to find breakpoints?” I think it’s really, really important for every developer, for everyone to identify ways to task switch, to context switch during the day, over a week, to understand that doing the same thing over and over again is long term unhealthy for you. And that’s where these social relationships, different hobbies, different activities, different interests, and the willingness to reflect about what you’re doing really come in. And it’s that reflection that then helps recognize when there’s this whole thing. What is the first step to change behavior? It’s recognition where you are, it’s understanding where you are today, and then to make the decision that you want to change that. And you want to have a different environment, a different set of priorities, a different quality of life, right? Because, if all you do is work, your quality of life suffers.

  • Swapnil Bhartiya: And that also, most of I may be wrong, open source developer folks in the tech field also happen to introverts, who work from home. So, sometimes they don’t choose a social life. They can do that. And I think for that, I will link to the session that we did together for introvert people, how they can. Because they don’t know how to interact. So they spend more of the time in front of computer doing things that they do. But drawing a line is very important, as you rightly said, “they should evaluate and reflect.” But, when is the time that they should start reevaluating or reflecting on the things that they do? And how quickly they should do that?

Dirk Hohndel: Well, I think, everyone should do this. I don’t think there is a, “Oh, once this happens, you need to”. I really think that should be far more part of how we approach our lives. And sadly, I only came to this revelation, relatively late in my life. I mean, I’m in my fifties now and I know that for the longest time, I didn’t actively think about what I was doing with my day and how much time I did not spend with my family. And having a very active traveling schedule makes this worse because my kids became used to the fact that I’m on the road. And so even when I’m home, there was a certain acceptance that maybe I wouldn’t spend as much time with them as I should have. And so, this is one aspect where the COVID pandemic really has made a positive change to my life, at least. Because I have been pretty much at home for most of the last 18 months.

And I have very actively started to monitor how I spend my time, how I interact with my family, and how I interact with friends. And most importantly, how I find ways to turn off my work brain, to turn off my open source brain. Whether that’s playing music, whether that’s engaging with the family, whether that’s doing sport, doesn’t matter. It’s about this context switch. And so, I started keeping a gratitude journal about a year and a half ago, right after the beginning of the pandemic, based on an article that I read. And to me, this has been super helpful. Because on the days where I think back about the day, and all I can remember that I did was work related. I’m like, “Oh, let’s make sure that I don’t repeat that mistake tomorrow. Let’s do something else. Let’s context switch. Let’s arrange to go for a walk during my lunch break”, whatever it is. There are so many small things, but I really want to encourage people to do this before it becomes a problem.

  • Swapnil Bhartiya: Yes. As Dirk said, you should. Actually, I should start doing that too, because that’s a problem with myself as well. And it’s the reason I ask you, when should they do it? Because the time is yesterday or today. Basically, because we are going through that. So Dirk, once again, thanks for sharing your insights on this topic. And I look forward to our next conversation.

Dirk Hohndel: Thank you so much, Swap.

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