Engineering SOs

Engineering SOs

I’m quickly learning the merits of downtime.

Like many engineers out there, I’m always active. I feel lazy if I don’t get something done in a day, no matter how trivial. I am driven by progress and affecting my external environment. I like that I can make stuff, break stuff, create stuff and destroy stuff.

However, significant others (SOs) often disagree that this should consume the majority of an engineer’s time.

I’ve been encountering this recently and couldn’t agree more. While my work schedule has exceedingly regular hours (and light by some standards of engineering positions), my extracurriculars such as this website, a radio show, a design contest, a consulting business and a couple other things sprinkled in there seem to take up the majority of my remaining time. So I put myself in the same bin as people that are overworked, with long hours and stressful workdays (I had been there previously as well).  And I’ve noticed a rising trend that my overly crammed life is beginning to take a toll on my personal relationships.

So what to do? For me, it’s easy. Or so I thought. Plan out my time to do extra curriculars and factor in a good guard band of time to spend with my family. If I think I will have 4 hours of work to do in an evening, I expect to be awake for seven from the time I get home to the time my head hits the pillow (home at 5, in bed by 12). And even that is kind of pushing it. The other three are chores and trying to squeeze in some quality time. And to be honest, four hours away from them makes me feel guilty.

For the guys out there, I’ve learned over time that “but it’s making us money (or will in the future)” is not a valid excuse. Some of you might be saying that right now as you read text books, engineering sites, consult on the side or even justify working on hobby circuits or similar (anything that makes you better at your day job). I’ve found that in my case (and possibly for others), that when the SO/spouse is female, this excuse does not work; the benefits of spending time together and feeling close far outweigh any economic benefits you might gain from the work and betterment.

In the case of engineers working long hours at work, I have only my experience to offer. I worked in a high pressure situation with lots of peer pressure to work long hours (which was not always justified). I wasn’t happy, my family wasn’t happy and it was a bad situation all around. In my case, I ended up changing  jobs to escape the schedule (and somewhat the type of work). Prior to leaving, I began to prioritize and stand up to my co-workers. If I was done with my work, I left. There was little purpose in sticking around just because I needed to show I was there and “working hard” (really “working long hours”).

So what about you? I feel like many engineers experience this at some point in their career or another. It doesn’t necessarily manifest as relationship strife, because sometimes both spouses are working long hours (though that has its own set of issues). For the female engineers reading this, how is your experience different than mine? Please let me know in the comments!



I really dislike the whole culture of exceedingly long hours and such that surrounds many engineering positions. Though I am currently still in school, I intend to make it a priority to filter my possible job choices at least partially based on expected (explicitly implied or otherwise) weekly workload. My opinion is that I did not go to school for this long in order to not be able to enjoy the life that my education may afford me. If any particular company has a differing opinion, their loss.

The focus on work-life balance will be key for organizations in the coming years.

I remember this phrase being bandied about when I was a university student. As the saying goes, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

I’m currently trying to get a PhD finished up, and it’s already turning into 60-70 hour weeks before even the writing up ‘crunch’. Most of the surveys are indicating the prospects for postdocs are not much rosier … so I found myself quietly nodding to a bit too much of this post. Thanks for offering your thoughts.


I have the same issues you do. In addition I have a 16 month old child and another due in ~2months. Trying to squeeze in the “fun” electronics at home is harder and harder. But I look forward to the days when my two sons might take an interest in my electronics hobbies and get to do projects with them.

In the mean time I struggle with keeping motivated with my day job as the electronics work is mostly boring and the corporate red tape drives me crazy. I always look forward to getting home and working on my personal projects. Once I get home it is dinner time, then spend quality time with the wife and child, then help clean up the house and any other chores (Mow lawn, shovel snow, repair broken stuff around the house). Then time for my sons bath time and night time routine… Maybe now I can get to my personal project??? But now I am quite exhausted and ready to just sit or go to bed… Then get up and do it again the next day.


You’re making the right decision here… trading ‘project time’ for ‘family time’. The way I see it… I have close to 10 years of quality time with my kids while they are young and still love to hang out with ‘Dad’. Once they get older and more independent, they’ll prob want to hang out more with their friends than with me.

So milk those 10 years for what it’s worth man… it will be gone before you know it. And I guarantee you won’t regret it… although I can’t cay the same if one were to sacrifice family time for the sake of personal projects.
Besides.. there will come a day when the kids are older and you find that you have more project time again.

I am very thankful my SO is also an engineer. My ~60 hour work week isn’t that far off from his, and factoring in his longer commute, it’s pretty much a wash lately. On the other hand, as much as possible, no “work” happens on Saturdays, so we can spend that time together, or working on projects. We also pretty overlapping hobbies, which is good except we only have one sewing machine.

It’s obviously a bit stressful, because we’re both operating at higher default stress levels, but comparing now to when he was unemployed (or employed at a factory first shift job), both being busy is vastly less stressful. We spend roughly the same amount of time together, only now I don’t feel guilty about leaving the office later.

The kitten, on the other hand, would be very happy if we did nothing but worship him and play with him, but he’s a kitten.

Margin is the amount available beyond what is necessary or more simply put Margin is what is left over when you subtract what you have from what you need.

The concept of margin can be applied to finances (i.e. spending less than you make so you can save). It can also be applied to your time; for example setting aside time to “just hangout” or do an unplanned spontaneous activity with the family.

Chris hit the nail on the head we need fight our engineering “self motivation” and create margin in our lives, so we can be a bit more balanced.

My favorite quote from Craig Groeschel is that “Most of the time the best things in life happen within the Margins.” … I find this to be very true with my family life; the unplanned activities or conversations I have with my 4 year old daughter are some of my favorite memories. Also the charitable things my family has been able to do with the financial margin we’ve had over the years has been very rewarding as well.

I struggle with this all the time. For a while I was in school and working full time so the amount of time leftover was really limited. But he doesn’t care what I’m doing when I’m home, so long as I am home and we see each other. It doesn’t help that now his career he is just putting in the time whereas I like to stay late every now and then to finish up a project. It’s hard for me to justify the extra time and effort spent at work, and when it starts being unpredictable or interferes with dinner too many nights in a row he gets frustrated. I’m actually looking forward to the point when he has a more demanding and fulfilling career because I would like to spend more focus on mine but without the guilt. Thank goodness our only dependent is, like Miss MSE has, a cat. I think if you were leaving your spouse to shoulder the majority of housework or childcare it would be unfair but in the case where it is two adults it can be tough just the same.

I don’t get it. Why are you blaming it on the woman? You start off staying it’s the female’s fault that you can’t do all these extra projects. But then you say YOU were not happy with all the extra work hours. So was it really the woman’s fault? I really don’t like the tone of blaming the woman. It just seems to easy to blame the SO when it’s you that needs to take responability for your time.

What I was attempting to show is that men and women process their emotions differently. I’m not blaming my SO for anything, in truth, it’s my guilt about my ambitions that was the inspiration for this post. I feel guilty that I can’t sit still; that I feel compelled to be in the basement tinkering or working on websites. I made a point to show that my SO is female because we have female engineers on here with male SOs, so the situation is possibly different.

In summary, you are completely right about me taking responsibility for my time and making my relationship a priority. My SO has been nothing but supportive (though has made her feelings known). I just didn’t explain the situation so everyone could understand my feelings. Sorry about that.

Oh my…what an issue. And it only gets worse with kids.

I consider myself incredibly lucky to be married to another engineer who also has gone through the whole grad school schtick. He very much gets how difficult and time-constrained things can be. I’m even more lucky we work together, as we get to spend time during the day. And even once, when we were really mad at each other, we *had* to talk about some work things, which calmed us both down and made us able to talk about the issues we were mad about later on.

On the other hand, he had a hard time accepting, at first, that I might need to leave to work on a degree for a couple years. Fortunately, a couple profs from my old department talked to him about it and he started realizing why it was important. After that he was very supportive. Given how much stress it was (he basically became a single parent), it’s really amazing that he didn’t get frustrated or angry.

And free time? Hardly exists for either of us. Taking care of kids and animals and house sucks it all up. I used to be very active in dancing, but I gave it up and started training for short triathlons. A big part of the reason I did this was because my husband could join me walking and biking, which gave us at least a little ‘down time’ together where we were doing something fun. Since he loves biking, this was definitely a good choice. 🙂

Lots of familiar sentiments here.

My spouse and I (both engineers) have similar total work+commute times (about 50h/wk). After work (6-9pm) daily we’re both basically dedicated to dinner and kid-wrangling, then we get the rest of the evening (short though it may be) for downtime. I’ve been working on a Masters part time for a few years now. The demands of the evening classes and lengthy readings have definitely caused a bit of tension at times since it can eat into our shared downtime and can cut down on my available time for housework (which we share fairly evenly most of the time). It always comes back into balance fairly quickly though, and we work through the tough spots as best we can, remembering that it isn’t personal.

We’ve agreed that each of us gets a full evening to themselves for out-of-the-house hobbies (from leaving work until grownup bedtime), so each person also gets one evening a week solo with the kid when covering for the absent parent. Having the “me” time has been a good thing.

We’re really lucky that his parents live nearby, and take the kid every Friday night, so we try to plan some quality grownup time for that evening – could be a date night, could be doing a mutual hobby/interest (we have a lot of shared interests), or could be doing our own separate hobbies side-by-side. We also try to make the weekends “family time”, because as Adam says above, you can’t get it back later. We’re both looking forward to having time to get back into our own pet projects, but we recognize that there are only so many hours in the day, and until someone finds a cure for requiring sleep, we focus on the constraints we have and work around them.

Comments are closed.