Today, I came across a great article by Bodo, a friend from Berlin that can be best summed up with a tweet from him:

I couldn’t agree more - I myself had to learn this the hard way, though. I shared a bit of my own experience on twitter today, but I felt like this could use some more words.

The year is 2003. It’s a hot summer. I’m working at AOL Germany, my first full time job, and barely survived a headcount shave just months after I joined the company. We’re in the middle of a ginormous relaunch project, basically rebuilding the whole CMS rendering logic for AOL.de, netscape.de and compuserve.de. Our division’s boss just had decided that he didn’t like living in Munich and working in Hamburg and had quit in the midst of that project. I’m good at what I do and so I’m part of the important relaunch team. And I stack overtime hours like pizza boxes (that was before I started to hate the automatic connection between IT culture and bad delivery pizzas). We work 1-2 weekends and really long days.

One day, at a weekend, on my (pizza fueled) lunch break, I watch some TV, I believe it was Tour de France, and the Project Manager steps in. She complains about the running TV, even though I was still in the process of munching away that pizza.

That kind of atmosphere. All pressure, no relief, not even for half an hour. I was pissed of being accused of slacking while taking a much needed break, but I didn’t think of it much. It felt heroic. We’re basically saving the company (at least it felt that way) with a heroic project that would make us heroes and reserve us a place in the companies history.

One evening, while on my way home after many weeks into this project, I cross an empty street. I only hear screeching tires, a horn honking and just after looking up I realize that this street wasn’t exactly empty. A car, by breaking hard and swerving into the opposite lane, missed me by a few centimeters.

I felt numb and couldn’t do more than answering the very well deserved onslaught of four letter words by the driver with a tired “I’m sorry, my fault, really, I’m sorry, I have no idea why I didn’t see you”.

I went home and immediately called my girlfriend to tell her that I’m alright, which, as you can imagine, produced some worried questions from her end.

My enthusiasm was slightly curbed, but we pulled through. The relaunch is rocky but all in all considered somewhat of a success. We all get pretty okay bonuses for being part of that project. We start to take vacations to get rid of the massive amounts of overtime.

The awkward punchline: Not only did this project tell me how quickly you can ruin your health (and your life, actually) by massive overtime, it also taught me that it’s never worth it.

As I said, we didn’t have a boss at the time and so the VP had to sign things like vacation applications. One day, after filing another overtime reducing vacation, I get a call from her, telling me that she expected us to forget about the overtime since we got these huge bonuses. I was at a loss for words here. After all we had done for the company, a bonus wasn’t even a bonus but a hidden (and I believe now, illegal) payment for (I believe now) largely illegal overtime.

Luckily, the guy we got as our next boss was one of the greatest bosses I ever had. I’ve had some great years at AOL and even though we had large projects (for some reason, always during the summer) and we did some occasional crunch mode overtime (but always within the legal limits and always with the proper compensation), I’ve never again felt as bad as I felt during my first summer as a full time employee. I will never forget the people involved, and I will never ever work under them again.

If you’re working in a startup and you’re doing a lot of overtime, you might think that the situation is completely different. Maybe you even have shares and you’re supposed to get a good cut, so it might actually be worth it.

No. First of all, read that article from Bodo. If you regularly do overtime, you probably are a pretty terrible employee. You do more mistakes than someone who is well rested and spends some time away from the computer.

Second: Even if you have shares, the potential cut you’re getting is not worth ruining your health. If you make mistakes while programming or what ever you’re doing, that’s already bad, but if you make mistakes while commuting home on a highway or you misstep on the subway platform because you’re tired as hell, you are endangering yourself and others. A tired human being trying to do anything else than to sleep is a very dangerous animal. No money in the world is worth that.

Even now, with more than 13 years of experience in our industry, I’m not perfect at this. I don’t always watch out for my sleep cycles. Sometimes I don’t eat healthy. Sometimes I work too much. Luckily, I’m now more or less my own boss and I can tweak, stretch and adapt schedules according to my current needs. I have a much less strict daily routine. Sometimes I take long lunch breaks. Sometimes I even take a nap. And then I’ll sit into the night and write code (or articles like this one), because it feels right. And still, it’s a challenge to keep the balance if something unforeseen comes in and suddenly you have to do three jobs at once, managing the expectations of a client, your founding partner and yourself along the way. But that’s okay. Sometimes we fail. Sometimes I’m in the flow and code until it’s 3AM and on the next morning I can throw away 50% of the code because you don’t write a lot of good code at 3AM.

The key is to know all this. The key is to not having to learn the hard and potentially fatal way that your body needs rest, even if you’re 27 and highly motivated. And of course, to know that in the end, if your boss insists on you to work crazy hours, the best thing is to simply walk away (if you can, which I realize is not always possible).