I have recently returned to writing after spending an entire year working on a digital transformation. So, this post is both timely and personal for me.
The art and craft of professional software development is a fascinating animal. It is inherently abstract and can be highly complex. In order to function effectively across the lifecycle of software development, one must bring a variety of technical and non-technical skills to the fore.
Anyone who has done this with a high level of intensity has probably encountered the limits of their own capabilities. I have certainly run into mine from time to time. Usually this happens when I have been burning some serious midnight oil, doing long hours, and putting plenty of pressure on myself.
When coupled with stress on the personal side – a global pandemic, a death in the family, relationship issues, and so forth – it can quickly become an emotionally difficult and energy-draining mixture.
When I am at my creative best, I can feel it. I have an insatiable appetite for great user experience, clean APIs, sensible decoupling, testable code, and reusable components. I have seemingly endless energy for refactoring legacy code into something cleaner and more sensible. But during a burnout period, I have much less of this zest, and I can feel that as well.
When this happens over a long enough period of time, one can reach a state that is often referred to as “burnout.” No, not the thing that car enthusiasts do for fun in parking lots. Burnout has been covered at length in other forums, such as here and here, so I will not belabor its definition. In my opinion, burnout is real, it is common, and at its worst, it is also dangerous.
I became an engineer because I love to build things. I chose software as a craft because I enjoy building something useful, but I also enjoy the mental and conceptual processing that is needed in order to be productive. That said, the software industry has its challenges, ranging from the treatment of tech workers, to the management of tech in general.
Things that sap my creative energy and lead me down the path of burnout include all the things that are normal everyday headaches in the corporate world: unaccountable organizational behavior; impossible tasks; unachievable milestones and arbitrary deadlines; inept middle management; others taking credit for work; colleagues acting like assholes, and so forth. The list of potential frustration points is very long.
Taken in isolation, these things are normal and expected in each and every “normal” corporate environment. Put enough of them together, and they become what I refer to as “soul-suckers” because that seems to be the net effect of prolonged exposure. Depending on one’s geography and local tech market, these scenarios can be difficult to avoid.
How does burnout manifest in my own life? It starts with pressure. With long hours, I begin to do work at the expense of the things that I enjoy doing in my non-tech or non-work time. As I increasingly trade leisure time for work time, my perspective becomes skewed. Work takes on an artificially magnified importance. Decisions made on projects seem more catastrophic, severe or serious than they really are. Small issues that seem trivial in the broader scheme of things start to become upsetting. Normal day-to-day coding or status-reporting hassles become hot buttons for venting sessions.
Then, things that I normally enjoy are not enjoyable anymore. Patience becomes shorter and shorter.
Next, my sleep starts to suffer. I drop to about five hours a night, and those are not restful. I think about work before I go to sleep, and again when I wake up.
Eventually, my own sense of “self” and my perception of my own value become closely tied to the state of the work. I will experience elevated levels of elation when things go well, but there is also increased anxiety, and even depression as my inner state becomes tied to my own contributions. Those around me – family, friends – start to wonder what is wrong. I start withdrawing from relationships, even important ones – I begin isolating myself as my thoughts become more and more negative. I have experienced anxiety attacks while in this state. Eventually this can move into full depression in which I have sought help at various points in my history.
At any of these manifestations, it should be time to full stop. Running at or close to burnout is a dangerously and hard way to live. Imagine if the project is cancelled; even worse, if the company closes its doors. Where would that leave ones own self-worth?
In my opinion, the best way to recover from burnout is not to enter it in the first place – but why would you be reading this great post in that case? Indeed, you say. So, let us move ahead.
Here are some of the tools that I have used to recover from burnout.
It is absolutely vital that you guard your own relax time. A day job means that you are exchanging your energy in return for compensation – it the broader scheme of life, is it really more than that?
Guarding your time involves saying “no” to competing interests that want to consume that time.
While the 40-hour week might be a myth when you are trying passionately to build something big, it is necessary to look away from your work and have a life as much as you can. Personally, I notice that my level of creativity is much higher when I look at my work with fresh eyes and a fresh mind.
It is critical to maintain and nurture the things that you love to do. Whether it is music, art, physical activity – I think it is vital to have alternate channels of living that give you respite from your work, even if work is your passion. So if you wake up and immediately read emails which in turn cause you angst, perhaps it is time to wake up and take a walk instead.
In my case, I have to consciously recognize when I need to turn the computer off, put the cell phone aside, and do something completely different. Look purposely and completely away from your work duties. I will set aside time for learning something new, purely to force myself away from my normal work.
Separate the Work Environment
I have noticed that my physical environment is related to my inner state. If I have work-related items or computer stuff all over the house, it is much harder to unplug from it. I have since taken steps to physically separate work from non-work life. I go into the office to work, and I come out to top working. Having the transition between the two seems important.
It’s critical that you recover and relax. Sleep is vastly underrated in terms of effect on your mental state. If you are not getting your recovery time via sleep, you probably aren’t operating at full capacity. Over time, I have found that lack of sleep tends to skew my thinking and damage my creativity. Meditation is another overlooked tool that can serve a vital place in your relaxation tool kit. I recommend finding someone that has had a long-term meditation practice and learn from them. There are apps and so forth that can help. Meditation has literally saved my life.
Ignore the “Should”s
It seems like everywhere you look these days, we are inundated with messaging about how to grow, how to be better at this, faster at that, more efficient at this other thing. There is always some authority telling you what you “should” do. An old coach of mine once told me “everyone wants to put their should on you.” My “should” for you is to turn off all the “should” for a while. It is ok to sit with your pain. It is completely fine to just write code for the passion of it without worrying that it may or may not be optimal. Neither the path to success, nor the path though life is a straight line, and anyone who says otherwise is probably selling something. Our paths are very uniquely our own; we must think for ourselves about how to achieve it. Listening to our bodies, our souls, and our minds is a necessary and worthwhile thing. If you are hungry, eat. If you need rest, take it.
Asking for help is a strength, not a weakness. That’s important, so I will say it again – it is a strength to ask for help. Don’t let things get to the point of burnout. It’s not worth your life, or your family’s lives. Reach out to supportive friends, family, or find a counselor. Call your employer’s assistance line if you have that option; call a crisis line if you have nowhere to turn.
Burnout is no joke. It can lead a person down a very dangerous track in life. If you think you are suffering from burnout, I recommend that you reach out for help and start applying some of these concepts quickly in order to bring yourself back from the edge.