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What is Your Burnout Telling You?

February 23, 2017

I am glad that mental health is being discussed more often in the programming world. In particular, I would like to thank Kenneth Reitz for his transparency over the last few years and contributing his recent essay on developer burnout.

Having just recently experienced a period of burnout, I would like to share some ideas that might help you skirt by it in your own life.

And, before I go on, let me say loud and clear, there is absolutely no shame in experiencing, or reaching out for help from, anxiety, fear, anger, burnout, depression, or any other mental condition.

If you think you might be struggling with something, please reach out for help! You might have to reach out several times to multiple sources, but remember you are too valuable to waste time with this funk.




My experience is different than Kenneth’s. Instead of maintaining open source projects, I work on a small team that builds web projects to meet the business needs of our clients.

Some things he wrote about didn’t quite resonate with my situation, so my I hope is this article will speak to others who have similar experiences to mine.

Trapped?

I’ve identified that I’m burnt out when I have the feeling of being trapped in a situation with an uncertain end.

One time, I was the only programmer scheduled on a project for a period of months. Another time, I was experiencing a lot of non-constructive criticism for the graphic design work I was doing.

In these situations and others, I felt trapped in an emotional well, thinking that there was no way someone else could help, or would want to help me, and I had no idea when this situation would end.

Emotions like these serve one very crucial role: they are a great indicator of what’s going on internally. Instead of allowing these emotions to fuel axiety and make things worse, I’m learning there is great freedom in realizing: 

  • Emotions like these trigger thoughts that aren’t true.
  • One does not have to respond to the emotions you are experiencing at any given moment. Instead, treat them as what they are: a warning light that something is off and needs to be adjusted.

In this case, I’ve identified that I need to be vocal to my manager whenever I realize I need support.

In my most recent time of burnout, I waited far too long before letting my manager know. I have a “workhorse” mentality that contributed to my burnout. I thought I could shoulder the load for a period of time, to get my team through. But instead of helping my team with this behavior, I hurt it by the reduced quality of my contributions to the project. And in the long run, I made things more difficult for my team.

Cool your jets

In times of burnout, I felt pressure coming from one area of my life that was off balance, say from my team at work. As the burnout condition persisted, the pressure would spread to other areas of my life.

I believe my recent experience of burnout was made worse by this very blog, for I launched it when I was in a period of light burnout. Once my work was public, my ambition put a lot of pressure on me to create high-quality content and build an audience. That pressure was too much, and I realized I had to step back.

In this case, I had no one to delegate the work to, so progress would have to stop. I had to be okay with that.

Throughout the last few months, I found it challenging to restrain my ambition, but I had a few great insights that helped to calm it down.

One was from one of the recent three-part episodes of the Developer Tea podcast where Jonathan interviewed Kalid Azad. Kalid has built an amazing collection of writings at his website, Better Explained. He revealed in the interview that he hardly contributed to his website for one year in the middle of its life, and yet it is a very successful site. So what do I have to worry about?

The second was from a book I recently started reading from Chip Ingram on the spiritual side of ambition, in which he draws on research to segment people into four groups. He advises the group I identify with to cool your jets, to allow a deeper purpose to set in and not just check off tasks on my to-do list.

These relived a lot of pressure from my ambition, and since then I’ve heard similar advice from other parties. So if any of you have similar ambition, I hope you can take heart that there is a large community of successful people out there that are telling us to be patient.

With that advice in mind, I’m going to try to allow myself to write during this recovery period, but only when I’m inspired, and only while it’s still fun.

Prevention and recovery via balance

People believe living a balanced life will prevent many issues like burnout, but what does this balance look like?

I like Dan Miller’s approach in his book, 48 Days to the Work You Love. He describes life as a wheel with seven spokes. When I’m experiencing burnout conditions, it’s a good time to reflect and see if I’m out of balance with my:

  • Career
  • Finances
  • Social Life/Media
  • Family
  • Physical Fitness
  • Personal Development
  • Spirituality

Sometimes reviewing the list will show me that I should pay more attention to my physical fitness by taking walking breaks or going to the gym. Other times, I’ve found that my career or personal development segments are receiving too much attention, and I need to reduce my investment in them.

Practical advice for prevention

Like other people, I highly recommend hobbies to help prevent burnout. Though unlike most of them, I have found that given certain restraints, coding outside of work can be relaxing.

I have found that the more unrelated something is from what I’m doing at work, the better I can enjoy it. For example, when I was working in a JavaScript-heavy ASP.net application, I found coding in python to be a breath of fresh air.

When I was working on a large-scale, full-stack PHP website, exploring the Arduino platform was a welcome excursion.

As I mentioned in the last section, you need to have balance, so you might need to lay off of your hobby coding and pick up a coloring book or something for a few weeks to give your mind a chance to relax. You’ll have a chance to pick back up on the coding project before too long.

In Conclusion

  • Remember that burnout can happen to anyone, and that there’s no shame in talking about it.
  • Try to find the warning signs your body is giving you.
  • If you are going through a more difficult time, be open and vocal about what you’re experiencing—especially with trusted friends and your manager.
  • Many thoughts triggered by anxiety and stress aren’t true.
  • It’s okay to take a break.
  • In the end burnout, anxiety, depression and the like are signs that your body is telling you to make adjustments.

Update (March 3, 2017)

Matt Stauffer released a great episode of the Five Minute Geek Show about burnout and illness. Go listen to it.

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