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Burnout

🏛 This entry is open for business - it is unlikely to be changed or updated.

I worked at a company whose motto was "Work Hard, Play Hard". As I was new to development, I thought that this was how it worked - long hours, paid team outings, after hours poker tournaments, etc. Little did I know, these things were driving me straight to burnout. I didn't know it at the time (or for many years afterwards), but that was not a good work environment (at least for me).

I later discovered what did work for me, and have tried many times to replicate it in later jobs (and failed a few of those times). I have encountered burnout more than once - it isn't very fun. Now, I can usually recognise the symptoms, avoid my triggers for burnout, and mostly recover from it. I am not here to say that I have all the answers, but I can at least tell you what I know.

Signs of burnout

First off, this is not going to be the same for everyone. I believe these will hold true for most people in tech, but it not an exhaustive list by any means. The signs I have noticed of burnout, both of myself and those around me, are:

  • Apathy towards work
  • Leaving partially completed tasks
  • Being passive about taking on new tasks
  • Lack of engagement with the team
  • Impatience
  • Lack of a sense of accomplishment

I know I have experienced all of these at some point or another - not always related to burnout. But, the times I have felt many of these at once, over a prolonged period of time, are always the times I have felt burnt out.

Causes of burnout

Again, this is not a complete list of the causes of burnout - use you own experiences as a guide.

  • Too many hours
  • Too many tasks
  • Shifting deadlines
  • Lack of control
  • Lack of understanding of direction
  • Lack of trust
  • Inconsistent priorities
  • No career development

If some of these things look familiar, it is because many of these are traits of less than ideal teams from my last post. On their own, a single one of these doesn't do it (at least for me). Also, any of these in the short term will not trigger immediate burnout. But each time one of these happens - each day that your boss switches the direction of the project, each 60 hour week, each time you are asked to skip that conference to get more work done - these occurrences each put a hole in your burnout prevention bucket.

Think of your ability to get things done as a bucket of brainpower - whenever you want to get something done, you reach in to get some brainpower. When it is empty, getting things done will be difficult. Resting fills back up the bucket. Working one 60 hour week by itself will not make a hole big enough to empty your bucket, but in the upcoming weeks you might be able to get just a little less done.

If you work 4 straight 60 hour weeks, on more tasks than you can handle, with the top priority changing 3 times in those 4 weeks, your bucket is going to have a lot of holes. You are going to less productive for many weeks or months. If, in those months, you do not get any career development, and your boss starts tracking every time you are at your desk, you will have even more holes. Without time to stop and patch the holes, the loss of brainpower will grow exponentially.

Recovering from burnout

I wish I had an easy answer for this - if I did, I would be shouting it from the rooftops. But there are things I have done to get over (or at least mitigate) burnout. Not every one of these is available to everyone, and I realized I am privileged to be able to do some of these.

Take time off

First things first - you need a break from working. Whether that is vacation from your current job, or not having a job at all, you need time to mend the bucket.

Do tasks you can accomplish

Software is never done - which means it is hard to feel like you accomplished anything. Do something you can feel accomplished by: tasks around the house, volunteer work, reading the biographies of every dead US president, beating a video game you have been playing, whatever. It doesn't even have to be useful - as long as you feel like you accomplished something.

Mend the holes in the bucket

Figure out what reasons caused you to burn out. Was it just a long string of 60 hour weeks? If so, tell your boss you can do those anymore. Are you uncertain what exactly you are supposed to be getting done? Have a talk with your manager about expectations around your job and the project. Do you feel like you have hit a plateau in your learning? Ask your manager about chances for career development.

I would love to tell you that your manager will help solve these problems right away, but sadly this is not the case at most of the places I have worked. At this point, you should consider looking for a new job.

Avoiding burnout in the future

There are a few times in my past that this advice would have been useful, and there will probably be more of them in the future. Even when the answers are written out right in front of us, it is still hard to follow them.

Set reasonable limits

Have a discussion with your manager about reasonable limits - on extra work time, on extra tasks, on how frequently priorities should change. Explain to them that you do your best work when you have time to relax and recharge. Also tell them how context switching between tasks and priorities is costly in focused time.

Accomplish something every day

Make sure you accomplish at least 1 thing every day. It doesn't even have to be work related - maybe you raked up all the leaves one Saturday. If you can feel like you got something done - every day - you are much less likely to burn out.

Tackle interesting problems

This one can be tougher - sometimes your work doesn't have interesting problems to solve. In that case, try to do it in your free time - perhaps you have a pet side project you want to do. Either way, you need to involve your brain in a puzzle just challenging enough to push you but not too challenging that you get discouraged and give up.

Turn off work

When you are done at work, leave work behind. This is tougher for me, since I work at home. I like to have a dedicated space where I work that I can leave behind when I am done working (I am still working on this though). If you have chat apps like slack on your phone, set them so you do not get notified outside of work hours. Do whatever you can to create a clear separation between work and not work.

Burnout can be tough to diagnose, recover from, and avoid; please take good care of yourself and your life. Notice when things seem out of whack, and stop and evaluate why. It may seem like you can't slow down now, but your future self will thank you for taking the steps necessary to avoid burnout.

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