Burnout - 2021-07-16
What is burnout, what leads to it, and my strategies for getting out of it. Fact is, I am dealing with it now. I knew that I was trending in this direction for a while and I know when I’m on the knife’s edge. But circumstantial needs demanded I cross over that edge to deliver something.
This year I was promoted to being a people manager, tech lead, but that doesn’t mean I’m away from the code. On top of interviewing somewhere around 25 people and hiring and onboarding 7, onboarding another 8 for other teams, owning the local developer experience for mine and other teams, I’m still called in to investigate and fix problems that are now owned by others. I’ve barely been able to assist with the projects my own team is doing because I’m patching and supporting all other engineers at this company. And that frustrates me.
Crossing the line
How can one tell if they’ve encountered burnout? I’ll relay my experiences, but my first few times I thought I was just depressed, broken, and other things too. I believe my first time was in University. I ended up taking 5 months off at home to figure out myself, each day I had headaches whenever I witnessed certain stimuli and events. I felt like a loser who couldn’t meet the expectations of myself, my family, and my peers. My hobby and passion was difficult to execute and I just wanted a lot of nothing. I got depressed.
You have crossed beyond burnout and into something worse when your passion can no longer be held. It took me years and subsequent burnouts to really see the patterns in my life, how I feel, and how I act to recognize what I experience and to really detangle depression from burnout.
Like the heat of a fire or stove, it’s hard to respect the extreme and find a safe distance until you experience it.
My most recent examples happened twice in the last month. The first was where.. I just said “I am tired” and later in the meeting words just stopped entering my head. I couldn’t focus or contribute to the discussion at hand. Afterwards with the blessing of my boss, I took the rest of the day off. (I had worked until midnight the day prior) The second happened at the end of last week. After wrapping up my development, I couldn’t think of much. I went camping and tried to read a book but only managed 10 pages. The details around me just didn’t seem to matter and I could do little more than sit the whole weekend.
I’m still dealing with the sum of those consequences now.
Things that lead to burnout isn’t just "working too much", although that is a path to it. There are emotional aspects too. Is my work fulfilling? Do I feel rewarded? Is it worth it? Then there’s cognitive aspects too: decision fatigue, content overload, ingesting stimuli and responding to it all. Finally self perception of yourself and your work.
Personal satisfaction of where your will, energy, and passions go matters a lot in your energy. Do the values of your productivity align with your personal values? If not, maybe see if there’s another opportunity for you to work for or seek an alternative in your personal time. This can refuel some of your energy... but later. A peak moment of satisfaction can allow you to stretch your energy, but it won’t recover your energy now.
From waking up to sleeping, we’re subjected to stimuli. Our attention shifts to one thing or another, or we zone out and time just passes on by. How much we do varies by person and by the day. Every time we need to make a decision we expend some effort from a limited pool. As you doom scroll on social media, you are depleting the effort and attention you can apply elsewhere. Those decisions are just smaller. It’s the same as when you shop at a department store or supermarket, oh I need spaghetti sauce but which should I get? Those decisions add up and at the end you’ve got less energy. It’s the same pool of something we pull from each day for our passions, be mindful of where your active time and energy goes. Again, social media takes more from you than you realize, it just feeds your satisfaction at the same time for later.
The last thing: what you think you can do really determines what you accomplish. If you think you’re being set up to fail, you probably will. If it all seems impossible, then it’s not going to work out for you. Sometimes our perceptions restrict our abilities and this happens in part because we have less energy to use and it takes more energy to do. Step back and evaluate what your expectations are and review reality objectively. If it’s a toxic situation then perhaps consider abandoning it. When we’re down it’s really difficult to act to change it, yet changing it could be as simple as a few conversations.
This depends on if you’re too far or not. If headaches, pain, panic breathing or ringing of the ears prevents you from working it’s too far. Admit it and take time away.
But what about when the drive and focus is hard to come by and things need to get done? You can still manage it! Write things down, check them off as you do, offload the mental burden of deciding what you’ll do to your past self. Give each task or line item a question: does this matter to me or someone else right now? What impact does it have? Sort these things by their impact and importance. Mix in large and smaller things together. Work on what matters to you and others rather than work harder.
Okay so maybe you can manage work in small sprints, get a sense of that and plan for ruler tasks to fit those. At the. End of each micro sprint take a break. Read a book or take a walk. Refuel yourself in a way that doesn’t require decisions. Hey! Don’t doom scroll on social media here, that soaks your precious and currently scarce energy!
While following my own advice, it isn’t the healthiest and I end up finishing work after 12 or 14 hours, but the rest of my day (a walk, a meal, a shower, a short entertainment) was fit between. And I still delivered on time. It’s easier during this work from home thing.
Communicate, really tell the people with expectations that they should change for a while. If all they do is squeeze you harder after (and I have experienced this and medication can’t fix it) they aren’t for you. It’s fine to move on and even take a pay cut. It’s scary, it takes energy but it is the right thing to do. Your workplace isn’t inherently loyal to you. Say you can’t do it this week. Redirect what comes to you, it doesn’t mean you’re lazy.
In short: minimize your decisions and effort expenditure, space apart your work, work on what matters most, and move on if it comes down to it.
Figure out where your line is, you might have to burnout before figuring that out clearly. Don’t cross it again for a month—maybe three.
Measure your feelings each day, are you on a better trend? If not then cut back on your effort budget.
Make your personal time more rewarding but within your means. For me this was learning woodworking. Unfortunately this year with wood prices so high, I have to find something else.
At the end of each day, look at what you’ve done, see the details and delight that you made progress. Thoughts like "I didn’t do enough." has no place here. Discard these negatives and see the positives. Is there something fundamental to change to improve it all? That has value but look at it objectively, not as an attack on you as a person.
And remember, you’re worth it, you’re worth the time you spend in this world. What you do does matter, it’s just up to you to make the most of your capability and energy.