Keep Your Job From Burning You Out


Code For Cash

Burnout is an extremely common phenomenon among software developers. While we’re unlikely to ever truly stop it from happening, it is a lot more common than it has to be. Much of the problem is due to the way that developers approach their jobs, and how they keep a balance between their jobs and the rest of their lives. On average, developers don’t do a very good job of keeping work from taking over their lives.

The consequences of this are stark. While the statistics on developer burnout rates vary nearly as much as the definition of “burn out” itself, most of us can offer anecdotes of how some people we know have burnt out and left the industry. Further, if you’ve been doing this very long at all, you likely have a story or two of experiencing burnout yourself, possibly to the point of nearly quitting.

Avoiding burnout is critical to having a long, successful development career. Furthermore, you can’t rely on anyone, especially your coworkers and employers, to keep it from happening to you. While some of them might care enough to help you out, relying on anyone other than yourself for this is dangerous to your career. Further, you’ll find that most companies are completely unsympathetic to you when you do get burned out, especially if they were the ones that caused it in the first place. You can only rely on you. If you feel yourself approaching burnout with your work, this episode might help you avoid it when you are already closer than is comfortable.

Avoiding burnout when you see it rapidly approaching is critical to having a long career in tech. The sad reality is that burnout is extremely common in this industry, and getting worse. If you plan on remaining in tech for years, you need to be able to avoid letting your job cause burnout. While there are many strategies for reducing the risk of burnout over the long term, most of us will get pretty close to the edge from time to time in spite of our best efforts. When you find yourself in that situation, you need to react quickly to avoid the expense and misery of burnout.

Episode Breakdown

Celebrate accomplishments, not the amount of time it took to get them.

The worst way to measure any programming task is by the amount of time it took to do it. You never want to be in a situation where productivity is measured by “butts in seats”, because being a top performer means giving your life away. If you participate in this dynamic, you are incentivizing the least productive person on your team to waste time during the day, knowing they can just stay later to be thought productive. Be especially careful about how you personally measure this. Where this really bites people is when they define “hard working” to mean “long working”.

Additionally, measuring by hour means that you won’t do things in a more efficient way. A better measurement is amount done per hour. It’s easier to point out this misalignment of incentive structures than it is to argue for shorter hours.

Be willing to push back on management for saner working hours. You might be doing this alone, but it’s better than getting burnt out. You will get pushback from some of your best coworkers as well.

Take more breaks

When overloaded, it’s tempting to think that you can just work harder to get things done. Sometimes this works for a short time, but over the longer term, the mistakes made this way catch up with you. Failing to take breaks is also rough on your body. Repetitive strain injuries are no joke.

Changing your environment a little by taking breaks makes it easier to be effective when returning to work. Ideas for solving problems often come during walks or casual conversations with other people. If your environment is particularly dysfunctional, breaks are also a good time to look for other options.

What to do if management doesn’t like that you take breaks? Look for another job. This attitude is indicative of even larger problems. In the meantime, don’t tell them.

Do not do work after hours unless it’s an emergency.

Another common cause of burnout is having the rest of your life regularly interrupted by problems at work. Constant interruptions for work while at home don’t just take away the time that it takes to deal with them – they also tend to make you hesitant to do other things that are enjoyable because they might be ruined. Additionally, due to the lack of down time, you’ll find that other parts of your life start falling apart as things like family time, exercise, and sle These problems will eventually lead to you having to take days off to catch up on sleep, be sick, deal with family problems etc.

Be unreachable a couple of nights a week at a minimum. Unless you own part of the company, it’s unreasonable to expect you to always be on call. It’s also a bad idea in terms of company continuity to be so understaffed that employees don’t get downtime.

What if your employer doesn’t like it? Again, if this is expressed, it’s a good time to start looking. At a minimum, you need to insist on extra pay for being on-call. This can help the employer at least feel the pain.

Develop hobbies/interests outside of work.

Work to Live, Don’t Live to Work. Your work as a developer pays well and is not an 80 hour a week job. You should have time and money free for other pursuits outside of programming.

Try to make sure that whatever hobby you pick is well away from tech concerns. While it’s tempting to have another techy hobby, this will backfire when you are overloaded at work. We both have significant hobbies and interests outside of tech – it helps a lot. You should probably have a mix of hobbies that keeps you physically active, gives you mental/creative outlets other than what you do in your day job, and that puts you in contact with non-tech people.

If your job is burning you out, you might not have time? For long term career choices, you are better off having non-tech interests, as valuable things tend to bleed over. Additionally, having other interests serves as a brake on overwork. It’s easier to stay too long in the office when you are just going home to watch TV or do something passive.

Get more sleep

It’s really easy to double down on work (or on passive entertainment, drinking, video gaming, etc.) as burnout approaches. After all, you might feel like if you can just get past “this one thing”, “everything will get better”. However, what this usually means is that the “next thing” will show up as soon as this one is done. Most companies have more work to do than their employees can accomplish. If they don’t, they may be laying people off soon.

The quality of your sleep impacts the quality of the rest of your life. It’s not just about mood and ability to focus, but sleep impacts your overall physical and mental health. Poor sleep is also an excellent way to suppress your immune system, which means that in addition to being tired of work, you get to be sick of it too.

Your boss doesn’t get input in this. Your family, friends, and social circle, however, do end up getting input in this one. Try adding an hour of sleep to your routine and see what that does for you. If you can’t get to sleep, try melatonin over the short term.

Be open to other job opportunities

Getting another job will not necessarily cure your burnout, but it can help. Learning about other opportunities can help you be realistic about whether the problem is “just” your job or a combination of other factors. Additionally, if you are getting burnt out, your boss probably notices as well. If your burnout is severe enough, you may need these opportunities.

Having options makes it easier to push back on bad workplace situations. If you realize that you can easily get something else, it’s a lot easier to tell other people “no”. You may not need the other options as much as you need the confidence they inspire.

You might also consider other options within your current company. It’s easy to be burnt out because you are in a role that you’ve outgrown. This could also be as simple as pivoting to a different project. This is also a good time to learn new technology in case you decide to switch jobs anyway.

Stop wasting time at work.

While counter-intuitive in light of the previous discussion about taking breaks, being conscientious about being effective when not on break will also help you. Another common cause of burnout is feeling like you wasted your day. Being effective will help blunt that. This can mean anything from staying off your phone during the day, to making sure that you are writing code efficiently. This includes paying attention and participating in meetings.

The other thing that this does is that it makes it less likely that management will notice you slacking. No matter how burnt out you are, if you change jobs you want it to be on your terms, rather than someone else’s. Management may even notice that you are working harder, which can work to your advantage if you have to push back later on.

It’s also easier to argue against spending an excessive number of hours at work when you’re being effective while you are there. At some point, if your burnout gets bad enough, you’re going to need to reduce the number of hours you spend at the office. Making those hours effective short circuits a lot of arguments.

Allocate time for workouts

While you may be burning out because you feel like you have no time, it’s important to make time for regular exercise. Exercise has been shown in a number of studies to increase well-being, and decrease psychological stress. It also gets you away from the office and the television.

Not only will workouts make you feel better, but they will also give you something else to do. Often, the biggest part of burnout is simply the feeling that there is nothing else in life but work. Additionally, if you do leave your job, you are probably better off being in better shape.

Try to get in a workout class, rather than free form. Having your workouts at a fixed time forces you to get away from work on a consistent basis and makes it less likely that you will stay later than you need to. Try to schedule this for just after work, so that you have an excuse to leave early.

Book Club

Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions

Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths

This is an interesting book that I started listening to recently on Audible. It looks at various algorithms and mathematical problems and how they can be applied to our daily lives. The authors come from computer science and cognitive psychology backgrounds. They break down various algorithms used to solve problems in computer science and apply them to daily lives.

Tricks of the Trade

Companies aren’t loyal to you. Sure, you may think your boss and coworkers care about you, and they even might. However, they aren’t your family, and they aren’t your close friends. There is an economic angle to all this, and it means that you have to look upon the relationship with a bit of a jaundiced eye, because to do otherwise is to invite ruin.

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