Developer growth

My personal burnout – Lessons learned

Last week I was on the My Life For The Code podcast and had a really good talk with Shawn Rakowski (He has a fantastic blog and podcast, check them out!). During our talk we touched upon where and how this blog got started and the reasoning on the focus on empathy. I answered as best I could and the topic of my burnout came up. I speak about my burnout quite a bit since it really has been a defining moment in my (recent) life. It’s also an opportunity to follow up Jose Gonzalezrequest for an update on where I am now.

With this blog post I’d like to close this chapter of my life, but at the same time have a reference for my future self. I’ve also attempted to summarize some of my learnings and insights so as to better help others to avoid getting into this place, or maybe to help them out? Maybe even help myself.

Note: this post contains personal information that may or may not be relevant to you. I feel this gives a certain context to this very personal topic.

The Taboo of Burnout

Taboo-graffiti
Photo credit: carnagenyc via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC

Burnout has a sense of taboo around it, at least that is how I’ve experienced it. Family, friends & colleagues don’t know how to interact with you once they know. Yet everyone seems to agree that we should avoid it at all costs. “Burnout is bad”. Yet many of us still go through the same motions and bring our lives closer to this point every day.

“…burnout is something you better not blog about or write about on Facebook or speak about in any way that can be traced back to your real name, if you ever want to find another job again.”

from a Hacker News thread via The Taboo of Burnout (some great resources here) 

Burnout is also something that many see as defeat, a sense of ultimate failure that can remove themselves from a successful career. Or maybe that talking about it in the open will limit their chances for getting new jobs. If there are employers out there that actually have this attitude, then these are places where you don’t want to work anyway.

Picking myself up again, one small step at a time

Deathmarch  (short version)

2 years of trying to get a consultancy up and running, as well as a startup that shut down due to lack of funding. An intense focus on lifestyle / diet changes with over 20 kgs lost and 700 km run. Plus the natural pressures of being a family father of 3.It felt like I had been doing many of the right things for the wrong reasons…which also led to me neglecting sleep.

These are different phases of life that have their ups and downs, and I’ve been getting by alright, but I just needed that little push too far to tip me over the edge; a high-pressure period of crunch-time lasting the better part of 2 months took me over the edge and everything came crashing down.

Denial, Despair & Guilt

stop-shy-cover-hide-color-girl-female-lady
Photo via Visual Hunt

Reading others’ experiences with burnout I see that there is a common theme. There is denial that you could even be at a place where your creative mind ceases to function. Where motivation and excellence evaporates. My wife and a few of my colleagues recognized I was burning the candle at both ends just after the crunch-period and before summer vacation and suggested a little extra downtime, but I didn’t listen. I didn’t realize that my basic decision process was falling apart as well; at one point I stared at the closet and struggled to actually choose a coffee-cup, and there were only two cups in front of me!

My first days home away from work were extremely turbulent. My physician understood where I was and told me to take the next month off work. I was at a loss though, there was nothing wrong with me! At least that’s what I told myself.

I spent many brain cycles attempting to place blame. It swung between blaming myself to my employer, to my general situation. Looking outwards for placing blame for what has happened is easy. It was also an act of desperation.

When thinking about work I was riddled with guilt. None of the others had given way under the pressure. Why was I the only one that caved in? Now the vacation was over and they were back into the groove, while I was sitting at home. In the sun. Doing nothing.

Acceptance

My wife has been diagnosed with the auto-immune illness Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME in Norwegian) some years ago. There’s nothing visibly wrong with her, so it’s hard to explain (to others) that she can’t work and needs to stay at home for extra rest. We’ve spent many years getting her to a place of acceptance for her situation and improved health.

For the first time I finally understood. It was my turn to accept my situation. I spoke to a professional that has been through this and has coached others through similar experiences. Opening up to another neutral part did wonders for emptying my mind, filtering my thoughts and actually get to a place of understanding that I couldn’t change what had brought me here. I had to focus on accepting that I was at this place and find a direction forward.

Acceptance has been about acknowledging and taking responsibility for the choices I have made that have led me to this point. Moving away from blame of others and myself. This process took a long time, but by far has been the most important to allow myself to heal.

Healing

WolfS♡ul
Photo credit: WolfS♡ul via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

The transition between acceptance and healing was blurry. The more I accepted, the more I allowed myself to heal. Part of this was turning off the noise. No notifications on the phone, no smartwatch, no computer, no social media, no regular TV.

I spent a lot of time with the family. I found comfort in being present with them, not distracted by external forces. Our new house’s garden received a lot of attention as well. Spending time in nature was soothing and calming, and I cherished time with our newborn.

But I struggled to start take care of my body. I realized running had become one of the things that brought me down. Not running itself, but my attitude towards it. It had become all about the numbers; heart rate, cadence, speed, distance, recovery time, personal records, races. Combine this with too little sleep, and there’s a recipe for burnout alone. The joy was gone, and with it followed my focus on a healthy lifestyle. I allowed sugar and starches back into my diet. All our work the past 2 years (norwegian) was breaking down, but I couldn’t focus on that right now. I needed to heal my mind before focusing on my body.

I did spend a lot of time outdoors though, walking, playing with the children, tending to garden-work and doing a bit of maintenance chores around the house.

Recovery

Now that my mind was in a better place, I found myself reaching out, searching for resources that could guide me on my way. I quickly stumbled over a few  TED-talks that appealed to me, and I consumed playlists on self-care. I’d like to bring attention to these two:

I discovered mindfulness, a form of meditation that focuses on being present and aware. I started reading non-technical books and listening to audiobooks. I would recommend two books that greatly influenced my perspective on my life, family and career. Greatly may sound like an epiphany, but small changes to mindset can have a huge impact.

I started assessing where i was going in my career. Had I made conscious decisions to bring me where I was to today, or had I proactively set out my path?

Towards the end of my recovery-period a chance contact and friendship helped re-ignite my fire and passion for my craft. This has also been defining for stepping up my game and finding purpose.

Alignment, Balance and Priorities

wellness-stones-relaxation-zen-meditation-balance
Photo via VisualHunt

Re-aligning myself with my personal and professional values has been what I feel has had the greatest impact in my recovery. Introspection on a regular basis has been key in assessing how I’m doing and for continuous re-alignment.

My priorities have also been everywhere. These are also settling and it has become a lot easier to put first things first.

As with anything in life, overdoing any single thing removes from your sense of balance. Focusing too hard on one aspect will leave you wanting in another. But balance doesn’t mean equal time to all activities. Balance is aligning with your values & priorities and then seeking out to figure what to spend time on. Or more importantly, what not to spend time on.

Today

It took me 4 months to go from completely burnt-out to be in a better place than I was in a long time. Ending the year by officially being 100% back at work made the transition to 2016 extra special.

Change isn’t easy though. Our mind has a tendency to fall back into old patterns. Being aware of this has been a great help. I’ve also been putting systems into place that set myself up for lasting change. Some of the systems have worked, others not so well, but I’m getting there.

I am now increasing the focus on body with running for fun. I don’t have any plans or drills or ramp-ups for races. Just an increased focus on re-igniting the joy for running. I’ve also decided not to race this year. With this has also come an increased focus on eating healthily again. And sleep, sleep is the number 1 change I am focusing on now. Moving from 5 hrs -> 7-8 hrs average.

Being Proactive

At face value I don’t think anyone can see much difference. I have the same friends and family. Live in the same place. Work at the same place with the same responsibilities (more or less).

As mentioned earlier, small changes in mindset can have a huge impact. I am at a better place. More present than I’ve ever been. My drive and passion is now being directed instead of firing everywhere. And I think the people around me notice and appreciate this.

One of the small changes in mindset is shifting over to be more proactive. I have always been a positive, outgoing person, but that isn’t the same as being proactive.

In its simplest terms proactivity to me is about taking responsibility for your own reactions. Focusing on your immediate area of influence, where you can make a difference instead of focusing on external things you have no real chance of changing. Being aware of the context you are in and doing your part.

Basically, focus on what you can do instead of what you can’t. Doing so will open up more possibilities than you thought were possible, thus increasing your area of influence and having a good time while doing so.

Closing a chapter

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

-George Santayana

Burnout has been a defining event in my life, that I would have rather been without. On the other side though, I’ve pulled through stronger than before. I’ve learned about myself and am prepared (as well as can be) for the rest of my journey. Will I avoid a similar experience in the future? Maybe. Maybe I’ll catch it a little earlier, but it’s naive to believe I can avoid it completely.

I want to thank my loving wife, dear family, close friends and colleagues who have supported me through difficult times. Without them I would probably still be out, and also not back where I am now.

I want to spread awareness about this topic. Based on nothing else than a hunch, I believe there are many developers out there that may or may not have the tools available to deal with burnout, nor the voice to speak of their feelings. Instead they may be working at the same place, day in, day out without realizing that this is completely wrong and that there are some things they can do help themselves.

I do not want to be defined as the guy who had a burnout, but rather close this chapter of my life in a good way and leave some words of inspiration, encouragement in public for my future self when things look grim again. If some of you also find value then nothing would make me happier.

I would really love to hear about how you’ve dealt with being completely overloaded. Maybe writing it down will make it easier for you later, as it has for me?

Please feel free to reach out to me directly if you have any thoughts or questions. Or leave a comment.

  • Bravo!

    Thank you for sharing your personal experience. It’s not easy opening up oneself the way you have done it. Personally, I enjoyed the cathartic blog post. I connected with you in so many ways.

    I, too, write/blog to make it easy on myself. I’ve written about this topic more than I care to admit 🙂

    • I’m so happy to have made a connection with you Jose.
      It’s your comment the other day that inspired this post in the first place, and the podcast was just a natural event to trigger the post.

      I forgot about that in all the rush. Updated the intro of the post 🙂

      Again, thank you Jose 🙂

  • Pav, sharing your story is going to help people going through similar experiences. You’re doing excellent work and this is something bigger than just code. Thank you for the candid sharing.

  • O. E. Hansen

    Excellent story, Pav. An insightful article into your experiences with burnout.

    My experience is that as work transforms from playful, exciting and fun, into a dreary chore that HAS to be done fast and repeatedly, burnout looms ever closer on the horizon. Which is why I try to approach every task with a “fun and exciting” mentality.

    • This is exactly what schooling does to learning as well.

      • O. E. Hansen

        An astute observation, Dave. I agree.

    • That’s a great attitude Ole!

      It’s hard when external factors drag you down, but by focusing on what you actually can change, yourself and your attitude, you can survive and even enjoy it.

      Thanks for sharing this Ole, and for taking the time to read an comment! 🙂

  • Hi Pav, really interesting post and one I can closely relate to. I seem somewhat more prone to burnout than most people I know, and even in high school and university there were times I had to just stop and really focus on feeling better. I ended up dropping out of the first course I took at university. Over the years though, I’ve been able to identify what keeps me from entering the downward spiral of burnout and act before it gets too much. As you mention having great support from family and friends is a huge plus too.

    I would really encourage anyone struggling with burnout and motivation issues to look at taking a Birkman Method test. I took mine about 10 years ago and to say it was illuminating is an understatement. It’s seemingly simple stuff but I’m constantly looking back at the ‘Areas of Interest’ and ‘Needs’ sections when I start feeling the first stages of burnout and usually realise I need to get out in the great outdoors, or take on a practical and varied task to get me feeling happy and well adjusted again!

    [A quick disclaimer: I work for this company (it’s my family’s business), so feel free to remove if this comes across as too spammy] We have an online product (hoozyu) that wraps a great deal of easy-to-understand value around Birkman Method data. It’s aimed at young people finding their way in life but is equally applicable to adults (and we’re launching a more adult-friendly app soon!). The url is in my profile if anyone is interested.

    • Michael, thanks for taking the time to read, comment and share your experiences with burnout.
      I was not aware of the Birkman Method test and will have to look into it.

      Be well,
      Pavneet

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