The Dreaded Programmer Burnout, And How To Avoid It.

Kieran Maher
Photo by Lechon Kirb on Unsplash

I have just reached the end of my four year degree in Forensic Computing with heavy development components, which was an in-class 20 hours a week during the final year. During that final year, I also worked 40+ hours a week as a software consultant (a role I continue to the day — building, testing and evaluating software in a wide array of languages). Combine this with the 15 or so hours a week I spent writing code for personal projects, articles and various publications, and I think it’s relatively easy to see how I was teetering on the edge of the dreaded burnout that programmers live in fear of.

Burnout is the mental effect that anybody, but in particular programmers, feel when building software consistently for months and years on end, without breaks, with constant high-pressure deadlines, and an ever changing and growing playing field, that manages to keep you somehow disinterested and engaged at the same time. It can cause programmers to leave the field, to retire prematurely and can lead to depressive episodes in some individuals. What burnout could be considered at its fundamental level, is a high degree of stress.

A great way to keep yourself from burning out that I have found is to find a community who share the same field as you. For example there is a mobile application DevRant (not promotional or sponsored) that can prove for some people to be helpful as it allows them to express their stress with people from like minded fields who can understand and sympathize with them. However these communities pop up everywhere, if you just look enough. Even talking with another developer around the water cooler can be a great way to keep yourself engaged and interested. The key is not to discuss directly the work you are doing, but instead the field around the work. For example, don’t discuss the front end implementation build you’re doing that has a deadline of three days and you’ve only just pushed your first commit. Instead, discuss the reasons for using Vue over Angular or whether .NET is a competitor to modern web frameworks. These kind of conversations can help keep you interested in the field at large and can often ground you as to the reasons you joined the field in the first place.

Photo by sydney Rae on Unsplash

Common advice is often to take time off and away from what you’re doing, but as explained at the beginning in my particular circumstance that’s not always a possibility, and so we need to learn ways to cope with the burnout while continuing the current situation. So in my instance I dropped back the length of time spent writing for publications, and began exercising for an hour every morning. While cliche and predictable this advice really does work, as it allows you to reset your stress clock. The way I approach exercise is that it is an opportunity to beat all the stress out from the previous day. Then when you arrive at the office to get the day started, you’re all ready to have more stress loaded on to beat off tomorrow! In all seriousness however, exercise is a great leveller that can help ground you and reset your stress levels by helping to balance out your hormones.

Finding an external release really is a key to fending off burnout and reducing the risk of you feeling the need to take time off or leave the field altogether. Consider a hobby such as piano, football, reading or even crocheting, basically anything that stops you looking at screens. For me, even though the tasks to be completed where different in university to that of my office to that of writing, all shared the same underlying use of technology at their core and once I was able to remove technology altogether even for a short time, it was tremendously helpful in affording me the chance to reset and then come at a task anew.

It can be easy to forget your reason for joining technology, your reason for starting to program, your reason for choosing such a high pressure career. And to tell you to simply step away when things are becoming horrendously overwhelming may not always be the best advice. Instead, take some time for yourself, learn a new skill or hobby to put in the “About You” section of your CV that’s not related to technology. Look after yourself, eat well and exercise, and it will help to gain a clear outlook. But the important thing to remember, is the passion you had at the start, and revitalize it.

Kieran Maher

Written by

Software Developer & Analyst. General technology enthusiast.

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