Finding Balance

TW: depression, anxiety, burnout, stress

Hi! I’m Madalyn

Me, out for a walk in Chicago

I struggle with mental illness. It’s a part of me but it isn’t me.

I have chronic depression, for which I have yet to find effective treatment. This makes it very difficult for me to connect with my surroundings, even things I know I love like my partner and live music.

I have anxiety, which looms over me and makes me afraid of everything. My body literally enters fight or flight mode and my thoughts become scattered and panicked.

I suffer from PTSD from an abusive relationship. This means I rarely sleep through the night thanks to endless nightmares.

Obviously, these are things that affect my work from time to time.

However, those are just facets of myself. These are other facets that also contribute to my personality and sense of self, and yes: my work.

I’ve been working at Olark since 2014
  • software engineer, coding since 2007,
  • coffee drinker
  • music lover
  • climber
  • rabbit owner (Toby and Ares)
  • gamer
  • foodie
This is Toby (and Ares asleep in the background)

One quick thing: I am not a mental health professional. I don’t even have my own mental illnesses under control most of the time, and definitely am not qualified to give medical advice. I’m going to talk about my personal experience, some of which might be very applicable to your life and some of which won’t. While I wish I could tell you how to overcome your obstacles, both internal and interpersonal, every situation is different and things that worked for me might not work for you. That said, I hope this talk empowers you to improve your work environment, both for you and for the people you work with.

A tweet of mine went viral after I was open about Mental Illness at work

I tweeted out this exchange between the CEO of my company and myself because I wanted to send a message:

  • Mental Health is Health
  • Wearing masks at work is exhausting
  • Supportive management matters
  • Things are getting better
People liked my message. They shared it and conversed about it.

What does this have to do with me?

Mental illness isn’t something everyone can necessarily relate to.

However, life is messy. LOTS of things can seep from your home life into your work life. And the other way around. Let’s talk about that.

Is this you?
1. You do a lot, but have little interest in what you’re doing
2. Your to-do list is never-ending
3. You are constantly connected to work via your smartphone, from when you wake up to when you go to bed. This includes evenings, weekends, and even vacation.
4. Your body is starting to show signs of wear. You don’t eat well, you don’t exercise, and you don’t get enough sleep.

These are symptoms of “brownout” which is the stage before your work-life balance goes into full burnout and you need to take drastic measures to address them.

This is what it looks like when your body is doing its best to tolerate the stress it is under.

Brownout will build on itself and feed into burnout if you don’t intervene.

A Vicious Cycle! (https://www.theodysseyonline.com/vicious-cycle)

Burnout is a vicious cycle.

No amount of coffee or sleep gives you enough energy to get through the day.

Your exhaustion leaves you detached from your work. You go in later and later.

Because you’re interacting with work in a different way, you feel ineffective and like your work might not even matter.

And then it starts again.


How do you stop that vicious cycle?

Self awareness! You are the expert on you.

There’s a lot within your control, you just have to take the time to introspect and answer some questions.

Robot image courtesy of Sam Brown and explodingdog.com

Knowing yourself is an important part of alleviating emotional distress. I’m a pretty introspective person, so this is intuitive for me, but if it’s not something you regularly do try to take time to think about what you’re experiencing and identify possible opportunities for relief.

I’ve found that organizing my thoughts and finding ways to accurately articulate what I’m going through has helped immensely. I try to journal and just vent there since I’m so uncomfortable with worrying anyone with my issues. I also see a therapist weekly to further sort my thoughts.

Because of this I’m able to tweak my environment to benefit my mood. I know that isolation is bad for me, so I create opportunities for pair programming or ask colleagues to discuss new technologies with me. I know that I’m not good at being productive when tasks are ill-defined or open-ended, or when I feel like I’m spinning my wheels so I work on todo lists with easy-to-check-off items. For example, I’d include making the todo list, defining my tasks, double checking my schedule, and answering emails as list items. I break larger tasks into smaller ones so I can check my progress and feel like I’m accomplishing things, which energizes me. I know that I’ll start to feel unproductive if I spend too much time on one task so I give myself more breaks for making coffee, going on walks, or attending to my pets.


Introspection

Now I’m going to ask you some questions. The answers to these questions will equip you with the information you need to overcome your stress.

  1. What activities give you energy?
Check out the responses to this tweet to get some ideas going!

2. What activities take energy away from you?
Note that we aren’t labeling these as good or bad; we’re just looking at how these activities affect your energy levels. Moderating meetings takes energy from me, but it also makes me feel competent and I find it really rewarding, for example.

I tweeted this question and got some good responses!

3. What time of day do you have the most energy?

4. Do people give you energy or take it away? Are there certain people that go against that general rule?

5. How do you respond to stress?

  • hiding
  • fleeing
  • screaming/yelling
  • crying
  • freezing
  • pushing through
  • shaking

6. How does stress make you feel?

  • overwhelmed
  • anxious
  • excited
  • tired
  • guilty
  • scared
  • energized

7. What do you have the power to change? (e.g. how you spend your free time)

8. What do you need to accept as is? (e.g. you can’t do everything)

Once you understand how you process stress, you can identify when you’re dealing with it more than usual.

This identification will allow you to accept that you’re dealing with stress and empower you to change the things you can to make them less stressful.


Okay, but how?

Maybe you’re just nodding along in your seat right now because what I’m saying logically makes sense.

Unfortunately “self awareness” is a pretty abstract concept and it helps to have real ways to apply it.

You have all of this information about yourself. What do you do with it?

  1. If you’ve identified that you’re under more stress than normal, take care of your body first.
  • How is your physical self? Are you sick? Getting sick?
Eating breakfast is one way I cut down on stress
  • Have you eaten enough?
  • How are mind-altering substances (caffeine, cigarettes, etc.) affecting you?
  • Have you gotten enough sleep?
  • Have you exercised lately?

2. Set yourself up for successful sleep

Make your bedroom as 
 comfortable as possible:

  • cool temperature
  • As dark as possible
  • minimize noise

Only use your bed for bed-specific activities:

  • No working from bed
  • No watching television

If you’re having trouble getting to sleep (or back to sleep), 
 get up and do something out of your room for 20 minutes

Avoid mind-altering substances for ~6 hrs before sleep

3. Stay in the Zone

Zone of Proximal Development picture from Image from http://pisanieprac.info/2017/zone-of-proximal-development-children.tech

Do at least one thing each day to give you a sense of accomplishment

Don’t set yourself up for failure, but do things that challenge and interest you

Do things that make you feel competent and effective

4. Cut yourself some slack

Once you’ve identified what you can do to ease your discomfort, remember to cut yourself some slack and tap into what makes you happy.

Sometimes I have to count just getting out of bed as a win. Some days I sleep until noon, check my email, and work on a craft project and that has to be good enough. In the long run, not stressing about everything I need to do and setting my focus on self care will help me be productive.

The first thing I ever cross-stitched: “Okay, but first coffee”

Remind yourself that you’re doing the best you can, and that others will understand. You wouldn’t be expected to crank out code if you were vomiting so much you couldn’t eat or sleep. Just because your symptoms are mental does not make them invalid.

Sometimes when my brain is foggy and stuck, I have to remind myself that my coworkers want to see me succeed and are willing to help me get there. If I’m spinning my wheels on a task, I can ask them to pair program with me. If something I’m working on drains my energy, I can ask to offload that task so I can pick up something that will make me feel productive and successful.


Accumulate Positivity

List pleasant activities that make you feel good.

Here’s a start:

(Happy car image from Image from http://imgur.com/88D50eV)
  • dance to music
  • go to the driving range (golf)
  • video games
  • gardening
  • coloring/crafting

If you’re having trouble coming up with things, there are lists of hundreds of “pleasant activities”. I recommend this one.

Once you’ve got your list, make a plan.

Short term
Do pleasant things that are possible now

  • go on a walk
  • make some tea
  • look at cute animals on the internet
  • journal
  • sit in the sun

Long Term
Make room in your life for recurring positive events. Find something to look forward to that will continue to give you positive feelings over time.

  • get your nails done (now I get happy every time I look at my hands!)
  • weekly desk tidy (my coworker does this and feels centered every time he sees his desk)
  • subscribe to a podcast
  • study a foreign language
  • Skype dates

Plan for when things go wrong

Make a self-care kit (use all your senses)

  1. Something to look at — cute pictures, family pictures, favorite vacation spots
  2. Something to listen to — music, soothing sounds, call a friend
  3. Something to smell — fresh flowers, an orange, coffee, lotion
  4. Something to feel — a soft scarf, sticky tape, stress ball, craft project
  5. Something to taste — some candy, lip balm, gum, favorite tea

(this section is thanks to Sarah Betts)

There are smaller ways to do this, too.

For example, I know that when I’m anxious I pick at my nails. I also know that traffic makes me really anxious.

I keep a little nail care kit and cuticle creme in my purse specifically for when I’m stuck in traffic. No more hangnails — only very well manicured hands!

Time (Energy) management

I’m going to take you through my process. It might not work for everyone, but it’s helped me reason about energy and time a lot.

  1. List out activities you do for your job and outside your job. Include both things you must do and things you do anyway.

Job:

  • Write code
  • Talk to customers
  • Attend meetings
  • Debug quirky customer issues
  • Respond to emails
  • Prepare support documentation
  • Coordinate with stakeholders

Outside Job:

  • Pay bills
  • Clean
  • Pet Rabbits
  • Knitting
  • Exercise
  • Video Games
  • Listen to Music

(Both of these lists are much longer. List as many things as you can!)

2. Figure out whether each task gives you energy or takes energy away from you.

I’m going to denote this with a “+” for positive energy, “–” for negative energy, and “|” for neutral energy. Again remember that you’re not judging these tasks as good or bad, just noticing how they affect your energy.

I’m also using neutral here to stand for “it depends”. For example, sometimes writing code can make me feel like a total badass and give me a lot of energy but others it can cause me to spin my wheels and really drain me.

Job:

  • Write code |
  • Talk to customers +
  • Attend meetings
  • Debug quirky customer issues
  • Respond to emails |
  • Prepare support documentation +
  • Coordinate with stakeholders |

Outside Job:

  • Pay bills
  • Clean
  • Pet Rabbits +
  • Knitting +
  • Exercise |
  • Video Games |
  • Listen to Music +

3. Stack tasks in your favor

Look at what you have control over and what you don’t.

For example, on Mondays have meetings scheduled at 11:30, 1, & 1:30 so my time is spoken for at those times.

The rest of this time, I can organize to maximize my energy.

Here’s my todo list for this past Monday:

  • Fill in meeting docs
  • Write Feature A Blog Post
  • Write Feature B Documentation
  • Coordinate Feature A with Support Team
  • Fix code for Feature A
  • Coordinate Feature B with engineers
  • Ship Experiment Code
  • Meetings

I know what tasks take energy and which tasks give me energy so I can label them as such:

  • Fill in meeting docs
  • Write Feature A Blog Post +
  • Write Feature B Documentation +
  • Coordinate Feature A with Support Team |
  • Fix code for Feature A |
  • Coordinate Feature B with engineers |
  • Ship Experiment Code +
  • Meetings

Also, I can work in non-job tasks to give me energy where my job is taking it.

Additionally, schedule in breaks!

image of Navi telling you to take a break from playing Zelda from http://i.imgur.com/v2kb1KH.jpg

If video games — fun things! — tell you to take a break, you should definitely take a break from work.

I’ll add these to my todo list:

  • Eat lunch |
  • Go on a walk +
  • Listen to music +
  • Knit +

Here is my schedule with everything in it. I’ve made things that give me energy green, things that are neutral orange, and things that take energy red and purple.

I’ve stacked my tasks so that things that give me energy sandwich or coincide with things that deplete me. My Monday turned out pretty well!

4. Recognize Wins

Answer these questions:

  • What difficult tasks did you complete today?
  • Did any of your colleagues go out of their way to help you?
  • Did you see any of your colleagues do something awesome?

Keep a record of the answers.

I have a running list of things I’ve accomplished every day. My manager and I actually have a pact to keep a list and share the results with each other to hold ourselves accountable.

Share that record. Olark Live Chat’s Monday Team Syncs (which you’ll see on my calendar above) start with our Kudos section. This is where we call out things that others did throughout the previous week that helped us or were especially extraordinary. Give each other pats on the back. Remind your teammates that they are awesome.

Bring the donuts.

My hometown has the BEST donuts, made at the BEST 24-hour donut mill.

Did you all pull a late night to meet a deadline? Celebrate that it’s over! Bring coffee or donuts. Or be like the VP of Engineering at Kickstarter, Lara Hogan, and literally buy yourself a donut when you achieve something really difficult.

I hope this was helpful in guiding you towards healthy work/life balance. Please leave comments and suggestions if you think of anything to add!

This was originally given as a presentation to PRIME Research on 8/30/2017 in Ann Arbor, MI.