How to recover from “programmers burnout”

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Our industry is so overstretched, so understaffed and so fast paced, that sometimes it’s easy to burnout and become disillusioned. Feeling tired all the time, irritable; even depressed.

So here’s a quick guide on overcoming the dreaded ‘programmers burnout’.

  1. Eat a hearty breakfast — Many of us in the tech industry are guilty of staying up until 3am, waking up late and dashing off to the office without any breakfast. Or maybe you grab some miserable, soggy bacon sandwich from some greasy hovel on route. It really is true that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Well, not just any breakfast, what you eat for breakfast is also important.Try to eat something loaded with healthy proteins, such as beans, avocado and wholewheat breads. Avoid white bread and breakfast cereals, which are usually full of sugar and will cause a mid-day sugar crash.
  2. Get to bed on time — Aim for 9 hours sleep, if you get 7 or 8, then you’re about right. It’s easy to see sleep as a waste of time, but in the long-term, you’ll lose more hours sat with sore eyes, staring blankly at the screen. Desperately trying to clutch the broken threads of thought on which a programmer relies.
  3. Don’t. Eat. Shit — This ties back into number one, but this is a more encompassing rule. If you load up on carbs, sugary snacks and especially sugary drinks, you’ll get a quick fix, but then feel pretty shoddy for the rest of the day. You can get energy from eating leafy greens, fruit… if you really need a kick, then stick to Americano’s (no sugar, of course).
  4. Drink water — When you get dehydrated, your body becomes sluggish and slow as it struggles with its more basic duties. Your body produces stress hormones such as cortisol when you become dehydrated, which sap your energy levels and can cause ‘brain fog’. It’s said that workers can be as much as 12% less productive whilst dehydrated.
  5. Talk to your boss — If you’re struggling or feeling less productive, then simply bring it up with your boss, talk through it and see if there’s anything obvious that can be done. If you’ve been working on something you don’t like, or aren’t very good at, you might need to switch projects to something fresh for a while. If you’re a back-end developer, but you find yourself pixel pushing, put your foot down. Your employer will get more out of you when you work in your specialist area.
  6. Manage your time better — If you find yourself having to flit between projects, or switch between codebases or even languages every hour or so. Or maybe you find yourself staying late to catch up constantly. Make sure you spend the first 10 minutes of your day writing down a todo list. Start off with any ‘quick wins’. We tend to subconsciously worry about those niggling bugs that we’ve been putting off, and they build up. If you can start your day by removing a few of those… you’ll feel unstoppable and less stressed throughout the rest of the day.
  7. Take regular breaks — This seems like an obvious one, but people in our industry try to play the hero, working through their lunch hour, from start to finish without break, as though someone’s dishing out medals for who’s taken the least loo breaks. You will be less productive in the long run if you try to ‘power through’. Your thoughts will become clouded and you’ll become stressed and in turn unhappy. Have a game of FIFA, make a coffee, go and sit on the toilet for an hour. Whatever it is, just give your brain some timeout. Programming is difficult, it’s mentally exerting. You wouldn’t go to the gym and exercise solidly for the duration, you’d take breaks between sets, otherwise you’d run the risk of damaging muscles. Well, it’s not that different for your brain.
  8. Exercise — Another fairly obvious one. Try to get into the habit of exercising regularly, even a brisk walk, especially in the morning before you start your day. Exercise releases endorphins which relieves stress, it circulates more oxygen around your body and gives you more focus.
  9. Take a break from programming — If you’re like me, you probably live and breathe software and technology. You’ve probably got Vim open behind this window right now. That’s great, and it will make the difference between you being an average programmer, and a respected engineer. But sometimes you just need to take a step back and do something else for a while. People say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Sometimes I’ll be away for the weekend without my laptop, and all I can think about is writing code. But I put it to the back of my mind, and I spend time with my friends and family, go for food, watch TV or… drink a little too much. But when I come back into the office on Monday morning, I can’t wait to get going again. That bug that was tedious and annoying on Friday, is suddenly a fun challenge again.
  10. Mindfulness — Here’s another buzzword that’s been doing the rounds in the tech industry for a while, but starting your day with even just 10 minutes of mindful meditation, can leave you feeling calmer and more focused throughout the day.
  11. Don’t be an overtime hero — Unless you hate your life, don’t be that guy who stays until 11pm every night, doing non-specific tasks to impress your managers or to out-do your peers. It’s not big, and it’s not clever, and it’ll burn you out. If your managers expect you to work late evert night, compromising your work quality, then they’re distilling an unhealthy work environment. If it’s your own initiative, then be wary of the long-term consequences.

There’s no silver bullet for programmers burnout, and the habits I’ve mentioned above can be hard to get into. It won’t happen over night. So start small, adopt one at a time and keep a record if need be. Try to think long-term, instead of reaching for that next can of Monster. If it persists, consider seeking some professional help. There’s no shame!

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