Burning Out

I’ve heard a lot about the “work life balance” but when your hobby is the same as your career then the line can easily become blurred. I want to talk about my experiences of turning a childhood of passion into a career and the ongoing affect that has.

To offer some background, I started learning basic web development as a young ten year-old following a real mental desire to understand how websites seemingly just appeared on my computer. I have the sort of personality which means I have intense and highly-focussed interests of which programming was and remains one of them.

When programming as a hobby I found myself being highly productive and never really felt I was being fully tapped for my potential, I got involved in multiple communities which eventually lead to my first open-source contribution for a Minecraft server called Tregmine. This actually led to my first remote job as a developer, albeit the workload and responsibilities were minimal.

At this point I was still going through college, I could comfortably carry out the work, and I still had plenty of time to work on my own personal development. However, now came the step where everyone had to decide what to do following college? I knew that university didn’t match my personality, so I began looking for apprenticeships relating to what I wanted to do — mobile development.

Skipping over some time I was super fortunate to get an apprenticeship at a leading telecommunications company in the UK, and from day one I was loving what I was working on as I made my way onto a production team. My overall standard improved through decent mentoring, and my speed actually also increased!

It was at this time though I realised I failed at the whole work life balance situation, work just ruled over everything. I set my own bar too high, presumably in the aim of trying to put myself on the same level as all my peers — an early mistake. Over time I picked up more and more responsibilities, I just found it too hard to say no to somebody — I’d get asked if I could work on X, and Y, and then this and that but before I knew it I had about 5 ongoing projects as well as my apprenticeship coursework!

I didn’t realise there was a term for what I was feeling until much later, but I was definitely suffering from a level of imposter syndrome — I felt like I shouldn’t be there, that no matter what good I did there was a hundred bad things that I needed to work on. This was a hard thing to get past mentally as it wasn’t “just a job” to me — It was my goal, I had never wanted something so bad before!

I had suspected that part of the reason was the difference between a job and a hobby — one means I’m being paid to produce working, high quality code but the other is just for fun.

This is where I started to contribute to some more open-source projects, and where I feel I made my final mistake. I turned open-source into a responsibility, rather than fun, rather than just being part of a community I made it part of work. If I didn’t contribute daily I felt bad, if somebody asked me to look at something then I would force myself to find time, and I turned GitHub notifications into yet another inbox to clear daily!

December really was the month where something snapped, that I really had to change how I tackled work. I had burned out. I was working on too many open-source featured, handling too many projects at work, was maintaining too many systems, and simply had no time for just me! I essentially stopped doing open-source, I reduced my responsibilities at work and ultimately took a month off of “actual work”.

My passion for what I was doing hadn’t gone — I still love what I do — but I realised I had to give more time to other things to balance my life.

So what have I learned, and what do I do differently?

  • I’ve learned that it’s acceptable to push back on work, people are not always asking you to do more than you already are, they just don’t necessarily know what you’re already working on
  • Open Source is about coming together as a community, it isn’t a responsibility. Maintainers will be thankful for any contribution regardless of size, quantity or frequency
  • I’ve started taking long walks on airplane mode to distance myself from technology as a whole and to give myself some personal time

Ultimately it came down to a change of mentality, realising that I’m more than capable of doing the work I’ve been assigned and that I shouldn’t overload myself unnecessarily!

I now feel much closer to where I was three years ago. I can manage my actual work, I have time to further my personal development, I have time for my family and myself, and I have a desire to get back into contributing to open-source.