The Easy Way to Recover From Burnout as a Developer
You don’t have to switch jobs, stop programming, or go on a dopamine fast
Six years ago, I was burned out—like all mid-career technologists (developers, data scientists, software engineers, dev-ops, etc.). I didn’t realize it until I developed a pretty severe case of PTSD. The environment I worked in and the coping mechanisms I developed hid my burnout even from myself; my productivity never slowed down. Even in the depths of dealing with PTSD and depression, I kept on working through it all.
The signs were far more subtle than most people believe. I’ve written this piece in the hopes of benefiting those overachievers who also have trouble recognizing the symptoms.
Subtle Signs of Burnout
Perhaps you have a longer attention span than average or more stamina for serious work. Perhaps your job is your number one passion. Perhaps you’re single and don’t have a family yet. Perhaps you just moved to a new city without a lot of friends close by.
In any case, it’s easy to brush off the signs of burnout. These were my subtle signs. Are you paying attention?
- Careless mistakes: This one was big. After a while, I was finding bigger and bigger mistakes in my work. I’d catch them just before someone else did.
- Unable to get away from the computer: No one could drag me away from my computer, not friends, family, or significant others. I was always working on the next big thing as if it were an addiction.
- Weird sleep cycle: On my off days, my sleep cycle seemed as if I were working on a different continent. I wanted silence when I coded, so I’d wait until the nighttime hours. Sometimes, I slept throughout the day and spent all night working.
- Inability to listen to others: In meetings, I started to become less patient with people. When problems occurred, I’d try to get my thoughts in before anyone else, just to get the meeting over with.
- Forgetting things in real life: For a while, I felt like I had two lives, my work life, and my real life. I started to forget all the important tasks in my real life. I’d forget to pay bills, go to doctor’s appointments, or even get my hair cut.
- Detachment and emptiness: I’m usually a very empathetic person. But during that period, I started to feel like I didn’t care. I had a persistent feeling of numbness in the pit of my stomach.
- Stopped doing things that I love: My life revolved around work on weekdays. Then, on weekends, all I did was go through the motions of detox to prepare for next week’s work. I never did anything for its own sake; I was living to work.
- Vacations didn’t help: Instead of coming back to work after time off refreshed, I only dreaded the deadlines and long hours.
How to Bounce Back From Burnout
After recovering from burnout and depression, I realized there are ways to bounce back without drastic changes in your life. Once you spot the signs, you have to do the following immediately. If you delay, once depression sets in you’ll need to make big changes in your life to feel better.
- Experience life and love: The first thing that you need to do when you burn out is to step away from your immediate problems by doing something different. Volunteer, become a regular at a new cafe and meet some new people, or date someone who has no association with your immediate circle of friends. If you have children, spend quality time with them.
- Write down your feeling: Freewriting has always helped me reconnect with my feelings. When I’m burned out, I can write endlessly and not feel like I’m writing anything meaningful. Then, suddenly, when I’m on the way to recovery, my writing becomes more alive.
- Put a bag over your home computer or hide your laptop: That project that you’ve always wanted to work on can be tempting. You justify it as a passion project that will snap you out of burnout. Don’t give in to that temptation. Put a bag over your home computer so that you won’t even turn it on. Hide your laptop. Then, go out and take a walk.
- Clean up your life: Your house may be very organized. You may be a very neat person. But, is your life clean? Do you have drama from friends, do you have a social schedule, cultural excursions, book clubs you frequent? Do you have a plan for living your life on the weekends: birthday celebrations, parties with friends, groups to grab dinner and drinks with?
- Re-establish your boundaries: Often when I over-worked, I felt like I was trampling the boundaries of my family and friends and trying to make them adjust to my schedule. This was because my own boundaries were being breached by work commitments. So, re-establish those boundaries. Go to your manager and set firm hours and tasks to be done, do them, and then go home. When you’re at home, set a schedule and put everyone on your social calendar. Have a regular weekly dinner with your family. Set a regular weekly hangout day with your kids. Make a regular date night with your spouse. Treat all of those appointments as non-negotiable.
- Re-establish your true passions and pencil hobbies into your schedule: This is by far the hardest one to implement. It takes time to find hobbies outside of your work. If you are like me, your work is your passion. What’s your second passion? Pursue one that will take the least amount of time. As you have more free time, add more hobbies. I took up coloring for relaxation because I lived near a bookstore where I could pick up coloring books for a dollar. So, I did that for a while on the weekends. I gradually filled the pages in between yoga sessions.
- Work out and feel the muscle ache: Working out is a great way to balance the chemicals in your brain. Taking part in a fitness challenge and training for it, such as a marathon, yoga teaching certificate, or weightlifting competition, is great. It’ll motivate you to make a habit of your fitness routine.
- Re-negotiate the role of work in your life: As a developer, you may often think that you need a certain amount of money to live well. After all, everyone around you is building a nest egg. You’re afraid to quit any toxic work environments. You don’t see possibilities outside of your work. This is when you need to re-negotiate your views about work within the entire scope of your life. What are you living for? Start by talking about it with your friends and family. If you can’t find help there, then sign up with a life coach and talk about all the possibilities.
- Feel free: I felt restricted in the environment of work. I felt like I was tied to my computer and that my mind was confined to a box. One of the first things I did to feel free after burning out was to dance my heart out. Then, I climbed mountains. Feeling free in your own life can lead to a sense of mental liberation that allows you to recover.
Burnout is not the end of the world. You don’t have to switch jobs. You don’t have to stop programming altogether. You don’t even have to go on a dopamine fast.
What you need to do is to get out of your house, your apartment, or your workplace. Every single one of my recovery mechanisms centers around turning your computer off and looking up into the deep blue sky on the way out of the office.
So, go out, reconnect with yourself, reconnect with your body, reconnect with your passions, reconnect with your family and friends, and reconnect with the world around you.
In the end, people will value you for your whole self, not just what you can do for them.