Avoiding burnout


Matt Kirk wrote his first book, Thoughtful Machine Learning in just nine months.

While it's a feat for anyone, it’s more so when you consider that he had a day job and freelance work on the side alongside taking classes for a Masters degree in Computer Science. Despite being someone who enjoys his work and likes to work hard, after the book he found himself edging towards burnt out for the first time. While burnout might seem natural for someone in his situation, it actually happens far more often than you might think.

Burnout is a perennial topic for software developers. Technical experts often contribute to open source software, or have a side project in addition to a day job or running a business. Others simply burn out trying to carve out a career that allows them to use their technical expertise.

It's an incredibly common problem.

Message boards are filled with threads of developers sharing tips about how to deal with it.  You also can find many blog posts from long time developers grappling with burnout.

That wick can burn so brightly at either than the flames begin to meet before they even know it. Or, the flame is burning because your daily work has become become drudgery as you do the same rote tasks over and over again. Your once happy job has become a grind.

And when the flame gets too close, the ramifications can be huge. Some silently seethe until they crumble, quitting their job or unable to do much for weeks or even months. Some walk away, scorching the earth behind them. A few have gone the 410 gone route.

Once burnout has arrived, it’s a sure sign things are out of whack. Obviously, prevention is a better choice because once burnout sets in, it’s much harder to dig yourself out of the deep hole that's been created.

The trouble is that burnout seems to sneak up on us. On the bright side, there are actually signs before burnout beckons.

Early warnings sings of burnout

On their own, one of these symptoms may not indicate burnout closing in but two or more make it far more likely. Or, even one of these if it’s causing a major disruption.

You feel creatively empty. You feel like you’re going through the motions rather than being engaged in your work and life.

It’s hard to do the small things. As Scott Pantall describes it,  “I feel overwhelmed by everything including simple things and things I love to do.”

Mood changes. This might seem fairly obvious but at times it's actually hard to tell that when your mood has changed. We might be prone to being short or getting angry easily far longer than we realize. A negative mood change that lingers can be a symptom of burn out.

Unfulfilling work. You’re constantly cleaning up other people’s messes but aren’t in charge of making decisions that reduce or eliminate them before they occur. It’s not just cleaning up after others, it’s feeling like you lack control over the situation. 

Sleep issues. You’re sleeping much less or have disrupted sleep which means you rely on copious amounts of caffeine or sugar to keep you going. 

You don’t want to leave the house or your social life has slowed to a crawl. A change in your social life or not wanting to face others is a good indicator that something is out of whack in your life. If you see other people, you have to talk about how things are going and then you have to admit to them — and yourself — that things aren’t going well. And that means you have to make a change.

You ignore your gut. There are always twinges but when you consistently ignore or do the opposite of your instincts, you're more likely to fall into a negative patterns including burnout.

When you're more susceptible to burn out

  • You’re prone to pushing too hard or saying yes too often.
  • You have perfectionist tendencies. 
  • You have a high pain tolerance. Being able to “suck it up” for a long time without crumbling can actually be extremely detrimental, making it much easier for burnout to grab you without seeing it before you’re too far in. 
  • Work style — you don’t understand your natural work style or you know how you work best but feel like you’re unable to follow it given work or client commitments. For instance, the style of one technical expert I’ve worked is nine months on with three months off for rest and creative rejuvenation. As you can imagine, this doesn’t go well with more traditional jobs where they’re unable to accommodate for the downtime like this. He does much better working for himself and yet, burnout still beckons unless he manages his projects and money so that he can take time away.
  • You have a popular open source project, especially if you don't have enough support (time or money).

The causes of burnout

  • Doing something you don’t enjoy.
  • Pushing too hard.
  • Juggling too many priorities at once.
  • Overdue for a change.
  • Undiagnosed health issue (mental or physical) that’s draining you.
  • Being unwilling to relax our rules or allow others to help us.
  • Adhering to the schedules of others that work against your nature.
  • Constantly cleaning up other people’s messes without being in charge of making decisions to reduce or eliminate these messes before they occur.
  • Saying yes too often, especially when you mean no.

What to do when burnout beckons   

  • Get creative rest.
  • Add constraints. Jim Gay has employed this technique by setting office hours, leaving the computer at home. Changing the way you work by adding constraints can help not only help you shift your routine but also help you step back to see if bigger or more long-term changes are needed. 

  • Write down your thoughts. Get them out of your head. When feeling overwhelmed, Scott Pantall writes a to do list. Seeing it on paper helps make things not seem as bad.

  • Have interests outside of your work. Often this means non-coding for technical experts. 

  • Ask for help. Sometimes you need advice or just need outside perspective.

  • Simplify. Often burnout can be a result of too many things coming at your at once. Streamlining your to do list by dumping some or reprioritizing can give you head space and time to find a balance or, help you identify the real cause of your burnout.

  • Take things one step at time.

  • Figure out what self-care looks like for you. It probably means in part that you need to pry your hands from the keyboard. At least for a little while.

  • Change something. I saw the signs of burnout creeping up on me recently. Once I slowed down, I realized that my business was overdue for a change. Making a shift in my business immediately got me grounded again, and my energy returned. Luckily, I was able to avoid burnout.
  • Meditate. Matt Kirk found that a good way to avoid burning out was meditating. "There's something really beneficial about sitting with _no goal_ for 15-20 minutes. Though in the book "Open Focus" there's this idea that there are two types of focus: narrow, and wide focus. I've found that when I'm really burnt out I'm actually just narrowly focused and forget about everything else in my life. Meditation to me widens my focus."


 When you’ve found yourself in the throes of burnout, there are plenty of ways to relieve it. Some folks quit everything, others create a more helpful routine. Whatever you do, the key is to find the particular combination that’s right for you.