If you’ve worked at a startup, a technology company or anywhere that moves fast then you’ve probably seen the effects of burnout. This psychological cousin to depression afflicts many creative professionals. When I started my career I was invigorated by the feeling of software and technology, being able to completely change the world radically for the better. That feeling lasted for half a year until I hit burnout.
For a long time I shrugged off feelings of burnout as temporary, something that could be ignored until it went away. But recently after dealing with 2 months of massive burnout I’ve found that burnout can be much more than temporary if not addressed.
If you’ve ever felt burnt out or feel it now I hope this will be useful for you as something you can look at to overcome the effects of burnout.
This post will be long and include a few tangential thoughts. For those of you who don’t want to read the whole thing the way I’ve started overcoming burnout is through seeking third party help, meditating, and leaving food on your plate.
The signs you are burnt out
Burnout has many indicators and lots of sources but I’ve found these questions have helped me determine whether I’m burnt out or not:
- Do you find yourself eating more, smoking, drinking, or not exercising?
- Has your consumption of mindless entertainment gone up drastically?
- Do you dread waking up?
- Did you feel a ray of hope reading the title of this blog post? (Credit goes to Scott Berkun for this)
- Are you annoyed at new ideas?
- Do you feel like you’re constantly behind even though you have plenty of time to do what you need to?
- Do you feel guilty?
This is far from an exhaustive list but it gives you a good idea.
If you’re feeling burnt out it’s important to focus on finding a solution to the burnout rather than suppressing it. While it can be thought of as an enemy, it’s important to treat burnout with the respect you would treat anything else. This post goes over how I am getting over burnout, but since I’m not a professional psychologist of course your journey might be different.
Overcoming burnout takes a village
I have reclusive tendencies ranging back to my childhood. When I was upset I’d retire to my room and think through the solution until I was happy with the outcome. Most of the reason for this was due to addictions and afflictions my family had around me: I couldn’t rely on them anyways. It wasn’t until many years later that I figured out that to really be successful at anything it requires help from others.
Burnout is no different. I wouldn’t have quit my job at The Clymb without the guidance of my wife, Sophia. I was entranced and burnout working with them and while it was difficult to write out my two weeks, it was the right thing for me to do.
Relying on family is not a good idea for overcoming burnout. Neither is relying on your friends. These people are not objective third parties. Also subjecting your family and friends to the emotional distress talking about burnout creates. Instead seek outside help from professionals or if you can’t afford that then talk with someone who you’re acquainted with but not friends with.
It is much more difficult to speak with people who are third parties and explain things that don’t make sense. Like the fact that you might spend hours watching Netflix while a book deadline is looming (ok yes I have done this…).
My own personal experience with finding outside help has involved me speaking with a therapist once a week. It has cost me money but it has also taught me a few tricks that I have been applying that my wife, and family wouldn’t know. Plus my therapist has said things that my family and friends most likely wouldn’t say to me due to the subjective nature of our relationships.
One of the biggest things I’ve learned is practicing getting out of ones mind and dropping down into a meditative state.
Dropping down using meditation
Until recently dropping down is a term I haven’t heard of before; paraphrased it means to get out of ones head by practicing breathing and clearing everything from ones mind. Dropping out of one’s head down to their body below. This could also be thought of as meditation.
For those of you who think meditation is a waste of time, believe me it’s not. I believe that we are made out of a combination of mind, body, and spirit. Burnout to me is when the body and spirit become neglected and your mind becomes too tired to function.
Thinking back to when I was the happiest I practiced meditation frequently. I was doing karate twice a week, exercising, and meditating as part of my training. I was in balance as I was taking care of my body, and spirit as well as studying.
By 2015, I would exercise at most 2 times a week, and haven’t meditated for years. That was until recently when I decided to start meditating frequently using calm.com. If you haven’t tried calm.com I highly recommend you try it! I also have been attending a Zen sitting group where we meditate for over an hour.
My findings have been extremely positive. Meditating even occasionally focuses your mind onto what is important instead of flopping around like a fish.
For those of you who haven’t meditated before I do recommend you try calm.com but otherwise if you want to try silent meditation sit on the floor in an open position (really it doesn’t matter how you sit as long as you’re comfortable). Then when you meditate only focus on one thing, the space between inhaling and exhaling. That’s it! If thoughts come into your mind let them pass like clouds would. Don’t force them out but let them pass.
Meditation is about becoming mindful with the present instead of letting your mind run free. It helps you drop down into a state that is healthy and maintainable instead of stressful.
In my journey to find more mindfulness in my mind and seeking outside help I have learned one of the most important lessons to overcoming burnout: leaving food on your plate.
Intentionally leave food on your plate
Both of my parents come from very poor families. My mom when she was growing up ate surplus peanut butter that came out of 5 gallon buckets. To this day she won’t eat peanut butter cause of how disgusting it was. Mind you this was surplus WWII peanut butter ten years after the war ended.
My upbringing taught me to always finish your plate and to be damn happy about the food you receive. Unfortunately as a child of the 90s this meant that I quickly became an obese kid who was 290 lbs by the time he was 13 years old. To this day I clean my plate and am grateful for what I have in an economy of abundance.
It wasn’t until my therapist told me to intentionally leave food on my plate that something clicked. When we commit to something, especially in software, we think we know how much time we need or how much energy we have but in many cases we’re wrong. Software estimates are impossible to get right and the same can be true with something as simple as food.
Sometimes our eyes are bigger than our stomachs.
That is why mindfully leaving something on your plate is a great exercise in overcoming burnout. A lot of the time burnout comes from taking on too much in the first place. Usually this is manifested as scope creep or scope seep.
When I worked at my first job out of finance there was a project manager who was running a project I was on. He was notorious for upping the bar all the time. This person was a big reason I ended up frustrated with that job. One sprint we had, we delivered 30 points. So obviously next week we were going to deliver 35 points.
This is scope creep. Someone else making more work for you beyond the normal work day. Consistently upping the ante as a team until eventually the entire team turns over and leaves.
This is completely unacceptable in the software world. We have a tendency to push for crazy deadlines and to always up the bar until our team is exhausted both spiritually, mentally and physically.
But I feel this hasn’t been the worst affect on me instead Scope Seep has been.
Scope seep unlike scope creep has to do with upping the bar individually.
In the fall of 2014 I signed up for a full load at Georgia Tech, I was finishing my book on machine learning, I took on consulting work with two clients, and had a part time job working 30 hours a week. On top of that I was an officer for my toastmasters club.
I had fallen into the scope seep trap. Retrospectively I could have said no to some of that after the fact but I ended up feeling my way through the fall and came out the other side with the burnout right on my shoulders. It’s taken me this much time to recover from that and I don’t recommend that kind of schedule to anybody.
While it’s been a rough ride with burnout. I feel positive for the future and grateful for the help I’ve received from my friends, my family, and third parties. For the entire month of April I found myself sliding into major burnout and didn’t take on any new work. That was the right choice for me cause now that it’s May I’m ready to finish my second book, to launch a new exciting project, and to continue to help build amazing software for the world at large.
How about you: what are your experiences with burnout?