3 sure signs you are burning out as a programmer

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The term burnout gets used way too liberally these days to imply any kind of dissatisfaction with your job.

If you have an argument with your manager or if you are working a few extra hours, you might find yourself telling your coworkers that you are burning out.

But burnout, in its truest sense, is a real medical issue and it can lead to much more than simply just not feeling happy all the time. Long term stress on the body (and mind) can cascade further down into more serious  health consequences, such as anxiety, depression and even weight gain.

I myself have been there many times during my corporate work, to the point where I potentially risked long term health effects. I worked 16 hour days, 7 days a week, fueled by energy drinks and the result after a few years was a 70lb weight increase, various joint problems and overall just a total dissatisfaction with day to day life. So today I'll be going over 3 sure signs that you are probably starting to burnout from your day to day work and a few ways to mitigate the effects.

And I will be tackling it from the perspective of a programmer, because as many of you know, this job can be fraught with crazy hours, high caffeine consumption and late night work sessions.

Starting with the most common.

3. You feel tired

And I don't mean you are low on energy. I mean you are fatigued to the point where you can't stay awake during major parts of the day. I mean extreme fatigue that you can't simply brush off as "feeling tired".

We all know that sleep is important. There has been plenty of research done in the field to show that lack of it can lead to reduced cognitive ability and other metabolic issues.

Some studies even show that a single night of poor sleep can affect your eating habits for the following few days, which can inevitably lead to weight issues down the line.

At my first software engineering job I had the pleasure of working with a terrific programmer who essentially ran the companies entire web infrastructure all on his own. His work really was top of the line and very complex. But in order to achieve that level of complexity, he had to put in a tremendous amount of working hours.

Time and time again he would be asleep still sitting in a straight posture with his hands on the keyboard before 10am at his desk. He was clearly burning out in more ways than one. And the longer he continued, the less effective he became as a programmer, both to himself and to the company.

He was eventually forced into a long-term vacation and upon his return, truthfully he was like a new person. His energy was high and he was back at his peak performance.

At some point, I myself began to feel the weight of that workload and found myself time and time again asleep at my cubicle. The eventual supplementation of caffeine was only a short term solution as eventually even that stopped working.

If you choose to work in a high stress environment, because it is a choice, then improving your sleep habits is at the top of the list to mitigate the effects of the increased stress. This also means reducing the amount of caffeine that you take on a day to day basis as that can of course lead to sleep disturbances.

2. Decreased problem solving ability

Some people call it brain-fog others call it spacing out, but essentially you just can't think as quickly as you'd like. You might even catch yourself forgetting what you were just about to say. Much of this, again, has to do with your body needing more rest and repair.

If you are tired and in need of rest or nutrients or both, I can assure you that it is going to be hard to think and to problem solve at a high level.

And in this field, that can make you into a liability for a company. You can imagine that if you are working daily on a 20 million dollar web application that requires a whole team of people to operate and to manage, that your focus and ability to think quick is of the utmost importance.

You might not notice your coding ability going down however, because it really is incredibly difficult to think objectively about ourselves, but it might be noticeable in the number of coding commits that you are producing or even in the number of tickets that you are closing at work.

If you are lacking in some shape, way or form, I can assure you that there is some evidence of it somewhere that you are leaving behind.

Typically, stepping away from a problem even temporarily can do wonders in the long term. At past jobs, I would spend roughly 15 minutes a day taking a walking meeting with my team around our companies neighborhood. The rest of the day after that walk just seemed much simpler and less filled with stress. Not just for myself, but for the team in its entirely. It's no surprise that our department was the highest grossing department in the entire company.

1. Increase in bugs

Continuing with the theme from above, if you are feeling tired and brain-foggy for a portion of the day, you have a higher propensity to introduce bugs into the software.

I'll say now that no one is expecting you to have perfect bug-free code. That simply isn't realistic at all. There is a reason why companies have QA teams. To ensure that whatever potential errors you've made get caught before they cause any harm to a production system.

But, the less errors you introduce, the better it is for everyone involved. The QA team has an easier day at work and you have less revisions to worry about. A good way of measuring this is to simply keep an eye on whatever bug tracking software you are using for your work. If at some point in the month your coding ability starts to take a slip, you'll probably see an inflection point in the bug tracker.

This is also why it is typically not a good idea to take on any complex long term projects unless you are truly feeling up to par. I myself have made the mistake in the past of working on relatively difficult modules for this blog during weeks of extreme fatigue and tiredness. The result?

Essentially a lot of code that was not usable and a tremendous amount of changes to already working code. From an ROI perspective, those have been very expensive mistakes as the further you move in a single direction, the harder it becomes to trace your way back.

So if you find yourself producing more bugs than you normally would, don't ignore it and call it a rough day at work. It could definitely be a sign that you are burning through the midnight oil too often and just need to take a step back and heal up.

And lastly...

As software gets more and more complex by the passing day, developers will inevitably find themselves under higher stress workloads. And humans are adaptable creatures to a great extent. We are made to withstand long bouts of perpetual stress. But only if we have some sort of recovery window at the end of the stressors.

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