Programmer burnout is a common occurrence in this day and age. And probably back in the day too. It's hard to imagine that people like Alan Turing didn't go through some kind of burnout in their lives. But burnout in general with any job is possible. Just recently Elon Musk shared a few tweets that painted the picture that many entrepreneurs and in his case engineers face at some point in their lives that not many people will openly discuss. So good for you Elon.
Any programmer, engineer, scientist, etc can relate to this. It comes with the territory and it's something that you'll eventually encounter. Don't let the media fool you into believing that it isn't normal. It's normal. When you aim high, you fall high. That's just a part of the game. You don't want to burn out? Get a 9 to 5 where every day is repetitive and there won't be too much to burn out too. You'll be bored sure, but you won't be taking it to its limits.
High's without lows?
People are shocked to read that someone who has climbed the ladder relatively high in the business world has some form of emotional problem. You wouldn't be human at that point. It's alot to ask for. But truthfully, you can't really have high's without low's. By definition. That would be like building a rocket that went to Mars and back on the first try and it was guaranteed. Of course that would bring zero stress. But lucky for us, that's not how reality works. We still have to try and to fail to get to the next level. And that roller coaster isn't for everyone.
Innovation comes from those lows. From those long nights of pondering if things are possible and attempting them only to realize that it's going to take a lot longer than the 10 minutes you told yourself. But those lows give rise to the highs. Those aha moments! When you've figured it out and you get it out on pen and paper, those are the moments that programmers strive for. They can't be constant, as that would defeat the purpose. So the lows will come.
For you programmers
But you don't have to be a billionaire to experience this. If you're a programmer, you're just as likely to burnout at some point in your career. And that's because you're essentially creating a company with every task. Or some part of a company. You're just not at the far end of the funnel to get the high rewards, but the work is there. You're building and analyzing and taking it apart until it works and more importantly, you're kind of doing it yourself.
The responsibility is definitely there and it's noticeable. You're in charge of making something work. Much different than a traditional 9 to 5, where you have a set task to accomplish then you can go home. Here, you are the task. You define it, and each step of the way you are responsible for it. That, is a lot of responsibility to give to someone. But it comes with the territory. I've written in the past how pair programming can help to alleviate a bit of that stress, but it isn't a bullet proof answer and many companies have yet to adopt it.
Signs that you're burning out
There's no magic notification that you receive when burning out, unfortunately. Maybe one day. But for now you'll have to rely on your gut instincts. But there are a few signs that you can make note off when it's fast approaching which we'll go over down below.
Everything is boring
That's the biggest tell tale sign. You just can't seem to complete anything. You want to, but at the same time, you just can't bring yourself to. It's just so boring. That for loop that does that one simple thing might as well be a T-1000's human recognition algorithm. Like, it's cool and all. But you just don't want to do it. The worst thing that you can do here is to force it. The code won't like it. And you won't either. When you recover, you'll be face to face with this monster that you created and then you'll fall back into it again.
If it does need to get done however, then break the task up into as many tiny tasks that you can. Write down each of those tasks in a long list, and start with the one that you can get done the fastest. You'll accomplish a tiny thing, but you'll get some type of dopamine reward. Enough to get you to task 2, in which you'll get even more of this mana-like dopamine. By the time you're halfway done with your list, you'll be feeling pretty good about your progress and will just want to finish it. And you will.
Another common symptom is the dreaded brain fog. Which may feel like boredom, but it's a bit different. This time you really want to finish something, but you just can't seem to come up with a valid solution. You stare are at the code for hours on end and you just can't seem to function. This is definitely a good time to take a step back and recover some neurons.
There are many causes for brain fog, from improper diet, to stress, to fatigue. And any one of those needs to be taken care of. It just makes sense. If your diet is bad and you can't seem to function anymore, start to fix your diet. If you're exhausted, get more sleep. If you're stressed, take a break.
You're just tired
If you work too much, you're going to get tired. That's a given pretty much. Many programmers however mask it with caffeine, which is somewhat dangerous as you won't really know when you're body is burning out. You'll be running on that dark magic fuel we call coffee which will eventually drain you even more as you build up a tolerance to it. And eventually, you will collapse under the weight of it. The end result will indeed be a burnout like effect when your mind and body won't be functioning at 10% even.
What to do about it
Unfortunately, there's no magic pill that removes burnout and peps you up. At least, nothing that I could condone. So what to do about it. Well, the solution isn't to do nothing. That's never worked. The solution is to notice it, and to slowly start to take steps to correct the situation. The following have worked fine for me in the past and hopefully they will do the same for you.
Work on something else
Work on something else if what you're doing is so boring. This is when having numerous projects in mind can come in handy. Not too many projects mind you, as that might just add to your problem. But a different challenge. Maybe working on something else will give you ideas needed to finish your first task.
Do something different
We're here to experience different things in life. Sure, Python is great. But if at 80 all you did was Python, you're going to be like "well $@%@..". So do something different. For me, that comes in the form of reading books, skateboarding and working on my writing skills, both in this blog and outside this blog. There's plenty of variety there that it becomes difficult to invest 100% of my energy into 1 sole thing.
Do something you enjoy of course. Not just something else that's random. Many people feel like this is the only alternative when not working. For instance, I do not hike much. Many people tell me too. But it's just not for me. I walk and I run around my city and I meet the locals and that's a good enough hike for sure.
Take a vacation
This is the next step up from doing something different. Here, you drop everything and cash in your vacation days and go enjoy life. It's short, and you're tired. Go enjoy it, get perspective, and when you come back you'll either miss your project, or realize that you never liked it in the first place and hopefully do something about it. Don't waste your vacation by not reflecting on life. This is your only shot probably in the year where you have some time to just sit and think about things in your life. So pick wisely.
It's perfectly normal
I think the most important to remember if you're burning out, is that you're not the only one. Burnout is a keyword that someone chose and there is no set standard. There isn't like a blood glucose meter that can tell you when you're burned out unfortunately (or fortunately). It's something that you yourself have to check and realize. It's that feeling you get when you're not enjoying your work anymore. When getting up in the morning becomes a chore. Catch it then, and fix it. The more you do it, the easier it will become and the more smoothly your work will flow out. You won't call it a burnout even. You'll say something like "yeap, I need to go skateboard today" and you will. And you'll enjoy it. Come back finish off your task that isn't so much fun, and continue moving on in life.
Did you find this article helpful?
Stay up to date with my weekly coding tips!
Walter G. is a software engineer, startup co-founder, former CTO of several tech companies and currently teaches programming for a coding bootcamp. He has been blogging for the past 5 years and is an avid BMX rider, bio-hacker
and performance enthusiast.