I'm lucky enough to be at a job where I have a ton of learning opportunities; my skillset has grown exponentially since taking the job about 6 months ago. However, there's a rarely mentioned dark side to learning at this pace: the dreaded burnout. When you're challenged with really hard projects over and over, there's a continual feeling of wow, I suck at this that starts to follow you like a shadow. You might feel embarrassed at how often you ask for help, or just physically exhausted at the thought of having to tackle another large and daunting problem. It's demoralizing to continually struggle at work, and if you do it long enough with no reprieve, you'll eventually break – it's just not healthy.
At past jobs, I was also surprised to learn that the same goes for the opposite – when you aren't challenged enough, every day feels like repetitive code monkey tedium. And although it's not as obvious, you're actually just as likely to experience fatigue and burnout if showing up to work every morning makes you feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. In its own way, it's equally unhealthy.
The word "self-care" gets thrown around a lot now, and often brings to mind images of getting a massage, taking a hot bath, getting your nails done – something stereotypically indulgent. Realistically, though, self-care just means being in tune with yourself enough to recognize your own needs and accommodate them. A big part of self-care at work means balancing your load, and a crucial part of that happens during sprint planning.
I've found that workload balance can be boiled down to three main things:
excitement, competence, and challenge.
When my team sits down together to plan the next sprint, I make a point to choose at least one of each of the following stories for myself:
One story that's exciting, that I can't wait to work on. Maybe this is something that I love to do, or a new feature I feel strongly about including.
One story that's "easy", where I know how to do all the steps involved. It might be a time-consuming job, but I know exactly how to tackle it and don't anticipate any hangups.
One story that's a stretch, where I anticipate the process involving lots of research, trial and error, and possibly asking for help.
Having something fun and exciting to work on reminds you why you do this kind of work in the first place. It gives you at least one guaranteed thing to look forward to, even if the other stuff is a bit ho-hum. Having something you can knock out on your own is a nice confidence-boost, and gives you something you can do on those days where you're just not feeling it (we all have them). Bonus points if that thing is something you used to need help with, but now can handle solo. And, of course, the stretch story means you're getting out of your comfort zone and learning something new every sprint.
These can double up, if needed: for example, the story you're excited about can also be the one that's super hard, if you're genuinely psyched about what you'll create in the end. And, of course, you might have more than three stories per sprint, so sometimes you end up with more than one in each category – or something that doesn't fit into those categories at all! But, as long as you have at least one of each (excitement, competence, and challenge), you'll come out of the sprint feeling proud and accomplished.
Scrum Masters, keep an eye out for your coworkers in this regard. See if they're striking this balance or starting to burn out – especially your junior folks, who are likely taking on a lot more "challenges" than your seniors. Remember that "challenge" is relative.
It's also worth noting that I'm talking in sprints and stories because that's how my job is structured, but this approach could apply to anything: picking classes for your next semester, writing your to-do list for the next week, etc. Give yourself something exciting, something that plays to your strengths, and something to challenge yourself with. Take that time to check in with yourself every two weeks or so and re-balance your scales – see if it has an impact on your productivity and happiness. It did for me.