This is the second article in a four-part series on burnout. If you haven't already, make sure you read the first article:
Considering the three encompassing aspects of burnout (emotional exhaustion, feelings of low professional efficacy, and depersonalization directed towards one's job) we covered in the first article, it is clear that these exist within a systematic context and not solely within an individual.
While these larger systemic issues must be addressed (I'll write more about this in Article III), we also risk sacrificing the autonomy we do have if we throw our hands in the air and consider ourselves completely powerless.
In providing some ideas for personally coping with burnout, I will do my best to avoid advice that oversimplifies the difficulty of coping ("just look for a new job", "just make new friends", etc.). That said, here are some ideas and strategies that I hope everyone might be able to use.
When doing some research about burnout, I came across a 2018 paper written by some Swedish researchers about the potential for flow experiences to protect individuals against depression and anxiety. Now, we made a distinction between burnout and conditions like anxiety and depression in this series first article, but we have also recognized some similarities. Considering the findings of the flow article, I am curious about the potential of flow states as a protective factor against burnout. While this needs to be backed by more research, let's take a closer look at flow.
Biographical accounts of geniuses and artists and the state or the trance they enter when they create have been a ubiquitous in pop culture for decades. It was also a topic of great interest to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who coined this state as "flow". Csikszentmihalyi described 6 main characteristics that encompass a flow experience:
- An intense focus and concentration on the task at hand.
- A merging of action and awareness in that the activity becomes spontaneous and automatic.
- A sense of control over what one is doing.
- A loss of self-consciousness and a lack of concern for or about oneself.
- A transformation of one's perception of time passing.
- A sense of enjoyment in the intrinsic motivation of the activity.
Besides these, Csikszentmihalyi, citing professional musicians as an example, adds that an individual must have high mastery of the activity they are practicing for it to be flow.
While it's interesting to learn about these six characteristics of flow, it is clear that a flow state cannot simply be switched on—especially at work. On a certain level, work tends to be a social activity, and even if you work remotely, we tend to be inundated with interruptions—notifications, emails, coworkers named Chad bike-shedding about spaces over tabs—vying for our attention. Giving deadline estimates, reacting to office politics or controversies, or assuaging a micromanaging boss are all examples of such demands. Interactions like these tug hard at our insecurities (*cough* imposter syndrome *cough* ), the embodiment of self-conscious, and the limited resource that is our attention.
Second, many of us would not exactly characterize our work tasks as intrinsically motivating. Many of us cannot choose the tasks or activities we work on and many are less than meaningful to us. A developer may have the luxury of being able to work on the area and technology of her choice, just as an artist might pick her favorite medium and subject, but this is not the case for many people. So, the question remains: How can we possibly increase the possibility of flow when the factors in many of our jobs make it so difficult?
Tasks that are most welcoming to flow are ones that provide a Goldilock's level of challenge—not too much and not too little. Depending on your level of autonomy to choose or shape your work tasks, it might be easy or difficult to have this granularity of control.
If it is not possible to have the right balance at your job, it is, of course, possible to find flow in many other situations. Whether it's learning an instrument, knitting, reading, writing, or video games, finding time for experiences that cultivate flow is important. If you haven't found your flow activity, it will take some practice to see what circumstances help you best enter a flow state.
No "flow switch" exists, and besides the obvious tips like "become a master at a skill" and "think less about what you're doing when you're doing it", there is no formula for entering flow. Looking at the characteristics of flow, many have to do with our attention, awareness, and perception of time. With some professional and personal experience in mindfulness, meditation, and yoga, I have found the strategies below provide a framework for fostering growth in these areas.
One of the biggest barriers to flow states is distraction. We all get distracted in our own ways, so it is up to us to find the best way to carve out protected periods to foster uninterrupted concentration. This process takes honesty, humility, and patience—things that are often rare in our age of hacks and quick fixes.
"Don’t take breaks from distraction. Instead, take breaks from focus."
— Cal Newport, Deep Work, p. 159
The detriments of distraction are receiving increasing and deserved attention, as evidenced by many of the major tech companies' introduction of distraction and screen-related tools for their devices. But distraction is personal and no single tool or app will prevent it. Instead, it is more beneficial for us to develop our ability to monitor our attention and awareness, so we can identify when and how we move into states of distraction. Only then can we find solutions to our distraction problems.
Meditation is a wonderful way to train our attention and awareness. Despite how trendy and hippy meditation may seem, there is evidence that it works. That said, I'm not going parrot all of its spiritual benefits or list a thousand apps that can help one magically ascertain its benefits. There are only two ways to do it "wrong":
- Not meditate
- Fall asleep
One great meditation resource is Berkeley's Greater Good in Action and one great meditation tool is Headspace. You can't go wrong with these, and the most important thing is finding the way you can meditate regularly.
Many of us have heard of the Pomodoro technique, so I won't explain it in great detail. Here's the gist: work is broken up into chunks of uninterrupted work (usually 25 minutes) with a small break (usually 5 minutes) between work periods. The idea behind this is to create a rhythm that facilitates flow states or "deep work."
Similar to meditation, there are a million tools and apps for using Pomodoro, so it's a matter of finding the one that works for you. Personally, since I'm coding most of my day, I like ones that integrate with my text editor. Just take a look in the extensions of you IDE/text editor, and odds are there will be a Pomodoro one—I've used ones in Sublime and VS Code. If there isn't such an extension (or a good one), maybe you will build it 😀.
The remaining strategies for fighting burnout revolve around one common theme—boundaries. Creating and keeping boundaries is perhaps one's most beneficial, and also most challenging, tool for fighting burnout. Cultivating and protecting our boundaries is challenging, because doing so require us, as individuals, to bear the burden of large, unequal systems—sytems that are in no way designed to look after our personal wellbeing.—
It is here where the real challenge lies, and where the normal advice regarding burnout can feel careless and devoid of historical context. For many of us, things dubbed self-care—simply choosing to work less, spend time with/making friends, having a spa day, whatever your favorite self-care activity—can be difficult, if not impossible. Thus, it is my intention not to mention the following ideas like everyone has equal opportunity for them. That is not the reality due to existing oppressive systems. However, having and keeping our boundaries is important, and I hope we can help ourselves and others move towards situations where we can better balance all the demands we experience.
You are your best advocate, and your life is worth protecting from overwork.
For some of us, it is easy to keep boundaries, even if external demands put pressure on them. For others, it can be extremely difficult. But regardless of your relationship to boundaries, everyone is more important than your job, and you are worthy to protect against unhealthy conditions and expectations.
Everyone has the same 24 hours in a day. While some might have the privilege to pay others to complete routine tasks for them, giving them more "free" hours, no one can increase the hours of the day. Time is a finite resource, and if we try to stuff too much in the hours we have, we end up suffering. Each person's situation is different, regarding the number of hours we need for family, friends, chores, etc., but while our boss might act like we need to work 12 hours a day, we bear the burden of losing hours that should be spent on things that are important and demand time.
These realities make it super important to have an overview of what you need to get done in the week, whether it be personal or work, estimate how much time is realistically needed for these things, and then communicate these estimates to those affected by them. The space we each have to tell our bosses/friends/children/loved ones that we don't have time for something is unique, but unfortunately burnout doesn't take this into consideration. It is ultimately up to us to understand and communicate our capacity to get things done.
Having control over one's work hours is an extreme privilege that many do not have, but if this is a possibility, you must take it. There is simply too much evidence against overworking—each word in that sentence is a study supporting that point. Not only is there is basically no increase in productivity when working 50+ hours a week, you actually have a chance of dying sooner if you work that much.
While many workplaces wrongly value pseudowork, the reality is that these workplaces are on the wrong side of the evidence—and hopefully history. This does not mean that shoving the evidence in management's faces will suddenly change their mind, and attempting to single-handedly detoxify a toxic workplace is the best recipe for burnout. But no matter how far your workplace is from providing a proper work-life balance, know that you are always right to protect and advocate for yourself when it comes to overwork.
Similar to overwork, no research shows that lack of sleep does any good—no matter how many CEOs brag about getting up at 4 am. If you are a part the 1% of all humans that need ~6 hours of sleep per night—a group deemed "short sleepers", that's great, but for the remaining 99%, we simply need enough sleep.
Jake Archibald@jaffathecakeMy dickhead cat wakes up at 4am every day and he's yet to receive VC backing. twitter.com/Inc/status/107…12:01 PM - 20 Dec 2018Inc. @IncThe world's most successful people start their day at 4 a.m. https://t.co/seF0U4XWp8
I know I have found myself in a period where I felt like it was worth sacrificing sleep to be coding and learning other CS-related topics. However, this feeling is a trap. No matter how quickly you want to learn or achieve something, the best way to get there slower is to sleep less.
As humans, many of us have a desire to work on something meaningful. But what is meaningful? Often our assumptions of what this means lead to taking on high workloads, giving talks, writing articles, and working on things that we connect with on a deeper level. While this can be greatly refreshing, we might also be putting ourselves at risk for burnout. Research shows that there is a higher risk for burnout for those that consider themselves "highly engaged", so be careful with what you take on extra to your normal load.
Angie Jones @ #OSCON@techgirl1908This is bullshit. Yall need to cut it out with the gatekeeping. Everyone doesn't have to live, breathe, and eat code. Coding 9-5 just to pay the bills is legit! twitter.com/shintani_ken/s…23:13 PM - 22 Jun 2019Ken Shintani @shintani_ken@shl I wouldn’t hire that person. That person isn’t a coder by heart.
It is a societal lie that we must become workaholics to find meaning in life. And it is in this intricate balance between engagement and overstretching where we must (re)discover and enforce our boundaries. There is no fast and dirty way to do this; for some, this comes naturally, but for others—depending on our personal psychology, trauma history, etc.—this might be a bit difficult. In the end, we are each on our journey to find our boundaries, and we must use the tools and strategies that work best for ourselves to progress.
If you made it this far, I want to sum up the points of the article:
- There is evidence that flow states are a protective factor against depression
- Strategies like limiting distractions, using the Pomodoro technique, and meditation might help foster flow states
- These strategies can be used almost universally, despite one's job and life circumstances
- While such personal strategies might help, larger contextual factors often contribute to the chance of becoming burned out
- Our power might be limited to change large systems, but we do have the power within ourselves to discover and enforce our personal boundaries—even if it takes a bit of practice
Despite the length of this article, there is still more to say about the subject. I hope that you'll stay with me for part III and IV of the series.
If you are experiencing any strong negative mental states, please get the help you need—OSMI's resources are a good place to start. Otherwise, the number to the suicide hotline in the US is: 1-800-273-8255.
I have created a repo with an overview of burnout and how to cope with it, in addition to providing many other resources to help those on their journey to flow more. The repo can be found here—any additions, suggestions, or criticisms are appreciated and be made in the form of PR. Finally, this article supplements a 2018 workshop I did for WordCamp Europe, in cooperation with OSMI, which you should check out for everything mental health in tech.