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Dealing with programmer's burnout

pieohpah profile image Joe Chasinga Updated on ・5 min read

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I have recently come across a post by Recurse Center's fellow alumnus about his burnout and having to quit jobs in the past two years because of his newborn. I think this is an interesting topic that is not being widely talked about enough. How to cope with one's burnout as a programmer.

Programming is for the most part an obsession to problem solving. One doesn't just jump into writing code because it's a "great career with a decent paycheck". Most of the time, and for most people writing code, it isn't. Programming is an art form not unlike painting. Being a programmer today is like being a Modernist artist in the time of Picasso--it is just circumstantial that today programmers are earning big bucks, but most programmers do not really have a putting-food-on-the-table-first mindset. We are just passionate about writing code, and we are just lucky we're currently in demand.

I also think a burnout is a natural call for us to grow and change. It is our primal instinct to adapt and survive. Whether we have become overweight from unhealthy lifestyle, over stressed by our job or family, or been binging way too much Netflix, we are self-destructing, and our instinct calls out in the form of boredom and burnout to stop us from going further down that destructive path. It's purely self-preservation (I also think Netflix is dangerous because it tricks us into ignoring boredom).

This is why listening and responding to your burnout are really crucial not only as a programmer but also as a person. Programming is driven mainly by passion, and with a burnout it's going to be hard for us to get excited in solving problems, building stuff, and learning continuously. And the more we ignore it, the further we are at risk of killing ourselves.

I, too, am experiencing a mild burnout. I have taken a vacation, but it was no more a cure than just postponement. I've come to realized a few things that have caused most burnouts and what had made them better.

Don't Linger

I have been maintaining a pretty flatlined project called RxGo. I began working on it as a serious exercise while learning Go language and also as a project that would become the topic of the upcoming book deal I had. It has become my biggest open source project since, earning a lot of interests from users.

However, when my baby was born, my life has changed. I no longer had the time, energy, and focus to push any more work to the project and work on the book. After a year of missed milestones, my editor and I decided it was best to terminate the contract and let someone else write it. The project has been pretty much inactive, and although there's a few serious contributors interested in stepping up to help maintain the development, I haven't had considered anyone.

I think unfinished businesses really drag us down. It's like running with a weight tied to our ankle. We get exhausted sooner that way.

Family

Anyone with a family (a partner and at least one child) can speak to this. Family is hard work, nothing less than a full-time job on its own. It's a mini organization you have to manage while also maintaining a day job. You are the CEO of this said organization which has all sorts of problems you cannot tune off even when you're at work.

Many are faced with the dilemma to either manage a good family or perform well at work. To make matters worse, it is hard for those without children to understand what we're going through. When that accumulates, it builds up into a feeling of not fitting in a culture and degrades to a burnout.

It's very important to prioritize our own needs and time to maintain sanity. Having a partial schedule you share with your partner is a great start. You'd be surprised that most of the time it's up to us to make family works.

Under-appreciated

When we have built something or solved a problem with our code, in our mind we have become our own rockstar. At our job, unfortunately, you are inevitably compared to your colleagues. It can be just you doing the comparison, or it can be from your supervisor and/or colleagues ("Oh, you don't know how to do this?", "I thought everyone knows how to expand directory path."). Once a victor, now you've become mediocre. On your company's Slack you would see your colleagues boasting their work while your supervisor and other colleagues praising them--something you haven't got in a while. You begin to burn out.

The best way to tackle this is to talk it out with someone, preferably your supervisor, not your colleague. If your supervisor doesn't "get" it, find another senior who knows your sentiment and isn't likely going to judge you.

Uninteresting problems

Since programming is a passion-based activity, sometime being exposed to uninteresting problems or something you're just not good at can cause burnout. Again, talk it out to your supervisor. Ask her if you could work on a different project or use a different language.

Take baby steps

Not being able to accomplish anything repeatedly can cause burnout. Maybe the projects you have been working on, whether at work or on the side, are too ambitious, large, or requiring of domain-specific knowledge you can't possibly pick up on your own. Try dividing a project or problem into smaller, more specific ones. Instead of thinking "I want to learn AI", try "I want to learn perceptrons" or "I want to write a program to detect cats in an image".

Clear, achievable goals are less inspiring than huge idealistic ones, but they can provide small wins--and thus adrenaline rushes--that can catapult you out of the burnout zone.

Try new things

Sometime, a longer detour leads you back stronger. Try something else you haven't done before in your life. Better, learn and master them like you had done with programming. Things like cooking, brewing beer, wood working, board games, hiking, are all viable.

Take care of yourself

This cannot be overstated. Being a geek isn't an excuse to gobble junk food, smoke, get drunk, or avoid workout. Remember, a burnout is possibly your inner warning to guide you out of dismay, and there's no way to get to that sooner than getting your health wasted. Discipline actually leads to a happier and more productive life, not self-indulgence.

Have anyone experienced a burnout? Is anyone? I'm curious as to what has caused it and how you have pulled yourself out (if ever).

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Discussion

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shockitv profile image
ShockiTV

Completing task does not provide adrenaline rush, but release dopamine hormone. Which can become addictive too.
While defining WHY and progression in that direction help with Serotonin release which is safer form of happiness.

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pieohpah profile image
Joe Chasinga Author

Thanks for the comment. Wow, I learn new things from smart people everyday.

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umarov profile image
Muzafar Umarov

"Not being able to accomplish anything repeatedly can cause burnout."
This happened to me recently. I was solo on a project in my team. I kept on spinning wheels on fixing code to make the outcome of the code be correct. Took way too long and it just burnt me out. Later my dev lead joined me on the project and helped me out.

I try to focus on other things when I get home now. I used to code at home to learn new things. I have no interest to do that anymore. I am focusing on my other hobbies (cars, racing, etc.). It has gotten a little better, but it's going to be a long process.

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richardvk profile image
Richard vK

I also thought this was interesting, burnout due to working and feeling very little accomplishment. Looking back I think that was a big factor for me recently. I also try to limit my 'work' time at home to reading only and no coding if possible.

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pieohpah profile image
Joe Chasinga Author

Thanks for sharing!

I also code less now after work. Seems like it's not making me a better programmer linearly. I try to read code more and focus on understanding bigger pictures.

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mohr023 profile image
Matheus Mohr

I've been through work-driven burnouts multiple times, mostly because my job was boring me to death with extremely repetitive tasks, without seeing any value in what I was developing. It usually led me things like online-gaming addiction in order to run away from it (work 8h, go home, play 5-6h, sleep, repeat)..

In my case, I had to go for a complete refresh in life, making multiple changes at once, in a simple "alright, fuck it" way, changing to another company, starting studying on a daily basis a subject not directly related to programming and trying to exercise a little bit more.

I'm still far from where I'm aiming for, but these changes got me happy as I wasn't in a very long time, reason why I identified so much with your post.

Keep sharing :P

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pieohpah profile image
Joe Chasinga Author

Thanks for sharing! I'm sure everyone had been there at some point (or will be) and this would be great advice.

I've been cramming code for the last few years, and my hobbies had been code-related somehow (reading technical books, hacking electronics). In fact you could say I didn't have a life. I didn't go hiking, exercise, get excited about new things. I didn't even play games. True that kind of pushing through did get me to where I am fast, but it's also very unbalanced and risky to my long-term goals.

Again, great sharing.

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nax3t profile image
Ian Schoonover

I've definitely encountered burn out on numerous occasions. Whether it was a stressful dev job or the birth of my daughter, it can be tough no matter what.

Recently I've found that getting outside and just moving has helped my stress levels a lot. I don't work out at the gym or anything like that, but taking anywhere from 20 to 90 minutes to walk each day has done wonders for my mind and body.

It's the little things. :)

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pieohpah profile image
Joe Chasinga Author

Thanks for sharing!

Yes, I agree. The body and mind are very connected. Burnouts are a way the mind tells the body you need to get out!

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nax3t profile image
Ian Schoonover

Definitely! I believe the body starts talking much earlier than burnout and if you learn to be aware of those cues then you can prevent and avoid burnout altogether.

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paolomilano profile image
PaoloMilano

Uh, no. I program because it pays the bills and it's the best career I could get into later in life. Pretty sure I wouldn't spend my day at a desk solving someone else's problems for fun.I also know 0 programmers who do not make at least a reasonable salary with what they do. So much for making sweeping generalizations about why people end up doing what they do.

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mohr023 profile image
Matheus Mohr

I definitely can't talk about how it works where you live, but I can definitely mention my country (Brazil) as a good example of how you can find programmers making little money. It's actually a regular joke on how little money we make as devs, considering lots of other careers that require a lot less effort.

As with anything, you can't generalize in any way, not for saying programmers make lots of money, neither for saying programmers starve.

Also, I'm one of the people that actually spend my time solving people's problems for fun, I like solving problems of any kind, and I'm damn good at it, so again, don't think your reality is "the one".

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pieohpah profile image
Joe Chasinga Author

Thanks for the comment.

How do you know you aren't making generalization? I could say that I've known many who's programming while working minimum-wage jobs, in-between jobs and can barely pay rents. A few I know is contributing greatly to open source and has thousands of other developers using/following his work (maybe including you?).

If most people are writing code just to pay bills, you won't see as many working on open source projects for free. So with this solid evidence, I will have to disagree.

There's your world, then there's other worlds outside of that.

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paolomilano profile image
PaoloMilano

I can easily do a search on glassdoor.com to know that no programmer (at least in developed nations) goes hungry. Now what's your evidence for asserting that people get into programming to solve puzzles and not just to get a decent job?

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pieohpah profile image
Joe Chasinga Author

Paolo, what made you so mad about programming with fun? Don't you at least enjoy yourself writing code?

You can't just do a search on glassdoor to get the base salaries and assume all programmers get at least that. Do you only refer to paid programmers as programmers? Do you consider teenagers programming at home as programmers? How about single mothers learning code?

I also find your exclusion of developing nations moot. People all over the world are programming, and even many of exciting things are being built in developing nations.

Altogether you have missed my point completely. Nobody is asserting that people are getting into programming just to solve puzzles. Every serious programmer wants a decent paying job, but that doesn't mean she is doing it without the slightest love in the craft. Nobody can ever get good without the heart in the right place, and without getting good you can't get a paying job.

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Akashdeep Singh

I was burned out last year. There were a variety of reasons, but chiefly, I realized the one nagging issue I had was not getting anywhere with both of my two 5-year goals I had set myself in 2015. I tried a variety of things to fix this:

  1. Looked for a new job: This looked like a fair compromise given my dissatisfaction at work. It didn't quite work out immediately.
  2. Learned a new technology: I grabbed the first opportunity I got at work to learn a new skill and gave it my days and nights. A month into that project, and I felt I had accomplished something.
  3. Took an impulsive vacation: This just gave me the feeling of being in control, and after I returned I was able to be more decisive about my career.

All this while, I kept reminding myself that I have previously overcome challenges that seemed insurmountable and this shouldn't be different.

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pieohpah profile image
Joe Chasinga Author

Thanks for your sharing! Keep it up.

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oscherler profile image
Olivier “Ölbaum” Scherler

I’m very surprised that nobody in this long discussion thread recommends to SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP. Burnout is a very serious thing and, even assuming you can detect it before it’s too late, which is NOT a given, taking a walk in the woods or forcing some discipline on yourself probably isn’t going to be enough. And if you detect it too lte, then it takes a very, very long time to recover. Don’t take this issue lightly.

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pieohpah profile image
Joe Chasinga Author

I completely agree it's not to be taken lightly. Having said that most people don't have access or willing to seek professional help (for different reasons). Discussing with friends and even a community such as this one is a good start.

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dragonwocky profile image
dragonwocky

I'm one of those teenage developers who codes as a hobby in their free time. When I get going properly on a project, hours can pass without me noticing at all.

I usually begin to burn out when the pace slows down and I get stuck (e.g. when I encounter something I just can't get working no matter how hard I try), but one thing you haven't mentioned in your post is that success can cause burnouts too. Often when I finish a project I just sit back - and sure, I'm glad it works, but I'm also at a loss. I have other stuff sitting there I could work on, but I've just poured all my energy into this project and I no longer have any motivation to continue programming. Usually, I spend a week or two doing other things (like reading through a pile of novels instead), and it's only then that I feel fresh and ready enough to begin on the next thing.

Maybe it's different once you get a proper job and you aren't the one choosing what you work on, or maybe I just manage things badly, but I do wonder if anyone else experiences this.

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pieohpah profile image
Joe Chasinga Author

Thanks for your insight.

This is one of those things that proves "Hemingway's Effect" is better at being productive. The key is stopping when you get stuck. Don't bang your head against it trying to pull it off. Here's some reasoning:

  • When you're stuck, it's easier for your mind to remember where you got stuck when you return to it after a break to think about it in a different context.

  • There's more drive for you to go back to get it done than stopping after a successful deed.

I've read that Hemingway spent only a few hours every morning writing. The rest of day he went about strolling and spending time with his family. Yet he's one of the most productive writers and unarguably one of the most successful.

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dragonwocky profile image
dragonwocky

Oh, I can definitely see how that's good. For programming, though, I disagree slightly. You shouldn't stop immediately. Programming is a form of problem-solving, after all. Nothing would ever get solved if people stopped straight away whenever they came up against a wall.

Sure, you shouldn't just bang your head against that wall and get nowhere, but before you go, check if there's a door you could find a way through. Usually, if I'm stuck I spent a bit of time trying out different fixes and googling to see if others have encountered the same issue. If I'm clearly getting nowhere or just wasting time, I go do something else for a couple of hours, then try again. It's only then, if I'm still not making any headway, that I leave programming alone for the rest of the day.

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pieohpah profile image
Joe Chasinga Author

Thanks for the comment and lead to a great write-up. Yes, "passion" should be spared, but partly because it's been over-/mis-used in copywrites and marketing material so much it's become dangerous for many people pursuing not just programming but just about anything. Why? Because they are hard, and most people misunderstand passion as being similar to having fun. No, I did not mention fun.

So, I don't think true passion is bad. In fact, to do anything great and go through obstacles passion is really crucial. But it needs some other qualities as well like prioritization, abstraction, and the will to learn, and discipline, to name a few.

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Tepid Angler

I try to keep to programming strictly as a hobby, and i also made sure to put myself into a position where i don't have to do anything that I don't want to. Keeping that in mind I have the freedom to veer down any path I so choose. My advice, if you're burnt out but still enjoy doing it then get yourself into a position where it doesn't matter and there's no necessity to "work" you'll find that you'll do what you enjoy doing when you enjoy doing it. Whatever that may be.

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Eva Bat

Thank you for this wonderful article, you expressed my current issues in a really nice way. The truth is, that I belong to the kind that does not sleep/eat/rest unless all the programming problems are solved. Consider also the fact that I study for a MSc in Ubiquitous Computing, apart from (over)working full time.
I push myself to the limits of mental or physical breakdown, while the external factors (job/studies) are not constantly important, or urgent. In my (rare) free time I mainly watch Netflix(!).
I love dancing but I almost abandoned it after I started studying for my Master. I do not have kids (yet) but my sister has and comparing my way of life to hers I find it impossible to have children, although I really want to.
Consequently, the last 2 years I experience burnouts all the time, and they are caused mainly by exhaustion. On top of all these, within the same timespan (last 2 years) I switched like 4 jobs due to some unfortunate circumstances (mainly economic issues of the companies), which resulted in a feeling of deep disappointment, because I give too much in my job and they fire me when they find my salary too high for their budget, not caring about my contributions to the company at all.
I try to find a way to organize my life using more healthy and realistic practices, as well as avoid negative feelings caused by continuous misfortunes. I will try to see the bright side of things and feel confidence for the things that I achieved. For once, I will try to stop taking my programming problems as a matter of life or death.
Your article helped me discover that everyday life is not one solid path (home-work-study-home-work-...). We can find time to cultivate ourselves and respect our own needs. I apologise for my long comment. Hoping that I will read more sincere articles like this in the future. Kind greetings!

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pieohpah profile image
Joe Chasinga Author

Thanks for the heartfelt comment!

We can only step on the gas pedal full for so long before our mind says enough. We run on fuel, both spiritual and physical. I think the key here is to create smaller goals you can achieve each day.

Also try reading about how Hemingway worked. He spent very little time writing each day, and he always stopped when he got stuck instead of banging his head trying to bash through.

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ShakeShack

I can't agree more with this! When you put it into clear paragraphs, I could re-live my past year. A way of dealing with burn out was to also teach myself how to prioritize things that make me happy (example: singing, dancing). We can so get carried away with trying to prove something and achieving greatness in life that we lose the ability to do something that makes us innately creative and great. Surprisingly that something is whatever brings completeness in your day. Doesn't have to be big or smart.

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pieohpah profile image
Joe Chasinga Author

Thanks for your comment.

I really like how you think about what complete your day regardless of it's size.

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laaaaanceeee profile image
JohnReese

Thank you sir! I've been feeling down this past few weeks. I was somehow able to pass my thesis subject and now I'm on my last sem on college. (2 subjects and 486 hours of OJT to be completed).

My weeks of hardly getting enough sleep (I'm the programmer in the team of 4) is finally over, the ups and mostly downs I experienced after redefense and redefense(infighting, criticism, me over evaluating my ability) can finally be put at the back of my mind and nights of worrying if they let our group pass have ended.

Now I'm trying to find a company that would accept OJT's. Still none.(No slots left, or not accepting)

For some reason, the joy I found with programming has been sapped dry. It could be the pressure, stress, regrets or that I realized how inadequate my skills are.

I guess the only remaining thing in my heart that has kept on pushing me is that my parents won't forever be able to provide for my needs. Soon, my father will retire or lose his job. My three little sisters are still going to school and that would mean me supporting them once my father is unable to. I guess this gave a bit of a spark back in me. I really want it back, the joy of exploring and solving things, thank you, Sir Joe. Will remember to try new things and learn to take better care of my self

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Evan Oman

Being a programmer today is like being a Modernist artist in the time of Picasso--it is just circumstantial that today programmers are earning big bucks, but most programmers do not really have a putting-food-on-the-table-first mindset. We are just passionate about writing code, and we are just lucky we're currently in demand.

Programmers are paid because they are providing value to customers. That compensation is not arbitrary, nor is the demand for our services (they are the same thing).

I love solving problems with code, however there is no way I would do this full time if there were no market for that service.

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Jason Sant

Wow this post has hit home for me on so many points! Father of 2 under 5, working on like 5 projects at once since we work in a small team, feeling like a rockstar and to clients it's no big deal, plus all the stress eating! Thanks for sharing this!

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Eric Jimenez

Thank you for writing this.

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pieohpah profile image
Joe Chasinga Author

Thank you for reading!

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Cosmas Gikunju

I have learnt to be outspoken about uninteresting problems at work because that not only hurts my motivation but it also reduces my productivity a lot and I start feeling like my career is stagnant.

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pieohpah profile image
Joe Chasinga Author

I'm glad you have. It's not as easy as it sounds, I'm sure you know.