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Ask HN: Seemingly unable to recover from burnout. Please advise
40 points by 19032019_anon on Mar 19, 2019 | hide | past | web | favorite | 45 comments
Dear HN, Writing this post has been difficult for me. It has been months of procrastination before I’ve been able to put “pen to paper” on this.

tl;dr. I am suffering from what appears to be extreme burnout from programming/working at a startup. Half a year of “time off” has done little to repair me. I seek advice on how to get my life back on track and move forward.

I cut out of a ton of details in order to make this post as short as possible. Even so, it is a bit lengthy. It is about 4,000 characters, which is over the HN limit of 2,000. I have the full text pasted here. https://pastebin.com/0kx5jfrK It is a short read. Definitely under five minutes. Thank you for reading it.

Let me preemptively respond to some possible suggestions: 1) Exercise. I’ve been exercising daily and eating healthy for years now (well before X). That’s not my issue. 2) Travel. I have been traveling more with my time off, both international and domestic. While I enjoy it, it doesn’t seem to have changed much my outlook on my day-to-day life. 3) Therapy. I went to a therapist for a year or two while I was working at X. I don’t know how much it helped, if at all. It has been about a year since I’ve been back.

Thank you, HN.

What helped me un-burn myself was focusing on creating as many serendipitously boring moments as possible.

I canceled all pre-made plans, stopped pursuing any goal outside of existing, and did things because I was bored and felt like doing them.

Our culture is 110% fail-forward, goal-oriented, growth-mindset madness that doesn't give us time to relax and chill out.

I'm not talking about pursuing a hedonistic lifestyle nor walking into the woods and being a hermit.

Get a dumb job, go to work, go home, do whatever. Meet with friends if you want too, go out if you want too, but stop all forms of external pressure and just exist.

I remember eventually I was sitting around with nothing to do and spent an hour dreaming about dragons and then went for a walk around the block because I got tired of sitting.

Avoid anti-stagnation gamification bs that only exists to make money like meditation apps or fitness trackers. Just be.

As you said, people are going to tell you to sign up for a "prescription" like traveling more or exercising but that is just more of a burden to an already burned out person.

Travel or exercise if you want but do it because you want too not because it's on some path to a better you.

I find it culturally characteristic one person here said that you should start a new company/product as if that is the answer to feeling overworked.

>Avoid anti-stagnation gamification bs that only exists to make money like meditation apps or fitness trackers. Just be.

I strongly agree we shouldn't gamify life

Isn't that what I'm more or less doing now? Other than the "dumb job" part? There is no pressure on me to do anything, really. (Except pressure I put on myself to exercise once a day) I spend large quantities of my time watching Netflix/playing video games. Isn't that "just existing"?

>I have no passion, motivation, or purpose.

See this is what I mean. Is that bad?

Culturally we are forced to have those things but they aren't necessary.

My grandfather worked at a quarry for 50 years and came home every day to have dinner, a Budweiser, read a book and maybe tv.

His loved sitting outside and watching birds in the summer but I would never describe that as his "passion".

Seems boring but he was content and had a happy life.

Well, maybe you need more of it?

I got a sense from your comment that you are "trying things" after feeling unsatisfied in an attempt to fix yourself.

Maybe there is nothing to fix and you need more time that's all.

Sorry, it sounds like you are arguing with me but I'm just trying to help.

1. Sleep like your life depends on it [1]

2. Exercise both cardio and weight lifting in a really generic way. Go hard on them if you honestly love either.

3. Eat the "cleanest" food you can afford. I like Michael Pollan's guide [2].

4. Get a social network, friends, family, dating. Spend at least 2hrs in a 1:1 scenario with someone you care about and cares about you. Spend at least 4 more hours with as many people who care about you that you like (ie 1:1 if you're more introverted, or as a group if extroverted etc.)

5. Live the 40 rules for life [3]

[1]: https://web.archive.org/web/20190306123706/https://www.super...

[2]: https://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/news/20090323/7-rules-for...

[3]: https://www.quora.com/What-are-the-most-valuable-things-ever...

For me, the single most depressing thing in my life was working for someone else. I now set my own schedule (and have set) for years, working on my own products, and live a relaxed life.

Six months is nothing. Everything compounds. Working in a toxic environment compounds and takes a long time to cleanse. Good things also compound. You need to find something to work on that makes you happy, suited for your personality.

I went for a 2 hour walk today. It put my mind at ease.

That's the dream. I just never seem to be able to come up with products that actually make enough money to replace my salary though.

I must add that I live in a lower cost-of-living area. However, it works for me and I travel frequently.

Unless you're on a SFBay salary, most developers could replace their salary by doing contracting for 3 to 6 months a year. That's how I started, building my first product (an app) on the side.

I don't like developing enough anymore to do it full time. I however do have some specialised skills and will from time to time supplement my product income with some consulting or contracting if something cool crosses my path.

There are usually also some smaller tax advantages. Being able to tax deduct your computer, mobile phone, home office, etc, some office furniture helps with keeping as much of the money you are making.

I'm in a low-cost area too, so theoretical I just need to make a couple of thousand dollars a month to make ends meet. That's not as easy as it sounds, for me at least.

I have an app that will be released soon, hopefully that would bring in some extra income. Who knows. Will continue slogging on tbough!

The symptoms you describe sound very much like depression.

It's great that you're exercising and eating well, that'll make recovering from this easier, even if it's not easy. I've got some suggestions based on all the friends I've seen suffer through this:

I know you went to therapy previously but I think you should consider finding a new, better therapist. If you are friends with any therapists privately they're pretty frank about how the wide the skill distribution is inside the profession.

I would also seriously consider seeing a psychiatrist, some people respond extremely well to medication and if you're 6 months in that option should be on the table.

Finally, you don't mention whether your sleep schedule has improved since leaving X. If it has, great, if not I would advise enforcing a regular sleep schedule. Set a bedtime before midnight, and a time to wake up. Don't sleep less than 7 hours, don't sleep more than 9 (too much sleep can be bad for you as well). If you're having trouble managing this try taking a 2.5mg pill of melatonin 15 minutes before bed.

I wish you well, and hope things get better.

I've considered that. I might be clinically depressed now, but since it's not nearly as bad as I used to be, I write it off as "I'm fine. I've been much worse."

I really hate the idea of taking mind-altering medication regularly. I was diagnosed with ADHD as a child (erroneously, I believe) and took medication everyday for years. A few years ago, I deemed it no way to live and weened myself off of it.

As a transitionary step, though, I guess I'd be open to it.

Ah, yes. I didn't touch on sleep. It has wavered over the months. It's better now, but not perfect. Often I sleep more than 8 hours, even though I have alarms set for 0800 and 0900. I do use melatonin when I have difficulty falling asleep. I think a lack of a "need" to wake up at a certain time (for work) induces laziness in me.

Sleep is super important, and maybe vitamin D, 5 HTP. I'd be very cautious of trying SSRI/ SNRI. The data is weak and mildly disturbing, but also, they aren't completely useless . or bad. I'd just leave it as a final option.

Have you considered finding something a little more substantial?

I can relate to burnout, but the only thing that fixed me was getting some faith in me and my place in the world once again. Time off and being nice to myself (I mostly couldn't care less) did nothing. In fact it was worse than nothing.

No idea where your interests lie, but have you considered some months of volunteering? There's loads of options like medical service overseas, or for one of the overseas third world projects, or something environmental - to get you out amongst the world and environment again, perhaps at a charity or group restoring some historical artefact - whether machine, IT, steam engine or building there seem to be lots of places for willing, intelligent volunteers. Even some weeks at a commune or Buddhist retreat - many of those want temporary helpers too.

I'm sure you can find something that appeals to the deeper you, and doing something more concrete should give you a little faith once again. You may also get a clearer idea of where you want to go next.

How is your sleep? I find that eating, exercising and sleeping are the base activities from which everything else follows. You mentioned the other two but not sleep.

You mentioned seeing a therapist, but have you taken your symptoms to a doctor? It is possible that your issues stem from a physical illness as opposed to a situation.

On the subject of practical advice, I suggest keeping a journal or diary of your moods and events of the day. I was able to use this to identify triggers that cause me to enter a depressive unproductive state so perhaps there is something that might help for you.

Sleep answered in a comment above.

No, I haven't been to a doctor. I assume this is all mental. Is it possible I've developed a chronic, physical illness? What would be an example?

There are a number of illnesses that can cause the symptoms you are describing such as ME or Lyme disease. There are also other more dramatic possibilities that are more unlikely as I assume you are reasonably young.

It is also possible you have developed an illness like depression or dysthymia. It is possible that the strain of the previous few years has caused this to manifest somehow.

I also recently read an article about sleep apnea which can cause chronic fatigue like symptoms. Some people don't know they have it because they don't store the memories of waking up; often it is their partners who prompt them to seek medical help. Do you share your bed with anyone? Have they noticed anything strange about your sleep habit? A sleep study might reveal something you weren't expecting.

But for sure, the first thing to do is to just talk this over with an actual doctor and not a computer programmer (me) who likes to read Wikipedia for fun.

You could be deficient in regards to vitamins. That plays a huge part in mental health. You can "look healthy", but be absolutely in shit condition underneath.

Healthy mind in a healthy body. Eating well and exercising is not enough, you have to let your brain rest. Working crazy hours for long periods of time will affect your mental health more than your physical health.

Unfortunately I cannot give you more advice than what worked for me: taking long walks or going on hikes in nature. And switching jobs to work for a company that respects my free time.

A friend of mine who was also working at my previous workplace and also burned out took a job at the post office for a year. They didn’t understand why he was applying there with his qualifications. He told them he was sick of intellectual work and just wanted to move boxes from point A to point B all day long. He was hired. It may sound stupid but it helped him and he’s better now. I’m not saying you should take a silly job, but doing something simple that keeps you busy while putting your thoughts in order may help.

I've considered that. I've considered applying for a job as an auto mechanic. I like working with my hands. However, other than basic stuff like changing oil and spark plugs, I'm relatively uneducated about working on cars.

Therapy didn’t seem to work. Have you tried Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

If you have an Audible subscription there is “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: techniques for retraining your brain”

You can do it on your own but I think you’d benefit from an actual therapist as it sounds like you have some deep seated problems. (I know you said it didn’t work the first time)

There’s a great line at the beginning of the book where the author compares people to appliances. Appliances have instruction manuals, what to do when stuff goes wrong. Wouldn’t it be great if the same were true for us humans? There is no instruction manual. But the techniques in the book are a toolkit for different situations you may find yourself in. They’re meant to stay with you.

To me it sounds like you currently have an error code. You’re aware, and making some steps to address it but you don’t seem to have got any traction

I wish you all the best

Sorry to hear your story. I would encourage you to think about why therapy didn't help.

It can take a few tries to find a therapist that works for you. While you may feel safe talking to them, it still doesn't mean they're going to be able to help you in the way that you personally need.

I would look for a new therapist.

That seems to be a common theme. I'm not opposed, but my health insurance situation is...complicated. (What with leaving my job etc) This country's healthcare system is absurd, but that's a discussion for another thread.

Saw your post earlier today and it left me wondering on how to help. Then I came across this tonight, thought it might be helpful in some roundabout way. https://www.forbes.com/sites/laurashin/2013/05/22/7-steps-to...

(edited) I went on to discover this article, I found the comments just as interesting. https://lifehacker.com/steve-martins-advice-for-building-a-c...

Interesting read. It sounds like you lack a "mission" that your startup job provided, and just any old arbitrary mission can't replace it.

My advice would be to figure out what you want out of life: wife, kids, where would you live, what would you do, etc. And I don't mean look fir a new job I mean what do you want to dedicate your life to. Maybe religion, maybe service work, maybe cocaine and hookers. It's up to you.

Then, figure out a plan on what you need to do to achieve it.

You seem to believe that the point of working is the work itself, but the reality is that the point of working is to get money so you can fund your life.

Anyways, you are the only one who can answer what your life goals are and what you need to do to do them so be honest with yourself when your thinking about it

The problem is, I don't know what I want out of life right now. I like to drink and party, but that's not a "mission." I would like a wife and children someday, but not soon. Same thing with home ownership. I don't really know what I want immediately.

> but the reality is that the point of working is to get money so you can fund your life.

When I left X, I got some severance pay. So my life right now is essentially funded, and I still feel lost.

Sounds like that's a part of your problem. No sense of belonging/purpose. If you find yourself focusing on "What you want from life" and feel compelled to get an answer, maybe you need to distract yourself mentally from that and not force it.

A lot of people mentally struggle when they don't know what they want from life. It can make you feel "worthless". You end up sleeping late because.. why get out of bed.I took 2 years off of work and went through all of this. The answer for me was a) mentally accepting myself and b) find work that I felt good about. e.g, I did a days worth of work. Yes I'm not changing the world or solving Null Pointer Exceptions for everyone, but hey.. fuck it. I'm doing something.

I always remind myself to a) Not judge myself so hard because in 200 years or less no one will remember me. Thats okay and b) Life is better when you learn to accept yourself even if you're not gods gift to everyone else..

P.S., Everyone will learn to think of me as an amazing person! I'm just giving everyone time lol jk

Is it possible that your addiction to work is a result of something else missing in your life?

I could possibly rephrase your statement “writing code used to give me a dopamine rush, it does not anymore, how can I reclaim that?”

I’m sure a part of that was the fantasy of riches, another part was being young and smart and good at what you do, feeling your worth / worthiness.

A better question might be “how can I find meaning and value in my life?” It’s an important question that you could literally spend your life ruminating on. I nor anyone here can answer that for you.

My first direction would be to make a list of things that you like doing, and to make sure you do them regularly.

From there, search for things that can keep you fed and in housing / clothes, and achieve other goals that you have personally.

Something else missing in my life? Possibly. Well, in university, it definitely was. I hated (and I still do to some extent) the whole high school/university/9-5 career pipeline. I wanted nothing to do with FANG etc. I saw X as my "way out." My light at the end of the tunnel. My escape from the rat race that I so vehemently opposed.

You need to re-program yourself. It's hared when you program yourself to keep pushing, improving, growing etc and then you start feeling like you're always at rock bottom.

You might need to learn how to accept what you are and be comfortable and fully aware you're not going to be great. I had to learn how to just accept.. well me. Who I am and all my failures, waisted efforts with no "growth".

What have I done to reprogram myself? I go to a coffee shop and just read a book that is not tech related. I write in my book about what "depresses" me about myself. e.g, confronting my ego head on. I sit outside in a park listening to music like a crazy person the call my mom; which I do daily.

Feel free to email me at my user name followed by gee mail.

Try finding a hobby that you enjoy that isn't related to tech. I personally find woodworking and knife making to be a fantastic escape from staring at a screen all day.

I don't know much how to help. I'm sorry. I have one idea though. Maybe find a temporary work in some other industry? Something new could spark a new passion? Even a job like a waiter/ress, taxi driver could bring a new look at life.

I think that interacting with other people could help. IT is very specific workplace, especially, startups, in my opinion.

Many of the comments mentioned previously help and do make sense. However, I'd like to add .... find a good partner who can relate to you and hopefully not judge you. It can be a romantic involvement, a friend, a family member. Self-evaluation and self-prioritization of activities important for you is important and can be very helpful.

Write a diary and make yourself your own therapist.

Apart from daily writing, my own philosophy to life is to move very slowly and concentrate on the minutiae of everyday existence. There is joy in the patterns of the gravel.

Lastly, I would say study | create simply for the act in itself. This goes hand in hand with the writing, and the appreciation of the mundane.

You could contact the American Red Cross and volunteer for disaster response. I volunteered for a month with them after hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana. International assignments are an option but require long term (multiple months) time commitments but it seems like you might be available for that.

Helping others will help you heal yourself.

Find purpose.

If you can't, get yourself in a situation where purpose is immediate.

The problem with programming is that it is opposite of actual life itself. Everything reduced to symbols. Everything abstracted. Which is all beautiful in a synthetic way, but it has to tie back into a larger purpose for living or it's all no good for anything.

I found a combination of these Ayurvedic herbal supplements taken in the morning before food to be beneficial (do your own research / I am not a doctor / etc): 1. Ashwagandha 2. Gotu Kola 3. Bacopa

I’d also recommend considering a micro vacation to somewhere with a spa and just relax in some hot springs for a couple days.

Also exercise!

In addition to others' suggestions, you might look into getting a dog. For me, my rescue dog puts a floor on my stress and its side effects, since I need to walk her quite a bit and she likes to "take care of me" in her own ways.

Work with animals.

There are so many shelters that need help, like dog walking etc. and the dogs will love you for it.

TL;DR Good luck, give it time, stay busy

It took me nearly two years after a ‘startup’ I was working at collapsed and I realised I was burned out until I was ready to consider writing code as a dayjob again.

I was in a comfortable position, but didn’t really have the luxury of being able to do extended travel, so got back in to work as quickly as I could (mostly technical salss and consultancy type role - wasn’t really ‘me’ but it helped me recover - there’s something to be said for keeping bisy - and taught me a few new skills along the way)

I’m now back to programming basically every day and loving it - but it was a long road.

From what you write, you need to start your own company/product. Find something YOU really passionate about and something YOU want to work hard on.

As far as working, I think you might be happier doing your own thing. If you have some runway I would look at starting your own company.

It sounds like you might be happy with a lifestyle business.

Inspiration: @DHH Startup School Talk (2008) it's still relevant and a great talk. Lots of great quotes in this one. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0CDXJ6bMkMY

StartUpsForTheRestOfUs.com is a great podcast, start in the archives. You can follow Rob along from starting out with job board sites, he even mentions drop shipping beach towels, to an invoicing app to an SEO SaaS app, to founding Drip all the way through to a nice exit. Inspirational and sound advice along the way.

Check those out, that might be your path to a job you can be happy with.

I enjoy work and you have to make a living but there is more to life. Family, friends, pets, volunteering, mentoring, helping others. These might bring a new perspective of work time vs personal time and give you things to look forward to outside of work.

Reach out and find a mentor/group/mastermind to help guide you through this time.

Take care and good luck.

I'll give you my recipe. I have a recipe because I've burnt myself out a couple of times in my career. Not the best thing to do, but I like to work and sometimes in pursuing one's passion one over does it.

1. Forgive yourself. You worked hard. You made a couple of less than optimal moves. It happens to the best of us. You may not realise it, but often people feel "stupid" or "weak" for having gotten into the burn out situation. Give yourself a break. Also realise: it's likely to happen again because enthusiastic people get themselves into this situation. Don't fear it. Accept who you are and work within your own nature.

2. Forgive others. I wrote a fantastical piece on this a long time ago: http://mikekchar.github.io/portfolio//UsefulAndBeneficial (It's surprisingly short for something written by me). TL;DR: People strive to be useful and then complain when they are used. Instead do what you do because it is in your nature to do it and maneuver yourself into a place where this provides benefit for others. It's easy to blame others for the situation you are in because they selfishly accept everything you give them. They may even selfishly ask for things that you give them. However, give them a break. It's fine if people ask for things, even if they are selfish. The key is learning how to break out of the "useful" mould.

3.Find out why you are a programmer. I can't actually give you good advice here because I don't know why you are a programmer. I can tell you that I never wanted to be a programmer. I wanted to be an author. But then my parents (wisely, I suppose ;-) ) suggested that the job of "author" is not very secure. So I picked my second best thing, which was programming. And then for at least the next 20 years I did my best to find a way to quit from that job. However, I kept getting sucked back in. I thought I was cursed. And then I realised it: I love programming. That's why I do it. Even when I don't have to program, I'm programming. My curse is that I love it, which is why I can never break free from it. See: you aren't the most screwed up person in this conversation! But anyway, you are a programmer for a reason. You might not realise what that reason is. Your reason is probably not the same as my reason. However, without knowing what your reason is, it will be hard to continue. If you suspect (which I bet that you do) that you don't actually have a reason to be a programmer, then try something else. Work at MacDonald's. Do whatever. It doesn't matter. You'll figure out pretty quickly why you are a programmer.

4. Write code. Write code every day. Start small. I like doing pomodoros. If you can only do one pomodoro a day, then only do one pomodoro a day. Try to do 2 some days and eventually you will be able to do 2. Keep trying to do more pomodoros. Or whatever measurement of work floats your boat. But write code. Every day.

And that is it. I'll be honest, though. I think you are suffering from more than burn out. Depression can happen as a result of burnout, but thoughts of suicide, etc are pretty worrying. You may have an underlying health condition that needs treatment. I recommend continuing to see the relevant health professionals and getting whatever treatment you can. I know lots of people with mental health problems. It's important to understand that this is a health issue. In the case of thoughts of suicide, it's a potentially fatal health issue and should be treated just the same as a heart condition, for example. Our science sucks for these kinds of health issues, but it's getting better over time. Many of my friends have had really good success and there is no reason to believe that you won't have similar success. It might take some time, though.

I hope that's helpful! It's always hard to give good advice on this kind of issue because it depends so much on the individual. Just try to keep a positive outlook. Belief is more than half the battle.

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