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Ask HN: How do you know if you're burnt out or just being lazy?
203 points by fezzl on Nov 21, 2011 | hide | past | favorite | 100 comments
I know the easy answer to my question is "just take a rest and don't think about it," but how would you really know? Do you have a personal acid test to know if you're really tired or just plain undisciplined?

First, check the essentials: Are you sleeping, eating decent food, and exercising regularly? If not, you may be neither burnt out nor lazy. Take care of this stuff first.

Second, have you spent the last year working so hard that nothing short of a physical illness will make you slow down? Do you regularly push through problems with sheer willpower? Do you crave the next "green" unit test result beyond all sanity?

If so, you're almost certainly burnt out. Don't try to push through it. Take a vacation. Get outside. Allow yourself to be distracted by a pointless and amusing hobby for a month. You can't fix burnout with willpower. You need to take time off and refresh.

If you haven't been mistreating your body, and you haven't been pushing yourself too hard for too long, then it's possible you're lazy, or depressed, or something else. If you think you might be lazy, commit to making some useful progress every morning for 30 days, no exceptions. Or try a Pomodoro timer. These might be enough to tip you over the edge and get you moving. But don't do this until you've ruled out burnout, because it will only dig you in deeper.

I'm working like 70ish hours on busy weeks (unavoidable since I'm in a start-up & college at the same time) and I concur after a certain threshold your mental abilities get dramatically diminished plus your health severely damaged.

In fact if you're putting that many hours, you're probably also mistreating your body, doing little to no exercise and incurring in sleep debt. And I repeat, I know because I'm being this stupid. After two months of this ridiculous schedule I find myself fairly drowsy during the day, unable to resolve challenging problems. My body is acquiring fat very easily and I suffer from the stomach + a lot of headaches. And I just have been two months through this.

To be honest, the period in my life in which I succeeded the most was the one in which I had my needs completely met and I enjoyed every bit of my work, working as hard as I could. If you're a coder mental clarity is one of your biggest assets, so either run out of that health destructive spiral (that's what I'm going to do as soon as this quarter ends) or just stick with physical and mental problems.

Agreed. Regular exercise, good health and good sleep - would just like to re-emphasise that there's absolutely no substitute for it.

Out of curiosity, could you provide some more info on Pomodoro techniques? Never heard of it until you mentioned this, and am curious to learn more / understand how it can be effective in software. To me, context switching can be very costly, so I am very skeptical of breaking off my concentration every 25 minutes. Thanks in advance!

I've been using the Pomodoro technique for a few months for coding. The technique was actually first developed by a software developer in Italy; there's a free ebook describing the process[1].

I was kind of worried about the context switching when I first started out, but it didn't turn out to be an issue. The breaks are a good breather and allow me to code for longer. The strict timing of the breaks also prevent me from slacking off and not going back to work.

The 25 minute quantums may be short for some people. There's no reason why you can't customize this and use 45 minutes with a 10 minute break instead.

[1] http://www.pomodorotechnique.com/book.html

What you describe there is laziness. Burnout is this weird concept that developers have invented to describe "I can't be bothered to keep going". 5 years, no days off, one 5 day holiday per year, on call 24/7 for the duration, and I'm just fine. Depressed and exhausted, yes, but the work keeps flowing in and the code keeps flowing out, which is all that matters.

I guess what I'm getting at is that people have forgotten that work is supposed to be hard. You're supposed to work your nuts off until you lose all track of time. "Free time" is a misnomer, because every moment that you're not working, you're costing yourself time, and time is precious, and should therefore be spent working.

If you can't hack back-to-back 80+ hour weeks, you need to keep throwing yourself into them until you can.

Depressed and exhausted, yes, but the work keeps flowing in and the code keeps flowing out

You call that just fine? This is not fine. This is not healthy and this is the attitude you should be fighting against. If you honestly think that you are a better person and you produce your best work when you're exhausted and depressed, you should probably get some other opinions on that, because I have a strong feeling that the people around you will disagree - whether that's co-workers or family members.

It's fine once you adjust your value system to recognise that work is life, and that everything else is basically irrelevant. No family to speak of (apart from the ones who expect a monthly cheque from me (brother, aunt, mother)), co-workers are employees, so not appropriate for me to talk about it with them!

This has to be a well-executed joke...

Or someone who has severely lost track of perspective.

You know it's done well when you really can't tell.

My interpretation is that he's too shy to ask for help. Most manic depressants are just that, depressed, they hide in their hole and someone has to dig them out (possibly themselves).

Posting self-loathing material is subtle for someone to come along and pick up their shoulders. They know what they're doing is unhealthy or irregular but won't outright admit it because it shows weakness. "My life sucks but I march on and continue to produce acceptable deliverables" is a pride thing.

tl;dr - start slowly, admit that you can improve your life and STILL churn out those code snippets and you'll find yourself happier!

I'm going with "lost track of perspective" here. I've heard the same tune too many times to keep thinking that all those people are really very good dead-pan comedians.

Yes, but if its NOT a joke, am I a bad person for laughing?

I was saying the same thing not a month ago. Until one day, i completely flipped out during a meeting, stormed out, insulted the owner, and never came back.

I had been working way to much for the past 4years, and on the months leading to the melt down, it was just unhealthy, and i kept going at it, using drugs to keep up (i am deeply ashamed looking back...), barely sleeping and eating. And slowly it creep up on me, until i completely lost it. By my foolish attitude, i had not only burn myself (its been a month, i haven't been out of my place, i haven't written a line of code - i tried, but just the sight of it makes me sick -), but also hurt my co-workers and company, who in the process have lost their Chief Engineer and probably the project i was working on as well -months of work, and in the 6digits investment-.

There are people you can talk too, if it's not friends, professional help is there, i know how hard it can be to admit you've screwed up your life and health, but for your own sake, go get some help, before it is too late.

Because when your mind says stop, it'll be past the point where you can fix this "easily", and you'll be stuck with your decision for months, may be years. Take control of your situation, before your mind does it for you...

Yeah, I've reached a special place. Modafinil to work days on end without sleep, grass to force myself to sleep when I know I really need to.

I definitely need help, and I know it, but in the UK, the social stigma attached to seeing a mental healthcare professional exceeds that of going insane.

Work is life? That is a recipe for either 1) burnout and depression or 2) an early death.

You're literally killing yourself. You just don't know it yet.

No dude! It's cool if what you value in your life is work but plenty of people work to live. Jobs shouldn't require you to put in 80 hour work weeks, that should be the choice of the individual.

Depressed and exhausted, yes, but the work keeps flowing in and the code keeps flowing out, which is all that matters.

Consider adding "deluded" to the initial list.

5 years, no days off, one 5 day holiday per year, on call 24/7 for the duration, and I'm just fine.

You mention hard work, but I would argue you are really not working that hard. Working hard (either physically or mentally) like you say you do is simply not sustainable long term. I have known people who have put themselves in the hospital through burnout. Sleeping at the office 6 days/week, living on vending machine food, and the stress of the whole thing is physically dangerous. This doesn't even address the quality of their work which went down over time.

It's similar to the overtraining concept when weight lifting. If you are only playing with the pink weights then it's easy to workout for hours each day, every day. Start messing around with real weight on the same schedule and your body will eventually start regressing. It simply does not have time to fully recover from each workout. I believe this also happens with tough mental work.

Keep in mind this isn't talking about a crunch time or short stints of crazy work. Burnout comes from long runs of working at a non-sustainable pace.

"...I'm just fine. Depressed and exhausted, yes..."

I can't decide if your post is a joke or if your lifestyle is the joke.

It's good to know that HN is going down the same drain that reddit went down. Since when did hard work and dedication to one's tasks become a bad thing?

I don't think there's ever been a monolithic work-to-the-bone culture among hackers, whether at HN or elsewhere. It's definitely one part of hacker culture (and engineering culture more generally, which is full of billion-hour-shift "war stories"), but there's always been a strong opposition to that culture as well, of the "work smarter, not harder" variety, and of course lots of gray areas in between.

Some people really thrive on 80-hour workweeks, but if you don't (and I'd say most people don't), there's no particular reason to hold them up as a good thing. If you're starving and have to do it to keep from being homeless, then grit your teeth and do it, sure, but if someone's unhappy with their situation and has options, a rational solution is to look into those options...

Ok, think about the endgame.

What happens when you Win. I mean you're working on a project/business right. So heres the key question.

What was the person embarking on the journey after, what were her ambitions and aspirations. And should you manage to get there, what is next. Will there even be a next step for this new person. Or has the goal consumed the person?

One of the most important lessons I have learned from Nejc Zaplotnik, who was at the time of his death tied with Reinhold Messner in Alpinism.

"The Path is the Goal. There is nothing more important in life than the Path. Goals are mere means, since once you reach a peak its never over, you take a look around and pick a new Goal. Therefore Goals are meaningless. The only thing that matters is the Path."

So if the pain you are enduring is a vital part of your path, then it is actually good. But if this pain is not the path - then get hell out now. Don't loose the sight of your path by looking at the goal.

when they result in depression and exhaustion >_<

What you describe is that you basically have no life at all, so whats all the work for if you dont even enjoy it and instead feel depressed and exhausted ? Sounds like a sad life.

When it has a profoundly adverse impact on your life. It's okay to put the keyboard down to go outside and play.

That code you're writing in the 79th hour must be of astonishing quality! Seriously, I don't see how anyone can be productive after, say, 50 hours or so..

Lots of caffeine, and flogging myself as hard as I can to keep going.

Seems like you are joking.

My observation has been that people working more than 8 hours a day for more than a week only overproduce for a very short time. 16 hour work days general degenerate into spending most of the early day fixing bugs from the day before, tiring you out so when you get those 'fixed' you spend the rest of the day introducing 'new' bugs, then repeat the next day.

There are certainly some companies with a culture of overwork, but the people that actually produce the most are not always the ones who work 16 hour days. I have worked with a lot of people who believe working hard is 'good enough', but I'd never hire them. You have to be able to actually produce something, or you're wasting your time.

It's a tough balance to find sometimes.

"Free time" is a misnomer, because every moment that you're not working, you're costing yourself time, and time is precious, and should therefore be spent working.

Yeah, right. Because we all know that the one thing most people regret on their deathbed is not having spent more time at work.

I like working just fine. In my "free time" I'd rather make music, write in my journal, see friends or go on dates, cuddle with a beautiful woman and smell her hair or maybe just take a stroll through nature and get a sense for the hardly fathomable Universe I am a part of.

I don't know you. But your posting makes it seem like you are working hard in order to distract yourself from the fact that you're a pathetic philistine.

I hope I'm wrong, for your sake.

See my comment in reply to singular.

I used to be passionate about the arts, passionate about enjoying nature, good company, good food, travelling, enjoying life, and all the rest that matters.

I've flogged it all out of myself, as if I don't, it just depresses me that I don't get the time to do the things I love. Instead, I've convinced myself that the only thing to love is work, which my slowly but surely insane-turning mind rails against, continually, as I've ended up finding it impossible to care about anything, either way.

I see. Your situation is more complicated then and not wholly of your choosing.

This is something to be sorted out, and I hope you'll manage to do so sooner than later.

Take care.

That is a very unethical comment. Not impressed. The last thing somebody who is suffering from burn out and possibly depression needs to hear is that it's their own fault for being lazy. It only leads to making the problem deeper + worse, and can be a very dangerous mindset.

I'd be careful to consider whether it's the right course for you too, given you report feeling exhausted and depressed. Even if so, and you see it as necessary e.g. in the early stages of a startup, don't presume to think your situation is everybody else's. And even still, be careful with it.

Actually, I just wanted to see if, on a thread about Burn-out, anyone would recognise it when they see it. Evidently, not.

I'm in the fun dichotomy of knowing damned well that I'm at the end of my tether, burned-out beyond belief, and not having the time or energy to do a bloody thing about it. I work, from the moment I wake to the moment I fall asleep on my laptop, to the moment I'm woken 20 minutes later by a client phoning or raising a support request, I've pushed friends and family out of my life completely, and I'm slowly but surely becoming an aggressive asshole who views anyone who doesn't spend their entire life as working as worthless.

These aren't my values. They don't even remotely reflect who I am as a person, or who I was, at any rate, but I'm helpless to do anything about it, as someone has to do all this crap, and I'm not prepared to inflict it on any of the guys we employ, as I'd rather fuck my life up than someone else's.

You're not helpless. You just think you are. Just hear me out a minute. What would happen if, the next time a client rang in the middle of the night, you just didn't pickup up the phone? What if you just walked out of the office after 8 hours on the job?

I was once in a situation similar to yours. The harder I worked, the more work got piled on me. After about two weeks, I started coming in at 8 and walking out at 4:30. Yeah, it was awkward to walk out when the rest of the team was still coding away. But a funny thing happened. I actually ended up contributing more functionality to the final project than the rest of the team combined. Why? I disciplined myself and made sure that the stuff I wrote worked the first time through, because I had set limits on my time and that set limits on the amount of rework I could do.

These aren't my values. They don't even remotely reflect who I am as a person, or who I was, at any rate, but I'm helpless to do anything about it, as someone has to do all this crap, and I'm not prepared to inflict it on any of the guys we employ, as I'd rather fuck my life up than someone else's.

First, that's a terrible attitude to have, and it ensures that you'll always be in over your head. Second, I'm willing to bet $20 that not all of that work has to get done. If you're really burning out as much as you say you are, you're not doing high quality work anyway. It'd be better to meet with the client and have some very frank discussions regarding the status of the project than deliver something that's complete on paper but only half-works in practice.

Step away, man.

It seems like you can't, but trust me. Step away.

If an organization rests solely on the shoulders of one man, it isn't running properly, and it needs to be fixed sooner rather than later.

Step away

Aye, there's the rub.

I'm desperate for us to hire someone else to at least share the devops/project management/administrative/account management burden with me, however my business partner runs the design side of things, and therefore doesn't see the problems (I never get to sleep, I don't feel like it's permissible for me to do anything but sit in the office waiting for the next crisis), just the symptoms (me being snarky and irritable), therefore assumes the problem is with me, rather than the fact that I'm doing way too much.

Aware of the problem, aware of a resolution, no path to it, however, so I'll probably just keep on cranking until I finally, completely and utterly, unmistakably, lose it.

Sounds like utterly losing it is what you want to have happen. What do you think that will give you permission to do that you don't give yourself permission to do now?

Here's a way to think about this.

If the business is to survive (and continue to support you & your employees), you have something like these two options:

1) You continue at the existing intolerable grind until you lose it. The entire mass of work that you're currently doing will suddenly be thrown to everyone else, along with whatever else is required to clean up after your personal implosion (will they even know where you are or if you're coming back? will you start throwing servers out the window or screaming at customers?). Somehow with incredible difficulty they may figure it out and rescue the business, in spite of you.

2) You grind up this bitter pill and start giving it now, in little tiny doses. Hand out chunks of responsibility to others, and answer questions but don't micromanage; let them make their own mistakes (and clean them up themselves) until they've got it under control; shuffle things around as needed until folks are comfortable; repeat. Either you will make your way to a business that is sustainable, or you will find that this cannot be, in fact, a workable business that doesn't ride entirely on your back. Which means you should try something else.

It think it should be obvious which path is easier on your colleagues/employees.

If this were me, I think I'd just say "we're going to start having "X got hit by a bus" drills, and you guys have to handle something completely without me". It won't be as good as if you did it yourself, probably, but there's no way in hell they'll get any better without practice.

I'm desperate for us to hire someone else

But not desperate enough to explain this to your business partner? A working relationship is similar a romantic relationship. You can't just hope the other person will "pick up" on what's bothering you. You have to tell them.

Or you could... Stop.

Seriously, he's only seeing the symptoms because you aren't showing them to him. Step away is exactly the right advice. Leave the office. Don't handle a crisis.

That should trigger a proper discussion about unrealistic expectations and the fact that you've probably been doing your job progressively worse. A single crisis not managed is usually better than an increasing number of crises badly-managed because you were running yourself into the ground.

wait, hangon. There are partial technical answers to a lot of these problems. First, is shit broken all the time? if that's true, that's the real problem. I've been in that situation before, and it's hellish because you know that if you had a week of 'full productivity' you'd be able to fix the root cause, and shit wouldn't be broken all the time, but you are always too wasted from firefighting to solve the root cause.

Hire some contractors or something to help you get things together to the point where you have emergencies once a week or less; This is a relatively low bar, but it will set things up such that you can sleep most of the time, which is key. Even if you have to pay full rates $150/hr or whatever, (and you should be able to get someone good enough to get you down to the 'failures once a week' bar fairly quickly at that rate.) do it. Have your hired gun bang on things for a week. Someone good and fresh should be able to get you down to 1 downtime-causing failure a week fairly quickly. (really. one failure every 7 days is an extremely low bar unless you have hundreds or thousands of physical servers. I probably get a bad disk a week, but those are 'fix as soon as you are awake' not 'wake up now' events. I get a downtime causing error maybe once every two months, and if you can only afford one sysadmin, chances are you are way smaller than I am.)

The important thing is to focus on bringing your failures down to reasonable rather than on making things perfect. Bring your failures down to humanly tolerable, recover, then start worrying about the failures that happen twice a year.

Next, you have a pager, right? sleep whenever you can. The caffeine makes this harder, but it's still possible. Sleep whenever you can. Set it up so that your pager wakes you, but also set up your alarms so that it only goes off if there is a /real/ problem.

Next, why are you staying at the office? I've bought one of those little verizon brand USB cellphone dongles for both my employee and myself. It's pretty great; you can be way out in the middle of nowhere, get a page, and you can do most of the things you could do in the office.

You need to set expectations. If you got woken up to fight a fire? you put out the fire, but then you aren't showing up the next day.

So yeah, first priority? sleep. Depriving yourself of sleep is false productivity. Next? make your system more reliable.

You really got me thinking here.

Have you heard of saying that path to hell is paved with good intentions?

I have seen two major categories of "asshole bosses":

1. The ones who don't care. These are in it only for the paycheck and maybe they want to see how far they can take it before they get sacked.

2. The ones who care too much. They want to be successful, they need to be seen as good example and will work themselves to madness trying to prove a point. They are also trying to achieve some ideal of their own, for which they feel it should not imposed on others. They think that they are running the show, but they rarely realize they are riding the wheel. Until they just cant take it anymore and drive everyone away.

There have been many people in your shoes. Arguably everyone who is in charge of other people has to face this situation sometimes in their career/life.

Perhaps you have read this essay from Derek Sivers, if you have not it might help you open your eyes and he even offers a pretty good strategy for dealing with your situation (http://sivers.org/delegate).

You say that you don't want to impose on your colleagues. What if there are some that want to be imposed? Who will leave you just because you didn't give them a chance to go through what you are going through now?

There might be people among them, probably most of them, who are willing to help you and have no need to see you suffering. For mutual benefit. They might help you if you are willing to admit the situation you are in.

I really hope you will be able to work it out. Go take a break. The world can do without you. Really. It will have to deal with you leaving one way or another.


People will do the minimum amount of work necessary for the maximal reward. If the minimum amount of work necessary is to just go "can't you just do it", they'll do just that.

As to lumbering employees with this stuff - really, really can't. The guys we employ we employ as developers, not 24/7 unpaid support dogsbodies, which I am, as well as developer, accountant, project manager, salesman and all the rest. It's part and parcel of being self-employed, and at the end of the day I just see it as a failing in myself that I'm not capable of the workload required and demanded of me.

Yes you can. People want a change too, now and then.

Anyways if you make it a communal affair everybody is going to like participating in it. People are inherently team players to the extent that we die or go mad alone.

I was in a team that was terribly overworked and there was shitloads of stuff needed to be done, which nobody did - since it wasn't anyone's job.

Here's what we did - everybody got a slice of work nobody wanted to do. A chore if you will. The system used to assign chores was simple - the guy complaining about some shit not being done, got to be the chief of this "department". He would set the standard, keep track of what is going on, report to the rest of the team and enforce the rules that we agreed upon collectively. We also collectively created a penalty system.

This the made certain that the shit that needed to be done, got done. The shit that didn't need to get done, didn't get done. Everybody got to participate in organization and got some hands on experience with how sausages get done, this is pretty important in engineering environments since a lot of people haven't really been in charge of anything in their lives.

it's up to you, but i have been in a similar situation, and it damaged me more than i thought possible at the time. if you're like me, you're currently taking a grim pride in carrying this.

for what it's worth, if i could send a message back to my past self, i would tell him to stop. 10 years down the line the bad has outlasted the good.

> I'm just fine. Depressed and exhausted, yes

If you actually thought about what you write, I could belive you. Or even bothered to read what you just wrote. Depression isn't normal.

Burnout is this weird concept that developers have invented to describe "I can't be bothered to keep going"

You are not serious, or you haven't been through a burnout. A burnout is probably not due to a lot of work, but to bad conditions/results/consequences. You can get burnt out without working (or working too little), and burn out is more than "I can't keep going". It's a mind disturbing thing and can be quite serious and lead to a depression.

You must be young. Not that there's a problem with that, as the young usually innovate and put a lot of youthful energy into progress.

As you get older and/or start a family, the thought of 80+ hours a week becomes laughable and even dread-inducing.

If work is hard, I'm probably going to look at a different career. Hard implies suffering and unpleasant obstacles to me. If it's challenging however...

Why was this downvoted? Because people disagree with it?

I do too, but it does appear to represent a legitimate answer to the OP's question.

It's almost certainly downvoted because it's hazardous to your health.

I saw an interesting human-interest piece on TV over the weekend. It was about one of the cofounders of Cisco. She lives on an 800-acre farm and spends her time being a farmer.

The reporter asked her about her 40-room mansion. What's it like to live there?

She said, "I don't know. I never live there. I live in an old wooden cabin in the woods"

This led to a cute exchange: "Are you eccentric?

"Yes, I am, but only because I have money. Before I was just weird"

I was laughing when she hit me with the real punch line. "I find that if I stay active, thinking, struggling with problems that I am the most happy"

I think a lot of what we might call "lazy" or "burnt-out" is really low-level depression. Are you struggling, thinking, actively engaging in some problem that you love? If so, the words "work" or "lazy" doesn't really mean much. If not, then can you allocate some part of your life where you are?

There's nothing wrong with not wanting to do things you don't like doing. The real question is whether you can engage yourself to struggle and think with some part of life that you encounter. If so, then do that. If not, then that sounds a lot like being depressed to me.

That person Sandra Lerner.


> "Yes, I am, but only because I have money. Before I was just weird"

Not sure about the history of this woman but I am sure that she didn't inherit the money, she made it.

Daniel made no indication that she inherited it or otherwise didn't earn it.

That particular statement reflects a lot of experience and maturity and I was just appreciating that. Nothing to do with Daniel.

Burnout is not solved by a nap or a walk, a burn out is not just being tired or saturated with a subject.

You are burnt when you pushed your limits over a long period of time without giving your body and brain enough rest. This means you do not have a quick fix. You cannot quick fix something you have done over months, years. It takes time.

In my personal case, I suffered a burn out (went several times to the doctor, hospital and specialists with scans etc.), because without even be aware of it I was pushing above my limits. I am still suffering from Tinnitus because of it, 2 months after clearing all the other problems.

I was pushing above my limits because it was a bit above but in all parts of my life. A stressful year, then when everything went back to normality, I was simply left smashed. I was annoyed because I finally reached the "life is good again" state, but my body simply said: "you gave me a hard time for a year, now I need to rest". This started end of August, I am still recovering so to speak.

So, you feel it could be a burn out? Take a close look at your life, what is not running as it should, then act. But again, no quick fix, it takes time.

Do not hesitate to contact me privately if you want/need.

This corroborate what I have seen happen in the CTO I had a few years ago. He worked 5 years without rest. Was called by big boss in Sunday mornings to fix things. Was a very sanguine type, shout on everyone for nothing, said no to everything. All lines of code were either quick fixes or copy paste. Absolutely not long-term view. Database tables had 300 columns, named like event1, event1time, event1who, event2, event2time, etc.

He had a team of 10 interns and only one regular, and no interns would stay. He also had a specific way to breathe, like when you suffocate after 25 meters under the water in the pool.

He was so overwhelmed he grabbed a few set of random rules as his life buoys. For instance, use of <div>s was forbidden because once a <div> did float badly when resized. So we had pages with over 20 nested <table> and not one had a raison d'ĂȘtre.

Then he got mad against the big boss, and I replaced him. Result: he was sick for 6 months. His body had to take a revenge.

I believe he is still looking for a job.

Maybe this could be a counter-point to the guy above saying that only work is important, and that all seconds spent not working or sleeping are lost. I think it is a dangerous way to dispose of your life.

Moreover, if the goal is to succeed, I think it is wrong that all "great achievers" are necessarily 100% focused on their one tasks. Many of them actually had hobbies, and a very wide and deep general knowledge of Humanities (which can only be gathered through extensive reading).

So I would say to the OP, just stop focusing, read books, try for example "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance", feed your "gumption". (And go fishing!)

Personally, I take issue with the entire "lazy" thing. I find most people who talk about laziness are using it as a way to avoid thinking deeply about their own motivation.

"I am not getting work done, even though I want to. What aspects of this work are bringing me down? Do I have the resources to do this work properly? Can I think of any ways to make the work more appealing? Can I combine it with anything else that I enjoy, like by getting a friend/colleague to look at it? Should I take a break from it and come back to it later? Should I consider dropping the project entirely? Is it actually what I want to do?"

Or "I'm lazy, I should work harder."

I strongly believe that the idea of laziness leads to burnout. Every time you force yourself to do something, you're using up a little bit of your willpower. It's a stopgap, not a strategy, and it does run out if overused.

The primary engine that generates results in your life should be based on aligning your desires, goals, resources and actions. Good self-management looks like good management of others, and I've never heard of a good manager who calls his employees lazy.

The problem with asking about burn-out is that it's a spectrum. Life is full of little "just push through" moments: approaching a stranger, hanging out your washing, sitting down at your desk without opening reddit, being bothered to cook, not deleting your nearly-written comment. Any time you can't do it, your willpower has failed you. If you don't stop to understand why, it will keep happening. And get worse.

For me it started small: missing appointments, not eating well, finding it hard to get through my to-do list, even easy decisions got slowly harder to make. Ideally burnout is kind of self-regulating because as your productivity decreases your opportunities decrease as well. Unfortunately I was organising an event and getting less done only meant having more to do.

Afterwards... it's hard to describe, but even considering any kind of executive function felt like a cross between lifting a car and hearing a burglar walk up the stairs. I don't think I got out of bed for a couple of weeks, and I didn't show up to an Easter lunch with my family because figuring out which train to catch was too hard. Things got better slowly - probably about nine months in all before I really felt right again.

Since then, I've made it a point to think long and hard when I get that "just gotta keep pushing" feeling. Almost every time it's been preventable: the result of poor decisions, overcommitment, badly organised work, lack of reward, or just plain doing something I don't actually want to do. If you're feeling something like that, make "I might be doing this wrong" your first port of call, and only go to "I should work harder!" later.

Wow. I've been going through something very similar to what you've just described, and this has really put it in perspective. I starting to realize that might my previous reasons for wanting to accomplish certain things aren't really good enough motivators for me and that I need to redefine my goals or realize why I'm truly doing what I'm doing. Thank you, seriously. I'm going to be linking this to more than a couple folks.

As an aside, your comment about Reddit really hit the nail on the head. I've been trying to slowly phase it out of my life, and HN has filled that void without being such a constantly changing time sink. Not to mention that most of the stuff here motivates me and gets me accepted about CS, IT, and entrepreneurial stuff. Glad to hear you got it all figured out, though.

in a few months you'll also come to regard hn as a complete time sink

already did. daily hacker news saved it. www.daemonology.net/hn-daily/

Agreed...I do believe that working hard is great, but generally only if it is doing something you actually want to be doing.

Thanks, this is very well written and captures where I am right now very well.

If you have to ask yourself this question, I think there's a chance you might be suffering from the kind of self-esteem issues that often plague bright people. Take a peek at this Wikipedia article on the "Dunning Kruger Effect" to have an idea of what I'm referring to.


Have you generally been a hard working person your whole life but are now going through a tough spell where it's hard to find motivation? If that's the case you may be burnt out, or perhaps you are working on something that deep down inside you don't really believe in. Maybe you need to listen to that intuition, rather than beat yourself up and think "I'm the problem because I'm lazy."

I went through a pretty major burnout cycle in my career a few years back and was lucky enough to be able to afford to take a lot of time off - nearly two years - and dedicate it to just working on open source. Nearly 3 years later I suspect that financially it was a poor decision: I'm still majorly suffering the consequences of that lack of income for 2 years. But I was able to recover my passion for work and now have a job that I'm enthusiastic about, and willing to work my ass off for, even though it pays less than I had been making before.

At the time I quit my job I wrote a short post on it, take a peek and see if it resonates at all. If it does, you're most certainly not lazy.


I didn't know that Dunning-Kruger effect, but it seems quite interesting! Thanks for the sharing.

I would say that burnout is about not caring. About not finding enjoyment and satisfaction in the work that you previously did. If you find yourself reacting with far less enthusiasm to the same sorts of tasks that in the past you found exciting and interesting that could be a big sign of burnout.

Burnout is about stress and not necessarily about "overwork". You can get burnt out on a 40 hour a week job or even on a 10 hour a week job. Spending a half of your waking hours every weekday immersed in an ocean of stress is quite sufficient to screw your brain up and burn you out. Software development can quite easily be (and is typically) a very highly stressful job. On top of the normal stresses of coding you have the typical saga of trying to determine and meet the right specs, you have the drama of trying to chase bugs around at the same time you're trying to get work done, and you have immense schedule uncertainty and schedule pressure on top of everything. And that's the average case.

My advice, for whatever it's worth, is to try to find a way to reduce your stress as much as possible. Maybe find a position with less responsibilities that pays well enough. Then spend your free time slowly re-acquiring a passion for tech by taking on small, highly rewarding projects.

I think if you can't do the things you love then you're probably burnt out.

If all you want to do are the things you like then you're probably being lazy.

Not fool proof - but a starting indicator.

I think this is the best answer so far, if the things you used to love don't satisfy you the way they did, you're probably burnt out. If, on the other hand, your not meeting your own expectations stems from screwing up priorities (avoiding what you don't enjoy), you're likely just being lazy.

This describes how I feel about it exactly.

If I spend too long on a project that I just want to finish, I generally find myself looking at other more interesting projects and working a little on them.

Sometimes this is being lazy but sometimes you just need the change to get back on track with your mundane project.

Short answer? Go see a Psychologist. I know a lot of people are naturally averse to this (I was, at one point) but I've realised that a good psychologist is really just a good hacker - someone who's read a lot on the subject at hand (personality and the psyche), is motivated to help you, enjoys it, and has found a way to make money doing so.

In one hour with a good psychologist, they will generally be able to give you very good guidance on what you are feeling. It's not magic, it's just the power of having an informed, objective observer in a situation that encourages you to be open.

Otherwise, ask the people closest to you - your spouse, GF/BF, etc.

A lot of the answers are subective, that's b/c, as individuals, our tolerances vary so much. So regardless of what we say, you're still likely to experience burn out (if you haven't already). I know when I'm burned out when I have no motivation to sit in front of my computer. Unfortunately, the last time I felt that way I quit my high paying job and spent the next several months in a horrible place - mentally, physically, and emotionally. So at some point you'll realize your personal limits. With that said, my reason for posting isn't in regard to the before part, but rather the after - I've found that once you experience burn out, you're more susceptible to it in the future.

That's usually a bad thing; obviously you won't want to experience burn out again. However, sometimes it can have a positive yield in the long run. I've found that after my burn out experience, I've raised the bar in terms of the type of work I'm willing to do and how much crap I put up with. For example, I've always been passionate about home-run level customer service. As a consultant, that belief usually meant that I bent backwards anytime a client asked me to. I still have that belief today, but I tend to push back if they ask me to do things I won't be happy maintaining for the life of their product, or if it'll involve trying to hit an unrealistic time line, etc. So post burn out, I'm definitely more protective of my limits and happiness, I just wish I would've been this way sooner.

lazy: procrastinating an activity with something that is more fun

burnt-out: no activity provides enough fun to procrastinate the current activity

If you have to ask this, you are burnt out. If you were lazy, you wouldn't ask.

This is a great question. For me, my "acid test" would be: "is the task that I feel like doing now DIRECTLY related to my goals/projects/objectives?". Several successive "no's" over a long period (like constant "no's" over a few days or weeks) MAY indicate burn-out. A few successive "no's" in isolation MAY indicate laziness, or it may indicate that you're just not in the right state of mind to be doing the particular task you've assigned to yourself.

It's worth mentioning that it's very important to consider energy levels too. Not all tasks are equal, so for instance, it'd a be a silly idea to embark on a 3-4 hour coding binge at 1am, when I know that if I had a good sleep and was wide awake, I could get the same work done in maybe 1-2 hours with a higher level of quality. I'll do some lower energy work instead, or I might even decide to call it quits for a day, wind down and just read a book - and I wouldn't consider it laziness at all. At all costs, I want to keep the quality of work up - even if it means not doing it right now. I know myself, and I trust myself that I'll get up the next morning and hack and slash away in a much better state of mind, and produce better quality work (most of the time!)

For me, forcing myself to do work that my mind just isn't in the state to do is a fast path to fatigue, unproductiveness, burn-out and "far out there's not enough time in a day, the universe is against me!"-type delusions.

Make sure you're healthy, if it's an issue with you.

I was fired for being slow. I was falling asleep at inappropriate times, and was generally feeling stupid, to the point that I hated myself for being stupid and lazy. This was particularly hard working in a company that constantly touts the superior abilities of its employees.

When I was finally fired it was an emotional relief. I ultimately got treatment, and I don't feel stupid or lazy anymore, but I haven't fully recovered from being fired.

I'll not discuss "burnt out" vs lazy.

However I have met the brick wall with a certain amount of velocity myself (12 years ago and counting) and I think the difference between being too tired too work (literally falling asleep at work, throat thickens, certain parts of you body starts acting on their own, dreaming with eyes open etc) and burned out is that the burnt out thing didn't happen until at some point I realized this is not going to work however hard I work. (Coworkers were already preparing for a bankruptcy by stealing from the company.)

A few more details:

  - Wasn't my company but a close relatives. 
  - For me the symptoms were: Crying without reason when no one could see me, people asked why I was depressed although I didn't feel that way.
  - What helped me out wasn't no work but rather working at a place were I could get stuff done and take the night off. I worked at a farm with a friend of mine that summer and I was supposed to get paid but I never turned in my time sheets. Instead I have said "thank you" to him a couple of times afterwards : ) And I had free food and a bed.
Since then I have worked hard. Even harder I think (Those symptoms from tiredness that I mentioned above I've expericed later). What has saved me from another burn out is two things:

  - Learning to say "No." when I somebody asks me to do something that is a complete and utter waste of time. And "No." once more if once doesn't cut it. 
  - Doing whatever I do to be recognized by God, not humans. (This being HN where even top contributors gets downvoted for mentioning the G word, -feel free to read that in a way that pleases you.  )

Unless you're elbows deep in someone's chest cavity during a triple bypass, whatever you're doing can wait. Take a day off, leave your phone and ipad and laptop at home, go somewhere else.

This happens to me every few months. Go do something totally non-technical, simple, and enjoyable. Last week I drove from Chicago up to Wisconsin to enjoy crisp country air, an array of cheeses[] (ack. no technical stuff...) and I got to yell at some sheep. I didn't check my email, text anyone, and I tried desperately not to think about my projects that had me on the verge of a melt-down.

Trust yourself to know; working more/harder is rarely a good choice. If you take a day off and you're still tired and don't want to work, take another day. And another. If, after 2 or 3 days, you're still right where you started, you're probably working on stuff you hate.

If you're just burnt out on working on what you enjoy, a couple days (or even a week) off will make all the difference

Look for "decision fatigue", it's a theory saying that people who have to make a lot of hard decisions, usually at the end of the day are so tired in their mind that they can't get themselves together to decide anything.

The interesting thing is that it's usually seen in poor and uneducated people, not big bosses that supposedly has to make alot of hard decisions. It's more the "shit, how am i going to pay my rent this month"-questions that tires your mind. The theory was that because their minds, unconsciously, are so hogged up with these questions they can't get themselves together and change job, start studying, etc and thus get stuck in an evil circle.

Don't know if this applies to you but make sure you have all your basics together before you start diving into more tough areas.

It takes energy to be disciplined, and a belief that you're going to get something good out of it.

So burn-out can lead to lack of discipline, both because it saps your energy and because you stop believing that you're going to get something worthwhile out of it.

If you don't suffer from chronic depression but are depressed, you may be burnt out. I feel a person starts the cycle of burnout by forgetting that excellence is a habit, not an act. It's easy to fixate on the magnitude of individual iterations of a habitual activity and forget the importance of consistency and sustainability. This common confusion in humans may stem from the fact that our brains evolved to optimize for short-term rewards and respond only to short-term danger. The magnitude of your individual actions is trivial compared to how often you act.

My simple productivity hack: be happy with doing less--but very frequently and very well.

This is how to tell the difference between exhaustion and burning out: you get exhausted if you pushed hard, you burn out if you pushed hard for a wrong reason. If someone claims they can fix burn out by taking a walk or a getting a nap, they're not burnt out. You are burnt out when having hard time not just doing your work, but also when trying to recuperate. Basically, that "wrong reason" depresses you, making recovery very hard. If you are lazy due to overall fatigue, the next day you'll go back to work like it never happened; if you burnt out, the "next day" never happens.

If you wanted to take a scientific approach you'd need to be able to do something like the following: (A) measure your actual work output and (B) some way of measuring your 'maximum expected output capacity'.

if A much less than B you are being lazy. if A is close to or equal to B then you are burnt out.

[The short answer of course is, if you are reading Hacker News you are being lazy]

As an aside; Pivotal Tracker - the feature / dev tracking software manages to define output using average number of work blocks completed over the past X weeks. How you measure your maximum expected output capacity might be more tricky to define.

I know myself, and I'm usually quite disciplined. If I have to ask, I'm burnt out. Are you normally disciplined? If so, then if you have to ask, you probably are burnt out.

Rest isn't enough to deal with burn-out. Something needs to change: work habits may need to change (for example, maintain separation of work of home), change the project you're working on, start another hobby, make an effort to be more social, etc. If you take a week or two off, then come back to the same ol' thing, you'll be in the same place.

By whether what you do in your downtime is neutral+ or negative.


I think the OP means that when you are burned out you can not enjoy you spare time and you can not rest anymore.

I actually meant the opposite. As in laziness in work goes hand in hand with laziness in "play". i.e. being burned out from working too hard gives downtime more value.

Perhaps you have hit a batch of work to do that mind just can't be convinced is profitable no matter how hard you try?

This might be a personal startup that you know is already defeated, or a client that asks for a never ending series of changes and revisions that you aren't getting paid for, or a well-paying client whose project keeps growing and getting farther and farther from launching?

Just a thought.

It may be a sign you're not working on the right things. Seriously consider why you don't want to do the work.

It may also be that you're overwhelmed. You can use LazyMeter to focus on one day at a time, and measure your productivity to see if the problem is laziness or signing up for too much. http://www.lazymeter.com

My own experience suggests you are truly burnt out when you are no longer capable of doing work in the face of dire consequences like missing mortgage repayments and feeding your children.

Of course, this feeds back on itself, with further stress causing even more difficulty in fulfilling one's obligations.

I think it starts with one question: Am I dreading sitting down in front of the computer today?

If yes, then you're definitely just burnt out. If the answer is no and you're not producing then you're being lazy.

I never really know until it passes. When I'm burned out, I often think I'm being lazy, but when my energy returns, I look back and see that I was really burned out.

I think if you are asking yourself that question then you are not truly burnt out. Anyone who's had a serious burnout knows that there is no confusing the two.

If you wake up and you're not excited to get started on the challenge(s) that your work will bring, then you're burnt out.

Another question to ask yourself is "is this question the right one to ask?" It could represent a false dichotomy.

As animals we're built for a fast effort/reward loop. Look at most people and how they operate -- they desire immediate gratification.

Something that makes us special is the ability to push out that loop and make long term plans. Not everybody is able to do that.

I can count, to the specific decisions, among my friends, what things they decided to do in their lives where they had a choice of a long term plan that would have yielded great fruits, or a short term plan yielding immediate gratification (but with long term problems stemming from that) that ultimately ended up with them being impoverished, without health care, unable to get better jobs, save up for retirement, etc. As an external actor I know exactly where they made those decisions and what they chose instead.

But I can't really blame them or think less of them for how they ended up in their circumstances. They are simply acting the way we as animals are built -- they are acting normal.

In every case, I believe that the difference between a long-term planner and an immediate gratification fixer is willpower.

Doing something like what many people do here, starting up a company, takes extraordinary long term planning - it's not normal. A simple observation of large groups of humans shows that it's abnormal behavior. It takes mountains of willpower in most cases since we don't see the immediate benefits of what's likely hundreds or thousands (or tens of thousands) of hours of work. The payoff, if there even is one, is an abstraction that even the smartest and most dedicated can have trouble using to reconcile their labors.

What you can try to do instead is find clever hacks to reduce the friction it takes to get a task done. For example, reduce your problem into very small steps. That way you feel a faster reward for your labors -- even if it's just the feeling of accomplishment at getting another step out of the way. Use lots of small arrows pointing to your goal instead of one big one.

Or try giving yourself an explicit reward for making small milestones, something proportionate to the magnitude of the step. Eat at a favorite burger joint, or hike a favorite trail, or watch a movie you really want. Whatever floats your boat.

You might even try a program of personal denial, don't allow youself to have certain pleasurable things unless you make a milestone. Pull at both ends, the "work hard play hard" system.

In other words, make the effort/reward loop as small as possible to help keep you motivated. This is especially important during tedious/grinding parts of your work that are often mistaken as burnout when in fact they're just boring and you're really desiring a reward at the end of it.

Laziness is a virtue

That might be true in some specific contexts, but I'm sure this topic doesn't regard any of them.

FOr me, if I am burnt out I just take a nap or go for a walk. If I am lazy, I keep browsing my fav. websites(HN, reddit) again n again..F5 comes handy here :)

I feel like being burnt out is more endemic than just being a bit tired (and thus a nap fixes it). It permeates everything to do with your job. All tasks even when interesting feel like a burden very quickly. There is a sense of being intellectually tired. A loss of confidence leading to self doubt and thus begins the downward spiral in productivity.

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