I burnt out in 2001/2 - it took a while to get over it - here are some things that stopped it happening again:
- Don't stress about issues out of your control
- Don't self-medicate with alcohol etc.
- Eat something healthy for everything unhealthy (I now bake a lot of sourdough bread and cure meats which is a hobby I guess)
- Get some exercise, even if it's just 15 mins walk
- Buy the best bed and covers you can afford - and try to get 7h sleep
(it took me 15 years to work these things out for myself)
I noticed an ugly feedback relationship between stress and exercise. When I was stressed, I exercised less. When I exercised less, I was more prone to stress. Ways I broke the cycle: taking an exercise class, scheduling workouts with friends, booking a race so I was forced to train, and picking exercise options that were too awesome to not do. (An example of that last one: my favorite bike ride is across the Golden Gate Bridge and along the coast to a restaurant with good brunch and strong margaritas, followed by a ferry ride home.)
I also discovered that some of where I "store" stress is in muscle tension. Yoga, massages, saunas, steam rooms, hot baths: all reduce my stress level. As a confirmed nerd, I had to learn to ignore the associated woo and the flashbacks to middle school gym class, but it was totally worth it.
My doctor also recommended B vitamins; in particular B100 and sublingual B12 tablets. It definitely seems to help, although I haven't done a blind trial.
Meditation has also been useful to me, but I'm still struggling to find a sustainable way to do it regularly.
More broadly, I'd encourage HN readers to treat it as an experimental problem: Subject Y's stress level is too high, leading to [bad outcomes]. What interventions are most effective at fixing the problem? Every month I pick some things, try them for the whole month, and then see. The ones I'm sure I like, I keep.
Even in a single-person startup we often pressure ourselves to conform to some semblance of a normal schedule. But I find myself much more productive with the work-when-I-feel-like-it policy.
I too build stuff all the time, but a new hobby is very good for breaking burn out, a lot of developers naturally crave learning, and burnout many times sets in when a developer starts to peak and realizes that learning new things in development take little effort. When you can pick up a new language in a week because you have picked so many up, the learning experience and reward mechanics are dampened to an extent.
For me when I notice the tell tale signs of burn out I set out to learn something completely new. piano, guitar, mechanics, making circuit boards, sewing, welding anything some of them I learn to a moderate level others I go pretty far in, some I drop after the burn out passes others I find that I am extremely interested in. The trigger for me and burn out is lack of challenge in learning so learning something completely new helps. For others it may be different but for me learning something new can snap burn out in as little as 30 days.
As well I am surprised that no one mentioned it but take vitamin D. As a profession that works inside many of us do not get a lot of vitamin D and it plays such a crucial role in depression which burn out is a moderate form of.
If you need them you do something wrong.
A healthy livestyle improves live much more than superficial vitamins can ever do.
Combine that with advice (which is perhaps being taken a bit too rigorously by some) to avoid skin cancer and you can understand that a few people are not getting enough vitamin D.
It's great if someone can get 15 minutes of bright sunlight every day. But if they can't there's nothing wrong with a supplement.
I doubt that there a populated places in the world without 15 min sunlight a day.
I agree that overdose is a risk. I'm not suggesting mega dosing with vitamin supplements. I'm suggesting that a few people (the few people who don't have access to 15 mins bright sunlight per day) would benefit from Vitamin D supplements.
But you're right, I should have been clearer. People in Scotland (where the sun is only strong enough between April and September) with dark skin are also at risk of not enough vitamin D.
We evolved spending most of our time outdoors for most of our history, only after the industrial revolution and now the information revolution did we gradually work more and more in doors. Vitamin D deficiency is at almost epidemic proportions. Short of switching careers to a road crew, Vitamin D deficiency should be very high on the list of suspects any time the symptoms of any form of depression are observed.
A correct therapy would be for example:
* Do short ways (<2km) per foot.
* Do medium ways (< 20 km) per bicycle
* Do longer ways as a combination of public transport and foot.
* Do programming in parks, outside cafe terrace or in the garden
* Get a dog and go with him every day
* Start jogging
There are lot of possibilities to change your modern life to a for the human race suitable lifestyle.
Swallowing a pill instead of getting sun, fresh air and exercise is one way to burn out.
It takes effort to change your live instead of swallowing a pill and costs more time in the short run, but it extends lifetime and saves illness time. Therefore it saves time in the long run and makes live happier.
"I have not time to hurry", Igor Strawinsky
This has been the number one issue for me. Unfortunately, I haven't figured it out yet. It might be because I'm self employed, and so I have to take responsibility for everything, even the things outside my control.
This led me to consider quitting my company and getting a regular job as an employee. The 9-5 responsibility seemed very attractive for a while.
> Get some exercise, even if it's just 15 mins walk
I find that running helps. I have to focus on my pace and breath so I don't go too fast, or I'll get tired quickly. The constant "right foot, left foot, breath in" etc becomes meditative. There is something about the breathing exercises that actually work.
From my own experience, exercise and eating healthy works the best. I feel a lot better, if I change my eating habit to only soup and similarly light self cooked food for a day or two.
I withdrew from my obligations at university (I had plenty of credits to graduate), and moved to San Francisco. I feel so much more like my old self after a month of programming for fun with friends - my creativity and excitement are back.
My advice: be aware of how you feel about your work. You can only loathe it for so long before it begins to take a toll on you. You're a human, not a machine, and you need to take care of yourself. Exercise regularly and spend time socializing with friends and meeting new people :)
Burnout is sneaky. Since it seems to be a condition that accumulates over time, it can take a long time to realize it is happening to you.
I dealt with this exact issue recently. I felt as though the harder I tried to get work done, the harder it became to actually do it. Even thinking about work brought on a sense of dread. It wasn't the fault of my company, or even the job I was doing. I had to deal with a lot of illness and death in my family this year, and combined with the pressure of work, it led me to end up in a state where it felt like I just couldn't get anything done.
So, I resigned two months ago. Trying to work while I seemed to have lost the ability to be productive didn't seem fair to myself or my employer. At first, I wasn't sure that I'd ever want to write another line of code again. I'm just at the point now where I'm interested in working on some side projects to build up a decent portfolio that I can use to start looking for work again. On that note, do any HN readers have favourite meetups in Toronto for developers? I've recently returned here after living in Ottawa, and I'd like to get to know some other devs in the city.
In the end, I feel that even if I have to work a retail job for a while before I end up working as a developer again, I made the right choice. It's hard to put a price on health and happiness. Having been though this once, I now know what to watch our for in the future.
Analogous to dehydration during exercise. A lot of athletes and coaches will tell you "if you get thirsty, it's too late, dehydration has set in".
Taking in fluids regularly, even if you believe you don't really need them yet, will prevent dehydration — taking regular, significant breaks from work will prevent burn out.
Spot on. I had a milder episode of stress in 2008, where economic troubles combined with a very well paying job during a limited time. Naturally, I wanted to work as much as possible while the getting was good.
I start started running the PHP Software Craftsmanship meetup and if PHP is your bag I'd love to see you come out! http://www.meetup.com/PHP-Software-Craftsmanship/
Potentially off-topic but I have to say, some of the comments on the actual blog post are horrendous. particularly:-
"You sound like just a weak person."
"You should try farming some time. What you described is what a farmer would think of as 'retirement'"
I've found that sort of nastiness (totally invalid nastiness to boot) extremely distressing. These commenters are fucking idiots who have no idea what they're talking about, passing on their own frustrations to others.
Sometimes I feel like no longer doing anything on the public internet knowing that kind of person lurks out there. Seems to be particularly bad in our profession.
It actually makes me feel like I don't want to admit to my own weaknesses, nor risk making mistakes which might make me look stupid in case the internet tough guy bullies get involved.
On the other hand, the comments might be honest. To someone who havent experienced or heard about burnout, it is the expected reaction (minus the resent).
Well, yes. That was the point of my post. The pressure was more than I could handle, and I got sick from it.
I know farming means lots of hard work and little free time. My grandfather was a milk farmer, and could hardly ever get away from home. The cows needs milking every day of the week, early in the morning.
They also are under a lot of stress from events out of their control. Particularly the weather.
The greatest difference might be that farming is not necessarily a very creative field (pun intended). Most of the tasks are rather mindless, while a programmer simply can't produce if the min is not clear.
When I was working at Apple in 1990 a friend left to start his first business. A few months later he confided in he that he was scared to death, he felt like he was operating "without a net". I naively thought he was being melodramatic.
A year later I left to start my first business. And I felt exactly the same. It was frightening, the phrase "without a net" summed it up perfectly. My friend's reaction hadn't been melodramatic at all. His reaction was perfectly normal.
It may be impossible for someone who has never tried it to understand the emotional challenge of starting a business. That stress is layered on top of all the normal stresses of your work as the sole developer.
And perhaps multiplied further by underestimating the schedule? It's easy to fall into the trap of saying "I will be superman. I will get this done quickly". I've done it 100 times.
Thanks for posting, and be kind to yourself. You'll work it out.
Samuel Johnson captures it well: "Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." One normally has more runway than a fortnight, but the feeling is definitely similar.
One related thing that seems relevant: Steve Blank writes perceptively about how a lot of founders have dysfunctional childhoods:
The theory is that if you're already used to living in chaos and being near the edge of disaster, working without a net seems almost reasonable.
1. Exercise, I used to run, but I find it much easier to go out for a cycle now, sports are also great
2. Some Perpective, The fact is if you dont finish X library or fix X bug, the world is going to keep spinning, I remember reading somewhere that its a pattern for people to make themselves feel incredibly busy almost entirely due to their ego, when you feel like you just have to get a bunch of stuff done you feel important. I noticed that in myself and when I looked at what I just needed to get done, most of it really didnt matter that much, I am now in the process of learning how to prioritise in a way that doesnt assume 200% of my time
Indeed - Stressing out because you failed, for instance, (your own) deadlines is useless. The concept of a deadline is just too abstract for your mammalian brain for the stress to have any useful impact. I used to get very stressed over deadlines, thinking that the stress would help me align better, at least next time.
Turns out that not stressing out had only a single result: I was stressed out less often. Just the thing I wanted to achieve by stressing out more. Brains are weird, but sometimes they are just bloody simple.
Interest that you mentioned knowing someone who still hasn't recovered after five years. As you'll see from my story above, that was precisely me until recently.
Ultimately, I don't think recovery is just something that happens by taking a few weeks off, or making trivial other changes. You've got to address the root cause of why you're unhappy or it will surface again later.
Then Google Panda came along and took away what I loved most in life =(
1. There is always ONE cause for the burnout, removing it removes the burnout instantly—it's usually not wrong food or missing exercise
2. When having a burnout, wrong food and missing exercise makes a burnout really worse, they "accelerate" the burn-out, especially alcohol and any other drug; but right food and daily exercise won't remove the burnout—they make the day with a burnout just more bearable which is important to endure the burnout; but the burnout will stay forever even with perfect nutrition and daily workouts if you don't find and remove the real cause
This one cause is often about issues out of your control, about dependencies which cannot be cut, regularly about people and situations you cannot easily escape from/you are dominated by for a longer period.
Identifying this one cause is a problem because after a while burning out everything annoys you and you are not able to track down the real reason anymore. Removing the cause is the hardest part because of strong dependencies (you cannot just stop/quit/leave this situation). That and an unconscious, always present awareness of the hopeless situations lead basically to the burnout.
Easiest cure is changing your situation, totally—meaning to change everything: job, significant other, friends, apartment, etc. Then you make sure you removed the burnout cause as well. But the older you get the harder or rather impossible is a full change because of more interdependencies between potential causes (e.g. job => money => family => significant other => etc.) and/or long-term obligations to yourself and/or others.
Easiest prevention is to avoid dead-lock situations, strong one-to-one dependencies by spreading risk and having always more than one option. If you are already "locked" in a burnout this won't help of course.
I think this may happen or is even happening to most of us now, many of us are too just scared to admin it in front of themselves. Just like you was.
We live in crazy times. And it's sometimes hard to keep this awarenees that we are just humans living their lives and at end of the day your health, happiness and self-comfort is vastly more important than money, business deals and pleasing others. I don't say the latter are not important but they are less important than you because our live is a one-time experience and it is going to end one day. And still - we know how to produce money but we are helpless trying to extend our lifespan.
I really liked the response of your co-workers, it's good to find them being more friends than just co-workers, isn't it?
Most of it sounds strangely familiar. It took being kicked out of a startup I started just over a year ago for me to start doing something about my burnout - even though I didn't realize at the time that's what the problem was. Guess life sorted it out for me and forced me to get some rest.
These days, what I do is try to make sure I lock myself away from the internet with a good book every couple of days - preferably in a coffee shop devoted just to this shutting off.
My bosses at my startup immediately recognized it and told me to take several days off. Since then, I've consistently made personal time everyday to keep my perspective in check: read a book in the morning, workout in the afternoon, meditate for 5 minutes, and leave work promptly after the expected amount of hours.
To get myself back into "beast mode" (which others would call "the zone"), I've done what some other commentors suggested: learn something new. For me personally, I decided to take on essentially low priority micro-projects within my startup that are interesting problems (i.e. integrating DynamoDB within an EventMachine process). I've built up my confidence back to near what it was before, and I'm feeling damn good these days.
2 things in his account jump out at me:
>The fall of 2011.... By December, I felt anxiety when thinking about work.
So, this happened to him as the days got shorter.
> Low productivity caused me to try to compensate by
> working longer hours, routinely 10-12 hours a day,
> with the occasional saturday thrown in.
He doesn't say if he's worked 10-12 hours a day in the past, so we have no idea if this is unusual for him. But for me, 10-12 hours a day is no problem, during the summer. It is murder for me during the winter.
Some hours I've worked in the summer:
1.) Worked 20 hours, slept for 3 hours on the couch in the office, and then worked for 20 more hours. And these were highly productive debugging sessions in which myself and my co-worker felt we made huge progress.
2.) Worked 26 hours straight to get a project ready to show a client. Felt great about being so productive.
3.) Worked 16 hours every day for 2 weeks.
In retrospect, I've realized that I never have these amazing bouts of hyper-work during the winter. Only during the summer. And I suspect the problem is getting more intense as I get older, because I don't recall this pattern when I was younger, or somehow I am so stupid that I went many years without seeing it.
But I see it now. And I am reshaping my work life to account for it. I now know that I can work 60 hour weeks during the summer, but even 40 hours is difficult for me in the winter.
Time off like this really helps with burnout, I cannot recommend it highly enough.
I took a job for six month in a totally unrelated industry (a high-end home audio company) and got back to playing sports and working out. It was a slow process, but after six months, I had the itch to get back into the tech world again.
What I realised is that its important to listen to your body. When you ignore those signals, it can start impacting all facets of your life. Also, no matter what, you need to exercise. Run, walk, play sports, it doesn't matter but do something to get those endorphins humming and the blood flowing. It makes all the difference, trust me.
Just curious, what happened to that person? Recurring panic attacks or permanent psychological damage?
Many who consider self-employment are (rightfully so) concerned about having a sufficient amount of work to make it viable. However, the flip side has to be considered as well -- taking on too much work. It's a candle that burns mentally on both ends, and it has to be managed.
I've been there before, and the feeling of being overwhelmed can strike in a moment. And recovery from those feelings don't come from simply getting things accomplished -- you have to bring your body and mind back to a level of comfort. It takes time.
My advice to others who might feel this is their situation: start by communicating with your customers, tell them what's going on, and try to find solutions that work for both of you. Do it early, don't delay. The sooner everyone understands, the better. You may well be surprised at how supportive the most demanding customers can be. Remember, in the end, a healthy you = a productive you, which means your output has a much greater chance of success.
It bothers me that it can all be explained by a deficiency of some nutrient, say X:
- burnout starts when you're overworking (X gets depleted faster than it gets replenished)
- pushing harder makes it worse (X is getting exhausted)
- taking a break makes it better (X gets replenished to normal levels during this time)
- pacing yourself from then on ensures it doesn't happen again (X isn't depleted fast enough to be exhausted)
X might be vitamin D, or (-1)stress, or (-1)dopamine/serotonin, or any other quantity that plays a role in your fragile body, meatbag.
First of all, we focus on interface, ux, usabillity and design, so we had planned to build a client iPad app for a server backend, developed by a third party. That third party turned out to be completely incompetent, and we had to ditch them half way through to build the backend on ourselves (me, that is) too.
We still had to sync our backend with the clients horrible hack of a CRM. Using a backwards, badly documented SOAP webservice that was only partially implemented.
Perhaps the trick is that I exercise daily (usually 30 minutes running) - no exception.