I've always taken pride in people asking me "how do you find time to do all that?" I guess it's because I constantly strive to improve myself and try out new things. For some reason, such questions have always seemed like a validation to me. Fortunately, this year I went through an unpleasant experience many had warned me about - developer burnout. And it wasn't just reading self-help articles that helped me overcome it.
My desire to improve as a professional has motivated the wish to try out new things. At the beginning of 2020, I was leading a project at my full-time job, organising onboarding-related events, doing freelance projects, and contributing to the dev community. All activities that required time and mental effort. It felt good being productive and improving. At least so I thought.
In the middle of April, when the world was slowly adjusting to the COVID situation, the Global Hack took place. I participated with the goal of helping Estonian students find online tutors(you can check out my thoughts of our project here). Sometime later, I was asked if I wanted to continue with the hackathon project. We had a great team and the problem really interested me, but that was the time I finally understood how lost I am. The ongoing juggling between responsibilities and lack of focus had changed me into a person I don't want to be. Amongst other things, I felt:
- That everybody constantly want something from me
- Irritated by even the smallest things
- A complete loss of motivation and accomplishment
- Continuous fatigue(and yes, I did sleep enough)
- Less productive
- Urge to not accept any responsibilities
- Staying true to my daily routine was becoming harder and harder
It didn't take long to understand it's probably (developer) burnout I'm dealing with. Some more senior colleagues had warned me before to take it slowly, but obviously, I didn't listen.
I consulted with one of our amazing personal coaches(Pipedrive, the company I worked for has personal coaches that employees can consult with) who helped me navigate my feelings. The session was mostly about me getting to share my thoughts, receive professional opinion but also have someone say it out loud: "Kethmar, you need a meaningful break and find more off-time".
And that's what I did. I took a 2-week vacation where I:
- Went on a 3-day trip in nature
- Created various lists of what I want to be like and what I want to achieve
- Carried out Developer Habits live streams and creating more content
- Worked on some smaller freelance stuff
- Prepared for an upcoming project I was about to lead at work
I had a short(but wonderful) trip in nature, where I got to self-reflect and set some great goals for myself. All the time left from the vacation, I spent on my hobby projects. Sounds great, but in terms of getting back on track mentally, the vacation was a failure. After returning to work, the first weeks felt great, but soon the already familiar negative feelings started to consume me. It hit me that the small break I had wasn't actually a break. It was me trying to do something productive during the vacation.
As I had a new project to lead at work, I couldn't just take another vacation. But I told my manager about how I feel and was promised a longer, 3-week-long vacation after finishing the project. Until then, I dropped my other responsibilities related to freelancing and took it slowly regarding Developer Habits. My only goal was to focus on my daily job. It felt easier, but I was still not feeling great.
Around the same time, I was made an interesting job offer from a new Estonian startup. Hesitating initially(because of the burnout), I accepted the offer on a condition that I can join after my vacation. It put me under a tremendous pressure as I had to learn a new tech stack and sort out my mental state.
When the vacation finally arrived, I set myself three goals:
- To NOT spend time doing anything development-related for the first three weeks of the vacation
- Work out for at least 15 minutes every day(I called it my daily bare minimum)
- Make my own hummus
And that's it. I didn't read any articles, books or do anything related to development. My daily routine was mostly about waking up, going to the gym and figuring out what to do with my free time.
And I guess that's what helped me overcome the burnout - being lazy on my own terms.
Looking back, it was the best decision I could've made. I was happy, I was relaxed. I got to spend time alone and with friends, go hiking, try out new recipes, watch all the series I hadn't watched etc. And I guess that's what helped me overcome the burnout - being lazy on my own terms.
After three weeks of living the unplanned life, I had to visit the office for two days as I was leaving the company. It was mostly about saying goodbye to all the amazing people there. The remaining days before joining my new employee were filled by research, reading required books and learning new tech skills. While at it, I felt happy. I felt excited. And I hadn't felt that excitement for a really long time, at least when doing something technical. I felt I was becoming the person I want to be.
I've now been in my new company, Sentinel, for almost two months. It's been a period of learning about a new business domain and becoming productive in a new tech stack. Nevertheless, I've enjoyed every minute of it, which validates I'm finally past the burnout.
Saying no has always been difficult for me. Mostly because it requires prioritising the current responsibilities. But my journey related to burnout has shown me that it's necessary for a long-term success and mental stability. As Ray Dalio writes in his book "Principles":
"While you can have virtually anything you want, you can't have everything you want"
I'm not sure what exactly helped me overcome the burnout. Probably it's the lazy vacation combined with a big environment change. Based on my experience, my advice to you is:
- You can't hustle 24/7
- Prioritise where you want to shift your focus. Most of us are not Elon Musks(though, if you are, I'm happy for you)
- Have hobbies / activities that do not involve technology
- When you feel down, be mindful about it - stop rushing
- If possible, change your environment time to time
- Spend time with friends and family(duh)
- Allow yourself to be lazy
Burnout is real...I didn't believe it before I experienced it. And well...now I'm going to be one of those people who say "make sure you don't burn out".
What helped me may not help you. Nevertheless, I hope my story serves as a good example that you can't just "work it out". It's important to seek professional help, allow yourself free time and be mindful about how you're feeling. In the end, life's worth enjoying and it's hard to do that as a modern-day Grumpy.
Oh and...! If you are interested in coding, growth mindset and are willing to share your experiences, ideas, then please do PM me on Twitter :)!