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I feel worthless when I'm unproductive

maniflames profile image Maniflames Updated on ・3 min read

For the past two weeks I have been working from home because of instructions from the government in response to COVID-19. The timing isn't super great, but to be fair the timing probably isn't great for anyone.

During my time at home my 'work life' and my private life slowly merged into one, even though I came up with a schedule in an attempt to prevent this exact thing from happening. Another rule was to make sure that the weekends would be off limits for anything work related, unlike usual. That didn't happen yet. This conflict is not necessarily new, but now that I'm stuck in my bedroom for most of the time it has become a lot more visible.

It's just really hard to sit still because there are a lot of things I could do instead. Extending my portfolio, continue my OSSU journey, finally start leetcoding or finally building one of those ideas I had in mind. I don't believe there is anything wrong with doing any of this next to work. However, it does become a problem when you 'have' to do them and can't stop. The very obvious thing to do in a situation like this is slowing down.

I have tied a very big portion of my identity to working hard and achieving things. Not on purpose but because others seem to value that as well. I 'work hard', 'always try to get the best out of myself' and 'am always doing something and headed somewhere'. And those little dopamine hits feel great but at the same time I feel like I'm approaching either depression or burn-out. No matter what I do it has to be useful in some way or I should not have been thinking about it in the first place.

If someone asks me where I'm going, I have to at least know where I'm headed. If I join a team, I better put in as many hours as I can. I'm still in school and very junior. There is a lot to learn and there is no alternative to putting in actual work if I want to get better. I don't have a popular open source project yet. I haven't even made a pull request on projects that inspire me. I'm not doing great, I'm lying to myself and believe the statements of people who mindlessly put on their rose colored glasses. There are still a ton of side projects on the shelf. I have potential but that is literally all that I've got. I have to work, I have to work, I have to work.

If I try to sit still those thoughts become louder and louder until I give in and start working again. Why would I do otherwise? If I don't work, why am I here? Who would care about me? What's the point?

Last year I reached out to my class' supervisor to explain that I really didn't feel like being here anymore. It wasn't the first time thoughts like these have crossed my mind and I had received help from a kids psychologist back in high school. Of course my supervisor wasn't allowed to deal with these things and about two weeks later I had to sit down with my college's psychologist. Luckily, I don't have to worry about anything because according to him I'm doing great. I have a strong personality, excellent grades and could express myself clearly during the conversation. The best thing I could do was read a book by Carl Gustav Jung and make another appointment if I still felt the need to get rid of myself. That was the first and last time I spoke to him.

I'm not going to lie, I haven't read a single word of any of Jung's books and maybe I should have. Instead, I spend some time on YouTube watching video's from random people with their take on hustle culture and ambitious minimalists who take it easy.

I feel stuck and lonely at times but whenever I read posts by overwhelmed beginners on Reddit or Dev I just wonder how normal this is in developer land. Do you grow out of this as a senior? I'd love to know how to stop looping between 'hustle' and 'trying to slow down'. Until then, I'm probably working on something and headed somewhere.

Discussion (26)

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victorandcode profile image
Victor Cordova

Hello Imani, hope I can help you with this very stressful period. Thanks for sharing your thoughts so openly, it's a great first step towards taking action and finding your way towards your goals.

I empathize with you because I've gone through periods where I've felt overwhelmed by the sheer amount of things to learn in tech or by a lack of motivation. You're not alone in this and I'm certain many developers go through this.

I recommend you spend some time defining very clearly what are your goals and priorities. A mistake I've made in the past is to not prioritize how I spend my time so I can measure my progress. Free time is a double-edged sword, if you lack the discipline it's no good. Create clear goals with deadlines and numbers so you can measure progress. You said you wanted to invest time in LeetCode. First of all, why do you want to do so? How many problems do you want to solve? By when? How are you going to do it? How can you spit this into smaller milestones, say 2 problems per week?

Also, if you don't schedule it, you are likely not to do it. How do you organize your time? Do you have fixed times each day to work on your goals? Create a routine for yourself so you move forward with your goals.

Don't overestimate the amount of time you have and focus. Even with all the time in the world, you won't be able to finish all the things you'd like to do fully. Pick which objectives are the most important for this year and then which of those are most important for this quarter. Even if you focus on a single one and finish it, it'll feel amazingly rewarding.

Another hidden danger of free time is to fall prey to social networks. One solution to this is to restrict yourself from using them. I use the Distraction Free Youtube chrome plugin to keep me off youtube when I want to be focused.

Finally, keep a growth mindset. Even if your leet code programming isn't successful at first, you will gain knowledge and learn, that is the objective. You'll keep growing and progressing throughout your career. It will get easier :)

Hope this is of help

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maniflames profile image
Maniflames Author

My personal goals are not very 'S.M.A.R.T.' but I probably should probably define them that way because you can't hit a target that doesn't exist. I do have fixed times on working on some of my goals but not all of them (right now my bachelor's thesis is populating most time slots in my schedule). Thanks for your input, sometimes I do forget that eventually I'll grow over time :)

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brandelune profile image
Jean-Christophe Helary

The only way out is to sit and meditate.

First try 2-3 minutes.

Close your eyes.

Slowly breathe in, from the nose.

Focus on how it feels when the air enters your body.

Focus on that only.

Put all your mind trying to feel how every bit or air caresses your inside as it enters your nose and then the lungs

Try to feel the oxygen entering your blood.

Keep the air inside you for as long as it feels ok.

They slowly breathe out, from the mouth.

Put all your mind trying to feel how every bit or air caresses your inside as it leaves the lungs, and the mouth.

Then stay empty and feel how it is to be empty, for as long as it feels fine.

Then slowly breathe in again, slowly.

And feel again.

Do that for 2-3 minutes as soon as you feel the panic or the anxiety overflowing.

Just quit whatever your doing and sit, and breathe, slowly.

When you're used to doing that 2-3 minutes in a row, try to go further.

Breathe even more slowly

Keep the air inside you longer

Breathe out more slowly

Stay empty longer

Do that for 10 minutes, and then 20, and then 30.

As soon as you feel uneasy or preoccupied, just sit, and breathe, again and again.

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maniflames profile image
Maniflames Author

Thanks, I think I should give meditation a serious try. I guess that calming myself down in moments I feel stuck could break the cycle.

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brandelune profile image
Jean-Christophe Helary

Yes. It does. And instead of calling that meditation, just call that "take a deep breath". It helps tremendously.
:-)

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byrro profile image
Renato Byrro

I think healthy work activity is a great remedy for boredom. Too much leisure, Netflix and social media can be as damaging to our mind as too much work.

In my personal experience, my "mind schedule" almost never follow external conventions. Some Wednesdays feel like I need a break. Some Saturdays create sparks that drive productive work activities and thoughts.

What I do is not punish myself for not following weekdays conventions. What's the matter about working on a Saturday and resting on a Wednesday? Who called it these names in the first place?

Of course, I'd I have a due date or meeting scheduled on Wednesday, I'm professional, responsible and disciplined enough to attend it, regardless of my internal enthusiasm. But it's a minority of cases...

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maniflames profile image
Maniflames Author

I'm not sure why I decided to follow weekday conventions in the period of time where I can decide to do my own thing and listen to my body. Definitely considering giving myself an x amount of rest days instead of forcing myself to keep going when I'm obviously not as productive because my body tired.

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magalielinda profile image
OMG it's Maggie

Hi, thanks for the effort of the post. I don't know if it's normal, but I'd say it's logical. I'm in this racket for over 10 years and in the beginning, I had a hard time dialling it all down. I can't speak for all seniors (am i even a senior?), but I grew out of it. I feel as though I have found a nice balance, mostly. Sometimes it still sucks, but that's all it is. A moment of suck, I muddle a long and it doesn't last as long as it does. I guess you get used to it and you climb out of it faster, I suppose.

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maniflames profile image
Maniflames Author

I'm glad that over the years you grow out of it, or at least learn how to deal with it. (I'm not an expert but I would say that spending 10 years in the industry probably gave you the knowledge and experience to call yourself a senior!)

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sarahob profile image
Sarah 🦄

Hi! First off I want to say great post, and very brave of you to be so open and honest about how you're feeling right now. I can only speak for myself but for me what you are describing is completely normal. It's like a constant battle between being "productive" and not burning out. The important thing is to consistently try to find balance. Also, value yourself and know that you add value just by existing, you do not always need to be productive or producing an output. (This is something I am still learning myself.) Try to set some boundaries, set core work hours and then shut down the computer. Take frequent breaks to walk around or stretch. Get enough sleep. If you find yourself getting overwhelmed with all the things you "should" be doing try some mindfulness (I know it's cheesy but it actually works). Then just pick something and spend some time on it. Try to pick up a non related hobby like an instrument or drawing or something, just another outlet for your energy but where you can still feel like you're making progress on your own terms. "I have tied a very big portion of my identity to working hard and achieving things." - I really related to this, it's something I've only just started to try and unlearn. I am more than my work, I add value regardless and so do you!

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maniflames profile image
Maniflames Author

Thanks! You are right, this is really a mindset I'll have to unlearn. I hope you find a way to balance out these feelings as well!

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kethmars profile image
kethmars

Wow, what a powerful post. I feel I've been somewhere there... Hustling, watching videos, finding something meaningful to do, getting a temporary feeling of success, but in the end... Still feeling empty.

I don't like promoting my content in comments but I feel you may found some encouragement from my video of going from a freelancer to a professional. This post symbolises very well why I created developerHabits
youtu.be/Qe-BhypNKCE

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kethmars profile image
kethmars

Oh and also... Mark Manson - the subtle art of not giving a f***

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maniflames profile image
Maniflames Author

Checked out the video, that's quite a story! I will give the book a go :)

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eonuk profile image
eonuk

One way is just to get really into something new. Eg. I used to lose sports a lot. I did climbing for 15+ years, diving for 12+, I used to do a lot of crossfit fitness etc. You get into these things, and start to become obsessed with learning them and mastering the skills. Obviously, that doesn't work during this COVID-19 lockdown, but perhaps there are avenues. For example, I've bought a skipping rope. I can skip fine but am presently really unfit. But i am also learning various tricks (from people on youtube). For me, that gets addictive as you practice and practice to learn these things. Maybe its the same thing - but it makes a changes from computers and it isn't just watching a box set on tv.

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maniflames profile image
Maniflames Author

Before COVID-19 hit I picked up dancing again! Unfortunately my performances got canceled. Nonetheless, I think doing something non-code / non-tech related could really help in managing my stress levels. Thanks for you advice!

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mjyc profile image
Michael Jae-Yoon Chung • Edited

Hey thanks for the post, I'm also a follower of the cult of productivity and reading a post like this helps me think about my life's long term priorities. Reading the other posts like below helped me feel a bit better, I hope it helps you too.

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maniflames profile image
Maniflames Author

Thanks, I'll check them out!

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jhermann profile image
Jürgen Hermann

In the times of ubiquitous streaming, you could binge-watch “The Last Ship”, or something. ☺

Anyway, try to find something new to do, unrelated to your work, but feasible under the current circumstances – things like “Chatterbug Live” where you can start to learn German.

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maniflames profile image
Maniflames Author

I'm 100% going to look for something not-work related to do!

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sirseanofloxley profile image
Sean Allin Newell

You're value as a person is not in any way tied to your productivity. Don't mistake skill, job, and paycheck for worth and happiness.

Lots of people, myself included at times, idolize productivity, and it can drive us to workaholism. Often even if you had a popular OSS project, job, even family and friends it doesn't substitute having a deep sense of self worth and identity.

You are more important than the things you accomplish!

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maniflames profile image
Maniflames Author

I'm having a little trouble with finding self worth from within but that is probably not that weird around my age. Thanks for the reminder I really needed that :)

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patarapolw profile image
Pacharapol Withayasakpunt

For me, setting time frames is the most important thing. 30 and 00 are most important numbers, otherwise % 5 == 0.

It helps me deal with fluctuations in emotion such as depression and boredom as well.

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maniflames profile image
Maniflames Author

I do something similar as well but I have to admit that my time frames to do something can range from half an hour to session of four hours 😅. How long are your time frames?

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niceplace profile image
Simon

Hey, it seems like you are 90% me ! Those feelings you have are very real and very much felt by other people in our field ! I have an insane dopamine rush when I'm solving problems and being productive and when I'm not, well hello self loathing. All goes down the drain in a matter of days.

One of the things I'm learning to accept is that there is no right answer, there is no specific method. No fix-it-all magic. Sometimes the pomodoro technique might work, other times long continuous working sessions might work. I might medidate daily for two months, and then not meditate at all for six ! I have a written list to keep track of my tasks, this works sometimes too !

For short term stuff, I guess that learning to juggle with different techniques to help with productivity and focus is already a good start ! Focus on aspects of your routine you are the strongest at. Other aspects of your routine that need more care might benefit from it via proxy. At least, that's how it seems to work for me. (Example: If I'm consistent on my habits with tidying, my mind is more at ease and it's easier to focus on work. If I'm consistent on exercice, my mind is also more at ease and it's easier to focus on anything !)

For long lasting remedies, I would suggest making good use of browser extensions to redirect / block common distracting sites (news, reddit, facebook, etc.). I really loved HabitLab during the time it was maintained, there was no other tool like it. Unfortunately the maintainer behind it hasn't contributed to the project in a while so I had to find alternatives. I'm using Impulse Blocker (firefox) and Block Site (blocksite.co) for Chrome to help out with that.

Hang in there and no matter what, find a way to get in touch with some positivity, if it can't come from you to you, I'm sure your entourage will be happy to provide !

Cheers !

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maniflames profile image
Maniflames Author

Thank you so much for this advice! It has been a couple of days since I posted this and I'm kind of surprised how many people relate to this. It's really great to hear from people who are on 'the other side'. I'm coming up with a strategy to build up self-care strategies and stay consistent with it.

Cheers :)

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