The most productive developers are those who don't burn out. They're the developers who have learned how to manage stress in a stressful profession. We're not talking acute stress, or the stress you feel right before a big event or important demo. We're talking chronic stress, or the stress that's always there simmering in the background. The stress that's subtle until it's suddenly not.
Chronic stress leads to physical health problems if not addressed properly: heart disease, obesity, elevated blood sugar levels, muscle tension, insomnia, and a worse immune system, to name only a few. Chronic stress leads to mental health problems too: irritability, aggression, sadness, depression, and concentration problems, among others. So it's in your best interests to keep your level of chronic stress as low as possible.
In this article, we will address a few of the most common stressors that software developers face. Next, we will introduce a few ways to combat chronic stress. The links in each section lead to articles that greatly expand on any given point. See in what little ways you can incorporate the advice of this article into your everyday life. One step at a time, you'll eventually become much more resistant to stress.
On the one hand, deadlines are inevitable and necessary to drive software projects forward. On the other hand, deadlines are often inaccurate and inflexible, and a major source of stress for many software developers.
Deadlines often don't incorporate crucial elements of the software development cycle, like testing or fixing bugs. They are also often too short because stakeholders underestimate how long it takes to program seemingly small changes in legacy applications with large amounts of technical debt.
What other industry moves as fast as software development? It's hard to name a single one. Software developers can easily fall under the impression that they're falling behind if they're not always learning the next big thing.
Even when you're aware that hyped technologies lose their shine pretty quickly, it's not uncommon for developers to wonder if they should learn a new language, framework, or library. The thought is always there, in the back of their minds, and for many that's low-key stressful.
Software development has this persistent image of the young, superhuman developer who cranks out incredible code sprint after sprint, project after project, with no need for rest. Someone who earns an easy $250,000 annually at a FAANG company, has an incredible personal website, many successful side projects, and probably a frequently-updated blog on the side too.
Social media exacerbates this problem because they're the people who surface to the top of your feed. It's survivorship bias. You only read about the success stories, never about the failures. It's hard not to compare yourself with these success stories, these seemingly superhuman competitors, and it can easily become a source of stress for any software developer.
There are many layers to what constitutes a healthy work environment. Let's start with an easy one: ergonomics. An ergonomic workspace will reduce the stress on your body and, subsequently, on your mind. If you work remotely, you have plenty of freedom to design your home office in the most ergonomic way possible, but even if you work in an office it's worth asking for ergonomic improvements like:
- A standing desk
- An ergonomic chair
- A monitor arm
- Good lighting
Another important aspect of a healthy work environment is an organized workspace. In terms of an uncluttered physical desk, but also in terms of your digital workspace. More specifically, how and where you organize tasks, files, folders, et cetera. Being able to quickly find what you're looking for gives you a sense of control, which in turn reduces stress.
The final aspect of a healthy work environment that we want to address here is to set the right boundaries and manage expectations with your employer or client. When they overload you with work, either learn how to say no or at least communicate how new work will impact your existing work.
Additionally, help other people break down big goals into manageable subtasks to improve the accuracy of a project's deadlines, and try to add a buffer to deadlines that you believe are too tight. This may not be in your job description, but if it involves you at any point, it's better to help others so everyone suffers less deadline stress further down the line.
This won't come as a surprise to anyone anymore, but your physical health impacts your mental health and vice versa. So take care of your body. More specifically, move your body every day. It doesn't have to be complicated. It could be a ten-minute bodyweight workout or a half-hour walk. Exercise releases endorphins, which are feel-good hormones that actively get rid of stress hormones.
Taking care of your body also means taking frequent breaks. Unless you have a standing desk, you're probably sitting down right now. Every hour or so, break for a few minutes. Stand up and move around. Don't check social media, because that will only increase stress levels. In fact, don't look at any screens. Instead, look at something far away for a moment to relieve eyestrain.
As best you can, eat good food and drink plenty of water too. Don't trick yourself: Too much alcohol, too much sugar, or anything else that feels compulsive in nature will make you feel worse instead of better. It's worth learning how to cook. Not only will this increase the chances of you eating well, but cooking can become a pleasant break from screens in its own right.
First of all, don't be too hard on yourself. In her exceptional book The Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal writes that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control. Self-compassion, however, is associated with more motivation and better self-control. It's counter-intuitive, but those are the results that keep coming up study after study.
A physical way to take care of your mind is through meditation and breathing techniques. Again, this needn't be complicated. Ten minutes a day is much better than zero. Meditation trains you to quiet your mind (or at least observe it) while breathing techniques like 4-7-8 immediately lower the amount of cortisol in your body.
Additionally, you are not alone in your struggles. Speak about what causes you stress with those close to you, whether that's friends, family, or a therapist. Alternatively, bring it up at work. Your manager may not know you're under a lot of stress. Especially in a remote job, it can be hard to tell. It's usually better to overcommunicate than it is to undercommunicate.
As a final point, it's worth reminding yourself that you're not competing with the world. Don't compare yourself with the success stories you see on social media. If anything, reduce your social media to a minimum. You are competent and unique and can absolutely achieve your goals if you set your mind to it.