Burning bright without burning out

· 6 minutes

Opinion: This post is based mostly on my opinion, and experiences that I have gained and/or that have been shared with me. I am not a mental health specialist. The main purpose of this post is to share how I approach burnout, and the mental model that has helped me to better understand how it affects me, in the hope that it may help others.

One of the biggest epidemic in software engineering at the moment, is burnout; A word that has almost become synonymous with working in tech over the past couple of years. According to the WHO definition, an individual suffering from burnout is known to experience feelings of exhaustion, mental numbness, demotivation, and cynicism — often in relation to hobbies or occupation.

As both a software engineer, and a tech mentor, I have seen both sides of this in action; Many people (including myself) aren't able to recognise the slippery slope that leads to burnout straight away, and when they do it's often too late. This sort of behaviour seems to stem from a lack of understanding of how burnout takes place, as well as a lack of self-reflection; often forgetting that we need to check in on ourselves. This is not to say that we lack the ability to take care of ourselves — we do! It's just that sometimes, after a full session of working, we have no mental capacity left for ourselves.

Car accelerometer at 0. Photo by Chris Liverani on Unsplash
Car accelerometer at 0. Photo by Chris Liverani on Unsplash

When I first started in the industry, I was a buzzing young developer who wanted to do many things all at once; so many ideas to explore, concepts to learn, and tools to make. On numerous occasions, I would find myself attending conferences, signing up to events, starting (but rarely finishing) side-projects, and refreshing twitter — all while managing studies and work. I barely had time left to afford myself the luxury of self-reflexion and checking in on my mental well-being. And whenever id feel exhausted from the constant juggling id just brush it off as 'it's just been a long day', and id go to bed to "recover". Little did I know at the time that this was the start of my occupational burnout.

Understanding burnout and how it affects you as an individual is important in figuring out the steps you need to take to properly recover from it. It is also important to be mindful that some steps may not be as easy or straightforward for everyone; The quickest route may rely on some level of privilege that not everyone can afford.

Burnout expressions

Through conversations with colleagues, friends, and mentees, I've put together a mental model that represents how I experience burnout, and the common expressions of burnout shared by others who have also experienced it. You may find that your experiences of burnout are not the same and therefore not reflected in this model, but use this as an idea to form your own model to better understand how you experience burnout. Who knows, the model may help you discover new ways to approach managing your burnout rate.

In order to better understand this mental model, we need to establish the foundation.

1. Burnout rate increases exponentially

It is important to note that burnout is not binary; Like most things it's a scale. Signs of burnout may appear quite early before it becomes burdensome and causes your productivity to tank. It is only when you ignore these signs and continue to pile on the triggers that the affects accumulate exponentially.

I personally believe that people don't run out of energy; instead, energy gets redirected and used to deal with the effects of burnout, leaving a little less each time for focusing on the task at hand. We often spend so much of our capacity on workarounds for the symptoms of burnout that we have less capacity for the stuff that matters and tasks that we actually want to do or makes use feel better.

2. It's easier to burnout than to re-ignite

The more burnt-out you get, the harder and longer it takes to recover. Burning out is a slippery slope which many of us tend to blindly fall victim to.

Common tasks that contribute to burnout tend to be ones founded in habit; and so many people including myself, may struggle to break away from those habits to allow for recovery to take place — further complicating the recovery process. For example, I love keeping tabs on how the web is changing, so I often find myself doom-scrolling twitter, reddit, or hackernews for any piece of new tech-related news I can find; this habit sometimes even extends to when I go on holiday — any idle time I could use to take a breather ends up being spent on these platforms.

3. Physical and mental stress work hand in hand, but they are not the same

A common phrase that often pops up when working with colleagues and people I mentor is 'I shouldn't feel this tired, I've barely done anything today'. And admittedly, I'm culprit of this too. It's easy to forget that physical and mental pressures are not the same despite the fact that they work hand in hand. Being mentally exhausted is not the same as being physically exhausted, and often people experience one without experiencing the other; so it's important to keep an eye out for this as it is one of the signals of burnout. Being able to detect this and changing your routine will help decrease the burnout rate.

Mist spreading throughout a forest. Photo by Hans Isaacson on Unsplash
Mist spreading throughout a forest. Photo by Hans Isaacson on Unsplash

Visualizing the burnout process

Picture this: Your mind is a forest, and the trees represent our ideas, energy, and motivation. When we focus intensively on specific tasks, the forest gets misty, preventing us from focusing on other things. In order for the trees to grow and thrive, we need to occasionally see to it and water it, and nurture it. But when we are too occupied and stressed trying to meet deadlines, we forget to look after it and the trees disappears. Everytime a tree disappears, the landscape of our forest changes.

Changes to the landscape of our forest makes us less productive as more time is spent remapping our forest and finding our way through it. This constant remapping also tires us out. As a response to this, we start to limit our how we spend energy and stop checking the outer perimeters of our forest; causing those trees to disappear.


Can we recover from Burnout?

Trees grow, but they take time. And like most wounds, they heal. This is a process that can't be rushed, and depending on how far they've pushed it, it may take longer for some to recover than others. But if there is something we can all do straight away, it's to watch out for the signs and make sure we take a step back every now and then to evaluate how we are feeling, and where we are on our burnout scale. Seeding and growing a couple of trees is far less work than re-growing an entire forest. 🌱

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