Brian’s Brain

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4 Things Every Developer Should Know About Burnout

Here Comes Fall

(Fallen leaves on the Microsoft campus. From my Flickr stream.)

Last year, life had settled into an uncomfortable routine. Mornings, we’d drop the kids off at day care, then my wife and I would carpool to Microsoft. I’d settle into my spacious corner office in Building 9, the one with the view of the fountain and the beautiful red maple leaves each fall. Then, for the next nine hours, I’d do my small part to make my team productive. When we left to pick up the kids, I was worn out, but also wondering what I had accomplished during the day. Dinner with family was the time to relax; both my wife and I are respectable home cooks and we ate well. A glass of red wine helped. In fact, the red wine helped so much… why stop with a glass? Many weeknights I’d finish the bottle, mostly on my own. We kept our home cellar stocked with good Northwest and budget European wines, so I drank well, too. That made it easier to fall asleep, kind of numbed, and repeat the process the next day.

I decided I needed a new job. I wanted to get back in touch with my developer roots, I wanted to get more direct experience with mobile and web computing, and I wanted to experience another corporate culture. Microsoft had been my only job since leaving grad school. A friend told me that Urbanspoon was looking for an iOS developer, and with just two App Store apps under my belt I somehow convinced them to hire me.

Seven months later, I’m so happy I moved to Urbanspoon… but not for the reasons I thought were important when I took the job. Yes, I’m learning a ton, getting development experience in an area that interests me, etc., etc. I’m not looking to leave. However, look at how I described my life at Urbanspoon when I wrote about the advantages of keeping your BigCo job:

My quality of life is better than it has been in years. I’m eating better, exercising more, drinking less, and sleeping more. I feel great when I wake up in the morning and I look forward to going to work each day.

Only that last clause (“I look forward to going to work each day”) is about my new job. Everything else is about the habits that I’ve been able to establish since starting at Urbanspoon. In hindsight, it’s clear that my problem in my last 18 months at Microsoft was burnout. The repository of all truth and wisdom, Wikipedia, has an excellent summary of twelve phases of burnout. Luckily, my case wasn’t severe – no suicidal thoughts, no erratic behavior (that I know of) – but still, it made me unhappier and impaired my judgement more than I realized at the time.

My experience this past year taught me four things that every developer should understand about burnout.

  1. Burnout is real, and it can impact anyone. I’d wager a fine magnum of Walla Walla wine (I’ve no use for it now!) that if you surveyed my friends and coworkers, they’d overwhelmingly describe me as stable and cheerful. They’re my trademarks. Yet there I was, burnt out, depleted, and self-medicating. If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.

  2. When you’re burnt out, you’re not as rational as you want to be – so it’s better to prevent this state than recover from it. Burnout feels very much like the “ego depletion” state described in Daniel Kahneman’s superb book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. To borrow the terminology from that book, when burnt out, you won’t be able to muster the energy to perform System 2 thinking (the “slow” thinking of the title). I wish my career change had been as carefully thought through as Charlie Kindel describes in his excellent blog post. But my brain just couldn’t operate at that level. Instead, I did the “fast” thinking of: “I’m unhappy, so I should change something… anything!”

  3. The key to preventing burnout is simple: Take time to take care of yourself. Sleep. Eat well. Exercise. Spend time with friends and family. Spend time on hobbies. Stay grounded in your own values. I think there is a particular danger here for developers early in their careers to neglect this. It’s so easy and enjoyable to get lost in the etherial and pure world of bits; “wetware” is an annoying distraction.

  4. You don’t have to quit your job to be happy, but it can help. Changing jobs can catalyze the creation of new habits. As Charles Duhigg writes in The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, habits have a powerful hold on your behavior, but habits are also triggered by cues. When you change jobs, you drastically reshuffle many of the day-to-day cues in your life. If you’re ready to take advantage of it, it’s a rare opportunity to establish new habits in bulk.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m still excited and energized by my recent job change. However, I think it’s my life change that’s going to prove more impactful in the years and decades to come.