Scott Hanselman

How to deal with Technology Burnout - Maybe it's life's cycles

September 07, 2016 Comment on this post [25] Posted in Musings
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Burnout photo by Michael Himbeault used under cc

Sarah Mei had a great series of tweets last week. She's a Founder of RailsBridge, Director of Ruby Central, and the Chief Consultant of DevMynd so she's experienced with work both "on the job" and "on the side." Like me, she organizes OSS projects, conferences, but she also has a life, as do I.

If you're reading this blog, it's likely that you have gone to a User Group or Conference, or in some way did some "on the side" tech activity. It could be that you have a blog, or you tweet, or you do videos, or you volunteer at a school.

With Sarah's permission, I want to take a moment and call out some of these tweets and share my thoughts about them. I think this is an important conversation to have.

This is vital. Life is cyclical. You aren't required or expected to be ON 130 hours a week your entire working life. It's unreasonable to expect that of yourself. Many of you have emailed me about this in the past. "How do you do _____, Scott?" How do you deal with balance, hang with your kids, do your work, do videos, etc.

I don't.

Sometimes I just chill. Sometimes I play video games. Last week I was in bed before 10pm two nights. I totally didn't answer email that night either. Balls were dropped and the world kept spinning.

Sometimes you need to be told it's OK to stop, Dear Reader. Slow down, breathe. Take a knee. Hell, take a day.

Here's where it gets really real. We hear a lot about "burnout." Are you REALLY burnt? Maybe you just need to chill. Maybe going to three User Groups a month (or a week!) is too much? Maybe you're just not that into the tech today/this week/this month. Sometimes I'm so amped on 3D printing and sometimes I'm just...not.

Am I burned out? Nah. Just taking in a break.

Whatever you're working on, likely it will be there later. Will you?

Is your software saving babies? If so, kudos, and please, keep doing whatever you're doing! If not, remember that. Breathe and remember that while the tech is important, so are you and those around you. Take care of yourself and those around you. You all work hard, but are you paying yourself first?

You're no good to us dead.

I realize that not everyone with children in their lives can get/afford a sitter but I do also want to point out that if you can, REST. RESET. My wife and I have Date Night. Not once a month, not occasionally. Every week. As we tell our kids: We were here before you and we'll be here after you leave, so this is our time to talk to each other. See ya!

Thank you, Sarah, for sharing this important reminder with us. Cycles happen.

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* Burnout photo by Michael Himbeault used under CC

About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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September 07, 2016 2:58
I think it's important for established people like you, to show us exactly this. I tend to get too focused on doing my job and improving daily and i forget that there is a whole world outside to enjoy. I do have a family, but i must admit that my persistence and sometimes even stubbornness gets the better of me and puts me in trouble wife-wise. And with reason.

People like you show us how to do it everyday, but sometimes it's just as important to show us how not to do it.

Do you think that is a quality you evolve over time? I mean, did you naturally get better at simply disconnecting?

As always, great post
September 07, 2016 3:25
A welcome post, Scott. I've had two "near burnouts" this year, and yes, I call then burnouts because I wanted to get back in the ring but my body didn't allow.

The last incident was a wake-up call for me. Since 12th August I've avoided alcohol, caffeine, and processed sugar (ketogenic diet). I actually associate a fair proportion of my burnout to lack of sleep due to excessive caffeine and alcohol, and the ketogenic diet had given me a total energy reset. It's not the first time I have done the ketogenic diet thing, but this time it was purely to get my energy levels stabilised.

Talking to the interns at work, I see them on the same path, but you know what they say - youth is wasted on the young.

I think alcohol and caffeine induced exhaustion is a much bigger problem in our industry that we are willing to acknowledge
That said I know you have tweeted about it before.

Yes, we all need to unplug. I like the reframe. This is my new mantra (when I need to):

- I'm not on downtime, I'm chilling.

September 07, 2016 5:00
Good article Scott.

Small typo: Here's where it gets really real. We here hear a lot about "burnout."
September 07, 2016 9:32
I fear a different kind of 'burnout'.

Years ago, when I switched to development from another trade, I figured that it was the ideal job: you never get bored because there's always something new to learn.

15+ years down the line, I'm starting to wonder if I'm going to survive another 20 years or not. Because always having to learn new stuff, and never really having the time to master it (because, hey, my employer does pay me to actually get stuff done) before the next 'wave', is getting a bit old. Especially as the new stuff is not necessarily 'better'.

Unfortunately I'm short of ideas on a new profession, and some of the stuff I'd like to do doesn't quite pay the same salaries...
September 07, 2016 10:18
Thanks Scott, really liked your post.
September 07, 2016 11:33
Here's where it gets really real. We hear a lot about "burnout." Are you REALLY burnt? Maybe you just need to chill.

'Burnout' is a serious condition and a lot of people suffer from it. It is a condition that manifests itself after a long period of time of serious overburden. As a person who went through two burnout periods of significant length I can tell you, the above sentence really is, sorry to say it, rather silly. It's like telling to a depressed person that they should lighten up a bit. A person suffering from a serious burnout wants to chill but can't: their mind doesn't let them, and they are fully aware of that and want to change. At the same time, they also can't do work, because their body doesn't let them. That's the cruel part of it. Once you hit that wall you know what's wrong and what to change, but that's not done overnight. Maybe it will take a year or more to recover.

Don't get me wrong though, I really appreciate the sentiment of this post and your other posts about the topic of overburdening ourselves: that people should be aware of what they do to themselves by loading all these work items in our cart, and that's often the root cause of burnout in the long run. It's good that people are warned, as it's a taboo in our industry.

Though I must admit: starting with a headline like you did is not helping: once you hit the burnout phase, it's already too late. You can't just 'deal with it' and it's solved: you have to live through it and sit it out, make changes and work slowly to recovery.
September 07, 2016 11:53
Frans - As we discussed (and came to some agreement on Twitter) I think you're right. Proper burnout is very serious.

For example, I get down and sad but I am not Depressed. I am burnt sometimes but I do not have Burnout. Sarah got me thinking about the cycles of enthusiasm and malaise that I have around Community. As you say, it's a spectrum. Most people aren't burned out, but they are tired. For those people, they can unplug. For others, you're right, watch for the warning signs and get help.
September 07, 2016 12:26
After reading the tweets again I figured out I understood the message wrong the first time. First I thought Sarah was saying that the non-involvment phase is burnout when she is actually saying the exact opposite. That we should be careful with calling a "down-period" for burnout. It's totally my fault for not reading carefully enough.

I think that part is very important. Burnout has long term physiological changes and is extremely serious and should not be mixed up with lack of motivation, fatigue or even stress. The latter things can certainly lead to burnout if it goes on too long. But it's not the same.

I think it's important to accept that we will perform worse in periods. The problem is often that we try to compensate by working more to compensate for the lack of productivity. Even though working too much is often what got us into that place.

Personally I try to optimize for having as many good days as possible. If I feel I have a really bad day at work where nothing gets done anyway I will try to accept that the only good thing I can do with that day is to make sure the next day is a better one. If that means going home at lunch and resting, so be it. This might not work for everybody but as my own boss I think it's a very good approach for me.

September 07, 2016 15:28
I needed this post today! I have a four year old and an eighteen month old and I'm struggling to keep up just with work, nevermind anything extra!

It's difficult to know what to say to my colleagues who are all surprised I wasn't playing around with docker on the weekend, when old Helen probably would have been.

It's a bit difficult not to feel worried about keeping up sometimes, but I love my new life. Spending my weekends taking my son to see a farm or playing with a ball in the park is pretty sweet. :)
September 07, 2016 17:35
My dad died at 67, his dad at 60. I'm 62.

Five sons, first grandchild yesterday.

"You're no good to us dead."

True dat.

This is on my mind constantly.
September 07, 2016 18:03

"Because always having to learn new stuff, and never really having the time to master it... before the next 'wave', is getting a bit old."

I would be very interested in participating in *that* conversation. I have been feeling this for years but never dared to put it into words. I'm starting to wonder if those COBOL mainframe programmers know something we don't.
September 07, 2016 18:18
There is also the difference between "I am burned out because I feel I should be doing more" and "I am burned out because my employer requires too much".

I think there is something to be said about the pervasive attitude towards IT workers that long hours are the norm and you're not doing enough if you're not coping with coffee and snacks and other gimmicky things. And I think too many IT workers put it upon themselves and wrapped it into their culture and wear it like a badge. It's OK to love what you do, but I think it's a mistake to make the extra mile a de facto expectation.

I've turned down "exciting" startup jobs that had all the same warning signs: open layout, free snacks and drinks, gym & showers nearby (not that exercise is bad), game rooms, community spaces, etc. To me, these are all warning signs that the employer will expect you to live at your job. That is the fastest way to real burnout, in my opinion.

I'll take a "boring" corporate job where I can leave my work at the office any day. When I die, no one will care about my "velocity" (OMG, I hate that this word is even a thing). But they will remember how I affected those around me.
September 07, 2016 18:20
Karkow, I feel the exact same!!

I also think Micheal Colhoun is on to something as well.
September 07, 2016 18:27
I feel like this can be summed up with the old phrase "Everything in Moderation". You don't have to be 100% at work, at home, at the gym, etc. It's okay to juggle your day in a more balanced way.
September 07, 2016 19:31
I love this post. This is a lesson I had to learn for myself years ago. When I was a lot younger, I went through a period where my team routinely worked 20 hour days, 6 days a week, multiple times per year. That led inevitably to a serious burnout that took months to recover from. Since then, I've put much more weight on doing things outside work. Yes, there are occasional long days and high-stress periods, but at the end of the day, my health, my family and my life outside work are more important than a piece of software. Years ago, I did write software that saved lives (truly!) and even in that circumstance it's more important that we take care of ourselves so we're available to continue to contribute to the world around us. Great post, Scott.
September 07, 2016 20:00
Wow, great article! & comments too! I especially relate to the comments from Karkow, Bill & Dan.

If I could send a message to myself a few years back, it would be to NOT take a job with so little vacation time. Now I'm at a job I like, but not nearly enough time off so I just end up being crispy (as opposed to actual burn out) all the time. And since this job relocated us from Philly to Florida, half of my days off are now allocated to just travelling back for 3-day weekend visits.

Future job hunters, don't skimp on your vacation requirements!
September 08, 2016 12:15
I have a ton of REST endpoints ... does that count?
I do what I enjoy, and that happens to be programming, as a result it's both my career and my hobby.
I avoid "burnout" by dropping the ball on my hobby projects and not my work ones.

If I can't handle that, then it's logically time to move on and do something else, or perhaps it's just the job and I need a new role.

I must be a rare creature indeed, I live c# and have done for 15 years+ without any of this, sometimes I drop a hobby project but it's mainly because I lost interest in it.
September 08, 2016 19:22
I don't use twitter

Applause ;-)
September 09, 2016 7:26
I have similar feelings as Karkaw. Last year I haven't been as involved in .net core as much. Now I feel I am lagging and feels like I have lost the rhythm. At the same time I worked with delivery teams instead of consulting and found that the younger folks have not even tried to master writing quality code. The ever increasing stack of ready to use API is not really changing the core. But .net core changes everything again. So I am confused. Should I burnt to stay on the edge or should I focus on core programming and help others.
September 12, 2016 7:37
Love this post. There's a larger conversation here about how we think of ourselves as devs... We have this myth of software developer as infallible genius, and it really puts many of us into a box, especially early on.

I've seen it lead to some huge, fragile egos, stifled careers, and I'm pretty sure adderall addiction in one case.

It's important for leaders to set the tone for what it looks like to be outstanding in this field, and we can all do that by stepping out of the box and being honest about our own experiences and limitations.

I remember reading a blurb years ago by Rocky Lhotka where he said, and I paraphrase, that his whole job is keeping up on the latest tech, and even for him with all this experience, capability, and time it's actually impossible.

At the time, it was a relief to know that I shouldn't expect that of myself. And that is screwed up.
September 13, 2016 2:25
UWP is so terrible. Why Microsoft? Why?
September 15, 2016 7:52
"Balls were dropped and the world kept spinning."

Sometimes our biggest fear is being unmissed. The world continuing to spin scares us with the implication that we might not actually be important. That's a difficult concept for mere mortals to handle.
September 23, 2016 12:13
Sometimes I walk outside during the day and see the sun, .... sometimes.....
September 23, 2016 22:22
As others have pointed out, many are burned out from the burnout of keeping up with the next "greatest" thing in software development. Every month it's a new javascript framework, a new test engine, a new MVC view engine, and if you don't jump on board you obviously suck. And all the tech companies out there want 5 years of AngularJs and 9 years of ASP.NET MVC.
October 01, 2016 20:28
Hi Scott,

I know this is not the place for this, but I am not sure where to get the answers.

1. I am using and Angular 1.x and typescript, but can't seem to get $scope to work. I can't seem to use it the same way, before I started using typescript.

2. I seem to be confused about $q and promises. I want to use $http.get to return data, but I need to wait before I continue. What is the best way to do this?


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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.