My experience with burnout

This is a guest post from Landy Simpson. Enjoy.

Dear new developer,

This year has put everyone’s mental and physical health to the test, including yours truly. There’s the ongoing pandemic, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, the 2020 American elections, the End Sars movement; the list goes on. This year, I’ve dealt with an assortment of health issues, which became incredibly hard to deal with once quarantine reduced the number of available health services. Between trying to manage my mental health, physical health and working from within these four walls formerly known as my bedroom — I’m exhausted.

No, in fact, I am BURNT OUT, and I know I’m not the only one feeling this way.

In the last two months, I noticed it became increasingly difficult to get out of bed. I thought my burnout was terrible in the summer — I had no idea what autumn would bring. On the weekends, I’ve found that I can sleep for over 12 hours and only eat a single meal. I haven’t been fully motivated to write, brainstorm content, or work on personal projects. I’m feeling frustrated because I’m not productive. I’m upset I spend most of my free time sleeping, and I’m a bit worried that my burnout affects the quality of my work at my job. But as I work through these conflicting feelings, I’m starting to realize that I shouldn’t fight them, instead, I should accept them and find ways to maneuver the storm called burnout.

During this time of year, where seasonal depression is upon us, it’s easy to spiral into self-loathing and self-pity. And despite feeling burnout, it’s also easy to force yourself into a rigid routine in the hopes of digging your way out of your slump. In coming to terms with my ongoing burnout, I’ve learned if you treat moments like this with compassion, patience, and a bit of transparency, you can overcome burnout. I started opening up discussions with my mom, my best friends, and even one of my co-workers to see what I can do to improve my situation.

It’s incredibly important to open up discussions with our family and friends about mental health because it’s also essential to recognize signs, like burnout, of declining mental health. Together, we can find ways to help each other take preventative steps, like seeking counseling, incorporating healthy physical activities, and practicing self-care and self-compassion.

I can only provide some essential tips to understand yourself better and take the first step in caring for yourself during burnout. However, if you’re dealing with any form of mental illness, please speak to a professional.

Don’t force yourself to get back into a routine.

Notice you’re going through something and treat yourself like you’d treat a friend going through a tough time. Don’t force your body or mind to adapt to a whole new routine overnight. You’ll burn out faster, and you’ll end up spiraling out of control just as quickly as you adapted the routine. Be patient with your mind and body. Incorporate one piece of your routine a week at a time. Allow yourself to adjust to the changes and don’t be too hard on yourself if you mess up once in a while. You’re only human.

Figure out why you’re feeling drained.

Put context to the feeling so you can understand the draining areas of your life. Ask yourself some questions to help reveal potential causes of your burnout. For example, do you feel reluctant to get up for work or school? Are you dissatisfied or overwhelmed with the progression of a particular goal in your life? When was the last time you spoke to a friend or family member, and do you feel alone as a result? Wherever those draining areas are, it’s important to identify them to know what you need to work on to make yourself feel better. There might not be an immediate or obvious solution, however, knowing the cause of your burnout can at least help you stay sensitive to that problem.

Reinforce your values.

It’s hard to get out of bed or feel like anything you do is worth it at the moment, but don’t lose sight of your dreams. Remind yourself of your goals to help reinforce your values. You aren’t just a couch potato or a lazy little bean. And if you are, that’s fine, but remind yourself you’re a person full of dreams and aspirations. You’re just going through a tough time right now, and that’s okay! You will get back to those dreams soon enough as long as you keep making them a priority.

Even when you adopt a routine, it’s okay to take a break or have a bad day where you can’t get out of bed. Don’t punish yourself for feeling burnt out. You’re doing so much, which is fantastic. But always remember to take care of yourself first, which leads me to my last point.

Take care of your body and mind.

These burnout periods are your body and mind’s way of saying it’s time to take a break. Follow your instincts and indulge a little. Sleep in a little longer, eat your favorite meals, talk a bit longer on the phone, binge a show, take a long bath, exercise. Do something to relieve your body and mind of all the stress that it’s going through.

Taking care of yourself can also be seeking therapy or talking to your boss about time off. Even a small getaway road trip to expose your body and mind to a new environment is a way of taking care of yourself.

We’re living in a difficult time right now, and we must be patient and mindful of our feelings. Look out for your friends and family during this time, and most importantly, stay safe.

— Landy

This was originally published here.

Landy Simpson is an Experienced Software Engineer who is skilled in front-end development. She blogs at https://simplyy.medium.com/

When do you feel like you’re “senior”

Dear new developer,

I thought this was a great tweet. It’s worth clicking through and reading the responses. I wrote my own tweet in response, but thought I’d write about it a bit more here.

First, it’s worth acknowledging that the term “senior developer” means different things in different places and times. Certainly the knowledge expected of a senior developer in 2020 is different than in 2010. And likewise, a senior developer at a small consulting company will probably be ineffective at Google and vice versa. I’ve written more about the various types of senior developers here.

It is also worth pointing out that a senior developer isn’t the same as being a good coder. A senior developer has that skill plus many others. So, how do you know you are a good coder? In my mind, there are three attributes:

  • You know your tools
  • You can figure out what the right code to write is
  • You can make the right set of tradeoffs

Let’s examine each of these in turn.

First, it’s important to know your tools. These could be low level tools like the syntax of your language or your text editor. They could be higher level tools, like an open source framework or a custom library. They could be computer science focused tools like a parser.

But you need to know these tools and what are the right ones to apply to solve the problem at hand. Otherwise you’ll either be re-inventing something that has already been done or trying to apply the wrong tool to a problem (much like using a saw to hammer a nail; can be done, isn’t pretty).

Next, you need to figure out what the right code to write is. Even if it is no code. This means that you don’t expect to be handed a full set of requirements from some all knowing figure. It means you dig in and understand the domain. That you apply your knowledge and skills to the problem. And that you use the above tools to solve the problem within the constraints that you are operating.

For that is the final piece. Every bit of code has its own context in which it was written. The code that you write to load a CSV file one time can be undocumented and slow. The code that you write that will be executed multiple times by every application user should be polished, tested and fast. As a senior developer, I think you know that “good code” is context dependent.

You understand that context and make appropriate choices to get the job done.

Sincerely,

Dan

Admit your weaknesses

Dear new developer,

I just had a conversation with my boss. I said “Hey, sometimes I can be overly direct and it comes off like an a**hole. I’ve been told I’ve been condescending by co-workers. I’m working on being more empathetic but if you see behavior like this from me, please let me know.”

A few years ago, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to say this. I do this now because I’m aware of my weaknesses and I own them and share them.

This can only help a good manager. (If you don’t have a good manager, then you have bigger problems. I’d start interviewing.) They can help you grow and place you in situations where your strengths can shine and your weaknesses won’t be fatal.

What kind of skills might you have weakness in? There are two dimensions to think about:

  • innate <-> malleable
    • Is the weakness innate in who you are (you are not tall enough to play professional basketball) or how you define yourself (you are simply not interested in learning enough about good design to become a designer), or is it learnable (you want to learn how to write code)?
    • Far more things are learnable than we give ourselves credit for, it is most often a matter of energy and time. That said, as you get on in your career, some weaknesses may be not worth the effort to remediate. I don’t care enough about pixel placement to ever be a designer, which puts certain developer jobs off limits for me. But I have tried the proverbial full stack position a number of times. Don’t write off something until you’ve tried it.
    • The more innate your weakness in a skill required for a job, the more proactive you should be in dealing with the weakness. This includes, as I did, informing your manager of your weakness and then doing some self work to determine how to improve (or if you even want to).
  • core to your job <-> ancillary to your job
    • Is the skill you are weak in important to your job (are you supposed to be able to speak in front of people professionally and yet you have stage fright) or related but not crucial (you need to know a certain technology and you are not conversant with it, but are familiar with the domain space and have learned similar things before).
    • The more core this skill is to your job the more proactive you should be in fixing your weakness–either finding a way to improve or finding a way to shift jobs.

When should you have this conversation about weakness? Not in the job interview. In the job interview you should be trying to put your best foot forward (and evaluating the job), not talking about your weaknesses. However you should consider how your weaknesses might play in to your ability to succeed in your job, which might cause you to pause in taking it.

Also, do not do this in your performance review. That should be about putting your best foot forward to move forward on your career goals (title, money, position, opportunity) as best as you can. (If you have had the conversations previously and have remediated some of the issues, that’s a fine topic to discuss because it shows growth.)

I think the best time to have the conversation about your weaknesses with your manager is after:

  • you have a clear idea about your weaknesses
  • you know how they will affect or not affect your ability to perform in the job
  • you have a plan to ameliorate their effects if they will cause performance issues
  • you have been on the job at least a month or two, and have some wins (because you overindexed)
  • you trust your manager

If all of these are true, then you will be in a good position to frankly discuss the weakness and take steps to minimize the impact. It’s best to do this in a face to face conversation.

If you can’t do this with your manager, at the least have this conversation with yourself. On paper or while exercising or commuting, think through your weaknesses and how they apply to your current position. You may find that your current position is absolutely suited to you, in which case, congratulations. You may find an area to work on or improve (“man, I really need to get better at listening before I talk”), in which case, congratulations. You may find that your current job is perversely lined up with your weaknesses, in which case, take a look around.

Sincerely,

Dan