Dealing with Burnout

I was asked recently, "how do you deal with burnout?" This is not the first time I have been asked this question and taking a cue from a recent talk by Scott Hanselman, I decided to answer it with a blog post.

What is Burnout?

Burnout means different things to different people. Some start to feel the dark grip of burnout when they work a few 70 hour weeks in a row. Others start down the slippery slope, headed for a crash when tasks start piling up and they feel they can not get ahead. My main trigger is boredom. That boredom is often boosted by a combination of the previous two triggers as well. My brain does not deal well with long sessions of "boring" tasks. It is amazing what can qualify as boring when you are a developer.

Burnout is soul-sucking. You get to the point where you wake up in the morning, maybe get out of bed, think about the fact you have to go to work, then, perhaps, jump back in bed and write the day off. When you do make it into work, you make comments about how you might go home and never come back. You find yourself staring at your computer and, in no time, 4 hours have passed with nothing getting done. Even when you do try to get something done, you can't focus long enough to get even get started. All this leads to even more work piling up.

Burnout sucks. It sucks your energy right out of you and, if left untreated, it can start to suck the will to work out of your teammates as well.

How I Deal with Burnout

I used to deal with burnout by looking for a new job. That was the easy answer. The problem with that is that after a year and a half, I found myself right back where I started. Burnt out and looking for a new job again. I had to find a way to deal with it that was a little more sustainable.

I have interests outside of technology. I enjoy backpacking, camping, and traveling with my family. These things help recharge me and generally melt my stress away. Nothing burns off my burnout better than hiking 8 to 10 miles a day with 30 pounds of gear on my back and finishing the day falling asleep under the stars. The one thing that might beat that is seeing the smiles of my family when they have my undivided attention while reeling in out first catch of the night on one of our camping trips.

These things are very effective at melting away stress and resetting my burnout meter but, I can not just get up and leave at 2:53pm on a Wednesday in the middle of February to go backpacking. The money I make working my job is one of the things that enables me to do some of the other things I enjoy so, I think it would be good to keep it instead of just walking out. Just because I can not physically get up and go hiking does not mean I can not mentally.

I borrow from the future to get through today

When I am overcome with boredom and find myself slipping into burnout, i take some time to borrow from the future. I start planning a backpacking trip that might not happen for a few months. Research a new trail. Add some gear to my wish-list. Put some camping dates on the calendar. Going through those exercises allows me to mentally float away to those stress melting activities. For a short while, I am traveling through time, hiking, camping, feeling better.

You have to follow through though. You have to go on that hike you planned. Go camping with your family. Buy some of that gear on your list. If you only dream about doing it and never do, you can not borrow from it. It is key to get out and follow through with those plans.

The energy and experiences I gain from getting out and doing these trips that I had planned allow for even better stress reduction in future "borrowing sessions".

Works for Me

This is what works for me. I can not guarantee this will work for you but, maybe knowing what I do will help you to formulate your own burnout medicine.

Good luck.