Detecting and Avoiding Burnout

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Every developer is different in their ability to sustain a high level of productivity for any amount of time.  The higher you push productivity and the longer you try to maintain it, the more difficult this becomes.  Therefore, everyone has their limits.  The suggestions I am making have worked for me but will need to be adjusted for your drive and endurance.  I also feel the need to re-iterate that this all comes from decades of experience and adjustments.  Your best approach may require years of tweaks and trials to achieve it.

The Warning Signs

One of the best ways to avoid burnout is to make adjustments before you go over the edge.  It is harder to recover from being burned out than it is to slow down and adjust before it hits you.  I thought it would be good to check with some experts on this, so I reviewed a few articles before providing my list.  You can see what I researched here:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/pressure-proof/201503/9-warning-signs-burnout

https://www.forbes.com/sites/learnvest/2013/04/01/10-signs-youre-burning-out-and-what-to-do-about-it/#3633f2c1625b

Here is a summary of the signs you need to watch out for:

  • Problems Focusing
  • Exhaustion
  • Regular Health Problems
  • Overwhelmed
  • Cynical/Hopeless
  • Productivity Loss
  • Unable to relax

Problems Focusing

This symptom can be an indicator that you are at the end of your day mentally or that you have reached the end of your rope.  We all have good and bad days.  A potential sign of burnout is when you find yourself in a long string of bad days.  Some distractions can cause a loss of focus, but the one we want to look at is when we are mentally “spinning our wheels.”  An example is where you find yourself going over a problem, and you keep coming back to the same approach or solution.  We have mentioned this as an excellent time to take a break and walk away from a problem.  If you find that a break doesn’t do the trick and this happens across a lot of challenges at the same time, then burnout may be coming soon.

Exhaustion

I think anyone that has spent much time in IT understands the difference between tired and exhausted.  You also know the difference if you have had children.  The warning signs for this are when you start the day already tired on a recurring basis.  One or two days may just be from late nights or non-work stress.  If it becomes a regular occurrence, then burnout could be just around the corner.

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Regular Health Problems

When you find yourself fighting a cold or otherwise physically ill and weak on a regular basis, then you may be approaching burnout (or already there).  There are some physical ailments that are more likely during times of high stress or when proper rest has not been achieved.  When these hit you it is time to review your recent sleep and rest schedule.  When nothing else jumps out as a reason, then burnout may be the source of your problems.

Overwhelmed

We all have bad days.   However, burnout can come from feeling (or being) overwhelmed on a continuing basis.  When you end each day feeling like no real progress has been made it is likely that burnout is coming.  We have a limit to how far we can go without at least a little victory.  This is closely tied to the next warning sign.

Cynical/Hopeless

You may be a natural cynic or pessimist and say that this is your normal state.  While that may be true, we all have limits to how hopeless we can remain.  If there is no expectation of a situation getting better or a job getting done, then the natural conclusion is to stop doing it.  Unfortunately, we do not always have that option.  Coder’s block (writer’s block for developers) is not uncommon.  However, when none of the typical ways to get around this situation work, it may be a sign of burnout.

Productivity Loss

There seems to be a slow and steady loss of production as we slip into burnout.  I think it is closely related to the feelings of being overwhelmed and hopelessness.  We get into a downward spiral of getting less done, more things piling up, working harder, yet taking longer to get things completed.  Sometimes this situation can be corrected by merely accepting a loss and moving forward (surrender a missed milestone or deadline and recalculate).  On the other hand, sometimes the core reason is burnout and that must be addressed before any progress can be made.

Unable To Relax

If you are like me, then just reading this list of issues can make you antsy.  It is important to note that having a steady stream of ideas and desire to get things done is not the same as being unable to relax.  The important distinction for this warning sign is that you are dwelling on tasks that you have not yet completed.  You are not considering a problem or mentally working things out. Instead, you are performing a nightmare version of counting sheep.  This is where you are replaying your problem or workload over and over in your head.  You feel like it is always on your back and needs attention.  Being driven is a positive version of this situation.  In that case,  you are looking forward to tackling the problems.  When you feel burdened by them then burnout may be coming.

These are just a few of the signs of burnout.  When you start seeing most of them apply to you, it is time to take a step back and adjust your schedule or even your goals.  It is always worthwhile to take the required steps for avoiding burnout.  This is an investment that will be one that you are happy to have made.

Eaglemoss

Rob Broadhead

Rob is a founder of, and frequent contributor to, Develpreneur. This includes the Building Better Developers podcast. He is also a longtime student of technology as a developer, designer, and manager of software solutions. Rob is a founder and principle of RB Consulting and has managed to author a book about his family experiences.In his free time, he stays busy raising five children (although a few have grown into adults). When he has a chance to breathe, he is on the ice playing hockey to relax.

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