Over the last year or two Jaimee Newberry has been doing a series of talks about burnout. She talked about how she went through a period where work went from being her motivator and her escape to this thing that she just couldn’t tolerate doing without feeling sick. She had to take a step back and take some time off to recover from this.
What happens if you don’t do that? What happens if you work through burnout? Good question. I have the answer!!
Humans Are Not Unlimited Resources
I have been going at 150% since the middle of 2012. I figured out that if I just put a lot of time into learning something, I could get over a hump and actually figure out stuff that was confusing at first. This was a magical revelation to me. I knew that if I put enough effort into something, I could do anything. Nothing was impossible.
I had school through the end of 2014. I started coding 80 hours a week to try and speed up the process of learning things as fast as I could. I had time to make up for. Everyone else had been programming since they were 12. I was in my 30’s and I was a woman. I needed to make up for lost time so I could be on the same level as everyone else. I could back it off when I got a job.
I got my first job and we were encouraged/expected to work at least 60 hours a week. I was the oldest person at this company by a decade. I was surrounded by guys in their twenties who were all on Ritalin who could work 24 hours without sleep. I was the only girl. I had to prove that I could do what everyone else could.
About a week before I got fired, I was so stressed out from this job that I had a panic attack and had a car accident that nearly totaled my car. I knew that this was not good and started trying to figure out what I would do after this.
I wound up working on a contract with Brad Larson for Digital World Biology. I was working on an OpenGL project with two other programmers who had at least ten years of experience. I was the only person on this project who hadn’t gone to graduate school. I had to work really hard to try and keep up and not just be a burden on everyone.
After that I worked on a book. Then I worked for Brad for a year. Then I worked on another book. Then I took a part time job. Then in the same month I switched my full time job. I did conference talks. I traveled a lot. I kept thinking I could manage my time and do more and more things.
I also kept telling myself that I would eventually get a break.
“When I finish this book, I can take a break.”
“I just need to finish this one set of conference talks, then I can take a break.”
“This side project isn’t that hard. It will help me network and it’s almost like having a break because it’s not coding!”
I started falling apart around June.
I didn’t want to admit I was falling apart. I made commitments to people and I didn’t want to let them down. I didn’t want to get a bad reputation as someone who couldn’t be counted on. I have mental health issues and I didn’t want to say I can’t do something because I assumed that everyone else was able to do more than I can and I wanted to work twice as hard to prove that I could do what everyone else can.
Used to just have a day every month or two that I couldn’t function. It usually happened on weekends, so I would just get annoyed that I lost a day or two to work on my side projects.
This started happening more and more often.
A while ago I got really sick and it took me a month to get over it.
I could feel myself falling apart, but I was in denial over it. I did things like getting my subscription food service to deal with things that triggered my break downs. I worked around them. Until I couldn’t anymore.
Last week on the last day of the year, I had a total breakdown. I could not sit at my computer without falling over. I felt like my head was full of white noise. I was sent home early and told to relax the entire long weekend.
I expected the enforced vacation would fix me up like it usually does. It didn’t. I could feel myself not getting better. It was like the forced rest was a tourniquet on a limb that was cut off. I knew if I took the tourniquet off that the bleeding would start back up again.
I had to go through intensive guided meditation therapy yesterday for two hours to get stable enough to continue working today. I have to go back in two weeks. I have been told that this isn’t a magic bullet. If I keep doing what I have been doing for the last three years this will keep happening to me and it will get worse and worse and the therapy will be less effective.
I was told that I need to cut back on everything I am doing immediately. I can continue working, but anything beyond that is pretty questionable. I was told if I work at this I can be close to normal in three to six months.
I wrote recently about tech being a casino and how bad start up culture is. I want to emphasize right here that I do not work for a company like that. I work for Black Pixel. Everyone there has been incredibly supportive of me. My boss Janene saw that I was burning myself out and really tried to get me to take care of myself before things totally collapsed. I think it’s rather sad that so few companies in our industry treat their employees like people and actually care about what happens to them. I wanted to make sure I gave them a shout out for helping me through this difficult time.
I keep being asked how I have time to do all the things I do. I used to say that I could do this because I don’t have a family and I live in the middle of nowhere. I made this my life. But that’s not the whole answer. I have been overclocking myself for a long time and I haven’t done what I need to do to ensure I have a long and fruitful career.
I think that overclocking myself for the first bit of time was necessary. I needed to apply some lighter fuel to my barely smoldering career fire to get it to catch. After it caught, I needed to stop applying lighter fuel, but I didn’t know how. I was paranoid about the fire going out that I thought I had to keep poking it and feeding it and tending it at the expense of taking care of myself. There comes a point when you need to walk away. Not permanently, but long enough to sleep or take a shower or eat something. If you built your fire well, it will still be alive when you wake up the next morning.
Going through this total collapse has really frightened me. I felt like I was omnipotent a few years ago when I realized that I could do anything if I put enough work into it. I am realizing that I took things too far.
I think we need to be better about talking about burning ourselves out. With the pace that our world is changing, we are the weak element here. No one can keep up with all the changes. It’s impossible. As long as we keep thinking there is some mystical full stack developer out there that can keep up with every new framework, device, language, etc… that comes out, we will be causing a lot of unneeded suffering and mental anguish.
We are not infinite resources. There is no shame in stepping back for a while to recover from a sprint. A sprint is not a sustainable pace. It’s necessary to implement periodically, but know that at a certain point you need to slow down and take a break.
I had a lot of success in a short period of time. That came with a cost. I think the cost was worth it, but I need to stop for a while.