I’m glad John Willis wrote his post on karojisatsu, or suicide from overwork, and that it has been getting the attention it deserves in the community. If it weren’t for the push behind the article that has kept it surfacing in my feeds the past few days I definitely wouldn’t have realized I needed to stop and write this right now.
It’s great that this issue has been brought to our attention and the community response has been awesome. I’ve seen a lot of people offer their availability for anyone that needs someone to talk with, but there’s definitely some frustration surrounding what can be done to help without offering useless platitudes, as Gene Kim so eloquently put it.
I have noticed a cycle I can get caught up in that can leave me in a bad place, but now that I’m aware of it I’ve been better at avoiding it. I wanted to share my experience so that others dealing with any of these problems have something they can try that may help.
Be Confident, but not a Blowhard
Christina Xu recently posted her thoughts on blowhard and impostor syndrome. I agree we all have areas we’re comfortable in and shouldn’t take on any work we don’t feel comfortable doing. It doesn’t matter if it’s because we don’t feel we’re qualified to do it yet or if we just aren’t interested in a particular space. Anyone that doesn’t immediately jump head first into a technology isn’t suffering from impostor syndrome. Anyone that does or says they can is probably being a blowhard.
I can and do move in and out of a lot of different spaces in tech but I definitely know my limits. I never really learned much C++ and have no business writing it. However, if the need came up and it made dollars and sense I would try to take some time to transition into C++. This would take months, not weeks, and it would be a lot of hard work. I would even argue it would be painful, but I’m not scared of hard work if it’s worth it.
I Allow a Reasonable Amount of Time to Transition
True Impostor Syndrome
I didn’t always have such reasonable expectations about how fresh a particular knowledge base was in my mind. Years ago I would have dove back into JS head first expecting things to be where I left them and then panicked when I realized the landscape had changed and my skills were rusty. If this realization came late at night after a particularly hard day (never mind week or month) it could leave me in a very bad place. In that moment it’s easy to declare yourself a failure of a human being and vow to never code again. This is true impostor syndrome. At it’s worst it can lead to thoughts of ending one’s own life.
I Limit My WIP to Account for Adversity
Impostor syndrome can attack when you’re working in a domain your comfortable in as well. Because there’s so much work available it’s easy to take on too much. When you’re spread too thin, teetering towards burn out and then slip on a banana peel of an issue with no slack in your WIP to accommodate it you can end up in the same pit of despair.
How I Deal with Burnout
I’ve come to the conclusion it’s better to be proactive in avoiding these scenarios than reactive in responding to them but we need to do both. Let’s assume you’re burned out from trying to transition too quickly or taking on more work than you should have. These things often lead into each other I’ve come to find. Here’s what I do when I know I’ve bagged my limit.
Step Away from the Keyboard
Taking time off seems obvious but we can’t always drop everything and take a week or even a whole day off. There are things I do to mandate several daily breaks during different parts of the week. The key here isn’t to decide if I have time to do them, I just drop what I’m doing and go do them on principle. Whatever I’m putting down should be able wait. This is about establishing a lifestyle change more than just taking a break.
If you don’t do anything start with daily walks outside or yoga and meditation. I’m better off doing these twice a day for 15 minutes than going to a class once a week. It wasn’t until I started doing these things this regularly that I started to really feel the benefits. Even a stroll around the office building for some fresh air when the heat gets hot can do you a world of good.
GIGO in it’s truest form. Eat healthy stuff and splurge in moderation. My family eats fish and vegetables almost every night because it’s healthy, quick, and relatively inexpensive (if we buy the vacuum sealed frozen fillets). I’ve been working on drinking more water and less coffee. We do have a larger meal filled with red meat and chocolate desserts every couple of weeks at least. I believe any food that’s good for your soul is soul food but it’s usually not very healthy from a nutritional perspective. You should definitely eat it in moderation anyway.
Go to Sleep!
I used to get home and poke at work in front of the TV until late at night with the DVR spewing garbage at me. I got rid of the DVR and only watch shows as it’s convenient. I get to bed by 10pm more frequently and feel like I’m making better use of my evenings. I have trouble sleeping more than 6 hours at a time, but I try to leave room for 8 in case I need it and I definitely take it when I do.
Find a Computer-Free Hobby
I happen to be very passionate about BBQ. I try to smoke some brisket or pork at least once a month. I also play a handful of instruments very casually as I don’t want it to turn into more work. Band practice and playing gigs takes a lot of energy and would not result in the desired effect in my particular scenario.
Nothing will make you feel like you matter in this world than giving back and being of service. I coach my kids’ soccer team but the sincerity of the “thanks Coach!” I get from some of the kids and their parents feels really good. I completely wasn’t expecting it but I now understand why some coaches stay in the program long after their kids have grown up and moved away.
There are a lot of people eager to learn to program that would love your help. Look in your community and see who you can help with HTML and CSS. It doesn’t have to be children either. A lot of adults are look to refresh these skills or are trying to move into technology from another field. They would love a mentor they can learn from and you’ll end up being better at what you’re teaching too.
They also need help at food banks, animal shelters, and many other places. Find something you care about and try to get involved. Trust me, you’ll feel better about life.
No Burn Out BBQ and Free Cookies
I am also here for you if you need me. Specifically, if you’re in the Atlanta area and need someone to talk to hit me up. You could live here or be through on business but I will absolutely break out and come meet you if it’s at all possible. I feel the face to face interaction is needed for me to really connect with someone and give them my undivided attention.
On that note, I’m interested in starting a No Burn Out BBQ to provide an opportunity to do all of these things in Atlanta. Having a BBQ one weekend a month would get us away from the keyboards and outside into the fresh air. It takes a lot of volunteers to get the meal together, and it would provide a safe place to come talk about burn out on top of serving as a monthly reminder to unplug and decompress a bit.
I have a side project with my kids’ that involves sending people cookies and a drawing for filling out a survey. I’ve opened a survey to gauge the level of interest in a No Burn Out BBQ. Feel free to answer this even if you don’t live in Atlanta. If I get a large enough response from a community we’ll figure out how to hold a BBQ there too. There’s also a fair chance that some cookies and a picture in the mail will do you more good than you realize.
Please don’t be shy. You’re in a community that really does care and wants to help. If you prefer something anonymous the Suicide Prevention Life Line is available. Even if you’re not at risk and just want to talk to somebody you can reach out to them 24 hours a day, 7 days a week: 1-800-273-TALK