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This article was published on October 17, 2021

7 reasons why programmers burn out — and 7 ways to prevent it

It's a common problem, but there are some solutions

7 reasons why programmers burn out — and 7 ways to prevent it
Ari Joury
Story by

Ari Joury

When Jerry started their job as a junior developer, they couldn’t wait to get to work each morning. And each evening, even after their 10-hour workdays, they’d still feel energized. Now, two years later, Jerry looks like the shadow of what they used to be. Getting out of bed is hard these days, getting to work even harder. By the end of the day, they feel exhausted and drained. And they’re already dreading the thought of going back tomorrow and wasting yet another day of their lives.

Sounds familiar? Personally, I have yet to meet a programmer who hasn’t been through at least one episode of burnout.

It sounds paradox: The same person who fell in love with code in their teens or twenties, who have taken part in at least five hackathons over the past three years, and who contributes to open-source projects on weekends — how can this person possibly complain about burnout?

Yes, they can.

Reason 1: Monotonous work

Programming is sitting in front of a screen all day, except maybe for a lunch break and a few meetings here and there. Sure, it’s the same in many other jobs. But the intensity of staring-at-your-screen-while-sitting-in-a-very-unhealthy-position is highest in programming.

Even if you find your work mentally stimulating, this monotony can quickly lead to physical sluggishness. This means that you don’t get your work done as fast, so you start getting demotivated, so you work less, …

Getting out of this vicious cycle means adopting a healthy lifestyle. Which sounds easy in theory. But the declining rates of life expectancy show how hard it is.

Reason 2: Rushing for deadlines

If you’ve ever worked with Scrum and similar methodologies, or if you have an ambitious manager, you know what I’m talking about.

You’re chasing deadline after deadline. You’re probably missing a few deadlines along the way. You’re expected to deliver everything by yesterday, and nobody cares that humans aren’t capable of that.

As a result, when you’re thinking about your work, you’re not feeling a sense of joy or accomplishment. You’re feeling pressure.

And that sucks all passion for coding out of you. You’re expected to be a robot that always generates top-notch output and delivers it ahead of time. But you’re human, so you respond with symptoms of burnout.

Reason 3: Coworkers that suck

Consider the following situation: Your project is exciting you and you feel you’re making progress on it. Still, every day you dread going to work. The simple thought of it is making you anxious and unhappy. What’s wrong?

Of course, your happiness at work is influenced by — well — your work. But even more importantly, your happiness is influenced by your relationships — in or outside of work.

So if you’re happy with what you’re doing but you’re still dreading it, it’s probably your coworkers. No matter whether they just don’t share your values or whether the corporate culture makes them act in stupid ways — you don’t deserve to be treated nastily.

If you’re experiencing burnout symptoms that result from icky coworkers, know that it’s not your fault. You might want to try some of the fixes listed further in this article. Or you might want to go a bit more radical and change departments or get a job with a different company entirely.

Reason 4: No recognition

This part is related to your at-work relationships, but on another level. Your project may be wonderful and exciting, and your colleagues may be awesome.

But whenever you feel like you’ve achieved something, your manager comes around the corner with a totally different task. And every time they do that, the old task becomes completely irrelevant.

Sounds familiar? I know it does to me.

You can be as excited or passionate as you like about your field. If your work constantly gets invalidated, you’ll lose your motivation.

You’ll start dreading to go there because you know you won’t create anything useful anyway. You’ll be happy when the day is over — because it’s over — but unhappy since it isn’t Friday and you’ll have to go to work again tomorrow. And at some point, you’ll start thinking that even the skills that you’re acquiring by completing your tasks are irrelevant.

With time, this can lead to more severe symptoms. All because your manager has no idea what you should be doing.

Reason 5: Getting paid

Getting paid too little — or too much! — can worsen your symptoms of burnout.

Too little pay is a no-brainer for burnout. (Yes, broke programmers exist!) If your passion for coding isn’t enough to keep food on the table, you might not feel like your work is valued. Which brings us back to reason 4.

But burnout can also worsen when you get paid too much. While a big check sounds great in theory, it can lead to disaster in real life. Let me illustrate this with my personal experience.

As an undergraduate, I got very involved in programming. I’d spend days and nights at the research lab coding software for scientific purposes, sometimes even neglecting my coursework for it. I loved it so much that I never expected any compensation for it. For years I worked for free. Even if that meant that I couldn’t even afford tomatoes at the supermarket.

This radically changed when I entered grad school. Suddenly I was being paid. Suddenly all my bills were covered. Suddenly I could buy tomatoes without having to think about the pennies. I was making a living. Of code!

And then a silly idea entered my mind: If I was being paid to code, then each month I should be delivering a piece of code that is worth at least that amount of money.

Reason 6: Meaningless tasks

Reasons 3 to 5 tackle problems that you might encounter despite having a great project. But sometimes your project just sucks.

Maybe your project is just a heap of corporate B.S. with not much substance for a programmer. All you want is to code, and not take care of all the managerial duties, customer relations, and so on.

Suddenly what had started as a wild passion became a source of pressure. Pressure to deliver. Pressure to perform. Pressure to give back the value that I was receiving in money.

But the more you pressure yourself, the less you’re going to perform. Especially when you’re thinking about money.

Maybe you’re not seeing the meaning in your project because you can’t learn anything new from it. Programmers belong to the most curious creatures on this planet — if you can’t learn from it, you don’t like it.

Maybe the project seems way beyond your skills. You feel that you’re unable to master it, and that your manager completely over-estimated your skills.

Or maybe you’ve been working on a project for the past few months, and you still can’t fathom what you’re supposed to be doing. The task is a mystery and nobody seems able to explain it to you. This usually stems from mismanagement. Unfortunately, this situation happens more often than you think.

In any case, from a corporate perspective, your project is your main reason to work. So if it sucks, no wonder you’re experiencing burnout.

Reason 7: Walking the death march

This one is closely related to reason 6. The death march, in short, is when you’re working on a project that is destined to fail.

This can have many reasons: The deadline is too tight, you don’t have enough resources, or your team is too small to carry it out. Especially when it’s a big project that you’re working on for many months, and when the stakes are high, this can lead to a huge amount of pressure on your shoulders.

Your reaction to this can go both ways: Either you sink into complete apathy, come in late,

Programmers are no robots

The tricky part about burnout is that what starts as a work problem splashes over to all areas of life. You start neglecting your family, your friends, your hobbies, and your self-care. And suddenly you’re not caught in a work crisis, but a life crisis.

It is vital to understand that — and I can’t stress this enough — this is not your fault. Sure, recognizing your own mistakes is vital for personal growth. But blaming yourself for mistakes you haven’t made will ruin you.

Most of the time, the root of the problem of programmer’s burnout is within the company culture or some form of mismanagement.

That doesn’t mean that you need to change departments or quit your job right away. While this might be a good solution for the really hard cases, working with a few softer fixes can already do tremendous help.

and leave early because you know that your work isn’t going to change anything. Or you start putting in 14-hour days in the belief that this way you could turn things around.

Your apathy is caused by demotivation and leads to more demotivation. You’re basically removing the fuel that keeps your fire going.

Or if you’re the type that gets buried in their work, you’re literally suffocating your passion with all the time you’re investing into it.

Both of these are natural responses. As before, just know that if the project isn’t going well, it’s not your fault. You’re an excellent programmer and you’ve probably proven that on other projects. If this is going wrong, it’s because of the circumstances and not because of you!

Fix 1: Be compassionate with yourself

I know this sounds lame. But hear me out.

Burnout is not your fault. It is not a symptom of weakness. The pain you’re experiencing is not from being an idiot. It is real. It is valid.

I stress this so much because I’m a culprit of this fallacy. I tend to blame myself for issues that I didn’t cause and beat myself up when I should be nice to myself.

Being compassionate with oneself is something that I’m still learning. But the one thing I’ve found is that this helps:

Be your own best friend.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep in regular contact with your besties. But try to treat yourself like your best friend.

When you’re beating yourself up for your apparent ignorance, incompetence or whatever, think of this: What would you tell your best friend if they were in your situation? How would you talk to them?

Self-compassion, I have found, is an incredible hack for gaining more self-love. And that leads to — you guessed it — more happiness and productivity.

Fix 2: Think about what used to excite you

I used to be so excited about programming, but I lost the spark when I entered grad school. For me the reason was that I was getting paid (reason 5); but for you, it might be any of the reasons stated above.

What helped were the memoirs of Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, who was going through a period of burn-out when he received a job offer from the very renowned Institute of Advanced Study:

Institute for Advanced Study! Special exception! A position better than Einstein, even! It was ideal; it was perfect; it was absurd!

It was absurd. The other offers had made me feel worse, up to a point. They were expecting me to accomplish something. But this offer was so ridiculous, so impossible for me ever to live up to, so ridiculously out of proportion. […] I laughed at it while I was shaving, thinking about it.

And then I thought to myself, “You know, what they think of you is so fantastic, it’s impossible to live up to it. You have no responsibility to live up to it!”

It was a brilliant idea: You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It’s their mistake, not my failing.

It wasn’t a failure on my part that the Institute for Advanced Study expected me to be that good; it was impossible. It was clearly a mistake ­­ and the moment I appreciated the possibility that they might be wrong, I realized that it was also true of all the other places, including my own university. I am what I am, and if they expected me to be good and they’re offering me some money for it, it’s their hard luck.

— From “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman”, by Richard Feynman, Copyright 1985, pg. 100.

Feynman wasn’t exactly coding. Still, it is this text that got me out of my rabbit hole at the beginning of my Ph.D. From it I concluded, if my doctorate school is overpaying me — then it’s their fault. I’ll be irresponsible like Mr. Feynman and do whatever the hell I like. And I did.

Fix 3: Incorporate routine tasks

Having to go to work when you know you’ll get nothing done is daunting. By definition.

No matter whether the project is too hard, or mismanaged, or completely meaningless — you’ll have to go without that dopamine surge that gives you your happy groove.

One thing that can help reset your motivation is incorporating routine tasks. I like to start my workday with something easy, almost trivial. The task should be useful, but the main object is to get a tick off my todo-list.

This tricks my monkey brain into wanting to fulfill the next task — because then I’ll get another moment of accomplishment. I then slowly go from the easiest to the hardest parts.

It sounds like procrastination of the difficult stuff. But it works! I’m surprised quite regularly about how much I actually get done by doing the easy things first.

Fix 4: Reflect

Set some time aside each day to practice some reflection. Everybody has their own technique, and you’re free to develop yours. I use a reflection matrix that I fill each evening:

developers

I separate active events from passive ones. An active event is a direct consequence of what I did. A passive event is something that happens without me doing anything. This helps me realize that not everything is in my control.

In the “I like” category I write things that I’m grateful for that day. This builds my feeling of accomplishment and my mental resilience. This way I’m being proactive against demotivation.

And the “I wish” category contains things that could have been better. This is where I draw lessons and search for solutions — for example, I might set my milestones differently or search for new ways to cope with my injury.

You can reflect using a journal, or by talking to a friend, or sending emails to yourself. I advise you against doing it solely in your head — because you’ll forget about it and it will be harder to build a habit. Also, the backlog will be fun to look through later, believe it or not.

You can do this wherever you want — in your office, at home or in the park. But try to do it in the same place each day — this will help you build a habit. Also, try to do it at the same time each day, and ideally block this time out in your calendar.

By reflecting, you’re looking back on your past success. And you’re realizing that every so often, you’re not in control of things. This has helped me a lot in coping with symptoms of burnout.

Fix 5: Get a hobby

You’re a programmer. You’re a geek. I get it.

When you’re not at work, you’re either sleeping or coding for fun. And that’s amazing.

But when you face serious burnout, you might not feel like touching a computer at all. And now you’re faced with a big fat emptiness in your life.

Be proactive about that and get an activity going on the side — preferably one that doesn’t involve computers. It could be a sport, or music, or cooking, or interior design. Find something that you’re interested in — and do that on a regular basis.

One thing that helps me is having a hobby that is useful in a practical way. For example, at least once a week, I like to cook something delicious. It’s easy for me to keep that up because I need to eat anyway. Plus, this way I’m ensuring that I’m getting something healthy, which has positive effects back to my work.

Whatever you choose to do, any hobby or side project will give you a sense of accomplishment that you’re lacking at work. A hobby helps stabilize you so that a work crisis doesn’t become a life crisis.

Fix 6: Set non-negotiable boundaries

This one is for those who over-compensate when they’re burnt out. As paradox as it sounds, getting free time can require some discipline, too.

For example, I have a boundary that I do nothing productive — coding or Medium or whatever — after 9 P.M. I’ve had this boundary for the last five years and I’ve only crossed it twice.

Not only does it help me wind down, reflect and get a good night’s sleep. It also gives me something to look forward to during the day. No matter how stressful life is, I know I’ll always be able to switch my mind off between 9 P.M. and the moment I go to bed.

The important part is that these boundaries are not flexible. Blocking them out in your calendar and clearly communicating them with your boss and your colleagues will help you maintain them.

You might be afraid that you’ll seem lazy. Funnily enough, this is not the case. A person with clear boundaries makes the impression that they’re in control of their lives.

Fix 7: Advocate for yourself

This links directly to the above. Clearly communicate what you need — your boundaries, but also any additional resources, manpower, and money, that are needed to achieve the goal of your project.

What you need should be well-reasoned — otherwise, your manager might think you’re too demanding. But it’s still better to come off as demanding than being too shy to express what you want. The others can’t read that off the tip of your nose.

Once you start building a habit of expressing what you need, you’ll be surprised at the number of things that people will do to help you!

Final words: You’re not alone

As I have mentioned earlier, I have yet to meet a programmer who hasn’t experienced a major period of burnout at some point in their career. So if this article teaches you one thing, it should be that you’re not an isolated case.

Treat yourself and others with care, and know that whatever is bringing you down at the moment, it’s s not your fault.

This article was written by Ari Joury and was originally published on Towards Data Science. You can read it here.

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