You need a life … system

I once made a reputation as the developer who fixed things. This was early in my career and everyone awarded me difficult—what I thought were fun—projects that often necessitated overtime because I was young and had everything to prove. I wore that work like a badge of honor.

But after years of long hours and late nights I grew disenchanted and often flirted with quitting my profession. I only survived because I realized that to build software systems, you need life systems—ones that protect you from the mistaken belief among the software community and its leadership that you get more work by pushing people.

What causes developer burnout?

The chief cause of developer burnout is a logical fallacy so pernicious it infects even the smartest coders: The idea that more is more. Managers think that more hours equal more output, even when a growing corpus of research shows that added effort degrades performance. In one study, managers couldn’t tell the difference between the total work accomplished by employees who had spent 50 hours and 80 hours per week. (Though we can all guess how the 80-hour people felt.)

In one study, managers couldn’t tell the difference between the total work accomplished by employees who had spent 50 hours and 80 hours per week.

Harvard Business Review

A manager doesn’t have to voice their belief in the cult of ‘more’ for it to infect their team: All they have to do is work late themselves. Employees dread becoming known as first to zip up their bag, so they sit tight, overstay their productive window, and accrue rest debt. Each day, they’re less rejuvenated and the debt compounds over weeks and months until it impacts your physical health. And this is to say nothing of developers who are put on call in case of technical issues.

Another cause of burnout is weak programming culture. If the company doesn’t impart strong habits in its junior developers, such as not hard coding variables or appreciating the future cost of present work, they sew technical debt everywhere they go. Eventually, they’re going to stay twice as late to fix those issues. And if the engineering leadership doesn’t protect the entire organization from the vicissitudes of businesses ‘needs’ (irrational deadlines, pressure to ship, wacky “I sold it now please build it” sales demands) the organization works itself into the ground trying to please an inconsolable deity.

I found that when I couldn’t change company culture, and I couldn’t influence management, I could at least protect myself with a six-pronged system.

How to defend against burnout

Stand your ground

Know what makes you productive and fight for it, for everyone’s good. A productive you is a productive development team. Push back on deadlines and exuberant managerial optimism, and respond to impossible requests by offering several realistic options. Ask your manager to clarify their policies around when the work day ends and when it does, leave. Managers, set an example by leaving on time yourself.

Sleep on it

The effects of sleep deprivation are stranger than fiction: Memory loss, loss of creativity, inability to regulate your emotions, and an increased chance of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. “You may be thinking you’re part of the population who can get by on less than eight hours,” wrote Matthew Walker, Ph.D., in his seminal work Why We Sleep, but he calculates that the odds are less than 1% and that in nearly all cases, “the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life.” Also, the worse you code.

To optimize your sleep:

  • Limit caffeine after 2pm (it has a half life of 5-6 hours)
  • Get exercise, but not within two hours of bedtime
  • Reduce blue light (Mac users, turn on night shift, Windows users, night light)
  • Lower the temperature in your bedroom (65 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal)
  • Install blackout curtains or use an eye mask
  • Set an alarm to go to sleep, not to wake
  • Avoid drinking water right before bedtime
  • Use a noise machine

Spend 20% of your time learning

You started programming because you thought it was fun. Then it became a job. Rediscover that spark. Try new libraries, freelance, contribute to open source, and venture beyond your comfort zone. “Dedicating 20% of your time for goofing around with technology is one of the most effective strategies for avoiding burnout,” Karolis Ramanauskas wrote in a Medium article.

Clear your space for focus

Block social media sites on your browser. Find an ergonomic chair and a monitor, if you don’t have one. Some days, work remote, just to switch it up. If your boss doesn’t allow remote work, tell them Google says it’s okay.

Every day, invite someone to grab coffee

Misery loves company, perhaps because company reduces misery. People who find a best friend at work are seven times more likely to be engaged in their job, reports Gallup. “The workplace, where we spend such a large portion of our time, is an ideal place to foster the positive connections we all need,” writes Emma Seppälä, Ph.D and author of The Happiness Track.

Get exercise

Become a crossfit person. Take up aerial silks. Swim. Or simply take the stairs at work. Just get out and move your body and remember that there’s a lot out there beyond the monitor. Finding a slice of life and bringing it back to the office with you helps you, it helps your team, and it helps your software—a whole lot more than grinding hard and burning out.