Developer Burnout Is Only A Matter Of Time Without A Plan

Developer burnout is no joke

I’m guessing you love learning about technology just like me.

Sure, working on software isn’t always learning – sometimes it’s solving problems.

But solving problems can be part of what’s fun about programming sometimes, right?

And you probably knew getting paid to write code wouldn’t be easy.

Unfortunately, you also have an enemy that you can’t even see:

Nobody will tell you when you’re going too hard

Every company says they have a “healthy work/life balance” during interviews.

No one in their right mind would take a job if the company said:

We push our developers until they break

And once your body adapts to it – you can get used to going all out.

Everybody does it, I’ll dial back when I’ve saved more money!

Is what I would tell myself.

And for many years, I put up with crazy demands to collect that paycheck.

But please – don’t kid yourself.

Working overtime, weekends, and having no life is not something you can do forever.

You won’t know you’ve hit a wall until it’s too late

This happened to me three years ago.

After pushing myself too hard to meet the demands of my project – I got hit with sudden chronic insomnia.

I couldn’t sleep more than 3 hours a night before I would suddenly wake up for no apparent reason.

Developer burnout had claimed ME as a victim!

It was so bad I had to quit my job at a consulting agency.

I went to doctors, sleep specialists, and everyone I could to try to figure out what was wrong.

Everything checked out fine –

…it was in my head.

Corporate culture can make “fight or flight” your body’s default

Many companies with software teams are managed by fear.

It’s not that managers are trying to scare you.

It’s that they are scared themselves.

Maybe the company isn’t sure the product will be profitable.

Or someone made a bad deal with a partner and now the team needs to get work done as fast as possible.

Even more possible, is that most of your coworkers have never even had a job in an environment with a sustainable pace before.

When frantic is “business as usual”, our bodies can become really messed up -…to the point where we find it impossible to just rest.

This is exactly why I couldn’t sleep.

Working in a state of panic is learned behavior

As a software consultant, I would often join new teams where everyone was constantly striving and scrambling.

Luckily I had a family, so I could only let people push me so hard.

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I took a lot of pride in my skills, and loved watching myself and others grow over our careers.

But being there for the people I care about mattered more to me than getting ahead.

Sometimes it feels like you have to decide between your health –

…or doing “what it takes” (by someone else’s standard!!!) to get ahead.

Sacrificing your health for career progress is only delaying a disaster

Even though I had a family and other obligations, I still was prone to losing sight of what’s most important.

I knew I shouldn’t let people walk all over me, and I could stand up pretty strong to people most of the time.

But I didn’t have a method for doing it. I wasn’t intentional about it.

And my parents raised me with some mixed signals that led me to believe my only value was in getting things done.

They didn’t do this on purpose.

It was a combination of how they were raised, and how I interpreted their parenting style. 

Setting boundaries doesn’t come naturally in modern society

Whether it’s binge watching a show on Netflix, eating huge meals, or buying the biggest TV you can fit through your door –

…you’re subconsciously being conditioned to ignore the need for restraint.

And this is so, so common among many of us in first world countries, we don’t even bat an eye at how it’s infiltrated every part of our lives.

I don’t want to see you suffer like I did!

So please, consider a few of these ways that you can set better boundaries in your career so you don’t experience developer burnout!

I’m sure some people will think I’m being too soft in today’s hustle culture – but after 24 years in this industry, I’d hope to offer you a longer term perspective.

5 Ways To Set Better Boundaries And Prevent Developer Burnout

  1. Have an accountability partner.

    I know, this might sound ridiculous.

    But especially if you don’t have a family, partner, or roommate –

    …there’s nothing stopping you from working late every night.

    Unless you have someone in your life that you know cares about your health (and will call you out if they see you working too hard!), you’re putting a lot of pressure on yourself to withstand the temptation to let others overextend you.

  2. Don’t rely on stimulants as a necessary means to work

    I know, caffeine is the most common thing in the world, but have you ever had a manager bark at you and noticed they had a big mug of coffee in their hand?

    It’s really hard to be patient and work with a clear head –

    …so you actually make good decisions about design and implementation when you’re jacked up.

    On top of this, caffeine can make it harder to be agile.

  3. Schedule activities outside working hours that can’t be missed.

    If you don’t have anything going on after work, you have no excuse to need to leave.

    We’d all like to think a boss would never force us to stay late so often that it becomes unhealthy, but this is the software industry

    …a LOT of money is often on the line.

    Making the right decision for employee health isn’t always the first priority of supervisors…

    Protect yourself by having real obligations outside work that force you to stop and refresh.

  4. Learn to set and reset expectations better.

    I only learned this through many years of practice and observation during consulting, and now I teach this to my coaching clients.

    One of the biggest problems I see even very experienced developers run into, is they have a hard time preventing themselves from being committed to unrealistic expectations.

    It’s tempting when being pressured by someone else to commit to work that’s unreasonable, but it sets a bad precedent that you’ll let yourself be someone’s doormat.

    And it’s just as important to learn to reset your commitments when things inevitably change on a software project.

    Instead the most common thing I see developers do: Agree to more than they can get done, complain that they can’t get it done in time, and fail to communicate a new path forward in a way gets them out of the commitment but keeps the confidence of their supervisor.

    Please get help if this is you.

  5. Take all the vacation offered to you.

    It’s common these days for companies to offer “unlimited vacation”, but the dirty secret is this often results in less vacation being taken by people.

    If you don’t plan regular opportunities to take a break, there are several things that make it easier to burnout:

    – you can have a hard time stopping yourself from thinking about work when you’re at home because you’ve been focused too long…-

    you won’t notice the contrast between your normal state of mind and how you feel when fully rested…

    – you miss out on the chance to have a “checkpoint” for how the current gig is going…

    I speak with far too many professionals who have been miserable in their job for years.

    They haven’t had a chance to really stop and realize “I hate this, why am I still here???“.

Thanks for reading this!

Stay a healthy software developer,

P.S. If you skimmed to the end (TLDR) here’s a summary:

  1. It’s up to you to protect yourself from being pushed too hard.

  2. Money won’t fix broken relationships (or all your health problems) if you experience developer burnout.

  3. Learning to set boundaries lets you sustain a pace of reasonable growth – so you can have a healthy software development career.