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strategies for coping with burnout?

hey there, I'm burned out. In the past I was really into programming, and "work" in general I worked like a mainiac, shipped stuff, launched on time, etc. For about 4 years straight.

Now I feel like I can barely be bothered to do anything remotely related to work. I come in late, leave early. I mostly surf the internet when I'm at work. It sucks. I feel unproductive and useless. At first I thought it was because my current project is boring, but then I realized my old projects weren't really any more "interesting." 

I'm lucky in the sense that I can barely do anything, and not really get fired, for institutional reasons. But, I don't really like spinning my wheels, and feeling like I'm just wasting time.  (and ultimately, someone will notice that I'm not really doing anything, but that won't be for a while). 

I'm thinking the best thing to do would be to just take a vacation ... for about 5 months. However, I don't just want to quit a project mid stream. I want to finish up as soon as possible, which means getting motivated to start working like a maniac (or at least, working like a reasonably motivated worker) again. I'm pretty sure if I was working at my normal pace, I could get this project to a state where I could pass it off and not feel guilty within about 4 months. At my current pace, earliest is a year, and potential for it to go on forever.

Anyone have any methods they use for getting over an extended slump? Should I just start snorting cocaine? Attending self-help seminars? Any suggestions are welcomed.

burnedout
Tuesday, December 10, 2002

To remotivate yourself in the short term, you might consider a nice 4-day weekend somewhere out of town.  Book a nice lodge near a lake, take some novels you've been meaning to get to, and LEAVE YOUR ELECTRONIC DEVICES AT HOME.  Ideally, said lodge should have no pager/cell access.  That should give you plenty of time for introspection so you can figure out what the hell to do next.  (=

Sam Gray
Tuesday, December 10, 2002

I agree.  A good remedy to burnout is absense or moderation.  Absence makes the heart grow fonder.  In my 10 years, I always cycled b/w obsessive learning curves and uninspired periods.

Bella
Tuesday, December 10, 2002

I wholeheartedly agree that a vacation is in order.

However, I have some other observations that may help if you can't do this right away.

1. The mind needs down time, real downtime.  Not watching TV, not surfing the net, not talking to friends.  Time that is not spent doing any particular task, just wandering and absorbing.

2. Time with friends that is not a gripe session can help.  Preferrably friends that are not in your field.

3. Healthy amounts of sleep always helps.

4. To a lesser degree, eating well and drinking more water also helps.

5. And of course some kind of exercise.

But I find that most people in life do not ever stop doing things and take a step back and just let their mind process life.  If you do that for awhile I think you will know how to proceed.

Scot
Tuesday, December 10, 2002

Tough to know what would work for you, but if you could swing it, some extended time unplugged (at least 3 months) followed by a change in specialty might do the trick.

Unplugged means limiting to only 1 hour a day online and not viewing anything programming related.  Change in specialty might be moving from in-house apps to horizontal market.  Apps to embedded.  GUI to server side, etc.  Maybe even becoming a DBA.

I have the same problem.  Nothing seems new anymore.  Most aspects of development are "been there, done that".

Good question, though.  What to do when you've got a good gig that just doesn't float the boat anymore...

Bill Carlson
Tuesday, December 10, 2002

> What to do when you've got a good gig that just doesn't float the boat anymore...

In my last contract, I started out doing pure sexy development.  I liked where I was, had excellent rapport with the client.  Once that project wound down, I decided to help maintain the existing systems as all other the staff bailed out to dot-coms stock options mirages.  I learned a LOT by maintaining code written by people with skills and vision far superior than mine.  I would never had guessed, but, in retrospect, I really enjoyed doing production support.  It was one of the few times where I really felt like a VALUABLE resource to the firm.  In my 10 years, I felt that most IT development was a waste of time , money, and effort.  By then, I had grown very tired of all the "hypeware", and my outside reading/research/practice had really dwindled.  (I was working long hours anyway)  It would resurge occassionally, but it never reached the intensity that I used to have.  Production support required little outside reading and research.  My raw tech skills again stopped growing after a while, but I actually enjoyed knocking off one issue after another, day in and day out.

Ultimately, for myriad reasons, I decided I did not want a long term career in IT, and have since left the field.  I have no regrets so far.

Bella
Tuesday, December 10, 2002

Nice topic burnedout!!!

I don't have any advice for you at this time just a few comments.

Your situation seems  to happen to a lot of us of who have been working in this industry for a while.  I believe burnout tends to happen more frequently to people in the following situations:

* Working too much.  Obsessively pursuing one activity at the detriment of everything else.  This situation is the most common complaint that I have heard and it seems to be what you are suffering from.

* A person finds themselves writing the same type of software applications and using the same technologies year after year. I suppose you could categorize this as boredom rather than burnout.

* Information overload.  For some people, overstimulation can cause everything to seem dull and uninteresting. 

one programmer's opinion
Tuesday, December 10, 2002

Consider learning a new programming language, one that might not even be relevant to what you've been doing on the job. It will force you to reexamine assumptions and stretch the knowledge you're already bored with. You will find new ways to approach the same problems, and have a novel new mode in which to think about solutions.

You can take the exploration even further beyond programming. Take up some other topic of interest to study, and perhaps use it as a new domain to practive writing software against. For instance, if you're burned out with financial applications, try studying astronomy and finding how software can aid in that study.

None of this necessarily helps with making you interested in your current job; it just makes you look busy while you're reading. To that end, the best hope is in discovering ways to weave the fruits of exploration back into your day-to-day work. If you can't find a connection, then at least you may have found a new hobby.

If the economy was way up, it would be easy to advise leaving a job that bores you. Right now, though, you would do better to hang on to what you have and set your sights on, say, a three year career-altering goal.

Steven E. Harris
Tuesday, December 10, 2002

Interesting comments.

I definetely have been writing the same app over and over for a while. I think this is how I am surviving at the moment.  I already know exactly how to do this project, because I've done a number of projects which are very similar. So, when I need to show results, I can just whip it together a couple days in advance.

I agree with Bill Carlson when he mentions that a change of application type might help. I'd like to get into embedded stuff, and currently do server-side stuff. I need to save up a bit more money though, because I think I'd have to lower my salary by a substantial percentage.

Bella's situation makes me a bit apprehensive. It doesn't seem like there is a "long term career" in tech at the engineering/programming level. I'm relatively young (28) but already feel like I maybe have only 6 years left before I need to get a new career entirely. I really have no desire to move into any type of software managerial role. Out of curiosity, Bella: what do you do now? 

I still am not sure how I am going to jump start myself so that I get back to my normal pace for the duration of this project. I might try getting up really early and hitting the gym, then really scheduling out what I am going to do during the day. I've found I'm really bad at time management; in the past I was just so into what I was doing, I really didn't need to schedule anything.

burnedout
Tuesday, December 10, 2002

I feel your pain...  I too am at a junction where I feel burned out by everything.  I'm not sure if taking a breather and relaxing will rejuvinate myself when I get back either.

First, you need to see if this is just a one-time thing, and that you'd still be interested in programming in the next few years.  It seems like you are since you stated that you'd like to move into other areas of development like embeeded and server-side stuff.  If so, then I'd recommend somehow getting through it all by turning it into a challenge.  For example, set a goal as soon as you get to work and see if you can accomplish the goal(s) you've set before you leave for the day.  I.e. "I want to finish this feature, and that, etc."  After you're done with the project, then like others have said, take a looooong and much deserved vacation.  Preferably somewhere cool and icy.  Well, personally, cold places tend to rejuvinate me quickly.

If after thinking it over, you think you won't still be interested doing the same thing over the next few years, then I would begin looking at my interests and pursing another career path.  Perhaps you could teach, etc.

HeyMacarana
Tuesday, December 10, 2002

What burned me out was the rapid knowledge that I've had to attain over the last 2 years. In the last two years I have learned:

C++, Java, Perl, Oracle, and now .NET, all as a contractor trying to deliver business solutions to 2 different customers in different fields both of which I have no experience in. Fortunately everything has gone well, but what I wouldn't give for a nice little 6 month VB6/Access task where I could 'veg out' and read a few novels instead of tech reference drivvle.
That would be the solution to the burnout I'm currently feeling.

I don't think your burned out, I think you are bored.
Pop yourself into a different culture/country for a few weeks, this usually works for me. Dance, try to pick up women (or men). Drink. Eat. Swim. Relax.

Alberto
Tuesday, December 10, 2002

Just resign. Looking for a new job will give you a whole different set of life experiences. Presumably you will get a new job, and then you will to learn a new environment, a new project and maybe a new technology.

Forget this holiday stuff. You would return just as bored.


Wednesday, December 11, 2002

I basically agree with the vacation idea, but I prefer something very intense but very different from work.


Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Totally agree with you and feel the pain you are feeling.

The situation is same here, however most of the suggestions given above don't seem to work for me.

I have tried the vacation but that didn't work.
I do get lot of new and exciting ideas (like developing / designing some web sites), but again I loose the interest in it in about a week.

I would suggest if it possible for you and if you have a completely different talent (like art, music etc) switch to that field. Forget computers...

;-( unfortunatly I cannot take that risk...

Satyakam Khadilkar
Wednesday, December 11, 2002

  "Now I feel like I can barely be bothered to do anything remotely related to work. I come in late, leave early. I mostly surf the internet when I'm at work. It sucks. I feel unproductive and useless"

If this also apply to your life outside work, it's called *depression*. It's a serious illness.

You need definitively a break and you need to consult a physician.

Robert Chevallier
Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Here are some simple facts that I just realized myself...

1. People who wait to be motivated will never be motivated.

2. The only one making your job seem boring is yourself, your own attitude, your own thinking.  You could take a vacation, but guess what, you'd come back with the same attitude and now you'd just be thinking "I wish I were still on vacation." 

Look at your situation now and think about what's good about it.  You're making money (not a lot of people are right now).  You're using your talents.  You're being challenged.  I don't know, you have to figure that out yourself.

  Now get back to work :)

Chris
Wednesday, December 11, 2002

I'm going to try to deal with my burnout by moving into a maintenance or admin role.  Maybe sales if another spot opens up.

strategery
Wednesday, December 11, 2002

"Here are some simple facts that I just realized myself...

1. People who wait to be motivated will never be motivated.

2. The only one making your job seem boring is yourself, your own attitude, your own thinking.  You could take a vacation, but guess what, you'd come back with the same attitude and now you'd just be thinking "I wish I were still on vacation.""

You can't be more wrong here. I suspect you never have passed through this stuff.

It's not about motivation. "Burning out" is only a small step before depression, and that can get real ugly, really soon. I know because I get "burned out" once, and let me tell you, it's like a permanent headache (and sometimes the headache was real).

Vacations are mandatory. Soon, today if possible. Don't get intimidated by your bosses, tell them politely that even if you stay at work you are not going to produce anything because you *can't*, not because you don't want to, and no effort (them our yours) is going to change that. You need one week away from anything that have a resemblance with your job.

Now go away! :-)

Leonardo Herrera
Wednesday, December 11, 2002

What has helped me in the past with the burnout feeling (in my job as well as in college times) is to reorganize myself. Mostly this means cleaning things up: redecorate or even refurnish my home or if possible, my workplace. Throw things away. Clean the things up that were always left lying around.

This is no guarantee for me to get over the bad times, but it helps me a lot to feel better. For one thing, I feel less useless or lazy when I reorganize something. I actually get the feeling to get things done (even if those are not the things I should get done in the first place.) The other positive effect is that I sometimes really become eager to start on my projects again after cleaning things up, since working in a neat, clean, newly decorated or better organized environment is just much more fun.

Taking some time of, either to travel or just to have time to relax and do some new things helps, too, but even in Germany vacation times are limited ;-)

Have fun,

Jutta Jordans
Wednesday, December 11, 2002

>You can't be more wrong here. I suspect you never have >passed through this stuff.

Actually, I did earlier this year.  I even hit depression that affected my entire outlook of life.  I tried vacationing, looked for other jobs, and went to counseling.  It wasn't until I realized that I had to personally change my attitude about what makes me happy that I was able to function again.

If it takes outside things like your job, your activities, or even your family and friends to really make you happy, then you're going to be dissappointed... a lot.  You have no control over those things, but you DO have control over your attitude and way of thinking.

I'm no psychologist, but this IS what worked for ME.  So I'm not wrong and I'm a lot happier than the original poster.

I'll stay here and you'll like it!  ;-)

Chris
Wednesday, December 11, 2002

I can also see where you're coming from and I just came back from a vacation.  I've discovered that more that anything I'm just bored with maintaining and producing the same software over and over again.  Typical requirement ...  'Let's get 1% higher read rate in the OCR software, and do it in half the time as the last 99.5%'  I don't know about your company but mismanagement is mostly responsible for my burnout.

What this tells me is that it's time for something new.  What I can't figure out, is whether that just means a new job or a whole new career, but while I'm waffling it's nice to have a paycheck. :-)

What do other people think about the software world?  Is mismanagement endemic, or is there a Shangri La out there somewhere, or have I just landed in hell twice?

Joel Redman
Wednesday, December 11, 2002

I'm glad I'm not the only one who feels this way. I'm only 32, but I've spent nearly 10 years busting my butt, working the long hours, managing developers, fighting the politics to get better development strategies in place, yada, yada, yada

Now...I have a dream job. I'm a consultant on a great project, using the latest technologies that is very close to home. I work no more than 40 hours a week. I'm still paid a "Internet Bubble" salary. In a nutshell, I have the perfect job. I'm very, very, very blessed.

But..but...I still don't feel like working. I'm tired of developing corporate apps, tired of deadlines no matter how easy they are. I get ashasmed of myself when I come in to work at 8:30, when just 2 years ago I was at my office by 6:00 AM. Every day, it's a battle just to stick around until 5:00.

I'm still young, but I've seen enough to make me wonder if I really want to be doing this forever. Unless I move back into management, my career could be doomed soon considering my age. However, I have absolutely *zippo* desire to go back to the 60 hour work-weeks and the pressure that managing developers entails.

<sigh>

But..hey, at least writing this was therapuetic. <g>

Another burned out programmer
Wednesday, December 11, 2002

I can identify with a lot of the burnout symptoms described in this thread, including coming in late/leaving early, not being excited by new technology, and coasting.

I've tried a number of things to get me excited about work again, such as: working on a different project, getting some sexy new hardware, getting an armful of tech books on the latest technology, taking a week off, going to a software development conference, learning a new programming language (ruby), changing my office etc. These techniques used to work great in the past, but now they all seem to have a short, up to week, improvement in my interest level then it fades away.

I have a friend who was in a similar situation. He was a developer, went the dotcom route, poured his heart and mind into the company and had it implode. He had no interest in software after this. He took a year off and took up photography and hunting. It was a rejuvenating experience for him. He had minimal contact with technology for about 6 months, then slowly became interested in it again. He found himself getting excited over .NET, and recently got a job as a tech lead using .NET in this tough economy.

I am planning to take a leave of absence this Spring. I think I need more than a week of vacation to really let my mind refresh and recharge itself. I plan on traveling, exploring some hobbies (new and old), and returning to work in the Fall. Joel himself follow a similar strategy. I remeber reading elsewhere on this site he works 5 years, then takes a year off. I've worked 7 years straight with no more than 2 weeks off at a time, perhaps its time for some balance.

Pedro
Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Here's a strategy that is helping me a lot right now, which you could try.

You mentioned that you would like to set up good habits and better scheduling. I have struggled with this, mostly by trying to do everything perfectly, all at once, and then getting dejected.

Then I read that, if you do something for 21 days in a row, it becomes a habit.

So I decided to pick one, and only one, good habit at a time. For example, the first habit was to get up as soon as the alarm rang every morning. No hitting the snooze button, no nothing. At that point I *had* to get up, brush my teeth, do a few getting-up-related actions - you see what I mean.

Other than that, aside from obvious responsibilities like showing up for work, paying the bills, etc - stuff that would hurt myself or others if neglected - I demanded NOTHING else from myself for the rest of the day.

When I say nothing, I really mean nothing. I was even allowed to go back to bed after I'd done a few actions to establish that I had gotten up. This may sound insane and self-defeating, but it's not.

That's because the object was not to train myself to get up, get dressed, eat a perfectly balanced breakfast, jog three miles, and then cycle to work and arrive on the dot of nine. It was simply, plainly, to train myself that the sound of an alarm was a signal to get up. Nothing more. And it worked. After a lifetime of crossing the room to shut off three separate alarms *without even waking up*, this was a huge breakthrough. So you have to decide whether a seemingly small goal is best broken down into several even smaller goals.

If you fall off the wagon during the 21 days, you have to start again.

After 21 consecutive days, you can give yourself a small reward such as a book or CD you've been wanting.

From then on, you will be firmer in your resolve to meet that goal every single day.

Give yourself a few days off between goals - during these days off, you still meet Goal 1, because it is now a habit.

Then, for the next 21 days, you decide on Goal 2, and success means meeting Goals 1 and 2 for 21 consecutive days.

Often, you'll find yourself itching to meet Goal 347 while you're still on Goal 3. Don't allow yourself to indulge in any Goal 347-related activities. By the time you finish Goal 346, you will have been itching to meet Goal 347 for so long that it will seem like a treat, and not the burden it was before you started all this.

I don't know if you're actually depressed, or if your problems are simply ordinary ups and downs. If the latter, you may find that this method helps you.

Best of luck.

Fernanda Stickpot
Wednesday, December 11, 2002


My "epiphany" was when I realized I was into my 3rd or 4th "technology shift" and it was all the same. I've seen RDBMS, OOP, Java/Web, etc and it's all the same, at least from a programming point of view.

I came to realize that, for me, coding is a fundamentally boring task. Some people get off on hammering out a really cool algorithm. That's not me. I want to build products that people want to buy and use.

You might say that all programmers want that, but that's not true. Talk to any random programmer and ask them what their favorite project was. Then ask them if it was successful. At least half the time they'll tell you it wasn't and, in many cases, they don't care.

All I'm saying is, perhaps you need a change in focus. Perhaps moving to become an architect where coding is less emphasized, or maybe a technical manager. Or maybe I'm totally off and you need to dump all your non-technical duties and "get back in the trenches".

I think a lot of my colleagues think I'm a little wierd because I don't really mind fighting fires and doing a lot of "non-technical" organizational work. It's true, I don't mind if it advances the project and I actually get a nice sense of accomplishmet from it that I don't always get from pure coding (which I still do).

Just my opinion.

Bruce Rennie
Wednesday, December 11, 2002

This has been a pretty good thread. I'd like to just get up and quit, and become a professional skateboarder. ;-) That seems like the ultimate solution. But, I actually have a good rapport with my superiors and want to maintain a positive relationship with them. They would be stuck if I just got up and left  (current project is pretty short-term and I need to get something out the door in about 8 months). Thus, I'm trying to "cope" with the burnout until I can get the project into a state where it can easily be handed off.

I wonder about what Robert Chevalier said regarding depression. I really haven't been doing much of anything outside of work. On weekends I just sleep in really late, etc. Maybe I should have that checked out. However, I'm not sure I buy into the idea that these conditions mean I have a physiologically defined medical condition - I felt fine up until about a year ago. I'll look into it. 

burnedout
Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Some very nice posts.

I got an email from a friend about an article explaingin how all the top companies are nothing more than sweatshops where people are made to work 80-110 hours a week, which translates to around $ 12 an hour!

This always works for me. Don't expect to get anything done or assume you will be productive. Then start working whenever you feel like, don't have any specific timeline. Also, go to the gym or play ball, make sure you really sweat it out.

Slowly you find that you are back into whatever you wanted to do.

Why would you want to be super productive and get the job done early? You want to be jobless? :-)

Prakash S
Wednesday, December 11, 2002

The other things that work for me is spending time with my nephew, who is 4 years old, explaing stuff to him, going to the zoo with him, etc.

try spending some time with a kid, it is a refreshing feeling.

Prakash S
Wednesday, December 11, 2002

let me add:

as long as the kid is not urs, and u not responsible for feeding him:-)

Prakash S
Wednesday, December 11, 2002

I have experienced burnout several times in my career.  I never had a problem with being bored though. Information overload, stress, and working too much have been the primary excuses I have used for feeling burned out.

Changing jobs has been the only solution that has worked for me so far.

I suppose a big reason why I go through these periods of feeling burnt out has to do with the fact that that I have never had a mentor or received training (outside of school) from any of my previous employers. Also, I don't have many computer geek friends that I can socialize with.  Most of my close friends are blue collar workers.

While I would love to have a less technical position right now, I don't see this happening.  The only possible career change path for many developers seems to be that of project manager.  I see nothing wrong with someone wanting to become a PM if that is what they truly want to do, however, I don't feel that I am well-suited or qualified for such a  position. Also, in this economy a PM job is probably less secure than mine.

I too can relate
Wednesday, December 11, 2002

I think every programmer suffers through this in varying degrees. There was a great thread on this topic on slashdot a while back - it's well worth a read:

http://slashdot.org/askslashdot/00/07/25/0329226.shtml

Me, I just wish programming involved rapelling out of helicopters, chasing down the bad guys on skis, and being allowed to blow things up. All in one day, of course. Every day.

Rob
Wednesday, December 11, 2002

"I don't know...every day, it's the same thing; rapelling out of helicopters, chasing down bad guys on skis, blowing things up.  I've been doing these things for ten years now, and it pays great, but I just can't motivate myself to get out there every day and do it.  Maybe I should take a vacation...."

;-)

Seriously, agreed with the recommendations to try a vacation.  It also might be worth visiting a psychologist (rather than a physician, though that might be a good idea too).  This wouldn't be a "Hi, doc, I'm crazy" visit; just a "Hi, I'm feeling depressed, can we talk about it for awhile?" visit.  I had a friend who did this; he went through a bout of fairly serious depression, and went to a therapist for a few months basically just to talk.  My friend spent almost all of the time talking, and it helped tremendously.  And the therapist can provide some invaluable insight.  Hint:  Your health insurance might cover it.

A vacation is also a good idea, though I'd personally recommend a *long* one...say, a week or two.  For me, a few days away is more of a distraction than anything else.  I spend a day or two getting used to the new place, then before I know it, I'm packing up and returning home.  Which is normally fine, but not when you're in the middle of this.

I'd also recommend that you try *several* radically different things.  A lot of people try to find another Perfect Career, while I think it's better to scan life for different possibilities.  If you've always been interested in playing the guitar, buy one and try to learn it.  And/or, if you've always wanted to read more, buy a bunch of books and dive in.

Another possibility:  Build up your savings for awhile (if you haven't already), so that you have enough to get by for quite awhile.  Then quit, and *purposefully* stay unemployed for a month or so.  This can be dangerous, as you can get used to the idea of being unproductive without consequences (and can impair your desire to job-hunt later), but I've read of folks who found that the best way to rest, recharge, and refocus.

See also:

http://c2.com/cgi/wiki/wiki?ProgrammersBurnout and links at the bottom of the page

Best of luck.

Brent P. Newhall
Thursday, December 12, 2002

Try sex !
Or try Rifle shooting for hours !

Let all that frustration out , have some booze then , sleep for 24 hours and come back to work ;-)

Geek
Friday, December 20, 2002

I to am burned out.  I've only been in the field a few years, but worked full time, went to school full time and am the Mother of two kids for the couple years preceding my entry into the field.  I've worked my way to Project Manager, but am still doing Programming duties as well.  I'm working 55-75 hours a week and thanks to the laws that exempt us from comp time/over time, I don't see any difference in pay.  I am ready to kill the people around me and spend more time staring at the wall fighting back tears than anything else.  I'm an inch from seeing a pyschiatrist and checking out on sick leave.

If anyone has any hints on how to work this hard, keep up with family and maintain sanity, I'd love to hear.  My boss tells me that I should feel privledged to have a job in this economy, therefore 16 months with this company, increases in responsibility, but no increases in pay.

Sherri Johnston
Thursday, June 26, 2003

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