You work hard 7 days a week, and you do your best to stay up to date with the latest industry trends. Inevitably you will become demoralized and demotivated and eventually suffer a partial or full-on collapse where all your progress comes to a grinding halt. After a period of time (days, weeks or months!) you get back on track and pick up where you left off, eventually leading to the inevitable burnout cycle where you end up back where you were. I’ve been through this cycle several times, and I’ve even blogged about it before, but now I have learnt the ultimate techniques to break the endless cycle and find a more maintainable work-life balance. Here are my 5 ultimate tips to avoid burnout.
- Watching training videos, doing some form of professional online training
- Freelance or other paid work for friends, family, or professionally
- Contributing to open source, or some form of unpaid work where you have responsibilities and deadlines
- Your day job
You probably can’t stop doing your day job, so you will want to give that the highest precedence. However, I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met in my life who “forget” to take paid leave (holiday days) on a regular basis. I’ve known people who still have 15 or more holiday days available in early December, and whom either lose those days or just take the money instead. You should ensure that you regularly take some time off from work, at least once a quarter, and actually have time to yourself or do something relaxing with close family and friends. If you’re doing online training on a regular basis, you shouldn’t stress about it. Don’t try and watch 12 hours of Pluralsight videos a 3x speed every night…stretch it out over a week or longer, you will absorb the information better and ultimately get more from the training than you probably will otherwise. Freelance or other paid work on top of your day job is a recipe for disaster. The stress of meeting additional deadlines, not being able to have face-to-face discussions with your client, and generally working 15 hours a day will rapidly accelerate burnout. Try not to take on freelance work if possible, or try and cap it at 1 project at any one time. The same goes for open source or otherwise unpaid work. Whilst typically not as stressful, the pressure of expectation can still sit on your shoulders, so try and keep it to a minimum.
Get a hobby
But software development is your hobby, right? For me that was certainly the case. I started programming as a hobbyist and eventually became a professional. Whilst I still consider software development to be a hobby, I enjoy it a lot, I’ve since broadened my interests and now consider myself to have several hobbies. Some ideas for new hobbies;
- Some form of physical exercise. It might be working out (see my post on how I got fit), walking, hiking, skiing, cycling, or anything you like! Exercise is excellent for stress relief and refocusing the mind. As well, exercising will lead to a healthier lifestyle and better sleep/eating patterns, which will lead to having more energy, which will contribute significantly to reducing burnout.
- Learn a new skill. I am in the process of teaching myself several new skills; DIY, plumbing, developing an understanding of the sciences (including Quantum theory, advanced mathematics, astronomy/planetary science), and more. But here is my killer advice; learn life skills. What I mean by life skills is this; if you learn how to, for example, put up a shelf…this is a life skill. The process of putting up a shelf is unlikely to change much. Screws, nails, hammers, etc are pretty constant things and probably won’t change much. In 10 years you will still know how to put up a shelf. That’s the common problem with our industry, the technology evolves so rapidly that 90% of what you learnt 5 years ago is irrelevant.
Whatever you decide to do, try and have at least one other hobby, ideally one that other people can get involved with too.
I didn’t start reading books on a regular basis until I was 25 years old. The first book I read, by choice and not because somebody was forcing me to, was The Hobbit. I loved the book and I was instantly hooked. If you want a good science fiction read, I highly recommend checking out The Martian, its awesome! I don’t limit myself to just fiction books though, I read a wide variety of books on subjects like; stock market investment, soft skills, autobiographies, and more. So why read? It’s simple, reading refocuses your mind on something different. Lets say you’ve been writing code all morning, and your stuck on a problem that you can’t fix. If at lunchtime, for example, you go away from your computer and read a book for 30-45 minutes, when you get back to your desk you will be mentally refreshed. And in the meantime, the problem you were having earlier in the day has been percolating away at the back of your mind and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come in and fixed a difficult problem within just a few minutes. Taking the time top step back and let your mind power down and focus on something else is a very useful technique for relaxing, de-stressing, and ultimately helping to prevent burnout. Try and read every day… you never know, you might even enjoy it.
Spend more time with immediate family, and friends
This is the ultimate technique for preventing burnout, spending time with close friends and family. Humans are very sociable beings, and benefit a lot from interacting with others. Being sociable with others can trigger your body to release one of four feel good chemicals; endorphins, oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine. This will result in a happiness boost, which will help reduce stress, and trigger a chain reaction where you are rewarded more the more you interact with others. Having strong relationships with work colleagues and also have other untended consequences, including faster career progression and priority when decision-makers are appointing people to interesting projects. Back to family. If you’re working all the time, you’re by definition spending less quality time with your significant other (wife, girlfriend, husband, etc). Spending more time with them will result in a better quality of life, happiness and reduced risk of burnout.
Record your progress
If you absolutely must ignore all the prior advice, then please take away the advice given in this last point. Record your progress. The most effective way I have found to stay motivated and ward off burnout is to effectively track you time and progress. Take your freelance project, or whatever you are working on, and break it down into a list of tasks. Then as you work your way through each task, record how long it took to complete that task and physically tick it, cross it out, or in some way indicate that the task is finished. Then at the end of each day or the end of each week, take the time out to review the list and see how much progress you have made during that period. Doing this methodically will help you remember that you are moving forward all the time and getting closer to your goals. Tracking your forward progress and getting closer to your end goal is the ultimate technique for avoiding burnout.
Following this advice will help restore your work-life balance by making your work time much more focused, giving your brain time to slow down to better absorb new information, and generally will make you happier in daily life thanks to the better relationships you will develop with others who are important to you. If you absolutely can’t follow the first 4 tips, make sure you at least record your progress so you can see yourself moving forward towards a goal over a period of time.
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Written by Jon Preece who lives and works in Manchester, North West England. You should follow him on Twitter.