Most developers have tasted the adrenaline fueled excitement of jamming acts of coding magic into incredibly tight deadlines. It can be exhilerating to test your skills under pressure and come out the other side proud of what you’ve managed to pull off. But unfortunately, what starts as a big push to meet a deadline or satisfy a customer can often turn into a Battan death march of one unreasonable deadline after another. All to often developers tend to sacrifice family or social lives to meet these goals only to find that instead of crossing a finish line we just passed another starting gate. Do this long enough and you reach burnout, a deep black state of mind where no customer issue is important anymore and no deadline really matters.
As a developer the signs of burnout aren’t often easy to see. When working long hours, weekends, and having no social life become the norm you don’t always realize that you’re missing out. And if everybody in your team is doing the same thing, then you certainly don’t want to be the Prima Donna who complains, right? In fact, it’s often the people outside our work lives who clue us in that somethings wrong. Spouses, friends, and relatives usually see the signs before we do but they don’t always know how to tell us and let’s be honest, we don’t always listen.
Eventually though, we start to get clued into the fact that something is fundamentally wrong here. Not with us of course, but with those idiots in management who keep giving us crazy deadlines. Or with the other members of your team who if they only pulled their own weight, you could take a day off once in a while. The cause is almost never seen as coming from us, we are simply reacting to outside forces. This I’m sorry to say is mostly bull.
After working for six weeks straight without a single day off, including Saturday and Sunday, I received a warning from a colleague. “Eventually”, he said, “there will be be nothing the company can do to compensate you enough to keep you happy”. What he was speaking of specifically is that at some point, I’m going to look back and feel that no promotion or bonus was worth the long hours and time away from family I was going through, and then I would have no choice but to quit. Quit caring about my project, quit pushing to be a better developer, and eventually just quit my job outright.
Quitting is the ultimate cost of burnout.
As a manager I’ve also seen the high cost of burnout, not in myself but in suddenly having to deal with a project where a key resource has flamed out and walked off. In some cases, this happens with the resources we most depend on because they are the ones who most often willing to accept the ever tightening deadlines or ever increasing scope. They don’t cry out for help when they should and we don’t notice the stress fractures until it’s too late.
So how do you avoid burnout in the face of impossible deadlines and crushing management pressure? Here are a few tips…
- Make a schedule and stick to it. A big part of burnout is caused by the feeling of pressure with all of the things we have to do in a day shuffing through your brain and bouncing off the walls. Just write them down as they come to you and then schedule specific times of the day for each category or task. Doing this, you’ll find that those random thoughts don’t cause the sensation of pressure they once did because you now have a place to put them. Even if the end result is merely confirmation of the fact that you don’t have enough hours in the day, you at least are able to know what will fit and what won’t.
- Schedule in time for a life. Take the time you need to keep the rest of your life working. If you like movies, schedule in a weekly movie trip. If, like me, you are married schedule in time where you can focus on just being with your spouse. These things are important and deserve the attention of a dedicated spot in your schedule.
- Say NO. When you feel the symptoms of burnout coming on it’s time to start saying no. This is of course easier to do when you have a schedule that you can look at that shows you have no open slots for additional work.
- For Manager: Watch out for signs of burnout. Are your employees frustrated or resigned. Have they lost focus? These can all be signs of burnout. Remember, it’s almost always easier to avoid burnout than it is to deal with it after the fact.