Burning Out

Published at October 21, 2021, 04:49 GMT+0
A campfire, with the fire slowly becoming smaller which eventually will extinguish. Photo by Justin Chavanelle on Unsplash.
A campfire, with the fire slowly becoming smaller which eventually will extinguish. Photo by Justin Chavanelle on Unsplash .

Well, it's time. There were around 4 warnings this year and 1 warning last year where I felt the "burnout" slowly crept up on me. However, they were mostly just frustrations and I still had my motivation running (although I admit it was not as high as I usually had).

Recently, I felt very, very unmotivated. I turned on my personal laptop in the morning before my work hours, browsed Twitter, browsed YouTube, browsed Reddit, felt empty, then I went to sleep (again). It wasn't even "unproductive", I probably would classify it as counter-productive.

There were times where I felt frustrated and there were times I thought I was burned out. Now, I know the difference between these two. Or, at least I think I know.

Frustrations

Frustrations happen when you are feeling frustrated. Okay, that's not helping. I usually feel frustrated when things are not going the right way... or "my way". Sometimes, I am willing to let it go, some other times I am just too thick-headed and hold my ground. It mostly depends on the people I'm talking to. If they can present a convincing argument, then it's more likely that I'll shut myself up. If not... I will try to search on the internet and see if there are articles that present other perspectives.

I had a hard time with people who were arguing with pure emotions. I had a classmate back in my Master's degree days (let's say their name was X). One day, I asked in the group chat to share each of our works so we could criticize collectively. X took the "criticize" work to heart, saying that "discuss" would be more appropriate. While my choice of wording was not the best, I didn't get why it had to be such a big issue? I didn't even show aggressive behavior prior to that chat.

Later on, I had a conversation with X (by text). I wrote something along the lines of, "I mean, [the rest of my sentence]". X downright replied, "Yes, you are mean!" That was the starting line of me getting frustrated, because the "mean" word that I wrote as a verb was taken as an adjective for some reasons and it was used to gaslight me.

It didn't end there. For our final report, our group had already prepared a shared document so each of us can work on the assigned sections, but X suddenly came, created another shared document, and forced everyone to work on that document because X said it was hard to migrate their work to the existing shared document. The group work lasted until 3 AM where I immediately rushed home without saying goodbyes because I was already so angry at that time. I distanced myself from that person for the entirety of the semester, but at the end of the day, I could still function as a normal being. I could still go to other classes, I could still do my part-time work.

Burnout

Now, what about burnout? Based on my experience, I think burnout also includes frustrations. However, instead of "just" being frustrated, I couldn't really function normally. I always felt tired all the time, my eyes were very heavy and strained (I had to give eye drops often), and I just felt like I was on autopilot the whole day. Although this "symptom" was common to me when I was under heavy stress (e.g. family issues), I usually could recover in one or two days. However, I couldn't do the same for burnout.

During the first few days of the burnout, I didn't even have the energy to play games. It was so saddening because it was usually my ritual before and after work hours and I enjoyed these times a lot. It felt really weird, it was as if I was just an empty husk. I tried to force myself to continue my side project, but I just couldn't. My brain decided to say "no".

Thankfully, The International 10 Dota 2 Championship was there during the period so I was able to distract myself. Somehow, watching people compete at the highest level could bring my spirit back, slowly. By the end of the event, I was able to enjoy playing games a bit. By today (at the time of writing), the physical issues are mostly gone, although I still need to take frequent naps.

Possible causes?

For the record, I think I maintained quite good work-life balance. I started work at 9 AM, always took breaks (including lunch and naps), and stopped working at 6 PM/7 PM (could be earlier, depending on my tasks). Nothing was boring about the coding sessions, the stack was okay and there were a lot of challenging things to do. I was feeling productive when it came to "creating or fixing something".

Since excessive work hours were out of the window, probably it was something related to the energy I exerted. Some tasks were consuming a lot of energy, such as context switches and pull request (PR) reviews. I have this urge of reviewing all pull requests as quickly as I have to because I don't want to block others, but apparently, it taxes my energy too, so I need to be careful in the future. I also need to practice saying "no" and delegating more often.

Closing words

Burnout is not a nice thing to experience. Although burnout is sometimes (if not often) caused by work-life imbalance, other factors can also contribute to making it happen, such as unfit culture and excessive workload. There is a subtle but clear line between frustration and burnout. To prevent it, probably practicing mindfulness to sense the "danger" can be a good idea. Additionally, effective delegation and saying "no" are our best friends to maintain our sanity.

If you are a manager (or a role with similar responsibilities), don't forget to put yourselves in your team members' shoes. Try to see if there is a flaw in the team. If we don't admit there is a problem, we won't be able to fix it because we are actively denying it. Telling our team to "assume positive intent" doesn't help if they have been facing the problem for more than a year and they don't see noticeable improvements. What do they say again about toxic relationship?

That's all, I guess. I want to thank you for reading this unusual piece of my mind. Let me know if there are things that you disagree with, so I can perhaps revisit and update them. Stay safe and take care!


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