I'm the guy who had been burning way earlier it became trending.
One day I almost dropped the profession and ruined all that I had. Fortunately, just like the phoenix rising from its own ashes, I've managed to come back.
More than 4 years have passed since I, was at the bottom. But I still experience flashbacks of those times.
Now, when I'm luckily feeling almost fine almost all the time, I can provide a retrospective view of what was happening to me during these years and better understand the reasons and the origins in order to avoid it in the future.
How Does Burnout Feel
It seems like the brain mechanism of rewards and penalties, based on hormones is broken.
Perhaps it is a lack of dopamine or serotonin or too much cortisol is released. Probably happiness-related hormone receptors' sensitivity is too low. I have no idea.
As the result, you are too exposed to stress and hardly ever feel rewarded and satisfied. It feels like a grayscale of a palette of feelings. You do not usually feel happy even when you have reasons for that. You are just indifferent to what is going on.
Infinite Loop of Self-Searching And Anxiety
It works like your brain feels that something is wrong and it turns on some kind of analytical tool for self-diagnostics.
This analytical tool is rather straightforward. It utilizes dumb brute force to find out the reasons for the incorrect state, iterating over all negative inputs surrounding you.
Bad news, possible failures, and any other possible sources of anxiety and stress are enumerated one after another.
It can also generate an enormous number of imaginary sources of possible failures as a bonus just for consideration. Some of them can be real black swans, with very low probability and devastating after-effects.
Paradoxically, the tool does not conform to any rational sense. You may consider all its inputs, sources, and reasons to be non-essential, but the tool won't just turn off.
It just continues iterating over and over again, increasing your rate of anxiety, stress, and depressing state.
Sometimes the tool focuses on your recent failures, keeping playing them in mind, making you feel more and more miserable. It just seizes your mind and attention ruining you from the inside.
Losing The Ability to Get Things Done
That analytical while-true loop running on your background thread turns out to be battery hungry.
It can completely drain your battery turning you into a squeezed lemon without leaving any chance to resist it. It consumes a special kind of energy: the power of getting things done.
When you are exhausted you cannot do even very simple things. Even if they are as simple as throwing an empty can of coke into a rubbish bin or answering your friend's message.
You feel like a garbage dump with a list of tasks hanging over you.
Facing Self-Harm and Destruction
Self-destruction is something you begin to deal with.
It's driven by two aspects:
1) Feeling of being under a garbage dump
2) Grayscale of a palette of feelings
What the heck is being under a Garbage dump?
Imagine that you've got a laptop, with a hard drive full of rubbish: outdated docs, some random downloaded files from the internet, screenshots mixed with other crap lying in the desktop dir.
The problem is that it is mixed with a lot of useful and important files and data, but the whole volume is so large and the amount of files is so huge that there is no chance to clean it up manually.
Though 80% of critical files, like your most recent projects, are backed up, there is probably 20% that may be useful in the future, but are not backed up anywhere.
And now imagine, that you are so tired of all this baggage of bullshit, that the only thing you want is to wipe it out.
Wipe it out and start from scratch. You are that laptop.
Destruction-driven coloring book
Self-destruction may sometimes add some colors to the palette of feelings allowing you to feel alive.
There are a lot of possible abusive options with destructive effects. Alcohol, hard parties, super-hard crunch-driven work, crushing ways of doing sports, and even total destruction of aspects of your own life. I suppose it may be even physical harm in some extreme cases.
That's what you are to deal with.
How Is It Related to Work?
Work is so tightly-coupled to our life, that it can be hardly considered separately. It has a strong effect on our life, our happiness rate, and even our mental health.
Vise-versa is also true. The connection between work and life is bi-directional.
What I call "burnout" is a kind of depression caused by work and work under conditions of depression.
Why Software Engineers Are Exposed to Burnout
Developer's or similar IT-related jobs have several "features".
Interesting. It may happen to be so interesting and engaging that it may work like a burning time machine. You can easily spend too much time on it without any notice and get over-exhausted.
Requires concentration. Dealing with complex abstract constructions in your mind requires a lot of concentration to keep yourself undistracted. Otherwise, the whole construction collapses and you have to start from the beginning. That's hard and exhausting as if you are working physically and moving heavy weights.
Painful. It may happen to be incredibly painful to deal with a huge old legacy codebase written by somebody before, that crashes every now and then. While every update causes more and more errors. It's very close to a true physical suffering.
Stressful. Responsibility and endless run caused by tough deadlines. Everlasting distractions, requests, urgent tasks, and questions.
It seems like this kind of job is exposed to burnout. You just work hard, work and work, and then you burn.
How does burnout affect a developer's workability?
You are suffering and it's getting harder and harder to concentrate and produce a single line of code. It's getting harder to concentrate and solve tasks. Because of this, you start to suffer even more.
The suffering is becoming overwhelming and starts to affect other aspects of your life.
The last stop is when you get fed up with your job and quit.
What Has Led Me to a Burnout
My assumption is that depression doesn't happen by itself. One should have some predisposition that must be triggered by other circumstances.
I've tried to figure out the origins and remember times when I was not experiencing any kind of depression signs. I've tried to remember and make up a timeline for almost the last 10 years with all possible triggers.
My Burnout Timeline Overview
Studies — Epoch 0
Nothing special. Almost no fire, except some light early signs of a quarter-life crisis.
When studying at university, I got interested in finance and financial markets. Started carrying out some research on financial data, learned to code, and started developing automated trading algorithms and even deploying them on real money. Not significant amounts of money, but significant sums for me as a student. So anyway that was sometimes very stressful.
Furthermore, my faculty of Math, Mechanics, and CS has also been a rather challenging and stressful thing by itself.
Work and Study — Epoch 1
I've started crunching since the very first job in my life. I was working as an iOS developer approximately from 11 am till 8 pm. At night I was working on an automated trading framework, data analysis, and algorithmic trading strategies.
I combined all this with my studies as I was a CS master's degree student. Frankly, I don't remember if I had any days off at that time.
Harry Potter: the Junior Burnout Developer and Crunch-driven methodologies.
It took me about two years to burn completely. Probably the first time when I got to the office in the morning with a feeling as if the brain has a very high latency connection with the outer body.
Along with crunching, I was having extra frustrating triggers that were driving me to the edge:
Summarizing the overall low standard of living in almost all Russian cities and me being a junior-middle dev, I was having rather a low salary.
It's rather unpleasant that an ordinary guy with the same developer's skills who is doing the same work but living 3000 km from you in some European country earns 10 times more.
Add to this crazy Russian president politics that crashed the Rubble at the end of 2014 by 50%
It was very frustrating and a real pain to watch how years of hard studies, work, money savings and all your future plans and dreams disappear during several months.
The algorithmic trading side project was EXTREMELY stressful those days
My account daily volatility was comparable to my monthly salary as an iOS dev at the beginning of 2014. I was splitting myself between my daily job and my side project.
Was the side project successful? From time to time. The problem is that you never know if your trading algorithm is succeeding or not. Any algorithm can easily earn money for several months or even years and then give all the profit back to the market or even bring some losses. So you can never rely on your current profits and that's the problem.
The only way out is to constantly blade run by carrying out research and developing new algorithms, keeping track, and throwing away broken ones. That's a super hard-level rat race.
I got fed up with all the same projects in the same company. I got fed up with the crazy bullshit-driven management ideas of a new team lead. I got fed up with the shitty legacy Obj-C codebase. I got fed up with constantly crashing Xcode.
Almost certainly I should have taken a 2-weeks vacation and then find another iOS dev job.
Burnout, Jump to a New Job With Wrong Expectations, Destroy Everything, Dive on the Bottom — Epoch 2
I didn't. Suddenly I jumped into a new position of a data scientist/engineer at a local startup. Trying to be reasonable and thinking that it will improve my data analysis skills and boost my side project. I remember how optimistic and full of new hopes I was at the beginning. I was literally shining.
Unfortunately, the peak of expectations about my new job was moving rather fast to the bottom of disappointment and frustration.
Not surprisingly, but the salary was not growing as promised by the employer, and tasks were not as interesting as presented in the initial interview. Everything was turning very fast to be the opposite of I had expected.
I don't think it was intentional from the employer's side. Shit just happens. I was starting to feel that shit was just happening to me at that time.
One-half of all interesting tasks were done by our team while the remaining tasks were outsourced. Everyday routine and set of tasks turned to be so silly that I had no more doubt: after spending any significant time on it, it would be impossible to make any real value out of that skill.
Trying to take my mind off all this, I've turned the party-hard machine on and no single fireman in the world could have extinguished my sole fire by the autumn of 2015. And it made all the things even worse.
I started to hate my job so much that I was ready to do anything instead of it. I had a mood like to quit the office right now and never come back.
Gradually I've found a way to quit it.
Black Light (No Light at All)
Rather unexpectedly, my friend and I came across an idea to rent a tiny place in a local mall and sell water, served in 19-litre bottles there.
How it happened and was going on, deserves a separate post. Now let's assume that it was just a coincidence
That was obviously not the most promising idea on the market but burnout-driven false reasonability and biased thinking were playing against me.
- I was having a full-time working day at the office as a data engineer/scientist/analyst/satanist
- Then 2-3 hours of selling water in the mall. Saturday and Sunday (12 + 12 hours) were mines while the rest of the time was taken by my friend.
- The mall had a rule of 12 hours working day o_O. That was the hell. Those days my burn-out rate took off and grew exponentially.
- It was not just tiredness. That was extreme exhaustion mixed with endless hopelessness without any way to stop it.
- I've also added some extra alcohol here as well. Just to feel "better"
- I've managed to hold out for about 2-3 months keeping to that schedule.
The last sign for me was when I got a vessel bursting heavily in my eye.
That was a sign that something was to be changed right at the moment.
It's always not so bad that it can't be worse. I found a way to make it worse and I dropped my IT job.
Now, when I tell that story, I always joke about it as if it was a funny experience. Frankly, it was not.
Sometimes it was bringing lulz to me and my buddy business partner, but that was more like the laughter of despair.
The only question I have now is: "What the f@ck it could happen?"
The only explanation I have is that I've managed to successfully reach the peak of the greatest burnout at my daily job and started ruining everything I had.
I remember those times. If you list signs of deep depression from the wiki I would have spotted them all at that moment.
The Mall Therapy
It's hard to describe the level of bullshit my friend and I were carrying out those days.
The mall itself was rather crappy, even without any food court except a couple of junk-food cafes. Irrespective of this, there were a dozen of rules that could lead to a penalty in case of violation, according to our legal agreement with them.
Timing. Working hours: from 10 am till 10 pm. Any goods could be accepted only outside of working hours.
The supplier was always late to arrive before 10 am. That's why the securities didn't allow us to accept it without the mall manager's permission. The mall manager didn't give permission without a handwritten application. The mall manager was usually away.
Almost every time it was a conflict with the manager, securities, driver, and supplier.
Movers. Supplier drivers were usually against being movers. So, we had to carry out most of the unloading ourselves.
Facilities. The main entrance could be used before 10 am and was a comfortable way for accepting goods. We could easily use carts to move the bottles from the supplier's truck to our place.
After 10 am we could only use the backdoor. There were stairs, doorsteps, and other things that didn't allow us to fully use carts and move the bottles from the truck to the place easily.
Truck of water. The full truck is about 60 bottles, 19 liters each, so it's about 1200 kilos.
1200 fucking kilos that you have to unload from the truck and move to a fucking point of sales through the half of the mall.
Timing. A truck of water arrived every two or three days. 1200 fucking kilos every 2 or 3 days.
Other activities. You are not just sitting still for 12 hours. You also perform water delivery among the shops inside the mall. Perfect anti-hyponymy activity.
The mall therapy is a super-realistic simulator of the bottom of life that you will never forget.
I don't wanna seem to be too snobbish, but switching from a developer's more or less well-paid job to some shitty mall on the outskirts of the city is a total game changer.
When working in IT, it's very likely that you are surrounded by well-educated and curious intellectuals. Most people who were working in that mall were deadly poor-paid with an average daily wage of 12-20$.
Securities, watchmen, other salesmen, cleaners, wipers - almost everybody and everything looked very shabby there.
One of the downsides is that you also become one of those miserable guys.
I was so shy when I met one of my former colleagues, with whom we'd been studying at university together. The air was so tense that I've manage to feel how shocked he was.
The Mall Therapy Results
The mall therapy started in September and was very disruptive and drove me to an edge at the very beginning. It finished only on the 1st of April and it allowed me to fall in love with IT again.
By the end of the way, we've managed to partially escape from the mall by hiring one and then two salesmen, switching each other. Sometimes they dropped out, returning us back to the mall.
In fact, we hired them as soon as we could afford it. Anyway, the tiny sales point was bringing almost no money.
My finance dropped dramatically in those days. Though I've managed to cut my expenses by two-thirds, I've exhausted all my savings and started to get money out of my algorithmic-trading project.
Nevertheless, I was coding just for pleasure during all those months. Improved something in my algorithmic-trading project, participated in data science contests and coded iOS app prototypes. I was playing with code, just like children play with toys.
I started to miss IT and passionately wished to come back.
Shortly after the end of the mall therapy, I started a new job at HFT investment fund, fell in love with my current GF, and felt happy.
Work Overtime — Epoch 3
New Challenges, New Fires
During this epoch that lasted for almost a year, I've managed to burn out only once. I happened when I was responsible for the development of a market-making algorithm for one of the securities at Moex.
How naive I was to think that development would be hard. Maintenance is what I should have been really aware of.
The algorithm's working hours were from 10 am till 12 pm. During that time, the only thing to do was to check logs from time to time, making sure that nothing critical was happening. In fact, it was time to sleep.
From 12 pm till 10 am was the time for research and coding improvements. Yes, night.
One month of the initial development of the algorithm and one month of maintenance were enough to realize that, first of all, there were betters ways to live, and secondly, there were definitely better places to work for.
This time, the fire was extinguished very fast by going on vacation.
Anyway, I was planning to quit because that bullshit workflow was not designed for a human being.
The only thing I was not sure was the exact timing. Luckily, the company was having difficulties at that very time and was cutting down its employees, so the quit was easy.
I still remember how happy I was on the last day. It was spring, the weather was so sunny, I was having a walk with my lovely GF in the center of my home city and felt like the happiest guy in the hood.
Freelance, Recover — Epoch 4
My Fire is My Own Responsibility
Since I started freelancing I've got almost burned only once when I was working on three projects simultaneously and eventually I've managed to finish all the work and go on vacation on time.
Seems like the fire is under control. Now when I get dangerously tired I manage to spot it in advance and calm down.
Never Make Decisions When You Are Burned
As I've already told you, decisions, made in a burned state may seem very reasonable, while being biased and not reasonable at all. It's very easy to mess your life up when you are desperately tired of everything.
My Burnout Resistance Tips
I've managed to work out rather straightforward but essential rules that I always try to follow:
- One project at a time
- At least 1-2 forced days-off weekly
- Forced-limited daily working hours,
- Ban for night working hours
- Reliable financial management strategy that allows not to care much about money
- Forced 1-2 weeks vacations 2-3 times a year with rebooting travels
- Stick-and-carrot-based self-praise strategy that keeps me motivated, rewarded, and satisfied.
- Regular walks
- Regularly doing sports (in progress, but not done yet)
Following them, I'm able to work hard, sometimes too hard, carry out all the responsibility, uncertainty, and stress of freelance and even love my job most of the time.
Though a significant amount of time I feel rather tired due to hard work mainly, that's rather controllable. I'm able to get fully restored on the weekends and during vacations.
One more thing. It's very important to balance aspects of life: work, relations, relatives, friends, sports, etc. It's really essential not to let life get skewed by one of its aspects.
Does Burnout Exist?
One of the popular opinions is that burnout does not really exist.
I believe it to be very mindset, lifestyle, and habits specifically. The way you approach your work really matters. Either you work irregularly but hard or regularly and gently.
That's why somebody hardly ever gets burned and somebody does.
There is one thing I'm sure about. If burnout was more widely discussed 4-5 years ago, I wouldn't have likely gotten into the situation above.
On the one hand, I wish I haven't. On another hand, now I know how far it can all get.