Burnout Diaries Part 1 - Burnout Stole my Love of Coding

Burnout Diaries Part 1 - Burnout Stole my Love of Coding

This is the first part in a series of blog posts on my experience with burnout and my long march back to recovery. I hope by sharing my own experiences, I can help others perhaps going through similar situations. I also hope that it can deter others from making some of these same mistakes.

These will be length, as there’s a fair amount to cover. I’ll try to keep them concise, but it’s a period of my life that spans a few years in total.

I’ve written versions of this post several times, and either deleted it, or didn’t publish it. The fact I keep writing it though, suggests I want, if not need to share it.

It’s been around three years since I realised I’d completely lost control over my life. When people started talking about burnout, I assumed it was just the latest imagined, silicon valley first-world problem that seeped its way into the tech psyche. The story of how I got burn out is fairly long. But to summarise, it involves temporary pay cuts due to covid, debts, and the need to save money for future plans. That doesn’t entirely cover it, but it’s probably the key themes.

I say the reason was largely financial, but an element of this was wanting to prove myself. In previous posts I’ve talked about my time at school with undiagnosed ADHD. I was often called ‘lazy’ by teachers. They would lament to my parents that I had so much potential, but just couldn’t apply myself. I was called things by teachers that would likely get them in hot water by todays standards. I had years of this, so a part of me, although I didn’t conciously realise this at the time I don’t think, wanted to prove to the world just how hard I could push myself. I wanted the heroics, I wanted the suffering and sleepless nights I saw in TV programs and films about misunderstood genius programmers achieving immense feats. I wanted my own story. So finances were a convenient surface level justification, but ego was probably at the wheel.

It doesn’t help that my ability to manage my own finances was atrocious back then (thanks ADHD), I often found myself in debt and had no savings. I had done bits and pieces of freelance work here and there, but nothing life-changing in terms of money. One by one, during lock-down, I kept accruing new freelance jobs outside of my day job. I was pretty candid with my bosses at the time that I did the odd job here and there, and assured them it was nothing big enough to impact my performance at work. I stretched that truth to the extreme. Not out of disrespect to my bosses, they were great, honestly. And more patient with me than perhaps they should have been at times. My excuse was, outside of work was my own time, no one at work had the right to tell me what I could do with my own time. Essentially, it’s noones business, so long as there was no obvious conflict of interest, what’s the harm?

The long, uncertain months of covid passed and I racked up a total of three contract jobs (how some of those arose were funny stories in themselves). Some were sporadic, I’d write a few things here and there, fix a few bugs, implement a couple of features without a lot of pressure. But the other two were often intense, to say the least. One in particular was highly time sensitive as the product itself was related to covid.

Not long before this, I’d started an MSc in Computer Science. The first few modules felt easy, but the pace was tricky. However, because I already had prior knowledge, I was able to skip certain sections and rely on what I already knew. I assumed every module would be more or less like this (it absolutely wasn’t).

So there I was with a full time job, three freelance gigs and a masters. I was working around the clock at this point, and for a while it was completely fine. I was prioritising between the jobs, everyone was happy and I’d never felt so productive in my life. Above all, it wasn’t affecting my day job at that point.

I should clarify, this wasn’t ‘overworking’ that you often hear about. I was honest with each of my clients and my day job that I was working on other projects. I also didn’t use company time to work on freelance projects as a matter of principle. I don’t have to offer that disclaimer, as I left that role years ago, but I feel it’s important to clarify that I wasn’t defrauding or lying to anyone in the process. Which is just about the only thing I can say I did right during that time.

After several months of working 14, 15, 16 hour days, before cramming in four or five hours of sleep, I started to suspect that maybe this wasn’t sustainable. I was often waking up in a terrible mood, I was going to bed and not falling asleep because my brain was still running at max capacity. I would lie in bed, anxious and wide awake, whilst feeling completely exhausted. I wasn’t nice to be around, and I thank my partner for putting up with me. I had a constant sense of dread, and low-level panic.

I started to slip on deadlines, I started to make ridiculous mistakes, I spent stretches of time completely zoned out, just staring at my desk, head buzzing so much, that I wouldn’t have been surprised if the buzzing was actually audible to others. I felt weak and my eye lids (for some reason) would spasm almost constantly throughout the day.

Eventually, after over a year of this, I knew I had to change things. One contract came to an end, and not a particularly glorious end. I felt like a hinderance, and I could sense their frustrations with me. One job just fizzled out, likely because I’d barely done anything for several weeks, just because he seemed the least in a rush compared with the other two. So now I was down to one, and that one I kept working for for another couple of years without any major issues, even full time for a while and I loved it. I was still scraping by with my MSc, but I wasn’t getting anywhere near the grades I should have been.

Even though I managed to cut down some of the commitments, I didn’t fully breathe a sigh of relief until the freelance gigs were down to zero, and my MSc ended. After that last exam ended, I was hit with the realisation that my free time was mine again, and that sense of relief hit me hard. It wasn’t until that point, that I started to recover, properly.

It’s taken a long, long time to restore my mental and physical health back to somewhere even close to where it was prior to this period. That’s going to be a long road still. I was working flat out, for a couple of years in total, then very slowly winding down for a year or so after that. I’m only now starting to understand the affect it had on me mentally.

First of all, the period where I felt useless, and kept making silly mistakes over and over again, made me feel like a completely useless programmer. I never doubted myself before that period, but afterwards, I completely lost faith in my own abilities. I wasn’t making mistakes because I was bad at this, I’d had a great career before that. I was making mistakes because I was completely out of mental energy, I couldn’t concerntrate deeply on anything anymore. It’s like my brain put a cap on my mental capacity, that it’s only just starting to lift again. I often wonder if that’s actually a feature of the brain. Some form of rate-limiting.

Secondly, I seemed to lose my love of coding entirely. It’s as though I learnt to associate coding with stress and anxiety. I used to code for hours just for the fun of it, I used to have big ideas I wanted to build. Of course, I’d get bored before I ever completed any of them. But completing them was never really the point. It was the enjoyment of learning new technologies and skills that I loved.

When I finally got into a position of having a normal day job, with normal hours, and hung up my freelance boots, I found myself never wanting to touch code outside of work. For a long time, I could barely bring myself to write any code, in or outside of work. Inside of work, I didn’t trust myself to do a good job, I would second guess myself, and I would freeze up with uncertainty.

It wasn’t until I got back into the position of having a normal day job, and nothing else, where some of the joy started to return again. And even then, it felt like a battle to get up-to-speed in a new role. I never used to struggle with that, I was often commended on how quickly I got to grips with the new codebases. My current job was a little rockier to start with, and it took a lot of perserverance. But I’m finding my feet again now, and I’m starting to enjoy my line of work again, and I’m starting to gain back some confidence in my own abilities again. But it’s been a long, long journey. And it didn’t really happen until I simplified my life to what it is now.

I used to code for fun outside of work, I loved it. Learning the latest languages, frameworks, anything I could get my hands on. I was brimming with ideas and always had some project on the go. I can’t seem to sustain that effort outside of work any more. I don’t know if that was burnout or just age. Perhaps it’s not a bad thing, I took something I enjoyed to the extreme and almost ruined it entirely. Perhaps this is my subconcious telling me to slow down, and to know when to switch off. It’s slightly jarring, because most of my career was built on skills I learnt in my own time. I worry that some day the inevitable crashing waves of new technologies will leave me behind.

I’m not sure if there’s a moral to this story. I’m not telling you to never do freelance work, because sometimes it’s valuable, and it can be done sustainably. But pace yourself, don’t let the pursuit of mastery end up almost taking it away from you instead. We’re bombarded with Social Media hustle culture. You have to work harder than everyone else, you have to be the best, you have to be the first to arrive, the last to leave, etc, etc. That’s all fine until you run out of steam. And sure, maybe you’ve made a bunch of money. But what use is having that money if you either don’t have time to enjoy it, or don’t have the will to enjoy it?

Oh, and burnout is real. Physically real. Of course it is, if you exert yourself mentally for hours virtually without proper rest, it will catch up with you some day. Prolonged states of stress cause all kinds of health problems that I’m now dealing with. Our brains also use our time asleep to remove toxins, repair damaged cells, organise memories, and much more. Your ability to perform largely depends on your brains ability to self-repair. If you spread yourself too thin, you won’t be able to do your best work, and you will make mistakes. If you spend a lengthy period of time making mistakes, you will internalise those mistakes as being some fault in your character, and you will doubt yourself.

My god, take it easy. Please.

I want to thank my partner for spurring me into taking care of myself again, and for putting up with me when I was moody and distant, and to apologise for not priotising her. Many would have given up and walked away.