Tristan Havelick


Slowing down to combat burnout

Posted 2020-12-06

Last week, a co-worker asked me if I had any resources that he could point his employees to that could help dealing with burn-out. I couldn't really think of any, but went through my list of usual strategies including:

  • Taking a break for a few days
  • Writing down a list of things I've done as I complete them, as opposed to keeping a to-do list
  • Re-evaluating my goals and making sure my current actions align with those goals
  • Being on the look out for any stress in my personal life that may be affecting my desire to work
  • Working on something different. Variety can powerful
  • Collaborating through difficult work

But the list felt flat. I wasn't sure if anything I'd come up with would really be helpful. A few days later, I reread a story from Derek Sivers about slowing down on a difficult drive and explicitly ignoring those people who it might annoy, thus making the drive much more enjoyable. He reminds us to adjust adjust our environment to what we need even if it's inconvenient to others.

The story reminded me a burnout combatting strategy I'd used in the past: Slow down and focus on craftsmanship. Often burnout comes when you feel stress always be getting something done, always moving on to the next thing that's needed. Instead of getting things done as quickly as possibly, it can help to take the slow route. Zoom in on the little details. Take a lot more time to make what you're working on as perfect as you can. In a software development context, is each variable name as good as it could be? Could any lines of code be removed? Could we make it perform faster? If what you're working on feels repetitive, could you make the computer do the work for you? Could the code be rewritten to be more readable?

When it works, this strategy helps me find the beauty in my work again. Sometimes I go a bit overboard and end up with an over-engineered mess I have to throw away. But when I do, the quick solution and simple solution I started with ends up feeling much better as now I've seen the flaws in the alternative. And of course, burnout can be caused by the reverse too. Sometimes, if I've been to in the weeds of the details and too focused on making things perfect it can help to step back and come up with a quick and un-elegant solution instead.

The feeling of burnout is your brain's way of telling you that something needs to change. So, the next time that feeling settles upon you consider that perhaps the solution is as simple as changing the pace and focus of your work.