Avoiding burnout as an ambitious developer

Burnout is difficult to describe to people who haven’t felt it. But it was also a valuable lesson. Here's a few tips on how to take care of your ambitious self and avoid burning out.

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When I graduated college and started my first full-time job in NYC, I was all in. It’s a pretty common occurrence, especially in smaller companies: a junior dev thrown into the deep end, they flounder a bit, they learn a lot, and they use their youthful energy to code and work all over the place.

In my case, not only was I doing that, but I also worked on the developer evangelism side of things, which meant I was also going to hackathons and conferences constantly in addition to my 9-to-5 software engineering role. I loved it. I felt like I was growing at a super fast rate, and I was saying yes to everything. It felt good for my career and my personal brand, so I figured that meant all of the constant activity was good for my personal life, too.

Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.

I burnt out, hard. Saying yes to everything led to me going to an event almost every single night of the week—including weekends—in addition to my day job. It gave me exposure to the awesome dev community, the ability to mentor others, and the opportunity to speak to thousands of people at the cost of my own health and hobbies.

Burnout is difficult to describe to people who haven’t felt it. When I was going through it, I didn’t want to talk to anyone, I couldn’t fathom getting off my couch, I wanted to cry (and often did) at just the thought of having to go back to work the next day. I worked so much that I couldn’t pursue my hobbies anymore and had no time to myself. I felt obligated to everyone but myself and thought that I was going to let people down if I said no to anything. I wouldn’t wish those feelings on anyone. To this day, I feel a weight on my chest when I think about that time in my life.

But it was also a valuable lesson for me. After burning out several times over the course of a couple jobs, I decided to try out a different city, a different role, speaking less, and opting to pursue my interests more. I moved to Seattle and started at a creative agency, joined an orchestra, and got involved in the mechanical keyboard community in the city! To say that it was life-changing is an understatement. Going home after work to have a life, not to answer emails, not to work, but to do things that I care about… it was incredible! Now, I’ve definitely swung back a few times across different jobs, but overall, I’ve learned so much from burning out.

Be willing to say no

It’s hard to not say no to things that appear to be good for your career and personal brand. There are projects and things that I’m still dealing with that I said yes to nearly five years ago purely because I thought it’d be a good thing on my resume, even though it didn’t interest me. Don’t make the same mistake I did! Saying yes to everything will lead to you not being able to do your best on everything. Quality over quantity applies to your time spent on commitments!

Know what you want and, more importantly, what you don’t want

When you’re assessing what to say yes and no to, try to think about your goals. Yes, wanting to be at X point on the career ladder or Y point in your development strengths is important. But, do you dislike a certain language, or not want to take on certain tasks in your work? Do you have to sacrifice your “don’t want”s for your “do want”s?

I learned early on (the hard way) that I do want to keep speaking at events, but I don’t want to speak at more than three events a month. I do want to work on something that will impact others, but I don’t want to work with certain technologies. Think like that and actually write down a column of what you want and what you don’t want in your professional (or even personal) life!

Assess your energy levels day-by-day and use them realistically

When you look at your list of tasks that you have to accomplish in a given day, figure out how much you can realistically get done that day and actively move the rest to another day. By being realistic about what you’re going to be doing just today, you can set aside time to use the rest of your energy for the day on things that will give your brain a break. Actually make yourself a to-do list, stick to it, and don’t write so much that you always have tasks left over. By giving yourself dedicated time to rest up, you’ll be able to get your tasks done driven with more purpose, rather than driven by the looming feeling of being overwhelmed.

Be kind to your future self

When you’re saying yes to things, it’s easy to say, “ah, future me will have a lot to do, but they can handle it.” So many people do this. It’s like the person you’re planning on overwhelming with a bunch of tasks or events or projects is separate from the person who you are today. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been mad at my past self for signing up for too many things. Try to avoid this by keeping a calendar and assessing how much you’ve given yourself to do in the future. If a particular day, week, or month is packed, maybe consider saying no or choosing different timing.

Doing these things are preventative, and you can start doing them right now. Yes, you can do everything at the same time, but it’s healthier in the long run to do things over time, accept tasks/events/projects that are worth it for your goals (while not risking what you don’t want), and remembering: you don’t have to set yourself on fire to keep others warm.

Many things can wait, or if anything, be taken on by someone else. If you keep that in mind, you can do your work for yourself, your community, and your career more wholeheartedly, and enjoy your life in the process!

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