Avoiding burnout as an ambitious developer

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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Cassidy Williams
Instructor and developer at React Training
Hi there! My name is Cassidy and I'm an instructor and developer over at React Training. I'm also the director of outreach at cKeys, and enjoy building mechanical keyboards and playing music in my free time.

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  1. I feel the same, this is very useful !

  2. I definitely kept this in mind when I started my own business. While I did push pretty hard, I said no to a couple early opportunities. That ended up being the best decision yet since I would still be stuck committing to bottom barrel projects for peanuts. Now I am able to afford more time off and cater to work/life balance.

  3. Sarath Chandra says:

    Cassidy Williams,

    I totally get it. Everyone’s been through it. But to many people getting a job is more important. Sad part is even if you’re an average developer on steroids, your pay doesn’t reflect their paycheck on steroids :-). It simply doesn’t work that way. By now I witnessed all the areas of development like front-end, back-end and everything in between. I came to a realization that it’s only the analytical thinking of a person that matters and nothing else. Otherwise, all of the developer jobs would’ve been automated by now.

    I’m more interested in knowing and inventing the styles of programming (functional, object oriented) and optimizing code for single vs multi-core processors, quantum computing etc. But sadly I do not know where to start and how to transition my career into that.

    Any thoughts everyone?

    1. Victor Maoya says:

      I feel like this article exactly talks about what I have been going through. Thanks to you Cassidy Williams, I will become a better me.

  4. Charles O’Riley says:

    Thanks Cassidy. It is very useful.

  5. Be willing to say NO is a huge one.

    Tough to do sometimes, but so needed.

  6. Frederick C. Lee says:

    I’ve been developing software for about…. 37 years, from the Amdahl 360 to the iPhone, from Hawaii to NYC….down to Atlanta Georgia.

    I’m NOT a ‘yes’ man; in fact, I tend not to volunteer for anything. Nor do I attend any ‘even’t; never attended a WWDC. And I don’t stand in line in front of an Apple store, waiting for the cameo appearance of a new product.

    And once or so, I did suffer from burnt out…. in NYC working for New Corp. Too much action… too much pace… I was in over my head.

    I try to keep my skillset within a narrow range that I can handle; which excludes the Android world.

    I’m basically an Apple guy following iOS-related forums such as Medium, etc.
    There is just TOO MUCH happening in the Software Development world; so I poke my head into AI, AR, etc. to know enough what the acronyms mean.

    In my heart, I would like to own an Aquarium store… but must code for a living.

    So I come from the use of one platform for multiple effects without trying to conquer the IT world…. i.e., allow time to watch ‘Green Acres’ on TV.

    In effect, I try to maintain my computer/software literacy… converse in Swift and English and be satisfied. If I need an anal-retentive egghead… I’ll contact one.

    One’s health is important; avoiding stress is just basic logic.

  7. You penned it right. Let me join the club. There are many folks there who have this in their heart and repent for agreeing to commitments out of compulsions, either internal or external.

  8. I’ve been coding for 25 years can code stuff 💯 x better than over 10000k in the US and design draw and paint it’s been a year now and have not been able to land a job because I don’t use frameworks not that I refuse to I just don’t have any experience job related doing so – I’m effin lost I’m doing plumping for 5 and hour 70hrs a week just to pay bills life goes on I’m more proud to say I do that than coding

  9. Kudos! I can see where you are coming from. Very good article especially for new comers.

  10. Thanks for sharing your experience. That was really nice!

  11. Wish to read this ten years ago, before total burnout.

  12. Saying No, that’s huge for me, but I’m learning.

  13. I’m an old dog (wrote my first program in 1977 with punch cards) and today all the tricks are new. Trying to keep up was both grinding me down and depressing me. Over the years I went from ‘tip of the spear’ to ‘third assistant horse holder for the guy with the spear’. Well, maybe not that bad.

    You cannot keep up. Nobody can. It’s not possible. Find your nitch. Narrow your focus. Know your limits. Plan for the day you are irredeemably obsolete.
    I still impress my employer(s) but I can see the off ramp.

  14. I think your conclusion is correct, but you are coming from the wrong direction.

    You are already successful and a lot of that came from your desire to do as many things as possible and learn as much as possible and meet as many people from the software industry as possible. Saying it was always a bad thing is simply not true in your case. Saying that you should consciously analyse how much is too much and occasionally stop is.

    Health is important and burnout a real risk, but it’s a risk many of us take voluntarily. Perhaps what is lacking is exposure to what burnout does to you so one can actually gauge the possible costs.

    And I don’t agree with one of your commenters. Stress is not to be avoided, it’s to be managed! Take this from someone who has avoided stress all his life and now regrets part of it. Not all, but opportunities missed and possible alternate fates. Future self can suck it if current self is unhappy.

  15. Hey Cassidy, tks for shared with us your thoughts about time, plans, said yes or no for anything that is not important. In Brazil we said: when everthings are important (or emergency, or priority) nothing is too important!

    We should be thinking about our goals to make a really good life plan!

  16. I couldn’t agree with your post more, but you write it like you didn’t like all the things you did early in your career. I don’t think this is the case, or is it?

    In my experience this kind of burnout comes very easily, not from the things you don’t want to do, but doing too much of the things that you love doing. It’s easy to say yes to things that you love. It’s just that there’s a limit on how much you can do them as well.

    We all should learn to say no even to things we would love to do. I know at least I should.

  17. I have had severe burnout a couple of times (slow learner) and can confirm that watching and respecting that day-to-day energy thing is SO important. One thing that really helped me was to figure out what things are nurturing for me – like watching ocean sunsets, forest walks, cuddling or whatever and build them into my days on a regular basis.
    Kudos to you for figuring out how to beat this monster before it eats you alive.

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