As a web developer, burn out is a very real concern. It's something that isn't talked about much, so today I'll talk about my experience and how to avoid it.
In the development world, there is a general attitude that you should always be developing. While I agree with this to some extent, it can also become very harmful and counter-productive when taken too far. Too much of a good thing is bad, and web development is no exception. When people push themselves too far, they reach the point of burn out. I want to talk about how to recognize and avoid burn out before it becomes too big of a problem to handle.
What is burn out?
Burn out is like a race car barreling down the track as they see a turn coming. The race car can either slow down and take the turn or it can keep going straight and run into a wall. Reaching the point of burn out is like running into the wall instead of temporarily slowing down and adapting to the environment.
Unfortunately, a lot of people don't realize they're approaching this point until it's too late and they've hit the wall. To make things worse, it hasn't been a very talked about issue until recently so many people are still unaware of this situation, meaning that they don't even know to watch out for it.
Time, energy, and even willpower is limited and even the most disciplined person can reach the limits at times. It is when we feel ourselvers approachimg those limits and decide to keep going that we reach the point of exhaustion and deprivation. Fortunately, there are ways to see this coming, prepare for it, and even prevent it.
Why do people hit the wall?
I work full-time as a web developer. I also maintain my blog, have my portfolio website (which is always a work in progress), freelance regularly, and go to school for web development. This is all in addition to networking with other developers, listening to web development podcasts, and reading books and articles about web development to keep up with changing technologies. Of course I'm also a father, husband, and friend which all takes time and energy as well.
It sounds like a lot, and it is. But it's not unusual. There are a lot of web developers who do at least as much as I do, if not more. I want to be clear here though: spending time doing things other than web development isn't bad. It's actually probably healthier for a lot of reasons. The problem with doing all of these things is when we become so deep in web development that we are starting to lose touch with the world around us.
Spending time doing things other than web development isn't bad. It's actually probably healthier for a lot of reasons.
This recently happened to me because of all of the projects I'm working on. I felt like my life consisted of getting kids ready for school, web development for 8 hours, then dinner and homework with the kids, then 5 more hours of web develoment every day.
I dreamt about web development. Every spare moment was reading articles about React, Gatsby, Drupal, Wordpress, some new UI framework, etc. There's always more to learn, and that can quickly get overwhelming if you're like me and want to know everything. I know, I know... it's not possible. But that doesn't mean I shouldn't try to know as much as I can, right?
This kind of logic is a double-edged sword. We as developers should have an Always-Be-Learning mindset, but it can also get really exhausting really fast. There are some ways to see exhaustion and burnout coming and prepare for it though.
How to see burn out coming
The best advice I can give to see burn out coming is to really be honest with yourself. It sounds really cliché, but our careers as web developers are marathons not sprints. Because it's a marathon, we want to make our career last long-term and there will be times to slow down and other times to speed up a little because it's a straightaway and things are lining up perfectly.
If we aren't honest with ourselves, we won't be able tell whether we should slow down or speed up. We could miss how isolated we've become or how bent out of shape we get. Having conversations with ourselves about strengths isn't hard. Typically people are proud of their strengths, so it becomes a regular topic of conversation. The difficulty lies in talking about our weaknesses and shortcomings. There are people who don't like acknowledging that they aren't "succeeding" or "perfect", which is dangerous. Without seeing areas for improvement, we're only seeing half the picture. It's hard to make good decisions based on half the picture.
Sometimes I feel like I'm not doing enough. I feel like I'm falling behind in my industry. I feel like a failure. I can almost guarantee that I'm not the only one who feels this way at times either. Our industry is a tough one to keep up with because it changes so rapidly and there is a pressure to always be developing. Just know that you aren't failing. You are doing enough. You are doing a good job. It's okay to take a break.
What to do when you reach that point
When I reach the point of burn out, I do my work for my full-time job and school work. That's it. I usually end up taking one to two weeks off from everything else. Even if I have freelance projects, homework, or personal projects I make sure to take a break if at all possible. When figuring out a schedule for a project I allow for some extra time in the event something like this happens.
The reality is that self-care is much more important than any job or paycheck. In my opinion, I'd rather take two weeks off and make it up when I'm feeling reenergized than keep pushing through when I dread doing it every time I sit down at my computer. I've ready too many stories about developers who reached this point and kept pushing until they eventually quit web development all together.
On top of that, the project is at risk if I'm pushing myself to the point of quitting. Taking a few weeks off for mental health is much easier and more beneficial than getting burnt out and never finishing the project becase I can't stand to think about coding.
I realize this is probably pretty anticlimactic. I can list some things I've found helpful, but nothing compares to just taking a few weeks off and enjoying time with family, friends, and other hobbies. The key that I've found is to just get away from web development and the pressures that come along with it for a little while.
Burn out can happen to everyone including the most senior and savvy developer, but there are ways to see it coming and avoid it. If there are two things I want you to take away from this post, it's this: trust yourself, and take a break if you need it. Our industry is a difficult one to be in for a long time if it consumes all of your time and energy, so we need to take care of ourselves.
If you are feeling this way or need advice about coping, feel free to reach out to me on twitter.