Making Things Helps

At least for me, doing “non-stressful” things as part of burnout sometimes means doing things other people would find stressful. That’s okay.

September 28, 2018Filed under Blog#burnout#open-source software#productivity#restMarkdown source

As a small bit of follow-up to my recent post on blogging as part of what helps with my burnout, I thought it worth noting that this principle is a bit broader than just blogging for me. Writing (currently mostly expressed in the form of blogging) is deep in me, and so blogging remains a helpful outlet.1 But so a fair number of other things which might look like work to other people.

Tonight I started putting together some thoughts on what some extensions to an open source software library I maintain might look like.2 This after what has to be a record-setting week: the kind in which I reviewed and merged 60 pull requests for a ridiculous crunch of a project I’m on at work. I’m exhausted. I had another one of those moments this evening where I started crying a bit as I was sitting down to eat dinner and praying beforehand. Why? Just because I’m that emotionally wrung out: nothing was wrong in the particular moment at all, and probably the “trigger” was actually the small bit of relief of being away from the particular (very weird) stressors of this project at work for a while.

So why in the world did I start writing up thoughts about an open-source library after that? And why have I been spending my evenings reading all about a particularly nerdy bit of computer science this week?3 Because, as I suggested at the beginning, these things are what end up feeling restful or re-energizing to me. (That might make me weird. I’m okay with that. I’ve been weird for a long time.)

Much of the advice around burnout emphasizes “not working.” There’s good reason for that, but it’s important to understand the underlying reasons for that advice. Burnout usually stems from work-related stress, for an appropriately broad definition of “work.”4 Besides the stressors themselves, many of us—whether we admit it or not!—put far too much of our self-worth into our work. Putting it aside leaves us feeling worthless or useless. If your burnout is coming from the combo of stress and having invested your self-worth in your work, then you’re not likely to get better until you disengage from that work entirely for large stretches of time: that is, until you are forced to divest your self-worth from your work.

But there are other ways burnout comes to pass. For me, it’s a combination of particular work stressors with the stress my family has undergone over the last year: a cross-country move, building a house, and most of all my father’s (so far blessedly successful) fight with a brain tumor. The work stressors are largely not related to the work load, though; and I have by God’s grace kept my personal sense of meaning and value detached from my job. Insofar as my work is involved, the burnout is much more about frustrations and stymied aims and boredom with certain parts of the job than it is about overwork! The net of that is that doing some open-source brainstorming in the evenings is not a way of reinforcing the things that have caused this (though it very well could become that). Rather, left in the same kinds of space as my blogging (“not on a schedule, not on a deadline, but whenever I feel like it”), it ends up being a counter to burnout.

All of which is a long way of saying: if you’re experiencing burnout, you need to figure out why if you want to have a chance of getting through it. Otherwise good advice will actually mislead you otherwise. If your problem is that you’ve dumped all your self-worth into your open-source work, stop doing open-source work. On the other hand, if the cause of your burnout is that you’re deeply invested in caretaking for someone in your family, it might well be that doing something that looks like work to someone else—even writing a novel or something similarly massive in scale—might be a genuine relief and outlet for you.

For me, genuine rest often includes writing and learning and thinking and creating—not by themselves, but as part of a healthy mix that includes many other good things: a healthy dose of exercise and building LEGO contraptions with my daughters and watching The Expanse with my wife, and enjoying the company of good friends over good food and good drinks.

  1. I’ve actually been blogging longer than I’ve been writing software in any meaningful way. I did tiny bits of Visual Basic and C++ in middle school and high school, and I started picking up HTML and CSS for the sake of my website and blog in college. I didn’t pick up programming in a more general sense until I learned Fortran for my senior capstone project in physics!

  2. I’m thinking about Future and/or Task extensions to True Myth, for those of you interested in the details. I’ll have a GitHub issue up sometime soon-ish, and might blog about it here as well.

  3. CRDTs, for my fellow software nerds out there. This introduction is absolutely outstanding, as are a number of the pieces it links to. Among other things, I actually understand a few concepts in set theory I’ve had a hard time wrapping my head around in the past, because the explanations here are so good.

  4. As I talked about in my New Rustacean episode about burnout, lots of things which aren’t “work” in the “what I do to pay the bills” sense can also be triggers.