On Steam (Specifically, Running Out of It)

Or, what happens when you stay in “go mode” for a really long time.

April 05, 2018 (updated October 11, 2018)Filed under blog#burnout#open-source software#productivity#writingMarkdown source

I find myself this morning almost unable to write at all, and quite unable to write what I was planning to be writing today. (I’ve been steadily pushing forward on a big “quest”-style issue for an open source software project I help maintain, and that’s how I planned to spend my writing time today.) But I’m feeling quite keenly the need of some time away from that project and indeed from a lot of the things that have had me burning the candle at both ends.

I’ve noted before that I go in cycles; one thing that I’ve also started to notice is that those cycles, unsurprisingly, include points where I’m just done. I’m all out of steam. And I seem to have hit one of those just this week.

It makes sense: since last October, as a family we’ve moved across the country; lived with my parents for three months, during which time we learned that my dad had brain cancer and helped him and my mom through the surgery, recovery, and early parts of chemo and radiation); then moved into a new house; and joined a new church.

On top of that I’ve personally continued working on New Rustacean and Winning Slowly, helped ship the most important release of ember-cli-typescript in the project’s history, taught a workshop on TypeScript at EmberConf, and helped kick off one of the most important front-end development projects in Olo’s history.

Of course I’m tired. Of course I feel like I’m just out of steam.

The trick, for the moment, is that there are some things I really feel I should carry to some specific points before I take a week or two off. Getting that quest issue that I was going to be writing this morning done, and a related Ember.js RFC on the relationship of TypeScript and Ember.js, and getting the first of our beta releases for this project at Olo out the door… all of those are things that really just need to happen before I take that time off. After I get through those, though, I think I’m taking a week or so off. Maybe time it with Memorial Day to make it a full 10 days or something.

And in the meantime, I do things like write little blog posts thinking about “running out of steam” not because it’s all that important for the world to know, but because it’s a way of keeping some degree of forward momentum, continuing to maintain my daily writing habit, and generally doing all the little things that make it possible for me to actually get across the finish line on those projects.

Because—weird though it may seem in some ways—even when I’m tired like it, I know through long experience that the way I actually get across those finish lines is by keeping up my forward motion. It’s very much like the feeling in the last 5k of a half marathon. (A half marathon is two five-milers and a 5k, and thinking about it that way is the way to run it effectively.)

Everything hurts. You don’t feel like you have anything left. But in fact, if you’ve done the right things up to that point, you do have enough left. The way to finish well is not only to keep putting one foot in front of the other, but also to push a little harder, and a little harder, and a little harder, until you hit the finish line. You have to watch out, of course, and not hurt yourself. That’s the trick with mental fatigue, too. Burnout is a real thing. But, as with running, if you’ve built up your mental muscles well and built up the reserves of experience that you need, you know the difference. You know when you need to stop early for a day and go read a novel. You know when to push through. You know when to take a day off of the quest issue and write a quirky, and not-all-that-coherent, blog post about the experience of fatigue and thinking about pushing on. And you know that you still need to finish.

Edit (October 11, 2018): I’ve added my #burnout tag to this post retroactively because I now recognize much of what I wrote here as some of the earlier symptoms of what I didn’t concretely identify until a bit later.