After I finished undergrad, I was hired by Microsoft to work in their consulting organization. I was hired as a software engineer, and traveled around the US building software for big, impressive Fortune 50 companies. The first project I was placed on was at Dell, in Austin TX -- all because I was the first one to raise my hand when someone asked "has anyone here used jQuery?" (this was early 2009).
Seriously. If you're thinking wtf, there's no way that's right -- it was truly surreal. Just a few months earlier, I had been loudly proclaiming "Wednesdays are little Saturdays!" while skipping all my classes one day a week, and splitting my weekends between going out drinking with friends and building my 1965 Corvair into a race car.
I was barely an adult, and had been given a huge responsibility. I was not equipped to deal with the stress of the situation. I worked 12-hour days to keep up with the other people on my team, and traveled between Charlotte and Austin every week. After 6 months, I was exhausted, and barreling toward burnout for the first time – and I didn’t see it coming.
One early Texas morning after a long night of coding, I dragged myself out of bed and showered, and... what the fuck?! On the top of my head, directly above my left eyebrow, a small patch of my hair was missing. I had been pulling it out in my sleep. I was so stressed out that I was literally pulling my hair out.
Burnout hit me like a ton of bricks.
I called my manager that morning, and calmly told him I would be taking the next week off.
Look, we all experience stress and burnout - in different ways and to different degrees, certainly, but everyone feels it. In that moment, I learned a lot about myself. I'm a hard worker and I love my job, but I am not a machine. If I can help it, I'll never let myself get to that point again.
Learning to manage burnout has been a career-long journey for me. Stress ebbs and flows day to day, and week to week, but I've found being proactive about managing the way I work keeps burnout away.
There are many things we can do to manage stress and burnout, and I believe the details will be different for each of us -- but figuring out the right mix of work, rest, and play is where it all starts.
It's not just about you, either. Think about the people around you in your life who will benefit from you being less stressed and more present. Your family, your friends, your coworkers, your boss, your clients... the list goes as far as you can imagine.
You can't be expected to do good work if you're not feeling your best, and you can't get there if you're not actively taking steps to be selfish about what you want and what you need in life.
The World Health Organization classifies burnout as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- Increased mental distance from one's job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job
- Reduced professional efficacy
Thankfully, the WHO is also working with scientists to develop guidelines on identifying and managing burnout. Science is looking out for us again, y'all. While I'm definitely not an expert on the subject, I've found that the following tools have helped me stay ahead of burnout in my job and my relationships.
The tools I use to stay ahead of burnout
🛌 Sleep better. I'm intentionally putting this at the very top of the list so that you take it seriously. People always underestimate the effect that sleep has on their life. Don't take my word for it, listen to the experts - Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker is an exploration of our scientific understanding of sleep, and why it is critical to living a good life. Still not convinced? Check out this review from Bill Gates.
🖼 Therapy is something that we all can benefit from. Especially men -- we are often not equipped with the right tools to deal with and express our emotions. Speaking to a professional can help you understand yourself better, and can help you learn to manage your emotions in a healthy way. Whoever you are, wherever you are, give it a shot. Talk to a real professional (I'm looking at you, evangelicals) and invest in yourself. There are many options available, and BetterHelp is a great option if you're looking to try therapy online.
📝 Take notes - No single habit I've adopted has had an impact on me like note taking. Writing down my thoughts helps me offload tasks from my brain, stay organized, and work more efficiently. I'm a big fan Zettelkasten-style note taking, and I use Roam Research for my notes. It is a paid service - if you're on a budget or just dabbling for now, check out Obsidian and LogSeq.
🧘 Meditate - I use Headspace for a few minutes of peaceful meditation when I'm feeling overwhelmed.
🧠 This 5-minute video on Burnout from Dr. Sahar Yousef was actually produced by Headspace, and I found it to be pretty enlightening. Your brain's fear and anxiety center is literally activated by the accumulation of small bits of stress building up for days and weeks on end. The researcher from this video, Dr. Sahar Yousef, is working to develop frameworks to help us deal with burnout before it happens.
🪐 The third place is a term that has been making the rounds on the internet lately. The long and short of it is this: we live a more balanced life when we somewhere to go that is not our home or our workplace. It's a place where we can go to relax, to socialize, to be fulfilled. Check out the linked article for my feelings on the importance of The Third Place for remote workers.
I'll leave you with this: if there's someone in your life who may be going through a tough time right now, drop them a line and tell them you see them, and you care about them. That little gesture can go a very long way.