Uncharted Waters

Jun 12 2014   8:35AM GMT

On Burnout

Matt Heusser Matt Heusser Profile: Matt Heusser

Burnout Image Many of us are familiar with the idea of burnout at work: The boss requires mandatory 60-hour weeks, then the crisis hits, and six months later, our brain is a pile of goo.

Generally, in some way, the story involves the evil boss meme. “It’s not my fault”, and so on. Personally, I’ve never really experienced the evil boss. Even if the boss does require overtime, the boss can’t be everywhere, all the time. People sneak off for long lunches, come in late, surf the web, and otherwise do things to take relief during the work week.

No, today I am going to talk about a more insidious kind of burnout: The kind we do to ourselves.

Starting At Full Capacity

It starts with something good. Using a tool like yesterday’s weather, a cartoonist can predict that number of strips he can do per week; the writer the number of pages, and the programmer the number of stories, which is fine. Over time, the programmer comes to realize what the capacity is, how many stories the team will finish if things go well, and plans for it.

Only sooner or later, things do not go well.

Something happens. A critical feature takes longer than we thought, a key team member gets sick, a manager from another team needs just a few hours of Sally’s time to figure out a problem while the customer service team needs a few hours of Bob’s.

The problem is, we were already running at 100% before this happened – we have no slack to give the extra work.

I will refer to this as a capacity crisis event.

You can see this sort of thing in traffic, when the road is running 100% of capacity near rush hour, and suddenly we have an accident which renders an entire lane of the road useless.

Suddenly, no one is going anywhere. At all.

Like I said, capacity crisis.

On a software team, that means we get nothing done. At all.

A Capacity Crisis For The Brain

Last week I was in Tallin, Estonia, presenting a day-long tutorial on Lean Software, helping run a morning session, and a keynote. The same week, I was in the Netherlands, running a day-long testretreat. The prior week? Madrid, Spain, for a tutorial and talk at ExpoQA, and Edinburgh, Scotland, for a tutorial and talk. Each night, there were engaged folks who wanted to talk software until the wee hours. Each morning, I got up and did it again.

I’m tired just typing it.

Talking to my friend, James Bach, over skype, my last night in Estonia, he pointed out the warning signs: Your brain is sending out red lights and alarm bells are going off, and you are powering through them, getting things done by strength of will.

But what happens when your reserves run dry?

The collapse event.

For those of us who live by the work of our mind, we do not want the brain to stop working.

So here’s how to protect it.

Slack is Your Friend

If you use yesterday’s weather, plan for less than what is possible. Do not plan to run at 100% capacity. Give yourself time to rest, to daydream, to hang out.

When you build that plan, provide some extra time for the unexpected. If the unexpected doesn’t come, take time to slack. Real slacking. Not literally nothing, but instead something low taxing physically and mentally. Let the body rest and the unconscious mind wander.

And it will.

The same way that you get the best ideas in the shower, or when explaining the problem to a friend, letting go of the problem for a day or two can help crystallize the answer. Even if it doesn’t, if you plan to stay in the technology game for thirty to fifty years, then it makes sense to protect your mind.

So take a break. Grab a coffee. Take a walk.

If the boss asks what you are doing, you can always send ’em a link to this blog post.

8  Comments on this Post

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  • Robin "Roblimo" Miller
    I did 10 years of "startup speed" work, 16 - 20 hours per day. All sitting at the computer, moving physically less than ever in my life. The result? Health problems. Even though I slowed down, I was already fat. I had diabetes and later I had several heart attacks. Not good. Take a break. Go outside. Ride a bike. Swim. Even hoisting a whiskey bottle is more exercise than most computer work. DO IT!
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  • TestSheepNZ
    I think to be honest there are other kinds of burnout as well.  I like to call this the kind where "life happens" an intercedes a bit with work.  I know myself I've been through a very difficult 3 months - my partner has been diagnosed with a major mental problem, and we've also had two close family members die (although they were both over 70, they were close).

    As said, that's part of life.  When someone dies you may take a day or two off, but in truth, you're going to be walking a bit like a ghost through work for a while.  You get more and more tuned into your work, but you know it's not the priority it was.  It takes time to deal emotionally with that loss, and "tune back in".  Meanwhile you're wracked with guilt that you might be letting people down.

    Wish there was an easy answer - time and patience.  And I have in my company and colleagues both of these things.  But the very fact that we try and grieve and recover "to a timetable" might be the source of the modern world and how we try to deal with things.
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  • Baron210
    I used to run 9or at least plan to run) at about 80% capacity maximum, in I.T> manufacturing. I wholeheartedly agree, that it's easier to deliver most of what you are capable of, and if push comes to shove, then you can give a theoretical extra 20%. As it is at the moment , I am redundant now and awaiting (looking) for my next challenge in I.T>, but I guess it won't be long. I have learned not to "burn out2 and that life simply isn't worth it!
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  • junnel
    Maybe you can try to determine and distinguish between what is the pressing, and what is the precious.  Then one day, just concentrate on the precious.  The reward is better.
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  • Ben Rubenstein
    A common conversation heard too often these days, around the office and in social situations:
    "How are you?"
    "That's good!"

    Everyone should take a step back occasionally and think about what is causing them to be so busy, and whether there might be a better way to approach things. 

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  • junnel

    Ever since I became employed, that's in 1978 until now, I never experienced a burn-out.  Maybe because I like to see the outcome of what I am doing.  I set small goals, easy to reach, and I achieve them.  Once I achieved them, it seemed to me that I am fuelled to move forward further.  I never think that I am working.  While in work, I am very much absorb in what I am doing that people think I am in a world of my own.  I think of problems as challenges.  When I solved the problem, I am glad, I discovered my capacity, and believe that I can do it again.  If I fail, I look at it as though I did not do my best, and assured that I got lots of company.

    Maybe having or not having a burnout depends on the state of mind.


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  • Michael Tidmarsh
    It truly is amazing what you can do when you take a quick 10-15 break. If you're working on a major project, a break can go a long way to making sure it's done right.
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  • junnel

    That's right Mr. Michael.  Some people thrive on stress.  Without stress, they deteriorate.  In the Philippines, Ive seen so many physically powerful and active men who'se health quickly deteriorated after retirement.  The absence of stress kiled them.

    But just like what you said, a break works miracles.  A rest is a "rest".  I remembered the words of someone saying:  Accept stress as long as it does not STRAIN you.  So the rub is there.  As long as we are not strained, we will not have a burn-out.

    In my early scghool days I came across the story of Jim Bailey entitled:  "Never Worked and Never Will".

    I never understood that story then.  Now I do.



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