On Burnout

On the last day of 2015 I signed off with this photo on Instagram:

In the attached message, I referred to the previous 12 months as a “glorious, chaotic and exhausting year”. It seemed a fitting summary given all the travel and work that occurred, but it was also the easiest way for me to summarize the year without thinking about the severe case of burnout I was dealing with.

The Setup

Over a quiet drink with a friend back in November, I was told this:

“You seem burnt out ever since I first met you…”

Others had mentioned this in passing over previous months, so it wasn’t exactly a revelation. We were catching up in the same space for the first time in a few months, but that wasn’t to blame here. The person meant well, but it still felt like a kick in the guts.

Wait. Let’s go back further.

It’s hard to pin-point when the burnout started (as it is with many bad situations you can find yourself in), but I can vividly recall one of the lowest points of 2015 - August 13th.

On that day we’d launched something I was a part of since I started at GitHub - the culmination of 18 months of work by a team of amazing people. I should have been celebrating at that point. I should have felt good after a long day watching the world react to the announcement. But I didn’t. Aside from feeling exhausted, I didn’t feel much else. I know I should have been proud, or relieved, or excited to see the reactions. But it didn’t come. It felt like just another day.

Actually, that’s not quite true.

Something unrelated to the launch triggered an overwhelming feeling of self-loathing. It caught me by surprise. I should have been thinking about something else - anything else, really. But here I was.

Why do I recall this date so vividly? Because in that dark mood I took time to write down what was going through my head - a habit from years ago that I’d long forgotten. At the time I didn’t have someone to vent to, and I wasn’t sure what I was venting about.

So I wrote. And wrote some more. I tried to make sense of everything rattling around in my head. I didn’t have any great answers at the time, but the simple act of writing things down felt cathartic. I wrote and edited and tried to put some structure around it.

After a while I stopped. There didn’t seem to be anything else to say. The file sat there on my desktop for a bit - a snapshot in time. And then I did something which might surprise you: I emailed this off to my manager. I was now in a mood that was affecting my work (if it wasn’t already), and I wasn’t sure of the next step.

For reference, this was the opener:

Warning: long email is long. Also, don’t panic.

I haven’t brought myself to re-read that email in full since I sent it. I remember what was in there, and the simple fact of sharing it with someone else helped greatly - it would keep me honest, whatever happens next.

After I wrote that up, I felt even more exhausted than I was before. But I got out of the house to catch up with friends at a local meetup. Doing normal things was what I needed to do anyway.

I got a supportive reply back a few hours later from my manager, and we talked a bunch about the situation a few days later.

While we’re here, I should acknowledge that this wasn’t the first stint of burnout that I’d gone through - a stressful project years before left me seriously questioning whether this software business was worth it. I couldn’t put this most recent occurrence down to stress alone.

The Confrontation

The events of that day were the jolt I needed to do something - and the long-overdue holidays I had lined were not due for some weeks, so I had to soldier on.

The first thing I did was to jettison all non-essential work - aside from post-ship tasks this was easy to negotiate. I stepped back from all my open source work, no matter how big or small. I didn’t really telegraph this to the world at the time - it felt selfish, but I was at the point where I honestly didn’t care about the consequences if people saw it that way.

From there, it was doing just enough each day to feel I was productive - while also maximizing time away from work.

A couple of weeks later, I was scheduled to talk about Git at a local developer conference. I was still in this weird “survival mode” state at the time, and almost proposed to the organizers to instead do a talk about burnout while being burnt out at the time. I’m glad I didn’t (for obvious reasons), but I kind of wonder what might have been.

After that talk and some more work obligations I found myself in a foreign country with a few weeks to kill. I had a rough idea of where I needed to end up (essentially on the other side of the world), but beyond that the only goal was to completely avoid work.

I meandered around several countries, used my Australian accent to open doors and cause mischief wherever it would work, and crossed paths with old friends (and made some new ones). I wanted to isolate myself from work completely, and was largely successful. There was one notable incident where a work mention found it’s way to my phone despite my best intentions to avoid it - a rage-uninstall quickly addressed that.

You can see here where my GitHub activity fell away - the two exceptions were where I was reading the Elm source code and committed a typo fix in some documentation, and where I started replying to notifications earlier than I should have. You can also see that I took time off last week, and stole a few days off around the Christmas-New Year break.

I came back to work in early October, and it was rather uneventful. I was able to ease my way back into a routine, and beyond the existing psychic debt I’d left behind I didn’t really worry about my side projects.

I was also fortunate to have friends from various corners of the globe who stayed in touch throughout this rough period. I was active on Twitter throughout this time, and sometimes they would pick up on cues and reach out. Other times, they just messaged me out of the blue to check in.

It was cathartic to be candid about things with these people, especially when things weren’t going well. I wouldn’t be where I am today without their enquiries and support.

I didn’t really look into understanding my burnout situation at the time it was happening - I was far too interested in working my way out of it - but with the passage of time I found myself reading an article by Jono Bacon in preparation for a talk which touched on this situation. I highly recommend reading that article, especially if you’re worried about your mental state.

The Resolution?

This hasn’t been an easy thing to write - introspection is tough for even the best of us. It’s been over 10 months since that fateful August afternoon. Over six months since that quiet November drink which motivated me to reflect and write this post. I started writing this post back in January, and it’s only now that I’ve found it was ready to share with others.

It feels weird to acknowledge your limits and share them with the world. I’m not sure what that means for the future, but I think being honest with myself was the best first step. Having people around to keep me accountable and honest has definitely helped.

But what’s actually changed since then?

For me, it’s been about finding a better balance between work and life. It had been out of whack for a while, and it took significant events to make me aware of it, acknowledge it and then work out where to go from there.

At work I have some new technologies to dive into and skunkworks projects to ship quickly, so putting myself under that pressure again is something I’m looking forward to. But that’s short-term, and I need to think and talk more about the long-term with others around me.

Outside of work, I still have a bunch of obligations around open source projects to manage. I’m consciously trying to get these projects to a place where I can step back from the day-to-day work and ensure they continue to thrive and grow.

Yes, that means I’m intending to do less open source. But that’s how I’m feeling these days - maybe that feeling will change, maybe it won’t. We’ll see. In any case, I’m keen to mentor people who want to get involved with these projects in a greater capacity. Please reach out if this is something that’s interesting to you.

Away from the computer, things are much less complicated. The self-destructive tendencies cited as a feature of late-stage burnout victims are no longer an issue. I now have a home base in Melbourne, so we’ll see if this reduces the travel I do in the long term. I’ve been back into reading, especially books unrelated to technology. And recent personal life changes have made me appreciate the simple things again - something I hadn’t really done for a while.

Anyway, to close out this anecdote I have to share this message I received early on (I’m not quite sure who sent it - please remind me if this was you):

You sound fucked. Have a break and be kind to yourself. 💖💖💖

It’s been a gradual journey, and I feel like I’m heading in the right direction, but it’s not quite over yet.

Note: I’m disabling commenting on this post as I don’t want to turn this into a discussion. This is just me writing some words down to share what has kept me busy recently. Feel free to reach out through the usual channels if there’s specific things you’d like to share.