Coming Back From Burnout

DjangoCon    2015-09-03

I have some bad news. I'm not a self-help guru or a motivational speaker. I don't have any magical solutions. All you're going to hear from me is plain common sense. But if you're here and you're identifying as suffering from burnout, you probably already know what you need to do for yourself. Sometimes you just need to hear it from someone else.

So you're active in a thriving open source community. By definition, you've gotten accustomed to giving your time and energy pretty freely.

Maybe you want to improve your programming skills. Or maybe you want to make new friends. Maybe you're also driven creatively, you're excited about what you're making and all the knowledge we share.

The reasons why we give so much of our time in open source have been dissected and discussed ad nauseum, and that's a topic for another talk, another time. One thing I do know is that everyone I've met in open source is passionate about giving of themselves.

But that passion has to have limits.

What Burnout Looks Like

A few years ago, I had just moved to Austin, started a new job, started a new relationship. I had just begun the Young Coders program (the kids' class we teach at PyCon). I was teaching a lot of beginner Python classes here. I got involved with the local CSTA chapter (Computer Science Teachers of America). I volunteered with a program here through UT Austin that brings technology professionals into public schools to speak and teach. I was doing technical reviewing for some friends who had written Python/Django books. And I had founded the PyLadies chapter here in Austin and was doing a lot of meetups and classes to help that group grow.

So I was stretched to my limits. My relationships were suffering. I started having health problems. I was getting to travel, sure, but only for conferences - I was seeing the world one PyCon or DjangoCon at a time. I was taking time away from my actual job, the one that pays my bills. I wasn't getting to do any of the things I loved outside of programming. And I was starting to dread every meetup and every class. In short, I was hating my big open source life.

It took a couple of years of this before I realized that I had to scale back. I handed PyLadies over to some other very capable women. I cut my teaching schedule dramatically. I stepped back from the organizations I volunteered with. I started saying no to requests for my time. And gradually, things got sane again.

Why Burnout Is Bad For You

Burnout is a result of long-term exhaustion. Most people can handle a busy day once in a while. But when those days turn into weeks and months and years of constantly being spread too thin, the result can feel a lot like depression - you start dreading what you're doing. It becomes hard to get out of bed.

It should surprise no one that burnout leads to terrible performance, but it also takes a serious physical toll. Every time I open up a browser I see a new story about the effects of overwork on the human brain and body. These are just a few I've saved from the past year. (btw, when I post these slides, there will be links, so you can read about these studies more in-depth)

Long work hours linked to 33 percent increase in stroke risk

Long working hours and risk of coronary heart disease and stroke: a systematic review and meta-analysis of published and unpublished data for 603 838 individuals

Chronic Stress Can Damage Brain Structure and Connectivity

Scientists say chronic stress can actually change your brain

The subtext to that Amazon story: We're afraid our work is killing us, and we are right

And when we're trying to juggle our everday jobs, our open source work, and our personal lives, one of the first things that gets sacrificed is sleep. And lack of sleep contributes to even more health issues.

What Sleep Deprivation Does to Your Brain, in One Stunning Infographic

This one from SFist actually refers to a UC Berkeley study, I just loved this sensationalist headline. It got me thinking: is this where flame wars come from? And you all know that XKCD cartoon - "I can't go to sleep! Someone is wrong on the internet!". What if that someone isn't actually wrong ... you just think they are because you haven't gotten any sleep?

UC Berkeley Sleep Study: You Perceive Friends As Enemies When You're Tired

One particular story that caught my eye while I was researching for this talk was this one that NPR did back in May. It's about another recent study conducted by the University of Washington, but one of the examples they cite in the article is the Exxon Valdez crash.

Short On Sleep? You Could Be A Disaster Waiting To Happen

This happened back in 1989, so some of you might not even remember what a huge environmental disaster this was. An oil tanker ran aground off Prince William Sound in Alaska. Some estimates say as many as 38 million gallions of oil were spilled. Hundreds of thousands of animals were killed, including birds, seals, orcas, and sea otters. 26 years later, there are still thousands of gallons of oil in the water and sand, and many of the animal populations still haven't recovered.

The story going around at the time was that the ship's captain was drunk and ran the ship aground. It came out later that the captain was not even at the helm - it was the third mate, and he had been up for almost 24 hours prior to the accident.

How many of you have stayed up that long hacking on a project?

Now imagine your open source project taking a header like that. Giving your most tired self to a project is not good for that project at all. It's the opposite of good. Sometimes you need to step back, refresh your passion for coding, then return when you can give your best energy - everyone will be better off for it.

If you can't do it for you, do it for the sea otters.

How To Step Back and Recover

The easy answer? Start saying 'NO' to things.

If you want to simplify your life, first you'll have to give some careful thought to where you give your energy. What's really important to you? What makes you feel good? What brings you joy? What's actually contributing to your growth?

When I was feeling burned out, I realized that I wanted my time back for doing some of the other things that make my life rich. It took a little soul searching, and in the end the only thing I held onto was Young Coders and teaching kids, because that is what I love best. These days, I limit myself to a focus on teaching, developing curriculum.

Whatever you do, don't compare yourself to other people. We all know someone who seems to have a hand in every project, but you can't judge your own life by what you imagine theirs to be. You don't know how they may be scrambling behind the scenes, or whether or not they're even fulfilled. Keep your focus on what's important to YOU.

Then get ready to practice saying No.

If you're already overloaded and:

  • someone invites you to speak at a meetup, you can say NO.
  • someone asks you to teach a class, you can say NO.
  • someone asks you to contribute to their project, you can say NO.

Worried that someone might be upset if you say no? Well, they might be, but your self-care is more important. Anyone who doesn't understand that is not worth your time. Trust me. Your mom would agree with me.

And sometimes saying 'NO' just means ... not saying 'YES'.

You don't have to answer every email, you don't have to answer every tweet. Just because you're invited to the conversation doesn't mean you have to contribute to it - sometimes listening in is enough.

This is something I feel really strongly about. An unsolicited email is an ask for a piece of your time that you didn't agree to give. It takes time to craft a considerate answer, and I know it can be a hard thing to get used to, but the truth is that you don't owe anyone anything.

Note that I said "unsolicited" email. If you're leading a project or have agreed to organize an event, then you have implicitly agreed to deal with all those asks. That's something to keep in mind before you commit yourself.

This is not a license to flake - do the things you say you'll do. Just promise less.

And those people who all seem to be doing ALL THE THINGS? One of the things they are really good at is delegating. And that brings me to another point.

Replace Yourself

As a member of an open source community, you are going to be exposed every day to new ideas and projects. And you're going to want to work on all of them.

My best advice to you is to be judicious with your commitments and guard your time carefully.

You don't necessarily have to say NO to all those things.

But you might have to relieve yourself of some other responsibilities BEFORE you accept new ones.

Over the past year, I've talked to a lot of other women who are also tech speakers, found that some are doing as many as 10-15 conferences a year. We're in pretty high demand right now. I get that as a community we're working on diversity and trying to increase the visibility of women programmers, but those women need a break. The same women can't carry the load for all of open source. So MENTOR new women. The first step towards giving yourself a break might be by mentoring and bringing in someone new.

The same thing applies to that code library you've been maintaining for ... how many years? You've been doing it for so long that it's starting to make you hate the language, but you've convinced yourself that no one else can do the job as well as you can.

Well, I have some news for you.

There are lots of developers in our community who want a chance to stretch and grow. And what's become old hat and mechanical to you will be new and exciting for them. Reach out to mailing lists and user groups, find someone you can mentor, then take a deep breath and hand the job over. It'll feel so good.

When you ask for help:

Over the summer, I was at a party, talking with some people who are highly sought-after speakers in a different community, different language altogether. They told me stories of having to lie to organizers about having personal commitments because simply saying 'no thank you' to an invitation to speak was not enough. I've heard stories of organizers getting downright hostile - "Oh, you did X's conference, but not mine?!?"

So if you're organizing a conference or leading a project, don't be that person. Don't lean so hard that you cross that line from 'welcoming and encouraging' into 'pressuring and bullying'. And please, please, don't be mean.

And if you are feeling pressured to participate by someone in the community, push back, politely but firmly. People may not know they've crossed that line unless you tell them.

Say 'YES' To Things

Go outside once in a while - your inbox can wait!

Let go of the things that are weighing you down, and do the things you love.

Finally ...


Yes, I know this is one of the most annoying acronyms in the history of humankind, and it's been used to justify a lot of obnoxious behavior. But there's a kernel of truth in there. You only get one life. You owe it to yourself to make the best of it.