Zen and Achieving No Burnout Status
October 05, 2021

Andrew Smith
Veeva Systems

After almost 20 years in engineering, I've realized the most high-performing, seasoned software engineers are like monks. They are deliberate about work, exceptional listeners, highly capable of processing complex information and adept at thinking creatively. They also build psychological safe spaces for constructive debate, are empathetic and value different perspectives. It's a radically different mindset than viewing peers as competition — and it's one that enhances trust and encourages greater individual and group performance.

Unfortunately, these types of engineers are now the exception, not the norm.

Why?

Because many today operate on the cusp of total burnout. In 2020, in an informal survey of software developers, 80% of respondents cited feeling "a lack of necessary energy" to get their work and other coding projects done.

Many of us wound up in the field because we grew up coding for fun. Now that we do it professionally, the reality at times can be less rosy. We spend long hours in front of a screen and endure significant self-applied pressure as we strive for perfection in our work. It can make us feel perpetually behind on deadlines, less inclined to take breaks during the day, and poorly equipped to respond with urgency when the occasion calls for it.

But there are ways to avoid burnout, supported by empirical evidence and scientific research. You really just have to find what works best for you.

How Digital Distraction Can Affect Burnout

Picture this: you're in the middle of working on a task when your computer "dings" as an email or Slack message comes. The notification pulls you out of your zone and grabs your attention. Now you're distracted and, before you know it, you've pulled out your phone or pulled up your personal email for a quick check-in. Time passes, you fall behind on your task, the looming deadline causing even further stress. Perhaps this happens several times a day, every day for weeks. Maybe it's been happening to you for years?

We live in the age of digital distraction

We live in the age of digital distraction. There are more apps, websites, game and communication channels available to us than ever before. All quite accessible and all easily distracting. These intrusions can compound when coupled with remote work, forcing many engineers into the same burnout-causing pattern, all without realizing what's happening.

Working in Intervals

Working with intention is one of the best things you can do for your brain. And research has shown that people who are the most productive are the ones who take regular breaks.

This might sound counter-productive, but here's the winning formula: for 52 minutes, dedicate yourself completely to a task and then take a break and relax for 17 minutes. The reason for this is the human brain naturally works in bursts. So, try to capitalize on those intervals of high activity by removing all other distractions — including turning off notifications and telling teammates you'll be unavailable — and then break for a period of low activity.

When you do step back from work, be sure to really separate yourself from it. Activities like going out for a walk or a fifteen-minute meditation will allow your brain to rest and reset, enabling you to dive into the next task and remain focused. You might also add a goal or intention for your period of attention. That sets you up for recognizing accomplishments at the end of your "interval."

Celebrate Your Wins

Championing ourselves at work can feel awkward. It's not something that comes naturally to many people. What is natural, however, are the good feelings that accompany completing a task. When we learn to recognize our accomplishments, we experience a positive neurological change over time. Completing a task releases dopamine, the pleasure compound in our brain, literally making us feel good. It also results in positive neurological changes that, when coupled with periods of focused attention, can increase your IQ and the cognitive abilities required to be a high-performing engineer.

If you're trying to stay healthy and happy at work, rejoice over accomplishments, both individually and with your team. When you get to the end of your working session, add a celebration ritual and recognize what you've accomplished, no matter how insignificant or small of a task it might seem.

Pat yourself on the back and then completely disconnect for 15 minutes. As you get more comfortable rewarding yourself, you'll start having a more positive emotional response to work.

Be Kind to Yourself

There is no 100% effective method for avoiding stress at work, or in life, for that matter. The best you can do is develop an approach that allows you to reset periodically — and that's actually quite a lot.

Feeling burnt out makes it harder to manage your emotions and think critically. Long, sustained hours lead to anxiety and lower quality work. Focusing on one task at a time, followed by a brief fist-pump and short, relaxing break, causes increased positive feelings. And, it stimulates neurological changes to increase cognitive ability and performance, enabling capabilities to grow over time instead of declining.

So software developers, be sure to celebrate even the minor victories, as both individuals and as teams. The best performers love what they do, so be kind to yourself; reduce the time when it feels like work and it won't be.

Andrew Smith is Senior Manager, Engineering, at Veeva Systems
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