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Lately it has been a bit rough. I basically know all the things I need and all the avenues to get there for work. There's been no real issue of a problem with too high complexity, and performance is good.

Still, after three major projects this year, my mind is behaving a little strange.

It's like I'm used to working in O(1+log(N-neatTricks)) but for some reason it processes in O(N^2)!

I've experienced a sort of burnout after long deadlines and drudging projects before, but when it turns into a longer experience, I haven't found the usual suspects to be helpful.

  • Take more walks
  • Work on other code
  • Overdesign everything until I feel intensely driven to just make it (sorta works)

How can a programmer recoup from the specific hole in your head programming leaves after being mentally ransacked by these bloody corporations and their fancy money? Hopefully some of you have some better ideas, because I could really use another round of being looted and pillaged.I've often wondered if there are special puzzles or some kind of activity that would de-stress the tangled balance of left and right braininess programmers often deal with.

Do any special techniques, activities, anything seem to help with the developer's mindset especially?


While not necessarily my favorite idea presented, I think Francesco first fix is the real answer to a commonly confronted problem. I can see how this question could be viewed as rather subjective or common, but I have yet to see a descript of this very particular occurrence. Perhaps we should find the standard deviation of different types of moods only programmers report having and call it the something-or-other syndrome.

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closed as not constructive by gnat, Caleb, Steven A. Lowe, Walter, psr Sep 17 '12 at 17:21

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Are you sure you have the right attitude for your current job with your view on your employer? –  user1249 Sep 17 '12 at 7:03
Ah well, I pretty much pitched the projects to them myself which eventually wore me down. We have a nice system going where (the goods == money). The more the codebase can be taken advantage of, the more I can make...that and I just need to really push through some things this year. All in all, I'm pretty excited about my position. Only I've driven myself a little crazy. –  Garet Claborn Sep 17 '12 at 7:32
"When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change" youtube.com/watch?v=urQPraeeY0w –  jfrankcarr Sep 17 '12 at 11:25
Well, when this kind of thing happens to me, I take some time to walk, or sleep, or have a good ice-cream. Though I shouldn't have ice-creams nowadays. Some people advocate that exercises are good for this kind of burn-out, so you could slow your mind and let your body come to the same beat. Well, even a good game of Counter Strike may help. –  Machado Sep 17 '12 at 12:31
Smoking more crack solves the problem every time. –  Thomas Eding Sep 17 '12 at 16:48

7 Answers 7

up vote 25 down vote accepted

What you are experiencing is very real. Taking a holiday, switching tasks or as an extreme measure change jobs: these are potentially excellent ideas but they are long term fixes. In my experience one doesn't always has the luxury of doing the right thing. It may well be inefficient, but sometimes (often?) one has to work when he's burned out, tired, overtime... You name it.

So, how to survive, and survive well? How to mantain quality and health (!!!) in the face of adverse conditions?

I have two suggestions which have helped me. Note that they are short term fixes and you should really work on the deeper causes and solutions (when and if the situation will allow for it).

  • Fix 1: smaller chunks. Don't focus on that large body of work which is stumbling you and crushing your motives. Reduce, reduce to atomic unit of works which will give you a feeling of accomplishment. Doing 1% of something is not fulfilling; having completed 10 (micro) tasks can give you a sense of progressing, of advancing towards your goal.
  • Fix 2: no matter how tired you are, devote some time (even few minutes) to something completely unrelated. Study it, really. I like reading master books from the times of university : they are masterpieces, they challenge my mind, they are fun and I am reading them without the burden of works (and without the burden of being examined over them). But really anything can do. It is important that it is completely disconnected: it could be a math book, a guide to photography, to musical theory...

Bonus (!) fix: don't give up, we're all like you :-)

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This is a good approach. Thanks, I'm going to try this out for a couple days and see how this works, especially Fix 1. I think this is the first to hit on the real issue of 'how to keep going when you shouldn't, for a bit' I especially think I could take a much needed vacation if I could survive the current wrapping things up. –  Garet Claborn Sep 17 '12 at 7:36
Yes, for me it usually works. Changing job is not always a viable possibility and there could be a lot of good reasons for not doing that. But note that health is important: the block is a signal of alarm: you need to relax sooner or later: maybe not right now but plan something for the next months! –  Francesco Sep 17 '12 at 7:44
+1 for "we're all like you". Sometimes it can seem like everyone is less stressed, more hard-working and more on-the-ball than you, but everyone gets stressed and everyone has off days (or weeks). Important to remember that, I think :) –  LordScree Sep 17 '12 at 8:23
@LordScree exactly. Feeling bad and unproductive makes you feel even worse and it creates a vicious cycle. Knowing that you're not alone, and that it happens to everybody, and that it is happening right now to a lot of your colleagues... it will not solve the issue per se, but it will stop making it workse. –  Francesco Sep 17 '12 at 8:28
@Francesco, "...but it will stop making it workse." -> "workse", pun intended ? :) –  Machado Sep 17 '12 at 12:28

IMO most scientifically minded folk have a potential to be become addicted to thinking - the deep thought + analysis needed in our day jobs hammers only a part of our brain. Unfortunately, I've found that the analytical thinking then spills over out of my work into my home life - e.g. I start analyzing the greater world around us in the same way. So not only do we overwork our analytical minds, but we can then neglect other needs, such as emotions, social interaction (non analytical!) and our more basic 'animal' needs (exercise, diet, sex etc), causing the imbalance. Life can feel like playing a top down strategy game (objectively), without actually being 'in the game' at all.

IMO the trick to relaxing is to stop thinking and discover the other brain functions again - which is much easier said than done, given that we now 'identify' as our thinking selves more than most 'normal folk' do.

When you do finally get the chance for a break, what works for me is to head for the great outdoors for a few days and enjoy nature - sun, fresh air and exercise. Leave the world behind you - just take a mobile along for emergencies.

Don't fear about 'losing' your analytical edge when resting your mind - you need to trust yourself that all of your mental abilities will be there on demand when you find yourself back at work.

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I had the privilege to work with someone who was an excellent coder who was always bright-eyed, solution oriented, and didn't get overly upset about the day-to-day insanity of the job. Every 4-6 years he quits his job and sails around the world. I don't think it is too much of a stretch to say that this is probably why he's always so on his game. I worked in another field for 6-9 months once and was re-energized for a few years because of it.

Ultimately, I think there is some combination of healthy down-time and finding out what makes you happy. I wonder if Happy (more than Relaxed) is the opposite of stressed-out?

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I save up 80% of my leave, flexi time and time owed as OT and take it in one block. Depending on finances I either head off traveling, work at music festivals (bar works) or completely renovate my house.

Basically I get 4-5 weeks a year that is just mine. No computers, no on call, no thinking about programming. It has completely saved my sanity (for lack of a better word)

I understand that not everyone can save up and take leave like that, but even a long weekend every now and again with no computers helps

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When you say "(bar works)", do you somehow actually get a temp job doing something for a week or so? Getting away but still working seems to be a theme, and sounding rather inviting. –  Garet Claborn Sep 17 '12 at 7:35
yes, spend a few days pulling pints, listening to bands and camping. It's good fun plus getting paid! Getting a break from the day to day is the best way to recharge your batteries –  Amy Sep 17 '12 at 7:38

I would suggest a seriously long holiday in another country. But don't be surprised if when you get back you just want to quit. Finding another job at a different company is the best method I have found as these symptoms are usually a dissatisfaction with your employer rather than the job.

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I find playing an instrument helps. I've taken to playing guitar to clear my head, both when I get stuck on a problem, and at the end of the work day to get out of "work mode".

Obviously the initial investment in terms of time/effort can be quite high, but for me nothing works better for clearing my head and hitting a reset button on my thoughts.

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  1. Get a gym/yoga membership - and make it a point to go! While there, only think of calming the mind down / meditation.

  2. Repeating from other post, but yes, get an (unrelated to work) hobby. Mine is (shamelessly) visiting fashion blogs, and watching those girly makeup video tutorials on YouTube.

  3. Write somewhere, like on a blog, about other things that you learn/interested you. You could be reading/doing so much, and forgetting it after a while -- which kind of has an exhausting effect on the brain (since you do, but do not retain the satisfaction/memory of all the tiny things you thought/did/learned) OR pick two technical books, compare them, review them... Something of the sort.

  4. Put yourself through some spiritual experience. Like, going to soul-related material, it could be your favorite music for you, or what Oprah puts on her Soul Sunday blog.

  5. Treat yourself. to a grand meal, or a little shopping for self, or a "mental health day off" once in a while - even if its not a paid holiday.

  6. Find someone to mentor - if you're good at work and know what you're doing, it wouldn't hurt to help someone. It makes us more humble as people, to see not everyone knows everything, and everyone needs a little help from time to time, in this cut-throat, competitive world - if this is how you choose to give back :)

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