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I'm really having trouble with this, since it is the perfect opportunity to learn something new, begin a personal project... essentially do just about anything, but all I do is surf the Internet. I find that I don't want to look at anything programming related, and I'm seriously wondering if I'm letting boredom get the best of me, I'm depressed, or experiencing burnout? Any suggestions for how to go about taking back this unproductive time would be greatly appreciated.

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Just stay on this particular corner of the Internet. – user1249 Jan 10 '11 at 15:38
Explain your situation to your boss - that will get the juices flowing. – JeffO Jan 10 '11 at 18:06
@Jeff O: I know you're half kidding :) My boss understands this dilemma, and to some degree knows there is no good process by which the company can enable me to better myself while at work. Hey, maybe my job will be to come up with that process! – Brian Reindel Jan 10 '11 at 19:22
Two Words: Self Control. Self Motivation. Your Decision. – WernerCD Jan 10 '11 at 20:57
@Thorbjørn: Great comment. – Enthusiast Jan 11 '11 at 7:48

11 Answers 11

up vote 20 down vote accepted

Its your free time, the only person that can motivate you is yourself.

If your not motivated enough to want to learn during free time at work, then that says you are bored and possibly borderline burned out.

I say go off-line. Do something other than programming for a while, take up a sport or something.

Slowly the craving should come back.

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Unfortunately, I can't do that while at work :( – Brian Reindel Jan 10 '11 at 15:12
+1 for suggesting sport, that really helps me – StuperUser Jan 10 '11 at 15:27
@hal10001 I understand that you may not be able to play basketball or something at work, but you can maybe do other things. My team in the summer takes a walk around our huge building. So our meetings are done while we get some exercise outside without our computers. It's not as awesome as playing a sport, but it's definitely helped us re-focus. – Ryan Hayes Jan 10 '11 at 15:30
+1 the described behavior looks like the beginning of a burn out. The only way to get rid of it is slowing down. – user2567 Jan 10 '11 at 15:51

Do you feel this low level of motivation outside of work too?

The sedentary aspect of programming has gotten me down a few times. Physical exercise, especially team sports, outside of work have had a very strong positive influence on my concentration.

January can be a difficult time of year to be motivated (blue Monday is "bad science", but makes salient points).

  • Be positive about the improvements you make
  • Get (more) exercise outside of work
  • If you browse, browse productive sites ( as developers need to be good problem solvers) and install leech block and stick to it

Personally, I juggle to keep my brain/body balance and problem solving going. Club passing is very fun.

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+1 for LeechBlock, neat little add-on. – Zsolt Török Jan 10 '11 at 22:15

The best way to learn is to teach.

  • Online - If you're going to be surfing, why not answer questions here or on StackOverflow? I've learned so much on these sites, and most of the time from questions I've answered. Many times I can help others, which is awesome. Other times I didn't have the whole answer, or I had a good answer, but not the best answer. In those times I've learned to be a better developer and co-worker.
  • Offline - If you're great at an area that your team struggles with, or vice versa, why not hold short classes to teach your co-workers? Where I work, we have what we call "lunch and learn"s. One day per week, or as time allows, we all get together and one person will show everyone else how to use MVC, or how to write a Java application (even though we're a .NET shop). Sometimes we'll have a topic like "Debugging tips/tools" and we'll all get together and show each other our workflow or tips and tricks we have. Everyone has fun during downtime, the team bonds, and we all learn. Having a goal like a weekly lunch and learn that you know you must present at will give you a goal and motivation to do something besides just surf.
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Thanks Ryan. This is one area where I've considered spending more time, and I may just put together some teaching material. – Brian Reindel Jan 10 '11 at 15:36
The offline bit especially sounds magical. What I wouldn't do to work at a place where people were passionate and didn't just nine to five it. It is soul sucking :( – Josh Jan 11 '11 at 7:11
I personally find "Lunch and Learn" to be a poor way for learning anything but good for practicing how to talk to a group. Better that your company or group have an active Wiki where people can offload information (including links to tutorials) to their peers. – Apprentice Queue Mar 28 '11 at 8:41

I find that my motivation and hunger for programming waxes and wanes. There are times in my life where I literally eat, sleep, and drink programming! I have lived in my office under my desk at times...

And there are other times where I cannot give a damn. It's all just too fraggin' dull and tedious and same'ol'same.

Personally, I feel awful when I'm in a funk, and not stoked on programming. But it happens, and (so far) invariably changes over time, and I become deeply engaged again.

Trying to force yourself to always be at the high point of that sine wave... is probably not healthy or a reasonable self-expectation.

Fulfill your obligations to your employer when you're at a low, and remind yourself of when you're at the top of your game, and the benefits that your employer gets almost for free then, and I think it'll all wash out fairly in the end.

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+1 because I don't think you're alone with the cyclical nature of productive programming – Gary Rowe Jan 10 '11 at 17:40
I was given something to do yesterday that was interesting, and kept me focused. The time flew by, and I thought it was a challenging and enjoyable coding experience. Now your comment is really sticking out for me, and I'm thinking maybe I'm just at the lowest point in the sine wave. – Brian Reindel Jan 11 '11 at 14:55

Be careful of what you develop on company time

Putting together a cool idea or project during work hours, especially on work time, can lead to some ownership issues if that idea takes off commercially. You may find that your company wants a serious slice of the action if you invent the next Google.

Refactor your wetware

However, if you find yourself reaching for Hacker News or some other news feed rather than working on your own development then perhaps the time has come to read Refactor your Wetware. This can give you a range of insights into problem solving that may lead you to generate a renewed interest in programming. Perhaps combine this with an excursion into Project Euler and see where it takes you.

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Thank you for the book recommendation! – Brian Reindel Jan 10 '11 at 19:26
It's certainly helped me and it dispels a lot of myths. – Gary Rowe Jan 10 '11 at 19:38

When I get in a rut and don't want to be productive I just think about being unemployed. That gets me back into the flow of things.

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This is difficult to address without the root cause; ie..if depression is the problem, addressing that will be a significantly different approach then how you would address experiencing burnout.

This may sound outlandish but first and foremost talk to your doctor. If depression appears to be a front runner then they should have a plan to address the problem.

If this is simply a case of burnout; become diligent at seperating what you define as your time versus what you define as the employers time. Do not bleed the employers time into your time and vice versa.

This should begin to force a re-evaluation on what interests you. Once you find something that interests you that interest will naturally start to take priority and should provide a machnism for getting back into the swing of things.

If you do not define software development as your time any longer; then at least you have a bucket to place that activity in, employers time.

You can then focus on your time outside of work on whatever the previously recognized new interest may be.

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"If this is simply a case of burnout; become diligent at seperating what you define as your time versus what you define as the employers time. Do not bleed the employers time into your time and vice versa." Thank you for this! – Brian Reindel Jan 10 '11 at 15:20

It looks like you are missing the fun, so it might be time to search a job that you find fun.

If you are not ready to give up your job you might want to try to bring in the fun again.

For me it would be finding purpose and fun. I don't know you well enough to tell what you think is fun and for what purpose you might get motivated but what I think is fun might be helpful.

  • start a pet project that you can care about. Not just anything just to learn the technology but to make something people can use. Preferably with people that share the same interest.
  • make it a game, look at these questions first question and second question to get you started
  • start on line teaching/study groups within your company.
  • find books that you find easy to read and lie close to your hart and serve a purpose for work.
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This is where I'd probably suggest a little reflection and retrospection on your life. A few questions that may help:

  • What cool things have happened in the past week? Is there a pattern here that may suggest either changes to what kind of work you do or the process of how it gets done?

  • What annoyances did you have recently that may be a sign of something bad coming soon? Either writing things down as they happen or remembering them well a few days later is a key point here. Are there health concerns that may be worth writing down in a journal while you have some free time?

  • Set some goals or re-evaluate how they are doing. This is likely one of the better times to look around and see if you are where you want to be. How well did that last project go? What changes could you suggest for the next one?

The idea here is to try to find what was good and bring in more of that and try to avoid the bad though this isn't always realistic as well as do the occasional checkpoint to see whether or not you are going in the right direction.

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This rings alarm bells.

Context: I suffered a massive burnout over the last 18 months, to the point where I'm taking an open break from the profession as we speak (finishing up at my job this Friday in fact) - and your question sounds eerily like something I might have asked in the early stages of my downward spiral.

Take it seriously. If it really is early stage burnout, you need to handle it now. As Aaron says, getting professional help is not too outlandish. They can at least help diagnose whether it's depression, burnout, or just a temporary spike of normal everyday stress. The key point is: you don't want to take your chances. Because if it's one of the first two, it can get very ugly, very quickly.

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I wouldn't be overly concerned with what you do during the time that you have no pressing responsibilities. It sounds like you just came off of a larger project and just need to unwind bit. Everyone has bouts of that.

What would be alarming is, if you were being generally non-productive during a period where you did have schedules to keep and deadlines to meet. As a programmer, you naturally pick up on changes in how something behaves, even if it's you. Sometimes, those behaviors aren't as anomalous as you think.

Time spent decompressing a bit is not time wasted. I also don't think that you've lost interest in programming, you just happen to lack an interesting problem to solve. Enjoy it while it lasts. Read the news, dig through Reddit, look at some funny cats on 'teh interwebz' or answer some questions on SO.

Things have a way of naturally going back to 'normal'.

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