You Are Not Alone

Since you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance that you or a developer you know has struggled with their physical and mental health. I have personally faced battles with mental and physical health, it’s an ongoing process and I will face similar challenges in the future – we all will. In this article, I share a few of the challenges I’ve encountered as a Software Developer and discuss how I handle them.

Challenges

  1. Isolation
  2. Target Panic
  3. Burnout
  4. Becoming Sedentary
  5. Work / Life Balance

Although it’s not an exhaustive list of the difficulties you may face, I have the most experience with these five. I will walk through each of these challenges, defining them with an example followed by my personal mechanism for coping.

If your mental health is suffering and you are experiencing a crisis or considering harming yourself or someone else, please please please seek immediate help. There is no shame in reaching out.

USA Crisis and Suicide Prevention Hotline 24/7: +1-800-273-8255

I can personally attest to the helpfulness and professionalism of calling a hotline or scheduling an appointment with a counselor.

#1 Isolation

What does it feel like?

At the time of writing, we’ve just begun the second year of isolation and lockdown due to the novel coronavirus. For this reason, everyone now has firsthand experience with what social isolation feels like. Unfortunately, this feeling is not new for many software developers. To be honest, when lockdown first occurred in March of 2020 the first few months felt like nothing had even changed with my social life. This was a big hint for me.

feeling isolated among others

When you are isolated, you limit your social interactions to a very small number of individuals and even then it might be days before you actually talk face-to-face with another person. As a person who tends toward being an introvert, it’s really easy to self-isolate without even realizing it until you start to feel the effects.

Isolation can leave you feeling stressed for no reason in particular. It can cause you to ignore your physical health. Long-term isolation has even shown to reduce your mood and overall quality of life.

How do I deal with isolation?

Even if it doesn’t feel like a good idea at the time, I will purposefully schedule a time to spend with friends, family, and neighbors. “I have to finish this thing I’m working it, I’m almost done!”, sound familiar? It’s not easy to get up and walk away from your work or project, but, every now and then it’s an absolute requirement.

Although it’s not a replacement for face-to-face interaction, I find it helpful to look for a community to join. In my town, there is a local Maker’s club filled with nerds like me who live for DIY projects and problem-solving. Even during COVID, many social groups still meet online or socially distanced to keep each other company and get things done. To help you avoid overload and burnout, consider joining a volunteer group that is not related to software.

#2 Target Panic

What is Target Panic?

In my youth, I was part of my local 4H club’s archery team. At first, I started by shooting my bow on instinct, without any sights to guide my shot, just my intuition. Eventually, I upgraded my equipment and added a set of sights to my bow. After this, I found that every time I pulled back the string and stared down the sights I would start to feel anxious. This is because as the sight would approach the bullseye of the target I was getting nervous trying to get the perfect shot. The crazy thing is that it seemed like my sight and center of my target were oppositely charged magnets, no matter how hard I tried the sights would not line up!

target with arrow holes

Target Panic happens to many developers as well. Even though it’s not with a bow and arrow, software developers still have goals and targets that we try to hit. Fixation on an upcoming deadline or release can cause serious anxiety. Why does it seem like every time there is a major deadline you continuously second guess your work? I’ve done this, it’s really bad for my mental health. Frantically trying to find a bug to fix and causing three more to take it’s place, just before the deadline. Sound familiar?

How I handle Target Panic?

My childhood archery teacher told me, “knock the arrow, pull back the string, rest your sight on the target, but, you are not allowed to release the arrow.”. After a few practice rounds, the light bulb went on! Putting the target in the sight wasn’t the real issue. I was afraid to miss. The arrow was the problem!

What does this mean as a developer? The deadline or release is not the thing terrifying you. It’s the process of getting all your tasks done and prepared for the big day. Just like during archery practice, stare down the deadline long before it’s due where there is no chance of failure because you’re not letting the arrow go. By doing this I am able to complete my tasks, create mock deployments, prepare documentation, and run unit tests. When you are able to do all of these things, it’s the same as letting your sight rest on the bullseye – the target is clear and there is no anxiety.

#3 Burnout

What does Burnout feel like?

Burnout is one of the more common mental health strains that we face as software developers. It’s 10 am, you feel heavy, unmotivated, and the brain-fog has set it. Every time you work on a task it seems like you are trying to walk through a pit of glue. Why am I so tired as soon as I sit down for work?

woman burned out and frustrated at computer

There is a social motivation to grind, work early, work late, work while everyone else is having fun, hustle, be different. That’s great! In moderation. There’s a fine line between putting in the work required to stand out among your peers and digging yourself into hole filled with burden and regret.

During college and the first few years after I had no life. I did not party, rarely hang out with friends, and ignored those nearest me. All of it was so that I could learn more, get better, and develop the next big thing – all by myself. Staying awake until 1 am and then back up at 6 am for work, makes for a short night and even less time for socializing and self-care. At one point I looked at my situation and said “when will it be enough?” I didn’t have an answer, that was scary. What do you think happened? My relationships suffered, my body suffered, ironically the very projects I dedicated my time to were suffering.

How do I avoid Burnout

Take a break. I do not really like the commonly used Pomodoro technique. Even though it does accomplish the goal of taking more breaks, this technique triggers a break every 25 minutes. For me, that’s just not enough time to get into my flow state. Instead, I modify this method by taking 5-10 minutes every hour and then a long break mid-day to focus on something else. Occasionally, I will take an hour or two to run errands, take care of some chores, or give someone a call and catch up. I find that this method is pretty good at balancing productivity and providing ample downtime.

Other times, burnout is not happening because the hours are too long, but, that the content has become stale. To keep my mind entertained, I’ve found that small projects work best for me. For example, I really enjoy using Arduino and Raspberry Pi projects to keep things fresh. One of these projects was none other than my ESP32 Weather Station.

Lastly, schedule your day. This one is important and plays a part in the next two challenges as well. Regarding burnout, keeping a schedule allows me to create specific time for work, projects, and everything outside of those. When the clock hits 4 pm, work is done, next thing – with a few exceptions.

#4 Sedentary Lifestyle

How does this happen?

This one really hits home for me. Becoming sedentary means that you spend the majority of your time sitting or laying with very little physical activity for long periods of time. Some of the many side effects can include:

  • weight gain
  • heart disease
  • high cholesterol
  • high blood pressure

It’s easy to let this one sneak up on you. In my case, I casually gained over 30lbs after graduating college and starting my first job in a cubicle. I found that I would sit all day with minimal breaks and practically zero physical activity. At the end of the day, I would feel so mentally exhausted that going for a bike ride or exercise seemed like actual torture. Your physical health has a huge effect on your mental health, don’t take it lightly.

How I avoid being sedentary

Take breaks from work throughout the day and go for a walk. Getting out of the house or office before you feel the stress of the day weighing on you is key. It’s amazing how much better I feel after taking a quick break to walk around the block with my dogs. In some cases, when I’m feeling extra motivated, I will even use the treadmill or go out for some cardio before I begin the day. Any chance to get my blood flowing is well worth it.

Consider using a sit/stand desk. A sit/stand desk or adding a kit to your existing desk that turns it into a standing desk gives you the freedom to quickly switch between sitting and standing at work. Even though it doesn’t seem like a big deal, research from NIH shows that these types of desks can have positive health benefits including reduced back and neck pain as well as reduced fatigue.

After work hours are done, I try to focus on a hobby that does not involve a screen. Movies, video games, social media, are all things that are okay to enjoy, but, only in moderation after a day of working in front of a screen. Fishing, playing sports, biking, shopping, walking, hiking, metal detecting, geocaching, etc… These are all examples of great ways to disconnect from a screen and reduce your time spend sedentary.

#5 Work and Life Balance

Does this sound like you?

Usually as a result of one or more of the previously mentioned challenges, it seem like the work day never ends and the days begin to smear together on the canvas of the week. Your friends and family say, “..it seems like we never see you” or “you’re always working”. In my case, the balance between work and life tends to fall apart just before I realize I’m on the path to burnout. Fixating on deadlines and keeping yourself isolated so you can work effectively removes your social interactions with loved ones and is prohibitive to developing new relationships.

There are times where you will need to tip the scales one way or another, but, the goal is to always bring them back to an equilibrium. As an example, if I take on a side-project developing a website for a client that has a tight deadline, it’s reasonable to lean into that project temporarily in an effort to get it done. However, the after work hours and time after the project is done need to be spent recharging. Sleep is not the only thing we need in order to feel that we have a full life.

On the other side of the scale, you may have a family member in need or a new addition to your atomic family. In this case, it’s work that needs to shift to the light end of the scale. Not so long as to permanently impact your career, but, long enough that you keep your human battery charged.

How can you balance work and life?

By revisiting the previous sections, you will find lots of helpful tips. Take a break from work. It’s amazing how people stop telling you that you are “working all the time” when you start leaving work at a reasonable time. I try to remember that “I don’t live to work, I work to live.”.

Keeping a routine. For me, this one is critical. At a certain time every day you wake up, get ready for the day, walk the dogs, and pour a cup of coffee. Not only does a well balanced routine help you avoid burnout, it also helps you to use your allotted time more effectively.

If you’re married, make sure that you and your spouse are communicating and are on the same page regarding your career. Making your spouse part of the process not only makes them feel included, but, allows you to include their feedback in the way to plan your routine and schedule your days.

Summary

Thank you for reading about my personal challenges as a software developer. If any of these topics resonate with a single person and help them to improve their quality of life my goal was accomplished.

Please know that I am not a guru and do not aspire to be, all of the information in this article is based on my opinions and personal beliefs.