Am I Really Burnt Out?

Previously I mentioned that in making the decision to take a sabbatical I asked myself, “am I really burnt out enough to make taking time off the best choice for me?” and that it wasn’t an easy question to answer.

What precisely constitutes burnout?

You know you’re burned out when things that used to motivate you to get up early and work through lunch, or after quitting time, now feel like burdens. Not just work stuff, burnout starts affecting your life outside work, on things that you thought had nothing to do with work.

A challenging situation or over-stressed situation leading to burnout?

You’re challenged when, even if you don’t know how to get through it, you have in your mind a structure, a way of getting through it. You know you can figure it out, you just have to work it out, and the process of working through it energizes you. You’re over-stressed when you don’t see a way through, or when you see the way through but dread doing the necessary things. Serious burnout shows up as being unable to muster the mental and emotional energy or focus to even figure out a way through, even though you can remember dealing with similar situations in the past.

Different people have different tolerances for stress

Tolerance for stress depends, in part, on a person’s level of resilience: your ability to face reality exactly as it is, your sense that what you do will have some meaningful impact, and your self-confidence in your ability to handle the situation. You might remember a time when you were a kid and something you dealt with seemed like the end of the world, but now you look back and wonder what the big deal was. Your ability to manage stressful situations grew.

Some of the stressful things that had happened to me at my job were novel to me, and looking back now I can objectively see that I wasn’t ready to handle the challenge.

In short, when you’re burnt out, you’re tired even when you get enough sleep, you are reflexively cynical and critical of the work, and you begin to feel like problems you should be able to handle require extraordinary efforts. Those feelings happen now and then when you’re not burnt out, but if it becomes chronic, that’s burnout.

It’s now been a bit over a month since my last work day, and a good two months since I first started considering whether or not I needed to take a sabbatical. With hindsight I am certain I was burnt out. Now that I’ve stepped away, and my thinking is clearer, it’s easy to be sure. That’s the thing about burnout, though – it’s hard to realize it’s happening precisely because of the effects on the mind when it’s happening.

A Year Before

At the beginning of the pandemic I decided to start something called a Zettelkasten. My first note is dated March 6, 2020. That’s just about a week before my employer sent out official notice that everyone would be working from home “until further notice“. As of my last day there, we were still working from home.

The motivation for starting this accessory tool, this “second brain”, was mostly in turning out design documents, specifications, proposals, and such for work. I had already spent some time refining and focusing my styles and templates for the usual sorts of documents programmers write. I was struggling with pulling together and organizing the available information effectively, I believe because the organization had information scattered across team silos within the organization and across different places, even within one team. Just a partial list of places includes

  • wiki, in the form of Atlassian’s Confluence
  • git repositories in Atlassian’s Bitbucket
  • tickets in Atlassian’s Jira
  • Slack
  • email
  • my meeting notes (I take a lot of notes, by hand, on paper)
  • corporate internal website
  • various other one-off tools like Trello and documents on the share Microsoft OneDrive.

Notably, there was no use of any Google products, as they were considered a direct competitor.

We had the wiki, but no one really spent any time curating it. Some teams put a lot of great documentation in git repositories on the BitBucket server. The search function for the Wiki was only marginally useful, and BitBucket’s search was effectively useless. I could clone a repo and search it locally pretty easily – even git grep is better than the built-in search function of the server – but searching across repos was another story. Quite a lot of good information was only in various channels (there had to be hundreds of them) in the company Slack server. Many discussions that resulted in important decisions were only in Slack. The best I can say about that is that Slack’s search is better than BitBucket offered, and Slack by nature records who was involved and when. There was also email. Although email definitely took a back seat to Slack for day-to-day work, the communications from corporate levels and with vendors and customers lived there. My solution, a Zettelkasten, allowed me to collect together the important information from all the sources and organize it in personal repository in a way that supported my style of work and ways of thinking.

The term “Zettelkasten” is a German word compound of “Zettel,” note or slip of paper, and “Kasten,” meaning box. Zettelkasten is then “box of notes,” also called a slip box or card index in English. It’s not just a collection, though, the power lies in methods of using the box of notes to connect ideas. It’s meant to be what we think with, not an archive to file memories.

C. Wright Mills wrote about a similar way of intellectual production an appendix, titled “On Intellectual Craftsmanship“ in his 1959 book  The Sociological Imagination. Ted Nelson’s 1965 paper “Complex Information Processing: A File Structure for the Complex, the Changing and the Indeterminate“ describes a “file” structure for similar purposes. That paper helped inspire the World Wide Web, and it has some applicability to how to represent a Zettelkasten.

Of course, I don’t have a physical card catalog full of paper index cards, I have a digital Zettelkasten. It’s a bunch of markdown files and some tools I wrote for managing them. In the intervening 14 months I’ve created 329 notes, or just a little under a note per day. Some days I didn’t create any, some days I created a lot, and some days I just worked on the notes I have, updating and refining them. I’ve refined and expanded my tools to address different aspects of my workflow. I’ve changed the format of my notes, added integration with my Zotero library, and tried out a variety of editors.

What do I put in my Zettelkasten? A least a third are about programming, some of it to help with producing documents like presentations, designs, tutorials, and how-to guides for work, some of it just for keeping up with industry developments. There’s some stuff about productivity, including working with the Zettelkasten itself, as well as writing generally, knowledge-work skills, note-taking, and so forth. There’s some about Zen and spirituality, and some on photography.

For my sabbatical, I’m going to work though Cracking the Coding Interview, using my Zettelkasten to record and capture what I learn. I’m also going to continue to record what I do and see for my sabbatical as a whole, and bring insights here.

The process of building and keeping a Zettelkasten indirectly led me to decide to take this sabbatical. Reading about taking notes and writing led to me to looking into techniques for improving my knowledge work, and being led to read about Deep Work, which led me to Will Larson and his series of questions for someone considering switching jobs or taking a sabbatical.

  • Are you financially secure for at least a year without working?
  • Do you work in a high-density job market, remotely, or are you flexible on where your next job is?
  • Do you interview well?
  • Could you articulate a coherent narrative to someone asking you why you left without a job lined up?
  • Are there folks at your previous company who can provide positive references?

I was able to answer in the affirmative for all those questions. The last question I asked myself is “am I really burnt out enough to make taking time off the best choice for me?”. That was a harder question to answer.

Working through Cracking the Coding Interview will take a while. I’m not sure how long, though. I suspect more than a few weeks, but I’m not setting a firm timeline. I will work on it an hour or so a day, within my usual self-imposed routine, and see how far I get over time. As I progress, the content I add to my Zettelkasten will help me gauge my progress and allow me adjust my rate.

Net Negative Programmer

At more than one job, I’ve worked with programmers whose efforts were consistently flawed enough that others had to spend as much or more effort correcting them. Whatever code they wrote, settings they changed, or documentation they created, it was wrong in some way, and required another programmer to come and correct or revert. Some enhancement they spent three or four hours on meant someone else spending a half day or more to understand and correct. Disclaimer: I was almost certainly in that category at one time or another in my career.

When a programmer’s contributions result in total programmer hours spent with no net improvement or added functionality, they are a drag on the project and a net negative for productivity.

If a project’s code looks like this before the net negative programmer starts:

It looks like this when they have completed their work.

By Cecilia Giménez - https://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/24/world/europe/botched-restoration-of-ecce-homo-fresco-shocks-spain.html, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54153025

In my individual contributor days, I could only try to find ways to persuade my manager that there was a problem. When I’ve had more senior roles I’ve always preferred to work with a person. I tried to find something that would be interesting and challenging to them that added value to the company. I’m humble enough that I don’t claim to have never been, if not a net negative, somewhat of a drag to a team. I would hope in that situation the team and management would see enough potential to point me in a productive direction.