I’ve dealt with burnout many times in my 6 years as a software engineer. Usually, it’s when I get bored of a project or there is a slow period where I don’t have a lot of work to do. Counter to what you would expect having less work makes it harder to get that work done than when there is more to do. I think it is because when there is less of it, the work feels less important and subconsciously it feels like I’m not really needed. Like when you are in a meeting trying to estimate the impact of an issue with the whole team, but only three out of ten people are actually able to do anything before people are duplicating work. Then you end up waiting for other people to do basic things like read logs and tell you what they say. You could just read them yourself, but do we need 3 people reviewing the same logs right now?
I intentionally stayed on my current team for a relatively long period of time just to see what it was like. Earlier in my career I worked as a consultant where my longest time on one project was 9 months. Here at a product company we have been working on essentially the same problems for years. This is great in a way because I have been able to develop deep expertise in my systems and tooling, but the cost is of course burnout.
The pandemic has made this year significantly worse by forcing remote work. I’ve lived in studio apartments since college and rely on having an office to provide a distinction between working and other activities. Efficiencies, like eating at my desk, which make sense normally, serve to muddle work and play when everything happens in a 500sqft box.
Having everything muddled together makes it much harder to maintain flow. The absence of which makes everything more difficult. Especially, when your general happiness is influenced by your self-perceived productivity and usefulness as mine is. A large reason for my career success so far is how I maintain focus in the office. I don’t let myself do certain activities in the office like use Facebook, Reddit, Twitter or almost anything non-work related. Figuring out how to extend those norms to a single room lifestyle has been very difficult.
I haven’t been able to wait out burnout. In the past a team or job change alleviated the problem. This year it just got worse and worse by the end of my stay in Seattle I didn’t want to fix it.
The good news is that I left Seattle, living there has never felt right to me, the winters are horrible. In the short term I will be itinerant, but eventually I will acquire a new permanent space which will be larger. I’m hoping to move into a house or condo, but might end up in a one or two bedroom apartment with a dedicated office.
Fixing one part of my life that I knew I didn’t like has helped. It hasn’t fixed everything, but I’ve had a lot of time to think of ways to improve my working situation which I think will pay off.