The Thin Line Between Programmer Productivity and Burnout

Written By Danila Petrova

We all want to be productive in our work. We want to achieve more, and we enjoy the sense of growth that comes with consistently surpassing the milestones ahead of us. Seeing a checked to-do list, meeting our assignments’ deadlines, and being encouraged when we provide high-quality work time and time again feels nothing short of amazing.

However, from my experience working in a java development company, I know productivity is a thin line away from burnout. As a programmer, you not only have to push out products that are in demand but also keep track of any updates that may change the direction of projects as they are being developed.

While this is a part of the job description, programmers need rest just as much as anyone else! If you approach your work smartly, you could build healthy habits that are not a danger to your overall mental or physical health.

Now, there are many developers who work with a passion. They love being part of an industry that builds the future one project at a time, especially considering the impact that technology has on the everyday lives of every member of society!

Of course, having generally good working conditions and a competitive salary does not hurt people’s desire to work in IT. After all, a sense of achievement coupled with the need to maintain an established lifestyle are some of the main driving forces that get so many people to work every single day. 

Why People Enjoy Being Productive and Active With Their Work

It is known that whenever we have completed a small task, our brain releases a spike of dopamine. This hormone has been labelled the “feel-good” hormone and is the source of enjoyment and temporary happiness. 

The brain links the action with the dopamine spike, effectively building a habit of performing the same action repetitively in an attempt to get the next dose of dopamine and a feeling of immediate validation. The automatic response to seek out momentary happiness as a result of repetitive action is actually highly addictive to humans. The more you use this practice to cultivate productive habits, the more your brain will seek it out—and the more you will get results using the same practices.

How Productivity Can Grow Into Burnout Over Time

There are many helpful tips on how to be more productive and make the most of any given day. Changing your mindset to get better results is one of the best things you can do for your career. 

However, you should be aware that due to the addictive effects you experience, it is easy not to notice when you are setting yourself up for a massive burnout.

What Exactly Is Burnout?

Definition: A feeling of physical and emotional exhaustion, due to stress from working under difficult or demanding conditions. Burnout is followed by signs such as chronic fatigue, quickness to become angry and suspicious, and susceptibility to colds, headaches, and fevers.

As it is defined, burnout can have a severe negative impact on your overall physical and mental health. The extent of it will likely vary depending on how much time you spend working under stressful conditions. To protect yourself, you need to take a step back and evaluate whether you are experiencing any of these symptoms:

  • Losing your sense of purpose – The work you love doing no longer seems to have as much meaning as it used to.
  • Feeling a sense of fatigue, both mental and physical – This is often observed when you feel simple things are getting harder and harder to do. Every task and action you perform suddenly is more difficult than it was before—from brushing your teeth to going out in time to catch the right bus. It takes much more time to complete the same task regardless of how simple it seems.
  • Experiencing mood swings, irritability, and impatience – You may notice you are easily annoyed by things that usually don’t affect you as much, or you lash out at loved ones and colleagues irrationally. This may also cause you to become emotionally detached from things that you used to be passionate about.
  • Having difficulty meeting commitments – You start getting to work late; you forget about an important meeting. You either do not make plans to meet with people or bail at the last minute. Sometimes, you may completely forget about a commitment and fail to show up or notify the other person at all. Or if you do meet your obligation, you have difficulty being a part of the social interaction, and the experience does not lead to the anticipated results.
  • Getting sick frequently – Experiencing burnout affects not only your psyche, but it also lowers your immune system, making you much more susceptible to illness. This will cause you to need more and more sick days away from work.
  • Having a lowered work performance – You may experience what is referred to as brain fogginess and inability to concentrate. Often combined with a sense that your efforts are not being appreciated, you may become withdrawn from working with your colleagues and avoid social interactions altogether.
  • Experiencing sleep deprivation, anxiety, and a depressed outlook on life – Not being able to fall asleep or having trouble waking up and starting your day in the morning is also a factor that adds to brain fog. Feeling hopeless, as well as not seeing the opportunities you have available to you, is common for people experiencing burnout.

Why Don’t We Notice It in Time?

All of the side effects are severe, so how could we possibly not notice burnout happening? More often than not, burnout increases over time. It starts with feeling slightly tired and deciding to skip the family dinner on Friday. The severity of the condition, along with its symptoms, slowly increases over time to the point where it becomes difficult to overcome.

How do we force ourselves into conditions that are detrimental to our health? As mentioned earlier, our brain loves dopamine and actively seeks out actions that cause a spike. However, this makes it way too easy to overpack our schedule and our to-do list without noticing. The more you add to your daily schedule, the more you expect of yourself. 

At the same time, you build a habit of overwhelming yourself as the new normal:

  • Your one evening working late in the office turns into two or three times a week. 
  • The quick email checkup on the weekend turns into working a few hours every other weekend.
  • Your start working a few hours some weekends, then every weekend, and so on.

By doing this, you force your brain and body to work in overdrive for longer than it is prepared to handle, consistently, over a long period of time—all for the drive to check off another assignment and earn a dopamine spike, coupled with a sense of achievement! 

Burnout can easily lead to work stress and, in turn, have severe negative effects on your health. At the end of the day, nothing is worth putting your health at risk!

I advise finding a middle ground. Learn to listen to your body and mind when you receive the signals that you need a break. And at the same time, learn to balance what you put on your plate work-wise.

Finding Your Ideal Work and Life Balance

Naturally, we all want to be productive—and that is something we need to do in order to maintain professional excellence. However, you should keep in mind that there are ways to make sure you do not cross over into the dangerous level of overworking yourself.

One thing you can do is make sure to always dedicate enough time for the most basic human needs. The more objectively healthy you are, the more you will be able to manage your daily routine while maintaining your health. 

  • Dedicate enough time for quality sleep, daily – The recommended amount of sleep for the average adult is between seven and eight hours. Other factors such as stress, physical activity, and how much and what type of food you consume may affect how much sleep you need. So, make it a priority to dedicate enough time to let your body and mind recover from the day’s work.
  • Dedicate enough time for at least three meals It is understandable that as a busy adult, you may not have the time to prepare homemade food or the time to spend over an hour in a restaurant. But dedicating at least 30 minutes for a good meal on your lunch break is a must. The body cannot function properly without food, not to mention the added benefits of stepping away from your desk. The mental break will leave you feeling more refreshed when you get back to work and will relieve some of the stress, at least for a while.
  • Dedicate a little bit of time for exercise – Even as little as 15 minutes of exercise every day will make a difference. Walk to work, take a walk on your break, stretch in the morning, or ride your bike. Even if it is not much, do your best to stay active, and your health and brain activity will reap the benefits.
  • Break your assignments into small tasks Our brains like to focus on short-term goals and bite-sized assignments. The reason behind it is simple: The more often you have a sense of success, the longer your brain remembers what allowed you to score that small win. You will likely feel inspired to repeat the action to gain the same emotion when finishing the next item on your list.
  • Be realistic about how much you can actually finish within the workday Success is built one step at a time. Simply breaking each of your assignments into a series of small steps and focusing on only one at a time is great. However, you need a measure of how many of them you can string together in a day. You can overwork yourself just as much by doing 20 small tasks as you would by doing two or three large ones!

These tips will help you stay healthy while being task-oriented. The goal is not to cut back on your work and become less productive but rather to be more efficient with how you perform your daily workload while keeping feelings of failure at bay. 

Find a Balance That Works for Your Needs

Burnout creeps into your life slowly and invisibly until it is too late. You must find a way to balance being productive while giving yourself enough time to rest and recover. Try different tactics to see what works best with your job’s requirements and your personal activities. 

Setting apart and clearly defining your priorities, both at work and in life, is the best way to direct your focus toward what is truly important. In addition, this approach allows you a certain amount of flexibility in completing the rest of your tasks and obligations. The minor ones get fit in where there is room for them rather than being treated as priorities. The goal is optimal performance that won’t cost you your health!

Think about what you can do daily to manage your productivity without reaching dangerous burnout levels. Then make an attempt to be more mindful of how you choose to manage your tasks and your basic needs, and remember: No work is more important than your health and well-being!