Dealing with burnout

I don’t want to treat this blog as my personal diary. I needed it to be the place where readers will only find useful and good content.

But I feel compelled to share with the world my current situation.

Two weeks ago, I worked a 60 hour-week instead of the usual 44 hour and I went four days surviving only on 6 hours of sleep total, relying on caffeine so that I could code and fix bugs.

And last week, it was a 50 hour-week and I didn’t pay off my sleep debt.

And the kicker was, the company doesn’t give time-off to us for burning our weekends and nights just because they deemed our jobs to be “professional” and doesn’t care how we deliver the results.

I was thinking maybe I should throw in some more physical activities to help contribute to my energy levels and reduce my stress levels. It helped a little.

Then my boss told me I have to quickly take over the product development because the main developer for it was leaving by the end of the month while my current project has multiple deliverables also by the end of the month.

So I suspect this coming week will be another 60 hour-week, possibly even 70 hour-week, depending on how things turn out. I also have a medical appointment for some conditions that I’m suffering from and needed some relief.

With all that, I thought I could write my novel during whatever free time I have. I’m pushing hard to write my novel because I intend to get it out before my next birthday in a few months time. The novel will be at least 70,000 words long, meaning I need to be churning out 23,000 words each month.

And for the month of June, I only managed 10,000 words instead of 23,000 with the month coming to an end. Most of the time, I had to deal with wasted hours of staring at the blank canvas, not sure what to write. Words don’t come out. Even if they did, they felt forced. They lack life.

In addition to that, I have had literal nightmares for several days, continue to suffer from insufficient sleep due to anxiety. The hatred for my day job continues to grow. Even my attempts to see it “working in service of my writing” didn’t do me much good. Mind you, I am already at this stage where I am no longer interested in building software. I really just want to do something else for a living and is just forcing myself to go to work so that I can pay off my credit card debt, my bills and generally live a decent life in this expensive country.

Right now, I’m frustrated and disillusioned. My gastric issue and body pain came back, requiring me to survive on antacid, painkillers and muscle relaxant. And as a writer, I don’t even have the time to read so that I can be inspired and learn new stuff…

I just don’t know how long I can keep this up.

All in your head

Distraction.

It’s the thing that could destroy your productivity and send you down the rabbit hole of wasting time and achieving nothing. You will find yourself doing everything else but the one thing you need to be doing.

And you know what? The biggest problem isn’t with distraction. It’s not that video game. Not that Netflix show. Not that book. Rather, it’s you. You are the problem. You choose to play that video game, watch that show or read that book.

So why did you make that choice?

Is it because you lack the discipline?

Or maybe be that the thing you should be doing doesn’t have a strong enough draw to pull you away? Maybe it’s not as important as you think it is? And don’t kid yourself and be all defensive. After all, if it’s important, then why aren’t you doing those things? Why are you allowing yourself to be distracted?

It’s also a conversation that I’m having with myself every now and then.

As much as I like to think I have the discipline to work from home, it’s a lie perpetrated by me on me. The truth is being distracted is a recurring theme. There were so many projects that I want to do but ended up not doing them. I went with playing video games, stopped thinking like a writer and stopped thinking like a designer.

I even told my friends that I couldn’t find the time or concentrate on my stuff at home and needed to work outside. There’s just too many distracting stuff.

One of them said, “it’s all in your head”.

I won’t say I’m surprised. From what I have learned so far, it’s the truth. And the only truth when it comes to productivity.

And that’s a great reminder on who’s really in control.

No one else can make you concentrate or focus. You are the one who decide whether you can concentrate and do the work. Everything else that you say or fight against is just you finding an excuse.

What if you really think that your home has a ton of distractions and you can’t prevent yourself from utilising those distractions? Then go out there and find an environment to work in that allow you to focus. Otherwise, remove all those items in your house that distracts you. Move those distracting things, be it television, your internet router/access points, etc. to a storage unit. Smash them to pieces if you need to. You can always buy a new one later. It’s all about creating that environment you need to work.

And watch what you say to yourself. A lot of times, many of the comments or complains you make are just you being fancy and refuse to do the work. So shut up, and make a plan and execute.

Who you work with is important

You are the average of the five person you hang out with the most. The truth cannot be any further than that. It applies also to your professional life.

As humans, most of us want to conform to our social group and not be left out. To conform, we instinctively pick up on behaviours, the habits and mindset of the social group we are in. And it didn’t matter if it’s bad behaviour, habits or mindset.

For me, I had this sudden realisation that I’ve been affected by what my colleagues are doing and it’s actually quite damaging to my professional and personal development.

Majority of my colleagues are married. So their primarily focus is their family, kids especially. Therefore, they aren’t the kind who wants to put in so much hours at work or to deal with a fast paced environment. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Family is important. Spending the time to ensure your kids knows a loving environment is important.

As a highly-sensitive person who is also very introverted, I don’t like a high-stress or high pressure work environment too. I tend to take things slow and I don’t do well with toxic work environment either.

But I also want interesting challenges to solve. Who likes to go to office, sit there and do the same thing over and over again?

Yet, I realised my drive and desire to do good work has disappeared. A quick audit of my professional life has shown me that I allowed myself to behave like some of my colleagues. Pushing away work that’s not mine to deal with. Rushing home on time when there’s obviously nothing for me to do at home. And even join in a little bit of office politics for the wrong reason. So how is doing all that good for you? Best part is, I’m complaining about my work load. In the past, I don’t. I actually don’t mind challenging programming problems to solve.

In hindsight, there’s a difference between assertive with what you need and being plain mediocre with the things you do. Don’t confuse the two like I do.

And you know what? My audit also show me the biggest influencer on my recent attitude was the one I have to work with over the past year. Her bad attitude towards work has rubbed off on me. Lack of ownership is the biggest problem she has. While I had to go onsite to solve issues, sometimes caused by her failure to do a good job, she always try to find ways to push it away when it’s her time to go to work site. Initially, I turned a blind eye because I didn’t want to offend her since we had to work together on many things. My team lead had talked to me and her on separate occasions about her work quality too. However, there was nothing either one of us can do.

But recently, I had to confront her about why the stuff she does never quite seem to work correctly when you need it the most. I had done it in poor taste, as is typical of me. So it’s natural she took offence and now pretended that I don’t exists anymore. Yet, for some strange reason, I found it quite liberating. It’s like I have confronted what influenced me to do badly and I could finally move on with life.

And nope, I’m not going to apologise. I just have to deal with the aftermath.

With this, I hope you can see that it’s important for one to audit what’s going on with their work life and how are the little things affecting you. Being self-aware and conscious of your surroundings is very important. Less you find yourself sucked into a hole of negativity that you can’t climb out of.

Meet short term goal or minimise long term pain

Every day of our lives, be it professional or personal, we’ve got to deal with situations that require us to deal with it now with quick solutions or come up with a better solution and taking the time to implement it to minimise long term pain.

Ideally, there should be a balance between the two but reality tends to force us into coming up with an immediate solution to deal with the current pain. Usually, it’s because someone above you, your customer or that a life depends on it made the issue a high priority.

And it takes someone with experience in certain situation to be able to make a decision that seemingly strike a balance.

As a software creator (I don’t call myself an engineer or developer but that’s a story for another day), I lost count of the times when I have to sacrifice the solution that’s good in the long run to deal with something that the customer wants it now. And then there’s always this “we are behind schedule” speech by the management. So much so, it makes you want to roll your eyes. It can make one feel like the management is always reacting to something and not preempting and executing on a plan.

Of course, perspective matters here. More time spent in doing something means more money spent. The manpower could be better utilised to work on something else that deliver on more value (money) to the company. Not to mention, to the customer, it’s like they don’t get their money worth of goods or services on time.

However, cutting corners on a solution just so that you can deliver on time can lead to long term pain that ultimately translate to time and money wasted.

Let’s take something that I’ve experienced at work as an example.

The system my team and I are working on requires a constant patching of data in the database. It can be either to insert new records or to fix old records with updated information. As the system is still undergoing development and deployment, the data is constantly in flux. And the customer will send us spreadsheets of data for us to do matching and patching.

And instead of spending maybe a week to build the user interface and implement the business logic that not only validates the data but to allow us to upload those spreadsheets and update the database in a few clicks and change existing data all from one UI window, my colleagues have to take the time to review through those spreadsheets. Sometimes, two persons are involved. What any one of them will do is use their eyeballs to scan through the records in order to determine whether to match and update existing records or to insert. Then they will manually write the SQL scripts to insert or update the data into the database.

No doubt the scripts run fast and the database will be patched within seconds.

However, what the project lead and management didn’t take into account of the time and effort needed to validate the data manually every time, prepare the scripts and run them. And that’s not forgetting humans can make mistakes. If the data is patched wrongly, the whole system may not work as intended and then we will need to “rush” someone down to the customer office to fix that issue. Time spent at customer office is time not spent on delivering features.

And if you are someone who panics very easily, and you have to deal with such high pressured situation, more mistakes will happen.

The management of course have a defence. Their stance is that this kind of data patching doesn’t happen often. By my last count, it has happened five times since the project started and we aren’t even at the end yet. And I suspect this data patching will repeat several more times until the end of the project. How many more, I don’t know. In fact, I’ve just recently spent half an hour to de-associate the relationships between two datasets because it wasn’t patched properly. Mind you, those de-associated relationships need to be rebuild again once the data has been reviewed and cleaned up again.

I may not be in a management role but it’s obvious to me that taking the time to build that user interface and implement the necessary business logic to help us match the data, validate the data and update the database in as few click as possible is the better option here.

And given what I know about the future plans of the company with regard to this project, the current way of doing things is just not scalable. Oh, I raised the point a lot of times but I’m always overwritten. Well, mostly.

This is what I mean by meeting short goal or minimising long term pain. There are many other examples that I could think of but this is the clearest one to me.

In conclusion, always strive for the mid-point between meeting short term goal and minimising long term pain by evaluating as much data point as possible before making a decision. It’s especially the case if it’s something that affects your persona life and you don’t have a higher up to answer to. And depending on the culture of where you live and work, you can either fight to the death for what you believe to be the right course, find a compromise or swallow your pride and let the other party win. In an asian context like the one in Singapore, you are better off choosing the last approach if you are an employee at the bottom of the ladder or an underling. Or management will make your life miserable.

Inclusive Team

The ability to work in team is key to whether a project, a task or a mission is completed successfully. And it’s so much more than throwing a bunch of people together to work on something. The people in it have to put in the effort to find ways to work with each other and compromise on an individual wants to achieve a common goal.

However, it can show that the team is discriminating if the team consists of people from different races who speak different languages but the predominant language used during a meeting or gathering is not a lingua franca. For example, speaking in mandarin 90% of the time when there is an Indian in the team who doesn’t know the language.

And the fact that the remaining members of the team are Chinese is no excuse.

You just don’t leave someone out during a project discussion by using non-lingua franca and then proceed to waste that one person’s time on topics that has zero relation to his or her job role for the sake of showing it’s a “inclusive team”.

This kind of sensitivity is something we all should learn and remember.