On burnout.

Bruce Byfield has published an article on burnout in community projects, to which I was happy to contribute some thoughts. Overall I believe the thoughts people shared in that article, while not surprising or radical, can help people avoid putting themselves in a burnout situation. Moreover, they can potentially help someone realize that a friend may need a helping hand before they run smack-dab into burnout themselves.

One of the striking (but again, not surprising) bits Bruce wrote in the article was this:

The stress may be increased because the first generations of community members are now well into middle-age, and some are starting to have trouble working the hours to which they are accustomed, either because of reduced stamina or family obligations.

This statement really hit home with me, because in a very time-compressed way I went through a seismic shift in my work/life balance twice in just the space of a couple years. I was feeling somewhat in a confessional mood today, so I figured I’d try and write about my brush with burnout in an honest and not overly edited way. Like Linus, I don’t think I ever really hit a wall. Whether by luck or conscious introspection, I was able to avoid that disaster. But I did see it approaching in the distance, and maybe an explanation of what I did about it will help someone else who sees a reflection in my story.

I started in FOSS long after the very early, pioneering days. I joined the Fedora Project in 2003, by which point my wife and I were already expecting our second child. Since I was more of a homebody by that point, I found it convenient to work in a community software project. I was already hanging around the house more than I used to, but now I could plop down with a laptop and do something extra for my fellow man at night or on the weekend. Meanwhile, my day job was fairly regular, and no remote work was possible, so my work ended when I left the office.

Taking a job with Red Hat made open source the focus for most of my waking hours starting in 2008. By then my son was 4, my daughter was almost 7, and there was plenty to get done every single day on both the home and work fronts. During the next two and a half years, my work schedule became radically different. 12-14 hour days were the norm, and still there was always more to do. I would say that working from home made it easy for me to focus too much on work, and not enough on other important things, like my family. My wife, thankfully and far beyond the call of duty, took up the slack at home.

I joke sometimes to others that one of my purposes in life is to be a cautionary tale, and that definitely applies to my work/life balance problems my first 18 months at Red Hat. I only saw my kids for a small amount of time daily, and to this day I worry that I don’t have enough memories of my daughter’s early grade school or my son as a preschooler. I made it to the obligatory stuff, of course, but it wasn’t real quality time. Mostly when I wasn’t working, I was thinking or worrying about work. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were rushed events after which I’d practically sprint back to the computer, fearing about all the things I wasn’t getting done. It was a very unhealthy approach to work.

At some point partway through my job as FPL, I came to a realization: One day I’d wake up and my kids would be going off to college, and I’d be thinking, “Wait, you can’t go yet, I’m not ready.” Something had to change, and that something was me. But it couldn’t be as simple as just working less. There were lots of people counting on me for different things in Fedora, and many of them were giving their precious spare time for our project. So I had to figure out not how to work less, but how to work smarter.

I ended up overhauling a lot of my tools, for one thing. I tried to find more efficient ways of getting things done, so I could maximize my output per hour. I changed physical and network setup of my office so I had more flexibility and fewer interruptions. I also tried to refocus my work on critical path topics — for instance, trying to spend the majority of my day working on problems that would allow volunteers to get things done. And I started hitting the gym almost every weekday so I could energize the rest of my day. (I’ve fallen off the wagon the last couple of months, but I’m heading back this fall, since I’ve definitely noticed the difference in my mental attitude and energy without it.)

But that’s all mechanical, and not really as difficult as the psychological aspects. I also had to confront my own focus on trying to get everything right, and learn to forgive myself for making mistakes. (Especially since I tend to make so many.) Rather than spend a lot of time each day trying to make everything 95% correct, I needed to spend far less time to get things 75% or 80% correct, and trust other people to help me figure out the rest. When you think about it, that’s part of the open source way, really. We often say “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good,” and I found that was equally applicable to several parts of my life, including my approach to working in an open source oriented job. Amber Graner talks about “letting go” in Bruce’s article, which I think accurately describes the conscious approach I had to take.

There’s an old saying that you’ll never hear someone on his deathbed say, “I wish I’d spent more time at the office.” I agree with that — in general, I don’t want to have regrets about how I live my life. After all, that’s why I came to Red Hat when the opportunity of chairing the Fedora Project arose. I didn’t want to look back and think, “If only….” Now I realize for me to be at my best for open source, I’ve got to be better at balancing my obligations. I have to let go of the things I can’t do, or can’t do well, and focus on the areas where I can make a difference.

Not all those areas are in work, either. I can make a big difference in my family’s quality of life by doing a better job focusing on the important parts of being a parent. Over the last couple of years, and especially this past year, I’ve started to take better advantage of opportunities to be off the keyboard and building experiences with my family. That might mean going to historical sites or museums, traveling to visit friends, or just doing fun things together, but I feel it’s made me better equipped to deal with job stress when I know I’m doing well by my family.

Of course, it’s not like I’m doing this perfectly. I still have problems with balance, but at least I feel like I have the experience now to identify them and hopefully deal with them. As I mentioned, this is somewhat a confessional article, but I’m not looking for pep talk (or, obviously, the opposite). Rather, I just wanted to share something I care deeply about, which is that I want you, Gentle Reader, to be happy in what you do and find a balance that suits you. I’d love to hear your story about how you’ve found balance, or the challenges you face in doing that. Feel free to write a comment, but I’d love to see trackback posts where you don’t feel constrained by a little comment box.

10 thoughts on “On burnout.”

  1. “Amber Graner talks about “letting go” in Bruce’s article, which I think accurately describes the conscious approach I had to take.”

    Yup, exactly this. If you don’t say ‘fuck it, that’s good enough, and now I’m going golfing’ (or whatever) once or twice per week, you’re probably on the wrong path. =)

  2. It may help to ask yourself: ‘Will what I’ve done or am doing matter five or 10 years from now?’ We often tend to believe that some things are of monumental importance when in fact they are not .

    1. @Barista: You make an interesting point. When considered at the largest scale, it does make sense to think about the impact of what you’re doing. For instance, by working in free software I do think I’m having a lasting impact on parts of the world I may never see, where community projects may help bridge the so-called digital divide over a period of years. Trying to sort out something like a contributor conference may not seem like it has an impact at that level, but it’s all part of a larger scheme to make possible the growth of the larger project. So it’s important to set one’s personal aperture correctly for thinking at this level. Otherwise it could be tempting to think that doing simple things regularly (or correctly) is unimportant when in fact they can be part of the larger plan as well.

  3. I’ve been thinking about this a long time as well. Trying to re-balance my work/life has been a focus for about 6-8 months. Becoming a new parent has caused a big change in how my work has gone.

    I still don’t know what I need to change, but I’m trying to make sure I’m working on the best things (family or work).

    Here’s to finding that balance!

    Derek

  4. That is the trap, isn’t it?

    When the grind is hard and you need to step back a bit, it’s tempting to say “ah, in the long run, does this really matter?”

    Of course it does. The details, adding up year after year, matter. That’s one of the reasons we worked those 16 hour days as FPLs: because there were lots of details, and they all mattered — because there was always someone who wanted to help more, if only we would knock down the things that were standing in their way.

    When the challenge is scale, the details are incredibly important — because every detail you get right either unlocks a Super Community Multiplier, or prevents the current Super Community Multiplier from withering away.

    Is balance important? Oh yes. But from my perspective, knowing that the work is important is one of the things that makes it worth getting up and doing every day. It’s just important to remember that we should be doing that work in maybe 12 hours, or 10, or gasp even 8.

    Or sometimes 4. My 4 hour days tended to happen when I knew I was going to get myself in trouble in hour 5. 🙂

  5. Yes, it all sounds too familiar. When you are working you have a sort of license to not be with your family. I was certain that when I retired I’d have time for everything I’d neglected throughout my working life. How wrong I was. If you’re in the habit of filling your days, retirement doesn’t change that. You still do. So now I do long days of user support in one form or another.

    Crunch time came last November, when I took a 2-week holiday without any possibility of internet access. As the time went on I came to realise that I had been constantly tired, constantly fighting to do as much as I thought I should be doing, and at that point I knew it had to change. I owed my family more than an exhausted ‘good night’. I stepped back from the part I least enjoyed. It was an important part, but there’s always someone else to take up the burden. Now I still work hard for KDE, but I feel no shame in saying on IRC “I’m going afk now to watch a film with my husband”.

  6. Paul thanks for sharing your story.

    I think it’s important that those of us who have been there –burnout–continue to be as open and honest as possible to help others. We need to continue the conversation until it’s “ok” for people recognize the signs and symptoms and give voice to their concerns.

    By the way and before I forget you are one of those people who encourages me. Thanks Paul and keep up the awesome work!

  7. And I watch and nod quietly from the sidelines… thank you all for putting these conversations out there, letting them be heard. It’s still too easy to fall into the trap of macho bragging — I haven’t taken a day off in N weeks, haven’t had a vacation in Y years, haven’t slept more than X hours for a month… because there’s a twisted sense of glory in it.

    How can we also gain a sense of glory for balancing and resting, even if that balance and rest doesn’t come reluctantly after screaming sprints of white-hot work and then collapse? I’m in my twenties, addicted to the adrenaline rush still, afraid that quietness will kill my spirit somehow. Is there a way to get out of that spiral?

    1. @Mel: Good question. Not everyone will agree on what type of R&R is worth glorifying, but we do need to agree that it’s just as important as those white-hot sprints. I hate to think that the only answer to this question is “experience,” because it shouldn’t take a bad experience to gain a clue. You said “twisted” above and I think that points to the right answer, which is to not endorse that particular kind of one-upmanship. I think the best you can do is set an example you hope is a good one, and applaud others who do it. At times maybe everyone can benefit from some white heat, and at times it’s the opposite. Moderation in all things… including moderation!

  8. Completely agree with you, Paul.

    I came from a 7 days a week work culture in my family, where everyone at home worked as much as we can in the family business, parents, sons, daughters, even uncle Antonio worked there. Everyone. No Sundays to have fun or relax in the morning with friends for many years. So I learned early that work is first.

    And it applied in my studies, and different jobs: excellence by devotion.

    When I joined Red Hat back in 2006 as a Sales Enginner, and I took a plane from Spain to Sales Bootcamp in Raleigh, it was all starting a new and amazing adventure, working at the best place I could dream of: finally I would get my hobby (Linux and OSS) become my job.

    Honestly, I cannot remember almost anything they presented during those 5 days of intense training, but one sentence from one guy (I don’t even remember his name): “You have to define goals, and respect them. Prioritize. Personal goals, religious goals, family goals, job goals… and divide your life time amongst them. If you don’t build separation between personal and work life, Red Hat will eat up all your time, all your life.”

    And that’s true.

    I’m in my early forties, with 2 small children and 3rd one on its way, and still working a lot everyday, and standing up late at night (as I’m doing now) to keep up with the amazingly fast pace that news, information and tasks grow and come every day. Since I joined Red Hat I always felt like lagging behind, lacking a lot of knowledge, skills, and tried to overcome this sensation devoting more hours to keep up with the change rate.

    At some point in time, I recalled that sentence from the guy in Sales Bootcamp, and changed a bit my habits, and I’ve found true support in management and colleagues, some of whom have been already in burnout position previously and have learnt the lesson.

    I have to admit I’m not yet a full converted “new-me”, and workload peaks keep me working or thinking late at night from time to time, but I’m now more conscious of my own limits, and even more important, of my family life limits.

    It’s a work in progress.

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