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.