Preventing developer burn-out

Published  July 20th, 2013

Burning out is inevitable for developers - especially those working at start-ups. Whether it happens periodically in small and manageable doses or if it culminates in a crippling month of zero productivity, burning out is something every developer should be cognizant of.

The developer inside of you has its own immune system. When it's weakened, you become susceptible to burn-out and when burn-out hits, there's often no antidote. I first started working at thredUP in the summer of 2010. At that point in the company's lifetime, we had just taken our Series A and we had about 12 months of runway to create a viable business. Most start-ups are always operating in hustle mode, but that 12 month window compressed the standard hustle into a hard crunch. "MVP", "version 1", and "just ship it" were commonly tossed around terms - long days and long weeks were the norm. Being new to the company, I wanted to prove my worth so I went full speed ahead for many months. I never encountered burning out during college, my internships, or my first two full-time development jobs so I had a rude awakening to this developer disease about 9 months into my first year at thredUP.

Burn-out Symptoms

Like jumping in frigid waters (ex: Lake Tahoe), your body is instantly paralyzed with the inability to do anything. I went to long lengths avoiding the current project I was working on. Procrastination through welcome interruptions was the poison of choice. I worked on emails, CS tickets, or chased small bugs down rabbit holes instead of touching my project. I happened to luck out as it struck me one week prior to a vacation, but during that week coding became a formidable adversary.

This was my only severe burn-out and I've used it as a guiding lesson ever since. Here are some of the symptoms I'm always on the look-out for:

  • Coding procrastination - trying to delay diving into the code for the day. Maybe it starts with simply going for that extra coffee run, but I've seen it evolve into taking off days of work without reason. Taking one day off work won't change the burn out status quo.
  • Welcoming interruptions - once you do dive into the code, looking for any opportunity to break your coding focus. Checking your Twitter feed every couple of minutes, trying to strike up non-work conversations, etc.
  • Becoming easily frustrated - someone in product or design changes how something should look or behave for your project, you become irrationally upset and then feel guilty hours later for lack of composure about how you handled it.
  • Creating avoidable delays - discovering hidden complexities in your project during implementation and deciding to shoot up the red delay flair instead of grinding through the unforeseen additional work.

Burning out can be contagious too, which can be devastating for a small engineering team. I've seen one person's lack of productivity/motivation spread across an entire team and consequently derail a project's timeline. This is why it's essential to identify burn out (for you or for your teammate) when symptoms are present and then take preventive measures immediately. I've seen more than 1 developer burn out on a big project first-hand and wander aimlessly through unproductive weeks/months afterwards until eventually leaving the company or being let go. I can't stress enough how detrimental developer burn out can be.


Taking vacations, preferably those where you're removed from your tether to the digital world, is the best way to let out excess steam that builds over time. While obvious, vacations have a number subtle effects that help reset burn-out:

  • Escaping work - simply having that extended break from CS tickets, bugs, emails, and meetings can be enough to cure burn out. My mood and willingness to go the extra mile always improve substantially upon returning from vacation.
  • Mixing it up - if you have a daily routine you're accustomed to, you will be hard pressed to keep to it while vacationing. If you're addicted to your RSS feed or keeping up with your daily podcasts, a clean slate can be quite refreshing. When you get back from your vacation, mark all your articles and podcasts as read. If you don't, they'll just add to your list of stuff to do when you attempt to ramp back up.
  • Perspective - for me, getting perspective is my favorite vacation side-effect. When you spend month after month deep in the trees of your work forest, having that week or two off enables you to take it all in through a fresh lens when you come back.

There are many ways to prevent burning out and it's different for each engineer. Personally, I prefer to take two 1-week vacations 6 months apart so that I always know I'm only a couple months away from my next one. Interspersed in those 6 month windows are a couple of a long weekends I use to let off some of the steam that accumulates during the start-up grind. If anyone has particular burn-out remedies they're fond of, I'd love to hear them. Tweet to me here.