Recovery From Burnout

Published Monday, August 1 2022

I struggled with whether or not I should make this post because I worry that the topic of burnout is taboo. Admitting that I was burned out and that I had to take time to recover from it feels like admitting a kind of failure or a weakness, but the longer I dwelled on it the more I knew that I had to say something, if for no other reason than because I want to help anyone else who’s suffering from burnout and wondering what to do about it. You’re not alone. During the last few months I have discovered that so many friends and colleagues have gone through something similar, and I want to normalize burnout awareness, especially becuase my message is positive.

Anyway, hi, I was really burned out. I want to talk about it.

In March I decided to step back from my job at Akamai and take some “me” time. I didn’t do this lightly. In fact, I had wanted to do it in 2021, but I just couldn’t allow myself to let go of what I was working on. Every day I poured all of myself into what I was doing, and the idea of divorcing myself from my job felt almost impossible. What would I do without it? I’d be unmoored, lost. So I kept going. But at the same time, I was deeply unhappy because I was spread so thin. I’d allowed myself to give so much that I had nothing left, and I ended up in a dangerous situation where I wanted a change, but I felt too exhausted to actually look for the change I needed, if I could even figure out what that was. When you need career growth but you’re too tired and frazzled to chase it, what do you do?

Well, I decided that the best thing for me to do was have a clean break. I spoke with my manager and my colleagues, and I started the process of handing everything off, documenting all the loose ends, crossing every t and dotting every i. My last day was bittersweet, but when I woke up on Monday morning with nothing to do, the elation told me I had made the right decision.

Leaving a job without another job lined up is terrifying. Money wasn’t even the aspect that scared me, I’m blessed enough that I can take some time off without worrying about paying the bills. Instead, it was the idea of losing the sense of identity I had tied up in my job that terrified me. I take my work seriously, and I put a lot of my feelings of self worth and value into it, so when I wanted to step away, it felt a little like losing part of myself.

For the first few months of unemployment I tackled a lot of “relaxation deficit” that had accrued over the last many years. I drove to California to visit friends, I went to the coffee shop almost every day to read, I took walks, I watched movies, I got seriously back into ham radio, and I started taking woodworking classes. Notably, though, I did not really even touch a computer.

After about three months of this, I started to worry, and I wondered if I was ever going to want to work on software projects ever again. It took a lot of introspection, but I realized I was still recovering. I felt aimless, but I embraced the aimlessness. I told myself it was OK to not want to work on software at the moment.

It started in dribs and drabs, but slowly and surely I felt myself get little glimmers of excitement about code again, just flashes of inspiration here and there to remdind myself what it felt like to tackle a fun problem and bend a computer to my will. Gradually, the curiosity and desire to work on software has returned. What a relief when I woke up one morning and realized I actually felt some of that passion coming back!

The important point here is that recovery takes time. I desperately needed a few months of doing absolutely nothing related to work, and I’m incredibly grateful that I was able to take that time. Now that we’re in late summer, I’m finally starting to think about what’s next in my life. What do I want to do? What do I want to work on? What problems do I want to solve? And I’m excited about the start of a job search.

If you’re in a similar situation, just know that recovery is a process, don’t panic. You’ve got this, it just takes time and space.

Now, onto my next challenge!