Programmer Burnout - identify, prevent and overcome it

Programmer Burnout - identify, prevent and overcome it

You may be at the brink of burning out. Take action before it is too late.


6 min read

As programmers, we tend to stay stuck to our screens and rarely interact in real life. Pulling an all-nighter to debug, getting a glimpse of sleep, using coffee to power you through the day may be the norm, but often it can put you on the road to a burnout.

Even though I'm mostly mentioning programmers, do remember that it is equally applicable to all professions.


That feeling of...

  • having too many things to do, but not enough time
  • none of my efforts seem to help me get ahead like others
  • feeling depressed & unmotivated

....can all be signs of a burnout creeping in.

In extreme cases, a burnout makes you feel completely exhausted of energy, will-power and hope. You feel like you have lost control over your day-to-day work or life, and find no meaning or purpose in pursuing your goals. It often feels like your life is going into a spiraling pit, and you meltdown in helplessness.

But, it can also be much more subtle and still have almost the same impact on your life.

Sometimes you may experience loss in productivity, feel devoid of motivation, brain fog, inability to focus, detachment from non-work related aspects of life ,etc. and may be pushing it aside. Gradually it may creep up more frequently, until one day you realize you've lost control.

Being mindful of your day-to-day emotional changes can help to identify whether you are on the path to a burnout. Maintaining a journal can help a lot with this. It can not only make you more aware of your emotions and the way you spend your time, but also help to identify any negative patterns or habits that need to be changed in your routine.


Juggling more than you can handle

All of us want to get a lot done. But, in that urge, we end up filling our available time to the brim, with all sorts of tasks. This leads to a lot of your efforts being wasted at multiple points instead of being focused at a few places that may actually help you the most.

Initially, focus on the high impact tasks alone. The type of things that are absolutely essential.

Gradually, you can add more tasks and see how it seems to affect your daily productivity. More importantly, you can see how the new tasks impact your ability to complete your essential tasks.

Planning ideally instead of realistically

When you have the liberty to do so, choose practical plans over ideal plans. Customize your day based on your own 'active times' of the day & allow buffer times for when things could go longer than expected. Realize your own productivity level and plan for it.

Don’t expect to push yourself at 100% throughout the day. You are after all human.

Making non-sustainable plans

Don't include long term tasks without considering whether you have enough space in your existing routine to sustain it in the long term. This also means you need to say 'No' to a few (and often a lot of) things.

‘Spur of the moment’ motivation may make you feel like you can put an extra 10% effort for some new task or activity. But, that surge in enthusiasm may go after a few days, and you’ll end up with an extra task that now feels like a burden.

Focusing only on results

Most days, we put a lot of effort towards a goal, without achieving it. But, that doesn't mean you failed. Trial and error is a part of getting closer to your goals. Acknowledge your efforts, identify blockers and try again next time.

Your day is not just a set of metrics.

Even if you aimed to get 20 things done, but did only 10-12 of them, it is still a productive day. Keep yourself flexible in plans & in your self-appreciation. Modify your plans to be more realistic.


Remember that you are on your own road, your own journey.

A lot of anxiety comes from feeling like you can't catch up with others ahead of you. This often leads to feelings of inadequacy and imposter syndrome. Just, compare with your past self & improve. Take your time to reach your goals, in your own pace.

Improper Sleep

As workloads increase, the first thing sacrificed is often sleep. It may be unavoidable, but regularly doing so can disrupt your sleep cycle. Improper sleep can reduce your productivity, which leads to more time being spent on finishing work, that ultimately means you get lesser time to sleep. This loop can easily lead to a burnout.

Fixing a schedule for your sleep, and sticking to it, is crucial to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

Avoiding social interactions

Sharing a conversation with someone that you are comfortable with, can not just ease stress but also, widen your perspective. Each person has different preferences when it comes to the level of social interaction that they are comfortable with. Find some groups or events that share your common interests and force yourself to come out of your comfort zone. You don't have to confine yourself to your existing social groups. Meet new people and gather fresh perspectives. Don't take yourself too seriously. Have some silly fun.

The quantity of interactions isn't significant, only the quality matters. Simple gestures like a gentle smile, a hug or a compliment, can do wonders to boost your mood. Venting out in the presence of friends could act as a natural way to destress.

Lack of breaks

Include physical & mental breaks in your routine. While working on a tough issue, spend a fixed time on it then pause & divert your mind for a while. You could even work on some other easier problem...or have fun jumping about , listening to music, playing some games, etc.

But, keep a timer for your breaks . This can prevent productive time leaking out of your day. The lack of time due to your long breaks should not be the reason you added more stress to your day.

Not unwinding often

Try to have some outdoor/offline time once every 2-3 days. Go for a jog, walk, pet/feed some animals, play some mild sports, etc. Find something simple that you enjoy away from work, and spend time on it. This way, you can balance your work and reduce the intensity of pressure on yourself.

Physical inactivity

Your mind is intrinsically linked to your body. So make sure you give your physical fitness some well-deserved attention.

Incorporating some mild exercise into your work routine doesn't need to be complicated. Something as simple as doing a few jumping jacks, stretching a little to all directions while sitting, walking to and fro in your room, etc. are all effective ways to improve circulation and reduce physical stress.

This is not just good for your overall health, but also acts as a helpful break from any monotonous work that may be making your mind exhausted. Also, make sure you maintain proper posture while working. Spending long durations in the wrong posture can cause irreparable damage to your back, neck and arms.


I realize that many of us may feel like we don't really have the luxury of being able to choose our tasks or routine for the day, since a lot of it may be dictated by external factors. But, wherever you can, try to incorporate the above points , even if it is in a small manner. Sometimes, small changes can have big impacts in the long run.

If you feel like you need someone to talk to, please don't hesitate to reach out to me on Twitter @notAnotherVivek