Voices of Gatsby: Tech Life === Burnout?

Eric Howey
April 2nd, 2021

Gatsby believes in cultivating inclusion and elevating the many members of our diverse community. Our Voices of Gatsby series, publishing the first Friday of every month, showcases and celebrates our users for who they are as they share stories from the tech life. True tales from the front lines, personal accounts of surviving — and thriving — in tech. Got a story to share? Visit the Voices of Gatsby info page to learn more and connect with us! Accepted submissions pay a $500 author’s fee, because we recognize the value of writing whether it’s words or code 💜.

Life in tech is all about moving fast: there is enormous pressure to just ship it. But research shows that continually rushing to work as hard as we can, as fast as we can, brings surprisingly opposite results: It actually slows us down. We mess up, we miss things, we make poorer decisions. Beyond personal performance, it also messes with our personal wellbeing. Ironically, slowing down can actually help us speed up.

Let’s begin with a little story where I made a “suboptimal strategy selection,” AKA really bad choice.

Our main Christmas gift to our kids this year was an indoor gymnastics set that needed to be assembled and bolted to the wall. All was going well when I started the bolting phase around 11:00pm. I ran the stud finder along the wall and marked off the studs, noted an electrical wire in the vicinity of where one set of screws would need to go. In my exhaustion and rush to be done I decided that it would be fine. What are the chances I would actually screw into the exact place a wire was?

Pop.

I hit a wire (or so I thought). My spouse was in tears, both from worry about the house burning down and from frustration at my daftness. I spent the next two hours trying to get a hold of an electrician on Christmas eve, cutting a hole in the drywall, turning the breaker switches off. The anxiety turned me into a wreck for Christmas morning.

All of this could have been avoided if I had just slowed down.

Going slowly saves time and makes you more productive. But this feels counter-intuitive amidst tech Twitter’s praise of a constant hustle. We have elevated an ethos of working more, going faster and trying harder. Success feels like it is reduced to a boolean at times.

Unfortunately, this isn’t how it works — particularly when you are from an underrepresented or marginalized community. Technical jobs are still dominated by white men and the barriers to entry are real. Just 6% of Apple’s technical employees are from racialized communities. Google and Microsoft have increased their Black and Latinx technical employees by less than one percent in five years. This isn’t because of lack of hustle, it’s because of structural barriers. When success === effort, the stage is set for burnout culture and continued discrimination.

Slow burn for blazing speed

Slowing down doesn’t mean doing less — it’s an invitation to be more purposeful, careful and considerate in our choices. Listen more. Be kinder. Create more intentional organizations. Literally take the time to get it right. Instead of more-more-more, go-go-go, crap-I-messed-up-do-it-again, what if we just tried plan-discuss-iterate-review-adjust-achieve?

You’re not a software developer if you’ve never frantically worked into the night, desperately trying (and failing) to find a fix…Only to come back and solve the bug in a few minutes after taking a break and getting some rest. Turns out, there’s good research to back up what we all know too well.

In coding, we do a lot of complex problem solving, which relies heavily on our working memory. Working memory is the short-term memory we use to store partial answers, contemplate next steps, and consider alternative ideas. Think of it like our brain’s RAM. Research shows that working memory is particularly susceptible to stress, which can come in the form of time pressure, exhaustion, toxic work environments and more. In a 2017 meta-analysis of the effects of stress on mathematical performance researchers concluded that people under a time-crunch make “suboptimal strategy selections.”

This is a very fancy way of saying that our brains break down as the stress amps up. But it’s a critical point, because over long periods of time, this constant stress has disastrous consequences on health and wellbeing. A 2018 review of the health effects of overworking linked excessive work hours with heart disease, diabetes, depression, high blood pressure, alcohol use and smoking. This hurts not just the individual worker but also their company. The cost to replace an employee who leaves due to burn out? At least one and half times their annual salary.

The effects of moving too quickly are also visible at an organizational level. In one Harvard Business Review article the authors conducted a study with 343 businesses, focusing on productivity and profitability. They found that companies which slowed down to focus their strategic priorities improved their top and bottom lines, averaging 40% higher sales and 52% higher operating profits over a three-year period.

There is enormous pressure to just ship it. As evidence, look no further than the bungled release of Cyberpunk 2077 this past fall. If the impacts of too much and too fast are so bad, why is slowing down so hard to do? Even though it feels like we’re hardwired to move fast, there are ways you can make an intentional transition to a slower work life. What do these look like in a real world work setting?

Just Do…Nothing?

Not shockingly, the first thing you need to do is…nothing.

Seriously: Just pause. Taking stock of where you are will help you figure out where you’re going. My spouse and I have a “vision board” that we revisit when we feel the day-to-day bustle is overtaking our intentions. This also applies in the web development world. The React core team is an excellent example: they move very intentionally in how they release both suspense and server components. They get criticism for this, but they are taking the time to get critical features right the first time.

Having a set of values and priorities is a good first step, but those ideals often get lost when under pressure. One way I like to keep focused on what is important is through perspective taking. Often when I am rushed and stressed, small problems feel huge. I ask myself; “Is anyone I love seriously hurt or injured?” and I find this question helps me to refocus on the relative size of the problem currently before me. Do I actually need to finish this code today?

And this doesn’t have to all take place only inside your head; reaching out for support can also help us do the right kind of slowing down. When left alone, our minds have a bad habit of getting away from us and our thoughts become increasingly negative and all mixed up. Sometimes there are obvious solutions we miss because we have been staring at a problem for too long. Connecting with someone else short circuits this faulty process. A fresh set of eyes and new ideas helps us to slow down and make better decisions. Pair programming is a great example of this tactic in action.

The reasons for our poor decision-making are complex, but when we rush, we make preventably poor decisions. Unforced errors. On Christmas eve, I literally didn’t stop to think. These rushed decisions made without feedback and collaboration often come back to haunt us, professionally and personally.

Slowing down doesn’t always feel great. Sometimes it’s awkward, and it can definitely feel counterintuitive amidst tech’s “move fast and break things” cultural ethos. But when the prize is greater wellbeing, healthier relationships and better code, why be fast when we can be slow?

Heyo! My name is Eric Howey, and I’m a web developer and mental health therapist. I’m a white, privileged male —I fit the archetype of a tech bro and have benefitted from this privilege. I acknowledge that I live, work and play on the traditional territories of the Blackfoot Confederacy (Siksika, Kainai, Piikani), the Tsuut’ina, the Îyâxe Nakoda Nations, the Métis Nation (Region 3), and all people who make their homes in the Treaty 7 region of Southern Alberta.

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Dad all the time, mental health therapist full time, web developer in my spare time. I listen and care.

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