Micah was the glue holding their team together. They were the most senior IC (individual contributor) on their team. They did more code reviews than anyone else. They represented their team at their org's operations review, and helped edit the PMs requirements to be more clear. They jumped onto the most important bugs, and ensured the team was communicating clearly with the marketing and PR teams. They onboarded all the new college hires, and helped them get their first code changes through. Pretty awesome, right?
And then Micah quit. Why? Because Micah was burned out.
Everyone knows that managers need to delegate, and manage their time carefully. However, senior ICs regularly quit because they're not getting proper mentorship. Over the years, an IC will gain skill and experience. Eventually, they feel they're being pulled in a dozen different directions, and they can't handle their job anymore.
Why does getting better at your job mean you have less time?
You'd think that becoming better at your job would make you have more time. Not true.
A big difference between senior and junior employees is that junior employees provide value by themselves (coding, writing, designing), while senior employees also provide value through others (mentoring, reviewing, evaluating).
I have repeatedly heard people tell senior employees, "Your value used to be what you delivered personally. Now your value is delivering through others." This is the justification for why it is ok that the engineer is in 8-hours of meetings a day.
When you let this definition of your job take over, you're at risk for burnout.
- Because your job satisfaction likely came from doing your IC job. That's why you're a valued senior employee. It's what you're good at. Doing things personally is a source of work satisfaction.
- You still feel pressure to deliver on your IC work. When you're continually distracted by helping others, you'll be unable to hit your commitments. This leads to stress, and potentially long hours.
There are eight main steps to avoid personal burnout for ICs. Why eight? Because as usual, I wrote for a while, and then counted the steps. It turns out there are eight. Those eight are below.
Step One - Identify your personal job satisfaction as your number one priority
Yeah, that sounds pretty selfish, doesn't it? But listen.
- If you get burned out and quit, you won't accomplish anything.
- If you end up getting angry at your co-workers, and get fired, you won't accomplish anything.
- If you end up sick because of overwork, and end up taking medical leave, you won't accomplish anything.
To be clear, if it wasn't clear already, any of the above options means absolutely zero productivity from you for your team. It's the end.
Therefore, what you do to prevent yourself from being burned out is the highest priority for you. It's like security for a payments company. If you leak your customer's credit cards, you're likely out of business. Therefore, it's imperative that you always treat security as your number one priority.
In the same way, if you get yourself burned out, you're personally out of business. So, not getting burned out needs to be your number one priority.
I remember trying to explain this to one of the managers who reported to me. She was burning the candle at both ends, trying to hit an important date.
"Ginger, you're looking exhausted. Launching this project on time isn't worth it."
"This project is incredibly important. I think I can do it."
"If you end up having to quit, or take a leave because of this project, it would be a disaster for the team. Missing this date is not a disaster. It's just a bummer. If you burn yourself out, I'm going to be so annoyed at you."
In my experience, many people are blind to the choices they have available to themselves. They'll even blame their team or management for getting burned out when they burned themselves out. "We had too much work." No. You did too much work.
This pressure can certainly come from your management team as well. Other people can't see how well you're holding up inside. Even a well-intentioned manager can think that they're applying some high standards to ensure their team is performing their best. If you're considering quitting because of how you feel about your workload, it's in the best interest of your company for you to take a deep breath and figure out how to balance things. And that might mean some hard conversations with your manager.
Step Two - Save time for yourself first
What work energizes you? What days do you leave work saying, "Heck yeah! I kicked butt today." What work makes you look forward to Monday (at least slightly) because you get to work on that project more?
You need to save time for yourself. Too many experienced employees get so good at their job that they're too busy to do it anymore. An experienced designer sits in presentations all day. An experienced engineer finds themselves reviewing others people's code, instead of coding themselves.
These actions are absolutely valuable. It's not wrong that your time is valuable when you make your team more effective. However, you absolutely need to also keep doing the work that drives you forward. The most successful ICs I knew always spent some time every week on their personal projects. They continued to code, or design, or write, or whatever it was that drove them.
Create blocks of time for yourself. During these time blocks, you can focus on your work.
Most often, that literally means dropping blocks on your calendar of an hour or two or three, which reminds you to do that work, and prevents others from disturbing you.
The idea sounds good, but many people stumble in implementation. You and others will both view this time as flexible, and less critical. It's the easiest thing on your calendar to move.
"Hey Naomi, can you be available at 11am? I know you have your time block then, but we wanted to go over our open bugs."
This is a great example of confusion around urgent vs. important. The only way you should accept this is if you can immediately move your personal time block to another time today on your calendar. You can consider being flexible, as long as your most indispensable time block doesn't get sacrificed.
Keeping yourself sane, doing your work, and being happy with your day is the most essential thing. Skipping your personal time just this once for an urgent meeting feels right in the short term, but will cause damage in the long term. And just this once is a terribly pervasive lie. It's never just once.