Burnout as small task paralysis

If you’re an Online Person of a certain age, you probably have seen Anne Helen Petersen’s article in Buzzfeed “How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation“. And maybe you’re like me and said “yeah, I really identify with this.” Or maybe you’re not like me and you said “this doesn’t capture my experience.” But however you connect with this article, one part stood out to me.

None of these tasks were that hard: getting knives sharpened, taking boots to the cobbler, registering my dog for a new license, sending someone a signed copy of my book, scheduling an appointment with the dermatologist, donating books to the library, vacuuming my car. A handful of emails — one from a dear friend, one from a former student asking how my life was going — festered in my personal inbox, which I use as a sort of alternative to-do list, to the point that I started calling it the “inbox of shame.”

It’s not as if I were slacking in the rest of my life. I was publishing stories, writing two books, making meals, executing a move across the country, planning trips, paying my student loans, exercising on a regular basis. But when it came to the mundane, the medium priority, the stuff that wouldn’t make my job easier or my work better, I avoided it.

A little over a year ago, when I was overwhelmed in a new job and dealing with anxiety of an intensity I’d never felt before, I noticed that I was unable to do some thing. But it wasn’t the big and important tasks that I couldn’t do. It was the small, often trivial tasks that I couldn’t bring myself to do. Especially if it was not immediately rewarding or involved doing something I hadn’t done before.

My job had the possibility of occasional foreign travel, but to do that, I’d need a passport. I’d never bothered getting one before because I didn’t need it. Now I had some incentive. But the paperwork sat on my desk for months because I couldn’t bring myself to go to the post office and submit it.

There were so many emails that I put off sending as long as I could because I was worried that they’d get a negative reply. Nevermind that they were often just telling people about something else that happened. Or that the most likely outcome would be that my recipients wouldn’t even read it.

Redesigned pitch decks? No problem. New content for the website? Easy. Planning a major conference presence? Stressful, but manageable. But the easy stuff? Couldn’t do it.

When I first started experiencing this, I was really surprised. Why isn’t the easy stuff easy for me to do? Why can I do the hard stuff without too much worry?

For all the criticisms of it’s general applicability, Petersen’s article gave me a framework to understand this. And I felt seen.

Unlimited vacation policies, burnout, etc.

Recently, my company switched from a traditional vacation model to a minimum vacation model. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it’s essentially the unlimited vacation model practiced by Netflix and others, with the additional requirement of taking a defined minimum of time off each year. It’s been a bit of an adjustment for me, since I’m used to the traditional model. Vacation was something to be carefully rationed (although at my previous employer, I tended to over-ration). Now it’s simply a matter of making sure my work is getting done and that there’s someone to cover for me when I’m out.

I’m writing this at 41,000 feet on my way to present at a conference [ed note: it is being published the day after it was written]. I’m secretly glad that the WiFi apparently does not work over the open ocean (I presume due to political/regulatory reasons). Now, don’t get me wrong, one of my favorite things to do when I fly is to watch myself on FlightAware, but in this case it’s a blessing to be disconnected. If a WiFi connection were available, it would be much harder to avoid checking my work email.

It took me a year and a half at my job before I convinced myself to turn off email sync after hours. Even though I rarely worked on emails that came in after hours, I felt like it was important that I know what was going on. After several weekends of work due to various projects, I’d had enough. The mental strain became too much. At first, I’d still manually check my mail a time of two, but now I don’t even do that much.

This is due in part to the fact that the main project that was keeping me busy has had most of the kinks worked out and is working pretty well. It also helps that there’s another vendor managing the operations, so I only get brought in when there’s an issue with software we support. Still, there are several customers where I’m the main point of contact, and the idea of being away for a week fills me with a sense of “oh god, what will I come back to on Monday?”

i’ve written before about burnout, but I thought it might be time to revisit the topic. When I wrote previously, I was outgrowing my first professional role. In the years since, burnout has taken a new form for me. Since I wrote the last post, two kids have come into my life. In addition, I’ve gone from a slow-paced academic environment to a small private sector company which claims several Fortune 100 companies as clients. Life is different now, and my perception of burnout has changed.

I don’t necessarily mind working long hours on interesting problems. There are still days when it’s hard to put my pencil down and go home (metaphorically, since I work from a spare bedroom in our house). But now that I have have kids, I’ve come to realize that when I used to feel burnt out, I was really feeling bored. Burnout is more represented by the impact on my family life.

I know I need to take time off, even if it’s just to sit around the house with my family. It’s just hard to do knowing that I’m the first — and sometimes last — line of support. But I’m adjusting (slowly), and I’m part of a great team, so that helps. Maybe one of these days, I’ll be able to check my email at the beginning of the work day without bracing myself.

The inevitable burnout

It seems to me that most sysadmins who have a lot of customer interaction tend to burn out quickly.  Some people are great at working with people, some with technology, and it seems like rarely do the two meet.  Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy being social.  I like making friends and hanging out with them, but that doesn’t mean I like supporting users.  I did that for 5 years at McDonald’s, I’d like to think I’ve served my time.

Of course, it isn’t just users that can lead to burn out.  Management and co-workers can contribute their own share.  I’ve found my other full-time colleague to be professionally uninquisitive and I feel like I can’t discuss technical matters with the people I work with because I have to explain too much to them so that they understand what it is that we’re even discussing.  I think my wife has a better technical grasp of what I do than the people I work with and for, and that is not a good thing.

Ever since our Computer Support Manager left and I became the de facto manager, the Department Head has had little interaction with me.  On the whole, I take it as a good sign.  If I’m not getting feedback, that generally means people are happy.  Still, some interaction from time-to-time would be helpful, and for a young and growing sysadmin such as myself, it is vital.

And so we come to the crux of the matter.  I feel my growth is being stunted.  When I took my job two and a half years ago, I had no sysadmin experience.  I didn’t even have a lot of Linux experience, but I had worked in the department on our weather data server, and I knew the science that the faculty worked on, so the thought was that I could learn the technical skills that I needed.  I’d like to think I’ve learned them pretty well.  I feel confident enough to make my own decisions and know that they are sound.  I’ve made improvements to the way things are done to make them more reliable, more complainey when they fail, and more flexible for future use.  Oh yeah, and I’ve written and overseen untold pages of documentation, which was nearly unheard of when I came onboard.

So here I am 30 months later and I’ve reached the limits of my position.  There is no path for advancement within my department, since I became the lead after less than a year on the job.  The training funds are hard to come by because the economy stinks.  I’ve mastered the services that we provide, and other groups provide the rest so I’m limited in the new services I can add.  I’m in a very small box and I’ve grown to fit it.

Someone posted this blog entry to the Sysadmin sub-Reddit the other day (I think it was Matt), and it really spoke to me.  Now the author of that post has a lot more experience than I do, but he was also in a bigger box.  There’s a difference too, in the type of burnout.  He wants out of sysadminning, and I want more into it.  I’d be much happier in a role where I played with servers and let others handle the customer-level interaction.  At least I think I’d be happier in that kind of job.  There’s only one way to find out.

As much as I love being the big boss man, I think I need more time at the low end of the totem pole.  Not so much because my leadership skills aren’t up to snuff (I like to pretend that I’m a pretty damn good leader), but because my technical skills need to be developed, and it’s hard to do that when you’re at the top of the pyramid.  I’m trying to re-learn the C that I learned well enough to pass my programming class 5 years ago.  I’m also hoping to pick up some MySQL and PHP so that I can at least have enough skill to include it on my resume.  And I’m looking for jobs where I can be exposed to more things so that I can figure out where I want to head.  For now, that’s to bed.