There is no such thing as a work-life balance (working with burnout)

Last week I spoke at the Devs Love Bacon conference in London. When I was preparing the talk I found it easier to write out as a blog post first which would essentially turn into a rough “script” I would use for the talk itself. I’ve decided to publish the blog post here for people to read as even though I will hopefully do a talk on the same subject again, it’s likely to be structured a lot differently, but the reasoning is for another blog post.

Today I want to talk about an issue I think we’re seeing crop up a bit more frequently at the moment, Burnout.

“Diving in blind, head first, is a great way to break your nose…”
Barenaked Ladies

This quote pretty much sums up my 2013. It’s actually taken from a song by the Barenaked Ladies.

At the end of 2012 I was in a really good place. I felt good about the work I was doing, I had just moved to London and had started a new job for a big agency, and I was doing a few little things on the side for the community like 12 Devs of Xmas and Code Club, and I was attending conferences and being really inspired by the community and people I met.

One of the people I met towards the end of 2012 happened to be a book editor, who I began speaking to about the possibility of writing something. By mid-January of 2013 I had a contract in place to write a book for Apress, which was amazing.

At the same time I had also been running 12 Devs of Xmas for a couple of years alongside my friend Anthony Killeen. At the start of January we had just finished our second series of articles and we came up with the idea for a little get together. An event for web developers in London, inviting some of the past writers to speak, and to bring together the friends that have written and those that have learned from our site into a new setting. This was to be the first of four 12 Devs events that we ran throughout the year.

As well as both of these fairly major things, I was still working full-time at my new job and I had a couple of freelance clients I was working too. I also decided that I wanted to increase my public speaking as well, so I aimed to do another couple of talks at a couple of events, which turned out to be the longest ones I’d ever been asked to do.

Essentially what I’m trying to say is that I took on quite a bit during last year.


In hindsight when I list all those things, it seems quite obvious that it was a foolish amount of work to try to take on. It’s hard working a full-time job sometimes in this industry, let alone the 2-3 major projects I took on alongside my day job. Just writing the book alone should have been enough to keep me busy out of the office, requiring me to write over 10,000 words every 12 days. Now I went to Uni, and I completed a dissertation, that was just over 10,000 words and that took me months, now I needed to write that every couple of weeks. Suffice to say I wasn’t able to keep to that schedule!

Fortunately things have calmed down a bit since then, this year I’ve made more of an effort to watch the amount I’m taking on and try not to do too much. Although sometimes I still find myself working 7 days a week it’s not quite as full of a schedule as I had last year.

Today I want to talk a bit about that year, about how I got through it and what I’ve learned along the way. First I want to take a step back and I want to talk how it is we can get our motivation that may cause us to do these stupid amounts of work like this.


I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately, one of the books I looked up was one called Drive by Daniel Pink, which discusses the subject of human motivation. In it, Pink says:

“Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another”
Daniel Pink

What I take from this is that in modern times, there is a lot more to what motivates us than just money.

Carrots and sticks

In the past money has been an effective motivator, but in modern times when work is more creative, when it requires more than just basic cognitive effort; money as a motivator tends to lose it’s effect. This has been confirmed by economist and various other fields of science through a variety of studies over the last 20 or so years.

But how does this relate to us in the tech community? In our community I think we’re very fortunate, it’s a bit of a boom for our industry at the moment, because the skills we posses are in high demand. You can see this from the amount of startups that are founded every day, to the amount of people moving into freelance fairly easily too. I’d say we’re very fortunate to be in this situation and because we’re in demand it generally means the money we’re getting paid is rather good.

Money is a motivator, no doubt about it. But it’s not a key motivator, the best way money works as a motivator is when you’re being paid enough that the issue of money is taken off the table. And this is currently happening in our industry, full time jobs are able to pay well because there’s high demand from clients. And freelancers are able to charge substantial enough rates that for them too, that money is not a huge factor either. A great example of this recently was hearing Laura Kalbag say that a client of hers told her she should be charging double her current hourly rate!

If money an extrinsic motivator is no longer our key motivation, then what is? This is where we look to intrinsic motivators; that can be categorised into three factors: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.

Let’s look at them each in turn and look at how they are currently relating to us in the tech industry; starting with Autonomy.


This is a fairly easy one to see happening, the amount of people going freelance, leaving behind their full-time jobs shows that people crave autonomy. The ability to be their own boss and decide on the work they do, when they do it and how.

But we can also see this in some full time jobs as well, Automattic the company behind WordPress work as a distributed company, with employees working all over the world. On their jobs website the introduction includes the phrase “Choose your own adventure” and benefits that include an open vacation policy with no set number of holiday days per year, you’re able to choose the time you wish to make it your vacation work around your needs or your hobbies. If that’s not a nod to autonomy I’m not sure what is.

Being able to work in our own way, how and when we want gives us the freedom to do our work in the conditions we choose. Recently at Architect we’ve been told that during the summer on Friday’s we can leave at 4pm if we choose, instead of 5.30pm. The amount of people leaving at 4pm is fairly low, but the option is there. And you can see the motivation it gives us, it shows the company has enough trust in us to do our jobs well enough, that 90 minutes isn’t going to hurt our productivity or the company’s bottom line.


Next let’s look at Mastery. For starters I think events like this are a great example of how we crave for mastery in the tech industry. Everyone here has taken time off from their work to attend a conference and will probably be here tomorrow giving up half of their weekend to come and learn new things relating to their day-job. I was at another conference recently that was on a Saturday as well and it was really well attended, with all of us there to learn more in order to help in our journey towards mastery. Of course the beer (and bacon butties) help on occasion too; but I’m going out on a limb to say that it isn’t the main reason people are giving up a day of their free time.

Human beings enjoy getting better at things, it’s probably one of the main reasons we play musical instruments. None of us expect to be opening Glastonbury anytime soon, we just like the thrill of learning and mastering the instrument. In the tech community an example of this is probably side projects. Side projects are fairly common amongst our industry and I’m willing to bet that a lot of the side projects we work on aren’t just there so we can do the same stuff we do day-in day-out. We often use side-projects to try out something and learn something new. Take Ruth’s talk just before me at BACON, while she might have started playing with those APIs at work one day, she didn’t write all of that during office hours, a lot of it would have been experimenting in her free time and learning more about what’s possible with the browser because she was interested and wanted to be able to do more with what she was learning.

This level of commitment to our work is fairly commonplace, a lot of us enjoy our jobs and actively enjoy being able to master them. I think it’s quite beautifully summed up in this quote by Edward Deci: [Human beings have an…]

“inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise their capacities, to explore, and to learn.”


Finally, let’s look at purpose.

Having a sense of purpose is critical to people’s motivation, and we’re seeing this come up more and more lately in what many people in the tech community are doing. A lot of what we see in new startups or even in the open source community is built around a higher purpose than the workers themselves.

Take the famous Steve Jobs quote as an example:

“I want to put a ding in the Universe”
Steve Jobs

That’s not about making money, it’s a purpose, that he fulfilled through his work.

Think about some of the recent startups you’ve seen, how many of them have been founded or built around a purpose, to make people’s lives better, or improve what they see as a currently broken system.

To show how important purpose can be to individuals, you just need to look at the work done by creative agency Fictive Kin who launched the slash purpose initiative calling for companies to openly define the purpose driving their work, which started off the back of their own purpose page on their website.

Purpose can be a huge motivational factor. When a company lacks a purpose you can easily tell, it’s inherent in their core culture and can affect things like the levels of customer service they provide. Companies/people with a clear purpose help to motivate themselves and their employees. Going back to Automattic briefly, one of the first things you see when you go to view that jobs page is the words:

“Want to make the web a better place for more than a billion people each month?”

Instantly you’re hit with their key motivator, their purpose, they want to make the web a better place.

Intrinsic motivations

As you can see, intrinsic motivations are clearly apparent amongst the tech community, we’re striving for autonomy, mastery, and a purpose in our work. And because of the current demand for our skills these motivational factors are able to be fulfilled by ourselves and allowed to grow inside the companies we work for. This is important because when you’re driven by intrinsic motivations you feel that you’re the one determining the outcome of your efforts.

Affecting burnout

With our community being currently in the perfect position to cultivate these intrinsic motivators, the next question I want to ask is can these forms of motivation lead to some potentially unhealthy consequences? Is the fact that we’re driven by more than just money mean that we’re able to take more of an interest in our work and see it as something we do when the working day/week ends? Based on the amount of work I took on last year you can probably answer that question already, but I wanted to just talk about what I was doing in a bit more detail.

I looked back recently at how I used to spend an average day and it looked pretty worrying. I would get up around 7am, have breakfast, get ready for work, the usual things, then I’d leave for work within the hour aiming to be at the office for 8.30. From then it would be your regular working day, lunch around 12/1pm then finishing around 5.30/6pm (if I was lucky). The commute home would take me maybe 30-40 mins and by 7pm I was usually home and making dinner. Around 8pm I’d be back in the office at home, on the computer working or writing until about 11 o’clock at night, sometimes a little earlier depending on how tired I was but usually 11pm was my cut-off point. Then I’d watch a TV show and go to bed, ready to do the same the next day.

That was an example of one of the worse periods when I was maybe behind on a few deadlines or feeling I had to work on a few extra things that week. And that was just during the week, my weekends were also taken up completely with work. I’d be up early working from around 8.30am until 11pm again every Saturday and Sunday, only really taking breaks for lunch and maybe to watch the F1 if there was a race on. I spent a lot of the my time only leaving the house to go to work or to get food.

So from that you can imagine that it wasn’t too long before Burnout set in again. I say again, because in 2012 I wrote and spoke on a few occasions about the subject of Burnout because I’d been through exactly the same thing the previous year.

A demon…

What is burnout?

Burnout was defined in 1972 by Herbert J. Freudenberger as:

“a demon born of the society and times we live in and our ongoing struggle to invest our lives with meaning. It is not a condition that gets better by being ignored. Nor is it any kind of disgrace. On the contrary, it’s a problem born of good intentions.”

Along with this definition, Freudenberger and his colleague Gail North concluded that there were 12 phases associated with Burnout. And while not always experienced in order or at the same time, people suffering from burnout could identify with many of them.

I’ve been able to relate to a lot of these phases throughout the past year, and it reminded me of the year I first suffered with burnout. Feeling the need to prove myself was certainly one of them, and while writing a book that also manifested itself in impostor syndrome, feeling like I wasn’t actually good enough to be writing it in the first place.

I began to neglect myself, based on that daily schedule I talked about, you can probably imagine I wasn’t getting anywhere near enough time to myself, and even though I was well aware of it happening I ignored it and kept on going regardless.

I shut myself off from friends and family, who to their credit were understanding but shouldn’t have needed to be. My behaviour certainly became affected, being more short-tempered and stressed around the amount of work I was doing, which affected my new job. I started to feel empty and lost a lot of self-value, became apathetic towards my work and by the end of 2013 I did pretty much break down because of the amount of stress.

I do believe I was fortunate though, I never turned to alcohol or drugs and I don’t feel I ever slipped into depression, which is a common route burnout can take. I was lucky. At it’s worse burnout can manifest itself in burnout syndrome which is a complete physical and mental shutdown and coupled with depression can lead to suicidal thoughts, which I am very grateful to say never happened to me.

Burnout is prevalent in quite a few vocations, doctors and teachers particularly, but now I think we’re seeing it more in the tech community as well. We’re seeing more people write about the topic now and hear about their struggles in our community.

There is no cure for burnout.

But you can learn to deal with it and manage it. Throughout last year and definitely a lot more this year I’ve been aware of what I’m doing to myself. And although last year was pretty mental, and this year I’ve had periods where I’ve been overworked and stressed. I’ve been working on ways to deal with it and recuperate a lot more so I can stop myself getting to the point I reached at the end of last year.

2013 was pretty bad for me, but I did manage to get myself through it. I managed to keep up the work and put on 4 events and although there was some delay my book did get finished and published by the end of the year.

Working with Burnout

There was a whole range of things that helped me get through the worst times and a lot more that I’m continuing to do now that are helping to keep me from feeling burned out again.

At my lowest point I lost all motivation, so I needed to find some inspiration from somewhere. I literally just didn’t want to work, I didn’t want to do anything. I would sit and watch TV or a movie for pretty much the entire day, trying to work but only ever managing an hour or so at best. When it got this bad I searched for things to help renew my inspiration, whether that was for writing the book, working on the web or well just about anything really. I found a lot of inspiration when I attended conferences and from seeing friends speak, and I ended up watching a few conference talks online too.

In that kind of desperate search for anything that would inspire or motivate me I ended up watching a lot of TED talks, particularly the ones by Ken Robinson, one of my favourite speakers, who spoke about a subject I had a lot of passion for. But there was one speech I can’t count how many times I’ve watched, I even watched it again this week while writing this talk. At one point I think I was probably watching it once a week, or every other day, because it always bought a smile to my face and always kept me motivated to carry on. And it gave me probably one of my favourite quotes of all time as well:

“If you cannot be wise, pretend to be someone who is wise, and then just behave like they would.”
Neil Gaiman

So I did, I pretended to be wise, I pretended that I could write a book, and I managed to get on with it. It’s amazing what a few simple words can do for your motivation.

At other times when I really couldn’t concentrate I started switching projects and instead of writing the book I’d spend an evening working on things for 12 Devs. Mostly the tedious stuff like sending emails and setting up ticket links and things like that. Things that wouldn’t be too strenuous on the brain and that would still make me feel productive. A lot of those evenings where I told myself I had to go home and write but then couldn’t were saved by being able to do this sort of work. Just enough productivity to make me feel better for not wasting an evening when I should have been writing.

I mentioned friends briefly a minute ago, friends who spoke gave me huge inspiration but friends and family in general were also a great help to bring my morale back up. I’m very fortunate to have a lot of great friends in this industry who can relate to the things I’m doing and can talk about work and out of work things in the same night. At the start of last year I started attending a little event called Front End London; because of that event I met some amazing people, who have turned into such an amazing group of people I now feel honoured to call friends. They may know or they may not but their friendship over the last year has been extremely valuable to me, it’s helped bring my morale back up when I needed it.

These were all examples of times when I was feeling particularly bad, when I really needed a boost of encouragement or some inspiration. Other times I found I just needed to keep my mind going and keep it fresh so I wasn’t solely focused on the writing or other work things I was doing.


For me this was about finding flow, but not just in my work but also finding flow outside of work in order to give my mind a rest. To be able to recuperate and start again with a fresh perspective an hour or two later. The concept of flow was introduced back in the 1970s by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmehalyi. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s that feeling you get when you’re working, writing, coding, whatever, and you feel completely taken by the work, in the zone as it were, and the next time you look up it’s sometime in the early hours of the morning and you realise you should probably be in bed. There’s some great articles on flow and a TED talk by Csikszentmehalyi himself from 2004 about flow which I recommend you go and watch.

Basically I needed to find my flow again and get it back into my work, I found it a lot easier when I was able to find flow in one task to take that flow across to another task as well. I’m sad to say it started with computer games. Towards the end of last year GTAV and the new FIFA games were released and after quite a rough week off working solidly on the book I ordered them on same day delivery and was playing them by that evening. And it did wonders for my productivity. I still worked quite a lot but towards the end of the day I’d take a couple of hours to just sit and play. It helped take my mind off my work, I got into the games and just left reality behind me for a couple of hours. It felt great.

Get some exercise

Also because of my new job in central London I decided it was finally time to start cycling to work, and thanks to a bit of a nudge from a friend of mine I got myself a road bike in the summer last year. I mostly started commuting on it at first but the benefit I found came hugely from just going out on rides every weekend. Cycling just for the sake of cycling, only with my Strava on to see if I can go a bit faster up the zig-zag climb in Richmond Park this time. I only realised this recently but whenever I go out on the bike I end up in a state of flow, not really thinking about anything, just about the road, it clears my mind and is great exercise too.

Exercise is another thing I forget to do quite often but I always feel it gives me that much more motivation. I’ve been making an active effort to cycle to work a lot more often over the last few months, even in the winter I was donning the waterproof’s and getting on the bike each morning. Rule 5 after all. But recently I’ve been going to the gym as well, in the mornings before work I go there and just do some weights and get on the rowing machine for up to an hour before work. It helps me to feel more energised in general, even when I may have slightly overdone it. Also another thing about the rowing machine in particular, it’s great to help you really focus, keeping rhythm, keeping your breathing going at the right times, making sure you’re putting enough effort in equally across your legs and arms is plenty to think about and really helps you to clear your mind and focus on something for a short period of time.

A combination of all these things helped me get through 2013 and are helping me continue on through 2014 with renewing motivation and passion for my work. I’ve kept a lot of these things going throughout this year in an effort to keep myself from feeling quite as bad due to burnout.


I suffered from burnout throughout last year, at some times worse than others but it finally came to a head at Christmas where I was completely and utterly overwhelmed by the amount I had to do and the stress that was putting me under.

At the worst point I was very fortunate that I was around my family. I was able to talk with my mum (mum’s are always the wisest), I told her what was going on and she told me what I’d been telling myself for the past year, however this time I listened. You can tell yourself 100 times that you need a rest, that you need to take a step back and maybe not work on quite as much, but sometimes it takes someone you respect to tell you it before you actually listen. I spoke and wrote about burnout on several occasions in the past but I realised that even though I was the one speaking, I wasn’t actually listening.

So 2014 started with me doing something I didn’t want to but knew that I needed to. Our 12 Devs event at the end of January would be our last, we bought the events and the website to a close. While it was something we really enjoyed doing and allowed us to give back, 12 Devs was too much work for the both of us to keep up, me with generally overworking myself to the point of burnout and Anthony who has a similar problem but also a wife and two kids, I honestly don’t know how he keeps going at times. So unfortunately 12 Devs came to an end at the start of this year.

Along with this I started making an active attempt to do less and to actually make sure I made use of my spare time. I now regularly take weekends off and purposefully plan trips away or get out on the bike more. I’m doing a lot more sportive’s this year as well, having already done 85 miles around the New Forest, next month I’ll be doing 140 miles around the Brecon Beacons!

One other thing I did at the start of this year was get something to remind myself of 2013 and my promise to myself to do a lot less from then on. I booked a new tattoo… And last month I had it completed, after a couple of sessions and a lot of pain. It’s a maori design that goes from my ankle to my knee but there’s one part of the design that I asked to be included specifically. Koru.

Koru is Moari for fold or loop and it’s used to identify the unfurling fern frond. It symbolises life and new beginnings, the continuity of life and how it both changes and stays the same. So I now have a constant reminder of the promise I made to myself that I would do less and not let myself burnout quite as much from now on.


At the moment in our community we have this amazing opportunity where we can cultivate these intrinsic motivators. But these motivators also allow us to potentially slip into overwork and in turn towards Burnout. Motivations like our search for mastery and purpose push us towards doing more at times, and when we’re autonomous we’re able to choose how and when we work, even if that’s outside of the office.

So we need to remember to temper our motivation, making sure we don’t take on too much at once, which can be tricky now as we really are in such high demand. But remember there are also things we can do to keep our mind healthy, regular exercise and finding flow in things outside of work are key to helping us rest and reinvigorate our minds and our energy in general.

The title of my talk: There is no such thing as a work-life balance; actually comes from a quote, but that’s only part of the quote, the full quote is this:

There is no such thing as work-life balance. Everything worth fighting for unbalances your life.
Alain de Botton

Thank you!