Weekend Journal: Burn Out

Weekend Journal: Burn Out

I’m not there yet.

I’m not burned out beyond repair, nor do I plan to get to the point where I throw my hands in the air and say, “That’s it!” and walk away from engineering. No, haven’t gotten to that point yet.

But I have been getting close.

I have been very lucky lately to have picked up a part time consulting gig. I work full time during the day at a company that allows me to work in a non-related, non-competitor field at night, so there’s no conflict of interest. I really appreciate that. So at night after I get off of work for the day I drive home, eat dinner and start working on my consulting work for the evening. I am lucky enough to be working on a fun challenge, that happens to be design work. It’s also slightly outside of my main expertise, so I am able to expand and practice other skillsets from what I do all day. All in all, I have really enjoyed the work I have been doing.

I also have some extra curriculars related to engineering. I have my radio show, which I record on Monday nights. That is a good way to expand my knowledge of industry topics (I do research and am sure to read EE-related articles throughout the week) and it gives me a chance to talk through problems or just shoot the breeze with my co-host. For my inner creative demon, I get to write an article here at Engineer Blogs once per week (obviously some weeks aren’t just me complaining about how much work I have). I also get to interact with other fun, articulate engineers and try and guide what we want to talk about in a given week. Plus our joint writing efforts have given me an excuse to bug them on a Tuesday or Wednesday, just to chat. And though I don’t participate I have heard there’s a regular Tetris rivalry that also sprung out of EB. The social aspect of these activities is important, along with the professional development.

With all these activities, sleep has been a part of my life that has suffered. I have been up late, working on problems. And I can’t just sleep in because I have my normal work to get to. As such, coffee has become a more integral part of my life, even more than it was before. The higher amounts of caffeine have been stressing my body out, as it does with most people.

Another development that has affected me is that my engineering-tolerant significant other has been living out of the house recently, in order to pursue some of her career goals; I completely support her in this venture, but it’s still stressful. She also took the dogs with her,  so I have unfettered access to work nearly every evening when I get home (which I’m not completely convinced is a good thing). I get to see them all on the weekends, which is nice. Unfortunately though, the dogs were my main source of exercise, because we were walking them right when I got home. Now, I come home and go straight to work.

Aside from the time aspect, I think it’s important to point out that almost all of my time is consumed by engineering. My job, my other job and my hobbies are all engineering related. If I was one to remember dreams, I’m sure there’s engineering in there somewhere too (I don’t remember them when I sleep as little as I have been lately).  I have little variety in my life and that is what ultimately led me to believe I was nearing burnout. I was sitting at my desk the other day, looking at what most EEs would consider to be awesome electronics; I was just completely disinterested. I had had too much. I had been staring at them too long. So I took a break, talked to some friends at work and was able to calm down a little bit and get back to work.  I also started formulating a plan to get out of the rut I was feeling at that moment. If I continued feeling that way, all of my activities would go downhill in what I can only imagine is a self-destructive spiral.

So what have I been doing (or planning to do) in order to lower my stress levels and prevent burn out?

  1. Work less — Duh, this is an easy one, though not as easy as it sounds at first. I have been working towards a very specific milestone in my consulting work and once I reach it (I’m close), I’ll be able to scale back my hours (possibly). My day job has the possibility of ramping work significantly soon, so I need to ensure that I am able to balance the two, as my day job takes priority.
  2. Walk— On nice days, I can go for walks at work. This is helpful on two levels. I usually ask co-workers (from the day job) to go with me. I can talk through work problems, have a casual chat or complain about life. I get to listen to them too, which gives me perspective (my problems are hardly big problems in the grand scheme of things). The other is exercise. Granted, it’s not usually rigorous exercise, but if I’m working at night, every little bit helps. I have also been standing while working at home on my workbench, as this prevents poor posture and is a very passive form of exercise.
  3. Do other things — As I mentioned in my previous post about the engineering learning process, I used to play guitar the night before tests because I was procrastinating. It was also because that was a form of stress relief for me. I could play a song I already knew well, or try to pluck out some new tune, and I became centered. It still feels good to pick up my guitar and play, even if it’s nonsense. I need to do more of that. I also need to have hobbies that aren’t career related. I’ve begun reading more, so that’s a good start, but need to stick to fiction or something else non-educational (I’m a self-help book junky).
  4. Spend time with family — One thing I’ve been focusing on is spending time with my family when they aren’t out of town. It’d be easy for me to continue using weekend time to do engineering work (and it still will when necessary or is an emergency), but I need to spend some quality time hanging out and concentrating on my relationships. Spending time with loved ones is another form of stress relief (…most of the time) and it’s important to focus on. And much like GEARS wrote this week about work-life balance, if people don’t like that priority, “Tough Luck”.
  5. Eat healthy, get sleep — I was reading about concentration the other day and how before a doctor will even begin to consider medication for a person who suspects a problem with their concentration, they require that you get on a rigorous sleep schedule and eat regular, healthy meals. If I don’t begin doing this, I can’t expect to have the ability to perform my job(s) at my best level, nor can I expect to enjoy my engineering-related hobbies. This will require self-discipline, nothing more. But I will promise here that I won’t write on this subject again until I have started eating healthier and started sleeping close to 8 hours.

Needless to say, I’m not burnt out yet, but I very easily could go over the edge. My life needs a little more balance and I need to be the one to impart that balance. I’m sure I’m not the first one to feel this way, and would love to hear about your experiences. Have you ever become burnt out from your particular flavor of engineering? What did you to pull yourself back from the brink? What kind of stress-reducing activities do you participate in that help you maintain balance? Please share in the comments!


Thanks to rocketjim54 for the smokin picture


I see a lot of grad students go through this. You spend all day working on classes and homework, then you get to do a research project. A lot of them feel hugely guilty any time they take time away from their research, yet not staying away, even for small bits of time, kills their desire to work on it. It turns into a nasty spiral.

Glad you’re thinking of ways to prevent it rather than waiting until it happens. I’ve seen people end up in the hospital before they acknowledged something had to be done.

I recently started brewing beer, not because my day job was getting too stress full, but because I wanted a non-engineering related hobby to be able to talk about with my non-engineering friends… plus maybe have something other than the weather to talk about with my neighbors.

I am sure I’ll dream about automated arduino based brewing equipment, but for the mean time just reading the “Brewing for Dummies” book is relaxing.

So pick up that guitar and start jamming… I expect to hear some clips on the Amp Hour shortly 😛

That is great hobby, brewing beer! Sounds like fun. Right now most all of my hobbies are engineering related, but when given the opportunity I often turn to gardening. It somewhat relates to engineering in that I like seeing how plant growth works, but it doesn’t require any design … its already in the plants.

This is a great article Chris. Thanks for sharing and reminding us to pick our heads up out of the work hole to breathe the fresh air.

Ben W

I was there a few years ago. I don’t have the solution. All of the things you suggest are true: staying healthy and all of it.

I found a few years ago the amount of hours I was working was set not by some intelligent plan but rather by the amount my body plus RedBull was able to work. After working 40 hours or so, the amount of extra work I can do varies as the square of the effort. That model breaks down somewhere over 60 hours, and the slope of the out-vs-effort curve increases faster.

The solution is to build structures to get engineering done instead of actually doing it yourself. I’m struggling to learn to this right now. The irony of this is discussed in the book “The E-Myth”. The idea is if you’re really successful at something, you end up not doing much of it. You’ll end up recruiting, training, and managing engineers. You end up doing a lot of accounting. You decide which risks to take. You’re not engineering.

While the significant other is focused on some project is a perfect time to work all this out. You don’t want to work it out at 3am while working out how to feed a new baby. There’s more phony baloney and politics surrounding childcare than there is around anthropogenic climate change. I would thought that was extreme hyperbole eight years ago, but it’s a factual statement. So you are very smart to work out engineering business stuff at this time.

Knowing your limits can be far more valuable than when you go beyond them just to finish a project. Not only is it a management lesson for yourself, it is a management lesson for when you manage other people. A good manager is one who will amongother things, realise that a worker is having difficulties and thus is able to offer support. My advice see your family more because when they are gone, they are gone. Living in another country to my family, I make sacrifices to make sure that I can see them for the significant one a year trip.
P.S. I always find it amazing that some people in business can suggest that family is secondary to life. If one cannot be loyal to ones family, I doubt one can be loyal to the company. Very un-machiavellian.

I find I go through cycles similar to what you are talking about (where you just stare at this mountain of cool stuff to try but just can’t get motivated). That being said, I’m in a different boat since I have 2 little boys who won’t be ignored, so working all evening is just not feasible.

I started taking music lessons to force me to do something non-technical (and non-familial). This is qualitatively different than noodling on your instrument of choice in the evening, as you have time carved out every week for your lesson. It’s easy to blow off your playing when there are no consequences. It’s harder when you’ve got the lesson scheduled. I’d really recommend this as a way to inject something different into your life. If not music, maybe a run club or a sports team. I guess my main point is that if you are they type of person who easily pushes your own stuff down in the priority stack, committing to others that you’ll do something is one way to overcome that because now you have someone to account to. Hope that makes sense.

I know it’s probably not something you’d want to do, but I’d really reconsider taking on too many consulting gigs. If you go into hard compression for too long, it won’t be pretty.

been there done that
I don’t have the answer nor does anyone else except yourself
I found the engineering business a bit frustrating (I’m an EE) Technology was progressing so rapidly that I was constantly just trying to learn the new techniques. That was a drain as I seemed to never be getting on top of my chosen profession.
So I did what a lot of engineers did and changed professions . (I went into support and then marketing )
I look back now and I see that I gave up a lot of things that I now cherish for some dream. I still have my family (wife is very understanding and accomadating.) but I have changed my focus.
Like Chris I played music and then gave it up. That was a mistake and I came back to music 20 years later and really enjoy it.
I also got back into doing engineering projects algned to my interests.

As I said I really do not have an answer. What I can say is that make sure the dream you are chasing is what you really, really (did I say really) want. You’ll get what you dream for but you may be on top of that mountain by yourself looking at a terrible abyss.
And whilst money is nice, one can actually get by on a lot less than one thinks. I found out that I don;t need all the gadgets that are thrown at us by the media
Good luck


I am a first year PhD student in Aero and I am deep in this situation myself. During my undergrad, all I ever did was think, dream and talk about airplanes, so much so that I was completely oblivious to the real world outside – family, friends, girlfriends etc.. I started working after my graduation and it happened that my computed hard disk, on which I had stored 7 years of effort into collecting videos, articles whatnot on airplanes went up in smoke.. since then, I seemed to be not at all interested in airplanes and since I did not have any other source of motivation (few friends, didn’t speak to family much), I felt completely disillusioned. I turned to philosophy and for 2-3 years I have been questioning every frickin’ thing and it has led me to a kind of downward spiral.. I still hoped that my attraction to airplanes was not a mere flicker since it lasted for close to 5 years and I got into a Phd program in Aero. Similar to your situation, I am surrounded by really cool stuff, airplanes, flight simulators and whatnot and I couldn’t figure out for the life of me why I wasn’t getting motivated. At some points, I thought of quitting the program entirely. However, I have persisted and am very slowly realizing that my situation could be due to burnout and may not have anything to do with me having some psychological issues. Hopefully both of us are on the right track and things will get better soon. All the best to you!

Thanks yogesh! I have found my situation to be improving since I’ve eliminated things that weren’t all that important (in the grander) scheme and have focused on my relationships and that has really helped my life improve. I wish you the best!

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