Goals, Constraints and Burnout

- 6 mins

I recently read an article by Tim Ferriss where he describes his decision to not read any new books in 2020. It’s worth a read and there are plenty of interesting thoughts in the comments as well.

One paragraph made me pause and reflect more than others:

I’m not good at moderation. I’m much better with fasting than caloric restriction, for instance. “No dessert” is a lot easier for me than “some dessert.” I thrive with loving constraints: strict, binary rules that remove all deliberation and protect me from my lesser self.

Tim captured in the above what I’ve long suspected is true for myself as well. When I look back at my life and more recently my career in tech I realise how much of this statement is true. Many of the achievements I’m most proud of, if not all, were all due to some constraint being in place.

Over the last year or so I’ve been thinking a lot about why I’m not as productive or driven as I used to be, especially when it comes to personal development. Scrolling through my Twitter timeline and reading about all the different achievements of the people I follow amplifies this feeling even more. Why don’t I write more, or as much as I used to? Why am I not working on side projects?

This feeling is not just a product of my interaction with social media though. It also comes from a place that I once inhabited. In the tech industry we’re lucky and privileged to have many areas in which one can find refuge and pursue knowledge and acknowledgment. For me this was Elixir.

My first encounter with the language was in 2015 and from that point onwards I threw myself at it. I was in my early days as a software developer and I was hungry to achieve things. I could feel the aura of the stereotype of developers as hackers that hack on things outside of work.

This relationship with the language led me to giving my first and only conference talk, making small contributions to the core language and preparing and runnning a full day workshop at ElixirConfEU.

At some point around the same period I was also asked to deliver training for one of our clients. The catch: I had 1 week to prepare. I don’t think I’ve ever learned so much about a language or technology in such a short space.

What do all of the above have in common? Constraints.

The constraints were public commitment and/or a deadline. Once I had committed to something, I couldn’t back out. I had to complete it within the expected timeframe or at least give it my best. The alternative–letting people down–was not an option.

Constraints are great because they help you focus on a target and with limited time you’re forced to drop anything that’s excess or a distraction. It’s easy to go down rabbit holes because they’re a great place to go and procrastinate. I’ve done this a myriad times. Having that constraint of public commitment with a deadline, puts a hatch at the entrance of any unnecessary rabbit hole.

Constraints are great but they’re not free. The flip side? Stress.

Pushing through all those commitments in that period caused my burnout, the effects of which I feel I’m still carrying.

I felt the effect of burnout the most right after we had delivered the workshop at ElixirConfEU. I was extremely relieved when we reached the end of it. It went well and we had great feedback. So great in fact that we were approached by a very established publisher of programming books. They wanted to create a book around the topics we covered and they thought we could do a good job with it. Me and my colleague at the time were thrilled. Writing a book was something I aspired to long before I entered the tech world.

The publisher had strict deadlines (understandably so) and having just finished delivering a workshop that took so much out of me, the thought of repeating this again but with even higher intensity was terrifying. Even though we got positive feedback on our sample chapters, I informed my co-author that I couldn’t do it and we eventually pulled out. As much as I would have loved to be a published author on a topic close to me, it was all too much.

Since then I tried the complete opposite: develop skills and complete projects in a sustainable pace without stressing myself. Do things in moderation, in balance. The result? Nothing worthy of showing.

Without having some kind of constraint (public commitment, deadline, both etc) I find myself falling at the whims of what Tim described as “my lesser self”. I’m interested in so many things which makes the situation even worse because it provides me with ever more so rabbit holes to go and disappear in when the going gets tough.

Procrastination is something that plagues most people especially when faced with something new and challenging. What I find extremely difficult is how to avoid that when there’s nothing to motivate me to stop.

A perfect example where moderation with a hint of constraint still failed me: fitness. Signing up to a gym never motivated me to actually go. I thus decided to give personal training a go as a way of committing to something more concrete. The fact that it was expensive motivated me to show up. The fact that I could carry over my sessions at any week/month meant I could easily cancel a session if I didn’t feel like it. The end result was that I didn’t make the most of it and stopped after a while.

So far moderation has been nothing more than a way which I commit to things but with several escape hatches available through which to walk out when I feel like it. As I’m typing this down I realise that moderation for me is indistinguishable from self-motivation. Moderation doesn’t work for me or at least I don’t know how to make it work for me.

Having experienced the effects of burnout, it’s definitely something I don’t want to experience again. I also don’t know how to motivate myself to achieve things without imposing constraints that push me to my limits.

How do I push myself without constraints? How do I avoid neglecting meaningful things/interactions/relationships etc when constraints are in place? Maybe the issue is the amount of constrained goals in a given period of time? Too many => burnout?

Maybe I need to embrace the fact that constraints are essential to how I operate as an individual. Or maybe there is a balance somewhere and I just haven’t found it yet.

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