Programming

Programming Burnout: How to Regain Your Lost Motivation

Anthony Grant Updated 25-06-2020

Have you lost the passion that you once had for programming? Is it affecting your motivation to get things done? Are you falling behind on all your projects and finding it difficult to catch up? If you feel burned out, here’s the good news: you can beat it.

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Programming burnout is very real. The real challenge with burnout is figuring out the different reasons why you may find yourself lacking motivation. Finding the cause will help you recharge and come back stronger.

There are numerous ways to rekindle the flame, finding the one that you respond to is the challenge. It won’t necessarily be easy, but it’s certainly achievable. Here are some ways to tackle programmer burnout and regain your lost motivation.

Read Apprenticeship Patterns

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It bears repeating: you are not the first programmer to lose their fire, nor will you be the last. You are not alone in this struggle. Millions of other coders have dealt with this problem and many of them made it through to the other side. The best thing you can do is to learn from their experiences.

That’s why I highly recommend Apprenticeship Patterns by Dave Hoover and Adewale Oshineye. This ebook is full of wisdom for programmers. It walks through the phases of programming expertise from newbie to veteran and the challenges that pop up along the way.

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The underlying reason for burnout can vary from person to person. Were your expectations of programming different from reality? Are you rushing towards mastery and being overwhelmed by it all? Do you feel like you’re stagnating and not learning anything new?

Depending on your answers, you should check out the sections named “Sustainable Motivations,” “The Long Road,” and “Rubbing Elbows,” respectively.

Find Motivation With Programming Peers

Let’s be clear about one thing: this has nothing to do with whether you’re strong enough to pull yourself through. Being unmotivated doesn’t mean you’re weak. It’s important to keep yourself grounded in reality, which is hard to do when you can’t see an outside perspective.

When you’re feeling indifferent and bored, the worst thing you can do is to suffer through it on your own. If you aren’t already surrounded by like-minded programmers, you would do well to seek some community. In-person conversations are ideal, but online communities have benefits as well.

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The goal of peer-to-peer interaction is to find common ground with programmers who may be having the same struggle that you are. The objective is to share your concerns, vent a little bit, and ultimately pinpoint what might be killing your inspiration.

Get Inspired Learning Something New

In a lot of cases, programming burnout stems from boredom. If you’ve been grinding as a company software developer for over a decade, you might feel like you’re stuck in a dead-end job with no opportunity. Maybe the code you maintain is trivial and doesn’t challenge you. None of which even makes mention of other habits that can contribute to exhaustion at work 12 Bad Habits That Are Making You Tired at the Office Office fatigue is a common feeling these days. If you feel tired while in your office, look into these causes and their solutions. Read More .

What do you do then? You have to switch gears. Some of the enjoyment of programming comes from creative problem-solving. Without that, programming is little more than mindless busywork day in and day out – especially if you consider your day-to-day coding projects to be easy.

Code projects for programmers

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Depending on the flexibility of your workplace, ask your superiors if you can transfer to another project. If you can afford the risk, it may even be worth switching to another field  (e.g. if you’ve been writing academic software on Windows, it could be exciting to try writing a social app on the web).

You can also pick up hobby projects that involve areas of programming that you’ve never explored. For example, try making a mobile game in your free time.

When you can’t get away from your primary programming responsibilities, you’d be surprised how much inspiration these personal projects can stoke within you. Just make sure you pick something that ignites your interest.

Improve Health to Beat Burnout

A lack of motivation could be a sign of health problems. These can be physical health concerns like dehydration, or mental health concerns like depression. Improving health can go a long way toward recovering motivation.

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Don’t be hesitant to try an app that promotes positivity 5 Free Positivity Apps to Manage Mental Health and Boost Your Spirits Everyday life can really wear you down. Try these helpful apps that can manage your mental health and boost your spirits. Read More to recharge your mental health.

For computer-heavy activities like programming, there are three steps you can take to stay healthy.

  1. Exercise regularly (if time is an issue, you can try exercising at your desk while you work).
  2. Take steps to minimize computer fatigue.
  3. Enforce proper sleeping habits.

Routines can strain your mental health. If you’re staring at the same four walls every single day, it could grow monotonous. Monotony can lead to boredom and increased levels of stress.

You can remedy this by changing your scenery; whether that means rearranging your furniture, working from a new location, or something as small as changing your computers’ wallpaper. If you want to incorporate some exercise into your workflow, a standing desk can help.

Lastly, if your lack of motivation is closely tied to issues of procrastination, one thing I’ve found extremely helpful is the Pomodoro technique. This technique breaks up your workday into alternating periods of work, rest, work, rest. Never tried it before? Give it a go for a week or two. You might be pleasantly surprised by the results.

Step Away And Refresh

It’s great to find a solution to burnout that helps you become a better programmer. However, programming is a mentally taxing career and at a certain point changing the way you program might not be enough to fix your burnout.

Sometimes the best way to refresh your programming is to stop programming!

Step away from the computer, give your keyboard rest, and get offline. Find a hobby that motivates you. Maybe that’s learning music or getting outdoors for a hike. There’s no shortage of hobbies that don’t involve any programming 10 Hobbies for Programmers That Don't Involve Code If you want to exercise your mind in a fun way without writing a single line of code, there are several no-code hobbies you can take up to become a better programmer. Read More . Visit your friends, get out on the town, go see a movie or concert. Burning the candle on both ends is great for productivity but terrible for your mental health. Take some time to switch your brain off; stop thinking about algorithms.

When you take time off frequently, you have a better chance of keeping your mind fresh and avoid losing motivation.

Revive Your Motivation to Program

I’ve been there more often than I’d like to admit. Programming is fun! Programming is boring. It’s fun again!  These steps are the kinds of actions that have proven most effective for me over the years. Hopefully one or more of these tips can help you recover the motivation that sustains you.

Keep your energy strong by separating work from your personal life. Positive forms of entertainment are encouraged, find what works for you. For some that may be as simple as a playlist you enjoy or as engaging as one of these creative hobbies that can make you a happier person 5 Creative Hobbies for Adults That'll Make You a Happier Person Proper creative outlets can improve your mental health and happiness. Here are some creative hobbies that are proven to help. Read More .

Related topics: Burnout, Mental Health, Motivation, Productivity Tips, Programming.

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  1. Irmaan
    October 28, 2019 at 2:36 am

    Thanks dude , for your good feedback. I will try my best to learn programming language. Hehehe. Last week i felt so tired with my head, i cant learn anything from it, i read a motivation from another sites and it made my mood to back to me, so i said again. Thanks dude.

  2. Kernan Manion, MD
    February 18, 2015 at 11:03 pm

    @Joel - thanks for your kind feedback. In healthcare, we don't have the ability to switch jobs that easily. So we've got to figure out what's making us stressed.

    And I think overall it's helpful to look at where it's coming from so that we can learn to deal with it better, because you can be assured, the same type of problems are going to keep popping up - nasty clients, impossible deadlines; bosses form hell; co-workers from another planet ....

  3. Kevin
    February 17, 2015 at 12:22 am

    I related to this experience about 6 months ago and the solution for me was to switch gears and learn something new. I found a new passion and was even able to get back to work on dead projects again after the fact.

    • Joel
      February 18, 2015 at 12:14 am

      I love it when that happens. Nothing is better (at least for me) than returning to a dead project with a renewed sense of motivation. What kind of programming was burning you out?

  4. Kernan Manion, MD
    February 16, 2015 at 11:20 pm

    I think it’s also vital to clarify what your burnout is due to. Does it have to do with the content of the work, namely the substance of the task itself (e.g. the programming challenge one is asked to accomplish); the process of the work (e.g. the timeline, the means of communication, the feedback loops necessary in complex project management …); the environment of the work (e.g. the boss/subordinate relationship; the relationship with the client; the trusting environment that my team lead / boss “has my back” …); or something entirely outside of the work sphere (e.g. personal relationships; family issues; questioning whether I’m even in the right profession ….)? Often, it's a multiplicity of these. But their mix varies from person to person.

    As I coach physicians and other professionals who are burned out (recent studies indicate ~ 40% of practicing physicians are felt to be frankly burned out!), I’ve found it’s vital to ask these questions. Otherwise, one is prone to making job and career decisions that don’t really address the core drivers of one’s burnout.

    • Joel
      February 18, 2015 at 12:11 am

      Excellent points Kernan. I've never really thought about it in such specific terms but it makes a lot of sense. You can't really solve a problem until you know the cause, and a lot of times we end up patching the symptoms of burnout without ever touching the root of the issue.

  5. Saikat
    February 14, 2015 at 7:29 am

    What's true about a lot of jobs is also true about programming burnout. On one hand, there's definitely something to be said about working on stuff we love, but we also need to make a living somehow, and to a certain extent, work is work.

    So, it is worthwhile to take some time off and spend it on figuring out what makes us tick. What will we enjoy doing ten years from now? The simples thing (but also the most overlooked) is to be brutally honest with ourselves.

    • Joel
      February 18, 2015 at 12:08 am

      Great advice. It's a tough pill to swallow for someone like me who cycles through different passions on a year-to-year basis, lol. But yeah, being brutally honest with myself has been one of the best things I've done (as painful as it was).

  6. Karl
    February 13, 2015 at 7:21 pm

    How do you recover from such psychotic past clients that you have PTSD from looking at batches of code used in previous projects? I think therapy will only go so far, and I realized it was time to get out of it.! :)

    • Rick
      February 14, 2015 at 1:31 pm

      Good question, Karl. I switched industries to recover from the trauma of a prior one. My new job required learning a new programming language along with new elements of my former one. As Joel Lee suggested, this change contributed to greater motivation.

    • Joel
      February 18, 2015 at 12:06 am

      @Karl: If it gets so bad that you develop PTSD, then yeah, I'd say it's time to get out of that field! :P A lengthy break is usually enough for recovery.

      @Rick: Glad to hear that switching industries really did help with motivation. Awesome!

    • Kernan Manion, MD
      February 18, 2015 at 11:12 pm

      @ Karl - overall, I agree with you - some professional experiences can be so painful that going near them or anything that reminds you of them brings on a psychic meltdown.

      That said, I think it's also important to help people examine whether there's anything that they could've done better to deal with an impossible, demanding, abusive client. What communication strategies might I use to hold my ground and not tolerate abuse. What leverage do I have with my boss / project manager and s/he with their boss to confront abusive communication and impossible demands from a client.
      But if you've got no leverage in communicating with either the client or your team, then it's either grin and bear it" or leave. And sometimes, as is written in books on toxic workplaces, the only thing one can do in a toxic work environment is to leave. It's sad that that's the only way to send feedback to an otherwise deaf and blind and callous organization.