AMA: How Can I Not Burn Out?

Anna writes:

My jobs has changed to just programming with PowerShell, basically automating mundane SQL server tasks. It has been a challenge automating and executing my job concurrently. I tried different ways to organize my day and it just frustrating. I work during the day and code at night. After 3 years of this I am burned to a crisp. Would love to hear your ideas/suggestions on how to manage a day in a contracting environment. I am looking for innovative way to organize my work time and start living again.

Have a question of your own? Please ask.

Wow, that’s a tough question. And you know, so much of the answer depends on you, your relationship with your customer or employer, and so on… all I can do is answer from my own experience, knowing that it might not be at all helpful in your situation.
I think the one thing I had to learn was that you can’t make time. That is, you can certainly reorganize, but you can’t manufacture more hours. You can choose to work days and nights, and I’ve done that too. You can try to become more efficient, so that you can fit more work into less time, but there’s an upper limit on how much you can free up that way. Now look, it’s possible that you’re still not organizing your day very well, but without the nitty-gritty details, and frankly without living a week in your life, there’s no way to figure that out from my end. After three years, though, it’s good odds you’ve optimized as much as you can for the demands being placed on you.
There comes a point where you’re simply being asked to do too much, and you need to decide if you’re there or not. I’ve had to “fire” contracting customers in the past, simply because they were demanding more of me than they were legitimately paying for.  They were getting a ton of value, but they weren’t paying for it all. It’s like going into a store, taking two carts full of merchandise, and only paying for one. As a customer, I feel great – but that business is gonna call the cops on me. That may be where you’re at, and it may simply be time to have a frank discussion with your customer about their expectations versus your life as a human being. If they’re seeing value from automation, then maybe they choose to focus your daytime efforts on that, and deal with the daily churn through some other means. But they shouldn’t have access to, let alone control of, your “off” hours. People should work to live, not the other way around, if you take my meaning.
This can be a scary situation  and conversation, so believe me, I don’t write this lightly. I had a couple of instances where 100% (and beyond) of my effort was on one consulting customer; it was scary as hell to “fire” that customer and find a new one. But I needed to, because they were just toxic for me, and after several long conversations, they weren’t willing to change.
I made a point of making those conversations businesslike. Look, here’s what you pay me. Here’s the monetary value you get from me – I spend 30 hours a week doing daily churn, and another 30 hours a week doing automation. That automation ultimately saves you this much $ per year (I did the math, so I knew the exact dollar amount). So you’re getting $$$$$ value from me and only paying $$ to me. That’s unbalanced and it needs to change. I recommend I come into the office for 2 days a week, and spend the other 3 days outside the office, working on automation, because that’s where I’m really delivering $$$ value to you. They disagreed; I left. They wound up bringing in three people to replace me, none of whom were handling automation, and so now they were paying $$$$$$ for $$$ value.
The key here isn’t to approach the conversation as, “look, I’m burned to a crisp.” That’s an unmeasurable, and it’s personal; too many people will take it as whining and not bother trying to see through to the underlying business problem. You have to do that for them. You need to know what they pay for you, fully loaded. You need to know what that breaks down to per hour. You need to know how many man-hours you’re caving with your automation work, and how much money that saves per man-hour. Then you can say, “I’m simply not able to keep up this rate of production for you; I’m working 60+ hours a week and it’s no longer sustainable.”
Possibly you’re working for a contracting company who’s working you out to multiple clients; it’s the same story regardless. “Look, I know how much you’re making from me. It’s fine. But let me show you the value I’m actually achieving for your customers. You should be charging them more, and working me less. Regardless, I can no longer continue at the current pace. Let’s decide what value I bring to customers in your eyes, and I’ll focus on those things. But something has to give, here, or I’m going to end up someplace else.”
Again, not a pleasant conversation to try and have, but you need to be able to back it up with math and science, not just the frustration you’re feeling. Make it about a business problem, not the very real personal problem you’re experiencing. Translate that burned-out feeling into numbers, and have the conversation. Be prepared for it to be scary, but know that you’ve got actual science on your side.
I don’t feel that’s probably all that helpful getting you through what must be a tough time – but it’s how I’ve had to deal with more or less the same thing in the past. It did mean, in two instances, letting go of a job or customer. That meant scrambling to find a new one. It was terrifying, but it turned out to not only be fine, but far better than fine.

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Don, thank you for all you do.
Dr. Peterson is the best! My favorite: 'Pick your damn suffering, bear it, and be a good person.'


Thanks Don, great article as usual.


"I’ve had to “fire” contracting customers in the past, simply because they were demanding more of me than they were legitimately paying for."
"But I needed to, because they were just toxic for me, and after several long conversations, they weren’t willing to change."
==> yes that's the only viable solution
Here is a great book about this subject:
And here is an interesting video about a very near topic:


The Amazon link doesn't show up in my answer.
However, here is the reference of this great book:
Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less