2019
← Modern Retro SoftwareFixing the SHV33 back cover →
  Burning Out
Sat 3rd August 2019   
About two years ago I had to switch gear and "take it easy".

After years not missing any of the Solskogen demo parties, I skipped it for two years in a row, and that year I also stayed in Oslo for the summer holidays instead of going back to France.

Apparently I got hit by a partial burnout.

Burnout

Random search on the internet comes up with a few definitions for what a burnout is:

"Emotional and physical exhaustion resulting from a combination of exposure to environmental and internal stressors and inadequate coping and adaptive skills. In addition to signs of exhaustion, the person with burnout exhibits an increasingly negative attitude toward his or her job, low self-esteem, and personal devaluation.

Strategies for preventing and managing burnout include utilizing assertiveness techniques, improving problem-solving and decision-making skills, clarifying personal values and setting realistic personal goals, learning and using coping mechanisms to deal with emotions, ensuring oneself adequate relaxation and recreation, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and minimizing stressors at work and at home."
1

The wikipedia article specifies that Since May 2019, the WHO stipulated that burnout must be understood as being specifically work-related. 2

The reason I'm writing this now, is that it looks like many people have been impacted by similar things, but most people will not speak about it if the topic is not brought to the table.

I realized that when I wrote a few posts on Facebook, which were answered by some people privately on direct messages.

And when I write "some", I actually mean way more that I was expecting.

Epidemics?

I'm not quite sure if this type of things has always been happening, or if it's a modern illness.

Obviously there's always been people getting sick, depressed, tired, etc... but to me it looks like this mostly impacts people who work in the tertiary industry (basically people who mostly work with information, being computer programs, accounting, writing reports, management, etc...) jobs that you can easily do remotely, in the train, during the week-end, etc... because you can easily be contacted thanks to our smart phones and permanent internet connections.

We used to have a clear separation between work and non work.

This has never been that fuzzy:

The stereotype of the creative person with their macbook at the local barista putting finishing touches to a website is a perfect example of what I mean.

Same things with the concept of devops:

Being a developer was a clear 9 to 5 work. Working in the operations department on the other hand means you are on call and can be contacted at any time of the day or night, during the week or week ends to help with infrastructure issues.

I think it's something to keep in mind, specially for the younger generations who were born with this mind set of "always on" connectivity; they will probably need to learn to do breaks in their digital life.

Back to my particular case.

What happened

First, a disclaimer: I'm no expert, and I did not actually get diagnosed with burnout, it's just a conclusion I came up after discussing and looking around.

In my case it's not 100% work related, it seems to be more a case of "the straw that broke the camel's back": Too many things to deal with at the same time.

It's a bit like pressure cookers (or steam engines in general), they are designed to handle pressure in a specific set of parameters: This works well, but if you start tampering with the device by disabling the exhaust valve or increasing the internal pressure, bad things will happen.

Over the years, I had steadily handled a significant amount of stuff:
  • My job at Funcom
  • All my Defence Force related stuff (maintaining the website, helping people, OSDK versions, Oric and Atari demos and games, demo parties)
  • Work on the apartment (home automation, redoing floors in the kitchen and living room)
  • Work on the camper van project
as well as whatever else came up.

Then at some point I developed a severe case of insomnia.

Like everybody I had experienced not been able to sleep well now and then, but that was the first time I ended up spending many consecutive nights of very bad and/or short sleep, sometimes staying unable to sleep for half of the night or more, and obviously the next day at work was not the most productive.

And from then, the pyramid of cards kind of wobbled.

Fortunately (for me), I had a colleague who had gone through the exact same thing, and he was able to kickstart me in the good direction, a few months later I was able to sleep again.3

Ok, but why did it happen?

It's always difficult to pinpoint an actual event that triggered things, the human mind is complicated, and we tend to rationalize things after a while.

If I had to select a bunch of events that lead to that, it would be a combination of things, starting with work as the root cause.

Work

Rui, Fred, don't get me wrong, I really like my job... except when I had to work on game code tasks on Conan Exiles.

When I worked in France, I was working on both game code, library code, and tools.

During the development of Kia: Dark Lineage, I ended up conflicting with the team on how we should work and which features we should or should not work on, and moved to the tech department to exclusively work on tools and low level tech.

When I joined Funcom in 2005, I explicitly searched for a Tool programmer position: No game position for, and certainly no lead position.4

This worked nicely up to 2017 when Funcom fighting for its survival with a last attempt before drowning: Conan Exiles.

From a rational point of view, it made perfect sense to bring the tool and tech people on board the project to help with the work on the game, specially considering we were switching to the Unreal Engine, supposedly good enough so we would not have to do too much work maintaining our own tech5.

The problem is that I was asked to implement features useful in a multiplayer game (the text and audio chat system), despite me not playing multiplayer games.6

Since the ticket on the issue tracker did not say anything other that "we need a chat system", and any attempt at getting an actual list of required features did not get me anything concrete, I ended up writing the equivalent of XChat (with dynamically colored nicknames, /me style commands, multiple channels, etc...) and after wasting weeks trying to get Unreal's voice chat to work ("Dude, it works in Ark and they are using Unreal's one!")7 I finally implemented Steam's voice chat system... which obviously is not available on Xbox or PlayStation.

What a mess.

Anyway, that was very stressful situation. I was not satisfied by the feature, neither were the users, it was a lose/lose situation:

You don't ask a blind man to draw a mural painting, everybody knows the result will not be up to the needs.

Fortunately, the game was successful enough that I was able to go back working on tools8 and tech.

The Car

The car... what a long topic!

Originally, the idea of working on the Camper Van project came as a need to do something together with my girlfriend, something not involving computers, forcing us to be outside and doing some actual manual work.

We basically bought a car which could not run by itself (it was towed from a small town outside Oslo to our apartment), we got it running, to the point it was able to go from Oslo to Trondheim, Stockholm and back to Oslo, complete with solar panels, fridge, bed, barbecue grill, etc...

I'm personally very happy with what we did in and with the car, I'm less happy with the mechanical failures we got on the way:

Some were normal and expected considering it was a 50 years old car, some just got frustrating and annoying, like having the engine fail for electric reasons twice, then having things repaired at a specialist shop that ended up working worse than before the repair.

We are going to sell the car this year:

It is in perfectly drivable condition, and it got the EU Kontrol authorisation.

It's just that I don't have the stamina to keep it running anymore, and selling it will be one less thing to think about.

Health

Health is important, specially when you are getting older and then you realize it was not something you will keep forever.

When I was 25, I spent a lot of time at the dentist, involving a number of root canals and crowns.

Unfortunately crowns are not like diamonds, they are not forever: Which means they started to fail and had to be replaced.

My dentist in Oslo said that I should be happy, after all these old crowns had worked fine for about 20 years, which is longer than the average.

Yeah for Lyon!

Anyway, what it means is that I spent a lot of time at the dentist: Very expensive, very stressful.

France

Let's face it: France is incredibly stressful.

If you are living in France, you probably don't realise it, but every time I go back for holidays, each satisfactory moment I spend with my family is friend is balanced by some stress created by the obnoxiously toxic TV channels full of angry news and saturated with ads, permanent tele-marketing phone calls, cities are polluted and noisy, people use their car horn for no reason and you better look left and right before crossing a street, the cityscapes turned in many places to nightmares apparently designed by bureaucrats in love with Kafka and Le Corbusier.

Seriously, look at Lyon around La Part Dieu, vast expenses of asphalt, concrete and glass covered buildings.

No shadow, no grass, no trees.

It's suffocating, but it for sure does look modern, just in a bad way.

Fortunately there's still the nice people, nice food and good drinks :)

Finances

Now that I had decided to stay in Norway, I basically did not need to keep my French bank account anymore.

Except there was two things that were still using it that I needed to deal with first:
  • An old hospital insurance thing I had for decades
  • A life insurance contract doing monthly payments
The first one was a minor amount of money, but I still needed to close it before I could close the bank account.

The problem is that the company had transferred to new headquarters, then was bought back by some larger company: None of the contact information I had was valid.

I had to go through my bank to track down where the money transfer order came from, and then move back up to who I could finally contact, then have them find that indeed they had some old contract with old number references, to finally get them to stop the contract: This took a number of weeks and quite many emails.

The second one was easier to track down, but the problem is that I had to wait for a specific minimum number of years before asking to stop the contract and collect the capital, else I would have to suffer some financial penalty.

Additionally I had to figure out how to transfer that to Norway, including declaration to the tax office, etc...

In the meanwhile, I had to keep making sure the French bank account would have enough money on it, which meant doing regular transfers from Norway, with all that implies in term of currency conversion costs9.

This is fortunately done, so that's one less thing to keep in mind.

Personal Projects

I love to do things, and I love to help people.

The problem is when things start to stack up, to the point you get a stack overflow and things start falling apart.

If you listen to specialists, when this happen it's a clear sign you need a better task management system.

They may be correct, but I would suggest that maybe instead of organising tasks better... maybe you should just have fewer tasks instead.

In my case, it was a typical case of promising a lot of things to a lot of people:
  • Yes, I will try to get the Arkos Tracker player ported to the Oric
  • Yes, I will make an entry to the CEO new year competition
  • Yes, I will try to help you finish your project
  • Yes, would be cool to make something together one of these days
  • Yes, I got your pictures, they are cool, I will make a demo with them
  • Yes, ...
  • Yes.
  • No, sorry, I can't. I'd like too but I've already too many things in the air.
On top of that, you need to add the cost and time spent maintaining a web server, handling catastrophic hardware failures and internet provider failing, backups, renewal of domain name, etc...

My life now

I'm now mostly back on track, but one needs to be careful things don't turn back to bad, so I've done a number of changes in my life which I hope will help on the long run.

The basic idea is to "take it easy".

Concretely here is what I've done:
  • I used to keep Slack/Skype open during evenings and weekends, just in case there would be a problem, so I could fix it. This was obviously appreciated by the team in the USA because they pretty much always had somebody able to help with issues even out of the work hours. The drawback is that you never actually disconnect from work, which on the long run is not good. So now when I'm not working I shut down all the instant messengers related with work, if I'm needed I can be called on my mobile phone.
  • I keep strict bed time as much as possible. Basically I try to be in bed at 22:00 at the latest, then I read a bit, and I wake up always the same time in the mornings; including weekends. That's obviously difficult to do when in holidays or visiting people, but the idea is to resync as early as possible: It's much easier to fight insomnia when you have a regular sleep schedule (that matches your natural rhythm).
  • Unfinished projects are nasty: They stay on the back of your mind, nagging you a little bit. The more of these you have, the more pressure you get. So avoid adding new projects until you have dealt with existing ones, either by deciding you will never finish them and bury them for real, or by actually spending the time they need to be done. Each project that gets removed makes you feel better, the size does not really matter, so what I'm doing is to interleave big ones with small ones to get a feeling of progress... and then only when I've getting rid of a few projects do I eventually accept to start something new.
  • All these things you are wondering if you will use again? Just get rid of them. I had bought a Kayak a few years ago and it was just stored taking room for no reason: I sold it last month, the buyer is happy, I got a bit of money for it, and that's free room as well.
  • Don't force yourself to do things you don't feel like you can do: If you have promised already, maybe contact the person and tell them that you had over-promised and that reasonably that would not be a good idea to do it at the moment.
  • And generally speaking, try to find a way to handle things, people or places that you find stressful!

So these days I'm mostly checking marks, trying to finish cleanly all the projects I had started (because I like to finish things).

Not everything will be done in the way I envisioned them when I started the project, but in most cases I'm the only actual judge... so if I'm agreeing with myself that it was a good enough effort, I'm fine with it :)

So there you go.

If you ask me if I could ask you with this or that, or point out a bug in the OSDK that should have been fixed by now, it's not because I don't want to... it's just because I'm taking care of me.



1. https://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/burnout
2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occupational_burnout
3. For the curious that involved sticking to a strict bed time schedule, brand new bed and mattress, drinking tea instead of coffee in the afternoon, and switching to a nuts and dry fruits breakfast
4. Life is too short to waste it doing politics or writing throw away code
5. HAHAHAHAHAHA, insight is 20/20
6. I'm already interacting with people all the day long, I don't enjoy playing with people after work
7. Apparently it worked in Unreal Engine 4.8 but got broken somewhat around between 4.10 and 4.12
8. Including a tool I made for Conan Exiles players to run and manage their own game servers
9. Right now the NOK is at about 10 nok for 1 euro, but on the period this has fluctuated between 8 to 1 to 12 to 1, which on large transfers makes a significant difference!
comments powered by Disqus