While browsing the web, I came across a very insightful comment on burnout by Isaac Yonemoto. I’m surprised that, with all the writing that’s going on about burnout and how to combat it, this isn’t more common knowledge (it’s certainly the first time I hear about it).

Because Disqus comments don’t work well for me (and for my own memory), I decided to reproduce the comment here:

No. Burnout is caused when you repeatedly make large amounts of sacrifice and or effort into high-risk problems that fail. It’s the result of a negative prediction error in the nucleus accumbens. You effectively condition your brain to associate work with failure.

Subconsciously, then eventually, consciously, you wonder if it’s worth it. The best way to prevent burnout is to follow up a serious failure with doing small things that you know are going to work. As a biologist, I frequently put in 50-70 and sometimes 100 hour workweeks. The very nature of experimental science (lots of unkowns) means that failure happens. The nature of the culture means that grad students are “groomed” by sticking them on low-probability of success, high reward fishing expeditions (gotta get those nature, science papers) I used to burn out for months after accumulating many many hours of work on high-risk projects. I saw other grad students get it really bad, and burn out for years.

During my first postdoc, I dated a neuroscientist and reprogrammed my work habits. On the heels of the failure of a project where I have spent weeks building up for, I will quickly force myself to do routine molecular biology, or general lab tasks, or a repeat of an experiment that I have gotten to work in the past. These all have an immediate reward. Now I don’t burn out anymore, and find it easier to re-attempt very difficult things, with a clearer mindset.

For coders, I would posit that most burnout comes on the heels of failure that is not in the hands of the coder (management decisions, market realities, etc). My suggested remedy would be to reassociate work with success by doing routine things such as debugging or code testing that will restore the act of working with the little “pops” of endorphins.

That is not to say that having a healthy life schedule makes burnout less likely (I think it does; and one should have a healthy lifestyle for its own sake) but I don’t think it addresses the main issue.

A good manager will prevent burnout by letting employers understand that it’s okay if high risk things fail. Will let their employee decompress a little bit after a huge failure. Will assign their employee incrementally succesful, no-nonsense tasks after a huge failure. (Note that the social knowledge required to do this sort of management is often lacking in the academic sciences and tech fields)

To better address the resentment issue - It’s orders of magnitude more difficult to cope with burnout after the burnout event when there is resentment. In grad school, this primarily came in the form of ’golden children’ where other grad students are unreasonably favored, either because of sheer luck of being assigned the right project, or for stupid political reasons, or because they presented fraudulent work (and weren’t called out on it) or because the boss wasn’t intelligent enough to see past overinterpreted data. In industry, I suppose that resentment can come form pay differentials or silly politics.

But you can have burnout without any resentment whatsoever. And you can have lots of resentment (like I do, towards bosses who did not accurately represent to me the difficulty of advancement in science or the PhD bubble) without burnout.

Hopefully that will help someone.