From having the best work-life balance to thinking about work 24/7, things got out of control before I noticed. At its peak, I worked from 5 am till 7 pm and continued to think about work after that. It’s interesting how my work-life balance went off rails and then got back on track. In this post, I want to briefly document this experience in the following order:
- Going off rails: from calm to racing thoughts
- Getting intense: unstoppable trains of thoughts
- Cooling down: forcing a stop
- Reflection & Learnings
Going off rails: from calm to racing thoughts
Before it all started, my mind was calm. And my thoughts were manageable.
One day after work, I found myself still thinking about a working problem. I engaged with the thought and made progress in my head. My progress pleased me. I looked forward to getting back to work.
This pattern gradually reoccurred more and more frequently: I spent more and more time thinking about work outside of work. I also spent more time working. I normally got up around between 5:30 am and 6:30 am and started working around 9:30 am. But gradually, I abandoned my morning routine. I started working the moment I woke up.
Getting intense: unstoppable racing thoughts
In the first phase, I willingly engaged with work-related thoughts outside of work. In this phase, those thoughts got stronger and stronger. Eventually, they became unstoppable. They filled up my time outside of work.
It was a vicious circle. More time thinking about work led to longer working hours. Long working hours generated more work-related thoughts occupying my time after work.
It was addicting. I was either working or looking forward to the next day to continue working.
Gradually, work ate up all of my time, mental space, and energy. I couldn’t focus even when playing tennis, stopped leisure reading, and was sleep deprived.
Cooling down: forcing a stop
In those three weeks, I wrote lots of code.1 I made good progress on my project. But I was exhausted and became irritable. I needed to stop.
After reevaluating the situation, I realized I no longer needed to keep working at this pace. Continuing this fashion would be harmful to both me and my project.
Stopping my racing thoughts was hard. It felt similar to stopping a car running at full speed. Every time I caught myself thinking about work outside of work, I told myself: “It’s okay. It can wait. I don’t need to think about it now.”2
But it didn't help. Despite the progress I made, new concerns arose.
I decided to take a day off and have a long weekend. I needed the time to recenter myself. Instead of forcing myself to stop thinking, I wanted to actually think through the problems.
During my break, I took a step back and put things into perspective. I asked questions like: “Why XYZ matters?”, “What bothers me?”, “Why am I reacting this way?”. These questions brought clarity. My mind eventually calmed down.
Reflection and Learnings
This process was like a fever: a protective mechanism.
The first work-related thought I engaged with outside of work seemed to be the culprit. However, looking back, I realized that thought was a symptom of something deeper.
I sensed threats to my project’s progress. As a response, I started to work more and more. It’s similar to a fever: after a body detects viruses (threats), it focuses all of its energy combating with them until they are gone.
I also had an urge to write lots of code. I worked longer hours also to satisfy my urge.
Intense working affects other aspects of life.
If I went back in time, I might make the same choice. A fever might not be enjoyable. But it’s effective. The only thing I would change is to be prepared for it.
Since I spent extra energy at work, I didn’t have much will power left for other areas of my life. My lifestyle went downhill during those three weeks.
For example, I started to replace proper meals with snacks. I sometimes stayed up late for random videos on YouTube.
The importance of a clear, calm, and collected mind.
My intense working, in part, was to satisfy my urge. So from the beginning, I was emotional. That caused me to underestimate and overlook parts of my code.
Near the end of the journey, the importance of a calm and collected mind stroked me. Without it, everything became much less effective. A cloudy noisy mind impacted my judgment negatively. I became irritable and wasted energy on handling my emotions.
A clear mind leads to better judgment and better outcomes. A happy, calm, and peaceful person will make better decisions. So if you want to operate at peak performance, you have to learn how to tame your mind.
Either solve the problem now or have faith that you can solve it later.
Threats arose both at the beginning of the journey and at the end of it. For the first part, I thought through the problem and got the work done. For the second part, I took the time to think the problem through. And that brought me peace of mind.
When we sense threats, our brains can't help but want to resolve them. When things matter to us are at risk, forcing ourselves to ignore the threats is hard.
It's not effective to pretend the threats are not there. We should first acknowledge them. Then analyze their importance and urgency. Lastly, decide either to address them now or to have faith that we can resolve them later.
This journey is a great learning experience. I’m glad I have this experience. =]
 I also deleted lots of the code I just wrote.
 I found it similar to meditation. In meditation, when you get distracted by random thoughts, you simply recognize it. Then bring your focus back to your breath.
My career plan for the year is to grow into a tech lead. I’m excited about all the learnings ahead and would love to share this journey with you in a brutally honest fashion. I will be sharing my weekly learning on the blog.
In the next few months, I will focus on growing in the following areas. You can expect to see posts related to them:
- focusing on the big picture of the project instead of near-term implementation details;
- balancing my efforts between leading projects and coding;
- work-life balance for long-term productivity;
- the human side of software development: making sure everyone riding with me enjoys the ride and feels fulfilled and inspired.