As a psychologist with a private practice in the greater Austin area, I have the privilege of working with individuals and couples who make their living in the tech industry. And though today’s article is expressly addressing “techies,” emotional wellbeing wisdom overlaps to include all of us, in all industries. (So feel free to listen in, even if you consider yourself the least technologically savvy person to ever wield an iPhone!)
Whatever our profession, we are beings that feel emotions before we are employees or employers or entrepreneurs or inventors, and therefore, we are more alike than dissimilar.
Whenever we try to talk about a particular group — i.e., along the lines of gender, geography, profession, birth order — there’s always the danger of overgeneralizing or stereotyping. And there are never any hard-and-fast rules about how someone who extrinsically fits into a certain category might feel or behave. With that disclaimer aside, let’s get started in talking about psychological wellness.
Cycling between boredom and stimulation
Your work is fast-paced and extremely detail-oriented. Furthermore, it often involves tight deadlines and takes place in a rapidly-changing industry. Therefore, you have likely become accustomed to a high level of mental stimulation, and have likely become adept at achieving at a high level within that rigorous environment. This is a good thing, of course.
Where this enviable ability can feel like a liability is that you may find that you have difficulty tolerating downtime. Being bored may feel excruciating to you, which means you might have the tendency to quickly seek external stimulation to fill the chasm boredom has carved.
While we all do this to a degree (and there’s nothing wrong with finding a way to occupy yourself where the only agenda is not feeling bored), you may find yourself immediately reaching for something to dispel the boredom, and that immediacy can circumvent a thoughtful decision about how to fill your free time.
Obviously trading thoughtfulness for expediency can mean making unwise choices at times, but beyond that, when we never allow ourselves to feel bored or to be still or to explore what it feels like to have nothing to do for a little while, it can create a disconnect from self—in other words, always responding to boredom with a knee-jerk “Get out of here!” can make you less likely to periodically and quietly reflect on how you’re doing on an emotional level. It can also interfere with creating the optimum space for making important (non-work-related) decisions since we need to access that small, still voice within us to make life changes that are truly best for us.
Pro tip: Build in some tiny moments of downtime into your week.
When I say tiny moments, I mean it. Setting unrealistic goals can be more detrimental to meaningful self-improvement than not setting goals at all! There are lots of ways to do this, but here’s a for-instance: tell yourself you’re going to lie in bed for two minutes after your alarm wakes you each work day (without your phone or a book, etc.). Don’t try to scoop your mind clean of thoughts, don’t try to contort yourself to liking the time if you don’t…just be there, in that time, with nothing to do. That’s it. Practice that without expectation.
Being task-oriented in every situation
Your job requires you to ask What’s the purpose of this? many times each day. After all, no software designer ever created a new program without having a clue as to what the product might do. Can you imagine that sales pitch? “I have a great feeling about this program I’ve designed. It’s got good energy, you know? I don’t know how it might actually work (which is why my Power Point presentation is showing generic pics of smiling people in fields of wildflowers), but I figured you’d buy it and we’d see how it goes.”
That would obviously land with a massive thud.
But as much as you need to be task-oriented on the job, emotional wellbeing asks that you surrender to not-knowing once in a while, off the job. It doesn’t require you to put aside information at your disposal, but rather, it asks that you admit that you don’t always have all the answers, and there are times when raw data won’t give you the direction you seek.
For instance, when it comes to the challenging (yet often fulfilling) landscape of relationships, you may wish you had a blueprint or a rubric for how to navigate what’s going on between you and your partner. Not only would that be impossible (to some degree, people are inherently unpredictable and dynamic, even the steadiest of people), but it could constrict your relationship, could prevent it from growing. And trying to force your partner’s behavior or preferences into a template that works for you can send him/her the message that s/he is interchangeable and isn’t being truly seen and appreciated by you.
Pro tip: If you’re very list-oriented (whether you make mental lists or lists on a device screen), try this exercise:
Make a list of all the things in your life that you don’t know the outcome to, that you can’t break down into a set of discrete tasks, and that you can’t neatly determine “what is it for?”. Now choose one or two and reflect on why it may be better that you can’t plug those facets of your life into a task-oriented regime. That’s right, you’re using a list to identify (and perhaps celebrate) things that defy list-making.
“There’s a better way to do this.”
It may sound disingenuous to hear an article on emotional wellbeing (which fits in the category of self-improvement) say that constantly seeking to improve things can be counter to you becoming your best self, but it’s true. When you see everything needing to be improved, you can push yourself away from self-care and toward increased and avoidable stress. And, in the case of intimate relationships, you can risk alienating your partner (who might feel like you’re trying to optimize or upgrade him/her).
On the job, you are always looking for a better way to do things, as you should. It’s safe to say that there is no industry more driven by change and the need for efficiency than the tech world. The company you represent wouldn’t last very long if it rested on the way things have been done up till now and if it stopped seeking innovation.
However, if you always apply that same there must be a better way mindset to your personal life, you’ll start to feel that things are never good enough (and you might only realize that things were good when they’re gone); you’ll apply undue and unrealistic pressure on yourself for revision when/where revision isn’t warranted (and in the process you’ll miss the great gifts of gratitude).
In essence, you would constantly be pulling yourself out of the moment, living for some anticipated future that holds the treasures you seek.
Pro tip: When you’re not working on a project, think about adopting a “good enough” gauge.
That doesn’t mean that you have no standards when you’re not at work, it just means that you’re opening yourself to another way of being when you’re off the clock. There is much in life that’s within our control, but there’s much that’s completely beyond our control (perhaps more). When you allow certain things to be “good enough,” rather than always trying to find an angle for improvement, you build a degree of balance into your life.
Running on empty followed by a crash
Earlier we talked about the habit of being overstimulated at work, and how that can lead to an intolerance of boredom. There’s a corollary to that tendency, and one that can feel almost natural in a fast-paced, deadline-driven work atmosphere: working so hard, with such punishing hours, that you exhaust your resources to the point where you can’t healthily transition to self-care/down time.
In other words, you regularly work until you crash.
You know what it feels like to be physically over-caffeinated: you may feel surges of energy (or the jitters), and you may be able to use caffeine to “push through” your need for sleep until you get the project done, but once the caffeine level drops, you feel much more wrung out than if you hadn’t had the stimulant in the first place.
Well, working to the point of exhaustion can be a form of psychic over-caffeination, where you push through no matter what, but you’re left feeling worse (and imbalanced) after the fact. This can lead to unplugging in unhealthy or impulsive ways (like binge-drinking), ways that, like extreme over-work, will require you to recover. In these cases, the purported “cure” for a punishing work schedule (unwinding in whatever way you can get your hands on) comes with its own set of problems and ultimately cures nothing.
Pro tip: Try to become aware of when you push yourself past what is healthy.
Of course there will be times when this is unavoidable, but there will be other times where you might be exhausting your resources without truly needing to.
Where you can make changes, make them.
But, just as importantly, become aware of when you move from hyper-stimulation to peacefulness and quiet. You may find that there are no transitions, that you’re rapidly cycling from impossible work schedule to unhealthy behavior that promises to help you unwind. If you challenge yourself to add in even a short transition, you are likely to see that better down-time choices are available to you, and that you can indeed avail yourself of them.
For all of you in the tech industry, I want to thank you: you’ve contributed your time and talents to making innovations that have improved all of our lives. So it is with admiration and gratitude that I offer these tips for emotional wellbeing. It’s easy to get caught up in your very demanding work and forget to nurture the facets of your life that have nothing to do with information or technology. And sometimes a reminder is all you need. Be well.