Burnout from Creeping Commitments


July 30, 2021

A couple of months ago I transitioned into the role of data science lead. Suddenly instead of just having to think about how to deliver new solutions, improve operational processes and review contributions I had to also mentor a new team member, develop new team processes and rituals, coordinate and project manage, shape OKRs, and contribute to developing presentations to executives to approve what we were delivering. For a few weeks it was like I was working two jobs; in the day I would either be in meetings or working on planning and communication, and at night I would be modelling or writing code to make sure we could deliver the right solution on time. It ended with me being knocked out by the common cold, and being forced to rest for five days while I recovered.

The way I was working was unsustainable, and it was taking a toll on my sleep, my health and my personal relationships. But it just crept up on me, I never consciously took on this responsibility, but I felt responsible for the teams delivery and with our deadlines it seemed the only way to make sure we deliver. However it also meant the team didn’t have a chance to work on some parts of the codebase I was using, or to contribute to the parts of the solution I was picking up. By not giving other team members the space to try, and potentially fail, they wouldn’t be able to improve and would feel disconnected from the outcomes.

I took stock of my priorities and worked out what I could delegate, and focus more on where I could deliver value. I delegated some of the work I was doing to the new team member to help him get on board, and made sure there was enough time to give him feedback and let him iterate by setting expectations. I delegated the executive presentations to my manager and the product manager, who were more than capable of handling it without my involvement. I could then focus on the deep data science and software work I wanted to do, and the project management work I had to do because of my unique understanding of the systems.

In retrospect a lot of this happened because I didn’t have clear priorities, I ended up just saying yes to things until I got to burn out. One thing I need to work on more is having clear values and priorities that I communicate to the people around me. Then I can frame any new ask as a trade-off; I could spend time this week developing new rituals, but then I can’t work on this requirement and we won’t hit our delivery deadline. Offering options and trade-offs is a very powerful way to control the amount of work you do while empowering your stakeholders.