This is the story of the buildup to and the fallout of my great burnout. All of the observations presented here were realized in hindsight. While this is just an anecdote with a sample size of one based on imperfect memory, I hope it can still serve as a cautionary tale for people in a similar situation. If you are curious about who I am, you can read more about me here.
Writing this has served as a reflection exercise for me and it’s also an attempt at explaining myself to all the people I have alienated during these years. I was inspired by a similar post by Johnny Rodgers.
At the end of 2019 there was a trend on social media to look back at the past decade and personally rate the years from best to worst. I didn’t participate, but if I were to, my ordering from worst to best would look like this:
I basically don’t remember much before 2015. Not in detail anyway.
It slowly started back in 2014. I had finished the coursework of my master’s degree in physics and ahead of me was a full year to work on my master’s thesis. Until this point I had participated actively in several student organizations and joined as many parties and other social events as was possible - sometimes to the detriment of my studies . Working on my thesis was so consuming that I retreated from almost all prior engagements and became a recluse. After defending my thesis in the summer of 2015 this mindset had become so ingrained that it continued without me noticing.
I have always approached projects of any kind with high standards and hard work. Of course there are a few exceptions to this - just ask my high school history and English teachers. Working hard on a project had never been a problem before. The master’s thesis was then by far the longest project I had ever worked on, and I think that is what caused the behavior to stick even after it was completed.
For about half a year following the completion of my master’s degree, I worked as an IT consultant helping companies embrace the cloud. During this time I would work normal full time during the day and study related frameworks and tools or work on my own projects in the evening. Still a recluse as I had gotten so used to it.
In the spring of 2016 I started my PhD and from then on my time was pretty much split in three categories: work, eat, sleep. Since my PhD project was funded 50 % by the energy trading company Danske Commodities, I had both a university supervisor and a company supervisor, who both wanted at least 50 % of my time and as time went by the overlap of their interests vanished. I was so interested in the topic of my research that it felt natural to spend all my waking time on it. I even stopped spare time coding projects and writing on my blog. This worked well for about a year.
Thinking back, I was definitely feeling stressed in the spring of 2017. I just didn’t realize it at the time. I remember having a constant tension headache and consulting a doctor without much help. No talk about stress. The tensions made it difficult to focus on my work, so my productivity decreased. My solution to the lower performance was working more hours to keep my productivity up. Guess where this is going. I joined my family for a short vacation in Dubai. Despite the high temperature it was a nice getaway with a chance to relax. The ice-cold shower on the beach did wonders to the tensions in my head. But it was just treating the symptoms with no regard to the underlying cause, and since I wasn’t really aware of what was going on with my body I didn’t do anything to remedy the situation. This is where the downhill spiral really started. Because I didn’t know better I didn’t fully recover and as we’ll see below it took a few years to reach the bottom.
My condition improved during the summer and then got even worse in the fall. In October I had my midterm exam . At this point I already had my name on two journal papers and two conference papers - all peer reviewed, and a third journal paper under review. Pretty good progress in my own opinion. I was satisfied with all the work I had put into the project at this point. I received a positive official evaluation from the committee but somehow my supervisor was not satisfied. I had worked so hard one and a half year straight - almost every day. This secondary evaluation hit me like a bird against a window and it stuck with me leading to very low output for the remainder of the year. I should have objected, should have taken time off to recover, but the thought never crossed my mind. I just thought I had to work even harder and so I kept spiraling downwards.
Spring arrived in 2018 and I took a few more turns down the spiral. Over a few months my mental state and work performance steadily declined. It is now obvious to me that it was the leftovers from not recovering in fully in 2017, but I still didn’t realize. During this time I even had the brilliant idea of creating two startups, which certainly didn’t help . I worked on these projects in the evenings and on weekends, which meant I had absolutely zero time to relax. It was an exciting time, but also very taxing. I vaguely remember one of my co-founders asking why I was always so tired and depleted from energy when we had our weekly hack-day during weekend. It didn’t matter how much coffee I drank. I was still unaware of what was going on, so I couldn’t answer his question. Thinking back I should at most have participated in one of these, and given my overall mental and physical state at the time I should not have joined any at all. One good thing to happen this spring was joining the local climbing gym. That provided a nice break - when you are clinging to the wall with your fingertips nothing outside a radius of a few meters matters at all.
During these periods of high stress and low output it seemed that the solution from my supervisor’s perspective was always to push on and never think about taking time off to recover. That was how he approached his research. At the time I shared his opinion, so I’m not passing on the blame.
When we reached summer my performance was so low that my supervisor became really concerned and our meetings dropped in frequency and became less friendly. At the end of June we had a verbal confrontation that resulted in me not being able to work for three days. It was as if it drained the last of my energy. That’s the first, and so far only, time in my life that I have been physically affected by someone else’s words. Mind blown. Luckily I was attending a conference the following week, so I could get myself together - I thought. Worst conference ever. I spent most of the time walking the city of Łódź, Poland and hiding in the hotel. The person I interacted with the most was the hotel bartender. Nice guy. Returning from the conference I had another meeting with my supervisor trying to clear up what had happened the week before. It didn’t work out, so when the meeting ended we had decided to not talk together anymore . Great success. Another turn down the spiral.
The only thing I accomplished that July was initiating the process of changing supervisor. The rest is a blur.
In August I got assigned a new supervisor, who was a much better match for me and much more sensible - in my opinion. That was a relief. So much so that I thought it appropriate to get another side gig. I started consulting for Siemens Gamesa.
Even with all of July off I hadn’t fully recovered, but still I didn’t realize. Now the goal was to finish the PhD as fast as possible to put it behind me and move on with my life. So I powered through the remainder of 2018.
After the PhD
In the first week of January 2019 I went on a trip to Italy with two climbing buddies. I handed in my dissertation on the first night from a couch at a hostel in Naples - almost four months ahead of my deadline. I could finally relax.
During the time in Italy I did a lot of thinking. I wanted to start fresh. When I returned I stopped working on the two startups of 2018. Naturally they hadn’t progressed much due the little time I spent on them. One company was closed and another kept running with a single founder.
I kept consulting for Siemens Gamesa as it provided a nice income and very flexible hours. In February I joined Ento Labs as co-founder, which still feels like the right thing. Both were so interesting that I just had to work all the time - as I had been doing continuously for some years already. The vacation in Italy was nice, but again it wasn’t enough to fully recover.
I defended my PhD in March 2019. One of the external professors said that he was impressed with the amount and quality of my work. Thanks. But it now seems that all my effort during those years were not worth it.
The summer of 2019 is when it all became too much. I had taken two weeks off to relax and move to a new apartment. At this point my condition was so bad that I only managed to pack 1-2 moving boxes in a day. About a week after moving I realized how bad it was. I finally talked to a doctor. I had some tests taken and the following day my doctor told me to get admitted at the hospital immediately.
Between talking with a doctor in the emergency room and getting admitted I excused myself, went to the bathroom and cried - for two whole breaths. Finally something good was about to happen. The following six days in hospital was a haze caused by a high dose of corticosteroids and I was eventually diagnosed with ulcerative colitis . For those who don’t know this disease (I certainly didn’t) I’ll give a very brief description: it’s an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation and ulcers in the colon. In my case it meant blood in my stool, (sometimes very) frequent visits to the bathroom and a more or less constant fatigue that is difficult to describe in other words than being very inconvenient and highly annoying. I had mild symptoms continuously since August 2018 - a month after my break with the first supervisor - but it only got really bad in July 2019. The reason I didn’t react earlier was that I had similar symptoms in 2017 and a few years earlier. Both times it disappeared by itself and my doctor told me not to worry. So when my doctor had previously told me not to worry about blood in my stool it had to get very bad before I was concerned. Getting admitted to the hospital was such a relief. Finally I realized something was wrong and I thought I had reached the bottom of the spiral. Little did I know it would take another six months.
Being discharged from the hospital I had a clear mind for the first time in a while. Like a mental reboot. However, I wasn’t done taking medication. This is when my sleep deteriorated. It was never a problem falling asleep, staying asleep was the problem. I would wake up several times every night and often wake up way too early in the morning. I blamed the medication - but was wrong. This is also the time I met my current girlfriend. Just a week out of the hospital and still havong plenty of needle marks down my arms from tests and medication. We were coincidentally introduced through lunch with friends. It was the warmest summer in many years, but I was wearing a long-sleeved shirt to hide my arms. She later told me that she found it weird I could stand the heat like that. I thought I had to hide. As it turned out later, she didn’t mind my illness and to this day she has proven again and again to be very patient and caring. Having a girlfriend has definitely helped me relax and enjoy life outside work. However, she entered my life at a point where I was so far down that she couldn’t pull me up. I still had to figure out for myself.
I stopped climbing shortly before my health got worse in the summer. I had started weightlifting with my brother earlier in the spring. Weightlifting was an old hobby from several years prior and this quickly exceeded my interest in climbing. From an outside observer it might seem silly to repeatedly lift a heavy object with no clear purpose. But for me there is nothing like the feeling after eight repetitions of explosive motion under heavy load. This also provided a chance for my brother and I to become closer. While exercising felt great, perceived low lifting performance due to poor sleep was frustrating. However, I think the effect was net positive.
During the fall and winter I experienced two relapses and was continually stressed by the lack of sleep and increased hours of work to make up for my low productivity.
In January 2020 I was tested for potential side effects caused by the medication. None were found, so there had to be another explanation: stress. This was the first time I had an actual conversation about stress with my doctor. Previously, when asked why I was tired all the time I would jokingly say “it’s just stress” and that I just needed to get some sleep. I still don’t know why, but until this point I didn’t realize that it was exactly what was going on and how serious it was. I needed the authority of a doctor to look me in the eyes and telling me straight up. Pretty stupid for a smart guy. The good thing about talking with the doctor was that I finally realized. On the other hand I was basically just told to relax more and check back in a few weeks if my sleep didn’t improve. Thanks.
At this point I finally realized I had to change some things in my life: I stopped consulting, decreased my work hours to almost regular full-time, reserved the weekends for side projects, reading and relaxing. This finally seemed to work. Now more than three months later my sleep is finally good enough to not complain, and so far no relapse even with only a low preventative dose of medication. Something peculiar has been happening recently: I am experiencing flashbacks now and then of old memories that I thought were lost - it’s equally weird and reassuring. I hope to stay stable like this for the time to come, make my way out of the spiral and never return.
Time off is important. Focus requires slack as Henrik Kniberg says. I’ll add to this that in my opinion time off to relax and reflect is more important than limiting the number of projects/jobs one is working on in parallel. Apparently it can be very difficult to prioritize time off as one’s productivity declines - but know that taking time off is a short-term sacrifice necessary for productivity in the long term. Without time to reflect your ability to think strategically and solve complex problems will deteriorate.
There’s so much advice out there on the importance of eating healthy, getting good and enough sleep, and exercising regularly. I won’t add to this other than that I agree.
While exercising in the form of climbing and weight lifting certainly helped me both physically and mentally, it wasn’t in itself a cure to my stress. The same can be said for meditation, which I’ve been doing regularly since some time in 2017. While meditating seems to benefit my mental state it is by no means a panacea. I think this goes for all tips, tricks and lessons out there. No matter how many books and blog posts you read there is not one final solution to be found that will solve all your problems. One needs a balanced approach to life. I think the trick is to start making changes little by little before the situation gets out of hand. Of course this requires that you realize something is wrong early on - I have no advice for that part.
As a friend pointed out to me recently, something that can cause this behavior and downfall is to not have clear goals. I could always have written another paper, always billed another consulting hour. There was no end in sight. Setting goals unreasonably high can have a similar effect. This in combination with working longer hours to combat low productivity is a recipe for disaster. I will have to work on this to not fall back into that pattern.
I don’t expect this blog post to change someone’s life. However, I hope it will remind people in a similar situation that they are not alone in going through these things and that there is a way out. If I’m very lucky it might help someone take the first step.
 Physics wasn’t always the top priority on my mind, which is why it took me seven years to finish the master’s degree. The exams weren’t particularly difficult (with a few exceptions), but sometimes it was more appealing running the student union than deriving cross sections in particle physics.
 In Denmark the PhD program is fixed to three years. The midterm exam is halfway through to ensure the student is making progress and if not there is still time to course correct.
 One of these was with a former PhD colleague. He had developed a new fancy forecast that we thought would be easy to monetize by selling to utilities. The second was an idea of a former colleague from when I worked as an IT consultant.
 I will not go into details about what exactly happened between me and my first supervisor as that would be a one-sided account.
 Now, I’m not a doctor, but I’m tempted to believe that high-intensity ongoing stress is what triggered my UC. Every time I’ve experienced symptoms it has been coinciding with a stressful period and the higher degree of stress the worse the symptoms.
I’m grateful for my discussions of drafts with Aleksander Temmo, Hailiang Liu, Joyce Wang and Magnus Dahl. While writing this turned out to be a great mental exercise the discussions of the drafts were even more so!