I’ve been a software engineer for 11 years. Over this time, I’ve observed (and been a part of) a lot of change within the industry. The field of software development has grown in popularity and importance as technology plays an ever-growing role in our lives. The frameworks developers use every day have changed, expanded, and in some cases, been replaced. Our teams have become cross-functional and global. From the perspective of a developer, the world has become one dominated by tech startups, with software development at the center.
Throughout my career, I’ve become accustomed to the constant stress of my profession: delivering high-quality solutions on tight timelines, keeping my skills sharp amid the regular emergence of new technology stacks, managing competition (from both other companies and developers), releasing hotfixes on the fly for multiple companies, and working with demanding clients, to name a few.
For me, this pressure hasn’t been limited to fast turnarounds. Nor is it just the expectations I place on myself and have placed on me by others. It has also been the result of technological advancement. The emergence of tools like Slack and Zoom allowed us to build teams that spanned not only countries but the entire world. While this strengthened our ability to collaborate, it also made us available any time of day or night. Combined with the rise of technology in our personal lives, we are so connected that we flood ourselves with information, constantly switching between platforms, tools, apps, and websites. I can’t help but feel hyper-connected.
I’m sure that we all experience this hyper-connectedness and its side effects to a degree. As software engineers, we are part of a hypercompetitive space. Stress is part of our day-to-day, and overconnectivity is a fact. While I believe this to be true, I also felt there had to be ways of adjusting my inner world to cope with the outer one.
For me, this is called Mindfulness.
Through my research, I’ve come to believe that neuroscience holds some answers on how to mitigate the effects overconnectivity might produce on our bodies by understanding how our brains work.
In this article, I will share what I’ve learned about mindfulness, how it helped me meet the stressors of my daily life head on, and share a few ways you might apply it in your life.
What Makes Software Engineering Such a Stressful Job?
The software development industry is full of challenging and stressful situations. We are expected to meet exceedingly high expectations by delivering a written piece of code that should be “infallible.” High quality is expected, technical debt should be reduced to its minimum, and tight deadlines are just part of the equation. This is how the industry works. While we love what we do, it has become a hyper competitive space. Therefore, the pressure is always on, and burnout is just around the corner. So, how can we continue to enjoy what we do?
Let’s try to understand how our bodies work to figure out where stress comes from.
How Our Bodies Respond to Stress (And Why It Matters)
The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is in charge of moderating the body’s responses to all kinds of situations. This can be minor adjustments, like sweating when our internal temperature increases, but it also governs the “fight or flight” response. Biologically, its purpose is to ensure our survival: it’s triggered during instances of danger or extreme stress. Unfortunately, it’s also activated by situations we perceive as threatening or stressful. Understanding that our bodies react mainly to how we perceive things, not how they really are, is essential for learning to change our responses.
When our SNS is activated, hormones like adrenaline and noradrenaline are segregated. This causes our heart rate and respiratory frequency to increase, maximizing the amount of oxygen for our muscles to use to prepare for a potential escape.
Once the threat is gone, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) helps take our bodies to a stabilized stage. It reverts in a similar but opposite way that the SNS activates a response.
The problem with this, in the context of everyday stress, is that our bodies are not designed to deal with long-term threats. Triggering adrenaline for extended periods of time causes the segregation of another hormone, cortisol, which is colloquially referred to as the “Stress Hormone.”
Pumping cortisol for too long might eventually increase the likelihood of developing severe health problems such as diabetes, obesity, immune system suppression, and cardiovascular diseases, among others. By understanding this, the relationship between mind and body becomes clear; it’s imperative to preserve our bodies from being heavily affected.
Nowadays, the “fight-or-flight” response triggered by our SNS is no longer in response to having to defeat a wolf or a bear as we hunted for food like our ancestors. Instead, the bear has become metaphorical, representing internal struggles like our obsession with success, competing for a high position at our job, or working overtime so the boss will notice. All of this is powered by over-connectivity, of course, and causes us to deprioritize our health. As modern people, where do we think this path will take us?
Neuroplasticity: Adapting How We Respond to Stress
Now that we know its our perception of situations that generate our bodies’ response, it follows that controlling the way things affect us relates directly to our health. As part of our personal goals, we sometimes lose focus on how important this is, and over-connectivity keeps us constantly alert, stimulating our brains with new information. So how do we put a stop to this when we are caught in bad habits?
You might think we can’t change how we react to stress. Many of us believe our brains are configured in a single way, and they are not likely to change. However, neuroscience has proven that our brains can be modified. We can create new connections, or “paths,” meaning different ways of reacting to known situations or stimuli. This is called neuroplasticity.
During my career, I worked in the private sector for several banks, after which I tried the public sector by working for some governmental institutions. I then decided to engage with different agencies and development shops until I eventually became a freelancer. Throughout this time, I struggled to decide if I should specialize in a particular stack or explore becoming a manager.
For 11 years, these questions stayed with me, causing a lot of nagging pressure. Eventually, I realized that to make a decision, it was important to stay in the present and avoid overthinking the future. Learning how to do that and how to enjoy staying present took a while and a lot of learning. But to my surprise, it became a habit I trained because I knew it would help me to enjoy what I was doing. Moreover, it would make me better at it.
Cultivating New Habits to Balance Stress Levels
If we want to teach our brains some new paths, the first step is to identify those bad habits we really want to change.
For many of us, over-connectivity has led to an abuse of screen time. We’re able to connect with family and friends by video any time of the day or night with only a smartphone. We can order food or hail a taxi, read books, listen to music, and communicate asynchronously with team members and colleagues from around the world. And if you’re a developer, all of your work is in front of a screen. Consequently, if you’re spending your downtime on your phone or laptop, very little of your time will be away from a screen.
Resisting the urge to check every email, notification, or text that comes in is a challenge. Our brains literally crave it. Maintaining a state of concentration feels inferior to checking friends’ updates on Facebook and Instagram. And wiling away hours watching short videos on our phones is shockingly easy. We are into these dopamine hits, which eventually cause a form of addiction affecting our attention and focus.
The “We Can’t Fail” Dilemma
Our generation comes with this massive opportunity to have everything at our fingertips. Everything feels possible: information is always only a few clicks away. This is compounded by an established culture of success, making it harder for people to embrace failure.
But failure is an essential part of our lives. Sometimes, we just need confirmation that failing or changing paths is OK, that there is something left to learn about that silly mistake we made, or that tomorrow will be a more productive day. That bug in production will be fixed, that technical debt will be addressed, and you will continue to grow into the role you are currently performing because this is what the present holds.
Multitasking Isn’t As Productive As You Think
I used to believe that multitasking was a good skill to develop. During my career, I tried to get the most out of it by executing more than one task at a time. I used to believe this increased my productivity and, therefore, my seniority. I wore it like a badge of honor. Well, it doesn’t work like that.
Working fast and knocking several things from your plate in a day doesn’t have anything to do with multitasking. As a professional, you want to deliver high-quality work, which is not really about emptying your plate at any cost.
When you’re multitasking, you’re not focusing on any of the tasks you think you are doing. You’re actually switching from one to the other. Moreover, ”task-switching” might lead to decision fatigue and decreased productivity. This creates a greater demand on your cognitive resources, such as attention and working memory.
As this article reads, “the mind functions optimally when it can focus on one activity at a time.” Contrary to common belief, some studies show that “multitasking lowers IQ, shrinks the amount of gray matter in the brain, and lowers productivity by 40%”. Instead of multitasking, aiming to be engaged, focused, and less stressed will help you excel at whatever you do. The key is to stay present.
Eight Techniques to Stay Balanced as a Software Engineer
Cultivate a Mindfulness Practice That Works for You
I read more than 10 different definitions of mindfulness when researching for this article. But the one I liked the most is the following from Greater Good Magazine: “Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.”
There are two very important portions to this definition:
- Maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness. This is the key to staying present and comes with the ability to be aware. When you do this, you develop the focus on what is happening right at this minute, collecting all thoughts, feelings, and sensations.
- Observe through a gentle, nurturing lens. Once you’ve collected your thoughts, feelings, and sensations, you have to be able to identify positive thoughts from negative thoughts. No room for judgment; instead, you develop a stronger sense of self and become in control of your own personal growth.
Sounds easy, but it’s not. Embracing how we feel in response to any sort of reaction is harder than we might think. Controlling stressful situations is never easy, but if we work in the way we perceive things, then we might have a clear shot. To do this, we have to get a hold of our emotions before they take over, and this is what makes it complicated. Lucky for us, through mindfulness, we can put into practice different techniques to try to nail this.
Meditation and Breathing Techniques
Let me start by saying that I’m not good at meditation, but it’s the first thing many of us relate to mindfulness. I will share additional techniques to demystify that meditation is all there is to it. But if you have already begun to meditate, you already know how positive it is in the context of managing daily stress. If, on the other hand, you want to meditate but can’t, I would like to show you an easy way to start.
HeadSpace is an interesting tool to explore. They have guided meditations that usually start with the body scan technique. This is simple and comforting, leading you to bring attention to different parts of your body in turn, from head to toe. It’s very helpful if you are tense or tired, and you can do it sitting at your desk before starting your day.
Another way to meditate, and one that I prefer, is breathing techniques. Also known as “mindful breathing,” this technique is heavily used during meditation, and I’ve found it easier to execute. The goal is to bring attention to the physical sensations of your breath as it flows in and out. Here, the rhythm you choose to execute your breathing actually matters. One of the techniques I found most helpful is the one known as the 4-7-8 technique. There are different variants to this sequence depending on the number of seconds you spend on each step of the breathing process.
This technique might help you with anxiety, and even insomnia, as you can use it while trying to fall asleep, and it can be an ally during stressful times.
The “Pomodoro Technique” and Clarity Breaks
Getting into some more practical techniques, I find that taking short breaks and allowing my brain to cool down a bit increases my productivity. Whether it’s that bug I’m not able to identify or that next strategic move with a client, walks or breaks help with the decision-making process and gain clarity.
Back in my days working as a mobile developer, I used to benefit a lot from the Pomodoro technique. It allowed me to make fewer mistakes and also got me excited about my next Pomodoro, I wanted to get back at it. During working hours, I felt productive because the “reward system” that the technique proposes actually works. The level of focus that it brings, combined with a perfect sequence of breaks, resonates well with our brains. During a programming session it might shed light on a tricky bug, or it might help to unlock that perfect solution we’ve been thinking about for a while.
Clarity Breaks are defined as “set-aside time where you have the intention to just think. During this dedicated thinking time, you get clear on what’s important, what needs to be done, and what’s holding you back. Clarity Breaks are essential for leaders to get refocused.” These are also a must for me.
Management frameworks such as EOS (Entrepreneurial Operative Systems) have incorporated this as an important activity for leaders. Even though this definition has a practical context within their framework, still it can be considered a mindfulness technique. We are again creating spaces to refocus and to think about what we should be caring about right now. Prioritization is an excellent way to stay in the present.
Let me start by saying that any outdoor activities apply here – not just walking! While playing sports is certainly an exercise in mindfulness, I found that mindful walking is an easier way to start. When you take your next walk, focus on the movement of your body as you take step after step, your feet touching and leaving the ground. Go out with an undefined destiny, just walk.
Being in touch with nature is even better, but what is also important is that as you walk you focus on your breathing and on what you perceive with your senses. The goal is to try to feel more grounded, balanced, and serene in the present moment. I personally recommend putting this into practice before jumping to the next big task on your to-do list.
You might be wondering why I’m bringing this one up. Well, remote life can be sedentary if you don’t take care of yourself. This is even truer if you spend hours at your computer programming or studying, or both! So it’s common to not pay attention to what we eat and rush into quick, unhealthy snacks (or maybe you’re a Coca-Cola addict like me).
In essence, mindful eating means paying attention to your food and the experience you have with it. It’s not about calories, it’s about not bringing your phone to lunch, or spending more than 10 minutes to have a proper meal. Check out 6 Ways to Practice Mindful Eating to get started! Remember we are what we eat, so don’t take this for granted. The food you are eating today is affecting your body and health, so start with little improvements to work on new habits and use the technique as a health booster.
A common exercise that you might try out is to make a list with two columns, which you can practice whenever it feels necessary. Let’s call the first one “Negative Thoughts.” Add every negative thought that you’re having in this precise instant in that column. Everything goes in there.
When you’re done, take a look at the list and read through it a few times. How are you feeling now? If some of those thoughts seem off, move to the second column. Let’s call this one “Positive Thoughts.” For this side, take every item in the “Negative Thoughts” list and try to revert them back, making them productive instead.
Try asking yourself if you’re reading too much into something, or if there is another way to interpret what happened. Before thinking this is silly, give yourself the benefit of the doubt and try it. This is a wonderful way to start creating new habits by processing your negative thoughts differently.
Instead of keeping them with you and allowing them to grow, you analyze them with a different lens, to show yourself there is more than one way of seeing things that happened to you. You might find this beneficial for building good relationships with the members of your team.
Mindfulness is a search and a personal path. These techniques are my favorite ones, but there are tons of options out there to achieve mindfulness. It comes in many flavors really, and what works for one person does not necessarily work for another.
If Possible, Choose a Remote Role
I’m personally convinced that working remotely changed my life for the better and put me on the right path. It was a search that became obvious during my career and a unique feeling that remains until now. I think physical distance actually helps when you’re learning how to become aware of your emotions and are still working toward mastering how to manage them. It gives you the perfect space to be alone with your thoughts and take a few breaths to focus on what is coming next.
It’s the perfect setup for clarity breaks and gives you that extra minute over that Zoom call to be the person you want to be. You have less pressure to do some proper work on yourself while you excel at what you do.
Stimulate Feel-Good Substances in Your Brain, Naturally
Early on in this article, we talked briefly about substances that are segregated in our brains and might cause some important health problems. On the opposite side, there are some substances that we can easily trigger that are highly beneficial to our health. For example, you can increase Dopamine levels, the feel-good hormone, by sleeping between 7-9 hours or by celebrating your achievements. Playing with a dog or baby is an easy way to segregate Oxytocin, as is giving someone a hug. Endorphins are released when laughing hard and Serotonin when you exercise in sunlight.
Insights From Our Developer Community
These are a few of the ways I use mindfulness to stay engaged, focused, and reduce stress. But I was curious about what other developers did as well. Below are a few insights from our developer community.
As developers, we are at the heart of technological innovation. This will continue to unfold at a very fast pace. We will continue to have access to amazing projects and challenges, as well as the opportunity to build amazing products. Preparing ourselves to adapt to these challenges and accept this evolution is a key part of enjoying it.
While mindfulness will vary for everyone, for me, it’s all about observing my consciousness to understand what affects our mind and also what heals it. It’s about letting toxic thoughts go by being fully present and working towards becoming an even-tempered person.
Of course, cultivating mindfulness is not an easy practice. I try to approach each day fresh, knowing that sometimes I’ll stumble, and that’s part of the journey. I like to remember that, each day, we have plenty of opportunities to try to do things differently. Hopefully, over time, we will manage to find our balance and enjoy the ride.