Is Your IT Job Messing with Your Brain?

developer with headache

Whether you are a developer, architect, database admin or a related role, you know firsthand that an IT job makes a smart person even smarter. The demands of logic and problem solving, requiring both analytical and creative thought, work to keep your brain sharp.

But perhaps it doesn’t always feel that way. When you emerge from the cave of your cubicle, blinking into the sunshine, it’s likely your brain feels fuzzy and tired. While there are overall benefits for your brain’s health, on a daily basis your IT job gives it a serious beatdown.

This has only worsened in recent years. For example, if you are a programmer, you are typically tightly focused on one subject for long periods. Perhaps you are debugging a difficult problem or writing some complex functionality. This is hard, even if you have strong concentration skills. But, unlike earlier generations of coders, programmers today are surrounded by technology that that aims to distract, meaning you burn up even more cycles just trying to maintain focus on the work at hand.

And of course, your brain doesn’t shut down for the day when you close your laptop. Redditor tjeerdnet summed it up this way:

“…when I step out of the office I am still in development mode and it takes at least half an hour or an hour to get out of that mode. And that quite often when you have a problem you need to solve you take it with you at home and keep thinking about it there too.…Sometimes I wonder if being a developer is one of the few jobs where your brain is so under pressure continuously that a lot of outsiders/non developer colleagues really don’t understand how much mental energy it takes.”

Earlier generations of programmers put in regular office hours, perhaps only working the occasional weekend or taking production problem calls at night. We now live in a world where 24/7 availability of people and systems is taken for granted. The model for today’s programmers is someone who is happy working insanely long hours fueled by Red Bull and coffee. It may get your code written, but the downsides for your brain from overconsumption of caffeine include migraines, nervousness, irritability and insomnia.

The intellectual skills that come from programming can cause problems outside the realm of IT. At its core, your job is solving complex problems. Since the nature of making changes or enhancements to code often introduces more problems, at least in the short run, there is a tendency for IT people to focus on errors, or default to assuming a poor outcome. When diagnosed with an illness, a colleague in the QA department had a difficult time envisioning her recovery, even with an optimistic prognosis. It’s not surprising that someone who looks for software bugs every day might come to think of her body as another application – subject to errors, critical failures, and security breaches. Fortunately, that’s not how the world works.

The Loneliness of the Ordinary Coder

It used to be that one problem of being a developer was that fact that you were not able to share or explain what you do every day to non-programmers. But today the opposite is true: more people think they understand what you do, when they actually don’t have a clue. Stereotypes surrounding people like Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates contribute to developer stress, panic attacks and imposter syndrome. One way to avoid stressing out over these kind of comparisons, as Redditor RWRellin pointed out, is to have the perspective to realize

“….EVERYTHING about programming is essentially incremental — relatively tiny revisions, enhancements and slightly new ‘tweaks’ built on top of a host of thousands of layers of previous technology and other peoples work — much of it, while admittedly crafty… is also a bit ‘crufty’.
“And the things that are considered HUGELY GREAT SUCCESSES — are really often not all that ‘great’ in terms of actual ‘genius’ — and the people who become the stratospheric STARS … quite often they are more a matter of being in the right place at the right time when lightning strikes the fuse of the proverbial rocket.”

Helping Your Brain

Even if you enjoy coding, the cognitive burden it puts on your brain is another form of stress. And recent studies have found that stress reduces the brain’s ability to function. It’s a Catch-22, but we can suggest a few things you can do to help your brain. If you are musically inclined (as many programmers are) playing a musical instrument can improve your listening and cognitive functions. Exercise is always good, and has been found to actually improve cerebral blood flow. And perhaps it can help if you think of your brain as a computer in terms of neurocapacity: you only have so much bandwidth or RAM to give to the task that’s running, and ultimately you’re going to need to go offline and take a backup. Maybe now’s the time.

5 Comments

  • “Earlier generations of programmers put in regular office hours, perhaps only working the occasional weekend or taking production problem calls at night.”

    I don’t know how old the author is to have said such an erroneous statement but the fact is that we in the mainframe world at the time worked long and brutal hours on many occasions and there was no convenience of being able to work at home.

  • Frank Discussion says:

    i would submit that the caffeine and hours dilemma reflect more on poor project management and constant change for the sake of change.

    The question about minds working on problems when not at ‘work’ is a fascinating one, hardly limited to programmers. A fertile, playful mind that constantly fires in the background is the answer, and i am sure nearly every person reading this has experienced a non-focused eureka moment.

  • Scot Clark says:

    This article offered great insight into the issues surrounding our profession. There are many developers and architects that see no issue with the 247 demands of the job nor do they have any desire to completely disconnect from the job. However, there is a large group of us that though we love what we do but don’t want it to invade every aspect of our existence. Many times, I have “taken a break” and come up with an answer to a design or implementation problem. This means I am still connected; this is great if I’m taking a walk outside the office but not when I’m at the pool with the kids. What am I missing?

    Redditor Tjeerdnet summation “…when I step out of the office I am still in development mode and it takes at least half an hour or an hour to get out of that mode.”, highlights a huge issue with disconnect. I once had a threading problem I had been trying to solve for days, at the very minute the solution came to me I was driving home. Awesome, not so much, I hadn’t noticed that I had just driven through a red light. Luckily, nothing happens but I should have been driving not working.

  • Nestor Ulloa says:

    it gets deeper, the other day i broke up with my girlfriend and i was feeling terrible, the morning after i went to the office and i was stuck on a simple problem for around an hour because i wasn’t able to focus, so i had to ignore everything i was feeling at the moment and so i could focus on my job

  • Plato wrote that those that do a lot of mental work, should also do a lot of physical work as well. I gather that you need to compensate a large amount of mental work with a “comparable” amount of physical activity.

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