Sophie Shepherd

June 14, 2017

The Road to Burnout is Paved With Context Switching

Since becoming a manager about a year ago, I’ve found that in any given week, I cycle through the following emotions:

  • Overwhelmed with too many things to do and not enough time to do them
  • Immense, extreme pride in my team
  • Annoyed by tasks/myself/other people
  • Calm (when I’ve completed my to-do list)
  • Way in over my head with responsibilities
  • Excited about how many fun and important things I’m getting to work on
  • Like I want to get in bed for 5 years
  • Love and gratitude for my coworkers
  • Like I’m the worst manager/employee ever
  • Like I might actually have something to say and teach people

It’s been a lot more Feelings than I ever would have predicted, especially for me, as someone who has always prided myself on being even-keeled and staying chill in not-chill situations. I’ve learned that if I’m stressed—whether I complain about how busy I feel or work over the weekend—it is absorbed by my team and others. This is not a person I want to be, and it’s not a culture that I want to cultivate.

The first step of Chilling The F Out for me has been identifying what triggers send me into a stress spiral in the first place. After a month or two of paying attention to my emotions and writing down stressors as I feel them (which has the added benefit of getting them out of my head) I’ve realized that it’s no one specific aspect of my job, but rather the constant context switching between all of them.

Defining the contexts that were switching

Having a lot of work on my plate is fine. Meeting deadlines is fine. Planning long term projects is fine. Debugging code is fine. Writing detailed feedback is fine. Pairing with someone to teach them something is fine (fun even!). Interpersonal conflict is (unexpectedly) mostly fine. It’s when all of these things happen within an afternoon that I find myself reminiscing for the days of silently, calmly designing or coding for 6 hours at a time.

The good news is that I have full control where I choose to put my energy and how I spend my time. The first thing I did was define categories for the work I do at any given time so that I could determine when I was context-switching too much. I have defined them as:


This is coming up with project plans, figuring out the steps it will take to get from A to Z, and determining what deliverables will be needed to communicate progress and elicit good feedback from stakeholders. It’s setting my team up for success after we finish current sprints. Determining which projects to assign to people that will ensure they are engaged, learning, and having fun. Looking holistically at what is working on my team and what can be improved.


Having 1:1s with my direct reports. Making sure they aren’t feeling overwhelmed or bored. Giving performance feedback.Talking to other team leads about how we can best work together. Getting my manager up to speed with everything that’s going on, and getting his input. Writing project briefs and making sure everyone has clarity on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.


Pairing with people to walk them through work. Writing code reviews. Participating in design review meetings.


This is when I get to design or build something myself. A difficult part of managing is giving up control of this part of my time, but it’s still something I value and need in order to stay fulfilled.

Rejiggering my schedule

The next thing I did was take a long hard look at my calendar to figure out how I could best assign chunks of time to each of these types of work. I accounted for both the normal flow of the week as well as for days and times I am suited for each type of work.

Here’s what I came up with:

Mondays are for thinking/planning. This eases me into the week, and allows me to think through both long term and short term goals. By doing this early in the week, I’m calm from the weekend and able to take an unbiased look at what is working or not working. I have only one meeting on Mondays, which is a team status meeting.

Tuesdays are for communicating. This is great to have following on the heels of a thinking and planning day. I feel clear about what I’m doing and what I expect from my team. I have all of my 1:1s as well as a meeting with other cross-functional managers to discuss what we’re working on and how we can work together.

Wednesdays are for helping and coaching. I usually have blocks of time where I can provide some code reviews. We have a weekly design review meeting, and a lunchtime designer hangout. If I have time, I help out with small tasks that will make things easier for everyone else.

Thursdays are a hodgepodge, but this doesn’t bother me too much because ideally I feel like I have my shit together from the last few days. This day often fills up with meetings: project check-ins, kickoffs, reviews, etc. I fill the time in between with whatever is needed.

Fridays are designing/building time. I block of time on my calendar to keep them meeting free. I listen to podcasts and do whatever design or code tasks are needed. I end the day calm and ready for the weekend.

Of course some weeks will feel more stressful than others. Sometimes my head is in the game, and other times it’s just not. I have to remind myself this is normal and expected. But overall, I feel a weight lifted since this shift. An unexpected benefit has been that I no longer feel guilty about the things I’m not doing. Previously, despite working frantically every day, I’d always feel like I wasn’t doing enough. These days, if I get through the specific tasks I set each day, anything else feels like a bonus.


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