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I tell this story, not to gain your sympathy, but more to be a cautionary tale.

As we head into Apple’s OS release cycle, I don’t have a lot to show for it this year. Not nothing, but not anything I would consider actually substantial. I know a lot of people who are in the same boat, and there are a variety of reasons. For me, one is there aren’t a lot of obvious hooks in this year’s OS releases that developers can build big new features around. SharePlay was going to be that for many, and even that’s been delayed now. But the other thing is, we’re still in the middle of a global pandemic, and I’m just really tired of everything.

Last year, around this point, I’d had a very frustrating summer – lots of Apple’s beta stuff didn’t work well, my motivation was at rock bottom, and I was even fed up with playing Animal Crossing, a game that got me through more of the early stages of lockdown than I’d care to admit. I had a long list of features I wanted to get done, but most of it hadn’t come together at all. But I kept pushing myself, and worked really long days and evenings to get everything ready for day one, as I usually do. In a normal year, by around the end of November, I’d go on vacation somewhere sunny to recharge my batteries. That year, I wasn’t even happy to leave my house.

Instead of that needed break, my chronic neuropathic pain – a condition I’ve dealt with ok using medication for twenty years – decided it would turn things up to eleven. As a result, I couldn’t actually sit at my desk for more than an hour without discomfort, which would quickly turn to stabbing pain if I kept going. That’s ok, I had a standing desk. I’ll just adjust the way I work. Of course, my back didn’t like me standing for more than a couple of hours either, so I had to cycle between a variety of positions.

I kept working as I could, while I tested a variety of new drugs with increasingly awful side effects and no actual benefits.  The side effects were mostly around my vision – losing my vision being one of my biggest fears, he foreshadowed. I was determined to show the pain who was boss, and released a big Mac update to PCalc in January.

“Have you tried mindfulness?”, the pain doctors asked, as I started to exhaust the limited number of medical options available. I got poked and prodded and scanned, and everybody could agree that there was no actual identifiable cause to the pain – just as there wasn’t 20 years ago when it started. It’s just my nervous system misfiring in variety of new ways. You might think there’s lots of medical research around this stuff, but there really isn’t. “We don’t know” was a common refrain when I asked questions.

I did a lot of updates to Dice by PCalc after that. After the PCalc About screen, Dice had become my new happy place, where I could explore new technology, and do something fun to take my mind off the fact that I was going to live with this increased pain going forward, and realistically, it would probably continue to get worse for the rest of my life. So, I might not have been making much progress on the code that actually paid the bills, but at least I could keep myself mostly sane and distracted. I did lots of experiments in AR and networking – some of which worked, and some of which very much did not. But I could still be a productive worker, which was the important thing.

The morning after a first particularly unsuccessful real-world test of the multiplayer code, I woke up to find that I could not focus my left eye – my one actually good eye. This wasn’t great. I’d had some problems like this before – I will spare you the details, but it involves tears. No, not like the stuff that comes out of your eyes when you are sad. Tears. Like, in the fabric of reality. Or your cornea. I lied about sparing you the details. Usually, they healed up in a couple of days, and all was good. But this time, it improved a little bit, and then stopped.

The ophthalmologist was not particularly sympathetic, saying my eyesight was actually still very good for somebody my age, and there wasn’t anything obviously wrong with my eye. As an aside, I really hate that phrase somebody your age, and it is not as reassuring as you think it is, medical practitioners. Anyway, I expected my eyesight to decline slowly as I got older, but not overnight… So, I couldn’t actually look at any screens without my reading glasses, but even then I got massive headaches. It took another three weeks to end up with a new prescription which only now gives me mild headaches and nausea. Hopefully that will be improve over the next few weeks. Progress? Perhaps. But progress is also the thing I’ve not really been able to make for the last month either.

I think in both cases, it’s my body trying to tell me something, in the only language it thinks I will understand – by breaking. And that something is just stop. We’ve all been in fight-or-flight mode for around 18 months. I’ve not been able to (safely) see my friends in person or travel or even just truly relax.

The world is still not in a great place. Even aside from the various political, economic, and environmental disasters that are slowly unfolding around us, the pandemic is still nowhere near over. Using the phrase “post-pandemic” right now seems unusually cruel when most of the world is still decidedly mid-pandemic. They just wish they weren’t, and some have convinced themselves we just need to get back to the business of doing capitalism and everything will be ok. And, it should be said, I’m in a great place of privilege compared to many. Financially, my business has been doing ok, given the circumstances, and I have way more control over my life than many. I can afford to take a month off work, or prioritise my and my family’s safety. I am absolutely extremely lucky for what I have.

But here we are. The day before the keynote, and I don’t think I have ever cared less about what will be announced. I feel like a really bad developer for that. Actually, it seems I don’t care much about anything these days, and I feel like a really bad human for that too. My natural inclination is to try to help people, and provide emotional support for others where possible, and I realised recently that I had just run out of emotional energy reserves. I don’t feel depressed or anything – I actually think I’m handling most of this stuff pretty well, all things considered. But the creative side and the emotional support side seem pretty intertwined, and both are pretty much running on empty for me right now.

Recently, the thought occurred to me that this sounds a bit like burnout, and I think that is exactly what it is. This thread by Dr Shreena Unadkat really resonated with me, about how we all pushed ourselves into trying new things to try and deal with the pandemic, and how that’s not exactly sustainable.

Anyway, I don’t really have a conclusion here, other than to say if you are feeling like me, you are definitely not alone. Oh, and to apologise that my app updates are a bit shit this year. But I’m trying to do my best to be ok with that, and you should too – life is not normal, we’re all a bit broken right now, and pretending to each other that everything is just fine is not actually helping anybody!

Author: James Thomson

Indie iOS / Mac developer, maker of PCalc and DragThing. Occasional writer, conference speaker, and podcast pundit.

12 thoughts on “Subscribe to Burnout+”

  1. Thanks for sharing. It’s tough. Take care of yourself James.

    A stranger / occasional listener of your podcasts appearances.

  2. Here’s another hug from a stranger.

    And speaking both as a satisfied Pcalc customer and a fellow developer, I don’t think being a good developer necessarily depends on caring a lot about new OS features and turning those into new app features on day one. You’re not an Apple cheerleader. You don’t have to showcase Apple’s latest experiments. That’s their job.

    You make tools that work well, and you’ve always kept them nicely polished. So from my point of view, your updates haven’t been shit. At all. In fact, I suspect that most indie software customers just want their tools to work reliably. And they want the people who have always made sure of that to be around and enjoy their work for as long as possible. After all, hardly anybody likes being forced to ditch a trusted tool and get used to a new one. New features, on the other hand, are welcome as long as they don’t interfere with how we use our tools, but they aren’t what makes those tools indispensable.

    Long story short, please don’t feel like you’re letting anyone down. And _please_ listen to your body. In the long run, that’s the best you can do not just for yourself, but also for your products, those who use them, and those of us who look up to you as a role model.

  3. Hey James,

    You are not alone – many of us are feeling the same. Dealing with the isolation, the worry that others will be at risk, the actual death toll, the lies from our Government, the frustration that we are being told it’s over yet 150 people a day are dying.

    The past 18 months have been a nightmare – I’ve lost my elderly Grandmother to Covid, my parents are mid 70’s and have serious underlying conditions that even with the vaccinations put them at considerable risk.

    Combine this with the political, ecological, racial, cultural and attacks on people sexual orientation and it feels like we are going back in time rather than progressing.

    Take time to relax, go for walks, do something different other than computers (I’ve started woodworking alongside my development activities -I’m crap but it’s enjoyable!).

    Don’t stress over the updates, the latest iPhone, the newest iOS – more to life at the end of the day.

  4. Thank you for sharing. I’ve been in a similar place with burnout for a while – partly because of a toxic work environment, partly because of the plague that doesn’t end.

    I need you to know that your apps have always been a joy to use. I sometimes just relax in the PCalc about screen for a few minutes when I need to detach from work, and the work you’ve put into Dice is nothing short of amazing. It’s ok if you need to take some time for you. Self care, first and always.

  5. I can resonate with a lot of what you wrote.

    For years now have I been waiting for async/await in Swift to renovate a lot of my code-bases and the (to me somewhat unexpected) fact that it won’t deploy backwards had a paralyzing effect here.

    And while SwiftUI3 starts to be finally usable, it as well comes with a major OS bump, so I’m tackling all the new goodies in 2022.

    Stay safe!

  6. I feel your pain, in a both literal and empathetic sense. 🙂

    I’ve been dealing with increasingly worse ME/CFS (with a side serving of fibromyalgia), which got to a stage about six years ago where it meant I could only work part-time. Being _very_ work motivated, this came as somewhat of a blow and it’s really only something I’ve learnt to accept in the last year or so.

    Anyhow, all I’d say is that there’s no reason to punish yourself for not providing the level of updates you’d like to – your health and wellbeing is _way_ more important, irrespective of the number of bananas. And car handling physics.

    Fingers very much crossed that things become more manageable in terms of your chronic pain.

  7. Thank you for sharing. I’ve been exactly where you are now and I’m probably still not back to where I should be. Slowly fighting my way back to the surface.

    I’m keeping my fingers crossed, that things will become better for you and that you’ll be able to honestly enjoy the wonderful autumn sun 🍂🍁☀️

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