Taking Breaks

One of the great joys of working with technology - especially in the Information Security industry - is that the space is constantly evolving. This offers perpetual opportunity for individuals to reinvent themselves; to develop new skills, and discover ways of standing out from others pursuing similar careers. This is also a recipe for burnout when pursued without moderation.

Recognizing the signs

Suicide is practically taboo as a topic of discussion amongst information security professionals, which is unfortunate for how common it is in our community. If you find yourself in a recurring state of being stressed, angry, sad (or depressed), fatigued, unmotivated, or otherwise experiencing a consistent malaise - it’s time to take a break.

That said, recognizing these symptoms in ourselves isn’t always easy - especially over long periods of time. Some tricks to help externalize these feelings might include something like a daily “color chart” for mood (usually captured in a grid notebook), journaling our daily experiences, or creating a system of “scoring” our day across a handful of measurements like “energy”, “happiness”, “productivity”, “motivation”, and/or “fulfillment”.

What’s important here is coming up with a system to capture measurements such that you can zoom out and recognize overarching trends. If you also have a means to capture a few quick notes as part of this system then all the better. Personally, I don’t have a specific recommendation on what application(s) or method(s) work best; the method I rely on is the HeadSpace monthly check-in. I may look into Notion templates, but for now the monthly measurement feels like enough.

Getting the most out of breaks

One of the hardest things about taking a break is the feeling of guilt many of us experience when we allow ourselves time to slow down. For me it’s akin to a feeling of failure; that I’ve somehow disappointed myself by not continuing to grind it out. This feeling itself is also a warning sign that we may be heading down a path toward burnout; it’s important to start by acknowledging that we are deserving of the time we take to rest and recharge. The Atlantic has a whole series on the health benefits of “Doing Nothing” that is well-worth reading if you subscribe to their content.

That said, the TL;DR of that series is that the first step in taking breaks is to allow yourself time to be unproductive. If your battery is already running low, you won’t really be allowing yourself time to recharge by draining that battery further with non-work activities that you’re being productive with. Honestly, this is why I strongly encourage two-week vacations for anyone that has the privilege to take them. That first week is all about unwinding the built-up stress from work, and that second week is for recharging.

Likewise, finding creative outlets that you pour yourself into can often be a great way to recharge after you’ve gone through the process of resting and recovering. Although I should also offer a word of caution - try to avoid creative outlets too closely aligned with your day-to-day work. While these might feel fun and enjoyable in the moment, they often trigger the same stress response that led to your reason for taking a break in the first place.

And if creative outlets aren’t your thing, there are other great ways to recharge - like reading a book, catching up on a tv series (strong recommendation for Sci-Fi fans - go watch The Expanse on Amazon), watching a movie, or even playing a video game. Although my recommendation on the video game front would be to find something that doesn’t involve Player vs. Player combat, as that can create its own stressful and frustrating experiences; go for something more along the lines of “Breath of the Wild” versus “Overwatch”.

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Recognizing when to stop taking a break

It’s easy to get trapped in a never-ending cycle of breaks. For many, there comes a point where a part of you starts to crave that sense of accomplishment and fulfillment that comes from putting in the work. You should listen to this feeling, as this is when you know it’s time to start wrapping up and preparing to get back to the grind. My advice is to transition back into productivity slowly, as leaping right back into things full-tilt will quickly undo all of that recovery you’ve just experienced.

Hopefully you will have identified activities and behaviors during your break that can help you de-stress and recover in smaller bursts once you return to a regular work schedule. The key here is striking a balance between taking longer breaks, and maintaining your health and well-being in between those breaks.

Finding balance

To maintain your well-being between longer breaks, my first piece of advice is to look for early warning signs and take breaks before you need them. Personally, I’m really terrible at this - I tend to let myself get to a state of being burnt out before I make it to my next break, which often creates a lot of stress leading up to my time off. Don’t be like me - keep a close eye on your mood and stress levels, and take breaks earlier than you think you’ll need them.

Likewise, if you find yourself going through repeat cycles of stress and recovery, look into seeing a therapist. And just so I’m clear - you don’t need to be depressed or experiencing relationship issues to justify seeing a therapist! In the same way you might see a fitness instructor or a career coach for those areas of your life, therapists help you solidify your emotional foundation so that you can find a sense of peace within. I was fortunate to see a therapist for several years when I was young, and it has made my life significantly better as a result of being comfortable with who I am.

And if for some reason therapy is inaccessible for you, there is also the practice of meditation. I would not say that meditation is a substitute for therapy, but the introspection that comes with practicing meditation can be a palliative experience. I have personally found zen meditation to be the most fulfilling practice, but there are a lot of meditation practices out there that can have a positive affect on your life.

As I mentioned previously, I use Headspace for my daily practice - but there are many apps available and many different forms of meditation. If you decide to take up this practice, spend some time finding the right experience for you before settling into a routine. You might even find that getting outside and away from technology can lend a spark to your creativity and energy levels. After all, there’s a reason why humans love the smell of nature after the rain.

Finally, try to find hobbies and experiences that bring you joy and fulfillment outside of the technology space. The act of creating things through various crafts and practices can bring about that sense of accomplishment and fulfillment which many lack in the day-to-day experiences on the job. Finding things that bring you small moments of happiness throughout the week are essential for recharging your energy levels and reducing stress between taking breaks.

And when all else fails, I try remember my favorite line from Van Wilder:

Don’t take life too seriously - you’ll never get out alive.

As always, thanks again for stopping by to read my pseudo-random musing 😊 While I draft my next blog post, you can git checkout other (usually off-topic) content I’m reading over at Instapaper - or review my DevSecOps Essentials” series for a detailed walkthrough of how my team delivered security at scale for Thermo Fisher Scientific.

Until next time, remember to git commit && stay classy!


Keith // securingdev

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This post is licensed under CC BY 4.0 by the author.