An Engineering Manager's Guide to Pivoting Out of Work Mode for Real

One benefit of regular breaks is a chance to step back and become aware of yourself but what if you’re still wearing down? To counteract the problem of slowly grinding yourself away, you’ll need to find relief on a larger scale, beyond the confines of your job.

An Engineering Manager's Guide to Pivoting Out of Work Mode for Real
Bench overlooking Possession Sound. ©2023 Robin Monks.
This is the third article in my series on how to maintain work-life balance as a software engineering manager. I'd recommend reading the series introduction as well as the previous article Avoiding Burnout, Taking Breaks before digging in.

One benefit of regular breaks is a chance to step back and become aware of yourself: whether you’re getting a repetitive stress injury, whether your blood pressure is elevated, and generally how well your body and brain are coping with what you’ve been facing.

Which leads to the question: what if you’re still wearing down? To counteract the problem of slowly grinding yourself away, you’ll need to find relief on a larger scale, beyond the confines of your job.

So, what exactly needs relieving?

When you have a stiff muscle, it can help to pinpoint what bit of you is having trouble. The same is often true of burnout. Fortunately, this is usually identifiable.

Here’s the thing about most jobs: in the end, they tend to produce something analogous to a repetitive stress injury for the mind. Software engineering problems are varied and interesting, but the process of solving them follows patterns, usually stressing similar mental faculties from task to task. We spend our days neck deep in a dance of trying to get issues of logic and practicality to agree with each other.

In some work environments, this can also be felt in the interactions between yourself and your peers. How the company operates and the types of consistent and repetitive strain it can cause also wear on the mind.

When we perform that similar role often enough (over a period of months, years, decades) we put our brains and bodies into a rut. We compensate for our job so much that we can forget we’re compensating. Like a person who has had a painfully inflexible arm for years, we can forget what it means to have our full mental range of motion.

To get that flexibility back, we need to spend time truly pivoting out of work mode and doing something else. What this entails varies from person to person, but I’ll use hobbies as an example that I personally find helpful.

Cloud against a mountain in Hope, BC. ©2023 Robin Monks.

Hobbies: nature’s bigger break

To reiterate a point from the previous post, the important part of taking a break is transitioning from a work state to a relaxed state. Pivoting like this gives our metaphorical mental muscle a chance to release some of its tension so that it won’t develop a repetitive injury as easily.

Hobbies are this concept taken to the next level: tasks that stress different parts of us than our job does, or some overlapping parts plus other untapped parts.

For some, the difference doesn’t have to be much, and novelty can go a long way toward refreshment. I’ve known developers who make a hobby of solving different software-related problems to refresh their mental energy. They use different languages or frameworks and produce work targeting a different group. This gets their brains thinking creatively and helps to massage away their mental ruts.

That method can work for me, but it’s tricky: as soon as I start planning out a release for a project my brain slips back into the pattern, and the threat of burnout smolders. It’s very hard for me to sustain that sense of newness in the context of something so closely relatable to my usual work. So, I ended up seeking out other hobbies.

I enjoy assembling nanoblocks or Lego when I need to transition from “work mode” to being more present in the moment. Assembling such items makes gentle use of my logical reasoning (which is already active from my job) but helps me shift away from the abstractness of software engineering and toward the concreteness of regular life. Physical blocks, physical world.

While I was working at Thinkific, I'd often have some of the Lego I assembled on my desk to show off my more recent project. For a while, a link to this blog was provided as a QR code built from Lego that hung on my desk as well.

Tending a home garden does something similar for my managerial side. I make lightweight use of some faculties from managing (organization, status checking, and course correcting) but can pivot from there into aesthetically admiring the growth of the plants and enjoying their relaxing passivity. (I can even talk to the plants, and they won’t talk back. After a long day of meetings and delegation, this can feel very much like a blessing.)

During the pandemic, while I was living in a basement apartment in Vancouver, I bought a number of large planters and made a garden to relax in on my back deck. Sometimes, a garden is what you make it.

The selection of planters I'd purchase to make my impromptu garden, stuffed in my Jeep for the ride home. Photo ©Robin Monks.

One of my other hobbies is writing, because creatively assembling thoughts and hard-earned wisdom is refreshingly removed from the day-to-day concerns of work. It’s a chance for me to reflect (and, hopefully, share some good ideas with others).


However you transition out of work mode, your brain needs to be able to refresh itself by doing something different, and it needs to be able to get into that mode from whatever headspace your work left you in originally.

Writing, journaling (start a bullet journal?), cooking, photography, knitting, podcasting. Find something you enjoy and do it in a creative and non-serious way to let yourself spin down. Enjoy a good book, meditate, or go for a walk to exercise and change the scenery.

A forest trail in Maple Ridge, BC. Photo ©2023 Robin Monks.

Granted, hobbies aren’t the only method for achieving this deeper layer of unwinding. For some, the necessary pivoting may happen as part of spending time with friends and family. For others, it might mean getting some extra sleep or a hot bath at the right time, letting the stress unravel from their bodies. Ideally, you should cultivate a few different methods for yourself, just in case one isn’t practical on a given day.

It’s also okay if your pivoting is multi-step process: some people do best by transitioning from “work mode” into “relax at the coffee shop mode” before then slipping properly into “home mode” (just for instance). Once you’re out of work mode, you might find it helpful to transition even further away into a very different activity, taking the mental equivalent of a mini-vacation.

Speaking of mini-vacations, literal ones can help a lot too. Plan them, do them, and make them to places or events you find interesting and refreshing, but which won’t require you to be in the same mindset you have to use for your job. Assuming you can get the time off, and that your work isn’t constantly trying to remind you that it exists through boundary-pushing texts, emails, and so on… oh, and there are those feelings of dread and burnout again.

Next time, we’ll look at what to do when your job is encroaching on your personal time and making pivoting more difficult. That article will be out in 2 weeks, and subscribers to my email newsletter will be the first to get it in their inbox.

Make room to be awesome,