I asked the ColdFusion Programmers Facebook group,
“Which health issues do programmers deal with the most?”
The 384 reponses surprised me. Most of the ailments listed were self-inflicted through
- Carelessness or
- Misaligned priorities.
Some self-care and mindfulness could prevent — or even solve — many of the issues.
How much self-harm do we forgive as a byproduct of work? And how much better would our lives be if we didn’t act as if “it’s just part of the job”?
Here are my solutions to the five most common health issues ColdFusion developers face, along with ways to prevent them.
- Stress shouldn’t rule a developer’s life.
- Back and neck aches require mindful work.
- Eye strain shouldn’t leave you squinting for an answer.
- Lack of sleep worsens everything.
- Anxiety and depression are signs you hit bottom.
Because an unhealthy CFer is an unproductive CFer.
Stress shouldn’t rule a developer’s life
Deadlines, endless projects, obligations at home. How many times have you attacked the day’s task list with verve and vigor, only to end the day off course, wondering where the time went? And how the hell did you accomplish only half the things you set out to do?
Entropy — a gradual slide towards chaos — is a normal part of everyday work life. Stress is the only logical result.
Over time, it can catch up to you.
But it doesn’t need to be this way. There are tools you can use to manage stress and minimize the impact entropy — chaos — can have on your day.
Keep a reasonable to-do list
The key word is reasonable. Too often, our to-do lists are aspirational. We write them assuming best-case scenarios in a perfect day with limitless time and energy.
Instead, keep it manageable with the assumption that something will take over and distract you. (And don’t use email to keep track of your daily tasks. Email is a time-hogging, stress-inducing mess already. Don’t give yourself more reasons to check it than you need to.)
Recap at the end of every day
Assess how you fared at work. What did you accomplish and what didn’t pan out? Try to find one concrete step you can take to make tomorrow a better day.
Suss out the type of stress are you experiencing
- Decision fatigue results from giving yourself too many options within a project or environment.
- Disagreements (and hidden animosity) in the workplace create a heavy burden to manage on top of an already-hefty workload.
- Overworked? We all are. Or so we think.
Create a time tracking system. You may find that — surprise! — you’re not as focused on work as you think. Or worse, your workday amounts to hours spent spinning your wheels, overworking.
- Stagnation may be the most difficult to address. It’s the sneaky feeling you’ve hit a plateau in your skillset and your professional growth, and so need a new challenge. (It’s so hard to fix because, short of a promotion, it may mean it’s time to find a new job — or even career).
The above list doesn’t include any of the personal issues which may cause stress — from discord at home to chronic health problems. (Those fall outside the bounds of programming, so I’ve set them aside. Though you can adapt many of the strategies in this article to address those problems as well.)
These are just some of the professional sources of stress. But how does one reduce stress, recover from it, and even prevent it in the future?
You already know most of the solutions. Ready?
Recent research has eliminated any suggestion you can function on four to five hours of sleep per night. You can’t. The side effects of lackluster sleep pile up, from physical ailments to psychological issues.
Moving with intent and force changes your brain by leaps and bounds. In fact, quick bursts of exercise — or even a brisk walk — may be one of the most surefire short-term stress solutions. A longer-term exercise routine only increases those benefits.
The long hours we clock at the keyboard, and many late nights, make us prone to big gulps of sugar water and caffeine. I get it. But a balanced, healthy diet spread throughout the day can do more to maintain your energy levels and stabilize your mood than any short-term pick-me-up.
“So… that’s it, Michaela?” you may be asking.
No. But it’s a start. Too often, advice on managing stress can enter the ephemeral realm, or offer imprecise guidelines.
I’ve found most people who adopt these three habits often manage their battles with stress. If you’re lacking in any of the above areas, address those first. The simplest things often have the greatest impact.
However, if you’re well-rested, work out regularly, and eat healthy food and are still facing stress, continue onto these other methods.
Take frequent breaks
This may be the easiest to adopt. There are several time management and focusing techniques you can use such as mandatory breaks. My personal go-to for some time has been the Pomodoro Technique. You can learn more about it here.
Find social support mechanisms
Stress can often feel like a lonely trudge through existence. But the person sitting at the desk next to you may also suffer in silence, thinking he or she is alone. Creating a network of colleagues, friends, and family can serve as a sounding board for the rough days.
Journaling can be therapeutic
Don’t underestimate the value of scribbling your meandering complaints down onto a sheet of paper, especially as soon as they hit you. This mental offloading can help you set aside temporary stresses before they become stuck in your mind. You may return to them later on to see if they’re worth your time and energy.
These six steps taken piecemeal or in tandem should handle that onslaught of stressors you face at work.
But what about that creaking noise in your neck?
Back and neck aches require mindful work
How many times have you stood up in the middle of your workday to just… stretch?
Programming, especially when we’re in a “flow state” often requires keeping your hand glued to your keyboard and eyes laser-focused on the screen.
Over time, this can lead to a bevy of issues with your back and posture. You probably feel it already, right? Studies have shown that ever since our jobs became more sedentary and less physically demanding, we’re dealing with many health issues which were uncommon 50 years ago.
“Yeah, that may be so, but it’s part of the job,” you may respond.
No. It’s not.
Spending hours at the keyboard without regular movement will wreak havoc on your back. It doesn’t have to.
There are solutions which you can implement right now which will realign your spine and strengthen your core muscles over time.
- Set up an ergonomic work environment. It’s a bit of a cliche that we all seem to half-follow. Here’s how to do it right.
- Get up and walk around, stepping away from the screen. (The Pomodoro Technique I mentioned earlier has breaks built into its cycle, which could offer a chance to stand up and stretch).
- Do these exercises at the office to keep your joints from rusting into place while at your seat. They only take about five minutes but will work wonders on your posture and circulation.
- Exercise, targeting mobility, flexibility, and core strength which should help your posture. I’ve found yoga helps a ton and I am phanatical about keeping a regular practice.
- Find a desk configuration that works for you. Some people swear by standing desks. Others use stools instead of chairs. Try both, improvising your way to a solution that suits you.
Taken together, the above five steps may elicit a “No duh!” response. But how many people complaining of back, neck, and shoulder problems dedicate the time and attention to moving and loosening up throughout the day?
Eye strain shouldn’t leave you squinting for an answer
Digital eye strain, or sometimes called Computer Vision, includes blurring, eye strain, and long-term vision problems with corrective lenses becoming more and more prevalent.
Cases of nearsightedness in the US have soared over the last few decades. It’s no wonder: we’re staring at blazingly-bright slabs of blue light for many of our waking hours.
It goes beyond just our eyesight. Blue light from screens disrupts circadian rhythms, which regulate our energy levels and sleep patterns.
But you can minimize these negative effects with some very basic, but effective habits:
- Ensure your monitor is about arm’s-length away from you, and set at the proper height just below your line of sight. (If you can tap the top of the screen with just your middle finger, you’re set.)
- Wear blue blocker glasses to mitigate the harmful effects of blue light emanating from your screen.
- Adjust color and contrast to suit your eyes (I know some developers who work in greyscale when they’re “in the zone”).
- Dim your screen to match the light around you.
- Make sure reflective light isn’t bouncing off your screen, either from overhead lighting or sunshine outside (keep your monitor perpendicular to windows and make sure it has a matte finish).
- Use the 20-20-20 rule. Every 20 minutes, spend 20 seconds looking at something that’s 20 feet away.
The proper solution to computer vision is to stop staring at a screen all day. But “Find a new career” isn’t a solution for many of you.
But perhaps we can limit the time we spend in front of our screens, both by adopting some non-electronic tools (pen and paper) and working more efficiently.
Staring at screens all day has effects on much more than just our vision.
Lack of sleep worsens everything
Sleep underpins all other physical and psychological functions. It affects everything from blood pressure and emotional regulation to digestion and mood. Your concentration and energy levels drop off a cliff when you chronically lack sleep.
Restless nights can also weaken your immune system, leading to more sick days.
In short, we cannot ever function at peak levels without sleep. The wheels fall off of our bodies.
Sleep often feels like a waste of time to busy programmers. Being awake offers so many more chances to be more productive. To feel alive. And to be distracted.
The great irony, however, is that a lack of sleep diminishes the quality of all our experiences, and our work.
You’d likely be done with work on time, instead of responding to emails at 2 a.m., if you got a good night’s rest.
That RPG you’ve labored through after work every day? You’d be way ahead in the game if you slept.
So, how do we get good sleep?
- Get away from the screen. Put away your devices, especially in the hours leading up to bedtime. The blue light which ruins your eyesight also keeps you awake.
- Have a quiet routine that winds down the day. Dim the lights, read a book, work on a puzzle, scribble in your journal, or meditate.
- Keep a notepad nearby to deposit any nagging thoughts or wayward things you need to remember for tomorrow. This mental offloading can suppress the nagging thoughts we keep repeating in our minds in the hopes we don’t forget. (Don’t reach for your phone though. Use an actual pen and paper).
- Be sure to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day (as best you can).
- Avoid caffeine and sugary drinks, especially in the evening hours. Same goes for alcohol.
Believe me, I was in the “sleep is the cousin of death camp” for a long time. And I was a damned fool. My mood, health, and physical well-being have improved tenfold ever since I started making a full-night’s rest a priority.
At least 7 to 8 hours of sleep should do. Try it for two weeks.
Does the sound of the morning alarm fill you with dread?
Does the day go by as a somber, slow parade of unfulfilling tasks being checked off for their own sake?
Do you spend your commute to home and back dreaming of something else to occupy your days?
Have you been trying to resign yourself to the idea that your whole life will be a doomed march toward mediocrity until sweet, sweet merciful death finally takes you from this planet?
Have you experienced panic attacks or pangs of anxiety with near certainty things won’t end well for you?
Are you exhausted to your bones despite your best efforts to rest and recover?
If you’ve answered yes to any of the above questions and have no inclination things can change, things won’t end well.
The mental toll of long-term anxiety and depression can manifest itself throughout the body. Physical signs of chronic stress include: headaches, fatigue, insomnia, high blood pressure, depression, digestive issues, chronic illness, among others.
The slow drip of dissatisfaction, unhealthy habits, and the sense you’ve lost all agency in your life can lead to anxiety and it’s ugly sibling depression. It creates feedback loops and a self-fulfilling doomsday prophecy.
One cannot live like this. Things have to change.
If you’ve reached the point where anxiety and depression shadow you, the long road you’ve taken to get there may seem impossible to navigate back. It’s filled with chaos, false starts, misplaced hope, and failure. It may seem silly to even bother.
What to do? Where to even start?
- Ask WWIT [What Would It Take] to realign yourself. Your life’s goals and your well-being have to work in tandem for either to exist.
Follow every answer with another “WWIT” to draw a more focused, descriptive answer. Eventually, you’ll draw up an actionable list of things you can do to crawl out of the pits.
- The CF Alive Podcast hosted a worthwhile conversation with Jeff Kunkel about GAD, which you may find helpful. Check it out here.
- Use TLC (To the Light, Connect) to ground yourself in the moment while getting a broader perspective on your problems. I’ve found perspective can be a tool that puts your problems in their proper place. And bringing in good energy from outside of yourself is always a worthwhile practice.
- Block out someone else’s negative energy and cut cords with them if you need to. Sometimes we aren’t to blame for our dismal outlook. Finding which people in your life are weighing you down and letting them go lightens the burden you carry throughout your day.
There are also steps you can take at work which will help set the stage for a faster recovery. In short: work less, and work smarter.
- Create a hard border between your work life and your personal life. Don’t check work email at home. Don’t work outside of work. Or better yet, don’t check email more than twice a day — at the beginning and end of every day, if you can.
- Set up a good routine that encompasses physical health, mental well-being and allows space for growth within work and life. Make it manageable and malleable for when the chaos rears its ugly head.
- Say “No” to new projects, work, or commitments without guilt or worry. This may be the single biggest favor you can do to yourself while dealing with anxiety or depression.
Too often, we think we can only address mental health inside our minds. Not so. Human bodies in motion veer towards holistic health. So move in ways that inspire you.
Dance when nobody's watching. Or even if they are, who cares?!
Break up your work day with brisk walks.
Drink plenty of water and eat a healthy meal for your own sake.
Nap and rest when your body tells you to.
Stop assuming you have to trade your health for success. A successful sick person is arguably a worse outcome.
Don’t let your job define you or your value. And work to be better.
Nobody fixes themselves on their first try. You have to fail over and over.
Programming isn’t a demanding job. Except it is. Just not in the old-fashioned sense.
Taking a common-sense approach to your work and self-care can go a long way to nurturing your health while also improving your productivity.
The most productive developer is almost always the healthiest one.
Michaela Light is the host of the CF Alive Podcast and has interviewed more than 100 ColdFusion experts. In each interview, she asks "What Would It Take to make CF more alive this year?" The answers still inspire her to continue to write and interview new speakers.
Michaela has been programming in ColdFusion for more than 20 years. She founded TeraTech in 1989. The company specializes in ColdFusion application development, security and optimization. She has also founded the CFUnited Conference and runs the annual State of the CF Union Survey.