015: John Moore: Avoiding Developer and IT Burnout


For developers, programmers, IT workers, and those that employ them. 

For the business owner, breaks are about productivity; for an individual, it’s about feeling better at the end of your day. Are you filling your stress cup? Learn about the most important thing to do every day to make you and your work better.

John Moore has spent years in information technology, working with some of the largest companies in the world.  He loves being able to solve complex problems and bring greater value to people’s lives.

John is a spiritually oriented life coach, trained in transformational and solutions-focused coaching, hold’s a 3rd degree black-belt in jujutsu, and has completed a year-long apprenticeship in shamanism. He’s trained in a number of Eastern body, mind, and spirit traditions and brings that experience to everything he does. An author and speaker, John lives in Maine with his wife and twin daughters.

You can learn more about John Moore at MyLovedLife.com. You can also search for John D Moore at GoodMenProject.com.  

ERH: I am excited to be here with you today and we are speaking with John Moore. 

John Moore:  Thank you so much. I’m really excited to be here.

ERH:  I would like to begin with a focus on technology workers and developers, those who are working so hard, often behind the scenes, to make our complex world run more smoothly. In my work with IT teams at BreakTogether, it’s often challenging to take breaks at the same time because you can’t necessarily leave in the middle of a programming sequence. Can you start there?

John Moore:  Yes. Developers are kind of a different breed of people. When I started out, I worked in a place we call the pit at Digital Equipment Corporation. It was literally like an old lab sunken into the basement of this building. We sat around in cubicles and just wrote code all day and drank way too much caffeine and those kinds of things. There’s a culture of programmers, right? The hacker culture where … It’s sort of old school; a work all day, work all night kind of thing.

We were talking about one of the difficulties that comes from what we call context shifting, right? It’s stopping one activity and moving to another and then trying to move back to the activity that you stopped.

One of the issues with that is cognitive because we’re working with our brains. The cognitive shift, there’s some research out there that shows that you can lose 20 minutes of productivity when you do that. As developers who are always under the gun, we’re really sensitive to losing productivity. We resent meetings. We recent too many meetings. Sometimes we’re triple booked in meetings, but there’s no lack of a need of healthy breaks and taking care of oneself for developers, right? We sit around all day. We shorten our psoas muscles across the front of our hips all day. We get carpal tunnel syndrome from typing. We get stress. We get heart disease the same way everybody else does.

There’s no lack of a need for breaks. In fact, there’s probably more of a need. There’s so much pressure on developers usually. For me, what I think has to happen is that these healthy breaks, which are so important, need to be scheduled and expected and so that I can start the process. If I know at 2:30 I’ve got a 5 or 10 minute thing coming up, I start the process for winding my mind and wrapping up my work before that happens. With developers, it is hard to say, “hey everybody, let’s get up right now from our desks and do five minutes of stretching”. As a developer, that would kill me. That would be really hard.

If something’s coming up at 2:30, I know at 2:15 I’m going to start to wrap up what I’m doing and I can make that cognitive shift and leave my work in a place that I can get back to a lot quicker. Ultimately I’ll be more productive when I come back. In reaching out to developers, that’s one of the things that must be made clear because a lot of us, if we don’t see how this makes us more productive or better at what we do, it’s a little bit of a hard sell. Planning is key, right? Then tying it back…

Selling it, “If you do this every day, you are going to be more productive. You’ll get back to your desk and be even more of a rock star programmer.” It has to tie back to a benefit. For a lot of us as developers, pride in work is one of those keys.

ERH:  Well, the science behind breaks and productivity is 108 years old; or millennia, when you think about Eastern philosophy and mindfulness. Our brains require disconnects and reconnects in order to function at our highest levels.

John Moore:  It’s like you have a cognitive bank account, right?

ERH: Exactly.

John Moore:  You’re spending from your bank account; spending, spending, spending, spending… At a certain point and you could probably quote some numbers on what this is, but I find it’s somewhere around 45 minutes for most people, your productivity and your ability to function at high-level drops.

I’ve noticed this not just in my own work, but in teaching because I’ve spent a lot of time teaching as well and teaching developers. When I teach, if I’m doing an all-day class or a multi-day class, I put in a break every 45 minutes because people, their brains are not working. They can sit there and stare at you blankly, but it’s not going in. It’s not being processed cognitively.

Every 45 minutes in an eight hour day seems like a lot of breaks, but the flip side to that is if you’re not taking those breaks, you’re not getting anything out of it at a certain point. If you’re not getting anything out of it, why sit there instead of getting up, doing something else…that shift, refilling the cognitive bank account and then coming back to focus on what you’re doing. You will be twice as productive.

If I’m a business owner, the breaks are about productivity. If I’m my own self out there, they’re about doing my best work but also feeling good when I go home or when I leave the job.

I’ve had all day coding sessions and you leave and you feel completely drained and don’t want to do anything afterwards. What kind of life is that, right?

ERH: You are so spot on. You can’t imagine. I have studied this for pretty much two solid years now, the ideal work/task focus time is 50 to 90 minutes. Some studies say 25 minutes. It’s just amazing that you observed 45 minutes was the threshold, as you were teaching, because that is about it.

John Moore:  You can notice the eyeballs glaze over, right? You’re looking out at a class and they’re just staring at you not blinking.

ERH:  Right. It’s time to move on or to stop for a second. John, thank you so much for that because it supports everything I have been learning about. 

I want to learn more about your coaching. I know that we’ve talked about your focus on mind, body and spirit connections in your coaching. I’m sure a lot of the folks that you are working with are stressed. Can you talk about that part of your work?

John Moore:  If you don’t know about coaching, coaching differs from therapy. For example, we’re using a lot of the same tools, but coaching is really about people who want to be more high performance, who want to get more satisfaction out of life or greater success. There’s all different kinds of coaching. I happen to focus on transformative life coaching, people who want to make transitions or achieve something big in their lives. What I found is that there’s this continuum between mind, body and spirit, right? The mind and body we know are connected. We can scientifically prove that. When I talk about spirit, it doesn’t necessarily mean a religious thing. It might be for you, but what I’m talking about is a connection to something larger.

It could be a vision. For example, I want to reach out to all of these companies and get them to start taking healthy breaks because I know this is going to transform the world. That’s a spiritual thing, right? It’s not about necessarily religion. It could be for you and that’s fine, but there’s a connection between all of this. I talk about wellness for example, right? I write a lot about depression and anxiety. Some very, very common issues. The approach that I took for myself getting past this symptom is that I found that I could pop a pill and it might make me feel better. I chose not to go that route. What I did was I invested in mind, body and spirit practices. Things like practicing chi kung and getting acupuncture, focusing on stress.

It’s like you’re firing on all cylinders. When I work with a client for example, let’s say somebody has a goal, “I want to become CEO of this company,” or whatever, it’s getting those three parts of the self aligned and going in the same direction. Mentally I might say I want this, but if I’m not doing the physical actions to do something, I’m not going to succeed. Then if I don’t have the value, the vision and the sense of connection that I’m going to get from achieving that vision, I’m also not going to be firing on all three cylinders. What I found is that the greatest success comes from creating that alignment. I don’t create that for my clients. I hold the space and help them create that alignment for themselves.

That’s a beautiful thing about coaching because really, really good coaches don’t do the work for you, right?

ERH: Right.

John Moore: Don’t tell anybody this. This is a secret just between us, right?  We don’t do a lot. We don’t do the stuff for you. That’s the other thing. That’s the difference between consulting and coaching because I do consulting, but I separate that from coaching. When consulting, I’m coming in here and telling you what to do. When coaching, we’re partners and I’m helping you figure out not just what to do, but why and that’s the big question.

ERH:  I love how you defined that. From my perspective that coaching piece is … about finding the person that doesn’t want to do it for you because often we grow when someone else has fresh eyes on what we’re experiencing. If you’re willing to share, “This is what my dream is or my goal is,” and then you have someone with clarity say, “This is where I can see you might not be aligned,” that’s gold. What you do is really important.

Do you have any short exercises that a client might do to reduce their stress?

John Moore: Rather than a technique I’m going to give you a tip, right?

ERH:  Sure.

John Moore:  I think this is going to be in alignment with what you teach as well. I stole this from my naturopathic doctor, so I can’t take full credit for this. She describes that you have the stress cup and it fills up with stress. If you don’t empty it out every day, it overflows and overflows represents things like disease, inflammation, and heart disease. Stress is a killer. You have to do it. You have to intentionally empty your stress cup every day. Intention is the key here, to remove, reduce, and relieve your stress. We build it up over time especially in this modern era, when you’re sitting behind the computer all day. What that means for people can be different things.

Healthy breaks are absolutely an important part of that. The body, mind, spirit approach would be I would help you find something that nurtures you. It could be I love working out, punching the bag at the gym, or watercolor painting. It could be I love whatever, roller-skating.

Do that. Do something.

Do one of those things that nurtures you every single day at least 10 to 20 minutes. It’s an investment. Just in heart medication alone you’re going to save thousands down the line. Trust me on this. I know from experience. I know from working with clients. I know from myself. I cannot overstate the importance of this. This is as important as brushing your teeth.

If you don’t brush your teeth, I don’t want to know about it. That’s disgusting. You have to brush your teeth.

Seriously, find that thing that nurtures you. There’s that spirit connection, right?

ERH: Beautiful.

John Moore: That piece that nurtures your soul. I’m lucky that I have a sort of adult ADD. I’ve got about 500 things on my list that nurture me. There’s always something I can do. It’s taking the time, schedule it. Make a date with yourself, put it in your calendar, lock your door, whatever you need to do to take that time for yourself and do it.

ERH: Those are wonderful practices, John.  I really like the imagery of the stress cup. I also like the idea of listing several things that you enjoy, that feed your soul, so that you’ll always have a list to go to for those 5, 10, or 20 minute breaks.

Can you mention your work with The Good Men Project? That really peaked my ears when we were talking about it.

John Moore:  Yes. The Good Men Project is sort of an online … magazine. It is about changing the dialogue around masculinity in the 21st century. I write a weekly column for them, about different things that interest me; about anxiety and depression, stress reduction, men’s health, and reducing violence.  Reducing violence is something I’m very interested in from a cultural perspective. You can search my articles at … John D Moore thegoodmenproject.com.

ERH:  Thank you for that. Is there anything else that we haven’t talked about today that you feel is important for someone to hear on this topic?

John Moore: Yes. There are a lot of us who soothe ourselves with media, right? We look at our phone all day or we veg out in front of the TV. That actually doesn’t count towards stress reduction. It’s fine to do that. Sometimes you need to sit on the couch and I recommend a good comedy. However, you need to be doing something that’s a little more engaging for your stress reduction. Focus on self-care, on human interaction; touch is great. Get a massage. Date somebody. Shake people’s hands. Give hugs. Whatever. Human touch is important for the oxytocin that it releases in our bodies. Just emphasizing that vegging out in front of the TV does not count as your stress reduction activity.

ERH: That is wonderful John Moore, thank you so much for spending time with The Art of the Break. It has been a pleasure having you here today.

John Moore: Well, thank you. It’s been my pleasure.

ERH: You can learn more about John Moore at MyLovedLife.com. You can also search for John D Moore at GoodMenProject.com.