Self Care for Programmers

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25 minute podcast

Tammy Robinson (a Lead Programmer at Tighten) joins us this week to talk about self care: what it is, why it’s important for developers, and how to take the first step towards a better self care practice.

Transcript

Dave Hicking: Welcome everybody to Twenty Percent Time, a podcast that takes you behind the scenes of Tighten, a web consultancy based out of Chicago, but entirely remote and spread out. Used to be just over North America. Now it’s all over the world. Basically, we specialize in Laravel a PHP framework which you probably know by listening to this, but we’re often pairing that with any number of Javascript frameworks, libraries, and whatever we got to do to get the job done. I’m your host Dave Hicking, and this week I’m joined by Tammy Robinson, a lead programmer here at Tighten. Welcome, Tammy, how are you?

Tammy Robinson: Hey, Dave, I’m doing good. How are you?

Dave Hicking: I’m doing great. It is a very snowy day up here in the Northeast, but it’s nice and cozy inside and I’m looking forward to talking to you today.

Tammy Robinson: Looking forward to talking to you, too.

Dave Hicking: For people who don’t know you, Tammy, who might not have met you online. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Who is Tammy?

Tammy Robinson: For sure. I can answer that. I’ve been at Tighten now coming up on two years in February. I’ve been programming professionally for the past seven years or so, but I started my programming journey at high school. I also participate in the Charlotte Tech community as a meetup organizer where I help to plan different events where industry professionals of all levels can receive career guidance, network, and sharpen their skills.

Dave Hicking: So, if somebody is in the greater Charlotte area, and they’re a dev and they don’t know you, they should probably get to know you. Is that right?

Tammy Robinson: Yeah, absolutely. You can follow the meetups that I participate in on meetup.com. One of them is Charlotte Devs. We have a Slack group that you all can join and connect with the rest of us that are here. And then we also have Queen City Bytes, and we mainly focus on providing the assistance to women and tech and those who identify as women figure out their way and give them tools to perfect their craft.

Dave Hicking: Okay. So, let’s try to get everybody on the same page, right? Because self-care is used all over the internet, all over social media. I swear. I’ve seen way too many hashtags self-care, which is great, but I think people mean lots of different things when they say self-care it could mean... Well, I’m sure you’re going to talk about it, but to you, what does self-care mean in the context of what we’re talking about?

Tammy Robinson: All right. That’s a very good question to start us off. Generally speaking, self-care for me means doing the things that’s going to make me feel the best version of myself on a consistent basis. And I measure that on a physical, mental, and emotional level. So, with that being said, there are different things I take into consideration as it relates to what practicing good self-care looks like as a programmer in a fully remote role. So, I think about what type of space I’m in physically trying to do my job, what is my office like? There might be a difference in how productive I feel working from home versus going to a co-working space or a coffee shop.

Dave Hicking: For sure. And it might not even be the same for every person there’s probably no one way. Right. It depends on what works best for you. Is that fair to say?

Tammy Robinson: Exactly. And then in addition to that, how is my workspace set up? Do I have all of the equipment I need and it’s my furniture comfortable? It might sound silly, but it’s important because if I have uncomfortable furniture. It’s going to affect how my body feels and if I’m having constant hip or back pain, because of my chair then I can’t focus on my work the way that I want to. And then when it comes to thinking about things on a mental and emotional level. The first thing I think about is do I feel supported in my role? And if I have questions. Can I rely on them being answered without being made, to feel I’m a burden to my peers? Secondly, am I bringing my full self to work? Or is there an overwhelming tendency for me to code-switch because that can be really mentally taxing for a person. And the last thing applies more generally to being a programmer. What do I feel for myself in the work that I’m doing? Meaning how confident am I in my abilities to carry out different tasks? Identifying whether or not I’m experiencing any major stress or burnout and determining what the cause of it is.

Dave Hicking: So, self-care is definitely not obviously is what you just said. It’s not just one thing. One thing I definitely want to ask your opinion on is I feel some people might see self-care as a luxury or as like... Honestly, maybe they just don’t think that... I mean, now we’re going to get real serious here. Sometimes people feel I’m not worthy of it or it doesn’t matter. Or I don’t have the time this might sound super obvious, but can you make a quick the high-level pitch? You described a lot of things to keep in mind with self-care, but at a high-level. I’m guessing you’re going to say that it’s not a luxury that it actually is essential, right?

Tammy Robinson: So, if I were to think about self-care from the perspective of being routine maintenance. I think the why to that question becomes even more obvious speaking realistically, if not for ourselves. Who can we really depend on to take care of us?

Dave Hicking: Tammy, that’s that we could have a whole podcast on that.

Tammy Robinson: Yeah. Right. There’s also the importance of what you’ll benefit from having a good self-care routine. For myself being intentional about sticking to my own routine has helped me learn how to work alongside my anxieties because for a really long time. I was letting them work me and that’s not fun at all. I’ve also become more focused, and I can manage my emotions a lot easier. And it’s just given me a better understanding of myself overall.

Dave Hicking: So, I’m curious because I am a... We’ll call it recovering perfectionist, someone who has anxiety, someone who was like the classic, trying to always be a high achiever as a kid. And so, I have a... I’ll say a complicated history of being good about self-care. What has made this, something that you really not just feel strongly about for yourself, but in terms of evangelizing for other people was it something... Did you have people that you could model yourself after that you knew growing up? Was it something that you have learned along the way in your career? How did you get to this point where you’re like, “No, self-care is super important.”

Tammy Robinson: I would definitely say it’s been a learned behavior that I’ve gotten better at over the years, but the desire to figure out how to get better has been influenced by my need to unlearn certain patterns and behaviors. And then seeing how well it’s helped me manage certain things is what’s made it essential for me. So, for example, I struggled with constant negative self-talk and believing that I shouldn’t be in this profession despite the work that I put in to get here. So, had it not been for figuring out a healthier way to navigate those feelings? I’m not sure that I’d be where I am right now.

Dave Hicking: Do you think there are any misconceptions that people might have about the idea of self-care before we get into some of the more specifics? This hopefully the whole last high-level question, is there any things that you feel you have to... When people say self-care, you’re like, “Nah, that’s not really what it means.”

Tammy Robinson: Yeah, for sure. I think there was two that I can think about that I even had myself. One is that people think it’s selfish. A lot of us aren’t all that good as saying no, right? And then there’s that old cliche statement that you can’t pour from a glass half full or however it goes, it’s the truth. You can only show up so much for other people before you begin to neglect, showing up for yourself. And then another misconception is that it doesn’t work despite us knowing that when we’re not taking care of ourselves. The way we should we’ll feel it. And it’ll start to manifest itself in different ways. Be it physical or mental. If you’re one of those developers that struggles with anxieties, do what I did and figure out a way to work alongside them, as opposed to letting your anxiety be the deciding factor and how your workday is going to go.

Dave Hicking: Yeah. The way that you described. I’m also going to butcher the metaphor, but right. You can’t pour from a cup that’s empty basically right. I felt as you were saying that I could sense you might have some real-life experience where you felt like you were trying to keep giving and giving, but there was nothing left to give. Is that fair to say?

Tammy Robinson: I mean yeah, it’s a everyday struggle. I’m still a work in progress. I wouldn’t say that. I’ve completely figured that one out at all.

Dave Hicking: All right. So, let’s try to get a little specific and you already started going on that path, but if someone’s listening to this and they’re a dead. They’re remote worker or even just a person, right? Do you have some basic essential things that they should be doing to practice self-care that maybe apply to everybody?

Tammy Robinson: Yeah, I do. Now, I tried to keep this down to a short list, like a top-five, but there ended up being six things that I felt like everybody should be doing. So, I hope that’s okay.

Dave Hicking: That’s totally fine.

Tammy Robinson: All right. Get your notepads ready. So, first off, know the environment you work best in, so you can do your best work. It’s important to ensure you’re in a space where you feel comfortable. So, just to reiterate some of the things I mentioned earlier, be wary of code-switching. You should absolutely have a good sense of belonging wherever you’re working and make sure that your setup is ergonomically sound. You want to be comfortable having to sit at a desk for eight hours out of your day. If you’re lucky, you might have that standing that sit up before the rest of us, you just want to make sure you’re comfortable. Second, build community. You have to find other people in the space you’re in that look like you, identify the same as you, or is at the same step in their career as you... If they’re a little further along, that’s even better. I think having people that you can engage in casual conversation with and bounce your ideas and questions off of is super important. Especially because you’re spending so much of your day with these people anyway. Right? And as a remote worker, you’re inviting them into your house on a daily basis in some form or fashion. But even in doing that, you should still make sure you’re setting healthy boundaries for how you communicate with your peers. But to me, this one is really important because it can make or break your remote work experience.

Dave Hicking: For sure. Especially since remote work, whether you’re new to it, or you’ve been doing it for a while. It can be lonely, for some people, right? Because you don’t have that... Yeah. You’re talking to people online, whether it’s Slack or whatever tool you use or on Twitter or whatever, but it’s not you’re going to go bump into your coworker on the way to lunch or something.

Tammy Robinson: Right. Exactly. Yeah. I definitely had to get used to this remote lifestyle coming to Tighten so that was one of those things that was super important for me to do.

Dave Hicking: Okay.

Tammy Robinson: All right. Next is to a journal. So, you have an honest perspective on your growth. If you already journal on the regular, this can become a part of that existing routine, or you can create a new one. So, personally, I like to do recaps at the end of each work week to gauge how things went. And then at the end of the month. I’ll do a brief retrospective by looking through all of my weekly logs. And I’ll make note of any burnout, eye experience, new tools or libraries I’ve worked with, and how any of the projects I’ve worked on have progressed during that time. Next, you should get organized by creating a routine. Now I know routines and structure aren’t everybody’s cup of tea, but I think in general. It’s a good idea to have some sort of routine, whether it’s a list of things you do consistently or one to two things you make sure you do every day. So, a simple example of that would be having a log of what you plan to work on for the day. And then at the end of your days, you can include where you left off. So, the next morning you don’t have to do a ton of mental gymnastics in order to know where to pick it up from.

Dave Hicking: I’m curious, as you have gone on your journey as a developer and now a remote worker. Did you find that you are traditional? I don’t know. I want to say historically, before this, where did you consider yourself like, “Yeah, I’m an organized person and so this came naturally?” Or did you feel like you had to learn this on the fly?

Tammy Robinson: No, I’ve definitely been an organized person all of my life. And it’s been something that’s happened as a result of being someone that has high anxiety. I need to have some organization to my life in order to be able to get things done. If that makes sense.

Dave Hicking: It totally makes sense. I asked because, for me, I had to learn it. I was not naturally... I was the classic, like high achieving, always trying to please, but the way that I adapted to that stress when I was a teenager, was to just stop high achieving and to just be like, “Hmm, forget it, whatever it doesn’t matter.” And then I got to a point where all of a sudden, I’ve got like a real job with stuff I got to keep track of, and all of a sudden, my system of like sticky notes by my keyboard was not cutting it. And my wife is actually at a two-person. My wife is going through a similar thing right now where she’s all of a sudden, a manager at work and her old systems are reaching their breaking point. I think that’s just another thing I would like to add on to what you said, which is if you have any major change, new job, whether going wrong for the first time or whatever it might be you can suddenly find... Whatever you used to be able to get by with all of a sudden, no, it does not work. And now you’ve got a whole other level of stress.

Tammy Robinson: Absolutely. And you have to be willing to adapt and know that the way you did things in a different position might not fit best when pivot and switch roles or whatever it is. You just want to make sure that you have some system in place that’s going to help you get by.

Dave Hicking: Yeah, for sure.

Tammy Robinson: All right. So, the fifth thing on my list is to make sure you’re fueling your body. You can easily slip into a cycle of working through your lunch hour and forgetting to eat food altogether when you’re working from home. If you have to set an alarm, so you can actually step away from your desk when it’s time and give that time back to yourself, to recharge. Get some food, drink your water or coffee, and enjoy that downtime. And last, but certainly not least is to affirm yourself more often and do it out loud. It may seem weird at first, but you just have to find the best way to do it. That feels most natural to you. And if you struggle with it, a good place to start is with some audio affirmations that you feel you can relate to.

Dave Hicking: Yeah. That’s a tough one for me. I’m not going to lie. I feel society teaches us to not be. You want... We always are expected to walk these fine lines. It’s like, “Yeah, you should be confident, but not cocky.”

Tammy Robinson: Yeah.

Dave Hicking: And I feel affirmations. I feel a lot of people when they... I mean, when I first heard about the Coke idea of that, I was like, “What am I going to start tooting my own horn is that what’s going on?” Because we’re almost taught not to, but if you’re not going to affirm yourself, who is?

Tammy Robinson: Right. Yeah. We have to be our own hype man. When I first started trying to learn how to do this. I would model myself after Issa Rae kinda, she has this mirror persona, and her show, Insecure, where she talks to herself and I would try to do that in the mirror, but it was really awkward, and it didn’t work. So, yeah. You just have to figure out a way to do it. A lot of times I’ll do it by writing my affirmations out so that I can see them. That helps me. But I also like the audio affirmations as well.

Dave Hicking: Here’s one thing I want to come back to because you referred to it earlier. It’s the idea... I know that I struggle with this. I’m sure a lot of people listen to struggle with this. It’s the idea that it’s not like you just suddenly check off self-care on your to-do list and you never have to worry about it again. It’s not just a one-time thing. It’s a practice. Right. But then it’s also not you can just go to self there self-care.com and sign up for a monthly subscription. You have to do it yourself. How have you worked to make all of these things, habits that you feel you can stick with?

Tammy Robinson: Yeah. It would be amazing if there was a selfcare.com I’d be the first to like-

Dave Hicking: We should buy that domain a Tighten. I don’t know. We could...

Tammy Robinson: Yeah, for real. I’d be the first like, “Take my monies.” But you’re absolutely right. It really does take time in practice. And as I mentioned before, when you’re first giving it a goal, you’ll spend a lot of that time unlearning things that have negatively impacted how you feel on a daily basis. Just understand that it’s okay to start small every day is an opportunity to learn yourself better. But if you could think of the happiest day, you’ve had try to remember what you did and who you had around and start from there. Or you can try picking up on one new, healthy habit you feel is going to improve your day-to-day and let that be your starting point. So, that could be really simple things like waking up earlier if that’s a go for you or you could start going for more walks or maybe you want to like drink more water regularly or something, I don’t know. It really is dependent on the individual and what they feel they need more of.

Dave Hicking: Yeah. I think one thing that’s really important about what you’re saying is the idea that you’re not going to do it all at once.

Tammy Robinson: Right.

Dave Hicking: You’re not going to go from now. I’m bad about the whole idea of self-care to like, “Oh, here’s this person I see on Instagram.” And I’m just like, “Well, first of all, that’s social media. Don’t compare yourself.” But also, you got to like, “Do one thing at a time sometimes.” That applies to all habits.

Tammy Robinson: Absolutely. Yeah. I agree. It’s definitely an ongoing practice and it’s also one of those things. Like, don’t just think because you start, and you work on it and then you get better at it that you should stop. Just keep going. Don’t give up on it. It’s really going to change how you feel and how you do things.

Dave Hicking: So, Tammy, if people were to walk away from this episode with just only one thing that they should do to get started on their journey to self-care, assuming that they’re like at a place where they’re like, “Yeah, this all sounds great, but I’m not doing any of that right now.” Is there anyone, are there a handful of ideas where you’re like, “Yeah, here are achievable things you can do to get started.”

Tammy Robinson: Yeah. If that’s how you’re feeling, first of all, I’ll tell you to love yourself better. No, but if there’s one thing I have to choose and I pick from the six tips I gave before, I’d say implementing the honest journaling, because that might help you to identify some of those other things, we talked about that could be happening. And once you’ve been able to pinpoint them. You can start doing the work to change those things. I’d also just want to remind the folks out there that are either starting their programming journey or still experiencing some form of imposter syndrome that your code does not define you. And even if it feels hard now you just have to trust that it’ll get greater later.

Dave Hicking: And even Tammy, I’m sure this is true of you. It’s true of every developer I’ve ever known. Even once you get to... If you’ve made a career goal to get to a certain place, once you get there, you’re always writing code that when you look back in two years, you’re like, “Yeah, I probably would’ve done it differently.” Because you’re always learning, right?

Tammy Robinson: Oh, for sure. I do that every day. I can look at code, I wrote 10 minutes ago and be like, “Why did I do that?” But it is what it is. You just got to work through it. It’s a part of the job.

Dave Hicking: So, my last question, is there anything that we did not get a chance to talk about today that you feel is really crucial for people to know about anything to do with self-care?

Tammy Robinson: Yeah. There’s one thing that I like to add that I didn’t mention and it’s to set easily attainable goals for yourself so that you can get those small wins. That’ll really help you to boost your confidence in the work that you’re doing because it’s super easy to get caught up and question our abilities. When we find ourselves working on something we can’t quite figure out. If you get frustrated, just take a step back a little bit, figure out how you can break it down into smaller achievable task. And once you get those wins and that instant gratification it’ll motivate you to pick up on some of that more difficult work.

Dave Hicking: Okay. Actually, I realized I just had one final question, and sorry for springing this on you. Because when you brought up the one thing that people should do to get started, you mentioned journaling. Was there when you got started with journaling, was there a go-to resource or someplace where that helped you get started on that?

Tammy Robinson: There was not, I tried several different things to try to figure out the best way to do it, I guess. And what I ended up landing on was doing that weekly journal for work. So, I outline my document and obsidian. I have a template that I just duplicate and reuse every week. I’ll specify any goals that I have for that week. And that can be personally or for tasks that I need to get done. I’ll outline any important interactions I have that week. If I have liked one on ones, like what happened during that one-on-one, what was discussed? And then at the very bottom of that template. I just have a space where I recap the week so that when I have my retrospective of myself. I can easily just look back through them and see those recaps.

Dave Hicking: You got a whole system going, don’t you?

Tammy Robinson: I do. I told you it’s the anxiety. It’s the high anxiety thing.

Dave Hicking: No, I hear you. The one thing I was going to add onto that is, and this is from my experience as somebody who has tried and failed to journal is if you’re listening to this, don’t think that you have to like get a particular tool or go out and buy a new notebook with like a really nice pen like those are cool things. And sometimes that’s what gets people over the hump to start. And if that’s true, that’s great. But honestly, it’s not about the thing it’s about the practice.

Tammy Robinson: Absolutely.

Dave Hicking: All right. Thank you so much, Tammy, for joining us today. This has been awesome. I’ve learned a lot. I apparently need to maybe try journaling again because I’m not good at that. So, thank you for inspiring me to give that another go. Tammy, if people want to find you online, is there any particular place they should go?

Tammy Robinson: You can visit my small micro site at tammyrobinson.me to learn a little bit more about me. You’ll also find links to all of my social medias on that site. And I’d like to just say, Dave, thank you for having me. I’ve enjoyed sharing these tidbits with you all.

Dave Hicking: Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Tammy. Really appreciate it. And thanks everybody for listening.