Are you taking care of your Mental Debt?

Background

I’m sure you’ve heard of the concept of technical debt, right? The idea pretty much boils down to – if you are writing a code, you are most likely creating a tech debt along the way. And if you DON’T repay the debt (e.g. by scheduling regular maintenance intervals), you will accumulate even more of it (called “interest” in finance) effectively paying way more than you would have paid initially. The end result? Bankruptcy. Your code becomes unmaintainable.

What I wasn’t aware of is where the term comes from. Turns out it was coined by Ward Cunningham back in 90s, where he used it as a comparison to a financial debt. A simple example is — you need machines to make money, and in order to purchase machines, you need money. It’s a chicken-egg problem, which you actually solve by introducing a debt – somebody borrows you money and they expect interest to be paid back (i.e. you pay back more than you borrowed, so they effectively have “interest” in borrowing it to you). The problem arises if you don’t pay off the debt promptly, or at least regularly. It accumulates. And eventually leads you to bankruptcy.

Tech debt is the same. You make workarounds here and there in order to meet the deadline. You know, you skip some tests or write some hacky solution in order to have it done ASAP. Because, you know, deadlines. So you make a debt (in terms of shitty code) and if you don’t pay it back (by refactoring your shitty code), your code will become less and less maintainable and, in worst case, it will go bankrupt.

Now, here is a sad part. Every book out there recommends regular refactorings to maintain the tech debt. All cool. But what nobody talks about is MENTAL DEBT. How it’s created and how if not maintained properly it makes our mental state unusable.

Mental Debt as a result of intellectual work

Here’s the thing:

Doing ANY kind of intellectual work will produce MENTAL DEBT.

Period.

Be it programming, designing or testing stuff, the moment you start immersing yourself in it, you are taxing your mental system. You are creating a mental debt!

And you know what? That’s absolutely OK! Because as you’ve (hopefully) read above — sometimes debt is the ONLY way to solve the chicken-egg problem. You do some longer hours, maybe a weekend here and there, … and if you’re in your early / mid 20s, maybe even pulling an all-nighter or two as well. And that’s OK! Making debt as a vehicle for bootstrapping your work is totally fine.

The problematic part, just like with financial or technical debt is – not repaying it back promptly. That creates “interest”, the side-effect of not paying your debt. And, you know what else is true?

Letting it accumulate leads to a mental bankruptcy – THE BURNOUT!

Now, question is – how do you know if you’ve accumulated some significant debt and interest on top of it? Here are some of the common manifestations that I’ve personally experienced:

  1. Feeling frustrated about your work / boss / company / environment (you know – your boss is a dick, and your organization is a perfect example of a disorganization)
  2. Thinking nobody is listening to you and only if they did, things would be different (you know – everyone’s stupid but you)
  3. Having a belief that grass is greener on the other side (you know – all other companies are doing it way better than yours is!)
  4. Having a general lack of energy and motivation (you know – just feeling flat after work)
  5. Feeling like isolating yourself more and more and preferring to avoid social contacts (you know – feeling like staying at home 24/7 is a perfect idea)
  6. etc.

You get the gist, right? It all follows the same pattern really – what you used to enjoy in the past is the source of frustration now.

So how do you deal with it then? You schedule regular paybacks, of course!

Maintaining your Mental Debt

I can’t really say whether you can completely get rid of the debt. Maybe you can. Maybe not. No clue.

But honestly, that’s not even the point of it. The point is that this debt EXISTS, it ACCUMULATES and you have to PAY IT BACK. And if you keep it at manageable level, it’ll be as good as not being there.

So how do you maintain your mental debt? Here’s what I suggest:

  1. Meditation — I pretty much see meditation the same way as disk defragmentation (some of you have to remember it!). It clears out the static, wipes out the noise and keeps your mental hygiene in check.

    I’m primarily using Headspace app, but you can also give a shot to Calm or do a simple search around Youtube for free materials.
  2. Journaling — interestingly enough, by writing things down you are LITERALLY getting them out of your head and making (mental) space for other things to come in.

    I personally use Day One desktop app, and I try to write daily. Even if it’s just a few lines, I still try to keep doing it day after day.
  3. Exercise — shouldn’t come as a surprise, I hope? Exercising both keeps your physical health in check and helps you vent out that negative crap that you’ve been accumulating over time.

    Interestingly, if you keep it at 85% (without redlining yourself) you can actually feel recharged and even more energetic afterwards! So it’s like win-win situation ๐Ÿ™‚
  4. Therapy — It’s same as with teeth really. You can wash, you can floss, you can rinse, but at the end of the day, it’s the dentist that does the actual fixing.

    Therapy is simply an ultimate hero when it comes to cleanup of your mental debt. I’ve been attending REBT therapy for well over 7 years now. It did wonders. Obviously, you are free to try choose whatever will suit you, but, for the hell of it — JUST. DO. SOMETHING! I’ve heard positive stories with Psychodrama and Gestalt therapies as well.

And that’s about it. Everything that I suggest is battle-tested and proven to work by the author himself (yes, that’s me). Yours is simply to give it a shot.

Finally, if you’re a professional procrastinator like I am, and happen to have issues making that first step, make sure to check out my article on how to do it effectively.

Your turn!

Now that you’ve hopefully learned about the negative effects of mental debt, and under assumption that you are willing to avoid the burnout, what I’d like you to do is to think of what will be the next steps that you are going to take. Is it journaling? A meditation? Starting to exercise? Or maybe even pondering the idea of starting the therapy?

Whatever you choose, my advice is to KEEP IT SIMPLE. Don’t overload yourself. Start in small steps, but stay disciplined. Make it part of your routine (and if you don’t have one – what a better time to create one now).

My daily routine is fairly simple – wake up, take a shower, meditate, write journal, hit the gym and start the work. And you know what? It works ๐Ÿ™‚

Now, off you go and let me know what you decided!

Summary

  • Mental Debt is an (unwanted) artefact of intellectual work
  • Like technical debt, mental debt requires regular maintenance
  • Letting it accumulate will ALWAYS result in a burnout!
  • Therapy is the #1 “refactoring strategy”, but meditation, journaling and exercise will help as well

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2 thoughts on “Are you taking care of your Mental Debt?

  1. For me, one thing that works effectively in dealing with mental debt (or even physical debt) is to change the routine completely for a short period of time.

    For example, after weeks of too many meetings and sitting on a chair working, it helps me if I plan a week-end of active stuff (running, cycling, even just walking).

    After too much concentration and intellectual effort, it helps if I just do some brain-dead activity, like watching a bad Western movie or just vacuuming or sweeping the leaves from the garden.

    Met and talked to too many people? (as in, parties and/or conferences) Then, have a week-end completely alone.

    Did too much physical work? (running a marathon, renovating a house, etc.) Then, just sit in bed and sleep for a week-end.

    You get it: it’s basically like doing the exact opposite of what you have been doing for the past few weeks, just to change gears!

    1. I’ve gotta admit this is an amazing idea. I never really thought about it but it makes perfect sense!

      So pretty much do the EXACT OPPOSITE of what you were doing. Something like “Mental Cleansing”.

      Love it! Thanks for sharing the idea!!! I’ll definitely give it a shot, like … starting from next week ๐Ÿ˜€

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