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Tech insights: Prioritising self-care: How I found balance as a developer
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Prioritising self-care: How I found balance as a developer

08 March 2023, by Xoliswa Nongcebo Shandu

Software development is a fast-paced industry, so it can be easy to give your all to your work while ignoring what you need as an individual. This isn’t sustainable and leads to unhappiness, feelings of being unfulfilled and ultimately burnout. Here’s how I started prioritising my mental health as a developer.


As a young developer starting to build my career, I was finding myself under a lot of stress. Despite hearing my colleagues and manager tell me I was doing well, I was not feeling great about my work or the life I was living.

Instead, I was constantly feeling like I was only giving 60% of myself and that I needed to do more. I would then put pressure on myself to agree to all tasks and neglect the planning or communication required within the team. This, in turn, would make me anxious about the next day and feel overwhelmed by all the expectations I had set. I was breaking myself because I wanted to look extremely competent.

The stress of overcompensating at work created a gap in my personal life that I was failing to bridge. I was working at times when I needed to rest or be present for my kids and family, and I was doing less of the things I enjoy during weekends because I was always trying to learn or prepare for work.

I wasn’t as happy or productive as I wanted to be. I realised I needed to be better at balancing my personal life and work in order to stop falling into a continuous cycle of stress. So I started:

  • Paying attention to the way I planned my work and communicated with the team
  • Creating a comfortable workspace
  • Finding ways to keep myself motivated and
  • Working hard and playing hard

Planning my work and communicating with the team

Due to a cycle of poor planning and lack of communication, my tasks were often overdue. When given a task, I would not ask for the resources I needed to complete it, leading to me overthinking the task and working overtime on it. This had a knock-on effect of forgetting personal errands, and I would end up prioritising work over what I needed to do for myself, my home and my kids.

Once I realised that my lack of planning was unsustainable, I began practising three techniques to make sure I always stayed on track.

Planning my day ahead

I started spending some time planning my tasks for the day ahead, listing my work and personal tasks in order and ensuring that I knew when to do what. Reading descriptions or understanding these tasks also helps with knowing how long I will really take and what resources I require.

I used a planner to write down my tasks and sticky notes for urgent items. I also used Habitica - a gamified task management app that keeps all my milestones visible and sends me reminders.

I found it helpful to make sure that I was realistic about what I could and could not do in a day. I did this by checking how confident I was in completing what I had to do and also taking a look at the reality of doing so. I would ask myself three questions:

  1. Will I have enough time?
  2. Do I have the resources I need?
  3. Will I be able to do it alone or will I need assistance?

The work began to feel more organised and I was able to prioritise better. I could easily see what I still had to do and what urgently needed to get done, so that I could be at ease when I had to start my cooking or check my kids’ schoolwork or select a movie for us to watch and actually watch it with them.

Communicating when I need help

In the past, I used to find it difficult to ask for assistance, often retracting instead of asking for help. I would feel as if I was bothering others and that needing help meant that I was incompetent. But then, I remembered something that my mentor had said: being in a team means that we are interdependent and asking for help or guidance is expected.

Now, every time I feel stuck or challenged, I remind myself that I have my team for a reason. Each time I communicate my challenges to my team, their eager responses give me confidence. I remind myself that the quicker I get support, the quicker a task will flow and asking for help proves that I am willing to learn and be a team player.

Receiving guidance allowed me to learn even more and helped me become less anxious. Work was exciting as I was learning not only from Stack Overflow, but also from my teammates, and this helped with my relationships at work.

These lessons even trickled into other areas of my life - I started to allow help at home. For example, allowing my kids to teach me a thing or two about the hacks they learn when they are watching TikTok and assisting me while I cook or hang the clothes out to dry. Life began to look brighter within my team at work and at home.

Communicating when I’m at capacity

When starting as a developer, I was not a good communicator. I felt like if I said no, people would think I was not capable of doing the job/task. After reading Susan Scott’s Fierce Conversations, I learnt how to get out of my comfort zone and face reality. The book unpacks the reality of what happens if we do not communicate honestly and how it tends to push us into a corner which we could have avoided by just having a conversation.

I had to stop allowing things to be tossed at me and to know where I could be helpful and where I could not, so that I don’t overextend myself in an unhealthy way. So I stopped thinking about it as a yes or no, but realised that I just needed to be honest with myself and my colleagues - especially in letting them know when I’m at capacity.

If a task is completely new, I would communicate that and let them know that I might need extra time to research the best ways of completing the task. This way, the manager could decide whether they’re going to give the task to someone else to do, or if I could get more time for research.

Communicating clearly and proactively with my team removed my anxiety and helped us to plan better. This, in turn, made me more productive and much happier at work. The expectation of ‘super developer’ was off and everyone had a realistic vision of what could or could not be done.

Planning ahead and knowing what has to be done, as well as ensuring I have the resources and capacity for it, has allowed me to get all my work done, and it’s made my work expectations more realistic. This then allows me to have more balance in my life, meaning that I do not miss a school project or forget to make myself a cup of coffee, and sit and enjoy it too.

Creating a workspace that works for me

Improving my planning and communication had a great impact on my work, but another area I needed to work on to feel happier at work was my workspace. Like many developers in South Africa, I was given the opportunity to work from home. But there was one problem: I did not enjoy my workspace at home.

I never put any thought into how my workspace was put together, it just seemed sufficient for me to get my work done. I had a chair, a desk, my laptop, a screen, a keyboard and mouse. There was no vava-voom, no excitement to be at my desk. In fact, I couldn’t wait to go to bed.

Cleaning up and improving my workspace made me feel better while working at home and proud to be a developer. By adding fun items to my desk - an adorable mirror, a fancy cup for drinking water (because you have to drink water), emoji stickers and some colourful desk toys - I feel more comfortable in my space and it feels good to have something to look at when I’m thinking.

The good aura at my desk also makes me happy to do productive things. I feel great getting work done at my desk and, if I don’t feel sleepy after work, I even feel good about planning the next day.

Making your workspace your little work haven, where you can feel joy while being productive at the same time, really makes a difference. Put your own spin on it: add inspiring art, pictures of loved ones or pot plants and get to enjoy your space using your own inspiration. You will feel the difference in the vibe and energy when it is time to get cracking.

Finding ways to keep myself motivated

As a result of my lack of planning and communication, I would often spend my weekends working on top of looking after my family. I had no time on weekends to do anything fun because I was constantly catching up on life. I never had time to reset so I felt demotivated to wake up and get things going. It felt like a never-ending nightmare.

So I started doing a few things to help improve my mentality and become more positive, like using sticky notes with reminders of how awesome I am. I also started celebrating wins and finding value in keeping a work-life balance.

Celebrating small and big wins

Whenever I had challenges with my work which I could not manage alone, I felt like I had not done my best. I allowed my inner critic to take the most space in my mind and I did not want to give myself a pat on the back when things turned out well. I felt that I could not celebrate unless someone else told me I could.

I had to encourage myself to celebrate all the achievements of the little and big things, so I was more motivated to recognise the good things in my life. I now have a celebration dance where after every deployment, I dance! When I am nervous about the deployment, I stand on my feet and shake - I shake off the nervousness.

I use the same principle of celebrating wins in my personal life. After my daughter’s ballet exam, I would take us all to get ice cream because, hey, we all did it! I started to love the things I was doing, I felt like I was really into my life.

Work hard, Play hard

When I first started as a developer, I soon found that my work hours and personal hours became ‘Isgwaqane’ - a scrumptious Zulu traditional dish where you cannot separate the beans from the maize meal. And that is what life had become: I could not separate work from my personal life. I was doing life’s basic tasks while mainly focusing on work causing my relationships to deteriorate because I had no time for them.

I remember during my Thrive mentorship program with Offerzen, my mentor Martin would often remind me to take time not to just focus on making my career incredible but also on my life. He encouraged me to not take days off only when I was sick but to also take leave for fun and not feel bad about it.

I had to learn to create boundaries around time so that I could do the things I wanted to do. I started adding to my own personal to-do list and made plans for fun activities, including:

  • Play dates with my kids
  • Visiting my family
  • Calling and catching up with friends I’ve lost touch with and
  • Making more time for those that need me just to talk.

By doing this, I feel so much better as I am able to be present for the people in my life, while also giving myself a break from work.

I started enjoying things on my own too. I realised that visiting the ocean helps calm me, so I now go there when I feel stressed. Looking at the waves encourages me to slow down and look at life as more than just a to-do list.

When I need some encouragement, I recite the ‘I am a champion’ speech by coach Johnathan Flowers. The speech makes me want to tackle any challenge. I also love to read fiction novels and listen to music and podcasts.

Living and working separately made me feel human again and not like a robot. I was laughing and I started to enjoy my job. I even started having ideas for improving my work culture so that we could have fun at work as well. I was able to accept challenges easier because I was living.


With all the little bits that I found enjoyable within my life, I started to release the stress of killing myself over work. I chose this career and I get to steer it further and also enjoy it.

There is no secret formula, you can have your own recipe to being a happy developer but I believe that in order to work towards that you need to:

  • Plan accordingly
  • Sharpen those communication skills
  • Keep yourself motivated
  • Celebrate all the wins big or small
  • Make an effort to maintain a work-life balance
  • Strive to do your best and don’t forget to take off that developer hat, so that you can be active in and enjoy your personal life.

If you do find things getting overwhelming with your personal/work life, reach out for help. There are resources out there for handling anxiety, feelings of depression, stress and well-being and happiness - websites like helpguide.org and many others.

We made this career choice, so let’s try not to worry too much and seek ways to find happiness - whether it’s through tough problem-solving, coding, or working with clients. We should also seek to find happiness in our own lives - even if it’s through house chores and loadshedding.

Life is tough but aim to find the fun and light as much as you can so that you can actually live yours!

Xoliswa Nongcebo Shandu is a front-end developer, mother of two beautiful girls and a proud Zulu woman who is passionate about the flow of life and keeping it sparkling. She committed to improving herself and those around her.

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