Many developers suffer from Imposter Syndrome. I wrote an article about it. In fact, writing about Imposter Syndrome is, like, really trendy right now.

One of the common outcomes of Imposter Syndrome, however, which often goes undocumented, is the concept of “Superhero Mode.” This is a blanket term that I just made up to describe when a developer, often afflicted by Imposter Syndrome, over-exerts his or herself as a way of proving self-worth to others. Superhero Mode is kind of a misnomer because it implies arrogance, but the people suffering from it are often anything but arrogant–they’re often very humble, quiet, and soft-spoken.

And it’s not completely confined to people who suffer from IS, but the two often go hand in hand. A developer feels that if they work extra hard, harder than they’re used to, they will stand out and not be seen as a novice to a system that they are maybe fairly new to. It is sacrificing energy from one area of your life to create a gigantic pool of stamina to burn through on work-related tasks. This behavior starts early and becomes habit-forming, meaning that as you make adjustments in your career, you’ll continue down this road until you painfully burn out.

Unfortunately, the older that you get and the more responsibility you take on (both professional and personal), the sooner you will realize that Superhero Mode is not a scalable solution to professional credibility. First of all, you will become tired by it. Secondly, it will become part of your identity and an expectation others have of you, rather than a pleasant surprise when you exceed normal expectations. This isn’t anyone else’s fault. It is the most important thing you do for yourself: setting a standard of what you’re capable of doing and standing behind it. Maybe this will change as you grow wiser and more experienced, but whatever the case, it is something you have to create an answer for.

That said, if all employees are an instance of the Employee class, then Superhero Mode must be a privately scoped method on that class, never publicly accessible. And by that, I mean it has to be something you turn on yourself, not something others should be allowed to enable on you.

When Superhero Mode Beats The Crap Out of You

I recently spread myself too thin. I was getting angry a lot, but I didn’t really have anyone in particular to blame for it. I was getting migraines and my shoulders were thickly knotted all the time. I never felt relaxed. And I noticed I wasn’t getting enough exercise. And then I realized that it was because I never fully ended my work day. And it wasn’t helping me perform any better. In fact, I think it was making me more scatter-brained than ever.

I work remotely for Treehouse. We use HipChat to communicate. I start my work day sometime between 8 and 9 in the morning EST. And I end my work day between 5 and 6 in the evening EST. It started subtly. I was working through lunch. Then I wouldn’t close HipChat in the evening. I would leave it open. As long as I stayed on the computer, which I often use for personal reasons in the evening, I’d continue to get notifications any time someone messaged me or mentioned my name. Even if it was 10PM my time. I’d get sucked in and involved in whatever was going on and find myself working weird hours in addition to working a full day already.

I also would continue to get Github e-mail notifications in the evening or during my lunch. While walking to dinner with my boyfriend at 7PM one night, I felt my phone buzz and saw I had an e-mail related to a Github PR. I excused myself and then looked at it. Which is kind of rude. And I then got really annoyed. Of course, it could wait until the next morning, but when it’s thrusted at you, it’s really hard to ignore it. And because of that, the PR was in the back of my mind all evening and I couldn’t give my full attention to anything else.

I was so stressed out that I went to my manager about it. “I’m having a hard time. I want to be helpful and go above and beyond but I’m having a really hard time when it feels like I’m constantly reacting to everything” And his first response was, “You need to close HipChat at night.”

Being a Superhero By Destroying the Superhero

I took a series of directional changes in my day-to-day schedule and am happy to say that, so far, it works. To speak like an annoying meme, you have to give yourself time every day to “do you.” You will–eventually–have a nervous breakdown if you don’t. I’m fortunate that I recognized these issues before I got destroyed by them.

The biggest of these changes took some customization. I couldn’t figure out a way to turn off Github notifications that wasn’t an outright inconvenience. Turning on “Do Not Disturb” mode (or as I call it: “Crescent Moon Mode”) in iPhone was annoying because I wanted to get notifications for personal e-mail, text messages, incoming phone calls, social media, and other things. And my Github account linked to Treehouse is also my personal Github account, so all e-mails sent to it were going to my personal g-mail account, also very annoying.

Here is what I ultimately ended up doing. Which I don’t think is completely obvious:

  1. Github allows you to set up custom routing for e-mail notifications (link requires you to be logged in to Github)

Screen Shot 2015-09-21 at 2.22.26 PM

With this, I still get e-mail notifications for personal Github projects to my personal gmail account. But any activity that takes place in a repository owned by Treehouse now gets sent to my Treehouse e-mail account instead. This is a feature that I was not aware of until a few days ago and I wouldn’t be surprised if others were not aware of it either. Basecamp recently offered a way to automatically disable notifications between certain hours and I long for that same behavior in Github but until it exists, this works fine.

2. IMG_8842

I use the official Google Mail app. In the settings for secondary e-mail accounts, you can disable push notifications for anything except for e-mails flagged as “important.” I then set up a filter in my e-mail to ensure that arbitrary Github notifications never fall into this category. I continue to have my e-mail open on my computer (except after hours) so that these rules don’t affect that, but when I am out on the go, I no longer get random buzz-assaulted by a slew of comments on a PR.

3.  I close HipChat/online work chat. I was skeptical about this. Surely, there’s no difference between being flagged as “Do Not Disturb” and being offline, right? There is though. I find that people treat “Do Not Disturb” as a way to facilitate asynchronous communication (“Message me when you’re not busy and we can talk about this…”) whereas people generally do not message you at all (unless it’s an absolute emergency) when you are offline. Obviously, culture varies from company to company, but this is my own observation.  I think this is because “Do Not Disturb” communicates “I am here and will eventually be free sometime soon” and being offline sends the message that there is a really strong chance you are nowhere near a computer and are unable to talk–which is an absolutely okay place to be at 8PM on a Friday night.

4. I end my day by thinking of the next day. What things will I do tomorrow (or Monday)? If something less than ideal happens, what can I do to make sure it goes more smoothly if it happens again? This one is a bit new to me. It sounds like new-age meditative type nonsense, but spending just 10 minutes mentally wrapping up my day (and writing it down) seems to make it a lot easier to walk into the next day than spend the same amount of time reactively trying to remember all the loose threads of the day before.

5. I close out all the various work-related applications I use. This includes any terminal windows, editors, any browser tabs pointing at my local dev environment or Github. It all goes and my laptop returns to its ordinary non-work mode in which I chat with friends, play games, write things, and browse non-work websites.


I saw a few different conversations emerge from this article that brought up interesting other related things. One is the idea of not using the same device for work as you do personal things.  I think this is increasingly less common though with remote work. I don’t have an office I go to every day where I keep my “work” computer. My office is just as much my couch as it is some coffee shop in Reykjavik, Iceland.

In my previous job, I had a company-issued laptop and a personal laptop. And I traveled a lot all over the world. And it was very frustrating carrying two laptops because I’m a pretty small lady!  First world problems? Yes. But I’d rather squabble over the mixing and mingling of business-related applications and personal things than suffer sore shoulders all the time.

The second thing that kept coming up was the idea of working during your personal time off. I don’t think I have ever officially Worked™ while taking time off work, but I’m guilty of checking e-mail and getting all strung out over “oh my god someone is touching my PR–why? what? what are they doing? why is this happening?” or “What happened during this meeting that I missed? Were important decisions made without me?” I don’t really think this behavior is in alignment with “Superhero Mode”. It’s more the result of a person having control issues (note I didn’t say developer, because it’s not strictly a developer problem). I think allowing yourself to stop being a helicopter mom to your own job gives you a sense of trust that you can walk away for a moment.

What things do you do to disconnect at the end of your day? What things do you do to help you reconnect the next day? Have you experienced Superhero Mode before and if so, were you also a victim of Imposter Syndrome? Comment below.