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Stress - Part 1 - Realism

I recently had a longish discussion with a good friend about stress. She made the observation that some people she knows, including myself, never seem to be stressed out. She wanted to know our secret. So I thought I'd share a few things I think I know about stress.

I need to stress (heh) the fact that I'm not an expert in this field. I've read some psychology but I haven't made a serious study of it.

A little self-reflection tells me that my friend is mostly right about my not feeling a lot of stress. I tend to be a calm person, or if I'm excited it's good excitement. I don't experience much worry about day-to-day things, or my future. (In fact over the past few years I've been growing toward the opinion that I'm too content, because being content has made pursuing some goals seem less important and urgent than I'd like them to be.)

I believe one important facet of stress management is having realistic expectations. The previous week at work provides an excellent example. My group met for two days with a recently-created sister organization from a different site. The purpose of this face-to-face was to provide training for the new group, who will be responsible for providing debug tools on a microprocessor project. Their tools will be based fundamentally on our tools, hence we're the ones giving the training.

There was not much time available to create training material for this meeting. Realizing this, I knew we would have to provide training at a minimal cost to ourselves. I never felt stress to create a large amount of training material because I knew it wasn't possible to do so. There simply wasn't enough time, both because Thanksgiving meant many team members were on vacation, and also because we had a lot of other work to do and we didn't want to delay that work any more than necessary.

I rejected the impossible. What remained was the possible. We could provide "training on the cheap", consisting of demonstrations, already-existing presentations (not tailored for this group), and conversations to cover important principles, tips, and experiences. I personally spent only about five hours creating a demo and a set of notes. (The notes only ran to a page and a half of lists and broken sentences.) I did not create any document or presentation. Frankly, this was not a lot of work. Nothing to be stressed out about!

The training lasted for two extra-full (7am-6pm) days of solid meetings. My portion of the content wound up being about four hours, but we didn't have time to cover a significant amount of what I had prepared for. We could have filled three full days. The training exceeded everyone's expectations, including mine, and everyone went home happy. Could it have been better? Absolutely. But it would have taken much longer to prepare, and that's a cost we weren't willing to pay.

This was a very important two-day meeting, but an impartial observer may think that I treated it almost casually. And I agree, that would be justified. I knew it wouldn't be a big deal because I knew it couldn't be a big deal. Our own schedule would not permit it to have a large impact. Rather than fret over the impossible (the huge amount of work it would be to create a real developer's training session), I dismissed it and focused on what could be done.

When the goal is to provide "training on the cheap", the focus is on "what can we do?" instead of "there's too much to do!" The psychological principle here is that if you know your goal is impossible, but you pursue it anyway, your mind will rebel against it because you already know you're going to fail. It is essential to have realistic expectations — or stated more directly, realizable goals. When you know you can succeed, your mind is free to work on the issue instead of rebelling against it.

Next time, I'll write about stress related to uncertainty.

Tiny Island