Tactical Advice

M&M's, Stress and the Quest for a Sustainable Pace in the Tech Rat Race

Don't let work and technology overwhelm you. Find ways to cut stress and recharge your creative batteries.

Over the years I have developed a very simple, accurate measure for my stress level. It has nothing to do with billable hours to opportunity hours, number of clients, amount of multitasking, sales, the “pipeline” or even the pace of IT operations.

My stress barometer is the percentage of my laptop’s screen that is filled with temporary files and the portion of my actual desk filled with physical clutter.

The cluttered files appear on my screen because I am too stressed to figure out the right place to save them; I just save them to the desktop because I need the data in a file right now to go into Sharepoint, a wiki, an email, or some other system. Once the file is saved, I’m too busy to move it to the right place on my hard drive, and a few days later, I can’t remember what the file was for in the first place.

When I am stressed, I fail to delete the files after I save them. Two weeks later, I vaguely remember business_writing_id.pages but can’t decide if it is important. Besides, I’m too busy again to find out. (As I write this, I have a new file called matts_desktop.png on my desktop. I wonder how long that will stay there?)

My physical desktop is the same; it is filled with files I don’t put away or, more likely, decisions that are not immediate that I defer by dumping on the desk.

Every magazine, every potential project, everything that I leave on my desk is a deferred decision. Those decisions add up, especially when I am too busy to figure out what to do next. (Another sign of trouble: A large amount of to-reply-to emails in my inbox that are important but not urgent.)

Those things also indicate that I am too busy to think and that I’m doing the minimum possible to get the existing work done. The quality of my work suffers and I take short cuts. In programming, we are likely to call this technical debt. One colleague of mine calls it “borrowing trouble.”

Another friend of mine worked at a company where the leadership team provided M&M's to the entire technical staff, all the time. A rapid increase in the consumption of candy was likely correlated to an increase in stress, so he and his boss measured the number of bags they bought each week and tracked them on a spreadsheet.

It might not be M&M's or a cluttered desk, but I suspect if you think about it, you can come up with your own personal warning, your canary in the coalmine that tells you something is wrong.

A Word of Warning

A typical American response to these sorts of measures is to try to control them: to set a goal to have a clear desk, an empty inbox or less M&M's eaten per week. If I set the goal, I will likely meet it; my desk will be clear, but it is unlikely I will accomplish the real goal, which is less stress.

I suggest you find your own measure of stress. Once you have it, don’t look at it as a goal, but instead use it to learn about what is going on inside your heart. When you find you are approaching the stressed-out level, make a change. Stop taking on existing commitments, winnow down the inbox, take a break. Perhaps, just perhaps, buckle down to get the work knocked out ... but keep monitoring that desk.

If like me you aim to be in the technology race for a few decades to come, well, we’d better make sure our pace is sustainable. So find out what to measure, make a plan and take care of yourself. It is unlikely anyone will do it for you.

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About the Author

Matthew Heusser

Matthew Heusser is the managing consultant at Excelon Development. A member of the board of directors of the Association for Software Testing, he was the lead organizer of the Workshop on Technical Debt in 2008, Test Coach Camp in 2012, and Test Retreat in 2013. Follow him on twitter @mheusser and Google+.


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