How to Cope with Stress at Work and to keep the Passion
Everyone who worked in IT projects experiences stress. If the stress gets too strong, even most passionate people will start to suffer. A sketched a typical working day in an IT project in the picture below.
I believe this has to change. But what happens if it won’t change or changes too slowly? And even if it changes the next catastrophe will happen. So the question is: How can we deal with catastrophes? How can we keep our passion and love what we are doing? I don’t have general answers for all those questions. I share my experience how to deal with stress and to keep the joy and passion for what I am doing.
At first I would like to explain how I feel a situation of stress. At first I realize that are many tasks to be completed. I try to prioritize the tasks in my mind I come to the conclusion that most of the things are important. Most of them are so important that it is my task to complete it, others will necessarily fail doing it. Because of this many important tasks and so perhaps a project is in danger. My heart beats faster. My mind loses the focus and jumps from aspect to aspect. The negative feelings arise. Perhaps I realize that it is the guilt of someone and I’m getting angry. Then I am starting to think that this person does lousy work all the time. Then the next thought comes: What are the consequences if I can’t fulfill all those tasks.
It is interesting that I respond with a lot of thougts that have nothing to do with the solution of those problems. And I respond even with emotions that aren’t helpful, too. Maybe it was helpful in our evolutionary past when we realize that a calm and peaceful situation is over and the body prepares to flee or even for aggressive behavior like a fight.
All those negative emotions start with one crazy idea: “I must do all of this right now.” In the picture below emphasized certain words to show the different meanings that seems to mix up in my mind:
- I must do all of this I right now – there is no one else who can help me.
- I must do all of this I right now – I have to other choice.
- I must do all of this I right now – everything has to be done.
- I must do all of this I right now –I can’t step back from anything.
- I must do all of this I right now –this is too much.
- I must do all of this I right now –I am passionate and I always complete my tasks with excellent results.
- I must do all of this I right now –everything has to be completed within shortest time.
You can see that this is complete irrational. I believe that in most cases nearly every sentence is questionable. Moreover it is not helpful because it doesn’t help you to find a solution.
So for me the following is obvious: In some situations our mind doesn’t respond to stressful situations in a good way. Everyone knows this feeling, some people can deal with this, some have problems. In that case I see different strategies: some people give all passion. Often those people are doing a lousy job, they are losing the interest in their work and in good results and will do anything to avoid any effort at all. As a consequence, those people often don’t get any challenging projects and are stuck in their career. For me this is not acceptable I want keep my passion, I want to do things right and the work should be fun (not piece of work but as many as possible). So my work still should bring me joy but I don’t want to feel stress. This is the challenge.
In this blog post I want to share my strategy. I have to admit that this is only one cornerstone but an important one. Of course there are many things that are also necessary: there must be a proper workplace, it must be free from discrimination and mobbing, there must be a corporate culture including trust and honesty, it must appreciate effort and success but also tolerate failure unless people learn from it and so on.
It is ironic that even if those essential prerequisites are fulfilled, from time to time people like me start to suffer from stress. One important reason for this is that our mind and especially the mind of passionate people doesn’t respond to complex situations in an optimal way. I am afraid that this is rooted in our genes so there is no easy way out. And in fact my strategy is not an easy one since it requires that I constantly do a mental practice. The good news is that this practice is self-correcting so I am learning very quickly when I make “mistakes”. Another good reasons is, that it doesn’t cost that too much time and I can it also apply in my private live to avoid at least some conflicts.
Before I describe it in detail I would like to describe the most important principles:
- Learn about yourself. What are the stressors? How do you respond to them?
- When you respond to those stressor in a bad way, then you must recognize those feelings in an early stage. Otherwise feelings will become so strong that it will be hard for you to calm your mind.
- And if your emotional response to stress is bad you must have a strategy to stop it within short time.
The first question is what are typical stressors at work.
Two Studies about Emotional Costs of Distraction and Interruption
In 2010 Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert published a study in Science magazine with the title “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind”. I would like to cite the beginning of the paper:
Unlike other animals, human beings spend a lot of time thinking about what is not going on around them, contemplating events that happened in the past, might happen in the future, or will never happen at all. Indeed, “stimulus-independent thought” or “mind wandering” appears to be the brain’s default mode of operation. Although this ability is a remarkable evolutionary achievement that allows people to learn, reason, and plan, it may have an emotional cost. Many philosophical and religious traditions teach that happiness is to be found by living in the moment, and practitioners are trained to resist mind wandering and “to be here now.” These traditions suggest that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Are they right?
The approach of the study is very interesting. Partipiciants used an app which asked questions and tracked their thoughts, feelings and actions during the day in real-time. The conclusion is: “a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”
This result is remarkable since distraction is everywhere in times of real-time communication, WhatsApp and other apps.
Another interesting study discusses “The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress” (Gloria Mark, Daniela Gudith and Ulrich Klocke ( https://www.ics.uci.edu/~gmark/chi08-mark.pdf ). The result is: we can‘t complete more than 50% of all our working tasks due to interruption. We can deal with this but it has its price: stress, frustration, time pressure and more effort.
Keep the Focus and learn about yourself
The studies mentioned in the last section suggests that the ability of keeping the mind focused, can have benefits. One important part I am practicing every day is contemplation, especially mindfulness meditation. When I first heard about mindfulness was skeptical. I thought of it as the latest snake oil that is sold by business coaches. In times of booming economy self-improvement gurus make their clients neurotic by boosting their ego – and in times of financial crisis they teach contemplation. I still believe that it is one part of the truth but only one part. Today I am practicing mindfulness nearly every day and I consider it as very helpful – even in business. Before I go into detail I have to explain what mindfulness is.
Mindfulness is a contemplation practice with Buddhist origin. In Buddhism it is a cornerstone of an introspective practice that helps to reflect ones thoughts, actions and intentions with respect to an ethical framework with qualities like compassion, loving-kindness, patience and so on. John Cabat Zinn used the techniques for a different purpose and developed a program called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (in short MBSR). It has been successfully applied in cases of depression and chronical pain. There are many studies that prove the effectiveness of Mindfulness-based therapy and I recommend the following for further research: “A comprehensive meta-analysis”, Clinical Psychology Review 33 (2013) 763–771 and “Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits – A meta-analysis”, Journal of Psychosomatic Research 57 (2004) 35–43. Both are available as PDF in the web.
How does mindfulness work? It starts with calming the mind. This technique alone can be very useful especially if you experience stress. Do you know a situation sketched in the picture below? Do you know that feeling that you lost for focus and a lack of clarity? If you are aware of it, the mindfulness already started. Now act and apply the STOP principle:
- Stop what you are doing for a short time, say a minute.
- Take a deep breath. Repeat it some times.
- Observe your mind: what are your emotions? What is the attitude when you are working? What are you feeling? Don’t analyze anything, don’t think about it, just observe
- Proceed. Just reflect what you observed and continue what you are doing, perhaps with a smile.
This short exercise just showed the basic principles of mindfulness. It starts with focusing the mind on something different which is always there: the breath. Calming the mind which is very useful on its own. But in this practice we go one step further and start to observe our state of mind. Please remark that mindfulness is not about thinking or analyzing rationally. It is only about clarity of your mind, thought and emotions. We do not judge – we just observe. If you do this again and again, then in difficult situations you will learn much about your reactions. It is very likely that you will even detect some patterns in your behavior – but please don’t start to analyze it. Mindfulness is about learning something that is obvious unless you are trapped in it.
Meditation as “Bootcamp” for Work & Life
After the basic principles of mindfulness have been explained, I can start to explain the meditation practice. We always start to calm the mind by applying different techniques. If we concentrate on the mind we can feel the breath at our nose or observe it in the middle of our body. We can also start with simple body scanning technique and observe the different parts from in our body. You can learn it from books or with a trainer.
The next step is that we focus our attention on something. Mindfulness works with everything we can perceive: the mind in general, different emotions, thoughts but also the body. I will explain you the latter since it shows the principle how to deal with chronical pain. Usually we try to avoid pain, when we feel it. Here we try a different approach and focus our attention on the pain, observe it detail but also how we react to it. Then we will recognize how our brain works: at first we feel something and start suffering. Then our mind recognizes that we are suffering and suffers because of the suffering. Maybe we are trapped in that feeling, get into a bad mood or even depressive thoughts. And here mindfulness works: of course mindfulness can’t stop the pain but we learn to distinguish between suffering from the pain and suffering from the suffering. One we see the difference we can apply techniques like the STOP principle and learn to let go of bad feelings. And this is how mindfulness makes living with problems like pain easier.
But we can also use the same techniques and learn to observe not only a phenomenon in the body but also our feelings and thoughts. This is very interesting since we can use it to learn about oneself. We observe when we get lucky, when we are angry, what makes us happy or angry. With this training we learn to recognize feelings when they are just arising and makes us easier to deal with with them.
The conclusion is that Mindfulness practice can help us in different ways:
- we learn to calm the mind and to find a focus, which is helpful when we experience stress
- we learn to recognize bad emotions like anger in an early stage and can try to calm our mind
- we are learning to understand how emotions arise and cease
Observe, Act and Keep the Passion
Calming the mind is useful to see things from a different perspective – but it is only the first step. Mindfulness can help to better understand feelings which makes it possible to develop strategies against them. Let me give an example: a typical problems of people with huge work load is that they are poor at delegating work. The mind always finds reasons no to do this: One overestimates the own abilities and underestimates to the one of the colleagues. Another reason is that one considers a problem always too complex. Both may be true in some cases but in others not. Mindfulness is helpful to get more insight especially if one of trapped in habits. It helps to identify stressors, show how they work and may be a help to develop healthy responses.
I am practicing stress management to keep the passion for what I am doing. If you want to answer this question four you the first step is to find out what “passion” means for oneself. For me it is:
- I experience a task as a challenge and want to find a solution other people will love.
- I try to keep my mind open to find good solutions f.e. by finding the best practices or invention of something new if necessary.
- I see it as a chance to learn something new.
So keeping the passion means to me to find out what produces negative emotions, what limits my mental horizon or hinders me focusing on a certain problem. Asking those questions constantly is most important. Usually people working in IT are very skilled in analytical thoughts, which sometimes fails if one is trapped in different in habits. I don’t consider mindfullness as magic potion or silver bullet, but I will help to see things from a different angle.
If you want to start it I recommend to have a short training, perhaps 4 evenings. Then buy a book and establish daily practice – 10 minutes a day should be enough. The goal of the training to experience how the mind work. For many people it is shocking to realize that it is constantly wandering and changing. If someone tells you to concentrate on the breath for 30 minutes you will have difficulties since many thoughts come and go: “I have to do the washing, there is an interesting solution to a problem at work, I have to do the tax, there is a noise in the room, there is something is itching”… But realizing this is the first step of mindfulness training. It is not about calming your mind completely which is possibly but a much more advanced meditation practice. Mindfulness is about learning how your mind works by simply observing. It is a training that helps you to make this kind of observation a common practice that you can apply outside meditation. And the goal is simple: you should learn to recognize negative emotional responses of stress in an early stage. Think of it as fire that can be controlled if it is small. A way to control this emotional fire is above mentioned STOP principle that can help you calming the mind. Please don’t expect that mindfulness is a kind of magic potion that will help you to overcome negative responses to stress in short time. You will fail again and again but this is part of the mindfulness training. When you fail ask you why. Here “Why” doesn’t mean the rational reason f.e. “the development system was down, again”. Mindfulness is about to learn about yourself: What was the feeling when you heard about this. What happened then? At which moment you lost your patience? What was the feeling then… By asking this question you will constantly understand how negative emotions arise and cease and it will become easier so avoid them, even if you are passionate about what you are doing. It is also a training for keeping the metal focus and calming the mind in stressful situations. I don’t know if this is helpful for everybody but I find it useful and recommend to give it try.