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IT professionals in poor working environments are prone to stress and burnout. Stress is bad for you. Stress kills. You need to reduce stress to survive.
Or do you?
About a year ago Pluralsight, an online training company, published a tweet about stress. They wrote:
Start stressing out more. It helps your memory. (Really).
Since then the tweet has accumulated some negative responses.
Before I go on I will disclose that I am a Pluralsight author. That means I am contracted on a course-by-course basis to create training courses for Pluralsight. I am compensated based on the popularity or viewership of my courses. I am also compensated for new Pluralsight subscribers who sign up using my referral links.
I'm not surprised Pluralsight's tweet triggered a negative reaction. Stress is a sensitive topic for IT professionals. In fact, it's a big topics for workers in many different professions, not just IT.
When you are feeling the negative consequences of stress, the last thing you want to hear is that stress is good for you.
But perhaps it is.
In the world of sports, stress is recognized as a performance enhancer. Consider someone who wants to get stronger, faster, or have more endurance. What do they do to achieve that? They put their body under stress by working at a level that exceeds their comfort zone.
In the book Peak Performance, the authors write:
The key to strengthening your biceps—and, as we’ll learn, any muscle, be it physical, cognitive, or emotional—is balancing the right amount of stress with the right amount of rest. Stress + rest = growth. This equation holds true regardless of what it is that you are trying to grow.
The same approach applies to your brain.
Just like the body, by stressing and allowing the mind to recover it also becomes stronger. Scientists have discovered that the more we resist temptation, think deeply, or focus intensely, the better we become at doing so.
Getting Enough of the Right Type of Stress
Ask a burned out IT pro and they'll tell you that they'd love a job where they can show up, cruise through the day, and go home again.
It turns out that most people who find themselves in a job like that get bored. Boredom leads to dissatisfaction, a lack of passion and drive, and creates burnout-like problems as well.
What we respond best to are challenges that are just outside our current level of skills and expertise.
The process of setting a goal on the outer boundaries of what we think is possible, and then systematically pursuing it, is one of the most fulfilling parts about being human.
If your job is not challenging you, then you will not grow as a professional.
Getting Enough of the Right Type of Rest
What many of us miss in the “Stress + Rest = Growth” formula is the rest and recovery phase. Which is the most important part.
One of the biggest complaints I hear about the IT industry is that it is overwhelming keeping up with all the changes in technology. To keep up we need to work longer and harder. The pressure to be constantly learning new things drives people to overtrain their minds.
In overtraining syndrome, the central nervous system is thrown out of whack, yielding a cascade of negative biological effects. Ultimately, overtraining syndrome results in deep fatigue, illness, injury, and performance decline. It’s the body’s way of saying “I’m done—absolutely no more.” A forced shutdown of sorts.
If that's how you feel right now, you're not alone.
One study found that more than half of white-collar workers believe they’ve reached a breaking point: They simply can’t handle any more information, and they report feeling demoralized as a result.
What we're seeing is too much stress, and not enough rest. Therefore, we don't experience growth. Adding more stress by spending longer at work, or trying to spend every spare moment reading and studying, is counter-productive.
Rest is the key.
Our most profound ideas often come from the small spaces in between otherwise deliberate thinking: when our brains are at rest. Science bears this out. Researchers have found that despite spending the vast majority of our waking hours in effortful thought, over 40 percent of our creative ideas manifest during breaks.
But not all rest is equal. Sitting on the couch flicking through Facebook or Reddit isn't as beneficial as doing some light exercise, or cooking a meal from scratch. Taking regular, short breaks, and using weekends for non-work activities, is more beneficial than taking a single, long vacation each year.
Sleep is also not automatically beneficial. Many of us simply do not get enough sleep.
Hours 7 to 9—the hours that the majority of us never get—are actually the most powerful.
And despite what many think, we can neither “bank” sleep in advance, nor can we “make up for” a lack of sleep in the past. That Saturday morning sleep in doesn't compensate for the week of overstressing your mind and body. You might feel better at the time, but it doesn't lead to growth.
Balancing Your Growth Formula of Stress + Rest
So what can you do if you're feeling overwhelmed? Here's where you should start.
- If you're working more than 40 hours per week, reduce your work hours. Read my post about IT heroes, and cut back to a sustainable level.
- Within those 40 work hours, remove as many distractions as possible to allow you to do 2-3 hours of deep work each day. Tame your email problem, and remove the dependency that others have on you for their own tasks.
- Outside of those work hours, optimize your time around your core competencies, your highest priorities, and exclude, outsource or reduce the impact of everything else. Most importantly, prioritize sleep.