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Constant State of Alert

Published 10/5/2015

Today we talk about avoiding a state of constant yellow alert.

Signs you may be in a constant state of alert:

  1. Audit your texts, emails, etc for constant "urgent" language. How often are you on alert?
  2. Check your diet, relationships, etc - is your work putting these things in a stressed state?
  3. If you feel like you must always be connected to some kind of messaging system (email, Slack, texts, etc), this may point to a problem

Mentioned on the show:

Today's episode is sponsored by Digital Ocean! Go to https://digitalocean.com to get started on cloud hosting.

  • Use the promo code "DEVELOPER TEA" at the checkout after you create your account to get a $10 credit!

  • Also, check out this article on Digital Ocean about using Docker with their platform: Using Docker with Digital Ocean

Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
Hey everyone and welcome to Developer Tea. My name is Jonathan Cutrell and today I'm going to be talking to you about avoiding a state of constant yellow alert. Martin Fowler recently tweeted this out and it's actually an article by Bruce Schneier and Fowler's tweet basically takes a bit of that article and says, living in a constant state of yellow alert takes a psychological toll, increasing anxiety and impairing judgment. Now the article is mostly talking about living in a state of paranoia because of some political environment that you are in or perhaps because of the culture around you, propagating a culture of fear. But I want to take this discussion and talk a little bit more about the way that we approach our professional world. That is, we often tend to have the same concept of living in the yellow world and this occurs when we are in some sort of constant state of caution or heightened alert. And a lot of the time for developers, it's a state of constant pressure or a state of constant feeling behind. So today whether you are a junior developer or you are managing a team of developers, I want to give you some tools to identify if you are in this particular state of constant urgency or constant alert. And then I'm going to start a discussion about ways of fixing that, ways of avoiding that constant state of alert. But as the old saying goes, to be able to fix a problem, you have to know that it exists. So I want to talk to you first about how to identify your constant state of alert. So the very first step that you need to do is audit your emails, audit your text messages, take a look at your chat messages, look back and determine how you are talking about your work. If you see a pattern of language between you and coworkers or perhaps a pattern of language between you and even your friends and family that suggests that everything is constantly urgent or that you're too busy all the time or that every week ends with you feeling behind. That's a first sign that you may be in a state of constant alert. If you are constantly feeling like you are behind or if you are constantly feeling like you haven't done enough today or if you constantly feel like you are too busy to be able to spend time outside of work on anything other than work, then you are possibly in a constant state of alert. Number two, if you're diet or you're exercise or your personal relationships are being compromised in some way because you feel the need to work extra hours to catch up, that's another sign that you may be in a state of constant alert or you may be in a state of constantly catching up. Now, I want to clarify there, you don't have to feel like you are in a state of alert to experience the problems that go along with that state of alert. You may not even be aware that you are constantly in a catch up state until you audit these things until you start looking at and retrospecting on the way that you are behaving on a day-to-day, week-to-week and month-to-month basis. Number three, if you feel like you must always be connected to your email, text messages, or other means of communication, if you feel like you can't turn that stuff off and move into maybe a silent period or an anti-digital period if you want to call it that, some people call it a digital Sabbath on the ends of the weekends. If you feel like you can't do that, then it's very possible that you are in a constant state of alert. You're always on watch, you're always waiting for something from work to interrupt your non-work life. So if any of this describes you, then it's possible that you're in a constant state of alert. You may not necessarily be, though. So this is not like an absolute rubric, but these are signs to watch out for. Obviously, if you are allowing your brain to always be connected to work and if your relationships are failing and if you are constantly texting people saying how busy you are, then it's possible. I would say even likely that there is a problem that you are probably in a constant state of alert. So how would you go about fixing a problem like this? That's what we're going to talk about. But first, I want to take a quick sponsor break. This episode is sponsored by DigitalOcean.com of all of the things that could cause you stress. Digital Ocean is probably at the end of that list or not even on that list at all. On Digital Ocean, you can spin up an SSD cloud server in less than 55 seconds and it will only cost you $5 a month on their bottom and tier. Now the incredible thing about Digital Ocean is that they actually allow you to spin these things up with a bunch of stuff already installed on them. They have one click applications. For example, I'm going to include a link in the show notes. It's an article that they wrote back in 2013. It's called How to Use the Digital Ocean Docker Application. You can deploy Docker directly on Digital Ocean with just a few clicks. There's a ton of other really awesome software that they already have available for you to deploy in one click. If you wanted it super affordable, if you use the code Developer Teaafter you create your account, then you actually get $10 of credit. Now, if you do the $5 tier, which has 512 megabytes of RAM on a single CPU, 20 gigabytes of SSD disk space and a full terabyte of transfer, you get two months of that for free effectively with the code Developer Tea. So go and check it out, digitalocean.com. Thank you so much for sponsoring the show Digital Ocean. And thank you for making Developer Tealisteners lives just a little bit less hectic. Because like we're talking about on this episode, being in a constant state of alert is not healthy for you. We weren't designed to be in a constant state of alert or constantly stressed out. We should have many periods of rest and we should have many periods of being simply okay of actually going to work, feeling like we've gotten enough done that day to go home and not have anxiety over what's coming tomorrow. So we've already talked about ways of identifying if maybe you are in that state because it can be hard to identify unless you actually take a few minutes and audit your own life, audit your own state of mind, audit the things that you've been saying to other people, take a few minutes to determine whether maybe you could be in a constant state of alert or if you are constantly being stressed out. Now I want to talk about how we go about fixing this issue and the truth is there's not a silver bullet, there's not an easy fix to this problem because it is like most problems, a systemic issue that you have to get to the root of to fix it. So first we're going to, and this is the first step in fixing this issue, identify the patterns that are resulting in the constant state of alert. If you're a manager you need to determine what is going wrong at the systematic level to cause the issues and if you are not a manager you need to determine if the issues are a result of your own personal decisions or your own personal mindset. So there's a ton of possible causes for the problem and I don't have time to go into specific detail about each of these but I want to list a few of the potential causes for these problems. Most companies and most individuals you actually experience more than one of these problems if you experience any of them. But so let's just go through this list. Number one, developers may not have the necessary knowledge or the necessary skill to accomplish something at the expected rate of accomplishment. In other words, you may simply not have the training or you may not have the expertise to be able to do something as fast or as efficiently as another person would and that is a totally okay problem. There's nobody that should be blamed for this. The reality is we very often take on things that we don't have the skill to actually accomplish as fast as we think we can. We're overconfident in our reality and that's that's number two. Being overconfident in our scheduling and forecasting, even if we are competent enough, even if we are skilled or we have enough of the experience necessary to do something, we may overconfidently schedule ourselves. There is a limit to how fast we can do these things. I did an episode about sandwiches. I'm not going to ruin the punchline for you, but I want you to go and listen to it if you haven't listened to it yet. It's about estimating and it talks about sandwiches. I'll let you go listen to it, but we have this problem of being overconfident and over scheduling ourselves in the workplace. Number three, distraction or inefficiency in the workplace. Now even if you are at home, if you're working from home, it is very possible that you aren't getting as much out of your day if you haven't created some sort of maintainable system to actually get as much done in a given hour as possible. That is not always the only goal in life in getting as much done as possible, but certainly if you want to get more done and you can't because your systems are inefficient, maybe you are accidentally interrupting yourself, you haven't found a way of focusing properly. Well, those things are fundamentally important and you have to set yourself up for success by understanding how to create a environment where you can focus and where you can actually get things done predictably and consistently. The final reason that we can find ourselves in the state of alert is that we have a chronic issue with inaccurately scoping or estimating what it will take to build a particular feature or set of features. Now this is slightly different from being overconfident because the problem here isn't that we think we can do more than we can do, it's that we think that it will take less to do something than it will actually take. Perhaps our estimates haven't accurately reflected the amount of time that it will take to write tests for the given application. Maybe they haven't accounted for the administrative time or the planning time. There are a ton of things that take more energy than we expect them to and we end up finding ourselves in a bind when we've estimated up front incorrectly how much energy it will take or how large that particular feature set is in reality. So we may be estimating our own abilities properly, but if we don't estimate the actual thing to be built properly, then we can basically run into the same issue. So you need to identify these patterns in your own work, you need to identify them in the work of the people that you manage and be aware that these are the problems that could cause you to be in a state of constant alert feeling you are chronically behind. The second thing is to identify what normal is supposed to look like, it's possible that you are working with people who believe in a different set of standards for normal than you do. In other words, some people believe that it's okay to constantly feel slightly behind. Perhaps it is the way that they propel themselves forward or they stay interested in their work. And so you have to determine at some objective level what factors actually signal that constant alert state, what types of things do you want to avoid, what kind of situations do you want to be in versus what kind of situations do you want to avoid. Some people like I said are totally okay with working 80 hours every week and always feeling like they are slightly behind so that they have something to drive them forward. I personally I have some objective markers that I set for myself. If I go more than a week or so without doing some kind of physical exercise, then I know that I need to scale back or look at the reasons that I am in that situation and determine do I see a very clear way out of this constant alert state. Now I also personally think that we have to come to reality sometimes with our jobs and know that there will be some late nights. There will be sometimes where we feel behind, but that shouldn't be the rule that should be the exception and we should be able to take a step back and look at the patterns, look at the constant state that we are in. So we need to identify what normal is supposed to look like, at least from some objective level for our own lives and it should be something that we share with the people that we work with, especially if you are a junior developer. You definitely want to talk to whoever is managing you, whoever your manager is, whoever is in direct superiority to you at work. Talk to them about their expectations of your time and their expectations when something occurs, like for example, a late night needs to be pulled in order to meet a deadline. You need to talk to them about those situations so that you have a way of making decisions of what to do when it comes to working late or working unexpectedly long hours. Should you work those hours or should you allow the project to go late and that's going to be something that you have to work out with your employer. There need to be clear expectations, especially from managing Developer To the junior developers on how to deal with those situations. So identify what that normal state is and finally recognize that change doesn't occur on its own. In other words, catching up is not the fix for chronic over scheduling or your lack of resources. The only way to fix the problem long term is to fix the underlying issues. There are a ton of possible causes for the problem we've already listed them, but ultimately fixing the problems won't come as a result of overworking until you catch up. They need to be fixed at the root of the problem, or else the problem will continue to bruise more and more of the same situation and overworking will become the norm. You're basically treating the symptom, not the cause, and you'll find yourself in a constant state of alert, which is exactly what we're talking about on this episode. To avoid that constant state of alert, you have to get to the root of the problem that is causing you to be in the constant state of alert and fix that. Remember that good health requires good rest. Good health requires that you live in a state of security and you live in a relatively predictable state where you know what's going to happen and you can prepare for it. And when those situations occur that require you to be on high alert, you will be much more ready to deal with them if you are on relatively low alert on a normal basis. I realize that this may not be a very popular message, especially amongst kind of startup crowds who are constantly using hustle as a excuse for overworking, but the reality is that if you want a long-term career success, then you need to be able to pace yourself. You can't go in and constantly be sprinting and expect to sustain because if you are doing that, then you're physically going to break down and your mind will break down from the stress that you're putting on it. Unless you have an abnormal superhuman ability to deal with this stress, then you have to pace yourself. You have to learn how to rest. You have to be able to identify the things that are causing you to be in a constant state of alert and figure out how to fix the root of the problem. Thank you so much for listening to Developer Tea. I hope you shared this concept with your friends, with your co-workers, with your family. I hope it helps you determine a better way forward for more sustainable work situations, whether you're a manager or a junior developer. And I hope you've enjoyed this episode. Thank you so much to today's sponsor, Digital Ocean. If you need a cloud server, a very fast cloud server at that, check out DigitalOcean.com. Use the code Developer Teato get $10 off after you create your account. You can get $10 off. That's two months worth of their lowest tier, the $5 a month tier. Thank you so much for listening to today's episode. Make sure you subscribe. And I would love it if you would give me an iTunes rating and review. Makes a huge difference for the show. Thank you so much for listening. And until next time, enjoy your tea.