The 9th floor of The Standard located in Greenwich Village of New York City. Pre-pandemic. I wake up mid-day and a full-sized giraffe stands in the corner of my hotel room. The view of mid-day downtown Manhattan is obscured by a full-sized living breathing giraffe. This animal is staring at me.
This situation makes complete sense, but I have questions. How did the giraffe get in my room? It wasn’t here when my head hit the pillow for my mid-day nap. It kind’a make sense though, right? The Standard’s hip and quirky. I can see them delivering a mid-day giraffe, but I have continued concerns. Do I have to feed it? How long will it be here? Who cleans up after a hotel giraffe?
Ten minutes pass. A hotel giraffe stare down. More questions. Who is going to make the first move? Are giraffes dangerous? Herbivores, right? How is a threatened giraffe going to act? In a hotel room? I’m dreaming, right?
I try to wake up.
At my last gig during a particularly stressful time at work, I started asking folks four questions. On a scale of 1 to 10 (1 == low, 10 == high):
- How stressed are you right NOW?
- What is your IDEAL stress level? Ideal meaning the stress is useful and not debilitating.
- What is your MAX stress level?
- What behaviors do you see in yourself when you close or at MAX?
My answers at the time were:
- Now: 7
- Ideal: 4
- Max: 9
- (See below)
What I like about this set of questions is they frame a personal story about stress. Everyone knows what stress is, but we process and use it in different ways, we have different tolerances, and we have different coping mechanisms.
When someone answers these questions, I always have follow-ups because everyone’s stress assessment and coping strategy is intriguingly different. At the time I was asking folks, I was hanging at a seven and had been there for almost a month. With stated ideal of four, that seven was a growing concern because a seven means I start to exhibit the behaviors that show up when I’m close to MAX. These behaviors include:
Lossiness: I become unreliable. I miss on commitments and I’m not aware I’m doing so until reminded after the miss which leads to…
Irritability: Small annoyances have a disproportionate effect on my mood. I have strong negative reactions to small developments that I normally easily shrug off. Then I start to become…
Increasingly Pointlessly Tactical: Stuff is dropped, I’m grumpy, so I start to make lists. Lots of them. On these lists I draw boxes that I expect someone to cross off diligently. I become militant about the state of these lists and these boxes. This show of force gets everyone’s attention, but all the boxes in the world don’t answer the question Why are there checkable boxes in the first place? IT DOES NOT MATTER. THE BOXES. THEY MUST BE CHECKED. And when they aren’t there is…
Rage: The final straw. When we’re not all following my irrational unspoken script, I get rage because of my totally unrealistic expectation that everything must proceed exactly to plan. Problem is, after almost three decades of leadership experience, we’ve never followed the script. The script changes every day. This is how I know I’m close to peak stress. I’ve forgotten that a significant part of my job is competently and quickly acting when we go off script.
As leadership advice goes, I don’t recommend rage. It feels good for a half a second before you experience instant regret. Also, once you’ve raged, you’ve got two situations to resolve: the core issue and the damage you’ve just unnecessarily inflicted on your team.
The Stress Math
I wrote the first draft of this chapter late in 2019 intending it to land with the new book. I cut it during the final edit because the piece was half formed. Recent world events have the topic of stress on my mind even more and I realized that while my four questions are intriguing, they don’t paint a complete picture regarding stress.
The stress behaviors ring true for me, but in staring at the better part of a year of an increasingly terrifying and broken world, I’ve been thinking about the constituent parts of stress. To me, stress is an accumulation of:
- The thing that is stressing me out right now. It’s probably why I am thinking about stress. It’s obvious. It’s visible.
- All the non-front-of-mind stressors. If I stop and think about it for a moment, there are an obvious handful of other stress developments in my life. Large and small, but all contributing to my overall feeling of stress.
- Finally, there are the deeply buried things. I know these exist because even during normal stress-light times, I find myself dropping straight to rage on random unexpected situations. Why do I drop to rage? Well, my best not-a-psychologist answer is that situation nudged a deeply buried stressful topic for me. What topic? No clue. Is it contributing to my overall stress? You bet.
My forthcoming advice for both detecting and handling stress is unchanged given the wide variety of stress that exists, but an opening thought as you interact with your fellow humans: without reflection, you don’t know how stressed you are and neither do they.
Leading Stress Indicators
Rather than explain how to climb out of the rage pit, my advice is: Don’t drop into the rage pit in the first place. Seems like obvious advice, but we humans are stimulus-driven creatures. There are those of us who believe we are truly not alive until the risk of failure is an imminent dangerous threat… unless the consequences are significant. I am, unfortunately, often one of these short-sighted emotional humans.
When you combine this stress proclivity with the fact that in any moderately sized group of humans there will always been curveball off-script non-Pandemic situations with stress creating potential, you might resign yourself to believing that a high level of stress is unavoidable, but you’d only be partially correct. No amount of planning can prevent all of stressful situations from occurring, but we can make strategic investments to prevent our default reaction from being more stressful.
I do so by making four obvious and consistently daily investments in myself: exercise, sleep, food, and time. I exercise regularly, I get a consistent amount of sleep, I plan and eat healthily, and I carve off time to do the housekeeping of the intangible.
This is not an article that explains to exercise, sleep, eat, and find creative time. This article documents how I know when I am not making these investments. These leading indicators are my warning signs. You, sir, are not prepared for when it hits the fan and it always hits the fan.
I remember discovering coffee at my first software intern engineering job at Borland. College. It was likely a morning after a late night in the dorms. A late night. A late late night. As I blearily stared at my screen, I remembered my parent’s daily coffee habit. Coffee. Coffee can help, right? So I tried a cup.
Instant productivity. Where have you been my whole life? Fast forward to four months later and I was drinking coffee all day. Like any good drug, the more I took, the more I needed to achieve instant productivity. It was around this time that I discovered the jitters.
4pm. Sixth cup of coffee? Shaking. Little sweaty. Neither debilitating, but neither familiar. The moment is memorable because it was one of the first times I discovered the non-alcoholic health consequences of poor food and drink management.
The coffee jitters calibrated me to being aware of the consequence of what food and drink I was consuming. This is what too much caffeine feels like. Turns out coffee (especially decaffeinated coffee) is also an appetite suppressant which means I was also skipping meals. 3pm was regularly rolling around and I had a horrifically delicious Egg McMuffin six hours earlier, no lunch, and six cups of coffee. Why can’t I think? I’d dart to the car, head to Wendy’s (best fries), inhale a burger, and thirty minutes later, my head would clear.
An extreme example, for sure, but these extremes have a beginning, middle, and end, and once I knew how hungry began, I learned the importance of avoiding those beginnings. A breakfast before 9am, lunch – always – and at roughly the same time, same for dinner. No coffee after Noon.
What’s the consequence of missing a meal? It’s not a disaster, but it’s a very small early warning sign. Why am I unable to perform the simple act of feeding myself? More on this shortly.
The most important work I do is when I am not working. I’ve already written about this elsewhere calling this work Anti-flow. If Flow is productive focus, then Anti-flow is a productive lack of focus.
Biking continues to be my chosen exercise. I’m averaging 35 miles per week which regularly includes four to five thousand feet of climbing in my treasured Santa Cruz mountains. 35 miles of biking is somewhere around four hours on the bike. That’s four unscheduled hours which unless I’m riding with a friend, it’s me, myself, and I.
I call this my most important work because it is during this unstructured time that I find elegant next steps to my hardest problems. These aren’t solutions to the biggest challenges on my plate, but inspired next steps that I rarely find when everyone stares at me on the video conference expecting immediate inspired leadership. Even more addicting is the inspiration that comes during the ride that continues for hours after the ride completes. I am fired up to solve all the things after a ride. This is the end of millions of years of evolutionary biology loudly telling me, “When you take care of yourself, your body will reward you.”
In the prior section on eating, you will notice I didn’t mention an obvious important aspect: nutrition. Of course, if you are paying attention to when you eat, you should pay equal attention to what you eat. Similarly for exercise, I am not going to highlight the hopefully obvious fact that a consistent exercise regimen has a vast array of positive health benefits.
If I miss my goal for a week of exercise, the downside isn’t immediately noticeable. A bit disappointed in myself. As we’ll learn in a moment, I probably won’t sleep as well, I find that I won’t eat as healthily, and I’ll have a similar question as when I skip a meal, “What is preventing me from exercising?”
Unlike a skipped meal or a lack of sufficient exercise, a single night with insufficient sleep is a haze over my entire day. It’s obvious dullness of the mind that isn’t hard to miss. I tell myself that I’m functional, but my decisions are slower, complexity is daunting, and my default mindset is, “Just make through the next couple of hours.”
This is not the type of sleep situation that concerns me.
The more devious sleep situation is the one where I get slightly less sleep than I need for a couple of weeks. Good time to point out that I’m not a doctor, but I do know after stumbling around in this body for a great many years for me that around seven and half hours of sleep is ideal for me. Your needs are likely different.
Six hours. Seven hours. Six and a half hours. I don’t wake up in a haze. I wake up pretty easily and mostly refreshed. For the first day and maybe the second, but after a couple of weeks of slightly less sleep, I begin to feel quietly mentally thin. It’s all the same symptoms as one bad night of sleep except less so. Just a little hazy. Just a little mentally slower.
Why am I sleeping less? I’m either having difficult falling asleep, waking up in the middle of the night, or waking up early in the morning and then staying up. When one or more of these sleep patterns emerge over multiple nights, I start to ask the core question which will bring us back to our beginning: what’s keeping me up?
Deeply Buried Things
Remember the hotel giraffe? The question is: why am I so tired in the middle of the day that I’m dropping into REM (“dream”) sleep. Obvious answer: I have a bit of jet lag, right? Wrong. For me, jet lag sleep when traveling West to East means it’s easy to stay up late and hard to wake up early. Mid-day hotel giraffes? Something else is out of equilibrium. What is out of whack?
Well, I haven’t ridden my bike in two weeks? Why? Late night fire fighting. How have I been eating? Consistently. Lots of calories. Lots of salt. And usually walking hither and fro.
As I lay there in The Standard thinking, I realize what the hotel giraffe is telling me: Yes, you are tired from the flight, but you were tired before you even got on that plane. You normally sleep on planes, but you didn’t because your list of things to do is impossible. You will never get it done and you didn’t actually know that until a giraffe showed up in your mid-day hotel room.
So go fix that.