Life lesson from systems theory: stress and trade-off curves

Newspapers, magazines, and blogs these days are filled with articles about the staggering amount of stress we have introduced into our lives.  It’s everywhere.  In fact, people have been concerned about how to manage stress in their lives for the past several decades, maybe forever.  However, it does seems to have escalated (OK, not so much when you retire).  Recently, an interesting blog called “I also live on a farm” featured a post called Adrenal Exhaustion and Stress, in which the blogger, DM, recalls the point at which he hit the wall back in 1987 (see, stress is not new); in his case he made some significant changes in his life.  His post contains some important indicators of when stress levels have crossed the line and some powerful advice for readers who feel they are losing the battle.  If you have some concerns of your own, I encourage you to drop by DM’s blog and take a look at what he has to say.

His post reminded me of one of several key lessons from systems theory that I used to share with my students in systems analysis and design classes. Many lessons that are valuable for designing and implementing information systems have application in life.  This particular lesson falls in this category; it’s about trade-off curves.  We’ve all heard the expression “trade-off”.  It means that there is a price to pay for everything; when you make a decision to take one path, you are gaining something at the expense of something else on another path.  In systems theory parlance one says, “Moving in one direction incurs a cost in the other.”  The fact is, there is always a trade-off.

So how does this relate to life and stress? Some thirty years ago, a great systems guy and author, Gerald Weinberg, noticed that programmers were burning out from stress.  Why?  Because they were trying to do too much.  Sound familiar?  He described a new disease, which he called optimitis, or the inflammation of the optimism nerve (I know there’s no such thing; that’s Weinberg’s sense of humour).  This disease manifested itself by programmers saying, “Yes. Sure I can do that,”  and then working 80-hour weeks to try to prove they could, when there was no way that a request for new changes or new features could be fulfilled.  Or at least not fulfilled without more time, more money, faster technology, or more programmers.  Take your pick.  In other words, there are trade-offs.  Weinberg was teaching programmers, analysts, and program managers that everything cannot be done, especially without a discussion with management on what is not going to be done or what is going to be done differently.

Trade-off curves are graphs of trade-off elements showing the relationship between them.  For example, in developing computer systems, elements that may have to be weighed against each other include: development cost, development time, maintenance costs, response time, user friendliness (vs training time), etc.  We can make such lists for pretty well any work situation.  Think about trade-offs that might occur regularly in the newspaper business, the airline industry, hotels, restaurants, you name it.  You have to make choices.

Similarly, you can think about competing elements of different non-work areas of your life.  Using running as an example, you can choose to specialize in sprints, in 10Ks, or in marathons, but you wouldn’t be able to excel in all of them; there are trade-offs between speed and distance.  You can go short and fast or long and not nearly as fast.  The trade-off curve below shows the outside limit of what humans have shown is possible at increasing distances on the horizontal axis, starting with the 100 m dash and going up to a 42.2 km marathon, with increasing speeds on the vertical axis.  The line (curve) labelled World’s Record indicates the fastest speed to date at any given distance.  Runner X shows what a fairly good non-elite long distance runner might hope for, while Runner Y shows what a so-so runner who isn’t too good at short distances or long distances might look like.  (If you aren’t a graph person, don’t worry about it.)  The point is that you have to make a choice between the two competing qualities if you want to excel, and even if you want to excel, you can’t expect to end up on the other side of the World’s Record (the trade-off curve).  You can push in one direction or push in the other, but not both.  Not successfully.

Adapted from Gerald Weinberg

Adapted from Gerald Weinberg

Weinberg tried to imbue in young (and not so young) systems professionals the practice of asking themselves, when at a decision point in a project, “What does the trade-off curve look like.”  And following on that, “what will we not do?” or “what direction will we go in?”  The same approach can be used effectively in making stress-reducing decisions in life.  It might be a big decision, like what university your child should attend or whether you should change jobs.  Things like cost, location, opportunity, and level of stress likely to occur from each possibility are trade-off elements for both those decisions.  “Smaller” decisions that are causing stress in your life might benefit even more from this kind of thinking, such as: whose family will we spend Christmas with this year; should little Johnny play soccer, T-ball, gymnastics, and basketball this summer; or is buying a new flat screen TV worth me continuing to work overtime.  What are the trade-offs in each case?  What “cost” is incurred in choosing one path?  What “cost” is incurred in moving in the other?

An additional trade-off curve featured in Weinberg’s book from thirty years ago is one that plots pressure (stress) against performance. Let’s call it the Stress Trade-off Curve.   This was a concern of note then, and it is even more relevant now.  The graph, shown below, is showing that most of us need a certain amount of stress (our adrenalin is flowing, we are engaged) to be effective.  Too little and we don’t perform well.  But, once we get past that healthy amount of stress – the amount our body and mind can handle, called the Region of Optimum Performance on the graph – our performance starts to plummet.  This is a trade-off curve everyone should pay attention to.  When you find yourself drifting – or rushing – over to the right-hand side of the graph, it’s time to re-evaluate what you’re doing and what can be changed.  It’s OK to be over the edge for short periods from time to time, but not continually.  The curve is telling you that increasing the pressure on yourself is no longer constructive.  You’ve found yourself in a lose-lose situation; you’re going to be unhealthy and you aren’t going to be performing well.  Remember this curve and stay healthy!

From Weinberg, Rethinking Systems Analysis and Design

From Weinberg, Rethinking Systems Analysis and Design

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15 Responses to Life lesson from systems theory: stress and trade-off curves

  1. jane tims says:

    Hi Jane. I find it very hard to ‘stop’. Once I get started at a project, I have this notion that if I just do this, I’ll be that much closer to getting it all done. Of course, there is always something left to do and just not enough minutes in a day. I like the idea of keeping the ‘trade-off curve’ in my mind. It would help me to realise that more time is not necessarily optimal time. Thanks for the insight! Jane

  2. Steph says:

    Really great food for thought here. So important to always be mindful of that limit, and stay in the region of optimal performance (ROOP?!). I like that conceptualization.

  3. Good advice to consider at this time of the year when we all ponder new beginnings.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, Maurice. I hope new beginnings doesn’t include you thinking of getting out of the distance ed business. I’m looking forward to reading about icebergs before too long. Seeing them is on my bucket list.

      • I put in my notice last week, the day before the budget came down. It was not a news’ budget by any means. So–August 30 will be my last day in that role, but I see it as an open door; a door to a nice new start.

        • Jane Fritz says:

          OMG, that IS a surprise. You write about your work and your team with such passion. I look forward to reading about what you find when you walk through that open door. You’re right, new beginnings can be very exciting. Best wishes, Maurice!

  4. Roy McCarthy says:

    Nicely and lucidly explained – a pity more text books aren’t written as clearly. I had great fun plotting my own running curve – sort of bumping along the bottom for a bit before disappearing 🙂
    Happy Easter Jane.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      I know, it is fun to do, isn’t it. Yeah, if yours bumps along the bottom you can imagine what mine looks like, kind of like the GDP of the north of England vs the south – and I’m the north! Happy Easter to you too. I am celebrating the occasion by reading Tess, which I’m enjoying very much. I have to keep recharging my iPod Touch to keep going!

  5. DM says:

    you just put into words why I now ruthlessly guard my time, am no longer swayed by my people pleasing bent to say “yes” to something, even @ the risk of ticking you off. I used to get sucked into “good” projects all the time. I grew up on a working dairy farm, raised by a work-a-haulic father, so I am no stranger to putting in long days, being driven,etc. Hard to believe it’s been almost 26 years since that stuff came to a head. Not to say, it can’t still happen that I over commit myself but it’s very rare. DM

  6. alesiablogs says:

    I was sitting today with a personal trainer who is going to work with me to try and get me back in shape. Your blog reminded me how my ability to handle stress is not very good any longer. I am retired so thank God I do not have as much stress due to a job, but what I had found myself doing when I became ill was to stop allowing anything stressful in my life. I would go to great lengths to stop something that would look stressful to enter my life. I protected myself to almost a point of building armor around myself. This is now a detriment to my health so as I think upon your post I am looking forward to stressing my body in hopes of finding that healthy point of actually seeing good come from stressing my body..I don’t know if I am making sense to you, but I appreciate your post. : ) PS: I took that class in college you taught at the university like 30 years ago! haha You sure you weren’t my teacher.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Glad you got something out of the post. So you’re saying that you have de-stressed yourself into the far lefthand side of the Stress Curve? Maybe, but judging from the challenges in your life I’m not so sure; maybe it’s a relative kind of thing! At any rate, working with a personal trainer is an excellent idea. Something just for you. A good present for yourself, Alesia!

      • alesiablogs says:

        Stress is an interesting component of life. Relative to myself, I honestly do not know how I have dealt with some variables that have been out of my control (autistic son, post brain tumor issues). One thing I do know is that in some strange way I am a happy person deep deep down inside despite the adversitys of life..Maybe a God Thing, because I can tell you I would not want another to walk in my shoes. Hope you are doing well yourself! I can’t wait to meet with my coach. I am looking forward to finding self control again in a routine exercise life. I am in desperate need to get into shape.

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