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.
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!