A Powerful Method of Controlling Stress Levels for Developers

Kathy Shieh here, I am the US Dev Lead for the Information Security Tools team which means I manage the developers and testers (in the US and in Beijing). I have been at Microsoft for just over 10 years.

“Ugh - I’ll never be able to finish all this work.” Sounds familiar to you? Every day, it seems like I have an endless amount of tasks that need to be finished just in order to keep up with my schedule. Right about now, there are trainings I need to attend, later - a few more new meetings that were just added to my calendar. This one is fresh out of the oven: someone calling me to help with another project’s production issue. The list goes on and on. It’s hard not to feel stressed having to face such a great pile of work on a daily basis. I took some advice and tried to work with my manager to prioritize the things on my plate. I tried the newest and latest tips and tricks to raise my efficiency. Yet the work was still the same old work, and my stress was the same old stress. Sounds even more familiar to you?

Searching for answers to this problem, I started reading “The Feeling Good Handbook” a few years ago. The chapter “You Can Change the Way You Feel” had a great impact on me. While reading the chapter, I came to the realization that I actually was in control of my own mood. Feelings such as stress, anger, sadness, etc. are created by one’s thoughts and attitudes, not by the external influences such as my job, bad boss, sickness, etc., though they are definitely affected by external influences. By practicing the analysis of external events and my subsequent thought process, I found that I actually could control my stress level and often change my mood from a negative to a positive one. The work wasn’t making me feel stressed. My boss was not responsible for the stress, either. It was the pattern of my thoughts that created my feelings.

Here is an example of my thought process analysis. My boss told me “just spend half an hour and change the homepage theme from green to orange”. From my past experiences, I knew it couldn’t be done in just half an hour’s work. Taking into account all the parts of the homepage, I knew the task would take at least one or two day’s worth of work. Before, I would then feel irritated or annoyed as a result, thinking that my boss was treating me unfairly. If I were to ask him for more time to work on the task, I was worried that he would look down on me and might think that I was not competent enough. At that point, I would be thoroughly stressed out because of my boss and the uncomfortable situation I had to face. I would probably remain silent, working late at night and using my weekend to finish the work, unhappily.

Now, however, I would instead use the strategy of thought process analysis to change my feelings of stress. I would avoid the assumption that “my boss is being unfair”, but focus simply on the facts. Armed with my new objective focus, I then would feel calm about approaching my boss rather than worried or silent, and discuss all details that will be involved in a homepage color change with my boss. The advantage of having this objective conversation is that it would bring to his awareness how complicated the color change of the homepage can be, from my perspective. I would also make sure to ask for and listen to his thoughts on why a homepage color change would only be a thirty minute job. Having this conversation would provide the validation of the thoughts in my mind against the reality, a comparison that I would not have been able to make had I remained in my own frustrated, stressed silence.

Today I still refer back to “The Feeling Good Handbook” often. During my 1 on 1 meetings with my team, I openly share my thought process. I ask questions a lot. The validation of my thoughts against reality not only helps me control my feelings in a positive way, but this “thinking aloud” process also helps to clarify my intentions, avoiding the possibility of “jumping to conclusions” by both parties.

I am not in any way suggesting that one should not have any feelings, or no bad feelings. One’s mood, positive or negative, can have beneficial and necessary effects in many different situations (which is a totally different topic I can talk about in the future). My purpose here is to point out that you actually can control and change the way you feel, contrary to popular belief. Applying this principle to control stress level is a method that can work powerfully and effectively, even when many other ways to counteract stress haven’t been successful.