Engineering with Stress and Anxiety

We have difficult jobs. The problems we solve as software engineers are challenging, demand rigor, and generally cause us unreasonable amounts of stress. Even if we love the grind, relish the endorphin high when we finally get that integration working, or find and squash a particularly troubling concurrency issue — we still suffer considerably throughout the process. During that time, it’s easy to get trapped inside a head full of anxiety and self-doubt.

Imposter syndrome is the hallmark of some of the best people I’ve met and worked with in the tech industry. Every one of them has, at least at one point, admitted to me that they feel like a complete fraud. I always find it unbelievable, even though I probably only seconds before admitted to them that I also feel like a total poser. Finally, after years of pep talks from other members of the Mutual Admiration Society, I’ve realized that imposter syndrome happens because we challenge ourselves.

Imposter syndrome strikes hardest when we’re actually challenging ourselves.

While our jobs are generally difficult, a lot of what we do is practiced and almost performed by rote. We reuse technology from one job to the next. We become experts in a particular sub-field. Because of this, we can fall into the pattern of thinking that what we do is itself very easy. Then, when we’re faced with a Real Actual Challenge, we stumble.

“Why is this so hard? This should be easy.”

Not everyone spirals into crippling depression after the onset of self-doubt, but for some of us this is the beginning of the end of our productivity for a week. If I have a superpower, it’s that I have learned how to mechanically cope with imposter syndrome, and it’s something that I’m trying to impart on my team at Sensu. When I am under considerable amounts of stress — when I am challenged, I fall back on the mechanics of how I approach things.

If I have a superpower, it’s that I have learned how to mechanically cope with anxiety.

Generally speaking, I think many engineers (myself included) enjoy playing it fast and loose. We get frustrated by Frameworks and Processes. “Mere barriers to my creative expression,” we exclaim! What process can do for us, however, is give us something to fall back on when we need to more systematically approach a mentally taxing problem. By relieving ourselves of the burden of deciding “how” to approach something, we free ourselves to spend all of our time thinking about the actual problem instead of how to go about solving it.

“Where do I even start?” Becomes a question we never have to ask ourselves again. We start by writing down the problem. Then we ask ourselves questions about what that means. And so on. Giving ourselves a checklist to go through during these times gives us a bunch of tiny endorphin hits along the way that can help us get out of the rut in which we’re stuck as we check off boxes on our path to solving the problem. Getting shit done feels good. Breaking down a mountainous task into a bunch of smaller deliverables makes us feel like we’re making progress. Jocelyn K. Glei goes in-depth on the importance of feeling progress in How to Feel Progress.

Read that article, and the next time you find yourself stuck in a rut, fall back on a methodical approach to getting things done. You don’t have to have personal OKRs and KPIs or live your life on a Kanban board, but rubbing a little process on it every now and then can be a lifesaver.

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