Viktor Prokopenya on stress in IT: “The world won’t stop if we pause”

Viktor Prokopenya
Jan 15, 2018 · 12 min read

The founder of VP Capital, Viktor Prokopenya, wrote a post on Facebook which received just under a thousand likes and almost 250 shares. The main message of the text was, “make products which make people happy — it’s a mega trend” and “the world won’t stop if we pause”, and have a rest from business. Here is the post translation:

I saw an interesting chart yesterday and decided to write a long post, while I was flying. The chart showed the relationship between stress and productivity. To be a manager or to be an entrepreneur is largely about movement along this graph. Since there are a lot of uncertainties in business, it’s very easy to drive yourself or your team into a zone of low productivity and high stress, in which there is very little value creation.

The variation between the maximum point of productivity on the chart and the minimum (like Piglet: anxious about everything but never getting anything done), is at least twice as much. And in IT, in my opinion, 100 times as much. “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a very cool book on this subject. In conditions of high IT competition, if you divide your productivity by 100, this gives a guaranteed fail. Moreover, not only is there no performance in this zone, but there is also no pleasure from life, in contrast to when performance is at its maximum. Conscious, deliberate decisions are almost always better in management than an instinctive instantaneous reaction. So, I saw the chart and decided to write down all sorts of thoughts about it — I have wanted to share them with my friends for a long time:

1. Humor and stress

Once I read the book “Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why” by Laurence Gonzales. The guy spent his life studying extreme situations, not scientifically, but in a very bright and colorful manner with a bunch of interesting stories. At length he studied those who had survived a shipwreck or other really serious problem. In his opinion, the part of the brain that distinguishes us from animals is switched off under great stress. In the end, instead of thinking rationally, we begin to react with a simplistic brain, like a lizard or a mouse. As a result, an educated, knowledgeable person, who finds himself on a raft after a shipwreck with a limited supply of fresh water, but who is not able to control his stress, drinks all the water and does not live long enough to be saved. In contrast, those who know how to control stress drink in small sips and stretch the water supply. So they have a greater chance of rescue and often survive. There are lots of vivid examples of this type in the book which makes it very easy to read. So, I think that in many ways entrepreneurship is about managing the stress and energy of yourself and your team.

The point is not to divide productivity by 100 or not to stay at the beginning of the chart, in the comfort zone. I read this book a long time ago, and what I remember most of all is that one of the techniques that really helps to fight against switching off the rational brain is humor. To understand humor, you need to use the most rational part of your brain and, if we tell funny stories to each other, then our rational brain has to actively work and so is not shut down. Therefore, laughfactory.com will always be the best website for entrepreneurs!

In general, the amount of information we take in has increased thousands of times in a couple of decades, and our brain has remained the same — evolution does not operate so quickly. If someone still does not understand why mobile apps simply for fun are rocketing to top-rated at a rate of knots, they should be able to see for themselves. Moreover, if 100 million people laughed for 5 minutes, then it’s likely they have been relieved of some amount of stress, and if they live longer and better, and if you multiply these 100 million by the number of minutes added to their lives, then maybe you could give the world a quantity of full lives equal to the number of inhabitants of Birmingham, Alabama! And now an advert — come and work for us at Banuba Development — our technology is used to create mobile applications that make people’s lives more fun. This is a huge social benefit in the modern world. Well, in general, make products that make people laugh! This is a mega trend. It doesn’t look like the amount of information we take in will decrease. No, it will only increase.

2. They are trying too hard

Once I asked an American coach who helps the CEO of various big companies what his clients’ number one problem is. He quickly replied, “They are trying too hard.” As a result, burn-out. They don’t want to live, productivity falls, and that’s it. All other problems in comparison with this are nothing. I also saw really strong and smart people who set up a startup and completely burned out along the way. They got to the last section of the chart and thought they were about to arrive and everything would be ok, but in fact they were treading water. The rational brain shuts down, and without it, when instead you are relying solely on instantaneous reactions, it is impossible to come to the point of maximizing the result. In general, business is the endless solving of problems. And the level of problem depends on the level of business — nothing more. And often it turns out that entrepreneurs are trying too hard, and they switch off their whole modern brain — and that’s it. Done. It’s like fully pushing on the accelerator in low gear — the engine burns out, and you’re going nowhere. First we must go into neutral and then go into another gear — read about this below. This is also interesting: when stress levels are low, you read an interesting report and see a bunch of useful thoughts; when under high stress you look and you see little that is useful. This is how we reduce productivity by 100 times. Stress affects how we absorb and process incoming information.

3. Business education and stress management

One of the things that those who engage in business education are afraid to admit is that the business models for business are almost unknown to science. What someone thinks up and works somewhere, quickly and hopelessly becomes obsolete, because the world is changing. An engineer, having completed five years of university, has in his head a bunch of models that always work (for example, he knows exactly how to build a car). In contrast, a student who graduates from a business school after a while realizes that 99% of what he studied hasn’t worked anywhere for 50 years, and if ever worked at all, was only in a small number of cases. Once in Stanford Business School I met a friend six months after he began to study there. I asked: “How are your studies?” He said: “This isn’t studying. Studying is when you fry your brains on Applied Mathematics or Computer Science. And here all I’m working on my personality, and nothing else.” This is very interesting perception of business education. Apparently, stress / energy management is an indispensable part of business education and experience.

4. The importance of accurately measuring your stress levels

In the book Mindless Eating (Brian Wansink) the idea is put forward that the stomach feels three states of hunger — hungry, full and overeaten. We’re not able to say that we ate to 73.5% — and so it’s very easy to overeat. It’s the same with stress. It is very difficult to understand where you are on the chart now. Plus it’s hard to say what exactly is going on in life and how it affects your level of stress, if you can’t accurately measure it. It is interesting that the graph shows the relationship between performance and stress, but according to some authors, the performance graph almost coincides with the graph of the amount of willpower. If you believe the kind of books like Switch (Chip & Dan Heath) and The Willpower Instinct (Kelly McGonial) — and many others (I can’t remember them all), one of the main indicators of stress level is heart rate variability. Many books say that it is useless to try to form new healthy habits when under a high level of stress — like to start running or going to bed on time. So, we come again to advertising. I accidentally came across a “stress checker” function in the triathlon watch that I bought. I have been using it for several months now and it super-accurately shows the level of stress by measuring the variability of your heart rate on a scale from 0 to 100. I checked it on many people — it works.

For those whose lives are going well and who don’t have any problems, the stress checker shows 10. For those suffering from burnout from the uncertainties of being an entrepreneur — 80–90–100. If it always shows 70–80, it’s time to have a holiday. If it often shows 30–40, you need to spend some time on yourself. I don’t know other devices and haven’t studied the issue deeply, but Garmin shows the stress levels very accurately. You can measure the effect of something you do in life by stress level: you went to a jacuzzi, did some yoga or chatted to someone — how was it? The device is very accurate, in my experience. Our HR team needs to get some! If there is a problem with a team member, you can check out the stress checker: is he burnt out or simply lazy? — these are completely different cases, and they are managed differently.

5. Breathing and stress

To reduce stress levels, there are a million different things you can do: for example, wear ear plugs to get better sleep, or listen to music in headphones, or something else — a million different ideas, it’s different for everyone. As for myself, I realized that there is nothing better than sports and yoga. Another advert: we once made a cool app — yoga.com — you can totally do yoga with it. It’s true that there are now some issues with user experience, but so what. There is still no better app.

I think in the future there will be AR in these apps, and the app will look at you through the camera and say what and how to do a pose, what’s right and what’s wrong. It would be useless to start out yoga with the app alone — it is for those who already have experience. You need to start with live instructors so that you can copy them. In my experience, you begin to understand what yoga is only when you go to ten or so very different instructors. Everyone explains something different. It’s not very productive to read books about yoga. Yoga is in many respects about breathing, and stress is measured by the variability of heart rate on inspiration and output — how it changes. So, it seems to me that through the control of breathing in yoga, it is quite possible to influence the variability of the heart rate and the level of stress.

The tortoise breathes very slowly and lives 300 years, and the dog breathes very quickly — and in 15–20 years the pup has died. Yoga allows you to switch into neutral and then select another gear.

The world will not stop, if you pause — this is a very important idea. By the way, when I found the app Breathe in Apple Watch, I immediately realized that I hadn’t bought this wonderful device in vain. Breathe is a very cool app — it reminds you when you need to breathe. It is very useful and helps you to relax — there’s a reason the app has won a lot of awards. Many successful entrepreneurs often see lots of very cool habits in stress management, alongside an awareness of what in their lives affects their internal stress levels. They understand when going to the swimming pool will still be enough to rescue them, or if they need to head off into the wilds for a while. Many people say that when they don’t have much energy, it is difficult to make decisions; you go back to the same question or email 20 times and as a result, a lot of time is wasted. On the other hand, if you had the energy, the decision would be easy to make and not waste energy.

6. About the future of stress management

I think there will be a lot of progress when a feature is developed in project management or some other kind of software that measures the level of stress among employees during the day by using computer cameras to analyze their faces. On the basis of this decisions could be made about whom and how to help, and who is just a lazy person who daydreams at work. It is interesting that, depending on the experience of the manager, different managers spend different amounts of energy on the same problem, and accordingly, give themselves greater or lesser stress. For example, a young manager made the mistake of hiring an Eeyore. He struggles with him for months, then worries about whether to fire him, or to keep him on and to continue to struggle with him — he wastes two days arguing with him in the course of his dismissal and then worries about it for another week. That’s like what really happens. An experienced manager will give less energy to this, and will not stress: he understands more readily whether it makes sense to invest time in a particular person or whether there’s just something wrong in their DNA, and you need to part with them quickly.

This really supports the thesis that business education is work on an individual’s personality. So, also, the effect of some positive event for a company can be measured against stress levels, if you monitor the cameras constantly. Maybe working for a week without a break and doing a release on time ultimately gives everyone more satisfaction and ten times less stress in the long run than doing the same thing over several chilled weeks. An angry co-worker can immediately see in the numbers the effect of an angry letter to his colleagues. On a country wide level, there would be many benefits of understanding the effects on people of all kinds of newsworthy information.

7. Situation management

Interview with a psychologist. Why does personal growth training and NLP cripple the psyche?

In the same book Mindless Eating there is an interesting idea that it’s better not to put yourself in the situation where you have to make a decision: whether to eat extra or not. A solution is always energy expenditure. Therefore, it is logical to ask the hotel to remove all the chocolates from a hotel room, rather than to decide whether to eat them or not after a day hard at work as well as a flight. It’s easier not to keep anything sweet in the house at all, than to decide whether to eat it or not all the time. It’s the same with stress: it’s better not to talk too much about topics which stress you out; these conversations will not lead to practical results. I have friends who have put automatic forwarding on their computer: Belarusian news sites forward to anekdot.ru, so as not to increase the level of stress by switching to the original url. In general, like most knowledge about management, stress / energy management is about creating useful habits.

8.Why zebras have no ulcers

Thanks to Leonid Lozner for the recommendation. “Why Zebras Have No Ulcers” is a brilliant and deep book about the nature of stress. After reading the book, you can’t believe how cleverly you begin to operate with the names of various hormones. Zebra stress is when the leopard approaches the watering hole and jumps — and the zebra needs to mobilize in order to escape. Then the zebra either escapes — and the stress ends, or it is eaten — and the stress also ends. If she runs away the stress passes, and she happily forgets the leopard. She does not walk around the savannah worrying about the poor little leopard who went to sleep hungry, or what will happen if there are two leopards next time. Man, in turn, often worries about nothing: not about what has happened, but about what could happen. Mechanisms that the body puts into motion when under stress are very short-term actions and can kill a person with prolonged exposure. This is described in great detail in the book. Therefore, this is a good habit — think about what you’re worried about, act, make a decision, close the question. Inaction often increases the level of stress.

In general, this is a very useful topic, which is worth thinking about. For me, often the best way to think about a problem is to read a book on the subject. Putting the brain to work on a problem and think about it for a few hours while reading a book, allows interesting ideas to come into your mind, and not only those that are in the book.

So, that’s all I wanted to say! If you’re low on strength — go on holiday, don’t disturb people at work! In general, there are a lot of arguments for helping you to rationalize the decision to urgently rest.

P.S. A joke on the topic: 70% of the Slavs live in stress, the rest live in Spain, Portugal and Italy.

Viktor Prokopenya

Written by

Founder, VP Capital. VP Capital is a global investment vehicle focused on the technology sector.