January 6, 2013

In discussing what makes a job the "least stressful"...

... consider that, in this context, the opposite of stress is control.

Is that true? For some, I would think, too much control would lead to stress. Let's say much was expected of you. You were supposed to be brilliant, high-achieving, and productive. But it was your responsibility to define your tasks, to figure out how to accomplish them, to set your own standards about what constitutes excellence, and to put time — any time, whenever you want, night or day, weekdays or weekends — into doing what you've decided is appropriate to do.

There is some reason to think that people feel best when they are in the psychological state called "flow," which is defined as having 8 components:
First, the experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing. Second, we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing. Third and fourth, the concentration is usually possible because the task undertaken has clear goals and immediate feedback. Fifth, one acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life. Sixth, enjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions. Seventh, concern for the self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over. Finally, the sense of the duration of time is altered; hours pass by in minutes, and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours. The combination of all these elements causes a sense of deep enjoyment that is so rewarding people feel that expending a great deal of energy is worthwhile simply to be able to feel it.
Can you get there within the "least stressful" job, university professor? Of course. But you'd better be good at defining realistic tasks that will look accomplished when they are accomplished. You'd better be able to get into the zone where you feel a sense of effortless expertise.

Mihaly Csikszentmihaly's book "Flow" identifies surgery and rock climbing as 2 activities that produce flow for the people who have the appropriate expertise. There, the tasks are specific, and the feedback about whether you are doing them right is clear. Compare a scholarly book project, which might take years, where you might wonder whether what you are writing is too dull or too controversial or unsupported by the data you're trying to use or who knows what your colleagues — your rivals? — will say about it at some unknown point in the future if you ever get this damned thing done?

44 comments:

traditionalguy said...

I remember there was a famous study of stress levels of NASCAR race drivers that disclosed the drivers going around the track at 150 mph weaving in and out had near zero stress level because they were in the drivers seat and held the wheel.

But when they pulled on to pit row their stress levels went through the roof because their success was in the hands of others on the race team...until they pulled out and the stress went down again.

Shouting Thomas said...

I'm glad that you took up the subject. I really wasn't trying to scold you for succeeding where so many of us fail.

Stress isn't just a negative. When I was a young man, I deliberately sought out the most stressful situations I could find because I coveted the physical, mental and psychic gains that could be gained by confronting that stress.

Now that I am an old man, I am seeking out a life of introspection and peace, so I'm moving away from the life of extreme stress that I once sought.

Playing music is where I find that total sense of being in control of my own time and space, and thus freedom from all stress.

We are entering a new phase in human experience... the need to work (outside of a few essential professions) is coming to an end. I recommend again today an essay by that scoundrel, Fred Reed. Sometimes, only the most scurvy of scoundrels, who exists far outside of decency, can say what is invisible to us all.

The problem is that we don’t have anything worthwhile to do.

Shouting Thomas said...

After you've read Fred, come back for this comment.

What is really stressing almost all of us out as work ceases to be essentially important to human existence is...

Our jobs are meaningless, useless time fillers.

Dante said...

Yeah, I'm in the flow. But you know what? It sucks. Too many 20+ hour days.

I feel like a cane cutter in the Thornbirds. My life force has been captured, and there is no way to get it back. Yet, it is going to benefit a bunch of other people vastly more than me. I get the enjoyment, they get the money.

And BTW, this is not the same as Bagoh20, who has a very different company. The company I work for is run by a bunch of narcissists.

But the work I do will keep some people in Obamaphones. The health care will keep some people who don't give a crap in medical care, and doctors and hospitals in $.

I'm tired of being a fool, but on the other hand, the alternative of being a user and manipulator seems worse.

Mitchell the Bat said...

Back when I worked at the sewage treatment plant there was a whole lot of flow.

Rusty said...

traditionalguy said...
I remember there was a famous study of stress levels of NASCAR race drivers that disclosed the drivers going around the track at 150 mph weaving in and out had near zero stress level because they were in the drivers seat and held the wheel.

But when they pulled on to pit row their stress levels went through the roof because their success was in the hands of others on the race team...until they pulled out and the stress went down again.

Landing on an aircraft carrier at night.
You're in total control of your aircraft and the stress level is peaked.
That has got to be an unbelievable adrenalin high.

Shouting Thomas said...

What we want (or what I want) is control of my time and my life.

I understand the leftist attack on corporations, but I think the leftists are misdirected. Humans yearn to be set free from having their time and their lives controlled by a boss and by the necessity to earn a living.

We now have the means to provide everybody with the necessities without continuing to subject ourselves to these external controls of bosses and jobs.

To me, the struggle now is to free ourselves from viewing this as an angry confrontation with authority and oppression. We should view what we face as an opportunity, and realize that everybody, bosses included, shares our desire to be free of these external controls.

We are all afraid of this freedom that awaits us, fearful of what we will do and how we will defined ourselves in this new life of freedom. Me too. But, this doesn't have to be a war.

Mitchell the Bat said...

I think it was Intro to Psych where the textbook had a picture of two monkeys strapped into some kind of shock machine. When both monkeys received the same shock, but only one of the monkeys had the ability to prevent the shocks, it was the "executive" monkey that exhibited all the deleterious effects of stress. The monkey who was essentially helpless wasn't happy about its situation but it adapted.

Come to think of it, that might have been Intro to Business Management.

AllenS said...

I became an Army paratrooper to relieve stress.

Jay said...

President Obama has full control and therefore should have little stress.

So why is he golfing so much?

Mick Havoc said...

Dealing with people who want to
kick your ass or kill you can be very stressful. When you walk away from that there isn't too much stuff that bothers you.
Although, like an obsolete Japanese salary man, I spent the last two years of my career sitting in my office with very little to do. That was stressful in a very soul-deadening way.

ironrailsironweights said...

When I was working in the life insurance scam, er, industry, time would flow very very slowly. Nowhere was this more true than during the twice-weekly "phone clinics" (a term that still nauseates me), when agents had to several hours cold-calling people off of various marketing lists. Time would slow down to the point that ten minutes felt like an hour.

It should go without saying that we had pretty much zero control over outcomes. Having a polished sales pitch and (another nauseating term) a "positive mental attitude" counted for nothing given that 95% of calls went to voicemail and most of the few people who answered would hang up immediately when you said that you were calling from an insurance company. Given that there usually was a mental-midget sales manager hovering around and dropping threats about quotas, it's really not surprising that perceived time slowed down to an excruciating level.

I now work in retail merchandising, which in addition to paying much better offers most of the cited eight components of "flow." The last one, the altered sense of time, most definitely applies, but in a good way: my workdays zoom by at a dizzying pace, with the eight hours seeming more like two or three hours at most.

Peter

Rusty said...

But aren't we in it-our careers-for the challenge? Even if the challenge is stressful isn't it good if its challenging.

Crimso said...

"You'd better be able to get into the zone where you feel a sense of effortless expertise."

All while the administration (which metastasizes daily) goes balls-to-the-wall to make your job as difficult as possible. University administrations have somehow convinced themselves that (among other wonderful activities) they are there to make our jobs go more smoothly, all while we keep telling them that they're consistently doing quite the opposite (and we would be in a position to know, wouldn't we?).

There are far worse jobs than tenured professor. But there are far better ones as well.

Dante said...

Here in Northern CA, the sky is lighted with a dull, bluish grey. Another overcast day.

pm317 said...

S - specific
M - measurable
A - aligned (achievable)
R - realistic (repeatable)
T - time-bound

Oso Negro said...

You can huff and puff as much as you want, but sitting around thinking great thoughts, a few hours a week of stand up teaching and grading papers, and shagging co-eds seemed to agree mightily with the professors at the University of Texas in the 1970s.

Crimso said...

Unfortunately, Oso, it ain't the 70's no more. I'm sure I'd have been happier as a professor in those days. Administrations were still just thinking about revving up to hire secretaries for secretaries and Assistant Vice-Provost's for Diversity and Stormwater Compliance, etc. etc. ad nauseum. I'll bet the 50's were even better.

wyo sis said...

There is flow in teaching. It comes after a lot of experience and preparation which is a lot like any other flow situation. You don't just have it. You have to EARN it.

edutcher said...

According to Webster, the antonym of stress is de-emphasis, so how many things can you walk away from as a conlawprof?

I'm presuming you can wish off a lot of stuff on teaching assistants.

miss j said...

But who cares, really, what your colleagues will say? Only someone with extraordinarily thin skin. What's said is unlikely to directly cost anyone, even you, their life and, if you have tenure, it's unlikely to cost you your livelihood.

Speaking of writing books, where are they? Scholarly publications, unlike blogposts, must maintain a coherent argument throughout . They are also subject to peer review which requires a skin thick enough to listen rather than one that requires apologies for the smallest prick.

You rerouted a conversation about stress to one about flow. They are quite different concepts in physics and their names denote quite concepts in psychology.

kentuckyliz said...

You rerouted a conversation about stress to one about flow. They are quite different concepts in physics and their names denote quite concepts in psychology.

This.

Pogo said...

Modern corporate bureaucracies prevent flow, partly by design. And they are an invasive species, having even taken over small volunteer groups, which now speak using the same vacuous buzzwords and rules upon rules.

Flow may exist somewhere in medicine, but I doubt it. The environment is highly controlled and enervating production work. "Increasing throughput" is the term.

It increasingly resembles my factory job in college, stacking stereo speakers in semi trailers.

But without the 15 minute breaks to pee. I notice people call in sick a lot more in the past few years, and have cut their hours.

Stressed? It's desserts spelled backwards, right?

sydney said...

When I was working as an employed physician, I was very stressed. I had no control whatsoever over my long-term goals. I used to tell myself that it didn't matter, my objective was to provide the best care/advise to my patients, supervisors be damned; but it gradually wore away at me. This was especially true when the hospital became my employer and pressured me to send referrals to only certain colleagues, to see more patients than humanly possible a day, and route my imaging and lab studies to only certain facilities. In those days,
I had good work flow, but no control.

I left and opened my own solo practice. I did not realize how miserable I had been until I felt the happiness that freedom - and control - gave me.

But as time went on, I gradually lost both control and flow. Now, I have the government and insurance companies controlling me. I have to fill out paperwork to justify more and more of my treatment decisions - be it a diagnostic test or a choice of drug. I have to worry that I have recorded enough of my thoughts and actions to justify my charges or be accused of fraud. I have an electronic record (government approved), which has messed up my flow. No task is ever finished. It forces me to document my thoughts as a computer programmer thinks appropriate, not in the organic flow of my own ideas. My little electronic inboxes - which are playfully called "jellybeans" - are never empty. 24/7 they fill up with results. I yearn for a row of empty inboxes and a clean desk so I can feel I finished a task.

Both flow and control are important. I am not as misrable as I was when employed, but it is getting close.

David said...

"But you'd better be good at defining realistic tasks that will look accomplished when they are accomplished. You'd better be able to get into the zone where you feel a sense of effortless expertise."

That's a very interesting appreciation of one way to approach the job. Sounds like an approach for a successful politician also.

It also sounds like a perfect plan for avoiding serious questions and troubling confrontations with orthodoxy.

ambienisevil said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
William said...

A good paycheck can lower stress levels.....It's hard to get much flow going when you're incompetent. Sometimes it's better to take a paycut and retreat to your Peter principle. But it's a difficult tradeoff as loss of money is as stressful as the amputation of a major limb.

William said...

President Clinton had an intriguing way of handling stress, but it probably doesn't work for everyone.

bagoh20 said...

If you are willing to work long hours, you are crazy to do it for someone else. Start your own business. Plan, prepare, save, take your time, and do it right, but DO it. Life is too short. I don't recommend it for the lazy or easily spooked, but if you like working hard and taking risks, you are selling your most valuable resource cheap by doing it for a paycheck, and believe me it will run out some day.

While I did eventually start my own business, and I believe it to be the best decision I ever made, I waited far too long, and wasted a lot of time being less than fulfilled.

My goal now is to get other people started in their own businesses. I think it's is an amazing miracle to unleash that in people and let them fly with it.

My sister, in her mid 40s, has been in the restaurant business her whole adult life and has been miserable about it, even though she loves the actual work. With my help, she will be buying her own restaurant this month and her life will never be the same. She is a very hard worker, and finally she will start getting paid for it, and I know for certain she will spend her remaining years much more in the flow, and much happier, even if she fails, which she won't.

I want to do it too with other people I know who have what it takes and need to just do it.

I know a lot of immigrants who came here with nothing and now have their own prosperous businesses, so it IS very possible. It's right there waiting. It's easy to talk yourself out of reaching for it. I did for far too long.

bagoh20 said...

Most important of all: If you do take my advice, remember where you came from, and how work is felt from the other side. Respect the people who work for you, as you would have wanted from your boss. The powerful thing you can give them to help themselves and your business is an enjoyment of their work, and an appreciation of you and the company they work for. Make that true for them, and you will prosper. Besides, it's damned good accomplishment all by itself.

bagoh20 said...

I'm sure most people have noticed this by now, but it's amazing how often we stress ourselves out over nothing. We worry, we fear, we anticipate, we sweat, and then it's over and you look back and ask yourself: who was that person who tortured me like that for nothing?

Don't harsh your own mellow.

Stephen A. Meigs said...

I'd say it's more being controlled (rather than not being controlling) that can cause stress, for obvious reasons.

It's important on every level to appreciate that if a female is worried about a male controlling her in the wrong way, then if she is at all intelligently sophisticated, she is likely to find it very relaxing and drama-free if she enjoys his controlling other females, because a female being skanky would never enjoy that--being addicted to what is controlling her she would want it all to herself--and if she couldn't have it all to herself she would consequently likely leave him or use it as dramatic provocation.

Synova said...

Okay... control.

I liked being in the military because I had control. This doesn't mean that I chose my tasks or defined my job or anything else. I had a nice defined context in which to function. The rules, even when arbitrary, did not change. This left the interpersonal things and actual problem-solving "work" as the demands I could apply myself to, and I did very well.

Some people never get the "culture" and they always flounder and everything is a trauma for them. For others they might get it, but they never get discipline and nothing becomes routine so everything always requires effort.

Now, I had a job a couple of years ago where I got to define my job and my tasks and show initiative in where I wanted to apply myself and it was a horror. I had no control because I wasn't the boss. So in addition to learning whatever it was I needed to learn, I had to try to figure out what that was and hope I'd gotten it right.

Consider the difference in control between an hourly job and writing stories.

In an hourly job, if I show up and I work I get my paycheck. I can control getting my paycheck. I do show up on time and do my work and I get paid.

If I'm writing stories I can control when I get up in the morning, when I start work, how long I work, and what I work on. But I can't control the outcome at all. Maybe I'm just not that good a writer or maybe I am but the magazine editors just don't like my stories and then (pretending I was successful) when I'm selling stories regularly I can't control when anyone will get around to paying me. You're always at the mercy of someone else.

Which is likely one of the reasons I never seriously pursued a writing career. I want to know that if I do A and B and C that I can count on D.

The being in "control" of my production but at the mercy of others I have no influence upon is not "control."

Synova said...

I think that the most stressful combination is having responsibility but no authority.

This is why teenagers are stressful. You've lost authority, but still have responsibility.

Alex said...

I agree with the need for flow. I work in software and I'm at my best when the requirements are well defined and not constantly interrupted by other things that are not along the main flow of product development. Unfortunately it rarely goes for more then a week like that.

ken in sc said...

I agree with Synova. The military is better. After 24 years on an Air Force flight line in maintenance, I found teaching middle school and high school much more stressful. I had more authoritarian supervisors and more unreasonable demands placed on me in public education. Plus I was provided less resources. Any available money was siphoned off by administrators. I quit after nine years--plus two years in grad school getting a specialist teaching certificate.

Alex said...

ken - what you really mean to say is that jobs that have less political bullshit going on are less stressful. One hardly needs to be in the military to find that. That's why it's best to study hard and get an engineering degree. Sure there is bullshit to wade through even as an engineer, but nothing like other jobs.

ken in sc said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ken in sc said...

I agree with both Alex and Synova.

To Synova, responsibility has to always match authority. That it doesn't is one of the things wrong with public education.

Alex said...

The tricky thing is how do you gain authority? One can simply be a manager and assert it right away, but the people under you will not respect you if you do not show that you have a firm grasp of the domain you are in.

Douglas said...

I think it's pretty obvious that stress is the life-killer. Look at the jobs where people work forever. They never retire, even though they may work very long and hard hours. What are those jobs? Federal judges and Catholic bishops. They may be "overruled" from time to time, but in terms of day to day life, they have pretty much complete control over their jobs - there is no one micromanaging Federal judges! - and they have life tenure. That's why you have productive, happy judges working well into their 80s, but you almost never see a lawyer working at that age.

Synova said...

Alex, I think of authority, not as having power over other people, but as having the power to do what needs to be done to meet your responsibilities.

So if you're going to be held responsible for meeting a deadline but someone else has the ability to interrupt you, change the parameters of the project, or decide that all day next Tuesday is a conference on sexual harassment, then you might still be held responsible for the deadline, but you don't have authority.

Once in a while and no problem but if it's all the time it's gonna be awful.

Synova said...

I've known people who wouldn't say 'no' at work, who couldn't seem to find a way to say, "Sure, I'll do that extra thing you say is a priority but that other thing you said was a priority this morning is going to be delayed. One or the other, so which one do you want me to do?"

They can't do it. They just work all night and get it done and then don't understand why they aren't appreciated more. Meanwhile the boss hears "no problem" and thinks that means "no problem" so what is there to appreciate?

sparrow said...

Love that book BTW