In-Depth: The Science On Sustainable Pace, Stress, And Motivation
How sustainable is your pace as a developer? This has always been a huge struggle for us and most of the teams we’ve been part of. We’ve often found ourselves working late into the night, or during weekends.
Unfortunately, many developers and development teams still burn more hours than are probably good for them. Although this is often the result of “death marches” and similar requests from management, there are also many situations where developers do this out of their own will. We certainly have.
In this post, we explore the science around pacing and stress. We also want to explore insights from positive psychology into motivation, and how it often buffers against stress. Finally, we offer practical tips to talk about pacing with your team and keeping it manageable.
What is a sustainable pace?
The notion of “sustainable pace” is closely tied to Extreme Programming practices. The initial practice was for developers to work no more than 40 hours a week. But that recommendation was updated to “sustainable pace” by Ron Jeffries later. This is the pace that can be sustained over a long period of time without burning developers out. However, what is sustainable depends on skill, motivation, energy level, and personal differences. Although 40 hours may be a good starting point, it is probably much less for most developers, and maybe a bit more for others (though not much).
The problem with unsustainable pace is that it creates distorted expectations from stakeholders as to what is possible. Once you raise the bar, it is hard to lower it. I will use the remainder of this post to focus on the psychological result of unsustainable pace: stress.
The science on pace and stress
Many studies have shown that stressed developers make more mistakes (Furuyama, Arai & Lio, 1996, Sonnentag et. al., 1994). High-stress environments are also more likely to burn developers out (Sonnentag et. al., 1994). The neurological processes for this are also well-understood. When we experience stress, our brain starts to release cortisol and adrenaline. This increases blood pressure, heart rate, and tenses muscles (McEwen, 2017). It basically puts our body and brain in a state of full alert. It is unhealthy to experience stress for a prolonged amount of time. Eventually, the neural pathways for stress in our brain become so sensitized that they continue to release stress hormones even when there is no immediate reason for it. This is what we call burnout, and it is marked by deep exhaustion, intense cynicism, and a sense of having lost the connection with yourself (Maslach, 1997). It is important to distinguish clinical burnout from merely feeling tired after a few days of hard work. Clinical burnout is a very severe condition that can put people out of work for the rest of their lives and is often indistinguishable from clinical depression (Bianchi, Schonfeld & Laurent, 2015). So organizations can harm the mental health of employees for the rest of their lives if they create high-stress environments and allow them to persist.
But a high pace does not always result in stress. One of the most studied factors in stress-related research is motivation. As it happens, motivation can protect us against stress to quite some extent.
How motivation protects against burnout
Motivation is the internal energy we have to choose and sustain certain behavior over a period of time. This motivation can come from external sources, like a nice reward or a bonus, or from internal sources, like a desire to learn, social pressure, or because you enjoy it. This is intrinsic motivation, and I wrote more about it in this post. It is very similar to work engagement (Schaufeli & Salanova, 2014), which we also measure in both the Scrum Team Survey and TeamMetrics (as “team morale”).
Intrinsic motivation is a great thing to have, and something to aspire in yourself and the people you work with. It doesn’t deplete nearly as quickly as motivation from external sources and tends to renew quickly. On the other hand, external motivation evaporates as the going gets tough.
Self-Determination Theory (Deci & Ryan, 2012) provides a great perspective on what creates intrinsic motivation. It has been thoroughly tested and verified through experiments, case studies, and field research (Deci & Ryan, 2020). The theory states that intrinsic motivation is at its highest when three psychological needs are fulfilled:
- You feel competent and skilled
- You feel autonomy to make your own decisions
- You feel that the work is meaningful and related to that of others
So it is not surprising that these conditions are easily fulfilled in teams that are properly autonomous, cross-functional, and purpose-driven. It is also the reason why the principles of the Agile Manifesto can create such motivating environments.
There is a lot of evidence that intrinsic motivation protects against burnout in sports (Li et. al, 2013), healthcare professionals (Papathanasiou et. al., 2013), and in the workplace (Manganelli, Thibault-Landry & Forest, 2018). Studies consistently show that people are far less likely to burn out when they feel they are in control over their work, which is an important factor of Self-Determination Theory. Neuroscientific research has shown that the neurotransmitter dopamine increases our intrinsic motivation, and is also released upon pursuing that motivation (Di Domenico & Ryan, 2017). So intrinsic motivation can strengthen itself. Although this is a gross simplification of what happens in our brains, this is what can make it feel so good and pleasurable to work on something you like.
Is there a dark side to intrinsic motivation?
Although intrinsic motivation is great, we believe it also has a dark side. Because it is so strong, it can easily compel people to work much harder than they probably should. For example, I (Christiaan) love the thrill of solving a hard coding problem. When the solution starts coming together, it is very hard for me to stop. The state of flow that I can get is so hard to break that I sometimes forget to eat or go to sleep when I should. This is even harder for me when I work with a team of motivated developers, and where their energy strengthens mine and vice-versa. This process is both pleasurable and stressful, so it may eventually lead to the same mental issues as stress that is imposed by outside forces.
We haven’t found any research that investigates this potential negative effect of intrinsic motivation. But we have certainly experienced it in our own work, and we’re sure many developers will recognize it too.
Practical ways to reduce stress and increase motivation
So what can you do to ensure a sustainable pace with your team, or for yourself?
1. Talk about stress with your team
The best way to reduce stress in your team is to talk more about when it happens, why and the personal differences that are at play. A Sprint Retrospective is a great moment to bring this up.
Liberating Structures are excellent for this because they give space to everyone. For example, you can use Conversation Cafe with the topic “What is your experience with stress in this team? What are examples of moments that stress you out?”. Following the Conversation Cafe, you can use a 15% Solutions to identify simple action steps.
If you notice that stress was very high in a Sprint, you can also use What, So What, Now What to debrief the Sprint. For the “What”-round, you can ask: “How did you notice there was stress? What did you feel? What did you observe in others? What happened?”. For the next “Now What”-round you can ask: “Now what does this mean for our work together? When is stress most likely to occur?”. Finally, for the “So What”-round you can ask: “How can we reduce stress from hereon?”.
2. Find sources of intrinsic motivation
The research clearly shows us that intrinsic motivation is a great buffer against stress and its harmful effects. Self-Determination Theory tells us that motivation is at its highest when three psychological needs are fulfilled: a sense of competence, a sense of autonomy, and a sense of purpose. Of those three, a sense of autonomy appears to be the most protective against stress. So good questions to explore with your team are: “How can we expand our sense of autonomy in our work as a team? How can we help each other? Where do we need help from people outside the team to expand that autonomy?”.
I’ve personally found that the best way to increase the sense of autonomy in a team, is by finding ways to better channel the flow of incoming work. Teams are most likely to stress out when the work just keeps on coming. Saying “No” to new work is one part of this, but also being clear on what a team will take on now and what they will take on later. Work with your Product Owner to create that space.
3. Educate people about the harmful effects of stress
Many workplaces still enforce the norm that the best employees are those that put in way more hours than others. Overtime is often rewarded with extra pay or bonuses, or with compliments from the boss. This can easily lead to organizational cultures that encourage people to sacrifice their work-life balance and their mental health in favor of promotion and recognition from their colleagues.
You can prevent some of this by educating people about the harmful effects of sustained stress. The science is remarkably clear: stress decreases quality, focus, and productivity, and it causes irreparable harm in the long term. So investing in a stress-encouraging culture is bad for everyone.
4. Make work agreements about pacing and alert signals
If you work in a team, it is very helpful to make specific work agreements about how to deal with stress and how to reduce it when it happens. For example, you can make agreements about:
- If someone is experiencing stress, how can they inform others?
- If someone experiences stress, what is expected of other members of the team?
- If the team is facing a stressful situation, what strategies will you apply to make the situation less stressful? A good example is to get everyone together to diagnose the issue and identify strategies together. This builds competence and autonomy, and reinforces the relatedness that “you’re in this together”.
- What happens after a highly stressful event? For example, you could all go for a walk, take a morning off or work on something as a team that you enjoy. And how will you debrief to prevent similar scenarios from occurring again?
- When stress remains present for a longer period of time, what strategies do you have individually and as a team to cope with it? For example, many people benefit from exercise to reduce stress. Meditation and breathing techniques are also very helpful. You can also take a walk as a team to freshen up your minds or play a game together, and then commit to the problem again.
The purpose here is not to create stress-free environments. A completely stress-free environment is unlikely, and will also become very boring quickly (Mael & Jex, 2015). Some level of tension is fine, as long as it isn’t persistent and too intense.
5. Leave companies that show no interest in your health
Finally, the best thing we can do to protect ourselves and others is to leave those companies that continue to demand people to push beyond their boundaries, even though they know about the consequences. Regardless of how nice the salary might be, or how cool the product you’re working on is, nothing is worth more than your long-term mental health.
In this post we explored when the pace is sustainable, and what happens to us when it isn’t. An unsustainable pace creates unrealistic expectations from stakeholders. It also creates psychological stress. Although some tension and stress aren’t harmful, the consequences of prolonged stress are very harmful. Fortunately, motivation provides a strong buffer against stress. We know from scientific research that intrinsically motivated people are less susceptible to stress, especially when they experience a high degree of autonomy in their work.
Ironically, Barry Overeem and I are horrible at maintaining a sustainable pace. We both work way more hours than we probably should. Although our intrinsic motivation is strong and offers some protection, much of the stress comes from the financial uncertainties of running a business that is mostly community-funded. Then again, this is our choice — and that gives us a sense of control to choose something else if it really doesn’t work out. So we wrote this post just as much for us as we wrote it to help you.
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