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Optimal Design Performance Under Stress

22 Aug 2009

Charles_Thévenin_-_Reddition_de_la_ville_d'UlmNapoleon may very well have been a high performer under stress

In Stress makes programmer's dumber I brought additional attention to the fine work of Alan G. Carter in his essays called The Programmer's Stone. Not only did I learn that stress caused a measurable decline in the cognitive ability to use juxtapositional thinking (JT) for complex design work (general complex level of thinking/problem solving). But apparently the great majority of commenters on this blog, from Hacker News and the subreddit programming were all very familiar with this phenomenon. (My fiance is pressing her stress relief ducky at this very moment, and I'm doing my best to remain in the writing flow ;))

Can We Learn How to Ignore or Overcome Stress?

Alan mentioned that select individuals he has worked with or known, don't have the normal neurological response to stress that most others do. These high performers seemed undaunted in their ability to wield juxtapositional thinking to solve difficult problems. My hypothesis is that any of us can learn how to better cope with stress in regards to juxtapositional thinking. Simply by training our response to interruptions, we can increase our mental state's "durability". Instead of focusing our complete attention on a ringing phone, co-worker's visit, or barking dog we simply give them only our most automated attention and continue to maintain a high functioning mental state. The task requires us to practice a form of working meditation where we acknowledge distractions but don't over react to their presence. Obliviousness may be the apparent social characteristic of practicing this form of cognitive training, but it's important to be open with your co-workers, associates or friends. Communicate that you are not ignoring them so much as training your ability to achieve extended periods of juxtapositional thinking.

There's also strong correlation with the flow state, an optimal working state of mind, and a stronger tolerance to stress interruptions to JT. In the flow we project our positive state of minds outwards to those around us. We do this by action, mannerisms, and conversational tones. In this way we can help induce others into a JT state of mind by reducing stress in the lucrative effort of building gelled teams.