The Dirty Dozen #10: Stress

Apr 30, 2007 / By Doug Burns

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Number 10? I only just finished Dirty Dozen #1. What’s going on here, then?

Well, no one said I had to write them in any particular order! But, if you look at the posters, they are clearly numbered. Should someone else pick up the Dirty Dozen challenge, it will help them to see which ones I’ve covered already if I use the numbers in the titles.

Besides, I particularly wanted to address the impact of stress in a DBA’s life because I’ve had some extremely relevant recent experience.

Dirty Dozen Poster #10

The most difficult aspect of my first few months at Pythian has been my elevated stress levels. I don’t usually get stressed out about much, particularly my work, which I feel I control. It does happen, though, and I can recall a few stressful times in the past when I was working in a busy front-line support role for another company, so it’s not limited to my time at Pythian.

Frankly, it would be an unusual DBA support role that was stress-free, and a little stress is part of the fun. One day you’re going to have to recover a production database (and fast!) so it goes with the territory. However, a combination of several new customer environments; working alone at home in a different timezone to most of my colleagues; and such a wide variety of tasks, is a little different to what I’ve been used to. My own guess is that an accumulation of common stress factors has made it more stressful than past roles.

The poster describes several strategies to avoid stress becoming a problem and I’ll go through some of those, relating them to my recent experiences.

Determine a Rational Course of Action and Follow It

Once you start to become stressed, it’s very easy to make things worse if you don’t have a clear idea of where you’ve been so far and where you’re going next.

The Support Track system we use at Pythian is great at helping out with the former because, if you ever feel you’ve lost your thread or something doesn’t seem right, you can easily re-trace your steps to work out why.

Even before I worked at Pythian, I was quite methodical in recording my actions during significant maintenance activities. Part of the reason was to cover my behind should something go wrong, but it also helped me focus my thoughts and made the final “success” email easier to write because I had an accurate reflection of my actions.

However, minimizing stress is primarily about having full confidence in where you’re going next — eliminating (or at least reducing) the unknown. To achieve that, you need to think before you act. Decide on a rational course of action instead of just hammering away at your keyboard. This needs to be an iterative process, too, because you might need to change course to deal with the unexpected. At that point you need to stop and determine a new “Rational Course of Action”.

The poster highlights the fact that you need to stay on track, i.e. “…Follow It”. That’s particularly tricky to pull off when you’re over-stressed, though. Stress leads to chaotic thought processes and that can lead you to lose sight of your original plan. However, at least a plan reduces the risk and gives you something to reconnect with when you realise you’ve gone off on a tangent.

Take Time Off or At Least a Short Break

Consider what you do in the office from day to day and minute to minute. Better still, take some time one day to record it. Even if your workload is great, my guess is that someone will stop and chat with you occasionally and you’ll find that you work less than you think you do.

There are fewer natural breaks if you’re working in isolation. I’ve learned over recent weeks to force myself to take more breaks. Even so, without someone else’s words occupying your thoughts for a few minutes, your mind never truly breaks away from work and you can become locked into a constant pace.

I think it’s essential for a DBA to stop typing at the keyboard sometimes and think about what they’re doing. It probably does no harm to chat about last night’s TV, politics or football either. Mmm, I suppose that should have read “hockey”!

Discuss it with Someone

One of my favourite parts of the poster is the cartoon!

“We lost our best aircraft. How are they going to pay my wages? What if I am sued?”

Oh, I know that feeling! ;-) When you’ve screwed something up and are working alone, it’s easy to let your thoughts run away with you. Discussing it with someone calms the situation down and places it in its proper perspective. That was definitely missing for a good few hours each day.

Each individual is different, and some will worry more than others, but nothing helps reduce stress as much as having a few words with another human being who can see what you can never see yourself: that you’re over-stressed and irrational.

Hey, as someone might have said once — it’s good to talk!

Ask Fellow Workers to Monitor Your Work

I recall a particularly trying incident from a few weeks ago.

Alex G. and I were working on restoring a database from an ASM disk-based Flash Recovery Area to a RAM-disk for a benchmark. I started off the work in the morning and screwed up a step. I can’t even remember what it was now, but it’s not as important, though, as what happened next.

From then on, every approach I took kept failing (and this isn’t uncommon when dealing with recovery). I could not get this damn backup to restore, no matter what I tried. I knew enough about the problem to understand what was causing it — I didn’t have the correct copy of the control file. I was also able to retrace my steps, as I described previously, but I still couldn’t find it. I wanted to have it ready for Alex getting into work, so I tried all sorts of hacks to get where we needed to be. (That’s another poor response to stress — working more quickly!)

Eventually, I just couldn’t see the problem at all, no matter how much I looked at it and, if anything, I was getting myself more confused. That’s when you know it’s time for a fresh pair of eyes to look at the problem.

So — and I hate to admit this — I gave up, dumped it in Alex’s lap, and more or less said, “I’m going backwards here, so why don’t you try?” He worked his way through my actions and we discussed them. Still we couldn’t get it to work, but the experience was much less stressful for having someone else involved.

In the end, it was solved by placing another fresh set of eyes on the problem — mine, after I’d had a good night’s sleep and woke up knowing what I had to do. It was simple and took me less than 10 minutes to find the control file I was looking for. We’re back to the need to take a break again, aren’t we?

Exercise Your Body

Ha ha ha ha!

Ha!

Now that I’ve picked myself up from the floor and stopped laughing (I’m not exactly a regular at the gym), I must admit I do recognise how important physical movement is to reducing stress. When I think back, I have always moved around when I’m working, whether to walk outside for a smoke, make a coffee, or go for a walk at lunchtime.

Beside easing the physical tension, I think the main benefit of exercise is that it changes your focus and the parts of your brain in use. Thoughts just mysteriously pop into my head when I start moving that just wouldn’t come out if I were staring at a screen. So, even now when I’m working at home, I’ll walk around the house for a few minutes to change my focus.

It’s Just Work!

In the end, you have to remember that it’s just work! I think I take my work about as seriously as anyone I know (although I’ve met a few competitors at Pythian), but becoming stressed about it helps no one. Your productivity decreases, you make more mistakes, and you make yourself and those around you unhappy. An energetic approach to work is a powerful tool, as long as you control it appropriately, and don’t allow it to control you.

3 Responses to “The Dirty Dozen #10: Stress”

  • Alexander Fatkulin says:

    > Number 10? I only just finished Dirty Dozen #1. What’s going on here, then?

    “There are only 10 types of peoples in the world: those who understand binary and those who don’t” :)

  • burns says:

    Ha! I missed that one ;-)

    Still, I would have ruined it when I moved on to number 12 next.

  • lamarche says:

    I’ve learned over recent weeks to force myself to take more breaks. Even so, without someone else’s words occupying your thoughts for a few minutes, your mind never truly breaks away from work and you can become locked into a constant pace.

    I think it’s essential for a DBA to stop typing at the keyboard sometimes and think about what they’re doing.

    There’s a good program called workrave primarily made to deal with RSI, but I would assume it is as suited for this purpose:
    http://workrave.org/welcome/

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