Chris talks feature flags featuring Flipper (Say that 3x fast!), and Steph talks reducing stress by a) having a work shutdown ritual and b) the fact that thoughtbot is experimenting with half-day Fridays. (Fri-yay?)
STEPH: Hey, do you know that we could have an in-person recording at the end of October?
CHRIS: I do. Yes, I’m planning. That is in the back of my head. I guess I hadn’t said that to you yet. But I’m glad that we have separately had the same conversation, and we’ve got to figure that out, although I don’t know how to do noise cancellation and whatnot in the room. [laughs] How do we…we’ll have to figure it out. Like, put a blanket in between us but so that we can see across it, but it absorbs sound in the middle. It’s weird. I don’t know how to do stuff. Just thinking out loud here.
STEPH: We’ll just be in the same place but still different rooms. So it’ll feel no different.
Hello and welcome to another episode of The Bike Shed, a weekly podcast from your friends at thoughtbot about developing great software. I’m Steph Viccari.
CHRIS: And I’m Chris Toomey.
STEPH: And together, we’re here to share a bit of what we’ve learned along the way. Hey, Chris, what’s new in your world?
CHRIS: Feature flags. Feature flags are an old favorite, but they have become new again in the application that I’m working on. We had a new feature that we were building out. But we assumed correctly that it would be nice to be able to break it apart into smaller pieces and sort of deliver it incrementally but not necessarily want to expose that to our end users. And so, we opted with that ticket to bring along the feature flag system.
So we’ve introduced Flipper, in particular, which is a wonderful gem; it does the job. We’re using the ActiveRecord adapter. All that kind of makes sense, happy about that. And so now we have feature flags. But it was one of those mindset shifts where the minute we got feature flags, I was like, yes, okay, everything behind a feature flag. And we’ve been leaning into that more and more, and it really is so nice and so freeing, and so absolutely loving it so far.
STEPH: I’m intrigued. You said, “Everything behind a feature flag.” Like, is it really everything or? Yeah, tell me more.
CHRIS: Not everything. But at this point, we’re still very early on in this application, so there are fundamental facets of the platform, different areas of what users can do. And so the actual stuff that works and is wired up is pretty minimal, but we want to have a little more surface area built out in the app for demo purposes, for conversations that are happening, et cetera.
And so, we built out a bunch of new pages to represent functionality. And so there are sidebar links, and then the actual page itself, and routing, and all of the things that are associated with that, and so all of those have come in. I think there are five new top-level nav sections of the platform that are all introduced behind a feature flag right now. And then there’s some new functionality within existing pages that we’ve put behind feature flags. So it’s not truly every line of code, but it’s basically the entry point to all new major features we’re putting behind a feature flag.
STEPH: Okay, cool. I’m curious. How are you finding that in terms of does it feel manageable? Do you feel like anybody can go into the UI and then turn on feature flags for demos and feel confident that they know what they’re turning on and off?
CHRIS: We haven’t gotten to that self-serve place. At this point, the dev team is managing the feature flags. So on production, we have an internal group configured within Flipper. So we can say, “Ship this feature for all internal users so that we can do testing.” So there is a handful of us that all have accounts on production. And then on staging, we have a couple of representative users that we’ve been just turning everything on for so that we know via staging we can act as that user and then see the application with all of the bells and whistles.
Down the road, I think we’re going to get more intentional with it, particularly the idea of a demo account. That’s something that we want to lean into. And for that user, we’ll probably be turning on certain subsets of the feature flags. I think we’ll get a little more granular in how we think about that. For now, we’re not as detailed in it, but I think that is something that we want to expand as we move forward.
STEPH: Nice. Yeah, I was curious because feature flags came up in our recent retro with the client team because we’ve gotten to a point where our feature flags feel complex enough that it’s becoming challenging and not just from the complexity of the feature flags but also from the UI perspective. Where it feels challenging for users to understand how to turn a feature on, exactly what that impacts, and making sure that then they’re not changing developer-focused feature flags, so those are the feature flags that we’re using to ship a change but then not turn it on until we’re ready. It is user-facing, but it’s something that should be managed more by developers as to when we turn it on or off. So I was curious to hear that’s going for you because that’s something that we are looking into.
And funnily enough, you asked me recently, “Why aren’t y’all using Flipper?” And I didn’t have a great answer for you. And that question came up again where we looked at each other, and we’re like, okay, we know there was a really good reason we didn’t use Flipper when we first had this discussion. But none of us can remember, or at least the people in that conversation couldn’t remember. So now we’re asking ourselves the question of we’ve made it this far. Is it time to bring in Flipper or another service? Because we’re getting to the point that we’re starting to build too much of our own feature flag system.
CHRIS: So did you uncover an answer, or are you all just agreeing that the question makes sense?
STEPH: Agreeing that the question makes sense. [laughs]
CHRIS: That’s the first step on a long journey to switching from internal tooling to somebody else managing that for you.
STEPH: Yeah, because none of us could remember exactly. But it was funny because I was like, am I just forgetting something here when you asked me that? So I felt validated that others were like, “Oh yeah, I remember that conversation. But I too can’t recall why we didn’t want to use Flipper in the moment or a similar service.”
CHRIS: I’ll definitely be interested to hear if you do end up trying to migrate off to another system or find a different approach there or if you do stick with the current configuration that you have. Because those projects they’re the sort of sneaky ones that it’s like, oh, we’ve been actually relying on this for a while. It’s a core part of our infrastructure, and how we do the work, and the process, and how we deploy. That’s a lot. And so, to switch that out in-flight becomes really difficult. It’s one of those things where the longer it goes on, the harder it is to make that change. But at some point, you sometimes make the decision to make it. So I will be very interested to hear if you do make that decision and then, if so, what that changeover process looks like.
STEPH: Yeah, totally. I’ll be sure to keep you up to date as we make any progress or decisions around feature flags.
CHRIS: But yeah, your questions around management and communication of it that is a thing that’s in the back of my mind. We’re still early enough in our usage of it, and just broadly, how we’re working, we haven’t really felt that pain yet, but I expect it’s coming very soon. And in particular, we have functionality now that is merged and is part of the codebase but isn’t fully deployed or fully released rather. That’s probably the correct word. We have not fully released this functionality, and we don’t have a system right now for tracking that.
So I’m thinking right now we’re using Trello for product management. I’m thinking we want another column that is not entirely done but is tracking the feature flags that are currently in flight and just use that as a place to gather communication. Do we feel like this is ready? Let’s dial this up to 50%, or let’s enable it for this beta group or whatever it is to sort of be able to communicate that. And then ideally, also as a way to track these are the ones that are active right now. You know what? We feel like this one’s ready. So do the code change so that we no longer use the feature flag, and then we can actually turn it off. Currently, I feel like I can defer that for a little while, but it is something that’s in the back of my mind.
And then, of course, I nerd sniped myself, and I was like, all right, how do I grep the codebase for all the feature flags that we’re using? Okay. There are a couple of different patterns as to how we’re using…You know what? I think I actually need an AST-based parser here, and I need to use the Visitor…You know what? Never mind. Stop it. Stop it. [laughs] It was one of those where I was like…I was doing this not during actual work hours. It was just a question in my mind, and then I started to poke at it. I was like, oh, this could be fun. And then I was like, no, no, no, stop it. You need to go read a book or something. Calm down.
STEPH: As part of the optimization around our feature flag system that we’ve created, we’ve added a few enhancements, which I think is also one of the reasons we’re starting to question how far we want to go in this direction. One of them is we want a very easy way to track what’s turned on and what’s turned off for an environment. So we have a task that will easily check, or it prints out a really nice list of these are all your flags, and this is the state that they’re in. And by using the system that we have, we have one file that represents…well, you mentioned migration because we’re migrating from the old system to this new one. So it’s still a little bit in that space of where we haven’t fully moved over. So now, moving over to a third thing like Flipper will be even more interesting because of that.
But the current system, we have a file that lists all the feature flags and a really nice description that goes with it, which I know is supported by Flipper and other services as well. But having that one file does make it nice where you can just scan through there and see what’s in use. I really think it’s the UI and the challenges that the users are facing and understanding what a feature flag does, and which ones they should turn off, and which ones they shouldn’t touch that that’s the point where we started questioning okay, we need to improve the UI.
But to improve the UI, do we really want to fully embrace our current system and make those improvements, or is now that time that we should consider moving to something else? Because Flipper already has a really nice UI. I think there is a free tier and a paid tier with Flipper, and the paid tier has a UI that ships.
CHRIS: There’s definitely a distinct thing, Flipper Cloud, which is their hosted enterprise-y solution, and that’s the paid offering. But Flipper just the core gem there’s also Flipper web, I want to say is what it is, or Flipper UI. And I think it’s an engine that you mount within your Rails app and that displays a UI so that you can manage things, add groups and teams. So we’re definitely using that. I’ve got my eye on Flipper Cloud, but I have some fundamental questions around I like to keep my data in the system, and so this is an external other thing. And what’s the synchronization? I haven’t really even looked into it like that. But I love that Flipper exists within our application.
One of the niceties that Flipper Cloud does have is an audit history, which I think is interesting just to understand over time who changed what for what reasons? It’s got the ability to roll back and maintain versions and whatnot. So there are some things in it that definitely look very interesting to me. But for now, the open-source, free version of Flipper plus Flipper UI has been plenty for us.
STEPH: That’s cool. I didn’t know about the audit feature.
CHRIS: Yeah. It definitely feels like one of those niceties to have for a more enterprise offering. So I could see myself talking me into it at some point but not quite yet. On that note though, so feature flags we introduced a week and a half, something like that, ago, and we’ve been leaning into them more and more. But as part of that, or in the back of my mind, I’ve wanted to go to continuous deployment.
So we had our first official retro this week. The project is growing up. We’re becoming a lot of things. We used retro to talk about continuous deployment, all of these things that feel very real. Just to highlight it, retro is super important. And the fact that we haven’t had one until now is mainly because up till now, it’s been primarily myself and another developer. So we’ve been having essentially one-on-ones but not a more formal retro that involves others.
At this point, we now have myself and two other developers that are working on the project, as well as someone who’s stepped into the role of product manager. So we now have communication collaboration. How are we doing the work? How are we shipping features and communicating about bugs and all of that? So now felt like the right time to start having that more formal process. So now, every two weeks, we’re going to have a retro, and hopefully, through that, retro will do the magic that retro can do at its best which is help us get better at all the things that we’re doing.
But yeah, one of the core things in this particular one was talking about moving to continuous deployment. And so I am super excited to get there because I think, much like test-driven development, it’s one of those situations where continuous deployment puts a lot of pressure on the development process. Everything that is being merged needs to be ready to go out into production. And honestly, I love that as a constraint because that will change how you build things. It means that you need to be a little more cautious. You can put something behind a feature flag to protect it. You decouple the idea of merging and deploying from releasing. And I like that distinction.
I think that’s a really meaningful distinction because it makes you think about what’s the entry point to this feature within the codebase? And it’s, I think, actually really nice to have fewer and more intentional entry points into various bits of functionality such that if you actually want to shut it off in production, you can do that. That’s more straightforward. I think it encourages an intentional coupling, maybe not a perfect decoupling but an intentional coupling within the system.
So I’m very excited to explore it. I think feature flags are going to be critical for it, and I think also observability, and monitoring, and logging, and all those things. We need to get really good at them so that if anything does go wrong when we just merge and deploy, we want to know if anything goes wrong as quickly as possible. But overall, I’m super excited about all of the other niceties that fall out of it.
STEPH: [singing] I wanna know what’s turned on, and I want you to show me. Is that the song you’re singing to Flipper? [laughs]
STEPH: Sorry, friends. I just had to go there.
CHRIS: That was just in your head. You had that, and you needed to get it out. I appreciate it. [laughter] Again, I got Flipper UI, so that’s not the question I’m asking. I think that’s the question you have in your heart.
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STEPH: That’s funny about the CI deployment adding pressure to the development process because you’re absolutely right. But I see it as such a positive and improvement that I don’t really think about the pressure that it’s adding. And I just think, yes, this is awesome, and I want this to happen and if there are steps that we have to take in that direction.
It dawned on me that what you said is very true, but I’ve just never really thought about it from that perspective about the pressure. Because I think the thing that does add more pressure for me is figuring out what can I deploy, or do I need to cherry-pick commits? What does that look like? And going through that whole cycle and stress is more stressful to me than figuring out how do we get to continuous deployments and making sure that everything is in a safe space to be deployed?
CHRIS: That’s the dream. I’m going to see if I can live it. I’ll let you know how it goes. But yeah, that’s a bit of what’s up in my world. What else is going on in your world other than some lovely singing?
STEPH: Oh, there’s always lots of singing. It’s been an interesting week. It’s been a mix of some hiring work. Specifically, we are helping our client team build their development team. So we have been helping them implement a hiring process. And then also going through technical interviews and then going through different stages of that interview process. And that’s been really nice. I haven’t done that specifically for a client team where I helped them build a hiring pipeline from scratch and then also conduct those interviews.
And one thing that stood out to me is that rotations are really important to me and specifically that we don’t ask for volunteers. So as we were having candidates come through and then they were ready to schedule an interview, then we are reaching out to the rest of the development team and saying, “Hey, we have this person. They’re going to be scheduled at this time. Who’s available? Who’s interested? I’m looking for volunteers.” And that puts pressure on people, especially someone that may be more empathetic to feel the need to volunteer. So then you can end up having more people volunteer than others.
So we’ve established a rotation to make sure that doesn’t happen, and people are assigned as it becomes their next turn to conduct an interview. So that’s been a lot of fun to refine that process and essentially make it easier. So the rest of the development team doesn’t have to think about the hiring. But it still has an easy way of just saying, “Hey,” and tapping someone to say, “Hey, it’s your turn to run an interview.”
The other thing I’ve been working out is figuring out how to measure an experiment. So we at thoughtbot are running an experiment where we’re looking to address some of the concerns around sustainability and people feeling burned out. And so we have introduced half-day Fridays, more specifically 3.5 Fridays, as our half-day Fridays just to help everybody be certain about what a half-day looks like.
And then also, you can choose your half-day. Everybody works different schedules. We’re across different time zones, so just to make sure it’s really clear for folks and that they understand that they don’t need to work more than those hours, and then they should have that additional downtime. And that’s been amazing. This is the second Friday of the experiment, and we’re doing this for nine Fridays straight.
And one of the questions that came up was, well, how do we know we did a good thing? How do we know that we helped people in terms of sustainability or addressing some of the feelings that they’re having around burnout? And so I’ve collaborated with a couple of other thoughtboters to think through of a way to measure it. It turns out helping someone measure their wellness is incredibly complex. And so we went for a fairly simple approach where we’re using an anonymous survey with a number of questions.
And those questions aren’t really meant to stand up to scientific scrutiny but more to figure out how the team is feeling at the time that they fill out the survey and then also to understand how the reduced weekly hours have impacted their schedule. And are people working extra hours to then accommodate the fact that we now have these half Fridays? So do you feel pressured that because you can’t work a full day on Friday that you are now working an extra hour or two Monday through Thursday to accommodate that time off? So that survey just went out today.
And one of the really interesting parts (I just haven’t had to create content for a survey in a while.) was making sure that I’m not introducing leading questions or phrasing things in a very positive or negative light since that is a bias that then people will pick up on. So instead of saying, “I find it easy to focus at work,” and then having like a multiple choice of true, always, never, that kind of thing, instead rephrasing the question to be, “Are you able to focus during work hours?” And then you have a scale there.
Or instead of asking someone how much energy they have, maybe it’s something like, “Do you experience fatigue during the day?” Or instead of asking someone, “Are you stressed at work?” because that can have a more negative connotation. It may lead someone to feel more negatively as they are assessing that question. Then you can say, “How do you feel when you’re at work?” And then you can provide those answers of I’m stressed, slightly stressed, neutral, slightly relaxed, and relaxed.
So it generated some interesting conversations around the importance of how we phrase questions and how we collect feedback. And I really enjoyed that process, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what folks have to say. And we’re going to have three surveys total. So we have one that’s early on in the experiment since we’re only two Fridays in. We’ll have one middle experiment survey go out, and then we’ll have one at the end once we’re done. And then hopefully, everybody’s responses will then help us understand how the experiment went and then make a decision going forward.
I’ll be honest; I’m really hoping that this becomes a trend and something that we stick with. It is a professional goal of mine to slowly reduce the hours that I work each week or quickly; it doesn’t have to be slowly. But I really like the four-day workweek. It’s something that I haven’t done, but I’ve been reading about it a fair amount lately. I feel like I’ve been seeing more studies conducted recently becoming published, and it’s just very interesting to me.
I had some similar concerns of how am I still going to be productive? My to-do list hasn’t changed, but my hours are changing. So how am I still going to get everything done? And does it make sense for me to still get paid the same amount of money if I’m only working four out of the five days? And I had lots of questions around that, and the studies have been very enlightening and very positive in the outcome of a reduced workweek, not just for the individuals but for the companies as well.
CHRIS: It’s such an interesting space and exploration. The way that you’re framing the survey sounds really great. It sounds like you’re trying to be really intentional around the questions that you’re asking and not being leading and whatnot. That said, it is one of the historically hard problems trying to quantify this and trying to actually boil it down.
And there are so many different axes even that you’re measuring on. Is it just increased employee happiness? Is it retention that you’re talking about? Is it overall revenue? There are so many different things, and it’s very tricky. I’m super interested to hear the results when you get those. So you’re doing what sounds like more of a qualitative study like, how are you feeling? As opposed to a more quantitative sort of thing, is that right?
STEPH: Yes, it’s more in the realm of how are you feeling? And are you working extra hours, or are you truly taking the time off?
CHRIS: Yeah, I think it’s really hard to take something like this and try and get it into the quantitative space, even though like, oh yeah, if we could have a number, if it used to be two and now it’s four, fantastic. We’ve doubled whatever that measure is. I don’t know what the unit would be on this arbitrary number I made up. But again, that’s the hard thing and probably not feasible at all. And so it makes sense the approach that you’re taking. But it’s super difficult. So I’m very interested to hear how that goes.
More generally, the four-day workweek thing is such a nice idea. We should do that more. I’m trying to think how long I did that. So during the period that I was working freelance, I think there were probably at least five months where I did just a true four-day workweek. Fridays were my own. It was fantastic. Granted, I recorded the podcast with you. But that day was mine to shape as I wanted.
And I found it was a really nice decompression period having that for a number of weeks in a row. And just getting to take care of personal stuff that I hadn’t been and just having that extra little bit of space and time. And it really was wonderful. Now I’m working full five days a week, and my Fridays aren’t even investment days, so I don’t know what I’m doing over here.
But I agree. I really like that idea, and I think it’s a wonderful thing. And it’s, I don’t know, sort of the promise of this whole capitalism adventure we’re supposed to go on, increasing productivity. And wasn’t this the promise the whole time, everybody, so I am intrigued to see it being explored more, to see it being discussed. And what you’re talking about of it’s not just good for the employees, but it’s also great for the companies. You’re getting people that are more engaged on the days that they’re working, which feels very true to me.
Like, on a great day, I can do some amazing work. On a terrible day, I can do mediocre to bad work. It is totally possible for me to do something that is actively detrimental. Like, I introduce a bug that is going to impact a bunch of customers. And the remediation of that is going to take many more hours. That is totally a realistic thing. I think we often think of productivity in terms of are you at zero or some amount more than zero? But there is definitely another side of that. And so the cost of being not at your best is extremely high in my mind. And so anything we can do to improve that.
STEPH: There’s a recent study from a non-profit company called Autonomy that published some research called Going Public: Iceland’s Journey to a Shorter Working Week. It’s very interesting. And a number of people in my social circle have shared it. And that’s one of the reasons that I came across it. And they commented in there that one of the reasons…I hope I’m getting this right, but we’ll link to it in case I’ve gotten it a bit wrong.
But one of the reasons that Iceland was interested or open to this idea of moving workers to a shorter workweek is because they were struggling with productivity and where people were working a lot of hours, but it still felt like their productivity was dropping. So then Autonomy ran this study to help figure out are there ways to improve productivity? Will shortening a workweek actually lead to higher productivity?
And there was a statement in there that I really liked where it talks about the more hours that we work; we’re actually lowering our per hour productivity which rings so true for me. Because I am one of those individuals where I’m very stubborn, and so if I’m stuck on something, I will put so many hours into trying to figure it out. But at some point, I have to just walk away, and if I do, I will solve it that much faster. But if I just try to use hours as my way to chip away at a problem, then that’s not going to solve it. And my ability to solve that problem takes exponentially more time than if I had just walked away and then come back to the problem fresh and engaged.
And some of the case studies I admired the way that they tackled the problem. They would essentially pay the company. So the company could reduce the hours for certain employees so then they could run the experiment. So if they reduced employees to say 32 hours but the company didn’t actually want to stop working at 32 hours and they wanted to keep going, so then they brought in other people to work the remaining eight hours. Then as part of that study, they would pay the company to help them stay at their current level of productivity or current level of hours. This way, they could conduct the study. And I thought that was a really neat idea.
I do have lots of questions still around the approach itself because it is how do you reduce your to-do list, essentially? So just because you dropped to a four-day workweek. So essentially, you have to just say less stuff gets done. Or, as these case studies promise, they’re saying you’re actually going to be more productive. So you will still continue to get a lot of your work done. I’m curious about that. I’d like to track my own productivity and see if I feel similarly.
And then also, who is this for? Is this for everybody? Does everybody get to move to a four-day workweek? Is this for certain companies? Is it for certain jobs? Ideally, this is for everybody because there are so many health benefits to this, but I’m just intrigued as to who this is for, who it impacts, how can we make it available for everyone? And is the dream real that I can work four days a week and still feel as productive, if not more productive, and healthier, and happier as I do when working five days a week?
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CHRIS: I remember there was an extended period where working remote was this unique benefit that some organizations had. They had adopted that mode. They were async, and remote, and all of these wonderful things. And it became this really interesting selling point for those companies. Now the pandemic obviously pushed public opinion and everything on that in a pretty significant way such that it’s a much more common thing. And so, as a result, I think it’s less of a differentiator now. It used to be a way to help with recruiting.
I wonder if there are organizations that are willing to take this, try it out, see that they are still close to as productive. But if it means that hiring is twice as easy, that is absolutely…especially if it is able to double your ability to hire, that is incredibly valuable or retention similarly. If you can increase retention or if you can make it easier to hire, the value of that is so, so high.
And it’s interesting in my mind because there’s sort of a gold rush on that. That’s only true for as long as a four-day workweek is a unique benefit of working at the organization. If this is actually the direction that everything’s going and eventually everyone’s going to settle to that, then if you wait too long to get there, then you’re going to miss all the benefits. You’re going to miss that particular benefit of it.
And so I do wonder, would it be advantageous to organizations…I’m thinking about this now. Maybe this is the thing I have to do. But would it be advantageous to be that organization as early on as possible and try to get ahead of the curve and use that to hire more easily, retain more easily? Now that I say it all out loud, I’m sold. All right. I got to do this.
STEPH: Yeah, I think that’s a great comparison of where people are going to start to look for those types of benefits. And so, if you are one of the early adopters and you have the four-day workweek or a reduced workweek in general, then people will gravitate towards that benefit. And it’s something that people can use to really help with hiring and retention. And yeah, I love it.
You are CTO. So you have influence within your company that you could push for the four-day workweek if you think that’s what you want to do. And I would be really intrigued to hear how that goes and how you feel if you…well, you’ve done it before where you’ve worked four days a week. So applying that to your current situation, how does that feel?
CHRIS: Now you’re actually holding me accountable to the things that I randomly said in passing. But it’s interesting. So we’re so early stage, and there’s so much small work to do. There’s all…oh, got to set up a website. We’ve got to do this. We’ve got to build that integration. There’s just kind of scrambling to be done.
And so there’s a certain version in my mind that maybe we’re in a period of time where additional hours are actually useful. There’s a cost to them. Let’s be clear about that. And so how long that will remain true, I’m not sure. I could see a point perhaps down the road where we achieve a little bit closer to steady-state maybe, who knows? It depends on how fast growth is and et cetera, a lot of other things.
So I’m not sure that I would actually lead with this experiment myself, given where the organization is at right now. But I could see an organization that’s at a little bit more of a steady-state, that’s growing more incrementally, that is trying to think really hard about things like hiring and retention. If those were bigger questions in my mind, then I think I would be considering this more pointedly. But for now, I’m like, I kind of just got to do a bunch of stuff. And so my brain is telling me a different story, but it is interesting. I want to interrogate that and be like, brain, why is that the story you have there, huh? Huh?
STEPH: I really appreciate what you’re saying, though, because that makes sense to me. I understand when you are in that earlier stage, there’s enough to do that that feels correct. Versus that added benefit of having a reduced workweek does benefit or could benefit larger companies who are looking to hire more heavily, or they’re also concerned about retention or just helping their people address feelings of burnout. So I really appreciate that perspective because that also rings true.
So along this whole conversation around wellness and how we can help people work more sustainable hours, there’s a particular book that I’ve read that I’ve been really excited to share and chat with you about. It’s called Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. It’s written by two sisters, Emily and Amelia Nagoski. And they really talk through the impact that stress has on us and then ways to work through that.
And specifically, they talk about completing the stress cycle. And I found this incredibly useful for me because I have had weeks where I have just worked hard Monday through Friday. I’ve gotten to the end of my day Friday, and I’m like, great, I’m done. I’ve made it. I can just relax. And I walk away from work, and I can’t relax. And I’m just like, I feel sick. I feel not good.
Like, I thought I would walk away from work, and I would just suddenly feel this halo of relaxation, and everything would be wonderful. But instead, I just feel a bit ill, and I’ve never understood that until I was reading their book about completing the stress cycle. Have you ever had moments like that?
CHRIS: It has definitely happened to me at various points, yes.
STEPH: That makes me feel better because I haven’t really chatted about this with someone. So until I read this book and I was like, oh, maybe this is a thing, and it’s not just me, and this is something that people are experiencing. So to speak more about completing the stress cycle, they really highlight that stress and feelings, capital F feelings, can cause physiological symptoms. And so it’s not just something that we are mentally processing, but we are physically processing the stress that we feel.
And there’s a really big difference between stressors and stress. So a stressor could be something like an unmeetable deadline. It could be family. It could be money concerns. It could be your morning commute, anything that increases your stress level. And during that, there’s a very physical process that happens to your body anytime there’s a perceived threat. And it’s really helpful to us because it’s frankly what triggers our fight, flight, or freeze response. And our bodies receive a rush of adrenaline and cortisol, which essentially, if we’re using that flight response, that’s going to help us run. And a number of the processes in our system will essentially go into a state of hibernation because everything in our body is very focused on helping us run or do the thing that we think is going to save our life in that moment.
The problem is our body doesn’t know the difference between what’s more of a mental threat versus what is a truly physical threat. So this is the difference between your stress and your stressors. So in more of a physical threat, if there’s a lion that you are running from, that is the stressor, but then the stress is everything that you still feel after you have run from that lion.
So you encounter a lion, you run. You make it back to your group of people where you are safe, and you celebrate, and you dance, and you hug. And that is completing the stress cycle because you are essentially processing all of that stress. And you are telling your body in a body-focused language that I am safe now, and everything is fine. So you can move back, and anything that was in a hibernation state, all of that dump of adrenaline and cortisol can be worked out of your system, and everything can go back to a normal state.
Most of us aren’t encountering lions, but we do encounter jerks in meetings or really stressful commutes. And whenever we have survived that meeting, or we’ve gotten through our commute to the other side, we don’t have that moment of celebration where we really let our body know that hey, we’ve made it through that moment of stress, and we are away from that stressor, and we can actually process everything.
So if you’re interested in this, the book’s really great. It talks about ways that you can process that stress and how important it is to do so. Otherwise, it will literally build up in your system, and it can make you sick. And it will manifest in ways that will let us know that we haven’t dealt with that stress.
And one of the top methods that they recommend is exercise and movement. That’s a really great way to let your body know that you are no longer in an unsafe state, and your body can start to relax. There’s also a lot of other great ways. Art is a really big one. It could be hugging someone. It could be calling someone that you love. There are a number of ways that you can process it. But I hadn’t recognized how important it is that once you have removed yourself from a stressor, that doesn’t necessarily just mean you’re done, and you can relax. You actually have to go through that physical process, and then you can relax.
So I started incorporating that more into my day that when I’m done with work, I always find something to do, and it’s typically to go for a walk, or it’s go for a run. And I have found that now I really haven’t felt that ill-feeling where I’m trying to relax, but I just feel sick. Saying that out loud, I feel like I’m a mess on Fridays. [chuckles]
CHRIS: I feel like you’re human. It was interesting when you asked the question at the beginning. You were like, “Is this a thing that other people experience?” And my answer was certainly, yes; I have experienced this. I think there’s something about me that I think is useful where I don’t think I’m special at all on any axis whatsoever. And so whenever there’s something that’s going on, I’m like, I assume that this is just normal human behavior, which is useful because most of the time it is.
And this is the sort of thing where if I’m having a negative experience, I will look to the external world to be like, I’m sure other people have experienced this, and let me pull that in. And I’ve found that really useful for myself to just be like, I’m not special. There’s nothing particularly special about me. So let me go look from the entirety of the internet where people have almost certainly talked about this. And I’ve not read the book that you’re describing here, but it does sound like it does a great job of describing this.
There is a blog post that I found that has stayed in the back of my mind and informed a little bit of my day-to-day approach to this sort of thing which is a blog post by Cal Newport, who I think at this point we’ve mentioned him a handful of times on the show. But the title of the post is Drastically Reduce Stress with a Work Shutdown Ritual. And it’s this very interesting little post where he talks about at the end of your day; you want to close the book on it. I think this is especially pointed now that many of us are working from home. For me, this is a new thing. And so, I’ve been very intentional with trying to put walks at the beginning and end of my day.
But in this particular blog post, he describes a routine that he does where he tidies things up and makes his list for the next day. And then he has a particular phrase that he says, which is “schedule shut down, complete.” And it’s a sort of nonsense phrase. It doesn’t even quite make sense grammatically, but it’s his phrase that he internalized, and somehow this became his almost mantra for the end of the day.
And now when he does it, that’s like his all right, okay, turned off the brain, and now I can walk away. I know that I’ve said the phrase, and I only say the phrase when I have properly set things up. And so it’s this weird structure that he’s built in his mind. But it totally works to quiet those voices that are like, yeah, but what about…Do we think about…Do we complete…And he’s got now this magic phrase that he can say. And so I’ve really loved that.
For myself, I haven’t gotten quite to that level, but I’ve definitely built the here’s how I wind down at the end of the day. Here’s what I do with lists and what I do so that I can ideally walk away comfortably. Again, this is one of those situations where I sound like I know what I’m doing or have my act together. This is aspirational me.
Day-to-day me is a hot mess like everybody else. [laughs] And this is just what I…when I do this, I feel better. Most of the time, I don’t do this because I forget it, or because I’m busy, or because I’m stressed, [chuckles], and so I don’t do the thing that reduces stress, you know, human stuff. But I really enjoyed that post.
STEPH: I haven’t heard that one. I like a lot of Cal Newport’s work, but I haven’t read that particular blog post. Yeah, I think the idea of completing the stress cycle has helped me tremendously because by giving it a name like completing the stress cycle has been really helpful for me because working out is important to me. It’s something that I enjoy, but it’s also one of those things that’s easy to get bumped. It is part of my wellness routine. And so, if I’m really busy, then I will bump it from the list. And then it’s something that then doesn’t get addressed.
But recognizing that this is also important to my productivity, not to just this general idea of wellness, has really helped me recenter how important this is and to make sure that I recognize hey, it’s been a stressful day. I need to get up and move. That is a very important part of my day. It is not just part of an exercise routine, but this is something that I need to do to close out my day to then make sure I have a great day tomorrow.
So bringing it back, it’s been a week that’s been filled with a lot of discussions around burnout and then ways that we can measure it and then also address it. And I’ve really enjoyed reading this book. So I’ll be sure to drop a link in the show notes. On that note, shall we wrap up?
CHRIS: Schedule shut down, complete. The show notes for this episode can be found at bikeshed.fm.
STEPH: This show is produced and edited by Mandy Moore.
CHRIS: If you enjoyed listening, one really easy way to support the show is to leave us a quick rating or even a review in iTunes, as it really helps other folks find the show.
STEPH: If you have any feedback for this or any of our other episodes, you can reach us at @_bikeshed or reach me on Twitter @SViccari.
CHRIS: And I’m @christoomey
STEPH: Or you can reach us at [email protected] via email.
CHRIS: Thanks so much for listening to The Bike Shed, and we’ll see you next week.
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