Looks like I picked a bad day to quit sniffing glue
June 24, 2009 6:27 PM   Subscribe

How can I learn to be cool under pressure?

So, yesterday at work was a very bad day. The project I had been working on for months went live on the web, and melted down under the load within three minutes. The weight of the entire company seemed to be resting on my shoulders, and while I didn't exactly curl up in a corner and cry for my mommy I definitely did lose my cool as the pressure mounted. How do I learn to remain calm, cool and collected in stressful, chaotic situations. Tips? Tricks? Interesting books on the subject?
posted by Lokheed to Work & Money (13 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
If you snapped at people I don't think that's a big problem - understandable under the circumstances. If you were standing on the table cursing them out, then maybe this will help the next time: take a step back. Go get a cold glass of water, step outside for a minute, just do something to break clear for a minute and clear your mind. It really does help. Delaying your response to a problem is often the best possible immediate response, as long as you don't take it too far.

I think it would be helpful for you to do an after action review or lessons learned session with your team. Was there adequate load testing, should go-live have been scheduled for after hours, do you have a framework for moving stuff into production, etc. (Not saying those are the issues, just saying, figure out what went wrong). It helps you get a handle on things and also shows your team and your managers that you can recover from a mis-step. Because in any significant project, mistakes and mis-steps are gonna happen.

Hope you have a better day tomorrow, Lokheed. Don't worry - this stuff happens to everyone from time to time.
posted by txvtchick at 7:07 PM on June 24, 2009

Playing video games helped me be more calm in stressful situations. Especially single player games where you know that there's a way to win as long as you can find it and not screw up.

Games can immerse you into intense situations but the penalty for failure is minimal. For me it was a great way to train my reactions in two stressful situations. One was to react better to failure, instead of throwing the controller across the room I began to calmly asked myself what went wrong and then dove back in. The other was to not choke. That final quarter mile of the race, or final hole of the course or play of the game where you're thinking "if I screw this up, I lose!" and so therefore you screw it up and you lose. Instead staying calm, regulating your breathing and put the Bad Things out of your mind and focus on the tasks at hand--even while driving down virtual city streets at 200mph.

It doesn't even need to be an action game. Golf is one that really helped me. Real golf would probably work better but is hard to play at 10pm.
posted by Ookseer at 7:08 PM on June 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

Therapy helped me with this.
posted by sweetkid at 7:13 PM on June 24, 2009

Each time something like this happens, take a deep breath and ask yourself honestly if the event would truly make a difference enough for anyone to remember in five weeks, five months, or five years. I keep a small post-it with the word "DUCK" written in very small letters hidden on my desk. No one knows it's there, but it's my secret way of remembering a quote attributed to the wonderful Michael Caine: "Be like a duck. Calm on the surface, but always paddling like the dickens underneath."
posted by mochapickle at 7:31 PM on June 24, 2009 [7 favorites]

One thing that helps me a lot is to just look at the situation totally dispassionately and be quietly amused by it. For example, in this situation, if it had been my web project crashing, I would probably have said something like, "damn, that's going to be quite a bit of work" or "nice job, champion" quietly. Just remember that no matter what happens, it's not going to matter a week later, and you're probably not going to get in trouble about it.
posted by Slinga at 8:55 PM on June 24, 2009

I close my eyes, and for a second it feels like I'm not even there. Do this a couple of times and pretty soon I am calmed down.
posted by Theloupgarou at 9:15 PM on June 24, 2009

I'm not sure if I can explain this without sounding asinine, but when a clusterfuck starts to go down it seems to help me to keep the Big Thing always at the forefront of my mind. (Sometimes you have to figure out what the Big Thing is first.) Everything else is either a step towards fixing the Big Thing, or irrelevant. That's the thing you've got to concentrate on. Every little thing has to be evaluated in light of the Big Thing before you even attempt to deal with it, and you're constantly asking yourself as you go, what's the next step that I need to do to fix the Big Thing? There's a tendency in a situation where everything seems to be going wrong to try and solve every problem as it emerges, to try and go back and trace how things went wrong, and to try and go forward and game out the ultimate consequences of the fuck-up. But you get pulled into the weeds trying to solve every problem, and you can't do dick about the future or the past, and worrying about them is a waste of time until the immediate problem is solved.

In a situation such as the one you describe, it would seem to me that The Big Thing would be to get the site back up and running. So, the boss is flipping out? Irrelevant, you'll address that later. This should not have happened if the tests I told them to do had been done? Irrelevant, you can figure that out later. Stuff you really need to know is, how do we turn this off so we can fix it, about how long will it take us to fix it, what do we tell people in the meantime? Those are a bunch of little, relevant things that go towards the Big Thing.

Maybe that sounds simplistic. But in my limited experience, one of the biggest difficulties in a crisis is people interjecting new info all the time; you can get all wrapped up in whatever the last thing someone said was. It's helpful to have that constant filter being applied to every little flappy-armed freakout. Also, any yelling can usually be done later.
posted by Diablevert at 9:20 PM on June 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

I try to avoid stressful, chaotic projects, and can't claim to cope with such situations particularly well, but I've managed to improve over the years. For me, there are two key aspects to stop and consider when it all goes wrong:

1. Does it really matter? Is anyone going to die if the site has problems? In reality, is it even going to seriously affect the company?

2. What can I realistically do about it right now? What sensible, rational things should I be methodically planning and implementing? (Rather than rushing to do something that hasn't been thought through and might make things worse)

I once worked on the official site for an annual sporting event, and minutes before the start a 'helpful' hardware support person insisted on doing an upgrade and took everything down. So the event started while we were tearing our hair out and thinking of the horrible repercussions if we couldn't fix it for hours/days.
An hour or two later someone calmer found a clever way to force a downgrade and got it working. We did a good job for the rest of the event, and in the end the screw-up at the start didn't matter. No one died. No one got fired. Any anger or disappointed dissipated and was forgotten. Things go wrong with launches and have to be dealt with.
posted by malevolent at 2:17 AM on June 25, 2009

Several people I know have the mantra "it's only a website". And indeed, if it's only a website, I would chant that internally while I went about my business. (My ex-wife was a midwife. If she screwed up, she could kill two people. The worst I could do at a bank or telco was lose people a bunch of money they would quickly get back. Perspective.)

But anyway, suppose that it's not only a website. Perhaps it is you who has to get the air traffic controllers back online. One thing you can do is bat away thoughts and feelings that are not connected with fixing the problem. Recriminations don't fix the problem, shouting at people to let off steam doesn't fix the problem, kicking the cat doesn't fix the problem. Only taking actions whose aim is fixing the problem can fix the problem. That sounds inane but it's a good thing to tell yourself if panic starts to get a grip.

Connected with this, you prepare for emergencies in a general way by having a plan. For example, maybe you have a "war room" style approach:
- gather a select few important people into a room
- write down the clearest statement of the problem you know
- ... the symptoms that you see
- ... the hypotheses you have as to their causes
- ... how you will test those hypotheses
- ... how you will address the causes once identified
- assign tasks
- agree when to reconvene, how to stay in touch
- go

Or not. Maybe in your line of business there is a different and better way to organise. But if you have a plan, any plan, in advance, it'll help free up some precious brain capacity. If this shit is going to happen again tomorrow, take 10 minutes tonight to plan your general response.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:00 AM on June 25, 2009

I once worked for a raging, crazy monster and I always found myself in those situations: everyone was counting on me - or rather, I was going to be blamed if things went sour. It was a highly visible position and I hated it. I had to make this or that work all the time.

Since I've been out of that job, I've found that it definitely was a good boot camp for me to learn how to focus - in my current job and in life. When I start a downward spiral now, I catch myself, try to slow it all down, and actually think the word "Focus."

Copious preparation for what could go wrong before the event is invaluable.
And I agree that video games have helped me with high-pressure situations (particularly the ones where I have to kill or be killed). Sounds cheesy, but don't knock it until you try it.
posted by heather-b at 6:08 AM on June 25, 2009

I've just written DUCK on my desk.
posted by heather-b at 6:09 AM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Always have a Plan B. You need to model various scenarios in your head, and plan how to respond to each. Did you have a plan for what you would do in the case of a total meltdown?
posted by KokuRyu at 7:00 AM on June 25, 2009

Three things: Get things into global perspective. Go to any major news site, have a guess at what a really bad day feels like. Absolute worst case scenario, you've lost your job, not your entire family in an earthquake.

Then, remember that freaking out exacerbates the situation. Freak out later, when there's nothing more productive you could be doing. Make a list of the things to do before you freak out. Concentrate on that list. When you get to the bottom of that list, then you have a licence to freak out. But when you get to the bottom of that list, you probably won't need to.

Direct yourself outwards - take care of the situation and the people around you (who are also not happy).
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 2:55 PM on June 25, 2009

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