On Anxiety, Uncertainty, and Flow

On Anxiety, Uncertainty, and Flow

Travis Petersen
Travis Petersen

June 30, 2020


I have encountered this graph twice in my time at 8th Light: once during my onboarding at the beginning of my apprenticeship, and again when training to mentor an apprentice of my own. I think about it often, particularly with respect to how I manage my stress at work, but also in my personal life because my anxiety doesn't clock out when I do. Uncertainty is a major trigger for me, and software engineers—or Crafters as we call ourselves at 8th Light—almost always operate in a realm of ambiguity. Technical and business requirements, best practices, and constantly evolving frameworks are all examples of elements in our environment that are never clear cut when it comes to implementation. Not to mention the fact that almost every new problem we’re tasked with solving requires a certain amount of knowledge we don’t yet possess (otherwise we get bored, anyway). This graph has given me a way to make sense of the different kinds of stress I sometimes experience on the job, and helped me understand how to identify them in a teammate early enough to help them nip it in the bud.

Oke, enough talking about this graph without actually talking about this graph. Let's talk about this graph. The idea is you plot the difficulty of a challenge against a given person's skill level with the subject matter at hand, and find that the regions where these values are more disproportionate correlate with less favorable mental states.

When skills start to outweigh challenges, we find ourselves slipping into a more relaxed state; we've got a good handle on pretty much every task we're faced with completing, and no scary surprise well-I've-never-seen-THAT-before moments. Lessen the challenge even more and we slip into a state of total boredom, and it's not hard to see how that entails a loss of motivation and productivity.

On the other hand, when challenge starts to overcome skill, we move into a state of sensitization where we don’t readily know how to solve many of the problems we're faced with, but they're within reach to an extent that we're capable of overcoming them given enough effort. While problem-solving at this level can feel pretty stimulating and exciting, it is also more mentally strenuous due to the level of uncertainty involved. Think about it like running a marathon without the proper training. You might make it the whole way, but eventually each mile is going to take more of a physical toll and maybe even lead to injury.

Also, you might not make it the whole way. As such, sustained operation in an sensitized state will eventually lead to things like burnout and anxiety, essentially pushing us into the next region as challenge continues to eclipse skill. We become anxious when the challenges we're faced with are so far beyond our ability that we have very little confidence in our chances for success. Throw in a deadline or two, and you have a recipe for a panic attack.

Before I get into what I really wanted to focus on in this post, there's an important region that I haven't discussed yet. When challenge and skill are more or less proportional, we achieve an ideal state called flow. In flow, we're challenged enough that we must continually improve our skills and acquire new ones in a way that is fulfilling and motivating without being so strenuous that we burn out. Honestly, you can probably come up with your own work-out analogy faster than I can type one. I think of flow as a complement of struggle and success that allows us to continue improving at a sustainable rate, with regular feedback reinforcing confidence in our ability to solve problems in spite of deficiencies in our current understanding. I could easily go on about this extensively enough to constitute another post, but what I want to talk about in this one is anxiety.

Unpacking Anxiety

I obsess over the anxiety region because about all it takes to get me to have a panic attack is for me to think now would be a pretty inconvenient time to have a panic attack. Like if I’m on a first date, or attending an event with limited restroom access.

All of the descriptions I provided for the various regions on this graph seem to assume some sort of objective level of skills and challenges—or at least they don't make any distinction between the objective and the subjective. But I think you could just as easily plot one’s self-perceptions of challenge and skill to almost identical results. You may object that if you get the same results, what's the point of being so pedantic? The point is (he said, pedantically) that the distinction is important because if someone is in a state of anxiety because they perceive a challenge to be too far beyond their skill level, they require a very different—and in my opinion, more delicate—solution than when a challenge is objectively out of reach. The solutions for the latter are fairly straightforward. Give them a challenge that's more in their league; move the deadline back to give them more time; add a spike to the iteration so they can level up on the skills required to meet the challenge; etc. All of this is great because it's validating and it creates breathing room, helping to eliminate the time wasted in panic mode and get the team back to a productive pace. I think the solution for the former isn't necessarily more complex, it just might require a little more thought, empathy, and practice to recognize and address.

It’s important to understand that anxiety is difficult to address because, when someone is experiencing it, their prefrontal cortex—the area of the brain that makes us capable of rational thought—goes offline. This renders them nearly incapable of decision making and impervious to persuasion, meaning you can’t really talk them out of their discomfort. Thus, the immediate solution for a person in a state of anxiety is to get the lights back on. There are some tactics for this, namely mindfulness exercises. Even without them, one thing you can be sure of is that it will pass in relatively short order. Another thing you can be sure of is that it will return in short order unless you address the circumstances that gave rise to it in the first place.

One of the fastest ways I find I can push myself into an anxiety state regardless of my actual ability to meet a given challenge is when I try to conceive of the best solution out of the gate. If I can't see the finish line from where I'm standing, that uncertainty causes me to direct more energy toward trying to intuit what the finish line looks like and the best route to it than I'm directing toward simply putting one foot in front of the other. This has nothing to do with whether or not I’m running a race I'm actually capable of completing, but it's almost like I'm already too focused on winning it. I mean, is it really a race anyway? Maybe it should be more like a hike. Ooo, or bird watching! Wait, what was I supposed to be talking about?

Oh, right.

When experiencing discomfort in the face of a challenge, one must identify the problem before the right solution can be implemented; this graph has provided me with a great way to do that. The practice I’m trying to adopt in these situations is to stop and ask myself which zone am I in? This can also be asked about a teammate who is showing signs of stress in order to effectively help them out. Once this question is answered, many of the solutions can be fairly straightforward but, as I intimated earlier, I think the solution is most elusive when the answer is anxiety. I have some ideas about that, and I’ll share them in the next post.