4 min read

Through the Stack 2.13 (Week 18)

This week we talk about what I learned while looking into how our brains and bodies have evolved with stress.
Through the Stack 2.13 (Week 18)
Photo by ZSun Fu / Unsplash

Welcome back to "Through the Stack," our weekly focus on topics relevant to lead developers, tech leads, and staff engineers working with internet-related products.

this week ...

We will zoom out a bit, stand up, open our front door, and walk away ... for at least 15 minutes.

Ten years ago, recovering from burnout, I prepared a talk for RuLu: Let's take a walk. To prepare for this talk, I read a few articles on evolution and the brain. What interested me was how natural selection proceeded to select and, thus, cultivate some traits in our bodies and brains.

Ten years later, I still think, more than ever, that walking is one of the simplest and most effective ways to help your body and brain get out of a ditch and avoid one altogether.

Walking is entirely at the core

There are several benefits to standing and walking on our legs: we stand taller in the middle of the grass and burn less energy when moving around.

As we stand taller, we can see further away. Seeing danger or food from further away is a clear advantage.

Burning less energy is key also; it means we can go further on a day's walk and make better use of the food we can find.

To our ancestors, those things were essential, and that's part of the complex story that made us possible.

Yet, this standing posture and the walk that comes with it have influenced how the rest of the body works. The movements within the walking act as a pump for our digestive tract and softly engage our cardiopulmonary system to bring more oxygen throughout the body.

In modern medicine, walking is considered one of the simplest ways to keep our body in shape and working nicely. You don't have to do 8 hours of walking either.

While walking seemed essential to improve my health, I also wanted to understand why and how I suffered so much from stress. Weren't we built to handle it?

Not that kind of stress

Stress is the expression of that constant feeling of being unsettled. It's the expression of the fight or flight thing that was key to the survival of our ancestors. But, while there were probably, throughout the ages, times at which they were worried and stressed for long periods, it's not how this mechanism works.

The fight or flight thing is based on a trait that allows us to survive by helping us decide, in a split second, what to do in the face of danger. In both cases, the idea is to get through it quickly so we can return to a relaxed state and thrive. It's meant to be a minimal thing, in bursts. Sprinting is similar: we are ok running fast for short periods, but most of us can't sustain that speed for long.

Our modern use of this is much more akin to a marathon. We keep the pressure on for days, months, and years.

The bigger picture

I concluded that although we can handle stress, we are only built to handle it for short periods and that walking is not only simple but essential to power several mechanisms in our body.

Going for walks and ensuring proper rhythms in our everyday life help with handling stress, providing, at the very least, short times when we can breathe and let things go.

We might tend not to put our work within a bigger picture. Many people I know have this habit of seeing work as an almost contiguous lapse daily when they are plugged in and chained to their workstations.

I think the switch to remote work due to the pandemic might have helped many to see a different way to organize their work days. Suddenly work doesn't mean a tunnel of 8 hours but might be a construction of pieces of time we assemble as we see fit.

With engineering and product management

As we include and redesign such a concept in our schedule, we can also better fit Agile, Lean, or other approaches and ideas, such as those included in DevOps and those behind DORA metrics.

As pointed out in the previous weeks, we should aim for more communication, shorter iterations, and less "Feature Factory" style of tunnels and lack of ownership. There is no doubt to me that a "Feature Factory" is the perfect place to breed stress and no time at all for those precious walks.

Instead, by considering our approach to work from a higher and more holistic perspective, we should develop new habits to help with a healthier and more sustainable schedule.

Agile, Lean, DevOps, and others are not meant to be just another method to be more productive for the sake of being more productive. The higher quality and purpose of our work done with those methodologies are probably just side effects of them being more sustainable in the long run.

There is a balance to find and strike between productivity and sustainability. You want to improve, do better, and more, but if you want to finish the marathon, you must pace yourself.

Just aiming to "finish this race" (do that quick hack, rush to finish the spring) is terribly short-sighted: many more races are coming after that. If you don't pace yourself for this race, you won't do it in the next one because you will still be catching your breath then.

When building a product with software, it's just the same. Pace your product, pace your engineering, pace yourself.


This post might have given you plenty of food for thought; still, here are a few takeaways:

  • a book: Brain Rules - John Medina, ISBN: 978-0983263371
  • a book: Essentialism - Greg McKeown, ISBN: 978-0753558690
  • organize your schedule so that you take at least a daily 20 to 30-minute walk, if possible in the morning in the daylight; this will have multiple benefits (burn calories, get muscles and internal organs some movement, oxygenate your brain, get some sunlight in your eyes)
  • aim to shorten your deployment frequency by releasing smaller pieces more often (this will force you to rethink how you build towards smaller releases, thus spreading the effort)
  • don't underestimate the benefits of short breaks within the day either; a coffee and a 5 minute look through the window to the sky might break your rhythm, but it might also give your brain a much-needed reprieve to rewire (remember: slack is important)

Curious about more? Why not reach out to me and have a chat?

Who are we, by the way?

This content is written and published by Imfiny/Pier22, a consulting company based in France. We help CTOs, and Tech Leads grow their engineering team and stack.