Thursday, January 21, 2010

Stress Acceleration

When I think back on my high school experience, I remember an 8am-3pm school day, a cross country/track workout from 3p-5p, a snack until 6pm, and an hour of reading or problem sets. After that, my time was my own to experiment with early microprocessor circuits, tinker with building a hovercraft (powered by a used vacuum cleaner motor) or do personal writing (I entered dozens of essay contents as a teen). Weekends were filled with bike riding up and down the coast of California, SCUBA/snorkeling in local marine preserves, or helping around the house. Summers were filled with outdoor pursuits and low key internships.

My daughter is 16 and is experiencing the typical modern public high school schedule - classes from 7:30 or 8:30am to 2:30pm, a bit of after school community service or exercise, and then 8-9 hours of homework per night, typically ending at midnight or 1am. I've talked to other parents and found this schedule to be typical. Homework might include hundreds of pages of reading, the creation of a complex research paper, and the self teaching of advanced genetics. Given that this level of intensity is the norm, colleges consider a high grade point average in honors/AP classes plus near perfect SATs to be just a starting point.

I was not a Pulitzer prize winner, first violin for the local symphony or the lead in a Hollywood film as a teen, yet this is the kind of achievement that appears on today's college applications. Harvard admits 4% of its applicants.

In my 20's the work day began at 9am, ended at 5pm, and did not span into weekends. There was no email. Fax was an emerging technology. Overnight shipping did not exist. Modems were 110 baud.

Today's work day (not just for me but for many) is 24x7x365 with 50% more filling each day than was previously possible because hundreds of email saturate mobile devices with a constant stream of new work.

My Martin Luther King Day ("a national holiday") had 3 meetings, 500+ email, 2 conference calls and 5 projects. People used the day to catch up and now that the office is wherever your laptop and cellular are, it was a full workday for many.

Does this acceleration of stress bother me? Over the years of medical training and leading large complex organizations I've learned to adapt to just about anything. For every issue there is a process to resolve it.

Is it sustainable for society? I don't think so.

Just as humans were not content to run a 4 minute mile or ascend Everest with supplemental oxygen, we seem to be demanding more of ourselves and our families than is rational or healthy. We're becoming a nation of multi-taskers with ADHD, doing more, in shorter time, but not necessarily living happier, more satisfying lives.

Can we sit and enjoy a meal without thinking about work or checking email? Can we go to a movie or concert for an evening without needing to stay connected? Can we turn off our social networks for a week without suffering withdrawal?

The level of stress I see around me is leading humanity to increase consumption of pharmaceuticals (have a problem - take a pill), eat poorly, and reduce the baseline of human kindness (driven in Boston lately?).

My grandfather did not attend college. My father completed more education by 21 than my grandfather did in his lifetime. I completed more education by 21 than my father will in his lifetime. My daughter will complete more education by 21 than I will in my lifetime. Where does it stop?

At some point, we have to wake up, turn off our Blackberries, set limits on tolerable stress in our lives and regain our civility.

Can we reduce the size of our homes, the number of cars in our garages, and our lifestyle burn rates to enable us to work less and improve the quality of life?

I'm not worried about me - I've developed the discipline to leave my stress outside the home. I do worry about my daughter, her future children, and the generations to come.

Just as a parachuter accelerates at 32 feet/second/second until reaching terminal velocity, there is a point in our existence as humans that stress acceleration will take us to terminal velocity in the quality of our lives.

It is my hope that high schools/colleges, employers, and policymakers think about the terminal velocity we're approaching and open the parachute against stress acceleration before it's too late.

17 comments:

Mary Pat Whaley, FACMPE said...

The question I ask myself is "Do I have to be so busy to live my life the way I want to?" and I don't have the answer.

It concerns me is that the pace of change in healthcare is causing me to push the staff too hard and causing everyone else to conform to my idea of acceptable forward movement. I worry about Change Fatigue in myself and others.

Mary Pat Whaley

Mike said...

The academic schedule your daughter is keeping may be the norm in a lot of Asian countries, but it is certainly not the norm in the US. I'm not familiar with the school system your daughter attends, but I get the impression she is attending a private school, or perhaps a magnet school for a well funded public system. She also has the advantage of having very bright parents who do much to keep her challenged mentally and physically which, sadly, is not the norm in our society either. Let's give her credit though, she must be as passionate about knowledge as her father is. Where else could she find the drive to maintain that kind of schedule?!

As for 24x7x365 work days, no thanks. That's one of the reasons I have avoided attaching myself to a smartphone. There should be a natural limit (let's call it terminal velocity) to how much access anyone has to your personal space be it work, friends, and yes... even family. Life has to be about much more than work and attending to the needs of everyone around you at the expense of your own.

I agree with you, but I'm not waiting for high schools/colleges, employers, and policymakers to open the parachute against stress acceleration before it's too late... I've already pulled the rip cord!

DeanSittig said...

Couldn't agree more John. Now it seems that the ONC is my main causer of stress with all these "funding opportunity announcements". It looks like the next several years is only going to be worse. When will it end?

Anonymous said...

And the irony is that John posted this at 3am.

Rich Forsyth said...

When I was at Sun, I was part of the team that setup the Work From Home program. This would have been dead in the water from the start unless it had been championed by Scott McNealy at the very top. It was a great program for the workers to enable a more balanced work life schedule.

The 24x7x365 is going to stay around until some CEOs start saying from the top for workers to turn off their Blackberries when the leave the door. If it is that important, they can call your house. Someone needs to step in front of this and say "Work should stay at work" and be willing to take the consequences. Some shareholders will complain that it is stupid and hurts the company financially, but that is most likely only a short term consequence once you factor in the longer term happiness and productivity increase from a more content and less stressed workforce.

Also, I am now afraid for my daughters to get to high school. They are over achievers and will want to do their best at all times but that schedule seems like a lot. Ugh

will snow said...

Hey, that hovercraft worked great until the cord was unplugged on the unanticipated run down the hall - who would have thought that a mere 1% slope would matter :)

I look at my colleagues at dinner and we can't get through more than 15 minutes without someone peeking at a blackberry/iphone, and at least one person will step away from the table during dinner to take a call, but such is the life of a consulting organization.

SusanF said...

I have a 16 year old son in a private school. While he does work very hard, they do emphasize time off also. No homework over holidays - none - it's forbidden AND school ends early on Fridays. He was a swimmer (3+ hours in the pool a day) until recently. I said it was his choice. You know, if the price for his relaxing a little is to not get into Harvard, I'm OK with that. I do know lots of parents with a different attitude though.

Arif Ali said...

It is amazing the pace at which information is being transmitted and exchanged. I also remember how, as i child, i would come home from school and could not wait to go outside and play. I was recently at a friends house and their children were either on the computer or "playing" with their friends online through Xbox360, wearing a headset and mic. The games are amazing in detail and the online communities available cover a wide spectrum of services from game play to health care.
I am reminded of a recent book (Crazy Busy by Ned Hallowel)about stress and life and how everyone now seems to have add. The author gives some great tips for controlling stress in our lives and not letting the digital world control our lives, as convenient as it may seem. He is a respected doctor in the diagnosis and treatment of add.
http://wirelessmd.blogpot.com
Mohamad Arif Ali, MD CPHIMS

Jeff said...

That's great about the hover craft! I made one of those in Junior High for a science project with a friend. I recall it was LOUD, but impressive.

My son is in first grade, public school in NC -- he has 30-45 minutes of homework every night. Spelling, reading, and Math. Crazy stuff. I recall much less homework than that in High School in the late 80s...

hitster said...

I think at some point we have to empower ourselves and DECIDE to "living happier, more satisfying lives"

gershater said...

John
I think working 24x7x365 is a choice, not a requirement. Before email, we communicated with hand-written memos that took a day or two to get to another employee in the same building; postal mail even longer.
There is nothing about email that says "reply right now", if you set the expectation of responding with a smartphone during mealtimes, after the movies or stopped at a red-light senders will begin to question any slower response.
Take one day off a week a media-free day: no computer, phones or TV. You will love it.

John A. said...

I am not a CIO and my children were never headed to Harvard. What I am is a Director of IS

at a mid-sized (200 bed) community hospital. My eldest son saw his calling as being an

artist and just graduated from an art school in Milwaukee. His younger brother only wanted

to be one thing and that is a mechanic. We are all living out our own vision of how we want

to live our lives. For my mechanically minded son school was something barely tolerable.

homework was never something that he did willingly and only did enough to get by. He lives a

social life on the internet and is a competent researcher and authority on all things

Porsche. He has his version of the life he wanted as a highly rated mechanic at a race shop

converting street machines into light, fast racing cars. My artist son has his vision too.

extremely high IQ in mathematics and is an insanely talented artist. His high school

experience was totally different than his brother's. Homework was one hour most nights,

with many more hours working on his next piece. He had an impressive portfolio when he

graduated. His great grades and volume of work got him into the only school he applied to

and they were happy to take him. He worked hard double majored, studied abroad for two

summers and graduated with a best in show senior thesis project. As many of his graduating

peers have done he works in a field not related to his calling. He is a sales associate in

a local mall. That job pays his rent and feeds him. He and his girlfriend, who is also an

artist, are finding time to do their real work after their jobs, which is producing there

visions, applying there passions and fulfill their dreams to build a body of work for the

sake of just doing it. Just as their father has, both of my sons followed their hearts.

I'm surrounded at work and at home with my technology. They surround their lives with their

passions. As long as they do that I am very proud of them. There is still room for

divergent and fulfilling lives with different paths available for all. Don't be afraid if

your high schooler chooses to be a jock, a serious student, or an artist, knows their path

or is just uncertain as to where they want to end up. Inspire them, encourage them, assist

them as needed. Life provides, paths are divergent, as long as your children feel fulfilled

you did your job as a parent.

Anonymous said...

John - thank you for an extremely insightful post. I graduated from high school 11 years ago but am amazed at how things have changed. Even when I was in college (I attended a private institution) I never had to spend more than 5 hours a day studying, although I pulled all-nighters with research papers.

Perhaps a future post shedding some more about your daughter's education would help us all understand your vantage point. I oftentimes have found your posts inspirational and have wondered how you came to br su h a master of time management. Was it something developed over time?

Thanks,
-MSP

Tom Farrell said...

That was beautiful, John A.

and I am off that rollercoaster thank goodness. Life is just too damn short.

Carl Vartian MD, FACP said...

For me, the stress reliever was leaving the private practice of medicine for a hospital CMO job. Working 100+ hours a week with one weekend off out of each fortnight, I missed too many Boy Scout campouts with my son and days with my wife. A day of (scheduled) meetings is less stressful than working in a busy hospital and not knowing who was about to be wheeled through the door (or when). EHR implementation is just one more headache for many doctors and, with all that is coming out of Washington, may be the final straw that prompts a lot of retirements.

Joan said...

John's description of the homework load is pretty accurate for those students who are taking honors and AP classes in the more achievement oriented school districts. My daughter is the same age, and she and her friends have to study to 1 AM most nights.

gplusthree said...

I have 4-yr old triplets and I worry already that their homework is too much - they have about 30 minutes a night. However, I stop them at 15 - life is too short. You can teach your baby to read at 8 months with DVD's - REALLY?? The school your child gets into is only half the battle, keeping them motivated and being true to their passion that they will spend the rest of their life working on, is the rest. I am an engineer and realize now I should have been a nurse - I am in healthcare so that is feeding my passion to help people but I wish I had slowed down long enough to figure out what my straight A's were worth.

I am connected to a Blackberry for work right now but considering getting rid of it. Have you ever taken a tech break though? No email, no BB, no FB, no laptop - try it, harder than you think.

In the end, I try to remember what my kids will remember of me, what my headstone will say....no one will care that I worked overnight to catch up on projects or sort emails...holding them up ice skating, special trips, high fives and play time - that's what they'll remember...