How to ROLL through stressful times

miniature of a plane

A hundred thousand sharp pieces to pick up. That’s what’s left of that Ikea plate. On top of that, a once delicious sandwich is now bleeding mayonnaise on the tiles, as the final act of a tragedy that started on the countertop and ended too early, on the floor.

Any other day it would be just fine, the plate was just a few bucks, and the sandwich can be replaced by instant ramen. But today, it didn’t just shatter the cheap mass-manufactured porcelain. Instead, our day is a pile-up of shattered plans and mayonnaise-bleeding circumstances.

A never-ending meeting with our boss, a product recall in the middle of a sales campaign, that pain in the lower back that’s not letting us sleep well for a few weeks, and now our lunch is on the floor spread across millions of razor-sharp shards that make it impossible to salvage.

I’m so tempted to take the rest of the day off, but I feel guilty already, just considering it.

So I’ll plow through, trying to stay on top of things as much as I can, looking forward to the end of this eternal day.

Have you noticed how days like these are considered exceptions? In the sense that we don’t have a plan for them. We just do what we can, with what we have, to get what we need.

The key to thriving under pressure is to eliminate exceptions and build systems that work under any circumstances. But instead of building systems that normalize exceptions and deal with them correctly, we design excellent processes that work magnificently under ideal circumstances and then crash against the harsh reality.

Instead of blaming the exceptions, I prefer to design systems to account for them, including my daily routines.

I came up with a system that I named ROLL, and it’s the acronym for Review, Orient, Lead, Learn. 

Review

When things go sour, and I feel stressed, I pause and assess my feelings. I set my devices to Do Not Disturb for a few minutes and let silence into my brain. It’s not meditation. I do nothing else but sit in silence, undisturbed, for 3 or 4 minutes. This amplifies my emotions and surfaces them.

I ask my body and mind how I feel. How’s my heartbeat? Am I scared, angry, hopeless? Or do I feel in control, strong, hopeful? Do my hands shake? Am I hungry? Am I thirsty?

Sometimes I feel nothing at all, and that’s OK too.

Orient

I put all my options on the table. Shall I plow through the day, or shall I take the rest of the day off? Shall I attend all the following meetings and pull myself together, or shall I cancel the optional ones? Shall I call a friend for a chat? Shall I put that bottle of white wine in the fridge for tonight?

All the options are good, but I’ll commit to just one of them.

Lead

Now that I know what to do, it’s just a matter of execution. No regrets, no FOMO, no drama. Especially for those plans that tend to be loaded with guilt. Taking half a day off is not the end of the world most of the time. But it cannot be every time!

For this reason, documenting ROLL is fundamental.

Learn

I take a brief note of all the steps. For example:

I felt overwhelmed, so I considered canceling all the meetings for the day. I decided to cancel only two of them because the other ones were time-critical to the current project. In the end, it was a good decision. #ROLL #YAY

Or

I was exhausted today, but I decided to plow through. The conversation with the client was awful, and probably I contributed to making it more difficult than it had to be. Next time better reschedule. #ROLL #NAY

Keeping solid documentation of ROLL improves the quality of my decisions. It tracks progress over time and refines my ability to cope with changes in plans. It mitigates guilt because when I consider taking a day off, I don’t judge myself on the current feelings, but I know how many days off I took in the last months because of stress. Was it zero? No need to feel guilty. Was it five? Red flag, let’s start looking for a more sustainable solution.

ROLL is a quick atomic routine that helps me make better decisions when the pressure is on. It’s easy to iterate, and when well documented, it boosts my productivity and self-accountability.


Thanks to Letizia Barbi, Fei-Ling Tseng, and Laila Faisal

Published by Luca Sartoni

I lead a team of engineers across three continents at Automattic. I love hiking, photography, and 3D printers.

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