Of Bravery, Cowardice, and Recognizing Fatigue

Dwayne Phillips

Revision History
Revision 1.0 January 2010

        Fatigue makes cowards of us all.

                -- George S. Patton Jr., Letter of Instruction Number 1, Third Army

        You've got to be in top physical condition. Fatigue makes cowards of us all.

                -- Vince Lombardi

Fatigue comes to each of us every day and affects us at work. There are things we can do to reduce or increase the fatigue and ways we can work through and around the fatigue.

I am unsure of the origin of the above quotes. I know they came from Lombardi and Patton (two giants for those 50 and over), and they are almost certainly attached to the US Military Academy at West Point, but I have read that these ideas extend back to the ancients. Whatever the origin, I have experienced the link between fatigue and cowardice in the halls, meeting rooms, and server farms of the IT world.

Top physical condition leads to good health and energy. That leads to being attentive, creative, and productive. A good night's sleep, a good meal, a good afternoon nap -- these all add to a good period of work.

The opposite of good health is fatigue, and fatigue leads to cowardice. This isn't the type of cowardice that has us running out of the building and diving for cover in a ditch. Cowardice in the IT world is more difficult to see. Instead of picking up the phone and making that difficult phone call, I'll sit at my desk and think of something else to occupy my time for the rest of the afternoon. Fatigue will convince me that it is OK to sit and wait and hope that the situation just sort of goes away. Most situations don't just sort of go away. They grow worse until they collapse on everyone.

I am not a health expert, and I doubt that many IT managers are, either. There are, however, plenty of people available who know about health and vitality in the workplace. It may surprise you how many of your colleagues know much on this topic. We do not all fit the stereotype of the geek who only occasionally goes out into the "big blue room."

You and your colleagues don't have to be in condition to run a marathon or to win a body-building contest (I have known geeks who could do both -- and at the same time). Nevertheless, good health is possible for those of us confined to keyboards and meeting rooms. Health-building habits are fairly simple: good nutrition (a balance of carbohydrates and protein, in moderate quantities), exercise (walk the halls and the stairs a few times a day), and rest. Side note: resting is a legitimate use of time during the "work" day.

Habits harmful to health are also fairly simple and, unfortunately, far more prevalent. Consider the same three areas. Nutrition: drugs and alcohol, smoking, caffeine (sorry, had to throw that one in there), and junk food. If you have trouble pronouncing the ingredients on a food package, don't consider it food. Exercise: don't buy the Segway for the office, no matter how long the hallways. Rest: sleep at night, and nap during the day.

Learn to recognize fatigue in yourself and act accordingly. The worst thing to do is to know you are tired but ignore it. For example, a senior executive once confided in me about a (typical) day where he went from one meeting to the next: 9-10, 10-11, 11-12, 12-2. No breaks, no lunch, no snacks. "I couldn't listen anymore. I just wanted to take a five-minute nap." He never had that nap. He wouldn't walk to the end of the hall and back, and he didn't eat -- anything. He and others made critical, far-reaching decisions while in degraded physical, mental, and emotional states. And note that all he needed to do was pause for five minutes. Five little minutes in a 10-hour day.

I cannot state how many times I have heard, "but we are different here. We hire only the best, the toughest, the people who can work and work and work without rest. Look at me, I have worked 12 hours a day for weeks on end, and look what I have achieved!" Such is bravado, and such nonsense is one result of fatigue -- a failure to think clearly and speak honestly.

I once heard an old joke about a laborer who claimed never to get tired. Every few hours he would stop working, sit, and close his eyes. Several fellow workers chided him, "I thought you never got tired." His reply was, "I don't. When I start to get tired, I rest."

There is some wisdom in that old joke.


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