Category Archives: reflection

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Living your dream

It’s really easy to get caught up living someone else’s dream. It makes sense to want what other people want. You see the visions that other people paint for you and say, “Yes, that looks pretty good.” Sometimes being influenced by other people can be very useful. We surprise ourselves by reaching goals that we didn’t even know that we could try. Other times, we drift away from what matters to us. This is why it’s important to check in with yourself once in a while to make sure that you’re still going towards your dream.

I’m a person of small and simple dreams. I want to have enough, to know that I have enough, and to know that whatever I have is always enough. Of these three things, I think the last is the most important. After all, people do well with more and with less, and people do badly with more with less. Reading all these books about stoicism reminded me that having enough is one power that we always have, no matter what our situation is.

2014-02-09 Living your dream

2014-02-09 Living your dream

I’ve been thinking a lot about the motivations and values that underlie my questions. Safety is surprisingly important to me. I plan for different scenarios, and I look at other people’s lives to get ideas for mine. I want to make good decisions: decisions that consider the true range of choices, take potential consequences into account, and leave me with enough space for both mistakes and opportunities. With the basics taken care of, I can focus on doing well. Knowing my tools helps me make the most of them. Learning from other people and sharing what I know helps me grow. I like taking advantage of low hanging fruit, the little things that I can do to move things forward.

2014-02-07 What are my motivations for questions

2014-02-07 What are my motivations for questions

Just as motivations are behind questions, values are behind motivations. What do I value? When does my life feel like it’s consistent with who I am, and when does it feel inconsistent? I really like exploring the things that make me curious, especially if they lead off the well-worn paths. I like helping people learn. I like building things: a good home life, tools, processes, knowledge.

2014-02-11 Reflecting on building a value-filled life

2014-02-11 Reflecting on building a value-filled life

What kinds of questions can you ask yourself to check if you’re following your dream, not some dream that other people have given you?

Simplifying with Stoicism: examining negative feelings

The more I can master myself, the less I need, and the freer I am.

I dug into a collection of Epictetus’ discourses to learn more about Stoicism. While I’ve never been much worried about death and I’m unlikely to run into issues with jail, exile, or hemlock (!), I have a lot to learn about dealing with aversion and negative emotions. I live a happier and luckier life than most people do, and I wonder what it would be like with even more understanding.

How can I learn more about this through practice? I can start with negative feelings, then move to attachments, and then get even better at understanding what I do and don’t control.

Mapping a path to understanding Stoicism

Mapping a path to understanding Stoicism

When do I feel negative emotions? What situations disrupt my feelings? Mostly these emotions are directed at things or at myself: frustration with . I’m getting pretty good at not being perturbed by people, even though sometimes other people think I’m annoyed with them when I’m more annoyed with the situation. That said, I’m becoming less inclined to do the emotional work of reassuring people that it’s not about them, so sometimes I just take responsibility for what I can control and let them be responsible for their feelings.

Exploring negative feelings

Exploring negative feelings

Hmm. Frustration and annoyance tend to be outward-directed, while anxiety and embarrassment are internal. I can deal with frustration and annoyance by accepting that the world is what it is. Anxiety can be addressed by faith that things will work out, and embarrassment is just ego in disguise.

So what are those anxieties about, anyway? Let me dig into those further.

Recognizing potential fears

Recognizing potential fears

Come to think of it, there’s not much to be afraid of. I don’t have to worry about missing out. Life is pretty darn good even like this, and the rest is icing on the cake. Likewise, I don’t have to worry about falling short of expectations, since proper expectations are other people’s responsibilities. Messes and mistakes can teach me a lot. As for the fear that pressure or other forces might sway me into making bad decisions… Being able to recognize the warning signs will help me slow down, and mistakes are good for learning anyway.

The fear of falling short is at the root of the impostor syndrome, something I’ve written about a few times before. I remember reading about the impostor syndrome when I was in school, and recognizing myself in it. You might think that the validation of programming competitions, newspaper articles, and personal projects would boost my belief in myself, but that often made me feel even less like the image I thought people had of me.

Taking a closer look at the impostor syndrome

Taking a closer look at the impostor syndrome

But the impostor syndrome, too, might be ego disguised: part desire for validation, part aversion to embarrassment. If I can let go of both, I’ll be more free to concentrate on the things worth thinking about, and I can take better risks. So out to the curb they go.

As for the fear of missing out, of not quite doing enough… I’ve been thinking about how to learn more and how to increase the difference I want to make in this world. In particular, I want to get better at learning from people, which includes learning from coaches. I hear coaches are good for accelerating your growth. I’m careful about how I frame this to myself, because it’s much too easy to become unhappy with how you’re growing and to want more, more, more.

I realized that I could actually get a pretty good sense of what my life might look like in thirty to forty years, even if I continue in my current trajectory. My parents are in their sixties and I have other mentors around that age, so I know roughly what to expect. Assuming that my skills and tools stay roughly the same, I’m probably going to end up with an even bigger archive of ideas and notes. However, I already know what it’s like to have more notes than I can remember and more sketches than I can grasp. Even if I continue with the same strategies, things will probably already be wonderful. If I learn from experience, adapt to the changes in technology and society, and explore new ways of doing things, then it will be even better.

This means that I can probably let go of the fear of missing out, of not living up to my potential or not maximizing awesomeness. Life is already wonderful.

Extrapolating my futures

Extrapolating my futures

I like thinking through this in advance, when I can reason about them with a clear mind. When situations come up, at least I’ll have rehearsed some options. The real tests are when I’m tired or hungry or sleepy, or when something major happens. We’ll see. =) In the meantime, it’s good to look at the things I might unconsciously avoid looking at, to see what I can do to let them go.

Learning how to deal with mild panic

Another mild panic attack in fitness class yesterday, jolts of worry and tears that I wiped away as sweat. I knew it was just my lizard brain in overdrive. I couldn’t stop it by reasoning it away as irrational. All I could do was breathe and keep on going, dampening my emotions by spacing out while going through the motions of the exercise. W- checked on me frequently, cheering me up from time to time, and I finished the class.

It’s not so bad, actually. It would be better to not have to deal with panic at all, but since it happens, it’s better that I know what it’s like in a safe(ish) controlled environment and I can start figuring out what to do about it. Part of the reason that I’m susceptible to panic attacks is probably because I’m using willpower instead of motivation to get through the fitness class, and that can get quickly sapped in a stressful environment with negative self-talk. I don’t intrinsically enjoy this form of exercise, although I like spending time with W-. Also, It turns out that I’m pretty good at imagining how something will hurt, like the time I freaked out over a leapfrogging exercise a month after I’d sprained my ankle, and that sends me into a whirl even as I’m reassuring myself that pain is both unlikely and temporary. The good thing is that I seem to get panic attacks only in fitness class these days, and not all the time either.

What would better look like? I’m good at knowing I’m having an unreasonable panic attack. Wouldn’t be interesting if I could label it and put it on a shelf for the time being, procrastinating the analysis for a quieter and more composed time? I’m good at plodding through the class anyway, even though I’m embarrassed at the thought of quietly sniffling in class. If I can let go of that embarrassment, I can use that energy for other things. I don’t get panic attacks all the time. I can get better at understanding the contributing and mitigating factors, and tweaking things to fit me (a mental soundtrack? a mantra or prepared objections to drown out negative self-talk?). Eventually finding another kind of exercise that suits me better will help in the long run so that I can build confidence along with strength, but I still have to hack stressful situations.

This, too, is part of life, and I can embrace it and make it mine.

Understanding my procrastination

This week’s Less Wrong Toronto rationality challenge was about procrastination: observing how, why, and when you procrastinate, and what you can do about it.

The word “procrastination” comes from the Latin roots pro (“for”) and cras (“tomorrow”). The more I think about that, the more it seems that putting things off is actually a very useful skill, despite its negative connotations. There is only so much time in the day and so many years in a life. Figuring out what makes sense to do right now, what might make sense to do later, and what doesn’t make sense to do at all–that can be really helpful. To describe how we decide what to do later, we use the word “planning.” We reserve “procrastination” for when we put things off to our detriment, when we do low-value tasks instead of high-value tasks.

The Wikipedia article on procrastination describes procrastination as “replacing high-priority actions with tasks of lower priority” (emphasis mine), but I’ve been working on not letting perceived urgency mess up my true priorities. Thinking of it in terms of value instead of priority helps me not get caught up in false urgency.

Because the procrastinating mind can be good at rationalization (“I know I should write that blog post, but dinner needs to be cooked and the blog post isn’t that important anyway”), it can be difficult to recognize procrastination unless you’re obviously avoiding something. It’s easier to look at various decisions to put off actions, figure out the reasoning behind them, and look for patterns.

I put off many ideas by adding them to my Someday/Maybe list or scheduling them for the future. I’m working on getting better at finishing projects, so I try not to get too distracted from today’s to-do list unless it’s really important. Stashing other ideas in my Someday/Maybe list means that if I get blocked on all my current tasks, I can easily find something else that I might want to work on. Structured procrastination for the win! (Procrastination explanation: Low value compared to current tasks.)

I put off various types of tasks to certain days. For example, I balance my business books and handle other paperwork every Friday. If I need to get an invoice out quickly, I’ll do that any day of the week, but having one day set aside for paperwork and all those other little things makes it easy to keep the rest of my week clear. I put off worrying, too. I allow myself a chunk of time for planning and questioning, then focus in moving in roughly that direction the rest of the week. Mornings are great for code, afternoons for calls, and evenings for writing. On either Saturday or Sunday, we do our household chores and lots of cooking. Roughly sketching out our days like this helps me batch process tasks. (Procrastination explanation: Reducing impulsiveness / interruptions.)

I put off actions depending on my energy level. When focused and excited, I code or write. When I’m more contemplative, I like drawing or reading books. When I feel uncreative, that’s the perfect time to handle paperwork or do chores. When I’m optimistic, I flesh out my vision. When I’m pessimistic, I dig into my backup plans. (Procrastination explanation: Low value or expectancy; I expect to not code well if I’m preoccupied with something else.)

I absentmindedly put off putting things away. Not all the time, but enough times that this gets in my way. I have some workarounds. For example, I switched to using a belt bag because that was an excellent if unfashionable way to not lose track of my phone and my keys. I’m still working on slowing down, having one place to put things, and minimizing stress. W- has this saying, “One hand, put away” – put things away while you’re holding them instead of going back and forth. Working on it. =) (Procrastination explanation: impulsiveness.)

I put off going to the gym with W-, reasoning that I’m pretty tired from biking upwind and uphill. I should build upper-body strength and other things not covered by biking, though. One way for me to deal with this is by bargaining with myself: if I’m not going to the gym, I have to do kettle bells or similar exercises instead of spending the time writing. Or maybe I’ll train speech recognition on my computer so that I can increase the value of that activity… (Procrastination explanation: Low value because I don’t particularly like that form of exercise; low expectancy because of salient bad experiences, even though I’ve also had very positive ones.)

I put off shopping, especially when they are so many choices. I do this because I feel overwhelmed. I deal with it by limiting my choices based on predetermined criteria and focusing on items that meet my price thresholds. For example, I buy only flat/low-heeled shoes and machine-washable clothes. I eventually buy things when sales, thrift stores, or other buying opportunities intersect with my criteria. (Procrastination explanation: Low expectancy because of the feeling of being overwhelmed; low value because I have lots of things that still work for me.)

I put off learning skills if I think the costs associated with learning outweigh the benefits I get from doing so. For example, although driving is widely acknowledged as a useful skill, I haven’t gotten around to learning it because becoming a confident driver requires several big lifestyle changes: expenses related to cars, fuel, parking, and maintenance; I would need to shift my work to somewhere that requires a car-based commute instead of one that can be reached with public transit or biking; and I would need to get used to the thought of controlling this big, heavy, potentially lethal machine. The money I save by not driving can pay for quite a few cabs during the times that I do need to get around (say, accompanying a friend post-surgery). So far, clear costs (money! no free exercise from biking!) outweigh vague benefits (possibly being able to drive W- if he needs help, being able to navigate more cities). I’ll get to it when it makes sense. Or slightly before it makes sense. (Procrastination explanation: Low value.)

I put off putting some things off. Sometimes I feel myself getting annoyed for something I have to do. I could go round and round, internally whining about it, but sometimes it’s more productive to put off the annoyance, get things done, and then channel that annoyance into making sure that I don’t have to do similar things in the future. This actually works out quite well. (Procrastination explanation: Well, this is actually a useful thing…)

There are a lot of other things I procrastinate, but since I want to actually publish this blog post at some point, this is probably enough of a sample.

I use a lot of pre-commitment to deal with procrastination. I’m also halfway decent at recognizing when procrastinating something takes more energy and emotion than just doing the thing I’m procrastinating. I’m good at discovering (or even inventing) meaning for my tasks to make them more palatable. I need to work on being more conscious, though. All these techniques are useful only when I detect that I’m procrastinating. If I want to stop absentmindedly putting something down somewhere instead of putting it away, then I need to make putting things away automatic, and I need to get better at checking impulses.

There aren’t any big ominous tasks hanging over my head that I need to un-procrastinate, but I want to get better at catching unconscious procrastination. (Which was not quite the focus of the Less Wrong blog post on beating procrastination, but I lump it together with deliberate procrastination…) I’ll be focusing on being more mindful over the next month or so. It’s difficult to track how well I’m doing with this, so I track failure instead by recording “foggy” moments. I’ll probably never get rid of it, but I can develop more automatic behaviours to catch the common cases. One of the nice things about being married is that W- can help me catch things. =) Onward!

Identifying my reactions to stress

One of the topics we discussed at last week’s Less Wrong Toronto meetup was the fight-or-flight response and reactions to stress in general. In addition to fight-or-flight, researchers have also identified a tend-and-befriend approach that focuses on social support. To follow up on that, I want to reflect on how I experience and respond to stress so that I can recognize it faster and counteract it or work with it more effectively.

What does stress feel like, and how do I respond?

A quick list of symptoms that are my usual ways to experience stress:

  • Mental flightiness
  • Forgetfulness
  • Misplaced things
  • Distraction
  • A perceived need to multi-task
  • Nightmares or mental rehearsals (also consciously)
  • General fatigue
  • Furrowed brow, frowns
  • Shallow breathing
  • Tears
  • A flushed face
  • Tense muscles, particularly in the shoulders
  • Raised heart rate
  • Crossed legs
  • Cold hands
  • Slouching
  • Hunger or thirst
  • Cancellation of social interactions

A few quick ways I modulate my stress levels:

  • Hugs, lots and lots of them
  • Drawing mindmaps
  • Writing (particularly lists of what I need to do or reasons why I’m stressed)
  • Mental rehearsals and planning
  • Cuddling the cats
  • Having a warm beverage (hot chocolate, tea, hot water)
  • Biking or walking
  • Body posture adjustments
  • Breathing
  • Napping
  • Getting a few tasks done

General categories of stress and how I respond to them:

When I feel spread too thin: When I’m stressed because I’m trying to do too many things, my mind flits around. I move quickly. I often overlook or forget things, or get distracted in the middle of something. I  feel a little frayed at the edges. Shallow breath and slouching get in the way of good thinking, so I try to consciously counteract that. I get less sleep because I stay up late and then wake up to an alarm. Sometimes I have nightmares about forgetting something important or being late for a presentation, but I’ve learned to accept those nightmares as useful rehearsals.

When I catch myself forgetting things or worrying about juggling responsibilities, I make a list of my commitments and what I need to do. This helps me worry less. I prioritize my appointments and tasks, cutting back as much as needed and sometimes saying no. If there are some things I just have to do, I sometimes spend time thinking about the worst-case scenario and how things will still be okay. I also think about a couple of likely scenarios that could go wrong to see if I can take any precautions. I recover from stress faster if I pick one thing to focus on and make significant progress on it than if I spin my wheels.

When I feel afraid: One time, I was in fitness class and the exercise was to leapfrog over our partner. Since I had sprained my ankle a few weeks back, the memory of pain was still strong, and I didn’t feel up to high-impact exercises. I’d modified the other exercises to be less stressful, but there isn’t really a way to downscale jumping over someone and landing. I couldn’t help but imagine the pain from my ankles giving way. I caught myself starting to hyperventilate, and I tried not to cry. The instructor noticed my hesitation and urged me forward.

I knew that I was having a possibly unreasonable reaction to the exercise, so after a few false starts, I eventually managed to do the first one. I figured that if I landed badly and hurt myself, it would be a temporary problem, but letting the memory of a minor accident stop me from doing things that are good for me would be more of a long-term problem. It was really hard to push myself to do the first one, and it got a little bit easier with each one I did. Fortunately, after a few rounds, W- (who was my partner for the exercise) noticed my discomfort and bent lower, making it easier. Each time I went over, I reminded myself that I had just finished another round without getting injured, so my lizard brain should probably worry less.

Other times, I’m fine with leaving an irrational fear in place. For example, I really don’t like things that are poisonous. This makes beaches rather stressful for me: jellyfish, sea urchins, fish, shells… I could probably work on getting over that, but it’s been fine so far.

When I doubt myself: Sometimes I worry that I’m not going to be able to make something as awesome as I want to, particularly when I’ve made a professional commitment to do so. Other times, I wonder whether I’m going down the right path, or I feel the impostor syndrome kicking in.

I usually stick with what I’m doing, knowing that the feeling of mediocrity is part of the experience of learning. Sometimes I alternate that with a high-satisfaction activity like coding. Reviewing positive feedback from other people also helps me get over this hump.

When I don’t have enough control: I’ve gotten stressed out in situations where I didn’t have a clear escape or where I’m not sure what’s going on. For example, long road trips where I couldn’t just leave, international flights with talkative seatmates, awkward street conversations with people who try to chat you up… My flight response kicks in big time. If I really can’t get out of there, I tend to mentally withdraw.

When I feel angry: I rarely get angry. I feel something a little like anger or annoyance when people make ageist or sexist remarks, even self-deprecating ones (“I’m too old for this!”). I also feel a pull to act when I perceive people as unreasonable or unfair to others, or when I run into systems that are getting in my way. When I do, I tend to feel it as an intense focus on disassembling or fixing something, like a bug in the software of life that can be debugged and corrected. I usually respond with a quick remark pointing out the behaviour. If I think I can influence it through action, I may sit down and plan my approach.

When I feel embarrassed: Did I make a technical mistake that sent lots of e-mail to people? Did I accidentally delete lots of data? Sure-fire ways to feel terrible and time-stressed. The important thing here is to not make things worse, which is why I try to slow down and double-check what I’m going to do in order to fix things. Then I work on figuring out how to not end up in the same kind of situation again. (Ex: phone)

What does not being stressed feel like?

When I feel relaxed, I:

  • can focus on a thought or activity in a calm, curious manner
  • am confident that things will work out
  • feel well-rested and alert
  • enjoy learning about life, ideas, and people
  • feel competent and well-prepared
  • am reflexive and positively self-aware
  • can see the silver lining in practically anything

I feel like this most of the time, which is nice. =) In terms of detecting and responding to stress, I’m working on improving by:

  • figuring out which situations/approaches are more relaxed or more stressful for me, so that I can choose appropriately
  • desensitizing myself to specific stresses through repeated exposure and reflection (ex: coworking as a way of getting better at social interactions and interruptions)
  • transforming stressful situations into blog posts as well as systems for avoiding similar mistakes

Stress is part of life. It can be a useful part of life if you can figure out how to hack it. =)

Less Wrong meetup notes: Goal factoring, fight-or-flight, and comfort zones

This week, I attended my first Less Wrong meetup in Toronto – a meandering conversation about applied rationality over coffee in a Tim Hortons café tucked into Dundas Square just east of Yonge. Here are my rough notes:

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Goal factoring is a process of mapping your goals and the underlying needs that they address so that you can identify complementary or conflicting goals and alternative approaches that will also address your needs. Start by listing your goals, then organize them in relation to each other, and examine them to see which needs they meet. You can learn more about your implicit needs by looking at your evaluations of alternatives.

Fight, flight, or freeze: We talked about the fight-flight-or-freeze reaction, or the body’s response to stress. We also talked about the sympathetic nervous system (which stresses out when f/f/f kicks in), and the parasympathetic nervous system, which deals with non-urgent things. One of the effects of stress is that the blood flow to some parts of your brain is restricted in favour of the blood flow to other parts of your brain, which is why it’s easy to make stupid decisions when you’re stressed out.

Comfort zone expansion: We also discussed the process of growing your comfort zone gradually by imagining scenarios, using de-stressing techniques, and working with a safe space.

In order to practise applying rationality techniques to real life, we agreed to spend the next week studying our fight/flight/freeze reactions and to share our observations with the group next week. I’ll reflect on this a little more later – I want to post these brief notes first before I forget! =)