Category Archives: reflection

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! =)

Looking back and looking forward

Have you ever felt unsure about whether you’re moving forward or where the time went? A friend called me up and asked for help on being able to see the progress in her life. I walked her through the process of doing a weekly review using a Google Docs document.

A weekly review is really simple. Write down the dates you’re talking about, and then write down what you did. Look at your calendar, e-mail, and to-do list for hints. Don’t worry about pinning things down to a specific day; just write down what you remember. Set yourself a reminder to do this again next week – it might be a calendar appointment, it might be an item on your to-do list. Lather, rinse, repeat.

When she got to the end of the things she remembered about last week, I asked her some questions about relationships and life, and we turned up quite a few more things to celebrate.

She was surprised by how long the list was. People do a lot, but it’s hard to remember what you’ve done. You make progress an inch at a time, and you don’t see the miles.

I can remember about a week back, and that only with the help of my notes. Any further back, and I know I’ll be missing important things. I write so that I can remember. Daily blog posts roll up into weekly reviews, which roll up into monthly and yearly reviews. I can tell you where the last ten years went: where I’ve gone forward, and where I’ve lost something along the way.

It’s good to celebrate the little wins, though, and that’s part of why a weekly review is so useful. We forget where life goes.

It’s also good to see the gaps, to come a little closer to what you really want. Writing down your ideas for the next period keeps you from forgetting. You can move away from the plan, especially if other opportunities come up, but the plan is a useful default.

Reviews are so useful that I do several yearly reviews, even though that can be a little confusing. The New Year holiday is a natural time to do an annual review, one synchronized with other people. My birthday is another review point. It’s useful to summarize life as a 28-year-old or 29-year-old. It helps people relate across the years. My experiment anniversary is February and my fiscal year ends in September; both are occasions for a mini-review. So I’m regularly looking at a sliding window of time, figuring out how far I’ve come and what I want to do with the next year. Sometimes this confuses me, but still, it’s handy to periodically check. (See my previous reviews.)

I also regularly look forward. When I analyzed the phrases I used on my blog in 2012, “I want to” and “so that I” were my top two phrases. I write about what I want to do. I mindmap and draw my ideas. This looking-ahead is part of my regular weekly, monthly, and yearly reviews. Thinking about the future pulls me forward so that I don’t get stuck in the past. It makes the present more vivid, more real.

January is named for the Roman god Janus, the two-faced god of beginnings and transitions (or at least that’s what Wikipedia says he is). He looks towards the past and the future, and so do we.

See also:

Delegation: Being clear about what you value

In Spousonomics (now retitled as It’s Not You, It’s the Dishes), I came across a brief explanation of David Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage. Economically speaking, it can make sense to trade with other parties even if you can do something faster yourself, because trading frees you up to focus on higher-value work as long as the transportation and transaction costs are not prohibitive.

I’m slowly learning to let go of more and more tasks in terms of delegation and outsourcing. For example, I’ve been working with someone on developing marketing materials for this business idea around sketchnoting. We want to put together a leave-behind that can help event/conference organizers learn more. The person I’m working with has a lot of experience in graphic design and illustration, although I’m probably more comfortable with the copywriting and sketchnoting aspects of it.

She set this up as a fixed-price project. I’ve worked on similar illustration projects at fixed price, and I’m always careful to specify the number of rounds of revisions included. For revisions beyond that, I work at a specified rate, although I might throw in minor revisions for free. I do this because I know people in both software development and illustration who have gotten burned in an endless revision cycle because of client expectations, but I guess many illustrators do open-ended fixed-price projects instead.

When I hire people to do work for me, I want to make sure that I’m doing right by them as well. I don’t want people to get tired of working on this never-ending project. I want to build on people’s strengths and their career interests instead of running into their gaps. I want to focus on the highest-value activities, going for about 80% awesome instead of spending all the time trying to chase down 100%.

One of the things that I’m learning to do is to be explicit about what I value and what I’m looking for. For example, we were going back and forth on the copy for this leave-behind. It can take a while to get to copy that feels right. The discussion does help me clarify what style I’m looking for (now I have a “Goldilocks style guide” with examples of what’s too formal, what’s too informal, and where I want to be), but copywriting isn’t the key value I want to get out of this arrangement. I’d rather have her focus on the parts where I hope she can really make a difference.

I suggested using filler text like “Lorem ipsum” so that we can play with the layout and the feel of the piece without getting distracted by the words. It’s important to have an idea of the rough structure of the text – short paragraphs? a bulleted list? – but we don’t have to finalize it just yet, and I don’t want her to spend hours wrestling with it if there are better things she can do.

What are those things? Well, let’s think about what I really need help with in terms of a leave-behind. The final form factor is probably something like a half-sheet of cardstock. I want something that I can print at home if I’m in a rush, or have printed elsewhere for extra oomph. It should probably be double-sided for efficiency, but it has to accommodate the imprecise nature of printing on home-office equipment. It should look good in black-and-white, and extra-nice in colour. It should be something I can easily edit. There are a whole lot of things that need to be figured out: layout, font selection (must be a Google Web Font that I can use on my website as well), visual balance, what needs to be drawn.

So, what does mini-success for this project look like? Maybe an Adobe InDesign file (ideally, something that I can also convert to an Inkscape SVG!) with some text boxes in a selected font… I’ll probably need to do the final drawing of any illustrations, so maybe there are just boxes where the images go, too.

It’s a bit different from other things she’s worked on, then, where she designs the piece, writes the copy, and draws the illustrations. It can be odd working on something that seems like something you’ve done before, but isn’t quite the same equation. I know I’ve felt insecure about working on projects like that! If I’m clear about what I value, maybe that will help us make the most of the time we spend working on this project.

So I said:

If you’re worried that it’ll be too close to "Well, I drew these boxes on this InDesign file and tweaked them a few times until they lined up, and then you sweated over the copy and the illustration and all of those things I usually work on," I’m sure you’ll find other ways to create enough value to feel good about it. For example:

  • "I looked at X fonts and shortlisted A – E. I recommend B because ______, but C is another good fit for you because _______. Both pair well with D if you need to use a different font for emphasis."
  • "While working on this, I found some examples of marketing materials that you might like. _____ is interesting because of _____, _____ because _____, and _____ because ______."
  • "You’re trying to say too much here. People only need to know ____, _____, and _____. We can save the rest for the website."
  • "You’re not answering enough questions here. We need to bring back that point about ______."
  • "Here are some sketches of what this could look like."
  • "That sketch is unclear – doesn’t communicate ____ to me. How about these versions?"
  • "I checked this with ______ and _____ and they understood it, too."

Who knows, maybe it will include answering specific questions about Illustrator and InDesign in case there are little tweaks I can’t figure out myself! That would be useful too. =)

In particular, the key values I think I’m getting from working with you are:

  • Because you focus on graphic design, you’re probably exposed to lots more input and inspiration than I am. I’m counting on you to be able to pull out examples and ideas from your stash.
  • For similar reasons, you may be better able to differentiate between things and explain why something is a better or worse fit. Think of the way people who are versed in colour theory can explain why certain combinations work and what they can communicate, or how someone who’s interested in typography can discuss different styles
  • Because you aren’t me, you can push back if I’m giving too much or too little detail, using too much jargon, coming across with the wrong tone, or drawing something that people would find hard to understand. ("I hate to break it to you, but that doesn’t look anything like an elephant inside a snake…")
  • You’re more familiar with the Adobe suite of tools than I am. You know what things are called and where they are. So you can get the basics in place faster, and you can help me figure out how to do things (especially if I don’t know what those things are called, or which approaches are easier than others).

Part of learning how to delegate is about figuring out where the task boundaries are, so that people feel good about working on and completing various chunks. I’m open to making the copywriting a separate project, and possibly even working with someone else for that. It’s tough, but if I learn how to break things down into projects that tap people’s strengths, and we figure out what makes sense to focus on, that’ll probably work out to a good thing.

There’s so much to learn, and it takes work to learn about delegation this way. I wish I could learn faster or more effectively, but I can’t imagine learning all these things in a class or seminar. Practical experience and mindfulness, then!

One to three, that’s all

One to three good pieces of work each day. That’s all I want to check off my list, and anything else is a bonus. On a day-by-day basis, this seems unambitious. Sometimes I wonder if I’m wasting this opportunity of an experiment – but I’m slowly feeling my way around, and it’s good to take my time.

This week’s accomplishments:

  • Monday: business planning, and a meeting with a potential client.
  • Tuesday: book sketchnotes, the book club, and halfway through putting together an e-book follow-up for my talk
  • Wednesday: lunch with another entrepreneur; coffee with Quantified Self organizers and brainstorming; ENT101 sketchnote; finishing the e-book
  • Thursday: digital sketchnoting podcast with Mike Rohde; on a personal note, survived another fitness class
  • Friday: first coworking session at ING Direct; more business planning; brainstormed business marketing with someone

I am so glad I stumbled across the power of writing and review. It’s much too easy to forget about where the time has gone, and to forget to celebrate the small wins.

While I waited for W- to finish his krav maga class, I mapped different emotions and the situations in which I feel them. The predominant emotion for this week has been a little hard to pin down. It’s not quite the thrill of developing code and closing tickets, or the happiness of having everything line up. It’s more amorphous. I think it’s more of a patient, deliberate preparation.

One thing at a time, one step in front of the other. If I accept this as the normal, it’ll probably be much better for me than assuming that normal is a whirlwind of activity.

Then I can hack this pace, bit by bit. I can experiment with breakfasts and other starts. I can write down more challenges and worries, and I can get better at working with other people to make things happen. I can figure out what my “treats” are – those small, productive tasks that give me a thrill – and sprinkle them through my week.

I’ve played with the “manic productivity” setting in life. Let’s see if I can get the hang of “steadily increasing strength.”