On this page:
  • Identifying my reactions to stress
  • Understanding my procrastination

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. =)

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!