Emotional management #
Engineers enjoy discussing text editors, tech stacks, and note taking apps but barely anyone ever talks about emotional management. How does everyone handle stress, rejection, or distraction? In fact, I only ever stumbled upon Dan Luu’s and Jamie Brandon’s thoughtful takes on the topic. Here’s mine.
Stress and anxiety #
I vaguely remember reading that the most stressful aspect of our day-to-day life is the most stress we can imagine: A menial task (say, struggling to finish a PowerPoint presentation) may feel to one person as stressful as a high-stakes event (say, facing eviction from your home) to someone else. Needless to say, the stakes are very different but that has little bearing on how it feels. Both events can eat you up inside, as bizarre as the comparison may sound. Neither should be eating you up inside.
What helps me dealing with stressful situations is to put suffering in context: I may be experiencing what feels like a substantial amount of stress, but is my situation objectively threatening? I don’t have to battle cancer, fight in a war, or endure a famine. When put in the broader context of suffering that is objectively worse, problems can vanish quickly.
In addition to reframing my mental state, my personal trifecta for mitigating stress is as cliché as it is effective: exercise, sleep, and diet – probably in that order. To me, anything else is a microoptimization that is not worth obsessing over – at least not until you get these three right.
Up until I was twenty years old, I never worked out. I then began to run once or twice a week, always without music or any other kind of stimulation. Having been fortunate enough to live next to trails in the woods, I experience the rhythmic breathing to be meditative, and a great stress reliever. Four years ago, I also picked up strength training, which turned out to be a great confidence booster and has noticeable benefits, even for banal activities, like standing for a long time in museums. I try to exercise daily but usually end up with five or six sessions a week. When I miss a day, I notice an immediate increase in anxiety and general discomfort, like clockwork.
There exists a gene mutation that is believed to result in a drastic decrease in the need for sleep. I don’t carry this mutation and find that I need at least 7.5 hours of sleep to function well. Ideally eight. More than nine hours seems to have the opposite effect: I start feeling groggy. It’s often tempting to compromise on sleep because “omg, I have so much to do” but I eventually internalized the fallacy of this. Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks helped me realize that there will always be too much to do. It’s very much a fact of life of the 21st century and there is no fighting it, so we might as well accept it. Get all the sleep that you need to feel rested, and everything else will fall in place.
Nutrition is much more murky than sleep and exercise. As Peter Attia eloquently puts it, there’s very little we know for a fact about nutrition. Most nutrition “science” is misleading at best and plain wrong at worst. Personally, I function best by minimizing processed food intake (especially sugar) and maximizing whole food intake, all while consuming an adequate amount of protein – about one gram per pound of bodyweight, which is surprisingly difficult to reach when eating a standard Western diet. By no means am I now immune to stress and anxiety but I consider myself substantially more resilient by getting my exercise, sleep, and nutrition mostly right.
I like to think of my attention as a battery. When fully charged, it’s easy to be focused and get stuff done. When depleted, there’s no focusing or willpower that can get me to do more work. Good sleep always recharges the battery – although not necessary fully! – and it then proceeds to drain throughout the day.
Some activities, I discovered, deplete my attention battery more than others. Social media can be a particularly insidious offender. If I start my day by reading angry takes about politics, I quickly feel like a weasel on cocaine and it’s difficult to recover from that. That may be fine later in the day but it’s a real problem in the morning.
Other activities can replenish my battery to some extent, like exercise, or a brief nap. To a large extent, managing distractions reduces to managing my attention battery. Pay attention to the effect that your daily activities have on your battery. Avoid draining activities and incorporate replenishing activities.
Recurring meetings also happen to have a negative effect on my attention and I’m not in a position to avoid them altogether. I find that I work best by taking meetings in the afternoon, or at the very least after 10 am.
Maximizing energy #
They say that planning is important. Surely, more planning must then be better? There’s plenty of dubious advice that suggests hierarchical todo lists for this, elaborate schedules for that, and so on. Having tried this for a while, I found that a tight schedule with little wiggle room feels constraining and suffocating. On top of that, there’s the added stress of feeling that I’m always falling behind my self-imposed schedule. Clearly, there’s a goldilocks zone: I need at least some planning to avoid drifting aimlessly. A short, daily todo list (consisting of only three tasks) gets the job done for me. Any more than that, and I won’t complete the list (which feels demotivating).
More importantly however, I learned that managing my energy is more fruitful than managing tasks. The key question is: how can I tackle my todo list in a way that maximizes my energy? Starting the day with something that’s exciting makes a big difference to me. Often, that involves putting my head down and working on code. Updating roadmaps and reviewing design documents is less exciting, so I try to follow up with an energizing task, otherwise I run the risk of losing my energy. Again, it strikes me as important to pay careful attention to my emotional state and pivot (if possible) when my emotional state is deteriorating.
There are days when I have no interest in any of the tasks I ought to complete. For these situations, I curate a “productive procrastination” list that contains things (articles, blog posts, YouTube videos) that are unrelated to what I need to do in the moment but still beneficial in the long run. Instead of getting lost on Reddit, why not experiment with some software you’ve been meaning to give a shot? Or improve the keyboard shortcuts of your text editor? Or watch a tech talk that’s been in your playlist?
Reframe the 40-hour work week #
I’m in the middle of reading Scott Adams’s Reframe Your Brain, in which he proposes reframes that help us cast bad situation in a more beneficial light. For example, if you’ve recently encountered a streak of bad luck, it’s tempting to conclude that “the universe is out to get me,” which is the original framing. Instead, reframe your bad luck as “the universe now owes me.” It may sound banal but I find that it really can make a difference.
I created another reframe for myself:
- Original: You are paid to work 40 hours a week
- Reframe: You are paid to get as much work done as you can
Let me share a personal anecdote: I had my most productive years as a PhD student. Nobody cared when, where, or how I was working. I would get to the office between 10 and 11 am, get a few hours of focused work in, and take some time off in the afternoon. Later at night, often between 9 pm and 2 am, I would experience another burst of energy and get more work done. I really couldn’t tell you how many hours a week I worked, but it felt like the perfect arrangement. Instead of obligations and deadlines, it was curiosity and playfulness that kept me going.
In subsequent jobs, I often felt like a slave to the nine-to-five mentality, thinking that I ought to clock in around eight hours a day, regardless of circumstances. There were days where I felt entirely spent after as little as two hours but I stuck around because I was paid to, after all. Needless to say, this benefitted neither me nor my employer: I imposed unnecessary pressure on myself, and my employer didn’t benefit either from me sticking around and getting basically no work done. It’s in everyone’s interest that I instead recharge and come back fully (instead of just partially) refreshed – either later the same day, or the day after.
I understood intellectually that it’s not the 40 hours that matter – after all, that’s a relic of manual labor, where output scales linearly with the number of hours put in: If one can produce n units in four hours, one can produce approximately 2n units in eight hours. Intellectual work does not scale linearly. If one produces n units of smartness in four hours, one is very unlikely to produce another n units over the next four hours. In fact, my output scales roughly logarithmically. The first two hours, I tend to be very productive, which is followed by a rapid decline.
These days, I deal with this by reminding myself that the interest of my employer and myself are aligned. Everyone benefits if I smartly manage my energy, even if it means that on some days, I have to stop working after just a few hours.
Regardless, to this day, I struggle with calling it a day if I did not accomplish what I consider “enough.” It’s tempting to stick around and wrestle myself into getting some more work done, even if the work is of low quality.
If you liked this article, you may also enjoy my book Research Power Tools.