Tips For the Stressed and Anxious [en]

[fr] Une série de conseils (basés sur mon expérience personnelle!) pour les stressés et anxieux. Top de la liste: s'assurer qu'on dort, mange, et bouge assez (c'est la base). Boire des tisanes de fleur d'oranger. Prendre un bain chaud. Méditer.

Twice a month I write up an article chosen by my readers. This is the second. Vote for the next one!

After years of learning to deal with my stressed and anxious self, here are a few ideas and tips I’ve found help me get through those moments. It won’t replace therapy of course, but it can help!

  • Make sure you have your basics covered (this is your top priority): enough sleep, enough food (preferably more or less balanced), and physical exercise (go for a walk!) — regular hours if possible.
  • Drink orange blossom infusions (“fleur d’oranger”). It’s a relaxing infusion — 4-5 cups a day, and one 30 minutes before going to bed if you have trouble sleeping. I’m a fan ever since drinking those saved one of my exam sessions.
  • Take a warm bath.
  • Lie down, close your eyes, and concentrate on your breathing for 10-20 minutes, without falling asleep, and without starting to think about stuff. When thoughts show up, just let them fly by as you concentrate on your breathing. (This is kind of basic meditation.) Once or twice a day.
  • When stressed, identify the main stressor (if it’s procrastination-related stress) and get it done with. Things usually get better after that.
  • If anxious/down, go for stuff that makes you laugh (it helps the brain switch gears): lolcats, comedy movie, fun friends, comics — whatever does it for you.
  • Sometimes (specially if you’re more down than anxious), watching a scary movie / thriller can do the trick. Anxiety is often something we do to ourselves (need that adrenalin-drug!) so getting a shot through artifical means (the movie) can actually help relax about other stuff.
  • Head out to the countryside/lake/mountains. Look at nature around you — it helps regain a sense of proportion.
  • Watch the Eight Irresistable Principles of Fun video (a few minutes).

Of course, these are very general tips. They are not magic recipes, either: sometimes we’re stressed or anxious for very good reasons, and it’s normal to be uncomfortable. But these ideas might help make things a little bit better or bearable when it’s rough.

Got any tips that work for you when you’re stressed or anxious, and that you’d like to share? The comments are yours.

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My Journey Out of Procrastination: Perfectionism, Starting, and Stopping [en]

In addition to the five principles I described in my earlier post, two more really important things to understand regarding procrastination are:

  • how perfectionism ties in with it
  • how having trouble starting and trouble stopping are two sides of the same problem.

So, perfectionism. I think the link between procrastination and perfectionism is perceived by most people, but it remains a superficial understanding. Like procrastination, perfectionism is not something you get rid of by just “accepting you’re not perfect” or “lowering your standards”. It’s not that simple.

Perfectionism is often rooted in deep-seated fears of the sky falling on your head if somebody says something negative about you or what you’ve done. Just willing away this emotional component will sadly not be enough to free oneself, in most cases. So, just like procrastination, one’s tendancy to go for perfection perfection perfection needs to be treated gently and with understanding. Where does it come from? Do I really believe that people can love me and appreciate what I do even if it’s (I’m) not perfect? (Don’t answer that question too quickly… The answer is often “no” if you’re really honest with yourself.) What small experiences can I do to show and teach myself that the sky will **not** fall on my head if I don’t do things perfectly?

It’s also important to understand that one of the things perfectionism does is make mountains out of molehills: if your standards for what you want to accomplish are very high, it’s discouraging. You think about decorating your flat to make it the perfectly decorated place of your dreams, and before you’ve even finished imagining it you’re already discouraged and don’t have any energy to even get started. This is where tricks like breaking up big projects (or aspirations) into smaller pieces can come in handy. (For example, I’ll accept that my flat isn’t decorated, and take the small step of putting up one picture on the wall, even though that won’t make it “perfectly decorated”.)

When I was a teenager, I understood rather quickly that my desire to do things “well” was getting in the way of my simply doing them. In a way, I’d say I’m a reformed perfectionist: I’ve long ago decided that I’d rather do things imperfectly than not do them (I have a “just do it even if it’s crap” mode). I also learned that what I considered “crap” was often considered by others to be “great” — like that time when I wrote a quick and dirty page on what I’d done at a job, mainly for myself, and sent it off to my brother who was working at the same company, who then (to my horror) forwarded it to the manager, manager who then (to my utmost disbelief) got back to me praising the professionalism of my crappy document.

In some cases, you might discover that perfectionism is not the real problem, but a “constructed” problem designed to achieve a goal like help you procrastinate. It might sound a bit crazy, but sometimes causality doesn’t really go in the direction we imagine.

Starting and stopping are a good example of this. Almost all people who procrastinate will at some point say something like “Oh, my problem is just starting — once I’ve started, then there’s no stopping me, I’ll do what I set out to do. I just really need to find a way to get started.” I said the exact same thing. Then one day I realised (I had a little help for that) that the real problem I faced was not that I couldn’t start things, but that once I was started, I just couldn’t stop.

I’m a little obsessive, and once I’m doing something, I get completely absorbed in it, don’t see time go by, forget to eat, forget to feel, forget to breathe (!), lose myself. It’s clearly one of the things that helped me develop RSI all those years ago, but that’s not the only problem. It’s that although I’m being productive, I’m “not there”, I’m out of touch with myself, and I’m not really enjoying it, except in a kind of manic, compulsive way. This is not flow, by the way — it’s something else and it’s not healthy.

So in a way, I have a very good reason not to want to start things. I have a very good reason for procrastinating — it’s my healthy reaction against behaviour that makes me lose myself.

The way out, therefore, is to learn to stop. If you know you can stop, then you are free to start. FlyLady understood this very well, and this is why the “you can do anything for 15 minutes” mantra works so well. Trust me, learning to stop is not easy. Once you’re finally doing something and getting into it, stopping after 30 minutes (or whatever time you’ve set) is going to feel very counterproductive. But remember where the real problem is here: if you don’t make the effort to stop, you’re cheating yourself (specially if you coaxed yourself into starting because there was a clear time limit to how much time you’d spend on the task) and it will make it even more difficult to start next time. I find the way FlyLady puts it in her “How to Declutter” page pretty inspiring:

Decide how often you are going to declutter a zone. Do a little every day – use a timer. But be warned – this can become compulsive! Once you get started you will want to clean like a banshee! Don’t burn yourself out! Only do small amount at a time. The house did not get dirty overnight and it will not get clean overnight. When you set the timer you can only do two sessions at a time. This goal may seem unattainable right now, but you can do it in little pieces. In a couple of months, the whole house will be decluttered.

So, concentrate on stopping things, rather than on starting them. Set time limits. Flip the problem on its head, and you should soon see things changing.

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My Journey Out of Procrastination: Five Principles [en]

When you’re trapped in the procrastination rut, solutions coming from those who are out of it just seem inapplicable. “Just do it,” for example.

I think I’ve recently pulled myself out of the rut for good (fingers crossed), and before I forget what it is like to live with the heavy black cloud of “things I should have taken care of last week/month/year” over my head, here are a few thoughts on what helped me build a life for myself where my invoices are sent, my bills are paid, my deadlines are met, and I actually have guilt-free week-ends and evenings.

It wasn’t always like that. Actually, for most of my life, it wasn’t like that.

Changing, like most changes, has been a gradual process. I know that (for me, at least) one of the thick roots of my procrastination lies in a very archaic urge of mine to not be alone, to not do things alone. I rarely found it hard to do things (even the washing-up) if I had company, and I understood at some point that putting things off until I got myself in an unmanageable mess was in a way something I did to either force myself to ask others for help, or manipulate them into helping me out.

I think it was really important for me to understand this, because unfortunately, freeing oneself of life-threatening procrastination is not just a question of tricks and methods, but also about understanding what role such a behaviour plays in one’s “life ecosystem”, and what can be done to replace it. In my case, it included being proactive about asking for assistance or company, making sure I was having enough of a social life, and sorting out a few personal issue I’m not going to dive in here.

That being said, I learned five important principles throughout my journey that are worth sharing.

The first is that radical change will not work. If you tend to live in a messy home, it’s not spring-cleaning once every three years which will change that. Going from living in a messy home to living in a more or less ordered home is a lifestyle change. It’s like quitting smoking or starting to exercise regularly, or eating more healthily. Reading GTD, spending two days setting up your system, and “sticking to it”, will not be enough (though I’m a great fan of GTD). Be aware that you’re in for a long process, which will probably take years (it took years for me, in any case — maybe even half my lifetime). This means that you need to start by making small changes to the way you do things, instead of aiming for a revollution.

The second is to not do it alone. By that, I mean involve others to support you. Things I’ve done include buddy working, asking a friend to come over to help me clean the flat, or having my brother literally hold my hand during three months whilst I started getting my finances back in order. If it’s easier to do with somebody just sitting next to you, then ask somebody to do just that. I remember one of my first experiences of this was being on the phone with a friend, and we both had a horrible awful pile of dirty dishes to deal with. We both decided to hang up, do it now, and call again an hour later when it was done. Somehow, it felt easier to be doing the dishes when I knew my friend was doing the same thing in another country.

The third is that backlog and process both need to be dealt with. When you procrastinate, you start off in the worst of places: not only do you not have a healthy “lifestyle” process in place for dealing with things (you let them wait until it’s so urgent the only thing left to do is to call in the firemen), but you also have a (sometimes huge) backlog of “stuff” that needs dealing with. Be patient with yourself. Also, understand that there’s no point in just dealing with the backlog if you’re not fixing the process. GTD is mainly about the process. “Do it now” is also just about the process.

The fourth is to find pleasure in the doing. One component in my procrastination is that I’m overly goal-focused. One thing I had to learn to do was to enjoy doing things, and not just enjoy having done them. Life is now, even when you’re doing the dishes or cleaning the flat or paying bills. What can be done to make the process more pleasant? Well, there are things like listening to music or focusing on the task at hand in a zen-like way, but it’s also possible to keep in mind that by paying my bills now, I’m being kind to myself and treating myself well (by keeping myself out of future trouble). It helped me to realise that I really didn’t mind doing the dishes for friends when I was invited — it was doing them for myself that sucked. It wasn’t about the dishes: it was about doing stuff for myself. (Which opens a whole new can of worms: is it easy to treat yourself kindly?) When I started doing my dishes as if I were my own best friend that I loved, things started changing.

The fifth is to know your boundaries and enforce them (aka “say no”). When there is too much to do that you can’t keep up, it means that you’ve been accepting or taking on too much. This is a major chapter in itself (and as I’m getting increasingly better at setting limits and saying no when needed, I’m starting to realize how hopelessly bad most people are at this). If you catch up on the backlog, set up a good process, but keep on piling up your plate with more than you can eat, there’s no way out. Again, this principle opens up potential cans of worms: why is it difficult to say no? Fear of rejection or angering the other are not to be taken lightly. “Just understanding” this is often not enough, as the root of such behaviour is often emotional and needs to be treated with respect. (You’ll probably have noticed: you won’t get much out of yourself — or anyone — if you don’t treat emotional components of problems with respect.)

I think that before diving into any “method” to change one’s procrastinative habits, it’s worth pondering on all five of these principles and trying to keep them in mind whilst going on with one’s life: change will be successful only if you pay attention to them all. This is, in my opinion, where GTD on its own fails at “solving the problem”: it’s mainly about the process (part of the third principle here). You can get started implementing GTD, but if the deeper roots of your procrastination are not dealt with, you will simply fail at implementing GTD properly enough for it to be “the solution”, just like I did. Not that implementing GTD isn’t useful: it was a very important step for me, and helped me a lot (it changed my life, clearly), but it was not enough to free me from procrastination.

Another element I’d like to add, in case it comes handy to somebody, is that I noticed at some point that when I am under stress, I tend to feel down, and when I feel down, I tend to find it difficult to do things, and therefore procrastinate. Figuring out this vicious circle was a really important milestone for me. Of course, it then took many months of careful observation of myself to reach the point where I could go “Oh! I’m feeling down and crappy, am I stressed? What’s stressing me? Oh, let me deal with that now so I can climb out of the pit!” — and now, it never even gets to that stage (or very rarely) because I catch it even earlier and nip it in the bud.

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Triggers and Dopamine [en]

[fr] Deux idées importantes concernant la façon dont on fonctionne, particulièrement pour ce qui est de nos habitudes: les déclencheurs, qui appellent un comportement stéréotypé ou enregistré (une bonne ou mauvaise habitude), et la dopamine, qui lance plutôt l'appel du "reviens-y" que du plaisir, et qui s'active face à la nouveauté (ce qui explique que nos comportements un peu obsessionnels ou addictifs ne se soldent pas forcément par plus de plaisir).

As I have slowed down my work life for the end-of-year celebrations, I’m taking more time to read and write, something I want to keep going throughout 2010 and beyond.

These last days I’ve stumbled upon two interesting ideas that I’m adding to my understanding of how we change and why we do what we do — a subject of endless fascination for me.

The first is triggers and their importance in forming habits. I had never really thought of this until I looked at the new website 6 Changes. The idea here is that a habit is linked to something that triggers it. For example, feeling down and reaching for the fridge or the remote. Or putting your pyjamas on and brushing your teeth. Or getting up from a meal and doing the dishes.

In a way, this is something that FlyLady teaches you to put in practice by establishing morning and evening routines. (See the “Baby Steps” page on FlyLady for more similarity with what Leo explains in 6 Changes.) Creating routines is a way to have a series of habits where each one triggers the next.

I’m now keeping an eye open for triggers (think “API hooks” or “CSS classes” for the geeks out there) that I can build on to put in place new habits or replace undesirable ones.

I have a (minor) problem when I watch TV series, for example: I tend to watch one episode after the next more or less until I drop — I find it very hard to just watch one or two and be done with it. So I thought: “what could be the trigger here?” Obviously, the end credits of an episode. So, what I’ve decided to do now is pause the DVD, remove my headphones, get up and go to the kitchen or the bathroom when the end credits roll. Then I can go and watch the next episode if I want. See the idea? Clearly, I’m not building a new daily habit here, but using the idea of the trigger, a small first step, and incremental change to modify an undesired behaviour. Next step will be adding something more to “pause the DVD, remove headphones, get up” once that habit is established, which goes in the direction of helping me not dive mechanically back into my season, however fascinating it may be.

The second is the role of dopamine in relation to novelty. Dopamine is in fact not the “pleasure” drug, but more the “gimme more” one — it’s activated when we’re faced with novelty, and encourages us to come seeking it again. I’m not sure how I’m going to apply this to my daily life, but for me it’s important to understand that craving for something is not necessarily linked to pleasure in getting the something in question. In my opinion it explains why we can get stuck in compulsive behaviours (checking e-mail or iPhone being the most obvious) which do not make us really happy when we indulge in them — on the contrary, I know that I often end up feeling a bit empty when I’m stuck in a compulsion circle.

I find the last paragraph of the HuffPost article linked above very wise:

Given all of this, what can we do to prevent ourselves from becoming novelty-seeking zombies? The first thing is to simply become mindful of one’s use of media and devices. I find that one of the best things to do is to institute regular vacations from email. It usually takes a couple of days for the itch to check my email every five minutes to go away, and watching it happen reminds me just how obsessed I can become, but it also shows that it’s possible to lead a perfectly normal and fulfilling life without constant email access. Once we see that we can live without constant access to our devices, we can start trying to exert some control over device use in our daily lives. Evolution gave us the ability to overcome our urges, but we have to have the will to employ this control. One bit of good news is that we can improve our self-control with practice […].

Russell Poldrack

I think the most important thing that Russell says here is that technology is basically putting us in a position where we have to grow as human beings if we do not want to be slaves to our impulses. This is true in general, but once more, technology is magnifying and making apparent issues which are already there, but which might not have been that visible until now.

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A Quick Thought on Being Public [en]

[fr] Dans un monde où l'on est des personnages de plus en plus publics, s'adressant simultanément à des publics jadis séparés, on peut pour moi soit se réfugier dans la langue de bois pour ne heurter personne, soit se mettre les gens à dos en leur disant en face des choses qu'on aurait auparavant évité qu'ils entendent, soir jouer de l'équilibrisme en privilégiant l'honnêté exprimée d'une manière qui prend soin des sentiments des autres.

In these days of increasingly overlapping publics, I see three ways in which to deal with the fact that we are all becoming — to some extent — public figures, our multiple faces forced to come together as the publics they’re meant for also do:

  • go all tongue-tied and diplomatic, and dumb down your discourse so nobody can take offence or hear something they shouldn’t;
  • be an asshole, by saying things to people’s faces that one normally would keep for behind their backs;
  • walk the fine line of honesty and respect whilst expressing things in a way that cares for others’ feelings.

The third way, clearly, is the most challenging, but probably also the most rewarding from the point of view of personal growth.

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Bad With Faces, Good With Names [en]

[fr] Je suis très peu physionomiste mais dès qu'on me donne un nom, je sais exactement qui vous êtes. Pensez-y la prochaine fois qu'on se croise en vitesse quelque part, à une conférence par exemple!

I have a problem. I am really bad at recognizing faces. Really very bad. Bordering on hopeless.

This makes social occasions like conferences very difficult for me, because people keep coming up to me, saying hello, and though their face might seem familiar, I have not the slightest idea who they are.

Even with people I know, it’s sometimes difficult. My good friend Kevin Marks came up to me to say hi this morning, and it took me 4 excruciatingly long seconds to recognize him.

One might think that it’s because I meet too many people, or have too many people in my network, and can’t keep up. I’m happy to say it isn’t the case — I haven’t reached such a celeb status, luckily.

How do I know that?

I know that because the moment the person who just walked up to me gives me their name, I know exactly who they are.

I am deadly good with names.

That’s why I like conference badges.

The way I explain this to myself is that my “internal database” of people I know has an index on the name column, and not the face one. It’s as if I were “colour-blind to faces”.

I’m really good at remembering people, actually. I just need names.

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Writing: Desired Distraction [en]

[fr] Quand j'écris, j'ai besoin de m'interrompre, écrire un bout, repartir, revenir... De temps en temps je suis "avalée" par le processus d'écriture pendant un bon bout de temps, mais la plupart du temps le processus est bien plus fragmenté. Dès que les mots cessent de couler de mon clavier, je file vite quelques minutes faire autre chose. Je pense que mon cerveau travaille en tâche de fond pour préparer ce que je vais dire ensuite.

A topic I’m very sensitive to is multi-tasking. I stand somewhere in between the multitasking fanatics and those who point to it as the worst evil computers have brought us.

I’m very much aware of the benefits of the flow state, and how interruptions (what multitasking is all about) jerk you out of it. I’m convinced, though, that smooth and steady multitasking can in itself be an activity which can bring about a flow state (guess this would have to be demonstrated).

There are a certain number of things I have done to decrease interruptions in my daily activities: turn off e-mail (and other) notifications to almost nothing, put GMail in a different application than my browser, for example.

One activity during which I realised that I actively multitasked is when I’m writing. I write a bit, chat a bit, write a bit, fool around on the web a bit, write a bit, e-mail a bit… Every now and again I get sucked up and write-write-write, diving deep into it and coming out an hour later, but most of the time my writing process is more fragmented.

I realized that my brain needs the “off-time” between spurts of writing. Probably while I’m chatting or looking at my e-mail, my brain is preparing what I’ll write next in the background. When the words stop flowing to my fingers, I don’t stop and think hard to try to figure out what to say. I head out and come back a few minutes later. Sometimes I do this two or three times before I actually start writing again.

Basically, being distracted (or distracting myself) helps me write.

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