The Skill of Noticing Emotions

The Skill of Notic­ing Emotions

(Thanks to Eli Tyre and Luke Raskopf for helping teach me the tech­nique. And thanks to Nora Am­mann, Fin Moorhouse, Ben Lau­rense, Daniel Hynk, Nathan Young, Toby Jolly, Michael Ng, James Walsh and Jaime Sevilla for feed­back on var­i­ous drafts!)

(For those fa­mil­iar with the core idea, you might find it more in­ter­est­ing to skip to the long list of per­sonal ex­am­ples in the Ap­pendix)

Introduction

I was in­tro­duced to a tech­nique called Notic­ing at my CFAR work­shop back in Oc­to­ber, to be­come bet­ter aware of my emo­tions and bet­ter at pro­duc­tively re­act­ing to them. I’ve since found this a re­ally pow­er­ful tech­nique, and it’s be­come a pretty key tool for solv­ing prob­lems in my life. My goal in this post is to give my take on Notic­ing, ex­plain how I ac­tu­ally go about us­ing it, and hope­fully con­vince you to give it a try!

What do I mean by Notic­ing? I first want to in­tro­duce the idea of an emo­tion or men­tal state be­ing no­tice­able: some­thing that feels im­por­tant and ur­gent and is im­me­di­ately pro­moted to con­scious at­ten­tion. An ex­cel­lent ex­am­ple of a no­tice­able ex­pe­rience is hear­ing my name. When I hear some­one say “Neel” it im­me­di­ately feels im­por­tant and cap­tures my at­ten­tion. Even if I’m busy and fo­cused on some­thing, hear­ing my name can eas­ily break that fo­cus and cause me to change what I’m do­ing.

Be­ing no­tice­able breaks down into two parts: some­thing that I’m aware of and some­thing that feels im­por­tant. For ex­am­ple, I’m of­ten aware that I’m pro­cras­ti­nat­ing, but can’t muster the mo­ti­va­tion to ac­tu­ally do any­thing about it. It’s some­thing I am aware of, but not some­thing that feels im­por­tant. I like to think of this as spend­ing most of my life on au­topi­lot, fo­cused on the pre­sent mo­ment. A no­tice­able event or emo­tion will turn off au­topi­lot and en­gage my con­scious mind. Hear­ing my name does dis­able au­topi­lot, but if I’m aware that I’m pro­cras­ti­nat­ing and con­tin­u­ing to do so, I’m still on au­topi­lot.

Notic­ing, then, is a tech­nique to take a spe­cific emo­tion or men­tal state[1] and de­liber­ately make it no­tice­able. This es­sen­tially in­stalls au­to­matic trig­gers to turn off my au­topi­lot. This is ex­tremely use­ful, be­cause a lot of prob­lems in my life dis­solve when I can just be more self-aware at the right times! For ex­am­ple, I’ve had a lot of suc­cess with notic­ing the feel­ing of defen­sive­ness in ar­gu­ments. By de­fault, I’ll of­ten lash out and stop ar­gu­ing in good faith when defen­sive. But by mak­ing the feel­ing of defen­sive­ness no­tice­able, I can recog­nise in the mo­ment where the urge to lash out comes from. This doesn’t stop me be­com­ing defen­sive, but once I’ve iden­ti­fied the prob­lem I can take steps like re­mov­ing my­self from the situ­a­tion.

Why should you care about notic­ing?

In gen­eral, fix­ing a prob­lem in­volves figur­ing out the right thing to do, the right time to do it, and then ac­tu­ally do­ing it in the mo­ment. And I of­ten find it easy to do the first two, but then for­get to do the right thing in the mo­ment. One symp­tom of this is that I find it much eas­ier to give other peo­ple ad­vice than to ap­ply it my­self. For ex­am­ple, it’s easy to un­der­stand a bias like the plan­ning fal­lacy in the ab­stract, and even to iden­tify it in friends. But it’s much harder to no­tice in the mo­ment when I’m fal­ling prey to it and to put in the effort to cor­rect for this. I find Notic­ing valuable for bridg­ing this gap, and helping re­mind my­self in the mo­ment to ac­tu­ally ap­ply the ideas I already un­der­stand. I spend much of my life on au­topi­lot, fo­cused on what I’m do­ing, and Notic­ing helps me be self-aware at the times when it’s most use­ful to be.

A con­crete ex­am­ple of how I’ve used this: While work­ing, un­re­lated ideas of­ten pop into my head and I feel an urge to ex­plore them. Eg an im­pulse to check my mes­sages or google a ran­dom fact. This always feels jus­tified in the mo­ment, and like it’ll be a quick de­tour. But in prac­tice it’s in­cred­ibly hard to stop pro­cras­ti­nat­ing, of­ten start­ing a half hour rab­bit hole that leaves my origi­nal task long for­got­ten. This makes it near im­pos­si­ble to main­tain fo­cus and deep work. With Notic­ing, I’ve been able to make the feel­ing of those fleet­ing urges feel no­tice­able. And by be­com­ing self-aware at the mo­ment of dis­trac­tion, I can recog­nise that the urge just feels im­por­tant, rather than ac­tu­ally mat­ter­ing. This doesn’t work perfectly, but it trig­gers sev­eral times a day, and has made it much eas­ier to fo­cus.

I’ve found a pretty wide range of things can be im­proved by bet­ter con­trol of my au­topi­lot. A few gen­eral cat­e­gories:

  • I find it easy to get caught up in men­tal loops, like pro­cras­ti­nat­ing by scrol­ling on Red­dit, or fal­ling into spirals of in­se­cu­rity. Notic­ing can help me to recog­nise the loop as it’s be­gin­ning, and to break it then

  • This has been a re­ally pow­er­ful ap­pli­ca­tion—I find these loops build a lot of mo­men­tum and take a lot of willpower to break once they’ve be­gun. Break­ing them be­fore they re­ally be­gin is much eas­ier.

  • To in­crease my aware­ness of pos­i­tive emo­tions, eg grat­i­tude.

  • To bet­ter use and track my in­tu­itions, eg notic­ing what’s con­fus­ing me while learn­ing.

  • To build bet­ter so­cial habits, eg para­phras­ing back what the other per­son is say­ing, be­ing less judge­men­tal

Fur­ther, by prac­tic­ing Notic­ing for a while I’ve found my­self de­vel­op­ing a more gen­eral skill of be­ing self-aware. I’ve found it no­tably eas­ier over time to be aware of how I’m be­hav­ing and why, and bet­ter at track­ing my emo­tions. And it’s much eas­ier to start notic­ing some­thing new!

How to ap­ply it

I’ve hope­fully con­vinced you that Notic­ing is use­ful, so how to ac­tu­ally use it? My ap­proach is to in­stall a men­tal re­flex, where ev­ery time I feel the men­tal state I take a sim­ple phys­i­cal ac­tion, like snap­ping my fingers. I call these ac­tions mark­ers, and their pur­pose is to take the ex­pe­rience of Notic­ing out­side of my head and make it harder to ig­nore.

I’ll now out­line the ex­act al­gorithm I use to in­stall these re­flexes[2], but in gen­eral I ex­pect this to be a pretty per­sonal pro­cess. I ex­pect the best ap­proach to vary a lot be­tween peo­ple, so I en­courage you to adapt it to what­ever feels most nat­u­ral and helpful!


Algorithm

  1. Choose the men­tal state

    1. This should be as spe­cific as pos­si­ble. It doesn’t have to be easy to put into words, but should be eg one you have clear mem­o­ries of

    2. Nor­mally I first iden­tify a prob­lem which could be re­solved by be­ing self-aware at the right times, and then iden­tify a rele­vant men­tal state. Good prompts:

      1. When do I think “I should have known bet­ter”?

      2. What do I of­ten re­gret?

    3. A good lit­mus test for whether Notic­ing fits your prob­lem: “If I could set an alarm to go off in my head at the right time, would this prob­lem feel solved?”

  2. Choose your marker action

    1. This should be a small and sub­tle phys­i­cal ac­tion. It’s im­por­tant that it’s some­thing you can always do, eg snap­ping your fingers or tap­ping your foot

  3. List 10 pre­vi­ous ex­am­ples where you’ve felt this men­tal state

    1. Ideally ones that are re­cent, and that feel visceral—where they’ve re­ally stuck in your mind

    2. 10 is an ar­bi­trary num­ber, the point is that more ex­am­ples are always bet­ter. I recom­mend set­ting a 5 minute timer and spend­ing the full 5 min­utes brain­storm­ing. It’s easy to list ex­am­ples off the top of your head and then feel stuck, but it’s sur­pris­ing how many more ex­am­ples you can find with more time.

  4. Men­tally simu­late each ex­am­ple, and take the ac­tion when you feel the emotion

    1. Try to re­ally re­live the ex­pe­rience, in as much visceral de­tail as pos­si­ble. The goal is that it’s some­thing you feel rather than some­thing you’re describing

    2. Add as many de­tails as pos­si­ble to flesh out the scene

      1. Eg what were you say­ing? What did it feel like? Where were you? What could you see?

    3. Look out for cues as­so­ci­ated with the state, eg phys­i­cal sen­sa­tions, thought pat­terns you have, com­mon contexts

  5. Ac­tively prac­tice this over the next 2 weeks—I call this the learn­ing period

    1. Keep it in the back of your mind that you’re prac­tic­ing Notic­ing on this men­tal state

    2. Leave your­self reg­u­lar re­minders, eg post-it notes next to your bath­room mir­ror, daily email re­minders, a list you check as part of your morn­ing routine

    3. It can be helpful to track the times you suc­cess­fully no­tice over this pe­riod, eg in­cre­ment­ing a counter, or writ­ing it down

Mo­ti­va­tion be­hind the Algorithm

The fol­low­ing is my model for why this al­gorithm works. All mod­els are wrong, and so this is al­most cer­tainly in­cor­rect in im­por­tant ways, but I find this use­ful for mo­ti­vat­ing the al­gorithm. When tweak­ing the al­gorithm, I think it’s more im­por­tant to keep to the spirit of this model than to keep to the let­ter of the al­gorithm.

When I’m fo­cused on a task, on au­topi­lot, most of my con­scious at­ten­tion is go­ing to­wards it. But some part of my sub­con­scious mind, my aware­ness, is still aware of what’s go­ing on around me. There’s always go­ing to be a lot of unim­por­tant back­ground stim­uli, so my aware­ness will ig­nore things by de­fault. But it needs to be able to pro­mote im­por­tant things to my at­ten­tion, so it has a list of a few im­por­tant things. And when it de­tects some­thing with a strong as­so­ci­a­tion to some­thing im­por­tant, it flags that in my con­scious at­ten­tion. This is the ex­pe­rience of some­thing be­ing no­tice­able. So, to make a men­tal state no­tice­able, I need to make it feel im­por­tant and to cre­ate strong as­so­ci­a­tions with it.

How does the al­gorithm ac­tu­ally help with this?

  1. Choos­ing as spe­cific a men­tal state as pos­si­ble is valuable, be­cause if it feels clear and con­crete in my mind, the as­so­ci­a­tions will be stronger. There’s a clear tar­get to latch on to.

  2. The marker ac­tion is use­ful to help it ac­tu­ally feel im­por­tant in the mo­ment.

    1. It’s im­por­tant that it’s phys­i­cal, be­cause it’s easy to be some­what aware of the emo­tion but for it not to feel im­por­tant and be ig­nored. Just as I can be aware that I’m pro­cras­ti­nat­ing but it doesn’t feel im­por­tant enough to be able to stop. Tak­ing a phys­i­cal ac­tion, even a sim­pler one, makes it much harder for my mind to im­plic­itly ig­nore the emotion

      1. It’s easy to skip this part, and think you can ‘just no­tice’ - I highly recom­mend hav­ing a phys­i­cal marker

    2. The marker should be a sim­ple ac­tion that takes min­i­mal willpower and can always be performed. This makes it eas­ier to build the re­flex of pay­ing at­ten­tion to this men­tal state. The goal is to help your mind fo­cus, rather than to di­rectly solve the problem

  3. Men­tally simu­lat­ing his­tor­i­cal ex­am­ples helps make it feel im­por­tant, be­cause my mind is ex­tremely good at pat­tern spot­ting. Th­ese simu­la­tions give it a bunch of visceral data points of “when I feel this emo­tion, it’s im­por­tant and I re­act to it”.

    1. It’s nor­mal for this to feel a bit over-the-top, you want to re­ally drill in that this is a re­flex. The point is to do it enough times for my sub­con­scious mind to spot a pat­tern, rather than stop­ping when I feel like my con­scious mind gets it.

  4. When simu­lat­ing, it’s also use­ful to look for as many cues for the men­tal state as pos­si­ble. Ie things that cor­re­late with it, like phys­i­cal sen­sa­tions and as­so­ci­ated con­texts and emo­tions.

    1. This in­creases the prob­a­bil­ity that my aware­ness no­tices one of the as­so­ci­ated cues, and flags it to my at­ten­tion.

    2. I call this in­creas­ing the sur­face area on the emo­tion, I want to un­der­stand it and what it looks like in as much de­tail as pos­si­ble.

  5. The learn­ing pe­riod is im­por­tant be­cause it’s hard to build this ar­tifi­cial as­so­ci­a­tion that the emo­tion is im­por­tant. In the short term, this as­so­ci­a­tion will be quite weak, and keep­ing it in the back of my mind helps me re­spond to it. As it be­comes more fa­mil­iar, the as­so­ci­a­tion be­comes stronger and is more likely to stick in the long term.

    1. A use­ful fram­ing: The de­fault state of the world is that I will for­get about all new habits I de­velop. This isn’t some­thing I can re­solve by just “try­ing harder”, I need to take ac­tion and cre­ate ex­ter­nal re­minders to help it stick long term

Tips

  • Try to simu­late the ex­am­ples in as much de­tail as pos­si­ble. The goal is to build sur­face area and familiarity

    • For me, it feels like a men­tal movie play­ing out in my mind

    • Pay at­ten­tion to phys­i­cal, emo­tional and sen­sory details

    • Re­cency helps a lot

  • Solu­tions: The marker ac­tion is ex­plic­itly not sup­posed to be a solu­tion to the prob­lem, the goal is just to help you no­tice it better

    • The end goal is to end up notic­ing and solv­ing the prob­lems, but the bot­tle­neck is notic­ing. Once I re­li­ably be­come self-aware at the right time, the solu­tion is of­ten ob­vi­ous. Separat­ing notic­ing the prob­lem and solv­ing it makes it eas­ier to achieve both in the long term.

    • In prac­tice, I’ll of­ten have de­fault re­ac­tions in mind for what to do once I’ve be­come self-aware. But it’s im­por­tant to give your­self the af­for­dance to ig­nore those, and to make the marker ac­tion as low-effort as pos­si­ble. To build an effec­tive re­flex, it needs to be some­thing you can do with­out think­ing, rather than feel­ing like a decision

  • Choos­ing a spe­cific state is harder than it first seems. My in­stinct is to look for a spe­cific word, but of­ten one word can re­fer to many differ­ent men­tal states and in­ter­nal experiences

    • Eg, for me anx­iety could mean:

      • Fear of consequences

      • Aware­ness of uncertainty

      • Con­cern on some­one else’s behalf

      • Fear of so­cial judge­ment.

    • Often I no­tice dur­ing the ex­am­ples stage that the emo­tion feels a bit fuzzy and hard to pin down. This nor­mally means I’m not be­ing spe­cific enough

    • This is hard and of­ten re­quires iter­a­tion, don’t ex­pect it to be im­me­di­ately easy! I of­ten start Notic­ing some­thing new, re­al­ise that I didn’t have a suffi­ciently spe­cific state in mind, and need to start again.

  • Pace your­self: I highly recom­mend only try­ing to No­tice one thing at a time, es­pe­cially when start­ing out. The goal is to build a ro­bust habit, but it will be quite frag­ile at first, and prac­tic­ing on mul­ti­ple states makes each stick less well.

    • This can seem a bit frus­trat­ing, but I ac­tu­ally find it re­ally ex­cit­ing from the right per­spec­tive. Notic­ing is a great ex­am­ple of a Tor­toise Skill: some­thing I can train in the back­ground while liv­ing my life nor­mally. Th­ese aren’t a big deal in the short term, but re­ally build up in the long term

  • For im­por­tant prob­lems, it’s of­ten not clear what the solu­tion is, even if you be­came self-aware at the right time. Notic­ing can still be helpful there, be­cause it can help you get sur­face area on the prob­lem. By prac­tic­ing Notic­ing in the mo­ment, you can get a bet­ter idea of what the prob­lem ac­tu­ally feels like in the mo­ment and what goes through your head. This can be a valuable first step to help you figure out what a good solu­tion could be

  • Up­keep: I find some­times Notic­ing sticks well at first, but fades within a month or two. It can be helpful to simu­late a few more ex­am­ples to top it up if I no­tice it fading

  • Tally coun­ters: I find it su­per use­ful to carry a tally counter in my pocket, and make my phys­i­cal ac­tion to click the counter

    • This is a very visceral and hard to ig­nore action

    • Car­ry­ing the counter around is a good phys­i­cal re­minder that I’m prac­tic­ing Noticing

  • Ori­ent pos­i­tively:

    • Ul­ti­mately, the goal is to build a suc­cess spiral, and make Notic­ing some­thing to feel ex­cited about. I think this makes it stick much bet­ter, and is more fun to think about

    • But it’s easy to, eg, re­al­ise an hour af­ter the fact that I didn’t no­tice the emo­tion I’m track­ing, and feel guilty about this. This is un­helpful be­cause it builds nega­tive as­so­ci­a­tions, mak­ing me much more likely to give up on the idea and stop track­ing the emo­tion.

      • I find it helpful to re­frame for­get­ting as an­other chance to prac­tice, be­cause I now have a new, visceral ex­am­ple to simu­late!

    • I find it use­ful to dwell on the fact that Notic­ing is hard to make ro­bust, and that any progress is ex­cit­ing. It’s ex­tremely use­ful to no­tice an emo­tion half of the time, if the al­ter­na­tive is never!

  • Some peo­ple find it eas­ier to prac­tice Notic­ing on sen­sory ex­pe­riences, es­pe­cially when start­ing out.

    • Eg the feel­ing of the breeze, the sound of bird­song, the glint of sunlight

    • I ex­pect this could be worth try­ing if your emo­tions/​men­tal ex­pe­riences don’t feel very visceral to you

  • Phase shifts: Notic­ing, if done well, is a habit. Like most habits, it’s very easy to lose when you have a big shift in your day-to-day life, eg go­ing on holi­day, start­ing a new job, mov­ing, etc. If you have an up­com­ing phase shift, it’s im­por­tant to en­sure you re-learn the habit af­ter­wards!

Conclusion

Ul­ti­mately, I’m ex­tremely ex­cited about Notic­ing be­cause a lot of my prob­lems boil down to not be­ing self-aware at the right time. I think the bot­tle­neck for learn­ing a lot of good men­tal habits is do­ing the right thing in the mo­ment, and Notic­ing has given me an ex­tremely pow­er­ful tool for ac­tu­ally do­ing this. If you’re read­ing this and em­pathise with the kinds of prob­lems I’ve out­lined, I urge you to take some time to try it out your­self!

Notic­ing is a very gen­eral tech­nique, so I’ve given a long list of spe­cific ways it’s worked for me in the Ap­pendix. I find it easy to get ex­cited about the po­ten­tial of a new tech­nique, but fail to come up with any clear di­rec­tion for how to ap­ply it, and end up for­get­ting about it. So hope­fully this list can provide some in­spira­tion for spe­cific ways it could be use­ful to you.

I’ve found it es­pe­cially in­ter­est­ing to prac­tice Notic­ing in the longer term. It’s felt like there’s a gen­eral meta-cog­ni­tive skill of “be­ing aware of how I’m think­ing and what I’m feel­ing” that I’ve been de­vel­op­ing. I’ve both found it much eas­ier to be­gin notic­ing some­thing new, and found it gen­er­ally eas­ier to be self-aware and pay at­ten­tion to what I’m feel­ing. So if you feel ex­cited about the idea of Notic­ing, I highly recom­mend just try­ing it out on some­thing, even if it doesn’t feel like a perfect fit. You aren’t just solv­ing that spe­cific prob­lem, you’re train­ing the gen­eral skill of self-aware­ness!

It’s ex­tremely easy to be Typ­i­cal Mind Fal­lacy-ing when talk­ing about tech­niques like this, and I ex­pect differ­ent things work best for differ­ent peo­ple. I’d be ex­tremely in­ter­ested in hear­ing about other peo­ple’s ex­pe­riences with Notic­ing, or other effec­tive tools for these kinds of prob­lems!


Ap­pendix: Per­sonal Examples

A few notes:

  • Th­ese are ob­vi­ously su­per spe­cific to how my mind works, and likely won’t perfectly generalise

    • I’ve done my best to cap­ture the rele­vant emo­tional state as the Trig­ger, but it’s pretty difficult to ar­tic­u­late this kind of thing. The words I’ve put are of­ten vague, but cor­re­spond to a spe­cific state in­side my head

  • They range from hav­ing clear de­fault ac­tions to be­ing more “turn off auto-pi­lot and figure out what to do next” (recorded as ‘be self-aware’)

    • I found when train­ing that the bot­tle­neck was mostly be­com­ing self-aware at the right time, so the point was to fo­cus on the marker ac­tion.

    • But it was use­ful to have a list of sen­si­ble next ac­tions in mind, which I’ve listed as Reactions

Productivity

  • Guilt-based mo­ti­va­tion: I very fre­quently use guilt-based mo­ti­va­tion on my­self, which is pretty bad for my gen­eral hap­piness and in­trin­sic mo­ti­va­tion.

    • Trig­ger: Us­ing men­tal force on myself

    • Re­ac­tion: Take a break, “would it mat­ter if I didn’t do this?”, vi­su­al­ise why I feel ex­cited about the task, “how will do­ing this task make my fu­ture self hap­pier?”

    • I feel ex­tremely ex­cited about this par­tic­u­lar ap­pli­ca­tion, be­cause I helped a friend try Notic­ing on this prob­lem. And a few months later they seem to have es­sen­tially stopped feel­ing guilt-based mo­ti­va­tion!

  • Dis­trac­tion:

    • Trig­ger: The sud­den urge to do some­thing (eg google some­thing, check my mes­sages)

    • Re­ac­tion: Often just be­ing self-aware is enough to kill this—I re­al­ise it isn’t im­por­tant. If it’s im­por­tant, I’ll make a Trello card for it then go back to work.

      • This com­bines very well with Trello’s abil­ity to eas­ily add an item in a few keystroke

    • As I de­tailed ear­lier, I’ve found this su­per use­ful for main­tain­ing Deep Work

  • Learn­ing more effec­tively:

    • Trig­ger: The feel­ing of con­fu­sion or lack of clar­ity when learn­ing a new concept

    • Re­ac­tions: Think­ing fur­ther on it, google “in­tu­itive ex­pla­na­tion of ___”, ask­ing some­one for help, mak­ing a note to look into this later

    • Often while learn­ing some­thing new I’ll be a bit con­fused, and no­tice af­ter a while that I’m to­tally lost. Notic­ing helps me fo­cus on ex­actly what’s con­fus­ing me and de­tect this much ear­lier, and has made my learn­ing much more effi­cient!

      • I think this is one of the most use­ful men­tal habits I’ve ever de­vel­oped, and has definitely helped a lot with get­ting the most out of my de­gree!

  • Not mak­ing progress: I find that I’ll of­ten be try­ing to do some­thing, and be spend­ing time in­effi­ciently. And this isn’t clear to me in the mo­ment, but feels ob­vi­ous af­ter the fact

    • Trig­ger: Frus­tra­tion, feel­ing caught in a loop, feel­ing stuck

    • Re­ac­tion: Open an empty notepad and write down what’s cur­rently in my head

    • This trig­gers in a re­ally wide range of situ­a­tions, it’s trig­gered over 45 times in the 2 weeks since I started this habit.

      • Eg pur­su­ing an in­effec­tive idea, try­ing to brain­storm but re­ally star­ing off into space, try­ing to work when my mind is fo­cused on an un­pleas­ant in­ter­ac­tion, spend­ing 10 min­utes googling ir­rele­vant de­tails, etc.

      • It’s had fun side-effects like be­com­ing no­tably faster at do­ing maths prob­lems. I recog­nise much ear­lier “this solu­tion idea is fruitless and I should try some­thing else”.

    • Tak­ing my thoughts out of my head and writ­ing them down is a key com­po­nent of ac­tu­ally solv­ing the prob­lem. This of­ten takes my thoughts from a vague mess to some­thing con­crete, and the next step then feels clear

    • This is much less spe­cific than some oth­ers—I ex­pect I’d have strug­gled to learn it with­out a lot of ear­lier Notic­ing practice

  • Pro­cras­ti­na­tion:

    • Trig­ger: Aver­sion/​putting some­thing off (eg “I should do this some time”)

    • Re­ac­tion: Be self-aware (and re­al­ise there’s a good chance I’ll never get round to this). Ask my­self “Would I be sur­prised if I don’t do this?” Add it to my to-do list

    • This has been re­ally use­ful, I’ve found that 80% of “good ideas I for­get about” fail at this step, but will hap­pen if I can just get the ball rolling

  • Push­ing my­self: I find that I have a strong com­ple­tion­ist drive, and re­ally hate leav­ing things un­finished. I’ll of­ten push my­self to com­plete things, long past the point where I should have taken a break.

    • Trig­ger: The com­pul­sion to com­plete some­thing, push­ing myself

    • Re­ac­tion: Be self-aware, take a break, clos­ing the tab, “Does it mat­ter if I don’t finish this now?”

  • Punc­tu­al­ity:

    • Trig­ger: Aware­ness of how long I have left be­fore I need to leave

    • Re­ac­tion: “Would I be sur­prised if I was late for this?”, just mak­ing my­self get ready now, set­ting a timer for when to start get­ting ready

    • This is pretty idiosyn­cratic: I’m both late for ev­ery­thing, and very aware of time, but it doesn’t feel im­por­tant.

Social

  • Un­der­stand­ing other peo­ple’s ex­pla­na­tions:

    • Trig­ger: The feel­ing of con­fu­sion or lack of clarity

    • Re­ac­tions: Ask­ing a ques­tion, ask­ing them for an ex­am­ple, para­phras­ing back to them what they’ve said, ex­press­ing con­fu­sion and prompt­ing them to elaborate

    • I think these habits have ma­jorly im­proved my com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills. I find this of­ten trig­gers sev­eral times dur­ing a con­ver­sa­tion, and that I fre­quently mi­s­un­der­stood the first time.

  • Giv­ing com­pli­ments:

    • Trig­ger: Ap­pre­ci­a­tion/​ad­mira­tion/​gratitude

    • Re­ac­tion: Thank­ing the other per­son, or mak­ing a note to mes­sage them later

    • This has been a re­ally awe­some one for my over­all hap­piness! Just be­ing more aware of grat­i­tude feels great, and I bet­ter ap­pre­ci­ate why my friends are awesome

    • I think giv­ing sincere com­pli­ments more freely makes me much more pleas­ant to be around

  • Hav­ing in­ter­est­ing con­ver­sa­tions:

    • Trig­ger: Cu­ri­os­ity/​ex­cite­ment about what some­body is saying

    • Re­ac­tion: Ask­ing a ques­tion about that point, prompt­ing them for more

    • I find that of­ten when some­one says some­thing, small parts of what they say is much more in­ter­est­ing to me than the rest. Fo­cus­ing the con­ver­sa­tion on that part (of­ten re­cur­sively) is now my de­fault ap­proach to conversations

      • This has mas­sively in­creased the num­ber of in­ter­est­ing con­ver­sa­tions I have!

      • It’s es­pe­cially effec­tive when I’ve just met the per­son, as a strat­egy for go­ing from small talk to some­thing mu­tu­ally interesting

  • Be­ing less judge­men­tal:

    • Trig­ger: An­noy­ance/​dis­mis­sive­ness di­rected at some­one else

    • Re­ac­tion: “What’s a world where they’re a good per­son and they acted this way?”

    • I find it pretty easy to feel frus­trated at other peo­ple, and view them in a fairly un-nu­anced, one-di­men­sional sense. A lot of this stems from in­stinc­tively be­ing judge­men­tal rather than em­pa­thetic.

Discussions

  • Defen­sive­ness in an ar­gu­ment:

    • Trig­ger: Feel­ing defen­sive—of­ten as­so­ci­ated with stress, heart beat­ing faster, not feel­ing grounded

    • Re­ac­tions: Chang­ing the topic, try­ing to para­phrase back their case, try­ing to steel­man, dis­en­gag­ing from the conversation

  • Be­ing em­pa­thetic (Minds should make sense):

    • Trig­ger: Frus­tra­tion/​in­cre­dulity at some­one’s be­liefs/​po­si­tion in an argument

    • Re­ac­tion: Re­mind­ing my­self that other peo­ple’s minds make sense from the in­side, and that I’m prob­a­bly miss­ing some­thing. “As­sume they’re cor­rect, ex­plain why?” Para­phrase back to them their point of view. Ask­ing for clar­ifi­ca­tion/​pos­ing hy­po­thet­i­cals.

    • This one is pretty gen­er­ally ap­pli­ca­ble, and I think has im­proved my com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills a lot!

      • This also trig­gers when I’m ex­plain­ing some­thing, and some­body asks a ques­tion that feels dumb. My de­fault re­ac­tion is frus­tra­tion, and to re­peat the point. But I’ve found that be­ing cu­ri­ous and try­ing to un­pack why the ques­tion made sense to them can let me re­solve the con­fu­sion much more effectively

Men­tal health

  • Inse­cu­ri­ties:

    • Trig­ger: The feel­ing of self-doubt

    • Re­ac­tion: Be self-aware, use the Out­side View, ask a friend for cal­ibra­tion, look for past evidence

    • I find it pretty easy to be caught in loops of self-doubt and in­se­cu­rity. Notic­ing helps me to kill the loops be­fore they re­ally get going

      • Sur­pris­ingly, just re­mind­ing my­self “this is a cog­ni­tive bias, and I can’t trust my in­tu­itions” is of­ten enough to dis­solve it.

  • Mind­less pro­cras­ti­na­tion: I’ll of­ten get caught up in a loop of pro­cras­t­ing for a long time, and re­al­ise I stopped en­joy­ing my­self half an hour ago

    • Trig­ger: The feel­ing of strain/​go­ing through the mo­tions, notic­ing more time has passed than I expected

    • Re­ac­tion: “Do I ac­tu­ally want to be do­ing this?”, shut­ting my eyes, clos­ing the tab, tak­ing a break

    • The un­der­ly­ing prob­lem feels pretty heav­ily re­lated to the differ­ence be­tween want­ing and liking

  • Anx­iety: I find it su­per easy to get caught in anx­iety spirals, Notic­ing helps to break the loop at the start

    • Trig­ger: Anxiety

    • Re­ac­tion: Tak­ing a break, go­ing out­side, med­i­tat­ing. Be self-aware

    • Just re­al­is­ing that it’s all in my head, and that the feel­ing of im­por­tance isn’t the same thing as ac­tu­ally be­ing a big deal, both go a long way to re­solv­ing this.

  • Pay­ing at­ten­tion to my emo­tions:

    • Trig­ger: Sup­press­ing my emo­tions/​try­ing to be in con­trol

      • Un­ex­pect­edly, this is a re­ally salient trig­ger for me

    • Re­ac­tion: Be self-aware. If it’s about some­body else, con­sider talk­ing to them. Writ­ing down what’s go­ing through my head


  1. I’m us­ing men­tal state very broadly here, this tech­nique can be used for a range of things: emo­tions (like guilt, anx­iety), mind­sets (like defen­sive­ness), in­ter­nal ex­pe­riences (like ‘failing to plan’), sen­sory ex­pe­riences (like ‘hear­ing birds chirp­ing’). It’s all about find­ing com­mon themes be­tween events. ↩︎

  2. This al­gorithm is pretty heav­ily based on CFAR’s Trig­ger-Ac­tion Pat­tern frame­work. I call these Empty TAPs, be­cause the pur­pose of the ac­tion is just to high­light the trig­ger bet­ter, rather than hav­ing a di­rect pur­pose ↩︎