Project "Be More Chill"

My basic stack for emotional management

First – got a new pop-up newsletter in the works. It's called What do you miss about Pivotal? Starts Monday. Will run for about thirty days. Expect parts of it to show up here but the first draft is going to be e-mail only. I want the space to really explore ideas & feelings with ya'll without worrying about hitting Hacker News.

If you're reading this and wondering "what the heck is a Pivotal?" the short version is "a strange little software cult that took pairing and test-driven development extremely seriously, got into building enterprise cloud infrastructure, and ultimately got bought and taken apart by VMware." It actually was what the Agile-industrial complex pretends to sell. I worked there from 2015 to 2020. It's basically where I grew up as a software engineer. Probably 90% of what I know about the game I learned there by pairing.

It was weird. I miss it a lot.

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And now – for your regularly scheduled Simpler Machines.

You ever work with one of those people who's just really chill? Like the kind of person who can show up to a meeting where everyone's yelling and freaking out and say, "Hey hang on, let's just all take a deep breath first, and then we'll figure this thing out." Who can take on that anxious rattled energy and just ground it out.

What I've noticed about that kind of person is that when you get them to talking about what they were like in their twenties, you'll end up hearing something like, "So that's from the second time I broke my hand punching a wall." In my experience, people who are calm – really calm – are rarely the people who started out relatively chill naturally. They are people who have developed skills.

(As an aside – there's a general principle here. Surprisingly often, the people who are the best at skill-intensive activities are people who started out pretty bad at them. People who are good at things have spent a lot of time practicing them. You spend a lot of time practicing something when you either really enjoy practicing, or you are very motivated. Being unusually bad at something that's sufficiently important can be very powerful motivation.)

Once I figured this out I decided I wanted to be one of these people.

I am, uh, not chill. I hesitate to give examples because they are embarrassing but it's mostly just dumb luck that I've never broken any bones punching things. Mostly though I just spent a lot of time being angry or anxious. This takes a lot of energy, and messed up my judgement.

So around the time that I figured out that "be more chill" was a skill I became pretty motivated to acquire it. I'm not going to try to say that I have totally mastered this – anxiety is still probably the main limiting factor on my ability to do technical work – but it is no longer a regular occurrence for me to completely lose my shit about something that has happened at work.

Right now where I'm at is that there are a set of maintenance activities that, if I am diligent about doing them, I am basically able to manage my emotions rather than letting them manage me. This set is roughly, in this order:

  • Sleep
  • Therapy
  • Run
  • Socialize
  • Have a dog
  • Meditate
  • Write

This is mostly pretty standard stuff but I want to go through a few things that were either a surprise or that I resisted for a long time.

Oh, also, if you're reading this and you are not a chill person who wants to be more chill the absolute best book I can recommend is The Body Keeps the Score. The model this book presents for emotional regulation was the most practically useful I have ever read. I have also gotten a lot out of – and have productively recommended several times – The Mind Illuminatedbut it wasn't as hard of a holy-shit game changer moment.

Sleep

Everyone tells you to do this more but it's hard to go at it directly. When I'm having a hard time with sleep tightening up the nighttime routine helps. A regular meditation practice is, in my experience, most directly useful because of the effect it has on making it easier to sleep.

Therapy

What's been most helpful for me is called "somatic therapy." Basically using therapy to practice really paying attention to and experiencing the physical sensations associated with emotions. This is useful for a bunch of reasons but one neat trick is that it builds a habit of paying attention to my body when I get Big Feelings. This habit can automatically interrupt the "big feeling -> punch wall" loop before we get the wall punching part. Instead it's "big feeling -> what exactly is this feeling?"

Run

When I say "run" I should be very clear: I mean putting on running shoes & running clothes and then going for a brisk walk. Maybe go up a few hills. I sometimes actually run for intervals but it's not necessary to get my heart rate where I want it.

The "effective dose" for exercise is much much lower than I thought.

I use an Apple Watch and an app called Go Gentler to help decide how much to run and how fast. Again, this is mostly about not running too much or too fast. The effective dose is pretty low but it's easy for me to overshoot and if I overshoot I feel miserable the next day, and then I stop wanting to run. So the main thing is avoiding doing too much exercise.

The best thing about "running" is that it gives me something to do with acute stress and anxiety. If something happens, if I get that adrenaline drop, if I'm anxious and pacing – I get out and I go for a run. And I feel better afterwards. Having something that helps me feel better almost immediately has been a real game changer – in addition to just feeling better, it helps me feel more in control. There's a compounding effect.

Socialize

This one got really clear during the lockdown part of the pandemic. If I went more than a week or so without hanging out I got weird. We picked up a serious dog park habit just to get regular face time with people.

I think the best description I've read of exactly what kind of socializing helps was from Noahpinion on depression.

Unstructured hanging out with people I already know is the best. I'm also kind of neurotic now about meeting new people and spending time with people I don't know well. Hanging out with people I don't know well is harder – more energy intensive – but it's important because that's how I get more people in the "people I already know" category.

My social mode used to be "I have one or two people I hang out with all the time" but this isn't resilient. So I scaled my friendships horizontally.

Have a dog

I have this little guy. His name is Edgar Friendly and he is my friend.

Having something to take care of helps – and we trained him to respond to people who are upset (which he hates) by patting them with a paw until they scratch his chest (which he loves.)

But the big thing the dog does is give me a little anxiety laboratory that I can observe from the outside. He is a pretty chill little guy, but he is also small, and he gets scared by: Fireworks, the hissing noise a bus makes, furniture moving, an empty CO2 canister falling on the ground, guitars, a tree when he's not expecting it.

So what have I learned by watching Edgar get scared of things? Mainly – that it's impossible to think and be scared at the same time. Sometimes you get too scared and there's nothing to do but wait it out – but sometimes, when you're kind of scared but not too scared, you can calm down by thinking.

Meditate

I've written before about why I don't think it's good to meditate too much, or to start meditating a lot when you're already stressed. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it does – something else.

And the main reason to meditate has nothing to do with mental health.

But it can help, especially with sleep, and with that general, "stop and think about why when you freak out, instead of reacting immediately" thing.

Write

This is basically why I write this much here – I like writing and it relaxes me. When I'm real wound up I do morning pages. There's almost a kind of purging effect from that kind of free writing.

Photography also sometimes gets this spot. It hasn't lately – why is its own whole post – but I am definitely one of those people who has to be making things or I go just slightly sideways. This one's down at the bottom because I've been doing it for a long time even back before I started out on "operation be more chill" but honestly – maybe it belongs at the top. Maybe I'd have been way crazier without it.


Is this helpful? This is a post I've been trying to write for a while and I'm still not exactly happy with it. This is a place I've put a lot of thought and energy, and I know it's a problem that a lot of people have, but there's also not anything new here – it's just the usual stuff, explained my way.

If that's what you need I'd appreciate hearing about it.

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