Help Request: How to maintain focus when emotionally overwhelmed

post by throwaway · 2010-12-07T23:29:13.208Z · score: 5 (6 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 14 comments

So my personal life just got very interesting. In a net-positive way, certainly, but still, I am, as Calculon put it, "filled with a large number of powerful emotions!" -- some of which are anxious and/or panicky.

This is making it annoyingly difficult to focus at work. I am an absolutely textbook "Attention Deficit Oh-look-a-squirrel!" case at the best of times, and this seems to have made it much, much worse. I can handle small tasks, but anything where I'm going to have to spend an hour solving multiple problems before producing results, I can hardly make myself start.

Has anyone dealt with the problem of maintaining productive focus while emotionally overwhelmed/exhausted, and if so, do you have any pointers?


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comment by Tommi_Pajala · 2010-12-09T12:14:16.688Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I also feel familiar with this kind of feeling, despite not enjoying/suffering from a similar situation for some time now. Personally I utilize two different techniques:

To-do lists:

I usually would list all the things I want to achieve the next day. The order is quite flexible, but I have a habit of starting with the most boring thing if I'm feeling positively driven, and conversely with the easiest or most pleasant task if I'm feeling down.


Sometimes the positive emotion has been so overwhelming, that I have been unable to focus on anything remotely intellectual or abstract. So, to me the answer is to go to the physical level: go for a run, bash my drumkit or anything that is both physical and enjoyable. I've found it very useful to ride out the sort of excess enthusiasm and then pick up writing or reading again.

comment by Costanza · 2010-12-08T00:02:17.133Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Net-positive is good! If congratulations are in order, then congratulations!

In my personal experience, the net-positive thrills are terrific, but too few and far between to merit extensive study. If you can arrange to take a bit of a break for a while until your life settles down, then do that. If not, then you probably don't have time right now to do much more than use a combination of common sense and sheer willpower.

The military and the emergency services have a lot of institutional knowledge of how to function during periods of extremely unpleasant stress. For example: .

comment by CronoDAS · 2010-12-08T03:27:57.848Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

(Your URL has an extra "." stuck at the end of it. I'll delete this comment once it's fixed.)

comment by Costanza · 2010-12-09T03:40:47.328Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)


comment by throwaway · 2010-12-08T00:11:11.711Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Net-positive is good! If congratulations are in order, then congratulations!

Thank you ^.^

comment by Cosmos · 2010-12-08T16:45:42.282Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am actually facing this same problem myself. My personal life also got very interesting, and incredibly enjoyable. So enjoyable, in fact, that I really don't want to do anything other than just enjoy myself and have even more fun!

My motivation has shifted entirely from getting things done to having fun, and the thought of doing anything significant to further my long-run interests seems too hard to bother doing. For the first time I can think of, I am now suffering from meta-akrasia: I know there are techniques I could use that would increase my productivity, but that would mean I would actually be working, and that doesn't seem fun at all!

Costanza mentioned taking a break until things settle down. This is the advice most of my friends and family have given - enjoy myself for now, and set a date down the road to check in. I suspect if I wholeheartedly give in to the enjoyment, it will eventually fade a bit and my motivation to do other things will return. Of course, life has continual demands, and I do feel a strong pressure to utilize every moment. I am very torn on this issue.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2010-12-08T16:57:48.965Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Heh. Personally, my inclination here is to say "congratulations!"

I do understand that you're framing this as a problem, and I don't mean to dismiss that, but... well, I am curious about whence the "strong pressure to utilize every moment" that you feel, and why you choose to identify with/endorse it.

Relatedly: you seem to imply that having fun isn't utilizing moments. I'm curious about where that idea comes from, as well.

comment by Cosmos · 2010-12-08T17:32:26.360Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks! :D Congratulations are very much in order. Life is good right now.

I have wondered about that drive myself actually. I have always been strongly internally motivated, as far back as I can remember, much moreso than any external force has ever applied to me. I feel a strong need to optimize within all of my constraints, of which I feel time is the most binding. I identify very strongly with this drive, it seems very useful, and I have made enormous improvements in my life over the last few years since discovering rationalism.

Having fun definitely utilizes moments well. The problem is that I am not having XTREME FUN 100% of the time, there are many periods during the day where I end up mindlessly browsing the web, etc., and my to-do list contains items important to life which are not getting done.

comment by jfm · 2010-12-08T15:51:35.939Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm dealing with this currently due to mild ongoing sleep-dep. A couple of suggestions. For putting the anxious/panicky emotions into context, I'm going to recommend daily meditation. You might start with Understanding vipassana meditation on this site. For focusing on tasks -- this is the hardest for me. The Pomodoro Technique works for me -- for a while, before it stops working. But it does help me get over productivity slumps from time to time.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-12-08T15:35:53.237Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You can't fight emotion with reason; you need an emotional frame for your work. If possible/appropriate, tell other people what is going on with you, and ask them to hold you responsible (they will appreciate your asking and be more inclined to nag you in a friendly and understanding way). And try to think of how work is meaningful in your new life developments. For example, if you were expecting a baby, you would want to think of yourself as a provider.

Good luck and congratulations!

comment by cousin_it · 2010-12-08T11:48:30.274Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Don't take any breaks. Escalate! Make your work more interesting to match, or take up other activities. This strategy works for me in times of extreme happiness and extreme unhappiness alike. Personal life must never be allowed to interfere with progress, no matter how exciting it feels.

comment by Costanza · 2010-12-09T04:08:16.056Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This advice is alien to my personal experience (as noted previously) but seems strangely seductive. Note that I am not here at less wrong because I think my thinking processes are in perfect order. In my life, the pleasant distractions from work have included falling in love, the euphoria of getting what I regarded as an honor, and becoming a father. These have been the high points in my life. In contrast my work has been...rather imperfectly fulfilling. When the high points have come, I have benefited by regarding myself as temporarily and happily impaired. I take it you would advise the original poster to find deeply fulfilling work. On reflection, I really, really agree.

comment by [deleted] · 2014-06-13T07:58:04.523Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Attention deficit as in your not using your attention in the way you want? People have discovered factors that increase or decrease self-handicapping tendencies. For example, you can increase it by making the test more relevant to your self-esteem: just say “this is a proven test of intellectual ability in general”).