The Skill of Noticing Emotions

by Neel Nanda16 min read4th Jun 20204 comments

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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 ↩︎

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