I've had several stressful periods in my life, where I was working very hard and felt overwhelmed. I anticipate that some of the conditions that led to me having to work very hard are happening again and likely to happen for the next few months. As much as possible, I want to avoid the feeling of overwhelm, and cope with the challenges in my way as well as possible.

I decided to write some of my heuristics, and thought I might as well make it public. I'm no expert on this topic, so this is not medical advice, and it may not be suited to people in situations very different from mine.

The scope of this post is limited to self-conversation. I didn't go into a lot of the interpersonal aspects that emerge in collaborative work. That might deserve a separate post, that I'm not ready to write yet (but check out my Chris Voss negotiation MasterClass review for related ideas).

I'm going to use simple language and also just say many things without offering justification. I'll probably fail to give credit to people (on and off LessWrong, from recent history or ancient history) who thought of these things before I do. Think of this not as an exercise in persuasion but as a snapshot of my thoughts.

Some of the ideas here might also be helpful in helping people around you cope with their stress and anxiety.

Listening to the cognitive basis of one's stresses

One of the common responses to a feeling of stress or anxiety is to try to calm it down, to smooth it out, or to suppress it. For instance, if one part of your mind is saying "what if I mess up this presentation?" the suppressing counter-narrative would be "you won't mess up this presentation!"

I've found that suppressing stresses is not the best way of dealing with them, even if it's effective at achieving the short-term goal. And that's for two reasons: (a) the issue isn't resolved, so it could recur, and (b) if the stress was conveying real information, suppressing the stress means we fail to use the information effectively.

If you're super-agitated due to an anxiety, some initial amount of calming may be needed to get out of that super-agitated state, but once you can think somewhat coolly, engaging the anxiety is better, Being charitable to one's anxieties and using principles of negotiation to draw out what's driving them is helpful.

Being prepared to accept or reject the underlying claim that's making you anxious

If you're stressed that "maybe I'm not prepared enough to give this presentation" then the exploration of that concern should have a litany of Tarski flavor to it: "if I'm not prepared to give this presentation, I want to conclude that I'm not prepared to give this presentation; if I am prepared to give this presentation, I want to conclude that I am prepared to give this presentation." In most cases, neither outcome would be catastrophic, but there can still be a lot of anxiety and second-guessing of oneself and desire to reach specific conclusions. I found that coming with an open mind helps me explore the decision-making better and also feel more justified confidence in my decisions.

NOTE: It's probably important to strip out hyperbole surrounding the claim before digging into it. For instance, "maybe I'm not prepared enough to give this presentation" could be hyperbolically exaggerated or made overly specific to something such as "maybe I'm too stupid to give the presentation" or "maybe everybody will laugh me out of the room when I give the presentation." Pick the most steelmanned version of the claim that is most worth addressing.

Overwork or underfun: too much or too little?

Having to work very hard over some time periods can be difficult and fatiguing for broadly two reasons: too much work, or too little fun. Going beyond the work/fun trade-off, this applies more generally: too much of one activity crowds out other activities.

The simple solution of "take a break, have some fun" can often work, but many versions of it could be impractical precisely in the situation of maximal stress. For instance, if you're working hard because you have a lot that needs to be done on tight deadlines, "take a break, have some fun" may just not be practical advice. Or at any rate, you may be severely limited in how much "break" and "fun" you can have without falling behind even further on work.

What I've found helpful in such situations is to understand what is overwhelming me -- whether it's the overwork or the underfun part. Because the strategies for addressing the two parts can be slightly different.

The underfun case

In many cases, I've found that the underfun part is easier to address, and can give quick wins in otherwise difficult situations.

For instance, I've found that I've had so little "fun" (I'm using the term loosely here to refer to the sorts of activities crowded out by work) that even an extra 30 minutes of fun could dramatically increase my number of fun minutes while barely making a dent in my work. This kind of realization is very useful in cases where longer breaks aren't practical, and it's often helped me refresh myself and get through difficult work times.

In fact, even if it's not possible to cut down on work at all, I can choose to get a little bit of fun by cutting against other things -- such as exercise or sleep. Making that kind of trade-off may not be sustainable, but in a relatively extreme situation of tight deadlines where it's hard to reduce work, drawing on other reserves of time for fun could be crucial to lifting my mood.

The overwork case

There are also situations where the blocker really is overwork. If a few hours of fun don't make me feel more relaxed, that's probably what's going on. The solution in these kinds of cases usually hinges on addressing the work challenge head on. It could range from just "grinding through the work to the finish line" to "making structural changes to cut down on the work in the present and the future" or anything in between.

An example of structural change is hiring -- you notice that you're genuinely overworked, so you hire somebody to do part of your work.

One way this feels qualitatively different from the underfun situation is that in the underfun situation, it's stopping work and having fun that makes you feel better. In the overwork case, what makes you feel even better is identifying a "way out" of the overwork.

Mixed real-world situations

Real-world situations often involve a mix of overwork and underfun. My general heuristic is that, when I'm feeling too overwhelmed with work, I take a short break for some fun, then after the break I reassess how I'm feeling. If the break worked, great. If it worked directionally, but not enough, maybe a little more of a break! At some point when I feel sure that having more fun is either not helping or not feasible, and I still feel overwhelmed with the work, I go with the overwork strategy.

Past, present, and future

A lot of our experiences are related to the present moment, i.e., how pleasant or unpleasant the work we're doing right now happens to be, and how it connects to our feelings. However, our thoughts and feelings are also influenced by the past (via introspection) and the future (via anticipation).

In general, a more balanced perspective across the past, present, and the future seems best for a higher quality of decision-making. Also, acute stresses or anxieties can sometimes be driven by excessive focus on one of the past, present, and future, at the expense of the other two. Taking all three into consideration can paint a more holistic picture that might alleviate the most acute forms of stress and anxiety, while also absorbing useful insights from whatever caused the stress or anxiety.

Extremely unpleasant present

Sometimes, the present-moment task feels very unpleasant or difficult. It's very hard to change that reaction to the task. For instance, if you're not used to hard physical labor and don't enjoy it, moving a bunch of boxes around can feel very unpleasant.

The fact that the present is extremely unpleasant raises an important question: what future benefits justify this unpleasantness? Probably, if you're doing this task despite its unpleasantness, you already have some sort of answer. It's possible that when you decided to do it, you hadn't fully considered the unpleasantness of the task, so maybe you want to revise your answer now that you know just how unpleasant it is to do. Or maybe, even after acknowledging the unpleasantness, you still want to go ahead with the task. Either way, by explicitly thinking about the future and how it trades off against the present, you can understand better whether you want to do the task, and feel more at peace with your decision.

You can also draw upon the past if you've done similar stuff before. If you did similar stuff before in the past, and felt similar unpleasantness, you can reflect on what the overall end-to-end experience was. At the end of it, did you feel that it was worthwhile to go through the unpleasant experience? That sort of introspection can inform the decision-making.

"How long will this go on?" -- a bleak future

In other cases, the stress arises not so much from the present moment being very unpleasant, but from the (often justified) fear that there will not be much improvement over time. So even though it's only slightly unpleasant, the prospect of being stuck with it for months or years is what drives the negative emotions. For me, this has been the dominant pattern of my stress and anxiety, because (fortunately) the proportion of my work that is extremely unpleasant, purely looking at the present moment, is small.

The strategy for dealing with this can vary a little bit based on specifics. First, in some cases, it's helpful to remember that the present isn't that bad in and of itself. So whereas the long-term consideration is important, it's also important not to let that consideration make one hate the present moment more than its intrinsic unpleasantness.

Second, it may be helpful to draw upon the past to get a sense for how long this kind of thing takes to settle down. The insight from the past could go either way: it could justify the fear that this will keep going on, or it could assuage the fear by showing that this sort of situation tends to resolve quickly. The past can also give insight into what works and what doesn't work in terms of getting out of moderately bad situations.

Based on these insights, you could then chart a path out of your slightly-unpleasant situation, that might involve some upfront costs for long-term benefits. Similar to what I mentioned when talking about overwork, hiring can be such a solution. Other similar solutions that involve upfront work include automation, offloading work to others, and gracefully ending some streams of work (with the appropriate care in sunsetting things).

Scars of the past

There are times when bad past experiences (that may or may not properly translate to the present context) cause stress and anxiety, especially if we fear that history is going to repeat itself. The textbook example here is childhood trauma. But I'm thinking even of more local things, like how remembering the pain of doing a similar task last year fills you with dread for what it'll be like this year.

Drawing on past experience is definitely important, but it's also worth remembering how the present is different than the past. One big difference is that you have learnings from the past that can be applied to the present. The benefit of such learning can vary a lot; some tasks become much easier the second time just from knowing what to expect, while some tasks feel about as bad each time. So reflecting on what kind of task this is can help.

Other than your own learning, you also benefit from the learnings of others, that might have translated to improvements in their own behavior and in the technology and tools available. For instance, maybe doing end-of-year accounting was a stressful time for you, particularly because you were dealing with poor records and buggy software, and your business partner and you did a lot of snapping at each other. One year later, you have a better sense of how to approach things, you and your business partner have been keeping better records, and some of the software bugs have been fixed. So in expectation it'll go better this year.

It may however turn out upon reflection that things haven't improved from the past to the present. In such cases, yes, you may have to re-experience some of the pain of the past. But you can also use this realization to think about how you can do a better job in the future -- what sort of changes (better accounting system, better records, etc.) would make you less fearful of doing this task next year?

Sources of value

Oftentimes, our subjective experience of what we're doing connects not just with our moment-to-moment experience of it, but with the value we assign to it. A lot of times, this value is assigned instinctively and intuitively, and feels hard to change or redirect. The way we assign value can vary a lot from person to person. Here I talk about some aspects of my own value system.


All else equal, I prefer to do things that feel purposeful to me. Feeling purposeful has some correlation with objective measures of impact, but not a perfect one; in particular, certain kinds of activities just naturally feel more purposeful than others. For me, the rough rank order is as follows:

  1. Producing stuff for public consumption, that I expect to be available for people to consume in the long term: In my current situation, this boils down, mostly but not exclusively, to content creation. For instance, writing this blog post!
  2. Helping other individuals produce stuff for public consumption.
  3. Helping other individuals and entities (e.g., a company I work for) achieve their goals, even when they don't directly boost public production or consumption.
  4. Making things more efficient and freeing up time, i.e., technological progress, broadly construed.
  5. Learning and understanding the world.
  6. Being healthy, happy and satisfied.
  7. Being physically fit, for the instrumental value of making me more able to stay healthy, happy, and satisfied, and achieve my other purposes.

In general, people experience a sense of purpose from helping others, and in that respect, I'm pretty normal! However, the specific rank ordering, that puts production-for-public-consumption above helping other individuals, reflects relatively unusual traits of mine (though these are not that unusual relative to the LessWrong community!). The formation of this sort of rank ordering has been informed by introspection and thinking, and even some calculations, but the point is that my intuitive feeling of happiness at producing public content is in most cases not driven by calculations done for that specific instance.


There is a bunch of things that give me pleasure, but don't directly feel purposeful, though they may also align with things that give me purpose. A few examples:

  1. Exploring a knowledge area: This ties to the purpose of learning and understanding the world, and insofar as I can create a digital trail, also aligns with production for public consumption (e.g., subwiki). Insofar as my exploration can be used to directly help others, it also aligns with those sources of purpose. But the aspects that give the most pleasure don't always align with the aspects that feel most purposeful. For instance, advanced pure mathematical areas give me the most pleasure, but (now that I am no longer in math academia) don't feel purposeful for the most part.
  2. Engaging with music, ranging from listening to music to composing music.
  3. Watching videos (TV shows, movies, YouTube) or reading books or articles for a mix of entertainment and self-education.
  4. Chatting with friends and acquaintances (this is broadly competitive with 2 and 3, but it has greater coordination and transaction costs, so in practice this falls a little lower on the rank order).

"I shouldn't be wasting my time on this" -- dealing with things that don't align with purpose or pleasure

There are often things that I need to do, that score low for me on purpose and pleasure. I historically found that I resent doing those things, and feel in "not okay" mode when doing them.

An example, that perhaps many others can relate to, is finances and taxes. There's a relatively bounded amount of work I need to do on these fronts (and sharply diminishing returns beyond that bounded effort). The present-moment experience of working on finances and taxes isn't great, but it's not terrible; I would say it is roughly at par with how I experience large parts of my day job.

However, working on my taxes did not light up any of my purpose receptors or pleasure receptors! So I did it, but unhappily, feeling like I just need to get done with it and get back to "ok mode" with my usual tasks. There was a part of me that also feared that maybe I'll get sucked into this stuff and just spend too much time on it, compromising my values.

I think I've been able to overcome this in recent years. I now spend a little more time on finances and taxes than before, but most of the extra effort was one-time setup. The main epistemic shift was to see finances and taxes as something I took pride in being on top of -- and getting done efficiently without wasting a lot of time on it. So rather than the two extremes of avoiding it (which I had been doing previously) and relishing and spending a lot of time on it (which I feared), I set it as my goal to set up systems where I would be on top of all the basic stuff and not have pending work that I was procrastinating on. This was a bunch of setup work in early 2020, but it's served me well.

One example of a concrete change: I now spend my New Year's Eve and New Year's Day doing a bunch of end-of-year finance and tax calculations. Even though all the exact data isn't in by then, I'm able to do enough approximate calculations to get a good sense for what the process of tax filing will look like, and where I stand financially. I also spend about 15 minutes at the end of each month tallying up my balances and identifying my spend. I probably don't need to do this, but it costs so little in terms of time compared to the sense of being on top of things with minimal effort.

Going meta: the writing of this post as an example

The act of writing this post is an illustration of some of the ideas in the post! At the time I decided to write the post, I was feeling overwhelmed with work, so it was a case where I was feeling some combination of overwork and underfun (the "work" here refers not just to day job but to a totality across various obligations). As I recommend in the post, my first step here was to take some time off for "fun" and see how recharged I feel.

The things that are most fun for me tend to be things that align with my experience of purpose and pleasure. Writing this post addressed my highest source of purpose: creating stuff for public consumption that can be accessed in the long term. It also had some overlap with other sources of purpose (learning and understanding the world, being happy, healthy, and satisfied). It also fit somewhat but not too well with my sources of pleasure. Also, it was timely since it connected with some things I anyway need or want to figure out for myself.

Hence I'm writing this post, and after spending less than two hours writing the post, I feel moderately recharged, which suggests that underfun was a significant part of my sense of overwhelm. I shall now get back to my work!

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