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Tiffany Matthé

Taking Notes on Our Feelings

Note Taking2 min read

No one is ever in tip-top shape for every single second of their lives. Everyone has a few bad days. These lows are sometimes essential; serving as a powerful contrast, they allow you to appreciate the best moments in life.

However, continuously being anchored to the dark is not the goal here. If you want those bright moments, you sometimes need to pull yourself out. Lately, I have been thinking about affective note-taking, which helps you plan ahead for negative moods, feelings, and attitudes.

The advantages are twofold:

  1. By planning ahead, your decisions and actions are less negatively affected by your current situation. Of course, some situations are unpredictable and you might need to go with the flow, but I believe that most situations are common and thus easily predictable.
  2. It makes it very easy to do something actionable. In the moment, you can easily refer to the plans you made instead of needing to summon up the effort to find helpful actions on the spot. (However, you still need to have some common sense of whether your plans will propel you in the right direction.)

So how do you plan ahead for trouble?

  1. Define areas of friction and low points. Mine include being easily distracted, feeling tired, worried, and unmotivated.
  2. Use your past experiences to find solutions. Recall what works, and what doesn't. This may seem simple and intuitive, but a reminder to reflect on ourselves is never unwelcome.
  3. Write them down in an easily accessible place. This entire post boils down to this one and essential step. You can reflect as much as you want, but during those moments of lows and friction, reflection gets pushed into the back of your mind.1 To retrieve that information, it often takes a lot of brain power and mental strength to reach back there and pull out useful tidbits. So plan for this. Write your ideas down to reduce the friction between possible solutions and you taking action on them. This is similar to Julian Lehr's post on A Meta-Layer for Notes, where he describes a spatial note taking app that flows through our workspace, appearing in relevant contexts. In this case, I am advocating for notes that are tied to affective states. You can refer to these notes for help, and update them with your experiences.

To give a concrete example, here are my notes for my distracted state. I begin with trying to figure out what leads to this state, whether by researching online to find scientific results, or by reflecting on past experience. Then I find helpful actions and can refer to them when I get distracted.

Distraction

Sources:

  • I hit a roadblock in my work, so turn to easier alternatives of gratification quickly, like Youtube.
  • Our brains go through rapid attention pulses, zooming in and out of focus, which might have been an evolutionary advantage.

Actions:

  • Turn on a distraction-blocking app or web extension like Forest. This blocks Youtube and other distracting websites for focus time.
  • Take a break. We are not biologically designed to focus for too long.
  • Release helpful brain chemicals (like endorphins) by exercising. It elevates your mood, making you less likely to search for distractions to uplift your mood.

Build your own roadmap of affective states. It might not always work, because guidelines are just guidelines, but at the very least, you will have gone through some reflection of your own.


  1. Why? Reflection is difficult, and during these situations, your brain reaches for the easier and instantaneous "cures".

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