Ideas

In an Age of Knowledge Work, Emotion Regulation is a Superpower

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Here’s something embarrassing that’s been going on over the past six months of my life, in the background of this blog.

In November last year I set out to write a book, a project I thought would be a good way to learn the intricacies of selling info-products. I did up an outline in a couple of days and told myself that I would finish the book in a month.

As I write this, we are entering June, and I’ve only finished half the chapters.

This was a terrible blow to my pride.

I’ve always considered myself a productive writer. In university I struggled with math, but knew I could reliably produce papers at the last minute, turning them in for a good grade. I was now waking up to the fact that I had procrastinated on this project for six months — and, up to a week ago, nowhere near the point where I could work reliably on it for long stretches of time.

Two weeks ago, I had a long conversation with a performance coach. She pushed me to narrate the months that have passed since November, in the hopes of injecting some clarity to my guilt.

I told her that a huge part of the delay was my fault. Initially, I was reluctant to start on the project because I was scared of failure. But I reckoned that I had fixed this; in January, I forced myself to meditate on the reasons for my procrastination, eventually realising that my fear of failure was irrational.

I finished 5000 words shortly after.

In fairness (I said to her), I was badly interrupted by various events outside of my control. When I started the book in November, I was finishing up my series on Putting Mental Models to Practice; writing this required great uninterrupted gobs of time to synthesise results from the judgment and decision making literature. The series took two months to finish; the final part alone took me two weeks of work, and went up on the site in January.

Also in January I travelled back to my hometown for the Chinese New Year holidays. And in March and April I returned to housesit for my parents, who were off on a much-deserved retirement tour of Europe. Both periods were incredibly unproductive — partly due to the insufferable heat of Borneo, but also the familial comfort of small-town Malaysia.

I reflected on the fact that I had — despite these challenges — completed a cool 15,000 words, or three chapters, in the six months since I announced my plans. But I realised that so much of my procrastination stemmed from my blaming myself in those same six months.

My coach's gentle probing helped me see that much of my pain was self-inflicted. I couldn’t write as a result of those events, yes. But just as harmful were the weeks in which I wallowed in self-hate, torturing myself over all the time I had not spent working on the book. The external events were perhaps unpreventable. But the self-flagellation was entirely my own doing.

As I talked to my coach, however, I felt a great weight lifting off my shoulders. I realised that what I saw as my failure was in fact a mix of uncontrollable external events and self-blame; I had not done as badly as I thought I had. For the first time in six months, I found that I could forgive myself for my output.

Last week, I wrote 5000 words over three sessions. And I think I'm currently back to normal productivity again. All this trouble, over the simple emotional burden of expected output.

Emotion Regulation as Superpower

I think my experience isn’t uncommon.

Roughly around the same time as I was coming to terms with my self-blame, another friend told me that he had battled a serious bout of depression a few years ago because of a similar fixation on imagined output. More accurately, he was torn up over the difference between his expected output and his actual output; every day that he didn't achieve what he thought he could've done was a day that deserved self-flagellation.

“You've got to be kind to yourself,” he said, “And you've got to learn to stop taking yourself so seriously.”

It turned out that he and I shared a similar concern: we thought that our angst was a source of power that pushed us to higher levels of accomplishment and skill. I argued, hotly, that being hard on yourself was an incredibly effective method for getting results. I wasn't completely prepared to let go of it as a tool for self-improvement.

In response, my friend pointed out that it's not a problem when such methods work — and in fact they must have worked for us in the past, or we wouldn't be facing such predicaments in our present.

The problems, however, emerge when your feelings spiral out of control. That's when being hard on yourself becomes self-defeating — destroying the output that you so prize, the very thing that caused you to be hard on yourself in the first place.

My friend admitted that he was still working on finding this balance. (I observed that he seemed further along that journey than I was). It remains clear to me that you must be hard to yourself in order to improve; my friend disagrees strongly with this. But it's also clear to me now that self-forgiveness has its place. The trick, I think, is in the ability to form well-calibrated assessments of one's own performance.

In fact, I'll go further: I think the ability to regulate one own's emotions is quickly becoming the premier skill for an age of knowledge work.

If the most valuable jobs today are knowledge work jobs — that is, work that rewards you for the quality and rigour of your thinking — then anything that affects your ability to think is a drag on your work performance.

Witness, then, the rise in popularity of Stoicism and meditation. Witness our obsession with attention management and digital minimalism. Witness the rise of therapy-as-performance-enhancer, and the growing popularity of the ‘mindfulness’ movement.

The reason we indulge in such activities isn't because they are fads — or at least, if they are fads, then I suspect they're not in the same category as Atkins and aerobics. The reason we indulge in such things is because they deal directly with our emotions, our attention, and our mental resilience — the very things that affect the quality of our thoughts.

The Interventions that Work

What is emotion regulation exactly? On this note we must turn to the academic literature, and we must thread carefully.

In an earlier draft of this post, I opened with a study titled I forgive myself, now I can study: How self-forgiveness for procrastinating can reduce future procrastination, published in 2010 and conducted over a small sample of 134 undergraduate students.

It is terribly easy to read such a paper and conclude: ‘learn to forgive yourself!’, but long term readers of this blog should know that no single study provides confirmation of a scientific finding; only a trend over multiple studies tell us that an effect is real. I’m not comfortable with quoting the results from the paper, even as (or especially because) the researchers cite it as if it were fact, when to my knowledge it has never been replicated in the years since.

I also dug a bit more and discovered that there doesn’t seem to be an adequate number of papers exploring the connection between self-forgiveness and procrastination. This is problematic because we need a set of studies to calculate ‘mean observed power’ (Brunner and Schimmack, 2019), which can then be used to calculate something called the r-index. (The r-index tells you the probability that a result is likely to replicate, given a set of studies; the problem here, of course, is selection of that set of studies).

My concerns with the study aren’t just about the replicability of the finding, though. I simply haven’t read enough to be confident in the nuances of self-forgiveness. As a quick example, one other study (Squires et all, 2012) found that self-forgiveness prevents people from learning the right lessons from their mistakes. But another (Eckert et all, 2016) finds a negative correlation between emotion regulation and procrastination (which is exactly what you’d expect — the better the emotion regulation, the less procrastination).

So — notwithstanding replication concerns — I’m not sure that self-forgiveness is always an unalloyed good. Extrapolating from personal experience, I suspect it’s ok in some situations, but not in others. I’ll let you know when I find out more.

Slightly more promising is the body of work around influencing mood and perception: in his book The Happiness Hypothesis, psychologist Jonathan Haidt points out that the three things most known to work on influencing happiness are SSRIs, meditation, and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

SSRIs are prescribed medicines, which leaves meditation and CBT as the best self-help protocols for emotion regulation. And the good news is that self-administered CBT is shown to be moderately effective (meta-analysis one, two); this Psychology Today article provides a list of attributes you should use when looking for self-help CBT books. From asking around, I’ve received recommendations for Cognitive Therapy: Basics and Back, as well as Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy — I’ve not tried either, but expect a summary on Commonplace when I finally get around to it.

Which brings us back to the original question: how is emotion regulation defined, anyway? The academic literature around emotion regulation seems to have settled on something called the Emotion Regulation Skills Questionnaire (originally developed in the German (Berking & Znoj 2008) but translated to English and tested by Grant et all in 2018). I’ve included the questionnaire in the appendix below.

My takeaway from this initial dive is that emotion regulation is something that’s probably going to increase in importance over the course of the next few decades. You don’t have to be a master of your emotions if you are a factory worker, a fish monger, or a lumberjack. You absolutely have to if you’re an analyst, an engineer, or a banker.

If you’re a knowledge worker, it seems like it’s worth it to get better at emotional regulation. And the science tells us it’s possible to learn these skills, which means it’s probably worth it to try.


Appendix: The Emotion Regulation Skills Questionnaire (ERSQ)

Below, you will find some statements about a variety of emotions you might have experienced in the last week and about how you dealt with these emotions. For each question, mark:

  • 1 for ‘not at all’
  • 2 for ‘rarely’
  • 3 for ‘sometimes’
  • 4 for ‘often’
  • 5 for ‘almost always’

Don’t spend a lot of time on each question – the first answer that comes to your mind is probably the best.

In the last week …

  1. … I was able to consciously pay attention to my feelings.
  2. … I could consciously bring about positive feelings.
  3. … I understood my emotional reactions.
  4. … I could endure my negative feelings.
  5. … I was able to accept my negative feelings.
  6. … I could have labelled my feelings.
  7. … I had a clear physical perception of my feelings.
  8. … I did what I wanted to do, even if I had to face negative feelings on the way.
  9. … I tried to reassure myself during distressing situations.
  10. … I was able to influence my negative feelings.
  11. … I knew what my feelings meant.
  12. … I could focus on my negative emotions if necessary.
  13. …  I knew what emotions I was feeling in the moment.
  14. …  I consciously noticed when my body reacted towards emotionally charged situations in a particular way.
  15. … I tried to cheer myself up in emotionally distressing situations.
  16. … I did what I intended to do despite my negative feelings.
  17. … I was OK with my feelings, even if they were negative.
  18. … I was certain that I would be able to tolerate even intense negative feelings.
  19. …  I was able to experience my feelings consciously.
  20. … I was aware of why I felt the way I felt.
  21. …  I knew that I was able to influence my feelings.
  22. …  I pursued goals that were important to me, even if I thought that doing so would trigger or intensify negative feelings.
  23. … I was able to experience my negative feelings without immediately trying to fight them off.
  24. … my physical sensations were a good indication of how I was feeling.
  25. … I was clear about what emotions I was experiencing.
  26. … I could tolerate my negative feelings.
  27. … I supported myself in emotionally distressing situations.

Sum all the scores together. The higher the better.