On Suddenly Not Being Able to Work

by Jacobian3 min read25th Aug 202011 comments


Writing (communication method)AkrasiaCareersPractical
Personal Blog

Cross-posted, as always, from Putanumonit.

Since I started Putanumonit five years ago I’ve rarely ever gone two weeks without posting anything. I’ve now gone a full month.

It’s not that I have nothing to write about. I have several half-finished drafts, Twitter threads that can be expanded into posts, marked-up books for review, and more. This post is none of the above, it’s about the reason why I have not been writing. And chiefly, it’s a way to just get back to writing by any means possible, to make this a habit again.

If this sounds like boring post that you don’t want to read, you are probably correct. You can instead watch my video interview with Chase Harris about COVID, Rationality, social reality, and more.

The reason I haven’t blogged in a month is that I haven’t been able to do my job. My work laptop is plugged in, my colleagues are online, my deadlines are approaching fast, and yet I have consistently failed to put in the required (and not very large) number of hours it would take me to catch up on my work. I am not sure why this has been happening, and I have observed this happening as if from the outside with some bemusement.

My brain keeps “work” and “blogging” very near each other on the mental shelf. Both are obligations of a sort. Both are done on the same screen with the same keyboard sitting on the same chair. And so, since my rising panic at falling behind on work is ever-present, whenever I sit down to write I think I should do work instead — it pays my rent and has specific people that depend on it, as opposed to an abstract readership. So whenever I try to blog I switch to trying to work. Then I fail and end up doing neither.

This experience of not being able to do work is very strange. On the face of it, nothing is different in August from March and April when I was working from home quite productively on similar projects. I am seeing more friends now and spending more time outdoors but these usually happen in the evening, when I have already spent the day mysteriously not working.

I don’t particularly dread my work or feel stressed about it. It’s as if the job is shrouded in fog — it’s hard to get started and when I do I’m easily distracted by other things which capture my attention for unusually long periods of time. I have also noticed in the last two weeks that my stomach acts up whenever I log in to the work laptop, even several times a day, making me delay the start of work while I run to the bathroom. I thought “gut feeling” was just a metaphor.

I talked to a friend who had similar psychosomatic anxiety responses to working on her thesis, to the point of suffering loss of vision and other strange symptoms. Surprisingly, the solution she chose was just to power through. Even more surprisingly, it worked — she now holds a PhD. This is basically my mainline strategy for now.

Other friends suggested other approaches, although all of them would require not working for a while (on purpose). Unfortunately, I feel like I can’t afford to do that with the amount of work I have piled up and the upcoming deadlines. If I somehow get a lot done and meet the deadlines, I actually feel that it would be much easier to go back to working normally. The more I have to do the bigger the anxiety around my work builds, and thus the harder it is to do it. I realized this a short while ago, but the trap had already shut above me.

I’m really taking a big Rationality “L” on this one. It feels like a failure of planning, introspection, and organization that I would have expected to avoid. I guess anything other than asking myself constantly “am I failing at life in some dumb and obvious way” is unforgivable hubris.

One thing that’s important to know about my job is that it is utterly lacking in intrinsic motivation. The work is not very fun, challenging, impactful, or meaningful. No one is cheering on me as I do it or admiring me for it. It is something that the world needs in the abstract sense of someone willing to pay for it in a fair market, but I would certainly not care whether it was done or not if it wasn’t my responsibility.

I’m quite grateful to my company for paying us a fair salary instead of trying to sell us on some vision of how our work is world-changing or pride-worthy. We’re paid in real cash rather than made-up meaning — it’s an honest deal and I appreciate it. At least, part of me does.

The problem is that my reasons for doing the work are very distant from my subconscious systems of motivation. Even the main reason, money, is not strongly stimulating to me these days. I’m not shopping or eating at restaurants or planning vacations, my cost of living has gone way down because COVID. If I was fired tomorrow my lifestyle wouldn’t change. My job also fit into some broader plans I had for my life this year and next, plans that have been cancelled or thrown up in the air because COVID as well. This uncertainty about the future is probably also sucking away my motivation.

It is strange to think how much cognitive effort it takes to remember why I want to do the work. Perhaps more effort than it takes to actually do it!

When I just joined the company I committed to working for two years, then for another two (for work visa purposes). Having a hard contract that I intended to honor prevented me from spending mental energy on thinking of alternatives and second guessing myself. I have a choice now, and choices are bad.

My friend recently tweeted that he’s addicted to indecision, and I think I know what he’s talking about. Having choices feels bad, but giving up choices also feels bad. The longer you spend with a choice, the more it feels like whatever decision you make has to be absolutely awesome. If the decision space is vague and no choice is clearly superior you can get stuck in a way that feels a lot like addiction.

Several of my young friends are dealing with the same thing. They’re feeling anxious about having a life full of choices ahead of them, choices about careers, relationships, places to live. For many, all their choices seem worse now than they did in 2019, and not any more concrete or dependable. Others are waiting for a partner / friend / employer to make a choice and are resenting the other person’s addiction to indecision.

Another friend said:

Each decision is like a little death. But putting off the choice isn’t actually letting me live forever.