Epistemic Status: Several months of experimentation

Previously: Choices are BadChoices Are Really BadComplexity Is Bad, Play in Easy Mode, Play in Hard ModeOut to Get You, Slack

For More Thoughts After: Sabbath Commentary

Alternate Take (Endorsed): Sabbath Hard and Go Home.

Slack is life. It is under attack. We must fight for it.

Choices Are Bad. Really Bad. We need a break.

Complexity Is Bad. We need a break.

Work is exhausting. We need a break.

Relaxation is hard. Our attempts fail or backfire.

The modern world is Out to Get You. We need a break.

We need time for ourselves. Time that is truly our own.

Without setting aside such time, that won’t happen. Even when you take time, you’ll be continuously choosing to take time, and… well, whoops.

Modern life made the problem worse, but the problem is ancient. The ancients had an answer.

We need rules. We need ritual.

We need the Sabbath.

Cabin in the Woods

The parallels of my and Ben Hoffman’s Sabbath realizations are striking.

A few months ago, like Ben, I needed a break. My job puts me under constant pressure. My weekends weren’t refreshing me. Like Ben, I experimented with camping. Like Ben, I had no spare battery, and left my phone off.  I read The Great Transformation. I had meant to do that for weeks. I loved the world leaving me alone. Like Ben, I could relax, slow down, think.

I wasn’t worried about things I could be doing – I couldn’t do them.

Could I get this without the trip? Friends had started hosting Friday night dinners. What about the whole thing? What if we brought back the Sabbath?

Tradition makes rules easier to justify and explain, to others and yourself. These rules were time tested. I could take them and make them my own.

I thought about the components. Which made sense? What rules would let me cut the enemy, and relax?

Return of the Ritual

Rituals need clear beginnings and endings.

Sabbath begins with candles. One lights two candles, and recites a blessing.

For the evening meal, one says additional words and blessings, drinks wine, eats bread from one of two whole loafs and sits down to a proper meal with friends and family.

The candles are a signpost and deadline. Your week is complete and your work is done. There will be guests, so the apartment is ready. The ritual objects, and your needs for tomorrow, are secured. The meal is prepared. Time to feast and relax!

Slack is thus preserved in five ways.

This creates a time and place to see friends and family. Most want more social events, but coordination is hard and events are work. Now there’s always Friday night.

They increase the value of improving your home. Every week you notice the little things that enrich meal, visit and home. They’re Worth It, but easy to forget. Enhancing the little things enhances your life.

They prevent accumulation of personal-and-home-related work debt. A chaotic house is not restful. Postponed chores weigh on youThe deadline forces handling them in advance. Payoff is immediate.

By moving work before the deadline you are forced to make time during the week. You don’t eat into Slack. If you can’t find the time, this alerts you. Emergency!

They create visible failure as you approach hard bounds. When emergency arises, you sacrifice from the ritual. This signals emergency before life falls apart. You still have reserves. The ritual is Slack.

Sabbath ends with another candle. This prevents doing work until you go through non-trivial motions. You must do it on purpose.

Four Freedoms

We need restrictions that free us from the world. We need a new four freedoms.

We need freedom from work. Decide what counts as work to you. Don’t do that. Anything done for money is automatically work. During the week, time is money. Today, do what you value.

We need freedom from interruption. Space to think. Cut off the outside world. Especially cut off anything continuously updating and all periodic rewards. There lie Skinner boxes. Much of the world is out to get you. Today it can wait. Friendly visitors are welcome, but ideally arranged in advance.

We need freedom from choice. Full freedom from choice requires a step beyond the traditional rules. In my version, even among permitted activities, only those explicitly selected in advance are available – particular books, radio stations and so forth – plus things you feel intrinsic motivation to do. No lists. No browsing.

We need freedom from stress. Stressful conversations are not allowed. Doing work is not allowed. Making decisions is not allowed. Outside information is not allowed. If something was still going to stress you out and it was fixable, fix it before the Sabbath. Things can’t change on their own, and you can’t make them change. Why stress?

Sabbath Easy, Sabbath Easy, Sabbath Hard


Tension exists between that which is most restful right now, and that which would be a stable set of rules. There are two Easy Modes, representing each extreme.

One extreme is Orthodox Sabbath. This uses a strict, fixed set of rules. Pure deontology. You can’t carry objects without special preparations. Many objects you can’t even touch. This interferes a lot with relaxation, and forces realignment of life to prevent that. That can be good. There are even rules about violating the spirit of the rules – if you violate the spirit without breaking even those rules, that’s almost encouraged. Restrictions allow maximization.

Another extreme is Reform Sabbath. This asks, what would be most restful today? This is utilitarian and uses causal decision theory. Sabbath is for rest, so if driving a car or making a call would be more restful, do that. You could break the rules. This destroys freedom from choice. Who respects such boundaries? You won’t have urgency before the Sabbath. You can handle things later. Wouldn’t that be more restful? 

The Hard Mode approach asks, what sustainable rule set best preserves long run Slack? Taking stock and encouraging Slack-preserving outside the Sabbath are explicit goals. It uses logical decision theory. It creates personalized rules you can follow that work for you, but understands each divergence you select is expensive.

It asks what would be in the spirit of the rules, and modifying the rules to reflect that spirit. It views breaking current rules during the Sabbath with extreme skepticism, to reinforce following the rules. It modifies rules on Sunday.

In choice-related ways my current system is more restrictive than the Orthodox version. Mostly it is less restrictive, but becoming more restrictive over time. I currently allow Level 4 but everything there is on the chopping block. On Friday night I restrict to Level 2.

Hierarchy of the Shabbistic

There exists a hierarchy of shabbisticness. At one end are activities aligned with the goals of relaxing, recharging and unplugging. Sleep certainly qualifies. At the other are activities perfectly in conflict with those goals. Work done for money.

The hierarchy’s details are different for different people. If you see something as work, it drains you. Move it down towards the unshabbistic. If you see something as invigorating, and have the spontaneous urge to do it for intrinsic reasons, move it up towards the shabbistic.

Then draw a hard line. Deciding whether to allow something is an impactful choice (itself banned) and a slippery slope. The golden rule of Sabbath is not breaking the  rules. When in doubt, don’t do the thing, then refine your rule on Sunday.

I encourage stricter rules for Friday night than Saturday. This enriches without being stifling.

This is my current hierarchy. Levels 1-2 I consider purely good, Levels 3 good, Level 4  questionable. Level 5 is bad, Level 6 very bad. Level 7 is banned all week.

  1. Pure rest. Sleep. Rest. Walking. Intellectual discussion. Friendly discussion. Reading physical books and other physical objects. Meditation. Museums. Taking a bath.
  2. Active rest. Sex. Flirting. Running. Swimming. Playing sports. Arguments for low stakes. Board and card games with no stakes. Puzzles. Building models. Taking a shower. Eating. Watching sports in person. Light switches.
  3. Consumptive rest. Riding elevators. Radio with one station. Listening to music. Food preparation without lighting a fire. Window shopping. Kindle and other e-books.
  4. Potentially toxic actions. Writing for yourself. Taking notes. Practicing and training personal skills that are not work or work related. Working out. Computer games. Pre-selected television. Phone calls and texts for physical coordination purposes. Riding in cars and trains (without payment).
  5. Violations of compactness. Phone calls and texts not for same-day logistical coordination. All other use of smartphones. Making impactful decisions. Planning. Flipping stations on television or radio. Browsing the internet. Browsing a giant music collection. All long lists, especially lists of choices. Checking anything that continuously updates. Lighting a fire. Stressful topics of conversation.
  6. Work and outside demands. Exchange of money. Doing business. Anything that earns money or creates commercial value. Negotiations. All continuous updates. Email.
  7. Considered harmful. All timed and daily rewards. Micro-transactions. Social media.

The Rules Simplified

Start here. Adjust as needed.

Light candles before sundown Friday to begin.

No outside inputs except in person.

No choices impacting post-Sabbath.

Light and extinguish no fires. Do no work or business. Spend no money.

Only preselected and spontaneously motivated actions are allowed. No browsing. No lists.

Light another candle after sundown Saturday to end.

State of Emergency

I brought back Sabbath for Slack and relaxation. Ben brought it back as an alarm system, for when life was out of control. Sabbath shows when you are not okay, and provides method and incentive to get back to okay.

This Saturday I did full Orthodox Sabbath (minus prayer), and also fasted, as an experiment. I won’t do this every week or even month, but it had important alarm value.

Ben’s post is excellent. Read the whole thing. I’ll finish with two key passages from it.

Key motivation:

You would not want to do this sort of thing all the time. But it might make sense to do periodically – perhaps once a week – as a stopgap measure to combat attention drift. If powerful and pervasive cultural forces are out to get you, you ought to check in from time to time with yourself, and other people with whom you have local, high-quality relationships, to give yourself a chance to notice whether you have gotten got for too much.

His conclusion is important and worth quoting in full:

One more useful attribute of the Jewish Sabbath is the extent to which its rigid rules generate friction in emergency situations. If your community center is not within walking distance, if there is not enough slack in your schedule to prep things a day in advance, or you are too poor to go a day without work, or too locally isolated to last a day without broadcast entertainment, then things are not okay.

In our commercialized society, there will be many opportunities to purchase palliatives, and these palliatives are often worth purchasing. If living close to your place of employment would be ruinously expensive, you drive or take public transit. If you don’t have time to feed yourself, you can buy some fast food. If you’re not up for talking with a friend in person, or don’t have the time, there’s Facebook. But this is palliative care for a chronic problem.

In Jewish law, it is permissible to break the Sabbath in an emergency situation, when lives are at stake. If something like the Orthodox Sabbath seems impossibly hard, or if you try to keep it but end up breaking it every week – as my Reform Jewish family did – then you should consider that perhaps, despite the propaganda of the palliatives, you are in a permanent state of emergency. This is not okay. You are not doing okay.

So, how are you?






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16 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

Some Sabbath-relevant notes/anecdotes:

1. I broke my phone and didn't get another one for six months. I was basically fine, and generally preferred that. Eventually some forces-of-modernity (trying to get a job and paying a mild cost with interviewers having to schedule calls from my gmail-account) forced me to get another one. Shifting back and forth wasn't as big a difference as I expected.

I currently have a phone, but have gotten into the habit of leaving it off and in a corner somewhere while I go out and do things, and I think this is a good skill to have in my toolbox.

2. Two Apps that I never miss a chance to promote: SelfControl and Freedom

Both of them let you construct blocklists for sites you don't want to use. (i.e I have a blocklist including Facebook, Lesswrong, Tumblr, and specific blogs I don't want to stay up late reading or get distracted by during work hours).

SelfControl only works on Mac. Freedom works on Mac, iOS, and (possibly?) android.

If you are a savvy programmer, you can find ways around them, but they are much harder to crack than things like StayFocused or RescueTime.

Of the two, SelfControl is much harder to crack than Freedom, but Freedom lets you schedule blocks of time at regularly occurring intervals across all your devices. (I used SelfControl for two years before switching to Freedom, and I think this trained the habits that let me use Freedom properly even though I could circumvent it)

This is all to say, if I were to implement on an official Sabbath, I'd set Freedom to automatically turn off the distracting parts of the internet on Friday night and leave them off until Saturday (or maybe Sunday morning)

All of the Internet is Officially Distracting. Set your computers and phones to lock you out.

Better yet, just decide not to use them. Because those are the rules.

There's real value in learning to follow rules without needing to tie yourself to the mast.

Re the last point, yes indeed. Mark Forster (an excellent productivity author) recommends training yourself to comply with your own resolutions this by, each evening (for a while), deciding on something big or small that you will do (or not do) the following day without fail, no matter what. Then do so, and repeat.

Mild organizational feedback: I appreciate having the "previously" section to show how things are building. However, as it grows longer (and maybe even when it is short), it's a bit hard to parse (both hard to parse-as-separate-from-the-article and hard-to-parse-generally). Maybe try doing it as a bullet list?


Curious to hear others thoughts on that, I feel like a bullet list would take up too much space. Note that I don't expect to have a list this long very often, and long term when we get sequences working right we can move to using that.

Hmm. I was actually thinking to make it shorter as well as conceptually easier to grok. (fake edit: nvm I just realized we were talking about separate things)

Basically I had no idea when the post actually began, and did some weird skimming back and forth. Compare:


Epistemic Status: Several months of experimentation

Previously: Choices are Bad, Choices Are Really Bad, Complexity Is Bad, Play in Easy Mode, Play in Hard Mode, Out to Get You, Slack

For More Thoughts After: Sabbath Commentary

Alternate Take (Endorsed): Sabbath Hard and Go Home.

Slack is life. It is under attack. We must fight for it.

Choices Are Bad. Really Bad. We need a break.

Complexity Is Bad. We need a break.

Work is exhausting. We need a break.

Relaxation is hard. Our attempts fail or backfire.

The modern world is Out to Get You. We need a break.

We need time for ourselves. Time that is truly our own.

Without setting aside such time, that won’t happen. Even when you take time, you’ll be continuously choosing to take time, and… well, whoops.

Modern life made the problem worse, but the problem is ancient. The ancients had an answer.


vs. something like...

(I realized this involves a bit more editing than I thought at first glance. What I thought was your "previously" section was... probably intended to be the beginning of the piece, but I'm not sure. It feels like you repeat your "previously" thing twice.)

((Also note that recently, Post styling was modified so that bullet points are a bit closer together, but I think comment bullet points are still a full space apart so this isn't as nicely condensed as I wanted))


Epistemic Status: Several months of experimentation

The Story So Far:

  • For More Thoughts After: Sabbath Commentary

  • Alternate Take (Endorsed): Sabbath Hard and Go Home.

  • Slack is life. It is under attack. We must fight for it.

  • Choices Are Bad. Really Bad. We need a break.

  • Complexity Is Bad. We need a break.

  • Work is exhausting. We need a break.

  • Relaxation is hard. Our attempts fail or backfire.

  • The modern world is Out to Get You.

We need time for ourselves. Time that is truly our own.

Without setting aside such time, that won’t happen. Even when you take time, you’ll be continuously choosing to take time, and… well, whoops.

Modern life made the problem worse, but the problem is ancient. The ancients had an answer....


Or something like that (removing the separate "previously" section since it's mostly redundant with the first 10 lines.

I realize now that bullet points probably is pointing at a different thing than your intent, but if so, I think that intent didn't quite work for me the way it was supposed to.


Ah. That's not bad. I did notice that I was sort of doing the thing twice, and was a little sad about it. This suggests a good way to reconcile things and I will consider editing to that version rather than sticking with the traditional 'previously' labeling.

My personal Sabbath-like thing is days when I have doctors' appointments (I have them fairly often for medical reasons), which work as follows:

I take the train to the doctors' office; this takes about two hours. In this time, I read a book or play Solitaire. Since there is no wifi on the BART, I can't use it. After the appointment, I have made arrangements to see one or two friends whom I don't normally get to see. I sometimes have to wait between the appointment and seeing friends, in which case I get to enjoy a leisurely cup of tea at Starbucks. I do permit myself use of Tumblr at this time, since I have carefully pruned my Tumblr feed to only consist of things I find relaxing, and I spend most of my Tumblr time pretending to be a baby-obsessed space alien, which is a somewhat noncentral use of social media; I find having a deadline by which I have to stop using it tends to reduce the compulsive nature of social media. No work is allowed, however, and if I find myself idly refreshing I go back to the book.

I think one of the virtues of my Sabbath-like thing is that no willpower is required. It's all the environment: of course I'm going to see friends when I've made plans to do so; the doctor's appointment is fifteen minutes from the BART station, so of course I have to take a pleasant walk; if there's no wifi, I have no choice but to read. I think that's something to consider in personal Sabbath design.


Making it physically difficult or impossible to do the things you don't want to do is definitely a good idea; I deleted a number of apps from my phone, including all the games and social media, for exactly that reason, and I smile every time I notice I would have opened one but didn't because it wasn't there.

My experience is hard, clear rules, once you get used to following them, rapidly require less willpower, especially as I engineer around those rules. Not buying things was hard the first few weeks, but after that I started figuring out what I needed to buy in advance, etc etc.

I absolutely love this, and it leaves me wondering about the role of social in the sabbath. This post mentions early, "Most want more social events, but coordination is hard and events are work. Now there’s always Friday night," but the subject does not come up again. And yet with regard to the historical referent, sociality is baked deeply into the sabbath. For the orthodox version, the minyan rule (plus the no driving rule) requires that people live close together and that they see each other once a week.

On the one hand, community has the potential to enhance the sabbath from the perspective of this article, which is sabbath as slack and relaxation. A social element in the weekly ritual naturally enforces regular adherence, since people must provide explanation if absent. Other people also tend to flag deviance and reinforce norms, reducing the cognitive burden of self-enforcement e.g. to a no-social-media rule.

From Ben's perspective, i.e. Sabbath as an alarm system, social has added benefits. Conversation with trusted and familiar people can help identification and diagnosis of challenges of all kinds; e.g., other people can sometimes notice the depth of our stress we see it ourselves. Though I don't know them all, there are countless other benefits of social networks for well-being. So if the sabbath is about well-being, it should be about social.

On the other hand, there are also unique benefits to isolation. If the sabbath is strictly about slack and relaxation, then social may play no role for some/many people. This conundrum, though, also highlights an interesting design feature of orthodox sabbath; Friday night may be a personal or family affair, and socialization is only enforced on Saturdays. My modern take is a quiet Saturday night and a shared Sunday Brunch.

One issue I have with the regular meal with friends/family bit is that (aside from those in your household, who you would see anyway) this potentially sets up a regular commitment which could well become onerous. In that, if you establish a pattern of seeing the same people week after week, you may after a while start to get bored of it/them (even close friends can pall if seen too often), and want to see other people, or no-one, for the Sabbath meal. Which starts to make Sabbath tedious/stressful if not dealt with, and even if dealt with delicately can create an awkward situation.

(Cf during COVID lockdowns my family set up a weekly Zoom meeting, with its own 'rituals' such as a quiz. This got quite tedious after a few months, with nothing much new to say, connection problems, the calls tending to overrun for no good reason, etc. etc. It was eventually broken only by people starting to drop out with excuses, after a few weeks of which everyone got the hint and it finally ended, having long outstayed its welcome.)

Promoted to the frontpage, with hesitations: I think this post is good and highlights important things.

I do think especially the first section before the first proper paragraph reads too much as a call to action, and somehow made me feel like something was being demanded from me.


That's certainly not accidental. I think I came off to you slightly stronger than I intended, but only slightly. If I'd been writing for LW as the primary target, I'd have watered it down. It's definitely a call to action.

Or at least, a call to inaction.

Very helpful, I've been trying to generate better ideas for restful leisure since too many of my activities are the kind of things you record yourself often and focus improvement and I often feel tired even after my "rest" activities. I'd be really interested for more people to say what they do at each level. For me I think the list would look like

1. Laying down, meditating

2. cooking something I know by heart, sport I don't think hard about (hiking, lifting, climbing, sometimes dance), driving without GPS, human interactions with inner circle

3. Reading fiction, shonen anime, music

4. New Cooking, thinking sport(bjj, sometimes dance), driving with GPS, reading nonfiction, videogames, human interactions outside of inner circle

5. planning, nonfiction, browsing/smartphone usage, work for self at a level with no planning

6. Work for money, work for self at a level that requires planning

7. Anything I have ever called akrasia (social media, certain videogames)

Now if only it was Thursday so I hadn't already failed today with this planning

An obvious point just about worth mentioning, is that of course you don't need to spend a whole day over Sabbath. A half- or third-day per week is a lot better than none. Albeit perhaps increasing the chance that you'll start thinking about post-Sabbath plans during Sabbath (if it ends before night).

Relatedly, if Sabbath is to be a whole day perhaps it's better lasting from waking up until bedtime (or notionally say midnight to midnight), so it is bookended by the natural boundaries of sleep. (Albeit that reduces the point of the candle-lighting ritual.)

They prevent accumulation of personal-and-home-related work debt. A chaotic house is not restful. Postponed chores weigh on youThe deadline forces handling them in advance.

Cf a friend of mine once observed that taking a vacation has the benefit of forcing you to clear your desk of things beforehand - completing, ditching or delegating tasks, clearing your email backlog, etc. Often in a more decisive and forceful manner than you otherwise would, e.g. declining to do things you've been asked to do, finishing mini-projects in quick-and-probably-good-enough ways rather than spending too long over them, etc.