Meaningful Rest

by Neel Nanda4 min read29th Aug 20202 comments

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ProductivitySabbathSlackRationalityPractical
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An exercise: Set a 5 minute timer, and list the things you want to do when you feel tired and low-energy. Then, set another 5 minute timer, and list the things you feel rejuvenated after having done - the things you like doing when low-energy.

If you’re anything like me, these lists are basically disjoint! When I’m tired, I want to compulsively check things - Facebook, email, the news. I want to procrastinate: to compulsively scroll through Reddit, trashy web-fiction, the latest webcomics. But, empirically, after doing this I don’t feel any happier or more energised. Often, I feel even more tired! While the things I feel happy to have done tend to be completely different: going for a walk, meditating, reading a book. Generally, things that involve going outside and getting away from screens. Yet, these are not the things I reflexively reach for when tired. This is both a puzzle (which seems to have a solid neuroscientific basis) and obviously terrible.

This is terrible, because the things I want to do are the default actions - the things that take no activation energy to start, the things I reflexively reach for. And when I’m tired, I lack the willpower to do anything more ambitious, and will just reach for whatever is most available. And this creates a feedback loop - I am tired, so I do the things I want to do, I am not rejuvenated and made more tired, etc. This both consumes a lot of time, and doesn’t even make me happy in the process!

So, this is a problem. And fixing this is a big deal, because being well-rested and high-energy is super important. It’s key to my productivity - when I’m tired, I find it easy to procrastination, fail to make progress, and go in circles of wasted motion. And it’s bad for my happiness - being tired makes me irritated, fatigued, insecure, etc. I’ve noticed significant increases in my overall happiness after making progress on this problem, and related problems like my sleep.

Worse, this combines really badly with my default working style. I have a strong neurotic desire to finish things, and to fixate on my total output rather than time spent working. I’ll often push myself to complete my current task, going well beyond my allocated working time, and not being willing to take a break until I’m done. And in the process, I’ll push myself past the point of strain, and only take a break when I’m feeling drained. And once drained I’ll only do the default things I want to do, be stuck in that loop for a while, and basically be done for the day.

This was one of the examples that helped me clarify the difference between my inner and outer optimiser - the way to maximise global productivity isn’t always to follow the neurotic voice in my head telling me how to maximise productivity in the moment. And I need to learn how to take breaks even when it doesn’t feel necessary, because my intuitions for when rest is and is not necessary are empirically shite.

So, that’s a lot on what the problem is, but what to do about it? My underlying model is that the problem is one of defaults. Most situations in my life have a default response, and that takes no effort to follow. To deviate from the default response, I need to spend a scarce resource - willpower. Being tired is essentially being low on willpower, and the problem is that my default actions when low willpower do not regenerate willpower. (I elaborate far more on this model in this post)

The solution to this is two-fold - learn to take breaks before being completely drained, so I can resist the default and take rejuvenating actions. And lower the activation energy of rejuvenating actions, to shape the default - making them as close to the default as possible.

The mindset of shaping the default is valuable, because it shows that I can’t only do rejuvenating things when I’m really tired, and wait until it feels really necessary. The default is formed by my habits, and the actions that I actually take. When I feel the compulsion to veg out and scroll through my messages, and don’t feel strongly in need of rest, this is still a bad idea. Because I’m not just choosing to veg out once - I’m making it slightly more likely that I’ll fall into this loop every time my future self is tired. I need to do the rejuvenating thing at the times when I do have the energy to choose it, so that it becomes a habit, and it’s easier to do at the times when I lack the energy. Taking breaks, and especially rejuvenating ones, must be a point of principle - something I do for its own sake, rather than because I want to and feel like I need it. Because the latter is not a policy that will generalise to the times when I do need to take a rejuvenating break, and at those times I can’t do anything but my default policy.

I’ve been deliberately vague about exactly what to do, I expect this to vary a lot between people - I recommend brainstorming the things that you feel rejuvenated after doing and building a system such that doing those is the default. But, if it helps, this was my process:

When brainstorming what rejuvenated me, I found that being outside, away from screens, and doing something that felt pleasant and virtuous was the best source of rejuvenation per unit time. And an easy way to do this was to go lie down in my garden for 10 minutes and read a physical book (which also meant I began to actually work my way through my to-read list!). And actually doing this initially had high activation energy - I needed to get up to walk to the garden, there was less of a dopamine rush than checking messages, etc. So, for a week, I made a policy of always doing this during breaks and ensured I stuck to it - locking my phone and blocking distracting websites during breaks, having brief pings at the start and end. And I shaped my environment to make it easier, making sure to always have my current book close to hand. And I didn’t perfectly stick to this, and it took some energy to do. But making it a habit significantly lowered the activation energy, and built positive associations with it, to the point that it now feels way easier. And I don’t stick to it religiously, but it’s now much easier to do when I feel tired.

This is just what worked for me, and I don’t expect this to generalise! But I hope the underlying philosophy behind it does. And even if you can’t come up with a perfect system, aren’t super sure what you find rejuvenating, or find it aversive to imagine sticking to a system while tired, I recommend running the experiment anyway! I find my intuitions for what will and will not work aren’t strongly reliable, and there’s no substitute for just gathering data. And it’s a cheap test - the downside of wasted time is low, while the upside of becoming better at rest is super high! I wasn’t at all convinced that my experiment would work, but in hindsight it was super valuable.

So, are you satisfied that you intrinsically want to do the things that rejuvenate you? Are you satisfied with your energy levels? And if not, what can you do about that?

(In this post, I’ve mostly focused on taking meaningful breaks on a small scale, throughout a work day. I think taking longer breaks is also extremely valuable (and something I suck way more at - advice appreciated!) I highly recommend this post for thoughts on the topic)

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