The Balance Between Hard Work and Exhaustion

by Rossin2 min read17th Oct 20177 comments

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Rationalists often find difficult, important challenges to work on and they become very excited and passionate about their causes. I expect it is common (because it happened to me and I have heard references to similar episodes by others) that such causes seem so important that aspiring rationalists set unreasonably high standards of dedication for themselves.

I think the concept of giving an extraordinary effort is a very important one, your brain wants to be lazy and if you are trying to do something challenging that you think is vitally important you want to push yourself to actually work hard, rather than merely “work hard”. A significant portion of this effort is exploring how to make raw effort more effective, but I what I want to address with this essay is how rest factors into attempting an extraordinary effort.

There is a certain kind of person who really needs to be warned that making an extraordinary effort does not mean one should try to work well past the point of exhaustion all the time. Part of giving an extraordinary effort is listening to your body, learning what you can do short of exhaustion, and maintaining that over time. Trying as hard as you possibly can until you burn out from overwhelming exhaustion is a merely desperate effort, and while it may be better than no effort at all, one can do much better by thinking in longer strategic terms.

It is easy to imagine an unattainably high standard of dedication you ought to have to your cause (it is so high because solving the problem is so tremendously important—there is little room for unimportant considerations like comfort). An ideal agent probably would work that much. However, it is critical to remember that we are humans rather than ideal agents. That usually means we cannot consistently do as much work as the most important problems seem to deserve. If we try, our brains will slowly give us worse and worse performances.

To someone who thinks they ought to be working that hard, this exhaustion is very distressing. They may not think to stop and revaluate, but believe the virtuous path is to continue striving onward through exhaustion. They have entered what I like to call a Humanistic Fervor. They have found a really important cause which they are wonderfully excited about working on it and they will do so will an unhealthy zeal. This approach, of forcing willpower to battle exhaustion, will eventually fail, leaving the person who attempted it feeling miserable about the experience.

After one’s efforts end in such a manner, those who have a developed habits and skills of self-reflection will then ask, “Okay, that was a disaster. What went wrong and how can I still work on this important thing without going through that again?”

That sort of question would be the proper way to begin to address the event, I think. Myself, I did not do that. I began to have thoughts along the lines of “Maybe I’m just not the right sort of person to solve this problem. If I was, surely I would have the passion and the ability to work that hard, wouldn’t I?”

And then, although I still thought my cause was important I stopped doing much work on it outside of what I had to. I managed not to think about the reasons I had for wanting to work so hard in the first place because my mind was protecting me from going through another event of Humanistic Fervor. It took me an embarrassingly long time to think, “Huh, that’s still important. And the level of work I’m doing now is clearly pathetic compared to what I could reasonably do. So how can I give an actual effort without making myself miserable?”

That requires listening to your body. When you’re exhausted you stop. When your brain is at the point that words are sliding through it with barely a hint of comprehension, that is not a good time to grit your teeth and force yourself to continue onwards. At least not usually. Such pushes should be reserved for rare, unusually desperate occasions. I am not describing the same thing as your mind feeling a little tired and stopping. Your brain wants to be lazy all the time. You have to test what it can really do. If you planned to work and you feel a bit tired, stat working and if after using all your normal tricks to get your brain moving it still feels like mush, well maybe it’s time to call it for the day, or at least a few hours.

Be kind to yourself. Listen to your body. Sometimes it is merely lazy and sometimes it is truly exhausted. Learning to tell the difference is one of the keys to attempting a truly extraordinary effort. It is far from all you need, but I have found it to be necessary.

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I like this a lot. Another way that I've enjoyed thinking about this is in terms of the area under the curve. If you imagine your happiness/energy/life/motivation/whatever as a line above the x-axis, a line that can rise or fall in steep or shallow slopes, then the idea isn't to ramp up as high as possible because then you crash (and sometimes crash all the way to zero). Instead, you want to think in terms of getting the line to have the highest sustainable average height over the uncertain stretch of future time, which will often require periods of lower and lesser exertion.

You don't build strength while you're lifting weight. You build strength while you're resting. This is as true metaphorically as it is literally.

I dig the area under the curve analogy. I'd bet that one of the reasons it often feels so tempting to aim for that momentary Maximum Effort is because that is the time that feels satisfying and rewarding. Even when I'm making significant progress in a part of my life, unless there are very blatant indications that I'm "doing a ton of work", it's hard for me to really feel like progress is being made. I agree whole heartedly that maximizing you sustainable average is the way to go, but it can be harder to milk satisfaction out of that.

I'm not sure how universal that experience is, but I'm guessing it could be behind a lot ones drive to max out. I've been working on creating some systems that help be clearly see the progress I'm making in order to keep up moral.

You don't build strength while you're lifting weight. You build strength while you're resting.

I think this phrase is particularly helpful as something to repeat to yourself when feeling the impulse to push through exhaustion when you know that you really ought to rest. I'll almost certainly be using it for that purpose when I'm feeling tempted to forget what I've learned.

Another key is to remind yourself that "make an extraordinary effort" does not mainly mean "work around the clock" or to the point of exhaustion. Working on the point of exhaustion both is relatively common and mostly unhelpful, as you note. It's more about what you do to succeed, being willing to pay social costs and risk embarrassment and failure, get creative, question beliefs, focusing on what will actually work and especially going above and beyond in the moment than on making sure you've expended X amount of time (or money, or energy).

I think of extraordinary effort more as a spike in effort, as entering a mode where you go above and beyond in the moment, where moment is typically minutes to hours at a time, rather than a sustained drive.

From your experience, is the most damaging part of a cause based burnout the emotional fallout of putting so much importance in The Cause, and then beating yourself up about not meeting the crazy high standards you've made?

To me, the most effective way I've found to avoid getting sucked into "you aren't doing enough!" has been to ask my self as many specific questions as possible about what exactly I "should" be doing. How much is "enough"? Am I actually capable of doing "enough"? Is "enough" just serving as an unreachable point of emotional satisfactions? In my own mind, I've found a few times that thoughts like, "You are bad because you aren't doing X!" didn't really care about the X at all; they were just excuse for me to tell myself I wan't good enough.

Something that's helped me a lot has been getting a better feel for how long certain works takes me, how long I can do focused deep work reliably, both of which have made me a lot better at answering, "Can I also take on tasks X and Y this week? What will or won't have to be sacrificed?" Then, if you feel like you want to be able to do more for your cause, it becomes a matter of finding ways to train and expand your capacity.

Yeah, I think the biggest problem for me was that I felt deficient for failing to live up to the standard I set for myself. I sort of shunted those emotions aside and I really fell out of a lot of habits of self-improvement and hard work for a time. So I would say the emotional fallout lead to the most damaging part (of losing good habits in the aftermath).
Thinking about tradeoffs in terms of tasks completed is a good idea as well, I'll try doing that more explicitly.

I've found that doing postmortems on all my projects is extremely helpful for keeping the long term perspective in mind. I think this is probably because it forces me to make all my projects discrete entities over time, forcing me to step back, reflect, and adjust my course instead of clustering them all together as "work" in my mind.

This carries the added benefit of giving me lots of information about my workflow and how it fluctuates under various conditions. For example, I'll usually record the costs of the project (Money, Neutral Hours.), any external variables (time constraint, multiple projects at once, working with or without people, etc.) and any factors I constructed (How well does a donut per $X/Nh incentivize me to do a certain kind of work, what happens to my comprehension and test scores when I study with naps or interval breaks or whatever.) Additionally, this makes for a convenient way to optimize different activities for certain outcomes by way of experimentation.