The Balance Between Hard Work and Exhaustion

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.