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The Peek behind the Curtain interview series includes interviews with eleven people I thought were particularly successful, relatable, or productive. We cover topics ranging from productivity to career exploration to self-care. 

This sixth post covers “What does self-care look like for you?”, including what sustainable work hours look like for these folks.

You can view bios of my guests and other posts in the series here. This post is cross posted on my blog.

What do you do to keep yourself sane and not burn out?

Learning to deal with anxiety 

After having gone through the most intense periods of anxiety when I was dropping out of Stanford and coming out of that and realizing things were totally still fine, that made it a lot easier for me to not take the anxiety quite as seriously and be like, “I’m going to suffer a little while, but it's going to be okay.” I don't know. I built up a bit of a meditation habit, which seemed to help a bit. Exercising also helps. I don't think I really had a great solution though other than getting to the point again where I felt like I had a plan for my life.

I think exercise is really important. I find that when I'm stressed out, just going for a half-hour run or something that really helps me a lot.

Daniel Ziegler 

Check sustainability and have shouldless time

How do I tell if I need rest or need something? It's partially through heuristics, like, "Well, if I have been working through weekends for multiple weekends in a row, probably I should stop doing that soon." I think I can do that for a few weeks, but if I do it for months on end, I just get miserable. There's some outside view heuristics. 

Then also the inside view of things, like how I feel about my work. I try to notice if I'm in a phase where I'm feeling unmotivated or feeling unhappy about the work that I'm doing. 

One of the things that I do in those situations is to scan for, "Do I have some totally shouldless times?" Time where there are no shoulds, which is like some weekend where I can do whatever I want. So "Do I have some shouldless time coming up?" If not, and I imagine rescheduling things -- maybe it's a Monday and I'm feeling miserable about the upcoming week, and I'm like, "I guess I'm planning to work through this weekend. What if I planned to take one of those days completely off? How would I feel?" 

Pretty often when I run that check, the answer comes back like, "Oh yes, I feel way more motivated to work now, if I know that I'm going to get Saturday fully off,” or something. If that comes back as the answer, then I try and find some way to make that happen, which sometimes is more feasible than others. 

Helen Toner

Make time for your own needs and desires 

It's easy for me to ignore my own desires, my own wants, my own needs, and I think that's the case for a lot of EAs, especially when they want to just go all into making an impact. I think in some way, in order to be attracted to altruism, you probably are fine with the idea of putting your own priorities or values into perspective for the greater good. People might be a little bit more prone than the average person to do the kind of things that I do, which is like, “if it's about me, we can just ignore it.”

Abi Olvera

Time with people 

I live in a group house and I really like hanging out with my housemates. That's the main thing. Especially during COVID times, we've had dinner together almost every night and that's really nice. I also had been really into reading and then stopped for a long time and have very recently picked it up again, and that's always pretty absorbing and relaxing for me. TV with my partner is also really big. 

I think tired activities are more like reading, watching TV, being on social media, passively hanging out with housemates. I think rejuvenating activities for me, I like to host people, I like to throw dinner parties, go on hikes with friends. For me, a lot of the rejuvenating activities are high activation energy social activities with people I don't live with, where I'm planning and hosting and making it happen, which is a big part of what I really love about life.

Ajeya Cotra 

Just take care of the basics 

I don't know if I have anything very specific beyond just the generic like getting enough sleep, have contact with people I like spending time with, don't work insane hours. I would find it hard to force myself to work insane hours, so that hasn't really been a huge issue.

If I've just, for example, set myself a deadline, and then as a result, I spend like two days doing morning till evening work, then unless I have some really good reason for doing a bunch of work, the next day I just take the day off. 

I don't really feel strong qualms of just being like, "I'm not really being productive today, and I don't have anything that's like a real deadline tomorrow or something. I'm just going to stop doing stuff today." 

Ben Garfinkel 

Having a supportive environment 

Not having personal drama. It certainly helps, I think, to be happy, to have a supportive environment. Some jobs can be demotivating, and having meaningful work with agency helps.

Eva Vivalt

“Recover” from overwork, “rest” doing things you value 

If I've been working over two weekends in a row or something, or working flat out on a project for ages, I do get a sense of like, "Well, I just want to be a rat in the Skinner box, pumping myself of dopamine." That occasionally happens. It's usually fairly short periods. Usually, a weekend is the archetypal one. I feel like I've done this thing now, powered through something mildly aversive, so I’m going to reward myself by staying in my room, playing computer games, and buying takeaway for many hours on end. These are not activities my better self would particularly endorse, but I think they probably reconcile occasionally as a cost of doing business.

I read this stuff on LessWrong about rest days and recovery days, and recovery was more, in my case, like I'm burned out. It's like, "Oh, man, I just can't do anything besides doing this." It's not necessarily I feel like I couldn't do more if I wanted to, but like, "Oh man, I feel like I deserve it," or something.

Where rest seems more like wholesome activities. Like, “I could read a good classic literature,” or “I'm going to do some creative writing,” or some other pastime, which doesn't feel quite as nihilistic as “I'm going to upgrade the numbers on my virtual avatar in this computer game.”

Greg Lewis

Sundays are 100% off days

One rule that I found really helpful is, I have Sundays, definitely 100% off. That has been a struggle at times. I feel like I haven't really figured out exactly what feels rejuvenating, but I definitely at least commit to trying to make Sunday that kind of day. Aside from that, I don't really do that much to try to limit it, and at least so far, I find that that's been super fine.

Jade Leung 

Make time for yourself in a way that works for you

Instead of working for weeks and then periodically taking off entirely, I'm just having some more time to do some reading, or napping, or whatever during the day when I feel like it. I think some people say, "No, you really need vacations. It's not the same to just sit in your office and read a book or something like, that's not a real break." Some of it, honestly, is that I have little kids and a vacation is not a break either. It's just trying to childproof a vacation rental and making sure my kids don't drown. We've done some proper vacation-y stuff, and it's fun but not what I would call relaxing in the same way that childless friends describe a vacation.

Julia Wise 

Do things just because you enjoy them 

Some amount of just doing things that are for my own enjoyment. For example, I have a bunch of different housemates with different special food needs. I really like cooking, and I felt sad that it all had to be vegan, tomato-free, spice-free, and without cooked vegetables because those are the different housemate requirements, and now I just cook things that don't meet any of those requirements and eat them all myself, because that just feels luxurious to me.

Julia Wise 

Cultivating deep relationships

It feels particularly important to me that I'm building things and my life is going right. By comparison to, say, my husband. My husband spends a lot of time playing computer games and loves it and is just like, "Well, that was time excellently spent, I had a great time," whereas I find computer games very compelling in the moment but often afterward feel like I totally wasted the time. 

Whereas a thing that's really important to me is building close friendships. It feels like the life narrative there is somehow important or something. It also matters a bunch, for example, whether I feel like this is someone that I'm going to continue being close to for years to come, as opposed to a nice one-off conversation where maybe I really enjoy the one-off compensation but it feels less important to me. That might be less to do with the overall life narrative and more to do with things like feeling like I have a community and have a support system and things. 

Anyway, that seems to be very important to my well-being, having people that I talk to on a really regular basis, that I really trust in my corner. That's particularly easy for me because I work with a whole bunch of those people. I get to talk to them all the time anyway. I also have a few other regular Skypes, either weekly or fortnightly with people that builds up this feeling of having a bunch of people that I can rely on, in addition to being things that I would enjoy at the time.

Michelle Hutchinson 

Track if you’re pushing yourself too hard 

Another is keeping tabs on whether I'm pushing myself too hard, I'm a bit prone to that. Like the other week, my au pair decided to take a week off with somewhat short notice, which is totally fine. I agreed with it, but I had already planned the work I would do the following week so I was like, "I'll just look after Leo and work basically full time. That'll be fine" and then got to the end of Monday and was also feeling ill. Then was feeling like, "Oh, I'll just push on through it" and needed to step back and be like, "No, this isn't sensible at all."

The sensible thing to do here is put off some of this work for next week and just accept that I shouldn't do it. It's always tempting to decide that I'll work both weekend days and things like that, and then end up starting Monday really tired instead of deciding that actually, I need time to just rest and not do anything too strenuous.

Michelle Hutchinson

Taking care of your mental health 

Keeping on top of my mental health situation and going to the doctor and trying new antidepressants and being willing to track. Man, I was not keen on happiness tracking, and then at some point, Jeff was like, "You’ve got to do it, you’ve got to track your happiness every day and see," and damn it, exercise helped. I was really hoping that this would not be the finding, but it definitely did.

Now I have a little more data on some stuff, and meds are one and exercise is one and sleep is a big one that are correlated with better mental health, and so, some of it is also shifting things around within us as a couple and me being like, "I just am going to sleep an hour a day more than you are, Jeff." 

We just have different needs and just being like, "Okay, yes. It would be cool if I were a bit like you, but I'm not, and I'm going to go to bed early now." I think that being realistic about that has been very helpful.  

Julia Wise 

How many hours do you work? What determines that amount? What is sustainable? 

Long hours are fine, but only if the work is important 

It totally depends on the job. If you're staying late to work on something that you know is important, then yes, I would say that even after you get off at 8:00, you're pretty excited about the next day. I think when you're staying up late at work for something that you know isn't important, that's really draining. 

Abi Olvera

It’s okay for number of hours to vary with how excited I am

I've noticed these cycles that I describe of wandering in the desert and then a manic phase of consolidation and writing. I generally try to make deals with myself where I'm just like I'm not stressing about how my hours are low when I'm wandering the desert, but I also don't try to force myself to sleep when I have ideas. Just last night I worked until 5:00 AM writing something because I went to bed and then I couldn't sleep because I had thoughts. That really works for me.

It's very stochastic and it's not going to happen every week. There'll be some weeks where I really want to write stuff down and I really know what I'm doing, and there are other weeks where I really don't know what I'm doing. The process of coming to know what I'm doing isn’t generally improved by putting a lot of pressure on myself to have a high tonnage of output because it's a lot easier to turn out a bunch of pages on something that is simpler and less thorny, but less central, which is something that I did a lot of in the timelines report where I just spent more time than I needed to talking about technical topics that were mildly interesting, but their central feature was that they were easier to talk about and less speculative than the main points.

I've become wary of the idea of like, "I want a lot of hours in a day or in a week. I want a lot of pages done." I try more to just hold myself to a standard of every week I hope to have some product to show for myself that's related to the central thing that I was supposed to be thinking of. Many weeks, that product will be like, "I tried these things and they didn't work.” And that's okay. A lot of weeks will be relatively low hours and that's okay. Sometimes I'll be really into something, and I shouldn't try to just make myself go to bed at a reasonable hour.

Ajeya Cotra

More when really engaged 

I think hours that I'm sitting in front of the computer or just occasionally scribbling on a notebook or doing work-related things is I think eight or nine hours a day during the week. Every now and then a couple of hours on the weekend. As far as very focused work, anywhere between zero and four hours in a day.

I think at some point, I just get tired. I think that if I'm really engaged, then I can keep working for pretty long. I have had days where I actually felt I got in eight plus quite focused hours, but that's very rare.

I think the first four hours in a day are more valuable than those after it.

Daniel Ziegler 

It depends on whether it’s deep work or a mix of tasks 

I think it depends a ton on the types of tasks that I'm doing. It feels like there's enough difference between going from meetings, to putting in some focus time working on a book chapter, to doing some reading for school. It feels pretty different. For me, I think that means that I can do more of it. 

When it comes to the focus deep work-- for example, since working on the chapter for about the last year, I’ve been in the habit of doing one and a half hour blocks of focus. It seems I can do, if I really pushed myself, maybe four of those in a day, maybe often just three. If it was a weekend day and I was really just trying to work on the chapter, it still might be that I only actually did four and a half hours of work.

If that was going to be the case, then I would try really hard not to have the rest of the day be feeling miserable because I should be working. I would try to really put in proper breaks where I'm doing other stuff. 

Helen Toner 

Quality of work hours matters more than quantity 

Past self definitely thought that productivity was sheer number of hours worked. I've definitely updated against that or at least added more nuance to that. 

I don't count the number of hours that I work. I used to use things like toggle and feel proud about working longer hours, but that's not really a super meaningful metric. The thing that I've replaced that with is just “Have I gotten the thing done that I ex-ante said I wanted to be able to get done?”

Then other things that have changed would be things along the lines of being more responsive to my energy levels. Being both more reflective and reactive to the fact that, in some cases, I might feel low energy and I think I'm producing low-quality hours. Past-me would have just kept doing it. Current-me would at least stop and consider whether I should use that time to re-energize instead. 

Jade Leung

Number of hours isn’t the main driver of output 

I think for some people, the relationship between the hours they put in and what they achieve is much more linear than it is for me. I think because of the weird episodic nature of the work I do, I don't really feel much guilt for not putting in more hours. 

Julia Wise 

Diminishing returns somewhere between sixth and ninth work hours 

I use Toggl to track my time. My Toggl tracked time, I think it probably started out at an average of maybe 35 hours and then over the course of a few years, it has been climbing upwards. Now it is maybe at 40 to 43, let's say.

Not in weeks, but in days definitely [there are diminish returns to working more]. In days, like the ninth hour, sometimes it's fine, but almost always it's quite clearly worse. The sixth hour, I think is usually fine. Like about as good as the first hour. 

Rohin Shah

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