Effective altruism is often a maximizing philosophy. Not just “doing good better”, but “the most good you can do”. For many people, myself among them, this philosophy has a natural-feeling corollary: minimize anything non-altruistic in your life.
My goal in this post is to convince you that trying to spend as little time as possible on fun socializing, frivolous hobbies, or other leisure is a dangerous impulse. If you notice yourself aiming for the minimum amount of self-care, that's a sign that you should reorient and reprioritize.
Argument from anecdotal breakdowns (including mine)
A few years ago, I had read Replacing Guilt and Cheerfully, and I sort of acknowledged that being miserable all the time couldn't be sustained. Even though I wanted to live up to my altruistic values, I would need to make some room in my life for my friends and my frivolous hobbies.
How much room did I need, though? I felt a bit suspicious, looking at how I spent my time. Surely that long road trip wasn't necessary to avoid misery? Did I really need to spend several weekends in a row building a ridiculous LED laser maze, when my other side project was talking to young synthetic biologists about ethics?
I started tracking my time down to the half-hour, little colour-coded squares on a spreadsheet, and I would gaze across weeks of weak impact and feel despair. I started cancelling plans with friends unless we could co-work together, but I was still spending hours a week playing Dungeons and Dragons and talking on the phone with my long-distance partner.
It’s almost funny, looking back on my calendar from 2018. In addition to my engineering job, I was doing things like coordinating volunteers for EA Global SF and running East Bay Biosecurity events. Right now, I feel like I was doing plenty of valuable work, but at the time I felt basically worthless. I was sure that a more altruistic person, given the same skills and opportunities that I’d lucked into, would be able to do more. There were so many broken things in the world― how dare I waste so much of my time?
This kind of thinking― what I’m calling aiming for the minimum― was really unhealthy for me. It was a contributing factor to a mental health crisis I had in mid-2018, during which I had a breakdown, nearly landed in hospital, and had to spend a month under family supervision in Ontario. This section is titled anecdotal breakdowns, plural, because this mindset doesn’t seem all that different from what Julia Wise describes in Cheerfully:
“My happiness is not the point,” I told him.
A few years later, I was deeply bitter about the decision. I had always wanted and intended to be a parent, and I felt thwarted. It was making me sick and miserable. I looked at the rest of my life as more of an obligation than a joy.
So my husband and I decided that it wasn't worth having a breakdown over.
Or the section Toning Down the Singerian Approach in the 80,000 Hours podcast Having a successful career with anxiety, depression, and imposter syndrome:
I think that for many types of people, doing the act of constantly self-monitoring, where you’re always asking, “Is that thing I have a desire for a little bit unethical? Is that thing unethical?” Being in that frame and mode, doing this self-monitoring and building this habit of self-criticism I think for some people is very mentally unhealthy. ... And that’s actually really hard for me. And there’s a very long time where it both felt so clear to me that I ought to be living frugally and giving away as much as I could, and that I had no right to all the money that just happened to be in my bank account because my job paid it to me.
While recovering from my breakdown, conversations with friends and therapists (and the fact that I’d had a breakdown) helped me accept that my mindset around doing the most good―deciding my happiness is not the point, constantly self-monitoring, desperation hamster wheels, aiming for the minimum, etc.― was not sustainable. In fact, it was downright dangerous.
Why shouldn’t you aim for the minimum?
For me, classifying this kind of thinking as dangerous is more powerful than thinking of it as bad or ineffective. I don’t just want to argue from anecdotes, especially since I had read some of these stories before my own breakdown. So, why is aiming for the minimum dangerous?
The minimum is a moving target
Let’s say you’re tired of lying unconscious in your bed for 8 hours every night. Fair enough! You want more hours in the day and decide to try sleeping less. Let’s say you do this pretty systematically: you track your reaction times and productive hours each day, and compare two weeks of your normal routine against two weeks of sleeping 7 hours a night. If your data looks good, and you feel okay, then you’ve just gained an hour a day! Nice.
Unless... if you are trying to minimize your hours of sleep, not just reduce them, your work is not done. You have established that the minimum amount of sleep you need is less than or equal to 7 hours of sleep per night. Time to sleep even less.
Minimization is greedy. You don’t get to celebrate that you’ve gained an hour a day, or done something impactful this week, because that minimizing urge is still looking at all your unclaimed time, and wondering why you aren’t using it better, too.
I had heard lots of clichés around this (“it’s a marathon, not a sprint!”) but the one that really got through to me was a therapist accusing me of thinking about my time in the same disordered way that some people think about their weight. She’d seen anorexic patients who knew that you shouldn’t get too thin, so they’d set a target weight. But after reaching the target, it was hard not to think… “Hey, I got here, and it wasn’t even that hard! Plus, I’m still not that skinny. What’s another five pounds?”
It’s not easy to build a Schelling fence in your mind. The minimum amount of self-care is a moving target, and if you fall below that minimum, bad things can happen.
By definition, less than the minimum is bad
If you get less than the minimum amount of sleep you need, you’re going to experience a few unpleasant days, but unless you fall asleep at the wheel of a car you’re likely to recover. In fact, your body can force recovery upon you via unplanned naps and sleeping through your morning alarms.
When you are aiming to minimize non-altruistic use of your time, money, and/or energy, things get a bit riskier. The signals of needing more self-care are more subtle than unplanned naps. By definition, though, less than the minimum necessary is not something you can sustain.
Some people seem to naturally have guardrails around this sort of thinking; they notice when they’re putting too much pressure on themselves and ease off. It’s not surprising that the effective altruism community, which selects for a willingness to make unusually large ethical commitments, attracts people who lack these guardrails.
Personally, it’s sort of astonishing that I was simultaneously working full-time, doing several impact-oriented side projects, suicidally depressed, and confident that I was spending way too much time selfishly looking after myself. I think being that suicidally depressed should have been a pretty strong signal that I was below the minimum, but at the time it felt easy to dismiss. I wish I had eased off before getting to the point of a breakdown.
Being at the minimum means having no slack
Obviously, my mental health problems were caused by more than a single disordered thought pattern. But because I was aiming for the minimum, I didn’t have any buffer to absorb disruptions like a (psychiatrist-advised) medication change. I was, sort of by intention, dangerously close to a breakdown.
Your ability to impact the world is directly dependent on your ability to function. The world is chaotic and lots of bad things happen, so sometimes events beyond your control will make your life suddenly harder. A supportive friend moves away. Your favourite café work space closes. A family member dies. A global pandemic happens. You might not even notice a load-bearing thing until it’s gone and everything gets mysteriously more difficult. You don’t need to be able to shrug off this kind of disruption, but you need to be able to survive it.
You don’t know exactly where the minimum is, and if you’re constantly skirting it, then you won’t have enough slack. You’ll end up collapsing because of some chaos beyond your control.
Impact is about prioritizing, not agonizing over every hour
In this post, I’ve tried to argue that aiming for the minimum is dangerous. The greedy optimizer in you should not be allowed to evaluate every second of your life against a single metric, not only because you have more than one goal, but because it will move the target until you’re left with no slack, and then something unexpected will push you below the minimum amount of self-care you need to function.
At the start of the post, I said that if you notice yourself aiming for the minimum amount of self-care, that's a sign that you should reorient and reprioritise. Why did I mention prioritizing, rather than just telling you to stop?
Well, one principle of effective altruism is to aim for the most good you can do. But what’s often lost amongst depressed altruists is another core principle: some good things you can do matter 100x or 1000x more than others.
If you’re doing impact-oriented research, then picking an important thesis topic matters far more than whether you finish writing it in four years or five. If you’re earning to give, negotiating your salary matters far more than whether you take an additional two weeks of holiday. If you’re building community, following up with promising people matters far more than whether you postpone an event until next month.
I’m not suggesting that it’s literally never the case that you should be trying to do more. But I truly believe the vast majority of people can gain far more impact by prioritizing better than by agonizing over every hour of their day. Quoting a journal entry from a few weeks after my breakdown:
Greedy maximizers are poor prioritizers who demand great noble efforts and then don’t adequately track outcomes. As much as possible is almost always the wrong approach.
I need to appreciate how I’ll falter if my needs aren’t met. If I don’t sleep, I can’t focus. If I don’t eat, I slow down. If I choose the wrong pace, I burn out. I need to protect myself or else I’ll lose. I’m the only tool I have to accomplish anything in the world.
Thanks for sharing this, you make some good points here. I still feel somewhat torn about this issue. One thing I struggle with is that I find it hard to judge where the minimum actually is, so even accepting that you shouldn't be at minimum, it still hard to know what to do in practice.
To play devil's advocate - there is a school of thought, especially prominent in tech and among entrepreneurs that (1) people should work really hard and (2) and that people can work a lot harder than many commonly think.
Some examples that leap to mind.
One 'error theory' is that we are biased in favour of putting more weight on looking after ourselves than is justified because that makes our life go better.
All of this being said, I have experienced burn out and it's definitely something to keep you need to manage.
I'm also familiar with this school of thought, but I'm not sure it's empirically validated?
In the case of Dominic Cummings, I believe you are referring to this post which describes running successful political campaigns. Those seem like they might be an outlier, in that they are an extremely time-bound competition where "do things faster than your opponent" is an obvious win? As Samuel noted, running a startup is also a case where a marginal month of delivery matters, since you likely have <1 year of runway to demonstrate to investors that you should continue being funded. The other examples you cite don't seem to be of people optimizing for impact.
Lynette Bye put some empirical research into the post How Long Can People Reasonably Work?, but found the literature pretty disappointing. Her top-level conclusions included:
The hyperproductive people I know seem to score well on (1) working on important things and (2) being very focused while working, but vary in how many hours of work they do per week (I'd estimate 30-50).
I am not a hyperproductive person, so I'm not sure you should take productivity advice from me, but "try to do at least one thing I think is actually important per week" seems to give me better results than "try to work really hard", since the latter can lead to hyperfocused work on things that don't really matter.
Curious if you know of any sources that were missed in Lynette's post, or this response, though!
that is all v interesting and informative. I'd probably agree with your view that the correlation between working hours and output is not all that strong. But I do also think that hyperproductive people tend to work extremely hard. I'm mainly going off anecdotes and personal experience though.
"Working really hard carries such a significant risk of burnout that in expectation it's bad" is completely consistent with "I can point to people I know of who are working really hard and really productive".
Another example is Sam Bankman-Fried. Apparently he never drinks and never goes on holiday because he thinks it makes him less productive.
I agree that the people cited are not optimising for impact but successes in other realms do seem relevant to which habits are successful in impact-related domains.
in free solo, alex honnold said "Nobody achieves anything great by being happy and cozy". Warrior mindset seems very common in super-high achievers.
Interesting and relevant article, which just came out; an excerpt:
I also have the impression that some of the most productive people I know (within the EA community specifically) work very long hours.
Thanks, I appreciate this detailed response! My advice for what to do in practice is something like "focus on output against priorities, not marginal hours". I no longer believe that, for most people, there is a real trade-off between hours spent on self-care* and amount of impact. If someone is making themselves miserable, I think "put real effort into becoming less depressed" is a likely good short-term bet for increasing productivity, but this post is meant to be about a general pattern, not just advice for people struggling with their mental health.
* aside: I don't love "self-care" as a phrase, since it always conjures images of someone, like, reclining in a bubble bath whilst eating chocolates. Which is a fine thing to do, obviously, but I would love a phrase that more clearly points to "taking the time and actions you need to feel okay doing your life".
yeah that seems right to me
I disagree with the ideas suggested by this comment and I think the ideas Tessa says are more correct.
Is work real hard sustainable for more than a couple years? In startups it can make sense because you may have a couple of years that have potential to generate a lot more wealth than anything else you did thus far in your life.
When I first read this and some of the other comments, I think I was in an especially sensitive headspace for guilt / unhealthy self-pressure. Because of that & the way it affected me at the time, I want to mention for others in similar headspaces: Nate Soares' Replacing Guilt series might be helpful (there's also a podcast version). Also, if you feel like you need to talk to someone about this and/or would like ideas for additional resources (not sure how many I have, but at least some) please feel free to direct message me.
Thanks for this! I have also had similar issues and now feel much more sustainably impactful due to having a much better work-life balance. One perspective I have is that EA attracts and then damages a lot of maladaptive perfectionists like me. We want to do good better, and we want to do it so bad, that we sacrifice more than we can possibly sustain.
FYI when I read the title and skimmed the hover-preview (~first paragraph) of this essay, I didn't at all realize you meant psychological minimum
Fair enough! I have revised the title to include "self-care", which hopefully makes it clearer (the previous title, for later arrivals to this comment thread, was just "Aiming for the minimum is dangerous").
On a similar note, I actually parsed the title as the opposite of the intended meaning. That is, I thought the article was going to say that aiming for the minimum [amount of impact, or something else related like career capital] is dangerous, rather than that that aiming for the minimal amount of self-care is dangerous.
I reached this article through a link that already revealed that it was about self-care but didn't notice the "self-care" in the title, and I expected the rhetoric to be a bait-and-switch that starts by talking about how aiming for the minimum in directly impact-related things is bad and then switches to arguing that the same reasoning applies to self-care.
Thanks for sharing. I'm sorry to hear about the difficult times too. I had some serious burnout a couple of years ago too. Like Peter said, I think that certain personalities are likely to be more attracted to EA ideas and it helps when we share these experiences with each other and be mindful about this.
My preferred framing of EA is 'doing good better' for this reason. I also really like how Charlie Bresler frames it as doing your personal best and how Hayden Wilkinson's talk about doing less good for good reason shows this mathematically.
Sustainability is super important if you're going to have an impact over the longterm.
Often the best way to maximise is to satisfice most decisions and focus on leverage (e.g. 80:20 rule).
When people speak with me about ambitious donation targets I applaud their commitment, ambition and desire to help others and then have a chat about sustainability and thinking about what they can imagine still doing in 20 years time (and feeling great about it). Many GWWC members have told me that they like the 10% pledge for the reason that they can just satisfice and pick a number that's meaningful/significant but sustainable (and then many give more later in life once it's clearer what they need etc). It's often much better than being stuck in indecision and giving nothing or feeling compelled to give too much too soon.
Being healthy and happy gives you a nice strong foundation to go out and make the world better.
Personally, I've found practices like mindfulness, journaling, and scheduling in leisure time helpful. Also, I've just softened a bit with age and realised that I'm not invincible, that I'm a human who has limits and needs to take care of the basics and build from there.
Thanks for this! Broadly agree on the importance of sustainability. I also want to push back on generally framing this movement as just "doing good better." If we agree with Tessa that "some good things you can do matter 100x or 1000x more than others," then I'd worry that just "doing good better" makes it too easy for people to have just 1/100th or 1/1000th of the positive impact they could have (since they can easily be satisfied with doing the less important things better, or with doing the important things just somewhat better). And that seems like a major waste of potential.
(Even in the context of donations, it seems very suggestive that ~85% of this movement's funding comes from two sources that are very big on optimizing. I'd hate to have missed out on them.)
(More broadly, if most impact comes from hitting small targets, then it seems like we'll have a hard time getting this impact without optimizing. So I'm much more optimistic about "optimize with self-care heuristics" than about "satisfice.")
Broadly agree, just making the distinction between individuals optimising for personal impact across the different parts of their lives is different to organisations optimising for impact specifically by evaluating philanthropic opportunities.
That being said, they both benefit from thinking about sustainability (don't pull funding instantly when an exit grant would be more impactful; don't spend all your philanthropic capital on the first best option; don't run your employees into the ground to get more hours of evaluation out of them until they quit from burnout).
Ah, good points!
I really appreciated this, firstly for your openness about your anecdotal experience and secondly for emphasizing the importance of prioritizing (rather than just 'withdrawing,' which can frame sustainable self-care as irreconcilable with EA).
Really, I liked this post a lot and I am glad you posted this. I anticipate coming back to it in the future as a reminder for when I feel myself slipping into the minimizing mindset. It's also made me more open to shifting away from current habits that lead me towards that - for example, I literally audit all my time, including eating and free time - maybe I should experiment with not doing that?
I've just started reading Oliver Burkeman's Four Thousand Weeks, which has reminded me of the common therapeutic advice to 'identify and align with your values,' and I am starting to see prioritization as a helpful theme for perfectionists (aka maximizers)!
Thank you for your kind words! I do find it really useful to have time that is intentionally free from obligation. I do still track my time, but I have an "endorsed chill" category (which I absolutely did not circa 2018).
You might enjoy the book Essentialism by Greg McKeown. It's written in a standard business-psych tone, so expect lots of inspiring anecdotes of corporate success and bolded subheadings, but/and it has a number of useful strategies for prioritizing. It also frames a bunch of things I was deficient in― e.g. dropping unnecessary commitments, sleeping adequately, accepting trade-offs― as difficult skills that high-achieving people should master, which made cultivating those skills feel more appealing on an ego level.
Thank you for sharing your story. I haven't heard the "minimizing" angle before but it totally makes sense!
This, but for the community overall and not just individuals.
Great post, it's amazing to see mental health in the EA-sphere being talked about.
About time tracking, as someone who also tracks their time in little color-coded squares (or rectangles?), you start to associate some colors with negativity and others with positivity, and when you're in a rough spot (or a 'rut' if I may) it can definitely make you feel like you've wasted the week as you glance over.
To me, that's the biggest disadvantage of time-tracking/time-blocking, though for me the advantages vastly outweigh the disadvantages.
I agree with some of the key ideas of your post, such as that working more than what is sustainable would be counterproductive. I also think that this is a message that some people need to be reminded of.
However, regarding your stated goal:
"My goal in this post is to convince you that trying to spend as little time as possible on fun socializing, frivolous hobbies, or other leisure is a dangerous impulse."
As I was reading the post, I thought that the lesson from some of the ideas and examples you give is not that you shouldn't aim to minimize these leisure activities. But rather that you should build in some leeway in case you have overestimated the levels of work that you can sustainably work at and underestimated the levels of leisure activities that you need.
We sometimes talk about making sure you have enough "financial runway" where, once you're over a certain threshold this enables you to take a much lower paying role than you might ordinarily take (if you weren't motivated to maximise your impact).
Maybe there's some comparable metaphor of something like "motivational runway" where, once you're over a certain threshold this enables you to work much longer/harder than you might ordinarily take (if you weren't motivated to maximise your impact).
Yeah, I think you're right that a possible takeaway here is "try to minimize your leisure time, but leave yourself generous slack", and I like the idea of building up a "motivational runway" that you can burn down when you need to push really hard on something.
I just still think that most people (sure, probably not Sam Bankman-Fried) are going to cause themselves needless pain by aiming for minimum leisure/fun/etc instead of prioritizing more important uses of a smaller number of impact-oriented hours.
To reverse your financial metaphor, I feel like I see a lot of people doing the equivalent of only buying beans and rice at the grocery store so they can donate more money to their local children's hospital and I'm like... hey, if you're interested in saving children's lives, you might want to consider buying bednets? Also, have you looked into whether you might be able to increase your earnings, rather than focusing on not spending? I worry that "minimize leisure time", like "minimize grocery bill", is a goal that feels easy to optimize for while both distracting from more important goals and potentially doing some health damage.
I like that analogy a lot!
This point is similar to Ramit Sethi's concept of "big wins" in personal finance. I have found this to be an extremely valuable heuristic.
You don't have enough time and energy to do everything perfectly. Some actions/decisions are much more important than others ("big wins"), so focus on doing those well. Don't waste time on trivialities.
There's a corollary that should be intuitive to the EA community. Someone working 40 hours per week can totally dwarf the altruistic output of someone working 60 hours per week.
Maintaining good mental health is a big win.