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How do other EAs keep themselves motivated?

by Jonas Hallgren1 min read28th May 202110 comments

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Altruistic motivationSelf-care
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I often think of EA problems and solutions in a very numerical manner.
I think this leads me to disconnect from the more emotional aspect of helping other people which makes the motivation purely rational. This then means that I more or less need to be in a more conscious state to be motivated by EA problems. Daily life is, however, distracting and I find myself doing things that don't align with my conscious goals. I know of the more general ways of keeping distractions out but I don't know of many EA-specific ones. I was therefore wondering how other EAs evoke emotional motivation? (An example of this could be having a picture of children in malaria nets or another empathy-provoking type of picture.)

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I'm a student, and I have a Google document that I refer to whenever I feel demotivated in terms of my goals or don't feel like studying.

It's essentially my personal EA 'theory of change' - it covers the sequence of events from me studying now / working on EA stuff now, all the way to lots of people suffering a lot less and lots of people being far happier.

I think it really helps me and I'd definitely recommend it! 😀

Hi freedomandutility, I'd really like to hear more about this if you'd be happy to expand on it a bit and perhaps give examples etc. 

I tend to lose sight/forget the greater 'why' for why I'm pursuing certain things.

1freedomandutility12dI'm not comfortable sharing an excerpt publicly on the forum since it could compromise my anonymity, but I'm happy to send it to anyone who's interested over the forum's messaging function.

I just have a very ingrained working routine where I start work at a certain time and stop work at a certain time. If I stop working too early, I feel guilty because I haven't finished my allotted work time yet.

It has some downsides (e.g. it doesn't allow for much flexibility if there is more or less productive work that needs to be done within a particular time period) and might not work for other people, but I think it's been pretty effective for me for my ~3 years of remote, EA work. I haven't ever really felt drained or burnt out. Occasionally I feel kind of down about things not working out as well as I hoped but it doesn't really reduce my productivity.

I realise this answers the title of your question but not the emotional aspect. I don't really feel the need to be emotionally connected to the work if I have a productive routine that keeps me engaged.

I listen to the podcast BBC world report every morning. It covers stories from everywhere and very often the news are not so good. Wars, conflicts, disasters, pandemic, etc. I listen to it not because I enjoy such things but to remind myself that there are many many people suffering on this world and I must do part to help.

I also like to read some ancient Roman Stoics, such as Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and Seneca to help myself to stay strong and not be overwhelmed by all the problems the world is facing now.

Although I don't go on Facebook as much lately, it's mostly EA and animal welfare stuff now.

I have some close EA friends I talk to and hang out with often.

Perhaps most importantly in my daily work, though, I prefer more structured work environments, and where there's some continuous social pressure to be productive, even just by working in an open office setting or coworking online. It's better for me if there's a scheduled meeting (maybe just 5 minutes, to discuss my plans for the day) every day to start my day, so that I owe it to others to start work by a certain time each day.

Hey Jonas! Good to "see" you! (If I remember right, we met at the EA Fellowship Weekend.) Here are some thoughts:

  • In addition to some of the things that have already been said (like reminding myself of the suffering in the world and trying to channel my sadness/anger/frustration/etc. into action to help), I also find it valuable to remind myself that this is an iterative process of improvement. Ideally, I'll continually get better at helping others for the rest of my life and continually improve my ideas about this topic. This feels especially helpful when I'm overwhelmed by the sheer number of difficult questions to answer and all the uncertainty that goes with them. I think this iterative mindset is particularly good for sustainability and longevity in our pursuit. This doesn't mean we can sit back and let our future selves do all the work of course--I think it's still important to actively avoid becoming complacent (again, even this point is a balance because I also don't think it's healthy or sustainable to be endlessly self-critical). But I do think it means that we should keep in mind that this is (ideally) a lifelong pursuit and that we can't--and, if some of the ideas behind patient philanthropy are true, maybe shouldn't--have all the answers or all the impact today.
  • If you can find things that are both valuable/impactful and especially interesting to you, this can also be a great way to pull in another kind of motivation. If you can't always feel emotionally driven to act altruistically, then you can pull in curiosity, desire to learn, etc. in those and other moments.
  • While cliche, I also think the idea of being "the change you want to see" is actually quite useful and profound (which is maybe why it's a cliche). When I feel mad about others' fancy and expensive houses, cars, and lifestyles in a world that contains vast amounts of preventable suffering and a seemingly endless list of pressing problems, it helps to remind myself that I can at least control my decisions about how to use my resources and aim to reduce suffering / increase well-being in the world. I can work to bring about the kind of world that I want to see. (Note: I'm not trying to claim that we can't influence others' (non-)altruistic actions with these last few sentences.)
  • I want to note that I think the judgment of others that I described above has had a negative impact on my mental health in my experience, so it seems useful for me (and maybe others who are similar) to find ways of managing this kind of judgment. If anyone feels interested in discussing this, please comment or reach out! I'd be happy to share some of my initial thoughts on potential methods for doing this.
  • I think community can be very motivating. If you're able to find others in your life who are excited about EA ideas, this might be able to boost your motivation. I imagine it would also be very energizing if you're able to introduce new people to EA and have them get really interested and excited about it. Here are some community-related links.
  • Here are some related links I found that might be useful (disclaimer: I haven't read through all of these yet):

Great to "see" you Sean! I do remember our meeting during the conference, an interesting chat for sure. 
Thank you for the long and deliberate answer, I checked out the stuff you sent and it of course sent me down a rabbit hole of EA motivation which was quite cool. Other than that it makes sense to modify my working process and goals a bit in order to get motivation from other sources than altruism. I think the two main things I take with me from the advice here is to have a more written account of why I do things but most importantly I need to get in... (read more)

I like this question and have experienced the need for motivation in a similar way. For me, becoming motivated is a combination of (1) knowing more about the problem I'm working on and (2) establishing motivating reminders. The rest of this post is focused on malaria (disclaimer: I work at AMF) but I believe the ideas could be applied to many domains.

Example for (1): Over time, I've learned a lot about how malaria affects people, and also about the huge amount of work and logistics involved in a bednet distribution. I've seen videos of people driving motorbikes with bednets over muddy roads through the rain to get them to their destination. There were so many bednets loaded onto that bike that one could barely see the driver ;-) It's humbling and motivating to me to experience how hardworking and dedicated and appreciative our partners are.

Example for (2): Above my desk hangs a graph from a statistical model of malaria incidence in a partner country. It predicts that there would be ~40% more malaria cases without "our" bednets. I'm not claiming that this is the correct number, but I have some confidence that it's in the right range, and the printout provides a great boost of motivation. I also keep a folder on my computer with some highlights. For example, there's a picture I love where GPS coordinates of bednets are plotted over a satellite image of rural Uganda. One can see immediately that every household has received nets.

Ultimately, motivation is individual and drifting... I have to refresh mine regularly. It's still sometimes low; that's part of life!

Similar to @newptcai, I have found that engagement with the world around me is the biggest motivating force for me. I have cultivated a diverse array of global news sources between podcasts, newsletters, and social media and like to keep up with happenings around the world. Though regularly consuming information about war, poverty, and death can get very tiring (and it's important to take mental health breaks from news too!), it helps me retain perspective by forcing me to regularly confront my privilege and ask myself if I am doing the best I can to put that privilege to use in helping others. 

Beyond current affairs, I have also found reading fiction to be a really powerful way to expand the horizons of my empathy (only superseded by actually interacting with other people). This especially includes sci-fi and historical novels--I love looking at an entirely different world through the eyes of characters that are nothing like me.

And lastly, staying engaged with the EA community in whatever capacity works for you is also helpful! Since graduating from college, I have been in a job where people around me aren't necessarily super socially minded all the time. In the midst of this the EA community has been a helpful reminder that they are many people constantly thinking about ways to do good as well and, more importantly, acting upon those instincts in their day-to-day lives.