laurenlee

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Burnout: What is it and how to Treat it.

My realizations about how to treat Burnout, while at CFAR:

2. Learning to set and negotiate for your boundaries / keeping work and life separate

When I arrived at CFAR, I wanted to blur the lines between work and life a lot. I wanted to be "working" in a fluid way—such that I was integrating "rationality" and thoughts about rationality into my everyday life, into every action, into my identity. And this meant I showed up at the office on weekends (because I tried to treat weekdays and weekends as the same). I did lots of my "best work" late at night, either at the office or in late meetings. At workshops, I was "on" for most of the time, in the role of "mentor" or "ops" or "instructor" or whatever, and I just tried to hold "optimize the workshop experience for the participants" (as is the motto / flag of CFAR workshops).

CFAR affords its employees lots of freedom in a way—there's no one tracking hours, there's no specific time you're supposed to come in. So that's one of the things listed above as a plus, for Burnout. But... at the same time, this level of autonomy means individual employees can just choose to dissolve themselves into their work, such that their life basically blends into work. And they don't hold these domains separate anymore. (This seems more of a risk for the type of EA who cares a lot about their job.)

Eventually, I figured out this was a bad way to go. I started setting boundaries more. When I did ops at the last couple workshops, I chose to only be "on" for a certain number of hours a day (8-10), and I was "off" for the rest of the hours, letting other people "cover shifts." I told my bosses, "Hey, I don't want to do X or Y anymore. I want other people to handle those." And then I got that.

I eventually realized, at least for ops work, I needed to "optimize MY workshop experience" first, and participants' experience second. And that optimizing for MY experience would /lead/ to optimizing the workshop—it was a win-win.

I realized that I was running a marathon and not a sprint, even during workshops (which are often treated like 'sprints'). And I would need to pace myself during workshops, even though they're a time when lots of concentrated effort is called for. So when I ran operations for the last workshop, I tried to ensure my volunteers were not working more than 8-9 hours a day, and that their shifts were regular (so no one was having to get up at 7AM one day and then stay up late the next). And also, that if they found themselves starting to feel sick or tired, I'd encourage more breaks and naps. And in ways, I let parts of operations become a little worse or not as brilliant or awesome. But the participants didn't really notice, and the feedback on ops was positive.

As for regular work, I started setting more boundaries there too.

Basically, I started noticing some aspects of work felt ughy / aversive, and instead of trying to "debug myself" and then "find a solution," I was more willing to just be like, "actually, nah, fuck that. I don't want to."

Whereas before, I might have thought being a good rationalist was about solving all my bugs through internal work or changing the environment or some other radical thing... I eventually realized, "actually no, I'm just gonna say 'no' and 'give up' on some things instead of trying to make it work." And I think this is a healthier policy in the long run.

Burnout: What is it and how to Treat it.

My realizations about how to treat Burnout, while at CFAR:

1. Rest Days vs Recovery Days

Rest Days are important and can work to refresh you. Most people do not know how to take Rest Days. They instead use weekends and vacation days as Recovery Days or days where their mind is still in "working" mode.

A Recovery Day is where you're so tired or under-resourced that you can't do much of anything with yourself other than: stay in bed / sleep a lot, binge on Netflix or video games, stay in your room all day, don't talk to anyone, and feel unmotivated to do much except easy, stimulating, and/or mind-numbing things. This is a Recovery Day and does not count as a Rest Day, but it is fine to take the time for them. But you aren't going to be refreshed from them. In order to really refresh, you need to take another day that counts as a Rest Day.

Another way a person might take time off is to do things that are /like work/ but easier. Video games are a prime example. I play a lot of video games that involve optimizing systems, and I find these really motivating and fun. But I notice that this is a kind of "work"—my mind is trying to solve problems and implement solutions. The difference is that because it's easy and doable, I get addicted to them, and it's a way from me to escape the problems at work, which are harder and clunkier to solve. This also doesn't count as Resting.

Rest Days are days where I have enough energy and resources that I feel motivated and able to get out and about. (One way I can tell I have energy is that sometimes I spontaneously feel like cooking, a rare occurrence.) On a Rest Day, your prime directive is to attend to your stomach (or, the felt senses coming from your stomach), and just "follow your gut" for the entire day. And just do "what you feel like doing" in the moment.

There can be no obligations on a Rest Day. No scheduled calls or meetings. No promises to show up to a party. You can go to the party if you actually feel like going to the party, but you won't be able to know until last-minute. You cannot be "on-call" for anything. No one should depend on you unless it's someone you actively like being depended on for things, like a person you care about.

There can be exceptions to these, but I like to make Rest Days sacred in these ways. (This might resonate with Ben Hoffman's post on Sabbaths and Zvi's post on Slack.)

Things my stomach tends to want to do on Rest Days:

  • be in the present moment
  • eat tasty things
  • have a picnic in a park / take walks / enjoy nature
  • draw
  • read a book
  • cook
  • spend meaningful social time with friends
  • go dancing or do yoga or similar
  • useful errands or home-improvement stuff (I installed some curtains once)

My stomach rarely wants to:

  • spend a lot of time on Facebook or social media
  • binge TV
  • play video games

I think more people should try to implement Rest Days for themselves. It seems good to have them regularly, but I'm not sure how often. Once a week is the sort of 'traditional' thing to do.