Working Hardly

Since I started Putanumonit five years ago I’ve rarely ever gone two weeks without posting anything. I’ve now gone a full month.

It’s not that I have nothing to write about. I have several half-finished drafts, Twitter threads that can be expanded into posts, marked-up books for review, and more. This post is none of the above, it’s about the reason why I have not been writing. And chiefly, it’s a way to just get back to writing by any means possible, to make this a habit again.

If this sounds like boring post that you don’t want to read, you are probably correct. You can instead watch my video interview with Chase Harris about COVID, Rationality, social reality, and more:

I bought this blue tapestry from India just to entertain people who watch me on video.

The reason I haven’t blogged in a month is that I haven’t been able to do my job. My work laptop is plugged in, my colleagues are online, my deadlines are approaching fast, and yet I have consistently failed to put in the required (and not very large) number of hours it would take me to catch up on my work. I am not sure why this has been happening, and I have observed this happening as if from the outside with some bemusement.

My brain keeps “work” and “blogging” very near each other on the mental shelf. Both are obligations of a sort. Both are done on the same screen with the same keyboard sitting on the same chair. And so, since my rising panic at falling behind on work is ever-present, whenever I sit down to write I think I should do work instead — it pays my rent and has specific people that depend on it, as opposed to an abstract readership. So whenever I try to blog I switch to trying to work. Then I fail and end up doing neither.

This experience of not being able to do work is very strange. On the face of it, nothing is different in August from March and April when I was working from home quite productively on similar projects. I am seeing more friends now and spending more time outdoors but these usually happen in the evening, when I have already spent the day mysteriously not working.

I don’t particularly dread my work or feel stressed about it. It’s as if the job is shrouded in fog — it’s hard to get started and when I do I’m easily distracted by other things which capture my attention for unusually long periods of time. I have also noticed in the last two weeks that my stomach acts up whenever I log in to the work laptop, even several times a day, making me delay the start of work while I run to the bathroom. I thought “gut feeling” was just a metaphor.

I talked to a friend who had similar psychosomatic anxiety responses to working on her thesis, to the point of suffering loss of vision and other strange symptoms. Surprisingly, the solution she chose was just to power through. Even more surprisingly, it worked — she now holds a PhD. This is basically my mainline strategy for now.

Other friends suggested other approaches, although all of them would require not working for a while (on purpose). Unfortunately, I feel like I can’t afford to do that with the amount of work I have piled up and the upcoming deadlines. If I somehow get a lot done and meet the deadlines, I actually feel that it would be much easier to go back to working normally. The more I have to do the bigger the anxiety around my work builds, and thus the harder it is to do it. I realized this a short while ago, but the trap had already shut above me.

I’m really taking a big Rationality “L” on this one. It feels like a failure of planning, introspection, and organization that I would have expected to avoid. I guess anything other than asking myself constantly “am I failing at life in some dumb and obvious way” is unforgivable hubris.

One thing that’s important to know about my job is that it is utterly lacking in intrinsic motivation. The work is not very fun, challenging, impactful, or meaningful. No one is cheering on me as I do it or admiring me for it. It is something that the world needs in the abstract sense of someone willing to pay for it in a fair market, but I would certainly not care whether it was done or not if it wasn’t my responsibility.

I’m quite grateful to my company for paying us a fair salary instead of trying to sell us on some vision of how our work is world-changing or pride-worthy. We’re paid in real cash rather than made-up meaning — it’s an honest deal and I appreciate it. At least, part of me does.

The problem is that my reasons for doing the work are very distant from my subconscious systems of motivation. Even the main reason, money, is not strongly stimulating to me these days. I’m not shopping or eating at restaurants or planning vacations, my cost of living has gone way down because COVID. If I was fired tomorrow my lifestyle wouldn’t change. My job also fit into some broader plans I had for my life this year and next, plans that have been cancelled or thrown up in the air because COVID as well. This uncertainty about the future is probably also sucking away my motivation.

It is strange to think how much cognitive effort it takes to remember why I want to do the work. Perhaps more effort than it takes to actually do it!

When I just joined the company I committed to working for two years, then for another two (for work visa purposes). Having a hard contract that I intended to honor prevented me from spending mental energy on thinking of alternatives and second guessing myself. I have a choice now, and choices are bad.

My friend recently tweeted that he’s addicted to indecision, and I think I know what he’s talking about. Having choices feels bad, but giving up choices also feels bad. The longer you spend with a choice, the more it feels like whatever decision you make has to be absolutely awesome. If the decision space is vague and no choice is clearly superior you can get stuck in a way that feels a lot like addiction.

Several of my young friends are dealing with the same thing. They’re feeling anxious about having a life full of choices ahead of them, choices about careers, relationships, places to live. For many, all their choices seem worse now than they did in 2019, and not any more concrete or dependable. Others are waiting for a partner / friend / employer to make a choice and are resenting the other person’s addiction to indecision.

Another friend said:

Each decision is like a little death. But putting off the choice isn’t actually letting me live forever.

17 thoughts on “Working Hardly

  1. I feel you, man.

    My first guess: it’s not just about the work, it’s because of all the external signals convincing our brains that the world is a hostile place. They make us alternate between the constant threat monitoring and the learned helplessness mode. Things are simply getting worse, in multiple aspects of life – so coping by focusing on work/ close relationships is harder. There is no perspective for improvement in the next years, and being a rationalist makes you hyper-aware of the underlying dynamics.

    Once a century pandemic.
    Economic recession.
    Uncertain social status and career paths.
    Prime years passing or gone.
    Decline in media, online discourse and mass culture.
    Disillusionment in academia, governments and big organizations.
    Growing social polarization and distrust.
    Collapse of gender relations.
    Woke surveillance capitalism.
    Superstimuli and (self-)censorship.
    The crisis of meaning.
    NYT bullying Scott.
    EA cancelling Robin Hanson.



  2. I’ve been having somewhat similar symptoms, with real difficulty focusing. So if you have any suggestions that wind up working, please let us know.

    For me, the best luck I’ve had so far has come from

    a) slapping myself upside the head with deadlines, to the point where I have to do this thing right now.

    b) If I ever do get into the groove, just run with it as long as I can. Even if it’s not work hours, keep at it while it’s working. If you miss enough work hours, you can’t even really say that it’s an unfair deal.

    c) Basic health stuff. Sleep well, eat right, exercise.

    d) If you have the choice between a high-value task you can’t do and a low-value task you can, do the latter. Meetings are good for that for me – I can’t miss them, they do provide some value, and they get my brain into the right space. I’ll often scendule meetings for the mid-afternoon lull just so I get something done then.

    e) In extremis, take the time off anyway, and to hell with your employer. If you can’t do the work either way, you might as well at least be recovering in the process. Whatever they do to cover your vacations, they’ll do here if they have to.

    None of these is a miracle cure, but they’ve cobbled together to keep me going tolerably.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This seems like exactly the sort of situation mental health professionals are there for. I hear rumours that New York is quite well supplied with therapists.


  3. Since it is psychosomatic, and analyzing psychological aspects doesn’t help much, I’d concentrate on somatic. Such cases happen with me regularly, and when one approaches catastrophic, I switch off psychology, motivations, etc, and turn myself into a zombie for one multi-hour bout of labor. The longer it is, the more it helps with motivation for the next one.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. As far as motivations are concerned, it may well be that personal interactions at work back in the pre-pandemic days did play some role. That suggests trying to find a reason or excuse to visit the good old workplace or finding other way to interact more with colleagues and bosses.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Have you tried online coworking spaces? I’ve been having reasonable success lately with a discord server (“study together!”). I think there’s a lesswrong study hall somewhere too. (Many people also warmly recommend focus mate, but I’ve not tried that one yet.)

    The idea is to get motivation and accountability by scheduling study time with another person. You know that the other person will be let down (hence less productive) if you don’t show up, so it’s more likely that you do show up.

    In pre-Covid times the strongest motivation for me to study/work was the peer pressure at any library. Online study halls are a virtual replacement.


    1. I second this approach. I was struggling to work on my PhD thesis in a similar way, but things got much better once I asked friends and dates to simply work together with me in a cafe. Now I got a Discord server where I schedule work sessions with other people, we share our screens and keep each other accountable.


  6. While I sometimes have the pleasure of intrinsically motivating work, often I don’t. When non-motivating work is combined with the more lax environment of working from home I too struggle with discipline and productivity.

    I’m quite successful in my career but being a millennial I know future precarity is always a possibility. This concern limits the degree to which I can enjoy the fruits of my labours. While I do have some fun hobbies my job lets me afford, I invest over half of what I earn and I don’t dare take on the financial burden of a house at current prices.

    So I’m in this weird twilight zone where I’m not afraid of losing my job (because my investments represent years of living costs), but I’m not motivated by money (because the “middle-class” things I want cannot be had without major financial risk). In other words I’ve built a cushion against the stick, while eating the carrot would be a pyrrhic victory.


  7. Good luck getting your mojo back – not core to what you wrote but one point jumped out.

    “If the decision space is vague and no choice is clearly superior you can get stuck ”

    If a decision is hard it is often a sign that it doesn’t matter. If one choice is clearly superior to another, the choice is easy. If two choices are both of similar attractiveness then the loss from choosing the wrong one is tiny – so pick randomly and move on.


  8. I Hope things are going better now, and I will share my own personal experience in the hope that it can be useful to someone, because I noticed that this kind of advice is lacking in the comments.

    I’ve been in a similar situation last year, with lots of anxiety for the work to be done and strict deadlines, pain (persistent headache that even forced me to stop doing anything for days at a time, and body pain that randomly appeared and disappeared in different parts of my body) that went along for months and was lacking an underlying physical cause, mental fatigue and I was easily distracted.

    After the strong insistence of my partner, I tried to look for psychological support and it helped a lot! In a month the headache was much less severe and after a couple of months I was basically free of it (it sometimes reappears but I learned how to recognize it and how to deal with it).

    In my case the anxiety about having to do so many things that kept piling up (caused by an inherent fear of failure) was basically driving me crazy so that the bodily response was for me to feel pain as a signal to stop.
    Except that of course feeling pain made me less effective at doing things and reinforced the vicious cycle.

    Excercises that helped me relax (feel less anxious and loose up muscolar tension that I had but was unaware of) were basically mindfulness exercises such as “grounding” and sensory experiences that concentrate on feeling the here-and-now and being attentive to what your senses are currently experiencing, as well as concentrate on a part of the body at a time and feel it to relax.
    Online there are plenty of such exercises you can search.
    At first is best if you do such kind of exercises (each taking 5/10 minutes) at least two times a day and in every moment in which you feel anxious or stressed (or to help you sleep better).
    After a couple months of practice you will be able to apply them only when you need but in general it should go much better.

    I also strongly suggest to consult a psychoterapist specialized in anxiety problems which will guide you in doing the exercises and maybe give ones more specific to your situation. Short therapies typically consist of 8 to 12 meetings, and give you very good coping strategies that can make you live better.
    They are somewhat expensive (at least in my country) but the quality of life you get after is well worth it. I would also suggest to lean toward choosing older practitioners that do have more experience and have a much greater guarantee of paying for something in return.

    It has been such a long comment, but I’ve seen there are no recent news on your well-being so I’m sharing this.
    Let us know about you and take care!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s