I thought this article made some important points, so received Andrew Critch's permission to repost this on the Forum from his blog. You can find the original post at http://acritch.com/fun-does-not-preclude-burnout/.


As far as I can tell, I’ve never experienced burnout, but I think that’s only because I notice when I’m getting close. And in recent years, I’ve had a number of friends, especially those interested in Effective Altruism, make the mistake of burning out while having fun. So, I wanted to make a public service announcement: The fact that your work is fun does not mean that you can’t burn out.

I often hear something like

“Don’t worry about the crazy hours I’m working; I’m not using willpower to force myself to work, I’m really enjoying it!”

Aside from seeing this fail in a number of serious cases, it’s also a visibly invalid argument about how your mind works, especially in light of a specific mental pattern that blatantly violates it: addiction.

An addiction takes no willpower to indulge, but still happens at the expense of your other needs. It would sound absurd for a heroin addict to say “I’m really enjoying this heroin, so I definitely won’t blow all my money on it.” But somehow I think a lot of people fail to realize when their work turns into an addiction… something that part of them really enjoys and can do lots of, but which other parts of them sometimes need a break from, to put it mildly. “Workaholic” doesn’t mean “Masochist”… it means “addict”.

Now, it’s true that lack of fun can cause burnout. But fun isn’t the only thing you need! Some possible contenders for things you mind/body might “need” on a long-term basis:

  • sleep
  • nutrition
  • friendship
  • fun
  • love
  • sex
  • time with <specific person>

What does it mean for your mind to “need” something? Well, if your mind has some sub-process that will hijack the rest of it if you don’t get enough friendship, then for the time being, your mind “needs” friendship. Maybe there are some things you can do to be more or less needy, sure, and maybe some of that stuff is even a good idea. I’m just saying, don’t forget that you have needs just because one of your needs — fun — is getting a super-stimulus.

(Followed by Embracing boredom as exploratory overhead cost.)

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I understand the importance of reducing burnout, but I wonder if, as a movement, we aren't placing too much emphasis on reducing burnout compared to pushing ourselves to do more. Anecdotally, I see more EA articles about self care than pushing oneself to do more. I can see why there are some publicity benefits of reducing burden when it comes to attracting new people to the movement, but when it comes to discussing within the community, my guess is the EV of pushing oneself to do more is positive for most people in the movement.

As an example how we may be doing too little on the average, only around 23% of those who revealed their donations in the 2014 EA survey. donated at least 10% of their income. Obviously there's more ways to be an EA than donating and many of these individuals are students, but it does suggest that many people can push themselves a lot harder. I would be surprised if most people needed more than 90% of their salaries for adequate self care. I think we need to strike a balance between self care/pushing ourselves harder, but my suspicions are that we should move in the latter direction. I would love to find more concrete evidence either way though.

Maybe that means there should be more focus on personal finance and working out how to be happier on less. It could also mean people are at the beginning of the careers and it will get much easier to give 10% after pay rises. Is there a question on the EA survey about if there is a change in the percentage/amount given between years?

Also it could be that people need to push themselves smarter rather than harder. Spending an extra ten hours in the office a week might not give the same return on spending those outside of work on other activities.

Not that people can't push themselves harder, but we need to think about what that entails.

Hit the nail on the head. Especially considering how tenuous the relation between money and happiness is. I have honestly not seen a single article or even social media post (by anyone except me) describing ways to improve your mental propensity to sacrifice wealth.

I think you're probably right on this when it comes to donations as it's less likely that less money would necessarily mean less sleep or time with friends. However, the article seems to be talking more about working, whether that means in a high paid job with long hours, volunteering in all of your spare time or working long hours in an EA role you love. You're still probably right that many people can push themselves more than they currently are. Any suggestions on how to identify where the line is for an individual would be really interesting to discuss.

I think the right way to do it is to try things out and see what you can do. It's well known that we can't easily predict the careers we'll enjoy or the way our interests will change in the future. The same thing applies when thinking about what would be too demanding.

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