Keeping it tied together

(Soon, how to make this ridiculous scarf.)

One day, I was struck by the absurd idea of a scarf, which looked like a tie. Was it a tie scarf? A scarf tie? A business scarf[1]?[2] It was so absurd that I obviously had to make it.

However, these sorts of things usually make it onto the eternal todo list and never come back out. I only work at 1 second per second, I have to do silly things like sleep, you know how it is.

So why did this skip to the front of the line? Well, because of being human, and Magic: The Gathering (MtG).

I was burning out.

Don’t get too excited. Reading this post on burnout by angersock drove home just how easy I’ve had it. Burnout can get so bad people can’t open their computers, people can’t work, people start seeing noses on everything. Compared to those scenarios, I’ve had microscopic problems. I hesitate to even call it burnout, but it will have to do as the closest referent I can come up with[3].

Historically, the main symptoms of my proto-burnout periods is dropping everything outside of work. When I’m operating the way I want[4], I’ll go to work, come home, and then work on projects and this blog. The weekend rolls around, and I could work full days on those same projects. But at some point, I would mysteriously not be able to do those things. I would still be doing fine at work, because that’s where the money is, but everything else would dry up[5]. All I would do is loaf and watch a hundred hours of beaglerush.

So in the last few months I noticed warnings signs. I’m having trouble maintaining focusing through things, even small things. There’s an (unquantified) uptick in playing video games and mindlessly browsing the internet. Habits would get dropped on the floor, and I’ve had a harder and harder time caring[6]. I haven’t finished a single book in 2019(!)[7]. I am increasingly tempted to fuck off on everything and shed back to minimal responsibilities.

could do what I’ve done before, and keep pushing myself into brain debt until I have to declare bankruptcy, and then find something to drool at for half a year[8]. Easy, but dissatisfying. Can I avoid crashing out?

Most of my initial responses were basically trying to restrict myself back into a productive state[9]:

  • I started slicing my goals smaller, switching from quinquannual (5 times a year) to monthly. However, I’ve been progressively sizing down my expectations for 3 months, but my energy reserves seem to be shrinking even faster[10].
  • Continuing the monthly theme, I thought about restricting myself to playing a video game a month. This basically has never worked as expected[11] since conception.
  • I usually block mindless time wasting sites, but recently the usual 10 second block hasn’t been working. I started growing it, but that just encouraged binging behavior.

None of this got rid of the warning signs, indicating this was not a temporary problem I could push through. So, it was time to try more things[12].

A obvious but cached response would be to go on vacation, taking explicit time away to recharge[13].

But read this post on the EA[14] forum about avoiding burnout. There are a few main takeaways, including a summary of research that vacations are more of a band-aid than long term solution, with restorative effects falling off in weeks[15]. It would buy me some time, but I already have time before things need to crash out, and I’ll still have to figure long-term fixes out after the vacation effect wears off[16].

A comment on that burnout post spawned another post by Unreal[17] on LessWrong, which introduces the distinction between rest days and recovery days, which I internally label thrive days and survive days[18]. Recovery/survive days are just about treading water, gathering energy so you’re ready to go back to work on Monday. Watching TV and playing video games are prototypical recovery/survival day activities, requiring few resources to engage with something mildly entertaining[19].

Rest/thrive days are focused on deeper resources than simple energy. I don’t think I have the concepts to describe which resources are being replenished, and can only gesture at “human thriving”. Being tired and grumpy? Not conducive to human thriving. Being a perfect optimizer churning out paperclips? Also not conducive to human thriving[20].

The rest/recovery dichotomy makes sense, but the post doesn’t do a fantastic job of getting to a more foundational level. Why are we following our gut? I think some of the posts about the Sabbath provide more flavor and intuition.

Zvi, MtG pro[21], wrote Bring Back the Sabbath. It’s another post worth reading in full, and also linked from the rest/recovery day post.

Yes, we’re talking about the Biblical/Talmudic Sabbath, but with a wildly secular spin on it. My main takeaway is the deliberate creation of slack[22], the creation of breathing room. Fitting a mechanical metaphor, a system with no slack can’t absorb shocks, which will just ring through the system. However, it is tempting to gobble up all your slack and distribute it to all the things you need to do. Think of everything you could get done with an extra day a week! Hence, the need to jealously guard the Sabbath and keep it slack-full.

(Zvi also advocates minimizing decision-making (Choices are Bad[23]) and avoiding the aspects of modernity optimized for extracting value from you (Out to Get You[24]). These resonated less well with me, but might be things I’ll experiment with later.)

Tying concepts together, the Sabbath is a rest/thrive day. In particular, Zvi’s restriction to premeditated or intrinsically/spontaneously motivated activities maps well to the rest day concept of “following your gut”.

Notably, multiple people are endorsing the general free-choice day concept, which puts more social proof behind it than most things I try. However, while I grasped the concept, both posts lacked something to compel me to action. As it turned out, I just needed more MtG.

Duncan Sabien wrote a post about the MtG color wheel, which I recommend as food for thought. MtG has 5 colors/classifications of magic, which all have their own goals and philosophy:

  • white seeks peace through order
  • blue seeks perfection through knowledge
  • black seeks satisfaction through ruthlessness
  • red seeks freedom through action
  • green seeks harmony through acceptance

The post goes into some adventures applying these colors to people both real and fictional, and trying to understand their actions and motivations.

Obviously, the first thing you do with a new personality system is apply it to yourself. I made a list of things I did I was doing that day, and assigned them to colors. I had no idea why I was surprised, but everything was evenly split between white and blue.

The system isn’t obviously useful on its own, since it is joining a crowded field of personality typologies: Hogwarts houses, Galen’s humorstrue colorsBig 5 personality traitsMyer Briggs. We have so many systems already, why would we want a new one?

But for some reason this post stuck with me. Maybe it was the extended descriptions of feeling victory and defeat, making it clear that I had not been experiencing some types of victory for some time[25]. Maybe the strategy of throwing an extended adjective board at the reader finally worked for me. But I’m thinking a big part was the reminder that different people needed different things, and by extension, people at different times needed different things. Maybe I needed something different, like a day devoted to not doing white/blue activities, or at least not in a white/blue way.

So trying to throw a dash of red/green[26] into a life of white/blue could make a lot of sense. I’ve been trying to throw more white/blue solutions at the problem, without much effect[27], and a completely different approach might avoid those problems.

So for some reason this ad-hoc personality framework clicked hard enough that doing the Sabbath sounded like something I should move from theory to practice. I would take a day, and try living a little.

I woke up on the Sunday I had decided would be my prototype Sabbath. What did I feel like doing? To hell with it, I was going to knit.

This wasn’t totally out of the blue. Knitting had made it to the short list of things I was considering as Sabbath activities[28], I knew the basics of knitting from when my mom taught me a decade ago (and could refresh from YouTube as needed), I had yarn and needles from another hair brained idea that never reached implementation, and knitting seemed calming and meditative. So I knit.

So, what worked during the Sabbath?[29]

  • The day as a whole was calming and relaxing.
  • Knitting is a nice activity: any planning can be front-loaded, so the rest of execution demands little thinking. It’s enough thinking to not be boring, but not enough thinking to be draining. For example, you can knit and watch TV (although TV isn’t Sabbath-ful). At the end, you get a physical object you can wear and be proud of[30].
  • At some point during the day I meditated longer than usual, and actually got noticeable benefits. I had been keeping up the habit because it was a habit, and because I felt mildly worse when I tried going off it. But, it was annoying to keep up, and I was thinking about stopping. This was the first time that I noticed such a big effect[31].

What didn’t work?

  • I ended up spending the entire day knitting. Oops, that’s probably not in the spirit of the Sabbath. Surely my gut did not say “let’s keep knitting… forever” with the declining marginal utility of more knitting. Like, maybe I should have gone outside at some point? I remember it seemed like a nice day! My shoulders started getting tight from holding a knitting accommodating posture, maybe I should’ve taken a break? But no, I just kept knitting.
  • I still ended up time tracking[32] the day. This is antithetical to the Sabbath concept, and yet so damn ingrained that I couldn’t stop.
  • With later scarf iterations (not during this Sabbath) I started knitting in the most blue way possible, by creating a spreadsheet to plan out my stitches and where to do color switches. This seems antithetical to my Sabbath goals.

This is not over[33].

I’m not done knitting. I’ve finished scarf 5 now, and think I have at least 1 or 2 more in me (it turns out alpaca wool starts to itch after wearing it for an hour, so I have to remake that one). Knitting year round is not tactically sound, since summer gets pretty warm[34], and what’s the point of making clothing I can’t wear? I might need to find another knitting-like activity to do during the warmer months[35].

I’m not done Sabbath-ing. Given my attempts after this first try[36], I’m trash at keeping the day of slack actually full of slack, and at keeping the day of gut actions actually full of gut actions. Maybe I need to keep stricter rules as laid out by Zvi and Unreal[37]. It’s worth a try.

[1]  It didn’t occur to me to search for the term “business scarf” until I was writing this post up. Unfortunately, it’s infested with weirdly uncozy scarves made of silk.

[2]  I’m still looking for potential names!

[3]  That said, if I kept cycling myself from productivity to proto-burnout, it seems likely that I would eventually get unlucky and fall into deeper burnout, which isn’t a great lottery to be playing.

[4]  Well, when I’m operating closer to the way I want. I have not yet achieved PEAK STONE COLD OPERATOR status.

[5]  Except for exercising, which has been pretty consistent since I’ve picked it up.

[6]  Although my habit buddies can tell you I’m almost never really keeping up with my habits, contrary to the advice in Superhuman by Habit.

[7]  Chalk that up for another oh-shit metric. I mean, it’s probably good to be able to give up book reading if it isn’t doing anything for me, but I’m obviously not done with books yet, I haven’t read even one Robert Caro biography.

[8]  I mean, I was thinking about whether I should take some time and just binge through all the movies from the past 5 years or so. I’ve been watching 1-2 movies a year. For example, basically the entire Marvel canon has passed me by.

[9]  I wonder if there’s some reality denial going on, trying to avoid facing the fact that it’s systemic, because that’s kind of sucky.

[10]  It’s certainly possible that my goals have in fact not been shrinking, and I just think I’m targeting less work without actually doing so.

[11]  It is also not super clear what I expected. A you-must-have-this-much-fun goal? A way to restrict video game playing? Both?

[12]  This is what I like about Tools for Titans: it’s a giant book of things to try. Something doesn’t work? There’s someone else on the next page telling you about something different. Of course, effective search through intervention space is not solved by that book, nor any other self-help book I know about. Someone should fix that.

[13]  If you squint at it, it’s a small-scale fucking off and dropping of all responsibilities on the floor.

[14]  Short for Effective Altruism.

[15]  However, note that I haven’t checked out the research that undergrids this claim. It might turn out to be trash, like too much of our research.

[16]  Coincidentally, I’m about to go on vacation as I’m publishing this post, so I guess I’m getting a reprieve whether I like it or not.

[17]  Who I strongly suspect is Lauren from the original post, but am not 100% sure. A friend pointed out that Unreal is an anagram of Lauren, and apparently is used commonly by Laurens?

[18]  The original rest/recovery naming isn’t amazing, since the difference between the two is not clear, with the names basically having the same base meaning. On the other hand, maybe the author was following the bare name design scheme, like system 1/system 2, with an eye towards thwarting almost-right-but-not-quite intuitions and cached thoughts. But, that approach works better if you’re as famous as Tversky and Kahneman.

[19]  Sure, if you’re playing competitively video games will require more resources, but many of the games I play are low grade work. Civilization is all about making a bunch of easy/short-loop decisions and getting mad at Sid Meier. I have no doubt that my team lead was serious that if we ever played Factorio together we would be writing design docs about our factory layout.

[20]  The obvious next question is “so, what does lead to human thriving?” Unreal gives some examples, but a lot of the non-obvious examples are things that I don’t do. I tried generating examples, and realized I didn’t do any of them. “Doing a craft? Nope. Running in the sun? Nope. Cook for friends? Don’t do that either.” Maybe this is a problem?

[21]  MtG doesn’t actually have anything specific to do with the Sabbath post in particular, it’s just a way to introduce MtG sooner in the post, because I love the line “Why did I write this post? MtG!”

[22]  Yes, it is pretty annoying that such an important concept now has its name synonymous with a particular company.

[23]  Summary: choices allow you to optimize better (good!) but force you to spend resources to actually make the choice (bad!). Then once you make the choice, you have to pay the ongoing cost of wondering whether it was the right choice.

[24]  Video games are a prime example, especially mobile games set up to be addiction machines.

[25]  Not that everyone needs to be experiencing all forms of victory all the time, but it’s more realizing that you’ve accidentally let an entire beloved cuisine slip out of your diet.

[26]  I think the hint of green is my own spin: while Zvi/Unreal might incidentally include green activities, that’s not really the point of rest days/the Sabbath. But, it tastes right to me, possibly because I’ve been reading through Worth the Candle, which is making me wonder whether I’ve been making my social skills a dump stat for too long.

[27]  That said, what I had been trying are kind of weak ass white/blue solutions. I would expect the following list to be somewhat more effective: keep a more rigorous cleaning schedule. Start reading The Morning Paper again, particularly without an expectation of getting concrete knowledge. Prioritize going through Bayesian Data Analysis and other research based projects.

[28]  Even in a day all about following your gut, I couldn’t help but plan. More on this later in the post.

[29]  This is following a retrospective framework, which roughly asks 3 questions: what worked? What went poorly? What should I do next time? Another closely related frame is Agile development retrospectives, which asks what to continue, what to stop, and what to start.

[30]  That said, after each subsequent version (until v4) I looked at everything that came before and wondered how I was ever proud of my previous work. Well, quality escalation got me a dopamine ladder, so that worked out.

[31]  Note that this isn’t proper meditation, with concentration and insight and using your 3rd eye to fry your enemies. This is a pretty hedge meditation (as in hedge wizard), pieced together from shitty pop-Buddhist books.

[32]  If you’re not familiar with time tracking, you can listen to this podcast about it.

[33]  The full line from Fine Structure is “This is not over and I am not dead”, but that has an unfortunate connotation in a mental hardship context. Or maybe inspiring?

[34]  That said, the AC at the office sometimes gets pretty chilly, so maybe I could make office scarves?

[35]  Once it dips into fall it makes more sense, since by the time I’m done with knitting things it’ll actually be appropriate weather for wearing whatever I made.

[36]  Possibly more on trying to actual implement a Sabbath in the future?

[37]  Which would be ironic, injecting white/order into a day to make it more red/action-y.