Why we should be less productive.

post by Jakob_J · 2019-05-09T12:41:47.769Z · score: -5 (20 votes) · EA · GW · 15 comments

Many people in EA value personal productivity highly, and make it a goal to complete as many tasks on their to-do list as possible in a day. Some people (myself included, in the past) seem to tie up their feeling of self-worth with how productive they felt that day.

I think that increased productivity should mainly be used to reduce the amount of time we work each day, and not to get more things done. To live a truly fulfilled life we need more unstructured, unproductive time when we can be ourselves and do the things that we find inherently valuable and enjoyable.

Here are some things that I find valuable in themselves, and not particularly productive:

Running along a river or canal in the morning

Reading a history book in a café

Listen to classical music on the radio

Prepare an elaborate dinner for my girlfriend

Try all the different types of cheese from my local shop

15 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by kbog · 2019-05-10T19:58:04.539Z · score: 9 (4 votes) · EA · GW

This idea is sort of sensible when looking at most people, who work for themselves or for relatively ineffective causes. In that case, the reduction in pay and productivity might be compensated by leisure time. Though people still actively prefer to work long hours in our economy and that needs to be explained.

However, we're Effective Altruists, not Most People. Our impacts are generally higher, whereas the value of our leisure is the same. Therefore, reducing our productivity is a very bad idea.

comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley3) · 2019-05-09T19:07:47.205Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · EA · GW

Honestly, I think even if you only value getting "productive" things done and don't much value "unproductive" things, there's a lot of evidence that you can be more productive by being less productive where the mechanism of action is something like you burn out your capacity to do more work by consistently pushing yourself beyond what you can comfortably do to the point where you "burn out" and then find yourself unmotivated to do anything while you recover. A person can be sustainably more productive by giving themselves unproductive time to recover.

Meta note: that you got downvotes (I can surmise this from the number of votes and the total score) seems to suggest this is advice people don't want to hear, but maybe they need.

comment by Lukas_Finnveden · 2019-05-09T22:58:19.728Z · score: 18 (11 votes) · EA · GW
Meta note: that you got downvotes (I can surmise this from the number of votes and the total score) seems to suggest this is advice people don't want to hear, but maybe they need.

I don't think this position is unpopular in the EA community. You have more than one goal and that's fine [EA · GW] got lots of upvotes, and my impression is that there's a general consensus that breaks are important and that burnout is a real risk (even though people might not always act according to that consensus).

I'd guess that it's getting downvotes because it doesn't really explain why we should be less productive: it just stakes out the position. In my opinion, it would have been more useful if it, for example, presented evidence showing that unproductive time is useful for living a fulfilled life, or presented an argument for why living a fulfilled life is important even for your altruistic values (which Jakob does more of in the comments).

Meta meta note: In general, it seems kind of uncooperative to assume that people need more of things they downvote.

comment by aarongertler · 2019-05-09T23:39:54.991Z · score: 7 (6 votes) · EA · GW

I second Lukas's thoughts on how this post could have been more useful. In addition, I haven't seen much evidence of the phenomena discussed by the author (those people in EA who I've met tend to be fairly productive, but basically all of them also have hobbies and enjoy doing silly/non-productive things on a regular basis). More numbers, or even a couple of specific anecdotes, would have been helpful.

I also agree with the meta-meta-note. Unless someone explains that they downvoted because they disagreed, it seems healthier to assume that a downvote indicates displeasure with an argument's presentation, rather than the associated opinion/subject matter. Few communities are more likely to say "great post, even though I disagree" than this one.

That said, if anyone reading this has a habit of downvoting arguments they disagree with, even if those arguments are presented clearly and with solid data/logic, I'd weakly recommend against doing that; I think the Forum will flourish in the long run if well-crafted writing and thinking is reliably rewarded -- or at least not punished.

(I work for CEA, but these views are my own.)

comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley3) · 2019-05-10T17:45:00.467Z · score: 18 (7 votes) · EA · GW

Having spent significant time around both the EA and the LW community and having written several controversial posts and then subsequently talked with folks who downvoted those posts, I now have strong reason to believe that most downvotes are in fact "boos" rather than anything more substantive. When people have substantive disagreements with posts they more often post comments indicating that and just don't vote on a post either way.

I'm sure this is not universally true but it's been my experience, so when I see downvotes on a post that isn't obviously spam, trolling, or otherwise clearly low-quality (rather than in this case just not containing much content, a kind of post that is clearly not universally downvoted because many low content posts get either neutral or positive responses, which I must assume given their lack of content is a function of agreement with the idea presented), I find it reasonable to ask "why 'boo' at this?". Hence my comment as a possible explanation for more "boos" than "yays".

I agree it would be preferable if people didn't use votes as "boos" and "yays", and I think we could fix this—maybe by only allowing people who comment on a post to vote on it, although I think that risks creating lots of meaningless comments because people just want to vote, so there is probably some other solution that would work better—but unfortunately my experience suggests that's exactly how most people vote on posts and comments.

comment by Jakob_J · 2019-05-10T18:35:38.365Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks for your comments Aaron and Lukas. From my own experience, I have definitely encountered more people with an always-working mentality within EA than outside it. Anectodally, almost all the people (~ 10) I have met who seriously consider meal replacements as adequate alternatives to home cooked food have been EAs. This might be an inverse causal effect (ambitious people might like the EA concept more than others), but it is still problematic if people feel the need to constantly optimize themselves and work harder due to the social pressure within EA.

comment by anonymous_ea · 2019-05-10T21:47:35.779Z · score: 9 (5 votes) · EA · GW

In my experience (which could be different from yours), meal replacements are less about productivity than things like whether you like eating food, enjoy cooking food, have time to cook food, don't want to eat food you don't like, etc. In other words, it's more about valuing food or the process of cooking it less, rather than necessarily valuing productivity more.

comment by Liam_Donovan · 2019-05-17T10:07:27.438Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

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comment by Jakob_J · 2019-05-09T19:43:04.439Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks for your comment, and I think you are correct on the mechanism of action. I have noticed that my own productivity has gone up since I started giving myself more unproductive time every day, as I am more able to focus and feel less distracted by thoughts. But it only works when I allow the unproductive time to be truly for myself, and not spent thinking about how this will make me more productive.

comment by utilitarian01 · 2019-05-09T20:09:24.833Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

I think it's cause of the cheese line. Most of us here are vegans and we don't like hearing that kind of thing.

comment by Milan_Griffes · 2019-05-09T20:42:59.189Z · score: 8 (4 votes) · EA · GW

I like cheese :-)

comment by Peter_Hurford · 2019-05-09T15:36:10.673Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · EA · GW

It's almost like you're actually allowed to live your life!

comment by Milan_Griffes · 2019-05-09T14:39:43.457Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · EA · GW

cf. Luke's piece on Scaruffi:

Sometimes I do blatantly useless things so I can flaunt my rejection of the often unhealthy “always optimize” pressures within the effective altruism community. So today, I’m going to write about rock music criticism.
comment by Nathan Young (nathan) · 2019-05-09T14:45:48.450Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks for writing this.

I think we should seek to maximise both our own and everyone's wellbeing and that that probably means productivity is good for others and self care/things we enjoy are good for us. I'm not quite sure if you agree or disagree.

I think we need to learn to be satisfied with good but also strive for better. That's a hard balance, though its worth remembering that if we have interesting satisfying jobs, disposable income, a few hours of free time each day and safety for ourselves and those we love, we are doing really well worldwide and so it's worth working for the good of others who are less well off and for our own benefit.

comment by Jakob_J · 2019-05-09T15:47:21.949Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · EA · GW

I think productivity is highly emphasized both within EA and within the wider society, especially in the context of work and studies. There is not nearly the same amount of emphasis placed on unproductive downtime and its value for our mental and physical well-being. I think that if most of our productive "output" comes over a long-term career, we need to value our own time more.

Another way of thinking about it is that being highly productive is not in itself a virtue, a bit like driving 150 km/h on the highway in a random direction doesn't necessarily take you to where you need to go! So I would say its probably better to be driving a bit slower and taking lots of breaks along the way to check that you are going in the right direction.