Helen Toner: Sustainable Motivation

Be­ing in­volved in the EA com­mu­nity can be stress­ful — there are too many prob­lems in the world, and each of us can only do so much. Feel­ing the need to work harder and do more can eas­ily over­whelm us. So what’s the al­ter­na­tive? In this talk, He­len Toner de­scribes a differ­ent way to frame this prob­lem, and sug­gests how the com­mu­nity can aim for a bet­ter way to han­dle work.

A tran­script of He­len’s talk, which we have ed­ited lightly for clar­ity, is be­low. You can also watch the talk on YouTube or read it on effec­tivealtru­ism.org.

The Talk

I will start with some­thing we’re all fa­mil­iar with: burnout.


Who knows what this [image] is? It’s from The Sims, which is a com­puter game. You play with char­ac­ters who have houses and jobs. The whole time there is a di­a­mond over their heads show­ing how well they’re do­ing. When they’re well rested and well fed, the di­a­mond is green. And if you don’t take care of them — for ex­am­ple, they don’t get enough sleep — the di­a­mond will grad­u­ally turn yel­low, then or­ange, and then red, un­til they col­lapse from ex­haus­tion on their kitchen floor.


This is of­ten how we think about burnout. We think of there be­ing a health progress bar that be­comes de­pleted when we work more. You might have to rest or take a va­ca­tion to boost the progress bar up again. The con­cept of work/​life bal­ance is similar in that [it di­vides] work and life. If work takes too much of your time, then you need more time for life or you will col­lapse.

But I’m not sure that’s an ac­cu­rate way to think about burnout. For ex­am­ple, you may have had the ex­pe­rience of work­ing on a stress­ful pro­ject, and then tak­ing a week­end or a longer va­ca­tion [to re­cover], and find­ing that [the time off] doesn’t help. Con­versely, you might work long hours on some­thing difficult and find it ex­cit­ing. Per­haps your team is great, you feel en­gaged, and you don’t need to take breaks. Or per­haps you don’t feel tired and de­cide to just keep go­ing — and it’s ac­tu­ally quite mo­ti­vat­ing. Th­ese ex­am­ples sug­gest that the idea of sim­ply tak­ing breaks to avoid burnout is in­ac­cu­rate. It doesn’t re­flect how life ac­tu­ally works.

I want to offer a slightly differ­ent frame. If we pri­ori­tize sus­tain­able mo­ti­va­tion — which means build­ing a rhythm that works for you — we can re­main mo­ti­vated over the course of decades, rather than push­ing our­selves hard for a few years in our twen­ties.


Given this frame, I’m not go­ing to talk about how you shouldn’t work hard, or how you should take more va­ca­tion. I’m not go­ing to pre­tend that I have all the an­swers.


But I do think we need to think and talk about this topic, and I have some ideas to start the con­ver­sa­tion.


I want to tell a story about how I be­gan think­ing about mo­ti­va­tion. I was work­ing at the Open Philan­thropy Pro­ject and had been there for about a year and a half. I was work­ing on pro­jects I re­ally cared about. I was helping the or­ga­ni­za­tion op­er­ate as we scaled up our grant­mak­ing. I was do­ing some ex­plo­ra­tory work on ar­tifi­cial in­tel­li­gence (AI) policy and strat­egy. I was man­ag­ing a few peo­ple, do­ing some other pro­jects on the side, and it was all ex­cit­ing. But it was a lot. In fact, it was so much that I didn’t feel like I could do any of those things well.

I hated that feel­ing, so I pushed my­self harder. It got to the point where — even though I cared a great deal about the work, loved my cowork­ers, and felt lucky to have the job — some days I just felt mis­er­able. I wanted to run away, go live by the ocean, and never think about any of it ever again.


But even­tu­ally, I got around to do­ing what I should have done all along: I talked to my man­ager, Holden Karnofsky, about it. I’ll never for­get how he re­acted. He be­gan by thank­ing me for bring­ing it up with him and say­ing that if it ever hap­pened again in the fu­ture, the very first thing I should do was tell him.

He then pointed out that if my re­sponse to hav­ing too much on my plate was to put my head down and work harder, that would never [solve the prob­lem]. If I started work­ing evenings and week­ends, I could po­ten­tially put in 25% or 50% more time. And I would be run­ning my­self down do­ing it, hav­ing a ter­rible time. I’d be risk­ing burnout.

Alter­na­tively, if I talked to peo­ple about it — to Holden and my other team mem­bers — and pri­ori­tized bet­ter, I would be able to spend less time on things that weren’t as im­por­tant and more time on things that were. Per­haps I could work five or 10 times more effec­tively by be­ing strate­gic about my over­all work­load.

More gen­er­ally, dur­ing my time at the Open Philan­thropy Pro­ject, I grad­u­ally de­vel­oped a sense for when I was work­ing in an un­sus­tain­able way, skirt­ing the edge of burnout, on the verge of col­laps­ing and drop­ping all of my pro­jects. It was like drunk driv­ing, a form of risk­ing your own safety.


When you reach that edge, you also risk the safety of your team, be­cause they will have to jump in and scoop up your work. And you risk the work that you’re do­ing. So even if the only thing you care about is your work and your or­ga­ni­za­tion’s cause, and you’re will­ing to sac­ri­fice ev­ery­thing for that cause, work­ing on the edge of burnout is still a ter­rible strat­egy. Maybe you think that you’re differ­ent and will be able to han­dle burnout. Stop for a mo­ment and re­flect on all of the peo­ple who have felt that way right be­fore they burned out. Take a mo­ment and let your­self con­sider how you ac­tu­ally feel. If you feel great and can keep go­ing, then re­flect­ing on it isn’t go­ing to do any harm. So if you are afraid to stop, step back, and talk to peo­ple about it, I think that is a warn­ing sign.

It goes be­yond you, how­ever. The way you work also af­fects those around you. If you feel like part of a com­mu­nity — for ex­am­ple, if you care about the EA com­mu­nity — then con­sider how the way you work and the norms you set will af­fect that larger com­mu­nity. If we want to cre­ate a com­mu­nity that will grow and thrive over the long term, we have to re­think giv­ing up our nights and week­ends, or the idea that we can’t spend time with fam­ily or friends. Believ­ing that you need to put your head down and push your­self hard all the time is not an effec­tive way to build a com­mu­nity that will last for decades.

How can we do bet­ter? I don’t have all the an­swers. I just want to start this con­ver­sa­tion. But I do have some sug­ges­tions.


They all stem from the fact that we are all differ­ent. We are differ­ent in what we care about, what we’re mo­ti­vated by, what we can do, and how we work. I have one friend who is a world-class AI re­searcher. He pub­lishes, speaks at the top con­fer­ences, and does in­cred­ible re­search. That’s not me. I have an­other friend who has to track his time to stop him­self from work­ing more than 55 hours per week so that he spends time with his wife. Other­wise, he could eas­ily do 60 or more hours of pro­duc­tive work each week. That is not me. And my part­ner has the in­furi­at­ing abil­ity to sit down and lose him­self in a task for hours with­out get­ting dis­tracted at all. That is definitely not me.

I could wish that I had the skills and work habits of my friends. I could feel guilty that I don’t. But wish­ing or feel­ing guilty is not go­ing to help any­one. I am who I am. I have my own skills, knowl­edge, and limi­ta­tions. Feel­ing guilty that I’m not a differ­ent way is about as pro­duc­tive as feel­ing guilty that all the world’s prob­lems aren’t already solved. So, all of my sug­ges­tions start by rec­og­niz­ing and ac­cept­ing our differ­ences. We have differ­ent needs. That means we need to ex­per­i­ment, be open-minded, and figure out what works for each of us.

Another key is notic­ing how you feel about what’s go­ing on — not how you think you should feel. I have some con­crete sug­ges­tions.


First, you’ve heard this be­fore, but get enough sleep and work up a sweat. Eat food that makes you feel good. Every­one is differ­ent. You may not need ex­actly eight hours of sleep per night, or 25 min­utes of mod­er­ate-in­ten­sity ex­er­cise five times per week. Those might not be ex­actly what you need. Figure out what works for you and then do that.


The sec­ond sug­ges­tion is to no­tice when you’re not work­ing. On many oc­ca­sions, I have talked to some­one I’m con­cerned about and said, “When was the last time that you took some time off and did some­thing other than work?” They might say, “I didn’t get any­thing done on Sun­day.” I will say, “Hang on — were you try­ing to get work done on Sun­day?” They say, “Yes, I to­tally failed and did noth­ing pro­duc­tive.” That does not qual­ify as tak­ing a break or do­ing noth­ing. That is sim­ply feel­ing bad about not work­ing, or wish­ing you were work­ing. Again, this will be differ­ent for ev­ery­one. For some tasks, you could con­sider set­ting aside big blocks of time in which you try not to work. That is what nor­mal peo­ple do on evenings and week­ends. If you’re con­stantly check­ing email, I recom­mend tel­ling your col­leagues to call you if some­thing ur­gent comes up.

On the flip side, if your phone is buzzing all the time with in­con­se­quen­tial mes­sages, con­sider putting it in a differ­ent room. Friends of mine have a tech-free Satur­day ev­ery week. I don’t put work email on my phone, and I leave my lap­top in the office on weeknights. You’re all differ­ent. You’ll need to figure out the things that work for you, but pay at­ten­tion to when your brain is still track­ing work — even if you’re not at work. See if you can find ways to free up your at­ten­tion.


Third, try not to let work be the only place where you find mean­ing, sta­tus, or joy. You may have the feel­ing that im­pact [on a cause re­lated to work] should be the only thing you care about. You may even wish that im­pact were the only thing you cared about. But the truth is that you’re hu­man. You are bound to care about and value many things. So if your ca­reer is mainly shaped by the part of you that cares about im­pact, rec­og­nize that there are parts of you that care about other things. Nour­ish those parts as well. That might be as sim­ple as spend­ing time with your part­ner or your kids. It might be a hobby. It might be build­ing elab­o­rate cakes, go­ing for walks in the for­est, or be­ing part of a cir­cle of friends who never think about the things that you do in your day job. The im­por­tant thing is that when things aren’t go­ing well in the part of your life in which you care about im­pact, you have other sources of strength and mo­ti­va­tion to draw upon.


Lastly, I will share the sug­ges­tion that I feel best about: In the back of your mind, keep track of how sus­tain­able your ac­tivi­ties are. I want ev­ery­one in this room to think about this right now. If the rest of your life con­tinued as it is now, could you do it? Some­times it’s good if the an­swer is no. Some­times. It can be a great de­ci­sion to sprint for a while. But be aware that you are mak­ing that choice. And the peo­ple you work with and live with should also be aware that you’re mak­ing it, in part so they can help en­sure it’s tem­po­rary. And you should be con­vinced that when you make that choice, it is truly worth it.

You can also form and test hy­pothe­ses about what might be bet­ter. Maybe you’ve no­ticed that you’re cur­rently op­er­at­ing in an un­sus­tain­able way. You could hy­poth­e­size that spend­ing more time with your kids might help. Try that and see how it goes. Or maybe you hand off a pro­ject at work. Try that and see how it goes. You need to ex­per­i­ment. Every­one’s life is differ­ent. But keep track of whether the way things are for you right now is sus­tain­able. And if they’re not, do your best to make that tem­po­rary.

Maybe this is the way to think about that green di­a­mond from the be­gin­ning: not as your en­ergy level, go­ing up if you work too much or down if you rest, but as your sus­tain­abil­ity me­ter. A green di­a­mond doesn’t mean be­ing on va­ca­tion all the time. Green is a rhythm that feels good, one you can main­tain in­definitely. It’s fine if the di­a­mond turns yel­low, or­ange, or even red, as long as it’s only some­times.


To re­cap, we should be think­ing hard and talk­ing with each other about how to build sus­tain­able mo­ti­va­tion in our lives. Do it for your work, be­cause your work mat­ters and you’ll be more effec­tive at your job. Do it for your com­mu­nity, be­cause we’re con­stantly set­ting norms and ex­pec­ta­tions for one an­other. And do it for your­self, be­cause you’re a hu­man and you mat­ter.

Moder­a­tor: What do you think em­ploy­ers or EA or­ga­ni­za­tions could do to help foster the kinds of things you were talk­ing about?

He­len: As a man­ager, some­thing I and the or­ga­ni­za­tions where I’ve worked try hard to do is cul­ti­vate a good sense of how the peo­ple we man­age are feel­ing [in terms of their mo­ti­va­tion]. How are they feel­ing about what they’re cur­rently do­ing? Are they over­loaded? Are they re­ceiv­ing emails from you late at night and as­sum­ing that means they need to be available to an­swer emails late at night? Try to keep in touch with how peo­ple feel. Make it okay for them to not be feel­ing well — and to tell you about it. It’s im­por­tant that if some­one does come to you and says, “I’m feel­ing kind of shaky,” that you not freak out about it. In­stead, re­in­force that it was good they shared that with you — the way Holden did with me.

Moder­a­tor: Ba­sic com­mu­ni­ca­tion is key. Do you have any broader recom­men­da­tions for hold­ing the whole work­place ac­countable?

He­len: The biggest thing is to think of this topic as im­por­tant — some­thing peo­ple should be com­fortable dis­cussing. And an­other thing I like about the drunk driv­ing metaphor is that it [high­lights the se­ri­ous­ness of the topic]. Driv­ing drunk is not a glo­ri­ous thing. Maybe your friend gets hurt and the am­bu­lance doesn’t come. Maybe you have to drive them to the hos­pi­tal. There’s noth­ing “cool” about it. [De­cid­ing to over­work] is se­ri­ous. It’s a de­ci­sion you should make as cau­tiously and as de­liber­ately as you can.

Moder­a­tor: There is jux­ta­po­si­tion we see in peo­ple who are very suc­cess­ful in life but op­er­at­ing in the red zone. You can do amaz­ing things when you’re op­er­at­ing that way. But you can counter that idea by re­mind­ing your­self that it’s pos­si­ble to do brilli­ant things over decades.

He­len: Yes. The peo­ple I know who are very suc­cess­ful — peo­ple like Holden [Karnofsky], and [IARPA di­rec­tor] Ja­son Ma­theny, who is my boss now — work hard. But they also have lives. And in both of their cases, they have part­ners whom they care about deeply and with whom they spend a lot of time. They both think se­ri­ously about sleep and ex­er­cise, and take time for other things.

So it may look as if suc­cess­ful peo­ple are run­ning on empty all of the time. But I’m not con­vinced. I would love for peo­ple, when they leave this talk to­day, to ask some­one about what they find joy and mean­ing in other than work. I think we should talk about those things and cel­e­brate them. It’s a fun ques­tion. Try to di­ver­sify your sources of joy and mean­ing. It’s im­por­tant to have at least one [thing to work on out­side your job]. I have sev­eral: my fam­ily, whom I speak with ev­ery week (even though they live in Aus­tralia), my part­ner, and horse­back rid­ing, which I’ve got­ten back into af­ter five years off. It’s some­thing I did as a child and cared deeply about. Also, I en­joy danc­ing, hang­ing out with my house­mate’s dog, and cook­ing.

Moder­a­tor: Here’s a ques­tion from the au­di­ence: The stan­dard for hours worked per week varies by coun­try. Do you have a guessti­mate of what an or­ga­ni­za­tion should hold to as a stan­dard?

He­len: That’s a good ques­tion. Some­thing in­ter­est­ing I learned at GiveWell and the Open Philan­thropy Pro­ject was how weird it is when you track hours worked. They had a norm whereby peo­ple use an app called Toggl to track their hours. And they learned that differ­ent peo­ple would track wildly differ­ent num­bers of hours of work be­cause of the differ­ences in how they thought about work. Some peo­ple would turn it on when they were typ­ing some­thing and then turn it off when they were sit­ting and think­ing, be­cause they thought that didn’t count. Other peo­ple would leave it on, go to the bath­room and come back, do a lit­tle bit of work, check Twit­ter, and keep the app go­ing.

So I’m not sure. I think 40 to 50 hours of work time seems pretty rea­son­able. But you can rec­og­nize that in the time you’re try­ing to work, you of­ten will get dis­tracted, feel tired, or need a break. It can be a lit­tle more for some peo­ple, and a lit­tle less for oth­ers. Again, peo­ple are differ­ent.

Moder­a­tor: Aside from lead­ing by ex­am­ple, are there things that stand out to you that we can be do­ing as a com­mu­nity to en­courage sus­tain­able mo­ti­va­tion?

He­len: I think talk­ing about it is big. I didn’t say this clearly be­fore, so I’ll say it again: [I recom­mend not] glo­rify­ing peo­ple who work re­ally hard. Don’t glo­rify some­one who is busy all the time, never has time to talk to peo­ple, and doesn’t get back to peo­ple by email. I look at that and think that per­son is mak­ing some shaky pri­ori­ti­za­tion de­ci­sions. It seems they should be care­ful about that. Maybe it’s work­ing for them, but it seems risky to me. I don’t want to judge them, but I won’t talk them up.

On the flip side, prais­ing and re­in­forc­ing peo­ple who do take time for other things helps. And when peo­ple share the parts of them­selves that are un­re­lated to EA, [that is valuable]. My fa­vorite ver­sion of EA has always been one where we figure out how to use the part of our time and re­sources that we want to ded­i­cate to do­ing good. I think the ver­sion of EA that de­mands you ded­i­cate your en­tire life to the cause is doomed.

One idea that has come out in re­cent years, per­haps in the con­text of peo­ple be­com­ing par­ents, is to leave work by loudly say­ing, “I’m go­ing to see my child’s play now.” You’re mak­ing it part of the cul­ture. I think that’s re­ally im­por­tant to see from lead­ers and man­agers.

Similarly, it can be good to be self-aware about the ex­pec­ta­tions you are im­plic­itly set­ting. Again, if you’re emailing your em­ploy­ees on a Satur­day, are you sure they know you don’t want them to be check­ing email? A lot of peo­ple will see a week­end email and as­sume their man­ager is pas­sive-ag­gres­sively tel­ling them they should re­spond.

Moder­a­tor: One au­di­ence mem­ber says that of­ten EAs look out for their wellbe­ing to help en­sure they are more pro­duc­tive. Does that way of fram­ing it make the prob­lem worse? It still im­plies that what mat­ters most is be­ing pro­duc­tive and get­ting more done.

He­len: It’s a hard line to walk. In some cases, the only thing that gets through to peo­ple is to re­mind them their pro­duc­tivity is at stake. I think that’s an ac­cu­rate mes­sage. Work­ing un­sus­tain­ably will be bad in the long term for the pro­jects you care about. But I also think that’s only one of sev­eral rea­sons [to avoid work­ing un­sus­tain­ably].

You can be prag­matic in choos­ing how to talk about the topic, [Con­sider what the per­son cares about] and what will get their at­ten­tion.

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