Fun does not preclude burnout (by Andrew Critch)

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://​​​​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.)