Aiming for the minimum of self-care is dangerous

Effective altruism is often a maximizing philosophy. Not just “doing good better”, but “the most good you can do”. For many people, myself among them, this philosophy has a natural-feeling corollary: minimize anything non-altruistic in your life.

My goal in this post is to convince you that trying to spend as little time as possible on fun socializing, frivolous hobbies, or other leisure is a dangerous impulse. If you notice yourself aiming for the minimum amount of self-care, that’s a sign that you should reorient and reprioritize.

Argument from anecdotal breakdowns (including mine)

A few years ago, I had read Replacing Guilt and Cheerfully, and I sort of acknowledged that being miserable all the time couldn’t be sustained. Even though I wanted to live up to my altruistic values, I would need to make some room in my life for my friends and my frivolous hobbies.

How much room did I need, though? I felt a bit suspicious, looking at how I spent my time. Surely that long road trip wasn’t necessary to avoid misery? Did I really need to spend several weekends in a row building a ridiculous LED laser maze, when my other side project was talking to young synthetic biologists about ethics?

I started tracking my time down to the half-hour, little colour-coded squares on a spreadsheet, and I would gaze across weeks of weak impact and feel despair. I started cancelling plans with friends unless we could co-work together, but I was still spending hours a week playing Dungeons and Dragons and talking on the phone with my long-distance partner.

It’s almost funny, looking back on my calendar from 2018. In addition to my engineering job, I was doing things like coordinating volunteers for EA Global SF and running East Bay Biosecurity events. Right now, I feel like I was doing plenty of valuable work, but at the time I felt basically worthless. I was sure that a more altruistic person, given the same skills and opportunities that I’d lucked into, would be able to do more. There were so many broken things in the world― how dare I waste so much of my time?

This kind of thinking― what I’m calling aiming for the minimum― was really unhealthy for me. It was a contributing factor to a mental health crisis I had in mid-2018, during which I had a breakdown, nearly landed in hospital, and had to spend a month under family supervision in Ontario. This section is titled anecdotal breakdowns, plural, because this mindset doesn’t seem all that different from what Julia Wise describes in Cheerfully:

“My happiness is not the point,” I told him.

A few years later, I was deeply bitter about the decision. I had always wanted and intended to be a parent, and I felt thwarted. It was making me sick and miserable. I looked at the rest of my life as more of an obligation than a joy.

So my husband and I decided that it wasn’t worth having a breakdown over.

Or the section Toning Down the Singerian Approach in the 80,000 Hours podcast Having a successful career with anxiety, depression, and imposter syndrome:

I think that for many types of people, doing the act of constantly self-monitoring, where you’re always asking, “Is that thing I have a desire for a little bit unethical? Is that thing unethical?” Being in that frame and mode, doing this self-monitoring and building this habit of self-criticism I think for some people is very mentally unhealthy. … And that’s actually really hard for me. And there’s a very long time where it both felt so clear to me that I ought to be living frugally and giving away as much as I could, and that I had no right to all the money that just happened to be in my bank account because my job paid it to me.

While recovering from my breakdown, conversations with friends and therapists (and the fact that I’d had a breakdown) helped me accept that my mindset around doing the most good―deciding my happiness is not the point, constantly self-monitoring, desperation hamster wheels, aiming for the minimum, etc.― was not sustainable. In fact, it was downright dangerous.

Why shouldn’t you aim for the minimum?

For me, classifying this kind of thinking as dangerous is more powerful than thinking of it as bad or ineffective. I don’t just want to argue from anecdotes, especially since I had read some of these stories before my own breakdown. So, why is aiming for the minimum dangerous?

The minimum is a moving target

Let’s say you’re tired of lying unconscious in your bed for 8 hours every night. Fair enough! You want more hours in the day and decide to try sleeping less. Let’s say you do this pretty systematically: you track your reaction times and productive hours each day, and compare two weeks of your normal routine against two weeks of sleeping 7 hours a night. If your data looks good, and you feel okay, then you’ve just gained an hour a day! Nice.

Unless… if you are trying to minimize your hours of sleep, not just reduce them, your work is not done. You have established that the minimum amount of sleep you need is less than or equal to 7 hours of sleep per night. Time to sleep even less.

Minimization is greedy. You don’t get to celebrate that you’ve gained an hour a day, or done something impactful this week, because that minimizing urge is still looking at all your unclaimed time, and wondering why you aren’t using it better, too.

I had heard lots of clichés around this (“it’s a marathon, not a sprint!”) but the one that really got through to me was a therapist accusing me of thinking about my time in the same disordered way that some people think about their weight. She’d seen anorexic patients who knew that you shouldn’t get too thin, so they’d set a target weight. But after reaching the target, it was hard not to think… “Hey, I got here, and it wasn’t even that hard! Plus, I’m still not that skinny. What’s another five pounds?”

It’s not easy to build a Schelling fence in your mind. The minimum amount of self-care is a moving target, and if you fall below that minimum, bad things can happen.

By definition, less than the minimum is bad

If you get less than the minimum amount of sleep you need, you’re going to experience a few unpleasant days, but unless you fall asleep at the wheel of a car you’re likely to recover. In fact, your body can force recovery upon you via unplanned naps and sleeping through your morning alarms.

When you are aiming to minimize non-altruistic use of your time, money, and/​or energy, things get a bit riskier. The signals of needing more self-care are more subtle than unplanned naps. By definition, though, less than the minimum necessary is not something you can sustain.

Some people seem to naturally have guardrails around this sort of thinking; they notice when they’re putting too much pressure on themselves and ease off. It’s not surprising that the effective altruism community, which selects for a willingness to make unusually large ethical commitments, attracts people who lack these guardrails.

Personally, it’s sort of astonishing that I was simultaneously working full-time, doing several impact-oriented side projects, suicidally depressed, and confident that I was spending way too much time selfishly looking after myself. I think being that suicidally depressed should have been a pretty strong signal that I was below the minimum, but at the time it felt easy to dismiss. I wish I had eased off before getting to the point of a breakdown.

Being at the minimum means having no slack

Obviously, my mental health problems were caused by more than a single disordered thought pattern. But because I was aiming for the minimum, I didn’t have any buffer to absorb disruptions like a (psychiatrist-advised) medication change. I was, sort of by intention, dangerously close to a breakdown.

Your ability to impact the world is directly dependent on your ability to function. The world is chaotic and lots of bad things happen, so sometimes events beyond your control will make your life suddenly harder. A supportive friend moves away. Your favourite café work space closes. A family member dies. A global pandemic happens. You might not even notice a load-bearing thing until it’s gone and everything gets mysteriously more difficult. You don’t need to be able to shrug off this kind of disruption, but you need to be able to survive it.

You don’t know exactly where the minimum is, and if you’re constantly skirting it, then you won’t have enough slack. You’ll end up collapsing because of some chaos beyond your control.

Impact is about prioritizing, not agonizing over every hour

In this post, I’ve tried to argue that aiming for the minimum is dangerous. The greedy optimizer in you should not be allowed to evaluate every second of your life against a single metric, not only because you have more than one goal, but because it will move the target until you’re left with no slack, and then something unexpected will push you below the minimum amount of self-care you need to function.

At the start of the post, I said that if you notice yourself aiming for the minimum amount of self-care, that’s a sign that you should reorient and reprioritise. Why did I mention prioritizing, rather than just telling you to stop?

Well, one principle of effective altruism is to aim for the most good you can do. But what’s often lost amongst depressed altruists is another core principle: some good things you can do matter 100x or 1000x more than others.

If you’re doing impact-oriented research, then picking an important thesis topic matters far more than whether you finish writing it in four years or five. If you’re earning to give, negotiating your salary matters far more than whether you take an additional two weeks of holiday. If you’re building community, following up with promising people matters far more than whether you postpone an event until next month.

I’m not suggesting that it’s literally never the case that you should be trying to do more. But I truly believe the vast majority of people can gain far more impact by prioritizing better than by agonizing over every hour of their day. Quoting a journal entry from a few weeks after my breakdown:

Greedy maximizers are poor prioritizers who demand great noble efforts and then don’t adequately track outcomes. As much as possible is almost always the wrong approach.

I need to appreciate how I’ll falter if my needs aren’t met. If I don’t sleep, I can’t focus. If I don’t eat, I slow down. If I choose the wrong pace, I burn out. I need to protect myself or else I’ll lose. I’m the only tool I have to accomplish anything in the world.