A response to “Rest in motion” by Nate Soares: You are taking damage. Stop.

When writing Rest in motion, I think Nate misses that most people have not yet internalised his fundamental principle of “willpower is a stop-gap measure.”

A summary:

  • Many people think that the good, ‘ground’ state is one of rest. Because of this, they believe that maintaining any other state requires effort and suffering.
  • People also believe that once they complete all the work they’ll able to rest, but this is gravely mistaken as the work is a never-ending stream.
  • Instead people should realise that “inaction is boring”, “the ground state is active, not passive”. One should work to optimally manage the incoming streams of work.
  • Really, ideal state is where you’re taking any damage while moving, but getting done what you want done as fast is sustainable, and no faster.
  • Conclusion: the ground state is in motion.

Some commentary:

[M]ost people have this model of the world where whenever they’re not resting, they’re taking damage. When the homework isn’t done, they’re taking damage. When they’re reading a textbook, they’re taking damage. When they go to sleep with work unfinished, they’re taking damage. When they’re at a large social event, they’re taking damage. Some part of them yearns to be in the rest state, where they don’t need to do all these things, and insofar as they aren’t, they’re suffering a little.

Nate claims that people experience suffering while working because of their inaccurate model, that whenever they’re working, they’re taking damage. I think that people experience suffering while working because they are taking damage. The solution here isn’t to change your model, the solution is to stop taking damage.

Nate has written repeatedly about how he doesn’t use willpower to get things done. Willpower is a stop-gap measure. But most of us are still always using some degree of willpower to make ourselves do things done, even when parts of us would much rather  do something else. And this constant forcing is freaking exhausting. Always fighting the inner monkey to go do the dishes and taxes instead of sleeping in or playing Civilisation.

Nate might not be taking damage, but the rest of us are. We’re burning through precious reserves of willpower. We crave a rest state where instead of depleting willpower reserves by forcing ourselves to do things, we get to do what we feel like with complete mental harmony.

[This matches with the fact that we don’t want to rest before we’ve completed today’s work. If you do that, you can’t enjoy the rest state because you’re expending effort ignoring a voice in your head which wants you to go do the work – not much different to doing the work and ignoring the voice which wants you to rest.]

So you end up with this perennial cycle of building up and depleting reserves: work 9-5, then go home and veg; work five days, then take two off; work forty-eight weeks, take four off.

Nate characterises the rest state as one of inactivity and lack of motion and declares it as obviously not very appealing. I think he’s missing what’s important about it.

Most of us wouldn’t want to just lie in bed doing nothing forever, anyway . . . For almost everybody, inaction is boring. That’s why we pick up books, go exploring, and take up hobbies. The ground state is an active state, not a passive one.

The rest state isn’t about what you’re doing, it’s about how you’re doing it. Namely, doing things where you don’t feel forced, like you ‘have to do them’. This is why you’ll find examples people doing the exact same activities for work and play. The key difference between work and rest isn’t action vs. inaction, active vs inactive, it’s whether you’re making yourself do it.

I think one of the reasons people think high productivity is hard is that they think of lying in bed doing nothing as the default state, and anything else as taking damage.

People find high productivity hard because their attempts to increase productivity amount to upping the willpower burn-rate for a while. That feels harder and more effortful, and predictably leads to a willpower burnout.

The ground state, the state to aspire to, the healthy state, the state that occurs naturally when you aren’t forcing yourself to do anything, is the state where you’re getting done what you want done as fast as is sustainable, and no faster.

So what’s the real solution to balancing work and rest? Stop taking damage. Stop forcing yourself to do things by using willpower. How do you this? Follow Nate’s advice to get all parts of your mind working harmoniously together to move towards the goal. Many of Nate’s posts address exactly this: getting rid of obligations, deregulating distraction, habitual productivity, and eschewing willpower. If you were to manage that, you might find that work doesn’t feel much different to rest, because you’re doing exactly what you feel like doing. Exactly like what every part of your brain feels like doing.

Rest in motion correctly describes the ideal way of working, resting, and the balance between them. The mistake is simply underestimating what stands between most people and accomplishing it. Fortunately, the author’s other writings provide an excellent guide to reaching the ideal.

Thank you, Nate.

Major acknowledgement to Peter McIntyre for thorough edits to this post.

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