On Suddenly Not Being Able to Work

post by Jacobian · 2020-08-25T22:14:45.747Z · score: 35 (16 votes) · LW · GW · 11 comments

Cross-posted, as always, from Putanumonit.


Since I started Putanumonit five years ago I’ve rarely ever gone two weeks without posting anything. I’ve now gone a full month.

It’s not that I have nothing to write about. I have several half-finished drafts, Twitter threads that can be expanded into posts, marked-up books for review, and more. This post is none of the above, it’s about the reason why I have not been writing. And chiefly, it’s a way to just get back to writing by any means possible, to make this a habit again.

If this sounds like boring post that you don’t want to read, you are probably correct. You can instead watch my video interview with Chase Harris about COVID, Rationality, social reality, and more.


The reason I haven’t blogged in a month is that I haven’t been able to do my job. My work laptop is plugged in, my colleagues are online, my deadlines are approaching fast, and yet I have consistently failed to put in the required (and not very large) number of hours it would take me to catch up on my work. I am not sure why this has been happening, and I have observed this happening as if from the outside with some bemusement.

My brain keeps “work” and “blogging” very near each other on the mental shelf. Both are obligations of a sort. Both are done on the same screen with the same keyboard sitting on the same chair. And so, since my rising panic at falling behind on work is ever-present, whenever I sit down to write I think I should do work instead — it pays my rent and has specific people that depend on it, as opposed to an abstract readership. So whenever I try to blog I switch to trying to work. Then I fail and end up doing neither.

This experience of not being able to do work is very strange. On the face of it, nothing is different in August from March and April when I was working from home quite productively on similar projects. I am seeing more friends now and spending more time outdoors but these usually happen in the evening, when I have already spent the day mysteriously not working.

I don’t particularly dread my work or feel stressed about it. It’s as if the job is shrouded in fog — it’s hard to get started and when I do I’m easily distracted by other things which capture my attention for unusually long periods of time. I have also noticed in the last two weeks that my stomach acts up whenever I log in to the work laptop, even several times a day, making me delay the start of work while I run to the bathroom. I thought “gut feeling” was just a metaphor.

I talked to a friend who had similar psychosomatic anxiety responses to working on her thesis, to the point of suffering loss of vision and other strange symptoms. Surprisingly, the solution she chose was just to power through. Even more surprisingly, it worked — she now holds a PhD. This is basically my mainline strategy for now.

Other friends suggested other approaches, although all of them would require not working for a while (on purpose). Unfortunately, I feel like I can’t afford to do that with the amount of work I have piled up and the upcoming deadlines. If I somehow get a lot done and meet the deadlines, I actually feel that it would be much easier to go back to working normally. The more I have to do the bigger the anxiety around my work builds, and thus the harder it is to do it. I realized this a short while ago, but the trap had already shut above me.

I’m really taking a big Rationality “L” on this one. It feels like a failure of planning, introspection, and organization that I would have expected to avoid. I guess anything other than asking myself constantly “am I failing at life in some dumb and obvious way” is unforgivable hubris.


One thing that’s important to know about my job is that it is utterly lacking in intrinsic motivation. The work is not very fun, challenging, impactful, or meaningful. No one is cheering on me as I do it or admiring me for it. It is something that the world needs in the abstract sense of someone willing to pay for it in a fair market, but I would certainly not care whether it was done or not if it wasn’t my responsibility.

I’m quite grateful to my company for paying us a fair salary instead of trying to sell us on some vision of how our work is world-changing or pride-worthy. We’re paid in real cash rather than made-up meaning — it’s an honest deal and I appreciate it. At least, part of me does.

The problem is that my reasons for doing the work are very distant from my subconscious systems of motivation. Even the main reason, money, is not strongly stimulating to me these days. I’m not shopping or eating at restaurants or planning vacations, my cost of living has gone way down because COVID. If I was fired tomorrow my lifestyle wouldn’t change. My job also fit into some broader plans I had for my life this year and next, plans that have been cancelled or thrown up in the air because COVID as well. This uncertainty about the future is probably also sucking away my motivation.

It is strange to think how much cognitive effort it takes to remember why I want to do the work. Perhaps more effort than it takes to actually do it!


When I just joined the company I committed to working for two years, then for another two (for work visa purposes). Having a hard contract that I intended to honor prevented me from spending mental energy on thinking of alternatives and second guessing myself. I have a choice now, and choices are bad.

My friend recently tweeted that he’s addicted to indecision, and I think I know what he’s talking about. Having choices feels bad, but giving up choices also feels bad. The longer you spend with a choice, the more it feels like whatever decision you make has to be absolutely awesome. If the decision space is vague and no choice is clearly superior you can get stuck in a way that feels a lot like addiction.

Several of my young friends are dealing with the same thing. They’re feeling anxious about having a life full of choices ahead of them, choices about careers, relationships, places to live. For many, all their choices seem worse now than they did in 2019, and not any more concrete or dependable. Others are waiting for a partner / friend / employer to make a choice and are resenting the other person’s addiction to indecision.

Another friend said:

Each decision is like a little death. But putting off the choice isn’t actually letting me live forever.

11 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by tinyanon (aaron-teetor) · 2020-08-25T23:34:55.910Z · score: 18 (10 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Most relatable post of all time.  I had actually been doing really good this year minus a depressed period right at the start of covid; then now I'm relapsed since a month ago when stand up was cancelled removing the only structure in my day.  I've been calling mine "adult onset akrasia" because before I was 18 I just was constantly working and extremely high achieving and then I just... broke.  I have a lot of theories as to things that contribute in my case.  Since it got even worse when I moved from college to my final job there will be some things in the list that match up with getting my first job (jr. year HS) and some when I moved to my post-college job.

  • After you start working you no longer really take more than 1 week in a row off ever, but I think continuous time off is very important and spreading a month of time off throughout a year doesn't really do the same thing.  For me I would only ever start cool side projects on my third week off forward
  • Grades/medals in sports were discrete rewards to chase.  An X% higher bonus that means nothing other than enabling you to donate a bit more to charity in your life feels so intangible
  • The bar is just so much lower.  It feels like 5 hours a week of work would be enough to keep my job (dev at the chillest of the top tech companies)
  • The work isn't interesting.  I don't think improving our product really improves people's lives much.  There's no math/algorithms in it so it's not fun to code.  I miss ICPC :(  Though I'm probably not making a good case why anyone should DM me job offers here lol
  • Too continuous.  In school you eventually hit a point where you've finished everything.  At work if you finish early the start date for the next thing just moves up
  • Less factored goals.  The further you get in life the less you have a list of 1000 questions that take 5 minutes each and the more you have one 5000 minute question that just feels like like an overwhelming cloud of fog
  • Discovered Reddit, got a smartphone.  Distractions too close.  No longer resting in solitude bouncing around possible solutions to hard questions on a school bus.  Now I'm reading stuff I don't even care about any time I have 30 seconds without someone interacting with me
comment by Viliam · 2020-08-26T20:02:35.380Z · score: 8 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The Reddit/smartphone/etc is a separate problem. Even if you had a generous basic income and no job, it could be enough to ruin your life. In my experience, taking an offline vacation is a huge boost in productivity. (Even if that vacation includes taking care of two little kids all day long.)

But I completely agree with your description of how job feels fundamentally wrong. Most of the complexity you deal with is accidental; after you solve it, you don't feel like you learned or accomplished anything substantial. The reward for completing some work is getting more work. Maybe if you work twice as hard, consistently for years, someone will notice and you will get a 10% raise, but then you are expected to keep working twice as hard forever. Productivity is generally a result of team effort, and if you become too productive, people will be removed from your team until it becomes sufficiently hard to meet the deadlines again. Vacation is too short to do your own project that would put some meaning into your life; the weekend is barely enough to relax a bit and do the necessary home maintenance. Anything you try doing in parallel with your job is interrupted every day, which makes it hard to focus on it. The only "win conditions" are surviving to old enough age to retire, or somehow saving enough money to retire early. The work is not really that hard, and there are many incompetent people around you who still somehow manage to keep their jobs, and yet it is somehow optimized to take away most of your time, attention, and energy. And everyone keeps bitching about the lack of competent software developers, but if you ask for extra vacation or part-time work at an interview, nope, they would rather wait yet another year to fill the position.

Though I wonder how much of this feeling is true of jobs in general, and how much is specifically about software development. At some moment my wife noticed that those among our friends who complain about their work a lot, all happen to work as programmers. Of course, correlation is not causation, maybe people interested in programming are just inherently more prone to depression.

The largest source of meaning are for me currenly my kids. Sometimes people who don't have kids themselves ask me why I made this choice, when everyone knows that kids are annoying, cost you time and money, your quality of life goes down, yadda yadda. So, here is why being a parent is way more meaningful than having a job. (Girls, pay extra attention; getting you from homes to factories and offices was a scam of century, here is why.) Parenting has all these perks that you hope your job might have, but it never will: There is always a medium- and long-term progress. If you do your work at least half-decently, you are rewarded by human affection. The older and more independent your kids are, the easier it gets; if you do it right, they can actually help you. There is a clear goal: transform your kids into functional adults, then they will leave their home, and hopefully sometimes come to visit you, but now as friends, not as a burden. And you get credit for all of this. You keep doing something meaningful, it keeps getting better, and then it is done!

comment by Luke Allen (luke-allen) · 2020-08-26T16:56:01.528Z · score: 8 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The COVID Procrastathon claims another good mind.

I had to push through something similar in July. What finally broke my dam of pent-up work was one sudden realization regarding an incident I've long suspected was behind my procrastination:

The very first time I procrastinated hard, and lost something because of it, was the first time my parents said they'd take away something if my homework wasn't complete. I panicked and was in tears for two hours, pleading, but they were steadfast in their abandonment of me to my dark fate. I asked my mom to watch me do the first problem on the worksheet, just the first problem; "to prove I can do this" my mind screamed, not realizing that my mind itself was that entity to which I wanted to prove it. She refused. I didn't get to watch that night's episode of my favorite TV show.

Here's the realization: that was the first time my mother had treated me transactionally instead of personally.

That's it. That's the big realization that allowed me to start working really hard again. I don't know if it'll help you, or anyone else reading this, but that unexpected switch of mode was the secret abandonment behind the yawning pit of "why am I not working right now?" behaviors.

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2020-08-26T04:23:38.012Z · score: 6 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Some ideas:

  • Take some kind of antianxiety thing like ashwagandha or theanine (see examine.com)
  • Have a place in your house where you sit with your computer where work is the only allowed thing. You can take a break, but it has to be away from your computer (e.g. walk around the neighborhood). Or you can goof off on your computer, but you have to move it out of the work place first. Then make rules for moving out of the work place (e.g. 10-minute wait required).
  • When you relax in the evening, select breaks that entrain longer relaxation (e.g. a full TV show instead of short youtube videos). Don't allow yourself to worry about work after 10 pm say--the idea is to retrain your concentration ability through an activity that rewards concentration.
comment by shminux · 2020-08-26T01:20:16.377Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It looks like you've got an anxiety flareup every time you try to work. Anxiety is not necessarily presented as fast heartbeat, hyperventilation or any other easily measurable symptom. I have seen it aplenty in myself and others. Often the issue is not enough slack, but the way you describe it, it seems you have plenty, but maybe not the mental kind.

One approach that I have seen to help is to do a "15 min work". Not a pomodoro, though! Those imply lots of structured work and short breaks. Just... "I will write this code for 15 min" or "I will edit this post for 15 min", no further obligations, no pressure. If you stop after 15 min, it's still an accomplishment, if you decide to keep going for a time, that's fine, too. But stop when you get the same feeling again, and do something more fun. Once the internal pressure goes away, think when you can do another "15 min, no obligations past that" work.

comment by Aaron Franklin Esq (aaron-franklin-esq) · 2020-08-26T01:07:27.000Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Literature is rife with individual stresses and anxiety, people don't really talk much about ecological stressors. Even if you are resilient, the environment plays a part in productivity.

"During the recent COVID-19 pandemic, traditional (offline) chess tournaments were prohibited and instead held online. We exploit this as a unique setting to assess the impact of moving offline tasks online on the cognitive performance of individuals...Our results suggest that teleworking might have adverse effects on workers performing cognitive tasks. KEY: A crucial difference to the offline setting is that the peer pressure to concentrate in a playing hall is missing. For instance, Falk and Ichino (2006) find that students place letters in envelopes at a higher speed when other students are faced with the same task sit in the room."

comment by gjm · 2020-08-26T14:52:07.639Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Here's a link to the paper whose abstract is quoted there.

Their main reported result is a bit weird: allegedly players aren't more likely to make suboptimal moves in the online tournament, but when they do their suboptimal moves are somewhat worse.

comment by gwern · 2020-08-26T15:52:20.558Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Looks like a ceiling effect: a large fraction of turns just have easy or obvious movies for a player, which everyone is more than capable of solving near-perfectly (they hit the ceiling) so bad conditions don't much affect blunders (because the conditions aren't bad enough to pull an appreciable number of moves/players down below the ceiling to start making huge blunders), but the bad conditions do still affect the hard moves, and increase the errors in those.

(Imagine drawing a curve with a vertical line at the minimum skill necessary to compete in these. Everything to the left of it is an 'easy' move and all players solve it, while to the right, they are 'hard' moves where players increasingly likely make more expensive mistakes. Bad conditions move the curve diagonally up-right: the vertical line remains the same since the players don't change, and the number of moves which flip from 'easy' to 'hard' changes by a relatively small %, as only a few moves cross the line, but all the moves to the right of it become harder and the mistakes increasingly expensive.)

"Assessing Human Error Against a Benchmark of Perfection", Anderson et al 2016, indicates that human GMs match the chess engine's predicted best move about half the time. This suggests that a lot of moves are 'solved' in the sense that either the move is very obvious (the opening book, forced moves), or the baseline of competency at GM level easily handles them - leaving only the other half of hard moves as critical moves which contribute to victory or defeat. Table A.1 seems to imply that ~55% of moves are classified as errors (15k/27k), so seems similar.

comment by Bucky · 2020-08-26T19:55:27.855Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The paper does attempt to adjust for this with a complexity metric although I suspect this doesn’t work perfectly as it seems to be a linear adjustment with number of nodes used by the engine to calculate the optimal move.

I have a concern that the paper is comparing tournament play (offline) to match play with 4 games per match (online). In match play, especially with few games, a player who is behind needs to force the game and the player in the lead can play more conservatively. Tournaments have their own incentives but overall I would expect short match play to cause bigger errors from engine optimal play as losing players try to force a win in naturally drawing situations.

The calculated effect size is >200 ELO points which suggests to me that something is amiss.

comment by Pongo · 2020-08-27T01:44:46.868Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've never had a work environment where I could do it, but I've always wanted to tackle problems like this by restricting the amount of time I can work. Start by only allowing myself to work an hour a day, and then slowly expand the window

comment by romeostevensit · 2020-08-26T08:18:34.870Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Same situation. Mysterious lack of work starting about a month ago. I made headway today with nicotine gum. The weird part is that the work isn't all that aversive.