Rest Full-Stop, And What It Isn't.
Last Updated: 2023-02-27 06:30:00 -0600
Last time I wrote a fair bit on the idea of productivity. I think I even took some time to explain that I was counting the winter out from actively pushing on technical projects - which hasn’t been entirely true - and focusing instead on “Rest and Preparation”. For better or worse, I’ve ultimately done far more of the latter than the former, so I find myself walking into a spring meant to “Spring Forth” but feeling instead like what I really need is a “spring break”. Why? Rest is more than it seems.
See, I went into the winter with the idea that I should “rest” by essentially doing all the same things I normally do, just less seriously. I would “rest” by spending dozens of hours writing not the PETI firmware source code, but tinkering with weird little python projects. I would “rest” by cleaning up more often. I would “rest” by engaging in, essentially, management.
Believe it or not, just because it’s approached playfully, these things don’t magically stop being work!
Humans Need Rest. They Just Do.
In 2003, a writer named Christine Miserandino coined a popular metaphor known popularly as “Spoon Theory”, which was and is used as an example to explain to neurotypical and non-chronically-ill people how the capacity to work can be variable for people who are neurodiverse or who experience chronic illness. I actually really like the metaphor, and I use it fairly often as part of how I express my experiences as someone who was diagnosed with Bipolar II Disorder when I was still a kid.
The metaphor goes something like this: living life is like eating several bowls of pudding, each representing a task you have to get through to make it to the end of the day. For reasons, for each bowl of pudding you have to use a new spoon. For individuals who don’t have conditions that impact their energy level, you have a consistent and reliable supply of these spoons. In my specific case, the number of spoons in my “cutlery drawer” varies over time, sometimes predictably and sometimes not. Because of this, people sometimes have to make executive decisions akin to triage when it comes to activities most people might consider otherwise routine.
Like all metaphors, this leaves gaps and edge cases, because, like imperial measurement units, you’re basically dealing with analogs to the thing you actually care about rather than the thing itself. Their necessity is one of the features of spoken communication that make dharma-transmission-by-text functionally impossible, but that’s a whole other conversation.
Where I feel the spoon theory falls slightly short is in the grant that neurotypical, healthy people experience a steady-state number of spoons. This actually falls sideways into something I touched on in the last post.
I said, of objections to the discussion of Productivity:
- “Productivity culture is garbage because I’m not here to just be another cog in the machine.”
This actually touched up against the same problem: Most discussions of topics like productivity or wellness suppose, allude to, or predicate themselves upon the idea that there is an objectively Well or objectively Productive state that can be attained and sustained.
And… that’s just not true. Like all other states: happiness, sadness, living… there are just no steady states!
I used to chase this fallacy myself; hell, I still do. I believed in something like “productivity inertia”, which lead to me going “Yeah, I have some mass. If I get going fast enough while I’m energized I can coast on that momentum through to the next energized period”. Which… was truer than false, but I had the idea sort of backwards.
Meters per second per second? No! Liters per hundred kilometers!
The problem with the way I had constructed the productivity inertia metaphor can be approximated with another metaphor. I had thought of the problem as though I myself was a spacecraft.
Now, ignoring other really important factors like crew endurance, the true limit on a spacecraft isn’t really how far it can travel; it’s how much it can change its velocity given the fuel on board; a factor known to rocketry hobbyists, Kerbal Space Program players, and the very worst kind of Terminally Online Fans as “delta V” (extreme shorthand for “change in velocity”), usually expressed in the sane parts of not-America as some number of meters per second per second; the overall capacity for acceleration on the craft if it expended all of its fuel at once.
There’s just one problem with thinking about the idea of productivity inertia in this way - none of us are rocket ships. Put another way, none of us stand outside the causal relationships the world is predicated upon. All of us have forces acting upon us. We’re much more like motor vehicles; each a subtly different design, optimized for different things, affected by road conditions, weather, and geography in different ways. In my case, I have an issue where sometimes the fuel pump just can’t get the gas to the injector as fast as I’d sometimes want it. It’s an intermittent fault, and short of replacing the pump outright none of the usual hacks like fuel additives or throttle technique are going to get a richer fuel-air mix into the cylinder when the pump is misfiring.
That being said - I’m not unique in this way, and it’s not unique to mood disorders, other mental illness, or physical illnesses to find yourself suddenly a little starved for fuel. If you’ve ever owned or operated a motor vehicle, you know that there are times when you need to just stop driving. The tank isn’t always full when you leave the garage. The tires aren’t always full and suited for the road conditions. Sometimes, that check engine light is going to come on.
For the last 20 years or so, I’ve been either angry, or sad, or most often some combination of both whenever I recognize a depressive “phase” coming on in my cycle. Some of that is where I live and what I watch. As an Atlantic Canadian mired knee-deep in the Maker subculture, I am constantly surrounded by people who put out a very high volume of very good work at a relatively fast clip, and I’d be lying through my teeth if I said I didn’t feel that as pressure to do similarly myself.
This manifested in my initial concept of “productivity inertia”. If I took advantage of all my hypomanic and near-hypomanic episodes to just produce enormous volumes of “prepared” work, I could use the corresponding reduction in executive function to “punch through” the depressive episodes and keep putting out a really high volume of really high quality work. Of course, this reality never manifested, because that’s just not how it works.
What I really needed to do was to listen to myself. If I’m tired, I’m tired. If we can’t pull highway speeds we should just take the back roads. They’re more scenic anyway.
What’s the meaning of this? Well, for you lot, likely not much. At worst it might mean reworking the way livestream schedules work so that instead of trying to do a little bit of everything every week, we do what suits the mood.
For me, it means I’m going to take much more advantage of the downtime I get in terms of, well, everything. For starters, I’m starting to think that the Abrahamic religions were onto something with the idea of a weekly day of rest. Until now, I’ve tried to spare myself any kind of major annoyance by splitting my housework over both nights of the weekend. Think it might be saner to force some more of it into the weekday evenings and the rest into either Sunday or Saturday so that I can have one day every week where there’s nothing more important to do than wear comfy pants and play whatever game has become the obsession of the week.
I’d advise you to find similar efficiencies for yourself if you can, but above all, the core takeaway is this: it’s perfectly normal and entirely unavoidable for your tank to run low. Take it easy on yourself when it does and just take the time to fill it back up.
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