Thursday, July 30, 2015

Effective Rest Days

Today is my day off.

I’ve been really good at days off recently. I used to be terrible at them. I used to not have much of a strategy, and I'd basically end up forcing myself to stay put and not do anything strenuous or work-like. I often ended up feeling sort of depressed, and the next day I wasn't at all ready to work.

On my most recent day off, I climbed a mountain, ran several miles, and got some chores done. I felt excellent and ready to work hard the next day.

Here's how my new strategy has played out so far today.

When I woke up this morning, I thought I should have breakfast, and that I should treat myself to something extra tasty and extravagant, like bacon and a fancy omelet, or perhaps a souffle.

I snapped my fingers. That, I realized, had been one of my flags: an image of how my day off should be, according some stereotype of a “day off”. I asked myself, “What do I actually want, right now?” posing the question as an invitation, a desire-shaped door held open for any nearby desires that might like to wader in. Does “bacon and souffle” fit through that door? No, actually. That’s not a desire-shaped thought. It's a day-off-shaped thought.

On days off, [if I feel like I'm playing out the role of a character taking a day off] --> [then I ask myself what I actually want right now.]

My gaze happened across a box of cookies-and-cream protein bars, and a new image sprang to consciousness: a heated protein bar sitting on a plate beside a glass of milk and some Soylent. I felt warm and happy thinking about it, and it went right through the desire-shaped door I’d created. I snapped my fingers, recognizing another flag - a sensation of desire - and then hesitated, mildly confused.

2: “Really? A protein bar and Soylent?”

1: “Yes. And milk.”

2: “That sounds like the kind of breakfast we’d have if we were clumsily motivated by body image. Are we sure we wouldn’t rather have bacon? Even if we could push a button to summon it instead of having to cook? Even if it had no effect at all on our body, besides giving us energy and satiating hunger?”

1: “summons an image of biting into a warm, gooey cookies-and-cream protein bar Yes, definitely.

2: “Well, ok then. We genuinely want this right now, and it doesn't cost anything. We’ll have that.”

On days off, [if I feel a sensation of desire] --> [then I check whether I genuinely want it right now, and if so I give it to myself, provided it costs less than ten bucks].

Later, I was walking down the street toward a coffee shop I like, when I felt another flagged sensation: the cognitive aftertaste of a recently suppressed desire. I stopped, snapped my fingers, and invited desires from recent memory to present themselves. Nothing was forthcoming. I looked around, hoping to jog my memory, and quickly locked onto a men’s clothing store on the corner.

2: “What? Why would we want to go in there?”

1: “We're curious.”

2: “Oh right, we’ve been curious every time we’ve passed here for like a year and a half, haven’t we.”

1: “Yep. Let’s go.”

2: “But we can tell from here that it won’t have anything we want to buy. It’s mostly blue jeans and flannel button-downs.”

1: “You say that every time, but we’re still curious.”

2: “Hm, yeah, that's strange. What are we curious about?”

1: “We want to see what it looks like, know how big the inside is, touch all the furry coats on that rack outside.”

2: “Oh. I guess whether we’ll buy anything is completely irrelevant then. That was a silly reason to suppress a desire.”

1: “Yep. Let’s go.”

2: “Ok.”

On days off, [if I notice I've suppressed a desire] --> [then I excavate that desire for further examination].

My plan when I got to the coffee shop was to read fiction. The thought of reading fiction at the coffee shop was what caused me to leave the house in the first place, and I looked forward to it the whole way here. Reading more fiction is something I’d like to do, and rest days are good times for that. But as soon as I sat down in this chair and started reading, I felt a desire to write. Specifically, I desired to write about this recent change in my approach to rest days that has so greatly increased their value.

2: “But we told all those past time-slices we’d get to read fiction when we got to the coffee shop.”

1: “But we are here now, and we want to write, not read.”

2: “Yeah but, what about reflective cooperation across the intertemporal coalition? Our past selves had our future wellbeing in mind when they desired that we read. They thought we needed to spend more time reading fiction, and we agree with them. They’d be disappointed to hear their decision was overpowered by an unreflective impulse,

(translation: summons image of trying to stick to a diet, yet succumbing to the immediate temptation to have a cookie every time a cookie desire happens)

which would damage the power of our future selves’ intentions to motivate our actions

(translation: summons image of a future self deciding to try a new diet, while the memory of all the past times with the cookies plays through their head and reduces their confidence in the intertemporal coalition’s ability to stick to diets).

That’s most of what ‘being responsible’ means to us.”

1: “Oh, I see. But you’ve forgotten something: The intertemporal coalition, including the recent past time-slices of which you speak, has consented to privilege my needs. Remember why?"

2: “Yes. We have a bias toward privileging the desires of certain other people and our future selves. It leads to fatigue when not occasionally counter-balanced. Privileging our own current selves is a necessary condition for successfully recharging on a rest day. That’s what ‘taking a day off’ means to us. All of our time-slices since February have been clear on that. Sorry, my mistake.”

1: “It’s ok. We also forgot to snap our fingers when we felt the sensation of ‘feeling like the responsible thing is to override an impulse’.”

2: “Indeed. snaps fingers Ok, let’s write.”

On days off, [if I feel like the responsible thing is to override an impulse] --> [then I'll remember why I've chosen to privilege the desires of my present self today.]

It's not the case that I recharge best by "not doing work" and "physically resting". The part of me that needs rest is neither my body nor my concentration. The part that needs rest is the part of me that manages my impulses to makes sure the people around me and my future selves get what they need.

This is not surprising in retrospect, given I spend all the rest of my time in a service role.

So my new strategy for effective rest days is all about attention to a few key sensations that indicate it might be time to put my own present needs first, despite my instincts:

  • desire
  • noticing I've suppressed a desire
  • playing the role of a character taking a day off
  • being responsible by overriding an impulse

If you're not getting much out of your days off and also happen to be in a service role (like nursing, teaching, or leading an organization), maybe this approach could help you, too.

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