I Will Not Rest Until…

It recently struck me that only one sort of person makes statements of the form I will not rest until X: politicians. Usually in the context of some sort of holy-warrior mission like reforming healthcare, killing all infidels or exacting revenge. It’s a mark of a pursuit motivated by priceless values.

For the rest of us, there are what engineers call duty cycles: patterns of work and rest, uptime and downtime. It’s a pattern of work that doesn’t really include a sense of deadlines at all.

We get to an uptime/downtime understanding of how we’re working by lying to ourselves about the messy nature of effort and relaxation. We do this by marking out arbitrary thresholds that we can consciously detect. Then we lie a little more to club different effort levels together under “work” (in the worst case, calling all effort levels 1 and all relaxation levels 0). In the final stages of habit formation, we ritualize the threshold crossings into start/quit rituals (with warm-up/wind-down rituals before/after that we may or may not count as work).  Once the ritual scaffolding is in place, we allow ourselves to relax, letting the effort range shrink and smoothen into the comfort zone. The approximation created for understanding turns into the legible reality used for managing work . Here’s a picture:


Through such quantization, binary-ization, ritualization and comfort-ization, we get to an approximate and tractable understanding of how we’re working, and when it hardens into a prescription, we get to a passably effective approach to sustaining effort over indefinite periods of times, with predictable outcomes. This is what a habit really is: a ritualized way to sustain work that is not optimal with respect to the work itself, but with respect to the overheads of effort monitoring, feedback, etc. This is why habits have inertia: they are defined in terms of behaviors optimized for minimal meta-work.

When it’s really entrenched, the politician’s lie becomes a sort of truth. When we say something like “I will not rest until,” we really mean “the steady duty cycle will be focused without interruption on this objective.” We don’t really mean we won’t take downtime off. We mean, “this will be top priority within the duty cycle” or possibly “the only priority.” We don’t (and can’t) mean no weekends or evenings.

It’s a fairly harmless, if rather hypocritical/postury little lie.

But this understanding falls apart as we get closer to a deadline. There are times we actually cannot-rest-until something happens because our duty cycle unravels and our mind won’t let us relax until either a new one is in place OR an objective is achieved. Duty cycles are really the mind protecting itself against its own obsessive-compulsive demons. Or to put it another way, your mind is fundamentally atemporal: if time is nature’s way of ensuring everything doesn’t happen at once, OCD is our mind’s way of ignoring time and trying to force everything to happen at once. Duty cycles are how we artificially import a sense of time into our fundamentally atemporal brains. Possibly we are this way because we are fundamentally visual creatures and visual perception is an all-at-once kind of deal. When failure looms, it looms in an all-at-once way. When success is visualized, it springs relatively fully-formed into our minds, with no real hints of how to get there. We try to get around this at an intellectual level by translating time into space (otherwise known as a “having a plan all at once”) but that doesn’t actually work. It merely moves our OCD desire for an all-at-once anxiety-relief pill to a meta-level. Now we can’t rest until the plan is perfect.

As our sense of having a functional duty cycle unravels near a deadline, we are forced to reverse the quantization and binary-ization in order to understand what we’re doing, give up the rituals, and allow anxiety to creep back in, taking us out of our comfort zone. To those with low self-awareness and low tolerance for anxiety, this feels like the world falling apart. To more stoic people, with a more gritty, sisu temperament, this is just a period of learning and leveling-up to a more effective habit.

Perhaps this is why the advice smart people give for this sort of situation is just breathe, take it one day at a time. They key is to get back to living in actual time rather than the horror of spatialized time.

This is sort of an addendum note to this piece and this piece. I’m moving that line of writing from ribbonfarm to the tempo blog.

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  1. Yes!

    I’m glad you arrived at this line of reasoning and I hope you explore the adjacent territory further.

    Re: “I will not rest”-style mission statements (which I take as a specialization of a more general class of statements):

    Denote person 1 as p1, person 2 as p2, and so on. Let the following statements map individual reasons for healthcare reform (for example) to the person:

    p1 = “To help my fellow man”
    p2 = “It saves money”
    p3 = “That’s what my union decided”
    p4 = “I gotta get something to put on my resume”
    p5 = “Fuck the establishment”

    Consider that besides overall goal (reform healthcare), p1-5 are actually in conflict with each other.

    Now consider construction of a statement, s = sum(p1, p2, p3, p4, p5) such that s agrees with all p1-5, regardless of the fact that p1-5 do not internally agree with each other.

    You could call these transcending statements, aligning statements, or something similar. I like to call it all-level signalling.

    An interesting thing with these statements in the wild is trying to determine whether it is conscious or unconscious in origin. A lot of people spew things that work but they don’t know why they work, and it’s usually just a matter of time before they betray themselves. The conscious ones are much more slippery.

    • So the generalization would be any sort of totalizing statement that ignores internal tradeoff constraints without specifying how the constraint space has been loosened? “Our pizza is fastest, cheapest and the best-tasting” (only plausible if you also announce that you’ve invented a new kind of oven or something). The sleep example would be announcing a sleep pill that gives you 8h in 1 minute.

      • Yes. No. It depends.

        In your example (“Our pizza…”), I interpret your mindset as being backwards looking (i.e. focused on a thing rather than an aspiration, otherwise you wouldn’t have mentioned an oven). That would be the realm of propaganda IMO.

        However, as a mission statement (forward-looking / all-level messaging) “Our pizza is fastest, cheapest and the best-tasting” isn’t bad as per the current state of the art in the field.

        It would communicate 3 meta-things: (a) we need to be abreast of modern cooking technologies [fast], (b) we need to be flexible and adapt our ingredient margins to local tastes [cheap], and (c) we need to be perceived to out-luxury our competition (e.g. does a Whole Foods apple really taste better than a Safeway apple?) [best-tasting].

        I think a fruitful discussion can be had on how mission statements do and do not differ from propaganda.

  2. I forgot to say that the main thing that groups all of these together is that they can never venture into “why?” or “what’s the point?” territory because that shines light onto the internal, conflicting motivations each individual has for wanting a better, cheaper pizza.

    You can see this when experienced CEOs get grilled but don’t take the bait. They tend to restate and permute aligning statements and sometimes allude but not state (i.e. dog-whistle).