Nobody really worries much about what is going to happen millions of years hence. Even if they think they are worrying much about that, they are really deceiving themselves. They are worried about something much more mundane, or it may merely be a bad digestion.
Kelsey Piper recently invented the concept of things being load-bearing, a concept so profoundly useful that I occasionally forget she only came up with it this May. She writes:
I think one thing that’s going on here is that there are a bunch of small parts of our daily routine which are doing really important work for our wellbeing. Our commute involves a ten-minute walk along the waterfront and the walking and fresh air are great for our wellbeing (or, alternately, our commute involves no walking and this makes it way more frictionless because walking sucks for us). Our water heater is really good and so we can take half-hour hot showers, which are a critical part of our decompression/recovery time. We sit with our back to the wall so we don’t have to worry about looking productive at work as long as the work all gets done. The store down the street is open really late so late runs for groceries are possible. Our roommate is a chef and so the kitchen is always clean and well-stocked.
It’s useful to think of these things as load-bearing. They’re not just nice – they’re part of your mental architecture, they’re part of what you’re using to thrive. And when they change, life can abruptly get much harder or sometimes just collapse on you entirely. And this is usually unexpected, because it’s hard to notice which parts of your environment and routine are load bearing. I often only notice in hindsight. “Oh,” I say to myself after months of fatigue, “having my own private space was load-bearing.” “Oh,” after a scary drop in weight, “being able to keep nutrition shakes next to my bed and drink them in bed was load-bearing.” “Oh,” after a sudden struggle to maintain my work productivity, “a quiet corner with my back to the wall was load-bearing.”
Examples of things that Kelsey thinks are commonly load-bearing are include things which affect your access to food you’ll reliably eat, aspects of the environments you spend the most time in (from the length of your commute to the light and ventilation of your bedroom), pets, cleanliness, and personal time when you’re alone and no one is making any demands on you. I’d add a few more. Other common load-bearing things include exercise, particular features of your diet like desserts or protein or vegetables, the ability to do something fun, time with your friends or loved ones, access to painkillers or other medications, and not taking heroic amounts of mind-altering drugs. Sleep is load-bearing for almost everyone. But load-bearing things can be incredibly idiosyncratic. For some people it’s load-bearing to ride on the train with headphones listening to soaring music about spaceflight.
Hyper-analytic people of the sort of people who read my blog fall into a particular sort of error when we think about philosophy. We’re sad for some reason totally unrelated to philosophy– because we don’t have any friends, or because we haven’t slept well for three months, or because we’re in an abusive relationship, or because we haven’t had alone time in weeks. But we think about philosophy, because we’re the sort of people who think about philosophy all the time. And suddenly we will decide that the problem is that there’s no such thing as objective morality. Or the heat death of the universe. Or existential risk. Or the existence of suffering in the universe. Or negative utilitarianism. Or the meaninglessness of life. Or the Drowning Child argument. Or atheism. Or the existence of Hell.
I don’t mean to be invalidating, but the problem is almost never negative utilitarianism. It’s true that negative utilitarians are often depressed, but I’m pretty sure that that’s just because negative utilitarianism is a philosophy that is very attractive to depressed people. Brian Tomasik is cheerful as hell and he spends a bunch of time worrying about the suffering electrons.
(Moderation side note: I disagree with 90% of what he believes but Brian Tomasik is one of my absolute favorite people in the entire world and comments about how much he sucks will be deleted with extreme prejudice.)
I don’t think that coming up with a more accurate and livable philosophical system is never relevant to fixing your mental health problems. This sequence is basically (spoiler alert!) “I Fixed My Mental Health Problems Through Moral Philosophy (And So Can You).” But if your issue is a well-known philosophical problem which many nondepressed people have grappled with over the course of their lives, your real issue is almost certainly not the philosophical problem. If it is, it would make everyone who thought about it depressed, and it doesn’t.
It is stupidly easy to forget to do the boring things that everyone knows you should do. I know so many people who, like, take n-acetylcystine to potentiate the effects of cleansing their chakras while in ketosis and who when asked “when is the last time you slept for eight hours and had a real meal?” will answer “…last week…?”
So the first thing to check, if you’re having scrupulosity issues, is whether all your load-bearing things are in order.
- Are you sleep-deprived for some reason like “I feel bad making my partner do morning parenting even though I do all the nighttime parenting” or “I procrastinate all day and get my work done at 2am” or “Adderall can TOTALLY replace sleep”? If so, stop reading this post immediately and GO TAKE A NAP.
- If you’re thinking longingly about how nice it would be to follow this advice, you’re sleep-deprived, go take a nap.
- If you’re sleep-deprived for an actual medical reason or a life reason that is not extremely stupid, you’re probably looking at me and going “I know sleep is important, it’s not my fault I do shift work and have insomnia.” I’m sorry about my lack of helpful advice for this situation. You should tell Scott Alexander to write Things That Sometimes Help When You Have Insomnia so I can link to it.
- Scott has an excellent post called Things That Sometimes Help If You Have Depression. If you have depression, work through the list.
- How are you doing on basic needs that most people have? Unfortunately, different people have different needs, and any advice I give is going to be wrong or counterproductive for some people, so take all the advice I give with a grain of salt. Things that are worth considering include:
- Are you sick or in pain?
- Do you do some sort of exercise on a regular basis? (Walks count.)
- Are you eating enough food?
- Are you getting enough protein? Vegetables?
- I said ‘sleep’ two bullet points ago but are you getting enough sleep?
- Are you going outside and getting fresh air and sunshine on a regular basis?
- Are you either not taking mind-altering drugs or taking a normal, responsible amount of mind-altering drugs that doesn’t make all your druggie friends go “please take fewer drugs”?
- Do you experience physical affection from a person or pet? (There is no shame in getting a stuffed animal or body pillow if the answer is ‘no’.)
- Does there exist someone who would notice if you were dead? Someone who will talk to you when you’re sad?
- Do you talk to a person face-to-face sometimes? Do you get enough introvert time?
- Do you do something you think is straightforwardly fun on a fairly regular basis?
- Do you have something to take care of, even if it’s just a plant?
- Are there any parts of your life a normal person would end up screaming “aaaaaaaa” about? You may wish to recruit a normal person of your acquaintance and explain the situation to them to see if they say “aaaaa”. (The comment section here can be a good choice if you are uncertain whether you know any normal people!) Unfortunately, I cannot list out everything that is “aaaaaaa,” because people are continually inventing new and exciting horrible life decisions.
- Are you in relationships with any people who benefit from you being scrupulous? If the answer is “yes, I put enormous amounts of emotion work into this relationship with this person and they throw an enormous shitfit every time I try to set a boundary and they guilt-trip me whenever I don’t do what they want,” that is probably related to your scrupulosity.
- Are you part of a sick system?
- Do you remember a time when you were less scrupulous? Think about what things might have changed since then. You might come up with several hypotheses: maybe your house is messy, maybe you’re overextending yourself, maybe your entire home state is on fire and you haven’t been able to leave the house or see anyone in person for two weeks. Test them systematically and empirically.
I have pretty much solved my scrupulosity, but I do sometimes have flareups, and it inevitably turns out that my flareups are related to losing one or more loadbearing things. Getting your loadbearing things in order– whatever that means to you– is an absolute necessity for recovering from scrupulosity.
Great post and wonderful points.
I don’t think this application of the load-bearing principle is quite the same as what Kelsey meant. I don’t believe she was talking about “basic things one must take care of in order to shore up mental health”, like sleep and exercise. I believe she was talking about the little features of one’s environment that *make it easier* to take care of those basic things.
One thing I really like about Kelsey’s worldview is that she believes that when someone’s failing to thrive, it’s often simply because they’re in an environment that is not conducive to them thriving. So she goes beyond “this person needs more sleep and regular meals in order to thrive and should make decisions accordingly”. She gets to “this person is in an environment that makes it difficult for them to maintain sleep hygiene”. So perhaps someone’s load-bearing sleep hygiene thing is that he’s got young children who follow a pretty regimented routine and sleep every night at 9pm, and he’s gotten in the habit of winding down and making himself a cup of tea after tucking in the kids. Without those kids’ routine, he’d find himself up at 2am. He just may not notice that his kids’ routine is currently greasing the wheels for him. So when they go to summer camp he’s suddenly exhausted and up at all hours and he’s like what??
Somethings are beyond one’s control, but others are not. It seems to me that the level of control is a separate question to whether the presence or lack of certain things, is beneficial or harmful to well-being.
I feel the need to object that being sleep-deprived for a life reason that is extremely stupid can also be really hard to fix! Exhibit A is me, I spent ~12 years horribly sleep-deprived for pretty stupid life reasons that I just could not fix until very recently. (The first ~half of that time the reason was “I have too much homework to do during reasonable waking hours, especially given my not-great time management”, which is only moderately stupid, but the second half of the time the reason was “I can’t ever get myself to go to bed at a reasonable time despite my sleep deprivation being literally the biggest problem in my life, probably because I have gotten very used to ignoring my sleepiness signals forever while doing homework”, which is pretty thoroughly stupid reason that I nevertheless could not defeat.)
I have since made a lot of progress on that, though I won’t count it as a full success until I’ve gone back to work and managed to keep my progress. (If you have similar problems, you’re welcome to ask me for advice, I’ve got a lot of thoughts.)
Hi! Obligatory request for advice here. I’m experiencing similar problems to those you describe; I’d love to hear how you solved them.
Background/disclaimer: after being chronically sleep deprived for stupid reasons for ~12 years, I’ve now had my sleep schedule mostly under control for somewhere between 6 months and a year, meaning that most weeks I go to sleep by 11:30 or midnight most nights and get on average between 7 and 8.5 hours of sleep a night; however, I absolutely still have weeks where I stay up half the night many of the days and periodically lose my progress and have to claw it back again. I also credit some of the success to the fact that I’m off work on medical leave right now; I won’t consider myself to have really succeeded until I’ve gone back to a full-time job and kept my sleep schedule for a while. That said, here are things that I’ve found helpful.
1. My first inkling of progress happened when I did a small group workplace wellness program last year, in which one thing we did was to set a goal for one week at a time that would be formulated basically like a trigger action plan: “when X happens, I will do Y”. We would then report back on our progress the next week. One week, I set a goal like “at 11:15 pm, an alarm will go off on my phone and at that time I will put my phone down and not touch it until I’m in bed, and then I can hang out in bed with my phone until midnight, and at midnight I will put my phone away”. This was surprisingly effective. Aspects of this that I think helped:
(a) it was a temporary goal, I wasn’t committing to this somewhat aversive change forever
(b) there was some accountability – I didn’t have to share all the details of my success or failure with my group but I would share some and that was enough
(c) there was a very specific and concrete plan
(d) I had had a problem where I’d get distracted by my phone while getting ready for bed because I would be terribly bored otherwise, and so it would take me like 30 minutes to do a pretty trivial set of tasks; but over this week I learned that actually if I don’t touch my phone then this terribly boring process only takes like 10 minutes, and actually I can survive being bored for 10 minutes.
(e) setting an alarm rather than a reminder was important, because reminders are easy to ignore whereas an alarm will demand my attention
I then set the same goal for future weeks for a while; at some point I slipped and lost that progress and had to pick it back up again later. But the strategies I used later were largely drawn from that experience; I continue to have a daily “get ready for bed” alarm (as well as an earlier “start thinking about wrapping up what I’m doing” alarm and a later “put away my phone and sleep” alarm) and typically do not touch my phone while I’m getting ready for bed.
2. I’ve found it really helpful and important to have an accountability system. At the beginning of 2018 I set yearly goals (including improving my sleep) and got an accountability buddy I’d check in with weekly to see how our goals were going; this certainly helped some. Later my accountability buddy decided she was no longer finding this useful, and after flailing for a while I established a goal/accountability channel on a Discord server I hang out on, which I’ve found exceptionally useful.
Some things I do there:
(a) have a recurring public reminder at the same time every night to get ready for sleep. I check in when I begin to do that, so people will see if I’m doing it or not. (I also post there when I’m doing other productive things, and sometimes use reminders for other purposes; it’s really quite a good general-purpose productivity tool.) when it’s important, I can also ask humans to remind me of things, but of course that depends on who’s around.
(b) when I put my phone away for the night I post a good night message in the channel
(c) once a week, I check in and post my goals for the upcoming week (including sleep-related ones) and also write about how my goals from the past week went
(d) if I need to get ready for bed and notice myself getting stuck / balking at this because it seems insurmountable, I’ll use the channel to narrate the process: “okay now I’m going to take my meds” “okay I did that, next I’m gonna change into my pajamas” etc.; this is somehow really helpful for getting through the process
3. I find I need to set goals that leave room for imperfection. If I set goals like “go to bed by midnight every night this week”, I will probably fail once and then give up on the entire rest of the goal; worse, I might grow to resent the unyielding commitment, and “rebel” against it by failing halfway on purpose. Goals like “go to bed by midnight at least 6 nights this week” work a lot better for me, but on that 7th night I might still fail with abandon by staying up half the night. Recently I’ve found I particularly like goals like “have my average bedtime this week be no later than midnight”, which leaves room for slipups and also discourages failing with abandon.
(side note: the app KeepTrack, which I mentioned in a comment on the previous post, is good for setting kind of complicated goals like this – I have a tracker there called “minutes after midnight” which can be negative or positive, and a goal that the weekly average of that tracker’s values should be I stay at work too long –> I get home late –> I go to sleep late (and also perhaps am so tired that getting ready for bed is hard). when I went on leave I was able to catch up on sleep just by not setting alarm clocks, which helped reset this.
(b) I think also one reason I sometimes want to stay up late is that while staying up late I’m doing something fun like reading something on the Internet, whereas when I wake up in the morning I’ll have to do something annoying like get ready for work. it certainly helps when the thing I’ll be doing in the morning is something that feels appealing, like making myself a fancy breakfast.
So yeah, I have yet to see how this will go when I go back to work. But success on that feels a lot more possible than it did a year ago.
Would also like this advice.
Matthew Scouten said:
I commuted to work with an hour long multimode public transit commute for 5 years. Then I changed jobs and had to commute an hour by car instead. I expected it to be less pleasant, but it was absolutely crushing to my general happiness. In the car, in heavy traffic, I must pay attention to a boring and frustrating task the whole time. Rather then being time to read and decompress, commuting was another stressor to decompress from. So I ended up staying up later, to calm down, which made concentrating on the morning commute just that much harder. It didn’t help that NPR did the news for that hour, and the news was bad at the time. Dresden Files audio books helped, but I was not in good shape until the gig ended and they canned me.
>Does there exist someone who would notice if you were dead? Someone who will talk to you when you’re sad?
If the answer to this is ‘no’, how would one go about resolving that? (I do have some of these people, but at one point I didn’t, or at least felt like I didn’t, and the problem was resolved through random happenstance, which isn’t exactly replicable…)
I think that there is no general answer to this. It depends on the reasons for why this came about and the options to change it, both of which can differ for each individual.
Related but not-quite-on-point question: How do people evaluate their ability to make certain investment-sacrifices? Like, it’s relatively easy to do the judgement on “will I do ok without this $100 that I want to donate to charity?”, but it’s kind of hard to do it on “will I be able to work this terrible job for 6 months until my planned relocation without going crazy?” in advance because of the longer effort timescale.
“But if your issue is a well-known philosophical problem which many nondepressed people have grappled with over the course of their lives, your real issue is almost certainly not the philosophical problem. If it is, it would make everyone who thought about it depressed, and it doesn’t.”
Late comment, but I don’t think I buy into this logic. This is kind of like saying, “Lots of people work 50 hours a week at a crappy job and don’t get depressed, so if someone believes they’re depressed because of working long hours at a crappy job they’re obviously mistaken about the root cause.”
People respond differently to different stressors. Some people are psychologically resilient in a way that allows them to power through shit jobs and retain their sense that life has meaning. Other people are psychologically resilient in a way that lets them power through devastating existential revelations. That doesn’t mean someone can’t get legitimately depressed about having a shitty-but-common job or grappling with a distressing-but-common philosophical dilemma.
I mean, I do agree that most depressing things are extra hard to deal with when you’re not getting enough sleep or when you’re in a stressful relationship, but that also doesn’t mean the other things aren’t genuine contributors.
Imagine the same logic being applied to smoking. Some people do get old while smoking and never get lung cancer or such, after all, so clearly smoking doesn’t cause lung cancer…