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.