Thursday, October 22, 2015

Burnout and self-care

I think effective altruism often runs into questions about self-care and boundaries, and might have a few things to learn from social work.

For people in helping professions (like nurses, therapists, and clergy), training programs often warn against burnout and "compassion fatigue." To prevent this, training emphasizes self-care. Self-care might include exercise, sleep, spending time with loved ones, spiritual practice, hobbies, and (at least among my coworkers) the latest episode of "Scandal." My workplace asks every prospective hire about self-care, because we want someone who has a plan for not burning out.

As a helping professional, you maintain boundaries to protect both yourself (you do not tell clients where you live) and clients (you do not burden them with your personal problems). And often boundaries are something you maintain to keep yourself sane.

One early lesson for me, when I was an intern at a psychiatric hospital, came while sitting and talking with a young patient before I left for the evening. When it was time to catch my bus home, I told him I had to leave. "You get to go home," he said sadly, "but I don't get to go home." I felt awful for him, and later I asked my supervisor if I should have kept him company a little longer. "No," my supervisor said, "Go home when it's time to go home. There will always be someone who wants you to stay. You can't come in here and do a good job if you're worn out from the day before."

To me, that's an example of what one author on burnout calls "boundaried generosity." I will give my best up until this point, and then I will stop. That's what makes high-intensity, compassionate work sustainable.

The same principles are applicable to helping work that isn't face-to-face. I've noticed that some of the highest-achieving people I know in effective altruism take sleep pretty seriously and don't skimp in that area. They've learned it's not worth it. They also seem to genuinely enjoy their time off. Unlike Susan Wolf's specter of the "moral saint," humorless and single-minded, these people know how to have fun.

But younger people in particular seem to struggle with the balance of self-care and altruism. Often after I speak to a student group, someone will tell me they wonder if they're wrong to spend money traveling to visit far-away friends or buying things for the mother that scrimped to send them to college. It's hard to think of a better recipe for burnout than distancing yourself from friends and family! No, I don't recommend cutting out this kind of thing if you want your passion for helping others to last more than a few years.

For me, this was an important reason to make a budget rather than asking "Should I donate this money instead?" every time I was in a checkout line. It was the equivalent of going to work with no plan about when to go homeshould I see one more client this afternoon? Three? Five?

Knowing I'm leaving work after 8 hours lets me be whole-hearted in my work during that time. In the same way, having a budget allows me to be whole-hearted both in what I give (because I know that money is only for giving) and in what I spend (because I know that money is only for me and my family).

It is okay to take care of yourself. In fact, it's a really bad idea not to.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Sample menus for EA gatherings

This post focuses specifically on food ideas. For more on how to host an effective altruism meetup, see here or here.

After four years of hosting effective altruism dinners, I keep learning things.
  • At least where I live, EA gatherings tend to attract a lot of vegetarians and vegans. I've basically stopped serving meat at these dinners because so few people ate it.
  • People, particularly students, appreciate a home-cooked meal even if it's not fancy.
  • Store-bought bread and some kind of stew is an easy way to go. You either need bowls or plates with a rim that will keep the stew in place. If you don't have enough or don't want to do that many dishes, you could use disposable dishes. I host dinners often enough that I bought a lot of Pyrex custard cups to use as soup or desssert bowls for the masses (they don't take up the whole plate, so there's room for your bread or salad as well).
  • Test-driving the main dish is a good idea so you know about how many people it serves, etc.
  • Make more than you think you need, at least of a few central dishes.
  • Newer hosts often forget things (are there cups and something to drink? Utensils? Napkins or something to clean up the inevitable spill? Is there enough toilet paper in the bathroom?)

Summer menu
    Cost when I made it: $5/person.

    Everything is vegan and gluten-free except the key lime pie, but I think it comes off as light and summery rather than restricted.

    The food is served cold and can be prepped in advance except the soup, which could still be done in advance and just heated and garnished at the last minute. If you’re still working on the spring rolls when guests arrive, people like helping assemble them. This took longer than I thought, about 90 seconds per roll, including waiting for the wrappers to soak and finding room for trays as we filled them. Do the math and leave yourself enough time.

    Fall menu
    Cost when I made it: $3.80/person.

    The problem with having the protein and vegetables all in one stew is that if someone can’t eat peanuts or one of the vegetables, they can’t eat the main dish.

    Winter menu
    Gleaned from this menu. You might make the polenta an hour in advance, so you have time to re-make it if it burns (which I often seem to do). Then keep it warm in a slow-cooker or something.

    Curry menu

    Cost when I made it: $3.25/person.

    The nice thing is that you can make the curries in advance and heat them up before dinner. If you make the pies in advance or use a store-bought dessert, you could serve this on a weeknight – it might take 40 minutes to heat up the curries and make the rice.

    Chili menu

    • Vegetarian chili
    • Toppings (shredded cheese, sour cream, salsa, diced avocado)
    • Cornbread
    • Salad
    • Orange segments dipped in chocolate
    • Not one I've made yet, but one I enjoyed at someone else's party recently.

    Mexican menu
    The vegan nachos and quesadillas are done with refried beans, salsa, and vegan "cheese" shreds (Daiya brand is the best we've found).

    Ice cream and thawed fruit works well because it takes no prep other than thawing a bowl of the fruit, and vegans can eat the fruit even if you can't find vegan ice cream. Berries become a mess when thawed, but ones like cherries and mango stay pretty intact.

    Middle Eastern menu

    If you're serving pears, buy them enough in advance that they have time to get ripe.

    Everything is vegan except the shakshuka and lava cakes. You can do tabbouleh with quinoa if you need it to be gluten-free.

    I do the lava cakes in muffin tins, which is way easier than ramekins. You can make them in advance (basically 10 minutes of melting and stirring), refrigerate them, and bake them during the party (they only bake for 12 minutes).