Stress and the search for the antischedule

The last three weeks of lockdown have been difficult. I know there are people who have been and still are in much worse situations, but Covid-19 gave me 90 straight days without human contact and nothing to do really other than work and exercise—a reliable recipe for stress-related illness.

And for three weeks up to last Wednesday, I delighted in a wide range of symptoms, from wanting to sleep the whole time (and not feeling rested when I did) to brain fog, mouth ulcers, diarrhoea and IBS. Not pleasant.

Luckily, I’ve been able to take the whole week off (birthday week!) and spend time with other human beings, both socially distanced and in a bubble with my parents. The rest has released the pressure, the symptoms have largely disappeared and I feel restored.

This is all good: everyone needs human contact and a break from work every now and again. Ordinarily I might leave the insights there, but lockdown is encouraging me to reexamine the way I do everything.

What if there was a way of working where holidays weren’t medically necessary to cure my mouth of ulcers and clear my body of stress hormones?

The problem

As a freelancer, I’m paid by the hour. Time, sadly, is money. According to Jeffrey Pfeffer and Dana Carney, workers who have an ‘economic mindset’ about time—i.e. people who are paid by the hour—report higher levels of psychological stress.

One reason for this elevated stress might be because hourly workers spend less time socialising with friends and family. Gutted. If time is money, then we are constantly locked into a (subconscious) hedonic calculus: is seeing my friends for an hour really worth another hour’s work?

The answer is almost always yes, but salaried workers don’t have to answer this question, not even subconsciously.

Orthodox solutions

Look on the internet or in self-help books for how to reduce ‘time-stress’, you’ll read a lot of advice about efficient scheduling.

For example: the Ness Labs newsletter popped into my inbox this week with an article about how to manage stress. Perfect timing! One of her suggestions was, yep, better time management.

Anne-Laure Le Cunff’s approach is typical of the genre. This is her opener:

Except if we end up inventing time travel, we need to accept the fact that there are only 24 hours in a day. In order to achieve our goals, we need to be smart about how we allocate our time to different tasks and activities.

Anne-Laure’s suggestion is ever more precise calendar use, with everything scheduled down to the last hour, including breaks and spending time with friends.

On the face of it: great advice—and I’m sure it works for her. But what if I already have a killer schedule? What then?

My current orthodox solution

My current schedule is managed on two spreadsheets:

  • One acts as my calendar and reminds me about deadlines and such like
  • Another tracks what projects I’m working on and for how long

Here’s how it plays out:

  1. In the evening, I check my calendar and lay out the work I’ll do the next day, building a to do list text file.
  2. In the morning, after yoga and breakfast, I get to work. I set a timer for 90 minutes and begin. Thanks to the timer, I find it very easy to prevent procrastination and slip into work mode, no matter how reluctant I was feeling before the clock started.
  3. When the 90 minutes is up, I write down my hours in my working spreadsheet, which automatically tells me how much work I’ve done and, if it’s hourly paid work, how much I’ve earned.

It sounds like a great system and, for the most part, it is. I get plenty of work done, on time and with minimal fuss.

But if it’s such a great system, why did my body break down with time-stress? What if scheduling by the clock created my time-stress?

I suspect that this is more than an idle what-if question.

Taking on time in an arms race

The orthodoxy posits that the solution to time-stress is ever more precise time-scheduling.

But that sounds to me like an arms race, where there is no end until one side or the other blows up. In this case, I can guarantee that time isn’t the one that’s going to blow up…

My scheduling system probably could be improved with time-management techniques from high achievers on the internet—but I suspect only marginally. I haven’t found any advice online or in self-help books that offer the radical changes that I suspect would materially reduce time-stress.

If we guess that my system is already, say, 80 percent efficient, then the effort needed to eke out the last 20 percent of efficiency gains might only add to my time-stress.

I’d argue that time management in itself can be very stressful, especially as it becomes more and more precise. Time management forces us to think about time with a stressful economic mindset—especially if we are paid by the hour.

Side note on Covid-19

Of course, I’m not the only person who has found the last three months psychologically difficult. The World Economic Forum discovered that the number of people in Belgium at high risk of toxic stress had increased to a quarter of the population during the Covid-19 pandemic, up ten percentage points compared to last year.

I think a lot of my time-stress goes away when I’m able to whinge about stuff to friends. Nothing like a good old whinge. Isolated from these friends thanks to Covid-19, I’m not getting my quota of whinging.

But what kind of a time management system is founded on whinging? Not a very good system, if you ask me. I think we can do better. But how?

I propose a pincer movement:

  1. Shift away from orthodox time management that promotes a stress-inducing ‘economic mindset’
  2. Introduce activities that expand perception of time

I’ll explore these in reverse order, finishing with the antischedule.

Playing with time perception

Time is immutable, but humans aren’t embodiments of pure physics and we can play around with our perception of time.

Humans have an internal clock that beats ‘time’ throughout the day, but different activities are counted at different paces. Sometimes time crawls, sometimes it flies. When you’re asleep, for example, your time perception goes right out of the window.

Time-stress is what happens when we feel that there isn’t enough time to do everything we want to do. Time is real, but we should forget that time-stress is a feeling.

If we do more activities that make us feel like we have oodles of time, then we reduce our sense of time-pressure and so reduce our time-stress.

But what are those activities? They probably vary from person to person. Here are some of mine—a few of which have had their time-expanding properties documented scientifically.

You’ll have your own ideas. What makes you feel like you’ve got endless time?

  • Reading books
  • Taking a bath
  • Chatting to friends
  • Playing games
  • Exercise: walking, swimming, running, cycling (without clock-watching)
  • Sunbathing
  • Taking psychedelics
  • Cooking and eating
  • Spending slow time in nature, especially awesome nature
  • Watching the sun rise or set
  • Walking more slowly

These are ways we can trick our minds into dialling back time-stress. If I’m walking slowly to an appointment, I might arrive 30 seconds later, but I’ll be in a much more restful state of mind.

If you’re not sure you can spare those 30 seconds, that’s a classic symptom of time-stress. I prescribe Relax for the same result by Derek Sivers.

Now we’ve expanded our sense of time, we can try to reintroduce work in a way that doesn’t trigger the economic mindset.

The antischedule

The only article that I found on radical alternatives to the time-management orthodoxy was this piece by Dr Adam Bell.

A typical junior doctor on a tyrannical schedule, Bell found inspiration in a tweet by Naval Ravikant:

The single best productivity hack that everyone should aspire to—don’t keep a schedule.

So Bell stopped tracking time and keeping a schedule. The effect was transformational for him:

My inner tyrant had left his post, and so too had any sense of time pressure. Now there was an abundance of time, rather than a perpetual scarcity of it. And there was no inner voice barking orders anymore.

It’s a terrifying prospect, to work—or live at all—without my calendar, to do list, timer and working diary. How will I stay on track?

But. Wait. What kind of a track am I on? One that gives me mouth ulcers and diarrhoea? What kind of a masochist wants to stay on that track?

Some other ideas

My holiday ends on Sunday: what will I do when I start work again on Monday? I haven’t committed to adopting the antischedule. I’m scared.

Besides chucking out my orthodox scheduling tools wholesale, there are a few other options I could explore.

  • Seven week sabbaticals. This idea from Sean McCabe was one I adopted with relish before Covid-19 struck. The idea is simple: six weeks of scheduled work followed by one week of unscheduled, unstructured time—a mini sabbatical. For some reason, I thought Covid-19 meant I couldn’t take sabbaticals. Stupid.
  • Switch from a countdown timer to a countup timer. Hitting start on a timer is a great way to shortcut procrastination, but there’s no reason why that timer can’t count up instead of down. I’ve started experimenting with SpaceJock’s free TrackAMinute software, designed for freelancers like me but useful in most computer-based lines of work.
  • Sacrifice time-accuracy for reduced time-stress. I have to track my time because I must invoice for my work hourly. But I don’t have to track that time myself: what if I invoiced based on passive time-tracking software like RescueTime? It might be less accurate, but surely a reduction in accuracy is a good sacrifice to make for the sake of my oral and gastric health!
  • Find satisfaction from completing worthwhile projects, rather than from stacking up hours of work. This is a tricky one. On the one hand, tracking the hours I spend on my projects takes out the mystique of creativity and production. I know now that writing a BBC Radio series is simply a matter of showing up and putting in the hours: that’s tremendously liberating. On the other hand, sometimes the hours I put in can get muddled up with whether or not the work is taking me in the direction I want to go.
  • Decide on and stick to my boundaries. When is enough enough? Putting in the hours is all very good, but how do I know when to stop? Should I stop work at 6pm? 4pm? 2pm? I could take weekends off—or only work a half day on Wednesdays. I had some success with this approach a couple of months ago, working for 4 hours or so in the morning and then taking the rest of the day ‘off’.
  • Use technology less. I run everything through my spreadsheets, even my time-expanding activities like reading and exercise. I could use pen and paper much, much more—even if only to add the data in batches at the end of the week.
  • Say no more. Say no more.

~

Have you found a way of avoiding time-stress? Do you use clocks and watches and timers? Are you acutely aware of time—or not? I need help!

Fine to flounder

Following Edith Eger, I’m suddenly fascinated by choices. Particularly the way that we usually ascribe momentous deliberation to other people’s decision-making process, but know for ourselves that the process is far more chaotic and flukey.

For example: when I was a teenager, my mum decided to read for a PhD. I’d always assumed that this was the flowering of some long-held academic ambition, one rudely interrupted by the time-sink of raising kids. I assumed that the decision-making process was meticulously worked out over lists, spreadsheets and probably PowerPoint presentations with my dad.

But I’d never actually ever asked her how she came to that decision, until last weekend.

The truth is that, one day, her boss offered her a promotion that she really didn’t want. She went to sit in a cafe to think. She knew that she couldn’t simply refuse the promotion; she needed a good excuse. Then lightning struck — what better excuse than a PhD!

And there’s the chaos and fluke that we airbrush out of everyone else’s lives.

This is tremendously liberating. If everyone else is also floundering around life making decisions in much the same way that you make an omelette, then the pressure is off. It’s fine to flounder. More than fine: my mum also said that choosing to do a PhD was the best decision she ever made.

~

This conversation was inspired by another short passage in The Choice, where Eger writes about making the leap from school teacher to psychologist:

I told my principal I was considering getting my doctorate in psychology. But I couldn’t speak my dream without a caveat. “I don’t know,” I said, “by the time I finish school I’ll be fifty.” He smiled at me. “You’re going to be fifty anyhow,” he said.

Boom. Of course. We’re going to be twenty / forty / sixty / ninety anyhow, we might as well plunge.

People pleasing RIP

Coronavirus is crap. Isolation is brilliant. I’ve spent approximately thirty-seven and a half years of my life trying to please other people and now I find myself entirely alone.

I know everyone loves bigging up their own particular foibles, but of all the neuroses of humanity people pleasing is surely the most pernicious.

First of all: a definition, my definition.

‘People pleasing’ is what happens when you worry too much about what other people might think of you, your behaviour and your life choices.

People pleasing isn’t merely finding it hard to say ‘no’ or a vague desire for everyone to like you. It goes much, much deeper than that, inveigling its needy little voice into every decision you make.

Your own personal pleaszus

Personally, I hear people pleasing as an internal voice of varying pitch and volume that chirps up before, during and after almost any choice or action.

It applies to thoughts great and small — and even to things over which I have no control, like my skin colour, place of birth and fondness for the word ‘quagmire’.

People pleasing kicks in no matter whether my behaviour materially affects anyone else, and regardless of whether anyone has ever even implied that they’re judging me.

  • ‘I’m a writer’ — what do you think about that, friends?
  • ‘I might buy some oat milk’ — any objections, random stranger?
  • ‘Quagmire’ — is that okay by you, planet earth?

As you can imagine, it’s exhausting.

In my case, people pleasing tends to go alongside that ancient and noble art that counsellors admonish as ‘mindreading’ — I assume that I understand other people’s thought processes without actually asking them.

In other words, rather than double checking that the people I’m trying to ‘please’ actually give a shit, I tie my stomach up in knots trying to take into account whatever I imagine their lofty opinions might be.

You’re very welcome, people.

Please please me

Most of us — I’m including my former self — believe that people pleasing is one of three things. Moving up the scale, we think that people pleasing is either:

  1. A charming and considerate personality trait.
  2. Harmless.
  3. A total waste of time because the people you’re trying to please won’t notice, don’t care or are disfiguringly ungrateful.

People pleasing is none of these things. (It is a waste of time, but not for those reasons.)

It’s taken four weeks of living with myself, with next to zero face-to-face critical feedback or approval, for me to realise that people pleasing is nothing — nothing — but passing the buck.

People pleasing is a bullshit excuse my subconscious uses to avoid taking responsibility for my choices. End of. (It’s not the end of, there’s more — keep reading. Please?)

Mind games, forever

In life, we all have choices — or at least the illusion of choices.

Embedded in every choice is a dollop of responsibility. Some people take responsibility for their own choices and some people don’t. People pleasers fall into the second category.

A concrete example is in order.

Mind 1: People pleasing

Ooh, maybe I should drop everything and become an academic because both of my parents have PhDs and I’m sure they secretly want me to be a professor.

Note how my interior monologue is subtly passing the responsibility for my genuine, if far-fetched, choice over whether to become an academic onto my parents. It’s not really my decision, my little voice says, it’s theirs by proxy.

Worse still, this people pleasing is based on a completely fictitious version of my parents: they’ve never even hinted that they might like me to work in academia.

In this mind, I’m not choosing for myself; I’m trying to second guess what someone else might choose for me.

Mind 2: Non people pleasing

Ooh, maybe I could drop everything and become an academic! Hm. I could ask my parents what they think, particularly my mum, who got her PhD in her fifties. Why did she decide to go back to university? That’d be really helpful to know and might give me a clue as to what I could expect from academia. But we’re different people and, whatever I choose, I will choose for myself, not for her or anyone else.

Isn’t this amazingly rational? After all, there’s nothing wrong in having far-fetched ideas like dropping everything to become an academic. Ultimately, though, the decision-making buck stops with me.

After hearing Mind 2, it seems hard to believe that anyone would think like Mind 1, but believe me it happens. And if the Internet is anything to go by, it happens a lot.

The other side of the mirror

People pleasing is a two person game, although the second player is usually reluctant. The people I am supposed to be ‘pleasing’ must either accept the responsibility I’m trying to subcontract — or they can reject it.

It’s an unwinnable game with only two outcomes:

  1. I’ve not met anyone who can take bear responsibility for another adult human’s choices without buckling under the weight of expectation. The friendship is strained, the work becomes hard and everyone loses.
  2. But if player two chooses to reject the responsibility (as they must eventually), that only hurts the people pleaser — and exacerbates their anxiety to please. It’s back to square one, or it’s game over.

You see, people pleasing isn’t only damaging for the pleaser; it’s also a cruel gift for the people we’re trying to please, usually those we love the most.

This is why I say people pleasing is so pernicious: people pleasers hide behind their ‘niceness’, but in truth it’s a poisoned chalice.

So far, so depressing.

‘And with a single mighty bound, he was free!’

Lockdown has been many things for many people, but for me it has been a once-in-a-decade opportunity to sit with myself, almost in hermitage.

One thing I’ve realised is that I really look forward to seeing people — as you would expect for a people pleaser. Quite often I would look at my calendar and fix on some future social event: going for a group run or ride, writing Foiled with my co-writer or going up to Bristol to play Frisbee with friends.

And then I’d just sort of fill time until then.

Yes, I would do some tasks that to the untrained eye might look productive, but often I hadn’t really taken responsibility for those tasks. I would do them competently, but mechanically, worried that someone would be upset if I didn’t.

I would subcontract my responsibility.

But since the middle of March the coronavirus has stripped away all of the things by which I would normally mark time. With the empty months stretching out before me, I faced a stark choice — and one for which no one else could possibly take responsibility because all the people I might hope to please are in lockdown too.

Coronavirus has made people pleasing impossible.

So what on earth does the people pleaser do when he knows he’ll not see another human being for a couple of months?

There’s only one practical choice left: he must take responsibility. And not only for the work that he’s committed to for the next couple of months, but for all the choices he’s made over the past thirty-seven and a half years that have brought him to this point.

This is a tremendously liberating feeling, impossible to overstate, almost impossible to put into words. That inveigling little voice? It’s not mine. It’s an eccentric visitor, a curiosity rather than a compass, like a stock photograph on the wall of a corridor.

Edith Eger is a psychotherapist who survived the Holocaust. Her book The Choice tipped the first domino of this mindshift. Particularly this passage:

Most of us want a dictator — albeit a benevolent one — so we can pass the buck, so we can say, “You made me do that. It’s not my fault.” But we can’t spend our lives hanging out under someone else’s umbrella and then complain that we’re getting wet. A good definition of being a victim is when you keep the focus outside yourself, when you look outside yourself for someone to blame for your present circumstances, or to determine your purpose, fate, or worth.

I feel like I have stepped out from under someone else’s umbrella — and this whole time it wasn’t even raining.

RIP 2010-2019: A New Davecade Begins

Some parts of the Internet don’t seem to age. My website is not one of them. This was DavidCharles.info in June 2010 (courtesy of the Wayback Machine):

There’s something unmistakeably 2010 about this image. It’s hosted on Blogspot, for one. ‘Follow me on Facebook’ and ‘My Flickr PhotoStream’ – I haven’t used these services for six years or more.

I have no idea what ‘The Knowledge’ was. Presumably not a record of my attempt to learn all 25,000 streets within a six mile radius of Charing Cross. And the less said about this ‘powerful tool’, the better.

On the other hand, there are some corners of the Internet that don’t date. This ridiculous Gnarls Barkley cover was recorded by Don Ross in 2010 and still sounds as fresh as ever.

This man is 10 years older now and, until a couple of days ago, I’d never heard of him. The Internet, sometimes, is cool. The work we do, sometimes, is timeless.

~

At the start of the last decade, I made the decision to apply for an internship at Amnesty International, and to apply for a place at a housing cooperative in London. I was accepted for both and set off on a course that directed my daily life for most of the next six years, and that still tides the general wash of my existence today, ten years later.

Amnesty didn’t really work out. I get strangely paranoid in large office environments and end up feeling stifled and powerless – even when the work is meaningful.

The International Secretariat remains the last open-plan, filing cabinet-filled, water cooler and canteen office I have worked in.

But Amnesty showed me what I did want work to look like: creativity and the outdoors. In 2010, I wrote my first books, including a tale about hitch-hiking to Scotland, The Soles of My Shoes, which is still on sale.

The 2010s was, for me, a decade of exploration. Sanford housing cooperative gave me that formative freedom to write books, start a theatre company, study English teaching, volunteer with refugees in Calais, and cycle around the country.

It wasn’t always healthy living situation, but a housing cooperative is run for the benefit of its members, not for the profit of its landlord. Everyone had a secure tenancy and a vote on how the cooperative was run, including rent-setting.

At the time, it was one of the few places in London where you could actually cover rent with a part-time job or with housing benefit. The rest of the week, then, was ours – to study, volunteer, travel, or create. It sounds like dream fairyland, but it could be the way we organise all our housing in this country.

Could be.

~

I’m glad I left Sanford, though. What my soul needs at the end of 2019 is not the same as it craved when the decade began.

In a 2015 paper published in Psychological Science, researchers found evidence for the instinctual notion that ‘temporal landmarks’ that signal new beginnings – such as the turning of a year – strengthen our motivation to achieve our goals.

Hence New Year’s Resolutions.

But the researchers also found that the bigger the sense of a fresh start, the bigger the motivation. A fresh start puts distance between our present and our past, imperfect, selves. The fresher the start, the greater the psychological distance, and the greater optimism we feel that we can finally overwhelm our ambition.

In a couple of days, we all have the opportunity to ‘spur goal initiation’ on a scale not seen the noughties clicked over into the teens. This gives a surprising weight to these few days that can otherwise slip between the cracks in the festivities of Christmas and New Year.

Turn-of-the-decade decisions echo long in the body, mind and spirit. Those two decisions that I took in early 2010 – Amnesty and Sanford – put me on a path that I was still exploring six years later and which have given me the life I lead today.

A great wave of momentum is coming, bringing with it the freshest of fresh starts – not merely of a new year, but of a whole new decade.

So, in among the minced pies and the turkey soup leftovers, I’m going to clear some time to make a couple of decisions that will set a new course and help me ride that wave long into the twenties.

What life choices will I look back on in 2029? What can I do today to increase the probability that someone, somewhere will find my work in 2029, surprised that it’s ten years old already?

What fresh start will you make in the twenties?

Above: The earliest photo of me taken this decade that I can unearth.

Gandhi was wrong: you already ARE the change

We’ve all heard the famous injuction to be the change you want to see in the world. But these words (often and mistakenly attributed to Gandhi) skip over one far more salient point: each of us already ARE the change in the world.

Every little action (or inaction) we take in every moment of every day has consequences for the world we live in. That is an unassailable fact. We may not feel like we have a vast influence on the future, but we are all an intrinsic part of its creation.

This is something that perhaps we don’t think of an awful lot. We look up to inspirational leaders to make giant leaps forward, forgetting that we are part of the marching crowd.

Continue reading Gandhi was wrong: you already ARE the change

How travel works on the mind

If ever you feel that life isn’t quite lining up, or that your blood isn’t quite circulating as it should, or that you haven’t seen or smelt or heard anything different in a while, take a trip out of your front door and ask strangers how you can help.

That’s what I’ve been doing this past week. Continue reading How travel works on the mind

It’s a wonderful life – isn’t it?

It’s not every day that the premise for a Hollywood film gets turned into a psychology experiment designed to make you feel more satisfied with your life.

But that’s what has happened to Frank Capra’s perennial schmaltz-fest It’s A Wonderful Life. Continue reading It’s a wonderful life – isn’t it?

Viktor Frankl and Man’s Search for Meaning

I read a lot of books. Not a ridiculous quantity, like my sister, but a lot. I also make a lot of spreadsheets. Not a ridiculous quantity, like my dad, but a lot. Putting those two aspects of my nature together, I can tell you things like:

  • I read an average of 32.7 books a year.
  • About a quarter of those will be fiction.
  • I also give up on an average of 6.9 books every year.
  • In the last 5 years, I have given 45 books a rating of 5 out of 5. That’s 27% of all the books I’ve read.
  • Only 1 book in 202 has scored 1 out of 5. Most of the books in this category I don’t finish, and therefore don’t score. This one I finished, and it was irritatingly bad. It was by Jeffrey Archer.

Every now and again I read a book that defies my rating scheme. If I was a different sort of person, a more devil-may-care sort of person, then I’d break my 5-point rating for books like this.

This week I read such a book, after finding out that Alastair Humphreys reads it every year: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Continue reading Viktor Frankl and Man’s Search for Meaning

The Science of Psychedelics and Exceptional Human Experience

“I don’t take reality for granted.”

Weird stuff happens. People really do experience telepathy, alien abduction and pre-cognition.

In the UK, we usually push such stories to one side and either forget about them, or (worse) medicate them. David Luke, Senior Lecturer for Psychology at the University of Greenwich tries to understand them. Continue reading The Science of Psychedelics and Exceptional Human Experience