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?
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- Shift away from orthodox time management that promotes a stress-inducing ‘economic mindset’
- 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)
- 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 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!