When you’re scared, be a scientist

A scientist peering into a machine.

You’re having drinks at a bar when you notice your partner flirting with someone attractive. Alarm! Alarm!

“Who’s that guy she’s talking to? Has she told me about him? What does he want?”

We all get scared sometimes, even if we don’t always realize it when it happens. We feel distressed in some vague way, but only when we look closely do we realize that what we are feeling is fear.

After you silence the alarm bells, you might think about your reaction for a minute. Logically, you know you have nothing to worry about. What your partner is doing is harmless. She loves you.

Yet you felt jealous. Why is there a disconnect between rational thought and your feelings?

It’s time to don your lab coat and your goggles. 👨🏻‍🔬

Simply ask why, repeatedly:

  1. Alarm bells went off in your head. Why?
  2. You felt jealous. Why?
  3. You didn’t like your partner flirting with someone attractive. Why?
  4. If she flirts with someone, that must mean she likes him—and I don’t like that. Why?
  5. I worry that if she likes him, she might leave me for him. Why?
  6. I am afraid of being alone.

Eventually, you can’t go any deeper. You’ll arrive at something that simply produces fear in your body. We can call this your root fear. In the example above, the root fear is the fear of being alone. This is a common and powerful fear.

You might not identify your root fear the first time you go through the exercise. But if you keep investigating, eventually you will.

My own root fear is that I am somehow “not good enough”.  So my list of “whys” might look like this:

  1. I’m about to meet a new group of people. I feel nervous. Why?
  2. I feel nervous because I worry that these people might not like me. Why?
  3. I want them to like me. Why?
  4. If they don’t like me, I might worry that I’m not a likable person. Why?
  5. I need validation from others that I am likable. Why?
  6. I’m scared of “not being good enough”.

Once you figure out your sequence of whys and you identify your root fear, you might feel immense relief. Simply understanding what’s going on, even without being able to affect your emotions, can make a huge difference.

Now, I believe that sharing our fears makes those fears less powerful. That’s why I’m telling you about my root fear.

I would love for you to share your root fear as well. What do you think it is?

Yours,

— Peter

The #1 way to worry less

Several groups of balloons floating through the sky.

I’m not the calmest guy around.

If you’ve never met me in person, let’s just say I’m more high-energy than I am Buddhist monk.

But I used to be a lot more stressed than I am today and I’ve learned quite a bit about how to feel calmer. So this thing I’m about to share with you—it works. I speak from experience.

See, worrying sucks.

In the vast majority of cases, the stress you induce by worrying harms you more than the thing you worry about would, if it happened.

If you could let go of some of your worries, you’d feel calmer. You would make space for positive experiences. You would be more relaxed.

You probably know this, but you worry anyway. Here’s what I would do to start letting go.

First, learn to notice when you’re worrying. Next time you think you’re doing nothing, pay attention to any worries that come up. You can do this in everyday moments: when you’re waiting for your train, when you’re riding the elevator, or when you’re waiting in line for lunch.

Second, when you do notice a worry, acknowledge it. If you like, tell yourself “hey, there’s a worry (about x) again”.

For example, I often notice worries about how the rest of my day will unfold. I try to plan what I’ll do next, what I’ll do after that, and so on. I notice worries that I’ll get “behind schedule”. So when I notice such a worry, I tell myself “hey, there’s a worry about getting behind schedule again”.

Third, let the worry go. What does that mean? It means: don’t engage with the worry. Don’t feed it by thinking the worrisome situation through. After acknowledging that the worry is there, go back to whatever else you were doing.

That means that if you were standing in line, you shift your attention back to standing in line. 

It might feel scary at first not to engage a worrying thought. I’m asking you to let go of some control, and even if that control is imaginary, letting go of it can feel scary. But with practice, you’ll notice that things turn out fine when you let go of some of your worries.

Then, when you notice your worry again, let it go again. Repeat this process of letting go every time you notice a worry.

You might not become the calmest guy or gal around, but I’m sure you’ll feel just a little more relaxed.

Yours,

— Peter

This mindset upgrade can stop your work from taking over your life

A closed laptop on a desk, with glasses and a mouse.

“I don’t want anything to do with a 9-to-5 mentality”, a freelance developer I ran into boasted. “I work (almost) 24/7.”

Maybe this particular developer thrives when he spends almost all of his waking hours working. But for most of us, it is incredibly harmful to let our work take over our lives like that.

I don’t advocate that we all work from nine to five and then refuse to think about work in the evenings and on the weekends. Far from it! Instead, I advocate taking plenty of breaks from work, which makes us healthier and more productive.

How can we make it easier to take restful breaks from work? How do we stop our work from preoccupying our minds? The key is to accept this one fact:

There will always be more work.

At the end of a work session, there might be things you didn’t get to. You might have many unread emails. You could try to stem the tide by working longer hours, but that’s not sustainable.

Instead, try this:

  • Do your work in order of importance. If you find yourself wanting to do more than you can each day, it helps to complete your most important tasks first. That way, the leftover tasks that you don’t get to aren’t the ones that you’ll regret not having done.
  • Institute a shutdown ritual. If you work fixed hours, you can create a five-minute ritual at the end of your work day that lets your brain and your body know that it’s time to relax. It doesn’t have to be anything spiritual!
  • Take stock of what you did do. Reframe the situation from a negative one (what you didn’t get to) to a positive one (what you did get to). It will remind you of what you’re proud to have accomplished.

It takes effort to internalize the fact that there will always be more work. But the closer you get, the healthier your relationship with your work will be.

Yours,

— Peter

“How much should I save?”

A calculator, notebook, pen, and some dollar bills.

Let’s say you want to save enough money so that you don’t have to work anymore for the remainder of your life.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

If that’s your goal, and if you invest your savings well, here’s how many years you can expect to have to work:

Savings percentage (of your net income)Years until financial independence
566
1051
1543
2037
2532
3028
3525
4022
4519
5017
5514.5
6012.5
6510.5
708.5
757
805.5
854
90Less than three
95Less than two

(Table and calculations courtesy of Mr. Money Mustache in “The Shockingly Simple Math Behind Early Retirement”.)

There are details and assumptions and we can talk about those if you’d like. But the big picture is this:

If you save 50% of your net paycheck every month, you can expect to have to work only 17 years instead of the usual four decades or so.

I mean, work is great: it can give your life purpose, it can make you feel proud, it can be quite social, and it can be your way of contributing to society.

But there might be times in your life when you’d enjoy not having to work. For example, when you and your partner have a baby. Or when a friend invites you on a nine-month backpacking trip. Or perhaps when you need a break after a particularly busy year at your firm.

You might also discover, at some point, that you want to spend the rest of your life doing things that you consider valuable, but that don’t make you any money.

So if you’re wondering how much to save and you want to be financially free, use the table above.

Yours,

— Peter

A rant against forced lifestyle choices

A sailboat.

Do you like it when others are in charge of your money?

In The Netherlands, most people are forced to save for their retirement.

Companies take a percentage of your paycheck and invest it for you. Some people can choose from a handful of options to take more risk for a higher potential reward. Others have no say at all in how their money is invested.

If you work here, chances are you can’t access these savings—your savings—before you reach the official retirement age, which is currently set at 67. Even when you do reach that age, you don’t get your money back all at once; you receive monthly payments.

There’s something to be said for this system: it helps people who are not financially literate or who don’t have the discipline to save. By forcing everyone who works to save, fewer people will be broke when they reach old age.

But there is also something unfair about forcing people to save and not letting them spend their money as they wish. What if you want access to your savings to buy a boat when you’re 40? Too bad. What if you never reach retirement age? Tough luck.

I wouldn’t say it’s theft—taxes aren’t theft either—but this scheme does share the characteristic of theft that someone else takes your money and that you no longer get to spend that money as you wish.

More generally, this pension system perpetuates the notion that it is normal and good to work forty hours a week most weeks from your early twenties until your late sixties.

The more I talk to people, the more I’m convinced that this standard work schedule causes a lot of unhappiness. It stresses people out, it bores people, it doesn’t allow for enough rest to reach maximum productivity, and it wastes an awful lot of time by forcing people to simultaneously commute in huge numbers every day.

Of course, in The Netherlands as in most places, you can save extra money in addition to the forced savings. And that’s exactly what I’d recommend to anyone who lives here and who has a job.

Don’t let others decide how many years you have to show up to an office before you “deserve” to get your money back. Take matters into your own hands by saving extra money, so you can do what you want with your life when you want to do it.

Yours,

— Peter