The cause of stress

A mannequin lying broken on a street.

When there is stress, there is a mismatch between how things are and how you’d like them to be.

For example, if your bus leaves in three minutes, and you’re still a five-minute walk away, you might feel stress. You’d like to make the bus, but you probably won’t (unless you sprint and get sweaty).

There’s a mismatch between reality (you’re running late) and what you want (you want to be on time).

It follows that you can reduce your stress in one of two ways:

  1. Change how things are
  2. Change how you’d like things to be

If you’re wearing high heels or a suit, you might choose not to run for the bus. You might choose to let go of wanting to be on time, and accept that you’ll be late.

(You could also choose not to change reality or what you want. Not sprinting for the bus, but still wanting to be on time. In that case, you’ll continue to feel stress. Don’t do that!)

When you feel stress, which option to lower your stress should you choose? The more important something is to you, the harder it will be to change what you want.

For example, one of my core values is autonomy. I feel strongly that I should be in control of my own life. Another of my core values is efficiency. I like doing things efficiently, particularly the things that I don’t enjoy, so that I have more time left for fun stuff.

Combine these two values and you’ll see why I really want to be able to control my own schedule. If I worked a nine-to-five job, I would lose the autonomy to schedule my days. I would end up commuting, doing the groceries, and so on, when most other people do them too. And doing everything at peak times is not very efficient.

In fact, this is just the situation I found myself in when I worked in consulting a few years ago. The lack of autonomy and the inefficiency of my work schedule stressed me out.

I had two options: change reality, or put less weight on autonomy and efficiency. The former was much easier for me: I quit my job and eventually started working for myself.

(Working for myself, of course, is just a figure of speech. In reality I work for you, my readers.)

For things that don’t touch your core values, I recommend meditating. Daily meditation has helped me be a tad more accepting of discomfort.

An exercise for you

I’d like to end with an exercise. Ask yourself what causes you stress. Pick something small to begin with.

For example, you might feel stress when you’re running late for work. When you’re sitting in your car in traffic, or waiting for the bus that hasn’t come yet, ask yourself:

  1. How could I reduce this stress by changing reality?
  2. How could I reduce this stress by changing what I want?

Often you’ll find that dissecting the situation this way makes it easier to let go, by choosing the second option.

What causes you stress? And will you choose to change reality or change what you want?

The Complete Calendar: schedule it so you’ll get to it

Open agenda with mock entries

If you’re a knowledge worker, you might have a pretty flexible schedule. It can be hard to manage your time.

And if you don’t manage your time well, you might end up procrastinating, or not getting your most important work done.

Since my recent mini-retirement, I’ve had a lot of freedom, so I’ve experimented with different ways of managing my time. And the latest method I’ve tried is a good one.

Now, this time management method is not perfect. I didn’t like it enough, because I couldn’t make it work while letting me sleep in, as I like to do. But I couldn’t argue with the results: this method made me quite productive. It reduced my stress and my procrastination, so I want to share it with you.

It’s called the Complete Calendar. The idea behind it is that you schedule everything that you want to do.

This means scheduling when you’ll do your hardest work, when you’ll process your email, when you’ll plan your week, and so on. If you’re lucky enough to be self-employed, as I am, you can even extend the scheduling to your life outside of work. You could schedule when you’ll play sports, when you’ll clean the house, and when you’ll get the groceries.

Why schedule everything you want to do, though?

Normally, you might schedule only appointments and meetings. What’s the problem with that?

The problem is that you’re more likely to do the things you’ve scheduled, and less likely to do the things you haven’t. Is it your priority to have meetings and appointments? That’s not my priority. And it probably isn’t yours either.

The logic behind the Complete Calendar is that since you’re more likely to do what you’ve scheduled, you should schedule what you want to do, and not schedule what you don’t want to do. If you follow your schedule, you’ll do more of what you want to do, and less of what you don’t.

The alternative is to let your week happen to you. The alternative is hoping that you’ll have time to get to what you want to do—but in practice, things don’t work out that way.

So to use the Complete Calendar, you list all the things you want to do, and you put them somewhere on your calendar. You do this until your week is full or until you run out of things you want to do.

But where do you start? You start with what’s most important to you.

Start with your deep work

What’s most important is probably your deep work. It’s the work you do that requires intense concentration and effort and it’s the work that produces the most value.

The opposite of doing deep work is doing shallow tasks, busywork. Tasks that make you feel good in the moment for checking off boxes, but that don’t contribute much to long-term productivity.

So figure out how much deep work you’d like to do each day, and put it on your calendar. I like to do this in big chunks of at least 90 minutes, but preferably of two to three hours. Then fit your other work tasks around your deep work.

Now, you might worry that if you block off large chunks of time for your deep work, you won’t have enough time left for those smaller, less important tasks. And while those smaller task may not add as much value, you still need to do them.

In practice, this isn’t a problem. The less important tasks seem to fit in between deep work chunks.

If you schedule five hours of deep work a day, and you work a regular eight-hour workday, that still leaves three hours for all the less important work. Those three hours probably won’t be one long stretch of time, but you don’t need long stretches of time to process your email or to tell your manager what you’ve been up to.

Just last week, I was chatting with someone who schedules his deep work to great effect. This man volunteers for the same organization I do, but in his day job he works full time for a municipal government.

His schedule is bimodal: he schedules half of his week in big chunks, often working from home or from a café so he can work without being interrupted by his team. This is when he does his deep work. The other half of the week, he explicitly makes himself available for his team.

This schedule allows him to be productive, because every week he makes time for his deep work. At the same time, the schedule works for his team, because they know there will be set times when he is available to them.

(In fact, a key to scheduling your week using a Complete Calendar is to communicate. Tell the people you work with what your schedule is, so they know what to expect.)

You don’t have to use the bimodal schedule to use the Complete Calendar method; it’s just one way to use it. The point here is that you shouldn’t dismiss a “deep work” schedule as infeasible for people who are not self-employed.

After you schedule your deep work, ask yourself what your next most important work is. Maybe it’s keeping your manager up to date on your progress. So schedule that. What’s next? Writing a weekly report? Schedule that. Keep scheduling everything you want to do, in order of priority, until you run out of time.

What happens then? In other words, what happens when your schedule is full, but there are still things you want to do that you haven’t scheduled yet?

Getting your priorities straight

If you have 12 things you’d like to get done this week, and you don’t use the Complete Calendar, you might think to yourself on Monday, that’s reasonable, I can get those 12 things done. But if you estimate how much time each things will take, and try to fit all of them onto your calendar, you might realize you can’t do all 12 of those things.

Unless, of course, you give up something else. And that’s the beauty of the Complete Calendar: it forces you to get your priorities straight.

For example, if you want to play sports for six hours a week, schedule six hours of sports on your weekly calendar. You might have to eliminate other things from your schedule to free up those six hours. If you’re not willing to eliminate other things—well, then sports aren’t as high of a priority for you as you thought they were.

In that case, accept your priorities as they are, or change your priorities. Either way, you’re dealing in reality, not in wishful thinking.

A few implementation tips

When I created my Complete Calendar, I got some things right, but I also made some mistakes. Here’s what I learned.

First, if email is a big part of your job, try scheduling when you’ll process your inbox. I process my email once a day, but you could do it two or even three times a day. The key is to schedule when you’ll do it, like you’ll schedule anything else you want to do, so you don’t end up processing your email when you’re supposed to be working on something else. Again, make sure you communicate this to your team.

For example, in my volunteer work, when I started checking my email once a day, I didn’t tell my team. That meant I was a little slow in responding to some urgent questions.

Since then, I have told my team that I check my email once a day, and also that I typically write on weekday mornings, and now they know what to expect. If they need to reach me urgently, they’ll call me or send me a message on WhatsApp.

Second, should you schedule literally everything you do? Of course not. Use your judgment. For instance, I scheduled my weekdays between 9 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. (more or less). That means I scheduled lunch, but not breakfast. I didn’t schedule my daily meditation, because I did that before 9 a.m., but I did schedule processing my emails.

Try keeping what you schedule at a high level. For example, I blocked off time for “writing” and “business development”.

At Cal Newport’s suggestion in Deep Work, I scheduled time each Monday to fill in the details—to plan the work I’d be doing the rest of that week. I used OmniFocus to review my projects and to decide what to work on, but you can use a different system if you like.

Third, having a schedule doesn’t mean your week is now set in stone. Circumstances and priorities can and do change. When they do, just update your plan for the week. Continue to deal in reality.

Fourth, leave some unscheduled time on your calendar. Unexpected things might pop up, or some tasks might take longer than you thought. You can use the unscheduled time to take care of surprises.

Finally, make sure to schedule everything that is a priority for you. For example, I did not schedule time to chat with my parents on the phone, even though that’s something I do a couple of times a week and that is very important to me. That meant that each time I chatted with my parents on the phone, it was while I had something else scheduled. Oops.

Your mileage may vary

Scheduling work ahead of time using the Complete Calendar can eliminate worries about whether you’ll get to a specific task in a given week. If it’s on your calendar, you’ll get to it; if it isn’t, you’ve decided that other tasks are more important. You have clarity.

I also found it helpful not to have to decide in the moment what I would work on. Decision stress is a real thing for me, and if it’s a real thing for you too, that’s an especially good reason to try out the Complete Calendar. The calendar will have you schedule in advance what you’ll do, so in the moment you only have to execute, not plan.

But because we are all wired differently, the Complete Calendar method of managing your time might not be for you. You might find it stifling or boring. Or perhaps it might be somewhat effective for you, but not the best way for you to manage your time.

In fact, while the Complete Calendar method worked for me, I would like to find an even better way to manage my time. Maybe I’ll find a better way; maybe I won’t. But I’ll keep experimenting.

(My next experiment will be to do monk mode mornings. It’s wildly different from the Complete Calendar, so I’m intrigued to see whether it’ll be right for me.)

That’s the real key, anyway: experiment with different ways of managing your time and see what works. Go about it scientifically: set up an experiment, stick to it, and measure the results.

If you haven’t tried the Complete Calendar yet, it’s a great place to start. Give it an honest shot, and let me know why it does or doesn’t work for you.

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Photo credit: James Box

3 things you should do before you take a mini-retirement

A hand writing a checklist in a journal

Are you considering taking an extended break from work? One that will last three months or more?

It could be to travel, to figure out your life’s purpose, to de-stress—or perhaps you want to start your own business.

I call that kind of extended break a mini-retirement. If you’ve been working for a while, I encourage you to take one. In fact, I encourage most people to take mini-retirements throughout their careers!

If you are considering a mini-retirement, what can you do to prepare for it?

Frankly, there’s a lot you can do. But there are three things I recommend you start with.

And the best part? Even if you decide not to take a mini-retirement, you’ll end up better off after you do these things.

1. Get clear on why you’d want to take a mini-retirement. The more precisely you can identify why you’d want to take a mini-retirement, the better prepared you’ll be. Getting super clear on the reason might also teach you about something you could add to your life today.

For example, if you want to take a mini-retirement to travel the world, that’s a clue that having new experiences and meeting new people is important to you.

In that case, could you make regular travel a part of your lifestyle? You could become a remote worker and travel indefinitely. That lifestyle won’t suit everybody, but the point is: if you want to take a mini-retirement to do something, that something must be important to you. And if it’s important to you, why not try to make it a regular or even a permanent part of your life?

When you get that clarity on the purpose of your mini-retirement, you might get clarity on what you want out of your life today, too.

2. Build up savings. A key part of a mini-retirement is that you should assume you will not make any money from it. It’s not out of the question that you’ll make money, especially if you’re taking a mini-retirement to try working for yourself. But you should assume that you won’t.

That means you’ll need savings for your mini-retirement. How much you’ll need depends on what you plan to do. A good starting point is to set aside savings of at least the number of months you plan to take off multiplied by your average monthly expenses as they are today.

If you’re considering taking six months off, for example, set aside savings of at least six times your monthly expenses.

Now, if you don’t know what your monthly expenses are today, put your mini-retirement plans on hold for a bit while you learn to budget. Try You Need a Budget or set up a simple spreadsheet. Just get an idea of how much you spend each month and whether you’d like to change that. And when you’ve done that, come back to preparing for a mini-retirement.

Your expenses would be different during a mini-retirement, so your current budget would only provide a rough estimate of how much you’d need to save up. But a rough estimate is much better than nothing.

For example, during a mini-retirement, you wouldn’t commute to and from work, so you’d save money on transportation. If you plan to travel, though, your transportation expenses would go up substantially. Whatever the case, estimate conservatively.

A word of caution, too: don’t use your emergency fund for a mini-retirement. If you don’t already have an emergency fund, create one first and only then start saving for a mini-retirement.

When you have a budget, an emergency fund, and savings for your mini-retirement, you should have a good chunk of cash in the bank.

If you end up not taking the mini-retirement, you could invest these savings to build wealth and head towards financial independence. Or you could use it to buy a yacht. It’s up to you. But I recommend the former.

Either way, you won’t regret having saved the money.

3. Practice managing your own time. The most difficult thing about taking a mini-retirement, in my experience, is managing your time.

If you work for someone else, your work hours are probably determined for you. Those 40 hours a week plus the time you spend getting to and from work are a huge chunk of your weekly schedule. You might have to plan your work during those hours, but not your personal life.

When you work full time, 8–9 hours of each weekday go into work and commuting. And for another eight hours or so (hopefully) you’ll be sleeping. That leaves 7–8 hours for you to figure out what to do with.

But when you take a mini-retirement, you will lose much of the structure. Suddenly you’ll have 16 hours a day to fill in.

You might still have some obligations (for example, taking your children to school), but you’ll have fewer of them—and handling that is harder than you think.

It took me the better part of a year to learn to schedule my days in a way that I like and that’s productive. I did learn a ton about myself in the process, which is actually one reason why I encourage anyone who works full time to take a mini-retirement sooner or later.

But if you don’t have a year, or you want to put your mini-retirement to good use faster, I encourage you to practice managing your time in advance.

How can you do this? I suggest working from home one or two days a week, if your job allows it. In some jobs that’s literally impossible, such as if you operate machinery in a factory. In others, it’s merely impractical, for example if you’re a corporate trainer and you prefer to work on-site.

But if you are a desk worker, working from home one or two days a week is simply a matter of convincing your employer. For an introduction on working remotely, check out Jason Lengstorf’s remote worker checklist, which lists the skills that you’ll need to do it well.

When you work from home, you’ll have to get stuff done, but you will face different decisions than when you’re at the office. For instance, should you do a grocery run in the middle of the day? It could be convenient and a nice break from work, but you can also spend so much time on chores and errands that you don’t end up getting any work done.

Or what if a friend or family member, who knows you’re at home, asks to visit? Will you have the discipline to say no, or to accept but to reschedule your work for a different time?

Working from home, you can practice the skill of managing your own time, in alignment with your own goals. And that will contribute to making your eventual mini-retirement a success.

What if your job really doesn’t allow you to work from home? Then I suggest simply working four days a week as opposed to five. The downside is that you’ll save a bit less towards your mini-retirement, although the difference may not be as big as you think.

But you’ll get practice managing your own time on your day off. In fact, you’ll probably get more practice compared to working from home, since your day will be less structured when you don’t work at all.

Now that I think about it: why not both? Work from home and work less.

As a bonus, working from home and working less will help you get a taste of whether you’ll actually enjoy doing the thing you plan to do during your mini-retirement.

Start planning!

In short, mini-retirements are fantastic, but to get the most out of them, it helps to prepare. Getting clear on why you’d want to take a mini-retirement, building the savings to pay for one, and practicing managing your own time are the most important things you can do to prepare.

I’d say building the savings is essential (unless you already have enough savings), while defining the why and practicing managing your own time are “only” incredibly valuable to do in advance.

Finally, I’d love to hear whether you are considering a mini-retirement. If so, have you started preparing for one? If not, why not?

How much less do you earn on Fridays?

Abacus

One of the best ways to free up time and energy to achieve your personal goals is simply to work less.

I know, I know, Captain Obvious and all that, but hear me out.

If you work full time now, have you considered working four days a week instead of five? If you work four days, you’ll earn less—but the difference may be smaller than you think.

That’s because in most places, income taxes are progressive: the more you earn, the higher your tax rate. You get to keep less of dollar number thirty thousand you earn than of dollar number one thousand.

In other words, you get paid less per day for each additional day you work.

How much less? Let’s calculate it!

Ask the right question

Let’s start by understanding your situation now, when you work five days a week.

Q. How much do you earn each month for every weekday that you work?

Take your monthly take-home (after-tax) pay and divide it by five. What’s that number?

Let’s say it’s $600. Then you can tell yourself “every day of the week I work is contributing $600 my monthly income”. The Mondays you work give you $600 in monthly income. So do the Tuesdays, the Wednesdays, and so on.

What would happen if you worked four days a week instead of five? You’d work 20% less, but (if you live in a country with progressive taxes) your net income would go down less than 20%. It might go down 15%, or even only 10%.

Another way to look at this is that you earn less working Fridays than you do working Thursdays. (You probably also earn less working Thursdays than you do working Wednesdays, etc.)

But how much less do you earn working Fridays? To answer this question, we need to determine what your monthly take-home pay would be if you worked four days a week.

We can use that information to answer:

  1. By what percentage would your take-home pay decrease if you went from working five days a week to four? In other words, work 20% less, earn x% less. What’s x?
  2. How much does working Fridays contribute to your monthly income? (And thus, for what discount are you working on Friday compared to the first four days of the week?)

Find a tax estimation tool

The easiest way to roughly answer these questions is to use an online tool that will estimate your taxes due on a certain income.

You could look up your location’s tax rate schedule yourself, but then you’d have to keep track of deductions and exemptions too. They can substantially change your take-home pay, so you won’t want to ignore them. It’s easier and quicker to use a tool that accounts for them for you.

I’ll use the tax rates where I live (The Netherlands) as an example. In your case, the currency may be dollars or rupees or what have you, and the percentages might be different. But the calculation method will be the same.

Here’s the basic Dutch tax schedule:

IncomeTax rate
Up to €19,98136.55%
€19,982 – €67,07140,80%
€67,072 and up52%

There are also some deductions; the tax estimation tool I use will account for them.

Calculate your take-home pay for a four-day workweek

Let’s say you live in The Netherlands and you earn €3,000 per month working full time. This handy calculator estimates your take-home pay would be €2,230 per month.

(If you live in the U.S., try using the SmartAsset tax estimator to run your own numbers.)

If you work four days a week instead (at the same full-time wage), your gross income would be 80% of €3,000, or €2,400. And the tool estimates that your take-home pay would be €1,914.

Compare!

Now we can answer the first question: if you work 20% less, you’ll only earn (1 – €1,914 / €2,230) * 100% = 14% less. Worth considering, isn’t it?

And what about the other way of looking at it? What does working Fridays earn you?

We know that working four days a week earns you €1,914, which is €1,914 / 4 = €479 per weekday that you work. And if you work that fifth day, your take-home pay would increase by €2,230 – €1,914 = €316.

Now, €316 / €479 * 100% = 66%. So in this example, you’d work for 34% less pay on Fridays than you would on Mondays through Thursdays if you worked four days a week. Would you accept that?

Obviously, these calculations are only an example. The numbers might work out differently for you. It’s possible that at your income level, the tax schedule isn’t progressive, so that working 20% less results in 20% less take-home pay, more or less.

But you won’t know until you do the math! So I’m curious: how much less do you earn on Fridays?

Photo credit: Anssi Koskinen

How to respond when you don’t follow through on a habit: three simple steps

A hand of a person beginning to write on a notebook with a pencil.

How should we respond if we intend to do something daily, and we miss a day?

Consistently executing on healthy habits is a crucial part of an effective lifestyle strategy. But with any habit, we’ll probably miss a day now and then.

We might skip a workout to have drinks with coworkers, or we might give in to the temptation to eat junk food rather than cooking a healthy meal.

How we respond when this happens goes a long way in determining whether the healthy habit will stick.

That’s why I’ll share three simple steps you can take when you don’t follow through on a given day. These steps will help the habit stick, while making sure you are kind to yourself.

Three steps to take after you didn’t follow through on a habit

The first step is to admit to yourself that you didn’t follow through today.

While this sounds easy, it often isn’t. It’s natural for us to look for reasons why we didn’t succeed today.

We might tell ourselves, Well, given the circumstances, it makes sense that I didn’t follow through on my intention.

But when we do this, we try to shift the responsibility to someone or something else.

Instead, take responsibility for the problem. Think, Whatever the circumstances were, it’s my responsibility to make sure I do follow through tomorrow.

Taking ownership of the problem this way will put you in a constructive frame of mind.

The second step is to be kind toward yourself.

Even though it is our responsibility to make time for the things we want to do, that doesn’t mean we are at fault for not following through.

It’s not constructive to focus on the reason that caused us not to follow through, or on whose “fault” it is. If we focus on that, we might only feel worse, creating resistance to the habit.

Instead, be kind to yourself. Say, Regardless of what happened today, I’ll focus on how to succeed tomorrow.

Then, take that final step: set yourself up to succeed tomorrow.

In other words: help Future You out.

If you didn’t follow through on a habit today because you couldn’t find the time for it, schedule time for it on your calendar for tomorrow.

If you had the time, but you just couldn’t make yourself do it, ask someone to remind you to do it at a specific time tomorrow. If you were too tired, go to sleep earlier.

Setting yourself up to succeed tomorrow is really just another way to be kind to yourself.

You’re not alone

I’m sharing these steps with you because I struggle with following through on my habits all the time.

In fact, this topic came to my mind last Friday morning, when I sat down to write. Unfortunately, I hadn’t decided in advance what to write about.

That’s a big writing no-no and, predictably, it led to a total disaster. I couldn’t pick a topic I felt like writing about, so I started browsing the Internet, messaging people, doing the dishes…

Like I said, a total disaster.

So how did I deal with it? I followed the three steps.

First, I admitted to myself that my writing session was a failure. Then, I told myself it was okay—that this happens sometimes.

And then I immediately took action to help Future Peter out. Right then, I set a topic for the next day’s writing. I also made a note for later to decide not just on the next day’s, but also the next week’s writing topics in advance. And then I moved on with my day.

The next morning, I knew what to write about, and the writing session went well.

These steps worked for me and I think they’ll work for you.

So next time when you don’t follow through on something you intended to do, try using these three steps. They will let you be a little kinder towards yourself, and set you up for long-term success.

Win the day with a successful morning routine

Statue of Rocky, in Philadelphia

What you do soon after you wake up has big consequences for the rest of your day.

Have you deliberately designed a morning routine, or do you just do what you feel like until you have to get ready?

For over a year, I’ve been experimenting with various morning routines. The number one thing I learned?

Do Your Most Important Thing soon after you wake up.

For me, that’s writing. Actually, it’s preparing and eating a healthy breakfast, and then writing for two hours.

What’s yours? Chances are, Your Most Important Thing is also one of the most difficult things to do. That’s exactly why you should do it soon after you wake up, for two reasons.

First, your willpower will be at its highest early in your day. If you set up your morning routine right, your brain won’t have been overloaded yet with instant messages, “urgent” emails, and funny YouTube videos.

Your willpower will be high, so you’re more likely to do the thing. Now what’s the second reason?

If you do Your Most Important Thing early in your day every day, it becomes a habit. And when something is a habit, it takes less willpower to do it, making it even more likely you’ll do the thing.

When I began the latest iteration of my morning routine, I started writing each morning only because I didn’t want to disappoint myself. I started writing reluctantly.

But after a few weeks, something happened. I conditioned my brain to expect to have to write after breakfast. And that dramatically reduced my resistance to sitting down to write.

Cal Newport wrote about this idea in Deep Work and it works like a charm. If you do something at the same time every day, you will need much less willpower to do it.

What you need to do is to figure out what is Your Most Important Thing, and then design a routine so you do that thing early in your day. That’s it.

As a bonus, after you complete Your Most Important Thing, you can feel awesome for the rest of the day .

In fact, after I write for two hours, I throw up my arms like Rocky and I shout “I WIN! I WIN!”

Because I did win. I beat my limited willpower reserve. And you can beat yours too, if you design your morning routine this way.

First, identify Your Most Important Thing. Then commit to doing it early in your day, every day, starting tomorrow or next Monday. Leave a comment here telling me what you plan to do, to increase your accountability.

And don’t forget to shout “I WIN!”