The Stress Heuristic

Cal Newport, author of the beloved Deep Work (among others), writing in The New Yorker.

…most workers who are fortunate enough to exert some control over their efforts—such as knowledge workers and small-business entrepreneurs—tend to avoid working way too much, but also tend to avoid working a reasonable amount. They instead exist in a liminal zone: a place where they toil, say, for the sake of fixing a specific number, twenty percent more than they really have time for. This extra twenty percent provides just enough overload to generate persistent stress—there’s always something that’s late, always a message that can’t wait until the next morning, always a nagging sense of irresponsibility during any moment of downtime. Yet the work remains below a level of unsustainable pain that would force a change.

If you’re a professor, or a mid-level executive, or a freelance consultant, you don’t have a supervisor handing you a detailed work order for the day. Instead, you’re likely bombarded with requests and questions and opportunities and invites that you try your best to triage. How do you decide when to say no? In the modern office context, stress has become a default heuristic. If you turn down a Zoom-meeting invitation, there’s a social-capital cost, as you’re causing some mild harm to a colleague and potentially signaling yourself to be uncoöperative or a loafer. But, if you feel sufficiently stressed about your workload, this cost might become acceptable: you feel confident that you are “busy,” and this provides psychological cover to skip the Zoom. The problem with the stress heuristic is that it doesn’t start reducing your workload until you already have too much to do. Like Parkinson’s naval bureaucracy, which expanded at a regular rate regardless of the size of the Navy, this stress-based self-regulation scheme ensures that you remain moderately overloaded regardless of how much work is actually pressing.

“The Stress Heuristic” is a great term for people’s default strategy for avoiding more work: being literally too busy for more work.

But while saying ‘no’ is easiest when saying ‘yes’ is impossible, it forces you to live without margin. And margin–space in your life for yourself, serendipity, and the chance to chase down things of interest–is where the magic happens.

Even for academics, consider the words of psychologist Amos Tversky (whose work with Daniel Kahneman yielded the Nobel-prize-winning Prospect Theory and the crazy popular book Thinking, Fast and Slow): “The secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours.”

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