Lesson One: How to finally stop feeling stressed and guilty

In one week, I’m going to be reopening my course on how to learn effectively, Rapid Learner. This is a course for students, professionals and lifelong learners to manage their limited time available for learning and get the most accomplished.

Before I open registration, I’m going to be sharing a free four-part lesson series, highlighting some of the key ideas from the course. The remaining three lessons will only be sent to my newsletter subscribers, so if you’d like to get the other lessons as they appear, be sure to subscribe:

Stress and Guilt

These are two emotions familiar to most students. The first is the most obvious, stress. That feeling you get when you have looming deadlines or important exams that you feel unprepared for. Stress can cause you to hate subjects you would otherwise love, mess up your health and relationships and make you feel miserable.

The other emotion, guilt, is also common, particularly when the threat of deadlines and failures has been taken away. This is the feeling you have when you know you should be learning something, but you’re wasting time instead. It’s the nagging feeling you have when you procrastinate or the itch on the back of your mind that something that should be getting done isn’t.

In this lesson, I’m going to explain why these two feelings have the same root cause, and how you can change how you approach your work and studies to avoid them.

An Outdated System

Every moment, our brain needs to make decisions about what we’re going to do. We can decide to work hard and get ahead, or we can decide to slack off and relax. How we make that decision is complicated, but the modular view of the mind which suggests that different parts of ourselves compete to have a voice in that decision.

I would argue that stress and guilt form an important system for decising when to get things done. Stress and fatigue is the voice telling you to avoid working. Guilt is the voice telling you that you probably should work. Whichever voice is stronger tends to win out.

These forces can both be pushing you strongly. That is to say, it’s possible to feel both extremely stressed and guilty at the same time. You can have both forces at max, which can make the feeling very unpleasant, even if motivationally, you’re not working particularly hard.

This system is the default system most of us use for making decisions about when to work. It’s very likely that it evolved much earlier in our evolutionary history, and thus reflects certain assumptions about the costs and benefits of working hard, from an environment that no longer exists.

Our ancestors, prior to farming, often had short working days and plenty of leisure time. The eight-hour workweek is a relatively recent invention. As are literacy, numeracy and much of the intellectual activity we would call studying. They didn’t exist as such in the past, so we have inherited a system for motivating our behavior that is often out of sync with our current realities.

Nowhere is this mismatch more obvious than with foods. Obesity is rising because we have easy access to foods with more fat and sugar than our ancestors had, all while allowing us to live more sedentary lifestyles.

I believe the case is similar with our stress and guilt system. It’s a useful system that has gotten out of pace with our current working reality. As a result, we often experience unnecessary distress as part of learning and getting things done.

A Tale of Two Systems

The alternative to relying on the system of stress and guilt, is to rely on a different system. Instead of deciding when and how much to work based on your internal moods, you base it on a system with simple rules that you commit to in advance.

There are different systems that will do the job here, and we cover them fully in Rapid Learner. Today, I just want to highlight the essential features of a system and suggest just one.

The essential features of a system, if it is to successfully replace guilt and stress in forming the decision procedure for much of your work, are as follows:

  1. The system must tell you what work to do.
  2. The system must tell you what work not to do.
  3. The system must tell you when to work.
  4. The system must tell you when not to work.

That’s it. Four decisions. What to do, what not to do. When to work, when not to work.

If you have a system that provides simple answers to these questions and works effectively (meaning it actually delivers the results you desire if you follow it), you’ll start trusting the system. Instead of relying on your gut feelings about whether you need to work or quit, you’ll have faith that sticking to the system will lead to results. Feelings of guilt and stress will go down, and you’ll get more done to boot.

———

The System that Doubled My Output

Now that you understand the main idea, I want to outline one such system I started using almost ten years ago that caused me to push through a lot of my own guilt and stress issues. What’s more, I ended up getting about twice as much done after I started using it.

The system is called Weekly/Daily Goals, and it is quite simple. It breaks down to a few rules:

  1. Every Sunday, make a new to-do list called “Weekly Goals” with your goals for the week.
  2. Every night, make a new to-do list called “Daily Goals”, based on the Weekly Goals and any extra smaller tasks and errands, as your goals for tomorrow.
  3. When working, only focus on the Daily Goals. When you’re finished all of them, you’re done work for the day, no need to keep working.

This is a strange way of working, I’ll admit. Most of us, when we’re getting more done than expected, push ourselves to do even more, we don’t quit.

However, I’ve found, correctly calibrated, that this system works quite well. The reason is that it incentivizes you to get things finished. Instead of procrastinating, you want to get things done because then you can relax guilt-free later.

Second, this system lasers in your focus on a small number of tasks to work on. It’s very easy to get overwhelmed by the mountain of projects, goals and deadlines ahead of you. With that big picture, slacking off for one day may not seem like it will matter. However, when you focus exclusively on the daily goals, you’re zoomed in on what really matters.

The purpose of the weekly goals is to add a slightly longer time horizon. Daily goals themselves can get harder to schedule if you don’t have a bigger picture for the week ahead. However, the daily goals remain the object of focus while you’re actually working. The weekly goals are just used when making the daily goals lists.

Calibration is an important phase in this process. Even though the rules are simple, it takes a little bit of working to figure out the right amount of work to schedule, and how to handle problems like genuinely scheduling too much work, or if tasks become impossible due to changing circumstances. In Rapid Learner, I cover how to deal with these small details and more, but for now it suffices to say that experimenting with the broad outlines of the system should give you a good starting point.

Now it’s your turn.

I don’t want you to just sit passively and read these lessons, I want you to take action and try out new ideas and tools that have the potential to improve your life. Here’s what I want you to do (if you haven’t already):

  1. Make a to-do list for the day.
  2. Try sticking to finishing just that list.
  3. Note the time in the day when you finished everything.

My guess is that in 80% of cases, most people are surprised at how fast everything got done. This isn’t always the case, but it happens often enough that on average, you should see your productivity increasing. Why? For the very reason I suggested—by focusing on a small subset of tasks that allow you to relax afterwards—you’re highly motivated to work, bypassing the normal emotionally exhausting system of stress and guilt.

That’s it for today’s lesson, tomorrow I’ll be back with an explanation of three studying tactics you’ve probably used that are terrible for learning (and what you should do instead). If you would like to get the remaining three lessons, be sure to join my newsletter.

 

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  • Great ideas about creating systems that work for you. I have certain “organic” systems in place like you suggest that I follow. Everything flows and I’m very productive. Thanks for sharing!

  • Bo

    Nothing new than daily to-do list. Many people have suggested that.

  • Bo Yu

    Scott, maybe you can teach us on how to stick to this system… I found it hard to keep doing it.

  • Write it down… on your Calendar, if it’s not on your calendar – it won’t get done. You don’t need to know more than this. Sometimes the simplest things are often the best solutions.

  • Даниил Азовских

    Thank you Scott. I agree with Bo, daily goals is nothing new. Tell us how to get rid of guilty feeling after the completion all planned daily goals, but there is still a bunch of unfulfilled tasks. I think everyone will face it, when start using your system.

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