Why are so many professionals handing in their resignations right now? You might answer that the past 18 months of pandemic-related stress has pushed many people into full-on burnout, and you would not be entirely wrong. 

But if you think about work life before anyone had even heard of Covid-19, you'll probably remember that many of us were chronically stressed before, too (if you need a reminder, here are a few old articles to jog your memory). Without a rampaging virus making a lot of life's pleasures impossible, we just had more ways to distract ourselves from that stress. Chronic stress, in other words, predates the pandemic and solving it long term will take more than changing jobs or giving yourself time off to unwind (though those moves may totally be necessary too). 

What's needed is a reconfiguring of our relationship to work, and computer science professor and author Cal Newport has a simple suggestion for how to do it. On his blog recently, Newport explained how his "20 Percent Rule" might be able to get at the deeper roots of your chronic stress. 

How to uproot your chronic stress 

While the pandemic has presented workers with a parade of horrors, Newport locates the original source of our stress not in the virus but in the ways we manage our workload. 

"Many knowledge workers end up toiling roughly 20 percent more than they have time to comfortably handle," he explains. This happens "as a natural result of leaving knowledge workers to self-regulate their workload. It's difficult for even the most organized and intentional among us to manage a constant influx of requests and messages and project proposals, and, God help us, Zoom meeting invites -- so we default to a simple heuristic: start saying no when we feel stressed, as this provides psychological cover to retreat in an otherwise ambiguous terrain of never-ending potential labor."

The result is a level of stress that is at once sustainable and deeply unpleasant, what Newport calls "the worst possible configuration." And the antidote to 20 percent work overload, Newport claims, is the equal and opposite 20 Percent Rule: Aim to work 20 percent less than you could reasonably handle. 

"If you have a relatively autonomous, entrepreneurial-type job, this would mean saying no to more things. It would also mean, on the daily scale, being more willing to end early, or take an afternoon off to go do something unrelated, or extend lunch to read a frivolous book," he writes. 

An impossible dream?

Applying this rule might sound like career suicide to you, but Newport suspects that far fewer people would see a significant dent in their professional success than you might imagine. 

"How much would this hurt you professionally? As I move deeper into my exploration of slow productivity, I'm starting to develop a sinking suspicion that the answer might be 'not that much,'" he says. "If you worked deeply and regularly on a reasonable portfolio of initiatives that move the needle, and were sufficiently organized to keep administrative necessities from dropping through the cracks, your business probably wouldn't implode, and your job roles would likely still be fulfilled."

He's not the only one insisting that leaving 20 percent slack in your schedule might actually make you more productive overall. A variety of workplace experts have argued that not completely filling your days not only keeps your energy and efficiency up, leading to greater productivity, it also allows room to maneuver when, inevitably, the unpredictable happens. As a result, you can actually accomplish more by working slightly less

This 20 Percent Rule won't work for everyone. Many workers in service jobs have no slack in their budgets to allow for slack in their schedules. If you're a doctor in the middle of a Covid surge, there is no cutting back your hours. And sometimes growing businesses face crunch times that genuinely demand entrepreneurs put in heroic hours. But for most knowledge workers most of the time, the secret to ending your chronic stress could be as simple as targeting a schedule where you work 20 percent less.