I’ll tell you how it’s done. I’ll tell you what to do when you’ve invited people over and you’re afraid... AFRAID THEY’LL SEE YOUR HOUSE!
The House of the Black Lagoon
Revenge of the House
The Evil House
Et cetera. Just say it looks haunted and leave it at that.
All that’s happening is anxiety. Anxiety over anticipated conversations that haven’t actually happened (yet?). Anxiety over feared criticism and contempt. Anxiety about spending time with people you don’t really want to spend time with, people you don’t realize you’re allowed to uninvite. Maybe there’s also some shame, for whatever reason, and guilt that you haven’t lived up to some standard you think you’re supposed to care about more than you do. You don’t have to do this - you can just throw your hands in the air and say, “[***] it!” (Insert interjection of choice).
If the rigors of hosting a major holiday are too much stress for you, a simple way to get out of it is just to revolt. Answer the door in your jim-jams, hair unbrushed, and offer to order pizza. If everyone wants to come back next year, that’s good information. If they don’t, hey, freedom!
You’re doing it, though. You’re going to run around, feeling the delightful terror of the looming deadline, and you’re going to commit to the FRANTIC CLEANING!
Where do you start?
What I’ve just described is the genesis of squalor and chronic disorganization. A traumatic experience, such as relocating to a new home, results in a frantic round of “scoop and stuff.” (Grab everything within view and stuff it into plastic grocery bags). Often there’s a physical rebound, like a headache or a cold. The aftermath of the frantic cleaning becomes the new background, invisible to the occupants. Nobody ever goes back and sorts out the papers or “catches up” on the laundry. Each traumatic event, injury, illness, visit, or whatever creates a new layer. It’s hard. It’s hard to force yourself to start digging out. Anyone would think so! The home environment becomes a visible manifestation of psychic pain. Just looking at it makes everything feel worse.
Wherever you live, it’s your home. If you were a wild beast, it would be your nest, your burrow, your warren, or your den. You’re entitled to feel comfortable and safe there. Your home isn’t a social display, not unless you want it to be. You don’t have to arrange it for status or prestige. You should, though, feel that sense of comfort and safety. If you don’t like the feeling of being in your home, do what needs to be done, and do it for yourself. Imagine the gift of looking around and liking everything you see.
Just... imagine it while you’re cleaning! Now, hop to it! Best of luck to you.
There’s certainly some frustration out there among people who don’t want to be told to be grateful on command. It’s a sort of privilege shaming. “You shouldn’t feel X because you have Y.” Nobody has to be grateful for anything. You don’t even have to be grateful for having an audience to listen to you complain and reject the pressure to be grateful. Pessimism and cynicism are there for the taking, free, in unlimited quantities, and you don’t have to be grateful for them, either. I say that gratitude is mandatory for two reasons. One, it’s a cultural trend, and if you can’t do it with genuine fervor, then you should at least know how to fake it. Two, gratitude is generally the logical choice. It makes more sense, and life is easier when it makes sense.
The case for gratitude.
Say you’re traveling to visit a group of people and you’re, at best, ambivalent about the trip. You have the option of being grateful for your mode of transportation. As bad as it is, presumably it isn’t an open-air horse cart. Presumably you aren’t being splattered with wet mud as you go along.
You also have the option of being grateful that all of the people at your shindig are currently alive. None of them have died of cancer and none of them have committed suicide. Maybe you know several people who fit that description. Given that truly sad set of circumstances, a person with that history would have even more cause to appreciate the continuing aliveness of those around the table.
You have the option of being grateful for the food. Oh, you don’t have to. There are plenty of terrible cooks out there, plenty of dried-out turkeys and boats of lumpy gravy and other horrors. I’m going to insist on this one, though, because I’ve gone hungry. If you can’t be grateful for a plate of hot food, get over it. Get over yourself and thank the cook.
You have the option of being ungrateful for anything I’ve mentioned so far. Of course! Nobody wants to be bludgeoned with the logical need to be impressed with the status quo. Can you be genuinely ungrateful for your literacy, though? For your ability to access the internet, use modern electronic equipment, and read these words?
I often use contrarian methods to remind myself to be grateful. I’m grateful I’m not in a coma. I’m grateful I can breathe without equipment. I’m grateful I can walk unaided. I’m grateful I have all of my fingers and toes. I’m grateful I don’t need a root canal. I’m grateful we aren’t having a power failure. I’m grateful the water in my building is turned on. I’m grateful my neighbors aren’t playing loud music (right now). I’m grateful my dog doesn’t need emergency veterinary surgery. I’m grateful we aren’t being audited by the IRS. I’m grateful not to be caught up in an addiction. I’m grateful I don’t have a misspelled tattoo.
There are better reasons. I’m grateful that my favorite authors have written my favorite books. I’m grateful that my favorite musicians made recordings of my favorite songs. I’m grateful for 24-hour grocery stores and pharmacies. I’m grateful for Wikipedia. I’m grateful for the public library and the fact that there’s a branch within walking distance of my apartment. I’m grateful we have a garbage disposal.
I’m grateful that spiders can’t fly. (Spiders are on my mind today, because one was crawling in my sheets this morning, and it was the first thing I saw when I woke up, and I have to be grateful that it didn’t bite me).
Gratitude comes easily to me, because my life was much tougher ten years ago than it is today. Gratitude is also easy after someone close to you has passed away, or at least I think so. I do a mental head count every day. Even when someone is annoying me, I’m still glad I’m not at their funeral. Gratitude is, in my case, born of great sadness and past disappointment. I’ve come to believe that anything I am not sufficiently grateful for will be taken from me, and quickly. I’d better appreciate it to the fullest while I still have it, while it still exists to be appreciated.
Gratitude also comes easily to me because I’m an optimist. I’ve found that allowing myself to give way to awe and wonder and curiosity makes for the most interesting possible life. It often seems to me that a lack of gratitude comes from a distinct lack of imagination and creativity. Maybe, when we aren’t able to force ourselves to feel gratitude for anything, maybe we should try to create something for which it is worth feeling grateful?
You might not be, but I am grateful for your continued existence and well-being, for the fellowship of your friends and family, for the blessings in your life. I wish you, dear reader, the happiest of seasons, and more bounty tomorrow than you have today.
Change Your Day, Not Your Life. That's a tricksy kind of a claim. How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives, as Annie Dillard reminds us. Thinking about this too hard can be really intimidating and discouraging - unless, that is, you start reading Andy Core. He has a way of making change seem easy and worth doing.
Part of how Core approaches the problem of change is by identifying why we don't do what we know we should do. He has a master's degree in the science of human performance, and he spends his days coaching the reluctant, the burned-out, and the frustrated. He's heard it all. We recognize ourselves on the very first page, when he presents the idea of "Motivational Amnesia," which is when our motivation seems to appear and disappear of its own accord. I know I often ask myself why I chose to go on this run or this hike, usually when my last meal starts wearing off.
Change Your Day, Not Your Life has a lot to say about managing your energy level. Anyone who feels too tired and stressed out to make any positive changes should really spend some time with this book. There are lists of things all of us could be doing to feel better and have more energy every day. I liked the idea of calling your workout "appointment with Jim" instead of "go to gym." Then nobody has to know. We don't do these things to impress other people, anyway; we do it for ourselves.
There are some very simple, embraceable ideas here. For instance, split your lunch in half and save half of it for late afternoon. Quit hitting the snooze button, because snoozing just makes you more tired and groggy. Lay out your morning stuff the night before. Dance with your kids right when you get home. These are EASY ideas, people! We have to ask ourselves why it's so hard to implement changes that take five minutes or less - or we can just read Change Your Day, Not Your Life.
One of the most useful concepts I took from this book was the idea of the "junk hour." Oh no. I will never be able to shake that phrase out of my mind. The next time I find myself scrolling through icons from my various bookmarks, queues, and playlists, not realizing how much time is passing, the words "junk hour" are going to go floating through my mind. The ways we spend our junk hours are infinite, but the hours themselves... are finite. Alas.
The freakiest thing I learned was that only one percent of people surveyed actually love their jobs. ONE PERCENT! Maybe we torture ourselves, doing things that lower our energy level, because we feel trapped by work? Or maybe we wouldn't mind our jobs so much if we did better at managing our energy level.
Andy Core has written a funny, surprising book about how things can be a little easier than we think. He emphasizes that we focus less on self-criticism than on action, that we forgive ourselves, that we remind ourselves to stay in today. This is how you can Change Your Day, Not Your Life.
Favorite quote: "Make a quality decision to change."
Perfectionists think that perfectionism is a positive trait. It’s the kind of fake flaw that we’ll mention in job interviews. “What is your worst flaw?” Okay, first of all, come on. Nobody is going to be honest about this question, particularly because we usually don’t even know our worst flaws. That’s what’s so bad about them. I’m not going to cop to having no sense of the passage of time, hating to be told what to do, taking everything personally, or thinking my bosses are never as smart as me. I’m going to say that I focus too hard and forget to take breaks. Someone else is going to claim to be excessively punctual. Anyone who is a perfectionist is going to take this opportunity to brag about it. In business as in life, perfectionism is a serious obstacle to success and happiness.
Copy-editing people on the internet is still a thing. Look, adults are basically already at the level of linguistic competence that they’re going to reach. They’re never going to remember how to use apostrophes or that ‘defiantly’ is not the same word as ‘definitely.’ It’s a lost cause. Correcting someone else’s spelling, grammar, or punctuation is mean, rude, and classist. More importantly, it’s a waste of time. Don’t you have anything better to do?
I used to say that I would only remarry if I met a man who could beat me at Scrabble. Then I fell for a rocket scientist who can’t spell. He can do calculus in his head but he has trouble doing web searches because Google is like, “I got nothing.” Helpless in my affections, I adjusted my expectations. Perfectionism has no place in love. Or friendship. Or parenting. Or business. Or anything really.
I’d love a world where we replace perfectionism with kindness. Hey, it’s an ideal. Barring that, let’s focus more on two other things: performance and process.
Performance is a result. Process is a routine. For instance, when I’m looking at fitness, I’m completely discarding the concept of a “perfect body.” I want performance, my actual physical ability to do things, and I want process, my observable adherence to my training plan. I want to aim at specific metrics and I want to tailor my training in such a way that I can eventually reach those metrics. If I want to run five miles, I need to schedule regular running sessions and focus on increasing my distance. If I want to run a ten-minute mile pace, then I need to schedule regular running sessions and do speed work. I’m grading myself on how well I adhere to my schedule and how hard I push myself. I’m grading my performance and my process, checking that my plan is working, that the work I’m doing is helping me to reach my end goals. The moment I reach my goals, I set new goals. There can be no perfectionism for an athlete because there can never be a moment of complacency. Either you’re striving for a new challenge, or you’re retiring.
Let’s carry this over to career success. The athletic mindset is very similar to the business mindset, and there’s a huge amount of crossover. You seek out a challenge. You have an internal drive to work hard. Obstacles are part of the course. You show up even when you’re tired and you push yourself even when you’re not in the mood. You actively seek out tough coaches. Trash talk from your opponents merely inspires you to show off what you can do. Effort is your default mode. You’re a finisher. Your dream is to set a new record. You want the best. You’re showing up (process) and delivering results (performance), and you’re always refining both because that’s what interests you the most.
Perfection is not the best. Perfection is static. Perfection thinks it can stand around sunning itself. Perfection is a snapshot, while process is a film. Perfection thinks it’s done, while performance knows there’s always more to do. Perfection thinks it’s the best, while performance increases itself, getting better all the time.
Perfectionism in romance means looking for the perfect partner, someone who ticks off every box on your checklist. A performance-oriented romance means looking for a connection with someone, exploring how it feels to spend time with that person. A process-oriented romance means finding out what this person likes, how this person likes to communicate, and how to help this person to have a better life. A perfectionist will describe how the ideal person is supposed to look and what traits he or she is supposed to have, possibly including what car they drive or what music they like. It’s a lot easier to pick someone you like, who likes you, when it’s fun to be together. Then dote on this person and go out of your way to do the nice things they like the most. Who cares how tall someone is or what color hair they have? Focus on whether you like talking to each other. Focus on being nice to each other.
Perfectionism is not strategic. Perfectionism generally comes from a desire to feel superior in some way. What’s the point? Why correct people’s grammar when you could be volunteering in a literacy program? Why line up objects at precise 90-degree angles when you could be... ugh, anything else! Channel that conscientious energy toward community emergency preparedness or something constructive. Take some of that restlessness and use it to evaluate your life overall.
How is your daily life working for you? Are you happy? Do you feel content, loving, satisfied? Have you learned everything you could ever want to know? Are you good at everything you’d like to be good at? Are you progressing in a career that fascinates you? Are you in a happy and friendly relationship with someone, anyone, whether it’s your sibling, a favorite coworker, or a romantic partner? Do you like your personal surroundings? Are you financially independent? Do you have all the challenges you need to feel engaged? If your life is full and you feel like you’re thriving, is there some way you could share with others? Pause and look around and make adjustments, before someone who is more of a perfectionist than you comes along with that beady eye and makes some suggestions.
You’ll eat it and you’ll like it! - said nobody in the twenty-first century.
Times have changed. If you’re planning any gathering that includes food, you’re going to hear all about it. Everyone wants or needs to eat something custom-tailored to a highly specific diet. Having been both the beleaguered hostess and the sad, hungry dinner guest, I’d like to offer some thoughts on how to plan a party where everyone can have fun, or at least pretend to for a few hours.
First off, what’s your goal for the gathering? People tend to lean toward certain beliefs about hospitality. On one extreme is that it is the host’s duty and pleasure to roll out the red carpet for guests, making them feel like the most splendid people who ever lived. On the other extreme is that guests must earn their keep and sing for their supper, helping clean up and trying to disguise any and all needs or preferences. I remember staying at a friend’s house in my late twenties and battling his mom as we both insisted on washing up after dinner. I couldn’t bear for her to do all the work alone, and she couldn’t bear to allow me to help. The only right answer that night was to defer to my gracious hostess.
So what’s it going to be? Who’s right?
Culturally we’re in a weird place, where individual preferences come before group harmony. That’s because we haven’t figured out a way to reconfigure how food works now. In the Star Trek future, we can each dial up whatever we like on the food replicator. For today, we’re stuck. There are no restaurants where all of us are going to find something to our taste, and we certainly can’t expect any individual home cook to manage it all.
The obvious answer is to have a potluck, where everyone brings a dish. This could work beautifully, except that people will still insist on making snarky remarks about one another’s choices.
As a cook, I enjoy learning my friends’ tastes and preferences. I know who refuses to eat tomato, onion, gluten, canola oil, potatoes, fructose, garlic, eggplant, squash, cauliflower, sweet potato, pumpkin, green pepper, curry, and all sorts of other foods. (Almost 100% vegetables). It truly doesn’t matter to me WHY my friend won’t eat a food. It is a pleasure to me to solve the puzzle and provide something that follows all the rules. Welcome to my table, where nobody walks away hungry.
It can be pretty annoying when someone claims to have a “food allergy” and then, after eating a full meal carefully designed around that issue, goes on to have a helping of any carefully labeled unacceptable dish made for the other guests. Only two percent of the population has an allergy to anything, whether bees or shellfish or whatever. The rest of us have diagnosed ourselves or discovered the secret code to make restaurant kitchens pay attention to our requests. It’s okay, though. My goal is gracious behavior, and if I want my guests to feel like the treasured friends they are, then I’m going to give them what they asked. Who cares why?
As a side note, diagnosing yourself with anything is a wretchedly bad idea. It’s a bad idea because we’re almost always incorrect. I had a friend who delayed seeing a doctor for chronic shoulder pain for several years because she “knew” she would need to go straight to surgery. It turned out she was wrong about the specific problem, and all she needed was an injection. Likewise, none of my friends or clients who have been lab tested for food sensitivities have come away (so far) with a diagnosis of gluten intolerance. They’ve been hearing yeast, fructose, garlic, and other surprises that could masquerade as something else. Go to a doctor and get a printout of your lab work that you can show to people who question you.
Question, they will. Everyone believes in freedom and liberty until it’s time to choose dishes at the buffet. Then suddenly someone is a villain for not eating exactly what everyone else is eating. Ask me how I know.
I’ve been a vegan for over twenty years, and a vegetarian for nearly twenty-five at this point. People have thrust meat in my face, lied to me, and tried to trick me into eating things. They think it’s funny to hassle me. This is the reason why I will always bend over backwards to accommodate my guests’ idiosyncratic food choices. It’s because, when anyone does it for me, I feel cherished. I feel like someone wanted my company enough to go to extravagant lengths. That’s how I want you to feel when you sit at my table: that you’re beloved and most welcome, that the pleasure of your company is worth any amount of my time. Otherwise I wouldn’t have invited you.
As a guest, I’d never ask. I simply assume that there won’t be anything for me to eat. If it’s someone I know, and there’s an informal gathering like a game night or book club, I just bring something like a frozen burrito and ask to use the microwave. If it’s someone I don’t know well, I hide an emergency sandwich in my bag. More than once I’ve been met at the door by a hostess who greets me, in front of everyone: “I didn’t make anything for you.” Oh, well thanks for letting me know! I didn’t ask you to. If you’d asked what I wanted, I would have said I’d prefer to keep a low profile. I’d prefer to be treated like everyone else. I’d prefer if you could have pretended you were glad to see me.
So this is how I break it down. If I’m the guest, I take care of myself and try to be as discreet as possible. I do have close friends who cook for me, and I love them and I’d do anything for them. Never, though, would I expect anyone else to cook around my special needs. If I’m the hostess, I go out of my way to learn the preferences of my guests. Even my homemade soup stock and my soy sauce are gluten-free, because it’s such a common issue now. I want to make sure that, whether I’m the guest or the host, my presence is, if not a pure delight, at least not totally obnoxious.
I tell people I’m “hard to feed.” It’s only fair. This is also true for children who are picky eaters (read: almost all of them), adults who have medical issues, and amateur foodies who don’t cook but are nonetheless highly demanding. We should just own our complications and set our expectations realistically.
There are no requirements of hospitality that force the host to do all the cooking. The host is the organizer, the one who gathers everyone together, the one who sets the tone for the conversation. You don’t have to hold a party in your home, you don’t have to cook, you don’t have to hire a caterer. It’s your responsibility simply to make people feel welcome and try to orchestrate a good time for all. If that means a potluck or a non-food-oriented event of some kind, that’s fair. Whatever it takes so that nobody comes away feeling dissatisfaction or resentment - host included.
It’s possible I have a problem. A little one. I’m getting ready to upgrade my electronics, and in the process, I’m realizing that there’s an awful lot to migrate between devices.
...sorry, where was I? I just stopped to download another ebook I had on hold. Oh, yes! Information hoarding! Let’s see some metrics.
6,152 photos and 56 videos at 5.81 GB
14 ebooks checked out and 42 on hold
A wish list of 1,693 books between five libraries
20 audio books at 12.16 GB
795 podcast episodes at 35.89 GB (I played through an entire episode while counting)
574 bookmarked articles
69 open tabs
The most interesting thing about this list is that it’s all basically imaginary. Well, everything we think we have to do, use, consume, read, or otherwise perform is imaginary. It’s in our heads. I’m not going to cease to exist if I skip a podcast episode. The point is that my information hoarding does not take up any more physical space than the confines of my phone. It doesn’t weigh any more just because I’m using over 100 GB of data. It doesn’t cost any more, either. As far as indulgences go, it’s pretty tame.
Information hoarding usually does take up space, and quite a significant amount. I started realizing this when I started digitizing everything. It occurred to me that almost everything I own can be digitized:
Movies, TV shows, and workout programs
Business cards and address books
Check registers, bank statements, receipts, all other financial info
Keepsakes and mementos in photographic form
Almost all office supplies
All I really need is basic furniture, clothing, housewares, cleansers, and a week’s worth of groceries. Oh, and some power outlets, of course.
My chronically disorganized clients struggle with information management more than anything else. It starts with the junk mail. My clients “scoop and stuff” on a regular basis. They’ll have boxes full of plastic grocery bags, and at least 80% of the contents of the bags will be junk mail and those stupid coupon newspapers. This wouldn’t really be a problem, except that about 20% of the contents of those bags consists of truly important, urgent mail and papers. It’s hard to find the important stuff when it’s surrounded by junk that should never have been brought through the door. The junk mail is disinformation, actively detracting from the value of the good stuff.
Indecision is a huge part of chronic disorganization and hoarding. My people have a lot of trouble deciding whether or not to go to social functions or accept invitations. Due to this, they’ll keep all the invitations, calendars, flyers, and other papers on their bulletin boards, or scattered on the countertops, until the date has passed. They won’t realize that these notifications can be discarded once they’re obsolete, because those papers will have already been buried under a snowdrift of new paper.
The junk mail and pending invitations are unintentional information hoarding. It’s the intentional stuff that’s particularly stubborn.
Magazines. If you carry all your old magazines out to the recycling bin and dump them tonight, PM me and I’ll feature you in an article. Photos please! My people refuse to get rid of old magazines, whether they’ve read them or not. For some random reason, old magazines are perceived to be the most valuable type of object. They’re heavy, they’re half-full of advertisements, nobody ever reads them, and they smell like mildew. WHY do you people love them so much?? You can get them at the library or online anyway! That’s especially true of that particular yellow geography magazine, the complete archives of which are available in full color on their website.
Books. Lord love a duck. I read at least as much as the next person, but I don’t see why we need to keep so many physical books around. If you haven’t read it, then you don’t get any credit for owning it. If you have read it, then you don’t need it anymore. I say this just to taunt people, because I know how sacrosanct the books are. You don’t have any free shelf space, there are probably books piled all over your bedside table, and yet you’ll never be satisfied and you’ll always think you can fit another sack of books into your house. Have it your way.
Old notebooks. People freak out about their old school notes, even if they haven’t touched them since graduation and they’ll never read through them again. I just scanned all mine and recycled them years ago. On the rare occasions when I feel inspired to pop open one of those files, I’m mostly embarrassed at my relative ignorance and poor writing skills. I got my degree in history, and I’ve read far more about history since graduation than I ever did beforehand. Education is the beginning, not the end. It’s just supposed to be training for a life of learning. I think most of us keep our school notes because that’s our identity. When we’re not challenged in our jobs, when we’re not satisfied in our careers, we cling to that time when we felt supported in our intellectual self-image. It’s easy to figure out how to get good grades, but not so easy to figure out how to take initiative and shape a professional career.
Recipes. I’m worse about this than most people and I’ll freely admit it. I’ve been digitizing my recipe collection for five years. I just checked, and I have... over 18,000 recipes in my collection. There are still half a dozen cookbooks to go, too. Am I ever going to feel like I have enough? No, I’m sure I won’t. This is true even though I have enough recipes to cook three new meals a day for 92 years. I’ll just clone myself 91 times, and then each of us can cook three new meals a day for a year. How many more recipes will we have collected by the end of the year, if each clone also likes to save recipes?
To-do lists. List makers! Why do we add stuff to our lists just to cross it off? If we love crossing things off of lists so much, why do we always wind up with old lists with incomplete tasks on them?
Little notes. Buying a smartphone changed my life. I started recording all my random little notes into my phone instead of writing them on paper. Gradually, as I started to trust the system, I started recording more of my old notes and digitizing them, too. My desk used to be constantly covered with stacks of notes, plus several inboxes and sorting mechanisms. Now I don’t have a desk at all; it all lives in my pocket.
There’s a manuscript in our fireproof safe. It’s an obsolete version of my novel-in-progress. I think I’ve gone through at least three major plot shakeups since then. I don’t even work on paper anymore! It’s only still in there through entropy.
I have over 100 GBs of information hoarded on my phone. If this existed in physical form, I’d be in trouble. Fortunately, through consistent effort, I’ve managed to keep it all down to one file box that measures 11”x15” and three shelves of books measuring 55 inches.
I’m trying to reframe my information hoarding in two ways. One: How likely am I to need this information? Do I want it for active reference, for future entertainment, or am I keeping it due to inertia, FoMO, or pure anxiety? Two: How long will it take to consume this information? How many hours of podcasts are these? If I read fifty pages an hour on average, how long will it take me to read through this stack of books? What’s my track record of actually reading through these queues? Does the list stay about the same, or has it consistently been growing longer?
The thing about information is that it doesn’t exist until we have it processed into our brains. I mean, just because I have internet access doesn’t mean I’ve memorized the entire internet. It was already humanly impossible to look at every photograph ever taken or click through every page of every website twenty years ago. More is uploaded in a single day than we could ever hope to skim in a lifetime. We have to let go of the idea that we can somehow “keep up” with everything. We can’t watch every video, listen to every song, read every article and every book, or watch every movie. We can’t even do it if we cut out all the other categories completely and focus on just one.
Far better would be to see it all as a massive buffet. There is plenty and there will always be plenty more. I’LL NEVER BE BORED! Pay attention now, Future Me, because we’re going to have to chillax about all of this. It’s okay not to read every single thing. It’s okay because every time we finish reading something, there’s something else waiting. Our favorite artists will put out more books and albums and shows in more formats. If we aren’t ever going to get through this playlist or all of these bookmarks, we can at least slow down the rate at which we add more.
Consumer pressure is supposed to work the other way. Stores are supposed to respond to our desires and stock the stuff we want. Instead, everything has reindeer and pine trees on it by November First at the latest. Apparently they think that if they can stretch Christmas out to at least two months, we’ll respond by buying twice as many gifts. Make every store look like a red and green casino! I deal with this by holing up at home. Christmas music makes me break out in hives, and every winter, as soon as it kicks in, I start crossing retailers off my map. I don’t go to the movies or the mall or the pharmacy. I completely boycott Starbucks for the four weeks after Thanksgiving. No mercy. This is why it’s easy for me to do what I call a buy-nothing.
A buy-nothing means I am on a voluntary moratorium of spending on anything other than true necessities. We pay the rent and utility bills, of course. Otherwise, we plan meals around what’s in the kitchen and hang around at home. No movies, no restaurants, no recreational shopping, not so much as a pair of replacement socks. The point of a buy-nothing is to save money, and that means looking for savings wherever possible.
“Savings” is a poorly understood concept. Most people act in such a way that it seems they think “savings” is actually “spending.” Buying something at a different price than normal is not saving. It’s spending! Maybe, just maybe, it’s bargain hunting. Usually it’s just a way that stores trick us into opening our wallets. They inflate prices temporarily so that we think the “sale” price is some kind of deal. This can be really comical when the item in question is so frivolous that nobody would buy it with full retail markings.
As an organizer, I almost always find that my clients have a habit of buying things and then setting the bag down somewhere in the house, still packed. Not only are the tags still on, but the bag has never been opened, and often the client can’t even remember what was in it. “Oh, I was going to return that.” I don’t care, honey, it’s your home, not mine. If you want to spend your vacation money on bags of stuff that you never use, that’s your business. It’s such a common practice that I see it as an ordinary part of our consumer culture.
The point is to be in a store, churning through consumer goods and engaging in commercial transactions. The point is not our experience of owning these items. The point is not whether they’ll fit in our homes, or whether we can afford them. We go to the temple and we buy. We buy and we buy. We stop for snacks. Then we go home and try to find somewhere to put our shopping bags. It’s not our fault that they aren’t holograms, which they might as well be for all the good they do us.
I do it backwards.
Rather than respond to advertisements and sales, I start with a plan.
I want the experience of living in my home to feel a certain way. I like having all of my flat surfaces free and open for when I want to use them. I like having available space on my closet rods and bookshelves. This is why I only buy and bring home items that I know I will use. I only buy things if I know where I’ll put them and how I’m going to clean them.
I want the experience of being me to work out a certain way. That includes Future Self. I want Future Me to have plenty of money, and maybe even be more financially comfortable than I am today. This means I’m always going to make my savings the priority - priority is singular - and plan my finances before I plan my purchases. If any! Most of the time, I don’t need to buy anything at all. I have all the furniture, housewares, clothes, and entertainment I need. I have plenty of food. Prioritizing money instead of stuff means you’re more likely to have the funds when you need groceries, gas, or anything else.
I want to spend my time doing what I want to do. In our culture, some of us are out of ideas for how to spend our time other than driving around to stores and restaurants, watching TV, or messing around with our phones. It’s pretty common for someone to get drive-thru fast food rather than stop at a grocery store and then cook. Going shopping as a way to spend time is also a way to work in as many fast food stops a week as possible. I prefer my own cooking, or my husband’s, and this makes going out and shopping on weeknights more of an inconvenience. The less we shop, the less we spend.
One secret to a buy-nothing is to avoid knowing that something exists. Since we don’t watch TV, we don’t see TV commercials. Since we listen to playlists instead of the radio, we don’t hear radio commercials. We don’t look at fashion magazines that would mess with our body image. We don’t wander through stores wondering what they might have. We stay out of the naughty aisles at the grocery store. We feel better off not knowing when there’s a new flavor of snack food. A life with less craving is not a life with less passion.
The result of the buy-nothing habit is pretty predictable. I’ve had no consumer debt for over a decade. My husband and I both have credit scores over 800. We know where we are on our path toward eventual retirement. Our minimalist apartment is easy to clean, and we don’t squabble over whose turn it is to do chores. Most importantly, we have fun hanging around and talking to each other or doing projects. We don’t feel deprived when we buy nothing, because it’s our natural state. The feeling of deprivation comes from desire for stuff we can’t afford, and we simply choose not to want anything we don’t want. Financial security, yes, domestic contentment, yes. The endless hamster wheel of consumer desires is not for us.
Ryan Holiday has done it again. The title of Perennial Seller is almost meta, almost a joke, because this book is guaranteed to be, indeed, a perennial seller. Holiday is an accomplished prose stylist, and this book ranks right up there with classic writing manuals such as How Fiction Works. It’s also a good idea to listen to anything the author has to say about marketing, considering that he has had several best-sellers with hundreds of thousands of copies sold.
The main premise of Perennial Seller is that if a work is well-crafted and aimed at a specific audience, it has the potential to sell even better in following years than it did when it was first released. Creatives who begin with the intention of making something that will still be relevant ten years from now will be more successful than those who want instant fame and fortune.
Half of the book focuses on what goes into producing a perennial seller; the other half focuses on the importance of marketing. Holiday emphasizes that this does not mean one should spend half of one’s time on marketing. Rather, many authors and other artists want to wave away the necessity of marketing. Isn’t it unfair to your potential audience to deprive them of a chance to hear about your work? Think of your lonely fans, staring at the ceiling and sighing, wishing they had something as cool as your book/album/comic/whatever to entertain them. You can delegate if you don’t want to do it yourself, but you can’t get out of the necessity of marketing, no matter your opinion of that trade. Holiday himself began as a marketing phenom, and this book will educate you and most likely change your mind.
Perennial Seller has a broad range of examples of talented people whose works became perennial sellers. This includes everyone from the band Iron Maiden to the movie The Shawshank Redemption. Considering Holiday’s published work on Stoicism, one might almost expect the list to include more of the classics (by which I mean, Classics), so it’s fascinating to see how many obscure corners of pop culture are hiding perennially successful artists. This is a great read, suitable for long-term study, and essential for those who want to produce an artistic legacy.
The fact that so many people find love and get married in nursing homes should give us all hope. Love gets easier when we’re older. We’re more mature and settled, more realistic and patient, more accepting, more likely to realize the uniquely delightful qualities of the person before us. We quit asking ourselves if this is really The One and just ask, Can I sit in a room with this person for several evenings in a row? Whoever you are, there’s someone out there for you. Assume that this is true, believe that it is a certainty, and start getting ready. There are some thoughtful things you can do while you’re waiting.
If I’d known I wouldn’t get married to Mr. Awesome Pants until I was thirty-four, it would have been great. I would have skipped several young gentlemen entirely. I could have avoided a couple of humiliating blind dates and just stayed home and read a book. I would have relaxed. There are a few people I could have kept as platonic friends if we hadn’t ruined it by trying to date each other. Yeah, I have sweet memories from a few old flames. I probably would have enjoyed them even more if I’d been able to take them as they were, without constantly querying whether this was “going anywhere.” It’s so much better to just appreciate someone’s company and let the moment be what it is.
What would I have done differently? I’m actually pretty proud of myself for doing a lot of the things that I did to prepare for marriage. Some of them I did with that goal explicitly in mind. Others were just a natural result of my proclivities. Everything I ever did to take care of myself, to give myself a better life, also led directly to becoming more marriageable. I saved money and learned to live comfortably within my (limited) financial means. I paid off my consumer debt; in fact, I paid for my share of our wedding in cash. I learned to keep house and follow a recipe. I tried to be a good roommate to various people. I’ve always been a bit of a homebody, in spite of my love of travel, and I was already pretty good at domestic contentment when I met my husband.
Welcome to my comfy nest. I hope you like it as much as I do.
There are definitely things I would have done differently, though. I would have avoided my first marriage, failure that it was, and that would have been a favor to my ex-husband. Can we agree that if we ever find a wormhole back to 1997, that we both step through it and unmarry each other? Sold. What else? I would have learned to cook sooner! I would have changed my eating habits (especially soda) and I would have been more assertive about my health. If I knew then what I know now, I would have focused the hardest on managing my parasomnia disorder. I would have worked on lowering my stress level. I would have tried to do more about my punctuality issues.
Marriage has been good to me. My hubby has taught me so much about so many things that it’s all I can do to keep up. He taught me his athletic mindset. He taught me his mutant-like ability to focus and switch into System II thinking on demand. He’s helped me figure out how to be punctual and get ready quickly. He taught me how to go paperless. He taught me how to play offense in finance, to focus more on earning than on saving. In return, I’ve taught him everything I know about nutrition, minimalism, and all the non-STEM subjects he never had time to study. I also do all the translating when we go overseas. We’re formidable as a team in ways we never could be as singles.
Two people together can live more comfortably because we split the labor and the expenses while doubling our skill set. Two people can live on 140% of what it costs for a single person: One rent, one electric bill, one bed, etc. Two people can each do half the cooking and half the housework. Two people can approach a problem in completely different ways. It’s so much easier to tackle life as a team that it’s simply unfair. This is why it really pays off to master your flaws as much as you can; you’ll make yourself that much more appealing to a mate who will then magnify everything good in your life.
While you’re waiting to meet the person you’re going to meet, get ready. Think of it as prepping for a party. This person is going to make you laugh, cheer you up, surprise you in pleasant and funny ways, understand you, listen to you, hug you, and pick up the slack when you’re having a hard time. What are you willing to do for a great person like that?
When I was single, I made a cozy nest. I wanted my place to feel great to come home to, for me, and also one day for a lovely sweet man. Whoever he might be, I figured he would want a little space. I set up a nightstand on the other side of the bed and left it empty. Just a lamp and an empty drawer. Nobody was sleeping over, and I certainly had a lamp on my side. It was a symbolic gesture. Two pillows. Two teacups. Two towel racks. Man of the future, whoever he was, he should be able to come over and sit at my dining table with me. He should be able to take a nap on my couch. He should be glad to be there with me.
I was fine with being single. In most ways, I still am. I still read what I want, listen to the music I like, smooch my pet parrot, visit my family whenever I want, talk to my friends, go on all-girl hiking trips, even have lunch with old boyfriends from time to time. I always liked going to movies by myself (because I like to sit in the front), going out to eat alone (with a book), and generally doing what I want. I felt ready to remarry because I had already traveled alone, taken ballroom dance lessons, lived alone, and gotten my yayas out. I knew who I was and what I wanted in life. I was comfortable being by myself, and I could have gone on doing so for as long as it took. I had a jar pop. I got married again because it was an improvement, because my husband is a cool guy and I like talking to him.
While you’re waiting, make sure you enjoy your life. Do everything you ever thought would be fun and everything you think would be a good idea. Get your house in order. Fix your finances. Find a career that fascinates you. Make your body into the body that you want to live in. Eliminate anything you’re not proud of. Deepen your friendships. Like your life for what it is. If you can’t love it, change it - change it quickly and change it radically. Work on your character flaws. It couldn’t hurt to also improve your cooking and get your personal space ready. Make a cozy nest, and be ready with a smile when it’s time to open your door.
Running is my dog Spike’s favorite thing ever. He likes it even more than BALL. One day, he went for a six-mile run with my husband while I was at a baby shower. I got ready for my own run. Spike was eating. I went to slip out the door, visibly wearing running clothes and shoes. Spike saw me, spit his mouthful of dog kibble back into his bowl, and sprinted to the door. He’d rather run than eat, even though he’d already put in significant mileage that day. He’d like to go everywhere we do. I try to remember that while I’m wearing shoes, my dog is barefoot all the time.
I get where he’s coming from. I hate wearing shoes. I especially hate running shoes; I almost always think they’re hideous. Inevitably, when I go to replace my last worn-out pair, I think the new ones are even uglier than the ones I already have. The pair that fit me best and feel the best on my feet are usually my least favorite colorway out of the whole range. I buy one brand that has colors I like okay, but they’re something of a discount brand and aren’t really good for actually running. Just comfy walking shoes. If I’m not going outside for some reason, I’m barefoot at home. I’m even barefoot when it’s cold outside, which drives my mom nuts. “Aren’t you cold?” Well, sure, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to do something so foolish as to wear shoes!
The thing about being barefoot all the time is that it leads to certain choices instead of others.
When I’m barefoot all the time, it doesn’t make as much of a difference whether I get dressed or just hang around in my pajamas. Obviously I’m not going anywhere outside. If I’m not going anywhere, why should I get dressed? This can lead to a blending of morning into late afternoon. If you have the luxury of setting your own schedule, it’s more common for huge chunks of the day to somehow disappear than to suddenly start getting important tasks done at 5:30 AM.
When I’m barefoot all the time, I’m going to put off doing certain things until it’s shoe time. This means stuff like taking out the trash, dropping off donation bags, running errands, or even buying groceries is going to wait until later. In fall and winter, daylight can disappear before you even realize that most of the day is gone. Sometimes today turns into tomorrow, or the next day, or never. Without shoes, I’m unlikely to do yard work, replace outdoor lightbulbs, or even so much as sweep the porch. Months can pass this way.
When I’m barefoot all the time, how simple it is to tuck my feet up under me and snuggle into a blanket. Putting my shoes on entails bathing and getting dressed first. That has this whole domino effect of officially starting my day, doesn’t it? Doesn’t that trigger my to-do list? Can’t I just wait another hour and do it later?
It’s true that I hate shoes. I hate wearing anything on my feet if I don’t have to. It’s also true that going barefoot all the time means I can’t do other things that I love. I’m not backpacking barefoot, I’m not running barefoot, I’m not even going to the library or a bookstore barefoot. My comfort level with hanging around barefoot is a tendency that I don’t feel great indulging.
Wearing shoes doesn’t come naturally to me - or to anyone. They’re artificial instruments of civilization, not body parts. Wearing shoes does, though, assist me in my bias toward action. Wearing shoes makes me more active in every way. Wearing shoes helps me get more done and leads me to use my body more.
I think about my dog Spike and his feet when we run together. One night, he picked up three goat head thorns. They were rammed into the fleshy pads of one paw. Did he cry out? No. Did he ask to stop? No. He just limped a bit until my husband noticed and picked him up. Spike loves running so much that he’ll do it on hot asphalt, on gravel, in mud, and even when he has spiny thorns stabbing between his little toes.
We built up Spike’s feet gradually. When we started running as a pack, I could barely do a third of a mile. We added a tenth of a mile every couple of days. It was three weeks before we were running a mile at a stretch, and I think it took two years before we got to the six-mile mark. Our little 23-pound dog was there for almost every step. Running is his passion. It’s the time he feels most like himself. Because we started out with such short distances, and because we added time and distance so slowly, Spike’s footpads got tough and thick. It helps his nails to stay naturally short and he doesn’t have to go through the trauma of having the groomer trim them. He can run in his full glory, barefoot all the time.
Thinking about my little doggy helps to make me more action-oriented. I need to pause a few times a day to take him out. I would never want him to suffer, not with thorns in his paw and not with unanswered biological needs. I’m sure that if we ever put him in shoes, he’d hate wearing them as much as I hate shoes myself. For him, I wear them more often. At least one of us gets to run wild and free, barefoot all the time.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.