Life Admin is a wonderfully clarifying book about where the heck all our time goes. In my case, it’s blocking spam phone calls and unsubscribing from email to which I never subscribed in the first place. Elizabeth Emens gives us a new framework for discussing how we divide work in our personal, business, social, and academic lives. Reading this book should cause a lot of heads to pop up amid a chorus of voices calling, “Same!”
What is life admin? Some people call it ‘administrivia.’ Emens provides a Venn diagram showing how it overlaps with chores and childcare. We’re talking about things like managing schedules, making appointments, filling out forms, handling finances and insurance paperwork, planning parties and travel, and knowing where everything is. For some reason, almost all of this work seems to be invisible, and thus people task each other with it all the time.
I don’t think I’ve gone a single day in the last fifteen years without at least one person emailing, texting, calling, DMing, or asking me in person to research something they could have Googled all by themselves. (In less time!) Send me a link, plan my trip, give me a recommendation, be my uncompensated accountability coach. They don’t even realize that just asking me these questions impacts my mental bandwidth as a writer, nor could they have any idea that they rank among dozens who see me as their private unpaid secretary in this sense. To the endless list of life admin I might add ‘making decisions.’ Almost everyone on Earth wants to outsource this to someone, anyone else.
Life Admin is the armor we need to start fending off these demands, to start making this work more visible and valued. I’m considering making a keyboard shortcut for my phone that says “I will do this for you if you first donate $5 to charity:water” and see how many people (probably 100%) snippily write back “never mind.”
Most people probably have a bigger issue with negotiating life admin at home than they do between friends. Emens gives reasons for this, for instance that a landlord might only contact one roommate about repairs even if there are four adults living in the house. A lot of the division of life admin is accidental and arbitrary. It can also be hard to categorize, or to tally up the work when it consists of a variety of dozens of recurring tasks that might take one minute or might take all week.
The fact that life admin involves a lot more than the distribution of household chores has always been clear in my marriage, because I was an administrative assistant when I met my husband. We talk about it in terms of ‘mental bandwidth’ and we formally negotiate it during our weekly status meeting. He books airline tickets and hotel rooms while I plan our activities on the trip. He pays most of the bills, sorts the mail, and does the taxes, while I’m the one who deals with maintenance people. He does most of the repair jobs while I handle most of the mending and weird stains. He does the grocery shopping, I do the laundry. Over our decade of marriage, we’ve passed some of these jobs back and forth. The responsibilities seem to morph and fluctuate as we relocate or change schedules. The pressure valve is for one of us to say, “Will you do X while I’m doing Y, or would you rather switch?” (Cook dinner while I do laundry, etc). It’s entirely possible to negotiate life admin respectfully without it turning into a huge deal.
This is one of the great strengths of Life Admin. Emens offers categories of “admin personalities” and ways that each might have a useful strategy for reducing life admin. For instance, rebelling might benefit others in the workplace by restructuring or eliminating bogus tasks. The book also offers ways of reframing life admin by making it pleasurable or seeing it as a way to, say, choose a mate, give better gifts, or get better service. One of the best and coolest of these ideas is to have an “Admin Study Hall” and sit in a group with other people for company while getting some of this stuff done.
Life Admin is the kind of book, like Gemma Hartley’s Fed Up, that has the potential to really stir the pot. It’s so important to be clean and clear in our negotiations and power dynamics, though. Bringing these issues to light is the first step in fairness and happier relationships, whether personal or business.
Having a hundred admin tasks that each take one minute feels heavier than having a single admin task that takes a hundred minutes.
Who has time for admin-redistribution admin?
...many people seem to assume that the topic of life admin is of interest mainly, or only, to women.
What I would do to figure it out is the same thing you would do to figure it out yourself.
There was a baby shower. I had nothing to do with it. My husband chose the gifts, ordered them, and picked up a package of diapers on the way. He went to the baby shower and he played shower games. By all accounts, he had fun.
This story might be shocking to some, which is why I share it. The way I was brought up, doing everything related to this baby shower would absolutely be my responsibility. I’M THE WOMAN. Right?
Not only would I have done all the shower gift stuff, but I might have hosted it, probably would have helped plan it, and most likely would have baked cupcakes or a pound cake. I also might have been on the hook for making a handmade gift, cooking for the new mommy, visiting her in the hospital, and offering free babysitting on demand.
I used to do that stuff. I’ve crocheted blankets and baby booties and knit caps and poseable toys for various babies. I’ve visited plenty of new babies in the hospital.
This time was different, and I’ll tell you why.
My only contribution in the preparation for this baby shower was to answer my husband’s question about what to wear. He was planning to go in a t-shirt, which probably would have been fine. I pointed out that this would be a major photo opportunity for the family baby album, and he changed into a polo shirt.
When he came home, he told me that the family all dressed up, and the work colleagues all wore casual clothes. He would have been fine either way.
It was fine, either way.
If I’d gone, if I hadn’t been sick, I would have known how to behave myself. I would have congratulated the mother-to-be and learned everyone’s names. I would have put myself to work helping arrange the food table and I would have stayed at the end to help clean up. The women of the family probably would have felt obligated to try to shoo me off and do it all themselves. There’s always that tension between “hosts do it all for the guest” and “guests shouldn’t wear out their welcome” that makes me want to be in the kitchen both as hostess and as guest. A dumb double-standard, isn’t it?
One day robots will do it all and we can kick back and have another cupcake.
I’m a little bummed that I missed the party. The weather was nice and it certainly sounded more fun than passing out sweatily in bed with my mouth open.
There’ll be another party, though. The baby will have a first birthday, or a baptism, or something. There will be a company picnic in the summer. I’ll meet the baby and hold the baby and smooch the baby. I’ll hand the baby back to New Mommy, a woman I like just fine and whom I also respect as both a shy person and an introvert.
There’s no pressure here, not unless I look for it.
I’ve gone to so many baby showers, and they’re bittersweet for me. Time and again, when I place my carefully wrapped gift and card on the table, it’s a goodbye gift. The baby shower is the last time I ever see the new mom. Even though we were friends before, her entry into motherhood is the last time she’ll call me, or return my calls, or write back to my emails. She won’t come to parties.
One of these friends? The next time I saw her, the incoming baby had a baby of her own on the way. There were five additional kids I’d never met, didn’t even know their names. I hadn’t seen a photo and I hadn’t been invited to any of their baby showers. I would have gone, I would have brought gifts. I would have sent graduation gifts, too, as the little ones grew up.
There’s no pressure here, not on my end. Just a willingness to have been there.
I’ve tried taking my mom friends out. I hear a lot about how desperate new parents are to get a break, to have an adult conversation, to remember that they have interests beyond Pat the Bunny. (Not that I have any issues with Pat the Bunny, personally). I’ll pick up the check and say, Here is your opportunity to talk about anything you like. Your thesis, the book you’d like to write, new research in your field... I’ll even read up on it if you want. Somehow the conversation keeps reverting to diaper rash. I don’t mind. It just feels like an opportunity lost.
Parenthood is like going through a security checkpoint or an airlock. You go through, and you’re on the other side, and everyone else is still over there were you used to be. Only the people on your side of the airlock understand what it’s like.
The same is true of other transitions, of course. Students talk the same way about finals week and ex-convicts talk the same way about prison. It’s not that other people haven’t literally been there or cognitively can’t imagine what it’s like. They simply are *not* currently there. Their emotional reality is different.
That’s why I’m perfectly content to let my husband manage the shower gifts for his work colleagues. It isn’t the first time. I’m not a part of the inner circle, and I don’t need to put social pressure or emotional labor on this particular lady. I’m a plus-one, if that, and I’m sure that suits everyone just fine.
If there’s one thing I don’t understand, it’s why people keep eating something even after they realize that it always makes them ill. Total. Mystery.
I was talking to someone earlier who claims that she receives Tums as gifts and keeps backup supplies at the homes of friends and family. Why? Because she keeps eating pizza with red wine and it always makes her sick.
Never in my life have I eaten that as a meal???
Why would you eat something over and over again if you knew it made you feel horrible?
It’s a luxury, in a way, but we’ll get to that.
I used to have this thing with salt-water taffy. Every time I would go to the beach, I would get super excited about the presence of salt-water taffy. I would go into a candy store and spend twenty minutes picking out a bunch of flavors to try. Then I would eat a bunch of it and make myself completely ill.
It took about twenty years to realize that I actually don’t even like salt-water taffy!
I realized that I have a major weakness for things that come in varieties, or especially in rainbow colors. It’s like it sends my brain into freak mode and all I can think is ONE OF EACH. Doesn’t matter what it is, beads, socks, fishing lures, things I don’t even want. Whoa there, I think now, look out, rainbow alert!
I used to get a tub of something like gumdrops or jelly beans that came in multiple colors. I would sort them by color. If I ate one, I “had” to then eat one of each color, which was a real problem if there were disproportionate amounts.
Total productivity killer right there.
Now I only do that on Halloween. Just go on a major candy bender and watch horror films all day. That tends to get it out of my system. I always wake up the next day with the horrible feeling of “Halloween mouth” and vow not to do it again for 364 days.
I have no self-control around certain things, rainbow-colored objects being just one of those categories. I recognize this. Because of this known tendency, I find it easier to simply not buy certain things rather than try to monitor myself or rein myself in.
Anything I want is available 24/7 and I can probably get it delivered. I can always change my mind later.
I have to take the urgency out of the decision. I don’t like the idea that an inanimate object can just push my buttons and make me behave contrary to my best interests.
This is much easier to do once I make the connection between a certain thing and a certain negative result. For instance, lanolin makes me break out in huge itchy welts. It’s not that common an ingredient and it’s pretty easy to avoid. There’s nothing about it that makes me weep with longing. Lanolin = BYE FOREVER. No hearts broken.
It would be a lot harder if I found out I had a sensitivity to, say, onions and garlic. A couple of friends of mine have gotten that as a diagnosis, and, I confess, I would struggle mightily with it. I’d be like, is there a surgery for this? If onions and garlic made me sick, though, I’m sure I’d just be glad I finally knew the answer and had constructive action I could take.
Apparently not everyone feels this way.
I heard the story of a woman who suffered from migraine about twenty days a month. My lifetime record for a migraine is four days, and that was bad enough! If I were in that woman’s situation, I would sign up for every study under the sun and I’d see as many doctors from as many disciplines as I could find. Whatever it takes.
In this woman’s case, she wound up quitting alcohol, caffeine, and sugar. She hasn’t had a migraine in three years.
The way it was expressed to me, “she had to give up alcohol, caffeine, and sugar.”
I said, “It sounds like what she really gave up was headaches!”
Myself, I don’t drink alcohol at all and I hate coffee. I would struggle for a while with the sugar thing, although it would tend to save me from my rainbow candy problem. But the first time I ate dessert followed by a migraine, I would draw a big skull and crossbones on that day in my calendar. NO MORE.
I know so, so many people who suffer from their favorite foods but continue to torture themselves with them. A man with a diagnosed dairy allergy who eats a large bowl of vanilla ice cream every night. A woman diagnosed with celiac disease who keeps eating wheat bread. Funny, you don’t hear about this behavior pattern in people with a true food allergy to, say, shellfish or peanuts. We won’t do it if it will kill us or make our throats swell closed, but we will if “all it does” is give us severe nausea or incapacitating headaches.
I have some guesses about why people persist in eating food that makes them ill.
I was pretty happy the day I realized I didn’t have to drink alcohol unless I wanted to, which I don’t. It’s gross to me and I suspect I don’t react to it the way other people do. Other people are often frustrated by this and will persist in offering me drinks, I think because they’re embarrassed to draw attention to how much they consume in a day. They also tend to get very distressed when they realize there won’t be wine at dinner, because waiting a couple hours is too hard? Because carrying mini bottles in your purse is a step too far? This is an example of how something that is an issue for one person won’t be for someone else. This is why we have to make our own rules and decide for ourselves whether eating or drinking something is a good plan.
If you feel like you need permission, I hereby grant you permission by the power vested in me. You have the power, the right, and the privilege to refuse to eat anything that makes you ill. If someone tries to pressure you into eating something that you really don’t want, either it’s all in your head or that person is not your friend. Why would they care? More for them, right?
We’re lucky to be able to pick and choose what we do or don’t eat. We’re lucky that we have the natural intelligence and discernment to know the difference between what is good for us and what is basically poison for us. We’re lucky that we can still be friends with people even if we eat or drink different things. We’re lucky to be able to reject food that is really a frenemy, not a friend. Because it’s the people around us that matter, not their opinion on what we do or don’t eat.
It all started when I set out to clean the oven at our rental house. I had a joke from one of my clients: “Oven’s dirty, time to move!” I was starting to learn about “ask, don’t task” and realizing that it can be very useful to have an engineer around. I thought out how to reframe my problem of DIRTY OVEN.
That’s what I did. I outlined the problem. I reminded him that when he helped me move out of my apartment after two years of dating, it had taken me three hours to clean the oven. I estimated how much it would probably cost to hire a cleaning service, many of which will not clean ovens just as they won’t wash windows. I believed there had to be a better way. Take off the oven door, maybe?
“Hold on,” he said.
He went out to the garage, a promising sign.
He came back out with... the cordless drill. He attached a scouring pad to it, an abrasive tool that was designed for shop use. He got some cleanser out from under the sink.
He pulled out the oven racks.
He pulled up the wooden step stool that I use to reach high kitchen shelves and he sat on it. He turned on the drill and started scouring the black volcanic mess that was our oven.
Fourteen minutes later, that oven was showroom clean.
“That should do it,” he said, and he took the drill back out to the garage.
I was still standing there with my jaw hanging open when he came back.
(Then I found a silicon oven liner for $20 and we’ve never looked back).
We’ve spent a considerable amount of time since then (2010), talking about how engineering could solve so many scutwork problems, if only someone were to bring them to the attention of an engineer. In the years since, we’ve seen various solutions hit the market, and I own some of them.
Drill attachments specifically for tough housework jobs
Power scrubbers with extension poles for jobs like scrubbing bathtubs
Window-cleaning robots in two types, suction and magnetic
A robot vacuum that picks up pet hair (but not feathers, hint hint)
A robot mop
Robot lawnmower? A joke that I made in 2010, it’s now a reality
I’m still holding out for a toilet-cleaning robot ($500, nowhere to store it) and a laundry-folding robot, once they become efficient enough to be worth the effort.
We have a joke about “starting the robots” when we leave our apartment. We spend about five minutes crating our pets, picking up the dog dishes, and checking for charger cables on the floor. Then we turn on the countertop dishwasher and the Roomba. We also used to have a washer and dryer. We would go to the movies, laughing about how robots were doing our housework and speculating on what we could delegate next.
There’s another thing that we do, something that feels like a total impossibility for most households. That is to live in a deliberately small space and own few material objects.
Sing HEY! for minimalism!
It doesn’t take us long to clean because there isn’t much to clean. You can almost reach every surface of our kitchen or bathroom by standing in one spot. We can’t keep a lot of stuff out on countertops because we don’t have much counter space. We can either preserve one square foot of countertop for cooking meals, or we could put one thing on it.
Which one thing is more valuable than the ability to prepare meals? A stand mixer? A cookie jar? A pile of junk mail?
I’ve found in my work with clutter clients that the more they wish for old-fashioned home cookin’, the more stuff they have in their kitchens, and the less they actually cook. Any professional chef would tell you that you can do it all with one good knife, a cutting board, a large bowl, a spatula, and a pan.
My people keep more than that stacked up in their sink, much less the entire room.
What crushes me about all of this is that almost all my people have a functional dishwasher. I grew up without one. In point of fact, my husband had to teach me how to load a dishwasher because I made it into my thirties without really knowing how they work. It takes four minutes to unload a clean dishwasher. Unload it once a day and spend 10 seconds put dirty dishes directly into it after each meal. It’s like a miracle! Yet you’re all out there weeping bitter tears about how much work it is. Are you kidding me with this???
The truth is that it’s entirely possible to cook nutritious, balanced meals in a microwave in under ten minutes and then spend about 90 seconds cleaning up afterward. I cannot cognitively fathom why there is so much angst over kitchen work. But then microwaves and dishwashers feel like the Star Trek future to me, and garbage disposals do, too.
So much of this is about how we internalize what we perceive as social expectations, and how we react emotionally to those expectations.
Breaking down these tasks as engineering problems is a way to distance them from the emotional landscape. Would I feel resentful and burdened about this if a robot was doing it? If it never even became a problem? The first time I shook off some blackened spilled pie filling from our $20 oven liner, I also shook off some mid-20th-century expectations. I’m ready for my 21st-century kitchen and wondering what else I can pawn off on household robots.
I met an interesting character the other day. We struck up a conversation while waiting at a stoplight. By the time we had crossed the street and walked through the park, we had managed to interview each other and exchange some interesting ideas.
Living on the pier is a crossroads of humanity. There’s a constant flow of families, dog walkers, transients, drunks and drug users, tourists, musicians, joggers, skateboarders, cyclists, young couples, barefoot surfers in wetsuits, students on field trips, retirees, and also a few neighbors. It’s busy here. It’s also not unusual to bump into someone who is at leisure at 2:00 on a weekday afternoon.
Wealthy people look different. It’s basically impossible to fake that posture, haircut, skincare regimen, wardrobe, and aura of prosperity, just like it would be pretty challenging to fake the hard-worn look of someone who has spent years sleeping rough.
I’ve learned this through having lived in many different neighborhoods over the years. I don’t particularly prefer to live among the wealthy. They spend a lot of time talking about things that bore me senseless, like where they bought stuff, what their yapper dog is up to these days, and how “good help is so hard to find.”
They also can’t usually relate to why my husband and I live in a studio apartment and don’t have a car.
That’s what made this conversation so interesting. We discovered we were both strangers in a strange land.
It basically went like this:
“What a gorgeous place”
“Another day in paradise”
“I’m new in town”
“Were you here for the butterfly migration?”
Blah blah blah
“I live on a sailboat”
“Oh, are you a nomad?”
“I don’t know what I am, what’s that?”
“There are a lot of people who are financially independent, who travel around the world, it’s a thing”
“Are you one of them?”
That’s when we started comparing strategies and a few numbers. “What’s your efficiency?” he asked. By that I understood that he meant what we call “the nut” or monthly overhead.
“You should live on a sailboat,” he said. It costs him $1600 a month to stay at the marina (right next to our apartment complex) and apparently it comes with access to a gym and a steam room and stuff.
He went over what it took to manage such a feat, how he learned to sail various types of boats, starting with the very smallest size and working his way up in complexity.
I asked how old he was when he learned to sail, and he said he started about ten years ago, which both did and didn’t answer my question. I gather that he was at least in his thirties when he suddenly decided, Hey, I should learn to sail. That somehow turned into, Hey, I should live on a boat, sail from Canada to San Diego, and figure out where I want to settle down. Or not.
I have my own opinions about all this, of course. I’m not a strong swimmer and I can only really manage myself in a canoe or a kayak. I have read quite a lot of nautical adventures, though, and that’s why I asked a few more questions.
“What do you do in the winter? What about when it storms?”
“I haven’t done this over the winter yet,” he admitted. Ugh.
I told him I wanted to go to sea as a child, that my fantasy was to become a “cabin boy” and that I was very disappointed to learn that wasn’t a job anymore. At least, I was disappointed when I was nine. As a middle-aged woman, going through a tropical storm in a sailboat of any size sounds pretty darn dreadful.
There are other factors, too. I don’t know this man’s story, or why he’s suddenly free to sail down the length of North America alone. Was he married before? Does he have kids? Is he retired? Is he actually F.I. or is he burning through cash reserves while he bounces back from divorce, getting fired, or losing a lawsuit? Who knows?
Me, I live with a man, a dog, and a parrot. Noelle would probably love being on a sailboat and smooching kids at the marina, shaking out her nice red tail feathers. Our frail, ill, elderly dog would not enjoy himself at all. Could my husband and I deal with sharing a tiny ship cabin, a tiny ship stove, a tiny ship heater, and of course the tiny ship’s head, with the shower spraying on the toilet? Eh, maybe, maybe not.
We actually are the type of married couple who could probably do well while living on a sailboat. We’re already minimalists. We’re good at what we call Pack-Fu, or the art of fitting objects carefully into a tight space. We’ve spent weeks backpacking and sharing a tent together. We’re both handy with tools and we have the kind of discipline that is needed to stay on top of leaks and mildew. We do, of course, also love money and the saving thereof. Paying an “efficiency” of $1600 a month sounds pretty great!
It sounds great until we factor in the part about buying a small, used seafaring vessel. “It’s like an RV,” I say to this sailor/retiree I’ve just met, and he agrees. In my mind, that means it’s high maintenance, hungry for repairs, expensive to fuel, and hard to park. You’re stuck with it, like it or not, and it can be hard to find a buyer when you realize it isn’t your dream of an easy, relaxing retirement after all.
What a great fantasy, though! If you don’t like your neighbors, you can simply sail away. Sail away from thoughts of trouble, sail south when storm clouds gather at the horizon. Sail away toward... toward what, exactly?
This is the book to read if you’re burned out or planning a vacation, buried in work or preparing for summer, or really just any reason. In fact any of Laura Vanderkam’s books on time management would be a good idea. She is here on a mission of mercy to tell us that we have more time than we think we do, and we deserve to be spending more of it relaxing.
The title 168 Hours arises from the number of hours there are in one week. This is true for everyone. It’s true whether you have kids or don’t, whether you have a job or don’t, whether you’re married or single. Time is the only thing we all have in common. It’s our perception of where the time goes that is different.
Vanderkam has built her writing career on studying people’s time logs. How do we actually spend our time? What are we doing and how do we feel about it?
Core competencies are the things we’re best at, and that’s where Vanderkam recommends that we put our focus. One of the reasons to keep a time log is to find out what those are, because we don’t always realize there is something else that would be a good use of our time.
I’ll toss one of mine out there, because at one point I was spending quite a lot of time on it and now I’m not. That thing is language study. I have a true knack for languages and I can read six writing systems. There are few things I find as exciting as learning to read and understand a new language, so it’s really a mystery why I keep prioritizing other things. The only time I would be likely to remember this is at the movie theater, where I’m surprised and delighted that I can understand, say, a sentence in Russian or Japanese. Would I remember to write something like that down on a time log?
This is where the “List of 100 Dreams” of 168 Hours comes in.
Ms. Vanderkam, if you’re reading this, I am writing exactly ten years after you wrote down your “List of 100 Dreams.” How did you do? How many of these dreams have you explored in the last decade? I know at least one has, which was to write a best-selling book. Congratulations!
But we’re so busy! we cry. Working every minute! We work a hundred hours a week and more! Vanderkam doubts this and she has thousands of time logs to prove it. She also recommends that we find the time for our passions by ignoring, minimizing, or outsourcing the things that we don’t like as much. Two of the leading contenders would be housework and television. Yup, she went there.
I looked into outsourcing our laundry, a popular choice, when we moved from a one-bedroom to a studio in our apartment complex. Our old apartment had a washer and dryer, and the new one does not. It turns out that the local laundry service has a thirty-pound minimum. Imagine sleeping within fifteen feet of a 28-pound pile of sweaty gym clothes. I don’t mind hauling our laundry to the laundry room twice a week. I do, on the other hand, outsource DRIVING because I hate it. Nothing makes me feel as relaxed as calling a ride share instead of having to fight traffic. We save $700 a month by not owning a vehicle, and that’s enough to outsource quite a lot of things.
Personally, if I had more money I would spend it on shiatsu massage rather than a maid, because I can’t rub my own back and I don’t care about the forty minutes a week I spend cleaning house. This is also because I have a good idea of what I love to do versus what I find annoying. And that’s because I’ve had the good sense to read all of Laura Vanderkam’s books. That’s what I call time well spent.
...happy people are more productive and successful than unhappy people.
It is possible to ratchet up your career while investing in other parts of your life as well.
What would the next level look like for you? Picture it as vividly as possible.
We don’t spend much time thinking about what we’d like to do with our free time, even though no one would take a 30-hour-per-week job without clarifying the job description.
Use bits of time for bits of joy
This post is a favor.
Someone tracked me down somehow and pitched for me to be her accountability coach. I’m not in that business anymore, and I posted on this blog about a year ago why I quit. It’s not for lack of clients; I believe that accountability coaching doesn’t scale. I also believe it doesn’t work. I believe it’s nothing more than a frustrating dead end, an illusion that will discourage the client and burn through money with no results.
That’s why I’m writing about accountability again, in hopes that it can help more than my personalized handholding might.
Now, I coach people every single day. I even do it for free! I hold a volunteer leadership position that includes six clubs, thirty-five officers, over a hundred members, and four protégés. I have absolutely no shame or guilt about how much of my high-value time I give away. I’ve always worked with pro bono clients as well.
I don’t use “accountability” to do it, though.
What I do is to help people tap into what they want and then help them refine their vision of what success looks and feels like. Sometimes they discover that they aren’t really as into that particular goal as they had thought. For instance, I dropped my goal of owning an electric vehicle when I realized how much I despise driving. I also dropped my goal of learning to play guitar when I realized my real problem was being a terrible singer, a situation too hopeless to resolve. A lot of people believe they have a goal when it’s really just one possibility among many.
There are two types of goals, prevention-focused and promotion-focused. Either someone is trying to avoid or stop doing something, or they’re trying to start or initiate something. Examples in the first group include quitting smoking, getting off medication, clearing clutter, paying off debt, losing weight, or getting out of a toxic relationship. Examples in the second group include getting fit, going back to school, changing careers, buying a new home, finding love, or starting a family.
What I’ve found through coaching is that people have a much easier time achieving promotion-focused goals. It’s quick and easy to let go of what isn’t serving you if it gets in the way of something you want.
When a recruiter calls you about your dream job, it’s easier to let go of office gossip.
When you have ten days to relocate to your dream home, it’s easier to clear your clutter.
When you fall in love with distance running, it’s easier to drop smoking.
When you fall in love with your life, it’s easier to let go of anything that doesn’t serve you.
My dog has a bit of trouble with this, though: If you give him a ball, he’ll hold it in his mouth. If you give him a second ball, he’ll continue to hold the first ball while trying to control the second ball. When the third ball comes out, he runs outside, catastrophically overwhelmed. Too many choices!
He’ll drop all the balls in a hot second if he is instead offered a dog treat.
Another example of this comes from Sesame Street: You gotta put down the ducky if you want to play the saxophone.
What happens with most people, though, is that they lack a compelling enough vision to step out of their comfort zone. They see the things they do as treats, rather than specific obstacles that hold them back. They see their default as juicier and more valuable than any of the alternatives.
They don’t want “it” enough because they aren’t even sure exactly what “it” is. Or getting “it” is too hard, and they aren’t willing to do what “it” takes.
I can share about my life, and see if you agree with what I mean:
I’m married to my dream man, who travels half-time. We’ve relocated to new cities four times in ten years, starting over each time.
I live at the beach, in a studio apartment with no washer or dryer.
We save half our income, and we don’t have a car.
We go on a pretty fabulous vacation every year, paid for by almost never dining out or shopping.
I wear a “size two” and I never drink alcohol or soda, or eat dairy products, breakfast cereal, or fast food. I virtually never eat chips, crackers, pizza, or desserts. Instead I eat a lot of cabbage, kale, cauliflower, and collard greens. BECAUSE I LIKE TO so sue me.
See what I mean?
It’s not zero-sum. Anyone can save tons of money, eat tons of vegetables, or make drastic changes toward the benefit of a goal. Plenty of people have lost a hundred pounds in a year, paid off $100,000 in debt, or cleared out their entire house over a busy, sweaty weekend. Basically any goal you can think of is a standard goal, a catalogue goal that millions of people have done, and continue to do every day.
They want to, and they know how.
It’s not accountability that gets things done. Accountability means abdicating your responsibilities to someone, anyone else. It means “I know I will never, ever, never never do this alone.” So why is it someone else’s job? How is any other person going to make you want something you don’t want? How is any other person going to make you do something that you won’t make yourself do?
Just admit that if there are no consequences to your not achieving your goal, then it literally does not matter to you or to anyone whether you do or don’t.
Just admit that you don’t really want it and you won’t ever do it.
Sometimes that moment can provoke a crisis. I have walked my students through this. Imagine that you ARE NOT ALLOWED to do this or to reach this goal. It’s illegal. Now how do you feel? A lot of people are relieved that they no longer feel pressured to do something that wasn’t their idea. Others feel a wash of regret or frustration. It helps to clarify, is this a heck yes or a heck no?
A “meh” is not a goal. A “whatever” is not a goal. If it doesn’t spark massive emotion inside of you, then the goal is not going to be enough to motivate you.
I have a “heck no” about surfing. I have a “meh” about learning to bake bread. I have a “heck yes” about getting more sleep.
Sometimes the problem with lack of accountability is general lack of energy. Anyone who is in poor health, who is not staying hydrated or eating well or getting enough sleep or exercise, is simply not going to be able to drum up enough energy to move forward. On the other hand, a magnetically attractive major goal will pull someone forward even in spite of exhaustion, debt, or illness! I’ve limped my way to the finish line enough times, and seen enough other people do the same, to know that this is true.
It’s not you, it’s not the goal, it’s how much YOU WANT that goal that matters.
You’d move awfully fast if the building was on fire.
You’d move awfully fast if your favorite celebrity was outside right now.
You’d move awfully fast to grab a $100 bill blowing past you.
Can you make yourself move that fast for anything else? Anything less tangible, anything currently invisible?
Can you tell yourself a story that makes your own goal more valuable and interesting to you?
You can, if you want to. I have great faith in you. Now get out there and impress me.
^^^ copy and paste into a text bubble and pretend you paid me to say that ^^^
Not everyone realizes this, but it’s not okay to change your fitness routine. It’s not okay - it’s MANDATORY. First of all, doing the same routine over and over can eventually lead to stress injuries. Second, it’s boring. Third, the body adjusts and the law of diminishing returns sets in. Perhaps most importantly, any single routine may neglect entire areas of the body. This is why it’s so vital - and fun - to occasionally pause and pivot.
I first started switching up my workout because my college gym had strict 30-minute cardio sessions. If you tried to stay on the machine longer, a bouncer would come over with a clipboard and evict you. I used the cardio equipment while I read my homework, and a half hour wasn’t enough. I learned that I could get a better/longer workout if I signed up for adjacent time slots and simply moved from one machine to another.
I also learned that more than five minutes on the stair climber made me want to barf.
Sometimes all the cardio machines would be booked. That’s when I started learning to use the weight machines. I was getting over a bad breakup, so my girlfriends would spot me and encourage me and keep me company. That boy was no gym rat and it was one place on campus where I could sulk in peace.
I started to see the gym as a place of refuge, a solace, and a mood adjuster.
Over the next fifteen years, I learned that Gym Me had high energy and a good mood, while Default Me was mopey and got sick a lot. I also had to change what I was doing many times due to relocation, job change, injury, or forgetting who Gym Me was. For a while.
Being fit has a tendency to reveal mysterious superpowers that weren’t even what you were training for. I’ve astonished myself with the suddenly revealed ability to climb a rope, do a headstand, or whip out a new hula hoop trick after watching someone else do it for a few seconds. The fun stuff!
The fun stuff, like toppling a 250-pound huge dude with a jiu jitsu throw.
I’m doing a pause and pivot right now. It’s been really emotional and difficult, because I’m stubborn as all-get-out, but it has to be done. I recognize this. It’s my own idea and my own plan, and still I’m struggling with my traitorous emotions. My feelings, always getting in my way and trying to ruin my strategic vision.
I’ve been enrolled in a martial arts school for nearly a year and a half. I convinced my husband to join, and we’ve been going to kickboxing classes together, a lot of the time at least.
There have been problems, though.
On his end, he’s lost nearly twenty pounds. His neck mobility has vastly improved and his chronic back pain is almost completely gone. He revels in fighting and he’s been getting the blue belts to teach him higher level secrets. He’s in the best shape of the fourteen years I’ve known him. He’s as happy and excited as a little kid with his first skateboard.
On my end, I’ve been going through several months of health struggles. I got a bad cold in the beginning of August, and that somehow turned into being sick 40% of the time between August and January. I missed (and paid for) weeks of classes, which unfortunately cost 25% more because I had just leveled up to the advanced classes. I went to the doctor to find out why I kept getting sick, fearing the worst, and she said she had known a fellow doctor who had the same problem. She wasn’t getting enough sleep during her residency, her stress level was high, and she could never quite recover fully before she was exposed to another cold. This doctor told me I would probably keep getting sick until the end of this year’s cold and flu season.
I mean, at least my blood work is good.
I did some research on my own end. It turns out that intense exercise can lead to being more vulnerable to colds and flu. Yeah. It makes sense. I would keep pushing myself a little too hard and trying to get back into classes a little too soon. I’d start going out and trying to work out at my normal intensity every time I reached 80% recovery. It was like trying to shut a door and having a mosquito fly in. Again and again and again.
After literally the twelfth time I got sick in eight months, I finally realized I had had enough. I need to give myself a break before I wind up on an inhaler. I paused my gym membership and told everyone I’d be back in six months or so.
This has nothing to do with grit or perseverance or fortitude. Those are the qualities that got me into this mess.
This also has nothing to do with abdicating on my body and burrowing into a recliner. I know I can’t do that because sedentary behavior impacts my thyroid, and I feel far, far worse when I sit around all the time.
This is a sabbatical, a pause and a pivot.
The first thing I’m going to do is to get over this most recent cold. I’ve been organizing my digital files, catching up on email, reading, and sleeping as much as I can between my neighbors’ centaur races or whatever they’re doing up there.
My pivot is to focus more on cardio over the summer. My husband and I talked it out, and remembered that when I was training for my marathon, I felt great all the time and I never got sick. I didn’t get sick that entire year! The only reason I quit was that I overtrained my ankle and wound up in physical therapy for six months.
I know more about stretching and cross-training now. I also know the warning signs. There’s no way I’ll do that to myself again.
The other thing is that I gained fifteen pounds in my shift from endurance running to boxing. Granted, some of it is muscle, but it doesn’t seem to be doing me many favors. My weight regain is perfectly correlated with the return of my night terrors, migraines, and vulnerability to seemingly every passing airborne virus. It’s gotta go.
The great thing about testing weight gain or loss as a variable is that it’s temporary. If you don’t like the results, you can always go back in the other direction. If I lose “too much weight” I can just eat more and put it back on over the weekend. *shrug*
The most important factor in a pause and pivot is the feeling of returning to center, of fully inhabiting one’s physical vessel. I am my body and my body is me. High energy is my birthright. I’ll do whatever I need to do to take care of myself and give myself the utmost strength and mobility.
Secrets to getting things done:
Nobody likes to be micro-managed, and it should be obvious why. The time that the micro-manager spends leaning over someone’s shoulder is time that they could be doing something at a much higher level.
Example: a top-level manager literally leaning over my shoulder and watching me update page number formatting on a document while paying me overtime and making me miss the gym. If anyone had bothered to delegate the task to me days or weeks earlier, it would have taken me ten minutes and never hit this person’s radar. Instead, the company winds up paying this taskmaster to do nothing more than annoy me. How much does this guy make per minute, and why is he wasting his time on this?
That happened fifteen years ago and it still annoys me.
Asking someone to do some something specific is a task. That’s true whether it’s your employee, your kid, your roommate, your romantic partner, or yourself. I tried asking my dog to bring me some tea but honestly he’s not very good at that kind of thing.
CLEAN YOUR ROOM
STOP THAT BARKING
LEARN TO DRIVE, LOSER
Asking someone to do a task is always going to generate a power struggle. If this person (or animal) had any desire to do that task, they would have done it already without your input. They probably have a violent desire to NEVER do that task, and they’ll fight it with every last fiber of their being. Just like my clients do when I suggest that maybe they consider possibly letting go of some of their expired food.
Try it another way, maybe?
Reframing a task as “a problem” or “a situation” is completely different. I’ll offer some examples.
Sitting on my porch, I want to charge my phone and my tablet. There are no electric outlets outside like there have been in previous places we’ve lived. I don’t want to leave the door open for an extension cord because we have a mosquito problem. What am I going to do?
Use a back-up battery
Do only non-electronic things outside
Charge one device at a time inside, and go back and forth retrieving them
Install a power outlet outdoors
Ask my husband to apply his engineering expertise to my problem
My husband and I have a running joke, dating back to our backpacking trip to Iceland. It goes like this: “YOU’RE the man, FIX THIS!” The truth is that if I asked him to do something very specific, like “save me from this hornet,” I know he would drop everything and rush to my aid. In the case of the missing power outlet, I don’t know what to ask for. If I had a solution, I most likely would have done it myself. I’m not going to TASK my husband, I’m going to ASK my husband.
What I mean by this is that I’m going to pose the problem to him and see what he would do. I believe that he will find a different way to solve the problem, something I would not have thought of, and I believe this because he’s done it a thousand times. Part of why we got married is that we have a lot of non-overlapping skills. Rather than berate him for not being good at the same things I am, I praise him for being good at all the things that I am not.
The vocal tones and facial expressions involved in asking someone for their opinion and advice are extremely different than those of someone who is demanding that someone else complete a task.
I tell my husband how much I love working on the porch. I point out what a beautiful day it is and how happy our pets are, dozing in the sun. I say I wish I had a way to charge my devices. I suggest digging out the dog door insert and setting it up so I can run a cord through the dog door.
Approximately four minutes later, he pops up with an extension cord. He rocks the screen door up slightly on its little roller wheels and slides the extension cord under it, then settles it back in position.
I’m so happy I surprise myself by bursting into tears, which completely freaks him out. I then have to explain exactly how much this means to me. I’ll be able to work outdoors all day, all spring and summer long! His solution to my problem is the ergonomic equivalent of adding an entire room to our apartment, a very nice one.
He nods and shrugs and goes back to reading his robotics textbook.
Another example: I want to celebrate my brother’s fortieth birthday. I task him with telling me when he is going to have his party so I can buy my plane tickets. This does not work. Back to the drawing board. I ask our other brother to talk to him. This does work, because they have different planning styles, but it does not result in firm plans.
I change the task to an ask. I tell my brother that he deserves to do something fun and special for his birthday. He says he is fun and special every day. I ask if he would be willing to cooperate with a surprise party, if we plan something for him and just tell him what to wear and what to pack. He’s fine with that. I figured he would be. Then I ask our other brother to help with something mutually fun and weather-appropriate. We work out in about 20 minutes what I couldn’t make happen in three months by tasking someone.
Notice the difference between “MAKE PLANS AND TELL ME ASAP” and “How can we make your birthday something fun and special?”
It’s just like the difference between “STOP NAPPING AND GET YOUR TOOLS” and “Can you help me make this area into a lifestyle upgrade?”
I’ve found this method really useful in motivating volunteers, also. Rather than ask people to do something specific, explain what it is that you’re trying to do. Every single time, without fail, people will step up with better, quicker, and easier ways to get stuff done. Often they’ll enlist other people you didn’t even know and get them to help. Sometimes they’ll point out that the job has already been done and share materials with you. This is why telling people what to do is pointless: your way is probably the worst way!
There are lots of ways to solve persistent problems if you “ask, don’t task.”
Get your kids to clean up: Plan a party or game night and say you want to make it special. Rather than nagging everyone to pick up after themselves, set a timer, put on some music, and race to “get ready.” What does “get ready” mean? More than you thought, probably! My mom used to do this and I would do extra stuff like making hand-drawn place cards. I still associate parties and housework.
Get your partner to help with yard work: Find out their vision for their ultimate dream yard and get them talking about it. Hammock for napping? Yard parties? Climbing roses? Wood-fired hot tub? Vegetable garden? Home roller coaster? Walk them out to the yard and stand there together while they get rolling.
What’s going on here is a shared vision that is communicated clearly. If other people dislike your vision, they will reject it, and they will fight you til the bitter end. If nobody is on board with your vision, why is that? Are you willing to do the work yourself if you have to? Have you given thought to other approaches? Are you simply in the habit of feeling stressed out, resentful, and irritated?
What would it take to turn the energy around this from “WHY WILL NOBODY DO MY BIDDING” to “hey, you know what would be fun?”
Ask, don’t task, and see if you can find out.
We saved 48% of our income last year.
What that means, specifically, is that 48% of our net base salary went into our retirement accounts. Net = after taxes and any other non-retirement withholdings. Base salary = the amount in the employment contract.
This does not include money that went toward paying down debt. For example, I finally managed to pay off my student loan.
How is this possible?
I’m going to write a somewhat abstract post because I don’t want to just baldly state our actual income. Some people do that, but *shrug* I’m not going to. The point is to focus on STRATEGY for those who will find it helpful.
Posting actual numbers, Money Diary style, tends to draw doubters and naysayers. That’s not my audience. Big hair, don’t care.
How is it possible to save half your income?
Two ways: offense and defense.
My husband taught me this. I’m an extremely hardcore full austerity frugalite. I play D. I can casually do a Buy Nothing Month and barely notice, because I’ll just spend the time reading library books and journaling. I’ll cheerfully serve up lentil soup, darn my socks for a third time, and dilute my laundry detergent to 80%. The trouble with this scrimping method is that you can only get your expenses down to zero dollars and zero cents. There’s a finite limit to how much you can save by playing defense.
I married a strategic thinker. He plays O. There is an infinite amount of money that someone can earn. There is no top level to how much you can escalate your income. In his mind, it’s a lot easier to find a way to EARN ten thousand dollars than it is to SAVE ten thousand dollars. That’s why he quit his job as a logger to go back to school and become an aerospace engineer.
We’ve learned to respect each other’s mutual styles and use them to work together. He appreciates my sincere desire to cooperate toward financial independence and stay on plan. I appreciate his ludicrous ability to read textbooks for fun, design things that go to space, and accrue patents. We take turns suggesting lifestyle pivots and talking each other through the pitch.
That’s how we’ve wound up in this bizarre, outlier situation of banking half our income.
Step One: Cooperate and tell the truth about your life. We have a breakfast meeting every single week where we talk about our finances, among other things. We’re able to do this without blame and recrimination because we share the goals of early retirement and excellent vacations. We’re allies. Wealthy celebrities go bankrupt and get expensively divorced all the time because they don’t know how to work as a team, and this is why cooperation comes first.
Step Two: Focus on career direction and earning potential. We’ve relocated for jobs four times in our ten-year marriage. We don’t have a mortgage but we both work at our dream job. The goals here should be, how do we do the most fascinating possible thing all day while mentoring younger people and also making it rain money?
Step Three: Lifestyle design. The tricky part.
The most valuable parts of anyone’s lifestyle are usually outside the cash dimension. Love and friendship. Self-expression. Connection to the natural world. Developing a personal philosophy. Sleep quality, cooking skills, having a home filled with laughter and conversation. Put a price on any of that.
We build our feeling of home and being entertained around the intangibles, and that’s what makes it relatively easy for us to chop expenses.
Okay, seriously though, how do we save half our income?
We live in a studio apartment close enough for my husband to take the bus to work. I work at home.
We got rid of our car two years ago because all they do is eat money 90% of the time.
We cook at home, only going out to eat maybe once a week because we’re really too busy. We’ve only had pizza delivery ONCE in our entire thirteen-year relationship, and it wasn’t very good either.
We don’t drink alcohol or indulge in any other recreational substances such as pay cable.
We don’t “shop” as an activity, and that’s no sacrifice, because we both hate wandering around in stores. Also, we live in a 612-square-foot studio, so where would we put anything?
Our default weekday is to work all day, go to kickboxing class together, bike home, shower, eat dinner, hang out with our pets for a while, and go to bed.
Base salary. See above. We’ve prioritized earnings over our own lifestyle throughout our marriage. That has meant moving away from family and friends over and over again. It has also meant getting rid of at least 80% of our possessions and living in a quarter of the space we had as newlyweds, because we’re nomads now.
Overtime earnings. Many jobs don’t have this as an option, and not everyone is in a position to take advantage of it. My family’s perspective is that working overtime helps take the pressure off of all the colleagues with young families or other caretaking responsibilities. Take one for the team, ka-CHING.
Bonuses. My husband has this terrible habit of winning awards at work. Unfortunately he might also wind up making money off his patents at some point, too. It’s dreadful.
Non-cash perquisites. One feature of frequent business travel is that it racks up a lot of points and miles. Another is that a lot of passthrough expenses go through our credit cards, building up yet more points and miles. We typically don’t have to “pay” for plane tickets, hotel rooms, or rental cars anymore.
Side hustle money. Everything we make on the side goes toward things like electronics upgrades, vacation, or vet bills. It used to go toward debt payments. There’s something highly motivating about thinking, “I’m going to earn myself a brand new Mac” or “this will buy our dog another year” as opposed to abstract numerals with a dollar sign in front.
The treats: Part of why our lifestyle works for us is that we’re both motivated by the same major goals, one of which is financial independence and the other of which is travel. We splurge on vacation, as well as a few other things: Our phones, robotics textbooks, spoiling our pets, hanging out at Starbucks, and going to our boutique gym. Since we save half our income, we feel entitled to indulge ourselves in the ways that matter to us, as opposed to things that don’t, such as owning two vehicles, eating snacks and drive-thru food, watching cable TV, or living in an average-size house.
We moved into a studio apartment so we could get a year ahead on our retirement savings, instead of a year behind. (Scrambling to pay 2015’s IRA contribution in spring of 2016, whereas now we’re already saving for 2020 in 2019). It worked! Saving crazy amounts of money has been fun for us and it’s helped us to build a stronger marriage. The stress of debt is so, so much harder than the stress of sharing a tiny living space and basically living like college students.
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.
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