Comfort is what we crave. The contradiction inherent in this drive is that almost everything we do in search of comfort actually destroys our chances of feeling comforted in both the short term and the long term. This can be demonstrated in all sorts of ways, but the most poisonous and destructive of these is the search for emotional validation.
Looking for validation is looking for someone to back us up. Tell me! Tell me I was right and everyone else was wrong! Tell me I didn’t deserve that! Tell me I DID deserve that! Tell me how great I am! Compliment me! FEED ME! I need more love! Approval! Compassion!
Oh, how sweet it would be. I think there’s soon going to be a cuddly AI robot-thing that can do this in natural speech. “Oh, honey, of course you deserved that promotion! Your boss is a big mean jerk.” You can choose it in pink or lavender or pale yellow, and you can select the celebrity voice of your choice. Soothing, sweet, delicious fantasy of nurturing and support.
I’ll get one and make a video of myself setting it on fire, beating it with a shovel, and then backing a truck over it.
Validation is death. The last thing we should ever want is someone to constantly yes-man our every word and deed. What a disaster. Please no! That’s the route in the maze that leads directly to a dead end. In fact, there’s only one single path in a maze that leads out; all the other options are false, distracting, routes to nowhere. The path that leads out is the path of truth. That truth by its nature has to include all the dark stuff, all the unsavory and embarrassing stuff we wouldn’t want to admit.
He broke up with me because I complained constantly and I wouldn’t take action or listen to his advice.
I didn’t get the promotion because I wasn’t ready, I didn’t look like I fit the role, I didn’t have the certifications, and I kept coming in late.
Other people talk smack about me because that’s what boring, small-minded people do, and it’ll never stop no matter what I do, so it’s my job to let it go and ignore it.
It’s my job to look for my own flaws and try to do something about them. Like most people, I’ll probably go through life unaware of my biggest and worst flaws, and I’ll chip away at the smallest, least consequential ones. Then I’ll immediately be distracted by something someone else said, or rather, my guesses and misinterpretations of what someone else said. I’ll spin my wheels over this. I’ll waste my time, always stuck on Level One, when I could be putting that energy toward making myself a slightly less obnoxious and useless human. It’s what I wish other people would do that I myself should do.
When I wish for validation, I should first ask whether it would actually help me reach my goals. Second, I should find someone else who deserves validation and give that person the praise and encouragement I wish someone would give me.
When I wish someone would listen to me with deep and heart-felt fascination, that’s my cue to find the fascination in someone else’s story. Deep listening teaches me about other people, and it also teaches me how to make my own story more compelling.
When I wish someone would hear me out, that’s my flag that maybe there’s a flaw in my reasoning or a hole in my rationale. Maybe my version of this story is bogus and self-serving. Maybe it’s boring to everyone in the world except me. This wish is my opportunity to work on it, on my writing or my performance or some other way of turning my frustrations into art.
If I wish someone else would stand up for me - have I stood up for others? If I wish someone else would speak up and praise me - have I promoted others and made them look good? If I wish for backup, have I been an ally to others? If I wish for deeper friendships, have I gone out of my way for others in ways that are inconvenient to me? Have I sought to learn what makes them feel befriended and cared for? Sometimes the validation I wish I had may come from one person, while I offer it to a different person. It’s not usually an even flow.
Validation given well can bring out the best in people. Unfortunately, we tend to want it most when we deserve it least. We ask for it at the exact moments that it could hold us back. We want to be comforted when we need to be challenged. We want someone to agree with us exactly when we should be questioned and confronted. Yes dear, yes dear, you’re right dear. Beware of validation, and instead cherish those friends (and enemies) who are brave enough to give you the cold cruel truth. You can always get one of those approval-bots and let it sing you to sleep later.
Two weeks ago, I posted about how I gained four pounds over a weekend in Las Vegas. This sent my health into a rapid tailspin, and I knew it was time to take immediate steps to reverse the trend. This is me checking in.
The good news is, I was able to drop most of the weight over the first week. It was a huge relief to have a free day after four days of low-grade headaches. I haven’t had a headache since. (I don’t drink, although an epic hangover would at least have been a fun excuse). I was also having a lot of sleep problems, not a good sign for someone with a major parasomnia disorder. It’s been even more of a relief to be able to sleep through the night. I may be wrong about the correlation between my weight and my health problems, but if I am wrong, at least it was a suspiciously-timed coincidence.
I’m still having trouble with my temperature fluctuating all over the place. This is most noticeable right after I work out, which is strange, or right before I eat. I’ll be fine, and then suddenly a few seconds later I’m freezing. A few nights ago, I woke up huddled in a ball in the middle of the bed, shaking with cold, while under the bedspread, with the temperature in the high sixties. I attribute this to my trick thyroid. It’s a quick, easy way to remind myself that my system demands a high level of physical exercise to run correctly.
Since I’ve been spending so much time in the gym, I’ve decided that I might as well segue into fall training. The outside temperature is dropping, and soon it will be cool enough that I can go out and run again. While I’m waiting, I’ve been spending an hour a day on the elliptical, trying to rebuild my cardio. I have the goal of running a 50-mile ultramarathon for my fiftieth birthday, but I haven’t really run in nearly three years, and I only have eight years to train.
Having spelled all that out, I can now talk about this phenomenon that I call Diet Brain.
Well, actually, wait. I should also say that it’s affecting my husband, too. For some mysterious reason, in our culture, men are allowed to make the decision to lose weight and announce it publicly, and everyone seems to think it’s a fair and reasonable choice to make. A man can even use the word ‘diet.’ When a woman says she’s going on a diet, all hell breaks loose. Everyone knows the only possible reason a woman can decide to lose weight is that she’s gone insane and she loathes her appearance. There’s this cultural prejudice that men already have a healthy body image, and losing a little weight will just make them more awesome, but only if it’s something they want. If Diet Brain is affecting both of us in similar ways, it seems worth sharing.
Basically, cutting calories makes a person distracted, chilly, and mopey. Mostly distracted. Both of us have found ourselves losing track of objects, forgetting what we were doing, and having trouble concentrating. I feel distinctly less charismatic and my speeches haven’t been as good.
We’ve been through this before, both together and separately. We both like to Eat All the Things and we have to fight our tendency to pack on weight rapidly. And then keep it. This is why we’re willing to put ourselves through the occasional brief period of cutting calories and suffering the dreaded Diet Brain. It’s temporary. And a couple of weeks of distraction, spaciness, and moodiness are a small price to pay in order to avoid everything that goes along with constant, chronic weight gain. We’ve been there and back so many times that we know that. If only we could convince ourselves to quit splurging in the first place!
I have to tell you this story. My husband is an aerospace engineer, right? He has this highly idiosyncratic engineering system for his clothes. He came in and shared an anecdote, and it made my jaw drop open, and immediately I realized I had to write it up. This thing has layers!
First off, we keep different schedules. He’s an extreme lark and I’m a night owl. How larkish is he? He once woke up randomly at 4 AM, couldn’t fall back to sleep, and just shrugged and went to work early. I’ve shifted my natural schedule back about four hours to overlap with his more. I’m not allowed to get up with him on weekdays, though, because he says it makes him want to hang out with me. How sweet is that??
(Although actually the real reason is that he has his morning routine worked out to the minute, and even a brief chat with me would throw him off. More on this later).
Another piece to this story is that in our new apartment, we share a clothes closet. In our past three houses, he kept his clothes in his office closet. The reason for this is that he doesn’t want to wake me up, out of consideration for my parasomnia disorder. (Possibly also because if I do wake up, I have a strong desire to tell him my creepy dreams, which… RUN AWAY!). A key piece in his morning routine is to get across the bedroom like a ninja and open the door as soundlessly as possible. I’d say that 90% of the time, he nails it. What a guy, huh?
Okay, so. For some reason, dear hubby forgot to lay out his clothes the night before. He had to re-enter our boudoir, open the closet, and choose a work outfit. This put him a mere three feet from my sleeping face. At this time of year, it’s still pitch dark at 5:45 AM. Without turning on a light, without waking me up, he was able to reach out and grab a matching shirt, pants, socks, and shoes. Because he has a system.
I had no inkling of any of this. We’ve been together for eleven years and I had no idea. I mean, I knew parts of it, because honestly his side of the closet is distinctive, but I had no idea how intentional it all was.
If he hadn’t told me that he chose his outfit in the dark, I never would have guessed. All I noticed is that he was wearing a new shirt for the first time, one that I helped him pick out, and that it really brings out the color of his eyes.
Stop for a moment and ask yourself: On any given day, could I walk up to my closet and choose a matching, flattering, seasonally appropriate outfit in the dark?
It turns out that he’s practicing Six Sigma and using kanban. Everything has a place and everything is in its place. He has precisely eight polo shirts in a variety of colors. He has six identical pairs of black pants (and one pair in khaki, which I suspect he’s just keeping until they wear out). Clean shirts get hung up on the right, and he always draws from the left, so the shirts get worn out at an equal rate. “You have to wear the shirt that you don’t like, as much as your favorite shirt; otherwise your favorite shirt doesn’t last as long.” Since he has eight shirts and there are five weekdays, the shirts show up on different days, adding a little variety to the system. They all go with the black pants, which also go with the socks and shoes. There are three long-sleeved shirts for less casual work settings, but, I am not kidding, he wears the same clothes whether it’s 40 degrees out or 110.
For casual clothes, he has two pairs of “adventure pants,” two pairs of shorts, and ten t-shirts, which he feels is too many. Should only be seven.
What’s the deal with this hyper-rational system?
Are you believing all of this??? I mean, I’m married to him and I’m dumbfounded.
Let’s contrast the engineer-style capsule wardrobe with the opposite extreme, the chronically disorganized maximalist artistic woman’s wardrobe. Because honestly, I think most of us would freak if we felt we had to limit ourselves to eight tops and six identical pants.
Mathematics could provide an answer to how many potential options there are in a given closet, but it would be a complicated problem to set up, because not all the pieces fit in one data set. It’s easily going to be in the thousands, though.
The typical maximalist wardrobe is, according to my hypothesis, a major root cause of morning stress and chronic lateness. Multiply it by the wardrobes of any young children in the family. Multiply that by lack of a laundry system and the product is endless chaos, distraction, and frustration.
I once worked with a talented department manager who had a capsule wardrobe, although I didn’t know the term at the time. She wore a series of virtually indistinguishable dresses, same style, same color. Every day, though, her shoes were different: Three-inch heels in an endless variety of colors and patterns. She continued to climb the corporate ladder; last I heard, she was a VP. In the heavily male-dominated world of tech, there are a few likely possibilities. 1. Literally none of the engineers noticed; 2. They noticed and approved; or 3. She was actually evaluated based on her work output, and what she wore was irrelevant.
I checked with my husband, who also knows her, and he said definitely #3.
I think we should evaluate our wardrobes based on functionality. This is how my husband organizes his. Do I look like a professional? Can I reliably get to work on time? Can I get ready with the absolute minimum amount of fuss? Am I comfortable? Is everything machine-washable? I’m telling you, I’ve been aware of the concept of the no-decisions uniform for over twenty years, and if I’d ever found a single garment or shoe that I liked that much, I’d be wearing it every day. Maybe this is why I’m married to an aerospace engineer and I myself am not one.
Where do people learn to say “Neener neener neener”? Who was the first person to actually say that to someone? It could so easily have gone the other way - someone looks at someone and says “neener neener neener” and the other person just looks back and says, “Huh? I don’t understand what you said.” Or, “Stop trying to make ‘neener neener neener’ a thing.” It spread so quickly because it’s just the most effective way to taunt people. There will probably be drone toys at some point that will play robot keep-away with us, while going ‘neener neener’ in a digital monotone. Anyway. There are a lot of flippant formulaic responses of this nature, phrases that are used to dismiss or refute what someone is saying. One of these phrases from my childhood was “How does it feel to want?”
Ice cream truck drives up the street
Child: Uh! I want ice cream!
Adult: How does it feel to want?
Child: I want ice cream!
Adult: Yeah, well, I want a million dollars.
Child: I wish I had some ice cream.
Adult: Wish in one hand, spit in the other, which one fills up first?
This is the demographic reality. For anyone below the economic median, one of the most vital lessons an adult can teach a child is how to deal with frustrated desires. Stoicism 101. You just have to learn to deal. Disappointment is your lot in life. Once you can learn that ice cream is for everyone but you, you can start to find inner strength and grit and the pride of being above that sort of thing. Right? This is why kids in my milieu got the “how does it feel to want?” message from random adults, not just parents or relatives.
While it’s true that chasing after every ice cream truck would be really distracting, and that deferred gratification is one of the fundamentals of adulting, let’s go into this a bit more.
How does it feel to want?
Usually when I think I want ice cream, what I really want is something else. Joy. Rewards. Validation. A shared social experience. Distraction. Escape. It’s not usually just that I want to stimulate my tongue. Surely I’ve realized by now that only the first three bites really taste like anything.
The other thing about ice cream as an example is that it’s something I can get 24 hours a day for about a dollar. I can keep ice cream in my freezer - I can fill my entire freezer with ice cream if I like - and I can get up and eat a bite of it every 20 minutes if I so please. So what?
What could possibly, possibly be more boring than a life of total hedonism?
We ought to be wanting more. Something bigger. Something that a six-year-old probably wouldn’t think of. Such as: I want to build my own sailboat, take sailing lessons, and sail around the world.
Actually, wait. That kind of does sound like something a six-year-old might want.
Kids are better at big dreams than we are. Another way to put that is that we start out with vast amazing dreams, and they’re trained out of us. We’re carefully taught to quit thinking that we could actually have that, live that, be that. It’s selfish and delusional! Give up already! Who do you think you are??
Aw, don’t cry. Have an ice cream.
The truth is that people’s dreams tend to be tragically under-wrought. We get stuck on “lose weight” and “get organized” and “pay off debt.” Yeah, and then what? You could do all three of those things in one calendar year if you wanted. You could completely empty a hoarded three-story house, lose a hundred pounds, and pay off $50,000 in debt if you decided to do it. What are you going to do the year after that?
What would you ask for if the fairies came and told you your wishes would all be granted?
So you want to lose weight. If you woke up tomorrow with the body of an Olympic gold medalist, what would you do?
So you want to get organized. If you woke up tomorrow and learned you had won an executive assistant, professional organizer, interior designer, chef, maid, and chauffeur for life, what would you do?
So you want to pay off your debts. If you woke up tomorrow and, instead of debt, that number was your cash balance, what would you do?
What would you do with unlimited strength, vitality, mental clarity, and financial wealth?
What a bummer it would be! Because what I really, really want most of all is for someone to listen raptly while I share the minute details of why I Am Annoyed or That Person Hurt My Feelings.
It’s even harder to image the possibilities there. What if I woke up tomorrow and people didn’t annoy me anymore? Not that they learned to behave themselves, because come on, that’s never going to happen. Just that when people got up to shenanigans, it didn’t bother me anymore. What if people kept saying rude things the way they do, refusing to keep their commitments the way they do, and it just rolled off my back? What if I found that I no longer reacted to emotional bombardment?
I’ve been practicing wanting more, and it’s really hard. It’s hard to come up with ideas. Basically right now I’m stuck on “buy new socks when I wear holes in the toes of my old socks without feeling guilty about it.” When I turn on the fantasy faucet and try out different images, I keep getting stuck on stuff that involves someone waiting on me, which I reject. Other people adore being waited on: getting manicures or spa treatments, breakfast in bed, having drinks brought to them. I have to train myself not to let my resistance to this feeling block my imagination from thinking of desirable things that don’t involve over-the-top service.
What would be some things I could want?
To be better at wildlife photography, which probably means buying a better camera and spending more time in nature
To be fluent in a foreign language, which means restructuring my schedule and giving myself half an hour a day. And then finding someone who doesn’t speak English and talking to them.
To spend time just staring at the ceiling and listening to music, the way I did quite naturally as a teenager
Yep. Those are things I can allow myself to want, things that are in my reach right now. To look at that list reminds me that I don’t direct my time toward my dreams. I spend so much of it in passive entertainment or rehashing the events of the day or grumbling about what is in my life that I don’t want. I can’t push myself to want things that I can’t imagine, things that would be so awesome that they would upend my entire sense of who I am.
What else could I want? To fit in and feel comfortable in a higher stratum than I ever had before? To feel more like myself in a stronger, more active body than I’ve ever experienced? To feel confident and powerful whenever I think about my finances? To feel the drive to move toward my goals and steamroll right over my anxiety and lack of assurance? To feel compassion or amusement instead of frustration with other people? Could I actually want to feel like I really have free will? The hardest thing to want is to want total accountability, the responsibility to create our own conditions. It’s hard to want the choice.
I was never an athlete until I turned 35, but The Champion's Mind is one of the most incredible books I have ever read. In a way, it almost makes me a little sad, because I feel like only people who are interested in team sports would be drawn to read it, and the majority of us will continue to have no idea how much we are missing. Think of it as a thinly veiled philosophy book or entrepreneurial motivational firehose. Jim Afremow writes keenly precise prose, and I think I bookmarked nearly every page.
I'm a distance runner. Although all of my experiences with team sports were uniformly awful, I found that 98% of the motivational material in The Champion's Mind felt deeply relevant to solo endurance sports as well. Those of us who are late to the game of physical culture can try out a bit of this collected wisdom. Would I think this way all the time if I had recognized my inner athlete decades earlier? Would I have been more receptive to coaching in my youth? (Probably not...)
One of the most useful concepts I took from The Champion's Mind was the idea of countering a Mental Error (ME) with a Mental Correction (MC). In my professional work with hoarding, squalor, and chronic disorganization, almost all of the work is in identifying and grappling with the extreme negative stories my clients tell about themselves. This made me think of my work as existing on the farthest possible end of the philosophical spectrum from athletic excellence. Sad to say, my people probably spend as much time accumulating and churning their physical possessions as Olympians do training and winning medals. Same twenty-four hours every single day.
Afremow recommends that athletes spend 30 minutes a day organizing and cleaning their personal space. Indeed. That's really about all it takes if you do it every single day. He also discusses social loafing, the phenomenon in which people on a team slack off because they believe their teammates will work hard enough to cover them. If this isn't relevant to family housekeeping, I don't know what is.
I'm going to keep coming back to this book again and again. Some of the mantras are going on the lock screen of my phone. Think It, Then Ink It! Own Your Zone! Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Gold In, Gold Out. Sustained Obsession. If these sorts of thinking tools have helped professional athletes to overcome major injuries, surgeries, and personal trauma, they can certainly help an ordinary person like me to get through the day.
Favorite quote: "The present is always the present, and it's all that ever is; the past and future exist only in your imagination."
We knew it was going to happen, but that didn’t stop it from being annoying. The power company would be turning off our electricity from 6 PM to 6 AM on a weeknight. No electricity, no wi-fi, no internet - which, in our building, means no phone. No lights. My husband wouldn’t be home from work until after 6, and we wouldn’t even be able to cook dinner. No stove, no microwave, no dishwasher. No washing machine, no clothes dryer. In other words, we’d be doing a dry run of what hundreds of thousands of people are doing in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Jose. We might not have internet for a night, but at least we wouldn’t have to evacuate.
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of emergency planning. If you have a plan and a few contingency plans, all you have to do is rehearse them occasionally and look for blind spots. If you have no plan, then you’re relying on the plans of others. Whenever there’s a natural disaster or a crisis, there will always be bright spots, incredible acts of heroism and generosity. There will also be devastating tragedies, many of which might have been avoided (who knows?) with some contingency plans and more resources. I like to think that we’re making our emergency plans as strong as possible so that we can find a place on the rescue squad and help those who can’t do it on their own.
If you have no phone and no internet, how will you know what to do and where to go?
If you live with others, and a natural disaster happens while you’re separated, how will you find each other if the phones don’t work?
If you have to evacuate your home and you’re separated from your family, how will you send each other messages?
If you have pets, what will you do with them? Can you get them out?
What information will you need if you lose your phone and wallet and your house is gone? How are you going to access that information?
I don’t have answers for you, by the way. How would I? The answers to those questions are personal to you and your situation.
These are horrible things to think about. Granted. So is death. How much more horrible if the disaster actually happens and you never bothered to spend five minutes thinking about it? Problem-solving is learned by solving problems. In crunch time, there won’t be any review sessions or time to go to the disaster survival textbook.
My husband and I live in a disaster-prone area. Earthquakes! Landslides! Wildfires! Flash floods! Riots! Our last house put us within walking distance of the territory of a real live (radio-collared) mountain lion. Our current apartment is on a marina, downhill a quarter mile from the typhoon warning signs. Things to think about.
Our Plan A is to hunker down at home and stay out of the way. A couple of weeks ago, there were wildfires very near our old house, close enough that a friend messaged me to ask if we were okay. Thirty miles, hon, we’re fine, thanks for asking. There were wildfires thirty miles from us and we didn’t even know! I have disaster alerts set up on my Watch and my phone, assuming they work. At least in an urban area, usually the best thing you can do is to stay home and give the emergency responders room to do their work.
Plan B, we know we need to evacuate and we have at least a few hours’ notice. Acquire transportation and depart for our planned destination. We’ve chosen somewhere a few hours away, in a different geographical area, assuming that if they also have a natural disaster, it won’t be the same one going on in our town. This is how my husband and his young family dealt with the aftereffects of the Northridge Earthquake. They drove out of the area for a few days until the water, power, and sewer were functional again.
Plan C, worst case scenario, something happens while my husband is at work and I’m at home with our pets. The phones don’t work, there’s no internet, and we don’t get a chance to touch base. Ugh, it gives me the chills just thinking about it! Plan B is for me to stay put and for him to get to us. His work is five miles away. Assuming he had to walk the whole way on technical terrain with weather complications, he could get home in 2 to 5 hours. (He thinks faster, but I know from technical terrain, and one mile an hour is plausible).
We plan around not having access to a vehicle because that’s what planning means. You have to assume that the weather is setting historical records, that you and someone else in your party are injured, that your supplies have been lost, that all the obvious routes home are blocked, that your vehicle has been destroyed, and that the roads are impassable anyway. THEN you get to start contingency planning.
Plan D: We’re separated, we have no means of communication, and I have to evacuate with our pets. There are index cards, markers, and masking tape in my go bag so I can try to leave him a note saying where we’ve gone. He’s going to have to assume we’re heading to higher ground, followed by the nearest Red Cross disaster shelter.
What if there isn’t one?
My husband and I both have years of experience in the outdoors. This is recreational, but it’s also practical. How far can we walk? How much can we carry? What do we do if we get blisters or minor injuries? How long can we exert very strenuous effort without food? What kind of climbing can we do? If we’re separated, well, he’s an emergency medical responder and an Eagle Scout, so he can take care of himself. For myself, I have to count on my inner reserves of grit and the physical strength I’ve built as a marathon runner and adventure racer. We spent three days off-grid in Iceland and got each other across a few thigh-deep river crossings. We’ve tested our ability to work together under arduous conditions, keeping our heads clear and solving problems together.
Like, for instance, the problem of having NO INTERNET FOR TWELVE HOURS! We couldn’t charge our devices or anything! *swoon* I know, I know. How did we survive??
I made sure the day’s laundry was out of the dryer well before the shutoff. We met for dinner at the burrito bar, where I had already checked to make sure they were out of the shutoff zone. That meant we wouldn’t have to open the fridge or freezer and our food could stay fresh. I had fresh batteries for the battery-powered lantern, plus candles and a headlamp, and the solar lantern was charged. The fire extinguisher was ready under the sink just in case. All our devices were charged to 100%. I even got us fresh new library books. We lounged around reading, went to bed early, and when we woke up in the morning, the power was back on.
If we’re lucky, this will be the toughest crisis of our year. There’s enough to do in trying to help with hurricane recovery efforts in any way we can.
I’m writing this on the treadmill at our apartment gym. This gym was one of the top three reasons we were willing to downsize from a house with a garage. I figure, if I don’t use it as much as possible, then we’re not getting full value from our rent. It has a much nicer view with its floor-to-ceiling windows than our apartment, which looks onto the parking garage of the neighboring building. It has no fewer than three big-screen TVs, one of which is hanging directly in front of me. I’m ignoring it, though, because it’s always tuned to a news channel. I’m here for entertainment.
Let the truth be known: I hate working out. It’s boring as all get out. If I had to run on a treadmill with nothing to stimulate my brain, I’d quit in about four minutes. In fact, I did quit. I quit the gym we had four years ago because I hated running on the treadmill and they kept playing “Teenage Dream” every single time I was there. What gets me through my workouts is that I anchor exercise to entertainment. There are certain fun things I do that I only allow myself to do when I’m doing cardio.
It started before the days of smartphones and tablets. I joined the gym across the street from my work, and I would do my workout while I waited for traffic to die down. This meant I had the delayed reward of a breezy freeway commute, often as the only car visible on the road. Ah, but that was dessert. The immediate reward was the pot-boiler. I would have a book I couldn’t stop thinking about, and I only allowed myself to touch it if I was actually on the treadmill. It just lived in my gym bag. Not only did this work, but the suspense tended to make me move faster. I graduated from 2 mph on the treadmill to 4.5 mph on an incline. Then I upgraded to the bike, then the elliptical. I lost 15 pounds at that gym.
When I took up running outdoors, the treat was audio. Either podcasts or audio books. It got to where I had to pick out the longest books I could find, because on Fridays I would run for four hours and I didn’t want to have to mess with the app. I remember that I listened to all of Cloud Atlas while training for my marathon. My must-listen podcasts were for training days only.
This gym I’m in has seven cardio machines. Most of the time when I show up, I have the entire room to myself. I’ve been here at all hours between 6 AM and 8 PM. It’s predictably busier in the early morning, but even at its most crowded, at least three or four of these machines are available. To be considerate, I have fallback plans. I do different types of things depending on which machine I’m on. I’ve set my expectations so that I don’t have a “favorite” or a sense that “that’s MY” machine.
On the elliptical, I can only really use my three-year-old tablet, an obsolete yet indestructible beast that I got for free the last time I upgraded my phone. That’s where I try to catch up with my news queue. I have a couple of e-books downloaded on it. The elliptical is also where I read paper magazines.
On the recumbent bike, there’s nowhere to prop reading material. This is a tough machine for me right now, because I haven’t trained on a bike in many years, but it’s good for my hip flexors and quads and I need it for cross training. I’m trying to build up my tolerance gradually. This is where I read through email newsletters and articles with a lot of illustrations on my iPad.
On the treadmill, where I am now, I can actually prop up my iPad keyboard and type! I’m only going 2.4 mph. There’s a fan in the machine that blows on my face, which is quite nice. What I’ve done in this session has been to watch a 20-minute video, read a silly article about the Mayweather-McGregor match, and write this piece. I realized only today that this is a place where I can actually watch my endless queue of “Watch Later” YouTube videos. I can’t stop myself from saving them but I get too restless to watch them while sitting still. Anyone who was into that sort of thing could also watch TV episodes with a setup like this.
A friend of mine used to play video games on the recumbent bike. In those days, it was a game console. Now anyone could do this with a smartphone.
Do I worry about breaking my gadgets? Yes, very much so. That’s why I use the devices I do on the machines that I do. There’s no way I’d ever consider bringing my iPad onto the elliptical machine. It wouldn’t be possible for me to type on the recumbent bike due to its layout. I also wouldn’t do everything with the iPad on the treadmill, because it’s not nearly a hard enough workout. What I do is to dither around clearing tabs in my browser, doing a brain dump, and maybe scanning some email in a desultory fashion. Then I stop the treadmill and move over to another machine. Honestly, I haven’t broken a sweat.
I don’t think my treadmill entertainment “counts” as a workout. I might burn 100 calories, about equivalent to an apple. The thing is that I’m associating the habit of passive entertainment with physical activity. I’m also associating this habit with this location. Over time, my mind will expect that I “do this sort of thing” at the gym. I look forward to walking over here, because it’s when I can read police procedurals or mindless celebrity gossip or BuzzFeed articles. Before I know it, it’s time to hop on the elliptical and really get to work.
Oh crud! I’ve already been on here for 74 minutes! Bye!
Most of the stuff in the universe is not in my apartment. I’m pretty sure I don’t have any of your stuff, although if I do, please remind me… I’ve written in the past about how I don’t have a nightstand or a coffee table. Another conventional item that I don’t have is a filing cabinet. This is pretty common amongst the chronically disorganized, and it’s a good tool for making sense out of scattered stuff. It’s possible, though, to graduate past the need for a physical file cabinet. Not having a filing cabinet is one of the many ways that I make my life easier.
There are three levels of filing:
Not having a filing cabinet means I need to be strategic about how information flows through my life. I need to plan my finances and my infrastructure. This strategic planning is how I control the flow of papers so I can always find what I need. It also keeps unwanted papers from taking over our house.
The first thing is to default to NO when it comes to papers. Refuse all brochures, pamphlets, flyers, newsletters, catalogues, business cards, menus, free newspapers or anything else that is thrust out. Any information I need, I can look up online. There is no reason for contact information to be collected in paper form. The other advantage of this is that I’m in control of the research. Anyone who wants me to take papers from them is marketing something, which means they’re looking after their advantage, not mine. This is contrary for compulsive accumulators, who get swirly eyes every time they think they’re getting something for free.
Junk mail is in a category of its own. Opt out. Get your name off the lists. This can be hard to do in the case of postcards from local dentists or other businesses, but they usually only reach out once. Regular offenders catch my attention, and I go to their website and figure out how to get my name taken off their mailing list. After opting out, the second most important way to fight junk mail is to ruthlessly process it every day. When either of us brings in the mail, we’ve already sorted through it by the time we get to our front door, and all the junk goes into the recycling bin.
These two gates, resisting papers and eliminating junk mail, eliminate at least 80% of the burden of paper sorting. This is why they are so essential to the process. There’s plenty to sort when it comes to the relevant stuff, the papers we actually need. Having them mixed in with bags and bags of unsorted junk mail makes the process almost impossible.
What about the stuff we do need? As often as possible, we sign up for paperless billing. Almost all the time, we just use auto-pay. This is another area that is very contrary for my people. Even direct deposit for paychecks is too much for them; it makes them feel paranoid. I used to feel that way. At some point in the late Nineties, I changed my mind. Never once, not a single time, have I ever had a problem with direct deposit or automatic billing. Of course that’s not going to matter to those who are afraid of electronic banking. For those who just feel overwhelmed and dread the thought, it’s even more important to control the flow of paper, because there’s going to be at least ten times more of it.
Guess what? Once you’ve paid a bill, you no longer need to keep the billing statement. Or the envelopes, or the brochures. Any of it. You don’t need to keep paper copies of bank statements, either. We haven’t kept any for our entire marriage. This is why we don’t have a filing cabinet, because either we don’t keep these papers or we don’t generate them on paper in the first place.
We also don’t keep academic papers. My husband is active in his field of aerospace engineering, and his student work wouldn’t be all that relevant to what he does today. I haven’t needed or used any of my papers, either, although I did scan the ones I wanted to keep. They take up a small amount of space in my cloud storage. Most people keep old school papers because they miss being students.
What do we keep?
Our passports, social security cards, and marriage license are in the fireproof safe.
I have a red Manila file folder labeled PENDING that has certain papers that are necessary for the short term. For instance, I had a four-year battle with the City of Los Angeles, trying to tax me for income I didn’t earn even when I wasn’t a resident. I saved all the correspondence from them. That was about a dozen sheets. At some point, I’ll scan them and shred the originals. I just looked through this folder and pulled out an invitation to a party I attended and instructions for an eye ointment I no longer need. Then there’s a flyer from our apartment complex about repaving the parking lot this month. Well, I’m certainly not putting it on the fridge!
We have a cardboard file box. It measures ten inches deep. This is downsized from our previous file box, which was about twice as big. I keep it in the linen closet, where there’s room for it because we don’t keep threadbare old towels or wrong-size sheets. I just flipped through it. The majority of it is only in there because of how long it would take to scan it, and because if we get rid of another inch of papers, I’ll have to find a different storage solution. They’re holding each other upright. You know all those pictures on Pinterest of cute desks with decorative storage boxes on the shelves? Something like that would work.
What’s in our file box? School pictures of my stepdaughter. Instruction manuals, which I include with items that I resell when we’re done. Tax returns, of course. Race bibs from the different races I’ve run. A bunch of schematics and notes about various inventions, mine and his. Veterinary records, which, come to think of it, our vet has on file anyway. Essentially what we have is there due to entropy, not because we need to use these papers for reference. (The invention stuff should certainly be scanned). The only ones we’re legally mandated to keep are the tax returns, a file that’s about 1/8” thick. It could go in the safe and then we’d be done.
Papers, like many other objects, tend to be kept because we don’t believe we have permission to get rid of them. What do you want to bet that almost everyone reading this still has the tags hanging off their mattress? How many people have stuff in their house that was left behind by previous tenants? Why do we always keep all the spare hardware that’s left over after assembling something? It takes a certain amount of moxie to seize the initiative and make executive decisions about stuff. Do a little research and decide that there’s an entire category of papers you no longer need to keep.
First there’s the underwear money. Then there’s the go-bag money. Then there’s the money in the safe. Then there’s the change jar. Then there’s the actual savings account. If you can keep track of all that, then great! You absolutely have the aptitude for financial independence.
When you’re broke, saving money isn’t always possible. I’ve been in the unenviable position of having two roommates and still paying more than half of my income in rent. In fact, in the first month of my life as an independent adult, I earned $300 net and my rent was… $300. Tricky. Why I still love potatoes and oatmeal is something of a mystery. The most important two things when you are that broke, potato-with-no-butter broke, are to keep planning for an easier future and to figure out some side gigs.
When you’re broke, it’s even more important to plan for the future than it is for everyone else. Why? Because if you always live hand to mouth, if every penny is already claimed before you even earn it, then there’s nothing left for Future You. Future You will be exactly like Present You, except old and exhausted and probably unemployable and also probably frail and ill. Imagine being so tired you physically can’t even get up a flight of stairs, and then imagine that Present You plans to force Future Old You to commute to work every day. Come on. That’s not going to work. Saving money is not optional. You have to figure it out.
Okay, let’s cheer up a bit and assume that you already are prosperous enough to be able to save some money. The great thing is that the more you learn about finance, the more money you wind up having, and the easier your life gets. The more money you have, the more nice things you can do for other people. Yay money!
Savings is a cushion. The main purpose of a savings account is to have money ready for an emergency. Interestingly enough, the way we define “emergency” tends to change depending on circumstances. New tires? A new transmission? Veterinary surgery? The goal is to have enough of a savings cushion to avoid putting unanticipated emergency expenses on a credit card.
A shocking survey came out in 2016 indicating that nearly half of Americans couldn’t come up with $400 in an emergency. That was true for me up until, say, 2005. I wouldn’t even have been able to do it with a credit card prior to 1997. I completely get what it’s like to be flat broke. It sucks. Stop doing it.
I started working for money when I was 10 years old. The lightbulb went on. If I took the opportunity to babysit or do any other random cash-generating activity I could think of, I could BUY THINGS. The first time I bought myself my own restaurant meal, I took $5 down the street to Charburger and bought a cheeseburger, fries, a drink, and a hot fudge sundae. It was magnificent. I couldn’t do algebra yet, but I could earn nice green dollars and use them for lifestyle upgrades. I used to have a little tin with a cat on it where I stashed my babysitting money. I was poor for a long time, but I did always believe in that power to go out and hustle up small amounts of cash.
The only problem was that it never occurred to me to wonder whether there was an upper limit. What if I could earn… more?
This is where the concept of saving comes in, as opposed to “savings.” A process, not a specific amount in a sock.
Those of us who are savers have generally been taught frugality, either through positive or negative examples. Some of us were trained to respect the power of money, while others stood by and watched some outrageous nonsense and learned about the perils of scarcity mindset through others’ mistakes. Usually, we have not been taught the more abstruse and complicated ways of finance. Personal finance classes in high school do not teach investment as a skill. Apparently many of us aren’t even getting the basics of consumer finance, like how to balance a checkbook or plan a budget. Much less are we taught how to build a financial empire.
The difference between “saving” and “savings” is that “savings” means whatever specific dollar amount you have put away. For many people, there’s an explicit goal. If I have X amount, then we’re okay, and if we need to spend it for some reason, then we need to tighten our belts for a while until we build it back up. This is great. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always include the sense that this savings cushion can and should be steadily increasing. A savings cushion doesn’t always include the idea that we can and should only live on a certain percentage of our earnings, setting aside as much as we can for Future Us.
Most people don’t spend every penny they earn. They spend every penny they earn AND a bunch of what they think Future Self will earn! If stuff is getting put on a credit card, then we’re spending the future.
It’s kind of like this.
Spend 101% = debtor
Spend 100% = accident waiting to happen
Spend 90% = keep going
Spend 65% = my husband and me
Spend 37% = Mr. Money Mustache
Having a savings account is fantastic. If you have one at all, good. Apparently, if you have $400 in it, you’re already better off than half of your fellow Americans. You like that savings account? It makes you feel a sense of security and satisfaction? Nice? Nice? Okay, let’s peek ahead and see how many other kinds of savings accounts there are. I know you’ll like them, too.
Scattered coins all over the place. You’re “one of mine” and your finances are a disaster.
Change jar. The secret code that tells me your household makes too many cash purchases that aren’t being tracked.
Underwear money. The place where you hide cash in your house for just in case.
Savings account. Basically a way to protect yourself if you overdraw your checking account. If you’re earning as much as 1.5% interest in your savings account, that’s amazing but wow, can we do better than that.
Holiday and taxes account. I had one of these at my credit union when I got divorced, and I had literally forgotten about it because it only had quarterly statements. When I realized I had another $1200 put away, I almost fell over in the street. It’s a kind of account where you can only take the money out twice a year, and it earns more interest than a regular savings account.
CD, or certificate of deposit. Funny how many people have actual CDs, or compact discs, but not “the good kind.” Rates vary depending on how much you’re saving and how long you’re planning to leave it in the account, but basically you can get 2% interest. Some people make a “ladder” out of CDs that come due at different dates.
IRA, or individual retirement arrangement. (Trust me, I looked it up just now). This is a way to save money for retirement. There are two kinds, one where you put in the money pre-tax and pay taxes when you take the money out, and the other where you take it out of your net income so the taxes are already paid. Not everyone can use IRAs because there’s an earnings cap. Basically, you can do $5500, more if you’re over 50. That’s about $100 a week. You don’t have to have the full $5500 to do it, though. Even if you can only save $100 a year, you can still open an IRA account. There aren’t any requirements that you keep putting money in or anything like that. This is a way to put money in the stock market.
401(k) or whatever. This is the retirement savings they set up for you at work. It’s the way most people start investing in the stock market. Some companies offer a match up to a certain percentage of your income, and there are a lot of wild and crazy, spontaneous party animals out there who turn their noses up at this free money every year. “We’ll give you thousands of extra dollars if you fill out this form and get slightly less in your net paycheck.” “NO”
There are tons of other financial investment vehicles out there. If you get to that point, study carefully, because everybody wants to get their beak wet. All that nice money, and someone always wants to carve out a percent for themselves. Although, of course, that’s certainly a poor reason to avoid saving and investing.
Saving money means trust in a better future. It means I don’t have to spend every penny today, because there will be plenty more in the future. I’m not missing out on anything, I’m gaining, because my money will get together in the dark with all the other money (just like wire clothes hangers) and start getting friendly. The reason more people don’t save and invest is because we think it’s just sitting there, like pennies in a jar. We’d be more excited about it if we realized that investment is more like Tribbles or dandelions. Every time you turn around, it’s turned into more and more.
Letting Go: Confessions of a Hoarder is the real thing. Corinne Grant is an Australian stand-up comic who has had a successful television career. You’d never know that from her book, though. She scarcely mentions her work, which may be due to tall-poppy modesty, or maybe because she’s just that well known to the Australian audience. Either way, it’s a testament to the power of her story. Hoarding makes life difficult no matter how well everything else might be going. What could have been a depressing story turns into a laugh riot, as Grant examines her emotional relationship with her stuff with humor and self-compassion.
Anyone who is ambivalent about keepsakes, memorabilia, souvenirs, and other emotional minefields will relate to this book. Grant has powerful emotional ties to almost every last thing she owns. She’s unable to get rid of a single item without agonizing over it, including the dried-out stems of an old bouquet, which she photographs for posterity. There are scenes of her weeping, arguing with friends who try to help her move, hiding stuff she wants to keep, and rescuing things she had planned to donate. Like I said, this book is the real thing.
It’s Grant’s ability to laugh at herself that saves her. While it doesn’t make the process any easier, she’s able to recognize when she is being irrational. She enlists the support of a friend who also hoards, and the progress really gets going when they start telling each other the truth about their fraught ties to their possessions. This is where the title comes in. These really are Lessons in Letting Go. How exactly do I convince myself to let go of a sentimental old t-shirt or a broken appliance? She shares her emotional homework, explaining the back story of specific objects, such as an unsent childhood love letter to Bruce Springsteen, and how she talked herself through the decision to let each one go.
The work proceeds gradually, in fits and starts. She’s able to make breakthroughs after some major life events, including a trip to Bali and a visit to a refugee camp in Jordan. At one point, she asks a group of refugees what it was hardest to lose, thinking they’ll say something like their photo albums or baby shoes. They all say “stability” - and she suddenly sees her personal memorabilia in a new context. Each time she comes home, she’s able to process another layer of her stuff.
Lessons in Letting Go is full of happy endings. One of the biggest surprises for me was that Grant is able to tally up all her stuff at the end of the book. She’s kept 24 boxes and gotten rid of enough to fill 20. I feel the need to say that an American hoarder with this level of emotional entanglement would have had far, far more stuff than this! I’ve talked to professional movers who have pulled 100 boxes out of a single bedroom. My husband and I moved six months ago, into a one-bedroom, 680-square-foot apartment with a single closet, and we had 64 boxes between us. That includes one box of my husband’s memorabilia that I made him keep (trophies, medals, Scouting stuff) while Grant claims she’s saved a few boxes of her own school memories. I suspect we just have more housewares, because at least a third of our boxes consist of kitchen hardware and appliances. I only had two boxes of books. You know what? I’d pay to see a catalog of those remaining 24 boxes and what was in them!
I laughed out loud at several places in this book. Lessons in Letting Go felt true to me. Grant is hysterical, ribald, and honest about her struggles in a way that’s entirely relatable. I kept laughing as I put the book down, culled a sack of clothes and a bag of books, and carried them out the door to donate.
“Nothing meant anything if I kept it all.”
“I was a hoarder, I dreamed of living unhaunted.”
“It struck me that the difference between a hoarder and a non-hoarder was not how much of their lives they had failed at, but how many reminders they kept of those failures.”
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.