Dedication to the discipline of Inquiry includes scrupulous honesty. We’ll lie to ourselves worse than we would ever dream of lying to anyone else. It’s human nature. I have a Dostoyevsky quote scrawled in the front of my journal, and it goes like this: “Keep watch on your own lie and examine it every hour, every minute.” I could profitably have rephrased it: “Keep watch on your own pie” (and maybe stopped examining it every hour; if a pie is leaving my kitchen, it’s going one forkful at a time). Lying to ourselves includes our secret motives, our true priorities, our intentions, what we eat, how much we exercise, how much money we give to charity, how much we save, and how much time we spend on various activities. If we can catch ourselves in the act even occasionally, we can start getting better results in building a life we want.
I read that women over-report how much time they spend on housework by 68%. Don’t laugh. The same study indicates that men over-report how much time they spend on housework by 150%. I know how much time I spend on housework because I use the Hours app on my phone, and I clock in and out of various activities every day. Since I work for myself, there is no built-in structure to my day other than whether it’s daylight or dark, or whether I’m hungry or not. I wanted to make sure I was really spending as much time writing as I thought I was. (It’s more). I got curious about all the other things I did during the day, including my foreign language study, pleasure reading, and sleeping. Tracking my time carefully has revolutionized several things in my life, such as dealing with my parasomnia issues. It’s also made me aware of the fact that I spend more minutes per day on “personal care” (bathing, personal hygiene, grooming) than I do on housework. That was an eye-opener. Now, rather than feeling resentment or counting brownie points against my husband, I’ve turned my chores into a game of efficiency and beating the clock.
I use a fitness tracker because I realized that I had no better idea of how much I exercise than I would have a chance of estimating the number of pennies in a jar. I’m hopeless. There are three ways of getting around this: 1. Do it every single day, 2. Develop an intensely alert self-awareness, or 3. Get a robot to track it for you. I’ve proven to myself quite conclusively that the first two are never going to happen in my life, not with an unassisted human brain, anyway. I can’t lie to my Apple Watch; it’s not impressed by being waved back and forth in the way that my first pedometer was. I have failed to impress it even by jumping up and down, doing jumping jacks, hiking 4000 feet of elevation, and jogging laps around a parking lot. If my heart rate isn’t elevated high enough for long enough, it doesn’t count. (The nice thing is knowing I can hike up 4000 feet (slowly) without my heart rate going up. Pretty fit, hey?)
I keep a food log. I have different reasons now than I did when I started two years ago. At first, I wanted to prove that there really was no reason for me to need a food log, because “I eat nothing but health food.” Then, I wanted to finish getting to my goal weight, and I realized that I needed the discipline of becoming more aware of what I ate and being meticulously honest about portion size. It turned out that the amount I ate varied wildly from day to day, making it impossible to find a trend line or to see if any changes I was making were having an effect. Scientific rigor in weighing and measuring and recording helped me learn to eyeball and guesstimate more accurately. After three months, I understood why I always tended to gain weight. After six months, I understood how much extra I could/should eat on workout days. After a year, I discovered that I was deficient in a key micronutrient, and everything changed. I started keeping the food log to make sure I was getting the right nutrition. I still keep the food log, because I find it amusing to calculate everything I ate over an entire year, measured in gallons of broccoli, kale, cabbage, etc. During my marathon training, my waffle count alone was hilarious.
I use a personal finance app, Mint, although I don’t know whether other finance apps would do an equally sufficient job. I’m not a habitual spender; I’m more of an under-buyer. I find it interesting, though, to be able to pull up data on how much we spend at particular stores, how much we spend at the movie theater or on gas, what we spend on utilities, etc. One of my financial disciplines is to try to pay everything possible with my debit card, so there is a data trail of everything. Before I started keeping a food log, the only times my weight ever dipped downward even slightly were when I was following a strict budget. Keeping track of money matters has ripple effects in other areas of life.
I’m data driven. I believe in using metrics whenever possible, because I want to know what I’m actually doing as opposed to what I’m pretty convinced I’m doing. I weigh in every day, in the same way that I use a clock, an oven timer, and a speedometer. I log my workouts. I log what I eat. I log my spending. I log the time I spend doing different things. I check off a list of various habits, and I can see my stats on those. Everywhere I have applied some basic arithmetic and some objective criteria, I have been able to measure an improvement. It’s really helpful, on days when it feels like we’re stuck in the doldrums, to look at a trend line on a spreadsheet and SEE that the change is really happening.
Not everything can be quantified, though. Can we count how often we blame other people for things we had a part in? Can we count how often we call ourselves rude names or mentally beat ourselves up? Can we – do we? – count how often we hurt other people’s feelings, rather than how often they hurt ours? Can we count how often we have been unfair or selfish or overly critical? Is there a way to count how often we’ve been there for others when they need us? Is there a way to measure how attentively we listen or how considerate we are? Would we want to see these metrics?
I want to know. If there was a Rude-o-meter, I would buy one and wear it. Every time it ticked upward, I would slap myself right in the face. Until that day, though, I have to keep watch on my own lie and just try my best to catch myself not quite living up to my own standards.
We can’t quantify our character traits, not yet, anyway. If we could, I’m guessing the first measure available would be tracking which people in the conversation spent how much time talking vs. listening. It would work like a chess clock. Maybe it could also track tone of voice and tell whether we were being gentle or mocking or defensive. We would know ourselves for the complainers and blamers we are, and we’d understand why we never feel like anyone is listening as much as we do. (Hint: probably almost nobody is listening to anyone, ourselves included). When I was a little girl, I was fascinated by the story of Anubis weighing the hearts of recently dead people against a feather. I committed that I would do whatever it took to keep my heart light, lest it be eaten by the crocodile-headed demon Ammit. Whatever happens on the other side, whether there is an afterlife of any kind or not, it is often said that our lives flash before our eyes when we die. I worry that my movie will be full of embarrassing moments when I was thoughtless and inconsiderate, and I do what I can to mitigate that.
I quantify what I can quantify, because I know that inside myself is a greedy little liar. My ego always wants to be right. My ego wants what it wants, and that means dominating every conversation, making myself look good, and rendering myself blameless in every interaction. My ego wants everything that winds up ending badly; it wants to sit and eat without limits, to trade sleep for cheap entertainment, to procrastinate anything that doesn’t have chocolate in it, to shop ‘til it drops, to blather on endlessly, to ignore boundaries. Every time I turn around, there it is again, talking with its mouth full and accidentally elbowing people in the ribs. I throw numbers at it. I show it what we ate (“No I didn’t!”) and what we spent (“No I didn’t!”) and how much time we spent idly sitting around (“No I didn’t!”). The interesting thing is that my ego has its way of taking ultimate credit, no matter what I do. I reached my goal weight, so now my ego is proud of that, rather than being too proud to admit the shape we were in. I paid off my consumer debt, so my ego is proud of that, rather than demanding to buy things we couldn’t afford. I ran a marathon, and of course my ego thinks it’s responsible, rather than the self-discipline it was too proud to exert for so long. I’m trying to train it to respond to metrics in the same way that Pavlov taught dogs to salivate at the ringing of a bell.
A moral hazard is something that tends to lead us down the dark path of self-interest. It’s anything that tends to make us complacent or entitled. An example would be playing Scrabble with my Alzheimer’s-diagnosed grandmother, and helping her make a higher-point play that “coincidentally” opened up a higher-point play for me on my turn. A key part of living an ethical life is to try our best to spot moral hazards, and observe ourselves dispassionately. What do we actually do? What choices do we actually make? How do we actually spend our time? When we learn to be accurate observers of our behavior, we have the power to make informed changes. While they always redound to our own benefit, they tend to benefit everyone else around us even more.
It's been a week, so I think it's safe to say that I dodged it. I didn't get my mom's cold. She was coming down with a sore throat and a cough when I got to town a few days before Thanksgiving. We spent a week and a half together. We hugged. We sat together at meals. We sat together on the couch. I went running in the rain and cold. I came and went via two international airports and sat on four planes. I touched doorknobs. I rode several buses and trains. Every opportunity came up for me to get sick, but I didn't. Past experience has me convinced that this is because of reasons, which I will now share.
I used to come down with everything. It felt like I had a runny nose at least three months out of every year for my entire life. I had to get an inhaler once because I had a respiratory infection and wound up coughing up blood. Over the last few years, it seemed that every time I got even the most minor cold, it would go straight to bronchitis. I figured I just had "weak lungs" or something.
Then I decided to question this idea. I have an immune system, don't I? It can theoretically be weakened or strengthened, can't it? There's no cost to trying to strengthen it, is there?
There are four changes I have made, to which I attribute my stronger resistance.
Sleep. I have a parasomnia disorder, so I never felt that my sleep was within my circle of influence. Learning to sleep a solid eight hours a night has revolutionized my life. I used melatonin supplements on a timer for several years, and now I can sleep without assistance.
Vegetables. When I started tracking my micronutrient consumption, I was very surprised to discover that I was low in a couple of nutrients. How could I possibly be eating as many as 12 servings of fruits and vegetables a day and still be short on anything? The secret is that each fruit and each vegetable has a slightly different nutritional profile, and they are not interchangeable. I learned to plan meals around what I was missing with the help of the MyFitnessPal app and some careful research. (Example: foods rich in potassium) I did a ten-day juice fast last month. Oh, and I started drinking a mug of hot water with the juice of one fresh lemon in it several mornings a week.
Washing my hands a little longer. I decided to time myself washing my hands. My default wasn't as long as recommended, so I decided to spend 20% longer scrubbing with soap.
Not touching my eyes or nose. I asked a coworker once why he never seemed to get sick. He promptly responded, "I never touch my eyes." I had never thought of this as an issue before, and I started to realize that I rubbed my eyes all the time. Now I am very aware when I am in public places that this unconscious habit is a quick route for germ introduction.
The first two of these changes affect my immune system. The second two affect my exposure to the human environment.
The thing about health advice is that everyone knows what to do. We just don't like doing it. We're never going to tell ourselves, "Oh, I know I should be going to bed earlier, but I'd rather stay up playing this game and just get the cough that will last three weeks." Or, "Getting a cold is totally worth not having to eat anything green most days of the week." We accept illness as fate.
The other thing about health advice is that we aren't always aware of things that our doctors might assume we know. For instance, I never knew that the spleen plays a role in the immune system until I started researching how to get sick less often. I did know that the spleen does not like processing sugar or fat. It makes sense to me that switching more of my food intake to vegetable matter would also reduce the amount of sugar and fat that I eat. Vegetables are valuable for what they contain, and also for what they displace or drive off our plates. Cabbage, not rice; kale, not pasta; chard, not breakfast cereal; cauliflower, not bread; sweet potatoes, not bagels.
To get into the world of woo-woo a little, not everyone wants to be well all the time. Getting sick is an escape hatch. Especially for people with poor boundaries who get little privacy, a bout with a cold can be a way to be alone, catch up on sleep, and maybe do a bit of reading. Being ill gives us a chance to be waited on for once, rather than waiting on other people all the time. Being the strong one means you get stuck with more than your fair share of drudgery. I've always tried to be really conscious of this with my husband, who has only been sick a couple of times in the decade I've known him. No matter how sick I might be, I still put my clothes in the hamper, put my trash in the wastebasket, and put my dishes in the dishwasher. The worst case scenario at our house is that the bathroom doesn't get cleaned for an extra week. But then, I make my own schedule, and I see getting ill as 100% unpleasant and unnecessary.
To toss one other idea out there, I think there's more to dust than just dust. My clients tend to get sick and stay sick, with the adults and kids coughing and sniffling for three to six weeks at a time. Sometimes this happens several times each winter. There seem to be three parts to this: the "I don't feel like cooking" diet, the lack of schedule/solid sleep, and the coating of biofilm on every surface. Squalor means living with mold, mildew, dust, cardboard particles, and usually a lot of pet hair and dander. My clients tend to resist dusting or vacuuming because "it stirs up the dust!" (And "the cat hates it.") I cut back on my home visits because I would always have sneezing fits during jobs, and sometimes my eyes would get all red and puffy as well. If I'm having respiratory reactions within minutes of walking in your front door, how are you breathing in there night and day? The risk of acting on this hypothesis is quite low. If you deep-clean the entire place and still get sick, it didn't cost anything and at least the house is clean.
First, do no harm. I'm certainly no doctor. I'm just an average person who used to get sick a lot and now does not. As I get older, I feel like I'm aging in reverse. I'm healthier and more energetic than I was twenty years ago. It feels worth sharing my ideas for other people to test or to disregard. There are no real downsides to getting more sleep, eating more vegetables, washing your hands slightly longer, avoiding touching your eyes, or deep-cleaning your house. The downsides of having a cold don't necessarily feel all that bad unless you're in the midst of one. Maybe that's why so many people go out in public and cough all over the place. Here's to not being one of those people.
As of today, there are four weeks left until the first business day of 2017. While some important tasks are tied to the start or end of a calendar year, I like to think of all of them. Any household repairs or bureaucracy, anything related to my finances or my health, I like to plan so that I can know I will start the New Year with a clean slate. There is an addictively fresh feeling to lounging around on January First, knowing that all of my projects are going to be looking ahead, not looking backward or playing catch-up.
What kind of loose ends might there be?
Written list of goals and resolutions from the last New Year. I now have just over three weeks to knock out any that are left.
Financial goals. Do I need to move any money from one account to another? Do I have any fines or fees to pay? Am I in debt? (Evidently I owe 90 cents to the public library, and I'd feel dumb carrying that debt into the New Year).
Household perimeter check. I walk the boundaries of our yard, looking for stray racquetballs or anything out of order. I do the circuit of the garage. I go through each room of the house, which is easier when it's only 728 square feet, and look in every closet, cupboard, and drawer. I'm looking for anything broken, leaking, stained, or out of order. I'm looking for anything we haven't used since I did this a year ago. I'm strategically reconsidering how our furniture is arranged and how much we have of various things.
Emergency preparedness. It's time to check our go bags and our emergency supplies. I see that we need a fresh case of water jugs. It's time to cycle through the emergency rations in our go bags, eating them and replacing them with fresh packages. It's time to check the expiration dates on our first aid credentials, and I see that I need to do mine again. (I like to be certified in pediatric first aid and CPR, because hey, you never know).
Food supply. I tend to be something of a food hoarder, and our fridge, freezer, and pantry can get a bit excessive. I've taken up the goal of starting out New Year's Day with an empty fridge, so that I know there's never anything more than a year old in my fridge. I mean, a year old is ridiculous, but I've seen too many items in too many kitchen clear-outs among my clients to think that it's that uncommon. What I do in December is to plan meals around consuming the leftovers in our freezer, using up what's in the pantry, and trying to figure out why we still have five bottles of salad dressing.
Fitness. I've managed my physical fitness quite well over the last three years. I've stayed in one clothing size and I've kept my weight within a healthy range, as defined by science. This really helps if you hate shopping for pants as much as I do. The way I do this is to keep myself honest, and to make sure I know my metrics. What do I weigh? What are my measurements? If I resist this information or avoid knowing the truth about my own personal body parts, then I know there is an emotional block and that I need a reality check even more than usual. Love it or change it, but at least know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Reading material. At this time last year, I had over 1200 articles in my news queue. My stack of unread books was taller than me. I've done really well in getting on top of this and not adding to it. At this time of year, I look around for any books with place markers, meaning I started something and didn't finish it. If I don't want to finish it this month, then I probably never will. It's fine to quit on a book. Opening the cover of something does not automatically obligate you to read the entire thing, or if it did, then we need to never touch any phone books. If I did, however, enjoy something and then got distracted by something else, now is my time to finish enjoying it. Anything I'm reading this month should be finished by December 30, so I can spend the 31st working on my resolutions and the 1st opening a new book.
Files. All our household files fit in one cardboard file box. I spent a lot of time this year digitizing records, mostly my writing notebooks. Not everything needs to be digitized, though. A lot of it can simply be shredded or recycled. I also make sure not to make decisions on my husband's records, because they're his. I drag the box out and ask him to go through it. He's very decisive about papers and it never takes him more than twenty minutes. In fact, he's been my teacher and role model about what to keep and what to destroy. This file-purging process usually reminds us of household bureaucracy that we need to initiate at some point in the following year, such as updating the dog's rabies tags.
Special occasions. Is there anything special to do this month? I just found out last night that our town has a temporary ice skating rink for a few weeks. The last time I went ice-skating was in 1987, when I fractured my wrist, but my husband plays hockey and maybe he'll teach me to skate. What do we want to do on the holiday? I'm thinking of cinnamon rolls and cocoa for Christmas morning, and I always make Hoppin' John for New Year's. What kind of menu do I want to do for Christmas and New Year's Eve? Are we setting up the Festivus pole?
Planning the garden. In our climate, we can only grow vegetables and herbs in the fall, winter, and spring. There are several things we plant in February, and January is a legitimate time to put in soil amendments. We talk over what we over-planted and whether certain crops might do better in a different part of the yard. In the cold and rain, it's a fun way to spend time fantasizing about warmer weather.
There are a lot of advantages to anchoring certain tasks and events to a specific date. It helps us to get things done without trying to "remember" them all. We can usually figure out how long it's been since the last time we did or used certain things. "That's been sitting there since we moved in." "I haven't used this platter since Thanksgiving two years ago." "We went to the beach three times this year; is that too much or not enough?" Maybe the day of mark doesn't have to be New Year's Day, but if not, what day would it be?
Christmas is exactly like a wedding in several ways. Both supposedly last only one day, yet planning can go on for months. Both can involve extravagant outfits and special headgear. Both involve color combinations never seen in ordinary contexts. Both can incur vast debt, because entire industries are built around both. This last is why we've been trained to believe, in our hearts of hearts, that gifts equal love. Who came up with this idea that an engagement ring is "supposed" to cost two months of a man's salary? Marketing geniuses, that's who. Who came up with this idea that family togetherness means nothing without piles of gifts, decorations, and food? I'll give you three guesses, one for each Wise Man.
My family doesn't do wild and crazy gift exchanges anymore, or at least not any that I'm involved in. Part of this is out of necessity. I live about a thousand miles away, and anything we gave or received would either have to be put in our luggage or shipped. It's not practical, not to mention the grim thought of a TSA agent tearing off all the wrapping paper. There's also the matter of our frequent moves. We aren't in a position in life to collect any extra material objects, no matter how cool they are. In fact, the more personal the gift, the harder it is, because eventually we'd be surrounded by nothing but hand-crafted presents that would be impossible to cull.
My work with hoarding has made me skeptical about gift-giving. In every home visit I've ever done, we've found at least one out-of-season gift bag that was never unwrapped. Often there are several years' worth. Another guaranteed find is a stack of expired gift cards. Not everyone is like my clients, but most of us can honestly say that we don't want for anything, that there's nothing we truly need. Not stuff-wise, at any rate. What we need is the company of our friends and some kind of occasional ceremony to mark the passing of the years. We need a reason to get together, hug, and make eye contact. There are no rules that say these get-togethers require a gift exchange.
My favorite type of gift exchange is the white elephant. Here, the idea is to give something absurd and watch as people swap to get something equally absurd that actually appeals to them. If you ever want to see a group of people laughing until their shoulders shake, a white elephant party is the place. The memories that come from a white elephant party will last longer than the memories of yet another sweater or bath set. As an example, I went to one of these parties at work, and someone wrapped up another employee's framed family portrait from his desk. He had quite a time swapping to get that picture back, and nobody laughed harder than he did. We still talk about it years later.
I tried and failed to get my family to adopt the white elephant theme. I'll try again, eventually. What I did get everyone to agree to was a dollar limit on our gift exchange. The kids would have a normal holiday, with the normally extravagant gift-giving. The adults would put our names in a hat, then be matched up anonymously by one of the kids. We would each buy a special gift (or gifts) not to exceed the predetermined price cap. Everyone in the family makes a wish list with multiple items, so there's no real way to know what you're getting. The anonymity means you also don't know who is buying your gift. This worked out well. Everyone started out with ideas of what to buy, everyone got something truly useful or exciting, and the focus stayed on the kids, where we all wanted it.
How do you bring it up? Go to the family member who seems most likely to buy in to your idea. Say, "What do you think of just drawing names this year?" Suggest a family activity that you know will generate real enthusiasm. If there are young kids in the family, it should be child-oriented. One year, for instance, we went downtown to look at the big tree and the animated department store window displays. We've also played a lot of holiday-themed games that work over Skype, including copying a drawing while blindfolded and gift-wrapping an empty box using only one hand. These activities make for fantastic photos, they're free, and the kids have a blast. It's been a big improvement on the over-stimulated shrieks and wails of an over-gifted, overheated, over-sugared, over-tired toddler who just wants to play with the bows and ribbons anyway.
Our family has always made wish lists, and they have certain rules. There should be enough items on the list that you know you won't get everything, and thus you won't know what's in any given package. The price range should cover a wide range, from grocery-store level to something that would require several people pooling their resources. Sometimes a gift will cover more than one holiday. Some gifts, like new interior doors, also include an offer to install the item. Tech support is another non-material gift that would be appreciated by anyone who tends to be overwhelmed by new gadgets.
We forget how much we have to offer one another throughout the year, not just when the cookies come out. I know I'd rather go on a camping trip with my family in the summer than get stranded in an airport in the snow, as has happened. If I'm spending five extra hours in an airport, I fully expect the equivalent five hours in board game play the next time we see each other in person.
What my family is trying to do, now that we're older and caught up in our own careers and homes, is to spend time together. Cook together. Go out to dinner together. Hang out and play with our pets together. Play games together. Tell stories and come up with new inside jokes together. In our family, someone is always working on a holiday, so we're more likely to do these things on more ordinary days. What is precious is not the date, not what can be stuffed in a box or a bag, but the simple act of sharing our attention and physical presence.
This book is the ultimate in possibility thinking. The story of One Red Paperclip made international news back in 2006, so it may ring a bell. Kyle MacDonald is a young slacker who has the bright idea to trade "bigger and better," starting with a paperclip and working his way up to a house. The intricacies are fascinating in their own right, as MacDonald stumbles into the media limelight and starts meeting celebrities. What I like best about the book is his irrepressibly positive attitude. It could be a textbook for the skill of possibility thinking. Cockeyed optimism does actually work from time to time!
I'm a slacker, too. I bought this book at least five years ago and I just now got around to reading it. The world works in mysterious ways, however, and the Hollywood Reporter just reported that MGM is "in talks" to make One Red Paperclip into a movie. I hope it happens, because the world needs this story.
Possibility thinking does not overlap completely with optimism. MacDonald is motivated by guilt that he's unemployed and that his girlfriend is paying their rent. He has frequent bouts of discouragement, feeling lazy and like this is a stupid idea. He keeps reminding himself that he's on a quest, though, and that he might as well see it through. Part of what makes this endearing is that he focuses on making trades that are meaningful to all parties, rather than chasing financial value alone.
What I would love to see happen is for the Bigger and Better game to become commonplace. Due to my professional work with clutter and hoarding, I have a pretty good idea that most households are hanging onto all sorts of unused objects. A few of these are special and could find new life in a new home, where they would actually fulfill their purpose as useful things. SO MANY art supplies, musical instruments, and tubs of camping gear and other sports equipment, just moping in a corner like the Isle of Misfit Toys. SO MUCH monetary value, locked away and doing no good to anyone. We feel so poor and we feel that we CAN'T AFFORD so many things, even as we're knee-deep in stuff. What would we do if we could swap it all for our true heart's desire?
If you knew you could start with a random object that was sitting around your house, and trade for the most amazing thing you could think of, what would it be? What would you give up and what would you ask for?
I'm writing this from a Starbucks, where I am being barraged with the demonic dissonance of "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas." In November. I saw my first Christmas decorations of the year at the hardware store in early September, and in my neighborhood, they'll be out until mid-February. Anyone who sincerely believes there is a "war on Christmas" evidently thinks that FIVE MONTHS is no longer enough for what was traditionally a twelve-day holiday. I'm done.
Years ago, I started avoiding the shopping mall during December. As militant decorators started pushing the boundaries of taste farther and farther, I started restricting my ventures more and more. I cannot bear Christmas music. It makes me clench my jaw. I have broken out in hives after hearing just one bar of one carol. You think you don't like rap or country or opera? Ha. At this point, I avoid going out at all. You can have my parking spot and my place in line. Please, don't thank me, not until March at any rate. I don't want to risk hearing any cheery holiday greetings.
The good thing about the cabal of constant Christmas coruscation is that it makes it easy to save money. I don't even want to go to the movie theater or the grocery store, much less the mall. Hyper-consumerist messages equate BUYING STUFF with love, happiness, and virtue. This reminds me that none of my personal values have anything to do with material objects. I love my family, and that's why I talked everyone into ending our traditional gift exchange and replacing it with visits, family dinners, and charity. Take that, holiday consumer machine!
What I do during the long, dark month of December is to focus on the New Year. New Year's Eve is my idea of a terrific holiday! A fresh start every year, a built-in milestone to guide my activities for the coming months. We usually get an extra paycheck in November or December, so this is the month when we get to put an extra check toward savings or our next vacation. I go through all the closets, drawers, and bookshelves and clear clutter. We plan meals on eating up everything in the fridge, freezer, and pantry so that we have a clear slate at the New Year. No more five-year-old mustard, no more salad dressing graveyard, no more freezer-burned mystery containers. Most people start the New Year in debt and overweight from the holiday bacchanalia. We start it out organized, energized, with the house gleaming from top to bottom.
I guess I have to thank this latest rendition of "All I Want for Christmas is You" for reminding me that I have better things to do in December. All I want for Christmas is an escape. Peace of mind. A couple of Skype sessions with my family. Snuggling with my pets. Catching up on reading. Maybe listening to some nice speed metal out in the garage, with my friend the elliptical. Thank you, Christmas excess, for returning me to my baseline of home comforts and frugality. Now pardon me while I run screaming out the door.
I started running again, after a two-year hiatus. I wanted to share what I learned from developing and recovering from an overuse injury.
The day I decided that "my thing" for the next year would be running, everyone was surprised, especially me. I had never run a mile in my life, and I was 35. On my first run, I couldn't make it around the block and I had to lie on the floor afterward. I'm nothing if not stubborn, though, and I kept going, running every day for the first several months. Four years later, I ran a marathon. Untrained, no coach, adapting a training plan I got out of a book, because I'm supposedly smart enough to figure everything out for myself.
While training for that marathon, I developed tendinitis of the anterior tibialis. (That's the tendon in the front of your ankle that makes your foot flop up and down). It was so painful that I would sometimes wake up in the middle of the night feeling like someone was kicking my ankle with a cowboy boot. I got two MRIs, which showed nothing, and did physical therapy for six months, after which I was still having unexplained pain.
I attributed the tendinitis to making too many changes to my routine at the same time: changing my terrain from dirt and gravel to concrete; doubling my mileage; and changing from a barefoot shoe to a minimalist shoe. I get a strong analgesic effect from running, which is the main reason I do it - for several hours after a run, I feel total relief from physical pain. I would run, feel great, get up the next morning, do it again, and thus keep passing the buck of the developing stress injury to the next day. By the time I was really feeling it, I had done some damage to myself. I would never quit, though, or postpone my marathon to a different year. I had made an internal and a public commitment to follow through, and I would do it if I ran myself to bloody stumps.
That was dumb.
What I wish I had done was, first, to not advertise my commitment. I should have simply worked on building my mileage until a marathon distance felt like a natural outgrowth of my routine. Deadlines don't have much motivating effect on me one way or the other. I run because I like it, I want to, and it feels good. (Except for when it hurts so much that I can't run another step).
The second thing I should have done was to STRETCH for at least a couple of minutes during my cool-down. I blew this off for four years. If I had taken the need to stretch seriously from the beginning, I might never have had the problem. I traded something that is free and feels great for months of intense pain that cost me hundreds of dollars in physical therapy. Whoops.
The third thing I should have done was to take seriously the concept that there are effective and ineffective ways to do things. I should have had more respect for expert opinion. There are stretches and strength-building exercises pertinent to distance runners. I knew about them, but I disregarded them because I felt like I was doing just fine on my own. I procrastinated on learning a few basic movements that even a kindergartener can do, like high knees, partly because I was always high on endorphins when I came home. Past Self, you fool!
Physical therapy and the search for relief brought me around. I learned that my orthopedist was chronically backlogged and literally never read the notes from my file until after I had my five minutes in the office with him. He wasn't oriented toward feedback from the physical therapists and thus wasn't learning more about recovery from sports injuries. I wish I hadn't gone for the second MRI, which I now see as a cash-generator for the clinic. I have huge respect for physical therapy as a healing profession; these are incredibly dedicated and educated professionals who see visible progress in their patients every day. However, there is a laser focus on the specific area of the pain, and I didn't learn enough to prevent its recurrence until further in my Fact-Finding Mission.
I wore an ankle brace. They hooked me up to some kind of electrical contraption. I ate fistfuls of anti-inflammatories. I stretched. I did PT exercises twice a day. I did heating pads. I did ice massage. I limped for months.
A year after I finished physical therapy, I started working with a trainer at the gym. He focuses on recovery and corrective exercises. When we met, I explained my injury in a few seconds, and he immediately described all the areas where I was feeling pain and weakness. I was thunderstruck. He didn't have a file on me, wasn't looking at an MRI, hadn't put me on an examination table, hadn't watched me do any exercises, and hadn't even laid a finger on me other than shaking my hand. Somehow, he already knew more about my injury than the PT did. What was he, a swami? We worked together, and he explained that I probably had referred pain from my tight calves. He referred me to a friend who does shiatsu massage.
THAT actually worked.
What I know now is that I need to continue to do strength training exercises, for the rest of my life. There is no point in avoiding it. Hip stability exercises, core, and quads. I need to stretch. I get a lot out of using the foam roller, even though I hate it. It's better if I run no more than three days a week, even though I want to do more. I have to cross-train. I need to be WIDE OPEN to constructive feedback from any and everyone who knows more than I do.
I want to do another marathon, and I want to run ultra. That won't happen if I push myself too hard. It won't happen if I ignore my body. It won't happen if I try to be all Stoic and prove points to myself. The path of wisdom here is to make my body stronger and more resilient. If I want to show off my supposed iron will, I can do it in other areas of life. I'd like to be a running machine, but alas, all I have is ordinary human flesh.
My alarm went off this morning at 3:45 AM. I didn't hit snooze. I got out of bed and was in the shower two minutes later. I made the bed, double-checked the drawers, and completed my perimeter check of the bedroom and bathroom. I was in my coat and boots and standing at the front door by 4:17.
This has nothing to do with "being a morning person" or "being used to it." In fact, I seriously considered staying up all night rather than having to wake myself up.
I did it for money.
I needed to get to the airport. I'm flying on reward miles, and the 5:50 AM flight was A QUARTER the price in points of all the later flights. I calculated when I would have to wake up, and asked myself, Can I wake up in the middle of the night for two hundred dollars? That question answers itself.
Everyone wakes up early for money, though, when you think about it.
You know who woke up before me? The Lyft driver. The airport security guards. The ticket agents. The pilots. The flight attendants. The baggage handlers. The TSA agents, alas. The cooks at all the restaurants that were already open for business. The hundreds of other passengers, including an extremely fuzzy puppy. I'm exhausted, sure, but I have no more cause for complaint about it than anyone else. All of us, shampoo-scented, trying to smile and stay out of each other's way as we go about our business.
I got up and ran my morning routine with military precision because I had that vision of the nice green Benjamins in mind. Also, I did not want the consequences of being late and missing my ride. I've been flying for 35 years and never missed a flight yet. See, though? This is just a family vacation for me. Most people who are getting up for work have a lot more on the line than a couple hundred bucks, and the drawback of being late could be getting fired. Logically, the motivation of someone who is preparing for an ordinary workday should be much stronger than mine today.
What I did to get ready to catch a cab 35 minutes after waking up was to use systems. I had my suitcase packed and waiting by the front door before I went to bed. I had my clothes laid out. I had all but two of my charging cables wound up and zipped in. All I had to do was to shower, get dressed, spend 45 seconds making the bed, and carry my shower kit downstairs. I knew how long I would need because I like to play games with the stopwatch on my phone. Normally, it takes me 40 minutes to get ready, but I knew I wouldn't be eating breakfast before I left. I could trust that when I went to sleep, all was in order, and I'd be okay as long as I didn't fall asleep in the shower.
Sleep deprivation hurts. I look ten years older than I did yesterday. I feel like my bones are grinding together and that I left my eyeballs in a casino overnight. I slept for about five hours. It has not escaped me that I used to go to work like this most days of the week. I wonder why I ever did that to myself. Once you start sleeping eight or nine hours a night, anything less feels like self-harm. Why on earth would anyone voluntarily stay up late, knowing how awful the next morning will feel? It's like walking around slapping yourself.
Mornings are common disasters. So many people, especially people with young kids, get up and trudge into a storm of chaos. There may be tears before 8 AM. Hit snooze one too many times. Run out of something important like cereal or toilet paper. Can't find a shoe. Permission slips need signing. Homework isn't done. It's like a full day's work before the workday, with the weight of all the errands and chores hanging over your head the minute you get home. Honestly, solitary confinement sounds like a vacation compared to a morning like that. Why do we do it to ourselves?
All it really takes is about 15 minutes before bed. Check the weather report and lay out something you'll be excited to wear. Get everyone's bags ready. Write out a to-do list and shopping list. Boom, done.
A peaceful morning routine is a gift. It's a gift to yourself and to everyone around you. A streamlined morning is what billionaires and celebrities do every day. You know, what would you do if you won a million dollars? Waking up to an alarm, exhausted, and trying to rush out the door for a commute would NOT be on that list. Everyone gets the same 24 hours a day. We try to make the day longer by cutting off one end and tying it on the other. If I stay up late, I can pretend I'm getting an extra hour, two hours, three hours to myself. My private time. My high quality leisure. We forget that we're stealing it from Future Self. We don't realize that it's a false choice. We can set up an easier morning and still do whatever else it is that we do late at night. All it takes is a little self-compassion and a reminder that we are, in fact, getting paid for this.
Scattered coins are the hallmark of my people. The connection between clutter and financial problems may not be automatic, but it's real. My clients always, always find money they didn't realize they had, along with numerous gift cards and expired checks that were never deposited. Clutter comes from postponed decisions and chronic procrastination, and these mental states affect every aspect of life. Not everyone has the kinds of challenges that my people do, but a jar of coins is just as representative of a certain outlook as all those lost checks are.
The first thing about a jar of coins is that it represents a habit of paying for things with cash. Sometimes this means that someone in the household gets tips or gets paid in cash. These unpredictable, stochastic sources of income tend to result in erratic spending and saving patterns. More commonly, a coin jar indicates a pattern of keeping a certain amount of cash in one's wallet and emptying out one's pockets when they start to jingle. There will usually be loose change in the vehicle, too.
What's wrong with paying for cash? Nothing, really. Research indicates that people paying with cash spend less money. People who pay by credit card may spend as much as 30% more than they do during cash transactions. I'm a frugalite by nature, though, and I almost never carry cash. When I pay with a card, it generates a paper trail that makes it very easy to analyze my spending.
Cash withdrawals can be almost impossible to track. Paradoxically, we tend to be the least aware of the things we do the most often. It's the little things that add up, until the drips start to fill the bucket, just like pennies can eventually fill a gallon jug. We usually know how much we pay in rent and car payments down to the last dollar, and we have a pretty good idea about our paychecks. Unfortunately, many of us round up our mental image of our checks and round down on our mental estimate of our spending patterns. This is part of why I'm so suspicious of coin jars.
Some businesses demand cash. The first one I can think of is a notorious donut shop. Nothing is more annoying than paying a $3 ATM fee when all you need is $5. Many people feel naked without at least a certain amount of petty cash on their persons at all times. Men especially. We can't stand the thought that we're going to be inconvenienced or look like a loser at the cash register. We don't realize, though, that what we might think of as impulse buys or unavoidable situations are really part of a lifestyle pattern. We plan our entertainment and our meal breaks around certain activities instead of others. This thing that I'm doing is a thing that I do.
I often leave the house without my wallet, specifically so I know that I can't spend money on impulse. When I go to the library, I pack a sandwich. Shocking, I know. My obsession is international travel, and I know just how far even $10 can go when I'm on a trip in a strange city. If I fritter away tiny amounts of money on a regular basis, it won't be there when it's time to pack my suitcase. There is no way that a $1 donut at home is going to thrill me as much as that same dollar spent on something exotic, somewhere exotic. I always see dollars in an imaginary, overlapping chain that extends through time. It's not a dollar, it's three hundred and sixty-five dollars, holding hands from January First through December Thirty-First. George Washington whispering in George Washington's ear.
A coin jar looks and feels like saving money. Surrounding ourselves with metal coinage feels like prosperity. I know because I pick up pennies in the street and save them in my Fairy Jar. After doing this for ten years, there are over fifty-five dollars in there! Coins do add up. My coins, however, come from the sky. They fell on the ground and waited for me to find them. I'm not generating change from vending machines or gas stations or convenience stores, because I don't shop at those places. I go to the grocery store once or twice a week, and if I'm going to eat something, I buy it there. (Or grow it in my yard). The two reasons for this are wanting to save for vacation and wanting to continue to fit in my existing pants. Maintaining one clothing size is just as frugal as using a shopping list and following a budget.
An incredibly dull and frustrating exercise on focus, attention, and awareness is to track every penny you spend for a week. Ideally three weeks. Ideally forever. The more you switch to paying for things on consolidated, planned shopping trips and transactions with digital records, the more you can examine your spending patterns. It's all a question of personal values, of what matters to you. It is worth asking, though, whether your hard-earned money is really going exactly where you want it. Are you thinking about your heart's desire and figuring out how to pay for it? Is your coin jar the residue of intentional living, a gradually accumulated treasure chest? Or is it more like a bucket, bailing out a leaky rowboat? Is there enough in there to start a savings account or maybe solve a cash-based problem? Is my life jar as full as this physical jar?
We finished our ten-day juice fast. The experience was different than I thought it would be. It was easier to do, and we also didn't lose as much weight as I expected.
I lost three pounds and my husband lost six. This makes sense, because we were eating the same meals and he weighs twice as much as me. (I am short and I have a small frame). I didn't really have any weight to lose, and it wasn't my intention, but there was nothing exactly frightening about three pounds. It's the difference between tight pants and comfy pants.
As to pants, it works like this:
**0 to **3 pounds: comfy.
**4 to **6: fits.
**7 to **8: have to wrestle them on.
**9: do not fit no matter how hard I try.
Most people could get dramatic wardrobe results by dropping two or three pounds. It's enough of a difference to bring old favorites back into circulation. It's definitely enough to make tight clothes more comfortable. At this time of year, what matters to me is that it makes it possible for me to wear thermal underwear under my pants and still be able to button them.
Back to the juice.
The big drawbacks to juicing are that it's expensive, messy, and time-consuming. Anyone who has an attachment issue to washing dishes or cooking is going to struggle committing to a juicing program. We were constantly washing knives and cutting boards and emptying out the compost bucket. We also wound up going to the store three times as often, because we were going through fruit and bags of kale much faster than we had anticipated. Juicing turns into your major hobby during the days you're doing it.
The benefits, though, were better than anticipated. I found that I slept better and slept more. My husband cut his caffeine consumption by about half. We couldn't manage all the meals on the plan, because it was simply too much food, and we didn't need it. (This would probably be different for someone with a lot of weight to lose). I found that my energy level was higher than normal, and that I was getting more done. Using the blender started to feel easy and natural.
In particular, the plan included "hot water with lemon" first thing in the morning. A lot of people swear by this, but it always sounded depressing and gross to me. I was picturing a cup of hot water with a tiny trickle of lemon juice in it. In reality, the juice of a whole lemon in hot water is more like warm lemonade. I love it. It didn't occur to me until I'd been drinking it for a week, but I'm certain not to get scurvy! It makes me wonder whether all this extra vitamin C will affect whether I get a cold this winter or not.
Now that we're done, I plan to keep making juice in the morning. I'll just eat normal meals the rest of the day. We're in the fortunate position that our rental house came with productive fruit trees, and we have more citrus fruit than two people can handle. That includes tangerines, grapefruits, and of course lemons.
I have a historic tendency to gain weight rapidly when I travel. That includes family visits as well as backpacking trips and foreign travel. It's really frustrating. The first time I went overseas, I couldn't button my pants by the time I went home. Most people aren't tuned in to this, but life is easier and cheaper when you stay in one consistent clothing size. You don't have to store several sizes worth of clothes in case of weight fluctuation, and you don't have to buy new things when your old stuff gets too small. Now that I know that juice fasting is an acceptable way to drop three pounds, I'll definitely try it again if my pants start getting tight again.
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.