The rent? It’s too damn high, as I’m sure we can all agree. When I first moved out on my own, my rent equaled precisely 100% of my income. Two months later, I had it down to 80%, and eventually 50%, which is the case for 11 million Americans today. I have a deep distrust of property management companies. This is true even though I have a perfect 25-year track record of always getting my cleaning deposit back. I’m a great tenant with great credit. Even so, I only learned recently that you can negotiate your rent.
I’m not just saying that you can negotiate your rent with a private landlord, such as when you rent a room in a house.
I’m saying that you can even negotiate your rent with a big property management company.
What? How can this be?
The first principle of negotiations is that it’s possible for all parties involved to get the thing they want the most. The act of negotiation itself, when done with skill, can even bring all interested parties closer together. They’ve had a transaction of mutual benefit and demonstrated that it’s a smart idea to talk to one another. A good negotiation sets the stage for further good negotiations.
In the case of rent, the landlord or property manager has the goal of maximizing revenue from the property. This includes keeping reliable tenants in the unit as long as possible, minimizing maintenance and turnover costs. Reliable tenants also displace the unknown quantity of new, unproven tenants. Every month that a reliable tenant occupies the property is a month of income, rather than a month sitting empty with no rent coming in. An empty property is also vulnerable to squatters and vandals.
A tenant obviously has the goal of minimizing rent and utility costs, while living in the nicest neighborhood with the shortest work commute. My position is that many people tolerate conditions or deals that they should not. Skilled negotiation can help the owner or manager to understand that it is in everyone’s best interest to maintain and improve properties and to encourage civil behavior among residents.
By that I mean, neighbors who don’t clean up after their dogs, neighbors who fight on their balcony at 1 AM on a work night, neighbors whose car alarm keeps going off at 7 AM, neighbors who continually blare loud music out their open window, and this list is so far only covering one building in our complex.
It’s like this. If you want me to pay higher rent, I’d better be getting more value from it.
This is what actually happened.
We got an email saying that our lease was coming up in March, and that the rent would be going up $200 a month. Like fun it is! We had the option of renewing for six months, ten months, or month-to-month. Not even a year?
Was this rent increase to be coupled with a property improvement? Say, the removal of the fugly popcorn ceiling? Upgrading the oatmeal shag carpet to, perhaps, bamboo flooring? Putting in an air filter or air conditioning? Free wi-fi? Maybe just refreshing the battered, squealing equipment in the gym?
Haha, no. None of that.
WE are going to charge you MORE RENT, because we can. YOU are getting nothing except for the opportunity to PAY MORE RENT.
The thing is, this is not a fixed, final position.
Even they don’t think it is!
They just increase the rent, again, because they can, and also because most people never question it.
Most people are stuck. They’re either trapped by a mortgage, constrained by lack of savings, or emotionally attached to the neighborhood or their kids’ school or something. People will tolerate absurd commutes, homes that are not energy efficient, obnoxious neighbors, lack of amenities, and all sorts of persistent problems. Why is that?
Why do people hate moving so much? Because they have so much stuff!
My husband and I live in a 680-square-foot apartment. Everything we own fit in 65 boxes in one 20-foot moving van last time, and we’ve gotten rid of quite a bit of stuff since then. Our starting position in these negotiations was that we can simply find a cheaper place with a shorter commute. Pack in three days, move in one day, be completely unpacked in a week.
We’ve got the credit, we’ve got the savings, we’ve got the references. We are totally unafraid of relocating; we’ve already moved six times in our eight years as a married couple.
There’s a funny part to this story. When we got the letter claiming that our rent was going up (no, not if we move away it isn’t), my husband did some research. There were two one-bedroom units in our complex coming up for $500 LESS than what we were CURRENTLY paying! What’s more, the photo in the advertisements was of the unit that we actually occupy right now. Not just a similar unit, a unit with the same floor plan, but the same one!
Just to be cute, we can say at the beginning of the negotiation that we want to pay that rent for the unit we’re in. How about if you go right on ahead and LOWER our rent? We’ll pay the rent you’re advertising and you won’t have to bother vetting a new tenant. How about that?
The property manager claims not to be the decider. She does come back and offer us an increase of only $100, rather than the $200 we were initially shown.
See? It works! You can negotiate your rent!
Or at least, my husband can. I have to give him all the credit for this. I tell him I’ll pack the kitchen. Come on. It might not be saving us $5000 this year, but it will take a lot longer than the negotiating conversation did...
It doesn’t stop there, though. We learned that our building has higher rent than other buildings in the same complex because we supposedly have “a view.” *cough* We have a “peek view.” This means that because we can go to the very edge of our balcony, lean way over, and see a postage-stamp sized glimpse of the ocean, we have the luxury of paying an extra six thousand dollars a year in rent.
Well, forget that.
What we actually do is to apply for, and get, a “junior one bedroom” unit. (Popularly known as a “studio.”) It’s over $400 a month cheaper than what we’ve been paying. The layout and built-in shelving makes it feel larger, even though we’re dropping 70 square feet. The best part is that the new unit is right next to the pool, hot tub, and gym, as well as the nearest park, and it’s even slightly closer to the library, grocery store, bus stop, and post office. For our purposes, we’re getting a better apartment at a better price.
So there you have it. We decided to stay in our overpriced apartment complex because we like the location and because the property managers were willing to entertain our negotiations. If they had not, we would have simply found another place a couple of miles up the road and enjoyed both lower rent and a shorter commute. As of February, we’ll be saving over $400 a month rather than paying an extra $200 (or $100, the first result of negotiations).
We counted it up. The difference between what we will pay vs. the default we would have been charged is a full $8160 a year. This is part of why we 1. Don’t carry consumer debt and 2. Get to go on all these rad vacations. Because we put our financial independence first and because our physical possessions are expendable.
We have a month before our move-in date. We’re not going to bother even thinking about packing for three weeks, not because we’re disorganized or procrastinating, but because we already know how long it takes us to pack. We’ll spend the time hanging out in the hot tub and gloating because we’re such ace minimalists. We’ll also high-five because we’ve already finished one of our New Year’s Resolutions, which was to lower our rent. High five, babe!
How about you? Are you satisfied with all aspects of your current living situation? How about your finances? It’s always good to pause periodically and analyze your circumstances. This is where strategy begins.
The bar for productivity books has just been raised. Erin Falconer’s book How to Get Sh*t Done has the potential to transform lives. Drop that label maker and forget about alphabetizing your socks. Things are about to get real. Let’s read on and find out Why Women Need to Stop Doing Everything So They Can Achieve Anything.
Erin Falconer is a classic Type A hyper-super-mega-overachiever. When she tells you how to go about becoming successful at living your dreams and your passion, take her seriously. A big part of this is thinking strategically about your vision. The first half of the book, BEING, addresses what you want and why it’s so hard to figure that out when you’re busy doing everything for everyone else all the time. It’s not until the second half, DOING, that the getting done of the sh*t starts to happen.
One of the strongest features of the book has to do with negotiating and setting boundaries. How we perceive others’ expectations, and how we react to those perceived expectations, dictate the bulk of how we spend our time. How we spend our time determines whether we ever get around to fulfilling our dreams. Starting that business, going back to school, pushing for that promotion, making art, all tend to feel out of our reach when we feel that we are too busy. We often feel that we need permission as well. What’s strange is that making the major strategic decisions can tend to create both the time and the money that we never thought we had. Sometimes, it can even lead to the grudging approval from others that we never thought we’d feel.
There are some truly excellent questions in each chapter that are perfect for journaling. If you struggle to know what you want or what to do next, putting some thought into this type of personal homework can bring some clarity. The book also includes numerous recommendations for apps, websites, and services that can bring those visions and insights into reality. First, figure it out, and second, go out and get that sh*t done.
How to Get Sh*t Done is an amazing book. If you always wanted a productivity manual that tells you to get more sleep and go on a real vacation, this is that book. Not only that, it can teach you how to say no more often and ‘sorry’ less often. Quit apologizing for not living up to external expectations of perfection all the time, and start creating something that matters to you.
The reason I keep my New Year’s Resolutions is because I choose a major challenge. Framing is everything. Courage is one of my core values, reason being that I know I am a physical coward, and it’s my never-ending quest to vanquish that puny weakling inside. Basically all I’m doing each year is selecting an interesting variation on that game. How do I voluntarily pitch myself into an arena where my comfort zone is nowhere to be seen?
Why would any sensible person do such a thing?
Quite simply, the further away I am from anything I enjoy, anything that comes to me naturally, anything relaxing or fun, the more I stretch my capabilities. Over time, my comfort zone has gotten much bigger. The biggest advantage of this is that far fewer things seem scary or uncomfortable. Of course, that creates the disadvantage that I have to search harder to get the same sort of gains.
It was easy when I was 19. I enrolled in ballroom dance lessons. As a painfully shy person, this was a good choice. Now I’m officially a “competent social dancer.” I can waltz, rumba, tango, fox trot, swing, cha-cha, merengue, hustle, and salsa dance. Who knew, right?
I went back to school and got my bachelor’s degree. Then I got my driver’s license, still far and away the hardest thing I’ve ever done. A few years later, my challenge was to read 500 books in a year. One year I learned to read Cyrillic characters, impressive until you find out that I can’t speak Russian or Ukrainian. One year I chose distance running, which led to a mud run and, eventually, a marathon. Then I went after public speaking, probably the second-hardest challenge I have undertaken.
This year, it’s martial arts. I signed up and started taking lessons in Krav Maga and Muay Thai kickboxing.
Cool story, dude.
Yeah, no. Let me explain just why this is so challenging for me.
I was always one of the smallest kids in my grade, and definitely the least coordinated, slowest, weakest, and most clueless about any and all sports. Last picked for every team, hit in the head with every possible ball except the medicine ball, tackled into the mud in soccer by someone on my own team. I grew up to experience many years of chronic pain and fatigue, thyroid disease, migraine, and fibromyalgia. To say I was never an athlete would be a grave understatement.
I’m not an athlete, I’m a book-reading, bird-watching nerd of the first order.
I’m also 5’4” and I weigh a buck and a quarter. I wear a size zero.
My wrists measure 5 1/4.”
They just put me in a “child’s large” t-shirt.
On several occasions in my life, a male friend or relative has simply picked me up and unceremoniously tossed me over his shoulder. They take one look at me and decide that I’m portable. No dignity in sight.
With this new martial arts challenge, I’m pushing myself in several ways. While I do all right with endurance running, that is physically almost the exact opposite of this type of training. Running is aerobic, martial arts is anaerobic. Distance running tends to lead to strong hamstrings but weak glutes, quads, hip flexors, and core, something I felt literally within the first sixty seconds of my first Krav Maga class. Mostly lower body, running doesn’t really set you up for the upper body demands of martial arts. The mindset of distance running requires a high tolerance for boredom, moving along one axis at one speed for hours at a time. Martial arts is unpredictable activity over a wide range of motion. Distance running is for loners, martial arts requires interaction with partners and opponents. The only thing these disciplines have in common, really, is that they’re both impact sports, in that they can both build bone density. I’m getting feedback from the instructors and my fellow students that I have a good mindset for this type of training, but grit, humility, and perseverance are nearly all I’m bringing to the table.
In other words, walking the challenge path has brought me emotional strength that I never otherwise had.
What else is challenging about being a middle-aged martial arts novice?
DOMS, delayed onset muscle soreness
The shock of impact, falling and grappling and being thrown onto the mat
Being triggered in certain positions and having trauma flashbacks
The humiliation your ego feels at realizing that your fitness level is the lowest in the room
Feeling your age, especially in comparison to kids barely out of high school
The intellectual challenge of learning new jargon
Unfamiliar equipment, not even knowing which end is up
Fear of social isolation, when all the other students know each other and you’re the new kid
Low proprioception, being uncoordinated and not mirroring the moves very well
Pushing your physical stamina to the point that you genuinely start to black out
They tell me: “This is martial arts. If you don’t bleed, faint, or puke at least once, you’re not trying hard enough.”
It’s going to get worse. That’s sort of the point. I fully expect to be hit in the face, get a fat lip, possibly get a black eye, cut up my knuckles, have mat burn and bruises on every limb, possibly even get a tooth knocked out. Setting up my emotional expectations for the very worst helps me to appreciate that most days, it truly isn’t that bad.
These are the sorts of things I say as I’m getting to know everyone:
Any goal that takes less than four years isn’t worth doing. I’m here for humility and self-discipline. If I don’t feel weak, slow, frail, clumsy, uncoordinated, humiliated, dumb, scared, and out of my league, then I’m in the wrong place.
Challenge is where triumph comes from. There’s no other way to get that astonishing feeling of having overcome something, having utterly prevailed and emerged victorious. The emotion that makes you thrust your arms over your head in jubilation, that doesn’t come from doing the ordinary.
The challenge path is the hardest path, and that’s why it’s the most rewarding. Start out expecting to be terrible, to be objectively the worst, in the bottom 10% of performance. Pick something that makes your knees tremble and you’re on track. Learn to love those feelings of desperate uselessness, one scintilla above the line that says, “I obviously don’t belong here and I should drop out.” The better you are at everything else, the less tolerant you tend to become of being at beginner level, or doing anything radically different from your strengths. Even mediocrity starts to feel like failure. On the challenge path, you follow one spoke that leads directly away from your hub, off in a wildly different direction than the other paths you’ve beaten. This is how you build yourself a bigger world.
If a single critical comment or one harsh word can destroy your supposed motivation, you’ll quit everything you ever start. Hearing a phrase like “this is why you’ll quit” should spark an unquenchable fire inside of you. HA. I’ll show you. That’s what you think. You have no idea who you’re dealing with.
You’ll quit, though.
You’ll quit because you believe in “motivation.” You think there’s a magical feeling that comes shooting into your belly from a big sparkly rainbow. You don’t believe in determination or commitment or choosing things that suck on purpose.
You’ll quit because you believe in “willpower.” You think some people are born with it. You don’t actually want self-discipline or perseverance because you know those take work, more work than you want to put in.
You’ll quit because to keep going would mean waking up early and doing it when you’re tired. You’re tired because you stay up late, pretending you have two lives, and the late-night you doesn’t give two figs about the morning you. You’ll never stop staying up too late, and that’s why you’ll quit.
You’ll quit because you’re always going to choose instant gratification. If someone waves a brownie bite in front of your face, that’s it, you’re done. You’ll fold like an umbrella. You can’t bear the feeling of deprivation that you imagine is worse than your real deprivation. You deprive yourself of your own goals and dreams in favor of entertainments and treats that would impress a five-year-old kid.
You’ll quit because you went for something too far out of your reach. You’ll quit because your ego can’t take being at beginner level. You’ll quit because you can’t stop comparing yourself to other people who have put in months or years or decades of continuous practice. You’ll quit because you’d rather have nothing than having something cool in six months. Or three months.
You’ll quit because three weeks feels like a long time to you.
You’ll quit because your own future self is a perfect stranger to you. You deal with the poor choices that Past You made every single day, but you never realize that you continue to do the same thing. You get in your own way and make your own life harder.
You’ll quit because you’re in love with your television. You’d watch it twelve hours a day if you could find a way to quit sleeping.
You’ll quit because you can’t even choose sleep as a goal, even though it’s free, it feels great, and it makes everything in your day easier and better.
You’ll quit because you think the pain of change is worse than the pain of your status quo.
You’ll quit, and do you know how I know? You started in January. You’ll become a statistic, just like everyone else. If you joined a big gym, they didn’t tell you that their pricing model depends on having 6,000 members, 3,000 of whom literally never show up at all. There’s only room for 300 people to work out at a time. You’re not used to it, you’re put off by everything about that environment, and you’re not willing to budget the time or money to pay for anything else. You’ll quit because they set you up like a sucker.
You’ll quit because it hurts and three minutes of moderate physical pain is too much.
You’ll quit because of the delayed onset muscle soreness. The first time you do enough for your body to start making a difference, you’ll be so tired that you’ll quit before you find out that feeling eventually goes away.
You’ll quit because you always quit before the results have enough time to show up.
You’ll quit because there are no consequences.
You’ll quit because you let yourself off the hook.
You’ll quit because you never made any backup plans.
You’ll quit because you’re a “perfectionist” and that means you care more about weird inner standards than you do about results or performance. The moment something happens and you break your streak, probably by the third week of January, you’ll give up.
You’ll quit because you’d rather have a perfect nothing than an imperfect something.
You’ll quit because you forgot you had even made any kind of commitment in the first place. You are so loose with giving your own word to yourself that you’ll break promises you never really realized you made.
You’ll quit because you have no idea how to make yourself do things.
You’ll quit because it suits your image of yourself. Staying with it would mean redefining who you are, and if that’s someone with grit and determination, well, how are you supposed to recognize that person?
You’ll quit because you believe in personality, not behavior.
You’ll quit because you don’t care about your goal, not that much, not really.
You’ll quit because you always do.
You’ll quit because you take criticism personally and you actually let it inside of you. A single sentence will do it, one word, one facial expression, or part of a hint of one.
You’ll quit because continuing would take more approval and applause than the world is prepared to give, to anyone, for anything.
You’ll quit even though you paid good money to do it.
If you had it within you to do things you didn’t like, when you weren’t in the mood, you’d find that you could keep going.
If you knew you would never give a commitment you weren’t prepared to keep, come fire or flood, you’d look at your reflection in the mirror differently.
If you treated your future as if it mattered, you’d keep going.
If you were patient and humble enough to do tiny steps, one day at a time, you’d get there.
If you started taking next year as seriously as you take your next meal, you’d win every time.
If you heard someone say to you, “I know you are going to quit,” and it made you laugh deep inside, you’d never quit anything at all.
Well, which is it? Am I right or am I wrong?
It’s that time of the year. The winter holidays are officially over, giving us nothing but actual winter to think about until mid-March. Epiphany has passed, so Christmas is officially done. I’m talking to you, retail establishments I visited this weekend that still have fully trimmed Christmas trees on display. All the other holidays took their decorations down! It’s time to put all that stuff away. By “all that stuff,” I mean, of course, all the gift bags that are sitting around with their contents back inside, all the goodies that are still set temporarily on tables and counters and the fronts of bookshelves, and definitely all the packaging. How do we make room for all the new material objects that have come to stay?
When I do home visits, it never fails to amuse me that we find so many intact gift bags with the tags still on. Usually you can tell what year or what occasion they arrived, because there’s a card. It’s like an archaeological dig. We find stacks of unspent gift cards. We find ornaments and decorations. We find white elephants and gag gifts. We even find candy and other food! Sometimes the unused gifts are quite nice, and my client will exclaim over them. When you forget that you got something, and then rediscover it, is it twice as fun?
There are a lot of different reasons for why my people don’t open and use their gifts. It depends on the person and on the situation.
Got distracted and forgot all about it
Planning to use it “soon”
Felt guilty about receiving something nice
Felt ashamed for not having reciprocated the gift, or some other reason
Conflict with the gift-giver
Dislike of the gift
Disappointment at not receiving that year’s heart’s desire
“Saving it for later” because it feels so special and valuable, too nice to actually be used
Creating a time capsule to preserve the memories of the special occasion
No idea of where to put the new gift or how to use it
Want to get rid of the gift, but don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings
Lost it somewhere in a pile
Allergic to money and can never just cash a check, use a gift card, or put cash in a wallet
Got sick and lost a few weeks
Regardless, having unopened gifts years after the occasion in question is almost never anyone’s intention. The gift-giver wants to make you happy, or, at least, remember you and make you feel included. Even if it’s an obligation, at least you were on the checklist. When you receive a gift, if you like it, you should use it and enjoy it, because that honors the giver and it was the purpose of the gift. If you don’t like it, then why are you keeping it?
Unwanted gifts are a potent symbol of failed communications.
In my family, we make wish lists. If someone wants to upgrade an appliance or something, we spread the word, and then others in the family can pool resources and buy it. We’ve given each other everything from stoves to doors to fruit trees. There isn’t much room for silly gifts, because we’ve always focused on the practical stuff. Unwanted gifts often come from the giver’s total lack of ideas of what you might want.
Sometimes unwanted gifts come from the giver’s desire to push something on you. This is very mysterious, but common. I want you to decorate for this holiday - why won’t you do it my way? I want you to eat these foods - why won’t you? I want you to dress this way - why can’t you look like my image of you? I want you to have hobbies I understand and live out my values. Use these gifts so you can be the way I want you to be.
Sometimes, the gift was the most the giver could afford. Their desire to please you and delight you involved things that were outside their price range, so they did as well as they could.
I sometimes imagine what it would look like if various forest animals brought me gifts. This can be blamed on a children’s book I made my mom read to me over and over again when I was four. (The Party That Grew). A parakeet had a party, and the other birds brought stuff for a potluck. Mayhem ensued when the owl showed up! I imagine that a squirrel might bring me a pinecone, a Stellar’s jay might bring me a blue feather, and a raccoon might tear up my tent and steal my breakfast. Maybe it can help to look at the gift-giving process as a way that various people just demonstrate their innate characteristics, something they do that reflects almost entirely on them and not on you, or even their relationship with you.
What do we do with it all, though? Where do we put it? What do we keep and what do we... thoughtfully regift?
I used to take any random silly gift that I might have gotten, say from an office “Secret Santa,” and bring it to my in-laws’ white elephant exchange.
Sometimes I would have a “free box” that I would put out if a group of friends were coming over. It might include random gifts, a book I had finished, nail polish that turned out not to be my color, a seed packet, or who knows. This is similar to a “Naked Lady” party where a group of friends-of-friends meet to trade clothes and accessories.
I might also unload stuff I wasn’t going to use at a charity rummage sale, or give it to a friend’s child.
Giving gifts is THE END of our power and control over the gift. We don’t get to say that other people have to keep stuff in their house. We can’t force people to like things, or to be grateful, or to feel more affectionate toward us. Not with gifts, or love, or money, or sweet words, or magic spells, or hot fresh pancakes, or anything. All we can do is give. Hey, and, that works both ways. We accept the gesture graciously, we work on our inner feelings of regard toward the giver, and our work is done. The object that remains is just that, an object.
This time of year, it can be fun to go through the house and make space for new things. A new book takes the place of a book we got bored and quit reading. A new pair of socks take the place of an old, threadbare pair, like the rainbow-striped pair I just discarded with the hole in the heel. The cycle of seasons and ritual gift-giving reminds us that sometimes, it’s good to evaluate what we already have. Out with the old and in with the new.
PS Those expired gift cards? They aren’t really expired. You can call up the retailer and have the amount reinstated with a new expiration date. It doesn’t even cost anything. Go out for the day and use them up on things you’d like, or donate them to a cause you care about.
January is for radical change. At least, it seems to be at our house. This is the third time in our eight years of marriage that we’ve learned in the first week of January that we would be moving soon. Last year, it was the prelude to months of topsy-turvy everything. This year, who knows?
One week of 2018 has elapsed. What’s happened so far? My advice for New Year’s Resolutions is to skip January entirely, using the month to relax, lounge around in pajamas, and set the expectation that lasting change takes time. There is really nothing sillier than expecting a 100% perfect streak for a new habit, starting at midnight on New Year’s Eve and lasting forever. Unless you are a very magical, mythical, mystical being who is supremely adept at total transformation, that’s just not how habit change works.
So, yeah, spend January reading through old magazines, cutting them up to make vision boards, and maybe taking a bag of old clothes to the donation drop-off. Or, if you’re my husband and me, just open the door and let CHANGE blow in.
What’s happened so far?
On the First, I set up my online store and launched my first product, my Resolutions for Skeptics video workshop.
On the Second, I discovered that the desk I have wanted since last August was on sale for $70 off, and I brought it home and set it up.
On the Third, I did the last speech for my Advanced Communicator Bronze in Toastmasters (and won a Best Speaker ribbon). I was also recognized for doing a “triple crown” last year and completing three program levels in one year.
On the Fourth, I visited three local martial arts gyms.
On the Fifth, I took my first Krav Maga lesson, decided to join that gym, and came home with a bag full of kickboxing gear.
On the Sixth, my husband bought a folding bicycle. This was to replace his scooter, the second one in under a year to break irreparably and toss him onto the pavement.
On the Seventh, we went over to the leasing office at our apartment complex and were surprised to find that we actually prefer the floor plan of the studio units! We applied for one, and if we get it, we’ll be saving over $400 a month. I also posted my old bookcase on Craigslist and gave it to a cute young couple. This is how good fortune spreads from one person to another.
Over the course of the week, we also culled our bedroom closet and the bookshelves. I have hauled off three big bags of clothes for donation and a backpack full of books for the used bookstore. I tested out a bunch of habit tracking apps and set up some new routines. I like to consider January my “get organized” month, and so far it’s been going even better than usual.
It’s amazing the way one large-scale decision can snap so many other pieces into place! It can, that is, if you let it. If you approach major change from the perspective of welcome and curiosity, it can. How could this be better than the status quo? How could this set us up for better opportunities three years from now? How could this solve any persistent problems?
We had a persistent problem of our old bikes rusting out on the patio. Now my hubby is donating his old bike, and I’m sending mine out for a tune-up so I can use it to get to the martial arts training center, which is a four-mile round trip. We found a really excellent hidden gem of a veggie restaurant in our city, too far to walk really, but just a few minutes by bicycle. What this strategic decision does is to set us up for a consistently higher background activity level, as well as an expanded neighborhood.
I had a persistent problem of trying to figure out how to cross-train and build a schedule around running. Now I have an official class schedule, where the main activities work the same muscle groups that I wanted to strengthen. (Core, hip flexors, quads, and glutes).
We were going to have the persistent problem of a $200/month rent increase, which would inevitably increase yet again at the end of the ten-month lease. Instead, we’ll (hopefully!) move into a significantly cheaper place with the exact same access to the exact same neighborhood, same gym, same pool, same hot tub, same business center, and same commute. The main difference is that we will be a lot closer to the hot tub and the start of our favorite running path.
This is the sort of thing you can do when you make your life the priority, rather than your stuff. Get rid of nearly everything you own, and suddenly you find that all sorts of options open up that weren’t available to you plus your giant moving van. Just you.
What’s funny about all of this is that we had just made our plans for the New Year, and most of the biggest ones are already clearly in place. Thinking about the new gym has me totally jazzed (although also alarmed and intimidated). Thinking about the new, much cheaper apartment has us both practically fizzing with excitement. Then there are the two unplanned purchases of the desk and the bike, both of which started making a big impact in our lives the moment they came in the door. The new folding bike already has a name, Deadpool, after its black and red color scheme. We are ready and set for adventure.
How is your 2018 going so far?
Now that I have your attention, let me explain what Tetris has to do with habit change. Or, rather, let Sean Young explain it. He shares the research he used to get his PhD in Stick With It: A Scientific Process for Changing Your Life - For Good. This book isn’t about what “should” work, and it’s not about “willpower” or “motivation.” It’s about what has actually been proven to work on actual people in real-life situations. Think of incarcerated felons, people who are addicted to drugs, and veterans with PTSD. Yeah. Those kinds of real-life situations. If this research can help people in those circumstances, then it’ll probably work on us.
The huge takeaway from this material was, for me, differentiating between three different types of habit. Is it an A, B, or C? A is for Automatic, the stuff we do without realizing it. B is for Burning, the stuff we obsess over and can’t stop thinking about. C is for Common, the ordinary stuff we do on a routine basis. In my case, if I were talking about Past Me’s eating habits, I’d say corn chips were an A, Pepsi was a B, and my baseline consumption of baked goods was a C. I had to tackle each of my bad eating habits with a different strategy. It would have been a lot easier with information from Stick With It, rather than having to figure it out on my own!
Another area of Dr. Young’s research that was new to me was his discussion of neurohacks. He says that while there is plenty of research into the science, there is very little about how to apply it to daily life, and so he’s developing it himself. He starts with the way he gets his dog to quit acting up by moving her ears to put her in her submissive posture. Whoa. My dog Spike is sure going to have an interesting week.
I’ve used behavioral techniques on myself, with sometimes surprising results. As an example, I’ve been working on my fear of public speaking for two years, and I still sometimes get that horrid burst of butterflies in the stomach. If I know I’m going to speak that day, I put a rubber band around my wrist. The moment the butterflies kick in, I snap the rubber band as hard as I can. I used to have to do it three or four times, but now once is enough. When I get up to give the speech, I end with the positive reinforcement of laughter and applause. None of this would work, though, if I didn’t have the underlying story that public speaking is a valuable skill, a challenge that is a better use of my time than anything else. Going by the lessons from Stick With It, I used the Stepladders of the Toastmasters manuals, the Community of my club, my story that speaking is Important, and the Captivating rewards of winning award ribbons and having lunch at my favorite sandwich shop. It’s also Captivating that the process is really working, and that what used to make me sick with fear is now actually fun! At this point, the habit is Engrained. I’m sure I’ll do it for life.
Stick With It is full of case studies. How do I quit drinking cola? How do I get my kid to quit snarling every time we ask her to put her iPad down? Sometimes all it takes is a valid story of someone with a similar issue for you to say, Hey, you know what? I’m tired of annoying myself and if that works, I’m going to do it, too. It helps to remember that behavior change happens by 1. Doing the action and then (quite a while later) 2. Feeling the emotions and thinking the thoughts that go with change. Also, lasting change comes from tiny little itty-bitty eensy steps, which Dr. Young calls Stepladders.
Now I’ve done one of the Neurohacks. I’ve written this book review on habit change, thereby convincing myself that I am the kind of person who knows how to do this stuff. This builds the concept into my self-image, and also tells me that I have a reputation to uphold. Tricksy, isn’t it? I recommend that you read it and then explain one of the anecdotes to someone. Then the same thing will happen to you!
PS What was the deal with Tetris? Apparently, it works as a “cognitive vaccine.” If someone plays Tetris for ten minutes within six hours of a traumatic event, they have dramatically lower rates of flashbacks afterward. I’m going to try this technique the next time I get into even a minor kerfuffle.
“Acknowledge that your plan to change the behavior may not be as easy as you believe.”
He stumbled and almost fell. That’s when I was sure. I was waiting to cross a busy street in downtown Los Angeles, when a tall man walked up. I noticed him, because I am always eyes-up in the city and I make it my business to notice people. Then I noticed his white cane. Oh, he’s blind! I put myself in standby, ready to help him out, but mostly to avoid being his obstacle. He had headphones on, and he was murmuring to himself. Adaptive tech?
This is when I let my brain cancel out my intuition.
I’ve known many differently abled people over the years. What I’ve learned is that they’ll generally ask for help when they need it, and that they can find it annoying when people fawn and fret over them. I’ve also had some incredibly interesting conversations about adaptive technology and the way that smartphones have revolutionized the world for people who are not fully sighted. Basically I took one look at the headphones, saw the man’s mouth moving, and assumed he was either listening to GPS instructions, talking to an online assistant, repeating some memorized directions, or counting his steps. Alrighty then! Robots to the rescue!
Then the light changed, and things got real.
The man fumbled his footing and looked really nervous. I slowed down and hung to the side, watching to make sure he was okay. It quickly became clear that he was scared, using his cane and making progress in the right direction, but flinching and wobbling.
Quite frankly, if you’ve been anywhere near Pershing Square on a weekday around evening rush hour, and traffic was rushing by, you’d be scared, too. California is well above the national average in pedestrian fatalities.
I continued to hover about a yard off to the side, still second-guessing myself, wanting to be respectful and dithering, dithering.
Then the man just... froze. He just froze in the middle of the crosswalk.
Nine seconds left.
“We’ve got time,” I called out. “You’re okay.”
He moved forward again, whimpering, his cane going side to side like a windshield wiper.
“You’ve got it.”
He was only two yards away.
“The curb is right there. You got it.”
As soon as that white cane tapped the curb, the man sighed in relief. He stepped up about as gracefully as he had stepped down, looking about like I would feel if I were pulling myself out of a river with an alligator in it. He thanked me and we went our separate ways.
I wanted to kneel in the street and cry. HOW?
How can that poor guy do his life? He obviously hasn’t been blind for very long, and he’s my age. How does he keep his clothes and shoes so dazzlingly clean? How does he make his lunch? Why was he by himself? Where was he going?
Was this ever going to get any easier?
I don’t tell this story to make myself look good in some way. On the contrary. I did the bare freaking minimum at the last rational moment. What kind of a jerk would leave a blind man standing in the middle of traffic? I mean, sure, I’ve been a jerk in my lifetime, but I’m not that far gone.
I don’t even tell this story because I have an axe to grind. That axe: It makes no sense to share every single moment of annoyance and frustration, but then keep our “good deeds” secret. It is a wrong thought. It gives an objectively false image of the way the world works. We have it upside down. We should speak of altruism routinely and irritation rarely. Why is it egotistical to say, yeah, I gave a measly ten dollars to charity, yet somehow NOT egotistical to go on and on about The Rude Waiter and The Dish I Sent Back and The Lousy Customer Service? I’d rather portray myself as someone who serves (poorly, clumsily, infrequently) than as someone with exalted expectations of BEING served. But I digress.
The reason I tell the story about the frightened blind man is that it felt like an allegory.
The way we feel when we try new things? That’s just an emotion. When the blind gentleman dared to walk by himself and try to cross that busy street alone - THAT is true fear. THAT is the real Place of Uncertainty. THAT guy knows what it’s like to have no idea what lies before him. He’s putting his life on the line just to run some errands. What we have, well, put that on a scale of one to ten.
The other thing?
There was someone right there, waiting and watching. There was at least one person within arm’s reach, practically begging for a single word, the smallest gesture, anything at all that passed for a request for help. All he ever had to do was ask. Even though he didn’t - I wouldn’t have let him fall. I wouldn’t have let him stand there in traffic. I would have grabbed him if I had to. I would have let him use my phone, ordered him a Lyft, or basically anything he needed. What was so challenging for him was trivial for me, not because I’m special but just because I could see what he couldn’t.
It’s the same with any change.
Whenever you want to do something scary and new, chances are really high that someone else has done it. Someone nearby is probably doing whatever it is on a routine basis. That person may not be at mastery level, may not be a great teacher, may not be a professional. Still, that person can see at least the next few steps on the path. All you have to do is speak up, and that person will appear practically out of nowhere to help you over at least a few yards.
Why do we do it? We push ourselves because that’s the only way to live in the world. We do it because it’s the only way to adapt and survive. Whether we choose it or not, challenge is always coming for us. We step off into the unknown, step after step after step.
Most “resolutions” are futile, just as most “advice” is completely bogus. My personal favorites are “everything happens for a reason” - THE most meaningless thing ever said - and the whole concept of “getting healthy.” Please tell me. What does that even mean? (Either one. The vagueness, it hurts my face). We pick a cloudy, non-specific intention like “get healthier” because it sounds psychologically more balanced than the alternatives, like “lose weight.” Speaking as someone who has done both successfully, I have a lot to say. Rant, rather.
The problem with “getting healthier” as a goal is that people are LESS likely to meet their health goals when they choose this as their intention. It has to do with the halo effect. Our culture makes a strong link between ‘healthy’ and:
There are a lot of people who would probably feel more of a sense of genuine welcome at the thought of a religious missionary coming to their door than they would at the thought of a conversation about “health” or “weight loss” or “fitness.”
Especially when we don’t have personal experience with these altered states of being, we find it impossible to imagine what that emotional or mental state would feel like. We can’t even begin to guess at the physical, other than sweat, soreness, and blisters. What story would we tell ourselves? All we have to draw on are guesswork, media representations, fictional characters, and our gut-level responses to advertising images.
What about health, though?
My fitness goals are at least half “moving away from” goals rather than “moving toward” goals. I eat in a certain way and move my body a certain amount because I’m deliberately trying to avoid specific inner states. I can’t alway feel that I’m on track, but when I get off track, the physical consequences come at me hard and fast. I get a rapid internal beatdown that demonstrates, once again, that I tend toward certain patterns. Patterns that are in my control should work for me, not against me. I can’t justify being my own worst enemy.
For me, it’s not a question of “healthier” but of:
Waking up several times a night with nightmares or, worse, night terrors
If you’ve never experienced a true night terror, it would be really hard to explain why this would be a motivator. Imagine waking up shaking and crying in another room, with no explanation of how you got there. Imagine someone having to pin you to the bed for three minutes because you were thrashing and screaming and you wouldn’t wake up. Imagine your heart rate doubling in fifteen seconds, launching you out of bed and onto your feet like you just touched a hot stove burner. After three years of that, I was humbled. I was ready to do anything to be free.
For the last four years, I was free. Free both of migraines and night terrors. Then, in the past couple of months, I’ve started experiencing alarming symptoms again. Flailing around in bed. Nightmares that last for two hours. Sitting straight up in a panic. About a week ago I got a headache with one of my classic migraine symptoms, jaw cramping. These two conditions don’t have anything to do with one another, as far as I know, but they are both signs that my system is out of whack.
I ate more sweets over the holidays, specifically dessert on two consecutive nights. I ate more in general. The weather got cold and I changed my default fitness habits. My weight crept up a few pounds.
Pop culture would say that I should lighten up, be gentle with myself, and quit caring about social norms or body image. (Assuming that I do in the first place, because I’m a woman, when actually I find body image norms to be irrelevant to my emotional world). Nothing about any of that remotely impacts whether I wake my husband up on a work night because I’m shouting in my sleep, or whether my eyelid starts twitching.
There’s a lot of standard, mainstream “health” advice that I either disregard, find irrelevant, or experience as harmful to my physical state. For instance, I hate coffee, I don’t care for chocolate, and alcohol doesn’t seem to work on me, so I ignore all the articles about their supposed health benefits. I don’t take a multivitamin for two reasons, one, because it’s linked to higher mortality from all causes, and two, because of consistent quality control issues turned up in independent lab testing. What they’re selling on the label is not always what’s actually in the bottle. I’ve tried a high-protein, low-carb diet and it made me feel like I ate wet cement. Not compatible with endurance sports! I gravitate toward strenuous exercise and endurance sports because they work better than anything else I’ve found when my stress level goes up.
I’ve never had night terrors on a night after I went for a run.
Where I’m going with all this is that when we look for “motivation,” the concept of “getting healthier” seems to backfire. When we choose literally anything else, such as “impress my cat,” if we find it personally meaningful, it works. I once coached a client whose goal was to look hot in an evening dress because she knew she was going to see her ex at a New Year’s party. She nailed her weight goal and reported back that she felt really smug and proud on her way home from the party. Worked for her.
Trying to escape a harsh physical reality, like a persistent skin rash, is usually more “motivating” for most people than an aspiration like a goal weight or clothing size. Emotional realities may work, too, depending on the person.
I would suggest tracking your metrics if you have issues with, say, irritable bowel syndrome, sleep apnea, gastritis, chronic pain or fatigue, or any mystery issue. This is especially true if you’ve felt that doctors were condescending and dismissive toward your concerns. Bringing them a health log with specific observations and health metrics occasionally tends to get their attention. It can also reveal patterns that you can observe and correct yourself.
When I started having night terrors, I did a ton of research. It turned out that, at the time at least, very little was known about it. I would have gone to a sleep lab, but I only had episodes about once every three weeks, with a pattern so sporadic and inconsistent that I doubted the lab would catch one in action. I talked to doctors who completely, rudely scoffed at me and told me I just needed to have better sleep hygiene. Nobody said, “watch your blood sugar and quit eating three hours before bedtime” or “stop eating sugar” or “do more strenuous exercise, at least 45 minutes per instance at least five days a week.” Those were the modifications that actually worked. I consider these behavior modifications to be objectively quantifiable and testable. That’s the goal with tracking health metrics.
Not some vague cloud of woo-woo and positive thinking - although I believe in both! When I’m experiencing a real-world, measurable problem that comes from my body, I want real-world, scientific approaches to get rid of it. I don’t want “healthier,” I want something specific that actually improves my life. When I make a resolution about my health, I want to know when I’ve completed it and what counts as “keeping” it.
I put a bunch of habit-tracking apps on my phone and tried them out so you don’t have to.
The first thing about habit trackers is that you should only use them for habits that matter to you. Habit tracking is a habit in itself!
Also, it’s best to add just one or two new habits at a time. Maybe something fun that you look forward to, alongside something you do to annoy yourself that you want to quit. A common pitfall is to stop tracking all the habits because you don’t want to admit to yourself that you aren’t doing one of them right now.
Next stipulation: Make sure the habit you are tracking is the habit you actually want to track. Your metrics may lead to one objective when your real objective was something else entirely.
I’m the sort of person who gets very hooked on metrics and analytics. I will basically lose my mind at the prospect of breaking a streak. Imagine rage-quitting a meditation app at midnight and you start to get the picture. If you’re an alpha type personality, a habit tracking app may turn into a negative for you. The app should be a value-add to your life, something that feels emotionally neutral while supplying valuable information.
I’m using an iPhone X. Almost all of these apps were first installed on my iPhone 6, and a few I’ve had since the iPhone 4S. Sorry, Android users - I also have a tablet that runs Android and I simply don’t like it as an operating system, on its own merits, much less in comparison to iOS.
In alphabetical order:
Countdowns. I really love this app for reminding me that an important date is coming up. New Year’s Eve, race day, a party, anything exciting that I’m planning. I put the widget in my Today screen so I see it all the time.
Days Since. The opposite of Countdowns. I mainly use it to show how many days have elapsed in the current year. There’s something compelling about seeing that it’s Day 200 of a year!
Done. This app allows you to track whether you want to build or quit a habit and at what frequency you’ll do it. You can write your own motivational statement for each habit, choose the color, and whether you want a reminder.
Goalmap. I like this app because it has two different types of goal-setting features. You can set reminders for habits you want to track on both a daily and weekly timeframe. You can also choose “aims.” I have one for reaching a particular net worth by a particular date, and it shows my percent complete. I have another for “complete world tour” by 2035. Seeing it reminds me that Future Me said to travel more. There is also a ‘Motivation’ section that has inspiring quotes, videos, and silly poems.
Habits. This app is really pretty! It opens to ‘Ideas,’ a bunch of floating colored bubbles that each contain a new habit to try. The color corresponds to whether the habit is physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual. You can set a daily reminder and choose the days of the week you’ll do the habit. It starts with a 21-day challenge. There are some fun ideas like ‘go barefoot’ and ‘kind deed for stranger.’ You can also create your own habits and track your streaks.
Mint. This app changed my life. I’ve used it for years. Just link all your bank accounts, credit cards, investments, student loan, and any other accounts, and you can see your financial picture at a glance.
MyFitnessPal. When I first downloaded this app, I deleted it. I realized it was a food log, rather than an exercise app, and I thought it was dumb. Then I logged everything I ate for a year, focusing on micronutrient intake, and it was revolutionary in my life. Cured my migraines and my night terrors.
Remente (came up in spell checker as Revenge). The reminder hoots like an owl! This app tracks goals along with your mood and life balance. If you like life wheels, this is the one to get.
RunKeeper. I used to use MapMyRun but it started to get glitchy. I love that RunKeeper tracks elevation, splits, and how many runs I’ve done over the years. I don’t love it when I forget that the narrator voice is on and it starts shouting my stats over my audio book.
Streaks. This app is really stylish and simple to use. If you want to set up a streak and “not break the chain,” Streaks is a great choice. For someone like me who obsesses about habit streaks to the point of disrupting vacations, it’s good to evaluate whether we want to open that door.
Things 3. I finally bought into the hype and discovered that this IS the best planner app of all time. “Expensive but worth it.” I adore being able to put in tasks by date that don’t demand a reminder at a specific minute. The ‘Anytime’ and ‘Someday’ sections are magic to me, and I also love the concept of sorting by ‘Areas’ as well as projects and tasks.
WaterMinder. I paid for this app a few months ago and it’s saving me. When I don’t drink enough water early in the day, I start getting irritable, and if I don’t make my hydration goal, I wake up in the middle of the night with cotton mouth. Also has a useful widget, although it gives the message ‘Unable to Load’ if you haven’t made an entry for the day yet.
Way of Life. This is my favorite habit tracker for tracking multiple habits. Being honest about whether I did it or didn’t, and using the ‘skip’ feature, gives a trendline. I can really evaluate whether I’m keeping my commitment or whether I need to adjust my schedule... or my expectations.
My best advice for using habit tracking apps is to consider how you respond to notifications. If they keep popping up at inconvenient times, or if you’re getting the sound effects AND the banners AND the badges, pause and adjust the settings. Choose a time during the day, like while you’re getting ready for bed or while you have your first coffee, when it’s convenient to check in. Habit tracking is a parallel habit that can either help your focus or drive you batty by draining it. Pick something that delights you visually. There are so many beautifully designed apps that it’s easy to pick one with a color scheme or icons you really like.
Best of luck with your new habits in 2018!
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.