I found Lisa Tamati’s book on the running shelf at my favorite bookstore. Although I had been running and participating in adventure races for years, I hadn’t heard of her, and that makes me mad. Most people probably have no awareness of the incredible feats of female extreme athletes like Tamati. She doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. If I had known about women like her when I was growing up, I believe I would have developed an interest in fitness and athletics much earlier in life. It’s okay, though, because we’re about the same age and she is a clear demonstration that physical condition shouldn’t hold someone back.
Hospitalized for severe asthma as a child. Broke her back at age 21. Needed a nebulizer while completing a 222k race (137.9 MILES!!!) at nearly 18,000 feet in altitude. Lost her toenails and kept running. Most people with asthma or a broken back would probably excuse themselves from competition forevermore. Tamati shows us that it’s up to us what we choose to attempt and how hard we push ourselves. (Running enough distance to circumnavigate the globe 2.5 times!) She is one example among many of athletes who keep on trucking, even while dealing with fairly major health problems.
I run even though I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia at age 23. It could be said that I run because I was diagnosed with a chronic pain/chronic fatigue illness at a young age. Doctors and reference books were united in the opinion that FM patients are “exercise-intolerant.” (Nearly 20 years later, the advice seems to have changed, although no other FM sufferers in my acquaintance do work out). I simply refuse to let a diagnosis determine my fate. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t physically catch on fire or explode if I lost weight and became more active, and as it turns out, I was right. Better than that, I haven’t had a migraine or night terrors in two years, and my newly found fitness level is largely responsible for this victory.
Running to Extremes is a subtly stunning book. Tamati describes her experiences in various races. She details every time she fell or hurt herself or did something embarrassing. Somehow, in between the lines, we realize that she has just organized a couple of national-level events, appeared on television, and completed extreme endurance races that only a handful of other individuals have managed. Her focus is always on looking out for her mates and surmounting pain to complete her latest (world-class) goal. It’s clear that she’s out there to experience whatever she can and to find out just what she’s made of. Reading this book made me want to sign up for my second marathon right away.
There is a lot of “common knowledge” floating around in the collective unconscious that I think is wrong. We take in this received wisdom and swallow it whole, without subjecting it to serious scrutiny. Part of the discipline of inquiry involves asking, “Is this true? How can I prove or disprove it?” The concept of the “set point” is one of those ideas that I have examined and found oversimplified and subjective. The idea is that each of us is somehow genetically programmed to be at a certain shape and size, and no matter what we do, our bodies will revert to it, like when the top of my pantyhose keeps rolling down. A “set point” is a classic example of a fixed mindset, and it applies to other areas of life besides body image.
I used to believe I just had the body I had. I “knew” I “only ate health food.” I also “knew” I “couldn’t exercise” because I had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia. I felt that I had suffered misfortunes, such as growing a thyroid nodule, and that certain things happened to me that made me a special snowflake. What worked for other people wasn’t going to work for me. I “knew” things wouldn’t work without actually trying them out. That was my ‘set point’ – a mental one. I was mentally stuck in Park and I didn’t even know I had gears I could shift.
Over time, I stumbled along, accidentally shifting variables and getting different results. It took longer than it could have, but I eventually learned that I could change my diet, that I could change my body composition, that I did have at least a certain amount of control over my level of chronic pain or fatigue.
The ‘set point’ of my body now is completely different than it was 5 years ago, 10 years ago, or 17 years ago. My mental and emotional ‘set points’ are also distinctly different.
Seventeen years ago, I didn’t know how much I weighed. I didn’t know what clothing size I wore. I wore baggy, loose dresses with no waistband. I didn’t own a scale. When I planned my wedding with my first husband, I received my grandmother’s wedding dress, and it wouldn’t button. I decided I would lose weight so the dress would fit. (Current Me could probably put that dress on without the alterations). I had no plan. I think I thought that making the decision would make the weight vanish somehow. I didn’t change what I ate, at all, and I didn’t even imagine a workout program. Needless to say, I didn’t lose weight, and I wound up having to pay a seamstress to add 5 inches of panels in the waist. My ‘set point’ was vague and undefined, totally lacking information or any way to track metrics. I also lacked a real career plan. I was just going along to get along.
Ten years ago, I started learning about how to lose weight. I was flat broke and hating it, and there was a weight loss contest at my work that involved a potential cash payout. I WAS GOING TO GET THAT MONEY NO MATTER WHAT. Almost everyone in the contest was male, and men have an extremely different approach to weight loss than women do. They tend to look at it more mechanically, as in, “I’m going to lose some weight, so I’d better cut back on the beer and hot wings for a while.” They would mock each other and try to sabotage each other’s progress by buying donuts and leaving them on their competitors’ desks. I saw all that as Reindeer Games and kept my eyes on the prize. In two years and three rounds of the contest, I won over $200. My new ‘set point’ was that of an experimenter, treating my body as a test subject and seeing that it could change with different inputs. I realized I knew almost nothing about physical fitness, and that learning more could be valuable in my life. This was shortly after I got my degree and my driver’s license and started taking my career planning very seriously.
Five years ago, I started distance running. The first time I went out, I couldn’t make it around the block without stopping to walk, and I had to lie on the floor afterward. Not even a third of a mile! I saw that my inner persistence, determination, grit, and sheer stubbornness could take me places that my lack of athletic history could not. Four years later, I ran a marathon. My new set point became that of a champion – a slow one, but a champion nevertheless. When I set a goal, I know I will eventually reach that goal, even if it takes me years, because I NEVER QUIT. I might fail a bunch of times along the way, but I’ll never give up! At this time, I also began looking at my vocation and career in a radically new way.
When I look back at myself at different ages, I shake my head at how resistant I was to new information. I didn’t want to hear it. I could have had the same conversations, read the same materials, watched the same documentaries, and not gotten anything out of it, because I was stuck at a certain level. In my life, it’s only been when I decided maybe I didn’t know as much as I thought I did that I was able to make any progress at all.
Physically, a “set point” is the result of a certain package of eating habits and activity level. Yes, my body will tend to level out at a certain shape and size once I have adjusted to whatever change I have made. When I joined Curves, I lost 17 inches in the first month – but months later, I had lost only one pound, because I refused to consider any dietary changes and the 30-minute circuit training workout could only have so much effect on me. I’ve learned from keeping a food log every day for two years that the difference between Snack A and Snack B can be a 4-lb difference on the scale after just a couple of weeks. A body trained with 30 minutes of walking three days a week is going to look visibly different a year later than a body trained with 90 minutes of running three days a week. Walk into a gym and watch the crowds coming out of the different classes. It’s easy to see that the water aerobics group is at a totally different set point than the Pilates or spin class groups. These aren’t genetic things, they are behavior package things.
It’s the same with other areas of life, such as relationships, finances, and home environments. One person will tolerate raised voices, and another person won’t, and as a result, one person will be stuck at a relationship set point that the other person would find unacceptable. One person will settle for an income level that another person will not, and as a result, one person will have financial problems that the other person won’t. One person will manage to ignore mold, stacks of greasy dishes, and piles of smelly laundry that another person could barely imagine, and as a result, one will live in squalor and the other will not. Our ‘set points’ are what we are willing to live with, to put up with from day to day. Usually, we have no idea that another level is possible.
I sometimes visualize this as different floors or storeys in a building. Imagine an apartment building. In the basement lives an unemployed person who is clinically depressed, in debt, behind on rent and bills, and surrounded by trash, dishes, and laundry. On the first floor is a broke college student, struggling with many of the same issues as the tenant in the basement apartment, but working hard for something better. On the second floor is a single person with a full-time job, gradually paying off debt and following a fitness plan. On the third floor is a couple with careers and a retirement plan. In the penthouse apartment is a wealthy entrepreneur with a fantastic view, signing up for an ultramarathon. They all have the same address, but they’re at different stages of life, and they have distinct mindsets and sets of behaviors. There is no particular reason why the tenant in the basement apartment couldn’t bump into the penthouse dweller and have a life-altering conversation one day.
If I woke up tomorrow in the body I had when I was 29, I would burst into tears. If I woke up in my first apartment, I’d probably cry then too. The difference is that now I expect different things out of life, and I know how to go about getting them. “If I only knew then what I know now…” There is no amount of weight I could gain that I would keep, because I already know how awful it felt to live in that body, and I also know what changes to make to get the body I live in now. There is no amount of mess or disorganization that would phase me, because I now know how to organize it all. If I had to wash every article of clothing and linens in the house, I’d be done in two days, and if I had to wash every dish, I’d be done in two hours. There is no way I will ever be in a relationship as bad as my first marriage, because I know to ask more questions now, and I’ll never accept certain types of mistreatment. I’ll never be poor again, because I know how to get a job that pays enough to live comfortably. I’m at a particular set point in life, but I know there is nothing permanent about it. Disaster may come my way, but it wouldn’t be the first time, and I know that whenever I hit the ground, I don’t just land on my feet, I bounce.
The big question is how many higher levels there are. I know the first step in rising up a level of set point is to recognize that the current set point is nothing more than a comfort zone. I am where I am because I behave in certain ways, accept certain things but not others, and have a certain finite amount of information. As I learn more and adjust my behaviors, I can rise, in the same way that a hot air balloon will rise when some sandbags are tossed over the side. Letting go of self-limiting beliefs and behaviors will automatically create a lift. Learning other approaches to common problems and adjusting our behaviors in positive ways can lead to upper levels we didn’t realize ever existed.
The common cold has struck our house. According to my five-year diary, this seems to be a January kind of a problem. I thought I would share some thoughts about the common cold, as I’ve realized that my experience with it has changed. My poor husband is coughing, wheezing, sleeping around the clock, feeling queasy, and generally having a very bad time. I can tell my immune system is on the prowl, and my energy level is down, but otherwise I’m okay. This is how it’s been the last three or four times the common cold has blown through. After being so sick that I coughed up blood one winter, I assumed that respiratory stuff would be rougher on me as I got older. I was 28 then and I’m 40 now. Fortunately, my assumption seems to have been incorrect.
There is never going to be a “cure” for the common cold. I don’t think there will ever be a “cure” for cancer either. These are two categories where it makes far more sense to focus on prevention and living the healthiest lifestyle possible. After all, what rational argument is there for not living the healthiest possible lifestyle? It’s just that common knowledge is not the same as common action. On the other hand, I don’t think common knowledge includes everything that’s important to know.
These are the factors I think have helped me boost my immune system the most.
I’m not a doctor. I may be completely, utterly wrong in all my ideas. Just because I don’t really get sick anymore doesn’t mean I understand why. It could be a coincidence. On the other hand, maybe I’m onto something. In the last 22 years, I have virtually never had any kind of stomach bug or digestive issue; I’ve thrown up on only four occasions, the last one nearly 7 years ago. I quit having migraines two years ago. Now I can say that I don’t really get respiratory bugs, either. There are no drawbacks that I can think of to washing our hands more thoroughly, getting plenty of sleep, being functionally fit, eating more cruciferous vegetables, cutting sugar and soda, keeping a cleaner house, or being at a healthy weight. It might even be less expensive to live this way. Making a complete paradigm shift to a lifestyle that is different at a core level is really challenging for most people, though. We prefer to stay in our comfort zones even when they aren’t all that comfortable.
I feel a little cruddy as I write this. My hubby has gone back to bed. He came home from work early, took a four-hour nap, went to bed early and slept 12 hours, ate breakfast, and now he’s sleeping again. Leave it to an Upholder like him to be sick over the weekend. Poor guy. I’m glad I feel strong enough to cook dinner tonight. No matter how sick we both get, there are certain things we still do: we still load our dishes in the dishwasher, we still put trash and recycling in their cans, we still eat at the dining table, and we still put our laundry in the hamper. To our way of thinking, it takes the same amount of time to put a dish in the dishwasher as it does to put it in the sink. It takes the same amount of time to drop clothes in the hamper as it does to drop them on the floor. There is always a tail end to a sickness, when we’re trying to get from 70% to 100%, and it’s no fun to try to clean up a disaster area when our energy levels are still low. Maybe the bathtub doesn’t get scrubbed one week, and that’s fine, because that only means two weeks between cleanings. Being sick is one of many times when it pays to live an orderly life the rest of the year.
I hope I’ve presented some ideas that may be helpful. The common cold is something we all understand, one of those annoyances that should help us feel compassionate toward one another. One way to demonstrate that compassion is to hole up at home when we suspect we’re contagious. We can also demonstrate compassion toward ourselves. We can take care of ourselves, treat our bodies as well as we know how, and try to avoid bummers like a cold.
The divorce wasn’t my idea. Let me just put that out there. At least, consciously it wasn’t my idea. I cried myself sick when he made the announcement, and I thought my life was over. I thought nobody would ever love me again, you know, now that I was 24 years old and everything. It was funny, though, when one of my friends made the joke that I had just gotten rid of 200 pounds of clutter. I needed that laugh! It was the first inkling I had that 1. Maybe my ex wasn’t such a catch and 2. Maybe there was more going on in my clutter clearing than I had realized.
I found a book. It was kismet. I had gone to Powell’s to find something to read on the way home, since I had nearly a two-hour bus ride and I had already finished my library book. I wandered around the store, picking up various books, carrying them around listlessly and putting them back. Nothing grabbed my attention. Imagine being in a three-story bookstore that covers an entire city block and finding nothing to read. Something was off in my life and I still hadn’t picked up on that fact. After about an hour, I found myself in a back corner of a room I never browsed. I was staring at a row of books that were so irrelevant to my interests, it was surreal. Then my eyes wandered down to the bottom shelf. There, at my feet, was this funny little gray book called Clear Your Clutter With Feng Shui. I picked it up, read the jacket, and thought, “Hmm, I should buy this for my mom.” I bought it, read about 40 pages on my bus ride, got home, set down the book, and immediately started bagging up stuff I knew I no longer needed. By the time I had finished that slender little volume, I had gotten rid of truckloads of stuff. Extra clothes, board games, books, decorations, all sorts of things.
About a week later, my ex asked for the divorce.
The claim of energy work like space clearing is that it shifts the energy in your life. I have no reason to dispute that claim. It seems self-evident. The more people I help on this journey, the more true it seems. One day you start to realize that it’s time for something to change in your life. That word CHANGE is highly charged and extremely powerful. It’s a light switch that flips ON, and the light goes into every crack and cranny. A cluttered living environment is one of the most obvious, tangible, physical examples of what is really an emotional, mental, and spiritual state. A happy, fulfilled person simply does not tolerate a messy, dirty, smelly, disorganized environment. I mean, would you pay to stay in a hotel like that? If not, then why pay rent or a mortgage to sleep in an environment like that?
What concerns me is when clutter work becomes an end in itself. We draw out the projects, and the work goes on and on and on and on and on and on. I call it “churning.” What we’re doing is yet more interacting with stuff, picking up and carrying stuff, taking stuff out of containers and putting it in different containers, labeling stuff, meditating on stuff, journaling about stuff, and looking at pictures of stuff we wish we had instead. What we are not doing is expurgating the reasons we got the stuff in the first place. WHY are material objects so compelling for us? Why not just go to an art museum and look at the most beautiful things in the world, and then go home and live in an efficient space? Why get so hung up on unused fabric, clothes that don’t fit right, uncomfortable shoes, old books, and holiday decorations?
I had clutter in my first marriage because I was seeking desperately for the secret to a happy, middle-class, suburban marriage in a nice home. I thought if only I could arrange my home in just a certain special way, I would figure out the secret, and everything in my world would click into place and I’d feel comfortable at last. I had a thing for board games because I associated them with cheerful family get-togethers – which almost never happened anymore because my ex only wanted to play video games and became childishly sulky when I made him go to any kind of gathering. I had a thing for thrift store clothing because I had no awareness that I had put on at least 30 pounds (zero idea how much, just guessing from photos) and I kept getting too fat for what I already had. I would buy random things I didn’t need, because it felt like I was getting a bargain, and that demonstrated how thrifty I was. I was trying to shore up my crumbling self-esteem, not realizing that my real issue was living with a critical, contemptuous person who was never satisfied with anything I did. My brain couldn’t hold the concept that I was married to someone who didn’t love, respect, or like me, didn’t enjoy my company, hated my sense of humor, and would abandon me the minute any serious difficulty came up in our life. I also had no understanding of what “bipolar” meant, and since this was before Google or Wikipedia were invented, I just thought my husband was “moody.”
The clutter work did what it was supposed to do. It shifted the energy of my home. Um, a lot. Looking back from the happy, comfortable perch I always wanted, I realize that I could never have married my second husband (my REAL husband) if my ex and I had stayed together. What a sad, lackluster life that would have been. I’m sure my ex would describe such a life in even more colorful terms. If that marriage had not failed, I probably wouldn’t have finished my college degree, learned to drive, learned to cook, run a marathon, gotten fit, written a book, or become a coach. I most likely would have continued to have problems with chronic pain and fatigue and migraine and all the rest. Of course, at the time, I felt like my life was in a tailspin. The next few years after the divorce were dark and difficult. It makes me think of going caving and walking under a natural skylight, where the heat of ordinary sunlight and the smell of garden-variety dirt seemed suddenly so intense and lovely. I knew it was up there but I had a lot more walking to do underground before I could climb up and find it.
Do the Obvious is my credo. Clutter is an obvious thing to me because I work with it all the time. In many cases, though, clearing clutter is not THE most obvious thing that should be addressed. Clutter becomes a stand-in for the most pressing problem, the one that seems the hardest to address, the dragon in the living room. Shh, don’t wake it up, or it’ll breathe flames and burn this hut to the ground.
What’s the real problem? Because I sincerely doubt it’s just stuff. Unspoken conversations? Relationships that are past their sell-by date? Adult kids who need to find jobs and move out? A dying pet who needs some help to get over the Rainbow Bridge? A stretch of unemployment that’s gone on way too long? Serious financial or legal difficulties? Denied health problems? (And that definitely includes being overweight, getting your teeth fixed, and procrastinating on surgery or physical therapy, among many others).
We shop for the same reason we indulge in recreational eating. We’re trying to manipulate our moods. When my people talk about material objects, their pupils visibly dilate. It’s a dopamine hit. OOH, STUFF! Hey, I have this bag of old fabric – do you want it? (j/k) This is why we tend to have clutter problems AND weight problems AND money problems AND relationship problems. When things aren’t working right, we try to turn all the knobs and dials of our neurochemistry rather than simply taking action and fixing whatever is bothering us. Love me, feed me, bring me presents.
Some things really are simple. In a bad situation? Get out of it! Need a job? Apply for jobs 8 hours a day, 6 days a week, until you find one! Overweight? Keep a food log and find out why! Too much clutter? Bag it up and haul it out! It is theoretically possible to completely unclutter a suburban home over a long weekend, if you really want to and you work like your hair is on fire. It is also possible to shovel out squalor, deep-clean, and make repairs, although that tends to take longer. Dozens of people have lost 100 pounds in a year. Hundreds of people have paid off tens of thousands of dollars of debt in a year. There are countless people who are just a few credit hours shy of a degree, and they could finish in a single term if they really wanted. The question is, why don’t we take action? When we have internet access that includes thousands of step-by-step articles, slide shows, videos, blogs, interviews, etc. explaining precisely how other people have already done the thing... why don’t we?
No situation lasts forever. Change is always coming for us. We think we can shut the door, stop time, and wait until we “feel like it” or we’re “ready” or “in the mood” before we take action. Sometimes we die first. Sometimes we get evicted. Sometimes someone asks us for a divorce. Sometimes we get fired. We really can’t choose to freeze the world and put off decisions as long as we like. When it isn’t right and it isn’t working, it’s just a matter of time before that fact becomes abundantly clear. Clutter work is important work; space clearing is very valuable, and the process has a lot to teach. It helps, though, when we focus on making strategic plans for our lives. Clutter clearing should really be a blip, something that’s completed over a defined span of time. We’ve realized we don’t have to live that way anymore, and we’re moving on to bigger and better things.
While vodka might have made for a better story, the first time I wound up under a table at a social gathering had to do with public speaking. I was 7, and my task was to recite a Bible verse at our church Christmas pageant. I turned out to have an early talent for memorization and an affinity for poetry. I stood up at rehearsals and did my piece without a hitch. The night of the event, I stepped out, ready to show off my precocity… and then saw the faces. Everyone was looking at me. I promptly dove under the table, which had a sort of valance around it, and wouldn’t come out until they promised I wouldn’t have to give my speech. It occurred to me what a great strategy this was, because it actually worked.
Douglas Adams suggests that we always bring a towel. I say we should always bring a tablecloth, so we can just hide under it when we’re not feeling up to something, and everyone will immediately understand and carry on with the program. I’m going to embroider “I would prefer not to” on mine.
I’m 40 now, and I’ve grown up to give various impromptu speeches. I don’t really mind anymore. I mean, my brain doesn’t. My legs have other ideas. I’ll be making an announcement or sharing some sort of information, and my thighs are shaking like canning jars during an earthquake. This is probably why hoop skirts were originally invented. I’ll get one and start a show called Whose Crinoline Is It, Anyway? Then someone will think I’m a table and dive underneath, and I’ll be stuck making both our speeches.
This year, one of my New Year’s Resolutions was to join Toastmasters, the way I intended about 12 years ago, and learn to get over my psychosomatic issues with public speaking. I don’t like having a block or resistance to anything. I ran a marathon because I hated running so much, if that makes sense. Now I’m going to learn public speaking because I hate having a roomful of people looking at me. That’s the weird thing about it. I wouldn’t balk at doing a solo interpretive dance under a spotlight, going to a nude beach, or introducing myself to 50 people at an event – although maybe, on second thought, not all at once. I’m not particularly scared of public speaking, as long as at least some people in the audience are distracted. There is just something about the idea of wanting to do justice to anything that’s important enough to be presented from a stage or a podium.
I went to my first meeting. I did what I usually do when I am nervous about something, which is to delay and try to distract myself and pretend that I’m not going to skip it, until, OOPS, gee, I accidentally made myself late. Now I don’t have to go, right? Somehow, though, I managed to arrive at the stroke of noon. I was greeted warmly, introduced around, and given a nametag. Everyone who spoke addressed me as ‘Honored Guest.’ They were quite lovely.
Then, right at the end, the president asked me to stand up, introduce myself, and explain what brought me there.
My legs didn’t shake. My hands didn’t shake. I didn’t turn red. I didn’t stammer. All I did was stand there clutching my elbow, feebly covering my vital organs with my forearm, since there was no tablecloth to hide under.
“My name is Jessica, and I’m here to become an inspiring public speaker, even though I’m… paralyzed by shyness. I first heard of Toastmasters in college, but it was cross-scheduled with an open mic night where a certain boy used to play guitar. Fifteen years later, I’m here to try again.”
Everyone laughed and clapped. Then they called me up and gave me this nice ribbon. I was even officially included in the grammarian’s report, and I only said “Um” once.
We learn a lot when we first force ourselves to do something that has scared us. We learn that the fiction we’ve built up in our minds is always significantly scarier than reality. I walked into a room full of exceptionally polite people who were welcoming and encouraging. It would have been harder to design a more diverse group. Several members were non-native speakers. Here I was, worried about my legs shaking, while others were worried about the vocabulary and pronunciation of a language they were still mastering. Do I have the courage to do what they’re doing in one of the other languages I’m studying? Heck no! Suddenly the task ahead of me seemed much simpler. 1. Stand up 2. Speak English 3. Stay away from tablecloths.
Part of my Do the Obvious discipline is to include pop culture research, in the sense of folklore or sociology. When I wanted to learn ballroom dance, I started at Arthur Murray. (Bronze I, competent social dancer, if you please). When I decided to learn to drive, I got an instructor with a redundant brake pedal on his side of the car. When I decided to join a gym, I picked Curves. Now I’m checking out Toastmasters. I’m doing the work and also some meta-work. It helps me, when I’m insecure, to look at something as a research trip or Fact Finding Mission.
What it comes down to is that I don’t want to be the kind of person who lets myself off the hook. I don’t want to have a “thing” that I can’t make myself do. I can catch a spider in the tub and carry it outside. I can put chains on my tires in the snow and wind. I have waded through mud, jumped over open flames, climbed a rope, run a marathon, and pitched my own tent in the rain. I can even parallel park if I get enough tries. Being able to make myself do things is a superpower-creating superpower. It’s like asking a genie for infinite wishes. Rather, it’s like wielding a dragon-slaying sword, only to find that (unlike superpowers and infinite wishes) dragons are merely figments of our imagination.
I picked up Robert Nelson’s new book with great anticipation, and I was not disappointed. This is a really absorbing read. Adventurers Abroad is a compilation of narratives from fourteen different expats, discussing everything about the experience of living and working abroad. While this is something of acute interest to me, it should also prove worthwhile for the armchair traveler.
Nelson opens the book with an introduction that includes some statistics about expats, from a study that he commissioned. He was surprised to learn that there are more Millennials out there in the expat world than there are Boomers, meaning that it is more of a phenomenon for young working people than for retirees. What surprised me was that there are 7 MILLION American expatriates! That’s up about 75% since 1999. This makes the dream of living abroad seem suddenly much more feasible. Everyone is doing it, so why can’t we?
The personal narratives cover the map, literally and figuratively. There are single people, couples, and families with children of various ages. There are people who have chosen one particular country for a new home, and others who plan to relocate periodically. There are small-town Middle Americans and those who have emigrated multiple times. Some are entrepreneurs and some were placed by their employer. People moved for education, romance, professional opportunities, or simply because they were enamored with a special culture.
Anyone who has any level of interest in relocating to a foreign country should consider reading Adventurers Abroad. It has a lot of “if only I had known sooner” tidbits. One theme mentioned by several people was either that doing a year of research had really paid off, or that they wished they had spent more time researching than they did. In one sense, relocating is more straightforward than we think it is: pack and go! In another sense, it is a very complex undertaking, and it’s impossible to be too prepared. Reading an upbeat, detail-filled book like this helps make the dream seem much more approachable.
I talk to Past Self a lot. I’m convinced by now that she can actually hear me, if I yell at the screen loud enough. “DON’T GO IN THERE, PAST SELF!” (Maybe if I throw popcorn at her…) The more important certain events are in our timeline, the more often I revisit those scenes, and the more often I reinforce those messages. What if that little voice called the conscience was really mostly just time-traveling reverberations from our know-it-all, hindsight-is-20/20 future selves? It makes me want to listen harder, to find out if I can hear Future Self checking in more often. I shout out to her, “FUTURE SELF, WAS THAT YOU? THIS CONNECTION ISN’T VERY GOOD. CALL ME BACK!” I want to be as good a listener as I wish Past Self would be. Because that girl? Can be a real imp sometimes.
Hey, Past Self. You really need to stop doing that thing.
No I don’t. I DO WHAT I WANT!
No, seriously. Search your heart; you know it to be true.
Shut up, Future Self. You think you know everything.
I DO know everything. I can see your future! You need to listen to me.
Live your own life, Future Self. Don’t you have some retirement plans to worry about or something?
Um, since you mention it… I know you already know about the law of compounding.
AAARGGGH! Go away. I’m trying to live in the now!
All I’m saying is that you’re really going to wish you had paid attention, just a short time from now.
Okay, okay. What do you want me to do?
I want you to quit drinking soda, go on a budget, lose some weight, start tracking your sleep metrics, get rid of your storage unit, and don’t date anyone on this list. [starts unfurling list]
Pffft! [hangs up]
Hello? Hello?? [stares at Future Phone]
The trouble with all the advice I want to give Past Self is that I know it all sounds incredibly boring to her. Everything I know to be a good idea is intrinsically unappealing. Go to bed at 11. Stop reading in bed. Keep a food log. Stop buying books and clearing out the thrift store every month. Follow a housework schedule. NO. THANKS. From my current vantage point, I know the value of getting enough sleep is about 100x more than Past Self would rate it. I know we’re not going to want to keep a single item out of all her thrift shop finds, or that storage unit. I know how many times even an extra $25 in the bank would have saved our poor-planning little butt. I definitely know all the people we shouldn’t have dated. Most of all, though, if I really had only one wish? I wish Past Self would quit that soda habit. The one thing she cared about the most, the thing she was always least willing to consider rationally. Her one true, true vice. (Other than interrupting people and never calling anyone).
Fortunately, I was at least dimly aware of the existence of Future Self from around the age of 19. I read about her in a book. She was hiking a trail a ways ahead of me, and every so often I would be allowed a glimpse of her, smiling at me over her shoulder, just before she disappeared around a bend. Who was she? What did she do for a living? What was she reading? Was she married? Did she ever learn to make decent pancakes? In this way, we start to determine the simple, harmless things we can do to make our daily lives comfortable and interesting. Past Self did a number of nice things for me, here in the present day, and as she got older and more experienced, she did more. She got us our retirement fund and our college degree and our driver’s license (in that order). She taught us to make the pancakes. She wrote hundreds of pages in our journal, working out a few of her issues, so that we could move forward with less baggage. She flossed our teeth and kept up to date on our tetanus shots and our passport. I have to try to be grateful for the favors and forgive her for the f-ups. After all, I can read her mind, but she can’t really read mine.
Talking to Past Self always helps when I want to get ready for a conversation with Future Self. I remind myself of all the times I acted against our self-interest. How many times I fought our intuition and ignored that inner voice. How many times I overindulged in short-term hedonism, like eating cake for breakfast, and regretted it later, usually only an hour later! How many things I refused to submit to scrutiny, clinging to the exact habits that were draining and dissolving our quality of life. It keeps me humble. It makes me more receptive. It turns out that Future Self is pretty smart. She’s never steered me wrong. When I catch up to her, I can see the notes she leaves me on the trail markers, with little smiley faces and cheery notes saying “Well done, Past Self. You finally paid attention.”
My mom brought me a bookmark when I was in grade school. It had a poem on it about self-esteem, and how different trees didn’t envy each other’s bark or leaves, because each was beautiful in its own way. It was a nice thought, but I noticed right away that there was an “its” with an apostrophe that didn’t belong there. You see, I had plenty of self-esteem about certain things, such as my ability to spell and use punctuation properly, which was validated externally by my grades and test scores. My real problem at that time was insecurity in the face of bullying. I knew other kids hated me, because they told me so, and because they singled me out for crafty, creative new forms of torture on a regular basis. Talk about self-esteem added yet another insecurity to my list. Maybe there really was something so obviously wrong with me that everyone but me could see it. If only I had some of that self-esteem, all my problems would go away! Zesty, cool ranch, extra-crispy self-esteem.
It turns out that what we think of as self-esteem comes in many flavors. These include confidence, self-esteem, optimism, self-compassion, and self-efficacy. We may be strong or weak in one or more of these areas, and it probably differs from person to person. Also, happiness can be compartmentalized into life satisfaction, positive affect, and subjective well-being, more qualities that are matters of degree and personal opinion. A good place to start is to give ourselves credit for our strengths.
This is part of how I do it.
I recognize that confidence is a problem for most women. This is my biggest area of struggle. I am optimistic that I can learn how to work around it, to do things that are rationally a good idea even when I scare myself into thinking I should wait longer. I am compassionate toward myself and others, for facing an extremely common and debilitating problem. I reach out and encourage others when I can, because I feel empathetic, and because it helps me to feel stronger and more competent. As I feel greater self-efficacy, my confidence wobbles forward, and I can fake it less.
Self-efficacy is the easiest one for me. I’m a goal-oriented person, and I love learning new skills. Curiosity is my driving force. When I hit the obstacle of not knowing how to do something, I can’t rest until I’ve figured it out. It is so satisfying to master a new recipe, learn how to repair an object, or develop a new skill like lighting the camp stove. I feel fully entitled to learn whatever skills I want, because I’m not hurting anybody. On the contrary, the more I know how to do, the more I can contribute. I can pull my weight, and I can teach. It’s fun and interesting. I have total trust that if I am persistent enough, I can eventually learn anything, and that it is usually worth the effort. I also feel a sense of self-efficacy about my general physical fitness to do anything I want to do. I can run for miles, complete an obstacle course, carry a heavy backpack, and even open jars.
Optimism doesn’t come naturally to everyone. There appears to be a threshold of personality that can only budge so far. I don’t know about that. I was trained to be an anxious pessimist, but I’m also a Questioner, and I shook it off. WHAT IF? What if the best thing happened sometimes? What if the majority of things I worried about never came to pass? What if anxiety was just like the common cold, and it went away? What if every problem had a solution, and I could find it through research and experimentation? What if, no matter what happened, there was always someone to love me and someone to ask for help or advice? What if I actually could go wherever I wanted, do whatever I wanted, and be happy, and the Universe didn’t come for me seeking revenge?
Self-compassion comes easier when you’ve been ill. I can effortlessly remember all the times when I was too weak or sick to function normally. I remember the nights I cried myself to sleep worrying about money. I remember being lonely, feeling like I had missed my shot at love and that after my divorce, I’d never find a mate. I remember the first time I went out for a run and couldn’t make it around the block and had to lie on the floor, seeing spots. I know how hard I’ve worked to overcome all my issues. How could I not feel compassion toward myself? I’m sad for me. I’m grateful, too, that these are past issues. They’ve given me fortitude and determination. My problems have also given me empathy. When I say I feel your pain, I do. It fits me better than walking a mile in your shoes would.
Body image is often what people are talking about when they talk about self-esteem. This is an extremely complicated issue. Everyone wants to be simultaneously sexy, cute, fashionable, and yet still somehow “real” and above all that. I used to come home from junior high dances and soak my pillowcase, crying over why no boys would dance with me, knowing the consensus opinion that I was an awkward, ugly train wreck of a thing. I always thought that attractive, fashionable people were mean, and that good looks generally meant someone was not worth the effort of a conversation. I’m more mature and sensitive than that, now; I’d never write people off based on appearance, even if they do happen to be totally hawt! I do question why people get so hung up over their looks, when looks change constantly with age anyway. I judge people based on how interesting and kind and funny they are, whether they are reliable, whether they clean up after themselves, and whether they are drama-prone. Hopefully all of those traits will improve with age. My friends’ physical attributes are irrelevant to my interests. Come to think of it, my own physical attributes are largely irrelevant to my interests.
There is an angle to positive body image that seems completely politically incorrect, and that is that it’s perfectly okay to take actions that make you more satisfied with your body. Hypnotizing oneself into pretending it doesn’t matter just doesn’t work for everyone. It especially doesn’t work if there are health issues compounding the problem. I’m supposed to try to love my migraines or my night terrors? Pfft, forget that. I was always more of an absent-minded professor type, tending to forget I had a body at all. When I started healing and building muscle and becoming strong, my body started catching my attention in positive ways for the first time. Muscle feels good. Working out retrained my posture and eliminated my chronic back pain. If I walk or run enough miles a week, my shoulder spasms and neck pain go away, too. I sleep restfully for the first time in my life. My body isn’t my enemy anymore. Accidentally, my body also started to look good, sexy in a way that has been a bit confusing, especially now that I’m 40. I never think my body is ugly or fat, because objectively, according to mainstream aesthetic standards, it isn’t. I haven’t found a way to be healthy and strong that doesn’t also put color in my cheeks and take away the dark circles that were always under my eyes. You can’t get healthier and keep it a secret. People will notice. You will notice. Self-esteem is an automatic side effect when you learn to trust your body and take pride in your physical accomplishments.
What seems to work best for most people is greater self-compassion, treating ourselves as we would a friend, caring for ourselves and listening deeply, nursing ourselves until we get better, rather than punishing ourselves. I see persistent health issues as more of a punishment than negative self-talk, because I have nearly foundered under chronic health issues, but this may not be true for everyone. What I do know is that beating ourselves up only works at the gym. The body has needs, non-negotiable biological requirements. Our educational system does an extremely poor job of training us to meet those physical requirements, and in the face of the advertising industry, it’s an uphill battle. We’re trying to fight a war with holograms and animation and lights and music. We need to engage with the physical more than the metaphysical. We need to focus more on action and experimentation and performance metrics. At worst, we can distract our ruminating, perseverating minds while our bodies respond to the work.
Making lists can be a trap. I say this as the sort of person who uses list-making as a pressure-release valve. My first impulse, when I feel overwhelmed, is to work it out in text. Sometimes that happens digitally, sometimes it happens in a notebook, sometimes it happens on an index card, and when I’m really running low on mental bandwidth, it starts to happen on the backs of envelopes and library check-out receipts. It’s like I’m an octopus trying to hide in a cloud of ink. My personal environment starts to fill with scattered scraps of paper, making it harder and harder to find the information I need. It’s a tendency I have to fight.
Paper scraps are like autumn leaves. Even a small number can spread over a vast surface. It can seem to happen overnight. They also don’t do well after spending a night outside in the rain. This tendency of paper to spread out and obscure every flat surface is, however, only a minor aspect of the larger problem with to-do lists.
1. Salience. Making a to-do list gives each item an equal weight. This is the same problem with out-of-control e-mail inboxes. A message from the boss takes precisely the same amount of space as that spam that suggests I increase my size naturally, which probably doesn’t sound as good to someone like me who has had to work hard to lose a lot of weight, but I digress. Each item on a to-do list looks equally important, from “install new roof” to “buy stamps.”
2. Order. Free-writing a to-do list tends to generate what looks like a numbered list. The order in which the items crossed your mind is not necessarily the order in which they should, or could, get done. Some items can only be done during standard business hours, while others are only going to be tackled on weekends. Some will need to be done today, while others can’t be started until after payday, etc.
3. Contingency. Some tasks can’t be completed until others are done, although it’s not that uncommon to accidentally run dirty laundry through the dryer or start pulling dirty dishes out of the dishwasher before it’s been run. One common problem with tasks that are contingent on others is when the first part is supposedly being handled by someone else.
4. Context. Some items are different from others. Errands, phone calls, repairs, things to buy, daily chores, hobbies, and sometimes bucket list items will all be mixed together. The list format tends to jumble things together, meaning we sometimes miss things when we are batch-processing.
5. Duration. Items on a to-do list might take anywhere from 30 seconds to several months. That is one of several reasons why most lists are never fully finished and thrown away. A list that includes a bunch of daily chores and brief phone calls will usually also include a major project and another aversive task that has been procrastinated.
6. Frequency. Lists tend to include items that need to be done daily, meaning they can NEVER BE CROSSED OFF. If there is one thing that makes an ordinary life feel like the damnation of Sisyphus, it is that. Endlessly rolling a boulder up a hill, just to slip and watch it tumble to the bottom of the hill again, is nothing compared to keeping up on a household’s laundry.
7. Aversion. Aversive tasks are things we dread doing. There are some tasks that are almost universally aversive, like cleaning a litter box. Others are aversive to most people, although some people truly enjoy them, such as washing dishes or folding laundry. Some things are enjoyable for most people, but aversive to a few, and I will avoid the temptation to insert a rant about riding Space Mountain here. Aversive tasks are the things we tend to procrastinate the most. We tell ourselves we’re going to wait until we are “in the mood.” This usually means IT WILL NEVER GET DONE AT ALL until it’s either gross enough to notice, like a stained, dank-smelling toilet, or until a deadline comes up, like moving to a new house.
I have completely restructured the way I get things done. I used to have a running to-do list that would be generated during late-night brain dumps anytime I felt scattered and overwhelmed. I would usually blast through about a third of the list within a couple of hours. The next third would be done within the next 2-3 days. I would chip away at a few more things over the next couple of weeks. There would always be something left, six months or a year or three years later, which I would notice because I kept all of these lists in the snowdrift of paper on my desk. Often, the things that didn’t get done were precisely the things that would have moved my life forward the most. The aversive task generated the anxiety that I then dispelled by making the list and busily doing a lot of less important tasks. Once I learned the concept of “temporary mood repair,” this frenzied yet ultimately meaningless activity ceased to do anything for me. Like a good Questioner, I won’t do anything at all unless I’m sure I have a good reason why.
How do I get things done without a to-do list?
1. Schedule blocks of time for certain types of tasks. I don’t need a list because it’s obvious what I need to do. When I’m coaching, I coach. When I’m writing, I write. When I’m exercising, I have to set a time limit, because my tendency is to want at least a 90-minute workout. I clean one room each weekday and go grocery shopping one day a week. I also set aside a block of time one day a week for administrative tasks that take more effort than a quick phone call or email. I call that time:
2. Power Hour. The first thing I do during Power Hour is to ask myself what task is most important. If I could only get one thing done this entire week, what should that thing be? Is there anything lingering from last week? This is when I do research and make decisions on larger-scale projects, like which platform is best to host my website.
3. Saturday Status Meeting. My husband and I go out for breakfast on Saturday mornings. We talk about all the business matters that affect us as a partnership. Finances, travel plans, household maintenance or shopping, veterinary issues, car stuff, etc. This is usually when tickets get booked. There is also the highly important issue of which movie to see later, and whether it is showing at the theater that has the best popcorn.
4. The 5-minute rule. In GTD, they call this the 2-minute rule, but I think it’s easier to do most simple tasks immediately rather than estimate whether they might in fact take 3 minutes. I work for myself, so I have total control over my schedule. If I need to do something like calling to book an appointment or sewing a button, I just do it. The result of this is that I very rarely have any kind of stack or pile or list of unfinished tasks.
5. Radical exclusion. Most things, I just don’t do. I’ve made a top-down decision that only certain things are relevant to my interests. By temperament, I am drawn to expansion, to constantly trying to add more options. Course catalogs always led me to want to cross out the handful of classes that didn’t interest me, while believing I could find time in my life to complete the hundreds each term that did. I used to think I could read every book and article, watch every movie, master every craft, meet every person on Earth, etc. Now that I recognize the unlikelihood of this, I’ve learned that I get more value out of focusing extreme attention on only one thing at a time. I can reconsider what I want to do next after I finish what I have decided is the best current use of my attention.
My recommendation to anyone who is feeling overwhelmed and scattered, the way I used to be, is to go ahead and do that total brain dump. Write the longest list possible of every single thing that is pulling at your attention. Don’t stop there, though. Categorize and prioritize. Get some colored highlighters, or use symbols. (I’m particularly proud of my personal symbol for phone calls, a stylized drawing of an old-fashioned telephone handset). Mark everything that can be done in five minutes. Differentiate between tasks (one-shot effort units) and projects (large-scale jobs made up of multiple tasks). Mark errands and projects that can’t be done until the money is there. Make a separate list of hobby-related projects, and then burn that list and give away all the materials. (Kidding, kind of). Eliminate everything you can possibly eliminate by deciding that it is no longer the priority it was when you first mentally committed to it. Give yourself permission for a do-over, and reset. Look at your default settings and where you spend your time. Then take a week or two, quit doing your default activities, and set about making that list as short as possible. Imagine what life would be like if you truly felt “caught up” and had a free day with no responsibilities toward Past Self’s choices or Past Self’s projects.
I made a thing!
I have designed a program on the Coach.me platform. What it does is to break down the complicated task of organizing a desk into micro-steps, so you can do a little at a time over three weeks. Each time you complete a step, you can check it off, and the next step will be ready the next day. If you need a break, or if one step takes you longer than a day, you can simply stay on that step until you are ready to move to the next one. You can also ask me questions about specific steps through the platform.
How much does it cost?
$4.99. That’s cheaper than a book or a magazine. It’s also cheaper than a week of coaching. You own it, so you can start again from the beginning every year if you like.
How does it work?
You start by creating a profile on Coach.me, which is free. It has lots of other features besides programs like mine. You can use it on a desktop, laptop, tablet, smartphone – any device that can load a website. I use the iOS app. If you’re looking at my blog, you have all the computing power you need.
Will it ever be available in another format?
Probably not. This material was specifically designed for this platform. I don’t think it would work in a book format. I will probably do a print book at a later date, but it will not include this ‘Unclutter Your Desk’ material.
I have put up hundreds of pages of free material on my blog, and it will stay that way, but the juicy stuff is going to have a price tag on it. I need to pay off my student loan and replace my ailing old laptop.
Will there be other programs?
Yes. I started with desks because even people with no other organization issues often have desk clutter. It is also the area that tends to have the most impact on career, finances, and professional reputation.
One thing I have learned from helping people deal with their clutter is that they don’t know how to do it on their own. People get stuck on strategic thinking, on visualizing what they actually want, on making decisions, on figuring out where to put things. There are emotional components, such as flooding with sorrow or regret when thinking about a certain item. Mostly, though, it seems to be the lack of a clear plan or an understanding of what ‘get organized’ means. This is why getting organized and clearing clutter is so powerful: the process organizes our thoughts, too. By the time we’re done clearing a space, we’ve made decisions and developed a mental flowchart for everything in that area. My people usually have various books or articles on getting organized, but they don’t seem to do the trick for some reason. That’s why I’m writing programs with nitty-gritty, extremely specific tasks. Each day you work the steps, you will have tangible results. Each day, the problem area will be visibly more organized. You can have the satisfaction of checking off a level of progress. Once one area is completed, you will have more confidence in your ability to handle this sort of job.
Thanks for reading about my program!
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.