When my people make the decision to clear their living space, to finally GET ORGANIZED, they tend to hit many obstacles. The first is not knowing where to start. (Answer: It doesn't matter, because you'll eventually do it all). Another common problem is how to remove the excess stuff from the house, because a lot of my people either don't drive or have trouble moving heavy objects. One of the biggest issues is simply not having any free space to sort stuff. Gradually, every available flat surface has already been cluttered, and new places have been created, such as on top of the books in a shelf, in windowsills, or on top of the toilet tank. Some people get so creative that they even start storing things in the oven or the bathtub. My lovely, creative, brilliant clients are expert at devising new hidey-holes for their stuff. What they are not quite so good at is maintaining at least one space that they would never dare to take over.
They bogart. They commandeer. They claim. They mark territory. They start putting their stuff in space that properly belongs to other people, Because of Reasons. There's always a Reason why I get to keep my stuff in my child's closet, or entire bedroom. There's always a Reason why I get to create fire hazards in the hallways and staircases. There's always a Reason why I get to stack my stuff up in household common areas, while others do not. The reason is that I dare. I dare to do it. I'm audacious, clever, devious, and a little selfish. Spacehog! Great band, not such a great philosophy.
What we need is to create a temporary sorting space where we Dare Not leave anything there for later.
Not the bed. It's almost a guarantee that at bedtime, you'll be tired and overwhelmed and just shift it all onto the floor or some other place of incompletion. Plenty of my people sleep on a thin strip that's left over after piles take over most of the mattress. Sometimes even amongst food crumbs, like a hamster cage. Respect yourself more than that and give yourself the whole bed. When you start sleeping better, it will be that much easier to make decisions and reclaim your home.
Not the dining table. That was buried long ago. I've only ever had one single client who kept his dining table clear, because he had friends come over at least one night a week. Don't use your dining table for sorting unless you, too, would die of embarrassment if your friends see it that way.
Not the coffee table. Those are also universal clutter magnets. I don't even have one; I have an ottoman, because we are grown-ups and we can decide to put our feet up if we want to.
Not the kitchen counter. They're never the right height, for one thing. Why people put papers in an area deliberately designed for water, soap, and food splatters, I'll never know.
Not the desk. Most people use their desks as auxiliary filing cabinets. Most people also find it much too isolating, stifling, boring, and lonely to truly work at a desk. Desks are usually nothing more than inefficient storage mechanisms.
Not the floor. Most of us aren't all too sure we can get down there and then get back up again. Many of us don't have enough available floor space anyway, and that's part of the problem. We're going to sort it, we're going to look at it and freak out, we're going to postpone decisions again, and it's all going to get shifted elsewhere into a new configuration.
Not the yard. One would think that people would bring their valued possessions indoors before seeing them ruined by the elements, but one would think wrong. People will stack things in the yard and leave them in the rain, when they absolutely insisted on packing them and hauling them to a new home. We spend good money on this stuff. There are a couple of homes in my neighborhood with tarps covering stacks of stuff left outside, as there have been in every neighborhood where I've ever lived.
Where, O where, is a space that I absolutely never will leave cluttered? What line would I never dare to cross? What space is so solemnly official or off-limits that no excuse could ever possibly lead me to leave my stuff there?
I used to do my bills at the post office. I would open my post office box, often standing in line to get a thick sheaf from behind the counter, because I didn't go often enough and my box was full of catalogs and magazines. Then I would go to one of the countertops, pull my checkbook and stamps out of my purse, and pay whatever bills were in the stack. I would seal and stamp the envelopes and mail them, right then and there. I would recycle the outer envelopes and any brochures or inserts I didn't want, which was all of them. Then I could take my magazines and go home. I'd never dare to leave my mail on a post office countertop.
I used to fill out other types of paperwork at my desk at work. If I had something that needed to get done, I would put it in my backpack or purse. When my lunch break rolled around, I would get my pen out, because I kept a clear separation in my mind between 'mine' and 'theirs.' I wouldn't use a work pen on personal business, because I regarded it like stealing. I would, however, freely use my desktop. That doesn't get used up. I would also never dare to leave my personal papers out at work, where any coworker could walk by and look at them. I liked having a clear desk at work and I wanted to keep it that way, no matter what my home desk looked like.
I often work at a coffee shop, although I don't drink coffee. I'm a jasmine green tea gal. The bistro tables are so small that there's no way to spread out too much. There's also so much traffic that I know I can't stay too long. When I'm done at the coffee shop, I usually walk over to the public library for an hour or two. That's another place where I dare not leave any of my stuff spread out, because it's not going to be there long if I get up and walk away.
These are all places where a stack of papers or mail can be sorted. What about other stuff, though? What about the clothes and the dishes and the decorations and the housewares and the memorabilia and the photos and the keepsakes?
The most effective way is to take things directly from their temporary resting places to their permanent homes. No interim stopping points. No staging areas. No decision-postponement stations. No "got stuck, felt overwhelmed, and dumped it on Future Me" areas. Leave it right where it is until the very moment it gets "sorted" for the final time.
Directly into a donation bag that is then immediately carried out to a vehicle or to the front porch for pickup.
Directly into the recycle bin.
Directly into a bag labeled SHRED.
Directly onto the shelf where it belongs, with the other books or magazines.
Directly into the drawer where there is enough room for it.
Directly into the file folder in the filing cabinet where it is appropriately labeled.
Directly onto a hanger on a closet rod.
Directly into a labeled bin, box, or tub with others of its kind.
Directly into the hands of a helpful friend. Every maximalist person has a minimalist friend who would leap at the chance to help to unclutter a space.
There are two elements to sorting stuff. DECISION and ACTION. We get stuck in the action stage when we haven't yet made the decisions. We can make decisions from a comfortable, relaxing area, such as lounging around on the couch, or from an active position, such as walking around the neighborhood. How do we make decisions when we don't have a historic track record of really making many? We can write about the situation. We can talk about it with friends and acquaintances, taking in multiple viewpoints. We can do a web search and read articles about it. We can do image searches and look at inspiring versions of the very uninspiring rooms in which we live out our days. We can roll dice or flip coins. What we do have to do, though, is to make movement happen. One way or another, it's time to change, because if nothing changes, then nothing changes, and nothing changes.
Being broke comes from two sources: not knowing how to get ahold of more money, and having negative ideas about where money comes from. Most of us are quite capable of doing things that can turn into money, if only we knew what they were. When we do imagine ourselves doing these things, we freeze. We're overcome with negative thoughts. It's the same as body image. We associate bad character traits with physical vigor in the same way that we do with wealth. More money? That's just going to mess everything up! We see what is really a neutral tool as a force of evil. These negative associations, I think, are why we act like we're allergic to money.
I used to "know" that athletic people were dumb, vain, arrogant, and mean. Gradually, I started to realize that I kept seeing pictures of wealthy celebrity athletes visiting children's hospitals, something that I have only done twice. These busy, famous people were visiting kids they didn't even know! Something was wrong with my mental image. Just because I had had some bad encounters with rude jocks in school did not mean that every person who goes to the gym has a cruel streak. I opened my mind. Now I know gym rats who: work with the homeless, run a preschool, coach at-risk kids, meditate, rehabilitate dogs, and other non-bullying activities. Being physically fit is not a character trait. It's not a complete package that works the same way in all people. Being wealthy is the same. It can be whatever you want it to be.
Greed, our strongest negative association with wealth, comes from scarcity mindset. It's only possible to be greedy when you fear that there isn't enough to go around or that you can never get everything that you want. Greed requires fear of competition. If I don't take it, someone else will, and then I'll get nothing and I'll be a loser. If someone else has something, it's something that I don't have for myself, and I want it ALL. Greed is only one manifestation of scarcity mindset, though. Social comparison is another. When I judge others who have something I don't have, I'm allowing myself to be distracted. I am forgetting to be grateful for my own life and I am, at least for a moment, no longer fully aware of what I have. Worse, I am forgetting what I have the power to DO. Another facet of scarcity mindset is the depressing feeling of poverty, which involves aspects of humiliation, social rejection, helplessness, and shame.
True wealth is abundant. For instance, the house that we rent has three citrus trees. They produce bushels of fruit for about half the year. All our neighbors also have at least one citrus tree apiece. We give away sacks of this fruit while still eating our fill, and sometimes it's all we can do to collect it all before it spoils. Even the two flocks of wild parrots that live here can't eat it all. Want some grapefruits? How about lemons? Tangerines? Oranges? The humble zucchini is another example. The trouble is that when we have easy access to abundance, we quit valuing it. Sometimes we even have contempt for it. Our gaze is irresistibly drawn to whatever someone else has that we don't.
I like comparing myself to the Emperor Charlemagne, who died 1200 years ago. I have all kinds of great stuff that he would give up a kingdom to have. Ice, for one. Central heating and air conditioning. A cabinet full of salt, pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and even saffron. Refrigeration. Modern sanitation and vaccination. Basically anything that ends with '-ation.' My pillow. He might have had a crown, but I can buy a plane ticket (over my phone, with a credit card) and fly through the air! We take for granted all kinds of things that Charlemagne and his contemporaries wouldn't even understand, like space travel and the internet. Even our poorest people have basic literacy, when poor Charlemagne struggled just to write his own name.
Abundance means we understand that we create money by adding value to the world. Not that we don't already do that just by existing, of course! When we create things that never existed before, and allow people a chance to buy them, we can enrich the lives of others. When we offer services that can make other people's lives better, and give them a chance to hire us, we make the world a better place. Take J.K. Rowling, for example. You know she was on the dole while writing the world of Harry Potter into existence, right? So she wrote a bunch of books and was able to provide for her child. Then what happened? Millions of fans were able to enjoy the books and the movies. Thousands of people got jobs working on those books and movies. Bookstores had lines around the block waiting for new books to come out, and started having launch parties at midnight. Posters, t-shirts, Halloween costumes... See that it is possible to become wealthy by bringing delight into the world. Also note that the estimable Madame Rowling is an active philanthropist. Creating wealth does not have to take anything away from anyone else, and it doesn't have to turn you into a bad person.
Money changes things, just like every change changes things. There's no point denying it. The trouble is that we fear what we can't predict. We want to control all the risk out of our lives. The best way we know of to attempt to eliminate risk is to do nothing, not realizing that change will come for us regardless. There is no status quo. The best we can manage is a few similar years, if we hang on tight, but one way or another, change comes. Money can be a great insulator. Money allows us to adjust to change with less stress, as it can solve most problems more quickly than any other method.
When we think about money, it can be interesting to observe what sorts of thoughts bubble up. We can ask ourselves, is this really true? Where did I get this idea? Why do I think this? For instance, why do I associate money with ice sculptures? Then we can imagine doing it our own way, having the money without the negative association. Can I be rich and not throw my phone at my assistant? Can I be rich and not wind up in rehab? Well, sure! As with muscle, though, massive wealth doesn't tend to show up by accident. We get there incrementally, little by little. We can still control the rate. Most of us could double or triple our incomes and still not come anywhere near extreme wealth. Our negative associations with money don't have to come true the moment we earn more. We'll be okay. We have permission and it's allowed.
Leo Babauta knows whereof he speaks. He started out as an overweight smoker with six kids, a house full of clutter, and a bunch of debt. Now he's a minimalist who has run a fifty mile ultra-marathon, and if he can do that with an eight-person household, he's probably a superhero. When he talks about common goals like health and fitness or getting organized, I pay attention. He's done it. He knows what it takes to make massive habit changes and stick to them. It turns out that the secret is The Power of Less.
Peace of mind is the ultimate goal, and Babauta teaches how mindfulness helps make life easier. Only try to make one change at a time, concentrate on just that, and set up your environment around that change. The book includes a 30-day habit change plan, the Power of Less Challenge, which thousands of his readers have completed. It has rules, and one of the most important ones is to choose a small goal. He explains how to break big goals down into segments that an actual ordinary human being can do.
Clutter goes out the door one bag at a time. Debt is paid off one dollar at a time. A marathon becomes possible one sidewalk square at a time - I know, because when I started I couldn't even run around the block, and I wasn't even a smoker! Working on small goals takes self-compassion, both because you want a better life for yourself and because if you really do want it, you have to tackle it in a way that is manageable. No perfectionism, no punishment.
The Power of Less walks its talk. It's a slender book that could easily have expanded into a full shelf of much longer volumes. Whether you want to clean your desk, stop spending your whole day answering email, get more sleep, or start exercising, Babauta has been there first. He's here to show us the way, one small step at a time.
It's all because of the paper towels. We have an unshopping list, just like I have a To-Don't list. When I first met my husband, we were platonic friends, and he had me come over to help declutter his garage. I sat on the washing machine, pointed, and asked questions. He would look surprised, realizing some of the funny stuff he had, and generally decide to get rid of it. During this process, we found no fewer than FOUR CASES of paper towels. We laughed when we found the second one. By the fourth, we were in hysterics. Later that week, he found a FIFTH case of paper towels hidden by something else. It turns out that when you shop at the big box store without a list, certain items just jump in the cart on every trip unless you remind yourself to take them back out. Paper towels are hardly the only things in life that turn up, unwanted, on autopilot. We have to plan to avoid certain things. If we don't plan not to have certain things happen, they will happen.
If you're eating an ice cream cone and you're sitting next to a dog, you have to plan not to have the dog steal a lick of your ice cream.
If you know you can sleep through your alarm, you have to plan not to turn it off in your sleep and be late to work.
You have to plan not to have a sunburn.
You have to plan not to get gum disease.
Alas, as much as we don't want dogs stealing our ice cream, these situations don't always seem obvious until afterward, when our friends are laughing at us. Well, nobody really laughs at gum disease. But you get the picture.
What we should be doing is building a better life for Future Self. What we actually do is usually to make our own Future Life more difficult all the time. We treat Future Self like an adversary. "Hey, Future Self! You suck! I just spent all your money and now I'm going to eat an entire extra large pizza with thick crust, just so YOU will have a bigger butt! None of your pants are going to fit! Oh, and? AND? I'm going to stay up late binge-watching Golden Girls episodes so you'll be exhausted at work tomorrow! If you try to complain about it, I'll give you a HANGOVER! BWAHAHAHAHA!!!"
This is where self-compassion comes in. I try to think of Future Me with the same tenderness I feel toward my grandma. I try to do what I wish for my own parents, which is to save for retirement and eat healthy. I just imagine that I am them. This helps to inspire me to offer to do things for them when I visit, like changing lightbulbs in the ceiling fixtures and carrying heavy objects. Not that they can't do these things, just that it's much easier for me. At this time in our lives, we probably feel exactly as nervous as one another when contemplating the other standing on a chair. Be careful!
What sorts of things should we plan not to have happen?
Some things are easy. I planned not to smoke, and I never did, and thus I've never had to quit smoking. It's a lot easier to plan not to shoot heroin than it is to go to rehab. Planning never to commit a crime is a lot easier than going to prison. Planning not to get a tattoo while drunk is a lot easier than paying for laser removal.
Not to say that I've never done anything wild, crazy, or outrageous. It just seems to me that these things make better stories when there were no major negative consequences. I have: ridden a mechanical bull, marched in a parade, been on TV, been in the newspaper, done live improv comedy in front of an audience, gone downtown in a FREE HUGS t-shirt, and had my toes sucked on stage in a movie theater, among other things. We want to focus on maximum fun with minimum downside. This idea that all future planning is joyless and strict is a false dilemma.
In fact, if we want to have maximum fun, we should plan more. Don't make any plans for the weekend and you'll probably spend it on the couch. In this case not planning to have fun is planning not to have fun. Peak experiences usually take advance plotting, scheming, and machinating. As an example, I got concert tickets for my husband for our wedding anniversary, and it took signing up for alerts when the band did not even have plans for further tours, waiting over a year, and getting up early to buy the tickets six months in advance. He was pretty impressed when he realized we were sitting in a sold-out show. That made it three experiences: enjoying the band, gloating that we were enjoying the band, and feeling extra loved because I went to so much extra effort. Anything for you, babe.
This is an area that is not fun to talk about, but divorced people will understand and nod along. You have to plan not to get divorced. Everyone plans to be happily married, but we can't all pull it off. That's because we're more likely to get divorced because of the things that are going wrong than we are to stay married because of the things that go right. All you have to do is cheat once, or run up secret debt once, or be physically abusive once, or tell a lie once, and the love flies right out the window. Cheaters always say it "just happened." Well, plan for cheating not to happen. If you meet someone hot, immediately put your finger in your nose so they'll stay away from you. That's what I always do.
Well, not really. But I am a divorced person who married another divorced person, and we both talk frankly about such issues.
There are two other areas where we fail to plan not to have bad things happen. Those areas have to do with our health and our finances. These are the two most commonly procrastinated goals. In the regrets of the dying, people consistently say they regret not having taken better care of themselves. They also consistently say that they wish they had saved more for retirement, and they worry about whether their loved ones will be okay financially. My clients have a bizarre trait in common, which is that they all think they'll die young. This pessimism can be a good thing if it inspires us to tell people how much we love them and to work as hard as we can to leave a legacy. It's a terrible thing when we're completely wrong and wind up living many years longer than we had supposed, fearing every minute of it. I have a family member who was given "six months to live" over fifteen years ago. Living a long life should be a beautiful blessing, for oneself, but mostly for the loved ones who don't want to say goodbye. Living a longer life while destitute is a challenge for all parties. It also means uncountable missed opportunities.
We have to plan not to be broke when we're old. Lifespans keep increasing, and it's almost humanly impossible to truly believe that we will reach such advanced ages. In 1919, when my grandmother was born, the lifespan for women was 56. For men it was only 53.5. Yet my grandfather lived to be 75 and my grandmother lived to be 86. They were quite frugal all their lives, like most people of their generation, but they probably assumed that they would have enviably long lives and pass in their early 60s. It's hard to plan how much to save when you have no way of knowing that you're going to live THIRTY YEARS LONGER than the statistical probability. It's also difficult to image how much things are going to cost when you can remember going to the grocery store with a dime.
This is why I plan. I became aware of my grandmothers' major concerns in my thirties, when I had begun to do things like plan my retirement account and set up an advance health care directive. It is all too real to me. All elders say that they don't feel old, that they still feel like young people inside. I do, too. But I know I'm likely to be an old person on the outside one day, and that includes my wallet and the bills on my desk.
I was born in 1975, and as of that year, the lifespan for women was 76.6. Even my great-grandmother who smoked lived about that long. To plan not to be poor when I'm old, I have to assume that I am going to live to be *at least* 86, and then tack on 15 years for good measure. In 2014, there were over 72,000 living centenarians in the US. If I plan for that and my money outlives me, great! What I have left can go to my family, or to charity. I have all kinds of great plans for when I'm an old lady. I'll wear rainbow tie-dyed shirts, whack people with my umbrella, and take my dentures out at night so I can eat candy in bed. It'll be awesome. It'll be even more awesome if I'm wealthy enough that my young relatives feel motivated to come and visit me. Eh heh heh.
Control is what we're after. We're willing to change, as long as it doesn't mean:
Changing our habits
Changing what we do with our time
Changing what we eat
Changing the way we spend money
Changing where we live
Changing our minds
Changing the things we think define our personality
We love to say, I'VE TRIED EVERYTHING! That phrase is a dead giveaway that we're never going to get results where we think we want them. It means we think our default mode is viable. We think what we're doing basically works. We think what we do every day is the norm, and that it's perfectly fine and serving us well. We think we're starting out at the hub of normality, and occasionally we'll shuffle a step away from that hub in one direction or another. Shortly thereafter, we're back to standing in the same spot. We think the only thing that works is the one thing we know does not work.
What works is a fundamental paradigm shift.
In simple terms, what works is to say, what I was doing before definitely does not work. What I think of as normal IS the thing that is causing my problem.
As an example, I used to define myself as an insomniac and a night owl. Because of this self-diagnosis, I behaved in certain ways. I didn't do any further research. It took me several years to figure out that my real problem was a parasomnia disorder - totally different from insomnia - and that I could manage it through my behavior. I thought I had "tried everything" and that "insomniac" was just a core part of my personality. In this way, I took a piece of fate and made it into a destiny.
Things happen to us, but they're not necessarily permanent. We're not "stuck that way." If anyone who ever lived overcame the situation that we're in, then there's a good chance we can do it, too. If not, then maybe it's our destiny to be the first.
A sure-fire way to find the area of most potential in your life is to look for the resistance. When do you most want to stay up for an hour pounding out replies on your keyboard? What articles or comments can you simply not ignore? What is the one insult you could never laugh off? What is the issue you want to insert into every conversation? Whatever it is, there's some juice there for you.
As it turns out, the easiest thing in the world is to change your mind. Changing your mind about anything can lead to instantaneous, revolutionary change in your life. Fighting to hang on to outdated ideas can lead to years of struggle and stasis. It hurts. There is really nothing harder than continually trying to convince yourself of something when all signs indicate that it isn't true in your life.
Sometimes it helps to simply say, "This is how it is, and I'm not willing to change it." I'll do other things, but not this. I will cheerfully work hard in other areas, but not this one. I am married to this one aspect of my life. I don't necessarily like it this way, but I would hate myself if I changed what I see as this fundamental aspect of my personality. I choose to maintain my identity around this issue. Autonomy is mine.
I've known lots of people like this. Some of them choose Level One squalor because they hate the way "clean" looks. One of them self-limits his income because he has no interest in ever owning his own house, being in a relationship, or having a family. He likes renting a room, letting someone else shoulder the responsibilities of mortgages and bills, and working just enough to get by. I met one guy who got lucky in his first job out of college, when the company made its IPO and the first couple dozen employees became millionaires overnight. He invested his money and lives off the interest, which is just enough to live in an apartment with a roommate. His only worry in life is replacing the roommates who get tired of coming home from work, only to see him still sitting in front of the TV in his bathrobe. What all of these people have in common is that they put a lot of thought into their life strategies, and they're doing exactly what they claim they want to do. I choose mess. I choose a low income. I choose a terminally boring daily routine. All righty then! More power to you.
Most of us get similar results, only without the conscious choice.
Choose it, then. I choose to maintain my debt and my spending patterns. I choose to maintain a chronic level of exhaustion and my late-night entertainment consumption. I choose to maintain chronic disorganization and chronic stress from always being late and losing things. I choose to maintain my current physique by eating and doing whatever the heck I want, so shut up. It's my life and I do what I want!
Things get interesting when we realize that nobody else really cares what we do. This happens when you turn forty. You look around and realize that people all around you are doing whatever they want, and nobody tries to stop them. There's a guy in my neighborhood who wears a straw hat carefully covered with tinfoil. In all other respects, he's perfectly normal; he just likes wearing a tinfoil hat. Maybe he knows something we don't. I saw a guy yesterday whose beard was bigger than my dog. Good for him. The question then becomes, what will we do differently, now that we know we aren't impressing anyone one way or the other? Now that we have NOTHING TO PROVE to anyone but ourselves?
We're allowed to live in a hoard and stack trash bags to the ceiling. We're allowed to get into hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, or maybe even hundreds of millions. We're allowed to gain as much weight as we can afford - the current world record is somewhere around 1200 pounds. We're allowed to become addicts (to gambling, alcohol, huffing glue, or whatever). We're even allowed to commit crimes and go to prison. All is permitted. We can do whatever we want, as long as we're willing to withstand the consequences.
We are free.
The trouble with freedom is that we are more free than we agree. We don't believe we have the freedoms that we actually have. When it comes down to it, most of us don't really believe in free will! We don't think we can choose. We especially don't think that the results we are getting have anything to do with choices we did make, or might make, or could make. We think we've done the only obvious things to do, and that what comes naturally is predetermined in some way. This is how I roll. It runs in the family. This happened. This is how the world works. This is why we're only really willing to make small changes; it's all we think we're allowed.
Doing what other people don't do can be really fascinating. A few years ago, I realized that I could go on a Fact-Finding Mission whenever I was curious about something, and I could be a test subject in my own experiments. What happens if I do this? What happens if I do that? What happens if I change my diet? (I change my body). What happens if I change my personal environment? (I change my mental bandwidth). What happens if I change my mind? (I get different results). At the end of the day, here I am, with a body I created, in a living environment I created. My results are not just different from almost everyone else's results: my results are HUGELY different from almost everyone else's results. As a consequence, I now try to come up with ways to change my mind as often as I can. Why on earth would I want to keep thinking the same thing and doing the same thing if I didn't have to?
Making one radical, revolutionary, about-face change can lead to another. Changing your mind about anything reveals to you that you have the power to change your mind about everything. You don't have to be stuck, unless you want to be. You don't have to be broke. You don't have to be as limited by illness as you think, or your doctor thinks. You don't have to live the way you do. If you want something different, you can find someone else who is demonstrating how it's done, and you can figure it out. Major change is easier than small change, because major change can actually pay off.
Decisions are everything. We think it's willpower. We think it's motivation. We think it's passion. It's really much simpler than that. We just have to make up our minds and talk ourselves into it. We come up with a story that makes it clear what we're going to do, and then we decide to do it. Make the decision and the rest is easy.
Nowhere is lack of decision more clear than with clutter. My clients are totally stymied by what to do about each individual item in their homes. Do I need this pencil? I don't know, do I? What do I do with all this mail? What if I really do need fifty-five t-shirts? What if I don't feel like doing laundry for six weeks - then what will I wear? Learning to make a decision means living with the emotional discomfort of cutting off options.
Decision means "to cut away." At first, cutting away options feels scary and sad. You mean that now that I'm a grown-up, I'm really never going to be a ballerina-astronaut? Thirty-one flavors? But that means I can't taste at least twenty-eight of them today! The worst day of my life was when I finally realized that I couldn't read every book ever written. Cutting off options feels like death.
The truth is the opposite. Refuse to choose and you lose. (I just made that up). That desire to keep all options open means never doing anything. It makes you into a perma-bachelor of life. There are eight different foreign language courses on my Amazon wish list right now because I haven't decided which one to do first. Each week that goes by is a week during which I am not learning any of them. If I had just picked one last January, I would be a competent beginner by now, and I'd only have to decide between the other seven. Not choosing is choosing. It's choosing to continue with your default. If you love your default, then great! If not, then you have to choose between the current pain of the default, or the immediate but temporary pain of the choice.
Everyone knows that couple who are always breaking up and getting back together again. They can't decide.
Everyone knows someone who tries on a bunch of different outfits and leaves most of them piled on the bed. Can't decide.
Everyone knows someone who spends half an hour reading the menu and making the waiter come back later, only to regret the choice and covet someone else's dinner. Can't decide.
Decisions are the proof that we have free will. Indecision is messy. Indecision is painful and awkward. Indecision usually ripples out and annoys others. What we don't realize is that the most powerful and creative people in the world don't make many decisions. Most decisions can be made once, because they're really not decisions so much as systems, policies, or habit structures. People who live big lives do not waffle over what they're going to wear or what they're going to eat. They have bigger and more interesting things to do with their time.
One way to make these systematic one-and-done decisions is to aim for only the four- and five-star experiences. Only keep clothes that make you look great today, not things that might potentially be somewhat suitable for a possible, yet highly unlikely, unimaginable future situation. Only keep stuff in your house that improves your life in an active way. Do whatever it takes to make your personal environment and your routine daily schedule as awesome as possible.
We start at the wrong end and get everything backward. Being stuck in indecision means you're focusing on choices that were foisted upon you by the outside world. I'm looking at a menu someone else wrote and I can't pick one option. I'm looking at a pile of clothes and trying to decide which ones to pull out. Those are bottom-up decisions. From the top down, we have the aerial view, the strategic view. What do I want to eat? How do I want to look? What do I want my house to be like, inside and out? What do I want to do with my time? With whom do I want to socialize or snuggle today? When this kind of top-down decision is made, the smaller decisions become non-decisions. What do I want my office to feel and look like? I want it to be functional and to look like it was designed intentionally. When almost none of the objects in my office fit that description, then they need to go away. What's left is a bare surface, my tablet, a mug of tea, and a poster I like looking at. Starting with a stack of papers and wondering what to do with them is more likely to result in wandering away to "deal with it later." Accepting our external circumstances as the status quo almost always results in nothing more than a continuation of that status quo.
Why we are doing what we are doing should be self-evident. If someone asks, Why are you eating that? or What are you wearing? then that might indicate a problem. I'm doing this because I decided to do it, because it works for me. I made a conscious choice. I have one life to live, and I'm going to live it in this specific way at this specific moment. The decision is mine. Let it be that I recognize all the decisions that are open to me. Making the most of life means making decisions.
Don't think of a polar bear.* Rawr! Gotcha. Okay, now try to get a good night's sleep when you have unpaid bills, debt, and no savings.
Maybe it's where I live, but a polar bear is nowhere near as frightening to me as debt is. A polar bear can only drag out the devouring of my head and neck for a few minutes, whereas debt can swallow my soul and eat up my peace of mind for decades. I know which demise would make a more interesting story for posterity. "Here lies Auntie, who was eaten by a polar bear while trekking through the tundra." Versus: "Here lies Auntie, who could never afford to do anything cool whatsoever."
If I really am ever eaten by a polar bear, please read this story at my wake. I AM CLAIRVOYANT!
If you are a polar bear, please don't eat me.
Moving right along...
We're built to respond to immediate threats in the natural environment. Thinking in the abstract about things like the future, our hypothetical old age, the precise location of Funky Town, or "retirement savings" does not come naturally to us. There's no real biological imperative to surviving past the age of reproduction; we just kinda tend to prefer it. I mean, I never had kids anyway, but I still get to be here, right? The more I think about this, the more I'd rather talk about money than about top-tier predators or infant care. It's a taboo topic, though. Most people would more openly talk about their sex lives or history of trauma than we would about how much we earn or how much debt we carry. Most of us would rather not think about money at all. We like to float along in the money fog.
Imagine a group of five American women, representative of the general population. Maybe we're having a book club meeting and eating brownies. Two out of five of us have no retirement savings whatsoever. The third has under $10,000 put away. Unless three-fifths of American women are under the age of 25, it looks like we have a problem. Indeed, about three quarters of Americans over forty are behind on our retirement savings. That includes me. I'd really like to have twice as much in my account as I do. It's something I take seriously, though, because it's real to me. I look at my mom and I look at my grandma, and I realize that due to genetics, I am likely to live at least as long as they do. I'm lucky enough today to have them here, where the three of us can have a book discussion together. I'm also lucky enough that they share their experiences with me, and I can draw my own conclusions about the role of money at those stages of life. Women live longer than men, so money is more important for us.
It's true, I'm going to have the poor taste and lack of judgment to continue to grow older. A few years ago, I was pretty sure I could pull off being 32 forever, but I guess I just wasn't stubborn enough.
I started learning about money after my divorce. I mean, I know what money is. I started working for money when I was ten years old. I used to have a little canister with a cat on it where I put my babysitting money, and when I had a certain amount, I would go to the mall and buy a pair of earrings with it. It never occurred to me that I was handling human feces in exchange for cheap costume jewelry, but that's what I did. If I had truly realized that I could have saved that money toward something like an interview suit, a new computer, or night classes, I doubt I would have. A future age when that sort of thing might be relevant to my life would have seemed boring and dorky. Earrings, man! Give me the new earrings! I felt deprived and I wanted treats. After the divorce, I felt deprived all right, but what I wanted was freedom and independence. I wanted to make the rules in my life. I wanted to feel smart and capable. I wanted MONEY and lots of it. Money represented power and leverage and choices that I did not have at that time.
I went to the public library and found the personal finance section. It edged into the investment section, followed by the business section. I'm a fast reader and I plowed through that stuff. On the other hand, my math skills are barely average. I struggle with transposing digits and simple arithmetic errors; it's not dyslexia but it's close. Sometimes I think a 3 is an 8 or a 7 is a 2. I felt like I was in way over my head, and it was really, really hard. Honestly I have an easier time with automotive repair. I'd much rather change a fuel filter than do math problems. Money fog, thickening out of thin air, blurring my vision and making my head spin. Do I HAVE to? I kept reading. I read the same information over and over and over again, explained by different authors, many of them women. Gradually, it started to make sense. Then I realized that I didn't really have to do math at all to be good with money. I started seeing trends, the same way that I do in the study of history. I told myself a story that worked in my life.
If you're good at math, then you can certainly do what I did, only it will be faster and easier for you.
What I understood was that I will probably spend more time being an Old Person than I did being a Young Person. (Ages 18-35 is seventeen years, while I may live far more than seventeen years past the age of 65). I had this idea that retirement magically happens at 65. I worked in social services, though, and every day I saw elderly clients who lived on social security and had chronic money problems. There are few things sadder than an 83-year-old woman crying. I was quite broke myself, but I was obviously young and strong enough to do extra work that a frail Future Me could not do. From a scarcity perspective, the idea of being old and poor scared the crap out of me. This was no money fog. This was a polar bear. I studied harder.
I learned that "savings" comes in categories. I learned how to set up different kinds of accounts. I learned how to research the different kinds of investments I could make with the retirement contributions I made at work. I remember the day I finally had over $100 in my retirement account: triple digits, woohoo. I was 26 and I felt like I was years behind. I was becoming competent. I kept reading personal finance books and articles and blogs and following business news. I started to like it. Then I started to really, really like it.
One day, I realized that I KNEW WHAT I WAS DOING. I remember the precise day. We had just gotten our quarterly retirement reports at work. It was January 2009. I grumbled to my friend that I had only made a quarter of a percent in the last year. "You MADE money?" she asked in surprise. It was, after all, the aftermath of the crash of 2008. "Well, yeah," I replied, "I had a contra fund." Blink. I'm getting better at it. I made a pick that has gone up 93% in value. My husband and I manage our own accounts, and it's been fun to see him start paying more attention to my results. He's even invested in a couple of my picks because he respects my research. It's something I do for myself, but it's nice that money is something that brings us closer and helps us respect each other more. In a second marriage, it's... well, it's a necessity.
Foggy thinking is the enemy. It never helps. It never helps to be foggy about your friendships or your romances or your pet's veterinary needs or your physical condition or your personal living environment. It definitely doesn't help to be foggy or vague about money. Spend too much time in a money fog and you'll find yourself walking straight off a money cliff. You're a smart person; you must be, or you wouldn't have read this far. Make a commitment that you will start learning more about money and figuring out how to get some. Do it for Future You. Do it so that you can be a cool older person with great stories to tell. Do it so that you can take care of yourself and afford the kind of life you really want to live.
* This is a reference to Dostoyevsky and what is known as ironic process theory. This means that trying to suppress a thought makes the thought more likely to come up.
I had the good fortune to see Lewis Howes in person last summer. He gave a workshop at the World Domination Summit, and it changed lives. I know because I stayed in contact with several of the people I met at the workshop, and they couldn't stop discussing it. The School of Greatness includes several exercises that have the potential to be just as transformative as those in the workshop, if you are willing to take them seriously.
This is the ideal time of year to read a book like The School of Greatness. Hopefully, we're still in Resolution Mode and remembering that we want to do impressive things this year. We're hanging on. It's still January! Half of people with New Year's resolutions have quit by June, though, and if we want to fulfill our potential, we have to plan. The more we dive into HOW and WHY, the stronger our commitments. Workbooks can be really helpful in posing questions and presenting examples that we never would have thought of ourselves.
I sat down with my journal and started with the Perfect Day Itinerary. By the time I had finished it, several things had clicked with me about the projects I want to do this year. I wrote out a schedule and started following it before I had even read the next chapter in the book. Suddenly, these huge intimidating goals I had set for myself during a fit of optimism on New Year's Eve seem... fairly straightforward. As I read through the book, the material helped to reinforce why I'm doing what I'm doing.
A chapter that I particularly enjoyed discussed the daily habits of successful people. It turns out that successful people do a lot of the same things every day, even when the areas of their expertise are wildly different. Howes suggests comparing your own daily habits with these keystone habits and seeing where they match and where they don't. I do almost all of these things myself, and can easily remember a time when I didn't! Average people will argue against a habit like making your bed every morning, or argue for a habit like watching hours of TV every night. No, that's not me. That won't work for me. This is how I roll. Then we wonder why it's so easy for all these wealthy, famous people who get everything, and why it's so hard for us. Two of those answers are HUSTLE and SELF-DISCIPLINE.
What makes Lewis Howes great, and he knows it, is that he spends most of his time with fascinating and successful people from all walks of life. He interviews them on his podcast to figure out what makes them great. What do they know that we don't know? What do they do that we don't do? What was it like for them back when they were average? How can we absorb this information and use it to make ourselves better? The School of Greatness is the place where we find out the answers.
If Learning to spot naysayers can be a huge help when trying to achieve anything in life. Naysaying is nearly universal, and people can be really taken in by it. Negativity and criticism can give the impression that the critic is smarter than average, which is the payoff for engaging in it. It takes a lot of confidence to withstand a barrage of criticism, and we tend to be short on confidence when we're uncertainly feeling our way toward a new state of being. Expect that the more awesome the goal, the more naysaying it will draw out. Criticism can be seen as an Awesomeness Detector.
Note that every celebrity and public figure has detractors. The more famous the person, the meaner the haters. If nobody is criticizing you, then you aren't doing anything, even leaving your house, because there are always random bystanders willing to pick on you just for walking by.
Now, to state the obvious, not every idea is a great idea. Not every great idea is great for a particular person, in a particular situation, at a particular place and time. It is foolish to disregard all input and advice. Sometimes they have a point. What we want to do is to distinguish between naysaying and constructive criticism, which do not overlap.
People tend to fall into a temperamental setting. Some people are snarky. Some are cheerful. There is a broad spectrum in between. Most people are going to fall within a predictable range of responses regardless of the situation. Think of the proverbial "Russian judge" who gives out lower scores at Olympic events. When receiving commentary, consider the source.
Credibility. Does this person have credentials or experience in what you are trying to do?
Motivation. Was this feedback solicited or unsolicited?
Track record. How accurate was this person's advice in previous situations?
Context. Is this a one-on-one, private, in-person conversation? Is it part of an anonymous discussion on social media? Big difference.
Relationship. What is this person's relationship to you? Parent? Friend? Boss? Mentor?
How does this assessment work in practice?
Let's say I'm training for a marathon. I have two sources of advice to consider. One is a relative whose overall fitness level is low and who has no running background. This person warns me that I'll hurt my knees. The other source of advice is a random guy my age whom I met at a crosswalk, who runs ultramarathons. He says he only trains two or three days a week, back-to-back on weekends and maybe one weekday, shares his weekly mileage, and then wishes me good luck. How do I weight this advice? Can you spot the naysayer?
When I want to do something that is far outside my comfort zone, and I don't know anyone who has done it, I want to be wide open to new information. I want to attract knowledgeable and helpful mentors. I want to demonstrate that I am serious, I am committed, and I am making progress on my own. At that point, my actions will inevitably draw nods from my target mentors. I may not recognize them, but they'll recognize me, just as the ultramarathon guy saw me in my running gear and asked if I was "training or just running." I am expecting that the advice I will hear from mentors will be contrary to at least one thing I'm doing. I expect that I will hear brief mentions of books I should be reading, documentaries I should have seen, websites and podcasts I should be following, and experts I should know about. I take notes and follow up. I can't let anything I hear disappoint me or hurt my feelings, because my goal is TO LEARN. I need to adapt to the material and to the rules of the game, and be grateful for the help, even if the advice was unsolicited and the expert annoys me in some way.
The trouble is that naysayers also share their opinions for free.
Naysayers are motivated by dissatisfaction. Happy, fulfilled people don't waste their time worrying about what other people are doing; they keep their eyes on their own homework. A good barometer is how many hours a day the individual is spending on social media. Naysaying is also motivated by social comparison, pessimism, a desire for attention, unfulfilled ego needs for respect and status, aggression, and hostility. Who knows what else. Naysayers are similar to trolls in these respects.
Naysayer tactics include bringing up your past failures, sharing stories of similar failures by others, and declarations that what you are doing will never work. Naysayers will start with the assumption that you have no idea what you are doing and that you haven't done any research. Naysayers will attribute your motivations, methods, and results to character flaws. Your goal is selfish. Your goal is stupid. Your goal is elitist. You think you're too good for everyone. You're conceited and all you do is talk about yourself. Your goal is too expensive. If it involves ridicule or shame, it's naysaying. If it involves discouraging you from even getting started, it's probably naysaying. If this person has had a similar response to other things you have done, it's certainly naysaying.
Constructive criticism is motivated by a desire to help you reach the goal. A critic will interview you, trying to ascertain where you are in the process and how much advance preparation you have already done. Constructive criticism can be just as uncomfortable as naysaying, but at the end, you should feel either validated or better informed. For instance, if someone else wanted to run a marathon, I would offer that it costs around $200, that many races sell out months in advance, and that some races require a qualifying time from another race. All of this information could sound discouraging, but the purpose of sharing it is so that the new marathoner can avoid disappointment and plan ahead.
A naysayer will attack WHY you are doing something, while a critic will examine HOW you are doing it.
Naysayers think they're helping. If you have a problem with it, you have a thin skin and you need to toughen up, plus you need to quit being so dumb and unreasonable about this goal. There is a point to be taken in any advice to develop a thicker skin. Naysayers are like NPCs (non-player characters) with whom you cannot avoid interacting whenever you are on a quest. If you're going to encounter them every single time you set out to do something cool, might as well get used to it. Try to laugh about it. Of course, another underrated technique is to keep your plans absolutely secret until you're already done. For instance, once I got my race medal, I stopped hearing any naysaying. Naysayers don't like talking about your successes and accomplishments, because the conversation might shift to how they aren't exactly fulfilled and thriving in their own lives.
Naysaying tends to be more concentrated the closer you get to your inner circle. This is for two reasons. One is that perfect strangers will assume you accomplish goals like this all the time, and that this is an interesting feature about you. Another is that we only tolerate a certain level of negativity from people we can't escape, like family or roommates. Family members will badmouth, cheat, steal, and backstab each other in ways that nobody would ever tolerate from a stranger, neighbor, or colleague. Not MY family, of course! It's true, though, that I've seen family members sever relationships with each other by bickering over inheritances, stealing boyfriends, etc. Expect a minimum standard of decency and civility from people in your inner circle, and if they don't meet that standard, quit telling them personal details about your life.
A goal is like a warm little egg with a chick inside. It's your egg. Your goal is to incubate it until it hatches. You protect it and hover over it and turn it so it heats evenly on all sides, making soft little clucking sounds. You don't let anyone near your egg. Hopefully predators don't even realize you have an egg, because otherwise they're going to try to take it from you and eat it, and it will never see the light of day. You tend your warm little egg faithfully for the days or weeks it takes to hatch. Finally, little cracks begin to form. A naysayer would tell you that these cracks are flaws, and that you should never have laid this egg in the first place. Believing in the advice of a naysayer is like dejectedly trudging away from the nest just before your chick is about to hop out. Finally, your goal hatches! The next time you set about a new goal, you'll recognize the signs, and you can tell your naysayers to flap off.
Is there really such a thing as a bad habit? I think the term reflects the kind of moralizing we often do when the real issue is effective/ineffective. We blame ourselves for lack of "willpower," a "bad" character trait, because we don't understand habit structures. We blame ourselves for lacking "motivation," or being "lazy," because we don't know how to manage our moods or energy levels. We're quick to label ourselves, not so quick to figure out what it is that other people do differently. What works? What doesn't work? That's all that matters.
Bad habits are just the things we'd rather do. They're not necessarily "bad." I like to read true crime and self-help books, and I don't care who knows it! I can waste just as much time reading educational articles or watching documentaries as I can reading gossip columns or watching soap operas. I can gain just as much weight eating gluten-free muffins as the regular kind. I can spend just as much money on fitness equipment and classes as I can on a gaming system and cable TV, which makes them identical from the vantage point of my puny retirement account. It's not necessarily what I'm doing with my money or my time. It's more about whether my money and time are buying me the life I want or not.
The trick is always, first, to strategize. Know what you want. Crank up your emotions around it. If you want it, rev yourself up until you want it REAL BAD. We're great at doing this with food but we don't always realize that we can do it with anything. When I was training for my marathon, all I could think about was getting that souvenir t-shirt at the finish line and all the places I was going to wear my shirt. I saw myself wearing my race medal to dinner that night. I didn't see that I would have to walk backward and crawl upstairs on my butt, but that's a different story. I did get what I wanted, because I knew what I wanted and I wanted it more than other things. I also got that shirt because I know how to combine the things I like to do. In my case, that was running + audio books + vanilla fig bars.
Anchoring is when we connect one thing with another. Socks and shoes. Peanut butter and jelly. Folding laundry and jumping out the window. Actually, scratch that. Folding laundry while listening to a podcast. Running on the elliptical while reading mysteries and celebrity biographies. Riding a recumbent bike while playing video games. Cleaning house while listening to the Best Playlist Ever. One of life's greatest mysteries is why so many people do their worst chores in silence, even when they have the option of playing whatever music they want. Use this power for good.
What we tend to do is to anchor our favorite habits with one another, rather than using them to get us through the boring stuff. Eating cookies and reading. Watching TV and eating takeout. Granted, everyone should have moments of pure bliss every day, or at least every week. We do have the opportunity, though, to harness the awesomeness of our favorite activities and use it to make the duller moments less sucky. Awesome + sucky = meh, okay I guess.
What is the worst, most annoying part of your life? Mornings? Money? Commuting? Your job? Fighting with your family? Cooking? Cleaning? Alas, there's no escape from biology, society, or the economy. There's always a better way, though. Usually there are lots of better ways.
Try to fit as much awesomeness into your mornings as possible. Wear funny socks and underwear. Splurge on soap or body wash if you splurge on anything - I like tuberose. Eat your favorite food for breakfast. Make sure you see your favorite color a lot, whether that's your toothbrush or your bowl. Listen to something great while you shower and get dressed. I start my day with a kiss from my parrot, while my husband's treat is watching the dog chase his tail while he waits for his breakfast. Awesomeness doesn't have to take more than a minute. It's just knowing that you have this one little thing to enjoy every single day.
Commuting is basically the worst non-fatal, non-criminal activity. It used to drive me crazy when people would tailgate me, even when I stayed in the slow lane and there was obviously a cement mixer in front of me. Someone passed me on the right once, driving through bushes on the shoulder of the road, when the passing lane was empty for miles! Driving would be fine if nobody else was on the road. Anyway. One day, I realized I could listen to audio books in the car. Total change of perspective. Suddenly my car became the setting of an old-fashioned radio play and I forgot all about the tailgaters. I couldn't wait to run errands at work. Then I joined a gym next door to our building, and I was able to spend rush hour doing my workout and soaking in the hot tub afterward.
Feelings of deprivation drive a lot of ineffective choices. Feeling deprived leads us to eat stuff and spend money on stuff that sets us back and sends us in the opposite direction of what we really want. The higher my household income, the thinner I am and the less stuff I have. It's weird to be able to buy things you always thought you wanted, and no longer want them after all. Change your definition of 'deprived.' How could I ever voluntarily deprive myself of a good night's sleep? How could I dream of depriving Future Me of enough money to live on when I'm too old to work? Why would I deprive myself of a high energy level and a fit, healthy body? How could I deprive myself of a functional, comfortable living environment? This puts habits in the context of our overall experience of life.
"Bad habits" aren't always bad. I ate an awful lot of cookies and waffles when I was training for the marathon. I consume a lot of mental fluff while working out and cleaning house. I spend virtually all my time doing what I want every day, and fortunately, most of those activities don't cost money. It's totally possible to have fun while saving money and being fit and organized. In fact, focusing on those overall outcomes is what frees up the time, money, and energy to do the most decadently fun things in life.
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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.