It’s January 31. Do you know where your resolutions are?
People get this New Year’s Resolution thing all wrong. I say, first of all, skip January. January is for kinda thinking about it. January is for being broke, being cold, recovering from holiday burnout, and generally hibernating. January is the most common month for someone to get sick. These are the logistical reasons why 3/4 of people have given up on their resolutions by February.
The other reason is the visionary reason, the failure of imagination. What we think are resolutions are really objectives. “Lose weight” is not a resolution; it’s an outcome goal. Just like “get married.” If you’re single (or, heck, even if you aren’t) you could probably FIND someone new to marry by December 31st. Are you sure that’s what you’d want, though? You can “lose weight” by getting food poisoning, swallowing a tapeworm, or amputating a limb, but... First, you have to be really clear about your objective. Second, you have to choose an outcome you can control, unlike, say, “get straight As” or “get a promotion.” Third, you need a plan. Fourth, you need to accept the reality that goals and habits take tons of baby steps. Fifth, give up on January and start thinking of where you want to be around Thanksgiving.
So anyway. Let me tell you about my January.
My husband and I did a bunch of crazy stuff in the first week of the New Year. He bought a new folding bike and started using it on his work commute. I bought a new desk and got rid of my bookcase. I researched and joined a martial arts academy and started taking classes. We applied for a new, smaller unit in our apartment complex and got it, meaning we’ll save over $8000 in 2018 instead of paying a big rent increase.
In other words, within a week we’d totally transformed our daily reality.
Different home, different commute, different workout, different work habits, different furniture.
When you’re clear about what you want, it’s possible to move really quickly while not feeling like all that much work was involved.
The decision to trade a scooter for a bicycle was almost instantaneous. The purchase wound up taking half a day because each shop we visited was sold out. Using the new bike is actually faster than the previous commute.
Trading a bookcase for a desk also took about half a day. I had wanted the same desk for six months, and when I saw it was back on sale, I snapped it up. We had to move a different bookcase, assemble the desk, rearrange some books and papers, and haul out some donations and recycling. It took a few hours before someone responded to my Craigslist ad, and then about twenty minutes to give them directions and help them get the bookcase out the door. Now, most of my waking hours are spent at that desk.
Researching the gym took half a day as well. I researched what was available in our area. I visited three different gyms, talking to the owners and asking tons of questions. Then I went home and looked at the class schedules. I made my first pick, and the next morning, I took a free class, put my shoes back on, and signed up. I came back the next morning as a paid member.
I also released two new products and got my certificates for completing two levels in Toastmasters. These are the natural results of work that I do every day. What am I creating? What am I doing with my time? Is the work I’m doing leading toward something I want?
Over the course of the month, we’ve spent a little time talking about our move and going over our stuff. We had the opportunity to take photos and measurements in an empty unit like the one we’re moving into. We’re losing about 2/3 of our kitchen storage. We gave a bunch of our small appliances to an intern. Next will have to go a couple dozen canning jars, some plastic storage containers, perhaps a set of mixing bowls, and probably a bunch of baking pans. It’s annoying, but it’s hard to argue with saving over $400 a month. You can buy a lot of muffin tins for $400.
Then what happened?
I strained an abdominal, missed a day of classes, and spent four days moving very carefully.
I got the flu, even though I got the flu shot at the beginning of October. So that was annoying. I’m still hugely in favor of the flu shot, probably more so now. While I felt that sick flu-ey feeling, woozy and drained, I never got the cough or the nasal congestion. I lost my appetite but I didn’t have the gastric symptoms. I slept at least twelve hours a day for three days, and I felt bad, but maybe 40% as bad as I have with past bouts of flu. I knew I was sick when I woke up on Monday morning, and by Thursday evening, I was okay to go for a walk outside. Usually I’m down for ten days of total misery and maybe 2-3 weeks of sniffles. This time I was done in a week. My husband, who got his flu shot about five minutes before me, didn’t get sick at all. I can’t help but wonder what it would be like if enough people got the flu shot to reach the threshold of herd immunity.
All told, I missed six classes at the gym and three Toastmaster’s meetings. That’s pretty bad for one month. If I didn’t have a context for my goals and resolutions, I might make the mistake of being discouraged and feeling like a failure.
These are the reasons why it’s silly to consider a New Year’s Resolution “failed” by February. Just take for granted that you’ll get sick and have an overuse injury during January, and plan around it. It’s only one month out of twelve, after all. What are you going to be doing in September? June?
My husband and I did our New Year’s strategic planning, because if we do it once a year, New Year’s feels like the most obvious time to us. It’s the end of the tax year. We got our lease renewal at the end of December. We had all the information we needed to imagine the kind of 2018 that we want to have. Then, after talking it out and making decisions, all we had to do was to take action. Gee, honey, let’s move, save money, and then plan our vacation.
PS My video course, “Resolutions for Skeptics,” is still available if you want another shot.
T minus eleven days and counting. We’re moving again! Probably time to start kinda thinking about packing. Eh, or not. Moving only has to be a big hairy traumatic hot mess if you have a lot of stuff to pack.
I’ve helped out on several moves when the household had barely started to pack and it was already moving day. This is how it normally works. Nobody has done much of anything because they’ve all fallen victim to the planning fallacy, which is that humans are extremely poor at estimating how long it will take to do something. There aren’t enough boxes; maybe there are no boxes at all yet. Any time someone got up and started thinking about maybe finally getting around to doing some packing, 80% of the time was consumed in helplessly standing around, arms hanging down, gawping at random corners of the room, and then wandering off. Nobody counted on how much stuff was hidden from view in closets, cupboards, and drawers. This is all before factoring in the cleaning. Then the helpers show up, thinking all that’s being asked of them is to carry neatly taped cartons out to a van. HA.
Our last move took the two of us eight hours, and that’s what fits in a 680-square-foot one-bedroom apartment. When we moved out of our newlywed house, it took a team of four professional movers three days.
I singlehandedly packed an office during a certain person’s move. (Not a client; clients pay me!) After three months’ notice, nothing had been done in what was the most disorganized, crowded room of the entire house. An entire wall of bookcases, photo albums, VHS tapes, and various binders. Two desks. A computer and all its multifarious peripherals. Art on every wall. Various tchotchkes and conversation pieces. Snowdrifts of unsorted papers. It took me three hours. If it had been my own stuff, I’m sure I could have spent three years fondling it and fussing with it.
Most of us do.
When it’s someone else’s stuff, it’s fairly easy. We look at it and estimate its weight and volume. Professional movers are great at this; they do it all day, every day and they know how many dishes or books fit in a carton. We can scan someone else’s personal belongings and visualize them going out the door, up the ramp, into the van, and back out again. We know full well that we’ll still be working at 10 PM because there’s a LOT.
When it’s our own stuff, we can’t see it as bulk, as mere dross to be measured and analyzed. It’s our stuff! It’s... it’s ourselves, really.
This is because the majority of our belongings stand in for the intangible. Our stuff isn’t stuff to us, not at all. It’s our aspirations, our character and personality and intentions. Stuff is one of the many ways that we try to exist outside of the time dimension.
The clothes that don’t fit, that don’t match any of our other clothes, especially the clothes we’ve never worn even once - they stand in for our image of a possible future. The unused fitness equipment that stands in for our intention to make a total physical transformation. Even the vegetables spoiling in the fridge, they represent ideas and possibilities.
There are three types of things:
In the first category, I include art. A planned room, a room of comfort and fun and relaxation and purpose, tends to look intentional. It says, this is our taste and this is how we like a room to look and feel. That’s awesome. It’s exciting to step into a room like this, even when it expresses a wildly different taste unlike my own.
In the second category are all sorts of things. They hang around mostly due to inertia, because we haven’t taken the time to assess and realize that we don’t need, want, or like them anymore. Sometimes, the stuff we no longer use is kept because we use it to store our memories. We’re surrounded by the past, not always even our own past, but our family’s past. Legacy and heritage. We may have no idea of what our own taste might look like because we believe we have to keep and display the stuff that was handed down to us. Keeping things we don’t use is a way of living in the past, outside of the time dimension.
In the third category is aspiration, stuff we still think we’ll get around to using one day. It also includes a certain amount of guilt and shame over money and time we’ve wasted, over our bodies that fail to magically transform, over our total misunderstanding of how goals work and how habits are changed. We also fall victim to the sunk cost fallacy, thinking that we should keep stuff because of what it cost, not realizing that keeping things incurs a carrying cost. Keeping things we believe we’ll use eventually, despite the evidence of today, is a way of living in the future, while also preventing that future from materializing.
When I accustom myself to living in rooms filled with things I don’t use, they become wallpaper. I quit seeing them. They aren’t on my to do list, they aren’t on my agenda, they aren’t blocked in my calendar. I exist on one timeline, and my things exist on another. It’s almost like they live in an alternative dimension that I can’t visit.
The gift of the nomad is that a relocation stops the clock. Time’s up! We evaluate every piece of furniture and all our individual housewares. Moving frequently really makes clear that stuff is a hassle. I don’t feel like cleaning and wrapping and packing and hauling and unwrapping and wiping down and organizing anything unless it’s worth it to me. Sometimes, at some point after the sixth time I’ve handled such an item, I’m just done. I can’t even.
Why do I have a pepper mill? Do I even grind pepper? Does this thing even work anymore?
What would happen if I got rid of it?
That’s the first question. It goes like this:
Do we use it every day?
If not every day, would we need to buy it if we got rid of it?
Have we used it since the last time we moved?
Will it fit in the new place?
How much would it cost to replace?
Is it going to survive the move?
Has it outlived its natural span of use?
In the time dimension, we can always buy stuff for Future Self later. It’s senseless to carry around aspirational “one day” items we don’t use now, because at that future point on the timeline, the one we would actually use may be of better quality or a different nature entirely. Like when I Finally Lost the Weight and the aspirational size eights I had kept for all those years were too big.
In the time dimension, we don’t keep things that belonged to Past Self. Past Self used them, and the maximum value was extracted. It cost what it cost. Maybe Present Self is more frugal and gets a lower cost per use, and when that’s true, it’s because of lessons that Past Self paid for. Stuff we aren’t using anymore was the cost of tuition. Let it go back to the Stuff Place.
Time’s up. The day has passed, the week has passed, the month is almost up. This is how the years go by. At any given moment, we’ve been surrounded by a different assortment of objects that properly exist along a continuum. Baby Self had a crib and a stroller and a high chair. Grade School Self had a child-size bicycle and child-sized clothes and shoes. Twenties Self had rickety mismatched furniture and obsolete electronics. Today Self carries the memories of those rooms, those scenes, those times. Today Self just doesn’t want to carry them all up the ramp into the moving van.
One of our key policy agreements is not to have a storage unit. Since we don’t have a car, anything we put in storage is a red flag that we won’t be using it. In our area, a 10x20 storage unit costs over $200 a month. What on earth do we own that is actually worth $2400+ per year? If we aren’t using it, then by definition it is WORTH NOTHING.
Or, worse than that: It has NEGATIVE VALUE. It COSTS us to keep it.
Paying rent on stuff we don’t use is precisely what we mean by serving our stuff, rather than having our stuff serve us. I am not commuting to a job I hate just to earn more money to pay a monthly fee to store something I don’t even look at. I don’t care if it’s the Hope Diamond!
When people put supposedly valuable things into storage, they are discounting the likelihood that the item will depreciate while it’s buried in that storage unit. Things crack under the weight of boxes that get stacked on top. Anything made of paper, wood, or fabric deteriorates. Metal tarnishes and corrodes. Porcelain gets crazed. Wax melts. Cloth smells funky and starts revealing mysterious stains. Photographs clump together and mildew. Stuff never comes out of a storage unit in the same condition it went in, especially if it’s been stored in cardboard. Storing it is basically kissing it goodbye.
I’ve seen a lot of anguish and sad tears in the course of my organizing work. My people believe in stuff. They believe that stuff exists in a perfect Platonic form, as immaculate and unblemished as an icon or a digital avatar. In their minds, their stuff looks exactly the way it would in a well-lit, professional-grade catalog photo. They’re often not just disappointed but absolutely gutted by the reality. It’s scratched! It’s dented! It’s broken! It’s ruined! One of my first clients had a black plastic trash bag containing the powdery remains of a smashed plaster bust. Years later, she still believed that it could be fixed somehow. What would a new one have cost, $40? $15? Why would anyone want the crushed, demolished old one rather than a new one that actually functions?
I used to have a storage unit. It cost me about $20 a month and I had it for, off and on, a total of five years. That’s $1200. Not much? In 2000, I actually earned less than that. What’s worse, I was paying storage fees for a bunch of old school papers, used books, a box of childhood toys, a totally unsuitable cheap desk, and three boxes of kitchen stuff. I doubt the stuff in that storage unit was worth twelve dollars, much less twelve hundred. Doing this kind of calculation was completely outside my wildest dreams at the time. It simply never occurred to me.
When I met my current husband, at some point, the subject of my storage unit came up. He immediately said that I should get rid of it. “But then I would be destitute and I would have nothing!” I replied.
These days, I actually believe in money. We make these calculations together because it’s our policy as a couple. Money is where vacations come from!
Do the math. If we save $2500 by not renting a van and taking stuff to a storage unit for a year, that’s $2500 we can (and do) leave in the bank. We could use it to buy replacement stuff any time we like. If we save $500 a month by renting a one-bedroom instead of a two-bedroom (and sadly, where we live it’s more like $1200 a month), that’s then $6000 a year that we’re able to save. (Or $14,400!). One day, maybe we’ll buy a house. If we ever do, we’ll plan around the idea of buying suitable new furniture and housewares and doing all the upgrades and landscaping. Why pay thousands of dollars to store old, outdated, banged-up, deteriorating stuff that might not fit that house, anyway?
Scarcity mindset. Scarcity mindset! We hang onto our old stuff, paying to keep it even when we aren’t using it, because we don’t believe in money. We don’t believe that saving money actually works. We don’t believe in our own earning power. Downsizing is an act of faith and trust, belief that we can increase our earning power and accumulate wealth.
Brene’ Brown makes a wish in this book: “I wish there was a secret handshake for the wild heart club.” Well, I wish there was a secret handshake for people who have read her work or listened to her speak! Maybe a button or something. Brene’ Brown is a one-woman revolution. We need her work, and after we drink it in, we need to DO her work. Braving the Wilderness is perhaps her most important message yet. Essentially, it’s about how we rebuild our culture and sense of unity in the face of worsening polarization. How can we create more of a feeling of belonging despite our conflicting values?
Words that come up in Brown’s research: Blame. Rage. Cynicism. Distrust. Fear. Loneliness. Contempt.
As much as we recognize these universal emotions, it is almost absurdly challenging for us to acknowledge that people we perceive as our rivals, our competitors, our opponents, or our enemies feel precisely the same way.
Vulnerability and shame are themes throughout Brown’s work, and we recognize how these interior feelings are magnified from the social to the cultural level. So this is what happens when we deny our darker emotions!
One of the qualities that makes Brown such a superstar is that she transcends regional, cultural, and political differences. Everyone feels like she belongs... to US! She’s able to straddle so many divides in such a totally unique way. This book will push a few buttons, but it does it magnanimously and fairly. Everyone gets a turn.
I am heartily in favor of Brown’s call for a return to civility. It’s not that difficult to practice; often all it involves is not joining in or piling on when someone else makes a snarky comment. Another simple, easy, relaxing way to achieve civility is to avoid introducing political topics. I consider it a victory when I have no idea what someone’s political affiliation is, and an additional level of triumph when I participate in an event where politics are irrelevant. For instance, we’re probably evenly divided in my public speaking club, but I genuinely couldn’t guess the alignment of about 90% of my fellow members. It’s better that way. We can and do share stories, laughter, hugs, and high fives, enjoying each other’s company, face to face. Almost every social gathering and event could be this way. All it takes is reminding ourselves that we share most things in common, and the most important of these common traits are mutual affection and respect.
“He likes you way more than you like you.”
“Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”
“Is there a faster, easier way to make friends with a stranger than to talk smack about someone you both know?... I don’t really know you, nor am I invested in our relationship, but I do like that we hate the same people and have contempt for the same ideas.”
“When we’re suffering, many of us are better at causing pain than feeling it.”
“Stop walking through the world looking for confirmation that you don’t belong.”
My husband and I both have a big project this year. We’ve always been that way. He’s an Eagle Scout, and when I met him, he had a big cardboard box full of trophies and ribbons and badges. It would drive him crazy to think I’m bragging about him, but hey, it’s objectively true. I introduced him to my wacky, convoluted New Year’s Eve goal-setting ritual early on. Doing that kind of annual planning together has cross-pollinated both of our project styles. How can we both keep doing bigger and bigger stuff every year without getting in each other’s way?
A couple of years ago, we started a new habit that we called Status Meeting. It was meant to be just for New Year’s Day, but we liked it so much that we decided to do it every weekend. Then it started feeling routine and maybe unnecessary. We gradually quit doing it in the second year. We realized that we were starting to talk about household business every night again, rather than saving it for that one weekend morning. Status Meeting was reborn!
The point of Status Meeting is to treat our household business AS business, to handle all the boring details of our lives with professional courtesy. Since we originally met in the workplace, it comes naturally to us. We find it amusing to use workplace jargon and to role-play. “As CFO, I recommend that...” “Status me your status.” We use this time to segregate what could be heavy or dark topics. Are we on target for our savings goals? Is that card getting paid off this month? Should we relocate again? Are they talking layoffs at work? The dog doesn’t seem to be feeling very well. Obviously we prefer to use Status Meeting to talk about travel, redecorating the living room, or finding more time to take Spike to the bark park. Sometimes, it’s big.
We had Status Meeting on New Year’s Day again, as per tradition. On the table:
His goals to work on a robotics project, start a blog, and write a book
My goals to start martial arts training and become a Distinguished Toastmaster
There were other goals on the table, but we’ll keep it simple.
Our starting assumption is that anything new will impact our schedule, our mental bandwidth, the physical distribution of space in our tiny apartment, whether our pets are in their crates, and probably our finances. We’re not so much “asking” each other or getting “permission” as we are keeping each other informed and opening the door to ideas and feedback.
He says he wants to do a book. Awesome! I immediately offer to help with the outline, basic copy editing, and a non-technical layperson to read. I’ll do it, or I’ll connect him with someone if he’d rather I not be involved. My role is to be supportive but unattached. This is HIS project. I think it’s cool but I cannot claim ownership.
It turns out that the best way I can help is to brainstorm how he can divide his mental effort between the robotics, which he does at the level of professional mastery, and the writing, which is fairly new to him. I point out that he really needs three separate things. 1. Physical workspace setup, because he’ll be using the same computer and desk space for two mutually exclusive tasks. He has to move the keyboard while he solders and vice versa. 2. An outline. It probably won’t take very long, and it will give him a lot more clarity about what he wants from the project. 3. Division of mental labor. He can spend the weekends working on the robotics part of the project, taking photos and video, and doing anything physical. He can do the writing on weeknights, which are my nights to cook dinner, thus breaking up the mental concentration into natural 1-3 hour blocks.
Helping him talk through how he’s going to do something really cool is fascinating and fun for me. It helps me to feel like I’m participating.
A different person might be frustrated that her mate plans to spend such a huge chunk of his evenings and weekends focusing on schematics and chip boards. I’m a Quality Time person. I’d much rather spend one hour a night having an intriguing discussion with a happy man than endless dull evenings watching TV next to a bored man. Besides, while he’s busy, I have carte blanche to do as I will. How’s a girl supposed to get any reading done when this husband character keeps wanting to talk?
Now we talk about my martial arts thing. I already know that I married a man who is drawn to the badass superhero type. We were both fat when we met (we’ve lost a hundred pounds between us), and I always felt that he found me attractive. It wasn’t until I found my inner athlete that I discovered this other side to him. He was fine with the chronically fatigued, obese me. He was charmed by marathon-training me. He appears to be absolutely smitten with the new kickboxing version of me.
The big question was whether he wanted to train with me. Should I take morning classes alone and keep my evenings free? Or should I go in the evenings and meet him there? This decision also impacted my choice of gym, since there were two radically different options at the exact same price.
Due to the robotics book project, the decision was fairly clear. He’s a little “jelly” but training with me this year means no book this year. Maybe after he finishes it, he can join and we can take classes together. He has a fair amount of martial arts experience and would inevitably work through the beginner levels much faster than I will.
My public speaking goals most likely won’t have much impact on his schedule. I’ll just keep attending the same meetings I have been for the past two years. It’s really more about whether he wants to take his own membership to the same level or not. I check in with curiosity, not with pressure.
My new fitness class schedule has ripple effects on us. I hold up my end of our household bargain, doing my chores, running my errands, and cooking on my nights. I’m ravenous and exhausted and bruised up, though, and grumbling about my delayed onset muscle soreness. This is amusing to both of us, largely because, as I said, I uphold my end of our bargain. If I used my choice to take boxing classes as an excuse to manipulate him into doing more housework, that would be an issue for Status Meeting.
I can dimly imagine a few scenarios where we fight about all of this. Where I demand that he pay my gym fees for me, even though it would mean giving up another financial goal. Where I am “too tired” to go to 9 AM class, and instead we fight because I’m never home at night and there’s no food on the table. Where we don’t have a system for running our ship smoothly, and he can’t concentrate on his book, while I cry because he’s “ignoring” me. Where we’re both “so busy” that suddenly our shoebox apartment fills up with dirty dishes and piles of laundry. Where we jump on every whim and impulse, only to look up years later and realize we are tens of thousands of dollars in debt. Where we both do what we want, living parallel lives of disinterested freedom, little more than over-scheduled roomies.
Negotiating makes everything easier for everyone. We start with policies, basic agreements about how we want to communicate and spend our time. What baseline emotional reality do we want to live? We’re friends. That’s why we got married. We want to act like allies and partners, people who find each other fun and interesting. It’s our job to do fun stuff together, and also to do fun stuff separately. This is how we eventually turn into cool old people. How do we make the best memories and stories today?
I’m the worst. I am the absolute worst, and I’m really pretty proud of that. Let me explain the core of my little home version of Stoic philosophy, the one that I call “You Suck.” It’s what drives me to try to spend as much time as I can in beginner mode, trying new things, and pushing myself in pursuit of humility, grit, and self-discipline.
Affirmations are one thing. I’m a rainbow-striped, super-sparkly, sugary sweet extreme optimist, and I believe in the infinite power of radical change. On the other hand, affirmations only work if you truly believe them. Like, already believe them. You can’t talk yourself into an affirmation if underneath you suspect that it’s a lie. You have to do considerable homework before you can genuinely talk yourself into stretching your self-image that far. This is why I mix my motivational self-talk with curses and insults.
My self-efficacy is really high. I believe I can push myself to do anything, and that most things are so easy they can be learned by doing a basic web search and watching a how-to video. That’s why I don’t give myself allowance for any excuses or justifications. If I’ve made a commitment to do something, I’m doing it. No sense being a waawaa about it.
That would be an example of some of my private and personal self-talk. “Don’t be a waawaa.”
“Ohh, it’s toooo haaaard! Ohh, I don’t WANT to! Oh noooo!” Said in a sniveling, mocking tone.
These are my most obvious weaknesses, the ones that are most likely to interfere with my pursuit of all the stuff I like to do. (Hiking, backpacking, adventure races, distance running, travel, basically anything interesting).
I hate waking up early
I hate being cold, and by “cold” I mean temperatures below 65F
I hate the wind
I hate, truly hate, having dirty, sticky, or sweaty hands
I hate bug bites
I hate blisters
I pretty much hate wearing shoes
I hate when my hair gets frizzy
I hate wearing damp clothes
I hate to eat in a car
I hate sleeping on the ground
I can’t tolerate boredom for more than about 40 seconds
My inner child is, well, I AM my inner child. If I let that part of me dictate my life, I’d do nothing but sit around wrapped up in a blanket, reading and stuffing Oreos in my cheeks like a diabetic hamster. I say I am the worst because I know I am. Inside me is a whiny little whiner, a quitting quitter who quits. The absolute worst.
The other reason that I say I am the absolute worst is that today is the worst I’ll ever be. When I show up and force myself to do something I’m really bad at, when I make myself keep showing up even when I fail and fail and fail, why then, I’ll get better. That’s where skills come from. Skill comes from diligence and focus and attention and practice and repetition. Skill comes from humbling yourself before your teachers and trying and trying to get it right.
I am the absolute worst because I deliberately seek out areas where everyone in the room is more skilled and experienced than I am. If I’m the best in the room, I’d better be there to teach, because otherwise I’m wasting mine and everyone else’s time.
Let me talk a little about how good I am at being the absolute worst.
In dance class, my instructor stopped and asked me why I was having so much trouble learning the basic rumba steps. “My third leg keeps getting in the way,” I replied. He looked at me, agape. “Your third leg? Your THIRD LEG?!”
In bowling, I bowled the ball behind me and it jumped back into the ball rack.
On my first day of running, I couldn’t make it around one block in our neighborhood and I had to lie on the floor afterward.
When I gave my ice breaker in Toastmasters, I ran out of material at least a minute early and had to stand there basically mumbling to myself until the green light came on.
I just started taking Krav Maga and Muay Thai kickboxing this year. I strained an abdominal doing, I am not kidding, ten sit-ups. I hit myself in the face with a foam target. I don’t even want to say how many times I’ve tripped on the jump rope.
I still suck at bowling, although I managed to win a free pass for my brother because I’m better at granny bowling than facing forward. I kept at the ballroom dancing until I reached Bronze I, and now they clear the floor for us when my husband and I dance together. I kept at running until I made it through a marathon. I kept at public speaking until just the other day, someone said she thought I was already a Distinguished Toastmaster. Even though sometimes I think they’d rather I went away, I keep going to class and showing up to meetings and trying hard. Eventually, months or years later, I finally start to show a basic competence.
What I’m chasing is an inner sense of satisfaction with my own performance. I want to feel like I actually know what I’m doing. Often, I still feel clueless or useless or incompetent long after the compliments and external validation start to roll in. Sure, anyone appreciates compliments, and it’s thoughtful of people, but it’s... really irrelevant to why I’m there.
Today is the worst I’ll ever be, because I’ll never be this bad again. At least at this. I’ll never be as clumsy again as I was today. I’ll never be as ignorant again as I was today. I’ll never be as weak again, my stamina will never be this low again, my aim will never be off quite this far again. Today is the last day I’ll make this particular set of mistakes. Today, I am the absolute worst I’ll ever be again.
We’re moving. Again. Each time, we get a little better about this thing called ‘minimalism.’ The first principle of minimalism is that our stuff should serve us, not the reverse. The second principle is that what we keep should be determined by its function and use in a particular space. The things we would use in a backwoods cabin would not be the same package as the things we would use in an urban loft or a suburban house with a garden. This is why we reevaluate every time we move: floor plan before stuff.
We just visited an empty apartment. What did we do? We took pictures for reference. I keep a measuring tape in my work bag, believe it or not, and we used it. We took pictures of the location of the power outlets. We took pictures of the insides of the cabinets and drawers. We measured the depth and height of the shelves and marked up the digital photos. The next step is to reevaluate our stuff based on whether it will fit the space available.
As newlyweds, we moved into a three-bedroom, two-bath suburban ranch house with a two-car garage and a yard. It was about quadruple the amount of living space that we have now. Every time we have moved, we’ve downsized. First we lost half the garage space and half the kitchen space. Then we moved, and both got cut in half again. Number of square feet has a little bit to do with how we use our living space, but it’s not everything. The function of the space has a lot more to do with closets, cabinets, cupboards, shelves, and drawers.
Most people, given a choice, would take more built-in cabinets and shelving over a larger living room. Am I right?
What we miss the most about our previous homes isn’t square footage. It’s having a coat closet, a linen closet, and a pantry cupboard.
The containers and dedicated storage that we need is determined by all the small incidental things we own. Sure, we’ve had to get rid of things like our ten-top dining table, when they physically would not fit in a smaller room. Sometimes the walls are just too short, sometimes the available space is broken up by doors and windows. Sometimes something won’t even fit through a door! This is a problem when it was originally moved in through a sliding door, or when it was carried in as a flat-pack shipping container and assembled in the room.
We almost had to get rid of our couch the last time we moved because it barely fit through the front door. By ‘barely,’ I mean that we had to do naughty things to the hallway light fixture to make it work.
In our new apartment, the floor plan does not allow for a dining table. It has a kitchen counter that works as a bar top. Our current arrangement is a bistro table with tall chairs. We’ll be able to use the chairs at the bar, while removing the legs from the dining table and storing it somewhere. Top contenders are flat under the bed or vertically in the closet behind our hanging clothes.
Okay, so we only keep things we actively use. They have to earn their keep. How do we know?
The most important thing to us is that we can live our lives in our home. Walk from room to room without turning sideways or stepping over anything. Cook in the kitchen, sleep in the bedroom, relax in the living room. Work at the desk, get ready in the bathroom. We’d rather live out of a suitcase in a basically empty room than have to live among piles of dishes, laundry, and papers.
That’s a false dilemma, though. It’s totally possible to live a comfortable, fulfilling, efficient life in a maximalist house. The priority is simply to be able to get around easily, to have systems that create the absolute most free time and mental bandwidth possible.
Second priority is that we can both be happy without annoying each other. Anything that causes persistent problems, quarrels, arguments, or irritation has to go. We’d be better off owning two dinner plates than having a maximalist kitchen and nagging each other about whose turn it is to wash the dishes.
We have pets, and they’re a consideration, too. It’s not fair to Noelle to leave a charging cable out where she can reach it, because it’s in her nature to want to put her beak through it. (Tally so far: five charging cables and one set of earbuds). It’s not fair to leave laundry in dog zone, because Spike can’t resist grabbing shirts or socks or underwear and running around whipping them over his head. Pet-proofing is the kind-hearted way to keep our fluffy little dorks out of trouble.
The thing about downsizing is that it’s not permanent. Stuff creeps up on us. We have the same cultural exposure to massive volumes of cheap consumer goods as everyone else. We buy stuff in bulk or on sale, we come home with souvenirs, we upgrade, we receive gifts. All of a sudden, the place is full again. It’s not like getting rid of a few boxes of clothes or books or plastic storage containers means we can never own anything again. It’s reversible.
We assume that the new stuff we might buy in ten years will be nicer and more attractive than what’s available to us today. That’s especially true for electronics! It’s also true, though, for the bulk of what most people store in their homes. Food, right? Clothes - probably won’t fit us the same way in ten years. Our mattress - probably won’t be nearly as comfortable in ten years. Entertainment - books, magazines, movies, music - probably won’t even be in the same format in ten years. It also raises the question of whether our interests will still be the same a decade from now. Won’t our favorite authors and musicians have put out anything new by then?
We think back to the stuff we owned when we were in our twenties. I had a rock-hard futon and a bookcase made from boards and bricks. My computer was an 8086 with an amber monochrome monitor! I was six, no, seven clothing sizes bigger back then. My hubby wore his hair in a mullet, and that’s all we need to say about that. We’re, um... mature enough now to realize that our stuff does not define us, and that much of it is even embarrassing for us to even admit that we ever liked or used.
Stuff comes and goes. We can wave goodbye to it. We can take pictures of our various living rooms and kitchens and bedrooms, saying “thanks for the memories!” If we wouldn’t want anyone to see evidence of how our rooms really look, that’s something to consider. Let’s reevaluate whether our personal belongings are really helping us to live happier, easier, better lives. Floor plan before stuff.
***NOTE: I formatted and scheduled this post on Saturday, January 13, 2018. BTC was trading at about $14,100.***
I thought it was 2014, but I went rooting around in my Sent folder and found the email trail. My husband and I seriously considered getting into Bitcoin in November of 2013, and decided against it. It had jumped that month from about $200 to about $600 the week we considered it. As I write this, in January of 2018, a BTC is valued at nearly $15,000. We could have made 24x on our investment!!! Right?!?!? The natural emotional response of most people who looked back on this kind of decision would be deep regret. “The one that got away.” We stand by our decision, and in some ways we’re even more confirmed that we did the smart thing.
The short version is that I had an extended conversation with a good friend of mine who was a Bitcoin miner. She and her husband had been into it for a couple-few years, and they had already made a bunch of money. Technically, kind of literally they had “made money,” in the sense that they were creating new Bitcoins. I already knew what Bitcoin was. Through this conversation I grasped the premise that we could set up an extra computer in the office and, over time, it might generate a tiny amount of this speculative figment called cryptocurrency.
I went home and told my husband about it, which I will discuss three paragraphs from now.
Then I went into a research black hole.
When something ignites my curiosity, there’s no stopping me. I will open two dozen tabs, read 800-page books, speed-listen to podcast episodes on 3x, talk to anyone and everyone to find out what they know, and basically let the topic eat my brain. Sometimes this goes on forever, and other times I find out enough to satisfy me in a few days or hours. In the case of cryptocurrency, it went on my news radar and stayed there in the background.
One of the constant themes my husband and I have in our conversations is “Walking Dead Future vs. Star Trek Future.” Cryptocurrency definitely fell on that track. I can and do research and make my own investments, and if I had wanted to go into Bitcoin alone, I certainly would have. I knew my husband would be interested in it, though, because he’s a numismatist. That means he’s extremely interested in coins. In fact, he makes museum-quality replica hammered coins. Anyone with that level of fascination in the history of money would obviously take note of cryptocurrency. Would we jump on the bandwagon, though?
First, we looked over the extra computer equipment we had sitting around in the office gathering dust. We quickly figured out that it wasn’t robust enough to generate any BTC. If we wanted to do this at a serious level, it would cost us nice flat green American dollars to upgrade our computer setup. There is little short-term risk in this kind of investment, because if we wanted out, we could either use that rig for something else or we could sell it and recoup part of the cost. (Until three years went by and the whole lot of it became laughably obsolete). Digging a little deeper, we learned that people were already dealing with the problem of dispelling the extra heat from their rooms of dedicated Bitcoin machines. Getting started as miners would cost us a lot of real-world money, and we’d be competing in an ever-escalating computing arms race.
At that point, we pivoted. Mining wasn’t a strategy for us, so what if we just speculated and bought some BTC?
The reason we passed was that in 2013, Bitcoin couldn’t buy anything. We couldn’t pay our rent with it. We couldn’t make our car payment with it. We couldn’t buy groceries with it. All we could really do was to save it and hope it was worth more one day, and that at a certain threshold, mainstream retail establishments would start accepting it. To my knowledge, that has not yet happened at even one single business entity where we routinely make transactions.
In 2013, we were still catching up financially. I married a man in recovery from a disastrous divorce settlement, and he married a woman with student loans. (Well, two in a row, actually). We had a guaranteed 16% rate of return from continuing to pay off our credit card debt. We had money in the market that we weren’t even remotely planning to pull out, which is great, because we did well between 2013 and 2018. We had everything to gain from continuing to earn, spend, and invest traditional US dollars, and only a dim future to imagine with Bitcoin.
Then I kept doing research and waving my mental antennae.
There were more potential pitfalls with cryptocurrency than we had realized at first blush. First off, cryptocurrency most likely will be a key player in the AI-flavored, robotic, Space Age near future. The question is, which cryptocurrency? There’s been significant drama among the people who run the Bitcoin show. What if the real winner winds up being Dogecoin? Second, international fiscal policy and potential currency manipulation. Third, the wallets. There was no guarantee that the company we trusted to store our BTC would continue to exist a decade later. I also read stories of people being hacked and robbed, and you know you’re living in a libertarian paradise when there’s no legal enforcement and nothing anyone can or will do about it. Fourth, loss. Lost BTC is already legendary; even Elon Musk has lost some.
Hold that thought, because what Elon Musk does is highly relevant to the way my hubby and I make strategic decisions. Study hard, work hard, create value, create the future. Don’t act like Elon; think like Elon. But I digress.
The funniest thing about cryptocurrency is that so many of the players seem to be worried about that Walking Dead Future I mentioned earlier. Um, what are you going to do with your BTC when the power goes out and stays out? Seriously! Might be better off at that point trading bottle caps.
The thing about the history of money is that it’s gone through a lot of very weird phases. What we’re looking at with the dawn of cryptocurrency is just like the early days, in Colonial America, when people issued their own competing currencies and scrip. Many cultures and eras have produced cool museum artifacts in the form of “money” that is only “worth” anything due to its status as a rare collectible. Exactly, exactly like postage stamps.
Stuff is only worth what someone will pay you for it. Or the use you get out of it.
If you believe in the Walking Dead Future, build your physical stamina, work on your wilderness survival and food preservation skills, and put the bulk of your effort into learning communication and leadership. If my game is Get Allies and your game is Anarchy, I’m going to be your new queen. You may kiss the ring. Guards, deal with him. If you believe in the Star Trek Future, what makes you think money is going to be such a big deal anyway? Part of why my husband and I still deal in ordinary American dollars is that we’ve already lived through the beginning of the Information Age. We remember when long distance phone calls were very expensive, and now they’re virtually free. Pretty much the same thing happened with minimum viable food and clothes. Next it’s going to be electricity, wi-fi, and transportation. This isn’t the post for the full gamut of my futurist predictions, but they’re relevant to why we passed on Bitcoin.
We’re not really skeptical about cryptocurrency. Of course it will be relevant in the future, of course it will! (Which one, though?) Still, we’re glad we didn’t buy in back in 2013. We would have made anywhere from $15,000 to maaaaybe $45,000. We paid off our credit cards and increased our earning power significantly in that time. We also realized far larger gains in US money with our strategy than we would have by using it to speculate on BTC. Also, how would we know when to cash out? What would be the point of a virtual wallet that was only “worth something” as long as we left it in there? What about the transaction costs? What about a false sense of security? If we’d bought BTC four years ago, I’m sure we’d be squabbling right now about whether we’re in a bubble (probably) or whether it’s just a hockey stick. We’ll have a better idea about that in another four years. In the meantime, we’ll continue to focus on building our real-world earning and survival skills, as well as our real-world financial wealth.
The most addictive book I have read in years is Tribe of Mentors: Short Life Advice from the Best in the World. Tim Ferriss invited dozens of fascinating people to answer a series of set questions, and the result is a big thick door-stopper full of their responses. Each section is just a few pages, creating a book that can be read in any order, dipped into and out of for any length of time. If you have anywhere from five minutes to five hours, spend it with Tribe of Mentors.
The book begins with Ferriss’s own questions upon turning 40:
Were my goals my own, or simply what I thought I should want?
How much of life had I missed from underplanning or overplanning?
How could I be kinder to myself?
How could I better say no to the noise to better say yes to the adventures I craved?
How could I best reassess my life, my priorities, my view of the world, my place in the world, and my trajectory through the world?
What would this look like if it were easy?
He went on to compose the set list of eleven questions that he would pose to the most awesome people he could find.
There’s almost guaranteed to be a section including someone you admire or find intriguing. Participants run the gamut from famous actors, comedians, writers, and athletes to other interesting people who are not exactly household names. I was excited that the book includes a number of people whose work I’ve reviewed on this blog: Gretchen Rubin! Stephen Pressfield! Mr. Money Mustache! Brene’ Brown! Seriously, everyone is in this book, from David Lynch to Bear Grylls. Tim Ferriss should have a gala and invite all of these people, just to see who is first to jump into the swimming pool wearing a tuxedo.
What I really loved about this book is that the answers are so idiosyncratic. Much of the time, they go against mainstream advice. Part of the time, they’re so unique to the individual that the standard advice seems to come from an entirely different, irrelevant universe.
Competition is the opposite of creativity. The idea that we learn the most from failures is wrong. In creative fields, networking actually hurts you. Don’t find an area of expertise. Ignore the concept of ‘being yourself.’ “When everyone is saying no, you know you’re doing something right.” These concepts, taken out of concept, don’t necessarily make sense and won’t necessarily help guide anyone to better life outcomes. That’s why “quotes” can be something like the opposite of advice. While this is an extremely quotable book, it’s best to read the anecdotes in full.
I loved this book, and I’ll probably go back and re-read sections of it. It’s introduced me to people I wish I had heard of sooner, like obstacle racer Amelia Boone, and reminded me that, hey! Tim Ferriss has a podcast where he conducts this type of interview all the time! I have a copy of Tools of Titans and I’m going after that next.
Any really big, audacious goal, any quest or momentous adventure, impacts other people. That’s partly the point. For those of us who don’t live alone, those of us who have subtle strings tying us to others, it’s imperative to get buy-in. Otherwise, not only are these gigundous goals not going to happen, but they don’t deserve to.
Put simply, we have obligations, and they’re real. Abandoning our duties and responsibilities without negotiation is called abdication, and abdicating means you suck. Sometimes, yeah, you find yourself doing it, out of confusion or burning passion or agony. It does incur mighty debts. Worse, it causes drama, instantaneous drama, drama that can and will drag interminably into the long term. If you can’t bear your load, negotiate it, but don’t drop it.
If you spill, wipe it up.
That being said, almost every goal is so modest that it can easily be fit around even the largest family or the craziest love life.
What is this thing called buy-in?
Buy-in means that other people understand your project and they’re okay with it. They may not be willing to pay for it, or drive you around, or make space for huge amounts of gear and supplies. Those negotiations are separate. In general, when you have buy-in it means that nobody is going to get in your way. That’s important.
When you’re trying to reach escape velocity on something, when you’re trying to burst through a boundary, even the smallest bit of friction can hold you back. All it takes is one person who takes your goal personally in a bad way, and suddenly you’ve made your project ten times more complicated.
What are some popular ways to create opposition to your goals?
Disrupt other people’s sleep. If the only way you can think of to make your goal happen is to cause bright lights and loud noises while another person is trying to sleep, go back to the drawing board. If you wouldn’t want someone to do it to you, don’t do it.
Bogart common areas. If you live with other people, they are fully as entitled to the use of common areas as you are. This includes the bathroom, kitchen, dining table, driveway, area around the front door, countertops - basically every space in your home except for your personal, private spaces. If you don’t have a big enough private space to do your project, negotiate. First make sure the problem isn’t that you just have far more stuff than everyone else in the house.
Spend more than your fair share of household resources. If you’re the bigger earner, do as you will. If you rely on your partner to fund the majority of your lifestyle, and you want more money to pay for something, it will go better if you start a side hustle and figure out a way to earn it. You’re fully entitled to your own earnings, with no upper limits. If you want a bigger share of someone else’s paycheck, negotiate. Figure out a way to sweeten that deal. (Example: wanting financial support to earn a certification toward a new career).
Abdicate on your household responsibilities. If you start a new project that involves you dumping dirty dishes in the sink and wandering off, or leaving massive piles of dirty laundry to fester unattended, or strewing things hither and yon, good luck with that. It’s not fair to other people who live with you to also have to live with your mess. Likewise, if you have children together, you need to be present in their lives. Find a way to involve your kids in your project.
If you live alone, obviously you can do what you want day and night. Pause for a moment and imagine all the hefty responsibilities that you don’t have! When I went back to school, I would often pause and think of my classmates who were single parents. It made the all-nighters feel much easier.
Okay, having talked about ways to sabotage your own project or cause an uptick in the local voodoo doll industry, what are ways to do it right? How do we get buy-in?
First, rehearse what you’re going to say. Let your talking points be crystal clear in your mind. What do you want and what are you prepared to do about it? You can probably find a neutral third party who will practice with you. Maybe a coworker or a random stranger from the internet will find it amusing to run a few scenarios.
Second, make sure the discussion feels fun and light and easy. Don’t do the “I want to talk” thing; it scares people. Say, “Hey, I had an idea I wanted to run by you” or “Can I ask you about a project I’m thinking about?” Your face, voice, emojis, and words should all drive curiosity and interest, while consciously avoiding defensiveness or nervousness in your partner.
Third, start with appreciation and compliments. “Thanks for being there for me. You’re so easy to talk to. It really helps that I know I can go to you when I’m trying to figure something out.” Make sure to mention ways that your partner has been supportive, inspirational, etc.
Fourth, say what you want. Make it clear and simple. What do you want, and what do you want from this person? “I want to start running, and I could really use your help mapping my routes.”
What DO you want?
Please don’t make fun of me
Please keep your snacks at work and don’t tease me with food
Will you get the dog in his harness while I put on my running gear?
Will you cook on school nights if I cook on the weekend?
Will you play board games with the kids while I write for three hours a week?
Fifth, pitch something that will matter to this person. What are you prepared to do to facilitate a goal of theirs? Sometimes it can help to lead with this idea. What if we both clear out the garage, and you can use the bench for your guitar workshop if I can have the back corner for inventory? If you get the kids ready for school while I do yoga, I’ll take over dinner so you can take that night class. Chances are that you know perfectly well exactly what your partner would like from you. It’s very rare for two people’s goals to be truly mutually exclusive. That’s zero-sum thinking and it’s almost always factually incorrect.
The last piece is to be prepared for a backup plan. Maybe a friend or relative or someone you can hire to fill in. The person in your life is entitled to say No to your requests. Something that you want to do does not create an obligation in anyone else. Granted, if you’re with someone who refuses to accommodate you, who doesn’t like the fuller version of you, who wishes you’d quit doing what you most want to do, that tells you some important things about that relationship. Would it be easier or better or more interesting to be alone than to be with this person?
That’s an extremely large-scale decision. If it’s the bad roommate who’s behind on rent, maybe that’s a 1 out of 5 in difficulty. If that bad roommate happens to be a blood relation, maybe that’s a 2 if it’s your in-law and a 3 if it’s your own fam. If your secret and true goal is not the pseudo-goal of your project but just some escape and distance from a dying relationship, well, it’s hard, but inevitable. Isn’t it.
Negotiating is really just another name for brainstorming. What are a bunch of different ways that everyone here can get something better than what we have right now? It’s better if everyone feels appreciated and respected. It’s better if everyone has clearly defined privacy and personal space. It’s better if everyone feels like a member of the same team, working toward common goals. It’s best when everyone involved feels like the relationship is meaningful, honest, and fulfilling. That can only be true when each person is moving toward growth and deeper engagement with all of 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.