Time debt is something I’m thinking about a lot lately. I’m trying to learn more about working in the time dimension, which probably means that my concept of time is different than most people’s. Well, okay, I know it is. What I’m developing right now is an idea that time debt is the same as financial debt, physical clutter, and excess adipose tissue, commonly known as body fat. They’re all alike because they all reflect something we’re doing on a daily basis that is not working for Future Self.
Spend too much in relation to income, and Future Self will be broke.
Buy too much stuff with nowhere to put it, and Future Self will be sitting in a pile of junk.
Eat more than you need, and Future Self is the one who will have to deal with it.
Put things off, and Future Self will be frantically fighting deadlines.
Whoa. Now that I lay it out like that, I think I’m onto something!
This is the sort of stuff that can happen when we think of Future Self as some kind of evil villain. Who does that? We wonder. What else would you call it, though, if you work steadily from day to day to make things harder for your own Future You?
Over the years, I’ve taught myself how to take Future Me seriously, how to see her as a close friend or dear relation. Sometimes I think of Future Me doing something funny, like wearing a lavender wig and a tiara at age eighty, and I just love her. Future Me is a hip granny!
Because of this affectionate relationship that I’ve visualized, I feel excited when I look forward. I think of all the ways that Future Me will have a better life than Today Me. For one thing, she’ll be a better cook! I like sending her money and trying to help her become a hip granny who can do the splits.
I also try to think of Future Me - Stardate: Next Year, and even Next Month Me.
This is where time debt comes in.
I’ve gotten pretty good over the years at following a radical budget, balancing my activity level with my nutrition, and keeping my physical space clear. Where I still struggle, and struggle mightily, is in understanding how long it takes to do things and when I’ll be done with a project.
Part of this is because I’m more attracted to endless projects than I am to projects with clearly defined boundaries. I’m more likely to run a blog or volunteer for something than I am to make a physical object or turn something in on a deadline.
I have a type of project that I call Do the Obvious. It’s part of my annual review and future planning. This year, my Do the Obvious is to schedule time blocks. What this means is that I try to set aside two to four hours a day for projects that need deep focus concentration and System II thinking, like writing and strategic planning. I want to limit other activities so they don’t accidentally eat my whole day. Key among those day-eaters are email and reading the news.
What I’ve found is that I have a backlog of fairly random things that I never fit into my daily routine. These things are relevant, things I can’t delegate, but also things that aren’t urgent and are thus easy to put off.
Um, there’s a name for that. We call it procrastination.
Is it, though? Is it procrastinating to put off doing something that isn’t urgent?
That depends on your individual judgment. It’s legit to delay something less important in favor of something urgent or more important. Not only is it legit, it’s the only rational way to behave!
I don’t want to reach a point where I’m polishing the inside of my medicine cabinet, alphabetizing my socks, and other entirely trivial tasks that feel lovely but accomplish nothing.
For myself, I want all of my powers of focus and attention directed the same way. I want my concentration to be 100% available for the projects that matter to me. That means I want to finish everything that can be finished. I want to close every loop that can be closed. I want to feel satisfied that I am entirely DONE with anything that can be considered done.
I know I need to dedicate time every day to work, meals, personal hygiene, taking care of my pets, cleaning house, checking my mail, flagging spam, blocking robo-calls, and going to the gym. I’m okay with that. When else am I going to listen to my audio book?
Where I tend to struggle is with the non-routine stuff and with the nice-to-have “round tuit” kind of stuff. “When I get around to it.”
Now that I’m working on time blocks, I’ve realized that I can use a calendar month as its own type of time block. I’m thinking of my backlog of weird, non-urgent tasks as a list of bills that need to be paid. They could also be thought of as bags of trash to be carried out. How many “bags of trash” do I really need cluttering up my mental living room??
When I consider my backlog list, I tell myself, don’t carry it forward another month. How much of this stuff that I knew I wanted to do at the beginning of January do I still want to have on my list in February?
February is the shortest month. In the northern hemisphere, at least, the weather tends to be cruddy. How much is on your list that you don’t want to carry forward as a time debt?
Don’t carry it forward another month. Set yourself up for a relaxing spring and a fun summer.
I’m doing a quest this year as part of my annual goals and resolutions. Actually I do a quest every year, but this one is special. It’s a sort of non-goal. It’s an attempt to cut back on everything else and sleep as much as possible. It’s SleepQuest 2019!
A quest has a sort of magical adventure aura about it. I might set a GOAL of running a 5k, complete it (tomorrow if I like), and then never run another step. I might set a RESOLUTION to do meal prep on Sundays, enjoy it, and do it forever. The outcomes are predictable and the steps forward are, too.
With a quest, I’m instead trying to fathom the unfathomable, explore something about which I don’t know much, and wander into a fog of uncertainty. What’s on the other side of that mist? A castle in the clouds? A cranky crocodile? Dunno! Let’s find out!
Why SleepQuest? Why now?
I have a major parasomnia disorder, pavor nocturnus, and a few other less pressing sleep issues. I started having insomnia problems when I was just seven. I thought I had all this more or less under control, but in 2018 my sleep collapsed. I started getting sick a lot. Then my night terrors came back after a hiatus of about four years. That would be reason enough.
I also figure that if I can make headway with my irritating sleep issues, it might help others as well. Maybe even hearing about how hard sleep is for me could help someone else to feel that at least their situation could be worse. That’s something, right?
When I chose sleep as my quest, I paired it with what I call a “stop goal.” I like to make resolutions, because I feel that they are far more effective than goals, and in my experience they’re much easier to keep. I’ll choose something specific that I plan to do, and I’ll form an implementation intention, such as “I resolve to set a bedtime and follow a bedtime routine.”
In the case of stop goals, I haven’t yet figured out what approach to take. All I know is that I’m annoying myself or experiencing a persistent problem. My plan is to spend the rest of the year thinking about my stop goal, noticing when it comes up, and playing around with different approaches.
I’ll read about it, talk to people about it, journal about it, and track metrics if I can. I’ll try to think, “What would be the opposite of this problem?”
As an example, one year I resolved to stop interrupting people. How do you give yourself credit for not doing something? Does it count if you’re in the shower? Or do you have to be experiencing an impulse and noticing that you fought it off? That doesn’t sound like total transformation to me. Hmm... Finally I decided that instead of a stop goal, I could rephrase it as a personal value: Become a world-class listener.
That was indeed transformational! I found in myself a very strong ability to draw stories forth from people who didn’t even know what they had. I’m in high demand as an evaluator in Toastmasters, all because I finally learned to listen deeply for five to seven minutes without interrupting. People have been known to burst into tears and hug me after I’ve listened carefully to them.
That’s the approach I like to use toward a stop goal. Right now, for 2019, my stop goal is: Stop being sick and tired.
Oh, you say, you’re just going to magically not get the common cold? You’re just going to magically fall asleep more easily, sleep through your abominable upstairs neighbors stomping around at 4:30 AM, and just... not be tired?
Yeah, pretty much. The only thing magical about the approach, besides my belief that it is fundamentally possible, is that I allow myself a full year to work on this type of project. I don’t consider it (or myself) a failure if I haven’t made progress by the third week of January.
Don’t get hung up on the negative. That’s a negative way of saying that pessimism and cynicism are their own punishments. As long as I’m thinking of my “problem” in terms of “insomnia” and “sleep disorder” and “illness” and “burnout” and “tired” and “exhausted,” I’m stuck. I’m not seeing past the ordinary. Being tired is a nearly universal problem in our culture! Also, they don’t call it the common cold for nothing.
What I want is the opposite of tired, the opposite of the common cold, whatever the heck that is. The nature of my stop goals is that I’ll only understand after I’ve spent considerable time focusing and bringing my full attention to the issue. Or maybe I could call it the subject of interest. Or the entertainment of the year. Or... the spectacle! The spectacle of my imminent transformation into... something different! A someone, a someone who is not preoccupied with exhaustion and illness.
I’ve actually already made considerable strides into my project, and I’m testing out a bunch of unrelated approaches, which I’ll list. This is profoundly, deeply, extravagantly important. ANY COMPLICATED PROBLEM ALWAYS INVOLVES A BUNCH OF STUFF.
Example: when I decided to test out the “healthy weight for my height,” it turned out there were at least eight different reasons why I tended to gain and keep excess body weight. Even making radical changes to the first three or four wasn’t enough to take me all the way. That’s what keeps me going: the experiment, the mental puzzle of the experiment and the process itself.
The thing about exploration is that, by definition, I can’t know how I’ll feel about the result until I get there. I can’t picture how the destination will look, especially if that destination is a fantasy, a mental figment where nobody else has been. Maybe I’m creating a new thought.
SleepQuest 2019, initial planning stage:
Research. Results: Quickly accumulated folder of sleep articles. Melatonin use fell under suspicion. Tested going without it. Surprise success. (More on this in future posts).
Acquire testing equipment: Fitbit Flex 2 and Fitbit app.
Brainstorm experiment parameters with bed partner, aka husband. Results: husband trains dog to quit whining at 5:00 AM by getting up for several days and telling him No. Husband sets reminder to self to stop reading the news by 9:00 PM. (More on this in future posts). I realize I need to drink an extra 12 oz of water by afternoon each day.
Create starter bedtime routine. Results: realize I need to start winding down an hour earlier.
Analyze sleep environment. Results: add item to bedtime routine to turn down heater.
Possible confounding factors: We started cooking from scratch again and upped our garlic consumption to previous levels. Seems to be helping on the cold front.
Cumulative results: I am no longer waking up and losing 90 minutes most nights; Fitbit says I’m down to just 17 minutes. The dog is no longer waking me up at 5 or 5:30 most mornings. I’m back in the gym and my energy level is already better.
SleepQuest 2019 is already a success, as far as I’m concerned. I’m averaging 7.76 hours of sleep a night over the past three weeks. (I’m skeptical about this, as the device thinks I’m “asleep” even when I do something like get out of bed, cross the room, and turn down the heater). I still have rough nights, and I still want to see if I can hit an average of 9 hours, at least for a week, just to remember what it’s like. There are still eleven months to go, so I’m going to keep going on... SleepQuest 2019!
I use a lot of apps to stay organized, and by ‘organized’ I mean “to keep my brain from floating off into space like a weather balloon.” It took me a long time to find these apps, and there are probably eight I tested for every one that I use. That’s why I’m sharing here.
There are also perfectly fine analog versions, or other ways to track the same habits and information I do without using a smartphone.
I use an iPhone because I tried Android and didn’t like it. Like everything else, it’s personal preference, so if my recommendations aren’t available on Android then maybe you can find something similar. Several of these are paid. I’m willing to pay for apps that work because it’s still less than the price of a magazine, and comparable to a lot of drinks and snacks I have nothing to show for after I buy them.
Lockscreen if I need to catch my own attention on an early morning, when I’m essentially half-moss for the first couple of hours and unable to manage my usual system. You can do this by taping a note to your bathroom mirror, something large-format if you need corrective lenses. I have been known to try to stick notes directly to the front of my phone.
CallProtect to block spam and fraud phone calls. How DO people deal with that if they don’t have a smartphone? How do they avoid getting woken up if they can’t set quiet hours on their phone? (I actually know the answer to this because I grew up with a rotary phone, but I like to forget those days).
WaterMinder to track my hydration, because if I don’t drink enough water early enough, it interferes with my sleep. You can track your water intake simply by always using the same size of container (cup, glass, mug, bottle, pitcher) and counting how many times you empty it.
MorningRoutine to help integrate new habits and keep me from wandering around while I brush my teeth. You can do the same thing with a checklist and a stopwatch.
Mint to track all my bank accounts and my portfolio. You can do this with a ledger or a spreadsheet, although it’s a lot more work.
MyFitnessPal for weigh-ins and a food log. You can do this with paper and a website or a paperback book of nutritional information, but it takes a while.
Thyme to set timers on multiple washers and dryers. Most people would either do this with a clock, not have to use a laundromat in the first place, or maybe just leave their wet clothes in the machine?
TripIt for trip planning. My husband loves this so much that it practically brings tears to his eyes. I put together an itinerary with all the addresses and reservation times and share it with him. Then all he has to do is whip out his phone and order a cab. You can do this with paper and a folder.
Transit for knowing when the bus is coming. Even though we ride one of the most irregular buses in the known galaxy, Transit has pretty good intel on when the darn thing is actually coming up the road.
Clear for my list of book recommendations. I usually see them slightly before they’re released, so I can’t request them from the library for a few weeks. This is a beautiful app and very useful for basic lists. I could use Notes, but it’s just so pretty. A paper list of books to read? Mine used to fill an entire spiral notebook, but knock yourself out if that’s how you want to do it. Or just buy them and stack them up until they fill your entire house.
Reminders to remind me to do things during normal business hours, such as making a business call, texting someone who I’m sure doesn’t want to hear from me at 11PM, or doing something in our apartment’s business center when it’s open. Most people do this with sticky notes, but in my experience mine always come unstuck and drift to the floor.
Notes for every darn thing. I do with the Notes app what I used to do with index cards, looseleaf paper, spiral notebooks, sticky notes, and the backs of envelopes. The main difference is that I always have all my notes with me. I don’t lose them and they don’t get thrown out or shuffled into books when I need a bookmark. I can do a keyword search, too, and find the note I want in about one second. The result of this is that in the past four years, rather than just have a scattered billow of little tiny notes, instead I have a blog, a podcast, a self-published book, and a book proposal in progress.
MinimaList for when I have a list of stuff that makes me want to procrastinate. Make the list, tap an item, and a pomodoro timer starts for 25 minutes. It has a range of snarky messages and it will tell you off if you pick up your phone while it’s in focus mode. Racing against a timer is a gamification method that works for me.
Switching to a smartphone changed my life. It ended a fifteen-year streak of never reading or replying to my email. It helped me to start being on time or early to things, because I could check the weather, estimate transit time, and know I wouldn’t be bored in a waiting room anymore. It gave me a way to take photographs and make illustrations that I never would have before. My analog life was messy without the art, while my digital life is more creative without quite as much mess. I look forward to how much future innovation will inform my process, while somewhat shuddering at how it used to be before I turned 35 and got this electronic brain annex.
I thought it was easy and obvious. I saw my manager at work and I knew I could do a better job than she did. I was eighteen and quite sure my inevitable promotion would soon be announced. Since I was the smartest person in the room, it was just a matter of time.
Time taught me otherwise. Even if I hadn’t been clueless and arrogant as a teenager, a temp in my first office job, I wouldn’t have been promoted because I had no track record. Simple as that. There was a long list of other issues I would have to overcome, none of which were obvious to me at the time, but the main one was that I couldn’t point to a timeline of accomplishments.
What I learned in many years of temping was how many different ways there are for an organization to be dysfunctional. I learned how many different ways there are for a manager to be a team’s biggest obstacle to success. I learned how to discourage employees and create a toxic culture. I worked in companies of all sizes in various industries. I worked for nonprofits, in government, and in industry. I worked for bosses I adored and admired, and I worked for bosses who made me break out in hives.
I learned what a rarity it is to have a job with a great boss in a great company.
People quit bosses, not jobs, and it will probably always be this way. The basic assumption in the workplace is that employees are lazy thieves who have to be watched and goaded. The performance review process is in place to protect the organization from liability in case it has to fire someone for cause, such as gross incompetence or insubordination.
It would be nice if more resources were put into developing leadership and communication abilities in management, if more emphasis were placed on encouraging positive qualities throughout the team. Another way of saying that is, lead with the carrot, not with the stick. Or find out if the team even likes carrots; maybe they’d rather have a pickle.
What if you had a nice boss who liked you and wanted to pull you forward? What if you had a nice boss who always wanted to hear your ideas? What if that nice boss then helped you develop those ideas and bring them to top management, making sure you got the credit?
What would that do for the company?
Considering all of that, is the company where you work a place that you believe is deserving of your maximum contribution?
Do you really want to get promoted at all? Or are you looking for a way to deal with your feelings of resentment and dissatisfaction?
Recognizing when things are bad in your organization is a strong leadership trait. It’s only one among many, though, so you’ll need to work on it.
I spent twenty years volunteering in an organization that I finally realized was deeply dysfunctional. I understood that my contributions never would be recognized or rewarded. After a crisis that I felt was badly mishandled, I left without a second glance. Nobody asked me to come back.
I found a new home in another organization, where I was asked to take a leadership role within just months, and invited to promote up a level twice in two years.
What changed? It wasn’t me. From my perspective, I continued to do what I have always done. I simply quit a good position in a bad organization and took up a good position in a good organization.
What are traits that will hold someone back from a promotion? There are many, and the people who have them tend not to realize that they’ll have to make major changes before they can move forward. That’ll be true no matter where they go.
Bad traits: Rejecting the fundamental values and vision of the organization, but staying. Failing to understand why leadership makes the decisions it does. Working at cross purposes with leadership, with managers, and with other team members. Lack of follow-through. (Once is enough to put someone on the Unreliable list). Disregarding the flow of communication by skipping meetings, ignoring announcements, failing to return calls and correspondence, not reading email, and interrupting or being disruptive. Complaining without offering solutions. Criticizing others without supporting others. Demonstrating greater loyalty to something else besides the mission, such as a hobby or politics. Making the organization, management, or teammates look bad. Generally being a pain in the neck.
Neutral traits: Not being interested in leadership. Not particularly wanting to advance. Not having time, due to caretaking responsibilities, continuing education, or other situational issues.
What does it take to get promoted?
Fitting in with the culture, for good or ill
Making your boss look good, even if you disrespect that person or disagree with their methods
Working above and beyond your remit
Effectively being regarded as already doing higher-level work (beware: a toxic company will simply let you do extra work without compensation, forever)
Earning the loyalty and support of your peers, sometimes (and watch out, because if your boss likes you and your peers don’t, they’ll frag you)
Demonstrating that you understand the organization’s vision and mission
Making it obvious why promoting you will improve the bottom line and solve problems that are important to the organization
Asking for the promotion and making the case why it should be yours.
Looking back at the twenty-five years I have spent in the working world, I understand that there were so many things that held me back. First, I never chose a single, extremely specific thing that I wanted to do. Second, I did not look like an A player in terms of wardrobe and hairstyle. Third, my health issues made me unreliable, despite my overall dedication and work ethic. I corrected all of those issues and shifted my allegiance to a worthwhile organization.
At that point, it was just a matter of time.
The 5-Second Rule is the sort of book that makes people pop up and exclaim, “LOVE IT!!” (That’s an actual quote from one of my mentees). It’s fair to say that this book changes lives, and the reason is that it includes dozens of real-life examples. The format includes screenshots of comments, text messages, and emails from people who have used the 5-second rule to transform their most difficult problems.
These problems include everything from basic procrastination and hitting the snooze button too many times, to battling addiction and suicidal ideation. No matter what’s weighing on your mind, there’s someone in this book who has confronted a similar type of trouble.
There are so many great things to love about this book. One is that it’s research-based, and Mel Robbins introduces techniques and terminology that are not just helpful, but also fresh and hard to find mentioned elsewhere. An example is anxiety reappraisal, such as explaining to yourself that you’re not scared, you’re excited! I’ve been teaching that in Toastmasters without realizing that there was a formal name for it in psychology.
Another great feature of The 5-Second Rule is that its design allows for dipping in and out. Even one page of this book could provide an emotional lift for someone who was feeling stuck. I’d go so far as to say that even the cover would make a good touchstone, a reminder to apply the 5-second rule to any situation.
This book feels like the missing piece to so much of what I teach. I work with chronic disorganization and hoarding, and I wish I had known about The 5-Second Rule much sooner. I absolutely know that it would be so helpful to so many people. I started using it myself before I had even finished reading the book. Pick it up for yourself and see if it works the same way for you.
“Change comes down to the courage you need every day to make five second decisions.”
“You are one decision away from a completely different life.”
“Procrastination is not a form of laziness at all. It’s a coping mechanism for stress.”
“I’ll still be the same person” is one of the weirdest things I think people say, aside from referring to “my body” as a separate entity. There’s this concern that change will make someone worse, somehow. That letting go of one of our cute habits will make us, what? Less fun? Less lovable? Less ourselves, in such a way that we might not even be recognizable.
Staying the same in every way, is that how to be authentic?
Is it some kind of expression of integrity, never changing?
I’ve always been mystified by this, because most of the changes I’ve tried so hard to make have been for the benefit of others. Interrupting less, being late less often, following through and keeping my commitments. Would it be better to “be the real me” if it meant sometimes hurting people through sheer ineptness?
In some ways, I’m exactly the same person I was at two years old. I loved books then and I love books now. I was transfixed by birds then and they still delight me today. I loved pickles then and I’m sure I always will. In those ways, there’s a continuous thread of personality that anyone in my family could recognize.
In other ways, why on Earth would I want to have anything in common with Child Me? The me who couldn’t bathe or dress herself, who couldn’t make a slice of toast or control her emotions?
At what point do we decide that we’re DONE, that we’re fully formed and that we mustn’t change anymore?
In my case, never, I hope. I like changing for the sake of change. I like experimenting. I like exploring and trying things out. If I ever felt that I had to behave in the same way, speak in the same way, and think the same thoughts for the rest of my life, I’d run screaming for the door in a last-ditch attempt to change my identity.
I don’t see a risk in changing myself. That’s because I remember what I was like when I was younger, and how many of my attitudes and habits made life more difficult, both for me and for people around me. See that list of lateness, interrupting, procrastinating, and all the rest.
Age is supposed to make us wiser, and in a lot of ways I think that happens automatically. We learn how to do very, very complicated things like tying our shoes, drinking out of cups without spilling juice down our shirts, waiting in line without throwing a tantrum, accepting critiques at work, dealing with rejection, and avoiding fights with belligerent people. We just get better at doing things, and those things include getting along with others.
We see the consequences of doing certain things, and at a certain point we don’t want any part of that.
The dark side of this is when we change, we’ve changed, we have a track record of changing for the better. Yet, for reasons of human frailty, the people around us don’t buy it. They continue to see us the way we were in the past, maybe even decades into the past.
No amount of deeds, words, or thoughts will ever convince a clique of fixed-mindset people that someone has changed for the better. That’s because it’s much too much fun to gossip about people. Is there anything in the world that’s more fun than chastising, lecturing, correcting, telling off, or scolding someone?
Witness the way that average people will sometimes bother a disabled person or leave nasty notes on their vehicle because they don’t think that person “looks handicapped.”
That one I never understood. I’m neither a doctor nor a meter maid. How am I supposed to know who is or is not disabled? Who’s going to pay me to be the enforcer when I have so many other things to do? What is this sick relish that people have for bothering people who are 99.999% likely to have very serious problems already?
Ahh, the desire to PUNISH must be so much stronger than any fear of hurting the innocent. Juicy, juicy punishment.
What does that come from? Conformity. Group norms. People have a deep-seated need to feel safe, secure, and “normal” according to what they perceive as group rules.
That’s why gossip is popular, even though it’s mean and people hate being on the receiving end. We need to keep proving that we fit in and belong with our group.
That means never improving, either!
Being different isn’t safe. Other people hate it because “you’re making the rest of us look bad.” The majority will always pull back the person who is getting ahead. It isn’t very fair, is it?
Stand out because you’re less... whatever... less annoying, less loud, less gossipy, or you smoke less or eat less fried food... If someone else in your social circle thinks you’re “winning” or gaining status, there’s an almost biological command to pull you down.
On the inner level, maybe there’s a similar identification. That “self-improvement” is vain, arrogant, shallow, selfish, preachy, pretentious, boring, uncool, elitist, or deluded.
The great thing about being dedicated to change is that it eventually separates out the like-minded from the... from the like-minded! People who want everything and everyone to stay the same will flock together. They’ll work hard to maintain one standard and force everyone to fit in. People who believe in change and growth will find themselves in a different group.
Growth-mindset people wind up outside the group of the fixed-mindset people for three reasons. One, they climbed there; two, they were in the process of being pushed out; and three, the fixed group didn’t follow or try to keep up.
That’s why it’s always fine to change, especially for the better. Wouldn’t we want those people we judged so harshly to stop doing whatever it was that was so wrong? Wouldn’t we want the “bad guys” to stop being bad? What would it look like, to give people room to change?
It’s fine to change because that’s why we’re all here in this vale of tears in the first place. It’s our duty and our mission.
It’s fine to change because change is authentic. You can still “be the same person” and be the “real you” if you’re kinder, wiser, more patient, or any other quality that matters to you. If you move in a positive direction, maybe the group will move with you.
Bleeding from a cut on the bridge of my nose, forehead visibly bruised, sporting my first black eye, anyone could see I’d been hit in the face a couple of times.
I sat down on the mat with my classmates, who had already taken their turn through the ordeal in the other room. Since this was a special workshop, we had a few members of the community who don’t train at the school. One of these women turned to me.
“Ooh, your husband will be so mad!”
It took me a moment to figure out what she meant. Oh, he’s going to be mad because I just got a black eye? Why?
Seriously, it didn’t compute. I had to shift a few mental gears to figure out where she was coming from. Oh, okay, I think I get it. He’ll be mad because he wasn’t comfortable with me taking physical risks and now my face is damaged. Maybe you think he’ll be mad because the school should have protected me more? Or because I didn’t listen to him when he tried to tell me what to do? Not sure, but I think I understand now.
“Oh, no,” I told her, “on the contrary. He loves it. He’s going to be so excited!” I explained that my husband loves fighter chicks, that if I ever became a ring competitor he would probably quit his job so he could follow me to my matches and help me train. In point of fact, he was the one who signed me up for the class, because he found out there was an open spot before I did.
I try to imagine a husband who doesn’t like the fact that I study self-defense.
Then I realize that I should be imagining a man who is angry, a man whose anger dictates what I do or don’t do.
Okay, yeah. I did do that. I thought pretty hard before getting married for the second time, but I also thought pretty hard back in my single days. I explain that I used to have a talk with guys I would date. It went like this:
“If you ever lay a hand on me in violence, I will press charges and tell your mom and your boss. Just saying.”
This is blowing the mind of my young classmate, who in her twenties and from her cultural background may never have been told that you get to choose what you tolerate. You get to lay down the law in your life. You get to accept and reject at will. You determine what treatment you will and will not allow.
Here’s the thing about my husband. He has spent his life doing impact sports, including football, ice hockey, boxing, karate, and armored combat. He is trained to fight with guns, knives, daggers, and swords, not to mention mass weapons or siege engines. He’s twice my size and he knows how to sharpen a chainsaw.
If I were ever afraid of him, I would have changed my identity and moved to Australia. The only chance I have against someone like him is if I have an axe, or a cannon.
Why would I marry someone who scares me?
Why would I share a bed with someone if I had to fear his moods, if I felt intimidated by his anger?
If I thought his anger would be directed at me?
Me? His wife, his friend, his ally?
I married this man because I wanted him on my zombie apocalypse squad. Not because I was worried he’d do things to me if he ever threw a tantrum about something.
I don’t do coercive control. I can’t stand being told what to do. I started making it clear twenty years ago that anyone who wanted to date me would have to be cool with my boundaries.
I would explain that I had a pathologically jealous boyfriend when I was nineteen, who always thought I was lying and cheating when I got together with one or another of my many male relatives. I needed to make it clear that I talk to my brothers for hours on the phone, that I have a vast and close extended family, but also that I sometimes have dinner or trade five-page emails with my exes. I travel alone and I do what I want pretty much 99% of the time. A jealous man should never try to be involved with someone like me.
I spend a lot of my time on the challenge path, doing things deliberately because they intimidate me so I can quit being scared. I have jumped over open flame, hiked in bear country, crawled under barbed wire, climbed a rope, waded through mud, and, yeah, gotten hit in the face a few times.
I’m not going to let a smack in the mouth slow me down. Got that?
I do this training because I’m a distance runner and I like to run at night. My response to challenge and limits is to dig in my heels and double down.
I also do this training as a mercy to my poor husband, because he worries. Even when I take the dog, he worries when I run at night. (Not enough to train with me, *wink*). I asked him how he felt about my decision to study Krav Maga. He said, “relieved.” No hesitation. That was when I found out how much it tormented him to leave me alone at night when he travels on business.
We do well to understand the weight of responsibility that a traditionally acculturated male feels to protect and defend his dependents. It’s hard on a man. That doesn’t mean he gets to circumscribe my territory or dictate where I do or don’t go. It doesn’t mean he’s allowed to control my time, my friendships, or my activities. When I step up as an equal partner, ready to take responsibility for my own physical safety, I shoulder some of the load and allow him to walk free.
I went home to my husband after the special workshop, the one where I got a black eye. It looked like someone hit me in the face with a clothes iron. Bruises on every limb. He greeted me with a bag of ice, a smoothie, and a thousand calories of hot food. He looked me over.
“I got a little marked up,” I said.
“I’m proud of you,” he said. “I’m so glad you took that class.”
Hey habit nerds, here ya go! This is my own highly personalized system. How do I find the time in the day to do all the things I do? What is it that I do, anyway?
Over the course of a year, I put up five blog posts a week, review about 50 books (and read a couple hundred), put out a specialized tech newsletter for aerospace engineers five days a week, and record a podcast up to six days a week. I’m training in Krav Maga, Muay Thai, and situational combatives (a.k.a. weapons class). I do consulting work with chronic disorganization and hoarding. I’m an area director overseeing five regional clubs while I finish the requirements to become a Distinguished Toastmaster, and I’m also a club coach. I’m at my goal weight, I keep a clean house, and I journal every night. Believe it or not, these are just my side projects!
There are some tricks involved with all of this, which I’ll share before I get all “inside baseball” on my actual routines and habits.
I started out as a classic ADHD-leaning, chronically disorganized person with some chronic health issues. It took several years to discover the hidden gifts of my situation. The first among these is to stop tolerating boring or unsatisfying uses of my time. The reason I do all the projects I do is that they interest me more than binge-watching anything, recreational shopping, or unstructured errands. I used to spend a lot of time poking around with different productivity systems, and at this point I’m pretty sure I’ve tried and rated them all.
I do everything in time blocks.
I publish about 1000 pages a year on my blog. Almost all of that is done on weekend mornings while I hang out at the cafe with my husband. He often has to bring his work laptop and do expense reports or that kind of thing, so it’s a way for us to be together on the same wavelength. My standard is to work three weeks ahead and auto-schedule so I don’t have to write or post on vacation.
My husband travels quite a lot for business, so when he’s out of town, I work into the evening. When he’s home, we lounge around talking for hours. That’s my motivation for getting as much done as possible while he’s away.
The tech newsletter is a natural outgrowth of my reading habit. It started because I was sharing so many articles with my husband that he wanted to pass along to his colleagues, that I finally just offered to format them and send them in daily batches. All I do is save the good stuff to a system of categorized folders, and then copy and paste them into a template. It takes about ten minutes a day and makes (us) look like a genius. Usually I do it while I eat breakfast.
The podcast is a new part of my overall workflow. I’ve been challenged with it because I live next to a marina, in a tiny studio apartment, beneath a busy young family with a dog. There are perpetual construction projects, boat horns, weed whackers, car alarms, film shoots, and even a fashion model shooting a portfolio six feet outside my door. In other words, IT IS LOUD and I have to fit in recording sessions when it seems like it will be quiet enough for an hour.
Martial arts training happens in a single hour-long time slot three to six days a week. It’s the main time-bound part of my routine. The warmups are HIIT (high intensity interval training), so they will continue to get more intense as my fitness level increases. The belt system provides a lot of structure and challenge. I train with my husband now, so it doubles as date night!
Since we don’t drive, every time we go anywhere it’s a way to get something else done. Our commute back and forth to the gym is a bicycle ride along the beach, a fun and romantic part of our evening. Most of my time on the bus is my “helmet time” for outlining speeches, reading the news, and writing book reviews. If we had a car, how much of that would get done? Zero.
It’s much, much easier and more efficient to maintain anything than to try to reach a goal. All I have to do to maintain my goal weight and keep my apartment organized is to avoid the basic pitfalls. Do roughly the same thing every day. Laundry on Monday and Thursday, keep the dishwasher loaded, clean the bathroom for 12 minutes every week, start the robot vacuum when I leave. Eat the same size of breakfast, lunch, and dinner most days. Boom, done.
I currently use a Cossac day planner and... we’re getting married. Kidding, kinda. What I like about it the best is that it builds in a daily and weekly review, and that encourages strategic thinking. What did I attempt, did it work, and why or why not? With the amount of content I generate between the blog, the podcast, and my (ahem) ...other... projects, I need something very structured to track what I’m developing and posting and editing and formatting and illustrating and when. I check in when I first get up and also before I go to bed, with a longer weekly session on Sunday nights. That’s when I do my journaling, just a couple of minutes most days but sometimes several pages of rapid-fire ranting.
I use my phone to capture random thoughts, blog topics, and podcast ideas. I’m also constantly bookmarking articles, downloading podcast episodes, or reserving library ebooks and audio books as I learn about them. When it’s time to kick back with some entertainment, I don’t have to spend the “junk hours” scrolling that most people do, because that has happened a few seconds at a time throughout the week. The most important thing I do with my phone is to set my notifications and quiet hours to distract me as little as possible, while unsubscribing from email and blocking spam callers every single day, like smacking mosquitos.
I don’t have a “morning routine” because every day of the seven, I have a slightly different schedule. I certainly do not wake up early! I don’t meditate, I don’t put yak butter in my coffee or whatever, I don’t do “cleanses” (except my house), and I don’t do social media detoxes. If anything, I’d say what works the best for me is that I don’t spend five hours a day watching television, I don’t spend two hours a day on social media, I rarely eat snacks or restaurant food, and I sleep as much as I possibly, possibly can. I work outside of the time dimension as much as I can get away with, trying to make clocks and calendars more or less irrelevant to how I work.
How do you afford your rock and roll lifestyle? More to the point, how does everyone in your social media feed afford theirs?
How do you know they actually even CAN?
I can spin two different narratives about my lifestyle. If I enjoyed having my picture taken, which I don’t, I could fill Instagram with pictures of myself hanging out in the hot tub in a bikini, grinning under palm trees, working out in our brand-new gym with a view of the sun setting redly over the sea, and whale-watching while walking our “purebred” dog.
The other version involves pictures of our 1970’s-era studio apartment, the one with the popcorn ceiling and shag carpet and the loud young family upstairs. It involves pictures of us carrying eight loads of laundry a week to another building and up and down two flights of stairs. It involves our poor, elderly dog and a lot of extremely graphic photos of the days when he isn’t feeling well.
The truth is that there are always multiple versions you can tell about anyone’s life. It depends on how that person chooses to shape the story. Some people have no idea how fortunate they are, others like to pretend they are even more so, and some prefer to cast themselves as woebegone scapegoats no matter the facts.
It all gets so much easier when you quit comparing yourself to others and simply ask how you feel about how your own life is going. Do your values match your behavior and your choices?
My husband and I made a series of executive decisions about our lifestyle, starting before we even got married. Starting, in fact, before we even started dating in the first place! We first connected as friends and lunch buddies because we were both struggling financially. By the time we hugged for the first time, we already knew all about each other’s money lives. We were coaching each other through strategic decisions very early on.
He tied me to a chair and fed me takeout Chinese food while forcing me to apply for better jobs, more than once. I browbeat him into increasing his 401(k) contribution and going back to his family lawyer about his custody arrangements. We weren’t “in a relationship” yet.
That background of friendship and financial transparency made it easier when we started making joint decisions. We learned to communicate and trade off leadership and advocate for our ideas.
He pitched that we move in together and get married. I pitched that we consider relocating for his career if the right opportunity came up. He pitched moving within walking distance of his work. I pitched getting rid of the car entirely. He pitched moving to the beach. I pitched becoming financially independent. Et cetera.
Over the - OH MY GOSH - it’ll be TEN YEARS of marriage this year - twelve years we’ve been together, we’ve gradually and steadily built our financial net worth and expanded our careers while downsizing our material life. Overall it’s one upgrade after another, but to be fair, there are tradeoffs. There are always tradeoffs. We consider them, and sometimes we vote them down, and other times we shrug and move forward.
Upgrade: We live a quarter mile from the beach!
Tradeoff: and drunk tourists wander past our front door singing at 2:30 AM.
Upgrade: We have a pool and a hot tub!
Tradeoff: and upstairs neighbors.
Upgrade: We don’t have to spend the weekend mowing the lawn or taking care of the yard.
Tradeoff: but we do have to haul all our dirty clothes to a laundry room.
Upgrade: We live a few yards from a gorgeous, brand-new gym.
Tradeoff: and we have to share it with 400 other people, most of whom have... habits.
Upgrade: We save 40% of our income.
Tradeoff: and we don’t have a car.
Upgrade: We don’t have a mortgage!
Tradeoff: or any equity.
Upgrade: We are both members of an upscale kickboxing gym.
Tradeoff: (and we get punched in the face) and we don’t have pay cable.
Upgrade: Our student loans are all paid off.
Tradeoff: (and we’re middle-aged) and we don’t order pizza delivery or drink alcohol.
What we’ve done is to prioritize our lifestyle in ways that other people don’t. We both decided that the worst parts of our life were 1. Financial pressure and 2. My husband’s daily freeway commute to work. So we got rid of them.
We traded 3/4 of our physical space and 80% of our stuff (even our really, really cool stuff like swords and an antique sewing machine, his hockey gear and my yarn collection, and almost all our books) to move to the beach and not have a commute.
We traded what most people consider a default, totally normal lifestyle of watching cable TV, ordering delivery food, going out, and shopping at Target for the so-not-sexy choice of putting our retirement first.
It means we cook at home instead of hitting the drive-thru. (In what, a go-kart?) It means we sit around talking instead of watching shows or playing around on a game system. It means I don’t get manicures or color my hair, and he doesn’t watch pay-per-view hockey or go out to lunch at work.
It also means we can go buck wild on vacation, four-star all the way!
There are lots and lots of different ways to be frugal, and none of them are wrong. What’s wrong is tossing and turning at night because your money worries are eating you alive. What’s wrong is killing a relationship because two people can’t communicate, can’t work as a team, and can’t stop fighting about where the money goes. I mean, not morally wrong, just... not great.
At the New Year, my husband and I sat down and did our annual review and set our intentions, like we have as long as we’ve been together. (My pitch). We made some baller choices and some smaller choices. I upgraded my computer and he’s shopping for a motorcycle for his birthday. We also agreed to do meal prep. The cost of the motorbike has derived from not owning a car for two years; it’s already paid for even though he hasn’t picked it out yet. My new iMac was, quite frankly, a lot less than the cost of a year’s worth of salon visits, manicures, makeup, fake eyelashes, handbags, and shoes I can’t walk in. In a 612-square-foot studio apartment, I don’t have anywhere to put half those things in the first place.
The meal prep will save us the cost of our next Vegas weekend, no problem.
We can make two cases for our lifestyle, the tightwad version and the high-end envy extraction version. Neither version is even remotely true without the other half. All we do is to pull back and take the strategic view on a regular basis. We do it at the New Year, we do it at our weekly status meetings over breakfast, and we do it every time a choice point comes up like a call from a professional corporate headhunter. We trade off one financial priority for another, upgrading all the way.
Steven Pressfield has done it again. The Artist’s Journey is another touchstone so condensed and powerful that simply looking at the cover can reignite the inspiration it originally sparked.
I got chills as I read this book. Yes, nod, I agree, yeah, OH WAIT, that changes everything! Unable to dispute any of his assertions, I find myself led along by Pressfield until suddenly confronted with some seriously mind-altering concepts about what it means to be a working artist.
If you haven’t read The War of Art yet, what is stopping you? Artist, non-artist, it doesn’t matter. Pressfield does a phenomenal job of describing the Resistance, that inner feeling that stops us from doing anything interesting or important. I find it highly relevant that he breaks through his own lifetime of procrastination and irrelevance by washing a sink full of dirty dishes. Recognizing that feeling when it comes up makes it much easier to take action and break free.
Carrying on from there, what do you do after you’ve learned how to dispel the Resistance most of the time?
The Artist’s Journey carries on from that point, explaining in practical terms how someone can find and draw down that steady stream of creative inspiration. Pressfield assures us that no work is too inconsequential, that everything we make matters, because it is the work itself that makes us.
I’m still very much under the spell of this book and I can’t stop flipping back and forth through it. Like a couple of his others, I know I’ll read it again and refer to it often. This one is a keeper.
We have wasted enough years avoiding our calling.
“I don’t have a spirit raccoon.”
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.
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