A list of all my daily habits would be a long one. It would also change several times over the course of a year. I am constantly experimenting on myself, testing out life hacks, rejiggering my schedule, downloading and deleting apps, and reading articles that impel me to change something I am doing. A habit is much like a meal to me. While I always eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner, what I eat from one day to the next may be wildly different. Eating the three meals is a policy.
Here are some of my policies, the reasons I follow them, and the habits that accompany them.
Policy: Sleep 8 hours. I was a childhood-onset insomniac, and I have several parasomnias, including pavor nocturnus. Sleep is the Holy Freaking Grail of my life. Why anyone would sleep less than necessary boggles my mind. Everything else I do revolves around whether it helps or hinders my sleep.
Habits: Set an alarm to remind me to take melatonin and go to bed. Keep the bedroom as cozy and relaxing as possible. Drink most of my water before 3 PM so I don’t wake up to pee. Avoid eating after 8 PM, don’t overeat, and avoid spicy foods. Force myself to stay away if I’m tired, because every hour of napping costs me 2-3 hours of real sleep.
Policy: Eat healthy food, avoid junk food. I used to be obese and I have recovered from fibromyalgia and thyroid disease. The tradeoff of eating whatever I want, in unlimited quantities, is emphatically not worth it. Food rewards are for dogs.
Habits: Keep a food log. Eat cruciferous vegetables every day. Eat oatmeal for breakfast. If there is a vegetable, eat it. Eat restaurant food no more than 2x a week, usually only once a week. Eat a consistent quantity at each meal. Avoid sweets and processed food. Weigh in every day. If weight is up >2 lbs, cut snacks for a few days until back to normal.
Policy: Exercise at the highest level possible. Strenuous exercise saved my life. Having suffered from chronic pain and fatigue, I will do anything, absolutely anything, to improve my fitness level. The triumph I feel at having run a marathon is doubled, because I know I started below zero. Also, I live for adventure, and being fit enables me to go on backpacking expeditions.
Habits: Always take the stairs. Lift heavy objects. Spend as little time sitting as possible. Try to be 1% more active than the day before. Aim to be fitter, faster, stronger, and more agile every year. Do one pull-up every day. Follow a training schedule. Only workouts within the last 24 hours count. (I might be running, walking, using the elliptical or treadmill, doing body weight exercises, following a workout DVD, hiking, or going to a gym or fitness class).
Policy: Keep a clean and orderly house. Everything is easier in a clean house, including keeping it that way. I see leaving piles of laundry and dishes as a horrible way to punish myself, create additional work, lose track of important objects, incite quarrels, and generally feel distracted, guilty, and embarrassed.
Habits: Follow a chore schedule every weekday. Avoid clutter. Set speed records. Keep weekends free.
Policy: Track metrics. I’ve learned that my ability to guesstimate anything I do is nonexistent. When in doubt, add data. I find the Quantified Self movement intriguing. I use smartphone apps to log what I eat, how I spend my time, my exercise, what I read, my weight, my finances, and whether I kept my keystone habits each day. The result is that I’m fit, my house is clean, I have a positive financial net worth, and I can focus on creative work, rather than tormenting myself over all the persistent problems I had in my 20s. (Obese, chronically disorganized, flat broke, and ill).
Habits: Use Reminders, MyFitnessPal, RunKeeper, Hours, Way of Life, Mint, and WinStreak.
Most people seem to regard habits like mine as obsessive, strict, conformist, boring, excessive, or too demanding. They feel like changing habits would mean changing their core personality. I felt that way, too, when I was younger. The way I live now is the result of years of experimentation. Each habit was layered atop my other habits. They reinforce each other. Every morning, I wake up in a strong body and a clean house. I follow a system that maintains my chosen lifestyle with the minimum amount of effort. The majority of my time is spent doing whatever the heck I want. For me, it’s the same idea as spending a few minutes a week gassing up your car.
I just learned about the concept of couple convergence. It means that partners become more alike the longer they are together, specifically their eating and health habits. This made me smile, because after eight years as a couple, my husband and I seem to have picked up more of each other’s good habits than bad habits. Some of this convergence happens naturally, by osmosis, and some of it happens the old-fashioned way, by debating and nagging.
Pet peeves are impossible to keep secret when you live with someone long enough. I’ve had over 30 roommates over the years, not including shared hotel rooms, and a spouse is kinda like Roommate to the Third Power. (You live together and share housekeeping, bills, and pets, but you also share your extended family, future destiny, luggage, Naked Stuff, and everything else). Avoid triggering someone’s pet peeve – or share one – and discover a new level of gratitude.
‘Idiot’ is my biggest pet peeve. I’m a Mensan, so I think it’s uncouth to insult someone’s intelligence level. When I hear someone call someone else an idiot, I think, “What are your credentials?” ‘Jerk’ is a different story – as far as I know, there is no organization for the upper 2% of nice people, although maybe there should be. In general, I won’t associate with anyone who shouts or slams doors, and that’s something I would always make clear at the beginning of any romantic relationship. My husband agrees, and temper tantrums have not been a problem for us. That is a huge help in tiptoeing through the minefield of scutwork negotiations. Nothing suggests door slamming quite like a stalemate over a sinkful of dirty dishes.
One of my husband’s pet peeves is seeing drinking glasses or teacups on the floor, because they might get kicked over or broken. I always used to do that. I’d be reading and set down my empty glass to carry into the kitchen next time I got up. I quit doing it because I love him, it’s a really minor thing to ask, and of course… [drumroll]… he had a point. The two major household issues he cares about are having a clean kitchen and being able to save as much as he wants toward retirement. I endorse both those things. That was a natural convergence that we both found reassuring and comforting.
It’s not so much that we learned to compromise and communicate during the course of our relationship, though we did. The way we were able to communicate was what drew us together, first as work buddies, then as friends, and very gradually as love interests. We have both been divorced, and we know the risks. We have a weekly status meeting and an official grievance procedure. We entered formal negotiations when we started talking about living in the same zip code. By the time we got married, we had spent over four years getting to know each other, complete with the pet peeves, bad habits, health issues, emotional baggage, clutter, and everything else that is part of the human condition.
We agreed on how we want our house to look. We agreed on how to divide responsibilities. We agreed on how to conduct our finances. We agreed on how to make major decisions, and minor ones. Most of the time, we can stay out of each other’s hair and pursue our own projects. It’s a form of respect. If I see him taking a nap or reading or aimlessly messing around with something, I feel a mixture of tenderness and amusement. It would be appalling if we spent our precious leisure hours bickering over something like taking out the trash or unloading the dishwasher. It’s about maximum enjoyment, and squalid conditions don’t really factor into most people’s dream lives.
Since we’ve been together, we’ve lost a combined total of 70 pounds (lifetime total: 105 and counting). We’ve paid off something like $30,000 of debt. He’s a lark and I’m a night owl, but sleeping in the same bed has shifted my schedule about 3 hours earlier, and we both sleep better and more than when we were single. We traded in our Cokes, frozen Oreos, and root beer floats for about triple the vegetables we used to eat. He turned me into an athlete. We’re both probably at the healthiest and most organized and productive we’ve ever been. Couple convergence has been great for us, partly because we’ve both lived the alternative.
Last week, I had the immense thrill of meeting Gretchen Rubin in person. She came to our area as part of her book tour promoting Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. I brought my husband, who wasn’t familiar with her work, so I know it’s not just my biased opinion that she is captivating and very gracious. If you get a chance to hear her speak, go for it. If not, her books are a reasonable substitute. The new podcast with Gretchen and her sister is also really funny.
Our event was structured as an interview, rather than a typical reading. The interviewer offered one of her own idiosyncratic habits for analysis. She said she kept clothes in her bathtub, both clean and dirty. This is a new one on me, but I instantly thought, “That’s my question! She’s definitely one of my people.” A habit like that doesn’t usually exist in a vacuum. I wondered how anyone could give a useful answer without touring the entire home and looking in the closets. But Gretchen Rubin did it.
The book is a tour de force. I don’t hesitate in saying that. I would rank it with Mindset by Carol Dweck, Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, and The End of Overeating by Dr. David Kessler, in the category of research-based books that can’t help but change one’s outlook on life. The insight about the Four Tendencies probably could have supported its own book, but that’s just the first chapter.
I’m a Questioner, and my husband is an Upholder. (I think his mom and his daughter are also Upholders, which is really interesting because I suspect Upholders are trained that way, in a secret philosophical lineage). The book mentions that Obligers and Rebels often partner together, and I wonder whether Upholders and Questioners do, too. Our scores were fairly close: in the Upholder category, he scored 10 and I scored 7; in the Questioner category, he scored 7 and I scored 9. We were both weak in the other categories. [Take the quiz online if you’re curious]. We’ve already started trying to guess the tendencies of other people we know, which is useful, especially in the workplace.
Anyway, enough about us. This is about Better Than Before. This book is absolutely jam-packed with insight and anecdotes and strategies. There really is something for everyone. It’s comforting to read examples of other people’s habits and think, Whoa, at least I don’t have to tackle that! For anyone who has ever tried to make or break a habit, but can’t seem to do it, this is the book. I mean, THIS IS THE BOOK.
The day I sprawled on the floor and started reading Alice in Wonderland all by myself was one of the greatest days of my life. It made such an impression on me that I set out a few days later to learn how to read two books at once. I would read one book with each eye. (If I had more than two eyes I would definitely have gone with it). I spent quite some time experimenting with this proposition. I tried overlapping the pages from two books, so the right-hand pages of one covered the left-hand pages of the other. That didn’t work. I tried layering pages to see if I could read through the paper, like a scrim or a palimpsest, and read two pages at once that way. No dice. I tried putting one book above the other, so I could read to the end of one page and continue onto the top of the page of the lower book. Nope. Finally I realized it was probably just too hard for little kids, and I determined that I would try again when I got older. It cheeses me off to this day that I haven’t figured it out.
By the time I was 9, I knew I had a destiny. Obviously my destiny was to read Every Book in the World. I would start with A and just read them one after another. I was young and I had plenty of time.
I was 12 before some nefarious person burst that little bubble. New books were published all the time, AND not all of them were in English! There was simply no way to keep up, not when 200,000 new books came out every year. A few years later I had the happy realization that I wouldn’t really want to read Every Book in the World after all. That would include such things as logarithm tables and bus schedules and telephone directories and automotive repair manuals and genre fiction.
Now I’m turning 40 in a few months and I’m trying to reframe my relationship with books. They’re everywhere. They’re like tribbles. I’ve moved 27 times in the last 20 years, which should be sufficient motivation not to retain enough wood pulp to make an entire tree; despite trying to cut back, we somehow have four bookcases. That doesn’t include ghost books like the stuff I have on my phone. I can buy a book in bed at night in about 5 seconds, with a couple clicks and a touch of my fingerprint. One day I’m going to pocket-dial something and feel obligated to read it. In the near future, we’ll be able to purchase books by thought alone, in which case I’ll have to think a lot about the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, because otherwise Every Book in the World will be delivered to my front porch by Amazon drone, which would be very stressful for my dog.
Almost all the books in my house are books I have not read yet. (This includes some of my husband’s books, like Fundamentals of Astrodynamics, Linear System Theory, and Space Mission Analysis and Design. The Latin dictionary is mine). Once I’ve read a book, I’m generally done with it. All they get from me is one nightstand. (ba dumdum) What I’m trying to learn to do is to somehow stop the flow of new books so I can catch up and read what I already have. How can I hope to read Every Book in the World when I can’t even manage to read Every Book in the House?
One of the many paradoxes of clutter is that we often tend to be more attached to things we haven’t been using than to things we have. There is this sense of vast untapped potential in the object. As soon as the time is right, as soon as the right mood sets in, we can pull out this fabulous thing and it will somehow demonstrate its amazing powers.
Saving things for later has long been a problem of mine. On several occasions, I have bought myself something as a treat, only to take it home and put it aside, still in its original packaging, and wind up giving it to someone else as a gift. Likewise, on more than one occasion, I have received a box of fancy chocolates and put them in the freezer, where at least some of them were still there six months later.
More common is the stockpiling of books and tools and supplies related to an interest that is not being lived. One of my first clients had at least two dozen blank books, each one representing a renewed but unfulfilled intention to start journaling. In the photo is my own stack of blank sketchbooks. I bought myself a ukulele and left it in my closet for five years before starting to learn to play it. Musical instruments in general probably spend more time gathering dust than being played. Art supplies, foreign language workbooks, cookbooks, and fitness equipment are other examples of intentions being saved for later.
My thought on this tendency is that usually we let the objects stand in for the desire. Buying the pedometer is the same as finishing the 5k. Buying the paints is the same as learning to paint. Sometimes, though, that untapped desire can build up to a certain level of pressure, and we finally take action. Booking those tickets, signing up for that class, picking up that pen, making the decision to be lousy at something for a while because it’s worth working past the beginner level.
What is interesting about breaking through the threshold of planning to action is that the need for the accumulated supplies and tools and books tends to drop off. I had over 100 cookbooks at the point that I realized my own recipes were often better than someone else’s. Developing competence at a skill, then working toward mastery, often leads to the urge to pass beginner materials on to other beginners. It can be just as much fun to mentor someone in an art or skill as it is to practice it oneself. Most importantly, letting go of accumulated supplies makes room for the practice they were meant to support.
I’m going through my vast accumulation of paper notes, and it is interesting what’s coming up. From professional experience, I can say that paper is the most common type of clutter, and that some households have no clutter other than paper. Paper is a category unto itself. Most of it looks alike: 8.5”x11” white copy paper or note paper; business envelopes; receipts. The information content on a single piece of paper may represent several hours of work to be done, or it may be meaningless.
Most households have the same sorts of paper:
· Junk mail
· Bills and account statements
· Scraps of paper/envelopes with unidentified phone numbers on them
· Grocery lists
· To-do lists
· Academic papers, including children’s homework
My paper hoard is different, mostly because I took steps years ago to avoid the usual sources of paper clutter. We pay our bills online whenever possible, and always choose the paperless option so we don’t get a printed statement. I opted out of junk mail, and whenever anything shows up that I don’t want, I use the PaperKarma app to opt out of that too. We use Mint to track our spending; I avoid taking receipts for anything that doesn’t need categorizing, and then toss anything we aren’t worried about returning or documenting in some way. Mystery phone numbers are a relic of the pre-Internet, pre-social networking age. Shopping lists and reminders stay on the phone. Neither of us really hung onto any old academic papers, although we have three degrees between us. So the paper flow into our house is almost entirely generated by my creative output.
It turns out that my papers fall into a few clear categories:
· Writing ideas (scenarios, titles, characters, plots, scenes, lines of dialogue, drafts)
· Strategic planning (bucket lists, projects)
· Journaling (of the ‘brain dump’ variety)
· Current study notes (foreign languages)
· Lists of books, movies, music, apps
Only the first of these five categories is really important to me. My failing is that I used to jot down important notes anywhere, including in the midst of a list of books. It turns out that many of the papers I have saved are for the sake of only a few words relevant to a writing project. Clearly, I need a system to capture these ideas.
I did set up such a system this year, using my phone. I have a Notes page called Idea Log, and I start a new one each month. I write down all my random thoughts throughout the day, if there are any, and date them. This has worked out really well, especially because I can use Spotlight Search or just skim through them quickly. I also have a couple of active Notes for my front-burner projects. The flow of papers and index cards is slowing to a trickle. Now I just need to go back and record the backlog.
I took out all my paper notes, index cards, photos, notebooks, clipboards, loose papers, and the working files from my laptop bag. I stacked them up on my desk (a standing desk I built myself). I knew when I set out that this would be a worthwhile exercise. I didn’t realize the problem was as bad as it is.
What’s my motivation? I’m a tidy person (now) and most would consider me fairly well organized. The thing is, all of these “hard copies” are irreplaceable. They don’t have any kind of backup. I live in a region that is prone to several varieties of natural disaster, including earthquakes, wildfires, flash floods, and mudslides. (Plus I have pets). If anything happens to my notes, they’re gone. Seriously, there is no possible way I could evacuate all this stuff. So that’s the worst case scenario, may it never happen.
More pressing is the fact that all this paper isn’t searchable. I have to remember whether the piece of information I want is in a notebook, a file folder, or an index card, unless of course it’s electronic. See, my notes aren’t even consolidated in one medium. This manifestation of my indefatigable creative mind has spilled over into Evernote, Dropbox, my email, and notes on my iPhone, as well as files on my writing laptop and the desktop I share with my husband.
Recently, a friend asked me if I had information that would help him apply for a creative project. It so happened that I did, even though our project happened ten years ago! I knew I had it. The trouble was that it could have been in one of six different places. It is pretty impressive that it took only half an hour to pull up this completely obscure remnant of my paper past. If I had already scanned all my stuff, like I have meant to do for 7-8 years, it would have taken me about two minutes. In the process of rummaging, I knew without a doubt what my first Discardia project would be.
Here’s how I’m breaking it down into small steps:
1. Set aside time every afternoon to work
2. Make some decisions about where to store which data (thumb drive or cloud?)
3. Make some guidelines about what I know I want to keep and what can go away
4. Assess the notebooks, because most of them are mostly blank
5. Divide between archival, back burner, and active project queue
6. Choose what to scan and what to type (I type 90+ WPM and text is more searchable)
7. Scan it all, most important first
8. Discard at least 80% of the paper
Today begins a new kind of holiday season. It's Discardia, so named by Dinah Sanders, author of the corresponding book and blog. This Discardia runs from March 20 - April 18. The premise is to set aside regular times of the year to evaluate our possessions and whether they still serve us.
I'm reading the book right now, and I love it. There is a lot of fresh, compelling material here. It's not an ordinary decluttering book, although I've read stacks of decluttering books and I love the ordinary ones too. Discardia has more to do with living our best life and figuring out what might be blocking us from fulfilling our passions. Does our stuff help us or hinder us? Does it symbolize desires that we aren't acting on?
This is my first opportunity to participate in Discardia. I'll be doing it in earnest, partly because I'm preparing for my 40th birthday and partly because we're considering moving again. That would be my 28th move since 1993. I'm only halfway through the book and I already have a mental list of stuff to gather up for the donation box.
When I was around 8 years old, I started saving gum wrappers. I would fold them with sharp creases so they fit neatly in my jewelry box. It was my intention to have one of every flavor of every brand, although I never seemed to have the resources to pull that off. I think this started after my parents told me to stop bringing home rocks I had found on my walk home from school – ordinary gray rocks, not sparkly rocks or rocks with an unusual shape. I picked up every lost button, screw, paper clip, or UFO (unidentified found object) I saw, and I perpetually walked with my head down, looking at the sidewalk. I still pick up pennies to this day.
As a kid, I was just a disaster. There was always stuff piled ankle deep on my bedroom floor. I once stepped on a thumbtack that had to be removed with pliers. My dad walked in once and stepped on the prongs of an open three-ring binder. I couldn’t go anywhere without at least one bulging backpack and usually a tote bag as well, bringing all sorts of random stuff with me to school every day. I had dozens of stuffed animals on my bed. Every object in my orbit had its own personality and backstory. I would sit on my bed for hours playing with a bag of marbles, rolling them around on the drapes and folds of the blankets, making up stories about them. I think I can still remember every toy or article of clothing I ever owned, as a kid and possibly as an adult, too.
Where do these attachments to things come from? I believe from my own experience, and from working with children and their parents, that kids are taught a particular attitude toward possessions starting in infancy. Both sides of my family treasure old photographs and handmade art objects. Parents will lovingly coach kids on who gave them what toy or shirt. Every child I have ever worked with has cheerfully, even gleefully, set aside heaps of unwanted toys and clothes, only for the distraught parents to start pulling things out of the pile. The child is made to feel guilty for not being interested in something that was a gift. That’s part of the problem. Children often start receiving gifts before they are even born into this world. They may never be in a position to choose their own possessions or what is or is not kept in their personal space. They are surrounded by a legacy of mystical objects connected to people who are important to the parents but whom they may never even have met.
The flip side of this is that children are not always allowed to set boundaries on things that are important to them, starting with physical privacy. I remember being utterly heartbroken when my mom threw out a wrinkled old piece of wax paper with a bunch of grubby old stickers on it. I would sit and stare at that thing for maybe an hour at a stretch. It was more important to me than most of my other toys. As an adult, I would have thrown it out, too, but I wasn’t asked. Kids who relocate a lot sometimes grow up to be more attached to their things, because they never felt like anything belonged to them. Possessions can be a form of permanence and security when the home, the school, and the classmates keep changing.
The emotional world of a child is complex. By the time I started compulsively accumulating, my family had relocated out of state, leaving two sets of grandparents and five of my parents’ six siblings and their families. I had two preschool-aged brothers who challenged my status in my parents’ attention. Other kids at my school had started bullying me. I retreated to a world of my own creation, where my things were predictable. I was a sensitive, sad, lonely kid without a lot of better ideas on how to spend my time.
Looking back, my drive to accumulate stuff could easily have been diverted into artistic expression and more social contact. I loved books and I once won a poetry contest. I really enjoyed learning calligraphy and playing clarinet. As an adult I learned all sorts of crafts. “Upgrading” or trading a few old objects for a new one, such as a set of watercolors or a new notebook, would be one way to help teach a child how to let go of unneeded possessions. Activities like hiking, birdwatching, learning to identify clouds or constellations, researching interests such as dinosaurs or trains, and singing together are all great ways to spend time with kids that don’t involve interacting with “stuff.” As adults, we also have to set a strong example in our own behavior, showing how we make space and let go.
Why is there something rather than nothing?
This is one of the greatest questions in all of philosophy. Where did this dumb old world come from? Why are there so many stars? How did consciousness arise? How did there get to be platypuses or seahorses? Why are there dirty socks on my dining room table? (There aren’t, but there have been). The ontology of clutter begins when the first hominid made the first stone tool, and continues into the Space Age, when eventually we will have accrued enough space junk to form our own planetary ring.
Let us pause for a moment and contemplate the vastness of space. The final frontier. Which most likely is not replicated anywhere in our homes. We have stuff. It’s started to fade into the background and we don’t tend to notice it until we have to start digging through it looking for our passports or keys or something. It’s just… there, until we start asking ourselves why we even have it. Why is there something instead of nothing on my windowsills and on top of the TV and the microwave and the toilet tank and every other flat surface? When we start unloading clutter, it begins to reveal empty space, and that can feel a bit alien.
How does it feel to look at a bare countertop? What about the kitchen table? Does a section of exposed wall with no furniture in front of it seem strange?
Some people aren’t aesthetically comfortable with empty space in a home. It may seem sterile or bleak or too ascetic. Another problem is that sometimes the place itself is so uninspiring that removing the clutter isn’t a huge improvement. The mustard-yellow shag carpet of my first rented bedroom comes to mind… Likewise, a kitchen counter with a 6” diameter burn mark. One way to deal with ugly fixtures is to disguise them with art, rather than piles of random stuff, but we have to realize that’s the problem first. The key is to make it look intentional. Is it intentional?
It took a few years, but I have learned to be comfortable with a certain amount of bare space. I am grateful to have space in my closets and cabinets. It’s nice to have a bit of wiggle room on my bookshelves. Nothing can be a good thing to have.
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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.