There are a bunch of things I feel like I ought to want, but I don’t. I don’t want a tattoo. (My attention span is too short). I don’t want a horse or a baby or a monkey. I don’t want a glass of wine or a beer or an espresso or a chocolate bar or a cupcake or a bag of chips. I don’t have a wish list of action figures or t-shirts or special shoes. I don’t want a diamond ring and I don’t want to go sky diving. There are all kinds of things I DO want, and I’m extremely specific about them, and I generally get them within a four-year timeframe. Usually these ‘things’ are not tangible material objects.
The reason this is important is that most things do not operate at the level of the Heart’s Desire. I simply can’t be bothered wasting my time, energy, money, resources, or mental focus on things that don’t particularly interest me. I’m the worst person in the world to watch TV with, because I can’t sit still or shut up for five minutes. I don’t play games because holding the mouse too long makes my hand ice cold. I don’t “shop” so much as go on brief buying trips when necessary. I buy clothes with a written shopping list. I generally don’t buy magazines or snacks or toys or anything that has a high likelihood of becoming clutter when I lose interest in it.
The other thing I don’t do is work a day job. More on that later.
Fantasies are real. 1. Most fantasies are nearly universal, and many people have successfully lived them out. 2. Fantasies exist in your mind in real time, meaning they consume your energy, so it’s best to choose fantasies that are either totally fulfilling AS FANTASIES or that you desperately want to become reality as soon as possible. 3. Be careful what you wish for, in the sense of being conscientious about the tiny details.
I am currently living the Pajama Fantasy, in the sense that I work at home and I have definitely spent days at a time in my pajamas. The reality of this fantasy is that living in your pajamas starts to feel like being an invalid, a condition I know and loathe, and I now get up early in the morning and put on real clothes. The other reality is that if you have work that really interests you, and you make your own rules, you start to find yourself working twice as hard and twice as many hours as you did for a boss. If what you really want is High Quality Leisure Time, you may be better off selling your 40 hours a week to someone else and maintaining some free time.
The Travel Fantasy is another common fantasy that is chock-full of a whole lot of reality. I recall riding a bus and scraping the last dregs of expired peanut butter out of the jar with tiny bits of cracker shrapnel while crying fat cold tears somewhere in the south of Iceland. The travel fantasy is loaded with bad weather and sleepless nights and delays and inconveniently closed doors and obsolete guidebooks. Yeah, it’s still totally worth it. Of course it’s worth it. The inconvenient bits are probably WHY it’s worth it, because anything that doesn’t offer a high rate of return on wisdom and character-building probably isn’t worth it.
Is the fantasy about pulling toward or pushing away? Is it about something you MUST HAVE and will do anything to accomplish? Or is it just about getting away from something unsatisfactory? Most managers are ineffective, and most people quit a bad boss rather than a job per se. Learning to tolerate subordination to arbitrary authority is a useful life skill. Every city in the world has annoying aspects (and people) and relocating from one place to another is trading one set of annoyances for another. Loving a flawed human being is the same way; choose a crazy you can live with. It doesn’t matter what you pick, whether it’s a life mission or a romance. You have to commit to it, warts and all.
I do what I want every day. The downside to this is that nobody but me is responsible for whether what I am doing is satisfactory or fulfilling or happy-making or boring or a stupid, pointless waste of time. There is no next level where someone comes along and gives me instructions. A lot of the specific activities I do every day, such as exercising and housework and memorizing flash cards and typing for many hours, look suspiciously tedious and difficult. In other words, doing what you want is a lot like work. The reason for this is that real work is always the most interesting, challenging thing you can be doing.
I started earning an allowance when I was nine years old. This was somewhat annoying because my brothers also began to receive an allowance, and they were three and four grades younger than me. I loved having my own money when I was a child, and I grew into a frugal adult. There are some pitfalls to the allowance mentality, though, that I would like to talk about.
The main problem with an allowance is that it starts with the background lifestyle as a baseline. There is no connection made between money and the costs of a home, utilities, car payment, various types of insurance, savings, and all the rest. An allowance is like a mint on the pillow in a fancy hotel. I distinctly remember the first time I had to buy my own tube of toothpaste as a young adult. I had no idea how expensive toothpaste was, and it felt unfair that I had to buy it out of my measly wage. (It was equivalent to an hour of work for me at the time).
A chart from The Atlantic shows something that I found quite interesting. Each decile of the population spent roughly the same percentage of income on entertainment, while spending on other categories varied widely. It looks very much like a de facto mandatory budget line item.
One thing about clutter is that we tend to accumulate a large number of small things, as opposed to a small number of large things. We may buy many books, DVDs, T-shirts, knickknacks, craft supplies, skeins of yarn, etc. We may also be eating lots of "treats" such as cans of soda, bags of chips, cookies, candy, and the list goes on. This is all the exact same type of thing that I would save my allowance to buy. One day, I realized that I could actually afford nicer things than I thought I could by buying fewer cheap things.
$400 sofa = 25 $16 paperback books
$100 shoes = 10 $10 discount shoes
$40 blouse = 10 $4 Goodwill t-shirts
$125 bookcase = no $1 soda for 4 months
The allowance mindset teaches us that we "deserve" "treats." We save up and splurge on relatively small items. Often, we feel like we need these treats precisely because of the sense of scarcity that develops from not having a more comfortable background lifestyle. A savings cushion, a better quality vacuum cleaner, or regular visits to the dentist are all things that ultimately provide more satisfaction and comfort than smaller "fun" purchases. The core of minimalism is to have only things that enrich our lives as much as possible. Sometimes that may mean spending more on fewer, more "boring" things.
What do you do when you’re working full time and the stay-at-home parent is struggling? This is something that happens equally to moms and dads. You start out with a lot of sleepless nights from nighttime feedings, and suddenly years can go by without anyone getting a night of decent rest. It’s exhausting. Little kids are extremely, extremely high maintenance. And they wake up SO. DANG. EARLY.
Work is no picnic either. But there are some compensations. You don’t just get to take a shower every day, you’re contractually bound. Nobody wants to come in while you pee. Nobody flings food at you or starts shrieking for no reason. (Well, unless you work in food service or retail). There’s generally no biting. Performance reviews are a piece of cake compared to the judgments of random adults as to your parental competence. Commuting is no fun, but at least you can swear at top volume when you want. So when you come home and the house looks like a case for FEMA, remember you’ll soon be able to escape to the relative sanity and order of the workplace.
There are a few keystone habits behind running an efficient, clean household. It turns out that they can be accomplished in minutes. Stepping in and changing the household routine in even the tiniest way can be received as a reproach by a defensive, burned-out partner, so it’s best to just silently start doing it. Under no circumstances describe these tasks as “helping.”
1. Put away clean dishes. It boggles my mind that so many households with dishwashers use them so ineffectively. It goes like this. Empty the dishwasher or dish rack either early in the morning or late in the evening. Load dirty dishes into it throughout the day. Run it at a predictable time on the days it’s full. We’ve timed the emptying task at 4 minutes. Putting in an individual dish takes about 10 seconds. Kids as young as 2 actually enjoy this activity.
2. Check the washer and dryer. The majority of the time involved in doing laundry is machine running time. Loads left in the washing machine sometimes get funky and have to be washed twice. A full washer also backs up the pipeline for the next load. Households with kids usually have a minimum of 10 loads a week, so it really helps to keep the hamster wheel spinning every day. Starting a new load of wash takes about 3 minutes. Moving a load from the washer to the dryer is about the same, as is emptying a clean dryer load into a basket. Buying more laundry baskets can be a $20 solution to a billion-dollar annoyance.
3. Eliminate refuse. Trash, compost, and recycling can overflow their receptacles, making the task gross and offensive when it doesn’t need to be. Carrying out these containers is another task that can be done in under 5 minutes. Sorting through junk mail also helps stop paper clutter from accumulating.
4. Set clear guidelines for the kids. What can they do at different stages of development? Gamify it. Set a timer or play a song. Race or compete. Be the team lead and help train them in what are really essential life skills, after all.
5. Schedule a regular appointment for the stay-at-home partner to have HQLT. That’s High Quality Leisure Time. It probably means total privacy and/or leaving the house for a while. Whether that’s to soak in a hot bath uninterrupted, play a game, read a book, or go ride the mechanical bull down at the honky-tonk, depends on the partner’s wishes. Look at it like entertaining a key international client.
These keystone chores are quick and easy… IF you’re reasonably well rested and not being followed by a tiny creature whose very survival depends on you never turning your back for 10 seconds. Burnout should be regarded in the same way as the flu, or mono, or a sports injury. It can linger and be resistant to treatment. The idea is to create some stability and predictability and order out of chaos. The burned-out partner needs to be able to recuperate and rebuild stamina. Setting aside 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes in the evening is no more complicated than managing any workplace assignment. For you, that is. Get it out of the way so you can all spend time together as a family, enjoying yourselves instead of feeling frantic and out of control.
A confluence of events has caught my attention. I just learned about the Berlin Polyglot Gathering, which is from April 30 to May 4 this year. My husband happens to be in Hamburg for a trade show. There are two weeks between the end of one and the beginning of the other.
I have been fascinated by foreign languages since I was nine years old. I studied several languages from middle school through college, but quit as a working adult. Two years ago I dreamed that someone called me on the phone and said, "You should speak French as often as possible." Ever since then, I have been studying and trying to make up for lost time. I am actively studying French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, and Dutch at varying levels of competence. I can still read Greek letters, hiragana, and katakana. I could probably fake my way through a 60-second conversation in Japanese, all that's left after three years of study in high school. I mean, I'm not fluent in anything, including English, but I could probably pass among a group of polyglots. I assume they won't throw me out for using the wrong diacritical mark.
Okay, so, to sum up, I want to be ready to speak multiple languages by the Berlin Polyglot Gathering next year. Whether we go or not is not the point. The point is that if my husband gets sent on the same business trip next year, serendipity may occur. If I went now, the plane ticket would put me in debt for the rest of the year. I would be kicking myself and wishing I was better prepared. Waiting until next year gives me a chance to save the money and study like a demon. Going now would be sort of dumb. Going next year qualifies as a true Quest.
CAN one nerdy girl become conversational in six languages?
CAN it be done in a year?
WILL she even blurt out one word?
OR hide behind a potted plant and eavesdrop?
This book made fireworks go off in my head. It’s the kind of book that absolutely has the power to change your life, if you’ve ever let any book change your life, which I certainly hope you have. Bibliometanoia. It’s a thing.* You can tell a book is trying to get to you when it turns up at the crossroads of a number of coincidences. I had just heard about the World Domination Summit through Benny Lewis’s web page like THE DAY BEFORE, and it turns out that Chris Guillebeau, the author, originated it! Then I read the book, and it mentioned Gabriel Wyner, whose book Fluent Forever I just reviewed a week ago. The kicker for me was that I was drawn to The Happiness of Pursuit when I spotted it on the library shelf; usually I only read books I’ve seen reviewed or mentioned elsewhere. I don’t read book jackets, so I didn’t know what I was in for.
The premise is that you can bring meaning into your life by going on a quest. I’m definitely a quest person. For instance, in 2009 I read 500 books. (I also moved, planned a wedding, got married, and cooked for my first family Thanksgiving, so that was a busy year). In 2012 we spent three weeks traveling the circumference of Iceland and sleeping in a 2-man backpacking tent. Last year I ran a marathon, although that doesn’t really count as a quest. A marathon on every continent – now, that would be a quest, and it’s already been done by a bunch of folks, so if you want, you know IT CAN BE DONE. Marathon on the Moon – that would be epic. I wonder if it will happen in my lifetime.
There is something in this book for everyone. Sadly, many people get stuck in life, feeling bored or mildly depressed and maybe not even realizing it. A quest can really shake things up. How much easier would it be to get in shape or pay off debt or clear the house of clutter if you had a six-month deadline and a quest at the end? What if you woke up every morning and the first thing you thought of was your new mission?
I really hope everyone reads this book. I’ve tried hard not to give out any spoilers, so you can be just as inspired by all the examples of personal quests as I was. Enjoy!
*Actually, it became a thing just now. This may be the first time I’ve Googled something that didn’t come up.
Change takes a certain amount of energy. The greater the change, the more energy it requires. There is a sort of escape velocity we need to reach before we can bust through a threshold into the next higher level. This is why changes are easier to make in tandem: after moving, changing jobs, or starting or ending a relationship. The explosion in my own life after my divorce at age 23, for example, propelled me through all sorts of changes in a very short time period.
The thing about steam is that it leaks out. Actually, we let it out. We do it deliberately. That head of steam starts building up and creating pressure. We vent. We can’t bear the boiling feeling inside that creates the steam. So we complain about it. We turn to anyone who will listen and just let it all out. There are other things we do to let off steam, such as eating comfort foods, shopping for retail therapy, or killing time in passive entertainment. Whatever we can do to temporarily relieve that feeling of building pressure, we’ll do that.
Hate the job. Complain about it for 16 years, then finally quit and earn more at a nicer place.
Trouble with body image. Friends suggest eating chocolate to feel better.
Money worries. Buy more fabric.
The purpose of steam is to propel your locomotive up the track to the next station. That can’t happen when the fire keeps being put out. As long as we’re comfortable sitting in the middle of the track, stalled out, with a cold engine, there we will stay. After a while, we’ve been there so long that we start to forget we’re even on a track. We forget there’s anywhere else we can go. We even forget that we are the engineers of our own trains, and that it’s our job to stoke our own coal.
Letting out the steam poses a couple of problems. The first, of course, is that we choose to let it all out rather than fully feeling the discomfort and realizing it is time to change. The second problem is that anyone who will listen to us venting is probably just as stuck as we are. We have a vested interest in keeping other people at our own level, so we won’t be left alone as others move past us. Someone who is taking night classes or spending a lot of time at the gym or working overtime to pay down debt isn’t going to be as available to listen to our complaints. We find ourselves surrounded by other people who believe that this is just how things are, that life is hard and unfair, and that it’s not worth the trouble of trying to do anything about it.
Building a head of steam can result in tremendous and rapid change. It’s possible to clear out a cluttered house or garage in a weekend. It’s possible to “lose the weight and keep it off,” possibly in just a couple of months. It’s possible to end a broken relationship or pay off mountains of debt or finish those last few credentials. But it’s far more common to remain stuck in an unsatisfactory status quo with a cold engine and grass growing through the tracks.
I used to be obese, but I had to quit. I was diagnosed with both a thyroid nodule and fibromyalgia when I was 23. I inadvertently managed to cure myself of the thyroid disease, and I’ve been symptom-free of FM for so long that my current doctor believes I was misdiagnosed. “People don’t get better from fibromyalgia.” (All right then; study me, I’m game). I’m turning 40 soon, and when new people meet me, they see no trace of my chronic illness years. They see me as this size zero marathon runner. Other women have asked me what I weigh and what size I wear, and then they swear at me. I hear a lot of “You don’t know what it’s like,” followed by a litany of issues, most of which I have experienced. (How do you know I don’t know what it’s like?) I have always been willing to share everything I’ve learned, because I can’t stand the thought of someone else suffering from chronic pain, or fatigue, or migraine, for the many years that I did. I’ll do anything to help.
Food intake is the major factor. There is huge resistance to this concept, because it’s tied to ideas of morality and willpower and shame and psychological disorders. We prefer the idea that we can just add exercise, and we totally will, just as soon as we’re less busy or we get over this cold or the weather is more cooperative. Now, I’m an active person. My motivation for being athletically fit is so that I can go on backpacking expeditions and drag a third of my body weight uphill all day. It’s been my experience that exercise has virtually nothing to do with weight loss or gain. In fact, I steadily gained weight while training for my marathon, because I run around with a belt pouch full of cookies and trail mix. It takes me 37 miles of running to burn off one pound of body fat. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m too lazy to rely on anything that strenuous when I want to meet a goal!
Everyone is on a diet all the time. We’re either maintaining a range of body weight, or losing weight, or gaining weight. Over the course of a year, we’re either going to stay the same, be leaner, or have a greater quantity of adipose tissue on our bodies. Those are the options. It was something of a shock to me to realize that I was on the Steady Weight Gain diet plan. I gained 17 pounds in a year, and my health went into a nosedive. I was getting migraines on a weekly basis. I had the first FM flare-up I’d had in years. I was having night terrors. I felt awful. I started keeping a food log. What I learned was that I was eating about 150% of what a person my height needed to eat. Over a three-month period, I meticulously measured and weighed and read labels and wrote down every single thing I put in my mouth. I lost the extra weight. I’ve “kept it off” for over a year, although I don’t really think of it that way. I think of it as “living.” I created a new normal that allowed me to stay at one size.
Now I live the same way as everyone else. I eat breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks every day. I go to the grocery store and choose food and put it in my cart and bring it home. I go to restaurants and order stuff that looks good. The difference is that I do it as a lean, strong person, and I do it with full awareness and knowledge of the cumulative effects of my individual choices. When I see something that Past Self used to eat, I have the twin thoughts of “Yum” and “Uhoh.” Nothing tastes as good as pain-free feels.
Hate is an intense word. It’s a four-letter word and one that tends to get tossed around casually. We hate “that guy” or cleaning the bathroom when maybe we should be hating slavery, genocide, and human trafficking. Okay, maybe we exaggerated a little. But we really do strongly dislike cleaning the bathroom! We curse it and its ancestors! We bite our thumbs at it! We banish it to outer darkness!
“I hate cleaning the bathroom.” Okay, what do I like then? I like bad smells. No. I like mold. Well, no. I like soapy hairballs. Nope. I like funky towels. Not really, no. Okay, I guess I have to say, “I resent the necessity of cleaning the bathroom.” I actually like the idea of having a beautiful, relaxing spa-style bathroom like the ones on Pinterest. Cleaning that might not be so bad, as long as I didn’t have to clean up after anyone else.
“I hate housework.” Yeah, so does everyone, without the application of copious amounts of mind-altering drugs. Okay, what do I like then? I like piles of smelly laundry. No. I like always having a sink full of greasy pans. No. I like it when I walk barefoot and my feet stick to the floor. No. I like it when someone drops by unannounced on the one day the place is at its dirtiest. No. Okay, I might actually like having a clean house, something in my style that looks great. But I still resent the drudgery and feeling taken for granted.
Let me tell you what I like. I like the way my house looks. I like it when my husband and the dog and the parrot stretch out on the couch and take naps together. I like eating meals at the dining table, because it feels like a special occasion and there’s a place for my fork and my drink. I like working at my desk, because there’s always room for my current project. I like my closet, because there’s always something I want to wear hanging there. I like my bathroom, because shower time is when I have all my best ideas. I like my kitchen, because the counters are always clear and ready when I want to cook. I like living with my husband, because he’s the best roommate I ever had. (Among other reasons). I like listening to podcasts and audiobooks. I don’t hate housework any more, partly because it provides me with so many things that I like, but also because it gives me something to do while I’m listening to my audio queue!
One thing I always keep in mind is that doing certain unpleasant things is the only way to avoid even less pleasant consequences. I floss and brush my teeth because not doing it means my mouth will feel gross the next morning. If I skipped it more often, my next dental visit would be dreadful. If I gave up on it altogether, it would eventually quit being a problem, because I wouldn’t have any teeth left to worry about. It turns out that housework is exactly like dental hygiene. Doing a little every day really isn’t all that bad, it only takes a few minutes, and at the end of the year, there is a vast difference between whether it got done or not.
Trick question. The myth of male incompetence is something I believe is promoted by the advertising industry to help sell cleaning products. Why, I’m not sure, but perhaps because they think the idea strokes the female ego and we’re more likely to buy stuff we think men are too stupid to use correctly. Like front-hook bras. I dunno.
The truth is that housework is a human problem, not a lady problem. He’s not “helping” because it’s his job just as much as anyone else’s. Use a bowl, wash a bowl. Wear socks, wash socks. Use a toilet, scrub a toilet. Seems simple to me. Whether a man accepts this premise was one of my determining criteria for whom to date. I’ve had plenty of male roommates, including family members, and it’s my opinion that men are actually better at cleaning. Three of the best housekeepers I have ever met have been men. The trick is to cut away the gender role baggage and look at each task from an efficiency perspective.
My husband is an engineer. He introduced me to many helpful concepts. One is “low side compliance,” which means doing the minimum effort to meet contractual obligations. An example of this would be putting clean clothes away without folding them. This is completely legit in the case of, say, athletic socks or sleep shirts. The only reasons to fold clothes are to prevent wrinkles and fit them in a drawer. If there is plenty of room for everything and it’s not a work or formal outfit, why bother folding? Another way to do it is to keep everything on hangers. Yet another approach is to develop a capsule wardrobe. My husband has 8 pairs of identical black slacks, 8 polo shirts, 8 long-sleeved shirts, and identical sets of socks and underwear, plus a few dress shirts and ties. He can fit his entire work wardrobe in one suitcase. It’s basically one load of laundry a week, and none of it needs folding. He has successfully eliminated all the complications of my comparatively high-maintenance wardrobe.
It’s easy to make cleaning harder than it needs to be, and we have to own up to our part in creating these obstacles. Clutter is the biggest offender here. Wiping down a counter or table takes less than a minute, if nothing is on it. Add a bunch of curios or doilies or cookie jars or holiday decorations, and the job is progressively more complicated. Another way to make cleaning harder is to insist that it be done in a certain way. My husband watched me spend three hours scrubbing my oven the night I moved out of my apartment. (Actually, he did a bunch of repair and cleaning tasks for me while I was up to my elbows in black suds). The next time there was an oven to clean, we were married. He came in with a scrubbing attachment on a cordless drill, and had it looking brand-new in under 15 minutes. Then we bought a silicon oven liner, and the next time, we just shook it off and put it back in the oven.
Nagging is a great way to slowly strangle the affection, attraction, and respect in a marriage. You know who nags you to clean up? A mom. A resentful, burned-out mom. I’d prefer to create the illusion that we are honeymooners in a five-star hotel, and keep it that way. One thing I learned was that my husband’s initiative to get any given task done kicks in just a few minutes after the point where I feel the impulse to ask about it. Micro-managers are not effective managers. Create a vision and an incentive program instead.
The reason my husband does housework is that he likes living in a clean house. We both take pride in our troubleshooting abilities, and we share innovations with each other. We take turns cooking dinner and cleaning up, partly because he makes his favorite meals better than I do. He unloads the dishwasher while waiting for his tea to steep in the morning. We have a robot vacuum, a robot mop, and a battery-powered scrubber for the bathtub. More importantly, we respect each other’s contribution. We share appreciation. We spend more time enjoying each other’s company than we do either cleaning or bickering about not cleaning. We put the effort into planning next season’s garden, canning pickles, and dreaming up vacation itineraries.
In third grade, my teacher explained the concept of foreign languages to my class. She asked us to imagine that we were going on a field trip to Holland, where everyone used different words than we do for common things like bread. I was so captivated that I didn’t understand it was only an imaginary trip. I asked her what we should pack and when we got our plane tickets. A year later, I was wandering around the public library when I discovered the foreign language dictionaries. An obsession was born. I studied French in junior high; Japanese in high school; Spanish, Greek, and Latin at university; and now I’m working on German and Italian. I feel about Fluent Forever like I do about the Harry Potter series: Where were you 30 years ago?!
Fluent Forever has a more academic approach to language learning than Fluent in 3 Months. An interesting tidbit is that Gabriel Wyner and Benny Lewis, the respective authors, are both engineers who became polyglots. My husband is an engineer who does not believe he has a strong natural ability with languages, and I’m trying to convince him otherwise. Fluent Forever has a solid foundation in linguistics, and some discussion of how the physical mechanics of correct pronunciation can be learned and transmitted using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). I fell in love with the IPA in college, where I stumbled into a senior-level neurolinguistics class as a freshman. It is impressive that this book makes advanced linguistic concepts practical and accessible for a lay audience.
Anyone who has studied a foreign language in the classroom has probably walked away frustrated and unable to conduct a basic conversation. There are so many resources available now for language learning that almost anyone could get further in a few weeks with self-study and Internet access than in a year of schoolwork. Gabriel Wyner has a terrific companion website loaded with resources. Despite my years of language study, I had never heard of several of the tools he discusses, including pronunciation trainers and frequency dictionaries. He also brings in concepts from mnemonics research.
Learning a language is a bucket list item for a lot of people. What I hear from them is that they feel they have to wait until they have the time to go back to school or the money for Rosetta Stone. The message of Fluent Forever is that we don’t have to wait. We can start today and we can take a lot of research-based shortcuts.
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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