He had me at “Rejecting Middle Age.” I’m still doing that whole turning-forty thing, wondering where I’ll be at age 80, wondering whether I’ll even make it that far, and looking back regretfully at my lazy, confused, inconsiderate youth. Past Self! Why did you spend all my money! Past Self! Why don’t I have more muscle definition! Past Self! Why didn’t you learn to cook sooner? I found Finding Ultra inspiring and illuminating. I’ve already run my first marathon and developed a passion for endurance sports that was far from self-evident when I turned 35. I think, though, that this book would be a compelling read even if running or doing a triathlon is literally the last thing you think you would ever do. (Abducted by aliens, maybe; eat a bug, maybe; voluntarily go for a run, heck no!).
Finding Ultra begins with Rich Roll sitting in front of the TV, eating a plate of cheeseburgers with nicotine gum for dessert. He was a late-stage alcoholic when barely 30, and blacked out immediately after checking into rehab. While he was maintaining his sobriety, he fit the standard picture of a middle-aged dad in every other way: fifty pounds overweight, living on fast food, and sprawling on the couch. The book details his journey, courageously sharing dark details about his battle with addiction and the way it stole his college sports career, destroyed his first marriage before it had really begun, almost wasted his professional career, and easily could have taken his life. It’s the comeback story of a lifetime.
This is all really hard to believe from Roll’s photograph on the book cover. He’s a lean, mean, triathlon machine, listed as one of the “25 Fittest Men in the World.” Like me, he doesn’t really have any pictures of himself from his top weight. Before I got into endurance running, I neither understood nor cared what kind of milestones were reached by these weirdly sporty masochists. I read Dean Karnazes’s Ultramarathon Man when I could barely run a mile, and burst into tears on the treadmill when it finally sunk in that this stuff is humanly possible! Karnazes was describing a 100-mile footrace. Impressive, right? Rich Roll and his friend Jason Lester did five ultra-distance triathlons in under a week. That’s 70.3 miles a day: a 2.4 mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride, and finishing with a full 26.2-mile marathon, for a total of 351.5 miles in six days. Okay, when I did my marathon? I had to pick up my own thigh and lift it over the 2” threshold of the shower stall, walk backward the rest of the evening because my hip flexor failed, crawl on my butt up the stairs, and sleep about 15 hours the next day. I couldn’t walk to the mailbox, much less get my leg over a bike. If I’d tried to swim I’m sure it would have ended with an extreme close-up of a lifeguard giving me mouth-to-mouth.
One of the features of the book is Rich Roll’s conversion to plant-based nutrition. In that respect, he joins the ranks of other elite endurance athletes like Brendan Brazier and Scott Jurek. I don’t write about this often, but I have been vegan since 1997 and vegetarian since 1993. I’m one of the very few 40-year-olds in my acquaintance who doesn’t need medication, has healthy numbers for blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood glucose levels, and also weighs in at the recommended amount for my height. Most of us would be glad to be able to sit on the floor and get up again without our knees cracking or without having to grab on to something. I ran a marathon and completed a mud run with a 20-foot rope climb. Now I’m looking for my next physical challenge – I want to run a 50-mile race for my 50th birthday. I believe absolutely that my commitment to plant-based nutrition is the major difference between my health and fitness, and what is supposedly “normal” for other women my age. Eat meat or not, hey, whatever. But please do track your micronutrients for a few weeks and ask whether you’re taking your body in the direction you want as you move further toward maturity. Middle-aged athletes like Rich Roll (at the elite end) and myself (at the hilariously slow end) are proof that anyone can make a major physical transformation at any time.
I had to plan around it on distance days. I’d get ready in the cool of the morning, filling my water pack, putting trail mix and cookies in my fanny pack, reloading the backup battery and connector for my phone, choosing an audio book that would last four hours, applying sunblock, and starting my GPS tracker. When I came back from running as many as seventeen miles, I wouldn’t have much energy. If I let myself sit down before eating something, I was in trouble. I had to resist it for at least long enough to take a shower and eat Second Lunch. What was waiting for me was The Plunk.
I would plunk down on the couch and more or less melt into the cushions. I’d become a sentient pillow. I would be exactly like my dog, who comes back from a run and drops onto the tiles, legs splayed out in every direction. He can run six miles and be asleep four minutes later. Most of us aren't sleep experts like Spike, but we certainly feel that same urge to plunk.
Everyone should plunk sometimes. It’s a good thing. Everyone should have a safe and peaceful place to relax completely and forget the cares of the world. I especially recommend the group plunk. My pets are enthusiastic supporters of this system. We all signal that it’s time and the plunk is here. The apes read a book, the dog sleeps, and the parrot preens and cleans every single feather, which is a lot of feathers indeed. We reinforce each other’s sense that the world has paused for a little while, and none of us are going anywhere until those pages are turned, those sleeping paws are twitching, and all the feathers are in the correct place.
The trouble is that the plunk doesn’t work properly when anything important is left undone. It’s impossible to blend into the upholstery properly when a nagging thought lingers in the mind. Open loops are the enemy of the plunk. I may be pretending to plunk, I may be attempting the plunk, I may be making my best effort to set a new plunking record. It’s not going to happen if I’m really spinning my mental wheels over something I know I should have done.
The key to plunking properly is peace of mind. That starts with eliminating the most important task early each day. I have to recognize resistance in myself and crush it. Anything that makes me dread taking action is automatically the most important thing of the day. Anything that gives me a feeling of extreme reluctance, exhaustion, anxiety, disgust, annoyance, or desire to enter the Witness Protection Program and change my name? That’s the thing I have to do. I know I can never get a decent plunk if I’m stewing over something that serious in my life.
The other key to a truly satisfying plunk has to do with situational awareness. I can’t plunk right if the room is in disarray. Entropy is the heart’s desire of the universe. It’s possible we were given free will, language, and the ability to use tools specifically to combat entropy in our personal environment. I want to be able to look around at a glance and see that all is well. I know where to find my keys, phone, sunglasses, wallet, and shoes, even though I won’t be needing them for a while. I can’t see any unfinished work. I don’t have a stack of unsorted mail. I don’t have a pile of unfolded laundry. I know from long experience that my life is easier when I spend the requisite fifteen minutes a day putting away laundry, five minutes sorting and processing the mail, and sixty seconds collecting my Important Daily Items. That stuff is done, and therefore, I can plunk freely.
The final plunk of the day happens after the sun goes down. It’s bedtime. It starts with the Fluffy One, who starts getting edgy at 8:00 PM. She needs twelve hours of beauty sleep, and nobody is plunking when she starts calling for bedtime, that’s for sure. Our little woofie insists on getting his teeth brushed. Another day is done. We know it’s time to wind up shop for the night. Start the dishwasher, check the locks, turn out the lights, floss and brush, and go to bed. A steady routine helps prevent those sit-straight-up, facepalm moments of forgetting important details. A few minutes of attention to a list of habits is reassuring and comforting. We can lay our weary heads down on our pillows and drift off into the ultimate plunk, knowing we’ve done everything that was asked of us for the day. Time to rest and spend a few hours in the land of dreams, where the cares of earthly life are not allowed to enter and don’t technically exist.
A common issue with basic self-care is that it seems selfish. It can feel like spending any time or focus on taking care of ourselves takes away from what we owe to others. Our mates, kids, family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, and random strangers on the street somehow seem more deserving of our attention than the source of that attention. This source of attention is, of course, a self. A single individual heart. We are each like candles, our inner light illuminating those around us. When we let that candle burn too low, the light begins to fade and gutter, until finally it is snuffed out. The better we are at tending this little flare, the brighter it can burn and the farther into the darkness that light can shine.
Hangry. Why is this a word? It’s a portmanteau of “hungry” and “angry.” Like “adulting,” it’s a concept readily understood across society. It’s a part of modern life. Why would we do this to ourselves, though? By the time we reach adulthood, surely we’re aware that going too long between meals makes us grumpy, irritable, distracted, clumsy, thin-skinned, and hard to be around. The first question is why we would do this to ourselves. The second question is why we would do it to others! Why would we inflict our hangry, snappy selves on others around us? It’s like voluntarily turning into the Incredible Hulk, except with no villains to crush. A friend of mine named her irritable alternate persona “Snarla.” Maybe we can’t bring ourselves to eat a proper breakfast, lunch, and afternoon snack for our own sakes. Don’t we owe a bit more consideration to the people around us, though? If we know we have this tendency to let ourselves down, deprive ourselves of basic nutrition, and perform poorly all day, don’t we then have a responsibility to plan around that?
Another area where almost everyone collapses under the burden of modern life is that of getting enough sleep. Sleep procrastination is a real problem. The more tired we are, the less likely we are to want to go to bed early enough to get a good night’s rest. The key factor behind this is the desire for High Quality Leisure Time. We’re looking for an uninterrupted block of a specific amount of time so that we can unwind. If we’re partway into our HQLT, and it’s interrupted, the clock starts over. Especially for parents, getting that critical time block feels almost impossible. We’ll stay up hours later than we should in the quest for peace of mind. The cost is that we’re perpetually an hour or more deprived of sleep each day. This is a lot like cashing out your retirement to buy scratch-off lottery tickets. It robs the future to pay for a temporary burst of hope that never really pays off.
When we’re chronically exhausted and burned out, we have nothing left for anyone else. We wind up with barely enough energy to vent about things that are bothering us. We can’t reach the threshold where we feel capable of taking action to change anything negative in our lives. That might be a terrible job, a wretched commute, an energy vampire, a bad pattern of communication with a specific person, a health issue, or financial problems, among other things. Not only do we wind up going through life feeling like positive change is impossible, we feel defeated and unhappy. That means it probably doesn’t cross our minds that we also don’t have the energy to pay close attention to the people in our lives. How can we listen deeply and be emotionally present when we’re exhausted and annoyed by life? Can we even realize and take in the fact that others are doing their very best to be there for us? Are we receiving support and affection graciously?
Another area where most of us impact others around us without realizing it is in organization and time management. When we’re burned out and overextended, we also tend to drop details. We rush from commitment to commitment, sometimes late for every single engagement for years on end. (Guilty as charged, Your Honor). We can’t manage to fit in time to organize our belongings, so we’re constantly searching for things we’ve lost. That can be a major root cause of chronic lateness, too. We may have personal possessions spread across every room of the home, we may lose track of important documents and files at work, we may miss recording appointments, and our attention may be spread so thin that we can’t even remember where we parked our vehicles. Guilt and shame are not helpful here, assuming they are ever helpful anywhere. What does help is to see better organization and time management as gifts that keep on giving. When we take care of the details of life, we can be present and fulfill commitments. We can show up prepared and ready to engage. We can stop causing concern, distraction, or frustration to others. The fact that we can also stop annoying ourselves is just an extra bonus.
Being well nourished and well rested creates a place of stillness in the room. Others who interact with us can feel the difference. We’re relaxed, responsive, and able to be attentive listeners. Our peace of mind can spread and soothe others, who may be under stress we can’t begin to imagine. Being organized and a few minutes early allows others to go through their day and complete their work without any interference from us. If everyone did it, how easy everything would seem! We can give so much more to others when we take care of ourselves first. We can be fully present. Sometimes, we can even be leaders and role models, inspiring others to take better care of themselves as well.
The decision to clean up a cluttered or squalid house is a big one. It requires waking up to the situational blindness that has developed. We can stop seeing it, and after a long enough time, we can even stop smelling it. It takes real courage to pinch ourselves and say, WAKE UP. The trouble is that everything gets worse for a while after this decision. The shame seeps in. The magnitude of the task starts to become clear. It’s so tempting to quit. Roll over and go back to sleep. Sit and cry, feeling helpless to carry on. Find the anger, let it boil up, and affix it to the straw man of societal pressure or some specific judgmental critic. What’s so interesting is that after a concentrated period of intense effort, all those emotions can simply vaporize in fresh air and sunlight. Here is a secret:
After it’s cleaned up, there’s no record. It can be as though it never happened.
Nobody can tell, looking at a dining table, that it ever had a single pile or stack on it. If the surface is scratched, throw a tablecloth on it. Sand it and refinish it. Get a new table. Throw a blanket on the grass and have a picnic instead.
Nobody can tell that a tub was black with grime, once it’s scoured clean again. The grout can be replaced for a few dollars and a couple of hours of effort.
Nobody can tell that there was a puddle of brown ooze in a refrigerator crisper once it’s hosed out.
Nobody could ever guess what was in a filing cabinet once it’s purged and everything is recycled or shredded.
Nobody will ever have to know how much was spent on a storage unit, or two, or more than two. Once it’s emptied and broom clean, someone else will come along and rent it. Let them spend their vacation money storing stuff they never use or look at.
I snapped my closet rod once because there were too many clothes weighing it down. I was alone when it happened and the noise was terrifying. I already had a wooden rod of the right diameter, so I used my saw and my Dremel to cut it to length and replace it. I threw the old one away. My landlord never knew. I actually threw the broken one away as soon as I was done! It was like it never happened.
(Except that it only took me 20 minutes to replace the closet rod, but two hours to sort and hang up all the clothes…)
The thing about clutter is that it belongs to the past. We bring it home because we think we’re going to want it in the future. We hang on to it because we start to forget it’s even there. The minute it’s held up to our awareness again, whatever emotions and intentions we had attached to it shine forth, like an aura that only we can see. It’s like we just got our wisdom teeth out and we’re seeing colors and talking random nonsense, and anyone else would giggle at us, knowing we were out of our minds at the moment. Why do we have such strong emotional attachments to things we keep hidden away in boxes, drawers, cupboards, closets, garages, and storage units?
So many of the things we keep refer to rough spots in the past. We don’t want to look at them or make decisions about them because we don’t know how to shut the door on the waves of stale old emotion that come wafting out. Musty, mildewed memories. The interesting thing about this is that the past isn’t here. The only remnants we have are the stories we tell ourselves about it. Otherwise, it’s like the past never happened.
I know I was a baby once because, hello, that’s how babies work. Now I’m 5’4” and I have gray hair, a driver’s license, a credit score, and a university degree. Where is that baby? There’s certainly no baby putting away laundry or cooking dinner tonight. Looks like an adult woman to me. The only evidence I have that I was ever a new baby is biology, the testimony of people who knew me then, and my baby album – but technically that could be a forgery. Just because there’s a lock of fine hair and a set of hospital bracelets in there doesn’t mean they’re mine. Right? Stay with me here.
Where is the evidence of the bad years?
I was divorced in my 20s, and it made a ding on my credit report. I won’t go into it other than to say that I have always taken my credit and my financial obligations very seriously. Years passed. Whatever note was on there is no longer there, and my credit score is something like 830. No evidence. It’s like it never happened.
I don’t usually think about my divorce unless I need an example for something I’m writing, and I’d rather throw my own past self under the bus than tell stories about someone else. I was divorced 16 years ago and I’ve been with my current husband for a decade. I threw my old wedding ring in the river, changed my name, my physique, and my hairstyle (not to mention my credit…) It’s like my first marriage never happened.
There are times when bureaucratic or physical evidence tends to hang around. I’m no longer obese, but I still have stretch marks from my hips to my calves. They’re there, although they’re hard to see unless you’re looking for them. I’m proud of them at this point. I saw another woman in athletic gear – I would describe her as ‘sturdy’ – and noticed her calves had stretch marks, too. It made me want to ask her to train with me. It’s like another version of the ’26.2’ tattoo. Guess what? This isn’t genetic, honey.
There are only two things that don’t go away, and those are a criminal record and the grudges of those we’ve hurt. Whether the first one defines your life or not is a personal choice. What we’ve done in the past isn’t really who we are in the present, or who we’ll be in the future, unless we refuse to take accountability and continue to act in the same way. As for grudges, we often find that the other person has forgiven us long ago. When the grudge is still there, it’s either because we’ve never made amends and the person doesn’t feel heard, or because this is a person who clings to resentment. Making amends can be as simple as saying, “I’m sorry I hurt you and I wish I hadn’t.” I have done this on a few occasions in which the other person had no hard feelings and didn’t even remember what I was talking about. Better safe than sorry, though, I say. Saying ‘sorry’ should come as naturally as saying ‘thank you.’
How much of the stuff we keep reminds us of apologies we’re still waiting to hear? I have an inkling of an idea that a lot of people hang on to family heirlooms because they’re attached to a vision of happy family life that isn’t represented by their actual memories. The teacup or ring or whatnot is our true family legacy, because we have a birthright to dignity, respect, loyalty, and gracious living. I think it’s in the back of the china hutch under the souvenir spoon case. Oh, but surely there are happy people living with family heirlooms? Of course there are, but happy people don’t live in messy or smelly homes. We’re not worried about them.
The question is whether we’re totally satisfied and content with the present, and whether we want something better for the future.
Something better than not being able to find things? Something better than a secret box of grief clutter we can’t bear to sort, or even handle? Something better than a feeling of defensiveness about our surroundings?
Sometimes we contemplate a change and worry over “being the same person.” This has always puzzled me. Isn’t the purpose of life to change and grow? Why on earth would making a positive change have any negative impact on my identity? I used to be fat, which is hardly a moral issue, but in my case it came with a lot of migraines. When I got rid of the excess body fat, the headaches accidentally went in the bag and got thrown out, too. I used to carry a bit of credit card debt, and after I paid it off, I found that I felt more generous and gave more to charity. I used to have boxes and boxes of stuff I didn’t need. I got rid of it, made some money off some of it, and now it takes less time to clean my house. That’s all. Now nobody can tell that any of that used to be true about my life. It’s like it never happened.
Goals are easier to achieve when they are simplified and streamlined. A goal like “learn to cook” is actually a very broad, complicated proposition, while “learn to sauté an onion” is relatively simple. “Learn to chop an onion” is sometimes the best starting place. This is an example of the concept of going back to first principles. Starting from zero, what are the fundamentals of this practice? What is the foundation that a novice would be taught?
Let’s take the goal of “getting organized.” This was a tough one for me when I first started. I knew whatever was “wrong” with me required getting organized. I was constantly running for buses and then missing them. I sometimes lost track of bills and paid them late. I never knew what to have for dinner. If someone kept an exhibit of all the personal objects I lost, it would fill half a room with gloves, hats, scarves, day planners, pens, wallets, umbrellas, and (alas) a couple of library books. They’ll be waiting for me in Purgatory, I’m sure. If I sat down and wrote a list of all the specific examples of disorganization in my life, it would have to include all the times I locked myself out of my car; the time I had to climb through my kitchen window twice in the same day, not realizing I’d also left a burner on high for hours; the time I threw my keys in the Dumpster; the time I dropped my keys down an elevator shaft while my phone was locked in my car; the time I left my cell phone on a Greyhound bus; the time I spilled pickle juice in the car; and hundreds or thousands more. What should have been routine parts of the day for “normal” people somehow turned into epic disasters for me. A huge amount of my time and attention would be drained away by these bizarre complications. I needed to understand why.
I read dozens of books on organization and time management. I finally learned about the concept of ADHD. Later, I learned about the concept of chronic disorganization. Later still, I realized that the root of my problem was probably my parasomnia disorder. I was just tired and spaced out all the time. None of this information really did much to alleviate my disorganization problems, though.
What helped was the concept of modeling. What did successful people do? What did “organized” people do differently? It felt very much like naturally organized people were born that way, that it was some key component of their personalities. In reality, it turns out that organized people follow a common set of behaviors. They do things the way that works. There is no need for them to try anything else, because they aren’t caught in a web of confusion and complication like I was. They follow a schedule; they eat meals and go to bed at routine times; they carry a standard set of useful daily items; they use maps and shopping lists and calendars and clocks; they look around when they get up to leave; they have a place for everything; they pause to focus their thoughts between activities; they do one thing at a time; they plan ahead. They don’t waste time calling Lost and Found or waiting for the late bus or apologizing or making excuses, because their routines don’t generate problems. They don’t drive around town eating pickles. (I think that’s just me). They have internalized the first principles of organization.
The simple habit of looking around before leaving has changed my life. I know where my keys are. I’ve learned to do a quick perimeter check when I prepare to leave for a trip or check out of a hotel room. I’ve taught myself to form a mental picture when I do this, so that if I can’t find something, I can be sure that at least it wasn’t left behind. My keys turn out to have slipped off their clip into the bottom of my bag, which is a huge improvement over all the other places they’ve been. I should probably autoclave them.
Perpetual problems always seem intractable and complicated. We have the same argument with the same person over and over again. We lose track of the same items. We develop an unshakable reputation for lateness. Yet there always seems to be a distinct, unrelated reason why it happened this time. That’s what happens. When something is done in the standard, effective way, it generally always turns out with standard, effective results. Only a true disaster interrupts that process. There are, unfortunately, an infinite variety of non-standard, ineffective ways to screw something up. Why was I on time to work? Because I scheduled a time cushion that allowed for almost every disruption. Why was I late to work? Because: I spilled pickle juice in my car; I couldn’t find my [whatever]; I overslept; there was traffic; I had to stop for breakfast because my fridge was empty; the dog ate my homework; etc. Routines seem deathly boring to those of us who aren’t already following them. Chaos and entropy are usually non-boring in the bad way, though.
It turns out that there is an easy way to do anything, and there are also complicated ways to attempt the same thing. The complicated ways either fail to work at all, get close but not quite, or fracture into additional complications. It’s easy to maintain a certain fitness level, it’s even easier to gain weight, and it’s three times harder to attempt to lose weight. It’s easy to clean a tidy house, easier to make a mess, and 2.5 times harder to try to clean it up afterward. It’s easy to follow a schedule, easier to delay, and who knows how much harder to catch up and make amends for being late.
Weight loss probably wins the prize for most complications and most disagreement about how to define first principles. The main reason for this is that we desperately want to believe non-fat people have genetic gifts; that weight gain comes from the sky and not from our eating habits. I’m a formerly obese person from a non-athletic, non-thin family (trying hard for the right euphemisms here), and I learned the first principles of fitness the hard way. The hard way is not a straight route. It’s more like getting lost in the wilderness, in the dark, in a hailstorm, and having to backtrack and drive in circles up multiple unmarked dirt roads. I learned that the first principles are: eat consistent, predictable amounts of healthy food every day; be aware of my body; follow sensible limits of portion control and volume/frequency of junk food consumption; eat for fuel and not for mood management or social pressure. Fit people weigh in and take their measurements regularly. Fit people eat until they are satiated, not until they feel nauseated or get a headache or empty the package. Fit people stop at one plate. Fit people eat more vegetables than sugar. Fit people don’t waste time defending their habits, arguing about how to lose weight, or trying to debunk decades of clinical research. They don’t have any weight to lose, and thus don’t spend a single second being preoccupied with it. Now my only problem is when I meet people who didn’t know me when I was fat, who then cuss me out and make vicious fit-shaming remarks. They assume I have unfair advantages (or a mental illness), rather than knowledge I could teach.
That’s one of the obstacles to uncovering first principles. We like to shame people who are doing things the effective way. Organized people are boring, unimaginative, anal-retentive, and obsessive-compulsive. (Suddenly we’re psychiatrists and we have the credentials to diagnose others). Thin people are anorexic, self-loathing, shallow, and narcissistic. Financially solvent people are penny-pinching misers and party poopers. Punctual people are judgmental and critical. We can’t bear the weight of the shame we feel when we fail to meet our own standards, so we try to offload at least some of it onto other people. As usual, we frame our problems in moral terms, rather than evaluating whether it is effective/ineffective or working/not working. Do we like the results we are getting, or do we not like the results we are getting?
There are a few things we usually have to do before we can start finding out about first principles and testing them out. We have to stop blaming ourselves for laziness or lack of willpower, and reframe our problems in terms of lack of know-how. We have to short-circuit any tendency we might have to feel envy or resentment toward those who are succeeding where we are not, so we can look to them as repositories of knowledge. Why is your lasagna so much better than mine? (You *****). Oh, because you use twice as much sauce, not because you think you’re so perfect. Every person we meet knows at least one thing we don’t know. It’s possible to see this as an exciting opportunity for adventure, rather than a depressing trap of social comparison.
First principles are the main component of what I call Doing the Obvious. Two years ago, I decided to Do the Obvious in every area, and to double down on that when I felt resistance. I’m a Questioner, and that’s a two-edged sword: I’ll do something if it’s clear to me why it’s a good idea, but it’s also excruciating for me to do something just because I’m “supposed to.” I changed my mind. I decided to start with the fundamental assumption that if something was an obvious piece of group-think, there was probably a reason for it. I would undertake these Obvious behaviors in good faith and test them in my lab. The result was a total revolution in every part of my life. I emerged a highly productive marathon runner who sleeps 8-9 hours a night and shows up on time for things. Now, I’m in a place where my ego is no longer caught up in doing things “my way,” because first principles are clearly much easier. My identity has shifted so that I think of myself as someone who is smart enough to Do the Obvious. All the energy that was being washed down the drain of inefficiency and constant crises is now available for me to relax and make art.
This is an absolutely terrific, mind-blowing book! I thought it was going to be another manual on Getting Organized, something that teaches how to set up a filing system and schedule appointments. I read it anyway, because I like to keep up on the latest trends in my field. I thought maybe I’d recommend it to people with more of a sports or business focus. This is not that kind of tutorial. With each chapter, I was more and more impressed. I really wished it was the first organizing book I had ever read. What Organize Tomorrow Today has to teach goes far beyond basic time management and into life management.
The book does start with how we allocate time, and that makes perfect sense, because our lives are used up in one-second increments. The author, Dr. Jason Selk, recommends time maximization rather than time management. The idea is to make the best possible use of time by planning only three most important tasks for the day, and then choosing one of those as the 1 Must. Do the 1 Must first, even if it’s the only thing you get done all day. Do the next two important tasks after that. Pause at lunchtime to plan the next day’s three most important tasks. Everything less important can be fit in with whatever time is left. I’ve had big success focusing on the 1 Must, because if I try to make excuses for why I’m not doing it, it forces me to acknowledge that I’m giving in to resistance. Then I have to acknowledge why. Why on earth would I not do the single thing I’ve personally decided is the most important thing for me to do?
One of the most valuable concepts I picked up was to Win the Fight-Thru. This refers to those times when we’re tempted to drop a habit “just this once.” Gretchen Rubin has a long list of common loopholes, and Dr. Tim Pychyl calls this phenomenon “giving in to feel good.” We let ourselves off the hook, and by failing to live up to our own values, we let ourselves down and trust ourselves less and less. Selk recommends responding to this seductive call by doing 10% more on these days. In this way, we prove to ourselves that we do have what it takes, that this goal is important, and that we will keep our commitments to ourselves. I can’t emphasize enough how revolutionary I find this idea. This is going to be my “one thing” from the eight habits in the book.
Selk discusses the “Trap of the Viable Excuse,” and says: The more “reasonable” the excuse is, the more you’re willing to accept the failure and make it your new normal…. When you accept it, you’re accepting a permanent lowering of your personal standards.” [chills] This is a “performance virus.” Two others are “Focusing on What You Can’t Control” and “Giving In to Problem-Centric Thought.” Keys to the universe, right here!
I highly recommend Organize Tomorrow Today. The author recommends that his clients choose only one of the eight goals, moving on only when they master the first one they chose. He emphasizes over and over again that people get caught up in enthusiasm and try to do everything at once, what he calls the “honeymoon period.” Understandably, these habits are so obviously useful that anyone would want to try them all at once! Then, inevitably, they start to slip. This is also something I’m going to take very seriously. My credo is to Do the Obvious, and that means taking advice from smart people who get the results they set out to get. Even though I have no particular interest in team sports, I can recognize that these are successful people with clearly measurable goals. Like everyone else, they do better when they figure out something specific they aren’t doing well, and then work to improve that weak area.
Most mainstream advice can be taken in more than one way. “Don’t settle” is one of those ideas that needs some clarification. A strong argument can be made that “settling” is the path to true contentment. An equally strong argument can be made that no, indeed, we should never “settle” for anything. This includes career, romance, and other major life goals. How can we personalize this vague admonishment and decide when to settle and when not to?
Let’s start with career. The first thing I tell my young people is that the average number of career changes is five in a lifetime (and it may be closer to 10). You don’t have to decide on anything while you’re young. If you have even a mild curiosity about a certain field, a standing invitation to try an entry-level job, or an obvious option, go for it. Dive in. When you’re 40, nobody will care what you did for money when you were 23. You might not even remember every job you had at that age. You’re going to find out some things about the workplace that can only be learned by doing. What’s your biggest annoyance? Being micromanaged, or not getting enough direction? Working indoors or working outdoors? Dealing with the public or working in isolation? Lack of variety or lack of focus? Does having a dress code feel like a worthwhile tradeoff for more pay or greater opportunities? Be curious and attentive. Focus on shaping your personal work ethic. Whatever it means to settle for a job, you don’t have to do it right away and you don’t have to do it for long periods.
I know three people who still do what they chose in their teens or early 20s, and love it. One wanted to design video games and wound up working on some very high-profile titles. One started a landscaping business in high school and has kept doing it decades later, because it enabled his side gigs as a bass player. The third is my husband, who wanted to be either a high school history teacher or an aerospace engineer. He chose engineering. See what these jobs have in common? All three men started with a clear idea of what they wanted to do; they chose jobs that allowed for a lot of autonomy; it got more interesting as they went along. The first guy went on to be technical director for a gadget you’ve definitely heard of; the second added travel to his build-your-own-lifestyle job; the third was on BattleBots. If only all of us felt such clear callings and had such intrinsic interest in any one field…
You know how career touches on romance? Nobody wants to go out with someone who complains constantly about a lousy job. Love it, change it, or shut up about it. Another common complaint is that “women only want to go out with guys who make a lot of money.” What “women” want (what anyone wants) is for you to like what you do. Being interested in your job helps to make you an interesting person. Many people fall into a rut in which they spend almost every spare moment in the living room or bedroom, not doing much of anything, and years somehow vanish in a puff of smoke. Finding an interesting job is a blessing in its own right, but it also gets you out of the house where you can meet people. My husband and I met in the workplace, for what that’s worth.
I “settled” for an older divorced guy with a kid. Guess what else? He has… *gasp*… back hair. In the grand scheme of things, none of that matters. I had never dated a guy with back hair before, because guys under 30 haven’t grown into their full coat yet. They get hairier as they age. If you want to be happily married when you’re both in your 80s, back hair is going to be the least of your cosmetic worries; can we talk about ear hair? So he’s divorced; so am I; so what? The 10-year-old kid I first met is now 21 and in college. We only lived under the same roof for four years. Much of what we discern in potential dates is situational, external, superficial, or temporary. Quit worrying about someone’s height or hair color or vehicle. Worry about his value system, his sense of humor, whether he has a temper, and whether he knows how to apologize or take accountability for his life. Choose someone you think is interesting. If you like talking to each other, that is going to last a lot longer than a particular hairstyle or cool shirt. Once you realize that you would miss him, never let him go. Settle down when you realize that this is the person who feels like home to you.
Settling has to do with what we accept and what we don’t. I accept that I’ll never be tall, while knowing that as a 40-year-old, there are still things I can do to preserve my posture and bone density as I age. I accept that I’ll never win a medal in the Olympics – but, perhaps, the Senior Olympics? I refuse to accept that my hair is turning gray – instead, I am WHOOPING IT UP because I’m finally starting to get the white stripe I always wanted! Oh my gosh, it looks so awesome. If only I can get four or five more gray hairs in that same area, it’ll start to look like something.
We settle for things when we start to think that anything more would be a foolish fantasy. Personally, I’m in favor of foolish fantasies. They’re free and they don’t have to infringe on anyone else in any way. I have the foolish fantasy that I can learn to be multilingual. Why shouldn’t I? Learning a foreign language is the most commonly kept resolution. Half the people in the world speak two or more languages. I have the foolish fantasy that my husband and I, both on our second marriage, will still love each other and want to be together in 30 years. Statistics do not support this dumb idea, but for us, it’ll be either a 100% success rate or a 0% success rate. If we think it won’t work, it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Don’t settle for someone if you have to talk yourself into it. Settling is not the same as commitment.
Don’t settle for gradually declining health. That is not the same thing as “aging gracefully.”
Don’t settle for disappointment. It’s not the same thing as realism.
Any time you hear someone (or yourself) beginning a statement with, “I know I’ll never…” pause and reconsider. Is this an opinion stated as fact? Is it setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy? I know I’ll never go to Mars, because if I ever had the opportunity, I’d turn it down. I don’t know if I’ll ever be a millionaire or visit all seven continents, but I wouldn’t want to rule it out! What we want to do is to focus on allowing opportunity while quashing unnecessary negativity. As far as predicting the future, negativity is precisely as much of an illusion as positivity. The only way to know what’s going to happen is to be the one who makes it happen.
The trouble with “settling” is that it has two semantically different meanings. In the sense of “settling down,” it can mean embracing comfort and contentment, maturing, and defining success for yourself. In the sense of stuckness, settling can mean abandoning ambition, turning to pessimism and fatalism, and falling into a fixed mindset. There is a middle path, that of celebrating simple pleasures while continuing to strive to make a greater contribution.
This body is temporary. I was born into a physical human body that will only be around for a measly few decades, twelve at the most. Nobody has lived to 130 yet, or if they have, nobody documented it. This body I have has certain limits. It can only endure a certain range of temperatures. It can only spend a limited time underwater without specialized equipment. It can only thrive on a limited range of foods, not including bark or pebbles. This body has joints that can only withstand a certain range of motion; its knees don’t want to bend backward. This body has bones that can only tolerate a limited force of impact or pressure. This body can be stopped in its tracks simply by inhaling or ingesting the wrong substance. The body I have won’t last forever, it can’t do everything, and in one way or another it’s inferior to every other animal on the face of the earth. No flight capability, no prehensile tail, no ability to see into the infrared or ultraviolet spectrum, no echolocation, no gills. Still, it’s mine. The body I have is the body I have.
This body has given me some trouble over the years. In my early twenties, I was diagnosed with thyroid disease and fibromyalgia. I had my first migraine at 22, and that became a regular feature of my life for the next fifteen years. There have been other problems: weird moles that had to be biopsied, impacted wisdom teeth, sprains and strains and skinned knees and second-degree sunburns. I’ve walked into stinging nettle and had a fire ant crawl up my pants. At these times, I often wish I were a floating consciousness with no body at all. Why can’t I be me without having to inhabit this inconvenient meat puppet?
The truth is that without the body I have, I would really freak people out. I need a human form to be able to hug people, hold hands, dance, and eat my favorite meals. The body I have makes it possible to participate in conversations. I can see and hear and taste and detect odors, which, alas, isn’t always such a bonus. I have the physical power to intervene, for instance the several times I have chased a toddler who was about to run full-speed into danger. As a floating ghostie I wouldn’t be able to do any of that.
The body I have is a useful vehicle. It’s “me” in almost every important way. It’s what my friends and loved ones recognize when they see me. My physical health, as it turns out, is almost completely responsible for my moods and attitude. When I eat poorly and lapse into sedentary behaviors, I become bored and sullen. The consequences of my less-than-optimal choices rebound and affect everyone I encounter, from those closest to me to the most briefly glimpsed strangers who happen to see my scowling countenance. It turns out that I look really angry when I’m in pain. Treating this human vessel respectfully, feeding it within the range that is biologically appropriate for humans, moving it the required amount, makes me much more pleasant to deal with. It also makes it easier for me to enjoy living in this world for the few decades that I will be here.
When I was ill, I blamed the body I have for all my problems. I didn’t understand that I could impact any of these health issues through my behavior or choices. I didn’t realize I had a choice. I wouldn’t have believed it if someone told me I did. I would have felt that that was a very unsympathetic, even cruel, thing to say. Only after I experienced it did I start to believe that whatever my body is doing on any given day is a snapshot, one frame out of a mind-bendingly long movie. It should be more intuitive than it is, but a body that begins as a single cell, is born into a tiny infant, and then grows continually for two decades is designed for constant change. Why is it so easy to fall into the trap of thinking we are stuck with whatever physical state we are experiencing at one moment on the timeline?
I needed to experience change in this body that I have before I could truly believe it was possible. First the change, then the belief. I could never have taken it on faith from someone else. Now, I see examples of other people who have changed their bodies in adulthood on a daily basis. It’s just like when you buy a new car and then start seeing that make and model everywhere you go. Vehicle, vehicle, same thing. Tens of thousands of people have reversed health conditions, gotten off medication, and/or lost hundreds of pounds. For mysterious reasons, those of us who still have physical issues never believe that we could be a part of this group. Other hominids may be able to change their bodies, but not us. We’re special, special in a bad way. We have been punished by fate and genetics to suffer and have a bad body! We accept this dire sentence, carved into stone by unfeeling deities. We can’t spend more than a couple of days half-heartedly dabbling at one change or another, never enough to convince us that it just might work if we kept going. We think a body must continue as it is, the only changes possible being negative changes. The body I have can sicken and gain weight, but it can’t heal or return to a lean, thriving form, even as I see cuts and scrapes return to quality new skin on a routine basis. Other people who experience healing and increased health must have better bodies than the one that I have.
The body that I have can do amazing things. It remembers to breathe and keep its heart, lungs, and blood moving even when I sleep. It recovers from illness and injury. Every time I have tested it to find out what else it can do, it rises to the occasion and meets the challenge. I’m 40, probably at the halfway mark of my life (if I haven’t passed it already), yet I am still continuing to discover new capabilities. I continue to grow extra muscle and become faster, stronger, and more agile. It feels as though I am aging in reverse. Despite my history of chronic illness, I have started to be satisfied, even impressed, with the body I have.
I was 37 when I bought my first (and current) laptop. I bought it with money from my first freelance gig, and I was so proud! It paid for itself with work I’ve done on it since. Now it’s not really keeping up with the demands I put on it, and I’m ready to go big. I’ll use it until I wear the letters off the keyboard. I’ll spend several hours a day interacting with it. It will be my spare brain. I’m using what could be a fairly ordinary consumer purchase as an organizing point in my life. If this upcoming fantasy purchase really has the potential to be a spare brain and transform the way I work, how can I use this time to create a watershed in my timeline?
Fantasy visions have a ‘before’ and an ‘after.’ We tend to get caught up in just the ‘after.’ Wouldn’t it be nice if I could fly? Yes, probably! We’ll have to spend some time figuring out all the steps that come before “I’m flying” before we can make that happen. Same thing with any other dream that wants to become reality. If my ‘after’ is “I am changing the world with my keyboard every day,” where am I starting? If I pull up my map app and I want walking directions, I need both a starting location and an end destination.
The truth is that I’m currently caught between two worlds, the analog and the digital. I went paper-free as much as possible several years ago, and we’re pretty good about dealing with mail and incoming paper every day. The trouble is that I still have notebooks and paper files from the past that I haven’t integrated into my digital world yet. There is never a “good time” to deal with archival material; if it’s sitting there and it hasn’t been handled, that’s a 100% reliable sign that it hasn’t been needed. If I haven’t needed it yet, I may never need it. Still, when I’ve gone through these old notebooks in the past, I’ve felt that I wanted to keep the information. It happens that right now, I’m keeping it in a completely vulnerable, perishable, inaccessible format.
My paper files are irreplaceable. That means there aren’t any backups. If anything happens to them, they’re gone. I haven’t exactly memorized this stuff. We’ve had professional movers a couple of times, and for whatever reason, one of them took it upon himself to dismantle my file boxes and put all my paper notes in a moving box. In the process, a lot of papers got bent, crumpled, and smeared. The indignity of it all! Digitizing my notes is one way to protect what I see as their sacrosanct integrity. It will also make them accessible from the road.
We have another problem that goes beyond this full box of vulnerable papers. Photographs. It’s easy to see the point on the timeline when we got camera phones, because the hard copy photographs simply stop happening. What I’ve learned from dealing with old photos is that they have a lot of problems. Our old albums from the 70s and 80s lose their adhesiveness and the plastic page protectors get brittle and discolored. Whenever we pick them up, loose photos cascade out the bottom. I have an aluminum box with old photos and memorabilia in it. If these photos are damaged, that’s it. I once did a very sad clutter job that involved throwing away several years’ worth of photos. They had been left in a paper shopping bag in a garage and were pancaked together with damp and mold. We tried, but they proved impossible to peel apart without tearing. The irony of keeping things because we want to preserve them is that we often guarantee their ruin instead.
If you care enough to keep it at all, take steps to make sure it’s truly preserved. Water damage, mold, mildew, smoke, sawdust, paint, vermin, insects… Anything in storage that is not climate controlled and accessed regularly absolutely will show the effects of entropy and neglect.
We have tons of digital photographs, of course, and that’s part of what makes it easier to see the hard copies as less desirable. I can and do enjoy looking at photos of everyone in my extended family on a regular basis. We have hundreds of pictures of our pets. We don’t spend much time looking at older photos because the current ones are so fresh and available. The problem is that our photo folders are only organized by date, not content. I often find myself looking for a specific photo as an illustration, and I have no idea what year it was taken, much less which month. Part of this fantasy ‘spare brain’ project will be to consolidate the photos and tag them in a way that makes them more useful.
I have this fantasy project of making slide shows of the peak moments from different years and then watching it at the New Year. Maybe I’ll do it after I get the new laptop.
There are other digital things I would like to consolidate. It turns out that I have files on our shared desktop, my laptop, various thumb drives, a couple of formats of flash memory cards, a stack of data CDs and DVDs, my Dropbox, Evernote, and my phone. The stack of physical media has more mass than the equipment itself. A lot of it probably contains redundant or obsolete stuff. When I look at it, I’m sure I’ll wonder why I was keeping it, and maybe even where I got it.
Our office represents more than just a room. (It’s our pets’ bedroom, so a chunk of it is dedicated to a birdcage and a dog crate). What we wanted was a place where we could both work. What we have is more of a place where we store stuff we don’t want to look at in the living room. We both do most of our personal bureaucratic work and our side projects either in the living room or at a café on the weekend. Sometimes when the weather is nice I work on the back patio. Excavating some of the funky old electronic clutter could be a way of energizing the space.
Why am I keeping old paper notes? Because I think they’re relevant for some reason? If there are projects I intend to complete, I need to schedule time to work on them and set some deadlines for when they’ll happen. The longer I have them around, the less likely Future Me will even be able to decipher them. The more time that goes by, the worse I’ll feel if anything happens and they are destroyed. Why didn’t I protect and preserve them when I had the chance?? I could diligently sit and scan them all in a couple of hours.
Why are we keeping old CDs and electronic files? Because we think we’ll need them at some point? What’s on them besides photos? If it’s nothing more than a bunch of old backups, they’re probably redundant. If it’s something important, we’d better figure that out in case they get scuffed or cracked or the file formats become obsolete and unreadable.
Why do I have so many thumb drives? They aren’t labeled. I don’t have a system for keeping separate data on separate drives. Why do I have so many?
Looking at a stack of undifferentiated, unlabeled, untagged stuff is exactly like walking around in a confused stupor. It’s like a plastic sculpture of a disoriented, possibly hungover human brain. If my waking mind was that poorly organized, I’d be walking around in circles with my shirt on backward and my shoes on the wrong feet, babbling and playing with my lip. I should just put it all in a box labeled HERP DE DERP and then send it to the landfill.
The fantasy of a new laptop is the fantasy of mental clarity. It’s the fantasy of being current and not having old projects hanging over my head. It’s not necessarily procrastinating to choose not to spend time sorting old, probably irrelevant materials; at least 80% of that stuff I’ll most likely never need. Keeping it, though, is like keeping apple cores or empty cans. It represents the leftovers of time I spent, things I did, thoughts I had, and time that has passed. I’m setting myself the intention of liberation from these stale old calcified thoughts. ‘Decision’ means ‘to cut off.’ I’m cutting off the fuzz that clouds my workspace. I’m creating a space where I can feel fully confident that I’m working on the most important thing every day, that all my important data are readily accessible, and that there are no ancient tasks lingering around to distract me. That new laptop will be like a space shuttle to the future.
Even if you’re Vicki the Robot from Small Wonder, and you spend every night in a cabinet, you need this book. If you’re a human being, then you definitely need this book! I can’t possibly recommend it enough. Shawn Stevenson is hip, funny, and deeply knowledgeable about sleep. Even complicated charts and medical terminology are accessible through his engaging, witty prose. I’ve followed sleep research closely for at least the last decade, and I learned a great deal from Sleep Smarter. I can also validate a lot of the information as crucially important for healing sleep problems.
Before I talk more about the book, I’ll share a bit about myself. I started having problems with insomnia at age seven. At fourteen, I woke up one morning and couldn’t open my mouth because I had clenched my jaw so tightly. I wound up cracking four mouth guards, and I wore through a set of amalgam fillings in eighteen months. I also had restless leg syndrome; sometimes it would start early in the evening, before I even went to bed. In college, the clinic sent me to the school psychiatrist to make sure I didn’t have a neurological problem, because I was only sleeping about three hours a night. Garden variety stuff. The real issue I had in my thirties was pavor nocturnus, or night terrors. I would wake up in a different room, shaking and crying, with no memory of how I got there. My poor husband would have to chase me and bring me back to bed. I don’t have sleep problems anymore. If someone like me can learn to sleep eight peaceful hours every night, then it stands to reason that anyone could. I’m also including a thumbnail of my sleep issues in case Shawn Stevenson reads this. If he does, HI! In the second edition, which you know is inevitable with a book this great, would you please consider including an appendix on insomnia and parasomnia disorders?
Sleep Smarter includes short, fascinating chapters on sleep research. At the end, there is an easy set of micro-habits to try out over two weeks. It would be pretty easy to start with the chapter that seems most relevant; they don’t necessarily have to be read in order. For instance, anyone who has ever tried to share a “full” sized mattress with another person knows to start with the chapter on beds!
If you’re reading this because you have annoying sleep issues, attend closely. Stevenson and I both make magnesium deficiency the first priority. If you can’t handle dietary change at this point in your life, you can buy a spray-on topical supplement. At least 80% of Americans are deficient in magnesium, so if you have any kind of sleep problem, be objective before you rule it out.
For restless legs, talk to your doctor about an iron supplement. (Or you can keep a food log for three weeks, look at your micronutrient consumption, and make your own judgment).
For tooth grinding, my dentist leveled out my bite by replacing my fillings. It changed my life.
For pavor nocturnus, I discovered that it was related to blood sugar levels. I make sure not to eat for three hours before bedtime. I also became a marathon runner, and I believe that this changed my body’s ability to store glycogen in the muscles. This most likely helped my body to regulate blood sugar more efficiently, as I never get hangry anymore. I also quit getting migraines at the same time that I quit having the night terrors, which is now over two years ago.
I took melatonin for five years, and it helped me learn to sleep properly. About three weeks ago, I quit taking it, and was astonished to find that my sleep is the same quality and duration! I was very worried about experiencing sleepless nights, but it didn’t happen once. To me, this is verification that all the other changes I made really did have an impact.
For everything, I quadrupled my cruciferous vegetable consumption. What Stevenson has to say about nutrition and fitness is completely true. I was also extremely interested in his personal story about battling degenerative disk disease as a teenager. He asked his doctor if his diagnosis “had anything to do with what [he] was eating, or if exercising a different way would help.” His doctor completely blew him off. That was precisely my experience with talking to my physician about my thyroid disease when I was 23. Stevenson’s disk disease had nothing in common with my thyroid disease, but the bogus, unscientific professional opinions we got were the same. I believe in medical science, but I seriously question whether doctors are keeping up with the most current research before they convey life-changing opinions to people. That’s before we even begin to consider nutrition and exercise, which few doctors seem to take seriously on a personal level, much less a professional one.
Please read this book. Please take the quality and quantity of your sleep seriously. Please believe that improving your sleep truly does have the potential to revolutionize your life.
Oh, and PS: Noelie says that if you have a pet parrot or other bird, please make sure it gets twelve hours of sleep in a dark, quiet room every night.
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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