You should have done it already. You know you should have. It’s lurking there, like a swamp thing at the bottom of a murky lake. Waiting for you. It will never let you have a moment’s peace until you deal with it, but you just can’t seem to make yourself. You can’t seem to make yourself open that envelope, listen to that voicemail, make that phone call, schedule that appointment, get that thing repaired, fill out that application, have that awkward conversation, turn in that assignment. WHY? Why do you keep doing this to yourself?
You’re not alone. Everyone procrastinates. Sure, some people claim they don’t, but the two most commonly procrastinated tasks are planning for retirement and dealing with health issues. Mention that if anyone tries to grief you about this.
Procrastination is a secret shame. There are a lot of different kinds. Don’t stress out about it. Imagine being a hit and run driver who never told anyone. (If that’s you, well, heck. Tell someone). Procrastination is really pretty mild in the grand scheme of things.
Whenever you have a secret shame, it’s the shame and the secrecy that are the real problems. Everything else is generally a simple matter of routine work.
An unpaid bill is just cash.
Something broken is just a repair.
A stain is just a stain.
An incomplete task is just something that could be finished.
It’s never the thing itself. It’s always the feelings of shame, guilt, incompetence, dread, anxiety, confusion, and What If that are the real problems.
Most of the time, it isn’t too late. Whatever is being procrastinated, the deadline hasn’t passed yet. There’s still time. Even knowing that, it can still feel impossible to just get started. Just start. Just start. Why aren’t you starting?
All it takes is to tell someone. Tell someone you know and trust. Tell someone you don’t know, like a stranger in line behind you at the post office. Tell someone anonymously on the internet. Tell a crow in the parking lot. Tell the Great Pumpkin. Just tell someone.
Give a name to what’s bothering you. Describe it. This helps to put some boundaries around the nameless ick that is destroying your peace of mind.
“I never sent those thank-you notes.”
“I’ve had this overdue library book for eight years.”
“The floor is ruined and I’m afraid to tell my landlord.”
“I’ve been getting calls from collections agents and I’m not even sure how much I owe.”
“The quarterly report is due and I haven’t even started yet.”
“I’m supposed to get a biopsy and it’s been over a year and I still haven’t made the appointment.”
(That last one was me BTW).
If you’ve picked the right person, you’ll probably hear a similar story in return. Everyone but everyone has done something like this. I accidentally melted a chocolate Rollo candy into my roommate’s couch. (So that’s where that went!). People procrastinate and make foolish mistakes and do embarrassing stuff all the time. That’s why it’s so funny and such a huge relief to hear that someone else is doing it, too.
Many people who have trouble working alone will push through for hours without a break if they have someone to sit with them. It’s a well-known phenomenon. The companion is called a “body double” or “shadow.” I think the lack of a buddy is the root cause of procrastination for a lot of people. (Probably most of them are Obligers). This is part of why it helps to tell someone when you feel like you’re in trouble and unable to face a problem by yourself. If all you need is someone to keep you company, that’s really a very minor favor to ask of someone.
Who could you get to sit with you?
A business partner? Your neighbor? Your kid? Your spouse?
A fellow procrastinator?
There are all kinds of book clubs, right? (I used to belong to three at one point). Lots of people play racquetball or tennis together. Bowling leagues. Choirs. You get where I’m going here? Why shouldn’t you have a partner or a club to help you focus and get stuff done? It’s entirely possible that someone among your friends or acquaintances is in just such a situation as you are. That person would probably be thrilled to have some help. You both just sit down together and make a pact that you’ll work on your secret shame until it’s done.
The backlog of unbalanced bank statements (which someone at your bank will do with you). The 30,000 unopened emails. The grocery sack full of unopened envelopes, which I guarantee are almost entirely junk mail. The incomplete expense reports. The blank thank-you notes. Whatever it is, it’s not exactly movie-of-the-week material, now, is it?
The funny thing is, it’s possible that you and your friend have non-overlapping projects, as well as non-overlapping skill sets. For instance, I absolutely hate driving, but I’m really quite good at organizing and I don’t mind disgusting cleaning tasks. I would totally trade someone a job like mending or scrubbing out a gross fridge for driving me around on some errands. Other jobs I hate that might make a good trade are wrapping gifts or giving my dog a bath.
It’s also not morally wrong to just hire someone. Hire a local high school kid. Hire someone through Craigslist or something similar. Calculate a subjective estimate of the cost of this looming dread that’s constantly hanging over your head, and then how much you’d be willing to pay to be rid of it. Is this a $25 stress? A $200 stress? A $20,000,000 stress? For instance, I can wash a pretty vast pile of laundry at the laundromat for about $8, but when it’s piled up that much, it feels like at least a hundred-dollar annoyance. (Would it cost $100 to buy a top-to-toe outfit if I ran out of clean clothes?). For a lot of people, putting a price on something can help to rank it and compare it to other problems. It can also be a motivator for getting it done rather than spending that kind of money.
Dread and procrastination and secret shame will destroy your peace of mind like nothing else. Life is too short to feel that way another day. Tell someone and don’t suffer alone.
Done right, mentoring can be one of the most fun, intriguing, and satisfying ways to spend time. Unfortunately, there are a million ways to mess it up. I try to always be in both the teaching and learning positions here, to remember how much there still is to learn and how tricky everything is before it becomes obvious. Which is better? Hard to say. Best to keep on trying at both.
Anyone who reads any business book will see a lot about how important it is to choose a mentor. LIES! The person you want for a mentor is most likely far, far too busy to spend time actually mentoring someone. Worse, the more successful this person is, the more people will chase after that elusive mentorship opportunity. What makes this person great is the ability to focus on a few very important things. There are plenty of successful people who enjoy mentoring, and you’ll know because they’ll single you out. They come to you.
The way you get the attention of your potential mentor is by:
What you’re trying to do is to demonstrate as much commitment to the project as your mentor has. This can be quite shocking. Trying to show up as early as they do and stay as late as they do is a project in itself. Successful people tend to put in very long hours behind the scenes. You have to know what it is that you think you’re asking for, and if it’s a responsible position with real leverage, then you may as well start training yourself for the endurance aspects early on.
“Pitching in” almost always means doing menial tasks. That could be anything from rearranging tables and stacking chairs to passing around sign-in sheets, with every administrative task imaginable in between. This is how you learn what’s involved. It’s also how you develop a keen eye for detail. A single mistaken date, forgotten object, or misspelled name can make the difference between sale/no sale or success/fail.
As a young office assistant, I once got reprimanded because I had collated a stack of documents, and the copier punched a staple that stuck out funny. I didn’t notice. The court clerk cut her finger on it and bled on a document. I wasn’t even there, but I got to hear all about it. From then on, I flipped over every stack of copies I ever made and checked that the staples were pounded flat. Still do.
The most important thing I learned from doing menial service work for so many years was to BE KIND when explaining anything. I would do anything for the staff members who were nice to me, and I never forgot a moment of rudeness or impatience from those who had less self-control.
I’m also remembering, now that I don’t have to sort other people’s mail or run other people’s errands any more, that people are the only reason to do anything. Any product or service is useless unless it benefits someone, somehow. There’s never any point or any excuse to berating or chastising an “underling,” because it sets you up for an inevitable slip if you think your “people skills” have a limited field of application. If you think there’s such a thing as a peon, move back to square one.
These are the things I keep in mind when I’m mentoring someone. If I can explain things well, then my young friend may be able to skip through years of servitude and move straight to a more impactful role.
As a mentor, it isn’t up to me who is tuned in to my channel. I’m not always going to know how much a younger or less experienced person knows. I’m not going to know how far this kid is going to go, or whether she or he will ultimately stay on the same career path. Those things are none of my business. They don’t belong to me. They come and go on their own schedule and their own agenda.
When I’m working with teenagers or college-aged kids, my main value is as a warm, friendly non-parental adult. Parents tend to go temporarily nuts when their kids reach adolescence, and they can become unrecognizably critical, emotional, and erratic. Strangely, the same kid whose parents think he’s incorrigible and headed straight to a penal colony will cheerfully wash dishes and take out the trash at my house! The same girl whose mom wants to put her in an ankle monitor will sit at my table and pull out her calculus textbook. Part of what works when mentoring young people is to have a group of them. They’re highly attuned to peer pressure at that age, and they teach each other the house expectations. (No talking about post-industrial politics, no dating within the group, no insults, eat your vegetables, everyone helps clean up). They also peg their progress against one another, barely noticing that they’re surrounded by high achievers.
They laugh three times more than middle-aged people. They’re idealistic, passionate, curious, and quirky. They keep us up-to-date on slang terms and pop culture. They help us set up our electronics. This is part of the secret to attracting a good mentor: be useful and fun to have around.
The stuff that young people want to know can cover a really broad range. How do I choose a major? What field do I want to work in? Should I date this person? How do I know when I’m in love? How old should I be when I get married? Should I go on the trip or take the job offer? What is the stock market? Do I enlist or get my master’s? Is it worth applying for this patent? Can my friendship survive renting a house together? Does this sound like a viable business plan? How do I make a soup?
Over the years, my young people have gone to boot camp and grad school, gotten married and started families, adopted dogs and cats, bought trucks and motorcycles, relocated, traveled the world, and surprised me a thousand ways. Over the same time period, I’ve sought out mentors and learned about publishing, screenwriting, podcasting, product development, branding, event planning, management, and a variety of athletic endeavors. Mentoring is mostly a way to make friends of different ages and keep life interesting.
Less: A Visual Guide to Minimalism is for those of us who are still bound to our stuff and not sure what to do with all the clutter. Rachel Aust’s stylish book reminds us of the point of minimalism, which is that everything really can be simple and streamlined. It really is possible to relax in a personal environment that is “done,” where nothing is missing and nothing is demanding attention. This is the next level beyond all of those organizing books. See it, imagine it, believe it. Photos of interiors like those in Less make it look possible.
Flow charts appear throughout the book, demonstrating how to make decisions about what to keep and what to eliminate. A couple of these made me grin, as I realized how they would look to my chronically disorganized clients. “Am I keeping this for sentimental reasons?” Um, not sure? Is it sentimental if it only brings up bad memories, but I still feel obligated to keep it? There’s a list of “25 Things You Can Trash Without Even Thinking.” It includes “old notebooks,” “unused craft supplies,” and “unfinished projects.” Wow! I mean, technically she is correct, and life will go on without these things, but my people are only going to be able to bring themselves to let go of these categories of their possessions under great strain. It’s a telling example of how we create our own problems and make our own lives more difficult.
My motivation for getting rid of my own old notebooks was that if they only existed in a single paper copy, then they were vulnerable to ruin or loss. I also couldn’t search them, and it was nearly impossible to track down information I needed. Now they’re digitized and backed up, and that makes them safe and useful. I “trashed” the old notebooks while keeping the important part, which was their informational content.
Aust does include some excellent thinking exercises on how to make decisions and emotional adjustments around letting things go. For instance, if this were stolen, would you actually replace it? Are you keeping it for its actual value in your life, or only its monetary value?
Stuff isn’t “worth” what we think it is. We fall for the “endowment effect,” meaning that we believe things are valuable because they belong to us, and it’s hard for us to realize that nobody on earth would pay the price we would demand for our old junk. How is it worth anything if it just sits there, literally gathering dust?
Minimalism isn’t practical for everyone, and Aust acknowledges that. She also points out that we can’t go minimizing other people’s possessions. From my work in this field, I can tell you that the person most likely to bring me in is usually the real hoarder in the home! This person is frustrated that other people are storing their stuff in areas they want to use for their own personal items. With all your stuff in the way, I can only bogart 90% of the common areas! We certainly both agree that minimalism starts with oneself and one’s own belongings.
There’s a 30-day minimalism challenge in Less that I really like. Most of my people would need to spend more than a day on some of these, but it’s still a great starting point. I’m particularly impressed that the challenge includes finance, information management, and meal planning. There’s even a social media cull, and therein we discover the time we need to carry out the rest of the challenge!
One of the major strengths of the book is the section on capsule wardrobes. Most Americans have a crazy amount of clothes, and this will be the area to see the fastest results. If you can’t figure out where to start, start here.
As for the interiors, Aust reminds us that we don’t need to keep things just because it’s “expected” if they aren’t useful to us. I’m living proof; I hate coffee tables, so we have an ottoman instead. My dresser has a footprint of only about two square feet, so it stays in the closet. “The Only 45 Items You Need in Your Home” may be a bit on the luxe side, because I don’t have a bedside table, a bath mat, or a washing machine, and I got rid of the iron and ironing board the last time we moved. I generally don’t keep any of the suggested pantry items on hand, either. The “20 Essential Cooking Tools” were right on target, though. There are very few kitchen items I use on a weekly basis that fall outside that grid.
Different styles of decor are included, indicating that not everyone has to go for the hard-edge version that appeals to me. What should be apparent is that stacks and piles of clutter never add anything positive to a room; we can add charm and warmth with color, music, and friends rather than STUFF.
As a tiny-house, debt-free person, I can state for the record that Rachel Aust’s approach works. Personally, I’m more minimalist than the book in several ways, but extremely maximalist in others. There’s still room for a parrot, a unicycle, and a set of hula hoops in a 612-square-foot studio apartment. I like the connections that Less makes between a structured, simple interior, an organized calendar and to-do list, minimal cleaning, financial freedom, and peace of mind. I’m going to set about having Less right away.
They say there’s nothing free in this world, especially not a free lunch, but that’s not true. There are at least two things you can always get for free: other people’s opinions, and criticism. Often they feel like the same thing. People do tend to have positive opinions about things, like their favorite movie quotes, sandwich fillings, or Hollywood actors. They just don’t tend to share their positive feelings when they’re handing out free critiques. The question for anyone who has an interest in self-improvement or practical ethics is: When do you listen to advice, and when do you ignore it? What is your personal responsibility toward feedback from other people?
There is a lot of latitude in this question. For instance, we were at a Starbucks recently when an employee asked another customer to take her dog outside. It wasn’t a service animal and it was barking and making a fuss. The woman asked the employee whether she would make someone take their baby outside, because “this dog is literally my baby.” Um, you threw a litter? Am I getting that right? Regardless, this dog lover appears to be comfortable ignoring other people’s opinions about her training skills. Say we rate her at a 10/10 on the DNGAF scale.
(That’s “Does Not Give a Fig” for all you fruit fans)
How much responsibility we have for the behavior of our pets, children, friends, robots, etc is an area that we haven’t really worked out on a cultural level, so there will continue to be friction and room for interpretation there. The reason we feel free to push back about other people’s behavior is that there aren’t any hard rules for most things, whether it’s cell phone use, children kicking the back of someone’s seat, or carrying small dogs in your purse. It’s something to keep in mind - the feedback we don’t like to receive feels the same way to the person to whom we are trying to dish it out. And vice versa. When they serve us, they’re using the same scoop that was served to them by someone else.
Okay, back to the discussion. Which opinions do we hear out and which do we ignore?
Lectures from strangers?
Professional feedback, i.e. “telling me how to do my job”?
I try to pay heed to mainstream public opinion when I’m out and about, because I want to avoid confrontation with strangers as much as possible. I don’t tie my dog up outside the store because I know he barks about once every fifteen seconds the entire time I’m out of sight. I don’t kick people’s seats or drop litter and I always wipe down my table when I’m done. Of course this doesn’t make me immune to obnoxious strangers; a woman nearly hit me with the stall door in a public restroom and then cussed me out. It happens. I just make it a policy to avoid being someone else’s pet peeve as much as I know how. Less hassle that way.
I might take advice about my marriage, if it’s from someone who has been married longer than I have. I would ignore the opinion of a single person, someone who had been divorced more times than I have, or a married person who has marital quarrels in public and insults their spouse on social media. Otherwise, my love life is only relevant to my husband. I listen to his opinion because his opinion on our marriage matters at least as much as mine.
I might take financial advice, if it’s from someone whose net worth is higher than ours and/or someone who has a higher income. That would only be true if we share other values in common as well. I would ignore the financial advice of anyone who has no credentials, earns less, has spending habits that are not relevant to my interests (like gambling), or carries a debt burden.
I don’t have to take people’s advice on driving because we got rid of our car. I decided that having a “personal driver” was the first thing I would do if I ever got really rich, and that ride-sharing qualifies! Otherwise, well, I’ve never had a traffic ticket, so come at me.
I also don’t have to take people’s parenting advice because I can’t have children. Nevertheless, I’ve been cornered and lectured on how it’s my duty (not kidding) to have children, that I could still adopt, et cetera. Look, it’s none of anybody’s business who decides to have kids, or when, or why, or how, or with whom. I have a free opinion for you, and that’s to never make suggestions to other people about having kids. It might touch off some extremely painful emotions. Find something better to talk about.
I would probably take someone’s landscaping advice, if we owned a house. The neighbors would spend more time looking at our yard than we would, and they’ve probably lived there longer. To me that would be a very trivial way to earn major brownie points in the neighborhood. If they want me to take out a hedge, *shrug*, it’s out of here.
Fitness advice is one of those fountains that always flow. The fitter I’ve gotten, the more carefully I’ve listened when athletes are talking, and the funnier I think it is when anyone else is. I’ve been lectured about my diet and exercise habits from people who walk with a cane (more than once), people with heart problems, people with sleep apnea, people who are at least a hundred pounds overweight, and more and more. “Let’s go,” is what I say. If you can outrun me, I’ll hold still and you can tell me whatever you want. Let’s compare lab work, see who can run up a flight of stairs faster, who can do the most push-ups, who has the fewest prescription medications. On the other hand, I practically grow an extra ear when very fit people are willing to drop a few pro tips, especially when they’re past forty like I am. Please, by all means, tell me more!
About professional feedback, it depends. I once had a difference of opinion with my manager about my annual performance review. I had been commended by another manager for designing training materials that saved her team twenty man-hours, and my own manager rated me a Needs Improvement for the same project. Normally I’d say to do anything to make your boss look good and make your boss’s life easier. In this case, I immediately updated my resume, started applying for other jobs, and wound up promoting into a 30% raise. Bye-eeee.
Most people are average, by definition. We deflect our feelings about our own lives by critiquing others, even when we have no real expertise in the area. It helps us to feel smarter and more in control. We convince ourselves that we’re helping, even though we hate being on the receiving end of the identical behavior. We feel shamed and singled out when it happens to us, but we never realize that we can make other people feel shamed and singled out, too, unless of course we think they deserve it.
Overall, it helps to remember the difference between critique and criticism. It’s our job to receive critique graciously, if it comes from someone whose job description includes formally evaluating us. Criticism comes uninvited, from someone who has no official managerial, editorial, or coaching role over us, in a negative and demotivating way. We can still benefit from unsolicited criticism, even if it’s annoying, if we search out anything that would help us in our commitment to excellence. We’d do best not to ignore real critique, but we can, as long as we accept responsibility. Our results in life and work depend as much on the opinions we accept as the opinions we choose to ignore.
Overpacking isn’t just something to do with a suitcase. It’s also something metaphorical that we do with our schedules. Every time I get ready to go on a trip, I tell myself all sorts of fantasies, from “You’ll definitely finish reading that, you should really pack at least two extra books just in case” to “What email backlog? You’ll just breeze through it at the airport on the way home.” HAhahahaha! One of the many myths I hypnotize myself into believing is that I’m totally going to work out on vacation. Yeah! In fact, maybe I’ll upgrade! Yeah! I’ll try out all these Olympian core workouts and go home with side abs!
In reality, what happens is that I forget to apply sunblock to key areas, I don’t get enough sleep, I barely read a page a day, I eat dessert once or twice a day, I bring five pounds of extra stuff I never use, and, of course, I don’t work out at all.
Well, that last part isn’t completely true. We walk a lot.
It never ceases to amaze me, the beautiful and sweet optimism of people who think they can erase ten years of recreational eating habits by walking half an hour a few days a week. Wouldn’t that be nice? What I know is that we typically walk 8-10 miles a day on vacation, and I can gain anywhere from two to eight pounds anyway.
Being able to walk long distances is great. Travel is a good enough reason to stay fit all by itself. Walking ten miles, including about twenty flights of stairs, while carrying a backpack all day is no joke. There are also those special moments of horking your suitcase up into the overhead rack.
Sadly, though, even ten miles a day is no match for vacation food. Someone of my size only burns about 70 calories per mile. If a slice of cake is about 500, sure, maybe I’ve managed to burn off an extra dessert every day. The cake, but not the sweet drinks, the appetizers, the snacks, or any of the restaurant portions. My husband and I can easily gain enough extra weight from our vacation eating habits that it takes the rest of the year to burn it off again. If we do.
Of course, it isn’t just the food. It’s the break from routine. Daily reality is suspended. When we get home, it’s like we’ve gone through a wormhole, and everything looks similar, yet weirdly different. The apartment smells like paint. The dog has forgotten some of our hand signals and a couple of his new tricks. There’s an empty place in the schedule where “go to the gym” used to be.
This summer, we left town for a week, and got back just in time for my gym to close for five days for Independence Day. It just so happened that I had been down for a week with a stomach bug, trained for a week, left town, and then missed classes during the closure. Suddenly I was back at it, having only trained three days over the previous month. I had only two opportunities to prepare for belt promotion, and here I was still in vacation mode.
It’s not completely true to say that I didn’t train. I kinda did. It just wasn’t anywhere remotely approaching what I do on an ordinary weekday. Instead of an hour of high-intensity interval training, kicking, punching, and grappling, plus five miles of bicycling and 3-6 miles of walking, I did... I did less. I worked on my headstand for about five minutes a day, I walked, and a few days I did ten burpees.
I packed my jump rope. I had the best of intentions and it was small and lightweight. Did I use it? Not once. Course not. Anyone who does a serious workout on vacation has more discipline and strategic mindset than I do, and that’s actually saying quite a lot.
My first day in class, I actually crushed it. I did two back-to-back classes. I surprised myself by being able to get down and crank out thirty standard pushups, no problem. Thank the burpees for that. I had walked six miles earlier in the day and I rode my bike to class, too. If it weren’t for the belt promotion and my need to go to enough classes to earn my third stripe on my white belt, I never would have done it. I walked in sleepy and nervous, and walked out with my head held high, feeling much better about my prospects for the upcoming three-hour workout.
Exercise without a schedule, without deadlines, without specific performance goals has an annoying tendency to fade away into nothing. The best-made intentions are vapor. There’s no such thing as willpower or motivation anyway, and weight is definitely not lost at the gym, so it’s best to let those fantasies go. The work is still worth it, though, and it pays off. Being fit and strong makes daily life easier. Every hour of suffering and sweat is a force multiplier, leading to better posture, more energy, sounder sleep, clearer skin, better balance, more muscle and bone density, mood repair, confidence, mental focus, pride, and, if you do it right, friendships. Keep going, definitely keep going.
Vacation ate my workout. Two weeks away led to feeling slow, floppy, tired, unfocused, and out of form. Paradoxically, this reminded me of how far I had come, and that I used to feel that way (or worse) all the time. Why would I let my gains drift away into nothing? Class is back in session, so let’s get back to work.
Procrastinating feels worse than doing the thing, whatever it is.
The longer you put it off, the longer those feelings of nauseated dread and anxiety build up.
The longer you put it off, the less of a chance there is of positive results.
The longer you put it off, the more likely you are to also put off other things.
The worst part is, if you wait long enough, you’ll have felt all those anxious feelings for nothing, because a deadline will have passed and your efforts will have been for naught.
Procrastination actually serves a purpose, or, rather, various purposes. One of them is to subconsciously punish yourself and dig into a shame spiral. Another is to be an emotional tradeoff, wherein your guilty feelings work as some kind of trade for activities in which you’d rather be indulging. It’s also possible that procrastination is a protection mechanism that you can use to insulate yourself from responsibilities you don’t really want. Sort of like breaking a dish in hopes of not being asked to wash the dishes anymore.
Whatever is causing it, it feels annoying, yes?
I hate annoying myself. Whenever I realize I’m being a bad roommate to myself, or my own bad coworker, I want to stop and do something I like better. I have enough problems in this dumb old world without adding to them through my own predictable behavior.
One of the methods I’ve come up with when I realize I’ve been procrastinating is to do one thing. If I have a backlog, I don’t have to face all of it, I just have to do one.
If I have a bunch of email, I don’t have to respond to all of it, or even read all of it. I just have to handle one.
If I have a pile of laundry to put away, I don’t have to put all of it away, or even fold it. I just have to grab one item and do that one. (Usually the biggest item, like a beach towel or a bulky sweater).
If I have some gross stuff to clean out from the fridge, I don’t have to get on my knees and clear out the whole thing. I can just grab the container that looks the most suspicious and do that one.
If I have some phone calls to make, I don’t have to set aside an hour and get through them all. I can just do one.
That also applies to listening to voicemail, which I despise, but which has become much easier since my smartphone started showing me botched Robo-lish transcriptions. I don’t have to listen to them all, I just have to do one.
If I have errands to run, I don’t have to go all over town exhausting myself. I just have to pick one.
If I have research to do, I don’t have to spend all afternoon on a deep dive. I can pick a topic and just do that one.
Backlogs come from letting minor irritations build up over time. Minor irritations then become significant annoyances. Significant annoyances then become major problems. Major problems then become catastrophic failures. Think of someone who never flosses and only uses a toothbrush every now and then, who then gets an abscess that redefines the words ‘excruciating’ and ‘expensive.’ The skipped oil change that turns into a burned-out engine and a totaled car, which of course happens on the freeway during rush hour. It is SO MUCH EASIER just to do the little things as they come up!
Nobody needs that kind of drain on their emotional or mental bandwidth. Everyone has better ways to spend their time, money, and energy.
A secret hint about doing just one thing out of a backlog is that you can use one backlog to motivate you to work on a different one. Ever had that feeling where you really didn’t want to do the dishes/do laundry/sort the mail/organize the digital folders on your desktop until it was time to do your taxes/make a doctor appointment/pack for your upcoming move? Maybe you’re not working on the thing you would most logically be working on, according to your own standards, but at least you’re doing something.
Doing one item off a list and then skipping to a different list can be an easy way of making progress on all of them.
Do one thing. Do one every day. Keep doing one thing. That’s how you eventually finish off a backlog, no matter how big. Better than that, it’s how you eventually avoid ever having a backlog again.
One of the many paradoxes of clutter is that it can be harder to let go of stuff we got for free than stuff we bought retail. Why is this? Free stuff can range from free samples to gifts to items picked up at the curb to website giveaways. It edges up to yard sale bargains, thrift store finds, and anything from the sales rack. A lot of us get swirly eyes when we see a FREE sign, and some of us would want to take the sign as well!
Every single thing we own has several types of costs. One, it takes up physical space. I’m hyper-aware of this because my husband and I share a 612-square-foot studio apartment with a dog and a mid-size parrot. If we bring home so much as an extra can of soup, it’s a storage issue. People tend not to think of how much their rent or mortgage costs per square foot, which can be a huge financial pitfall, because rent is usually our largest budget item by far. When we downsized from a one-bedroom to the studio, the amount we cut in rent was almost equivalent to what we were spending on a car. A new car!
How much is free stuff really worth, if by avoiding it you could have cut your rent by 20% or more?
Another underrated way that stuff costs money is when its owner pays for a storage unit. It is truly appalling how much my people spend on storage, when in every case, they genuinely can’t afford it. When I find out they’re putting it on a credit card every month, I want to cry. Someone I know has spent a full TEN THOUSAND DOLLARS maintaining a storage unit over the years. I know what’s in there because I helped pack. It’s just generic housewares, like an old couch and kitchen stuff, all of which could have been replaced for under a thousand dollars.
In fact, most people could probably replace a full set of household items by asking their friends and acquaintances. I’ve seen it happen at least a dozen times. Someone has to start over, and within a week they’ve got beds, a couch, a dining table, pots and pans, everything you could want. Granted, it might not all match, but then the original stuff probably didn’t, either! Think of the fun of watching all that FREE STUFF being carried in the door.
See how this works, though. Rather than put your stuff in storage indefinitely, spending hundreds or thousands of dollars to not use it and not look at it, you can give it away to someone who needs it. Then, when you’re ready to set up housekeeping again, you simply put out the call, and the loose free stuff of the world starts flowing in your direction again. Or, if that doesn’t feel magical enough, you can put what you would have spent on storage in the bank, and use the proceeds to buy new and improved versions.
The reason a lot of stuff is “free” is because it’s dated or obsolete. I’m thinking of a lot of stuff I’ve given away over the years, as we downsize our way to financial independence. The big red sectional couch that went to a mover, because it literally wouldn’t fit in our new living room. (It cost half what we paid for our current couch). The entire kitchen’s worth of pots, pans, dishes, and utensils we gave to a halfway house when we first got married. A carload of small appliances. Older phone models. After we upgrade, we tend not to care about the previous version, because we’ve extracted full value from it through daily use.
Say you buy something for $100 and use it for ten years. It then cost $10 per year. This type of value calculation can be done quickly on anything. If I buy a dress shirt for $50 and wear it 50 times, then it cost a dollar a wear. That’s about once a week for a year, or twice a month for two years. My wardrobe is small enough that that’s a good estimate. It’s why I’m willing to spend $50 on a single garment, because it’s cheaper that way than buying five $10 tops that fall apart in the wash, or even three $20 tops I don’t like as much and won’t wear as many times.
There are other reasons why free stuff isn’t free.
I’ve known people who have brought home a ‘free’ couch, mattress, or chair and found that their home was instantly infested with bedbugs or fleas. I’ve also known people who had a hard time getting rid of headlice or scabies. Hey, it happens. This type of thing is miserable, expensive, and incredibly frustrating and time-consuming to defeat.
Since we downsized into a tiny home, we don’t spend much time shopping or procuring things. We already know there’s nowhere to put it. If anything, we should be getting rid of two things for every one thing that comes in the door, because our space is a little crowded and chaotic with almost everything we own visible at all times. What we do spend time on happens to be ‘free stuff.’ Conversation, making art, hanging out with our friends and our pets, walking around the neighborhood, watching the sun set. Try to spend less time bargain hunting and more time simply being.
What better topic to read about, the week one turns forty-three, than the collected wisdom of people who are at least twice that old? I celebrated my birthday this year by reading Happiness is a Choice You Make, and I’m glad I did. I loved it, and I’ll probably read it again, although maybe ten years from now.
The book begins with a New York Times series that John Leland writes about people “85 and Up,” also known as the “oldest old.” He befriends these six elders, visits them at home, and meets their family and friends. It’s his way of reconciling his own mother’s aging. As he follows them through time, he learns their perspective, the way they deal with the unique problems and gifts of advanced years.
People in their nineties report greater well-being and fewer negative emotions than people in their twenties! This was one of the surprises of a delightful, moving, and provocative book. Leland’s affectionate gaze brings out some really excellent one-liners and wisecracks, yet also some moments of greater profundity.
Happiness is a Choice You Make, according to Leland and his elderly friends, and the book offers practical, philosophical advice about how to make that choice. Think about the type of old age you would want to have. If that includes strong relationships, build them now. If that includes living a life of purpose and meaning, start figuring out what that means to you now. It also wouldn’t hurt to think about what you can do now to give your older self more physical and financial strength to help you stay independent as long as possible. When Leland discusses finding a purpose in life, he says, “Kickboxing may not be a great choice,” but in fact I train with a man who is seventy-eight and can still get on the floor and do pushups. He punches like a freight train. Certainly I hope he’ll still be in class with us ten years from now.
I’ve always enjoyed the company of old folks, even when I was a little girl, and this is fortunate because soon I’ll join their ranks! What I’ve noticed is that most people seem to have no idea how much longevity has increased, and are therefore unprepared for the concept that they may well live fifteen or twenty years longer than they ever imagined. We often discuss the question, “What would you do if you had only one day (six months, whatever) left to live?” It’s a much more interesting question to wonder what we’ll do if we all live past one hundred. Better start contemplating that now. You’ve got plenty of time, so pick up Happiness is a Choice You Make and start reading.
“If you want to be happy, learn to think like an old person.”
“I know my time is limited, so the only thing I have to do is enjoy myself.”
“Work is happiness, to make you live longer.”
“...[g]enes account for only about one-quarter of our differences in longevity.”
“Did we really have to wait for word from our oncologist to live as fully as we were capable?”
If there’s one thing we’re good at, it’s imagining bad outcomes. We get spun up over this all the time. For every conversation, there are probably twelve sad, scary, or alarming versions that never happened. Every job interview really lasts for eighty hours, seventy-nine of them imaginary. Anxiety and pessimism are survival traits. Worry and dread have gotten us through fire, flood, famine, siege, animal attack, and all the rest. This is probably why avoidance goals work slightly better than approach goals.
An avoidance goal is phrased in a way that anticipates a negative outcome. “Don’t forget your glasses.”
An approach goal is phrased in a way that anticipates a positive outcome. “Remember to wear your glasses.”
It’s possible that certain personality types lean more toward one goal type or the other. An optimist will naturally prefer an approach goal. It’s also possible that certain types of goals are better suited for one format or the other. A personal experiment should make this clear. Are we getting the results we want in the areas that are important to us?
I’m an extreme optimist, an enthusiast by nature. I love working on annual, quarterly, monthly, and sometimes even hourly goals. My plans tend to be both broad and specific. I would have thought I made almost entirely approach-oriented goals. Then I read a blog post by a guy who made two goals and then compared his adherence to them based on whether he focused on approach or avoidance. He did better with avoidance. It made me realize that I follow a lot of avoidance-based goals throughout the day, almost automatically. I think of it as “common sense,” although of course “common sense” is never all that common.
Every single time I use a knife, I think, “Okay, now don’t cut yourself.”
Every single time I go down a flight of stairs, I think, with every single step, “Okay, now don’t slip.”
When I pack a suitcase, I bustle around my apartment, talking to myself. “Don’t forget your tickets. Don’t forget your back-up battery. Don’t forget your” endlessly, all the way up to the jetway.
There’s a distinct, gear-shifting feeling between this constant internal nattering and the aerial view, grand strategic plans that I normally think of as goal-setting.
Maybe one of the reasons that avoidance goals work better is that we can only plan them when we actually believe that the negative outcome is a firm possibility. I think that is very much not the case for a lot of common “goals.” Further, I think it’s common to “choose” a mainstream “goal” as a smokescreen, a pretend Potemkin intention, to protect our tendency to do what we want without criticism. Hey, I tried, what more do you want from me??
Research shows that we’re really poor at thinking of future versions of ourselves. We think of Old Me as a total stranger. Hey, Future Me, have fun paying off all this debt and picking up my socks! Ha, Future Me is such a sucker. We can’t really believe in a universe in which “I” am an elderly person. Surely I have better taste than to age and grow old! I’m much too smart for that! If we can’t believe in a frail, elderly, poor, and ill version of ourselves, then we have no intrinsic motivation to save money, eat healthy foods, and be more active. We do, however, believe in such things as cutting a finger or falling down the stairs. “Don’t cut yourself” is a much more believable imperative than “don’t get osteoporosis.”
My major fitness motivation is “Avoid getting Alzheimer’s.” This is a truly terrifying outcome. Why simply sit around and be afraid of something, though? That would be sacrificing all the good years for what may or may not turn out to be the bad years. It’s a logical fallacy. How can undirected anxiety possibly do me any good? That just means I suffer Alzheimer’s PLUS decades of dread. If I’m right, if my thesis is correct that Alzheimer’s is at least a little bit susceptible to lifestyle inputs, then I must do every last single thing in my power to avoid it. If I’m wrong, and I’ve done all of these actions over the years for no reason, if my efforts have been futile, I still benefit in three ways.
I could use an approach-oriented framework and tell myself “Eat healthy food” and “Get plenty of exercise.” Arguably, I do both of these things. They’re extremely vague, though, so vague as to be almost meaningless. That’s another reason that avoidance goals work a little better, because they’re unfailingly very specific.
It’s easier to “stop drinking soda” or “stop eating bagels” or “don’t eat high-fructose corn syrup.” Those are specific and simple to understand, and any of them could result in an easy ten-pound weight loss over a year.
I’m always going to make wildly positive, outlandishly optimistic goals and resolutions. It’s fun and it works much better than pop culture would lead us to believe. Past Me would have had a lot of trouble believing in my future ability to run a marathon, manage an investment portfolio, cook Thanksgiving dinner for two dozen people, buy train tickets in Spain, or lots of other things I’ve done. How would a negative version of those goals even be phrased? “Don’t screw up”? I will, however, continue to use avoidance goals when they seem helpful.
Here are some avoidance goals that I use, by category:
Don’t be in debt
Don’t carry a credit card balance
Don’t pay finance charges
Don’t buy on impulse
Don’t buy anything unless you know where you’ll put it and how you’ll clean it
Don’t outgrow your clothes, they’re expensive
Avoid getting a migraine - (body weight, dehydration, poor sleep quality)
Don’t get Alzheimer’s
Don’t trigger your night terrors - (eating after 8 PM)
Don’t run out of clean underwear
Don’t make extra work for yourself
Don’t leave crusty dishes
That needs to get eaten up before it gets wasted
Don’t criticize unless you’re open to being criticized
Don’t be a caricature
No double standards
Don’t be like his ex
Don’t do his pet peeves
Don’t be a pushover or a victim
Don’t be a flake
Don’t be a freeloader
Don’t associate with gossips
Don’t stand by and let other people be bullied
“Don’t do anything illegal, immoral, or just plain stupid.” - My Dad
“Never go viral for the wrong reasons.” - Anonymous
“Do things that are a good idea, and don’t do things that are a bad idea.” - Me
I did it! I got my orange belt in Muay Thai! The most impressive thing about this is that in January, not only did I have no idea this would be happening, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as an “orange belt,” or Muay Thai for that matter. All I knew was that it felt like a smart idea to start studying a martial art.
What does an orange belt mean? It’s the second of six levels. It means I’m not a total novice anymore, but I am at the newest, least experienced intermediate level.
The basic deal with belts is that they’re a modern (post-Industrial, 1890s) innovation to represent different levels of training. Belt colors vary depending on the martial art, with some overlap. For instance, a mom was just telling me that her kids got their purple belts, something that exists in Tae Kwan Do but not Muay Thai or Krav Maga, my other discipline.
Personally, I’d prefer to have a rainbow belt? Because it would include all the previous colors?
In practice, colored belts are really handy. In every class, we divide up and choose partners, and often we do drills that involve rotating through several people. It helps to know who you’re dealing with. Along with colors, there are also stripes to show how long someone has been wearing that belt. One stripe represents ten classes, and the intermediate belts have up to five stripes.
I never understood any of this until I earned the first stripe on my white belt.
This system with belts and stripes makes a lot of sense to me, and it feels comforting. I really like the logical progression and the satisfaction of incremental progress. The first time I actually saw a “sixth-degree black belt” being worn, the penny finally dropped. OH! Anyone can earn one of these! It’s a reflection of dedication and focus, yes, but it’s also a measure of time served.
Is there something like this in dance or gymnastics? Not that I’ve seen. Those arts also depend on many years of training, but they look like PURE MAGIC. Just like the apparent sorcery involved when the owner of our school suddenly drops a student on the floor.
Many of the students at my school are lifetime athletes, and many have reached high levels in other martial arts before taking up Krav or Muay Thai. It’s a world of jocks, one that was unfamiliar to me. I’m used to hitting the books, my studies being text-based. Almost everything I’ve learned about martial arts came from asking questions and/or having things explained by other students. Sometimes I’ll make an observation that will surprise the instructors, such as that our warmups are “high-intensity interval training.” The expectation is: line up, do this, do that, accept correction, and in time you’ll be a master.
This is challenging for me. I like a big-picture view, a lot of historical context, and constant explanations of WHY I am doing something. Part of why martial arts are such a good source of humility and self-discipline for me is that I’m having to accept pure physical instruction and trust the system. I can see that more experienced students are better at this than I am, but still, I tend to want MORE INFORMATION. What, go into my body and feel it physiologically? Are you kidding with this?
Belt promotions are ceremonial. They last three or four hours. Groups of students at different levels are paired off to demonstrate their skills with an instructor. Most of the time, though, is built around extreme physical exertion for its own sake. We start with a grueling half hour warmup, its contents varying for extra stress, and we finish with another twenty minutes. This day included over 200 pushups, for example. I couldn’t do them all - it’s a lot to expect a beginner to do the same workout as a blue belt who has been training for three years - but I’m proud to say I could do forty, no problem.
I couldn’t do one standard pushup in January - or February or March, for that matter - and I couldn’t do a proper sit-up at all. I had to grab my thigh and pull myself up. When I look back and see the progress I’ve made in six months, I can look forward at the other students around me and project forward. In time, I’ll be able to do a hundred pushups before I start getting tired.
My husband doesn’t like to watch these punishing warmups. They remind him of the “hazing” from high school football. He shared how much he hated doing pointless pushups. This surprised me! “But that’s where the muscle comes from!” The part I don’t like is having to COUNT in unison, and if someone makes the dreadful mistake of shouting “ELEVEN” instead of repeating “ONE” then all fifty people have to start the count over. That’s dumb. Well, it isn’t dumb... the point is to make us focus, developing our concentration, because disappointing and annoying our fellow students is a powerful psychological consequence for distraction. We counted weirdly in marching band, too: ONE two three four TWO two three four THREE two three four, and it didn’t bother me then, because music needs order and structure. So does the body if the body is to be a tool that works toward a purpose.
I’ll continue on in both my martial arts, even though being a beginner in the advanced classes feels much harder and scarier than my first day as a total novice. The warmups are twice as hard, but I’m not twice as strong yet! I continue to remind myself that my personal goals were “humility and self-discipline,” not comfort or pride. I’ll get better and better at losing myself in these physical skills, briefly quieting my chattering mind, transforming myself into something new and different.
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.