Here we go again. We’re planning a trip and that means certain assumptions. The more we do it, the truer it becomes.
I will deal with my travel anxiety by trying to add even more to my task list than I usually do, rather than less
My husband will deal with his travel anxiety by waking up two hours early
Traffic on the way to the airport will be incredibly heavy
But we’ll arrive with plenty of time anyway
I will be “randomly” selected for secondary search even though I’m a Trusted Traveler
People will constantly get between my husband and me in line or in crowds
Our gate will be changed at least once
Maybe our type of plane will change too, and suddenly we’re both in middle seats
Or our seats will be changed without notice so we aren’t even sitting together
There may be a five-hour delay some time on the trip
We are probably going to be hungry, like crazy hungry
It will rain, no matter where we go or what time of year
I will always be freezing in a hotel room and he will be hot
One of us will get a working key card and the other won’t
Whenever I leave any room, I will turn the wrong way and head the wrong direction
A lot of people will take these opportunities, and more, as reasons to complain. Complainers have no idea they’re doing it. It’s like sports commentary, like a golf announcer only less interesting.
Experienced travelers will accept that there are natural constraints, and work around them.
Because I know that my travel anxiety makes me delusional about how much I can or should get done, I acknowledge that I will always try to do a deep clean of my house or revamp my filing system, and I work around it. I have started leaving myself notes in my reminder app that pop up a few days before a trip.
Dear Future Me, quit wigging out. Love, Past Self.
Because I know my husband can only be happy if we’re at least a few minutes early, we talk through our agenda together. In the world of engineering, they may literally bill their time in 7.5-minute increments. “When you say ‘leave by,’ do you mean we’re walking out our front door or do you expect us to be driving away in the Lyft?”
We know our trips are always subject to constant gate changes, seat changes, and inexplicable delays, so we plan around it. Bring extra food and backup batteries, and shrug.
We know to check the map constantly, because I have the directional sense of a fig beetle.
We also have rules about how many attractions we try to see in a day, how often we stop to eat, and how many days we spend in a city. There is a constant temptation to try to fit in too much, and then feel frantic instead of relaxed. If we let FoMO take over, it will destroy any sense of fun. Any anti-anxiety policy is a good policy.
At this point, we’re getting it down. We do the one-minute perimeter check when we leave a room, so we aren’t forgetting stuff. We check the map so we aren’t going in the wrong direction. We help each other cross-check our luggage so we don’t forget anything.
Probably the most important thing we do is to pause and make eye contact and smile at each other. We remind ourselves that THIS IS SUPPOSED TO BE FUN!
We travel under the assumption that travel itself is inherently annoying and exhausting. The better we get at anticipating these minor annoyances, the more we can avoid them. The better we get at monitoring our energy level and emotional responses to whatever situation, the better we get at knowing when to take a break.
When we come home, it will be the fascinating stuff that we remember, not the petty complaints. We also recognize that the biggest hassles make for the most interesting traveler’s tales. We never know when it will be our last trip together and it’s our job to make the most of it.
When we move to a new place, one of the very first things we do is to start in on a new ambit. Your ambit is the area where you walk around your neighborhood, also known as your stomping grounds. Everyone has one, or at least everyone who leaves the house, but for most people it stops somewhere around the driveway or the mailbox.
We chose an apartment that is technically within walking distance of our old place, two miles or about forty minutes. We had passed the place many times, on foot, on the bus, even on bikes. A big chunk of the new neighborhood was already in our old ambit, and that helped us feel at home. We weren’t necessarily looking to feel ‘at home,’ though, being more in the mood for something fresh and new.
On Sunday we set off.
We were still unpacking, but we had enough done that we both felt we could afford to take a break. There’s a certain point in moving in to a new place when it no longer feels obvious exactly where everything should go, when the remaining boxes are full of trickier items. The law of diminishing returns sets in. People start wandering around, looking into one box and then another, no decisions being made, and the work grinds to a halt.
A lot of people never get past that point! They just leave the boxes packed, sometimes for years or through several additional moves.
This is when it can be so incredibly helpful to take a break, get away from it all for a couple of hours, and walk back into the room with fresh eyes.
That’s what we did. We had no internet and it was too late in the day to go to the tea house. A local library branch happens to be open for a few hours on Sunday afternoons. There’s a closer branch, but this one is within the two-mile range we are willing to walk. We’d set out on a little adventure and go exploring.
There happens to be a very nice walking trail in our part of the world, and most of the route can include this trail. In a car we wouldn’t have thought to go that way. On foot it was obvious. At least, it was obvious because we scoped it out on a map first, and as neighborhood walkers, we look for the green blotches that indicate parks. About a quarter mile of our route wound through neighborhood houses.
This is a nice part of creating a new ambit, too. You can start to get a feel for your neighborhood, seeing familiar faces, meeting dogs and babies, checking out gardens. Your very presence helps the neighborhood become safer. Foot traffic deters crime. That’s the sad irony of people feeling like they aren’t safe to walk where they live. Go out and bring your phone, bring your friend, bring the people who live next door. That’s what my family used to do. Invite someone to walk with you and make an ambit.
The area we explored on our way to the walking trail? Was much nicer than our own block!
One of the hazards of making a new ambit is that it can spark some house envy. It’s a good place, though, to start talking about home improvements and savings accounts and repair projects. Something about seeing someone else’s nice yard is so much more inspiring than sitting indoors on your own sofa.
We walked along. “This feels like vacation,” said my husband, who had been unpacking a box only half an hour before.
THIS FEELS LIKE VACATION!
We walk everywhere on vacation, because for us that’s the whole point. You can see so much more of a place on foot. You can meet people, you can overhear their accents and check out the local streetwear trends.
I think there’s also something about the rhythm of walking that just feels right for a human. A dog too, probably. For our dog, walking is a religion. His little ears bounce with every step. It always surprises us how many people have dogs and don’t take them around, because having a dog is such a compelling reason to explore your ambit.
We walked along. We got to our walking trail. It was green and beautiful in the summer light. We got into a conversation about Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird based on my recent reading of Furious Hours.
Suddenly, we were there. That was two miles, really? Are you sure??
Let me tell you, that walk was almost entirely uphill, but we didn’t even feel it.
The library itself is much nicer than the one in our old neighborhood. That library is large, new, pretty, well-lit, and reasonably well-stocked. Unfortunately, there’s a used bookstore in the lobby that runs on donations. Its musty smell is so strong that I literally hold my breath several paces before walking in the door and don’t breathe again until I’m almost to the YA section. You can smell the funky old donated books outside on two sides of the building. This is a bummer because there are few things better than a public library to expand one’s ambit.
This new library, though! I could see this becoming a thing with us.
We found two chairs side by side. WiFi, hooray!
I got a few things done, such as changing our address. It didn’t even feel like work.
Then we decided to check out the outdoor seating in the back and I accidentally set off the alarm on the emergency exit, but it was okay. I didn’t even have to go to jail.
On the way home, we went a different way, which is always a good idea when you’re working on a new ambit. Sometimes the other route is nicer. We found a place with non-dairy ice cream and got ourselves some. We sat in a tiny grassy park and ate strawberry ice cream and a dog came over and licked my husband’s face.
Then we went home refreshed and got back to work, grubbing around unpacking and breaking down boxes.
That entire day, we spent two hours exploring and twelve hours working. Guess which part of the day we actually remember?
This is an instructional post about how to inventory your stuff while you pack for a move. I’ve done this a bunch of times and it’s what works for me. I based it on the concepts from the Paper Tiger, a justifiably famous book about a system for filing papers.
The basic principle is this:
Put a number on a box. Write down the contents under that number.
Move on to the next box and repeat.
Don’t worry about - and this is the hard part - don’t worry about any more complicated system. The only things you have to worry about are making sure you don’t duplicate numbers and that anyone else who packs with you is on board with the system.
There is only one Box #1. There is only one Box #19.
It doesn’t necessarily matter if a box has logical categories of contents. The idea here is that if you’re looking for something specific, you can figure out what box it’s in. If the boxes are clearly labeled, then you have a good chance of finding that box and getting your precious thing back out.
If the boxes have been packed in roughly the order that they were numbered, then you probably even have a rough idea of where each box is!
Also, if you’ve packed in one direction, from one end of your dwelling to another, then the boxes probably got loaded into the truck in the opposite direction. What was first shall be last, and what was last shall be first.
When the boxes are unloaded into the new place, the direction reverses.
Your numbered order is, then, roughly the same all the way through.
This is pure mysticism. Don’t try to understand it, just accept it and meditate on it. Or visualize someone pulling into a parking space and then backing out again.
Moving is often the catalyst for chronic disorganization. A household is moving and they fall victim to the Planning Fallacy. This is the basic cognitive inability of the human brain to accurately estimate how long it takes to do complicated things. Everything is behind schedule and over budget because even highly trained experts and professionals are subject to the Planning Fallacy. No escape.
The household that has not planned the move with expert precision suddenly finds itself in panic mode. Every spare person who can be enlisted to help shows up and starts throwing things into boxes. I can tell you from experience that professional movers will put full wastebaskets into boxes and tape them closed. Same with wet laundry, according to lore. Random friends, relatives, and neighbors can be expected to have even less experience. They just want to get it over with and go home.
The result is a bunch of randomness multiplied by randomness. Fifty cardboard boxes of different size, dumped in whatever room had the most space, all labeled MISC (the dreaded misc).
Trying to settle into the new house feels like a disaster. Every box has items that properly belong in different rooms. Every box has loose hardware, coins, crayons, bits of small toys, and office supplies. Every room is likewise full of similar boxes of MISC (the dreaded misc). Where to start??
Most of these boxes will still be sitting in their miscellaneous form until the next move, which will be even more disastrous than the last.
Living in this kind of cardboard chaos is demoralizing in the extreme. It’s like being surrounded by Dementors. I know it because I can feel them flying out when I show up to help, and it isn’t even my stuff.
The Box Tiger method works because you can read through an inventory as you plan to unpack. You can pull a specific box because you know you need those items and you know where you are going to put them.
Box Tiger also works if you are able to maintain the placid mindset and take the extra few minutes to write down what’s in each box. Everything is under control, you breathe, and tomorrow will come. Soon this chaos will be whipped into shape by the strength of the orderly, problem-solving human mind.
I can imagine this into shape, and since I can imagine it, I can make it happen.
I can look at other people’s pinboards for inspiration.
A lot of people fantasize about having a sewing room one day, or a canning room, or a mud room, or something cool like a guitar-making workshop. What is so appealing about all these visions is that they reflect order, an ability to find the right tool for the right purpose on demand.
A whole house can be this nice.
Know where everything is. Do it one item at a time.
Box Tiger is easier for me for a few reasons. One, it’s my own system, I like it, and I’ve put it into practice. I trust it. I trust it because I’ve used it to find important items during a move, and that feeling is a huge sigh of relief and a two-inch dropping of tense shoulders.
Two, Box Tiger is easy for me because I’m a minimalist and I purposely don’t have much stuff. Why would I? Stuff I don’t use and don’t need? It doesn’t look cute and it just gets in my way.
Three, Box Tiger works well because my home works well. Keep things near where they are used, that’s the basic rule, and when we do this it makes it easier both to pack and unpack. Towels in the bathroom, towels in one box, towels in the new bathroom. Put in the extra 10% effort to carry small items to the room where they make the most sense, and that pays off in a more streamlined move.
Leave random items skewed and scattered everywhere, and that effect is multiplied with each move. Total disorganization reigns supreme and everything is hard to find.
Rationally, if something is important and useful to me, I should be able to find it and use it. If I love it and I love looking at it, then it should be easy to see as often as possible. I can’t make a case for not being able to find or see my stuff.
Box Tiger is the reason I’m able to finish unpacking 95% of my stuff in three days. I can make a move as streamlined as possible and go back to our regularly scheduled programming.
It’s also worth mentioning that minimalism enables us to fit in smaller homes, pay less rent, and live in more desirable neighborhoods where standard-size homes are unaffordable for most people. Every time we move, we downsize a little bit more, because it has always paid off.
We moved over the weekend.
Sure, most people do it that way, at least people who work a standard office job with a standard schedule. What I mean is that we moved over the weekend, and now we’re back to business.
It is hard to believe. My husband woke up Friday morning and went to work. The only disruption to his routine was shifting his schedule an hour later so he could drop off our dog at doggy day care. When he came home with the dog, it was to our new address.
When we went to bed Friday night, it was amidst a cardboard city of box towers. We could sleep in our bed, use the shower, and microwave food, but otherwise it was pretty obvious that we had just moved in.
By Monday morning, the bathroom was DONE
and the kitchen was DONE
and the desks were DONE
and the laundry was DONE
and all the furniture was set up in its correct location
and there were only two boxes left to unpack in the bedroom
and thirty-five of the fifty boxes were unpacked
and the flattened, empty boxes were carried down to the parking garage to be given away
and the old apartment was mostly clean
and there was much rejoicing.
On Friday, I sent occasional text updates. I knew my honey was super stressed and worried about the move, and I knew he would be able to focus better if he felt like everything was under control. We were ahead of schedule and everything was going according to plan. I could feel the smog cloud of stress lifting off him with each bulletin.
THIS JUST IN: everything is fine
Instead of stress, the feeling that started to come across was curious anticipation. What’s going on over there? What’s it going to look like?
I raced the clock all day, knowing I was going to be tired no matter what, determined to get as much as possible done before dinner. I also had a vision of my partner’s expression when he walked in.
He was stunned and impressed. He was also extremely pleased that he hadn’t had to haul anything himself!
The great thing about all this is that we’re closing in on our tenth wedding anniversary. As we both think about this milestone and the early days of our romance, he will be thinking of me in this context.
As the moving day updates were coming in, my hubby’s colleagues were checking in as well. “Aren’t you moving today? Why are you here?”
“You don’t understand. My wife is the logistics manager. She’s ON IT.”
“I was bragging on you today,” he tells me, and the last time it was about my homemade banana bread.
This is all part of a conscious strategy on my part. I believe that two heads are better than one head, and that a solid partnership of any kind is incredibly helpful for spiritual growth, not to mention career performance. This can be true of colleagues, friends, and siblings, of course, and even neighbors. When it’s a marriage, it can work on even more levels.
One of these mastermind benefits of marriage is that we can facilitate each other’s career growth. This is fun and it also leads directly to money.
Divorce, on the other hand, can be one of the most expensive things of all. It’s a good thinking exercise to ask oneself, What is the opposite of this?, and see if it makes sense. What is the opposite of divorce? What would be the opposite response in this scenario to what my partner’s ex would do? (Or mine).
My hubby and his ex had quite a bad fight over a relocation, their marriage was never the same, they eventually split up, and now I have him. I also have an easy visual of What Not to Do with this particular man.
What’s the opposite of a marriage-killing feud over a difficult move? Hmm, she ponders.
A quick, easy, streamlined one!
For most people, a move is an extravagant disruption. The turmoil can stretch on for months, and indeed a lot of people never completely unpack every single box. The same box of MISC (the dreaded misc) will be hauled from house to house.
I determined to do it differently. I’d make our move a mere blip. We’d leave our cruddy little studio with the inconsiderate chaos muppets upstairs, and we’d get ourselves a lifestyle upgrade as quick as we could go.
This is good in such a number of ways.
I dominated over this move. It’s true that we still have boxes to unpack in the dining room and living room. It’s true, too, that we went from Fifty Boxes to Slightly Messy Apartment in only three days. Our pets both clearly love it here and it’s so, so quiet. We don’t have to say “we’re moving” any more. My honey can work in his office and give total focus and attention to his projects.
I haven’t mentioned in all this that our home is my office. The main reason I took on this move alone, besides earning a million brownie points, is that I knew it would give me latitude to do it my way. I could choose where I wanted my desk and create my ideal rooms in so many ways. Usually women feel more stressed about cluttered living environments than men do, for whatever reason, and I know that’s true for me. If I planned the move myself, I could do it on my schedule and my terms. I could close the loop.
Now that loop is closed, the move is effectively over, and everyone concerned is back to business.
The movers showed up early and got straight to work. I had “a couple of last things” and they were done before I was, our entire studio apartment unloaded in two hours.
Everything in our studio apartment fit in fifty boxes.
I’m surprised and embarrassed about this, but what can I say. At least six of those boxes were just our bedding and pillows!
We managed to pull up to the special “only available between 11:30 am and 3:00 pm on Fridays” loading zone at 11:32, and the movers were done at 2:30.
It took longer to unload the truck than it did to load it, because they had to wheel everything down a ramp, through the basement garage, to the elevator, and up to the fifth floor.
Due to that long lag time, I was able to unpack quite a lot of stuff between loads. It wasn’t like I could leave, or take a nap, when I needed to answer questions about where things went and what direction the furniture should face. I felt like I was racing against time, that the more boxes I unpacked, the more cardboard the movers would cart away for me.
Get food into fridge and freezer
Set up the bed
Set up the shower
Set up the pet bowls
Unpack enough in the kitchen to be able to microwave something or cook breakfast
By 5:00 pm I had done all of these things - and a few more - and I am feeling pretty impressed with myself.
I have this special moving inventory system, and this time it really saved the day. I realized when the movers were bringing up our massive California King mattress that I should probably get the little floor protector coasters under the wheels of the bed frame first. I whipped out my phone, skimmed through the inventory note to find the right box, located that box (behind and under as many boxes as possible, of course), moved the other boxes out of the way, opened the correct one, dug out the appropriate container, found the coasters, flipped up the box springs, and was putting the coasters under the wheels when the movers came in.
A non-trivial task, to find four 2”-square flat objects in the midst of fifty boxes in five minutes.
That bit of effort will save the nice dark wooden floors from any further scarring - it’s quite obvious the previous tenants didn’t think of this kind of nicety - and potentially save us from having to pay for repair work when we move. Probably more to the point, it will save my husband and me from either feeling like we’ve procrastinated on a honeydo task, or having to move the mattress and box springs in the midst of unpacking.
Done and dusted!
This is how we organized the one-day move.
As of dinnertime, we can sit on the couch, feed the dog, charge our devices, shower and brush our teeth, sleep in our bed, and even find our clothes.
I’ve unpacked fifteen boxes, most of them the large size. I’ve unpacked about a quarter of my clothes and set up my desk. One kitchen cabinet is set up. All our plates, bowls, and glasses are in the new dishwasher. There is a path through the living room.
Probably the most important thing that we’ve done was to plan a housewarming party. We always used to love having an open house every week, and now there are interns in our life instead of college students. Having a social date on the calendar gives us a deadline and a sense of excitement.
It was really sweet to hear how excited these kids are about the open house theory!
Now, I can’t claim that we moved “in one day.” The old apartment still needs to be cleaned, and all our cleaning apparatus is still over there, every single thing from the dish gloves to the steam mop. We still have almost three dozen boxes to unpack and we don’t even have internet.
It is fair to say, though, that all our furniture went from OVER THERE to OVER HERE in one day, and that we can sleep here and start living a fairly normal life from tonight on. As normal as it gets for us, anyway.
Ironically, our place is more functional in the midst of a move than what most of my clients experience on an ordinary day. We have more freedom of movement from room to room, even with the boxes. We can find more stuff. We can cook and bathe. If someone needed to make a repair tonight or tomorrow, we wouldn’t be ashamed or afraid to let them in. This is partly because we are very organized, partly because we don’t have that much stuff, and mostly because we hold ourselves to a certain level of expectations.
Alas, now I’ve set the bar and all our further moves are going to have to meet those expectations! A one-day move on Friday and back to business on Monday?
We’re moving again, for the seventh time in our ten-year marriage, and I’m in charge. I’m in charge because I’m better at it. This move has been more complicated than some of our past moves, for bureaucratic reasons, and it’s better for all concerned when we acknowledge our comparative strengths.
My husband’s reaction to moving is the same as most people’s would be: a wave of depressed overwhelm.
“Don’t worry your pretty little head,” I tell him. I got this.
Now, as an engineer, my mate has excellent Pack Fu. Bring him a bunch of luggage, bags, and boxes, and he will expertly fit them into a given space. He can also tie down a load like a professional. Honestly I don’t think I could have married a man with no Pack Fu or tool skills.
Where he tends to get bogged down is in the planning and the logistical nightmare of all the thousand tiny widgets. There’s also a slew of phone calls and errands, personal relationships to be built, and that takes a certain kind of patience.
Having made my bones in social services, I understand bureaucratic red tape like nobody else.
Example: Where to Put the Moving Van, Chapter Five.
Apartment manager says we will need a parking permit from the city. City says there is a jurisdictional dispute with state transportation agency. State says they do not issue parking permits. City office closed for following three days; revert to alternate plan. Landlord says there is a loading zone. Street is marked No Parking between 3 pm - 7 pm, and so is loading zone, the exact window when we would be parking the van. After a full week of calls, email, and strategy sessions, I finally negotiate to have the movers come at 8 am instead of 2 pm. I have spoken to six separate individuals about: a parking spot. That will be in use for two, maybe three hours total.
Note that these movers could easily have said, sorry crazy lady, find another moving company. Look at our schedule board, posted openly right there on the wall. Anyone can easily see that we can’t make this happen for you with only four days’ notice. I wouldn’t have blamed them at all, and I would have shifted to calling other movers and asking for recommendations for other hard-working people who like money.
It helped, though, that I am so patient and easy-going. It helped that I know how to work a phone when I need to. I’ve beat the IRS twice and I can certainly figure my way through competing parking regulations.
There’s also the not-inconsiderable body of skills I have picked up while working with hoarders and the chronically disorganized. Not to mention the strong minimalist streak I have developed from same.
I married a man with a vast garage, a garden, and the components of several workshops, from robotics to woodworking to replica coins. A man who owns his own personal tree stump for artisanal purposes. He’s bought in to minimalism as a lifestyle, but he still has the instincts of a homeowner, a homeowner who aspires to a couple acres of orchard.
He looks at all our stuff, thinks about moving it, and quivers inside. I look at all our stuff, overlaid with multiple images of hoarded homes, and I shrug.
I’m picturing our new place. In my mind, we’re already gone.
We’ve done this so many times, seven times but technically nine moves. We both moved when we got married, and we also stayed temporarily in a furnished apartment when we first moved to SoCal. I can still remember what size of carton is required for certain objects and which items fit well together. I estimated forty boxes when we started planning this move, and we’ll see how close I got on moving day, but it’s looking pretty accurate right now.
Divide number of days until Moving Day by estimated number of boxes. Simple. There’s your quota. Now get to work.
In past moves, unless we’ve had the luxury of professional movers, we’ve always done multiple trips. We were able to carry over a carload at a time, unpack it, and bring the empty boxes home to reuse. This makes it a bit more challenging to count the total number.
The first time, we had one hundred.
Then we got it down to eighty.
Now it’s looking like forty.
Some of the boxes are smaller, too! A lot of the boxes that got cut were small boxes full of books, getting the numbers down and also eliminating a lot of the total mass.
Yeah, yeah, I thought I loved books as much as you think you do. I thought that until around the fifteenth move. Now I’m on somewhere around twenty-eight and you know what? Dead trees, man. They heavy. Digital all the way.
The funniest thing about planning this move is that I’ve done more home cooking during this process than I have for the past month. I even made banana bread the other night. I see it as using up containers that we won’t have to pack. Since I’m getting the baking pans down anyway...
I’m handling this process with great good cheer. I’m totally excited about the new apartment, counting off the days, and the growing box towers are visible proof that we’re almost there. I want to impress the movers with how hard I’ve worked. I want them to feel my gratitude and how much I’ve done to get ready for their 8:00 am knock.
I visualize how close I will be to fully unpacked, how great our new place will look when my hubby comes home from work. He’ll leave our old place and come home to our new place. All the machinations and wheeling and dealing and planning and scheming will have been done, not to mention the packing and hauling. How relieved he will feel.
“Don’t worry your pretty little head,” I tell him.
Boxes are everywhere and my neck is all gimped up. We’ve been packing for almost a week, quota five boxes a day, and I’m feeling it. All I can do right now is fantasize about doing yoga in our new living room.
There isn’t a huge difference between a 612-square-foot studio and a 650-square-foot one-bedroom apartment. It’s just enough, though, that there might be enough room to do a workout in the living room when there wasn’t before.
I’ve tried P90X. I’ve tried yoga. I’ve tried burpees. I’ve tried hula hooping.
The only thing I can effectively do in my studio apartment, even when I move furniture out of the way, is to jog in place.
I often do. At the end of the day, if I haven’t quite done enough to impress my activity tracker, I jog in place until the green loop is closed. I would go outside but then I’d have to put my shoes back on.
I’d go to our apartment gym, but there lies madness. I love working out late at night, see, and once I started using the elliptical at 10:00 pm I’d be out there every night. This doesn’t work when you have upstairs neighbors who get up between 4:30 and 5:30 every morning.
The first law of the workout is to understand your constraints. Know your first sixty-five layers of obstacles, reasons, complaints, and excuses so you can plan something that is actually possible in your routine life, every day.
I’ve got grievances that have affected my workouts.
I also have a history of thyroid problems, and when I quit working out for an extended period, I descend rapidly into a netherworld of chronic pain, fatigue, migraines and tension headaches, low mood, and general crabbiness. I can feel it happening. I can feel the difference between the lower range of thyroid function and the middle range.
It’s like quicksand. The more tired I get, the less I want to do, and the more I sit around, the farther I fall.
My life is easier when I work out at least a little every day.
That’s why I wear the fitness tracker, it’s why I walk everywhere, it’s why I always take the stairs even when I’m carrying a suitcase, and it’s why I’m so invested in whether I can do a floor workout in my living room.
This is part of the connection between clutter and physical health.
My people do not like the feel of a reasonably arranged room. They will continue to pile up boxes and bags to prevent having extra space or blank walls. Alas, the effort involved to carry in shopping bags and pile them around is not enough to keep one’s energy levels up.
Living in a tiny, crowded room means sitting still most of the time.
Thus the nest. My people usually have a nest that is easily identified from across the room. There will be a spot, for instance in front of the computer keyboard, that will be surrounded by small important items like a tea cup or the TV remote. Other popular areas are the bed, a spot on the couch, a favorite chair, or the driver’s seat of the car. While there are seated workouts that can be found to accommodate physical therapy situations, my people aren’t doing them.
It’s not a problem, of course not. It’s not a problem when 40% of Americans have zero workout. It’s not a problem for extended phone stroking, gaming, binge-watching, or other seated activities.
It only starts to become a problem when it’s time to pack and move, or in an emergency situation when sitting still is no longer an option.
Eh, but that’s not gonna happen, right? *wink*
Here I am, packing our stuff, working on Box 28 and maybe ten to go. I’ve walked home balancing stacks of folded cardboard on my head, causing a man in a convertible to pull over and ask if I needed a ride. (Nice). I’ve folded and taped, lifted and hauled and stacked. Not currently being a weightlifter, I am feeling this unfamiliar effort in my neck and shoulder. That’s a place where I carry a lot of tension because my real workout, my true default mode, is hunched over a keyboard.
That’s my reason for walking so much, walking when there are tons of other outdoor workouts available to me.
Walking causes thousands of micro-movements when I swing my arms. I would never do that much physical therapy in any other situation. Walking, though, is fun. It’s something I can ignore, too. I walk to do my errands because we sold our car over two years ago. I walk when it would take twenty minutes longer to wait for the bus. I walk to go to the movies, the library, the grocery store. I walk a minimum of four miles a day, usually six, sometimes eight to ten.
When I’m not doing as much walking, like when I’m home packing boxes, I start to feel it right away. I feel it in the middle-aged places.
Habit research shows that people tend to have the easiest time switching habits after a major change like a move or a new job. I know this is true because I’ve moved so many times in my adult life. My husband and I are both planning around this blip in our schedule, thinking about what we want to be different.
One difference in our new place is that we’ll be on the fifth floor instead of the ground floor. We have the option to take the stairs when we walk our dog and do the laundry. Our building is also on the same block as our martial arts gym.
Mainly, though, we won’t have upstairs neighbors anymore. I’m trying to remember what it was like when I could sleep as much as I wanted, back when we were newlyweds, back when I started running for the first time. I’m trying to hold a vision of something I want.
I’m trying to imagine what I will do differently when I have room to move.
My husband is an aerospace engineer, and I’ve been interviewing him about his school days. This was spurred by his recent intervention in the educational trajectory of one of our young baristas. He started tutoring her in calculus, and she brought her grade up from a D to an A. Never having made it to calculus myself, I had a lot of questions. Is he just smarter than the average bear, or does he know something that the rest of us don’t know?
I hated study groups in school. I hated them because I was always the one who wound up doing all the work while everyone else got credit for it. This might have been awesome and lovely if anyone had thanked me for it, but, well, I was a nerd. I made the Dean’s List in college all on my own.
What would have been different about my academic career if I hadn’t had this distaste for group work?
Heck, what would have been different about my work career??
I knew about my hubby’s study group because he had briefly mentioned it back when we were still getting to know each other. Suddenly, after fourteen years, it struck me that this was no average study group. I needed to know more.
How did this group form?
What were the rules?
Who was in it, and how did they meet?
Where are they now?
The first thing to know is that aerospace engineering is not like most fields. Over 80% of the students wash out. It takes five years of hard work to get through the requirements, and there’s no time for electives. This is not a career that people stumble into by accident.
Compare and contrast: History degree
I knew that my husband moved to the opposite end of the state to go to school. Therefore, he had no classmates, friends, family, or colleagues nearby for social support. How did he meet people?
Crucial to the formation of the high-powered study group was a natural social hub, M. M was a member of several clubs and an active student group. He was bilingual, which is intriguing and seems relevant. (I grew up in a neighborhood composed of about 1/3 immigrant families representing at least five languages, and my classmates were generally top students). M went around getting to know people and introducing them to each other, and that’s how the members of the high-powered study group met.
The group originally consisted of four Upholders and one Questioner. The Questioner lost interest in engineering over the summer and never came back.
One member was second in the class and top in the group. The other three, including my husband, competed for second in the group. A certain amount of smack talk and teasing arose from this, driving competition.
(This would not have worked on me)
Other students tried to get into the group. While the group would help them if they showed up, they would not be invited back. The group changed locations between study sessions, essentially to protect their small size and remain exclusive. The rationale here was: if you want to sit at our table, you’d better add value.
There was another high-powered study group. Its membership and size fluctuated. Then there was another study group that consisted of C students. Studying together did nothing to improve their grades, and this is why the nature of the high-powered study group is so interesting.
Most of the C students did graduate and become engineers. Studying together probably helped them quite a bit. They weren’t accepted in the high-powered group because they couldn’t keep up. What they really wanted was the opportunity for tutoring. That’s a big ask. It’s really asking for free labor from other busy people without offering anything in exchange.
I think that’s fair. I’ve helped other students in school, just as I’ve helped people with their resumes in the working world. There’s only so much you can do for them, for one thing. I helped another student in my dorm by editing her papers, and I did it gladly because she helped me quite a bit in non-academic ways. Did I have time to edit papers for any and all comers? Nope, I did not.
Most people don’t ask. Most people don’t ask for help because they know it’s their responsibility to do it on their own. Most people also understand the concepts of win-win and fair exchange, that you give and then you receive and then you give again.
What happened with the high-powered study group? What were its impressive powers?
The faculty became aware of the high-powered study group, because they always worked together on group assignments. They took on more complicated projects than the other groups. They stood out for their test scores. They could also be found using various empty classrooms for studying. This is how they built their reputation.
The school decided to close their aerospace program when this particular high-powered study group was one year from graduating.
The members of the high-powered study group marched into the dean’s office. They advocated for themselves and insisted that the program remain open until they graduated. The dean agreed and the program continued for an additional year.
Note that this was a win for all the students in their program that year, about fifty people.
The tradition continues. My hubby just did something similar, thirty years later. A group of interns who all went to school together were going to be relocated to various desks around the facility. My hubby thought they worked much better when the five of them sat together. He went up the chain of command - unbeknownst to the interns - and pushed back. The five interns continue to sit together and work together. Maybe they’ll go on to get patents together, maybe they’ll publish academic papers together, maybe they’ll leave and start their own company. Maybe they’ll just continue to turn out above-average work, because their group makes them more powerful than they were alone.
Out of the chaos came a brief window of opportunity for something different, something polished and orderly. How it happened I’m still not sure. We found ourselves at an awards banquet, where I received a trophy for the first time in my life.
Actually not one but three!
This is how it looks on the outside:
A woman walks on stage and accepts an award. She is wearing a new dress and is in full hair and makeup.
This is how it looked 90 minutes earlier:
The scene, a studio apartment full of half-packed boxes, rolls of tape, and Sharpie markers.
A man has blood all over his face because he has somehow cut open his eyelid. This is terrifying and also very inconvenient timing! The man and his wife are in the process of getting ready to leave for a formal event and ‘blood everywhere’ is not part of the dress code.
Injury treated, the couple dress in haste and run to the street to catch their rideshare. Picture a woman sitting next to an open window, hair blowing vertically because all the windows are open, as she tries to apply makeup using her phone camera.
Couple stops on the way to pick up keys to their new apartment, where they will be moving in five days, hence the precarious towers of cardboard scattered around their home.
Couple climbs out of rideshare. Wife still has vertical hair, complemented by mascara on only one eye. Wife scurries into restroom hoping nobody will try to take her picture as it is not Halloween.
While the doors have not yet opened, wife feels that she is 20 minutes late. She was supposed to help set up the table for the door prizes.
When you see a normal, average person, it can be hard to tell that that person is having a tough time. Not unless he still has blood on his face or she is still walking around with her hair pointing toward the ceiling.
This has been a tough year. I signed on to fill an office, and almost immediately my personal life exploded. I had a devastating death in the family, my husband traveled for work 21 out of 50 weeks, our dog was diagnosed with a liver tumor and given two months to live, and I started having migraines and night terrors again. Then there were all the oral surgeries and now we’re moving. The hardest part has been our inconsiderate upstairs neighbors, who are only reliably quiet between midnight and 4:30 am. I’m so tired all the time I feel like I have amnesia, or maybe dementia.
I have felt scattered, disorganized, guilty, desperate, and often incompetent every day for the past twelve months.
Yet how do I explain the trophies?
Oh, sure, I did the work. I did it all and I did it well. A lot of the stuff I did was not even mentioned.
I wasn’t just an area director, I had a Distinguished area.
I may have been a Spark Plug for one person, but I also coached a club from two members to twenty-one and trained officers from two districts and five divisions.
I did all the stuff they mentioned for the Above and Beyond trophy, and I also did three other similarly-scaled projects that weren’t on the list.
Not only that, but I also co-chaired a conference in another district, completed four award levels, completed all the work for my Distinguished Toastmaster except for faxing in the final paperwork, ran a campaign, and won a contested election.
It feels weird and inappropriate to actually list off all the stuff I did over the past twelve months. It doesn’t seem real, or fair, or something I can’t quite name.
I’m having a lot of trouble reconciling my self-image with my outer image, my emotions with what is apparently objective fact.
Why do I FEEL like an incompetent slacker loser? Why do I constantly feel like I am procrastinating when objectively, I get so much done?
They say it’s Impostor Syndrome. That when we’re growing and learning, it means we’re working outside our comfort zone. That the only way to never feel like an impostor is to only do things we know we can handle 100%, like making toast or putting our shoes on the correct feet.
Can’t I just feel for one day like I’m on top of everything? Can’t I just for one day feel like I know what I’m doing?
Every day in Toastmasters has been a battle for me, every day since the first day, when I stood shaking like a leaf and barely able to say my name. My fight against shyness, social phobia, and pathological stage fright has been one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. It looks like nothing and it feels like someone should call me an ambulance. I have felt that I would collapse if I took another step. I have felt like sprinting for the exit. I have felt like crying and I have felt like I would black out and hit the floor.
I never did. I forced myself and I kept going.
Oh, it’s hard. It’s hard sometimes.
People say I’m a great speaker now. Most of the time, I’m not scared anymore. People notice that I show up and I’m willing to help out anywhere I am asked. Sometimes they tease me about being District Director one day. Let’s not be getting ahead of ourselves, I say.
The analogy I gave earlier is that I feel like I’m constantly falling up a flight of stairs. I trip and stumble and bounce from one step to another, and somehow I always seem to stick the landing, breathless and rumpled. How far can someone tumble upstairs, though?
The truth is that we can’t tell how other people feel by looking at them, we can only tell if we ask. I have no way of knowing whether all my friends and peers feel just as uncertain and overwhelmed as I do. Maybe they also shun the spotlight and work out of a sense of duty and curiosity, maybe they also find themselves up there trying to be gracious when they’d rather peek out from under a tablecloth.
What I’ve found in my case is that my emotions are rarely appropriate to the occasion, and they always try to steer me wrong. I’ve found that my stress level is always about the same, even when I’m doing 10x more than I previously did at that exact same mix of neurochemistry. I’ve found that I am not good at feelings like pride or satisfaction or fun or relaxation. I am a tightly wound person, and I probably always will be, and I may as well use some of that energy to benefit society.
This is why I occasionally go above and beyond, because acceptable and enough isn’t really in my comfort zone.
The Procrastination Equation is a curious artifact, the product of a former extreme procrastinator who became an academic researcher and actually completed and published a book on procrastination. Piers Steel, PhD in your face! Something like 90% of doctoral candidates never complete their thesis, so this is a pretty big deal. If a procrastinator can get a PhD, then maybe anyone can do anything?
I keep reading and reviewing procrastination research books because guess why.
About 95% of people admit to procrastination and about a quarter consider it one of their defining personality traits. I’m in that quarter, although I have worked so hard at it for so long that when I try to cop to it, people will laugh. You?? Yup, me. I want to be in that magical 5% elite group that never puts anything off, never feels guilty or distracted, gets to wear a diamond tiara that spells out IN THE NOW.
While this book includes targeted behavioral suggestions, it revolves around research, including quizzes which are always a great way to be entertained while procrastinating. It’s pretty funny, for instance when Steel includes a footnote as a supposed reference to an astrology factoid.
One of the most interesting ideas I picked up was the link between impulsivity and procrastination. There is probably a strong link here with hoarding and chronic disorganization as well, because my people tend to be big-time guilty procrastinators as well. The impulsive streak tends to make them fun to be around, ready to try out mental exercises and games as we clear. It’s the same trait that makes them want to bring home random bargains and anything shiny, patterned, or brightly colored. It’s also what makes it hard for them to stay on task.
Procrastination Polka is one section of The Procrastination Equation that is particularly telling. Maybe flip to that section first and see if it catches your attention. I felt smug about several items but there were three out of thirteen that applied to me. Ouch.
Procrastination is as old as agriculture, extending at least to the dawn of written history. There’s a term for it in every culture and language. This makes me feel better. Then I learn that procrastinators get lower grades, have less money, are less healthy, and also less happy, and it gets harder to pretend that my cute little personality trait derives from perfectionism. When Steel calculates it as a trillion-dollar problem and points out how little Congress gets done, procrastination starts to look like a bigger deal than just whether I personally keep up on my email.
I enjoyed The Procrastination Equation, and it actually changed my perspective. Viewing my petty to-do list in a broader historical, anthropological, and economic context gave me a new perspective. I’d rather see myself as different type of animal, like a crow maybe, than a typical procrastinating ordinary human. I read this book and then I did the first next thing on my list, which was to review it.
Now, how about you? What are you going to do next?
By your own standards, if you thought delay was a good idea in the first place, you wouldn’t be procrastinating.
“...the only thing I really ever finish is dessert.”
Those bizarre outfits that languish in your closet were likely purchased toward the end of a shopping trip.
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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