Guess what? I made a workbook! For today only, I’m doing a special promotion. You can get the workbook and a little something extra, something that will not be available to future purchasers. At the end of this post, I’m also making an announcement.
Here are the details:
The workbook includes over fifty pages of text, quizzes, and exercises about space clearing, minimalism, and getting organized. It comes as a PDF.
As a bonus, I’ll include five coloring book pages, hand-drawn by me. If this goes well, I’ll consider putting out an actual coloring book at a later date.
What’s the catch?
The catch is that I’m trying to reach a fundraising goal for my charity: water campaign and it’s about to expire.
If you would like to order my Curate Your Stuff workbook and get the today-only bonus coloring book pages, please donate $25 through my charity:water page. Then go to my Contact page and send me an email, and I’ll reply with the PDFs attached. They’ll go out on Saturday. (If you have already been so kind as to support my campaign, ping me and I’ll send you your copies).
If you donate $50 or more, I will give you, in addition to the workbook and the coloring book pages, a free photo consult on any one room of your home. (You send me photos of a problem area and I send back my written recommendations). This is not a service that I offer to the general public, and the offer will not be repeated.
100% of donations to charity: water go to actual clean water projects. Funds for administration are raised through another branch. Note that this means I am donating my work today and I won’t receive a penny, because that’s how I roll.
Now, it’s time for the announcement!
If we reach my charity: water goal before the campaign expires, I will commit to launch my new podcast in October 2017. Otherwise I’ll be all sad and stuff, and it probably won’t happen until next year.
The other thing is that the workbook won’t be available for download for a while after today. I have to set up the website to support file downloads and accept payments, which is part of my plans for a general overhaul of the blog. That will happen at some point before the end of the year.
Thank you for hearing me out. Also, thank you, Dear Reader, for visiting me today.
It’s not accountability that we need. It’s consequences. We think we would reach our goals and adopt new habits if only someone else would come along and hold us accountable. The truth is, if we’re in a situation in which we can get away with breaking our commitments, then there are no consequences. At least, there aren’t any consequences that we believe in.
Certain things we do automatically. We do things because we know how, it’s not a big deal, we can do them without thinking about them, or we actively enjoy them. We take showers, brush our teeth, feed the cat, and buy snacks. Nobody has to hold us accountable, although some of the death glares from the cat might count.
Other things we do without accountability are to: put gas in the car, buy groceries, deposit our paychecks, pay attention when we drive, text our friends, follow celebrity gossip, squash bugs and spiders, play games, and really actually tons of other activities. These are things we would never procrastinate. We wouldn’t procrastinate even if they’re disgusting or scary, like spider detail, or time-consuming, like gaming or waiting in the checkout line. We understand that these actions lead immediately to results that we want. We also understand that not doing these things leads to results we do not want, like missing a must-see TV episode or not knowing whether the newest royal pregnancy will produce a boy or a girl. Well, okay, we won’t be able to avoid that last one even if we try.
The trouble is that there actually are consequences to everything, but they usually don’t make themselves known in the short term.
It’s not that we don’t believe in these consequences. We know full well that we should be “saving for retirement,” for example. The problem is that we don’t really truly believe that the day will come when we’ll personally feel these consequences because we don’t believe in a Future Me. Who is that crazy old coot to tell me how to spend my money? The Me who exists on this continuum in the time dimension, that Future Me who has white hair and sun spots, is not a real person! I’m much too smart to grow old! Oh, sure, I mean, I’m going to be rich and famous and have a maid and a butler and a chauffeur, but that version of me will be young and fit and sexy. We spend more time planning what we would do if we Won a Million Dollars in the Lottery than we do planning how much we should put aside for retirement and whether we should buy long-term care insurance.
We want accountability to help us keep the commitment to work out because we know that otherwise, we’ll never do it. We won’t do it because we don’t like it and we don’t want to. We won’t do it because we don’t believe in a time when our mobility will be limited. We don’t believe we’ll ever have a harder time climbing stairs or sitting down than we do today.
Is there any other habit that we even want as much as we claim to want the habit of exercise? Not that I’ve noticed. I don’t hear people asking for an accountability partner to help them pay off debt, save money, wear sunscreen, stop driving while distracted, or get more sleep. We don’t actually want to save money - we want to win it. We don’t actually want to get more sleep, at least not if it means going to bed any earlier. We don’t even think that distracted driving is a problem, at least not the way we do it, because we can totally text and drive, unlike that other guy weaving between lanes. The lack of sunscreen we immediately regret when our skin burns, not that that helps us remember the next time.
We think we want accountability because we think we can delegate a sense of responsibility. If we haven’t developed new habits, if we haven’t reached our goals, it’s because other people are too inconsiderate to nag us into living our values. Other people have let us down! How could it be our fault, if we can’t find any examples of people so inspiring that we Finally Feel Motivated?
The only way we can change is if we change our minds. If I want something different in my life, then it’s up to me to change my behavior. If I want to change my behavior in the short term or the long term, I have to tell myself a different story. I have to talk myself into it. I have to convince myself that the consequences are real. When I believe in the consequences, I don’t need accountability, because nothing can stop me. I’ll keep my commitments to myself and others because I understand what will happen if I don’t.
How much water should a person drink every day? According to my picky eater friends, the answer is zero, because water tastes bad. Everyone knows that if I don’t like the flavor of something, then it’s unhealthy and I shouldn’t put it in my mouth. The standard answer to the question of how much water to drink is: eight 8-ounce glasses, or 64 fluid ounces per day. Then the standard rebuttal to that is that we don’t actually have to drink that much, because we consume fluids in our food. I’m going to say that all of these answers are wrong.
It’s not nearly enough.
How much we need to drink depends on our size, our base exertion level, the humidity, the altitude, whether we’re traveling via airplane, what we eat, and what workout we may be doing. There are probably other factors, but these are the most noticeable.
I got an app to track my water consumption, because I was having a problem with getting cotton mouth right before bed. This intense thirst would make it impossible not to power-slam a big glass of water, which would then make it impossible for me to sleep through the night. It became my goal to pace myself, hydrating more in the morning so I could stop drinking water after 8 PM. Everything I do for my body is based around whether it improves my quality and quantity of sleep, because I have a very tiresome parasomnia disorder.
Now that I have a few months recorded, I see that I drink an average of 80 fluid ounces per day. The app set me a goal of 60 ounces based on my height, weight, and activity level. For the record, I am 5’4” with a small build and I live in a hot, humid climate.
Anyone who is taller than me, weighs more than 120 pounds, or exercises more than I do should probably be drinking more than that 80 ounces. Even more if they’re on any kind of medication.
It’s important to be skeptical, especially about outrageous health claims. There’s at least a million times more misinformation out there than there is quality information. Skepticism is an inner compass that can be used to experiment and test hypotheses. We can use this power of the mind to find ways to live a better, easier life. I was always very skeptical about claims that drinking lots of water is healthy, and I might go days at a time without actually drinking plain water. I was a big soda drinker instead. That’s what low-level skepticism can do for us. It can convince us that our terrible habits are good for us, because we like them and they come naturally to us, while at the same time convincing us that healthy habits are bad for us, because they’re annoying and they go against our proclivities. A skepticism that drives us further in the direction of our biases is not skepticism at all. It’s nothing more than a self-serving emotional validation tool.
What we want to do is to look at our results and try to amplify everything that is working well, while mitigating anything that is working less well. More of the good and helpful, less of the bad and painful.
The first thing that convinced me that maybe what I was doing wasn’t working so well was the idea that I could compare my results to the results of an elite. In this case, I’d be looking at elite athletes and at people with elite longevity, i.e. centenarians. What did these people do differently than I did? I noticed that athletic people universally all drank lots of water. I didn’t drink lots of water, and I was far from being an athlete. Correlation or causation?
What I learned when I started distance running was that hydration wasn’t actually a choice anymore. Intense exercise activates a thirst you’ve never known. It’s physically impossible to run for several miles and not feel thirsty afterward. You also start to learn that you have to drink before you feel the thirst. I felt vindicated with my hydration habits when I ran my marathon without bonking.
A Kaiser doctor told me once that dizziness comes from dehydration. I had called in to the advice line when I had the flu. In the past, I had had a problem with occasional random dizzy spells, and I’d even fainted a few times. That was back when I was working a full-time job while also attending school full time. It clicked for me that if dehydration causes dizziness, and I used to feel dizzy a lot, and I basically never drank water... maybe that was the answer? Maybe it was really as simple as that?
What I’ve noticed from drinking more water:
I used to always have dark circles under my eyes, and now they’re gone, even though I’m twenty years older
I sleep better, when I’ve had insomnia problems since I was seven years old
My skin is clearer
I have at least 10x more energy
I don’t crave sweets as much
I haven’t had a migraine in nearly four years, when I used to get them several times a week
I weigh 35 pounds less than I did when I drank soda instead of water
I’m stronger and fitter than I’ve ever been in my life
All of this could be a coincidence. Maybe it’s not my water consumption at all. Maybe I’m enjoying these benefits due to an astrological influence or a fairy’s blessing. Maybe it’s osmosis from living in a humid climate near the beach. Water is free to me, though. I can pour it straight out of the tap on demand. Drinking more water makes me feel better and helps me not get dry mouth at night. Why not do it? Why not test it out for a little while, at least?
When it comes to stuff, most of us have more that we don’t use regularly than stuff that we do. Our vital, infrastructural stuff such as keys and forks tends to speak for itself. It’s obvious why we have it and how we use it. The other stuff tends to sit around, waiting for us to notice it and bodily protect it, acting as its defense lawyer. We keep it because we intend to use it. One day. When we change our lives in the way we fantasized we would when we bought the darn thing, that’s when we’ll use it. This is when it helps to ask ourselves whether that day will ever come. There it is, sitting there, staring beseechingly at you, because of course it has a soul and a personality. Ah, but... how long have you had it?
The stuff we don’t use can be readily divided into Past and Future. The Past stuff, we keep to represent memories, heritage, legacy, and what we think of as our identity. Without my stuff, who would I even be? I still have my Self-Manager badges from the 4th, 5th, and 6th grades. If I throw them away, how will anyone know I was a self-manager?? (Nobody knows about them but me, or likely cares). The Future stuff is anything we’ve bought and carried around that we haven’t yet used. There’s no way to prove that we never will! Future Self just called and says we’re going to! Totally! One day!
Future stuff falls into categories.
Supplies. We are CONVINCED that we need to stock up on stuff, to keep certain levels of supplies on hand. I used to be, too, until I wound up downsizing from a house with a two-car garage to an apartment about a quarter of the size. Now we don’t even stock up on toilet paper! We live a quarter-mile from the grocery store, and there’s a pharmacy in the same strip mall. When we get down to the last roll of paper towels, last sliver of soap, or last serving of dishwasher detergent, et cetera, we just pick up a replacement later that day. We’re at the store three times a week anyway. It’s easier than figuring out what we could get rid of to make room for something. Most Americans have more than one closet and significantly more kitchen storage than we do, so they fail to recognize that we literally, actually, factually do not need to “stock up” on household supplies.
Craft supplies. Now this is different. It’s different because we crafty types are viscerally certain that our yarn, fabric, paint, scrapbooking, or whatever supplies are more vital than the cleansers, canned foods, and other pantry staples. Those supplies are optional. Craft supplies are NEEDS. They are! If I don’t have at least an entire closet filled with completely unused, untouched craft supplies, I might physically die. We’re never going to admit that our true hobbies are 1. Shopping for it and 2. Stroking it.
Reading material. Guilty as charged. There are nearly 1600 books and audio books currently on my library wish list. I have thirty-four unread physical books on my shelves, although I’ve been consciously trying to read through and cull my collection for the last eight years. I typically have at least two hundred news articles bookmarked, even though I am constantly reading through that queue. What does it mean when my “to be read” list represents more than a quarter of the amount of books I have read in my entire life? That I’ve marked out my next ten years’ reading already? Or that I think I can suddenly start reading 10x faster?
Aspirational. The category of aspirational items has no limits. We can decide that Future Self is totally going to want this particular item about absolutely anything. Future Self is going to want to read this! Future Self is going to want to cook this! Future Self is going to want to try this complicated recipe! Future Self is going to decorate in this way, dress that way, and behave in this way. Future Self will act differently than me, exercise differently, eat differently, and do all the cool stuff I’m not actually willing to do today. It’s like we think Future Self wants to do Present Me’s scutwork (washing dishes, creating a filing system, organizing photographs, etc) while also somehow finding time for the awesome stuff. Future Me is going to file those tax papers while climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. Future Me is going to clean out the pantry while learning to speak French. Future Me is going to lose the weight and be delighted to wear these ten-year-old unstylish jeans I’ve saved for so long.
The reason it’s relevant to ask how long you’ve had something is that it’s a check on those aspirations. Aspirations are great. They make life interesting. They pull us forward into being better people than we are today. Yet - if these aspirations are so meaningful to us, why don’t we start on them today? This very hour? Are the aspirations actually better than the way we’ve currently dedicated our time?
How long have I had this skein of yarn?
When did I buy this unread book?
What is the date on this unread magazine?
(UGH! If I have three pet peeves in this line of work, one of them is the stacks of unread magazines that people insist on saving). (The other two are anything with DNA, like old teeth or cat whiskers, and anything at all that a parent has hoarded in a child’s bedroom).
Picking up an item and really asking how long you’ve had it can be really enlightening. Sometimes the question answers itself; for instance, I often use bookstore receipts as bookmarks. Magazines have dates, and food packaging has dates, and unused purchases are often still in the original shopping bag, complete with receipt. It’s archaeological.
Another aspect of this sorting technique is to ask yourself how long the item takes to use. I can knit up a skein of yarn in two or three nights. A complicated cross stitch might take me three months of working for three hours a night. I read about 50 pages an hour, or I can read an issue of a particular magazine title in 40 minutes. A bag of flour is enough for X number of cakes, batches of muffins, or loaves of bread, which I might prepare X number of times per month. Other than decorative items, which I usually tire of after several years, I’ve found that everything in my home has a natural expiration date. Almost everything is consumable, in that it’s designed to be used. Clothes, linens, reading material, toothpaste, dog food... it’s all created to be here, to be used, and eventually to be gone.
When we keep things that were designed to be used up within a week or a month or a season, and they’re still in the closet or on the shelf ten years later, what does that say? Do we really prefer having our lives mapped out that far in advance? What’s our track record here? Have we actually done a good job of predicting what Future Self was going to want?
If there’s any one thing that keeps us broke, it’s resistance to the idea of having more money. This is far more common than one would guess. People hold a huge variety of negative beliefs about money, jobs, and wealth. I’d like to counter this by suggesting that we earn as much as possible and then give it away. Would having more money be a problem if you didn’t keep it? What if you earned a million dollars and one cent, and you gave away the million and kept the penny?
Let’s take that a little further. Do you have a favorite cause that you love so much that you want to tell the world about it? Is there a problem in the world that bothers you so much that you think about it constantly?
I asked my pets what they would choose. Spike says he’d like to see more research into canine Addison’s disease and an end to dog-fighting and puppy mills. Noelle says she’d put hers toward preventing exotic animal smuggling, and habitat preservation for African Grey parrots in Congo. I told them both to get a job.
One of the first things that holds us back is when we feel like we don’t have any opportunities. If we’re unemployed, we say that there are no jobs out there right now. Hint: It only takes one. If we have a job that we hate, then we’ve taken meticulous notes on any and all unfairness in our workplace. Oh, they only promote certain types of people, I can’t work that schedule, So-and-so has it in for me. We have something in mind that we’d rather do, but there’s such a long list of reasons why we can’t actually do it.
As an example, I’ll do some of mine. I have a running list of alternative realities for myself, all of which are mutually exclusive. At least, if I did them all, I couldn’t do them all at the same time. Running a bird sanctuary, going back to grad school, going to every country in the world as a travel writer, opening a food cart. Well, I can’t open a bird sanctuary unless I own land, due to noise ordinances if nothing else, and I don’t have the down payment and there’s nowhere we could afford to do it near my husband’s work. I’d go back to grad school but I don’t know what subject I would study and I can’t guarantee that I’d earn enough in my new field to pay off the debt, plus I’m still paying off my student loan from my BA. I’d start traveling the world, but you see, it would be impossible to bring my pets and my husband wouldn’t be able to go. I looked into opening a food cart but the coaches are $100,000 and our city council is… You see how this works.
When we go a little deeper, we find that we have reasons why we wouldn’t want more money even if we knew how to get it. Money goes to people’s heads. It makes you greedy, selfish, and vain. You have to buy a ridiculous, architecturally monstrous house where all your neighbors are other rich people. Money makes you become a drug addict and start throwing your phone at people. You get paparazzi after you. You have to hire security guards. You never have any privacy or peace and quiet ever again. They make you name your kids with weird, made-up names that don’t make sense.
It’s just like working out. We immediately go to the extreme. I don’t want to lift weights because I’ll bulk up and my arms will be bigger than my legs. I don’t want to lose weight because if I drop a pound, I’ll go insane and become anorexic. We can’t imagine a happy medium.
What if I got just 5% stronger?
What if I earned just 5% more income?
Well, gee. What’s the point of that?
We give a lot of lip service to the concept of moderation, until it’s time to choose moderate goals. Then we aren’t interested. For instance, if I’m 50 pounds overweight and I find out I can realistically lose two pounds a week, what? It’s going to take me over six months to lose the weight? Pfft. Why bother.
You mean if I earn 5% more and spend 5% less, I can start funding my retirement? Bor-or-or-ING.
I come back to the idea of the million and the penny. Why not be completely extravagant in your desire to figure out ways to earn as much money as possible? What if you just do it for a cause?
I mean, along the way, it seems legit to pay off any debts you may have accrued over the years, including personal loans. It seems fair to use some of your earnings to make repairs around your home and vehicle and upgrade anything that’s worn out or broken. Or, if not, well, you can always keep going as a charity pump and keep putting it all toward your cause.
What if you started out with the desire to earn a million dollars for charity, and keep a penny for yourself, but you accidentally earned more? In that case, would it be okay in your heart to spend any of it on yourself? No? What about others? Could you use it to buy gifts or help out people in your life? Surely that would be okay?
What if it really was okay to just earn as much as you can and spend it however you want? What if accepting that enabled you to move forward so quickly that you surpassed your wildest dreams of what you were capable of? What if you went to donate so much to your favorite charity that they didn’t even know how they would spend it all?
Abundance means knowing on a deep level that there is plenty, and there will always be plenty more. Wealth is not zero-sum. It’s not necessary to deprive anyone of anything in order to feel prosperous. Giving lavishly from a place of abundance is pure pleasure. It is joyful to spread the wealth. The greatest wealth is love. How compatible is love with feelings of stress, strain, deprivation, lack, poverty, and impossibility?
Just this Tuesday, we were fortunate enough to be able to see Gretchen Rubin give a talk on her new book, The Four Tendencies. One of the great advantages of living near Los Angeles is that almost every awesome person or band who goes on tour will make a stop here. Indeed, we also saw Gretchen when she was here in 2015 promoting Better Than Before. It’s hard to say which is more exciting, hearing her speak live or anticipating the new book. This is the one we’ve all been waiting for, a handy-dandy manual on the Four Tendencies.
Aaaaahhhhhh! I love this book so much!!!
Sorry, I had to get that out of my system.
The premise, if you don’t know already, is that one way to sort people is by whether we meet or resist inner and outer expectations. Learning to place people by where they fit in this system can be incredibly useful. I taught my husband about it, and it’s added a new dimension to our marriage. He uses it with his colleagues. I use it with my family. We’ve even sorted our pets. It was helpful to realize that our Questioner parrot needs more variety in her routine, and she’s not super-big on rules.
The book is structured with a separate section for each tendency. Upholders come first, naturally, since the author is an Upholder and in fact invented the concept. Within sections, there is an explanation of the tendency, its strengths and weaknesses, and variations within the type. For instance, my husband is an UPHOLDER/Questioner like Gretchen and I am a QUESTIONER/Upholder like her husband Jamie.
One of the best features of the book is that each tendency has a chapter on how to deal with people of that type. Oh my gosh, I wish this had been available when I first met my husband! It’s like a “care and feeding of” manual. We went on a vacation trip once with his Upholder mom and Upholder daughter, the three of them lined up, dressed, and ready to go every morning at 6:30 AM, naturally expecting that everyone in the world knows the Upholder Vacation Standards and Practices Guide backwards and forwards. Gee, doesn’t everyone arrive half an hour early and wait in the parking lot for attractions to open? At least they had the good sense to leave the event planning to the curious and novelty-seeking Questioner.
Generally, I think Questioners like myself have the easiest life. It’s just unfortunate that we sometimes make things difficult for others around us! I agree that I can easily do anything if it makes sense and I’m sold on the reasons for it. I’ve learned to battle my own tendency toward analysis-paralysis by adapting the engineering standard known as “low-side compliance.” Does what I’m doing meet the stated criteria, on schedule, with minimal cost and effort? Is the task relevant to the project? I’ve set up a minimalist system for running the household, our finances, my client schedule, and my fitness level, so I can get the optimal results with the least time commitment. That means I have the maximum time possible to write, research obsessively, and mess around doing whatever I want. My Upholder husband, who taught me the concept of low-side compliance, usually cooperates without comment, even when I keep tweaking the system.
Incidentally, there was another Questioner in the audience at the live event on Tuesday. He asked what I considered to be an archetypical Questioner question. Essentially, he wanted to know where the data came from, and he finished, “I don’t see a PhD after your name...” I thought this was so impertinent, a harsh startup that came across very aggressively. (I mean, do you yourself have an advanced degree? No?) How often must I sound like that to people when I ask curious questions?? He happened to be sitting directly behind me, so I was able to turn around and chat with him after the show. By “chat,” I mean, engage in Questioner debate. I shared that the data came from the hundreds of thousands of people who had taken the Tendencies quiz on Gretchen’s website, and that she has a Juris Doctor, which is basically equivalent to a PhD. His rejoinder was that that’s law, not social sciences. We quibbled back and forth for about ten minutes, with the result that we were last in line to get our books signed. Neither of us changed our minds.
My husband and I had a bit of a joke, imagining the room sorted into four groups by tendency. He said the Upholders would all nod at one another and then stand there, waiting for further instructions. I said the Obligers would be trading contact information within five minutes, and they’d all wind up hugging before they left. He said most of the Rebels would probably leave. I said the Questioners would immediately start quarreling non-stop. Then he did wind up meeting another Upholder and they traded nods... and I did get into a quarrel with another Questioner!
In practice, exploring the Four Tendencies tends to make us more accepting of other people’s quirks and foibles. Better than that, it helps us to realize that they have strengths we may have been taking for granted. Recently I’ve realized that my Rebel dad has a native genius for negotiating. I’m trying to absorb more of the Obliger gift for friendship. My husband is using what he knows about the tendencies to help mentor younger engineers. This book is going to be an invaluable resource for those who care to explore it. There’s definitely room in the world for more of this material. If the great Gretchen Rubin were to write companion volumes for the workplace, marriage, or parenting, I would be delighted to read them.
Comfort is what we crave. The contradiction inherent in this drive is that almost everything we do in search of comfort actually destroys our chances of feeling comforted in both the short term and the long term. This can be demonstrated in all sorts of ways, but the most poisonous and destructive of these is the search for emotional validation.
Looking for validation is looking for someone to back us up. Tell me! Tell me I was right and everyone else was wrong! Tell me I didn’t deserve that! Tell me I DID deserve that! Tell me how great I am! Compliment me! FEED ME! I need more love! Approval! Compassion!
Oh, how sweet it would be. I think there’s soon going to be a cuddly AI robot-thing that can do this in natural speech. “Oh, honey, of course you deserved that promotion! Your boss is a big mean jerk.” You can choose it in pink or lavender or pale yellow, and you can select the celebrity voice of your choice. Soothing, sweet, delicious fantasy of nurturing and support.
I’ll get one and make a video of myself setting it on fire, beating it with a shovel, and then backing a truck over it.
Validation is death. The last thing we should ever want is someone to constantly yes-man our every word and deed. What a disaster. Please no! That’s the route in the maze that leads directly to a dead end. In fact, there’s only one single path in a maze that leads out; all the other options are false, distracting, routes to nowhere. The path that leads out is the path of truth. That truth by its nature has to include all the dark stuff, all the unsavory and embarrassing stuff we wouldn’t want to admit.
He broke up with me because I complained constantly and I wouldn’t take action or listen to his advice.
I didn’t get the promotion because I wasn’t ready, I didn’t look like I fit the role, I didn’t have the certifications, and I kept coming in late.
Other people talk smack about me because that’s what boring, small-minded people do, and it’ll never stop no matter what I do, so it’s my job to let it go and ignore it.
It’s my job to look for my own flaws and try to do something about them. Like most people, I’ll probably go through life unaware of my biggest and worst flaws, and I’ll chip away at the smallest, least consequential ones. Then I’ll immediately be distracted by something someone else said, or rather, my guesses and misinterpretations of what someone else said. I’ll spin my wheels over this. I’ll waste my time, always stuck on Level One, when I could be putting that energy toward making myself a slightly less obnoxious and useless human. It’s what I wish other people would do that I myself should do.
When I wish for validation, I should first ask whether it would actually help me reach my goals. Second, I should find someone else who deserves validation and give that person the praise and encouragement I wish someone would give me.
When I wish someone would listen to me with deep and heart-felt fascination, that’s my cue to find the fascination in someone else’s story. Deep listening teaches me about other people, and it also teaches me how to make my own story more compelling.
When I wish someone would hear me out, that’s my flag that maybe there’s a flaw in my reasoning or a hole in my rationale. Maybe my version of this story is bogus and self-serving. Maybe it’s boring to everyone in the world except me. This wish is my opportunity to work on it, on my writing or my performance or some other way of turning my frustrations into art.
If I wish someone else would stand up for me - have I stood up for others? If I wish someone else would speak up and praise me - have I promoted others and made them look good? If I wish for backup, have I been an ally to others? If I wish for deeper friendships, have I gone out of my way for others in ways that are inconvenient to me? Have I sought to learn what makes them feel befriended and cared for? Sometimes the validation I wish I had may come from one person, while I offer it to a different person. It’s not usually an even flow.
Validation given well can bring out the best in people. Unfortunately, we tend to want it most when we deserve it least. We ask for it at the exact moments that it could hold us back. We want to be comforted when we need to be challenged. We want someone to agree with us exactly when we should be questioned and confronted. Yes dear, yes dear, you’re right dear. Beware of validation, and instead cherish those friends (and enemies) who are brave enough to give you the cold cruel truth. You can always get one of those approval-bots and let it sing you to sleep later.
Two weeks ago, I posted about how I gained four pounds over a weekend in Las Vegas. This sent my health into a rapid tailspin, and I knew it was time to take immediate steps to reverse the trend. This is me checking in.
The good news is, I was able to drop most of the weight over the first week. It was a huge relief to have a free day after four days of low-grade headaches. I haven’t had a headache since. (I don’t drink, although an epic hangover would at least have been a fun excuse). I was also having a lot of sleep problems, not a good sign for someone with a major parasomnia disorder. It’s been even more of a relief to be able to sleep through the night. I may be wrong about the correlation between my weight and my health problems, but if I am wrong, at least it was a suspiciously-timed coincidence.
I’m still having trouble with my temperature fluctuating all over the place. This is most noticeable right after I work out, which is strange, or right before I eat. I’ll be fine, and then suddenly a few seconds later I’m freezing. A few nights ago, I woke up huddled in a ball in the middle of the bed, shaking with cold, while under the bedspread, with the temperature in the high sixties. I attribute this to my trick thyroid. It’s a quick, easy way to remind myself that my system demands a high level of physical exercise to run correctly.
Since I’ve been spending so much time in the gym, I’ve decided that I might as well segue into fall training. The outside temperature is dropping, and soon it will be cool enough that I can go out and run again. While I’m waiting, I’ve been spending an hour a day on the elliptical, trying to rebuild my cardio. I have the goal of running a 50-mile ultramarathon for my fiftieth birthday, but I haven’t really run in nearly three years, and I only have eight years to train.
Having spelled all that out, I can now talk about this phenomenon that I call Diet Brain.
Well, actually, wait. I should also say that it’s affecting my husband, too. For some mysterious reason, in our culture, men are allowed to make the decision to lose weight and announce it publicly, and everyone seems to think it’s a fair and reasonable choice to make. A man can even use the word ‘diet.’ When a woman says she’s going on a diet, all hell breaks loose. Everyone knows the only possible reason a woman can decide to lose weight is that she’s gone insane and she loathes her appearance. There’s this cultural prejudice that men already have a healthy body image, and losing a little weight will just make them more awesome, but only if it’s something they want. If Diet Brain is affecting both of us in similar ways, it seems worth sharing.
Basically, cutting calories makes a person distracted, chilly, and mopey. Mostly distracted. Both of us have found ourselves losing track of objects, forgetting what we were doing, and having trouble concentrating. I feel distinctly less charismatic and my speeches haven’t been as good.
We’ve been through this before, both together and separately. We both like to Eat All the Things and we have to fight our tendency to pack on weight rapidly. And then keep it. This is why we’re willing to put ourselves through the occasional brief period of cutting calories and suffering the dreaded Diet Brain. It’s temporary. And a couple of weeks of distraction, spaciness, and moodiness are a small price to pay in order to avoid everything that goes along with constant, chronic weight gain. We’ve been there and back so many times that we know that. If only we could convince ourselves to quit splurging in the first place!
I have to tell you this story. My husband is an aerospace engineer, right? He has this highly idiosyncratic engineering system for his clothes. He came in and shared an anecdote, and it made my jaw drop open, and immediately I realized I had to write it up. This thing has layers!
First off, we keep different schedules. He’s an extreme lark and I’m a night owl. How larkish is he? He once woke up randomly at 4 AM, couldn’t fall back to sleep, and just shrugged and went to work early. I’ve shifted my natural schedule back about four hours to overlap with his more. I’m not allowed to get up with him on weekdays, though, because he says it makes him want to hang out with me. How sweet is that??
(Although actually the real reason is that he has his morning routine worked out to the minute, and even a brief chat with me would throw him off. More on this later).
Another piece to this story is that in our new apartment, we share a clothes closet. In our past three houses, he kept his clothes in his office closet. The reason for this is that he doesn’t want to wake me up, out of consideration for my parasomnia disorder. (Possibly also because if I do wake up, I have a strong desire to tell him my creepy dreams, which… RUN AWAY!). A key piece in his morning routine is to get across the bedroom like a ninja and open the door as soundlessly as possible. I’d say that 90% of the time, he nails it. What a guy, huh?
Okay, so. For some reason, dear hubby forgot to lay out his clothes the night before. He had to re-enter our boudoir, open the closet, and choose a work outfit. This put him a mere three feet from my sleeping face. At this time of year, it’s still pitch dark at 5:45 AM. Without turning on a light, without waking me up, he was able to reach out and grab a matching shirt, pants, socks, and shoes. Because he has a system.
I had no inkling of any of this. We’ve been together for eleven years and I had no idea. I mean, I knew parts of it, because honestly his side of the closet is distinctive, but I had no idea how intentional it all was.
If he hadn’t told me that he chose his outfit in the dark, I never would have guessed. All I noticed is that he was wearing a new shirt for the first time, one that I helped him pick out, and that it really brings out the color of his eyes.
Stop for a moment and ask yourself: On any given day, could I walk up to my closet and choose a matching, flattering, seasonally appropriate outfit in the dark?
It turns out that he’s practicing Six Sigma and using kanban. Everything has a place and everything is in its place. He has precisely eight polo shirts in a variety of colors. He has six identical pairs of black pants (and one pair in khaki, which I suspect he’s just keeping until they wear out). Clean shirts get hung up on the right, and he always draws from the left, so the shirts get worn out at an equal rate. “You have to wear the shirt that you don’t like, as much as your favorite shirt; otherwise your favorite shirt doesn’t last as long.” Since he has eight shirts and there are five weekdays, the shirts show up on different days, adding a little variety to the system. They all go with the black pants, which also go with the socks and shoes. There are three long-sleeved shirts for less casual work settings, but, I am not kidding, he wears the same clothes whether it’s 40 degrees out or 110.
For casual clothes, he has two pairs of “adventure pants,” two pairs of shorts, and ten t-shirts, which he feels is too many. Should only be seven.
What’s the deal with this hyper-rational system?
Are you believing all of this??? I mean, I’m married to him and I’m dumbfounded.
Let’s contrast the engineer-style capsule wardrobe with the opposite extreme, the chronically disorganized maximalist artistic woman’s wardrobe. Because honestly, I think most of us would freak if we felt we had to limit ourselves to eight tops and six identical pants.
Mathematics could provide an answer to how many potential options there are in a given closet, but it would be a complicated problem to set up, because not all the pieces fit in one data set. It’s easily going to be in the thousands, though.
The typical maximalist wardrobe is, according to my hypothesis, a major root cause of morning stress and chronic lateness. Multiply it by the wardrobes of any young children in the family. Multiply that by lack of a laundry system and the product is endless chaos, distraction, and frustration.
I once worked with a talented department manager who had a capsule wardrobe, although I didn’t know the term at the time. She wore a series of virtually indistinguishable dresses, same style, same color. Every day, though, her shoes were different: Three-inch heels in an endless variety of colors and patterns. She continued to climb the corporate ladder; last I heard, she was a VP. In the heavily male-dominated world of tech, there are a few likely possibilities. 1. Literally none of the engineers noticed; 2. They noticed and approved; or 3. She was actually evaluated based on her work output, and what she wore was irrelevant.
I checked with my husband, who also knows her, and he said definitely #3.
I think we should evaluate our wardrobes based on functionality. This is how my husband organizes his. Do I look like a professional? Can I reliably get to work on time? Can I get ready with the absolute minimum amount of fuss? Am I comfortable? Is everything machine-washable? I’m telling you, I’ve been aware of the concept of the no-decisions uniform for over twenty years, and if I’d ever found a single garment or shoe that I liked that much, I’d be wearing it every day. Maybe this is why I’m married to an aerospace engineer and I myself am not one.
Where do people learn to say “Neener neener neener”? Who was the first person to actually say that to someone? It could so easily have gone the other way - someone looks at someone and says “neener neener neener” and the other person just looks back and says, “Huh? I don’t understand what you said.” Or, “Stop trying to make ‘neener neener neener’ a thing.” It spread so quickly because it’s just the most effective way to taunt people. There will probably be drone toys at some point that will play robot keep-away with us, while going ‘neener neener’ in a digital monotone. Anyway. There are a lot of flippant formulaic responses of this nature, phrases that are used to dismiss or refute what someone is saying. One of these phrases from my childhood was “How does it feel to want?”
Ice cream truck drives up the street
Child: Uh! I want ice cream!
Adult: How does it feel to want?
Child: I want ice cream!
Adult: Yeah, well, I want a million dollars.
Child: I wish I had some ice cream.
Adult: Wish in one hand, spit in the other, which one fills up first?
This is the demographic reality. For anyone below the economic median, one of the most vital lessons an adult can teach a child is how to deal with frustrated desires. Stoicism 101. You just have to learn to deal. Disappointment is your lot in life. Once you can learn that ice cream is for everyone but you, you can start to find inner strength and grit and the pride of being above that sort of thing. Right? This is why kids in my milieu got the “how does it feel to want?” message from random adults, not just parents or relatives.
While it’s true that chasing after every ice cream truck would be really distracting, and that deferred gratification is one of the fundamentals of adulting, let’s go into this a bit more.
How does it feel to want?
Usually when I think I want ice cream, what I really want is something else. Joy. Rewards. Validation. A shared social experience. Distraction. Escape. It’s not usually just that I want to stimulate my tongue. Surely I’ve realized by now that only the first three bites really taste like anything.
The other thing about ice cream as an example is that it’s something I can get 24 hours a day for about a dollar. I can keep ice cream in my freezer - I can fill my entire freezer with ice cream if I like - and I can get up and eat a bite of it every 20 minutes if I so please. So what?
What could possibly, possibly be more boring than a life of total hedonism?
We ought to be wanting more. Something bigger. Something that a six-year-old probably wouldn’t think of. Such as: I want to build my own sailboat, take sailing lessons, and sail around the world.
Actually, wait. That kind of does sound like something a six-year-old might want.
Kids are better at big dreams than we are. Another way to put that is that we start out with vast amazing dreams, and they’re trained out of us. We’re carefully taught to quit thinking that we could actually have that, live that, be that. It’s selfish and delusional! Give up already! Who do you think you are??
Aw, don’t cry. Have an ice cream.
The truth is that people’s dreams tend to be tragically under-wrought. We get stuck on “lose weight” and “get organized” and “pay off debt.” Yeah, and then what? You could do all three of those things in one calendar year if you wanted. You could completely empty a hoarded three-story house, lose a hundred pounds, and pay off $50,000 in debt if you decided to do it. What are you going to do the year after that?
What would you ask for if the fairies came and told you your wishes would all be granted?
So you want to lose weight. If you woke up tomorrow with the body of an Olympic gold medalist, what would you do?
So you want to get organized. If you woke up tomorrow and learned you had won an executive assistant, professional organizer, interior designer, chef, maid, and chauffeur for life, what would you do?
So you want to pay off your debts. If you woke up tomorrow and, instead of debt, that number was your cash balance, what would you do?
What would you do with unlimited strength, vitality, mental clarity, and financial wealth?
What a bummer it would be! Because what I really, really want most of all is for someone to listen raptly while I share the minute details of why I Am Annoyed or That Person Hurt My Feelings.
It’s even harder to image the possibilities there. What if I woke up tomorrow and people didn’t annoy me anymore? Not that they learned to behave themselves, because come on, that’s never going to happen. Just that when people got up to shenanigans, it didn’t bother me anymore. What if people kept saying rude things the way they do, refusing to keep their commitments the way they do, and it just rolled off my back? What if I found that I no longer reacted to emotional bombardment?
I’ve been practicing wanting more, and it’s really hard. It’s hard to come up with ideas. Basically right now I’m stuck on “buy new socks when I wear holes in the toes of my old socks without feeling guilty about it.” When I turn on the fantasy faucet and try out different images, I keep getting stuck on stuff that involves someone waiting on me, which I reject. Other people adore being waited on: getting manicures or spa treatments, breakfast in bed, having drinks brought to them. I have to train myself not to let my resistance to this feeling block my imagination from thinking of desirable things that don’t involve over-the-top service.
What would be some things I could want?
To be better at wildlife photography, which probably means buying a better camera and spending more time in nature
To be fluent in a foreign language, which means restructuring my schedule and giving myself half an hour a day. And then finding someone who doesn’t speak English and talking to them.
To spend time just staring at the ceiling and listening to music, the way I did quite naturally as a teenager
Yep. Those are things I can allow myself to want, things that are in my reach right now. To look at that list reminds me that I don’t direct my time toward my dreams. I spend so much of it in passive entertainment or rehashing the events of the day or grumbling about what is in my life that I don’t want. I can’t push myself to want things that I can’t imagine, things that would be so awesome that they would upend my entire sense of who I am.
What else could I want? To fit in and feel comfortable in a higher stratum than I ever had before? To feel more like myself in a stronger, more active body than I’ve ever experienced? To feel confident and powerful whenever I think about my finances? To feel the drive to move toward my goals and steamroll right over my anxiety and lack of assurance? To feel compassion or amusement instead of frustration with other people? Could I actually want to feel like I really have free will? The hardest thing to want is to want total accountability, the responsibility to create our own conditions. It’s hard to want the choice.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.