What day is it? What time is it? Were we going to do anything today?
One of the common traits of my people is the ability to live completely outside the Time Dimension. This is of course a good thing, as long as we can move back into the Time Dimension on demand. Most of my people struggle with this. As a result, we miss out on a lot. Too late, brunch is no longer being served. Too late to get seats together. Too late, sold out. Too late, already closed for the day. All of that can seem like a fair tradeoff if the reward is the perpetual and endless morning.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the endless morning is that it can be declared and perpetuated by an unlimited number of people. A single person living along can do it forever. An entire household of roommates can string it along from [early] to [late]. What’s more, a Time Dimension-oriented person is usually powerless to disrupt an endless morning. You can’t even do it with hand clapping or banging a spoon on a pot.
How do you do it? How do you create an endless morning?
The first step is to make it unclear whether you are up for the day or not. It is vital to maintain the possibility that some or all of the people present may be going back to bed at any time. It’s best when these sleeping segments are staggered. For instance, one person gets out of bed while someone else is asleep. Someone else gets up, and someone else goes back to bed. At some later point, when the last person gets up, the first person should be heading back for a nap.
Showering is another aspect of the endless morning, or, rather, the scheduling thereof. Everyone involved has an interior trigger that is programmed to wait to bathe until someone else bathes first. Thus, everyone is wearing pajamas, which is of course necessary to set up the infinite back-to-bed/nap loop.
Then there’s ‘breakfast’ or facsimile thereof. What do you call a meal if there are multiple people eating different foods at different time slots? What’s more relevant, the type of food or the time of day? Is it ‘breakfast’ if it’s French toast at 10 PM, or is it ‘breakfast’ if it’s cold pizza at 10 AM?
Also key to the endless morning is that time of day, meals, showers, and plans should be left as vague as possible. Nobody is to broach the topic or risk puncturing the endless morning.
I’m down for this, by the way. I have a pretty cozy, dozy image of myself dressed in squirrel pajamas and snuggled up with my phone for the duration. Far be it from me to be the ender of the previously endless morning.
As a frequent traveler, I encounter every type of household. Both my parents and my in-laws are early birds. My FIL has been retired for many years, yet he gets up at 5 AM, seven days a week, to have coffee with his friends at the grocery store cafe. When I visit this sort of home, I make sure to shower and dress as soon as I get up, because I’m usually last and everyone is waiting on me. I’m most likely to cook dinner in an early-bird home.
At the other extreme are my many endless morning friends. These are the homes where I’m more likely to be the one cooking breakfast. I like a big, fancy breakfast, and I’ll fix one for myself, but it takes a crowd before I’ll bother to do certain things like pancakes or desserts. To my way of thinking, if you’re the first one up on a weekend, you have three options. 1. Entertain yourself very quietly until others start to stir; 2. Wait until a decent hour and then cook breakfast, the aroma of which will wake everyone; or 3. Leave silently and come back at noon. At least one day a week of completely unstructured time is, I believe, a basic human right.
Endless mornings are great, am I right?
There’s a time and a place for everything, though. For instance, we don’t do endless mornings on vacation, because, well, we can do them for free at home. What’s the point of hanging around in a hotel room all day? We’re more likely to sleep in a bit, get a late breakfast, and then have endless pool time. I’m also a big fan of the two-hour vacation dinner.
Some of my friends have an endless morning basically every day. There are some telltale signs that go with this. Chronic sleep issues. Weight gain. Clutter. Why do they go together? After many years of investigating my own parasomnia disorder, I’m pretty sure that it has to do with hormone regulation. Not having a regular and predictable meal schedule disrupts hormones. This, in turn, disrupts sleep patterns, which is a vicious spiral. Lack of sleep and meal patterns means less predictable exposure to natural sunlight out of doors. That again contributes to further hormone disruption. My people tend to eat very late at night, especially right before bedtime, and this alone will lead to weight gain. The clutter, of course, comes from lack of systems in general. How do you know when it’s ‘time’ to do something (vacuum, laundry, meal prep, dishes) when there is no real ‘time’ for anything?
I’m writing this midway through a bad cold. In some ways, being sick is an endless morning, because you’re in bed in your pajamas. In other ways, it isn’t. My pets still need care, and believe me, nobody around here is going to let a mealtime pass by unnoticed. Having a dog brings a certain amount of natural daylight into the routine. I’m not going to punish Future Me, who is recovering nicely, with a pile of trash and laundry and dirty dishes. I can certainly still put dishes in the dishwasher and garbage in the trash can. The day I can’t manage five minutes of basic daily chores is the day I call the nurse hotline. More importantly, I’m still on the same meal schedule as any other day, and going to bed at the same time, even though I’m napping a lot. I put years of effort into syncing up all my physical systems, and I’m not letting that go without a fight. Mealtimes and bedtimes mean I can do my life without constant disruption from migraine and sleep problems.
I’m still a big respecter of the endless morning. I did one recently with a fancy breakfast for all. Then, when the nap dominoes started to topple, I had some nice private time to finish reading a novel and then play with my phone. It’s like living in a parallel universe, where you can see everyone else but they can’t see you. Being able to step in and out of the Time Dimension on demand is a minor and underrated super power.
‘Radioactive’ is definitely how I would describe my inbox some days. You know when you’re trying to get caught up, and every time you delete something, the window refreshes and three more messages come in behind it? It’s metastasizing! I set a date to fight my way back to Inbox Zero, and this image came to me. In the endless search for a form of novelty that will inspire me through another day of drudgery, I came up with a little game.
Look at the total number of messages in your inbox. Write it down.
Vow that you’ll cut that number in half over the next hour. What will that number be?
In the next hour, you’ll cut it in half again.
In the next hour, you’ll cut it in half yet again.
(My husband points out that with a half-life, you never really get to zero, but let’s call it close enough).
Start with the easy stuff, just like you answer the easy questions first on a timed test. Gradually work your way through the middle, and save the complicated stuff for last. The easiest decisions get the least time, and the tougher stuff that needs your full concentration gets the most.
The logic behind this is that not all messages are equally salient, even though they look like they are. One of the worst features of email is that everything gets an identical line, no matter how long the message is, who it’s from, how important it is, how many attachments it has, or how long it’s been hanging around. It’s not obvious which messages are most deserving of our attention. The bulk junk buries the valuable stuff, just like junk paper mail can pile up and obscure our bills, checks, and gift cards.
The half-life method presumes that the more messages you have, the more likely the majority of them are relatively unimportant. If they really were both important and urgent, the senders would have found another way to track you down, either by phone, certified mail, or Men in Black knocking on your door.
Let me pause and say that it’s pretty common these days for people to have thousands of unopened emails. I’ve heard numbers above ten thousand from several people. Not only that, but those with the largest backlog tend to have extra accounts which are also filling up. It’s like maxing out a credit card and opening a new one.
Back in the Nineties, if you had more than a certain amount of email in your inbox, it would FILL UP. Anyone who sent you anything would get a message that it had bounced back. Two things fixed that problem: social media, and the advent of ludicrous amounts of free storage. You can have a gigabyte of mail now, no problem. That was technologically impossible twenty years ago.
Also back in the Nineties, if you got email at all, it was almost guaranteed to be from a personal friend. You looked forward to it. Maybe, every now and then, there might even be an attached digital photo, just for you.
Now, almost all mail is bulk junk. Every possible brand wants you to sign up at every possible transaction. They try to bribe you with a discount or a coupon. Then, each and every one of them sends you at least one message, each and every day.
The worst are the political lists that will send fundraising email as often as three to five times a day.
Everyone is battling for the top spot in your mental bandwidth, trying to flag down your attention, not realizing that they’re contributing to the problem. It’s like when one person stands up at the stadium and blocks the view of everyone in the back.
Here’s how to blast through the detritus:
If you can’t bring yourself to unsubscribe or delete thousands of messages, you can move them to a folder for “later.”
An overflowing inbox is solid proof that you’re receiving more than you can process.
I do my daily unsubscribe while paying attention to something else, generally an audio book or podcast. Along with that, I get several news roundups. I go through those by clicking the links and bookmarking the relevant articles, then deleting the email.
This is where the second round of processing starts. The easiest layer to eliminate is stuff that’s expired. In my inbox, that’s coupons from Lyft and a couple of restaurants, notifications of upcoming concerts, and invitations to other events that I won’t be attending. Next are things that are relevant and interesting, but don’t need a response. Usually we’re saving them because we need to record a piece of information.
See that it takes slightly longer to do this administrative stuff, but it often can be done while doing something entertaining in the background.
After this second layer, there will start to be messages that deserve a response. They can be complicated for several reasons. It can actually help to sort these by WHY they need more time and effort:
Often, with the difficult under-layer, it can help to switch channels. Just because a message came through email does not mean an email response is required. Much of the time, it can be easier to pick up the phone and have a discussion. What might have taken half an hour by email, resulting in half a dozen messages back and forth, could often be resolved with a three-minute phone call. Of course, many of us dread business calls even more than we dread email. The impending threat of a phone call, in this case, may be enough to motivate us to type out a reply. Anything to avoid voice contact, or, worse, a voicemail.
When I don’t know what to do or how to handle a question, like in a stuck plot point, I will write a list of what I don’t know. What piece of information would make this clear? It’s totally fair to reply to a confusing message with a question, or even a bullet-pointed list of questions.
It’s also legit to dash off a quick reply to someone, saying, “I miss you. Sorry I haven’t written back.” If you have a social email from someone you want to stay in better touch with, maybe write back in a format that you prefer. Text message? Chat? Meet in person? Remember that “the phone works both ways” and if this person has been content to wait weeks, months, or years without hearing from you, then maybe they haven’t been sobbing through a roll of paper towels awaiting your reply. Lower the emotional bar if that makes it easier.
The last-ditch method for dealing with an out-of-control inbox is to tell someone. Find a buddy. Agree that you and your accomplice will sit together and blast through your backlogs together. Maybe you can even switch seats and write some of each other’s replies, or help identify obsolete stuff.
There’s also always “email bankruptcy.” Just delete everything and email everyone you know, asking to re-send anything that was truly important. Many of us feel like we could never get away with that, but honestly, is it worse for your reputation than ignoring unopened messages entirely?
My rough bottom-of-the-barrel day started with sixteen messages. Using the half-life method, that would be eight in the first hour, four in the second hour, and two in the third. About eight minutes per message in the first round, fifteen minutes per message in the second round, and half an hour for the last two. Considering that these messages included forms, polls, spreadsheets, slide shows, meeting invites, and a list of phone calls, it worked out that this was a pretty solid estimate.
If only I hadn’t received eleven more messages during that time slot...
What do you do when you get diametrically opposed advice from two sources you respect? In this case, I’m examining an ongoing debate between Suze Orman and the FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) community.
Think for yourself, I say, although it’s also good to know when you lack the relevant credentials or expertise. Ultimately you’re responsible for your own actions. You can find mutually exclusive advice in any area. What workout should you do? Is chocolate/wine/coffee good for you or not? Should you use Comic Sans on your resume? How should you allocate your investments?
Dithering can be an excuse for maintaining the status quo, for neglecting to take any action. Being confused is not a good reason to abdicate responsibility for your life. Keep reading, keep asking questions, keep checking sources.
The main tenet of the FIRE community is that by living frugally and investing carefully, an average family can become financially independent. The basic numbers that we toss around are a 4% annual withdrawal on a nest egg of $2 million, resulting in an annual income of $80,000.
Suze Orman says that this is disastrous advice, that it will cause young families to quit working decades too soon and leave them defenseless against inflation, disability, caretaking responsibilities, taxes, and other unforeseen cataclysmic expenses. Keep going, she says, and if you want to quit when you have $5 or $10 million, then maybe.
Where am I on this? I think both sides are right, both are wrong, both are leaning at least a little on the arts of rhetoric, and that exposure to more of both sides should be motivational and supportive for most readers.
Suze Orman saved me from poverty. I’ve read all her books, paid to see her on tour, and met her in person. Her message that “if a waitress like me can become wealthy after growing up in poverty, then anyone can” was completely unique in my experience. She personally, she herself, is the reason I’m debt-free, the reason I paid cash for my wedding. I can’t say enough good things about how gracious and brilliant she is and how much I value her legacy. One hundred million, why not? If you say so, Suze. Save a seat for me, I’m going as fast as I can.
On the other hand, it was Mr. Money Mustache who caught my husband’s attention. We’d talked quite a bit about money and frugality and Your Money or Your Life. It wasn’t until he heard MMM speak and saw THE SPREADSHEET that the real possibility of financial independence clicked into place for him. He caught FIRE. We radically changed our lifestyle almost overnight. Two years and a couple pay raises later, we had paid off my student loan and were saving 40% of our income.
Most people probably start out in a similar mindset. We “know” but we don’t ACT because common knowledge is not common action. Information is not motivation. We hear “oh, save money save money” and we grunt and move on, the same as we do when we think about drinking more water or going to bed earlier. It takes the lightning bolt of a clear and personal visualization to make it feel real.
I read Suze and thought, “if a waitress, then an office temp.”
My husband heard Mr. Money Mustache and thought, “if one engineer and a spreadsheet, then another engineer.”
Suze Orman became who she is one step at a time. She seized initiative and took charge of her own life. The further she went, the stronger she became, and the more agency she developed, the richer she got. That approach works.
The young families in the FIRE community who have retired early did it one step, one conversation at a time. They learned basic personal finance and frugality techniques one at a time. They talked it out and tugged each other forward. That process doesn’t stop.
The more you learn about money, the more you build your financial base. The more stable you feel about your finances, the more curious you become about how much more you could do if you try. The more you focus on financial independence, the more opportunities and possibilities you see.
It’s also true that most people are, well, kinda delusional about how much they’re saving, how much their earning power will increase, and how long they’ll stay healthy. Likewise, it’s true that people in the financial services industry have a responsibility to make people nervous so they’ll be more likely to prepare themselves for disaster. That’s why everyone in the conversation is both right and wrong.
My personal plan is based on the assumption that I’ll live to be quite, quite old and that for the last several years, I’ll also be frail and isolated. If I imagine Old Me at 85, childless, perhaps widowed, and reliant on others who only come over for pay, I must think, “Old Me sure would appreciate more money. Let me send her a check.” If I imagine Old Me at 85, a wealthy spitfire with tons of friends of all ages, I grin and start shopping for lavender wigs.
I don’t see the point of “retiring early” at all, actually. Retiring implies a withdrawal from life. My desire is to open a gym when I turn sixty, so I can stay active and inspire young women in their twenties to do the same. I see a vision of Old Me teaching classes and workshops, writing books and traveling around the world to give talks. Maybe it will never happen, but it gives me a good reason to keep stretching and trying to do the splits.
Likewise, my husband is an aerospace engineer. One of the major perks of his job is that he’s called upon to mentor students, interns, and new engineers. He loves it. He’s doing what he’s wanted to do all his life, and he’s good at it, so why would he ever quit? There are “retired” engineers at his work in their eighties who still come into the office because they can’t stay away.
We have a shared vision of contributing to the world far into old age, not because we’re afraid and broke, but because we still have something important and valuable to offer. We save 40% of our income because financial security is so compelling in its own right. There are no good reasons to live on the financial razor’s edge.
What’s the answer? Save two million or five million? Retire early or retire late? Who do you listen to? I say to save the first two million and then check back in. Saving even one thousand dollars is more than most Americans have done. Don’t let an internet argument distract from the core goal. Everyone agrees that financial stability is worth your focused attention.
Just thought I’d put that out there. I’m so inspired by the idea that There are No Overachievers that I just want to sing it right out. WOO!
WOO stands for ‘windows of opportunity.’ Brian D. Biro teaches how to recognize WOO and create more. This type of possibility thinking is uncommon, something that most people aren’t taught and do not naturally revert to. As a default state, it makes a massive difference between one person’s results and another’s. Why do some people seem to have it so easy? Because they understand the WOO.
There are a million things to love about this book. One that stood out to me is the concept of the ‘eager meter.’ What if, rather than being willing to do things, we actually felt eager to do them? I’m writing this one on my hand so I can see it all day.
Another concept that clicked with me was that Biro refers to ‘breakthrough targets’ where most of us would say ‘problems’ or ‘issues’ or ‘obstacles’ or ‘personal failings.’ One of mine is failing to respond to social connections. This has been making me feel like a bad person and a bad friend. When I thought of it in the sense of a breakthrough target, it was like the sun burst through the clouds. This could be a goal rather than a flaw! Goals I know how to handle, my personal failings not so much.
The premise that There are No Overachievers is that we’re all actually underachievers, that we have so much more potential within us. It’s only that we’re so tired and uninspired and conditioned to look for the risks and reasons to avoid things, that we don’t realize we could be living out our dreams. It’s terrifically motivating, a very upbeat book, and I won’t hesitate to say that I loved it.
You never know if the next idea that pops into your head or the next choice you make may change your life.
...Look for the WOO instead of the woe.
Be easy to impress and hard to offend.
Self-discipline has a bad rap. For one thing, it’s boring. There’s just nothing sexy about saving money, eating healthy, being organized, or going to bed early. (Well, maybe that last one). We tend to feel constrained by these external expectations, that the outside world is constantly pressuring us to quit having fun and give up our independence. There isn’t really a model showing self-discipline as an active, creative choice. We can choose self-discipline as a powerful means of personal and artistic expression. We can choose self-discipline as an endlessly regenerating act of love. Self-discipline is kindness, both to self and others.
It doesn’t take much time in the company of small children to realize that discipline usually comes in when kids are either doing something dangerous, or being mean to each other. Hey, no biting! Stop grabbing stuff from other people. Don’t chase the cat. Look out! I’ve had to run full speed after little kids who were about to walk into traffic, toddle into the ring during sports matches, or nearly stumble into a swimming pool or fire pit. Lack of discipline is hard to do without annoying other people or stressing them out. That’s because our actions don’t occur in a vacuum.
This is where we start to realize that our own lack of self-discipline and self-control makes life difficult for others around us. When we’re late and our coworkers have to cover for us. When we don’t pack lunch or a snack, and then get hangry and start snapping at people who have done nothing to deserve it - again. When we allow our standards to slip and drive distracted, endangering everyone around us.
Then there are people like the guy in my building who likes to get drunk in the afternoon, week after week, and sing along to the same The Police Greatest Hits album off his balcony. Live your best life, my dude, but could you do that maybe in the shower instead? Otherwise you’re setting yourself up for an uncredited appearance on my podcast.
I’ve had many, many roommates and neighbors over the years. Some of them have been legends for all the right reasons, and others for all the wrong ones. The ones who steal your leftovers or your laundry quarters. The ones who leave giant wads of hair in the shower drain. The ones who run up your phone bill, and then move out with no notice and no forwarding address. The ones who never, ever do a fair share of housekeeping, the ones who can’t seem to live a single hour with a dish-free kitchen sink. It all comes down to a basic disagreement about where the line ends between our behavior and other people’s rights. When my freedom interferes with yours, then it’s not my freedom any more; it’s my unfairness.
There are also all the ways that my lack of self-discipline is unfair to me, myself. Sometimes Today Me is very selfish and works hard to create problems for Future Me. Tomorrow Me is constantly being expected to pay my debts, sort my papers, and wash my dishes. Past Me, why you so lazy?? It takes a while to realize that if I take action right now, it’s faster and easier and costs less than if I dump it all on Future Me. I do all my housework on weekdays so that Saturday Me can lounge around, sleep late, and do nothing. I do forty pushups so that Next Month Me can do fifty, and so that Summer Me can have awesome-looking biceps. Gifts for Future Me, a Future Me who is hopefully feeling very smug right now.
When I look back at Twenties Me, I usually feel very aggravated. Twenties Me had almost every possible bad habit. She was late everywhere she went. Her bag always weighed ten pounds and she always had neck and shoulder pain because of it. Her desk was always covered with papers and unopened mail. She was always flat broke and devastated by money worries. She didn’t know how to cook, she was as much as thirty-five pounds overweight, and she had constant problems with migraines and chronic pain and fatigue. Forties Me sees almost all of these issues as a lack of self-discipline (although, more charitably, it was a lack of knowledge).
When I get plenty of sleep, it helps me to show up on time, keep my commitments, and treat others with patience and respect.
When I nourish my body with healthy food and plenty of exercise, it helps me to have a high energy level and physical strength and stamina. I’m able to contribute when it’s time to move furniture and do the heavy lifting. I’m more likely to help others in a crisis, when in the past I might have *been* the crisis.
When I’m organized, I meet my deadlines and fulfill expectations. I even have a chance to exceed them, set higher standards, and build my reputation. I don’t waste other people’s time by being late, asking for extensions, needing other people to cover for me, or failing to follow through on what I said I would do. I can take my time and create something amazing.
When I feel like I am accountable for my life, it helps me to manage my commitments. I can pledge my time and attention, knowing I will show up and keep my agreements. I can rely on my resources and energy level because I know what I’m capable of. I never have to inflict my panic or burnout on others.
When I am in charge of myself, when I use self-discipline skillfully, then I know I can be fully present for others. I take care of my own needs and I have responsibility for my own enjoyment of life. Also, I have the room and the means to listen wisely and well. I have space in my life and my heart for those I care about the most. When others need me, I know I can be there. Self-discipline is kindness, to myself and others.
“Don’t overthink it.” This is something I hear in martial arts class all the time, maybe even as often as once per class. I understand why. That doesn’t really make it easier, because what’s happening is complicated, at least from my end. I’m trying to learn what other people have acquired naturally. From their perspective, it looks like I’m adding unnecessary layers of complexity to something easy. If I didn’t overthink it, I wouldn’t still be training.
Overthinking is my way of explaining something to myself that is otherwise confusing.
As the “last kid chosen for team sports,” small for my age and young for my grade, I was slow and awkward. This is automatically reinforcing. Those of us who felt humiliated and out of place in gym class tend to quit exercise for life. Our reluctance to be active in any way, shape, or form means that we deliberately miss out on the hundreds or thousands of instances when other, more active kids are practicing physical skills. We think they’re “natural” at it when really, they just put in 100x or 1000x more effort into this stuff, starting in early childhood.
As adults, when we set out to do something about this sorry state of affairs, we’re trying to build physical and athletic skills that a “natural” or “real” athlete might have mastered by the age of eight.
What kinds of skills?
Internalizing the rules of various games and sports
Vascularity, lung capacity, bone density, muscle strength
Eyes adjusted to bright sunlight
Stoicism as regarding bad weather
Tolerance of boredom and repetition
Linguistic adaptation to jock lingo
Awareness of altered states derived from athletic pursuits
Respect for achievements of athletes, both professional and amateur
Curiosity about one’s own athletic potential
I didn’t have much or any of that as a child, as a teenager, as a young adult. I had nothing but contempt for people who liked that sort of thing, having felt bullied by mean kids and gym teachers. I had nothing but disgust for the idea of getting all sweaty and dirty and somehow being absorbed into some sports cult. I had no idea what I was missing. Now, as an adult, I just really wish I had figured out a different approach.
All I can do now is to be patient with myself and keep trying. That’s why I’m still doing this thing they call “overthinking it.”
To an experienced athlete - I won’t say “natural” because I understand that this is something taught - every athletic pursuit is like dancing. They see and know what to do. If someone throws a ball, they can run toward it and catch it, because they’ve developed their proprioception and depth perception and all of that. They also feel a connection in those situations. If someone is throwing a ball, that is an invitation to a kind of party. My dog would agree. He doesn’t need to overthink anything involving a ball.
An athlete can watch someone go through a set of physical movements and then copy them. Actors are trained in this as well. I remember in grade school that a theater troupe visited and put on a show for us. They invited volunteers from the audience to walk across the stage, and then one of the actors would follow them and mimic their walk. It was hysterical, an innocent and playful trick that involves the same proprioception used by athletes and dancers.
For someone like me, a bookish and late-blooming middle-aged athlete, copying someone else’s movements is really, really confusing and challenging.
This happens in every class. I’ll watch a demonstration between the instructor and a partner, either another student or one of the other instructors. Then we’ll break into pairs and take turns going through the forms. My partner will usually get it right. I will somehow manage to combine the motions of both parties. I’ll strike with the opposite arm, step forward when I was supposed to step backward, step right when I should have stepped left, and on and on. One of my best tricks is to “bob and weave” directly into a punch instead of away from it.
Instructors are always rushing over to help. They can take one look at me - one single look! In one single split second! - and instantly see that once again, I’ve gotten myself all mixed up.
It was the same in ballroom dance. I was trying to learn the basic steps of the rumba. My dance teacher paused and asked what was going on, why I was struggling with this. I said, “My third leg keeps getting in the way.” “Your... third... leg? Your THIRD LEG?” He was incredulous. In my poor overthinking mind, it felt true. I did eventually get it, and in fact with tons of practice I became a pretty fair ballroom dancer. I just had to practice a lot more than most people. I practiced those three basic rumba steps at the bus stop, at work, in my kitchen, while brushing my teeth, hundreds and hundreds of times until it entered my body memory.
I’d do the same with boxing combos if only there weren’t so darn many of them...
I’m not so great at watching someone and copying them. I am pretty good, though, at talking to myself. I’m also good at communicating and asking questions, and I’m not ashamed or reluctant to do so. I can explain, “Oh, I see, I missed that step to the left and that’s why I was striking with the wrong arm” or whatever other blunder I just made. Thinking in text helps me to visualize and remind myself of what I should be doing. Also, I count, just like I did when I played clarinet in band class.
It isn’t hopeless. We’re never too old, or too clumsy, or too awkward, or too dorky. At least we aren’t if we believe we aren’t. We can draw upon our other strengths to help us learn to do these new things. As we keep at it, eventually we find that people think we are “natural” at it as well. Some time after that, maybe it even becomes true.
The reason there aren’t more chronic procrastinators is that we tend to fall into one of three categories when it comes to projects. Finishers, maintainers, and initiators, we tend to fit in one of these groups the majority of the time. The Finishing Game is aimed at initiators because we’re the fun ones.
Finishers like to get things done. They chase the feeling of accomplishment. Finishers will add an item to a to-do list just to feel the satisfaction of crossing it off, even if the item was extremely minor and inconsequential. Finishers also like to boss other people around, trying to get them to finish their projects, even if those projects are nowhere near the circle of influence of the finisher. A finisher may feel organized and in control - because that’s the central goal, after all - while never really moving forward in life or doing anything cool. Finish alphabetizing your socks, and then what?
Maintainers like to get through the day on autopilot. There’s a comfort in routine. I have a friend who has turned down opportunities for promotions at work (read: tens of thousands of dollars of extra income) because his current position allows him to listen to podcasts while he works. I have also had coworkers who would get marked down every year in their annual review because they had no goals for advancement. One wailed, “I don’t want a promotion! I just want to come in, work, and go home for the day.” It’s pretty common, and smart, for someone to realize that a promotion would result in a lifestyle downgrade. When you’re salaried, you usually don’t qualify for overtime. Is it worth giving up your weekends? That’s a question of overall life philosophy. A maintainer at home is likely to be more interested in the process of a hobby than in the finished product. Not so much “I want a knit cap” as “I love to knit.”
My own knitting languished at the same level for several years, until I forced myself to learn to understand knitting diagrams and teach myself at least one new stitch for every project. Suddenly I vaulted from basic k1 scarves to hats, socks, and pose-able toy animals.
Initiators like three things: planning projects, shopping for materials, and learning new things. As soon as we see a path to completion, we tend to lose interest. The vast scale of our daydreams quickly turns into the harsh realization that we’ll be working on this darn thing for months, maybe years! Actually finishing one of our grand creative edifices also eats into the time we’d set aside for our other 87 projects. Finishing all of them? ALL of them?? Why, that would take up years! Years I fully intend to spend dreaming up yet grander, wilder, fancier projects!
The truth is that we’re not obligated to finish past projects. We’re not obligated to finish every book we’ve started or purchased. We’re not obligated to pick out stitches for hours and re-do our work. We’re not obligated to finish projects, even when we’d earmarked them as gifts, especially when those gifts are ages past the occasion for which we’d planned them.
I bought materials for a dollhouse once. I relocated with those materials SIX TIMES before leaning on my husband to help me build it. The kids who were supposed to get it were near college-age at that point. It went to a child who had not even been born when I first saw the plans. (Fortunately, I never told the other kids, or their parents, that I was planning this awesome gift for them).
As dreamers, we’re most into the process of exploration. We’re planners and designers more than we are artisans or producers. The architect, not the carpenter; the engineer, not the mechanic. We’re never going to stop learning new skills, improving our abilities, refining our aesthetic. Because of this, guess what?
A lot of our earlier project “commitments” aren’t worth finishing.
Just because we once decided that something would be a good idea to make, does not mean that this is still true.
Just because we’ve put hours of work into something, does not mean that it would be worth finishing.
Just because an idea once popped into existence somewhere in the ether, does not mean it’s worth bringing it into physical form.
An example of this would be a wedding sampler I began for a dear old friend. I made a mistake on it and put it aside, planning to pick out those stitches on another day. Years later, it still hadn’t gotten done. But guess what? That marriage didn’t survive. When I was culling my old projects, I realized that that $1 piece of aida cloth had about 50 stitches on it, and the design was seriously dated. I threw it in the trash.
Yep. I really did. I threw an unfinished craft project IN THE GARBAGE.
It was biodegradable. It turns out we can do this. There are no project police. Nobody comes for you and hauls you to a dungeon if you quit working on something. You don’t even have to declare bankruptcy if you trash $5 worth of materials.
Culling old projects that have become irrelevant or have lost their luster is the only way to reclaim the energy to finish the good ones. Beyond this, it turns out that waking up to a clean slate with no unfinished projects unleashes an astonishing wave of creative energy and power. No guilt, no boredom, no nagging reminders, nothing. We don’t owe any of our free time to anyone. To ourselves we owe the ability to live in the present moment, without bits of our attention snagged on obsolete past choices.
At some point in the year 2000, I decided to use up all of my accumulated materials and try to finish my existing projects before starting anything new. I wasn’t perfect in implementing this, but I did stop buying attractive yarn or fabric or kits without a very specific project in mind. I went through my stockpile several times, giving away bags of stuff, throwing away bits and scraps, questioning whether I still wanted to make stuff that had appealed to me years earlier. I chose to finish many of the projects in my burgeoning work basket.
IT TOOK TEN YEARS.
Now I’m still crafty. I still have all the skills I ever had. If I wanted to make a pair of baby booties, I could do it this week. I just don’t have any yarn or knitting stuff in my home anymore, not so much as a pair of straights or a set of DPs. As a writer, I can go through my folder of notes and start on anything in there at any time, in the full knowledge that I already have too many ideas to complete in one lifetime. Inspiration is not obligation. This one lifetime is for me to live and enjoy, not to thrash myself because I am more likely to invent new ideas than to carve them into reality.
The Finishing Game works like this:
What will you do when you’ve finished everything? What will you do when you no longer have a towering pile of incompletion in your life? What I did was to run a marathon and learn enough of a foreign language to travel around, buying train tickets and getting directions. What would be more interesting, more challenging, and more fun than the never-ending to-do list?
Change is in the air. Can’t you feel it? I sure can. More than a mystical sense of unseen forces, what I have is rock-solid trend analysis based on tangible physical evidence. Something is about to happen in the Southern California real estate market.
I noticed the first signs at the beginning of summer. I currently live in a beach resort community, close enough to downtown Los Angeles that quite a few people have homes here and commute there. Most days of the week, I ride my bike along a row of million-dollar-and-up beachfront homes. Much to my surprise, I spotted a For Sale sign. Gossip has it that most sales and rentals in our community go through a subscription-only property listing service, and since I’d never seen a For Sale sign anywhere in town before, this caught my attention.
Over the summer, I started noticing more For Sale signs. A couple of these high-end homes are starkly empty, and one is being gutted and remodeled. (That might mean something else entirely).
About a year ago, my husband and I priced out a few of these beachfront homes, just to be funny. The first three in a row went: one million, four million, eight million. These are not special or extravagant homes. They’re... small, for one thing. Anywhere other than on the beach in a destination city, they would look quite ordinary. They also have zero in the way of a back, front, or side yard. Just yellow sand and the Pacific Ocean. Along the same row, though, there are a few large houses that could charitably be described as “mansion-like.”
I have really strong opinions about architecture and interior design, which is part of why I can’t bring myself to take out a mortgage. I can’t commit to a house and I’m just not ready to put the key-ring on it.
Okay, a few empty upscale beachfront properties during a particularly beautiful summer? When unemployment is low and the stock market is high? The economy is booming! What gives?
Eh, what do I know, right? I’m not an economist, nor a financier, nor a Realtor, nor any other profession that starts with a capital letter. I’m just an historian.
Our home is a wee little studio apartment on the other side of the marina from all this splendor. We noticed back in January that the unit next to ours stood empty. We noticed because we wanted that one, and they told us the cabinets weren’t ready or some such nonsense. Now it’s October and still, nobody has rented that unit. Maybe it’s haunted? As each studio gradually emptied of near neighbors, we noticed more and more. We’d been counting: “They must have lost ten thousand dollars on that unit alone this year.” Obviously the rent is too dang high.
We got a survey from a third party contracted by the property management company. How did we feel about our apartment, the management, the maintenance; would we be renewing our lease? I wrote a very detailed series of notes about the design issues that could be fixed, such as our distinct lack of air conditioning, washer, dryer, and dishwasher. I gave the maintenance guys five stars.
Two months later, a crew came in and started gutting the empty studio units. It’s hard not to notice, because they keep running an air compressor outside our apartment, and because the blinds are left open, so we can spy inside. They tore out all the carpet and put down either Pergo or, possibly but doubtfully, actual wood floors. They redid the countertops and the cabinets. They put in new appliances. Earlier this year, they repainted the entire complex, and despite this, went back and began replacing all the wooden balconies. Now they’re completely remodeling the gym. Interesting, we thought, they must be upgrading so they can attract tenants at their desired rent.
Then the real dirt came in. We always make a point of befriending the staff and crew of any place we hang out, not because we are pretentious but because they tend to be nicer than our neighbors. My husband was chatting with the night security guard, who says there are at least fifty empty units in our complex right now!
There are 332 units total.
When we moved to this place, a year and a half ago, rental listings were skimpy and scant. There were only three houses for rent anywhere within our price range, and two were not available for a full twelve-month contract. As far as we could tell, there were about four empty apartments for rent in the entire city. That seemed weird, since it was wintertime and the summer-only rental market wasn’t in play. Today, well, it looks like we can pretty much have our pick.
We also noticed an empty house for rent up the street from our place. A house! A house with a yard! It’s a 2/1 and it has a detached garage. It’s going for a few hundred a month less than the two-bedroom townhouse units in our complex. Hmm. If it weren’t for the $7300 fee for breaking our lease, we might consider it... which makes us wonder how many of our neighbors are also simply counting the months until they can escape and get either lower rent or a nicer place somewhere else. In town, in Nevada, in...?
We’ve been planning to move when our lease is up. We’ve been planning that since before we actually moved in to this studio; it’s just a temporary part of our long-term financial strategy. Now we’re starting to wonder if we can negotiate a significantly lower rent on one of the two-bedroom units with a sea view. We’re even starting to wonder if the real estate market crash is on its way, in which case maybe we’ll hover like vultures and wait to buy our own place.
Real estate is like any other market. Sometimes values drop and never return, because the neighborhood declines. A house is not a smart investment for everyone, and it can in fact cause financial ruin and devastation (like marriage) if made at the wrong time for the wrong reasons. If I owned a house right now, I’d operate under the assumption that we are just over market peak, and if I weren’t selling it like, this week, I wouldn’t plan to sell for the next three-four years. If I planned to buy a house (which, maybe) then I would also hang out and watch for an opportunity sometime within the next year or two.
“Are you an underearner?” The opening sentence of Earn What You Deserve should give you a strong hint as to whether you need this book. The rest of the first page should confirm it. For the right person, it could be galvanizing.
Jerrold Mundis is relatable, at least to broke people. He describes digging through his couch cushions for enough change to buy food for himself and his son. After years of recovery, and even years of being completely debt-free, Mundis keeps finding himself on the financial brink. He describes his condition as self-created lack.
Underearning, in this formulation, is something you do, rather than something that happens to you. It can apply to people from every field, every socioeconomic level, every educational level. It comes in three types: Compulsive, Problematic, and Minor. It can also be active or passive. The key is understanding that money alone can’t solve the problem of underearning. Pattern recognition comes first. What is it that we do that is different from what other people do?
Earn What You Deserve has enough practical financial advice in it to help even a complete novice figure out where to start. How do you set up accounts, categorize your expenses, pay off debt, negotiate a higher income? There are also some really excellent and even quirky ideas for negotiating with a partner. Apparently one of the chief signs of underearning is that we blame it on our mate rather than taking responsibility for our own end.
There’s no harm in exploring a book like this, even out of curiosity and skepticism. As Mundis explains, you don’t have to do anything or change anything. You can always go back. Why, though, go back to underearning? If you earn “too much” you could always slough it off and give it away, right?
No matter who you are or what your living conditions, this is precisely how difficult your own situation is—more difficult than some, less difficult than others.
Money is a highly charged subject. And most of the emotions people feel around it are negative: fear, shame, embarrassment, anger.
Worry and fret never swayed a single decision in your favor, paid off a penny of your debt, or brought in a dollar’s worth of income.
Breakups can be hard to explain. It can feel like we owe not just the disappointed partner an explanation, but the entire world. It can feel like we’re only allowed to break up with someone if we have a “reason.” Like, what did he do? If he didn’t “do” anything, what happened? It’s like firing an employee and worrying about a lawsuit. Romance isn’t like that, though. Either you have strong feelings for someone, or you don’t. Either the relationship is mutually satisfying, or it isn’t. It can’t be mutual if you aren’t feeling it on your end. Respect, affection, and love are the bare minimum. Respect is probably the most important of these, and without it, no real love relationship is possible.
If you realize you don’t respect the one you’re with, it’s over.
Looking back at my early dating life, now that I’m a married person, I realize that Young Me put up with a lot of absurd behavior. What built the marriage I have now is that my dating standards gradually improved over time. I quit tolerating a lot of bad behavior, making me more selective and helping me to recognize when I met someone I could appreciate and admire.
The truth is that young people will generally all act alike until external pressures cause them to be more accountable and responsible. A lot of common dating problems come from someone just being immature, sloppy, and selfish. These aren’t personality traits, they’re bad habits. Given higher expectations, many people will pull themselves together and stop acting that way. Given a permissive, forgiving enabler, they may carry their juvenile antics decades into the future.
As an example, I had a boyfriend when we were both teenagers. One day he called me on the phone and accused me of stealing money from him! I was outraged. I yelled at him and hung up. Later that day he found the missing twenty in his pants pocket and called me to apologize, but I hung up on him again. He made his mom drive him across town where he showed up at my door, crying.
Imagine a pair of forty-year-old adults in this scenario. It’s almost impossible.
When I started looking backward for examples of times when a boy lost my respect, they popped up, one after another. Some were mine, some belonged to friends, some were just hopeful suitors. One way or another: grow up, boy!
The one who got tired of waiting in line at a convenience store and shoplifted a soda
The one who stole my laundry quarters
The one who never, ever washed a dish, cooked a meal, or did a chore
The one who admitted that he didn’t use soap in the shower
The one who let his mom pick out his furniture - and he was thirty
The one who shoved his laundry and clutter into his hall closet when guests came over - also over thirty
The one who drank malt liquor at 8 AM
The one who asked me over to watch him play Halo
The one who wanted me to drive over and clean his apartment on weekends
The one who admitted to $40,000 in credit card debt, with no plans to pay it off
The one who was married “in France, so it doesn’t count”
The one who sat and watched me pitch the tent, set up camp, and make dinner while cracking jokes about his own incompetence
The one who had his own apartment, but no bed, and just slept on the couch with no sheets
The several who had their own place but no soap or hand towels in the bathroom
The ones who hadn’t been to the dentist in eight years (translation: Mommy quit taking me)
The one who ate breakfast cereal, toast, or grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner every night
The one who replied to my online dating profile with two emails, one addressed to me and an identical one addressed to someone else
The one who hadn’t filed his taxes in three years
The ones with no shower curtain who just let water pool on the floor
The one who proudly shared about yelling at a major client at work, unprovoked
The one who took me on a surprise outing to the country to attempt to buy an illegal firearm
The one who gave my phone number to his friend after I broke up with him
The one who neglected his cat
The one who stole painkillers from his parents’ medicine cabinet
The one who got drunk and threw up in the bushes
The one who used the same pickup line on my friend as he had used on me a few minutes earlier
The threshold for romance - the barest minimum standard - is for someone to act like a mature adult, not a teenager or a child. This is why it stands out so much when someone old enough to vote has poor personal hygiene, doesn’t clean up after himself, and can’t or won’t cook a proper meal. You can’t be a lover to a man when it feels like you also have to be his parent.
Another non-negotiable is personal values. I can’t respect someone who steals, especially small amounts, because with standards that low, where do they stop? I can’t respect lying or any kind of dishonesty, whether directed at me or anyone else, because again, how can you communicate without trust? I can’t tolerate breaking the law, because that puts me at risk, as well as my friends, family, neighbors, pets, and anyone else in the line of fire. It’s also dumb.
I don’t like being around people who are in an altered state. That’s my preference. It’s not worth anyone’s time for an ascetic like me to hang around people who like to get drunk and party.
I have no use for players and never did. Knowing that some boy is looking over my shoulder, hoping for a better opportunity, never worked for me.
Being worthy of respect isn’t complicated. Simply give your word only when you intend to keep it. Be responsible for your own material needs, clean up after yourself, and live intentionally. Have some kind of consistent ethical standards. Be willing to stand up for what’s right and speak out against what’s wrong. Tell the truth about your life. Simple, right?
Clarity around what we can and can’t respect tends to change things. Those who aren’t interested in meeting a higher standard will simply drift away. Those who remain are the ones who make solid friends. Among them may be some options for reliable mates, and among them, maybe one who will rise to meet your expectations.
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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