A "dinger" is a recurring expense. Think of a cash register going DING! There is an increasing trend of various subscription services charging small amounts every month, in the $5 to $15 range. These expenses can add up very quickly, and they're hard to notice even for people who examine their bank statements closely. Often we forget that we're paying them, and the small monthly fee never seems like a big enough deal to go to the trouble of canceling the service. Frugal people are naturally very skeptical of these dingers. As with all frugality skills, this is a trait that can be developed.
The changing nature of television consumption is an example. The average cost of cable TV is now $103.10 a month, and slated to increase. At that price, a year of cable exceeds the cost of a round-trip airline ticket to virtually anywhere in the world. Anyone who has pay cable and complains about not being able to afford a cool vacation should take a look at that dinger. It's possible to cut the cord and pay for other, non-traditional services. HBO NOW is $15 a month; Netflix is $10; Hulu may start as low as $6. Some households may be paying for all of these! It adds up. A frugalite would take the monthly cost of entertainment and divide it by number of viewing hours. At five hours a day, it's a relative bargain. For someone who rarely watches TV, or uses one of these services, the dinger probably is not worth it. My husband and I finally canceled Netflix when we realized that the disks would get dusty on top of the TV before we watched them. We were driven more by a sense that we "should" get through our playlists than any real desire to spend an hour or more in front of the tube every night.
A gym membership is another classic example of a dinger. Gyms make almost all of their money off people who sign up and then stay home. Many gyms would founder if every paid member showed up even once a week, much less for an hour a day. We like to divide our gym membership fee by visit. Thinking of it this way makes it feel as though the more we work out, the cheaper it gets. That's technically true. At $40 a month, going once a week is $10 a workout. Going five days a week makes it $2 a visit. If I paid for yoga lessons at a studio, instead of going to classes at our gym, the expense would be greater than both our memberships put together. But then, we love the gym and see it as a home away from home. Thanks for not working out - it keeps our costs down and makes the weight machines available when we go!
The dinger isn't everything, of course. There are externalities: the additional ramifications or consequences of acting a certain way. If we canceled our gym memberships in favor of extracting the maximum value out of a cable TV subscription, things would happen. Our necks would get stiff, our energy level would drop, and we'd feel older that much faster. On the other hand, if we canceled cable in favor of spending more time at the gym, other things would happen. We'd get stronger and have better posture. We could take the money we saved off cable and use it for an awesome vacation. We'd be fit enough during the trip to walk several miles a day and climb infinite staircases. Paying attention to the little details helps when we find a reason to start paying attention to the big stuff, too.
(Full disclosure: we have never had a cable TV subscription during our entire marriage, but we have spent three weeks in Iceland, almost two weeks in Canada, and two weeks in Spain, among other trips).
The dinger I care about the most is for the storage unit. Storage units drive me up the wall. I can't believe that so many people pay so much to keep their stuff locked up where they can't even see it! I recently talked to someone who had spent - I am not making this up - $40,000 over the past decade on storage units. That would be a nice chunk of change for a retirement account, no? Or a down payment on a house? Neither of which this storage unit renter actually has. I was also asked to do an intervention on someone who has no fewer than three storage units and is on the brink of eviction. (NB: This doesn't work; people can't be made to change, even by circumstances). I hate to be the one to tell you, but people are not allowed to live in storage facilities. WHY would we pay more to keep a roof over a bunch of old junk than over our own heads? This may seem like an extreme example, but remember, we have no idea how long Future Self will be able to work or how long we'll need to stretch our retirement savings. This is what we're doing with our dingers on entertainment, services we don't really use, and hoarding all the old stuff we don't use either. We're robbing our own Future Selves of security and comfort.
Where does it all go? A landline that only gets sales calls. Magazine subscriptions nobody reads. Ad-free this and that. The shiny black screen that dominates the living room. The gym where we never go. The storage unit we never visit. Memberships to places that might really improve our lives, if we ever went there or made use of them, such as museums or national parks. The point is not to pinch every penny and sit on a cardboard box staring at the wall. The point is to make sure that our money is going to improve our lives on a daily basis, both today and in the future.
If you ever studied a foreign language in the classroom and came away without any practical conversational ability, this is the book for you. Janina Klimas explains exactly what is wrong with traditional language teaching methods, based on her own experience in becoming multilingual and teaching languages for decades. Learn ANY Language is a pragmatic, encouraging book written in an engagingly casual style.
The problem with foreign language classrooms is that they focus on grammar, move too quickly through advanced material, and offer very little that would be helpful in basic conversation. I have studied five languages in the classroom, as well as tried to communicate with locals in a foreign country, and I can attest to this. Almost everything you need to learn for your first trip to a new country revolves around travel itself. Explaining where you want to go, buying tickets, making change, spelling your name, reciting numbers, correcting mistakes in taking down your name and number, getting directions, hailing a cab... The amount of vocabulary you need on your first day is almost inversely proportional to what you will need in a casual chat with a friendly local.
Learn ANY Language is absolutely loaded with helpful resources. Not least of these is a section of study cues for different levels of language proficiency. This is how foreign language textbooks should be designed! Much of this book revolves around study strategy. Why are you studying a language? What kinds of things will you want to talk about? Textbooks tend to have model conversations about topics that are irrelevant for most people. When I was in Spain this spring, for example, we needed to be able to ask whether we could pitch a tent at an RV park and whether a store sold a certain type of propane canister. Some conversations are complicated in our native language, much less in a new language in which we don't know any specialized vocabulary. Looking at sample sentence topics really helps to clarify what we most need to learn.
Klimas advocates for appeals to schools and governments to redesign foreign language programs, and I agree. The way language is taught now is akin to dumping calculus on third-graders. Another issue is that classrooms focus on "correcting" speech errors, rather than encouraging confidence and fluency. We make mistakes in our own native tongues every day, yet we are still understood. People are generally pretty nice when this happens, no matter what language. They're just glad that we're making an effort to try to talk to them and reach across the linguistic divide.
Learn ANY Language is a quick, enjoyable read. It is aimed at anyone who has been frustrated and disappointed by previous attempts to learn a language in a standard classroom. The book includes some great graphics and illustrations of various students' study tools, methods that actually worked in developing real-world fluency. I highly recommend it. Learning a foreign language is the most commonly kept New Year's Resolution. Why not try it out and allow yourself to fall in love with foreign languages all over again?
Do you have to change anything when you're single and hating it? There's an old saw about marriage. Men get married thinking their wives will never change, while women get married thinking they can change their husbands. I have no idea how this is supposed to work in non-traditional, non-hetero-normative marriages. What I can say is that being in an established relationship in no way stops the process of change, from both internal and external pressures. Might as well get a head start on it while you don't have to take input from anyone else.
"I'll still be the same person." This is a top concern for people with a fixed mindset. I'll consider changing my attitude at work/getting organized/losing weight at some future point, but only as long as I'm still the same person when I'm done. What I want to know is, why on earth would I want Future Self to be exactly like Past Self? What past age was I supposed to get stuck at? Am I supposed to stay as weepy and inclined to write poetry with a purple felt tip pen as I was at age 14? Am I supposed to be as bad a cook as I was at 18? Is it a requirement that I keep managing money as badly as I did at age 22? Should I have the same attitude at age 70 that I had at 35?
What's the point of aging then?
Getting older but not wiser is the path of pain. Repeat the same mistakes over and over again so you can live the same consequences as many times as possible. Be self-absorbed. Resist feedback from all sources. Always put yourself first, except when it comes to making choices that lead to better conditions for Future Self. At the end of the game, it's easy to wind up broke, ill, and lonely, even then not realizing that change is the solution. It always was and it will always be. Change is what we do with the power of free will.
Change doesn't even require free will. A wild animal will move away from negative situations without giving it a second thought. A wild animal will eat biologically appropriate foods and maintain peak physical fitness, because those are survival traits. A wild animal cultivates social bonds, because that is also a survival trait. They accept and reject potential mates based on... something? They focus on earning a livelihood from the moment they wake up. In a sense, they're organized; either their lives are effective or they're not alive for long. If only I could be as perfect as a worm or a bluebird for one day.
So what do we change and what do we not change? The ultimate goal is to be the best version of you. If that's a snarky, sarcastic you in jeans and a t-shirt, so be it. Keep going until you are satisfied with yourself. The corollary to that is to be satisfied with the Right Things. Does it hurt other people's feelings, infringe on their personal bubbles, or annoy them? Quit doing it. That has nothing to do with romance or dating, but it will affect your chances. Make it easy for people to spend time with you, or, if that's too much to ask, at least convince yourself that it's worth making the effort for one particular person.
Married people annoy one another all the time. We refuse to go to bed at the same time, and then make a bunch of noise while our long-suffering partner is trying to sleep. We insist on hashing out arguments at bedtime or later. We make messes, leave them there, and then get all snotty when it's brought to our attention. We nag. We refuse to apologize. We spend money in secret and we eat the last of the pie without sharing. We put on the ring without any sense that we should try to be good roommates. The First Law of Marriage is that you are precisely as annoying as your partner, only in a slightly different way. Changing yourself first is the only way to nudge your partner into changing, and even then, it's almost guaranteed not to work. The only possible change is self-change.
That's why it's best to change as much as possible before marrying. That way, the person you meet will be at your level, the highest level of which you are both capable. Improving after marriage is making yourself incompatible with your old love. I've seen long-term marriages capsize many times over this. One partner gets fit, gets an advanced education, starts making significantly more money, develops an artistic skill, or whatever. The other partner doesn't change at all. Even though one person is now theoretically more attractive and interesting, boom, divorce. Now we have to add to the plan: change as much as possible before marrying, and marry someone who also is dedicated to growing and improving.
There are many comforts to long-term love. Inside jokes. You can almost read one another's mind and speak in shorthand. You can order for each other in restaurants and you know how to cook each other's favorite meals. You can give each other massages correctly. You can take care of each other when you're ill, which is usually out of sync by a couple of days. Someone is generally on your side. The most valuable thing a mate has to offer is the capacity to notice and tell you when you're off track somehow. We call each other out on our BS. We shore up each other's confidence and remind each other of our best selves, sure. Those are good things, too. But everyone really needs a truth mirror, and a long-term romance is probably the one with the clearest surface and the best lighting.
My husband and I started changing each other before we started dating, before any romantic feelings even developed. I talked him into saving more in his retirement account. He taught me how to get better at shifting gears in my car. I convinced him to switch from iceberg lettuce to darker greens. He talked me into getting rid of my storage unit. Since we met, we've lost a combined total of over fifty pounds. The more we changed, the more attractive we became to one another. One day, we realized it would be foolhardy to ever let each other go. How would either of us ever know how far we could go without the other's counsel and support?
Most things don't require change at all. Listen to whatever music you want. Wear whatever you want. Read whatever you want. Make friends with and hang out with whomever you want. Make your own decisions about your career arc, your personal electronics, your fitness plan, whatever. You still get to have your favorite color and vote your own way when you're dating. Where it helps to change is in how we communicate, what moods we tolerate in ourselves, what attitudes we cultivate, and whether we take responsibility for our own lives. Still yourself, just the self that is easier to get along with.
We're a couple of days into our first juice fast. I'm going along in solidarity with my husband. This project is what I refer to as a Fact Finding Mission; it's one of many that I've undertaken out of a spirit of curiosity. I prefer to find out what something is like for myself, based on direct experience, rather than my inner sense of resistance. I'm not a true believer, not yet anyway. I thought our experiment might provide useful information to both skeptics and the hesitant.
The first thing to share is that in no way could I have guessed what fasting felt like from observation. We've both been on diets, generally not at the same time, and it's similar. It's similar to other ordeals, such as Finals Week or caffeine withdrawal, which may have been undergone and then largely forgotten. It's a human failing not to have much sympathy for others, whether they're suffering something we have suffered and overcome or something with which we're unfamiliar. Doing this fast together helps us to remember that we're both struggling.
The second thing to share is that it's not really as bad as all that. We're hungry but functioning. The big thing is to remember to start preparing the next juice, soup, or salad on schedule, because delaying by an hour or more turns into crashing. We're doing about double the food prep that we do for ordinary meals. My husband has to make his next day's pitcher of juice after dinner, as well as packing up his breakfast and lunch, so the first day was front-loaded with extra effort.
I used to have a second-hand juicer, which I eventually gave to a friend. It created a great deal of pulp. We went out and bought a high-end blender, which is technically a different beast. It is about ten times easier to clean than the juicer and there's no pulp afterward. This was a good decision.
The juice itself tends to look scary and taste fine. This may be because it IS fine, or it may be because we eat a lot of cruciferous vegetables already. I'm really not sure whether a picky eater who hates vegetables could get behind this. It's not just the juicing part but also the vast salads and the vegetable soups. You're literally eating nothing but fruit, vegetables, herbs, and a little salt and oil, so if you hate those things, it probably won't work out. (But then, consider whether your default is working out...)
On the second day, I walked five miles, went grocery shopping, did three loads of laundry, moved some furniture, and made four separate dishes. This surprised me somewhat. When I went on a strict calorie-cutting diet, eating the same number of calories as on the juice fast, I felt lethargic and mopey. There is definitely something to be said for ingesting massive amounts of micronutrients and fiber, as opposed to subsisting on tiny portions of more ordinary fare. (A packet of oatmeal, a tiny sandwich, a single piece of fruit, and a dinner salad or other measured, minute quantity).
Fasting has a gendered aspect. A big, hockey-playing, chainsaw-wielding man such as my husband, who has an advanced degree, can go on a strict fringe diet and make it look like little more than an interesting athletic challenge. Such stamina, such dedication! A small-framed, delicate flower of femininity such as myself sends more of a message of insanity, body dysmorphia, or narcissism. All I can say is that I know my own mind. I've done all sorts of things out of curiosity, from riding a mechanical bull to jumping over open flames. What I've found is that my own physical limitations have yet to be reached. Every time I try to do something, it turns out that I can do it. That includes running a marathon.
Concern in our culture over excessive weight loss is so strong as to approach hysteria. Perhaps this is because 70% of us are overweight now, and even 25 pounds overweight looks small. Perhaps this is because most of us don't like contemplating at what age we will develop diabetes, if we don't have it already, and so we turn our focus toward health problems at the opposite end of the spectrum. This taboo aspect of physical transformation is part of the fascination for me. So few people know about the experience of being not-fat now that it's become alien and alarming. Perhaps a bit of reassurance is in order. According to the charts, I would have to lose a full 15 pounds to be underweight, and that's not happening in such a brief time period. Even if I did drop a dramatic amount of weight, say from food poisoning, I can gain a pound a day without even trying. This is not a project that is likely to result in permanent harm, or even short-term harm. My goal is not to lose weight or to look a certain way, but rather to share an experience with my husband. Although, when my goal was to lose weight, I did it and have maintained it for two and a half years. No crazy was gone.
Athletes do it all the time. Actors do it all the time. Spiritual practitioners from most, maybe all, religious traditions do it all the time. Pre-Industrial people of every culture did it every winter, and do it still, in an unbroken chain that goes back before human history, before human prehistory, and undoubtedly all the way back to the beginning. Animals in the wild cannot rely on steady access to a standard amount of calories every day, in all seasons. Occasional, unintentional fasting is the way of the world for all life forms. Occasional, voluntary fasting is a common cultural trait.
Both of us are over forty. We look around and see that almost everyone we know in our age range relies on pharmaceuticals to live. We have a dozen friends who rely on medical appliances, either for diabetes or for sleep apnea. There always seems to be someone we know who is going into surgery or recuperating from it. This is nervous-making. My husband just filled out a questionnaire for his health insurance at work, and it included the question, "How many medications are you on?" There was an option for "5+." Neither of us have been prescribed anything. Our blood work has come back in the healthy range the entire time we've been together. Deviating from the Standard American Lifestyle seems to be working out pretty well for us so far. The older we get, the more we start looking for healthy role models who are rocking it at our age or older, and the more willing we are to make habit changes.
Our initial commitment to this juice fast is for ten days. I will of course report back on the results.
Thanksgiving in T-minus 15 days! This is a great time to start clearing space in preparation for the great Thanksgiving Fridge Tetris Tournament. We need room in the refrigerator, we need room in the freezer, and we need all the food storage containers, too. Anything in there that is trying to evolve into intelligent life needs to get its spore-covered self out of there. Otherwise, where are we going to put the PIE?
I've started a new tradition, which is that on New Year's Eve anything left in the fridge gets emptied out. I have found five-year-old mustard in the door before. Those shelves are like the kind of cavern where a shepherd stumbles across lost ancient manuscripts. Except those jars are priceless and mine are pointless. Why do I have two jars of capers? Now that I'm asking, why do I have seven flavors of salad dressing? Hopefully the stockpile in my fridge won't take more than two months to consume, but November and December are such busy holiday months that we should be able to do it. That especially includes the perishables.
Cleaning out the produce bins can be an exercise in guilt. Aha, so this is why I can't button my pants. The ice cream is at eye level and the vegetables are down by my shins. Come on. Whose idea was this? I solved that problem by breaking the rules. The lowest produce bin is for the goodies. The middle section is for the fresh produce, including the Watermelon Shelf. The eye-level shelf is for stuff that Needs to Get Eaten Up (a top frugality concept). Whenever I meet people who claim to "hate leftovers," I know for a fact that they have debt and money troubles. If you hate leftovers, you're not eating the right stuff, because a lot of things are best on the third day. Pot pie! Lasagna! Soup! At this time of year, if you claim to hate leftovers, well, that's just not even patriotic. What kind of American doesn't prolong Thanksgiving at least through Saturday? Leftovers are the reason for the season!
The other thing about the scary produce drawer is that it has hidden lessons. I need more recipes for this vegetable. I need to make a meal plan. I need to pack a lunch and snacks. How is it possible that I can spend so much at the grocery store, let most of the produce spoil, and then waste all this money on vending machines and drive-thru? The secret behind this depressing pattern has to do with blood sugar levels. When we're hungry, our minuscule amount of willpower becomes entirely depleted and we can no longer make decisions. We fall back to the default. Then we reward ourselves for bad choices and quit taking any calls from Future Self. "Hey, Past Self, what are you thinking? You're already in debt and your freaking pants won't fit, and so your big plan is to spend money you don't have on junk food? Nice. Thanks for nothing." This is why I think we need a national plan for nap breaks and an official high tea. I mean, at minimum. At my house I have both second breakfast AND second lunch, and that's why I work for myself.
Thanksgiving tends to make me go a little nuts. I will cook for three days. I've been known to prepare more dishes than there were guests. This is why I've pushed back my planning time further and further. I can't bear having to make (and eat) the same menu every year, so I do a deep dive into my vast cookbook collection and try to narrow it down to my top 25 picks. I have a steamer table, a set of extra burners, an ice cream maker, and a crock pot that all wind up getting put to use. Seriously, it's out of control, and that's not even including the trifle. I know I'm going to need every cubic inch of space in my fridge, and that's why I'm starting to clear it out now. That way, when I start hearing the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy playing in the background, I'll know I'm going to win the Fridge Tetris Tournament.
These are stories I've heard a thousand times. The siblings who are no longer on speaking terms due to a fight over an old photo album. The adult children who are making claims on furniture and china while their parents are still alive. Entire branches of a family tree ready to go to court over an old ring. These are just the material objects. We call them 'heirlooms' but they're really more like grenades or land mines, ready to rip generations to shreds, shrapnel piercing hearts.
Let's not even talk about the money.
Estates are the most dramatic, but hardly the only examples of the way that we prioritize mute, soulless housewares over other human beings. We continue to have to be told "first people, then money, then things" because we don't truly believe in it. We love our shiny stuff, don't we?
Get into a fender bender. Feel burning rage over the damage to the vehicle, rather than weeping with gratitude that everyone survived. Hello, precious stranger, can we hug? Because I couldn't bear the thought of your blood in the gutter. I'd never sleep again. Oh, by the way, I am also so sorry about your paint and fiberglass. Now that would be an interesting world to live in.
House is on fire. Airplane is on fire. Ferry boat is sinking in the sea. How many times, how many times, how many times do people try to get out with their luggage? How many exits have been blocked because someone had to try to save the camera or the laptop? We know better. We've seen so many movies. We understand disaster. Yet there's always someone whose first thought is to save the shiny stuff. Sorry, sir, your children are going to have to die today because MY STUFF.
Crisis brings out our true natures. Most of the time, though, we're blessed with boringly ordinary days. So many days. All our loved ones are accounted for, everyone still alert, walking, with full use of all limbs and senses. It's too much to ask to expect us to be grateful for this. Only after something goes wrong do we finally understand that appreciation was called for. There's nothing external to prompt us to get our priorities straight. Why should we ever put people before things? Or especially money?
People come to me, contemplating divorce because of a specific stack or pile belonging to their hoardy spouse. "Have you told him how you feel?" "Have you asked her to work with you on this?" "Why do I, a relative stranger, know you are preparing to end your marriage when your spouse doesn't?" The stuff is blocking emotions on both sides. The hoarder never reaches out to connect, can't discuss THE STUFF without getting defensive or throwing a hissy fit. The tolerator never tells the truth about those dying embers of love. How can a pile of papers or a stack of boxes have the power to kill a marriage? I'll never understand it, but they can and they do.
Not everyone I meet is ready to do the work. I always recognize "my people" on contact. They'd be lucky to ever meet anyone else as unfazed or sympathetic toward their living situation as I am. I have seen some serious stuff in my time. If they're not ready, though, they're not ready. When they're at a One or a Two on the Readiness Scale, they always sound the same way. They're not prepared to acknowledge that they have any part to play in their financial situation, their state of health, their career growth, their living environment, or their social life. Talking about these things tends to make them irritable and defensive. There is nothing harder to bear than to find that one of the central dramas of your life is a routine pattern faced by many others. I don't want information! I want sympathy!
The broke person who is paying for a storage unit. The broke person who has a stash of "valuable" (?) collectibles yet refuses to sell. The broke person who could be renting out a spare room, yet it's full of stuff. The broke person who keeps buying stuff, even if it's from the thrift store or the library book sale. The broke person who might be able to get a job in a different city, but relocating is completely unthinkable due to the stuff. The broke person who could cover the cost of renters insurance, or some other bill, by selling off some of the excess, but will never do it. I know someone who literally sold blood plasma rather than sell off some collectibles. Things, then money, then people, even when it's oneself.
The single person without so much as a single drawer or shelf that could be used by a partner. The single person (or married person) who would rather break off the relationship than get rid of any of the stuff. The single person who is more comfortable with objects (including books) than other humans. The single person who would rather stay home than go anywhere and risk meeting strangers. The single person who is substituting the company of pets for the company of a life partner, and boasting about it.
The unwell person whose kitchen is unusable due to clutter and squalor. The unwell person who does not have enough floor space in any room to do a simple physical therapy exercise. The unwell person who sits in a crowded house and tolerates chronic pain rather than seek treatment or make any lifestyle changes. The unwell person who would have to do forty percent more work to clean around a cluttered house, and so does nothing. The unwell person who fights constant respiratory ailments in a house full of dust, mold, filthy floors, and pet dander.
It's hard for us to see the connections when we're in the middle of them. The connection between clutter and financial hardship. The connection between clutter and debt. The connection between clutter and petty squabbles. The connection between clutter and loneliness. The connection between clutter and health problems. We don't see it. Those moments when we behold a shiny, shiny object can hold us in thrall, so that for a brief moment, we forget all our troubles. We can get so caught up in the minutia of a thousand shiny things that we never pull back to look at the overall pattern. We put things first, so we don't notice what's going on with the money, so we feel this overwhelming sense of scarcity or desperation. This tends to prevent us from fully attending to another person, from opening up, from seeing that this is a fellow human who may need us more than we need anything or anyone else at the moment.
If we knew how, we could find more joy in camaraderie and friendship than we do in all the dumb ornaments and contraptions with which we surround ourselves. If we allowed ourselves to feel it, the love and companionship available to us would fill us up in a way that shopping and collecting never can. If we could manage it, if we could put other people first for even a minute at a time, we'd find that we could get by with very little money and very few material possessions after all.
Designing Your Life permanently changed my outlook. I studied history, which is more or less the exact opposite of the design field, so its impact may have been unusual in my case. There were several points that arrested my attention with their insight into decision-making. I found myself doing the exercises with real vigor.
The first thing that caught my attention was the finding that 80% of people don't know what their passion is. Thus, the idea that we're supposed to follow our passions leaves almost everyone feeling like a failure right out of the gate. Failure is good, though, in the design world. It provides information about what is supposed to be only one iteration among many. That's why one of the exercises is to imagine three completely distinct versions of your own life over the next five years. When I did this exercise, I discovered to my surprise that one iteration felt both slightly distasteful to me, yet simultaneously more in line with my core values, than another.
The book distinguishes between two types of problems: gravity problems and anchor problems. Gravity problems include the fact that it's hard to get rich as a poet. Anchor problems happen when we attach ourselves to only one acceptable solution, a solution that is not possible in the current situation. This was such a transformative concept to me. I was also struck by the distinction between failures that are screw-ups versus problems of weakness. Was it a simple mistake or did it come from a character flaw? That is going to blast a lot of excuses out of my head, let me tell you.
The indecisive among us should pay close attention to the material on decisions. This is because "if you have too many options, you actually have none at all." Analysis paralysis means none of the options are being chosen, and thus none of them are becoming a reality in your life. As a very decisive person, this makes perfect sense to me. If every choice seems equally attractive, then it truly doesn't matter what you pick, and hesitating is just drawing out the frustration of not being able to decide.
Another concept was the distinction between finite and infinite games. A finite game has an ending, like planning a wedding or losing weight. An infinite game goes on forever, like developing your personal ethical code or doing laundry. This is a really helpful idea. It can help us resign ourselves to the perpetual choreness of life, while also indicating that certain projects can be gotten out of the way more quickly if we focus more.
One chapter is entitled "Failure Immunity." This scans with the concept of "obstacle immunity" from Spartan Up!. Apparently this is a thing. We're just going to have to start toughening up and changing our outlook on problems.
My only issue with the book was that it started out by offering to answer questions such as how to find a job you like and how to balance career with family... but then said it couldn't answer the question, "How can I be thin, sexy, and fabulously rich?" Well, gee, why ever not??
Favorite quote: "Designing something changes the future that is possible."
Willpower, or lack thereof, is what we inevitably blame for not following through on what we want out of life. That's when we're smart enough not to blame other people. It's my contention that the real problem is postponed decisions. Only when we know exactly what we want can we start moving toward making that happen. Even when we've clarified our wishes, decisions will have to be made.
'Decision' means 'to cut off.' That root 'cis' is the same as the root in 'scissors.' To make a decision is to permanently remove other options. This is panic-inducing for many people. What do you mean?? Do you mean that if I choose the pizza, I can't have the sushi?? Do you mean that if I marry one person, I can't marry someone else?? Do you mean that if I take this job offer, I have to tell the others "no, thanks"?? Aaaaaaah! I can't take this pressure!!! How do I deciiiiiiide?
What we don't realize is that refusing to make a decision is like spending your life inside a revolving door. It goes around and around and around. You see all kinds of options... but then you revolve past them... but then other options come into view... but then you revolve past them again... It feels like action is happening, and it can take a very long time to realize that this is only an illusion of progress. All that needs to happen is a choice to step out of the revolving door on one side or the other.
Decisions are permanent, but they're also temporary. That means if we choose a new job, and it doesn't work out, we can always move on to another place. If we choose a new hairstyle, and we don't like it, the hair will grow back and we can get a different hairstyle. If we move to a new place, and we don't like our neighbors or something, we can move again. If we order something off a menu, and we didn't like it, we'll never order it again, and there's another meal opportunity in just a few hours. We're choosing, we're cutting off all the other options, but we're not stuck. We're never stuck. At worst, we realize that this particular thing before us is not our favorite. The more decisions we make, the easier they become, because the list of options that we consider acceptable gets shorter.
It's a lot easier to choose from three flavors than from thirty flavors.
Clutter definitely comes from postponed decisions. "I might need this later" is a way of saying that "I simply refuse to make a decision about this right now." Later. Later. Later. I'm putting this thing in a pile, and that means I'm neither repairing it, ironing it, sorting it, throwing it away, delegating it, returning it, cleaning it, filing it, nor using it. A pile of papers or laundry is merely a visible manifestation of a larger problem, which is that of defaulting to indecision. Every day, I'm going to sit right here and not like my life all that much, while the postponed decisions pile up around me.
Don't like your job? Postponed decision.
Not comfortable in your own skin? Postponed decision.
Place is a mess? Postponed decisions.
Ambivalent relationship? Postponed decision.
On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being AWESOME and 1 being 'unacceptable,' everyone levels out at what feels familiar. Some people will push until they feel like a 5 all around. I'll be alone before I'll settle for less than a delightful relationship. I'll work out until I'm at my desired fitness level. I'll keep honing my skills until I have my dream job. I'll never stop until I'm at my best. Others will somehow tolerate a 1, such as being physically abused, and never breathe a word to anyone or ask for help. There is no mystery here; they simply feel like their fate in life is to suffer. They can't imagine anything better and they don't know how they would get it. (Answer: go to the nearest neutral person and ask "can you help me?"). Most of us fall somewhere between a 2 and a 4. Right now, I'm a 4 person, but my '4' is another person's 5, I know it, and I'm grateful for it.
Most decisions don't matter at all. What color of toothbrush should I get? What flavor of jam should I try? Ankle socks or knee socks? I refuse to spend more than one millisecond on decisions of this nature. If I choose "wrong" I'll just choose differently the next time. These are matters of taste preference, and if you have none, then it truly is not important, to you. We need to save our decision-making energy for the big, strategic decisions. What is my life's purpose? Who is worthy of my love? Where will I live? What do I want out of my personal environment? What is my heart's desire?
The saddest thing to me is that most people don't seem to have a heart's desire at all. Not one that they are aware of, not yet, anyway. We don't know what we want to do with our lives. When we think about what we want, the answer almost always starts with: NOT THIS. The list of things I Do Not Want is at least a million items long, but there's no point spending time thinking about it. I don't want to sprout antlers, interesting though it might be, but the only thing worth doing with an anti-wish like that is to make it into a Halloween costume. What DO I want? I want to strengthen my hip flexors. That's an objective, well-defined wish, and with a wish like that I can make a plan of action. 1. Find appropriate hip flexor exercises. 2. Do them regularly. Now a decision has been made, and I have a freshly empty decision-making slot.
Learning to be decisive is so dramatic and powerful that it can feel like changing an entire personality. Maybe it does. It's not always a quick shift. Figuring out how to want specific things, instead of focusing on what we don't want, takes practice. In the meantime, we can put on our emotional training wheels and practice on the easy stuff. Make one simple decision that feels low-stakes. Throw away the oldest or grossest thing in your fridge. Get a bag and put in one piece of clothing that doesn't fit today. Look at a picture of baby owls and choose the cutest one. As you gradually cut away more and more unimportant or useless options, you develop a stronger sense of what matters to you. It becomes easier and more rewarding to choose one thing while abandoning others.
My great-grandmother always said, "If you can read, you can do anything." This made sense to me at six years old, and it makes even more sense now. We have the Internet! The information is available at our fingertips. We can find out HOW to do anything. Action steps are not the problem. All that we need is to choose one extremely specific thing, and then acting on it will feel natural and obvious.
Remember film? Remember when taking pictures used to be expensive and meant for special occasions, just like long distance phone calls? Hmm. If you're under thirty, you probably don't. Take my word for it - it was just as complicated as listening to music used to be. Photographic evidence of what we really look like may have been more significant and revelatory in that time. Seeing yourself from an external perspective can be as weird an experience as hearing a recording of your own voice. Is that really me? Comparing a photo to our inner image of ourselves can snap into focus that we've changed, that our outsides don't match our insides.
Change is proof that change is possible. Unfortunately, we tend to believe in external change - that things happen to us - but not so much in internal change - that we have the power to make things happen. This is why so many of us believe that body weight naturally goes in only one direction. Worse, we believe in Old Age, the idea that as we get older, we slow down and become frail and ill. There is only one fate possible, and that is a fate of pills, surgery, pain, and debilitation. There are relatively few positive role models of aging toward strength and grit. Most of us may never have met a single elder person who is stronger at 60 than in younger days, and we don't really believe such things are possible. Must be genetic.
The thing is that the body is continually renewing itself. Even brain cells continue to grow with age. We aren't surprised when we get paper cuts, and they miraculously heal without even leaving a scar. We aren't surprised that our hair and fingernails continue to grow. Faced with evidence that our bodies are malleable, we don't make the connections. We don't truly believe that we have any choice or input about how our bodies work.
We'll tolerate chronic neck and shoulder tension, sleep deprivation, or regular migraines because we assume that these are just the price of the ticket for being a working adult. Life is hard, life is stressful, therefore we must walk through each day with at least a certain measure of pain. When we see our own faces reflected back to us with stress lines and circles under our eyes, shoulders slumped in weariness and care, we see exactly what we expect to see. Disappointing, but whatcha gonna do. It's this same fatalism that has us routinely eating foods even when they disagree with us later, overindulging and staying up too late even when we feel punished the next day, gaining weight every year, hating it, but feeling like this is just what happens. Dammit, body of mine, why can't you just be awesome for once? Oh well. Pass the brownies.
Hold up a baby picture, a graduation photo, and a selfie from today. Instant timeline. This kind of timeline feels real. A "before and after" timeline feels fake, partly because we know how often they are faked. Who's to say that the "before" and the "after" are even the same person? Only when we've made our own personal physical transformations do we understand that major change is possible for anyone. The way I look today has nothing to do with how I looked a year ago, or how I'll look next year. It isn't carved in stone. Maybe I'll always be short, but I do have control over my posture. I can also control my sleep schedule, my hydration and food intake, and my strength training routine, or lack thereof.
I don't photograph well. A kind friend tactfully said that I am "difficult to capture on film." That's fine. I feel like I would not have enjoyed being a "10" in life, and now that I'm over 40 I just can't care that much. I look how I look - I look like myself. I feel that I look like myself even though I look so different than I did in my teens and twenties. That sense of identity felt exactly the same when I was fat as it does now. I've spent at least a year of my adult life wearing each of eight clothing sizes, and I always felt the same. There I am, that's me. The biggest difference is that I have more energy now. I'm measurably more physically fit than I was at every age from 15 to 30. I run faster, I can lift more weight, I have greater endurance, I can cover more miles, and I can do things I couldn't do when I was young. I can spin a hula hoop, do a pull-up, and climb a rope. I couldn't do any of those things until after I turned 35. Who cares how I look, when the experience of being in my body is so much improved?
That's the trouble with photographs. A sweetly smiling facial expression can hide total inner turmoil or deep sadness. A cranky frown could be the result of trying to smile into the sun on an unusually happy day. Pictures can be deceiving. Our pictures of our own bodies can be deceiving, as well. We feel like we simply ARE a certain way, physically, whether that includes poor body image or a poor state of health. We forget how much we changed in our first decades of life, and we think that at a certain age, positive physical change quits happening. What we don't know, what we can never see, is how far our timelines extend into the future. Each day is simply one snapshot in the series. What if another snapshot a little further ahead showed a stronger, more vital self?
Watching the 2003 documentary Packrat, one scene in particular captivated me. The child of a hoarder is contemplating getting rid of her own excess possessions. She worries that people she knows will be mad at her if she gets rid of anything that they later find out they could have used. Nobody specific seems to come to mind; there's just this generic sense of Someone. This Someone has more right to make decisions about her belongings than she does, apparently. It's a brief scene, but it has a great deal to say about the strange boundaries involved in hoarding.
In a world that makes sense, everyone has a certain amount of privacy in a certain amount of personal space. Other people don't intrude on that privacy and they don't touch or interfere with the space or the belongings that are kept there. Each member of a household also shares common areas, such as a bathroom, and is equally entitled to use the space and fixtures of these common areas. This has to be explained, because many of us did not grow up in such an atmosphere and never lived such a simple, mainstream reality.
I have my room, where I sleep in my bed and store my clothes. You have your room, where you sleep and keep your things. We share a bathroom, where we each have our own toothbrushes, combs, etc. We share a kitchen, where we share the stove, counters, sink, table, fridge, etc. I don't go in your room or use your stuff, and you don't go in my room or use my stuff. I don't store my things in your room, and you don't store your things in my room. Neither of us keeps our personal possessions in common areas, unless we're actively using them. We can walk down the hallways, use the stairs, use the sink, use the laundry area, and find things when we need them. If you want to get rid of a bag of used books or clothes, or throw out your trash, I don't care or say anything, and vice versa.
In the world of hoarding, none of those straightforward household boundaries make any sense at all. They are not allowed. The hoarder controls all the space, including both common areas and personal areas, others' possessions, and others' trash. There is always a "reason" why the hoarder "needs" to store things on all the tables and all the counters, in someone else's bedroom, on the floor, or on the stairs. If you ask for a reason, that is. Generally, the stuff will just appear in the area where it doesn't belong, with no explanation given. The only rules are FILL ALL THE SPACE, GET ALL THE THINGS, GET MORE THINGS, and HOW DARE YOU TOUCH MY THINGS.
In my professional experience, I've found that most people aren't formally taught how to keep house. In some cases of hoarding and squalor, the hidden goal is to repel visitors and stake an undisputed claim on the territory. I knew a hoarder who kept his car filled with trash up to the windows, and claimed that this would deter car thieves. (Fair point). In other cases, the physical labor involved in ten minutes of scrubbing a tub or mopping a floor is too much for that person's fitness level. In others, it's more of a cognitive burden, and thinking through a plan or organizing information or objects is too much. Anyone who grows up in such an atmosphere of belligerence, exhaustion, or confusion will be hard-pressed to make sense of the material world in adulthood.
The question of "mine" vs. "not-mine" can appear complex beyond belief.
It's like this.
If you're paying the rent, you make the rules.
If you're an adult, you get to decide where you live and how to maintain your personal environment.
You're allowed to come and go as you please. If you don't want to live with someone, you can move away. If you don't want someone living in your home, you can kick them out.
If you bought something, you can do whatever you want with it. You can move it from place to place. You can get rid of it. You can chop it up with a chainsaw or fling it over the roof with a catapult. You can set it on fire. You can sell it. You can spill food on it. You can polish it and put a plastic slipcover on it. You can tie-dye it or store it upside down. You can get two of it and stack one on top of the other. Your possession, your responsibility, your choices.
If someone gave you something, it now belongs to you. You don't have to keep it. The giver no longer gets any say in what you do with the gift. If you love it, you can cherish it and treasure it. If you feel that the "gift" was secretly intended to manipulate you, you can have a conversation about that, or not. You can sell it. You can give it to someone else. You can do the same things to a gift that you can do to something you bought for yourself. It's yours now. It's up to you whether to keep it or get rid of if. Nobody else gets to decide.
If something is yours, it's your job to keep track of it. Don't try to put your stuff in someone else's space. If you have furniture stored at other people's homes, call them and make it a formal gift, or figure out a way to take charge of it sometime in the next week. If you have random boxes stored at someone else's place, including your parents', take care of it. You are only entitled to the space that is your space, not the space that is someone else's space. If you can't afford your own home, selling off your stuff is probably the most practical solution. If you can, but your home is too full, something has to go. How is a bunch of stuff supposed to help you improve your situation, anyway?
Many of us are taught to believe that STUFF IS VALUABLE. Stuff stores our memories. Stuff represents our personalities. Getting rid of stuff is murdering the soul of a person who has died. Whenever we would try to make a mark on what we believed was our own personal space, we would be corrected, lectured, or guilt-tripped. We never learned a way to determine our personal tastes, how to create a personal environment that exactly reflects our preferences. It wasn't allowed or thought of. Thus, most of our stuff showed up by happenstance. It was given to us, we've had it since childhood, we inherited it, it was on sale, someone was giving it away, or someone left it here. We don't know how to make sense of it. We don't realize that we can take charge and subtract or add whatever we want. We don't realize that we can put our priority on the room itself, rather than the million and five trinkets and gewgaws inside it.
The idea that "someone will get mad" if I get rid of something is quite common. It's mostly seen after someone has died. Anyone who is grieving a complicated relationship with unresolved quarrels is exponentially more likely to feel like this. Grief clutter can stack up for decades. Sometimes clearing an estate involves two or more generations of clutter that accumulated in this way. This melding of boundaries, this idea that other people's emotions will be activated by interacting with objects, is very close to the idea that the stuff itself has feelings. Really, it's just stuff. It's designed to be used. Storing it in a box, stack, or pile prevents it from being used.
What's the worst that can happen if someone gets mad, anyway? They yell at you? They gossip to other people about you? They quit talking to you for an undetermined period of time? These are all common forms of manipulation. If you let them work on you, they'll keep working. You're allowed to shut down drama and ignore it. You're allowed to move on. You're allowed to get rid of things. You're allowed to care less about material objects than other people do. You're allowed to make your life about more than stuff, buying stuff, storing stuff, looking for stuff, talking about stuff, and fighting over stuff. You're allowed to do what you want. You don't even need permission.
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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