New Year’s Resolutions are the absolute key to my happiness and success in life. This year, I’m offering a workshop called ‘Resolutions for Skeptics’ (update coming soon!) and sharing my process. What follows is a summary of my resolutions for 2018.
A resolution is a process goal, while a plain ol’ regular goal is simply something specific to complete by a specific deadline. Goals and resolutions work best in tandem, and they work even better when they’re just subsidiary parts of a larger project, quest, dream, wish, lifestyle, vision, or mission.
My intention is to be a slightly better person every year. I want to contribute more, annoy other people less, be emotionally present, expand my skills, explore new ideas, do life experiments and stunts and fact-finding missions, go on adventures, and see more of the world. My ultimate goal is to be a cool old lady with a lot of great memories.
To start, here is a summary of my plans for 2017 and how I performed.
Personal: Follow a set schedule. SUCCESS
Career: LLC. CANCELED
Physical: P90X, run five miles. SUCCESS
Home: Digitize, downsize, minimize. SUCCESS+
Couples: WDS, homemade pickles. SUCCESS
Stop goal: Stop being the last person to pack up my tent. SUCCESS
Lifestyle upgrades: Phone and work bag, tent. SUCCESS
Do the Obvious: Transform my appearance. SUCCESS+
Quest: BE RIDICULOUS. Um, SUCCESS+++
Wish: Pay off my student loan. PROGRESS
This year, I’m adding a theme, which I will describe as a mantra. This is formalizing something I had been doing informally without really realizing it.
I always start with a personal goal, something that will seriously push my limits. For the last few years, I’ve been deliberately going after something that sounds awful, something completely contrary to my inclinations and preferences. What I want is to search and destroy my inner resistance and demolish my fears. I started with running, which I despised utterly until I fell in love and ran a marathon. Then I went to public speaking, which made my knees buckle and my whole body shake, and still does about 20% of the time, even though I routinely win Best Speaker ribbons now. After that I went after my inability to live in the Time Dimension, forcing myself to keep early hours and follow a set schedule. It is abundantly clear to me that finding and fighting my resistance is the most valuable thing I can do, even though the first few months are always dreadful, scary, unfun, and unfairly difficult.
This time, I was narrowing down my choices to voice lessons, SCUBA diving, and martial arts. (I will probably do all three of them at some point, but in no particular order). I had the opportunity to meet a top-level personal trainer. In a brief chat, he shared why he wanted to learn public speaking and I shared my goal-setting process. He said that the potential downside of diving was that ‘if you screw up, you die.’ Good point. I shared that I had a ‘research obstacle’ because there are so many disciplines of martial arts. He suggested jiu jitsu because it’s designed for small people to fight off large people. I followed up with my own research and found that this was a very sound recommendation. Successful people are virtually always helpful with advice, and can often sum up years of experience with a single brief sentence.
Personal: In January, I plan to visit a few martial arts schools in my area, including jiu jitsu, Krav Maga, and MMA. My initial choice will probably come down to class schedules and the charisma of the teacher, because all the martial arts practitioners I have met have studied multiple disciplines. (Thus, it doesn’t matter where I start; I just start). I probably would have made these visits already, but by the time I settled on my direction for the year, all the schools were on hiatus for the holidays. This project is freaking me the heck out. There are dudes in the website photos whose necks are almost as thick as my waist!
Career: I’m working on business goals that I can achieve solely through my own efforts, while remaining location independent. This year, my plan is to launch a podcast. Why this? There are like forty billion gazillion podcasts already! This project is about expanding my speaking skills and putting forward something that already feels like an entity in its own right. I already have the microphone.
Physical: I’m going light in this category for 2018 because my personal goal category includes built-in workouts. I am scheduled to do the Shamrock Run in March. I also strongly need to build more stretching into my daily routine. Why would I deprive myself of this?
Home: We got a notice that our property manager wants to 1. Increase our rent by 8% and 2. Offer no more than a ten-month lease while 3. Not making any upgrades to the facilities. Our mutual home goal is to decrease our rent. We’re within bounds for our budgetary goals, but we find this rent increase to be ludicrous and not in line with our goal for financial independence.
Couples: We have a couples goal of going on an international trip together. This takes focus all year, because we have to make the plans, get the tickets, save the money, and also conserve my hubby’s vacation days.
Stop goal: Every year I choose something that I want to stop doing. This is always either something I do to annoy myself, or something I do that unfairly impacts others. In 2018, my stop goal is to stop losing focus on incomplete projects. I need to either choose to cancel the project permanently, formally reschedule it, or finish it. No more vague clouds.
Lifestyle upgrades: I struggled to come up with anything this year! It’s time to upgrade my laptop to something that can handle the audio editing software I want for my new podcast.
Do the obvious: I’m a member of two Toastmasters clubs, and I always get feedback that I need to slow down and pause more often. This is even more true when I’m speaking naturally in casual conversation! I’m wondering what will be different if I can force myself to pay attention and successfully slow down. This technically could work as a stop goal, in the format “quit talking so fast.”
Quest: I have a major life goal of visiting every country in the world, which is not quite possible right now because an American passport won’t get one across every existing national border. So far I’ve been to four continents. I’d like to visit a fifth continent, and this year, let it be Asia. (If I suddenly get an attractive invitation to go to Antarctica or South America, though, I’m taking it!)
Wish: To find an amazing pet sitter who loves our dog and our parrot. We used to have several friends who were willing to stay at our house and watch our pets, even for weeks at a stretch. When we moved out of the region, we never really found anyone new to fill in.
Mantra: A mantra should be a theme for the year, a short, easily memorable slogan that you can repeat to yourself, put on the lock screen of your phone, wear as a piece of jewelry or a tattoo, or write on sticky notes. This year my mantra is to PAUSE AND BREATHE. This ties in with my main public speaking focus and also with my curiosity about meditation.
Personal: Explore a martial art
Career: Launch a podcast
Physical: Run Shamrock Run 2018, build a daily stretching routine
Home: Lower our rent
Couples: Go on an international vacation together
Stop goal: Stop losing focus on incomplete projects
Lifestyle upgrades: Upgrade laptop
Do the Obvious: Speak more slowly, with more pauses
Quest: Travel in Asia / a fifth continent
Wish: To find an amazing pet sitter
Mantra: PAUSE AND BREATHE
For the past 20 years, I have done a New Year’s ritual that includes a review of the old year. Tomorrow I will post my resolutions for the New Year. Reviewing the past year should include appreciation for happy times, celebration of milestones reached, and acknowledgment of mistakes. This is how we figure out how to do fewer dumb things while putting more energy into what worked. This is also how we continue to make the connection that we have the powers of free will and attitude adjustment, no matter what fate throws in our path.
Our 2017 started badly. Really badly. We both rang in the New Year with a nasty cold. On my hubby’s first day back to work, he found out he was laid off. Almost immediately afterward, he was diagnosed with a squamous cell carcinoma in the middle of his cheek. This was very scary because his mom had died of cancer barely six months earlier. While he got an amazing new job offer shortly afterward, we went through a brief period fairly described as HOMELESS WITH FACE CANCER. Yay, neat. This would have been the worst time to lose one’s health insurance ever. Thanks to Obamacare, my husband was able to have the cancer surgery even while unemployed. He started his new job with a 2” gauze pad on his face. Now he’s fine, with barely a scar, and the moral is: WEAR SUNSCREEN.
Then our dog got a corneal ulcer (that’s Latin for “expensive veterinary emergency”) and had to wear a cone while we were packing to move. Strangely, I got a scleral abrasion in my own eye (same side) a couple of months later, although they didn’t put me in a cone.
Fate is weird.
As of January 6, all our carefully crafted resolutions and goals and projects and plans for the New Year were upended, thrown into the air like a chessboard at the rodeo.
In March, we found ourselves living in a beach resort. My husband got a promotion, a raise, and a team of four engineers, two lab techs, and two interns. He now goes to work in a private office with a door. Denhams always land on their feet.
You can choose to confront your fears proactively, or you can try your best to avoid them. Either way, life is coming at you in an endless tidal wave of BS. This is the point of the annual review. What do you still have control over, even when everything sucks?
I did something that was really difficult for me, something I had feared and avoided for many years. Even though I was scared, for the very first time, I finally tried... a breakfast burrito. With mango salsa. I loved it and now it’s one of my new favorites.
Highlights from 2017:
Went to my grandmother’s 80th birthday party!
My brother got married!
Moved to the beach
Did not lose sight in my eye
Finally prevailed in four-year tax dispute after being summonsed by the City of Los Angeles
Attended World Domination Summit for the second time
Taught my first workshop
Camped in the Grand Tetons
Saw a pair of sandhill cranes
Saw a sage grouse mama and her chicks
Saw the eclipse in its totality, in a clear sky
Spent our wedding anniversary in Las Vegas
Became a Competent Leader in Toastmasters
Became a club officer in Toastmasters
Competed in two speech competitions
Completed the work for Advanced Leader Bronze in Toastmasters
Doubled the readership on this blog (thanks, guys)
Published 1044 pages on this blog (261,069 words)
Published a blog post every business day in 2017
Made my activity goals every single day of 2017
Maintaining a 383-day move streak
Averaged 11,054 steps per day in 2017
Read 336 books (101,132 pages, or an average of 300 pages each)
Personal: My personal goal was to follow a set schedule. For the achievement of this goal, I can thank my adorable upstairs neighbors, who so charmingly run appliances at 7 AM, even on weekends. They even vacuumed their bedroom at 8:30 AM on Christmas morning, right over my head! Wake up, sleepyhead! This is a reminder that external circumstances are what they are. They’ll either give us a tailwind and push us along, or give us a headwind to make us stronger and more focused. There’s nothing like having 1500 near neighbors to instill patience and bring home the need to always be considerate of others. Also, I was right that having a more consistent daily schedule, contrary to my nature and proclivities, would make me more productive. This one is a keeper.
Career: My career goal was to form an LLC. This seemed like the obvious next step in January 2017. This became a non-goal for various reasons. 1. Prototype tools were not able to meet our production needs, even after multiple revisions. 2. Business model and viable product pricing did not cover cost of production, much less profit. 3. Bad timing for all parties concerned. 4. All parties had other business interests that were equally or more compelling. These were all very valuable lessons, worth more than the sunk cost of money and time that we had already invested. The moral: Just because there is a market for a product, does not mean it can be supplied at a profit. My takeaway is that I now understand the process of forming an LLC and feel that it is straightforward and simple.
Physical: My physical goals were to get back up to running five miles and to do P90X. Then, less than a week later, we found out we had to move, and we wound up in a tiny apartment with only 3’ of space in front of the TV. I am back up to running the five miles (5.5 as of December). I also signed up for an 8k in March. Oh, and? It turns out you can do P90X even when you only have about enough space to roll out a beach towel. I literally just finished a workout 20 minutes before posting this so I wouldn’t have to say I never tried. There is no ‘done’ in fitness. They say your max today will be your warmup one day, and I know that’s true.
Home: My home goal was to ‘digitize, downsize, minimize.’ I had NO IDEA WHATSOEVER that we would be living in a 680-square-foot apartment with one closet just two months later. We downsized our entire yard, garage, and several truckloads of stuff. Now I know that if we were given the opportunity to travel the world or live on a yacht for a year, we could be ready over a long weekend.
Couples: Our couples goals were to go to WDS and to make homemade pickles together. Then we had to move, yadda yadda. Our pressure canner won’t fit on our stove because there’s a microwave installed in the cabinet above it. We did of course attend WDS, and we bought our tickets for WDS 2018, too. And we’re still testing recipes for refrigerator pickles. After taste-testing at least five different brands of store-bought pickles, we simply aren’t satisfied. The quest for a mutually enjoyable luncheon garnish continues. When circumstances interfere with your goal, modify, improvise, and brainstorm with your partner.
Stop goal: My stop goal was to stop being the last person to pack up my tent on camping trips. I did go camping and I did succeed in not being last! The key was to solve my problem of refusing to get out of my sleeping bag until it was “warm enough” outside.
Lifestyle upgrades: I wanted the upgrades of fixing our tent after a raccoon tore it up (done), getting a new work bag (done), and upgrading my phone (done). I also got the extra upgrade of moving to a beach resort. This goes to show that however grandiose your wishes, Spirit always has something extra in the bag for you. Plus I got to keep my eye and my husband didn’t die.
Do the obvious: My ‘do the obvious’ goal was to transform my appearance. I did this by getting a frantic, last-minute makeover for my first game show audition. The results were so stunning (especially for my husband) that I went straight home and learned to straighten my hair. While I am alienated and annoyed by the concept of “beauty” as applied to women’s fashion, I wish I had spent some time learning this stuff twenty years earlier. It has about 1000x more impact than it deserves for about 1/3 the effort than I had assumed.
Quest: My quest this year was to BE RIDICULOUS. This was the absolute stupidest quest I have ever chosen. Remind me to be exquisitely careful about choosing my words from now on. I had planned to spend the year doing amazing stuff like taking exciting risks and learning to solve a Rubik’s Cube while riding a unicycle. Instead we got “homeless with face cancer with a dog in a cone,” followed by “cut my eyeball on a bird-of-paradise plant and have to get a tetanus shot.” I did audition for two different game shows, so that’s something ridiculous for you.
Wish: My wish was to pay off my student loan. This has not quite happened yet, but I did pay off 1/4 of it in one lump sum! I also voluntarily increased my monthly payments by 50%.
To sum up: I made all my goals for the year, even though we had a lot of disaster and chaos, with the exception of my stated business goal and my wish. My external surroundings have been utterly transformed. I was also crazily productive, to the point that I’m having to reexamine how much I can get done in a year. My biggest takeaways from 2017 are to make goals that can be accomplished 1. Regardless of location and 2. Without the participation of any other specific person.
Personal: Follow a set schedule. SUCCESS
Career: LLC. CANCELED
Physical: P90X, run five miles. SUCCESS
Home: Digitize, downsize, minimize. SUCCESS+
Couples: WDS, homemade pickles. SUCCESS
Stop goal: Stop being the last person to pack up my tent. SUCCESS
Lifestyle upgrades: Phone and work bag, tent. SUCCESS
Do the Obvious: Transform my appearance. SUCCESS+
Quest: BE RIDICULOUS. Um, SUCCESS+++
Wish: Pay off my student loan. PROGRESS
The best reason to make positive personal changes is that we can’t make anyone else change, no matter how annoying they are. What are we going to do with all that pent-up change energy? The person who cuts in line, the person who parks crooked, the person who is trying to prove the existence of auras by wearing a cloud of body spray - none of them are going to do anything about themselves. They’re too busy feeling annoyed by everyone else. WHY do other people insist on getting to the store before me and standing in MY line? WHY do other people insist on parking in the spots next to where *I* want to park? WHY can’t other people simply appreciate my gift of extreme fragrance? Start with the assumption that you are exactly as annoying as the people who annoy you, and you already have your hand on the doorknob of spiritual enlightenment.
It’s all about the categorical imperative. Act in such a way that, if your behavior became universal law, you would endorse it. If you floss your teeth, you’re saying that everyone should floss their teeth. If you’re nice to animals, you’re saying that everyone should be nice to animals. If you tap your pen, you’re saying yes to a mass cacophony of pen-tapping, synchronized to such a degree that it might vibrate in harmony, triggering an earthquake or possibly setting off a volcano.
Now, how about a list of nearly-universal pet peeves, at least one of which each of us is obviously doing, but would never admit (or possibly notice).
Taking up more than one parking spot
Leaving your shopping cart in your parking spot
Leaving used diapers in your parking spot
Texting and driving
Letting your dog poo and walking away like it didn’t happen
Talking on your cell phone while making commercial transactions
Burning microwave popcorn at work more than once per lifetime
Microwaving leftover fish at work
Sticking gum under tables, chairs, or anywhere else
For that matter, chewing gum at all
Clipping your nails at the coffee table (and leaving nail bits for us to step on)
Leaving containers of moldy leftovers in the fridge
Leaving laundry baskets of “clean” clothes for the cat to sleep/pee in
Mowing your lawn at 7 AM, especially on the weekend
Vacuuming your bedroom first thing in the morning when I live downstairs from you
Playing loud music off your patio
Loud arguments in hotel rooms
Leaving paper covers on the seat after leaving a public restroom stall
Talking about politics at work (unless that is your literal job description)
Exploding stuff in the microwave and leaving it for someone else to clean up
Defending your kid for being a bully
Letting your dog jump up on people, especially strangers
Thinking that being a troll or griefer is funny
Publicly shaming people for misusing punctuation
Letting your kid kick the back of someone’s seat
Shouting at cashiers, baristas, waiters, or any other person just trying to do their job
Putting your bare hands in the bulk bins at the grocery store
Flicking your fingers under the tap instead of actually washing your hands with soap
And one from me: Posting pictures of food on social media. I want to see you, not your dimly lit plate
Please stop doing these things! Love, Everyone Else
Are you excited? I’m excited! I did my New Year’s planning yesterday, because I just couldn’t wait any longer. It reinforced my strong sense that most people fail at resolutions due to their planning process, rather than anything inherent in New Year’s Resolutions themselves. As a culture, either we’re saying that most of us have weak characters or that it’s humanly impossible to make positive changes. Since New Year’s Resolutions work for me, either pop culture is wrong or I’m some kind of mutant.
Either way, please tune in to my webinar!
Now, let me try to anticipate some questions.
Q: Why a random weeknight?
A: Closest I could get to New Year’s Eve without trampling on other December holidays.
Q: Why 6 PM Pacific Standard Time?
A: There is no time slot that would work for all of my readers around the globe. I tried to pick a time that would work for North Americans and Australians.
Q: What if I can’t watch it then?
A: I’ll offer a recording for download later.
Q: Do I have to sign up somehow?
A: Nope. You can subscribe to my YouTube channel, though, in case I do more webinars in future.
Q: I hate New Year’s Resolutions.
A: That’s not a question. You are excused.
Q: I disagree with you.
A: Good! Nobody agrees with everything I say, including me. I wouldn’t want it any other way. Mine is one contrarian opinion among hundreds of millions, and my expectation is that I’ll be received merely as one voice in the choir.
Q: What next?
A: I’m offering a workshop that will drop this weekend. Those who want to try a New Year’s planning process are invited to join. Details to follow. Tonight’s webinar is an opportunity to hear what I sound like and get a sample of my teaching style.
Throughout this week, I’ll be posting about the turn of the year. To follow:
Resolutions We Wish You’d Make
And on Monday:
As a rule, I don’t update this blog on holidays. New Year’s Day is my one exception. Let’s start the New Year off right!
I’m lying. I have no plans to stop at 329 books this year. I’m also not counting books I began but haven’t finished yet, articles read, or podcasts played. My problem is much worse than reading 329 books.
This is me being vulnerable. I am not proud of how much I read. I know better than to try to impress anyone, because I’ve been down this road before. I read 500 books in 2009, just to see if I could. That was back when I kept a book blog, with a whopping 38 regular readers. When you admit that you read an absurd volume of books, questions start popping up.
What were you reading? Comic books? (Yeah, sometimes)
Did you speed-read? (No, although I know how)
Did you actually finish all of those books or are you making it up?
I have nothing to prove. If anything, my life would have gone much easier if I had found a way to look like a normal person, someone whose life was not dominated by books. I’d also have more friends if I drank coffee and beer, ate bacon, and had a tattoo. I am who I am, and that’s an unstylish, sort of freaky loner who strongly prefers reading to almost every other activity.
I don’t think other people should try to read as much as I do. It’s actually a really, really bad idea. Okay, it’s probably a bad idea. Okay, if you’re willing to make radical changes and you have a bias toward action, it might possibly be a fabulous idea, but only if you don’t do it the way most pernicious readers do.
Pernicious reading! That’s reading that keeps you sedentary and preoccupied, distant, disengaged, chronically stuck and surrounded with a backlog of basic life tasks.
What I do differently is that almost all my reading is coupled with positive action.
My secret is that reading is the reason I do most other stuff. If I have a good relationship with my husband, a respectable level of productivity, visibly competent physical fitness, and an orderly house, then nobody can fault me for kicking back with a book. In other words: LEAVE ME ALONE, I’M READING.
I read 85% of the time while I work out. (The rest of the time is doing standing-desk work on the treadmill, or exchanging brief chitchat with my husband before he turns on his headphones).
I read 100% of the time while I clean house, and about 90% of the time while I prepare meals. I also read through breakfast and lunch.
Reading is the way I reward myself for getting my daily checklist checked off. Reading is the way I occupy myself while my husband is reading textbooks or designing a new arduino project or making robots or whatever the heck he’s doing. Reading is the way I manage my travel anxiety while I’m on a plane. Reading is my pacifier.
If I read less (in English), I could use some of that time to practice my listening skills in one of the other languages I’d supposedly love to learn.
If I read less, I could be learning to play classical guitar like my childhood idol, Charo.
If I read less, I could be writing more, although, to be fair, I’ve published 258,471 words so far in 2017 on this blog alone. That’s equivalent to 1,034 pages. *THUD*
I’ll never quit. I tried once. I made a resolution not to read any books for a month, and it was awful. It was AWFUL! I was so depressed. I cheated by reading the newspaper at lunch and by listening to audio books while I did stuff around my apartment. That was back in the days of 1x speed, too. I did get more done around the place, like cleaning out closets, but once that was finished I couldn’t point to a single benefit of quitting my lifelong habit. What did I think I was going to do, start watching TV? Go to a bar?
Reading is the best thing there is. It’s the most efficient way to extract thoughts from bright, creative people all around the world, even people who died centuries ago. Pick up a book and you get the filtered, refined, polished, edited, best thoughts from people who thought of things you never could. I can thank novels for turning me into a civilized, urbane person. I shudder to think of the barbarian I might have been.
About 40% of my reading is non-fiction. This is the stuff that tends to change my life in more immediately obvious ways. At least once a month I stumble across a totally new way of looking at a situation, a better way of doing things, or a piece of information that stops me in my tracks. It’s reading non-fiction that has enabled me to fix my parasomnia problem and become a marathon runner.
I read a lot of books. I’m also sort of a jock, and that never would have happened if I’d had to spend all my workout time concentrating on my breathing and my muscle soreness. Give me a break. Exercise is excruciatingly boring. With books, though, I can do it and enjoy it. I’d never be able to hold a sixty-second plank if I didn’t have a book or magazine on the floor under my nose.
So how do I do it? Let me remind you again that I said not to, that trying to read 300 books a year is a bad idea unless you use it to improve your life in at least one other routine way.
I scored a 790 out of 800 on the verbal portion of the SAT. This is completely due to my early, addictive reading habits. Reading has made me a patient, disciplined person. It’s probably kept me out of a certain amount of trouble, since I have generally preferred to go home and read rather than go out and party. There’s a lot to recommend it. Of course, reading has also made me a huge dork.
Can you read 300 books in 2018? Gosh, I hope not. If you do, though, use it as your tool to a stronger, more active body, a cleaner, more organized home, a romantic partner who has more personal time to relax, and better dinners. Or just do it because it’s better than what’s on TV.
Ermagerd. That’s 2,765 books in ten years.
In any group setting, there’s a significant chance that something awkward will happen. Most social or business occasions bring people together based on shared interests. When it’s family, well, we’re together more or less due to random chance. It’s a coincidence. Expectations and manners will be totally different than what would work in the outside world. A lot can be done in advance to mitigate some of these weird rules, preparing ourselves emotionally and mentally as we enter the magical world of family gatherings.
Surprisingly, something that seems to help in family gatherings is to look at them through the lens of a professional setting. How would I react if this were happening in a client meeting? Many of us have a blandly cheerful mask that we wear for customer service, a poker face we’re able to put on even when some total jerk is throwing a tantrum over something completely trivial. For instance, I was at a Starbucks once when a woman started screaming at not just her barista, but all four people behind the counter, and then dragged her little son up with her twice more to do it again. Imagine this happening at a family party... (perhaps not much of an imaginative leap)... The Starbucks crew handled this absurd scene with great tact and aplomb. As a mere customer, I wanted to jump up and say, “LADY! They’re already remaking your drink! Get over it!” Or perhaps offer to pay her $10 to leave, or $20 to never come back. There were 20 people in the room who did not deserve to listen to her having a fit.
Spend enough time out in public in any major city, and the routine behavior you’ll see will usually make your family’s foibles seem tame in comparison.
I’ve worked in a drug rehab, in a parole and probation office, in a homeless shelter, and in a couple of other social services offices. I’ve been shouted at by a methamphetamine addict twice my size who was late for anger management therapy. I’ve also worked in a convenience store, an entirely different order of weird. I probably haven’t heard or seen everything, not quite yet, but I think I’m getting close.
None of that prepared me for the time my ex-sister-in-law’s dog jumped on the table and started eating the turkey off the platter.
The ways that family, extended family, pets, and neighbors will cause social awkwardness are pretty predictable. Just like crime! There are only so many things that people will do or say. We can practice ahead of time and get into that special Jedi mindset, that exalted place where what could have been painful or humiliating can instead be experienced as interesting or funny.
Question One: Will this make a good story later?
First, consider who will be at the event, who might show up, and who definitely won’t be there. You can usually anticipate the sort of topics or rote insults that will come up, because people tend to have patterns that they live out, year after year.
It’s the “Aunt Mabel” show! Looking at a frustrating person as a type of character actor, performing in a comedy set piece, can often help. Their predictability can be part of their charm. Villains are usually the most interesting.
Second, don’t work yourself into a lather over conversations that haven’t yet actually happened. All you really have to do is memorize a couple of snappy come-backs or practice some conversation pivots, and then go back to your regularly scheduled programming.
What sort of stuff is going to push your buttons? What has reliably upset you? People who provoke you in the same ways over and over again are really doing you a favor. They’re giving you a safe place to practice not giving a flying fudge. If they keep saying the same things year after year, you can keep testing out new responses and seeing how they work out. You can also tune this person out, just like you would a Furby, or my parrot the year she learned to imitate the neighbor’s shrieking two-year-old daughter.
Politics! Nobody is entitled to my opinion. I refuse to be drawn out on political topics. My regular dinner guests used to start doing the “DANGER, WILL ROBINSON! WHOOP WHOOP! WARNING” alarm if someone tried to start up a political “debate.” My formal policy is that I only discuss pre-Industrial politics. We can do the Roman Empire, we can do Dark Ages, we can do the Viking Age, but as we start to approach the Elizabethan Era I start redirecting and steering away.
Whether I will have children! Oddly enough, this still comes up occasionally, even though I’m 42 now. My answer has changed over the years, but lately I just say that my stepdaughter is in college and any new babies in my life will be grandchildren.
General criticism! Just smile. As a practitioner of radical honesty, I say, “Thank you for telling me.” Other effective responses are, “You’re right,” and “I agree,” and, “Anything you want to add?” Also feel free to respond with a love bomb, like a hug, or stroking someone’s cheek. If this person sincerely seems out to be nasty and trying to attack people with contempt, just ask, “Oh, are we doing critique now? Would you like to receive yours next or do you want to go last?” Sometimes I just say, “That’s mean!”
Physical appearance! Anyone who is crass enough to make “teasing” comments or jokes about someone else’s appearance is fair game as a known Rude Person. I will come down with great vengeance on anyone who bullies someone else in my presence, and if they come after me, well, they have only themselves to blame.
I have pretty much no filter, and my sense of humor is extremely broad and coarse. That being said, however, I like to make jokes that people can still laugh about months later. The best kind of joke is one that makes the target smile, something that makes him or her look and feel good. For instance, I once met a guy who introduced himself as Lev, and I said, “All you need is Lev!” He blinked, mentally translating, and replied, “Yes! All you need is Lev!” I could imagine him going on to introduce himself that way. If you have to make a joke at someone’s expense, let it be your own.
Traditionally, it was the role of the hostess to direct and redirect conversation. Genteel people were trained to smooth over awkwardness, give others the benefit of the doubt, and steer conversations toward general interest. I think a lot of the friction we have today comes from a lack of conversational leadership. Anyone can step in to fill that role, and it can even be done so subtly that nobody realizes what just happened. We can do this by memorizing some conversational topics and using them to change the subject, or maybe even start a conversation that never has a chance to turn toward the awkward.
One year, I literally brought to a gathering a couple of packets of “Table Topics” cards with neutral topics and questions for a general audience. It wound up being a long, memorable conversation that everyone was reluctant to end. Something about the structure and the questions brought out the nostalgia, the wishes and dreams, the funny anecdotes, the bright moments we don’t always guess are hidden inside our nearest and dearest.
Or our furthest and worst-est.
Stories are what we’re after. Even the most obnoxious, belligerent, incorrigible person still has a story to tell. Often those horrible attitudes come from a deep desire for respect and admiration. People can start to feel irrelevant as they age, or invisible when they’re not yet considered real adults. With skill and affection, we can draw people out, distracting them from the rants and the unpleasantness by asking them to share more about their life. How are things with you? What is a memory you can share? How can we get through the next two hours and emerge expanded, practicing love and forgiveness and elevating one another in some way? What would love say?
It’s my run-a-versary! Oh, no, you don’t have to get me anything - I’d just get it all sweaty and I like to keep my hands free, anyway. I just want to celebrate the way that literally the worst exercise I could think of became one of the major loves of my life.
I went on my first voluntary run on December 28, 2010. I was starting in advance of my New Year’s Resolution. Already at that time, I was in the habit of planning fact-finding missions, lifestyle upgrades, and life renovation projects. One day earlier that winter, the idea of running just popped into my head. It was so weird and out of character for me that I might compare it to the idea of... a root canal, say, or wrestling an alligator.
I turned to my husband and said, “You know how I do a big thing for New Year’s every year?”
“This year I think it’s going to be running.”
His head swiveled. “Really?”
Like, “You’re going to adopt a polar bear cub?” Or, “You’re getting a neck tattoo?”
I had already spoken the words and the intention had already been formed, I’m going to say 99% without my active participation. Maybe someone had a voodoo doll of me? A battery-powered one that ran on a treadmill? I nodded. “Yeah, I think so.”
Once the idea was in my head, it started to make sense. I wanted to manipulate my husband to lose some weight and this seemed like a pretty tricksy way to do it. He’s been an athlete since he was four years old, a person of large build who pursues active, collision-oriented sports such as football, hockey, and armored martial arts. I knew that he’d run with me, or do any other form of exercise, if I made my pitch well enough.
It’s true that my morale for running was low and that my cardio endurance was even lower. It’s true that among my many skills, navigation and map-reading rank lowest. It’s even true that I’m sometimes wary of running in certain areas or at certain times of day. I just wouldn’t have let any of those things stop me from anything else I wanted to do, like procure a pie or get hold of a new book I wanted. I just kinda turned up the dial on those weak feelings and batted my feminine wiles.
He mapped my route and went out with me on a rainy morning. I couldn’t make it 1/3 of a mile. When I made it home, several minutes behind him and our dog, I had to lie on the floor for a while and watch the spinning black spots in my vision.
I ran the first mile of my life at age 35. By the end of the year, I was running four miles at a stretch.
That whole thing about tricking my husband into running? I tricked myself. Four years later, I ran a marathon.
I still identified as a runner after I sustained an overuse injury in my ankle and had to take three years off.
I started out reluctant, easily winded, slouching, and slow. I’d never thought of myself as an athlete in my life. I hated EVERY. SINGLE. STEP. For the first three weeks, anyway. Wheezing and suffering stabbing pains from the stitch in my side. Ugh. Running is the worst.
It crept up on me, until I didn’t feel right if I ran fewer than thirty miles a week.
I’m back up to four miles, just like in Year One. I’m team captain for a race this March, an 8k I’ll be running with my brothers and my nephew. My big goal is to run a fifty-mile ultramarathon for my fiftieth birthday. I still have eight years to train, so I’d better get after it!
I like to celebrate the New Year by cleaning my place, top to bottom. On New Year’s Day, I can sleep in, wake up to a gleaming apartment, drink tea, and read a book. I love that feeling of a fresh start. No loose ends or unfinished business from the previous year. Nothing but exciting new goals and plans and projects and trips! The unlocked potential of a new day!
Also, the weather is usually lousy at this time of year and there’s not much better to do. Cleaning up is a way to beat the post-celebration blues, creating anticipation for something new and different.
Cleaning marathons are easy for me. I’ve run an actual marathon, and it doesn’t take nearly that long to clean my house! I can still walk afterward and I don’t have to scoot up stairs backward on my butt. Cleaning marathons are also easy because I’ve moved so many times that there isn’t much buildup, and because I’ve been doing this on a regular basis for many years. I’ll demonstrate my minimalist method, and then I’ll describe how I’d do it if I were one of my chronic disorganization clients.
The minimalist way: Start the laundry. Strip the bed. Take a dust cloth and some canned air and wipe down all the surfaces in my 680-square-foot apartment. Get a chair and wipe down the ceiling fan blades and the top of the fridge. Use a bottle of white vinegar, an old toothbrush, and a squeegee to wash our two windows and the mirror. Check the fridge for anything old. Wipe down the fridge racks and shelves. Wipe out the inside of the microwave. Wipe down the kitchen counters, the stove top, and the sink. Clean the bathroom sink, the toilet, and the bathtub. Take a shower. Put the laundry in the dryer and put the sheets in the washing machine. Get dressed. Take out the garbage and recycling. Start the robot vacuum. Read a book. Later, put the fresh sheets on the bed.
I’m not kidding. I can deep-clean my entire apartment in a couple of hours.
The reason it’s easy to clean a minimalist home is that it operates on a system. My people tend to mix up ‘cleaning’ and ‘tidying’ and ‘organizing.’ Cleaning means removing dirt from surfaces. Tidying means putting things away, which you don’t have to do if there’s no extra stuff and everything is already put away. Organizing means creating a system, and that only needs to be done once if it’s a system that works well.
This is why my chronically disorganized people have to do all three things over and over again. Clean, tidy, organize, in no particular order.
Okay, let’s assume I’m doing a house that hasn’t really been “done” in, oh, ten years. It’s a standard American disorganized maximalist house. I’m going to say it’s about 2000 square feet, three bedrooms, two baths, a double car garage, front and back porch, with two adults, two kids, a hairy pet, and two vehicles. It’s driving everyone crazy. Living there has stopped being fun.
A large, disorganized house doesn’t have to take forever to dig out. It’s about decisions, systems, and policy. Not everyone wants to spend forty minutes a day on maintaining a clean, organized home. Not everyone wants to live in or look at a clean, organized home! To some people, it will feel sterile, boring, strict, strenuous, and depressing. I say it doesn’t have to mean plastic slipcovers or lace doilies. Your home can be whatever you want, whatever feels like home to you. It’s possible, though, that doing a little every day will feel easier than having to do an epic, revolutionary, top-to-bottom cleaning marathon.
Think what it could look like a week from now, though! Think of how it would feel to start the New Year in a sparkling clean, organized home. Decide what you want for yourself and just get started.
This is a complicated time of year. The overwhelming cultural message for the past six weeks has been MATERIALISM!!! Glittery, sparkly materialism! Sequined, perfumed, bouncy flouncy materialism! Oh joy, MORE STUFF! Yet we can look around and see that the goodies we got two years ago and three years before that aren’t very exciting anymore. We can check our account balances and, once we’ve sat down, had a drink of water, and waited for the room to stop spinning, we can remind ourselves that we’d much rather have financial security. Ya know what, though? Consumerism has its place.
I’ve been scrolling through numerous articles, at least two a day, that supposedly gather together dozens of fabulous gift ideas. The vast majority of them make me sit back in my chair, practicing my one-eyebrow raise, wondering, “Now, who on earth would let that thing in their house?” Or, “Who even thought of such a thing, much less designed it, much less brought it to market?” The multifarious thingness of it all... Every single one of those objects, though, began as an idea and turned into several people’s jobs. I remind myself that there is a point to it all. If we were all minimalists, what would we do for an economy?
Seriously, I wonder about that quite a bit.
I’d like to think that when we lean in the direction of fewer things, we go for better quality. I’d like to think that we’d put more attention and respect toward our items of daily use, rather than random tchotchkes. I’d like to think that we would move toward buying things that were a pleasure to make, and that we’d buy them from places where it was at least occasionally fun to work.
What is really interesting to me about my work with compulsive accumulators is that they save things that are designed to be used up. The particular favorite here is bath sets. Every darn one of the homes where I have visited has at least one plastic-wrapped gift basket, containing fancy soaps, lotions, powders, and other little jars and bottles. Many of my people have enough of this stuff to last them for years, by which time they’re certain to have accrued another one. Why use the same old supermarket stuff, when your friends and family want you to indulge yourself? How could you reject such a thoughtful gift?
By my estimation, I have received at least 25 bars of fancy soaps over the past 20 years, and I’ve gleefully used them all. Ditto shower gel, bath beads, bath bombs, and bath salts. Keep ‘em coming! (Vegan and cruelty-free, of course)
Another one of the top contenders for hoarded gifts is fancy groceries. We’ve got infused cooking oils, special vinegars, spice mixes, exotic mustards, foo-foo jams, you name it. You think someone is going to crack open these containers and have a special picnic? Ha! They’re going on the ‘good’ shelf, where they can peacefully expire.
We “save” everything for “later” - which means, forever, or until it gets ruined. We willfully, purposefully reject and refuse the bounty our friends have so kindly chosen for us. What they want is to give us things we’ll really love, gifts that will delight us, things we’ll use to create lasting memories. What we do with those wishes is to create yet another dust collector.
I’m wearing a pair of rainbow-striped knee socks right now. They were a New Year’s gift from my husband. He’s bought me three pair over the years since we started dating. These have little hearts up the back. The first pair have already worn out, because I wore them ALL THE TIME. I never need to worry about “running out” of rainbow socks, partly because someone is always going to keep on making them, and partly because my hubby knows I like them. There will always be plenty (say it with me) and there will always be plenty more. Plenty more gift soaps, plenty more infused cooking oils, plenty more rainbow socks. Plenty of everything.
We’re supposed to be a little greedy around this time, because that’s what our friends and family want for us. They aren’t bringing us gifts to induce a zenlike state of renunciation and non-attachment, am I right? They aren’t shopping until their cute little feet are tired because they want us to be bored and uninspired. They would be kinda hurt if they realized how many of their thoughtful presents remain still in the bag from previous years, stuffed into a box or a closet!
We have to splurge. We have to be extravagant, sometimes. It’s the appropriate reaction when someone has brought us a gift of love, a little symbol that says, “I care about your happiness.” When we use these things down to the last dollop, it’s a measure of gratitude. It’s a way of reflecting appreciation for the bounty of this world, for the good things we have. What is it we think we’re doing when we set it all aside “for later”?
The goal here is to look around at everything we have around us, and to see it for the fabulous richness it represents. How could we ever pine away for all the things we don’t have, when we have so much more than we truly need already? How could we be anything other than bowled over by the magnificence that’s being showered on us all the time, so much more than we could ever use? Let’s just go wild this year, making a point to open all the packaging and actually indulge ourselves, the way the givers have intended.
This is the book to get if you’re curious about dot journaling. It’s really funny, for starters, and it did a brilliant job of explaining a topic that, as a neophyte, I found really confusing. What the heck is dot journaling? What does it do? Why should I try it? Rachel Wilkerson Miller answered every question I had, in the most engaging way imaginable. Dot Journaling is indeed a practical guide, one packed with full-color photos as well.
Let me explain something really embarrassing. I read this book and then set up a paper journal, even though I carry an iPad with a keyboard everywhere I go. And by everywhere, I mean that I eat breakfast and lunch with it, use it while I brush my teeth and do my hair, and sometimes even sleep with it in the bed. What would a dedicated technophile get out of a dot journal? Plenty, as it turns out.
What confused me about dot journaling, also known as bullet journaling, is that it is so customizable. When I first heard the term and realized that it was becoming a major trend, I did a bunch of image searches. I couldn’t figure out what I was seeing. The reason for that is that every individual diarist is using a highly personalized system. It’s an art, not a science. The rainbow-inked wild layouts and gorgeous penmanship are half the fun. There tends to be a feeling that non-fiction how-to books are no longer necessary, now that we have the internet, but this book is a beautiful example of why they will always have a role. This guide distills the essence of long study and practice into a simple, straightforward launching point for the total novice. It also appears to be quite the useful reference for more experienced practitioners of the craft.
There’s something about writing on paper that activates the mind differently than typing. I write 10-20 pages a day electronically, and people often express astonishment at my typing speed. Longhand still gets certain things done. I think there’s also a certain discipline in the focus on writing neatly. My mom used to write a to-do list every night before bed, and I learned from her how this habit can bring clarity and restore mental bandwidth.
The New Year is fast upon us. It’s a natural time of reflection and strategizing. Also gift-giving! Journaling is a really great keystone habit, something endlessly rewarding and deeply fascinating. Dot journaling is one way to make this habit approachable, creative, and fun. Dot Journaling - A Practical Guide is the perfect place to start.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.