We'll lie to ourselves a thousand times worse than we would ever lie to anyone else. One of the many types of those lies is the lie of omission, of deliberately obscuring information. We want no part of knowing our true motivations. That's what creates the Secret Shame. Even worse than the Secret Shame is the thing we refuse even to acknowledge to ourselves. The dark pool at the bottom of the chasm. What do I not want to know about myself? What am I avoiding?
Simply put, what we're avoiding is always a bad feeling. I don't want to think about X because if I do, I'll feel sad, scared, lonely, incompetent, unlovable, dumb, ugly, guilty, dirty, weird, angry, or otherwise awash in icky emotions. Whatever it is, whether it's a work project, a debt, a health issue, or a cleanup job, it's really just a thin coverup for a bad feeling, a feeling that probably pops up in all sorts of situations. Or wants to.
This is the root cause of procrastination.
Procrastinating is caused by 'temporary mood repair.' That means we'll do something other than the thing we believe we should be doing because we want to bury the bad emotion and, at least briefly, replace it with a positive one. I'm going to take I CAN'T HANDLE THIS or I DON'T KNOW WHAT TO DO and put them in a shoebox while I generate feelings of good cheer and elation by playing Candy Crush or watching a capybara video.
Okay, actually watching capybara videos is my purpose in life.
I've talked to people who claim that they never procrastinate. This can cause hilarity of truly epic proportions when it's someone you know well. Oh yes? Then when were you planning to deal with your: long-term unemployment / hoarded garage / consumer debt / sleep apnea / non-viable relationship / total lack of retirement savings / 150 pounds of excess body fat? Procrastination refers to the big stuff, not the piddly little things like making a business call, sewing a button, or filing your papers. I'll go so far as to say that you don't have to file your papers at all; you can leave them in a stack, and it'll take you just as long to find something on the off chance that you need it. You can also take that garment with the missing button and throw it in the trash, because if you haven't been wearing it, you aren't going to miss it. Immediately take your to-do list in one hand, a thick permanent marker in the other, and strike out any minor chore that you see. Or ball up the list entirely and give it to your cat. You're not avoiding that stuff, you just understand that it's irrelevant to your life.
What is really relevant? That's really up to you, and whether you want your life to stand for something. What memories you want to have when you draw your final breath.
"I did exactly what I want, and anytime someone tried to tell me what to do, I didn't. Mission accomplished." Fair enough. The point is not to have any regrets, not to wish we had done things that we never made the time to do. Whatever that means to you is your personal choice, based on your personal values. If your only value is autonomy, hey, whatever works for you.
Living in accordance with our own values is far more challenging than it should be. We love nothing more than to criticize other people for things they are doing, assuming they know better, but then letting ourselves off the hook for the things that we do or don't do. HE did that because he's an idiot / selfish / jerk, but I did this because I was busy / distracted by something important / had mitigating circumstances. It's called fundamental attribution error. Gossiping over the failings of others is fun. Looking down the well and facing our own failings, the deep ones, is dreadful. Why is it that we choose our own values, and yet we don't like holding ourselves to our own standards?
What am I avoiding?
Personal connections. Cutting the cord on personal connections I no longer want. Facing my fears of rejection or intimacy. Working harder. Pushing myself in my career and then finding that I'm not as good as I thought I was. Realizing what I thought was my fantasy doesn't really interest me all that much, and that I don't have anything to replace it with. Finding out how much I really will have to change if I want what I say I want. Missing out on a slice of cake even one time. Admitting to myself that I am creating the majority of my own problems. Revealing to myself that I have the ultimate power to make myself start doing or stop doing whatever I decide, but also realizing that I don't want to. Admitting how much I hate Future Me and want to make her life as difficult as possible. Acknowledging that I can't actually read every book in the world. Scrapping a project I sunk so much time into and either starting again with something else, or saying, I was never going to be this or do this. Living a bigger life and finding that it's yet again time to do more and be more vulnerable to public scrutiny. Facing my own mortality. Opening myself and my work to criticism. Yanking my floating brain back into my meat-body and realizing that yes, I live here full time, and yes, this really is me. Making eye contact with my own dark side.
Who knows what else?
Usually we're avoiding very specific things. I don't want to think about these papers. I don't want to wash these gross dishes or bag up this gross trash. I don't want to update my resume. I don't want to make that phone call or read that email, much less reply to it. I don't want to have that conversation. I don't want to get my heart rate up or get sweaty. I don't want to eat any nasty old vegetables. I want to watch this show or play this game or read this paragraph without having to do something else that is less fun or interesting, regardless of what it is. I don't want to fold this laundry or put it away. I'd rather sit in a room with this long list of dumb five-minute mindless chores clouding my mind than get up and do annoying tasks. In this case, we're avoiding the uncomfortable knowledge that most of a good and happy life consists of routine maintenance. That most of what can improve our day-to-day or bring us toward our goals has no intrinsic thrills in the action, only in the accumulated effects of the routine actions.
There are three possible reactions to the knowledge that we are avoiding something. 1. Keep avoiding it. 2. Admit that we're never going to do it and move on. 3. Face it and deal with it. I try to choose "face it and deal with it" as often as possible. This attitude increases my ability to handle things in all situations, expanding the possibilities in my life. I want to avoid being idle or missing opportunities, shrinking my life because I only ever chose the small and easy choices.
When people say, "I wish I had your willpower," or "where do you get the motivation?" I think the quality they're actually imagining is grit. Grit is the ability to do things you don't want to do, when you don't feel like it and you're not in the mood, even when it's really hard - and to keep on doing those difficult things over and over again for as long as it takes. Authors Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Kovel bring us Grit to Great, an approachable book filled with real-life examples of people who used grit to accomplish the seemingly impossible.
Grit makes a handy acronym for the traits of Guts, Resilience, Initiative, and Tenacity. Just reading these words makes me sit up a little straighter. You have to be brave enough to face things that scare you, flexible enough to deal with all the unpredictable frustrations that come up, bold enough to pursue your own ideas, and stubborn enough to never, never quit. The image from Grit to Great that brings this home to me the most is the story of James Henry, an illiterate fisherman who decided to learn to read at age ninety-two. If you're reading this, imagine not being able to. Suddenly life seems pretty cushy.
High IQ is not a significant predictor of success. Grit will outdo intelligence every time. People with higher education tend to be outperformed by less-educated entrepreneurs over and over again. The smarter we are, the more likely we are to find reasons to talk ourselves out of doing things. The larger problem is that of the fixed versus growth mindset. When we've always been told that we're smart, that we're good students, that we're well-behaved, etc, we tend not to push ourselves as hard. Expanding out of our comfort zones puts us at risk of failure, of challenging that image of the perfect A+ student. People with grit never quit. The desire to always be learning and improving and meeting new challenges means more failure on the small scale, but ultimately more success over a broader range.
I got a lot out of this book. I'm a big believer in the power of grit, but I hadn't realized all the ways that this quality is expressed. It made me determined. The example of Nick Wallenda caught my attention. He practiced walking a tightrope in 90-mph winds to prepare to cross the Grand Canyon on a tightrope. I also took heed of Jia Jiang's practice of Rejection Therapy, and Lee Yoon-Hye, a petite axe-wielding flight attendant who carried passengers to safety on her own back. These are the kinds of brave people I think about when I have to do something really hard, like fold laundry or wait in line. I can make my bed every morning, just like a Navy SEAL! (Except probably not as flat).
"If you want your dreams to become reality, wake up already."
"Happiness is not the absence of problems. It's the ability to deal with them." - Behavioral scientist Steve Maraboli
The Compound Effect is the kind of book that is incredibly motivating and inspiring for people who are already motivated and inspired, yet intimidating for people who are not. I say this as someone who probably would not have bought into it in my younger days, while knowing, through later experience, that everything in it is true. Believing is seeing.
Darren Hardy begins with his origin story. He had a tough dad who drilled discipline into him from a young age. These few opening pages could be off-putting to the majority of us, who would find such tough-love parenting tactics a bit scary and depressing. Just keep reading. I can attest that reaching your goals does not require drill-instructor parents or early success. You can build positive habits even if you're a late bloomer like me.
The Compound Effect refers to the way that our habits take us in different directions over time. Hardy offers the example of three imaginary dudes. One just keeps doing what comes naturally. One cuts 125 calories a day out of his diet, and the third starts cooking more recipes from the Food Network. Not quite three years later, Dude Two has lost over 30 pounds while Dude Three has gained over 30 pounds and the first dude is just the same as he ever was. I can scroll through my Facebook feed and point out several real-life examples of this phenomenon. In one case, I sincerely didn't recognize an old friend in a photo and thought she had been tagged incorrectly. I had seen her in person 2-3 years previously and she had somehow nearly doubled her body weight in that time. Meanwhile, another friend who had started in that weight range is now doing triathlon and is likewise nearly unrecognizable. Comparing the habit changes of my two friends would be instructive, although the first person would find that kind of question very hurtful and the second would be proud and flattered. This is what habits can do.
Hardy shares examples of various people he has coached, usually his employees. "Beverly" was overweight and lost her breath climbing one flight of stairs. Through his coaching, she lost 40 pounds and ran a marathon. Yeah, right, you might say. That story could have been about me! I only lost 35 pounds, but I not only got out of breath climbing a flight of stairs (at age 29), I would see black spots. I did wind up running a marathon, just like Beverly. I kept the weight off and I haven't been at my top weight in 12 years. I started just by walking 2 miles per hour on a treadmill for 30 minutes at a time a few days a week. Little habits really, really do add up. I didn't know that I would become a marathon runner when I started. I just knew that I was too young to have that much trouble climbing stairs, and there were people in their 60s with more energy than I had, and I wanted more for myself. Little by little, my efforts compounded. It works.
An idea I loved from The Compound Effect was to use your snooze button time positively. Hardy says his snooze lasts 8 minutes. In those 8 minutes, he does gratitude practice and then sends love to someone. I found this enchanting! What a lovely way to start the day. A variation on using your snooze time could be to record a video of yourself talking about how exhausted you are and how you want Future You to stop sleep procrastinating and go to bed half an hour earlier.
Ask yourself where you were five years ago, Hardy suggests. Compare where you were then with where you are now. Are you where 2012 You would have hoped you would be? Do you have the same negative habits you wanted to get rid of then? Have you built the positive habits you wished you had then? This is sobering. I found that I had indeed built some positive habits, but that I had slipped on others, and that some things I still don't seem to have figured out.
Only when you experience the compound effects of a habit do you start to feel and believe the power. It's delightful and addictive. You can change anything with just the tiniest increments over time! Hardy offers real-life examples, such as how he wrote down at least one thing he appreciated about his wife every day and then gave her a book full of the observations. I wouldn't have thought metrics could be applied to marriage until I read that. The Compound Effect is an eye-opener, with the kind of insights that can put everything in your life into new perspective.
Some questions from Chapter 5 to ask your friends:
"How do I show up to you? What do you think my strengths are? In what areas do you think I can improve? Where do you think I sabotage myself? What's one thing I can stop doing that would benefit me the most? What's the one thing I should start doing?"
BE RIDICULOUS was my quest for the year, and the most ridiculous thing about that is that I didn't give much thought to the many ways the Universe would interpret this command. Every single thing I planned to do with my brand-new, freshly minted 2017 has already been completely upended. Our lives have been in total upheaval every single day of the year so far. I keep talking about the desire for transformation, and now I'm going to stop that for a while and talk about the desire for tranquility!
There are certain things I don't talk about on this blog, namely personal, familial, and health events. Suffice to say that we got hit with two of the three, plus a bonus veterinary crisis. It's been...interesting. Eliding over a trillion details, my husband got an offer for his dream job, and we suddenly found that we had twelve days to move to a new city. Cut to us packing up our house in between giving our dog eye drops three times a day while he can't get his Cone of Shame through the dog door and needs to be let out constantly. Most of First Quarter 2017 was an epic disaster for us, but hey! Now we live at the beach and my husband is working in the space industry!
Unconnected to any of the above, we decided to get rid of our car and try being car-free. It's been three weeks. My husband has been taking the bus to work, and he just ordered a little scooter (toy kind, not internal-combustion kind) to get around between bus stops. Our new place is within less than half a mile of almost everything we need or want, so it's been an easy transition.
My major personal goal for the year was to "follow a set schedule." I choose a counterintuitive, uncomfortable goal that is contrary to doing what comes naturally for me. That's where the juicy stuff is hidden, in the radical change of perception. I used to hate running, and then I pushed myself, fell in love with it, and ran a marathon. I used to have an abiding dread of public speaking, and then (last year) I pushed myself, and started winning ribbons and learning to work a crowd. I thought, heck, what's left on the list of things I hate and also suck at? Then our life went crazy and a schedule was the least of my worries. Then the unexpected happened. Even though our new bedroom window faces west, (my parrot and) I have been waking up around 7 AM every day. We're not quite done unpacking yet, but I'm already moving toward a more natural-feeling, biologically appropriate daily rhythm. Ridiculous.
My career goal has somehow been moving forward, despite everything, mostly because my business partner is a person of great dedication and industry. Sometimes just not saying no is enough to maintain momentum.
My physical goals of doing P90X and running five miles have not happened yet. What has happened is that I've spent the last three weeks lifting and moving heavy objects. Moving is moving! The other thing that's happened is exactly what always happens when we move, which is that I rapidly gain five pounds from eating convenience foods. Now that we're in an apartment, the dog needs to go out at least three times a day, and we're also car-free, meaning I am walking to the grocery store about 5 out of 7 days. At this rate, I can lose five pounds in roughly... three months. [(3500 calories per pound x 5 pounds)/65 calories per mile]/3 miles per day] = not quite 90 days. Or just quit eating my stress and get more sleep.
My home goal was to "digitize, downsize, minimize." I will call that a SUCCESS+. All I was planning to do was to clean out the garage! Now we don't even have a garage. Or a car. Or a yard. Or a... Our new place is awesome, but it's smaller than our tiny house, with significantly less storage. We're still getting rid of things after a yard sale and something like six carloads of donations.
We haven't done our couples goals yet, which are both summertime things. Shared adversity will either drive you apart or bring you closer, and in our case it's closer. We're feeling pretty smug about living in this tiny shoebox apartment; it's like living our twenties all over again, even though we could almost be the parents of most of our neighbors.
I haven't done my stop goal, my lifestyle upgrades, or my wish yet. I will say that my lifestyle has been massively upgraded anyway. Looking at the tiny postage-stamp sized square of ocean we can see from our balcony while wild parrots fly overhead definitely does not suck.
My "Do the Obvious" goal for the year was to transform my appearance. I am also going to call this one an early SUCCESS. Speaking of my quest to BE RIDICULOUS, I got this wild idea to apply to be on a game show, and I actually got a screen test! Of course I didn't get selected, because I am not in the least bit telegenic. But I did go out and get my hair blown out and have my makeup done beforehand. I couldn't believe the results. Suddenly I looked both younger and smarter. My husband absolutely couldn't take his eyes off me. He took me out to dinner, and I think he spent more time making eye contact with me than he did at our actual wedding. All righty then! I learned how to straighten my hair, and astonishingly, it only takes me ten minutes. I finally have the answer to my depressingly unmanageable hair, which has been the plague of my existence for 35 years. If I'd learned to do this when I was 14, I would have had a completely different life. Now I'm 41 and I already have a completely different, completely different life.
2017 has been a very weird, whirlwind year for us so far. Topsy turvy and all that. Now we're starting Second Quarter and it's like we're the ensemble cast of a TV series that just went into a new season, like American Horror Story with slightly less horror. Now I've gone off on a mental tangent, trying to figure out whether there has ever been a TV show much like our life, but there really aren't any sitcoms about engineers, and someone else would have to play me anyway.
This is the short version of my 2017 goals, resolutions, quests, wishes, etc.:
Personal: Follow a set schedule
Physical: P90X, run five miles
Home: Digitize, downsize, minimize
Couples: WDS, homemade pickles
Stop goal: Stop being the last person to pack up my tent
Lifestyle upgrades: Phone and work bag, tent
Do the Obvious: Transform my appearance
Quest: BE RIDICULOUS
Wish: Pay off my student loan.
This story might sound familiar. A broken-hearted Australian man puts his entire life up for sale on eBay. Do you remember? I saw it in the news when it was going on. What an amazing idea! I knew as soon as I saw it that I had to read A Life Sold: What Ever Happened to That Guy Who Sold His Whole Life... on eBay?. Spoiler alert: Ian Usher went out and did what most of us don't even dare to dream, which was to make a "bucket list" and then go out and try to accomplish all his goals.
One of the most interesting things about this book is that Usher shares the whole picture, not just the cute-selfie parts. He can't stop thinking about his ex. He's sad and lonely sometimes, even as he makes tons of new friends. Some of his goals don't work out. He gets lost, swindled, injured, stuck in bad weather, and disappointed in various ways. Somehow, it all serves to make his achievements more remarkable. Almost everything that can go wrong does go wrong, and yet, he still pulls off some truly amazing goals. At the outset, he's in his mid-forties, and it is instructive to compare his plans with other people we might know in that age group.
It's also very interesting that Usher made the money to fund his travels and outrageous goals by working a dangerous, physically demanding job with specialized training, selling his house, and spending years saving money at an unusually high rate. Three out of three of those actions are actions that average people are not willing to take.
What I can't stop thinking about is the highly personal nature of the 100 goals. I read through the list, and I had done ten of them myself, including riding on a dog sled. Pretty good goals! But most of the others I would not be brave enough to do. It's a very Australian list, full of derring-do and physical challenges. This makes the book rather special. It's impossible not to start wondering what 100 items you would put on your own list, while clearly seeing that someone else's list is too idiosyncratic and personal to just... copy. It also raises questions of why certain goals that might seem obvious to someone else weren't on Usher's list. Why go to six continents when you could also go to Antarctica, for instance? Why isn't that goal on the list? Well, because it just wasn't, that's why. We're all fully entitled to have our own crazy quests and wild dreams.
A lesson from the book is that goals aren't fun when they feel like checking something off a list. They must be personally meaningful, or what's the point? The magic comes with the feeling that "I can't believe I'm finally getting a chance to do this!" The world could certainly use more of this. What would happen if more people realized that the only things holding them back from living their wildest dreams were their personal possessions and uninspiring jobs?
Decisions are decisions because the answer isn't obvious. For instance, I'm wearing my shoes and pants because my husband's shoes and pants don't fit me. I'm going to eat my lunch instead of your lunch. I'm going to walk on the floor and not the ceiling, although I wouldn't rule that one out. Non-decisions. Most things are not decisions, and they shouldn't be. Decisions are to be avoided whenever possible. The best way to do this is by using strategy.
A strong case can be made that strategy is the single biggest difference between successful people and everyone else. It's the difference between a professional and a student. Most of us have to fight a strong desire to be an "A student" and be perfect, which means we're trying to follow someone else's rules and figure out what is expected of us. Strategic thinkers instead create their own rules and figure out how to get the world to meet their expectations. Like, I am still trying to figure out why I can't buy potato chips at the baseball stadium, or, for that matter, why I can't get kale chips at the movie theater.
Let's do some examples of decisions vs. strategy.
Getting dressed. Decisions are what happens when your closet is full to bursting, you feel like you never have anything to wear, there's stuff that doesn't go with any other stuff, a lot of things don't fit right now, and there are shoes that never get worn. Strategy is what happens when you plan outfits either at the store, or before you even go shopping, and only own clothes you love to wear. My house was built in 1939, a time when average people looked great, and my four-foot closet rod matches with the idea that most people in the Thirties only had nine outfits.
Eating. Decisions are what happens when you're already hungry and have no idea what to make, but nothing in your kitchen looks good and there's stuff spoiling in the fridge that cost you hard-earned money. Decisions also happen when you're staring at a menu and overwhelmed by FoMO. Strategy is what happens when you plan meals by the week, write your grocery list off that meal plan, and have a system for using up leftovers.
Dating. Decisions are what happens when you're emotionally conflicted about a relationship with someone with whom you are probably incompatible. Strategy is what happens when you decide on your deal breakers and only get involved after finding out what someone is really like. The most important feature of a new romance is to find out whether this person is emotionally available and interested in monogamy, and it's an eternal mystery why so many people skip this vital bit of research!
Shopping. Decisions are what happens when you are in a store looking at things that maybe you didn't even know existed. Strategy is what happens when you plan ahead of time to buy only what you can afford, that you need, that you can maintain, when you know where you're going to put it.
These things all tend to have a multiplier effect on mental bandwidth. Burn through your mental energy on a decision like what to eat or what to wear, and there won't be much left when the next decision point comes up. Make decisions while under emotional strain, like when you're in a bad relationship or hating your job, and it's that much harder to "make good choices."
"Make good choices" is kinda useless as far as advice goes. What if what I want isn't even on offer? What if all the choices presented to me are bad options? Thinking of menus again, sometimes we're just in the wrong 'restaurant' in life, with fifty things we don't want and not a one that we do. Time to get up and create a different situation.
Strategizing is really the reason to make resolutions at the New Year. Once a year is probably the longest we should ever wait to do strategic planning for our lives. What do we want out of life and how are we going to get it? It's much simpler than most people realize; in fact, average people will make strong arguments that strategic planning is impossible and give all the reasons why they aren't allowed to do it. Well, it is allowed and we can generally do whatever we want. Here are some ideas.
Relocate to the part of the world where you want to live. Moving from a cloudy, wet, cold climate to a sunny, dry, hot climate is probably the single best decision I ever made, while the reverse might be true for someone else. Other solid reasons to choose where to live include career options and proximity to loved ones.
Choose a career. Most of us just sort of stumble into a job, which we then hate and dread, and only look for something else when we get laid off. Choose something and figure out how to get the credentials to do it. Relocate if necessary - another vital strategic step that most people reject.
Figure out what energy level you want. Default option for almost everyone is burned out, chronically exhausted, moody, irritable, overweight, and sedentary. These are not coincidences. Moods can be managed, and the keys to that are sleep, hydration, food intake, and substances like caffeine and alcohol.
Plan your personal environment. How do you want your living space to feel and look? How do you want your life to function? Mornings are a big indicator: Do you start your day exhausted, frantic, and running late? If so, that shows how strategy can help. Figure out where to put your most important stuff like keys and glasses, get your outfit and meals ready the night before, and set a bedtime alarm. When you've got a handle on that, start getting rid of all your extra stuff. Don't let a bunch of old junk cause you to keep losing track of your important stuff or be late all the time.
Strategy is about where you want to be and what you want. Decisions are about what to do with what's in front of you right now. Sometimes the answer is that you don't want anything out of the available options! There may be nothing left for you at your current place of employment, in the neighborhood where you live, or in the stuff in your house. Pretend it doesn't exist. In a parallel universe, where you suddenly found yourself bare naked and starting over from zero, what would you do? What life would you build from scratch? It's always possible to create something new based on your vision for yourself.
Quit. Drop the idea. Let it go. Forget about it. Let yourself off the hook. Stop yourself. In many cases, deciding not to do something will get you a lot farther than the things you decide TO do. Decision means "to cut away," and cutting away anything that is not relevant to your current or future life will free up your time, energy, and focus. Quit today. Just don't do it.
Look at your to-do list and remove everything you can possibly get away with.
Break up with anyone you need to break up with.
Throw away or give away everything you don't need or want.
Give yourself permission to end one phase of life and begin another.
I quit folding athletic socks. Life is too short. They fit in the drawer and they don't need to be wrinkle-free. Nobody at the gym cares what our socks look like. No clothes need to be folded unless it is necessary to look pressed at work. Folding helps things fit better in their drawers, but it's less work to get rid of half of your clothes than it is to fold laundry that doesn't need folding. Buy more laundry baskets.
I broke up with my trainer. I had used up all of the sessions in my introductory package, and the rates go up significantly after that. (Note to marketers: This is exactly backward). He spent half of our last session pressuring me into scheduling another package. That made it a lot easier to say goodbye. When I switched from seeing him as "professional trainer" to "loser boyfriend who won't let go," the decision made itself. It's not you, it's me. I'm sure you'll find someone. Byeee. This may not work for everyone, but for me, when I ask myself how I would handle a situation if I were dating it, suddenly the choice becomes much clearer. I'm not married to any given stylist, store, restaurant, dentist, rental house, neighborhood, climate, book, craft project, couch, or anything else. I only have two ring fingers and only one wedding ring.
I threw away my baby photos. Well, technically I scanned them first. I looked through them and thought, Why do I even have these? I kept the scans because I have the storage space and because it's conceivable that I might want to look at them in my eighties. But I couldn't think of a single reason I would ever want physical copies of my baby pictures. I also got rid of my high school yearbooks and all evidence of my first marriage. I'm not completely heartless; I still have all the shoes I wore in all my foot races. But I have gotten rid of partially completed cross-stitch projects, sweaters, pottery, poems, drawings, wood shop projects, and who knows what else. It's helpful only to be sentimentally attached to living beings.
What about phases of life? Our culture could use more rites of passage. Once we get a driver's license and a job, the only two milestones left are parenthood and retirement. Awful lot of big gaps in there. When I turned 40, I decided I was going to quit caring what other people think and just do what I want all the time. It's awesome. I wish I'd realized I could do this sooner, like when I was 15. (Fortunately, almost everything I want to do is a good idea, like being a good citizen and making a good living). I'm officially a crone now! Who says? I say. Thinking of our lives in terms of phases, stages, and decades can be really helpful, as we start paying more attention to things like retirement planning and dental care. I want to reach my last day with all my own teeth and enough money to pay for my own funeral. If that sounds morbid, better start planning more awesomeness into the life you have now while you're relatively young!
Just don't do it. Don't waste your life. Don't finish boring books. Don't finish projects just because Past You thought you would want to do them. Don't save recipe clippings unless there's one in the stack that you know you're going to make tonight. Don't hang onto things you think you might need. Don't make plans based around your worries. The only things you really need are somewhere to sleep, somewhere to sit, a way to make dinner, a go bag, and something to wear to work. The only things really worth hanging onto aren't things at all; they're relationships and your personal values.
When I was doing my annual December stuff purge, I found a couple of photos of a former friend. The friendship ended badly. I looked at the pictures, had a flash of regret, and then remembered how much of that friendship was based on illusions and false expectations. I shrugged and burned the photos. Be free, old friend. Maybe one day our paths will cross again, or maybe not. You were here for a brief while, and so was I, and then our roads diverged. We don't owe each other anything. The same is true for our old illusions about what career or education we once thought we wanted, houses or vehicles or stuff we bought that we thought we wanted, hobbies or books or fantasies we thought we would be into. We're allowed to get older and lose interest or change our minds. We're allowed to change our plans and goals whenever we want, especially after we find out more than we knew the day we formed the goal. We celebrate weddings by tying a bunch of old cans or shoes to the bumper of the get-away car, and we can do the same with any new phase of life. Take all the old junk we can find and use it for party decorations. Have a bonfire to mark a new milestone in your life.
Don't do it. Don't do anything half-heartedly. Don't keep things unless they rate five out of five stars in your life. Spend your time with the people you love the most, doing the things that make you feel alive, surrounded by the few personal objects that serve those ends. Let the rest go.
Would you slap a bratty child? Yours or someone else's?
Assuming the answer is no, congratulations! You have just demonstrated a healthy regard for social norms, self-restraint, and willpower. These are superpowers. They can be used in all situations.
Assuming the answer is yes, of course you would slap a bratty child, let's do another one. Would you rob a bank? Hmm, wait. That might be the wrong kind of question to ask someone who would slap someone else's kid. Would you... would you pee your pants on purpose rather than wait in line at the restroom?
Let's just call that a No and move along. Of course not. Not only do you have self-restraint, willpower, a healthy regard for social norms, and control over your voluntary bodily functions, you also prefer to avoid doing things that are against your obvious self-interest.
If this is true, then you have the power to do and achieve anything.
What it comes down to is that we will not do certain things under any circumstances, because we do not give ourselves permission to do them. Some things we will not do out of disgust, like eating furry blue leftovers. Some things we will not do out of contempt for "people who do those things," like late merge, even though it's purpose-built for the greater good. Some things we will not do because they make no sense, like cashing out our retirement funds to buy a jet ski. Some things we will not do because we just have no urge to do them, like murder or arson. We can thank Past Self for avoiding these things.
We are smart. We have plenty of self-control. We easily do what two million incarcerated people evidently cannot do, which is to stay out of trouble.
Why, then, do we think we have so much trouble with "willpower" and "motivation"?
If we can refrain from punching annoying customers, why can't we refrain from eating that second slice of cake?
If we can avoid shooting heroin, why can't we stop drinking soda?
If we can resist setting our boss's desk on fire, why can't we resist the siren song of the sofa?
It really comes down to what we give ourselves permission to do. We give ourselves permission to eat things that taste good that we want to eat, especially when they're free. We give ourselves permission to lounge around when we've made other commitments to ourselves. We give ourselves permission to abdicate on responsibilities, even when they are congruent with our core values. We are perfectly happy calling ourselves lazy, or claiming we have no willpower, when really we're talking about the same exact self-discipline that allows us to control our bowel functions.
What is behind this, I suspect, is that our defects are our charms. Flaws make us relatable. Get too perfect, and we quit having so many friends. We bond over the things that annoy us, frustrate us, the things we hate. Where is the benefit in suddenly having less in common with other people?
Don't you dare start eating healthy. I need you to have my six when I want to order dessert.
You're making the rest of us look bad.
Now, I'm a contrarian, or so they tell me. My main motivation is curiosity. The more I feel that something is unexplored territory, the more something seems taboo for some reason, the more I think about it. Fact-Finding Missions are my brownie bites. I have to know. If I married Bluebeard, I wouldn't have waited until he left the house to try to unlock that last door. In fact, I wouldn't have married him until after I'd seen it, but anyway. Divorced people are suspicious. I give myself permission to experiment, research, and check out things I want to know, like: what does it feel like to be strong and fit? Sometimes other people have a problem with this. Anyone who is put off by my appearance, my activities, my thoughts, or my conversation is unlikely to be happy with anything I do after the first five minutes regardless.
What I've learned is that whatever you are doing at any particular point in time, however you are dressing, whatever music you are listening to, a group of people will gather around you. What annoys one group will be cheerfully embraced by another. This is why I don't let crowd response dictate what I do.
In the words of my dad, don't do anything illegal, immoral, or just plain stupid. I agree. Everything else is on the table.
I give myself permission to do what I want. I go where I want. I wear what I want. I read what I want. I eat what I want. Surprisingly, I very rarely say what I want, but I say plenty, and it's fair to keep my thoughts to myself. Perhaps because I am a free elf, I do not give myself permission to overeat, stay up too late, spend money frivolously, be overweight, or watch dumb stuff on TV.
Other people will not give themselves permission for other things. To go out without wearing makeup. To tell missionaries to get off the porch and never come back. To wear comfortable shoes. One person's freedom is another person's asceticism. One person's prison is another person's freedom.
Fourteen-second rule. Do you do it? Do you eat food that hits the floor?
Eating grapes while shopping for produce, or taking samples from the bulk bins. Do you do it?
Texting and driving. Do you do it? I sure as [unprintable] hope not.
Being late. Forty minutes? Twenty minutes? Ten minutes? One minute? How often?
Ask around. The answers to these questions are highly personal. Most people will recoil in shock or disgust at one thing, but shrug and admit that they do another, while the person standing right next to them will do the exact opposite. We don't always agree on how these behaviors fit into civilization, or what constitutes a social norm.
What we do generally agree on is that it's okay to break New Year's Resolutions. It's fine to overeat and struggle with weight and body image. It's totally ordinary to have piles of laundry laying around. It's expected to be disorganized. It's practically required to blow off going to the gym. It's somewhat uncouth to have read the entire book before the book club meeting. It's standard to carry debt and have no retirement savings, even when you're fifty. Even though these common areas of attempted resolutions involve the same self-discipline as obeying social norms, they are not regarded AS social norms, and thus they are fair game.
What we have to ask ourselves is which we prefer. Do we prefer fitting in and living the conventional track? Or do we prefer solving what we have felt to be a problem in our lives, at the risk of no longer bonding with people about the problem? Is the tradeoff worth it? What do we give ourselves permission to do or not do?
The Slight Edge is a great candidate if you're looking for just one self-improvement book to read this year. It touches on everything I would want to say to someone who is struggling in some area of life and looking for a way out. Jeff Olson's message is that the little things we do every day make more of a difference than larger-scale efforts, whether for good or ill.
Olson starts out by describing his "day of disgust." That's the day he became fed up with himself and knew that he needed to change his behavior. I had a day like this while journaling, and I've known others to have their day of disgust and quit smoking, quit drinking alcohol, and vow to permanently lose the extra body weight. The triggers in those cases were seeing a bunch of smokers standing in the rain by a dumpster, spending a night in jail after a DUI, and being insulted by a friend. I feel fortunate that my day of disgust happened while I was comfortably ensconced in my own bedroom! People often refer to this kind of moment of clarity as "hitting rock bottom" - but one person's rock bottom is another person's starting place. We can let go of the idea that external input needs to bonk us on the head before we make the firm decision to be accountable for our own behavior. We can just decide to change.
The Slight Edge includes some great graphics. The success curve chart made a lot of sense to me. Success is determined by whether a person takes full responsibility or blames something or someone else instead. My clients always blame themselves, among other people. They believe they're lazy and lack willpower. They wallow in shame and guilt many times every day. They constantly insult themselves. Blaming someone else might at least offer the motivation of revenge, of "I'll show YOU! You have no idea who you're dealing with!" Blaming ourselves is a sure-fire way to fall down the well and get stuck down there. Accountability is a route out. Every time we figure out a way to solve a problem, every time we think more of the future instead of the past, every time we work toward something positive rather than sitting and perseverating in negativity, we move upward on the success curve.
The most interesting part of The Slight Edge for me was the idea that "the size of the problem determines the size of the person." The specific example was the way that the type of problems we are solving at work determines our income. The biggest problem I ever had during my old day job was getting a paper cut on my eyelid. If I could have solved larger-scale problems such as program management, I could have been earning three times as much and delegating the paper-cut-getting to someone else.
The Slight Edge, according to Olson, is all about what we do when nobody's looking. Do we make the incremental choices that lead toward our goals, or do we let ourselves off the hook? Can we keep ourselves focused even when we're not seeing results yet? The results of the success curve only become visible 80% of the way along the curve. (I ran a marathon four years after I went out the door and couldn't run around one single block in my neighborhood). Can we hang onto a dream, or do we talk ourselves out of wanting it because we don't trust ourselves to work for it?
Olson suggests a 250-day program, which is one year with 115 days off. That means following through roughly 2/3 of the time. For any goal, whether it's reading more, going to the gym, or brown-bagging your lunch, 250 days is enough to make significant progress. Another suggestion is to do that which 95% of people aren't willing to do. I will vouch for that, also. I've been free of consumer debt for a decade because I'm willing to live in a small house with one bathroom, share a vehicle, and go without cable TV or a storage unit. I went from obese to a size zero because I'm willing to keep a food log, and I ran a marathon because I'm willing to exercise in the rain. I didn't run every day and I didn't meet a strict calorie goal every day; two-thirds of the time sounds like my reality. I fully agree that the Slight Edge is a mental adjustment that can easily solve any problem, and I highly recommend the book.
Groundhog Day. An American tradition. A marmot-based weather forecasting device. Also one of the best movies ever made. If the only thing you do today is think about Bill Murray, consider this a day well-lived. Watching Groundhog Day would be even better. What would be even better than that would be to consider today to be a Second New Year, another chance to live up to your expectations for yourself.
A quarter of people who made New Year's Resolutions quit after the first week. That's according to statistics. I think it's because people get all wound up and perfectionistic, and punish themselves for not having an instant 365-day streak of success. My way around this is just to not count January.
January is for: getting a cold; staying home and trying to catch up financially after the holidays; decompressing after holiday travel and Fourth Quarter workloads; thinking about putting away decorations; and maybe realizing how crowded the gym is for two weeks of the year. The weather is so bad in most of the Northern Hemisphere that, if you're ever going to spend a month bundled in a blanket on the couch, then January should be that month.
My Januaries are a bit different, because New Year's is my favorite holiday and because I'd rather be lazy in the summer. I use January to finish any projects or books left over from the previous year, research my new resolutions, purge my closets, and level up my workout. By the time February rolls around, I have a sense of how I'm going to make progress on my resolutions. Then it's just business as usual, the new normal.
The worst mistake people make about habit change is to moralize. We blame and punish ourselves. We insult ourselves, saying we are lazy and that we have no willpower. We think we're weak. It's really more like learning to tie your shoes or ride a bike. It's more complicated than it looks, and just because other people can do it easily doesn't mean we're going to get it right on the first try. We'll make our changes eventually, but only because we keep trying over and over and over again. We'll change only when we really want to and when we're convinced that it's a good idea.
Plenty of people don't wear shoes with laces and don't know how to ride a bike. Clearly you can live your entire life without learning certain skills or doing certain activities. All it means is that if you can't tie your shoelaces, you'll have a tough time going hiking, or running, or wearing the most comfortable shoes. All it means is that if you can't ride a bike, then you can't go anywhere on a bike, and if you're invited to ride somewhere then you'll be left behind. If you never make the habit change you resolved to do, you can go right on living the same way you did before. All that will happen is that you'll continue to be excluded from activities that involve those skills and abilities.
Continue not to study a foreign language, and all it means is that when you meet people who speak that language, you won't be able to talk to them. If you travel, there may be situations that would have gone differently if you had the right language skills, but you'll never know.
Continue to maintain your body image, and all it means is that you'll continue on the same vector toward old age that you're on now. You might have had totally different life experiences if you were fit and strong, but you won't be finding out this year.
Continue not to be organized, and all it means is that you'll have a certain number of preventable disasters where you're late to your commitments, can't find things when you want them, and have to pay the occasional fine or fee.
Continue not to pay off your debts or save money, and all it means is that your debt will snowball. The interest charges will add to your balance and your minimum payments will gradually increase. It'll wind up costing you more and more the longer you wait. If you've been in debt a long time, this may add to your sense of futility and disempowerment, but if you're good at ignoring it, then maybe it won't.
None of these things make you a "bad person" or "lazy" or "unmotivated" or whatever. I don't believe in laziness. I think that when people don't do something that is a good idea, it's either because it never occurred to them, they don't know how to do it, or they're focused on something else. New Year's Resolutions imply that an idea has occurred to someone and that there is at least a little bit of focus on it. If the resolution isn't happening immediately, that's a good sign that it's unclear how to proceed. If it's a part of a big enough vision, then it may require more research and testing than other, lesser aims.
When I choose a resolution for the year, I pick something that I believe will give me an easier or more interesting life. I imagine that by next December, this new thing will be a regular part of me. It'll be something I know how to do, somewhere I've gone, or something I've done. I'll cook recipes I've never tried before, go to cities where I don't know my way around, get down on the floor and do exercises I've never tried, pronounce words I've never said before, and try to learn how to do complicated new things. If I've chosen something really juicy, it might take me all year to learn how to do it. Why would I quit doing something in January when the year has barely gotten started? On February Second, only nine percent of the year has elapsed. There's still PLENTY of time left. Maybe the groundhog will see his shadow and there will be six more weeks of screwing off. Get started in mid-March, then. Otherwise, spring into action and be awesome.
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.