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.
Leo Babauta knows whereof he speaks. He started out as an overweight smoker with six kids, a house full of clutter, and a bunch of debt. Now he's a minimalist who has run a fifty mile ultra-marathon, and if he can do that with an eight-person household, he's probably a superhero. When he talks about common goals like health and fitness or getting organized, I pay attention. He's done it. He knows what it takes to make massive habit changes and stick to them. It turns out that the secret is The Power of Less.
Peace of mind is the ultimate goal, and Babauta teaches how mindfulness helps make life easier. Only try to make one change at a time, concentrate on just that, and set up your environment around that change. The book includes a 30-day habit change plan, the Power of Less Challenge, which thousands of his readers have completed. It has rules, and one of the most important ones is to choose a small goal. He explains how to break big goals down into segments that an actual ordinary human being can do.
Clutter goes out the door one bag at a time. Debt is paid off one dollar at a time. A marathon becomes possible one sidewalk square at a time - I know, because when I started I couldn't even run around the block, and I wasn't even a smoker! Working on small goals takes self-compassion, both because you want a better life for yourself and because if you really do want it, you have to tackle it in a way that is manageable. No perfectionism, no punishment.
The Power of Less walks its talk. It's a slender book that could easily have expanded into a full shelf of much longer volumes. Whether you want to clean your desk, stop spending your whole day answering email, get more sleep, or start exercising, Babauta has been there first. He's here to show us the way, one small step at a time.
Decisions are everything. We think it's willpower. We think it's motivation. We think it's passion. It's really much simpler than that. We just have to make up our minds and talk ourselves into it. We come up with a story that makes it clear what we're going to do, and then we decide to do it. Make the decision and the rest is easy.
Nowhere is lack of decision more clear than with clutter. My clients are totally stymied by what to do about each individual item in their homes. Do I need this pencil? I don't know, do I? What do I do with all this mail? What if I really do need fifty-five t-shirts? What if I don't feel like doing laundry for six weeks - then what will I wear? Learning to make a decision means living with the emotional discomfort of cutting off options.
Decision means "to cut away." At first, cutting away options feels scary and sad. You mean that now that I'm a grown-up, I'm really never going to be a ballerina-astronaut? Thirty-one flavors? But that means I can't taste at least twenty-eight of them today! The worst day of my life was when I finally realized that I couldn't read every book ever written. Cutting off options feels like death.
The truth is the opposite. Refuse to choose and you lose. (I just made that up). That desire to keep all options open means never doing anything. It makes you into a perma-bachelor of life. There are eight different foreign language courses on my Amazon wish list right now because I haven't decided which one to do first. Each week that goes by is a week during which I am not learning any of them. If I had just picked one last January, I would be a competent beginner by now, and I'd only have to decide between the other seven. Not choosing is choosing. It's choosing to continue with your default. If you love your default, then great! If not, then you have to choose between the current pain of the default, or the immediate but temporary pain of the choice.
Everyone knows that couple who are always breaking up and getting back together again. They can't decide.
Everyone knows someone who tries on a bunch of different outfits and leaves most of them piled on the bed. Can't decide.
Everyone knows someone who spends half an hour reading the menu and making the waiter come back later, only to regret the choice and covet someone else's dinner. Can't decide.
Decisions are the proof that we have free will. Indecision is messy. Indecision is painful and awkward. Indecision usually ripples out and annoys others. What we don't realize is that the most powerful and creative people in the world don't make many decisions. Most decisions can be made once, because they're really not decisions so much as systems, policies, or habit structures. People who live big lives do not waffle over what they're going to wear or what they're going to eat. They have bigger and more interesting things to do with their time.
One way to make these systematic one-and-done decisions is to aim for only the four- and five-star experiences. Only keep clothes that make you look great today, not things that might potentially be somewhat suitable for a possible, yet highly unlikely, unimaginable future situation. Only keep stuff in your house that improves your life in an active way. Do whatever it takes to make your personal environment and your routine daily schedule as awesome as possible.
We start at the wrong end and get everything backward. Being stuck in indecision means you're focusing on choices that were foisted upon you by the outside world. I'm looking at a menu someone else wrote and I can't pick one option. I'm looking at a pile of clothes and trying to decide which ones to pull out. Those are bottom-up decisions. From the top down, we have the aerial view, the strategic view. What do I want to eat? How do I want to look? What do I want my house to be like, inside and out? What do I want to do with my time? With whom do I want to socialize or snuggle today? When this kind of top-down decision is made, the smaller decisions become non-decisions. What do I want my office to feel and look like? I want it to be functional and to look like it was designed intentionally. When almost none of the objects in my office fit that description, then they need to go away. What's left is a bare surface, my tablet, a mug of tea, and a poster I like looking at. Starting with a stack of papers and wondering what to do with them is more likely to result in wandering away to "deal with it later." Accepting our external circumstances as the status quo almost always results in nothing more than a continuation of that status quo.
Why we are doing what we are doing should be self-evident. If someone asks, Why are you eating that? or What are you wearing? then that might indicate a problem. I'm doing this because I decided to do it, because it works for me. I made a conscious choice. I have one life to live, and I'm going to live it in this specific way at this specific moment. The decision is mine. Let it be that I recognize all the decisions that are open to me. Making the most of life means making decisions.
I had the good fortune to see Lewis Howes in person last summer. He gave a workshop at the World Domination Summit, and it changed lives. I know because I stayed in contact with several of the people I met at the workshop, and they couldn't stop discussing it. The School of Greatness includes several exercises that have the potential to be just as transformative as those in the workshop, if you are willing to take them seriously.
This is the ideal time of year to read a book like The School of Greatness. Hopefully, we're still in Resolution Mode and remembering that we want to do impressive things this year. We're hanging on. It's still January! Half of people with New Year's resolutions have quit by June, though, and if we want to fulfill our potential, we have to plan. The more we dive into HOW and WHY, the stronger our commitments. Workbooks can be really helpful in posing questions and presenting examples that we never would have thought of ourselves.
I sat down with my journal and started with the Perfect Day Itinerary. By the time I had finished it, several things had clicked with me about the projects I want to do this year. I wrote out a schedule and started following it before I had even read the next chapter in the book. Suddenly, these huge intimidating goals I had set for myself during a fit of optimism on New Year's Eve seem... fairly straightforward. As I read through the book, the material helped to reinforce why I'm doing what I'm doing.
A chapter that I particularly enjoyed discussed the daily habits of successful people. It turns out that successful people do a lot of the same things every day, even when the areas of their expertise are wildly different. Howes suggests comparing your own daily habits with these keystone habits and seeing where they match and where they don't. I do almost all of these things myself, and can easily remember a time when I didn't! Average people will argue against a habit like making your bed every morning, or argue for a habit like watching hours of TV every night. No, that's not me. That won't work for me. This is how I roll. Then we wonder why it's so easy for all these wealthy, famous people who get everything, and why it's so hard for us. Two of those answers are HUSTLE and SELF-DISCIPLINE.
What makes Lewis Howes great, and he knows it, is that he spends most of his time with fascinating and successful people from all walks of life. He interviews them on his podcast to figure out what makes them great. What do they know that we don't know? What do they do that we don't do? What was it like for them back when they were average? How can we absorb this information and use it to make ourselves better? The School of Greatness is the place where we find out the answers.
If Learning to spot naysayers can be a huge help when trying to achieve anything in life. Naysaying is nearly universal, and people can be really taken in by it. Negativity and criticism can give the impression that the critic is smarter than average, which is the payoff for engaging in it. It takes a lot of confidence to withstand a barrage of criticism, and we tend to be short on confidence when we're uncertainly feeling our way toward a new state of being. Expect that the more awesome the goal, the more naysaying it will draw out. Criticism can be seen as an Awesomeness Detector.
Note that every celebrity and public figure has detractors. The more famous the person, the meaner the haters. If nobody is criticizing you, then you aren't doing anything, even leaving your house, because there are always random bystanders willing to pick on you just for walking by.
Now, to state the obvious, not every idea is a great idea. Not every great idea is great for a particular person, in a particular situation, at a particular place and time. It is foolish to disregard all input and advice. Sometimes they have a point. What we want to do is to distinguish between naysaying and constructive criticism, which do not overlap.
People tend to fall into a temperamental setting. Some people are snarky. Some are cheerful. There is a broad spectrum in between. Most people are going to fall within a predictable range of responses regardless of the situation. Think of the proverbial "Russian judge" who gives out lower scores at Olympic events. When receiving commentary, consider the source.
Credibility. Does this person have credentials or experience in what you are trying to do?
Motivation. Was this feedback solicited or unsolicited?
Track record. How accurate was this person's advice in previous situations?
Context. Is this a one-on-one, private, in-person conversation? Is it part of an anonymous discussion on social media? Big difference.
Relationship. What is this person's relationship to you? Parent? Friend? Boss? Mentor?
How does this assessment work in practice?
Let's say I'm training for a marathon. I have two sources of advice to consider. One is a relative whose overall fitness level is low and who has no running background. This person warns me that I'll hurt my knees. The other source of advice is a random guy my age whom I met at a crosswalk, who runs ultramarathons. He says he only trains two or three days a week, back-to-back on weekends and maybe one weekday, shares his weekly mileage, and then wishes me good luck. How do I weight this advice? Can you spot the naysayer?
When I want to do something that is far outside my comfort zone, and I don't know anyone who has done it, I want to be wide open to new information. I want to attract knowledgeable and helpful mentors. I want to demonstrate that I am serious, I am committed, and I am making progress on my own. At that point, my actions will inevitably draw nods from my target mentors. I may not recognize them, but they'll recognize me, just as the ultramarathon guy saw me in my running gear and asked if I was "training or just running." I am expecting that the advice I will hear from mentors will be contrary to at least one thing I'm doing. I expect that I will hear brief mentions of books I should be reading, documentaries I should have seen, websites and podcasts I should be following, and experts I should know about. I take notes and follow up. I can't let anything I hear disappoint me or hurt my feelings, because my goal is TO LEARN. I need to adapt to the material and to the rules of the game, and be grateful for the help, even if the advice was unsolicited and the expert annoys me in some way.
The trouble is that naysayers also share their opinions for free.
Naysayers are motivated by dissatisfaction. Happy, fulfilled people don't waste their time worrying about what other people are doing; they keep their eyes on their own homework. A good barometer is how many hours a day the individual is spending on social media. Naysaying is also motivated by social comparison, pessimism, a desire for attention, unfulfilled ego needs for respect and status, aggression, and hostility. Who knows what else. Naysayers are similar to trolls in these respects.
Naysayer tactics include bringing up your past failures, sharing stories of similar failures by others, and declarations that what you are doing will never work. Naysayers will start with the assumption that you have no idea what you are doing and that you haven't done any research. Naysayers will attribute your motivations, methods, and results to character flaws. Your goal is selfish. Your goal is stupid. Your goal is elitist. You think you're too good for everyone. You're conceited and all you do is talk about yourself. Your goal is too expensive. If it involves ridicule or shame, it's naysaying. If it involves discouraging you from even getting started, it's probably naysaying. If this person has had a similar response to other things you have done, it's certainly naysaying.
Constructive criticism is motivated by a desire to help you reach the goal. A critic will interview you, trying to ascertain where you are in the process and how much advance preparation you have already done. Constructive criticism can be just as uncomfortable as naysaying, but at the end, you should feel either validated or better informed. For instance, if someone else wanted to run a marathon, I would offer that it costs around $200, that many races sell out months in advance, and that some races require a qualifying time from another race. All of this information could sound discouraging, but the purpose of sharing it is so that the new marathoner can avoid disappointment and plan ahead.
A naysayer will attack WHY you are doing something, while a critic will examine HOW you are doing it.
Naysayers think they're helping. If you have a problem with it, you have a thin skin and you need to toughen up, plus you need to quit being so dumb and unreasonable about this goal. There is a point to be taken in any advice to develop a thicker skin. Naysayers are like NPCs (non-player characters) with whom you cannot avoid interacting whenever you are on a quest. If you're going to encounter them every single time you set out to do something cool, might as well get used to it. Try to laugh about it. Of course, another underrated technique is to keep your plans absolutely secret until you're already done. For instance, once I got my race medal, I stopped hearing any naysaying. Naysayers don't like talking about your successes and accomplishments, because the conversation might shift to how they aren't exactly fulfilled and thriving in their own lives.
Naysaying tends to be more concentrated the closer you get to your inner circle. This is for two reasons. One is that perfect strangers will assume you accomplish goals like this all the time, and that this is an interesting feature about you. Another is that we only tolerate a certain level of negativity from people we can't escape, like family or roommates. Family members will badmouth, cheat, steal, and backstab each other in ways that nobody would ever tolerate from a stranger, neighbor, or colleague. Not MY family, of course! It's true, though, that I've seen family members sever relationships with each other by bickering over inheritances, stealing boyfriends, etc. Expect a minimum standard of decency and civility from people in your inner circle, and if they don't meet that standard, quit telling them personal details about your life.
A goal is like a warm little egg with a chick inside. It's your egg. Your goal is to incubate it until it hatches. You protect it and hover over it and turn it so it heats evenly on all sides, making soft little clucking sounds. You don't let anyone near your egg. Hopefully predators don't even realize you have an egg, because otherwise they're going to try to take it from you and eat it, and it will never see the light of day. You tend your warm little egg faithfully for the days or weeks it takes to hatch. Finally, little cracks begin to form. A naysayer would tell you that these cracks are flaws, and that you should never have laid this egg in the first place. Believing in the advice of a naysayer is like dejectedly trudging away from the nest just before your chick is about to hop out. Finally, your goal hatches! The next time you set about a new goal, you'll recognize the signs, and you can tell your naysayers to flap off.
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.