IT’S DECEMBER! And you know what that means! Two entire months of... NEW YEAR’S PLANNING!!! Oh, gosh, there’s nothing quite as magical and special as spending two months celebrating a one-day holiday. They won’t let me do full-on Valentine’s Mania for two months, so I’m going with the New Year. Obviously everyone is going to dedicate the month before the New Year to the big day. I’m just doing all of January because I can, because I never want the glitter to end.
Look at my shiny new day planner! LOOK AT IT!
I got this 13-month planner so I could get a head start on 2018. Holy smoke. I can’t think of a year I’ve wanted to get here quite as much as I’ve wanted 2018. An entire year loaded with potential. So. Much. Potential.
Seriously, this is a big freaking deal. They say only 8% of people who make New Year’s Resolutions actually keep them, and I’m definitely in that 8%. I’ve been doing this every year since I was 9. Take all your feelings about freshly sharpened pencils, crunchy leaves, rainbows, puppies, cereal for dinner, and new socks, wrap them into one feeling, and that’s getting close to how I feel about my strategic planning process for my annual goals and resolutions.
How does it work???
Start with optimism. Whatever sucks in your life, you can get rid of it. No matter how much you are annoying yourself, you can stop. Anything you want to learn, you can learn, because this is the internet, yo.
Identify your open loops. There are 31 whole, complete days left of 2017. That’s actually a huge amount of time for year-end closure.
For the last few years, I have been doing quarterly check-ins on my goals and resolutions. This is not just for public accountability; it’s also to keep myself focused. I want to at least REMEMBER the fabulous plans I made for myself. For 2017 I tried an experiment, breaking my annual plans down by the month. That was a pathetic failure. Granted, our personal life blew up in the first week of the New Year, but saying that is like blaming your tiles for losing at Scrabble.
The big thing in my year is that I committed to two major fitness goals, and I have yet to complete either one. I’m supposed to be able to run five miles again, and I’m supposed to do P90X, since I bought it for myself a few years ago and it’s still in the shrink wrap. Either I’m going to fail or I’m going to spend most of December hopping around and sweating.
I have a large piece of furniture that I want to get rid of, and now is as good a time as any. I also have a few things to sell on eBay, and the timing will be particularly good if I do it within the next two weeks.
Every year, I clean my home top to bottom. I open every drawer, every cabinet, every cupboard, every closet, and I look at the contents of every shelf. This is partly a time to tighten screws and spot-clean walls and carpets. Mostly, it’s time to throw away worn-out socks, check expiration dates, and consider what needs upgrading or replacing. On New Year’s Day, I like to wake up to a gleaming house with some free storage space, with nothing to do but lounge around reading all day in my pajamas.
Every year, I also like to go through all my papers and digital files. Above all, I want to start the New Year with the feeling of a truly fresh start. That means no loose ends in the form of incomplete applications, unpaid fines, unsorted papers, unanswered email, unsent letters or packages, or otherwise incomplete bureaucratic work. DONE is what I want. I don’t even want to be in the middle of reading a book!
I’m doing Fridge Zero (more to come on this topic), and since I know I’ll be throwing out any leftovers, I’m also planning meals around what we currently have in the fridge, freezer, and pantry.
Coincidentally, December First is a Friday this year, and it’s one of my husband’s alternating three-day weekends. He’s cheerfully agreed to do a strat session with me. He has this vile habit of making his goals and then crushing them within the first three weeks. Upholders! What can you do with them? It’s up to you whether goal-planning with your friendly local Upholder is motivating or demotivating for you. As for us, we’re going to spend part of the weekend getting a head start on the delectable, once-in-a-lifetime 2018 that is coming our way.
Oh, and someone’s gotta say it, so I will. It has been exactly one year since December 1, 2016, so... HAPPY NEW YEAR!
Getting what you want is to be distinguished from doing what you want. Often it’s possible to have both; the things we want to have and the things we want to do aren’t always related. Other times, though, doing what you want actively prevents you from getting what you want. Sometimes the reverse is true, when getting what you want gets in the way of doing what you want. All of that is a moot point if you don’t actually know what you want in the first place.
Figuring out what you want has to be specific, or you won’t know when you have it. For instance, if you want “shoes,” do you want to wear them? If so, then you have to ask for your size. Are we talking any and every pair of shoes in your size? Probably not. The more detailed your vision, the more likely you’re going to find yourself walking away in some great new shoes. Too broad, and you may find yourself knee-deep in a closet catastrophe, with piles of shoes that are pretty but too uncomfortable to ever actually wear. This is the first pitfall, of thinking you want something only to realize that the request was too broad. Getting what you want - the cute shoes - interferes with doing what you want, presumably walking or dancing or making it through the night without carrying them like a small dog.
Is it the shoes that you really wanted, though? Or was it the excitement of a new purchase? The desire to feel attractive to others, to draw admiration? Maybe it was something negative like insecurity, boredom, or envy? A feeling of obligation to buy something after spending time at that store? Every object serves both a practical and an emotional need. Acknowledgment of the emotional need tends to lead to much faster results.
Getting what you want works better when you think in terms beyond the material. Physical objects are so easy to come by in our culture that it’s usually harder to get rid of them than it is to bring them home. What are things you want that aren’t physical things?
Peace of mind
Time in nature
Being in “the zone” or a “flow state”
Maybe some things that are tangible while not being objects:
A safe neighborhood
Being “organized” and orderly
Physical strength and stamina
Doing what you want is usually interpreted as “feeling like it” or being “in the mood.” You’re doing what you want when nobody else is telling you what to do. You’re choosing how you spend your time and what you do, in what order. That’s the feeling of autonomy and agency that many of us aren’t finding at our jobs. We put so much importance on doing what we want in our free time because we’re quite tired of being ordered around and having to follow someone else’s schedule during the workday. Some of us come home to the extra job of managing a romantic partner, kids, and a home environment that reflects a lot of attempts at getting what we thought we wanted.
This is where doing what you want sometimes precludes getting what you want. The same leisure time that could be spent finding a more satisfying job or going on adventures tends to disappear somehow. So much of that precious free time tends to go to relatively unsatisfying time sucks like social media, games, or binge-watching something or other. On the list of Things You Want That Aren’t Things, is this activity leading toward any of them?
Power is not given; it’s taken. That’s agency. Initiative comes from within. It’s only when you decide that you’re going after something like a skill or a character trait or a credential or a job opening that you ever get to have it. Nobody comes knocking, asking, “Say, would you like to feel more competent today?” (People do come knocking to offer a few things, namely friendship, adventure, and romance, but only when you already seem like the kind of person who’d be up for it). The result of taking initiative and following through is that you expand your circle of influence. More people trust and rely on you to do more things. The more you take on, the more you execute well, the more it tends to turn into leverage. Money and autonomy! This is when going after what you want leads to doing what you want.
Self-discipline is freedom. That sounds like it came straight out of 1984 - it’s been a while since I read it; I’d have to check. What it means is that the more you create your own structures and guidelines, the more likely you are to get what you want. Since you’ve chosen it for yourself, it starts to feel more like you’re doing what you want, as well.
Pay off your consumer debt, and two things happen. Your credit improves, and the money you used to pay toward interest and finance charges is suddenly available for you to spend. The temporary self-discipline of restricting spending results in greater financial freedom and options.
Get fit, and all kinds of things happen. Your energy level goes up, your sleep improves, your posture improves, you don’t get sick as often, and all these weird little mystery aches and pains disappear. You stop having cravings for certain foods and start wanting more water. Suddenly you find that you have energy left over at the end of the day. You’re ready, willing, and able to do all sorts of interesting things you wouldn’t have been into in the past.
Master a character flaw, and everything happens. You stop annoying yourself. Your relationships improve. You start being the beneficiary of greater kindness and respect. You realize that self-control makes your life easier, and that this ripples outward.
Getting what you want tends to be the result of applied persistence. It takes learning the rules. How do people go about getting this? This job, this personality trait, this skill, this series of adventures and experiences? What do you have to do differently if you want this for yourself, whatever it is? Doing what you’ve been doing is getting you whatever you’re getting. Doing slightly less of what you want in the short term may be all that’s necessary to get what you want, and then go back to doing what you want, too.
The 12 Week Year is a business productivity book that has seized my attention. In fact, I’m working on my first 12-week plan right now. The other night, I somehow convinced myself that Third Quarter 2017 was ending a month early and I started feeling frantic about my unmet goals for the year. It was a visceral confirmation that deadlines are more motivating than goals with vague time horizons. The fact that most people bail on their New Year’s Resolutions is a solid indicator that a 12-week “year” may be more effective. Brian P. Moran and Michael Lennington, you’ve got me. I’m doing this.
The book claims that more than 60% of the time, the reason people don’t achieve their goals is due to lack of execution, but instead they tend to blame the plan. This is going to lead to either changing plans or giving up. I know this was true for me when I first tried to use a food log and I wasn’t losing weight. I asked my husband for help in analyzing my data, and, with some complicated math from the realm of astrophysics, he made a chart for me. I had to admit that I wasn’t being nearly as strict with my eating plan as I had convinced myself. Almost immediately I started to get results. This is an example that supports the concept of the 12-week scorecard. Rate yourself on your execution, not your results.
The 12 Week Year is fully loaded as an inspiring motivational handbook. The message is that we can achieve anything we want, if we are specific in our visions, strict in our execution, and rigorous with our consequences. It discusses “the mistaken notion that accountability is something that can and must be imposed; that’s not accountability, that’s consequences.” This is HUGE! If you’re not meeting your goals, it’s because you’re not worried about the consequences of failure. On the one hand, this is a sign of a nice easy life: the luxury of playing with pseudo-goals as a fun diversion. On the other hand, it’s a sign that nothing will ever change until your behaviors change.
The 12 Week Year has some great graphics, including a chart of “The Emotional Cycle of Change.” This alone makes the book a must-read. Another feature I really appreciated was the list of pitfalls for each section. So many goal-setting books are full of fluff about how amazing it will feel to achieve the goal, while including little or nothing about how to deal with the emotional and logistical issues that hold us back. “The Iceberg of Intentions” illustrates this beautifully, showing how easy it is to miss the hidden intentions that capsize our plans.
I have a “hidden” intention of never missing out on awesome edible treats. That’s why I struggle with my ostensible “real” intention to take care of myself and avoid predictable health issues.
My only issue with this book is the way the score-keeping system weights goals. Say I’m working on fitness, and my goals in that area are to get up at 6 AM, go to the gym and do the elliptical for an hour, and do my alternate weight-cutting food plan. I would get one point for each of those three goals, and if I blew one, my score in that area would be 66%. A D grade! I need to get up at 6 for my plan to work, but if all I do is get up early, I still get a point. Meanwhile, I know from experience that if I exercise at maximum capacity and eat vacation-style, I won’t lose weight, I’ll gain. For my personal practice, following the food plan needs to be weighted at about 10x more important than going to the gym. Either that, or I need to make my food plan its own goal and detach it from my physical training goals. Of course, all this means is that my home version of the 12 Week Year will be more personalized, not that there are any issues with rating progress on a 12-week timeframe rather than a calendar year.
For those who want to take this further, there is a website with a very glossy computer tracking system. It also has this PDF workbook, which I quite like. Messrs. Moran and Lennington, thank you for this.
“If you are unwilling to confront reality, then you will never be able to change it.”
The word “administrivia”
It’s autumn, it’s Fourth Quarter, and the freaking holidays will be here before we know it. I’m not excited about this. Sure, I’m thrilled about Halloween, which I adore, and I’m already feeling a little frisson of excitement about the New Year, my favorite day. It’s just the icky part in between, when the weather is terrible, the lines are long, and the traffic is brutal. I spend the four or five weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas holed up at home, trying to avoid a single note of Christmas music or having to look at any combination of red and green. Fall is the time of year when I focus on getting things done. This is the time for the great Project Burndown.
I started doing this when I realized that I kept having to make the same New Year’s Resolutions over and over again. It was supposed to be New Year’s Day, not Groundhog Day! I either needed to get over these goals and let them go, or I needed to figure out how to do them. Was I ever really going to drink more water, get more sleep, lose 10 15 20 25 30 35 pounds, or learn to speak Spanish? Was I always going to have an entire closet dedicated to unfinished craft projects? Was I always going to have an entire bookcase full of books I’d bought but never read? Was I ever going to scrape the last few tasks off the bottom of my to-do list? What would Future Me do without any of these past goals and commitments to distract her?
Project Burndown is about completing old commitments. It’s about fulfilling obligations. It’s about restoring scattered mental bandwidth. Project Burndown is about closing the books and preparing for a fresh start. It’s what we have to do to prove to ourselves that we can keep our private agreements, that we can trust ourselves to only make contracts that we truly desire to fulfill. Project Burndown is about turning around and facing forward, rather than walking backward through life.
What kind of commitments do we tend to make and then not complete? Reviewing this says a lot about how we see ourselves and how we wish to be seen by others.
Promising handmade gifts. We think we can make up for our lack of physical or emotional presence by giving our time, crystallized in the form of a handmade gift. I quit doing this the year my nephew took one look at the superhero cape I’d made for him and threw it over his shoulder to move on to the next gift. Gift-giving should reflect the interests of the recipient. See: The Five Love Languages.
Unmade phone calls, unwritten letters or cards, unsent packages. We think our desire to be close to this friend or relative counts, even when that person has no way of knowing how often we think about reaching out. It’s possible they wouldn’t even want to talk to us as long or as often as we think they would. After all, you can call people from your pocket on accident now, and the phone works both ways.
Reading or watching everything. We think we can somehow consume all the information on the entire internet. We think not only that we can keep up with today and with the entire backlog, but that we’ll also be able to stay caught up with everything that will be released tomorrow. Everything is a tradeoff. The hour that is spent doing one thing is not available for doing anything else. We can’t read one book with each eye; believe me, I’ve tried.
Finishing craft projects. Only when we admit that we prefer shopping and collecting materials to actually using them can we get our heads around this. Shopping is not a hobby; shopping is a way of filling our homes and closets with bags of stuff we’ll never use. Shopping for recreation is a way of wasting money we could have spent on travel or cooking lessons. Or Future Self’s retirement.
Sorting stuff and “getting organized.” Getting organized starts with a vision of an easier life. Organize what? For what purpose? Sorting stuff requires the ability to make a firm decision. I’m done with this and out it goes. I’ll never use this, and out it goes. I never did use this, and I’m over it, and out it goes. Sorting stuff is a job that will never end, unless it ends in carrying bags out the door and dropping them off somewhere.
Physical transformation. I wrestled with my own desire to transform my body for many, many years. I didn’t believe it could be done due to “genetics” or whatever. I thought I was trapped in chronic illness. Then I decided to empty my cup and assume that every single thing I thought I knew was incorrect. Clean cup! I was able to reach my goal weight in just four months. I ran a marathon. Not only have I maintained my goal weight for nearly four years, but I also haven’t had a migraine in that entire time. Once I made a true decision and brought clarity to my goal, it turned out to be quite simple and straightforward. (Not “easy,” just simple).
Learning a new skill. Learning new things is one of the greatest joys in life. It keeps things exciting. We have to make time to concentrate and focus, though. Learning a new skill or a new language, taking a class, means cutting something else out of the schedule. For a lot of people, this could easily be done by cutting loose a TV show. For others, it requires the ability to put your foot down and say, “You watch the kids, order a pizza or whatever, I’m going to class every Tuesday and Thursday.”
I like to start each New Year with a clean slate. I like to wake up on New Year’s Day with a sparkling, immaculate house. I like to have my goals for the year written out in an attractive format. I like to throw out my old socks and underwear and donate a few bags of stuff I’m done with. I like to make sure we’ve eaten up all the leftovers in our fridge and freezer. I like to look over my projects and goals from the previous year and push through to finish them. I like to read through my news queue and close out all of my open tabs. I’m five years in and not done yet, but I’m working on reading all the books in the house and not stacking up unread material. Project Burndown is my time to do this.
One year, I’ll start out on January First with a totally clear slate. I’ll wake up with some kind of epic goal and nothing unfinished to stand in my way. One year I’ll slam the door on Past Me without any tendrils of past projects trying to reach through and grab my ankle. Every time I do a Project Burndown, I get a little closer to that day.
Where the heck did this year go? How did it get to be Fourth Quarter already? That means we only have three months left to knock off our resolutions from last year! As usual, I did some of mine at the very beginning of the year, while others have been languishing, still somehow incomplete. This is the time of year when I attempt to kick myself into gear, while also spending all of October celebrating an extended Halloween.
I just completed the work in Toastmasters to be a Competent Leader, three months ahead of schedule. In my second year of public speaking, I’m improving but still feeling physiologically hijacked and shaky a lot of the time.
My major personal goal for the year was to follow a set schedule. Not kidding, not even a week after committing publicly to this goal, our domestic life was turned upside down. For boring reasons related to commuting, I’m on a different schedule depending on what day of the week it is, and even what week of the month. The goal seems to be working, though. Because my time is stretched so thin, I’m finding that I really have to make the most of it. I’m usually up by 7:30 AM and I even get up at 6 to work out once or twice a week. I’m busier but I’m exercising more than I have in years. Having a schedule makes me feel busier, while weirdly making everything I do seem more important and interesting.
My physical goals of doing P90X and running five miles still remain incomplete. These will be my focus for Fourth Quarter, which should hopefully work out well because the temperature will be cooler at this time of year. It will also be nice to be fitter at the New Year than I was last January.
My home goal of “digitize, downsize, minimize” is now in bonus rounds. I decided not to keep physical books anymore, and I’ve been reading through my collection with the goal of downsizing my bookcase. There are only three shelves left out of six, and it looks like I’ll be able to pull this off. Getting rid of the bookcase would free up space in our tiny apartment so that I could have a desk again, if I so choose.
We had a couples goal of going to World Domination Summit this year, which we did, and it was great. We’ve already paid for our tickets for next year. We also had a goal to make homemade pickles, a commitment we made before moving into a new apartment with a microwave above the stove, which means our pressure canner won’t fit on a stove burner. We just ran out of our supply of homemade pickles, and we haven’t been satisfied with anything we’ve found at the grocery store. This is serious! Next step, refrigerator pickles.
I had a ‘stop goal’ of not being the last person to pack up my tent. I’ve only been camping once this year, but I made it! I wasn’t last! I dealt with my problem of feeling too cold to get out of the sleeping bag by buying and wearing a second base layer. I also got some ridiculous fleece pants and a fleece sleeping bag insert. Weird how having more stuff has actually made it easier for me to get up and pack.
For lifestyle upgrades, I planned to upgrade my phone and my work bag, and to repair our tent, which was torn up by a raccoon last year. I did upgrade my work bag, a decision that had a lot of unanticipated positive side effects. I also finally replaced the shredded mesh panel on the tent, and we were able to use it when we went to Wyoming. The new phone for which I have been waiting for three years has not yet been released.
My Do the Obvious goal for the year was to transform my appearance. I made this transformation back in February, and it doesn’t even feel weird anymore. I’ve made peace with the very difficult truism that other people’s opinions are strongly influenced by the way we choose to present ourselves. Clothing and grooming, who cares, right? But by that logic, if I really and truly don’t care, then I might as well put in the extra effort to look consistent with my desired results. In my case, that’s learning to look like I belong behind a podium or on stage when the occasion demands. I still feel disappointed and annoyed that this stuff actually works on people, like a crude magic trick. I don’t speak the same way when I’m on stage as I do in ordinary conversation, though, so it makes sense that I also wouldn’t dress the same.
My quest for the year was to BE RIDICULOUS. I want to go back ten months and shake Past Me until our teeth rattle. What a freaking stupid way to put that. So many ridiculous things have happened this year: I got bit on the butt by an earwig, we’ve been stranded in airports and on the runway to the point that we lost a day of our anniversary trip, I left our apartment for 90 minutes and our neighbors called Animal Control, I cut my eyeball on a plant... I swear, I meant ‘ridiculous’ in a good way!
I have a wish to pay off my student loan. This isn’t complete yet, but I have started making extra payments.
In July, I set up a charity: water campaign with the goal of providing clean water to 42 people. Despite having two months and offering a free gift to anyone who donated, we didn’t quite reach 1/3 of my goal. My disappointment about this is extreme. If everyone who reads my blog had put in one dollar, we would have easily surpassed that goal. I’ll blame myself for not writing good enough copy, not making a strong enough case for abundance mentality. If I can’t even motivate people who believe in personal growth to spend five minutes of their time and one dollar of their cash on a pure humanitarian charity, then I have a long way to go. I’m holding to my promise to delay the release of my new podcast until I can shake off this sadness.
Personal growth isn’t for us, it’s for us and the rest of the world!
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.
It’s not accountability that we need. It’s consequences. We think we would reach our goals and adopt new habits if only someone else would come along and hold us accountable. The truth is, if we’re in a situation in which we can get away with breaking our commitments, then there are no consequences. At least, there aren’t any consequences that we believe in.
Certain things we do automatically. We do things because we know how, it’s not a big deal, we can do them without thinking about them, or we actively enjoy them. We take showers, brush our teeth, feed the cat, and buy snacks. Nobody has to hold us accountable, although some of the death glares from the cat might count.
Other things we do without accountability are to: put gas in the car, buy groceries, deposit our paychecks, pay attention when we drive, text our friends, follow celebrity gossip, squash bugs and spiders, play games, and really actually tons of other activities. These are things we would never procrastinate. We wouldn’t procrastinate even if they’re disgusting or scary, like spider detail, or time-consuming, like gaming or waiting in the checkout line. We understand that these actions lead immediately to results that we want. We also understand that not doing these things leads to results we do not want, like missing a must-see TV episode or not knowing whether the newest royal pregnancy will produce a boy or a girl. Well, okay, we won’t be able to avoid that last one even if we try.
The trouble is that there actually are consequences to everything, but they usually don’t make themselves known in the short term.
It’s not that we don’t believe in these consequences. We know full well that we should be “saving for retirement,” for example. The problem is that we don’t really truly believe that the day will come when we’ll personally feel these consequences because we don’t believe in a Future Me. Who is that crazy old coot to tell me how to spend my money? The Me who exists on this continuum in the time dimension, that Future Me who has white hair and sun spots, is not a real person! I’m much too smart to grow old! Oh, sure, I mean, I’m going to be rich and famous and have a maid and a butler and a chauffeur, but that version of me will be young and fit and sexy. We spend more time planning what we would do if we Won a Million Dollars in the Lottery than we do planning how much we should put aside for retirement and whether we should buy long-term care insurance.
We want accountability to help us keep the commitment to work out because we know that otherwise, we’ll never do it. We won’t do it because we don’t like it and we don’t want to. We won’t do it because we don’t believe in a time when our mobility will be limited. We don’t believe we’ll ever have a harder time climbing stairs or sitting down than we do today.
Is there any other habit that we even want as much as we claim to want the habit of exercise? Not that I’ve noticed. I don’t hear people asking for an accountability partner to help them pay off debt, save money, wear sunscreen, stop driving while distracted, or get more sleep. We don’t actually want to save money - we want to win it. We don’t actually want to get more sleep, at least not if it means going to bed any earlier. We don’t even think that distracted driving is a problem, at least not the way we do it, because we can totally text and drive, unlike that other guy weaving between lanes. The lack of sunscreen we immediately regret when our skin burns, not that that helps us remember the next time.
We think we want accountability because we think we can delegate a sense of responsibility. If we haven’t developed new habits, if we haven’t reached our goals, it’s because other people are too inconsiderate to nag us into living our values. Other people have let us down! How could it be our fault, if we can’t find any examples of people so inspiring that we Finally Feel Motivated?
The only way we can change is if we change our minds. If I want something different in my life, then it’s up to me to change my behavior. If I want to change my behavior in the short term or the long term, I have to tell myself a different story. I have to talk myself into it. I have to convince myself that the consequences are real. When I believe in the consequences, I don’t need accountability, because nothing can stop me. I’ll keep my commitments to myself and others because I understand what will happen if I don’t.
Does jumping over open flame, climbing a rope, running a marathon, backpacking thirty miles off grid into the wilderness, hugging strangers, or entering a public speaking competition count as confidence? If so, then I guess I’m confident. Technically. I want to talk a bit about where confidence comes from and how many people are faking it.
I’m small. I was always one of the very smallest kids in my class due to my summer birthday. As an adult, I have a small frame, I wear a child-size bike helmet, bracelets won’t stay on my hands, and I even wear B-width narrow shoes. I’m a double-extra small person with a high, small voice. I feel my small size constantly, when I can’t reach cabinets, when I stand next to anyone, when I can’t reach stuff on the top shelf at the grocery store, when I fit comfortably in the middle seat on an airplane. (Okay, being tiny has its advantages). I sometimes wonder whether a large bird of prey could physically grab me by the shoulders and carry me off. I suspect yes.
It’s not just that I’m small and have always been small. I have some physical frailties and a history of chronic illness. I am by no means a robust person; I would never claim to have stamina. What I do have is mega-quantities of grit. I know my physical limits, and thus I’m willing to go without sleep, carry heavy weights, climb steep inclines, cover miles on foot, and venture into relatively dangerous terrain. I can push myself into certain scary situations because they are known quantities. Understanding what to expect helps bring experiences from the realm of danger into the realm of challenge, perhaps even over that boundary into adventure. Others feel the same activities as thrills or routine. I don’t have to be where they are to go where they go, if that makes sense.
Confidence, to me, means that I have a pretty good idea of what to do. It does not mean that I don’t feel nervous or downright frightened. Case in point. The day I wrote this, I was accosted by a large, angry, insane shirtless man while I was trying to catch a bus. Freak magnet, that’s me… I assessed the situation and determined that there was a greater than thirty percent chance that this man would physically interfere with me. This did not fit my plans for the day. I pulled out my phone and started mapping out the next bus stop up the street, from whence I could place calls without being obvious. Before I could finish, two police vehicles pulled up, caging us in. I found myself in the midst of an arrest; the large, angry, insane shirtless man had evidently been threatening passersby with a screwdriver shortly before I walked up. A cop shouted at me. (It’s okay; later he apologized quite sweetly and I thanked him for doing his work). Was I afraid for my personal safety during that five-minute window? Yes, of course I was. I’ve worked with insane people in a variety of contexts. Most crazy people aren’t really scary, just unpredictable. This particular guy was predictably dangerous, looming into my space, shouting at me, staring at me from no more than four inches away, gradually ratcheting up his behavior. My confidence came from experience; I knew not to engage, respond, or make eye contact. If this man did grab me or touch me in any way, I was prepared to escalate. I was already implementing my exit strategy. The element of surprise is on my side, because anyone who is threatening me has assumed that he will prevail.
What actually happened at that bus stop? What happened was a typical urban encounter. We were surrounded by dozens of people (in cars and buildings; on the sidewalk across the street) with space-age communications devices. They handled it. I had no idea that help was already on its way. (We were also literally across the street from the Supreme Court building). Was I really ever unsafe? Probably not. I even caught my bus on time.
Most situations that make us nervous are not physically threatening at all. They just feel that way. We feel the same physiological responses that we would if we saw a saber-tooth tiger sauntering up the street. We’re afraid to flirt, we’re afraid to go on job interviews, we’re afraid to go to parties where we don’t know anyone, we’re afraid to negotiate for raises and promotions, we’re afraid to ask people on dates, we’re afraid to try new foods, we’re afraid to start our own businesses, we’re afraid to wear two-piece swimsuits, we’re afraid to try new dance steps. What we’re really afraid of is not physical danger at all; it’s social danger! We usually only lack confidence when it comes to interacting with other humans. Think about it again. How many times is someone in a job interview or on the dance floor going to act like the large, angry, insane shirtless man?
I was bullied pretty intensively as a child. I grew up feeling like a social pariah, which is sad and tough on a little kid. All I wanted was to have friends and people who liked me. Then I got a little older. I figured, if people were going to be mean to me no matter what I did, then why should I care anymore what they thought of me? I learned to steel myself against taunts and just do what I wanted to do. As an adult, I give zero fox. If you don’t like me, neat. Go… go Netflix and chill or something. I have things to do. There are seven billion people in this world, and the number of fellow humans who are going to appreciate me is a statistical anomaly. My real friends know that I’m a funny and sweet person who will cook for you when you’re sick, help you move, fly across country for your wedding, and show up when you really need me. I have nothing to prove to anyone else. And that’s why I get to do what I want, all the time.
I feel physiologically anxious and nervous all the time. I mean, speaking as a person with a tendency toward night terrors, most people probably have not felt as anxious as me! Try waking up shaking and crying in your living room with no idea how you got there. When I walk down a flight of stairs, I always worry that I’ll fall headlong. When I go hiking, I always worry that there will be a cougar or a bear. When I give speeches, my feet sweat and my hands shake. These feel like reasonable responses to me, the same feelings that almost anyone would have in the same situation. Feeling anxious and worried is just like being impatient in a long line or being annoyed when someone bumps into you. Universal human response. Being confident doesn’t mean that you don’t feel those feelings; it means you expect them and you believe you can handle it anyway.
If you’re reading this, you’re alive right now. (Well, um, I assume so!). That means you’ve survived literally every single thing that has ever happened to you. It also means you have survived every random thought you ever had, wondering about all the million and five possible calamities that never befell you. Chances are pretty good that you’ll continue to survive all of your worries and anxieties and concerns and what-ifs. I think it helps to just tell yourself, Eh, I can handle this. Because you most likely can, and besides, that’s what everyone else is doing.
Have you met my cuppycake? Her name is Noelie and she is extremely gray and fluffy and she has golden eyes and she loves to kiss everything and everyone and climb on the dog. I love her. I mean, you think you love your pet, but no way do you love your animals as much as I love Noelle. It is this love that we should feel toward our treasured goals.
Goal love / pet love comparison chart:
Would do anything for her
Think about her all day, every day
Make all my plans based around her needs
Talk about her constantly
Keep a million pictures and videos of her on my phone
Work her into every conversation
Expect everyone to love her as much as I do, and if they don't, it's their loss
Sometimes people are afraid of her and I can't figure out why
Money is no object - whatever she needs, she gets
Don't really care when she chews up my stuff
Sometimes she is loud and demanding but I love her anyway
When other people fall in love with her, we become instant best friends
There is no reason why everyone couldn't have a cuppycake just like mine
In fact, I highly recommend it
Substitute 'her' and 'she' with 'my goal' and see if it still works.
Goals are BS, really. A goal is a simple, small, bite-size step toward a consuming vision. Unfortunately, we are often quite dumb when we choose goals. We make public proclamations that we are committing to goals we don't really like or want. We choose goals based on what we think we should do. When the goal is true, when the goal is just a minor, obvious obstacle between you and the vision, "should" doesn't matter. Sometimes the vision requires things we "shouldn't" do. According to naysayers, we shouldn't do anything other than complain, consume mass entertainment, and sit on our butts.
These are some things I've done in service of my larger goals:
Sleep on the floor
Sleep in my car
Run in the snow, rain, and hail
Carry fifty pounds on my back
Limp for eight miles
Climb 3300 feet
Eat when I wasn't hungry
Delay meals until my hands shook
Keep going despite an open wound
Work through a four-day migraine
Cry in the elevator, then wipe my eyes and go back to work
Give away all my stuff
Kick a 50-pound suitcase with a broken handle through two airport terminals
Scrub toilets and change diapers
Pay money I didn't want to spend
Take orders from mean people I didn't like
Work all night (many times)
Work in a tent
Work on a plane
Work in a hotel
Work through meals
Work with four devices open
Quit doing things I enjoyed to free up time for my goal
When my goal is my cherished fluffy little pet, it's worth it. When I really want something to happen, when I really really want something I can't just buy at a store, which is almost everything worth having, then I'll do what it takes. No question. On the other hand, when my "goal" is a pseudo-goal that I actually hate, then nothing can get me moving on it.
I never lost weight when I had contempt for fit, attractive, or fashionable people, but I did it almost instantly when I decided to run the marathon.
I never had any money when I had contempt for wealthy people, but it was fairly straightforward when I developed a burning desire to be independent.
I could never get organized when I associated it with criticism and perfectionism, but I did it quickly when I realized it would help me accomplish awesome things like traveling the world.
The difference there is that I moved toward something I saw as attractive, exciting, and much better than where I was when I started. Just like most people will move quickly toward a tray of free pastries, a goal should be shiny, sweet, and delicious to you. Whereas, when a goal is distasteful, onerous, or irrelevant, "trying" is failing. It's the difference between cuddling my cute little cuppycake, or pet-sitting someone's obnoxious, spoiled little monster. No thanks. You can't wait until it's gone, and many people choose goals that they secretly wish would run away.
There are tradeoffs. One goal is often mutually exclusive with another goal, just as my cuppycake keeps me from having a cat. A goal sometimes requires its own living standards, just as not everyone will rent to us or give us a hotel room due to our menagerie. A goal sometimes comes with a surprisingly large number of unwieldy accessories, and you know what I mean if you've ever cleaned a birdcage. When your goal is your true heart's delight, you take it in stride.
I have pets because I can't help myself. I'm smitten. The times when I haven't had pets, part of me has been empty and listless. It's the same with goals. They show up and we're helpless, hopeless, willing slaves of our own dreams. We're never the same afterward. They make our lives and our hearts bigger. Get one, go nuts, dote on it, and love it and squeeze it until it squeaks.
Being in debt drives me crazy. I never stop thinking about it. It’s the major motivator for me in earning money, in the same way that a trapped animal will chew its own foot off to get free. Anything, anything. I paid off the last of my consumer debt over a decade ago, and the interest rate on my remaining student loan is so low that it doesn’t really make fiscal sense to pay it off early. It’s a psychological thing. Debt is a shackle around my ankle and I’ll file it off with anything I can find.
The other night, I decided it was time to pay off the smaller chunk of my student loan. There’s a subsidized part and an unsubsidized part, and the latter is only about 7% of the total. I thought I’d just nuke it. As it turns out, the debt is structured so that I have to pay off the entire thing. I’m not allowed to pay off the smaller part early! It’s one of the million bajillion little tricks that lenders set up to bilk us of as much interest as possible. This is exactly the kind of thing that enrages me and incites me to ramp up my efforts. I WILL be free! I WILL saw off this shackle! Even if all I have is a nail file!
Most people’s reaction to debt is to wince and ignore it. People hate talking about money. Nobody I have ever worked with actually has a balance sheet or knows exactly how much they owe. Usually they don’t even know their net take-home pay; they seem to operate on a vague sense that they can actually spend their gross. Plus a little extra, because things happen. The two biggest areas of procrastination across the board are planning for the future (read: money) and taking care of health issues (read: planning for the future). If it came down to a contest between heavy-duty weight training and going on a debt-burndown program, most people would… well, most people would probably start Googling “fake own demise” or try to enter the witness protection program.
This is sad, because becoming physically stronger and becoming financially secure are both tremendously powerful, satisfying feelings. We so severely underestimate how great these states would feel. I know, because I’ve done both.
I think the major reason that most people don’t go out and chase down better-paying jobs or launch their own side gigs is because they’re so discouraged by having a boss. Well, a bad boss - research shows that about two-thirds of managers are ineffective. It’s hard working for someone who is bad at their job, someone who is a bully or a bad listener or arrogant or afraid of confrontation or who has double standards. This doesn’t even address the frustrating coworkers and the let’s-not-go-there customers. It’s other people who make our jobs hard. Or at least it feels that way when we believe we have no power over our situation. And we feel like we have no power when we’re weak in the wallet. We think we need this job, this particular job, and that we have no other choice.
Most of us hate only one thing more than updating our resumes, and that’s going to a job interview.
Shouldn’t we hate the feeling of being broke even more?
When I still had debt, I laid it all out on a spreadsheet. I looked at it at least once a day. I was like Arya Stark, memorizing her list of names. I updated my balances every day. I estimated how long it would take me to pay off the next name on my hit list. I used to have a Perkins Loan, and I visualized it as a man, an odious man named Perkins. (Unfair to the real Perkins, I’m sure, but it worked for me at the time). He was a sniveling pencilneck who constantly shoved his glasses up his narrow nose and he spoke in a nasally voice. Every time I would make an extra payment, I’d punch the air and go: “Take that, Perkins!” When I paid off the entire balance six years early, I got a thank-you letter saying that now those funds could be made available to another student just like me. Which was nice, and also made me feel a little bad for my mean visualization games.
I’m not even going to share all the various things I muttered to myself about The Banks when I was paying off my credit card balances.
I had, I think, six personal debts, two credit cards, a car loan, and three separate student loans. It all added up to something like $34,000. Since I was making about $29k at the time, it felt pretty daunting! I’m a fighter, though. Anything that knocks me down just makes me mad. I used what could have been hopelessness, anxiety, or dread, and I turned it into a white-knuckled fury. I would not be a slave to interest payments, fines, and fees. I would be a FREE ELF! I made it my ambition to get every raise, promotion, and side opportunity I could find and turn it into silver bullets that I then fired at the monstrosity that was my debt.
I did get promotions and raises. I did pay off those debts, one by one, until all that was left standing was that last student loan. I moved from my rented room to my own apartment to my own little mini-house. I bought myself new furniture and I took myself on my first real vacation.
Along the way, my work buddy turned friend turned boyfriend started to get more and more interested in what I was doing. Only a few months after I moved into my mini-house, he proposed. I was the princess who saved herself, and that’s how I got my prince.
A whole lot of mixed metaphors in this story, but I told myself a lot of different stories over the years as I fought this grim, lonely battle. Little office temp versus mass global economic forces. Or, I guess, an elf-princess who fires silver bullets at debt-werewolves? Certainly that feels better than seeing myself as an animal gnawing off its own paw. Strength rather than desperation.
What they never tell us is that power is not given, it’s taken. Initiative and agency come from within. The decision to make your own plans and build your own financial security is something that you decide for yourself. Nobody can take it from you. Nobody will even try, not really, not unless you go around to all your naysayers and start telling them your plans… The important thing is only to ask for advice from people who demonstrably know what they’re doing. Most of our friends, acquaintances, and colleagues probably don’t.
Things change when you have money. There’s a big difference between walking into an interview with shaking hands because you NEED this job, and sauntering in knowing that you’d be doing them a huge favor by taking this job. The last time I went on an interview, they asked if there was anything else I wanted to say. I said, “It would be a good idea for you to hire me.” Fifteen minutes later, they called and offered me the position. That’s the confidence that comes from financial security.
The shackle I wear right now is really more of a length of twine. I could have taken it off some time ago. I no longer have the unstoppable, vein-pulsing intensity toward it that I did a decade ago, when I felt that the vastness of my debt was like a swallowing sea, undertow dragging me into an abyss. It’s just a little thing now. I’ll shake it loose with barely a pause in my stride.
Going through an intensive learning experience with your spouse can result in some pretty interesting changes. This comes from new information, new perspectives, and the simple act of stepping away from your domestic routine for a week. Sometimes all it takes is to walk through your apartment door after some time away and realize that you’re ready to drop or add a habit. With something like the World Domination Summit, the changes can be radical indeed.
Last year, we went to WDS for the first time. On one hand was our shared experience. On the other hand was our shared decision that we would work together to become financially independent. Since then, we have sold our car and downsized to a tiny beach apartment, which means we’re currently a hair’s breadth from being completely debt-free. There were other major changes, but the relatively straightforward decision to focus on our finances wound up turning into a complete upending of our lifestyle. When we look back, it’s hard to remember how we ever wandered around without really attending to what is now such an obvious and important aspect of our marriage.
This year, one of our big takeaways was that it’s time to level up our fitness. We’re planning to shift from riding the bus and walking to riding our bikes. Since my husband’s job is six miles away, this could get interesting. I’ve been a bike commuter before, and it’s a very, very simple change. The point is that focusing on one specific area of life - money, fitness, communication - can be revolutionary. Usually the results tend to be unimaginable.
Our experience of WDS was different, and we realized that we were diverging more compared to last year’s experience. He has leaned more toward academies and meetups about communication and networking, which means he has met a lot more people than I have. He’s also had deeper conversations with them. It’s really cute to see how people light up when they see him. Meanwhile, I have leaned more toward informational stuff that has me typing notes at warp speed. Part of this has to do with our situations. He’s been in his dream career for decades, and he really has very little to learn about improving anything to do with work, productivity, sense of purpose, or increasing his income. I’m an empath, for whatever that’s worth, and I’ve flailed in areas where he is quite strong. It’s like we’re both doing a circuit in opposite directions and we’ll meet on the other side of the building. I’m excited to notice the changes in his communication style, and he’s intrigued with my upcoming (and secret) projects.
One takeaway we both had this year is that we have a lot to offer as teachers. I brought him in to do a section of my Curate Your Stuff meetup, and we were both pleased and surprised at the response to a topic he didn’t even realize he was going to introduce until he did it. (System 2 thinking and flow state). It felt easy and natural to share a speaking role. We’ve talked about it throughout the week, and there are a few topics we might do together, as well as things we would lead separately. Being in Toastmasters together has also led us to collaborate on our speaking skills, as we mentor and critique each other. That ability, that skill of constructive criticism in a professional manner, has its own ripple effect. We’re able to look at more of our plans objectively, taking in each other’s advice eagerly, feeling that it increases our regard for each other.
There’s a whole missing section here in my recap about all the machinations and projects that I have planned. Reason being, I made a firm commitment a few years ago not to share anything that’s still in the gestation stage. Anyone who wants to know what I’m up to can read it here on this blog, every business day at 9 AM. Unfinished projects and future plans? Those are for me. This has to do with my theory of building up The Steam, rather than dissipating it by talking about the project, rather than working on the project.
As a side note, I write about 10-20 pages a day 7 days a week, and about 4-7 pages of it shows up here in the blog 5 days a week.
When we meet other WDS attendees who have come back multiple years, we ask them what they’ve noticed has changed. They all, invariably, say that they’re here for the people and the community more than the content of the presentations. It starts to be more and more clear just why that is. The kindness, the instant connection, the curiosity and positivity, the way that people tend to excel at possibility thinking and brainstorming. The chasm between typical WDS behavior and crabby, uncivil civilian behavior. For instance, a guy moved out of his seat on our plane trip today, saying, “I don’t want to sit next to anyone.” Well, alrighty then… how heartbreaking that you would deprive us of the delight of your company… I am starting to think that some people think they are misanthropes or cynics simply due to the nature of their particular social circle.
This is the time when my husband and I start asking ourselves, “What do I want to get done by WDS next year?” It comes up quite a bit. It’s a surprisingly strong motivator. Level up and level up again. How is what we’ve learned going to show up in our behavior and our results?
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.