'Husband' is a verb, meaning "to use resources economically." Strangely, the verb form of 'wive' means either "to marry" or "to supply with a wife." There has always been a double standard going on here, and there probably always will be, so we might as well run with it. I think of "wife" as a pretty specific job description. A wife is a useful person to have around the house. I think of this role in a positive way, and that's why I like the idea of being my own wife.
First of all, I made my first romantic commitment to myself. That is to remain true to myself until the end of time. No matter who else comes along, I'm going to be waking up to myself each morning. I could never give my heart to anyone who didn't match up with my values, anyone I didn't fully respect and admire. Why would I ever let myself down by settling for someone I had to make excuses for? It's my job to build my world, and I have to vouch for anyone I let in.
Second, I live with myself no matter whether I live alone or with several other people. No matter where I live, I am going to have to cook meals, wash dishes, scrub toilets, mop floors, wash windows, clean the lint trap, scour drains, clean the oven, knock down cobwebs, and ever so much more. Therefore, I accept that this is simply part of the fate of being human. If I were a badger, I'd be happy to dig a hole in the ground and live there and eat voles. If I were a puffin, I could live at sea. Alas, I have this human failing of wanting to live in a house with a roof and a floor, and I am sensitive to odors that might delight other creatures. Someone had better darn well be a wife around this joint, and I'm still waiting for the talking animals to show up, so it might as well be me. I lived alone for several years, and I really don't care that it takes 40 minutes a day to clean house.
I'm my own husband, too, if that means something as specific as 'wife' does. I have cleaned up dead vermin. I carry my own spiders outside. I can fix the toilet and unclog hairy drains. I have confronted scary unidentified sounds late at night. I've taken a few self-defense classes, and it's a good thing, because I have been attacked on the street more than once and had to get myself out of it. I have negotiated discounts on major purchases. I research my own investments for my retirement account. I have put on my own snow chains while nearly being blown off the road. When you live alone, you have to do all of the strenuous, dangerous, scary, and icky things yourself. It tends to lead to immense gratitude when someone else shows up and is willing to share some of that load.
My dad taught me how to pitch a tent, use a hatchet, identify and use every tool in the toolbox, troubleshoot technical problems, and avoid getting poison oak, all of which skills are useful to me today. My mom taught me how to clean house, make hospital bed corners, sew a button, iron shirt collars, write a resume, and bake a cake, all of which skills are useful to me today. I'm pretty sure both of my parents have all of the abilities listed, which were transferable across genders even then. I came from a practical, hands-on family and I grew up to have a lot of practical skills. I see no reason why I shouldn't be just as proud of my ability to can my own jam and pickles as I am proud of my ability to use shop tools and assemble furniture.
I draw the line at crocheting doilies, although I could do that, too.
There is a lot of resentment out there about traditional gender roles. I have a degree in history and I could teach a course on all the reasons why this makes sense. In my own personal life, I like to imagine what I think I would do if I were male, and then see if I want to do that thing, whatever it is. Often, the answer is that I would speak up more, take fewer things personally, or take up slightly more physical space. I don't think I would do less housework, probably because my husband, my dad, and my brothers all cook and clean house. Who wouldn't? When it comes down to it, almost all of our scutwork is done by labor-saving appliances. All we really have to do is to put away the clean dishes and laundry, and start the robots.
I like the romantic, starry-eyed vision of a "wife." I see this as a person whose job it is to create a sense of warm hospitality, to make an empty building into a home. When people do it in the workforce, they are known as restaurateurs, hoteliers, interior designers, caterers, event planners, and more. We see that this work can either be treated as drudgery or as a high art. It's my choice to see my kitchen as a playground that I share with my husband, and sometimes with family and friends who like to cook together. It's my choice to see my home as a place of refuge and pleasure, rather than a battleground of power struggles, resentment, and bickering. It's my choice to treat my home as a gift that I can offer to my friends. I felt this way when I was single, and it helped me to attract a mate who also appreciates a comfortable home. I am my own wife, and I'm his wife, too.
The highest-order compliment I give is to designate someone as Useful. This means that the person is a worthy candidate for my zombie squad. It's a simple shorthand for a complex set of attributes. It's entirely possible that I don't meet my own standard for Usefulness.
The first component of being Useful is to be a strategic thinker. The Useful person sees problems before they become problems. This is why the Useful person tends to know when to open doors or grab the other end of a heavy object. A full-on Useless person, on the other hand, tends to spend a lot of time in exactly the wrong place. Useless people cause accidents and spills, and stuff tends to get broken around them due to their inattentiveness.
My dog is both Useful and Useless, which is allowed because he's an animal. He is Useful in that he's vigilant, he eliminates vermin, and he always lets me know if a package has been delivered. I have watched him crush a spider with his paw, note that it was still moving, and crush it some more until the job was done. He also has a habit of trying to walk between my feet, especially when I'm carrying groceries or a laundry basket. He has knocked me over. He likes to dig up fresh seedlings from the garden. When he was a puppy, he destroyed nearly a dozen pillows. All of these things are pretty darn Useless. He likes to sleep on my feet in the winter, though, and that's so Useful that it balances the accounts.
A Useful person tends to have interesting skills that I don't have. I am a gleaner of skills, and I will try to absorb these abilities as quickly as I can. Often, though, I'm weak in an area and will have little hope of mastering it in this lifetime. Orienteering is one example. I have trouble telling left from right and I have no innate sense of direction. It's Useful to me to have someone around who is good at these things. I can offer a skill that seems like it would be closely related, but isn't: I have an eerily photographic recall of where objects are stored. I can remember the location of every object in my house and most of the visible objects in every house where I have spent significant time. I have helped people find their keys and other possessions over the phone from 3000 miles away. This is Useful for my work as a professional organizer - I can still recall the positions of visible objects from a Level 3 hoard. I can't navigate but I can find all the stuff, and my husband is the opposite.
A Useful person is solution-oriented. This means the focus is always going to be on solving a problem and moving forward. A Useless person prefers to vent about problems, cultivate allies who have an opinion about problems, and create drama about problems, while the problem continues to fester. The two groups tend to have mutual antipathy. Sometimes solving a problem looks a lot like "judging" anyone who didn't contribute to the solution. Why, I don't know. In my roster of Useful people are a few people who are abrasive, occasionally annoying, yet I can appreciate that they will reliably solve problems and get things done.
A Useful person lets the results speak for themselves. Useful people are often very surprising. You might know them for years and never know that they have a bunch of Useful traits. I was rocked back on my heels one day when I was walking with a friend and he ran into someone he knew from an old job. Suddenly they started signing to each other in ASL. Never thought to mention it, huh? Having a set of skills builds confidence. You can go through your day having interesting conversations or kicking back and relaxing. It may not occur to you to mention the skill to people. Maybe years will go by and you won't need to demonstrate the skill. Suddenly, bam, Useful!
Useful people are altruistic. This is part of why I fell in love with my husband. He took night classes and became an Emergency Medical Responder, just because. Since then he's been first on the scene at a couple of traffic accidents. I've been with him on a couple of occasions when someone collapsed, at the coffee shop and on the bus, and it's awe-inspiring to see that shift into superhero mode. We are fortunate enough to have several friends who have been Useful when someone else was in trouble. It makes you love them all the more for the way they unselfishly come to someone's aid, and also because they've just demonstrated that they deserve a spot on the zombie squad.
My most Useful moment was probably late one evening, when my friend's car had broken down in a small town where everything had already closed for the day. He was trying to replace the fuel filter, and the single tiny nut that held it in place fell into the gravel. We were parked at an abandoned gas station. There were about forty million bits of stray hardware in that gravel: springs, washers, screws, paperclips, bottle caps, bits of alien spacecraft, you name it. Somehow, with the sun going down, I FOUND that nut. My freakishly keen eyesight and ability to pick objects out of undifferentiated piles became my superpower that night.
Sometimes we're Useful without realizing it. I was waiting at a crosswalk one day with about a dozen other people. Almost everyone jaywalked. I always wait for the light, because I don't trust automobile drivers at all, and I would hate to be blamed for being pasted by a car. When I crossed the street, the last remaining pedestrian spoke to me. He was an elderly man and his eye was running with fluid. He told me that he was partially blind and that he counted on people like me to help him know when it was safe to cross the street. I hadn't even noticed him until then. I can't take credit for it; all I can do is to proceed with others in mind. Try to be the person that Future Self will need in times of frailty.
I hope I'm Useful at least some of the time. I don't want to be a "consumer." I don't want to be a complainer or a whiner. I don't want to get in the way. I don't want to annoy people unintentionally. (If I do it, hopefully it's on purpose!). At least I can try to be neutral, offsetting the irritation of my very existence by the occasional helpful act. At best, I'd like to be the one people count on when they think, "Who would I want with me during the apocalypse?"
The Compound Effect is the kind of book that is incredibly motivating and inspiring for people who are already motivated and inspired, yet intimidating for people who are not. I say this as someone who probably would not have bought into it in my younger days, while knowing, through later experience, that everything in it is true. Believing is seeing.
Darren Hardy begins with his origin story. He had a tough dad who drilled discipline into him from a young age. These few opening pages could be off-putting to the majority of us, who would find such tough-love parenting tactics a bit scary and depressing. Just keep reading. I can attest that reaching your goals does not require drill-instructor parents or early success. You can build positive habits even if you're a late bloomer like me.
The Compound Effect refers to the way that our habits take us in different directions over time. Hardy offers the example of three imaginary dudes. One just keeps doing what comes naturally. One cuts 125 calories a day out of his diet, and the third starts cooking more recipes from the Food Network. Not quite three years later, Dude Two has lost over 30 pounds while Dude Three has gained over 30 pounds and the first dude is just the same as he ever was. I can scroll through my Facebook feed and point out several real-life examples of this phenomenon. In one case, I sincerely didn't recognize an old friend in a photo and thought she had been tagged incorrectly. I had seen her in person 2-3 years previously and she had somehow nearly doubled her body weight in that time. Meanwhile, another friend who had started in that weight range is now doing triathlon and is likewise nearly unrecognizable. Comparing the habit changes of my two friends would be instructive, although the first person would find that kind of question very hurtful and the second would be proud and flattered. This is what habits can do.
Hardy shares examples of various people he has coached, usually his employees. "Beverly" was overweight and lost her breath climbing one flight of stairs. Through his coaching, she lost 40 pounds and ran a marathon. Yeah, right, you might say. That story could have been about me! I only lost 35 pounds, but I not only got out of breath climbing a flight of stairs (at age 29), I would see black spots. I did wind up running a marathon, just like Beverly. I kept the weight off and I haven't been at my top weight in 12 years. I started just by walking 2 miles per hour on a treadmill for 30 minutes at a time a few days a week. Little habits really, really do add up. I didn't know that I would become a marathon runner when I started. I just knew that I was too young to have that much trouble climbing stairs, and there were people in their 60s with more energy than I had, and I wanted more for myself. Little by little, my efforts compounded. It works.
An idea I loved from The Compound Effect was to use your snooze button time positively. Hardy says his snooze lasts 8 minutes. In those 8 minutes, he does gratitude practice and then sends love to someone. I found this enchanting! What a lovely way to start the day. A variation on using your snooze time could be to record a video of yourself talking about how exhausted you are and how you want Future You to stop sleep procrastinating and go to bed half an hour earlier.
Ask yourself where you were five years ago, Hardy suggests. Compare where you were then with where you are now. Are you where 2012 You would have hoped you would be? Do you have the same negative habits you wanted to get rid of then? Have you built the positive habits you wished you had then? This is sobering. I found that I had indeed built some positive habits, but that I had slipped on others, and that some things I still don't seem to have figured out.
Only when you experience the compound effects of a habit do you start to feel and believe the power. It's delightful and addictive. You can change anything with just the tiniest increments over time! Hardy offers real-life examples, such as how he wrote down at least one thing he appreciated about his wife every day and then gave her a book full of the observations. I wouldn't have thought metrics could be applied to marriage until I read that. The Compound Effect is an eye-opener, with the kind of insights that can put everything in your life into new perspective.
Some questions from Chapter 5 to ask your friends:
"How do I show up to you? What do you think my strengths are? In what areas do you think I can improve? Where do you think I sabotage myself? What's one thing I can stop doing that would benefit me the most? What's the one thing I should start doing?"
Out of all the books I've ever reviewed, A Guide to the Good Life is the one I highlighted and bookmarked the most. In fact, it looks like I marked a full 20% of the pages! Who knew Stoic philosophy had so much to say? William B. Irvine subtitles this book: "The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy." I knew a bit about the Stoics going in, but this book is a true marvel. A prudent person would consider reading it.
An approach I found interesting was that Irvine sets out to compare Zen Buddhism to Stoic philosophy. He discovers that they have a lot in common and that Stoicism is more appealing to his questioning nature. I have to say that I agree with him. Quieting the mind is a serious challenge for most people, whereas Stoicism provides the means to grapple with life's most complicated dilemmas. At the very least, while we are sitting meditation and the monkey mind keeps acting up, we can use Stoicism to resolve some of these questions.
How do we respond to insults?
How do we deal with annoying people?
What do we do with regrets about the past?
How do we avoid hedonic adaptation, or, what do we do when our latest tech upgrade fails to satisfy?
How do we handle grief?
"...a life plagued with negative emotions - including anger, anxiety, fear, grief, and envy - will not be a good life." - William Irvine
A philosophical tool I had not seen anywhere else had to do with the desire to commit suicide. Suicide is wrong if our living "is helpful to many." Anyone who thinks philosophy is too abstract can surely see how a thought like this might change a life, or many lives. If you don't value your life, then you have an excellent opportunity to use it in service of a greater good, since nothing else is going to distract you or seem like a better use of your time. Social duty was a preoccupation of the Stoic philosophers, and we can probably use more of that line of thinking in our own time.
"Vain is the word of a philosopher which does not heal any suffering of man." - Epicurus.
One page of this book may well have changed my life. It has to do with receiving criticism. I have held back from writing on certain topics, publishing or hosting certain things, or posting on certain sites because I did not want to deal with moderating trolls. Irvine references the philosopher Seneca saying that "if you are going to publish, you must be willing to tolerate criticism." The fact that he formed this opinion two millennia ago, not only before the Internet but before the printing press, was the kick in the pants that I needed. If I have something to say, then perhaps it is my social duty to say it publicly.
Irvine presents a picture of active philosophy during antiquity. This includes philosophers walking into people's homes uninvited to harangue them about philosophy, or accosting people about philosophy on the street to the point that their interlocutors beat them up. He wishes at one point that philosophy would become so relevant to modern society that someone gets arrested for it. We don't have to go that far; Irvine also tells us that Stoicism is risk-free because we can practice it in secret and test it out for ourselves. There is little to lose and potentially much to gain. Reading A Guide to the Good Life is even easier than that.
As uncomfortable and scary as it can be, the Place of Uncertainty is where everything juicy and interesting happens. Certainty is the death of curiosity. Knowing exactly what you're doing all the time is a pitfall of the fixed mindset; it means you're not learning or growing or changing. Ah, but it's so nice and secure and comfortable to be certain! Why would anyone ever give that up, even for a moment?
The most fascinating thing about the Place of Uncertainty is that it can feel terrible at the time. Confusing! Stressful! Frustrating! Lonely! Expensive! Depressing! Not knowing what to do next can break people. We're talking total life derailment. In retrospect, though, these points in the timeline can barely register. We may forget we ever felt that uncertainty entirely. Usually we remember it as a mere speed bump. Just a little blip.
An example of this is when my husband and I went to Spain last year and decided to follow what I call the Wing-It Method. We landed in Barcelona with no plans. We didn't know a single person. Not socially, not professionally, not through a website... we just knew zero people. We had nowhere to stay, no way to get there, and no idea what we would be eating for dinner. There was a really intense ten-minute period in the airport terminal where we were having a bit of an argument. The wifi was slow and we were not getting information instantaneously, the way we might at home. We had to find a campsite, learn the bus system, and find places to buy food and propane canisters. It felt not just daunting, but nearly impossible. Ten minutes later, we had all that information and an action plan, and we were merrily walking out to the bus stop, which was only a few yards away the whole time. In retrospect, it's very hard to express adequately the sense of foreboding and misery that comes from standing in the Place of Uncertainty, even for those scant ten minutes.
The Place of Uncertainty demands full attention. Full System Two thinking. Total mental bandwidth. Standing in the Place of Uncertainty is no time to be distracted or futzing around with one's phone. This is precisely why it's such good discipline. We force ourselves into unnatural and uncomfortable situations, when we have no real idea what to do, because we need to stretch our concept of what we are able to handle. Eventually, what used to be impossible or intimidating becomes doable, maybe even routine.
If you don't believe that, recall your first driving lesson.
My husband and I ran full speed toward the Place of Uncertainty this month. He accepted a tantalizing new job offer in a new city, and we only had twelve days to somehow get ourselves and our menagerie over there. From my current vantage point, sitting on the couch in our new apartment, the timeline seems clear and obvious. Yes, of course: we boarded our animals; reserved an Airbnb, a moving van, and a storage unit; packed everything we own in three days; loaded the van and cleaned the house top to bottom in one day; stored our stuff for eight days and moved it twice; and found the perfect apartment within six hours. Looking backward, it seems to make sense that we are 90% moved in to our new place exactly one month after the initial job interview! While we were living it, though, it felt like that one month was equal to a thousand years.
Making decisions depletes willpower and mental bandwidth. A job change plus relocation involves thousands of decisions. What to wear to the interview? How to phrase the thank-you note for the interview? Where to live? Should we pack or get rid of each of the ten million trillion billion objects in our house? Where do we put everything in the new place? What do we eat, when our kitchen infrastructure has been shattered into multiple cardboard box towers? The natural coping mechanisms for this mental exhaustion include overeating, quarreling, and standing idly with one's hands hanging limply by one's sides, mouth hanging open, hopefully not making a noise that sounds too much like UHHHHHH.....
The last month has been exhausting for us. Our sleep schedule was all over the place. We are both gimped up from being middle-aged, sleeping in an unfamiliar bed for a week and a half, and moving all our worldly goods twice in eight days. I rolled over in bed the other night, twitched my foot, and was seized by a cramp in my calf so strong that I had to push my foot down with my other foot before it would release. I mean, we are SORE. This was hard. It was physically tiring, mentally draining, and emotionally challenging. We said goodbye to a city we had grown to love, our nice neighbors, our nice yard, and a very significant number of our personal possessions. On the front end of it, having roughly zero idea where we would eventually wind up, it could have been traumatizing. We really didn't know if there would be a happy ending, other than that we would have each other.
There was a happy ending. It didn't come down from Fairytale Land. We created it. We pushed through our feelings of confusion, exhaustion, and uncertainty and kept working until we got what we planned to get. We knew we wanted the job, we knew what city we wanted to live in, and we knew how much we were willing to pay. If we hadn't found what we needed the first week, we would have extended our Airbnb stay or changed to a different one and kept looking. The task itself wasn't complex. Usually nothing in the Place of Uncertainty is really complicated; it only feels like it. It's our willingness to endure these feelings that leads us to victory, to a sense of progress and hopeful optimism in our lives.
I had the good fortune to hear Jonathan Fields speak at World Domination Summit 2016. I love his podcast, The Good Life Project, and the more I get to know his work, the more I want. How to Live a Good Life is an excellent book, one that arises from many years of exploration of that topic. I think we can safely say that if there is a textbook for such a thing, this is the one. How to Live a Good Life is for people who are looking for something more, and are starting to feel skeptical or disappointed because they haven't figured out their "passion" or "purpose" or what happiness means to them.
The core of the book is that there are three metaphorical buckets in life, and we can only be happy if we distribute our energy between them. The buckets are Vitality, Connection, and Contribution. This translates to physical health and well-being, social relationships, and work, which I always use in the sense of both vocation and avocation.
How to Live a Good Life is designed to be read and worked through in brief sections. It's the ideal kind of book to dip into, doing one "day" at a time. Some of the exercises may feel obvious to one person, while creating a real epiphany in someone else, and that will undoubtedly vary from one reader to another. One of the three buckets will likely stand out as having the lowest level. I really liked this image, and the sense that all of my buckets could be filled, or that maybe I could even get bigger buckets!
One of the stand-out moments for me in How to Live a Good Life was Jonathan's discussion of The Five Love Languages with his wife. They came to realize that they were both wrong about her primary love language. My husband and I also loved reading that book together, and this inspired me to revisit the concept, wondering if either of us had changed over the years, too. I really enjoyed this book and found it very approachable, inspiring, and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny.
Perfection doesn't exist, first off. Let's make that clear. The only place anything perfect can be found is in the Platonic ideal, floating around in our minds somewhere. More importantly and more interestingly, perfection is pointless. It's a boring, static concept with nothing to offer. No thrills, no party, no memorable stories, no laughs. Perfection isn't funny.
My future husband picked me up at work one day. We were just falling in love and we had a big date. He walked in, we made eye contact, I stood up to greet him - and I stepped on my skirt when I was only partway out of my chair and fell over sideways. Vanished behind my desk. Truly one of my finer moments. I don't know if I've ever laughed harder in my life. "You disappeared!" he said. Imperfect but hilarious. If I had just sat there without a hair out of place, he wouldn't have learned anything about my personality (assuming I had one) and I would have had to live up to that smudge-free image. Forever.
I married someone who knows the real me. The real me does not have the attention span for the pursuit of perfection. The real me is frequently driven to do things like hula hoop while reading, try to teach the dog to jump rope, make up alternate song lyrics, or write an eighty-line epic poem about a shoe. The fruitful pursuit of hilarity is much more interesting than the futile pursuit of perfection.
As a general rule, care more about how something feels than about how it looks. Experience, not image. This is why I wear comfortable shoes. It's also why I'm in a marriage where we laugh a lot, not one where we take selfies a lot. Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's just that for me, trying to capture a moment in a photograph usually ends with me stressing out about how weird I looked, spoiling the memory and making me self-conscious. Maybe we should get some horse-head masks...
We have a pretty little parrot. Sincerely, she is cuddly and friendly and adorable. She also likes to pick her nose with her toe. I'm constantly battling the feathers and shredded chew toys and dog hair and muddy paw prints and other unspeakable messes. The bird likes to throw food to the dog. Sometimes he catches it in mid-air, but usually not. There is nothing perfect within eight feet of the bird perch, let's just make that clear. But, they make us laugh every day. There are many sweet moments when they smooch each other or take naps together, but usually the moment has passed in a split second. Whenever I get my camera out, they freeze and look at me like NO, DON'T YOU PERFECT ON US. We live in the now, bow wow.
Perfection is about criticism. It starts with self-criticism and quickly leaks out and starts staining everything and everyone in sight. Perfection is about shame. If criticism is a stain, shame is mustard gas. Shame kills. Perfection is about social comparison and envy. Nothing good can come of that. Looking for the humor is looking for the recognition, the surprise, the affection. Funny is endearing. When we add hilarity, we bring connection and understanding. The friendship that can't be made through perfection can be made in an instant through a shared laugh.
When we let go of the nonsensical hunt for perfection, we can relax, and we can free others from our sometimes unfair judgments and standards. Self-compassion ripples outward. We understand that others are no more able to be perfect every single second than we are. One thing I'm working on right now is to catch myself whenever I judge someone else for anything I myself have done. It turns out that that's nearly everything. There are a lot of jokes to be found with this material. Criticism, shame, and perfectionism aren't really all that funny. We can let it all go, and let ourselves go.
It's a mystery to me, but there is something about the Perfect Day exercise that utterly stumps my clients. They'll do everything else for me, from handling bags of wet trash to sorting stacks of dusty papers to opening boxes that make them cry. But when I ask them to imagine their version of a perfect day, they can't do it. What do you like best? What do you want the most? What's your idea of fun? Nothing. No idea. It finally occurred to me that maybe we should try a more oblique approach. What's your most imperfect day?
We don't want to call it the Worst Day, obviously, because that brings up connotations of calamity, grief, and disaster. My people have always had plenty of that. In fact, it's far easier for them to imagine horrible things happening than pleasant or kinda okay things. Much less perfect or exhilarating or delightful things!
It's really the difference between pessimism and optimism. It's the indicator of depression and anxiety. Imagining a positive future is extremely difficult from these positions.
As an optimist, I reflexively find the positive spin on everything. I woke up one day at 6 AM, while I was still really tired, but then I looked out my back window and saw an Audubon's Oriole perching in my yard! First and only time in my life, and it was only a few yards away! Then its mate came and flew around! Another exhausted person with a parasomnia disorder might not have bothered to look out the window, or might have seen a brown and yellow bird and not cared. Most people in that situation would definitely have complained about their tiredness for the rest of the day. I am sure I was just as tired as anyone else would have been - but I really, really loved seeing those orioles. It made me feel lucky for waking up too early. If I was going to talk about my morning with anyone, that would have been what I talked about. For me, any day that involves a rare bird sighting is a Perfect Day. Optimism involves looking for the bright side. It also involves curiosity, awe, and wonder.
What did you get out of that story? Crazy birdwatching lady. There were no details in there whatsoever about: what I looked like or what I was wearing. My house, what it looked like, where I lived, or what stuff I had. How much money I had. Who was with me. What kind of car I drove. What job I had. That story was about me loving something that is easily available to most people: observing nature. It was about my EMOTIONAL STATE. Awe, delight, and gratitude. THAT is what makes a Perfect Day.
Okay, now that we've got the spoilers out of the way, let's get back to the Imperfect Day exercise. What makes an imperfect day?
There are so many more negative emotional states than there are positive emotional states!
The thing about the Imperfect Day exercise is that you don't have to imagine something beyond your experience. You don't have to make anything up. My 'Perfect Day' always seems to involve room service breakfast, an infinity pool, and a hot stone massage for some reason, which is bonkers because I've never experienced a single one of those things. BUT, everyone has had an imperfect day. A day when we wish we'd just stayed in bed. A day when we are so miserable we want to change our names and enter the Witness Protection Program just to get away. When was that?
Waking up almost too exhausted to hit Snooze again
Stepping barefoot on something sharp or wet
Realizing you're out of something: coffee, gas, toilet paper
Getting dressed and then immediately spilling on yourself or tearing your tights
Not being able to find your keys, your phone, your shoe
Showing up late to work and getting a dirty look or a comment from someone
Oh my gosh. That's just the morning!
Getting a headache at work
Thinking a bag of microwave popcorn and a diet soda qualifies as a "lunch"
Being too busy to stop and pee
Two hundred emails
Dealing with rude customers, rude coworkers, a mean boss
Feeling resentment, annoyance, discouragement, fear of layoffs
All that before even commuting home.
Having an altercation
Eating cereal for dinner
Feeling overwhelmed and hopeless about everything that needs to be done
Just wanting to escape
Staying up too late trying to get some High Quality Leisure Time.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
Problems have solutions. They're not always the solutions we would want, and they're almost never the solutions we would have thought of. Recognizing our problems, though, is the way we know where to start. We have targets. A list of problems can be a to-do list of actions that can make our lives noticeably better - or at least less annoying and disappointing.
Many of us make goals like 'get organized,' not realizing the true transformative power that this has. We think 'get organized' means something like 'put all our stuff in little modular bins' or 'wear a stopwatch around our necks like Flavor Flav.' What it really means is that we learn to think strategically and avoid the most predictably frustrating parts of our daily lives. We look for patterns. We take charge. We spend at least a few minutes every day doing something nice for Future Self.
Dear Tomorrow Me, I stopped after work and filled up the gas tank so you wouldn't have to do it in the morning. I started a shopping list so you'll have something for breakfast and lunch every day this week. I looked at the weather report and laid out something for you to wear to make your morning easier. Have a great day! - Love, Today Me
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.
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.