I’ll always say that we can get more mileage out of taking a foot off the brake than we can in pressing harder on the gas. Whatever annoys you the most, wherever you find your biggest pain point, work on reducing or eliminating it. That’s how you get to Easy World. For some reason, taxes seem to be high on the list of universal annoyances. It doesn’t have to feel that way.
There are two reasons that taxes seem to bother people: the fact that we have to pay them, and the effort involved in doing the work. I’ll offer some perspective on both.
If it weren’t taxes, it would be something else. In Ancient Rome, people were expected to personally maintain the pavement of the road in front of their house. As far as I’m concerned, paying taxes is a sweat-free, comparatively easy and low-maintenance way to participate in an advanced society.
Oh, you want to argue about that? Big hair, don’t care.
What I’m talking about here is *my* perspective. From where I sit, I simply don’t give a care about taxes. The only times I’ve cared are the two occasions when I was erroneously assessed taxes for income that I didn’t actually earn. I would enjoy writing checks that large if I had the earnings to match! I found that the IRS has terrific customer service, and I wouldn’t necessarily mind if I ever had to talk to them on the phone again.
We pay more in taxes now than I used to earn. A LOT more. If it keeps going at this rate, which I hope it does, then we’ll eventually pay more in taxes than I earned at my highest-grossing day job. I look forward to the day when I have a ten million dollar tax bill. Come at me! C’monnnn, taxes!
Big money equals big money problems. Only, it doesn’t have to be a problem.
I choose to see all my bills, including my tax bill, as manifestations of abundance. My rent would make you cry, but dolphins are my near neighbors. On the other hand, I don’t have a car payment because I don’t have a car, and my utility bills are small because I live in a studio apartment. On yet another hand, my phone bill is atrocious because I have a billionaire phone.
That tickles me. It tickles me that I have the same phone I would buy as a billionaire. It also tickles me that we do our taxes at the beginning of every spring, again just like billionaires.
I could choose to continue to let money bother me and stress me out. I used to. I used to cry myself to sleep at night, thinking there was no way out and it would always be that bad. I cried the first time I did my own taxes. I misread the tax tables and thought I was paying on my gross, rather than taxable income. I called my mom, sobbing because I “owed” thousands of dollars I didn’t have. “That can’t be right,” she said, and because she is an accountant she offered to look over my work. Imagine my surprise and delight when it turned out, forty-five minutes later, that I was actually getting... a refund! That’s the feeling of lightness and joy that we can all feel when we think about money.
Money is nothing more nor less than a convenient way of storing and transferring energy.
I cried when I was in debt. It was dreadful. Then I determined that I would be debt-free before I pass from this world, and if I did nothing else, at least I’d be able to pay for my own funeral. (Shortcut: I am a whole-body donor and those expenses are included). I put my head down and hustled. I checked my accounts every day, I focused, I earned side income every chance I got, I read library books and worked on domestic contentment, and I got free. I sawed the shackle of consumer debt off my ankle. Now the other side, the student loan side, is nearly free as well. Soon I’ll walk tall, walking the walk of perfect financial freedom. That’s something we all can have, with a little focus.
Part of why taxes are easy for us is that our lives are unencumbered. We don’t owe back taxes; neither my husband nor I ever have. We don’t own a house. The complications mostly come from me and my weird ways of earning money, from royalties and dividends rather than a salary. We take the standard deduction because we don’t have enough reasons to itemize. We just get the software, and my hubby spends not quite an hour clicking through. We have our refunds direct-deposited and we’ve usually already put them in our IRAs before our friends have even bothered filing.
If you need and want to Get Organized with your taxes, set it up now so that you can make it easier for yourself for next year.
How would it feel if you loved money and you found that every financial process in your life was hilarious and simple? What if doing taxes made you want to do a happy dance? What if doing your taxes made you want to rush down the sidewalk, skipping, flinging flower petals in the air and hugging the mail carrier?
Or what if, you know, what if it just wasn’t all that hard?
Today is the day. Today is the day that you can transform your feelings about taxes. If you so choose, you can dial up a different emotional reaction. What is it going to be? Easy, I hope.
Relief is the best feeling you could have right now. Am I right? If you’re like most people, you have a secret shame, something you’ve been putting off. You dread facing it. Even thinking about it makes you cringe. You’ve been procrastinating and delaying and foot-dragging, and the longer you wait, the worse it feels. Let today be the day that you free yourself from that horrible, yucky feeling. Start with a stuck list.
Let’s make a list of everything that’s bothering you. Category by category, we’ll figure out your aversive tasks and why they feel so sticky and hard to do.
An aversive task is something that makes you want to run away. You just don’t want to do it. The funny thing is, that type of odious chore is different for everyone. Some people hate making phone calls, others don’t mind. Some people hate filing, others think it’s fun. Pick a chore and someone hates it, someone doesn’t think twice about doing it, and someone else actually enjoys it. Tell yourself that the thing itself isn’t really that bad, it’s just the emotions that it brings up for you.
What is on your stuck list?
Chances are, most stuff on your list can be done in under five minutes. Isn’t that great?
Also, just thinking about it makes you a little nauseated. Wouldn’t it be better to put it all behind you? Take a deep breath and imagine your victory.
Look at your list. Categorize each item by how it gets done. Is it:
A phone call?
A physical task?
Something waiting on someone else?
A conversation you need to have face to face with someone?
Secretly a major project that you don’t know how to do?
Now write down the thoughts and feelings you have when you think about doing each of these things.
A blank space of not knowing what to do or how to do it
Now write down why you aren’t doing each item.
Don’t know how
Don’t like So-and-So
Hate doing this
Need more information
Believe it will take HOURS AND HOURS
Need to make a decision
Overwhelmed and overcommitted
Do you notice any patterns?
Overcommitting, never saying ‘no,’ feeling indecisive, or avoiding confrontations are the types of patterns that affect everything, all the time. Looking at the root emotional cause and figuring out some strategies can eventually help you to free yourself from the icky, heavy feeling of procrastination.
I tend to procrastinate business calls until I absolutely can’t avoid them because I hate talking on the phone. I always put housework and exercise first. That’s my task pattern. I’m quick to research things when I don’t know much about them, because it makes me feel curious, but I’m slow to open an email if I think it will trigger a bunch of bureaucratic nonsense. The things I procrastinate the most are clothes shopping and getting my hair cut. Another person might procrastinate sorting mail or cleaning out the car, and maybe always put personal phone calls first. It all depends on what you think is fun versus what you think is dreadful, boring, annoying, or loaded with emotion.
Here’s my stuck list.
An email to my screenwriting mentor - guilt, don’t know what to do
Redesign of a product that can’t be manufactured according to current specs - frustration, don’t know what to do
Jeans shopping - annoyance, hate doing this, believe it will take hours and hours
Finding a new avian vet since apparently there isn’t one within ten miles - need more information, need to make a decision
The first two items could trigger weeks or months of demanding work. Since I don’t have a clear image of what that looks like, I feel stuck. Jeans shopping will probably take two hours. Finding a new bird vet might be impossible; I might have to take half a day to bring her to her old vet. I don’t really “feel like” doing any of these things right now, so I’ll fake myself out. I’ll pick one, which will immediately make one of the other items on the list feel less difficult in comparison. I’ll feel like I’m getting away with something.
Trick yourself, if that’ll work for you. Ask someone for help or advice, because admitting your secret shame and exposing it to daylight helps to rebuild your dignity and pride. Set a timer and race against it. Play music and keep working until the playlist is up. Set aside one weekend day as a Get Stuff Done Day.
Keep your list somewhere you can look at it. Try to complete one item every day until the list is gone. Every time you look at, think about, or handle the list, remind yourself of how amazing it will feel when all that stuff is done. Soon you’ll never have to think about it again. You can be free of the dread and frustration and guilt and shame that comes from procrastinating. You can start today. Just get started.
The biggest problem with both procrastination and getting organized is knowing where to start. This is because knowing there’s a system is not the same as understanding and using a system. People who think of themselves as procrastinators or as disorganized have a strong suspicion that life is easier for other people. They’re right, too. One of the main reasons is the awareness of a system, and another is a bias toward action. Just get started! Getting started when you don’t feel like you really even know how to get started can happen when you learn to spot the no-brainer.
What is one thing you can do right now?
What’s a tiny piece that’s so small, you’re sure you can do it in just a minute or two?
What’s so obvious that it doesn’t even feel like you actually did anything?
What is so simple that you don’t even need to explain it or describe it?
A no-brainer is simple, obvious, and easy. Sometimes there are a bunch of no-brainers, and sometimes maybe there’s only one. It doesn’t matter. The secret is that finishing one step makes other steps more obvious.
What is simple and obvious to one person is not necessarily simple or obvious to someone else. For instance, it’s easy for me to know how to eat a burrito because I grew up eating burritos. It’s not so simple or easy for me to WRAP a burrito, though! There’s a trick to it. I always wind up putting in too much stuff, and then it starts to unwrap and everything starts to drip out of the bottom. I know I could learn to do this if I wanted to. I could watch a YouTube video and practice it a bunch of times.
Everything is on YouTube. I’ve used YouTube videos to help me figure out how to wrap my headphone cords, clean a shower door track, open a pomegranate, and fold fitted sheets.
“Getting organized” and “procrastinating” are different, though. That’s for two reasons. One, neither of them has a specific, objective definition and each person’s organization or procrastination problem is different. Two, almost everything written about these topics was developed by people who are very well organized or highly productive. What works for them may not work at the novice, disorganized level.
Where videos or tutorials come in is when there’s a specific task or skill to be learned. Maybe I can’t learn how to “be organized,” but I can look at a bunch of pictures of organized refrigerators or read an article on how to set up a filing system. I take it one piece at a time. Each part of my life and my personal environment that I “organize” makes it easier to figure out the next part.
I believe that procrastination comes from not knowing how to go about doing something, not liking it, feeling pressured by external expectations, and not knowing about mood management. It doesn’t matter if I know how to do something if I hate doing it and I’m rebelling against it. It doesn’t matter if I know how to do it, if I don’t know how to make myself do it. If I know how to fight my procrastinating types of moods, though, I can push through and learn how to do the specific small tasks involved.
How do I write an outline? How do I make a mind map? How do I create and name files? How do I write an effective email header? What format should this report be in? How do smart, competent people effectively admit that they’re still learning how to do something?
Start by writing out a list of everything you don’t know, everything you don’t know how to do. Why are you stuck? Give it a name. This is how you figure out where to start. Which question seems the hardest or the most embarrassing? Okay, tackle that one last.
Procrastination and disorganization usually tend to go together. What’s funny about this is that the feeling of procrastinating on a deadline is sometimes the only thing that can motivate someone to tackle minor cleaning and organizing tasks. I didn’t want to do my ironing until it was time to clean the oven. I didn’t want to clean the oven until it was time to do my taxes. I didn’t want to do my taxes until it was time to work on my book proposal.
What happens in the case of the procrastination bustle is that we realize we are surrounded by no-brainer tasks and chores. We feel intuitively that once we’ve cleared the slate, we can retrieve some of our mental bandwidth. Once something is done, we get to stop thinking about it. It’s a puzzle that we’ve solved. We can look around and see that it’s done. This is done, that is done, this is done, that other thing is done. The more we get into the habit of doing the obvious, the more types of things eventually become no-brainers. Sort the mail. Put away the groceries. Hang up the coats. File the papers. Write the outlines. Submit the proposals.
Every day, we do obvious no-brainer activities that were once too hard for us. Eating with a fork! Putting our shoes on the correct feet! Memorizing our phone number! Finding a parking spot! Buying groceries! Paying bills! We build skills as we grow older and more experienced. We get more done as we realize that it’s faster and easier to do it right away, rather than stewing over it.
Spotting the no-brainer is a way to get moving. It’s a way to feel smarter and more accomplished. It’s a way to get ready and build momentum. Spotting the no-brainer is a way to get started and, eventually, a way to be finished.
Procrastinating is due for a disruption. I think it’s much more complicated than it appears, and that a lot of the time, we bash ourselves with those feelings quite unfairly. What if what we’re doing isn’t really procrastinating?
Over a quarter of Americans are chronic procrastinators, which is way more common than being a smoker or a diabetic. The prevalence has also gone up nearly 40% in the past quarter century. This increase can probably be blamed almost entirely on the advent of cable television, followed by the internet, streaming video, online gaming, social media, et cetera. We certainly know how to entertain ourselves!
Procrastinating means “putting forward to tomorrow.” The interesting thing about it is that we define it for ourselves. Everyone procrastinates on different stuff, and what’s difficult for one person is easy or fun for someone else. We may feel like we are procrastinating on doing stuff even when we don’t have an external deadline or standard that we need to meet. Even when we are being our own boss, choosing our own projects, and doing stuff based completely on our own initiative, we can still judge ourselves for being “lazy” or for procrastinating. Isn’t that a little weird?
Putting something off until tomorrow isn’t always procrastinating. Let’s think about this. Usually, it’s a sign of good planning! We can’t do every single thing the minute the thought crosses our minds. At least, that’s what the receptionist at my dentist’s office tells me. Sometimes, choosing to do something later has no impact at all, like if I delay watching a TV episode or decide not to have a PBJ sandwich for lunch until later this week. It’s only the stuff we believe we really, really should be doing right now that counts as procrastinating. We’ve chosen something that, rationally, we think is the most important, best, and most urgent use of our time. Then we’ve made a decision to do something else instead. That’s extremely fascinating from an existential standpoint!
Even more interesting, rather than find a way to take action, we fill the time either trying to distract ourselves with mindless activity, mentally flogging ourselves, or wallowing in self-criticism, anxiety, dread, and other helplessly negative emotions. Procrastinating usually feels terrible.
On top of the horrid feelings that go with stalling, delaying, foot-dragging, indecision, mental paralysis, and looming deadlines, and am I stressing you out just describing them? Along with all of that come the ramifications. Missed opportunities! Missed deadlines! Regret! Shame! Failure! Disappointment!
Nobody would choose this.
Nobody would rationally choose procrastination. It borders on logical fallacy. If you can only procrastinate by putting off something urgent and important, then procrastinating is deliberately sabotaging your own circumstances. I happen to think that there’s actually something else going on.
Let’s get a little deeper into it.
I work with people who are chronically disorganized. Some of my people have issues with hoarding or squalor, but while those three conditions tend to overlap, some people only deal with one. That’s because the root emotions are different for each person, sometimes astonishingly so. The big difference for the chronically disorganized is that they just do not know what to do. They don’t have any systems, or, rather, the systems they have are far more convoluted and time-consuming than necessary. While my people struggle mightily with following a schedule and being on time, they aren’t choosing to do it. They just lack planning skills, and their inner sense of time passing is set differently. I say “they” when I really mean “I.” People like my clients and I feel a minute as more like 90 seconds. It’s fair to say that chronically disorganized people suffer the same results as chronic procrastinators, even though they may never have made conscious decisions to procrastinate.
It’s not that we put something off until later, it’s that we never technically planned it in the first place!
Procrastinating is often little more than not knowing how long something was going to take, not realizing how many steps were involved, not being aware that it’s already too late to get something done.
Another way to get the same results as a procrastinator without really procrastinating is to be a people pleaser. A lot of people are almost totally lacking in boundaries, and will thus say “yes” to everything in a sincere attempt to be helpful. It’s like having a leaky boat. A pleaser will always “overpromise and under-deliver” because the promises aren’t even really promises, and they’re made so quickly that it would be impossible to even remember them all, much less follow through. This warm, friendly sort of person will not meet deadlines because the point of the commitment was to demonstrate caring and connection, not to actually DO a THING or to show up to an event. The desire to make someone else happy was real. The over-accommodating person who continually promises too much is not procrastinating, but really more turning an emotional dial to ‘please love me.’ Action, production, and execution aren’t even part of the image. This person does not know just how much frustration, disappointment, confusion, and sometimes pure rage is being inflicted on anyone who believed the over-commitment would be kept.
Work projects tend to be procrastinated when the procrastinator doesn’t really know how to approach the project. Most people can do even the most boring or annoying work tasks, grumbling and muttering but cranking them out. The stuff we procrastinate at work tends to be either administrivia, which we rationally judge is not relevant to our work goals, or large-scale projects with longer deadlines. We just don’t know how to break these projects into manageable chunks. We don’t know how to create longer, uninterrupted blocks of time. We don’t know how to delegate or negotiate. We don’t know how to communicate with our supervisors and admit that we don’t know exactly what we’re doing. We don’t know how to shift gears into System II thinking and get into the zone of focus on demand.
We often think we’re procrastinating on personal projects like “getting organized” or “losing weight” or other loosely-defined objectives. If we knew what to do, I think we’d be doing it! We have the internal sense that our lives would be easier if we did these things, that we’re missing out on something that works nicely for other people. It’s not that we’re procrastinating, it’s that we have no idea where to start.
We don’t know Future Self. Future Me feels like a total stranger, an annoying old person who is constantly asking me for more money. Thinking about the needs of me, myself at some later point in the timeline just feels like such an unfair burden. Why should Future Me get everything? What has Future Me ever done for me? We don’t know how we’re going to feel later on. If we’re well acquainted with the helpless, horrible feelings of chronic procrastination, we may simply feel that going into a shame spiral is a fitting punishment for being a useless, procrastinating loser failure. As though negative self-talk or self-punishment ever actually helped to accomplish anything or meet deadlines?
Isn’t the point to get something done? A specific thing? Add “insult myself” to the list for later, because doing it now is actively interfering with the stated goal.
The main reason we procrastinate is that we don’t know what done feels like. We can dimly imagine the relief of getting out of this rut, this hell of our own making, this trap that we’ve thrown ourselves into. What we can’t imagine is the thought process or the course of action that actually led to the doing of the thing.
One thing that helps is to write out a list of everything you don’t know. Every question you have about the project, every place where you’re stuck, every piece of the job that frustrates or confuses you. Sometimes there is an answer. Sometimes, in the most interesting work, the answer is something you create on your own! Usually, clarifying the questions helps to make at least tentative steps toward a course of action.
Another thing that helps is to just get started. Tinker around the edges of the project in some way. Open a file folder. Write an outline. Draw a mind map. Try to figure out any two-minute steps that could be done without thinking too hard. Go through the motions and the stuck feeling can start to dissolve.
Fighting procrastination is a skill that can be learned. It is possible to get rid of this tendency. It is possible to learn enough skills in project planning and time management so that it quits being a problem. The dread of putting off something important always feels so much worse than actually doing the work. Just get started.
Nostalgia is a mystery to me. What’s so great about the past? I say this while waving my history degree over my head. There is no past era that I’d prefer to live in. There is no time, not even the 2000s, that I’d prefer to today. Throwback Thursday is wasted on me; I liked the music of the 1980s but not much else. From my perspective, every year that I’ve lived has involved more innovation, more books and music and movies, and better-quality food. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve benefited from getting my head straight and being less susceptible to emotional drama. I have more skills and I’m a better cook. These things are also true about my family and friends. Life is harder in most ways when you’re young. The future seems like an extremely exciting place to me and I can’t wait to see it unfold. This is a basic optimism that is the key to a happier life.
Optimism is a learned trait.
What is there to look forward to? Don’t you read the news? Oh, it’s awful, it’s awful.
I agree, there is all sorts of truly terrible stuff in the news every day. There always has been, because it’s much simpler to tell stories about terrible events day by day. The photographs are much more dramatic. How do you tell a story about the decline in extreme poverty with a photo? Take a picture of an ordinary, well-fed child who is studying in a classroom? How do you tell a story about the incredible decline in casualties from war? Take a picture of an ordinary town where people are working at their jobs?
That’s the thing about having a degree in history. I know too much. Our chances of dying from almost everything were much higher at any point in the past. Most people, statistically, would have died as infants. Epidemic disease, lack of sanitation, malnutrition, constant warfare, sieges, an extremely high murder rate, brigands, even attacks by various wild animals. We can only possibly feel glum about the present day if we try to compare our conditions with some imagined glory days from the twentieth century.
I grew up in a tenement apartment and I still had a lot of things that the Emperor Charlemagne did not have, that he could not buy at any price. Central heat. Ice cubes on demand. Legible penmanship. A public library and a fire department. Paved sidewalks. Electricity, including lightbulbs, a stove, and a refrigerator. Potable water flowing out of the faucet. A telephone and a television. My mattress and pillow undoubtedly kicked butt over his. Granted, I didn’t feel anywhere near as grateful for these modern comforts as Charlemagne would have. That’s because historical progress is driven by envy and dissatisfaction.
I say this is great. There’s no reason to envy someone if you can study what they’re doing and imitate it. This is obvious if you have a growth mindset! Assume that the envied person had to acquire that trait somehow. Also, you have to envy the complete package, not one thing in isolation. That means you can’t envy a celebrity without including the paparazzi and the haters. You can’t envy any individual person without including their entire personal history, their relationships, and their behaviors. Maybe their fitness level, financial success, or emotional intelligence would come easier to you than it did for them. Observing someone else means you can skip anything they tried that didn’t work. Let envy make you a better person.
We seem to be allergic to thinking about the future. Research shows that we think of our own future selves in the same way we think about total strangers. I think a lot of us are mean to Future Us. We set ourselves up in ways we wouldn’t treat our worst enemies. Hey, Future Me! Have fun trying to survive on the tiny fixed income I’m sending you. I hope you enjoy paying off our debts. Oh, and good luck burning off this slab of cake I’m eating. Maybe you can get rid of some of those calories while you clean out this garage I’m piling with stuff. And by the way, wash my dishes.
The most commonly procrastinated goals are planning for the future and dealing with health issues. In both cases, it would be easy for us if we realized that Future Me is the same person as Today Me.
Unfortunately, most of us are captivated by Past Self. We just see ourselves as cuter when we were younger. We think we had more fun and that life was better. We don’t like looking forward, because it seems depressing, but when we do, we’re oppressed by the idea that we “should” be planning, saving money, eating better, and being more active. Walking backward, facing the past, we’re going to bump into the future and feel it as a frustrating obstacle.
This is part of why people hang on to clutter. We haven’t spent any time thinking about what we’ll want or need just a few years into the future. We have this anxious sense of What If, while never spending any time gaming it out. Get specific about those What Ifs and plan around them! What If I turn into a bag lady? Well, what would need to happen to avoid that sad destiny? (Build relationships, build career skills, learn about financial planning, save money). What If my house burns down? (Get insurance, test your smoke detectors, make an emergency response plan). What If I need this later? Well, that decision is up to you. You’re creating your response to your stuff and your home. You’re creating your response to your money. You’re creating your response to food and to how it feels to live in your body. You’re creating your friendships and conversations. What your personal future looks like depends almost entirely on how you think and what you do about it, today.
The future is an opportunity. Even an hour from now: later today is the future! There’s always still time to call someone and say the things you haven’t said, like “I miss you” and “I’m sorry” and “I love you.” There’s always still time to learn new things, to travel, to try new foods and dance to new music. There’s always still time to try to be a better person, a better listener, more patient and forgiving. There’s even time to clean out the garage. Pick any single goal or any single square foot in your personal space, and do something today that will make it more awesome for Tomorrow You. The future can be whatever you wish it to be.
This is the companion book to Jon Acuff’s earlier volume, Start: Punch Fear in the Face, Escape Average, and Do What Matters. Readers and fans kept telling him that they had no problem starting projects, they just need help figuring out how to finish them. I can identify with this. There are at least two projects that I was working on when I read Start that I still have not completed four years later. If those projects were only four years old, that would be one thing, but, well, they’re older than that. I’m ready to Finish and give myself the gift of done!
This book is great both for chronic procrastinators and for multi-potentialites. Some of us may think we are procrastinators, when really our main problem is wanting to do everything at once. Acuff shows that he fits in this group when he describes his garage full of equipment that he’s only used a few times, including a telescope, a fishing rod, and a moped. Just because we’re curious, adventurous spirits does not mean we’re quitters or procrastinators, it just means we need to learn how to say we’re done with something.
One of the main reasons that we as humans struggle to finish projects is the planning fallacy. We’re just not very good at estimating how long it takes to do things. Another issue is perfectionism, the crazy idea that it’s better not to do something at all if we can’t meet our perfectionist standards. An example that Acuff gives is all the people who say they want to run a marathon but refuse to start with a 5k. Familiar as these are, there are loads more, and Finish gives us plenty of laughs as we recognize ourselves over and over.
Of course, knowing the issue is not the same as solving the issue. The real strength of the book, aside from its humor, is that Acuff knows what it takes to get people to finish projects. He tested these ideas with hundreds of real people, and the results were analyzed by a researcher working on a PhD. This is more than a motivational self-help book; it’s a description of what other people have successfully done. That’s important, because as we all know, motivation is like a shower. It works great and makes you feel good, but it only lasts for about a day.
We start by being less strict with ourselves, making our goals more manageable, and choosing what else to put on hold while we finish.
A tool from the book that I have used is strategic incompetence. I didn’t have that name for it, but I did it, all right. When I went back to school at age 24 to finish my degree, I decided that I would put fitness on hold until I was done. This wound up being kind of a bad plan, because it was a false dilemma and I unnecessarily gained 35 pounds. I did, though, get my degree. I had a clear vision in my mind that I would study during almost all my waking hours, and it worked. I used the same strategy when I decided to get fit, picturing myself doing almost nothing but going to work and being at the gym. That worked, too. I chose to just be bad at everything other than my goal for the window of time that it took to finish. Aim low, drop your standards, and win!
This book is a delight to read. Acuff emphasizes having fun and celebrating your successes. I’m dedicating 2018 to finishing, eliminating, or formally scheduling every incomplete project I have, and I certainly plan to celebrate when I’m done. That’s a party I know I won’t put off until later.
[Paraphrasing]: The opposite of perfectionism is not failure, it’s FINISHED.
“Might as well” is never applied to good things. It’s never, “Might as well help all these orphans,” or “Might as well plant something healthy in this community garden.”
Running is my dog Spike’s favorite thing ever. He likes it even more than BALL. One day, he went for a six-mile run with my husband while I was at a baby shower. I got ready for my own run. Spike was eating. I went to slip out the door, visibly wearing running clothes and shoes. Spike saw me, spit his mouthful of dog kibble back into his bowl, and sprinted to the door. He’d rather run than eat, even though he’d already put in significant mileage that day. He’d like to go everywhere we do. I try to remember that while I’m wearing shoes, my dog is barefoot all the time.
I get where he’s coming from. I hate wearing shoes. I especially hate running shoes; I almost always think they’re hideous. Inevitably, when I go to replace my last worn-out pair, I think the new ones are even uglier than the ones I already have. The pair that fit me best and feel the best on my feet are usually my least favorite colorway out of the whole range. I buy one brand that has colors I like okay, but they’re something of a discount brand and aren’t really good for actually running. Just comfy walking shoes. If I’m not going outside for some reason, I’m barefoot at home. I’m even barefoot when it’s cold outside, which drives my mom nuts. “Aren’t you cold?” Well, sure, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to do something so foolish as to wear shoes!
The thing about being barefoot all the time is that it leads to certain choices instead of others.
When I’m barefoot all the time, it doesn’t make as much of a difference whether I get dressed or just hang around in my pajamas. Obviously I’m not going anywhere outside. If I’m not going anywhere, why should I get dressed? This can lead to a blending of morning into late afternoon. If you have the luxury of setting your own schedule, it’s more common for huge chunks of the day to somehow disappear than to suddenly start getting important tasks done at 5:30 AM.
When I’m barefoot all the time, I’m going to put off doing certain things until it’s shoe time. This means stuff like taking out the trash, dropping off donation bags, running errands, or even buying groceries is going to wait until later. In fall and winter, daylight can disappear before you even realize that most of the day is gone. Sometimes today turns into tomorrow, or the next day, or never. Without shoes, I’m unlikely to do yard work, replace outdoor lightbulbs, or even so much as sweep the porch. Months can pass this way.
When I’m barefoot all the time, how simple it is to tuck my feet up under me and snuggle into a blanket. Putting my shoes on entails bathing and getting dressed first. That has this whole domino effect of officially starting my day, doesn’t it? Doesn’t that trigger my to-do list? Can’t I just wait another hour and do it later?
It’s true that I hate shoes. I hate wearing anything on my feet if I don’t have to. It’s also true that going barefoot all the time means I can’t do other things that I love. I’m not backpacking barefoot, I’m not running barefoot, I’m not even going to the library or a bookstore barefoot. My comfort level with hanging around barefoot is a tendency that I don’t feel great indulging.
Wearing shoes doesn’t come naturally to me - or to anyone. They’re artificial instruments of civilization, not body parts. Wearing shoes does, though, assist me in my bias toward action. Wearing shoes makes me more active in every way. Wearing shoes helps me get more done and leads me to use my body more.
I think about my dog Spike and his feet when we run together. One night, he picked up three goat head thorns. They were rammed into the fleshy pads of one paw. Did he cry out? No. Did he ask to stop? No. He just limped a bit until my husband noticed and picked him up. Spike loves running so much that he’ll do it on hot asphalt, on gravel, in mud, and even when he has spiny thorns stabbing between his little toes.
We built up Spike’s feet gradually. When we started running as a pack, I could barely do a third of a mile. We added a tenth of a mile every couple of days. It was three weeks before we were running a mile at a stretch, and I think it took two years before we got to the six-mile mark. Our little 23-pound dog was there for almost every step. Running is his passion. It’s the time he feels most like himself. Because we started out with such short distances, and because we added time and distance so slowly, Spike’s footpads got tough and thick. It helps his nails to stay naturally short and he doesn’t have to go through the trauma of having the groomer trim them. He can run in his full glory, barefoot all the time.
Thinking about my little doggy helps to make me more action-oriented. I need to pause a few times a day to take him out. I would never want him to suffer, not with thorns in his paw and not with unanswered biological needs. I’m sure that if we ever put him in shoes, he’d hate wearing them as much as I hate shoes myself. For him, I wear them more often. At least one of us gets to run wild and free, barefoot all the time.
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.
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.
I procrastinated on finishing this book for ten years. This is even worse than it sounds. Not only did I quit reading a book subtitled "Owning the Power to Control Your Destiny," but it was a signed copy. I found out that Suze Orman was coming to my area to do a reading, and I physically ran out the door after work to try to make it on time, driving through Napa County like a madwoman. I MET HER. It's true, I actually met Suze Orman and spoke to her in person! She was incredibly gracious and charismatic. I felt that she really looked at me, really saw me, and in that moment, I saw myself. I saw myself as a young woman, trying hard, but not reaching her full potential. I saw myself in the context of Women & Money. That changed everything.
Going back and reading a personal finance book ten years later was really interesting for a lot of reasons. One was that everything in the book still very much holds true. Another was that I could give myself credit for actually doing everything that the book recommends! I even have an advance care directive. I'm quite comfortable picking stocks and managing my own investments. My FICO score finally passed 800. The young woman who bought this book - a young woman who could barely follow a recipe - had so much hope and passion. All of it came true. Thanks, Past Me, for trying so hard.
It was also intriguing to see that I had left a sticky note in the book as a bookmark. It had a few days' worth of expenses, all for amounts under $14. I was still tracking every penny I spent back then, in a little spiral notepad that I kept in my purse. All of my focus in those days was on paying off debt and trying to follow a lockdown budget. I felt like I would be broke forever. Fourteen dollars felt like a big deal to me at the time, and definitely the $25 I spent on a new hardcover book felt like a big deal. Why, then, did I drift off and quit reading it?
The reason I write about my procrastination is that I believe it's a near-universal reaction when it comes to personal finance and retirement. We go blank. We vague out. We dislike doing System 2 thinking anyway, but when it comes to learning about money, most of us are too intimidated. An octogenarian acquaintance of mine goes around saying, "Nobody PLANS to wind up in a trailer in their old age." That's exactly right. We put it off, we let it bore us or scare us, and then decades go by and suddenly we realize that there's a big blank spot in our lives where RETIREMENT was supposed to go.
Sometimes we realize that we wouldn't have stayed with someone if we'd had more of a sense of financial security. I would never have married my ex if I had been earning more (not that I understood that at the time). There's a crushing sadness there. Only when I took charge of my own career and my own finances could I stand toe to toe with the man I love today, knowing my choice to love him comes from a place of power.
I let my focus wander at the Retirement Investing chapter. This was super-dumb because I lost out on a free $100 because of it. The book came with a limited-time offer to deposit $100 in your brokerage account after you deposited $50 a month for 12 months. I want to beat my head on the wall when I think about this. I was so fixated on becoming debt-free at that time, but I absolutely could have afforded $25 per paycheck. It's not so much about the free $100, but about how much money I would have made by going into the market at that time. ARRGGGHHHH! Past Self, Past Self. What were you thinking? I could have been fully funding my IRA all that time. All I got out of paying attention to other things and delaying was lost opportunities and less money.
Explain to a 32-year-old that she'll eventually be 42, and 52, and 62, and 72. Go on, explain it.
I met Suze Orman and she changed my life. I listened when she spoke. I paid attention to her story of coming from a poor family and starting out as a waitress. Simply seeing the polish of wealth and prosperity on someone I admired made something click in my head. I was wearing clothes that were three sizes too big and I had a hot chocolate stain on my shirt. My haircut wasn't doing me any favors. I decided to invest in myself and push forward. I was still in scarcity mindset, but I was starting to make the shift.
Women & Money is a great starter guide, a book for confused beginners as well as women whose financial issues do not stem from lack of knowledge. It's about setting boundaries, communication, and managing relationships in which money plays a part. It's about confronting the blocks we have around taking charge of our own money. It's about personal power. This book is easy to read, but it has the potential to blow the roof off your life. In the world of self-limiting behaviors, avoiding the role of money is a great place to start.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.