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.
We'll lie to ourselves a thousand times worse than we would ever lie to anyone else. One of the many types of those lies is the lie of omission, of deliberately obscuring information. We want no part of knowing our true motivations. That's what creates the Secret Shame. Even worse than the Secret Shame is the thing we refuse even to acknowledge to ourselves. The dark pool at the bottom of the chasm. What do I not want to know about myself? What am I avoiding?
Simply put, what we're avoiding is always a bad feeling. I don't want to think about X because if I do, I'll feel sad, scared, lonely, incompetent, unlovable, dumb, ugly, guilty, dirty, weird, angry, or otherwise awash in icky emotions. Whatever it is, whether it's a work project, a debt, a health issue, or a cleanup job, it's really just a thin coverup for a bad feeling, a feeling that probably pops up in all sorts of situations. Or wants to.
This is the root cause of procrastination.
Procrastinating is caused by 'temporary mood repair.' That means we'll do something other than the thing we believe we should be doing because we want to bury the bad emotion and, at least briefly, replace it with a positive one. I'm going to take I CAN'T HANDLE THIS or I DON'T KNOW WHAT TO DO and put them in a shoebox while I generate feelings of good cheer and elation by playing Candy Crush or watching a capybara video.
Okay, actually watching capybara videos is my purpose in life.
I've talked to people who claim that they never procrastinate. This can cause hilarity of truly epic proportions when it's someone you know well. Oh yes? Then when were you planning to deal with your: long-term unemployment / hoarded garage / consumer debt / sleep apnea / non-viable relationship / total lack of retirement savings / 150 pounds of excess body fat? Procrastination refers to the big stuff, not the piddly little things like making a business call, sewing a button, or filing your papers. I'll go so far as to say that you don't have to file your papers at all; you can leave them in a stack, and it'll take you just as long to find something on the off chance that you need it. You can also take that garment with the missing button and throw it in the trash, because if you haven't been wearing it, you aren't going to miss it. Immediately take your to-do list in one hand, a thick permanent marker in the other, and strike out any minor chore that you see. Or ball up the list entirely and give it to your cat. You're not avoiding that stuff, you just understand that it's irrelevant to your life.
What is really relevant? That's really up to you, and whether you want your life to stand for something. What memories you want to have when you draw your final breath.
"I did exactly what I want, and anytime someone tried to tell me what to do, I didn't. Mission accomplished." Fair enough. The point is not to have any regrets, not to wish we had done things that we never made the time to do. Whatever that means to you is your personal choice, based on your personal values. If your only value is autonomy, hey, whatever works for you.
Living in accordance with our own values is far more challenging than it should be. We love nothing more than to criticize other people for things they are doing, assuming they know better, but then letting ourselves off the hook for the things that we do or don't do. HE did that because he's an idiot / selfish / jerk, but I did this because I was busy / distracted by something important / had mitigating circumstances. It's called fundamental attribution error. Gossiping over the failings of others is fun. Looking down the well and facing our own failings, the deep ones, is dreadful. Why is it that we choose our own values, and yet we don't like holding ourselves to our own standards?
What am I avoiding?
Personal connections. Cutting the cord on personal connections I no longer want. Facing my fears of rejection or intimacy. Working harder. Pushing myself in my career and then finding that I'm not as good as I thought I was. Realizing what I thought was my fantasy doesn't really interest me all that much, and that I don't have anything to replace it with. Finding out how much I really will have to change if I want what I say I want. Missing out on a slice of cake even one time. Admitting to myself that I am creating the majority of my own problems. Revealing to myself that I have the ultimate power to make myself start doing or stop doing whatever I decide, but also realizing that I don't want to. Admitting how much I hate Future Me and want to make her life as difficult as possible. Acknowledging that I can't actually read every book in the world. Scrapping a project I sunk so much time into and either starting again with something else, or saying, I was never going to be this or do this. Living a bigger life and finding that it's yet again time to do more and be more vulnerable to public scrutiny. Facing my own mortality. Opening myself and my work to criticism. Yanking my floating brain back into my meat-body and realizing that yes, I live here full time, and yes, this really is me. Making eye contact with my own dark side.
Who knows what else?
Usually we're avoiding very specific things. I don't want to think about these papers. I don't want to wash these gross dishes or bag up this gross trash. I don't want to update my resume. I don't want to make that phone call or read that email, much less reply to it. I don't want to have that conversation. I don't want to get my heart rate up or get sweaty. I don't want to eat any nasty old vegetables. I want to watch this show or play this game or read this paragraph without having to do something else that is less fun or interesting, regardless of what it is. I don't want to fold this laundry or put it away. I'd rather sit in a room with this long list of dumb five-minute mindless chores clouding my mind than get up and do annoying tasks. In this case, we're avoiding the uncomfortable knowledge that most of a good and happy life consists of routine maintenance. That most of what can improve our day-to-day or bring us toward our goals has no intrinsic thrills in the action, only in the accumulated effects of the routine actions.
There are three possible reactions to the knowledge that we are avoiding something. 1. Keep avoiding it. 2. Admit that we're never going to do it and move on. 3. Face it and deal with it. I try to choose "face it and deal with it" as often as possible. This attitude increases my ability to handle things in all situations, expanding the possibilities in my life. I want to avoid being idle or missing opportunities, shrinking my life because I only ever chose the small and easy choices.
Do you believe in love at first sight? Soulmates, destined to be together, who spot each other across a crowded room and instantly merge spirits until the end of time?
Do you believe in genius? Iconoclasts hatched from special eggs who come like Prometheus to grant innovation to the masses?
Do you believe in Sasquatch? How about fairies? Rodents of Unusual Size? Trickle-down economics?
Okay then. Let’s talk about motivation. Because I do not think it means what you think it means.
People often tell me that they wish they had my motivation. Chances are, they actually do. I mean, I don’t seem to have any laying around. I may have had some back in the 90s and it got thrown in with a bag of Goodwill donations. It sounds like something people associate with youth and vigor, anyway.
When I’m “motivated” I’ll quit procrastinating. I’ll start eating healthy and going to the gym. I’ll get organized. I’ll plan my retirement. One day, when the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars, I’ll wake up and everything will be different! Basically my entire personality will change! Everything I hate doing now will suddenly be bathed in sunbeams, emanating prismatic rays of cosmic power! A magical sword will float up from a lake, activated solely by my aura! Doves will fly over my head, carrying an embroidered banner that reads TODAY THOU ART MOTIVATED! Flowers will sing Hosanna! A unicorn will gallop by with a tray of refreshments strapped to its back! I will suddenly sprout defined abdominal muscles!
Or maybe there was just some ergot in my muesli. It happens.
[Note to self: draw this as soon as there is sufficient motivation]
Allow me to present my credentials. I ran a marathon. I am at my goal weight. (I in fact actually have visible abs.) My house is both clean and organized. I do my art every day. I publish on a schedule. I’ve been earning (extremely tiny sums of) money off my writing for five years. I’m actually one of those people who grows and cans our own produce. Arguably, there are no things that would require motivation that I don’t do on a regular basis. I know whereof I speak.
What I have to say is that I don’t have any feelings other people don’t have. As far as I know, there are no ecstatic, mystic states where you 1. Meet a giant caterpillar smoking a hookah and then 2. Suddenly feel an intense satisfaction related to scutwork and drudgery. I was never allowed into the Archives of the Motivation Cabal, where they possess the last remaining copy of the Codex Mirabilis, handwritten in ink made of crushed scarabs, meteorites, and wormwood, the mere sight of which permanently etches epiphanies into your pineal gland. I don’t even have any level-ups or extra lives.
In truth, I am a lazy person. A tightwad. Too stubborn for my own good. I do the things I do out of a belief that they are good ideas in the long run, that they save time and money and effort, and that it’s easier to do them than to suffer the results of not doing them. It’s three times harder to burn off a pound of fat than to put on a pound of fat, and probably five times harder to add a pound of muscle than to maintain it. Cleaning a cluttered house takes 40% more effort. The longer things go between cleanings, the harder they are to clean. The benefits of being fit and organized are obvious the moment you experience them. Do what’s necessary for long enough, and it becomes so automatic you forget there was ever another way. You can coast. It’s not motivation you want, but momentum.
The secret is not woven in gold thread into a flying carpet. It’s not hidden in a cave at the top of an uncharted mountain. You don’t have to carry honey cakes to feed to a three-headed dog. You don’t have to click your heels together or talk to yourself with your eyes closed. All you have to do is to realize that there is really no such thing as motivation, and just get started doing things whether you want to do them or not. Just get started.
Willpower, or lack thereof, is what we inevitably blame for not following through on what we want out of life. That's when we're smart enough not to blame other people. It's my contention that the real problem is postponed decisions. Only when we know exactly what we want can we start moving toward making that happen. Even when we've clarified our wishes, decisions will have to be made.
'Decision' means 'to cut off.' That root 'cis' is the same as the root in 'scissors.' To make a decision is to permanently remove other options. This is panic-inducing for many people. What do you mean?? Do you mean that if I choose the pizza, I can't have the sushi?? Do you mean that if I marry one person, I can't marry someone else?? Do you mean that if I take this job offer, I have to tell the others "no, thanks"?? Aaaaaaah! I can't take this pressure!!! How do I deciiiiiiide?
What we don't realize is that refusing to make a decision is like spending your life inside a revolving door. It goes around and around and around. You see all kinds of options... but then you revolve past them... but then other options come into view... but then you revolve past them again... It feels like action is happening, and it can take a very long time to realize that this is only an illusion of progress. All that needs to happen is a choice to step out of the revolving door on one side or the other.
Decisions are permanent, but they're also temporary. That means if we choose a new job, and it doesn't work out, we can always move on to another place. If we choose a new hairstyle, and we don't like it, the hair will grow back and we can get a different hairstyle. If we move to a new place, and we don't like our neighbors or something, we can move again. If we order something off a menu, and we didn't like it, we'll never order it again, and there's another meal opportunity in just a few hours. We're choosing, we're cutting off all the other options, but we're not stuck. We're never stuck. At worst, we realize that this particular thing before us is not our favorite. The more decisions we make, the easier they become, because the list of options that we consider acceptable gets shorter.
It's a lot easier to choose from three flavors than from thirty flavors.
Clutter definitely comes from postponed decisions. "I might need this later" is a way of saying that "I simply refuse to make a decision about this right now." Later. Later. Later. I'm putting this thing in a pile, and that means I'm neither repairing it, ironing it, sorting it, throwing it away, delegating it, returning it, cleaning it, filing it, nor using it. A pile of papers or laundry is merely a visible manifestation of a larger problem, which is that of defaulting to indecision. Every day, I'm going to sit right here and not like my life all that much, while the postponed decisions pile up around me.
Don't like your job? Postponed decision.
Not comfortable in your own skin? Postponed decision.
Place is a mess? Postponed decisions.
Ambivalent relationship? Postponed decision.
On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being AWESOME and 1 being 'unacceptable,' everyone levels out at what feels familiar. Some people will push until they feel like a 5 all around. I'll be alone before I'll settle for less than a delightful relationship. I'll work out until I'm at my desired fitness level. I'll keep honing my skills until I have my dream job. I'll never stop until I'm at my best. Others will somehow tolerate a 1, such as being physically abused, and never breathe a word to anyone or ask for help. There is no mystery here; they simply feel like their fate in life is to suffer. They can't imagine anything better and they don't know how they would get it. (Answer: go to the nearest neutral person and ask "can you help me?"). Most of us fall somewhere between a 2 and a 4. Right now, I'm a 4 person, but my '4' is another person's 5, I know it, and I'm grateful for it.
Most decisions don't matter at all. What color of toothbrush should I get? What flavor of jam should I try? Ankle socks or knee socks? I refuse to spend more than one millisecond on decisions of this nature. If I choose "wrong" I'll just choose differently the next time. These are matters of taste preference, and if you have none, then it truly is not important, to you. We need to save our decision-making energy for the big, strategic decisions. What is my life's purpose? Who is worthy of my love? Where will I live? What do I want out of my personal environment? What is my heart's desire?
The saddest thing to me is that most people don't seem to have a heart's desire at all. Not one that they are aware of, not yet, anyway. We don't know what we want to do with our lives. When we think about what we want, the answer almost always starts with: NOT THIS. The list of things I Do Not Want is at least a million items long, but there's no point spending time thinking about it. I don't want to sprout antlers, interesting though it might be, but the only thing worth doing with an anti-wish like that is to make it into a Halloween costume. What DO I want? I want to strengthen my hip flexors. That's an objective, well-defined wish, and with a wish like that I can make a plan of action. 1. Find appropriate hip flexor exercises. 2. Do them regularly. Now a decision has been made, and I have a freshly empty decision-making slot.
Learning to be decisive is so dramatic and powerful that it can feel like changing an entire personality. Maybe it does. It's not always a quick shift. Figuring out how to want specific things, instead of focusing on what we don't want, takes practice. In the meantime, we can put on our emotional training wheels and practice on the easy stuff. Make one simple decision that feels low-stakes. Throw away the oldest or grossest thing in your fridge. Get a bag and put in one piece of clothing that doesn't fit today. Look at a picture of baby owls and choose the cutest one. As you gradually cut away more and more unimportant or useless options, you develop a stronger sense of what matters to you. It becomes easier and more rewarding to choose one thing while abandoning others.
My great-grandmother always said, "If you can read, you can do anything." This made sense to me at six years old, and it makes even more sense now. We have the Internet! The information is available at our fingertips. We can find out HOW to do anything. Action steps are not the problem. All that we need is to choose one extremely specific thing, and then acting on it will feel natural and obvious.
There are really only two kinds of problems: the one you're having right now, and the one you're not. For instance, I don't have a problem with my cat clawing my couch because I don't have a cat. When I do have a problem, such as my neighbor backing over my mailbox with a moving van, I tend to forget all about the problems I don't have and focus on the one that I do. The worst problems are the perpetual kind, the problems that won't go away for years on end, if they ever do.
Some problems go away on their own. Teeth, for example. Ignore them and eventually they go away.
Other problems are situational and of brief duration. Aggressive drivers, neighbors setting off fireworks during all of July, that person whose fragrance has just filled the elevator - these are temporary. Better to wait them out and not let them disrupt your equilibrium. When I feel stuck in a frustrating scenario, I think about... sand. Just sand, nothing but sand all the way to the horizon. By the time I'm done picturing the sand, the situation has usually resolved itself.
Perpetual problems are worth study. If nothing changes, then nothing changes, and then nothing changes. Right? The pattern has to be disrupted. Somehow, something about the problem has to change. What is it? As soon as the perpetual problem is recognized for what it is, the pattern tends to reveal itself. That is the secret behind how to kill off the problem.
Relationships. I used to have a cheating boyfriend. I tortured myself about it. It was nauseous. I mean I would feel physically ill when I thought about him with another woman. I couldn't stop asking myself what I could do differently to keep his attention and get him to stop. Then one day, I had finally had enough, and I broke up with him. He cried. I realized that his behavior had nothing to do with me; he would have acted the same way no matter whom he was with. After that, I started communicating my expectations about fidelity at the very beginning of new relationships. That is reassuring to people who feel the same way.
Money. I used to be in debt. Right after graduation, I had so many payments on various debts that I had exactly $30 in spending money at the end of each month. That debt was all I could think about. I had a spreadsheet. I checked all my account balances each and every day. I worked really hard, scrimped and saved, and paid everything off. Now, I don't have to think about debt anymore.
Health. I used to get migraines. It runs in the family, and I always figured I was stuck with them. I had a long list of triggers, a list that kept getting longer, as the migraines got longer in duration. Four days of not fun. Somehow, I stumbled across variables that affected my migraines, none of which were what I thought they were. (1. Body weight and 2. Micronutrients). Suddenly, I can eat spicy food, go to high altitudes, and even be dehydrated or sleep deprived without getting one. It's been almost three years now. I still carry Aleve in my purse everywhere I go, as insurance, only now I offer them to other people.
I don't believe in problems anymore. That is because I believe in challenge, not difficulty. There is always a way to reframe a situation, communicate differently, change my behavior, or get out of the situation. Usually there are ten thousand ways. It starts with the belief that I DON'T HAVE TO PUT UP WITH THIS. I don't have to have a perpetual problem in my life.
I have to wait in line sometimes, but I don't care. I don't care at all. I just play with my phone or think about sand.
I have to listen to one half of someone else's cell phone conversation sometimes, and that's distracting, but I don't really care. I'm learning to tune it out. I can't in fairness judge anyone for doing something that I myself have done.
I don't mind being polite or tolerating other people's foibles, because I like it when others return the favor to me. These are very, very minor problems in the grand scheme of things.
What I don't have to do is to engage in relationships that are exploitive, fake, emotionally damaging, or otherwise not to my liking. There are seven billion people in the outermost circle, and the few who get through the next five layers are a statical anomaly. Everyone may have my benign regard and occasional altruistic acts. Almost nobody may have my trust or my confidences. This includes lovers, obviously, but also friends and family. If you don't want people in your business, stop keeping them informed.
I also don't have to stay in an unfulfilling job. I never did. In my twenties, I was a temp, and I changed jobs whenever I felt like it. If nothing else in my life works out, I can always fall back on my trade, which is administrative support. When you're a secretary, one job is as good as another. Live beneath your means, save like mad, have a cushion, and feel free. It's much easier to contribute at your highest level when you feel that you are participating voluntarily.
I don't have to have money problems because I can always earn more money and/or renegotiate terms.
I don't have to have health problems. By that I mean chronic health problems. The more I research, the more I read medical journal articles, the more I work on optimizing my own behaviors, the less I have any health issues at all. Common cold, food poisoning, migraines? Nah, not really problems for me. In the last few years, my biggest problems have been stinging nettle, fire ants, mosquitos, skinning my knee, and tendinitis. My cancer scare at age 23 set me on the path to REFUSING TO ACCEPT a "diagnosis." Diagnose me with whatever you want, doc, I'm hitting the books and I'm beating this thing. There is no reason to believe that everything possible is known about a particular condition. That is unscientific. It is a wrong thought. I'll die one day, but I'll pass knowing that I always did whatever I could to take care of myself.
It's amazing how much the background noise of PROBLEMS fades when the focus turns to prevention. Being organized, being kind to people, saving money, getting plenty of sleep, eating well, being personally accountable, and avoiding bogus situations will eliminate the vast majority of perpetual problems.
What's left? The problems we can't seem to step away from. WHY does this person act this way?? (Doesn't matter. Once you know that this is the way the person acts, you have all the information you need to make a decision). I'VE TRIED EVERYTHING. No, no you haven't. Unless it's a problem for literally everyone, such as gravity or the loss of loved ones, then there is something different about what you're doing compared to those who do not have the problem. WHY CAN'T...? Because. That's why. As a general rule, get out of the situation first, and examine what used to be a perpetual problem at leisure.
Paradoxically, refusal to accept that a situation IS WHAT IT IS tends to perpetuate the situation. We can't stop thinking about it and obsessing over it, we can't detach emotionally, we can't let it go, and therefore we are stuck with it. As soon as we have a clear vision of something better, it's much easier to realize that the perpetual problem is really an illusion. I don't have to go out with this guy. I don't have to work here anymore. I won't be in debt forever. I can change my body. I can learn new things. I can socialize with people who share my value system. I can improve my communication and my behavior. I expect better from myself, and I also expect better FOR myself.
Willpower fits in your pinky finger. Hold up your hand and look at that finger. Now try to pick up your backpack with it. It's not much of a much, is it? Whenever I hear people saying that they wish they had willpower, I know they have no idea what willpower is. Willpower barely exists.
Willpower is so scanty it's like a paper towel. It can be used for tiny jobs, but not for anything serious. I don't expect to mop the floor with one, and I definitely don't expect to use one during a plumbing crisis or natural disaster. I recognize that it's designed for a specific purpose, and that is not a life-changing, earth-shattering kind of a task. Willpower comes in wisp-thin little perforated sections. There's exactly enough of it to handle brief spills.
What can willpower do?
Allow you to clap your mouth shut milliseconds before blurting out a hurtful remark
Restrain you from slapping your child
Push you past the entrance to the cookie aisle, but only if you don't look back
Tie your workout shoes
Stand your sorry self up out of your chair
Dial a phone number that you don't feel like calling, but you have to
Pour that drink down the sink, but only one time
Force out a gracious apology
Never expect willpower to get you any farther than fifteen seconds. If you're a driven, ambitious person, you can work up to about two minutes.
What do I know about willpower? I've done things that people think require willpower, but I know they don't, because I have none. I once ate half a pan of brownies at a social occasion, and there weren't enough for everyone, and another guest called me out publicly for it. I have no excuses because there are none. There were brownies. I saw them. I ate them. Then I ate more. If there was a second pan, I might have eaten those as well. I would have eaten them in front of a crying child. I know, because I once ate a donut with sprinkles and pink frosting in front of my crying niece, and there weren't any more donuts. I didn't share. Not even a bite.
I don't act like an out-of-control, selfish jerk around sweets anymore. It has nothing to do with willpower, because, again, I have none. I changed my mind.
I lost thirty-five pounds because I changed my mind about deprivation. I thought it out and I decided that I now had enough money to access whatever food I wanted, 24 hours a day. Therefore, I could pass up enticing treats without FoMO. If I really need a brownie or a pink-frosted donut with sprinkles, I can get one, I can store them in my freezer in case of Donut Emergency, or I can make my own. My heart will not break if there are still desserts sitting there and I am not putting them in my face.
I became a marathon runner because I changed my mind about my history of chronic pain and fatigue. I thought it out and decided that doctors don't know everything. I knew that fibromyalgia isn't fatal. I already knew that I could handle intense pain on a daily basis. How much worse could it get? It turned out that distance running drastically increased my pain threshold, helped me resolve my sleep issues, lowered my anxiety, and brought me happiness I never knew was possible. Willpower had nothing to do with it because willpower could only get me into my socks and shoes.
I got my drivers license at age 29, after failing the test twice, because I changed my mind about driving. I thought it out and decided that I needed to be able to operate a vehicle if I was on a backpacking trip with friends, someone got injured, and I was the only one able to go for help. I changed my mind about being a passenger and sitting passively while someone else handled the burdens of driving, which are many. Driving is one of the worst, most annoying and stressful things to do, but I can do it now. Willpower never would have gotten me there because I loathe driving. I convinced myself that I needed to be responsible and accountable and learn it.
I force myself to do things, not because I have an iron will, but because I changed my mind about chronic procrastination. The moment I feel the feeling of I DON'T WANT TO or I DON'T FEEL LIKE IT, that is my trigger to jump on it and do it. I decided that the feeling of resistance is a clear sign of something valuable and important for me to do. If I feel that I don't want to do it or I don't feel like it, this means that I feel I must. Otherwise, it wouldn't even cross my mind. I don't have to whine that I don't feel like riding a donkey or I don't want to play the tuba, because those activities are irrelevant to my interests. I don't feel like looking for a new dentist and I don't want to mop behind the toilet, but I like it even less when I don't do these things. Having a necessary task using up my mental bandwidth is a way of annoying myself. Might as well get it over with and go back to thinking about condors.
Once I've decided that something is important to me, I'll make it happen. I've never failed at getting desserts into my face or staying up too late so I could finish a book. I have all the persistence, focus, attention, cognitive skills, and emotional wherewithal to make those things happen, even when they're logistically complicated. I have the resources to get things done, WHEN I WANT TO. The only way to want to do something is to talk yourself into it. You have to sell yourself on it. The way to do that is to start by humbly admitting that not everything in your life is perfect, that small changes in certain areas might be nice to try for a while. Changing your mind for the sake of changing your mind is good discipline. There's no commitment. You can test out a new idea without letting it change your personality. You can sample it. You can pull it over your head, and then whip it off again if it doesn't fit or it isn't your color. Practice, though, has a tendency to demonstrate very clearly why changing your mind is easy, obvious, and gratifying.
Why didn't I figure this out sooner?
If only I'd known then what I know now.
Change is easy for me now, because I know how to learn new things. It starts with resistance. Then comes reluctance. After that is awkwardness. Then there's a very long period of not even being mediocre. A year later, there's competence. By the time I've decided to move on to something new, what formerly seemed to require willpower is now ordinary routine. I did it when I went back to school and got my degree. I did it when I learned to drive. I did it when I learned how to lose weight. I did it when I trained for a marathon. Now I'm doing it with public speaking. I'm already considering what dreadful, obnoxious, willpower-requiring thing to take on for next year. The secret is that willpower has nothing to do with anything. It takes changing my mind, and that takes curiosity, imagination, and an adventurous spirit.
People are always looking for something new to read.
Millions of people have published a book, or several, and lived to tell the tale.
It creates jobs for publishers, editors, graphic designers, marketers, bookstore clerks, printers, warehouse stockers, truck drivers, and on and on.
Who are you to deprive the world of your work?
The worst case scenario is that nobody will read it, and that's HAPPENING NOW.
Another negative scenario is that someone will criticize it, but you can be criticized anywhere on the Internet or walking down the street for no reason. If it happens, at least it happened because you did something.
Is your unfinished manuscript really what you want to be thinking about on your deathbed?
Aren't you curious what happens in the last chapter?
You can always write it and then choose not to publish it.
You can always write another draft.
You can always publish it under a pen name.
The writing process makes you smarter and improves your writing skills.
Publishing a book is an opportunity to meet new people, people who like books.
Publishing a book is also a great excuse to lock yourself up like a hermit.
Compare it to training for a marathon. If you want an impressive achievement under your belt, which one is easier?
Writing is a much more interesting default behavior than most of the alternatives, such as watching TV or wandering around a shopping mall.
Get it out of the way so you can move forward. Maybe you choose never to write another book, or maybe you love it and you start another one right away. At least you're not stuck in the doorway wondering anymore.
You wouldn't even be thinking about writing a book if you didn't have a story somewhere inside you.
Your story deserves to be told. Your words want to be free.
You are not entitled to be the judge and jury of whether your story should be available to people. It belongs to the world. How dare you lock it away and leave your audience with nothing better to do than to watch reality television?
You are killing literature! You selfish non-writer, you. Where is it? Give it to me!
Start typing because we're out here waiting to find out what you have to say.
The paradox in the bounty of this world is that the more options we have, the more deprived we feel. We're overwhelmed by decisions. No matter what we pick, no matter how we choose to spend our time, there's always something else we could be doing or experiencing. I notice this from time to time when a group of my out-of-state friends goes out for karaoke, and the reason I know about it is that they keep popping on Facebook while sitting at the table together. Seriously, you guys, look up and wave at each other. I can tell you right now that you're having more fun than the rest of us. Although you might not be if I were there, since I'd be compelled to sing...
FoMO plays a big part in our emotional attachment to stuff. The first thing we think when we consider getting rid of something is: What if I NEED IT? I'd be MISSING OUT. Not only would I not have this precious thing I have to talk myself into keeping, but I'd also lose the money I spent on it. There are three problems with this.
Sunk cost fallacy. The money is already gone whether the item gets used or not. We never account for what it costs to keep things, in space, rent, maintenance and cleaning time, mental bandwidth, or emotional depth.
Utility. We don't have to come up with reasons to keep obviously useful things, like a toothbrush or a spoon. The minute we find ourselves turning into an item's defense attorney, it's a dead giveaway that we don't actually need it.
Abundance. We have plenty of stuff already, and when we fixate on the potential loss of any one of these items, we forget our attachment to the rest of it.
I've been working on my sense of Fear of Missing Out in regard to books, articles, and podcasts. My book wish list is still over a thousand items, although I've finally gotten my article bookmarks below six hundred. Apparently I have eleven gigs of podcasts loaded on my phone right now (and eight audio books). I am finally starting to realize that not only will I never "catch up," I wouldn't really want to. To read everything on my list would occupy me for the next four years, and that would mean four years without reading anything new. My fixation on Past Self's reading choices is depriving Future Self of fresh new possibilities. To pace myself and read at a rate that would keep me "caught up" would require me to cut back on time I spend doing other things, like sleeping or telling my parrot her bedtime story.
Another way to look at this is that I am blessed with total abundance in my reading and listening options.
We're never going to run out! Over three hundred thousand new books are published in the US every year, and that doesn't include other English-speaking countries. I get a warm and gooey feeling when I think of all my favorite living authors who are doubtless working on fabulous new titles right now. Stephen King is probably still typing assiduously as this posts. (I often picture him at his morning labors as I try to reach his daily word count quota). That doesn't even begin to touch how many blogs, vlogs, journal articles, podcasts, movies, and music videos are constantly being released. Multiple lifetimes wouldn't be enough to experience all of it, even without taking breaks to actually absorb any of it.
This is the origin of sleep procrastination. We can't bear to pull away from the ceaseless flow of entertainment and information. Arianna Huffington broke her cheekbone when she passed out from chronic exhaustion. It didn't surprise me, as a close friend of mine has fallen asleep and hit his face on his desk multiple times. He's trying to watch All the Music Videos. The music FoMO is distracting from what should be a case of sleep FoMO. We replace our actual dreams with electronic simulacra of dreams.
All objects are stand-ins for experiences. A book is just an expensive chunk of firewood when we remove the potential reading experience. Clothing is about the experience of protection from the elements, discount sunblock, and of course a style statement. We become attached to objects because we like the feeling of looking at them, interacting with them, using them, or merely having them. Sometimes we don't even care about any of that, because we really just like the experience of shopping for them. Sometimes we really only want them as conversation pieces, or ways to connect with other people.
We can try to tap into an experience of abundance, using the exact same data that lead us to the feeling of scarcity and missing out. There will always be MORE waiting out there in the world: people who aren't currently in the room with us, countries we aren't currently visiting, music we aren't currently hearing, cuisines we aren't currently tasting. We can only be in one place at a time, and that is: RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW.
As I look into my closet, I can replace the thought that "I don't have anything to wear" with the thought that "I would look dorky if I wore everything in here at the same time."
As I look at my groaning bookshelves, I can replace the thought that "I should be able to read one book with each eye" with the thought that "I should call my grandma and tell her what I just said to myself."
As I learn that my friends are out partying without me, I can replace the thought that "they're having fun without me" with the thought that "I love that they're having fun together," and also that "I'll be sound asleep hours before they're ready to leave, not because I am boring but because my inner eyelids are a beautiful and well-kept secret."
I appreciate the experience of having few clothes, all of which fit me today, all of which are fairly current, and all of which are reasonably flattering. Certainly more so than a peeling full-body sunburn.
I appreciate the awareness that I am constantly surrounded by a broad selection of reading material, and that the majority of the world's knowledge is available at my fingertips, lurking in my pockets, waiting to be butt-dialed so Siri can tell me, "That wasn't very nice," when I wasn't even talking to her.
I appreciate that there are people who love me, people whom I can visit when I pass through their city, people who will return my texts, and also that I love sleeping a lot.
The real experiences we're missing are very much emotional states. We're missing out on the feeling of being well-rested and composed. We're missing out on the feeling of being thrillingly alive, energetic, strong, and running through the forest like a (pretty slow) deer. We're missing out on the feeling of being fully alert, in tune, and absorbed in listening to someone at the speed of love. We're missing out on the feeling of contentment.
What a fabulous world, so full of animals we've never seen, sea floors that have never been mapped, archaeological artifacts waiting to be discovered, medical innovations currently being tested (as though correcting color blindness weren't enough), works waiting for translation, and of course, fascinating new friends to meet. How can we fear we're missing out on anything when we're surrounded by so much more than we could ever hope to sample?
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.