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?
The School of Greatness academy was scheduled for the last day of the World Domination Summit. We dragged ourselves in, exhausted from getting in at midnight after the previous night's after-party, brains full to overflowing after drinking from the fire hose of inspiration all week. We were expecting a live version of the School of Greatness podcast. That would be great, and also about all we thought we could handle at nine in the morning. It wasn't long before we forgot to be tired.
We answered questions and raised our hands. We partnered up and did group exercises. We found ourselves being drawn in, engaging in ways we hadn't expected. It's so easy to be cynical, awkward, flat, or distant from proceedings like this. Lewis Howes knows what he's doing. This is what happened:
A volunteer shared his experience with one exercise. He was holding himself back from something he really wanted to do, which was to start a blog. (Naturally, I perked up at this). He had decided to do it. "That's great. When?" Some hemming and hawing, which Howes wouldn't accept. "You're being vague about this." The guy was obviously squirming, as were the rest of us. Were we all going to have to take our turn in the hot seat? Were our own excuses safe? "Today," he said. "When today?" They went back and forth, and finally he committed: "By two PM." Whoa! That would be only two hours after the end of the academy!
Instantly I formulated a plot. I'm devious that way. I would go to him during the break and make him an offer he couldn't refuse. This is what I did. I went over and shook his hand and asked, "Will you do me a favor?" He'd never seen me in his life and couldn't possibly have any idea what I was about to ask. "My husband is thinking about doing his own blog, and he's nervous about it. I wonder if you'd be willing to be my guinea pig so I can show him how it's done. If you would do this favor for us, we'll buy you lunch." He was a bit gobsmacked, but he said yes. Another man had walked up while we were talking, and he said, "I was about to suggest the same thing."
So it transpired that the public commitment was made. Two perfect strangers both felt impelled to offer assistance. One was a writer and the other was a technical expert. We agreed to meet at the same spot after the academy, and everyone indeed showed up as planned.
This is where it gets funny. The hopeful blogger already had: a complete blog post written in his notebook; a registered URL; a WordPress account. Yet another perfect jewel of procrastination. I SO identify with this.
We sat on the lobby floor and I set up my iPad and watched as a writer did what writers do, which is to type really fast with a crinkle of intense concentration. THIS IS NO AMATEUR. It takes a long time before writers realize that we are allowed to call ourselves writers, that there's no exam to pass or certification to be stamped.
I couldn't pick up enough bandwidth to use my phone as a hotspot, so we all packed up and went to a Starbucks down the street. Over the next hour, we walked through all the steps and the dozen minor decisions. We figured out how to redirect the URL to WordPress. The blog was launched.
"We just made a baby!" I cried.
It's basically like this. 1. How often do you want to post? 2. Do you want to allow comments or not? 3. Are you going to use illustrations or not? 4. What do you want to call your blog? For some people, as in this case, there's also a 5: Do you want to post under your own name, or anonymously? Often, people have instinctive answers to these questions. Talking out the fuzzy areas with a disinterested, neutral party can be a big help.
When we think we're procrastinating, it really comes down to two things. We'll do anything if we want to and we know how. Sometimes, we're ambivalent about whether we really, truly want something, or whether we want something else more. Usually, though, it's a question of knowing how to do the thing. We get overwhelmed by the immensity of the project. We don't see a way to divide it into more manageable pieces. When we see that we're really facing a series of fairly simple decisions, it starts to seem clear and intelligible. We decide. We choose. It's up to us to make the rules about our own projects, to define the process and the finished product.
The trouble with watching someone else break through a block and produce something is that it's infectious. We keep saying, "You can do it! It's so easy! You got this!" Then we hear ourselves and realize we're really talking to ourselves. Note to self: Walk your talk. Now I have go home and publish my book.
This experience demonstrates several things. We can do a lot when we quit getting in our own way. We are constantly surrounded by potential aid and companions, whether we realize it or not. Helping people is really fun and fascinating. Art is its own independent entity and it wants to be free in the world. We can change our lives in an instant if we open up and allow it. Lewis Howes is a genius of emotional engagement.
This book is going on my Top Ten list for productivity. It answered a lot of questions and made a lot of connections for me. It's obvious that Cal Newport knows how to achieve the state of deep work, and he's had the grace to put it all in a book so that the rest of us can figure it out, too. It may be of particular value to chronic procrastinators; that's where I found the most insight.
Newport talks about "shadow work," a term used by Steven Pressfield in a slightly different sense. Pressfield says we turn to shadow work when we cave in to Resistance and seek to avoid our true work. Newport defines shadow work as everything tangential to, but not essential to, our true work. Email and unproductive meetings are two of the major offenders. Ideally, our professional work aligns with our true calling in this world. Either way, shadow work is helpful neither in a practical nor in a metaphorical sense. Newport recommends that we offload it, negotiate our way out of it, delegate it, get it out of our job descriptions, or work on it only at unproductive times of day.
I wake up dopey and disoriented in the morning. I don't feel fully mentally alert until around 10 AM. Knowing this, I have learned to do undemanding tasks when I first wake up. That's when I start the laundry and read my email. Email for me is almost all newsletters, bank statements, and alerts for things like veterinary or dentist appointments. It's all busywork or information I can skim for the 20% that I find useful; I can blast through it and save for later anything that needs my full focus. It would be silly of me to use a time of high mental alertness to fold laundry. The reason I do it at all is because I focus better in an orderly environment. The reason I do it when I do is that I'm not going to get anything amazing done during that time of day, regardless.
Deep work is a potentially revolutionary concept for chronic procrastinators. I think Newport hits the nail on the head when he talks about deep work as a mental state; it's the elusive feeling that procrastinators want to be feeling when we are doing what we are supposed to be doing, i.e.: working. It really is a magical altered state. The thing is, we do feel this feeling of deep work, but we only tend to be absorbed in that manner when we are doing non-work things, like reading, playing games, or crafting. We know intuitively that we could be feeling it when we are doing real work, but it doesn't come automatically, and we don't know how to induce it. Newport explains how in Deep Work. He uses examples from highly productive, highly successful people, some of whom overcame the tendency toward procrastination. I loved this book, and it has had me doing some serious analysis of my work patterns. Most highly recommended.
The aspirational nature of books is undeniable. We display books we haven’t read because we believe the appearance of these unread books says something about us. (It does: our desire to present ourselves in a certain light). We leave certain books out where they are visible, while hiding others, which is much easier now that we can read electronically. We’re reluctant to cull books that have sat unopened on our shelves for years. We buy magazines, which mostly symbolize high-quality leisure time, and genuinely believe we’re going to read them one day. In my case, I tend to accumulate books of a similar type when I’m trying to get my head around something. The books symbolize an intention that may remain unfulfilled for years.
I keep digital records of books I’ve read. I started doing it ten years ago, and when I started, I put in a lot of mental effort to include everything I’d read up to that point. I don’t need physical or electronic copies of the books I’ve read to remind myself that I read them; I can check LibraryThing or Goodreads. I don’t re-read books as a general rule, because a second read almost always replaces my initial impression with a less favorable one. Most of my reading comes from library books. If physical books are hanging around my house, it’s because I felt a strong impulse to buy them, but haven’t read them yet. Since I read over 200 books a year, I have to assume that I had plenty of time to read everything in the house. Why haven’t I?
I have a two-volume novel, The Man Without Qualities, that I bought because I wanted to read it and the local library didn’t have it. It’s gone through five moves with me and it’s still sitting there. I had this idea that I’d save it for the plane when I finally went to Europe. When I did “finally go to Europe,” I was backpacking, and I didn’t really want to carry nearly four pounds of printed matter. When am I going to read this 1800-page epic? What am I trying to prove? The cover prices total $50 (probably not what I spent), so do I think I won’t have wasted money if I ever finally read the darn thing? If someone came over and was impressed by the fact that I own this unread book, it would mean nothing. If that person had read the book and enthusiastically wanted to discuss it with me, I’d be busted. Hopefully it’s just aspirational and not completely pretentious.
I have a couple of books on writing screenplays. I bought them when we first moved to Southern California. I can look out my window and see palm trees; I don’t need books to remind me that I am indeed near an entertainment wonderland. If I really did have solid intentions to write a screenplay, I’m sure I could have found some manuals at that time. Maybe they’d even be up to date.
I have a few dozen cookbooks, down from over a hundred a few years ago. Cookbooks used to be an impulse purchase for me. I was powerless in my desire for more. I bought and assembled an entire bookcase to house them. When I finally started to learn to cook, the pressure started to relax. I discovered that not all cookbooks were created equal. Gradually, I tried enough recipes in certain volumes that I was sure I didn’t want to try more! What happened after a couple of years was that I started confidently throwing things into pots and knowing it would work. I often found that what I called “Freezer Surprise” turned out better than other people’s recipes. I haven’t bought a new cookbook in about two years now. The books stood for an unformed desire. I wanted to eat delicious meals, but it took longer than it should have for me to realize that they wouldn’t spring out of the illustrations without a little help.
I have a stack of running manuals and fitness books. I ran a marathon and I am a pretty fit person, fit for a middle-aged suburbanite anyway. I bought them as a stand-in when I injured my ankle. Then I found that reading them upset me too much. It was like reading a romance novel after a bad breakup. I used to buy fitness books in the same way I bought cookbooks; I had no idea what I was doing, but being in that aisle of the bookstore would give me a fleeting burst of motivation that fled by morning.
I have a few German-language novels that I found at various used bookstores. I’m at A1 level in German, barely able to ask for a glass of water. Those were moments of FoMO and bargain hunting. I saw something I believed at the time to be scarce, I thought I was getting a deal, and I whipped out my wallet. Apparently I could have waited at least three years, because I can’t even read a child’s picture book yet.
We won’t talk about the various other foreign language dictionaries and textbooks I have hanging around.
There is a small folding bookshelf in our office. It’s full of textbooks. They’re not mine, as would be abundantly clear to you if you read the titles. They’re my husband’s books from engineering school. He actually uses them. Periodically, a few of them will disappear for a while, and eventually return. There are too many to keep near his desk at work, and he’s just as likely to refer to them here at the house. Once or twice a year, he’ll order a textbook or software manual online. Do you know what he does? I still have trouble believing it even though I’ve seen him do it. He opens the box, starts reading the book, goes through it cover to cover, and finishes it! He’s over there reading a robotics manual and I’m over here with my unread, cliché screenwriting manuals. He can demonstrably build a robot. Can I write a screenplay? Like every waiter in my region? Nobody knows. Nobody will ever know because evidently I’ve committed myself to read a two-volume, 1800-page novel first. Maybe I’ll adapt it.
I have a history of resolving certain intentions and letting go of the books. I’m down to maybe 20% of what I had ten years ago. I used to buy books of knitting and crochet patterns; I worked through many of them and gave the results away as gifts. I used to chain-read metric buttloads of true crime books, and now I rarely do because I figured out why I read them. If I get ahold of a mystery or thriller, especially by certain authors, I’ll read it right away. When I was in a book club (three times), I would actually read the book before we met. Occasionally, I’ll buy a book of poetry at an independent bookstore, because THAT IS WHAT I DO, SO SUE ME, and work through it a little at a time. I bought a couple of ukulele songbooks and spent hours learning a dozen or so simple songs. (Then I realized that my level of playing was designed to accompany singing, and that kind of fizzled out, but come on over if you like to sing the Everly Brothers). We read graphic novels as a family (Walking Dead, Scott Pilgrim), and those go like popcorn. Books go through our house at a significantly faster rate than loaves of bread. Why is it, then, that some go when they’re still fresh and others hang around when they’ve gone stale?
It’s different in every house. A lot of people hang on to old textbooks and academic notebooks. There are so many hundreds of thousands of collections of old National Geographic magazines that we could use them to decoupage the Statue of Liberty. A surprising number of people have every book from their childhood bookcase. I know I’m not the only person who buys novels and leaves them unread. What I don’t do is to put them back on the shelf only partially finished, though I think that is another common habit. Probably the most common unresolved intention is when people save every book they ever liked, believing they will go back and reread them all one day. The math on this is discouraging.
As much as I’ve always lived my life surrounded by books, my feelings about this have started to change. Moving 27 times in 20 years may have had something to do with this. When I want the comfort of walls of books around me, I can go to a bookstore or the public library. Being surrounded by books I haven’t read, despite a stated intention, is becoming stressful. I’ve started seeing them as one long centipede of a volume, thousands of pages long, that I’ll have to get through before I can bring home anything new. As a writer, I’ve started to feel dirty about buying used books, knowing the author doesn’t get any of the proceeds. As a reader, I’ve gotten sucked into the delight of buying books with my fingerprint and being able to read them 10 seconds later. My shelves have gradually diminished over the last few years. I’ve been reading through them and letting them go. I keep telling myself that “the next time I move, they’ll all be gone,” and maybe one day that will actually be true.
We keep stuff we don’t need or use for many reasons. Some of it is for sentimental reasons. Some of it is because we think we got a great bargain at the Stuff You Don’t Need sale. Some of it is because it somehow got left behind by someone, and we’re not even sure what’s in that pile. Some of it, of course, is inextricably linked to procrastination. This happens in both obvious and less obvious ways.
Obvious ways procrastination creates clutter:
Donation bags we keep meaning to drop off
Items to return that are waiting for the deadline to pass so we’ll never see that money again
Coupons we laboriously clipped that will likewise expire without being used
Produce we bought with the intention to “eat better” that instead created a gross extra chore
“Skinny jeans” that don’t fit “yet”
Craft supplies, yarn, and/or fabric for projects we haven’t started
Magazines we haven’t read in the years they’ve been sitting there, but we totally, totally will
Boxes we never unpacked after our last move – or our first move
“Yard sale” stuff that will still be here three years from now
The garage/storage unit/spare bedroom/closet that’s on every to-do list we’ve ever written
These elements of clutter are nearly universal. They’re so well known that they’ve been staples of comic strips for nearly a century. I don’t know if anyone has ever written a sitcom episode based around cleaning out a refrigerator, but there’s probably one about cleaning the garage from every show ever. We don’t even realize we’re living in a comedy because only the studio audience can hear the marimba music in the background.
We won’t realize how many subtle ways procrastination creates clutter until we change our lives. We finally decide to start living in the moment. We let go of the past and firmly shut the cellar door on it. We look at the likely future we’re creating with our present habits, we come to some educated conclusions about how well that will work out, and maybe we shift course in a few areas. At that point, we start looking at our stuff and wondering, “What did I ever want with this old junk?”
If I had never bought any of the things I actually did buy and didn’t need, the money would go pretty far. I could buy a guitar and pay for several months’ worth of lessons. I could replace my funky old laptop. I could have a weekend in Paris in a luxury hotel. I could hire a personal trainer and do a full 90-day fitness makeover. I could get a professional massage every night for a month. I don’t even know all the stuff I could have had instead, because all I can do is estimate all the stuff I bought for 20 years that I no longer have.
All the clothes that fit my old, obese body. All the books and magazines I read once and didn’t want anymore. All the old CDs that I played until I didn’t care to hear them again. All the kitchen gadgets I just had to have that got culled in one of my last four kitchen downsizings. All the many, many bags of cookies and pints of frozen desserts and six-packs of soda and chocolate-covered-pretzel bars that I wish I hadn’t consumed.
Why do I associate these things with procrastination?
What I was doing was putting my focus on impulse purchases. I was trading in what I thought of as my “real” life, the one for the “real” me, for the “just for now” me. I was going to learn to play guitar SOME DAY. I was going to go to Paris SOME DAY. I was going to really live the way I deserved to SOME DAY.
For tonight, I was going to plunk down on the couch, read for several hours, and eat me some desserts.
When I started running, it was a match made in heaven. I could do my two favorite things, eat and read, with total abandon. Running was custom-made for me, one of the most high-strung creatures who ever walked the earth. I could go out and run until I felt “like a human again.” I could listen to hours of podcasts and audiobooks guilt-free. I could start the day with four waffles, eat two lunches, and stuff Nutter Butters in my little chipmunk cheeks as fast as I could chew.
Two things happened. 1. I lost my taste for sweets, which seems a bit unfair, and 2. I lost 25 pounds before finishing the two-headed sweater I had spent about 40 hours knitting.
Frog-stitching a project can be a weepy, painful experience. All that work! Ruined! In this case, I had to laugh while I did it. Not only had I lost 25 pounds, but my husband, who was supposed to fit in the other half of the enormous sweater, had lost 30. Goodbye, half-finished sweater! Buh-bye! I traded it for three finisher’s medals and a stack of race t-shirts, which I wear during my workouts. I got rid of my “skinny jeans” because they were four sizes too big. Then I realized that I was really done with knitting and I gave away all my knitting stuff.
Yeah, all of it.
I don’t miss it. If I really, desperately need to knit something, I can go out tomorrow and buy all the supplies. If it was a true crafting emergency I could probably ask all my crafty friends to lend me some needles and maybe, perhaps, spare a few feet of yarn. I still know what to do. In that sense, I’m still “a knitter.” I could competently teach a class and have them knit up a sock, a hat, or a children’s toy. In the more practical sense, I’m not “a knitter” anymore. I don’t define myself by this ability in the same way that I no longer think of myself as “a nanny” or “a receptionist” either.
I don’t need supplies, tools, or materials to prove I can knit.
I don’t need books or old class notes to prove I’m “a smart person.”
I don’t need photo albums to prove I have a family or a past.
I don’t even need those finisher’s medals. They always bong me in the forehead when I run.
What interests me now is the potential I have to create what’s going to happen in my life next week, next month, and next year. Where am I going to be in three years?
Am I going to be sitting in the same spot, with the same dirty sink full of greasy dishes, the same piles of unfolded laundry, and the same dusty bookshelves?
Am I going to be carrying balances on the same credit cards?
Am I going to be facing the same lifestyle-related health issues? Having the same kink in my neck? Getting headaches at the same frequency?
What interests me now is how much muscle I can build, how much I can increase my agility and flexibility, how much farther I can go on foot, how much of a load I can carry. What interests me now is how much money I can sock away for my old age and how much I can increase my income before I lose interest in working anymore. I’d rather quit out of a sense of fulfillment and triumph than because I just ran out of steam.
There is never going to be a shortage of interesting books to read, movies to watch, or music to enjoy. In fact, in just a few years I’ll laugh at how dated these songs and storylines seem to me. There is never going to be a shortage of clothes to wear or 75%-off sales to raid; in fact, in just a few years I’ll laugh at those clothes and maybe cry over what they cost. There is certainly never going to be a shortage of shopping malls, craft stores, kitchen gadgets, or storage units they can fill. I can always start accumulating stuff again, and there will always be someone willing to take my money every month to stash it all in a little room I never visit. I’m putting that off for now.
What I’m not putting off is saving for my old age. I’m not putting off any necessary medical or dental appointments. I’m not putting off my chores. I eat healthy food every day, partly because I took the time to learn how to cook it. I try not to put off telling people I love them and I’m thinking about them. I certainly never put off snuggling my pets. If there’s a backlog in my life, it’s a backlog of gratitude, for all the fantastic things in the world that I didn’t bother to notice back when I was surrounded by stuff.
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.