How do you afford your rock and roll lifestyle? More to the point, how does everyone in your social media feed afford theirs?
How do you know they actually even CAN?
I can spin two different narratives about my lifestyle. If I enjoyed having my picture taken, which I don’t, I could fill Instagram with pictures of myself hanging out in the hot tub in a bikini, grinning under palm trees, working out in our brand-new gym with a view of the sun setting redly over the sea, and whale-watching while walking our “purebred” dog.
The other version involves pictures of our 1970’s-era studio apartment, the one with the popcorn ceiling and shag carpet and the loud young family upstairs. It involves pictures of us carrying eight loads of laundry a week to another building and up and down two flights of stairs. It involves our poor, elderly dog and a lot of extremely graphic photos of the days when he isn’t feeling well.
The truth is that there are always multiple versions you can tell about anyone’s life. It depends on how that person chooses to shape the story. Some people have no idea how fortunate they are, others like to pretend they are even more so, and some prefer to cast themselves as woebegone scapegoats no matter the facts.
It all gets so much easier when you quit comparing yourself to others and simply ask how you feel about how your own life is going. Do your values match your behavior and your choices?
My husband and I made a series of executive decisions about our lifestyle, starting before we even got married. Starting, in fact, before we even started dating in the first place! We first connected as friends and lunch buddies because we were both struggling financially. By the time we hugged for the first time, we already knew all about each other’s money lives. We were coaching each other through strategic decisions very early on.
He tied me to a chair and fed me takeout Chinese food while forcing me to apply for better jobs, more than once. I browbeat him into increasing his 401(k) contribution and going back to his family lawyer about his custody arrangements. We weren’t “in a relationship” yet.
That background of friendship and financial transparency made it easier when we started making joint decisions. We learned to communicate and trade off leadership and advocate for our ideas.
He pitched that we move in together and get married. I pitched that we consider relocating for his career if the right opportunity came up. He pitched moving within walking distance of his work. I pitched getting rid of the car entirely. He pitched moving to the beach. I pitched becoming financially independent. Et cetera.
Over the - OH MY GOSH - it’ll be TEN YEARS of marriage this year - twelve years we’ve been together, we’ve gradually and steadily built our financial net worth and expanded our careers while downsizing our material life. Overall it’s one upgrade after another, but to be fair, there are tradeoffs. There are always tradeoffs. We consider them, and sometimes we vote them down, and other times we shrug and move forward.
Upgrade: We live a quarter mile from the beach!
Tradeoff: and drunk tourists wander past our front door singing at 2:30 AM.
Upgrade: We have a pool and a hot tub!
Tradeoff: and upstairs neighbors.
Upgrade: We don’t have to spend the weekend mowing the lawn or taking care of the yard.
Tradeoff: but we do have to haul all our dirty clothes to a laundry room.
Upgrade: We live a few yards from a gorgeous, brand-new gym.
Tradeoff: and we have to share it with 400 other people, most of whom have... habits.
Upgrade: We save 40% of our income.
Tradeoff: and we don’t have a car.
Upgrade: We don’t have a mortgage!
Tradeoff: or any equity.
Upgrade: We are both members of an upscale kickboxing gym.
Tradeoff: (and we get punched in the face) and we don’t have pay cable.
Upgrade: Our student loans are all paid off.
Tradeoff: (and we’re middle-aged) and we don’t order pizza delivery or drink alcohol.
What we’ve done is to prioritize our lifestyle in ways that other people don’t. We both decided that the worst parts of our life were 1. Financial pressure and 2. My husband’s daily freeway commute to work. So we got rid of them.
We traded 3/4 of our physical space and 80% of our stuff (even our really, really cool stuff like swords and an antique sewing machine, his hockey gear and my yarn collection, and almost all our books) to move to the beach and not have a commute.
We traded what most people consider a default, totally normal lifestyle of watching cable TV, ordering delivery food, going out, and shopping at Target for the so-not-sexy choice of putting our retirement first.
It means we cook at home instead of hitting the drive-thru. (In what, a go-kart?) It means we sit around talking instead of watching shows or playing around on a game system. It means I don’t get manicures or color my hair, and he doesn’t watch pay-per-view hockey or go out to lunch at work.
It also means we can go buck wild on vacation, four-star all the way!
There are lots and lots of different ways to be frugal, and none of them are wrong. What’s wrong is tossing and turning at night because your money worries are eating you alive. What’s wrong is killing a relationship because two people can’t communicate, can’t work as a team, and can’t stop fighting about where the money goes. I mean, not morally wrong, just... not great.
At the New Year, my husband and I sat down and did our annual review and set our intentions, like we have as long as we’ve been together. (My pitch). We made some baller choices and some smaller choices. I upgraded my computer and he’s shopping for a motorcycle for his birthday. We also agreed to do meal prep. The cost of the motorbike has derived from not owning a car for two years; it’s already paid for even though he hasn’t picked it out yet. My new iMac was, quite frankly, a lot less than the cost of a year’s worth of salon visits, manicures, makeup, fake eyelashes, handbags, and shoes I can’t walk in. In a 612-square-foot studio apartment, I don’t have anywhere to put half those things in the first place.
The meal prep will save us the cost of our next Vegas weekend, no problem.
We can make two cases for our lifestyle, the tightwad version and the high-end envy extraction version. Neither version is even remotely true without the other half. All we do is to pull back and take the strategic view on a regular basis. We do it at the New Year, we do it at our weekly status meetings over breakfast, and we do it every time a choice point comes up like a call from a professional corporate headhunter. We trade off one financial priority for another, upgrading all the way.
Steven Pressfield has done it again. The Artist’s Journey is another touchstone so condensed and powerful that simply looking at the cover can reignite the inspiration it originally sparked.
I got chills as I read this book. Yes, nod, I agree, yeah, OH WAIT, that changes everything! Unable to dispute any of his assertions, I find myself led along by Pressfield until suddenly confronted with some seriously mind-altering concepts about what it means to be a working artist.
If you haven’t read The War of Art yet, what is stopping you? Artist, non-artist, it doesn’t matter. Pressfield does a phenomenal job of describing the Resistance, that inner feeling that stops us from doing anything interesting or important. I find it highly relevant that he breaks through his own lifetime of procrastination and irrelevance by washing a sink full of dirty dishes. Recognizing that feeling when it comes up makes it much easier to take action and break free.
Carrying on from there, what do you do after you’ve learned how to dispel the Resistance most of the time?
The Artist’s Journey carries on from that point, explaining in practical terms how someone can find and draw down that steady stream of creative inspiration. Pressfield assures us that no work is too inconsequential, that everything we make matters, because it is the work itself that makes us.
I’m still very much under the spell of this book and I can’t stop flipping back and forth through it. Like a couple of his others, I know I’ll read it again and refer to it often. This one is a keeper.
We have wasted enough years avoiding our calling.
“I don’t have a spirit raccoon.”
It’s about that time, the time when average people sigh and give up on themselves because they think they’ve screwed up their New Year’s Resolutions again. That’s because people seem to think that a first draft is somehow typeset, bound, printed, and archived. We think if we made a typo, it’s carved into the base of a statue somewhere. We think if we misspoke, it’s recorded and played back before Saint Peter at the pearly gates. Or whatever.
Look, if you want to win at this game, make your own rules.
The point of this whole “resolution” thing is for you to decide, for yourself, that you want to upgrade your experience of this life. You choose your values and your standards and you choose your behaviors to match. You set up your own environment to support your choices.
That’s where revision comes in!
This is perfect. You came up with a really good idea for something you want to do. Now you’ve tried to put it into practice in your daily life, and you have more information on how that’s working out.
As an example, I made a resolution to work on hip openers, which means various kinds of leg stretches. I want to do it because when I do, it feels good, and when I don’t, I get plantar fasciitis, I’m asymmetrical, and I suck at roundhouse kicks, which embarrasses me in the gym because everyone is constantly trying to give me advice.
Right now, we’re two weeks into the year and I haven’t done a single stretch. Not one.
Does that mean I’m a stinking failure loser and that I should quit making goals? Well, maybe. Too dumb and stubborn for that, though, so I’ll keep trying.
What I learn from my own experience is that I set out to make a bunch of changes to my schedule all at once this year, and some of them I’m already doing and some of them I’m not. Everyone who reads this should take away the message that the more stuff you try to change at the same time, the harder it is to get any of it right. By “right” I mean, “done in a way that will easily work for you, year in and year out, and feel like an improvement.”
The other thing I learn from my own experience is that I don’t do fitness-related activities when I am ill. This is a GOOD THING!
I made the mistake, when I set the goal of running a marathon, of pushing myself and overtraining. I made my goal, sure, and this is why goals are not as good as resolutions. I injured my ankle and couldn’t run for three years. If instead I had framed the resolution as “run four days a week, aiming to increase my endurance,” I might have been able to keep running all three of those years (and maybe run a marathon the following year). Instead I got a marathon medal and an ankle brace.
One of my toughest resolutions has become, “respect my physical vessel and aim for the long term.” My main fitness goal is longevity.
The bigger and more long-term the goal, the more challenging it is, which is excellent. I mean literally excellent. If you want to excel, it doesn’t happen by doing ordinary or average things, by definition! Doing anything out of the ordinary means doing something different, and that means you don’t already know how to do it, and probably nobody else you know does, either. (Though that won’t stop them from turning into total naysayers).
Knowing how to instantly make new stuff fit into your regular routine is exactly the kind of thing nobody knows how to do.
Say your resolution is to finally organize your photos. Have you decided what you mean by “organize”? What does ‘done’ look like? How long is it going to take you? When are you going to do it? My guess is, it would take a couple of hours a week for a couple months. That doesn’t come out of a wormhole from space. You don’t suddenly get extra pages in your calendar. It has to come from rearranging your schedule, or cutting out something else you normally do. What thing that might be, it’s not obvious to me (since I don’t know your life) and if it were obvious to you, I’m guessing you already would have done it!
Looking at my resolution to do these special stretches, I have a few entirely separate issues. One is physical space. We live in a studio apartment, and there is only one space big enough for a person to get down on the floor and stretch. Issue two, my hubby is also doing a floor thing, using a foam roller to work on his neck. In a different home, we could be accountability partners and do our exercises side by side, but here, it’s a zero-sum game. Issue three, our dog loves to participate in floor stuff. Issue four, I get bored quite easily and I know I need to give myself something distracting to do while I stretch, especially when it hurts! Issue five, I’m constantly rushing around doing other things, and right now it doesn’t feel like I “have time” to do this.
The whole entire POINT of taking time to stretch is that I feel so rushed and busy. I’m REQUIRING myself to recast this attitude and change how I think, not just how I act. I must keep at it.
What I resolve to do is to keep reframing and adjusting until I’m satisfied. What will probably happen is that I’ll test out a way to anchor something I like (reading the news) with this new thing that “doesn’t come naturally” yet. Then I’ll find myself down there, stretching away for 40 minutes at a... stretch.
What are your stretch goals? What is it that you’ve been resolving to do? Remind yourself why you wanted it. Now revise your approach and see if you can fit it in at some point this year.
So you insisted on joining that gym. You know what everyone says about New Year’s Resolutions and habits, and you believe that none of it applies to you. You signed up for a bargain membership at a commodity gym.
Congratulations! It just might work!
If you really and truly love gaming, TV and movies, music, shopping, fried foods, or any of the other cute and charming habits that people try to shed at resolution time, you can use that! You get to keep all that stuff. Well, actually you get to keep it either way. You can keep it with a fitness level that steadily deteriorates from year to year, or you can keep it while using it as fuel for your body upgrades.
Simply choose a form of exercise that allows you to indulge in your favorite activities at the same time.
Anchor the time in your schedule, the location, and the habits. Make gym time your indulgent time, time to get away with all the naughty things that are so fun to do.
Personally I like spying on people and eavesdropping on their conversations. I like checking out other people’s butts and wondering what workout they do. I like looking at their shoes and their workout clothes and mentally shopping. Would that combo work on me?
I also use my elliptical time to watch video clips, read articles, play Words With Friends, look at recipes, and dink around doing all the stuff online that I normally don’t have time to do. Sometimes I’ll read a potboiler that I only allow myself to read while I do cardio. It makes me move faster at the scary parts. I’ve tried watching movies or hour-long TV episodes, but it makes one minute feel like ten. That’s why I like the fragmented articles and short videos.
Sometimes the elliptical machines are taken. No surprise, since there are only two at our apartment gym and they’re often full of married couples. My husband will shrug and lift weights while listening to all the music I don’t let him play aloud in the house. I’ll usually hop on a treadmill and use it as a walking desk with my tablet keyboard. Sometimes I buy dog food online or make appointments. Sometimes I just write out a bunch of lists. If I bring a cable then my device will be fully charged, too. It’s not really all that naughty, but when I’ve caught up on email with a full battery, I feel like I just summoned an extra hour out of the ether.
That’s one of the main secrets behind getting your money’s worth out of a commodity gym. You have to be equally as willing to do one workout as another, because often your favorite equipment will already be in use. When I was in college, there was a strict 20-minute time limit on all the cardio equipment, and each machine had a sign-up sheet. A bouncer would come over and make you climb down if you tried to stay on longer. I’d take three slots and move between different machines and read my homework. Not having a hundred pages of assigned reading makes anything else feel like playtime.
There are all sorts of treats and indulgences and cute habits that fit people associate with their workouts, even their most boring workouts.
Cardio and entertainment! The elliptical and TV. The recumbent bike and cooking shows or video games. The treadmill and a podcast. Any fitness class that plays your type of music (although beware: I had to quit one gym that kept playing the same Top 40 pop hit every time I was there. That was before AirPods).
Mega calories and endurance sports! Do it indoors long enough when the weather is bad, and suddenly you’ll find yourself doing the same routine outdoors when it’s gorgeous out. You’ll find yourself doing it with a bagel in your hand. Everyone I know who bikes or runs does it for the beer. Every race day I have willing buddies who will hang around for me, even when I’m half their speed, because I hate beer and I’ll give them the voucher off my race bib. A friend of mine used to measure his weight loss against a little poster he had made of all his favorite See’s Candies, and now he’s a century rider.
Shopping and physical transformation! It wasn’t until I finally reached my goal weight that I realized how much less uncomfortable high heels are at 120 than at 160. It has to do with the laws of physics and pounds per square inch, which is why stilettos hurt more to wear than a stacked heel or a platform shoe. I also discovered that almost all clothes in my size will fit and look attractive on me, which definitely was not true when I wore a size fourteen. One night I tried on thirty-eight pairs of pants and not a single one fit right. That just doesn’t happen anymore. If fashion or revenge are strong interests of yours, why not? Make your shopping life easier.
It is absolutely fair game to base your transformation goals around your boyfriend’s ex or an online photo of the queen bee who tormented you in sixth grade. One of my clients made her goal with days to spare because she knew her ex would be at the same party with his new girlfriend on New Year’s Eve. Chances are, there’s an innocent bystander at your commodity gym who resembles this rival, at least a little. When you see her, you can use her silhouette to rev you up. It’s also fun to outdo the young bro at the next station. Especially if you lift.
A commodity gym can be a fantastic source of material for an artist. Caricatures, cartoons, comedy, sculpture, music, whatever it is that you do, if you go to the gym you’ll expand your net for capturing new ideas and fresh inspiration. Same with entrepreneurs and trend analysis. It’s a part of the world that is worthy of exploration.
A new gym can be a weird and uncomfortable place for someone who feels self-conscious and insecure. It can be a smelly and boring and loud place, too. Isn’t that also true of anywhere, but especially any shopping mall, hair salon, grocery store, workplace, restaurant, gas station, or anywhere else in public? Just think of your new commodity gym as a place to get your money’s worth, a place to catch up on your to-do list and your must-watch list and the games in your queue. Soon it will be just as familiar as your car, only it will take you farther.
Two weeks into the New Year, and how is it going? Personally, I think all of January should be dedicated to hanging around the house, catching up on sleep and maybe reading a few articles about your resolution for the year. In my life, the first couple of weeks of the New Year always seem to include a bunch of dramatic change, and this year has been no exception.
We came home from our New Year’s in Las Vegas, carrying a stack of index cards with our carefully wrought Resolutions and plans for the year.
Then I got sick (AGAINNNNN) and lost seven pounds in a week. The hard way. On the other hand, that sure was a quick way to deal with the excess I accumulated over vacation and the holidays...
Despite this pretty annoying setback, having plans has helped both of us stick to our vision. We remind ourselves that we have a 52-week year every year, and that even a rough month is only 12% of the allotted time.
While it doesn’t show up in our Resolutions, we have some tentative ideas for camping, travel, and bicycle outings. We decided that given my hubby’s travel schedule for work, we need a new strategy if we’re going to be able to plan trips together.
How is 2019 going so far?
My personal Resolution is to submit a book proposal this year. I bought a course, downloaded some software, and started going through my notes for the book. It turns out I have 183 pages JUST SITTING THERE. This is starting to sound much more straightforward than I had thought. (Famous last words). I’m framing it as a “book report for school” that has to be done before the end of the academic year.
My career Resolution is to finish the work for my Distinguished Toastmaster. So far this year, I have won two Best Table Topics ribbons and one for Best Speaker, and I’ve completed another speech toward my ACG. I also won an award for Area Director Excellence and they made me a special custom travel mug. We also got a new member in the club I’m coaching. Considering that we’re only two weeks into the year, this is bananas! I may be able to pull this off after all.
My physical Resolution is to work on hip openers. I can honestly say that I have made zero effort toward this.
My home Resolution was to set up an outdoor writing area. My hubby ordered me a folding screen, and the weather was nice enough the first week back that I was actually able to sit out on the porch and work! It was magnificent, and then the rains came. But the screen definitely does the job and my bird loves it.
Our couples Resolution was to start doing meal prep. This is going better than expected. Marry an engineer and show him an Instant Pot and your troubles are over. Our freezer is already fully loaded with soups and stews, a nice activity when it’s rainy and cold, and we’re both remembering how much we love our home cooking. Definitely a keeper. (The resolution, and also him of course)
My Stop Goal is to stop being sick and tired. Really not making much progress here yet, at least on the illness front. If I could just go a month without coming down with something, that would be great.
My lifestyle upgrade was to get a new desktop computer. I should have done this last year but I always procrastinate on spending on myself. I went out and got it, despite my eyelid twitching, and was stunned to find out that it cost only half what I had thought it would. Well in that case!
My Do the Obvious is to schedule time blocks. This is indeed working, as I’ve been steadily chipping away at a backlog of random dumb tasks. It actually looks like I may get through everything by spring.
I’m tracking metrics, and I added a few more to see what would happen. The first thing was that I got really embarrassed about tracking how many news articles I read every day, and that’s dropped to about half. We ordered a handheld body fat measuring device, which has been motivational for my husband and a wakeup call for me, since I am nowhere near the range I was in during marathon training. I also got an older-model Fitbit to track my sleep.
My Quest is a sleep project I’m going to call SleepQuest 2019. This is going better than expected already. I quit taking melatonin after 8 years *gasp* with very surprising results. It seems that I’m getting close to managing 8 hours of sleep a night!
My Wish is to be signed by a literary agent. I keep reminding myself of this as I work on my book proposal.
That’s it for me so far. I didn’t have a great start to the New Year, in one way, but in another I did. That’s because I laid the foundation by doing so much planning throughout December. It’s also because I keep myself accountable by reading my goals over and over, and publishing my progress (or lack thereof).
There are still fifty weeks left of 2019. How are we going to use them?
Boring goals are the guaranteed way to quit and fail. If you want to do anything worth doing, it has to matter to you. That means it’s probably going to take more than a year to do it. Goals that take longer than a year need more planning and more check-in sessions. Think about how you can sustain your interest into a second year, expecting that it will be different than the first year.
Three years seems to be the best timeline for the biggest goals. Almost anything can be done within a three-year span, except college, and if you assume that freshman year is for being undeclared, then you’re back to three years. Not every goal is worth spending three years of your life on, though. If you want to preserve your energy and attention for only the best goals, then you have to write in permission to break up with goals that aren’t working for you. You cannot allow a goal to continue to distract you once you realize that you aren’t into it anymore.
This is why an annual review is so important. You have to take the time to pause and reassess. You have to be willing to mercilessly throw some of your old projects overboard and sail on without them and let them sink to the bottom of the sea.
Never let the time you’ve invested in something force you into a lifetime commitment to it. Life is for learning and discovering new things. You can always go back. (Though sometimes the effort of applying again and starting again is so complicated that it’s better to push through to the end. Building momentum is hard, so sustain it as long as you can).
One year, I decided that it was time to learn to read technical diagrams. I had been knitting for a million years and I realized that all I could make were scarves and potholders. Boring! I realized that if I could learn new stitches from a book, I could make anything. I didn’t know any more accomplished knitters who could demonstrate more stitches in person. I was right about the skill of reading technical diagrams, and I eventually used that skill to learn to put together furniture and to use backpacking equipment. In the shorter term, I upgraded my knitting and made hats, mittens, slippers, socks, and poseable children’s toys. I quit knitting, though, several years later. I gave away all my yarn and all my patterns and all my equipment.
There was no way I could turn knitting into anything else. The only way I could sustain my interest in knitting would have been to make some kind of award-winning art project or something else I couldn’t imagine. I didn’t care enough to find out. I quit quite easily, knowing the twenty hours a week I had been knitting away would be better used doing something else.
Nobody ever came for me when I quit knitting, demanding answers. Nobody cared. Nobody cared at all. It turns out that you don’t need permission to quit things, any more than you need permission to initiate new projects. That’s important.
A three-year goal should be big enough that it transforms you. It should make your world bigger in some way. It should demand spiritual progress, in the sense that you have to rise up to it. The person you are when you start, the person you are after the first year, will not be big enough, experienced enough, smart enough, or skilled enough to carry you through to the third year. If you already know you can do it, then you already know you’re playing it too safe.
Why three years and not five? Isn’t there a thing called a Five-Year Plan? Ahem. Well, yes. The thing is, though, that by the fifth year, if you chose well and you worked hard, you will have changed your event horizon. You’ll have learned new skills and met new people, and everything about your options will be far beyond what you could have pictured when you started. Also, you’ll have learned so many things that you didn’t know, that your picture of that ultimate fifth-year goal will be far more accurate.
As an example, when I started public speaking, my purpose was just to get over my paralyzing terror of public speaking. I didn’t have any real plans for it. A few months in, people kept saying how funny I was. (Am I??) They started encouraging me to try stand-up comedy. Much to my shock, I was able to perform in public under the hot lights, and I didn’t feel nervous at all. In the second year, the topic of a podcast came up. In the third year, still on plan, I started to understand that I had a knack for leadership and that people relaxed when I took charge. Wherever this is going, it seems to be somewhere good. Why quit? What happens when I double down? What would this look like after another year, or two or three?
There are tricks behind choosing a goal of grand enough scale that is also rational and practical enough that you believe in it. First, don’t run it by anyone you know. The closer people are to you, the more they will freak out and immediately try to talk you out of it. They’ll do this by telling you that your goal is stupid, that you aren’t good at that kind of thing, and that you’re being selfish. These are amazingly clear and bright signals that you’re onto something.
They probably don’t know what they’re talking about, which is proof that you don’t need to listen to them. If they do by chance have credentials in the area of your chosen goal, then you can also ignore them because they will probably be motivated by jealousy of their turf. Do not let other people define you. It is irresponsible.
Thinking about your larger-scale goals should compel you and scare you a little. You won’t be able to quit thinking about them even if you try. These are signs.
Your larger-scale goals should snap your tinier goals into perspective with almost instant clarity. You need somewhere to write, and you transform part of a room into a workspace and it only takes two hours. You need a workshop, and you’ve gutted the garage over the weekend, and you walk out there on Monday after work and sit down and get started. You know you need to train, so you sign up for classes and you’ve made arrangements for your domestic responsibilities over a single lunch break. You can do the basics. You know how to sign up for things and pay for things and make a schedule; you’ve done it for television and now you’ll do it in service of your dream instead.
Never ask “how,” ask “when.” Which month, which day, which hour of the day will you be doing your thing? When do you do this in the time dimension?
In the first year, you experiment and realize that this thing could be a bigger part of your life. It’s real to you.
In the second year, you understand that this thing is worthy of your focus. It interests you more than most of the other minor things in your life, and you double down.
In the third year, you can see a specific outcome, something with a deadline. You clear the decks and put all your resources toward finishing this thing, no matter what. You tell people over and over again, “I wish I could, I’m doing THIS right now. I’ll be free again in [July?].”
What are a bunch of things you can do within a three-year time horizon?
Some examples would be:
Getting a graduate degree
Building a house
Going to the culinary institute
Becoming fluent in another language
Training from zero to run a marathon
Becoming a competitive bodybuilder
Writing and publishing a book
Getting a black belt in a martial art
Becoming a Distinguished Toastmaster
Launching a career in a new profession
Training a service animal
Recording an album
Some of these can be done faster, and some realistically take most people longer than three years. It depends more on how focused you are, whether you begin with a workable plan, whether you are coachable and receptive to criticism, and how many hours a day you can work. Certainly, though, you’ll have a good idea by the second year whether you’re into your project enough to take it farther. You’ll understand how putting more time and effort into it would be more interesting and get you further.
Double down on your second-year goal, because if it’s worth doing for a second year then it’s worth more of your time. Put your heart into it and let it take over your life.
If you have dreams that feel impossible because you’re just too busy, then this is the book for you. The authors of Make Time, Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky, found time to write this book in the midst of working demanding professional jobs and parenting small children. They focus on research-based and personally tested ways to gain energy and focus. A fun feature of the book is that the two writing partners sometimes have totally different approaches to a similar problem. It’s illustrated, so their cartoon heads debate back and forth.
Highlights are the most valuable and important things we should be doing, and according to Make Time, if we plan each day around a highlight, then everything starts to come together. Highlights should be prioritized by urgency, satisfaction, and joy.
Noticing highlights is a really excellent way to elevate simple things and make them into a bigger part of daily life. For instance, when my husband joined my kickboxing gym, we coincidentally started riding our bikes home together along the beach at sunset. Nothing in either of our schedules said “ROMANTIC SUNSET BIKE RIDE.” It just happened. That part of our route only lasts about ten minutes. Technically it’s a commute. Still a highlight, though, a part of our day that seems somehow much more significant than much of the rest of the day. Someone who was driving home at sunset might not think “saw beautiful sunset every day this week,” though, because driving sucks.
A technique from Make Time that I really liked was to write out a plan for the day, add a column for the “actual” or how it really turned out, and another column for the revised plan. This is a huge help in accounting for the reality of daily interruptions. As an example, I record a podcast five days a week, and I learned through experience when the building landscaper comes by with the weed whacker.
Make Time is such an excellent book. It could easily be shared with a partner or coworker, or maybe even a whole office. It’s full of the kinds of notions that appeal to everyone, yet still feel so productive and business-oriented that there aren’t really any arguments against them. Read it and ask yourself, what are the highlights that you wish you had the time to do, if only you weren’t so tired?
Goals are for quitters because a goal implies an endpoint. A goal implies something that is checked off a list. Achieving a goal has quitting baked in.
This can be demonstrated by how many people run a 5k or a marathon and then never run again. Not just never run a footrace again, but never run again as an activity.
The fact that goals are for quitters can also be demonstrated by how many people finally reach their goal weight and then promptly put the weight back on. (Raises hand).
Fewer than ten percent of people who take an online course actually complete it.
Picture a messy garage, and that’s another example. We’ll decide to Clean Out the Garage and then gradually fill it back up.
Goals are great when they’re a small part of an overall system, a plan and a strong visualization. Goals suck when they feel like something big, a final answer of some kind. That’s because they don’t work. A goal is like the crest of a wave in the sea, something temporary that exists and then, suddenly, no longer exists. Think of the sea, not the wave.
There are quite a lot of ways to go about life transformation that work better than goal-setting. The concept of life transformation itself is one of them.
The thing about goals is that we picture ourselves as the same as ever, “myself” as a fixed entity and “the goal” as something external. That implies that our default is working great and that what we’re doing right now is what we’ll be doing every day for the rest of our lives. This goal is going to be a little prize, a thing that can be obtained. A goal is a little sticker, a gold star or a smiley face. It’ll peel off by the end of the day.
One approach that works better is to consider the goal in the context of identity. How is this particular goal consistent with my sense of self? How does it reflect my values? How would attaining this change me fundamentally, change my perspective, make me a better person?
Parenthood is the first and most obvious example of this. Many people find that they are instantly able to change when they first find out a baby is on the way. My child, my daughter, my little son. They quit smoking or start saving money or take on the mantle of adult responsibility. Everything is different now because it’s not just me, I’m having a kid and now I’m the grownup.
That happened for me when I remarried, moved to the suburbs, and realized I had a home and a family. I was not a bachelorette in an apartment with a temp assignment. I was a wife and a stepmom. I stepped up and learned to cook nutritious meals. That concept of “woman” as “hostess, matriarch, cook, mother, and homemaker” came from somewhere out of the dark swamp of my subconscious, a primal and weird instinct. That throwback energy manifested itself in a lot of pot pies, hot bread from the oven, and steaming soups, which was quite nice.
My husband already knew how to cook. He had been a dad for a long time already. We took turns cooking, let me make that clear. It was right around that time that my stepdaughter, still in grade school, started cooking dinner now and then. It made her feel like a grownup too.
Changing my identity made me feel capable, warm and needed and useful in a new way. Caring for others is a solid excuse for self-care, a good reason to do something that many of us will not prioritize in any other way. I did it for us, and us includes me.
This is a sneaky little side approach to many goals, because anything I do to make my life better also makes other people’s lives better. If I’m happier, I’m easier to be around. If I get a better job, my mood is better and I bring home more money. If I get fitter, my energy level goes up and I’m in the mood to participate in more stuff, more often. It’s when I think that caring for others leaves zero for me, it’s then that I get burned out. Burnout is selfish because it makes us too tired and crabby for a fun life.
Fun? Since when did ‘fun’ find its way onto my to-do list?
My endless, endless to-do list?
A to-do list is a pernicious killer of goals and destroyer of dreams. We put stupid things on there like ‘buy groceries’ because checking off a list feels like accomplishing something. Like we wouldn’t buy groceries anyway at some point, because we got hungry and we know how to make it happen. We make the same to-do lists over and over and over and over and over and over again because it keeps us from wondering restlessly, could there be more?
When do we elevate with these endless lists? When do we write ‘wow myself with a gourmet dinner because I like it and it sounds awesome’?
This is where curiosity comes in, and through the same transom window comes hedonism.
Out of hedonism I resolve to sleep more, to buy another set of thousand-threadcount sheets, because I in fact am the Queen of Sheba and nice sheets are not against the law. I’ll wallow if I want and when I get up, I’ll eat blueberry pancakes, crawl right back into bed, and sleep some more. So there.
Out of hedonism I resolve to stay hydrated and well-rested, because migraines are from Satan.
Out of curiosity I track my health metrics, because I want to know if another life is possible. Is there a recognizable me without this problem, this problem that my doctor has no idea how to solve? That my doctor doesn’t entirely believe is even real?
Out of curiosity I sign up for classes, I attend them, I make new friends. I rearrange my schedule and finally delegate chores so I can find the time to get to my class. There is nothing I do that someone else could not help me do, up to and including a more interesting, more fun and better life.
It’s easy to change your life when you do it out of desire, curiosity, and a feeling of entitlement. Why should anyone try to stop you from taking a class or changing an hour or so out of your schedule every day? Why should they even care? You don’t need permission to make a resolution or transform something about yourself.
(If you do, here, I give you permission. You are allowed to do whatever you want. So say I, the actual, factual Queen of Sheba).
Don’t quit on yourself. Don’t quit on yourself because it’s quitting on life and because it sets a bad example. People are counting on you to prove that it can be done, that you can get more fun into your life without hardly trying.
Physical transformation is hard to imagine because we identify with our flesh. We think the vessel that we inhabit is simply what it is. My personality is one thing and my body is another, a separate entity, an enemy to my peace of mind. My body is just a sort of car that I drive around. We can’t picture ourselves inside a different body because the only way for it to feel real is to already have done it, to have lived the transformation.
We don’t really believe that our behaviors can have any kind of impact on our energy level or our physical selves.
I know this is true because I’ve lived it, over and over. When I talk about physical goals, I don’t just mean “weight loss,” although I’ve done that too. I mean any kind of goal that affects the body, from the surface-level cosmetic or fashion makeover to getting off medication and everything in between.
In my adult life, I have worn eight different clothing sizes. I have changed my shoe size, my ring size, and my bra size. I have changed my thyroid hormone levels, my blood pressure, and my resting heart rate. I have beaten chronic pain, fibromyalgia, thyroid disease, migraine, and a parasomnia disorder. I have been on, and then gotten off, thyroid medication, beta blockers, and an inhaler, among others.
It is physically possible to alter your own organ function, blood chemistry, bone density, muscle mass, and of course your overall composition of adipose tissue, commonly known as body fat.
If you don’t believe any of this, please do your own research and talk to a few medical professionals.
Or you can also pause and ask yourself, do you take any medications? If you do, then you do believe you can alter your blood chemistry, at least temporarily, and you can do the same with a bottle of booze. If you believe in the efficacy of a single pill, do you also believe in the potency of food that you eat in quantities of hundreds of pounds per year?
Physical goals are like any other goal. Most people fail because we can’t maintain our focus or attention on a single goal for any length of time. We’re quite capable of holding several mutually exclusive goals in our hearts at once. An example would be independence and freedom on the one hand, and desire for a romantic partner on the other. Another example would be the desire to be debt-free on the one hand, and the desire to spend lavishly without constraint on the other. A classic New Year’s example would be the desire to spend the same chunk of free time reading more, playing an instrument, studying a new language, getting more sleep, and of course continuing to do all the same things we did yesterday. Any time we choose a single goal, we feel sick inside at all the supposed opportunities we’re sacrificing.
We wind up doing nothing other than the default because we want so badly to keep all our options open.
The truth is that if it feels like a sacrifice, you’ll never do it, you never will. That’s because it means you think your default is working out great, and you love it. You think you’ll be “giving it up.” If you feel that way, then of course you’ll never meet your goal, because in your heart you believe it’s worth less than what you have right now!
That’s just as true of contemplating a pilot’s license or learning to surf as it is of changing your physical form.
I’ve never eaten a mozzarella stick. Most people would hear this and think there’s something wrong with me, that I’ve ruined my own life by depriving myself of fun and normal social evenings.
The truth is that the first time I ever saw a mozzarella stick, I couldn’t believe such a nasty thing existed in this world. They’re revolting! I wouldn’t put one in my mouth for love or money.
It’s relatively easy for me to maintain “the healthy weight for my height” because I think a lot of conventional industrial foods are gross. I don’t believe in temptation. If there’s anything I want to eat, I eat it, although I also believe that I don’t need to eat every single thing every single day to have a rich and fulfilling life. Whether I sated myself with chocolate or chips or croissants or crackers is not my measure of contentment. Any model of ‘sacrifice’ or ‘deprivation’ or ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is meaningless to me, not relevant to how I structure my goals.
What I measure is how I feel. How do I feel when I wake up? How do I feel when I lie down to sleep at night? How do I feel throughout the day? Do I have the energy to do the things I want to do?
I also measure myself against common health metrics. Not only do I compare my own lab work to the average for my age, I also compare myself to other members of my family, expecting that what they are facing is likely for me at the same age. It’s likely unless I behave differently than they do. Most health problems take decades to manifest.
When it’s time to clarify a physical goal, it pays to get extremely specific, as narrow in definition as possible. That’s because we need to have some kind of quantifiable metric, some kind of data to track. How else will we be able to compare our results across a year?
If it’s pain or mood, come up with a rating scale that makes sense to you. Emoticons or color swatches, weather patterns, stars, letter grades, a numerical scale from one to five or one to ten?
If it’s mobility, take pictures and use a measuring tape. You can see how much your range of motion has improved that way.
If it’s posture, photos are one way to measure your progress and your self-assessment of back, neck, and shoulder pain or tension is another way.
I wear an activity tracker, and I keep an eye on how much of the day I’ve gotten my heart rate up, how many miles I walked, how many flights of stairs I climbed, how many calories I supposedly burned, and my resting heart rate. Every year or so, I have my blood tested, and I look carefully at each factor. It’s so important not to rationalize anything that is out of the norm. I’m doing this for myself, and it doesn’t matter to anyone except for me.
There are two ways to measure goals, lead indicators and lag indicators. Most goals are lag indicators, measurements that come after a certain amount of time has passed. We can only control them through repeated action. Debt is a lag indicator, a pile of laundry is a lag indicator, a failed friendship is a lag indicator. Chronic lifestyle-related health conditions are lag indicators, migraine is a lag indicator, body fat is a lag indicator. We have to find lead indicators to track that are directly linked to these outcomes. That’s how we discover systems and protocols that work better than our default. Another way to say that is that we can behave our way into a happier, easier life.
What would make your life easier? What are physical changes that could move you from tension to ease, from pain to freedom, from stiffness to mobility, from medicated to ordinary? Which body parts do you want to integrate so that they feel like working parts of your mental and emotional self? Do you believe these changes are possible for you?
Do you want this physical goal enough that you could consider shifting away from your default?
I used to have a PDA, or ‘personal digital assistant.’ I loved that thing and I took it everywhere for several years. I still wish I could use the symbols I had to learn for the stylus that went with it. One day, I had it open at my desk at work. A colleague laughed at me. I happened to have a sticky note inside the cover. “Do you even know what a PDA is FOR?” he scoffed. Of course I did! It was to keep me organized, expand into an extra brain annex, and remind me to do things. It just so happened that the apps and technology available at the time weren’t a perfect fit for my productivity needs, not to mention the aesthetic. It might not have suited me perfectly, but that old PDA served as an object of power in my life. The right planner can do the same for anyone.
An object of power is to be distinguished from a tool. For instance, I can use any spoon, pencil, or cup as a tool in daily life, and none will be more valuable to me than any other. On the other hand, my dog has a tiny shred of an old stuffed toy that is a major object of power for him. It’s so small that it’s useless, it’s filthy, and it smells bad, but it matters to one little woofy heart.
A calendar can be either or both, an object of power and/or a routine tool. It can also be a piece of useless clutter.
One common feature of my people’s homes, along with a vast collection of refrigerator magnets and a bunch of coins scattered everywhere, is a wall calendar that features the wrong month or year. (I always ask before I change it, figuring it may be part of a magical ritual or something). The standard-issue wall calendar is a total fail for most people’s needs. We take them because they’re free and they often have nice pictures. Then we hang them in inaccessible places. They’re visible to all guests, so most people avoid writing anything personal or private on them. They’re extremely limited in format; for the space they take up, there’s very little room for the individual day or week. To use them, we either have to write against the wall, which leads to strained and crabbed penmanship, or take the whole contraption off the wall, where the little finishing nail inevitably pops out and gets lost. Maybe keep your wall calendar, if you really need it for the four dentist appointments and two vet appointments that get written on it, but don’t blame yourself if it fails you as a true planner.
The sorts of things we write on the common wall calendar are the sorts that don’t really need to BE on a calendar. I don’t know about you, but my dentist, veterinarian, and all other appointment-based business relationships always send multiple reminders in the form of calls, texts, emails, postcards, and business cards with peel-off stickers. This is the kind of thing most of us are least likely to forget.
I may be wrong. I generally don’t use a grocery list, a to-do list, or a schedule. I still manage to get a lot done. But then, maybe I’ve got it backward and I would do even more if I used more traditional tools? Why do I even bother myself thinking about planners?
I use a planner as an object of power as much as anything else. I’ve found that I really like a monthly calendar as a visual when I do strategic planning. Yet, although I carry an iPad almost everywhere I go, I haven’t found an app or digital calendar view that does the job. Most of the sort of activities that I want to “plan” are not specifically schedule-based, like in the time dimension and everything. I plan at the yearly, quarterly, monthly, and weekly level, and digital minute- and date-based reminders don’t work well for my needs.
What do I plan?
I plan my work in time blocks. Those time blocks are built around the few time-bound elements in my schedule. Classes at my gym, club meetings, and my husband’s work and travel schedule are the non-negotiables. I put those first because that’s how I prioritize my marriage, my fitness, and my educational and career growth goals. Why? My husband travels three or more days a week, so he has to come first if I want to see him at all. Classes and club meetings take up about six hours a week. Almost every minute of the remaining time is mine to squander.
Most of the things I do can be done at any time. That means if I’m not careful, they’ll never get done at all. That’s doubly true of creative projects that I can’t delegate, that won’t come into being if I don’t pull them into the time dimension somehow.
Artists, this might be useful. I think of my projects in three phases: gestation, work, and editing. Others might think of the first phase as ideation, daydreaming, woolgathering, or aimlessly staring out the window. The second phase might be anything from painting, sculpting, typing, or pattern drafting to chopping vegetables, soldering, or welding. The third phase might be called polish, styling, performing, plating, peer review, or whatever else works for you. For my purposes, the first phase requires the ability to drop what I’m doing and take notes, sketch something, snap a picture, or research something. The second phase is almost entirely typing and doesn’t even require internet access. The third phase includes formatting and scheduling, and occasionally a human intermediary.
It just occurred to me that there’s actually a FOURTH PHASE, which explains most of my problems in life. That fourth phase might variously be known as publishing, shipping, launching, or... finishing.
Everyone is most comfortable in one of these stages, and we can tend to languish, not realizing that it takes at least a minimal amount of planning to carry an idea through all four phases. I do my best work at phase one, ideation, while I always go to my husband for phase three. (Phase three and no sooner!)
See that it’s entirely possible to have multiple projects in progress in various phases along a timeline. Any or all of them might eventually become hung up on the input of another person, access to materials or facilities, delivery schedules, and so forth. A delivery driver or a waiter or an artisan in a framing shop might work almost entirely in phase four of other people’s projects, in what would be phase two of their own workday. My people, just like me, tend to work mostly in phases one and two. That’s where craft stores make all their money.
As a working artist, I don’t really use a planner for its calendar function. I use it as an adjunct brain. The monthly grid is how I try to avoid bunching up several posts in a row on the same topic, and how I anticipate writing around seasonal topics. The weekly view is where I write out errands I need to run, because it doesn’t matter what day I do them, and projects I want to get done, because I’m not always sure how long they’ll take. I’d rather look at them in my preferred format than spend a lot of extra time tinkering, shuffling, writing, erasing, and rewriting. That attention should be on my real work. The point of the planner is so I can use as much mental bandwidth as possible for making things, not for massaging and canoodling with the planner itself.
A planner as an object of power should be compelling to its possessor. It should attract the eye. It should be of a shape and size and weight that makes it irresistible, and it should suit the context. Consider whether you will use it mostly on a cafe table, at work, in your bed, at your desk, in the driver’s seat of your car, or whether it will spend most of its working life in your bag. Love the color and style, because if any aspect of it disappoints or annoys you, you won’t use it.
The more you use an object of power, the better it works. The more you use it, the more useful it becomes. The more you use it, the better you get at figuring out what you want out of it and what you’ll change the next time you choose one. There’s nothing wrong with writing on the wall or using a paper napkin, if it inspires you and brings you focus.
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.
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