On social media, a lot of people spend a lot of time saying a lot of things that make them indistinguishable from bots. There could be entire predictive text buttons with these bumper-sticker sentiments. You could even write a script that posted them for you while you went off to make a sandwich. Of all these repetitive, commonplace reactions, Quit Posting Your Workouts is one of the most common. After consideration, I tend to agree. I used to post my workouts to Facebook, and I quit... Facebook. If you’ve been frustrated by this particular issue, pro or con, maybe my outlook will be interesting.
Here’s the thing. Everyone does something that is interesting to some friends, irrelevant to others, and annoying to yet others. If we remove all of these topics, what could there possibly be left to talk about?
My workout is a significant chunk of my day and my life. It’s an enormous part of who I am. It’s how I beat illness, it’s a constant research topic, it’s an area where I explore and learn new things, it’s where I see and hear much of what I find interesting. It’s also where I now make most of my friends. Asking me never to share about this part of my life is precisely like asking someone else never to talk about their kids, their job, their home remodel, or any of their hobbies. Wouldn’t it be nicer to just unfollow, scroll past, or otherwise ignore posts that don’t interest you?
Maybe, like me, you’ve posted about workouts in the hopes of connecting with your other friends who also work out. Maybe, like me, some of your friends cross-train, and thus can’t capture everything we’re doing through an app like RunKeeper. Maybe, like me, you have a years-long running conversation with a small group of friends who are constantly exploring different types of workout. Maybe those conversations are one of your main reasons for ever logging on to social media at all. If there’s ever a more suitable social media platform for us, one without all the non-workout BS, we’ll all stampede toward it and never look back.
Or maybe you’re one of the forty percent of Americans who never do any kind of exercise whatsoever, not even walking for fifteen minutes. Maybe all this talk just irritates you to no end. I dunno.
What I found was that sharing my workouts tended to generate friction for a variety of reasons. It brought up disagreements and mean comments from people who I had previously liked, people I considered my actual friends before social media came along and ruined it. I exercise because when I don’t, I suffer physically, and I don’t really feel like I have an option. For whatever reason, other people interpret this as body shaming, as buying into the beauty myth, as some kind of psychological problem, as proselytizing, or as just being a terminal bore. I started to realize that it really wasn’t worth my time to engage in discussions where words were put in my mouth. Why go there if my character was going to be brought into question or my motives were misinterpreted?
This is part of the picture when people say that when your energy changes, your friends change. It’s not always that you become some sort of social climber and abandon your previous loyalties. It’s more that your new thoughts, behaviors, and conversation topics annoy your old friends, who can no longer stand you and don’t want to socialize with you unless you go back to your old ways.
If you want to know, my weekday workout typically looks like this: Ride bike along the beach to martial arts gym while listening to an audio book. See my friends. Crush it for an hour, learning new things, surprising myself with what my body can do that it couldn’t do a month ago, bonding with people from all walks of life. Gossip in the changing room. Ride home along the beach again. Walk the dog. Do an hour on the elliptical, reading articles about space, biomimicry, and robotics for my tech newsletter. Stretch for half an hour. Shower. Sometimes this all starts in the morning, sometimes in the evening.
Some days I work out for nearly three hours. That might sound extreme, but I do longer workouts a few times a year. Distance days for marathon training were two to three hours once a week. Martial arts belt promotions go for four hours. I’ve gone on four-hour bike rides many times. When I go backpacking, we typically hike for six hours or more. On vacation I walk eight to ten miles a day, basically from morning til night except for meal breaks. For someone who enjoys endurance sports, “time on feet” is a valuable training metric. I’ve had several jobs where I stood for forty hours a week. I think back to our pioneer ancestors, who walked thirty miles a day on the Oregon Trail, and I seriously question a modern society that thinks sitting or lying down for 20-22 hours a day is somehow normal. The more I find that I can do routinely, the more I wonder how much is out there for me.
In my life, what I do for exercise is equivalent to what I do for reading. I see both as exploration and adventure, as a legitimate intellectual inquiry. Both are endlessly fascinating and irresistibly attractive to me. The alternative to both I see as “sitting in front of a television for five hours a day,” which is something I did throughout childhood and now find impossibly boring.
I took everyone’s advice and quit posting my workouts. I write about them, sure, and if someone wants to touch base with me and find out what I’m doing these days, Wednesdays are the day for that. Otherwise, some of my most interesting conversations are happening in person, live, in my gym. For those of you who are likewise confounded by constant social pushback, don’t let it get to you. Just move the conversation to a place where it’s appreciated and leave everyone else to go about their business.
Probably I’d be more productive if I ever quit experimenting with productivity techniques and just settled on a system. It’s fun for me, though, and often I learn something useful that seemed counterintuitive at first. An idea I’ve been playing with is the concept of Calendar Zero.
‘Calendar Zero’ means you schedule every hour of your day in advance, including fun and relaxation.
This was revolutionary for me. I tend to procrastinate more on relaxing than on anything else. It goes along with my tendency to buy some kind of trinket for myself, never open it, and then either give it to a friend or donate it to charity without ever using it. I also often keep desserts until they get stale or freezer-burned. Maybe I should put ‘enjoyment’ on my to-do list.
Here’s how I began my experiment. I made a list of ‘Ten for Ten’ projects, with hour-long time slots running across a long workday. I like things like read-a-thons, and games like this feel exciting. I figured I would probably wind up veering off my schedule at some point, due to an interruption or miscalculation of how long it would take to do something. Also, I was still recovering from a cold, which gave me a free pass on running out of energy.
On my list:
Take out trash and recycling
Work on blog
Talk to hubby (out of town on business trip)
Balance bank statement
Much to my surprise, I did everything on my list except for making the soup. (Hubby called at a different time slot than I expected and I wound up eating something else). I also found myself spending extra time on my financial chores, which are very boring in my world, and did a few other random electronic administrative tasks.
Something else relevant about this Calendar Zero experiment is that I found myself indulging in something I almost never do. I sat on the couch and binged three episodes of a true crime show that I had been wanting to watch for about six months. This is why I did more admin stuff than I’d planned, even at the end of a busy, low-energy day. I got into a groove, and it gave me an excuse to pair the work with something I consider frivolous.
My list started with my absolute most-hated chores, but also included a few hour-long fun breaks, some stuff I don’t mind doing, and some things I’d been procrastinating. It worked so well, at least from the variety, that I immediately made a different list for the next day.
What I normally do is to schedule my days by time blocks. Laundry on Monday and Thursday, like that. It works for exercise and regular chores, but I didn’t have a formal routine for the sort of odd, anytime projects that might linger unfinished for weeks or months. I didn’t even have a formal routine for kicking back and relaxing, which of course is much worse.
What’s different about this method of leaving no time unaccounted-for is that it forces you to make room for the fun. You have to write in when you’re going to bathe, eat meals, talk to your friends, and walk your dog. It gives a sense of having plenty of time. For instance, knowing you have a full hour to shower, get dressed, style your hair, and get your bag ready completely eliminates the feeling of being rushed. It even gives the sense that maybe you have a little extra time to do something extra, like spending ten minutes on a crossword puzzle, playing with a hula hoop, finishing a full episode of a podcast, or learning a new way to wrap a scarf.
The other thing about scheduling every single hour of the day is that often, the scut work takes less time than you had allowed. You’ve folded and put away all your laundry, and you still have time left to mess around! If you’ve already done everything you needed to do, then you know you’re free to fully make use of the remaining time doing a headstand or whatever you want.
In the week that I’ve been playing with Calendar Zero, I’ve done all my ordinary work and chores, sure. I’ve gone to my usual meetings. I’ve also fit in an extra conference call, done two weeks of newsletters, blasted through my email and news queue, gone shopping, and rearranged my closet.
Probably the main feature of Calendar Zero, the thing that works, is that it crowds out the junk hours. You know, the time you spend unintentionally scrolling (scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, keep those junk hours rolling) whether it’s through social media, online shopping, or entertainment options. For instance, I can easily spend half an hour or more trying to choose my next audiobook, when I could have read an entire chapter or a magazine article on paper by then. There’s certainly plenty of time in the day to be idle like this, with the difference being that we ANTICIPATE IT pleasurably and CHOOSE to indulge in it purposely.
Now, when I know I want to scroll around idly downloading podcast episodes, or ordering something off a website, I can choose to do it while I eat lunch and take my own sweet time on it.
The novelty hasn’t worn off my Calendar Zero game. That’s great, because I still have a few odd tasks on my list to knock off. I’m going to keep using this system and see how much more playtime it builds into my day.
One percent? One percent of what? How can one percent possibly make a difference?
What we’re talking about is the simplest way to start getting a handle on your finances when you feel like everything is impossible. Hopeless! It’s hopeless!
It’s not hopeless.
The way I started running in my thirties was that I visualized adding one sidewalk square per day. I was sure that no matter how tired I felt, I could always make myself trudge along another couple of feet. One sidewalk square was a measurement I could visualize and understand. It worked; I never realized on that first day that I’d wind up running a marathon four years later. In fact, if I’d thought of that kind of distance, I would have quit before I began, because it just sounded like too much.
That’s why we’re starting with one percent, because it’s small. That’s one penny out of a dollar. A dime out of ten dollars.
Little by little, though, it adds up. Also, it teaches us to think of large amounts in small, manageable chunks.
When my husband and I first met, we bonded over our finances. I was fresh out of college, and my student loans literally got bigger every time I made a payment. He had only been divorced for a year, and he wasn’t very far into the alimony and child support process. We were both broke. We also both enjoyed talking about the intricacies of finance.
That’s why it surprised me so much when he shared that he wasn’t contributing to his retirement.
“WHAAAAAAT?!?” I squawked.
He vented a bit about the alimony, child support, basically paying for two households.
I wasn’t about to hear it. I reminded him that I earned barely over a quarter what he did, but I was maxing out my retirement contributions. After paying my rent, student loan, and car payment, I barely had enough left for groceries. “You can’t even save one percent? I don’t buy it.”
He retorted that I had “small money problems” while he had “big money problems.”
Later, he confessed that he’d thought about what I said, and he went into HR and filled out the forms to start saving toward his retirement again.
I feel pretty smart about this now, considering that we eventually got married! We weren’t even dating at that time, but the tens of thousands of extra dollars he saved because of my rude lecture are now growing nicely. That conversation is also part of why we got married. Frugality that comes naturally to me is highly attractive to my spouse as well.
At that time in my life, I picked up coins in the street (still do) and I would deposit them into my checking account along with my paycheck every week. Maybe thirteen cents here and forty cents there. This paid off several months later, when I got hired permanently and had to wait three weeks between checks. I overdrew my account by eleven cents, and because of my habit of going into the bank in person every week, I talked my favorite teller into waiving a $22 overdraft fee. If that overdraft were a few dollars more, maybe that negotiation wouldn’t have gone in my favor. Too bad I didn’t find an extra quarter one day.
I kept a spreadsheet in those days. It was the only thing that helped me feel like I had any control over my situation. I would have roughly thirty dollars left at the end of the MONTH. I was using credit cards just to buy food, and just as I’d pay off the balance on one card, I’d run it up on the other. The best I felt that I could do was to get the total balance a few dollars lower every month. I set my sights on getting hired permanently from my temp assignment, on promotions and raises.
In the meantime, I made a little here and there. I sold a few things on eBay, my roommate and I had a yard sale, I joined her when she got a table at the flea market. I cleaned houses and babysat just like I always had. I beat down those credit cards little by little.
I didn’t buy things. When I say that I didn’t buy things, I mean that I didn’t buy things! I wore the same outfits over and over and over again. I had two casual sweaters to wear on winter weekends. They drove me crazy, and I felt like burning them in the parking lot by the time I could finally afford to replace them. I went to the public library and brought home books and DVDs. Sometimes I just went to bed early. I worked overtime, sometimes clocking in early and staying late on the same day because it was that kind of job.
The thing about starting with one percent is that it forces you to get out a calculator if you want to do it right. You have to start getting more specific about real quantities and real dollar amounts. It’s just a way of being honest with yourself and the world. It’s a way of making sure you don’t make any commitments you can’t keep. It’s a way of protecting Future You from having a worse situation than you do today. At least when you’re treading water, you’re not going under.
Starting with one percent means you’ve made a decision. It means you’re going to get more serious about your finances. It means you’re going to pay attention to your income and your expenses. It means you’re willing to adjust how you spend your time and energy to free up more cash flow toward your savings and debt repayment. It means you’re not allowing any more blind spots in your behavior.
Starting with one percent is a start. Maybe it’s only one penny out of every dollar. That’s okay. It’s also one dollar out of every hundred! When you’re used to it, you can stretch a little and make that one percent into two percent. That sense of manageable amounts is what you can use to go as far as you like.
I failed the first time I tried to read this book. I had this idea that it would be soothing and deep and that I’d listen to it on audio before I went to sleep at night. Whoops. Dan Harris is so funny that I kept shaking with laughter. That’s neither meditative nor conducive to one’s spouse getting any sleep. It was too late, though, to switch to a text copy, because I was hooked on Harris’s delivery as much as his wisecracks and insights. I just had to settle for having him entertain me throughout the day. Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics is also approved for Restless Comedy Fans.
Harris does a pretty convincing job of casting himself as the last person to ever consider meditating. He is open about his personal foibles, including heavy drug use and workaholism. This makes it easy to hear him out about the benefits of mindfulness practice. If it worked for someone like him, then surely...?
Meditation is one of those things on the Obvious list, unfortunately; it’s right up there with “eat healthy” and “get plenty of sleep,” which means a lot of us automatically will want to rule it out. I find that when I try to sit silently, it opens the floodgates of creativity, and the result is that I wind up speed-writing a very lengthy list of ideas and tasks. Something I liked about Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics is that it offers various practices, not all of which are of the classic “sit still and empty your mind” variety.
Incidentally, there are a few things that can really help those of us who feel simultaneously drawn toward and repelled by meditation. (My draw is that I have a high resting heart rate, and I’m on a Fact-Finding Mission to do something about it). If you’re as fidgety as me - ADHD leaning, hyperkinetic and born restless - start with a vigorous and very strenuous exercise practice first. Dump all those excess yayas. Watch your caffeine consumption. Capture your mental lint first; I recommend GTD as a practice. Then experiment with time of day and just do little five-minute increments. Or one minute. My mantra here is “okay,” as in, “okay, let me think for a minute.”
Harris arranges Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics into a list of objections to meditation as a practice, and responses to those objections, both from himself and others. One such chapter is “Meditation is Self-Indulgent.” I’d like to focus on this because I think so many people (ahem, or I really mean to say WOMEN) feel this way about everything. Meditation is self-indulgent, and so is getting enough sleep, working out, eating a hot breakfast, peeing alone with the door closed... It’s a really weird idea that every single other person of the seven billion has to come first before a lady can spend so much as five minutes simply breathing. How can you possibly give anyone your best when you’re stretched so thin?
There is a real Dan Harris presence out there for those who can’t get enough. He has two books, a podcast, and even a meditation app. Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics is certainly a great place to start.
I was on the Future Phone just now, talking to Future Me. We want to get some clarity on how we should be allocating our time. Future Self informs me that it’s solid common sense to assume we’re going to live a long life, and plan accordingly.
Let’s spend a minute going over the gamble here. Where are the risks? Future Self’s Wager is like Pascal’s Wager, except not religious. There are two bets.
One, you assume you’ll die at X age and you actually die sooner. Two, you assume you’ll die at X age and you live longer.
If you die sooner than you expected, you potentially miss out on opportunities and leave things unsaid.
If you live longer than you expected, on the other hand, things get complicated. You run out of money. You don’t carry the appropriate long-term disability insurance or long-term care insurance. Your house, appliances, and vehicle start to depreciate, and you can’t afford to repair or replace them. Inflation comes for your assets. The last sixty years of your exercise and nutrition habits catch up with you. You live out the effects of all your strained and broken relationships. You feel the pangs of regret for all the opportunities you never pursued, all the things you never learned, all the places you never went, all the apologies you never made, and the legacy you never created. You realize that you always had plenty of time for everything you ever wanted to do, yet you squandered it.
To me, it’s quite obvious that assuming you’ll die sooner is a much worse gamble than assuming you’ll live longer. If you’re wrong and you DO live much longer, you won’t have the relationships, the mindset, the physical stamina, the skills, or the material assets that you’ll need.
Also, we might be talking a very, very long amount of time. Say you assume you’re going to be gone by, um, sixty-seven? But you actually live to be eighty-six. That’s NINETEEN YEARS of “Oops, I never thought this would happen.” What if you then live even longer than that? What if you live past the point when YOUR KIDS are eighty-six?
Most people will instinctively reject this idea. Seriously, though! The average lifespan has roughly DOUBLED in the last century. Advances in sanitation, epidemiology, nutrition, surgery, pharmaceuticals, gerontology, and just general medical knowledge are going to continue to accelerate. Financial planners are telling people to plan to live to be ninety-six right now, just to be on the safe side.
Again, the risk of planning to be ninety-six and then dying sooner is that you have enough resources, and you wind up not needing them after all. You can then leave it all to your kids, your mate, your capybara, and/or your favorite charity.
You think it’s pessimistic to assume you’ll die young. Think again. It’s much more pessimistic to assume you’ll outlive your money, your health, and your relationships by thirty years or more.
It’s basically fortune cookie wisdom to ask, “What would you do if you found out you’d die tomorrow?” Or six months from now, or a year from now? I’ve found it much more interesting to ask, “What would you do if you knew you’d live past one hundred?”
The other day, I was taking a class in situational combatives, part of my martial arts training. It occurred to me that if fortune favors me, I could train hard for another twenty-five years. That would put me at age sixty-eight. My partner in that class happened to be seventy-eight and he’s still going strong, so it’s not an unreasonable gamble. What could I do in twenty-five years? I could be a sixth-degree black belt, that’s what!
That gave me pause. I could probably attain a black belt in a shorter span than that, maybe even less than half that time. Wait. Waiiiit a minute. What ELSE could I do in twenty-five active years besides getting a black belt in a martial art?
Get several black belts?
Suddenly it felt as though I had such a long time to fill, so many long decades that could instead be filled with boredom and dissatisfaction. I’d look back on my young, dumb forty-three-year-old self and wonder why I hadn’t made better use of my time.
Past Me! Why u so lazy??
Not only physical pursuits, but other kinds of disciplines caught my attention. What could I study in twenty-five years? Music? Painting? Small engine repair? Esperanto?
One of the benefits of middle age is that you start to understand how to shape longer-term goals and projects. Another is that you have the time and resources to pursue them. Among the best is that you have the patience and self-discipline you never could find as a teenager or young adult. You have to start to wonder how much your focus and dedication could improve, given decades of additional practice.
Already I’ve done something. I’ve put this thought out there in the world. What if we have more time than we think? Much, much more time? What scale of project would you consider if you knew you had thirty years to work on it? Now, if I’ve gambled poorly and I’m wrong about Future Self’s wager, I’ll still have done something worthwhile. If I’ve gambled well, only time will tell what sort of amazing things I might still have in me.
It took me until late in my marathon training before I realized that not all workout clothes are created equal. Due to our cultural acceptance of specialized fitness clothing for almost every occasion, we associate this style with comfort, ease, and relaxation. It isn’t until we try to use them for, you know, actual exercise that we discover it can be complicated. Workout clothes are not obvious.
First off, work clothes are not suitable for a real workout. The fabrics tend to be too delicate, and they start to tear or pill. Tops won’t stay in place, sleeves totally get in the way, trouser legs aren’t flexible enough for any movement, skirts start twisting sideways. Generally there’s too much coverage and the fabrics are much too heavy and hot. Jewelry bounces everywhere and almost no hair clips or ties will stay in place. Don’t even get me started on shoes, or, worse, pantyhose.
Jeans are the worst workout garment of all time. I learned this during Street Clothes Week at my Krav Maga class. I wore a Lycra cocktail dress with bike shorts underneath, which was fun and even empowering. A couple of people wore jeans, and it didn’t take more than a brief glance to see what a fresh hell that must have been. The legs are too tight to do any kind of kick properly, while everyone had to keep tugging their waistbands back into place as they slid off waists and hips. Imagine holding your waistband with one hand while frantically trying to execute a roundhouse kick with the opposite leg. Yikes.
I’ve settled on five particular styles of workout clothing, depending on the weather and what I’m doing. This is what I wear and why.
Martial arts, hot weather:
Ponytail holder and yoga headband: Everything I’ve tried eventually falls off at least once, but when my sweaty hair gets plastered to my face I can’t see.
Sports bra, because jump rope
School t-shirt for full chest coverage and uniformity
Black shorts, because I sweat through light colors in a mortifying way. I’m finding that bike shorts are good and running shorts are... kinda bad.
Colored belt appropriate to promotion level, currently orange
Barefoot, because socks are slippery and shoes aren’t allowed on the mat
Martial arts, cooler weather:
Same as above, except substitute tights for shorts, again black for sweat camouflage. Tights are great for knee coverage if you’re down on the mat, whether martial arts, wrestling, yoga, Pilates, or boot camp.
Running, hot weather:
Sports bra and cotton underwear. 1. Don’t wreck your nicer stuff on the trail, 2. There are few things more annoying than uncooperative undergarments when you’re trying to train.
Socks paired carefully with running or trail shoes, half a size larger than street shoes. There is no “right” sock, although toe seams are always under suspicion. I wound up with two distinct sets of running socks, depending on whether I was running on mud in trail shoes or on concrete in ordinary running shoes. Too thin and the sock will slide down and bunch up under the arch of your foot; too thick and they will cause blisters.
Wicking t-shirt. Three reasons: sun protection, prevents underarm chafing, low-maintenance fabric.
Shorts, chosen for fit and waistband. Natural waist stays put, legs need to be long enough not to ride up, waistband can’t have exposed elastic. Drawstrings are high-maintenance and don’t tend to hold up to distance events.
Washcloth, carried in left hand because I am over-the-top fussy about trickling sweat. Note to self: do not anthropomorphize or name your washcloth or attribute special luck-generating powers to it, because you will lose it during your first marathon.
Fanny pack for phone, back-up battery, and snacks.
Running, cold weather:
All of the above plus:
Running tights, ankle length, with shorts over the top for booty coverage. Mud protection and warmth, but not too much.
Zippy jacket with zippered pockets to carry a handkerchief and possibly my phone.
Fingerless Lycra gloves, which usually come off after 15 minutes.
Ball cap if it’s raining.
Bandanna tied over top of head, with hair pulled back, for maximum dust protection
All the old cotton t-shirts I earned from foot races, because they’re useless for actual running
Same zippy jacket from winter running gear
“Adventure pants” for performance and pack weight
Special padded and shaped socks my mom got me
Old cotton underwear I don’t care about
Two sets of underlayers, top and bottom, one in XS and one in S for layering
Fleece jacket and puffy jacket designed for backpacking
Stocking cap that has gone on every camping trip with me for the past ten years
This probably sounds like a lot, but I still have stuff I work out in that I bought a dozen years ago. My entire “collection” fits in a small dresser drawer plus my expedition backpack. You can do the whole kit and caboodle with two pairs of tights, two pairs of shorts, four bras, and half a dozen shirts. Once you figure out a specific garment you can trust, you wind up wearing it a couple times a week, until it literally starts to fall apart on you. Most people with a regular fitness routine get significantly more wear and value out of their workout clothes than their casual or work outfits.
Pitfalls of athletic clothing:
Cotton starts to permanently carry the scent of exercise.
Sleeveless tops are a problem for several reasons: underarm chafing, difficulty of applying sunblock to exposed shoulder blades, skin exposure to Camelbak has led to blisters.
Exposed elastic is a definite problem, although I don’t know yet whether this synthetic fabric called elastane counts. I’ve gotten giant two-inch welts from elastic bra straps and my skin has also reacted to the waistband of my shorts.
Light colors are lovely, except when the first place you sweat is around the groin and five minutes later it looks like you wet yourself.
Strappy leggings, adorable but hazardous for a martial art like Krav Maga, kickboxing, or jiu jitsu. Someone would get their foot caught and then goodbye straps, hello foot injury.
Tank tops: too tight, breathing problem. Too loose, inverted posture or wrestling problem. I have one that I can only wear for yoga, which is what it was designed for.
Souvenir t-shirt collection is always larger than needed, and without backpacking as a hobby I’d have a lot of trouble justifying why I keep them.
I utterly, utterly do not understand sweatpants or what workout someone could possibly do in them, except for running in the snow.
The moral of the story is that some of the cutest, trendiest pieces are only really useful for a specific type of exercise, if any, while some of the tried and true, faithful legacy pieces quit working when you escalate your workout. Shorts I could happily wear for a half marathon suddenly quit on me around the 17-mile mark.
There’s something about the right garment in the right fit and fabric that suddenly makes you feel READY, ready for adventure in an exciting new way. I’ve found that the better I’ve gotten at finding appropriate gear, the more often I wear it, meaning the cost per use is lower each time. And besides, it’s cheaper than the medical alternatives that accompany the sedentary life.
There are some predictable moments in working with people who are chronically disorganized. They never believe me, even when I tell them in advance, and they’re quite sure it won’t happen to them, until it does.
What’s the deal with keeping stuff even when it’s gross? Even when it obviously hasn’t been used and isn’t necessary to begin with?
There are a lot of reasons behind this. One of these reasons is enough, but often several of them come into play.
Lack of situational awareness; clutter blindness. My people stop seeing their surroundings and genuinely don’t realize how it looks or smells anymore. It’s like they’re going through life with a blindfold on and just peeking through the gaps by their nose.
Disbelief in germ theory. Even when they’re clearly suffering with constant respiratory problems, lethargy, sleep problems, low immune system, or mysterious gastric symptoms, my people don’t make the connection with their personal environment. Of course the wet black mold can’t have anything to do with my breathing problems! Of course the scary fridge can’t have anything to do with my chronic stomach problems! Just because you walked in and had a ten-minute sneezing fit doesn’t mean the dust is affecting any of us who live here. What my people think is that their state of poor health keeps them from doing any housework, rather than the reverse, which is that their home is making them ill.
Grief. People who are grieving often stay stuck that way for years or decades on end. Anything in the home that was associated with the bereavement will stay that way. Gifts from the deceased, unsorted boxes from the home of the deceased, entire chronological layers from that time period, all will stay the way it was left in that bad year. Touching or moving any of it will set off a fresh wave of grief. Grief is usually what sets off hoarding.
Scarcity mindset. The desire to be constantly surrounded by as much stuff as possible, because it feels like this is all we’ll ever have. We can’t get rid of anything, even expired food we’ll never eat or expired cosmetics that would cause a skin infection, because it’s wasteful. Spending more than we can afford on more than we can use perpetuates that feeling of being broke and deprived.
Emotional attachment. The item represents a memory or a relationship. Getting rid of anything that represents a memory is like deleting the memory... isn’t it? Won’t I immediately forget everything associated with this if I ever let it go? This was a gift! Isn’t letting go of it exactly like permanently severing the relationship?
Anthropomorphism, or, believing deep down that inanimate objects have souls and emotions. Getting rid of something will hurt its feelings. What an unforgivable insult! Subconsciously, lonely people identify with their stuff as neglected and unwanted, therefore deserving of sympathy.
Simple greed and materialism. This is where what I call stuff-stroking originates. Pretty, pretty, shiny! Ooh, all my nice nice things. Many people have an easier time interacting with stuff than they do other human beings, and certainly many of us have an easier time interacting with animals.
Rebellion. Keeping all my stuff is a way of setting boundaries and demonstrating my autonomy. If you suggest that I get rid of something, and I do it, that’s like being your slave and making you the boss of my life. The only way I can prove I’m in charge of my life is by doing the opposite of what anyone asks me to do, even if it makes my life more difficult. Every hill is the hill I want to die on!
Indecision. The worst thing is that feeling of cutting off options. Deciding is like death. WHAT IF I need it later?? I’m so mentally overwhelmed right now, I need a break, and maybe we can make all these decisions later. Or never. Never would be good, too.
Not knowing what to do next. A clear-out is complicated and tends to have a lot of moving parts. Working alone is something I’ll never do. Once you go home, O Organizer, that’s it, this process is grinding to a halt.
Low physical energy. Getting rid of stuff means bending and twisting and lifting. It means looking around and finding things. It means rounding up bags and boxes. It means carrying heavy bags and boxes out to the car or the curb. It means unloading stuff at the donation center. I’m tired, I’m so tired. I can’t.
I’ve seen people keep a lot of gross and weird things. A couch so infested with fleas that nobody would sit on it. Rusted-out leaking cans of expired food. Soggy old phonebooks. It’s very mysterious. It feels like my people genuinely believe this stuff is more important than their own home life. That their weird old stuff is more deserving of space and resources than they are themselves. What I’d like to see is that all of us have enough space to live out our dreams, that we all have enough breathing room. I’d like us to care more about our friends and loved ones than about a bunch of objects.
“20% off” is something most of us only encounter in the form of a sale sign or a coupon, am I right? We don’t think of it in terms of our income for a variety of reasons. One of these is that there’s usually a disconnect between what we earn and what we spend, because we don’t usually think of “things we are doing” as “spending.” Another reason we don’t think of our cash flow in percentages is that most people just don’t think that way. I know, because I’m not a numbers person. I’m not a numbers person in the same way that I’m not a maps person. That’s okay, because what we’re going to do right now is to tell stories and talk about broad concepts. I promise, few numbers involved.
This is basically how it works. Money flows into and out of our lives. We worry about it more when we have more bills than we do money, and less when we feel like we can relax a little. Few of us were really taught about personal finance, and even if we were, our friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues are unlikely to compare notes with us. The only way we can really tell how we’re doing is by instinct and guesswork. Even married couples may not share finances, only discussing it at tax time and only when we can’t avoid it.
How many of these things are true for you?
Thinking of how much you earn in terms of your hourly rate
Thinking of how much you earn in terms of your annual (gross) salary
Thinking of how much you earn in terms of your take-home pay, paycheck by paycheck
Not having thought about it for a while
Honestly, none of this ever occurred to me when I first started drawing a paycheck. I thought of what I earned by the hour, and I had no sense of how much I actually took home in a month or a year. I knew how much my rent was, but it also never occurred to me to estimate how much I spent in a month on everything all together. I just did the best I could, one paycheck at a time. Life was hard, sometimes harder, sometimes even harder than that. Work hard, I thought, just keep working hard and things will get better.
Things did get better eventually, but not because I worked harder. In fact I doubt I’ve ever worked as hard as I did in the days when I was flat broke. What changed was just that I understood more.
I thought I would eventually get promoted if I just worked hard enough. Instead, it turned out it was completely up to me to choose a very specific career path, sign up for loans and earn an advanced education, and market and promote myself. None of the employers for whom I worked in the first decade of my career ever would have had a place for me. If I’d stayed, it never would have mattered how hard I worked, it would have gotten me nowhere.
I was proud of myself for not having a credit card. I didn’t realize how complicated it would be to have no credit history later on.
I took on bottom-dollar side hustles, not understanding that I would have been better off using that time to figure out how to earn more money for less effort. What I was doing was offering lower-value services, which effectually cheats people of my best contribution. Do what only you can do, not what almost anyone can do.
Okay, so the first reason you aren’t saving 20% of your income is that you probably don’t know exactly how much you earn or how much you spend. Cash flow is a metaphor in your life, not a highly specific quantity.
The second reason you aren’t saving 20% of your income is that you’re barely making it. You feel stuck and you don’t know what to do next to maximize your income.
The third reason you aren’t saving 20% of your income is that, if you have a partner (spouse, romantic partner, roommate, kid), you aren’t discussing money. Not if you can avoid it! Bringing up the topic is a source of stress, not power. You’ve probably already fought about it, and in fact maybe you fight about it every single day. Nothing productive is going to come out of this state of affairs.
Let me put it out there that for most people, what’s needed is a paradigm shift, or a completely different way of looking at the problem.
(Money isn’t a problem! Instead it’s a solution for nearly every problem that modern people face).
(For most of human history, your problems would have been stuff like siege warfare, plague, top-tier predator attacks, famine, and the million bajillion things that hadn’t been invented yet).
It’s like this. If you make a certain amount of money and you spend all of it, you’re saving zero. If you make a certain amount of money and you also put a certain amount on credit cards, you’re spending more than you earn. You have your reasons, yes, and unfortunately banks and creditors don’t care about those. Future You is the one who’s going to have to deal with it, and Future You is NOT going to thank Today You for passing it on.
If you spend 20% more than you earn, you can’t just save 20%. That only gets you back to saving zero. (This is the numbers part, but hang on, it’ll be over quickly). You have to do 40%. Right? And a little more than that to take care of the interest charges, fines, fees, and every other way the banks like to pull things out of your wallet.
This is why you aren’t saving 20%. Because if you’re like most Americans, you can’t even save zero. You’re going under a little bit more each month, and the process is so gradual that you don’t even feel it happen.
It doesn’t have to be like this! This isn’t a cause for being scared or angry or hopeless or defeatist. It should be more like the day I accidentally pumped liquid hand soap onto my toothbrush and noticed right before I put it in my mouth. Wait! Toothpaste isn’t pink! As long as we’re paying attention and we’re aware of what we’re doing, there’s always time to make a change. We can figure it out.
Step one: Make it as fun and relaxing as possible to hang out at home, with your friends, at the park, at the public library, at the beach, or anywhere else that doesn’t cost money. Nap, read, have long conversations, draw, stretch, listen to music, make art, learn to cook, and remind yourself that contentment is free.
Step two: Tell someone. Our culture is super-freaky-weird in that we’ll be totally open and honest about, say, ingrown hairs, or embarrassing first dates, or our sexuality, but not about money. Wouldn’t money seem to be the least intimate and least personal of these things? It’s just numbers, after all. But no. It IS weird. That’s why it’s an act of real bravery and courage to tell the truth about your financial anxieties and confusions. Guaranteed, you’ll find someone else who feels the exact same way you do. Maybe you can work together to learn more, or at least work together to hang out and not spend money together a lot.
Step three: Think of some ways you could radically restructure the way you live, at least temporarily. As an example, my husband and I sold our car and moved into a studio apartment, at least for a year. We’re saving 40% of our income, and working on increasing that number. It isn’t all that bad because we’re usually working anyway, because it helps us feel like a team, because we got rid of most of our stuff, because it makes a good story, because the apartment has a pool and a hot tub, and because eventually we know we can move into a bigger place again. If we want to. More money, in our society at least, means more options. More choices, more freedom.
If you’re curious and the spirit moves you, maybe you could get a sheet of paper or set up a spreadsheet. Maybe you could work out your net income and your average monthly expenses. Maybe you could make a list of how much you owe on all your cards, car loan, student loan, personal loans, or anything else. Maybe you could look at that number and just... feel it for a minute. Feel that you are part of a world of infinite choices and possibilities, and that a year from now, everything about that number could look and feel completely different.
It’s just a number, after all.
I’m putting Mark McGuinness’s book Productivity for Creative People on the exalted but brief list I call One and Done. If you are an artist and you struggle to get done everything that you want to do, you can read this book and find out everything you need to know. I’m telling you, it’s all right here. I should know because I read all of these things; some of them are outright wrong, some are clearly written by methodical yet non-artistic people, and the rest take twice as long while getting across fewer truly helpful ideas. Productivity for Creative People is both insightful and realistic. If your art has been languishing these days, try this book.
If you’re feeling desperate, just go straight to chapter 3, Reduce Overload.
McGuinness clearly has experience with all the variations of workday that a creative person may face: Work on demand in someone else’s company; managing other creatives; working at home for oneself or others. He shares the example of having to meet a heavy deadline while planning his wedding. The basic strategy is to 1. Examine your assumptions about your workflow; 2. Spend the maximum possible amount of your time actually doing creative work; and 3. Find a way to deal with Resistance, distractions, and mundane tasks. In my experience, where we usually fall down is on that first step, plunging in without a strategy and then constantly stumbling on everything from the third step.
This is partly why I’m so enamored of the Reduce Overload chapter. It asks fundamental questions that seem obvious, yet that I haven’t seen in just this way in other organizing or time management books. “Is this a temporary state, or is it likely to continue (or get worse)?” McGuinness divides workload into four categories:
Another very helpful concept was to distinguish between open lists and closed lists, recognizing that open lists (such as laundry or email) will never be done, while closed lists can have a firm deadline. Combine this with the concept of distinguishing between background tasking and task switching, which both supposedly fall under the fallacious premise of multitasking, and suddenly a rational schedule starts to arrange itself.
There are some tips here that could be revolutionary if only they caught on in the traditional workplace. Managing interruptions, meetings, and email all come to mind. For the brave, it might be good to go over Chapter 7 and see if you can enlist an ally or two in your office to adopt some (or all!) of these practices. I’d lead my pitch with “Let’s try this for a month, and if it doesn’t improve efficiency, then we can always go back to the usual chaos.”
As a former chronic procrastinator, I found the advice to Panic Early quite brilliant. In fact, it’s the only way to start to learn the skill of estimating timelines on projects. A lot of us think procrastination is a charming feature of creativity, when really it means we get much less done than others. Productivity for Creative People is another way of saying “make art and don’t let it die unexpressed.”
McGuinness also suggests that we “Use templates for different types of day.” I do this, after trying several other methods of managing my time, and it works. There are no two days of my week that match, due to a few externally imposed time blocks. Oddly enough, I get more done under this schedule than I did when 100% of my time was my own. Structure always helps.
Read Productivity for Creative People. Do what I did, and bookmark the holy heck out of it. Then keep it near to hand and flip it open for reminders from time to time. I’m going to have to insist upon this, because if you’re an artist, then we need your art, and that means you need a way to bring it into the world.
Do you see organization as soulless and uncreative or as a necessary, helpful part of your creative process?
What do you like about chaos?
“Can I afford to wait another minute before getting started?”
Is this the right person? It always boggles my mind when people ask me this. How am I supposed to know? Especially if I haven’t met him, if I don’t know anything about her? What do YOU know about ME and MY relationship that makes you think I’m a good source of advice? All I can tell you is that if you have to ask, then No, the answer is no. If you feel like you need to ask other people whether you’re in the right relationship, you’re not.
You’re the expert.
YOU are the one who has to be with this person. This person is waking up in your bed, not mine. This person is sitting on your couch, using your wi-fi, and leaving dishes in your sink, not mine.
A lot of stuff happens when you date someone based on what your friends and family think. You start making your decisions based on how they will look to others, on what sort of comments you’ll get, on what you think people will say if you get married/break up/separate/shack up. This is not a path to happiness. It’s not even a way to make a relationship last in the long term.
Whether you’re with someone who is “right” depends 100% on your inner feelings.
Also, there’s no one “right” person because a relationship is not about someone’s personality. It’s about their behavior. It’s about what happens between their behavior and your behavior when you’re interacting with each other. It’s about communication, about how skilled you are at sharing your feelings and setting boundaries and negotiating for what you need, and about whether this person is willing to come to the table with you and do the same.
If all people were perfect communicators who did their share of the housework, etc, then it would be more of a question of personality. Mostly, though, it’s about whether you can live together without driving each other nuts.
Traditional romance asks a lot. It asks that you settle down with one person and that you are perfect roommates, friends, lovers, and business partners all in one. Maybe add parenthood and home maintenance to that. Quite a job description, no?
Oh, right, and then you’re supposed to make all those things work for fifty years or more.
Comparing your relationship to others’ relationships doesn’t really work. It doesn’t work because you only see the part they make visible while you’re there. Most people have the great good sense not to fight in public (because why humiliate each other in front of an audience?) and because of that, you can’t have a realistic picture of their shadow couple.
If you swapped mates, the person who seems wonderful with your friend might be terrible with you. Does that make sense? There is no “one” perfect person because it’s all about the combination of that person’s behaviors with someone else’s.
For instance, my husband is great for me because we have twelve years of history adapting to each other’s preferences. We know how to wait on each other and accommodate each other’s weird ways. If you had him, he wouldn’t know your drink order or favorite sandwich or whatever, and believe me, you don’t want mine. You wouldn’t be able to use our lexicon of hand gestures, code phrases, and emojis because it would take you those twelve years to learn them all. All the things he does for me that make me happy would be useless for pretty much anyone but me.
I sometimes spend a moment thinking on my friends’ husbands or boyfriends and, no. Just no. The guy who insists on playing the radio next to the bed all night, every night. The one who chews tobacco. The one who sleeps with three dogs on the bed. I can’t. No. I don’t care what they look like or how fun they are to talk to, I could never live with these particular behaviors. It wouldn’t be fair to ask someone to stop doing something that is part of his best life, the very thing he’d do on his perfect day. Easier just to pick someone whose wackiest habits are okay for me.
I see my hubby sitting there in his reading glasses, poring over another robotics textbook, and my heart beats a little faster. When I was a little girl, I always knew my future husband would wear glasses and read a lot. Something about him in his natural state clicks with this innate hunger I had. He looks right. Yeah, there are a million men our age who wear glasses and like to read, and obviously I only wanted one of their number. It’s just a side benefit that helps me feel like we’re on the same wavelength.
What I like in a relationship may not be what other people are looking for. What works for me is friendship first. I married my husband because I realized that no matter where we went in the world, I would always wonder what he was up to, what he was reading, what he was thinking, and what projects he was working on. I realized that if we lost touch, I would miss him. Whenever anything interesting happens, he’s the first one I want to tell. Sometimes we start laughing at the same thing without even making eye contact or touching each other. He’s also the first person I think of when I’m stuck on a problem, because I’m always better off when I take his advice, and how many people can say that? I feel like he sees me the way I see myself, that he gets what I’m about. We have different or opposing outlooks on a lot of stuff, and we can actually wind up appreciating each other more after discussing them. I feel like I’m more interested in him after thirteen years of friendship than I was when we first met.
Is he the right person for me? Well, he is now, anyway.
You can have physical chemistry with someone who will break your heart. You can have a public-facing relationship that looks great in photos and drives you up the wall when you’re alone. You can have a fantasy romance that exists almost entirely in your own mind. Probably, though, you have friendships that work great. Compare your romance to your friendships and that will start to give you a better idea of whether you’re with the “right person.”
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.