I kept meaning to read this book, because I like the subtitle: An Overdue History of Procrastination, from Leonardo and Darwin to You and Me. Somehow, though, my stack kept getting longer and this title kept getting pushed farther down. It wasn’t until I had an urgent need for a book I knew I’d want to review that I dug around and found it. I read it in one sitting. That’s probably because I am procrastinating on a major project. What an ideal situation for reading a book like Soon! Paradoxically, it celebrates the motives behind procrastination, while also offering insight and inspiration for completing projects.
This book is tricky. It profiles some very famous procrastinators, people whose work has stood the test of time for centuries. On the one hand, we’re treated to descriptions of all the many ways they procrastinated and how they explained themselves. On the other hand, we see how they have become legends and how important their work was. What we don’t see are any profiles of garden-variety procrastinators who never did anything important or valuable. Those of us who recognize ourselves in these tales of dithering will be forced to wonder, do we have this level of legendary work buried somewhere inside ourselves?
Darwin had his great insight about evolution all the way back in 1838. He put off writing it up for over twenty years, and only got to work when he heard that someone else was closing in on similar research. This makes me wonder about two things. First, would Charles Darwin have published more work if he’d had more external pressure? Second, how different would the modern world be if the theory of evolution had entered pop culture two decades sooner?
Would Jonathan Franzen have written less if he hadn’t worn earplugs, earmuffs, and an actual blindfold while typing?
It’s easy to wonder whether modern technology causes more procrastination. Is it just the existence of clocks and calendars and to-do lists and the Puritan work ethic? But then Santella makes a convincing case that The Odyssey is all about procrastination. This is just part of how humans get through life.
Why do people procrastinate? Santella spends almost all of Soon referring to his own delays in researching and writing the very book that we are reading. Yet he methodically gets through it all, with the existence of the book somehow both proving and refuting his hypotheses. Is procrastination due to perfectionism, rebellion, overwhelm, mood regulation, or lack of identification with Future Self? Procrastination, how much does it overlap with free will?
I enjoyed reading this book. It helped me to put my procrastinated project into new context. In the face of all these legendary historical figures, who completed major, influential projects despite their habits, who am I to resist my own creative force? Let’s all think of our efforts in the context of our life story and legacy, or especially let’s do that when we’re putting off doing something else.
Procrastinators can keep admirably busy even while they’re avoiding their work.
Are we ethically required to make the most of the time allotted to us?
Optimism is the quality most often overlooked in procrastinators.
Can I really afford to spend my day doing mere work?
When you are free to set your own schedule, you are also free to disregard it completely.
What’ll I do with my time if I live to be one hundred and eleven? Maybe it won’t happen, but then again, maybe it will. It always made sense to me to plan ahead just in case. I can’t tolerate forty seconds of boredom now, so what makes me think I’ll like it better when I’m ancient? How exciting is it to make a really long bucket list, realizing that there might actually be enough time to do it all, taste it all, try it all, live it all?
I’m making a bucket list by the decade and setting aside certain things for the age when I think they’ll make the most sense.
I’ve learned that I can only really focus on a couple of things at a time if I want to give them enough attention to make any progress. Basically I have enough brainpower to work on one artistic or intellectual goal and one physical goal at a time. That’s why it makes sense to save certain things “for later,” because trying to do everything all at once ensures that none of it is done well. At my current level, I tend to think of goals on a three-year time horizon.
I spent most of my twenties in poor health, and as a consequence (or a cause) I was totally inactive. Realizing in my thirties that I could regain and rebuild my strength, and then that I could surpass anything I ever thought possible, I started to feel more hopeful. Also, it was immediately obvious that I’d better weight my physical goals toward my younger years. I’d have more stamina and agility, and it would also help to extend my active years further into the future.
Prioritizing those physical goals naturally calls for shifting other sorts of goals toward the other end. Artistic and educational goals? Travel goals? Relationship goals? Philosophical goals? I start to wonder, what kinds of things might Future Me: Eighties Edition be into?
There are some overall epic goals that call to me, and if I haven’t gotten around to them any sooner, then I’ll make a point of tackling them in my eighties. One of these cherished goals is to teach someone to read. I just feel like that would be one of the coolest, most incredible feelings, to give someone the gift of literacy. This is something I could do no matter how much money I had or how mobile I was.
I also like the ideas of becoming a chess master or finally getting somewhere with mathematics. Both of these seem like big enough, deep enough projects to hold my attention for several years. I can save them for later, knowing that Old Me will have plenty of time.
In my twenties, I flailed around. In comparison, my life was so filled with struggle and drama, and I felt that I was barely making it. I was unhappy, confused, ill, and scared a lot of the time. Somehow I got it together, and by the time I was twenty-nine I had finally graduated from university, learned to drive, and gotten onto a career path, in that order. I also learned to knit, crochet, and use shop tools and a sewing machine, read hundreds of books, and got fairly good at ballroom dancing.
In my thirties, I started feeling competent. I learned to cook, eliminated my consumer debt, paid off one of my student loans early, got promotions and raises, adopted a parrot, moved into my own little house, got married, helped raise a teenager, ran a marathon, traveled to eight countries, and finally reached my goal weight. I became a minimalist, got into backpacking, self-published a book, started a blog, had basic A1-level conversations in a couple of foreign languages, and learned to play the ukulele.
Now I’m in my forties. I finally realized that when something interests me, I can choose it, focus on it, plan around it, study it, and maximize my experience of it. I also realized that it’s worth my time to do so. When something interests me even a little bit, I find that it’s even more interesting when I learn more. When I set a goal, it’s my own goal, a goal of my own selection. Because of that, I’ll give it everything I have.
Knowing I have the focus to carry out my goals, and assuming I have the time for them, what shall I do?
Forties Me: Become a competent public speaker and Distinguished Toastmaster. Start a podcast. Get a black belt in a martial art. Learn to swim and get over my fear of the ocean. Do a triathlon. Take gymnastics classes. Do a cartwheel, handstand, and the splits. Be completely debt-free. Make younger friends.
Fifties Me: Run a fifty-mile ultramarathon. Get serious about yoga and weight training. Do a major through-hike like the Appalachian Trail, maybe the Triple Crown. Make younger friends.
Sixties Me: Open my own gym. Compete in the Senior Olympics. Buy a house. Be financially independent. Make younger friends.
Seventies Me: Study chess. Have snow-white hair like my Nana. Make younger friends.
Eighties Me: Teach someone to read. Wear a tiara. Make younger friends.
The only one of these goals that I couldn’t potentially cram into a single decade, this current decade, would be entering the Senior Olympics, because I’m still too young.
Multi-decade goals: Travel to every country in the world (five a year for the next forty years). Write books and become a thought leader. Become a world-class listener. Learn to love my friends properly.
I hesitate to post many far-out goals, because there’s one thing I’ve learned about goal-setting. That is that once you’ve achieved a goal, it changes your vantage point. The goals you set from that point are different than goals you had set before, both grander and more specific. For instance, after traveling in Spain and using rudimentary Spanish to communicate, I understood ever so much more about how to focus my studies and where I would benefit the most, which was about 3:1 in favor of listening comprehension and memorizing nouns. This also enabled me to see that intensive study over just a couple of months could rocket me forward in my skills.
I look at my goals and feel that maybe they are too ambitious, and yet again, maybe they aren’t nearly ambitious enough. I look at my goals and think of some of my senior friends, and how they’re routinely doing a lot of this stuff. I’ve met and befriended people who’ve been to every country in the world, started businesses, adopted children, trained service animals, served in public office, become fluent in multiple languages, run foundations, and indeed, medaled in the Senior Olympics. What legacy will I leave with my life?
How about you?
I’m vegan and my husband is not. More to the point, my parents are now also vegan and his are... not. As a passionate cook, I have planned menus around a million different food preferences, and it’s all the same to me. I want my friends to be happy and have a great meal. Unfortunately, most people don’t feel this way. They feel threatened or, at best, annoyed when anyone eats differently than they do. Let me share what I’ve learned over the past quarter-century.
First off, I often find that other people’s food preferences are dumb, gross, selfish, unscientific, or expensive. I’m sure other people feel much the same way about mine. Social occasions are about having a good time together and getting to know each other better, and maybe even practicing our skills of patience, compassion, and negotiation. It shouldn’t be about the food, unless we are all chanting YUMMMMMM in unison.
It’s none of my business how other people choose to eat, just as it is none of their business how I do.
Almost everyone has an EWW, YUCK food that they would not eat for a million dollars. That’s fine. I believe in free will. I also believe that people should tactfully avoid what they don’t want to eat without talking about it so much. Can we just avoid expressions of disgust altogether? The worst offenders here are parents who let their kids go on for pages, monologuing about the rancid, putrefying atrocity of an abomination that anyone would dare put in the same room as them. Please, at the bare minimum pay your children off to quit talking about what they think is gross. I. Do. Not. Care.
It always gets me, though, that it’s totally fine and socially acceptable, encouraged even, for people to talk about how much they hate Brussels sprouts, or sweet potatoes, or cauliflower, or if they ask for their dressing on the side. Yet if I don’t want cheese on my food, I’m evil and I have a militant political agenda. False. It is my right as a consumer to buy and eat what I want, and to not buy and not eat what I do not want. Forcing your guests to eat something is not being a host, it’s being a bully. Hospitality means putting your guests’ comfort first even when they piss you off.
I cook a lot of gluten-free food for my friends, even though I can and do eat wheat at every opportunity. Guess what? I can still eat GF and so can the other guests. (Soup, salad, vegetable and grain sides, maybe cornbread, many desserts). I often know a lot more about deciphering lists of ingredients and avoiding cross-contamination than my guests do, because I may well have been scouring labels since before they were born. Vegans and GF people are natural allies. About 2% of the population is likely gluten-sensitive. About ten times more than that seem to think they are, when really their issue is likely to be yeast or fructan, which they would only find out if they went in and got themselves clinically tested. That, again, is none of my business, but I can only help if I come across as an ally.
How do my husband and I handle our different diets? As it turns out, even though he occasionally eats meat, he is about 90% vegan. Unlike me, he has a serious allergy to dairy foods; he’s gotten violently ill from eating a chocolate chip cookie that had a little butter. It’s a relief to him to know that when he eats with my family, he won’t be sick later. When we eat with my family, my parents always ask around and try to round up some turkey for him, which he finds embarrassing and unnecessary, although believe me, every single house in that zip code would happily donate a plate of turkey for the hostage over there at the vegan house. When we eat with his family, we bring a “holiday roast” that I can sneak into the oven while he is making his justifiably famous mashed potatoes.
We both eat: mashed potatoes, rolls, cornbread, cranberry sauce, all vegetables, most beverages, pie (if it’s done right), and almost all snacks. The difference is that I like squash and he doesn’t.
There’s a really weird double standard around guesting and hosting as a vegan. As a guest, everyone expects me to EAT WHAT EVERYONE ELSE IS EATING, because otherwise it would insult my host and I would be rude. YET, as a host, I’m expected to SERVE MY GUESTS WHAT THEY LIKE TO EAT, because as a host I am required to put my guests first. So which is it? If the host should give the guests what they prefer, then I would have to 1. Have meat catered to my guests while I 2. Sit back and enjoy the sumptuous vegan feasts that my hosts put out when I come over. If the guests should eat what is put in front of them, then I would have to 1. Politely hide my portion of carcass under a napkin and 2. Serve my own guests tempeh and kale while laughing maniacally. There can’t be a rule where only I am expected to conform in every situation, because that is a double standard.
Notice that everything I eat is included on the Venn diagram of what everyone else eats. That’s why my meat-eating husband has been able to survive sharing meals with me for thirteen years. I’m an excellent cook. I know how to choose crowd-pleasing dishes and I always laugh quietly when my potluck contribution vanishes. I do have friends who have brought bags of fast food to my table, people who utterly refuse to touch a single bite of what I make, and that’s fine. I expect those same friends to be equally tolerant when I show up at their place with a microwaveable enchilada or pot pie in my bag.
Contrary to popular belief, I don’t want to convert anyone. They’d just screw it up and then complain that there’s something wrong with the lifestyle, rather than their mediocre-to-poor application. About 80% of people who try being vegan eventually quit. Therefore, it’s backward to try to pull anyone over the line to my side. I say, “You eat what you eat, and I eat what I eat.” I hate when the topic comes up, because I loathe debates and I refuse to argue. I’ll tell people, “If you can come up with a vegan joke I’ve never heard, I’ll pay you a dollar.” My approach seems to work, because I have indeed converted a few people over the years, including my parents and two ex-boyfriends (years after we split up). It generally takes at least three years of exposure to a radical new idea before people start to feel genuinely curious about it.
My food is expensive and often of a higher culinary order, because I love cooking and I’ve tested hundreds of recipes. I don’t really want to share, especially when my dish (you know, the dinner I had to bring for myself) vanishes and there’s nothing left on the table that meets my guidelines. You’ll see this at every office pizza party, when the veggie pizza goes first and all that’s left is the congealed fright-pie of pepperoni. Thanks for nothing.
Ultimately, the one thing we know does not work is for one person to try to force another person to change their food preferences. We start developing our tastes before we’re even born, as, for example, babies from cultures that eat very spicy food start to build a tolerance before they are weaned. There is nothing harder to change than an eating habit. It’s also a tribal identifier, and that’s why people can be so belligerent and awful about hazing anyone who won’t eat from the communal table. They feel like it makes us untrustworthy, selfish, spoiled, and rude. (Just as I often feel bullied, pressured, ridiculed, or even tricked or lied to). Let’s do what we can to focus on the conversation and group fun, not the mechanical aspects of getting everyone fed.
Where did this year go? Holiday decorations are already out, my day planner is almost fully consumed, and suddenly it’s time to get ready for Thanksgiving. This is an ideal time to start preparing, whether you are traveling or hosting. By ‘preparing’ I mean emotionally as well as structurally. Do a little each day, and make it easier on yourself when the big day comes.
One of the first things to do is to clarify your expectations. This can be tough because the marketing is always about togetherness and terrific food, yet the reality can be more like bare-knuckle boxing in front of a turkey-shaped bonfire. My personal tendency is to want to spend a full month planning the menu, a week meticulously detailing my house with a toothbrush and cotton swabs, and three days of cooking. Then I wind up stressing myself out so much that I have to go sit in a closet for a while before I can finish making the dessert.
This is one of the surprising advantages of living in a studio apartment. Absolutely nobody expects or wants you to host the dinner.
Holidays are the time to practice your utmost negotiation and mediation skills. It’s the fakery that makes it difficult, both pretending that everything is going to be “perfect” this time when you know it can never be, and pretending to get along with people who insist on stomping on your last nerve. Be real, at least with yourself, and certainly with your partner. Set those boundaries well in advance.
Emotional boundaries, acceptable behavior, that’s what we’re talking about. It’s your job to collect your relatives when they misbehave, and it’s your partner’s job to collect theirs. If either one of you takes your family’s side over that of your partner, well, that’s wrong. You have to stand up for each other. Or, you shouldn’t have to, but if it must be done, do it quickly and do it clearly. You want to stamp that sort of thing out before it has a chance to spread to future years.
Now is the time to practice diversionary techniques. Changing the subject is a last-ditch response to problematic conversation topics. It’s possible to stop that kind of trouble before it starts by planning around it. Play games, fill the schedule with non-sensitive topics, and shamelessly exploit any children or pets for their inherent cute factor.
I’m extraordinarily lucky with my family. Not only can we all talk politics together, but it’s often a conversation that makes us feel closer. Better than that, we have compatible food preferences. We can trust each other not to try to sneak in any dishonest ingredients. This makes it that much less fun, though, when I wind up visiting with anyone else who 1. lives to quarrel and/or 2. thinks it’s funny to trick people into eating things that make them ill. Dude, don’t take other people’s food issues personally; it’s not about you.
Here are some techniques I use to avoid explosive conversations and food battles:
Nobody is entitled to my opinion and I don’t owe anyone a debate on any topic, whether that’s what phone I use, whether I should supposedly follow a sportsball team, or what route would be optimal for my journey home, much less broader current events or social issues. I am fully, fully prepared to stand up for myself and give anyone the tongue-lashing of a lifetime, but when I’m at someone else’s party, I will do anything to efface myself and preserve harmony. Say it with me: a holiday party is not a debate. A HOLIDAY PARTY IS NOT A DEBATE.
Of course, politics isn’t the only emotional minefield. The holidays are a great time for bringing up grievances and old war wounds. I just say, “I agree,” and “you’re right” and “I’m sorry, I wish I hadn’t done that.” In a pinch, offer to go to group therapy with them and ask if they want you to schedule it on Monday.
If you’re hosting and you’re freaking out about getting your house ready, take a breath and plan now.
If I were doing it again in a standard-sized suburban house, I would focus one day on the dining room, one day on the living room, one day on the bathroom, and one day on the kitchen. Then I’d make myself stop and switch my focus to the shopping and prep work. I always do as much as possible in the two days before, whether that’s making stock, measuring ingredients, or washing and chopping vegetables. Then I think about how I can coast for a few days on my nice clean place and my fridge full of yummy leftovers.
Ultimately, Thanksgiving is a predictable event. That’s what people like about it. You probably know who will be there, how they will behave, what sorts of conversations they’ll bring up, and what they will or will not eat. After the day, you can go back to normal life. Try to make the most of it, because in its ideal form, this really is the perfect day for taking group photos, eating pie, and of course putting olives on your fingertips.
It’s here, it’s here! I finally got my new podcast set up. Are you excited? I’m excited!
The idea behind the show is help listeners to get organized and clear clutter in just a few minutes a day. Rather than read something and then have to get up and take action, now you can listen and work at the same time.
I have three different episode lengths planned.
The five-minute version is free to the public. The longer versions are available to Patreon subscribers.
Why am I doing it this way? Almost all of my work is already free to the public, including over two thousand pages of writing on this blog alone, not to mention all the accompanying illustrations. Now, in addition, there will also be free podcast episodes. Those who are willing and able to pay a couple dollars a month will have more, just as they would have more if I published a book and they bought a copy. The main difference is that doing a podcast requires additional equipment and software. As much as everyone in the known universe enjoys having free entertainment of every medium, it’s not free to produce.
Enough about that. The point is, hey, I have a new show! Please pop on over and check it out. You can even catch a glimpse of my spokesmodel Noelle in the video.
Thanks as always for your support.
The Index Card is an idea that needs to catch on. Helaine Olen and Harold Pollack believe that personal finance should be simple enough to explain on an index card. The same could or should be true about other things, like parenting, nutrition, fitness, or staying married. Why? Because when these things seem complicated and difficult to understand, they set us up for pain and heartbreak. When they seem simple and approachable, we’re able to handle them well, and life is so much easier. Let’s see how we can use this index card method to simplify our finances.
The authors of The Index Card are highly skeptical of the finance industry. They lead with the example of a man who asked how to invest a chunk of money, and every professional he spoke to gave him completely different advice. (Would that have been true of a series of car mechanics or construction contractors?) How is an average person supposed to make sense out of that?
The authors met because Helaine wrote a book about the finance industry, and Harold asked to interview her for his blog. His family had serious financial issues to overcome after his wife’s disabled brother came to live with them. Thus, The Index Card is based on both industry knowledge and practical personal experience.
According to the book, and validating our suspicions, most people have money problems. A third of households have a bill turned over to collections every year. Almost half of Americans keep a balance on their credit cards. The majority of retirees leave the workforce earlier than they planned. Most people aren’t set up to handle an emergency. Certainly a bit more financial knowledge would be helpful in this area that so many find stressful, confusing, and disappointing.
The Index Card points out that older generations may have claimed to have stronger values about frugality and money management, when in reality they had virtually no access to credit. The financial industry of their time bore almost no resemblance to what exists today. We’re able to get into all new kinds of financial trouble. This book has straightforward advice on navigating investment products and interviewing financial advisors. It also has some basic advice on saving money on food and various other services.
Personally, I follow some of the advice on this legendary index card, but not all of it. For instance, it says to save 20% of your income, and my husband and I save 40%. There are people in the FIRE community who save significantly more; a lot of couples both work full-time and bank one entire income plus part of the other. I’ll admit as well that I own several individual securities, that it has worked quite well for me so far, that I have occasionally beat the market, and that I broke even in 2008. Listen to Olen and Pollack, though; most people don’t have the time or inclination to do the amount of research that I did. Also, the game ain’t over yet. I may be crying in my tea by the time I officially retire.
We feel as if we are falling behind because, frankly, we are, often through no fault of our own.
If we all need to be wary of the financial services industry, and yet we also need to be proactive about our finances, what do we do?
Don’t count on working forever.
Information is not motivation, and common knowledge is not common action. Basically this means that we know everything we need to know in order to get started, but it isn’t enough. No matter what it is that we’d like to do, for some reason, we aren’t doing it. Maybe we just aren’t juiced up enough about the benefits of change. Maybe we’re unsure about how getting the goal will change our relationships. Probably it’s different for every person and every situation. One thing that seems to be working for me is the contrary approach of imagining the worst version of something. How is what I’m doing as bad as it could be, and how could it be worse?
Let’s say I’m thinking about my car. I don’t actually own a car right now, so this is purely a figment of my imagination. The worst version of “my car” would be: unsafe, unreliable, smelly, dirty, filled with trash, and expensive. I’m picturing something that’s burning oil, with a black smoky cloud pouring out from behind me. The brakes are failing! The “check engine” light constantly flickers on and off. The body is rusting out, I have a broken tail light, one of the side windows is broken and replaced with cardboard and tape, and the passenger door lock doesn’t work. The interior smells like spoiled milk, the floors are covered with wrappers and food crumbs of every color, and there’s a suspicious stain on the seat. It gets 16 miles to the gallon and I’m still making payments. The glove compartment is so full of unpaid parking tickets that it won’t close.
Want me to swing by and pick you up?
Honestly, thinking about this “worst version” of a car makes me feel really smug about walking everywhere. I pulled that description from actual vehicles in which I have ridden. I could make this worst version slightly worse, although less realistic, by adding more broken windows or engine problems. At the point at which it is no longer operational, it stops being a “vehicle” and transitions to “junk.” Perhaps junk that is more valuable than other junk, like a broken and obsolete washing machine, but junk it still is.
This worst version method can be applied to other things.
Worst job: Underpaid, no benefits, unethical business practices, mean and domineering boss, unsafe working conditions, long commute, rude customers, no path to advancement, no social contribution
Worst relationship: Dishonest, dysfunctional; partner is contemptuous, hypercritical, and unpredictably disappears or cuts communication for no obvious reason. Can I say that if it’s violent then it isn’t a relationship, it’s a slow-motion crime?
Worst desk: Can’t work there, just looking at it stresses me out, covered with clutter, uncomfortable to sit there, poor lighting, not enough power outlets, other people dump their stuff on it
Worst shoes: Give me blisters, wearing them for more than an hour makes me walk with a limp, only match one outfit (or zero)
Worst lunch: Diet Coke and a bag of microwave popcorn
Worst cat: Actually an opossum
There are two benefits to using the worst version method. First, when things are bad, it can help to get at least a weak chuckle by imagining how they could be worse. Second, it can draw attention to ways we’ve been tolerating the intolerable. That perspective can be the jolt that we need to get moving, to take action and set limits.
Worst neighbor: Accidentally shot out our living room window, their dog got loose and attacked our dog
Worst landlord: Lived next door, had chronic domestic disputes
What do we do with this information? OKAY, TIME TO MOVE
Complaining is of very limited use. Its purpose should be to clarify our true desires. If not this, then what?
I had a silverware sorter in chrome. I thought it looked great. Then one day, one of the wires came loose and I managed to ram it under my fingernail. Bled everywhere. TIME TO GO! We shouldn’t be assaulted by our own stuff.
When we’re clear and certain about what we find unacceptable, we can rule it out. Nothing that makes us bleed, et cetera. It’s that response of OH HECK NO that abruptly puts a stop to ruts and habitual behavior that doesn’t serve us.
If not this, then what?
Ask that again and again.
If not this job, or one just like it, then what? How would we define a “good” boss or a “reasonable” commute?
If not this relationship, then what? Taking some time to be alone for a while, that might be good. What does “good communication” sound like? What does “functional” feel like?
If not this financial problem, then what? What will it take to reach a place of peace and clarity here?
If not this persistent physical annoyance, then what? What do we want for our bodies? Agility, symmetry, high energy, supple muscles, speed, power, strength, clear skin, a strong immune system? What specifically?
If not this room, then where? What would a dream office/bedroom/kitchen/living room look like? How would it feel to inhabit this space?
Most of all, what is the worst version of myself? When am I at my lowest? Selfish, inconsiderate, bored, envious, whiny, unproductive, not contributing or doing anything interesting, too much unstructured time, out of physical balance, no direction or purpose, making life difficult for other people, stuck and unhappy. What else?
Let’s not be our worst selves. Let’s not live the worst version of our lives, okay? If we’re ever going to make the world a better place, we’ll do it by always looking up to at least a slightly higher standard.
This is paradoxically both not about weight loss, and totally about weight loss. Myself, I’m in a weight-gaining mode as I try to add another ten pounds of muscle. “Weight loss” is both a dumb and an obvious way to talk about physical transformation. For Americans, it’s probably going to be the most straightforward type of physical change, and the one that statistically applies to the most people. Where this is going is that the pop culture way of addressing one of our culture’s most common conundrums is a total failure. One of the ways it fails is in the way that it always puts “weight loss” in the time dimension. Physical change is a non-time-linear process.
I wear a size two right now. More accurately, I’m a shopping-mall zero, an LA two, and a Vegas four. Bikini sizes are so bizarre I had to go to a specialty shop. Wedding dresses? Who knows. Easier to stay married so I don’t have to figure out one more formula relating to feminine acculturation calculus. How long does it take to get into a size two? Is it realistic?
(People always say that my body type is “not realistic” but I promise, I really exist. I am in fact reality-based and I inhabit the physical realm).
It takes me zero time to be a size two.
The reason for that is that 98% of the effort involved in the physical transformation of body composition relates to food intake. I spend precisely the same amount of time eating meals as other people do. It’s not how long I spend eating or cooking, it’s WHAT I eat, coupled with the fact that my meals may be shifted earlier in the day.
If any random person were to match my meals, forkful by forkful, eventually their body composition would wind up being the same as mine.
This is the only way that physical transformation happens along the time dimension, because these changes do take a little while. They just don’t have to take any more moments out of the day. You follow? We both spend 20 minutes eating lunch or 40 minutes eating dinner. Six months from now, either we look the same or we don’t.
We can also talk about physical activity. I used to be a zero-exercise person, like 40% of the American population. I hated P.E. in school, I hated sports, and I despised active people. Couldn’t have been much further along the inactive extreme if I tried. I dropped my first 15 pounds by doing little more than sleeping twelve hours a day, because I quit drinking soda and changed my eating habits.
Now, I’m an active person. I’ve been known to work out for three or four hours at a stretch, depending on what I’m doing. (Training for a marathon, doing a belt promotion in martial arts, hiking, that sort of thing). On average, though, I put in about four hours a week. That means I train for one hour at a time on four different days.
That one hour? It was the same when I could only walk 2 mph on the treadmill at the gym, when I did water aerobics with the granny ladies, when I went to slow yoga, even when I went to physical therapy for my bad ankle. It was the same hour when I ran five or six miles, and it was the same hour again when my husband took me out paddle boarding.
The hour I spend doing burpees and jumping rope in kickboxing class is the same hour of duration as many television shows. Irrelevant, though. Like I said, almost all of the maintenance involved in my being the fabled size two is bound up in what I eat and don’t eat, not in how much time I spend at the gym.
I have gained a bunch of weight during my major fitness projects. I gained 8 pounds while training for my marathon. I gained 15 pounds in the first six months after I started doing martial arts. Some of the weight gain is muscle, but usually most of it is extra adipose tissue, also known as body fat. This is because training hard makes me want to inhale large quantities of food. Eventually I adjust, but the first few months of adding a thousand calories a day has pretty predictable effects.
Physical change happens both in and out of the time dimension. It happens outside of the time dimension when it’s a mental transformation, when additional knowledge and perspective instantly change how you think about something. You look at what is on your plate, in your lunch bag, and in your grocery cart, and you make some quick and easy changes. For instance, I eat potatoes and bread almost every day, but I almost never eat pasta or rice, and I’m probably eating cabbage or other cruciferous vegetables where most people eat starches. It’s possible I spend slightly less time cooking than other people, because greens cook faster than, say, macaroni.
Where physical change happens in the time dimension is that it does take a while to burn off significant amounts of excess body fat. Also, muscle can be grown at about a quarter pound a week. When I made the decision to make permanent changes in my life and finally reach my goal weight, I spent three months on a strict calorie-restricted diet. I lost fifteen pounds during that period. Knowing what I know now, I could have lost the same amount of weight in two months instead of three. A larger person with more motivation and more weight to lose could probably do more, faster, but the trouble is in the emotional activation, not the physical process. Eating our feelings, all the weird ideas we attach to our body image, letting our physical vessel stand in for other issues we may have, like career or relationship satisfaction. Those emotional insights can happen instantaneously if we’re ready to feel them.
I don’t think anything that I do is unattainable or unrealistic whatsoever. I have more energy than most people and I’m able to do more. My posture is better, I can run upstairs two at a time, and I can carry heavier weights. People tend to think I’m at least ten years younger than my chronological age. Not really seeing what the problem is here.
(Of course the problem is that people think the only possible reason someone would deviate from the American standard of body size is due to a sick obsession with photoshopped magazine photos).
I did what I did out of curiosity. I wanted to know what it would feel like to change my body, knowing that I could always change it back. I used science. I tracked metrics and recorded my observations. My body changed and I discovered I liked it better. It’s been a few years now. I continue the process of using my body as a testing ground for new experiments, trials of strength and agility and speed and power. I’ll continue to change my body, both in and outside of the time dimension.
Downsizing is like dieting. You can only cut your calories so much, and you can only get rid of every single thing you own. It stops at zero, or close to it. The other thing that dieting and downsizing have in common is that they shouldn’t be done in perpetuity. The goal is a temporary, radical refocus. Transformation can happen quickly, or it can turn into a process that grinds on for years - or forever. I’m down with downsizing, in the sense that it can be revolutionary in its positive effects. I also say, “Down with downsizing!” We should be done with it. Once we make the decision to streamline our possessions, it’s best to do it quickly and get it over with.
Focus on what you want for your personal living space. Focus on the emotions and the experience of living in it, not on the stuff. One person will want a lively social space, and another will want a tranquil hideaway. One person will want a formal and elegant showpiece, while another will want a warm and kooky reflection of idiosyncrasy. It’s awfully hard to pull off all of these looks in one room.
What I want in my space is something comforting, welcoming, functional, and geared toward maximum mental bandwidth. This is easiest with bare surfaces and a comfy couch. We don’t need much in the way of decorations or knickknacks. There’s something about a dog chasing his tail and a parrot tossing things on the floor that does a pretty good job of conveying a relaxed atmosphere.
We live in a shoebox. Not a literal shoebox, of course! Many people, both men and women, have so many pairs of shoes that parts of their homes could fairly be described as a shoebox. What else is the purpose of such a space? In our culture, most people’s rooms are chock-full of stuff. Kitchen stuff! Garage stuff! Clothes stuff! Bulk stuff! Paper stuff! Stuff and stuff! This is the natural result of shopping and buying anything that seems like a good idea. Flip it around and start with the empty room. What do you intend to do in this room? How about this one? Add only the furniture and items that directly serve that purpose. Then stop. This is how two people and two messy pets can manage to live comfortably in a 612-square-foot studio apartment with a single closet.
In a very full, extremely maximalist, cluttered standard American home, assume that all of it is completely unnecessary. Set your heart on eliminating all of it. All of it. The pieces that really need to stay will argue for themselves. You could downsize to the point that you would be done, and with the right mindset, you could be done in a long weekend.
I’ve written before about how a friend of mine just took the few things he needed for his new apartment, and then advertised on Craigslist for people to come and carry away everything that was left over in his old place. He was done in half a day.
There’s actually a huge amount of stuff in my apartment. If I took a complete inventory, it would number in the thousands. Clothes and towels and tools and textbooks and kitchen gadgets and cleansers and clothespins and rubber bands and paper sacks and pens. If I took everything that belongs to the dog and the bird, it would fill the trunk of a car. What makes it work is that almost every object we own fits in a cabinet or a drawer. We don’t “stock up” on stuff anymore. Most people’s clutter and extra stuff consists of mountains of clothes, drifts of unnecessary paper, stockpiles of food, and stacks of entertainment media. Buy groceries for just a week at a time, go paperless, digitize everything, and keep just enough clothes for two or three weeks. Suddenly truckloads of stuff seem to vanish.
It’s literally truckloads, if you don’t already know this. When I used to do home visits, we’d get rid of six truckloads on the first day. It used to astonish me the way that this happened over and over again. Then I realized that that’s just how much extra stuff can fit in a typical suburban house. That’s how much can accumulate in roughly ten years, ten years when nobody is doing regular clutter purges or letting anything go.
Living with tons of extra, unnecessary stuff is like trying to participate in three conversations at once. It’s like watching a movie with the radio on in the background. It’s like eating two dinners in one sitting. You can, but why would you want to? Living in a space that’s always full, a space with no clear surfaces or free shelf space, is a constant energy drain. Every time you want to make toast or set down a shopping bag, there’s something in the way. It’s like driving around town with a Christmas tree in the back seat, limbs and needles poking into the front seat. You get used to it and forget that these objects are just temporary interlopers. They can go out as easily as they came in. They’re here to be used, used up, and passed on.
Embracing minimalism is a one-time decision. You just sit up, realize that life could be easier, and look around. Almost everything you see is sitting there, mutely declaring its irrelevance to the simple, straightforward life you wish you had. Why do I even HAVE this? You start to realize how nice it would be to have all the money you ever spent on stuff you wound up ignoring, not using it because you never even really wanted it. It’s just there.
If I had it all to do over again, I’d start with my plans for my money and my time. I’d spend more time talking to friends, reading, sleeping, doing yoga, trying new recipes, and maybe learning a new language or musical instrument. That’s time I’d reclaim from shopping or sorting and “organizing” my stuff. I’d spend less time crying about my bills and my finances, because the stuff I never bought would have given me a respectable buffer of cash. If I had it to do all over again, I would say, “Down with downsizing!” I’d never have needed to do it because I never would have had too much. All we ever really need is love and peace of mind, and those are two things we would never want to downsize.
Scarcity mindset actively blocks financial security in a lot of ways. This is something I have worked on with all of my clients, without fail, although they are all over the map when it comes to actual income, career, wealth, education, age, gender, and family background. It makes perfect sense to me. Chronic disorganization exists in a feedback loop with stress and financial problems. This is part of how and why financial anxiety feeds on itself.
When I start a job with a new client, especially during home visits, I explain what to expect. I lay out the rules, which are that I’m there to sort and help make decisions, but that I’ll never throw anything away, not even the tiniest scrap of paper. That’s the client’s job. I also say that a couple of the side benefits are finding unexpected money, and weight loss. They react to the latter with surprise and curiosity, but to the former with firm conviction. Will I lose weight? Neat! Will I find money? HA, not likely. I know it will happen, though, because it always happens. The more insistent the client is that if they had any missing money, they would certainly have found it by now, the more likely there is to be some.
A root cause of this problem is learned helplessness. In response to stress, my people resort to pessimism and hopeless certainty. OH WELL, they think, HERE WE GO AGAIN. They also think THIS ALWAYS HAPPENS. They tend to retreat and isolate themselves, rather than reach out to anyone, ask for advice or help, do research, brainstorm multiple new approaches, find innovative ways to get around the problem or raise money, or especially to take any kind of action. This is why they can get hit with an unexpected expense and somehow forget that they have uncashed checks sitting on their desk, or nice green cash dollars in a pocket.
More obviously, my people will receive cash, checks, refunds, and gift cards... and set them down somewhere. They will go on to stack random stuff on top of that money, burying it under junk mail, flyers, and newspapers. (What the more frantic type of broke person will do is clutch that check or cash as tightly as possible and sprint directly to the bank, beating on the window if that branch is closed).
One of the most visible indicators of my people is that they leave coins strewn all over the place. There will be coins on the dashboard and floor of their vehicle. There will be coins shaking loose in the bottom of their numerous plastic grocery bags. There will be coins on the kitchen counter, on the bathroom sink, on the nightstand and dresser, on bookshelves, on the desk and on top of the microwave and TV. There will be coins in the windowsill. Usually there will be coins on the carpet as well. Coins, coins, coins. One penny at a time, it doesn’t seem like much, but I have a one-cup jar with over ninety dollars in it, all from pennies and other coins I’ve found in the street since 2005. Coins are cash, too.
There are other indicators of lack of focus and awareness around money. It’s not just common, it is UNIVERSAL that my people will find uncashed checks after they have expired. Sometimes I am able to convince them to contact the sender to have the check reissued. (Sometimes it doesn’t work, but usually it does). More commonly, they dig their heels in and refuse, feeling actively affronted that someone might suggest they are entitled to their own earnings.
The links between chronic disorganization, stress, anxiety, and financial problems become more clearly defined and easily recognizable.
My people, as a rule, do NOT trust electronic banking. They may sometimes accept direct deposit, if it’s required by Social Security or if someone very nice helped them to set it up. Usually, though, they’ll hold out until their dying breath because they are afraid of fraud and bank errors. Automatic payments are another story. If receiving money in an instant is scary, then having it withdrawn is among their worst nightmares. From my perspective, my people’s insistence on paper-based, snail-mail banking makes their organization problems an order of magnitude more difficult.
Snowdrifts of papers, sealed envelopes, unopened bank statements, and a total lack of filing system contribute to the impossible conundrum of finding all those lost checks and gift cards. Nobody, but nobody, can find anything if there are more than about ten sheets of paper on a surface.
Distrust of electronic banking is one thing. My people also resist setting up automatic transfers or payments because they have a justifiable fear of being overdrawn. Banks are not helpful here, as they have been known to deliberately process deposits and payments in a way to generate the maximum fees. Being one day or one dollar off in your calculations can potentially result in hundreds of dollars of overdraft or over-limit fees. Been there, done that, sold the t-shirt at the consignment shop to try to pay my overdraft.
Behind this same fear is tolerance of a system in which every payment is due on a different date. This is what broke people do when we’re afraid we’ll have to pay several bills on the same day, a day when our accounts are empty. At least having stuff due on different dates means we have more time to come up with the money? Here we are seeing the way that financial anxiety shortens our timeframe and erodes our ability to plan into the future. We don’t even notice that we’re, say, 10% over limit every month, or that our income and expenses are really pretty predictable. We just build up a sense of dread and learn to sputter along that way.
Looking back at my own broke days, back before e-banking and before we could withdraw cash at the grocery store without an ATM fee, I was maybe $25 from peace of mind. I needed only a very small buffer at the bottom of my bank account. It could have been quite literally the identical $25 from one year to the next. If I’d understood that, I would easily have raised that money and left it there, and it would be there today (which, now, it is). At the time, I constantly felt the danger of being overdrawn, of having to put groceries back, of having insufficient funds or having my card declined. It was real, yet also an illusion, realistic, yet also unnecessary.
I can identify my people on sight, or even from part of a photo. Papers everywhere, unopened shopping bags, lots and lots of STUFF of every description, coins here and there, and a general lack of ease or prosperity. I recognize it because I work with it and because I also used to live that life.
On the other side, it really is easy. I’ve had all my payments automatically deposited for, what? Fifteen or twenty years now? I’ve never once had a problem with a deposit. Not once. My husband and I also pay all our bills electronically. If the service provider doesn’t have automatic billing, then we set it up with our bank. We get our statements electronically. It takes about one minute to pay the few bills that require our attention. The result is that we’re never late, we never pay extra fees, and we both have credit scores over 800. This makes us eligible for lower interest rates, reward programs, upgrades, and the ability to set up new accounts without paying a deposit. In other words, the more you have, the more you get. Unfair it may be, but games have rules, and I was broke long enough that I’m not exactly going to fight off free goodies.
Financial anxiety feeds on itself. Disorganization leads to more disorganization, as entropy takes over. Anxiety and disorganization eat away at mental bandwidth, replacing focus and concentration with stress and emotional flooding. It goes from bad to worse. The same person with the same finances, though, can use mental clarity to create order from chaos. It’s possible to dig out, find those lost checks and cash and gift cards, sell off extra stuff, lower your expenses, renegotiate contracts, increase your income, and one day, look back at what has become just one sad chapter in a longer, more interesting story.
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.