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’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?”
Pick Three is the answer for anyone who feels constantly busy, burned out, and utterly confounded by the concept of “work-life balance.” When I first saw the cover of this book, with its cheery sticky note implying that Sleep is something optional, I scoffed at it. Ha, if other people think they can have a happy life by just sacrificing sleep, then good for them, but not me! I gave Randi Zuckerberg a chance to make her case anyway. Now I agree with the book’s subtitle: You Can Have It All (Just Not Every Day).
There is great good sense behind the suggestion to Pick Three. The “three” are: Work, Sleep, Family, Fitness, Friends. (Or, you can choose your own, such as: Netflix, School, Tacos, Dating, Yoga). Trying to make equal time for all five every single day will lead to doing poorly at all of them. Zuckerberg offers ways that different people have structured their lives and made decisions about their big three. We’ll recognize ourselves here, as different people are profiled who have had to work around disability, addiction, major illness, losing their parents, relocating, having a disabled child, and other serious challenges. This is real life we’re talking about here.
For instance, I’m a Sleep person because I have to be. I feel lucky that this is my biggest health issue, but it still is one! I have a parasomnia disorder, and when my sleep starts getting messed up, I quit functioning. Not only that, but anyone who sleeps under the same roof as me is impacted, because with pavor nocturnus I flail in bed, sleepwalk, scream in my sleep, and even run through the house opening doors. I feel irresponsible and unfair when these symptoms resurface. I see others with garden-variety sleep procrastination who are irritable and snappy due to their VOLUNTARY sleep deprivation, and I shake my head. This is manageable. Leave sleep out of your Big Three only for brief periods when you know you usually get plenty of rest. If you usually don’t, then why?
There are ways to combine some of these elements. In my personal life, I’ve chosen Sleep, Work, and Fitness because I keep having to relocate, and my oldest friends all live hundreds of miles away. When my Family needs me, I drop everything to travel to them, and my main three get put aside until the crisis has passed. This is part of why I work three weeks in advance and mostly outside the time dimension. My projects can keep going even if I lose a week to something urgent. Most of my social life happens at my gym, because that’s where I’ve made most of my local friends.
Pick Three is a book about self-forgiveness and self-compassion. It’s also a book about being good to the people around you. When you feel a sense of purpose and that you’re making strong choices, it helps you to be fully present with your loved ones and give your utmost to your most important contribution. Feeling overextended and under-appreciated leads directly to resentment, hostility, and low quality of life. A book like Pick Three can help to reevaluate and check in with yourself to see if you really are living your values.
Now for something new and different. I’ve got some serious stuff going on in my life right now, so instead of the usual book review, here’s a list of podcasts that I follow. These are the shows that keep me occupied while I walk six miles a day, cook, fold laundry, clean house, delete spam email, and all the other daily maintenance. If you don’t currently listen to podcasts, maybe spend a few minutes trying one of these and find out what you’ve been missing!
In no particular order:
Happier with Gretchen Rubin
This is Actually Happening
The Memory Palace
The Science of Happiness
Smart People Podcast
Side Hustle School
Crime Writers On...
Robot or Not?
Tribe of Mentors
The Becoming Superhuman Podcast
The iProcrastinate Podcast
Judge John Hodgman
My Brother, My Brother, and Me
Be Wealthy & Smart
Here Be Monsters
The Black Tapes
Welcome to Night Vale
Truth and Justice
Someone Knows Something
In the Dark
The RFK Tapes
Some of these are finite projects, while some have been posting for years. Some have a regular schedule, and some will surprise you with sudden updates. Episodes range in length from two minutes to two hours, depending on the show.
This is a freakishly long list, and it’s not even complete... I wouldn’t recommend every show I’ve tried! I am current in many of these, while others I hoard for special occasions. Starting a podcast episode is one of the first things I do when I wake up every morning, and it’s often one of the last things I do at night before I go to sleep. This is a new medium for a new era. Why not try out a new show today?
Is there really such a thing as a “midlife crisis”? Jonathan Rauch explores this cultural concept in The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50. Encore adulthood is a better name for this stage of life. Understanding that the midlife happiness slump is nearly universal and that it eventually gets better is a vision that we need for the reality of vastly increased longevity.
I’m forty-three, and my husband just turned fifty, so this is a timely perspective for us. Something really seemed to change for him around his milestone birthday. He fell in love with his career in a way I don’t think he ever had before. He seems lit up. His forties were more like I’m experiencing mine so far. Preoccupation with financial security, realization that the body is changing, wondering whether one’s life’s work will make an impact of any kind, and of course, constant depressing news that one’s friends and contemporaries are ill or dying. Add to that the bittersweet position of watching one’s child grow into adulthood and independence, leaving an empty chair at the table. These are the kinds of reasons why it can be hard to find gratitude and satisfaction, even when objectively life is pretty great.
It helps to know that people on average report feeling happier at seventy than they do at thirty, and happier at eighty-five than they do at twenty.
What provides life satisfaction, according to research? Social support, generosity, trust, freedom, income per capita, and healthy life expectancy account for three-fourths of reported wellbeing. Almost none of that has to do with material comfort or career success.
The Happiness Curve is absorbing, backed by research, and full of insights that would be valuable to readers of any age over maybe, say, twenty-five. I feel lucky that it was published in time for me to read it in my early forties.
We are in the process of adding perhaps two decades to the most satisfying and pro-social period of life.
I did not have a mood disorder. I had a contentment disorder.
“Happiness and mental health rise in an approximately dose-response way with the number of daily portions of fruit and vegetables”—all the way up to seven daily portions, which is about as much fruit and vegetable matter as anyone can ingest.
A Life Less Throwaway is a manual for how to shift focus from the materialism of our consumer society to a life of meaning, purpose, and connection. It’s thought-provoking, funny, and full of practical steps. Tara Button presents a vision of mindful curation, which, while overlapping with the goals of minimalism, does not need to result in a minimalist home to be successful.
Button worked in the advertising industry for ten years, and she gives us a peek behind the scenes, showing how marketing shapes our desires in ways we might not realize. As an example, they filmed children enjoying a treat, but the commercial secretly used the competing brand because the kids were spitting out the one they were supposed to be advertising. Another example would be the notion of a diamond engagement ring, which was invented by a diamond company. I wonder what would happen if someone started advertising engagement tacos instead?
Research and statistics back up many of Button’s points. Something I found interesting was that the longer people spend getting ready, the more negative they feel about their appearance. Advertisers harp on this dissatisfaction to convince us that we need to buy clothes, accessories, and beauty treatments. Probably we would enjoy our lives more if we instead focused on other qualities, such as our friendships. This is where A Life Less Throwaway stands out, by offering tangible ways to disrupt these marketing messages and remember our true purpose.
An area where most households can benefit from A Life Less Throwaway is by editing their clothes closets. There is quite a bit of material here. Button points out that the average woman buys sixty-seven articles of clothing a year, while in 1930 the average woman owned only nine outfits. The book includes worksheets on how to choose a personal style and weed out garments that don’t suit that look. It also has reasons why someone might want to keep something that isn’t being used, such as that someone complimented it one day. These are very relatable chapters!
A Life Less Throwaway has some great ideas for teaching kids to be less materialistic, also. One example was to have them write advertisements for the fun toys they already own and then act them out. Another exercise that kids might find funny is to look at an ad with a celebrity showcasing a product, and then swap that person out for another famous person you don’t like as much. This is introduced as a mental visualization, but it could be done with art supplies or software, just saying. The concept of the ‘unwish’ list is also very useful, and something I’ve done myself.
Following the principles of A Life Less Throwaway can lead to greater life satisfaction, better friendships, more savings, happier holidays, and less housework. I can attest to that because a lot of these ideas are a natural outgrowth of a frugal, minimalist lifestyle. In general, adding more shopping means more debt, more housework, less free time, and more quarrels. If we aren’t recreationally shopping, then what are we doing with our time? Button’s book is a solid choice as a handbook for a better, more meaningful life, A Life Less Throwaway indeed.
“Overbuying habits are often linked to low self-worth.”
“We look forward to experiences more than to buying material things because they create happiness even when they’re not happening.”
Less: A Visual Guide to Minimalism is for those of us who are still bound to our stuff and not sure what to do with all the clutter. Rachel Aust’s stylish book reminds us of the point of minimalism, which is that everything really can be simple and streamlined. It really is possible to relax in a personal environment that is “done,” where nothing is missing and nothing is demanding attention. This is the next level beyond all of those organizing books. See it, imagine it, believe it. Photos of interiors like those in Less make it look possible.
Flow charts appear throughout the book, demonstrating how to make decisions about what to keep and what to eliminate. A couple of these made me grin, as I realized how they would look to my chronically disorganized clients. “Am I keeping this for sentimental reasons?” Um, not sure? Is it sentimental if it only brings up bad memories, but I still feel obligated to keep it? There’s a list of “25 Things You Can Trash Without Even Thinking.” It includes “old notebooks,” “unused craft supplies,” and “unfinished projects.” Wow! I mean, technically she is correct, and life will go on without these things, but my people are only going to be able to bring themselves to let go of these categories of their possessions under great strain. It’s a telling example of how we create our own problems and make our own lives more difficult.
My motivation for getting rid of my own old notebooks was that if they only existed in a single paper copy, then they were vulnerable to ruin or loss. I also couldn’t search them, and it was nearly impossible to track down information I needed. Now they’re digitized and backed up, and that makes them safe and useful. I “trashed” the old notebooks while keeping the important part, which was their informational content.
Aust does include some excellent thinking exercises on how to make decisions and emotional adjustments around letting things go. For instance, if this were stolen, would you actually replace it? Are you keeping it for its actual value in your life, or only its monetary value?
Stuff isn’t “worth” what we think it is. We fall for the “endowment effect,” meaning that we believe things are valuable because they belong to us, and it’s hard for us to realize that nobody on earth would pay the price we would demand for our old junk. How is it worth anything if it just sits there, literally gathering dust?
Minimalism isn’t practical for everyone, and Aust acknowledges that. She also points out that we can’t go minimizing other people’s possessions. From my work in this field, I can tell you that the person most likely to bring me in is usually the real hoarder in the home! This person is frustrated that other people are storing their stuff in areas they want to use for their own personal items. With all your stuff in the way, I can only bogart 90% of the common areas! We certainly both agree that minimalism starts with oneself and one’s own belongings.
There’s a 30-day minimalism challenge in Less that I really like. Most of my people would need to spend more than a day on some of these, but it’s still a great starting point. I’m particularly impressed that the challenge includes finance, information management, and meal planning. There’s even a social media cull, and therein we discover the time we need to carry out the rest of the challenge!
One of the major strengths of the book is the section on capsule wardrobes. Most Americans have a crazy amount of clothes, and this will be the area to see the fastest results. If you can’t figure out where to start, start here.
As for the interiors, Aust reminds us that we don’t need to keep things just because it’s “expected” if they aren’t useful to us. I’m living proof; I hate coffee tables, so we have an ottoman instead. My dresser has a footprint of only about two square feet, so it stays in the closet. “The Only 45 Items You Need in Your Home” may be a bit on the luxe side, because I don’t have a bedside table, a bath mat, or a washing machine, and I got rid of the iron and ironing board the last time we moved. I generally don’t keep any of the suggested pantry items on hand, either. The “20 Essential Cooking Tools” were right on target, though. There are very few kitchen items I use on a weekly basis that fall outside that grid.
Different styles of decor are included, indicating that not everyone has to go for the hard-edge version that appeals to me. What should be apparent is that stacks and piles of clutter never add anything positive to a room; we can add charm and warmth with color, music, and friends rather than STUFF.
As a tiny-house, debt-free person, I can state for the record that Rachel Aust’s approach works. Personally, I’m more minimalist than the book in several ways, but extremely maximalist in others. There’s still room for a parrot, a unicycle, and a set of hula hoops in a 612-square-foot studio apartment. I like the connections that Less makes between a structured, simple interior, an organized calendar and to-do list, minimal cleaning, financial freedom, and peace of mind. I’m going to set about having Less right away.
What better topic to read about, the week one turns forty-three, than the collected wisdom of people who are at least twice that old? I celebrated my birthday this year by reading Happiness is a Choice You Make, and I’m glad I did. I loved it, and I’ll probably read it again, although maybe ten years from now.
The book begins with a New York Times series that John Leland writes about people “85 and Up,” also known as the “oldest old.” He befriends these six elders, visits them at home, and meets their family and friends. It’s his way of reconciling his own mother’s aging. As he follows them through time, he learns their perspective, the way they deal with the unique problems and gifts of advanced years.
People in their nineties report greater well-being and fewer negative emotions than people in their twenties! This was one of the surprises of a delightful, moving, and provocative book. Leland’s affectionate gaze brings out some really excellent one-liners and wisecracks, yet also some moments of greater profundity.
Happiness is a Choice You Make, according to Leland and his elderly friends, and the book offers practical, philosophical advice about how to make that choice. Think about the type of old age you would want to have. If that includes strong relationships, build them now. If that includes living a life of purpose and meaning, start figuring out what that means to you now. It also wouldn’t hurt to think about what you can do now to give your older self more physical and financial strength to help you stay independent as long as possible. When Leland discusses finding a purpose in life, he says, “Kickboxing may not be a great choice,” but in fact I train with a man who is seventy-eight and can still get on the floor and do pushups. He punches like a freight train. Certainly I hope he’ll still be in class with us ten years from now.
I’ve always enjoyed the company of old folks, even when I was a little girl, and this is fortunate because soon I’ll join their ranks! What I’ve noticed is that most people seem to have no idea how much longevity has increased, and are therefore unprepared for the concept that they may well live fifteen or twenty years longer than they ever imagined. We often discuss the question, “What would you do if you had only one day (six months, whatever) left to live?” It’s a much more interesting question to wonder what we’ll do if we all live past one hundred. Better start contemplating that now. You’ve got plenty of time, so pick up Happiness is a Choice You Make and start reading.
“If you want to be happy, learn to think like an old person.”
“I know my time is limited, so the only thing I have to do is enjoy myself.”
“Work is happiness, to make you live longer.”
“...[g]enes account for only about one-quarter of our differences in longevity.”
“Did we really have to wait for word from our oncologist to live as fully as we were capable?”
As a tourist in the land of mornings, I appreciated this book. It’s much more about starting your day on a positive note than it is “rah rah, get up at 4:30 AM.” After reading My Morning Routine, it seems that there is a strong correlation between people choosing to own their morning and people who actually get enough sleep.
Much like Mason Currey’s book Daily Routines, this book includes a very broad range of behavior. Sixty-four people are interviewed from all walks of life. Not only is it a fascinating peek into the intimate lives of others, it’s also a solid demonstration that not everybody has to do the same thing in order to succeed.
Having battled sleep issues since the age of seven, I will probably never consider myself a “morning person.” I fell in love with an extreme lark, though, and I’ve gradually learned to shape a morning routine. My husband and our dog both wake up bright-eyed and bushy tailed at 5:30 AM, without an alarm, seven days a week. He has his routine down to 27 minutes, and he prefers that I’m not up and around at that time because it makes him want to hang out and talk to me. I sleep until 7:30 or 8, and I need at least 45 minutes to get ready. If I haven’t had a shower and eaten a big hot breakfast, I’m useless. Walking into walls, virtually drooling on myself, that kind of useless. This is why I make my bed every day, to give my vestibular system a chance to get me vertical. I support my chronotype by organizing my stuff, my schedule, and my to-do list in the evening. I know not to plan any creative or mentally challenging work early in the day, just as I know not to expect my mate to make decisions or have important conversations late at night.
The diversity of habits in My Morning Routine, and the reasons for them, are sometimes astonishing. One person sets an alarm to wake up early, even if she hasn’t had much sleep, and then spends the early morning hours reading. ?!? Another person cuts articles out of a newspaper with scissors, (rather than bookmarking the digital version?), because it feels crafty. Another person plays jazz piano, and another rides a bicycle 45 miles to work a couple times a week. Someone else plays ping-pong with a ping-pong robot. That just cheered me right up!
A great feature of My Morning Routine is that it includes sections called Reversals. They show that for every habit that works for many or most people, the exact opposite seems to work for others. An example of this is hitting the snooze button. Snoozing makes most people more groggy and tired, but for a few others, it can create a pleasantly creative subliminal state.
I started developing a morning routine as a way of pushing away from stress and chaos. I would wake up feeling so physically terrible that I needed to do anything I could to make my life easier. I used to be late everywhere, always, and it left me feeling miserable, anxious, and incompetent. Adding more formal structure to my day has, paradoxically, been freeing and relaxing. Even on travel days, I can wake up knowing that I have a handle on things and that I’m not going to be launched immediately into crisis mode. Out of everything I do, being able to start the day with enough time for a fancy breakfast has become one of the highlights. If you’re like me, SO Not a Morning Person, maybe considering some of the ideas from My Morning Routine can bring some fresh perspective and a little hope.
I remember being little and going to sleep so excited to begin again.
I also try not to pointlessly stay up late.
If the day were to end after my routine, would it have been a successful and fulfilling day?
Sundays are my “delicious” days.
Remember: Done is better than perfect.
I think the most apt metaphor for my mornings is that of being shot out of a cannon.
Just the title of this book puts a jolt through me every time I look at it. Overcoming Underearning! Barbara Stanny teaches financial literacy, and she defines underearning as not reaching one’s earning potential. This probably applies to most people, because how do we know what our true earning potential might be? How do we know whether we have more in us or what heights we can reach? Of course, it definitely applies to the half of American men and women who feel underpaid. What if our underearning has its roots not just in external economic conditions, but in internal beliefs and assumptions?
Case in point: An acquaintance patches her income together from a variety of sources, including cleaning houses, pet-sitting, and other odd jobs. She doesn’t count her income by the month or the week, but literally by the day. Yet she related how she had cut her rates for her most demanding client, and then drove her an hour to the airport for free. For someone who needs to make every dollar count, why would she give discounts and free labor to someone who is difficult to work with? Especially when it takes up time she could be using to earn more money doing easier work? Overcoming Underearning points out that giving away our work for free is a common behavior.
According to the underearning quiz in the book, my acquaintance scores at least a 13/15 as an underearner. That’s based on things she has said directly to me, and it’s entirely possible she would agree with the other two if I asked. Yet she also has many of the traits of a high earner. That’s a paradox that, again, probably applies to most people. Why is it that working hard isn’t enough?
One of the most interesting insights in Overcoming Underearning was, for me, that high earners simply don’t identify with the way that underearners think about money. The rules and beliefs and structures that we put up around our careers, our finances, and our business decisions don’t make sense to them. This strongly implies that as long as we hold these beliefs, it doesn’t really matter what we do, because what we’re doing will not lead to promotions, wealth, being debt-free, or other goals.
Another great feature of the book was the list of Twelve Signs You’re in Resistance. This should be available on a poster, t-shirt, coffee mug, tote bag, and giant billboard directly across the street from my front door.
Barbara Stanny gets it. She’s clearly talked to so many hundreds of people, all of whom have their own special, inaccurate reasons why they should stay broke forever. She’s also seen the way that this information can transform someone almost overnight. This book deserves to be a classic.
I knew that staying stupid was not an option.
“If I admitted that I was an underearner... then I would need to do something about it.”
For every excuse you give me, I’ll show you someone in the same boat who is prospering.
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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.