Okay, come on, admit it: we live in the future. We have a space station, robots, self-driving cars, and special glasses for color-blindness. That's why I want to know why everything so far available for an automated home is irrelevant to my interests, and why I can't buy any of the stuff I really want in a smart home.
I didn't have a dishwasher as a kid. My husband had to teach me how to use one: how to load it properly, how to choose cycles, and what was this mysterious substance known as "rinse aid." When I was a child, we visited my grandparents, and I asked my mom where to put the quarters in their washer and dryer. I've come a long way since those days. We have not just a dishwasher and a microwave and a washer and dryer, but also a robotic vacuum and a robotic mop and a battery-powered hand-held scrubber. I've already decided that anything fully automated that hits the market is coming home with me straightaway. Maybe I'll order it by drone and it can let itself in while I'm out.
What's on the market in smart homes right now? It looks like you can automate your door locks, security system, thermostat, fans, window treatments, lights, coffee maker, and entertainment system. You can set up a video doorbell and a nanny cam. You can buy a pet feeder with a timer. You can buy a virtual assistant in a "talking can" like the Amazon Echo.
I just watched the commercial for the Apple HomeKit (disclosure: I not only own some Apple stock but also a metric load of Apple products. Oh, and some iRobot). The actor in the commercial is clearly a smart, successful single woman. All the features of the HomeKit revolve around her preparing for her workday and relaxing afterward. Awesome!
Where is the stuff for a family, though?
My husband and I were cracking up laughing the other day about this tweet saying that 90% of marriage is checking whether the dishwasher is clean. SO TRUE. Dishwashers come in all ages and levels of technological sophistication. Wouldn't it be great if there were a sensor that could be installed on an existing, analog dishwasher and keep our phones informed of its status?
Likewise, what I need the most is a sensor telling me whether one of us (*cough*) has left a load of wet laundry in the washing machine. There are all-in-one machines that wash and dry in the same barrel, without the need to switch machines, but apparently they take at least three hours and the dryer load can't be as big as the washer load, because that makes perfect sense. Can we fix this? Maybe we should focus on building a Martian colony first. Wait, what am I saying? What does humanity really need the most?
Take your flying car and... I dunno, go fly it somewhere. I'm not leaving until I get a robot that folds laundry.
Another really awesome thing would be if new products came with some sort of RFID tag or other type of sensor, so their location could be tracked anywhere in the home. The signal would only need to transmit for a few yards if there was a receiver in every room. You could find out whether your missing shirt was hanging in the closet, buried in the bottom of the hamper, or quietly stewing in a musty washing machine. You would always know where your reading glasses or scissors were, or if the remote got wedged in between the sofa cushions, or if the dog buried your cell phone battery in the yard. The tricky part would be retrofitting and trying to stick these tags on the 10,000 things you already own. Lost LEGO? You're on your own, kid.
There totally needs to be an automated LEGO vacuum. It could have sort of horizontal windshield wipers that sweep small toys into its maw and spit them into a container in the back. Be scared if they come out built into something, like, say, a ray gun.
A refrigerator that reads your body fat percentage when you grasp the handle, and opens or locks down particular drawers based on your personal settings. It should also know the insert date of every item you put in it, so it can tell you not to eat the leftovers that are about to pop spores, or to remove the old lettuce before it turns into that special brown pudding.
Can there be a sensor that tracks every time a dog barks and reports it directly to Animal Control if it reaches a certain frequency? Asking for a friend.
Out of all the things we need in a smart home, what we need the most is the ability to check hot things and turn them off remotely. I'm talking about stove burners and irons. Every type of iron: steam iron, curling iron, flat iron, pumping iron, Iron Fist, whatever you may have left lying around. Anything from the Mad Science laborrrratory, anything like that.
I need to get pinged on my phone if the power goes off in my fridge or freezer. It would be great if I could also get a notification about burst pipes or dripping faucets. Once a large terra cotta tile fell off our roof while we were away, and if it had been a solar cell, that would be good to track remotely. Once we came back from vacation and our neighbor had backed a van over our mailbox, but maybe asking for a mailbox inbox is one reach too far.
Could there be any kind of vermin detector? It would be interesting if the house knew it had termites...
We live a pretty easy, futuristic life. My husband and I refer to housekeeping as "starting the robots." We find it amusing to take the dog for a walk while running the washer, dryer, and dishwasher, and having one of the robots clean our floors. Perfection would be if we could also have a robot wiping down countertops, crawling around vertically and scrubbing the shower surround, or washing windows. Being able to control the stove and the dog door remotely would be amazing. Knowing with one glance at an app whether there was anything in the dishwasher or washer, you know what? Knowing that could save some marriages. I'm sure it could.
The toy vacuum could save a life. At least the lives of a few little action figures.
I firmly believe that all innovation starts as the wacky idea of a science fiction writer or futurist. I also believe that good ideas come from the same place as bad ideas, except that all the bad ideas are always packed on top. I'm an idea-generating machine, and I share my futuristic fantasies in the hope that someone will read one and invent it for me. I'll be your best beta tester ever, I swear! It also is not wrong to spend a little time appreciating the futuristic modern conveniences that we already have. An electric box that washes dishes? Get out of here, you whack-a-toon! Twenty years from now, we'll look back and ask ourselves how we ever managed without these laundry-folding robots.
If there's a report card, I want to get an A on it. My ego needs this. The teacher's pet inside me can't accept anything less. I really want the approval of my dental hygienist, for example. Maybe I'm not good at anything else, but "my home care is excellent!" Yay! I feel the same way about getting lab work done. When my blood work results come in, I rush to compare them to the normal range and congratulate myself when everything is on target. This is what it's like to open those results and feel relieved and proud.
I realize fully and well that having good health is a luxury and a privilege. My mom couldn't bring me home from the hospital for three days after I was born because I had infant jaundice. I had a thyroid nodule at age 23 that was so big, I couldn't speak while lying on my back. They thought it was cancer. I had a respiratory infection for my college graduation, age 28, and it took my lung capacity down to 52%. Have you ever coughed up blood? I have. This is by no means a complete list of every scary or mysterious health problem I have ever had. My laundry list of health issues is the primary reason why I am so obsessed with being as healthy as possible.
Also, for the majority of my life between 18 and 30, I had no health insurance. That includes the coughing up blood, and the time I had to go to the emergency room and wound up being sent to collections for an amount under forty dollars. Health is cheaper.
Everyone thinks everything is genetic these days. By 'genetic,' we mean that "it was my fate to be born into a cursed family and nothing I ever do will ever affect anything in any way." We decide that we have no power or control. Thus, anything that goes wrong with our health is the will of the gods. Saying otherwise is a deep and dire insult, judging and criticizing others for things they can't help. Okay. Who comes from a pure and perfect genetic heritage in which nobody has any health issues thought to be hereditary? Not me!
Diabetes. Heart disease. Alzheimer's. Arthritis. Glaucoma. Cancer. Good times, yay. Let's throw in 'died of brain aneurysm' just to keep things interesting. I can wave the family banner of genetic tendencies just as hard and just as high as anyone else. This is the second reason why I pay so much attention to my health.
The third reason is that it pays off. Being healthy is its own reward. It is seriously awesome in every way.
Why not gloat a bit about it? I'm doing what very few people of my age (42 in July) have managed to do. I'm maintaining satisfactory health metrics without the use of pharmaceuticals. This is the result of tons of research on my part. This includes reading hundreds of articles and dozens of books on health, nutrition, and fitness; wearing health devices like a pedometer or a sports watch; tracking my health metrics with a food log, exercise log, and sleep log; learning to identify, cook, and eat dozens of vegetables I never tasted as a child; and pushing my physical abilities to the limit for years on end. I WORKED for this. My nice lovely lab results come from figuring out how to do it, and then doing it, meal after meal after meal and day after day.
I have had bone fractures and severe muscle strain and sprains and a dislocated hip and a dislocated rib and impacted wisdom teeth and nerve damage and chronic pain and fatigue and migraine and some wacky medical mysteries, including pavor nocturnus. Sometimes unfortunate stuff really does happen, and much of the time, doctors have no real idea of what went wrong or how to fix it. The bulk of my positive health results have come from my own persistent experimentation on myself, refusing to accept "just deal with it" as a valid medical response. I've learned that physical therapy, sleep, and nutritional inputs can do more than most people realize.
I haven't met my new doctor yet; I chose her out of a directory based on location, availability, and her photo and credentials. I don't know anything about her personal style or academic focus in medical school. What I do know is that the kind of health advice I get from a doctor depends a great deal on how I present myself at my visits. I want to walk in demonstrating that I am that teacher's pet, A+ student who will take vigorous notes and follow advice scrupulously. I want my doctor, whoever she may be, to feel that I am committed to taking care of myself and learning as much as I can. When I'm a "good patient" and "cooperative" it makes me seem more worth the time to give a doctor's full focus and attention. I say, "I really try to take care of myself, and whenever I learn about something positive I can do for my health, I add it in to my routine."
The last physician I had for a long period of time started taking health advice from me. She took up triathlon and made a point of telling me that I had inspired her to do it.
I have, in the past, felt helpless and confused and deeply sad about my health. I have had incredible frustration with dismissive doctors, and white-knuckled rage when I later learned something that helped me when a doctor said it wouldn't. (For instance, saying there was nothing I could do about my thyroid disease, which cost me years of ill health. Thanks for nothing, Dr. C). I have cried tears into my ears from the grief and powerlessness of having no idea what to do about a health problem. I feel younger and more energetic in my forties than I did in my twenties, almost entirely because of health issues I didn't understand at the time. I can say with certitude that my fixation with my physical health has paid off over the years. To me, if I had to choose between feeling healthy and fit or being a millionaire, well, naturally I'd choose all three, but having a strong body feels like a million dollars. Maybe ten million.
I don't let my A+ lab work get too much to my head. I look forward and ask my Future Self what I will want for myself ten years from now. The answer is more muscle and more bone density. I'd like to be a little stronger in ten years than I am today. That will come from giving myself the gift of more physical activity and more nutritional support. I do these things so that I can feel better today and tomorrow, and also so that Old Me will maintain mobility and independence as long as possible. We're in this for the long haul and until they make a full body transplant, I'm stuck doing it in the body I have.
My clients have weird things in common. I've worked with single people and with families, with pre-kindergarten kids and retirees, with bachelors and parents, PhDs and people with various mental health conditions. What they all tend to have in common are the tendency to put fruit stickers on their fridge, collections of old magazines, scattered coins... and the belief that they will die prematurely. They all think that. (Well, except the little kids). They're pessimists, and they think that dying young is the saddest thing that can happen to them. The real pessimism, though, is that they'll live to a ripe old age and that they will outlive their savings.
How long are you going to live?
No, I'm serious. What's your best guess as to the age you will be when you die? You knew this post was going to be dark when you started reading, so stay with me, here. Write down your number.
Mine is 96, but I'm pretty sure that if I get that far, I'll keep on keepin' on and shoot for centenarian. Why not?
Understand that this is not an optimistic thought for me. I know something you do not know. I know the balance in my retirement account. Right now I think I have enough to retire for... one year. Maybe two if I can spend part of it hiding in my brother's garage while he's at work. I hope he's not reading this or he'll change the code on his security alarm. Dang it. I hope my backpacking tent lasts that long. Sorry, I got distracted there. Back to planning for old age.
Well, my first plan is not to be old.
If that doesn't work, well, then, I'll just keep working. Never mind the fact that almost nobody actually pulls this off. Usually, our health fails us and we just can't hold down a job anymore. There's also no guarantee that we'll be able to get and keep jobs that pay enough to make our nut. My grandmother worked until she was 75, because her company loved her and she enjoyed her job. But then she got Alzheimer's. The gap between 75 and 86 was something I won't discuss here. Just say that I know it can happen to me and I know it's expensive. An expensive eleven years of being unable to operate a microwave safely, much less drive to work, much less actually work. Don't plan on it.
How's that for pessimism?
Unfortunately, I'm a health nut. I had the lack of foresight to never start smoking. I don't drink, either; it just gives me the spins and makes my mouth sour. Oh, and also I don't drink coffee. I ran a marathon two years ago. I'm at the healthy weight for my height. I eat more than the recommended number of servings of fruits and vegetables every day. I drink green juice because (shh) I actually like it. Do you have any idea how dumb all this is? My great-grandmother lived to be 75, and she smoked until her last day. Just imagine how much she would have had to save if she never smoked! My family tree on both sides is almost entirely made up of people who lived to a ripe old age, people who ate red meat and smoked cigars and drank hard liquor and didn't have seat belts and inhaled asbestos and all that fun stuff.
When my grandmother was born, life expectancy for women was 56. Her mother lived longer than that, so she probably assumed that she would also make it into her early 60s. My grandparents were frugal savers and they had multiple streams of retirement income set up. I am positive it never once crossed their minds that Nana would live to be 86. THIRTY YEARS longer than the average life expectancy at the time of her birth. We don't think it's possible.
We just don't think we'll live to be that old. We have no connection to Future Self. Old Me is a complete stranger to whom I will bequeath dirty dishes, bills, and wads of crumpled receipts. You're welcome. Now, I have two neighbors within fifty yards who are over 90 years old. My grandmother-in-law lived to be 96. It's just not that uncommon anymore. It would be nice to think of it in a cool way, that we'll be here to see so many amazing technological advances, to read more books by our favorite authors and hear new albums by our favorite musicians. Ah, but pessimistically, what will really happen is that we'll spend all our time grumbling about our aches and pains and trying to remember whether we took our pills.
Seriously, I hope everyone reading this lives a long and full life. If you have the misfortune for that to happen to you, I hope you had the good sense to save money and make sure you can take care of yourself. Remember that number I asked you to write down at the beginning of this post, which you absolutely did not do even though I made a big fuss over it? Take that non-existent number you refused to imagine. Now add fifteen years to it.
There's the real pessimism for you. I think I'll live 31 years past what I think of as retirement age, and I'll need to save enough money for that, but in reality, it might be 46 years. I'm only 41 now, so that's completely unimaginable. To try to sum it up, all I can do is to imagine my scariest and saddest day of being young and broke, but then try to add in my most tired feeling on top of it. This is why I prefer optimism. I prefer the idea that I'll be a lively old spitfire, writing my memoirs on safari somewhere. I'll pull out my gold Future Phone and call Present Me all the time, demanding that I save more money.
I am so tired that I am sitting on the couch and I just realized I was staring into space with my mouth hanging open. It's after 10 PM. Now commences the battle between self-care for Present Me versus compassion for Future Me: Stardate: Tomorrow Morning.
Now Me: I schleepy
Tomorrow Me: Get up off your lazy butt.
Now Me: I ti-ewed
Tomorrow Me: Do you really want to get up at 6 AM?
Now Me: I go bed now
Tomorrow Me: Landlord is coming at noon and you haven't even done the floors yet.
Now Me: It's NOT FAIR!
Sometimes Future Me sounds like a cross grandparent. Future Me has this annoying tendency to be right, though. I fully recognize that I will be much happier tomorrow morning if I work for another hour tonight before I go to bed.
My house right now is a strong argument in favor of minimalism and good organizing skills. What that means is that it's a total disaster. There are open boxes in three out of five rooms; there'd be one in the bathroom as well but our bathroom is too small for those kinds of shenanigans. The kitchen cabinets are 95% empty, packed up, and wiped down, but you can't tell because the counters are covered with packing materials, rolls of tape, cleansers, and the last few scattered items that need to be put in boxes. All that's left are decisions.
As we all know, quality decisions are much harder to make in a state of physical exhaustion. Physical fatigue and decision fatigue chase each other around, like a squirrel teasing a dog until they both collapse.
The decisions before me right now are as simple as this:
Pick up item
Put item in remaining space at top of open box
Tape box shut
Write label on box
Each item that is waiting to be packed would take at most 60 seconds. There is nothing difficult about it. It's not physically taxing, it's not mentally taxing, it's not emotionally taxing. Not in itself. Even a tall kindergartener could come in here and accomplish this, and probably with better handwriting than I am demonstrating right now. It's not the task, it's THE TIRED.
I think about this and I remember what it was like to fight chronic pain and fatigue every day. When cooking dinner or washing dishes or folding a load of towels seemed like swimming across the Pacific Ocean. Can't be done. Nope. Sorry. I did it, though. I can't stand being surrounded by dirt and mess. It's depressing. It amplifies those feelings of hopelessness and weariness. From where I am sitting right now, it feels like there will ALWAYS be scattered boxes and I will NEVER be done. Just like it felt like I would ALWAYS be ill and in pain and I would NEVER be free.
I am free, though.
I'm a marathon runner and backpacker!
In my defense, though, I've been on my feet for 26 out of the last 48 hours, which is much more than I did during the marathon, not to mention a through hike.
I have it in me to stay the course. I have it in me to stand up and finish the work I set out to do. I will do it for my husband, who has done twice as much as I have today. I will do it for Future Me, because I have a perfect record for always getting my cleaning deposit back, and I intend to carry that streak forward. I will do it for Future Me, who can go to bed early tomorrow night if I push a little harder tonight. I will do it for Future Me, who can sleep in until 7 AM if I just try. I will do what I have always done, which is to remind myself that it's easier to work hard in the present moment and reap the benefits later, because 'later' starts with tomorrow morning.
This is going to be a busy, weird weekend. We're taking a Lyft to drop our animals off at boarding, picking up and loading the van, cleaning the house, doing the final walk-through with our landlord, driving to a new city, staying in an Airbnb, and looking for an apartment. The room is booked through the following weekend. Technically we'll be...homeless! We are entering The Place of Uncertainty. This level of detail management is taxing our combined mental bandwidth somewhat, and I recognize that this contributes to my exhaustion and confusion right now. By this time tomorrow, though, I'll be snug in (a) bed, thanking Past Me for working her caboose off today.
It took $40,000 before I finally believed that investing actually works. It was something I knew in my mind, but not something I really understood or felt to be true. As with most things, we don't understand until long after we've taken action. We have to see it to believe it.
When I started investing, I was a broke student with a quarter-time job. I was living in a dorm that was exactly nine feet across - three feet for my bed, a three-foot gap, and then three feet for my roommate's bed. I'd say I had nothing, but I had a lot less than that. I was generating a student loan debt that I am still paying off sixteen years later. I didn't own a car; I didn't even have a driver's license. Everything I owned fit into that tiny dorm room, either in the built-in closet or under my bed. I was 26, divorced, and owned no appliances, no furniture, no housewares, no tools. I didn't even own my own sheets. The only thing about investing that made any sense in my situation was that I had nothing to lose.
I never would have done it on my own, because I was still deep in scarcity mindset and investing for the future does not fit with that. I owe my start in investing to an older mentor who looked out for me. The rules changed at my job, and my job classification was suddenly required to contribute to the retirement plan. Unbeknownst to me, my mentor realized that this mandatory contribution would eat a huge chunk of my paycheck, and she negotiated a raise for me that would cover the difference. I barely knew this woman. She did for me what she would have done for herself or for her own daughter. I would love to pay this forward and know that anything I said helped one single person to start preparing for retirement.
The first time I got a retirement statement, I didn't even have a hundred dollars in my account. The next quarter, I called out, "Three figures, woo hoo!" I joked that I now had enough to retire for a full day.
Fast forward a few years. I was working at my first post-college job. I was sleeping on an air mattress in a rented room. I had two maxed-out credit cards, two student loans, a couple of personal debts, and about twelve hundred dollars in my retirement account. My net worth was about negative $25,000. The first thing I did at my job was to sign the forms for the maximum contribution to my 401(k). The second thing I did was to make a spreadsheet with one tab for my monthly expenses and another tab for my debts. Then I set about hustling.
My priority was to work as hard as I could every single day, learn as much as I could, get allies, and become indispensable. I needed a rock-solid reference and I wanted a promotion and a raise. Check, check, and check. That was my hobby, my entertainment, and my recreation. Tiny sums of money trickled into my investment account, while I went home, read library books, went to bed early, and finally paid off all my personal and consumer debts. I paid off one of the student loans six years early. No concerts, no alcohol, no coffee, no hair coloring, no tattoos, no piercings. I was too busy sawing the shackle of debt off my ankle.
I'm ascetic by nature. I will routinely go a month without spending on myself, just to keep my self-discipline up and running. I've never had a professional manicure or pedicure. Saving money is no big deal. Investing, on the other hand, was never a part of my world. I didn't know anyone who did it. I associated it with stockbrokers in 1929 jumping out of their office windows. I thought it was exactly like going to a casino. I had developed the habit, though, of reading personal finance books, and they always discussed investing. I went on to read several investment books. I saw that these wealthy, famous investors had different philosophies and that they sometimes gave completely contrary advice. Above my pay grade, I thought. Better stick to what I know.
There was this 401(k) money, though. In my mind, I was forcing myself to save part of my paycheck in a way that would keep me away from it. I really, really wanted to get out from under my debt load. I hated owing personal debts, and I hated having this student loan that was more than my annual salary, and I hated credit card debt most of all. It made me break out in hives just thinking about it. I mean, actual literal physical hives. If I hadn't put the 401(k) money aside, it would have vanished down the drain of debt. As soon as I was debt-free, I would have relaxed and spent it on lifestyle upgrades like moving to a safer neighborhood.
I didn't really believe that the pre-tax money going into that 401(k) account meant anything. There sure wasn't much in there. I'm a serious student, though. I had read so, so much about how investing works. I scoffed at it, I thought that almost everyone got duped and lost all their money, but I figured I might as well perform due diligence. I would pick some investments, move my money, and wait and see. I spent a couple of days reading prospectuses (brochures explaining what a fund does) and reviewing advice on how to allocate my money. Then I spent maybe an hour filling out forms, and I took the emotionally challenging step of sending them in.
One fine day, my $1200 had somehow magically turned into $40,000. That was the day I truly realized that investing is different from saving.
I get "advice" all the time. Financial "advisors" want to take over my accounts and plan my investments for me - for a fee... My husband offered to do the same at one point, until he realized that I seem to know what I'm doing and started buying some of the same stocks that I do. Various acquaintances have tried to explain that my investment strategy is "how people go bankrupt." Um, I'm not buying futures! Show me your portfolio and then I'll be happy to sit through your advice.
To tell the truth, I'm really not very good at math. I can't even calculate a tip unless I have total silence. Investing isn't about math skills; it's about trend analysis. I only buy when I understand how the company makes its money and what its future plans are. I read a lot of business news, biographies and memoirs, and various business books. I find them entertaining, so sue me. I don't take other people's advice on investing because I understand how other people make their decisions. There are few things that make me smile quite as sincerely as when I look at my accounts and see that I've doubled my money on a pick that someone tried to talk me out of.
A correction will come soon. In fact, I'll bet you a shiny new nickel that a major crash will also come at least once in the next 25 years. Possibly three or four crashes. My accounts will decrease, and all my little dead presidents will have tiny copper and zinc tears trickling down their noses. Well, I assume so. During the last crash I made a quarter of a percent. I know that the performance of the market is stochastic, meaning that there are no predictable trends or patterns. I know better than to think that my rows of green ink are enough for me to relax and stop fussing over Future Me. What I also know is that I have a better understanding of how investing works than at least eighty percent of the adult population. My experience has convinced me that if I study hard and work hard, I can learn everything I need to know. That has been great for my self-confidence. My personal power bubble is much larger than it used to be.
The major difference between me and the average person is that I think about Future Self every single day. I *am* the Future Me that Past Self 2001 was thinking about when she moved into that tiny dorm. Past Me was willing to deprive herself so she could take care of me, knowing that she would be me one day. I carry that torch. I know that Future Me 2050 is going to need all the help I can give her. She would want me to keep learning and challenging myself, and she most especially would rather I eat the ramen than force her to. You're welcome, Future Self.
Whenever a choice point comes up, it can be regarded as a crossroads. The options are either to continue forward, or make a turn. Turn right or turn left, and the turn will be in the exact opposite direction as the other turn. Which is the right direction? This is where most people tend to get hung up, unable to make a decision, and that's because they think there is a right answer. There isn't. Every turn leads somewhere. It's always prudent to pull over and look at a map. Most choices are even better documented than most maps, with more predictable results.
Let's go over some typical crossroads moments.
Relationship drama. The three options are to stay together, break up and be alone, or break up and wind up with someone else.
Job drama. Similar story, because dating and job hunting are almost perfectly identical in every respect. The three options are to stay put, quit and work for yourself, or quit and get another job somewhere else.
Not enough space. The options are to continue to live in cramped quarters, get more space (bigger house or storage unit), or get rid of a bunch of stuff.
Body image drama. Keep doing what you're doing, decline, or grow stronger.
Where does this road go? If I make one turn, where will I wind up? If I make the other turn, does it go anywhere interesting?
These are challenging questions when we're caught up in it. It's hard to read a map when you're driving through life at freeway speed. There are a lot of tired old jokes about people who refuse to stop and ask for directions, but we don't like to do this in a metaphorical way either. The problems and choices that seem to torment us are usually simple and obvious to everyone else.
Break up with him! Apply for another job! Have a yard sale! Love it or change it!
Of course, we always think other people's problems are easy to solve, while having a tough time with our own. We don't like thinking that there are clear patterns to our behavior. We generally don't like thinking that our behavior is the root cause of anything, preferring to lay the blame on fate or the machinations of others.
I've come to regard choice points and crossroads as triggers for automatic strategic planning breaks. I have left the city limits and I am about to cross another border. This is why we get rid of more stuff and get a smaller house every time we move. This is why every time I hit a snag in my workout plan, such as an injury or a long trip, I come back aiming at a more intense level. This is why I now believe that a change in management at work signals a time to revamp my resume. When something changes, it's time to ask, Would I get into this situation if I had to do it over again right now?
Would I date someone who acted the way my partner is behaving these days? Would I have taken this job under these conditions? Would I plan to make a new house look this way? Did I plan to look this way? Did I plan to wind up here, doing this? Was this intentional?
It's a mystery to me why most people seem to do the opposite. Start quarreling with someone you used to love, and then fight more and more often, being nastier and meaner to each other, until nobody can figure out why you would live with someone like that. Hate your job and then just stay there, miserable, with no plans to leave and no plans to increase your job skills. Hate your body and then just become more passive and gain more weight, even when the health problems start to show up. Hate housework and then make your life harder by leaving everything to pile up. It's like pulling up to the crossroads and parking there. Keep moving and leave this town in your rear view.
This analogy works well for me because I've moved so many times. I can associate any given street address with a particular job or relationship or haircut.
Learning to recognize choice points as crossroads can start to make a lot more choices a lot more obvious. Do I move in the direction of a bigger life or do I retreat? Do I move in the direction of improvement or decline? Strength or weakness? More options or fewer options? Debt or financial freedom? Mess or order? Creativity or stasis? Am I passing up awesomeness in favor of imagined security? Am I simply nervous about going somewhere I've never been before, even though I heard it's great? Moving in the direction of greater awesomeness is always recommended.
It's all because of the paper towels. We have an unshopping list, just like I have a To-Don't list. When I first met my husband, we were platonic friends, and he had me come over to help declutter his garage. I sat on the washing machine, pointed, and asked questions. He would look surprised, realizing some of the funny stuff he had, and generally decide to get rid of it. During this process, we found no fewer than FOUR CASES of paper towels. We laughed when we found the second one. By the fourth, we were in hysterics. Later that week, he found a FIFTH case of paper towels hidden by something else. It turns out that when you shop at the big box store without a list, certain items just jump in the cart on every trip unless you remind yourself to take them back out. Paper towels are hardly the only things in life that turn up, unwanted, on autopilot. We have to plan to avoid certain things. If we don't plan not to have certain things happen, they will happen.
If you're eating an ice cream cone and you're sitting next to a dog, you have to plan not to have the dog steal a lick of your ice cream.
If you know you can sleep through your alarm, you have to plan not to turn it off in your sleep and be late to work.
You have to plan not to have a sunburn.
You have to plan not to get gum disease.
Alas, as much as we don't want dogs stealing our ice cream, these situations don't always seem obvious until afterward, when our friends are laughing at us. Well, nobody really laughs at gum disease. But you get the picture.
What we should be doing is building a better life for Future Self. What we actually do is usually to make our own Future Life more difficult all the time. We treat Future Self like an adversary. "Hey, Future Self! You suck! I just spent all your money and now I'm going to eat an entire extra large pizza with thick crust, just so YOU will have a bigger butt! None of your pants are going to fit! Oh, and? AND? I'm going to stay up late binge-watching Golden Girls episodes so you'll be exhausted at work tomorrow! If you try to complain about it, I'll give you a HANGOVER! BWAHAHAHAHA!!!"
This is where self-compassion comes in. I try to think of Future Me with the same tenderness I feel toward my grandma. I try to do what I wish for my own parents, which is to save for retirement and eat healthy. I just imagine that I am them. This helps to inspire me to offer to do things for them when I visit, like changing lightbulbs in the ceiling fixtures and carrying heavy objects. Not that they can't do these things, just that it's much easier for me. At this time in our lives, we probably feel exactly as nervous as one another when contemplating the other standing on a chair. Be careful!
What sorts of things should we plan not to have happen?
Some things are easy. I planned not to smoke, and I never did, and thus I've never had to quit smoking. It's a lot easier to plan not to shoot heroin than it is to go to rehab. Planning never to commit a crime is a lot easier than going to prison. Planning not to get a tattoo while drunk is a lot easier than paying for laser removal.
Not to say that I've never done anything wild, crazy, or outrageous. It just seems to me that these things make better stories when there were no major negative consequences. I have: ridden a mechanical bull, marched in a parade, been on TV, been in the newspaper, done live improv comedy in front of an audience, gone downtown in a FREE HUGS t-shirt, and had my toes sucked on stage in a movie theater, among other things. We want to focus on maximum fun with minimum downside. This idea that all future planning is joyless and strict is a false dilemma.
In fact, if we want to have maximum fun, we should plan more. Don't make any plans for the weekend and you'll probably spend it on the couch. In this case not planning to have fun is planning not to have fun. Peak experiences usually take advance plotting, scheming, and machinating. As an example, I got concert tickets for my husband for our wedding anniversary, and it took signing up for alerts when the band did not even have plans for further tours, waiting over a year, and getting up early to buy the tickets six months in advance. He was pretty impressed when he realized we were sitting in a sold-out show. That made it three experiences: enjoying the band, gloating that we were enjoying the band, and feeling extra loved because I went to so much extra effort. Anything for you, babe.
This is an area that is not fun to talk about, but divorced people will understand and nod along. You have to plan not to get divorced. Everyone plans to be happily married, but we can't all pull it off. That's because we're more likely to get divorced because of the things that are going wrong than we are to stay married because of the things that go right. All you have to do is cheat once, or run up secret debt once, or be physically abusive once, or tell a lie once, and the love flies right out the window. Cheaters always say it "just happened." Well, plan for cheating not to happen. If you meet someone hot, immediately put your finger in your nose so they'll stay away from you. That's what I always do.
Well, not really. But I am a divorced person who married another divorced person, and we both talk frankly about such issues.
There are two other areas where we fail to plan not to have bad things happen. Those areas have to do with our health and our finances. These are the two most commonly procrastinated goals. In the regrets of the dying, people consistently say they regret not having taken better care of themselves. They also consistently say that they wish they had saved more for retirement, and they worry about whether their loved ones will be okay financially. My clients have a bizarre trait in common, which is that they all think they'll die young. This pessimism can be a good thing if it inspires us to tell people how much we love them and to work as hard as we can to leave a legacy. It's a terrible thing when we're completely wrong and wind up living many years longer than we had supposed, fearing every minute of it. I have a family member who was given "six months to live" over fifteen years ago. Living a long life should be a beautiful blessing, for oneself, but mostly for the loved ones who don't want to say goodbye. Living a longer life while destitute is a challenge for all parties. It also means uncountable missed opportunities.
We have to plan not to be broke when we're old. Lifespans keep increasing, and it's almost humanly impossible to truly believe that we will reach such advanced ages. In 1919, when my grandmother was born, the lifespan for women was 56. For men it was only 53.5. Yet my grandfather lived to be 75 and my grandmother lived to be 86. They were quite frugal all their lives, like most people of their generation, but they probably assumed that they would have enviably long lives and pass in their early 60s. It's hard to plan how much to save when you have no way of knowing that you're going to live THIRTY YEARS LONGER than the statistical probability. It's also difficult to image how much things are going to cost when you can remember going to the grocery store with a dime.
This is why I plan. I became aware of my grandmothers' major concerns in my thirties, when I had begun to do things like plan my retirement account and set up an advance health care directive. It is all too real to me. All elders say that they don't feel old, that they still feel like young people inside. I do, too. But I know I'm likely to be an old person on the outside one day, and that includes my wallet and the bills on my desk.
I was born in 1975, and as of that year, the lifespan for women was 76.6. Even my great-grandmother who smoked lived about that long. To plan not to be poor when I'm old, I have to assume that I am going to live to be *at least* 86, and then tack on 15 years for good measure. In 2014, there were over 72,000 living centenarians in the US. If I plan for that and my money outlives me, great! What I have left can go to my family, or to charity. I have all kinds of great plans for when I'm an old lady. I'll wear rainbow tie-dyed shirts, whack people with my umbrella, and take my dentures out at night so I can eat candy in bed. It'll be awesome. It'll be even more awesome if I'm wealthy enough that my young relatives feel motivated to come and visit me. Eh heh heh.
Dear Future Self, what are you wearing? What is in your closet?
Also, what's your phone like? Just asking.
In ten years, I'll be ten years older. Yeah, duh, you might be thinking. Obvious things can often be more revealing to think about than non-obvious things, though. I'm 41 today, and in ten years I'll be 51. Assuming all the clothes I have today could somehow survive another ten years of washing and wearing, would I still want to wear them as a fifty-one-year-old?
The first question is one of size. What size will I be in ten years? There are three distinct types of answers to this question.
I have no idea - how could I possibly know that?
Same size I am right now, obviously, because I am a marble statue
I will have reached the fitness goal for which I am currently on track.
Ten years ago, I was 31. Yes, yes, you can count too. Past Self: Age 31 was coming down from our top weight at age 29. At that time, we had at least four different sizes of clothes in the closet. Our goal weight was 18 pounds heavier than I am today. We hadn't yet bought into the concept that there is a method of being at Healthy Weight for My Height and deviating only over a small range. We were still caught in this idea that body weight is either genetically determined, or a function of the weather. It just happened.
I've worn eight different clothing sizes in my adult life, and spent at least a year at each of those sizes. Now I've been the same size for three years. I have a solid understanding of exactly what behavior patterns on my part will eventually result in physical changes that are reflected in each of those clothing sizes. Size 14 involved a lot of fried food. The Pepsi and Pringles Diet worked for me! I didn't get below a size 6 until I learned to cook vegetables. (NB: and eat them)
I can look around my yoga class at the gym, see that there are ladies present in their fifties, sixties, and seventies, and surmise that if I keep doing what I'm doing today, I will probably look a lot like them when I reach that age. In ten years, I will probably be very similar to the size I am today, only with better posture.
The second question is one of style. Will I still like the same stuff in ten years? Will it still be somewhat fashionable?
If I have one wish as I get older, it is that I will care progressively less and less what other people think of me. That includes clothes. If I want to wear something woefully out of sync with the trends of the day, I most likely will. That's never been anything that stopped me before.
On the other hand, I've already started to feel sad when I find myself contemplating clothes meant for younger women. At my size, dignified, professional clothing is vanishingly rare. Everything is meant for going to the beach, hanging out at the mall, or going to high school. That's my impression anyway. If I change my mind ten years from now and want to dress like a teenager, I can always go to those shops and find something. For today, when I look at what's in my closet, I can ask myself, Does this look like something 51-Year-Old Future Me would want to wear?
The third question is a simple one of climate. Will I still be living here? Am I likely to move north and need warmer clothes? That's possible, and that's an issue I can resolve if I decide to make that change. In the meantime, I have only to ask myself how often I wear what I have now. I only need to dress for extreme cold for a few days a year, so I don't have to keep as many coats and scarves as I used to when I lived in Oregon. Other people may find that they don't need nearly as many pairs of shorts, tank tops, etc.
The fourth question is one of use. Are these clothes going to be usable in ten years?
I loathe shopping. Always did, and I loathe it even more now that it's so hard to find smaller clothes. When I find something I like, I now wear it into a rag. When I split the back seam of my favorite jeans, I seriously contemplated trying to patch them before acknowledging that they were a lost cause. There is no way any of the clothes I have now will survive another ten years of use. Not the socks, not the pajamas, not even those rarely worn winter clothes.
The fifth question is a bit more complex. If I am so emotionally attached to a particular item that I intend to hang onto it for another ten years, no matter what, will it still work with anything else I have? Certain garments only wind up being worn in combination with certain others. That includes jewelry, shoes, specialty undergarments, and anything else that makes it feel like an 'outfit.' If any elements of the prize outfit aren't going to make it, does that reflect on the wearability of the treasured piece?
The purpose of this exercise is to reexamine our wardrobes in terms of our future needs. We tend to want to keep things because we feel that we made a commitment to them in the past. We invested money. We liked being that size, or at least, we liked it better than the size we are now. We are alienated by the trends we currently see in the mall, and we're alarmed at having to let go of the familiar in favor of the disconcerting. (I'm from a generation that believes Tights Are Not Pants). We find ourselves with closets, drawers, and piles of unwearable clothing, things that Present Self can't use and doesn't need. Present Self often misses Past Self, even though Past Self is the same lazy, selfish brat who spent all our money and kept leaving us all those stacks of messy papers and dirty dishes. It can really help to look forward and imagine what Future Self is going to want.
Not sure about you, but whenever my Future Self calls me, she always asks for more money. She always gives me an earful about any annoying chores I've put off and saved for her to do. She often picks on me about my fashion choices, hairstyle, dietary habits, etc. I recognize the same things I complain about to Past Self. One of the few thing I can do for Future Self today is to do a bit of culling and let go of clothes neither of us will ever wear.
Procrastination means worry. There are all kinds of things I could be doing today that are irrelevant to my interests. I could be learning to play the tuba; I’d make new friends and have an exciting new way to troll people who annoy me. It’s not on my agenda though. If I wanted to learn both guitar and piano, and I chose guitar, would I then be procrastinating on playing piano? No. Almost every possible activity, conversation, or consumer item is irrelevant to my life in this moment. The only way I can have a meaningful or happy life is to consciously set intentions, choose specific acts, and focus on one purpose at a time. This is where it can help to distinguish rational and irrational procrastination.
Economists can’t account for procrastination. Why do it? (In some cultures, people don’t really procrastinate, just as some cultures don’t have clutter problems). If I’ve decided that a particular action is the most valuable way to spend my time and the most important thing I could be doing, why on earth would I not do it? There are two reasons. 1. Anxiety and 2. Discounting. In the first case, we are paralyzed. We feel uncertain about what to do or what might happen, and the longer we remain in indecision, the more fraught the act becomes with potential unanticipated ramifications. In the second case, we miscalculate how valuable an action would be, how much effort might be involved, or how long it will take us to complete the action. We weigh what we’re doing right now against the benefit of doing the Most Important Thing, and we decide we’re better off saving That Thing for later. When we’re wrong, it’s a result of inaccurate discounting. We guessed wrong. Our estimates were off.
I procrastinated on something stupid once. I tell this story all the time because it still mystifies me. What on earth was I thinking? I had a weird problem with this constant tickle in my throat. I couldn’t speak when I lay on my back. My chiropractor told me that my thyroid gland was visibly enlarged and I needed to see a doctor right away. I had just had my annual physical two months before, but I went back. My doctor diagnosed a goiter and said it hadn’t been there at my previous appointment. Whatever it was, it was moving fast, and I needed to see an endocrinologist. She told me I needed to get it scanned, which I did, though swallowing radioactive iodine is not a cheerful thing to do. The scan came back with a scary nodule that could well be cancerous. Next step: biopsy. Needle biopsy.
What did I do? I went to the public library and read two books on the thyroid, cover to cover. I finally made the biopsy appointment 14 months later.
As it turns out, people do this kind of stupid thing all the time. Anyone in the health profession will tell you that patient compliance is one of the toughest clinical issues. We don’t fill our prescriptions, we don’t take our medications as directed, we don’t change our dressings, we don’t do our physical therapy, we don’t come to appointments, we use limbs we were ordered to rest, and we certainly, certainly don’t make the lifestyle changes that could save our lives or keep us out of the surgical theater. Probably our feeble human brains (speaking for myself here) aren’t fully capable of understanding future threats in the same way we might understand the attack of a predator. I’m convinced that a certain portion of us (again speaking for myself) would stand stock-still and scream rather than take any evasive action, even in that primal scenario.
Taking care of our health and saving for retirement are the two most commonly procrastinated acts. We just don’t identify with Future Self. We have trouble imagining Future Self: Tomorrow, much less Future Self: Next Year or Future Self: Age 73. It seems more rational to worry about Present Self: Wants Cookie while trying to deal with Past Self’s mess of postponed chores and unpaid bills. Gee, Past Self, thanks for the dirty sink, you lazy slob.
This is where clutter intersects with procrastination. It’s perfectly rational to put aside unimportant things in favor of more urgent concerns. Sorting junk mail should not be a thing in the first place. Why is it opt-out instead of opt-in? (Answer: lobbyists). Maybe we will need that stuff later. Discounting comes in when we don’t realize how much it costs us to maintain a storage unit, or the fact that it takes 40% more work to clean a cluttered house. I used to have a storage unit, and I no longer own a single item that I paid to store. Even at $20 a month for several years, I could have flown to Paris for a week. There are 168 hours in a week, and I know I’ve spent that long sorting, stacking, and searching through all that clutter. Yeah, so, instead of the week in Paris I sat around sorting old junk I paid to store. Fun.
One day I decided that I didn’t want my story to be about chronic procrastination. Around 20% of us fall into this category. We run around with unfinished projects, unsorted clutter, calls we don’t want to make, email we don’t want to read, mail we don’t want to open, gifts and cards we haven’t sent, and invitations to events we don’t want to attend. We can’t take any time for strategic thinking because we’re continually preoccupied. We feel like failures. We feel like losers. We’re always late and leaking papers. I wanted to be the opposite of whatever I was.
What’s the opposite of ‘loser’? It turns out there are infinite varieties of success. I chose health and became an athlete. I chose love and became a wife. I chose minimalism and got organized. I chose a profession and became a writer. I still struggle so much with punctuality that I simply arranged my life in a way that rarely requires me to be in a specific place at a specific time. If you want to be my friend, drop by any time, but let’s not make it about a designated individual minute. Far be it from me to stress you out. Like I said, I’m still working on it. I need to choose contributions I know are within my capabilities. Anything else is either a stretch goal or a non-starter.
This is where rational procrastination comes in. I’m learning that everything works better when I focus on doing only one thing at a time. When I went back to school and finished my degree, that was what I did. I lived in a different city and I missed a lot of family gatherings, parties, and events. When I decided to get fit, that was what I did. I went to the gym at least five days a week, often for 90 minutes at a time, although I didn’t miss much because I read the same books on the elliptical that I would have read on my couch. When I decided to lose weight, I let go of the idea that it was going to happen through exercise (because it doesn’t), and for three depressing months I “missed” a lot of “treats” and snacks. When I chose minimalism, I spent a lot of time sorting and discarding stuff and missed a lot of leisure activities. I closed the loop. I got the degree and resumed an ordinary schedule. I reached my goal weight and raised the bar for my daily activity level. I created a streamlined space and more mental clarity. Each time, I derailed my routine for concentrated periods, emerging with a “new normal.” I put aside a lot of activities I would normally do, procrastinating on them until I finished something specific.
The key to minimalism is this rational procrastination. Almost every possibility is recognized as a distraction or non-starter. For instance, I have ideas for three different series of books. I can only write one at a time. I want to complete a triathlon, and that means swim, bike, run, in that order. If I want to train for that event, I have to choose all the other activities I won’t be doing all season. I prioritize longevity, and that includes earning and saving money as well as strengthening my body. Specific savings goals mean I have to choose not to buy an infinite amount of attractive things and experiences I might really, really desire. Not buying all the soda, cookies, frozen desserts, and snacks I used to use to keep myself fat has freed up a not insignificant amount I can save for the future. I let go of crafting, and that freed up space, time, and money. Instead of cross stitch, knitting, and crochet, I write, and I pay rent on a smaller house.
I procrastinate every day. Maybe I’ll get around to binge-watching TV one day, but not today. Maybe I’ll get around to playing Candy Crush or Angry Birds one day, but not today. Maybe I’ll find the secret to perfect hair one day, but not today. I’m curious about all these limited edition flavors of Oreos, and maybe I’ll taste them, but not today. I can put it off for tomorrow. I can read the comments tomorrow, I can argue about politics tomorrow, I can gossip tomorrow, I can complain tomorrow. Today, I’m going to do specific things. I’m going to put away my laundry. I already worked out and I already sorted my mail. Maybe if it’s still warm enough I’ll take my pets outside and sit on the porch. I’m going to floss my teeth. Anything I can think of that will set Future Self up with a better starting point, I’ll do that, today. Anything else can wait.
I just learned a new business term, and that is the phrase “bias toward action.” It refers to a decision to take action quickly even in the face of insufficient information. This trait is also the secret behind how to beat procrastination. We have a tendency to overthink everything. We hesitate to take action, sometimes because we just don’t want to DO THE THING, but also because we make simple tasks part of some incredibly convoluted mental contraptions. We mull things over and wait for optimal conditions. What we rarely do is to simply GET UP and DO SOMETHING.
What to do? Where to start? It doesn’t matter. Take any action that will move you closer to any goal.
What’s important is what not to do:
Sitting. Sitting is to be avoided. Sitting is bad for the human body in many ways.
Ruminating. Make a rule that if you want to ruminate, you have to multi-task and do it while you complete a task of some kind. Worry only when putting away laundry. Stew over what that person said while cleaning the floor. Criticize yourself only while packing lunch.
Q4 activities. Quadrant 4 is anything defined as neither urgent nor important. Many of us spend most of our time in Q4, staring at screens or pages. Q4 includes any form of passive entertainment and all the weird non-actions we create that we think fit into some kind of loophole.
Once you eliminate an attractive nuisance, a seductive time-waster and brain drain, it is no longer available to distract you. It creates a void that becomes very boring. One very effective anti-procrastination technique is to stop allowing yourself to do anything at all other than the project you’re supposed to be doing. You can work on it or you can stand there and stare at the wall. B.O.R.I.N.G..
Procrastination is about “temporary mood repair.” Thinking about DOING THE THING makes us feel bad, and we let ourselves off the hook so that we can get away from that bad feeling. I don’t want to! I don’t have to. Yay. This “giving in to feel good” reinforces itself. We reward ourselves for exactly the behavior that we think we’re trying to eliminate. It’s like giving your dog a cookie for biting you. Future Self gets screwed over once again. We push off our duties over and over, creating significantly worse pain, stress, and dread for ourselves to experience slightly further down the timeline.
JUST GET IT OVER WITH ALREADY!
Let’s talk more about the bias for action, because it is ripe for skepticism. How is taking any random action going to help move me forward?
Let’s say all I do is pace around in circles. How is that going to help? It will help by getting your blood circulating, for one thing. Sedentary behavior is physically and mentally draining. Pacing around the room for more than a few minutes also starts to seem a bit ridiculous. Once you’re up and moving, a lot of small, easy tasks start to feel less aversive. Put items away. Take out the trash. Clean out the fridge. Hang up some clothes. Basic chores start to get done. This creates a sense of momentum and a more organized space. More importantly, it restores mental bandwidth.
Taking any action at all is very positive when you focus on completing anything that can be done in under five minutes. This includes most household chores, informational phone calls, and email responses. I can scrub a bathtub in five minutes. What can you do?
The five-minute exercise can be a real eye-opener when you work with an actual stopwatch. A timer is fine, too, although the two are really different sorts of exercises. Timers are good for playing Beat the Clock and racing to see how much you can get done. Stopwatches are good for finding out how very little time most tasks take. I despise making customer service phone calls, but I’ve found that most take under two minutes. I just remind myself of this fact, take a breath, and start dialing. It takes me longer to brush my teeth than it does to get an annoying phone call out of the way.
Hustle is what I call it. My goal is to create a sense of momentum from when I get up through the end of the workday. Action instead of decision points. Routine instead of decision points. Habit instead of decision points. I only needed to make one decision about working out every day. I only needed to make one commitment to eat micronutrient-rich foods and avoid eating junk food. I only needed to make one decision to put my health first and have a realistic bedtime. I stay “organized” by having a set routine that includes cleaning one room each weekday. All I have to do is get up and start working my way through my reminders as they come up in my phone. When I’m already dressed, wearing shoes, and physically moving around, it’s no big deal to add in one more chore. Many things, like putting a dirty dish in the dishwasher or tossing junk mail, take under 10 seconds.
The trouble comes in when I’m contemplating a more complex project, such as writing my book. It isn’t always obvious what to do. That’s where I start. I get out a piece of paper and start rapidly free-writing all my stuck points. What questions do I need to resolve? What research do I think I need to do? What parts am I worried need to sound more realistic? What do I think doesn’t work? What am I trying to accomplish with this section? Then I branch out and brainstorm as many possible solutions to a particular, fine-grained question as I can. I’ll make a mind map or a flowchart or a timeline or a diagram or a map. Usually, an answer emerges that seems like it should have been obvious – but wasn’t.
The two most commonly procrastinated tasks are planning for retirement and dealing with health problems. I once met a man who turned out to have had an untreated hernia for three years. Imagine the pain. The greatest mystery in life is how we manage to carry on with our burdens while avoiding action that would relieve the misery. I think it’s because we don’t always know what to do next, and there are no clear signals to show the way. If PAIN isn’t enough of a sign, what would be? The man with the hernia could have done anything at all. He could have simply groaned and leaned against a wall, and someone probably would have come over and asked, “Buddy, are you okay?” He could have asked anyone he knew, “Have you ever had a feeling like a gopher was gnawing its way through your entrails?” He didn’t have to know what a hernia was, or how it was treated. He just had to do something: ask a question, go to a doctor, hail a cab. Even a reference librarian would have helped him.
I’ve done a lot of things since I started forcing myself to work through feelings of resistance, reluctance, and distaste. I realized that I was annoying myself and that the results I was getting were not anything I would want. When I first took action, I had no idea where it would lead. I never knew what would work or not work. I just kept doing and trying and experimenting. When I started running, I only planned to be able to run 2.25 miles by the end of the year. I did it in six weeks. I didn’t plan to shrink my thyroid nodule through strenuous activity; I was simply procrastinating on getting the biopsy and working out my terror through exercise. I rode around town shouting, “F.U., thyroid gland! YOU CAN’T DO THIS TO ME!” I guess it worked. When I realized it had been several months since my last night terror episode, I chalked it up to my running routine. It took several months more before I realized the key factor was actually whether I ate too late at night. Blood sugar, not exercise. I quadrupled my cruciferous vegetable consumption, not realizing that it would cure my migraines. Micronutrients, who’d have thought it? I hurl myself full force into a new habit, experiment with it, and generally get unanticipated positive results. Not knowing what I’m doing keeps me keenly interested in the process. I stick with the behavior long enough to figure out what it does, and that tends to sell me on why it’s a good idea.
Overthinking is a tendency I still have. I’ve learned, though, to start with the action and indulge in the mental exploration afterward. When I started running, I couldn’t make it around the block. I started reading books of running lore before I could run a mile. By the time I ran my marathon four years later, I was informally coaching my friends. It’s been the same with my explorations of nutrition, motivation, habit formation, personal finance, and everything else. I start from the place of DUH and fill that void with experimental action, research, and writing. Not knowing how to do something is ideal for the curious and the adventurous.
Build the bridge while you’re crossing it. Unless you’re the first person on Mars, whatever it is you’re trying to do has been done by someone else. That means it can be done. Millions of people have run a marathon, and every single one of them started out as a baby who couldn’t even roll over in bed. I’ve been passed by octogenarians, blind people, and a para-athlete with a colostomy bag. Maybe that isn’t such a great anecdote to support how running has worked out for me. It does give me something to aim for. How can I run as fast as that 80-year-old man? What does he do that I’m not doing? It goes to show the benefits of maintaining momentum.
Acknowledge that you don’t want to do something, state why, and then do it anyway. Do something. Do anything. You already know that the brain rut you’re in is not fun, not productive, and not sexy. Procrastination is like always walking down a dark back alley full of trash bags. Surely you’d rather go the other way, the well-lit main street? Maybe you find yourself at the alley entrance again. Simply pause and think, “I smell garbage,” and use the reminder of ickiness to turn away and stay on the main street.
Recognize the resistance. Notice the feeling of I DON’T WANNA. Catch yourself when you settle back into your familiar nest and prepare to pretend that time does not exist. Pick up the phone and call Future Self, see what’s up. Maybe hold the Future Phone a few inches away from your ear first. Have a heart. Show some compassion for Future You. Get it done, whatever it is. Dive in and do it.
Just get started.
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.