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.
Walter Mischel is a benefactor of humankind. By that I mean more than just giving marshmallows and Oreos to appreciative preschoolers. His decades of research into self-control have had an immeasurable impact on the developing field of positive psychology. The “marshmallow test” in particular is cited constantly in books, articles, and various TV shows; he’s even influenced Cookie Monster on Sesame Street. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the “marshmallow test” is only the beginning, and that as much as I had heard about this groundbreaking experiment, it was really only an appetizer. It’s a terrific, funny, and thought-provoking book.
Marshmallows are revolting, as I’m sure everyone agrees, and I always thought, “Oh, I could resist a marshmallow all day and all night.” I have a lot of grit and I’m extremely stubborn. If there was a prize or cash on the line I’d still be there four days later, just to make sure I held the record in perseverance. I’d love to tell myself that I have total self-control. As a middle-aged person, I know better. Where we cave and allow ourselves complete leeway varies by individual temptation. I don’t give a care about food “treats” but I am almost completely powerless against books. I tried not reading books for a month and it was so depressing and awful that I’d never do it again. I also have a terrible time admitting that my news queue or to-be-read stack is past capacity. What would I have to recast in my identity to feel less hot temptation around the printed page?
The introduction to The Marshmallow Test cites Adam and Eve in the Bible. Lack of self-control is our original sin. It seems that developing control of our emotions and impulses may be what separates us from other primates. I often wonder what chimps could do if they weren’t constantly distracted by interpersonal drama, and that of course raises the question whether humans hamper our achievements in the same way.
A fascinating point that Mischel cites is Carol Dweck’s research around willpower. Not everyone’s self-control is diminished after a so-called depleting experience. It depends on whether the person believes that certain types of experience deplete energy or willpower. This clicks and feels highly relevant to me. On a daily basis, I hear people saying they wish they had more willpower or motivation or that they can’t deprive themselves. It’s a story people latch on to that helps them bond with others who feel the same way. I think it’s also a self-fulfilling prophecy. We have to believe that the rewards of waiting and deferred gratification are better than the rewards of immediacy. Most of us probably aren’t convinced.
There is a mathematical formula in Chapter 19 that explains why procrastination feels like a rational act. I won’t spoil it, but it was a jaw-dropper for me. It helps to address Dr. Tim Pychyl’s point about why a rational person would behave irrationally by choosing something as the most important and valuable course of action, and then deliberately avoid doing that thing. Behavioral economics is rapidly assembling a body of research that explains this pretty clearly.
The Marshmallow Test is an excellent book that was worth the wait. It explores the current research around self-control. It goes beyond this to practical applications for everyday life. Don’t deprive yourself; read it right away.
Advice about dating tends to be completely different when it’s coming from single, dating, married, or cohabiting people. I’m a married person, and both my husband and I had radically different values than our exes when it came to money. Everything I have to say about money comes from the perspective of someone who learned some very painful, very expensive lessons the hard way. I hope others can learn from my experience and finish the game with both love and money, instead of neither.
Money isn’t everything. That’s true, but it’s nice to find out for yourself. Being broke and in debt automatically restricts your pool of available partners. Broke, but debt-free, is an improvement that expands your options. Earning your own money in a job you enjoy and providing your own financial comfort puts you in a strong position. I have been in all three of those places. The money isn’t the only difference. The anxiety, dread, and stress of being broke and in debt can make it seem like you have an entirely different personality than the true self underneath. “Seriously stressed out” is not on anyone’s checklist of dream character traits in a love interest. The first boundary to set is an absolute limit on how close to the wire you will allow yourself to get. That shouldn’t be an amount of debt and it shouldn’t be zero. Your first boundary should be a warning signal that you’re getting close to your buffer and that it’s time to strategize.
An interlude: Boundaries are metaphors. Any boundary you set says “This is okay and that is not okay.” You have such boundaries for filling your gas tank, deciding whether you’re too sick to go in to work, or assessing whether a container of leftovers is too funky to eat. Set similar boundaries around money and around what kind of treatment you will accept from other people. Nobody but you can say what is okay or not okay for you and your life.
Money brings down more possible loves than anything else. It makes us fight. The divorce rate is high. We need to do whatever we can to give our love a chance. That means we have to agree on how to manage money, or at least how to talk about money. We also have to find a way to love each other without involving money any more than is necessary. One way to do that is to base our free time around things that don’t have a price tag, like laughing, talking, napping, and loads of sex. Another way is to earn equally, contribute equally, and keep all your bank accounts separate. Two people sharing expenses, strategizing and earning together, can live much more comfortably and become much wealthier as a team than they can apart. What this means is that money can either destroy us or exalt us.
I know a lot of highly eligible single men, many of whom are defeated perma-bachelors. One of the lovely things about men is that they will give straight answers to sincere questions. My habit of asking these questions is part of why my husband and I are together today. It’s also why I have some long-term platonic male friends who let me pick their brains. There are a lot of men out there who would love to settle down and raise a family, but they’ve kept meeting women who are deep in debt and have no retirement savings. Every decade you reach past age 40 makes this a bigger and bigger issue. To be with someone that broke, you’d have to double your retirement savings to cover both of you, and then you’d have to come up with an additional percentage to beat down your new partner’s debt so it doesn’t consume your nest egg. That might work, if you’re ambitious and you feel like she’s worth it, except that the prospective lady tends to come with a pattern of spending that is not sustainable. Expecting to wander through life whistling a happy tune while someone else follows behind you, paying for everything, is an exact parallel to being expected to cook and clean for a sloppy ingrate.
Women need to pay more attention to our financial well-being and retirement because we tend to outlive men. Even if we do marry well, plan well, and save a lot, we may live so much longer than we anticipated that the money runs out. It happened to one of my grandmothers and I’m watching it happen to the other right now. One was married; the other has been divorced since the 70s. We have to worry more about money, not because we might outlive the men we counted on to be the earners, but simply because we can anticipate being alive for at least five years longer than men. Perhaps we’ll live 15 or 30 years longer than we ever guessed we would.
I’ve said plenty about earning your own money, avoiding debt, and being responsible for paying your own way and providing for your own well-being. Now I’m going to get specific about setting boundaries with new loves.
Be responsible for yourself. Find out your FICO score and learn what you can do to improve it. Check your credit report for errors; they’re nearly universal and they’re free to fix. Just because it wasn’t your fault doesn’t mean it’s not your problem. If you have accounts in collection, steel yourself, pull up your socks, and call them to make arrangements. If you haven’t filed your taxes or you owe the IRS, call them to make arrangements. If you’re in debt, sit down with all your account statements and find out how much. Learn how to negotiate payment plans and better interest rates. Take a look at your earnings vs. expenses and make adjustments. If you have problems with compulsive acquisition, gambling, substance abuse, or just letting yourself get vague about money, work on it. Ask for help. Get it together now, because it’ll only be harder to try to get it together later.
Have your own bank accounts and keep them private. There is no reason why you ever need to expose your assets to another adult, whether you live together or are married or whatever. Of course, there shouldn’t be a double standard; don’t expect access to your partner’s finances. If you want a higher standard of living, go out and get a promotion. Have your own checking account, your own savings, your own 401(k), your own IRA, and your own secret stash of small bills for your go bag. If someone finds out the PIN on your debit or credit card, take it down to the bank and have it changed, cancel the card, or cancel the account. Do the same with your passwords on your Amazon, PayPal, or any other account someone else could use to buy things. If you wouldn’t tolerate it in a coworker, roommate, sibling, or your own child (and you shouldn’t), don’t tolerate it in a partner. What I’m talking about is stealing, and it’s surprising how many women stay with selfish partners who steal from them. I forgave my ex for spending our house fund behind my back, only for him to turn around and divorce me a few months later. If I hadn’t kept my own bank accounts, he’d have burned through my personal savings as well as our common account.
Educate yourself. After my divorce, I went to the public library and methodically read through every personal finance book on the shelf for the next several years. I followed two personal finance columnists online. When the crash of 2008 came, I broke even. (Actually I earned a quarter of a percent). My casual conversations with my work buddy about paying off my student loan led to the friendship that became my marriage. I asked him once what made him want to marry me, and he surprised me very much by saying, “Your frugality.” I educated myself about finance and cooking, rather than the supposedly feminine arts of hair, makeup, manicures, fashion, and shoes. That tradeoff is the reason I had a retirement account instead of credit card debt when I remarried. It’s also why I’m married to someone who values my intelligence and independence more than my appearance. We met right before my 30th birthday, and obviously I wasn’t going to look 30 forever.
Promote yourself to management. Chances are that you’re the smarter one when it comes to money. You might have more natural aptitude for balancing bank statements, tracking details, doing research, and intuitively sensing when you’re getting close to your budget. Samurai wore clothes without pockets because it was considered beneath their dignity to handle money; their wives did it. Imagine a samurai having to ask, “Honey, will you buy me some sword polish?” My mom is an accountant, and she taught me that being one penny off is a sign of a larger discrepancy. You can’t just throw a penny into a jar and move on; you have to do root cause analysis and find out where the accounts didn’t balance. Scrutiny is a super-power.
Observe your partner dispassionately. Passion can happen after you know who you’re dealing with. The excitement and infatuation of a new love interest are the opposite of how enduring married love works. You have to have trust and respect, and those are grown, slowly, like an oak tree. You don’t start with the oak and then whittle chunks of bark off it when you find out something unnerving about your partner. You start out with a tender little sapling and coax it upward with sunlight, water, and time. Sometimes you find out that oak sapling isn’t an oak at all, but a weed of some kind. Perhaps stinging nettle. Or poison oak.
You want to ask yourself, “What kind of person is this?” If it was a Pokemon, you’d want to identify it before trying to catch it. What is this person’s style? What kind of music does he like? Is he adventurous or comfort-loving? Is he a Stoic or a hedonist? Is he ambitious or relaxed? Is he curious or argumentative? Does he have old friends? New friends? No friends? Among all the other things you’re trying to learn about this new friend, a major one is how he deals with money. Does he have piles of unopened bills sticking out everywhere, such as on the floor of his car? Does he have roommates? Do they like him? Does he go out or party a lot? Does he insist on picking up the check, even when you suspect he can’t afford it? Is he detail-oriented? Does he throw coins around, on the coffee table or a shelf? Does he have cards declined? Do you know much about how he grew up, in what kind of neighborhood, whether his parents are still together? Will he open up to you, or does he get defensive or stonewall you when you try to talk to him? Are you easy to talk to?
People change as they get older. This is something that really shows up when you go to your 20th high school reunion. You see some of your old friends and acquaintances in responsible, successful careers, and remember how goofy they were when they were 14 or 15. A lot of the problems we get into with money are young people’s mistakes. We can spend ourselves into years of strain and heartache in just a few months. It’s the same with dating. We can get involved with someone, only to find after a horrible breakup that we’re in a totally different universe than we were two or three years earlier. We go in pink-cheeked and trusting as a little woodland creature, and we come out hollow-eyed, broke, fat, and unable to ever fully let go with anyone new. That’s why it’s better to set the financial boundaries before we give our hearts away. We can wait a little while, pass up a few lost causes, and hold out for someone who is equally aware, focused, and planning for a better future. Maybe that future will be a shared one.
Calorie counting doesn’t work, they tell you. It worked for me, but only because I am a CSI-minded person. If I get weird data, I keep researching and experimenting. I’m married to an aerospace engineer who is willing to humor me with the occasional statistical model. He’s taught me to think about emotional topics like weight loss in a more numbers-based, scientific way. One of the first precepts of this rational model is that when we record data, our instruments need to be reliable. This is where it gets interesting.
I started to notice that I had synced multiple apps to my food log, and it was logging redundant data from the same workouts. I would go on one walk, but I would get separate totals from my Apple Watch and from RunKeeper. I already knew not to trust the alleged calories burned from my workouts, so I tend to disregard those numbers. It took a while for any kind of insight to arise from this.
Then it hit me. People need to know. The number of calories burned that shows up on any kind of fitness equipment can be about as reality-based as the dollars that show up on a hospital bill. In other words, not very.
I set up an experiment. I worked out on my ancient, consignment-store treadmill for half an hour. I tracked it as an Indoor Walk on my Watch. I took photographs of the treadmill data. I logged the manual data into RunKeeper. Then I compared the three results.
Treadmill: 31:32 minutes, 2.081 miles, 361 calories.
RunKeeper: 31:32 minutes, 2.08 miles, 149 calories.
Apple Watch: 31 minutes, 1.86 miles, 163 calories.
Let me summarize. This is me, walking on the treadmill in my garage, and getting three sets of data for the same workout.
Just to make things clear as mud, here’s a fourth data point. MyFitnessPal says that walking 31 minutes at 4 mph burns 143 calories. (I have to set the treadmill at 4.0 mph in order to get my heart rate up enough to impress The Overlord).
I walk a lot, so I have more data points to add. A week or so earlier, I happened to take a walk outside that lasted 33:46 minutes. That includes waiting at the occasional crosswalk, walking uphill, wind conditions, and other variables such as non-workout clothes. It is, however, more reflective of my typical walking workout. RunKeeper says that 34-minute walk of 1.91 miles burned 137 calories. Apple Watch gives 31:12 minutes, 1.88 miles, and 103 calories for that same walk.
You want the truth? YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH! Or, maybe you can, but GOOD LUCK KNOWING WHAT THE TRUTH IS!
Okay, I think I have that out of my system. It’s actually more straightforward than it looks.
Compare my indoor and outdoor walks again. What I’m trying to do on the treadmill is to get my heartrate up enough to qualify as ‘exercise.’ Whatever it is about walking on the treadmill compared to walking on the sidewalk, I have to work much harder to get that digital green wheel moving. That’s why there’s roughly a 60-calorie difference in data generated by the same device for the same exercise (“walking”) over the same block of time. (It isn’t the same exercise, not really).
Metrics are just numbers. They only mean anything when we put them into a particular context. The standard model is to want to ‘check the box’ by showing up and doing at least some form of workout, and then, in the face of suboptimal results, being able to claim, ‘I’ve tried everything.’ We’ve only tried everything when we’ve full-on interrogated those data until someone alerts Amnesty International. TELL ME WHAT YOU KNOW!
The most important thing I learned, in two years of tracking every metric I could think of, is that weight loss is both complex and complicated. We have to standardize our behavior patterns as much as we can, at least for a defined time period, so the trend lines start to emerge. I didn’t get the results I wanted for the first six weeks, but I was highly rigorous in my tracking, and I had a partner to do peer review of my results. I learned that if I ate approximately the same amounts of food at the same times of day, it became much easier to tease out the salient points. I learned that, at least on my tiny frame, exercise makes no discernible impact on whether I lose or gain weight. It’s completely about what I eat. If I knew I stood a chance of burning off a special treat, I would definitely do it, because I enjoy moving my body. There are at least a dozen types of workout that I like to do. I could just install a clamp on my elliptical to hold a quart of Soy Dream and tuck a napkin into my collar. Good times.
What I’ve learned is that the subjective elements are more important than the objective factors. I have the same tendency everyone else does, to overestimate the duration, intensity, and frequency of my workouts. I have the same tendency of everyone else in the world to underestimate how much I eat and how often. I have the universal tendency of treating my own Future Self like a poison enemy, sabotaging her life and expecting her to solve problems I’ve created for her. “Hey, Future Self! Have fun burning off this entire box of Thin Mints! Hahahaha! Oh, and by the way, I’m spending our retirement money on books!” What I don’t have is a tendency to care that much about body shaming. My physical appearance is largely irrelevant to me, and I don’t give a [FIG] how “the media” thinks I’m “supposed” to look. I’ve had a worse time getting flak from people since I lost my weight than in all the years I was fat, combined. I don’t care because being strong, fit, and healthy is worth more than not having other women glare at me and occasionally call me rude names. Subjectively, I like being lean more than I care about fitting in.
Objectively, I believe it is possible to maintain a lean physique, and I have the knowledge to do it. This is another way in which my subjective experience of life differs from the majority of Americans.
I work out because after about the 45-minute mark, I feel physically ecstatic. I’m sitting in my pajamas right now, writing this with my hair still damp from the shower. The feeling of resting after a hard workout, a hot shower, and a hot meal is one of the best feelings in life. I was in a mopey mood earlier today, having been woken up by a thunderstorm, but even a half hour of walking was enough to shake off that sad feeling. I know I’ll sleep better tonight.
I eat clean and plan predictable, micronutrient-based meals because my quality of life suffers when I don’t. For me, what came naturally to me, eating what I “felt like” eating and what tasted good, led to dreadful results. Excess body fat was one relatively minor symptom of a larger problem. While I was no longer having issues with thyroid disease, migraine and night terrors were still regular crises for me, and after a certain weight, my fibromyalgia symptoms started to come back as well. Carefully tracking my health metrics helped me figure out which behavior patterns affected my health issues, and which didn’t seem to make an impact. While it may be correlation that both my migraines and my night terrors disappeared two years ago, when I finally got to my goal weight and quadrupled my vegetable consumption, correlation is good enough for me. I’ve finally arrived at a system I can live with.
That’s what it all comes down to. We’re searching for livable systems. Life is complicated enough, and it’s hard to make sense out of conflicting information from our friends, media reports, advertisements from the weight loss industry, and the kind of contrarian stuff written by bloggers like me. Collecting contradictory data from various fitness apps and equipment is not helpful. What is helpful is to take the long view, be as aware of our behaviors and attitudes as possible, and keep on trying to build better experimental models for our own lives.
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.