Getting what you want is to be distinguished from doing what you want. Often it’s possible to have both; the things we want to have and the things we want to do aren’t always related. Other times, though, doing what you want actively prevents you from getting what you want. Sometimes the reverse is true, when getting what you want gets in the way of doing what you want. All of that is a moot point if you don’t actually know what you want in the first place.
Figuring out what you want has to be specific, or you won’t know when you have it. For instance, if you want “shoes,” do you want to wear them? If so, then you have to ask for your size. Are we talking any and every pair of shoes in your size? Probably not. The more detailed your vision, the more likely you’re going to find yourself walking away in some great new shoes. Too broad, and you may find yourself knee-deep in a closet catastrophe, with piles of shoes that are pretty but too uncomfortable to ever actually wear. This is the first pitfall, of thinking you want something only to realize that the request was too broad. Getting what you want - the cute shoes - interferes with doing what you want, presumably walking or dancing or making it through the night without carrying them like a small dog.
Is it the shoes that you really wanted, though? Or was it the excitement of a new purchase? The desire to feel attractive to others, to draw admiration? Maybe it was something negative like insecurity, boredom, or envy? A feeling of obligation to buy something after spending time at that store? Every object serves both a practical and an emotional need. Acknowledgment of the emotional need tends to lead to much faster results.
Getting what you want works better when you think in terms beyond the material. Physical objects are so easy to come by in our culture that it’s usually harder to get rid of them than it is to bring them home. What are things you want that aren’t physical things?
Peace of mind
Time in nature
Being in “the zone” or a “flow state”
Maybe some things that are tangible while not being objects:
A safe neighborhood
Being “organized” and orderly
Physical strength and stamina
Doing what you want is usually interpreted as “feeling like it” or being “in the mood.” You’re doing what you want when nobody else is telling you what to do. You’re choosing how you spend your time and what you do, in what order. That’s the feeling of autonomy and agency that many of us aren’t finding at our jobs. We put so much importance on doing what we want in our free time because we’re quite tired of being ordered around and having to follow someone else’s schedule during the workday. Some of us come home to the extra job of managing a romantic partner, kids, and a home environment that reflects a lot of attempts at getting what we thought we wanted.
This is where doing what you want sometimes precludes getting what you want. The same leisure time that could be spent finding a more satisfying job or going on adventures tends to disappear somehow. So much of that precious free time tends to go to relatively unsatisfying time sucks like social media, games, or binge-watching something or other. On the list of Things You Want That Aren’t Things, is this activity leading toward any of them?
Power is not given; it’s taken. That’s agency. Initiative comes from within. It’s only when you decide that you’re going after something like a skill or a character trait or a credential or a job opening that you ever get to have it. Nobody comes knocking, asking, “Say, would you like to feel more competent today?” (People do come knocking to offer a few things, namely friendship, adventure, and romance, but only when you already seem like the kind of person who’d be up for it). The result of taking initiative and following through is that you expand your circle of influence. More people trust and rely on you to do more things. The more you take on, the more you execute well, the more it tends to turn into leverage. Money and autonomy! This is when going after what you want leads to doing what you want.
Self-discipline is freedom. That sounds like it came straight out of 1984 - it’s been a while since I read it; I’d have to check. What it means is that the more you create your own structures and guidelines, the more likely you are to get what you want. Since you’ve chosen it for yourself, it starts to feel more like you’re doing what you want, as well.
Pay off your consumer debt, and two things happen. Your credit improves, and the money you used to pay toward interest and finance charges is suddenly available for you to spend. The temporary self-discipline of restricting spending results in greater financial freedom and options.
Get fit, and all kinds of things happen. Your energy level goes up, your sleep improves, your posture improves, you don’t get sick as often, and all these weird little mystery aches and pains disappear. You stop having cravings for certain foods and start wanting more water. Suddenly you find that you have energy left over at the end of the day. You’re ready, willing, and able to do all sorts of interesting things you wouldn’t have been into in the past.
Master a character flaw, and everything happens. You stop annoying yourself. Your relationships improve. You start being the beneficiary of greater kindness and respect. You realize that self-control makes your life easier, and that this ripples outward.
Getting what you want tends to be the result of applied persistence. It takes learning the rules. How do people go about getting this? This job, this personality trait, this skill, this series of adventures and experiences? What do you have to do differently if you want this for yourself, whatever it is? Doing what you’ve been doing is getting you whatever you’re getting. Doing slightly less of what you want in the short term may be all that’s necessary to get what you want, and then go back to doing what you want, too.
I didn’t get the flu shot, but my husband did. That year, I got the flu and he didn’t. It was that simple. That was four years ago, and now I get the flu shot every year.
It wasn’t fun. Getting the flu never is. Of course, that’s why so many people are too afraid to go get the shot. Like me, we’re afraid that the shot itself will make us sick. That winter I didn’t have to imagine it. I got to spend a week and a half flat on my back, feeling like I was dissolving into the couch, while my husband whistled a merry tune and went about his business. I felt like I might die and he obviously felt totally fine. It only took me about an hour of feeling genuinely ill before the free flu shot clinic at his work crossed my mind. Every day that went by I thought about it some more.
I get the tetanus shot. I’ve been immunized against everything, including hepatitis A and B from my social services days. I really never had a problem signing up for other vaccinations, so why was I dragging my feet over the flu vaccine?
Needle reaction. I’m a big baby about getting shots or having my blood drawn. I always have to cover my eyes and put my head down, and I get dizzy afterward. I know it’s pure, 100% anxiety. It’s still not fun having my amygdala hijacked, when I strongly prefer having my neocortex in charge. Anxiety always drives terrible decisions.
I’ve learned to deal with anxiety in these types of situations by planning my actions and responses ahead of time, when I can think straight and use my rational mind. I Get the Flu Shot Every Year. I Will Plan to Go As Soon As the Flu Shot Clinic Opens. I Will Not Run Screaming Out the Door Like That Little Boy Just Did.
On the way to the clinic, I told the Lyft driver where we were going. She replied that she didn’t get the flu shot. On the course of the drive, it was clear that this driver was a highly intelligent, educated intellectual; in fact, I would have liked to make friends and invite her out for tea. The trouble is that educated women of our age group are exactly the type of people who are so skeptical about vaccination that we resist it. I shared my story about getting sick the year that my hubby got inoculated and I didn’t. He was sitting right there, so look. See? It didn’t kill him!
The process only took a couple of minutes. We barely had time to sign the form before we were called up, one after the other. I warned the nurses that I get needle reaction, because it’s only fair to tell them. They suggested I think about something else, and chuckled while I described what I was thinking about: pot pie with peas and carrots and potatoes and ALL DONE! I hadn’t even gotten to the crust yet.
I’d like to say that I get the flu shot as a tribute to my beautiful mother-in-law, who was taken after her fifth bout with lymphoma. People going through cancer treatments have compromised immune systems, and they rely on healthy people to provide herd immunity. I’d also like to say that I get the flu shot because of all the little newborn babies who are too young to get their shots, babies who also rely on herd immunity. I probably wouldn’t have a seizure from the flu, but a baby might. The truth is that I’m a coward, a physical coward, and I know it. When it’s my amygdala talking, I don’t care about any darn cancer patients or newborn infants, I care about ME. What convinced me was those ten days of flu. He got the shot, I didn’t; I got sick, he didn’t. I’m sold.
In my typical week, I ride 8-10 buses. I go to the grocery store at least twice and the public library at least once. I go to two meetings with 30-40 other people. I go to a movie theater with 500 seats, usually full, and I go to a coffee shop and possibly three restaurants. Probably I go to a bookstore or other retail establishment. At the end of the day, I come home to my apartment complex, where I have 1500 neighbors, 80 of whom live in my building and share my front door. I use our gym seven days a week, sometimes the business center. I touch a lot of door handles, is what I’m saying. My decision whether to get the flu shot, like a good citizen, or procrastinate on it, like the big chicken I usually am, affects literally thousands of individual people in my community. One year, I was at an international airport when I realized I was coming down with the flu, and I rode on two planes and passed through two additional international airports before I made it home. It makes me cry to think of all the other people who must have picked up what I had that day.
Thousands of people die of influenza every year, vulnerable people who wouldn’t necessarily have been able to get the shot beforehand. It doesn’t have to be that way. Vaccination is a modern miracle, one that we’re quite lucky to have. Every time I do it, I try to think about how it’s proof that we’re living in the future. One of these years, they’ll find a way to vaccinate us against the common cold, and when they do, I’ll be first in line. Well, maybe second. I might need a minute to think about pot pie.
Where the heck did this year go? How did it get to be Fourth Quarter already? That means we only have three months left to knock off our resolutions from last year! As usual, I did some of mine at the very beginning of the year, while others have been languishing, still somehow incomplete. This is the time of year when I attempt to kick myself into gear, while also spending all of October celebrating an extended Halloween.
I just completed the work in Toastmasters to be a Competent Leader, three months ahead of schedule. In my second year of public speaking, I’m improving but still feeling physiologically hijacked and shaky a lot of the time.
My major personal goal for the year was to follow a set schedule. Not kidding, not even a week after committing publicly to this goal, our domestic life was turned upside down. For boring reasons related to commuting, I’m on a different schedule depending on what day of the week it is, and even what week of the month. The goal seems to be working, though. Because my time is stretched so thin, I’m finding that I really have to make the most of it. I’m usually up by 7:30 AM and I even get up at 6 to work out once or twice a week. I’m busier but I’m exercising more than I have in years. Having a schedule makes me feel busier, while weirdly making everything I do seem more important and interesting.
My physical goals of doing P90X and running five miles still remain incomplete. These will be my focus for Fourth Quarter, which should hopefully work out well because the temperature will be cooler at this time of year. It will also be nice to be fitter at the New Year than I was last January.
My home goal of “digitize, downsize, minimize” is now in bonus rounds. I decided not to keep physical books anymore, and I’ve been reading through my collection with the goal of downsizing my bookcase. There are only three shelves left out of six, and it looks like I’ll be able to pull this off. Getting rid of the bookcase would free up space in our tiny apartment so that I could have a desk again, if I so choose.
We had a couples goal of going to World Domination Summit this year, which we did, and it was great. We’ve already paid for our tickets for next year. We also had a goal to make homemade pickles, a commitment we made before moving into a new apartment with a microwave above the stove, which means our pressure canner won’t fit on a stove burner. We just ran out of our supply of homemade pickles, and we haven’t been satisfied with anything we’ve found at the grocery store. This is serious! Next step, refrigerator pickles.
I had a ‘stop goal’ of not being the last person to pack up my tent. I’ve only been camping once this year, but I made it! I wasn’t last! I dealt with my problem of feeling too cold to get out of the sleeping bag by buying and wearing a second base layer. I also got some ridiculous fleece pants and a fleece sleeping bag insert. Weird how having more stuff has actually made it easier for me to get up and pack.
For lifestyle upgrades, I planned to upgrade my phone and my work bag, and to repair our tent, which was torn up by a raccoon last year. I did upgrade my work bag, a decision that had a lot of unanticipated positive side effects. I also finally replaced the shredded mesh panel on the tent, and we were able to use it when we went to Wyoming. The new phone for which I have been waiting for three years has not yet been released.
My Do the Obvious goal for the year was to transform my appearance. I made this transformation back in February, and it doesn’t even feel weird anymore. I’ve made peace with the very difficult truism that other people’s opinions are strongly influenced by the way we choose to present ourselves. Clothing and grooming, who cares, right? But by that logic, if I really and truly don’t care, then I might as well put in the extra effort to look consistent with my desired results. In my case, that’s learning to look like I belong behind a podium or on stage when the occasion demands. I still feel disappointed and annoyed that this stuff actually works on people, like a crude magic trick. I don’t speak the same way when I’m on stage as I do in ordinary conversation, though, so it makes sense that I also wouldn’t dress the same.
My quest for the year was to BE RIDICULOUS. I want to go back ten months and shake Past Me until our teeth rattle. What a freaking stupid way to put that. So many ridiculous things have happened this year: I got bit on the butt by an earwig, we’ve been stranded in airports and on the runway to the point that we lost a day of our anniversary trip, I left our apartment for 90 minutes and our neighbors called Animal Control, I cut my eyeball on a plant... I swear, I meant ‘ridiculous’ in a good way!
I have a wish to pay off my student loan. This isn’t complete yet, but I have started making extra payments.
In July, I set up a charity: water campaign with the goal of providing clean water to 42 people. Despite having two months and offering a free gift to anyone who donated, we didn’t quite reach 1/3 of my goal. My disappointment about this is extreme. If everyone who reads my blog had put in one dollar, we would have easily surpassed that goal. I’ll blame myself for not writing good enough copy, not making a strong enough case for abundance mentality. If I can’t even motivate people who believe in personal growth to spend five minutes of their time and one dollar of their cash on a pure humanitarian charity, then I have a long way to go. I’m holding to my promise to delay the release of my new podcast until I can shake off this sadness.
Personal growth isn’t for us, it’s for us and the rest of the world!
This is the short version of my 2017 goals, resolutions, quests, wishes, etc.:
Personal: Follow a set schedule
Physical: P90X, run five miles
Home: Digitize, downsize, minimize
Couples: WDS, homemade pickles
Stop goal: Stop being the last person to pack up my tent
Lifestyle upgrades: Phone and work bag, tent
Do the Obvious: Transform my appearance
Quest: BE RIDICULOUS
Wish: Pay off my student loan.
It’s not accountability that we need. It’s consequences. We think we would reach our goals and adopt new habits if only someone else would come along and hold us accountable. The truth is, if we’re in a situation in which we can get away with breaking our commitments, then there are no consequences. At least, there aren’t any consequences that we believe in.
Certain things we do automatically. We do things because we know how, it’s not a big deal, we can do them without thinking about them, or we actively enjoy them. We take showers, brush our teeth, feed the cat, and buy snacks. Nobody has to hold us accountable, although some of the death glares from the cat might count.
Other things we do without accountability are to: put gas in the car, buy groceries, deposit our paychecks, pay attention when we drive, text our friends, follow celebrity gossip, squash bugs and spiders, play games, and really actually tons of other activities. These are things we would never procrastinate. We wouldn’t procrastinate even if they’re disgusting or scary, like spider detail, or time-consuming, like gaming or waiting in the checkout line. We understand that these actions lead immediately to results that we want. We also understand that not doing these things leads to results we do not want, like missing a must-see TV episode or not knowing whether the newest royal pregnancy will produce a boy or a girl. Well, okay, we won’t be able to avoid that last one even if we try.
The trouble is that there actually are consequences to everything, but they usually don’t make themselves known in the short term.
It’s not that we don’t believe in these consequences. We know full well that we should be “saving for retirement,” for example. The problem is that we don’t really truly believe that the day will come when we’ll personally feel these consequences because we don’t believe in a Future Me. Who is that crazy old coot to tell me how to spend my money? The Me who exists on this continuum in the time dimension, that Future Me who has white hair and sun spots, is not a real person! I’m much too smart to grow old! Oh, sure, I mean, I’m going to be rich and famous and have a maid and a butler and a chauffeur, but that version of me will be young and fit and sexy. We spend more time planning what we would do if we Won a Million Dollars in the Lottery than we do planning how much we should put aside for retirement and whether we should buy long-term care insurance.
We want accountability to help us keep the commitment to work out because we know that otherwise, we’ll never do it. We won’t do it because we don’t like it and we don’t want to. We won’t do it because we don’t believe in a time when our mobility will be limited. We don’t believe we’ll ever have a harder time climbing stairs or sitting down than we do today.
Is there any other habit that we even want as much as we claim to want the habit of exercise? Not that I’ve noticed. I don’t hear people asking for an accountability partner to help them pay off debt, save money, wear sunscreen, stop driving while distracted, or get more sleep. We don’t actually want to save money - we want to win it. We don’t actually want to get more sleep, at least not if it means going to bed any earlier. We don’t even think that distracted driving is a problem, at least not the way we do it, because we can totally text and drive, unlike that other guy weaving between lanes. The lack of sunscreen we immediately regret when our skin burns, not that that helps us remember the next time.
We think we want accountability because we think we can delegate a sense of responsibility. If we haven’t developed new habits, if we haven’t reached our goals, it’s because other people are too inconsiderate to nag us into living our values. Other people have let us down! How could it be our fault, if we can’t find any examples of people so inspiring that we Finally Feel Motivated?
The only way we can change is if we change our minds. If I want something different in my life, then it’s up to me to change my behavior. If I want to change my behavior in the short term or the long term, I have to tell myself a different story. I have to talk myself into it. I have to convince myself that the consequences are real. When I believe in the consequences, I don’t need accountability, because nothing can stop me. I’ll keep my commitments to myself and others because I understand what will happen if I don’t.
How much water should a person drink every day? According to my picky eater friends, the answer is zero, because water tastes bad. Everyone knows that if I don’t like the flavor of something, then it’s unhealthy and I shouldn’t put it in my mouth. The standard answer to the question of how much water to drink is: eight 8-ounce glasses, or 64 fluid ounces per day. Then the standard rebuttal to that is that we don’t actually have to drink that much, because we consume fluids in our food. I’m going to say that all of these answers are wrong.
It’s not nearly enough.
How much we need to drink depends on our size, our base exertion level, the humidity, the altitude, whether we’re traveling via airplane, what we eat, and what workout we may be doing. There are probably other factors, but these are the most noticeable.
I got an app to track my water consumption, because I was having a problem with getting cotton mouth right before bed. This intense thirst would make it impossible not to power-slam a big glass of water, which would then make it impossible for me to sleep through the night. It became my goal to pace myself, hydrating more in the morning so I could stop drinking water after 8 PM. Everything I do for my body is based around whether it improves my quality and quantity of sleep, because I have a very tiresome parasomnia disorder.
Now that I have a few months recorded, I see that I drink an average of 80 fluid ounces per day. The app set me a goal of 60 ounces based on my height, weight, and activity level. For the record, I am 5’4” with a small build and I live in a hot, humid climate.
Anyone who is taller than me, weighs more than 120 pounds, or exercises more than I do should probably be drinking more than that 80 ounces. Even more if they’re on any kind of medication.
It’s important to be skeptical, especially about outrageous health claims. There’s at least a million times more misinformation out there than there is quality information. Skepticism is an inner compass that can be used to experiment and test hypotheses. We can use this power of the mind to find ways to live a better, easier life. I was always very skeptical about claims that drinking lots of water is healthy, and I might go days at a time without actually drinking plain water. I was a big soda drinker instead. That’s what low-level skepticism can do for us. It can convince us that our terrible habits are good for us, because we like them and they come naturally to us, while at the same time convincing us that healthy habits are bad for us, because they’re annoying and they go against our proclivities. A skepticism that drives us further in the direction of our biases is not skepticism at all. It’s nothing more than a self-serving emotional validation tool.
What we want to do is to look at our results and try to amplify everything that is working well, while mitigating anything that is working less well. More of the good and helpful, less of the bad and painful.
The first thing that convinced me that maybe what I was doing wasn’t working so well was the idea that I could compare my results to the results of an elite. In this case, I’d be looking at elite athletes and at people with elite longevity, i.e. centenarians. What did these people do differently than I did? I noticed that athletic people universally all drank lots of water. I didn’t drink lots of water, and I was far from being an athlete. Correlation or causation?
What I learned when I started distance running was that hydration wasn’t actually a choice anymore. Intense exercise activates a thirst you’ve never known. It’s physically impossible to run for several miles and not feel thirsty afterward. You also start to learn that you have to drink before you feel the thirst. I felt vindicated with my hydration habits when I ran my marathon without bonking.
A Kaiser doctor told me once that dizziness comes from dehydration. I had called in to the advice line when I had the flu. In the past, I had had a problem with occasional random dizzy spells, and I’d even fainted a few times. That was back when I was working a full-time job while also attending school full time. It clicked for me that if dehydration causes dizziness, and I used to feel dizzy a lot, and I basically never drank water... maybe that was the answer? Maybe it was really as simple as that?
What I’ve noticed from drinking more water:
I used to always have dark circles under my eyes, and now they’re gone, even though I’m twenty years older
I sleep better, when I’ve had insomnia problems since I was seven years old
My skin is clearer
I have at least 10x more energy
I don’t crave sweets as much
I haven’t had a migraine in nearly four years, when I used to get them several times a week
I weigh 35 pounds less than I did when I drank soda instead of water
I’m stronger and fitter than I’ve ever been in my life
All of this could be a coincidence. Maybe it’s not my water consumption at all. Maybe I’m enjoying these benefits due to an astrological influence or a fairy’s blessing. Maybe it’s osmosis from living in a humid climate near the beach. Water is free to me, though. I can pour it straight out of the tap on demand. Drinking more water makes me feel better and helps me not get dry mouth at night. Why not do it? Why not test it out for a little while, at least?
Change is hard. It shouldn’t be, though! Changing from the status quo to something more positive should be the easiest thing ever. It’s like going from a state of hungry/no taco to holding a taco. It’s like being tired and then falling asleep. It’s like being all sweaty and then stepping into a relaxing hot shower. Why on earth would we ever think that positive change is hard?? The reason is that we start out in love with the problem.
We’re so in love with our problems that we think we need our own obstacles. We think the things that hold us back are actually going to help us. We think we’ll be rescued by our demons.
As an example, I used to have a problem with dizzy spells. I also had a general lack of energy and strength, chronic migraines, insomnia, pain, and fatigue. I was a mess. I drank soda and ate junk food. I would explain (carefully, as though anyone actually cared) that I “needed” to drink soda and eat greasy and salty food because I had low blood pressure. Is there such a thing as a mega-facepalm? I can look back and listen to myself blathering on, and know that I had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. It’s true that food was the solution to my problem, but it wasn’t the food I was inclined to eat - far from it. It wasn’t until I quit thinking I knew what I was doing that I was able to get answers for my various health issues.
In my world, meticulous explanations are a dead giveaway that I’m trying to convince myself of something I wish were true. Nobody else cares. Nobody but me cares what I eat, how much I sleep, how fit or fat I am, what I wear, what I listen to, what I read, what job I have, how much money I make or what my debt level is, whether I succeed in my plans, or whether I’ve been procrastinating on things. Other people only care about my problems if they are directly affected by them. They only care if I’ve made commitments to them that I am busily breaking. They care if I’m rude or if I’m late or if I’m a bad listener. Otherwise, I’m on my own, free to screw up or succeed however I like. Other people are not in love with my problems the way I am.
It’s true that money can solve debt problems, and that money is the root of debt problems.
It’s true that communication can solve relationship problems, and also that talking can cause relationship problems. (Try listening).
It’s true that food can solve health problems, and that food can cause health problems.
Thinking that stuff can solve organizing problems tends to contribute to those organizing problems.
Problems exist along a spectrum, with a polarity at each end. Take the stuff problem. On one extreme end is hoarding, and on the other extreme is destitution. A person with no bowl and no spoon has a problem, while a person who can’t find a clean bowl or spoon in the mess has a similar problem. No bowl, no spoon. It’s possible to get stuck in a problematic rut, such that we are oblivious to other ways of framing a scenario. The old “when all I have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” problem. If I’m preoccupied with body image and food as a reward, I’m missing all the people I know whose biggest rewards are friendship or dance or music or personal expression. If I’m preoccupied with my lack of money, I’m missing all the ways that my needs can be satisfied without money, and I’m probably also forgetting to be grateful that I’m not a medieval serf. When I am fixated on lack of anything, I am blocking my ability to find and acquire what I need, whether that's peace of mind, appreciation, or anything else.
Every minute I sit there complaining that I don’t have a taco is a minute I could be making, buying, or ordering a taco for delivery. Or bartering for one. Or just asking nicely, which works far more often than people realize.
I worked with a client once whose desire was to organize her email. The moment she showed me her inbox, I understood her problem. She would cc: herself on every single message she sent so that a copy would appear in her inbox. I asked her to walk me through how this helped her and why she was doing it. I showed her the Sent folder and demonstrated that every message she sent automatically appeared there. Explain me why you are doubling the amount of mail you need to read and sort? She got befuddled and could not explain a clear benefit to her practice. Did she stop doing it? Of course not. Of course not. For whatever reason, she had developed a sense of security from duplicating her mail. Changing might make her life easier, but she wasn’t going to be so dumb as to risk finding that out.
Another gentleman in the same company printed paper copies of all his mail and all his work product. He was the only person in the department with paper on his desk, and there were several stacks of it 3-4 feet high. His colleagues whispered to me that this paper hoarding was his idea, not something required by the nature of their work. This man probably wanted job security, a sense that he was indispensable or wise or useful in some special way. Instead he made his work area look like a cartoon.
Scarcity mindset is the hidden source of all these problems. I’m worried I won’t be okay and I can’t handle it and there won’t be enough. I need these emails to prove my point of view, if only I can find them. I need this paper to prove how smart and hard-working I am, which people would see if they ever quit talking about how inefficient my system is. Scarcity mindset is the root of FoMO, Fear of Missing Out. As long as I operate from a position of scarcity, anxiety, fear, or envy, nothing will ever be enough. No expression of appreciation, no amount of food or money or stuff, no position of prestige will ever satisfy me. I’m looking for the lack. I may even be caught up in problems of my own creation that would cease to exist if I quit thinking about them for five minutes.
Most of my job as a coach consists of rooting out the weirdly unique ideas people have about their problems. The organized life is really, really easy. You just follow a schedule and a budget, only make commitments you can keep, only have stuff you really need, communicate clearly, and respect your biological needs. Simple, right? It’s when we start explaining in minute, exquisite detail just why these simple structures won’t work for us that we start revealing the many ways in which we are in love with our own problems.
Decisions are everything. The more I make them, the more I realize it's true. Being strategic means that we periodically have to go back and revisit our earlier decisions, checking in with ourselves, examining our results, and making sure these decisions are still what we want. Revisiting decisions may mean canceling them, sustaining them, or redoubling our commitment. Cutting off expired decisions frees up energy and focus for those that we find significant today.
Most of life should ideally consist of routines, systems, policies, and any other ways we can find to put the boring stuff on autopilot. You only decide to brush your teeth once. After that, you just do it. You brush your teeth because you know how, because it's easy, because not doing it feels gross, because nobody will kiss you otherwise, because walking around with stuff in your teeth ruins your selfies, because honestly you don't even think about it any more. The more basic things you can treat the way you treat your dental hygiene, the more mojo you will have for making the fascinating, cool decisions.
Routines would include your job, your commute, your morning and bedtime rituals, your housekeeping, your bill-paying, grocery shopping, exercise, and anything else you want to make sure you do on a regular basis to make your life easier. Please don't waste decision-power on whether to unload the dishwasher or take out the recycling.
Systems are for anything you need to streamline. That might include packing your luggage, storing stuff, figuring out when to delegate certain things, planning your goals for the year, and anything else that doesn't necessarily happen on a routine basis. Anything that takes more mental effort than folding laundry probably needs a system rather than a routine.
Policies include the social, ethical, and moral realms. You might have a policy about not hurting animals or dating married people, a policy about littering, a policy about distracted driving, a policy about whether to vote in mid-term elections. Policies are how we behave consistently with our values. Setting an internal policy about something makes it more likely you'll be proud of your choices, without arriving at the choice point unprepared and making a willpower-depleting decision.
I don't have a policy of eating cake for breakfast; I DECIDE to eat cake for breakfast.
Now we circle back to revisiting decisions. We can revise our policies, we can revamp our systems, we can reset our routines. But then it's set-it-and-forget-it. I only need to set a policy once to avoid cannibalism or choose whether I think tights are pants. Decisions are for the one-offs. A decision should be for a special circumstance.
Often, decisions did not appear to be decisions at the time that they were made. I could list off a bunch from the land of squalor and chronic disorganization that would be pretty surprising. For instance, I don't think anyone *decides* to cover half their own bed with dirty laundry and food packaging. I think it "just happens" in a headspace of distraction that does not include decision-making, and usually does not include memory formation either. It's the sort of thing that happens when we experience ourselves as floating brains that do not truly exist on the material plane in the time dimension.
We don't need to forgive ourselves for this. There is nothing to forgive. We simply notice, Hey, I actually think of myself as a floating brain, and then we try to pull on the balloon string and get the head to come back. Come back to the room, to this moment in time, and try to pop back inside this body. This is really really hard with a helium balloon because it keeps wanting to float back up and out. Also, the room and the clock-time and the body may feel uniformly terrible. This is a place from which any decision at all will probably be an improvement.
Decisions are where change comes from.
The first step in revisiting decisions is to canvas yourself and your situation. Where are the pain points? What around you have you chosen, and what just sort of happened, and what do you feel was chosen for you by someone else? Where do you feel that you have the power to exert your gift of free will, and where do you feel that you do not have free will at all? Are you correct?
The second step is to pick at least one area and ask yourself, Hey, Self? WHAT DO I WANT?
In my professional experience, most people don't know what they want. It hasn't always even occurred to them to want anything at all.
What do you want? More sleep? A vacation? Lots of money? Side abs?
Usually when people start trying to figure out how to want things, they can only come up with things they DO NOT WANT. This is a great start, a way to tune in and check with yourself. It's only a starting place, though. Don't think about a polar bear. Tell your cat you want it to stop doing bad things to your carpet. See, it doesn't really work. Think of what you DO want, always what you DO WANT. Sometimes the opposite of what you do not want is still not the thing that you do want.
The next step after figuring out what you want is figuring out how to make that happen. Sometimes you'll find that you're still stuck on figuring out what you want. Sometimes this is because you've been focusing on the wants and needs of other people for so long. You have to differentiate for yourself what you want versus what they want, and understand that these things are not mutually exclusive. It's not zero-sum. Nobody has to lose out on anything if you start getting more sleep or paying your debts down. If you want side abs, you can even keep them private and just flex them when you're alone. Allow yourself to want things and to have ownership over your own life.
It's the midpoint of the year. This is a fabulous time to revisit decisions. If you're in the habit of planning the New Year at the end of the calendar year, you can just schedule it and do it now. If not, you can use the momentum of others and experiment with it, just this one time. That's an example of a decision you can revisit. Are you living in harmony with your own values? Do you approve of your own behavior? Are you proud of the results you are getting in your life? Do you feel close connections with the people you love the most? Are you excited about your contribution to the world and the new things you are learning? What can you change to remove the most annoying three things in your day? What can you change so that you are enthusiastic about something? Revisit your decisions and find out.
There are a million parallels between money and body weight (and clutter, when it comes to that). Anything we learn about one usually works as a useful thinking tool for the other. One of these tools is to use our metrics to calculate a trend line, using our past behavior to predict our future results. When we want to take better care of Future Self, it is helpful to evaluate by the month, not the day.
Why by the month and not the week? Most of our bills occur monthly. Rent or mortgage, car payment, student loan, electric bill, gym, internet, cable, storage unit, phone bill, all that stuff shows up monthly. We can break down our quarterly or annual bills, like car insurance or roadside assistance, and plug in a monthly cost for these as well. It gets tricky when we have to work out an estimate for our variable weekly and daily expenses over a month, because we usually don't like the answer.
I think some of this attitude comes from having an allowance as a child. We want to feel like we can have fun with as much of our money as possible. We work so hard and we're so tired so much of the time, and we have to drive in traffic and follow a dress code... surely we're entitled to splurge and have a treat from time to time? This is all well and good for Present Self, but not very kind to Future Me. We don't realize how much we're sacrificing to preserve that sense of fun and freedom.
The emotional comfort of having "enough" savings is something I wish I could bottle, so people could get spritzed and have a whiff. One waft of that fragrance would be a major motivating force. There is such a huge psychic difference between having a major, unexpected expense with no savings, or having a savings cushion and then having an extended run of good luck. It starts when you realize that you already have enough in your checking account to pay all of your rent and bills this month and next month, with some left over.
There's always something. I personally have been laid off, had major medical expenses while uninsured, received erroneous tax bills, been billed for equipment I had already returned, had engine failure on road trips (more than once), had the primary vehicle die, and I don't even want to talk about how many veterinary emergencies. There is a guarantee for expensive disasters that is much stronger than the guarantee of finding cute shoes or a "can't miss" sale. It feels so unfair and boring, when what we want to feel when we spend money is the internal fireworks of delight and dopamine.
The trouble is that spending money in search of that fun, exciting feeling doesn't always deliver the desired emotional payoff. That's true even today. Then there's the deferred sinking feeling of dread when we realize we've been overspending. We never see it coming, because the last thing most of us are going to do with our free time is to estimate our monthly spending on a graph.
I know exactly how I would do it. I'd start out with a $5 green tea soy latte and a $3 pastry, plus tip. Then I'd have an $18 lunch, sometimes more because I really should be eating more salads. Then I'd do a little shopping and spend $70 on books, plus tax, and maybe a new top. Ooh, I'm so busy, better text my honey and convince him to take a Lyft over to meet me for sushi and a movie! I could happily spend every day like this, much less spreading it over a week or two. It would feel so natural and easy, I wouldn't even realize that my burn rate was roughly $200 (a week? A day?), not including rent, utilities, vacations, gifts, debt maintenance, or special occasions. My daily splurges almost automatically become routine daily requirements. Then I'm chasing my tail, trying harder and harder to get that feeling of luxury and sparkle. I feel deprived when I have to "skip" what I can't afford in the first place. This is why scarcity mindset is so much more expensive than abundance mindset.
Planning for the future is a gift to myself. It takes imagination, especially because most people don't bother to do it, but I can get emotional juice out of putting money aside for Future Me: Next Year and Future Me: Age 60 and Future Me: Age 80 and Future Me: Who Even Knows. It also takes imagination to find comfort and excitement in the routine. There is no specific price tag on a sense of abundance, just as there is no upper limit to the amount that still will not satisfy a sense of deprivation. I can be cheerful eating homemade lentil soup, and bored and resentful at a five-star restaurant. I can sit with the realization that none of the tinsel and glitter I see are really going to satisfy me the way the actors in the commercial look satisfied. Nothing I have ever bought has ever made me jump into the air with my knees four feet off the ground and my arms in the air, I can say that much for sure.
Extrapolating my habitual activities over a month prevents me from fooling myself about "unusual" days or weeks. It's harder to write off my behavior as anomalous or claim it doesn't count for some reason. All the birthday cake and candy I had this month counts, just as I probably don't eat broccoli or cabbage as often as I mentally tally it. All the trinkets and treats I buy count, just as all my unfair bills and fines do, and I probably don't save money at nearly the rate I'd like to believe. I'm just trying to live in reality, to understand my own proclivities, and to make sure I'm really living up to my own standards and preferences.
An underrated advantage of estimating our monthly expenses is that it enables us to estimate our annual expenses. The reason we do this is that we can then estimate how much we would need to maintain our current lifestyle if we were financially independent. What seems impossible today can, with sufficient data, seem nearly inevitable four or ten or fifteen years down the road. Extrapolating into the future induces optimism.
We'll lie to ourselves a thousand times worse than we would ever lie to anyone else. One of the many types of those lies is the lie of omission, of deliberately obscuring information. We want no part of knowing our true motivations. That's what creates the Secret Shame. Even worse than the Secret Shame is the thing we refuse even to acknowledge to ourselves. The dark pool at the bottom of the chasm. What do I not want to know about myself? What am I avoiding?
Simply put, what we're avoiding is always a bad feeling. I don't want to think about X because if I do, I'll feel sad, scared, lonely, incompetent, unlovable, dumb, ugly, guilty, dirty, weird, angry, or otherwise awash in icky emotions. Whatever it is, whether it's a work project, a debt, a health issue, or a cleanup job, it's really just a thin coverup for a bad feeling, a feeling that probably pops up in all sorts of situations. Or wants to.
This is the root cause of procrastination.
Procrastinating is caused by 'temporary mood repair.' That means we'll do something other than the thing we believe we should be doing because we want to bury the bad emotion and, at least briefly, replace it with a positive one. I'm going to take I CAN'T HANDLE THIS or I DON'T KNOW WHAT TO DO and put them in a shoebox while I generate feelings of good cheer and elation by playing Candy Crush or watching a capybara video.
Okay, actually watching capybara videos is my purpose in life.
I've talked to people who claim that they never procrastinate. This can cause hilarity of truly epic proportions when it's someone you know well. Oh yes? Then when were you planning to deal with your: long-term unemployment / hoarded garage / consumer debt / sleep apnea / non-viable relationship / total lack of retirement savings / 150 pounds of excess body fat? Procrastination refers to the big stuff, not the piddly little things like making a business call, sewing a button, or filing your papers. I'll go so far as to say that you don't have to file your papers at all; you can leave them in a stack, and it'll take you just as long to find something on the off chance that you need it. You can also take that garment with the missing button and throw it in the trash, because if you haven't been wearing it, you aren't going to miss it. Immediately take your to-do list in one hand, a thick permanent marker in the other, and strike out any minor chore that you see. Or ball up the list entirely and give it to your cat. You're not avoiding that stuff, you just understand that it's irrelevant to your life.
What is really relevant? That's really up to you, and whether you want your life to stand for something. What memories you want to have when you draw your final breath.
"I did exactly what I want, and anytime someone tried to tell me what to do, I didn't. Mission accomplished." Fair enough. The point is not to have any regrets, not to wish we had done things that we never made the time to do. Whatever that means to you is your personal choice, based on your personal values. If your only value is autonomy, hey, whatever works for you.
Living in accordance with our own values is far more challenging than it should be. We love nothing more than to criticize other people for things they are doing, assuming they know better, but then letting ourselves off the hook for the things that we do or don't do. HE did that because he's an idiot / selfish / jerk, but I did this because I was busy / distracted by something important / had mitigating circumstances. It's called fundamental attribution error. Gossiping over the failings of others is fun. Looking down the well and facing our own failings, the deep ones, is dreadful. Why is it that we choose our own values, and yet we don't like holding ourselves to our own standards?
What am I avoiding?
Personal connections. Cutting the cord on personal connections I no longer want. Facing my fears of rejection or intimacy. Working harder. Pushing myself in my career and then finding that I'm not as good as I thought I was. Realizing what I thought was my fantasy doesn't really interest me all that much, and that I don't have anything to replace it with. Finding out how much I really will have to change if I want what I say I want. Missing out on a slice of cake even one time. Admitting to myself that I am creating the majority of my own problems. Revealing to myself that I have the ultimate power to make myself start doing or stop doing whatever I decide, but also realizing that I don't want to. Admitting how much I hate Future Me and want to make her life as difficult as possible. Acknowledging that I can't actually read every book in the world. Scrapping a project I sunk so much time into and either starting again with something else, or saying, I was never going to be this or do this. Living a bigger life and finding that it's yet again time to do more and be more vulnerable to public scrutiny. Facing my own mortality. Opening myself and my work to criticism. Yanking my floating brain back into my meat-body and realizing that yes, I live here full time, and yes, this really is me. Making eye contact with my own dark side.
Who knows what else?
Usually we're avoiding very specific things. I don't want to think about these papers. I don't want to wash these gross dishes or bag up this gross trash. I don't want to update my resume. I don't want to make that phone call or read that email, much less reply to it. I don't want to have that conversation. I don't want to get my heart rate up or get sweaty. I don't want to eat any nasty old vegetables. I want to watch this show or play this game or read this paragraph without having to do something else that is less fun or interesting, regardless of what it is. I don't want to fold this laundry or put it away. I'd rather sit in a room with this long list of dumb five-minute mindless chores clouding my mind than get up and do annoying tasks. In this case, we're avoiding the uncomfortable knowledge that most of a good and happy life consists of routine maintenance. That most of what can improve our day-to-day or bring us toward our goals has no intrinsic thrills in the action, only in the accumulated effects of the routine actions.
There are three possible reactions to the knowledge that we are avoiding something. 1. Keep avoiding it. 2. Admit that we're never going to do it and move on. 3. Face it and deal with it. I try to choose "face it and deal with it" as often as possible. This attitude increases my ability to handle things in all situations, expanding the possibilities in my life. I want to avoid being idle or missing opportunities, shrinking my life because I only ever chose the small and easy choices.
By this time of year, almost nobody is talking about New Year's Resolutions anymore. We still have more than half the year left, but usually we've already given up on ourselves. Caroline Arnold has a better idea in Small Move, Big Change: Using Microresolutions to Transform Your Life Permanently. We can make the changes we really want to make by focusing on tinier, faster, easier steps.
It isn't always obvious how to go about breaking a big project or life change into smaller, more manageable pieces. If we had the idea, we'd be doing it, right? Small Move, Big Change has countless examples of microresolutions that real people have used. Simply reading them has a tendency to spark connections and clicks that make these changes seem easy and manageable. Because they are personal, they're memorable in a way that boilerplate advice often is not. The book covers such a huge range of topics that there is bound to be at least something transformative for everyone.
Arnold starts with sleep as the best area to start making microresolutions. I couldn't agree more. Most of our failure to have perfect "willpower" (a fantasy creature that only exists in storybooks) is due to tiredness. Too tired to even get ready for bed! As she picks apart her own issue with sleep procrastination, we can't help but compare her routine with our own. A busy, married working mom with a young child, Arnold's struggles are totally relatable.
Small Move, Big Change can help us get more sleep, save money, be on time, get organized, get fit, lose weight, and get better performance reviews at work. Best of all, there are ideas for how to transform relationships with our romantic partners, family, friends, bosses, and colleagues. We start to feel like maybe we can handle this pesky old Resolution thing after all. Small Move, Big Change is definitely a path in the direction of greater happiness.
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.