Decisions are decisions because the answer isn't obvious. For instance, I'm wearing my shoes and pants because my husband's shoes and pants don't fit me. I'm going to eat my lunch instead of your lunch. I'm going to walk on the floor and not the ceiling, although I wouldn't rule that one out. Non-decisions. Most things are not decisions, and they shouldn't be. Decisions are to be avoided whenever possible. The best way to do this is by using strategy.
A strong case can be made that strategy is the single biggest difference between successful people and everyone else. It's the difference between a professional and a student. Most of us have to fight a strong desire to be an "A student" and be perfect, which means we're trying to follow someone else's rules and figure out what is expected of us. Strategic thinkers instead create their own rules and figure out how to get the world to meet their expectations. Like, I am still trying to figure out why I can't buy potato chips at the baseball stadium, or, for that matter, why I can't get kale chips at the movie theater.
Let's do some examples of decisions vs. strategy.
Getting dressed. Decisions are what happens when your closet is full to bursting, you feel like you never have anything to wear, there's stuff that doesn't go with any other stuff, a lot of things don't fit right now, and there are shoes that never get worn. Strategy is what happens when you plan outfits either at the store, or before you even go shopping, and only own clothes you love to wear. My house was built in 1939, a time when average people looked great, and my four-foot closet rod matches with the idea that most people in the Thirties only had nine outfits.
Eating. Decisions are what happens when you're already hungry and have no idea what to make, but nothing in your kitchen looks good and there's stuff spoiling in the fridge that cost you hard-earned money. Decisions also happen when you're staring at a menu and overwhelmed by FoMO. Strategy is what happens when you plan meals by the week, write your grocery list off that meal plan, and have a system for using up leftovers.
Dating. Decisions are what happens when you're emotionally conflicted about a relationship with someone with whom you are probably incompatible. Strategy is what happens when you decide on your deal breakers and only get involved after finding out what someone is really like. The most important feature of a new romance is to find out whether this person is emotionally available and interested in monogamy, and it's an eternal mystery why so many people skip this vital bit of research!
Shopping. Decisions are what happens when you are in a store looking at things that maybe you didn't even know existed. Strategy is what happens when you plan ahead of time to buy only what you can afford, that you need, that you can maintain, when you know where you're going to put it.
These things all tend to have a multiplier effect on mental bandwidth. Burn through your mental energy on a decision like what to eat or what to wear, and there won't be much left when the next decision point comes up. Make decisions while under emotional strain, like when you're in a bad relationship or hating your job, and it's that much harder to "make good choices."
"Make good choices" is kinda useless as far as advice goes. What if what I want isn't even on offer? What if all the choices presented to me are bad options? Thinking of menus again, sometimes we're just in the wrong 'restaurant' in life, with fifty things we don't want and not a one that we do. Time to get up and create a different situation.
Strategizing is really the reason to make resolutions at the New Year. Once a year is probably the longest we should ever wait to do strategic planning for our lives. What do we want out of life and how are we going to get it? It's much simpler than most people realize; in fact, average people will make strong arguments that strategic planning is impossible and give all the reasons why they aren't allowed to do it. Well, it is allowed and we can generally do whatever we want. Here are some ideas.
Relocate to the part of the world where you want to live. Moving from a cloudy, wet, cold climate to a sunny, dry, hot climate is probably the single best decision I ever made, while the reverse might be true for someone else. Other solid reasons to choose where to live include career options and proximity to loved ones.
Choose a career. Most of us just sort of stumble into a job, which we then hate and dread, and only look for something else when we get laid off. Choose something and figure out how to get the credentials to do it. Relocate if necessary - another vital strategic step that most people reject.
Figure out what energy level you want. Default option for almost everyone is burned out, chronically exhausted, moody, irritable, overweight, and sedentary. These are not coincidences. Moods can be managed, and the keys to that are sleep, hydration, food intake, and substances like caffeine and alcohol.
Plan your personal environment. How do you want your living space to feel and look? How do you want your life to function? Mornings are a big indicator: Do you start your day exhausted, frantic, and running late? If so, that shows how strategy can help. Figure out where to put your most important stuff like keys and glasses, get your outfit and meals ready the night before, and set a bedtime alarm. When you've got a handle on that, start getting rid of all your extra stuff. Don't let a bunch of old junk cause you to keep losing track of your important stuff or be late all the time.
Strategy is about where you want to be and what you want. Decisions are about what to do with what's in front of you right now. Sometimes the answer is that you don't want anything out of the available options! There may be nothing left for you at your current place of employment, in the neighborhood where you live, or in the stuff in your house. Pretend it doesn't exist. In a parallel universe, where you suddenly found yourself bare naked and starting over from zero, what would you do? What life would you build from scratch? It's always possible to create something new based on your vision for yourself.
Would you slap a bratty child? Yours or someone else's?
Assuming the answer is no, congratulations! You have just demonstrated a healthy regard for social norms, self-restraint, and willpower. These are superpowers. They can be used in all situations.
Assuming the answer is yes, of course you would slap a bratty child, let's do another one. Would you rob a bank? Hmm, wait. That might be the wrong kind of question to ask someone who would slap someone else's kid. Would you... would you pee your pants on purpose rather than wait in line at the restroom?
Let's just call that a No and move along. Of course not. Not only do you have self-restraint, willpower, a healthy regard for social norms, and control over your voluntary bodily functions, you also prefer to avoid doing things that are against your obvious self-interest.
If this is true, then you have the power to do and achieve anything.
What it comes down to is that we will not do certain things under any circumstances, because we do not give ourselves permission to do them. Some things we will not do out of disgust, like eating furry blue leftovers. Some things we will not do out of contempt for "people who do those things," like late merge, even though it's purpose-built for the greater good. Some things we will not do because they make no sense, like cashing out our retirement funds to buy a jet ski. Some things we will not do because we just have no urge to do them, like murder or arson. We can thank Past Self for avoiding these things.
We are smart. We have plenty of self-control. We easily do what two million incarcerated people evidently cannot do, which is to stay out of trouble.
Why, then, do we think we have so much trouble with "willpower" and "motivation"?
If we can refrain from punching annoying customers, why can't we refrain from eating that second slice of cake?
If we can avoid shooting heroin, why can't we stop drinking soda?
If we can resist setting our boss's desk on fire, why can't we resist the siren song of the sofa?
It really comes down to what we give ourselves permission to do. We give ourselves permission to eat things that taste good that we want to eat, especially when they're free. We give ourselves permission to lounge around when we've made other commitments to ourselves. We give ourselves permission to abdicate on responsibilities, even when they are congruent with our core values. We are perfectly happy calling ourselves lazy, or claiming we have no willpower, when really we're talking about the same exact self-discipline that allows us to control our bowel functions.
What is behind this, I suspect, is that our defects are our charms. Flaws make us relatable. Get too perfect, and we quit having so many friends. We bond over the things that annoy us, frustrate us, the things we hate. Where is the benefit in suddenly having less in common with other people?
Don't you dare start eating healthy. I need you to have my six when I want to order dessert.
You're making the rest of us look bad.
Now, I'm a contrarian, or so they tell me. My main motivation is curiosity. The more I feel that something is unexplored territory, the more something seems taboo for some reason, the more I think about it. Fact-Finding Missions are my brownie bites. I have to know. If I married Bluebeard, I wouldn't have waited until he left the house to try to unlock that last door. In fact, I wouldn't have married him until after I'd seen it, but anyway. Divorced people are suspicious. I give myself permission to experiment, research, and check out things I want to know, like: what does it feel like to be strong and fit? Sometimes other people have a problem with this. Anyone who is put off by my appearance, my activities, my thoughts, or my conversation is unlikely to be happy with anything I do after the first five minutes regardless.
What I've learned is that whatever you are doing at any particular point in time, however you are dressing, whatever music you are listening to, a group of people will gather around you. What annoys one group will be cheerfully embraced by another. This is why I don't let crowd response dictate what I do.
In the words of my dad, don't do anything illegal, immoral, or just plain stupid. I agree. Everything else is on the table.
I give myself permission to do what I want. I go where I want. I wear what I want. I read what I want. I eat what I want. Surprisingly, I very rarely say what I want, but I say plenty, and it's fair to keep my thoughts to myself. Perhaps because I am a free elf, I do not give myself permission to overeat, stay up too late, spend money frivolously, be overweight, or watch dumb stuff on TV.
Other people will not give themselves permission for other things. To go out without wearing makeup. To tell missionaries to get off the porch and never come back. To wear comfortable shoes. One person's freedom is another person's asceticism. One person's prison is another person's freedom.
Fourteen-second rule. Do you do it? Do you eat food that hits the floor?
Eating grapes while shopping for produce, or taking samples from the bulk bins. Do you do it?
Texting and driving. Do you do it? I sure as [unprintable] hope not.
Being late. Forty minutes? Twenty minutes? Ten minutes? One minute? How often?
Ask around. The answers to these questions are highly personal. Most people will recoil in shock or disgust at one thing, but shrug and admit that they do another, while the person standing right next to them will do the exact opposite. We don't always agree on how these behaviors fit into civilization, or what constitutes a social norm.
What we do generally agree on is that it's okay to break New Year's Resolutions. It's fine to overeat and struggle with weight and body image. It's totally ordinary to have piles of laundry laying around. It's expected to be disorganized. It's practically required to blow off going to the gym. It's somewhat uncouth to have read the entire book before the book club meeting. It's standard to carry debt and have no retirement savings, even when you're fifty. Even though these common areas of attempted resolutions involve the same self-discipline as obeying social norms, they are not regarded AS social norms, and thus they are fair game.
What we have to ask ourselves is which we prefer. Do we prefer fitting in and living the conventional track? Or do we prefer solving what we have felt to be a problem in our lives, at the risk of no longer bonding with people about the problem? Is the tradeoff worth it? What do we give ourselves permission to do or not do?
The Slight Edge is a great candidate if you're looking for just one self-improvement book to read this year. It touches on everything I would want to say to someone who is struggling in some area of life and looking for a way out. Jeff Olson's message is that the little things we do every day make more of a difference than larger-scale efforts, whether for good or ill.
Olson starts out by describing his "day of disgust." That's the day he became fed up with himself and knew that he needed to change his behavior. I had a day like this while journaling, and I've known others to have their day of disgust and quit smoking, quit drinking alcohol, and vow to permanently lose the extra body weight. The triggers in those cases were seeing a bunch of smokers standing in the rain by a dumpster, spending a night in jail after a DUI, and being insulted by a friend. I feel fortunate that my day of disgust happened while I was comfortably ensconced in my own bedroom! People often refer to this kind of moment of clarity as "hitting rock bottom" - but one person's rock bottom is another person's starting place. We can let go of the idea that external input needs to bonk us on the head before we make the firm decision to be accountable for our own behavior. We can just decide to change.
The Slight Edge includes some great graphics. The success curve chart made a lot of sense to me. Success is determined by whether a person takes full responsibility or blames something or someone else instead. My clients always blame themselves, among other people. They believe they're lazy and lack willpower. They wallow in shame and guilt many times every day. They constantly insult themselves. Blaming someone else might at least offer the motivation of revenge, of "I'll show YOU! You have no idea who you're dealing with!" Blaming ourselves is a sure-fire way to fall down the well and get stuck down there. Accountability is a route out. Every time we figure out a way to solve a problem, every time we think more of the future instead of the past, every time we work toward something positive rather than sitting and perseverating in negativity, we move upward on the success curve.
The most interesting part of The Slight Edge for me was the idea that "the size of the problem determines the size of the person." The specific example was the way that the type of problems we are solving at work determines our income. The biggest problem I ever had during my old day job was getting a paper cut on my eyelid. If I could have solved larger-scale problems such as program management, I could have been earning three times as much and delegating the paper-cut-getting to someone else.
The Slight Edge, according to Olson, is all about what we do when nobody's looking. Do we make the incremental choices that lead toward our goals, or do we let ourselves off the hook? Can we keep ourselves focused even when we're not seeing results yet? The results of the success curve only become visible 80% of the way along the curve. (I ran a marathon four years after I went out the door and couldn't run around one single block in my neighborhood). Can we hang onto a dream, or do we talk ourselves out of wanting it because we don't trust ourselves to work for it?
Olson suggests a 250-day program, which is one year with 115 days off. That means following through roughly 2/3 of the time. For any goal, whether it's reading more, going to the gym, or brown-bagging your lunch, 250 days is enough to make significant progress. Another suggestion is to do that which 95% of people aren't willing to do. I will vouch for that, also. I've been free of consumer debt for a decade because I'm willing to live in a small house with one bathroom, share a vehicle, and go without cable TV or a storage unit. I went from obese to a size zero because I'm willing to keep a food log, and I ran a marathon because I'm willing to exercise in the rain. I didn't run every day and I didn't meet a strict calorie goal every day; two-thirds of the time sounds like my reality. I fully agree that the Slight Edge is a mental adjustment that can easily solve any problem, and I highly recommend the book.
Leo Babauta knows whereof he speaks. He started out as an overweight smoker with six kids, a house full of clutter, and a bunch of debt. Now he's a minimalist who has run a fifty mile ultra-marathon, and if he can do that with an eight-person household, he's probably a superhero. When he talks about common goals like health and fitness or getting organized, I pay attention. He's done it. He knows what it takes to make massive habit changes and stick to them. It turns out that the secret is The Power of Less.
Peace of mind is the ultimate goal, and Babauta teaches how mindfulness helps make life easier. Only try to make one change at a time, concentrate on just that, and set up your environment around that change. The book includes a 30-day habit change plan, the Power of Less Challenge, which thousands of his readers have completed. It has rules, and one of the most important ones is to choose a small goal. He explains how to break big goals down into segments that an actual ordinary human being can do.
Clutter goes out the door one bag at a time. Debt is paid off one dollar at a time. A marathon becomes possible one sidewalk square at a time - I know, because when I started I couldn't even run around the block, and I wasn't even a smoker! Working on small goals takes self-compassion, both because you want a better life for yourself and because if you really do want it, you have to tackle it in a way that is manageable. No perfectionism, no punishment.
The Power of Less walks its talk. It's a slender book that could easily have expanded into a full shelf of much longer volumes. Whether you want to clean your desk, stop spending your whole day answering email, get more sleep, or start exercising, Babauta has been there first. He's here to show us the way, one small step at a time.
Control is what we're after. We're willing to change, as long as it doesn't mean:
Changing our habits
Changing what we do with our time
Changing what we eat
Changing the way we spend money
Changing where we live
Changing our minds
Changing the things we think define our personality
We love to say, I'VE TRIED EVERYTHING! That phrase is a dead giveaway that we're never going to get results where we think we want them. It means we think our default mode is viable. We think what we're doing basically works. We think what we do every day is the norm, and that it's perfectly fine and serving us well. We think we're starting out at the hub of normality, and occasionally we'll shuffle a step away from that hub in one direction or another. Shortly thereafter, we're back to standing in the same spot. We think the only thing that works is the one thing we know does not work.
What works is a fundamental paradigm shift.
In simple terms, what works is to say, what I was doing before definitely does not work. What I think of as normal IS the thing that is causing my problem.
As an example, I used to define myself as an insomniac and a night owl. Because of this self-diagnosis, I behaved in certain ways. I didn't do any further research. It took me several years to figure out that my real problem was a parasomnia disorder - totally different from insomnia - and that I could manage it through my behavior. I thought I had "tried everything" and that "insomniac" was just a core part of my personality. In this way, I took a piece of fate and made it into a destiny.
Things happen to us, but they're not necessarily permanent. We're not "stuck that way." If anyone who ever lived overcame the situation that we're in, then there's a good chance we can do it, too. If not, then maybe it's our destiny to be the first.
A sure-fire way to find the area of most potential in your life is to look for the resistance. When do you most want to stay up for an hour pounding out replies on your keyboard? What articles or comments can you simply not ignore? What is the one insult you could never laugh off? What is the issue you want to insert into every conversation? Whatever it is, there's some juice there for you.
As it turns out, the easiest thing in the world is to change your mind. Changing your mind about anything can lead to instantaneous, revolutionary change in your life. Fighting to hang on to outdated ideas can lead to years of struggle and stasis. It hurts. There is really nothing harder than continually trying to convince yourself of something when all signs indicate that it isn't true in your life.
Sometimes it helps to simply say, "This is how it is, and I'm not willing to change it." I'll do other things, but not this. I will cheerfully work hard in other areas, but not this one. I am married to this one aspect of my life. I don't necessarily like it this way, but I would hate myself if I changed what I see as this fundamental aspect of my personality. I choose to maintain my identity around this issue. Autonomy is mine.
I've known lots of people like this. Some of them choose Level One squalor because they hate the way "clean" looks. One of them self-limits his income because he has no interest in ever owning his own house, being in a relationship, or having a family. He likes renting a room, letting someone else shoulder the responsibilities of mortgages and bills, and working just enough to get by. I met one guy who got lucky in his first job out of college, when the company made its IPO and the first couple dozen employees became millionaires overnight. He invested his money and lives off the interest, which is just enough to live in an apartment with a roommate. His only worry in life is replacing the roommates who get tired of coming home from work, only to see him still sitting in front of the TV in his bathrobe. What all of these people have in common is that they put a lot of thought into their life strategies, and they're doing exactly what they claim they want to do. I choose mess. I choose a low income. I choose a terminally boring daily routine. All righty then! More power to you.
Most of us get similar results, only without the conscious choice.
Choose it, then. I choose to maintain my debt and my spending patterns. I choose to maintain a chronic level of exhaustion and my late-night entertainment consumption. I choose to maintain chronic disorganization and chronic stress from always being late and losing things. I choose to maintain my current physique by eating and doing whatever the heck I want, so shut up. It's my life and I do what I want!
Things get interesting when we realize that nobody else really cares what we do. This happens when you turn forty. You look around and realize that people all around you are doing whatever they want, and nobody tries to stop them. There's a guy in my neighborhood who wears a straw hat carefully covered with tinfoil. In all other respects, he's perfectly normal; he just likes wearing a tinfoil hat. Maybe he knows something we don't. I saw a guy yesterday whose beard was bigger than my dog. Good for him. The question then becomes, what will we do differently, now that we know we aren't impressing anyone one way or the other? Now that we have NOTHING TO PROVE to anyone but ourselves?
We're allowed to live in a hoard and stack trash bags to the ceiling. We're allowed to get into hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, or maybe even hundreds of millions. We're allowed to gain as much weight as we can afford - the current world record is somewhere around 1200 pounds. We're allowed to become addicts (to gambling, alcohol, huffing glue, or whatever). We're even allowed to commit crimes and go to prison. All is permitted. We can do whatever we want, as long as we're willing to withstand the consequences.
We are free.
The trouble with freedom is that we are more free than we agree. We don't believe we have the freedoms that we actually have. When it comes down to it, most of us don't really believe in free will! We don't think we can choose. We especially don't think that the results we are getting have anything to do with choices we did make, or might make, or could make. We think we've done the only obvious things to do, and that what comes naturally is predetermined in some way. This is how I roll. It runs in the family. This happened. This is how the world works. This is why we're only really willing to make small changes; it's all we think we're allowed.
Doing what other people don't do can be really fascinating. A few years ago, I realized that I could go on a Fact-Finding Mission whenever I was curious about something, and I could be a test subject in my own experiments. What happens if I do this? What happens if I do that? What happens if I change my diet? (I change my body). What happens if I change my personal environment? (I change my mental bandwidth). What happens if I change my mind? (I get different results). At the end of the day, here I am, with a body I created, in a living environment I created. My results are not just different from almost everyone else's results: my results are HUGELY different from almost everyone else's results. As a consequence, I now try to come up with ways to change my mind as often as I can. Why on earth would I want to keep thinking the same thing and doing the same thing if I didn't have to?
Making one radical, revolutionary, about-face change can lead to another. Changing your mind about anything reveals to you that you have the power to change your mind about everything. You don't have to be stuck, unless you want to be. You don't have to be broke. You don't have to be as limited by illness as you think, or your doctor thinks. You don't have to live the way you do. If you want something different, you can find someone else who is demonstrating how it's done, and you can figure it out. Major change is easier than small change, because major change can actually pay off.
I had the good fortune to see Lewis Howes in person last summer. He gave a workshop at the World Domination Summit, and it changed lives. I know because I stayed in contact with several of the people I met at the workshop, and they couldn't stop discussing it. The School of Greatness includes several exercises that have the potential to be just as transformative as those in the workshop, if you are willing to take them seriously.
This is the ideal time of year to read a book like The School of Greatness. Hopefully, we're still in Resolution Mode and remembering that we want to do impressive things this year. We're hanging on. It's still January! Half of people with New Year's resolutions have quit by June, though, and if we want to fulfill our potential, we have to plan. The more we dive into HOW and WHY, the stronger our commitments. Workbooks can be really helpful in posing questions and presenting examples that we never would have thought of ourselves.
I sat down with my journal and started with the Perfect Day Itinerary. By the time I had finished it, several things had clicked with me about the projects I want to do this year. I wrote out a schedule and started following it before I had even read the next chapter in the book. Suddenly, these huge intimidating goals I had set for myself during a fit of optimism on New Year's Eve seem... fairly straightforward. As I read through the book, the material helped to reinforce why I'm doing what I'm doing.
A chapter that I particularly enjoyed discussed the daily habits of successful people. It turns out that successful people do a lot of the same things every day, even when the areas of their expertise are wildly different. Howes suggests comparing your own daily habits with these keystone habits and seeing where they match and where they don't. I do almost all of these things myself, and can easily remember a time when I didn't! Average people will argue against a habit like making your bed every morning, or argue for a habit like watching hours of TV every night. No, that's not me. That won't work for me. This is how I roll. Then we wonder why it's so easy for all these wealthy, famous people who get everything, and why it's so hard for us. Two of those answers are HUSTLE and SELF-DISCIPLINE.
What makes Lewis Howes great, and he knows it, is that he spends most of his time with fascinating and successful people from all walks of life. He interviews them on his podcast to figure out what makes them great. What do they know that we don't know? What do they do that we don't do? What was it like for them back when they were average? How can we absorb this information and use it to make ourselves better? The School of Greatness is the place where we find out the answers.
Is there really such a thing as a bad habit? I think the term reflects the kind of moralizing we often do when the real issue is effective/ineffective. We blame ourselves for lack of "willpower," a "bad" character trait, because we don't understand habit structures. We blame ourselves for lacking "motivation," or being "lazy," because we don't know how to manage our moods or energy levels. We're quick to label ourselves, not so quick to figure out what it is that other people do differently. What works? What doesn't work? That's all that matters.
Bad habits are just the things we'd rather do. They're not necessarily "bad." I like to read true crime and self-help books, and I don't care who knows it! I can waste just as much time reading educational articles or watching documentaries as I can reading gossip columns or watching soap operas. I can gain just as much weight eating gluten-free muffins as the regular kind. I can spend just as much money on fitness equipment and classes as I can on a gaming system and cable TV, which makes them identical from the vantage point of my puny retirement account. It's not necessarily what I'm doing with my money or my time. It's more about whether my money and time are buying me the life I want or not.
The trick is always, first, to strategize. Know what you want. Crank up your emotions around it. If you want it, rev yourself up until you want it REAL BAD. We're great at doing this with food but we don't always realize that we can do it with anything. When I was training for my marathon, all I could think about was getting that souvenir t-shirt at the finish line and all the places I was going to wear my shirt. I saw myself wearing my race medal to dinner that night. I didn't see that I would have to walk backward and crawl upstairs on my butt, but that's a different story. I did get what I wanted, because I knew what I wanted and I wanted it more than other things. I also got that shirt because I know how to combine the things I like to do. In my case, that was running + audio books + vanilla fig bars.
Anchoring is when we connect one thing with another. Socks and shoes. Peanut butter and jelly. Folding laundry and jumping out the window. Actually, scratch that. Folding laundry while listening to a podcast. Running on the elliptical while reading mysteries and celebrity biographies. Riding a recumbent bike while playing video games. Cleaning house while listening to the Best Playlist Ever. One of life's greatest mysteries is why so many people do their worst chores in silence, even when they have the option of playing whatever music they want. Use this power for good.
What we tend to do is to anchor our favorite habits with one another, rather than using them to get us through the boring stuff. Eating cookies and reading. Watching TV and eating takeout. Granted, everyone should have moments of pure bliss every day, or at least every week. We do have the opportunity, though, to harness the awesomeness of our favorite activities and use it to make the duller moments less sucky. Awesome + sucky = meh, okay I guess.
What is the worst, most annoying part of your life? Mornings? Money? Commuting? Your job? Fighting with your family? Cooking? Cleaning? Alas, there's no escape from biology, society, or the economy. There's always a better way, though. Usually there are lots of better ways.
Try to fit as much awesomeness into your mornings as possible. Wear funny socks and underwear. Splurge on soap or body wash if you splurge on anything - I like tuberose. Eat your favorite food for breakfast. Make sure you see your favorite color a lot, whether that's your toothbrush or your bowl. Listen to something great while you shower and get dressed. I start my day with a kiss from my parrot, while my husband's treat is watching the dog chase his tail while he waits for his breakfast. Awesomeness doesn't have to take more than a minute. It's just knowing that you have this one little thing to enjoy every single day.
Commuting is basically the worst non-fatal, non-criminal activity. It used to drive me crazy when people would tailgate me, even when I stayed in the slow lane and there was obviously a cement mixer in front of me. Someone passed me on the right once, driving through bushes on the shoulder of the road, when the passing lane was empty for miles! Driving would be fine if nobody else was on the road. Anyway. One day, I realized I could listen to audio books in the car. Total change of perspective. Suddenly my car became the setting of an old-fashioned radio play and I forgot all about the tailgaters. I couldn't wait to run errands at work. Then I joined a gym next door to our building, and I was able to spend rush hour doing my workout and soaking in the hot tub afterward.
Feelings of deprivation drive a lot of ineffective choices. Feeling deprived leads us to eat stuff and spend money on stuff that sets us back and sends us in the opposite direction of what we really want. The higher my household income, the thinner I am and the less stuff I have. It's weird to be able to buy things you always thought you wanted, and no longer want them after all. Change your definition of 'deprived.' How could I ever voluntarily deprive myself of a good night's sleep? How could I dream of depriving Future Me of enough money to live on when I'm too old to work? Why would I deprive myself of a high energy level and a fit, healthy body? How could I deprive myself of a functional, comfortable living environment? This puts habits in the context of our overall experience of life.
"Bad habits" aren't always bad. I ate an awful lot of cookies and waffles when I was training for the marathon. I consume a lot of mental fluff while working out and cleaning house. I spend virtually all my time doing what I want every day, and fortunately, most of those activities don't cost money. It's totally possible to have fun while saving money and being fit and organized. In fact, focusing on those overall outcomes is what frees up the time, money, and energy to do the most decadently fun things in life.
Quitting is highly underrated. The desire to complete every single thing we start is a neutral trait. It's purely negative when it keeps us tied to irrelevant past decisions. Sometimes, following through is simply a bad idea, a waste of time, energy, and money. The art of doing what you want includes the art of making executive decisions, and that means knowing when to quit. Quit something for the New Year. Quitting something may free up enough energy and mental bandwidth to start something better.
Quit watching TV series that aren't living up to your expectations. For the sake of all that is holy, please quit watching episodes that you've already seen.
Look at all your books. If there are any that you quit reading, and then moved on to read something else, just quit. Give them away or put them in the recycle bin.
Open your fridge and your kitchen cupboards. Anything you bought as a taste test that you can't make yourself eat should just go straight into the compost. Owning a bunch of kale that you aren't planning to learn to cook is just going to turn into brown pudding.
Go through your drawers and your closet. Anything in there that doesn't fit today should go into a trash bag. Haul it all off to the Salvation Army as soon as you're done. If you're ever going to transform your body, it ain't going to be because you're haunted by your old skinny jeans.
Look around for the relics of old projects. Craft projects. Shop projects. Electronics projects. Language learning projects. Musical instruments. If you weren't working on it yesterday, you're not into it. If there's dust on it, well, dusted is busted. You don't love it anymore. Quit and move on.
Quitting done properly should bring a sense of relief. Just because Past You made a time commitment on your behalf does not mean that you are obligated to fulfill it. Past You probably thought you'd have time in this life to audition for Cirque du Soleil, become a surgeon, and learn to communicate with dolphins, just as soon as you finish becoming a master chef and winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. Not happening. Present Self likes to do the same stuff that Past Self did, like watching TV, playing with your phone, and eating brownie bites. Future Self is going to carry on the old family tradition.
Acceptance of reality is a necessary part of self-compassion. Look around and say, IT IS WHAT IT IS. Here you are, today, in the home that you have, the career path that you have, with the education that you have, the bank account that you have, and the body that is you. Better than it might have been, perhaps not as good as it could have been, but, here it is. Current state of affairs.
Is this what you want?
All we get is default mode. Whatever we structure into our daily routine, that's what our lives will be. Every minute that we spend doing one thing is a minute that we can then never spend on something else. Every object that surrounds us takes up a spot in the physical universe where another object can't be. Every penny we spend is gone, never to be spent on something else, such as retirement. These are the choices we made. When our choices are intentional, we shape our world to our liking. When we cruise along on autopilot, we may not always stop to realize that we haven't been setting intentions. That means we are not choosing, we are not deciding, we are not exerting free will. Things happen to us when we could be happening to things.
Commitment means what you think it means. If you make commitments lightly, with only mild interest and vague intentions, then the results of your commitments will be unimpressive or nonexistent. Gradually, the halfhearted, lackluster nature of the commitments begins to pile up. Magazines we thought we'd read one day, mail we intended to sort, classes we planned to take, projects we wanted to finish, messes we meant to clean up. We wake up one day, realizing that we're broke, out of shape, and surrounded by clutter. It's because we never stopped to make executive decisions and quit anything. We don't like to stop and declare something DONE, either because we're quitting or because we followed through until it was finished. Our dance cards are full.
Making a total commitment can transform your life. Your word becomes your bond. You know you will follow through unless you are forced to quit. When I signed up for my marathon, my brother asked me if I thought I'd make it. "Oh, I'll make it to the finish line. I'll make it if I have to drag myself by my chin. The question is WHEN I'll make it." It took over seven hours, and I had to drag my leg for the last eight miles due to an injury. They rerouted the end of the course. I had to go on the sidewalk and wait for stoplights. But I made it to the finish line, and I was still vertical. That's what commitment looks like. It's not always pretty and it's not even always a good idea. But breaking promises to yourself is what happens when you make them too readily. Only commit, only make that inner promise, when you know it really matters to you.
A commitment is a tradeoff. It means you're spending your time and treasure on it instead of something else. Accepting one job offer means that you reject the others. An RSVP to an event means declining other opportunities. In our world, this idea is falling away. We think we can multi-task, to the point that we try to text and drive. We think we can have it all, and we think we can have it all at the same time. This is why we only have what we already have. This is why our reality so rarely matches our fantasies. Doing what we were called to do means quitting everything else that is taking up our time and attention.
Euphemisms can be fun. In our household, an “opportunity to succeed” is the term for when the parrot needs a potty break. That’s about once every ten minutes. Not to get too graphic, but if she’s sitting with you and you’re wearing something labeled “dry clean only,” don’t startle her. Aside from her role as catalyst of many wardrobe changes, some due to flinging food or snagging with her nails, she’s a delightful companion. Part of it is her sweet nature. Part of it is that we’ve set up her environment in a way that makes it easy to live with her. This is where pet training can teach us a lot about habit formation.
I’ve always been described as “good with animals.” My husband is more like Dr. Doolittle. When we got married, our pets got married, too, in their own way. The 18-year-old Noelle and 8-year-old Spike treat each other much as you’d expect a human teenage girl with a decade-younger little brother to treat each other. They share food and toys, they try to get each other into trouble, they annoy each other sometimes, they ignore each other most of the time, and occasionally we catch them being affectionate when they think nobody is looking. He licks her on the beak and she touches his snout and makes smooch sounds.
Why does this work? Why can our ¾-lb bird climb on our vigilant 21-lb terrier, with her terrible scratchy talons, and not get bit or shaken to death? How have they managed to live together for 7 years without injuring each other? That’s a story in itself. The keys are that we respect their natures and their biological needs, that we create a living environment that makes it easy for them, and that we’ve introduced changes very gradually. We supervised them extremely closely. We didn’t leave them alone in a room together for years. Plenty of dogs and parrots bite, ruin furniture, bark or scream monotonously, and are aggressive toward humans and other animals. Ours are nice because we set them up to be nice. We give them that “opportunity to succeed.”
What does this have to do with humans?
First, when we want to change our habits, it helps to do at least a bit of research in psychology. We have to understand what tends to work for our breed and what tends not to work. Going back to the pet training example, birds are flock animals and dogs are pack animals. They both have an inherent need to understand where they fit in the “pecking order” and who is the alpha of the group. (NB: a human, not a pet!) We established very firmly, when he was only 10 weeks old, that Spike is “gamma dog” and he has to let the bird boss him around. She bribes him with food rewards, reinforcing the relationship. When we want to change our habits, we need to know how habits work, and we also need to pay attention to our social surroundings. Is there someone in the pack who is going to throw us treats? Are someone else’s rules influencing our behavior?
The physical home environment is paramount, both for habit change and for pet training. We have clearly defined areas where our pets are allowed to relax and be themselves. They each have a private sleep area (crate for him, cage for her). She has plenty of things she is allowed to use for her biological need to chew. They have their own toys, their own food, and their own water bowls, although sometimes she drinks out of his. He has a special blanket and a couch he’s allowed to sit on. This helps assuage his hurt feelings due to being banned from our bed. In the human parts of the house, we have designated areas for our stuff and our activities. I set up the medicine cabinet so that just glancing at what is in there reminds me to floss at night and put on sunblock in the morning. I set up the fridge so that the vegetables are at eye level. We keep our desks, table, and kitchen counters clear so they’re always ready to use for their intended purpose. Keeping the house clutter-free also makes it easier to do housework; research shows a cluttered house takes 40% longer to clean. That’s a big deal when you have as many loose feathers, dog hairs, shredded bits of plywood, and muddy paw prints coming through as we do.
A schedule is helpful. Getting enough rest is a big deal for all of us. Noelle beeps if she’s under her cover too late in the morning. Then she starts imitating the travel alarm clock. Then she starts imitating the backup alarm of a garbage truck. At this point, the dog starts howling, rather than simply running out of the room. Next, they both get louder. Birds need about 12 hours of sleep a night, and a sleep-deprived bird is a crabby, biting sort of a bird. Mealtimes are the other major one. If any member of the house is eating, the other three expect to get a bite also. It makes life easier when we all eat together. If there is any single thing that makes habit change easier, it is letting the schedule pull you through the day. The important thing is to move from one activity to another without pausing to decide whether to do it or not. Do one thing, then the next thing, then the next thing. Stop to think and make decisions later in the day or evening, when most of the mandatory activities of the day are done.
The fascinating thing about living with animals is that they have their own interior agendas. The dog has developed a thing lately of jumping up around 9:30 PM, standing on his hind legs to sniff at his leash, and barking at us and the front door. That’s not walking time, but for some reason, he feels this sudden interest in the leash and the door. It’s interesting to see when either of them decides to play with toys, stretch, or ask for attention. They definitely never let us forget munch time. What they don’t do is worry the way humans do. As far as we know, they spend zero time wondering what other people or animals think of them, stewing over old grudges, or browbeating themselves for their flaws. Noelle picks her nose with her toe and Spike licks his nether regions. They both have pretty high self-esteem. Whenever she sees her reflection in the mirror, she leans forward to kiss herself. When we call him “good boy” he actually believes it.
One of the things about training pets is that we have rules. They can only understand what we want from them if we’re very clear about what exactly we want, if we communicate it in a way they can understand, and if we’re really, really, really consistent. It doesn’t help when Mother has one set of rules and Dad has a conflicting set of rules. We don’t steal food off someone else’s plate. We don’t grab people with our face. We don’t jump up. When we misbehave, we are instantly corrected and removed. There is a constant expectation that we will behave in certain ways, which are positively reinforced with affection and soothing words. We know what can be expected of us, given our inherent tendencies, and most of the time, we’re allowed to do what comes naturally.
Pets lack the skills to survive in the wild. Our dog is a 20th-century breed, and he may even lack the physical ability to survive in the wild. It’s our job to look after them. We have to take care not to overfeed them or give them inappropriate foods, because they don’t know how to say no. They can’t read health articles or have a conversation with their vet about fatty liver disease. They aren’t moral agents; in a very real way, they can’t make decisions. (We have to remember this when the bird chews foam from the underside of the ottoman, and the dog keeps digging up my basil seedlings). We read that fat people have fat pets. We’ve lost 100 pounds between us, so we have to watch our tendency to be “feeders” and find amusement in giving our animals lots of yummy treats. We also have to recognize our tendency to give ourselves lots of yummy treats. Caring for them has almost all of the same requirements as caring for ourselves. As they’ve both put on extra grams (or pounds) and we’ve been chewed out by the vet, the solution has been to switch to “weight management” chow and measure scoops of food at each meal. Same for us.
When we don’t want our animals to chew something up, we keep it out of reach. When we catch them doing something dangerous, we rush to their rescue and then make sure the dangerous thing can’t happen again. When they do something naughty, we correct them, as many times as it takes. We feed them what is healthy for them and restrict things they shouldn’t have. (Avocado could kill her; a lot of things are toxic for him, like raisins or tomatoes). We set them up so that they follow a natural rhythm of life every day, with plenty of time for rest, play, grooming, exercise, and affection. They enjoy simple things much more than we do, and that helps us feel like shower time or shoelaces are more interesting than we would otherwise notice.
We have a lot to learn from animals. They never overthink anything. They both fulfill their complete agenda every day, from grooming to napping to shredding things to exercising, whether that means chasing one’s tail or hanging upside down and face-punching a bell. They seem reasonably satisfied to eat the same number of calories every day. They both place a high priority on cuddle time. They don’t keep clutter, they don’t over-pack, they don’t berate themselves for lacking willpower or motivation, they’re ready to go when it’s time to go somewhere. They have no body image issues, even though her wings are trimmed and his tail was docked in puppyhood. They both walk around shamelessly naked. They are utterly perfect, each in their own way, a clearly recognizable African Gray Parrot and a classic American Rat Terrier. They lead successful lives.
Perhaps it’s from training pets that I have developed a comfort level with using behavioral psychology on myself. It’s pretty easy and straightforward for me to adopt new habits. I recognize that I have an innate drive to do both positive and negative things, and that I have to incentivize the right impulses and repress the undesired ones. I can’t let my parrot destroy people’s earrings, I can’t let my dog chase the mailman, and I can’t let myself do things like procrastinating on my taxes. I have to respect my biological needs for sleep, water, and appropriate foods, because if I treated my pets as badly as I might treat myself, I’d be cited for animal abuse. I don’t expect my critters to learn new tricks on the first attempt, and I teach myself to do new things the same way: patiently, slowly, incrementally. The best trick I could ever learn is to love the way they do, fully and unconditionally.
I just learned a new business term, and that is the phrase “bias toward action.” It refers to a decision to take action quickly even in the face of insufficient information. This trait is also the secret behind how to beat procrastination. We have a tendency to overthink everything. We hesitate to take action, sometimes because we just don’t want to DO THE THING, but also because we make simple tasks part of some incredibly convoluted mental contraptions. We mull things over and wait for optimal conditions. What we rarely do is to simply GET UP and DO SOMETHING.
What to do? Where to start? It doesn’t matter. Take any action that will move you closer to any goal.
What’s important is what not to do:
Sitting. Sitting is to be avoided. Sitting is bad for the human body in many ways.
Ruminating. Make a rule that if you want to ruminate, you have to multi-task and do it while you complete a task of some kind. Worry only when putting away laundry. Stew over what that person said while cleaning the floor. Criticize yourself only while packing lunch.
Q4 activities. Quadrant 4 is anything defined as neither urgent nor important. Many of us spend most of our time in Q4, staring at screens or pages. Q4 includes any form of passive entertainment and all the weird non-actions we create that we think fit into some kind of loophole.
Once you eliminate an attractive nuisance, a seductive time-waster and brain drain, it is no longer available to distract you. It creates a void that becomes very boring. One very effective anti-procrastination technique is to stop allowing yourself to do anything at all other than the project you’re supposed to be doing. You can work on it or you can stand there and stare at the wall. B.O.R.I.N.G..
Procrastination is about “temporary mood repair.” Thinking about DOING THE THING makes us feel bad, and we let ourselves off the hook so that we can get away from that bad feeling. I don’t want to! I don’t have to. Yay. This “giving in to feel good” reinforces itself. We reward ourselves for exactly the behavior that we think we’re trying to eliminate. It’s like giving your dog a cookie for biting you. Future Self gets screwed over once again. We push off our duties over and over, creating significantly worse pain, stress, and dread for ourselves to experience slightly further down the timeline.
JUST GET IT OVER WITH ALREADY!
Let’s talk more about the bias for action, because it is ripe for skepticism. How is taking any random action going to help move me forward?
Let’s say all I do is pace around in circles. How is that going to help? It will help by getting your blood circulating, for one thing. Sedentary behavior is physically and mentally draining. Pacing around the room for more than a few minutes also starts to seem a bit ridiculous. Once you’re up and moving, a lot of small, easy tasks start to feel less aversive. Put items away. Take out the trash. Clean out the fridge. Hang up some clothes. Basic chores start to get done. This creates a sense of momentum and a more organized space. More importantly, it restores mental bandwidth.
Taking any action at all is very positive when you focus on completing anything that can be done in under five minutes. This includes most household chores, informational phone calls, and email responses. I can scrub a bathtub in five minutes. What can you do?
The five-minute exercise can be a real eye-opener when you work with an actual stopwatch. A timer is fine, too, although the two are really different sorts of exercises. Timers are good for playing Beat the Clock and racing to see how much you can get done. Stopwatches are good for finding out how very little time most tasks take. I despise making customer service phone calls, but I’ve found that most take under two minutes. I just remind myself of this fact, take a breath, and start dialing. It takes me longer to brush my teeth than it does to get an annoying phone call out of the way.
Hustle is what I call it. My goal is to create a sense of momentum from when I get up through the end of the workday. Action instead of decision points. Routine instead of decision points. Habit instead of decision points. I only needed to make one decision about working out every day. I only needed to make one commitment to eat micronutrient-rich foods and avoid eating junk food. I only needed to make one decision to put my health first and have a realistic bedtime. I stay “organized” by having a set routine that includes cleaning one room each weekday. All I have to do is get up and start working my way through my reminders as they come up in my phone. When I’m already dressed, wearing shoes, and physically moving around, it’s no big deal to add in one more chore. Many things, like putting a dirty dish in the dishwasher or tossing junk mail, take under 10 seconds.
The trouble comes in when I’m contemplating a more complex project, such as writing my book. It isn’t always obvious what to do. That’s where I start. I get out a piece of paper and start rapidly free-writing all my stuck points. What questions do I need to resolve? What research do I think I need to do? What parts am I worried need to sound more realistic? What do I think doesn’t work? What am I trying to accomplish with this section? Then I branch out and brainstorm as many possible solutions to a particular, fine-grained question as I can. I’ll make a mind map or a flowchart or a timeline or a diagram or a map. Usually, an answer emerges that seems like it should have been obvious – but wasn’t.
The two most commonly procrastinated tasks are planning for retirement and dealing with health problems. I once met a man who turned out to have had an untreated hernia for three years. Imagine the pain. The greatest mystery in life is how we manage to carry on with our burdens while avoiding action that would relieve the misery. I think it’s because we don’t always know what to do next, and there are no clear signals to show the way. If PAIN isn’t enough of a sign, what would be? The man with the hernia could have done anything at all. He could have simply groaned and leaned against a wall, and someone probably would have come over and asked, “Buddy, are you okay?” He could have asked anyone he knew, “Have you ever had a feeling like a gopher was gnawing its way through your entrails?” He didn’t have to know what a hernia was, or how it was treated. He just had to do something: ask a question, go to a doctor, hail a cab. Even a reference librarian would have helped him.
I’ve done a lot of things since I started forcing myself to work through feelings of resistance, reluctance, and distaste. I realized that I was annoying myself and that the results I was getting were not anything I would want. When I first took action, I had no idea where it would lead. I never knew what would work or not work. I just kept doing and trying and experimenting. When I started running, I only planned to be able to run 2.25 miles by the end of the year. I did it in six weeks. I didn’t plan to shrink my thyroid nodule through strenuous activity; I was simply procrastinating on getting the biopsy and working out my terror through exercise. I rode around town shouting, “F.U., thyroid gland! YOU CAN’T DO THIS TO ME!” I guess it worked. When I realized it had been several months since my last night terror episode, I chalked it up to my running routine. It took several months more before I realized the key factor was actually whether I ate too late at night. Blood sugar, not exercise. I quadrupled my cruciferous vegetable consumption, not realizing that it would cure my migraines. Micronutrients, who’d have thought it? I hurl myself full force into a new habit, experiment with it, and generally get unanticipated positive results. Not knowing what I’m doing keeps me keenly interested in the process. I stick with the behavior long enough to figure out what it does, and that tends to sell me on why it’s a good idea.
Overthinking is a tendency I still have. I’ve learned, though, to start with the action and indulge in the mental exploration afterward. When I started running, I couldn’t make it around the block. I started reading books of running lore before I could run a mile. By the time I ran my marathon four years later, I was informally coaching my friends. It’s been the same with my explorations of nutrition, motivation, habit formation, personal finance, and everything else. I start from the place of DUH and fill that void with experimental action, research, and writing. Not knowing how to do something is ideal for the curious and the adventurous.
Build the bridge while you’re crossing it. Unless you’re the first person on Mars, whatever it is you’re trying to do has been done by someone else. That means it can be done. Millions of people have run a marathon, and every single one of them started out as a baby who couldn’t even roll over in bed. I’ve been passed by octogenarians, blind people, and a para-athlete with a colostomy bag. Maybe that isn’t such a great anecdote to support how running has worked out for me. It does give me something to aim for. How can I run as fast as that 80-year-old man? What does he do that I’m not doing? It goes to show the benefits of maintaining momentum.
Acknowledge that you don’t want to do something, state why, and then do it anyway. Do something. Do anything. You already know that the brain rut you’re in is not fun, not productive, and not sexy. Procrastination is like always walking down a dark back alley full of trash bags. Surely you’d rather go the other way, the well-lit main street? Maybe you find yourself at the alley entrance again. Simply pause and think, “I smell garbage,” and use the reminder of ickiness to turn away and stay on the main street.
Recognize the resistance. Notice the feeling of I DON’T WANNA. Catch yourself when you settle back into your familiar nest and prepare to pretend that time does not exist. Pick up the phone and call Future Self, see what’s up. Maybe hold the Future Phone a few inches away from your ear first. Have a heart. Show some compassion for Future You. Get it done, whatever it is. Dive in and do it.
Just get started.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.