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.
The Compound Effect is the kind of book that is incredibly motivating and inspiring for people who are already motivated and inspired, yet intimidating for people who are not. I say this as someone who probably would not have bought into it in my younger days, while knowing, through later experience, that everything in it is true. Believing is seeing.
Darren Hardy begins with his origin story. He had a tough dad who drilled discipline into him from a young age. These few opening pages could be off-putting to the majority of us, who would find such tough-love parenting tactics a bit scary and depressing. Just keep reading. I can attest that reaching your goals does not require drill-instructor parents or early success. You can build positive habits even if you're a late bloomer like me.
The Compound Effect refers to the way that our habits take us in different directions over time. Hardy offers the example of three imaginary dudes. One just keeps doing what comes naturally. One cuts 125 calories a day out of his diet, and the third starts cooking more recipes from the Food Network. Not quite three years later, Dude Two has lost over 30 pounds while Dude Three has gained over 30 pounds and the first dude is just the same as he ever was. I can scroll through my Facebook feed and point out several real-life examples of this phenomenon. In one case, I sincerely didn't recognize an old friend in a photo and thought she had been tagged incorrectly. I had seen her in person 2-3 years previously and she had somehow nearly doubled her body weight in that time. Meanwhile, another friend who had started in that weight range is now doing triathlon and is likewise nearly unrecognizable. Comparing the habit changes of my two friends would be instructive, although the first person would find that kind of question very hurtful and the second would be proud and flattered. This is what habits can do.
Hardy shares examples of various people he has coached, usually his employees. "Beverly" was overweight and lost her breath climbing one flight of stairs. Through his coaching, she lost 40 pounds and ran a marathon. Yeah, right, you might say. That story could have been about me! I only lost 35 pounds, but I not only got out of breath climbing a flight of stairs (at age 29), I would see black spots. I did wind up running a marathon, just like Beverly. I kept the weight off and I haven't been at my top weight in 12 years. I started just by walking 2 miles per hour on a treadmill for 30 minutes at a time a few days a week. Little habits really, really do add up. I didn't know that I would become a marathon runner when I started. I just knew that I was too young to have that much trouble climbing stairs, and there were people in their 60s with more energy than I had, and I wanted more for myself. Little by little, my efforts compounded. It works.
An idea I loved from The Compound Effect was to use your snooze button time positively. Hardy says his snooze lasts 8 minutes. In those 8 minutes, he does gratitude practice and then sends love to someone. I found this enchanting! What a lovely way to start the day. A variation on using your snooze time could be to record a video of yourself talking about how exhausted you are and how you want Future You to stop sleep procrastinating and go to bed half an hour earlier.
Ask yourself where you were five years ago, Hardy suggests. Compare where you were then with where you are now. Are you where 2012 You would have hoped you would be? Do you have the same negative habits you wanted to get rid of then? Have you built the positive habits you wished you had then? This is sobering. I found that I had indeed built some positive habits, but that I had slipped on others, and that some things I still don't seem to have figured out.
Only when you experience the compound effects of a habit do you start to feel and believe the power. It's delightful and addictive. You can change anything with just the tiniest increments over time! Hardy offers real-life examples, such as how he wrote down at least one thing he appreciated about his wife every day and then gave her a book full of the observations. I wouldn't have thought metrics could be applied to marriage until I read that. The Compound Effect is an eye-opener, with the kind of insights that can put everything in your life into new perspective.
Some questions from Chapter 5 to ask your friends:
"How do I show up to you? What do you think my strengths are? In what areas do you think I can improve? Where do you think I sabotage myself? What's one thing I can stop doing that would benefit me the most? What's the one thing I should start doing?"
There are a million myths about exercise. One of them is that it leads to weight loss, which is silly. Another is that you just go to the gym and "work out" and live happily ever after. The truth is far more complicated. Our bodies are very efficient in adapting to anything we ask them to do. That means that whatever workout we choose, within a few months, it will seem relatively easy. That's why it's called a routine. It's true what they say, that today's challenge is tomorrow's warmup. We want to periodically reevaluate our physical activities and make sure we're getting the most of our sweaty-fun-times.
The best time to start a new habit is right after you move or change jobs. That way, it just seems like starting a new chapter, or a new book. There was that time when I lived at 123 Main Street, lounged around on the couch watching Game of Thrones, and ate a lot of cereal for dinner. Then I moved to 1212 Shakethatbootay Street and suddenly I was in training.
'Training' is somewhat like working out, except for something very specific, in the same way that shopping for a wedding dress is somewhat like regular shopping.
Two and a half years ago, I ran a marathon. I over-trained and injured my ankle, and the road to recovery was long, significantly longer than 26.2 miles. This is one of the many reasons that we must periodically reevaluate our workouts, so that we don't hurt ourselves. I had heard of cross-training, but I didn't truly understand what it was. It means that no matter how often you dream you are wearing a unitard and a handlebar mustache while crossing a finish line at the Olympics, you do have to mix it up and not run every single day.
Cross-training means that some days of the week you do one activity, and other days of the week you do something very different. Ideally, this will be a mix of cardio, strength training, and flexibility. There is no end to the information out there on physical culture. What tends to happen is that you dabble a little and read an article here and there, and then you get sucked into the vortex. The more you read, the fitter you get, with the catch that you are also more aware of how slouchy and slow you really are. Well, I don't know about you. You might be able to deadlift a tractor tire. I myself look very much like the bookworm I have been since I was two years old.
If I were a man, I would probably be more embarrassed about my lack of upper body strength, although it's pretty typical for a runner. As a middle-aged lady, it just means I can pass for a schoolmarm. I would say 'librarian' but most of the librarians I know can kick my butt.
Here I am, finally unpacked in my new apartment. Despite the past few weeks of packing and hauling and unpacking boxes, I haven't been working out much lately. By 'lately' I mean two years. My daily workout has been walking three or four miles, punctuated by the occasional yoga class. I'm feeling tense, crooked, slouchy, sloppy, weak, and tired. Welcome to your forties, right? WRONG! I refuse to feel like an old lady until I'm at least eighty. I know how good it feels to be in great physical condition, and I want that back. Now it's time to reevaluate my workout.
It starts with the brutal truth. All the truly rewarding journeys in life do. If you want to be wealthy, it starts by confronting your financial balance sheet, including any and all debts. If you want to be organized, it starts by confronting all your disorder, including anything you've procrastinated or hidden from yourself, such as a cluttered storage unit. If you want to be strong, well, that starts by finding your weak points. In my case, that includes chronic neck and shoulder tension, a weak core, and a sadly flat marathoner butt. I know from working with a trainer that I need to strengthen my core, glutes, and quads, and I need to work on hip stability. The strength training exercises that I do will therefore be different than what another athlete would do, such as a swimmer or tennis player.
Check that 'need to.' Whenever we find ourselves saying 'need to' or 'have to' or 'should,' we're telling ourselves and others that we're trying to fulfill a duty or obligation or responsibility. It's helpful to reframe it as 'want to.' IF I want to run another marathon, THEN it will be helpful if I do high-knees to strengthen my hip flexors. IF I want to release my shoulder pain, THEN I ought to start running again, because the micro-movements of pumping my arms really help with that. I WANT TO cross-train effectively so I can do what I love (or used to) without hurting myself. Faster and farther than ever before.
If I scrape the barrel, I can remember how happy I was when I ran all the time. I felt like my mood was at a 9 out of 10 most days. Regular Me runs at more of a 7. Chronic Illness Me runs at more of a 4. I've fluctuated back and forth through health and illness, happiness and pain, enough times to confirm for myself that Workout Me is the version I prefer.
One of the most interesting questions is not "Why should I do this?" It is actually "What is the most I can do, and how do I find out?"
I used to feel defensive about my activity level, and I felt the need to painstakingly lecture people and train them all about my various health problems, so I could prove (to them? to myself?) that I not only didn't have to exercise, but that I could not. Ever. Then I gradually realized that my state of health involved variables that I could control. One day I woke up pain-free, and I finally understood. If I was careful, if I kept records and tracked data, if I paid attention - I could stay pain-free. When the novelty wore off, I started to wonder what else I could do, and so far I haven't found anything that I could not. Why be satisfied with 'good enough' or 'oh well'? Why not try for HECK YEAH?
My plan is to run on the beach at least one day a week, as soon as I can figure out the tide charts. I'm also looking for a pleasant hilly area for my other training days. Next is two days a week when my husband can strength-train with me in the apartment gym. We're getting our bikes fixed, so we'll play around with that, and maybe I'll drop in on some classes around town. Whatever I do over the next few weeks probably will not bear much resemblance to what I wind up doing a few months further down the road. The important part is to continue to reevaluate, making sure I'm making the most of this earthly body while I still can.
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.
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.