I’ve been following James Clear for about five years, so I was thrilled when I heard he had a book coming out. I pre-ordered it and read it as fast as I could! Atomic Habits is everything I had hoped it would be, and more. Learning about habit formation from James Clear has changed my life. New readers can pick up in one handy volume what the rest of us have had to learn in small bits over the last few years.
Pop culture has a lot to say about habits, and most of it is wrong. For instance, we think it takes 21 days to form a habit and we usually believe that successful people have unusual amounts of passion, motivation, and willpower. No wonder it’s so hard to make changes!
Atomic Habits is based on extensive research. One of Clear’s major strengths is that he will chase down a reference until he can either document it or... well... not. An example would be the oft-mentioned Seinfeld rule “don’t break the chain,” from a conversation with a fan of his standup comedy. I read recently that Seinfeld himself said he couldn’t figure out where that anecdote came from. Then James Clear references a documentary. He remains the only writer, among at least a dozen I’ve read, who has cited a specific reference to back up that particular claim. If he uses an example or a quote, he has found the citation. That’s his standard.
Another strength of Clear’s work that appears in Atomic Habits is the beautiful simplicity of his illustrations. I particularly love the DECISIVE MOMENTS diagram showing how small choices can add up to make the difference between a good day and a bad day.
Although I have been reading James Clear’s newsletter and taking his webinars for several years, I still received some surprising and valuable new insights from Atomic Habits. One of these is the concept of the “decision journal,” something that I am going to implement immediately. Another is the habit contract; I’ve seen this idea before, but Clear’s example suddenly made it relatable. I also glommed onto the concept of “resetting the room,” and I’m going to steal it and use it all the time.
If you have tried and failed to change your habits, don’t despair. Atomic Habits is here to help. This research-based book will entertain, inform, and probably surprise you as much as it did me. James Clear is changing habits, and if he keeps it up he’s going to change the world.
Once your pride gets involved, you’ll fight tooth and nail to maintain your habits.
Hearing your bad habits spoken aloud makes the consequences seem more real.
The people with the best self-control are typically the ones who need to use it the least.
...I have never seen someone consistently stick to positive habits in a negative environment.
Most of us are experts at avoiding criticism.
Volcanic Momentum is the sort of motivational book that you don’t put back on the shelf when you’re done. You leave it out where you can see the cover, because just reading the words VOLCANIC MOMENTUM puts you in the right frame of mind. Jordan Ring has ‘it,’ ‘it’ being the mysterious factor that can transform a self-described overweight, broke gamer into a veritable productivity machine.
A lot of motivation and productivity books speak in the abstract. An example would be a single person giving parenting advice, or someone who has always been athletic offering diet advice. We believe Jordan when he talks about the “sugar dragon” or procrastination or wasting time because it’s clear he’s been there. He is us.
The heart of Volcanic Momentum is its deep focus on meaning and purpose. Why are we doing what we are doing, and who are we doing it for? This is part of what makes the book stand out. That, and it somehow feels lived-in. Some of the productivity advice is a little quirky, like having whiteboards in the living room, but we can believe that it actually works. It would make a particularly great companion for an active journal-keeper, as it provides pages of excellent journal prompts.
This book busted me up. There were several points where I snorted, laughed out loud, and at one point couldn’t stop giggling through two pages. Something to do with eating a pizza over the sink like a rat. Jordan Ring has a gift for highly relatable and somehow stealthy humor. Volcanic Momentum is approachable, surprisingly comprehensive for its length, and, best of all, really fun to read.
What we do in this life really matters.
There’s no harm in asking, other than hurt pride and a few wasted minutes.
Admit that you are probably not living out your maximum potential right now.
Everyone is called to do more than they already are.
In the home stretch of 2018! Anything that’s going to be attributed to this year needs to happen within the next three months. This sense of impending deadline tends to make me perk up and push a little harder.
How are things going?
Um, not great. I had a major personal loss and my family is going through some Category Five drama. Aside from that, I went down with two colds - that’s six times I’ve been sick this year, if anyone is counting - our building has been under construction almost constantly, the apartment gym is closed, and my husband has been traveling for work basically every week for two months. It’s been really hard to focus or get much done. I’m just... sad. Sad, tired, and unmotivated.
Life goes on, though. No matter how I feel, I have obligations, both to other people and to Future Me. I have to recognize that now that I’m in my forties, I probably won’t go a single year without someone close to me either being hospitalized or dying. That means I have to remember to show up for my loved ones while they’re here, while they can appreciate it. I also have to decide if my life is going to be about more than sadness and processing grief.
So, gratitude. Also in third quarter, our wedding anniversary happened. We managed to fit in a full two days in Las Vegas. This is how it happened: my hubby flew back from a business trip on a Thursday, came home, repacked his suitcase, and we flew out again the same night. We came home on Sunday and he flew out again on another trip the next day. A little crazy but with points and miles we made it work. Even when life is hard, we have each other. We have memories to make.
I added a few things to my usual yearly planning. I made a ‘43 for 43’ list for my birthday, and I’ve done a few things from that. I made another list of things to do during the last 100 days of the year, and so far I’m completely on track, because it’s fun. I also made a fall reading plan. I chose six books for September, and read four of them. In retrospect, I should have chosen the books first and then set a deadline, because, surprise, all of my choices were on hold at all five libraries to which I have access. Or, what, buy them with cash dollars? Part of goal-setting is creating rules that you can follow, setting yourself up for a win.
My personal goal was to explore a martial art. I did my second belt promotion, and now I have two orange belts. Given the way the program is structured, it will probably take me roughly a year between belt promotions now. I’m still feeling out of my depth and extremely challenged at the advanced level, but not to the point of total vapor lock. In other news, my husband recovered from his back injury and joined the school as a beginner in Muay Thai.
My career goal was to launch a podcast. Believe it or not, this is in progress! Even more surprisingly, it’s going to be two, not one, because my hubby and I are doing one together. We’ve had to learn how to use the equipment and the software, but we’re recording some good stuff and making each other laugh.
My physical goals were to do the Shamrock Run back in March and to build a daily stretching routine. I crushed that, and in addition I’m doing my advanced martial arts classes and riding my bike. I was doing a few hours a week on the elliptical trainer, which I’d like to resume when the apartment gym opens again. Now that the weather has cooled, I plan to get back to running. I’m tossing around the idea of training for a half-marathon with my brother next year. Also I lost eight pounds on the Grief Diet.
Our home goal was to lower our rent, which was a success. I’m about at my wits’ end with this apartment complex; the whole place has been under construction much of the year, in addition to all the other issues. Was it worth it? We’ve been pricing out comps and scoping out neighborhoods. I also put in some new closet organizers, which is the kind of thing I do for stress relief.
Our couples goal was to go on an international vacation together. Then we discovered that the best season to travel to the place we want to go would put us in early 2019. We probably won’t be able to count this as a win unless we have tickets in hand by the New Year.
My stop goal was to stop losing focus on incomplete projects. I think I’ve turned the corner on this. I’m reframing how I define a project and retooling how I set up my schedule.
My lifestyle upgrade was to upgrade my laptop. It took half the year, but I finally realized that I don’t want a laptop at all! It’s a combination of the keyboard arrangement, weight, and the questionable wisdom of carrying a fragile, expensive work tool around on mass transit. I’ve started to feel out what I want in a desktop computer.
My Do the Obvious goal was to speak more slowly, with more pauses. I am making considerable progress with this. Recording our podcast conversations and editing them is bringing yet more focus to this.
My quest was to travel to Asia and/or a fifth continent. This probably will not happen until after the New Year.
My wish was to find an amazing pet sitter. Our pet sitter moved, but she still has clients in our building, and we’re working it out.
Mantra: PAUSE AND BREATHE. It occurs to me that having a cold or flu more times than usual is one way to reflect on this. Every time I choose a mantra for the year it winds up having a hidden meaning that makes me wish I’d picked something else.
Personal: Explore a martial art - SUCCESS
Career: Launch a podcast
Physical: Run Shamrock Run 2018, build a daily stretching routine - SUCCESS+
Home: Lower our rent - SUCCESS
Couples: Go on an international vacation together
Stop goal: Stop losing focus on incomplete projects
Lifestyle upgrades: Upgrade laptop
Do the Obvious: Speak more slowly, with more pauses
Quest: Travel in Asia / a fifth continent
Wish: To find an amazing pet sitter - SUCCESS
Mantra: PAUSE AND BREATHE - ha, yeah
I realize that this is equivalent to a full season, over a quarter of the year, but still. There’s something exciting about a countdown, isn’t there? Today is a Monday, and we now have one hundred days until New Year’s Day. How are we going to use the time?
I’ll tell you what I’m going to do, because I’m obsessed. I do almost all my planning around the New Year, and it’s a major milestone for me. Almost anything fun or interesting that I do is a result of this regularly scheduled strategic session. Working backward from there, I also get really into Thanksgiving meal planning, and I spend the full month of October wallowing in Halloween everything. Planning ahead is a way to remind myself to make time for celebration.
Also, I hate cold weather. The only advantage I see is that it’s finally cool enough to use my kitchen. Planning is a way to see myself through to sunshine.
I’ve come around to the idea that the main function of a calendar is to make sure the positives happen. Somehow or other, we’re going to get groceries and do laundry and clean hair out of the drain. All the crises, bills, chores, interruptions, and urgent demands see to themselves. Then time passes, and we realize we’ve gone at least a year without going to the beach, or three months without touching base with a friend, or that we can’t even remember the last time we made cinnamon rolls.
I’m “naturally” a wing-it kind of person. I’m a night owl, I lean toward ADHD, I’m a right-brain creative, and I’ve spent much of my life chronically disorganized. I have basically no concept of time and I’m useless with maps. I started picking this stuff up from my husband, who is an engineer and the kind of person you can literally set your watch by. While I’ve helped bring some spontaneity and flexibility to his life, he’s taught me that there are advantages to this clock-oriented, calendar-focused mentality. Plan ahead and you get the good seats. Show up early and you have plenty of time for the extras, like dessert. Book in advance and you get everything before it’s sold out.
There’s a whole new category of life that’s available to the advance planners. I had no idea. Restaurants you can never try if you wait until that night. Shows you can never see unless you’re willing to wait three years. Hotel rooms that are booked a year ahead. It’s an even bigger deal than the day I figured out how to put books on hold at the library.
That reminds me. I need to make some dinner reservations.
Let’s work backward, shall we?
We’re tentatively planning a vacation in spring, so we leave March and April open. That means it’s important not to put any boring stuff in for those months. We can use February as a “get it done” month, with vacation anticipation as our motivation. (How’s that for syncopation?)
Also, our lease is up in January, and more likely than not, we’ll be moving. As a favor to Future Us, we’ll push any “get it done” stuff further back. We know not to inflict anything like that on ourselves from mid-November through the New Year, because of weather, finances, and holiday traffic. This is how we start to realize that it actually matters what we do in autumn. We have the power today to make our upcoming move a little less shambolic, with the reward of a smoothly planned vacation to follow.
October is my Halloween Month. This began with an all-day Halloween horror binge, and gradually extended because I couldn’t contain myself, couldn’t force myself to wait until the 31st. Because this is super-fun for me, I can use it as both a deadline-enforcing tool and a reward system. If I know I’m going to treat myself to a scary movie or dole out episodes of a show like American Horror Story, I can assign myself an obnoxious chore earlier in the day. Maybe I’m down on the floor, grumbling and organizing the cleansers under the sink. Before I know it, I’m done, everything is wiped clean, it really only took eight minutes, and I’m wrist-deep in a bag of candy, frightening myself half to death. Yay!
Let’s run through a sample countdown. These are just ideas, many of which won’t be relevant to anyone other than me. Use it to spark your own list, and make sure you fit in plenty of time for fun and celebration, okay?
100. Make list of celebrations, traditions, and fun stuff for the rest of the year
99. Write down spring and summer highlights and wistfully missed opportunities for next year
98. Round up all unread books-in-progress
97. Clean out pool bag
96. Inbox Zero
95. Throw out old, partial bottles of sunblock
94. Write third-quarter 2018 progress report
93. Start a Halloween entertainment list, reserve and download as appropriate
92. Plan costume, convince hubby to wear couples theme costume. Squirrels??
91. Try on winter coats and jackets; check pockets for surprise cash
90. Sort through scarves, hats, gloves, and umbrellas
89. Sort through sock drawer
88. Shop for cardigans
87. Look through digital photo album on phone
86. Go through phone and delete unused apps
85. Trade in old phone (and PREVIOUS old phone, *blush*)
84. Sort through chargers, cables, and backup batteries
83. Practice a new hula hoop trick
82. Sort through pet travel bag
81. Sort and clean costume jewelry
80. Wipe down shelves in medicine cabinet
79. Try a new soup recipe. Tortilla soup?
78. Confirm plans with Halloween party committee
77. Trade in bag of books at used bookstore
76. Work on costumes
75. Make special dessert for party tomorrow
74. Costume party!
73. Make pot pie
72. Wash pillows and summer bedding
71. Sort cabinet under kitchen sink
70. Track down hubby’s favorite candy rarity as a Halloween surprise
69. Sort cabinet under bathroom sink
68. Cull summer clothes
67. Costume party!
66. Go out for hot cocoa
65. Personal candy shopping for Halloween candy bender
64. Go to movie theater and watch a horror movie
62. Kitchen inventory; start using up contents of fridge and freezer
61. Try a new soup recipe. Maybe pho?
60. Book tickets for Thanksgiving visit
59. Put heated mattress pad on the bed
58. Vacuum out kitchen drawers
57. Mushroom barley soup
56. All-candle evening
55. Museum field trip!
54. Watch The Princess Bride for special project
53. Acquire cranberry sauce for sandwiches
52. Make stew with dumplings
51. Plan a New Year’s Resolution workshop
50. Drink chai tea while gazing out the window
49. Pull together vacation ideas for our next status meeting
48. Visit a library branch where I’ve never been
47. Make some cornbread
46. Plan our vacation for next year
45. Try to teach my dog to jump rope again
44. Trade foot massages
43. Come up with my next ten speech topics
42. Last day to shop before holiday shopping moratorium. Need anything?
41. Thanksgiving Day
40. Family board game marathon
39. Put together my holiday wish list for hubby
38. Come up with gift ideas for hubby, who is hard to shop for
37. Go to parking garage and practice unicycle
36. Learn about palmistry because why not?
35. Sort and back up digital contacts
34. Purge/transfer files on old laptop
33. Curate/transfer digital photos from old laptop
32. Panini for lunch!
31. Start writing down pent-up New Year’s plans for 2019
30. Start accumulating list of 2018 highlights
29. Round up list of unread books in any series I’d like to finish
28. Make a lasagna
27. Drop off pre-New Year’s Eve dry cleaning
26. Annual file box purge
25. Scan and shred relevant paper documents
24. AC/DC and Van Halen Appreciation Day
23. Secret craft project marathon day 1
22. Secret craft project marathon day 2
21. Secret craft project marathon day 3
20. Secret craft project marathon day 4
19. Secret craft project marathon day 5
18. Secret craft project marathon day 6
17. Lounge around reading all day long
16. Practice a new updo for New Year’s
15. Work on vision board/planner for 2019
14. Breakfast for dinner
13. Tabs Zero - what are all these webpages and why did I open them?
12. Inbox Zero - hopefully enough to coast through until the New Year
11. Festivus - feats of strength
10. Festivus - airing of grievances
9. Do some cryptograms
8. Make cinnamon rolls
7. Sew buttons back on fancy winter coat
6. Pack clothes and planner for New Year’s trip
5. New Year’s trip travel day
4. Talk about highlights of the year with hubby
3. Write up New Year’s blog post
2. Confirm New Year’s goals and resolutions
1. HAPPY NEW YEAR! Start as you mean to begin! In other words, sleep in, lounge around in pajamas reading, and put off all your self-improvement projects until tomorrow.
I failed the first time I tried to read this book. I had this idea that it would be soothing and deep and that I’d listen to it on audio before I went to sleep at night. Whoops. Dan Harris is so funny that I kept shaking with laughter. That’s neither meditative nor conducive to one’s spouse getting any sleep. It was too late, though, to switch to a text copy, because I was hooked on Harris’s delivery as much as his wisecracks and insights. I just had to settle for having him entertain me throughout the day. Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics is also approved for Restless Comedy Fans.
Harris does a pretty convincing job of casting himself as the last person to ever consider meditating. He is open about his personal foibles, including heavy drug use and workaholism. This makes it easy to hear him out about the benefits of mindfulness practice. If it worked for someone like him, then surely...?
Meditation is one of those things on the Obvious list, unfortunately; it’s right up there with “eat healthy” and “get plenty of sleep,” which means a lot of us automatically will want to rule it out. I find that when I try to sit silently, it opens the floodgates of creativity, and the result is that I wind up speed-writing a very lengthy list of ideas and tasks. Something I liked about Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics is that it offers various practices, not all of which are of the classic “sit still and empty your mind” variety.
Incidentally, there are a few things that can really help those of us who feel simultaneously drawn toward and repelled by meditation. (My draw is that I have a high resting heart rate, and I’m on a Fact-Finding Mission to do something about it). If you’re as fidgety as me - ADHD leaning, hyperkinetic and born restless - start with a vigorous and very strenuous exercise practice first. Dump all those excess yayas. Watch your caffeine consumption. Capture your mental lint first; I recommend GTD as a practice. Then experiment with time of day and just do little five-minute increments. Or one minute. My mantra here is “okay,” as in, “okay, let me think for a minute.”
Harris arranges Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics into a list of objections to meditation as a practice, and responses to those objections, both from himself and others. One such chapter is “Meditation is Self-Indulgent.” I’d like to focus on this because I think so many people (ahem, or I really mean to say WOMEN) feel this way about everything. Meditation is self-indulgent, and so is getting enough sleep, working out, eating a hot breakfast, peeing alone with the door closed... It’s a really weird idea that every single other person of the seven billion has to come first before a lady can spend so much as five minutes simply breathing. How can you possibly give anyone your best when you’re stretched so thin?
There is a real Dan Harris presence out there for those who can’t get enough. He has two books, a podcast, and even a meditation app. Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics is certainly a great place to start.
If there’s one thing we’re good at, it’s imagining bad outcomes. We get spun up over this all the time. For every conversation, there are probably twelve sad, scary, or alarming versions that never happened. Every job interview really lasts for eighty hours, seventy-nine of them imaginary. Anxiety and pessimism are survival traits. Worry and dread have gotten us through fire, flood, famine, siege, animal attack, and all the rest. This is probably why avoidance goals work slightly better than approach goals.
An avoidance goal is phrased in a way that anticipates a negative outcome. “Don’t forget your glasses.”
An approach goal is phrased in a way that anticipates a positive outcome. “Remember to wear your glasses.”
It’s possible that certain personality types lean more toward one goal type or the other. An optimist will naturally prefer an approach goal. It’s also possible that certain types of goals are better suited for one format or the other. A personal experiment should make this clear. Are we getting the results we want in the areas that are important to us?
I’m an extreme optimist, an enthusiast by nature. I love working on annual, quarterly, monthly, and sometimes even hourly goals. My plans tend to be both broad and specific. I would have thought I made almost entirely approach-oriented goals. Then I read a blog post by a guy who made two goals and then compared his adherence to them based on whether he focused on approach or avoidance. He did better with avoidance. It made me realize that I follow a lot of avoidance-based goals throughout the day, almost automatically. I think of it as “common sense,” although of course “common sense” is never all that common.
Every single time I use a knife, I think, “Okay, now don’t cut yourself.”
Every single time I go down a flight of stairs, I think, with every single step, “Okay, now don’t slip.”
When I pack a suitcase, I bustle around my apartment, talking to myself. “Don’t forget your tickets. Don’t forget your back-up battery. Don’t forget your” endlessly, all the way up to the jetway.
There’s a distinct, gear-shifting feeling between this constant internal nattering and the aerial view, grand strategic plans that I normally think of as goal-setting.
Maybe one of the reasons that avoidance goals work better is that we can only plan them when we actually believe that the negative outcome is a firm possibility. I think that is very much not the case for a lot of common “goals.” Further, I think it’s common to “choose” a mainstream “goal” as a smokescreen, a pretend Potemkin intention, to protect our tendency to do what we want without criticism. Hey, I tried, what more do you want from me??
Research shows that we’re really poor at thinking of future versions of ourselves. We think of Old Me as a total stranger. Hey, Future Me, have fun paying off all this debt and picking up my socks! Ha, Future Me is such a sucker. We can’t really believe in a universe in which “I” am an elderly person. Surely I have better taste than to age and grow old! I’m much too smart for that! If we can’t believe in a frail, elderly, poor, and ill version of ourselves, then we have no intrinsic motivation to save money, eat healthy foods, and be more active. We do, however, believe in such things as cutting a finger or falling down the stairs. “Don’t cut yourself” is a much more believable imperative than “don’t get osteoporosis.”
My major fitness motivation is “Avoid getting Alzheimer’s.” This is a truly terrifying outcome. Why simply sit around and be afraid of something, though? That would be sacrificing all the good years for what may or may not turn out to be the bad years. It’s a logical fallacy. How can undirected anxiety possibly do me any good? That just means I suffer Alzheimer’s PLUS decades of dread. If I’m right, if my thesis is correct that Alzheimer’s is at least a little bit susceptible to lifestyle inputs, then I must do every last single thing in my power to avoid it. If I’m wrong, and I’ve done all of these actions over the years for no reason, if my efforts have been futile, I still benefit in three ways.
I could use an approach-oriented framework and tell myself “Eat healthy food” and “Get plenty of exercise.” Arguably, I do both of these things. They’re extremely vague, though, so vague as to be almost meaningless. That’s another reason that avoidance goals work a little better, because they’re unfailingly very specific.
It’s easier to “stop drinking soda” or “stop eating bagels” or “don’t eat high-fructose corn syrup.” Those are specific and simple to understand, and any of them could result in an easy ten-pound weight loss over a year.
I’m always going to make wildly positive, outlandishly optimistic goals and resolutions. It’s fun and it works much better than pop culture would lead us to believe. Past Me would have had a lot of trouble believing in my future ability to run a marathon, manage an investment portfolio, cook Thanksgiving dinner for two dozen people, buy train tickets in Spain, or lots of other things I’ve done. How would a negative version of those goals even be phrased? “Don’t screw up”? I will, however, continue to use avoidance goals when they seem helpful.
Here are some avoidance goals that I use, by category:
Don’t be in debt
Don’t carry a credit card balance
Don’t pay finance charges
Don’t buy on impulse
Don’t buy anything unless you know where you’ll put it and how you’ll clean it
Don’t outgrow your clothes, they’re expensive
Avoid getting a migraine - (body weight, dehydration, poor sleep quality)
Don’t get Alzheimer’s
Don’t trigger your night terrors - (eating after 8 PM)
Don’t run out of clean underwear
Don’t make extra work for yourself
Don’t leave crusty dishes
That needs to get eaten up before it gets wasted
Don’t criticize unless you’re open to being criticized
Don’t be a caricature
No double standards
Don’t be like his ex
Don’t do his pet peeves
Don’t be a pushover or a victim
Don’t be a flake
Don’t be a freeloader
Don’t associate with gossips
Don’t stand by and let other people be bullied
“Don’t do anything illegal, immoral, or just plain stupid.” - My Dad
“Never go viral for the wrong reasons.” - Anonymous
“Do things that are a good idea, and don’t do things that are a bad idea.” - Me
Cutting off options is one of the worst feelings. This is why so many people hate making decisions; ‘decision’ means “to cut off.” It’s also a major reason why we procrastinate (or feel like we do), and it’s one of the major root causes of clutter. We like to feel surrounded by possibilities and potential. We like it even when maintaining that illusion of options is precisely what’s holding us back.
This is why I recommend choosing and focusing on a primary project.
It came to me just now, while I was brushing my teeth, in fact. I’m writing this at what is technically past my bedtime, because I know otherwise I’ll toss and turn writing it in my head. This is how we like to think of inspiration, as this external, spiritual force that strikes us like a lightning bolt from an ethereal weather system. We like it, even though when it actually happens it’s terribly inconvenient! We like it, even when it tends to result in years stacked upon many years of unproductive dallying and lack of any measurable result.
This is the year I’m dedicating to tying off old cords, closing open loops, and deciding once and for all whether to finish certain projects, schedule them, or jettison them entirely. Supposedly that is my primary project. It’s the middle of the year and I haven’t actually finished anything.
These are the projects that, if asked, I would have to define as “current”:
A novel; a non-fiction book; yet a different novel; the new podcast; a cross stitch that is maybe half done; an attempt to learn to juggle/ride a unicycle/solve a Rubik’s cube/do the splits/this is getting embarrassing, but the gear is everywhere; clearing the data off my old phone so I can sell it; getting an orange belt in Muay Thai; finishing my Advanced Communicator Silver in Toastmasters; putting together a workshop; this blog of course
Of COURSE there are more. It’s so much worse than it looks.
The trouble with being a multi-potentialite is this tendency to have eighty things going at once, making 1% progress on all of them. It means we never finish anything, we never build a reputation (or at least not one we’d want), we have no legacy, we blow people off and we flake out.
All the time I seem to want to prioritize on learning circus tricks is time taken away from a bunch of finite projects, many of which are at the 80-90% mark.
Why wouldn’t I want to finish them? It’s not like I’m in any danger of running out of ideas, foolish, impractical, brilliant, fun, interesting, or silly as they might be.
I’m better than I used to be. That’s the whole and entire point of a growth mindset, right? To be better than we used to be, and to strive for more? I do pride myself on publishing a blog post every business day. I’m also making steady, measurable progress in both public speaking and martial arts. That’s three things! If I continue to do those three things, then eventually I’ll be a sixth-degree black belt, a Distinguished Toastmaster, and author of a blog that just keeps going and going.
This is what we always have to ask ourselves about our projects. Why are we doing them?
Is it just to have something to keep our hands busy? In that case, we’re ever and always going to have some knitting or crochet or embroidery or hand-stitching or beading or sanding or what-have-you. If the goal is to fill the days and evenings, then we might as well finish our projects one after another. We might as well start trying to make a dent in our accumulated supplies and materials (even though, honestly, we have enough for three lifetimes divided between four people). We could even, dare I say it? We could even finish ALL OF IT. We could wake up one fine morning with zero supplies, zero materials, zero patterns, zero plans, and we could simply wander around the craft store and come home with something new.
There’s no risk in finishing anything!
Are we doing projects as proof of concept? Demonstrating that we have a clear intention of mastering a particular art? Writing, painting, dancing, sculpting, carving? In that case, it’s perfectly fine to have more false starts and bits and pieces of something than we do actual finished work. We simply have to accept that we’ll never impress ourselves, we’ll never reach a point of satisfaction with our own work, because true artists pretty much never feel that way. Never being quite as good as your interior vision is the mark, after all. That’s exactly what sets us apart. We have to ask whether anyone is ever going to see our work, which is really asking if we care about making something that matters. To anyone.
What I’ve just distinguished is the difference between an art and a craft, between an artist and an artisan, or perhaps a hobbyist. All of them are fine but they do have different goals and different processes.
I’m also distinguishing between the finite and the infinite. The finite project is the specific book; the infinite project is to write. The finite project is the afghan; the infinite project is, from what I’ve seen, to collect yarn. Wait, um? Have I ever asked myself to identify my infinite project?
Most of my projects are signs of curiosity. I get interested in something and I want to dive in and immerse myself in it. My interests tend to layer themselves; I rarely drop them. That’s why I have a parrot, and a twenty-year-old bicycle that I still ride, and a vast recipe collection, and a tub full of backpacking equipment. I also tend to have a certain amount of random books and objects that signal my intention for future use. I drive myself crazy doing this, yet I do it.
I have all this stuff, but what I don’t have is a published novel. I don’t have a workshop on the calendar. I don’t have a podcast episode recorded. I don’t necessarily have to choose between these distinctly different projects; I do have to make some solid choices about where I’m putting my primary focus most days of the week. Do one until it’s done, and then do the other until it’s done, and then pick something else. Inexperience with this condition is probably why there are six juggling balls on my desk. What’s going to be my primary project for the next month? What will I have to show for the next three months?
This is the companion book to Jon Acuff’s earlier volume, Start: Punch Fear in the Face, Escape Average, and Do What Matters. Readers and fans kept telling him that they had no problem starting projects, they just need help figuring out how to finish them. I can identify with this. There are at least two projects that I was working on when I read Start that I still have not completed four years later. If those projects were only four years old, that would be one thing, but, well, they’re older than that. I’m ready to Finish and give myself the gift of done!
This book is great both for chronic procrastinators and for multi-potentialites. Some of us may think we are procrastinators, when really our main problem is wanting to do everything at once. Acuff shows that he fits in this group when he describes his garage full of equipment that he’s only used a few times, including a telescope, a fishing rod, and a moped. Just because we’re curious, adventurous spirits does not mean we’re quitters or procrastinators, it just means we need to learn how to say we’re done with something.
One of the main reasons that we as humans struggle to finish projects is the planning fallacy. We’re just not very good at estimating how long it takes to do things. Another issue is perfectionism, the crazy idea that it’s better not to do something at all if we can’t meet our perfectionist standards. An example that Acuff gives is all the people who say they want to run a marathon but refuse to start with a 5k. Familiar as these are, there are loads more, and Finish gives us plenty of laughs as we recognize ourselves over and over.
Of course, knowing the issue is not the same as solving the issue. The real strength of the book, aside from its humor, is that Acuff knows what it takes to get people to finish projects. He tested these ideas with hundreds of real people, and the results were analyzed by a researcher working on a PhD. This is more than a motivational self-help book; it’s a description of what other people have successfully done. That’s important, because as we all know, motivation is like a shower. It works great and makes you feel good, but it only lasts for about a day.
We start by being less strict with ourselves, making our goals more manageable, and choosing what else to put on hold while we finish.
A tool from the book that I have used is strategic incompetence. I didn’t have that name for it, but I did it, all right. When I went back to school at age 24 to finish my degree, I decided that I would put fitness on hold until I was done. This wound up being kind of a bad plan, because it was a false dilemma and I unnecessarily gained 35 pounds. I did, though, get my degree. I had a clear vision in my mind that I would study during almost all my waking hours, and it worked. I used the same strategy when I decided to get fit, picturing myself doing almost nothing but going to work and being at the gym. That worked, too. I chose to just be bad at everything other than my goal for the window of time that it took to finish. Aim low, drop your standards, and win!
This book is a delight to read. Acuff emphasizes having fun and celebrating your successes. I’m dedicating 2018 to finishing, eliminating, or formally scheduling every incomplete project I have, and I certainly plan to celebrate when I’m done. That’s a party I know I won’t put off until later.
[Paraphrasing]: The opposite of perfectionism is not failure, it’s FINISHED.
“Might as well” is never applied to good things. It’s never, “Might as well help all these orphans,” or “Might as well plant something healthy in this community garden.”
What happens when you just jump into doing something new? When you decide that you want to test out this thing called ‘bias toward action’ for yourself, or perhaps debunk it? What happens when you breathe through your tendency toward analysis paralysis and start, ya know, doing stuff? When you make motions in the direction of a goal rather than waiting around for the willpower or the motivation to show up?
What happens is that you come up with more reasons to do it.
My philosophy is: Do Things That Are a Good Idea; Don’t Do Things That Are a Bad Idea. I know, I know, that sounds too meta and deep for the general user. How did I ever come up with that? From reading lots and lots of super-heavy philosophical tomes. Just trust me. I’ll explain it a little more, though, just to make sure it makes sense.
Do things that are a good idea: If something is a good idea, then I only need one reason to do it. My dentist told me to floss my teeth, so I do. I’m not going to spend any more time researching and reading articles about flossing, because it only takes me two minutes a day.
Don’t do things that are a bad idea: If something is a bad idea, then I only need one reason NOT to do it. Don’t put a fork in the electrical socket. Don’t slam your finger in a metal door. Don’t read the comments. Don’t wear tights that are an exact match for your skin tone.
Most people tend to do a better job avoiding things that are a bad idea, especially if they’ve done any of them. Not me, though. Today is perhaps the third or fourth time I’ve spilled green tea soy latte inside my work bag.
Apparently I need more reasons to sit and savor my tea slowly. ...?
Think of your favorite thing. It could be an object, a place, an activity, a song you play over and over on repeat, just something you totally love.
Okay, now think of reasons why it’s so awesome.
Fun, huh? If you did that exercise, I highly recommend doing it every day. It’s good brainstorming and it reminds you to do stuff you like.
I’ll share one of mine. I love reading. What do I like about it so much?
Can’t stop myself
Learn new things
Keeps me entertained while I do boring stuff
Or folding laundry
Or driving on a long road trip
Or standing in line
Always have a way to squash bugs
Handy way to repel unwanted attention of strangers
Keeps me from perseverating or pointlessly worrying
Way to connect with old friends
And make new friends
Always have something interesting to talk about
Share with friends and family who want a book recommendation
Way to keep papers flat in my bag
Reminds me of other books that I also loved, like in the same genre or series
Financially support my favorite authors
Cheaper cost per hour than going to the movies
What the heck else would I do with my time?
I could go into exhaustive detail if I wanted. If I started sharing what I loved about particular books or authors, this could go on forever. The point is that I love something so much that I’ll never stop doing it, and I’m convinced it will always be a part of my life. I can’t think of a single reason why I should ever stop.
What else can I do that with?
If I were asked to come up with reasons to do something I know nothing about, I’d be a bit stuck. Why should I... buy a luxury vehicle? Um... I guess because maybe it would impress people who don’t currently talk to the likes of me? Maybe it would make me enjoy driving? I dunno. You tell me. I have a bunch of reasons NOT to buy a luxury vehicle, especially because it would be out of my price range.
This is the position in which we find ourselves when we’re contemplating a change in our behavior.
Why should I start running? I shouldn’t! Running sucks!
Why should I go to bed earlier? I shouldn’t! Late night is my only time to decompress from being so burned out and exhausted all the time!
Why should I pay off my credit cards? I shouldn’t! Please allow me to unroll my lengthy scroll of unavoidable expenses and I’ll document them for you.
Status quo bias. We all have it, and it’s a supremely useful tool for making rational choices. Obviously the status quo is fine, because what I’m doing right now works for me. Why should I change anything at all?
Allow me to offer some More Reasons:
Because making even one tiny change in one area could make your life easier, better, more fun, or more interesting;
Because no status quo is permanent, meaning that change is coming for you whether you approve of it or not;
Because it’s generally better to plan changes for yourself rather than having to react to the changes that fate throws at you.
It’s also worth mentioning that we usually don’t realize how uncomfortable the status quo was until we find ourselves in a better situation later on. Certainly this feels like the story of my life. I never really realized I was obese until years after I started gradually losing the weight. I didn’t really realize how unhappy I was in my first marriage until quite some time after the divorce. Arguing for the status quo is, in some ways, slamming the door shut against serendipity, felicity, or simply a shift in perspective.
One way that I started to look for more reasons to do things that are a good idea was to read through lists of other people’s reasons for doing that thing. I do this with extra focus when it’s something toward which I feel a strong resistance. The more I reject something that other people like doing, the more I want to inquire of myself: what’s so bad about it? For instance, I’m very afraid of snorkeling, but I keep hearing that many people find it absolutely magical, even peaceful. If my list of reasons to try it keeps getting longer and my only reason not to try it is that I’m scared, then at some point I’m going to sign up for lessons. Why would I deprive myself?
The reason I seek out more reasons to do things I don’t already do is that I’ve ruled out the standard default mode. I am insufferably bored by sitting around watching TV and I lack all interest in gaming. If I don’t watch TV or play games, what else is there to do? Watch paint dry? Listen to the grass grow? I already know why I do the things I enjoy. For a more interesting life, all I need is more reasons to do the things that other people enjoy, too.
I broke my 415-day activity streak on my Apple Watch. By five calories. Why? I was distracted and didn’t notice the clock ticking toward midnight. Also, I was getting over the flu.
That blank space is all the different ways I tried to put into words the inchoate rage and bottomless disappointment I felt when I realized that there was no going back. My streak is gone and I can’t even pick it up again until March of 2019. No perfect week badge. No January 2018 badge. Two and a half years, and I still haven’t managed a perfect calendar year.
I feel significantly worse about this than I did earlier this month, when I realized I had paid nearly $40 for an online class that I didn’t need.
The work that goes into maintaining a 14-month streak. The focus. The dedication. The, shall I say it, obsession. I’ve maintained that streak when I was sick. I’ve maintained it when I was injured. I’ve maintained it while traveling across eight time zones. I’ve maintained it with house guests and on road trips. I even bought an extra $30 charger to keep from breaking the streak when I forgot to pack that key, irreplaceable item. On the way to a major family event.
It got really bad the first time I broke my streak, by one calorie, because I didn’t notice it was past midnight. I went out into the yard with my hammer and beat a foot-wide hole into our lawn. I’ve been less angry at being burglarized!
Why midnight? Why this arbitrary split second of a minute of an hour of a day?
Why can’t the user set when a “day” starts and ends?
Why isn’t there a reminder, like the stand-up reminder, to point out that the “day” is nearly over and you’re really close to closing your ring?
Why am I so susceptible to this digital brain-prodding?
Obviously, the reason to wear an activity tracker is to bring awareness to your activity level. This is great. Certainly the Apple Watch has done that for me. I can look and see that I walk an average of over six miles a day. I can see how many flights of stairs I’ve climbed, literal stairs, because I skip escalators now. I can see my average heart rate and all that awesome stuff.
The problem comes in for me, and I suspect for a lot of other achievement-oriented alpha types, with the badges and the streaks.
My desire for a complete collection of rainbow-colored virtual badges knows no bounds. I know that other people have hacked and cheated by setting their goals artificially low, or coming up with some other method to trick their tracker. You could shake the old pedometers and get the step count to go up. Apparently you can dangle your arm from a chair and convince the Watch that you’ve stood up. The badges redirect the focus to badge-getting. Whether that’s through fair means or foul, we want to get those badges. It can be hard to distinguish one form of gamification from another, especially if the user is also playing other sorts of games that come with badges. OOH PRETTY.
I’m a fairly serious amateur athlete. I ran a marathon, I take martial arts classes four hours a week, I walk everywhere because we don’t have a car, I routinely go on backpacking expeditions. Someone who does not have a digital hook in their brain may believe that a real athlete would simply focus on the activity and ignore those dumb old badges. Sure. That person probably doesn’t need or wear an activity tracker.
I’m starting to think that I can’t do anything that involves tracking a streak. It... activates something inside of me. Something very dark and negative and unhelpful.
I want to rage-quit. I want to crush things. I want to throw something off my balcony. I actually had a flash of an image that involved me breaking our glass sliding door with a hammer, just to exorcise the demon of BROKEN STREAK somehow.
Only a few weeks ago, I spent no fewer than three hours at the Apple Store, while no fewer than three separate geniuses sat with me and helped me transfer my iPhone 6 to my new iPhone X. The specific reason was so that I could keep my activity streak on my Watch. Nobody knew how to do it. Finally the floor manager came over and figured it out. I guess I let down the team. Sorry, guys.
I’ve felt less bad when I’ve shattered my phone screen. I’ve felt less bad when I’ve spilled dinner on the floor. I’ve felt less bad when I’ve gone to purchase airplane tickets only to see that the price has increased before the transaction was complete.
This is an entirely contemporary, artificial emotion created by technology. Or, rather, by the designers of it.
This isn’t the first time I’ve developed a little problem with streak maintenance. I was trying out a meditation app. I completed the meditation at 12:00 AM, and didn’t get credit. I had meditated for seven days straight and the app was only showing a two-day streak. There was no way to turn the feature off, so I wound up deleting the app. It struck me that a meditation app that generates the competitive streak feeling was counterproductive.
I want a cute little enchanting reward for doing well. Sure, of course I do. I want a collection of pretty, sparkly rainbow stickers to show off. Look how hard I worked! Straight As! Isn’t there a way, though, to set up those badges and stickers so they still reward the user, even if the clock has ticked past 11:59 PM? Couldn’t the rewards come for reaching mileage goals, or resting heart rate goals? Could a monthly badge come from the average daily activity rate, rather than an unbroken 31-day streak? Couldn’t there be a skip, or a make-up function, or a freaking doctor’s note?
The cruelty of the digital god. Applehovah.
I’m wearing this thing that I call The Overlord, feeling despondent and thoroughly demoralized. Do I actually want to keep wearing it? If streak tracking is going to mess with my equilibrium this much, shouldn’t I be wary of it? Maybe take it off? I looked through the other apps and features, asking myself if the other use cases are worth setting myself up for this kind of digitally mandated despair.
Maybe it’s just the flu, and I should have spent the day in bed, rather than trying to close all my rings.
Maybe there’s something fundamentally wrong with a system that incentivizes people to stay active even when they’re ill.
I’m an active person now. I didn’t start out that way. It wasn’t until my thirties that I stopped being almost 100% sedentary. Various digital displays have helped encourage and inspire me. I beat chronic illness and thyroid disease to become a marathon runner, and that’s saying something. What I want is a device that brings out the best in me. Not the beast in me.
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.