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?
Do you believe in love at first sight? Soulmates, destined to be together, who spot each other across a crowded room and instantly merge spirits until the end of time?
Do you believe in genius? Iconoclasts hatched from special eggs who come like Prometheus to grant innovation to the masses?
Do you believe in Sasquatch? How about fairies? Rodents of Unusual Size? Trickle-down economics?
Okay then. Let’s talk about motivation. Because I do not think it means what you think it means.
People often tell me that they wish they had my motivation. Chances are, they actually do. I mean, I don’t seem to have any laying around. I may have had some back in the 90s and it got thrown in with a bag of Goodwill donations. It sounds like something people associate with youth and vigor, anyway.
When I’m “motivated” I’ll quit procrastinating. I’ll start eating healthy and going to the gym. I’ll get organized. I’ll plan my retirement. One day, when the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars, I’ll wake up and everything will be different! Basically my entire personality will change! Everything I hate doing now will suddenly be bathed in sunbeams, emanating prismatic rays of cosmic power! A magical sword will float up from a lake, activated solely by my aura! Doves will fly over my head, carrying an embroidered banner that reads TODAY THOU ART MOTIVATED! Flowers will sing Hosanna! A unicorn will gallop by with a tray of refreshments strapped to its back! I will suddenly sprout defined abdominal muscles!
Or maybe there was just some ergot in my muesli. It happens.
[Note to self: draw this as soon as there is sufficient motivation]
Allow me to present my credentials. I ran a marathon. I am at my goal weight. (I in fact actually have visible abs.) My house is both clean and organized. I do my art every day. I publish on a schedule. I’ve been earning (extremely tiny sums of) money off my writing for five years. I’m actually one of those people who grows and cans our own produce. Arguably, there are no things that would require motivation that I don’t do on a regular basis. I know whereof I speak.
What I have to say is that I don’t have any feelings other people don’t have. As far as I know, there are no ecstatic, mystic states where you 1. Meet a giant caterpillar smoking a hookah and then 2. Suddenly feel an intense satisfaction related to scutwork and drudgery. I was never allowed into the Archives of the Motivation Cabal, where they possess the last remaining copy of the Codex Mirabilis, handwritten in ink made of crushed scarabs, meteorites, and wormwood, the mere sight of which permanently etches epiphanies into your pineal gland. I don’t even have any level-ups or extra lives.
In truth, I am a lazy person. A tightwad. Too stubborn for my own good. I do the things I do out of a belief that they are good ideas in the long run, that they save time and money and effort, and that it’s easier to do them than to suffer the results of not doing them. It’s three times harder to burn off a pound of fat than to put on a pound of fat, and probably five times harder to add a pound of muscle than to maintain it. Cleaning a cluttered house takes 40% more effort. The longer things go between cleanings, the harder they are to clean. The benefits of being fit and organized are obvious the moment you experience them. Do what’s necessary for long enough, and it becomes so automatic you forget there was ever another way. You can coast. It’s not motivation you want, but momentum.
The secret is not woven in gold thread into a flying carpet. It’s not hidden in a cave at the top of an uncharted mountain. You don’t have to carry honey cakes to feed to a three-headed dog. You don’t have to click your heels together or talk to yourself with your eyes closed. All you have to do is to realize that there is really no such thing as motivation, and just get started doing things whether you want to do them or not. Just get started.
Willpower, or lack thereof, is what we inevitably blame for not following through on what we want out of life. That's when we're smart enough not to blame other people. It's my contention that the real problem is postponed decisions. Only when we know exactly what we want can we start moving toward making that happen. Even when we've clarified our wishes, decisions will have to be made.
'Decision' means 'to cut off.' That root 'cis' is the same as the root in 'scissors.' To make a decision is to permanently remove other options. This is panic-inducing for many people. What do you mean?? Do you mean that if I choose the pizza, I can't have the sushi?? Do you mean that if I marry one person, I can't marry someone else?? Do you mean that if I take this job offer, I have to tell the others "no, thanks"?? Aaaaaaah! I can't take this pressure!!! How do I deciiiiiiide?
What we don't realize is that refusing to make a decision is like spending your life inside a revolving door. It goes around and around and around. You see all kinds of options... but then you revolve past them... but then other options come into view... but then you revolve past them again... It feels like action is happening, and it can take a very long time to realize that this is only an illusion of progress. All that needs to happen is a choice to step out of the revolving door on one side or the other.
Decisions are permanent, but they're also temporary. That means if we choose a new job, and it doesn't work out, we can always move on to another place. If we choose a new hairstyle, and we don't like it, the hair will grow back and we can get a different hairstyle. If we move to a new place, and we don't like our neighbors or something, we can move again. If we order something off a menu, and we didn't like it, we'll never order it again, and there's another meal opportunity in just a few hours. We're choosing, we're cutting off all the other options, but we're not stuck. We're never stuck. At worst, we realize that this particular thing before us is not our favorite. The more decisions we make, the easier they become, because the list of options that we consider acceptable gets shorter.
It's a lot easier to choose from three flavors than from thirty flavors.
Clutter definitely comes from postponed decisions. "I might need this later" is a way of saying that "I simply refuse to make a decision about this right now." Later. Later. Later. I'm putting this thing in a pile, and that means I'm neither repairing it, ironing it, sorting it, throwing it away, delegating it, returning it, cleaning it, filing it, nor using it. A pile of papers or laundry is merely a visible manifestation of a larger problem, which is that of defaulting to indecision. Every day, I'm going to sit right here and not like my life all that much, while the postponed decisions pile up around me.
Don't like your job? Postponed decision.
Not comfortable in your own skin? Postponed decision.
Place is a mess? Postponed decisions.
Ambivalent relationship? Postponed decision.
On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being AWESOME and 1 being 'unacceptable,' everyone levels out at what feels familiar. Some people will push until they feel like a 5 all around. I'll be alone before I'll settle for less than a delightful relationship. I'll work out until I'm at my desired fitness level. I'll keep honing my skills until I have my dream job. I'll never stop until I'm at my best. Others will somehow tolerate a 1, such as being physically abused, and never breathe a word to anyone or ask for help. There is no mystery here; they simply feel like their fate in life is to suffer. They can't imagine anything better and they don't know how they would get it. (Answer: go to the nearest neutral person and ask "can you help me?"). Most of us fall somewhere between a 2 and a 4. Right now, I'm a 4 person, but my '4' is another person's 5, I know it, and I'm grateful for it.
Most decisions don't matter at all. What color of toothbrush should I get? What flavor of jam should I try? Ankle socks or knee socks? I refuse to spend more than one millisecond on decisions of this nature. If I choose "wrong" I'll just choose differently the next time. These are matters of taste preference, and if you have none, then it truly is not important, to you. We need to save our decision-making energy for the big, strategic decisions. What is my life's purpose? Who is worthy of my love? Where will I live? What do I want out of my personal environment? What is my heart's desire?
The saddest thing to me is that most people don't seem to have a heart's desire at all. Not one that they are aware of, not yet, anyway. We don't know what we want to do with our lives. When we think about what we want, the answer almost always starts with: NOT THIS. The list of things I Do Not Want is at least a million items long, but there's no point spending time thinking about it. I don't want to sprout antlers, interesting though it might be, but the only thing worth doing with an anti-wish like that is to make it into a Halloween costume. What DO I want? I want to strengthen my hip flexors. That's an objective, well-defined wish, and with a wish like that I can make a plan of action. 1. Find appropriate hip flexor exercises. 2. Do them regularly. Now a decision has been made, and I have a freshly empty decision-making slot.
Learning to be decisive is so dramatic and powerful that it can feel like changing an entire personality. Maybe it does. It's not always a quick shift. Figuring out how to want specific things, instead of focusing on what we don't want, takes practice. In the meantime, we can put on our emotional training wheels and practice on the easy stuff. Make one simple decision that feels low-stakes. Throw away the oldest or grossest thing in your fridge. Get a bag and put in one piece of clothing that doesn't fit today. Look at a picture of baby owls and choose the cutest one. As you gradually cut away more and more unimportant or useless options, you develop a stronger sense of what matters to you. It becomes easier and more rewarding to choose one thing while abandoning others.
My great-grandmother always said, "If you can read, you can do anything." This made sense to me at six years old, and it makes even more sense now. We have the Internet! The information is available at our fingertips. We can find out HOW to do anything. Action steps are not the problem. All that we need is to choose one extremely specific thing, and then acting on it will feel natural and obvious.
People work out for different reasons. Some do it because they're training for a sport. Some do it for stress relief. Some do it for physical therapy. Some do it for status. Some do it for mood repair. Some do it for the social opportunities. I have my own reasons, and one of them is that my husband asked me to go to the gym with him. He's an Upholder and I'm a Questioner. I thought I'd explore our different takes on the gym and physical fitness in general.
He's been an athlete since before he can really remember. He thinks he started at age 4. He has a big box of medals, ribbons, and trophies that he keeps trying to throw away, because of course those things are just silly byproducts of something he does for its own sake. He's an Eagle Scout, naturally, and he has played on at least seven different sports teams that I know of, some as an adult. Upholder motivations include following through on your commitments, doing things because that's just what one does, believing something is the right thing to do and then doing it, finishing what you start, and never letting anyone down. Sports are just one area where he commits to excellence. Show up, work hard, do what you said you'd do, and win. Other options? What other options?
I can only wish that anything, at any time, had ever appeared to me with such perfect clarity.
We're total opposites in many ways. He's tall, I'm short. He has a big frame, I have a small frame. (My wrists are 5 1/4"). He has a high pain threshold, I have a low pain threshold. He's fascinated by sports, I find them confusing. He can learn any new motion or dance step after seeing it done for a few seconds. I had to have my own teacher in step aerobics, fell off the step, and almost blacked out from pure exhaustion. I accidentally slapped someone once during ballroom dancing, and I fell during the polka and my skirt flipped up to my waist. I once sent my bowling ball backward, where it bounced onto the ball rack. Proprioception exists, I've seen it, but I don't seem to have much of it.
To give myself some credit, part of the reason I do so many ridiculous things is that I'm always ready to try something new. Questioners are easily bored. I have no emotional problems with being a complete novice and making a spectacle out of myself. This is my way of controlling a situation. If I'm going to be the focus of attention whether I like it or not, I'm going to get some comedic value out of it, for my private amusement if not for others. "It's for my blog." One of the things I like about the gym is learning to use all the multifarious contraptions.
We were working in, and as I was waiting my turn I saw a guy pushing a big red sled with weights on it. He pushed it all the way across the gym, and then he pushed it back. I couldn't take my eyes off it. I knew it was inevitable that I would one day push this sled. I pointed it out to my husband, who grimaced. "That's hard." "I know, it looks hard!" Rational assessment on his part, foolish enchantment on mine. I like running uphill in the mud. What can I say? "What did Santa bring you?" "Heavy stuff."
I don't need accountability to exercise. I used to be fat, sedentary, and chronically ill. I accidentally cured myself of thyroid disease through exercise, bicycling to be precise, and the lightbulb went on. I have the power to control my body in ways that doctors tried to convince me I could not. I unlocked an access panel with a bunch of switches, levers, dials, lights, knobs, and ports, many of which I don't yet understand, because there's no instruction manual. Part of the attraction for me in going to the gym is in seeing other people at higher fitness levels, doing awesome things. I see people older than me who have more muscle definition, and I think "Aha." The more I learn about physiology, nutrition, and fitness, the more I realize how little I know, and the more interesting it gets. Action-oriented people are temperamentally very different from the more cerebral or artistic people with whom I usually associated, so the athletic mindset was yet another new thing to learn.
As a Questioner, I work out because it satisfies my curiosity, it involves lots of mysterious tools and buzzwords and classes forever just outside my skill set, and because it's proven to be a terrific outlet for my high energy level. I dig it. I tried it thinking I would hate it, I was wrong, and now it's sold itself to me. When I can't work out, I feel progressively more cruddy, and I long to get started again the minute I can.
The Upholder jam seems to be different. Upholders have a sort of checklist of things they do. If it's on the checklist, they will do it or they will show you the missing limb that prevented them from doing it (for a while). If it's not on the checklist, well, it doesn't count. For this reason I think Upholders are a bit more vulnerable to loopholes. If an Upholder's priority is career, exercise may not be on the checklist, along with sleep or regular meals. We'd like to suggest that the priority be 'rational self-care.' Caring for your body makes you more productive. But then that's Questioner logic...
We like different stuff. My Upholder husband likes the weight machines, because they're efficient and he can get in a full workout in 20 minutes. He has outsized stamina and he's physically fearless. I've known him to crank out a 90-minute workout that would have taken me a month. The intensity can be an obstacle, though, because he isn't as comfortable with a 'drop in the bucket' approach. He doesn't always want to be bothered if he doesn't have the time or the energy level to meet his own standards for a "real" workout. That's why I'm there, because if we have a gym date, we'll both go. I like lifting weights because TOYS, and I like yoga because there are a million postures, and I like running because I can catch up on podcasts. Sometimes lifting weights interferes with my desire to engage in my other exercise preferences. Right now, there's this fascinating feature of my dear hubby, teaching me how to use all the machines.
It could quickly fall apart. We've had memberships at the same gym during two other times in our lives. Each time, I quit, and then he quit going. The first time, I felt like I had reached my goal and I believed I wouldn't need to go to the gym anymore. (Pfft). The second time, I had just discovered trail running, and our gym kept playing "Teenage Dream," and it didn't make sense to me to pay for a membership when I would run in the rain and cold regardless. I "feel like working out" at various times of day, and I've done a workout every minute between 6 AM and midnight at one time or another. Following a routine in the same place, at the same time, doing the same workout, will eventually break me. Knowing this, I know I need to either do my own, separate workouts on my own recognizance, or I need to keep upping the ante and training for a specific goal on a deadline. I'm not at the gym for myself, I'm there for my mate. Solidarity.
My husband taught me everything I know about developing an athletic mindset and training like a champion. He made a parasomniac with chronic pain issues into a marathon runner. Without him as my coach, I'm not sure I ever would have freed myself from illness or become an athlete. Probably not. It was my desire to know his heart that helped me open myself to the idea. What would it be like to enjoy exercise? What would it be like to hone my body the way I always tried to hone my mind? Could I hold myself physically to the same standards of excellence that I esteemed in other areas? I found answers to all these questions. I owe him.
My mother-in-law was also an Upholder. There's a chain of at least three generations of them in that family, and I think Upholders train one another into that tendency. She taught me that exercise is just like any other chore. I understood that this advice came from a sincere wish to reach me in a way that would make sense to me, and I realized what a sweet gift that was. She got me. A motivational speech about fitness from her would probably have been different if I were anyone else. After all, she had coached weight loss for forty years and she knew what she was doing.
That's what it comes down to. We do what we do because it makes sense and because it works for us. Or at least we think it does. I was perfectly convinced that illness was something that just happened to me, and I believed my doctors when they said there were no lifestyle inputs. Others will be convinced that their personality is not compatible with this kind of activity, or that they somehow genetically lack willpower or motivation. What is needed is some compelling reason that feels convincing. Why would someone like me do something like this? Answer: Because.
Stop making vague, half-hearted intentions. Just don't do it. Don't decide to "lose weight" or "save money" either. These are not goals. They're projects. Taking on a major life change is complicated, and you'd already be doing it if you knew how. You might never have needed to make a project out of it, because you simply learned how to avoid having problems with money, health, or body composition. Most of us are never taught this stuff, and the answers definitely are not obvious; otherwise, they wouldn't be problems for almost everyone in our culture. "Getting healthy," just like "losing weight" and "saving money," is a natural result of behaving in certain ways.
People who start a fitness program with the goal of losing weight or becoming healthier exercise less than people with any other fitness goal. That's about 32% less, according to Michelle Segar in No Sweat. Why else would anyone exercise, though? Let's look at some more interesting ideas.
Tired of being miserable in the heat every summer
Want to go to the beach or the pool, wear a swimsuit, and ACTUALLY GET IN THE WATER
Want to play with kids or grandkids without getting tired
Want to be proud of how I look in full body photos
Want to have only one size of clothes in my closet
Want to wear a dress, skirt, or shorts without my thighs chafing
Want to stop having to wear compression shorts under things
Want to be able to sit on the floor and get up again without holding on to something
Want to learn to cook new foods
Single and want a broader range of people to date
Attracted to fashions that aren't available in my size
Want to fit comfortably in an airplane seat
Want to be able to run up and down stairs in case of emergency
My dog deserves to get out more
Want to set a good example for my kids
Don't want my kids to fall into the same patterns I did
Want to know what it's like to be fit and strong
Want to get back into something I used to love (dance, racquetball, roller derby, swimming)
Want to try something new (surfing, kick boxing, SCUBA diving, riding a unicycle)
Want to do something I never got to try when I was a kid (ballet, karate, gymnastics)
Want to run a marathon
Because my grandmother wasn't allowed to do any of this stuff
Because I want my neighborhood to be safer, so I'll be outdoors with my phone and video camera
Want to look at gardens and get ideas for my yard
Want to spend more time at the park while the weather is nice
Want to be in a better mood and not be so irritable or depressed all the time
Want to have more energy and not be exhausted by dinnertime
Want a reason to spend more one-on-one time with my kids
Want more alone time
Want to get back to romantic times my partner and I used to have when we were first dating
Want to look how I want to look
Want to be done with this part of my life and try something new
Want to loosen up my chronic neck and shoulder tension
Want to get more natural Vitamin D
Want to save money on gas
Want to get to know my neighborhood better
Want to train for a triathlon
Want to meet new people who share my new interest
Want to look better than my ex's new partner
Want to look better than my ex
Want to get a new tattoo that would look better on muscle
Want to live up to my own standards and values
Want my outsides to match my insides
Want my partner to be able to pick me up and carry me down the hall
Want to be able to pick up my kids and run to safety
Want an outlet for my high drive and ambition
Want an excuse to get away from my roommates more often
Want to be able to travel with a smaller suitcase
Want to be able to scratch the middle of my own back
Want to do a cartwheel and a hand stand at least once in my life
Want to support my friend/relative in changes they are having to make
Want to be perceived as a high achiever
Want to look strong and physically intimidating so I feel safer
Want to know how to defend myself in a physical attack
Want to sleep better
Want to be able to climb into a tree fort
Want to make the most of my dream trip with all that walking and all those stairs
Want to pretend I'm in a spy thriller
Want a deeper connection to my cosplay character
Want to save money on fabric by wearing a smaller size
Want to do less laundry: smaller clothes = fewer loads
Want to find out if exercise will help get rid of my migraines
Want to know if I can get the same results so-and-so got
Want to look great on TV
Want to be able to do the limbo
Want to feel confident when I walk into a room and people look up
Want to find out how much I can improve my athletic performance
Want to learn about gardening and how to cook what I grow
Want Future Self to be impressed and grateful
Want to make the most of the rest of this year
Want to do it now because I don't want any pressure on New Year's Eve
Want to wear something super glamorous on New Year's Eve
There is no one good reason to do something. There are also no bad reasons if they lead to positive results. Nobody is allowed to tell you whether your motivation for doing something is okay or not. Lots of people complain about political correctness, but then they insist on it when it comes to body image dogma. You're allowed to think whatever you want about your own appearance, and decide whether or not you are satisfied with how you look. You're allowed to make your own decisions about what you think is beautiful and sexy. You're allowed to make any changes you want to make. If people can get plastic surgery, get manicures, dye their hair and/or cut it however they want, get tattoos, wear makeup, wear high heels, do cosplay, and wear different styles of glasses frames, then we should also be able to change our body composition without comment. If people do have comments, smile and thank them. Change the subject if you're not into hearing what they have to say. You might be surprised, though, at how little pushback you get when you start making decisions and doing what you want.
You can always change back. If you try something and don't like it, you can simply go back to what you were doing before. Most people do go back to their default. The trouble is that we usually revert to our defaults unintentionally. It's good to make choices and do what we planned to do. It's good to pursue what we want as we try to be our best possible selves.
I know why we surround ourselves with stuff. Because we’re bored.
We can’t think of any reasons to clean up that are interesting enough to actually get down and do it.
We’re totally okay with doing almost the exact same things almost every single day. We’re fine with having the same things to vent and complain about. We’re good with having the same unfinished projects, open loops, and procrastinated chores from one week to the next.
Wake up. Go to work. Come home. Eat. Get maximum amount of screen time. Lather, rinse, repeat.
There are thousands upon thousands of things we could be doing with the physical space that we’ve claimed with our clutter. We simply choose to leave it filled up with stuff because we don’t have any better ideas.
I’m a horrible snoop. When I walk around town, and someone’s garage door is up, I always take a peek. Here in the US, almost every garage looks about the same: full of boxes with a goat trail over to the washer and dryer. Sometimes there will be one that’s set up with a “bedroom” space or two. People sleep out there in the heat. That’s interesting, but maybe in a bad way?
What else do I see?
Surgically immaculate space with nothing but a car, a laundry area, and a rack of mops and brooms.
A woman’s kickboxing practice area. (I’d offer to make friends with her, but unfortunately we were already planning to move).
Various weightlifting gyms.
Various motorcycle and custom auto shops.
Various wood shops.
Ping-pong tables, pool tables, air hockey tables, foosball tables – open and actually in use.
The neighborhood social hub, with a dozen laughing people in their 20s and a couple of hookahs and bean bag chairs.
What I’ve noticed with the working garages is that they’re all really cool in their own unique way. The guys who run custom vehicle shops usually have a bunch of signs, neon, and often a mini fridge. The many gyms I see in use are clean, well-lit, and usually playing music. The dens of socializing tend to have chairs and party lights. It often seems like the garage is the center of the home, that at least one household member spends more time out there than the rest of the house put together.
The only thing they all have in common is that they’re not boring. They’ve all been carefully arranged for maximum use and enjoyment.
Patios can be the same way. Everyone in my 1930s-era suburban neighborhood has a back yard. Tiny SoCal yards, but yards all the same. Some people have a lot of yard parties and barbecues. Others don’t. Some have them filled with stacks of rubber tubs covered with tarps. We can thank whoever remodeled our rental house for putting in a covered patio with a ceiling fan and leaving behind a great outdoor dining table and chairs. It’s the first yard I’ve had that makes me want to be out there all the time. In fact, I like it so much that I took a picture of it and put it on the lock screen of my phone. There’s nothing out there but the table, the fan, and my parrot’s climbing tree, but it looks perfect to me. Noelle loves it so much that she resists every time it’s time to go back inside, even if it’s getting chilly and windy.
Why do we buy things we don’t need? I think it’s usually because we’d rather be at that particular store than back at home. Every store tends to be better organized, cleaner, and better lit than most people’s home living areas. It’s the same reason we like to go out to eat, even when the food is contributing to problems such as our rapidly expanding debt. We don’t have to fight over who does the dishes and we don’t have to clear counter space first. Home and hearth aren’t nurturing, relaxing spaces where we feel our most fulfilled. Our homes are instead places of irritation, resentment, frustration, and boredom.
When we got back from Spain, we realized that we physically hadn’t sat on a couch in three weeks. We had been everywhere in planes, trains, buses, ferries, funiculars, and taxis. We had slept either in sleeping bags or the beds of four-star hotels. We had climbed a few hundred flights of stairs. What we hadn’t done was to simply sit on a couch. It was a revelation! We wallowed in it. We were jet lagged, so we unapologetically lounged all over it with our dog. A month later, it had somehow transformed from Cushions of Wonder to plain old ordinary couch again.
We’re careful, though. We put our planning focus, after maxing out our retirement contributions for the year, on travel. That means whenever we pick up an object and think about buying it, we see the price tag in terms of what experience we’re trading off. The two of us took a day trip to Morocco for about $65. We could spend the same amount on an average Saturday by going out for breakfast, picking up Starbucks, going to a movie, and buying a bucket of popcorn. Or I could spend it on a single pair of shoes that were too uncomfortable to even wear. We could also fritter it away slowly on sodas and bags of chips. It’s the same money, but we’re more likely to notice the impact when we plan a peak experience versus letting it trickle out on dumb stuff over weeks or months.
We didn’t clean out any closets while we were in Spain. We didn’t clean out the garage, either. That’s because we didn’t have to. We have the money to go on cool trips every couple of years because we don’t spend it fighting everyday boredom the rest of the time. We don’t have to clean out closets all the time because we don’t fill them with stuff. These things are connected. We build our lives around activities other than shopping, screen time, and procrastination. I sometimes rush to work ahead a bit, because I like leaving an immaculate house before locking the door for a long trip. We keep the house clear because we’re paying for the smallest house we could find, and we physically don’t have the space to fill with anything we don’t actively need. Our version of a life worth living doesn’t include a bunch of extra physical possessions.
What could you do with your space that would be more interesting than the way it is now? Clear out a storage unit and use the money to take a class, or to free yourself from the shackle of debt? Clear out a “spare” room, scour the house top to bottom, and start renting the space on AirBnB? Have an empty room for dance or yoga? Have a home office and start seeing clients? (Bookkeeping, palmistry, or what-have-you). Clear out the garage and make a robotics laboratory? (Oh, that’s us). What’s the most interesting thing you can think of doing? If you’re not doing it, what could you do to make it happen? My guess is that it would include freeing up either space, money, time, or all three. What’s stopping you?
Most mainstream advice can be taken in more than one way. “Don’t settle” is one of those ideas that needs some clarification. A strong argument can be made that “settling” is the path to true contentment. An equally strong argument can be made that no, indeed, we should never “settle” for anything. This includes career, romance, and other major life goals. How can we personalize this vague admonishment and decide when to settle and when not to?
Let’s start with career. The first thing I tell my young people is that the average number of career changes is five in a lifetime (and it may be closer to 10). You don’t have to decide on anything while you’re young. If you have even a mild curiosity about a certain field, a standing invitation to try an entry-level job, or an obvious option, go for it. Dive in. When you’re 40, nobody will care what you did for money when you were 23. You might not even remember every job you had at that age. You’re going to find out some things about the workplace that can only be learned by doing. What’s your biggest annoyance? Being micromanaged, or not getting enough direction? Working indoors or working outdoors? Dealing with the public or working in isolation? Lack of variety or lack of focus? Does having a dress code feel like a worthwhile tradeoff for more pay or greater opportunities? Be curious and attentive. Focus on shaping your personal work ethic. Whatever it means to settle for a job, you don’t have to do it right away and you don’t have to do it for long periods.
I know three people who still do what they chose in their teens or early 20s, and love it. One wanted to design video games and wound up working on some very high-profile titles. One started a landscaping business in high school and has kept doing it decades later, because it enabled his side gigs as a bass player. The third is my husband, who wanted to be either a high school history teacher or an aerospace engineer. He chose engineering. See what these jobs have in common? All three men started with a clear idea of what they wanted to do; they chose jobs that allowed for a lot of autonomy; it got more interesting as they went along. The first guy went on to be technical director for a gadget you’ve definitely heard of; the second added travel to his build-your-own-lifestyle job; the third was on BattleBots. If only all of us felt such clear callings and had such intrinsic interest in any one field…
You know how career touches on romance? Nobody wants to go out with someone who complains constantly about a lousy job. Love it, change it, or shut up about it. Another common complaint is that “women only want to go out with guys who make a lot of money.” What “women” want (what anyone wants) is for you to like what you do. Being interested in your job helps to make you an interesting person. Many people fall into a rut in which they spend almost every spare moment in the living room or bedroom, not doing much of anything, and years somehow vanish in a puff of smoke. Finding an interesting job is a blessing in its own right, but it also gets you out of the house where you can meet people. My husband and I met in the workplace, for what that’s worth.
I “settled” for an older divorced guy with a kid. Guess what else? He has… *gasp*… back hair. In the grand scheme of things, none of that matters. I had never dated a guy with back hair before, because guys under 30 haven’t grown into their full coat yet. They get hairier as they age. If you want to be happily married when you’re both in your 80s, back hair is going to be the least of your cosmetic worries; can we talk about ear hair? So he’s divorced; so am I; so what? The 10-year-old kid I first met is now 21 and in college. We only lived under the same roof for four years. Much of what we discern in potential dates is situational, external, superficial, or temporary. Quit worrying about someone’s height or hair color or vehicle. Worry about his value system, his sense of humor, whether he has a temper, and whether he knows how to apologize or take accountability for his life. Choose someone you think is interesting. If you like talking to each other, that is going to last a lot longer than a particular hairstyle or cool shirt. Once you realize that you would miss him, never let him go. Settle down when you realize that this is the person who feels like home to you.
Settling has to do with what we accept and what we don’t. I accept that I’ll never be tall, while knowing that as a 40-year-old, there are still things I can do to preserve my posture and bone density as I age. I accept that I’ll never win a medal in the Olympics – but, perhaps, the Senior Olympics? I refuse to accept that my hair is turning gray – instead, I am WHOOPING IT UP because I’m finally starting to get the white stripe I always wanted! Oh my gosh, it looks so awesome. If only I can get four or five more gray hairs in that same area, it’ll start to look like something.
We settle for things when we start to think that anything more would be a foolish fantasy. Personally, I’m in favor of foolish fantasies. They’re free and they don’t have to infringe on anyone else in any way. I have the foolish fantasy that I can learn to be multilingual. Why shouldn’t I? Learning a foreign language is the most commonly kept resolution. Half the people in the world speak two or more languages. I have the foolish fantasy that my husband and I, both on our second marriage, will still love each other and want to be together in 30 years. Statistics do not support this dumb idea, but for us, it’ll be either a 100% success rate or a 0% success rate. If we think it won’t work, it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Don’t settle for someone if you have to talk yourself into it. Settling is not the same as commitment.
Don’t settle for gradually declining health. That is not the same thing as “aging gracefully.”
Don’t settle for disappointment. It’s not the same thing as realism.
Any time you hear someone (or yourself) beginning a statement with, “I know I’ll never…” pause and reconsider. Is this an opinion stated as fact? Is it setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy? I know I’ll never go to Mars, because if I ever had the opportunity, I’d turn it down. I don’t know if I’ll ever be a millionaire or visit all seven continents, but I wouldn’t want to rule it out! What we want to do is to focus on allowing opportunity while quashing unnecessary negativity. As far as predicting the future, negativity is precisely as much of an illusion as positivity. The only way to know what’s going to happen is to be the one who makes it happen.
The trouble with “settling” is that it has two semantically different meanings. In the sense of “settling down,” it can mean embracing comfort and contentment, maturing, and defining success for yourself. In the sense of stuckness, settling can mean abandoning ambition, turning to pessimism and fatalism, and falling into a fixed mindset. There is a middle path, that of celebrating simple pleasures while continuing to strive to make a greater contribution.
I’ll give you my version of the Four Noble Truths in a nutshell.
I was lucky. Enough parts of my life fell apart at the same time that I figured it had to be more than coincidence. I must have been basing my world on some false principles or incorrect ideas. I spent hours every day writing in my journal, going back over what went wrong, figuring out my contribution to my own problems, and imagining something better.
What went wrong? I developed a very painful repetitive stress injury that left me unable to do buttons or hold a cup. So that sucked. (Nearly two decades later, I still drop things a lot and hold my teacup in my left hand; the positive is that I can write and use chopsticks with either hand now). The painful RSI led to losing my job with the non-profit that I loved. That in turn led to my first husband asking for a divorce. That led to his opening a letter from the IRS, addressed to me, and withholding it until after the deadline had passed, just to mess with me. In rapid succession, I wound up in constant pain, with no money, no marriage, a pending workers comp lawsuit (apart from the two separate issues of the IRS thing and the divorce), and friends who were “choosing not to take sides.” The physical therapy burned holes in my skin. My fibromyalgia had nothing to do with any of this, but it was still a daily issue. Let’s just say that I had a lot to work on.
What I decided, in the hundreds of pages of intensive journaling I did during this period, was that I needed to change what I could. I needed to be as accountable as possible, and I needed to be WIDE OPEN to feedback and constructive criticism. Any clues I could get from anyone else, I needed to hear them, I needed to take them in, and I needed to keep them coming. I wasn’t doing too well by letting my ego and my sense of cleverness run things.
The other thing I needed to do was to be organized and persistent. Now, I would call that being a CLOSER. Always Be Closing. My journaling shifted to a running recap of issues I was trying to resolve and actions I had taken toward resolving them. My first success was with the IRS issue. Someone else’s income had been reported under my social security number, and I had a tax bill for over $8000 for money I hadn’t earned. I was so scared to make that call, because the letter my ex had kept said that I hadn’t contested the claim in time. I picked up the phone, explained why I hadn’t called sooner, and found that the agent was completely gracious. “This happens all the time.” (!!!) I was able to track down the W-2 of the person who actually had earned that higher salary and mail in a copy, and my case was closed. (What I would have done if this hadn’t been a coworker, who was willing to share her personal financial information, still is not clear to me). The downside of inaction would have been so bad that I knew I had to move forward.
During the course of my recovery from the disaster of my divorce, I learned something important. When you have to get up, you can. My pain from fibromyalgia was so bad at that time that I sometimes needed help to sit up in bed in the morning. Or I thought I did. When there’s nobody around to help, it’s surprising what you find out you can do. I learned that my pain was worst first thing in the morning, and that once I got up and started moving around, it was easier. I was eating barely enough to get by, and I lost 30 pounds in a few months. My pain went away for a few years. This should have been my first clue that excess body weight made my pain worse, but of course I ignored it and regained the weight as soon as I could afford to.
I kept up the habit of journaling whenever my stress level hit a certain point. I used my journals to work through the process of applying to the university. I used my journals to figure out additional ways to earn money. I used my journals to work out a schedule to pay off my consumer debt. I used my journals to work through a few romantic relationships, figuring out what worked and what didn’t work. I checked out dozens of self-help books from the public library and meticulously worked through all the exercises. I was trying to get to the bottom of why my life had quit working and what I was doing that other people weren’t, or vice versa.
Gradually, I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t start with my default as the baseline. I had to figure out a universal baseline and plan my behavior around that, even if it had nothing to do with the way I wanted to behave. Perhaps especially if the universal baseline had nothing to do with what I was doing. I figured there was a way to find a suitable career and advance in it. I figured there was a way to plan a budget. I figured there was a healthy way of eating and exercising. I figured there was a way to get to know someone and build a relationship without any of the misunderstandings of my first marriage. I decided I would learn what successful people did and copy them. If it worked for them, it might work for me, and if not, well, what I was doing on my own wasn’t working, either. I would keep researching and experimenting until I found an answer I could live with.
I was right about the accountability. That’s probably the single most important piece of advice I could give anyone. No matter what, it’s up to us to handle what comes our way, no matter whose fault it was. The IRS bill wasn’t my fault, but it was still my problem. Whatever caused my divorce, it was still mine to process and use for information. For whatever reason I developed fibromyalgia (spraining my back in an accident), it was my problem to try to manage. Nobody else could do it for me.
I was right about getting organized. It’s valuable in its own right. When my life was at its hardest, at least I had some semblance of a plan. Sometimes I would just make up things to try. In those days before Google, we had to figure out more for ourselves. It was harder but it taught me to be more resourceful and inventive. It also taught me that mental clarity is high on the list of great traits.
I was right that you can get up even when you think you can’t. I learned a deep and mystical secret, which is that grit and fortitude are there for the asking. Navy SEAL training teaches that most people quit when they’re at 40% of their physical capacity. I think I’ve made it to about 80% of what I can do. Anyone who suffers chronic pain, if you’re reading this, HEY, you’re not dead yet. You’re not even unconscious. You’re not even dizzy, or you wouldn’t be reading. You have more in you than you think you do. The SAME PAIN that we feel in a chair or on a bed, we can tolerate in other ways and other situations. Trying to rest and endure only leads to more pain, to another day just like the first. What I learned from training for a marathon is that DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) is pretty much exactly the same intensity as fibromyalgia pain. The pain I have endured in physical therapy was slightly worse than any pain I’ve ever pushed through at the gym. I bought myself my current level of strength and fitness by using the pain tolerance I developed through being chronically ill. I stopped feeling trapped by learned helplessness. I stopped reading the articles that talked about how difficult fibromyalgia is to treat. I tried telling my current doctor about my success story, and she told me I must have been misdiagnosed, because “people with fibromyalgia don’t get better.” That’s why nobody knows we can get better – because when we walk in and share our experience, the medical establishment ignores us. They used to tell me it wasn’t a real disease, until pharmaceuticals were developed to treat it, and now they say it’s real but there’s no cure. I say differently.
I beat poverty. I beat chronic pain and fatigue and became a marathon runner. I beat thyroid disease and (unintentionally, cluelessly) shrank my own thyroid nodule. I beat obesity. I beat pavor nocturnus. I beat migraine. I beat divorce and found love again; despite the odds, we’ve been together more than three times as long as my first marriage lasted. I beat the IRS. I beat the market and broke even in the crash of 2008. I could easily still be broke, single, fat, and in pain every day. Nothing was going to fall from the sky and make me better. Dissatisfaction meditation helped me figure out tiny pieces of my problems and take baby steps forward. I tried to make my life 1% better as often as I could. Where I am now, it’s hard to find anything to feel dissatisfied about. It gets better. It gets better, but only when we imagine how it can be better.
I was a girl baby. I weighed 7 pounds, 7 ounces. I grew up to have two brothers, six boy cousins, and four uncles, but no sisters or girl cousins. The different standards for physical activities considered appropriate for either a boy or a girl, but usually not both, were always abundantly clear to me. I always preferred “boy” things like climbing trees, walking the top of a fence, digging holes, and trying to learn bike tricks. My mom told me once to get down from a tree because I was wearing a dress. The concern was that people would see up my skirt. “All the boys are up here with me,” I called down.
Around that same age, I found a women’s magazine on the coffee table. It was the sort of magazine that orders you to LOSE TEN POUNDS BY SUMMER! right next to BEST CAKE RECIPES! I flipped through it, and something beautiful caught my eye. It was an article on yoga poses. I didn’t understand what that meant, although I could read, but I did really like the outfits and the lighting. The yoginis were dressed in pale pink leotards. They reminded me of ballerinas. Oh, so pretty! I promptly got down on the carpet and started trying to copy what I saw. One pose involved lying on your belly and reaching back for your feet. Then you would arch and pull your legs upward. I was at that age when you’re basically made of rubber, and I probably could have accomplished dozens of postures without even feeling the stretch. My mommy saw me, though, and it scared her. “Be careful! You’ll hurt your back!” I got a stern lecture on not attempting stuff like that unless I knew what I was doing, and that it was for grownups.
That was hardly the last time I was told to be careful. More of these lectures have come my way since adulthood than in childhood, from friends, family, colleagues, and complete strangers.
BE CAREFUL about walking in that neighborhood.
BE CAREFUL about traveling alone.
BE CAREFUL about leaving your house after dark.
BE CAREFUL about strength training or you’ll strain yourself or get too bulky.
BE CAREFUL about exercising at all or it will make you obsessive.
BE CAREFUL about weight loss because you’ll lose your mind and become an anorexic.
BE CAREFUL about being too competitive or you’ll lose friends.
BE CAREFUL BE CAREFUL BE CAREFUL BE CAREFUL BE CAREFUL
Shifting gears for a moment, let me talk a bit about the men in my life. My husband: swim team, football team, hockey team, armored combat, motorcyclist. Nobody told him to BE CAREFUL even after all the times he got knocked unconscious. Nobody told him to BE CAREFUL even when he sharpened his chainsaw while working as a logger. Nobody told him to BE CAREFUL even after dropping his bike in traffic. My brothers: fell out of a tree, fell down a flight of stairs, broke an arm before kindergarten (and promptly used the cast to hit another boy), umpteen car accidents, spinal fracture from a construction accident. Nobody tells them to BE CAREFUL. All three of them have made public decisions to lose weight, lost it, and kept it off, all without anyone telling them to BE CAREFUL or implying they would have some kind of emotional breakdown.
I do what I want. That’s important to me. My non-negotiable need in life is total freedom to come and go as I please and investigate anything that ignites my curiosity. I’ve always been that way. Fortunately, I met a man who likes this trait in me. It keeps me interesting and it tends to result in a firm, active body. I’ve traveled to nine countries on four continents so far; I’ve run a marathon; I’ve hiked over 30 miles in three days. Without a minimum quota of trail time, I’m tense, irritable, and bored. I have the demonstrated capacity to go places by myself, pack my own gear, pitch my own tent, light my own fires, and use my own first aid kit. I can tie my shoes and make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, too!
I’m a rational being, like most other humans. It burns me up every time someone else infantilizes me and expresses a belief that I’m emotionally fragile, weak, or incompetent. I know my own mind. I know the limitations of my own body, too. I beat chronic pain and fatigue, thyroid disease, migraine, obesity, and a parasomnia disorder to get where I am. Anyone who knows anything about me knows that I’m the last person to voluntarily endanger myself or cause myself unnecessary pain or suffering. My lifetime quota of illness was met in my early 20s. That’s part of my motivation: to make it up to myself. I’m making up for lost time and building a better body to take me into my golden years. Maybe people will be less likely to tell me to BE CAREFUL when I’m 80 if I have bigger muscles than they do.
I just learned a new business term, and that is the phrase “bias toward action.” It refers to a decision to take action quickly even in the face of insufficient information. This trait is also the secret behind how to beat procrastination. We have a tendency to overthink everything. We hesitate to take action, sometimes because we just don’t want to DO THE THING, but also because we make simple tasks part of some incredibly convoluted mental contraptions. We mull things over and wait for optimal conditions. What we rarely do is to simply GET UP and DO SOMETHING.
What to do? Where to start? It doesn’t matter. Take any action that will move you closer to any goal.
What’s important is what not to do:
Sitting. Sitting is to be avoided. Sitting is bad for the human body in many ways.
Ruminating. Make a rule that if you want to ruminate, you have to multi-task and do it while you complete a task of some kind. Worry only when putting away laundry. Stew over what that person said while cleaning the floor. Criticize yourself only while packing lunch.
Q4 activities. Quadrant 4 is anything defined as neither urgent nor important. Many of us spend most of our time in Q4, staring at screens or pages. Q4 includes any form of passive entertainment and all the weird non-actions we create that we think fit into some kind of loophole.
Once you eliminate an attractive nuisance, a seductive time-waster and brain drain, it is no longer available to distract you. It creates a void that becomes very boring. One very effective anti-procrastination technique is to stop allowing yourself to do anything at all other than the project you’re supposed to be doing. You can work on it or you can stand there and stare at the wall. B.O.R.I.N.G..
Procrastination is about “temporary mood repair.” Thinking about DOING THE THING makes us feel bad, and we let ourselves off the hook so that we can get away from that bad feeling. I don’t want to! I don’t have to. Yay. This “giving in to feel good” reinforces itself. We reward ourselves for exactly the behavior that we think we’re trying to eliminate. It’s like giving your dog a cookie for biting you. Future Self gets screwed over once again. We push off our duties over and over, creating significantly worse pain, stress, and dread for ourselves to experience slightly further down the timeline.
JUST GET IT OVER WITH ALREADY!
Let’s talk more about the bias for action, because it is ripe for skepticism. How is taking any random action going to help move me forward?
Let’s say all I do is pace around in circles. How is that going to help? It will help by getting your blood circulating, for one thing. Sedentary behavior is physically and mentally draining. Pacing around the room for more than a few minutes also starts to seem a bit ridiculous. Once you’re up and moving, a lot of small, easy tasks start to feel less aversive. Put items away. Take out the trash. Clean out the fridge. Hang up some clothes. Basic chores start to get done. This creates a sense of momentum and a more organized space. More importantly, it restores mental bandwidth.
Taking any action at all is very positive when you focus on completing anything that can be done in under five minutes. This includes most household chores, informational phone calls, and email responses. I can scrub a bathtub in five minutes. What can you do?
The five-minute exercise can be a real eye-opener when you work with an actual stopwatch. A timer is fine, too, although the two are really different sorts of exercises. Timers are good for playing Beat the Clock and racing to see how much you can get done. Stopwatches are good for finding out how very little time most tasks take. I despise making customer service phone calls, but I’ve found that most take under two minutes. I just remind myself of this fact, take a breath, and start dialing. It takes me longer to brush my teeth than it does to get an annoying phone call out of the way.
Hustle is what I call it. My goal is to create a sense of momentum from when I get up through the end of the workday. Action instead of decision points. Routine instead of decision points. Habit instead of decision points. I only needed to make one decision about working out every day. I only needed to make one commitment to eat micronutrient-rich foods and avoid eating junk food. I only needed to make one decision to put my health first and have a realistic bedtime. I stay “organized” by having a set routine that includes cleaning one room each weekday. All I have to do is get up and start working my way through my reminders as they come up in my phone. When I’m already dressed, wearing shoes, and physically moving around, it’s no big deal to add in one more chore. Many things, like putting a dirty dish in the dishwasher or tossing junk mail, take under 10 seconds.
The trouble comes in when I’m contemplating a more complex project, such as writing my book. It isn’t always obvious what to do. That’s where I start. I get out a piece of paper and start rapidly free-writing all my stuck points. What questions do I need to resolve? What research do I think I need to do? What parts am I worried need to sound more realistic? What do I think doesn’t work? What am I trying to accomplish with this section? Then I branch out and brainstorm as many possible solutions to a particular, fine-grained question as I can. I’ll make a mind map or a flowchart or a timeline or a diagram or a map. Usually, an answer emerges that seems like it should have been obvious – but wasn’t.
The two most commonly procrastinated tasks are planning for retirement and dealing with health problems. I once met a man who turned out to have had an untreated hernia for three years. Imagine the pain. The greatest mystery in life is how we manage to carry on with our burdens while avoiding action that would relieve the misery. I think it’s because we don’t always know what to do next, and there are no clear signals to show the way. If PAIN isn’t enough of a sign, what would be? The man with the hernia could have done anything at all. He could have simply groaned and leaned against a wall, and someone probably would have come over and asked, “Buddy, are you okay?” He could have asked anyone he knew, “Have you ever had a feeling like a gopher was gnawing its way through your entrails?” He didn’t have to know what a hernia was, or how it was treated. He just had to do something: ask a question, go to a doctor, hail a cab. Even a reference librarian would have helped him.
I’ve done a lot of things since I started forcing myself to work through feelings of resistance, reluctance, and distaste. I realized that I was annoying myself and that the results I was getting were not anything I would want. When I first took action, I had no idea where it would lead. I never knew what would work or not work. I just kept doing and trying and experimenting. When I started running, I only planned to be able to run 2.25 miles by the end of the year. I did it in six weeks. I didn’t plan to shrink my thyroid nodule through strenuous activity; I was simply procrastinating on getting the biopsy and working out my terror through exercise. I rode around town shouting, “F.U., thyroid gland! YOU CAN’T DO THIS TO ME!” I guess it worked. When I realized it had been several months since my last night terror episode, I chalked it up to my running routine. It took several months more before I realized the key factor was actually whether I ate too late at night. Blood sugar, not exercise. I quadrupled my cruciferous vegetable consumption, not realizing that it would cure my migraines. Micronutrients, who’d have thought it? I hurl myself full force into a new habit, experiment with it, and generally get unanticipated positive results. Not knowing what I’m doing keeps me keenly interested in the process. I stick with the behavior long enough to figure out what it does, and that tends to sell me on why it’s a good idea.
Overthinking is a tendency I still have. I’ve learned, though, to start with the action and indulge in the mental exploration afterward. When I started running, I couldn’t make it around the block. I started reading books of running lore before I could run a mile. By the time I ran my marathon four years later, I was informally coaching my friends. It’s been the same with my explorations of nutrition, motivation, habit formation, personal finance, and everything else. I start from the place of DUH and fill that void with experimental action, research, and writing. Not knowing how to do something is ideal for the curious and the adventurous.
Build the bridge while you’re crossing it. Unless you’re the first person on Mars, whatever it is you’re trying to do has been done by someone else. That means it can be done. Millions of people have run a marathon, and every single one of them started out as a baby who couldn’t even roll over in bed. I’ve been passed by octogenarians, blind people, and a para-athlete with a colostomy bag. Maybe that isn’t such a great anecdote to support how running has worked out for me. It does give me something to aim for. How can I run as fast as that 80-year-old man? What does he do that I’m not doing? It goes to show the benefits of maintaining momentum.
Acknowledge that you don’t want to do something, state why, and then do it anyway. Do something. Do anything. You already know that the brain rut you’re in is not fun, not productive, and not sexy. Procrastination is like always walking down a dark back alley full of trash bags. Surely you’d rather go the other way, the well-lit main street? Maybe you find yourself at the alley entrance again. Simply pause and think, “I smell garbage,” and use the reminder of ickiness to turn away and stay on the main street.
Recognize the resistance. Notice the feeling of I DON’T WANNA. Catch yourself when you settle back into your familiar nest and prepare to pretend that time does not exist. Pick up the phone and call Future Self, see what’s up. Maybe hold the Future Phone a few inches away from your ear first. Have a heart. Show some compassion for Future You. Get it done, whatever it is. Dive in and do it.
Just get started.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.