You should have done it already. You know you should have. It’s lurking there, like a swamp thing at the bottom of a murky lake. Waiting for you. It will never let you have a moment’s peace until you deal with it, but you just can’t seem to make yourself. You can’t seem to make yourself open that envelope, listen to that voicemail, make that phone call, schedule that appointment, get that thing repaired, fill out that application, have that awkward conversation, turn in that assignment. WHY? Why do you keep doing this to yourself?
You’re not alone. Everyone procrastinates. Sure, some people claim they don’t, but the two most commonly procrastinated tasks are planning for retirement and dealing with health issues. Mention that if anyone tries to grief you about this.
Procrastination is a secret shame. There are a lot of different kinds. Don’t stress out about it. Imagine being a hit and run driver who never told anyone. (If that’s you, well, heck. Tell someone). Procrastination is really pretty mild in the grand scheme of things.
Whenever you have a secret shame, it’s the shame and the secrecy that are the real problems. Everything else is generally a simple matter of routine work.
An unpaid bill is just cash.
Something broken is just a repair.
A stain is just a stain.
An incomplete task is just something that could be finished.
It’s never the thing itself. It’s always the feelings of shame, guilt, incompetence, dread, anxiety, confusion, and What If that are the real problems.
Most of the time, it isn’t too late. Whatever is being procrastinated, the deadline hasn’t passed yet. There’s still time. Even knowing that, it can still feel impossible to just get started. Just start. Just start. Why aren’t you starting?
All it takes is to tell someone. Tell someone you know and trust. Tell someone you don’t know, like a stranger in line behind you at the post office. Tell someone anonymously on the internet. Tell a crow in the parking lot. Tell the Great Pumpkin. Just tell someone.
Give a name to what’s bothering you. Describe it. This helps to put some boundaries around the nameless ick that is destroying your peace of mind.
“I never sent those thank-you notes.”
“I’ve had this overdue library book for eight years.”
“The floor is ruined and I’m afraid to tell my landlord.”
“I’ve been getting calls from collections agents and I’m not even sure how much I owe.”
“The quarterly report is due and I haven’t even started yet.”
“I’m supposed to get a biopsy and it’s been over a year and I still haven’t made the appointment.”
(That last one was me BTW).
If you’ve picked the right person, you’ll probably hear a similar story in return. Everyone but everyone has done something like this. I accidentally melted a chocolate Rollo candy into my roommate’s couch. (So that’s where that went!). People procrastinate and make foolish mistakes and do embarrassing stuff all the time. That’s why it’s so funny and such a huge relief to hear that someone else is doing it, too.
Many people who have trouble working alone will push through for hours without a break if they have someone to sit with them. It’s a well-known phenomenon. The companion is called a “body double” or “shadow.” I think the lack of a buddy is the root cause of procrastination for a lot of people. (Probably most of them are Obligers). This is part of why it helps to tell someone when you feel like you’re in trouble and unable to face a problem by yourself. If all you need is someone to keep you company, that’s really a very minor favor to ask of someone.
Who could you get to sit with you?
A business partner? Your neighbor? Your kid? Your spouse?
A fellow procrastinator?
There are all kinds of book clubs, right? (I used to belong to three at one point). Lots of people play racquetball or tennis together. Bowling leagues. Choirs. You get where I’m going here? Why shouldn’t you have a partner or a club to help you focus and get stuff done? It’s entirely possible that someone among your friends or acquaintances is in just such a situation as you are. That person would probably be thrilled to have some help. You both just sit down together and make a pact that you’ll work on your secret shame until it’s done.
The backlog of unbalanced bank statements (which someone at your bank will do with you). The 30,000 unopened emails. The grocery sack full of unopened envelopes, which I guarantee are almost entirely junk mail. The incomplete expense reports. The blank thank-you notes. Whatever it is, it’s not exactly movie-of-the-week material, now, is it?
The funny thing is, it’s possible that you and your friend have non-overlapping projects, as well as non-overlapping skill sets. For instance, I absolutely hate driving, but I’m really quite good at organizing and I don’t mind disgusting cleaning tasks. I would totally trade someone a job like mending or scrubbing out a gross fridge for driving me around on some errands. Other jobs I hate that might make a good trade are wrapping gifts or giving my dog a bath.
It’s also not morally wrong to just hire someone. Hire a local high school kid. Hire someone through Craigslist or something similar. Calculate a subjective estimate of the cost of this looming dread that’s constantly hanging over your head, and then how much you’d be willing to pay to be rid of it. Is this a $25 stress? A $200 stress? A $20,000,000 stress? For instance, I can wash a pretty vast pile of laundry at the laundromat for about $8, but when it’s piled up that much, it feels like at least a hundred-dollar annoyance. (Would it cost $100 to buy a top-to-toe outfit if I ran out of clean clothes?). For a lot of people, putting a price on something can help to rank it and compare it to other problems. It can also be a motivator for getting it done rather than spending that kind of money.
Dread and procrastination and secret shame will destroy your peace of mind like nothing else. Life is too short to feel that way another day. Tell someone and don’t suffer alone.
Overpacking isn’t just something to do with a suitcase. It’s also something metaphorical that we do with our schedules. Every time I get ready to go on a trip, I tell myself all sorts of fantasies, from “You’ll definitely finish reading that, you should really pack at least two extra books just in case” to “What email backlog? You’ll just breeze through it at the airport on the way home.” HAhahahaha! One of the many myths I hypnotize myself into believing is that I’m totally going to work out on vacation. Yeah! In fact, maybe I’ll upgrade! Yeah! I’ll try out all these Olympian core workouts and go home with side abs!
In reality, what happens is that I forget to apply sunblock to key areas, I don’t get enough sleep, I barely read a page a day, I eat dessert once or twice a day, I bring five pounds of extra stuff I never use, and, of course, I don’t work out at all.
Well, that last part isn’t completely true. We walk a lot.
It never ceases to amaze me, the beautiful and sweet optimism of people who think they can erase ten years of recreational eating habits by walking half an hour a few days a week. Wouldn’t that be nice? What I know is that we typically walk 8-10 miles a day on vacation, and I can gain anywhere from two to eight pounds anyway.
Being able to walk long distances is great. Travel is a good enough reason to stay fit all by itself. Walking ten miles, including about twenty flights of stairs, while carrying a backpack all day is no joke. There are also those special moments of horking your suitcase up into the overhead rack.
Sadly, though, even ten miles a day is no match for vacation food. Someone of my size only burns about 70 calories per mile. If a slice of cake is about 500, sure, maybe I’ve managed to burn off an extra dessert every day. The cake, but not the sweet drinks, the appetizers, the snacks, or any of the restaurant portions. My husband and I can easily gain enough extra weight from our vacation eating habits that it takes the rest of the year to burn it off again. If we do.
Of course, it isn’t just the food. It’s the break from routine. Daily reality is suspended. When we get home, it’s like we’ve gone through a wormhole, and everything looks similar, yet weirdly different. The apartment smells like paint. The dog has forgotten some of our hand signals and a couple of his new tricks. There’s an empty place in the schedule where “go to the gym” used to be.
This summer, we left town for a week, and got back just in time for my gym to close for five days for Independence Day. It just so happened that I had been down for a week with a stomach bug, trained for a week, left town, and then missed classes during the closure. Suddenly I was back at it, having only trained three days over the previous month. I had only two opportunities to prepare for belt promotion, and here I was still in vacation mode.
It’s not completely true to say that I didn’t train. I kinda did. It just wasn’t anywhere remotely approaching what I do on an ordinary weekday. Instead of an hour of high-intensity interval training, kicking, punching, and grappling, plus five miles of bicycling and 3-6 miles of walking, I did... I did less. I worked on my headstand for about five minutes a day, I walked, and a few days I did ten burpees.
I packed my jump rope. I had the best of intentions and it was small and lightweight. Did I use it? Not once. Course not. Anyone who does a serious workout on vacation has more discipline and strategic mindset than I do, and that’s actually saying quite a lot.
My first day in class, I actually crushed it. I did two back-to-back classes. I surprised myself by being able to get down and crank out thirty standard pushups, no problem. Thank the burpees for that. I had walked six miles earlier in the day and I rode my bike to class, too. If it weren’t for the belt promotion and my need to go to enough classes to earn my third stripe on my white belt, I never would have done it. I walked in sleepy and nervous, and walked out with my head held high, feeling much better about my prospects for the upcoming three-hour workout.
Exercise without a schedule, without deadlines, without specific performance goals has an annoying tendency to fade away into nothing. The best-made intentions are vapor. There’s no such thing as willpower or motivation anyway, and weight is definitely not lost at the gym, so it’s best to let those fantasies go. The work is still worth it, though, and it pays off. Being fit and strong makes daily life easier. Every hour of suffering and sweat is a force multiplier, leading to better posture, more energy, sounder sleep, clearer skin, better balance, more muscle and bone density, mood repair, confidence, mental focus, pride, and, if you do it right, friendships. Keep going, definitely keep going.
Vacation ate my workout. Two weeks away led to feeling slow, floppy, tired, unfocused, and out of form. Paradoxically, this reminded me of how far I had come, and that I used to feel that way (or worse) all the time. Why would I let my gains drift away into nothing? Class is back in session, so let’s get back to work.
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
Why do we do what we do? What’s the emotional reward supposed to be at the end? Everyone is looking for something, whether that’s safety, respect, revenge, approval, power, or proving a point. We tend to see the end game as something less abstract: a group of friends, money, a sexy body, a big house, fame, that special someone saying, “I admit it, I was wrong.” It can be fun to simply acknowledge these desires, name them, and see if maybe they’re attainable.
Complicated, ill-advised, over-rated, we don’t really know until we’ve spent a little time indulging in these common fantasies.
Me, I’ve always just wanted to get into the room with the smart people.
That’s my motivation. I want to produce something, at some point, that is so cool that the thought leaders I respect will want to meet me and hang out.
My idea of fame isn’t about adoring crowds. It’s about walking up to a small gathering of people I admire and having them turn and say, “Hey, there you are!”
What I’m working for isn’t just a seat at the table. You can get that seat if you’re willing to take dictation and you can type fast enough. I don’t even want to be acknowledged as a peer. I want to be over there cracking jokes!
I’ve met a couple of these specific individuals already. You can do that if you go to their public appearances and stand in line long enough. You can also capture their attention simply by saying, “Thank you for coming to our city.” Nobody really does that, apparently.
There you have it, my dirty little secret. I don’t work for money or fame. I’m essentially just curious whether I have it in me to put something big into the world and then use it as a passport into a new social group.
Wanting to be in the room with the smart people is broader than that. It’s a general life philosophy. If I’m the smartest person in the room, then I’m in the wrong room. I always want to be in a position where I’m learning as much as I can. I want to push my limits. I want to surround myself with people who are achieving various things at a much higher level, whether that’s fellow home cooks or fitter people in my gym class. Ideally I’m not only avoiding being the smartest people in the room - ideally I’m the LEAST smart person in the room!
By “smart” I mean “knowing things I don’t know” and “proficient at things I can’t do.” Not native intelligence in the sense of IQ - that I’ve got covered. By “smart” I mean savvy, skilled, clever, wise, and focused.
My main drive here is curiosity. What are you like? What do you know that I don’t know? What projects are you working on? What do you think about all day?
Second to that is a moral conviction that I should do the most I can with my life. I should always be trying to learn more, do more, and love more. That includes making new friends and being a bigger part of my community, even when I feel shy and don’t want to talk to anyone. Like, ever.
Whether it’s moral or not, I’m not totally sure, but I do have another conviction that I should keep myself humble. It just seems like a good idea. Reminding myself that I have yet to contribute to society in any meaningful way, that I’ve barely done anything with the talents and resources that I have, that everyone around me has something interesting to teach, gives me a sense of urgency. Without that, I have a tendency to sit around my house reading and eating cookies, a tendency that I find makes my life fundamentally boring.
I made a tough decision two years ago, to take up public speaking. I would snap awake on Wednesday mornings in a cold sweat, knowing I’d have to walk into that meeting room later in the day. Sometimes I would procrastinate and not go because I had made myself late. It was physically and emotionally difficult for me in a way that’s hard to describe without using the phrase “projectile vomit.” I did it, though. I kept going until I started winning award ribbons, and then I was chosen as vice president of the club. I knew I was in the room with the smart people. I was the least among them, shaking like a leaf, barely able to stand up and speak my own name. They let me stay. They let me take a seat at the table and keep coming back until I got better. Now I’m one of them.
This year, I did it again. I signed up for martial arts lessons. I couldn’t do a proper sit-up on the first day. I can barely tell my left from my right. I have a bad tendency to step forward when I ought to step back. Sometimes I would throw a punch and miss the practice pad entirely. I’m more dangerous on accident than I am on purpose. When I showed up, I was definitely the slowest, weakest, and least coordinated. Now I can crank out thirty pushups and throw a spinning back elbow. Oh, and I got my orange belt.
The respect that I have in these two wildly different groups comes from my complete willingness to put myself out there, be terrible at something, and cheerfully keep trying. I’m genuinely grateful to receive advice because I see it as a gift. I’m in the room with the smart people, and that proximity is a privilege. Please, by all means, tell me everything I’m doing wrong! I’ll get it eventually.
Ultimately I want to be a cool old person. I want to meet Old Me, the Future Me who knows the most, the version of me who has seen the most of the world and met the most interesting people. Hopefully Old Me has made good use of our time in this world. Hopefully she’s in the room with the smart people. Which ones, though, and what are they doing?
The only thing better than a book by one of your favorite bloggers is when the book turns out to be even better than the blog. Eric Barker is in my top ten list, along with probably everyone else’s, and Barking Up the Wrong Tree has just locked that down. This is an incredibly fascinating read that may turn everything you think about pop psychology upside down. It is indeed, as the subtitle says, “the surprising science behind why everything you know about success is (mostly) wrong.”
Why is this book so great? It’s because Barker has been researching and writing in depth about these topics for years. More than that, he has a knack for illustrating concepts with historical examples and storytelling. Where else are you going to find anecdotes about submarines, drug cartels, mixed martial arts, Genghis Khan, Spider-Man, and Batman all in the same book?
The research behind Barking Up the Wrong Tree is bound to stir some inner resistance in most people. There are so many findings that contradict common wisdom, and that will probably also conflict with some closely held values. One is that making your boss happy is more important to your career success than your actual performance. Essentially, if you please your boss, even mediocre performance won’t matter, and if you annoy your boss, excellent performance won’t matter either. I can practically feel the temperature rising as steam comes out of ten thousand pairs of ears.
There’s so much to surprise, delight, challenge, confuse, frustrate, and ultimately impress readers. Optimism and pessimism, introversion and extroversion, grit, creativity, altruism, willpower, networking, success, and even hostage negotiations have their place here. If you’re ready to have your mind changed about a wide array of cultural assumptions, make sure you’re not Barking Up the Wrong Tree and read this book.
“Cognitive biases prevent us from understanding cognitive biases.”
“TO-DO LISTS ARE EVIL.”
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.
This book is not for amateurs. Or, rather, an amateur who picks it up is in real danger of abandoning amateur status. Jocko Willink is not messing around. Discipline Equals Freedom has the makings of a cult classic, the sort of book that is handed down from person to person, possibly to inspire a series of tattoos. For the standard-issue procrastinator, it could be fun to explore this as poetry. Regard it as a peek into the mindset of a hardcore, never-quit action-oriented achiever.
Stoic philosophy lives and breathes. It’s really the only difference between a super-achiever and an ordinary person. Discipline Equals Freedom is an example of that. It’s a common fallacy to think that a muscular person is dumb, that bias toward action is a demonstration of lack of depth or strategy. That’s because most people don’t talk and act at the same time, at least not at an extreme level. Even the fittest elite athlete in the midst of the most strenuous training period is still resting at least part of the day. What are they thinking about? Now we get a chance to find out.
I freaking love this book. I love it so much that I bought a digital copy to keep on my phone. I’ve been following my husband around, demanding that he listen to sections of it.
“Is this what I want to be? This? Is this all I’ve got—is this everything I can give? Is this going to be my life? Do I accept that?”
We’re both huge fans of the movie Full Metal Jacket, and we often quote whole sections of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman going off about something or other. “A jelly donut?!” This is how I got through my first mud run. “Are you quitting on me, Private Pyle? Are you quitting on me?” If only I’d had Discipline Equals Freedom; I could have had so much more variety in my self-talk.
Discipline Equals Freedom is divided into sections. The philosophy section is Part One: Thoughts. Part Two: Actions has more philosophy, and then it’s divided into nutrition, injury prevention and recovery, and workouts. The nutrition section is based on the Paleo diet. While I dispute the premise of Paleo, I wouldn’t let that mess with my appreciation of the book overall. I agree with Jocko on a few important points, namely that sugar is poison, that we need to take sleep seriously, and that we should be as physically active as possible every day. I haven’t eaten meat in twenty-five years, and almost the entire cadre of instructors at my martial arts academy are completely plant-based. Both locations. Our paths are different, but we both agree that the Standard American Diet will kill you.
As for the workouts, even the Beginner level is quite tough. Jocko has modifications for those of us who can’t do a pull-up, a handstand, or a regular push-up. I’ve been there, and it works. If you really want to be able to do a pull-up badly enough, you can make it happen, even if, on the first day, all you can do is grab the bar and hang there with your arms straight. The first time your chin clears the bar is a feeling of childlike dazzling joy.
People constantly say, “I wish I had your willpower” or “If only I had the motivation.” These are core misunderstandings of what makes other people tick. It’s self-discipline. It’s the inner philosophical alignment that says I refuse to accept inferior results for myself. If I want a better life, more grit and determination, more education, better communications and relationships with other people, then I can’t accept anything less from my own behavior. Discipline Equals Freedom is an instruction manual that teaches the mindset of self-discipline. Now read it, and liberate yourself.
The reason I keep my New Year’s Resolutions is because I choose a major challenge. Framing is everything. Courage is one of my core values, reason being that I know I am a physical coward, and it’s my never-ending quest to vanquish that puny weakling inside. Basically all I’m doing each year is selecting an interesting variation on that game. How do I voluntarily pitch myself into an arena where my comfort zone is nowhere to be seen?
Why would any sensible person do such a thing?
Quite simply, the further away I am from anything I enjoy, anything that comes to me naturally, anything relaxing or fun, the more I stretch my capabilities. Over time, my comfort zone has gotten much bigger. The biggest advantage of this is that far fewer things seem scary or uncomfortable. Of course, that creates the disadvantage that I have to search harder to get the same sort of gains.
It was easy when I was 19. I enrolled in ballroom dance lessons. As a painfully shy person, this was a good choice. Now I’m officially a “competent social dancer.” I can waltz, rumba, tango, fox trot, swing, cha-cha, merengue, hustle, and salsa dance. Who knew, right?
I went back to school and got my bachelor’s degree. Then I got my driver’s license, still far and away the hardest thing I’ve ever done. A few years later, my challenge was to read 500 books in a year. One year I learned to read Cyrillic characters, impressive until you find out that I can’t speak Russian or Ukrainian. One year I chose distance running, which led to a mud run and, eventually, a marathon. Then I went after public speaking, probably the second-hardest challenge I have undertaken.
This year, it’s martial arts. I signed up and started taking lessons in Krav Maga and Muay Thai kickboxing.
Cool story, dude.
Yeah, no. Let me explain just why this is so challenging for me.
I was always one of the smallest kids in my grade, and definitely the least coordinated, slowest, weakest, and most clueless about any and all sports. Last picked for every team, hit in the head with every possible ball except the medicine ball, tackled into the mud in soccer by someone on my own team. I grew up to experience many years of chronic pain and fatigue, thyroid disease, migraine, and fibromyalgia. To say I was never an athlete would be a grave understatement.
I’m not an athlete, I’m a book-reading, bird-watching nerd of the first order.
I’m also 5’4” and I weigh a buck and a quarter. I wear a size zero.
My wrists measure 5 1/4.”
They just put me in a “child’s large” t-shirt.
On several occasions in my life, a male friend or relative has simply picked me up and unceremoniously tossed me over his shoulder. They take one look at me and decide that I’m portable. No dignity in sight.
With this new martial arts challenge, I’m pushing myself in several ways. While I do all right with endurance running, that is physically almost the exact opposite of this type of training. Running is aerobic, martial arts is anaerobic. Distance running tends to lead to strong hamstrings but weak glutes, quads, hip flexors, and core, something I felt literally within the first sixty seconds of my first Krav Maga class. Mostly lower body, running doesn’t really set you up for the upper body demands of martial arts. The mindset of distance running requires a high tolerance for boredom, moving along one axis at one speed for hours at a time. Martial arts is unpredictable activity over a wide range of motion. Distance running is for loners, martial arts requires interaction with partners and opponents. The only thing these disciplines have in common, really, is that they’re both impact sports, in that they can both build bone density. I’m getting feedback from the instructors and my fellow students that I have a good mindset for this type of training, but grit, humility, and perseverance are nearly all I’m bringing to the table.
In other words, walking the challenge path has brought me emotional strength that I never otherwise had.
What else is challenging about being a middle-aged martial arts novice?
DOMS, delayed onset muscle soreness
The shock of impact, falling and grappling and being thrown onto the mat
Being triggered in certain positions and having trauma flashbacks
The humiliation your ego feels at realizing that your fitness level is the lowest in the room
Feeling your age, especially in comparison to kids barely out of high school
The intellectual challenge of learning new jargon
Unfamiliar equipment, not even knowing which end is up
Fear of social isolation, when all the other students know each other and you’re the new kid
Low proprioception, being uncoordinated and not mirroring the moves very well
Pushing your physical stamina to the point that you genuinely start to black out
They tell me: “This is martial arts. If you don’t bleed, faint, or puke at least once, you’re not trying hard enough.”
It’s going to get worse. That’s sort of the point. I fully expect to be hit in the face, get a fat lip, possibly get a black eye, cut up my knuckles, have mat burn and bruises on every limb, possibly even get a tooth knocked out. Setting up my emotional expectations for the very worst helps me to appreciate that most days, it truly isn’t that bad.
These are the sorts of things I say as I’m getting to know everyone:
Any goal that takes less than four years isn’t worth doing. I’m here for humility and self-discipline. If I don’t feel weak, slow, frail, clumsy, uncoordinated, humiliated, dumb, scared, and out of my league, then I’m in the wrong place.
Challenge is where triumph comes from. There’s no other way to get that astonishing feeling of having overcome something, having utterly prevailed and emerged victorious. The emotion that makes you thrust your arms over your head in jubilation, that doesn’t come from doing the ordinary.
The challenge path is the hardest path, and that’s why it’s the most rewarding. Start out expecting to be terrible, to be objectively the worst, in the bottom 10% of performance. Pick something that makes your knees tremble and you’re on track. Learn to love those feelings of desperate uselessness, one scintilla above the line that says, “I obviously don’t belong here and I should drop out.” The better you are at everything else, the less tolerant you tend to become of being at beginner level, or doing anything radically different from your strengths. Even mediocrity starts to feel like failure. On the challenge path, you follow one spoke that leads directly away from your hub, off in a wildly different direction than the other paths you’ve beaten. This is how you build yourself a bigger world.
If a single critical comment or one harsh word can destroy your supposed motivation, you’ll quit everything you ever start. Hearing a phrase like “this is why you’ll quit” should spark an unquenchable fire inside of you. HA. I’ll show you. That’s what you think. You have no idea who you’re dealing with.
You’ll quit, though.
You’ll quit because you believe in “motivation.” You think there’s a magical feeling that comes shooting into your belly from a big sparkly rainbow. You don’t believe in determination or commitment or choosing things that suck on purpose.
You’ll quit because you believe in “willpower.” You think some people are born with it. You don’t actually want self-discipline or perseverance because you know those take work, more work than you want to put in.
You’ll quit because to keep going would mean waking up early and doing it when you’re tired. You’re tired because you stay up late, pretending you have two lives, and the late-night you doesn’t give two figs about the morning you. You’ll never stop staying up too late, and that’s why you’ll quit.
You’ll quit because you’re always going to choose instant gratification. If someone waves a brownie bite in front of your face, that’s it, you’re done. You’ll fold like an umbrella. You can’t bear the feeling of deprivation that you imagine is worse than your real deprivation. You deprive yourself of your own goals and dreams in favor of entertainments and treats that would impress a five-year-old kid.
You’ll quit because you went for something too far out of your reach. You’ll quit because your ego can’t take being at beginner level. You’ll quit because you can’t stop comparing yourself to other people who have put in months or years or decades of continuous practice. You’ll quit because you’d rather have nothing than having something cool in six months. Or three months.
You’ll quit because three weeks feels like a long time to you.
You’ll quit because your own future self is a perfect stranger to you. You deal with the poor choices that Past You made every single day, but you never realize that you continue to do the same thing. You get in your own way and make your own life harder.
You’ll quit because you’re in love with your television. You’d watch it twelve hours a day if you could find a way to quit sleeping.
You’ll quit because you can’t even choose sleep as a goal, even though it’s free, it feels great, and it makes everything in your day easier and better.
You’ll quit because you think the pain of change is worse than the pain of your status quo.
You’ll quit, and do you know how I know? You started in January. You’ll become a statistic, just like everyone else. If you joined a big gym, they didn’t tell you that their pricing model depends on having 6,000 members, 3,000 of whom literally never show up at all. There’s only room for 300 people to work out at a time. You’re not used to it, you’re put off by everything about that environment, and you’re not willing to budget the time or money to pay for anything else. You’ll quit because they set you up like a sucker.
You’ll quit because it hurts and three minutes of moderate physical pain is too much.
You’ll quit because of the delayed onset muscle soreness. The first time you do enough for your body to start making a difference, you’ll be so tired that you’ll quit before you find out that feeling eventually goes away.
You’ll quit because you always quit before the results have enough time to show up.
You’ll quit because there are no consequences.
You’ll quit because you let yourself off the hook.
You’ll quit because you never made any backup plans.
You’ll quit because you’re a “perfectionist” and that means you care more about weird inner standards than you do about results or performance. The moment something happens and you break your streak, probably by the third week of January, you’ll give up.
You’ll quit because you’d rather have a perfect nothing than an imperfect something.
You’ll quit because you forgot you had even made any kind of commitment in the first place. You are so loose with giving your own word to yourself that you’ll break promises you never really realized you made.
You’ll quit because you have no idea how to make yourself do things.
You’ll quit because it suits your image of yourself. Staying with it would mean redefining who you are, and if that’s someone with grit and determination, well, how are you supposed to recognize that person?
You’ll quit because you believe in personality, not behavior.
You’ll quit because you don’t care about your goal, not that much, not really.
You’ll quit because you always do.
You’ll quit because you take criticism personally and you actually let it inside of you. A single sentence will do it, one word, one facial expression, or part of a hint of one.
You’ll quit because continuing would take more approval and applause than the world is prepared to give, to anyone, for anything.
You’ll quit even though you paid good money to do it.
If you had it within you to do things you didn’t like, when you weren’t in the mood, you’d find that you could keep going.
If you knew you would never give a commitment you weren’t prepared to keep, come fire or flood, you’d look at your reflection in the mirror differently.
If you treated your future as if it mattered, you’d keep going.
If you were patient and humble enough to do tiny steps, one day at a time, you’d get there.
If you started taking next year as seriously as you take your next meal, you’d win every time.
If you heard someone say to you, “I know you are going to quit,” and it made you laugh deep inside, you’d never quit anything at all.
Well, which is it? Am I right or am I wrong?
I can be in a bad mood with a dirty tub or I can be in a bad mood with a clean tub. That’s how I see it. When I get into a snit for some reason, I need something physical to do or I’m going to start volcanically spewing hot lava and unprintable verbiage all over the nearest innocent bystander. I have two choices: clean my house, or exercise. One night I took a hammer out into the back yard and hammered a hole in the dirt, but when I saw it in broad daylight I realized that I had beaten a foot-wide bald patch into the lawn. That’s why I try to keep it constructive. Angry cleaning is great because it’s a harmless way of burning up angry energy, and it’s also a fantastic source of psychic fuel for the grodiest, worst scutwork and most boring chores.
Learning to harness various feelings is a key part of emotional homework. We tend to say that we’ll do things when we feel like it and when we’re in the mood. That’s for amateurs! Personally I have never been in the mood to scrub a toilet, and I hope I never will be. This is my one and only life, and the day I “feel like” kneeling on the floor with a toilet brush in my hand would be so out of character that I’d have to wonder if someone had been gaslighting me. I get these things done by following a schedule, distracting myself with audio books, and pretending I’m doing something else. If I’m lucky enough to be wound up and angry about something, then I can use that to get the gross stuff done. I’m certainly not going to waste a happy feeling or a good mood on cleaning my apartment.
Happiness is for enjoying. A happy feeling should go toward making art, talking to people, dancing, making meals, and doing fun stuff. When the happy feelings come, use them wisely and remind yourself of all the nice things you like to do.
Sadness? Sadness is no good for cleaning. Cleaning when we’re sad tends to make us feel sorry for ourselves. Woe is me! I wore these socks and now I have to wash them AND put them in the dryer AND fold them AND put them away! It never ends. Sigghhhhhh. Doing chores when we’re sad can add to feelings of resentment, futility, or hopelessness. The human condition of having everyday, quotidian practical needs suddenly seems like a requirement that we build pyramids or dig trenches in the rain. Sadness is a time to ask for a hug.
The difference between anger and sadness has to do with feelings of control. We tend to get angry when we feel that someone else has intruded in our territory, broken the rules, failed to keep an agreement, violated a contract (written or unwritten), or otherwise messed with us. We tend to feel sad when something has happened that we think we can’t do anything about. We’ve lost something, we regret something we can’t change, we’re stuck or trapped, we’ve failed, everything bad is permanent and pervasive. This is why angry cleaning is helpful. It’s a statement that THIS PLACE IS UNACCEPTABLE! I WON’T HAVE IT! Whatever else is going on in this dumb old world, at least I can control my own personal environment.
Talk about spheres of influence always riles people up. If there is one thing that people love to explain in painstaking, minuscule detail, it’s the precise, annotated list of reasons why they in fact do not have control, power, or free will over some specific situation. Oh, I see. You’ve fallen under a curse and that’s why the rules of life are different for you than for every other person. Astrological influences prevent you from having power in the ways that other people accept that you should. By all means, please, tell me more about why you personally can’t... have a clean house?
Wherever you live, you have the power to clean up your personal space.
Even prisoners have that power!
Clean for revenge. Clean up as a way of saying that other people can’t mess up your life, no matter how epically bad they have been at being your roommates.
Clean in hostility. Clean as a sarcastic way of proving that you are a person of refinement and that other guy is a barbarian.
Clean in white-hot rage. Stomp around, move furniture away from the walls, get behind stuff, and scrub until the paint starts coming off.
Clean in resentment. Clean because you want your cleaning deposit back, because who does that landlord think he is? Clean because you’re tired of your family taking you for granted. Clean because you’re sick and tired of junk mail and excess packaging and the million toys and prizes that have somehow infiltrated your nice home.
Clean to prove a point. You’re the one with standards. You’re the one who knows how it’s done. You’re the one who takes action while other people just sit around complaining.
Think of everything that anyone has ever done to you, get so fired up that your nostrils flare, and grab a sponge.
Use that furious energy to haul and toss donation bags into your trunk.
The truth is that our living environments affect us more than we think. I believe it’s impossible to feel a sense of domestic contentment in a messy, dirty, disorganized space. I believe that there is a direct link between disorder and dissatisfaction. The more crowded and cluttered the room, the higher the background level of stress. It’s certainly still possible to be angry in a streamlined, clean home, but at least domestic disasters aren’t adding to the list of things to be angry about. We deserve better. We deserve to live in homes where we can feel serene and supported, places where we can retreat until we’re ready to face the world again. When we have everything the way we like it, if we feel overwhelmed again by anger, we can then turn that into the process of building muscle. Or remodeling.
'CURATE YOUR STUFF' WORKBOOK NOW AVAILABLE!
Download on the Products tab today!
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.