The Third Door is an incredibly entertaining book. It’s also a story about how to create your own luck. Alex Banayan set out on a self-created quest to interview a series of famously successful people, even though he knew no one and came from a family of immigrants. What follows is The Third Door, Banayan’s account of blind optimism, persistence, doubt, failure, awkwardness, and, of course, dizzying success.
That’s what makes this book destined to be a classic, and guarantees that “the third door” will become a common catchphrase in entrepreneurial circles.
“The third door” is the one that geniuses create for themselves by bypassing the ordinary way of doing things. Most of us get the first door, the main entrance. Those born to wealth and privilege get the second door. During his interviews, Alex Banayan discovered that what the most interesting people had in common, even though they didn’t know it, was the initiative they took in making their own door.
You know, “Hey Kool-Aid!” *crash*
(If you’re too young to get that joke, congratulations! You have more time than you think and your whole life is ahead of you).
The Third Door could have been a compilation of interviews, and it would have been a good one, or maybe just an ordinary, mainstream one. Instead Banayan structures it around his quest, focusing on all the stumbles and bumbles and what it took every time he had an inspired moment or gained an ally. This book is about the thought process. It’s also about the emotional reality of committing to something big, a public quest, and how scary it can get every time it isn’t easy, which is most of the time.
Banayan’s process would probably work for anyone who is genuinely trying to create a third door of their own. Get an Inside Man, someone who will help you to connect with the person you want to talk to. Be grateful and polite. Stay in touch with and befriend the various people you meet. Be likable. Have people check your work and edit your cover letters. Get a mentor and pay close attention to their advice.
Perhaps most of all, do your research. Banayan’s biggest score came after an enormous amount of research to find someone he wanted for a mentor. He made several guesses as to the person’s email address, got a two-line response, and dropped everything to accommodate that person’s schedule. He trusted his gut, but only because he had done so much research beforehand.
Banayan had a lot to overcome. Shyness and stage fright, social awkwardness, lack of resources. Really a boy like him had no business even thinking about this project, much less attempting it. He did it anyway, figuring out the rules as he went along.
I loved The Third Door as an example of possibility thinking. I also loved it as a madcap adventure story. It’s a fun book that would make a perfect gift for a young graduate.
The Achievement Habit is a completely amazing book with the potential to change lives. It joins the exalted ranks of Books I’ve Followed My Husband Around Reading From. There is so much here about creativity, fixing persistent problems, fighting procrastination, and developing a bias toward action.
Bernard Roth is my new favorite professor-I-never-had. His book arises from decades of teaching experience. While technically his field is design, there is no limit to the applicability of the ideas here. What he considers ‘design thinking’ is a way of adopting a completely new perspective.
The first assignment Roth would give his students is to find something in their life that bothers them and fix it. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is, and how very, very few people are actually willing to live this way. My clients will tolerate persistent problems the likes of which an ordinary person can barely imagine: Living for years among a rat infestation, sleeping on a tiny strip of a mattress that is piled with clutter and food waste, breathing black mold, horrors beyond description. They will hear “do something about this” from literally every person who knows the truth, and they won’t. They always have their reasons, chief amongst which is not knowing where to start.
“Reasons” are a pet peeve of Roth’s, and they get their own entire chapter. The reason we claim for doing or not doing something is only a surface level reason, not the deeper, true reason. For instance, I have a serious phone reception issue everywhere in my apartment complex except for a small area near the entrance to the gym, and thus my voicemail asks people to text or email me because there’s no way I’ll know if they called me. My “reason” for being inaccessible is technological. A deeper reason is that while I might be able to find a fix, considering how many engineers I know, as a writer I am strongly invested in preventing interruptions while I work. “Fixing” my phone problem with additional money, devices, or software, or relocating, would give me an entire new problem. The real reason I can’t get phone calls at home is because I don’t believe I am obligated to. Right now, if someone wants to talk to me on the phone, they send me an invite and we schedule it. This is not wrong. Roth’s advice here is to use reasons externally but not internally, making sure that we are honest with ourselves about why we do or don’t do things.
The Achievement Habit is ultimately a book about high-agency thinking. We have the ability to live better than we do and we have the imagination to fix any problem, if only we decide for ourselves. Now I’m going to go look for a problem and fix it, just to keep my edge sharp.
In life, typically, the only one keeping a scorecard of your successes and failures is you, and there are ample opportunities to learn the lessons you need to learn, even if you didn’t get it right the first—or fifth—time.
It’s incredibly empowering to realize that you have the power to change your attitude toward anything.
Many reasons are simply excuses to hide the fact that we are not willing to give something a high enough priority in our lives.
You can’t know the reason for anyone’s behavior.
The best way forward is embedded in the design thinking methodology: manifest a bias toward action, and don’t be afraid of failure.
When something is a priority in your life, you have to be willing to walk away from anything that’s standing in its way.
...it is better to start to do something and fail than it is to do nothing and wait for the correct path of action to appear.
Be honest and notice the differences between your self-image and the ways you actually act.
You can make a decision right now to see yourself differently, and then to become different.
It’s a declaration of choice: instead of playing the role of passive protagonist in your life, choose to take charge of your future. Resolve to get things done, whatever it takes, and no matter how many valid “reasons” pop up.
I’m doing it again. I have two obnoxious projects I don’t want to do, and each of them represents about three hours of work. One is due in a week and a half, and the other is due in six weeks. The fresh hell that is chronic procrastination! I recognize myself setting up Future Me for a rough time, and thus I’m tricking myself.
I have a Decoy Project.
Next to me is a business card representing a phone call I should really make.
There are few things I hate more than making business calls. I’d rather disinfect my trash cans or clean the oven.
This call isn’t as high a priority, though, as the big projects. That’s why I’m using it as a decoy.
The card is propped up where I keep seeing it, directly to the right of my keyboard, junking up my line of sight.
I can’t avoid looking at it.
I can, though, avoid doing anything about it!
Suddenly, the yucky projects seem a lot less aversive.
Also to my right is a big vegan chocolate chip cookie.
I am currently wearing workout clothes.
This is the order of business. 1. Start the report. 2. Nibble at the cookie. 3. Finish the report. 4. Finish the cookie. 5. Work out.
A cookie is not a decoy project. My relationship with cookies and snacks and food in general may or may not work for other people, but here’s how it looks in my world.
I don’t keep junk food at home, as a rule, because there’s no room for it in the kitchen, and I just don’t know about storing bags of chips in the fridge.
I also can’t keep it in my work bag, because whenever I have done that, my dog has found it. Not only will he steal and eat my treat, he’ll scatter torn-up packaging all over the room and pull out everything else in my bag. This is more or less the same reason why we never leave laundry on the floor.
Another reason is that my husband is in the middle of losing 45 pounds, and it would be seriously unfair to ambush him with delectable goodies, or eat them in front of him.
We both eat four meals a day: breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack (protein bar, fruit, or smoothie), and dinner. We find this convenient, comforting, and cost-effective.
This thing with the cookie is, therefore, a productivity exercise. I don’t generally eat recreationally but I’m not above harnessing it for work purposes.
Okay, I’m set up. I have everything I need. I have the threat of the “if you’re not writing your report, then shouldn’t you make this call?” business card. I also have the treat of the big cookie, waiting for me to finish a section before I allow myself to take a bite.
Threats and treats!
Working out is my stress relief. I like myself better when I do a lot of endurance cardio. When I come in, I feel waves of delight radiating through me, the proverbial runner’s high. I get about three hours pain-free afterward, and I sleep better. My mood is improved. Wearing my workout clothes while I do something that I don’t really want to do is my way of promising myself that good times are coming.
I can also associate a bit of that runner’s high with the negative project.
When I lived near a regional park, I would run there almost every day. It remains one of my favorite places in the world. I would sometimes go up there when I had a phone call or email that I really didn’t want to do. I’d stand at the halfway mark, get the thing done, and then run home.
The trick is that FINISHING SOMETHING feels wonderful, while procrastinating feels terrible. Associate the pleasant feeling of one thing that you really love with the different, yet also pleasant feeling of finishing a project. This reinforces the good feeling.
The eventual goal is to simply do things, quickly and easily, rather than getting into the rut of feeling stuck and dreading the task. Just get it out of the way! Spend as little time as possible avoiding the thing, which merely adds to the precious life energy that you are spending on it.
Sometimes a list of tasks that are no big deal can serve as a decoy project.
For instance, I always get ready for a shower right before I scrub the toilet. That’s not a fun job, but it only takes two minutes, including wiping down the floor between the toilet and the wall. Then I step right into a hot shower, and by the time I’ve shampooed my hair I’ve forgotten all about it.
I take out the garbage and recycling in between loads in the laundry room.
I clean out the fridge and other odd chores while unavoidably on the phone.
Getting stuck on a lot of video conferences gives me plenty of time to put myself on mute, clean out my work bag and my desk drawer, and clear out my email inbox.
As few things as possible should have even a snowball’s chance of lingering in Procrastination Station. Just hustle and bustle through the day and try to avoid leaving a backlog. Because it hurts! Having a big ugly smelly to-do list is the sort of thing that can bother you all day. It eats into your mental bandwidth.
One of my goals for the day was to write this post, because my folder was empty. I didn’t feel like I had anything to write about, and I was distracted by the presence of the two big reports that I still don’t really want to do.
This whole post was a trick on myself, with the clever use of a couple of decoy projects.
Describing my situation, I finished my most time-sensitive task in only about twenty minutes. Now to take a picture of my work area, and done!
All I have left is to start my report before this cookie gets too stale.
The 10X Rule is the kind of motivational book to be read in cases of extreme reluctance and procrastination. It is the kind of book that can turn around someone’s entire philosophy of life. It is the kind of book to keep on your desk and flip open for a dose of tough talk on demand. You may not agree with everything Grant Cardone says, but it’s hard to argue with his overall message of dedication and drive.
Myself? I find myself nodding along with most of Cardone’s books, taking notes on certain outrageous yet wildly original ideas, and disagreeing with only a few very provocative assertions that I think he puts out there mainly to mess with people. An example of this would be Chapter 6, which I think is an extreme position that is not necessary if the goal is to teach the concept of high agency. (Read it and you’ll see what I mean). There is a difference between responsibility and accountability, and the latter is enough to get the job done.
Okay, what is the 10X Rule? Make your goals ten times bigger and go after them with ten times as much determination and energy. This is along the same lines as Peter Thiel’s statement that most ten-year goals can be completed in six months. It’s true! Why drag out the process of big goals like paying off debt, clearing clutter, or losing weight, when with intensive focus you can get it out of the way quickly and never think about it again?
(Why? Because most people aren’t very clear on what they want, they don’t have major goals, and thus they can’t summon up the fervent desire to push forward as fast as possible).
Competing is for sissies. Did you know this? This is one of Cardone’s contrarian ideas with which I agree. What would make someone want to target another person’s performance as their main goal? Why limit yourself? It makes me think of focusing on someone else’s head in yoga class for balance, only to have that person tip sideways. Better to focus over their head at a point farther across the room. Choose your own goal and keep plugging away at it. Choose something that is more worthy of obsessing over than what some other person might or might not be doing.
Cardone has a bone to pick with a lot of common ideas like “work-life balance” and “satisfaction.” He claims that the middle class isn’t all that middling, that most people’s financial goals are nowhere near sufficient to take care of themselves or their families. I only entered the middle class at age 32, and I’ve noticed that the “middle class” are the only people who rely on a single source of income, i.e. wages. Both poor people and wealthy people have multiple streams of income, the first out of sheer necessity and the second because they know how. The difference is desperation versus abundance.
The 10X Rule is already a classic of the motivational genre. That’s for good reason. Something in this book will reach out and grab someone, and it might be something different for each person. There are a couple of chapters that I feel I should have printed up as posters and hung around my apartment. I’ll definitely read this book again, so if you pick it up, let me know and we can read it together.
Almost every problem people face in their careers and other aspects of their lives—such as failed diets, marriages, and financial problems—are all the result of not taking enough action.
Average marriages, bank accounts, weight, health, businesses, products, and the like are just that—average.
No one will benefit from your failure.
Success Is Your Duty
To the degree that electing to do our personal best each and every day is ethical, then failing to do so is a violation of ethics.
Your four choices are:
1. Do nothing.
3. Take normal levels of action.
4. Take massive action.
“Small” thinking has and always will be punished in one way or another.
What are some ways you can expand that only require energy and creativity, not money?
People give their fears much more time than they deserve.
Most people have no clue what they are doing with their time but still complain that they don't have enough.
This post is a favor.
Someone tracked me down somehow and pitched for me to be her accountability coach. I’m not in that business anymore, and I posted on this blog about a year ago why I quit. It’s not for lack of clients; I believe that accountability coaching doesn’t scale. I also believe it doesn’t work. I believe it’s nothing more than a frustrating dead end, an illusion that will discourage the client and burn through money with no results.
That’s why I’m writing about accountability again, in hopes that it can help more than my personalized handholding might.
Now, I coach people every single day. I even do it for free! I hold a volunteer leadership position that includes six clubs, thirty-five officers, over a hundred members, and four protégés. I have absolutely no shame or guilt about how much of my high-value time I give away. I’ve always worked with pro bono clients as well.
I don’t use “accountability” to do it, though.
What I do is to help people tap into what they want and then help them refine their vision of what success looks and feels like. Sometimes they discover that they aren’t really as into that particular goal as they had thought. For instance, I dropped my goal of owning an electric vehicle when I realized how much I despise driving. I also dropped my goal of learning to play guitar when I realized my real problem was being a terrible singer, a situation too hopeless to resolve. A lot of people believe they have a goal when it’s really just one possibility among many.
There are two types of goals, prevention-focused and promotion-focused. Either someone is trying to avoid or stop doing something, or they’re trying to start or initiate something. Examples in the first group include quitting smoking, getting off medication, clearing clutter, paying off debt, losing weight, or getting out of a toxic relationship. Examples in the second group include getting fit, going back to school, changing careers, buying a new home, finding love, or starting a family.
What I’ve found through coaching is that people have a much easier time achieving promotion-focused goals. It’s quick and easy to let go of what isn’t serving you if it gets in the way of something you want.
When a recruiter calls you about your dream job, it’s easier to let go of office gossip.
When you have ten days to relocate to your dream home, it’s easier to clear your clutter.
When you fall in love with distance running, it’s easier to drop smoking.
When you fall in love with your life, it’s easier to let go of anything that doesn’t serve you.
My dog has a bit of trouble with this, though: If you give him a ball, he’ll hold it in his mouth. If you give him a second ball, he’ll continue to hold the first ball while trying to control the second ball. When the third ball comes out, he runs outside, catastrophically overwhelmed. Too many choices!
He’ll drop all the balls in a hot second if he is instead offered a dog treat.
Another example of this comes from Sesame Street: You gotta put down the ducky if you want to play the saxophone.
What happens with most people, though, is that they lack a compelling enough vision to step out of their comfort zone. They see the things they do as treats, rather than specific obstacles that hold them back. They see their default as juicier and more valuable than any of the alternatives.
They don’t want “it” enough because they aren’t even sure exactly what “it” is. Or getting “it” is too hard, and they aren’t willing to do what “it” takes.
I can share about my life, and see if you agree with what I mean:
I’m married to my dream man, who travels half-time. We’ve relocated to new cities four times in ten years, starting over each time.
I live at the beach, in a studio apartment with no washer or dryer.
We save half our income, and we don’t have a car.
We go on a pretty fabulous vacation every year, paid for by almost never dining out or shopping.
I wear a “size two” and I never drink alcohol or soda, or eat dairy products, breakfast cereal, or fast food. I virtually never eat chips, crackers, pizza, or desserts. Instead I eat a lot of cabbage, kale, cauliflower, and collard greens. BECAUSE I LIKE TO so sue me.
See what I mean?
It’s not zero-sum. Anyone can save tons of money, eat tons of vegetables, or make drastic changes toward the benefit of a goal. Plenty of people have lost a hundred pounds in a year, paid off $100,000 in debt, or cleared out their entire house over a busy, sweaty weekend. Basically any goal you can think of is a standard goal, a catalogue goal that millions of people have done, and continue to do every day.
They want to, and they know how.
It’s not accountability that gets things done. Accountability means abdicating your responsibilities to someone, anyone else. It means “I know I will never, ever, never never do this alone.” So why is it someone else’s job? How is any other person going to make you want something you don’t want? How is any other person going to make you do something that you won’t make yourself do?
Just admit that if there are no consequences to your not achieving your goal, then it literally does not matter to you or to anyone whether you do or don’t.
Just admit that you don’t really want it and you won’t ever do it.
Sometimes that moment can provoke a crisis. I have walked my students through this. Imagine that you ARE NOT ALLOWED to do this or to reach this goal. It’s illegal. Now how do you feel? A lot of people are relieved that they no longer feel pressured to do something that wasn’t their idea. Others feel a wash of regret or frustration. It helps to clarify, is this a heck yes or a heck no?
A “meh” is not a goal. A “whatever” is not a goal. If it doesn’t spark massive emotion inside of you, then the goal is not going to be enough to motivate you.
I have a “heck no” about surfing. I have a “meh” about learning to bake bread. I have a “heck yes” about getting more sleep.
Sometimes the problem with lack of accountability is general lack of energy. Anyone who is in poor health, who is not staying hydrated or eating well or getting enough sleep or exercise, is simply not going to be able to drum up enough energy to move forward. On the other hand, a magnetically attractive major goal will pull someone forward even in spite of exhaustion, debt, or illness! I’ve limped my way to the finish line enough times, and seen enough other people do the same, to know that this is true.
It’s not you, it’s not the goal, it’s how much YOU WANT that goal that matters.
You’d move awfully fast if the building was on fire.
You’d move awfully fast if your favorite celebrity was outside right now.
You’d move awfully fast to grab a $100 bill blowing past you.
Can you make yourself move that fast for anything else? Anything less tangible, anything currently invisible?
Can you tell yourself a story that makes your own goal more valuable and interesting to you?
You can, if you want to. I have great faith in you. Now get out there and impress me.
^^^ copy and paste into a text bubble and pretend you paid me to say that ^^^
“Your paycheck is your thank-you.” Every manager and employer seems to think this. Almost no employees agree. This is a huge mystery to me, partly because it takes a split second to say “thank you” and it costs nothing. Why would this be so hard to do? Check the box! Even the brattiest four-year-old is capable of begrudgingly grinding out a forced thank-you. Just say it. Geez. It’s basic good manners.
Beyond gratitude, I’m starting to find that there is one more free thing that most people find terrifically motivating, and that is praise. Even the tiniest amount of praise! It’s hard to come by in this world and people are hungry for it. They may not even realize that they’re orienting their entire lives around a chance to hear a few words of approval.
The art of the extremely specific compliment is something I’ve been honing for years. I’ve found that if you say something true and positive that is not necessarily obvious, you can utterly transform someone’s attitude. You can sometimes also transform their self-concept. They won’t be able to stop thinking about what you said.
I’ve heard from people years after the fact, that they remembered something I said about them, something I don’t even remember having said. That’s partly because I do this all the time. It’s a routine, like leaving a tip or waving goodbye.
When I started learning to give evaluations in Toastmasters, it amplified this art of the extremely specific compliment. It’s fairly easy to give someone one sentence about something they did well. Try extending that to two or three minutes, and it takes more thought.
It’s possible to give the same piece of advice in multiple ways. Say your feedback is that someone [isn’t talking loud enough] because [nobody can hear them in the back of the room]. Honestly that comes across as criticism. To a vulnerable novice who is feeling extremely nervous and inadequate, that feedback can be devastating! One piece of relatively mild critique instead of effusive support and praise can stop that person from ever trying again.
Slip that critique in between four or five compliments, and it’s easier to take.
Phrase it instead as helpful advice, something that explains how to fix the issue, and you have their attention.
“You can work on projecting by aiming your voice at the back wall. [Demonstrate posture and voice projection]. That will start to happen as you feel more comfortable.” Nothing about this comes across as a critique, because it isn’t.
THEN include the praise, support, and encouragement.
My goal is to mention at least twelve things the person is doing well. I also look for something unique, a special talent that this person may not realize is hidden in there, in amongst the insecurity and inexperience. I sometimes run out of time to point out all the things the person is doing well, so if I think of more, I’ll pull them aside and tell them afterward, or write them a note later.
This works. No fewer than four of mine just won first place in different speaking contests. If I had been more critical and less supportive, they might not be there at all.
I WAS RIGHT. My praise was technically accurate, precise, and correct. They knew it. They rose to the level of my expectations, which is what people always do.
This is what happens when you make a habit of lavish praise. People notice. They take it in. Their eyes glitter. The next time they see you, they sit up straight and wave. Make people feel seen in the best way, and they’ll never forget you.
Why can’t people do this at work?
There’s another trick that can be added to this art of the extremely specific compliment. That is to praise someone who isn’t there. If you’re consistently heard “spreading gossip” of the positive variety, it becomes clear that this is your pattern of behavior. It reinforces this concept that your praise is to be believed. If someone hears you say something positive and true about another person, and they agree with your assessment, it helps them believe the nice things you had to say about them, too.
People usually don’t believe it when someone pays a compliment. We’re taught to brush it off. We expect all performance evaluations to be negative and painful. Why, though?
It’s entirely possible to hold people accountable for their performance without going negative. If you get the motivation and incentives down right, though, you don’t usually need the accountability.
What’s wrong with the work world for a lot of people is that they’re expected to comply with someone else’s strict rules and regulations. They’re only really noticed if they mess up, by coming in late, missing a deadline, or doing a task imperfectly. They start to feel flinchy about even walking in the door. They start to wake up with dread in the pit of their stomach. They start feeling depressed all day on their day off, unable to stop thinking about how much they hate going in to work.
What does that do to performance? Seriously? How can that kind of emotional environment possibly motivate people to work harder or do a better job?
This is why I talk about the praise engine. When people are noticed for doing well, when they are praised for bringing something special, when it’s clear that they’re offering something unique and valuable, then they associate the work with their identity. They start working for pride and personal satisfaction. At that point you don’t need to motivate them to work - you need to motivate them to take breaks and go home, because otherwise you can’t stop them.
Not only that. When you start up the praise engine, other people start to learn to operate it. They learn by your example. You start hearing other people give evaluations and teach methods in your style. You realize you’ve created a culture that propagates itself.
Get yourself a praise engine. It fuels itself. It costs nothing to run. It builds copies of itself and does its own maintenance. It’s also a lot easier and cheaper than having to continually replace all your unmotivated, demoralized staff.
If you call it a to-do list, you might be doing it wrong.
Might be working on the wrong stuff
For the wrong reasons
At the wrong times
For the wrong people.
This is something I’ve been wrestling with lately. My task list has grown lately to the point that I’m exploding out of a textbook-sized day planner with pages for twenty distinct projects. Unlike my pants, it even has pockets.
These are the problems of the multipotentialite. Everything sounds good and everything seems possible. It IS, it is, just maybe not all at the exact same minute.
Darn you anyway, Time Dimension.
I’m working on a particular project, something big. It’s the kind of thing that takes six months to plan. I’m doing it because it fits into a larger plan that is really important to me. I’m doing it because the skills involved are directly relevant to my interests. I’m doing it because it gives me the chance to work with a good friend. I’m doing it because that friend really needs my help and I want to be reliable for her.
Other than that, everything about it is driving me up the wall. The WHY is perfectly in place, the HOW is a continual stream of hassles and frustrations.
Meanwhile, I have another set of potentially extremely interesting projects that I really want to do instead.
Just like the frustrating project, these interesting projects involve a lot of steps that are the kind of task I don’t like.
Focusing on only one thing at a time!
Reading complicated instructions in fine print!
Filling out applications!
Putting dates in a calendar!
Choosing photographs of myself! *ugh*
Why can’t there be a super-interesting, super high-value project that involves me sleeping late, reading in the bathtub, and eating cookies?
What I’ve found out so far about GETTING WHAT I WANT is that it almost always involves my three least-favorite things:
Travel. Foot races. Trainings. Workshops. Hikes. Even a panel interview I did recently - yep, Saturday.
Why isn’t there more worthwhile stuff to do late in the afternoon??
Poor me, highly ambitious person, born into the body of a night owl. (Note: owls do not usually wear shoes) (Also note, not one minute after I wrote this, a child walked into my cafe wearing an OWL HAT and RAIN BOOTS)
I’m doing what I can to cope with all of this. Not the owl hat, the burgeoning project list. Try to stay focused.
The first thing is to always subvert the project in some way. That means I look at the desired results and ask, is what I’m being asked to do really the smartest way to achieve these results?
Surprisingly often, it isn’t! Perhaps more surprising, my ideas for ways that I’d prefer to do these things, my ways are often accepted or regarded as an upgrade. The trick to getting this across is first to explain that you want the same thing as everyone else, the highly valued end result. Also compliment specific things that are going well and thank everyone for hearing you out.
Each instance in which you save other people time, money, or resources is an opportunity to build a reputation as a solver of problems and an idea-generating machine. (Problem: then they bring you more of their problems to solve).
The second thing is that if you can’t subvert the project in tangible ways, you can still do it privately.
There might be a requirement to do certain things or take certain steps toward your desired end result, things that you have no interest in doing. There is not, however, a requirement that you refer to them as ‘tasks’ or ‘chores’ or ‘to-do’s’ or ‘honey-do’s’ or what-have-you. You can call them whatever you want.
You can also abandon ship and abdicate on the project, if you really hate it that much.
As an example, I simply would not do something if it “required” me to wear high heels, cancel my travel plans for my wedding anniversary, work in a room with cigar smoke, or probably a bunch of other things. Nope nope, that’s a big nope.
What I’ve been doing lately is to shift more and more of my focus to the desired end results, while I try to forget that I am often doing annoying things early in the morning when I’d rather be sleeping.
This is why I call my “to-do list”:
JUICY PROJECT OPTIONS!
There’s something that I do that most people don’t, and that is to remind myself that I have control over how I spend my time. It’s my choice whether to work on something or not. I didn’t feel that way when I worked at a convenience store, but I did start to feel that way as a young office temp. I was broke as could be, I didn’t have two nickels until I was thirty, but I always felt that I had the power to walk away from a truly cruddy job or a bad boss.
I often did!
I figured, if I was going to be broke one way or another, at least I could choose the job with the least-bad boss and the least-worst commute. So I did.
It’s my sense of power, control, and high agency that has brought me forward, onward and upward.
One of the saddest things in the world is untapped human potential. It’s deeply sad when someone with massive gifts feels trapped, forced into a power struggle with a bad boss for low pay. Sometimes, of course, that is literally true - modern slavery is one of the all-time biggest targets for people with great gifts to tackle, should anyone be looking for a worthy project. Mostly, though, we are dragged down by the power struggle, to the point that we utterly forget about our ability to imagine something better into being.
This is why it is so vital that we reimagine what we are doing. This is why we need more... JUICY PROJECT OPTIONS.
There are two types of procrastination:
Either way, procrastination is default mode. Not doing something is the natural state of affairs. It’s taking action that is unusual, getting the thing done that takes planning and effort. That’s why we shouldn’t let it get to us. It’s normal and everyone does it.
The thing is, default is not the same as stasis, or maintenance. Not doing something is not a valid way of keeping everything the same. The universe doesn’t work like that. Entropy is coming for us, and coming for us, and coming for us, and coming for us. Ignoring and avoiding something means that, as time goes by, the situation is getting worse.
That suspicious container in the fridge? It’s going to be oh-so-much scarier a week from now.
That nagging issue, that medical thing, the “you should probably get that looked at” thing? Possibly it’s going away on its own. But do we really want to gamble on that?
That laundry pile. Laundry is like the ocean - never turn your back on it.
That credit card balance. Fines, fees, finance charges, extra swipes, duplicate charges we could have noticed but didn’t, because we were afraid to check. If anything in this world builds up on us, it’s debt.
We often feel like we’re procrastinating about things that aren’t actually tasks. We’re not always necessarily responsible for everything. Not everything counts. When I work with chronically disorganized people, we often assign equal valence to everything. A list of movies to watch feels like it’s of equal importance to an email backlog and a stack of unsorted, unpaid bills. False! We have to build our skills of discernment and rational thought. We have to assess whether a particular job is important and whether it’s urgent. The lists of books to read and podcasts to check out, those are entertainments and rewards to keep us company while we take care of business.
For most things, it genuinely doesn’t matter if they never get done at all.
Craft projects, for instance.
Guess what else? You don’t have to clean anything. There are people in this world who don’t own any kitchen implements. They use their kitchens to store books, or leave them empty. Never a dish to wash. Shower at the gym every day and you may never need to clean your bathroom again. I knew a guy in my dorm building in college who slept on a bare mattress. Uncomfortable, in my opinion, but then I didn’t sleep in that bed. Not my problem. Your problems stem directly from your standards for yourself. Drop the standard, drop the task.
I’m going further. We don’t have to fold laundry. For most people, for most clothes, it doesn’t matter at all. The only reasons to fold things are 1. So they don’t get wrinkly and 2. So they’ll fit better in the drawers. If you hang everything up on hangers, boom! No folding! If you get rid of 80% of your heaps of clothes, boom! Enough space to just toss things in! I learned about the “no folding” method from my stepdaughter. She took her socks, t-shirts, pajamas, et cetera and simply tossed them in her drawers. I was so astonished when I found out that I just sat on the floor for a while with my jaw hanging open.
We don’t have to cook, we don’t have to clean, we don’t have to fold clothes. Heck, come to think of it, we don’t even have to WEAR clothes! That’s basically a “remain gainfully employed” and/or “avoid indecent exposure charges” kind of a question.
One thing I know is that if we don’t open the mail, we’ll get more. Not paying a bill on time may wind up costing more, it may damage your credit for several years, but it’s not really a permanent problem to avoid opening the mail. Stuff it all in sacks and shred it or burn it, and the important stuff will soon show up again in a different-colored envelope.
Same thing with any truly important phone call or email. Ignore it and the sender will try again, working harder to get our attention.
I’m sort of joking here. Personally, I’ll do almost anything to avoid getting extra mail or phone calls. I like to head that stuff off in advance. I love sleeping on crisp clean sheets as much as I loathe stacks of dirty dishes, drifts of unopened mail, and piles of smelly old laundry. The pleasures of doing a few small routine tasks everyday are many. This message is really for the rebels.
A secret root cause of procrastination is the simple desire for autonomy. I DO WHAT I WANT! NOBODY TELLS ME! I DON’T HAVE TO!
Right, of course! Of course you do what you want! Of course you don’t have to do anything! You can strip naked and go lie out in the road right now if you like. My dad always told me that I could do anything I want, as long as I’m prepared to accept the consequences, and it would be better if I knew what the consequences were in advance. For instance, cheat on your taxes, get audited. Don’t pay your bills, get collection notices and have bad credit. Be bad at your job, get laid off. We do, though, always have complete power and control over whether we choose to act in positive or negative ways.
Procrastination is default. It puts us among the majority. Through procrastination we become mediocre, or less than mediocre. We become predictable, boring, uninteresting. The drama that is created through chronic procrastination and disorganization is not beautiful or fascinating drama, it’s just traditional, ordinary, tawdry old regular drama.
What we really could be asking ourselves is, if not this, then what? If we were relieved of this responsibility, if this task was removed from our balance sheet, what would we then be doing? If we were free of these duties, where would we be putting our energy? What could we be doing that is better than the default?
Time debt is something I’m thinking about a lot lately. I’m trying to learn more about working in the time dimension, which probably means that my concept of time is different than most people’s. Well, okay, I know it is. What I’m developing right now is an idea that time debt is the same as financial debt, physical clutter, and excess adipose tissue, commonly known as body fat. They’re all alike because they all reflect something we’re doing on a daily basis that is not working for Future Self.
Spend too much in relation to income, and Future Self will be broke.
Buy too much stuff with nowhere to put it, and Future Self will be sitting in a pile of junk.
Eat more than you need, and Future Self is the one who will have to deal with it.
Put things off, and Future Self will be frantically fighting deadlines.
Whoa. Now that I lay it out like that, I think I’m onto something!
This is the sort of stuff that can happen when we think of Future Self as some kind of evil villain. Who does that? We wonder. What else would you call it, though, if you work steadily from day to day to make things harder for your own Future You?
Over the years, I’ve taught myself how to take Future Me seriously, how to see her as a close friend or dear relation. Sometimes I think of Future Me doing something funny, like wearing a lavender wig and a tiara at age eighty, and I just love her. Future Me is a hip granny!
Because of this affectionate relationship that I’ve visualized, I feel excited when I look forward. I think of all the ways that Future Me will have a better life than Today Me. For one thing, she’ll be a better cook! I like sending her money and trying to help her become a hip granny who can do the splits.
I also try to think of Future Me - Stardate: Next Year, and even Next Month Me.
This is where time debt comes in.
I’ve gotten pretty good over the years at following a radical budget, balancing my activity level with my nutrition, and keeping my physical space clear. Where I still struggle, and struggle mightily, is in understanding how long it takes to do things and when I’ll be done with a project.
Part of this is because I’m more attracted to endless projects than I am to projects with clearly defined boundaries. I’m more likely to run a blog or volunteer for something than I am to make a physical object or turn something in on a deadline.
I have a type of project that I call Do the Obvious. It’s part of my annual review and future planning. This year, my Do the Obvious is to schedule time blocks. What this means is that I try to set aside two to four hours a day for projects that need deep focus concentration and System II thinking, like writing and strategic planning. I want to limit other activities so they don’t accidentally eat my whole day. Key among those day-eaters are email and reading the news.
What I’ve found is that I have a backlog of fairly random things that I never fit into my daily routine. These things are relevant, things I can’t delegate, but also things that aren’t urgent and are thus easy to put off.
Um, there’s a name for that. We call it procrastination.
Is it, though? Is it procrastinating to put off doing something that isn’t urgent?
That depends on your individual judgment. It’s legit to delay something less important in favor of something urgent or more important. Not only is it legit, it’s the only rational way to behave!
I don’t want to reach a point where I’m polishing the inside of my medicine cabinet, alphabetizing my socks, and other entirely trivial tasks that feel lovely but accomplish nothing.
For myself, I want all of my powers of focus and attention directed the same way. I want my concentration to be 100% available for the projects that matter to me. That means I want to finish everything that can be finished. I want to close every loop that can be closed. I want to feel satisfied that I am entirely DONE with anything that can be considered done.
I know I need to dedicate time every day to work, meals, personal hygiene, taking care of my pets, cleaning house, checking my mail, flagging spam, blocking robo-calls, and going to the gym. I’m okay with that. When else am I going to listen to my audio book?
Where I tend to struggle is with the non-routine stuff and with the nice-to-have “round tuit” kind of stuff. “When I get around to it.”
Now that I’m working on time blocks, I’ve realized that I can use a calendar month as its own type of time block. I’m thinking of my backlog of weird, non-urgent tasks as a list of bills that need to be paid. They could also be thought of as bags of trash to be carried out. How many “bags of trash” do I really need cluttering up my mental living room??
When I consider my backlog list, I tell myself, don’t carry it forward another month. How much of this stuff that I knew I wanted to do at the beginning of January do I still want to have on my list in February?
February is the shortest month. In the northern hemisphere, at least, the weather tends to be cruddy. How much is on your list that you don’t want to carry forward as a time debt?
Don’t carry it forward another month. Set yourself up for a relaxing spring and a fun summer.
The 5-Second Rule is the sort of book that makes people pop up and exclaim, “LOVE IT!!” (That’s an actual quote from one of my mentees). It’s fair to say that this book changes lives, and the reason is that it includes dozens of real-life examples. The format includes screenshots of comments, text messages, and emails from people who have used the 5-second rule to transform their most difficult problems.
These problems include everything from basic procrastination and hitting the snooze button too many times, to battling addiction and suicidal ideation. No matter what’s weighing on your mind, there’s someone in this book who has confronted a similar type of trouble.
There are so many great things to love about this book. One is that it’s research-based, and Mel Robbins introduces techniques and terminology that are not just helpful, but also fresh and hard to find mentioned elsewhere. An example is anxiety reappraisal, such as explaining to yourself that you’re not scared, you’re excited! I’ve been teaching that in Toastmasters without realizing that there was a formal name for it in psychology.
Another great feature of The 5-Second Rule is that its design allows for dipping in and out. Even one page of this book could provide an emotional lift for someone who was feeling stuck. I’d go so far as to say that even the cover would make a good touchstone, a reminder to apply the 5-second rule to any situation.
This book feels like the missing piece to so much of what I teach. I work with chronic disorganization and hoarding, and I wish I had known about The 5-Second Rule much sooner. I absolutely know that it would be so helpful to so many people. I started using it myself before I had even finished reading the book. Pick it up for yourself and see if it works the same way for you.
“Change comes down to the courage you need every day to make five second decisions.”
“You are one decision away from a completely different life.”
“Procrastination is not a form of laziness at all. It’s a coping mechanism for stress.”
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.
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