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.
Would you slap a bratty child? Yours or someone else's?
Assuming the answer is no, congratulations! You have just demonstrated a healthy regard for social norms, self-restraint, and willpower. These are superpowers. They can be used in all situations.
Assuming the answer is yes, of course you would slap a bratty child, let's do another one. Would you rob a bank? Hmm, wait. That might be the wrong kind of question to ask someone who would slap someone else's kid. Would you... would you pee your pants on purpose rather than wait in line at the restroom?
Let's just call that a No and move along. Of course not. Not only do you have self-restraint, willpower, a healthy regard for social norms, and control over your voluntary bodily functions, you also prefer to avoid doing things that are against your obvious self-interest.
If this is true, then you have the power to do and achieve anything.
What it comes down to is that we will not do certain things under any circumstances, because we do not give ourselves permission to do them. Some things we will not do out of disgust, like eating furry blue leftovers. Some things we will not do out of contempt for "people who do those things," like late merge, even though it's purpose-built for the greater good. Some things we will not do because they make no sense, like cashing out our retirement funds to buy a jet ski. Some things we will not do because we just have no urge to do them, like murder or arson. We can thank Past Self for avoiding these things.
We are smart. We have plenty of self-control. We easily do what two million incarcerated people evidently cannot do, which is to stay out of trouble.
Why, then, do we think we have so much trouble with "willpower" and "motivation"?
If we can refrain from punching annoying customers, why can't we refrain from eating that second slice of cake?
If we can avoid shooting heroin, why can't we stop drinking soda?
If we can resist setting our boss's desk on fire, why can't we resist the siren song of the sofa?
It really comes down to what we give ourselves permission to do. We give ourselves permission to eat things that taste good that we want to eat, especially when they're free. We give ourselves permission to lounge around when we've made other commitments to ourselves. We give ourselves permission to abdicate on responsibilities, even when they are congruent with our core values. We are perfectly happy calling ourselves lazy, or claiming we have no willpower, when really we're talking about the same exact self-discipline that allows us to control our bowel functions.
What is behind this, I suspect, is that our defects are our charms. Flaws make us relatable. Get too perfect, and we quit having so many friends. We bond over the things that annoy us, frustrate us, the things we hate. Where is the benefit in suddenly having less in common with other people?
Don't you dare start eating healthy. I need you to have my six when I want to order dessert.
You're making the rest of us look bad.
Now, I'm a contrarian, or so they tell me. My main motivation is curiosity. The more I feel that something is unexplored territory, the more something seems taboo for some reason, the more I think about it. Fact-Finding Missions are my brownie bites. I have to know. If I married Bluebeard, I wouldn't have waited until he left the house to try to unlock that last door. In fact, I wouldn't have married him until after I'd seen it, but anyway. Divorced people are suspicious. I give myself permission to experiment, research, and check out things I want to know, like: what does it feel like to be strong and fit? Sometimes other people have a problem with this. Anyone who is put off by my appearance, my activities, my thoughts, or my conversation is unlikely to be happy with anything I do after the first five minutes regardless.
What I've learned is that whatever you are doing at any particular point in time, however you are dressing, whatever music you are listening to, a group of people will gather around you. What annoys one group will be cheerfully embraced by another. This is why I don't let crowd response dictate what I do.
In the words of my dad, don't do anything illegal, immoral, or just plain stupid. I agree. Everything else is on the table.
I give myself permission to do what I want. I go where I want. I wear what I want. I read what I want. I eat what I want. Surprisingly, I very rarely say what I want, but I say plenty, and it's fair to keep my thoughts to myself. Perhaps because I am a free elf, I do not give myself permission to overeat, stay up too late, spend money frivolously, be overweight, or watch dumb stuff on TV.
Other people will not give themselves permission for other things. To go out without wearing makeup. To tell missionaries to get off the porch and never come back. To wear comfortable shoes. One person's freedom is another person's asceticism. One person's prison is another person's freedom.
Fourteen-second rule. Do you do it? Do you eat food that hits the floor?
Eating grapes while shopping for produce, or taking samples from the bulk bins. Do you do it?
Texting and driving. Do you do it? I sure as [unprintable] hope not.
Being late. Forty minutes? Twenty minutes? Ten minutes? One minute? How often?
Ask around. The answers to these questions are highly personal. Most people will recoil in shock or disgust at one thing, but shrug and admit that they do another, while the person standing right next to them will do the exact opposite. We don't always agree on how these behaviors fit into civilization, or what constitutes a social norm.
What we do generally agree on is that it's okay to break New Year's Resolutions. It's fine to overeat and struggle with weight and body image. It's totally ordinary to have piles of laundry laying around. It's expected to be disorganized. It's practically required to blow off going to the gym. It's somewhat uncouth to have read the entire book before the book club meeting. It's standard to carry debt and have no retirement savings, even when you're fifty. Even though these common areas of attempted resolutions involve the same self-discipline as obeying social norms, they are not regarded AS social norms, and thus they are fair game.
What we have to ask ourselves is which we prefer. Do we prefer fitting in and living the conventional track? Or do we prefer solving what we have felt to be a problem in our lives, at the risk of no longer bonding with people about the problem? Is the tradeoff worth it? What do we give ourselves permission to do or not do?
Do you believe in love at first sight? Soulmates, destined to be together, who spot each other across a crowded room and instantly merge spirits until the end of time?
Do you believe in genius? Iconoclasts hatched from special eggs who come like Prometheus to grant innovation to the masses?
Do you believe in Sasquatch? How about fairies? Rodents of Unusual Size? Trickle-down economics?
Okay then. Let’s talk about motivation. Because I do not think it means what you think it means.
People often tell me that they wish they had my motivation. Chances are, they actually do. I mean, I don’t seem to have any laying around. I may have had some back in the 90s and it got thrown in with a bag of Goodwill donations. It sounds like something people associate with youth and vigor, anyway.
When I’m “motivated” I’ll quit procrastinating. I’ll start eating healthy and going to the gym. I’ll get organized. I’ll plan my retirement. One day, when the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars, I’ll wake up and everything will be different! Basically my entire personality will change! Everything I hate doing now will suddenly be bathed in sunbeams, emanating prismatic rays of cosmic power! A magical sword will float up from a lake, activated solely by my aura! Doves will fly over my head, carrying an embroidered banner that reads TODAY THOU ART MOTIVATED! Flowers will sing Hosanna! A unicorn will gallop by with a tray of refreshments strapped to its back! I will suddenly sprout defined abdominal muscles!
Or maybe there was just some ergot in my muesli. It happens.
[Note to self: draw this as soon as there is sufficient motivation]
Allow me to present my credentials. I ran a marathon. I am at my goal weight. (I in fact actually have visible abs.) My house is both clean and organized. I do my art every day. I publish on a schedule. I’ve been earning (extremely tiny sums of) money off my writing for five years. I’m actually one of those people who grows and cans our own produce. Arguably, there are no things that would require motivation that I don’t do on a regular basis. I know whereof I speak.
What I have to say is that I don’t have any feelings other people don’t have. As far as I know, there are no ecstatic, mystic states where you 1. Meet a giant caterpillar smoking a hookah and then 2. Suddenly feel an intense satisfaction related to scutwork and drudgery. I was never allowed into the Archives of the Motivation Cabal, where they possess the last remaining copy of the Codex Mirabilis, handwritten in ink made of crushed scarabs, meteorites, and wormwood, the mere sight of which permanently etches epiphanies into your pineal gland. I don’t even have any level-ups or extra lives.
In truth, I am a lazy person. A tightwad. Too stubborn for my own good. I do the things I do out of a belief that they are good ideas in the long run, that they save time and money and effort, and that it’s easier to do them than to suffer the results of not doing them. It’s three times harder to burn off a pound of fat than to put on a pound of fat, and probably five times harder to add a pound of muscle than to maintain it. Cleaning a cluttered house takes 40% more effort. The longer things go between cleanings, the harder they are to clean. The benefits of being fit and organized are obvious the moment you experience them. Do what’s necessary for long enough, and it becomes so automatic you forget there was ever another way. You can coast. It’s not motivation you want, but momentum.
The secret is not woven in gold thread into a flying carpet. It’s not hidden in a cave at the top of an uncharted mountain. You don’t have to carry honey cakes to feed to a three-headed dog. You don’t have to click your heels together or talk to yourself with your eyes closed. All you have to do is to realize that there is really no such thing as motivation, and just get started doing things whether you want to do them or not. Just get started.
Willpower, or lack thereof, is what we inevitably blame for not following through on what we want out of life. That's when we're smart enough not to blame other people. It's my contention that the real problem is postponed decisions. Only when we know exactly what we want can we start moving toward making that happen. Even when we've clarified our wishes, decisions will have to be made.
'Decision' means 'to cut off.' That root 'cis' is the same as the root in 'scissors.' To make a decision is to permanently remove other options. This is panic-inducing for many people. What do you mean?? Do you mean that if I choose the pizza, I can't have the sushi?? Do you mean that if I marry one person, I can't marry someone else?? Do you mean that if I take this job offer, I have to tell the others "no, thanks"?? Aaaaaaah! I can't take this pressure!!! How do I deciiiiiiide?
What we don't realize is that refusing to make a decision is like spending your life inside a revolving door. It goes around and around and around. You see all kinds of options... but then you revolve past them... but then other options come into view... but then you revolve past them again... It feels like action is happening, and it can take a very long time to realize that this is only an illusion of progress. All that needs to happen is a choice to step out of the revolving door on one side or the other.
Decisions are permanent, but they're also temporary. That means if we choose a new job, and it doesn't work out, we can always move on to another place. If we choose a new hairstyle, and we don't like it, the hair will grow back and we can get a different hairstyle. If we move to a new place, and we don't like our neighbors or something, we can move again. If we order something off a menu, and we didn't like it, we'll never order it again, and there's another meal opportunity in just a few hours. We're choosing, we're cutting off all the other options, but we're not stuck. We're never stuck. At worst, we realize that this particular thing before us is not our favorite. The more decisions we make, the easier they become, because the list of options that we consider acceptable gets shorter.
It's a lot easier to choose from three flavors than from thirty flavors.
Clutter definitely comes from postponed decisions. "I might need this later" is a way of saying that "I simply refuse to make a decision about this right now." Later. Later. Later. I'm putting this thing in a pile, and that means I'm neither repairing it, ironing it, sorting it, throwing it away, delegating it, returning it, cleaning it, filing it, nor using it. A pile of papers or laundry is merely a visible manifestation of a larger problem, which is that of defaulting to indecision. Every day, I'm going to sit right here and not like my life all that much, while the postponed decisions pile up around me.
Don't like your job? Postponed decision.
Not comfortable in your own skin? Postponed decision.
Place is a mess? Postponed decisions.
Ambivalent relationship? Postponed decision.
On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being AWESOME and 1 being 'unacceptable,' everyone levels out at what feels familiar. Some people will push until they feel like a 5 all around. I'll be alone before I'll settle for less than a delightful relationship. I'll work out until I'm at my desired fitness level. I'll keep honing my skills until I have my dream job. I'll never stop until I'm at my best. Others will somehow tolerate a 1, such as being physically abused, and never breathe a word to anyone or ask for help. There is no mystery here; they simply feel like their fate in life is to suffer. They can't imagine anything better and they don't know how they would get it. (Answer: go to the nearest neutral person and ask "can you help me?"). Most of us fall somewhere between a 2 and a 4. Right now, I'm a 4 person, but my '4' is another person's 5, I know it, and I'm grateful for it.
Most decisions don't matter at all. What color of toothbrush should I get? What flavor of jam should I try? Ankle socks or knee socks? I refuse to spend more than one millisecond on decisions of this nature. If I choose "wrong" I'll just choose differently the next time. These are matters of taste preference, and if you have none, then it truly is not important, to you. We need to save our decision-making energy for the big, strategic decisions. What is my life's purpose? Who is worthy of my love? Where will I live? What do I want out of my personal environment? What is my heart's desire?
The saddest thing to me is that most people don't seem to have a heart's desire at all. Not one that they are aware of, not yet, anyway. We don't know what we want to do with our lives. When we think about what we want, the answer almost always starts with: NOT THIS. The list of things I Do Not Want is at least a million items long, but there's no point spending time thinking about it. I don't want to sprout antlers, interesting though it might be, but the only thing worth doing with an anti-wish like that is to make it into a Halloween costume. What DO I want? I want to strengthen my hip flexors. That's an objective, well-defined wish, and with a wish like that I can make a plan of action. 1. Find appropriate hip flexor exercises. 2. Do them regularly. Now a decision has been made, and I have a freshly empty decision-making slot.
Learning to be decisive is so dramatic and powerful that it can feel like changing an entire personality. Maybe it does. It's not always a quick shift. Figuring out how to want specific things, instead of focusing on what we don't want, takes practice. In the meantime, we can put on our emotional training wheels and practice on the easy stuff. Make one simple decision that feels low-stakes. Throw away the oldest or grossest thing in your fridge. Get a bag and put in one piece of clothing that doesn't fit today. Look at a picture of baby owls and choose the cutest one. As you gradually cut away more and more unimportant or useless options, you develop a stronger sense of what matters to you. It becomes easier and more rewarding to choose one thing while abandoning others.
My great-grandmother always said, "If you can read, you can do anything." This made sense to me at six years old, and it makes even more sense now. We have the Internet! The information is available at our fingertips. We can find out HOW to do anything. Action steps are not the problem. All that we need is to choose one extremely specific thing, and then acting on it will feel natural and obvious.
People work out for different reasons. Some do it because they're training for a sport. Some do it for stress relief. Some do it for physical therapy. Some do it for status. Some do it for mood repair. Some do it for the social opportunities. I have my own reasons, and one of them is that my husband asked me to go to the gym with him. He's an Upholder and I'm a Questioner. I thought I'd explore our different takes on the gym and physical fitness in general.
He's been an athlete since before he can really remember. He thinks he started at age 4. He has a big box of medals, ribbons, and trophies that he keeps trying to throw away, because of course those things are just silly byproducts of something he does for its own sake. He's an Eagle Scout, naturally, and he has played on at least seven different sports teams that I know of, some as an adult. Upholder motivations include following through on your commitments, doing things because that's just what one does, believing something is the right thing to do and then doing it, finishing what you start, and never letting anyone down. Sports are just one area where he commits to excellence. Show up, work hard, do what you said you'd do, and win. Other options? What other options?
I can only wish that anything, at any time, had ever appeared to me with such perfect clarity.
We're total opposites in many ways. He's tall, I'm short. He has a big frame, I have a small frame. (My wrists are 5 1/4"). He has a high pain threshold, I have a low pain threshold. He's fascinated by sports, I find them confusing. He can learn any new motion or dance step after seeing it done for a few seconds. I had to have my own teacher in step aerobics, fell off the step, and almost blacked out from pure exhaustion. I accidentally slapped someone once during ballroom dancing, and I fell during the polka and my skirt flipped up to my waist. I once sent my bowling ball backward, where it bounced onto the ball rack. Proprioception exists, I've seen it, but I don't seem to have much of it.
To give myself some credit, part of the reason I do so many ridiculous things is that I'm always ready to try something new. Questioners are easily bored. I have no emotional problems with being a complete novice and making a spectacle out of myself. This is my way of controlling a situation. If I'm going to be the focus of attention whether I like it or not, I'm going to get some comedic value out of it, for my private amusement if not for others. "It's for my blog." One of the things I like about the gym is learning to use all the multifarious contraptions.
We were working in, and as I was waiting my turn I saw a guy pushing a big red sled with weights on it. He pushed it all the way across the gym, and then he pushed it back. I couldn't take my eyes off it. I knew it was inevitable that I would one day push this sled. I pointed it out to my husband, who grimaced. "That's hard." "I know, it looks hard!" Rational assessment on his part, foolish enchantment on mine. I like running uphill in the mud. What can I say? "What did Santa bring you?" "Heavy stuff."
I don't need accountability to exercise. I used to be fat, sedentary, and chronically ill. I accidentally cured myself of thyroid disease through exercise, bicycling to be precise, and the lightbulb went on. I have the power to control my body in ways that doctors tried to convince me I could not. I unlocked an access panel with a bunch of switches, levers, dials, lights, knobs, and ports, many of which I don't yet understand, because there's no instruction manual. Part of the attraction for me in going to the gym is in seeing other people at higher fitness levels, doing awesome things. I see people older than me who have more muscle definition, and I think "Aha." The more I learn about physiology, nutrition, and fitness, the more I realize how little I know, and the more interesting it gets. Action-oriented people are temperamentally very different from the more cerebral or artistic people with whom I usually associated, so the athletic mindset was yet another new thing to learn.
As a Questioner, I work out because it satisfies my curiosity, it involves lots of mysterious tools and buzzwords and classes forever just outside my skill set, and because it's proven to be a terrific outlet for my high energy level. I dig it. I tried it thinking I would hate it, I was wrong, and now it's sold itself to me. When I can't work out, I feel progressively more cruddy, and I long to get started again the minute I can.
The Upholder jam seems to be different. Upholders have a sort of checklist of things they do. If it's on the checklist, they will do it or they will show you the missing limb that prevented them from doing it (for a while). If it's not on the checklist, well, it doesn't count. For this reason I think Upholders are a bit more vulnerable to loopholes. If an Upholder's priority is career, exercise may not be on the checklist, along with sleep or regular meals. We'd like to suggest that the priority be 'rational self-care.' Caring for your body makes you more productive. But then that's Questioner logic...
We like different stuff. My Upholder husband likes the weight machines, because they're efficient and he can get in a full workout in 20 minutes. He has outsized stamina and he's physically fearless. I've known him to crank out a 90-minute workout that would have taken me a month. The intensity can be an obstacle, though, because he isn't as comfortable with a 'drop in the bucket' approach. He doesn't always want to be bothered if he doesn't have the time or the energy level to meet his own standards for a "real" workout. That's why I'm there, because if we have a gym date, we'll both go. I like lifting weights because TOYS, and I like yoga because there are a million postures, and I like running because I can catch up on podcasts. Sometimes lifting weights interferes with my desire to engage in my other exercise preferences. Right now, there's this fascinating feature of my dear hubby, teaching me how to use all the machines.
It could quickly fall apart. We've had memberships at the same gym during two other times in our lives. Each time, I quit, and then he quit going. The first time, I felt like I had reached my goal and I believed I wouldn't need to go to the gym anymore. (Pfft). The second time, I had just discovered trail running, and our gym kept playing "Teenage Dream," and it didn't make sense to me to pay for a membership when I would run in the rain and cold regardless. I "feel like working out" at various times of day, and I've done a workout every minute between 6 AM and midnight at one time or another. Following a routine in the same place, at the same time, doing the same workout, will eventually break me. Knowing this, I know I need to either do my own, separate workouts on my own recognizance, or I need to keep upping the ante and training for a specific goal on a deadline. I'm not at the gym for myself, I'm there for my mate. Solidarity.
My husband taught me everything I know about developing an athletic mindset and training like a champion. He made a parasomniac with chronic pain issues into a marathon runner. Without him as my coach, I'm not sure I ever would have freed myself from illness or become an athlete. Probably not. It was my desire to know his heart that helped me open myself to the idea. What would it be like to enjoy exercise? What would it be like to hone my body the way I always tried to hone my mind? Could I hold myself physically to the same standards of excellence that I esteemed in other areas? I found answers to all these questions. I owe him.
My mother-in-law was also an Upholder. There's a chain of at least three generations of them in that family, and I think Upholders train one another into that tendency. She taught me that exercise is just like any other chore. I understood that this advice came from a sincere wish to reach me in a way that would make sense to me, and I realized what a sweet gift that was. She got me. A motivational speech about fitness from her would probably have been different if I were anyone else. After all, she had coached weight loss for forty years and she knew what she was doing.
That's what it comes down to. We do what we do because it makes sense and because it works for us. Or at least we think it does. I was perfectly convinced that illness was something that just happened to me, and I believed my doctors when they said there were no lifestyle inputs. Others will be convinced that their personality is not compatible with this kind of activity, or that they somehow genetically lack willpower or motivation. What is needed is some compelling reason that feels convincing. Why would someone like me do something like this? Answer: Because.
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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.