So you insisted on joining that gym. You know what everyone says about New Year’s Resolutions and habits, and you believe that none of it applies to you. You signed up for a bargain membership at a commodity gym.
Congratulations! It just might work!
If you really and truly love gaming, TV and movies, music, shopping, fried foods, or any of the other cute and charming habits that people try to shed at resolution time, you can use that! You get to keep all that stuff. Well, actually you get to keep it either way. You can keep it with a fitness level that steadily deteriorates from year to year, or you can keep it while using it as fuel for your body upgrades.
Simply choose a form of exercise that allows you to indulge in your favorite activities at the same time.
Anchor the time in your schedule, the location, and the habits. Make gym time your indulgent time, time to get away with all the naughty things that are so fun to do.
Personally I like spying on people and eavesdropping on their conversations. I like checking out other people’s butts and wondering what workout they do. I like looking at their shoes and their workout clothes and mentally shopping. Would that combo work on me?
I also use my elliptical time to watch video clips, read articles, play Words With Friends, look at recipes, and dink around doing all the stuff online that I normally don’t have time to do. Sometimes I’ll read a potboiler that I only allow myself to read while I do cardio. It makes me move faster at the scary parts. I’ve tried watching movies or hour-long TV episodes, but it makes one minute feel like ten. That’s why I like the fragmented articles and short videos.
Sometimes the elliptical machines are taken. No surprise, since there are only two at our apartment gym and they’re often full of married couples. My husband will shrug and lift weights while listening to all the music I don’t let him play aloud in the house. I’ll usually hop on a treadmill and use it as a walking desk with my tablet keyboard. Sometimes I buy dog food online or make appointments. Sometimes I just write out a bunch of lists. If I bring a cable then my device will be fully charged, too. It’s not really all that naughty, but when I’ve caught up on email with a full battery, I feel like I just summoned an extra hour out of the ether.
That’s one of the main secrets behind getting your money’s worth out of a commodity gym. You have to be equally as willing to do one workout as another, because often your favorite equipment will already be in use. When I was in college, there was a strict 20-minute time limit on all the cardio equipment, and each machine had a sign-up sheet. A bouncer would come over and make you climb down if you tried to stay on longer. I’d take three slots and move between different machines and read my homework. Not having a hundred pages of assigned reading makes anything else feel like playtime.
There are all sorts of treats and indulgences and cute habits that fit people associate with their workouts, even their most boring workouts.
Cardio and entertainment! The elliptical and TV. The recumbent bike and cooking shows or video games. The treadmill and a podcast. Any fitness class that plays your type of music (although beware: I had to quit one gym that kept playing the same Top 40 pop hit every time I was there. That was before AirPods).
Mega calories and endurance sports! Do it indoors long enough when the weather is bad, and suddenly you’ll find yourself doing the same routine outdoors when it’s gorgeous out. You’ll find yourself doing it with a bagel in your hand. Everyone I know who bikes or runs does it for the beer. Every race day I have willing buddies who will hang around for me, even when I’m half their speed, because I hate beer and I’ll give them the voucher off my race bib. A friend of mine used to measure his weight loss against a little poster he had made of all his favorite See’s Candies, and now he’s a century rider.
Shopping and physical transformation! It wasn’t until I finally reached my goal weight that I realized how much less uncomfortable high heels are at 120 than at 160. It has to do with the laws of physics and pounds per square inch, which is why stilettos hurt more to wear than a stacked heel or a platform shoe. I also discovered that almost all clothes in my size will fit and look attractive on me, which definitely was not true when I wore a size fourteen. One night I tried on thirty-eight pairs of pants and not a single one fit right. That just doesn’t happen anymore. If fashion or revenge are strong interests of yours, why not? Make your shopping life easier.
It is absolutely fair game to base your transformation goals around your boyfriend’s ex or an online photo of the queen bee who tormented you in sixth grade. One of my clients made her goal with days to spare because she knew her ex would be at the same party with his new girlfriend on New Year’s Eve. Chances are, there’s an innocent bystander at your commodity gym who resembles this rival, at least a little. When you see her, you can use her silhouette to rev you up. It’s also fun to outdo the young bro at the next station. Especially if you lift.
A commodity gym can be a fantastic source of material for an artist. Caricatures, cartoons, comedy, sculpture, music, whatever it is that you do, if you go to the gym you’ll expand your net for capturing new ideas and fresh inspiration. Same with entrepreneurs and trend analysis. It’s a part of the world that is worthy of exploration.
A new gym can be a weird and uncomfortable place for someone who feels self-conscious and insecure. It can be a smelly and boring and loud place, too. Isn’t that also true of anywhere, but especially any shopping mall, hair salon, grocery store, workplace, restaurant, gas station, or anywhere else in public? Just think of your new commodity gym as a place to get your money’s worth, a place to catch up on your to-do list and your must-watch list and the games in your queue. Soon it will be just as familiar as your car, only it will take you farther.
I used to have a PDA, or ‘personal digital assistant.’ I loved that thing and I took it everywhere for several years. I still wish I could use the symbols I had to learn for the stylus that went with it. One day, I had it open at my desk at work. A colleague laughed at me. I happened to have a sticky note inside the cover. “Do you even know what a PDA is FOR?” he scoffed. Of course I did! It was to keep me organized, expand into an extra brain annex, and remind me to do things. It just so happened that the apps and technology available at the time weren’t a perfect fit for my productivity needs, not to mention the aesthetic. It might not have suited me perfectly, but that old PDA served as an object of power in my life. The right planner can do the same for anyone.
An object of power is to be distinguished from a tool. For instance, I can use any spoon, pencil, or cup as a tool in daily life, and none will be more valuable to me than any other. On the other hand, my dog has a tiny shred of an old stuffed toy that is a major object of power for him. It’s so small that it’s useless, it’s filthy, and it smells bad, but it matters to one little woofy heart.
A calendar can be either or both, an object of power and/or a routine tool. It can also be a piece of useless clutter.
One common feature of my people’s homes, along with a vast collection of refrigerator magnets and a bunch of coins scattered everywhere, is a wall calendar that features the wrong month or year. (I always ask before I change it, figuring it may be part of a magical ritual or something). The standard-issue wall calendar is a total fail for most people’s needs. We take them because they’re free and they often have nice pictures. Then we hang them in inaccessible places. They’re visible to all guests, so most people avoid writing anything personal or private on them. They’re extremely limited in format; for the space they take up, there’s very little room for the individual day or week. To use them, we either have to write against the wall, which leads to strained and crabbed penmanship, or take the whole contraption off the wall, where the little finishing nail inevitably pops out and gets lost. Maybe keep your wall calendar, if you really need it for the four dentist appointments and two vet appointments that get written on it, but don’t blame yourself if it fails you as a true planner.
The sorts of things we write on the common wall calendar are the sorts that don’t really need to BE on a calendar. I don’t know about you, but my dentist, veterinarian, and all other appointment-based business relationships always send multiple reminders in the form of calls, texts, emails, postcards, and business cards with peel-off stickers. This is the kind of thing most of us are least likely to forget.
I may be wrong. I generally don’t use a grocery list, a to-do list, or a schedule. I still manage to get a lot done. But then, maybe I’ve got it backward and I would do even more if I used more traditional tools? Why do I even bother myself thinking about planners?
I use a planner as an object of power as much as anything else. I’ve found that I really like a monthly calendar as a visual when I do strategic planning. Yet, although I carry an iPad almost everywhere I go, I haven’t found an app or digital calendar view that does the job. Most of the sort of activities that I want to “plan” are not specifically schedule-based, like in the time dimension and everything. I plan at the yearly, quarterly, monthly, and weekly level, and digital minute- and date-based reminders don’t work well for my needs.
What do I plan?
I plan my work in time blocks. Those time blocks are built around the few time-bound elements in my schedule. Classes at my gym, club meetings, and my husband’s work and travel schedule are the non-negotiables. I put those first because that’s how I prioritize my marriage, my fitness, and my educational and career growth goals. Why? My husband travels three or more days a week, so he has to come first if I want to see him at all. Classes and club meetings take up about six hours a week. Almost every minute of the remaining time is mine to squander.
Most of the things I do can be done at any time. That means if I’m not careful, they’ll never get done at all. That’s doubly true of creative projects that I can’t delegate, that won’t come into being if I don’t pull them into the time dimension somehow.
Artists, this might be useful. I think of my projects in three phases: gestation, work, and editing. Others might think of the first phase as ideation, daydreaming, woolgathering, or aimlessly staring out the window. The second phase might be anything from painting, sculpting, typing, or pattern drafting to chopping vegetables, soldering, or welding. The third phase might be called polish, styling, performing, plating, peer review, or whatever else works for you. For my purposes, the first phase requires the ability to drop what I’m doing and take notes, sketch something, snap a picture, or research something. The second phase is almost entirely typing and doesn’t even require internet access. The third phase includes formatting and scheduling, and occasionally a human intermediary.
It just occurred to me that there’s actually a FOURTH PHASE, which explains most of my problems in life. That fourth phase might variously be known as publishing, shipping, launching, or... finishing.
Everyone is most comfortable in one of these stages, and we can tend to languish, not realizing that it takes at least a minimal amount of planning to carry an idea through all four phases. I do my best work at phase one, ideation, while I always go to my husband for phase three. (Phase three and no sooner!)
See that it’s entirely possible to have multiple projects in progress in various phases along a timeline. Any or all of them might eventually become hung up on the input of another person, access to materials or facilities, delivery schedules, and so forth. A delivery driver or a waiter or an artisan in a framing shop might work almost entirely in phase four of other people’s projects, in what would be phase two of their own workday. My people, just like me, tend to work mostly in phases one and two. That’s where craft stores make all their money.
As a working artist, I don’t really use a planner for its calendar function. I use it as an adjunct brain. The monthly grid is how I try to avoid bunching up several posts in a row on the same topic, and how I anticipate writing around seasonal topics. The weekly view is where I write out errands I need to run, because it doesn’t matter what day I do them, and projects I want to get done, because I’m not always sure how long they’ll take. I’d rather look at them in my preferred format than spend a lot of extra time tinkering, shuffling, writing, erasing, and rewriting. That attention should be on my real work. The point of the planner is so I can use as much mental bandwidth as possible for making things, not for massaging and canoodling with the planner itself.
A planner as an object of power should be compelling to its possessor. It should attract the eye. It should be of a shape and size and weight that makes it irresistible, and it should suit the context. Consider whether you will use it mostly on a cafe table, at work, in your bed, at your desk, in the driver’s seat of your car, or whether it will spend most of its working life in your bag. Love the color and style, because if any aspect of it disappoints or annoys you, you won’t use it.
The more you use an object of power, the better it works. The more you use it, the more useful it becomes. The more you use it, the better you get at figuring out what you want out of it and what you’ll change the next time you choose one. There’s nothing wrong with writing on the wall or using a paper napkin, if it inspires you and brings you focus.
The thing about goals is that they’re usually much too modest and too ordinary to generate much passion in the goal-setter. For the purposes of this discussion, that would be you. Maybe you’ve been getting stuck on the same goals for so many years because they bore you. Maybe it’s because you secretly resent being held to humdrum societal expectations. Maybe you don’t like the way magazines always use the imperative command: LOSE WEIGHT while trying this brownie recipe! GET ORGANIZED while buying a few sacks full of these objects in our advertisements! I’m tired of it, too. That’s why I’m so proud to share that there are sneaky and cost-free ways to beat the system. Here are some cheats for common goals.
Goal: DRINK MORE WATER. I struggled with this for almost twenty years. It was closely linked to my cola addiction. Advertisers will try to sell you all sorts of special bottles and jugs and jars and hydration systems and custom artisanal additives. What’s the cheat?
Cheat: STRENUOUS EXERCISE. If you haven’t been working out, and you start, one of the first things you’ll notice is that your thirst begins to take over your life, and for once Idris Elba isn’t involved. In marathon training, I found that I could drink 80 fluid ounces on one training run. In martial arts classes, I can empty a 20-oz bottle in two gulps. The concern shifts from “I should probably get around to this one day” to “maybe I shouldn’t shove people away from the drinking fountain?”
Goal: GET ORGANIZED. This is my wheelhouse, because I work with chronically disorganized people, and I know from experience that it can take three months just to have one square foot of space consistently clear. Our culture makes time scarce and material objects plentiful. As of the mid-twentieth century, it’s possible to live in clutter and disorganization the likes of which humanity has never known. What’s the cheat?
Cheat: DOWNSIZE YOUR LIVING SPACE. My husband and I rented a typical suburban house when we first got married. Three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a two-car garage, living room, family room, laundry room, dining room, and the biggest kitchen I’d ever had. We now live in a 612-square-foot studio apartment. Our dining table is stored flat under our bed. Getting an offer for the Epic Dream Job meant we had just eleven days to downsize all our stuff and relocate to a new city. The differential between a higher income on one hand, and lower rent plus no vehicle expenses on the other hand, means we could handily replace every object we downsized with plenty to spare. This is somewhat of a simplified version of a ten-year process, but this style of downsizing is not rare or radical by any means.
Goal: TOO BUSY AND TOO TIRED. Does this apply to everyone, or what? Being too tired to think straight is probably the biggest killer of goals and resolutions aside from the humble donut. This situation should not be tolerated. Even if you never make another goal or have any other aspirations in your life, finding a way to regain your energy level and get some peace of mind should matter to you. It’s the best reason to do anything. But how is it possible to get everything done without cutting back on sleep? What’s the cheat?
Cheat: GET RID OF YOUR CAR. Believe it or not, getting rid of our car two years ago was one of the most surprising and most effective ways to introduce leisure into our schedule. It takes longer to get places, and this has led to three things. One, we make fewer trips because it’s a bigger deal, so we consolidate or delegate errands. Two, we each have a BMW (Bike Metro Walk) which automatically adds more exercise, more time to listen to podcasts and audio books, and more time to sit and chill. On the bus (or rideshare, occasionally) you can text your friends, play games, read a novel, watch a TV episode, browse recipes, stare out the window, or set an alert and just nap out. Driving means that every minute, you’re either battling traffic, looking for parking, or wondering how you’ll ever find time to clean out your car. Wouldn’t you rather have that time for aimless entertainment instead? Oh, and the third thing is that because we moved and got rid of our car, we are now able to save 40% of our income, which has solved not just our leisure constraints but our financial issues as well!
What we’re talking about is how radical change can quickly and easily resolve challenges when making tiny tweaks to the standard-issue lifestyle cannot. Standard behavior includes standard problems. In our culture, those are stress, chronic sleep deprivation, clutter, money worries, sedentary behavior, and excess adipose tissue, commonly referred to as body fat.
Radical change does not have to be shocking or difficult. For instance, going to bed an hour earlier might be revolutionary for a lot of people, and it costs nothing and requires no extra equipment. All it takes is a willingness to say, I am tired of annoying myself, I am tired of facing the same issues year after year, and now I’m making the executive decision to put a stop to it. Being tired all the time is boring. Being broke all the time is boring. I don’t want the quest to remind myself to “drink more water” be my main purpose besides commuting and working at my job.
The real cheat for common goals is to wipe them off the board. Substitute some uncommon goals and see what happens.
Read this book even if you have no particular curiosity around the practice of bullet journaling. Read The Bullet Journal Method, because it happens to be one of the greatest productivity books ever written. Ryder Carroll makes a truly compelling case for why Getting Organized can be so transformative for so many people, whether their struggles are with attention deficit, PTSD, or, memorably, talking to emergency medical responders while a child is having a seizure. This book has so much to offer that the artistic aspects are really just a side bonus.
I use a paper day planner with bullet journal techniques even though I also use a tablet and a smartphone. Writing longhand really does work to help focus, think clearly, and remember details. Another benefit that Carroll describes is differentiating between our memories of what happened and what actually happened; we may have positive memories of something negative and vice versa. Writing down accurate details can help us see the truth that a job or relationship isn’t going quite the way we thought it was. This is why a written journal is so instrumental in spotting patterns and deciphering mysterious health problems.
Part of the practice of bullet journaling is the daily reflection. Carroll points out that it’s better to spend even one minute a day on this, as long as it’s done every day, because that is more valuable than longer but more sporadic sessions. He says he usually spends 5-15 minutes per daily session, and I can back this up. With a clear system in place, it takes very little time to maintain. More, it becomes a pleasure, even a stolen thrill, rather than a chore. This is where the beautiful artwork and hand-lettering of so many BuJo aficionados begins, because it’s a treat we give ourselves.
Productivity is all about gamification, or how we choose the metrics that will measure our success. Carroll includes some very interesting ways to gamify goals, including the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 exercise, which I haven’t seen anywhere else. (Set some goals for five years, four months, three weeks, two days, and one hour). He also teaches Agile methods, Sprints, and the Five Whys, which transfer readily between the home and the workplace: my husband relies on this system as an aerospace engineer, and we use it in our marriage as well.
The examples of problem-solving that come up in The Bullet Journal Method say everything about how universally useful it is. Everything from how to plan a vacation to I CAN’T PAY RENT is in here somewhere. Carroll writes lucidly about self-compassion, gratitude, mindfulness, and all those catchphrases that seem so abstract, until we see how directly they apply to daily life. This is a remarkable book that far exceeds its remit, turning “productivity” into pure poetry about how to live life well, even amid the massive jumble of it all.
Few things are more distracting than the cruel stories we tell ourselves.
Often all it takes to live intentionally is to pause before you proceed.
If everything is a priority, nothing is.
Yes means work, it means sacrifice, it means investing time into one thing that you can no longer invest into another.
Productivity is about getting more done by working on fewer things.
The secret to Doing All the Things is to put as much of it as possible on autopilot. Anything you can do without thinking, you can do while watching Netflix, listening to a podcast, or talking on the phone. It’s those pesky decisions that trip us up. Postponed decisions automatically turn into clutter, overflowing email inboxes, junk hours spent scrolling through queues and playlists without choosing something to watch, and delayed dinners. Here’s a new way to quickly and easily separate out the easy stuff from the stuff that, you know, actually takes brain power.
I’m a decisive person in general. Most people are, at least about certain things. We can take one look at someone’s outfit and know we’d never be caught dead in that, unless of course we have a lot of friends who are into prank videos. Same with menu items we know we wouldn’t prod with a fork unless there was a cash prize on the line. We can harness this inner decisiveness and use it to cut more hassle and mess out of our lives.
There are three areas where I tend to get hung up on decisions, and those are social events, launching new projects, and anything that requires spending money. These tend to clutter up my email if I let them. I deal with these in different ways.
First, there’s policy. Set a policy that works for you in every area of your life and you’ll rarely have to make a decision again.
Launching new projects is my default mode. I’m much more likely to start something than to finish it. Gradually I’ve trained myself that I can’t start anything new until I’m done with my current project. Instead of launching multiple projects, I have a master list. Every time I have a red-hot new idea, I add it to the list and take notes so I can come back to it later. I still have this compulsion to want to dip my paintbrush into all of them for a few seconds each, so I have to keep reminding myself, not yet, not yet. Nothing on this list will ever be more than an idea unless I focus and finish, one at a time.
This includes ideas of my own creation, but it also includes projects that other people wave in front of me. Learn a new language! Take this online class! Try this new workout! Buy this cookbook! I’ve had to learn to recognize that anything I would do here in the Time Dimension will displace any other time-bound activities. Thus, it’s a project.
Social events might include anything from a local event or concert to a club contest, a martial arts seminar to a webinar, a party to a Vegas show. If I’m considering it at all, it’s because it seems like fun. It can be draining to try to go to everything, though, and I don’t always know at that moment if my husband will be on business travel or whatever. As soon as I get an invite to something like this, I immediately move it to a folder called Decisions. Then I make a note to bring it up at our Saturday morning status meeting.
Once we have a list of these events on one screen and a calendar on another, we can bang out decisions for the week in just a few minutes. “Oh, wait, these are both on the same day in two different cities. Never mind.”
My financial policy is that we save 40% of our income, and we’re aiming for more. If I’m actually spending money on anything at all, I have to feel like it’s truly worth it. If I see something online that I might want to buy, I save the link to a folder called ‘Shopping.’ I check it at birthdays and holidays for gift ideas. I also save small household items on a list on Amazon because our pet food is an add-on that requires an additional purchase.
I don’t tend to see things I want to buy in stores because I almost never go shopping. Grocery store, yes; anywhere else, I avoid. 1. I have better things to do; 2. I hate mall kiosks with a burning passion; 3. Makes it easier to meet our financial goals. The policy on shopping is:
Only buy something if you:
Can explain why you need it
Can afford it
Know where you’re going to put it
Know how to clean it
Often I wait so long to buy something I’ve seen that when I go back for it, it’s been discontinued. This has created problems when I’ve tried to buy sweaters, sandals, and other seasonal items, so I’m trying to adjust my expectations here.
Other types of decisions tend to confound people. A lot of time is burned up through dithering. This is time that could have been used beautifully, through napping, talking to a friend, reading a book, organizing a small area of the home, cooking a meal, or otherwise creating a little lifestyle upgrade. Instead, it’s waffling back and forth. What do I watch? What do I eat? Where do I go? What do I do next?
One way to look at this banquet of exciting options is as a never-ending mental puzzle. Eh, that doesn’t work so well. Another way to look at it is that we don’t have to decide at all, because we can’t possibly lose. No matter what we pick, it will be at least a three-star experience. If we vet our choices well enough, we can bump it up to four- or five-star options at all times. And we can fit in at least one more thing if we quit wasting, what, half an hour a day trying to make up our minds?
What’s for dinner? Make a list of your ten favorite dinners/restaurants and then just close your eyes and pick one.
What do I watch? This is such a non-decision I can barely think about it. Just click on the next thing in your queue and go with it. If you don’t like it after five minutes, delete it and never go back. Just pick the next one. It’s not like there won’t be any new shows or movies next month. Or maybe kill your watch list for a month and see how much more you get done.
What do I read? Same thing. I have something like 1800 selections on my library wish list, which is embarrassing, but it does mean I’ll never run out of great things to read. There’s a tab for ‘Available Now,’ so my only real decision is between audio or text. When I run across something new that’s a higher reading priority, I just put it on hold, and the decision is made for me when it becomes available.
What do I wear? Get rid of 80% of your clothes and see how much easier this gets. My capsule wardrobe works like this: Fits and looks fine today. Works with at least three other items. Goes through washer and dryer. Does not need ironing or dry cleaning. Has pockets? Once I’ve bought something that fits all my criteria, I have only one wardrobe decision. Suitable for day’s weather?
Decisions are easy when you’re basically comfortable with your life as it is. Most decisions are incredibly trivial. Which shirt do I wear, what dinner do I eat, what book do I read next? Come on. Compared to real decisions like whether to quit your job or go in for surgery, these are simple. Automate and free up more time for enjoyment.
Rounding out the year, ready for a season of celebration and mass partying, it’s time to take a look at all your open loops. Closed loops, too, of course - you want to give yourself credit for everything you’ve done and everything that went well. As you dance into the New Year, you want to ask yourself, how much unfinished business do you want to carry forward? You’re close enough to the countdown that you can use that sense of a deadline for momentum. Close your loops and start the New Year feeling ready for anything.
What is an open loop? It’s a catchphrase from the productivity system known as GTD, or Getting Things Done, by David Allen. If you’re looking for a good winter read, that would be an excellent choice. An open loop is any unfinished business with the power to distract you or disturb your peace of mind.
An open loop might be anything: an unpaid debt, a picture you want to hang somewhere, a flirty text you’ve left on Read, an argument you’ve had with a friend, or a postponed decision to move, change jobs, or go to the dentist. If it makes you squirm a little, if you wince when you even think about it, it’s an open loop.
That’s the point of closing your loops. You want to be free of the icky, creepy feelings that come up when you think of your unfinished business. Peace of mind is impossible with that sort of crud going on.
Your physical environment is very much a reflection of open loops in your life. Some open loops are purely internal, like when you delay making up with a friend or breaking off a dead romance. There’s no outer sign, no material evidence. The rest of it, though, shows up as clutter. Unopened envelopes! Expired prescriptions, expired food, expired coupons! Clothes that don’t fit! Shopping bags with the purchases still inside! Unread books! Unfinished craft projects! Partial to-do lists! (To-maybe lists? To-dither?)
Most people have a dream, or, rather, most people have a whole lot of dreams. They don’t come true because there are so many that sound equally appealing, it feels impossible to choose between them. If you have five dreams and you put equal effort toward each one, then you’ve made 20% progress on each. That’s where quitting comes from! With the discipline to choose just one and only one, to cut off the other four dreams, then you can make one come true. Close the loop. With that feeling of progress and possibility, you have that much more confidence to choose the next dream and put all your effort toward that. Five dreams in five years, rather than 20% progress and five quits in one year.
How can you have faith in yourself when you keep quitting on yourself? When you keep quitting on your dreams?
Most dreams are so modest that they’re almost boring. Get organized, lose that weight, clean out the garage, might as well put “floss your teeth” on there. Ho-hum. Those are starter goals! Those are goals that work in the service of something bigger. Get organized so it’s easier to focus when you start your business and then quit your day job. Lose weight so you can hike the PCT or get a black belt in something. Clean out the garage so you can set up your work bench and build a battle bot or make your own guitar. Floss your teeth... um... so you can crush it in your next job interview. I dunno. I don’t know your life, I don’t know how big your actual dreams are. I just know they’re bigger than the one-size-fits-all goals on the magazine covers.
If you choose a big enough dream, and it matters enough to you, then those basic off-the-shelf goals can be knocked out in a few months. You can completely turn around any of those basic scenarios in three months, no problem. You can go bigger, too - I know a lot of people who could complete the work for their college degree in only one term, and you can train for a marathon in four months. The only way to get more juice out of a humdrum goal is to do it faster, at record-setting pace.
It really doesn’t matter how long it takes you to reach your goals and finally start living your dreams. It doesn’t matter because once you reach them, you’ll have a fresh new perspective, and this time period will just be a blip. It will be no more memorable or consequential than climbing a flight of stairs.
Open loops are like hanging out in a stairwell. The only time people do that is when they need somewhere to sit while they’re waiting for something or making a phone call. That happens sometimes. Sometimes a loop needs to stay open for a while because we’re deliberately creating an opportunity for something to happen, something that needs input from someone else. A job offer, a signed contract, approval for a grant or a loan, that ‘yes’ to your ‘U up?’ text. Usually, though, our loops are only open because of inertia. We haven’t bothered to close them. We haven’t bothered because we have nothing better to do and no brighter ideas for how to spend our focus and attention and our precious time.
Let this time be different. Treat this upcoming New Year as a chance to experiment and try something else for a change. What would happen if you rushed around and closed as many loops as possible over the next couple of weeks? What if you played a game and spent the thirty-one days of January closing even more? What would your New Year look like if you truly did feel like you were starting the game at square one?
It wasn’t until I nearly missed my flight home for Thanksgiving that I realized something important, something deep in my character. “You call yourself organized,” I lectured myself, looking at my textbook-sized day planner, “and you almost missed your flight.” My desire to feel “organized” often leads me to do things that actually CAUSE the problems that make me feel DISorganized. I was missing something fundamental and obvious, something that other people seemed to do effortlessly. This is when I had my bright idea.
The very next day, I pulled out my return tickets and my calendar, and I told myself a story.
The story itself doesn’t matter so much as the format. “You’re going to [DO THIS] because [OF THIS REASON] and then [THIS IS GOING TO HAPPEN].”
I walked myself backward, step by step, through my upcoming Monday morning. Vivid in my mind was the major ramification of being late: MISSING MY FLIGHT! Pain! Sorrow! Long lines! Wasted money! I needed to estimate the time each segment of my trip would take: to the gate from security, through security from drop-off, to drop-off from my parents’ house. How long would it take me to get ready?
Hang on, this is relevant to tasks as well as event planning. Do you see why yet? Because you shouldn’t be doing tasks unless they are useful to you in some way. If something is useful for you to do for yourself, then you’ll want to do it by a specific time. If it isn’t time-bound, then you’ll want to do it in relation to some result that matters to you. This is why we work backward. We want the intended result to happen and we want to do the things that lead to that result. Often, when we start with an “organized” “to-do list,” we wind up doing things efficiently that have nothing to do with our intended results.
That’s why I was able to feel so “organized” even as I arrived at the airport forty minutes late and nearly missed my flight.
My careful one-bag packing, checking the weather report, coordinating my clothes and footwear, selecting books to read, menu-planning with four other people, doing laundry, clearing my desk, and cleaning house were all great things to do. They all tragically missed the real point, which was to GET ON THE PLANE ON TIME.
I caught my flight (read: made my cherished goal) by accident, unfairly and undeservedly. This was a negative result because it had the potential to teach incorrect lessons and reinforce destructive behaviors. Namely: being a derpy derp.
A flaw is a flaw everywhere. My tendency to space out and ignore important details, losing track of the main point, is a flaw in everything I do. That’s why this matters. It hurts me, myself. It also usually ripples out and annoys other people, damaging their trust and staining my reputation. Ultimately, though, why would I annoy my own self? Why would I keep doing things to myself that I hate?
This, then, is the bedrock, the foundation of the problem. Being “disorganized” means perpetually annoying myself. “Getting organized” means doing the relentless root cause analysis and taking the corrective action. Find the flaw and shake it until all its withered little poison fruits shake loose.
When I look at a clock time, say: 10:10, it means nothing to me. It’s just a series of numbers and punctuation marks. I can’t possibly care less. I’ve tried both analog and digital clocks with the same effects. I don’t work well in the time dimension. Those symbols are not real to me.
When I arrange it as a story problem, suddenly it clicks into place. “Once upon a time there was a charming young derpy derp who got to the airport late and missed her flight. Because it was a busy holiday weekend, she was not able to get another seat until Saturday. She missed Thanksgiving dinner. It was her only chance all year to see her nephew, and by the time she arrived, he had already gone home. Instead of the nine-person dinner party she’d anticipated for months, her favorite people in all the world, only three were still free to get together. And all the pie was gone.”
Now, when I do my planning, I see the face of my sweet nephew, surrounded by my family, arranged at the table one by one. This is my motivation. My reason for spending an extra ten minutes making my schedule is a human reason. I want to be with someone who is important to me, and I don’t want to let him down. Or any of the others. Or let myself down.
This is how to turn an ordinary to-do list into a story problem. Who will be affected by my inaction or procrastination? Who will be disappointed if I don’t follow through? Who will have to cover for me, even with everything else that’s going on in their life right now? Conversely, how will they feel if I pull through? How will everyone react if I do everything I said I would do, on time or early?
My next-level planning revolves around a more familiar face, derpy though it is, and that face is my own. What expression will I have when I realize that, despite my planning, I’m still so late that I won’t get any breakfast? That I’ll have to wait four hours to have anything to eat? SAD FACE! I estimate how long it will take me to order food and plug that into my story.
That’s the personal level of the story problem. How will I myself feel if I screw this up? What will I miss out on if I skate through with only the vaguest of intentions and no specifics? How embarrassed will I be if I put in a significant amount of effort on something, only to blow it at the last minute because I forgot a major detail?
I wrote a story to myself and put it in my reminders. First, I set an alarm with the label: “Order a Lyft by 8:00 or you won’t get any breakfast!” Bone-chilling. Then, I set an alert for my reminder story. It went like this: “This morning you’re going to go to PDX and get breakfast. You’ll land in Sacramento and have about an hour to get a burrito. Then you’ll fly to LAX and head home.” Following were two more sentences about what I had to do after I got home, reminding me of some preparations I could take during my flight and while I hung around at the airport.
It worked! I ordered the Lyft on time, I got to the airport on time, I had quite a nice breakfast, and three hours later I also had quite a nice lunch. I didn’t have to sprint, not even once. Not only that, I helped two different people by noticing something they had dropped and picking it up for them. My attention was where it needed to be.
There’s a productivity technique called “interstitial journaling.” It involves pausing between tasks and meetings to write notes about what you are thinking, what decisions you need to make, and why you are doing what you are doing. Something like “I need to eat dinner early tonight if I want to make it to class on time” or “I’m going to get a nagging email if I don’t submit this report by Tuesday.” This is similar to the narrative to-do list that I’m describing. If clock times and schedules don’t work well for you, as they don’t for me, then maybe this will help. If to-do lists never seem to get you anywhere, again, maybe this will work better for you.
“Once upon a time there was a faithful reader who saw a great blog post. A big lightbulb went on. Suddenly it was so obvious that a bunch of things on that musty, dusty old to-do list could just be removed and never thought of again! Suddenly it was so clear and simple: what to do next and why.”
Shh, shh, it’s okay. I won’t tell anyone. Look, this is a nearly universal problem. Papers everywhere. Even people who don’t have any other clutter problems have a problem with paper. It’s a sign of our times, that paper is so cheap and plentiful, people will not only send it to us for free, we can’t even get them to stop. They’ll send so much we can’t even read it all, much less figure out how to sort through it. I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault; it’s a cultural issue. Twenty years from now it won’t be a problem anymore. For now, here we all are, buried in junk mail and coupons and flyers and menus we never asked for. Makes it awfully hard to find the important stuff, and that’s why it all gets jumbled together.
Does this sound familiar?
Unopened mail by the front door
Unopened mail on the coffee table
Unopened mail on the kitchen counter
Unopened mail on the dresser
Unopened mail on the bookshelves
Unopened mail on the desk
Plastic grocery bags filled with mail, some junk, some important
Boxes and bags filled with those mail-stuffed plastic bags
A filing cabinet with an empty drawer
A filing cabinet vertically stacked with unsorted papers
An outer envelope stuffed with various papers from different accounts
Mail and papers mixed with 3D objects, anything from a flashlight to a package of gum
Papers tucked away somewhere “obvious” where they will never see the light of day
Important papers mixed with expired coupons, menus to restaurants that closed, and invitations to events that have already passed by
Stacks of papers all pointing in different directions, so that it’s more like “52 Pickup” than a “stack” per se
Papers on the floor of the passenger side in the car
Papers under the passenger seat
Plastic bags with mail and papers in the trunk of the car
And, of course, the backpack or purse stuffed with mixed mail and papers
All of these are common signs. About one in five people are chronically disorganized, which simply means that they don’t have a system. Papers everywhere? That’s the default, natural state of the systemless. Papers in the wild!
People tend to feel guilty or ashamed when these papers start taking over. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s your own home, after all. Your own home, your own vehicle, your own desk, your own bag. Shouldn’t you be more... irritated that outside agents keep pelting you with unwanted junk? Shouldn’t you feel... annoyed that every time you turn around, someone else is trying to get you to take more papers home?
When I think about junk mail, I just feel angry. In other countries, it isn’t like this. It’s an American problem. In New Zealand, for instance, you have to sign up to opt in for what we call junk mail. Some people do, because they can get free shampoo samples or whatever. Everyone else is free, free from invasions to their privacy, personal space, and mental bandwidth.
Alas, this is the world we live in. Papers, papers, trying to get in every door and window, just like an invasion of ants or fruit flies.
I don’t blame people for creating little nests of papers. It makes sense in a way. “These are important, I don’t want to lose them in the tide, I’d better put them... [looks around]... HERE so I don’t lose track of them.” Except that there are always like 18 “here’s” with VIPs (Very Important Papers) stuffed in them.
The only people who can actually manage to Get Organized and stay that way are those who understand how much time it takes to process this stuff on a routine basis. The only ones who are Organized are those who understand how to set up and maintain a filing system. The only Organized People who have it easy are those of us who have joined the ranks of the Paperless. Just stop it before it starts.
If you want to start reclaiming your space and your mental energy from scattered paper, this is what I would do.
The most important part of filing is to GET RID OF the 80-90% of junk papers that are irrelevant to your life. All they do is create a fire hazard, draw mold and dust and insects, and, worst of all, obscure your important stuff.
What do you do with your action items? We handle ours as we get them, because my husband and I both despise paper clutter, but other methods work for other people. Clipboards are good, or a file folder that stands out in a vivid color, like red or neon orange. Some people tape them to the front door where they won’t lose them. When I was single, I would use the big counter at the post office to handle stuff when I collected my mail, so it was done before I even left the premises. If it wasn’t mail, I’d usually put it in my purse and handle it during my lunch break at work. As often as possible, try to keep papers from getting into your home, and if you have to bring them in, try to process and get them back out again in as few hours as possible.
If you do have unsorted bags, boxes, and stacks of papers, breathe easy. Start with five minutes a day, processing just the day’s new mail. Set a timer. If you have a little time left over, grab from the nearest stack and do a little out of that. All of those stacks and bags and boxes are good, because they are natural sorting units. You can just do one at a time until it’s emptied out. Each box and bag and stack represents another cubic foot of relaxation that you’ve just bought yourself.
Panic over routine events such as Thanksgiving is something that Future You can avoid, but only if Today You is willing to help. Do you think you can do that? It’s really pretty simple. Every time you find yourself feeling stressed out and overwhelmed, make a note. Figure out a way to send some kind of reminder to Future You so you don’t find yourself in the same situation next year.
The last time I did this, it was summertime. There’s a weeklong event that my husband and I go to every year, and I notoriously always get myself wound up by overcommitting. I set a reminder on my phone for about a week before I will be packing for that trip. In the notes section, I wrote myself a little letter reminding Future Me of all the entirely predictable things I will inevitably try to do. Some of those things include: trying to do housework on the day we leave for the airport, trying to pack more books than I can read, and getting dehydrated. When I see the note, I’ll be surprised, because every time I do this I’ve forgotten all about it.
Sometimes I leave myself a voicemail, even though Today Me hates voicemail exactly as much as Past Me always has, and presumably Future Us does too. I’ll say, “Hi me, it’s me.” Blah blah blah. For some reason this never fails to crack me up, both while I record it and while I listen to it as a future iteration of myself.
Here’s the thing. Thanksgiving is basically here. The next six weeks are going to be holiday madness. Nothing goes at the same speed, whether that’s traffic, shipping times, travel delays, or any line at any store or facility. Our stress levels go up at the same time that everything takes longer and gets more complicated. It’s the perfect recipe for a total emotional meltdown. That’s before adding in family visits, bad weather, a packed social calendar, and cold and flu season. The only things that can help are patience, better planning, or perhaps chocolate.
I am a bah humbug of the first water. I’ll just say that right now. The only things I enjoy about the winter holidays are eating a fabulous meal with my family, and knowing it’s time to start my New Year’s goal-setting extravaganza. Because I don’t like the color combination of green and red, because Christmas music makes me break out in hives, and because I object to the concept of a one-day holiday being stretched out over a minimum of two months, I tend to see the shady side of the season. My skepticism and many petty annoyances help me to plan like I would plan any other chore, say, a remodel or bathing my dog. Ugh, let’s just get through this the best way we can.
As a result, sometimes my cynicism is brightened by a genuine moment of kindness, friendship, or family togetherness. Aww.
For holiday junkies, though, all the anticipation of the sparkling lights and tinsel streudel or whatever the heck makes people live for December, well, it can lead to unrealistic expectations of perfection. Being stuck in a slow line or getting a tired sales clerk seems not just ordinary but positively unholy. How dare you ruin my snow globe image! This is MY MONTH!
As the song says, The weather outside is frightful... let it go, let it go, let it go.
Anyway. Family are coming, people are going to start putting us on the spot by springing non-reciprocal gifts, materialistic pressures are going to start building, and things are going to get tense. Let that be the expectation. Let that reality sink in. Accept it, and plan around it, and maybe smooth out the rough parts.
Every time I have a less-than-ideal time, it tends to be a result of a poorly planned transition. It’s almost always me who is responsible, because my husband likes to be everywhere half an hour early (at least) and he has never bought into many of my weird guidelines and expectations. Whenever we go on a trip or have anyone come over, and I include the plumber who is here to fix the garbage disposal on this list, I feel this inner need to deep-clean our entire home from top to bottom. A maintenance person was here the other day to test our smoke detector, and I even cleaned out the fridge just in case. I have all these high hopes about entirely handmade dishes and vast, complicated menus. If I extended my food fantasies to interior design, floral arrangements, or gift wrap, I’d go around the bend. You know what isn’t festive? A hostess with bags under her eyes and a flour-coated shirt, trudging down the hall with a migraine, making the guests feel bad they ever came.
If you’re anything like me, or if you spend a lot of time looking at Pinterest, which I don’t because I pressure myself enough already as it is, you can have it one way or the other, but not both. Either lower your expectations and take some pressure off yourself, or extend your planning session further back in time next year. Add at least a day, preferably three, to what you consider “the season.” It might seem that adding time allows for raised standards as well, but it doesn’t, due to the planning fallacy. It’s simply human nature to be poor at guessing how long it takes to do things. Adding one more item multiplies the complexity.
I got rid of most of my holiday jitters by downsizing into a studio apartment. True, I have to travel a significant distance if I want to party with anybody. The advantage to that, though, is that the travel itself counts as a contribution, so anything I do to help cook or set up is a bonus. Because I’m in someone else’s home, I don’t feel responsible for the overall level of cleanliness, planning the menu, or staging the view of every room from every angle. It’s almost like... it’s almost like other people don’t really care that much about whether every single thing gets done?
The metric is joy. Almost all of joy consists of stepping out of the moment and forgetting all the background troubles and worries of daily life. The more of those concerns we can drop or discard, the closer we can get. Whenever we think about whether to take on a holiday project or chore or special dish, we can pause and ask, Is this going to give joy a chance, or is it going to make it less likely? There isn’t a complicated joy. Simple joy is the goal.
It’s here, it’s here! I finally got my new podcast set up. Are you excited? I’m excited!
The idea behind the show is help listeners to get organized and clear clutter in just a few minutes a day. Rather than read something and then have to get up and take action, now you can listen and work at the same time.
I have three different episode lengths planned.
The five-minute version is free to the public. The longer versions are available to Patreon subscribers.
Why am I doing it this way? Almost all of my work is already free to the public, including over two thousand pages of writing on this blog alone, not to mention all the accompanying illustrations. Now, in addition, there will also be free podcast episodes. Those who are willing and able to pay a couple dollars a month will have more, just as they would have more if I published a book and they bought a copy. The main difference is that doing a podcast requires additional equipment and software. As much as everyone in the known universe enjoys having free entertainment of every medium, it’s not free to produce.
Enough about that. The point is, hey, I have a new show! Please pop on over and check it out. You can even catch a glimpse of my spokesmodel Noelle in the video.
Thanks as always for your support.
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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