The Big Thing is a terrific book about chronic procrastination. Phyllis Korkki had been wanting to write a book for forty years. Never mind that she worked as an editor at the New York Times, living a lot of people’s dream career. She was going to let her vague dream of Writing a Book torment her and make her feel like a procrastinating lazy person for most of her life.
What exactly is a Big Thing? According to Korkki, it’s whatever you want it to be. There are numerous examples in the book of other people’s projects, including performance art, creating a museum, remodeling houses, and, of course, The Big Thing itself. What these things have in common is that they are personally meaningful, complex, have no deadline, and “require sustained concentration and effort.” So my trying to learn to wrap a burrito properly probably doesn’t count, but my desire to go to grad school (and study... what, exactly?) probably does.
In the course of writing her book, Korkki consults all sorts of experts in fields as diverse as ergonomics, dream research, and mindfulness. She even sees a dating coach. This process of research is funny because it’s so wide-ranging, vastly increasing the level of difficulty of her Big Thing, and yet she feels that all this extra activity qualifies as procrastination. Same here. In engineering we call it “scope creep.” It’s something of a miracle that this book exists, and it’s wonderful because it feels very much like being inside the mind of a divergent-thinking creative and working artist.
What causes people to put off doing their Big Thing? It’s different for everyone, just as the accomplishment and achievement of various Big Things is different. Perfectionism, ambiguity, drug use, chronic pain, mental illness, all sorts of things can be obstacles, although people are overcoming them to live out their dreams and finish their projects all the time.
One of the most interesting insights in the book is that Korkki is challenged on her description of herself as lazy. According to one of the experts, laziness and procrastination are not only not the same thing, they’re almost mutually exclusive. A truly lazy person wouldn’t work on anything at all, or even have a job. Delaying on something is its own form of commitment. It often involves “structured procrastination,” when the supposed procrastinator is bustling around doing other types of chores and tasks. There’s an argument here that the emotional flogging that goes along with procrastination makes it even more difficult than simply getting on with the work.
Not everyone has a Big Thing; maybe only half of people do. Some people would rather focus on daily life, friendships, and uncomplicated contentment. Korkki distinguishes between happiness and meaning. This is part of the secret to getting past procrastination: to acknowledge whether the Big Thing is truly worth doing, and then to find intrinsic value and enjoyment in the process rather than focusing on outcomes and deadlines.
Korkki learns how to finish her Big Thing by working on The Big Thing. She learns to reframe the project. She collects insights from others about how and why they work on their own Big Thing. She practices mindfulness and continues to return her attention to the project when her focus wanders. She works on turning off her self-judgment. She hires a couple of accountability partners, including one who milks cows at 4:00 AM. She thinks about leaving a legacy in this world. Finally, she finishes her dream of a lifetime, a provocative and curiously compelling book about procrastinating that is completed by not procrastinating.
I procrastinate, I’m lazy (although others would disagree), and I have low energy unless I’m under the gun.
And now I understand why I was so lazy for all those years. It was a way to forestall this anxiety I am now feeling on a daily basis.
The moment when you heave yourself over from inactivity to activity is the hardest to endure.
Can I use this intensity somehow? I don’t want to waste this pain. I don’t want it to be for nothing.
My failure in earlier years to write this book amounted to a broken promise to my future selves, who were counting on it for their happiness and fulfillment.
Sleep is mysticism. It’s easy to believe that when you’re so tired that you start to think burrowing a trench in the sand would be a good way to get some rest. Any habit is a complex blend of many factors, not a single one of which will solve a persistent problem on its own. Quality sleep is so valuable that it’s worth focusing on marginal sleep gains.
The ‘aggregation of marginal gains’ is the term for the cumulative effect of small inputs.
Let’s take a pizza for example. I’m going to make you a pizza with a frozen crust, canned tomato paste, and a packet of herbs I got at the dollar store. My friend is going to make what he calls “bachelor pizza” with a slice of white bread, ketchup, and a slice of processed cheese. Hopefully he remembers to remove the wrapper.
Because you’re a smart person, you’re going to make an excuse to leave and get a pizza with a crust from scratch and fresh ingredients, baked in a proper pizza oven.
There is no single factor that differentiates these “pizzas” - they each combine features that make a whole. Even my friend’s bachelor pizza would be marginally improved by using pizza sauce instead of ketchup.
What does this have to do with sleep? A word of advice: don’t eat pizza late at night if you’re having sleep problems. Have it for lunch instead.
Where are the aggregate gains for sleep going to be found?
Some of this depends on the individual. Most of it, I suspect, is universal, and in a couple of decades we’ll have a better understanding deriving from tech, big data, and sleep research. The trouble is that we tend to associate sleep with one specific aspect, our ability to fall asleep in the first place.
As an example, I can think of three people off the top of my head who claim they are fine on no more than six hours of sleep. All fall asleep quickly (go figure) and all are great at their jobs. Unfortunately, all of them are also crabby, snarky individuals with short tempers. What they think of as their “personality” is what I’m like after a rough night. Because they share the common Puritan-work-ethic problem of scorning sleep, everyone will just think they’ve mellowed out during retirement rather than correcting a problem that was decades in the making.
When we’re looking for marginal sleep gains, we want to be clear about which areas are up for improvement. We also want to broaden our time scale, so that we’re talking about sleep by the week and month, not just individual nights.
For myself, I’m looking at sleep gains in:
Falling asleep more quickly
Sleeping through the night without waking
(Or at least waking fewer times)
(Or at least not lying awake for 90 minutes each time)
Sleeping eight or more hours per night
No night terrors
I’m also looking at “externalities” that not everyone would think are related to sleep.
Other people might be looking at:
No restless leg syndrome
No circles under the eyes
Or any other way that sleep loss lowers your quality of life.
What I’ve learned from years of quantifying my habits is that the approach that works for one thing may have nothing to do with something else. This is why tracking is so important. Marginal gains may take a month or a year to really notice.
For instance, when I finally quit my day job, I slept about 15 hours a day for three days, followed by 12 hours a day for a month. A few months later, I started taking melatonin supplements (careful here!) and hated them because I felt drowsy all day long. I told my husband I was going to quit, and he was shocked. He said I finally had color in my face again. I kept at it. By the end of the year, I had lost 15 pounds (from doing literally NOTHING but sleeping all day and mastering all the crops in FarmVille) and suddenly had the bright idea to take up running.
At the time, I found my constant sleep and lethargy to be embarrassing and unpleasant. That wasn’t the reason I quit my job! In retrospect, that year completely changed my life, helping to make me the athlete I am today.
For thyroid disease, I found my biggest change came from extremely strenuous activity. For migraine, it was keeping my body weight in a certain specific range. For night terrors, the secret was the timing of when I ate - nothing for three hours before I go to sleep. I suspect one of the major keys for sleep, at least in my case, is hydration - drinking enough water at the right time of day.
The secret for me was a change in attitude. I adopted the philosophy that I call Do the Obvious. I assume that there is no reason to deviate from mainstream health advice unless I have tested it on myself in multiple ways. As a scientist I fully commit to designing a proper experiment that can give quality results, and then I analyze my metrics like I really mean it. If I don’t like the answer, then I am choosing my own suffering.
The aggregation of marginal gains does not apply only to one area of life, such as sleep or headache management. It all combines into one big thing, which is your experience of daily life.
As a young, broke, exhausted person, I know I would have been deeply annoyed with the expectation that I make the kind of changes I made for the quality of life I have now. What, quit drinking soda? Go to bed earlier? Lose twenty pounds? Get out of here! Yet the fact is that that young version of me suffered from four-day migraines and often felt sad and hopeless. Today Me would never return to Young Me’s habits out of fear of Young Me’s cruddy life experience.
Today Me has great faith that Future Me will sleep on a peaceful peachy cloud of sweet dreams and aromatherapy. This is hard as Today Me has to listen to Today Upstairs Neighbor clomping up and down the stairs at 5:00 AM.
Here are some of the factors that have gone into the marginal sleep gains I have made so far:
An air filter/white noise generator (or you can try a phone app and/or a fan)
Cracking the window at night
A $25 pillow I discovered at a hotel
A $9 eye mask
Drinking all my water for the day before 8:00 PM
Not eating for at least three hours before sleepy time
Putting my phone in Do Not Disturb mode from 10 PM to 10 AM (and now that I think about it, I should change that to 8 PM)
My husband training our dog to quit whining at 5:30 AM
No naps after 3 PM under any circumstances
Wearing a sleep tracker at night (Fitbit Flex 2) and checking metrics daily
Worth noting: I never drink coffee or alcohol.
Diogenes used to walk around Ancient Greece with a lit lantern in the daytime. People would ask him, “Hey, Diogenes, what’s up with the lantern?” He’d say, “I’m looking for an honest man!” I dig this right now, except instead of an honest man I’m in search of a decent night’s sleep. This is SleepQuest 2019, one woman’s journey to stop being tired all the time.
The week of the New Year, I realized that my (current) sleep issues might have something to do with my ten-year dependency on melatonin. I quit taking it. That was a very hard week, but I did start sleeping better soon after. Three months in, I’m still not taking melatonin or any other sleep aid, and I’m finding that I can usually drop off to sleep in under twenty minutes.
IS THAT GREAT, OR WHAT?
I started wearing an older-model Fitbit at night as a sleep tracker. According to my metrics, I often fall asleep in 5-7 minutes. That honestly surprises me. It could be that I just quit shifting around in bed and lie still at that point. Maybe one day there will be a brain scanner that will give better data. Who knows?
I had been waking up in the middle of the night a lot, sometimes 3-4 times per night. I usually sleep through the night now.
These are the things that are going well. Unfortunately, I think one of the reasons I’m falling asleep more quickly and staying down through the night is that I am just so tired lately.
We have upstairs neighbors.
They are loud.
They keep late hours.
They also get up early.
First it’s the man getting ready for work. He has a HEAVY TREAD which is very noticeable above your head at 5:00 AM. Then, just as he’s leaving, his wife comes down. She stays at home. That’s why it’s such a mystery why she feels that she needs to do all her housework before 9:00 AM. She probably thinks that mopping at 7:00 is a quiet and respectful thing to do, not realizing that it sounds like squirrels are digging their way through our ceiling. Then there are the middle school daughter and the family dog, everyone waking up and tromping down the stairs in their own sweet time.
Essentially 90% of the noise in our apartment complex happens between 5:00 AM and 9:00 AM.
Another 5% is the period between 11:30 PM and 12:30 AM. Someone walks around and does things in the kitchen. I think it might be the kid.
Anyway, enough about that. The point is that I am preoccupied with the doings of these people because THEY KEEP WAKING ME UP and I don’t have a lot of options. They just aren’t quiet for an 8-hour stretch.
Whenever I confront a persistent problem, I go at it in multiple ways. The first is to strategize and try to reframe the problem. Next step is to ask for advice. After that I try to solve the problem with money.
First wave: Do we have recourse about the noise? We went to the property manager back when these neighbors were doing their laundry at 6:00 AM, and that got dealt with. We had a couple of challenges when they kept trying to push back to more like 7:30. The real issue is that the simple act of walking to the bathroom and taking a shower is louder in our apartment than it is in theirs. It’s not unreasonable for them to get ready in the morning. We could probably talk to a lawyer and get out of our lease early, but then we’d have to move. (Another way to reframe the problem).
Second wave: What are other people doing? Talk to the landlord, fix your nutrition, etc. I have the most screwed-up sleep of anyone I know, so for this topic I am reading up on sleep research.
Third wave: Solve the problem with money. Eye masks, a white noise generator, fan, air filter, ear plugs, new sheets, a new pillow, etc. In the past I’ve tried essential oils, lotions, teas, herbal supplements, meditation, progressive relaxation, yoga, hot baths, and basically everything else on the market. I’ve even tried prescription pharmaceuticals, which is replacing one problem for another.
At this point on the SleepQuest journey, I am ready to say that my main sleep problem is external. It’s disruptive noise.
That’s actually amazing. As an optimist, I have to remind myself that this is a good thing. As soon as I can move somewhere with our own roof, and no longer have heavy booted footsteps walking six feet over my head early each morning, I’ll have a chance of sleeping like a normal person.
Taking 90 minutes to fall asleep? Gone. Waking up with stomach cramps? Gone. Waking up 3-4 times a night? Gone. Restless leg? Gone.
On the other hand, since I started SleepQuest 2019 I have had a couple instances of night terrors. I’ve also had a couple of migraines. I’ve been down with a cold three times. While my sleep quality is nowhere near as bad as it was back in November and December, it’s certainly not as good as it could be.
Overall strategy is to put a small amount of focus in several things, rather than concentrate on only one thing. What I’ve found with complicated problems (like migraine, weight loss, and parasomnia) is that fixing one input is never enough. One percent improvement in ten things is ten percent improvement, right? I already know a bunch of things that work, so for the rest of the year I will methodically make sure that I am putting as much effort into those proven areas as I can. I’ll also continue to do more research.
What have I done that works?
Wear the eye mask
Find the right distance and noise setting for air filter and fan
Quit taking melatonin and suffer through a week of very poor sleep
Adjust my hydration and make sure I’m drinking my full quota before 8:00 PM
DO NOT EAT or drink any non-water fluids close to bedtime, preserving a three-hour gap between last food and sleep initiation
Try to go to bed earlier and wish neighbors would, too.
Two weeks into the New Year, and how is it going? Personally, I think all of January should be dedicated to hanging around the house, catching up on sleep and maybe reading a few articles about your resolution for the year. In my life, the first couple of weeks of the New Year always seem to include a bunch of dramatic change, and this year has been no exception.
We came home from our New Year’s in Las Vegas, carrying a stack of index cards with our carefully wrought Resolutions and plans for the year.
Then I got sick (AGAINNNNN) and lost seven pounds in a week. The hard way. On the other hand, that sure was a quick way to deal with the excess I accumulated over vacation and the holidays...
Despite this pretty annoying setback, having plans has helped both of us stick to our vision. We remind ourselves that we have a 52-week year every year, and that even a rough month is only 12% of the allotted time.
While it doesn’t show up in our Resolutions, we have some tentative ideas for camping, travel, and bicycle outings. We decided that given my hubby’s travel schedule for work, we need a new strategy if we’re going to be able to plan trips together.
How is 2019 going so far?
My personal Resolution is to submit a book proposal this year. I bought a course, downloaded some software, and started going through my notes for the book. It turns out I have 183 pages JUST SITTING THERE. This is starting to sound much more straightforward than I had thought. (Famous last words). I’m framing it as a “book report for school” that has to be done before the end of the academic year.
My career Resolution is to finish the work for my Distinguished Toastmaster. So far this year, I have won two Best Table Topics ribbons and one for Best Speaker, and I’ve completed another speech toward my ACG. I also won an award for Area Director Excellence and they made me a special custom travel mug. We also got a new member in the club I’m coaching. Considering that we’re only two weeks into the year, this is bananas! I may be able to pull this off after all.
My physical Resolution is to work on hip openers. I can honestly say that I have made zero effort toward this.
My home Resolution was to set up an outdoor writing area. My hubby ordered me a folding screen, and the weather was nice enough the first week back that I was actually able to sit out on the porch and work! It was magnificent, and then the rains came. But the screen definitely does the job and my bird loves it.
Our couples Resolution was to start doing meal prep. This is going better than expected. Marry an engineer and show him an Instant Pot and your troubles are over. Our freezer is already fully loaded with soups and stews, a nice activity when it’s rainy and cold, and we’re both remembering how much we love our home cooking. Definitely a keeper. (The resolution, and also him of course)
My Stop Goal is to stop being sick and tired. Really not making much progress here yet, at least on the illness front. If I could just go a month without coming down with something, that would be great.
My lifestyle upgrade was to get a new desktop computer. I should have done this last year but I always procrastinate on spending on myself. I went out and got it, despite my eyelid twitching, and was stunned to find out that it cost only half what I had thought it would. Well in that case!
My Do the Obvious is to schedule time blocks. This is indeed working, as I’ve been steadily chipping away at a backlog of random dumb tasks. It actually looks like I may get through everything by spring.
I’m tracking metrics, and I added a few more to see what would happen. The first thing was that I got really embarrassed about tracking how many news articles I read every day, and that’s dropped to about half. We ordered a handheld body fat measuring device, which has been motivational for my husband and a wakeup call for me, since I am nowhere near the range I was in during marathon training. I also got an older-model Fitbit to track my sleep.
My Quest is a sleep project I’m going to call SleepQuest 2019. This is going better than expected already. I quit taking melatonin after 8 years *gasp* with very surprising results. It seems that I’m getting close to managing 8 hours of sleep a night!
My Wish is to be signed by a literary agent. I keep reminding myself of this as I work on my book proposal.
That’s it for me so far. I didn’t have a great start to the New Year, in one way, but in another I did. That’s because I laid the foundation by doing so much planning throughout December. It’s also because I keep myself accountable by reading my goals over and over, and publishing my progress (or lack thereof).
There are still fifty weeks left of 2019. How are we going to use them?
If you have dreams that feel impossible because you’re just too busy, then this is the book for you. The authors of Make Time, Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky, found time to write this book in the midst of working demanding professional jobs and parenting small children. They focus on research-based and personally tested ways to gain energy and focus. A fun feature of the book is that the two writing partners sometimes have totally different approaches to a similar problem. It’s illustrated, so their cartoon heads debate back and forth.
Highlights are the most valuable and important things we should be doing, and according to Make Time, if we plan each day around a highlight, then everything starts to come together. Highlights should be prioritized by urgency, satisfaction, and joy.
Noticing highlights is a really excellent way to elevate simple things and make them into a bigger part of daily life. For instance, when my husband joined my kickboxing gym, we coincidentally started riding our bikes home together along the beach at sunset. Nothing in either of our schedules said “ROMANTIC SUNSET BIKE RIDE.” It just happened. That part of our route only lasts about ten minutes. Technically it’s a commute. Still a highlight, though, a part of our day that seems somehow much more significant than much of the rest of the day. Someone who was driving home at sunset might not think “saw beautiful sunset every day this week,” though, because driving sucks.
A technique from Make Time that I really liked was to write out a plan for the day, add a column for the “actual” or how it really turned out, and another column for the revised plan. This is a huge help in accounting for the reality of daily interruptions. As an example, I record a podcast five days a week, and I learned through experience when the building landscaper comes by with the weed whacker.
Make Time is such an excellent book. It could easily be shared with a partner or coworker, or maybe even a whole office. It’s full of the kinds of notions that appeal to everyone, yet still feel so productive and business-oriented that there aren’t really any arguments against them. Read it and ask yourself, what are the highlights that you wish you had the time to do, if only you weren’t so tired?
Functional fitness is my thing. I don’t give a rat’s [censored] what I look like or what other people think about my body. Ha, if you have a problem with how I look, then wait until you hear me talk! All I want is to be able to do awesome stuff and not be distracted by my creaky, wheezing, lumpy old physical vessel. This is why I find myself making extremely specific fitness goals.
Sometimes what I want is something crazy, something I didn’t even know was possible for a human body until I saw someone else doing it. The first time I felt this way was when I saw another kid doing a backflip. The second time was when an older gentleman came to our middle school to do a martial arts demo, and he chopped a board in half with his hand. The third time was when my brother casually mentioned that he had gone for a five-mile run. After that it was a show at the Oregon Country Fair with ribbon aerials and a genuine contortionist.
Tell you what, if I could wake up tomorrow and do any of those things I’d laugh the entire rest of the day. Then I’d go out the door and stop everyone I saw and demonstrate all my stupid human tricks.
Why would I NOT want to be able to do contortions or chop through a board??
The other night, I read about an elderly man who does “wall push-ups.” Oh, that’s kinda sad, I thought, just wall presses? What I was visualizing was something I’ve taught, where you stand facing a wall, put your arms in push-up position, and push back and forth with the wall for resistance. Sure, it works for someone who is building up from chronic fatigue, recovering from surgery, or in physical therapy. Ah, but then I kept reading. What he actually meant when he said “wall push-ups” was that he would do a hand stand against the wall, and then push himself up and down with just his hands. Like an upside-down human pogo stick! OH MY DOG do I need to do this. If this older fella who is in fact older than my own father can do this, then why can’t I? I’ve always wanted to do a handstand.
Then it occurred to me that I have a mental bucket list of extremely specific fitness goals, but they’ve always floated around as unformed pseudo-intentions. Not even a wish, much less a goal. I’m very very good at wishing and goal-setting and making my goals into reality. Why, then, had I never made a real list of these extremely specific fitness goals?
I enrolled in a martial arts academy as my personal challenge for 2018. The warmups wipe me out. I’m already at the point, though, where I’m doing things I never believed I could. Thirty push-ups! Planks for a minute or more! One-armed push-ups! Roundhouse kicks! Box jumps! Using an ab roller without falling on my face! More than one burpee! I appear to have put on ten pounds of muscle already, and my goal for the year was fifteen. As I sit here, I am realizing that any extremely specific fitness goal is within my reach, definitely One Day, probably by the end of the year, possibly by the end of the month, and MAYBE something I could just do later today!
Stuff I’ve never done but always wanted to do:
Riding a unicycle
Juggling six balls
Walking on my hands with my legs in the air
Push-ups with a clap in between
Completing a triathlon (except I kinda can’t swim)
Two pull-ups in a row
A muscle-up (something my parrot does many times a day)
Getting electrocuted and swimming in ice water in the Spartan Race, cuz YOLO
Wrestling an alligator (which my husband has expressly forbidden so I should probably wrestle him first)
There are some other things that petrify me, but that I would immediately do if I ever woke up and Felt No Fear:
Breaking a board with my hand
Kicking down a door
Learning to sail and then sailing to Hawaii
Hmm. Why am I more afraid of snorkeling than I am of wrestling an alligator? Probably because I know quite a lot about animal behavior and circus tricks, more than I do about swimming? I also think of knife fighting as within my reach because they teach a little in the advanced classes at my martial arts school. Eh, I’ll get to that next year.
I don’t need to do any of my extremely specific fitness goals. In fact, most of them I would probably have to keep private, either because they would scare my mom or because everyone loves to bag on people for sharing their workouts. (Quit trying to tell me about TV commercials all the time and it’s a done deal). I’ve found, though, that goals make life more interesting. My goals make me notice what other people are up to and they make me more genuinely curious and attentive in conversations. It turns out that most people are up to all kinds of crazy stuff that they don’t think to mention.
Forty-two is that cliche midlife crisis age, and I’m totally there. I’ve decided to give myself my dream childhood. Why shouldn’t I? I’m not hurting anybody, or at least if you’ve had a problem with my hula hoop then you were in the way. I’m out earning ribbons for public speaking and stripes on my belts in martial arts and medals for running footraces at a very slow pace. Maybe soon I’ll be cartwheeling and backflipping across the grass.
If you ever hear about me wrestling an alligator, look for me at the marina, because I’m going to be needing that sailboat to Hawaii once my husband finds out.
I love this book!
The premise of Write It Down Make It Happen is very simple: writing down clear, specific desires helps them to come true. This is sorta ludicrous on the face of it, isn’t it? Yet Klauser begins by offering several examples of famous people who did it, including Suze Orman, Scott Adams, and Jim Carrey. I do it myself, as I have done on a regular basis for many years, and that’s why I’m always looking for ways to improve my process. What I love about Write It Down Make It Happen is that it focuses on getting more analytical about the wish-formation and writing part of the process, rather than just the yearning part. Writing down what you want is a way of figuring out what you want and planning how to make it happen.
Chapters focus on different areas where someone might want to manifest something. One of my favorites is the chapter “Getting Ready to Receive,” in which a lonely older woman writes diary entries to her future soul mate as though he already existed in her life. I did something similar before dating my current husband. I did intensive journaling exercises to make sense out of my divorce, work through everything I didn’t want, decide whether I was even interested in a long-term monogamous relationship, and figure out what emotional context I wanted if I ever got married again. Without all of that writing, which took hundreds of pages, I know I would not have recognized my husband as an eligible partner. It’s about recognizing how you want to feel while you’re with your partner, not how tall he is or what music he likes.
Write It Down Make It Happen advises that we write about our anger, fear, and resistance around a situation as well as our wishes and positive feelings. This is so hugely important! We are reminded that our understanding of a situation may be incomplete, and that we often assume something can’t go our way without actually asking about it. There’s a really excellent example in the book about a woman who wishes to live in Europe and thinks she’ll have to make a difficult career trade-off. She is astonished to learn that her wish is a win-win for her employer, too. Living a bigger life means contributing at a higher level, and that means giving more to others and the world than you would by staying unhappily stuck.
Write It Down Make It Happen is a classic example of why wishes deserve to come true. Henriette Anne Klauser undoubtedly wrote down her wishes that she could write this book, that it would find a publisher, and that readers would enjoy it. While she wished for these things for herself, what she was really doing was propelling herself to create something more valuable to others than it was to herself. Now we can only wish that she’ll write another one!
“Writing a full-fledged description of what you want is one way of saying you believe that it’s attainable and you are ready to receive it.”
Didn’t you talk each other into falling in love? Didn’t you talk each other into the story of your romance? If you can talk to each other at all, you can talk each other into financial security. FIRE could mean “financially independent, retiring early” or it could also mean “fund it: romance everlasting.” It’s a loving, caring way to say, “I want to be with you for the long haul.” Choosing each other means you choose your lifestyle, you choose your livelihoods, and you choose your ultimate destiny as long-term partners. It’s entirely likely that you’re “the saver” and “the planner” and if that’s true, then it’s up to you to take the lead. Come to me, my love, and we’ll be strong together against the whirlwinds of fate. Decide you want to be with this person and decide that you can do this together.
First, let’s avoid the pitfalls:
Don’t have ANY financial conversations at night. EVER!!! Willpower is low, everyone is tired, and if you get into a really deep trench you’ll both be up until midnight fighting. Number one priority is that you trust each other. Number two priority is that you can bring a high energy level to your job, and that includes plenty of sleep. Nighttime is cuddle time.
Don’t say “we have to talk.” Too scary. One way to approach your first FIRE conversation is to ask for advice. Another is to share a story about someone you know, perhaps an inspiring story of security and independence, or perhaps a gossipy tale of financial folly and destruction. Make this just one of many interesting topics that you discuss, something that’s not totally loaded with emotion.
Don’t blame. Guilt and shame are not going to get this conversation anywhere. If you find fault, start with yourself, and stop with yourself. You can say, “I’ve been spending too much on lunches at work” or “I really want to pay off my credit cards” or anything else in which you claim full responsibility. Make it easy to be accountable. Show how it’s done.
Don’t criticize. The key here is to give positive feelings for positive actions. Criticism leads to defensiveness. It’s much, much harder to stay motivated when you’re trying to avoid criticism than it is to move forward in the direction of infinite rewards. Celebrate even the most minor victories! Congratulate your partner for every baby step in the right direction. High five and yell, “YAY!” Rehearse for your victory party, right?
Now for what TO do.
Always be honest. If you keep financial secrets, let it be a surprise investment account. Guess what? My side hustle is paying for our vacation this year. Or maybe, Guess what? I just wiped out the balance on our last credit card. The only surprises and secrets between you should involve parties, celebrations, and gifts. Remember that you can do all of those things on a shoestring budget.
Always be accountable. Any time you spend too much or go off plan, you’re dumping responsibilities on your partner. That’s mean. It’s mean! Be nice to each other. Set the example and show your partner how you want to be treated. Hopefully that’s with kindness, affection, respect, and dignity.
Compliment your partner on a job well done. You both probably have a long list of traits that will help you in the journey. You’re good at fixing things. You’re a good cook. You’re organized. You have a long attention span. You bring the party everywhere you go. You have a cool and inexpensive hobby. You have a knack for turning side projects into money. You’re ambitious. You’re easy to talk to. It’s fun to be with you doing basically nothing. Pay tons of attention to everything your partner does that could lead toward financial independence.
Create a comfortable love nest. Be nice to come home to. Plan around fun and free stuff as often as possible. Go to the park, watch astronomical events, take naps. Hang around your home and yard relaxing, talking, joking around, being casual. It’s possible to forget that you’re “saving” and “paying down debt” and “being frugal” if your default mode is relaxing together at home.
When you initiate the conversation, rehearse it ahead of time. Choose your moment. Go slowly. You don’t need to try to dump the whole package on someone or teach the intricate details of the philosophy to someone in fifteen minutes. If you love this person, you know how to do it. Is this person more likely to read an article, watch a documentary, go to a workshop, have a long conversation, play a game, compete, look over spreadsheets or charts or graphs, or what? Are you dealing with someone who is sometimes stubborn, flighty, weepy, distractible, or...? Avoid the obvious triggers. Make it easy to agree with you.
When I first met my husband, we were casual work buddies. We talked about money quite a bit, because I had just graduated from college with tons of debt and he was only a year out of an expensive divorce. I told him about Your Money or Your Life, and I brought it up from time to time over the years. It wasn’t until we went to World Domination Summit together and went to a workshop with Mr. Money Mustache and Money Boss J.D. Roth that everything clicked for him. Little did I know, he needed to see more math, more spreadsheets, and more graphs. I’m not strong in that area and my pitch didn’t do the job.
Start with the vision. What would financial independence look and feel like? What would you be doing with your time? Approach your partner with what’s in it for them. Express sympathy for their stress level and their persistent problems. Bring up their outrageous dream and some ways you think it might be more attainable. List off some specific ways you are making changes that will help. Like this:
“I was thinking about how you said you want to go on sabbatical and ride a motorcycle to Alaska.” Or “Remember when we were talking about moving to Costa Rica?” Or, “What if you actually went back and finished your degree this fall?” Or, “Do you think [your project] could maybe turn into a side hustle?”
Starting with your partner’s big dream is a guaranteed way to get their attention. It shows that you were paying attention. It shows that you trust them to find that happiness within the bounds of your relationship. It shows that you’re willing to prioritize their goals just as much as your own. It shows that you’re interested and that this dream makes them more attractive to you. It makes you into the ally and cheerleader they’ve always wanted. It makes them want to please you and impress you. It also creates massive motivation.
Most dreams are not mutually exclusive. They can’t always happen at the same moment in time, but that’s fair. It’s easier to pay full attention and really celebrate when there’s only one victory at a time, and then take turns. Otherwise it can start to feel like a three-ring circus. As an example, my parents took turns working while the other one went back to school. Since they had three little kids, it would have been really hard for them both to take classes full time. The shared adversity of being working parents and full-time students helped them to know that they can handle anything together as a couple. They’ve been married now for 43 years.
Presenting financial independence as a far-distant goal that involves endless scrimping and sacrifice? That’s a loser of a conversation. If you want it, it’s up to you to make it compelling and find a way to make it attractive to your favorite person. If you’re going to do it together, make sure you’re with someone who is actually open to the idea. If you really trust and desire this person, you can find a way to build your case and make it as captivating to them as it is to you. Remember, this person is your chosen sweetheart, your partner in the zombie apocalypse, your ally as you work toward a better future.
As a nerdy, awkward, book-oriented person, I have to use a certain amount of strategy to convince myself to do physical things. For my personal challenge this year, I’ve taken on martial arts, because it was the scariest and most demanding thing I could imagine. It didn’t occur to me that there’s a built-in gamification aspect. Every time you level up, you get a different color of belt, which is amazing because I love rainbows. In between color upgrades, there are also stripes. I’ve earned one stripe each on two belts, one in Muay Thai kickboxing and the other in Krav Maga. It’s like a badge that actually means something. These stripes represent not just extremely hard work, but also real-world skills. Wouldn’t it be nice if everything were that clear and simple?
The reason we wear belts is just like why chefs wear weird hats. Anyone in the room can tell at a glance how much you know and what you’re there to do. It’s not like it wouldn’t be immediately obvious how uncoordinated and clueless I am as a newbie. It protects me somewhat, though, in case I somehow accidentally look more experienced for a few seconds. Going the other direction, it helps me when I look at other students. If someone wearing an orange belt corrects my position, I can swallow my irritation at being told what to do and recognize that this person has advanced knowledge compared to me. I have to show the same respect that I would wish to have.
People talk a lot about how “kids these days” get trophies and ribbons just for participating. That was after my time. I’ve still never won a trophy to this day. I don’t have any plaques either. I do have two race medals, and I’m stupidly proud of them, because I didn’t make an attempt at athletics until I was 35. I know precisely how much work went into the acquisition of these symbols, as measured in sweat, blisters, bruises, and tears. I’m only competing against myself.
When I first walked into my martial arts academy, I was a bit petrified. I was committing to something specifically because I wanted to work more on humility and self-discipline. I wanted to choose something I was bad at, maybe even so bad that people would question what on earth I was even doing there. Well, I chose well. I’m almost always last in class. We do a lot of push-ups, sit-ups, and jump squats, and everyone is supposed to do the same amount. We don’t move on to the next drill until everyone is done. Imagine jumping up and down alone in the middle of the room and that’s me. At least everyone has plenty of time to get a drink of water while they wait!
The thing about fitness that unfit people like myself often don’t understand is that most or all of the fitter people in the room... STARTED OUT WHERE WE ARE. They WERE us. We look at them and see lean muscle definition. It’s not like they’re going to get custom t-shirts printed with their ‘before’ photos, right? Almost all the athletes that I have met are genuinely happy and proud when beginners commit and start to make progress. (The others are just more focused on other stuff). It’s exciting in the same way it’s exciting to teach a little kid to ride a bike. You did it! Good for you!
As a rank beginner, I’m terrible at a lot of things. With one stripe, I know what several of them are, but I’m still so new that I know I’m not even aware of some of my failings. On my first day in class, I couldn’t really do one sit-up. I had to sort of grab my thigh and pull myself up. By the time I had done ten jump squats, I thought I might fall over. I thought I was reasonably fit, because I walk an average of six miles a day, I can carry a fifty-pound backpack, I’m pretty competent at yoga, and I consider myself fairly active. I didn’t realize just how much I was missing by not doing HIIT workouts or resistance training. It was just something I planned to get around to one day. (That day: 1/5/2018). Not testing my physical limits meant I could maintain this unrealistically positive image and protect my ego. Once I understood how unfit I really am in this area, I knew I could only recover my pride by working hard to improve.
I’m not very good at watching what someone is doing and then physically copying it. I’m a pretty good mimic, and I can do voice impressions and sound effects, but none of that seems to transfer when it’s time to imitate someone’s motions.
I have trouble telling my left from my right.
I’m having a really hard time untraining all the body memory from ballroom dancing and marching band, two things that have basically nothing in common with martial arts. The center of gravity is different, neutral stance is different, balance is different. For the first several weeks I would consistently want to move backward when I was supposed to move forward, or keep my feet together when they’re supposed to be apart.
I struggle with remembering what I’m supposed to do with all of my limbs at the same time. Say I’m being reminded to keep my hands up to protect my face while I practice a new kick. I will then totally forget that I’m supposed to step forward with my foot at an angle instead of straight. When I correct my foot position, I drop my hands. Suddenly I feel like I have eight arms and legs.
Now that I have my first stripes, all of this is gradually starting to come together. I’m still comparatively weak and slow and clumsy, sure. That’s why I’m there. If I’d wanted to feel like the top of my class, I would have signed up for water aerobics. Being last and worst means that I’m genuinely challenged. It also means that when I eventually start to catch up with the more experienced people in class, I’ll appreciate how much it means.
When I get my next stripe, when I finally level up and get a new belt in a new color, I’ll wear it with justifiable pride. I’ll keep going, knowing I have it within me to work hard, to learn, and to accept the struggle.
Then I’ll probably have to pick something else that I’m bad at.
This is the companion book to Jon Acuff’s earlier volume, Start: Punch Fear in the Face, Escape Average, and Do What Matters. Readers and fans kept telling him that they had no problem starting projects, they just need help figuring out how to finish them. I can identify with this. There are at least two projects that I was working on when I read Start that I still have not completed four years later. If those projects were only four years old, that would be one thing, but, well, they’re older than that. I’m ready to Finish and give myself the gift of done!
This book is great both for chronic procrastinators and for multi-potentialites. Some of us may think we are procrastinators, when really our main problem is wanting to do everything at once. Acuff shows that he fits in this group when he describes his garage full of equipment that he’s only used a few times, including a telescope, a fishing rod, and a moped. Just because we’re curious, adventurous spirits does not mean we’re quitters or procrastinators, it just means we need to learn how to say we’re done with something.
One of the main reasons that we as humans struggle to finish projects is the planning fallacy. We’re just not very good at estimating how long it takes to do things. Another issue is perfectionism, the crazy idea that it’s better not to do something at all if we can’t meet our perfectionist standards. An example that Acuff gives is all the people who say they want to run a marathon but refuse to start with a 5k. Familiar as these are, there are loads more, and Finish gives us plenty of laughs as we recognize ourselves over and over.
Of course, knowing the issue is not the same as solving the issue. The real strength of the book, aside from its humor, is that Acuff knows what it takes to get people to finish projects. He tested these ideas with hundreds of real people, and the results were analyzed by a researcher working on a PhD. This is more than a motivational self-help book; it’s a description of what other people have successfully done. That’s important, because as we all know, motivation is like a shower. It works great and makes you feel good, but it only lasts for about a day.
We start by being less strict with ourselves, making our goals more manageable, and choosing what else to put on hold while we finish.
A tool from the book that I have used is strategic incompetence. I didn’t have that name for it, but I did it, all right. When I went back to school at age 24 to finish my degree, I decided that I would put fitness on hold until I was done. This wound up being kind of a bad plan, because it was a false dilemma and I unnecessarily gained 35 pounds. I did, though, get my degree. I had a clear vision in my mind that I would study during almost all my waking hours, and it worked. I used the same strategy when I decided to get fit, picturing myself doing almost nothing but going to work and being at the gym. That worked, too. I chose to just be bad at everything other than my goal for the window of time that it took to finish. Aim low, drop your standards, and win!
This book is a delight to read. Acuff emphasizes having fun and celebrating your successes. I’m dedicating 2018 to finishing, eliminating, or formally scheduling every incomplete project I have, and I certainly plan to celebrate when I’m done. That’s a party I know I won’t put off until later.
[Paraphrasing]: The opposite of perfectionism is not failure, it’s FINISHED.
“Might as well” is never applied to good things. It’s never, “Might as well help all these orphans,” or “Might as well plant something healthy in this community garden.”
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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