Working at home is a whole different thing when suddenly you find yourself with coworkers. I used to contentedly wander around the house in my underwear, swigging San Pellegrino from the liter-size bottle, and writing whenever and wherever I wanted. Now there’s this cute bearded stranger doing who-knows-what across three monitors. It’s quite distracting.
(He’s not really a stranger; it’s just that the beard makes him look like a completely different person).
Imagine the swap from his perspective. One day he has his own private office with a door, and suddenly he has to share his workspace with two ladies who talk to themselves, both of whom are bipeds and one of whom has feathers. It’s a lot to fit into 650 square feet.
The way we’re adapting and sharing space is to simply indulge in separate mornings.
I know people who are chipper when they first wake up. In fact, my little parrot Noelle is one of them. She greets the day by making kissy noises and calling out “Whew!” Me? I’m more like one of those lawnmowers that won’t start until its cord is pulled several times. I doubt I’ve ever done anything good or interesting before 10:00 AM in my entire life.
My husband, on the other hand, is an extreme lark. Starting his workday at 7:00 AM is something of a prosocial compromise.
Some of you are saying, Ah, but you don’t have kids. Anymore, true, we don’t. Most people our age do not have little children at home. If there are two adults in the home, there’s a simple tradeoff, which is that one of you takes mornings and the other takes evenings. If neither of you is much good in the morning, then one can do baths and story time while the other gets clothes and breakfast prepped the night before. Or flip a coin.
What always surprises me is how so many households will allow for a culture in which someone or everyone is cranky all the time. Someone resents someone else for relaxing or enjoying any kind of peace and quiet. Someone tries to take a nap or sleep late, and someone else comes in and shouts at them and forces them to get out of bed. It’s awful. Personally I won’t stand for it.
Now that we’re all stuck indoors together and trying not to drive each other nuts, isn’t it time to let sleeping dogs lie? Or at least let sleeping people sleep?
I’ve built the culture of my household around High Quality Leisure Time. Reason: so that *I* get my share! I want to be able to take naps, therefore I must support others in their right to take naps. I want to be able to read quietly, therefore I must not distract others when they want to read quietly. I have things to do, therefore I need to accommodate others when they also have things to do.
Separate mornings are such a great way to do this!
We started this practice early in our marriage. My husband asked that I not get up with him on weekday mornings, because it would make him want to hang out and talk to me. He has always had his morning routine down to the minute, one of those proverbial “set your clock by him” guys. Even one minute of “good morning sweetie” and he’d have to recalibrate.
This is fine by me, since I’d prefer to sleep until 9 AM every day. Fortunately for me, almost everything I do is clock-free and virtually all my appointments are in the evenings.
It doesn’t really make sense for us to get up at the same time. There’s no need. We’d get in each other’s way, since we only have one bathroom and our place is so small we can’t even be in the kitchen at the same time. This is what I tell myself on the rare occasions it occurs to me that I’m spoiling myself by sleeping in.
Two hours of quiet time at the beginning of the day are worth four hours later on, when the phone starts ringing and all the meeting invitations start popping up.
Not everyone has a job. For instance, my auntie just reminded us that she has been retired for eleven years. She earned it! Just because you’re not reviewing engineering drawings or filing a patent doesn’t mean you can’t make use of separate mornings. It’s fair to have two hours to yourself, to read or stare out the window or doze off or whatever you like.
Honestly I think that everyone should be free to exert privacy on demand. Sometimes you just need a little breathing room, and that’s fine.
It’s a pretty common reaction to feel frustrated with someone else for having more fun than you are, for relaxing when you are not or for being able to concentrate deeply when you can’t. I blame the individual for this. If someone else is relaxing, then sit down and relax. If someone else is doing focused work, then you can do yours. If what is disrupting you is a power imbalance, such as unequal division of caregiving or household tasks, then it is your responsibility to advocate for yourself, set boundaries, and negotiate.
If an extreme lark and an extreme night owl can negotiate a schedule that they can both survive, then I think anyone can negotiate anything.
The nice thing about the separate mornings is how well it works. I offered to hang out in the bedroom longer, if he wanted more helmet time to focus, and he said he was always excited when I came out. It makes him happy to know that I am peacefully sleeping while he works. Though probably not as happy as it makes me to not have to wake up at 5:30 AM.
Mornings might not be the time to divide your living space. For others, it might work better to have a break in the middle of the day, or to go to bed separately. Some people need more sleep than others, and that is not a moral crime, it’s a simple fact of biology and neurochemistry. Why fight it? Accept it, appreciate it, and find a way to use it to create some privacy and peace of mind, both for yourself and for everyone else in your household.
Sorry I’m late. A situation came up that I had to resolve. You see, my husband just asserted that Skittles are a type of gummy candy and I had to deal with it personally. I had my phone in my hand, ready to ask the manufacturer on Twitter, when he finally capitulated.
Then we both laughed really hard and hugged it out.
We counted it up, and he is on Day 21 of self-isolation already. Remember when we thought we might have been exposed at the beginning of the month? Turns out we were lucky. The week he stayed home was the week we might actually have been exposed by someone who has since tested positive.
The situation changes when you start to hear of people within one or two degrees of separation who are sick... or who have already succumbed.
One degree of separation: Someone you know
Two degrees of separation: Someone they know
Stanley Milgram’s 1967 experiment leading to the “6 Handshakes” rule was confirmed by Microsoft in 2008. The idea is that everyone “knows someone who knows someone” who can eventually carry a message to basically anyone on Earth. A case could be made that with social media, the distance is much shorter, as almost anyone can send a message to any organization or celebrity who has an account. (Or whose agent has an account).
If I’d tweeted @Skittles, the official brand account, asking them to resolve my “argument” with my husband, there’s a good chance I would have gotten a response. Possibly a public response. It’s funny, right? Maybe they’d even send us some merch.
We could use some humor right about now.
I feel extremely fortunate to be isolated with someone I like. World affairs have nudged us just that little bit closer. We’re putting in more effort to be considerate and thoughtful, to set up little surprises for each other, to demonstrate affection.
We’ve realized that touch is the new luxury.
We used to have a joke that one of the best reasons to be married and monogamous was incurable STIs. Every now and then, one or the other of us would see a headline about some emerging sexually transmitted gross-out, and we would show each other, followed by one of our tag lines.
“Oh, darling, let’s stay married... forever”
This is even more true for COVID-19, where standing within six feet of someone is the new cheating.
“You touched the same doorknob as WHO?!?”
When the news started getting thick and viscous, we were still venturing out in public, though we had already stocked up on siege supplies. We would run across someone we knew, and they would rush over to bump elbows with theatrical glee. I was impressed that this bizarre social innovation had spread so quickly.
Ideas - memes and jokes - can spread around the globe in a day. Crazy to think that we are all united by this, our ability to internalize new dance moves, gestures, or catch phrases and use them as social currency.
I’m with it, I’m in the game, I get it
I got it
(You thought I was going to say that I just lost the game, didn’t you?)
It’s more important now than ever that we focus on what unites us, because it’s so easy for a single individual to break the new social contract. I’ve seen at least three cases in the news already of a person aggressively coughing on someone - or something, like $35,000 worth of groceries - and what is the point of that?
To feel powerful in the face of fear? To fight the invisible?
There are two sides to the pendulum, with individualism on one side and community on the other. The perfect medium is for each person to balance self-interest with regard for others, to find self-actualization in a way that contributes to the greater good. It’s good for all of us when any one of us is happy and doing well, right?
This is one of the main differences between America and other places in the world. We value extreme autonomy. I DO WHAT I WANT. This is why we’re perpetually fascinated with serial killers and so many of our movies and TV shows involve a murder. Other parts of the world place a higher value on their shared culture, or the family unit. The pendulum swings back and forth, between ME and US, and we didn’t really have much farther to swing on the selfish end.
We can’t hug it out anymore, either.
I think there will eventually be a thing, like a huggable robot toy, that sends virtual hugs. Say it’s a stuffed sloth with actuators inside. You can hug yours and have it send a hug to mine, and it can awkwardly pat my back.
I’d be one of the first customers, because I’m a FREE HUGS person.
Last week I was on a group video call with one of my Free Hugs friends. I saw her face, I heard her voice, and I could feel the ghost of a memory. She is the best hugger. I told her once, “I just can’t resist you!” She was sharing how hard it’s been to be isolated at home, since she lives alone, and I would have done anything to reach through the screen and hug her from 2000 miles away.
Sometimes I just sit and think of all my friends and what they are like as huggers, and I remember the last time we gave each other a big squeeze. Sometimes it’s been years and years, but I still remember.
I remember you.
We’ll get it back. One day, we’ll be able to mix and mingle freely again. I’ve been thinking of that day, of the first weeks after we’re free to touch each other socially, of the cries of joy that will rise up as friends run to each other and lift each other off their feet.
I’ve missed you so much!
I hope we carry this with us, this longing for social contact. I hope we always remember how much we need each other. I hope we can keep reminding ourselves, even as the current moment makes us testy and irritable... I hope we can remind ourselves to be kind and caring, to hug it out if we’re lucky enough to have someone TO hug.
C’mere, you. Aww.
The last few days have felt like 87 years, am I right? I’ve been doing what I usually do when I’m in the Place of Uncertainty, which is to gather as much information as I can. What I’m picking up right now is chilling me to my very bones. There is misinformation and highly dubious behavior everywhere right now.
What do we do about it?
Last week I found myself in the position of thought leader. We were having an emergency meeting, and I discovered, to my astonishment, that I was the best-informed person on the call. How does this even happen when nobody really knows anything?
I scrolled through my blog, trying to remember which day I posted that “We Prepped for Coronavirus.” (March 3) We... actually bought our supplies at the end of February?? Has it been that long already? It seemed simple and obvious for anyone who reads the news to be aware that the trend line wasn’t going in the right direction. Time to mitigate risk.
“Up and to the right, up and to the right” for INVESTMENTS, not epidemiology
As I started hearing from more of my friends and colleagues, and reading more reports on Nextdoor, and even scrolling through Facebook (which I haven’t done in several years), I started to realize that what is standard operating procedure in my household is actually very fringe behavior for our culture.
Start with deep background, supplement with updates from trusted sources and subject matter experts, apply critical thinking skills, and run scenarios with favored sounding boards.
Isn’t that how other people react to current events?
I’m writing about the problem of fake virus news in this way because a bulleted list of conspiracy theories and actual facts NEVER WORKS. That kind of thing palpably does not work on the people who need it. I’m writing for the benefit of my fellow thought leaders, because the designated “smart person” in your circle of friends is probably you, yes, YOU, the one who is reading this.
You have to look them right in the eye and talk them through their pseudoscience, piece by piece. Praxis. One at a time, patiently and with all the lovingkindness you would show to anyone you care about, if you knew they had only months to live.
I live in a bubble, not just of privilege but of highly educated and brilliant people. A bunch of people in my social group have PhDs and a couple of my dearest friends are actual professors in STEM fields. The smart people are staying home, partly because their employers sent them and mostly because they know higher-level math. They look at the data and nod and trust the experts.
Ah, but I also know people with advanced degrees who are *not* getting with the program.
I was talking one such friend who was trying to convince me that we have nothing to worry about, because there were “only about 320 cases” in “all of California! The entire state!”
All the blood drained from my face. The last I heard, it was... six.
I’ve heard several people repeat the idea that “it will go away when the weather gets better” because “warm temperatures kill it” when they are missing the obvious, which is that the inside of a person is almost always significantly higher than that.
Only about a dozen people in my acquaintance seem to understand the concept of social distancing, or how viruses spread. “For those of us who need a break from ‘social distancing...’”
I love you, and you know that’s not how that works, right?
Do you understand that you could be contagious for two weeks before you even felt any symptoms? And that’s why we have community spread?
PRETEND YOU HAVE CHICKEN POX
People have been panic-buying at the grocery store in our neighborhood. Store hours have been cut back. People are showing up at 5:45 AM every morning and standing in line for over an hour so they can stream in and buy toilet paper. Which is fine, but... People are bringing their entire families into the store and cramming themselves into these tight lines. Panicking their way into the exact opposite of what they should be doing. Can’t one parent go and have everyone self-isolate at home? Or at least wait in the car?
The way people are reacting is like they are preparing for a cross between a hurricane, a terrorist attack, and... werewolves.
Quick, buy bottled water before the storm hits land... NO
We have to keep shopping and going out or the microbes will win... NO
We have to stay together, hold my hand, we’re going in... NO
Y’all been watching the wrong horror movies
It breaks my heart to know how many families have already been impacted by this thing, and how it’s spreading farther because so few people are as educated about basic public health concepts as they are about, say, helping a dog that has been left locked in a car in hot weather.
We do gradually learn, as a species. It’s fairly rare for people to die in structure fires now, for instance, when it used to be a constant problem in the Victorian era. This is because we have worked very hard on institutional inputs like smoke detectors, fire drills, crash bars, EXIT signs, and fire codes. Same thing with airplane crash fatalities. Little by little, every time a disaster happens, people take notes and start trying to avoid it ever happening again.
At least we have the scientific understanding of germ theory. That was not obvious to past humans, not by any means. The first thing the medievals did during the Black Death was to cull domestic cats, not realizing that the vector was actually... rats and mice. Oops.
The silver lining to this pandemic is that it has everyone talking and taking it seriously. Pop culture is eventually able to absorb new ideas, like “stop the shooter” and “don’t let the terrorist take over the plane” and “don’t leave a dog in a hot car.” We start adjusting to new social norms. We aren’t there yet with basic public health concepts, like how viruses spread, but we’re, um, going to learn it now. On the fast track.
Please won’t you help me by using your social capital with your friends and family, and making sure they understand what is going on?
There are two main settings for people at work: Always available, or mainly concentrating. Those of us who need helmet time to get anything done are starting to realize that almost nobody else has the luxury of signaling, “I need to focus so come back later (or not).” Now that many of us are working from home, sometimes for the first time, we’re going to have to design a new set of signals to communicate our availability.
If you have kids at home, teach these concepts as a game. Kids tend to be hardcore rules lawyers, especially the little ones, and there’s always one who loves being the warden or bad cop. Choose your little Enforcer and have fun.
The #1 best respected signal in the tech world is: headphones. Wearing headphones signals to everyone that you are doing deep work. Interrupting someone who is working with headphones on is discouraged and should only be done if it’s truly urgent.
Note: discuss with all members of household a painstakingly precise definition of what “urgent” means. May vary by household.
Again, former nanny here, kids like structure. They like to know how to get a win and they like being able to predict important things, like How do I get him in trouble? and When is the next snack time, it’s been 18 minutes already. Many colleagues and roommates are pretty much the same as preschoolers, only taller.
I normally work at home with my parrot, who is much shorter than a preschooler but also more devious, louder, messier, and more inclined to chew through things such as metal, or the baseboards. Birds are very into elaborate protocol. Cats, I dunno, you’re on your own as far as setting cat guidelines.
My husband has been sent home to work with us. He is on teleconferences anywhere from 3 to 8 hours a day.
Did I mention that our apartment is 650 square feet? And there is no wi-fi elsewhere in the building?
Since we are both often on overlapping calls, our first priority is making sure we don’t interfere with each other’s audio. This unfortunately includes both our work, and ordinary household tasks like fixing lunch or running water in the sink.
After a week of turning our little shoebox into a coworking space, we’ve used our understanding of lean manufacturing principles and business productivity to devise a system. The goal is to communicate without communicating. Just like a hotel might ask patrons to signal the state of their towels by either leaving them on the floor or hanging them up, we want something that we can check at a glance.
This is what we’ve come up with:
A whiteboard with a basket of colored dry erase markers, an eraser, and a spray bottle of cleaner. I set it up in the living room in landscape format, and drew a line down the middle. We each write our call schedule in blue ink, with red ink available for important notes.
The first day we did this, we realized that all his calls were in the morning and most of mine were in the evening, so one or the other of us would need quiet for over twelve hours straight.
Four colored manila folders that I dug out of our file box. I cut them in half along the fold so we each have a matching set of green, yellow, and red. The other color is orange.
Green: Working, but open for conversation
Yellow: Deep work, do not disturb
Red: On a call, quiet please
He displays his cards at his desk, where he does most of his work. I put mine on my side of the whiteboard since I tend to range from room to room.
The orange folder is to slide under the bedroom door to say it’s safe to come out. (I take calls in the bedroom, but we also sleep different hours, and I don’t want to suddenly burst out the door and unintentionally interrupt a presentation).
The idea with using all this visual communication, rather than texting, is that we’re often doing stuff on our devices and a text message can be disruptive. Visual signals are faster and easier.
Signals also work for little kids who can’t read yet.
If someone in the household turns out to be color-blind, or not everyone in the room speaks/reads the same language, a similar effect can be produced using shapes or objects. Maybe a favorite stuffed toy faces the room for an all-clear, but faces the wall when... ugh that’s creepy, never mind. Ask your kids what they suggest.
This type of flag is called an ‘andon.’ They are used with great efficiency in manufacturing environments, and they work well at home too. For instance, if there is an empty bottle of shampoo, the last person to use it puts the empty bottle on the counter, and the person who makes the shopping list sees it and makes a note. Even pets can learn to communicate this way, like the dog who picks up her leash with her mouth, or the cat who stands next to the empty bowl.
We’ve found that using workplace practices at home helps us to feel more respectful of each other. We are able to run our household with few or no conversations about who does which chore. These practices have helped us have more fun on vacation, too.
When our daughter was at home, the three of us could work quietly together for hours at the same table. I would write, my husband would write code or review drawings, and she would study. It was a very cozy feeling. No doubt it served her well when she went off to college and had to share space with three roommates in one apartment.
The thing about quiet time vs. the usual free-for-all is that there’s no reason to ever stop. Everyone deserves to be able to concentrate or take an important call. Everyone should be able to read quietly or take a nap without being disturbed. Respect is like anything else: give what you wish to receive.
We got a head start on this whole social distancing/work from home thing, because my husband was already home sick. Further, we suspect that we may have already been exposed to COVID-19, which is extremely sinister because the symptoms were relatively mild. I had to talk him into staying home one more day, so he didn’t cough on anyone, and that was the day they sent everyone home.
“They” meaning basically every engineering firm in our entire region.
This is the moment that every shy person, introvert, and/or helmet-time person on a maker schedule has been waiting for, the dream of a lifetime! Think how much more productive everyone will be! Think how much more we’ll all get done!
A real discussion from our bedroom:
Him: I’m worried if it’s ethical to go to morning classes at the gym. [the gym next door that is five minutes away]
Me: You worked twelve hours today and you’re concerned about taking a 6:00 AM gym class?
The problem for most “people like us” isn’t working at home, it’s NOT working at home. Like, around the clock. We’ve had to institute a formal sign-off procedure with at least three steps. Close work laptop. Eat meal. Take shower.
My husband and I met at work. We were casual lunch buddies for ages before we ever considered each other in a romantic context. Fourteen years later I sometimes still feel like, “OMG, kissing a colleague, so wrong” and I’ve actually dreamt about [censored] in a conference room.
If anyone were prepared to share a 650-square-foot home office, it would be us. Our apartment is essentially a hotel suite in almost every respect except that we have to change our own towels and we have a bigger bottle of shampoo.
There have been... some complications.
The first is that we’re ridiculously excited to be work buddies again. We keep making the mistake of turning to each other and talking. The other day that led to taking turns trying to knock each other on our butts with a compression strike to the midsection. (Acting out a highly dubious scene from a TV show). It had escalated rather quickly when his phone rang with a business call. Oops!
(If the above sounds alarming, we are both belted in multiple martial arts and we would never lay hands on each other in a disrespectful context, partly because I’m much farther along in Krav Maga and situational combatives).
The second complication is my little parrot. If you know Noelie, she is deeply obsessed with teleconferences. Often she has met at least a couple of the participants, and she recognizes their faces. She *knows* those are her real friends on the screen. She will throw a conniption fit if she isn’t on the call, which means imitating electronic sounds at 70+ dB until someone picks her up and puts her on camera where she can see herself.
She also has a theory-of-mind issue. It goes something like this. “If you are quiet, it’s quiet time, therefore I will be quiet. Alternately: if you are making noise, it’s noise time, therefore I will make noise.” Rule is in play whether you are on the phone, watching a movie, or running the blender. WHOO, NOISE TIME! She will start her daily practice session, which consists of an hour of chattering, kissy noises, whistles, beeps, electronic sounds, hammer strikes, and even ping pong games. If you think a daycare or kindergarten is noisy, may I introduce you to my personal one-bird band.
In practice, one or the other of us has to grab the bird and entertain her during a call. Since we are often on dueling conference calls at the same time, she is milking the situation for all it’s worth, beeping her little diva heart out.
When we try to take calls in the main section of our apartment, we interfere with each other’s audio. That generally means I need to get up and leave the room, and that means either the bedroom or the shower. No wi-fi in the hallway.
You wouldn’t think so, but all of this ad hoc alternative-mode productivity has produced a very upbeat, carnival atmosphere. We are strangely more accessible and getting probably 50% more work done than we would during a normal week.
[cite declaration of 2020 as year of “no normal weeks”]
It’s mayhem, and some of us actively enjoy mayhem!
Crisis mode = not boring
We have had to set new policies to try to respect each other’s boundaries. What I’ve been learning this year is that nobody respects a middle-aged lady’s mental bandwidth. Nobody!!! Not age peers, not other women, not elderly people, not teenagers, not professional colleagues or random members of the community, nobody. My husband included.
I was on an emergency conference call, dealing with a high-priority novel systemic issue. My husband started waving his phone at me from across the table, talking to me about the stock market. I grabbed the first thing that came to hand, the cover to my tablet, and held it up between us. He leaned over to peer around it and try to make eye contact, so I moved it again. DUDE!
After the call, he apologized. I told him it might seem strange, but I do occasionally have real work to do, as often as an hour a week! (Joke, go ahead and guess the real number). I’m not afraid to pull rank on him during the workday, as long as we can reconnect and find each other as friends later that evening.
What we’ll probably wind up doing is holding a standup meeting each morning, arranging our schedule so that we both have privacy for our respective calls. We’ll probably both wear our big headphones, like he used to when he worked in an open-plan office. We actually have a folding screen that we could set up as a room divider.
We’ll get through this weirdness together. We’ll have to, one way or another, since we are each other’s designated contact on our living wills and advance care directives... Emergency room buddies, nurses pro tem, sworn companions with a blood oath between us. In sickness and in health. We just have to improvise the part about “at work or at leisure.”
Organized people usually don’t understand why other people struggle to be organized. Punctual people not only can’t grasp why other people are late; they take it as a personal attack and some kind of moral crime. I see both as missed opportunities.
If you’re always on time, maybe you can help teach other people your secrets. If you’re organized, maybe you can help others.
Or maybe it’s harder than it looks? Maybe we start to realize, when we try to help, that what comes easily to us isn’t necessarily easy at all?
If you do want to help someone else, the first step is to learn how to be a good body double.
A body double is someone who sits with someone else.
It sounds simple, and it can be, but there are also a million ways to mess it up!
There are a lot of reasons why someone might be chronically disorganized. Many of them are situational, such as working twelve-hour shifts, having the flu, or raising tiny kids. The person knows what to do, but there’s too much going on at the moment. Help with even one single chore or errand can help this kind of person get it back together. Sometimes we can help just by taking over for a couple of hours while they take a nap.
For others, it can be more complicated. Some of my people come at the puzzle of organization from the perspective of autism, attention deficit, baby brain, remission from cancer, or simply having no idea what to do.
(Has anyone ever mentioned that by 21st-century marketing standards, probably 80% of people are “disorganized”?)
For most people, the answer is stunningly simple.
They can’t work alone.
A lot of people suffer under the delusion that a desk or office will help with their organizational difficulties. They may spend quite a bit of time and treasure setting up such an area, only to find it impossible to sit there and get anything done.
The real problem is that if they’re alone in a room, they shut down. They can’t work in isolation.
This is where a good body double comes into play.
This is what I think, although I can’t prove it without specialty equipment. I think that when two people are working side by side, they can amplify their ability to focus. I think it’s related to how birds and animals will take turns keeping watch while the rest of the group eats. In one way, we can relax when we have social proof that it’s okay, that nothing alarming is going on. In another way, I think it has to do with how people start to walk in step, or how singers can harmonize. Entrainment.
It’s worth trying, if you have roommates, colleagues, etc who aren’t much for taking the initiative to clean up. Often one person cleaning will spark others into pitching in. Rearrange chairs, wipe down a counter, or start putting things away, and others may silently participate. This works best if you treat it like a butterfly resting on your knee. Appreciate it, but don’t startle it.
This phenomenon, like many others, can be quickly destroyed by a single unrestrained facial expression or sarcastic remark.
This is another unheralded issue between the “organized” or “punctual” person and everyone else. Criticism. What might never have become an issue is now an area of perpetual power struggle, simply because the “good one” won’t leave it alone.
Sometimes people need a little time and space to get started.
I stay out of it. As an organizer, I’m learning more from my people than they are learning from me. It always amazes me how singular each person’s situation is. Sure, they have things in common, like unsorted bags or scattered coins, but otherwise their personal distribution of space versus stuff is completely unique.
I’m good at what I do partly because I approach my work with gentle curiosity and compassion. I’m also good at it because I know how to sit quietly for many many hours and keep my opinions to myself.
Sometimes, yes, I am thinking to myself GROSS! HOW CAN YOU LIVE LIKE THIS?? I recognize this voice, though, as a troll’s voice. One. Single. Comment. Can permanently etch someone’s confidence or willingness to tackle a difficult project. Let it never come from me.
I only act as a body double when it’s clear that my person is working confidently. What I’ve found is that most people can work for hours on end, skipping meal breaks, not even wanting to stop for basic biology. They’ll go for twelve hours if the mood is right.
They just won’t do it on their own and they won’t do it in a room by themselves.
I like these quiet times. Very little is asked of me other than to 1. Avoid critical comments or facial expressions and 2. Sit quietly, exuding companionship and concentrating on my own stuff.
I can catch up on so much reading!
It doesn’t work as well if I get up and actually start working on something else. If I’m sitting four feet farther away, working at my keyboard, the spell is broken.
What works is for me to sit there, meek as a little mouse, simply available.
I can hold my phone, or maaaaybe a book or my tablet. Usually I sit somewhere that seems temporary, like the floor, or the edge of a chair.
The goal is to create a sort of timeless fog. Nothing is happening. Nothing is going on. Nobody is doing anything. No seagull incursions or distractions of any kind. Nothing to do but sort this box, sort these papers.
When there are simply two adults in the room, this is easy work, and it can carry on uninterrupted for many hours. When there is even one little kid involved, it can go completely haywire. Kids can sense when someone’s attention is elsewhere. They need to feel like someone is WATCH THIS or YOU KNOW WHAT at all times. Here, the body double needs to be able to reassure the child without distracting the working adult. Can there be a third party who is responsible for entertaining the little one(s) for half a day? A weekend?
The great thing about sorting and organizing is that once a working system is put into place, the work doesn’t need to be repeated. A good system explains itself and becomes its own reward. Having, or being, a good body double can be a key part of this kind of automatic system.
I have two friends who both think they’ve found “the one.” They don’t know each other. They’re ten years apart in age. Both of them, though, are in the same situation: their intended wants them to pack up everything and move to their dream city with them. Should they?
Should a woman move to be with her man?
Should a man move to be with his woman?
It’s interesting to put the question this way, because obviously there can be no right answer, and this is even more clear when it’s not a straight couple.
(How do polyamorous people decide where to live??)
My situation was much easier to resolve, at least on the level of logic. When I met my dream man, I was already living far from my friends and family and I didn’t really care about my job. If I didn’t move to a new city along with him, I had no reason to stay where I was, so where else would I go?
This is a very, very serious question.
Do I have plans of my own, and am I strongly attached to them?
If not, am I using someone else’s plans to provide myself a false sense of clarity and purpose? Am I using their situation as a distraction so I can escape the pressure of designing and choosing something for myself?
I know of another young couple experiencing a crossroads like this. They are young parents, and the mom has been home taking care of baby while the dad finishes his degree. He finds himself shocked and amazed that now she wants her turn to go back to school.
Pro tip: Nobody should be shocked or surprised at anything that anyone chooses to do before age thirty. Young people can’t settle into their final form and thus should not be expected to calcify prematurely.
There are two strategic points to consider when choosing a true love:
Both paths can lead directly to decades of disappointment. That’s the natural result of regarding your partner as an object or accessory, rather than working to connect and get to know them.
I started with the lifestyle. I’m fortunate to be super opinionated and decisive, and I know what I like. For instance, I hate snow, I don’t want a cat because I have a parrot, I won’t date anyone who has a recreational substance habit of any kind, and I’m a homebody. There is no man for whom I would be willing to spend my time hanging out in bars or cleaning out a litter box.
This kind of approach sounds extreme to a lot of people, and I’ve heard plenty of pushback from (single or unhappily married) women my age, and older, and younger. What?? You can’t just say you would never date a smoker!!!
Um, yeah I can? I can do what I want? I wasn’t born to be any one specific person’s love appliance?
Love is only love when it’s freely chosen on all sides.
Basically all I did was to narrow the field. There are at least three billion men in this world. I couldn’t even hear all their names or look at all of their photos in this lifetime. My first job was to eliminate at least two billion, nine hundred million, nine hundred and ninety thousand of them before I even started. (That still leaves at least nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine dudes, and crunching the numbers, if I speed-dated three a day, it would take me nine years just to meet them all).
That’s a complicated way of saying, BE PICKY and make everyone’s life easier!
There were probably four or five men in a ten-mile radius of where I lived who would have been solid, viable candidates for me. Four or five people probably could have kept me interested and happy. That’s actually quite a lot. Why complicate things by giving people a try even when they started out with at least one desire I could never accommodate?
What we’re talking about are non-negotiable lifestyle requirements. We’re talking about zero-sum, this-but-not-that, ‘only one can survive’ types of requirements.
A big one of these was the “I want kids” requirement. I got broken up with at least twice because I can’t have children. Another woman might be heartbroken and utterly devastated by this. I just shrugged because I felt like it was fair. Both of these guys did go on to have a kid, and those are two bright, sweet kids who wouldn’t have existed if I were in the picture.
Maybe one of them will be my dentist or something one day, who knows?
Perhaps because of this, I feel like people have to match on this requirement. It is not fair or realistic to be a “kids necessary” person and try to drag a “no kids please” person over the ditch. Just find someone else who has the same feelings that you do!
I set up housekeeping for myself, determined to learn from my divorce and be fully responsible for myself. I had my own career plans and I managed my own retirement portfolio. I knew it would take a lot for me to ever consider marrying for a second time. Other people can save themselves the bother and expense by simply being clear and specific enough the first time around.
Try to avoid falling for someone whose heart’s desire doesn’t match with yours, okay? It’s so much easier for everyone.
If you’re someone who has to live near your family to be happy, make that clear early on.
If your life’s dream is to pack it all up and live on a sailboat, time to start hanging out by the marina.
If you don’t want to start a family until you finish grad school, maybe buy a fake wedding ring at the pawn shop and avoid that whole thing for a couple years.
I told my husband that I would follow him anywhere if it made sense for his job. He brushed this off, saying it was unlikely that he would ever need to relocate, but a year and a half later, guess what? It made our strategic planning so much easier because we had set those policies in the abstract, when nothing was happening.
You can do the same thing all on your own. Figure out what you want for yourself and start making it happen. If you’re wishing on a particular dream life, that’s the easiest way to meet someone who feels the same way. That way, everyone wins and nobody withers from disappointment.
Friends first. Why is this such a mystery?
I know all sorts of fun, smart, successful, attractive people who can’t figure out why they are single, and neither can I... except that I can. I know why.
For some reason, a lot of people seem to think that dating exists under completely different rules than all their other friendships. It’s some mystical exception, alone among every other aspect of their social life.
It isn’t! That’s the secret!
Everything you know about making friends is true about dating, too.
I’ve been in the same relationship for long enough now that other women are like, “You’re so lucky! You’re so lucky you found someone like him!”
This is true. It’s also a fundamental misunderstanding of how this stuff works.
I didn’t find out until recently - like, THIS YEAR recently - that my hubby made a formal decision to be “friends first” in his next relationship. He didn’t feel like he and his ex were really friends. They sort of jumped into a relationship and got on with the business of parenting and making financial decisions together. After they split, he thought it out and realized that the lack of friendship was most likely the missing piece.
Me? I only ever dated guys if I could have a real conversation with them. What else could I possibly have been attracted to in a person?
I always saw dating as a shortcut to learning tons of new things. I counted on my boyfriends to introduce me to their favorite books and movies, their favorite bands, and all their hobbies. I also liked meeting their friends, especially their female friends, and I made an effort to befriend their roommates, too.
I can thank the various gentlemen of my past for introducing me to entire new cuisines and musical genres, teaching me to play games, taking me to their favorite campsites, and so much else. What fun!
As I got older, all of this accumulated culture exchange started to make me more attractive as a date and a partner, too. Whatever else you can say about me, I am incomparably good at restaurant recommendations. If I take someone out, they’ll still be going to that place ten years later. If I take the time to teach someone a card game, they’ll go out and teach it to all their friends the next weekend. Fun spreads quickly.
My hubby, divorced single dad, put it out there that he wanted to date someone who felt like his friend. I had no idea! I just showed up, being my same old self.
Ask his ex if you don’t believe me, but he wasn’t a turnkey solution. He wasn’t “perfect husband, just add water.” You can’t order these guys up out of a catalog.
What made him perfect for me was a process of time and communication. I customized him, just as he was customizing me. We built a little world for ourselves out of inside jokes and catchphrases, out of tens of thousands of conversations and references.
This is why he believes that our marriage can never be replaced to a mathematical certainty. You can’t just go out and get another fifteen-year friendship. With every year that goes by, you are less and less likely to be able to rebuild something similar with someone else.
If our entire civilization were to go through some sort of wormhole, and on the other end a bunch of people had been swapped around, it would never work. I can’t be this type of wife to some random dude, and my husband would only be perfect for me, personally.
True, we do sweet things for each other all the time. We make each other special breakfasts and lunches. We plan surprises for each other. We have enviably cute traditions in our marriage. They aren’t one-size-fits-all, though. What’s cute and sweet is that we made it all up. We imagined ourselves into reality.
I married my husband because he’s the most interesting man I’ve ever met. Interesting to *me* though. Another woman wouldn’t be all that interested in marrying someone who is on business travel half the time, especially because he goes to some of the world’s most unglamorous locations. It’s not as fabulous as it sounds. If I went with him, I’d be stuck hanging around some mediocre hotel all day while he sat in a conference room for ten hours. Woo, right?
People always want to cherry-pick. We think we can imagine small pieces of someone else’s life for ourselves. We want just the juicy parts.
It’s easy to envy someone else’s ten-year marriage and think, “Ooh, I wish I had that.” You have to put in years of conversation first, though.
The thing is, I thought my husband was interesting and funny even when he was at a low point in his life. When I first met him, basically the only thing he could talk about was his ongoing custody battle. I was able to look past that because I had been divorced, too, and I could listen patiently. I could return the favor that my friends had returned to me, when I needed someone, and be present for him.
That’s another part of the friendship that supports the best marriages, the enviable ones. We’re such good friends because we’ve been there for each other. We’ve been to funerals together. We’ve cried on each other when our pets died. We’ve taken each other to the hospital. Quite a lot of our relationship has been stressful and cruddy, in fact, because a lot of life is that way. We’re friends because we have reason to trust each other, and we’re reliable because we owe each other a hundred ways.
I’m not sure, because I haven’t tried it, but I think other people may be expecting something different when they date. Maybe they’re going for someone who looks hot in their photos? Or someone with a great resume who can impress their friends? Maybe they have a long checklist because they basically want a personal butler/massage therapist? Maybe they have a romantic fantasy where the other person acts out a role similar to their favorite movie? I have no idea how I would go about a date-finding project like that.
All I can say is that I have a lot of platonic friends, and every now and then, one would cross the line into something more. The one I married was the one who was the most interesting to talk to and the one who made me laugh the hardest. As far as I can tell, those are the traits that will still interest me even when we’re eighty years old.
My husband and I just found the ten-year financial plan we made together shortly before we decided to get married. I wrote about how that plan worked out (spoiler: we were 0.4% ahead of projection), and I wrote about how making a ten-year plan helped us make the decision to get married.
What I haven’t really shared is how we did it. How do we have that kind of talk (which we do regularly) and how do we do it without fighting?
This is where even a five-minute conversation can go well or badly, based on the entire structure of your relationship.
Whether you respect each other
Whether you’re willing to humor each other and listen to an unusual pitch
Whether you actually know what a “pitch” is
What emotional pitfalls either of you are likely to fall into
Note that this is the same whether you’re having a financial conversation with a roommate, travel buddy, business partner, sibling, parent, child, best friend, random stranger, or talking squirrel. The only real reason that it would be different when talking about money with your romantic partner is that you’re more likely to be sharing accounts.
Think that through. As far as the *duration* of your relationships, you may have a roommate, colleague, or bestie in your life far longer than you’ll have a husband or wife. (Or talking squirrel, for that matter. Regular squirrels only have a lifespan of about… sixteen years?? What the…???)
The very most important part of a strategic discussion is to choose your moment.
It’s the context and the situation and the timing.
Where most people go wrong when they start learning how to pitch or negotiate is here, in the timing and choosing the optimal context. When we act out of panic, desperation, or pessimism, when we’re anxious, we tend to blurt things out at the worst possible time.
This is because
We are thinking about OURSELVES and our feelings and our guesses and our projections
The OTHER PERSON and their perspective and their needs and their likely reaction.
It’s the same with public speaking. When I am anxious, it’s because I’m thinking about myself. What will people think of me?? (who cares) I can relax when I refocus on my audience. I can crush it when I focus on… my message. Not how I look, or who’s watching, but what I am saying and how important that is.
When I believe that my message is valuable, then I increase my motivation to share it.
LOOK OUT! .. is a very important message, as is FIRE! Obviously people need to know if they’re in the path of chaos or if something is on fire. We should never hesitate to call out if we have that information and other people don’t.
Honestly, talking about money with people who are close to us can often be much more important to their long-term survival than open flames or a runaway shopping cart.
We avoid these conversations when we are afraid of conflict, and we are afraid of conflict in a lot of avoidable situations. We’re afraid when we don’t know how the other person will react… yet the only way to get to know this person’s reactions is to get to know them better. That happens through open communication.
We’re also afraid when we’re insecure in our position or when we have something to hide. Yet open and honest communication destroys the reason to hide anything.
We can only find that security in our position by thinking strategically about it, figuring out many approaches to solve our problems and create our desired results.
What we are trying to accomplish when we talk about money is a mutually satisfactory result.
In the case of bad roommates, the result might be “how do we both move out without owing extra money?” In the case of siblings, the result might be “how do we take care of our parents without them having to move in with any of us?” In the case of romantic partners, it should start with “how do we have rational discussions about this so we don’t have to give all our money to a divorce lawyer?”
I’m not even kidding about that. I’m a divorced woman married to a divorced man. Our entire friendship started over lunchtime conversations about our divorces and the cannonball-sized holes they blew through our finances.
The first thing a strategic thinker asks is, How do I mitigate my risk?
That means, what are the obvious pitfalls? Where am I going to get myself into trouble? What do I need to avoid in order for this to work out?
When we’re first reaching out and entering negotiations with someone, about anything but most especially about money, we want to avoid alienating our discussion partner. If we’re going to trust each other in any kind of contractual situation (marriage, lease, mortgage, creation of entire new human), then we have to have a basis for ongoing communication.
That’s also true after a painful, explosive divorce, by the way. Just because you hate each other and never want to see each other again does not excuse either of you from having to fill out financial forms together. If you have kids, then you’re involved in each other’s tax planning for years.
It’s a lot easier to talk about money with someone we like and want to spend time with!
Remember that and try to keep it that way. Give what you wish to receive. Listen attentively and with courtesy and consideration. That is literally the only way that you can earn reciprocal respect.
One little trick that I use is to avoid the word “you” as much as possible when speaking to someone. I try to only use the word “you” when followed by a complimentary observation, such as “you got Exceeds Expectations on your performance review.” There is something inherently accusatory about saying “you” to someone that tends to make people tense up.
What you want to do is to choose your moment carefully. You want to make it low-stakes. Make it easy to agree with you. Start with an easy win.
Be willing to go first. Start with an offer. If you don’t know the person very well, engage with curiosity about something that they would like. What’s important to them? What are their values? Hopefully you already know at least a few things about the values of your spouse, if you’ve already married this person.
As an example, I had some roommates in a big, drafty house. Someone gave them a smart thermostat after upgrading theirs, and none of us really knew how to install it, so it sat on a table for a few months. I knew it would save us money to hook it up. As the child of an airplane mechanic, I believed I could either figure it out, or make a phone call and get some guidance. My pitch was basically, Do you want to try to install that thermostat together? Low stakes, non-accusatory, mutually beneficial outcome. As it turned out, it took five minutes, worked right away, we all cried out in joy and threw our arms in the air, and it saved us hundreds of dollars over the next few months.
Every time you pitch something that is a mutual win, you build trust and rapport. This can quickly build to outright enthusiasm, such that when you say, I have an idea, everyone’s head swivels in your direction. Yes please! More ideas please!
Another important aspect of negotiation is to think through your position before you start talking. You have to know what you want. If your position is, I wish to abdicate and convince someone else to shoulder my responsibilities, then I sincerely hope you’ve spent some time choosing your target.
My starting position was, I am on track and I am a total accountability person. I will share my financial statements and the fundamentals of my strategy. We can make plans together as long as you are willing to be as open as I am.
This is part of how we opened our first major financial planning meeting together. We had started talking *before* we started sharing accounts, before we moved in together, before our money started to mingle. We didn’t blame each other for anything, we didn’t try to throw down ultimatums about each other’s spending, and we didn’t ask each other for anything we weren’t willing to do ourselves.
We succeeded at talking out a ten-year plan, and succeeded at staying on track over those ten years, because we saw each other as equal partners. We also did it without fighting because we had no reason to be angry, hurt, or upset. We reached out to each other in friendship, in an invitation to combine forces, us against the world.
Hey honey, let’s pay off our debts together and save enough to retire, and go on vacation too!
* copy and paste that and send it to your money buddy *
I’m having a freak magnet kind of a day. I can call it that only after long experience. When I was younger, this kind of thing might have made me feel special. I might have mistaken other people’s poor boundaries, or other serious red flags, for instant intimacy.
I’m sitting in a busy cafe. Within an hour, three total strangers have interrupted me and physically touched me. One of them also touched my purse.
This is highly unusual. Let’s acknowledge that. If I were Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, it’s unlikely that other people would walk up and lay their hands on me, even if the song “Lay Your Hands On Me” were playing in the background.
I have to ask myself, is there something in this situation or in my physical presence that is drawing this odd behavior from others?
First assumption: I’m in the way.
If I were standing in a crowd, like at a parade or festival, I could assume that I would be pressed against. I’ve ridden mass transit for many years and I don’t necessarily mind being squished together.
Being touched by a series of strangers could also be a sign of low situational awareness on my part. Maybe I’m blocking a doorway or I keep wandering into other people’s paths.
Second assumption: Something is visibly wrong with me and people are checking on me.
If I were having some kind of dizzy spell, if I had just been hit by a car or knocked over, if I was bleeding from a head injury and didn’t realize it yet, it wouldn’t be surprising for someone to physically steady me or try to help me sit down. I assume that if I were going into shock or having some kind of episode, I might not realize what was going on.
Third assumption: I am the victim of a prank.
Maybe someone stuck a sign on my back. Maybe I’ve unintentionally walked out of the house looking like some kind of meme, and I’m too out of the loop to know it. In this scenario, people might be interacting with me because they can hardly keep from laughing, and making eye contact or sneaking photos of me is prolonging the fun.
Lord help me, I wish I could rule out that third option forever, but I’m still haunted by this kind of thing...
Fourth assumption: I’m in the kind of neighborhood where the cultural norm is more physical than other places.
It is true that I live in a beach community with very relaxed norms. Seeing people walk down the sidewalk barefoot, or wearing only a skimpy swimsuit, is everyday and unremarkable here. Maybe the locals are also huggers and I just haven’t noticed yet.
Fifth assumption: I look approachable and people are drawn to me.
This is likely, and also hilarious to me, because it’s both true and untrue.
I happen to be wearing a set of enormous noise-cancelling headphones. My husband bought them for me specifically because they are an ostentatious signal that I am WORKING and unavailable for casual chatter. This is because he knows about my freak magnet problem. I also happen to be wearing a Warrior Dash t-shirt, a garment I’ve worn to Krav Maga lessons, and the only accessory that would make me feel more intimidating would be my kali stick.
When I left my apartment, my sartorial messages were STAY AWAY and BUSY and I MIGHT FIGHT YOU.
At least three other people looked at me in this guise and thought, I should touch this woman.
Who were they?
One, an older woman, possibly old enough to be my mom. She grabbed both of my arms from behind. What?? She wanted to joke with me about another man a few feet away who was playing air drums. Okay cool.
Two, a young man, possibly young enough to be my son. He touched my arm and started talking to me until I took my headphones off. Then he asked if I would pull down the blinds. As I did, he put his hand on my purse and held it out of the way.
Three, a young girl, probably middle school age. She tapped my arm and kept waving at me until I took my headphones off. “Hi.” She wanted to know what I was doing (“trying to get some work done”) and tell me that she and her two friends had the day off from school.
When people physically grab my arms, they have my attention. I figure they’re telling me that the building is being evacuated, or someone is trying to steal from me, or my headphones aren’t plugged in and I’m blasting everyone with a wave of sound, or I’m foaming at the mouth and having a seizure. It’s never been that.
For some mysterious reason, random people just feel impelled to do anything to get my attention.
My family has had a joke for many years. Every time we go somewhere together, someone picks me out and asks me to take their picture. The joke is that I could have a very large stolen camera collection by now! Obviously consensus opinion is that I look trustworthy, approachable, and kind. Another way to put that is: small, female, and harmless. Never mind that I’m belted in two martial arts and I have special training in how to fight with hammer, screwdriver, pen, knife, and staff. I look nice enough, don’t I?
The thing about instant intimacy is that it’s superficial. Just because someone is ready to drop their boundaries on sight doesn’t mean there is any good reason for it. Someone who becomes emotionally open and vulnerable right away may have motives hidden even from themselves.
The truth is that I’ve had this “instant intimacy” issue since I was a baby. Or so I’ve been told. It was part of my socialization as a tiny child to listen closely and with sympathy when people start spilling their life stories. They may do this with literally anyone who crosses their path; I’m just the type to regard it with compassion instead of annoyance, shock, or dread. Oh wow, someone with serious boundary issues, tell me more!
People are right when they see me as someone who is safe to approach, to interrupt, or even to grope. Apparently. I’m never going to haul off and start beating someone up or shouting at them, although I am trained in these arts and I certainly know what to do. I’m also a Free Hugs person, experienced in social services and crisis management. These are empath problems.
There are probably people who come across as seriously intimidating everywhere they go. I imagine there are people who wish they had more friends and can’t figure out what unintentional signals they are sending out. I’m not scary! Come back! I wish I knew their secrets, just like they probably wish they knew mine.
It’s incumbent on us to figure out what to do with these surface impressions. I’ve had to learn to protect my mental and emotional bandwidth. I’ve had to learn to slow that roll and set up more limits and speedbumps and tests and boundaries with all the random strangers who are drawn to me. I’ve had to learn not to mistake every approach as friendship or romance. Instant intimacy is a red flag, a signal to slow down and ask more questions. Real friendship needs more time to develop. Real, ordinary friendliness and cordial behavior is plenty.
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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