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.
As usual, our first quarter has been full of drama, crisis, and radical change. Not as bad as last year at this time, the year of “homeless with face cancer” plus relocation, job change, and veterinary crisis. First I’ll list off all the stupid obstacles that came up for us in the first three months of the year, and then I’ll follow with the progress we’ve made on our goals and resolutions in spite of it all.
The bad stuff: Dropped a fire extinguisher on my bare foot, got the flu, had to pack and move before I was really better yet, then our dog got deathly ill before we were even unpacked. He lost over 10% of his body weight in three days, which is like a 200-pound man losing 20+ pounds over a holiday weekend. $600, five veterinary drugs, and a half gallon of carpet cleaner later, he’s fine. The hardest part of First Quarter 2018 for me was that I lost a full month, when I was only sleeping about half of what I needed and I felt like I might clinically go insane. February was not fun. Crisis every single day. Oh, and I broke my phone.
The good thing is that we actually made major progress on our goals, starting almost immediately.
I was invited to emcee a speech contest, which I did, and to be test speaker at another contest, which I also did. It’s a big deal for me to be invited to speak anywhere, because two years ago I could barely stand up at a table and say my name without shaking all over.
My personal goal was to explore a martial art. I visited three martial arts schools in my area and enrolled in one that teaches Krav Maga and Muay Thai kickboxing. I have my first stripe on both belts and I’m finally able to do pushups without putting my knees down. It took about three weeks, but I have reached the point when classes feel fun, although 10x harder than any previous workout I’ve done, other than a mud run with an obstacle course. I chose something that scared me, that felt like a major personal challenge, only to find that it’s much more of a physical than an emotional test. Much more in my wheelhouse.
My career goal was to launch a podcast. This is still on the slate as I shape the nature of the show.
My physical goals were to do Shamrock Run 2018 and build a daily stretching routine. I ran every step of the 8k race with my brother and it was really fun! I even set my first PR, cutting over four minutes off my previous time. This was great because I only did one training run and I wasn’t even sure I could handle five miles. As far as stretching, I’m finding that the HIIT workouts from my martial arts classes are loosening up things in a way that yoga never has. After just a few classes, I could suddenly do postures that were never within my reach before. I can finally do full lotus! It’s very surprising and fascinating the way that cross-training in a radically different discipline can inform something long familiar to you.
Our home goal was to lower our rent. We had all the paperwork handled for this move by the first week of January, and of course we moved in February. Good timing so that we could fund our IRAs. Consider this goal complete!
Our couples goal is to go on an international vacation together. We haven’t booked the tickets yet, but we’re “in talks” about where we want to go and what we want the trip to feel like. It’s my job to do initial research in travel guides.
My stop goal is to stop losing focus on incomplete projects. I’m supposed to be wrapping up old projects one way or another, either canceling them, scheduling them, or simply getting them done. Not much progress here yet, I’m afraid, other than reading a few books out of my stack. I’m doing pretty well with pushing forward and staying current on new things, like the move and the martial arts training and Toastmasters and this blog. Maybe I should try threatening myself that I won’t be allowed to work on any of these things until I get something old out of the way.
My lifestyle upgrade goal is to upgrade my laptop. This has not happened yet, partly due to the IRA funding deadline and partly because I always get hooked waiting for the new product release schedule. Maybe for my birthday.
My Do the Obvious goal is to speak more slowly, with more pauses. This is an ongoing struggle. Some feedback I routinely get is that I don’t pause long enough for laughter, and that’s because I don’t always realize that what I said was funny. The audience bar for “a joke” includes a lot of stuff that I consider to be filler material or transitions between stories. I’ve only just started to be able to click with specific individual audience members while performing. This “pause for laughs” issue is probably the single area where I can make the most improvement.
My quest is to travel on a fifth continent, and that’s related to planning our international trip. Looks like that will happen in the winter.
My wish was to find an amazing pet sitter. Guess what? Three doors over in our new building is a professional dog walker! She loves our dog, whose behavior magically improved after only one day walking with her pack. He gets to hang out with five neighborhood dog friends now, all of whom walk past our front door several times a day, and it’s really helping him to feel more secure. Super chill. This dog walker hasn’t met Noelle yet, but apparently she likes parrots too so we’ll see.
My mantra is to PAUSE AND BREATHE. I lost track of this during the “lost month.” Now I’m feeling competitive because my husband’s resting heart rate is significantly lower than mine, even though I’m seven years younger. Maybe that’s the metric I need to encourage me to do breathing exercises.
Personal: Explore a martial art - SUCCESS
Career: Launch a podcast
Physical: Run Shamrock Run 2018, build a daily stretching routine - SUCCESS+
Home: Lower our rent - SUCCESS
Couples: Go on an international vacation together
Stop goal: Stop losing focus on incomplete projects
Lifestyle upgrades: Upgrade laptop
Do the Obvious: Speak more slowly, with more pauses
Quest: Travel in Asia / a fifth continent
Wish: To find an amazing pet sitter - SUCCESS
Mantra: PAUSE AND BREATHE
If a goal doesn’t take at least four years to accomplish, is it worth doing?
This is the question I ask myself now when I choose my goals for the New Year. I’m on the challenge path. I keep my resolutions because the entire point of what I do is to feel like a failure, at least at the beginning. I know I’ve picked the right challenge for the year if I absolutely hate it for at least the first three weeks. There are all sorts of things I would hate doing, though, mostly because they’re bad ideas. Example: walk into the woods and eat the first mushroom you see! No, absolutely don’t do that.
Every day, do something that scares you, unless of course it’s scary for a good reason.
The premise here is to push yourself to do something that is challenging because it’s new to you, because the act of the challenge helps to make you smarter and more resilient and better at learning difficult new things. That’s valuable all by itself. In the sense of the challenge path as emotional training, as mindset development tool, it doesn’t matter what you pick. Challenge makes you better.
The next level of question is, if I did this thing for four years, where would I be?
Would learning about this alien new skill or activity for four years give me expanded options in life?
What kind of person would I be if I spent four years trying to get good at this?
What are the people like, the ones who have been doing this thing for at least four years?
Why four years and not forty years? Well, that’s relevant, too. Thinking about the challenge path in terms of novice to mastery, though, was too intimidating and off-putting. I could never think of anything specific that I wanted to dedicate my entire life to. My one and only life! Four years is a time span that helps me to feel curious. It makes everything accessible. Maybe I do it for four years and only then do I realize that I’m hooked for life. No beginner can genuinely know that, or at least that’s my opinion.
This is why I don’t really start a new goal in the month of January. I can’t “break” my resolution if January is the month when I do my initial research. I haven’t even started to build momentum until second quarter at the earliest. The first year barely counts at all. Learning to think in a longer-term perspective is how I take good care of Future Me.
Past Me worked really hard to get me a drivers license and a good credit score and visible ab definition. Past Self made me a marriage. I can’t throw all that away. I have to live up to Past Me’s standards and uphold our agreement to build a better life for Future Self. I make plans over a four-year event horizon because I believe in a future.
What kinds of things happen over a four-year timeframe?
Well, let’s see. I met and married my husband in that length of time! In four years, you can build a house, build a business, or get a university degree. You can build a boat. You can train a service animal or learn to dance. All sorts of stuff can happen in four years! It’s really a pretty long time, especially from the perspective of someone who routinely gives up on New Year’s Resolutions in four weeks.
The year I chose running, I only planned to run 2.25 miles by the end of the year. I visualized my progress literally in increments of a single sidewalk square. Imagine my surprise when I reached my goal three weeks later! “Now what?” I wasn’t into the whole four-year thing yet. That’s why it never occurred to me that I’d wind up running a marathon. Even more, it never crossed my mind that I’d become interested in the world of adventure races and ultra-marathons. I started as a hater and wound up as a true believer.
I chose cooking after reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. This introduced the concept of the “10,000 hour rule.” The pursuit of mastery is more complicated than that, of course, but it did feel like an epiphany. What would I want to be good at if all it took was 10,000 hours? I couldn’t think of anything. How about 1,000 hours? Wait. How about one hundred hours, or ten hours?? As soon as the thought “ten hours” crossed my mind, it snapped into perfect clarity. Cooking! In reality, I was making much better dinners in under ten hours. It got better as soon as I started doing mise en place and working on how to sauté an onion properly.
In other words, I shifted from a fixed to a growth mindset. Almost instantaneously. I stopped thinking of, say, my cooking abilities as a fundamental part of my personality. Instead I started thinking of them as something I could (and should) improve with focus and attention. It was obvious that every hour I put toward learning such a basic skill would improve my life permanently. My skills would also improve the lives of other people around me.
That’s true of everything.
Learning new skills makes you useful to have around. Not only do you quit relying on other people to do these things for you, you can also contribute at a higher level. This is especially true when you work on mastering things like time management, getting organized, improving your communication skills, mood management, parallel parking, first aid, using a fire extinguisher... You get the drift.
Over the years, I’ve used my New Year’s planning process as a benchmark. What am I going to learn next? How do I assess how far I’ve come? What are my strongest and weakest areas? I’ve set out to learn so many things, from how to raise one eyebrow to how to read more complicated knitting patterns or make decent pancakes. I’ve learned how to balance the weight in my expedition backpack, how to plan a trip overseas, how to feed twenty people on a budget, and all sorts of useful skills. Everything builds on everything else. What started as something foreign and confusing and difficult turns into a basic skill I barely realize I’m using.
Why wouldn’t I want to learn this? That’s one question. Who wouldn’t want to be a good cook? Why wouldn’t I want to be good at distance running or three-day backpacking trips? Why wouldn’t I want to be good at public speaking?
I have a rough sense of some future challenges I may or may not take on one day. Right now it’s martial arts. In the future, it might be orienteering, or chess, or voice lessons, or welding. The basic rules are whether it will improve life for Future Me and whether studying it will force me to feel true humility, at least for the first year.
I can’t control the vagaries of fate. Things will happen in the world in general, and other things will happen specifically to me. That’s reality. What I can do is to continually push myself to face challenges, to learn new skills, and to be unafraid of being a beginner. Forever, forever and always a beginner. With every year that goes by, I’m better prepared to handle or even avoid the random accidents and crises of fate. This is how to create a destiny. Who do I want to be four years from now? Four years after that?
It’s January 31. Do you know where your resolutions are?
People get this New Year’s Resolution thing all wrong. I say, first of all, skip January. January is for kinda thinking about it. January is for being broke, being cold, recovering from holiday burnout, and generally hibernating. January is the most common month for someone to get sick. These are the logistical reasons why 3/4 of people have given up on their resolutions by February.
The other reason is the visionary reason, the failure of imagination. What we think are resolutions are really objectives. “Lose weight” is not a resolution; it’s an outcome goal. Just like “get married.” If you’re single (or, heck, even if you aren’t) you could probably FIND someone new to marry by December 31st. Are you sure that’s what you’d want, though? You can “lose weight” by getting food poisoning, swallowing a tapeworm, or amputating a limb, but... First, you have to be really clear about your objective. Second, you have to choose an outcome you can control, unlike, say, “get straight As” or “get a promotion.” Third, you need a plan. Fourth, you need to accept the reality that goals and habits take tons of baby steps. Fifth, give up on January and start thinking of where you want to be around Thanksgiving.
So anyway. Let me tell you about my January.
My husband and I did a bunch of crazy stuff in the first week of the New Year. He bought a new folding bike and started using it on his work commute. I bought a new desk and got rid of my bookcase. I researched and joined a martial arts academy and started taking classes. We applied for a new, smaller unit in our apartment complex and got it, meaning we’ll save over $8000 in 2018 instead of paying a big rent increase.
In other words, within a week we’d totally transformed our daily reality.
Different home, different commute, different workout, different work habits, different furniture.
When you’re clear about what you want, it’s possible to move really quickly while not feeling like all that much work was involved.
The decision to trade a scooter for a bicycle was almost instantaneous. The purchase wound up taking half a day because each shop we visited was sold out. Using the new bike is actually faster than the previous commute.
Trading a bookcase for a desk also took about half a day. I had wanted the same desk for six months, and when I saw it was back on sale, I snapped it up. We had to move a different bookcase, assemble the desk, rearrange some books and papers, and haul out some donations and recycling. It took a few hours before someone responded to my Craigslist ad, and then about twenty minutes to give them directions and help them get the bookcase out the door. Now, most of my waking hours are spent at that desk.
Researching the gym took half a day as well. I researched what was available in our area. I visited three different gyms, talking to the owners and asking tons of questions. Then I went home and looked at the class schedules. I made my first pick, and the next morning, I took a free class, put my shoes back on, and signed up. I came back the next morning as a paid member.
I also released two new products and got my certificates for completing two levels in Toastmasters. These are the natural results of work that I do every day. What am I creating? What am I doing with my time? Is the work I’m doing leading toward something I want?
Over the course of the month, we’ve spent a little time talking about our move and going over our stuff. We had the opportunity to take photos and measurements in an empty unit like the one we’re moving into. We’re losing about 2/3 of our kitchen storage. We gave a bunch of our small appliances to an intern. Next will have to go a couple dozen canning jars, some plastic storage containers, perhaps a set of mixing bowls, and probably a bunch of baking pans. It’s annoying, but it’s hard to argue with saving over $400 a month. You can buy a lot of muffin tins for $400.
Then what happened?
I strained an abdominal, missed a day of classes, and spent four days moving very carefully.
I got the flu, even though I got the flu shot at the beginning of October. So that was annoying. I’m still hugely in favor of the flu shot, probably more so now. While I felt that sick flu-ey feeling, woozy and drained, I never got the cough or the nasal congestion. I lost my appetite but I didn’t have the gastric symptoms. I slept at least twelve hours a day for three days, and I felt bad, but maybe 40% as bad as I have with past bouts of flu. I knew I was sick when I woke up on Monday morning, and by Thursday evening, I was okay to go for a walk outside. Usually I’m down for ten days of total misery and maybe 2-3 weeks of sniffles. This time I was done in a week. My husband, who got his flu shot about five minutes before me, didn’t get sick at all. I can’t help but wonder what it would be like if enough people got the flu shot to reach the threshold of herd immunity.
All told, I missed six classes at the gym and three Toastmaster’s meetings. That’s pretty bad for one month. If I didn’t have a context for my goals and resolutions, I might make the mistake of being discouraged and feeling like a failure.
These are the reasons why it’s silly to consider a New Year’s Resolution “failed” by February. Just take for granted that you’ll get sick and have an overuse injury during January, and plan around it. It’s only one month out of twelve, after all. What are you going to be doing in September? June?
My husband and I did our New Year’s strategic planning, because if we do it once a year, New Year’s feels like the most obvious time to us. It’s the end of the tax year. We got our lease renewal at the end of December. We had all the information we needed to imagine the kind of 2018 that we want to have. Then, after talking it out and making decisions, all we had to do was to take action. Gee, honey, let’s move, save money, and then plan our vacation.
PS My video course, “Resolutions for Skeptics,” is still available if you want another shot.
Any really big, audacious goal, any quest or momentous adventure, impacts other people. That’s partly the point. For those of us who don’t live alone, those of us who have subtle strings tying us to others, it’s imperative to get buy-in. Otherwise, not only are these gigundous goals not going to happen, but they don’t deserve to.
Put simply, we have obligations, and they’re real. Abandoning our duties and responsibilities without negotiation is called abdication, and abdicating means you suck. Sometimes, yeah, you find yourself doing it, out of confusion or burning passion or agony. It does incur mighty debts. Worse, it causes drama, instantaneous drama, drama that can and will drag interminably into the long term. If you can’t bear your load, negotiate it, but don’t drop it.
If you spill, wipe it up.
That being said, almost every goal is so modest that it can easily be fit around even the largest family or the craziest love life.
What is this thing called buy-in?
Buy-in means that other people understand your project and they’re okay with it. They may not be willing to pay for it, or drive you around, or make space for huge amounts of gear and supplies. Those negotiations are separate. In general, when you have buy-in it means that nobody is going to get in your way. That’s important.
When you’re trying to reach escape velocity on something, when you’re trying to burst through a boundary, even the smallest bit of friction can hold you back. All it takes is one person who takes your goal personally in a bad way, and suddenly you’ve made your project ten times more complicated.
What are some popular ways to create opposition to your goals?
Disrupt other people’s sleep. If the only way you can think of to make your goal happen is to cause bright lights and loud noises while another person is trying to sleep, go back to the drawing board. If you wouldn’t want someone to do it to you, don’t do it.
Bogart common areas. If you live with other people, they are fully as entitled to the use of common areas as you are. This includes the bathroom, kitchen, dining table, driveway, area around the front door, countertops - basically every space in your home except for your personal, private spaces. If you don’t have a big enough private space to do your project, negotiate. First make sure the problem isn’t that you just have far more stuff than everyone else in the house.
Spend more than your fair share of household resources. If you’re the bigger earner, do as you will. If you rely on your partner to fund the majority of your lifestyle, and you want more money to pay for something, it will go better if you start a side hustle and figure out a way to earn it. You’re fully entitled to your own earnings, with no upper limits. If you want a bigger share of someone else’s paycheck, negotiate. Figure out a way to sweeten that deal. (Example: wanting financial support to earn a certification toward a new career).
Abdicate on your household responsibilities. If you start a new project that involves you dumping dirty dishes in the sink and wandering off, or leaving massive piles of dirty laundry to fester unattended, or strewing things hither and yon, good luck with that. It’s not fair to other people who live with you to also have to live with your mess. Likewise, if you have children together, you need to be present in their lives. Find a way to involve your kids in your project.
If you live alone, obviously you can do what you want day and night. Pause for a moment and imagine all the hefty responsibilities that you don’t have! When I went back to school, I would often pause and think of my classmates who were single parents. It made the all-nighters feel much easier.
Okay, having talked about ways to sabotage your own project or cause an uptick in the local voodoo doll industry, what are ways to do it right? How do we get buy-in?
First, rehearse what you’re going to say. Let your talking points be crystal clear in your mind. What do you want and what are you prepared to do about it? You can probably find a neutral third party who will practice with you. Maybe a coworker or a random stranger from the internet will find it amusing to run a few scenarios.
Second, make sure the discussion feels fun and light and easy. Don’t do the “I want to talk” thing; it scares people. Say, “Hey, I had an idea I wanted to run by you” or “Can I ask you about a project I’m thinking about?” Your face, voice, emojis, and words should all drive curiosity and interest, while consciously avoiding defensiveness or nervousness in your partner.
Third, start with appreciation and compliments. “Thanks for being there for me. You’re so easy to talk to. It really helps that I know I can go to you when I’m trying to figure something out.” Make sure to mention ways that your partner has been supportive, inspirational, etc.
Fourth, say what you want. Make it clear and simple. What do you want, and what do you want from this person? “I want to start running, and I could really use your help mapping my routes.”
What DO you want?
Please don’t make fun of me
Please keep your snacks at work and don’t tease me with food
Will you get the dog in his harness while I put on my running gear?
Will you cook on school nights if I cook on the weekend?
Will you play board games with the kids while I write for three hours a week?
Fifth, pitch something that will matter to this person. What are you prepared to do to facilitate a goal of theirs? Sometimes it can help to lead with this idea. What if we both clear out the garage, and you can use the bench for your guitar workshop if I can have the back corner for inventory? If you get the kids ready for school while I do yoga, I’ll take over dinner so you can take that night class. Chances are that you know perfectly well exactly what your partner would like from you. It’s very rare for two people’s goals to be truly mutually exclusive. That’s zero-sum thinking and it’s almost always factually incorrect.
The last piece is to be prepared for a backup plan. Maybe a friend or relative or someone you can hire to fill in. The person in your life is entitled to say No to your requests. Something that you want to do does not create an obligation in anyone else. Granted, if you’re with someone who refuses to accommodate you, who doesn’t like the fuller version of you, who wishes you’d quit doing what you most want to do, that tells you some important things about that relationship. Would it be easier or better or more interesting to be alone than to be with this person?
That’s an extremely large-scale decision. If it’s the bad roommate who’s behind on rent, maybe that’s a 1 out of 5 in difficulty. If that bad roommate happens to be a blood relation, maybe that’s a 2 if it’s your in-law and a 3 if it’s your own fam. If your secret and true goal is not the pseudo-goal of your project but just some escape and distance from a dying relationship, well, it’s hard, but inevitable. Isn’t it.
Negotiating is really just another name for brainstorming. What are a bunch of different ways that everyone here can get something better than what we have right now? It’s better if everyone feels appreciated and respected. It’s better if everyone has clearly defined privacy and personal space. It’s better if everyone feels like a member of the same team, working toward common goals. It’s best when everyone involved feels like the relationship is meaningful, honest, and fulfilling. That can only be true when each person is moving toward growth and deeper engagement with all of life.
The rent? It’s too damn high, as I’m sure we can all agree. When I first moved out on my own, my rent equaled precisely 100% of my income. Two months later, I had it down to 80%, and eventually 50%, which is the case for 11 million Americans today. I have a deep distrust of property management companies. This is true even though I have a perfect 25-year track record of always getting my cleaning deposit back. I’m a great tenant with great credit. Even so, I only learned recently that you can negotiate your rent.
I’m not just saying that you can negotiate your rent with a private landlord, such as when you rent a room in a house.
I’m saying that you can even negotiate your rent with a big property management company.
What? How can this be?
The first principle of negotiations is that it’s possible for all parties involved to get the thing they want the most. The act of negotiation itself, when done with skill, can even bring all interested parties closer together. They’ve had a transaction of mutual benefit and demonstrated that it’s a smart idea to talk to one another. A good negotiation sets the stage for further good negotiations.
In the case of rent, the landlord or property manager has the goal of maximizing revenue from the property. This includes keeping reliable tenants in the unit as long as possible, minimizing maintenance and turnover costs. Reliable tenants also displace the unknown quantity of new, unproven tenants. Every month that a reliable tenant occupies the property is a month of income, rather than a month sitting empty with no rent coming in. An empty property is also vulnerable to squatters and vandals.
A tenant obviously has the goal of minimizing rent and utility costs, while living in the nicest neighborhood with the shortest work commute. My position is that many people tolerate conditions or deals that they should not. Skilled negotiation can help the owner or manager to understand that it is in everyone’s best interest to maintain and improve properties and to encourage civil behavior among residents.
By that I mean, neighbors who don’t clean up after their dogs, neighbors who fight on their balcony at 1 AM on a work night, neighbors whose car alarm keeps going off at 7 AM, neighbors who continually blare loud music out their open window, and this list is so far only covering one building in our complex.
It’s like this. If you want me to pay higher rent, I’d better be getting more value from it.
This is what actually happened.
We got an email saying that our lease was coming up in March, and that the rent would be going up $200 a month. Like fun it is! We had the option of renewing for six months, ten months, or month-to-month. Not even a year?
Was this rent increase to be coupled with a property improvement? Say, the removal of the fugly popcorn ceiling? Upgrading the oatmeal shag carpet to, perhaps, bamboo flooring? Putting in an air filter or air conditioning? Free wi-fi? Maybe just refreshing the battered, squealing equipment in the gym?
Haha, no. None of that.
WE are going to charge you MORE RENT, because we can. YOU are getting nothing except for the opportunity to PAY MORE RENT.
The thing is, this is not a fixed, final position.
Even they don’t think it is!
They just increase the rent, again, because they can, and also because most people never question it.
Most people are stuck. They’re either trapped by a mortgage, constrained by lack of savings, or emotionally attached to the neighborhood or their kids’ school or something. People will tolerate absurd commutes, homes that are not energy efficient, obnoxious neighbors, lack of amenities, and all sorts of persistent problems. Why is that?
Why do people hate moving so much? Because they have so much stuff!
My husband and I live in a 680-square-foot apartment. Everything we own fit in 65 boxes in one 20-foot moving van last time, and we’ve gotten rid of quite a bit of stuff since then. Our starting position in these negotiations was that we can simply find a cheaper place with a shorter commute. Pack in three days, move in one day, be completely unpacked in a week.
We’ve got the credit, we’ve got the savings, we’ve got the references. We are totally unafraid of relocating; we’ve already moved six times in our eight years as a married couple.
There’s a funny part to this story. When we got the letter claiming that our rent was going up (no, not if we move away it isn’t), my husband did some research. There were two one-bedroom units in our complex coming up for $500 LESS than what we were CURRENTLY paying! What’s more, the photo in the advertisements was of the unit that we actually occupy right now. Not just a similar unit, a unit with the same floor plan, but the same one!
Just to be cute, we can say at the beginning of the negotiation that we want to pay that rent for the unit we’re in. How about if you go right on ahead and LOWER our rent? We’ll pay the rent you’re advertising and you won’t have to bother vetting a new tenant. How about that?
The property manager claims not to be the decider. She does come back and offer us an increase of only $100, rather than the $200 we were initially shown.
See? It works! You can negotiate your rent!
Or at least, my husband can. I have to give him all the credit for this. I tell him I’ll pack the kitchen. Come on. It might not be saving us $5000 this year, but it will take a lot longer than the negotiating conversation did...
It doesn’t stop there, though. We learned that our building has higher rent than other buildings in the same complex because we supposedly have “a view.” *cough* We have a “peek view.” This means that because we can go to the very edge of our balcony, lean way over, and see a postage-stamp sized glimpse of the ocean, we have the luxury of paying an extra six thousand dollars a year in rent.
Well, forget that.
What we actually do is to apply for, and get, a “junior one bedroom” unit. (Popularly known as a “studio.”) It’s over $400 a month cheaper than what we’ve been paying. The layout and built-in shelving makes it feel larger, even though we’re dropping 70 square feet. The best part is that the new unit is right next to the pool, hot tub, and gym, as well as the nearest park, and it’s even slightly closer to the library, grocery store, bus stop, and post office. For our purposes, we’re getting a better apartment at a better price.
So there you have it. We decided to stay in our overpriced apartment complex because we like the location and because the property managers were willing to entertain our negotiations. If they had not, we would have simply found another place a couple of miles up the road and enjoyed both lower rent and a shorter commute. As of February, we’ll be saving over $400 a month rather than paying an extra $200 (or $100, the first result of negotiations).
We counted it up. The difference between what we will pay vs. the default we would have been charged is a full $8160 a year. This is part of why we 1. Don’t carry consumer debt and 2. Get to go on all these rad vacations. Because we put our financial independence first and because our physical possessions are expendable.
We have a month before our move-in date. We’re not going to bother even thinking about packing for three weeks, not because we’re disorganized or procrastinating, but because we already know how long it takes us to pack. We’ll spend the time hanging out in the hot tub and gloating because we’re such ace minimalists. We’ll also high-five because we’ve already finished one of our New Year’s Resolutions, which was to lower our rent. High five, babe!
How about you? Are you satisfied with all aspects of your current living situation? How about your finances? It’s always good to pause periodically and analyze your circumstances. This is where strategy begins.
The reason I keep my New Year’s Resolutions is because I choose a major challenge. Framing is everything. Courage is one of my core values, reason being that I know I am a physical coward, and it’s my never-ending quest to vanquish that puny weakling inside. Basically all I’m doing each year is selecting an interesting variation on that game. How do I voluntarily pitch myself into an arena where my comfort zone is nowhere to be seen?
Why would any sensible person do such a thing?
Quite simply, the further away I am from anything I enjoy, anything that comes to me naturally, anything relaxing or fun, the more I stretch my capabilities. Over time, my comfort zone has gotten much bigger. The biggest advantage of this is that far fewer things seem scary or uncomfortable. Of course, that creates the disadvantage that I have to search harder to get the same sort of gains.
It was easy when I was 19. I enrolled in ballroom dance lessons. As a painfully shy person, this was a good choice. Now I’m officially a “competent social dancer.” I can waltz, rumba, tango, fox trot, swing, cha-cha, merengue, hustle, and salsa dance. Who knew, right?
I went back to school and got my bachelor’s degree. Then I got my driver’s license, still far and away the hardest thing I’ve ever done. A few years later, my challenge was to read 500 books in a year. One year I learned to read Cyrillic characters, impressive until you find out that I can’t speak Russian or Ukrainian. One year I chose distance running, which led to a mud run and, eventually, a marathon. Then I went after public speaking, probably the second-hardest challenge I have undertaken.
This year, it’s martial arts. I signed up and started taking lessons in Krav Maga and Muay Thai kickboxing.
Cool story, dude.
Yeah, no. Let me explain just why this is so challenging for me.
I was always one of the smallest kids in my grade, and definitely the least coordinated, slowest, weakest, and most clueless about any and all sports. Last picked for every team, hit in the head with every possible ball except the medicine ball, tackled into the mud in soccer by someone on my own team. I grew up to experience many years of chronic pain and fatigue, thyroid disease, migraine, and fibromyalgia. To say I was never an athlete would be a grave understatement.
I’m not an athlete, I’m a book-reading, bird-watching nerd of the first order.
I’m also 5’4” and I weigh a buck and a quarter. I wear a size zero.
My wrists measure 5 1/4.”
They just put me in a “child’s large” t-shirt.
On several occasions in my life, a male friend or relative has simply picked me up and unceremoniously tossed me over his shoulder. They take one look at me and decide that I’m portable. No dignity in sight.
With this new martial arts challenge, I’m pushing myself in several ways. While I do all right with endurance running, that is physically almost the exact opposite of this type of training. Running is aerobic, martial arts is anaerobic. Distance running tends to lead to strong hamstrings but weak glutes, quads, hip flexors, and core, something I felt literally within the first sixty seconds of my first Krav Maga class. Mostly lower body, running doesn’t really set you up for the upper body demands of martial arts. The mindset of distance running requires a high tolerance for boredom, moving along one axis at one speed for hours at a time. Martial arts is unpredictable activity over a wide range of motion. Distance running is for loners, martial arts requires interaction with partners and opponents. The only thing these disciplines have in common, really, is that they’re both impact sports, in that they can both build bone density. I’m getting feedback from the instructors and my fellow students that I have a good mindset for this type of training, but grit, humility, and perseverance are nearly all I’m bringing to the table.
In other words, walking the challenge path has brought me emotional strength that I never otherwise had.
What else is challenging about being a middle-aged martial arts novice?
DOMS, delayed onset muscle soreness
The shock of impact, falling and grappling and being thrown onto the mat
Being triggered in certain positions and having trauma flashbacks
The humiliation your ego feels at realizing that your fitness level is the lowest in the room
Feeling your age, especially in comparison to kids barely out of high school
The intellectual challenge of learning new jargon
Unfamiliar equipment, not even knowing which end is up
Fear of social isolation, when all the other students know each other and you’re the new kid
Low proprioception, being uncoordinated and not mirroring the moves very well
Pushing your physical stamina to the point that you genuinely start to black out
They tell me: “This is martial arts. If you don’t bleed, faint, or puke at least once, you’re not trying hard enough.”
It’s going to get worse. That’s sort of the point. I fully expect to be hit in the face, get a fat lip, possibly get a black eye, cut up my knuckles, have mat burn and bruises on every limb, possibly even get a tooth knocked out. Setting up my emotional expectations for the very worst helps me to appreciate that most days, it truly isn’t that bad.
These are the sorts of things I say as I’m getting to know everyone:
Any goal that takes less than four years isn’t worth doing. I’m here for humility and self-discipline. If I don’t feel weak, slow, frail, clumsy, uncoordinated, humiliated, dumb, scared, and out of my league, then I’m in the wrong place.
Challenge is where triumph comes from. There’s no other way to get that astonishing feeling of having overcome something, having utterly prevailed and emerged victorious. The emotion that makes you thrust your arms over your head in jubilation, that doesn’t come from doing the ordinary.
The challenge path is the hardest path, and that’s why it’s the most rewarding. Start out expecting to be terrible, to be objectively the worst, in the bottom 10% of performance. Pick something that makes your knees tremble and you’re on track. Learn to love those feelings of desperate uselessness, one scintilla above the line that says, “I obviously don’t belong here and I should drop out.” The better you are at everything else, the less tolerant you tend to become of being at beginner level, or doing anything radically different from your strengths. Even mediocrity starts to feel like failure. On the challenge path, you follow one spoke that leads directly away from your hub, off in a wildly different direction than the other paths you’ve beaten. This is how you build yourself a bigger world.
If a single critical comment or one harsh word can destroy your supposed motivation, you’ll quit everything you ever start. Hearing a phrase like “this is why you’ll quit” should spark an unquenchable fire inside of you. HA. I’ll show you. That’s what you think. You have no idea who you’re dealing with.
You’ll quit, though.
You’ll quit because you believe in “motivation.” You think there’s a magical feeling that comes shooting into your belly from a big sparkly rainbow. You don’t believe in determination or commitment or choosing things that suck on purpose.
You’ll quit because you believe in “willpower.” You think some people are born with it. You don’t actually want self-discipline or perseverance because you know those take work, more work than you want to put in.
You’ll quit because to keep going would mean waking up early and doing it when you’re tired. You’re tired because you stay up late, pretending you have two lives, and the late-night you doesn’t give two figs about the morning you. You’ll never stop staying up too late, and that’s why you’ll quit.
You’ll quit because you’re always going to choose instant gratification. If someone waves a brownie bite in front of your face, that’s it, you’re done. You’ll fold like an umbrella. You can’t bear the feeling of deprivation that you imagine is worse than your real deprivation. You deprive yourself of your own goals and dreams in favor of entertainments and treats that would impress a five-year-old kid.
You’ll quit because you went for something too far out of your reach. You’ll quit because your ego can’t take being at beginner level. You’ll quit because you can’t stop comparing yourself to other people who have put in months or years or decades of continuous practice. You’ll quit because you’d rather have nothing than having something cool in six months. Or three months.
You’ll quit because three weeks feels like a long time to you.
You’ll quit because your own future self is a perfect stranger to you. You deal with the poor choices that Past You made every single day, but you never realize that you continue to do the same thing. You get in your own way and make your own life harder.
You’ll quit because you’re in love with your television. You’d watch it twelve hours a day if you could find a way to quit sleeping.
You’ll quit because you can’t even choose sleep as a goal, even though it’s free, it feels great, and it makes everything in your day easier and better.
You’ll quit because you think the pain of change is worse than the pain of your status quo.
You’ll quit, and do you know how I know? You started in January. You’ll become a statistic, just like everyone else. If you joined a big gym, they didn’t tell you that their pricing model depends on having 6,000 members, 3,000 of whom literally never show up at all. There’s only room for 300 people to work out at a time. You’re not used to it, you’re put off by everything about that environment, and you’re not willing to budget the time or money to pay for anything else. You’ll quit because they set you up like a sucker.
You’ll quit because it hurts and three minutes of moderate physical pain is too much.
You’ll quit because of the delayed onset muscle soreness. The first time you do enough for your body to start making a difference, you’ll be so tired that you’ll quit before you find out that feeling eventually goes away.
You’ll quit because you always quit before the results have enough time to show up.
You’ll quit because there are no consequences.
You’ll quit because you let yourself off the hook.
You’ll quit because you never made any backup plans.
You’ll quit because you’re a “perfectionist” and that means you care more about weird inner standards than you do about results or performance. The moment something happens and you break your streak, probably by the third week of January, you’ll give up.
You’ll quit because you’d rather have a perfect nothing than an imperfect something.
You’ll quit because you forgot you had even made any kind of commitment in the first place. You are so loose with giving your own word to yourself that you’ll break promises you never really realized you made.
You’ll quit because you have no idea how to make yourself do things.
You’ll quit because it suits your image of yourself. Staying with it would mean redefining who you are, and if that’s someone with grit and determination, well, how are you supposed to recognize that person?
You’ll quit because you believe in personality, not behavior.
You’ll quit because you don’t care about your goal, not that much, not really.
You’ll quit because you always do.
You’ll quit because you take criticism personally and you actually let it inside of you. A single sentence will do it, one word, one facial expression, or part of a hint of one.
You’ll quit because continuing would take more approval and applause than the world is prepared to give, to anyone, for anything.
You’ll quit even though you paid good money to do it.
If you had it within you to do things you didn’t like, when you weren’t in the mood, you’d find that you could keep going.
If you knew you would never give a commitment you weren’t prepared to keep, come fire or flood, you’d look at your reflection in the mirror differently.
If you treated your future as if it mattered, you’d keep going.
If you were patient and humble enough to do tiny steps, one day at a time, you’d get there.
If you started taking next year as seriously as you take your next meal, you’d win every time.
If you heard someone say to you, “I know you are going to quit,” and it made you laugh deep inside, you’d never quit anything at all.
Well, which is it? Am I right or am I wrong?
January is for radical change. At least, it seems to be at our house. This is the third time in our eight years of marriage that we’ve learned in the first week of January that we would be moving soon. Last year, it was the prelude to months of topsy-turvy everything. This year, who knows?
One week of 2018 has elapsed. What’s happened so far? My advice for New Year’s Resolutions is to skip January entirely, using the month to relax, lounge around in pajamas, and set the expectation that lasting change takes time. There is really nothing sillier than expecting a 100% perfect streak for a new habit, starting at midnight on New Year’s Eve and lasting forever. Unless you are a very magical, mythical, mystical being who is supremely adept at total transformation, that’s just not how habit change works.
So, yeah, spend January reading through old magazines, cutting them up to make vision boards, and maybe taking a bag of old clothes to the donation drop-off. Or, if you’re my husband and me, just open the door and let CHANGE blow in.
What’s happened so far?
On the First, I set up my online store and launched my first product, my Resolutions for Skeptics video workshop.
On the Second, I discovered that the desk I have wanted since last August was on sale for $70 off, and I brought it home and set it up.
On the Third, I did the last speech for my Advanced Communicator Bronze in Toastmasters (and won a Best Speaker ribbon). I was also recognized for doing a “triple crown” last year and completing three program levels in one year.
On the Fourth, I visited three local martial arts gyms.
On the Fifth, I took my first Krav Maga lesson, decided to join that gym, and came home with a bag full of kickboxing gear.
On the Sixth, my husband bought a folding bicycle. This was to replace his scooter, the second one in under a year to break irreparably and toss him onto the pavement.
On the Seventh, we went over to the leasing office at our apartment complex and were surprised to find that we actually prefer the floor plan of the studio units! We applied for one, and if we get it, we’ll be saving over $400 a month. I also posted my old bookcase on Craigslist and gave it to a cute young couple. This is how good fortune spreads from one person to another.
Over the course of the week, we also culled our bedroom closet and the bookshelves. I have hauled off three big bags of clothes for donation and a backpack full of books for the used bookstore. I tested out a bunch of habit tracking apps and set up some new routines. I like to consider January my “get organized” month, and so far it’s been going even better than usual.
It’s amazing the way one large-scale decision can snap so many other pieces into place! It can, that is, if you let it. If you approach major change from the perspective of welcome and curiosity, it can. How could this be better than the status quo? How could this set us up for better opportunities three years from now? How could this solve any persistent problems?
We had a persistent problem of our old bikes rusting out on the patio. Now my hubby is donating his old bike, and I’m sending mine out for a tune-up so I can use it to get to the martial arts training center, which is a four-mile round trip. We found a really excellent hidden gem of a veggie restaurant in our city, too far to walk really, but just a few minutes by bicycle. What this strategic decision does is to set us up for a consistently higher background activity level, as well as an expanded neighborhood.
I had a persistent problem of trying to figure out how to cross-train and build a schedule around running. Now I have an official class schedule, where the main activities work the same muscle groups that I wanted to strengthen. (Core, hip flexors, quads, and glutes).
We were going to have the persistent problem of a $200/month rent increase, which would inevitably increase yet again at the end of the ten-month lease. Instead, we’ll (hopefully!) move into a significantly cheaper place with the exact same access to the exact same neighborhood, same gym, same pool, same hot tub, same business center, and same commute. The main difference is that we will be a lot closer to the hot tub and the start of our favorite running path.
This is the sort of thing you can do when you make your life the priority, rather than your stuff. Get rid of nearly everything you own, and suddenly you find that all sorts of options open up that weren’t available to you plus your giant moving van. Just you.
What’s funny about all of this is that we had just made our plans for the New Year, and most of the biggest ones are already clearly in place. Thinking about the new gym has me totally jazzed (although also alarmed and intimidated). Thinking about the new, much cheaper apartment has us both practically fizzing with excitement. Then there are the two unplanned purchases of the desk and the bike, both of which started making a big impact in our lives the moment they came in the door. The new folding bike already has a name, Deadpool, after its black and red color scheme. We are ready and set for adventure.
How is your 2018 going so far?
Now that I have your attention, let me explain what Tetris has to do with habit change. Or, rather, let Sean Young explain it. He shares the research he used to get his PhD in Stick With It: A Scientific Process for Changing Your Life - For Good. This book isn’t about what “should” work, and it’s not about “willpower” or “motivation.” It’s about what has actually been proven to work on actual people in real-life situations. Think of incarcerated felons, people who are addicted to drugs, and veterans with PTSD. Yeah. Those kinds of real-life situations. If this research can help people in those circumstances, then it’ll probably work on us.
The huge takeaway from this material was, for me, differentiating between three different types of habit. Is it an A, B, or C? A is for Automatic, the stuff we do without realizing it. B is for Burning, the stuff we obsess over and can’t stop thinking about. C is for Common, the ordinary stuff we do on a routine basis. In my case, if I were talking about Past Me’s eating habits, I’d say corn chips were an A, Pepsi was a B, and my baseline consumption of baked goods was a C. I had to tackle each of my bad eating habits with a different strategy. It would have been a lot easier with information from Stick With It, rather than having to figure it out on my own!
Another area of Dr. Young’s research that was new to me was his discussion of neurohacks. He says that while there is plenty of research into the science, there is very little about how to apply it to daily life, and so he’s developing it himself. He starts with the way he gets his dog to quit acting up by moving her ears to put her in her submissive posture. Whoa. My dog Spike is sure going to have an interesting week.
I’ve used behavioral techniques on myself, with sometimes surprising results. As an example, I’ve been working on my fear of public speaking for two years, and I still sometimes get that horrid burst of butterflies in the stomach. If I know I’m going to speak that day, I put a rubber band around my wrist. The moment the butterflies kick in, I snap the rubber band as hard as I can. I used to have to do it three or four times, but now once is enough. When I get up to give the speech, I end with the positive reinforcement of laughter and applause. None of this would work, though, if I didn’t have the underlying story that public speaking is a valuable skill, a challenge that is a better use of my time than anything else. Going by the lessons from Stick With It, I used the Stepladders of the Toastmasters manuals, the Community of my club, my story that speaking is Important, and the Captivating rewards of winning award ribbons and having lunch at my favorite sandwich shop. It’s also Captivating that the process is really working, and that what used to make me sick with fear is now actually fun! At this point, the habit is Engrained. I’m sure I’ll do it for life.
Stick With It is full of case studies. How do I quit drinking cola? How do I get my kid to quit snarling every time we ask her to put her iPad down? Sometimes all it takes is a valid story of someone with a similar issue for you to say, Hey, you know what? I’m tired of annoying myself and if that works, I’m going to do it, too. It helps to remember that behavior change happens by 1. Doing the action and then (quite a while later) 2. Feeling the emotions and thinking the thoughts that go with change. Also, lasting change comes from tiny little itty-bitty eensy steps, which Dr. Young calls Stepladders.
Now I’ve done one of the Neurohacks. I’ve written this book review on habit change, thereby convincing myself that I am the kind of person who knows how to do this stuff. This builds the concept into my self-image, and also tells me that I have a reputation to uphold. Tricksy, isn’t it? I recommend that you read it and then explain one of the anecdotes to someone. Then the same thing will happen to you!
PS What was the deal with Tetris? Apparently, it works as a “cognitive vaccine.” If someone plays Tetris for ten minutes within six hours of a traumatic event, they have dramatically lower rates of flashbacks afterward. I’m going to try this technique the next time I get into even a minor kerfuffle.
“Acknowledge that your plan to change the behavior may not be as easy as you believe.”
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.