I broke my 415-day activity streak on my Apple Watch. By five calories. Why? I was distracted and didn’t notice the clock ticking toward midnight. Also, I was getting over the flu.
That blank space is all the different ways I tried to put into words the inchoate rage and bottomless disappointment I felt when I realized that there was no going back. My streak is gone and I can’t even pick it up again until March of 2019. No perfect week badge. No January 2018 badge. Two and a half years, and I still haven’t managed a perfect calendar year.
I feel significantly worse about this than I did earlier this month, when I realized I had paid nearly $40 for an online class that I didn’t need.
The work that goes into maintaining a 14-month streak. The focus. The dedication. The, shall I say it, obsession. I’ve maintained that streak when I was sick. I’ve maintained it when I was injured. I’ve maintained it while traveling across eight time zones. I’ve maintained it with house guests and on road trips. I even bought an extra $30 charger to keep from breaking the streak when I forgot to pack that key, irreplaceable item. On the way to a major family event.
It got really bad the first time I broke my streak, by one calorie, because I didn’t notice it was past midnight. I went out into the yard with my hammer and beat a foot-wide hole into our lawn. I’ve been less angry at being burglarized!
Why midnight? Why this arbitrary split second of a minute of an hour of a day?
Why can’t the user set when a “day” starts and ends?
Why isn’t there a reminder, like the stand-up reminder, to point out that the “day” is nearly over and you’re really close to closing your ring?
Why am I so susceptible to this digital brain-prodding?
Obviously, the reason to wear an activity tracker is to bring awareness to your activity level. This is great. Certainly the Apple Watch has done that for me. I can look and see that I walk an average of over six miles a day. I can see how many flights of stairs I’ve climbed, literal stairs, because I skip escalators now. I can see my average heart rate and all that awesome stuff.
The problem comes in for me, and I suspect for a lot of other achievement-oriented alpha types, with the badges and the streaks.
My desire for a complete collection of rainbow-colored virtual badges knows no bounds. I know that other people have hacked and cheated by setting their goals artificially low, or coming up with some other method to trick their tracker. You could shake the old pedometers and get the step count to go up. Apparently you can dangle your arm from a chair and convince the Watch that you’ve stood up. The badges redirect the focus to badge-getting. Whether that’s through fair means or foul, we want to get those badges. It can be hard to distinguish one form of gamification from another, especially if the user is also playing other sorts of games that come with badges. OOH PRETTY.
I’m a fairly serious amateur athlete. I ran a marathon, I take martial arts classes four hours a week, I walk everywhere because we don’t have a car, I routinely go on backpacking expeditions. Someone who does not have a digital hook in their brain may believe that a real athlete would simply focus on the activity and ignore those dumb old badges. Sure. That person probably doesn’t need or wear an activity tracker.
I’m starting to think that I can’t do anything that involves tracking a streak. It... activates something inside of me. Something very dark and negative and unhelpful.
I want to rage-quit. I want to crush things. I want to throw something off my balcony. I actually had a flash of an image that involved me breaking our glass sliding door with a hammer, just to exorcise the demon of BROKEN STREAK somehow.
Only a few weeks ago, I spent no fewer than three hours at the Apple Store, while no fewer than three separate geniuses sat with me and helped me transfer my iPhone 6 to my new iPhone X. The specific reason was so that I could keep my activity streak on my Watch. Nobody knew how to do it. Finally the floor manager came over and figured it out. I guess I let down the team. Sorry, guys.
I’ve felt less bad when I’ve shattered my phone screen. I’ve felt less bad when I’ve spilled dinner on the floor. I’ve felt less bad when I’ve gone to purchase airplane tickets only to see that the price has increased before the transaction was complete.
This is an entirely contemporary, artificial emotion created by technology. Or, rather, by the designers of it.
This isn’t the first time I’ve developed a little problem with streak maintenance. I was trying out a meditation app. I completed the meditation at 12:00 AM, and didn’t get credit. I had meditated for seven days straight and the app was only showing a two-day streak. There was no way to turn the feature off, so I wound up deleting the app. It struck me that a meditation app that generates the competitive streak feeling was counterproductive.
I want a cute little enchanting reward for doing well. Sure, of course I do. I want a collection of pretty, sparkly rainbow stickers to show off. Look how hard I worked! Straight As! Isn’t there a way, though, to set up those badges and stickers so they still reward the user, even if the clock has ticked past 11:59 PM? Couldn’t the rewards come for reaching mileage goals, or resting heart rate goals? Could a monthly badge come from the average daily activity rate, rather than an unbroken 31-day streak? Couldn’t there be a skip, or a make-up function, or a freaking doctor’s note?
The cruelty of the digital god. Applehovah.
I’m wearing this thing that I call The Overlord, feeling despondent and thoroughly demoralized. Do I actually want to keep wearing it? If streak tracking is going to mess with my equilibrium this much, shouldn’t I be wary of it? Maybe take it off? I looked through the other apps and features, asking myself if the other use cases are worth setting myself up for this kind of digitally mandated despair.
Maybe it’s just the flu, and I should have spent the day in bed, rather than trying to close all my rings.
Maybe there’s something fundamentally wrong with a system that incentivizes people to stay active even when they’re ill.
I’m an active person now. I didn’t start out that way. It wasn’t until my thirties that I stopped being almost 100% sedentary. Various digital displays have helped encourage and inspire me. I beat chronic illness and thyroid disease to become a marathon runner, and that’s saying something. What I want is a device that brings out the best in me. Not the beast in me.
I put a bunch of habit-tracking apps on my phone and tried them out so you don’t have to.
The first thing about habit trackers is that you should only use them for habits that matter to you. Habit tracking is a habit in itself!
Also, it’s best to add just one or two new habits at a time. Maybe something fun that you look forward to, alongside something you do to annoy yourself that you want to quit. A common pitfall is to stop tracking all the habits because you don’t want to admit to yourself that you aren’t doing one of them right now.
Next stipulation: Make sure the habit you are tracking is the habit you actually want to track. Your metrics may lead to one objective when your real objective was something else entirely.
I’m the sort of person who gets very hooked on metrics and analytics. I will basically lose my mind at the prospect of breaking a streak. Imagine rage-quitting a meditation app at midnight and you start to get the picture. If you’re an alpha type personality, a habit tracking app may turn into a negative for you. The app should be a value-add to your life, something that feels emotionally neutral while supplying valuable information.
I’m using an iPhone X. Almost all of these apps were first installed on my iPhone 6, and a few I’ve had since the iPhone 4S. Sorry, Android users - I also have a tablet that runs Android and I simply don’t like it as an operating system, on its own merits, much less in comparison to iOS.
In alphabetical order:
Countdowns. I really love this app for reminding me that an important date is coming up. New Year’s Eve, race day, a party, anything exciting that I’m planning. I put the widget in my Today screen so I see it all the time.
Days Since. The opposite of Countdowns. I mainly use it to show how many days have elapsed in the current year. There’s something compelling about seeing that it’s Day 200 of a year!
Done. This app allows you to track whether you want to build or quit a habit and at what frequency you’ll do it. You can write your own motivational statement for each habit, choose the color, and whether you want a reminder.
Goalmap. I like this app because it has two different types of goal-setting features. You can set reminders for habits you want to track on both a daily and weekly timeframe. You can also choose “aims.” I have one for reaching a particular net worth by a particular date, and it shows my percent complete. I have another for “complete world tour” by 2035. Seeing it reminds me that Future Me said to travel more. There is also a ‘Motivation’ section that has inspiring quotes, videos, and silly poems.
Habits. This app is really pretty! It opens to ‘Ideas,’ a bunch of floating colored bubbles that each contain a new habit to try. The color corresponds to whether the habit is physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual. You can set a daily reminder and choose the days of the week you’ll do the habit. It starts with a 21-day challenge. There are some fun ideas like ‘go barefoot’ and ‘kind deed for stranger.’ You can also create your own habits and track your streaks.
Mint. This app changed my life. I’ve used it for years. Just link all your bank accounts, credit cards, investments, student loan, and any other accounts, and you can see your financial picture at a glance.
MyFitnessPal. When I first downloaded this app, I deleted it. I realized it was a food log, rather than an exercise app, and I thought it was dumb. Then I logged everything I ate for a year, focusing on micronutrient intake, and it was revolutionary in my life. Cured my migraines and my night terrors.
Remente (came up in spell checker as Revenge). The reminder hoots like an owl! This app tracks goals along with your mood and life balance. If you like life wheels, this is the one to get.
RunKeeper. I used to use MapMyRun but it started to get glitchy. I love that RunKeeper tracks elevation, splits, and how many runs I’ve done over the years. I don’t love it when I forget that the narrator voice is on and it starts shouting my stats over my audio book.
Streaks. This app is really stylish and simple to use. If you want to set up a streak and “not break the chain,” Streaks is a great choice. For someone like me who obsesses about habit streaks to the point of disrupting vacations, it’s good to evaluate whether we want to open that door.
Things 3. I finally bought into the hype and discovered that this IS the best planner app of all time. “Expensive but worth it.” I adore being able to put in tasks by date that don’t demand a reminder at a specific minute. The ‘Anytime’ and ‘Someday’ sections are magic to me, and I also love the concept of sorting by ‘Areas’ as well as projects and tasks.
WaterMinder. I paid for this app a few months ago and it’s saving me. When I don’t drink enough water early in the day, I start getting irritable, and if I don’t make my hydration goal, I wake up in the middle of the night with cotton mouth. Also has a useful widget, although it gives the message ‘Unable to Load’ if you haven’t made an entry for the day yet.
Way of Life. This is my favorite habit tracker for tracking multiple habits. Being honest about whether I did it or didn’t, and using the ‘skip’ feature, gives a trendline. I can really evaluate whether I’m keeping my commitment or whether I need to adjust my schedule... or my expectations.
My best advice for using habit tracking apps is to consider how you respond to notifications. If they keep popping up at inconvenient times, or if you’re getting the sound effects AND the banners AND the badges, pause and adjust the settings. Choose a time during the day, like while you’re getting ready for bed or while you have your first coffee, when it’s convenient to check in. Habit tracking is a parallel habit that can either help your focus or drive you batty by draining it. Pick something that delights you visually. There are so many beautifully designed apps that it’s easy to pick one with a color scheme or icons you really like.
Best of luck with your new habits in 2018!
Technically, I’m on Day 369, but who’s counting? I don’t have to count how many days in a row I make my activity goals. For one thing, I wear a fitness tracker. More importantly, my body counts. My muscles and my heart and lungs are tracking every step I take. I can’t lie to my own insides.
There is something really satisfying about scrolling back and seeing all of these completed activity rings. The design worked. When I first received this Apple Watch as a gift for my fortieth birthday, I was still gimping around after an ankle injury. My athletic pursuits included sitting around and muttering to myself while reading ultramarathon manuals. On the first day, the record shows that I walked 1,044 steps and burned 30 calories. Fantastic! ...for a baby...
I got my first pedometer over a decade ago. They were pretty primitive in the early days. All they did was track motion. You could game them by shaking them back and forth. They also reset if they got dropped, and mine fell out of my pocket so many times that I had to start using a safety pin. I got one with a clip and that kept falling off, too. Memories... I remember the first day I hit what I thought was an important fitness milestone, and I ran off to show my friends.
A THOUSAND STEPS!
Um, the goal is TEN thousand steps. A thousand steps is like a quarter mile.
Let’s just say I’ve come a long way in twelve years. When I started out, it took me months to build to walking a thousand steps in a day. My daily average for 2017 is 11,055 steps, 4.9 miles, four flights of stairs, and 48 minutes working out.
Another interesting tidbit is that my daily average calorie burn from physical activity is: 407. This is why it’s impossible to “lose weight” simply through exercise. A bagel is about 245 calories, and a Costco muffin is almost 650. I could literally add ONE snack or make ONE lousy, inefficient food choice each day and completely wipe out whatever I burned from my workout.
(Flip this by thinking like a marathon runner. “If I eat this muffin that is nearly as big as my head, I can run at least 6 miles later”)
I used to think I could just skip this whole thing, you know, standing up and moving around. After all, doctors had told me all sorts of things about my health that included “exercise intolerant.” There is nothing like a diagnosed thyroid condition to give one a get-out-of-gym-free card for life, am I right? Then I went to the mall with my Nana, who was 75 at the time, and I watched in dismay as she struggled to get on the escalator. She was still working, still driving, still living a full life in every way. But stepping onto an automatic staircase with a handrail was physically challenging and intimidating for her. Suddenly, I saw myself in this context, as a younger version of my mother and grandmother. This was to be my future, too.
Unless I did something about it.
The kind of exercise that I do today would not have been possible for my female ancestors. By that I mean that they would not have been allowed. Women were legally excluded from competing in races like I do, we were legally excluded from gym memberships like I have had, we could not legally go out in public wearing the kind of workout clothes that I wear today. This probably has a lot to do with why there was no feminine tradition of strenuous exercise in my family. I had no examples and I had no idea what to do.
Start by walking. Walk 1% farther and 1% faster.
Start by paying attention to what you do during the day. Not what you “do” as in how busy you are, but what you DO, as in how much you physically move your body around. Notice your range of motion. Visualize your path through life. Where do you go and what do you see? Same stuff all the time? Hmm, seems boring.
Looking back at my activity level in my twenties, I feel embarrassed. I don’t move around twice as much as I did twenty years ago, I move around more than ten times as much! Middle-aged me could kick younger me’s butt without hardly trying. I just wish, I wish, I wish, I wish there were a way that I could go back in time and teach Twenties Me everything that Forties Me knows. Maybe I wouldn’t have had to spend so much time feeling tired, ill, and trapped in chronic pain. We had a happy ending, though. The future arrived and brought some pretty great technology with it.
Just a few years from now, activity trackers are going to be available for everything. They’re going to test blood glucose and monitor our skin for sun damage. I predict that one day, gamers will be the fittest people of all, because they’ll be controlling their avatars with haptic body suits or some kind of hologram thing that requires leaping, rolling, and backflips. Until then, what we have now has been enough to get at least one sedentary, obese thyroid patient with fibromyalgia up and moving.
JUST IN CASE. That's a solid reason to keep every single molecule you've ever touched or breathed in your entire life. YOU NEVER KNOW. It's true. YOU MIGHT NEED IT LATER. Most of us spend time sitting in this feeling, this sense that keeping things provides security in life. Some of us eventually realize that this emotion is a phase. It can go away. As for me, the dominant feeling in my life is curiosity. I can't stop at BECAUSE as an answer to anything. Why exactly am I supposed to keep certain papers "indefinitely"? Can't I just scan them and keep digital copies?
The obvious question raised by this imprimatur to keep particular papers is, what if I can't? What if:
Burst water main
I'm an historian. It's a sad fact of the field that priceless relics and invaluable archival material are often lost to the sands of time. All sorts of buildings containing public records burned down in the 19th century because everything was made of wood and the available technology for light and heat was dangerous. There's no viable way to demand that anyone keep a piece of paper unto eternity, because there's no physical way to guarantee its continued existence on the material plane.
The real questions for me are twofold: 1. Do I need to keep it at all? 2. Do I need to keep a hard copy?
I have a fireproof safe. It cost about $120 and I got it at Harbor Freight. "Fireproof" means the papers inside won't spontaneously combust for an hour in a burning building. That's 60 minutes. The safe is more of a sunblock for documents.
What papers need to remain as paper? (As opposed to vellum, papyrus, stone tablet, or other medium of codex?) The stuff we use most often, such as a passport, is more convenient to keep on paper. Never irk a border control agent. Most of our important "papers" are really plastic now. Drivers license, debit and credit cards, various forms of identification. I really want to access these accounts with my fingerprint, or an intense stare, but for now they're plastic. I get why it makes life easier to keep these things, but I'm awaiting the day when they'll become obsolete.
We each have a sheaf of photocopies in our go bag. These are documents suggested by various preparedness websites, including ready.gov. The purpose is to prove who we are in the event that we lose our wallets and there's no phone or grid up for a few days. Plan B, if we have to evacuate our house, is to have basic supplies if we need to go to an emergency shelter. Passport, drivers license, medical and dental insurance cards, AAA card, marriage certificate, and a list of emergency contacts since I stopped memorizing phone numbers around 1993. I sincerely hope we never need these papers. This is the only scenario I can think of when actual, bona fide compressed tree parts would be truly necessary.
Our wedding certificate is in the safe. It makes me feel all gooey when I look at it. We've needed photocopies of it at various times over the years, mostly for health insurance and HR stuff.
The reason I started to delve into the reasoning behind keeping certain papers 'indefinitely' is that I want to get rid of my divorce paperwork. I kept seeing a line item putting these papers in the 'permanent storage' category. I don't want that to be the answer. So I did some research. It turns out that the main reason to hang onto divorce papers is that it can be inconvenient to get copies from the courthouse. If you were married at least ten years before the divorce, you can apply for social security benefits under your former spouse, and you'd need those papers then. That doesn't apply to me. You also might need a copy of your divorce decree if you want to legally change your name. I remarried and changed my name, so that also doesn't apply to me. The only other circumstances would be if you had children or property together, and there were ongoing legal issues affecting them. That doesn't apply to me either. I was divorced 16 years ago, and I haven't heard a peep out of my ex in over a decade. I've started to realize that that part of my life is over-over. Further, I'm pretty sure that what I have on hand is not an official copy of the divorce decree anyway, but merely a photocopy. First I'm going to burn these papers, and then I'm going to rip the tags off my mattress. Go big or go home!
Tax returns - keep them, but you don't need the backup papers after 7 years. Be nice to the IRS because they can pursue you into the afterlife.
Deeds, titles, bonds, other super-official stuff. Keep them too, and if you have a lot of this kind of thing, consider a safe deposit box and/or fireproof safe.
Everything else is optional.
How much are you keeping out of fear?
How much are you keeping out of confusion and lack of information?
How much are you keeping because sorting your stuff would be time-consuming and boring?
How much are you keeping because paper is the least of your worries, and you're clearing other categories of stuff first?
How much are you keeping because you believe memories are solid?
How much are you keeping because it symbolizes a part of your identity?
How much paper is in your home, covering surfaces, because you just don't want to deal with it? How much of that is junk mail, catalogues, expired coupons, and obsolete invitations?
'Getting organized' is about making sure your life runs smoothly. You're trying to take care of problems in the present and not pass the buck to Future Self. Part of the work of getting organized involves physical objects, but almost all of it is about mental bandwidth. It's much more important to be on top of your financial, legal, and career world than it is to have a clean desk. That being said, PAPERS ARE THOUGHTS and releasing them can be a very effective way of liberating your powers of focus and awareness.
Heresy! I have razored pages out of a bound book! I have torn off the binding! Sacrilege!
Blank books used to be a major weakness of mine. I decided to start buying fancy bound books instead of cheap spiral notebooks as soon as I saw a stack of them at Ross for $2.99 each. Before I knew it, I had an entire shelf of them. I would be using one as my all-purpose writing notebook, but then I wouldn't have it with me, and I'd desperately want a notebook, so I'd buy a new one. The same project found its way into half a dozen books. Then there were the journals, the songbook, the poetry notebook, etc. It got a little out of hand.
I realized that bound books simply don't work for me as a writing tool. I could never restrict myself to only one topic per notebook, so all my work got mixed together. There was no way to rearrange pages or swap them between books, most of which were of different formats. I also went through a lengthy index card phase. Let's not talk about the various sizes of colored sticky notes.
If the goal was to track my work, notebooks were not working.
If the goal was to be able to easily find a specific note, notebooks were not working.
If the goal was portability and accessing my work remotely, notebooks were not working.
If the goal was to protect my papers from the action-oriented hands of professional movers, notebooks were not working.
The only thing that was working about the notebooks was that I liked how they looked. They had pretty covers (although they didn't look all that great next to each other). I have great penmanship. The notebooks made lovely props if my goal was to impress people with how writerly I am. Theoretically, that's what my published work is for, but in practice, people can probably tell by the way I mutter to myself and try to store multiple writing implements behind my ear.
I got a laptop. The paper note habit almost completely disappeared. I started writing about 5x more material. I developed a note-taking system that works for me, which is that I start a new note every month and label it with the month and year. IDEA LOG: SEPTEMBER 2016. Then I put the date each time I have something to write down. I can access it from my phone. I have successfully used the search function to track down notes. It's restful.
Then I started to feel more concerned about my older paper notes. I couldn't search them. There were several occasions when I wanted something off a paper note, but I was at the library or the cafe, and I'd have to wait until I got home. I couldn't always find what I wanted, because I couldn't always picture which notebook it was in. Madness, I tell you!
We had a problem with the sprinkler system in our yard while we were out of town one weekend. The landlord lives next door, and he noticed it and brought in a plumber. Meantime, the floor of our laundry room was flooded. The plumber was there when we got home, which was great, but my first thought was: "What if a pipe happens to burst in the wall right next to my files?" The thought of my sole copies of all those years of work suddenly soaking wet and running ink made me turn pale.
I've been scanning my old notes, and I'm nearly done. It's incredibly tedious. It does make good podcast listening time, though. Each time I label a file and store it in the cloud, I breathe a little easier. I'm that much more likely to be able to find something when I need it. That much more of my work is safe from ruin.
The process of going through twenty years of paper has brought up some interesting revelations. The sheer volume of it has finally convinced me that yes, I am a real writer. It turns out to be something that, over the last thirty years, I simply haven't been able to stop myself from doing. There were far more plays, stories, poems, song lyrics, timelines, and novel outlines than I had realized. Like, triple. The other thing I noticed was that I used to write very faintly in pencil, and over time, I switched to ink. It got thicker and darker over the years. It's almost like I gradually turned up the volume of my voice from inaudible to loud.
The drawback to that is that my earlier work doesn't scan well. I'm having to type it. Otherwise, I could pay to mail it off and have it scanned by a service for two cents a page.
I made the decision of whether to type or scan based on relevance. If I consider the project to be 'active,' meaning I have plans to publish it in the next few years, it gets typed and filed in the same cloud folder as the other notes on that project. If I don't plan to do anything with it, I scan it. I've changed my mind on older projects before, and they feel worth saving, but at this moment they don't feel worth the hours of typing I would have to do. It's also much faster to preserve them.
I took apart a bound notebook. It wasn't all that hard. First, I used a razor cutting tool to slice out the used pages. More than half of the book was still blank, which has been true of most of my notebooks. Then I tore off the binding, which I had cut up with the razor anyway. The pages with notes were much easier to sort into groups, based on project, and several pages went straight into the recycling bin.
How do we deal with the emotional pain of damaging a bound book, when we've been taught to revere books? We remind ourselves that the contents are what's important, and that storing a lone copy on paper makes it vulnerable to every kind of loss or damage. We don't want to be creating a home "Library of Alexandria" situation.
How do we deal with the emotional pain of "wasting" all that blank paper? We remind ourselves that we also wasted the paper on which we wrote. We remind ourselves of all the junk mail, brochures, takeout menus, and other forms of paper we've brought home over the years. We put it into context. What we're trying to do is to create a system that will cut back on paper consumption for years to come. We're recycling. We can't spend our lives torturing ourselves with guilt, dread, and anxiety over material objects. We redirect our focus and attention to PEOPLE and loving our loved ones.
The way I'm approaching my boring, time-consuming scanning project is to keep reminding myself that soon, I'll be done. Once I'm done, I'll never have to do it again. It's a blip. After an hour and a half, I feel like I'm losing my mind, and I stop and come back to it on a later day. Sometimes the next day, sometimes not until the next week. Inevitably, I start thinking about burst pipes again, and that brings me in to do another stack.
As I finish scanning file folders and bound books, I start letting go of others. I've been holding back certain notebooks because I wanted to keep them in handwritten form. They've felt like talismans of a sort. One is the poetry notebook I started in middle school and another is the journal I kept in Iceland. Today I looked at them and realized that the only way to keep them is to digitize them. The process has been more comforting than I anticipated. I only wish I'd started sooner.
I was 37 when I bought my first (and current) laptop. I bought it with money from my first freelance gig, and I was so proud! It paid for itself with work I’ve done on it since. Now it’s not really keeping up with the demands I put on it, and I’m ready to go big. I’ll use it until I wear the letters off the keyboard. I’ll spend several hours a day interacting with it. It will be my spare brain. I’m using what could be a fairly ordinary consumer purchase as an organizing point in my life. If this upcoming fantasy purchase really has the potential to be a spare brain and transform the way I work, how can I use this time to create a watershed in my timeline?
Fantasy visions have a ‘before’ and an ‘after.’ We tend to get caught up in just the ‘after.’ Wouldn’t it be nice if I could fly? Yes, probably! We’ll have to spend some time figuring out all the steps that come before “I’m flying” before we can make that happen. Same thing with any other dream that wants to become reality. If my ‘after’ is “I am changing the world with my keyboard every day,” where am I starting? If I pull up my map app and I want walking directions, I need both a starting location and an end destination.
The truth is that I’m currently caught between two worlds, the analog and the digital. I went paper-free as much as possible several years ago, and we’re pretty good about dealing with mail and incoming paper every day. The trouble is that I still have notebooks and paper files from the past that I haven’t integrated into my digital world yet. There is never a “good time” to deal with archival material; if it’s sitting there and it hasn’t been handled, that’s a 100% reliable sign that it hasn’t been needed. If I haven’t needed it yet, I may never need it. Still, when I’ve gone through these old notebooks in the past, I’ve felt that I wanted to keep the information. It happens that right now, I’m keeping it in a completely vulnerable, perishable, inaccessible format.
My paper files are irreplaceable. That means there aren’t any backups. If anything happens to them, they’re gone. I haven’t exactly memorized this stuff. We’ve had professional movers a couple of times, and for whatever reason, one of them took it upon himself to dismantle my file boxes and put all my paper notes in a moving box. In the process, a lot of papers got bent, crumpled, and smeared. The indignity of it all! Digitizing my notes is one way to protect what I see as their sacrosanct integrity. It will also make them accessible from the road.
We have another problem that goes beyond this full box of vulnerable papers. Photographs. It’s easy to see the point on the timeline when we got camera phones, because the hard copy photographs simply stop happening. What I’ve learned from dealing with old photos is that they have a lot of problems. Our old albums from the 70s and 80s lose their adhesiveness and the plastic page protectors get brittle and discolored. Whenever we pick them up, loose photos cascade out the bottom. I have an aluminum box with old photos and memorabilia in it. If these photos are damaged, that’s it. I once did a very sad clutter job that involved throwing away several years’ worth of photos. They had been left in a paper shopping bag in a garage and were pancaked together with damp and mold. We tried, but they proved impossible to peel apart without tearing. The irony of keeping things because we want to preserve them is that we often guarantee their ruin instead.
If you care enough to keep it at all, take steps to make sure it’s truly preserved. Water damage, mold, mildew, smoke, sawdust, paint, vermin, insects… Anything in storage that is not climate controlled and accessed regularly absolutely will show the effects of entropy and neglect.
We have tons of digital photographs, of course, and that’s part of what makes it easier to see the hard copies as less desirable. I can and do enjoy looking at photos of everyone in my extended family on a regular basis. We have hundreds of pictures of our pets. We don’t spend much time looking at older photos because the current ones are so fresh and available. The problem is that our photo folders are only organized by date, not content. I often find myself looking for a specific photo as an illustration, and I have no idea what year it was taken, much less which month. Part of this fantasy ‘spare brain’ project will be to consolidate the photos and tag them in a way that makes them more useful.
I have this fantasy project of making slide shows of the peak moments from different years and then watching it at the New Year. Maybe I’ll do it after I get the new laptop.
There are other digital things I would like to consolidate. It turns out that I have files on our shared desktop, my laptop, various thumb drives, a couple of formats of flash memory cards, a stack of data CDs and DVDs, my Dropbox, Evernote, and my phone. The stack of physical media has more mass than the equipment itself. A lot of it probably contains redundant or obsolete stuff. When I look at it, I’m sure I’ll wonder why I was keeping it, and maybe even where I got it.
Our office represents more than just a room. (It’s our pets’ bedroom, so a chunk of it is dedicated to a birdcage and a dog crate). What we wanted was a place where we could both work. What we have is more of a place where we store stuff we don’t want to look at in the living room. We both do most of our personal bureaucratic work and our side projects either in the living room or at a café on the weekend. Sometimes when the weather is nice I work on the back patio. Excavating some of the funky old electronic clutter could be a way of energizing the space.
Why am I keeping old paper notes? Because I think they’re relevant for some reason? If there are projects I intend to complete, I need to schedule time to work on them and set some deadlines for when they’ll happen. The longer I have them around, the less likely Future Me will even be able to decipher them. The more time that goes by, the worse I’ll feel if anything happens and they are destroyed. Why didn’t I protect and preserve them when I had the chance?? I could diligently sit and scan them all in a couple of hours.
Why are we keeping old CDs and electronic files? Because we think we’ll need them at some point? What’s on them besides photos? If it’s nothing more than a bunch of old backups, they’re probably redundant. If it’s something important, we’d better figure that out in case they get scuffed or cracked or the file formats become obsolete and unreadable.
Why do I have so many thumb drives? They aren’t labeled. I don’t have a system for keeping separate data on separate drives. Why do I have so many?
Looking at a stack of undifferentiated, unlabeled, untagged stuff is exactly like walking around in a confused stupor. It’s like a plastic sculpture of a disoriented, possibly hungover human brain. If my waking mind was that poorly organized, I’d be walking around in circles with my shirt on backward and my shoes on the wrong feet, babbling and playing with my lip. I should just put it all in a box labeled HERP DE DERP and then send it to the landfill.
The fantasy of a new laptop is the fantasy of mental clarity. It’s the fantasy of being current and not having old projects hanging over my head. It’s not necessarily procrastinating to choose not to spend time sorting old, probably irrelevant materials; at least 80% of that stuff I’ll most likely never need. Keeping it, though, is like keeping apple cores or empty cans. It represents the leftovers of time I spent, things I did, thoughts I had, and time that has passed. I’m setting myself the intention of liberation from these stale old calcified thoughts. ‘Decision’ means ‘to cut off.’ I’m cutting off the fuzz that clouds my workspace. I’m creating a space where I can feel fully confident that I’m working on the most important thing every day, that all my important data are readily accessible, and that there are no ancient tasks lingering around to distract me. That new laptop will be like a space shuttle to the future.
It wasn’t intentional. I wasn’t on a Fact-Finding Mission. I wasn’t doing an experiment. I wasn’t even mad. It just turned out that I fell off Facebook for a while. Every now and then, I would realize I hadn’t logged in for a while, and I would think, “Gee, I should probably get around to that.” I figured my automatic blog posts would keep people informed that I was still alive and well. (Before I got a smartphone, I used to get the occasional email asking, “Are you still alive?”).
I’m kind of a hermit.
Anyway, I figured I would share a few observations about the experience before logging in again.
Logging in was starting to feel like a chore. It’s the best way to get updates about almost every person I know. I live at least a five-hour drive from almost every friend and family member in my world, and I don’t have much of a social life outside of Facebook. Even then, it felt like work. It’s so hard to find the signal in the noise. It’s so hard to avoid seeing or reading things that leave me feeling unsettled, sad, irritated, disappointed, or wounded. Much of this negative emotional burden comes from “friends of friends” being belligerent and rude to each other in someone else’s thread. Very few people in my acquaintance make any attempt to moderate their threads. This makes Facebook barely one rung better than “reading the comments” in any forum that allows anonymous posts.
My typical Facebook experience has been about 50% politics, 25% memes I’ve already seen, 1% rants about game requests (FAR more of these than I see of actual game requests), 1% spoilers of movies and books, and 3% pictures of meat. The remaining 20%, when I can find it, includes pictures of my friends, personal updates, and other things I actually want to see.
What finally put me over the top was when I started seeing “holiday” stuff the day after Halloween. I hadn’t even seen what I was looking for, pictures of my friends and their children in their Halloween costumes, before I was bombarded with Christmas stuff. Militant decorators wear me out. As of February 6, there were still Christmas decorations displayed at two houses in my neighborhood. Two weeks of Christmas is too much for me. Can we agree that over three months is a tad excessive?
During the four months I wasn’t on Facebook, a lot happened. We moved. We packed and unpacked. We scoured two houses from stem to stern. I went out of town five times for at least three days. I took on new coaching clients. I wrote and published some new coaching programs. I posted a couple hundred pages on this blog. We planned out our New Year’s Resolutions. I joined Toastmasters. I went to some Mensa dinners. I read over 80 books. We watched Making a Murderer, which added time to my sabbatical, because I knew there would be spoilers on Facebook, just like I got hit with a major Walking Dead spoiler last time I logged in.
What changed? More people started texting me more often, which is awesome. I posted some things on my blog that made me nervous, not worrying about any comments that people might make. Facebook tends to make me abjectly paranoid about negative comments, even though they rarely happen. I loathe arguing or anything most people would construe as debate. What I’m looking for is a feeling of connection, warmth, and affection. Occasionally, I’m looking for sympathy. What I often get from Facebook is a sense of being corrected, scolded, rebuked, lectured, chastised, or privilege-shamed. That never happens via text or Skype. It certainly doesn’t happen when I meet people face to face.
I’ve decided to put more of my focus on leaving the house and meeting people in person. I want to try to put down roots here, in this new city where I’ve lived for barely three months. I was already limiting my screen time on Facebook to a certain number of minutes a day, and that little bit was a bit too much. I realize that I need to hide the feeds of a few more specific individuals and avoid reading threads on a few more specific topics. I’d like to know what my friends are up to, but unfortunately, a lot of the time that seems to be “posting about things that make me angry.”
My decision is to start going on an official sabbatical from Halloween through New Year’s Day. (I might start sooner in 2016, since this is an election year, for what should be obvious reasons). It’s been productive and relaxing for me. I doubt anyone even really noticed I was gone. My information page has my URL. My phone number hasn’t changed in the last 7 years, and my email has been the same since the 90s. I’m on Twitter. I’m easy to find by every other means. My social networking obligations are covered. The difference is that I will announce the break and change my profile picture, on the off chance that anyone is looking for me.
Now, I’m going to break off writing this post, log in, and see what’s actually in my feed. I don’t have Messenger on my phone, and I have notifications turned off, so I really have no idea.
The first thing I find is that I’ve missed seeing an inquiry from the estranged relative of a close friend. It is bloodcurdlingly creepy. Look, if anyone tells me “I am avoiding contact with Person X,” I respect that. There doesn’t have to be abuse or weirdness involved. It’s none of my business what happened one way or the other. It’s in the same category as calling people by the name they use to introduce themselves. If someone shakes my hand and says, “Hi, I’m Galaktikon-91,” I’ll be careful to use that moniker as stated. That being said, if there is an allegation of misconduct, I’ll assume it’s true. I’ll especially assume it’s true if I’ve known one party for several years and have never met the other party. If the only thing I know about someone is that my friend refuses to speak to them, why would I want to talk to that person? Facebook, you did this to me. Thanks so much for giving creepers an avenue to creep me out. Now there is an electronic door in my world with a giant sign reading ‘DRAMA’ in red lights.
The next thing I notice is that, yet again, Facebook has been redesigned. I can’t figure out how to do anything. As usual, I’m sure I’ll get used to it just in time to have it change all over again.
I can only see notifications from the past month. Whatever came up before that, I missed out.
Focusing only on notifications is a different experience entirely from scrolling through my feed. I only see things if I’ve been tagged in them or if someone has taken the time to post them to my wall. That means it’s 98% lovely. Funny stuff, cute stuff, photos of my friends’ smiling faces. THIS is what I want out of Facebook. THIS is why I have to figure out how to recalibrate so that it works the way I want the tool to work. I don’t come here to be agitated by hostility, aggression, contempt, and disgust. I come here to think about my friends and what they’re up to. I want to see mundane details of their daily lives. I emphatically do not want to know what anyone in my acquaintance thinks about politics or current events. Why ruin it? Let’s talk about… gardening, and soup recipes, and planning some camping trips. And how to teach my dog to jump rope.
I read the news, probably more than I should. I try to get my news from aggregators and international sources, so I’m sure to see a balance of what’s important on a global scale. I need to learn things from people who know more than I do. That means journalists, academics, and other credentialed professionals, not my peers. We can’t even agree on commonly accepted sources. We find streams of ‘facts’ that support our ideological positions (myself included) and talk past each other, until sometimes we can’t be friends anymore. I see it as a lose-lose proposition. No upside, extreme downside. In our culture we can’t even talk about phones or operating systems or Marvel vs. DC without getting into arguments.
Okay, scrolling through my feed, there is a lot of political stuff, just as much as I remembered. The other thing I’m seeing much more of than I would like is that a large number of my friends seem to be sick, hospitalized, and recovering from or preparing for surgery. Facebook is definitely the place we go when we don’t feel good. I know I personally have probably never missed an opportunity to post when I had a migraine or a night terror episode. This is just what I’m talking about – the search for connection and sympathy. This is the kind of ‘Facebook bummer’ I’m willing to handle.
There is one post from someone who has perpetually been in the same situation, at least half a dozen times in the last few years. It’s like Groundhog Day. I can’t even believe this person is right back in the same spot again. Sometimes I wonder if we aren’t all cartoon characters being drawn by a giant comedic hand…
I can’t tell if anyone noticed that I was gone, or not. The truth is that I’m just one person among dozens or hundreds in the acquaintance pool of anyone I know. They all have other things to worry about besides whatever I’m doing. It isn’t about me. It’s about how much information I want regarding my friends’ lives, and how often I reach out and talk to them. I missed saying Happy Birthday and “I hope you feel better” to a lot of people. I’m ready to make a fresh start. I’ll try to hide the noise and turn up the volume on the harmony.
Calorie counting doesn’t work, they tell you. It worked for me, but only because I am a CSI-minded person. If I get weird data, I keep researching and experimenting. I’m married to an aerospace engineer who is willing to humor me with the occasional statistical model. He’s taught me to think about emotional topics like weight loss in a more numbers-based, scientific way. One of the first precepts of this rational model is that when we record data, our instruments need to be reliable. This is where it gets interesting.
I started to notice that I had synced multiple apps to my food log, and it was logging redundant data from the same workouts. I would go on one walk, but I would get separate totals from my Apple Watch and from RunKeeper. I already knew not to trust the alleged calories burned from my workouts, so I tend to disregard those numbers. It took a while for any kind of insight to arise from this.
Then it hit me. People need to know. The number of calories burned that shows up on any kind of fitness equipment can be about as reality-based as the dollars that show up on a hospital bill. In other words, not very.
I set up an experiment. I worked out on my ancient, consignment-store treadmill for half an hour. I tracked it as an Indoor Walk on my Watch. I took photographs of the treadmill data. I logged the manual data into RunKeeper. Then I compared the three results.
Treadmill: 31:32 minutes, 2.081 miles, 361 calories.
RunKeeper: 31:32 minutes, 2.08 miles, 149 calories.
Apple Watch: 31 minutes, 1.86 miles, 163 calories.
Let me summarize. This is me, walking on the treadmill in my garage, and getting three sets of data for the same workout.
Just to make things clear as mud, here’s a fourth data point. MyFitnessPal says that walking 31 minutes at 4 mph burns 143 calories. (I have to set the treadmill at 4.0 mph in order to get my heart rate up enough to impress The Overlord).
I walk a lot, so I have more data points to add. A week or so earlier, I happened to take a walk outside that lasted 33:46 minutes. That includes waiting at the occasional crosswalk, walking uphill, wind conditions, and other variables such as non-workout clothes. It is, however, more reflective of my typical walking workout. RunKeeper says that 34-minute walk of 1.91 miles burned 137 calories. Apple Watch gives 31:12 minutes, 1.88 miles, and 103 calories for that same walk.
You want the truth? YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH! Or, maybe you can, but GOOD LUCK KNOWING WHAT THE TRUTH IS!
Okay, I think I have that out of my system. It’s actually more straightforward than it looks.
Compare my indoor and outdoor walks again. What I’m trying to do on the treadmill is to get my heartrate up enough to qualify as ‘exercise.’ Whatever it is about walking on the treadmill compared to walking on the sidewalk, I have to work much harder to get that digital green wheel moving. That’s why there’s roughly a 60-calorie difference in data generated by the same device for the same exercise (“walking”) over the same block of time. (It isn’t the same exercise, not really).
Metrics are just numbers. They only mean anything when we put them into a particular context. The standard model is to want to ‘check the box’ by showing up and doing at least some form of workout, and then, in the face of suboptimal results, being able to claim, ‘I’ve tried everything.’ We’ve only tried everything when we’ve full-on interrogated those data until someone alerts Amnesty International. TELL ME WHAT YOU KNOW!
The most important thing I learned, in two years of tracking every metric I could think of, is that weight loss is both complex and complicated. We have to standardize our behavior patterns as much as we can, at least for a defined time period, so the trend lines start to emerge. I didn’t get the results I wanted for the first six weeks, but I was highly rigorous in my tracking, and I had a partner to do peer review of my results. I learned that if I ate approximately the same amounts of food at the same times of day, it became much easier to tease out the salient points. I learned that, at least on my tiny frame, exercise makes no discernible impact on whether I lose or gain weight. It’s completely about what I eat. If I knew I stood a chance of burning off a special treat, I would definitely do it, because I enjoy moving my body. There are at least a dozen types of workout that I like to do. I could just install a clamp on my elliptical to hold a quart of Soy Dream and tuck a napkin into my collar. Good times.
What I’ve learned is that the subjective elements are more important than the objective factors. I have the same tendency everyone else does, to overestimate the duration, intensity, and frequency of my workouts. I have the same tendency of everyone else in the world to underestimate how much I eat and how often. I have the universal tendency of treating my own Future Self like a poison enemy, sabotaging her life and expecting her to solve problems I’ve created for her. “Hey, Future Self! Have fun burning off this entire box of Thin Mints! Hahahaha! Oh, and by the way, I’m spending our retirement money on books!” What I don’t have is a tendency to care that much about body shaming. My physical appearance is largely irrelevant to me, and I don’t give a [FIG] how “the media” thinks I’m “supposed” to look. I’ve had a worse time getting flak from people since I lost my weight than in all the years I was fat, combined. I don’t care because being strong, fit, and healthy is worth more than not having other women glare at me and occasionally call me rude names. Subjectively, I like being lean more than I care about fitting in.
Objectively, I believe it is possible to maintain a lean physique, and I have the knowledge to do it. This is another way in which my subjective experience of life differs from the majority of Americans.
I work out because after about the 45-minute mark, I feel physically ecstatic. I’m sitting in my pajamas right now, writing this with my hair still damp from the shower. The feeling of resting after a hard workout, a hot shower, and a hot meal is one of the best feelings in life. I was in a mopey mood earlier today, having been woken up by a thunderstorm, but even a half hour of walking was enough to shake off that sad feeling. I know I’ll sleep better tonight.
I eat clean and plan predictable, micronutrient-based meals because my quality of life suffers when I don’t. For me, what came naturally to me, eating what I “felt like” eating and what tasted good, led to dreadful results. Excess body fat was one relatively minor symptom of a larger problem. While I was no longer having issues with thyroid disease, migraine and night terrors were still regular crises for me, and after a certain weight, my fibromyalgia symptoms started to come back as well. Carefully tracking my health metrics helped me figure out which behavior patterns affected my health issues, and which didn’t seem to make an impact. While it may be correlation that both my migraines and my night terrors disappeared two years ago, when I finally got to my goal weight and quadrupled my vegetable consumption, correlation is good enough for me. I’ve finally arrived at a system I can live with.
That’s what it all comes down to. We’re searching for livable systems. Life is complicated enough, and it’s hard to make sense out of conflicting information from our friends, media reports, advertisements from the weight loss industry, and the kind of contrarian stuff written by bloggers like me. Collecting contradictory data from various fitness apps and equipment is not helpful. What is helpful is to take the long view, be as aware of our behaviors and attitudes as possible, and keep on trying to build better experimental models for our own lives.
Queues. Lists. Bookmarks. Playlists. It’s not enough that we can fill our homes with stacks of paper representing stored information. Now we can even fill the intangible world of the Cloud with electronic representations of information! It follows us everywhere. Even in our sleep, the junk mail, spam, email, newsletter subscriptions, and algorithmic recommendations of new TV shows, books, articles, movies, music, and products keep coming at us. They’re etheric arrows aiming straight at our thought bubbles. What are we going to do with it all? How are we going to keep up?
When are we going to get “caught up”?
There is no “catching up” to anything. It’s the Catch-22 of journaling. The more time I spend trying to track the details of my life for posterity, the more time I must dedicate to journaling, until the day I find myself meta-journaling about my journaling habit. There isn’t anything left to write about except the process of writing. The same is true of managing the constant influx of new information. If we genuinely try to “keep up” with all of it, eventually that’s the only thing we’ll do.
This is what we mean when we talk about focusing on the past, the present, or the future. Past Self has made a lot of decisions for us about desirable ways to spend our time. Past Self loves to try to assign us binge-watching episodes, magazine articles, books, and especially recipes. We look at Past Self’s stacks, shrug, and address them to Future Self. My grandmother, for example, has been reading through all the books she already owns but hadn’t “gotten around to” yet. Some are from the 1970s. This gives me pause, because I’m working on the same project, and I have books in my stack that I bought about a decade ago.
On a scale of 1-10, I’m probably at around a 7 for information hoarding. We do paperless billing. I do my writing digitally. I’ve been working on reading through my book collection and redefining what I consider a “reference” book. I’ve been going through cookbooks (my biggest area of clutter) and winnowing them. We don’t have cable, and the most TV we’ll watch is a purchased season of a TV series every couple of months. So I’m getting better. I do, however, still have an ungainly collection of notebooks, loose notes, and more index cards than a casino has playing cards. There are about 3600 recipes in my digital recipe collection. I have 89 e-books and audio books on my digital library wish list. Well, for one library. In the interest of full disclosure, there are 560 on my other library account. As for saved articles, I have no idea, but it’s a lot more than 560.
I understand that I have assigned my Future Self at least three years’ worth of reading. That’s assuming that I never see another book or article that interests me. If snow fell in hell, or pigs flew, there would undoubtedly be articles published about these events, and I would undoubtedly bookmark them and plan to read them “later.” In other words, I haven’t yet gotten my head around the idea that THERE IS NOT ENOUGH TIME. I can only pretend I’ll be able to “catch up.” I can only pretend that time has no meaning in certain circumstances. I can only pretend that there is a wormhole, which I will find, which will enable me to read as much as I want outside the flow of years, minutes, and hours.
My areas of info hoarding are pretty specific. I have no real limits on my writing notes, even though I’ve already determined that paper notes are unsafe. My sole copies of these ideas and bits of reference material are totally vulnerable to loss, water damage, or fire. I can’t access them from remote locations, which is bad, because most of my work is not done at home. This is an example of a specific problem, with a specific solution, for a specific purpose. My issue with no-limit, no-boundary leisure reading is on the opposite end of the scale. I don’t have specific purposes for reading books and articles; I just want to. My stack of paper notes, notebooks, files, and index cards is finite and measurable. My queue of pleasure reading material is more or less infinite.
The sort of info hoarding among my clients is all over the map. Almost everyone has at least a little trouble organizing papers and electronic information, even regular folk who are not chronically disorganized. People who have no other clutter often have paper clutter. There are some common areas of focus, though.
Mail (real, important mail)
Mail (junk mail, often disguised as real mail)
Old academic papers (notes, notebooks, handouts)
Magazine or newspaper clippings
Personal letters / cards / e-mail
Invitations that need decisions
Keepsakes (invitations, event programs, favors, souvenirs, ticket stubs)
The prime question when evaluating information is, WHAT DO I PLAN TO DO WITH IT? Obviously, important mail needs to get processed. Bills need to be paid, checks need to be deposited, bank statements need to be reconciled, subpoenas need to be answered. Invitations can be ignored until the date has passed, a habit we indulge until the day we ourselves schedule something for which we desire RSVPs. EVERYTHING ELSE can sit indefinitely. That’s fine – there’s nothing necessarily wrong with owning a stack of paper – except that paper has a nefarious tendency to get on top of more important paper and hide it. It takes constant vigilance to track and process the important stuff.
What do we think we’re going to do with our old academic papers? I scanned mine and put them on a thumb drive. I have never needed any of them. I think I thought they might come in handy one day, if I met a younger person who wanted an example of a certain type of academic paper. I saved scanned images if they had a grade I liked scrawled on them. “Looky, an A!” Needless to say, though I tend to have a lot of college-aged kids in my life at any given moment, none of them has ever asked to see my old papers. I suspect I’m keeping them as proof that I put myself through school. The point, though, is that we learned that material. Education should be a starting point, not an ending point. It’s true that I’ve gone on to read and learn a lot more about history since I got my degree. I can’t learn much from reading my own papers or my own notes. If I went back to grad school at some point, I wouldn’t be pursuing a master’s in history; I already made that decision. I save my old notes because they fit on the thumb drive, and I don’t have to make the decision to delete them based on space.
What do we think we’re going to do with all the photographs? At a certain point, I transitioned to digital photographs. Everything I have in a hard copy is old. I have at least 100x more photographs of the people I care about now than I did 20 years ago. They’re of better quality and they tend to reflect moments of daily life rather than artificial poses and awkward smiles. I also take scads of photos of random things, because it’s so easy and because I always have a camera in my pocket now. The aluminum box that contains my photo collection is almost never opened. I seem to remember looking through everything in it about 7 years ago, when I did a burning ceremony, but those photos are not a part of my daily life. If they were, I would have put them in frames. (Frames, not flames).
What do we think we’re going to do with all the recipes? I’m probably the worst offender in the world when it comes to clipping recipes. Not only do I have the 3600 digital recipes, I have no fewer than four recipe apps on my phone. I also have a box of recipes on index cards and a collection of roughly 50 cookbooks. I’m not going to run out! The funniest thing about this is that I don’t always use recipes anymore. We tend to cook the same vegetables in the same ways. I probably only test out a new recipe about once a month now. Every now and then, I freak out about how many untested recipes I have. Even if I had done one a day since then, I still would not have made a dent.
What do we think we’re going to do with all the magazine or newspaper clippings? This is a big one for a lot of people. My issue is that I think I’m going to read them all one day. Since I always bookmark more each day than I read, I could only “catch up” if I quit bookmarking anything for the rest of the year. I’m better off giving up on the older stuff and limiting myself to a certain amount of reading time per day. I have yet to make that happen. For many people, the issue is rather one of preserving information they’ve already read. They want to save it. For what, though? What are they going to do with the information? How are they going to let it change their lives? Are they researching a specific project? If not, well, my philosophy is to ‘read and delete.’ I tend to want to forward everything to everyone, but I can’t force other people to be interested in things they aren’t. If I read it and it doesn’t make enough of an impression for me to remember it, change my mind, or change my behavior, eh, easy come easy go.
What do we think we’re going to do with the letters, cards, and email? It turns out that a lot of people get these personal missives and freeze. We can’t bring ourselves to return the favor and write back. When we do this (talking to myself here), we’re effectively rejecting the other person’s gesture of love and connection. They don’t see it as shyness or a desire to wait until the proper attention can be summoned to do it justice. They just see it as a disconnect. Old letters often represent a broken love affair, vanished friendship, or family connection that could have been made stronger. We hang on to these tokens out of grief and regret. Far better to reach out by other means, rebuild connections, and let the tokens go.
Invitations that need decisions are in the same category. Delay the decision too long and the decision has been made. REJECTED AND DENIED. We let ourselves off the hook. Often, our default response is ‘no.’ We have to double check and make sure that ‘no’ is really the setting we want for life. We’ll never know what would have happened if we had shown up, unless we do show up.
Business cards also represent potential connections and decisions that need to be made. So much of the time, we take someone’s card, and then never follow through. That’s fine – a business card is a very inexpensive, low-risk form of advertising – but perhaps we can start making the decisions earlier in the process. We don’t have to keep these cards forever. Most people have some kind of web presence if we look.
What do we think we’re going to do with the souvenirs and mementos? This can be a dangerous area. Almost anything can be construed as a souvenir. I saved an all-day lollipop from a trip to Disneyland for about 10 years. For some reason, I thought that would be a great souvenir, even though I had also saved the ticket stubs. Then I found this sucker again. (See what I did there?) It was melted and stuck all over everything. It had in fact ruined other things I had intended to save. I’m really lucky my papers weren’t swarming with ants. As with many things, keeping clutter left me worse off than getting rid of it.
Dealing with the flow of information is a problem that will never end. It’s like laundry, except that laundry doesn’t follow you into the Cloud. It helps to make categorical decisions. Why would I want to keep old school papers? Why would I want to save clippings or recipes? How often am I going to dedicate an hour of my life to looking through old photos or yearbooks? Which types of events am I never going to miss, and which will I always avoid? When we have figured out why we’re tracking or keeping information, we can start with what arrives from that day forward. Whether we ever get around to going through the older stuff is more of a philosophical question.
I love Sam Cooke. I could listen to his voice all day. It’s not just his vocal styling that marks him as a man from another time; it’s his lyrics. If he wrote “You Send Me” today, the words would have to go more like this:
Darling, unnnnn-friend me
I knew you’d unfriend me
Darling, unnnnn-friend me
The way that you do, way that you do
You always do, whoa
Ill will me
I know you, you, you ill will me
Darling, you ill will me
You always do
At first I thought it was just irritation
But whoa, it’s lasted so long
Now I find myself wanting
To glare at you and block your phone, whoa
What is this all about? Here we are with one of the most impressive technological innovations of all time, which is social networking. Yet, somehow, it seems to have set us back decades in terms of actual communication. I know of siblings who are no longer on speaking terms, a man who was unfriended by the best man from his wedding; pick a family or friend relationship and you can easily find an example of one that was destroyed via social media. Not a single week has gone by that I haven’t seen someone make a public announcement to the effect of: “If you don’t agree with this post, do us both a favor and unfriend me now” or “I just unfriended someone/nearly everyone on my list.” We’re supposed to feel pleased when we’re able to read the announcements that we have “made the cut” – rather than worried about all the times we haven’t.
Friendship means something different now. Apparently, friendship means meeting only the strictest of standards. We can only keep our friends if we continue to manage the tightrope walk of self-expression. Each person has different rules – absolute, relationship-defining rules – about how personal or impersonal, political or neutral, others’ posts are. We’ve started treating each other like TV channels on the far end of the dial, channels we can avoid or click away from if we don’t like the programming available.
I still remember each and every time I have been made aware that I was unfriended. That includes the ex-spouses of friends, with whom I had no issues. It makes sense, but it still stings a bit. “Hey! I wasn’t taking sides!” My policy is only to unfriend someone if I believe I am incapable of staying in the same room and being civil if I encountered the person socially. That’s a pretty stiff criterion that virtually never applies. So it’s possible that I take it more personally than others on the occasions when I’ve been unfriended “for cause,” which means posting something that someone else finds offensive. It goes like this:
What the heck do we think friendship is, exactly?
I think the more socially isolated we become, the more we interact with screens instead of human faces, the more we converse through text, the more we start to base our concept of how friendship works on what we see in fiction. Text can only get across about 10% of a person’s meaning; it cuts off all the facial expressions, tones of voice, laughter, body language, comedic impersonations, hand signs, and opportunities for social touch that happen when we meet in person. That’s why we’ve started to use emoticons and vines and memes as punctuation. We know that even the best writer isn’t going to be able to get the emotions across. At least, a writer can’t do it in small snippets. We like movies and TV shows that give us at least a few hours to learn a character’s arc. We cease to give the same kind of time to our real, non-acting, living and breathing human friends.
I think friendship happens in levels, as it should, and that it’s best to restrict the highest levels to only a very small number of specific individuals.
There are a lot of pitfalls between levels of friendship. One is regarding a work friend as a higher-level friend, and disrespecting professional boundaries by oversharing. Taking a work friendship to another level requires the utmost finesse in protocol; it’s best saved for the time when one work buddy leaves the company for a different job. Over-bonding with work friends is inevitably strained when one of you gets a promotion, particularly to management. It’s better to commit to each other’s success and continued progress up the ladder than to try for personal friendship. More common is to expect casual friends to be as trustworthy and loyal as closer friends, or to expect close friends to be soulmates.
How do you ruin a friendship? Lots of ways. Uncountable ways. NEVER FORGIVE. Expect the punctuality of a walking clock with an AI. Expect total loyalty, especially when you’re in the wrong. Demand that people pick sides. Talk politics. Take your confusion and high blood pressure to a public forum whenever anything in the news distresses you. Expect high levels of personal emotional commitment from everyone in your social circle. Confide things you wouldn’t want to be known publicly. Apologize stingily and regard it as losing face. “I’m sorry you feel that way.” “I’m sorry but.”
Societies swing between total individualism on one side of the pendulum, and total collectivism on the other. What is seen as an appropriate boundary between a person and a group depends on our milieu. Right now, we’re on the extreme individual end, which is part of why the unthinkable is happening so regularly and people are murdering strangers to make some kind of personal statement. We’re so polarized that almost every possible choice is seen as a signifier of tribal allegiance, either red or blue, with no alternatives or neutral or non-applicable areas. We don’t trust each other. Our barriers are impermeable. Interactions with other people are high-stakes. We’re now beginning to invoke formal loyalty tests, as in, “if you read this and disagree, sever our social connection. Permanently.” We do not have any kind of social ritual for knee-walking back to someone and asking to reignite the spark of friendship. We don’t accept apologies and we don’t make them graciously. I made a public apology to someone for whom I had high regard; when I saw that she had unfriended me, I cried in my car. Mutual friends relayed my message, which included a description of what I had done wrong and displayed an understanding of the unintentional hurt I had caused. I would never have required such an apology myself, as I ignore posts that offend me. My apology was not accepted. That was years ago, and it still bothers me. What would it have taken? Even a personal attack could theoretically have been forgiven, if acceptable amends were made. It makes no sense to me that we are now disowning people over cartoons or single sentences or perhaps tasteless jokes. When will we start to see how much damage this is causing to our social fabric? When will we start to see how unnecessary this is? When will we learn to adapt to this new, hazardous form of communication? When will the pendulum start to swing the other way?
We can’t make it in this world alone. We like to fantasize that we can. We like the look of a post-apocalyptic landscape, where it’s easy to judge on sight whether someone is “one of us” or “the enemy.” Then we can eliminate them with extreme prejudice, and high-five afterward. The truth is that we’re not capable of survival, speech, or even coherent thought without the contribution of other human beings. We are not the prime movers in our own lives. We are here because our ancestors cooperated long enough to get us here, feed us, care for us, and watch over us until we could start pretending that we can survive without cooperation. We need each other. We forget how much we have to offer each other, how strong we are when we stand together. We have so much to learn about forgiveness and love. We have so much to learn about friendship. How are we going to learn anything if we keep rage-quitting whenever we activate each other’s emotions?
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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.