Every now and then it pays to pull back and take a look at how things are working. Sometimes, circumstances do that for you. A problem crops up and demands your attention, providing the opportunity to ask, “Is this even worth my time?” Such a problem has cropped up with my Amazon Prime membership.
Now, don’t get me wrong. My problem was “resolved.” I wrote to customer service and, as promised, I had a response within twelve hours. That’s terrific. I also got a full refund, which, great. There are two problems here, though:
What this means is that I’m left with a net negative.
When I explain the problem, it should also be apparent why I’m also left with concerns about Amazon as a service provider.
I didn’t receive a package. It was one of four items that I ordered on the same day. Back in the good ol’ days, you’d get a box with all your stuff in it, making a bulk order feel like a birthday surprise. It was worth waiting an extra few days just for the fun factor. Now they all show up separately, in crazy-absurd amounts of packaging, often through different delivery services. Even the tiniest, most trivial items have to be tracked separately, which is complicated by the fact that one might show up the next day while its companion shows up ten days later. I once waited three months for a $3 item before giving up and asking for a refund. I’d go out and buy these small incidentals from local businesses if I had any idea where to find them.
Not receiving a package? No big deal. Not really. The problem was that when I checked my order status, the item showed it had been delivered. Uh oh. Doorstep package theft is a chronic problem in my neighborhood, with Nextdoor posts about this trend every single day. Many of my neighbors even post photos or video from their security systems, or news clippings when thieves are apprehended. Did someone take my little $8 item?
Nope. Along with the order status showing that my package was delivered, there was a photo. A blurry photo of a package in front of a door. “Proof” that someone put my package in a spot where, if I opened my front door, I’d be sure to stumble on it. Proof!
The trouble was, it wasn’t my door!
I’m an historian, not a private investigator, journalist, nor photographer for that matter. Still, we agree on certain standards of documentation. Let’s discuss.
A picture of my own actual door indicates a few discrepancies.
The problem here is a perverse incentive. A harried driver who is tired of searching for an address can simply toss down the package in front of any old random door, snap a blurry picture of the doormat, and leave. Customer service instructions tell the customer to wait 36 hours, search the bushes, and ask neighbors if maybe they got the package by mistake. They don’t say what to do if the driver is falsifying documentation.
We’ve had issues with package delivery before. In one case, the driver wanted a two-minute discussion with me about how hard my address was to find and whether he actually had the right place. I pointed at the street number on our door twice, while trying not to cough on him, since I was home with a bad cold. Look, I’m sorry about your trouble, yet it seems that we get packages and mail here all the time. Why can some drivers find our place while others can’t?
This isn’t a flippant question. How do package delivery services resolve the frustrating, complicated problem of irregular street addresses, apartment complexes, office parks, and other densely packed delivery units? Clearly there must be a more efficient way to do this.
That’s a job for commerce to solve, not me. My job is to fund it through my purchases, not to do that labor on my own time.
I’ve already constricted the types of things I will buy through Amazon. I don’t buy clothes through them any more, after several experiences of the color or fabric looking nothing like the photo. It’s also hard to guess at fit, and not worth my time to carry returns to UPS. I don’t buy shoes, either, after a brand-new pair of sandals exploded two blocks from my house. I don’t buy hard copies of books, after several occasions when poorly packaged books showed up with minor tears or dents. I also don’t buy ebooks, since I read them on my iPhone but can’t buy them directly through the Kindle app. We don’t buy fragile items after the day we got some smashed crockery, packed loose in the box with no padding. We don’t buy anything liquid, after two occasions when shampoo or body wash showed up sticky, leaking fluid, and missing 20% of the contents. In one case, it completely soaked through the box and the box itself basically melted. We still buy pet food, even after the time when another item in the padding-free box tore open a bag of parrot kibble.
Basically it’s started to be a crapshoot. We order something for which we have a fairly urgent need, and when it shows up, sometimes it’s ruined. We get our money back - and of course we shouldn’t expect anything less than that - but we don’t get the thing we needed. We realize we would have been better off shopping for it locally, where we could inspect it and carry it ourselves.
My “job” description as shadow labor for Amazon includes:
Breaking down boxes and hauling packing material to another building and down two flights of stairs, where our trash goes
For all of this, I’m now paying an additional twenty percent for my annual membership.
I don’t mind paying more for value. I’ll pay enough that packers can take their time and choose appropriate packaging, or at least enough that my order arrives intact. I’ll pay enough that drivers get training and support, or at least enough that they care if my package shows up at the right home. How much do I have to pay to get the same level of quality that was standard five years ago?
How much will it take for me to decide that it’s worth paying for shipping and taking my orders elsewhere?
‘Radioactive’ is definitely how I would describe my inbox some days. You know when you’re trying to get caught up, and every time you delete something, the window refreshes and three more messages come in behind it? It’s metastasizing! I set a date to fight my way back to Inbox Zero, and this image came to me. In the endless search for a form of novelty that will inspire me through another day of drudgery, I came up with a little game.
Look at the total number of messages in your inbox. Write it down.
Vow that you’ll cut that number in half over the next hour. What will that number be?
In the next hour, you’ll cut it in half again.
In the next hour, you’ll cut it in half yet again.
(My husband points out that with a half-life, you never really get to zero, but let’s call it close enough).
Start with the easy stuff, just like you answer the easy questions first on a timed test. Gradually work your way through the middle, and save the complicated stuff for last. The easiest decisions get the least time, and the tougher stuff that needs your full concentration gets the most.
The logic behind this is that not all messages are equally salient, even though they look like they are. One of the worst features of email is that everything gets an identical line, no matter how long the message is, who it’s from, how important it is, how many attachments it has, or how long it’s been hanging around. It’s not obvious which messages are most deserving of our attention. The bulk junk buries the valuable stuff, just like junk paper mail can pile up and obscure our bills, checks, and gift cards.
The half-life method presumes that the more messages you have, the more likely the majority of them are relatively unimportant. If they really were both important and urgent, the senders would have found another way to track you down, either by phone, certified mail, or Men in Black knocking on your door.
Let me pause and say that it’s pretty common these days for people to have thousands of unopened emails. I’ve heard numbers above ten thousand from several people. Not only that, but those with the largest backlog tend to have extra accounts which are also filling up. It’s like maxing out a credit card and opening a new one.
Back in the Nineties, if you had more than a certain amount of email in your inbox, it would FILL UP. Anyone who sent you anything would get a message that it had bounced back. Two things fixed that problem: social media, and the advent of ludicrous amounts of free storage. You can have a gigabyte of mail now, no problem. That was technologically impossible twenty years ago.
Also back in the Nineties, if you got email at all, it was almost guaranteed to be from a personal friend. You looked forward to it. Maybe, every now and then, there might even be an attached digital photo, just for you.
Now, almost all mail is bulk junk. Every possible brand wants you to sign up at every possible transaction. They try to bribe you with a discount or a coupon. Then, each and every one of them sends you at least one message, each and every day.
The worst are the political lists that will send fundraising email as often as three to five times a day.
Everyone is battling for the top spot in your mental bandwidth, trying to flag down your attention, not realizing that they’re contributing to the problem. It’s like when one person stands up at the stadium and blocks the view of everyone in the back.
Here’s how to blast through the detritus:
If you can’t bring yourself to unsubscribe or delete thousands of messages, you can move them to a folder for “later.”
An overflowing inbox is solid proof that you’re receiving more than you can process.
I do my daily unsubscribe while paying attention to something else, generally an audio book or podcast. Along with that, I get several news roundups. I go through those by clicking the links and bookmarking the relevant articles, then deleting the email.
This is where the second round of processing starts. The easiest layer to eliminate is stuff that’s expired. In my inbox, that’s coupons from Lyft and a couple of restaurants, notifications of upcoming concerts, and invitations to other events that I won’t be attending. Next are things that are relevant and interesting, but don’t need a response. Usually we’re saving them because we need to record a piece of information.
See that it takes slightly longer to do this administrative stuff, but it often can be done while doing something entertaining in the background.
After this second layer, there will start to be messages that deserve a response. They can be complicated for several reasons. It can actually help to sort these by WHY they need more time and effort:
Often, with the difficult under-layer, it can help to switch channels. Just because a message came through email does not mean an email response is required. Much of the time, it can be easier to pick up the phone and have a discussion. What might have taken half an hour by email, resulting in half a dozen messages back and forth, could often be resolved with a three-minute phone call. Of course, many of us dread business calls even more than we dread email. The impending threat of a phone call, in this case, may be enough to motivate us to type out a reply. Anything to avoid voice contact, or, worse, a voicemail.
When I don’t know what to do or how to handle a question, like in a stuck plot point, I will write a list of what I don’t know. What piece of information would make this clear? It’s totally fair to reply to a confusing message with a question, or even a bullet-pointed list of questions.
It’s also legit to dash off a quick reply to someone, saying, “I miss you. Sorry I haven’t written back.” If you have a social email from someone you want to stay in better touch with, maybe write back in a format that you prefer. Text message? Chat? Meet in person? Remember that “the phone works both ways” and if this person has been content to wait weeks, months, or years without hearing from you, then maybe they haven’t been sobbing through a roll of paper towels awaiting your reply. Lower the emotional bar if that makes it easier.
The last-ditch method for dealing with an out-of-control inbox is to tell someone. Find a buddy. Agree that you and your accomplice will sit together and blast through your backlogs together. Maybe you can even switch seats and write some of each other’s replies, or help identify obsolete stuff.
There’s also always “email bankruptcy.” Just delete everything and email everyone you know, asking to re-send anything that was truly important. Many of us feel like we could never get away with that, but honestly, is it worse for your reputation than ignoring unopened messages entirely?
My rough bottom-of-the-barrel day started with sixteen messages. Using the half-life method, that would be eight in the first hour, four in the second hour, and two in the third. About eight minutes per message in the first round, fifteen minutes per message in the second round, and half an hour for the last two. Considering that these messages included forms, polls, spreadsheets, slide shows, meeting invites, and a list of phone calls, it worked out that this was a pretty solid estimate.
If only I hadn’t received eleven more messages during that time slot...
I used to live in Santa Rosa. Areas where I lived, worked, rode my bike, ate lunch, and visited friends burned flat last year, and the same region recently came under threat again. The photos and videos of devastation are heart-wrenching and chilling. Whenever something like this happens, there are two things we can do. We can try to help, and we can review our emergency preparedness. Every person who gets out quickly is one less person for emergency responders to rescue, and one more person who can volunteer. Channeling our feelings of helplessness and sorrow into a plan of action may never be truly necessary - but it might.
One way of doing this is to make our emotional decisions now, while everything is fine, so that if a crisis does happen, we’re not distracted into foolish or deadly attempts to save our stuff.
People, then animals, then things.
Not everyone made it out of the Sonoma County fire alive. That’s because the fires sprang up so quickly and spread so far and fast that not everyone could outrun them. If you’ve ever spoken with someone who fled a wildfire, there is no time. THERE IS NO TIME. There is no time to wander around flapping one’s hands and trying to load up a bunch of bags and boxes of memorabilia. Every single time there is a natural disaster or catastrophe of some kind, people panic and start trying to bring all their favorite stuff. Just assume that if you do this, a firefighter will die. Let it go.
Most of us are in a good enough headspace that we can accept that yes, we might lose our homes and appliances and all our worldly goods. Some of us have already lived through such an event. A trauma like that is often a moment of crux, when we realize that we really are lucky to be alive and that if our loved ones are okay, then we’re okay. We realize that stuff is just stuff, and that we’re fine without it. Others go through a trauma and “lose everything” (read: material goods) and become ultra-attached to their belongings from that point forward.
What does it mean to “lose everything”? This expression makes me think of Alzheimer’s disease. You lose your memories, you lose your ability to recognize even your closest friends and relatives, you lose all your skills. You lose your vocabulary and your ability to read. You lose your ability to care for yourself or be safely alone even for brief periods. You lose your ability to understand what’s going on, so that even a routine doctor visit becomes confusing and terrifying. This is my definition of “losing everything.” I think about it a lot because it runs in my family and I worry it will happen to me.
This is when I start thinking about photographs. When my Nana was in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s, old photographs were one of the few things she still understood. Pictures can have meaning.
Not just photos, really, but other memorabilia, too. Anything that exists as only one copy, anything that is richly saturated with memory and legacy, anything that rightfully “belongs” to an entire family. These are items that can be preserved and stored in multiple copies in case anything happens.
Anything: anything at all. Fire, flood, mold, theft, termites, anything.
Not every photo is deeply meaningful. I tend to keep a dozen nearly identical versions of family photos, deleting only the ones in which someone’s eyes are closed. I must have thousands of family photos from the advent of the digital camera. No, I know I do! I have thousands per vacation or wedding! Many of these are landscape shots. Back in the days when we bought film by the roll, a dozen photos might cover a period of two or three years. Preserving photos takes some curation and editorial decisions, especially because we probably have more photographs than the rest of our possessions combined.
The best way to do this is to send digital copies of important family photos to every family member. Then it’s a simple matter of sending copies back if someone’s hard drive crashes or a hotel sprinkler goes off.
Older, print photos can be scanned too. My husband’s photo albums from the Seventies have started to deteriorate; the glue on the pages has become brittle and the photos have started to fall out. Others have stuck to the pages or to the glass of picture frames, causing them to tear if we try to remove them. In my organizing work I’ve seen entire bags of photographs pancaked and stuck together by moisture, moldy and ruined. Photographs do not last forever. The work of redundancy may do more to protect photos against ordinary entropy than against catastrophic loss.
Many people find that taking a picture of a sentimental item creates enough of a record to allow the original item to be released. Children’s artwork, trophies, worn-out concert t-shirts, lucky running shoes, old quilts or afghans, all of this stuff could potentially be digitized. The memory is preserved and the relic can be let go for recycling.
As an historian, the idea of families recording the artifacts of their daily lives is really interesting. I’d love to see decades’ worth of family albums recording the layout of furniture in each room, pictures of favorite family meals, pet beds, and all the other stuff that usually fades into the background. What I would not want to see would be family genealogies recording the deaths of people who ran back into a burning house in a foolhardy attempt to drag out a paper photo album.
Fall and winter are good times of year to sort and scan photos. At least in the Northern Hemisphere, the weather is cold and wet and the days are shorter. We can bundle up, drink cocoa, and look through old prints. As the various holidays come up, we can share albums with friends and family. We can do the emotional homework of detaching from material objects and making stronger connections to our beloved people and pets. Let us be grateful that we have these bright spots in our lives. Let us be grateful that we have the comfort and leisure to preserve our memories today.
On social media, a lot of people spend a lot of time saying a lot of things that make them indistinguishable from bots. There could be entire predictive text buttons with these bumper-sticker sentiments. You could even write a script that posted them for you while you went off to make a sandwich. Of all these repetitive, commonplace reactions, Quit Posting Your Workouts is one of the most common. After consideration, I tend to agree. I used to post my workouts to Facebook, and I quit... Facebook. If you’ve been frustrated by this particular issue, pro or con, maybe my outlook will be interesting.
Here’s the thing. Everyone does something that is interesting to some friends, irrelevant to others, and annoying to yet others. If we remove all of these topics, what could there possibly be left to talk about?
My workout is a significant chunk of my day and my life. It’s an enormous part of who I am. It’s how I beat illness, it’s a constant research topic, it’s an area where I explore and learn new things, it’s where I see and hear much of what I find interesting. It’s also where I now make most of my friends. Asking me never to share about this part of my life is precisely like asking someone else never to talk about their kids, their job, their home remodel, or any of their hobbies. Wouldn’t it be nicer to just unfollow, scroll past, or otherwise ignore posts that don’t interest you?
Maybe, like me, you’ve posted about workouts in the hopes of connecting with your other friends who also work out. Maybe, like me, some of your friends cross-train, and thus can’t capture everything we’re doing through an app like RunKeeper. Maybe, like me, you have a years-long running conversation with a small group of friends who are constantly exploring different types of workout. Maybe those conversations are one of your main reasons for ever logging on to social media at all. If there’s ever a more suitable social media platform for us, one without all the non-workout BS, we’ll all stampede toward it and never look back.
Or maybe you’re one of the forty percent of Americans who never do any kind of exercise whatsoever, not even walking for fifteen minutes. Maybe all this talk just irritates you to no end. I dunno.
What I found was that sharing my workouts tended to generate friction for a variety of reasons. It brought up disagreements and mean comments from people who I had previously liked, people I considered my actual friends before social media came along and ruined it. I exercise because when I don’t, I suffer physically, and I don’t really feel like I have an option. For whatever reason, other people interpret this as body shaming, as buying into the beauty myth, as some kind of psychological problem, as proselytizing, or as just being a terminal bore. I started to realize that it really wasn’t worth my time to engage in discussions where words were put in my mouth. Why go there if my character was going to be brought into question or my motives were misinterpreted?
This is part of the picture when people say that when your energy changes, your friends change. It’s not always that you become some sort of social climber and abandon your previous loyalties. It’s more that your new thoughts, behaviors, and conversation topics annoy your old friends, who can no longer stand you and don’t want to socialize with you unless you go back to your old ways.
If you want to know, my weekday workout typically looks like this: Ride bike along the beach to martial arts gym while listening to an audio book. See my friends. Crush it for an hour, learning new things, surprising myself with what my body can do that it couldn’t do a month ago, bonding with people from all walks of life. Gossip in the changing room. Ride home along the beach again. Walk the dog. Do an hour on the elliptical, reading articles about space, biomimicry, and robotics for my tech newsletter. Stretch for half an hour. Shower. Sometimes this all starts in the morning, sometimes in the evening.
Some days I work out for nearly three hours. That might sound extreme, but I do longer workouts a few times a year. Distance days for marathon training were two to three hours once a week. Martial arts belt promotions go for four hours. I’ve gone on four-hour bike rides many times. When I go backpacking, we typically hike for six hours or more. On vacation I walk eight to ten miles a day, basically from morning til night except for meal breaks. For someone who enjoys endurance sports, “time on feet” is a valuable training metric. I’ve had several jobs where I stood for forty hours a week. I think back to our pioneer ancestors, who walked thirty miles a day on the Oregon Trail, and I seriously question a modern society that thinks sitting or lying down for 20-22 hours a day is somehow normal. The more I find that I can do routinely, the more I wonder how much is out there for me.
In my life, what I do for exercise is equivalent to what I do for reading. I see both as exploration and adventure, as a legitimate intellectual inquiry. Both are endlessly fascinating and irresistibly attractive to me. The alternative to both I see as “sitting in front of a television for five hours a day,” which is something I did throughout childhood and now find impossibly boring.
I took everyone’s advice and quit posting my workouts. I write about them, sure, and if someone wants to touch base with me and find out what I’m doing these days, Wednesdays are the day for that. Otherwise, some of my most interesting conversations are happening in person, live, in my gym. For those of you who are likewise confounded by constant social pushback, don’t let it get to you. Just move the conversation to a place where it’s appreciated and leave everyone else to go about their business.
Now for something new and different. I’ve got some serious stuff going on in my life right now, so instead of the usual book review, here’s a list of podcasts that I follow. These are the shows that keep me occupied while I walk six miles a day, cook, fold laundry, clean house, delete spam email, and all the other daily maintenance. If you don’t currently listen to podcasts, maybe spend a few minutes trying one of these and find out what you’ve been missing!
In no particular order:
Happier with Gretchen Rubin
This is Actually Happening
The Memory Palace
The Science of Happiness
Smart People Podcast
Side Hustle School
Crime Writers On...
Robot or Not?
Tribe of Mentors
The Becoming Superhuman Podcast
The iProcrastinate Podcast
Judge John Hodgman
My Brother, My Brother, and Me
Be Wealthy & Smart
Here Be Monsters
The Black Tapes
Welcome to Night Vale
Truth and Justice
Someone Knows Something
In the Dark
The RFK Tapes
Some of these are finite projects, while some have been posting for years. Some have a regular schedule, and some will surprise you with sudden updates. Episodes range in length from two minutes to two hours, depending on the show.
This is a freakishly long list, and it’s not even complete... I wouldn’t recommend every show I’ve tried! I am current in many of these, while others I hoard for special occasions. Starting a podcast episode is one of the first things I do when I wake up every morning, and it’s often one of the last things I do at night before I go to sleep. This is a new medium for a new era. Why not try out a new show today?
We sold our car over a year ago, and we’re laughing. That was $700 a month that we now have available for other things. Most people will immediately shut down any exploration of that topic, because not having a personal vehicle is too radical to even think about. For the curious, this is the sort of strategizing to do.
The first thing we did was to look at our pain points. A “pain point” is any persistent area of stress, annoyance, or frustration in your life, such as losing track of your keys or running out of dog food. We determined that commuting on the freeway every day was the single biggest annoyance in our life. For us, it was worth doing anything possible to rearrange our lifestyle and avoid a freeway commute. We were able to do that very quickly by finding a rental house within walking distance of my husband’s workplace. That gave us about a year to feel what walking everywhere was like while still retaining our vehicle.
Walkable neighborhoods are not always all that easy to find. It’s a sign of privilege. We’re able to afford to live in a safe neighborhood with lots of shops and services nearby. Of course, walking in your neighborhood automatically starts to improve its safety! Each individual person who dares to go out, carrying a phone and video camera, helps the other residents to feel safer and more comfortable going out. (Martial arts training is not irrelevant to this discussion, and neither is dog ownership). In my opinion, car drivers’ assessment of the safety of a given neighborhood is often off-base and unduly paranoid. I’m much more afraid of car drivers than I am of pedestrians!
What about anchors? An anchor is anything that keeps you in a given situation. When my husband and I first got married, we had two anchors: His golden-handcuffs job, and my stepdaughter’s school. For other people, anchors might include home ownership, a spouse’s job, a probation officer, proximity to a certain doctor or hospital, caretaking for an aging relative, military service, owning a storefront business, or anything else that makes a permanent location strategically important. These anchors actually make it much easier to plan around going car-free, or at least ditching one vehicle. You know exactly where you need to be for the foreseeable future, so you can feel more confident in your other decisions.
There are a bunch of ways to transition to going car-free. Some households have multiple vehicles and are paying insurance even on “project cars” that aren’t running. It’s possible to do this if you have a big garage, a big driveway, a lot of street parking, or more than one property. In SoCal, where we live, most neighborhoods will have as many as five cars associated with one house. Street parking is almost impossible to find, and sometimes people are even living in converted garages. It makes sense when there are five or six working adults sharing a house. It makes less sense when it’s one married couple! Count up everything that needs insurance and ask whether any of them can go.
Getting rid of a vehicle frees up the monthly, quarterly, and annual expenses associated with it. Our “$700/month” figure includes car payments, insurance, gas, oil changes, maintenance, parking, bridge tolls, car wash, and every other car-related expense that we no longer have. If we had owned two vehicles, it would have been much higher. Getting rid of a vehicle might also generate a lump sump of cash, which could be used to pay down the loan on the main vehicle; pay off credit card debt; put aside for an emergency savings account; buy a motorcycle, scooter, or electric bicycle; or, what the heck - go on vacation.
We live in a walkable neighborhood, and the reason is that we chose it when my husband got his current job. He got the offer, we had twelve days to relocate to a new city, and we moved our stuff into storage and stayed in an AirB&B while we scouted the rental listings. Another valid point about going car-free is that we downsized from a suburban house with a garage to an apartment. Not only did we eliminate that $700/month of car ownership, we also significantly cut our rent and utility expenses. We were able to painlessly escalate our retirement savings.
Going car-free is about more than just the money. It’s a straightforward fitness strategy. My hubby just turned 50, and I’m cruising through my forties, so we have to start taking our health and mobility more seriously. He rides the bus for most of his daily work commute, using his folding bicycle to get between bus stops. (That was strategic also, because standard bikes are not allowed inside his building, but he can carry the folded bike and store it in his office). I ride my bike to my gym, adding 20 miles a week to my fitness program. The initial cost of a bike is amortized when you weigh it against what you would have spent on a car, higher rent, a gym membership, or other fitness equipment that you might have bought.
Our overall lifestyle was constructed from the ground up. We have a status meeting every week, and we sat in a cafe and talked out our ideal life. That made it easier to imagine ourselves living in a one-bedroom apartment instead of a three-bedroom, two-bath suburban house with a two-car garage and a car payment. In one way, it was an extreme, radical move, but in another, it was really straightforward. We spent two weeks downsizing our stuff and relocating, and then we were done. My hubby sits on the bus and reads the news for half an hour instead of being tailgated by road-raged caffeine junkies. I ride my bike and get a free warmup before my martial arts classes. Our retirement accounts are filling more quickly than they ever have before.
The result of going car-free is that we’re both fitter and more relaxed, partly because our finances are in such great shape. Because we were willing to downsize into a tiny living space, we can afford to live at the beach. It’s fair to admit that we’re in a position to go to a car lot, take out a loan, and drive home with a new car any day of the year. Most changes are not permanent. We didn’t really risk anything by making a radical lifestyle decision. There was much more risk involved in spending a higher proportion of our income, with comparatively less in savings. We originally agreed to reevaluate after one year, and we already have. We’re in no hurry to ever own a car again. It’s fun and freeing and helps us feel like a team. Plus, we never have to set aside time to “clean out the garage.” Think about it. Maybe going car-free for a while would work for you, too.
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.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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