I snapped awake. It was still dark outside. 4:11 AM. I had been asleep for four hours.
Why does this happen?
It’s a mystery why a tired person who isn’t sleeping well will still wake up in the middle of the night, wake up too early, or struggle to fall asleep. I know it’s a mystery because I’ve been reading everything I can find on the topic for twenty years.
Another mystery is what I would have done with my life by now if I hadn’t had so many disrupted nights.
I had plans for the day. Doesn’t everyone? I lay awake until 6:30 AM, turning off my alarm, since I wouldn’t be needing it. I was finally feeling sleepy again just as I had planned to be waking up and getting ready.
Decision point. Do I:
Get up and struggle through a long day on four hours of sleep;
Fall back to Plan B, see if I can sleep another two hours, and rearrange my schedule;
I went to Plan B. Again, I snapped awake before the alarm. I was so groggy and I felt so terrible that the will to launch simply snuffed itself out.
The worst part about this is that I structure my own schedule. I have no real reason for struggling with sleep, no caretaking responsibilities, no duty to unlock a door or turn the lights on. My income does not depend on a requirement that I get out of bed at a specific time. This was, of course, fallout from my parasomnia disorder.
Why some people voluntarily deprive themselves of sleep is beyond me. Staying up late to play games, surf the internet, or binge-watch anything, only to get up early the next day and be exhausted, is a pattern I don’t really understand. You mean you would be able to sleep, you just don’t feel like it? What must that be like?
The last couple of years that I worked a traditional day job, I had some very rough days. If I only slept for two or three hours, I would still have to get up and get dressed and commute and drag myself through my workday. I used to go into the ladies’ room every 90 minutes or so to splash cold water on myself or slap myself in the face a couple of times. I used to pinch my upper thigh between my fingernails until the pain jolted me briefly into alertness.
There were times when I barely made thirty hours of sleep for the week.
It was the same in college, when at least I could take naps between classes. I trained myself to sleep in 45-minute increments, folded onto one sofa cushion in the student lounge.
During that era, most of my work occurred outside the time dimension. I could read my assignments and write papers at any time of day or night. While I was a Dean’s List student, this was somewhat of a disaster, because it shattered my circadian rhythms.
It was probably inevitable that I would cut the cord of the traditional day job schedule as soon as I was able. I’m worthless when sleep deprived. Can’t concentrate, lose objects, get physically lost, speak slowly, read the same paragraph over and over. Probably there are high-functioning alcoholics and addicts who get more done at work than I did after a week of poor sleep.
What I didn’t expect was that I would have some of the same problems when I had nobody to report to but myself.
Over the years, I’ve figured out a lot of inputs that affect my sleep and allow me to get enough rest 80-90% of the time. I haven’t figured out how to deal with external noise past a certain decibel level. I’m struggling right now because the apartment beneath ours is being remodeled, and there are saws, drills, hammers, and who knows what else going on ten or eleven hours a day, six or seven days a week. Naps are off the menu. Until when? How would I know? How long does it take to completely overhaul a 650-square-foot apartment?
This is a difficult world for parasomnia. If I knew of a quiet place, I would already be living there, but the countryside isn’t much better. My sleep has been disrupted by anything and everything including garbage trucks, loud motorcycles, helicopters, slamming doors, domestic arguments, barking dogs, ice cream trucks, roosters, other people’s phones, crying children, jackhammers, drunken singing, and even misdelivered packages. Some of these happen between the hours of midnight and 4 AM, because why would the world ever quit being loud?
What I’m trying to learn to do is to fit in an acceptable level of productivity around all of it, somehow. I have to accept that there will never be anywhere in the world, or any time in the day, when I can go off somewhere and never experience disruption. It’s built into the system. If I check into a hotel room, people will persist in talking and laughing loudly in the hallway outside my room every single hour of the day and night. If I move somewhere, the adjacent space will almost immediately undergo renovations.
As I write this, a car alarm is going off in the parking lot next door.
I don’t even own a car, much less a car alarm.
I’ve tried white noise generators and high-end noise canceling headphones and fans and double-glazed windows. I’ve tried every sleeping pill on the market, both prescription and OTC. I’ve tried massage and hot baths and essential oils and meditation. I’ve spoken with doctors and even a psychiatrist. I’m an edge case. I’ll never stop trying things, because I’m curious and because I’ll never give up hope that I can beat this dumb problem, one way or another.
In the meantime, most of the stuff I do that happens on a schedule happens in the afternoon.
I always wanted a chauffeur. That used to be something high on my outrageous dreams list. I’ve always hated driving, I’m a terrible navigator, I’m definitely the kind of person who forgets where she parked, and I saw the whole thing as a chore.
That’s why going car-free has been so great for me.
Honestly I feel like I’m getting away with something by not driving. Most of what I do in my neighborhood, I do on foot, and it feels like I’m on vacation. A little outing most days of the week gets me out in the fresh air. Sometimes I take the bus, something we also do on vacation. It’s when I get a rideshare driver that I really feel like I’m living the dream and having a chauffeur - except that I didn’t have to become a millionaire before it happened.
Why do other people drive so much? I’m not totally sure, since driving was only a regular part of my life for a few years, but I think it’s almost entirely 1. work commute and 2. errands.
Oh, and driving kids around, for those who have them, but we can get to that later.
When I talk about not having a car, especially in Southern California, people get very fidgety. It’s one of those topics that falls under the category of “preachy” for some reason, like eating enough dietary fiber or voting in midterm elections. Ugh, stop pressuring me, I don’t want to spend my social time talking about this!
It’s like people have a conversational filter, and a huge number of topics gets caught in that filter, because we make automatic assumptions about WHY someone would do something.
The only reason someone like me would quit driving - well, I can’t understand it - but surely it absolutely must be something preachy. Saving the environment or something. Ugh. *eye roll*
On the contrary, I don’t drive because I’m spoiled!
Why any middle-class person would do their own errands is beyond me. I for one am way too busy! There is no way I’m going to give up any time on my evenings or weekends to drive around in circles, looking for parking, and wander from place to place doing a bunch of unpaid labor.
That’s what errands are. Unpaid productivity.
Let’s go through the errands point by point.
(If you have kids, hear me out, because my mom did all these things with three small children *by bus* all the time when we either had only one vehicle, or our car was broken down. Riding herd on small kids is even more reason to want to avoid doing your own errands!)
Again, I see errands as an annoying chore that disrupts my precious free time.
Groceries. There is a grocery store across the street from my apartment that is open from 5 AM to midnight, every day. We’re also a ten-minute walk from a Trader Joe’s and a ten-minute bus ride from two different Whole Foods locations. We almost always walk to pick up groceries, or grab a bag as part of another trip. I’ve also paid to have groceries delivered, and for $6-7 plus tip it’s definitely worth saving 1-2 hours of my time.
When would I have groceries delivered? When I’m prepping for a dinner party, once when I was wearing an ankle brace, and another time when I had the flu and my hubby was out of town. If I had little kids, I’m telling you, I wouldn’t do my own grocery shopping again until the littlest one went off to college.
Pharmacy. Every pharmacy I have seen encourages mail delivery. I switched to this because they obviously prefer it, and also because I’ve picked up a cold at least twice when I went to the pharmacy in person.
Dry cleaning. Um, we don’t use a dry cleaner… Maybe once every year or two. I learned how to use those dry cleaner kits you can put in the dryer at home. To me, this would not rate as a good enough reason to own and operate a car. I can walk to a dry cleaner five minutes from my apartment.
Doctor/dentist/veterinary appointments. To me, these aren’t errands, they are appointments. I usually ride the bus, but this is one category where we both tend to use rideshare. We’ve never had a problem bringing our dog or our parrot with us; in fact, often the driver asks to take a photo with my bird.
Beauty treatments. I get my hair done across the street. My hubby goes to a place across the street from our favorite cafe. I’m not interested in stuff like nail art, and I have no idea how many other types of beauty treatments there are, but I imagine most of them could be combined in one full-service location? Again, this wouldn’t be a good enough reason for me to make myself drive anywhere.
Random stuff. Shoe repair - I had to take my hubby’s dress shoes in when my parrot climbed into the closet and chewed on them. It was on the bus route to one of my clubs. I have no idea what type of random things other people are doing, but how many of them involve car-related things like oil changes?
“Shopping.” What do we mean when we say “shopping”? I mean groceries, because personally I hate shopping for clothes almost as much as I hate driving. My hubby and I don’t shop for entertainment. We usually tie in something like buying new shoes or pants along with a trip to the movie theater, and we go there by city bus. I do one major clothes shopping trip a year, usually on vacation, when I make my hubby help me pick out all my stuff.
Outings. I think a lot of people come up with “reasons” to do errands because they include outings, like getting ice cream, going through the drive-thru because they secretly love it and despise cooking, or stopping at the craft store or other favorite shop. Just admit that you are in the mood for an outing and go on the outing. You don’t need to tack a chore onto it because you don’t need to justify your desire to have fun.
Here is where I might add that we used to spend $700 a month owning a car. We got rid of it three years ago. My hubby’s bus fare is paid for by his employer, and he’s learned to prefer playing games and saving money to fighting freeway traffic for 40 minutes every night.
I realize that many people don’t live in a walkable neighborhood. Neither did I during the first five years of my marriage. We sat down and consciously strategized about how we could relocate to a walkable neighborhood. It meant downsizing and being willing to fit into a smaller house… and that in turn meant way less housekeeping and zero yard work!
Since we started living the way we do, we’ve been able to live off half our income. We never fight about money. We also never fight about chores because there’s almost nothing to do, and we’ve automated most of it. When other people are out fighting rush hour traffic to do their own errands, we’re lounging around our living room, talking about stuff like what we would do with our time during the rocket trip to Mars, or why the students at Hogwarts still walked to the candy store even though they had magic.
Well, obviously it’s because walking around town is fun! Stop driving around doing errands all the time and start feeling more leisure in your life.
Right around now, everyone deflates. Aw geez, I had all these great feelings on New Year’s Eve and now they’re gone. There was only one magic moment to make the perfect wish, but I didn’t have a tidal wave of motivation, I broke my only chance at a perfect streak, and now it’s too late for me.
I wish we all had this feeling around the entire concept of the perfect streak. Aw, gee, it sure had us all fooled. What a con job. Disappoint.
What is true is that we all have a tendency to let consensus opinion influence what we do or don’t do.
EVERYBODY KNOWS that resolutions don’t work, therefore I can only do an extremely narrow set of activities for the rest of my life no matter what.
Part of a resolution really does work, and it’s confirmed through research. That part is the ‘implementation intention.’ State the thing you plan to do. Most of us do it all the time, routinely. “I’m going for a coffee, care to join me?” “I can’t wait for the new episode.” “Going to Costco to eat all the free samples.”
All of these are clear and bright implementation intentions.
Does anyone doubt that these are going to work? Do we doubt that someone is going to go out for coffee, feeling convinced that they’ll come back with zero coffee every time? Do we doubt that someone is going to finish watching their favorite show? Do we doubt that Costco will continue to hand out free samples?
What’s the difference between these classic, common, and practical implementation intentions, and our New Year’s Resolutions?
Answer: they know HOW, they know WHEN, they know what to do if Plan A doesn’t work out, they’ll keep trying because any obstacle would feel like an anomaly, and they probably don’t have any naysayers. Unlike, in every way, all our shiny new resolutions.
I don’t know if you remember the first time you ever ordered your own meal, either from a restaurant or at a food counter. I do. It was hard! When I was a senior in high school, I decided to learn how to take myself out for lunch. I went to a cafe at the mall and I got a bagel sandwich. I sat down and ate it and read a book, and then I sat there for another 25 minutes because I didn’t understand what happened next. Do you wait until the server comes back to the table and brings you the check? Do you go up to the counter? How can you tell which kind of place is which? What do they do with your change? I felt very alone and young and dumb and incompetent, that is until I pulled up my socks and went to the counter. I FIGURED IT OUT! All by myself! I even left a tip!
The point of this is that at one point, every single thing that we think is easy, routine, or obvious was a part of the unknown.
What that means is that everything we’re unsure about today, is something we are still able to learn how to do. There are other people who know how, just like we know things that are confusing and unfamiliar to other people.
The question is really when.
When are we going to do all these great things?
The middle of January is when most people tend to give up on their resolutions. I think that’s because they realize they haven’t really made much progress yet. We often feel locked in to one single version of something, and if we can’t make it work then we think we’re just not cut out for it. Some very common examples are trying to wake up earlier (rather than go to bed earlier), trying to do one specific kind of workout, or trying to go from “zero to sixty” and become an instant expert.
It’s the new me! I wake up at 4:45 AM every day from now on, so I can run uphill in sleet and hail in the pitch dark, and then at the end of the day I cook gourmet meals entirely from scratch. Perfection or bust.
The vision that we have is a fictional character from a movie that nobody would watch.
Personally, I am useless in the early morning and I know it. I have been on the receiving end of absolutely dozens upon dozens of lectures about early rising, and always being early for things, and sleep hygiene. I don’t care because of three reasons: 1. I know what pavor nocturnus is like and I know that they don’t, because if they did they would definitely say so; 2. I’m probably more productive than this person and I have no shame around my schedule; and 3. I don’t care if other people disapprove of my habits in general. If you have the time to lecture me, that is proof that you have nothing better to do, which then automatically invalidates your opinion.
You know who sleeps from midnight to 8:00 AM? Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and moi. Billionaire hours.
The first answer to the question of when is, when do you feel the best and when do you feel the worst? What time of day are you more likely to be in the mood to do things?
Where we mess up is in punishing ourselves, trying to frame our desires in terms of willpower and motivation and moral fiber. What happens then is a series of fashion don’ts: feeling cruddy, not doing the awesome thing, and being less likely to attempt awesomeness the next time.
What works is to focus on how appealing you find the thing, whatever it is. Remind yourself what you like about it, what makes you curious, and why you’re drawn to it. Play around with it, exploring and learning before you attempt any kind of actual commitment.
Then, ask yourself, what time of day are you most likely to do this little experiment? For instance, if you want to learn hula hoop tricks, are you more likely to play with the hoop in the morning, at lunch, after work, right before bed? On the weekday or on the weekend? At a party or alone in your living room?
It really is that simple. If you aren’t sure what time of day you might do something, then you probably won’t do it until you can see yourself fitting it in somehow. No doubt you’ve always spent all twenty-four hours of every day of your life. You’ve spent them somehow. The question is when you’re going to take hold of your hours and use them toward what you want the most.
How’ve you been?
Busy, so busy!
Yeah, me too.
January is the time of year when I think about TIME the most. The way that time is passing. Everything older people used to tell me about how time moves faster when you’re older unfortunately turned out to be true.
How can we possibly “live our dreams” or have a bucket list when we’re so gosh-darn busy?
We have to.
I think it’s time for a major cultural change. I think we’ve all passed “peak busy” and we’re ready for something else.
In fact, I think we should all start bragging about how lazy we are instead!
I don’t believe that “lazy” actually exists. I’m just saying that. The only people I’ve ever heard describe themselves as lazy turn out to be doing all sorts of things. Did you realize that you can’t be both lazy and a procrastinator at the same time? Seriously. A truly lazy person would not feel bothered by not doing something and wouldn’t feel guilty about putting anything off, either. So which one is it? Are you lazy or are you a procrastinator?
I’m picking lazy, as soon as I can figure out how to do it.
The way our current system is set up, we’re supposed to Work Hard so we can earn money so we can Retire. Retirement is about relaxing and doing nothing as a reward, right?
If relaxing in retirement is so great, then why wait??
Actually I think the idea of hanging out in a recliner in front of a television is the most boring thing imaginable. I don’t really believe in retirement in the traditional sense.
What I want is INTERESTING, not “busy.” Busy is not interesting in itself because it makes us exactly like everyone else. It usually consists of work, chores, and errands.
Why not lead with our real interests? Since surely we do and think about more than just work, chores, and errands?
I’ll tell you mine. Do you think the thylacine is really still alive?? The Tasmanian tiger?
Also, do you think Kate Middleton ever secretly attacks a heavy bag and just kicks it over and over again while screaming curse words? I would.
Anyway. We all know that somehow, in between all the “busy” things we do, we have plenty of time to play with our phones. We text and look at memes and follow celebrity gossip and play games.
Which is awesome, and also a great list of things to do while pushing pedals on the elliptical.
I go on the elliptical because I’m lazy. I could be running along the beach but there’s a really steep hill on the way back to my apartment. It’s easier to just take the elevator down to our little apartment gym, the one that basically nobody uses.
Mostly I go down there and read articles about astrology. Totally true.
So busy! So, so busy!
The thing is that everyone gets the same 24 hours, infuriating as it is. Same as Beyoncé, Kate Middleton, and the high school students riding their skateboards past my apartment. Those 24 hours are the only thing we all have in common.
Are we going to make them ours, or are we going to give them to other people and their priorities?
Pretend an hour of your life is your favorite beverage. Are you going to let someone just walk up, snatch it out of your hand, and drink it right in front of you?
My green tea soy latte NOOOOOOOO
This is exactly why I set my goals and resolutions every year. It’s my little way of saying “in your face” to every naysayer or critic or bad boss I’ve ever had. This hour, it’s mine. Not yours, mine. I decide what to do with my time and you do not. So nyah.
My first boss at my first official paycheck job assigned me to scrub the baseboards. The other employees told me they had never heard of anyone having to do that at that job. Why me? I dunno. I got a better job, tripled my income, and left. My final paycheck was under $40.
Not every use of time is deserving of our attention.
We do have to do a lot of necessary but boring stuff. Life is, what, 80% maintenance? Work, commute, fold laundry, try to figure out where all these little packets of soy sauce and ketchup keep coming from, stand in line somewhere, repeat. Thus it’s up to us to fit in anything personal, to make time for anything that actually matters to us.
For a lot of people, that magic personal thing is listening to music. For others, it’s putting on makeup or watching cute animal videos or choosing new tattoo art. We fit these personal things into our lives somehow or other.
What if we could fit in more?
What if there were more of those forgotten personal things, and it turned out that we have time for them after all?
A friend of mine started drawing again after many years without. Actually two friends of mine did this in different years. In both cases, I could not believe how talented they were, and that nobody knew. Why on earth would you ever give that up? What, not even doodle while you’re on the phone? Not even while you’re out to dinner and there’s a paper tablecloth?
Most of us associate these talents and interests with our school days. For some reason we think it’s normal to sigh and give up.
It’s true that most of us give up lounging on our beds, reading song lyrics, talking on the phone for hours, and all the other fun things we did in high school. We get home at six instead of three, and where are we supposed to find those extra three hours a day?
But then how do the statistics keep coming back that the average American spends five hours a day watching TV?
We certainly don’t need to stop watching TV if that’s what we really love to do. I doubt, though, that we should keep claiming that we’re so, so busy if that’s the main reason we aren’t living our dreams. We should instead proudly proclaim that we’re indulging ourselves, relaxing quite recklessly in defiance of social norms.
There’s time, there’s time for all of it. You can learn a new language while you commute. You can play your favorite 100 albums of all time during your shower, week by week. You can “catch up on laundry” while binge-watching every show you ever wanted. You can draw during lunch. You can even train for a marathon if you have 4-6 hours a week. Not only is there plenty of time for you to put your own fun first, but if you have kids it’s still true. Kids like fun best of all. Set a good example.
People have the wrong idea about this whole “new year, new you” thing. We feel it as pressure. Like the only way to do it is to eat a lot of celery while filing paperwork. Instead it can be a form of rebellion, of reclaiming time for yourself and your own choices in the face of that exact same social pressure. So society wants me to be busy, so so busy? I’m just going to retire early and start telling the truth about my life. The truth is that I like to spend part of my time wearing silly socks and making elaborate breakfasts, just for myself. I’m not busy every single minute and I’m done pretending.
How about you?
I’m closing in on 300 books read for 2019, not the most I’ve read in a year and not the first time I’ve done this, either. It’s not that I think everyone should aim for a book a day - although plenty of people read that much - it’s more that I feel bad for people who love reading and can’t seem to find the time.
If you love books, I’m telling you, you are missing out on reading opportunities.
I met a woman at a party, and it didn’t take long for us to figure out that we were both book nerds. Her husband popped up, wondering what we were so excited about, and it turned out that one of their favorite things to do is to listen to audio books together on road trips. Yay!
Then it turned out that they only used one smartphone app (the worst one) and they had been struggling to find books they both wanted to hear.
THIS is why it’s a good idea to go to parties even when you hate it and you really don’t want to. I proceeded to whip out my phone and blow both of their minds with all the portals they were missing out on.
Now, because I’m nice, I’m going to tell you as well.
If you only like print books, that’s fine, good for you, and you can skip the rest of this post, but you are probably still missing out. I’ll throw you a few ideas. One, I didn’t realize until I was thirty that I could put books on hold at my local library, and that’s why the books I found the most interesting never seemed to be on the shelf. Two, it’s also possible to put books on hold *before they are even in print* and that’s why there is always a line of 375 people already waiting on publication day. Three, most libraries take suggestions for purchases, and they will notify you if they buy your suggestion. They’ll usually put your name on the waiting list, too. Four, the Large Print section is likely to have popular books in stock when the regular scale is checked out, and they’re easier to read during your workout.
Okay, done with all that. Next point, anyone who buys most of their reading material off the bookstore remainder table probably has a house full of partially read books. Shopping is not reading! Just like shopping is not crafting. Look around and ask yourself if you are choosing books based on price rather than preference. Don’t feel beholden to books that couldn’t keep your interest past page 40. Free yourself of any feelings of obligation, give those books away, and try not to pre-commit to more than the next three books you plan to read.
Oh! And if you have books that you have borrowed from other people, there is probably a reading-related curse on your head, and you should give them back right away.
Back to the 21st century, where we have ebooks and audio books and futuristic speed-reading tools that would have been worth a king’s ransom a century ago. Imagine poor Abraham Lincoln reading on horseback, and then the rains came...
This is my secret: I can acquire and read any book while it is still red-hot, fresh, and desirable, then immediately move on to another.
The most interesting thing about ebooks to me is that you can boost a library’s circulation figures even if you’ve only walked in their door once. As a corollary to this, ebooks make it easy to be a member of multiple libraries. As I showed my new friends at the party, I have no fewer than four library apps on my phone, and I’m an active patron of five library systems.
I can theoretically check out 75 books at a time and have 70 on hold.
That’s only through one app (OverDrive), and it doesn’t include magazines.
My new book-loving friends had never heard of OverDrive, even though it’s the most popular library app with the biggest selection. The other three I use are Hoopla, cloudLibrary, and RBdigital. Some ebook editions can only be read through a web browser, and some are only available as Kindle Editions. (Note: using the Kindle app does not require using the Kindle device)
I seem to have discovered an exploit, because often books that are on hold for months through one app will be sitting there available for checkout through the same library on another app. I think almost all library users of digital materials download one app and use that as their portal, rather than going through the library catalog, where they might see more options.
Something about digital books seems to outrage many traditional readers. NO, they will tell me, I PREFER REAL BOOKS! Ebook readers still read print books, and we tend to read more than we did before because we always have our books with us. We increase library circulation numbers, which increases sales. I’ll tell you what else. I quit buying used books years ago - zero of that revenue goes to the author - and I’m much more likely to buy a new book in hardcover now.
Me: $120 on four new books in hardcover and a couple of digital downloads
Others: $10/month on used or remaindered books, stacked all over the house unread
= SAME PRICE
(But my way, at least the authors get paid)
My enthusiasm for reading is at least as strong as it ever was, when I was two years old and couldn’t read at all, when I was six and learning to sound things out, when I was seven and sprawled on the floor reading my first chapter book, when I was twelve and discovered an entire library shelf dedicated to Stephen King. So many people are like me, book people! Yet we deprive ourselves of our favorite activity because we don’t feel like we have any leisure time any more.
When you were in line at Costco, so was I, but I was reading
When you were washing dishes, so was I, but I was reading
When you were folding laundry, so was I, but I was reading
When you were playing Candy Crush, I wasn’t, I was busy reading; but I bet you could play an audio book in the background
When you were watching TV, I wasn’t, but I probably read the book when it came out
When you were cooking dinner, so was I, but I was blasting a Hoopla audio book at 3x
When you were at the bookstore, I was in the next aisle, playing one book while looking for another
Just writing this is making me want to quit and go back to my book. We’re both missing an opportunity here, because I’ve run out of room before I had time to talk about my secret speed-reading tricks for print books. Suffice to say that because I read so much and so fast, I feel like I have plenty of time to stay current on nonfiction, business books, pop culture, memoir, YA, and literally whatever else crosses my book radar.
The only reading opportunity I worry about missing now is what will happen if I ever run out of books.
When is that book going to get read?
I’d really rather ask WHAT is that book you’re reading? To me it’s a mark of courtesy to hold up my book in public areas, so those who are interested can at least see the title. My husband has even learned to do this for me. When he travels on business, if he sees a woman around my age who looks like one of my book group buddies, he’ll text me the title of whatever she’s reading.
The most interesting books are getting read. Right now, today.
If it is so good that someone is carrying it around town and actively reading it rather than stroking their phone, something is going on. I need to know, What is that book??
On the other hand, if a book is sitting around, midway through a stack, with a bookmark poking out, then something is not going on. For whatever reason, that book lacked the mysterious something, the je ne sais quoi that I can’t describe and my autocorrect can’t spell.
In those cases, the question is, WHEN is that book ever going to get read?
Chances are, never.
There is nothing quite so aspirational as a bookshelf full of unread books.
It’s October and I’ve just gone through a purge of my active reading stack. I like to dedicate the month to spooky stuff, and anything I didn't finish in September is therefore getting pushed off at least a month.
This policy gives me a moment to ask, Would I choose this book again?
Now that I’ve had it sitting around for a week or more, if I haven’t felt compelled to drop everything and read it right away, would I choose it again? Am I feeling any kind of pressure to read it just because:
Someone else wants me to read it
My book club is reading it
I paid for it
I already read at least one volume of the series
I met the author
I’m a completist
Books feel like homework to me
I’m working from a list
I’m emotionally invested in the Sunk Cost Fallacy
I simply can’t bear to let go of books, from tractor manuals to travel guides from 2008
As an example, I have a developing friendship with a woman I think is awesome and very interesting. She invited me to her book group (yay!). They’re reading a hit novel (good) that is historical fiction (ugh) and representative of kinda pedestrian picks. Am I really willing to start reading books that don’t appeal to me for the sake of a cool chick I’d like to see more often?
(Here I remind myself that the first book group I joined read a lot of books I had loved, but the members never finished any of them and also never liked them).
If you come over to my apartment, you will see two types of books. One, my husband’s aerospace and robotics textbooks, and two, my books. I keep books that aren’t available in ebook or audiobook format, because I can’t get them any other way. Then I never read them because I actively hate reading paperbacks. Quite the quandary. There are novels I’ve had since before we got married, and I still can’t bear either to get rid of them or to break their little spines.
Am I going to feel any more in the mood to read them ten years from now than I am today?
One of the things I have noticed is that my favorite authors keep on publishing new books. I can pretty much guarantee that there will be at least 500 new books every year that will catch my attention. I already know I can’t read that many books, especially not if I have to factor in the reading list I already have. Choices have to be made.
At a certain point, you’re either into a book, or you’re not.
Gone With the Wind was the first one that really got me. I stayed up all night, three nights in a row, trying to finish it the summer I turned thirteen. I melted my book light! I cried at a few points and couldn’t get over the ending. At that age I would start a book and it was like climbing inside to live among the characters.
That’s a pretty high standard to set, but an interesting one. Aside from not having much sense of whether a book was problematic for some reason, what qualities made books so much more immersive? Was it just youth? Or were we more likely to grab something, dive into it immediately, and read according to whim rather than some kind of task list?
This is the direction I’m moving toward. I want to feel like:
within a twenty-minute window.
My husband literally does this. We go to the bookstore, he buys something, I write down a list of two dozen new titles, and we’re off. He’s finished his choice a week later and my picks are still on hold from the library.
I’m sometimes reading something four months after it initially caught my attention.
What I’m doing when I write down a list that long is pre-committing Future Me to at least two weeks’ reading material. It seems that in practice, I really only get around to reading maybe 10-20% of these picks. What am I doing?
When is that book going to be read? In the afterlife? That’s assuming I get to go to the sort of afterlife where I have eternity to read random novels.
I advocate doing a clean sweep and starting over. I advocate avoiding the remainder table or otherwise discounted books. I advocate buying your most anticipated books by your favorite authors as soon as they hit the shelf and then reading them while you’re still walking out of the store, maybe even bumping into a pole along the way.
When is that book getting read? Why do you ask? I’m already a hundred pages in.
The movers showed up early and got straight to work. I had “a couple of last things” and they were done before I was, our entire studio apartment unloaded in two hours.
Everything in our studio apartment fit in fifty boxes.
I’m surprised and embarrassed about this, but what can I say. At least six of those boxes were just our bedding and pillows!
We managed to pull up to the special “only available between 11:30 am and 3:00 pm on Fridays” loading zone at 11:32, and the movers were done at 2:30.
It took longer to unload the truck than it did to load it, because they had to wheel everything down a ramp, through the basement garage, to the elevator, and up to the fifth floor.
Due to that long lag time, I was able to unpack quite a lot of stuff between loads. It wasn’t like I could leave, or take a nap, when I needed to answer questions about where things went and what direction the furniture should face. I felt like I was racing against time, that the more boxes I unpacked, the more cardboard the movers would cart away for me.
Get food into fridge and freezer
Set up the bed
Set up the shower
Set up the pet bowls
Unpack enough in the kitchen to be able to microwave something or cook breakfast
By 5:00 pm I had done all of these things - and a few more - and I am feeling pretty impressed with myself.
I have this special moving inventory system, and this time it really saved the day. I realized when the movers were bringing up our massive California King mattress that I should probably get the little floor protector coasters under the wheels of the bed frame first. I whipped out my phone, skimmed through the inventory note to find the right box, located that box (behind and under as many boxes as possible, of course), moved the other boxes out of the way, opened the correct one, dug out the appropriate container, found the coasters, flipped up the box springs, and was putting the coasters under the wheels when the movers came in.
A non-trivial task, to find four 2”-square flat objects in the midst of fifty boxes in five minutes.
That bit of effort will save the nice dark wooden floors from any further scarring - it’s quite obvious the previous tenants didn’t think of this kind of nicety - and potentially save us from having to pay for repair work when we move. Probably more to the point, it will save my husband and me from either feeling like we’ve procrastinated on a honeydo task, or having to move the mattress and box springs in the midst of unpacking.
Done and dusted!
This is how we organized the one-day move.
As of dinnertime, we can sit on the couch, feed the dog, charge our devices, shower and brush our teeth, sleep in our bed, and even find our clothes.
I’ve unpacked fifteen boxes, most of them the large size. I’ve unpacked about a quarter of my clothes and set up my desk. One kitchen cabinet is set up. All our plates, bowls, and glasses are in the new dishwasher. There is a path through the living room.
Probably the most important thing that we’ve done was to plan a housewarming party. We always used to love having an open house every week, and now there are interns in our life instead of college students. Having a social date on the calendar gives us a deadline and a sense of excitement.
It was really sweet to hear how excited these kids are about the open house theory!
Now, I can’t claim that we moved “in one day.” The old apartment still needs to be cleaned, and all our cleaning apparatus is still over there, every single thing from the dish gloves to the steam mop. We still have almost three dozen boxes to unpack and we don’t even have internet.
It is fair to say, though, that all our furniture went from OVER THERE to OVER HERE in one day, and that we can sleep here and start living a fairly normal life from tonight on. As normal as it gets for us, anyway.
Ironically, our place is more functional in the midst of a move than what most of my clients experience on an ordinary day. We have more freedom of movement from room to room, even with the boxes. We can find more stuff. We can cook and bathe. If someone needed to make a repair tonight or tomorrow, we wouldn’t be ashamed or afraid to let them in. This is partly because we are very organized, partly because we don’t have that much stuff, and mostly because we hold ourselves to a certain level of expectations.
Alas, now I’ve set the bar and all our further moves are going to have to meet those expectations! A one-day move on Friday and back to business on Monday?
My husband is an aerospace engineer, and I’ve been interviewing him about his school days. This was spurred by his recent intervention in the educational trajectory of one of our young baristas. He started tutoring her in calculus, and she brought her grade up from a D to an A. Never having made it to calculus myself, I had a lot of questions. Is he just smarter than the average bear, or does he know something that the rest of us don’t know?
I hated study groups in school. I hated them because I was always the one who wound up doing all the work while everyone else got credit for it. This might have been awesome and lovely if anyone had thanked me for it, but, well, I was a nerd. I made the Dean’s List in college all on my own.
What would have been different about my academic career if I hadn’t had this distaste for group work?
Heck, what would have been different about my work career??
I knew about my hubby’s study group because he had briefly mentioned it back when we were still getting to know each other. Suddenly, after fourteen years, it struck me that this was no average study group. I needed to know more.
How did this group form?
What were the rules?
Who was in it, and how did they meet?
Where are they now?
The first thing to know is that aerospace engineering is not like most fields. Over 80% of the students wash out. It takes five years of hard work to get through the requirements, and there’s no time for electives. This is not a career that people stumble into by accident.
Compare and contrast: History degree
I knew that my husband moved to the opposite end of the state to go to school. Therefore, he had no classmates, friends, family, or colleagues nearby for social support. How did he meet people?
Crucial to the formation of the high-powered study group was a natural social hub, M. M was a member of several clubs and an active student group. He was bilingual, which is intriguing and seems relevant. (I grew up in a neighborhood composed of about 1/3 immigrant families representing at least five languages, and my classmates were generally top students). M went around getting to know people and introducing them to each other, and that’s how the members of the high-powered study group met.
The group originally consisted of four Upholders and one Questioner. The Questioner lost interest in engineering over the summer and never came back.
One member was second in the class and top in the group. The other three, including my husband, competed for second in the group. A certain amount of smack talk and teasing arose from this, driving competition.
(This would not have worked on me)
Other students tried to get into the group. While the group would help them if they showed up, they would not be invited back. The group changed locations between study sessions, essentially to protect their small size and remain exclusive. The rationale here was: if you want to sit at our table, you’d better add value.
There was another high-powered study group. Its membership and size fluctuated. Then there was another study group that consisted of C students. Studying together did nothing to improve their grades, and this is why the nature of the high-powered study group is so interesting.
Most of the C students did graduate and become engineers. Studying together probably helped them quite a bit. They weren’t accepted in the high-powered group because they couldn’t keep up. What they really wanted was the opportunity for tutoring. That’s a big ask. It’s really asking for free labor from other busy people without offering anything in exchange.
I think that’s fair. I’ve helped other students in school, just as I’ve helped people with their resumes in the working world. There’s only so much you can do for them, for one thing. I helped another student in my dorm by editing her papers, and I did it gladly because she helped me quite a bit in non-academic ways. Did I have time to edit papers for any and all comers? Nope, I did not.
Most people don’t ask. Most people don’t ask for help because they know it’s their responsibility to do it on their own. Most people also understand the concepts of win-win and fair exchange, that you give and then you receive and then you give again.
What happened with the high-powered study group? What were its impressive powers?
The faculty became aware of the high-powered study group, because they always worked together on group assignments. They took on more complicated projects than the other groups. They stood out for their test scores. They could also be found using various empty classrooms for studying. This is how they built their reputation.
The school decided to close their aerospace program when this particular high-powered study group was one year from graduating.
The members of the high-powered study group marched into the dean’s office. They advocated for themselves and insisted that the program remain open until they graduated. The dean agreed and the program continued for an additional year.
Note that this was a win for all the students in their program that year, about fifty people.
The tradition continues. My hubby just did something similar, thirty years later. A group of interns who all went to school together were going to be relocated to various desks around the facility. My hubby thought they worked much better when the five of them sat together. He went up the chain of command - unbeknownst to the interns - and pushed back. The five interns continue to sit together and work together. Maybe they’ll go on to get patents together, maybe they’ll publish academic papers together, maybe they’ll leave and start their own company. Maybe they’ll just continue to turn out above-average work, because their group makes them more powerful than they were alone.
The Procrastination Equation is a curious artifact, the product of a former extreme procrastinator who became an academic researcher and actually completed and published a book on procrastination. Piers Steel, PhD in your face! Something like 90% of doctoral candidates never complete their thesis, so this is a pretty big deal. If a procrastinator can get a PhD, then maybe anyone can do anything?
I keep reading and reviewing procrastination research books because guess why.
About 95% of people admit to procrastination and about a quarter consider it one of their defining personality traits. I’m in that quarter, although I have worked so hard at it for so long that when I try to cop to it, people will laugh. You?? Yup, me. I want to be in that magical 5% elite group that never puts anything off, never feels guilty or distracted, gets to wear a diamond tiara that spells out IN THE NOW.
While this book includes targeted behavioral suggestions, it revolves around research, including quizzes which are always a great way to be entertained while procrastinating. It’s pretty funny, for instance when Steel includes a footnote as a supposed reference to an astrology factoid.
One of the most interesting ideas I picked up was the link between impulsivity and procrastination. There is probably a strong link here with hoarding and chronic disorganization as well, because my people tend to be big-time guilty procrastinators as well. The impulsive streak tends to make them fun to be around, ready to try out mental exercises and games as we clear. It’s the same trait that makes them want to bring home random bargains and anything shiny, patterned, or brightly colored. It’s also what makes it hard for them to stay on task.
Procrastination Polka is one section of The Procrastination Equation that is particularly telling. Maybe flip to that section first and see if it catches your attention. I felt smug about several items but there were three out of thirteen that applied to me. Ouch.
Procrastination is as old as agriculture, extending at least to the dawn of written history. There’s a term for it in every culture and language. This makes me feel better. Then I learn that procrastinators get lower grades, have less money, are less healthy, and also less happy, and it gets harder to pretend that my cute little personality trait derives from perfectionism. When Steel calculates it as a trillion-dollar problem and points out how little Congress gets done, procrastination starts to look like a bigger deal than just whether I personally keep up on my email.
I enjoyed The Procrastination Equation, and it actually changed my perspective. Viewing my petty to-do list in a broader historical, anthropological, and economic context gave me a new perspective. I’d rather see myself as different type of animal, like a crow maybe, than a typical procrastinating ordinary human. I read this book and then I did the first next thing on my list, which was to review it.
Now, how about you? What are you going to do next?
By your own standards, if you thought delay was a good idea in the first place, you wouldn’t be procrastinating.
“...the only thing I really ever finish is dessert.”
Those bizarre outfits that languish in your closet were likely purchased toward the end of a shopping trip.
I will never not be tired. That was a realization I had, or at least a passing thought that feels true while dealing with jet lag. Then I had an interesting conversation with one of our favorite baristas.
He related that he had been talking to my husband earlier about what their generation’s version of smoking is. Cigarettes had been on our mind, since very few Californians smoke tobacco and they are rather more common in Britain. It didn’t surprise me that the topic had come up.
(It’s also fairly common for us to have these sorts of extended relay conversations by means of the tea counter).
The topic of warfare in antiquity had come up in my Classics program. We were wondering what it must be like to run into battle with nothing but sandals, shield, and spear, knowing you might die any minute. Did we have anything that scary in modern life? The answer everyone came up with was driving on the freeway. Almost every day we might see cars piled up, and everyone knows someone who was killed in a traffic collision, but we shrug and keep doing it. I didn’t have a license yet and this conversation put me in no great hurry to learn to drive; indeed I quit and I don’t think I’ve been behind the wheel in at least two years.
What this is saying is that our social norms can change, they can and they do. Sometimes they change quite suddenly and other times it creeps up on us slowly, almost unnoticeably.
What they decided is that our generation’s version of smoking is: not sleeping.
“Our generation” in this case meant Millennials. My hubby and I are both Generation X, from opposite ends of the age bracket. Our tattooed, pierced, beanie-wearing bearded barista made this observation, and it instantly snapped something into place for me.
It didn’t use to be this way.
I honestly don’t remember everyone going around talking about how tired they are all the time back in the Eighties or Nineties.
When did it start? When did it change?
It used to be “how are you?” “Fine, how are you?”
Then it was “how are you?” “Busy!”
Then “Crazy busy!”
Now it’s perpetually “tired.”
I shared that people weren’t talking about how tired they were all the time, now that he mentioned it. An observation like this from a young man who wakes up at 3:00 AM to serve coffee all day might be somewhat suspect, but then consider that our neighborhood asks this of him. Nobody is asking bookstore clerks to wake up at 3 AM to sell books, am I right?
I said I thought it probably changed with the advent of the internet.
It was cable TV that had everyone gradually quit hanging out in each other’s living rooms, I’m pretty sure of that. In the Seventies and Eighties it was pretty common, even if we were just talking or playing cards. Even our less-favorite neighbors would still drop by and vice versa, maybe just to watch Knight Rider.
Back in those days, you had to watch stuff at a specific time. Videos were expensive to rent, let alone buy, and getting a movie and pizza was a big enough deal for people to put their shoes on and actually leave their apartment.
Then we all got cable.
It was a few years after that before the “Information Superhighway” and the “World Wide Web” started to take off. Years after that before we all got smartphones.
I remember all of this point by point, when I look back, because I grew up with a rotary phone and a little black and white television with an antenna on top. I remember that when we met, my ex-husband had a pager. I remember how incredibly excited I was to have a new flip phone with a clock on it.
It crept up on us.
When I went to get my tea today, I was feeling really sorry for myself about how tired I have been and how hard it’s been to get a decent night’s sleep.
Then I had this conversation with a Millennial who says his wife only sleeps five hours a night, and he needs “at least six.”
I feel like a total wreck on six hours. I’m a nine-hour person. Our barista’s wife is routinely sleeping a little over half what I consider the “correct” amount.
It was spontaneously mentioned that this poor sleepless gal spends an hour in bed on her phone before going to sleep.
“In my day,” she creaked querulously, “‘on the phone’ meant talking to someone.”
Now we’re scrolling, scrolling, endlessly scrolling. Looking at what?
As far as our quantity and quality of sleep is concerned, it doesn’t matter.
It is probably true that lack of sleep is the new smoking. It’s also pretty indisputable that if we’re lying there in the dark, scrolling on our phones, then the phones have something to do with it. It is certainly true that if everyone is doing it, it feels “normal” even when it also feels terrible.
It feels terrible and it might be killing us, in a way we won’t realize for decades.
Almost everyone smoked back in the Seventies and Eighties. Everyone had at least one ashtray, sometimes several. You could buy cigarettes from vending machines in restaurants and at gas stations. It was rare to go to someone’s house or ride in their car without at least one person smoking a cigarette the whole time. Then it hit the media that there were people out there smoking out of a hole in their throat. It started to be less and less common, until now smoking means you do it next to a dumpster in the rain.
Eventually, just like with smoking, it will start to be more obvious how devastating a health impact comes from never getting enough sleep. Constant sleep deprivation will stop making any kind of sense. It will gradually start to become unfashionable to be tired all the time, when it’s so obvious that something can be done about it.
Back in the day, there was room for boredom, for staring at the ceiling, for hanging out and doing nothing, and maybe that’s why we slept more. Maybe we won’t go back to that, but surely there’s something more interesting than being Tired, So Tired every day.
Maybe it will only happen when we replace it with something like spacesuit chafing or the health effects of faster-than-light travel.
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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