Things get complicated. Life itself gets complicated all the time, of course, and the things in our lives can add to that complication. An example of this is when my husband got an offer for his dream job, and we had TWELVE DAYS to move or accept a four-hour daily commute. This is when theory meets practice.
We had three things to do. The priority was for my husband to fill out the numerous Human Resources forms for the new job. Second was to find a new place to live. Third was to pack our stuff and vacate our house. Oh, and the timing just happened to fall during the same week we were getting rid of our car. The game was to balance the schedule, the finances, the transportation, the pets, and the material goods in the optimal way.
Bonus rounds: try to get a refund of prorated rent from our current landlord if he can get a new tenant in early; find a new home with mass transit access; find a new home that does not cost more than the current place but also takes exotic pets.
Due to the tight timeline, we realized that we simply wouldn't be able to pack up the house and look for a new place at the same time. There was just too much to do and it was too far to commute to screen new places. We made the unconventional decision to move our stuff twice, using a storage unit as a temporary stopping point and sleeping at an Airbnb. If we owned as much stuff as the standard American household, this would have been crazy talk.
Everything we own fit in a 20' moving van.
The next constraint was that we were moving to the beach, and there are two basic choices in our price range. A sad shack with no garage or yard, or a relatively nice apartment. There were very few houses available at any price, and they included: two that were only available for a 3-5 month lease; one with NO HEAT that recommended using space heaters in the actual ad; one with a bedroom too small to contain a king-size mattress. The standard seemed to be original 1960's linoleum, no dishwasher, and sub-600 square feet. Meanwhile, the apartments all included gyms and a long list of amenities, some of which were nicer than a few hotels where we've stayed. Hmm. Depressing hovel, or permanent vacation? Apartment it is!
A 680-square-foot apartment at that. A two-car garage is 400 square feet if that tells you anything.
I should take a moment to talk about the dream job. Space mechatronics. My husband is an aerospace engineer, and after 24 years, he's finally getting the chance to work on what he wanted to do when he was still in school. He's so excited it's completely adorable. Honestly I think he would sleep under his desk if that's what it took to get this job. Living in an apartment instead of a house is a perfectly reasonable tradeoff, especially an apartment on the beach.
The standard response to most unconventional choices is I COULD NEVER DO THAT. That statement is never literally true. It's only emotionally true. Anyone CAN move to a new place. Anyone CAN get rid of physical possessions. It's not complicated. We decided several years ago that we would relocate anywhere for the right job. We also decided that our lifestyle was more important than our stuff.
This is how it worked out:
Got boxes at 6:30 PM on Tuesday
Picked up moving van at 10 AM Friday
Finished loading van AND doing full move-out house-cleaning by 8:30 PM Friday
Moved entire contents of van into storage unit between 12 and 5 PM Saturday
Found and applied for apartment on Sunday
Started new job on Monday
Reserved rental van on Tuesday
Picked up keys for new apartment on Friday
Picked up van at 8:30 AM on Saturday and returned it at 9:30 PM
Unpacked from 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM on Sunday
Dropped: one bedroom, two-car garage, laundry room, yard, 48 square feet of living space
As of right now, the bed, couch, and dining table are set up. I was able to cook a proper meal in the kitchen. We still need a shower curtain, but over the weekend we turned an empty apartment into an 80% functional, messy home.
We were able to accept the job offer and relocate in only twelve days because we had the savings to cover double rent, move-in fees, and a security deposit, pet boarding, two van rentals, and a storage unit; the credit scores to get accepted in the new place; the physical ability to pack and haul our own stuff twice in the same week; and the emotional wherewithal to downsize and get rid of an entire garage's worth of tools. Yes, we get to live our dream life and play on the beach now. It came as the result of being stringently frugal savers and yet profligate in donating and giving away anything that wouldn't fit in a 680-square-foot apartment.
If you could live your dream life, what would you keep and what would you give away?
Do you have a dream life?
Which do you spend more time thinking about: your stuff or your life?
Every time I have a yard sale, I swear I'll never do it again. It tends to take about five years to forget how dumb I think yard sales are, and then I hold another one and remember. I'm in the middle of one right now, so I'll share how it's been going. I have plenty of time, because only one person has come in the last hour and a half.
We've made $109 in three and a half hours so far. That works out to $31.14 an hour.* Divide that by two people, why don't you? This has been the first really beautiful sunny spring weekend of the year, and we could be walking our dog at the duck pond, but instead we're both hanging out in the driveway trying to sell our old junk.
I put up ads on Craigslist and Nextdoor, plus a couple of big neon poster board signs on the corners near our house. The ads listed roughly the categories of stuff we were selling: tools, housewares, kitchen stuff, games, fabric and crafts. I clearly wrote '10-5' on the signs and put 'please, no early birds' in my ads. This means that people started coming only a little over an hour early instead of 7 AM. By 10:00 there were about eight people lined up at our gate waiting.
What this means for you is that you should have price tags on every single item before going to bed the night before your sale. We started setting up at 8:30 and it really wasn't enough time to haul everything out and set up tables. Plus, we were constantly being interrupted by people calling questions from the gate. (They are looking for specific things like furniture, electronic games, baby stuff, or collectibles, and if you don't have what they want, they'll leave).
Until I finally shut the garage door, every single person who came wanted to look around in the garage. This is a universal law. People will make insultingly low offers for the stuff you actually use, such as your appliances, vehicles, bikes, tools, camping equipment, and, of course, the folding tables you are using for the sale. Har de har har.
I priced almost everything at one dollar. A few larger items were marked at $2 or $3, and my husband priced out his shop tools and garden tools, mostly in the $5 and $10 range. At these prices, some people were still willing to walk away empty-handed even after showing interest. Don't expect to make more than 1970's yard sale prices for your stuff. We had three large boxes marked 'FREE' and most of that stuff is still sitting there. You can hardly give it away. When people make an offer, we say yes.
Our motivation for holding a yard sale is that we're moving. We're also (spoiler alert!) getting rid of our car later this week. We didn't want to have to pack, haul, store, and unpack extra boxes of stuff, much less buy the moving boxes for the extra stuff. Anything that anyone buys (or takes away for free) is one less item we have to arrange to discard. I got a message about a church fundraiser for a cause I support, which is building housing in the Third World, and we can drop off anything that's left over afterward. Hopefully there will only be one carload by then.
A few things on the tables right now are items that failed to sell on eBay for 99 cents.
The thing is, our stuff isn't worth anything. Neither is yours - no offense. Everyone already has four houses' worth of stuff crammed into one house already. Everyone already HAS a kitchen full of stuff they don't use, a garage full of stuff they don't use, and closets full of stuff they don't use - some of which they bought at someone else's yard sale. You almost have to pay people to take it.
Material possessions tend to be surrounded by fallacies and cognitive bias. We fall for the 'sunk cost' fallacy every time, paying higher rents to continue to store stuff we don't use because we can't bear to let it go. We think the stuff we own has appreciated but that other people's virtually identical stuff is worth only those 1970s prices. I'll sell you my old coffee mug for $12.99 but I'm not paying more than fifteen cents for yours, buddy.
The only thing that is true is that stuff is worth its usefulness to us. If we are not using it, it has zero worth. If we are paying for a storage unit, or for a room in our house that is only used to store junk, then our stuff has a NEGATIVE VALUE. When we found that we would have to pay an extra thousand dollars a month in rent to get a place with a garage in our new city, we understood that it was time to downsize. Even the garage. Even tools. Even stuff we like and use that's in great condition. We're not going to have a yard anymore, not for the foreseeable future, and storage units in our area are going for $200-$300 a month. Eff that. That's our vacation money!
We're in a 728-square-foot house already, one that came with a garage and a laundry room. We'll most likely wind up in a little condo or apartment. That's what it's like when you want to live near the beach. Many people would say (even if nobody is asking them) that I COULD NEVER DO THAT. We believe we can't live in a small space because we think our material possessions are actually body parts. They are organs that we need in order to biologically function. We cannot cognitively process the effort of imaging ourselves without our clutter, stuff, and junk. The reality is that we really only need a bed, a couch, a functioning kitchen, some towels, our electronics, and three weeks' worth of clothes for each season. I say 'functioning' kitchen, but most people's kitchens are not functional at all. Rate your home by whether your meal prep, laundry, housework, and financial systems are working in your life, not by how much you think your belongings are 'worth.'
Grand finale: Between 2 and 3 PM, only one person came by, and he spent $1. Not a single person came between 3 and 5. We made a total of $146 in 7 hours, for a return of $20.85 an hour, again divided by two people. Considering what we both earn per hour in the marketplace, it was sheer unadulterated lunacy for us to waste our weekend on this kind of activity. Price your free time at double the rate you earn at your job, unless of course you hate having free time.
If we had this sale to do over again, for the purpose of having fewer donations to pack into our car, we would have run it from 9 AM to noon and quit after that. We only made $37 in the three hours between 2 and 5. We could have had our sale, dropped off donations, and gone to the park for the rest of the day, or lounged around reading, or really anything other than wishing and hoping someone would come and pay us for our old junk.
We did donate a carload of stuff to the charity rummage sale, and no, not everything fit in one load. We'll take another one or two carloads over tomorrow before we get rid of our car. It's time to shift gears from 'how much could we get for this' to 'they need it more than we do.'
I am so tired that I am sitting on the couch and I just realized I was staring into space with my mouth hanging open. It's after 10 PM. Now commences the battle between self-care for Present Me versus compassion for Future Me: Stardate: Tomorrow Morning.
Now Me: I schleepy
Tomorrow Me: Get up off your lazy butt.
Now Me: I ti-ewed
Tomorrow Me: Do you really want to get up at 6 AM?
Now Me: I go bed now
Tomorrow Me: Landlord is coming at noon and you haven't even done the floors yet.
Now Me: It's NOT FAIR!
Sometimes Future Me sounds like a cross grandparent. Future Me has this annoying tendency to be right, though. I fully recognize that I will be much happier tomorrow morning if I work for another hour tonight before I go to bed.
My house right now is a strong argument in favor of minimalism and good organizing skills. What that means is that it's a total disaster. There are open boxes in three out of five rooms; there'd be one in the bathroom as well but our bathroom is too small for those kinds of shenanigans. The kitchen cabinets are 95% empty, packed up, and wiped down, but you can't tell because the counters are covered with packing materials, rolls of tape, cleansers, and the last few scattered items that need to be put in boxes. All that's left are decisions.
As we all know, quality decisions are much harder to make in a state of physical exhaustion. Physical fatigue and decision fatigue chase each other around, like a squirrel teasing a dog until they both collapse.
The decisions before me right now are as simple as this:
Pick up item
Put item in remaining space at top of open box
Tape box shut
Write label on box
Each item that is waiting to be packed would take at most 60 seconds. There is nothing difficult about it. It's not physically taxing, it's not mentally taxing, it's not emotionally taxing. Not in itself. Even a tall kindergartener could come in here and accomplish this, and probably with better handwriting than I am demonstrating right now. It's not the task, it's THE TIRED.
I think about this and I remember what it was like to fight chronic pain and fatigue every day. When cooking dinner or washing dishes or folding a load of towels seemed like swimming across the Pacific Ocean. Can't be done. Nope. Sorry. I did it, though. I can't stand being surrounded by dirt and mess. It's depressing. It amplifies those feelings of hopelessness and weariness. From where I am sitting right now, it feels like there will ALWAYS be scattered boxes and I will NEVER be done. Just like it felt like I would ALWAYS be ill and in pain and I would NEVER be free.
I am free, though.
I'm a marathon runner and backpacker!
In my defense, though, I've been on my feet for 26 out of the last 48 hours, which is much more than I did during the marathon, not to mention a through hike.
I have it in me to stay the course. I have it in me to stand up and finish the work I set out to do. I will do it for my husband, who has done twice as much as I have today. I will do it for Future Me, because I have a perfect record for always getting my cleaning deposit back, and I intend to carry that streak forward. I will do it for Future Me, who can go to bed early tomorrow night if I push a little harder tonight. I will do it for Future Me, who can sleep in until 7 AM if I just try. I will do what I have always done, which is to remind myself that it's easier to work hard in the present moment and reap the benefits later, because 'later' starts with tomorrow morning.
This is going to be a busy, weird weekend. We're taking a Lyft to drop our animals off at boarding, picking up and loading the van, cleaning the house, doing the final walk-through with our landlord, driving to a new city, staying in an Airbnb, and looking for an apartment. The room is booked through the following weekend. Technically we'll be...homeless! We are entering The Place of Uncertainty. This level of detail management is taxing our combined mental bandwidth somewhat, and I recognize that this contributes to my exhaustion and confusion right now. By this time tomorrow, though, I'll be snug in (a) bed, thanking Past Me for working her caboose off today.
Stored food tends to expand to fill the space available. Then it tends to exceed that space. My clients tend to have food stored on their countertops and stacked on the floor. That's because the available cabinets, cupboards, and shelves are already full. Many of my people also have extra food stacked up in the garage. When the kitchen is the heart of the home, it's a beautiful thing, with family and guests laughing and gathering around bounteous meals. When the kitchen is more of a vortex of spoilage and confusion, it helps to take another look.
One night, I was making a casserole. I needed a can of tomato paste. I reached into the cabinet, pulled out a can, and started to open it. As soon as the can opener cut into the top, the tomato paste started spurting out. Um, that's not good. It kept squirting out and making a little tomato paste fountain. I checked the expiration date, and it had expired three years earlier. I about died of embarrassment. Evidently I don't cook with tomato paste as often as I thought I did... The risk of botulism is far greater than the cost of a fifty cent can of tomato paste, so I threw it out.
Then I checked the rest of the cans in that cupboard.
Then I started pulling everything out of the cabinets.
Then I started asking myself a lot of questions about meal planning, grocery shopping, kitchen storage, and our food budget.
It's human nature to store food and plan for harsh winters. That's also why we have a hard-wired craving for sugar and fat. We intend to survive famine conditions that may never appear during our lifetimes. The results of this drive for survival may be... somewhat... unintentional.
I think we should respect our anxiety and urge to preserve food. We should do it with care and consideration. Having a full pantry of expired, spoiled food is worse than having nothing, because you can make yourself and your family sick, and you can also lull yourself into a false sense of security. It's like making a Potemkin village out of cans. Illusion in the face of crisis is the last thing we want. When our concern is emergency survival, we need to be firmly footed on a basis of reality.
This is a problem that needs a system.
There are two ways to go about it, as there are with everything: bottom-up and top-down. Bottom-up means looking around at what you have right now and asking, What do I do with this stuff? How do I get more storage? Top-down means starting with the system requirement and asking, What do I need? What do I have to change to make the situation match requirements? In most cases, that means getting rid of a bunch of stuff. Back to the drawing board!
Most kitchens are full of stuff that would be more or less useless during a genuine crisis. One kitchen that comes to mind had 55 cans of green beans. Green beans are great and all, but they're 31 calories per cup. That means they're better as a weight-loss food than as a high-energy survival food. A kitchen full of stuff like tortilla chips, cookies, cases of soda, and jars of spices will look reassuringly full, but it's not full of nourishment. What we want is a certain number of dinners.
How much food do you need to have on hand? Start with the number of people and multiply by how many days you want to be prepared. Most households make 3-4 trips to the grocery store every week. If that's the habit in your household, it means you could free up a lot of time by planning meals by the week. It also means that due to the lack of a system, you may only have enough complete meals for a day or two. Consider that most grocery stores have enough food supplies for the neighborhood for three typical days, days when people are not frantically trying to stock up on emergency supplies they could have bought the month before.
The first thing you should eat if the power goes out is the contents of your refrigerator. The goal is to eat anything before it spoils. Next would be the contents of the freezer, which may stay cold enough for slightly longer. Only then do we concern ourselves with the cupboards.
Let's say the power is off in your neighborhood. You don't know it yet, but it's going to take a week before emergency crews get it running again. You have leftovers and sandwich fixings in the fridge, and you eat that the first day. Then let's say the freezer stays cold enough for one more day, and you feed your family lunch and dinner out of that, finishing by power-slamming a pint of melted ice cream. That means you need enough for five days' worth of meals from the dry goods in your cupboards.
If you think about it, that's not really very much food. Even if you have six kids and a cat, you can probably fit five days' worth of meals in one ordinary kitchen cabinet.
What we do with our natural, innate urges to accumulate and store food is to gather it on auto-pilot. We see stuff on sale, or we get ahold of some great coupons, and we throw it all in the cart. Multiplied on a national scale, this is part of why 40% of the food we produce gets wasted. If what's true on average is true for us, that implies that we're wasting 40% of our grocery money on stuff that we don't use or need.
(As a side note, it's funny to me that most people are perfectly willing to throw away wilted, scary produce or moldy dinner leftovers month after month, but will eat stale cookies or freezer-burned ice cream any old time).
When I found the secret tomato paste fountain in my kitchen, I committed to cook up and eat all the stuff from my cabinets before buying more. It took months. Not days, but months. More interesting than that, I'm 41 and I've never gone a day in my life when the grocery store was closed for an emergency. My power has never been out for more than about two hours. I still believe in emergency preparedness, of course, and part of that means being more aware of the shelf life of my food supplies.
When we confront our anxiety and dread about scarcity, disaster, and worst-case scenarios, there are actions we can take. Having a sensible pantry system is one of those actions. It's helpful and smart to take some of that worried energy and use it to develop skills and strategic plans. An emergency plan! Pediatric first aid and CPR skills! Planning and packing a Go Bag! Learning where and how to shut off the gas and water valves at your house! Supplies are often an emotional substitute for skills. Greater knowledge, competence, and preparedness are much more comforting than any amount of cans of green beans.
It's all because of the paper towels. We have an unshopping list, just like I have a To-Don't list. When I first met my husband, we were platonic friends, and he had me come over to help declutter his garage. I sat on the washing machine, pointed, and asked questions. He would look surprised, realizing some of the funny stuff he had, and generally decide to get rid of it. During this process, we found no fewer than FOUR CASES of paper towels. We laughed when we found the second one. By the fourth, we were in hysterics. Later that week, he found a FIFTH case of paper towels hidden by something else. It turns out that when you shop at the big box store without a list, certain items just jump in the cart on every trip unless you remind yourself to take them back out. Paper towels are hardly the only things in life that turn up, unwanted, on autopilot. We have to plan to avoid certain things. If we don't plan not to have certain things happen, they will happen.
If you're eating an ice cream cone and you're sitting next to a dog, you have to plan not to have the dog steal a lick of your ice cream.
If you know you can sleep through your alarm, you have to plan not to turn it off in your sleep and be late to work.
You have to plan not to have a sunburn.
You have to plan not to get gum disease.
Alas, as much as we don't want dogs stealing our ice cream, these situations don't always seem obvious until afterward, when our friends are laughing at us. Well, nobody really laughs at gum disease. But you get the picture.
What we should be doing is building a better life for Future Self. What we actually do is usually to make our own Future Life more difficult all the time. We treat Future Self like an adversary. "Hey, Future Self! You suck! I just spent all your money and now I'm going to eat an entire extra large pizza with thick crust, just so YOU will have a bigger butt! None of your pants are going to fit! Oh, and? AND? I'm going to stay up late binge-watching Golden Girls episodes so you'll be exhausted at work tomorrow! If you try to complain about it, I'll give you a HANGOVER! BWAHAHAHAHA!!!"
This is where self-compassion comes in. I try to think of Future Me with the same tenderness I feel toward my grandma. I try to do what I wish for my own parents, which is to save for retirement and eat healthy. I just imagine that I am them. This helps to inspire me to offer to do things for them when I visit, like changing lightbulbs in the ceiling fixtures and carrying heavy objects. Not that they can't do these things, just that it's much easier for me. At this time in our lives, we probably feel exactly as nervous as one another when contemplating the other standing on a chair. Be careful!
What sorts of things should we plan not to have happen?
Some things are easy. I planned not to smoke, and I never did, and thus I've never had to quit smoking. It's a lot easier to plan not to shoot heroin than it is to go to rehab. Planning never to commit a crime is a lot easier than going to prison. Planning not to get a tattoo while drunk is a lot easier than paying for laser removal.
Not to say that I've never done anything wild, crazy, or outrageous. It just seems to me that these things make better stories when there were no major negative consequences. I have: ridden a mechanical bull, marched in a parade, been on TV, been in the newspaper, done live improv comedy in front of an audience, gone downtown in a FREE HUGS t-shirt, and had my toes sucked on stage in a movie theater, among other things. We want to focus on maximum fun with minimum downside. This idea that all future planning is joyless and strict is a false dilemma.
In fact, if we want to have maximum fun, we should plan more. Don't make any plans for the weekend and you'll probably spend it on the couch. In this case not planning to have fun is planning not to have fun. Peak experiences usually take advance plotting, scheming, and machinating. As an example, I got concert tickets for my husband for our wedding anniversary, and it took signing up for alerts when the band did not even have plans for further tours, waiting over a year, and getting up early to buy the tickets six months in advance. He was pretty impressed when he realized we were sitting in a sold-out show. That made it three experiences: enjoying the band, gloating that we were enjoying the band, and feeling extra loved because I went to so much extra effort. Anything for you, babe.
This is an area that is not fun to talk about, but divorced people will understand and nod along. You have to plan not to get divorced. Everyone plans to be happily married, but we can't all pull it off. That's because we're more likely to get divorced because of the things that are going wrong than we are to stay married because of the things that go right. All you have to do is cheat once, or run up secret debt once, or be physically abusive once, or tell a lie once, and the love flies right out the window. Cheaters always say it "just happened." Well, plan for cheating not to happen. If you meet someone hot, immediately put your finger in your nose so they'll stay away from you. That's what I always do.
Well, not really. But I am a divorced person who married another divorced person, and we both talk frankly about such issues.
There are two other areas where we fail to plan not to have bad things happen. Those areas have to do with our health and our finances. These are the two most commonly procrastinated goals. In the regrets of the dying, people consistently say they regret not having taken better care of themselves. They also consistently say that they wish they had saved more for retirement, and they worry about whether their loved ones will be okay financially. My clients have a bizarre trait in common, which is that they all think they'll die young. This pessimism can be a good thing if it inspires us to tell people how much we love them and to work as hard as we can to leave a legacy. It's a terrible thing when we're completely wrong and wind up living many years longer than we had supposed, fearing every minute of it. I have a family member who was given "six months to live" over fifteen years ago. Living a long life should be a beautiful blessing, for oneself, but mostly for the loved ones who don't want to say goodbye. Living a longer life while destitute is a challenge for all parties. It also means uncountable missed opportunities.
We have to plan not to be broke when we're old. Lifespans keep increasing, and it's almost humanly impossible to truly believe that we will reach such advanced ages. In 1919, when my grandmother was born, the lifespan for women was 56. For men it was only 53.5. Yet my grandfather lived to be 75 and my grandmother lived to be 86. They were quite frugal all their lives, like most people of their generation, but they probably assumed that they would have enviably long lives and pass in their early 60s. It's hard to plan how much to save when you have no way of knowing that you're going to live THIRTY YEARS LONGER than the statistical probability. It's also difficult to image how much things are going to cost when you can remember going to the grocery store with a dime.
This is why I plan. I became aware of my grandmothers' major concerns in my thirties, when I had begun to do things like plan my retirement account and set up an advance health care directive. It is all too real to me. All elders say that they don't feel old, that they still feel like young people inside. I do, too. But I know I'm likely to be an old person on the outside one day, and that includes my wallet and the bills on my desk.
I was born in 1975, and as of that year, the lifespan for women was 76.6. Even my great-grandmother who smoked lived about that long. To plan not to be poor when I'm old, I have to assume that I am going to live to be *at least* 86, and then tack on 15 years for good measure. In 2014, there were over 72,000 living centenarians in the US. If I plan for that and my money outlives me, great! What I have left can go to my family, or to charity. I have all kinds of great plans for when I'm an old lady. I'll wear rainbow tie-dyed shirts, whack people with my umbrella, and take my dentures out at night so I can eat candy in bed. It'll be awesome. It'll be even more awesome if I'm wealthy enough that my young relatives feel motivated to come and visit me. Eh heh heh.
Skeptics, relax. Technically, this book does not require anyone to get up early. Hal Elrod's thesis is summed up with the title and subtitle of The Miracle Morning: The Not-So-Obvious Secret Guaranteed to Transform Your Life Before 8 AM. He acknowledges that not everyone keeps the same schedule. The point of the book is not when specifically we wake up, but what we do first thing in the morning, and whether we are taking initiative in our lives. We should listen to him because he clinically died, spent six days in a coma, and had a shattered pelvis, yet went on to, well, LIVE and run an ultra-marathon. If nothing else, this book is worth reading for the description of his survival after a drunk driver hit his car head-on. When someone with that many causes for complaint tells me that something is a good idea, I pay attention.
I am not a morning person. Neither is Hal Elrod. "Being a morning person" is a fixed-mindset concept, as though what we do in the morning is affected by our astrological sign or genetics. I have a major parasomnia disorder, so I know everything I want or need to know about having sleep issues and being chronically exhausted. I agree with Elrod that our attitude toward sleep deprivation has everything to do with how we react to it emotionally. We can convince ourselves that we're tired no matter how many hours of sleep we get, as Elrod demonstrates by experimenting on himself. We can also push through and get things done no matter how many hours of sleep we get. I'm here to say that we can also fix our chronic sleep problems if we decide to try. If I could beat night terrors, virtually everyone can beat other sleep issues and function in the morning.
What we need is a reason. That's what The Miracle Morning is really about. "When you delay waking up until you have to - meaning you wait until the last possible moment to get out of bed and start your day - consider that what you're actually doing is resisting your life." Hitting snooze is what we do when we don't want to get up, and we don't want to get up unless we think there's something worth getting up for, like changing the world. If the answer to that is bacon or coffee, then one would think that OMG YAY COFFEE or whatever would be one's first waking thought. (If I thought I had to get up, drink coffee, and put bacon anywhere near my mouth first thing tomorrow morning, I'd already be working on my escape plan, but that's just me). The first thing I do when I wake up is to get my parrot out of her sleeping cage, and the first thing she does is to stretch out and give me a kiss. Sometimes, when she hears me coming, she whistles or calls out "Hurry!" She's working on "Good morning!" I start my day half-dead from cute.
The Miracle Morning involves creating a routine for self-improvement. Cynicism is the knee-jerk reaction to this idea for many people who don't understand that self-improvement is world-improvement. When I direct my focus to trying to be a better listener and stop interrupting people, that makes me less annoying to others. When I work on organizing my schedule and my stuff with the specific purpose of not being the last one to get ready, especially on group backpacking trips, that makes me less annoying to others. If you want me to keep interrupting you and making you late, by all means, be a naysayer and tell me not to work on my self-improvement goals! Personal accountability is the keystone of Elrod's morning plan.
A morning plan ideally includes a routine for when to get up, what to eat and drink first thing, what to wear, and what to do before the regular workday. Meditation, inspirational reading, visualization and goal-setting, exercise, journaling, and gratitude practice are some examples from the book. Another keystone habit is the concept of "eating the frog," or getting the most important or dreaded task of the day out of the way before doing anything else.
I set my alarm to play "Sexy and I Know It" because even the first couple of notes make me laugh. What would make you start the day laughing? What could you do every morning that would make you feel, Hey, my favorite! What's on the list of things that get you out of bed with a smile even when you're really tired? What kind of morning would make other people jealous? Not everyone has a red-tailed, silver-feathered, golden-eyed Noelie to wake up to every day, but you probably have something. Or you could, if you visualize it and prioritize it.
I'm writing this from a Starbucks, where I am being barraged with the demonic dissonance of "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas." In November. I saw my first Christmas decorations of the year at the hardware store in early September, and in my neighborhood, they'll be out until mid-February. Anyone who sincerely believes there is a "war on Christmas" evidently thinks that FIVE MONTHS is no longer enough for what was traditionally a twelve-day holiday. I'm done.
Years ago, I started avoiding the shopping mall during December. As militant decorators started pushing the boundaries of taste farther and farther, I started restricting my ventures more and more. I cannot bear Christmas music. It makes me clench my jaw. I have broken out in hives after hearing just one bar of one carol. You think you don't like rap or country or opera? Ha. At this point, I avoid going out at all. You can have my parking spot and my place in line. Please, don't thank me, not until March at any rate. I don't want to risk hearing any cheery holiday greetings.
The good thing about the cabal of constant Christmas coruscation is that it makes it easy to save money. I don't even want to go to the movie theater or the grocery store, much less the mall. Hyper-consumerist messages equate BUYING STUFF with love, happiness, and virtue. This reminds me that none of my personal values have anything to do with material objects. I love my family, and that's why I talked everyone into ending our traditional gift exchange and replacing it with visits, family dinners, and charity. Take that, holiday consumer machine!
What I do during the long, dark month of December is to focus on the New Year. New Year's Eve is my idea of a terrific holiday! A fresh start every year, a built-in milestone to guide my activities for the coming months. We usually get an extra paycheck in November or December, so this is the month when we get to put an extra check toward savings or our next vacation. I go through all the closets, drawers, and bookshelves and clear clutter. We plan meals on eating up everything in the fridge, freezer, and pantry so that we have a clear slate at the New Year. No more five-year-old mustard, no more salad dressing graveyard, no more freezer-burned mystery containers. Most people start the New Year in debt and overweight from the holiday bacchanalia. We start it out organized, energized, with the house gleaming from top to bottom.
I guess I have to thank this latest rendition of "All I Want for Christmas is You" for reminding me that I have better things to do in December. All I want for Christmas is an escape. Peace of mind. A couple of Skype sessions with my family. Snuggling with my pets. Catching up on reading. Maybe listening to some nice speed metal out in the garage, with my friend the elliptical. Thank you, Christmas excess, for returning me to my baseline of home comforts and frugality. Now pardon me while I run screaming out the door.
My alarm went off this morning at 3:45 AM. I didn't hit snooze. I got out of bed and was in the shower two minutes later. I made the bed, double-checked the drawers, and completed my perimeter check of the bedroom and bathroom. I was in my coat and boots and standing at the front door by 4:17.
This has nothing to do with "being a morning person" or "being used to it." In fact, I seriously considered staying up all night rather than having to wake myself up.
I did it for money.
I needed to get to the airport. I'm flying on reward miles, and the 5:50 AM flight was A QUARTER the price in points of all the later flights. I calculated when I would have to wake up, and asked myself, Can I wake up in the middle of the night for two hundred dollars? That question answers itself.
Everyone wakes up early for money, though, when you think about it.
You know who woke up before me? The Lyft driver. The airport security guards. The ticket agents. The pilots. The flight attendants. The baggage handlers. The TSA agents, alas. The cooks at all the restaurants that were already open for business. The hundreds of other passengers, including an extremely fuzzy puppy. I'm exhausted, sure, but I have no more cause for complaint about it than anyone else. All of us, shampoo-scented, trying to smile and stay out of each other's way as we go about our business.
I got up and ran my morning routine with military precision because I had that vision of the nice green Benjamins in mind. Also, I did not want the consequences of being late and missing my ride. I've been flying for 35 years and never missed a flight yet. See, though? This is just a family vacation for me. Most people who are getting up for work have a lot more on the line than a couple hundred bucks, and the drawback of being late could be getting fired. Logically, the motivation of someone who is preparing for an ordinary workday should be much stronger than mine today.
What I did to get ready to catch a cab 35 minutes after waking up was to use systems. I had my suitcase packed and waiting by the front door before I went to bed. I had my clothes laid out. I had all but two of my charging cables wound up and zipped in. All I had to do was to shower, get dressed, spend 45 seconds making the bed, and carry my shower kit downstairs. I knew how long I would need because I like to play games with the stopwatch on my phone. Normally, it takes me 40 minutes to get ready, but I knew I wouldn't be eating breakfast before I left. I could trust that when I went to sleep, all was in order, and I'd be okay as long as I didn't fall asleep in the shower.
Sleep deprivation hurts. I look ten years older than I did yesterday. I feel like my bones are grinding together and that I left my eyeballs in a casino overnight. I slept for about five hours. It has not escaped me that I used to go to work like this most days of the week. I wonder why I ever did that to myself. Once you start sleeping eight or nine hours a night, anything less feels like self-harm. Why on earth would anyone voluntarily stay up late, knowing how awful the next morning will feel? It's like walking around slapping yourself.
Mornings are common disasters. So many people, especially people with young kids, get up and trudge into a storm of chaos. There may be tears before 8 AM. Hit snooze one too many times. Run out of something important like cereal or toilet paper. Can't find a shoe. Permission slips need signing. Homework isn't done. It's like a full day's work before the workday, with the weight of all the errands and chores hanging over your head the minute you get home. Honestly, solitary confinement sounds like a vacation compared to a morning like that. Why do we do it to ourselves?
All it really takes is about 15 minutes before bed. Check the weather report and lay out something you'll be excited to wear. Get everyone's bags ready. Write out a to-do list and shopping list. Boom, done.
A peaceful morning routine is a gift. It's a gift to yourself and to everyone around you. A streamlined morning is what billionaires and celebrities do every day. You know, what would you do if you won a million dollars? Waking up to an alarm, exhausted, and trying to rush out the door for a commute would NOT be on that list. Everyone gets the same 24 hours a day. We try to make the day longer by cutting off one end and tying it on the other. If I stay up late, I can pretend I'm getting an extra hour, two hours, three hours to myself. My private time. My high quality leisure. We forget that we're stealing it from Future Self. We don't realize that it's a false choice. We can set up an easier morning and still do whatever else it is that we do late at night. All it takes is a little self-compassion and a reminder that we are, in fact, getting paid for this.
I got a funny email asking if I'd want to link my blog to some kind of real estate decorator challenge. In practice I think that means that I provide them free "content" at no discernible benefit to myself. It probably also means they want me to teach people how to decorate seasonally. What is funny about this is that holiday decorations are my pet peeve, and since several of my neighbors took it upon themselves to starting putting up Christmas decorations over a week ago, I'm in even more of a lather about this topic than usual. But sure, I'll throw out some seasonally appropriate autumnal tips. What the hey?
Tip One: Go outside every day and look around. Notice that the constellations have shifted, if you have a clear night. Notice that the moon is in different positions in the sky. Notice the trees. Notice the clouds.
Tip Two: Eat seasonal foods. Tomatoes and melon aren't exactly going to taste good at this time of year anyway. Seasonal foods are cheaper and riper. They're somewhat of a novelty if you are always eating according to the seasons. Also, it's easier to find recipes that seem to fit the weather. The thing I like best about fall is that the weather has cooled off enough to use my oven. That means soups, casseroles, and pot pies!
Tip Three: Weatherize. I don't know about you, but I freaking hate being cold. I get chilly when it gets below 75 F. I also hate wasting money, and that's what happens when all that nice expensive heated air blasts into the outdoors. Window film is inexpensive and easy to put up, even for a single short person. Even a rolled-up towel works to block drafts under an exterior door. Our big fall/winter thing is to put a blanket over our laps - the dog loves to crawl under there and sleep until his own body heat drives him out for a breather. It was still 89 F during the day when, I am not kidding, I had to put four comforters on my side of the bed. It's been getting down to 55 degrees at night. I have to wear SOCKS.
Tip Four: Get more sleep. The sun is going down earlier, and that's nature's way of telling us it's time to hibernate. Just go to bed early, snuggle up with a book (no blue screens), and let yourself get drowsy. Sleeping more is the secret to happiness. Try sleeping nine hours a night for three weeks and write down your results.
Tip Five: Pause and reevaluate your holiday decorations. It boggles my mind the way someone will spend six hours retrieving and displaying holiday decorations, when that same person balks at spending four minutes unloading the dishwasher or ten minutes putting away a load of nice fresh laundry. If you have a storage unit and you also have a big collection of holiday decorations, get a tape measure and make some connections. Is it really worth all that space (and cash) to put on that huge display? Even if you leave it all up for three months like several of my neighbors do? Granted, I am a bah humbug, but isn't one bin enough?
Let's see, what am I forgetting? Scented candles? Nah, you probably already have those. A bunch of bric-a-brac? Nah, I'm sure you have that covered also. Boots and sweaters? Gosh, I sure hope so! If you can manage it, see if you can train a squirrel to climb up on your dining table and hold an acorn long enough to Instagram it. That's pretty autumnal, right?
Thanksgiving in T-minus 15 days! This is a great time to start clearing space in preparation for the great Thanksgiving Fridge Tetris Tournament. We need room in the refrigerator, we need room in the freezer, and we need all the food storage containers, too. Anything in there that is trying to evolve into intelligent life needs to get its spore-covered self out of there. Otherwise, where are we going to put the PIE?
I've started a new tradition, which is that on New Year's Eve anything left in the fridge gets emptied out. I have found five-year-old mustard in the door before. Those shelves are like the kind of cavern where a shepherd stumbles across lost ancient manuscripts. Except those jars are priceless and mine are pointless. Why do I have two jars of capers? Now that I'm asking, why do I have seven flavors of salad dressing? Hopefully the stockpile in my fridge won't take more than two months to consume, but November and December are such busy holiday months that we should be able to do it. That especially includes the perishables.
Cleaning out the produce bins can be an exercise in guilt. Aha, so this is why I can't button my pants. The ice cream is at eye level and the vegetables are down by my shins. Come on. Whose idea was this? I solved that problem by breaking the rules. The lowest produce bin is for the goodies. The middle section is for the fresh produce, including the Watermelon Shelf. The eye-level shelf is for stuff that Needs to Get Eaten Up (a top frugality concept). Whenever I meet people who claim to "hate leftovers," I know for a fact that they have debt and money troubles. If you hate leftovers, you're not eating the right stuff, because a lot of things are best on the third day. Pot pie! Lasagna! Soup! At this time of year, if you claim to hate leftovers, well, that's just not even patriotic. What kind of American doesn't prolong Thanksgiving at least through Saturday? Leftovers are the reason for the season!
The other thing about the scary produce drawer is that it has hidden lessons. I need more recipes for this vegetable. I need to make a meal plan. I need to pack a lunch and snacks. How is it possible that I can spend so much at the grocery store, let most of the produce spoil, and then waste all this money on vending machines and drive-thru? The secret behind this depressing pattern has to do with blood sugar levels. When we're hungry, our minuscule amount of willpower becomes entirely depleted and we can no longer make decisions. We fall back to the default. Then we reward ourselves for bad choices and quit taking any calls from Future Self. "Hey, Past Self, what are you thinking? You're already in debt and your freaking pants won't fit, and so your big plan is to spend money you don't have on junk food? Nice. Thanks for nothing." This is why I think we need a national plan for nap breaks and an official high tea. I mean, at minimum. At my house I have both second breakfast AND second lunch, and that's why I work for myself.
Thanksgiving tends to make me go a little nuts. I will cook for three days. I've been known to prepare more dishes than there were guests. This is why I've pushed back my planning time further and further. I can't bear having to make (and eat) the same menu every year, so I do a deep dive into my vast cookbook collection and try to narrow it down to my top 25 picks. I have a steamer table, a set of extra burners, an ice cream maker, and a crock pot that all wind up getting put to use. Seriously, it's out of control, and that's not even including the trifle. I know I'm going to need every cubic inch of space in my fridge, and that's why I'm starting to clear it out now. That way, when I start hearing the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy playing in the background, I'll know I'm going to win the Fridge Tetris Tournament.
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.