Books are my life. Actually what I typed there was ‘books ate my life,’ which was a typo but may be more accurate. I have fallen up a flight of stairs because I was reading a book while walking. I read while I brush my teeth. I’m not going to apologize for my reading habits. On the contrary! Reading so much has helped me bridge my way into other positive habits. If you love to read, you can use it as a tool to reward yourself and keep yourself company while getting other things done.
Audio books were the big revolution for me. Well, not exactly. Back in the bad old days, when they came on cassette tapes or CDs, they were pretty annoying and high maintenance. Library audio CDs especially would tend to skip and stall due to their many scratches. Digital audio solved those problems. Digital audio plus headphones! No longer would I draw curious stares and commentary when reading while walking; nobody would have to know. I haven’t fallen up a flight of stairs in years now.
There are three major things I do while listening to audio books:
Basically every aversive task can be improved with the addition of a book.
Let’s face it. The real reason most people don’t reach goals is that they involve boring, tedious, repetitious tasks, self-discipline, and time robbed from leisure pursuits. The most boring thing I can think of is running on a treadmill with no entertainment or distractions. On the other hand, I’ll run for miles in the rain and snow if I can do it outdoors while listening to a good book. It’s the same with housework. Ten minutes of folding and putting away laundry is, to me, like forty minutes getting my teeth drilled (except without the comfy reclining dental chair). With audio, folding laundry is just one ten-minute activity I do while blasting through a new chapter on 2x speed.
There are other mindless tasks I do while listening to a book. I skim through email, remove my name from mailing lists, categorize receipts, save news articles to Pocket, format my website, make illustrations, maybe fill out web forms or window-shop online.
The one thing I don’t generally do is to sit still and just listen to a book at natural speed. I’m so conditioned to be up and moving around while the book plays that my dog even jumps off the couch when he hears a narrator start talking.
It’s not all about the audio, either. I still read text books, as opposed to textbooks. That’s my husband over there reading another robotics textbook. I read hardcover library books and ebooks. Don’t care much for the paperback format. I’m still reading my way through the backlog of books I had bought and stuffed into my bookcase “for later.” I like library hardcovers for reading on the elliptical, because they have a plastic jacket and because they stay open. The pages don’t have to be turned as often as an ebook, due to the form factor of my tablet. I’ll also grab a hardcover if I see it sitting on the shelf at the library and the waiting list is too long for the ebook.
These are things you can do with a serious reading habit:
Clean your house
Cook healthy meals
Mend and iron your clothes
Sort and shred piles of junk mail
Give yourself a manicure
Experiment with cosmetics or hairstyles
Finish all your craft projects
Wash your windows
Clean your oven
Distract yourself from pain or illness
Clean out your fridge
Wipe down your cabinets
Groom your pets
Weed the yard
Dust chair rails and other fussy details
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My husband and I sold our car last spring, so we walk or take the bus almost everywhere. My daily mileage has gone from three to over seven miles on average. I walk to the grocery store, the library, the coffee shop where I sometimes write, and of course all the bus stops. My shoes are my car. Naturally a book accompanies me with every step.
Most audio books are under eleven hours. On 2x speed, that’s 5.5 hours. Spend forty minutes a day doing housework, half an hour cooking dinner, and an hour exercising, and that’s over two hours of reading time. Add in another hour of miscellaneous activities like getting dressed and fixing lunch, and you can blast through a book in two days.
When I was young, I could thank my obsessive reading habit for a lot of negativity. I always had a book in my lap or my hand. It reinforced my tendency to procrastinate. I was almost completely sedentary, which exacerbated my problems with chronic pain and fatigue. I felt chilly all the time. My apartment was a cluttered mess and I was a terrible cook. Sure, I’d read everything, which makes me fascinating (mmhmm) and gives me an ever-expanding vocabulary. I didn’t have much else to show for my vast erudition, though.
Now that I’m almost constantly listening to a book, I can look around and see the magical effects of literature. My apartment is clean and tidy. I’m fit. I’m always on the move instead of huddled in a blanket. I don’t have a backlog of unfinished craft projects. I enjoy cooking, partly because it means I can sneak in another chapter even when my husband is home. “It’s not you, darling, it’s Chapter Five.” All the stuff I never wanted to do before is now done, and it feels like nothing more than a way to pass the time while listening to talented voice actors.
If you love to read, you can use it to improve your life in additional ways. Whether you want to transform your house, your paper piles, your craft basket, your kitchen, or your body, you can read your way to it. What are you going to read first?
IT’S DECEMBER! And you know what that means! Two entire months of... NEW YEAR’S PLANNING!!! Oh, gosh, there’s nothing quite as magical and special as spending two months celebrating a one-day holiday. They won’t let me do full-on Valentine’s Mania for two months, so I’m going with the New Year. Obviously everyone is going to dedicate the month before the New Year to the big day. I’m just doing all of January because I can, because I never want the glitter to end.
Look at my shiny new day planner! LOOK AT IT!
I got this 13-month planner so I could get a head start on 2018. Holy smoke. I can’t think of a year I’ve wanted to get here quite as much as I’ve wanted 2018. An entire year loaded with potential. So. Much. Potential.
Seriously, this is a big freaking deal. They say only 8% of people who make New Year’s Resolutions actually keep them, and I’m definitely in that 8%. I’ve been doing this every year since I was 9. Take all your feelings about freshly sharpened pencils, crunchy leaves, rainbows, puppies, cereal for dinner, and new socks, wrap them into one feeling, and that’s getting close to how I feel about my strategic planning process for my annual goals and resolutions.
How does it work???
Start with optimism. Whatever sucks in your life, you can get rid of it. No matter how much you are annoying yourself, you can stop. Anything you want to learn, you can learn, because this is the internet, yo.
Identify your open loops. There are 31 whole, complete days left of 2017. That’s actually a huge amount of time for year-end closure.
For the last few years, I have been doing quarterly check-ins on my goals and resolutions. This is not just for public accountability; it’s also to keep myself focused. I want to at least REMEMBER the fabulous plans I made for myself. For 2017 I tried an experiment, breaking my annual plans down by the month. That was a pathetic failure. Granted, our personal life blew up in the first week of the New Year, but saying that is like blaming your tiles for losing at Scrabble.
The big thing in my year is that I committed to two major fitness goals, and I have yet to complete either one. I’m supposed to be able to run five miles again, and I’m supposed to do P90X, since I bought it for myself a few years ago and it’s still in the shrink wrap. Either I’m going to fail or I’m going to spend most of December hopping around and sweating.
I have a large piece of furniture that I want to get rid of, and now is as good a time as any. I also have a few things to sell on eBay, and the timing will be particularly good if I do it within the next two weeks.
Every year, I clean my home top to bottom. I open every drawer, every cabinet, every cupboard, every closet, and I look at the contents of every shelf. This is partly a time to tighten screws and spot-clean walls and carpets. Mostly, it’s time to throw away worn-out socks, check expiration dates, and consider what needs upgrading or replacing. On New Year’s Day, I like to wake up to a gleaming house with some free storage space, with nothing to do but lounge around reading all day in my pajamas.
Every year, I also like to go through all my papers and digital files. Above all, I want to start the New Year with the feeling of a truly fresh start. That means no loose ends in the form of incomplete applications, unpaid fines, unsorted papers, unanswered email, unsent letters or packages, or otherwise incomplete bureaucratic work. DONE is what I want. I don’t even want to be in the middle of reading a book!
I’m doing Fridge Zero (more to come on this topic), and since I know I’ll be throwing out any leftovers, I’m also planning meals around what we currently have in the fridge, freezer, and pantry.
Coincidentally, December First is a Friday this year, and it’s one of my husband’s alternating three-day weekends. He’s cheerfully agreed to do a strat session with me. He has this vile habit of making his goals and then crushing them within the first three weeks. Upholders! What can you do with them? It’s up to you whether goal-planning with your friendly local Upholder is motivating or demotivating for you. As for us, we’re going to spend part of the weekend getting a head start on the delectable, once-in-a-lifetime 2018 that is coming our way.
Oh, and someone’s gotta say it, so I will. It has been exactly one year since December 1, 2016, so... HAPPY NEW YEAR!
I’ll tell you how it’s done. I’ll tell you what to do when you’ve invited people over and you’re afraid... AFRAID THEY’LL SEE YOUR HOUSE!
The House of the Black Lagoon
Revenge of the House
The Evil House
Et cetera. Just say it looks haunted and leave it at that.
All that’s happening is anxiety. Anxiety over anticipated conversations that haven’t actually happened (yet?). Anxiety over feared criticism and contempt. Anxiety about spending time with people you don’t really want to spend time with, people you don’t realize you’re allowed to uninvite. Maybe there’s also some shame, for whatever reason, and guilt that you haven’t lived up to some standard you think you’re supposed to care about more than you do. You don’t have to do this - you can just throw your hands in the air and say, “[***] it!” (Insert interjection of choice).
If the rigors of hosting a major holiday are too much stress for you, a simple way to get out of it is just to revolt. Answer the door in your jim-jams, hair unbrushed, and offer to order pizza. If everyone wants to come back next year, that’s good information. If they don’t, hey, freedom!
You’re doing it, though. You’re going to run around, feeling the delightful terror of the looming deadline, and you’re going to commit to the FRANTIC CLEANING!
Where do you start?
What I’ve just described is the genesis of squalor and chronic disorganization. A traumatic experience, such as relocating to a new home, results in a frantic round of “scoop and stuff.” (Grab everything within view and stuff it into plastic grocery bags). Often there’s a physical rebound, like a headache or a cold. The aftermath of the frantic cleaning becomes the new background, invisible to the occupants. Nobody ever goes back and sorts out the papers or “catches up” on the laundry. Each traumatic event, injury, illness, visit, or whatever creates a new layer. It’s hard. It’s hard to force yourself to start digging out. Anyone would think so! The home environment becomes a visible manifestation of psychic pain. Just looking at it makes everything feel worse.
Wherever you live, it’s your home. If you were a wild beast, it would be your nest, your burrow, your warren, or your den. You’re entitled to feel comfortable and safe there. Your home isn’t a social display, not unless you want it to be. You don’t have to arrange it for status or prestige. You should, though, feel that sense of comfort and safety. If you don’t like the feeling of being in your home, do what needs to be done, and do it for yourself. Imagine the gift of looking around and liking everything you see.
Just... imagine it while you’re cleaning! Now, hop to it! Best of luck to you.
Change Your Day, Not Your Life. That's a tricksy kind of a claim. How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives, as Annie Dillard reminds us. Thinking about this too hard can be really intimidating and discouraging - unless, that is, you start reading Andy Core. He has a way of making change seem easy and worth doing.
Part of how Core approaches the problem of change is by identifying why we don't do what we know we should do. He has a master's degree in the science of human performance, and he spends his days coaching the reluctant, the burned-out, and the frustrated. He's heard it all. We recognize ourselves on the very first page, when he presents the idea of "Motivational Amnesia," which is when our motivation seems to appear and disappear of its own accord. I know I often ask myself why I chose to go on this run or this hike, usually when my last meal starts wearing off.
Change Your Day, Not Your Life has a lot to say about managing your energy level. Anyone who feels too tired and stressed out to make any positive changes should really spend some time with this book. There are lists of things all of us could be doing to feel better and have more energy every day. I liked the idea of calling your workout "appointment with Jim" instead of "go to gym." Then nobody has to know. We don't do these things to impress other people, anyway; we do it for ourselves.
There are some very simple, embraceable ideas here. For instance, split your lunch in half and save half of it for late afternoon. Quit hitting the snooze button, because snoozing just makes you more tired and groggy. Lay out your morning stuff the night before. Dance with your kids right when you get home. These are EASY ideas, people! We have to ask ourselves why it's so hard to implement changes that take five minutes or less - or we can just read Change Your Day, Not Your Life.
One of the most useful concepts I took from this book was the idea of the "junk hour." Oh no. I will never be able to shake that phrase out of my mind. The next time I find myself scrolling through icons from my various bookmarks, queues, and playlists, not realizing how much time is passing, the words "junk hour" are going to go floating through my mind. The ways we spend our junk hours are infinite, but the hours themselves... are finite. Alas.
The freakiest thing I learned was that only one percent of people surveyed actually love their jobs. ONE PERCENT! Maybe we torture ourselves, doing things that lower our energy level, because we feel trapped by work? Or maybe we wouldn't mind our jobs so much if we did better at managing our energy level.
Andy Core has written a funny, surprising book about how things can be a little easier than we think. He emphasizes that we focus less on self-criticism than on action, that we forgive ourselves, that we remind ourselves to stay in today. This is how you can Change Your Day, Not Your Life.
Favorite quote: "Make a quality decision to change."
Running is my dog Spike’s favorite thing ever. He likes it even more than BALL. One day, he went for a six-mile run with my husband while I was at a baby shower. I got ready for my own run. Spike was eating. I went to slip out the door, visibly wearing running clothes and shoes. Spike saw me, spit his mouthful of dog kibble back into his bowl, and sprinted to the door. He’d rather run than eat, even though he’d already put in significant mileage that day. He’d like to go everywhere we do. I try to remember that while I’m wearing shoes, my dog is barefoot all the time.
I get where he’s coming from. I hate wearing shoes. I especially hate running shoes; I almost always think they’re hideous. Inevitably, when I go to replace my last worn-out pair, I think the new ones are even uglier than the ones I already have. The pair that fit me best and feel the best on my feet are usually my least favorite colorway out of the whole range. I buy one brand that has colors I like okay, but they’re something of a discount brand and aren’t really good for actually running. Just comfy walking shoes. If I’m not going outside for some reason, I’m barefoot at home. I’m even barefoot when it’s cold outside, which drives my mom nuts. “Aren’t you cold?” Well, sure, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to do something so foolish as to wear shoes!
The thing about being barefoot all the time is that it leads to certain choices instead of others.
When I’m barefoot all the time, it doesn’t make as much of a difference whether I get dressed or just hang around in my pajamas. Obviously I’m not going anywhere outside. If I’m not going anywhere, why should I get dressed? This can lead to a blending of morning into late afternoon. If you have the luxury of setting your own schedule, it’s more common for huge chunks of the day to somehow disappear than to suddenly start getting important tasks done at 5:30 AM.
When I’m barefoot all the time, I’m going to put off doing certain things until it’s shoe time. This means stuff like taking out the trash, dropping off donation bags, running errands, or even buying groceries is going to wait until later. In fall and winter, daylight can disappear before you even realize that most of the day is gone. Sometimes today turns into tomorrow, or the next day, or never. Without shoes, I’m unlikely to do yard work, replace outdoor lightbulbs, or even so much as sweep the porch. Months can pass this way.
When I’m barefoot all the time, how simple it is to tuck my feet up under me and snuggle into a blanket. Putting my shoes on entails bathing and getting dressed first. That has this whole domino effect of officially starting my day, doesn’t it? Doesn’t that trigger my to-do list? Can’t I just wait another hour and do it later?
It’s true that I hate shoes. I hate wearing anything on my feet if I don’t have to. It’s also true that going barefoot all the time means I can’t do other things that I love. I’m not backpacking barefoot, I’m not running barefoot, I’m not even going to the library or a bookstore barefoot. My comfort level with hanging around barefoot is a tendency that I don’t feel great indulging.
Wearing shoes doesn’t come naturally to me - or to anyone. They’re artificial instruments of civilization, not body parts. Wearing shoes does, though, assist me in my bias toward action. Wearing shoes makes me more active in every way. Wearing shoes helps me get more done and leads me to use my body more.
I think about my dog Spike and his feet when we run together. One night, he picked up three goat head thorns. They were rammed into the fleshy pads of one paw. Did he cry out? No. Did he ask to stop? No. He just limped a bit until my husband noticed and picked him up. Spike loves running so much that he’ll do it on hot asphalt, on gravel, in mud, and even when he has spiny thorns stabbing between his little toes.
We built up Spike’s feet gradually. When we started running as a pack, I could barely do a third of a mile. We added a tenth of a mile every couple of days. It was three weeks before we were running a mile at a stretch, and I think it took two years before we got to the six-mile mark. Our little 23-pound dog was there for almost every step. Running is his passion. It’s the time he feels most like himself. Because we started out with such short distances, and because we added time and distance so slowly, Spike’s footpads got tough and thick. It helps his nails to stay naturally short and he doesn’t have to go through the trauma of having the groomer trim them. He can run in his full glory, barefoot all the time.
Thinking about my little doggy helps to make me more action-oriented. I need to pause a few times a day to take him out. I would never want him to suffer, not with thorns in his paw and not with unanswered biological needs. I’m sure that if we ever put him in shoes, he’d hate wearing them as much as I hate shoes myself. For him, I wear them more often. At least one of us gets to run wild and free, barefoot all the time.
Thanksgiving is coming, in case you forgot. It’s easy to miss. Where I live, Christmas decorations overlapped with Halloween, a puny pumpkin showing up underneath a fully decorated Christmas tree. Hey! What happened to Thanksgiving? Where’s my pumpkin pie? It’s my personal mission to make sure that we continue to have at least one holiday completely dedicated to the cooking and consumption of food. Sixteen days and it’s on.
Thanksgiving is the holiday of adulting. The better you are at cooking, event planning, logistics, cleaning, ironing, decorating, menu planning, and entertaining, the more fun you can have. Thanksgiving is a time when you can really go all out. It’s sort of like a marathon for domestic demigods, except that I’ve run a marathon and I can tell you that doing Thanksgiving properly actually takes a lot longer.
When my husband and I first got married, I hosted our family’s Thanksgiving for the first time. It felt like being crowned Mrs. America. I just reached out and grabbed the ladle, and everybody let me! My parents, my brother and his girlfriend drove all day to come and stay for the weekend. I spent about three weeks getting ready. It was great, because the more people you have over, the more dishes you can make. Go ahead and try to cook twelve dishes for two people and then find room in the fridge for the leftovers. Better just to invite more friends.
Now, we live in a tiny little shoebox of an apartment. Our ten-top dining table (plus backup table) went away. Now we have a little bistro table that barely fits four chairs, and then only if it’s hauled into the middle of the living room. We don’t host anymore.
That doesn’t mean I’m not cooking! It just means I have to wait to get started until after I get to my parents’ house. In a lot of ways, this means more planning. I’ll have to do all my menu planning in advance but all of my shopping has to happen in one trip. I also have to fit myself into a kitchen where at least three other people will be trying to prep their contributions. Iron Chef, here we come.
These are the things I would start doing now, if I lived in a house and I was hosting and cooking the Thanksgiving meal.
Do a perimeter check of the house and see what needs decluttering and cleaning
Start eating up everything in the fridge to make room for the party food
Start eating up everything in the freezer as well
Clear out the dining room and find homes for everything on the dining table
Clear off the kitchen counters and deep-clean
Wipe down the stovetop, inside of the microwave, and fridge shelves
Plan my menu
Rehearse intervention strategies for awkward conversations and family squabbles
Clean the bathrooms
Track down the tablecloths, themed napkins, serving platters, et cetera
Avoid desserts and snacks, because I know I’m going to gain three pounds anyway
Figure out what I’m going to wear
As a more seasoned hostess, I’ve become more pragmatic in my planning. The truth is that everybody just wants to have an enjoyable day off. Your guests want to feel welcomed and they want an edible meal. While they might feel annoyed by a cluttered, dirty house and burnt food, they’re not going out of their way to look for things to criticize. They won’t notice half of what you do, perhaps not even ten percent.
Guess what? You’re not statutorily required to cook any of the food yourself. A host provides a meal, not necessarily home cooking.
You don’t have to use cloth tablecloths or cloth napkins.
You don’t even have to use real plates or cutlery.
Okay, granted, I do all of that stuff, but that’s because I enjoy it. I do it for myself. I also do it because it feels like race day, like I’m wearing a race bib and keyed up at the starting line, ready to run a marathon. Can I clean my entire house top to bottom and have it all sparkling on the same day? Can I coordinate all the dishes so they’re ready to eat at the same time? Can I get the food on the table on schedule? Can I orchestrate a conversation that has everyone laughing and nobody throwing the gravy boat through a window?
I like planning the Thanksgiving dinner because I want to eat what I want to eat. I hate stuffing, so I never make stuffing. I’ve always thought there should be soup and salad at Thanksgiving, but nobody ever, ever makes soup or salad, so I do it. I like my brother’s cranberry sauce recipe, but I also like mine, and since the whole family eats cranberry sauce we can do both. As a side note, my parents and I are vegan and one brother is vegetarian, so we kind of already do Thanksgiving our way.
I love holidays because they give us a chance to elevate ourselves above the everyday. When else are we going to do special things like use cloth tablecloths or eat by candlelight? Why else do we save and store silly things like massive platters or punch bowls? These are the days with the best photo opportunities. Even if the specific memories might involve some troubled conversations or awkward moments, the pictures can make up for it. Planning ahead helps to make the big day run more smoothly. We still have over two weeks to get ready. Let’s make it something to be thankful for.
It begins. I went to the movies on Halloween, dressed in orange and black, ready for a delightful afternoon of blood, guts, and scary clowns. What should I see before me but a large Christmas tree with a little pumpkin underneath? I have just two words to say about this.
I saw my first Christmas decorations for sale in stores a full two weeks ago. As of October 30 at the latest, my local grocery store was already displaying end caps full of Christmas-themed treats. I’ve come to expect that the tyranny of tinsel now begins in mid-October and continues to flaunt itself until the beginning of February. This is why I plan now for the inevitable bacchanalia of excess calories.
I used to refer to it as “putting on my winter coat.” I had finally started to realize that I always tended to gain a clothing size between Halloween and New Year’s. I’m not a bear, and I don’t hibernate, but go ahead and try explaining that to my thighs.
Later, as I started to read up on the food industry, I learned that most American adults gain their weight just a few pounds at a time, almost entirely over the winter holidays.
Let’s work this out. Gaining three pounds a year, every year, would equal fifteen pounds in five years, or thirty pounds in ten years. Does that sound true for anyone you know? It sure does for me. In fact, it was even worse in my case. I calculated that I would gain an average of A POUND A DAY every time I visited my family. Then I would keep it.
This is basically still true. I can also easily gain a pound a day on vacation.
My husband just reminded me that the winter before we met, he gained twenty-five pounds between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.
Me: “What did you eat?”
The trick is to plan around it. Just because I have a tendency, does not mean the tendency needs to manifest itself in its full form. Just because I lean a certain way does not mean I need to act it out in every situation. I’m not going out to put the ‘fat’ in fatalism. I like to eat, yeah, and I also like not having to spend three weeks burning off three days of smorgasbord. I like to eat, and I also like being able to wear the same size of clothing throughout the year.
It’s November First. Do I know where my honesty pants are?
I planned my Halloween candy purchases this year. I decided to buy a few higher-quality confections rather than a big bag of cheaper stuff. When it’s gone, it’s gone. (And I can either eat it in three days, or hoard it in the freezer, which is what I usually do).
November is not Thanksgiving, and December is not Christmas. These are special events that last one day, contrary to popular belief! I had my fill of candy on the day of Halloween, to the point that I truly did not want any more. On Thanksgiving, I’m going to eat a late breakfast, skip lunch, cook all day, and eat two large plates with at least one scoop of everything I want. There will be leftovers for the next two days, and that will be that. On Christmas and New Year’s, I’ll cook something fancy for dinner, and on New Year’s Day we’ll have Hoppin’ John. That’s it. That’s plenty.
In the past, my husband and I both would have basically spent two months eating until our faces went numb. Bags of leftover candy! Cookies! Special breads! Hot cocoa! Party food up the wazoo! I got sort of tired of that after I made the connection between my eating habits, my weight, and my various health issues. A lot of the stuff I used to love kinda quit tasting so good, especially after the Thanksgiving when I made two cakes and then ate about half of them for breakfast for a few days. As an adult, I don’t need to live out the food fantasies of Eight-Year-Old Past Me.
What comforts me now is cold-weather food. We live in a hot climate, and for six or eight months of the year it’s too hot to really use the oven. Right now, I can heat up the kitchen! Soups, casseroles, risottos, and other lovely, hearty meals are starting to sound appealing again. This is also the season when the really nice crucifers come into their own. The cauliflowers, cabbages, and Brussels sprouts start to get bigger and the chard and kale look like they have some real stamina.
The other thing that happens when the weather cools down is that it starts being appealing to run in the afternoon. The optimal temperature for running is 55 degrees Fahrenheit. I can count on our climate approaching that range for a few months. Running pairs well with starchy foods. My parents, they of the tempting kitchen, happen to live within a quarter mile of a 900-foot incline. When I visit, I go running up there, every day if I can manage it. My fall and winter visits often kick off my training season for the year.
There are two months left before the annual accounting that is New Year’s Eve. I take this extremely seriously as a watershed in my life. If not New Year’s, then when? As the old year winds to a close, I find myself looking over the Resolutions I crafted so carefully back in January, asking why I got through some of them so quickly and why I’ve procrastinated so long on others. One of these resolutions is to run five miles in a stretch. Often the majority of my progress happens in the end of the year, with the deadline looming before me. The reckoning is upon us!
It’s November. Past Me would have already started our annual weight gain and would just be getting started on a sack of candy. Past Me would already have loaded up on limited-edition seasonal groceries like holiday nog and peppermint cocoa. Past Me should have already been bagging up clothes that were no longer going to fit next summer, as we bloated our way through no fewer than eight clothing sizes. Present Me, after reaching down through time to slap ourself, has learned some lessons. Now I’ve already started on training for an 8k in March. Instead of a grocery list of extra calories with mostly sweet flavors, I’ve started on a reading list of thick and juicy novels. I’m homing in on my goals for the year and starting to daydream about my goals for 2018. I’m culling and sorting stuff for my regular end-of-year decluttering. ‘Tis the season for celebrating in ways that will make January Me proud.
The 12 Week Year is a business productivity book that has seized my attention. In fact, I’m working on my first 12-week plan right now. The other night, I somehow convinced myself that Third Quarter 2017 was ending a month early and I started feeling frantic about my unmet goals for the year. It was a visceral confirmation that deadlines are more motivating than goals with vague time horizons. The fact that most people bail on their New Year’s Resolutions is a solid indicator that a 12-week “year” may be more effective. Brian P. Moran and Michael Lennington, you’ve got me. I’m doing this.
The book claims that more than 60% of the time, the reason people don’t achieve their goals is due to lack of execution, but instead they tend to blame the plan. This is going to lead to either changing plans or giving up. I know this was true for me when I first tried to use a food log and I wasn’t losing weight. I asked my husband for help in analyzing my data, and, with some complicated math from the realm of astrophysics, he made a chart for me. I had to admit that I wasn’t being nearly as strict with my eating plan as I had convinced myself. Almost immediately I started to get results. This is an example that supports the concept of the 12-week scorecard. Rate yourself on your execution, not your results.
The 12 Week Year is fully loaded as an inspiring motivational handbook. The message is that we can achieve anything we want, if we are specific in our visions, strict in our execution, and rigorous with our consequences. It discusses “the mistaken notion that accountability is something that can and must be imposed; that’s not accountability, that’s consequences.” This is HUGE! If you’re not meeting your goals, it’s because you’re not worried about the consequences of failure. On the one hand, this is a sign of a nice easy life: the luxury of playing with pseudo-goals as a fun diversion. On the other hand, it’s a sign that nothing will ever change until your behaviors change.
The 12 Week Year has some great graphics, including a chart of “The Emotional Cycle of Change.” This alone makes the book a must-read. Another feature I really appreciated was the list of pitfalls for each section. So many goal-setting books are full of fluff about how amazing it will feel to achieve the goal, while including little or nothing about how to deal with the emotional and logistical issues that hold us back. “The Iceberg of Intentions” illustrates this beautifully, showing how easy it is to miss the hidden intentions that capsize our plans.
I have a “hidden” intention of never missing out on awesome edible treats. That’s why I struggle with my ostensible “real” intention to take care of myself and avoid predictable health issues.
My only issue with this book is the way the score-keeping system weights goals. Say I’m working on fitness, and my goals in that area are to get up at 6 AM, go to the gym and do the elliptical for an hour, and do my alternate weight-cutting food plan. I would get one point for each of those three goals, and if I blew one, my score in that area would be 66%. A D grade! I need to get up at 6 for my plan to work, but if all I do is get up early, I still get a point. Meanwhile, I know from experience that if I exercise at maximum capacity and eat vacation-style, I won’t lose weight, I’ll gain. For my personal practice, following the food plan needs to be weighted at about 10x more important than going to the gym. Either that, or I need to make my food plan its own goal and detach it from my physical training goals. Of course, all this means is that my home version of the 12 Week Year will be more personalized, not that there are any issues with rating progress on a 12-week timeframe rather than a calendar year.
For those who want to take this further, there is a website with a very glossy computer tracking system. It also has this PDF workbook, which I quite like. Messrs. Moran and Lennington, thank you for this.
“If you are unwilling to confront reality, then you will never be able to change it.”
The word “administrivia”
I decided when I was nine years old that I was going to be an old lady one day. I just knew it. I was reading a book of fantasy short stories, and one of them had a character who got to choose whether he wanted to know how he would die. I thought about that a lot. I didn’t really want to know how I would die, exactly, although I understood by that point that there was no opting out of mortality. I did sort of want to know whether I would die young, old, or medium. OLD! It turns out that the very elderly among us do tend to operate on the assumption that they will/would live to be old. This is good because it helps us plan.
What will Old Me do with her time?
There are a bunch of things on my bucket list that I have no interest in doing, not quite yet. In a full lifetime, there were simply things that were less appropriate for a young woman in her twenties and thirties than for an older version of the same person. Put it this way. If I assumed at twenty that I would live to be 100, there would be, count them, eight decades to spend. The dancing, dating, staying up late partying decades ought to be at the front. If Future Me were going to study calculus, write her memoirs, or learn to paint, those could go toward the back.
This train of thought continued down the track. What if I planned my later decades in advance? Past Me is absolutely notorious for trying to schedule all my time. She likes to leave me dirty dishes and laundry, because she thinks I like doing that stuff for her, and she likes to leave receipts and unsorted papers for the same reason. Past Me! Knock it off! I do NOT enjoy washing your socks! She also wants to tell me what movies to watch, what books to read, and even what magazine articles - you wouldn’t believe the bookmarks. They’re like passive-aggressive little notes. Knowing this, I don’t want to do the same thing to Future Me. I don’t want to leave her bogus chores and I don’t want to micromanage her leisure time. I do, though, want to send her gifts and good ideas.
I used to talk to Future Me all the time on the Future Phone. I would call her up to see what she was doing. Immediately she would start shouting down the line at me. I can hear you just fine, Future Me, you know full well that phone reception is much better in your time than it is now! The first time I called her, when I was about 19, she knew it was me all right. She told me that if I didn’t start saving money she was going to have to eat cat food. She started telling me off about my spending habits, and darned if she didn’t know exactly where our money was going, to the penny. That was the most urgent thing on her mind. Not forgiving people or traveling more or going for promotions - all she could talk about was savings, savings, savings.
It took ten or twelve years before I quit being sullen about this and started seeing it as little gift envelopes I could send to Future Me. Like burying a jar of gold coins in the back yard. Come to think of it, Future Me would adore a gift like that. I started feeling very tender toward her, she of the creaky old bones. I wanted her to be a crazy rich lady, known for tipping extravagantly and having loads of young friends who loved her jaunty cackle. Auntie Me.
Sometimes I’m jealous of Future Me. She gets to watch the best movies and read the best books, some by authors who haven’t even been born yet. She knows every word to songs that haven’t been written. Her phone, O her phone… She knows the mysteries behind world events, major archaeological finds that are still in the ground, medical innovations and inventions that Present Me can scarcely imagine. If only she could ship me some of that stuff, or at least email me some drawings…
She can’t send me anything other than querulous phone calls, but I can send Future Me anything I want. I can send her boxes of stuff. I can send her a house. I could send her a tattoo or a pair of earrings or a long heartfelt letter. I can send her a million photographs. I could send her a Twinkie and she would get to find out whether it was still edible. There are four things she wants, though:
I’m doing what I can, Future Me. I’m trying.
Sixty is the birthday I’m looking forward to the most, followed by eighty. I feel like my life will really begin at sixty. That’s when I feel like I’ll finally have some gravitas. I’m hoping my hair will be completely silver by then, although it depends on which grandmother I take after. I’ll have a certain freedom through the social invisibility that is granted to old crones. (I’m 42; can I be a crone yet?). I’ll travel and I’ll be a great public speaker and my posture will speak for itself. I’ve never been an impressive athlete, especially since I didn’t start until age 35, but beginning at sixty I’ll start to close in on the front of the pack. Senior Olympics, here I come!
In my twenties, I used to think I had missed my chance to go to Europe, live overseas, or become fluent in a foreign language. I had a fantasy that I should have been a translator of books, and that I had somehow blown my opportunity. Now I realize that once I turn sixty, I’ll have FORTY YEARS before I turn 100. I could spend ten years becoming fluent in a language and then have vast leisure to translate to my heart’s content.
Future Me could learn to identify bird calls, do a hundred yoga poses, travel to every country in the world, photobomb so many people, crash weddings, read an encyclopedia, finally learn to draw, and perhaps even walk down the street wearing nothing but purple rain boots and a tutu.
When I’m 100, I’ll look back at all the amazing things that have happened as long ago as 2049, when I was a sprightly 74. I’ll mull over the thousands of books I’ve read. I’ll spend a few months looking through the hundreds of thousands of photos I’ve taken, plus all the others of my old friends and loved ones who have gone before. I’m sure I’ll have regrets over all the apologies I never made and the friendships I let lapse, the people I never held quite close enough. Hopefully I will have done some good in the world and made a difference in someone’s life. Most of all, I hope I will still be able to sit on the floor and get back up again.
I have to tell you this story. My husband is an aerospace engineer, right? He has this highly idiosyncratic engineering system for his clothes. He came in and shared an anecdote, and it made my jaw drop open, and immediately I realized I had to write it up. This thing has layers!
First off, we keep different schedules. He’s an extreme lark and I’m a night owl. How larkish is he? He once woke up randomly at 4 AM, couldn’t fall back to sleep, and just shrugged and went to work early. I’ve shifted my natural schedule back about four hours to overlap with his more. I’m not allowed to get up with him on weekdays, though, because he says it makes him want to hang out with me. How sweet is that??
(Although actually the real reason is that he has his morning routine worked out to the minute, and even a brief chat with me would throw him off. More on this later).
Another piece to this story is that in our new apartment, we share a clothes closet. In our past three houses, he kept his clothes in his office closet. The reason for this is that he doesn’t want to wake me up, out of consideration for my parasomnia disorder. (Possibly also because if I do wake up, I have a strong desire to tell him my creepy dreams, which… RUN AWAY!). A key piece in his morning routine is to get across the bedroom like a ninja and open the door as soundlessly as possible. I’d say that 90% of the time, he nails it. What a guy, huh?
Okay, so. For some reason, dear hubby forgot to lay out his clothes the night before. He had to re-enter our boudoir, open the closet, and choose a work outfit. This put him a mere three feet from my sleeping face. At this time of year, it’s still pitch dark at 5:45 AM. Without turning on a light, without waking me up, he was able to reach out and grab a matching shirt, pants, socks, and shoes. Because he has a system.
I had no inkling of any of this. We’ve been together for eleven years and I had no idea. I mean, I knew parts of it, because honestly his side of the closet is distinctive, but I had no idea how intentional it all was.
If he hadn’t told me that he chose his outfit in the dark, I never would have guessed. All I noticed is that he was wearing a new shirt for the first time, one that I helped him pick out, and that it really brings out the color of his eyes.
Stop for a moment and ask yourself: On any given day, could I walk up to my closet and choose a matching, flattering, seasonally appropriate outfit in the dark?
It turns out that he’s practicing Six Sigma and using kanban. Everything has a place and everything is in its place. He has precisely eight polo shirts in a variety of colors. He has six identical pairs of black pants (and one pair in khaki, which I suspect he’s just keeping until they wear out). Clean shirts get hung up on the right, and he always draws from the left, so the shirts get worn out at an equal rate. “You have to wear the shirt that you don’t like, as much as your favorite shirt; otherwise your favorite shirt doesn’t last as long.” Since he has eight shirts and there are five weekdays, the shirts show up on different days, adding a little variety to the system. They all go with the black pants, which also go with the socks and shoes. There are three long-sleeved shirts for less casual work settings, but, I am not kidding, he wears the same clothes whether it’s 40 degrees out or 110.
For casual clothes, he has two pairs of “adventure pants,” two pairs of shorts, and ten t-shirts, which he feels is too many. Should only be seven.
What’s the deal with this hyper-rational system?
Are you believing all of this??? I mean, I’m married to him and I’m dumbfounded.
Let’s contrast the engineer-style capsule wardrobe with the opposite extreme, the chronically disorganized maximalist artistic woman’s wardrobe. Because honestly, I think most of us would freak if we felt we had to limit ourselves to eight tops and six identical pants.
Mathematics could provide an answer to how many potential options there are in a given closet, but it would be a complicated problem to set up, because not all the pieces fit in one data set. It’s easily going to be in the thousands, though.
The typical maximalist wardrobe is, according to my hypothesis, a major root cause of morning stress and chronic lateness. Multiply it by the wardrobes of any young children in the family. Multiply that by lack of a laundry system and the product is endless chaos, distraction, and frustration.
I once worked with a talented department manager who had a capsule wardrobe, although I didn’t know the term at the time. She wore a series of virtually indistinguishable dresses, same style, same color. Every day, though, her shoes were different: Three-inch heels in an endless variety of colors and patterns. She continued to climb the corporate ladder; last I heard, she was a VP. In the heavily male-dominated world of tech, there are a few likely possibilities. 1. Literally none of the engineers noticed; 2. They noticed and approved; or 3. She was actually evaluated based on her work output, and what she wore was irrelevant.
I checked with my husband, who also knows her, and he said definitely #3.
I think we should evaluate our wardrobes based on functionality. This is how my husband organizes his. Do I look like a professional? Can I reliably get to work on time? Can I get ready with the absolute minimum amount of fuss? Am I comfortable? Is everything machine-washable? I’m telling you, I’ve been aware of the concept of the no-decisions uniform for over twenty years, and if I’d ever found a single garment or shoe that I liked that much, I’d be wearing it every day. Maybe this is why I’m married to an aerospace engineer and I myself am not one.
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.