Secret confession time: I’ve been cheating. Blatantly. Right there in plain view, too big to miss. I have a bunch of review books to read, and instead I’ve been reading Neal Stephenson’s new book Fall. In hardcover. Over 800 pages of it.
It’s summer, and it’s hot, and I’ve been traveling and I had oral surgery, and, well, no book review.
Instead I’m just going to talk about how we choose what to read, and why, and when.
Books have always lit me up more than anything else. When I am invited to someone’s home, I’m going to read every title on their bookshelf to see what we have in common. If I see someone reading or carrying a book, whether on public transportation or at a cafe, I’m going to try to get a look at the cover to see what it is, even if I have to turn my head sideways.
Often it’s something I’ve already read, because when a book is very popular I have to find out why, even if it’ll terrible, with the exception of Fifty Shades of Grey which I couldn’t manage even on principle. Not sorry.
Like most readers, I have a list of books I plan to read one day. I also have a working stack of books I “am reading,” which means I started them and intend to finish, and another pile of books in the house that I haven’t started yet.
In my mind, this is enough reading for a few days. In reality, experience shows that it will take me longer than that.
How much longer?
This is an actual calculation that can be performed, just like the timeline of knitting up yarn or eating up cans of soup can be calculated.
Since it’s summer, we don’t have to, we can just do a freshness test like we would with some nice fruit.
Let’s say we can read a book a day. Most people are not reading that much, that fast, which is fine of course, though we can compare our reading habits to our propensity to binge-watch several television episodes and rate that against our reading quota.
(If we wish we had more time to read, the time may be there, that’s all. Everything is a tradeoff).
If I read a book a day, then I have enough books to keep me busy for over two weeks.
Wait, no, four weeks. I forgot to count audio.
In my imagination, that’s the fresh stuff. It’s the lettuce in my produce bin. In reality, sometimes that fresh lettuce is more like the limp white celery that’s been there since who knows how long.
On top of my active reading list, I have books on hold at the library. Well, libraries plural. That adds up to...
Almost seven weeks, that is if I actually read a book a day. Seven weeks plus the four I already have.
The good thing about having plenty of books piled up and in the pipeline is that I always have something to read. I can’t think of the last time I was stuck in a boring situation without a book at hand. I read more than most people because it’s something I love to do, I make time for it, I would miss it if I didn’t do it, and I wish I had more time for it than I do.
On the other hand, it seems that Past Me has been dictating a lot of my reading choices.
I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be “done” with a book and wander around looking for something new to read.
I think I may have been in that place during summer vacation between the ages of nine and twelve. We lived two blocks from the city library, which was housed in an old grocery store where I used to get a free cookie. I even had a “cookie card” with my name on it. The association between fresh hot sugar cookies and BOOKS is probably just a Me thing, but it’s there. I started with the Nancy Drew books. Then I would go in and read the jacket copy on every book in the young adult rack. Once I’d read my way through the children’s section, I realized that nothing was stopping me from crossing the building and looking at adult books. That’s when I discovered Ray Bradbury.
I used to come home with as many books as I could fit in my bag. I realized I could read a book a day, then two. My record was four, the month I was reading Lois Lowry.
That was discovery mode, walking in desperate for a book and walking out excited over my score.
Then I had the idea that I would be able to read “every book in the library” and I started at A. That was the beginning of feeling like I had a mission, the beginning of the feeling that I was not completely caught up. I’m afraid I became a completist.
Most readers believe in being surrounded by hundreds of books at home, even if they haven't read most of them. These books are aspirational even if they are not elitist choices. Much ink has been spilled in outrage over the concept of getting rid of books, any books, for any reason. Sure, fine, whatever. If having shelves full of books you haven't read genuinely gives you more passion and inspiration for reading the books you do choose, then great.
Me, I’m starting to wonder if maybe I should dial back. Start over. Dump my list. Venture forth with “nothing to read” at all.
What if I didn’t let Past Me choose the next seventy books I plan to read?
Or does having that list add some kind of illicit thrill to playing hooky and reading something just because I can’t wait, because I need to drop everything and read it right now?
That’s my suggestion. At least in your mind, if you love to read, or used to, play a little visioning exercise. In your imagination, picture that you don’t have a dusty stack of partial or unread books next to your bed. Imagine that you never made a mental or emotional commitment to read these books before you’re allowed to move on and read something else.
Play book hooky and see how you feel about picking something fresh and new.
I never thought I could “afford” to travel. Then I thought I was “too old.” In my mind, only people in their early twenties got to go anywhere. This is completely weird, because I started flying alone at the age of seven and in some ways I grew up at the airport. Scarcity mindset is powerful.
CAN’T AFFORD end of story!
The biggest problem with scarcity mindset is that we are so locked down, we don’t even bother to find out exactly how much something costs.
I went through this earlier this year. I had been wanting a new desktop computer, and I sat on my wallet forever and ever, a couple years past the point when my old laptop was even usable anymore. Finally I felt like I had “enough” saved up. I went down in trepidation, very nervous about spending “that kind of money.” (Same kind of flat green American dollars I spend on anything else?)
It turned out to cost less than half of what I had estimated, even after accessories and tax.
Travel can very much be that way. If you save $25 a week for a year, you can basically buy a round-trip airline ticket to anywhere in the world.
(Not, like, Antarctica or Area 51 or inside Fort Knox, but you know what I mean).
Sometimes it doesn’t make sense to travel right at this very minute, for various reasons. For instance, if a friend is coming to town and we haven’t seen him in several years, we’d probably rather stay home and visit with him than go somewhere else. Maybe someone is finishing school, or it’s monsoon season, or we’re waiting for the cherry blossoms. There are all sorts of reasons why it might be better to wait a bit before going on that dream trip.
In the meantime, you can start planning and preparing, for real, right this minute, as soon as you finish reading this.
There are two things that it is very smart to do if you want to travel, and they don’t cost anything.
The first is learning to ride various kinds of public transit. You don’t actually have to pay to get on the bus or the tram or the water taxi or the funicular or whatever to do this, if you’re geographically isolated or you believe you are too broke for bus fare. You can look at maps and timetables and watch instructional videos. There are zero good reasons to skip this part, if you’re serious about your trip. It’s part of fine-tuning your vision and clarifying what you want.
The second thing that is very smart to do is to walk a lot, especially uphill and especially up long flights of stairs.
Not everyone can walk, true. If there are mobility issues then it’s even more valuable to practice ahead of time. Just how are you going to get around?
One of the saddest things I ever saw was a woman struggling to keep up with her friends at a historic site in Spain. We were coming down the (uneven, primitive) stone steps after looking at some incredible cave paintings. The woman was recovering from knee surgery. Her party wanted to know how many more steps there were and what the terrain was like. The sad but true answer was that there was no way she would enjoy the tour, and maybe a 5% chance she could actually do it, given the nature of the site. She was going to wind up sitting outside in the rain and cold for an hour, all because nobody thought to do the research. A quarter mile of slippery stone steps up a steep hill! What were they thinking, putting her in that position?
Maybe they could have waited a year, and done a different trip during her recovery?
It’s not about limitations, it’s about making life as interesting as possible within the constraints that we have at this moment.
There is a third thing that we can do to prepare for a dream trip, and that is to study the local language. It is SO helpful, especially when reading signs. On that same trip to see the cave paintings, we would have missed out except that we were willing to go along with a Spanish-language tour. We probably got 50-80% of the information, enough to feel like we understood what we were looking at.
The thing about travel is that it is extremely specific, moment to moment. That’s what makes it interesting. You’re standing on one specific square foot of the world at one specific moment in time. At that moment, either the restaurant or attraction that you wanted to visit is open for business, or it is not. Either you have the correct currency or form of payment, or you do not. Either you have read the map correctly, or you have not. Does this make sense?
You’re not “in England,” you’re in the Underground station in a hot and stuffy hallway, trying to figure out which of two tunnels to enter. You’re not “in Iceland,” you’re standing in front of a gravel parking lot, realizing that the museum you wanted to visit is not only closed but completely demolished. Travel means RESEARCH and lots of it, every day, every time you transition between one activity or location and another.
Part of what makes travel cool is that it magically transmogrifies you into “a traveler.” What does that is the process of figuring out how things work. That develops a mindset that is distinctly flexible and robust. You learn how to deal with confusion and disappointment and unexpected problems, such as getting stopped in security because one of your plane tickets matches your maiden name and the other matches your new married name. You learn perspective about what kinds of problems are worth getting upset about and which are just part of the game.
Eventually you learn to anticipate most situations ahead of time and just avoid those types of problems entirely. Like the overpacking problem and the “late to the airport” problem and the “quarrel over which restaurants to go to” problem.
Travel is just you in a different place for a while. That means you can solve for many of your travel problems in advance, while you are still the at-home you. Then when it’s time to leave, your trip will be a dream come true.
I was just thinking how long it had been since I participated in the 24-Hour Readathon, when I had a surprise occasion to be up for 24 hours. This should have occurred to me sooner, or in other words it should not have come as a surprise at all, because it was built into our trip to the UK. Would I have used the time differently?
More importantly, is a 24-hour sprint a useful tool for other situations?
Whether being awake for 24 hours feels interesting, fun, or terrible depends entirely on the reason and your attitude going in.
After 35 years of chronic insomnia and parasomnia issues, I’m trying to decondition myself from the thoughts that I AM TIRED and I’M BAD AT SLEEPING. What if occasionally being tired was not a problem, but rather a neutral, useful, or interesting experience?
The readathon was something that I used to find thrilling, and something that my now-husband and his grade-school-aged daughter looked on with bemusement. I would spend weeks deciding what to read and planning my snacks, my outfit, where I would sit, etc. Then my record was crushed by an adult who read a big stack of YA and kids’ books. Grr! I bowed out after reading all of The Recognitions in 24 hours - finishing just before the clock was up - and retiring on a high note.
It’s different when you’re in your early thirties. You’re still used to waking up rung-out after late nights having fun, going to concerts or parties or simply staying up playing cards until all hours. A day of physical exhaustion may be a regular part of your week.
All-nighters in college are a mark of grit, and turning in a paper before the deadline or doing well on a test after a cram session are the rewards. Everyone is doing it and it has its bragging rights. If you’ve done it once, then you know you have the capacity to do it again.
Lying awake and not sleeping due to mysterious insomnia problems feels bad. It can approach the level of an existential crisis. WHY? Sleep Y U hate me? Yet it’s the same 24 hours that anyone else has, and not every sleepless person is having the same emotions or the same thoughts.
What if we approach sleeplessness with curiosity?
I might do it in solidarity with someone. Say if my niece or one of my nephews was up studying, although they undoubtedly have study partners for that. If a friend was running a relay race, I might go out and support. The same sleeplessness I can experience on a hot pillowcase at home could feel like an act of friendship or compassion or service.
On rare occasions, when I’ve been writing at night or my sleep schedule has been bonkers, I’ve done what I call a “reset.” Stay up, go out into natural daylight, walk all over town, eat an early dinner, and force myself to remain awake until 9:00 PM, when I am then able to fall fast asleep. It’s possible then to sleep for as much as 12 hours, if you can, and be back on a more-or-less normal schedule.
In this sense, being awake for 24 hours can be a useful tool.
What happened in this most recent case is that I went to bed a little early in Edinburgh, knowing we had to get up and leave for the airport. I woke up an hour before the alarm. What followed was twenty hours of moving through three airports, two sets of security, customs, and a rideshare, bookended by getting ready and bag-wrangling. Much of the time vanished while shuffling through mild chaos or eating meals on a tiny plastic shingle. Close to fifteen hours, though, involved sitting quietly still in a confined space and trying not to bother the eight other people sitting within three feet.
Through experience I know when it’s better to stay awake to fight jet lag. I understand that the payoff is a quick and relatively painless adjustment, rather than up to three weeks of brain miasma. There was a ten-minute period when I caved, but after putting my head down on my lap tray I was delivered from temptation by sheer discomfort.
What did I do with the “bonus time” of being in jet lag limbo?
I caught up on my travel journal, which I’ve never successfully done before. I took notes about our trip and added items to our travel checklist while they were fresh in my mind. I discovered that I was unable to work offline on email, which was Plan A. Having no keyboard, I didn’t plan to do any extensive writing. I read a non-fiction book. I planned out an online workshop. Almost the entire trip, I read through my perpetually out-of-control news queue, which now feels totally manageable.
There are so many things that we never feel we have “enough time” to do. Culturally, we all tend to be exhausted and over-scheduled. Thus it says a lot when we’re trapped in a situation when there are very few options for activities. What do you do when you can’t sleep, can’t exercise, can’t call a friend, can’t check social media, can’t clean your house or run errands?
Now I have my own personal image of what it looks and feels like to actually read all the articles I have bookmarked. When I inevitably start getting all crazy and saving dozens more, I can ask myself, when do I think I am going to have fifteen hours to read all this?
Am I afraid I’m going to run out?
When we came home, our apartment was clean, the way I left it. There were clean sheets on the bed. Our only problems would be washing the two loads of laundry we brought home from our trip and stocking our now-empty fridge with groceries. Another person might use a 24-hour reset experiment to clear out closets and do chores, and manifest the same all-caught-up, nothing-left-to-do feeling that I have now.
The real question is, how long can it last before we mess it all up again? What do we do with the very next 24 hours, and the next?
There must be people cooking out there, but who, and where are they? Everyone I know seems to be scrambling between protein bars and stale sandwiches. Who is going to cook a nice dinner when it’s often nearly 8 PM before they get in the door?
This is where I advocate for Dinner One and Dinner Two.
It’s true that nobody has the time for anything. Actually it totally isn’t. Everyone gets the same 24 hours. Good person, bad person, busy, not busy, nobody gets any more time and nobody gets any less. We just use it up while we try to pour it from one bucket into another.
I started to realize how much time I could reclaim when my husband I were first dating. He preferred, over what I always saw as the enticing reward of weekend brunch, actually cooking a hot breakfast at home? Why? Who on earth doesn’t like to go to brunch? He pointed out that it involved driving across town, putting your name on a list, standing around for an hour waiting for a table, finally getting seated, waiting twenty minutes to order, waiting half an hour or more for the food, and then waiting another twenty minutes to get the check.
If he made the breakfast, we could eat, clean up, and take a nap in the same amount of time.
He sealed the deal and proved his point by making massive hubcap-sized waffles.
I started cooking dinners from scratch around the same time. I had grown bored of the selection of frozen dinners available to me, and I also realized that I really wanted two of them. I would always be hungry afterward and round out my meal with a large bowl of cereal. If I started buying double meals, I’d double my grocery bill, and also my trash. What if I tried cooking, making some soup or something?
It took so long, though! I didn’t like having to go directly to the kitchen when I got home from work, and then, because I was new to cooking, have to work for ninety minutes before I could eat.
That was the beginning of Dinner One, Dinner Two.
I would come home and cook something quick and easy, one of the microwave meals on which I had been subsisting. I would eat it, and only then would I get started on the real meal, Dinner Two.
Dinner Two was fancy. Dinner Two would be something I really wanted to try, something I’d look forward to. Since I had already eaten, I could take my time and enjoy myself. I found that I liked cooking for myself as long as I wasn’t hangry!
When you’re only cooking for yourself and yourself alone, it can be miserable or it can be fantastic. The misery is when you just aren’t motivated and you find yourself eating directly out of a can, or shrugging and eating a bowl of cereal and then just going to bed. As a bachelorette, I ate meals alone that I would never, ever feed to a guest.
The fantastic part of cooking for yourself and yourself alone? Actually there are several. One. If there is a mess in there, it’s your mess and you have nobody else to blame. If you keep it clean, it stays that way. Two. You can make whatever you like, and nobody else will complain. Three. You get all the leftovers. If you stock something, it’s still there later.
(The trick to that last, if you have roommates, is to hide special leftovers in ugly containers. Wrap it in foil, use old stained and melted plastic containers, or reuse a frozen okra bag as a sleeve. Hide it behind the spinach. Write up a label reading ‘CABBAGE STEW.’)
It was cooking Dinner Two while listening to audio books that convinced me I could learn to be a good cook. I would eat a small serving when it was ready, because I was never satisfied by my cardboard-encased frozen meals. Then I would portion out the rest in containers, some for lunch and some for dinner.
Depending on the recipe, I would have anywhere from 3-8 servings.
If you have a small freezer, it will fill up with leftovers very quickly. After the third time I did Dinner Two, I didn’t have enough room (or containers) to fit any more. As I ate servings from earlier batches, I would free up more space, and that helped to add more variety. My goal was to have at least six different kinds of leftovers stored in there, which was about the same as the frozen aisle at my grocery store.
Bringing homemade lunch was fun. I would carry it in still frozen, and by lunchtime it would have defrosted. I would heat it up, and people would wander into the break room, sniffing, saying, “That smells good!” A far cry from the microwave popcorn/diet cola “lunches” of my friends. Our office park was too far from civilization to go to a restaurant for lunch, and the cafeteria served the singularly worst sandwiches I had ever tasted. Nothing I made could be had locally at any price. Conspicuous consumption!
Dinner Two bought me time. Every batch meant I traded one evening of cooking and cleanup for roughly two additional dinners and three lunches. In a sense, they pop magically into existence. They seemed to stack up at a rapid rate. A couple of times I even managed to feed a friend who dropped by for a surprise visit.
With time, I learned to be faster at food prep. I invested in better knives, bigger pots, grander glass pans. Not only could I cook more, faster, I also found a bunch of recipes that took less than half an hour. A few dinners in my repertoire can be on the table in ten minutes!
I prefer cooking for a family or a dinner party to cooking for myself alone. It gives me a reason to get fancy. I eat better, and certainly I eat more fresh vegetables. It doesn’t hurt to have extra hands to help with the cleanup, and someone else to trade nights. In that sense, Dinner One and Dinner Two can represent an alternating schedule.
Cooking from scratch and cooking in batches has a lot going for it. It saves money, tastes better, and frees up all the time everyone else is spending waiting in line, waiting for a table, waiting for delivery of what is so often disappointing and unsatisfying. The more you do it, the easier it gets and the more variety you have on hand. In another way, Dinner One, Dinner Two is a form of time travel, a way to send gifts, money, and time to Future You.
It was certain doom when we realized we were both marching band geeks. My husband and I still sometimes go around whistling Sousa marches together. He played tuba and I played (but you knew this) clarinet. Therefore we can do a reasonable rendition of Fairest of the Fair.
Our musical training also helped when I taught him various ballroom dances. He knew what I meant when I taught him to swing dance and suggested we try double time.
Then, triple time!
I kinda do everything triple time now.
I just discovered that one of the library smartphone apps I use offers a higher playback speed than the other one. For the enthusiasts, that’s Hoopla vs. OverDrive. Although I was in public at the time, I bounced in my seat and let out a little ‘woohoo!’
Earlier this year, I finally figured out the secret of how to input ebooks into my speed-reading app, Outread. Depending on what it is, I can read at triple or quadruple speed.
This is probably why I have little patience for TV or movies. Sometimes I want to watch something terrible purely for pop culture reasons, and I feel stuck at regular playback. It creates a weird paradox, where it takes me longer to absorb something that doesn’t really interest me than it does to indulge in something I enjoy.
Note: I have seen some unbelievably, staggeringly bad horror films...
...a genre which, at high speed, might quickly morph into screwball comedy.
It often does at my house, because my little parrot likes to walk behind me on the couch, making smooching sounds and imitating games of ping-pong.
Doing things faster is funny. Sometimes, when I bust through my chores, I think of Lucille Ball stuffing chocolates into her mouth.
The way we look at our daily routine is entirely our own choice. It’s equally as possible to take great pride in drudgery as it is to resent even the lightest duties. That’s because we don’t necessarily care about the nature of work; we care about whether we feel like it’s our choice or someone else’s.
Example: I find nail art mystifying. I utterly cannot understand it. I once had to wear a coat of clear nail polish for a gig, and I was counting the hours until I could remove it, because I couldn’t escape the smell. If I had some job where I was forced to sit still and have nail polish applied on a regular basis, and then wear it all day, I’d be climbing the walls. Yet a lot of people wear it for fun. Go figure.
We should all be more aware of what we enjoy for its own sake and what we’d rather trade off for something else.
I like hustling and bustling around, getting things done. It doesn’t even really matter what I’m doing, because I’m listening to a book. Might as well keep busy.
Often, I play Beat the Clock, trying to get a set number of tasks done before a timer goes off. That’s because I no longer have a washer and dryer.
Don’t get me wrong - there’s little that annoys me more than folding laundry. Carrying fifteen pounds of sweaty workout clothes across the apartment complex, and back again when it’s clean, is not my idea of a fun time. Sixteen washers and dryers are shared by 332 units, which is probably 400-500 tenants. This creates some interesting constraints, and constraints are all you need to make up an interesting game.
Can I find a block of time when two or three machines are available? How much can I get done in 28 minutes while waiting to put the wash into the dryer? How much can I get done in 44 minutes while waiting for the dryer to finish?
Part of my game is refusing to do housework on the weekend, and that includes Fridays. I try to avoid Mondays as well, because several holidays include a Monday. And I’m busy on Wednesdays.
Okay, to tell the truth, I only really do housework on Tuesday and Thursday.
Most of it on Thursday.
My game of doing things on triple time means that five or six days a week, I don’t have to do anything but walk the dog. No laundry, no errands, nothing!
Imagine that. Five or six days a week, I have zero stress about cleaning my apartment.
Oh, but you don’t have kids, I hear. Yeah, I’m about to turn 44. Most people don’t have little kids around at my age. Also, both of my parents saw children as little mini chore machines. My mom would tape a chore list for each of us on the front door every morning. We weren’t allowed to go out and play until our chores were done, and this started at kindergarten age. We were gradually considered competent to do every single household task except cleaning the bathroom, and I took that over in high school. I won’t claim that my brothers and I looked forward to doing chores more than any other kid, but I will certainly say that we did our share.
If you live in a home, and your chores stress you out, well, it’s your own home. You’re in charge of creating the rules there. If you insist on burnout, resentment, and annoyance, that is your seigneurial right. Far be it from me to tell anyone to quit being irritated or exhausted if they want to be.
There are lots of games that can be played with task lists. Chores can be regarded as claiming or expanding territory. There can be a race between players or against a timer. There can be bonus points for one thing versus another. Something like a list of business calls can be regarded as a treasure hunt or Mission: Accomplished. Kids are great for this as well, because their ability to continually generate new games is more or less infinite.
Triple time is irresistible to me. It puts a spring in my step. It adds a bit of interest and excitement to what could easily be a boring, routine day. It’s not for everyone, obviously, but... why not one and a quarter time?
I knew I had to do a sleepvacation the minute it crossed my mind. I have a flexible schedule, so I could make it happen. What I didn’t have was anywhere to sleep that was quiet for at least five hours at a stretch.
Q: Where could I go without upstairs neighbors?
A: Almost anywhere
I thought about bringing a sleeping bag down to our laundry room. I thought about making a trip to the airport terminal and stretching out under some seats. On my toughest days, I thought about digging a trench on the beach and sleeping in that.
Then I thought of house-sitting. I’m responsible and good with animals. Surely someone in my beach community would need a house sitter for at least a few days?
I mentioned it to my brother, who replied, “Well actually...” and it was just that simple. Ask someone you know for help. I had nine days for my sleepvacation in the peaceful suburbs.
The very first night, I slept nine hours!
My only responsibilities for over a week:
Eat and bathe
Care for a massive black dog, my niece Penny
Penny’s desire to be fed and go out at 6:30 AM
That became my routine. Go to sleep around 11 or midnight, wake up at 6:30, feed the dog, open the back door, go back to bed and read for a while, take a nap.
I thought I would be able to sleep twelve hours a day if only I had the chance.
If only it were quiet enough.
If only I could just take a break from the world, I’d sleep off and on all day and drool all over myself. If it works for Penny...
As it turns out, I can probably only sleep twelve hours if I’m ill. Nine is enough for me to feel well-rested.
This is helpful. It’s helpful to know that I don’t need to waste my time pining for something, not because I “can’t have” it but because I don’t actually need it. My sleepvacation showed me that I’m much closer to my goal than I thought.
Things happen when you finally start to meet a biological need, like watering a thirsty plant.
The first thing that happened was that I started dropping weight. I lost six pounds in nine days.
[This is the part where I’m supposed to put a disclaimer that losing weight is not happiness because people are incapable of thinking ‘weight loss’ without attaching it to body image. I don’t give a flying leap about body image. I’m here for my overall energy level and quality of life. In my world, with my history of thyroid problems, weight gain correlates with migraine and night terrors, and losing six pounds was delightful!]
After a week, something else happened. I started having ideas.
The biggest issue with chronic sleep deprivation is being tired all the time. That low-energy feeling seeps into everything. All I could think about was 1. How to get more sleep and 2. How selfish my neighbors are, running a vacuum at 8 AM on Saturdays. A year of sleep deprivation, I can tell you, starts to turn into distraction, poor concentration, and memory lapses.
Like leaving your purse at a cafe overnight, forgetting your phone when you leave for a day trip, filling the dog bowl and leaving it on the counter, that kind of thing.
That day that the lightbulb flickered back on in my brain, I remembered who I really was.
I remembered that not all that long ago, I was a high-energy, positive, cheerful person who radiated ideas day and night.
Somewhere along the way, my personality had been dampened. I was burned out and exhausted. I started to convince myself that I was stuck, trapped in an infinite prison sentence in a tiny apartment with inconsiderate neighbors.
It isn’t true, of course. Nobody is stuck or trapped. Even a convict can discover philosophy and inner peace. It’s all what we buy into and what our minds tell us.
My situation is easy in every single way, except that I have a parasomnia disorder and I don’t know how to sleep through heavy footsteps over my head. Or blenders, or vacuum cleaners.
I had no plans for my sleepvacation, no work plans, no productivity goals. My intention was to sleep as much as possible, care for my furry niece, eat convenience foods, and read. No vision boards, no journals, no sprints, no insanity workouts, nada.
I found myself taking notes and jotting down ideas throughout the day, something I realized I hadn’t done all year. More than a year.
When HAD I last felt like I overflowed with ideas?
One of my ideas was the realization that I really have only a little over three months left before our lease is up. Part of that time will be spent traveling. We’re almost out of the woods!
Then I had an insight. I had a few days to play with the idea.
I realized that I was sleeping roughly the same core hours on sleepvacation that I do at home. The difference was roughly one hour in the morning, and the nap later on. Not that much to ask. What if, just for the three months, what if I used an over-the-counter sleep aid to train myself to fall asleep earlier? Could I buy the missing hours of sleep?
When I came home, I tried it (ZzzQuil, for the curious) and it’s sort of almost working. It tastes freaking awful and it makes me groggy until after lunchtime. The first night, it took me 90 minutes to fall asleep. The second night, it took an hour. The third night, it took 40 minutes. It’s basically sort of working.
Mainly, it’s helped me sleep through my neighbors’ early-morning two-hour family noise relay.
The difference between five hours of sleep and nine hours of sleep is remarkable. On five hours, I think a lot of people don’t even realize how consistently crabby they are, how much they underperform, and by ‘they’ I mean ‘me.’ Nine hours is enough to feel joyful.
The difference between 35-40 hours of sleep in a week and 63 hours of sleep in a week, that’s big. Can you start to see how, say, 160 hours a month vs. 250 hours a month can add up?
Everyone in our busy, always-on, hustling culture could probably use a sleepvacation. More, though, we could probably use a better sleep routine.
You know what’s weird? What’s weird is how much time we’re willing to waste to get a bargain or “save money,” even though time is limited and money is not. We sometimes say that “time is money,” but that’s only true in a very constrained and specific way. Time is the only thing that money cannot buy. Time is the only thing we cannot replace. This is why it can be helpful to think of time in financial terms.
What if we thought of time spent as a tax on our resources?
Which it is, of course!
Being busy costs extra time, and that’s a tax. Extremely busy people feel that they don’t have time to do certain things, such as calling ahead to find out if a store is open or if they have something in stock. Lack of focus on preparation and organization leads directly to wasted time.
I was a witness to this recently. One of those so-busy-we-suspect-drugs people picked me up on the way to a meeting. We were already late. My ride felt a level of time pressure that can only be described as Warp Speed Desperate Frantic Urgent Emergency. The reason? Trying to buy an item that wouldn’t be needed for 18 hours. We made the stop, we asked two employees, we looked all around the store, and the item was not in stock. My ride bought another unrelated product and we stood in line for it.
When we got to the venue for the meeting, half an hour late, it turned out that both items were already on hand. Both the one we were looking for and the one we stood in line to buy.
Not only did we drive around like bats out of hell, showing up late and scattered and frantic, wasting time and money for things we didn’t really need. We also wasted the time of no fewer than eight other people.
Multiply half an hour times ten people (us and the eight others) and that is FIVE HOURS. Five person-hours that could have been used to do other things. What can be done with over half an entire business day? Who knows? We could start, though, by making a list of all the things we “never have time for.” Writing a major report, holding a planning meeting, catching up on email, taking inventory of the supply closet, conducting a training, finally learning to set up the A/V equipment or use an advanced feature in the software... anything other than having eight people stand around waiting on the most chronically disorganized person.
The busy one.
The worst part of this is that a person who is capable of this kind of thing, is capable of doing it more than once. It becomes habitual, as certain as death and taxes.
Having your time taxed by a professional superior, a person whom you can’t disobey, is taxation without representation.
I’m in a situation in which I am often waiting on other people. This is pretty typical in the business world. My dentist is one of the few professionals I know who is always ready on time; my boxing instructor, on the other hand, often starts early. Everyone else, who knows what on earth they’re up to. This creates a lot of predictable time gaps, a tax on my time.
What I do about this is to try to be prepared. This is equivalent to calculating your withholdings ahead of time, so you don’t have to write an unexpected check.
I prepare by keeping a small backlog of minor organizing tasks reserved. When someone makes me wait, it’s not like I’m going to leave for a five-mile run or start watching a movie. I know it’s probably only going to be a few minutes. I can do a lot with five minutes, and every time I do, it makes my to-do list that much shorter.
Do a brain dump and put things on my to-do list
Add something to my online shopping cart
Update my hydration app
Check movie times
Look at my calendar for the week and the month
Unsubscribe from spam email
Delete unwanted email
Read a few messages
Research vacation activities
Read a short article
Curate recent photos, which means deleting most of them
Delete apps off my phone
Honestly, there’s no way I ever feel like I have enough “free time” to do all of these things in a big block. It’s boring.
More importantly, large blocks of uninterrupted time are hard to come by. This is partly because we’re affected by the disorganization of others around us. That, in turn, is why there are so many professionally printed signs on display in businesses around the world that say “Your problem is not my emergency.”
When an uninterrupted block of time does pop up, it can be used for something constructive, like taking a long nap, reading a novel, clearing space for an awesome new project, or going for a walk with a friend.
Time should be ours to do with as we will. It’s taxed at a pretty high rate for the demands of living. Try as we might, we can’t completely avoid the pragmatic needs of eating, bathing, cooking, housework, and dumb administrative tasks. Which reminds me, it’s almost time to renew my drivers license, and hopefully get a much worse photo than I’ve ever had before.
The best we can do is to avoid taxing ourselves. We can be organized enough to prevent that frantic sense of scurrying around, making multiple trips, losing track of things, forgetting appointments, and creating situations where we need to put in double the effort. Every time we have to apologize for screwing up, every time we have to fix problems that we created, every time we have to redo our work, that is a tax we pay for being too busy.
Let’s reclaim our time and focus. Let’s start treating our time like it’s more valuable than money, which, of course, it is. Down with the busy tax!
Travel planning, isn’t it the worst?
My hubby and I are going on a trip two months from now, and we’ve already booked everything. We have our plane and train tickets, we have our hotel rooms, and we even know where we’re going to eat at the airport. This is the sort of thing that happens to you when you marry an engineer.
(Not a locomotive engineer, no. He doesn’t even have a stripy hat).
None of this advance planning is natural to me. I’m a wing-it person. I grew up in the travel industry, and I started flying alone at age seven. That’s over thirty-five years, and I’ve never missed a flight. I feel justified in my visceral certainty that flexibility and brainstorming are better than rigid planning and punctuality.
Last November, due to a dumb scheduling snafu, I got to the airport just ten minutes before my flight was scheduled to depart. I didn’t even realize it until I was washing my hands in the restroom a hundred yards away. I hadn’t even been through security yet!
Against all odds, not only did I catch that flight, but I had to stand around waiting before my boarding group even got in line.
I’ve been delayed by everything from snow to a plane with a flat tire to a presidential motorcade. I have always caught my flight.
The trouble is that ordinary travelers do not have my decades of freak blunders and delays on which to draw. Most people have an emotional need for a greater sense of urgency than I can provide. Don’t go places with me if you’re tense about being hours early for everything, let’s just put it that way.
Here’s another thing: I know how to pack.
I’m a minimalist single-bag traveler, and I have been for years. I can cover unlikely distances in an improbable span of time because I can grab my luggage and sprint. I’m halfway there before you have all your straps over your shoulders.
There is a group of people who are very organized about time and calendars and schedules. Then there is a group of people who are very organized about objects and spatial relations. These tend not to be the same group. My husband belongs to the first group, and I belong to the second.
I’m the one who put the flight time down wrong in my calendar. He’s the one who put his passport on a chair and then lost track of it when it fell to the floor. We can both look at each other and legitimately think, Okay, that would never happen to me.
We make a good match. I taught him the virtues of one-bag travel, and he taught me how many more options are available for awesome things when you plan months in advance.
For instance, we got the last available hotel room on points in Jackson Hole for the solar eclipse because we booked in January. More than six months in advance. That’s due to him.
We were able to grab one of the last first-come-first-served campsites in the Grand Tetons, same trip, because we brought our backpacking gear. That’s due to me.
This all started on our honeymoon. We checked into our room in a four-star hotel, right down the hall from another couple. We could safely assume they were married because only a married couple could possibly hate each other so much. They roared at each other for two days.
What KIND of PERSON... LEAVES... a BAG???
I SWEAR... I WILL NEVER... GO ANYWHERE... WITH YOU... AGAIN!!!
These are touchstones for us, inside jokes that still have us shaking with laughter ten years later. Long after that couple have probably divorced, married other people, and gone on to divorce them as well.
How can you leave a bag behind when you each only have one bag, and they’re both lined up neatly by the front door the night before the trip?
Don’t people know how to do a proper perimeter check?
Why would you even think of marrying someone if you couldn’t travel well together? What are you going to do, stay home every single day for the rest of your life?
The truth is that travel can be extremely stressful, especially for people who only do it once every few years. People leave their medications and their glasses behind. They wind up in shoes that make their feet bleed. They set up schedules where they’re standing or walking all day, even when they think one mile is a long distance and they get tired walking through Target. Lack of planning guarantees a miserable trip.
That’s why we plan months in advance. Two months is actually pushing it for us.
Do we need visas?
Do we have the transport and lodging confirmed?
What’s the weather like that time of year?
What’s closed on Sundays?
Where are we going to eat, and what’s on the menu?
Is our ID going to expire?
Suitcase or backpack?
Do we need new clothes or shoes?
What kind of electric outlets do they use?
What are we going to read on the flight?
Where are we going and how long will we want to be there?
This used to feel like a dreary amount of work. Then, after a few trips with my esteemed life mate, I started to realize how well it paid off. Not only did it make the trip easier in every way, but it also extended the fun of anticipation.
The last time we traveled together, at the New Year, I spent two weeks laying out every meal and every show and attraction in advance. I put it all in the TripIt app and shared it with my hubby. He was elated! Each day laid out in advance, every address and name of venue neatly lined up on a schedule, nothing to do but whip out his phone and show it to a cab driver. We got everywhere on time and enjoyed ourselves immensely.
We forgot one thing: to argue about how late we were and all the stuff we left behind.
The point of planning far in advance is to make life easier for Future Us. Boring Old Today Me can spend fifteen minutes here and twenty minutes there, putting together a fun and relaxing trip. Future Me reaps the rewards of having no decisions to make. Future Me flits from attraction to attraction, with plenty of time to spare, plenty of naps, and no straps digging into my shoulder. The point of the trip isn’t what we’re wearing or what we’re eating, it’s the memory that we’re creating.
The last person to arrive at the meeting was the person who called it. She texted to say she’d be ten minutes late, and arrived twenty minutes late. Nobody was surprised.
What did surprise us was when she pulled out a fancy new day planner. Time to turn over a new leaf? “Ooh,” we said, all dedicated day planner enthusiasts. It came in its own special box. We would have cheerfully spent five minutes fussing over it, the same as we would have if she’d carried in a little purse dog or an engagement ring.
“My friend got me this,” she said, obviously flipping through it for the first time. “Why is it so complicated?”
During the course of that meeting and the next dozen, we never saw the new planner again. It didn’t seem any more helpful than the laptop, the iPhone, or the numerous folders and stacks of papers had been.
Getting Organized is a sort of secular religion along the lines of Buddhism or yoga. It’s not for everyone, not that that ever stopped anything from becoming a cultural mainstay. Just because our colleague got a nice day planner as a gift did not obligate her to use it.
I mean, of course not. I’m not giving up my Cossac planner just because someone gets me a different one.
What’s important here is that this person was notorious for being chronically disorganized. It impacted other people, not just occasionally but daily. Our colleague was constantly pushing for extensions on deadlines while supposedly working from early til late. She lost track of objects and information, missed key details, forgot to attend her own meetings, dropped the ball on important tasks, and spent about as much time apologizing for not doing something as she did actually doing something.
She was mad as heck when she didn’t get the promotion she wanted.
That day planner? It wasn’t just a perfunctory gift. It was a thoughtful gift, and also a barely disguised coded message, a tactful one. YOU NEED THIS. Not using it was along the lines of turning down a breath mint.
Um, are you trying to tell me something?
Just the other day, a friend leaned over and told me, “I love you, you have something in your teeth.” Kale salad, Y U hate me? This really is what friends are for, to save us from ourselves and help us see what we can’t see on our own. We need each other for perspective.
Professional colleagues are under no such obligation of friendship. In many fields, work is a zero-sum arena of combat, where every bonus and promotional opportunity is desired by many and available to few. The only things that are widely available in the working world are cheap pens and layoffs.
That makes it even more valuable when a colleague reaches out with helpful advice.
Most of the things that top performers do are unusual. They’re often also guild secrets. You only start to find them out after you’ve demonstrated that you’re ready to listen and learn, that you’re worth the time.
One of my work buddies has a mastermind call every morning at 6:00 AM, including most holidays.
Most of my professional friends go to conferences and read business books on their own dime.
My husband buys and reads robotics textbooks cover to cover.
I’ve only recently started to find out how common it is for women in my sphere to hire style consultants to help with their wardrobe, hair, and makeup. It is vanishingly rare to get a recommendation to one of these folk, because they tend to have months-long waiting lists.
Gradually it starts to become obvious that the top performers are doing a lot more than “networking” to get ahead. They’re operating in a different world with different priorities, because they understand that the real game isn’t the game everyone else is playing.
My colleague remained scattered rather than use her new day planner. She probably didn’t see it as a conscious choice. She probably just felt “too busy” to take even half an hour to try using it. What she would have found was that if she started taking a break to get her thoughts on paper, she could have bought herself a bit more mental bandwidth. She could have gotten her most conspicuous issues under control. Maybe she could have quit texting and driving. Maybe she could even have started getting to meetings on time.
Maybe she would have gotten her promotion.
Anyone who uses a planner for peace of mind would understand this automatically. It’s a container for your thoughts in the same way that a grocery bag is a container. It’s easier to put all your apples and potatoes in a bag, and it’s easier to write down everything you need to do on a list. It’s also easier to take the hint when someone goes out of their way to give you that hint, easier than fighting against the current. Easier than fighting your own worst tendencies.
A day planner might easily seem like homework, like one more onerous task. Who has the time? For those who use them, though, it can be like gaining an extra brain. Suddenly you don’t have to make extra trips to the store or miss appointments. You quit running out of your dog’s pills. You start to have all the phone numbers you need. Not only are you getting stuff done on time, but sometimes you get a chance to work ahead a bit. You can go on vacation and not have to check your email. You start to feel like you actually know what you’re doing.
The best thing about Getting Organized is that it gives you time and breathing space to raise your head and look around you. It gives you the pause that you need to pay attention to what your friends and colleagues are doing. That’s when you start to notice small ways that you can connect with other people and make their lives easier. Burnout can get in the way of being present and emotionally available. It can make you feel isolated and alone. Maybe you don’t even realize that others are right there beside you, reaching out and trying to help.
In the past week, I have:
Left my coat on a plane and had to run back for it twenty minutes later
Spilled half a bottle of water into my suitcase by carrying it upside down
Worn a one-inch hole in my reusable shopping bag because I didn’t notice I was dragging it
Left town and forgot to pack deodorant
Dropped my sleep tracker on the bedroom floor and convinced myself I somehow lost it in a public restroom, then found it the next day and forgot to charge it
Put an important appointment in my calendar an hour late
Dropped my sweater on the sidewalk and kept walking, causing a passing driver to honk at me
Forgotten to auto-schedule a day’s content on my blog
Forgotten to lock our dog in his crate, risking another barking-related citation
I also gained four pounds, which I believe consists almost entirely of cortisol and bitter unshed tears.
What’s my problem? One of three things:
The last time I was this tired, my upstairs neighbor was a crackhead who would smoke crack on the porch in the afternoon, play guitar above my bed in the early hours of the morning, and bust up furniture in the evening. My hair started to fall out in patches then, just as it’s doing now.
Nobody cares about one person who is tired. The reason I talk about this stuff is that a lot of people are voluntarily running around in a state similar to mine. It’s a lot like being drunk, or snoring. Drunk people don’t think they’re drunk, and people who snore refuse to believe that they snore, sometimes even if you play them a recording of their 70dB clamor.
If you’re chronically sleep-deprived, you’re screwing up. Somehow. You’re stumbling around and making preventable errors. If you’ve done it for a long enough time, you might even think it’s just part of your personality, like Bella from Twilight always talked about how clumsy she was.
(Why is that supposed to be an endearing quality in female characters? I sure don’t find it endearing in myself).
Making silly mistakes is fine. It’s not the end of the world if you have, like I have, pumped liquid soap onto your toothbrush, only put deodorant under one arm, or walked around with a pair of nylon underpants hanging out of your sweater through the pernicious powers of static cling. Stuff happens.
We just have to ask ourselves how often it happens when we’re well rested, rather than when we’re really tired.
Why am I so tired? Because my upstairs neighbors do a lot of loud stuff between 5 and 7 AM every day.
What are they doing? Some guesses:
Training a donkey to tap dance
Three-legged race promoting Dutch clogs
Why don’t I just go to bed earlier? I have, oh, I have. It’s annoying to have to shift your schedule by three hours to accommodate someone else, for one thing, but it’s also only somewhat possible. The same people who are up banging around at 5 AM are also up and around at 12:30 AM, not to mention our other neighbors and passersby on the sidewalk. The rest of the world isn’t all that interested in facilitating some cranky middle-aged woman’s need to go to sleep at 9 PM.
9:00 PM bedtime: the ultimate luxury!
It makes me crazy to think of other people indulging in sleep procrastination, choosing to stay up late when they don’t have to. Oh, you’re not using your nice quiet bed? Can I come over? You can stay up and binge-watch TV episodes that will still be there tomorrow, even though you have to get up and go to work. Meanwhile I will try to sleep enough that my eyelid will stop twitching.
Twenty years ago, I would stay up until 4 or 5 AM for the occasional party, just because that’s where the action was. I’ve never been a drinker. I just wanted to socialize and eat chips and hope something interesting would happen. It took years to realize that these are my same friends from daylight hours. They weren’t going to, say, transmogrify into a wolf or a bat or anything. Now the idea of being awake until 4 AM strikes fear into my heart.
Out of all the persistent problems in the world, a sleep issue is in the top ten. It’s not like a messy garage that you can cheerfully ignore for ten years. It’s not like having a pet that isn’t housebroken, where you might swear a lot and go through a gallon of carpet cleaner. It’s not even like debt, although debt and sleep loss do tend to go together. Being exhausted follows you all day, every day.
Yawning through movies. Blanking out on chunks of conversation. Leaving a trail of lost items behind you everywhere you go.
Generally not doing anything with full engagement.
Getting headaches, getting sick all the time.
Desire to kick in neighbor’s door and ask, “What are you even DOING???”
I was talking to a young friend who just got his dream job after eleven years of planning. I asked what he was going to do next, and he promptly shared his five- and ten-year goals. Later I thought about my own goals and realized that they now consist of: Sleep twelve hours every day for a week.
If you’re out there being all tired and clumsy and stuff, pause for a moment. Ask yourself whether you could possibly find a way to sleep more every day. If not, is there somewhere else you could go? If so, would you tell me where that is?
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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