The more I study productivity and positive psychology, the more I think that pop culture has everything backwards. How many trillions of articles are there going to be about these topics before everyone starts to realize? Common tactics don’t work. What we need is more strategy. Then we can finally speed up, bounce right over these little speed bumps, and move on to the next thing.
The thing about “getting organized” is that it’s far too vague to mean anything. How do you know what it looks like? I know my clients don’t. They punish themselves with guilt and shame, meanwhile living out the same frantic calamities day after day. The real problem is that they just don’t know what to do. When they start to realize that their problems have simple root causes, they’re always so surprised and relieved! We start with a pain point, like “always being late” or “not being able to find stuff” or “mixed up about money.” Changing just one keystone behavior can completely eliminate all the problems it causes, thereby ending the need to “get organized.”
Those keystone habits?
Almost all household tasks take about five minutes, except for putting away laundry, which is more like 10-15 minutes per load, and cooking, which can be under thirty minutes for dinner and 5-10 for breakfast and lunch. Not a very big time investment for living in a relaxing environment and eating nice meals!
That’s a major part of “weight loss.” I put that in quotes because it’s something that athletes only think about if they’re competing in a sport with weight classes, like boxing or wrestling. Right now, in fact, I’m thinking in terms of weight GAIN because I’m actively trying to put on ten or fifteen pounds of nice solid muscle. Weight loss is a problem for average people because the Standard American Lifestyle is ineffective. It’s ineffective for financial independence, physical fitness, health, ability to stay off pharmaceutical drugs, and also minimalist housekeeping. Whenever you look around and find that 70% of people are in the same situation you’re in, it’s a cultural issue, not an issue of “motivation” or “willpower” or whatever else. Stop “losing weight” and start trying to figure out how to beat the system, the system that is failing us all.
This is how I lost weight.
2, 4, and 5 were permanent. 6 is seasonal but ramps up every year.
I haven’t had to think about “weight loss” for four years. I just put on my clothes. The fit of my favorite jeans tells me more than a scale will. I maintain a capsule wardrobe all in a single size, out of the eight sizes I’ve worn in adulthood. Regaining a lot of body fat would mean replacing my entire wardrobe, and I’m too stingy to pay for that.
When you’re “organized” and you don’t have to “lose weight,” there aren’t that many things to put on a to-do list. I used to love writing lists to clear my head when I felt overwhelmed by life. Usually they would include basic household chores. I teach my clients an exercise I call the “101 List,” in which I ask them to walk around their homes looking for tasks that need doing and trying to write down 101 separate items. It’s a great help for a chronically disorganized person who hasn’t yet set up any systems.
That’s the secret, though. Well, one of two. First secret: Build systems and put everything on autopilot so you don’t have to think about it anymore. Basic tasks should not be eating up your mental bandwidth or taking up any more time than they deserve.
Second secret: Don’t write lists; schedule reminders. Put these things on your calendar. Then ACTUALLY DO THEM at the time slot that you decided would work the best for you.
The problem with writing out to-do lists is that it’s like a pressure valve. It makes you feel accomplished, and then you can relax. (This is obviously true in the case of people who add tasks to their list just to cross them off). This is great if you do the things, and if writing out the list helps you to fall asleep more quickly that night. It’s bad if writing the list is the thing you do INSTEAD OF doing the things. The existence of multiple lists in various stages of completion will indicate if this is an issue.
What I finally learned was that most of my energy did not go toward what was important to me. I beat myself up for being disorganized, feeling guilty and ashamed, when my real problem was not understanding what to do about it. I thought I was procrastinating, when my real problems were managing my energy level and mental focus, and of course battling my chronic disorganization. The better I got at managing my schedule and my stuff, the easier it became. That’s when I started to be able to help other people, which is important, because all of us have better things to do than to spend our lives trying to Get Organized and Lose Weight.
If you have only one spoon today, I’m honored that you’re using it to read this. If you are fortunate enough not to know what “spoons” refer to, I’ll briefly explain that it’s a subjective unit of measure for people with chronic pain and fatigue issues, or other hidden illnesses. I’d like to share some thoughts that came up when I recently got some reader mail thanking me for writing about my experience beating fibromyalgia. (I see you! <3)
It puzzles me that virtually all of the online presence for invisible illnesses seems to be about emotional support and painstakingly tutoring “well” people in the details of our diagnoses. Aren’t we... trying to feel better? Shouldn’t we see a disease as an opponent, not a roommate or a spouse? Shouldn’t we be trying to GET MORE SPOONS??? Stop sleeping with the enemy and tell it to pack its bags because it is out of here.
First off, the concept of chronic illness drives me crazy. I believe that it is unscientific for a doctor or anyone else in the medical community to describe something as “incurable.” Just because nobody has cured it YET doesn’t mean it will never happen. Isn’t your entire job to try to cure and treat illnesses?
I’m pro-science. Let’s not get confused about that. I always get my flu shot and I’ll promote vaccinations to anyone who will listen. If a doctor gives me a prescription for antibiotics, I fill it and I take the full course. If I get a printout of instructions to do physical therapy exercises, or anything else, I follow those instructions. I’m obedient and open to input. This is why it upsets me so much when I’m treated with condescension by doctors.
The doctor who patted me on the shoulder and assured me that there were in fact zero ways I could modify my diet, exercise, or lifestyle to impact my thyroid disease. - FALSE
The doctor who told me he doesn’t “believe in germ theory” - UHHHH....
The doctor who told me I must have been misdiagnosed because “people don’t get better from fibromyalgia” and she knew, because her sister-in-law has it. She told me not to mention that diagnosis to doctors, because they would “automatically write you off.” Then she tried to prescribe me an anti-depressant, although I am not depressed. - HUH?
The point I’m trying to make is that just because you waited forty minutes for a fifteen-minute time slot with one overworked, obtuse physician who wasn’t able to help you, does not then mean that you are beyond help. Just because you’ve suffered for many years doesn’t mean you always will. Just because your pain is extreme does not mean it will always be that way, or that it will get worse. There are no reasons to believe that a physical illness will remain permanent and debilitating until the end of time.
I always felt that if I had to suffer, then let it be toward a purpose. Take notes on my condition and track my metrics. Record everything I tried on my search for relief and wellness. Use these notes to build a better treatment plan for the next generation of sufferers.
Then I take that attitude to my primary care physician, who invalidates my position. I’m game, try me! How many people like me constitute “anecdotal evidence” that is 100% disregarded by the medical community? How many more are laboring under false stories of sickness because this information is withheld from them?
I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia at age 23. I also had a thyroid nodule that disappeared without treatment. I suffered debilitating migraines for about ten years. I would say that I actively manage sleep issues that began 35 years ago, and I’m successful now about 90% of the time. Since then I’ve run a marathon, completed a mud run, and gone on several multi-day expeditions carrying a 40+ pound backpack. Now I’m studying the martial arts of Krav Maga and Muay Thai kickboxing. Four hours a week I repeatedly catch kicks, punches, and shoves, get thrown onto the ground, and do a full circuit-training workout. If I can think of any more extreme sport that demonstrates how fully I beat fibromyalgia, I might try it.
I’m a middle-aged woman with a history of multiple chronic illnesses. I crushed them.
I’m a formerly obese woman who fully recovered from thyroid disease. Now I wear a size XS.
How is it possible for someone of my age bracket and health history to be in better shape than I was twenty years ago?
How is it possible, when my doctors told me it wasn’t? How is it possible, when my doctors brushed off and invalidated my experiences? How is it possible, when I never took medication or had surgery?
There are three reasons.
First, I didn’t have a choice. My ex-husband divorced me when he realized how sick I was. I didn’t even have health insurance, much less another human who could help me get out of bed or fill in for tasks I couldn’t do. I had to get up and take care of myself because I was the only one I had.
Second, most of my insights and epiphanies and realizations and hypotheses came from TOTAL ACCIDENTS and coincidences. I would notice something that didn’t seem to make sense, and as it caught my attention, I would start to track more details while I tried to figure it out.
Third, being told that something is impossible is something that deeply annoys me. It’s stupid! It’s a wrong thought. It is unscientific, if I might be pardoned for repeating myself. I’ll trust a doctor who tells me to get a tetanus shot or change bandages or take eye drops. I’ll never, ever trust a doctor who tells me I’m stuck with some health condition for the rest of my life.
Nobody needs to run an obstacle course or go backpacking or start taking karate classes. That’s a high bar. All I’m asking is that we question this chronic illness paradigm. I ask that we allow for the possibility that we may one day be free. What if we’ve been misdiagnosed? What if we become “anecdotal” and have a spontaneous remission? What if we age out, as it often happens with migraines, because our hormone levels change over time? What if new research leads to new treatments, new medications, or new understanding of root cause?
Please stop sleeping with the enemy. Illness is not your body part. Illness is not one of your internal organs. Illness is not your heritage. Perfect health is your birthright. Track your metrics and keep asking questions until you have all the spoons you could ever want.
There should totally be “lady size” burritos. It always amazes me that every person gets the same size portion in a restaurant, even people like my husband and myself. He’s ten inches taller than me and weighs twice as much as I do. In what universe would we eat the exact same size of meal?
Same thing with little kids. People are always hovering over them and telling them to finish what’s on their plate, even when they effectively have an adult-size pile of food. Maybe part of why kids will always prioritize snacks and treats is that they come in child sizes?
I’m 5’4” and I have a small build. I usually find that if I try to eat an entire restaurant meal, I’m in physical pain afterward, like a manatee that’s about to go into labor. I will feel ill and too lethargic to do much of anything. Meanwhile, Future Me is already opening the fridge and sadly looking for leftovers that aren’t there. There are several ways that I deal with the absurdity of 21st-century foodways, and one of them is to package up half the meal for the next day’s lunch. Another is simply to make small changes to my order. This is a lot easier than it sounds.
My hubby and I don’t eat out that often, partly because it makes it too hard to keep our weight under control, partly because we’re trying to become financially independent, and partly because... we don’t have a car. The only place within walking distance of us that we like is a local build-your-own burrito bar. (Not the national chain that’s renowned for putting people in the hospital with food poisoning! I wouldn’t touch their doorknob). The fact that we really only have one option we like is another help, because really, how often are you going to pay to eat the same meal at the same place?
The foil-wrapped imitation submarine in the photo is my hubby’s choice, a classic bean burrito. He asks for no rice in his. Just: “No rice, thanks.” The tortilla is plenty.
Mine is a “bowl.” I do like rice, but when they start mine, I just lean over and say “Just half the rice, please.” They give me one ladle instead of two, and it’s just right. Slightly less effort, slightly cheaper for the restaurant. Nobody cares. This way I get the amount of food that I want and I don’t have to throw any of it away.
I’ve tried saving half my Mexican food for lunch the next day, but it’s never really very good. The lettuce gets all wilted. Almost all of my meal is vegetables, because that’s how I roll, and also because I can eat a big meal in one sitting without feeling like I’m going to explode.
What’s in there? Lettuce, red cabbage, grilled onions and peppers, corn, jicama, mango, tofu, guacamole, mild salsa, cilantro, and of course the black beans and brown rice. SO GOOD.
I know what my hubby has under that foil because I keep his regular order on a note in my phone. Flour tortilla, pinto beans, grilled onion, salsa, lettuce, pico de gallo, and cilantro.
What’s most important here is what’s missing, or, where about two-thirds of our calories would have come from ten years ago.
When we were both obese, that amount of food seemed normal. It WAS normal, because everyone at every table around us was eating the same amount.
It also felt normal to feel bloated and sluggish after the meal, too full to do anything but lie around and watch TV.
Most people go out to eat because it’s fun. It’s fun! We like sitting around a table, laughing and talking and enjoying a delicious meal. It’s fun to choose from a menu, it’s fun to get appetizers and desserts and specialty drinks. It’s most fun of all to get up and leave the cleanup to someone else! What isn’t always as fun is making the connections, like we did, to our credit card debt and to our energy level and to our size. There’s also a connection between me wearing a white shirt and us choosing a restaurant with tomato sauce, but that’s for a different day. What we’ve found is that we can keep the fun parts of dining out - the laugher and conversation and the atmosphere - while dropping the bogus parts, like the debt and the tight pants. Just a few tweaks in what and how we order and we’re there.
We still order French fries occasionally. It’s rare, though, and by quantity we eat significantly more broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, chard, and kale. We also skip the fries when we know they’re mediocre, just like onion rings are either awesome or horrible.
We never, ever, never ever never ever never ever order soda. Not anymore.
If we get dessert we usually split something.
Sometimes we split an entree and add a salad or side. When we do this, we tip the same as we would if we had ordered two entrees. This keeps the staff glad to see us when we go back.
Personally, I almost never order a soup, because restaurant soup is usually way too salty.
Neither of us eats any dairy whatsoever. No sour cream, no cheese, no whipped cream, nada. I haven’t touched it in over 20 years, and my husband quit when he started Weight Watchers and realized that even one ounce of cheese used up a huge amount of points. (He then memorized the list of “zero point” foods and gamed the system, or, lost weight and kept it off).
We try to stick to only one starch, either bread OR rice OR pasta OR potatoes OR a tortilla. It feels like combining two or more at the same meal leads straight to a major nap attack.
We almost never eat waffles, pancakes, muffins, or scones. I don’t like croissants or bagels and I can’t think of the last time I’ve seen my hubby eat either of those.
We go out to brunch maybe once a year. If we do, it definitely serves as two meals and we’re only eating dinner afterward.
On vacation, we’ve also started having just two meals. Sleep in, eat a late breakfast, and then eat an early dinner. Alternately, drink tea for breakfast followed by a proper lunch and a late dinner.
All of this might sound like a list of personal preferences. What could be more boring than that? The reason it’s relevant is that we’ve lost a hundred pounds between us. We started paying attention to what we eat and taking notes on how we felt afterward. Not just that night, but the next morning, and the next month. This is how we’re still able to feel like we’re indulging ourselves, without feeling punished afterward.
The Self-Love Experiment is a story about Shannon Kaiser’s exploration of self-compassion. This is a very raw, immediate, real look at what it’s like to do deep inner work. It will speak to anyone who has body image issues or who struggles with self-loathing. Hence, nearly everybody.
Self-compassion is the antidote to shame. Unfortunately, the first level of defense that comes from toxic shame is to convince the ashamed that they are undeserving of compassion, or anything good in this world. It always boggles my mind when I work with clients who are so convinced that they are terrible people, even though everyone else around them sees them as kind, sensitive, caring friends. Trying to love yourself when you feel unlovable must feel like ripping off your own skin, like a nakedness beyond nakedness.
Shannon Kaiser talks openly about her issues with depression, eating disorders, drug addiction, and body dysmorphia. If she could learn to love herself while fighting all of these demons, then surely there’s something here for everyone.
Something I found really intriguing in The Self-Love Experiment was the differentiation between the “rebellion self,” the “reward self,” the “protection self,” and the “lonely self.” These are aspects of the personality with different drives, and they explain a lot about coping behaviors.
This is a very approachable, yet multi-layered and complex book. There’s enough here that some chapters could keep someone busy for a year. If you’re a Feeler, if you’re dissatisfied with your life, or if you are ever mean to yourself, it would be a self-compassionate act to read this book. Try the Self-Love Experiment for yourself.
It never occurred to me that trying to change my outside world was a desperate attempt to feel better on the inside.
To stop loathing myself is to reduce the negativity and pain in the world.
Despite what you might believe about yourself, you are not broken, you are not your problems, there’s nothing to fix, you’re not off track, there isn’t something wrong with you, your insecurities are not hindering you, and your flaws don’t make you weak, unlovable, or unsuccessful.
I’ve always known myself to be a tightly wound, restless, easily bored person. I’ve had chronic sleep problems since I was seven. These are all subjective states. Now it turns out that there’s actually an objective metric that corresponds with these feelings. True to my alpha nature, my first instinct is to go after this metric with the full force of my competitive drive. Blast it! Chase after it! Force it to submit!
Considering that the metric in question is “resting heart rate,” I’m willing to consider the possibility that this project will require a different approach.
What happened? My husband went in for a routine physical. I asked to see his lab results, and he cordially agreed, because he has reason to be smug. He just turned fifty, but his blood work would be on track for an 18-year-old. His doctor asked what medications he was taking. Answer: None. Among all the other numbers, one stood out to me. My husband’s resting heart rate is 55 beats per minute. That is considered athletic at any age. Nice work, babe!
I looked at a chart showing target heart rates for various age brackets. Because I wear a smart watch, I had easy access to my own health metrics, dating back a couple of years. I was distressed to see that my own resting heart rate averages about 77 beats per minute. While my husband’s data put him in the Athletic category, mine is... Below Average for someone over age 65.
Part of what is funny about this is that we do have a chronological age difference, and it works in my favor. I’m seven years younger, and it looks like more. People are still routinely surprised to find that I’m in my early forties, rather than my early thirties, while my hubby is more, um, distinguished. From some of the looks we get, I suspect people think I’m more like twenty years younger than he is. If these casual bystanders were looking at our medical records instead, they’d probably think I was his mom.
Or his grandma!
The difference between us is that my hubby started in athletics as a preschooler. His mom put him on the swim team when he was just four. The picture of him in his tiny little trunks crushes my heart. He kept swimming until he was old enough to make the football team, which he continued through junior college. As an adult, he switched to roller hockey, followed by ice hockey, followed by armored combat. In between, there was basketball and wrestling and who knows what else. While he was doing all of that, I was, well, I was reading. Sitting on my butt and reading, unless I was lying on my side and reading. He was already winning before I even knew there was a game.
Granted, I’m competitive. I always want that A grade. Not only that, I want extra credit, I want to test into the advanced class, I want to be on the Dean’s List, and I want some sort of award at the end of the year. That’s just as true of my health metrics as it is of anything else in my life, from the amount of my retirement savings to how low I can get my electric bill. The first thing I do when I’m confronted with poor test results is to research. These days I think they call it a “rubric.” What does it take to get that A grade in this class? What are the inputs that make a difference? Can I debunk it or, rather, replace it with a more valuable metric?
For my thyroid disease, I found that the key was strenuous exercise. For my parasomnia disorder, I found that the key variable was blood sugar, particularly how late I ate before bedtime. For migraines, I found that the two main factors were my body weight and micronutrient consumption. I’ve beat health issues that were far more pernicious than a high resting heart rate, and I’m fully confident that I can make measurable progress here, too.
What am I going after?
According to mainstream information, which is where I always start, because I believe in a measurable empirical reality, I’ll be best off if I focus on:
When I still suffered from an Unfit Mindset, I would have locked onto that ‘stress’ item and completely ignored everything else on the list. Well, at least I don’t smoke, but that’s because I’m a cheapskate and I’d rather spend that money on vacations. To be honest, I don’t believe in “stress” as a concept. I don’t think stress causes things, I think stress is a byproduct of underlying physical conditions. I think this for two reasons; one, I’ve felt it as I’ve improved my own baseline state of health, and two, I’ve observed that the three most laid-back people I’ve ever met were a Zen Buddhist monk, a competitive all-natural body builder, and a CrossFit dude. I met two of the three when they were just regular people, before they committed to their chosen sports, and the difference was quite noticeable. They... blink less than other people. They seem to exist in this permanent state of slow-mo, where they could plausibly catch a housefly with chopsticks, or dodge bullets, or pause time and prevent automobile collisions.
I want that for myself.
Going back to the inputs that I can control, I already know that losing weight and exercising are effective. My resting heart rate used to be even worse, if you can believe that, in the low eighties. I remember a big wake-up call for me at age 29, when I walked up a single flight of stairs and started seeing black spots. I knew there were people in their sixties and seventies who were more fit than I was, because I’d met them. I even worked with a few every day. I’m much more fit now than I was as a teenager, which is partly very sad and partly really exciting and hopeful. I don’t have much weight to lose, as far as that goes, so I’ll focus on trying to add muscle. For a restless alpha type, I need to have something tangible, a target, so I don’t simply pace a path into my carpet.
Being a stress case is not fun. It’s not fun under the hood, but it’s also not fun for other people. I’m not good at things like relaxing, having fun, taking naps, sitting through a two-hour movie, or, honestly, even sitting at all. I feel constantly driven to be up and doing something. Accomplishing something. Finishing something. Getting completion on something. Now that I’m looking at these tables of resting heart rates, I’m starting to realize that maybe that endlessly restless feeling comes from my high heart rate. I’ve never had much success in talking myself into a different mindset. Maybe I can go at it from the other angle, and see what happens as a result of physical change.
Most “resolutions” are futile, just as most “advice” is completely bogus. My personal favorites are “everything happens for a reason” - THE most meaningless thing ever said - and the whole concept of “getting healthy.” Please tell me. What does that even mean? (Either one. The vagueness, it hurts my face). We pick a cloudy, non-specific intention like “get healthier” because it sounds psychologically more balanced than the alternatives, like “lose weight.” Speaking as someone who has done both successfully, I have a lot to say. Rant, rather.
The problem with “getting healthier” as a goal is that people are LESS likely to meet their health goals when they choose this as their intention. It has to do with the halo effect. Our culture makes a strong link between ‘healthy’ and:
There are a lot of people who would probably feel more of a sense of genuine welcome at the thought of a religious missionary coming to their door than they would at the thought of a conversation about “health” or “weight loss” or “fitness.”
Especially when we don’t have personal experience with these altered states of being, we find it impossible to imagine what that emotional or mental state would feel like. We can’t even begin to guess at the physical, other than sweat, soreness, and blisters. What story would we tell ourselves? All we have to draw on are guesswork, media representations, fictional characters, and our gut-level responses to advertising images.
What about health, though?
My fitness goals are at least half “moving away from” goals rather than “moving toward” goals. I eat in a certain way and move my body a certain amount because I’m deliberately trying to avoid specific inner states. I can’t alway feel that I’m on track, but when I get off track, the physical consequences come at me hard and fast. I get a rapid internal beatdown that demonstrates, once again, that I tend toward certain patterns. Patterns that are in my control should work for me, not against me. I can’t justify being my own worst enemy.
For me, it’s not a question of “healthier” but of:
Waking up several times a night with nightmares or, worse, night terrors
If you’ve never experienced a true night terror, it would be really hard to explain why this would be a motivator. Imagine waking up shaking and crying in another room, with no explanation of how you got there. Imagine someone having to pin you to the bed for three minutes because you were thrashing and screaming and you wouldn’t wake up. Imagine your heart rate doubling in fifteen seconds, launching you out of bed and onto your feet like you just touched a hot stove burner. After three years of that, I was humbled. I was ready to do anything to be free.
For the last four years, I was free. Free both of migraines and night terrors. Then, in the past couple of months, I’ve started experiencing alarming symptoms again. Flailing around in bed. Nightmares that last for two hours. Sitting straight up in a panic. About a week ago I got a headache with one of my classic migraine symptoms, jaw cramping. These two conditions don’t have anything to do with one another, as far as I know, but they are both signs that my system is out of whack.
I ate more sweets over the holidays, specifically dessert on two consecutive nights. I ate more in general. The weather got cold and I changed my default fitness habits. My weight crept up a few pounds.
Pop culture would say that I should lighten up, be gentle with myself, and quit caring about social norms or body image. (Assuming that I do in the first place, because I’m a woman, when actually I find body image norms to be irrelevant to my emotional world). Nothing about any of that remotely impacts whether I wake my husband up on a work night because I’m shouting in my sleep, or whether my eyelid starts twitching.
There’s a lot of standard, mainstream “health” advice that I either disregard, find irrelevant, or experience as harmful to my physical state. For instance, I hate coffee, I don’t care for chocolate, and alcohol doesn’t seem to work on me, so I ignore all the articles about their supposed health benefits. I don’t take a multivitamin for two reasons, one, because it’s linked to higher mortality from all causes, and two, because of consistent quality control issues turned up in independent lab testing. What they’re selling on the label is not always what’s actually in the bottle. I’ve tried a high-protein, low-carb diet and it made me feel like I ate wet cement. Not compatible with endurance sports! I gravitate toward strenuous exercise and endurance sports because they work better than anything else I’ve found when my stress level goes up.
I’ve never had night terrors on a night after I went for a run.
Where I’m going with all this is that when we look for “motivation,” the concept of “getting healthier” seems to backfire. When we choose literally anything else, such as “impress my cat,” if we find it personally meaningful, it works. I once coached a client whose goal was to look hot in an evening dress because she knew she was going to see her ex at a New Year’s party. She nailed her weight goal and reported back that she felt really smug and proud on her way home from the party. Worked for her.
Trying to escape a harsh physical reality, like a persistent skin rash, is usually more “motivating” for most people than an aspiration like a goal weight or clothing size. Emotional realities may work, too, depending on the person.
I would suggest tracking your metrics if you have issues with, say, irritable bowel syndrome, sleep apnea, gastritis, chronic pain or fatigue, or any mystery issue. This is especially true if you’ve felt that doctors were condescending and dismissive toward your concerns. Bringing them a health log with specific observations and health metrics occasionally tends to get their attention. It can also reveal patterns that you can observe and correct yourself.
When I started having night terrors, I did a ton of research. It turned out that, at the time at least, very little was known about it. I would have gone to a sleep lab, but I only had episodes about once every three weeks, with a pattern so sporadic and inconsistent that I doubted the lab would catch one in action. I talked to doctors who completely, rudely scoffed at me and told me I just needed to have better sleep hygiene. Nobody said, “watch your blood sugar and quit eating three hours before bedtime” or “stop eating sugar” or “do more strenuous exercise, at least 45 minutes per instance at least five days a week.” Those were the modifications that actually worked. I consider these behavior modifications to be objectively quantifiable and testable. That’s the goal with tracking health metrics.
Not some vague cloud of woo-woo and positive thinking - although I believe in both! When I’m experiencing a real-world, measurable problem that comes from my body, I want real-world, scientific approaches to get rid of it. I don’t want “healthier,” I want something specific that actually improves my life. When I make a resolution about my health, I want to know when I’ve completed it and what counts as “keeping” it.
Technically, I’m on Day 369, but who’s counting? I don’t have to count how many days in a row I make my activity goals. For one thing, I wear a fitness tracker. More importantly, my body counts. My muscles and my heart and lungs are tracking every step I take. I can’t lie to my own insides.
There is something really satisfying about scrolling back and seeing all of these completed activity rings. The design worked. When I first received this Apple Watch as a gift for my fortieth birthday, I was still gimping around after an ankle injury. My athletic pursuits included sitting around and muttering to myself while reading ultramarathon manuals. On the first day, the record shows that I walked 1,044 steps and burned 30 calories. Fantastic! ...for a baby...
I got my first pedometer over a decade ago. They were pretty primitive in the early days. All they did was track motion. You could game them by shaking them back and forth. They also reset if they got dropped, and mine fell out of my pocket so many times that I had to start using a safety pin. I got one with a clip and that kept falling off, too. Memories... I remember the first day I hit what I thought was an important fitness milestone, and I ran off to show my friends.
A THOUSAND STEPS!
Um, the goal is TEN thousand steps. A thousand steps is like a quarter mile.
Let’s just say I’ve come a long way in twelve years. When I started out, it took me months to build to walking a thousand steps in a day. My daily average for 2017 is 11,055 steps, 4.9 miles, four flights of stairs, and 48 minutes working out.
Another interesting tidbit is that my daily average calorie burn from physical activity is: 407. This is why it’s impossible to “lose weight” simply through exercise. A bagel is about 245 calories, and a Costco muffin is almost 650. I could literally add ONE snack or make ONE lousy, inefficient food choice each day and completely wipe out whatever I burned from my workout.
(Flip this by thinking like a marathon runner. “If I eat this muffin that is nearly as big as my head, I can run at least 6 miles later”)
I used to think I could just skip this whole thing, you know, standing up and moving around. After all, doctors had told me all sorts of things about my health that included “exercise intolerant.” There is nothing like a diagnosed thyroid condition to give one a get-out-of-gym-free card for life, am I right? Then I went to the mall with my Nana, who was 75 at the time, and I watched in dismay as she struggled to get on the escalator. She was still working, still driving, still living a full life in every way. But stepping onto an automatic staircase with a handrail was physically challenging and intimidating for her. Suddenly, I saw myself in this context, as a younger version of my mother and grandmother. This was to be my future, too.
Unless I did something about it.
The kind of exercise that I do today would not have been possible for my female ancestors. By that I mean that they would not have been allowed. Women were legally excluded from competing in races like I do, we were legally excluded from gym memberships like I have had, we could not legally go out in public wearing the kind of workout clothes that I wear today. This probably has a lot to do with why there was no feminine tradition of strenuous exercise in my family. I had no examples and I had no idea what to do.
Start by walking. Walk 1% farther and 1% faster.
Start by paying attention to what you do during the day. Not what you “do” as in how busy you are, but what you DO, as in how much you physically move your body around. Notice your range of motion. Visualize your path through life. Where do you go and what do you see? Same stuff all the time? Hmm, seems boring.
Looking back at my activity level in my twenties, I feel embarrassed. I don’t move around twice as much as I did twenty years ago, I move around more than ten times as much! Middle-aged me could kick younger me’s butt without hardly trying. I just wish, I wish, I wish, I wish there were a way that I could go back in time and teach Twenties Me everything that Forties Me knows. Maybe I wouldn’t have had to spend so much time feeling tired, ill, and trapped in chronic pain. We had a happy ending, though. The future arrived and brought some pretty great technology with it.
Just a few years from now, activity trackers are going to be available for everything. They’re going to test blood glucose and monitor our skin for sun damage. I predict that one day, gamers will be the fittest people of all, because they’ll be controlling their avatars with haptic body suits or some kind of hologram thing that requires leaping, rolling, and backflips. Until then, what we have now has been enough to get at least one sedentary, obese thyroid patient with fibromyalgia up and moving.
The lid comes off. Cookies! Each kind has its own specially shaped compartment. Chocolate covered cookies! Butter cookies! Rectangles! Tubes! Circles! I haven’t had lunch yet and they are just right there, a few inches from my hand. Free, chocolate, cookies. It’s not just that I could eat them, I’m supposed to eat them. Someone brought them in as a gift. They’re for sharing. Who would I be to reject such a thoughtful, chocolate-covered gesture?
I don’t eat any of the cookies.
Clearly I am a grinch. Guilty as charged. What kind of joyless, belligerent, terrible excuse for a human being would refuse free holiday cookies? I must hate having fun. Or maybe I hate watching other people have fun. Also, I must hate my body. Right?
The truth is, I don’t really care for chocolate all that much. Plain and simple. It doesn’t do much for me. Inexpensive chocolate is just gross. The last time I ate a grocery-store candy bar, it tasted like candles. Crayons, maybe.
There’s a lot more to my mutant ability to pass by a free box of cookies. I’m sharing because it was key to my total physical transformation. The reason for that is that cookies were one of my top trigger foods.
A trigger food is something that gives you a total case of swirly eyes. You don’t even make a decision whether or not to eat it; basically you take one look at it and it’s inside your mouth before you even realize your hand was in motion. You’ll eat it even if it’s low-quality or it’s been sitting around for a while, just as people in research studies will snarf down three-day-old stale popcorn while complaining about how stale it is.
My trigger foods were cookies, breakfast cereal, and rainbow-colored candies. My husband’s are white bread, pie, corn chips, and any kind of homemade baked goods. We were both serious cola drinkers, and we agreed to quit together, and fell off the wagon together, several times when we were dating.
The funny thing about trigger foods is that one person’s trigger is uninteresting to someone else. For instance, my hubby likes pita chips and I think they are gross. I used to date a guy who was obsessed with black licorice. I would eat cookies or cake for breakfast, a habit most people are much too smart to engage in. Now it gives me a headache just thinking about it.
Once upon a time, I worked for a bank in a big skyscraper downtown. In the lobby was a well-stocked convenience store. I would glance at it as I came and went, and I couldn’t help but notice the large, well-lit display of Pepperidge Farm Cookies. Oh dear. Ineluctably, I felt myself drawn inside, where I slowly took in each individual label. Gosh, there are so many different kinds of Pepperidge Farm Cookies. So many delicious flavors and all of them look absolutely awesome. We never got these when I was a kid. I bought a package and took them upstairs to my desk. No roommates or boyfriends would ask to share my nice expensive cookies!
I opened the package and carefully ate every crumb of one of these fine cookies, Milanos if you’re interested. Then I closed the package and put it in my desk drawer.
About a minute later, I opened the drawer, opened the package, and got out another cookie.
In the back of my mind was an intention that these cookies would last me a week or two. I thought of them as very expensive luxury items.
Needless to say, even after I moved the Milanos to the back of the drawer and locked it with a key, I got the mechanics of retrieving and opening the bag down to about two seconds. They were gone in two days.
The next fifteen years would demonstrate a conclusive link between my cookie consumption and my thirty-five pound weight gain.
There were other food habits I had to learn and unlearn before I finally figured out how to eat like an athlete. Pretty much mostly cookies, though.
I lost my taste for cookies, breakfast cereal, and other trigger foods at some point during my marathon training. I had assumed that cookies would fuel me past the finish line, and I definitely ate a lot of Nutter Butters and vanilla fig bars in the early days. Somehow, though, I lost my taste for sweets. Even sweetened dried fruit started tasting too sticky and treacly. Cereal tastes like baby food to me now. I just don’t want that stuff any more.
I still have strong associations between foods and celebrations. I still love to eat just as much as I ever did. My tastes have changed, that’s all. Sometimes I eat a cookie, and I look at it, feeling betrayed. “Cookie! Why u taste so boring!” I have to remind myself that my excitement over a particular food is not always matched by my actual experience. Usually it takes like three hundred attempts.
Now, the way I connect food to celebrations is to plan and cook a fine meal. I know I’ve won when I see someone pop up to get thirds. I know I’ve done well when someone insists on the recipe, and then cooks it next time I’m in town. I know I’ve done well when I can sit down, enjoy what’s on my plate, and not feel a sense of FoMO. I’m not missing out; there is always going to be a box of cookies within my reach, round the clock, twenty-four hours a day. I can if I want to, and most of the time, I choose something else.
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.
One of the first things I noticed when I started doing clutter work was a strong correlation between space clearing and weight loss. Why is this? The reasons that people clutter up their homes are as many and varied as the reasons that people gain and lose weight. These are both very broad cultural problems that affect almost all of us, problems that people of the Dark Ages didn’t have. They couldn’t afford either the extra food or the extra stuff; material goods were expensive for most of human history. Only now do we have the luxury of having both more food and more stuff than we know what to do with! Perhaps the first reason that clutter work tends to trigger weight loss is that it causes us to pause and ask ourselves, Is this what I want for myself? Did I do this with my life intentionally?
Clutter has some common causes, all of which can also be seen as common causes of weight gain:
Consumer culture / recreational shopping and eating
Perception of busy schedule
Depression, anxiety, other mental health issues
Addressing any one of these issues has a ripple effect, where resolving the problem also resolves other symptoms of the problem. As an example, getting a handle on chronic disorganization may result in a better financial outlook as well as more time to cook at home. Going for the root cause always leads to unanticipated positive side benefits. Often we find ourselves saying, “If only I’d known this would happen, I would have done it sooner!”
Most of my clients don’t cook. This is reflective of our cultural moment, as statistics show that Americans now spend more at restaurants and bars than we do on groceries. When we cook at home, most of us are buying packaged and prepared foods, not cooking from scratch. You know what I think? Based on what I’ve seen, I think one of the main reasons that most people don’t cook is that their kitchens are too... Um... How do I put this? Basically I would hesitate to pop a slice of toast in most of my clients’ kitchens. It’s pretty common for people to stock up on what I would consider to be three months’ worth of food, and try to pack it into the kitchen space with double or triple the amount of hardware that will fit. Nobody is going to cook if the sink and counters are constantly full of dirty dishes and there’s no available counter space.
Making a stand about clutter will eventually affect the kitchen. When the kitchen is reclaimed, when the kitchen starts to be used in the way it was designed to be used, we start eating more rationally.
Intensive space clearing takes time. It shakes up whatever was the default schedule, a schedule that may have been consistent for many years. We snap out of whatever dream we’ve been in, we look around, and we realize that entropy has been happening all around us. Many of us work in a near frenzy, finding energy we never knew we had, sometimes having trouble stopping even when it’s late on a work night. We can spend hours without realizing that time is passing. These are the same blocks of time that we might have spent on screen time, perhaps snacking because that’s what we’ve always done. Changing our default activities tends to change our eating patterns, too.
Even my clients who live alone report power struggles over how they keep their space. Friends and family members want to stick their oars in. Space clearing is often the first time that someone has taken initiative in life, effectively saying, “I make the rules around here now.” This is major, because we give ourselves permission to say both No and Yes. Unintentional weight gain often comes from adopting the eating habits of our nearest and dearest, who are usually surprisingly insistent that we not change or reject food offerings. We have to eat the way that they do, or they won’t feel like they have permission to eat that way anymore! Put your foot down and say, “This isn’t working for me,” and all sorts of things happen.
Of course, sometimes both clutter clearing and weight loss are just natural side effects of recovery from an emotional crisis or a period of mental health issues. As we start to feel better, we start wanting better for ourselves, and that includes our living environments as well as our bodies.
Honestly, I think there’s a bit of woo-woo behind it. Just because we can’t objectively measure a subjective emotional experience doesn’t mean it isn’t real. There is something about the inner decision that It’s Time Now. When we feel the deep sense that change is necessary and obvious, it changes everything. We just feel different. We start to approach everything we do with a new awareness. As we start taking more initiative and agency, reclaiming our personal power, and reflecting this newfound strength in our external circumstances, it spreads. It does things. Little tweaks and adjustments happen without our always realizing it right away. How can this not permeate all our choices, food included?
My graduates report back some amazing changes. They fall in love, relocate across the globe, go back to school, change jobs, and take up old abandoned hobbies. Physical transformation is just another routine extraordinary process. Ultimately space clearing is an external manifestation of internal awareness. It’s one sign among many of an end to chronic procrastination and the beginning of a new drive toward creative action.
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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.