Relief is the best feeling you could have right now. Am I right? If you’re like most people, you have a secret shame, something you’ve been putting off. You dread facing it. Even thinking about it makes you cringe. You’ve been procrastinating and delaying and foot-dragging, and the longer you wait, the worse it feels. Let today be the day that you free yourself from that horrible, yucky feeling. Start with a stuck list.
Let’s make a list of everything that’s bothering you. Category by category, we’ll figure out your aversive tasks and why they feel so sticky and hard to do.
An aversive task is something that makes you want to run away. You just don’t want to do it. The funny thing is, that type of odious chore is different for everyone. Some people hate making phone calls, others don’t mind. Some people hate filing, others think it’s fun. Pick a chore and someone hates it, someone doesn’t think twice about doing it, and someone else actually enjoys it. Tell yourself that the thing itself isn’t really that bad, it’s just the emotions that it brings up for you.
What is on your stuck list?
Chances are, most stuff on your list can be done in under five minutes. Isn’t that great?
Also, just thinking about it makes you a little nauseated. Wouldn’t it be better to put it all behind you? Take a deep breath and imagine your victory.
Look at your list. Categorize each item by how it gets done. Is it:
A phone call?
A physical task?
Something waiting on someone else?
A conversation you need to have face to face with someone?
Secretly a major project that you don’t know how to do?
Now write down the thoughts and feelings you have when you think about doing each of these things.
A blank space of not knowing what to do or how to do it
Now write down why you aren’t doing each item.
Don’t know how
Don’t like So-and-So
Hate doing this
Need more information
Believe it will take HOURS AND HOURS
Need to make a decision
Overwhelmed and overcommitted
Do you notice any patterns?
Overcommitting, never saying ‘no,’ feeling indecisive, or avoiding confrontations are the types of patterns that affect everything, all the time. Looking at the root emotional cause and figuring out some strategies can eventually help you to free yourself from the icky, heavy feeling of procrastination.
I tend to procrastinate business calls until I absolutely can’t avoid them because I hate talking on the phone. I always put housework and exercise first. That’s my task pattern. I’m quick to research things when I don’t know much about them, because it makes me feel curious, but I’m slow to open an email if I think it will trigger a bunch of bureaucratic nonsense. The things I procrastinate the most are clothes shopping and getting my hair cut. Another person might procrastinate sorting mail or cleaning out the car, and maybe always put personal phone calls first. It all depends on what you think is fun versus what you think is dreadful, boring, annoying, or loaded with emotion.
Here’s my stuck list.
An email to my screenwriting mentor - guilt, don’t know what to do
Redesign of a product that can’t be manufactured according to current specs - frustration, don’t know what to do
Jeans shopping - annoyance, hate doing this, believe it will take hours and hours
Finding a new avian vet since apparently there isn’t one within ten miles - need more information, need to make a decision
The first two items could trigger weeks or months of demanding work. Since I don’t have a clear image of what that looks like, I feel stuck. Jeans shopping will probably take two hours. Finding a new bird vet might be impossible; I might have to take half a day to bring her to her old vet. I don’t really “feel like” doing any of these things right now, so I’ll fake myself out. I’ll pick one, which will immediately make one of the other items on the list feel less difficult in comparison. I’ll feel like I’m getting away with something.
Trick yourself, if that’ll work for you. Ask someone for help or advice, because admitting your secret shame and exposing it to daylight helps to rebuild your dignity and pride. Set a timer and race against it. Play music and keep working until the playlist is up. Set aside one weekend day as a Get Stuff Done Day.
Keep your list somewhere you can look at it. Try to complete one item every day until the list is gone. Every time you look at, think about, or handle the list, remind yourself of how amazing it will feel when all that stuff is done. Soon you’ll never have to think about it again. You can be free of the dread and frustration and guilt and shame that comes from procrastinating. You can start today. Just get started.
The only thing better than a book by one of your favorite bloggers is when the book turns out to be even better than the blog. Eric Barker is in my top ten list, along with probably everyone else’s, and Barking Up the Wrong Tree has just locked that down. This is an incredibly fascinating read that may turn everything you think about pop psychology upside down. It is indeed, as the subtitle says, “the surprising science behind why everything you know about success is (mostly) wrong.”
Why is this book so great? It’s because Barker has been researching and writing in depth about these topics for years. More than that, he has a knack for illustrating concepts with historical examples and storytelling. Where else are you going to find anecdotes about submarines, drug cartels, mixed martial arts, Genghis Khan, Spider-Man, and Batman all in the same book?
The research behind Barking Up the Wrong Tree is bound to stir some inner resistance in most people. There are so many findings that contradict common wisdom, and that will probably also conflict with some closely held values. One is that making your boss happy is more important to your career success than your actual performance. Essentially, if you please your boss, even mediocre performance won’t matter, and if you annoy your boss, excellent performance won’t matter either. I can practically feel the temperature rising as steam comes out of ten thousand pairs of ears.
There’s so much to surprise, delight, challenge, confuse, frustrate, and ultimately impress readers. Optimism and pessimism, introversion and extroversion, grit, creativity, altruism, willpower, networking, success, and even hostage negotiations have their place here. If you’re ready to have your mind changed about a wide array of cultural assumptions, make sure you’re not Barking Up the Wrong Tree and read this book.
“Cognitive biases prevent us from understanding cognitive biases.”
“TO-DO LISTS ARE EVIL.”
Procrastinating is due for a disruption. I think it’s much more complicated than it appears, and that a lot of the time, we bash ourselves with those feelings quite unfairly. What if what we’re doing isn’t really procrastinating?
Over a quarter of Americans are chronic procrastinators, which is way more common than being a smoker or a diabetic. The prevalence has also gone up nearly 40% in the past quarter century. This increase can probably be blamed almost entirely on the advent of cable television, followed by the internet, streaming video, online gaming, social media, et cetera. We certainly know how to entertain ourselves!
Procrastinating means “putting forward to tomorrow.” The interesting thing about it is that we define it for ourselves. Everyone procrastinates on different stuff, and what’s difficult for one person is easy or fun for someone else. We may feel like we are procrastinating on doing stuff even when we don’t have an external deadline or standard that we need to meet. Even when we are being our own boss, choosing our own projects, and doing stuff based completely on our own initiative, we can still judge ourselves for being “lazy” or for procrastinating. Isn’t that a little weird?
Putting something off until tomorrow isn’t always procrastinating. Let’s think about this. Usually, it’s a sign of good planning! We can’t do every single thing the minute the thought crosses our minds. At least, that’s what the receptionist at my dentist’s office tells me. Sometimes, choosing to do something later has no impact at all, like if I delay watching a TV episode or decide not to have a PBJ sandwich for lunch until later this week. It’s only the stuff we believe we really, really should be doing right now that counts as procrastinating. We’ve chosen something that, rationally, we think is the most important, best, and most urgent use of our time. Then we’ve made a decision to do something else instead. That’s extremely fascinating from an existential standpoint!
Even more interesting, rather than find a way to take action, we fill the time either trying to distract ourselves with mindless activity, mentally flogging ourselves, or wallowing in self-criticism, anxiety, dread, and other helplessly negative emotions. Procrastinating usually feels terrible.
On top of the horrid feelings that go with stalling, delaying, foot-dragging, indecision, mental paralysis, and looming deadlines, and am I stressing you out just describing them? Along with all of that come the ramifications. Missed opportunities! Missed deadlines! Regret! Shame! Failure! Disappointment!
Nobody would choose this.
Nobody would rationally choose procrastination. It borders on logical fallacy. If you can only procrastinate by putting off something urgent and important, then procrastinating is deliberately sabotaging your own circumstances. I happen to think that there’s actually something else going on.
Let’s get a little deeper into it.
I work with people who are chronically disorganized. Some of my people have issues with hoarding or squalor, but while those three conditions tend to overlap, some people only deal with one. That’s because the root emotions are different for each person, sometimes astonishingly so. The big difference for the chronically disorganized is that they just do not know what to do. They don’t have any systems, or, rather, the systems they have are far more convoluted and time-consuming than necessary. While my people struggle mightily with following a schedule and being on time, they aren’t choosing to do it. They just lack planning skills, and their inner sense of time passing is set differently. I say “they” when I really mean “I.” People like my clients and I feel a minute as more like 90 seconds. It’s fair to say that chronically disorganized people suffer the same results as chronic procrastinators, even though they may never have made conscious decisions to procrastinate.
It’s not that we put something off until later, it’s that we never technically planned it in the first place!
Procrastinating is often little more than not knowing how long something was going to take, not realizing how many steps were involved, not being aware that it’s already too late to get something done.
Another way to get the same results as a procrastinator without really procrastinating is to be a people pleaser. A lot of people are almost totally lacking in boundaries, and will thus say “yes” to everything in a sincere attempt to be helpful. It’s like having a leaky boat. A pleaser will always “overpromise and under-deliver” because the promises aren’t even really promises, and they’re made so quickly that it would be impossible to even remember them all, much less follow through. This warm, friendly sort of person will not meet deadlines because the point of the commitment was to demonstrate caring and connection, not to actually DO a THING or to show up to an event. The desire to make someone else happy was real. The over-accommodating person who continually promises too much is not procrastinating, but really more turning an emotional dial to ‘please love me.’ Action, production, and execution aren’t even part of the image. This person does not know just how much frustration, disappointment, confusion, and sometimes pure rage is being inflicted on anyone who believed the over-commitment would be kept.
Work projects tend to be procrastinated when the procrastinator doesn’t really know how to approach the project. Most people can do even the most boring or annoying work tasks, grumbling and muttering but cranking them out. The stuff we procrastinate at work tends to be either administrivia, which we rationally judge is not relevant to our work goals, or large-scale projects with longer deadlines. We just don’t know how to break these projects into manageable chunks. We don’t know how to create longer, uninterrupted blocks of time. We don’t know how to delegate or negotiate. We don’t know how to communicate with our supervisors and admit that we don’t know exactly what we’re doing. We don’t know how to shift gears into System II thinking and get into the zone of focus on demand.
We often think we’re procrastinating on personal projects like “getting organized” or “losing weight” or other loosely-defined objectives. If we knew what to do, I think we’d be doing it! We have the internal sense that our lives would be easier if we did these things, that we’re missing out on something that works nicely for other people. It’s not that we’re procrastinating, it’s that we have no idea where to start.
We don’t know Future Self. Future Me feels like a total stranger, an annoying old person who is constantly asking me for more money. Thinking about the needs of me, myself at some later point in the timeline just feels like such an unfair burden. Why should Future Me get everything? What has Future Me ever done for me? We don’t know how we’re going to feel later on. If we’re well acquainted with the helpless, horrible feelings of chronic procrastination, we may simply feel that going into a shame spiral is a fitting punishment for being a useless, procrastinating loser failure. As though negative self-talk or self-punishment ever actually helped to accomplish anything or meet deadlines?
Isn’t the point to get something done? A specific thing? Add “insult myself” to the list for later, because doing it now is actively interfering with the stated goal.
The main reason we procrastinate is that we don’t know what done feels like. We can dimly imagine the relief of getting out of this rut, this hell of our own making, this trap that we’ve thrown ourselves into. What we can’t imagine is the thought process or the course of action that actually led to the doing of the thing.
One thing that helps is to write out a list of everything you don’t know. Every question you have about the project, every place where you’re stuck, every piece of the job that frustrates or confuses you. Sometimes there is an answer. Sometimes, in the most interesting work, the answer is something you create on your own! Usually, clarifying the questions helps to make at least tentative steps toward a course of action.
Another thing that helps is to just get started. Tinker around the edges of the project in some way. Open a file folder. Write an outline. Draw a mind map. Try to figure out any two-minute steps that could be done without thinking too hard. Go through the motions and the stuck feeling can start to dissolve.
Fighting procrastination is a skill that can be learned. It is possible to get rid of this tendency. It is possible to learn enough skills in project planning and time management so that it quits being a problem. The dread of putting off something important always feels so much worse than actually doing the work. Just get started.
This is the companion book to Jon Acuff’s earlier volume, Start: Punch Fear in the Face, Escape Average, and Do What Matters. Readers and fans kept telling him that they had no problem starting projects, they just need help figuring out how to finish them. I can identify with this. There are at least two projects that I was working on when I read Start that I still have not completed four years later. If those projects were only four years old, that would be one thing, but, well, they’re older than that. I’m ready to Finish and give myself the gift of done!
This book is great both for chronic procrastinators and for multi-potentialites. Some of us may think we are procrastinators, when really our main problem is wanting to do everything at once. Acuff shows that he fits in this group when he describes his garage full of equipment that he’s only used a few times, including a telescope, a fishing rod, and a moped. Just because we’re curious, adventurous spirits does not mean we’re quitters or procrastinators, it just means we need to learn how to say we’re done with something.
One of the main reasons that we as humans struggle to finish projects is the planning fallacy. We’re just not very good at estimating how long it takes to do things. Another issue is perfectionism, the crazy idea that it’s better not to do something at all if we can’t meet our perfectionist standards. An example that Acuff gives is all the people who say they want to run a marathon but refuse to start with a 5k. Familiar as these are, there are loads more, and Finish gives us plenty of laughs as we recognize ourselves over and over.
Of course, knowing the issue is not the same as solving the issue. The real strength of the book, aside from its humor, is that Acuff knows what it takes to get people to finish projects. He tested these ideas with hundreds of real people, and the results were analyzed by a researcher working on a PhD. This is more than a motivational self-help book; it’s a description of what other people have successfully done. That’s important, because as we all know, motivation is like a shower. It works great and makes you feel good, but it only lasts for about a day.
We start by being less strict with ourselves, making our goals more manageable, and choosing what else to put on hold while we finish.
A tool from the book that I have used is strategic incompetence. I didn’t have that name for it, but I did it, all right. When I went back to school at age 24 to finish my degree, I decided that I would put fitness on hold until I was done. This wound up being kind of a bad plan, because it was a false dilemma and I unnecessarily gained 35 pounds. I did, though, get my degree. I had a clear vision in my mind that I would study during almost all my waking hours, and it worked. I used the same strategy when I decided to get fit, picturing myself doing almost nothing but going to work and being at the gym. That worked, too. I chose to just be bad at everything other than my goal for the window of time that it took to finish. Aim low, drop your standards, and win!
This book is a delight to read. Acuff emphasizes having fun and celebrating your successes. I’m dedicating 2018 to finishing, eliminating, or formally scheduling every incomplete project I have, and I certainly plan to celebrate when I’m done. That’s a party I know I won’t put off until later.
[Paraphrasing]: The opposite of perfectionism is not failure, it’s FINISHED.
“Might as well” is never applied to good things. It’s never, “Might as well help all these orphans,” or “Might as well plant something healthy in this community garden.”
Expendable, or expandable? Most people somehow find themselves surrounded by more and more stuff every year. As the amount of stuff expands, it fills up the home. Eventually, either the place is hoarded or the family has to move to a bigger place with more capacity. What, do you think everyone with a three-car garage is filling it with... cars? That’s the difference with minimalism. We focus on our lifestyle. No single item rates above our experience of living in our home. What’s more, nothing we own has more clout than our strategic position.
Clutter means it’s getting in the way.
This is a concept that most people really, really don’t grasp. It doesn’t matter what emotion you feel while you’re holding an object. What the heck does that have to do with anything, unless it’s your engagement ring?
This is how we decide what to keep:
Are we in the optimal job?
If we’re in the optimal job, are we in the optimal home?
If we’re in the optimal home near the optimal job, can we do the things we need to do?
Do we actually use this thing?
See how these questions are radically different than our feelings about an object? Oh, how much did it cost? What color is it? Does it work with my interior design philosophy? Does it make me feel all sparkly inside? Getting emotionally caught up in small-scale objects like a book or a shirt is totally beside the point when we’re making decisions based on career path, financial independence, or domestic contentment.
These are the questions.
If a better job came along in another city, would we or would we not go after it? Our kid is already in college, we don’t own a house, and we can’t live near family due to my husband’s specialized profession. Since it’s just us and our stuff, why not?
Since we’re moving, what are we taking with us? What are the rents like in our new city? We realized several years ago that if we busted down from a full-size, 3BR/2B suburban house with a two-car garage and a yard, we could save a fortune. Was it really worth the extra tens of thousands of dollars in rent and the extra hours of weekend maintenance to keep up that lifestyle? We reconsidered and realized that in many ways, living in an apartment would be a lifestyle upgrade. No more yard work, lower utility bills, less housework, and access to a pool, hot tub, and gym!
At that point, the question becomes how we fit our household into a cute little apartment. Due to where we live, there simply are no larger places in our neighborhood. Even the multi-million dollar houses are really small. Requiring a larger place also requires a longer commute, which is the exact reason most people tolerate a long commute. Where else would we put all our stuff???
Now we crunch the numbers. We have to calculate rental cost per square foot. We have to calculate utility costs per square foot. We have to include incidental costs, like a larger moving van, more gas, and more boxes. We have to include the extra furniture that people buy for their extra stuff, like bookshelves and cabinets and vanities and entertainment centers and desks and armoires and filing cabinets. All of it costs, and much of it has extra carrying costs as well. That’s before you even calculate the cost of buying it on credit.
Due to our income tax bracket and the sales tax in our state, every dollar we spend basically costs us two dollars. It would be more if we carried a balance on our credit cards.
In our complex, a two-bedroom apartment that is barely bigger than our one-bedroom costs $4000 a month. If we’d insisted on keeping all our sparkly cute lovely things, we would definitely have needed that extra bedroom to store them in. But how would we have afforded that rent? It’s not like our stuff is going to go out and get a job and start contributing to earn its keep...
Actually, in rare instances, stuff does pay the rent. We rented a storage unit for about a week and a half during our last move. The manager told us that a few of the tenants used their units to store their work equipment. Landscapers, painters, contractors, people who needed somewhere to store their bulky equipment to earn a living. You can’t exactly keep a lawn mower on the carpet in your second-floor apartment. Or, I guess you can, but you’re probably paying to have that carpet replaced when you move out!
Our first consideration, when we decide what to keep, is what we need to do our jobs. Even if we went full nomad and lived out of hotels, we would keep our electronics. My husband has some active reference textbooks that he would keep. Obviously we would maintain our professional wardrobes, or what would fit in two suitcases, anyway. That’s pretty much it. Virtually nothing else that we own is directly related to our ability to earn money.
In my opening list of strategic questions was a hint about something. Can we do the things we need to do? What I mean by this is that we need to be able to sleep in the bedroom, cook in the kitchen, bathe in the bathroom, eat at the table, work at our desks, and live in the living room. That means that absolutely nothing gets to be in a stack or a pile. We value our space and the use of that space more than any amount of stuff. It doesn’t matter where it came from, how much it’s “worth,” who gave it to us, or how we feel about it. Even if it’s holding its little inanimate arms out and asking for a hug. If it’s in the way, it’s out the door.
Do we actually use our stuff? This question means that we focus on our enjoyment of the things that we do have. We invested in the most comfortable bed we could find when we were newlyweds. It’s kinda romantic that we’ve been together almost long enough to need to replace it! We also comfort-tested our couch. When you buy or keep very few possessions, you can afford to spend more and to put in a little more effort making sure that you really like something before you bring it home.
Here is the math concept behind why we say that our possessions are expendable. We know roughly how much it would cost to replace every single thing we own. If we ever took a job overseas, it would literally cost more to ship our stuff there than it would to give it all away and buy new furniture and appliances. (Plus we wouldn’t have the use of it for the two months of the voyage. If we can go two months without it, do we need it at all?). Renters insurance is mandatory in our apartment complex, and the minimum policy covers $10,000 worth of belongings. That’s WAY more than all of our stuff is worth! If something happened to destroy all our possessions, like the upstairs neighbor leaving the tub on until the ceiling collapsed, or whatever, it would be kind of amusing. Since all our photos are saved to the cloud, there isn’t anything in our home that we’d be devastated to lose. We’d wind up going on the biggest, craziest shopping spree of all time. I don’t even know how we would spend $10k on furniture, clothes, and housewares.
So many people spend more than that on their stuff, though. I have a friend who has spent more than $10,000 on a storage unit. No joke. She would have been financially better off just throwing all that stuff in the trash. Or she could have sold some of it and made a little folding money. The saddest thing in the world to me is that people pay to store stuff that doesn’t even have a resale value. I know because I’ve seen it. Boxes of school papers. Boxes of sentimental but grubby and worn-out dolls and stuffed animals. Garbage bags full of outdated old clothes. Worn-out mattresses and box springs. Boxes of paperback books. Boxes of funky old plastic storage containers with mismatched lids. Why would someone spend thousands of dollars to store stuff they never use?
They do it because they think their stuff is actually worth something. They value their belongings over their quality of life or their financial stability.
Possessions are expendable. As soon as you start to see that, you start to look around at all your stuff with new perspective. Hey, stuff, what have you done for me lately?
Ryan Holiday has done it again. The title of Perennial Seller is almost meta, almost a joke, because this book is guaranteed to be, indeed, a perennial seller. Holiday is an accomplished prose stylist, and this book ranks right up there with classic writing manuals such as How Fiction Works. It’s also a good idea to listen to anything the author has to say about marketing, considering that he has had several best-sellers with hundreds of thousands of copies sold.
The main premise of Perennial Seller is that if a work is well-crafted and aimed at a specific audience, it has the potential to sell even better in following years than it did when it was first released. Creatives who begin with the intention of making something that will still be relevant ten years from now will be more successful than those who want instant fame and fortune.
Half of the book focuses on what goes into producing a perennial seller; the other half focuses on the importance of marketing. Holiday emphasizes that this does not mean one should spend half of one’s time on marketing. Rather, many authors and other artists want to wave away the necessity of marketing. Isn’t it unfair to your potential audience to deprive them of a chance to hear about your work? Think of your lonely fans, staring at the ceiling and sighing, wishing they had something as cool as your book/album/comic/whatever to entertain them. You can delegate if you don’t want to do it yourself, but you can’t get out of the necessity of marketing, no matter your opinion of that trade. Holiday himself began as a marketing phenom, and this book will educate you and most likely change your mind.
Perennial Seller has a broad range of examples of talented people whose works became perennial sellers. This includes everyone from the band Iron Maiden to the movie The Shawshank Redemption. Considering Holiday’s published work on Stoicism, one might almost expect the list to include more of the classics (by which I mean, Classics), so it’s fascinating to see how many obscure corners of pop culture are hiding perennially successful artists. This is a great read, suitable for long-term study, and essential for those who want to produce an artistic legacy.
Getting what you want is to be distinguished from doing what you want. Often it’s possible to have both; the things we want to have and the things we want to do aren’t always related. Other times, though, doing what you want actively prevents you from getting what you want. Sometimes the reverse is true, when getting what you want gets in the way of doing what you want. All of that is a moot point if you don’t actually know what you want in the first place.
Figuring out what you want has to be specific, or you won’t know when you have it. For instance, if you want “shoes,” do you want to wear them? If so, then you have to ask for your size. Are we talking any and every pair of shoes in your size? Probably not. The more detailed your vision, the more likely you’re going to find yourself walking away in some great new shoes. Too broad, and you may find yourself knee-deep in a closet catastrophe, with piles of shoes that are pretty but too uncomfortable to ever actually wear. This is the first pitfall, of thinking you want something only to realize that the request was too broad. Getting what you want - the cute shoes - interferes with doing what you want, presumably walking or dancing or making it through the night without carrying them like a small dog.
Is it the shoes that you really wanted, though? Or was it the excitement of a new purchase? The desire to feel attractive to others, to draw admiration? Maybe it was something negative like insecurity, boredom, or envy? A feeling of obligation to buy something after spending time at that store? Every object serves both a practical and an emotional need. Acknowledgment of the emotional need tends to lead to much faster results.
Getting what you want works better when you think in terms beyond the material. Physical objects are so easy to come by in our culture that it’s usually harder to get rid of them than it is to bring them home. What are things you want that aren’t physical things?
Peace of mind
Time in nature
Being in “the zone” or a “flow state”
Maybe some things that are tangible while not being objects:
A safe neighborhood
Being “organized” and orderly
Physical strength and stamina
Doing what you want is usually interpreted as “feeling like it” or being “in the mood.” You’re doing what you want when nobody else is telling you what to do. You’re choosing how you spend your time and what you do, in what order. That’s the feeling of autonomy and agency that many of us aren’t finding at our jobs. We put so much importance on doing what we want in our free time because we’re quite tired of being ordered around and having to follow someone else’s schedule during the workday. Some of us come home to the extra job of managing a romantic partner, kids, and a home environment that reflects a lot of attempts at getting what we thought we wanted.
This is where doing what you want sometimes precludes getting what you want. The same leisure time that could be spent finding a more satisfying job or going on adventures tends to disappear somehow. So much of that precious free time tends to go to relatively unsatisfying time sucks like social media, games, or binge-watching something or other. On the list of Things You Want That Aren’t Things, is this activity leading toward any of them?
Power is not given; it’s taken. That’s agency. Initiative comes from within. It’s only when you decide that you’re going after something like a skill or a character trait or a credential or a job opening that you ever get to have it. Nobody comes knocking, asking, “Say, would you like to feel more competent today?” (People do come knocking to offer a few things, namely friendship, adventure, and romance, but only when you already seem like the kind of person who’d be up for it). The result of taking initiative and following through is that you expand your circle of influence. More people trust and rely on you to do more things. The more you take on, the more you execute well, the more it tends to turn into leverage. Money and autonomy! This is when going after what you want leads to doing what you want.
Self-discipline is freedom. That sounds like it came straight out of 1984 - it’s been a while since I read it; I’d have to check. What it means is that the more you create your own structures and guidelines, the more likely you are to get what you want. Since you’ve chosen it for yourself, it starts to feel more like you’re doing what you want, as well.
Pay off your consumer debt, and two things happen. Your credit improves, and the money you used to pay toward interest and finance charges is suddenly available for you to spend. The temporary self-discipline of restricting spending results in greater financial freedom and options.
Get fit, and all kinds of things happen. Your energy level goes up, your sleep improves, your posture improves, you don’t get sick as often, and all these weird little mystery aches and pains disappear. You stop having cravings for certain foods and start wanting more water. Suddenly you find that you have energy left over at the end of the day. You’re ready, willing, and able to do all sorts of interesting things you wouldn’t have been into in the past.
Master a character flaw, and everything happens. You stop annoying yourself. Your relationships improve. You start being the beneficiary of greater kindness and respect. You realize that self-control makes your life easier, and that this ripples outward.
Getting what you want tends to be the result of applied persistence. It takes learning the rules. How do people go about getting this? This job, this personality trait, this skill, this series of adventures and experiences? What do you have to do differently if you want this for yourself, whatever it is? Doing what you’ve been doing is getting you whatever you’re getting. Doing slightly less of what you want in the short term may be all that’s necessary to get what you want, and then go back to doing what you want, too.
They never tell you why you’re not moving forward. They can’t. Telling the truth about why certain people get hired or promoted and others don’t would inevitably invite a raft of lawsuits. I started to learn some of these things during a temp assignment at an employment agency. I picked up more of them as support staff at various companies in various industries. This is painful, because my ignorance of these unwritten rules held me back and kept me poor for years.
Working hard and doing a good job has very little to do with anything. Being the smartest person in the room is actually a negative, not a positive; it’s a clear sign that you’re on the wrong track. Being smarter than your boss is far more likely to be a hindrance than a help. Believe me. My IQ is in the 99th percentile, so statistically speaking, I can say with certitude that I’ve been at least a little smarter than every boss I’ve ever had. Not that that’s ever done me a whit of good. I didn’t understand that the question is not “Am I the best at this?” The question is, “How do I make my boss’s life easier every day?”
Work on the priorities the boss has assigned, even if you disagree. Get everything done on time. Fill out the forms, send the updates, do the busywork. Show up a few minutes early and leave a few minutes late. It sounds ridiculously simple, and it should be, but surprisingly, many of us feel like our boss’s requests are unreasonable distractions from our real work. We want to choose our own priorities, and this paycheck-signing boss-person just keeps getting in the way. We have to remember that we were hired to do this person’s bidding.
Hiring a new person is a demanding process. The reason there’s an opening is that things have gotten too busy for the existing staff. They have to add reading resumes to the list of stuff they’re already too busy to do. Their primary goal is to eliminate as many applications as they can, as quickly as they can, so that they only really have to decide between a half dozen instead of five hundred. This is why even a single typo can do you in. They’re genuinely looking for even the tiniest excuse to exclude someone from the stack. Not following the instructions to the letter is the second obvious way to exclude someone, because it makes the applicant look sloppy, defiant, or dumb. I still laugh about the marine biologist who hand-delivered his resume so he could explain to me, the humble office assistant, why he was the obvious choice for this new mechanical engineering position. (Incorrect).
Interviews are astonishing. I saw a man show up for a panel interview for a six-figure position wearing a track suit and a stocking cap. Another man brought his mom and had the entire panel come out to the lobby to meet her. A woman once left her office door open during an interview so we could all hear (and laugh at) the applicant swearing up a storm, dropping F-bombs and classics such as “I need a F-ing job.” These were mature adults with at least some advanced education. Nobody ever told them that there are rules for these things.
[For instance: I just saw a tweet from a woman who tagged her husband’s employer to complain about his paycheck, complete with cursing. That’s a twofer, a workplace fail AND a marriage fail!]
I knew how to copy-edit my resume and fill out applications like an A student. I knew, or at least I thought I knew, how to dress for a job interview. While I wasn’t making any glaring mistakes like the egregious examples above, I had no idea that my problems had nothing to do with these perfectionistic details.
My main problem was that I was being too vague. I wanted “a better job.” I didn’t have a particular career in mind. Due to this, I had no idea what additional credentials or training I should get. I didn’t see myself as a professional anything. I saw myself as a broke person who was trying as hard as she could. I didn’t understand that I’d already leveled out. With the education and training and experience and wardrobe that I had, I had already gotten as far as I was going to go. All I could do was to be an office assistant for a company with a comparatively better or worse corporate culture.
I went back for my degree. By the time I graduated, I had figured out a few things about my wardrobe. I had also figured out a few things about answering interview questions more strategically. Better, I had figured out some of the workplace mysteries that had been so puzzling to me before.
Venting to coworkers. In any contest of loyalty between you and the person who signs their paychecks, your coworkers are going to make the obvious choice. Coworkers are not friends. They are not your friends. They cannot be your friends. Make everyone’s life easier and just be a robot when you’re at work, a friendly and reliable robot. Even if you think you’re complaining discreetly, word gets around. More importantly, when you’re disgruntled, you’re not saying the correct things that a dedicated person does say. A person who is venting is not thinking, “How can I make my boss’s life easier?”
Making excuses. Never complain, never explain. A total-accountability person will be clearly identifiable, often within minutes of meeting. Almost nobody falls into this category. Most people who practice total accountability wind up being someone’s boss, and they recognize one another on sight. A standard-issue person can make a single fleeting facial expression or emit a single syllable and be instantly outed. We don’t even realize we’ve just exposed ourselves. An excuse says, “Let me tell you about me.” It does not say, “Tell me how I can make my boss’s life easier.”
Failing to follow through. This is a huge issue for total-accountability people, who are indeed rating and judging the rest of us every minute of the day on this issue. It appears in various disguises. Missing deadlines, being late, making mistakes, forgetting a commitment, losing track of anything... all look like things a conscientious person would not do.
The key problem here will not have been missed by keen readers, and that problem is, “What if I hate my boss and my boss is a terrible person?” Well, duh. Get out of there and work for a person and a mission that you can respect. If you can’t find one, start a side hustle, build a business, and be your own boss. There are tons of terrible, incompetent people in management. There are also a few gems, and every single one of them has had at least one person who couldn’t stand working under them. That’s because most of us simply hate having a boss and being told what to do. It helps to ask, “Do I hate this boss, or just bosses? Do I hate this job, or just all jobs? Or do I just hate working?”
I work much harder for myself than I ever did for someone else. I work on vacation, I work on weekends, I work late at night, I work on holidays, often I work before breakfast. I have worked on the bathroom floor in hotel rooms. I work on the bus and on the treadmill. One of the things they never tell you is that you’ll probably make far more money working far fewer hours if you can tolerate a boss and a day job.
They say to do what you love. I say to do something the world needs, and keep getting better at it. The love comes later, like an arranged marriage. Choose something specific, the more specific the better. Figure out what it takes to get into a job like that, then do every single thing on that list. Talk to people who have that job and ask them to heckle you until you get it right. Work is a way of making the world a better place, or at least a more efficient place. When you find something that feels like a meaningful contribution to you, it won’t matter as much what kind of boss you have.
I’m writing this on the treadmill at our apartment gym. This gym was one of the top three reasons we were willing to downsize from a house with a garage. I figure, if I don’t use it as much as possible, then we’re not getting full value from our rent. It has a much nicer view with its floor-to-ceiling windows than our apartment, which looks onto the parking garage of the neighboring building. It has no fewer than three big-screen TVs, one of which is hanging directly in front of me. I’m ignoring it, though, because it’s always tuned to a news channel. I’m here for entertainment.
Let the truth be known: I hate working out. It’s boring as all get out. If I had to run on a treadmill with nothing to stimulate my brain, I’d quit in about four minutes. In fact, I did quit. I quit the gym we had four years ago because I hated running on the treadmill and they kept playing “Teenage Dream” every single time I was there. What gets me through my workouts is that I anchor exercise to entertainment. There are certain fun things I do that I only allow myself to do when I’m doing cardio.
It started before the days of smartphones and tablets. I joined the gym across the street from my work, and I would do my workout while I waited for traffic to die down. This meant I had the delayed reward of a breezy freeway commute, often as the only car visible on the road. Ah, but that was dessert. The immediate reward was the pot-boiler. I would have a book I couldn’t stop thinking about, and I only allowed myself to touch it if I was actually on the treadmill. It just lived in my gym bag. Not only did this work, but the suspense tended to make me move faster. I graduated from 2 mph on the treadmill to 4.5 mph on an incline. Then I upgraded to the bike, then the elliptical. I lost 15 pounds at that gym.
When I took up running outdoors, the treat was audio. Either podcasts or audio books. It got to where I had to pick out the longest books I could find, because on Fridays I would run for four hours and I didn’t want to have to mess with the app. I remember that I listened to all of Cloud Atlas while training for my marathon. My must-listen podcasts were for training days only.
This gym I’m in has seven cardio machines. Most of the time when I show up, I have the entire room to myself. I’ve been here at all hours between 6 AM and 8 PM. It’s predictably busier in the early morning, but even at its most crowded, at least three or four of these machines are available. To be considerate, I have fallback plans. I do different types of things depending on which machine I’m on. I’ve set my expectations so that I don’t have a “favorite” or a sense that “that’s MY” machine.
On the elliptical, I can only really use my three-year-old tablet, an obsolete yet indestructible beast that I got for free the last time I upgraded my phone. That’s where I try to catch up with my news queue. I have a couple of e-books downloaded on it. The elliptical is also where I read paper magazines.
On the recumbent bike, there’s nowhere to prop reading material. This is a tough machine for me right now, because I haven’t trained on a bike in many years, but it’s good for my hip flexors and quads and I need it for cross training. I’m trying to build up my tolerance gradually. This is where I read through email newsletters and articles with a lot of illustrations on my iPad.
On the treadmill, where I am now, I can actually prop up my iPad keyboard and type! I’m only going 2.4 mph. There’s a fan in the machine that blows on my face, which is quite nice. What I’ve done in this session has been to watch a 20-minute video, read a silly article about the Mayweather-McGregor match, and write this piece. I realized only today that this is a place where I can actually watch my endless queue of “Watch Later” YouTube videos. I can’t stop myself from saving them but I get too restless to watch them while sitting still. Anyone who was into that sort of thing could also watch TV episodes with a setup like this.
A friend of mine used to play video games on the recumbent bike. In those days, it was a game console. Now anyone could do this with a smartphone.
Do I worry about breaking my gadgets? Yes, very much so. That’s why I use the devices I do on the machines that I do. There’s no way I’d ever consider bringing my iPad onto the elliptical machine. It wouldn’t be possible for me to type on the recumbent bike due to its layout. I also wouldn’t do everything with the iPad on the treadmill, because it’s not nearly a hard enough workout. What I do is to dither around clearing tabs in my browser, doing a brain dump, and maybe scanning some email in a desultory fashion. Then I stop the treadmill and move over to another machine. Honestly, I haven’t broken a sweat.
I don’t think my treadmill entertainment “counts” as a workout. I might burn 100 calories, about equivalent to an apple. The thing is that I’m associating the habit of passive entertainment with physical activity. I’m also associating this habit with this location. Over time, my mind will expect that I “do this sort of thing” at the gym. I look forward to walking over here, because it’s when I can read police procedurals or mindless celebrity gossip or BuzzFeed articles. Before I know it, it’s time to hop on the elliptical and really get to work.
Oh crud! I’ve already been on here for 74 minutes! Bye!
Guess what? Chris Guillebeau has a new book coming out! I got an advance copy for attending World Domination Summit this year, which was quite gracious. It’s called Side Hustle: From Idea to Income in 27 Days. If you’re a fan like I am, you already know that Chris started a daily podcast this year called Side Hustle School. While the podcast features brief profiles of successful side hustlers, the book is more of a handbook on how it’s done.
What I like best about the Guillebeau approach is that he focuses on the practical rather than the merely motivational. People are doing this, they’re doing it every single day, and it’s easier than we think. We just need to implement our ideas. “Inspiration is good, but inspiration with action is so much better.”
Side gigs are everywhere these days. Recently, I’ve paid side hustlers to drive me through Lyft, let me sleep at their house through AirBnB, and deliver my groceries through Instacart. We were just in Jackson, Wyoming, where we used a shuttle service run by a group of young Ukrainian guys who like to ski. It’s a double-edged sword; in one sense, it’s scary to think how little some of these gigs must pay, but in another sense, it’s also exciting to think how low the bar is for someone to just wake up one morning and decide to start bringing in more money. What Side Hustle can do is to teach someone to think of more and better ways to bring in more and better money.
I started babysitting when I was ten, and it didn’t occur to me that I could quit until I was in my mid-thirties. While I was in college, I also cleaned houses, took in mending from other students, edited papers (for trade), house-sat, took notes for a deaf student, did transcriptions, dealt in consignment clothes and used books, and of course I had a work-study job on top of my regular quarter-time job. I used to say I had five streams of income in school, and I just realized it was actually more! When you’re in the hustle mindset, you just step up and act on whatever money-making propositions cross your mind.
When you’re rich, they call it “multiple streams of income.” When you’re poor, it’s just your reality. I’ve learned that middle-class people are the only people who rely on one single job. That always felt precarious and threatening to me, the thought that if I got laid off, I wouldn’t be able to make my rent. Side hustles, as Chris frequently emphasizes, are a way to spread that risk and generate independence and security.
This is an approachable, straightforward, well-tested book. Every step has an example of a real person or couple who did it, what the side business is, and how much money it made. There are examples ranging from a few hundred dollars a year to a hundred thousand or more. Side Hustle has something for everyone, and for those of us who want more, there’s the Side Hustle School podcast as a companion.
Side Hustle launches on September 19.
'CURATE YOUR STUFF' WORKBOOK NOW AVAILABLE!
Download on the Products tab today!
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.