I’m doing it again. I have two obnoxious projects I don’t want to do, and each of them represents about three hours of work. One is due in a week and a half, and the other is due in six weeks. The fresh hell that is chronic procrastination! I recognize myself setting up Future Me for a rough time, and thus I’m tricking myself.
I have a Decoy Project.
Next to me is a business card representing a phone call I should really make.
There are few things I hate more than making business calls. I’d rather disinfect my trash cans or clean the oven.
This call isn’t as high a priority, though, as the big projects. That’s why I’m using it as a decoy.
The card is propped up where I keep seeing it, directly to the right of my keyboard, junking up my line of sight.
I can’t avoid looking at it.
I can, though, avoid doing anything about it!
Suddenly, the yucky projects seem a lot less aversive.
Also to my right is a big vegan chocolate chip cookie.
I am currently wearing workout clothes.
This is the order of business. 1. Start the report. 2. Nibble at the cookie. 3. Finish the report. 4. Finish the cookie. 5. Work out.
A cookie is not a decoy project. My relationship with cookies and snacks and food in general may or may not work for other people, but here’s how it looks in my world.
I don’t keep junk food at home, as a rule, because there’s no room for it in the kitchen, and I just don’t know about storing bags of chips in the fridge.
I also can’t keep it in my work bag, because whenever I have done that, my dog has found it. Not only will he steal and eat my treat, he’ll scatter torn-up packaging all over the room and pull out everything else in my bag. This is more or less the same reason why we never leave laundry on the floor.
Another reason is that my husband is in the middle of losing 45 pounds, and it would be seriously unfair to ambush him with delectable goodies, or eat them in front of him.
We both eat four meals a day: breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack (protein bar, fruit, or smoothie), and dinner. We find this convenient, comforting, and cost-effective.
This thing with the cookie is, therefore, a productivity exercise. I don’t generally eat recreationally but I’m not above harnessing it for work purposes.
Okay, I’m set up. I have everything I need. I have the threat of the “if you’re not writing your report, then shouldn’t you make this call?” business card. I also have the treat of the big cookie, waiting for me to finish a section before I allow myself to take a bite.
Threats and treats!
Working out is my stress relief. I like myself better when I do a lot of endurance cardio. When I come in, I feel waves of delight radiating through me, the proverbial runner’s high. I get about three hours pain-free afterward, and I sleep better. My mood is improved. Wearing my workout clothes while I do something that I don’t really want to do is my way of promising myself that good times are coming.
I can also associate a bit of that runner’s high with the negative project.
When I lived near a regional park, I would run there almost every day. It remains one of my favorite places in the world. I would sometimes go up there when I had a phone call or email that I really didn’t want to do. I’d stand at the halfway mark, get the thing done, and then run home.
The trick is that FINISHING SOMETHING feels wonderful, while procrastinating feels terrible. Associate the pleasant feeling of one thing that you really love with the different, yet also pleasant feeling of finishing a project. This reinforces the good feeling.
The eventual goal is to simply do things, quickly and easily, rather than getting into the rut of feeling stuck and dreading the task. Just get it out of the way! Spend as little time as possible avoiding the thing, which merely adds to the precious life energy that you are spending on it.
Sometimes a list of tasks that are no big deal can serve as a decoy project.
For instance, I always get ready for a shower right before I scrub the toilet. That’s not a fun job, but it only takes two minutes, including wiping down the floor between the toilet and the wall. Then I step right into a hot shower, and by the time I’ve shampooed my hair I’ve forgotten all about it.
I take out the garbage and recycling in between loads in the laundry room.
I clean out the fridge and other odd chores while unavoidably on the phone.
Getting stuck on a lot of video conferences gives me plenty of time to put myself on mute, clean out my work bag and my desk drawer, and clear out my email inbox.
As few things as possible should have even a snowball’s chance of lingering in Procrastination Station. Just hustle and bustle through the day and try to avoid leaving a backlog. Because it hurts! Having a big ugly smelly to-do list is the sort of thing that can bother you all day. It eats into your mental bandwidth.
One of my goals for the day was to write this post, because my folder was empty. I didn’t feel like I had anything to write about, and I was distracted by the presence of the two big reports that I still don’t really want to do.
This whole post was a trick on myself, with the clever use of a couple of decoy projects.
Describing my situation, I finished my most time-sensitive task in only about twenty minutes. Now to take a picture of my work area, and done!
All I have left is to start my report before this cookie gets too stale.
The 10X Rule is the kind of motivational book to be read in cases of extreme reluctance and procrastination. It is the kind of book that can turn around someone’s entire philosophy of life. It is the kind of book to keep on your desk and flip open for a dose of tough talk on demand. You may not agree with everything Grant Cardone says, but it’s hard to argue with his overall message of dedication and drive.
Myself? I find myself nodding along with most of Cardone’s books, taking notes on certain outrageous yet wildly original ideas, and disagreeing with only a few very provocative assertions that I think he puts out there mainly to mess with people. An example of this would be Chapter 6, which I think is an extreme position that is not necessary if the goal is to teach the concept of high agency. (Read it and you’ll see what I mean). There is a difference between responsibility and accountability, and the latter is enough to get the job done.
Okay, what is the 10X Rule? Make your goals ten times bigger and go after them with ten times as much determination and energy. This is along the same lines as Peter Thiel’s statement that most ten-year goals can be completed in six months. It’s true! Why drag out the process of big goals like paying off debt, clearing clutter, or losing weight, when with intensive focus you can get it out of the way quickly and never think about it again?
(Why? Because most people aren’t very clear on what they want, they don’t have major goals, and thus they can’t summon up the fervent desire to push forward as fast as possible).
Competing is for sissies. Did you know this? This is one of Cardone’s contrarian ideas with which I agree. What would make someone want to target another person’s performance as their main goal? Why limit yourself? It makes me think of focusing on someone else’s head in yoga class for balance, only to have that person tip sideways. Better to focus over their head at a point farther across the room. Choose your own goal and keep plugging away at it. Choose something that is more worthy of obsessing over than what some other person might or might not be doing.
Cardone has a bone to pick with a lot of common ideas like “work-life balance” and “satisfaction.” He claims that the middle class isn’t all that middling, that most people’s financial goals are nowhere near sufficient to take care of themselves or their families. I only entered the middle class at age 32, and I’ve noticed that the “middle class” are the only people who rely on a single source of income, i.e. wages. Both poor people and wealthy people have multiple streams of income, the first out of sheer necessity and the second because they know how. The difference is desperation versus abundance.
The 10X Rule is already a classic of the motivational genre. That’s for good reason. Something in this book will reach out and grab someone, and it might be something different for each person. There are a couple of chapters that I feel I should have printed up as posters and hung around my apartment. I’ll definitely read this book again, so if you pick it up, let me know and we can read it together.
Almost every problem people face in their careers and other aspects of their lives—such as failed diets, marriages, and financial problems—are all the result of not taking enough action.
Average marriages, bank accounts, weight, health, businesses, products, and the like are just that—average.
No one will benefit from your failure.
Success Is Your Duty
To the degree that electing to do our personal best each and every day is ethical, then failing to do so is a violation of ethics.
Your four choices are:
1. Do nothing.
3. Take normal levels of action.
4. Take massive action.
“Small” thinking has and always will be punished in one way or another.
What are some ways you can expand that only require energy and creativity, not money?
People give their fears much more time than they deserve.
Most people have no clue what they are doing with their time but still complain that they don't have enough.
The last person to arrive at the meeting was the person who called it. She texted to say she’d be ten minutes late, and arrived twenty minutes late. Nobody was surprised.
What did surprise us was when she pulled out a fancy new day planner. Time to turn over a new leaf? “Ooh,” we said, all dedicated day planner enthusiasts. It came in its own special box. We would have cheerfully spent five minutes fussing over it, the same as we would have if she’d carried in a little purse dog or an engagement ring.
“My friend got me this,” she said, obviously flipping through it for the first time. “Why is it so complicated?”
During the course of that meeting and the next dozen, we never saw the new planner again. It didn’t seem any more helpful than the laptop, the iPhone, or the numerous folders and stacks of papers had been.
Getting Organized is a sort of secular religion along the lines of Buddhism or yoga. It’s not for everyone, not that that ever stopped anything from becoming a cultural mainstay. Just because our colleague got a nice day planner as a gift did not obligate her to use it.
I mean, of course not. I’m not giving up my Cossac planner just because someone gets me a different one.
What’s important here is that this person was notorious for being chronically disorganized. It impacted other people, not just occasionally but daily. Our colleague was constantly pushing for extensions on deadlines while supposedly working from early til late. She lost track of objects and information, missed key details, forgot to attend her own meetings, dropped the ball on important tasks, and spent about as much time apologizing for not doing something as she did actually doing something.
She was mad as heck when she didn’t get the promotion she wanted.
That day planner? It wasn’t just a perfunctory gift. It was a thoughtful gift, and also a barely disguised coded message, a tactful one. YOU NEED THIS. Not using it was along the lines of turning down a breath mint.
Um, are you trying to tell me something?
Just the other day, a friend leaned over and told me, “I love you, you have something in your teeth.” Kale salad, Y U hate me? This really is what friends are for, to save us from ourselves and help us see what we can’t see on our own. We need each other for perspective.
Professional colleagues are under no such obligation of friendship. In many fields, work is a zero-sum arena of combat, where every bonus and promotional opportunity is desired by many and available to few. The only things that are widely available in the working world are cheap pens and layoffs.
That makes it even more valuable when a colleague reaches out with helpful advice.
Most of the things that top performers do are unusual. They’re often also guild secrets. You only start to find them out after you’ve demonstrated that you’re ready to listen and learn, that you’re worth the time.
One of my work buddies has a mastermind call every morning at 6:00 AM, including most holidays.
Most of my professional friends go to conferences and read business books on their own dime.
My husband buys and reads robotics textbooks cover to cover.
I’ve only recently started to find out how common it is for women in my sphere to hire style consultants to help with their wardrobe, hair, and makeup. It is vanishingly rare to get a recommendation to one of these folk, because they tend to have months-long waiting lists.
Gradually it starts to become obvious that the top performers are doing a lot more than “networking” to get ahead. They’re operating in a different world with different priorities, because they understand that the real game isn’t the game everyone else is playing.
My colleague remained scattered rather than use her new day planner. She probably didn’t see it as a conscious choice. She probably just felt “too busy” to take even half an hour to try using it. What she would have found was that if she started taking a break to get her thoughts on paper, she could have bought herself a bit more mental bandwidth. She could have gotten her most conspicuous issues under control. Maybe she could have quit texting and driving. Maybe she could even have started getting to meetings on time.
Maybe she would have gotten her promotion.
Anyone who uses a planner for peace of mind would understand this automatically. It’s a container for your thoughts in the same way that a grocery bag is a container. It’s easier to put all your apples and potatoes in a bag, and it’s easier to write down everything you need to do on a list. It’s also easier to take the hint when someone goes out of their way to give you that hint, easier than fighting against the current. Easier than fighting your own worst tendencies.
A day planner might easily seem like homework, like one more onerous task. Who has the time? For those who use them, though, it can be like gaining an extra brain. Suddenly you don’t have to make extra trips to the store or miss appointments. You quit running out of your dog’s pills. You start to have all the phone numbers you need. Not only are you getting stuff done on time, but sometimes you get a chance to work ahead a bit. You can go on vacation and not have to check your email. You start to feel like you actually know what you’re doing.
The best thing about Getting Organized is that it gives you time and breathing space to raise your head and look around you. It gives you the pause that you need to pay attention to what your friends and colleagues are doing. That’s when you start to notice small ways that you can connect with other people and make their lives easier. Burnout can get in the way of being present and emotionally available. It can make you feel isolated and alone. Maybe you don’t even realize that others are right there beside you, reaching out and trying to help.
I had a discussion with a marketing person about putting on a workshop. One of the first things she said was that I should give “scholarships” so that part of the audience could attend for free.
There are several questions implicit in this idea.
One. I should work for free. I specifically should work for free. Why me?
Two. People who do my type of work should work for free. Why? Why us and not others?
Three. Certain people should get things for free while others pay. Why them? An argument can be made that there is always someone out there who is more deserving.
These are serious questions. I talked it out with my husband, who is an engineer, and he thinks the whole thing is absurd. Literally nobody has ever asked him for free engineering. Is this because of his profession, because he is male, or because he does not happen to work in one of the few fields that is considered to qualify as compensation-optional?
One of my husband’s life goals is to volunteer for Engineers Without Borders, helping people in the developing world to have access to better sanitation, infrastructure, etc. He has the skills and it sounds fun and rewarding. Why doesn’t anyone imply that he should be doing this humanitarian work right now, today, instead of during retirement?
The criteria for “you should work for free” seem to be:
“Fulfilling” or intrinsically rewarding work
Opportunity to build an audience
Therefore, teachers are told that they shouldn’t mind working around the clock for low wages because teaching is so fulfilling. But dental hygienists and nurses aren’t told this.
Writers are told to write for free, for the exposure, but accountants are not told this.
Musicians are told to perform for free, but florists are not told this.
Graphic designers are told to give away their work, but printers and publishers are not told this.
Yoga instructors are expected to offer a sliding scale, but massage therapists are not told this.
Isn’t it strange? We don’t tend to think of these jobs as divided between “people with rent to pay” and “people with no rent to pay” or “people who buy groceries to eat” and “people who do not require food to live.”
I think this is partly because people have learned to expect and demand 24/7 access to the highest quality entertainment, free of charge. Why should any of us ever pay for music, for funny videos, for wallpaper images, for news articles?
No matter what income level, people spend the same percentage of their income on entertainment. That’s the only category that is the same across all five quintiles. It’s just that we’re willing to pay if we know it’s the only way we can get ahold of the entertainment we want.
Stepping back for a moment, I personally have spent years providing material to an audience for free. There are at least two thousand pages of content on this blog, for instance. I have always had pro bono clients as well.
I’m starting to question this, because the clients who don’t pay take significantly longer to make any progress, if they ever really do. I’ve started to feel that receiving support and coaching without some kind of energy exchange is actually negative for the client. Somehow it seems to make them feel needier and more helpless, more reliant on cheerleading and external motivation.
My proposal for the workshop series that led to a call for scholarships included a way for committed but broke people to attend. I built in a couple of support positions that would include free attendance. All someone would have to do would be to help sign people in and pass out a couple of handouts. I’ve done the same thing myself as an office temp. This isn’t the same as “FREE” though. Why doesn’t it work?
Why is there some kind of impression of sketchiness or greed involved in expecting an audience to exchange something for something?
The thing about event planning is that venues are very expensive. Most of the ticket cost for an event is basically rent for the space. There’s also printing, the cost of which ramps up as the materials get glossier and more colorful. Asking to attend such an event for free is not just saying, “I should not pay.” It’s saying, “YOU should pay thousands of dollars out of pocket to host this event so that I can attend for free.”
I think people don’t realize what goes into producing their free entertainment. All the hopeful musicians who invest thousands into their instruments and recording equipment. All the hopeful podcasters who not only buy recording equipment, but also pay to host their show. This extends outward. All the hopeful yoga instructors who pay to lease the studio and then clean the restrooms themselves. All the schoolteachers who buy school supplies out of pocket and grade papers in their “spare time.”
All the people working nights and weekends, striving for a dream, all still have rent and bills to pay and groceries to buy. People who are expected to work for free are exactly like everyone else who is never expected to work for free.
This is an inherently annoying concept, granted. I don’t want to think about whether my dental hygienist deserves her salary, nor do I want to think about whether I should financially support my favorite bloggers in some way. Do you?
I do, though, want to live in a fair and just world. I want to make sure I am more of a giver than a taker. I like the idea that I am contributing to my culture in some way, and maybe making something that has a chance of lasting a few minutes past my lifetime. What I would not want is to realize that I’ve come to the end of my days, doing little more than passively consuming other people’s efforts. Or writing one-star reviews about them!
Conversation the other night between myself, a Twitch streamer, and a stand-up comic revolved around trolling and how to deal with criticism. These conversations are more interesting when everyone involved represents a different decade of age and experience. Older people tend to forget just how devastating criticism is to young people. I think about it all the time, and this is what I had to share with my younger friends.
There are seven billion people in the world who will never know who I am or care about what I do. That’s liberating.
If someone hate-reads my work, great! It just improves my stats.
My work won’t matter to most people who ever lived or ever will. My fans are a statistical anomaly out of the population of the world. To those few thousand people, though, my work matters. I can’t allow the negative opinions of even a billion people to stop me from creating anything, because they’re not my audience.
Trolls are doing nothing but attacking other people’s work. If that is the only thing they have to contribute, then their opinion is worthless. Anyone can do it and it has no value.
Trolls! Go do something with your life. Donate blood. Shelve books at the library. Walk dogs at the animal shelter. Pick up litter.
See, that message is going to go nowhere because as far as I know, trolls don’t read my blog. That’s probably because I don’t allow comments, and I never have.
It’s not that I’m trying to stave off criticism. Critique is always welcome if it comes from a valid source. I am constantly getting evaluated in public speaking, and I understand that it’s necessary for anyone who wants to improve.
That’s not the same, though, as accepting any and all negative comments from any and all sources.
There’s nothing easier to find in our world than a one-star review. Only rarely have I ever found a one-star review of any product, service, or location to have any value. It winds up being annoying. One-star reviewers are usually venting anger about something irrelevant, like how long something took to ship, rather than anything that would matter to me as a customer or client.
You have that much pent-up anger about the world? Try kickboxing.
People should work harder at seeking out things they are likely to enjoy, or learning to enjoy new things, rather than constantly being disappointed by everything they watch, read, eat, and do.
Anyway. I don’t give it a lot of thought because I don’t really encounter trolling or random criticism in my life.
The first thing I did was to drop out of a social organization that was no longer on my wavelength.
The second thing I did was to quit Facebook.
The third thing I did was to join a club that is very focused on a single activity.
What happens when you and the people around you are focused on something positive that you all voluntarily chose to do? What happens is that you see each other as natural allies, colleagues, neighbors, and friends.
Almost all my social interactions now are face to face. That changes everything!
If I’m texting with someone, it’s probably someone I’ve seen within the last couple of days or will be seeing soon. The exceptions are family members.
How to deal with criticism from family members: Only tell them about stuff after you’ve already done it. People who know you well are always going to try to talk you out of doing things like changing careers, relocating, traveling, or training for anything physical. Either they’ll list off a bunch of scary stories of all the ways it’s gone wrong for other people they know, or they’ll tell you all about your deep-seated character flaws and why you’ll always fail at everything.
Why? Nobody knows.
Actually we do know. It’s because we can quit talking to naysayers if we’re not related to them. Family gets a free pass on behavior that strangers never could get away with, like borrowing money and not repaying it, making a scene at parties or weddings, or calling you nicknames from when you were eight.
Why would you accept advice and criticism from people with no relevant experience or credentials? Genetics?
The difference between criticism and critique is that critique is specific, constructive, and relevant, and it comes from someone whose job it is to provide that critique. You should look forward to it because you genuinely know that it will help you solve a problem and improve at what you’re doing.
Criticism, on the other hand, would be vague, irrelevant, personal, and unhelpful, and it would come from someone who has no business offering an opinion on that topic.
For instance, if someone wanted advice on how to get their cat to quit clawing their couch, I would have no business offering my opinion because I don’t know the answer. All I’d be able to say is, I have a dog and a parrot and they don’t claw the furniture. How would that be helpful? It’s my job to save my breath, or maybe connect that person with a cat lover who has more experience.
For whatever reason, people love running their mouths, and I think we don’t always realize what we’re saying. No filter. Critical people think they’re being helpful, and they also think they’re funny and interesting. If they understood the effects their words were having, that would just give them one more thing to criticize.
That’s why the secret to dealing with criticism is to, first, find a way to either ignore it or integrate it despite how sloppy it might be. Then simply align yourself with people who share a common purpose, and only ask for advice and input from them. The people in your life who aren’t on that wavelength can then focus their negativity on the shows they’re hate-watching, foods they don’t like, and anything else they want to criticize.
Almost everyone’s a critic, and anyone can do it. Look for people who are better at giving constructive feedback, and learn from them how it’s done.
We keep forgetting that we’re living in the future. It’ll probably take about two generations before we start to figure it out.
This is the argument that I use when setting policy with my husband about our domestic arrangements and mental bandwidth. How would this be different if it were automated? If it were engineered out of existence as a problem? Offload it, sure, abdicate it, absolutely. Tell Siri, though, not me.
We’ve had a lot of success with delegating household chores to “the robots,” as we call them, and now I’m trying to teach him to do it with the administrative stuff.
The thing is, like a lot of people, we each have a smartphone in our pocket. Along with all the many other features of these incredibly powerful computers, which are far and away better than what was used to get the first rocket up to the Moon, there is a voice assistant. It can do stuff, and, arguably, it should.
Check the weather
Read off lists
Probably a million more things that we haven’t realized it can do
We both grew up with moms who were traditional in most ways. We both had the kind of mom who did most or all of the cooking and housework, the kind of mom who knew how to sew and make Halloween costumes, the kind of mom who basically ran the household while the dad did the fix-it stuff. We both had a certain internalized expectation that the woman of the household is also the secretary and receptionist of the household.
But then, we met each other in the workplace.
I literally WAS his office assistant.
It literally was my job to take notes at his meetings, sort his mail, make his photocopies, and copyedit his technical documentation. (He was one among a staff of 75 others).
This probably helped when we got married years later. It helped to make clear that certain types of tasks were PAID and, thus, valuable. As an engineer, my husband understood full well exactly why these low-level administrative tasks are delegated down. It’s a silly drain on the mental bandwidth of a professional who has more interesting things to do.
He gets it that if these random and small interruptions keep popping up for me to handle, then it interferes with the headspace I need as a writer.
I can either be a full-time stay-at-home spouse, maintaining the perfect household and cooking great meals from scratch, OR. Or I can be something else, something more interesting and fulfilling that also generates a higher income. Both are valid paths to lifestyle upgrades for both of us. One is depressing, boring, and annoying (for me at least), and the other is awesome.
More to the point, why should a human (including me) do something when a robot or an artificial intelligence can do it?
Back to the robots.
We have a Roomba and a countertop dishwasher. We also have a robot mop, but we currently aren’t using it because our kitchen floor is about the size of a beach towel. Once upon a time, we had a washer and dryer. We “start the robots” before we go to the movies, and we come home to a clean apartment. The only things “the robots” don’t do (yet) are to knock down cobwebs, dust surfaces, clean the bathroom, put away laundry, and make the bed. We sort laundry by having a hamper with two detachable bags, one for lights and one for darks. That’s not robotic, but it is based on principles of lean engineering.
This is the premise on which I am building my empire, my Kingdom of Mental Bandwidth.
The goal is for both of us to have as much high-quality uninterrupted System 2 thinking time as possible. I’ve made my case for how much I do to support him as he works on his third patent, and he appreciates that this takes care and focus. This has helped me make the case that I, too, need help protecting my thinking-cap time.
As an engineering principle, our household should be as well-maintained as possible with the least amount of effort as possible. This is known as “low-side compliance.” It’s extremely important in engineering, because an engineer’s time is expensive, and even an extra hour putting in an extra feature might blow both the budget and the production schedule. Low-side compliance helps avoid “scope creep,” which is what happens when the specifications of the product keep expanding. Scope creep makes everything more expensive and complicated, and also more vulnerable to failure.
Running a household is the classic example of scope creep. It’s also a stupid place to put that kind of cognitive and emotional focus.
Together, we’ve worked out a way to automate, systemize, or eliminate as many household tasks as possible. This includes chores and errands. The next step is to automate more administrative tasks like ordering dog food, scheduling appointments, and booking travel.
Another horizon would be keeping track of where things are. I have what amounts to a 3D mental hologram of every object in our home, as well as several other homes of family and friends. My superpower does not, though, make me responsible for keeping track of other people’s stuff! One day, an AI will have this ability and then it will make sense to interrupt *it* instead of me.
Since this function would be so valuable in manufacturing and inventory management, it WILL eventually arise and become widely available.
The household of the future will run itself. It will clean itself, schedule its own maintenance, stock itself with supplies, and track the location of objects, maybe even uninvited insects. With 3D food printing, everyone can have a personalized meal on demand, including guests. The house and the computer will effectively merge. Household chores and errands will become as antiquated for the average suburban family as churning butter and trimming lantern wicks are today.
We’re already at the point where commonly available software can track our budgets, order groceries and other household supplies, schedule appointments, and even suggest entertainment options. Not that far into the future, there will be nothing left to argue about except whose job it is to give the cat a pill, unless of course it’s a robot cat. We might as well get started on figuring out what to argue about next, and maybe the voice assistant of tomorrow can mediate.
If success is a ladder, and if you are standing on a rung of a ladder, then it is time to climb up a rung. Otherwise, you are blocking the way up for the person on the rung beneath you.
This is a personal philosophy that my husband and I share, and it’s something we tell our protégés all the time. We’ve found it to be motivating for ourselves and also for others. This is partly because it reflects a growth mindset and partly because it puts our own efforts into a larger, social context.
Moving upward is one way to help others.
“Success” is personal. Are you successful at being there for your loved ones? Are you successful at being a good listener? How about living up to your own standards? Keeping promises to yourself? Contributing to your community or family in some way?
All of these are important. We have to admit that the work we do is also important, that our efforts matter to something larger than ourselves. This is where the sense of a “career ladder” comes in.
Take the example of the manager of our local cafe. We spend a lot of time there, and we know a bit about most people on the staff. This particular woman is a major Upholder, and her work ethic clearly aligns with my husband’s. (Too bad she isn’t interested in engineering...) She’s been working full time while trying to finish her master’s degree, and criticizing herself for not being able to juggle the demands of both.
She got the Ladder Speech.
As not just a capable but an excellent store manager, she has trained her team well. She knows they can cover for her when she isn’t there.
If she doesn’t do as well as she could in school because she’s overextended, then her grades won’t be what they could be. This will lessen the value of her degree. She won’t get the maximum out of her classes, which is cheating herself of the time, money, and effort she is putting in. She might find that it takes longer to find employment in her chosen field.
(It’s something so cool that I wish I were doing it myself, although, as we always say, you can’t do everything. At least you can’t do everything at the same time).
Meanwhile, she’s blocking the ladder.
While our friend is standing on her rung of the ladder, managing schedules and ordering coffee beans, she’s blocking the climb upward. All the capable people she has trained are lined up below her, losing patience and waiting for her to climb up.
Get out of the way already!
Years have gone by while she’s been standing on the same rung.
Years have gone by while she’s been:
Too busy to date
Too busy for a social life
Too busy to take a full course load
Too busy to graduate
Too busy to start the new career she chose years ago
Too busy to move to a new apartment, even though she can afford it
Meanwhile, she’s Perfect while she stands on her current rung. She nails all her goals because she’s been doing the same job for so long that she could sleepwalk through it. She knows every single step inside and out. She only feels like she’s pushing herself because she has a lot of responsibilities and her schedule is completely full.
She’s not pushing herself by making herself emotionally uncomfortable. (See: dating, relocating, changing careers, possibly starting a family).
She’s not pushing herself by putting herself in situations where she doesn’t always know precisely what to do.
She’s not pushing herself by risking failure.
She’s not pushing herself by entering situations where she is the least experienced person instead of the most experienced person.
She’s also not pushing her staff. She’s not giving them any room to do more than they are doing, because she is in their way. The only ways upward for them are either to leave and start working somewhere else, or to in fact take her position. To do her job, the job she won’t leave.
She’s blocking that ladder and she’s going to keep on blocking it.
These are fairly common Upholder problems. Upholders feel a strong sense of duty, responsibility, and obligation. They prefer to be in situations where they can make sure everything meets their internal standards. They pride themselves on their reliability, as well they should.
They should also examine that sense of pride and ask, well, couldn’t they feel the same feeling of satisfaction at a higher level? Managing more, and doing it for more people? Doing more, but maybe for a more compelling cause?
There’s nothing unimportant about a neighborhood coffee shop, mind you. I’m in there often enough that I know a few of the services it provides besides steaming beverages. It’s an entry-level position for young people to learn valuable customer service skills. (I often tell them, after witnessing a nasty customer transaction, that if they can smile sincerely in the face of rudeness like that, then they can be successful at any job anywhere). It’s a safe space for the high school and middle school kids who swarm in every day at 3:00. Kids get tutored there, business deals are transacted there, blind dates are had there. Contracts are signed and performance reviews are given. Our entire community is represented. It’s a little bright spot in the world, and it’s a perfectly fine place to be proud to work.
It’s not, however, the biggest, brightest, or best.
Our friend finally agreed about the whole ladder thing. She tormented herself over the decision, but finally she made up her mind. She’s going all in at school. She’s finishing her degree and moving up that ladder.
For those of us who are farther along in our careers, a bit older and more experienced, this comes as no surprise. Of course the most driven and ambitious person at the local cafe is eventually going to go back to school or get a better job somewhere else! It happens every day, because it’s the natural order of things.
The only thing I’m trying to figure out is: who’s next? From my perspective, at least four of the employees who were so carefully trained by our ambitious friend are qualified and ready to take over. Which one will it be?
How long will that person stand on that rung of the ladder, before moving upward?
How about you?
Life Admin is a wonderfully clarifying book about where the heck all our time goes. In my case, it’s blocking spam phone calls and unsubscribing from email to which I never subscribed in the first place. Elizabeth Emens gives us a new framework for discussing how we divide work in our personal, business, social, and academic lives. Reading this book should cause a lot of heads to pop up amid a chorus of voices calling, “Same!”
What is life admin? Some people call it ‘administrivia.’ Emens provides a Venn diagram showing how it overlaps with chores and childcare. We’re talking about things like managing schedules, making appointments, filling out forms, handling finances and insurance paperwork, planning parties and travel, and knowing where everything is. For some reason, almost all of this work seems to be invisible, and thus people task each other with it all the time.
I don’t think I’ve gone a single day in the last fifteen years without at least one person emailing, texting, calling, DMing, or asking me in person to research something they could have Googled all by themselves. (In less time!) Send me a link, plan my trip, give me a recommendation, be my uncompensated accountability coach. They don’t even realize that just asking me these questions impacts my mental bandwidth as a writer, nor could they have any idea that they rank among dozens who see me as their private unpaid secretary in this sense. To the endless list of life admin I might add ‘making decisions.’ Almost everyone on Earth wants to outsource this to someone, anyone else.
Life Admin is the armor we need to start fending off these demands, to start making this work more visible and valued. I’m considering making a keyboard shortcut for my phone that says “I will do this for you if you first donate $5 to charity:water” and see how many people (probably 100%) snippily write back “never mind.”
Most people probably have a bigger issue with negotiating life admin at home than they do between friends. Emens gives reasons for this, for instance that a landlord might only contact one roommate about repairs even if there are four adults living in the house. A lot of the division of life admin is accidental and arbitrary. It can also be hard to categorize, or to tally up the work when it consists of a variety of dozens of recurring tasks that might take one minute or might take all week.
The fact that life admin involves a lot more than the distribution of household chores has always been clear in my marriage, because I was an administrative assistant when I met my husband. We talk about it in terms of ‘mental bandwidth’ and we formally negotiate it during our weekly status meeting. He books airline tickets and hotel rooms while I plan our activities on the trip. He pays most of the bills, sorts the mail, and does the taxes, while I’m the one who deals with maintenance people. He does most of the repair jobs while I handle most of the mending and weird stains. He does the grocery shopping, I do the laundry. Over our decade of marriage, we’ve passed some of these jobs back and forth. The responsibilities seem to morph and fluctuate as we relocate or change schedules. The pressure valve is for one of us to say, “Will you do X while I’m doing Y, or would you rather switch?” (Cook dinner while I do laundry, etc). It’s entirely possible to negotiate life admin respectfully without it turning into a huge deal.
This is one of the great strengths of Life Admin. Emens offers categories of “admin personalities” and ways that each might have a useful strategy for reducing life admin. For instance, rebelling might benefit others in the workplace by restructuring or eliminating bogus tasks. The book also offers ways of reframing life admin by making it pleasurable or seeing it as a way to, say, choose a mate, give better gifts, or get better service. One of the best and coolest of these ideas is to have an “Admin Study Hall” and sit in a group with other people for company while getting some of this stuff done.
Life Admin is the kind of book, like Gemma Hartley’s Fed Up, that has the potential to really stir the pot. It’s so important to be clean and clear in our negotiations and power dynamics, though. Bringing these issues to light is the first step in fairness and happier relationships, whether personal or business.
Having a hundred admin tasks that each take one minute feels heavier than having a single admin task that takes a hundred minutes.
Who has time for admin-redistribution admin?
...many people seem to assume that the topic of life admin is of interest mainly, or only, to women.
What I would do to figure it out is the same thing you would do to figure it out yourself.
Secrets to getting things done:
Nobody likes to be micro-managed, and it should be obvious why. The time that the micro-manager spends leaning over someone’s shoulder is time that they could be doing something at a much higher level.
Example: a top-level manager literally leaning over my shoulder and watching me update page number formatting on a document while paying me overtime and making me miss the gym. If anyone had bothered to delegate the task to me days or weeks earlier, it would have taken me ten minutes and never hit this person’s radar. Instead, the company winds up paying this taskmaster to do nothing more than annoy me. How much does this guy make per minute, and why is he wasting his time on this?
That happened fifteen years ago and it still annoys me.
Asking someone to do some something specific is a task. That’s true whether it’s your employee, your kid, your roommate, your romantic partner, or yourself. I tried asking my dog to bring me some tea but honestly he’s not very good at that kind of thing.
CLEAN YOUR ROOM
STOP THAT BARKING
LEARN TO DRIVE, LOSER
Asking someone to do a task is always going to generate a power struggle. If this person (or animal) had any desire to do that task, they would have done it already without your input. They probably have a violent desire to NEVER do that task, and they’ll fight it with every last fiber of their being. Just like my clients do when I suggest that maybe they consider possibly letting go of some of their expired food.
Try it another way, maybe?
Reframing a task as “a problem” or “a situation” is completely different. I’ll offer some examples.
Sitting on my porch, I want to charge my phone and my tablet. There are no electric outlets outside like there have been in previous places we’ve lived. I don’t want to leave the door open for an extension cord because we have a mosquito problem. What am I going to do?
Use a back-up battery
Do only non-electronic things outside
Charge one device at a time inside, and go back and forth retrieving them
Install a power outlet outdoors
Ask my husband to apply his engineering expertise to my problem
My husband and I have a running joke, dating back to our backpacking trip to Iceland. It goes like this: “YOU’RE the man, FIX THIS!” The truth is that if I asked him to do something very specific, like “save me from this hornet,” I know he would drop everything and rush to my aid. In the case of the missing power outlet, I don’t know what to ask for. If I had a solution, I most likely would have done it myself. I’m not going to TASK my husband, I’m going to ASK my husband.
What I mean by this is that I’m going to pose the problem to him and see what he would do. I believe that he will find a different way to solve the problem, something I would not have thought of, and I believe this because he’s done it a thousand times. Part of why we got married is that we have a lot of non-overlapping skills. Rather than berate him for not being good at the same things I am, I praise him for being good at all the things that I am not.
The vocal tones and facial expressions involved in asking someone for their opinion and advice are extremely different than those of someone who is demanding that someone else complete a task.
I tell my husband how much I love working on the porch. I point out what a beautiful day it is and how happy our pets are, dozing in the sun. I say I wish I had a way to charge my devices. I suggest digging out the dog door insert and setting it up so I can run a cord through the dog door.
Approximately four minutes later, he pops up with an extension cord. He rocks the screen door up slightly on its little roller wheels and slides the extension cord under it, then settles it back in position.
I’m so happy I surprise myself by bursting into tears, which completely freaks him out. I then have to explain exactly how much this means to me. I’ll be able to work outdoors all day, all spring and summer long! His solution to my problem is the ergonomic equivalent of adding an entire room to our apartment, a very nice one.
He nods and shrugs and goes back to reading his robotics textbook.
Another example: I want to celebrate my brother’s fortieth birthday. I task him with telling me when he is going to have his party so I can buy my plane tickets. This does not work. Back to the drawing board. I ask our other brother to talk to him. This does work, because they have different planning styles, but it does not result in firm plans.
I change the task to an ask. I tell my brother that he deserves to do something fun and special for his birthday. He says he is fun and special every day. I ask if he would be willing to cooperate with a surprise party, if we plan something for him and just tell him what to wear and what to pack. He’s fine with that. I figured he would be. Then I ask our other brother to help with something mutually fun and weather-appropriate. We work out in about 20 minutes what I couldn’t make happen in three months by tasking someone.
Notice the difference between “MAKE PLANS AND TELL ME ASAP” and “How can we make your birthday something fun and special?”
It’s just like the difference between “STOP NAPPING AND GET YOUR TOOLS” and “Can you help me make this area into a lifestyle upgrade?”
I’ve found this method really useful in motivating volunteers, also. Rather than ask people to do something specific, explain what it is that you’re trying to do. Every single time, without fail, people will step up with better, quicker, and easier ways to get stuff done. Often they’ll enlist other people you didn’t even know and get them to help. Sometimes they’ll point out that the job has already been done and share materials with you. This is why telling people what to do is pointless: your way is probably the worst way!
There are lots of ways to solve persistent problems if you “ask, don’t task.”
Get your kids to clean up: Plan a party or game night and say you want to make it special. Rather than nagging everyone to pick up after themselves, set a timer, put on some music, and race to “get ready.” What does “get ready” mean? More than you thought, probably! My mom used to do this and I would do extra stuff like making hand-drawn place cards. I still associate parties and housework.
Get your partner to help with yard work: Find out their vision for their ultimate dream yard and get them talking about it. Hammock for napping? Yard parties? Climbing roses? Wood-fired hot tub? Vegetable garden? Home roller coaster? Walk them out to the yard and stand there together while they get rolling.
What’s going on here is a shared vision that is communicated clearly. If other people dislike your vision, they will reject it, and they will fight you til the bitter end. If nobody is on board with your vision, why is that? Are you willing to do the work yourself if you have to? Have you given thought to other approaches? Are you simply in the habit of feeling stressed out, resentful, and irritated?
What would it take to turn the energy around this from “WHY WILL NOBODY DO MY BIDDING” to “hey, you know what would be fun?”
Ask, don’t task, and see if you can find out.
We saved 48% of our income last year.
What that means, specifically, is that 48% of our net base salary went into our retirement accounts. Net = after taxes and any other non-retirement withholdings. Base salary = the amount in the employment contract.
This does not include money that went toward paying down debt. For example, I finally managed to pay off my student loan.
How is this possible?
I’m going to write a somewhat abstract post because I don’t want to just baldly state our actual income. Some people do that, but *shrug* I’m not going to. The point is to focus on STRATEGY for those who will find it helpful.
Posting actual numbers, Money Diary style, tends to draw doubters and naysayers. That’s not my audience. Big hair, don’t care.
How is it possible to save half your income?
Two ways: offense and defense.
My husband taught me this. I’m an extremely hardcore full austerity frugalite. I play D. I can casually do a Buy Nothing Month and barely notice, because I’ll just spend the time reading library books and journaling. I’ll cheerfully serve up lentil soup, darn my socks for a third time, and dilute my laundry detergent to 80%. The trouble with this scrimping method is that you can only get your expenses down to zero dollars and zero cents. There’s a finite limit to how much you can save by playing defense.
I married a strategic thinker. He plays O. There is an infinite amount of money that someone can earn. There is no top level to how much you can escalate your income. In his mind, it’s a lot easier to find a way to EARN ten thousand dollars than it is to SAVE ten thousand dollars. That’s why he quit his job as a logger to go back to school and become an aerospace engineer.
We’ve learned to respect each other’s mutual styles and use them to work together. He appreciates my sincere desire to cooperate toward financial independence and stay on plan. I appreciate his ludicrous ability to read textbooks for fun, design things that go to space, and accrue patents. We take turns suggesting lifestyle pivots and talking each other through the pitch.
That’s how we’ve wound up in this bizarre, outlier situation of banking half our income.
Step One: Cooperate and tell the truth about your life. We have a breakfast meeting every single week where we talk about our finances, among other things. We’re able to do this without blame and recrimination because we share the goals of early retirement and excellent vacations. We’re allies. Wealthy celebrities go bankrupt and get expensively divorced all the time because they don’t know how to work as a team, and this is why cooperation comes first.
Step Two: Focus on career direction and earning potential. We’ve relocated for jobs four times in our ten-year marriage. We don’t have a mortgage but we both work at our dream job. The goals here should be, how do we do the most fascinating possible thing all day while mentoring younger people and also making it rain money?
Step Three: Lifestyle design. The tricky part.
The most valuable parts of anyone’s lifestyle are usually outside the cash dimension. Love and friendship. Self-expression. Connection to the natural world. Developing a personal philosophy. Sleep quality, cooking skills, having a home filled with laughter and conversation. Put a price on any of that.
We build our feeling of home and being entertained around the intangibles, and that’s what makes it relatively easy for us to chop expenses.
Okay, seriously though, how do we save half our income?
We live in a studio apartment close enough for my husband to take the bus to work. I work at home.
We got rid of our car two years ago because all they do is eat money 90% of the time.
We cook at home, only going out to eat maybe once a week because we’re really too busy. We’ve only had pizza delivery ONCE in our entire thirteen-year relationship, and it wasn’t very good either.
We don’t drink alcohol or indulge in any other recreational substances such as pay cable.
We don’t “shop” as an activity, and that’s no sacrifice, because we both hate wandering around in stores. Also, we live in a 612-square-foot studio, so where would we put anything?
Our default weekday is to work all day, go to kickboxing class together, bike home, shower, eat dinner, hang out with our pets for a while, and go to bed.
Base salary. See above. We’ve prioritized earnings over our own lifestyle throughout our marriage. That has meant moving away from family and friends over and over again. It has also meant getting rid of at least 80% of our possessions and living in a quarter of the space we had as newlyweds, because we’re nomads now.
Overtime earnings. Many jobs don’t have this as an option, and not everyone is in a position to take advantage of it. My family’s perspective is that working overtime helps take the pressure off of all the colleagues with young families or other caretaking responsibilities. Take one for the team, ka-CHING.
Bonuses. My husband has this terrible habit of winning awards at work. Unfortunately he might also wind up making money off his patents at some point, too. It’s dreadful.
Non-cash perquisites. One feature of frequent business travel is that it racks up a lot of points and miles. Another is that a lot of passthrough expenses go through our credit cards, building up yet more points and miles. We typically don’t have to “pay” for plane tickets, hotel rooms, or rental cars anymore.
Side hustle money. Everything we make on the side goes toward things like electronics upgrades, vacation, or vet bills. It used to go toward debt payments. There’s something highly motivating about thinking, “I’m going to earn myself a brand new Mac” or “this will buy our dog another year” as opposed to abstract numerals with a dollar sign in front.
The treats: Part of why our lifestyle works for us is that we’re both motivated by the same major goals, one of which is financial independence and the other of which is travel. We splurge on vacation, as well as a few other things: Our phones, robotics textbooks, spoiling our pets, hanging out at Starbucks, and going to our boutique gym. Since we save half our income, we feel entitled to indulge ourselves in the ways that matter to us, as opposed to things that don’t, such as owning two vehicles, eating snacks and drive-thru food, watching cable TV, or living in an average-size house.
We moved into a studio apartment so we could get a year ahead on our retirement savings, instead of a year behind. (Scrambling to pay 2015’s IRA contribution in spring of 2016, whereas now we’re already saving for 2020 in 2019). It worked! Saving crazy amounts of money has been fun for us and it’s helped us to build a stronger marriage. The stress of debt is so, so much harder than the stress of sharing a tiny living space and basically living like college students.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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