It's all because of the paper towels. We have an unshopping list, just like I have a To-Don't list. When I first met my husband, we were platonic friends, and he had me come over to help declutter his garage. I sat on the washing machine, pointed, and asked questions. He would look surprised, realizing some of the funny stuff he had, and generally decide to get rid of it. During this process, we found no fewer than FOUR CASES of paper towels. We laughed when we found the second one. By the fourth, we were in hysterics. Later that week, he found a FIFTH case of paper towels hidden by something else. It turns out that when you shop at the big box store without a list, certain items just jump in the cart on every trip unless you remind yourself to take them back out. Paper towels are hardly the only things in life that turn up, unwanted, on autopilot. We have to plan to avoid certain things. If we don't plan not to have certain things happen, they will happen.
If you're eating an ice cream cone and you're sitting next to a dog, you have to plan not to have the dog steal a lick of your ice cream.
If you know you can sleep through your alarm, you have to plan not to turn it off in your sleep and be late to work.
You have to plan not to have a sunburn.
You have to plan not to get gum disease.
Alas, as much as we don't want dogs stealing our ice cream, these situations don't always seem obvious until afterward, when our friends are laughing at us. Well, nobody really laughs at gum disease. But you get the picture.
What we should be doing is building a better life for Future Self. What we actually do is usually to make our own Future Life more difficult all the time. We treat Future Self like an adversary. "Hey, Future Self! You suck! I just spent all your money and now I'm going to eat an entire extra large pizza with thick crust, just so YOU will have a bigger butt! None of your pants are going to fit! Oh, and? AND? I'm going to stay up late binge-watching Golden Girls episodes so you'll be exhausted at work tomorrow! If you try to complain about it, I'll give you a HANGOVER! BWAHAHAHAHA!!!"
This is where self-compassion comes in. I try to think of Future Me with the same tenderness I feel toward my grandma. I try to do what I wish for my own parents, which is to save for retirement and eat healthy. I just imagine that I am them. This helps to inspire me to offer to do things for them when I visit, like changing lightbulbs in the ceiling fixtures and carrying heavy objects. Not that they can't do these things, just that it's much easier for me. At this time in our lives, we probably feel exactly as nervous as one another when contemplating the other standing on a chair. Be careful!
What sorts of things should we plan not to have happen?
Some things are easy. I planned not to smoke, and I never did, and thus I've never had to quit smoking. It's a lot easier to plan not to shoot heroin than it is to go to rehab. Planning never to commit a crime is a lot easier than going to prison. Planning not to get a tattoo while drunk is a lot easier than paying for laser removal.
Not to say that I've never done anything wild, crazy, or outrageous. It just seems to me that these things make better stories when there were no major negative consequences. I have: ridden a mechanical bull, marched in a parade, been on TV, been in the newspaper, done live improv comedy in front of an audience, gone downtown in a FREE HUGS t-shirt, and had my toes sucked on stage in a movie theater, among other things. We want to focus on maximum fun with minimum downside. This idea that all future planning is joyless and strict is a false dilemma.
In fact, if we want to have maximum fun, we should plan more. Don't make any plans for the weekend and you'll probably spend it on the couch. In this case not planning to have fun is planning not to have fun. Peak experiences usually take advance plotting, scheming, and machinating. As an example, I got concert tickets for my husband for our wedding anniversary, and it took signing up for alerts when the band did not even have plans for further tours, waiting over a year, and getting up early to buy the tickets six months in advance. He was pretty impressed when he realized we were sitting in a sold-out show. That made it three experiences: enjoying the band, gloating that we were enjoying the band, and feeling extra loved because I went to so much extra effort. Anything for you, babe.
This is an area that is not fun to talk about, but divorced people will understand and nod along. You have to plan not to get divorced. Everyone plans to be happily married, but we can't all pull it off. That's because we're more likely to get divorced because of the things that are going wrong than we are to stay married because of the things that go right. All you have to do is cheat once, or run up secret debt once, or be physically abusive once, or tell a lie once, and the love flies right out the window. Cheaters always say it "just happened." Well, plan for cheating not to happen. If you meet someone hot, immediately put your finger in your nose so they'll stay away from you. That's what I always do.
Well, not really. But I am a divorced person who married another divorced person, and we both talk frankly about such issues.
There are two other areas where we fail to plan not to have bad things happen. Those areas have to do with our health and our finances. These are the two most commonly procrastinated goals. In the regrets of the dying, people consistently say they regret not having taken better care of themselves. They also consistently say that they wish they had saved more for retirement, and they worry about whether their loved ones will be okay financially. My clients have a bizarre trait in common, which is that they all think they'll die young. This pessimism can be a good thing if it inspires us to tell people how much we love them and to work as hard as we can to leave a legacy. It's a terrible thing when we're completely wrong and wind up living many years longer than we had supposed, fearing every minute of it. I have a family member who was given "six months to live" over fifteen years ago. Living a long life should be a beautiful blessing, for oneself, but mostly for the loved ones who don't want to say goodbye. Living a longer life while destitute is a challenge for all parties. It also means uncountable missed opportunities.
We have to plan not to be broke when we're old. Lifespans keep increasing, and it's almost humanly impossible to truly believe that we will reach such advanced ages. In 1919, when my grandmother was born, the lifespan for women was 56. For men it was only 53.5. Yet my grandfather lived to be 75 and my grandmother lived to be 86. They were quite frugal all their lives, like most people of their generation, but they probably assumed that they would have enviably long lives and pass in their early 60s. It's hard to plan how much to save when you have no way of knowing that you're going to live THIRTY YEARS LONGER than the statistical probability. It's also difficult to image how much things are going to cost when you can remember going to the grocery store with a dime.
This is why I plan. I became aware of my grandmothers' major concerns in my thirties, when I had begun to do things like plan my retirement account and set up an advance health care directive. It is all too real to me. All elders say that they don't feel old, that they still feel like young people inside. I do, too. But I know I'm likely to be an old person on the outside one day, and that includes my wallet and the bills on my desk.
I was born in 1975, and as of that year, the lifespan for women was 76.6. Even my great-grandmother who smoked lived about that long. To plan not to be poor when I'm old, I have to assume that I am going to live to be *at least* 86, and then tack on 15 years for good measure. In 2014, there were over 72,000 living centenarians in the US. If I plan for that and my money outlives me, great! What I have left can go to my family, or to charity. I have all kinds of great plans for when I'm an old lady. I'll wear rainbow tie-dyed shirts, whack people with my umbrella, and take my dentures out at night so I can eat candy in bed. It'll be awesome. It'll be even more awesome if I'm wealthy enough that my young relatives feel motivated to come and visit me. Eh heh heh.
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.