I decided when I was nine years old that I was going to be an old lady one day. I just knew it. I was reading a book of fantasy short stories, and one of them had a character who got to choose whether he wanted to know how he would die. I thought about that a lot. I didn’t really want to know how I would die, exactly, although I understood by that point that there was no opting out of mortality. I did sort of want to know whether I would die young, old, or medium. OLD! It turns out that the very elderly among us do tend to operate on the assumption that they will/would live to be old. This is good because it helps us plan.
What will Old Me do with her time?
There are a bunch of things on my bucket list that I have no interest in doing, not quite yet. In a full lifetime, there were simply things that were less appropriate for a young woman in her twenties and thirties than for an older version of the same person. Put it this way. If I assumed at twenty that I would live to be 100, there would be, count them, eight decades to spend. The dancing, dating, staying up late partying decades ought to be at the front. If Future Me were going to study calculus, write her memoirs, or learn to paint, those could go toward the back.
This train of thought continued down the track. What if I planned my later decades in advance? Past Me is absolutely notorious for trying to schedule all my time. She likes to leave me dirty dishes and laundry, because she thinks I like doing that stuff for her, and she likes to leave receipts and unsorted papers for the same reason. Past Me! Knock it off! I do NOT enjoy washing your socks! She also wants to tell me what movies to watch, what books to read, and even what magazine articles - you wouldn’t believe the bookmarks. They’re like passive-aggressive little notes. Knowing this, I don’t want to do the same thing to Future Me. I don’t want to leave her bogus chores and I don’t want to micromanage her leisure time. I do, though, want to send her gifts and good ideas.
I used to talk to Future Me all the time on the Future Phone. I would call her up to see what she was doing. Immediately she would start shouting down the line at me. I can hear you just fine, Future Me, you know full well that phone reception is much better in your time than it is now! The first time I called her, when I was about 19, she knew it was me all right. She told me that if I didn’t start saving money she was going to have to eat cat food. She started telling me off about my spending habits, and darned if she didn’t know exactly where our money was going, to the penny. That was the most urgent thing on her mind. Not forgiving people or traveling more or going for promotions - all she could talk about was savings, savings, savings.
It took ten or twelve years before I quit being sullen about this and started seeing it as little gift envelopes I could send to Future Me. Like burying a jar of gold coins in the back yard. Come to think of it, Future Me would adore a gift like that. I started feeling very tender toward her, she of the creaky old bones. I wanted her to be a crazy rich lady, known for tipping extravagantly and having loads of young friends who loved her jaunty cackle. Auntie Me.
Sometimes I’m jealous of Future Me. She gets to watch the best movies and read the best books, some by authors who haven’t even been born yet. She knows every word to songs that haven’t been written. Her phone, O her phone… She knows the mysteries behind world events, major archaeological finds that are still in the ground, medical innovations and inventions that Present Me can scarcely imagine. If only she could ship me some of that stuff, or at least email me some drawings…
She can’t send me anything other than querulous phone calls, but I can send Future Me anything I want. I can send her boxes of stuff. I can send her a house. I could send her a tattoo or a pair of earrings or a long heartfelt letter. I can send her a million photographs. I could send her a Twinkie and she would get to find out whether it was still edible. There are four things she wants, though:
I’m doing what I can, Future Me. I’m trying.
Sixty is the birthday I’m looking forward to the most, followed by eighty. I feel like my life will really begin at sixty. That’s when I feel like I’ll finally have some gravitas. I’m hoping my hair will be completely silver by then, although it depends on which grandmother I take after. I’ll have a certain freedom through the social invisibility that is granted to old crones. (I’m 42; can I be a crone yet?). I’ll travel and I’ll be a great public speaker and my posture will speak for itself. I’ve never been an impressive athlete, especially since I didn’t start until age 35, but beginning at sixty I’ll start to close in on the front of the pack. Senior Olympics, here I come!
In my twenties, I used to think I had missed my chance to go to Europe, live overseas, or become fluent in a foreign language. I had a fantasy that I should have been a translator of books, and that I had somehow blown my opportunity. Now I realize that once I turn sixty, I’ll have FORTY YEARS before I turn 100. I could spend ten years becoming fluent in a language and then have vast leisure to translate to my heart’s content.
Future Me could learn to identify bird calls, do a hundred yoga poses, travel to every country in the world, photobomb so many people, crash weddings, read an encyclopedia, finally learn to draw, and perhaps even walk down the street wearing nothing but purple rain boots and a tutu.
When I’m 100, I’ll look back at all the amazing things that have happened as long ago as 2049, when I was a sprightly 74. I’ll mull over the thousands of books I’ve read. I’ll spend a few months looking through the hundreds of thousands of photos I’ve taken, plus all the others of my old friends and loved ones who have gone before. I’m sure I’ll have regrets over all the apologies I never made and the friendships I let lapse, the people I never held quite close enough. Hopefully I will have done some good in the world and made a difference in someone’s life. Most of all, I hope I will still be able to sit on the floor and get back up again.
It’s autumn, it’s Fourth Quarter, and the freaking holidays will be here before we know it. I’m not excited about this. Sure, I’m thrilled about Halloween, which I adore, and I’m already feeling a little frisson of excitement about the New Year, my favorite day. It’s just the icky part in between, when the weather is terrible, the lines are long, and the traffic is brutal. I spend the four or five weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas holed up at home, trying to avoid a single note of Christmas music or having to look at any combination of red and green. Fall is the time of year when I focus on getting things done. This is the time for the great Project Burndown.
I started doing this when I realized that I kept having to make the same New Year’s Resolutions over and over again. It was supposed to be New Year’s Day, not Groundhog Day! I either needed to get over these goals and let them go, or I needed to figure out how to do them. Was I ever really going to drink more water, get more sleep, lose 10 15 20 25 30 35 pounds, or learn to speak Spanish? Was I always going to have an entire closet dedicated to unfinished craft projects? Was I always going to have an entire bookcase full of books I’d bought but never read? Was I ever going to scrape the last few tasks off the bottom of my to-do list? What would Future Me do without any of these past goals and commitments to distract her?
Project Burndown is about completing old commitments. It’s about fulfilling obligations. It’s about restoring scattered mental bandwidth. Project Burndown is about closing the books and preparing for a fresh start. It’s what we have to do to prove to ourselves that we can keep our private agreements, that we can trust ourselves to only make contracts that we truly desire to fulfill. Project Burndown is about turning around and facing forward, rather than walking backward through life.
What kind of commitments do we tend to make and then not complete? Reviewing this says a lot about how we see ourselves and how we wish to be seen by others.
Promising handmade gifts. We think we can make up for our lack of physical or emotional presence by giving our time, crystallized in the form of a handmade gift. I quit doing this the year my nephew took one look at the superhero cape I’d made for him and threw it over his shoulder to move on to the next gift. Gift-giving should reflect the interests of the recipient. See: The Five Love Languages.
Unmade phone calls, unwritten letters or cards, unsent packages. We think our desire to be close to this friend or relative counts, even when that person has no way of knowing how often we think about reaching out. It’s possible they wouldn’t even want to talk to us as long or as often as we think they would. After all, you can call people from your pocket on accident now, and the phone works both ways.
Reading or watching everything. We think we can somehow consume all the information on the entire internet. We think not only that we can keep up with today and with the entire backlog, but that we’ll also be able to stay caught up with everything that will be released tomorrow. Everything is a tradeoff. The hour that is spent doing one thing is not available for doing anything else. We can’t read one book with each eye; believe me, I’ve tried.
Finishing craft projects. Only when we admit that we prefer shopping and collecting materials to actually using them can we get our heads around this. Shopping is not a hobby; shopping is a way of filling our homes and closets with bags of stuff we’ll never use. Shopping for recreation is a way of wasting money we could have spent on travel or cooking lessons. Or Future Self’s retirement.
Sorting stuff and “getting organized.” Getting organized starts with a vision of an easier life. Organize what? For what purpose? Sorting stuff requires the ability to make a firm decision. I’m done with this and out it goes. I’ll never use this, and out it goes. I never did use this, and I’m over it, and out it goes. Sorting stuff is a job that will never end, unless it ends in carrying bags out the door and dropping them off somewhere.
Physical transformation. I wrestled with my own desire to transform my body for many, many years. I didn’t believe it could be done due to “genetics” or whatever. I thought I was trapped in chronic illness. Then I decided to empty my cup and assume that every single thing I thought I knew was incorrect. Clean cup! I was able to reach my goal weight in just four months. I ran a marathon. Not only have I maintained my goal weight for nearly four years, but I also haven’t had a migraine in that entire time. Once I made a true decision and brought clarity to my goal, it turned out to be quite simple and straightforward. (Not “easy,” just simple).
Learning a new skill. Learning new things is one of the greatest joys in life. It keeps things exciting. We have to make time to concentrate and focus, though. Learning a new skill or a new language, taking a class, means cutting something else out of the schedule. For a lot of people, this could easily be done by cutting loose a TV show. For others, it requires the ability to put your foot down and say, “You watch the kids, order a pizza or whatever, I’m going to class every Tuesday and Thursday.”
I like to start each New Year with a clean slate. I like to wake up on New Year’s Day with a sparkling, immaculate house. I like to have my goals for the year written out in an attractive format. I like to throw out my old socks and underwear and donate a few bags of stuff I’m done with. I like to make sure we’ve eaten up all the leftovers in our fridge and freezer. I like to look over my projects and goals from the previous year and push through to finish them. I like to read through my news queue and close out all of my open tabs. I’m five years in and not done yet, but I’m working on reading all the books in the house and not stacking up unread material. Project Burndown is my time to do this.
One year, I’ll start out on January First with a totally clear slate. I’ll wake up with some kind of epic goal and nothing unfinished to stand in my way. One year I’ll slam the door on Past Me without any tendrils of past projects trying to reach through and grab my ankle. Every time I do a Project Burndown, I get a little closer to that day.
Where the heck did this year go? How did it get to be Fourth Quarter already? That means we only have three months left to knock off our resolutions from last year! As usual, I did some of mine at the very beginning of the year, while others have been languishing, still somehow incomplete. This is the time of year when I attempt to kick myself into gear, while also spending all of October celebrating an extended Halloween.
I just completed the work in Toastmasters to be a Competent Leader, three months ahead of schedule. In my second year of public speaking, I’m improving but still feeling physiologically hijacked and shaky a lot of the time.
My major personal goal for the year was to follow a set schedule. Not kidding, not even a week after committing publicly to this goal, our domestic life was turned upside down. For boring reasons related to commuting, I’m on a different schedule depending on what day of the week it is, and even what week of the month. The goal seems to be working, though. Because my time is stretched so thin, I’m finding that I really have to make the most of it. I’m usually up by 7:30 AM and I even get up at 6 to work out once or twice a week. I’m busier but I’m exercising more than I have in years. Having a schedule makes me feel busier, while weirdly making everything I do seem more important and interesting.
My physical goals of doing P90X and running five miles still remain incomplete. These will be my focus for Fourth Quarter, which should hopefully work out well because the temperature will be cooler at this time of year. It will also be nice to be fitter at the New Year than I was last January.
My home goal of “digitize, downsize, minimize” is now in bonus rounds. I decided not to keep physical books anymore, and I’ve been reading through my collection with the goal of downsizing my bookcase. There are only three shelves left out of six, and it looks like I’ll be able to pull this off. Getting rid of the bookcase would free up space in our tiny apartment so that I could have a desk again, if I so choose.
We had a couples goal of going to World Domination Summit this year, which we did, and it was great. We’ve already paid for our tickets for next year. We also had a goal to make homemade pickles, a commitment we made before moving into a new apartment with a microwave above the stove, which means our pressure canner won’t fit on a stove burner. We just ran out of our supply of homemade pickles, and we haven’t been satisfied with anything we’ve found at the grocery store. This is serious! Next step, refrigerator pickles.
I had a ‘stop goal’ of not being the last person to pack up my tent. I’ve only been camping once this year, but I made it! I wasn’t last! I dealt with my problem of feeling too cold to get out of the sleeping bag by buying and wearing a second base layer. I also got some ridiculous fleece pants and a fleece sleeping bag insert. Weird how having more stuff has actually made it easier for me to get up and pack.
For lifestyle upgrades, I planned to upgrade my phone and my work bag, and to repair our tent, which was torn up by a raccoon last year. I did upgrade my work bag, a decision that had a lot of unanticipated positive side effects. I also finally replaced the shredded mesh panel on the tent, and we were able to use it when we went to Wyoming. The new phone for which I have been waiting for three years has not yet been released.
My Do the Obvious goal for the year was to transform my appearance. I made this transformation back in February, and it doesn’t even feel weird anymore. I’ve made peace with the very difficult truism that other people’s opinions are strongly influenced by the way we choose to present ourselves. Clothing and grooming, who cares, right? But by that logic, if I really and truly don’t care, then I might as well put in the extra effort to look consistent with my desired results. In my case, that’s learning to look like I belong behind a podium or on stage when the occasion demands. I still feel disappointed and annoyed that this stuff actually works on people, like a crude magic trick. I don’t speak the same way when I’m on stage as I do in ordinary conversation, though, so it makes sense that I also wouldn’t dress the same.
My quest for the year was to BE RIDICULOUS. I want to go back ten months and shake Past Me until our teeth rattle. What a freaking stupid way to put that. So many ridiculous things have happened this year: I got bit on the butt by an earwig, we’ve been stranded in airports and on the runway to the point that we lost a day of our anniversary trip, I left our apartment for 90 minutes and our neighbors called Animal Control, I cut my eyeball on a plant... I swear, I meant ‘ridiculous’ in a good way!
I have a wish to pay off my student loan. This isn’t complete yet, but I have started making extra payments.
In July, I set up a charity: water campaign with the goal of providing clean water to 42 people. Despite having two months and offering a free gift to anyone who donated, we didn’t quite reach 1/3 of my goal. My disappointment about this is extreme. If everyone who reads my blog had put in one dollar, we would have easily surpassed that goal. I’ll blame myself for not writing good enough copy, not making a strong enough case for abundance mentality. If I can’t even motivate people who believe in personal growth to spend five minutes of their time and one dollar of their cash on a pure humanitarian charity, then I have a long way to go. I’m holding to my promise to delay the release of my new podcast until I can shake off this sadness.
Personal growth isn’t for us, it’s for us and the rest of the world!
This is the short version of my 2017 goals, resolutions, quests, wishes, etc.:
Personal: Follow a set schedule
Physical: P90X, run five miles
Home: Digitize, downsize, minimize
Couples: WDS, homemade pickles
Stop goal: Stop being the last person to pack up my tent
Lifestyle upgrades: Phone and work bag, tent
Do the Obvious: Transform my appearance
Quest: BE RIDICULOUS
Wish: Pay off my student loan.
Guess what? I made a workbook! For today only, I’m doing a special promotion. You can get the workbook and a little something extra, something that will not be available to future purchasers. At the end of this post, I’m also making an announcement.
Here are the details:
The workbook includes over fifty pages of text, quizzes, and exercises about space clearing, minimalism, and getting organized. It comes as a PDF.
As a bonus, I’ll include five coloring book pages, hand-drawn by me. If this goes well, I’ll consider putting out an actual coloring book at a later date.
What’s the catch?
The catch is that I’m trying to reach a fundraising goal for my charity: water campaign and it’s about to expire.
If you would like to order my Curate Your Stuff workbook and get the today-only bonus coloring book pages, please donate $25 through my charity:water page. Then go to my Contact page and send me an email, and I’ll reply with the PDFs attached. They’ll go out on Saturday. (If you have already been so kind as to support my campaign, ping me and I’ll send you your copies).
If you donate $50 or more, I will give you, in addition to the workbook and the coloring book pages, a free photo consult on any one room of your home. (You send me photos of a problem area and I send back my written recommendations). This is not a service that I offer to the general public, and the offer will not be repeated.
100% of donations to charity: water go to actual clean water projects. Funds for administration are raised through another branch. Note that this means I am donating my work today and I won’t receive a penny, because that’s how I roll.
Now, it’s time for the announcement!
If we reach my charity: water goal before the campaign expires, I will commit to launch my new podcast in October 2017. Otherwise I’ll be all sad and stuff, and it probably won’t happen until next year.
The other thing is that the workbook won’t be available for download for a while after today. I have to set up the website to support file downloads and accept payments, which is part of my plans for a general overhaul of the blog. That will happen at some point before the end of the year.
Thank you for hearing me out. Also, thank you, Dear Reader, for visiting me today.
It’s not accountability that we need. It’s consequences. We think we would reach our goals and adopt new habits if only someone else would come along and hold us accountable. The truth is, if we’re in a situation in which we can get away with breaking our commitments, then there are no consequences. At least, there aren’t any consequences that we believe in.
Certain things we do automatically. We do things because we know how, it’s not a big deal, we can do them without thinking about them, or we actively enjoy them. We take showers, brush our teeth, feed the cat, and buy snacks. Nobody has to hold us accountable, although some of the death glares from the cat might count.
Other things we do without accountability are to: put gas in the car, buy groceries, deposit our paychecks, pay attention when we drive, text our friends, follow celebrity gossip, squash bugs and spiders, play games, and really actually tons of other activities. These are things we would never procrastinate. We wouldn’t procrastinate even if they’re disgusting or scary, like spider detail, or time-consuming, like gaming or waiting in the checkout line. We understand that these actions lead immediately to results that we want. We also understand that not doing these things leads to results we do not want, like missing a must-see TV episode or not knowing whether the newest royal pregnancy will produce a boy or a girl. Well, okay, we won’t be able to avoid that last one even if we try.
The trouble is that there actually are consequences to everything, but they usually don’t make themselves known in the short term.
It’s not that we don’t believe in these consequences. We know full well that we should be “saving for retirement,” for example. The problem is that we don’t really truly believe that the day will come when we’ll personally feel these consequences because we don’t believe in a Future Me. Who is that crazy old coot to tell me how to spend my money? The Me who exists on this continuum in the time dimension, that Future Me who has white hair and sun spots, is not a real person! I’m much too smart to grow old! Oh, sure, I mean, I’m going to be rich and famous and have a maid and a butler and a chauffeur, but that version of me will be young and fit and sexy. We spend more time planning what we would do if we Won a Million Dollars in the Lottery than we do planning how much we should put aside for retirement and whether we should buy long-term care insurance.
We want accountability to help us keep the commitment to work out because we know that otherwise, we’ll never do it. We won’t do it because we don’t like it and we don’t want to. We won’t do it because we don’t believe in a time when our mobility will be limited. We don’t believe we’ll ever have a harder time climbing stairs or sitting down than we do today.
Is there any other habit that we even want as much as we claim to want the habit of exercise? Not that I’ve noticed. I don’t hear people asking for an accountability partner to help them pay off debt, save money, wear sunscreen, stop driving while distracted, or get more sleep. We don’t actually want to save money - we want to win it. We don’t actually want to get more sleep, at least not if it means going to bed any earlier. We don’t even think that distracted driving is a problem, at least not the way we do it, because we can totally text and drive, unlike that other guy weaving between lanes. The lack of sunscreen we immediately regret when our skin burns, not that that helps us remember the next time.
We think we want accountability because we think we can delegate a sense of responsibility. If we haven’t developed new habits, if we haven’t reached our goals, it’s because other people are too inconsiderate to nag us into living our values. Other people have let us down! How could it be our fault, if we can’t find any examples of people so inspiring that we Finally Feel Motivated?
The only way we can change is if we change our minds. If I want something different in my life, then it’s up to me to change my behavior. If I want to change my behavior in the short term or the long term, I have to tell myself a different story. I have to talk myself into it. I have to convince myself that the consequences are real. When I believe in the consequences, I don’t need accountability, because nothing can stop me. I’ll keep my commitments to myself and others because I understand what will happen if I don’t.
How much water should a person drink every day? According to my picky eater friends, the answer is zero, because water tastes bad. Everyone knows that if I don’t like the flavor of something, then it’s unhealthy and I shouldn’t put it in my mouth. The standard answer to the question of how much water to drink is: eight 8-ounce glasses, or 64 fluid ounces per day. Then the standard rebuttal to that is that we don’t actually have to drink that much, because we consume fluids in our food. I’m going to say that all of these answers are wrong.
It’s not nearly enough.
How much we need to drink depends on our size, our base exertion level, the humidity, the altitude, whether we’re traveling via airplane, what we eat, and what workout we may be doing. There are probably other factors, but these are the most noticeable.
I got an app to track my water consumption, because I was having a problem with getting cotton mouth right before bed. This intense thirst would make it impossible not to power-slam a big glass of water, which would then make it impossible for me to sleep through the night. It became my goal to pace myself, hydrating more in the morning so I could stop drinking water after 8 PM. Everything I do for my body is based around whether it improves my quality and quantity of sleep, because I have a very tiresome parasomnia disorder.
Now that I have a few months recorded, I see that I drink an average of 80 fluid ounces per day. The app set me a goal of 60 ounces based on my height, weight, and activity level. For the record, I am 5’4” with a small build and I live in a hot, humid climate.
Anyone who is taller than me, weighs more than 120 pounds, or exercises more than I do should probably be drinking more than that 80 ounces. Even more if they’re on any kind of medication.
It’s important to be skeptical, especially about outrageous health claims. There’s at least a million times more misinformation out there than there is quality information. Skepticism is an inner compass that can be used to experiment and test hypotheses. We can use this power of the mind to find ways to live a better, easier life. I was always very skeptical about claims that drinking lots of water is healthy, and I might go days at a time without actually drinking plain water. I was a big soda drinker instead. That’s what low-level skepticism can do for us. It can convince us that our terrible habits are good for us, because we like them and they come naturally to us, while at the same time convincing us that healthy habits are bad for us, because they’re annoying and they go against our proclivities. A skepticism that drives us further in the direction of our biases is not skepticism at all. It’s nothing more than a self-serving emotional validation tool.
What we want to do is to look at our results and try to amplify everything that is working well, while mitigating anything that is working less well. More of the good and helpful, less of the bad and painful.
The first thing that convinced me that maybe what I was doing wasn’t working so well was the idea that I could compare my results to the results of an elite. In this case, I’d be looking at elite athletes and at people with elite longevity, i.e. centenarians. What did these people do differently than I did? I noticed that athletic people universally all drank lots of water. I didn’t drink lots of water, and I was far from being an athlete. Correlation or causation?
What I learned when I started distance running was that hydration wasn’t actually a choice anymore. Intense exercise activates a thirst you’ve never known. It’s physically impossible to run for several miles and not feel thirsty afterward. You also start to learn that you have to drink before you feel the thirst. I felt vindicated with my hydration habits when I ran my marathon without bonking.
A Kaiser doctor told me once that dizziness comes from dehydration. I had called in to the advice line when I had the flu. In the past, I had had a problem with occasional random dizzy spells, and I’d even fainted a few times. That was back when I was working a full-time job while also attending school full time. It clicked for me that if dehydration causes dizziness, and I used to feel dizzy a lot, and I basically never drank water... maybe that was the answer? Maybe it was really as simple as that?
What I’ve noticed from drinking more water:
I used to always have dark circles under my eyes, and now they’re gone, even though I’m twenty years older
I sleep better, when I’ve had insomnia problems since I was seven years old
My skin is clearer
I have at least 10x more energy
I don’t crave sweets as much
I haven’t had a migraine in nearly four years, when I used to get them several times a week
I weigh 35 pounds less than I did when I drank soda instead of water
I’m stronger and fitter than I’ve ever been in my life
All of this could be a coincidence. Maybe it’s not my water consumption at all. Maybe I’m enjoying these benefits due to an astrological influence or a fairy’s blessing. Maybe it’s osmosis from living in a humid climate near the beach. Water is free to me, though. I can pour it straight out of the tap on demand. Drinking more water makes me feel better and helps me not get dry mouth at night. Why not do it? Why not test it out for a little while, at least?
When it comes to stuff, most of us have more that we don’t use regularly than stuff that we do. Our vital, infrastructural stuff such as keys and forks tends to speak for itself. It’s obvious why we have it and how we use it. The other stuff tends to sit around, waiting for us to notice it and bodily protect it, acting as its defense lawyer. We keep it because we intend to use it. One day. When we change our lives in the way we fantasized we would when we bought the darn thing, that’s when we’ll use it. This is when it helps to ask ourselves whether that day will ever come. There it is, sitting there, staring beseechingly at you, because of course it has a soul and a personality. Ah, but... how long have you had it?
The stuff we don’t use can be readily divided into Past and Future. The Past stuff, we keep to represent memories, heritage, legacy, and what we think of as our identity. Without my stuff, who would I even be? I still have my Self-Manager badges from the 4th, 5th, and 6th grades. If I throw them away, how will anyone know I was a self-manager?? (Nobody knows about them but me, or likely cares). The Future stuff is anything we’ve bought and carried around that we haven’t yet used. There’s no way to prove that we never will! Future Self just called and says we’re going to! Totally! One day!
Future stuff falls into categories.
Supplies. We are CONVINCED that we need to stock up on stuff, to keep certain levels of supplies on hand. I used to be, too, until I wound up downsizing from a house with a two-car garage to an apartment about a quarter of the size. Now we don’t even stock up on toilet paper! We live a quarter-mile from the grocery store, and there’s a pharmacy in the same strip mall. When we get down to the last roll of paper towels, last sliver of soap, or last serving of dishwasher detergent, et cetera, we just pick up a replacement later that day. We’re at the store three times a week anyway. It’s easier than figuring out what we could get rid of to make room for something. Most Americans have more than one closet and significantly more kitchen storage than we do, so they fail to recognize that we literally, actually, factually do not need to “stock up” on household supplies.
Craft supplies. Now this is different. It’s different because we crafty types are viscerally certain that our yarn, fabric, paint, scrapbooking, or whatever supplies are more vital than the cleansers, canned foods, and other pantry staples. Those supplies are optional. Craft supplies are NEEDS. They are! If I don’t have at least an entire closet filled with completely unused, untouched craft supplies, I might physically die. We’re never going to admit that our true hobbies are 1. Shopping for it and 2. Stroking it.
Reading material. Guilty as charged. There are nearly 1600 books and audio books currently on my library wish list. I have thirty-four unread physical books on my shelves, although I’ve been consciously trying to read through and cull my collection for the last eight years. I typically have at least two hundred news articles bookmarked, even though I am constantly reading through that queue. What does it mean when my “to be read” list represents more than a quarter of the amount of books I have read in my entire life? That I’ve marked out my next ten years’ reading already? Or that I think I can suddenly start reading 10x faster?
Aspirational. The category of aspirational items has no limits. We can decide that Future Self is totally going to want this particular item about absolutely anything. Future Self is going to want to read this! Future Self is going to want to cook this! Future Self is going to want to try this complicated recipe! Future Self is going to decorate in this way, dress that way, and behave in this way. Future Self will act differently than me, exercise differently, eat differently, and do all the cool stuff I’m not actually willing to do today. It’s like we think Future Self wants to do Present Me’s scutwork (washing dishes, creating a filing system, organizing photographs, etc) while also somehow finding time for the awesome stuff. Future Me is going to file those tax papers while climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. Future Me is going to clean out the pantry while learning to speak French. Future Me is going to lose the weight and be delighted to wear these ten-year-old unstylish jeans I’ve saved for so long.
The reason it’s relevant to ask how long you’ve had something is that it’s a check on those aspirations. Aspirations are great. They make life interesting. They pull us forward into being better people than we are today. Yet - if these aspirations are so meaningful to us, why don’t we start on them today? This very hour? Are the aspirations actually better than the way we’ve currently dedicated our time?
How long have I had this skein of yarn?
When did I buy this unread book?
What is the date on this unread magazine?
(UGH! If I have three pet peeves in this line of work, one of them is the stacks of unread magazines that people insist on saving). (The other two are anything with DNA, like old teeth or cat whiskers, and anything at all that a parent has hoarded in a child’s bedroom).
Picking up an item and really asking how long you’ve had it can be really enlightening. Sometimes the question answers itself; for instance, I often use bookstore receipts as bookmarks. Magazines have dates, and food packaging has dates, and unused purchases are often still in the original shopping bag, complete with receipt. It’s archaeological.
Another aspect of this sorting technique is to ask yourself how long the item takes to use. I can knit up a skein of yarn in two or three nights. A complicated cross stitch might take me three months of working for three hours a night. I read about 50 pages an hour, or I can read an issue of a particular magazine title in 40 minutes. A bag of flour is enough for X number of cakes, batches of muffins, or loaves of bread, which I might prepare X number of times per month. Other than decorative items, which I usually tire of after several years, I’ve found that everything in my home has a natural expiration date. Almost everything is consumable, in that it’s designed to be used. Clothes, linens, reading material, toothpaste, dog food... it’s all created to be here, to be used, and eventually to be gone.
When we keep things that were designed to be used up within a week or a month or a season, and they’re still in the closet or on the shelf ten years later, what does that say? Do we really prefer having our lives mapped out that far in advance? What’s our track record here? Have we actually done a good job of predicting what Future Self was going to want?
If there’s any one thing that keeps us broke, it’s resistance to the idea of having more money. This is far more common than one would guess. People hold a huge variety of negative beliefs about money, jobs, and wealth. I’d like to counter this by suggesting that we earn as much as possible and then give it away. Would having more money be a problem if you didn’t keep it? What if you earned a million dollars and one cent, and you gave away the million and kept the penny?
Let’s take that a little further. Do you have a favorite cause that you love so much that you want to tell the world about it? Is there a problem in the world that bothers you so much that you think about it constantly?
I asked my pets what they would choose. Spike says he’d like to see more research into canine Addison’s disease and an end to dog-fighting and puppy mills. Noelle says she’d put hers toward preventing exotic animal smuggling, and habitat preservation for African Grey parrots in Congo. I told them both to get a job.
One of the first things that holds us back is when we feel like we don’t have any opportunities. If we’re unemployed, we say that there are no jobs out there right now. Hint: It only takes one. If we have a job that we hate, then we’ve taken meticulous notes on any and all unfairness in our workplace. Oh, they only promote certain types of people, I can’t work that schedule, So-and-so has it in for me. We have something in mind that we’d rather do, but there’s such a long list of reasons why we can’t actually do it.
As an example, I’ll do some of mine. I have a running list of alternative realities for myself, all of which are mutually exclusive. At least, if I did them all, I couldn’t do them all at the same time. Running a bird sanctuary, going back to grad school, going to every country in the world as a travel writer, opening a food cart. Well, I can’t open a bird sanctuary unless I own land, due to noise ordinances if nothing else, and I don’t have the down payment and there’s nowhere we could afford to do it near my husband’s work. I’d go back to grad school but I don’t know what subject I would study and I can’t guarantee that I’d earn enough in my new field to pay off the debt, plus I’m still paying off my student loan from my BA. I’d start traveling the world, but you see, it would be impossible to bring my pets and my husband wouldn’t be able to go. I looked into opening a food cart but the coaches are $100,000 and our city council is… You see how this works.
When we go a little deeper, we find that we have reasons why we wouldn’t want more money even if we knew how to get it. Money goes to people’s heads. It makes you greedy, selfish, and vain. You have to buy a ridiculous, architecturally monstrous house where all your neighbors are other rich people. Money makes you become a drug addict and start throwing your phone at people. You get paparazzi after you. You have to hire security guards. You never have any privacy or peace and quiet ever again. They make you name your kids with weird, made-up names that don’t make sense.
It’s just like working out. We immediately go to the extreme. I don’t want to lift weights because I’ll bulk up and my arms will be bigger than my legs. I don’t want to lose weight because if I drop a pound, I’ll go insane and become anorexic. We can’t imagine a happy medium.
What if I got just 5% stronger?
What if I earned just 5% more income?
Well, gee. What’s the point of that?
We give a lot of lip service to the concept of moderation, until it’s time to choose moderate goals. Then we aren’t interested. For instance, if I’m 50 pounds overweight and I find out I can realistically lose two pounds a week, what? It’s going to take me over six months to lose the weight? Pfft. Why bother.
You mean if I earn 5% more and spend 5% less, I can start funding my retirement? Bor-or-or-ING.
I come back to the idea of the million and the penny. Why not be completely extravagant in your desire to figure out ways to earn as much money as possible? What if you just do it for a cause?
I mean, along the way, it seems legit to pay off any debts you may have accrued over the years, including personal loans. It seems fair to use some of your earnings to make repairs around your home and vehicle and upgrade anything that’s worn out or broken. Or, if not, well, you can always keep going as a charity pump and keep putting it all toward your cause.
What if you started out with the desire to earn a million dollars for charity, and keep a penny for yourself, but you accidentally earned more? In that case, would it be okay in your heart to spend any of it on yourself? No? What about others? Could you use it to buy gifts or help out people in your life? Surely that would be okay?
What if it really was okay to just earn as much as you can and spend it however you want? What if accepting that enabled you to move forward so quickly that you surpassed your wildest dreams of what you were capable of? What if you went to donate so much to your favorite charity that they didn’t even know how they would spend it all?
Abundance means knowing on a deep level that there is plenty, and there will always be plenty more. Wealth is not zero-sum. It’s not necessary to deprive anyone of anything in order to feel prosperous. Giving lavishly from a place of abundance is pure pleasure. It is joyful to spread the wealth. The greatest wealth is love. How compatible is love with feelings of stress, strain, deprivation, lack, poverty, and impossibility?
Just this Tuesday, we were fortunate enough to be able to see Gretchen Rubin give a talk on her new book, The Four Tendencies. One of the great advantages of living near Los Angeles is that almost every awesome person or band who goes on tour will make a stop here. Indeed, we also saw Gretchen when she was here in 2015 promoting Better Than Before. It’s hard to say which is more exciting, hearing her speak live or anticipating the new book. This is the one we’ve all been waiting for, a handy-dandy manual on the Four Tendencies.
Aaaaahhhhhh! I love this book so much!!!
Sorry, I had to get that out of my system.
The premise, if you don’t know already, is that one way to sort people is by whether we meet or resist inner and outer expectations. Learning to place people by where they fit in this system can be incredibly useful. I taught my husband about it, and it’s added a new dimension to our marriage. He uses it with his colleagues. I use it with my family. We’ve even sorted our pets. It was helpful to realize that our Questioner parrot needs more variety in her routine, and she’s not super-big on rules.
The book is structured with a separate section for each tendency. Upholders come first, naturally, since the author is an Upholder and in fact invented the concept. Within sections, there is an explanation of the tendency, its strengths and weaknesses, and variations within the type. For instance, my husband is an UPHOLDER/Questioner like Gretchen and I am a QUESTIONER/Upholder like her husband Jamie.
One of the best features of the book is that each tendency has a chapter on how to deal with people of that type. Oh my gosh, I wish this had been available when I first met my husband! It’s like a “care and feeding of” manual. We went on a vacation trip once with his Upholder mom and Upholder daughter, the three of them lined up, dressed, and ready to go every morning at 6:30 AM, naturally expecting that everyone in the world knows the Upholder Vacation Standards and Practices Guide backwards and forwards. Gee, doesn’t everyone arrive half an hour early and wait in the parking lot for attractions to open? At least they had the good sense to leave the event planning to the curious and novelty-seeking Questioner.
Generally, I think Questioners like myself have the easiest life. It’s just unfortunate that we sometimes make things difficult for others around us! I agree that I can easily do anything if it makes sense and I’m sold on the reasons for it. I’ve learned to battle my own tendency toward analysis-paralysis by adapting the engineering standard known as “low-side compliance.” Does what I’m doing meet the stated criteria, on schedule, with minimal cost and effort? Is the task relevant to the project? I’ve set up a minimalist system for running the household, our finances, my client schedule, and my fitness level, so I can get the optimal results with the least time commitment. That means I have the maximum time possible to write, research obsessively, and mess around doing whatever I want. My Upholder husband, who taught me the concept of low-side compliance, usually cooperates without comment, even when I keep tweaking the system.
Incidentally, there was another Questioner in the audience at the live event on Tuesday. He asked what I considered to be an archetypical Questioner question. Essentially, he wanted to know where the data came from, and he finished, “I don’t see a PhD after your name...” I thought this was so impertinent, a harsh startup that came across very aggressively. (I mean, do you yourself have an advanced degree? No?) How often must I sound like that to people when I ask curious questions?? He happened to be sitting directly behind me, so I was able to turn around and chat with him after the show. By “chat,” I mean, engage in Questioner debate. I shared that the data came from the hundreds of thousands of people who had taken the Tendencies quiz on Gretchen’s website, and that she has a Juris Doctor, which is basically equivalent to a PhD. His rejoinder was that that’s law, not social sciences. We quibbled back and forth for about ten minutes, with the result that we were last in line to get our books signed. Neither of us changed our minds.
My husband and I had a bit of a joke, imagining the room sorted into four groups by tendency. He said the Upholders would all nod at one another and then stand there, waiting for further instructions. I said the Obligers would be trading contact information within five minutes, and they’d all wind up hugging before they left. He said most of the Rebels would probably leave. I said the Questioners would immediately start quarreling non-stop. Then he did wind up meeting another Upholder and they traded nods... and I did get into a quarrel with another Questioner!
In practice, exploring the Four Tendencies tends to make us more accepting of other people’s quirks and foibles. Better than that, it helps us to realize that they have strengths we may have been taking for granted. Recently I’ve realized that my Rebel dad has a native genius for negotiating. I’m trying to absorb more of the Obliger gift for friendship. My husband is using what he knows about the tendencies to help mentor younger engineers. This book is going to be an invaluable resource for those who care to explore it. There’s definitely room in the world for more of this material. If the great Gretchen Rubin were to write companion volumes for the workplace, marriage, or parenting, I would be delighted to read them.
Comfort is what we crave. The contradiction inherent in this drive is that almost everything we do in search of comfort actually destroys our chances of feeling comforted in both the short term and the long term. This can be demonstrated in all sorts of ways, but the most poisonous and destructive of these is the search for emotional validation.
Looking for validation is looking for someone to back us up. Tell me! Tell me I was right and everyone else was wrong! Tell me I didn’t deserve that! Tell me I DID deserve that! Tell me how great I am! Compliment me! FEED ME! I need more love! Approval! Compassion!
Oh, how sweet it would be. I think there’s soon going to be a cuddly AI robot-thing that can do this in natural speech. “Oh, honey, of course you deserved that promotion! Your boss is a big mean jerk.” You can choose it in pink or lavender or pale yellow, and you can select the celebrity voice of your choice. Soothing, sweet, delicious fantasy of nurturing and support.
I’ll get one and make a video of myself setting it on fire, beating it with a shovel, and then backing a truck over it.
Validation is death. The last thing we should ever want is someone to constantly yes-man our every word and deed. What a disaster. Please no! That’s the route in the maze that leads directly to a dead end. In fact, there’s only one single path in a maze that leads out; all the other options are false, distracting, routes to nowhere. The path that leads out is the path of truth. That truth by its nature has to include all the dark stuff, all the unsavory and embarrassing stuff we wouldn’t want to admit.
He broke up with me because I complained constantly and I wouldn’t take action or listen to his advice.
I didn’t get the promotion because I wasn’t ready, I didn’t look like I fit the role, I didn’t have the certifications, and I kept coming in late.
Other people talk smack about me because that’s what boring, small-minded people do, and it’ll never stop no matter what I do, so it’s my job to let it go and ignore it.
It’s my job to look for my own flaws and try to do something about them. Like most people, I’ll probably go through life unaware of my biggest and worst flaws, and I’ll chip away at the smallest, least consequential ones. Then I’ll immediately be distracted by something someone else said, or rather, my guesses and misinterpretations of what someone else said. I’ll spin my wheels over this. I’ll waste my time, always stuck on Level One, when I could be putting that energy toward making myself a slightly less obnoxious and useless human. It’s what I wish other people would do that I myself should do.
When I wish for validation, I should first ask whether it would actually help me reach my goals. Second, I should find someone else who deserves validation and give that person the praise and encouragement I wish someone would give me.
When I wish someone would listen to me with deep and heart-felt fascination, that’s my cue to find the fascination in someone else’s story. Deep listening teaches me about other people, and it also teaches me how to make my own story more compelling.
When I wish someone would hear me out, that’s my flag that maybe there’s a flaw in my reasoning or a hole in my rationale. Maybe my version of this story is bogus and self-serving. Maybe it’s boring to everyone in the world except me. This wish is my opportunity to work on it, on my writing or my performance or some other way of turning my frustrations into art.
If I wish someone else would stand up for me - have I stood up for others? If I wish someone else would speak up and praise me - have I promoted others and made them look good? If I wish for backup, have I been an ally to others? If I wish for deeper friendships, have I gone out of my way for others in ways that are inconvenient to me? Have I sought to learn what makes them feel befriended and cared for? Sometimes the validation I wish I had may come from one person, while I offer it to a different person. It’s not usually an even flow.
Validation given well can bring out the best in people. Unfortunately, we tend to want it most when we deserve it least. We ask for it at the exact moments that it could hold us back. We want to be comforted when we need to be challenged. We want someone to agree with us exactly when we should be questioned and confronted. Yes dear, yes dear, you’re right dear. Beware of validation, and instead cherish those friends (and enemies) who are brave enough to give you the cold cruel truth. You can always get one of those approval-bots and let it sing you to sleep later.
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.