I broke my 415-day activity streak on my Apple Watch. By five calories. Why? I was distracted and didn’t notice the clock ticking toward midnight. Also, I was getting over the flu.
That blank space is all the different ways I tried to put into words the inchoate rage and bottomless disappointment I felt when I realized that there was no going back. My streak is gone and I can’t even pick it up again until March of 2019. No perfect week badge. No January 2018 badge. Two and a half years, and I still haven’t managed a perfect calendar year.
I feel significantly worse about this than I did earlier this month, when I realized I had paid nearly $40 for an online class that I didn’t need.
The work that goes into maintaining a 14-month streak. The focus. The dedication. The, shall I say it, obsession. I’ve maintained that streak when I was sick. I’ve maintained it when I was injured. I’ve maintained it while traveling across eight time zones. I’ve maintained it with house guests and on road trips. I even bought an extra $30 charger to keep from breaking the streak when I forgot to pack that key, irreplaceable item. On the way to a major family event.
It got really bad the first time I broke my streak, by one calorie, because I didn’t notice it was past midnight. I went out into the yard with my hammer and beat a foot-wide hole into our lawn. I’ve been less angry at being burglarized!
Why midnight? Why this arbitrary split second of a minute of an hour of a day?
Why can’t the user set when a “day” starts and ends?
Why isn’t there a reminder, like the stand-up reminder, to point out that the “day” is nearly over and you’re really close to closing your ring?
Why am I so susceptible to this digital brain-prodding?
Obviously, the reason to wear an activity tracker is to bring awareness to your activity level. This is great. Certainly the Apple Watch has done that for me. I can look and see that I walk an average of over six miles a day. I can see how many flights of stairs I’ve climbed, literal stairs, because I skip escalators now. I can see my average heart rate and all that awesome stuff.
The problem comes in for me, and I suspect for a lot of other achievement-oriented alpha types, with the badges and the streaks.
My desire for a complete collection of rainbow-colored virtual badges knows no bounds. I know that other people have hacked and cheated by setting their goals artificially low, or coming up with some other method to trick their tracker. You could shake the old pedometers and get the step count to go up. Apparently you can dangle your arm from a chair and convince the Watch that you’ve stood up. The badges redirect the focus to badge-getting. Whether that’s through fair means or foul, we want to get those badges. It can be hard to distinguish one form of gamification from another, especially if the user is also playing other sorts of games that come with badges. OOH PRETTY.
I’m a fairly serious amateur athlete. I ran a marathon, I take martial arts classes four hours a week, I walk everywhere because we don’t have a car, I routinely go on backpacking expeditions. Someone who does not have a digital hook in their brain may believe that a real athlete would simply focus on the activity and ignore those dumb old badges. Sure. That person probably doesn’t need or wear an activity tracker.
I’m starting to think that I can’t do anything that involves tracking a streak. It... activates something inside of me. Something very dark and negative and unhelpful.
I want to rage-quit. I want to crush things. I want to throw something off my balcony. I actually had a flash of an image that involved me breaking our glass sliding door with a hammer, just to exorcise the demon of BROKEN STREAK somehow.
Only a few weeks ago, I spent no fewer than three hours at the Apple Store, while no fewer than three separate geniuses sat with me and helped me transfer my iPhone 6 to my new iPhone X. The specific reason was so that I could keep my activity streak on my Watch. Nobody knew how to do it. Finally the floor manager came over and figured it out. I guess I let down the team. Sorry, guys.
I’ve felt less bad when I’ve shattered my phone screen. I’ve felt less bad when I’ve spilled dinner on the floor. I’ve felt less bad when I’ve gone to purchase airplane tickets only to see that the price has increased before the transaction was complete.
This is an entirely contemporary, artificial emotion created by technology. Or, rather, by the designers of it.
This isn’t the first time I’ve developed a little problem with streak maintenance. I was trying out a meditation app. I completed the meditation at 12:00 AM, and didn’t get credit. I had meditated for seven days straight and the app was only showing a two-day streak. There was no way to turn the feature off, so I wound up deleting the app. It struck me that a meditation app that generates the competitive streak feeling was counterproductive.
I want a cute little enchanting reward for doing well. Sure, of course I do. I want a collection of pretty, sparkly rainbow stickers to show off. Look how hard I worked! Straight As! Isn’t there a way, though, to set up those badges and stickers so they still reward the user, even if the clock has ticked past 11:59 PM? Couldn’t the rewards come for reaching mileage goals, or resting heart rate goals? Could a monthly badge come from the average daily activity rate, rather than an unbroken 31-day streak? Couldn’t there be a skip, or a make-up function, or a freaking doctor’s note?
The cruelty of the digital god. Applehovah.
I’m wearing this thing that I call The Overlord, feeling despondent and thoroughly demoralized. Do I actually want to keep wearing it? If streak tracking is going to mess with my equilibrium this much, shouldn’t I be wary of it? Maybe take it off? I looked through the other apps and features, asking myself if the other use cases are worth setting myself up for this kind of digitally mandated despair.
Maybe it’s just the flu, and I should have spent the day in bed, rather than trying to close all my rings.
Maybe there’s something fundamentally wrong with a system that incentivizes people to stay active even when they’re ill.
I’m an active person now. I didn’t start out that way. It wasn’t until my thirties that I stopped being almost 100% sedentary. Various digital displays have helped encourage and inspire me. I beat chronic illness and thyroid disease to become a marathon runner, and that’s saying something. What I want is a device that brings out the best in me. Not the beast in me.
Ooh, have I got some hot gossip for you! Just as I typed that, my little parrot said, “WHEW!”
Building maintenance just dropped by for a scheduled “pre-move-out inspection.” We’ve lived here for ten months and they’ve already had two inspections, supposedly to test the smoke detectors. This particular maintenance guy has been in our place a couple additional times, most recently when our neighbor’s sink backed up into ours and nearly flooded our kitchen with filthy brown water. Since we have a nodding acquaintance, I thought I’d take the opportunity to interview him a little.
He had a clipboard, and I could hear him scribbling notes. I was basically exploding with curiosity. What was he checking? Was he doing what I thought he was doing?
You know I spent an extra hour on housework this week, just to get ready. I think it would be easier for me to go out naked in public than to have my home inspected. The thought makes me completely paranoid. Are they going to check my linen closet and see if I’ve rolled all my towels in the same direction? Are they doing a white-glove check and making sure I’ve dusted the slats in the heat registers? Will they be pulling out the crisper drawers in my fridge?
I didn’t want to dump all this anxiety on the poor guy, who reminds me quite a bit of my brothers. I just wanted to open the door to chit-chat and hear what he had to say.
“Are you checking the power outlets or something?” I had heard him turning light switches on and off, and it would make sense that the electric outlets would be on the list.
He showed me the form and gave me a copy, explaining that we would get a rundown of the charges after we move out. They’re looking at whether they need to paint, shampoo the carpet, repair the kitchen countertops, or do any other obvious repairs. Fair enough.
Then I leaned in. “I work with hoarders? So I was just curious. A few of my clients have been evicted for hoarding at some point.”
Maintenance Guy grinned. He told me that the biannual “smoke detector inspections” are really “habitability checks.” They specifically do it to check for mice, rats, cockroaches, and any other vermin that would affect other tenants in the building.
He also told me that his dad used to hoard and that they worked on it together.
I KNEW IT!!!!
I freaking knew it.
Our complex purports to be a “club” and touts its resort-like setting. What that means is that due to the grounds, the amenities, and the location, they can charge top-end rents for what would be a sad shoebox anywhere else. These are tiny, dim rooms with low popcorn ceilings, shag rugs, ailing old plumbing, and no air conditioning. We like to think it’s to encourage everyone to hang out by the pool and avoid being indoors. All that being said, the owners clearly understand the value of beachfront real estate, and they protect their investment.
I guarantee that a hoarding or squalor case would not make it in this building past the six-month mark.
I have indeed worked with a few clients who have been evicted for hoarding. One of them has had it happen at least three separate times. It’s happened to a few people in my social acquaintance as well. While it is very sad, we have to understand that games have rules. We have to use our powers of discernment and do things that make sense in empirical reality.
Hoarding doesn’t just attract vermin. It can also damage the infrastructure of the building. Our apartment has three floors with eighty units, and probably a hundred tenants, plus a couple dozen dogs, cats, and my parrot Noelle. There’s a garage underneath. The floors of any building are only rated to support a certain amount of weight. Hoarding can stress joists and cause a floor to collapse. Maybe a home owner who lives alone can decide that that’s okay, a risk she’s willing to take. When you live with a hundred other people, you do not have the right to risk other people’s safety, or the physical integrity of a building that does not belong to you. So that’s one thing.
Stacks and piles can also obscure serious problems, such as water leaks and black mold, not to mention evidence of vermin infestation. Each of these is a problem that can and will affect neighbors, their pets, and their homes and possessions.
The scariest thing about hoarding, though, has to do with fire safety. A room that is packed with things (any kind of things) has a lower flash point. The flash point is the temperature at which the air in a room basically ignites. It can create a massive fireball. Now, the problem gets more complicated. A fire is going to start faster and spread faster in a hoarded room. That will be compounded if a lot of the material in the room is combustible, like cardboard boxes, books, magazines, papers, shopping bags, food packaging, and fabric. Even before adding thick, black smoke to destroy visibility, it’s going to be hard to get across a hoarded room and reach a door or window. The weight load will cause the floor to collapse more quickly. Add it all together, and it’s almost like someone deliberately set a boobytrap to kill firefighters and emergency workers. Oh, and neighbors.
I said that about a hundred people live in my building. About 3-5% of the population hoards, so we can guess that without the “habitability check,” three to five of my neighbors would be serious hoarders. Several of my neighbors are smokers, too.
There are a lot of buildings in this complex, and we’re packed pretty tightly together. We live in an extreme drought area, and it’s been this way for several years now. We had a dry winter. A fire that started in one building would put at least 1500 people at immediate risk. That doesn’t include any of the tourists or workers at the marina or the beach or the wedding facility or the hotels or restaurants directly adjacent to us. Only two months ago, my commute was delayed due to the Skirball Fire. We could smell and taste smoke from the wildfires while sitting in our living room. We made evacuation plans. Fire is not a hypothetical risk for us.
It’s hard to write about this topic, because I know from my work that hoarding and squalor are intertwined with toxic shame and trauma. My desire is to encourage readers to find the courage to rise up and break free of hoarding. You deserve better, and so do your neighbors. I just wish there were a guaranteed way to talk about distressing ideas, also known as “reality,” without possibly triggering someone into a shame spiral.
The thing about hoarding is that unlike many other struggles, it’s possible to do the external, visible work rather quickly. You can basically erase all traces of hoarding, unlike, say, cutting behaviors or track marks from IV drug use. Just release the excess stuff, do a deep clean, or maybe relocate. A property manager or developer can come in and repair flooring, walls, window frames, or any other damage. Good as new! For all I know, the person who lived in my current apartment before me did just that.
Expendable, or expandable? Most people somehow find themselves surrounded by more and more stuff every year. As the amount of stuff expands, it fills up the home. Eventually, either the place is hoarded or the family has to move to a bigger place with more capacity. What, do you think everyone with a three-car garage is filling it with... cars? That’s the difference with minimalism. We focus on our lifestyle. No single item rates above our experience of living in our home. What’s more, nothing we own has more clout than our strategic position.
Clutter means it’s getting in the way.
This is a concept that most people really, really don’t grasp. It doesn’t matter what emotion you feel while you’re holding an object. What the heck does that have to do with anything, unless it’s your engagement ring?
This is how we decide what to keep:
Are we in the optimal job?
If we’re in the optimal job, are we in the optimal home?
If we’re in the optimal home near the optimal job, can we do the things we need to do?
Do we actually use this thing?
See how these questions are radically different than our feelings about an object? Oh, how much did it cost? What color is it? Does it work with my interior design philosophy? Does it make me feel all sparkly inside? Getting emotionally caught up in small-scale objects like a book or a shirt is totally beside the point when we’re making decisions based on career path, financial independence, or domestic contentment.
These are the questions.
If a better job came along in another city, would we or would we not go after it? Our kid is already in college, we don’t own a house, and we can’t live near family due to my husband’s specialized profession. Since it’s just us and our stuff, why not?
Since we’re moving, what are we taking with us? What are the rents like in our new city? We realized several years ago that if we busted down from a full-size, 3BR/2B suburban house with a two-car garage and a yard, we could save a fortune. Was it really worth the extra tens of thousands of dollars in rent and the extra hours of weekend maintenance to keep up that lifestyle? We reconsidered and realized that in many ways, living in an apartment would be a lifestyle upgrade. No more yard work, lower utility bills, less housework, and access to a pool, hot tub, and gym!
At that point, the question becomes how we fit our household into a cute little apartment. Due to where we live, there simply are no larger places in our neighborhood. Even the multi-million dollar houses are really small. Requiring a larger place also requires a longer commute, which is the exact reason most people tolerate a long commute. Where else would we put all our stuff???
Now we crunch the numbers. We have to calculate rental cost per square foot. We have to calculate utility costs per square foot. We have to include incidental costs, like a larger moving van, more gas, and more boxes. We have to include the extra furniture that people buy for their extra stuff, like bookshelves and cabinets and vanities and entertainment centers and desks and armoires and filing cabinets. All of it costs, and much of it has extra carrying costs as well. That’s before you even calculate the cost of buying it on credit.
Due to our income tax bracket and the sales tax in our state, every dollar we spend basically costs us two dollars. It would be more if we carried a balance on our credit cards.
In our complex, a two-bedroom apartment that is barely bigger than our one-bedroom costs $4000 a month. If we’d insisted on keeping all our sparkly cute lovely things, we would definitely have needed that extra bedroom to store them in. But how would we have afforded that rent? It’s not like our stuff is going to go out and get a job and start contributing to earn its keep...
Actually, in rare instances, stuff does pay the rent. We rented a storage unit for about a week and a half during our last move. The manager told us that a few of the tenants used their units to store their work equipment. Landscapers, painters, contractors, people who needed somewhere to store their bulky equipment to earn a living. You can’t exactly keep a lawn mower on the carpet in your second-floor apartment. Or, I guess you can, but you’re probably paying to have that carpet replaced when you move out!
Our first consideration, when we decide what to keep, is what we need to do our jobs. Even if we went full nomad and lived out of hotels, we would keep our electronics. My husband has some active reference textbooks that he would keep. Obviously we would maintain our professional wardrobes, or what would fit in two suitcases, anyway. That’s pretty much it. Virtually nothing else that we own is directly related to our ability to earn money.
In my opening list of strategic questions was a hint about something. Can we do the things we need to do? What I mean by this is that we need to be able to sleep in the bedroom, cook in the kitchen, bathe in the bathroom, eat at the table, work at our desks, and live in the living room. That means that absolutely nothing gets to be in a stack or a pile. We value our space and the use of that space more than any amount of stuff. It doesn’t matter where it came from, how much it’s “worth,” who gave it to us, or how we feel about it. Even if it’s holding its little inanimate arms out and asking for a hug. If it’s in the way, it’s out the door.
Do we actually use our stuff? This question means that we focus on our enjoyment of the things that we do have. We invested in the most comfortable bed we could find when we were newlyweds. It’s kinda romantic that we’ve been together almost long enough to need to replace it! We also comfort-tested our couch. When you buy or keep very few possessions, you can afford to spend more and to put in a little more effort making sure that you really like something before you bring it home.
Here is the math concept behind why we say that our possessions are expendable. We know roughly how much it would cost to replace every single thing we own. If we ever took a job overseas, it would literally cost more to ship our stuff there than it would to give it all away and buy new furniture and appliances. (Plus we wouldn’t have the use of it for the two months of the voyage. If we can go two months without it, do we need it at all?). Renters insurance is mandatory in our apartment complex, and the minimum policy covers $10,000 worth of belongings. That’s WAY more than all of our stuff is worth! If something happened to destroy all our possessions, like the upstairs neighbor leaving the tub on until the ceiling collapsed, or whatever, it would be kind of amusing. Since all our photos are saved to the cloud, there isn’t anything in our home that we’d be devastated to lose. We’d wind up going on the biggest, craziest shopping spree of all time. I don’t even know how we would spend $10k on furniture, clothes, and housewares.
So many people spend more than that on their stuff, though. I have a friend who has spent more than $10,000 on a storage unit. No joke. She would have been financially better off just throwing all that stuff in the trash. Or she could have sold some of it and made a little folding money. The saddest thing in the world to me is that people pay to store stuff that doesn’t even have a resale value. I know because I’ve seen it. Boxes of school papers. Boxes of sentimental but grubby and worn-out dolls and stuffed animals. Garbage bags full of outdated old clothes. Worn-out mattresses and box springs. Boxes of paperback books. Boxes of funky old plastic storage containers with mismatched lids. Why would someone spend thousands of dollars to store stuff they never use?
They do it because they think their stuff is actually worth something. They value their belongings over their quality of life or their financial stability.
Possessions are expendable. As soon as you start to see that, you start to look around at all your stuff with new perspective. Hey, stuff, what have you done for me lately?
This book is not for amateurs. Or, rather, an amateur who picks it up is in real danger of abandoning amateur status. Jocko Willink is not messing around. Discipline Equals Freedom has the makings of a cult classic, the sort of book that is handed down from person to person, possibly to inspire a series of tattoos. For the standard-issue procrastinator, it could be fun to explore this as poetry. Regard it as a peek into the mindset of a hardcore, never-quit action-oriented achiever.
Stoic philosophy lives and breathes. It’s really the only difference between a super-achiever and an ordinary person. Discipline Equals Freedom is an example of that. It’s a common fallacy to think that a muscular person is dumb, that bias toward action is a demonstration of lack of depth or strategy. That’s because most people don’t talk and act at the same time, at least not at an extreme level. Even the fittest elite athlete in the midst of the most strenuous training period is still resting at least part of the day. What are they thinking about? Now we get a chance to find out.
I freaking love this book. I love it so much that I bought a digital copy to keep on my phone. I’ve been following my husband around, demanding that he listen to sections of it.
“Is this what I want to be? This? Is this all I’ve got—is this everything I can give? Is this going to be my life? Do I accept that?”
We’re both huge fans of the movie Full Metal Jacket, and we often quote whole sections of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman going off about something or other. “A jelly donut?!” This is how I got through my first mud run. “Are you quitting on me, Private Pyle? Are you quitting on me?” If only I’d had Discipline Equals Freedom; I could have had so much more variety in my self-talk.
Discipline Equals Freedom is divided into sections. The philosophy section is Part One: Thoughts. Part Two: Actions has more philosophy, and then it’s divided into nutrition, injury prevention and recovery, and workouts. The nutrition section is based on the Paleo diet. While I dispute the premise of Paleo, I wouldn’t let that mess with my appreciation of the book overall. I agree with Jocko on a few important points, namely that sugar is poison, that we need to take sleep seriously, and that we should be as physically active as possible every day. I haven’t eaten meat in twenty-five years, and almost the entire cadre of instructors at my martial arts academy are completely plant-based. Both locations. Our paths are different, but we both agree that the Standard American Diet will kill you.
As for the workouts, even the Beginner level is quite tough. Jocko has modifications for those of us who can’t do a pull-up, a handstand, or a regular push-up. I’ve been there, and it works. If you really want to be able to do a pull-up badly enough, you can make it happen, even if, on the first day, all you can do is grab the bar and hang there with your arms straight. The first time your chin clears the bar is a feeling of childlike dazzling joy.
People constantly say, “I wish I had your willpower” or “If only I had the motivation.” These are core misunderstandings of what makes other people tick. It’s self-discipline. It’s the inner philosophical alignment that says I refuse to accept inferior results for myself. If I want a better life, more grit and determination, more education, better communications and relationships with other people, then I can’t accept anything less from my own behavior. Discipline Equals Freedom is an instruction manual that teaches the mindset of self-discipline. Now read it, and liberate yourself.
If a goal doesn’t take at least four years to accomplish, is it worth doing?
This is the question I ask myself now when I choose my goals for the New Year. I’m on the challenge path. I keep my resolutions because the entire point of what I do is to feel like a failure, at least at the beginning. I know I’ve picked the right challenge for the year if I absolutely hate it for at least the first three weeks. There are all sorts of things I would hate doing, though, mostly because they’re bad ideas. Example: walk into the woods and eat the first mushroom you see! No, absolutely don’t do that.
Every day, do something that scares you, unless of course it’s scary for a good reason.
The premise here is to push yourself to do something that is challenging because it’s new to you, because the act of the challenge helps to make you smarter and more resilient and better at learning difficult new things. That’s valuable all by itself. In the sense of the challenge path as emotional training, as mindset development tool, it doesn’t matter what you pick. Challenge makes you better.
The next level of question is, if I did this thing for four years, where would I be?
Would learning about this alien new skill or activity for four years give me expanded options in life?
What kind of person would I be if I spent four years trying to get good at this?
What are the people like, the ones who have been doing this thing for at least four years?
Why four years and not forty years? Well, that’s relevant, too. Thinking about the challenge path in terms of novice to mastery, though, was too intimidating and off-putting. I could never think of anything specific that I wanted to dedicate my entire life to. My one and only life! Four years is a time span that helps me to feel curious. It makes everything accessible. Maybe I do it for four years and only then do I realize that I’m hooked for life. No beginner can genuinely know that, or at least that’s my opinion.
This is why I don’t really start a new goal in the month of January. I can’t “break” my resolution if January is the month when I do my initial research. I haven’t even started to build momentum until second quarter at the earliest. The first year barely counts at all. Learning to think in a longer-term perspective is how I take good care of Future Me.
Past Me worked really hard to get me a drivers license and a good credit score and visible ab definition. Past Self made me a marriage. I can’t throw all that away. I have to live up to Past Me’s standards and uphold our agreement to build a better life for Future Self. I make plans over a four-year event horizon because I believe in a future.
What kinds of things happen over a four-year timeframe?
Well, let’s see. I met and married my husband in that length of time! In four years, you can build a house, build a business, or get a university degree. You can build a boat. You can train a service animal or learn to dance. All sorts of stuff can happen in four years! It’s really a pretty long time, especially from the perspective of someone who routinely gives up on New Year’s Resolutions in four weeks.
The year I chose running, I only planned to run 2.25 miles by the end of the year. I visualized my progress literally in increments of a single sidewalk square. Imagine my surprise when I reached my goal three weeks later! “Now what?” I wasn’t into the whole four-year thing yet. That’s why it never occurred to me that I’d wind up running a marathon. Even more, it never crossed my mind that I’d become interested in the world of adventure races and ultra-marathons. I started as a hater and wound up as a true believer.
I chose cooking after reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. This introduced the concept of the “10,000 hour rule.” The pursuit of mastery is more complicated than that, of course, but it did feel like an epiphany. What would I want to be good at if all it took was 10,000 hours? I couldn’t think of anything. How about 1,000 hours? Wait. How about one hundred hours, or ten hours?? As soon as the thought “ten hours” crossed my mind, it snapped into perfect clarity. Cooking! In reality, I was making much better dinners in under ten hours. It got better as soon as I started doing mise en place and working on how to sauté an onion properly.
In other words, I shifted from a fixed to a growth mindset. Almost instantaneously. I stopped thinking of, say, my cooking abilities as a fundamental part of my personality. Instead I started thinking of them as something I could (and should) improve with focus and attention. It was obvious that every hour I put toward learning such a basic skill would improve my life permanently. My skills would also improve the lives of other people around me.
That’s true of everything.
Learning new skills makes you useful to have around. Not only do you quit relying on other people to do these things for you, you can also contribute at a higher level. This is especially true when you work on mastering things like time management, getting organized, improving your communication skills, mood management, parallel parking, first aid, using a fire extinguisher... You get the drift.
Over the years, I’ve used my New Year’s planning process as a benchmark. What am I going to learn next? How do I assess how far I’ve come? What are my strongest and weakest areas? I’ve set out to learn so many things, from how to raise one eyebrow to how to read more complicated knitting patterns or make decent pancakes. I’ve learned how to balance the weight in my expedition backpack, how to plan a trip overseas, how to feed twenty people on a budget, and all sorts of useful skills. Everything builds on everything else. What started as something foreign and confusing and difficult turns into a basic skill I barely realize I’m using.
Why wouldn’t I want to learn this? That’s one question. Who wouldn’t want to be a good cook? Why wouldn’t I want to be good at distance running or three-day backpacking trips? Why wouldn’t I want to be good at public speaking?
I have a rough sense of some future challenges I may or may not take on one day. Right now it’s martial arts. In the future, it might be orienteering, or chess, or voice lessons, or welding. The basic rules are whether it will improve life for Future Me and whether studying it will force me to feel true humility, at least for the first year.
I can’t control the vagaries of fate. Things will happen in the world in general, and other things will happen specifically to me. That’s reality. What I can do is to continually push myself to face challenges, to learn new skills, and to be unafraid of being a beginner. Forever, forever and always a beginner. With every year that goes by, I’m better prepared to handle or even avoid the random accidents and crises of fate. This is how to create a destiny. Who do I want to be four years from now? Four years after that?
It’s January 31. Do you know where your resolutions are?
People get this New Year’s Resolution thing all wrong. I say, first of all, skip January. January is for kinda thinking about it. January is for being broke, being cold, recovering from holiday burnout, and generally hibernating. January is the most common month for someone to get sick. These are the logistical reasons why 3/4 of people have given up on their resolutions by February.
The other reason is the visionary reason, the failure of imagination. What we think are resolutions are really objectives. “Lose weight” is not a resolution; it’s an outcome goal. Just like “get married.” If you’re single (or, heck, even if you aren’t) you could probably FIND someone new to marry by December 31st. Are you sure that’s what you’d want, though? You can “lose weight” by getting food poisoning, swallowing a tapeworm, or amputating a limb, but... First, you have to be really clear about your objective. Second, you have to choose an outcome you can control, unlike, say, “get straight As” or “get a promotion.” Third, you need a plan. Fourth, you need to accept the reality that goals and habits take tons of baby steps. Fifth, give up on January and start thinking of where you want to be around Thanksgiving.
So anyway. Let me tell you about my January.
My husband and I did a bunch of crazy stuff in the first week of the New Year. He bought a new folding bike and started using it on his work commute. I bought a new desk and got rid of my bookcase. I researched and joined a martial arts academy and started taking classes. We applied for a new, smaller unit in our apartment complex and got it, meaning we’ll save over $8000 in 2018 instead of paying a big rent increase.
In other words, within a week we’d totally transformed our daily reality.
Different home, different commute, different workout, different work habits, different furniture.
When you’re clear about what you want, it’s possible to move really quickly while not feeling like all that much work was involved.
The decision to trade a scooter for a bicycle was almost instantaneous. The purchase wound up taking half a day because each shop we visited was sold out. Using the new bike is actually faster than the previous commute.
Trading a bookcase for a desk also took about half a day. I had wanted the same desk for six months, and when I saw it was back on sale, I snapped it up. We had to move a different bookcase, assemble the desk, rearrange some books and papers, and haul out some donations and recycling. It took a few hours before someone responded to my Craigslist ad, and then about twenty minutes to give them directions and help them get the bookcase out the door. Now, most of my waking hours are spent at that desk.
Researching the gym took half a day as well. I researched what was available in our area. I visited three different gyms, talking to the owners and asking tons of questions. Then I went home and looked at the class schedules. I made my first pick, and the next morning, I took a free class, put my shoes back on, and signed up. I came back the next morning as a paid member.
I also released two new products and got my certificates for completing two levels in Toastmasters. These are the natural results of work that I do every day. What am I creating? What am I doing with my time? Is the work I’m doing leading toward something I want?
Over the course of the month, we’ve spent a little time talking about our move and going over our stuff. We had the opportunity to take photos and measurements in an empty unit like the one we’re moving into. We’re losing about 2/3 of our kitchen storage. We gave a bunch of our small appliances to an intern. Next will have to go a couple dozen canning jars, some plastic storage containers, perhaps a set of mixing bowls, and probably a bunch of baking pans. It’s annoying, but it’s hard to argue with saving over $400 a month. You can buy a lot of muffin tins for $400.
Then what happened?
I strained an abdominal, missed a day of classes, and spent four days moving very carefully.
I got the flu, even though I got the flu shot at the beginning of October. So that was annoying. I’m still hugely in favor of the flu shot, probably more so now. While I felt that sick flu-ey feeling, woozy and drained, I never got the cough or the nasal congestion. I lost my appetite but I didn’t have the gastric symptoms. I slept at least twelve hours a day for three days, and I felt bad, but maybe 40% as bad as I have with past bouts of flu. I knew I was sick when I woke up on Monday morning, and by Thursday evening, I was okay to go for a walk outside. Usually I’m down for ten days of total misery and maybe 2-3 weeks of sniffles. This time I was done in a week. My husband, who got his flu shot about five minutes before me, didn’t get sick at all. I can’t help but wonder what it would be like if enough people got the flu shot to reach the threshold of herd immunity.
All told, I missed six classes at the gym and three Toastmaster’s meetings. That’s pretty bad for one month. If I didn’t have a context for my goals and resolutions, I might make the mistake of being discouraged and feeling like a failure.
These are the reasons why it’s silly to consider a New Year’s Resolution “failed” by February. Just take for granted that you’ll get sick and have an overuse injury during January, and plan around it. It’s only one month out of twelve, after all. What are you going to be doing in September? June?
My husband and I did our New Year’s strategic planning, because if we do it once a year, New Year’s feels like the most obvious time to us. It’s the end of the tax year. We got our lease renewal at the end of December. We had all the information we needed to imagine the kind of 2018 that we want to have. Then, after talking it out and making decisions, all we had to do was to take action. Gee, honey, let’s move, save money, and then plan our vacation.
PS My video course, “Resolutions for Skeptics,” is still available if you want another shot.
T minus eleven days and counting. We’re moving again! Probably time to start kinda thinking about packing. Eh, or not. Moving only has to be a big hairy traumatic hot mess if you have a lot of stuff to pack.
I’ve helped out on several moves when the household had barely started to pack and it was already moving day. This is how it normally works. Nobody has done much of anything because they’ve all fallen victim to the planning fallacy, which is that humans are extremely poor at estimating how long it will take to do something. There aren’t enough boxes; maybe there are no boxes at all yet. Any time someone got up and started thinking about maybe finally getting around to doing some packing, 80% of the time was consumed in helplessly standing around, arms hanging down, gawping at random corners of the room, and then wandering off. Nobody counted on how much stuff was hidden from view in closets, cupboards, and drawers. This is all before factoring in the cleaning. Then the helpers show up, thinking all that’s being asked of them is to carry neatly taped cartons out to a van. HA.
Our last move took the two of us eight hours, and that’s what fits in a 680-square-foot one-bedroom apartment. When we moved out of our newlywed house, it took a team of four professional movers three days.
I singlehandedly packed an office during a certain person’s move. (Not a client; clients pay me!) After three months’ notice, nothing had been done in what was the most disorganized, crowded room of the entire house. An entire wall of bookcases, photo albums, VHS tapes, and various binders. Two desks. A computer and all its multifarious peripherals. Art on every wall. Various tchotchkes and conversation pieces. Snowdrifts of unsorted papers. It took me three hours. If it had been my own stuff, I’m sure I could have spent three years fondling it and fussing with it.
Most of us do.
When it’s someone else’s stuff, it’s fairly easy. We look at it and estimate its weight and volume. Professional movers are great at this; they do it all day, every day and they know how many dishes or books fit in a carton. We can scan someone else’s personal belongings and visualize them going out the door, up the ramp, into the van, and back out again. We know full well that we’ll still be working at 10 PM because there’s a LOT.
When it’s our own stuff, we can’t see it as bulk, as mere dross to be measured and analyzed. It’s our stuff! It’s... it’s ourselves, really.
This is because the majority of our belongings stand in for the intangible. Our stuff isn’t stuff to us, not at all. It’s our aspirations, our character and personality and intentions. Stuff is one of the many ways that we try to exist outside of the time dimension.
The clothes that don’t fit, that don’t match any of our other clothes, especially the clothes we’ve never worn even once - they stand in for our image of a possible future. The unused fitness equipment that stands in for our intention to make a total physical transformation. Even the vegetables spoiling in the fridge, they represent ideas and possibilities.
There are three types of things:
In the first category, I include art. A planned room, a room of comfort and fun and relaxation and purpose, tends to look intentional. It says, this is our taste and this is how we like a room to look and feel. That’s awesome. It’s exciting to step into a room like this, even when it expresses a wildly different taste unlike my own.
In the second category are all sorts of things. They hang around mostly due to inertia, because we haven’t taken the time to assess and realize that we don’t need, want, or like them anymore. Sometimes, the stuff we no longer use is kept because we use it to store our memories. We’re surrounded by the past, not always even our own past, but our family’s past. Legacy and heritage. We may have no idea of what our own taste might look like because we believe we have to keep and display the stuff that was handed down to us. Keeping things we don’t use is a way of living in the past, outside of the time dimension.
In the third category is aspiration, stuff we still think we’ll get around to using one day. It also includes a certain amount of guilt and shame over money and time we’ve wasted, over our bodies that fail to magically transform, over our total misunderstanding of how goals work and how habits are changed. We also fall victim to the sunk cost fallacy, thinking that we should keep stuff because of what it cost, not realizing that keeping things incurs a carrying cost. Keeping things we believe we’ll use eventually, despite the evidence of today, is a way of living in the future, while also preventing that future from materializing.
When I accustom myself to living in rooms filled with things I don’t use, they become wallpaper. I quit seeing them. They aren’t on my to do list, they aren’t on my agenda, they aren’t blocked in my calendar. I exist on one timeline, and my things exist on another. It’s almost like they live in an alternative dimension that I can’t visit.
The gift of the nomad is that a relocation stops the clock. Time’s up! We evaluate every piece of furniture and all our individual housewares. Moving frequently really makes clear that stuff is a hassle. I don’t feel like cleaning and wrapping and packing and hauling and unwrapping and wiping down and organizing anything unless it’s worth it to me. Sometimes, at some point after the sixth time I’ve handled such an item, I’m just done. I can’t even.
Why do I have a pepper mill? Do I even grind pepper? Does this thing even work anymore?
What would happen if I got rid of it?
That’s the first question. It goes like this:
Do we use it every day?
If not every day, would we need to buy it if we got rid of it?
Have we used it since the last time we moved?
Will it fit in the new place?
How much would it cost to replace?
Is it going to survive the move?
Has it outlived its natural span of use?
In the time dimension, we can always buy stuff for Future Self later. It’s senseless to carry around aspirational “one day” items we don’t use now, because at that future point on the timeline, the one we would actually use may be of better quality or a different nature entirely. Like when I Finally Lost the Weight and the aspirational size eights I had kept for all those years were too big.
In the time dimension, we don’t keep things that belonged to Past Self. Past Self used them, and the maximum value was extracted. It cost what it cost. Maybe Present Self is more frugal and gets a lower cost per use, and when that’s true, it’s because of lessons that Past Self paid for. Stuff we aren’t using anymore was the cost of tuition. Let it go back to the Stuff Place.
Time’s up. The day has passed, the week has passed, the month is almost up. This is how the years go by. At any given moment, we’ve been surrounded by a different assortment of objects that properly exist along a continuum. Baby Self had a crib and a stroller and a high chair. Grade School Self had a child-size bicycle and child-sized clothes and shoes. Twenties Self had rickety mismatched furniture and obsolete electronics. Today Self carries the memories of those rooms, those scenes, those times. Today Self just doesn’t want to carry them all up the ramp into the moving van.
One of our key policy agreements is not to have a storage unit. Since we don’t have a car, anything we put in storage is a red flag that we won’t be using it. In our area, a 10x20 storage unit costs over $200 a month. What on earth do we own that is actually worth $2400+ per year? If we aren’t using it, then by definition it is WORTH NOTHING.
Or, worse than that: It has NEGATIVE VALUE. It COSTS us to keep it.
Paying rent on stuff we don’t use is precisely what we mean by serving our stuff, rather than having our stuff serve us. I am not commuting to a job I hate just to earn more money to pay a monthly fee to store something I don’t even look at. I don’t care if it’s the Hope Diamond!
When people put supposedly valuable things into storage, they are discounting the likelihood that the item will depreciate while it’s buried in that storage unit. Things crack under the weight of boxes that get stacked on top. Anything made of paper, wood, or fabric deteriorates. Metal tarnishes and corrodes. Porcelain gets crazed. Wax melts. Cloth smells funky and starts revealing mysterious stains. Photographs clump together and mildew. Stuff never comes out of a storage unit in the same condition it went in, especially if it’s been stored in cardboard. Storing it is basically kissing it goodbye.
I’ve seen a lot of anguish and sad tears in the course of my organizing work. My people believe in stuff. They believe that stuff exists in a perfect Platonic form, as immaculate and unblemished as an icon or a digital avatar. In their minds, their stuff looks exactly the way it would in a well-lit, professional-grade catalog photo. They’re often not just disappointed but absolutely gutted by the reality. It’s scratched! It’s dented! It’s broken! It’s ruined! One of my first clients had a black plastic trash bag containing the powdery remains of a smashed plaster bust. Years later, she still believed that it could be fixed somehow. What would a new one have cost, $40? $15? Why would anyone want the crushed, demolished old one rather than a new one that actually functions?
I used to have a storage unit. It cost me about $20 a month and I had it for, off and on, a total of five years. That’s $1200. Not much? In 2000, I actually earned less than that. What’s worse, I was paying storage fees for a bunch of old school papers, used books, a box of childhood toys, a totally unsuitable cheap desk, and three boxes of kitchen stuff. I doubt the stuff in that storage unit was worth twelve dollars, much less twelve hundred. Doing this kind of calculation was completely outside my wildest dreams at the time. It simply never occurred to me.
When I met my current husband, at some point, the subject of my storage unit came up. He immediately said that I should get rid of it. “But then I would be destitute and I would have nothing!” I replied.
These days, I actually believe in money. We make these calculations together because it’s our policy as a couple. Money is where vacations come from!
Do the math. If we save $2500 by not renting a van and taking stuff to a storage unit for a year, that’s $2500 we can (and do) leave in the bank. We could use it to buy replacement stuff any time we like. If we save $500 a month by renting a one-bedroom instead of a two-bedroom (and sadly, where we live it’s more like $1200 a month), that’s then $6000 a year that we’re able to save. (Or $14,400!). One day, maybe we’ll buy a house. If we ever do, we’ll plan around the idea of buying suitable new furniture and housewares and doing all the upgrades and landscaping. Why pay thousands of dollars to store old, outdated, banged-up, deteriorating stuff that might not fit that house, anyway?
Scarcity mindset. Scarcity mindset! We hang onto our old stuff, paying to keep it even when we aren’t using it, because we don’t believe in money. We don’t believe that saving money actually works. We don’t believe in our own earning power. Downsizing is an act of faith and trust, belief that we can increase our earning power and accumulate wealth.
Brene’ Brown makes a wish in this book: “I wish there was a secret handshake for the wild heart club.” Well, I wish there was a secret handshake for people who have read her work or listened to her speak! Maybe a button or something. Brene’ Brown is a one-woman revolution. We need her work, and after we drink it in, we need to DO her work. Braving the Wilderness is perhaps her most important message yet. Essentially, it’s about how we rebuild our culture and sense of unity in the face of worsening polarization. How can we create more of a feeling of belonging despite our conflicting values?
Words that come up in Brown’s research: Blame. Rage. Cynicism. Distrust. Fear. Loneliness. Contempt.
As much as we recognize these universal emotions, it is almost absurdly challenging for us to acknowledge that people we perceive as our rivals, our competitors, our opponents, or our enemies feel precisely the same way.
Vulnerability and shame are themes throughout Brown’s work, and we recognize how these interior feelings are magnified from the social to the cultural level. So this is what happens when we deny our darker emotions!
One of the qualities that makes Brown such a superstar is that she transcends regional, cultural, and political differences. Everyone feels like she belongs... to US! She’s able to straddle so many divides in such a totally unique way. This book will push a few buttons, but it does it magnanimously and fairly. Everyone gets a turn.
I am heartily in favor of Brown’s call for a return to civility. It’s not that difficult to practice; often all it involves is not joining in or piling on when someone else makes a snarky comment. Another simple, easy, relaxing way to achieve civility is to avoid introducing political topics. I consider it a victory when I have no idea what someone’s political affiliation is, and an additional level of triumph when I participate in an event where politics are irrelevant. For instance, we’re probably evenly divided in my public speaking club, but I genuinely couldn’t guess the alignment of about 90% of my fellow members. It’s better that way. We can and do share stories, laughter, hugs, and high fives, enjoying each other’s company, face to face. Almost every social gathering and event could be this way. All it takes is reminding ourselves that we share most things in common, and the most important of these common traits are mutual affection and respect.
“He likes you way more than you like you.”
“Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”
“Is there a faster, easier way to make friends with a stranger than to talk smack about someone you both know?... I don’t really know you, nor am I invested in our relationship, but I do like that we hate the same people and have contempt for the same ideas.”
“When we’re suffering, many of us are better at causing pain than feeling it.”
“Stop walking through the world looking for confirmation that you don’t belong.”
My husband and I both have a big project this year. We’ve always been that way. He’s an Eagle Scout, and when I met him, he had a big cardboard box full of trophies and ribbons and badges. It would drive him crazy to think I’m bragging about him, but hey, it’s objectively true. I introduced him to my wacky, convoluted New Year’s Eve goal-setting ritual early on. Doing that kind of annual planning together has cross-pollinated both of our project styles. How can we both keep doing bigger and bigger stuff every year without getting in each other’s way?
A couple of years ago, we started a new habit that we called Status Meeting. It was meant to be just for New Year’s Day, but we liked it so much that we decided to do it every weekend. Then it started feeling routine and maybe unnecessary. We gradually quit doing it in the second year. We realized that we were starting to talk about household business every night again, rather than saving it for that one weekend morning. Status Meeting was reborn!
The point of Status Meeting is to treat our household business AS business, to handle all the boring details of our lives with professional courtesy. Since we originally met in the workplace, it comes naturally to us. We find it amusing to use workplace jargon and to role-play. “As CFO, I recommend that...” “Status me your status.” We use this time to segregate what could be heavy or dark topics. Are we on target for our savings goals? Is that card getting paid off this month? Should we relocate again? Are they talking layoffs at work? The dog doesn’t seem to be feeling very well. Obviously we prefer to use Status Meeting to talk about travel, redecorating the living room, or finding more time to take Spike to the bark park. Sometimes, it’s big.
We had Status Meeting on New Year’s Day again, as per tradition. On the table:
His goals to work on a robotics project, start a blog, and write a book
My goals to start martial arts training and become a Distinguished Toastmaster
There were other goals on the table, but we’ll keep it simple.
Our starting assumption is that anything new will impact our schedule, our mental bandwidth, the physical distribution of space in our tiny apartment, whether our pets are in their crates, and probably our finances. We’re not so much “asking” each other or getting “permission” as we are keeping each other informed and opening the door to ideas and feedback.
He says he wants to do a book. Awesome! I immediately offer to help with the outline, basic copy editing, and a non-technical layperson to read. I’ll do it, or I’ll connect him with someone if he’d rather I not be involved. My role is to be supportive but unattached. This is HIS project. I think it’s cool but I cannot claim ownership.
It turns out that the best way I can help is to brainstorm how he can divide his mental effort between the robotics, which he does at the level of professional mastery, and the writing, which is fairly new to him. I point out that he really needs three separate things. 1. Physical workspace setup, because he’ll be using the same computer and desk space for two mutually exclusive tasks. He has to move the keyboard while he solders and vice versa. 2. An outline. It probably won’t take very long, and it will give him a lot more clarity about what he wants from the project. 3. Division of mental labor. He can spend the weekends working on the robotics part of the project, taking photos and video, and doing anything physical. He can do the writing on weeknights, which are my nights to cook dinner, thus breaking up the mental concentration into natural 1-3 hour blocks.
Helping him talk through how he’s going to do something really cool is fascinating and fun for me. It helps me to feel like I’m participating.
A different person might be frustrated that her mate plans to spend such a huge chunk of his evenings and weekends focusing on schematics and chip boards. I’m a Quality Time person. I’d much rather spend one hour a night having an intriguing discussion with a happy man than endless dull evenings watching TV next to a bored man. Besides, while he’s busy, I have carte blanche to do as I will. How’s a girl supposed to get any reading done when this husband character keeps wanting to talk?
Now we talk about my martial arts thing. I already know that I married a man who is drawn to the badass superhero type. We were both fat when we met (we’ve lost a hundred pounds between us), and I always felt that he found me attractive. It wasn’t until I found my inner athlete that I discovered this other side to him. He was fine with the chronically fatigued, obese me. He was charmed by marathon-training me. He appears to be absolutely smitten with the new kickboxing version of me.
The big question was whether he wanted to train with me. Should I take morning classes alone and keep my evenings free? Or should I go in the evenings and meet him there? This decision also impacted my choice of gym, since there were two radically different options at the exact same price.
Due to the robotics book project, the decision was fairly clear. He’s a little “jelly” but training with me this year means no book this year. Maybe after he finishes it, he can join and we can take classes together. He has a fair amount of martial arts experience and would inevitably work through the beginner levels much faster than I will.
My public speaking goals most likely won’t have much impact on his schedule. I’ll just keep attending the same meetings I have been for the past two years. It’s really more about whether he wants to take his own membership to the same level or not. I check in with curiosity, not with pressure.
My new fitness class schedule has ripple effects on us. I hold up my end of our household bargain, doing my chores, running my errands, and cooking on my nights. I’m ravenous and exhausted and bruised up, though, and grumbling about my delayed onset muscle soreness. This is amusing to both of us, largely because, as I said, I uphold my end of our bargain. If I used my choice to take boxing classes as an excuse to manipulate him into doing more housework, that would be an issue for Status Meeting.
I can dimly imagine a few scenarios where we fight about all of this. Where I demand that he pay my gym fees for me, even though it would mean giving up another financial goal. Where I am “too tired” to go to 9 AM class, and instead we fight because I’m never home at night and there’s no food on the table. Where we don’t have a system for running our ship smoothly, and he can’t concentrate on his book, while I cry because he’s “ignoring” me. Where we’re both “so busy” that suddenly our shoebox apartment fills up with dirty dishes and piles of laundry. Where we jump on every whim and impulse, only to look up years later and realize we are tens of thousands of dollars in debt. Where we both do what we want, living parallel lives of disinterested freedom, little more than over-scheduled roomies.
Negotiating makes everything easier for everyone. We start with policies, basic agreements about how we want to communicate and spend our time. What baseline emotional reality do we want to live? We’re friends. That’s why we got married. We want to act like allies and partners, people who find each other fun and interesting. It’s our job to do fun stuff together, and also to do fun stuff separately. This is how we eventually turn into cool old people. How do we make the best memories and stories today?
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.