High Performance Habits is destined to be one of the ten best self-improvement books of all time. I’m not saying this lightly. This book is really amazing. It’s based on years of research and input from thousands of people. Even if you’re already a high achiever, you’ll learn something from this book. For the rest of us who still struggle with stress, low energy, lack of focus, or anything else holding us back, there’s even more to be gained.
Brendon Burchard has personal credibility. He survived a near-fatal car collision. As if that weren’t enough, he also got a concussion in another accident, and he mentions in passing that, oh, he had a spinal birth defect. If the habits that he teaches have been any help to him, then there must be something to them.
The core message of High Performance Habits is that we can direct our behavior by priming our own emotional state and acting in accord with our values. High performers are happy instead of stressed. They’re able to sustain their results over the long term without burnout because they manage their emotions and their energy level. Burchard studies how people are able to do this, and his claim is that anyone can adopt these habits and this high-achieving mindset.
Reading this book made me realize that while a lot of things I’m doing are on track, there is so much more I could be contributing and accomplishing. I like that the message is strong on personal ethics. I highly recommend High Performance Habits and I believe it’s Brendon Burchard’s best book so far.
“I’m scared to go to the next level... because I’m barely surviving this one.”
What’s achievable is not always what’s important.
...only you are in charge of your enduring emotional experience.
“What’s the positive thing I can focus on and the next right action of integrity I should take now?”
...no one credits fatigue and a bad mood for their world-class performance.
Whenever I hear the phrase “that’s not realistic,” I roll my eyes. Mainstream opinion gets mainstream results, and another way to say that is, no results. Change in its nature is radical, not moderate. Moderation is the way to keep from rocking the boat. Moderation is maintenance. Unless you want to maintain what you have right now, what good is moderation going to do you?
Having a baby. Where is the moderation in “zero to new human in nine months”? Labor, delivery, sleepless nights?
Remodeling a house. Do you really want to go the moderate, incremental route?
House-training a pet. Stop thinking outside the box!
When we’re sure about exactly what we want, it’s obvious that we’d rather get it done and get our results quickly. Waiting at the DMV - get it done and get out of there. The dentist. Again, please let’s just get this done so I no longer have five instruments and a fist crammed into my mouth. Travel. Four hours in an airport or stuck on the freeway is clearly not the same as a four-hour visit to a monument or landmark.
When we genuinely want change, we’ll do it as quickly as we can. As long as we understand what to do, nothing will stop us.
See this in action every time a new movie, game, or consumer product comes out and the mega-fans camp out overnight in the parking lot. Watch how long people will hold still for tattoo artwork. Desire is powerful. We’ve all felt this overwhelming desire for something, at least once in our lives. When we want it badly enough, whatever it is, we will go after it. We will persevere until we’ve got it.
Why can’t we seem to harness this power of desire for all our goals?
It’s always going to be either one of two things. Either we don’t know exactly how to do it, or we don’t really want it.
When there’s a situational obstacle, that falls under knowledge. We don’t know how to continue to go after the goal when something gets in the way. How do I do it when my schedule has changed? How do I do it when my location has changed? How do I do it when I suddenly have more demands on my time? How do I do it when the rules have changed? Nothing about the desirability of the goal itself has changed - it’s simply an unforeseen detour that temporarily blocks our path and obscures the view.
Persistence will eventually find a way around every obstacle. Asking for help is one form of persistence. Simply find someone who has the results you want, and ask, “How did you do it? What’s your secret?”
This is where the paradox comes in.
Most of us actually do know everything we need to know in order to get what we want. We just aren’t willing to do anything unless it’s “moderate.” We don’t want to have to concentrate, or focus, or stop doing other things we like doing, even temporarily. We don’t want to suffer. I CAN’T DEPRIVE MYSELF.
How can you deprive yourself of your goal?
Why would you do that to yourself?
The truth is, we like our comforts more than we like our goals.
We’ll give all our focus and attention, all our time, all our desire and all our money to certain treasured goals. A phone upgrade! A signature beverage at least once a day! Pets ‘n’ vets, that is, emergency veterinary expenses. A trip, a cable package. Some things our kids begged for, but not others. There are at least a few special things that we will never cut from our budgets or our schedules under any circumstances.
Where are the areas we’ll always quit on? Where are the areas where we insist on moderation and nothing more? Where are the areas where we allow for the most exceptions?
Cleaning the garage, perhaps?
Turning in overdue library books?
Tolerating chronic issues like neck pain or sleep deprivation?
Everyone knows at least one person who is one semester or one term away from a college degree. Only a little over half of college students graduate within six years. Completion rates seem to be a bit higher for master’s programs, but fall back to a little over half for doctorates. One message we can take from this is that we should forgive ourselves for not going farther than we did. There’s another message we could take away, though. Those completion rates could jump much higher. What if everyone with only one term to go somehow found a way to finish?
The two most commonly procrastinated tasks are planning for retirement and dealing with health issues, the latter of which is mostly a euphemism for burning off excess body fat. Fully 70% of Americans over age 20 are overweight now. We’ve collectively shrugged and decided that 25 pounds overweight is now dangerously thin. Let’s not even talk about our savings habits. About half of American households have no retirement savings at all. Nearly two-thirds say they couldn’t handle an emergency expenditure of $1000. This is what all our talk of moderation gets us.
MODERATION IS FRUSTRATION
What are we moderating? What are we maintaining? At least we’re all in it together, but what is it that we’ve collectively agreed to tolerate? Constant financial dread, chronic low energy, and poor body image. That’s what moderation gets us.
Radical change is possible, and it’s not even unimaginable, much less unrealistic. People clean out their garages over a weekend, and it happens all the time! That delayed college degree could be completed in three months. It’s possible to lose a hundred pounds in a year, or pay off tens of thousands of dollars in debt. It’s even possible to retire in eleven years (or fewer), and there are many examples of that as well. Radical change is simply the “rip off the bandage” method. Decide that you want it, make a plan, and then launch. Do it as quickly as possible and get it over with. Moderation is maintenance, and you should only maintain the results you want to keep. Radical change is what gets things done.
As a nerdy, awkward, book-oriented person, I have to use a certain amount of strategy to convince myself to do physical things. For my personal challenge this year, I’ve taken on martial arts, because it was the scariest and most demanding thing I could imagine. It didn’t occur to me that there’s a built-in gamification aspect. Every time you level up, you get a different color of belt, which is amazing because I love rainbows. In between color upgrades, there are also stripes. I’ve earned one stripe each on two belts, one in Muay Thai kickboxing and the other in Krav Maga. It’s like a badge that actually means something. These stripes represent not just extremely hard work, but also real-world skills. Wouldn’t it be nice if everything were that clear and simple?
The reason we wear belts is just like why chefs wear weird hats. Anyone in the room can tell at a glance how much you know and what you’re there to do. It’s not like it wouldn’t be immediately obvious how uncoordinated and clueless I am as a newbie. It protects me somewhat, though, in case I somehow accidentally look more experienced for a few seconds. Going the other direction, it helps me when I look at other students. If someone wearing an orange belt corrects my position, I can swallow my irritation at being told what to do and recognize that this person has advanced knowledge compared to me. I have to show the same respect that I would wish to have.
People talk a lot about how “kids these days” get trophies and ribbons just for participating. That was after my time. I’ve still never won a trophy to this day. I don’t have any plaques either. I do have two race medals, and I’m stupidly proud of them, because I didn’t make an attempt at athletics until I was 35. I know precisely how much work went into the acquisition of these symbols, as measured in sweat, blisters, bruises, and tears. I’m only competing against myself.
When I first walked into my martial arts academy, I was a bit petrified. I was committing to something specifically because I wanted to work more on humility and self-discipline. I wanted to choose something I was bad at, maybe even so bad that people would question what on earth I was even doing there. Well, I chose well. I’m almost always last in class. We do a lot of push-ups, sit-ups, and jump squats, and everyone is supposed to do the same amount. We don’t move on to the next drill until everyone is done. Imagine jumping up and down alone in the middle of the room and that’s me. At least everyone has plenty of time to get a drink of water while they wait!
The thing about fitness that unfit people like myself often don’t understand is that most or all of the fitter people in the room... STARTED OUT WHERE WE ARE. They WERE us. We look at them and see lean muscle definition. It’s not like they’re going to get custom t-shirts printed with their ‘before’ photos, right? Almost all the athletes that I have met are genuinely happy and proud when beginners commit and start to make progress. (The others are just more focused on other stuff). It’s exciting in the same way it’s exciting to teach a little kid to ride a bike. You did it! Good for you!
As a rank beginner, I’m terrible at a lot of things. With one stripe, I know what several of them are, but I’m still so new that I know I’m not even aware of some of my failings. On my first day in class, I couldn’t really do one sit-up. I had to sort of grab my thigh and pull myself up. By the time I had done ten jump squats, I thought I might fall over. I thought I was reasonably fit, because I walk an average of six miles a day, I can carry a fifty-pound backpack, I’m pretty competent at yoga, and I consider myself fairly active. I didn’t realize just how much I was missing by not doing HIIT workouts or resistance training. It was just something I planned to get around to one day. (That day: 1/5/2018). Not testing my physical limits meant I could maintain this unrealistically positive image and protect my ego. Once I understood how unfit I really am in this area, I knew I could only recover my pride by working hard to improve.
I’m not very good at watching what someone is doing and then physically copying it. I’m a pretty good mimic, and I can do voice impressions and sound effects, but none of that seems to transfer when it’s time to imitate someone’s motions.
I have trouble telling my left from my right.
I’m having a really hard time untraining all the body memory from ballroom dancing and marching band, two things that have basically nothing in common with martial arts. The center of gravity is different, neutral stance is different, balance is different. For the first several weeks I would consistently want to move backward when I was supposed to move forward, or keep my feet together when they’re supposed to be apart.
I struggle with remembering what I’m supposed to do with all of my limbs at the same time. Say I’m being reminded to keep my hands up to protect my face while I practice a new kick. I will then totally forget that I’m supposed to step forward with my foot at an angle instead of straight. When I correct my foot position, I drop my hands. Suddenly I feel like I have eight arms and legs.
Now that I have my first stripes, all of this is gradually starting to come together. I’m still comparatively weak and slow and clumsy, sure. That’s why I’m there. If I’d wanted to feel like the top of my class, I would have signed up for water aerobics. Being last and worst means that I’m genuinely challenged. It also means that when I eventually start to catch up with the more experienced people in class, I’ll appreciate how much it means.
When I get my next stripe, when I finally level up and get a new belt in a new color, I’ll wear it with justifiable pride. I’ll keep going, knowing I have it within me to work hard, to learn, and to accept the struggle.
Then I’ll probably have to pick something else that I’m bad at.
Relief is the best feeling you could have right now. Am I right? If you’re like most people, you have a secret shame, something you’ve been putting off. You dread facing it. Even thinking about it makes you cringe. You’ve been procrastinating and delaying and foot-dragging, and the longer you wait, the worse it feels. Let today be the day that you free yourself from that horrible, yucky feeling. Start with a stuck list.
Let’s make a list of everything that’s bothering you. Category by category, we’ll figure out your aversive tasks and why they feel so sticky and hard to do.
An aversive task is something that makes you want to run away. You just don’t want to do it. The funny thing is, that type of odious chore is different for everyone. Some people hate making phone calls, others don’t mind. Some people hate filing, others think it’s fun. Pick a chore and someone hates it, someone doesn’t think twice about doing it, and someone else actually enjoys it. Tell yourself that the thing itself isn’t really that bad, it’s just the emotions that it brings up for you.
What is on your stuck list?
Chances are, most stuff on your list can be done in under five minutes. Isn’t that great?
Also, just thinking about it makes you a little nauseated. Wouldn’t it be better to put it all behind you? Take a deep breath and imagine your victory.
Look at your list. Categorize each item by how it gets done. Is it:
A phone call?
A physical task?
Something waiting on someone else?
A conversation you need to have face to face with someone?
Secretly a major project that you don’t know how to do?
Now write down the thoughts and feelings you have when you think about doing each of these things.
A blank space of not knowing what to do or how to do it
Now write down why you aren’t doing each item.
Don’t know how
Don’t like So-and-So
Hate doing this
Need more information
Believe it will take HOURS AND HOURS
Need to make a decision
Overwhelmed and overcommitted
Do you notice any patterns?
Overcommitting, never saying ‘no,’ feeling indecisive, or avoiding confrontations are the types of patterns that affect everything, all the time. Looking at the root emotional cause and figuring out some strategies can eventually help you to free yourself from the icky, heavy feeling of procrastination.
I tend to procrastinate business calls until I absolutely can’t avoid them because I hate talking on the phone. I always put housework and exercise first. That’s my task pattern. I’m quick to research things when I don’t know much about them, because it makes me feel curious, but I’m slow to open an email if I think it will trigger a bunch of bureaucratic nonsense. The things I procrastinate the most are clothes shopping and getting my hair cut. Another person might procrastinate sorting mail or cleaning out the car, and maybe always put personal phone calls first. It all depends on what you think is fun versus what you think is dreadful, boring, annoying, or loaded with emotion.
Here’s my stuck list.
An email to my screenwriting mentor - guilt, don’t know what to do
Redesign of a product that can’t be manufactured according to current specs - frustration, don’t know what to do
Jeans shopping - annoyance, hate doing this, believe it will take hours and hours
Finding a new avian vet since apparently there isn’t one within ten miles - need more information, need to make a decision
The first two items could trigger weeks or months of demanding work. Since I don’t have a clear image of what that looks like, I feel stuck. Jeans shopping will probably take two hours. Finding a new bird vet might be impossible; I might have to take half a day to bring her to her old vet. I don’t really “feel like” doing any of these things right now, so I’ll fake myself out. I’ll pick one, which will immediately make one of the other items on the list feel less difficult in comparison. I’ll feel like I’m getting away with something.
Trick yourself, if that’ll work for you. Ask someone for help or advice, because admitting your secret shame and exposing it to daylight helps to rebuild your dignity and pride. Set a timer and race against it. Play music and keep working until the playlist is up. Set aside one weekend day as a Get Stuff Done Day.
Keep your list somewhere you can look at it. Try to complete one item every day until the list is gone. Every time you look at, think about, or handle the list, remind yourself of how amazing it will feel when all that stuff is done. Soon you’ll never have to think about it again. You can be free of the dread and frustration and guilt and shame that comes from procrastinating. You can start today. Just get started.
As usual, our first quarter has been full of drama, crisis, and radical change. Not as bad as last year at this time, the year of “homeless with face cancer” plus relocation, job change, and veterinary crisis. First I’ll list off all the stupid obstacles that came up for us in the first three months of the year, and then I’ll follow with the progress we’ve made on our goals and resolutions in spite of it all.
The bad stuff: Dropped a fire extinguisher on my bare foot, got the flu, had to pack and move before I was really better yet, then our dog got deathly ill before we were even unpacked. He lost over 10% of his body weight in three days, which is like a 200-pound man losing 20+ pounds over a holiday weekend. $600, five veterinary drugs, and a half gallon of carpet cleaner later, he’s fine. The hardest part of First Quarter 2018 for me was that I lost a full month, when I was only sleeping about half of what I needed and I felt like I might clinically go insane. February was not fun. Crisis every single day. Oh, and I broke my phone.
The good thing is that we actually made major progress on our goals, starting almost immediately.
I was invited to emcee a speech contest, which I did, and to be test speaker at another contest, which I also did. It’s a big deal for me to be invited to speak anywhere, because two years ago I could barely stand up at a table and say my name without shaking all over.
My personal goal was to explore a martial art. I visited three martial arts schools in my area and enrolled in one that teaches Krav Maga and Muay Thai kickboxing. I have my first stripe on both belts and I’m finally able to do pushups without putting my knees down. It took about three weeks, but I have reached the point when classes feel fun, although 10x harder than any previous workout I’ve done, other than a mud run with an obstacle course. I chose something that scared me, that felt like a major personal challenge, only to find that it’s much more of a physical than an emotional test. Much more in my wheelhouse.
My career goal was to launch a podcast. This is still on the slate as I shape the nature of the show.
My physical goals were to do Shamrock Run 2018 and build a daily stretching routine. I ran every step of the 8k race with my brother and it was really fun! I even set my first PR, cutting over four minutes off my previous time. This was great because I only did one training run and I wasn’t even sure I could handle five miles. As far as stretching, I’m finding that the HIIT workouts from my martial arts classes are loosening up things in a way that yoga never has. After just a few classes, I could suddenly do postures that were never within my reach before. I can finally do full lotus! It’s very surprising and fascinating the way that cross-training in a radically different discipline can inform something long familiar to you.
Our home goal was to lower our rent. We had all the paperwork handled for this move by the first week of January, and of course we moved in February. Good timing so that we could fund our IRAs. Consider this goal complete!
Our couples goal is to go on an international vacation together. We haven’t booked the tickets yet, but we’re “in talks” about where we want to go and what we want the trip to feel like. It’s my job to do initial research in travel guides.
My stop goal is to stop losing focus on incomplete projects. I’m supposed to be wrapping up old projects one way or another, either canceling them, scheduling them, or simply getting them done. Not much progress here yet, I’m afraid, other than reading a few books out of my stack. I’m doing pretty well with pushing forward and staying current on new things, like the move and the martial arts training and Toastmasters and this blog. Maybe I should try threatening myself that I won’t be allowed to work on any of these things until I get something old out of the way.
My lifestyle upgrade goal is to upgrade my laptop. This has not happened yet, partly due to the IRA funding deadline and partly because I always get hooked waiting for the new product release schedule. Maybe for my birthday.
My Do the Obvious goal is to speak more slowly, with more pauses. This is an ongoing struggle. Some feedback I routinely get is that I don’t pause long enough for laughter, and that’s because I don’t always realize that what I said was funny. The audience bar for “a joke” includes a lot of stuff that I consider to be filler material or transitions between stories. I’ve only just started to be able to click with specific individual audience members while performing. This “pause for laughs” issue is probably the single area where I can make the most improvement.
My quest is to travel on a fifth continent, and that’s related to planning our international trip. Looks like that will happen in the winter.
My wish was to find an amazing pet sitter. Guess what? Three doors over in our new building is a professional dog walker! She loves our dog, whose behavior magically improved after only one day walking with her pack. He gets to hang out with five neighborhood dog friends now, all of whom walk past our front door several times a day, and it’s really helping him to feel more secure. Super chill. This dog walker hasn’t met Noelle yet, but apparently she likes parrots too so we’ll see.
My mantra is to PAUSE AND BREATHE. I lost track of this during the “lost month.” Now I’m feeling competitive because my husband’s resting heart rate is significantly lower than mine, even though I’m seven years younger. Maybe that’s the metric I need to encourage me to do breathing exercises.
Personal: Explore a martial art - SUCCESS
Career: Launch a podcast
Physical: Run Shamrock Run 2018, build a daily stretching routine - SUCCESS+
Home: Lower our rent - SUCCESS
Couples: Go on an international vacation together
Stop goal: Stop losing focus on incomplete projects
Lifestyle upgrades: Upgrade laptop
Do the Obvious: Speak more slowly, with more pauses
Quest: Travel in Asia / a fifth continent
Wish: To find an amazing pet sitter - SUCCESS
Mantra: PAUSE AND BREATHE
I ordered this book with great anticipation, because I’ve been following the Frugalwoods since they still had a secret identity. There’s a small community of people on the path to financial independence who are sharing their progress through blogs, podcasts, newsletters, et cetera. Obviously not everyone can come out publicly and say, “We’re quitting our jobs soon” without suffering repercussions. Meet the Frugalwoods is not just the story of a young couple who escaped the rat race; it’s also the official debut of a pair of superheroes ripping off their masks.
The premise of a frugality book is always that anyone can do this. With enough information and enough gumption, anyone can live on little money. That makes it more or less the opposite of a book on entrepreneurship, career growth, or stock market investing. There are lots of paths to financial freedom. Elizabeth Willard Thames and her little family happened to choose the classic path of voluntary simplicity. Not to put in too many spoilers, but they saved hard, learned to DIY a lot of manual skills they hadn’t been taught in childhood, and wound up buying a house in the woods.
I’m also a frugal person - seriously, you should have seen my annotated paperback copy of the Tightwad Gazette - and it was fascinating how the Thames family had almost the exact opposite financial priorities that I do! My hubby and I are city dwellers, partly because it enables us to live car-free in a small space we don’t have to furnish or maintain. While I would never again take in used furniture, after a close friend’s brush with bedbugs, I’ve never been much on clothes, cosmetics, beauty treatments, shoes, etc. We also don’t drink alcohol. It’s probably a good thing this book exists, because it shows a path to financial independence that’s more broadly appealing than my personally idiosyncratic version.
The book tells the story of how two young people made decisions and chose their path in life, the path that led to that house in the woods. There is some excellent stuff in here about how couples negotiate and influence one another, how they juggle priorities and nudge each other’s behavior. They cut each other’s hair. A married couple working as a team can achieve financial independence much more quickly than they could separately, if only they know how to talk to each other about money without quarreling. The Thameses should consider teaching workshops about financial communication!
One strength of the book is that Thames spells out the ways that she and her husband, and their families, benefited from privilege. This is a topic I’ve never seen addressed in a personal finance book before. She also mentions that they have a special type of investment set up to enable them to make charitable contributions. I really appreciated this and took notes.
Thames managed to save $2000 of her $10,000 AmeriCorps stipend. While living in New York City. This helps to explain how the two of them were able to save 40-50% of their take-home pay; not only did they commit to frugality, they also enjoyed the benefits of avoiding debt. Meet the Frugalwoods has a lot of specific advice about how to plan and save, how to hunt for bargains, and how to assess spending patterns. The results surely support the examples. This is a path to freedom that could be within reach of anyone who wants to travel it.
Frugality opened my mind up to what I can do with my life, as opposed to what I can buy.
Possibility thinking is not the same as optimism. This is a common misconception. I consider myself an extreme optimist, yet it’s not for amateurs. Extreme optimism can lead to really poor outcomes when it’s based on denial or refusal to confront reality. Possibility thinking is a skill that requires acknowledging the possibility of the worst outcomes as well as the best. The Stoics called it premeditatio malorum, or thinking of evils in advance. This is why pessimists can gain at least as much from the discipline as natural optimists can.
I know a few extreme pessimists. I keep them in my social media feed because I find them oddly endearing, at least in small doses. These super-pessimistic friends don’t know each other, but they have a lot in common. One of the main traits that they share is that they are nearly impervious to support, compliments, and expressions of empathy, even as they complain that nobody is ever there for them. Another is that they are virtually incapable of gratitude. They are quite angry whenever anyone dares to suggest that something might be going well for them. These are dangers inherent to extreme pessimism. Alienating people who want to be your friends will inevitably shrink your pool of allies and emotional support. It also eliminates the vast majority of opportunities that other people automatically receive from being part of a more conventional social network.
Simply stop rejecting other people’s offers, and things start happening. People vouch for you. People introduce you around and you form more loose social ties. You start to make more friends and acquaintances, you start to get invited to more events. You start hearing about more opportunities, like job postings, vehicles or stuff for sale, road trips, roommates, pets that need a home, maybe even a future spouse. A crotchety, curmudgeonly person loses out on all of this. Over the years and decades, it really builds up.
Possibility starts with pessimism as soon as someone realizes that pessimism is only one of the many responses that are available. Attitudes are not set in stone. Perspectives are infinite. Negativity itself can come in uncountable forms, and one particular negative response is only one option. See?
Pessimism is a smart place to start with strategic planning. It’s just not a smart place to end.
Travel. Start with the assumption that every single thing will go wrong. Assume you’ll forget your passport and your ID, assume you’ll get to the airport without your prescriptions or your glasses, assume you’ll lose your keys and that someone will steal your wallet and your luggage will get lost. Assume that every single leg of your trip will be delayed and every connection will be missed. Assume that your hotel rooms will all be given to others and you’ll have nowhere to go at midnight. Assume you’ll show up on the wrong day. Assume you’ll get food poisoning and the flu. Assume you’ll fight with your travel companions. Assume you’ll come home to a burst pipe and an insect infestation. Pessimistic starting assumptions are part of how you learn to foresee issues and form multiple backup plans. These negative forecasts also help you learn to appreciate how special and rare it is when everything works properly. Most of all, pessimistic assumptions help to generate an attitude of acceptance instead of outrage, dark humor rather than disappointment.
Romance. Start with the assumption that your crush is a bad person with a lot to hide. Do your due diligence. Assume that this person does not share your values and is not safe to introduce to your family, friends, neighbors, or coworkers. After my early divorce, I used to say that I would never get married again without a credit report, a criminal background check, a psychiatric assessment, and a blood test. This impressed my future husband, who says this bizarre boundary meant he would get the same information from me that I was demanding from dates. It helped him to trust me. When you do find someone solid, someone who has passed all the gates, then you know to appreciate and respect this person as a worthy mate.
Finances. Start with the assumption that you’ll outlive your money by at least fifteen years. Inflation will come for you and you’ll be physically unable to work about ten years earlier than you had thought. Assume that various bad actors are out to defraud you, sell you things you don’t want or need, and trick you into paying hidden fees and high interest rates. Know that the stock market will crash, defined as a 30% decline in value, at least two or three times between now and your desired retirement date. Believe that you have an inner spendthrift, that you will constantly try to delude yourself by rounding your income up and your expenses down. Optimism is a good propellant for pursuing career advancement, but it’s probably more dangerous around the topic of money than anywhere else.
Health. Start with the assumption that all the research about longevity, fitness, and nutrition is true. Assess what you know about the individuals in your family tree and assume that their health problems will also be yours. Here is where pessimism should stop. It’s a fixed mindset fallacy that genetic tendencies are fate, carved in stone, when really a tendency is just a tendency. We have information and interventions that were not available to earlier generations, and it’s prudent to make use of it. Pessimistically assume that one day, Future You will berate Today You for not trying, for abdicating and procrastinating and passively awaiting the worst outcome. Isn’t it more pessimistic to regard Present Self as an ignorant, lazy procrastinator who avoids the necessary hard work and self-discipline, than to see a more efficient body as somewhat attainable?
There’s no particular reason why any individual person couldn’t... let’s see... go on a trip, meet a new love interest, pay off debt, start a business, or get stronger and more agile. The same person could also move to a new home, adopt a pet, study a musical instrument, or learn a new language. Why not? Really, why not? A pessimism that denies options is not realistic or pragmatic. Pessimism can be a useful tool, but it’s only one of many among a thinking person’s cognitive assets.
How do I write about hedonism without making it sound all sexy? This is a serious question. In fact, there are few things that are more serious than the ways that pleasure overlaps with morality, and we tend to oversimplify all of that by making it about sex. I’m a very shy person, and I have no intention of going there on this blog. What I have noticed, though, is that my people (my clients, my students) are really poor at identifying things they like and enjoy. They’re also really poor at imagining a positive future for themselves. Here are some of the hardest things I’ve asked them to do:
Describe your perfect day
Make a list of things you enjoy
Tell me your favorite
What would you like to happen between now and this time next year?
This area is wide open for research. Is it something about depression and anxiety that prevents people from enjoying themselves and imagining better times? Or is it this disconnect from pleasure that perhaps leads to anxiety and depression? Does this all just have to do with the amygdala being activated or something? I think these ideas are objectively testable. As with everything, of course, we can test ideas on ourselves. Say it with me: does it work, or does it not work? Does it work for you, or does it not work for you?
One of those ideas we can check is the idea of sin, or morality in general. I’ve noticed that my people tend to moralize about things that simply aren’t moral issues. “I was bad.” Ooh, naughty. One of those areas is housework, another is money, and another is food and body image. A close friend of mine was trained from childhood that a clean house is morally virtuous and that household dirt is shameful, perhaps evil. THIS IS A MATTER OF OPINION. I keep a clean house because it’s a cheap workout and because otherwise I can’t find anything or think straight. I also like how it looks, feels, and smells, and more on this later. Many people have been taught that money leads to evil, which is a bummer, because most of these same individuals would probably be terrific at fundraising for charity if they allowed themselves to think that way. A million volumes could be written on all the ways we’ve been taught that certain foods are “decadent” or “sinful” and how we’re “bad” or how we’ve “been good” for eating in certain ways. If we want to be decadent and sensually indulgent, my dears, there are so many better ways...
There are zero, zero rules for what you can find pleasurable or not pleasurable. Nobody else can tell you whether you like something or don’t like it, just as they can’t tell you what emotions you are feeling. As you learn to inhabit your body more fully, you’ll be more aware of what you do or don’t like and what you are sensing and feeling. Not knowing is a promising sign that you have a lot of fun experiments ahead!
Also, it’s nobody else’s business what you enjoy privately. The reason so many people cherish time alone is that this is when we get to do all the stuff we like to do. For instance, when my husband goes on a business trip, I watch horror movies and eat eggplant for dinner, because we don’t share those delights in common. It’s nobody else’s business what you listen to on your headphones, how you season your soup, or what you choose for your favorite colors.
There are a bunch of things that are commonly perceived to be pleasurable or fun, things that I personally dislike. Start with the word “pampered.” UGH! That will only ever make me think of disposable diapers. Also, I despise being waited on or having very attentive customer service. I’m shy and independent, and I distrust flattery. I’ve never had a professional manicure or pedicure, although I’ve bought them for men I’ve dated, because it sounds awful to me. Two words: toenail fungus. In fact, just stop at the word ‘toenail.’ Let’s see, what else? I don’t like alcohol or coffee, I think cheese is revolting, and there are a lot of desserts that turn me off. I don’t like croissants, gummy candy, or anything with powdered sugar or syrup. I don’t care for chocolate either.
Each and every one of those items that I dislike are things that another person would love. That’s awesome. More for you!
I’m attentive to what I dislike or find ‘blah’ or uninteresting, because one part of expanding into pleasure is avoiding the icky stuff. This is an existential position. Practical philosophy! I believe that I have the right to move toward things I love and enjoy, and the right to say a firm NO to things that I don’t. This is a radical, revolutionary position. A lot of us don’t necessarily believe that we really exist, that we have a right to our own opinions. This is something that can take a lot of work, something that is worthy of exploring with a counselor or therapist. Why shouldn’t you wear socks in your favorite color, listen to your favorite musicians, or say “no thank you” when you’re not interested in eating something? Huh? Why shouldn’t you?
The biggest thing I’ve learned from coaching is that each of my clients has a highly idiosyncratic, negative story behind whatever painful, ineffective thing it is that they’re doing. That’s why I really mean it when I mean that you should put serious thought into why you think you’re not entitled to basic pleasures or basic, fundamental boundaries. Because you are. Of course you are!
As a matter of fact, the vast majority of pleasurable things you can indulge in won’t affect anyone else in any way. They don’t even have to know. If you like cutting your sandwich on the diagonal one day and horizontally the next, go ahead!
I’ll go on to say that claiming pleasure for yourself has a positive ripple effect on others. It helps as a foundation of strength, something that supports you as you do difficult things, like contributing at work, serving others in your life, volunteering, being a good citizen, or taking on challenges and quests. Pleasure nurtures you, helping you to avoid burnout, draining the boil of irritation or futility that you might otherwise spatter on others, venting and complaining about various miseries. It’s pretty hard to feel pleasure and annoyance or disappointment at the same time. Trust and believe that most people would rather hear about something enjoyable you did than something that frustrated you, unless of course you were able to make it into a funny story.
Spending time in nature, either physically or virtually. The phases of the moon, sunrise and sunset, clouds, stars, the weather. Trees, landscapes, flowers. The sounds of wind, water, birds - I’ll never forget the first time I heard a fox bark. Pictures of mountains, the ocean, the surface of Mars, anything that increases your sense of awe and delights your eye.
Visual delights. Color. Symmetry or asymmetry. Scrolling through museum collections online. Gazing into the middle distance. Changing your phone wallpaper a lot.
Music. Which is greater: the pleasure of listening to a beloved song over and over, or the pleasure of hearing something that captivates you for the first time?
Fragrance. Gardens in your area. Soap. Lotion. Candles. Spices. Home cooking. Removal of bad smells. Nostalgic scents like pencil shavings.
Sleeping. Probably the single most underrated pleasure of them all.
Exploration. Adventure. Learning new things. Anything that you find inspirational, anything that ignites your sense of curiosity, anything that impresses you or makes you want to know more, should be pursued. Learning new skills is an entirely distinct pleasure, the satisfaction of efficacy.
Storytelling. Story sweeps us away like nothing else. The great thing about the internet is that there’s so much out there, from blogging to fanfic to podcasts. Not everyone likes comedy but most people appreciate storytelling.
Connection. Snuggling with pets. Dancing. Working in groups. Singing in a choir, or so they tell me. Hugging - some people like it! Deep listening.
Pleasures of the body. This is a subject for a book of its own, but food is only one of the many, many ways the body can experience pleasure. I think it’s actually the weakest and fundamentally the most boring. Describing the pleasure of waking up as a well-rested, nourished, fit, active, strong, supple body is like giving people directions to the unicorn rides. Nobody believes you. It’s like a religious experience that you can only understand by living it for yourself. Shake it off and think of something else. Physical warmth, massage, stretching, working out a kink in your neck or shoulder. Sighing, deep breathing.
It’s possible to live surrounded by beauty, indulging in pleasures throughout the day, and still be a productive, caring, ethical, morally correct person. This is an affirmation. If you can’t do it for yourself, do it because it’s what your friends and loved ones would want for you. Do it because it sets a good example for your kids or for other young people, for other humans in general. Do it because it’s good for the economy. Do it because nobody would begrudge it of a shelter dog, so why not you? Do it because nobody else will notice and nobody else will care. Do it as an experiment. Do it in the nature of philosophical exploration. If you can’t bring yourself to do anything else, at least just pause, stretch, take a deep breath, and allow the idea that pleasure is okay for someone, somewhere in the universe. You think?
The biggest problem with both procrastination and getting organized is knowing where to start. This is because knowing there’s a system is not the same as understanding and using a system. People who think of themselves as procrastinators or as disorganized have a strong suspicion that life is easier for other people. They’re right, too. One of the main reasons is the awareness of a system, and another is a bias toward action. Just get started! Getting started when you don’t feel like you really even know how to get started can happen when you learn to spot the no-brainer.
What is one thing you can do right now?
What’s a tiny piece that’s so small, you’re sure you can do it in just a minute or two?
What’s so obvious that it doesn’t even feel like you actually did anything?
What is so simple that you don’t even need to explain it or describe it?
A no-brainer is simple, obvious, and easy. Sometimes there are a bunch of no-brainers, and sometimes maybe there’s only one. It doesn’t matter. The secret is that finishing one step makes other steps more obvious.
What is simple and obvious to one person is not necessarily simple or obvious to someone else. For instance, it’s easy for me to know how to eat a burrito because I grew up eating burritos. It’s not so simple or easy for me to WRAP a burrito, though! There’s a trick to it. I always wind up putting in too much stuff, and then it starts to unwrap and everything starts to drip out of the bottom. I know I could learn to do this if I wanted to. I could watch a YouTube video and practice it a bunch of times.
Everything is on YouTube. I’ve used YouTube videos to help me figure out how to wrap my headphone cords, clean a shower door track, open a pomegranate, and fold fitted sheets.
“Getting organized” and “procrastinating” are different, though. That’s for two reasons. One, neither of them has a specific, objective definition and each person’s organization or procrastination problem is different. Two, almost everything written about these topics was developed by people who are very well organized or highly productive. What works for them may not work at the novice, disorganized level.
Where videos or tutorials come in is when there’s a specific task or skill to be learned. Maybe I can’t learn how to “be organized,” but I can look at a bunch of pictures of organized refrigerators or read an article on how to set up a filing system. I take it one piece at a time. Each part of my life and my personal environment that I “organize” makes it easier to figure out the next part.
I believe that procrastination comes from not knowing how to go about doing something, not liking it, feeling pressured by external expectations, and not knowing about mood management. It doesn’t matter if I know how to do something if I hate doing it and I’m rebelling against it. It doesn’t matter if I know how to do it, if I don’t know how to make myself do it. If I know how to fight my procrastinating types of moods, though, I can push through and learn how to do the specific small tasks involved.
How do I write an outline? How do I make a mind map? How do I create and name files? How do I write an effective email header? What format should this report be in? How do smart, competent people effectively admit that they’re still learning how to do something?
Start by writing out a list of everything you don’t know, everything you don’t know how to do. Why are you stuck? Give it a name. This is how you figure out where to start. Which question seems the hardest or the most embarrassing? Okay, tackle that one last.
Procrastination and disorganization usually tend to go together. What’s funny about this is that the feeling of procrastinating on a deadline is sometimes the only thing that can motivate someone to tackle minor cleaning and organizing tasks. I didn’t want to do my ironing until it was time to clean the oven. I didn’t want to clean the oven until it was time to do my taxes. I didn’t want to do my taxes until it was time to work on my book proposal.
What happens in the case of the procrastination bustle is that we realize we are surrounded by no-brainer tasks and chores. We feel intuitively that once we’ve cleared the slate, we can retrieve some of our mental bandwidth. Once something is done, we get to stop thinking about it. It’s a puzzle that we’ve solved. We can look around and see that it’s done. This is done, that is done, this is done, that other thing is done. The more we get into the habit of doing the obvious, the more types of things eventually become no-brainers. Sort the mail. Put away the groceries. Hang up the coats. File the papers. Write the outlines. Submit the proposals.
Every day, we do obvious no-brainer activities that were once too hard for us. Eating with a fork! Putting our shoes on the correct feet! Memorizing our phone number! Finding a parking spot! Buying groceries! Paying bills! We build skills as we grow older and more experienced. We get more done as we realize that it’s faster and easier to do it right away, rather than stewing over it.
Spotting the no-brainer is a way to get moving. It’s a way to feel smarter and more accomplished. It’s a way to get ready and build momentum. Spotting the no-brainer is a way to get started and, eventually, a way to be finished.
This is a story of a stack of money that could have disappeared, but didn’t. Granted, it might be more interesting to talk about that money if it did go bye-bye. Everyone can identify with that, right? There’s more value in the story that not everyone knows, the story of how losses can be avoided through strategy and careful study. If you’re tired of being broke, the first step is to avoid losing what you already have or getting into further debt. It can be done!
It’s IRA time. Before your eyes glaze over, let me quickly explain what that means and how it works.
Not too confusing, right?
I wish I had paid more attention to this sort of thing when I first started out, because I definitely would have found a way to come up with that money, and it would have turned into tens of thousands of dollars by now. I was saving $50 a week even when my take-home pay was $220. This is money I don’t have because I was too bored to read basic instructions or spend 20 minutes setting up an account. ANYWAY...
It’s close to tax time, and my husband reminded me that we needed to fund our IRAs so we can get the deduction. We are extremely serious about saving money, so much so that we live in a studio apartment and we don’t own a car. All we had to do was to transfer the money from our regular bank to E*TRADE, where we keep our retirement munneh. Takes like 10 minutes.
We’ve been talking about this pretty much for a year, so funding our IRAs was not a decision point. We didn’t need to discuss what we were going to do; we just did it. This is a massive, huge help. Taking action on something that you understand, when you feel confident that you know what to do, is just exactly as easy as ordering a pizza. Maybe even more so!
Our position is subjective. It’s a matter of personal opinion. It’s a policy decision that we’ve made independently, based on what we think about current events, the economy, future trends, planetary alignments, or whatever. Lots of other people can and do make different decisions based on their own personal opinions and positions. My husband and I both like pineapple on our pizza, while recognizing that lots of other people don’t, and that’s fine. The truth is that those people are wrong, pineapple on pizza is delectable, and it always will be. The truth about investments is that one position may pay off very well in one year, and not pay off in a different year, because conditions change all the time.
The main risk is in saving nothing. Living on 100% of what you make, or living off credit cards because you actually spend more than you earn. I’ve been there, I get it.
Back to the story. I now had $5500 in cash in my IRA account.
Nice, flat green American dollars.
Those dollars belong to Old Me. Future Me, playing with her Future Phone, riding around town in her flying car and wearing a metallic body stocking. You’re welcome, Future Me!
What I’m supposed to do is to then use my nice, carefully saved $5500 and buy shares of various stocks or funds or bonds (*snort*) with it. As that money sits in cash, it is not technically an investment. It won’t earn a single penny in interest, no matter how long I leave it there.
A lot of people do this on accident, not realizing that their IRA account is basically just an electronic envelope to hold their money. (Or collect dividends, which I think of as “money babies.”)
Okay, so. Here is where it starts to get good.
My hubby and I had both already decided to leave our 2017 IRA contributions in cash, because we anticipate a significant market drop. We have our own separate investment accounts, and we make our own decisions, because we earned that money from our own careers and we have our own strategies. This is a type of diversification. Cognitive diversification! We do our own research and our own analysis, and we trade notes. As it turns out, my investments outperformed his last year (heh heh heh) and sometimes he buys into some of the same stuff that I do. We high-fived after transferring the money.
THE VERY NEXT MORNING
The market tanked!
My 5500 nice flat green American dollars are still sitting in my cash account, untouched by the ravages of a 734-point market drop. (Followed by ANOTHER drop of 425 points the following day!)
If I had bought shares of anything off my shopping list, they would have been worth less later that same day. I would have lost a bunch of my IRA money within just HOURS of “investing” it.
Not sure if I would have cried or punched a hole in the wall, but...
Instead, I laughed. I laughed because this time I saw it coming. I didn’t know it would happen that fast, but I was stone-cold certain that in “the very near future” my shares would be worth less than they are now. In fact the value of my investment portfolio did drop over $1000 that day, but that’s okay because it’s still worth more than it was when I started. I also believe it will be worth more in three years than it is today. More importantly, I believe it will be worth more in 25 years, when Future Me comes to claim it.
I’m not good at math - if you don’t believe me, come out to lunch with me and watch how long it takes me to calculate the tip. If someone like me, someone who started out flat broke, with poor arithmetic skills, can learn how to invest, then probably anyone can. The main thing is that you have to take the needs of Old You as seriously as you take the needs of Today You. That tends to make you careful and attentive.
If you don’t have an IRA account set up, call someone at your bank, or if you hate making business calls as much as I do, you can probably do it on their website. If you want to get into investing for the first time, hang onto that money. Then start watching the headlines. When you start to see panic about record drops in the stock market, find a nice index fund and put your money into it. Pretend it isn’t there until this time next year. In the meantime, see if you can find a way to put aside $100 a week, or $20 a week, or $5 a week, or even $1 a week. Future You is going to thank you for it.
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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.