I’m doing it again. I have two obnoxious projects I don’t want to do, and each of them represents about three hours of work. One is due in a week and a half, and the other is due in six weeks. The fresh hell that is chronic procrastination! I recognize myself setting up Future Me for a rough time, and thus I’m tricking myself.
I have a Decoy Project.
Next to me is a business card representing a phone call I should really make.
There are few things I hate more than making business calls. I’d rather disinfect my trash cans or clean the oven.
This call isn’t as high a priority, though, as the big projects. That’s why I’m using it as a decoy.
The card is propped up where I keep seeing it, directly to the right of my keyboard, junking up my line of sight.
I can’t avoid looking at it.
I can, though, avoid doing anything about it!
Suddenly, the yucky projects seem a lot less aversive.
Also to my right is a big vegan chocolate chip cookie.
I am currently wearing workout clothes.
This is the order of business. 1. Start the report. 2. Nibble at the cookie. 3. Finish the report. 4. Finish the cookie. 5. Work out.
A cookie is not a decoy project. My relationship with cookies and snacks and food in general may or may not work for other people, but here’s how it looks in my world.
I don’t keep junk food at home, as a rule, because there’s no room for it in the kitchen, and I just don’t know about storing bags of chips in the fridge.
I also can’t keep it in my work bag, because whenever I have done that, my dog has found it. Not only will he steal and eat my treat, he’ll scatter torn-up packaging all over the room and pull out everything else in my bag. This is more or less the same reason why we never leave laundry on the floor.
Another reason is that my husband is in the middle of losing 45 pounds, and it would be seriously unfair to ambush him with delectable goodies, or eat them in front of him.
We both eat four meals a day: breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack (protein bar, fruit, or smoothie), and dinner. We find this convenient, comforting, and cost-effective.
This thing with the cookie is, therefore, a productivity exercise. I don’t generally eat recreationally but I’m not above harnessing it for work purposes.
Okay, I’m set up. I have everything I need. I have the threat of the “if you’re not writing your report, then shouldn’t you make this call?” business card. I also have the treat of the big cookie, waiting for me to finish a section before I allow myself to take a bite.
Threats and treats!
Working out is my stress relief. I like myself better when I do a lot of endurance cardio. When I come in, I feel waves of delight radiating through me, the proverbial runner’s high. I get about three hours pain-free afterward, and I sleep better. My mood is improved. Wearing my workout clothes while I do something that I don’t really want to do is my way of promising myself that good times are coming.
I can also associate a bit of that runner’s high with the negative project.
When I lived near a regional park, I would run there almost every day. It remains one of my favorite places in the world. I would sometimes go up there when I had a phone call or email that I really didn’t want to do. I’d stand at the halfway mark, get the thing done, and then run home.
The trick is that FINISHING SOMETHING feels wonderful, while procrastinating feels terrible. Associate the pleasant feeling of one thing that you really love with the different, yet also pleasant feeling of finishing a project. This reinforces the good feeling.
The eventual goal is to simply do things, quickly and easily, rather than getting into the rut of feeling stuck and dreading the task. Just get it out of the way! Spend as little time as possible avoiding the thing, which merely adds to the precious life energy that you are spending on it.
Sometimes a list of tasks that are no big deal can serve as a decoy project.
For instance, I always get ready for a shower right before I scrub the toilet. That’s not a fun job, but it only takes two minutes, including wiping down the floor between the toilet and the wall. Then I step right into a hot shower, and by the time I’ve shampooed my hair I’ve forgotten all about it.
I take out the garbage and recycling in between loads in the laundry room.
I clean out the fridge and other odd chores while unavoidably on the phone.
Getting stuck on a lot of video conferences gives me plenty of time to put myself on mute, clean out my work bag and my desk drawer, and clear out my email inbox.
As few things as possible should have even a snowball’s chance of lingering in Procrastination Station. Just hustle and bustle through the day and try to avoid leaving a backlog. Because it hurts! Having a big ugly smelly to-do list is the sort of thing that can bother you all day. It eats into your mental bandwidth.
One of my goals for the day was to write this post, because my folder was empty. I didn’t feel like I had anything to write about, and I was distracted by the presence of the two big reports that I still don’t really want to do.
This whole post was a trick on myself, with the clever use of a couple of decoy projects.
Describing my situation, I finished my most time-sensitive task in only about twenty minutes. Now to take a picture of my work area, and done!
All I have left is to start my report before this cookie gets too stale.
I won my election as Division Director in Toastmasters!
This is the first time I’ve won an elected office. Another kid encouraged me to run for class president in sixth grade, and I didn’t win. Since that time, I’ve held a number of offices in various clubs, but never in a contested election. I’m not a very competitive person; in fact, I have a distaste for competing and I tend to prefer to serve in the background.
I’m motivated mostly by two forces: curiosity, and a feeling of duty. As long as I’m interested in doing something, I feel like I might as well be helping out and contributing.
This is why you’ll often see me moving tables and chairs, picking up litter, or submitting reports. Not only do I not need to be in the spotlight, I actively avoid it. At least I used to until I decided it was time to get over my aversion to public speaking.
Did I say ‘aversion’? Another way to say it is that I began with a level of stage fright that I have only seen surpassed by three or four people.
It turns out that in an organization like Toastmasters, this willingness to work hard, coupled with the drive to push yourself past your comfort zone, is recognized and rewarded. This makes it dangerous for a shy person who wants to avoid the spotlight.
As an area director, I was asked to apply for a position as division director. Sure, I thought, if you need me, I can at least go through the motions.
Then my application was approved.
Then I did my panel interview, and I was nominated unanimously.
I wrote my candidate statement and designed my campaign poster and had it printed and mounted.
Embarrassed every step of the way! The last thing I wanted was to be putting up a big old poster with a head shot of myself on it. I moved from a desire to do a competent job.
As far as I knew, I was running uncontested.
The day of the conference arrived. I was fighting a cold and short three hours of sleep, but I arrived early for the business meeting. Let’s just get through this and then I can focus on preparing for next year’s term, right?
The way this typically works, one candidate is nominated for each of a slate of positions, and the elections are somewhat of a formality. Everyone knows each other, and everyone on the slate has just spent at least a year serving the district in one office or another. We’ve had plenty of time to form impressions.
There’s an opportunity for other members to run a “floor campaign,” in which they submit the appropriate paperwork and then have a club officer nominate them from the audience. Sometimes the candidate knows there will be a competitor months in advance. Other times, the floor campaign might be a surprise.
This is what happened.
First, there was a floor campaign for Program Quality Director, and the floor campaign won.
Then, there was a floor campaign for one of the division director positions, and the floor campaign won.
The nominated candidate for that division, having lost his election, suddenly decided to run against me and try to win my division.
This is technically perfectly legitimate, and it’s been done before, although I did not know this at the time. In practice, it rarely works.
Rationally it makes sense: games have rules.
Physically, my body reacted as though I had been attacked. My heart hammered and all the blood drained from my face. Alphabetically I’d have to go first. I understood that I had approximately one minute to prepare to give a campaign speech, walk up onto the stage, take the microphone, and speak in front of over two hundred people.
Are you kidding me with this??
Emotionally I felt one thing. BETRAYAL. What a weird and medieval word. In my mind I fully understood that this was *not personal.* In point of fact, I had helped this man with his campaign. I had noticed that he didn’t have his poster made, and I went out of my way to help him with resources. I knew he had nothing against me, that this was about him and his personal ambitions and the rules of the game.
The undeniable fact that my body was flooded with stress chemicals, and that my emotions were thoroughly activated, was irksome to me. I hardly needed the distraction of my emo, weepy inner child when I had a speech to give.
But my heart was still pounding so hard I could barely see straight. My arms were shaking, not trembling but shaking.
I took the mic and walked out, feeling utterly unprepared, with my natural hair. Yet another emotional hot button for me. If I had understood that I would be performing this morning, I would certainly have gotten out my flat iron!
I gave one of the most lackluster speeches of my speaking career.
No idea if anyone else felt that way, but I know that I did not meet my own standards. Tired, kinda ill, frumpy, shaken up, such a frazzled mess that I actually... said... ‘um.’
(I’m legendary for my almost perfectly clean speeches and lack of vocal tics).
I’d just heard my rival speak. He wore a suit, and he was so vibrant and charismatic, I knew I couldn’t match his performance on my best day.
I spelled out my platform and how glad I was to work with such fine people in such a fine district, one with such high standards.
My speech was probably too short, but I just wanted to be done and go sit down before I fell down. I felt like I might faint and I didn’t want to do it up there.
Then my opponent spoke. He looked great, he owned the stage, he sounded completely pumped. My heart sank.
Then they went off to count the ballots, and the next ten minutes felt like ten hours. My arms were still shaking.
I won. I had 39% more votes.
My rival hadn’t gained a single vote.
This basically meant that everyone who voted for him the first time voted for him the second time, which is great. He’d successfully built a base of people who knew him and respected his work.
The contest was between his clearly superior performance on stage and my carefully developed platform. His ambitious power move and my reputation. It’s entirely possible that some of the votes weren’t so much for me as they were against my opponent’s strategy.
Afterward, a number of people came up to congratulate me and, in some cases, dish about what happened. I realized that time after time, I was talking to someone I had helped in some way. We had worked together side by side and I had shown up for them, as they were showing up for me.
My rival came up during lunch to shake my hand and say, hey, no hard feelings. I reminded him that on the bright side, he was now eligible to compete in speech contests again! I told him he was twice the speaker I am, and I encouraged him to compete next year.
The reason I am not competitive is that I don’t think it proves anything. If I’m up against someone and they win, then I’m not learning by competing with them, I’m learning by watching them. If I win, then it might just be because I’m more experienced or because someone else had a headache that day. Winning doesn’t help me improve; improving helps me win. If I’m truly focused on improving, then winning one day is irrelevant for the next day.
I play the long game. When I’m in, I’m in for my own reasons. The competition is between Yesterday Me and Tomorrow Me, and Tomorrow Me had better come out ahead. The real game is building allies, working together for a common cause. I never know where I’ll be in relation to everyone else three years from now.
I do know where I’ll be next year, and that’s filling out a ballot to help choose my successor, because hey! I won my election!
The 10X Rule is the kind of motivational book to be read in cases of extreme reluctance and procrastination. It is the kind of book that can turn around someone’s entire philosophy of life. It is the kind of book to keep on your desk and flip open for a dose of tough talk on demand. You may not agree with everything Grant Cardone says, but it’s hard to argue with his overall message of dedication and drive.
Myself? I find myself nodding along with most of Cardone’s books, taking notes on certain outrageous yet wildly original ideas, and disagreeing with only a few very provocative assertions that I think he puts out there mainly to mess with people. An example of this would be Chapter 6, which I think is an extreme position that is not necessary if the goal is to teach the concept of high agency. (Read it and you’ll see what I mean). There is a difference between responsibility and accountability, and the latter is enough to get the job done.
Okay, what is the 10X Rule? Make your goals ten times bigger and go after them with ten times as much determination and energy. This is along the same lines as Peter Thiel’s statement that most ten-year goals can be completed in six months. It’s true! Why drag out the process of big goals like paying off debt, clearing clutter, or losing weight, when with intensive focus you can get it out of the way quickly and never think about it again?
(Why? Because most people aren’t very clear on what they want, they don’t have major goals, and thus they can’t summon up the fervent desire to push forward as fast as possible).
Competing is for sissies. Did you know this? This is one of Cardone’s contrarian ideas with which I agree. What would make someone want to target another person’s performance as their main goal? Why limit yourself? It makes me think of focusing on someone else’s head in yoga class for balance, only to have that person tip sideways. Better to focus over their head at a point farther across the room. Choose your own goal and keep plugging away at it. Choose something that is more worthy of obsessing over than what some other person might or might not be doing.
Cardone has a bone to pick with a lot of common ideas like “work-life balance” and “satisfaction.” He claims that the middle class isn’t all that middling, that most people’s financial goals are nowhere near sufficient to take care of themselves or their families. I only entered the middle class at age 32, and I’ve noticed that the “middle class” are the only people who rely on a single source of income, i.e. wages. Both poor people and wealthy people have multiple streams of income, the first out of sheer necessity and the second because they know how. The difference is desperation versus abundance.
The 10X Rule is already a classic of the motivational genre. That’s for good reason. Something in this book will reach out and grab someone, and it might be something different for each person. There are a couple of chapters that I feel I should have printed up as posters and hung around my apartment. I’ll definitely read this book again, so if you pick it up, let me know and we can read it together.
Almost every problem people face in their careers and other aspects of their lives—such as failed diets, marriages, and financial problems—are all the result of not taking enough action.
Average marriages, bank accounts, weight, health, businesses, products, and the like are just that—average.
No one will benefit from your failure.
Success Is Your Duty
To the degree that electing to do our personal best each and every day is ethical, then failing to do so is a violation of ethics.
Your four choices are:
1. Do nothing.
3. Take normal levels of action.
4. Take massive action.
“Small” thinking has and always will be punished in one way or another.
What are some ways you can expand that only require energy and creativity, not money?
People give their fears much more time than they deserve.
Most people have no clue what they are doing with their time but still complain that they don't have enough.
Would anything have been different if I had known sooner?
I went to a destination wedding with my family. I was about to turn thirty. I was painfully single, at least as broke as I had ever been, and recovering from an illness in which I temporarily lost half my lung capacity. As I sat in a rental car with five relatives, it felt like I had nothing going for me.
Little did I know, in exactly three months I would meet the man who would become my second husband.
I had no way to know that not only would I get my breathing back, I would eventually go on to run a marathon.
I couldn’t really imagine it at the time, but I would also pay off my student loans one day. My credit limit on one card would be higher than my loans ever were.
I didn’t even know that I would one day live with my little love, my gray parrot Noelle.
I couldn’t see three months into the future. It just felt like one day after another, the same the same the same, with this little blip of the family vacation. I felt like I would always be broke and single and ill.
This is why I wonder what would be different, if I had known what was coming.
If I’d known I would eventually be debt-free, would it have helped me sleep better at night?
If I’d known I would get my health back, and fairly soon, would I have started working out sooner? Would I have started losing weight sooner? Today I understand that having an extra thirty-five pounds on my chest wasn’t doing my lungs any favors, but I didn’t then. I would have been shocked and angry if anyone had suggested it. If I had seen the future, would I have taken action?
If I’d known I would meet a future husband in only three months, would I have felt less lonely? Would I have skipped the handful of painful blind dates? Would I have avoided dating the couple of guys I dated in between?
What would I have done? What would I have done with the time that I spent crying at night? The time that I spent writing hundreds of pages in my journal, trying to wring something out of my existential pain?
There were a few things I did that worked very well. These were things I did for myself, comforting actions born of optimism. These things helped set me up when I did embark on the relationship that became my second marriage.
The first of these optimistic actions, the one that mattered the most, was to pay down my debt. My frugality and focus on building financial security helped me to feel stronger and more confident. It also turned out to be the single factor that my hubby found most attractive! For anyone over 35, every decade that goes by makes this even more important.
Any marriage-minded person has to take into account the question: Did I save enough for TWO retirements and can I afford to pay off someone else’s debt as well?
(Hint: probably not)
The second thing I did for myself that paid off in my future relationship was to fight for my health. When my hubby and I met, we were both... well, to put it bluntly, we were both fat, broke, and angry at our exes. In other words, we were on the same emotional wavelength. Getting fit together helped to build our friendship. I was trying to get both lungs back and he was recovering from herniated disks in his spine. Two wildly different problems both helped by increasing mobility and cardio endurance, and dropping body fat.
Now we spend our vacations walking 8-10 miles a day, climbing multiple staircases, and backpacking into wild areas. Old Us couldn’t have had this kind of fun, either alone or together.
The third thing I did for myself when I was single and lonely was to prioritize domestic contentment. This is by no means the only type of love and romance in the world, but it’s a pretty darn good one. I had my own apartment again for the first time since I was 19, and I definitely made the most of it! When I signed the lease and got the keys, I showed my landlords the door, shut it behind them, and started doing the Sound of Music twirl through all the (four) rooms. I believe I even rolled around on the carpet and kicked my feet.
What attracts a friendly kind of romance is that confidence and domestic contentment. If you don’t like your life, why would anyone else? If you aren’t happy by yourself, how could you be happy with anyone else? Domestic contentment is the radical act of taking responsibility for your own happiness. Guess what? Having a partner means that your happiness is still just as much your own personal obligation and responsibility as it was when you were alone. You can’t outsource it, you can’t delegate it, and you can’t abdicate either.
Three months from the click, the main emotional commitment I had made was a solemn belief in poverty, illness, loneliness, and misery. All I thought I had was myself and I didn’t even want me.
Three months from the click, I had a travel disaster. I wound up spending the night in a downtown hotel that I couldn’t afford. A kindly desk clerk shifted a few things and got me a half-price room. In the room that night, at the end of my trip, I soaked in the bathtub for two hours. I made myself the internal commitment that I would do whatever it took to improve my situation. I couldn’t know just how much better things would be in three months. As a matter of fact, everything got at least ten times worse shortly afterward! It wasn’t certainty in a brighter future that brought me that future. It was nothing more or less than a blind commitment to work at it. To keep my head up and to keep trying.
The question that arises out of all this is, if I could see three months into the future (or three years, or thirty), what would I do differently today? Am I doing everything that I know I can to move me in that direction?
Pain comes in three parts, and this is helpful to know when you are in pain and feeling trapped. It’s also helpful to know if you are tired of pain and learning how to make it go away.
First, there is the physical source, the injury or illness that is causing the pain.
Second, there is the neurological response to that injury or illness.
Third, there is the psychological reaction to the pain signal.
Let’s go into more detail about how these are separate and distinct elements of pain.
The physical source is not the same as the pain. This varies depending on what’s going on, but there are lots of examples. For instance, a few people have a rare genetic condition in which they cannot feel pain at all. This is very dangerous, because they won’t always realize if they are burning themselves or walking around on a broken bone. Another example would be a cancerous tumor, which might grow undetected because its growth causes no pain.
Another way to put this is that pain is not guaranteed to match its cause.
A neurological reaction may not correspond perfectly to illness or injury. One example of this is referred pain, when the pain is being caused in one part of the body but it shows up elsewhere. Twenty years ago, I had a nerve plexus in my shoulder, which didn’t hurt, except that it caused sharp stabbing pains in my thumb and occasional numbness in my hand. Another example would be pain with no obvious cause, or something that is thought to be “genetic” but that turns out to be easily manageable with lifestyle modifications.
Another way to put this is that the root cause of pain can be mysterious and hard to diagnose.
The psychological reaction to a pain signal is variable. This is important because it’s something we can learn to control on our own, regardless of what’s going on. And that’s a hot take.
A contrary opinion.
Something that often offends people!
What we want to hear when we are suffering is exquisitely calibrated empathy and consideration. We want levels of caring and support that are, sadly, perhaps non-existent. We want validation and recognition of how hard our circumstances are. Even if we got it, though, it wouldn’t help. Kindness is no analgesic. Even if everyone else on earth knew how to behave with perfect tact at all times, it wouldn’t remove the pain or the source of the pain.
See also: Grief
What we don’t really like to hear when we are struggling is that there is some kind of secret key to make it all go away.
The reason for this, I can say with experience, is that it always comes across as blame. If I can do anything at all to control this pain that is taking over my life, then shouldn’t I already have done it? If my pain is manageable, then am I not at fault for not managing it? Why are you bothering me with this, you cruel and heartless naysayer? What are you implying?
There is something about the concept of chronic pain that makes it feel permanent, monumental, a sort of organ that only the sensitive have. My pain belongs to me and defines my life experience. Telling me I can make it go away is like denying a fundamental part of who I am!
Telling me that I can stop being in pain is refusing to accept my perspective, rejecting my description of my life and my experience. I’m telling you one thing, plaintively, and you are shutting me down and telling me something else.
You don’t know what it’s like!
This can be crazy-making for the person who genuinely does know what it’s like, who is sincerely trying to help.
Honestly, who else wants to talk to me about migraine headaches other than another migraineur? Who wants to talk with me about parasomnia disorders other than another insomniac? Et cetera.
When I hear about another person with a migraine, or another person with a sleep disorder, or someone else who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, I usually start crying. It’s embarrassing. Tears start coming down my face. I want to drop everything and talk to them right away. I can help you! It doesn’t have to be like this!
My emotional overwhelm stems partly from fear that what I’ve been doing so successfully will stop working, that I’ll wind up back in the tar pits.
I remind myself that twenty years ago, when I was first diagnosed (first migraine, cancer scare, fibromyalgia), not all the information was out there. Doctors weren’t telling me anything helpful, just saying “it’s genetic” and “no, sorry, there’s nothing you can do” when I asked about lifestyle improvements. (WRONG, thanks for nothing). The things that did eventually work would not have been things I wanted to do, or understood how to do.
I thought all I could do was meticulously explain to everyone I met exactly how my illness worked.
I thought I needed to do this so that people would know to let me off the hook.
In the tar pit, everything on the surface level looks like an unmanageable amount of work. What, showing up to things? I went to the movies in my nightgown once because that was my version of fighting hard: Hey, at least I’m leaving the house, what do you want from me?
I felt challenged on all sides. How dare people question my experience or try to help me troubleshoot my situation? Can’t you see how difficult things are for me right now?
I recognized myself when I happened to be present during an awkward conversation. One party wanted to talk about her chronic pain issues, only the other person countered that she had an appointment with her oncologist the next week. This is by no means the only time I’ve overheard a Battle of the Health Problems.
Who wins these discussions? The one with the fractured spine or the one who went into anaphylactic shock and has to carry an Epi pen?
Look, the only way to win is to beat the illness, because pain is the real enemy here. That’s where that tricky old third part to pain comes in. How we react to it.
I started to win my fight when I realized that my level of pain was consistent (which means predictable), and that my condition was not degenerative. I found a sliver of gratitude in that, that at least I wasn’t going to wind up in a wheelchair or on an oxygen tank.
This is my nature. If I got to that point, I’d probably start scraping the barrel and looking for some other small sliver of gratitude. Such as that at least it was me, not one of my nearest and dearest. I’d take it on myself before I’d wish it on someone else.
I started to win my fight when I got curious. How does it work? What’s the state of the art for cutting edge research in this field? When I found out I might have cancer, I went directly from my endocrinologist’s office to the public library, where I found two books on the subject. I’d read half of the first one before my bus pulled up to my stop, and I’d finished both before bedtime the next day. My natural curiosity led me to pay attention and start tracking my symptoms, looking for patterns.
Taking pain apart, disassembling it into smaller pieces, is a way of figuring out how it works. Once we figure out how it works, why then, we have a realistic chance of turning it off. That’s what I did and I hope that I can help others to do the same.
Travel planning, isn’t it the worst?
My hubby and I are going on a trip two months from now, and we’ve already booked everything. We have our plane and train tickets, we have our hotel rooms, and we even know where we’re going to eat at the airport. This is the sort of thing that happens to you when you marry an engineer.
(Not a locomotive engineer, no. He doesn’t even have a stripy hat).
None of this advance planning is natural to me. I’m a wing-it person. I grew up in the travel industry, and I started flying alone at age seven. That’s over thirty-five years, and I’ve never missed a flight. I feel justified in my visceral certainty that flexibility and brainstorming are better than rigid planning and punctuality.
Last November, due to a dumb scheduling snafu, I got to the airport just ten minutes before my flight was scheduled to depart. I didn’t even realize it until I was washing my hands in the restroom a hundred yards away. I hadn’t even been through security yet!
Against all odds, not only did I catch that flight, but I had to stand around waiting before my boarding group even got in line.
I’ve been delayed by everything from snow to a plane with a flat tire to a presidential motorcade. I have always caught my flight.
The trouble is that ordinary travelers do not have my decades of freak blunders and delays on which to draw. Most people have an emotional need for a greater sense of urgency than I can provide. Don’t go places with me if you’re tense about being hours early for everything, let’s just put it that way.
Here’s another thing: I know how to pack.
I’m a minimalist single-bag traveler, and I have been for years. I can cover unlikely distances in an improbable span of time because I can grab my luggage and sprint. I’m halfway there before you have all your straps over your shoulders.
There is a group of people who are very organized about time and calendars and schedules. Then there is a group of people who are very organized about objects and spatial relations. These tend not to be the same group. My husband belongs to the first group, and I belong to the second.
I’m the one who put the flight time down wrong in my calendar. He’s the one who put his passport on a chair and then lost track of it when it fell to the floor. We can both look at each other and legitimately think, Okay, that would never happen to me.
We make a good match. I taught him the virtues of one-bag travel, and he taught me how many more options are available for awesome things when you plan months in advance.
For instance, we got the last available hotel room on points in Jackson Hole for the solar eclipse because we booked in January. More than six months in advance. That’s due to him.
We were able to grab one of the last first-come-first-served campsites in the Grand Tetons, same trip, because we brought our backpacking gear. That’s due to me.
This all started on our honeymoon. We checked into our room in a four-star hotel, right down the hall from another couple. We could safely assume they were married because only a married couple could possibly hate each other so much. They roared at each other for two days.
What KIND of PERSON... LEAVES... a BAG???
I SWEAR... I WILL NEVER... GO ANYWHERE... WITH YOU... AGAIN!!!
These are touchstones for us, inside jokes that still have us shaking with laughter ten years later. Long after that couple have probably divorced, married other people, and gone on to divorce them as well.
How can you leave a bag behind when you each only have one bag, and they’re both lined up neatly by the front door the night before the trip?
Don’t people know how to do a proper perimeter check?
Why would you even think of marrying someone if you couldn’t travel well together? What are you going to do, stay home every single day for the rest of your life?
The truth is that travel can be extremely stressful, especially for people who only do it once every few years. People leave their medications and their glasses behind. They wind up in shoes that make their feet bleed. They set up schedules where they’re standing or walking all day, even when they think one mile is a long distance and they get tired walking through Target. Lack of planning guarantees a miserable trip.
That’s why we plan months in advance. Two months is actually pushing it for us.
Do we need visas?
Do we have the transport and lodging confirmed?
What’s the weather like that time of year?
What’s closed on Sundays?
Where are we going to eat, and what’s on the menu?
Is our ID going to expire?
Suitcase or backpack?
Do we need new clothes or shoes?
What kind of electric outlets do they use?
What are we going to read on the flight?
Where are we going and how long will we want to be there?
This used to feel like a dreary amount of work. Then, after a few trips with my esteemed life mate, I started to realize how well it paid off. Not only did it make the trip easier in every way, but it also extended the fun of anticipation.
The last time we traveled together, at the New Year, I spent two weeks laying out every meal and every show and attraction in advance. I put it all in the TripIt app and shared it with my hubby. He was elated! Each day laid out in advance, every address and name of venue neatly lined up on a schedule, nothing to do but whip out his phone and show it to a cab driver. We got everywhere on time and enjoyed ourselves immensely.
We forgot one thing: to argue about how late we were and all the stuff we left behind.
The point of planning far in advance is to make life easier for Future Us. Boring Old Today Me can spend fifteen minutes here and twenty minutes there, putting together a fun and relaxing trip. Future Me reaps the rewards of having no decisions to make. Future Me flits from attraction to attraction, with plenty of time to spare, plenty of naps, and no straps digging into my shoulder. The point of the trip isn’t what we’re wearing or what we’re eating, it’s the memory that we’re creating.
Money problems are the best kind of problems, because they can actually be solved. Most problems that can’t be solved with money can’t be solved at all!
I tried to make that list longer and I had trouble doing it. Missing someone who is far away? Call or visit, problems that money can solve even if it takes a satellite phone. Have a problem you don’t know how to solve? Hire someone and ask for their expert opinion. Want something that doesn’t exist? Hire some designers and start making it, or write it into a novel or screenplay.
Then I went back over my list of Problems That Can’t Be Solved With Money and realized I might not be imaginative enough there. The Taj Mahal was built as a way to use money to deal with grief, and it’s a monument to undying love that has inspired generations. Stephen Hawking survived far past the limited medical knowledge of his youth and lived to a respectable old age, and there must have been money involved in that. Getting a song out of your head I guess could be solved by playing a different song, or going to Disneyland and riding the Small World ride. Hurt someone’s feelings, not much you can do about that, but paying off their student loans would probably help.
It seems that a large chunk of what qualifies as existential dread may come from the idea that we are surrounded by problems with no solution.
How much more manageable is that feeling when more problems feel like they can be solved after all?
We argue for our problems. We argue that they are inevitable and we argue that there is nothing we can do about them. Ask around and you’ll find that people are constantly arguing for their own limitations and against the concept that they have free will.
Ask anyone with a problem to imagine what it would be like to not have that problem. Usually you get a blank look. Nobody thinks that far. This is sad, because imagining a world without the problem often includes the obvious solution to the problem.
As an example, the biggest problem in my life right now is that my upstairs neighbors are constantly waking me up at 5:30 in the morning. What are some ways that I can solve this problem with money?
I’m so tired that I can’t think of any.
False. I could stay at a hotel, I could bribe my neighbors to stop wearing shoes in the house, I could hire a contractor to soundproof our apartment, or, hey! I could pay the seven grand to break our lease and move elsewhere.
The mental exercise involved in solving a problem with money is the same type of mental exercise involved in solving problems WITHOUT money,
The main factor is to think of a problem as a paradigm, one possible instance out of infinite possible variations on a timeline. In one universe, this problem exists. In most other universes, it does not.
Often, solving the problem only means stepping out of the current paradigm.
Quitting a job is one example of this. Every problem associated with the bad job goes away. The commute, the bad boss, the untrustworthy coworkers, the annoying customers, the poor lighting, sick building syndrome, the breakroom that smells of burnt popcorn and reheated fish.
Divorce is another example. My own divorce created a huge slew of problems for the first year. It also took away a bunch of problems, including my wasband’s snoring. Just like changing jobs, getting divorced resets the scoreboard. You get a fresh start and a chance at something better.
Note that both a job change and a divorce are problems that can be solved with money. You can hire someone to help with your resume just as you can hire a divorce lawyer.
I was poor until I was thirty. In my younger days, my diary was almost entirely full of worry about how to pay bills or make rent. I wonder what I would have worried about if I hadn’t had so many money problems. Another way to put that is that I wonder if I had really had any problems back then that couldn’t have been solved with money.
Now I’m not so poor that I lie awake crying or pay 80% of my income toward rent.
Now I am gradually learning to ask, whenever I have a problem, Could this problem be solved with money?
Can I buy my way out of this?
An example came up of a problem that I couldn’t solve with money. I was only partway through writing this post, and I realized I needed to finish it before I went to bed. Maybe there might have been a way to pay someone else to finish it, although that wouldn’t have been my desired outcome, but not on the timeline that I had. I got a good laugh out of the thought that in the process of writing about solving problems with money, I had created a problem that couldn’t be solved with money.
This is where I circle back to my “loud neighbor” problem. My real issue isn’t the neighbors waking me up so early, it’s that I keep prioritizing other things late in the evening that keep me from going to bed earlier. I don’t want to go to bed at 9:00 PM, even though that is a money-free way to solve my problem. Apparently I also value $7100 more than I value my lack of sleep. If problems can be monetized, then they can be specifically quantified.
Ultimately every problem is about the tradeoff between one thing that I want, and something else that I want, and the friction between them.
Solving a problem is a form of investment. It takes away the problem from this moment, as well as all future moments. Thus it’s always worth more than we think it is. We just have to try harder to imagine what it would be like to step into that future timeline where the problem doesn’t exist. That future point without the current problem, that’s a future point with more options, and, often, more financial means. The better we get at solving problems with or without money, the better we get at figuring out the money problem itself.
Some ways to solve problems with money:
A plumber, electrician, or general contractor
A chiropractor or physical therapist
A dentist or orthodontist
A personal trainer or nutritionist
A new wardrobe
A down payment
A dog trainer
Now you try!
For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage is an incredible book that should be assigned not just to people who are currently married, but newlyweds and, really, anyone who thinks they might want to get married one day. Tara Parker-Pope set out to figure out why her long-term marriage ended in divorce. Her research explodes many pop culture ideas about marriage. It also offers a lot of practical ideas and exercises for rebuilding stressed relationships that have genuine merit.
The first thing to know about divorce statistics is that they are reported very poorly based on badly designed studies. It is not true that half of marriages end in divorce. Essentially, some people are “risky prospects” who get married and divorced repeatedly. Baby Boomers are more likely to get divorced than any other generation. Longer lifespans increase the length of the average marriage, skewing the statistics. Divorce is more common in the first five years of marriage, and anyone who makes it past that point has a much better shot at a long-term marriage. Parker-Pope wonders if circumstances would change if couples had better information on which marriages are more or less likely to end in divorce.
Surely this is true! I got married at 22 (one red flag) to a man with whom I did not share attitudes about money (second red flag), and we were divorced after three years. If I had read this book when we were first dating, I wouldn’t have been able to avoid noticing at least a dozen other issues predicted by research. Partly because he did his fair share of housework and most of the cooking, I felt like I had snagged a “good catch.” I never saw it coming.
(I share that because if you’re unhappy in your relationship, and you think everything would be perfect if only he took the initiative to clean the house, well, it’s not enough. That’s probably not your real problem).
I remarried another divorced person. We’re about to celebrate our ten-year wedding anniversary. We did a few of the quizzes in For Better together, and it’s a good sign that he found them as interesting as I did. I learned that he is more romantic than I am! We scored about even in how possessive, playful, and unselfish we are, while I ranked higher in the ‘logical’ and ‘best friends’ areas. I shared that research shows men are more upset by arguments in marriage, and was touched to learn that he agreed.
Something I found very interesting was that there are five styles of marriage, and that the type most commonly depicted in romance novels is THE most likely type to divorce. Aha! I have always felt that romance novels are toxic, and, while I know several mega-mega fans of the genre, not a single one of them is happily married. I have yet to find a romance novel or rom-com movie that resembles my marriage in any way, shape, or form. Something tells me that romance fans would be confused or bored by a story like mine, even though, after thirteen years together, my hubby and I still sometimes fall asleep holding hands.
For Better is a practical book that both parties can read together. There is a lot here that can make you feel better about choosing each other. There’s also a lot on dealing with power imbalances and disputes. The information in this book deserves to be widely shared, to make it clear that it is indeed possible to stay married for the long term.
The bottom line: If you solve your money problems, you’ll go a long way toward solving—or preventing—marital problems.
Couples who assume fighting is their biggest problem may discover that the real issue isn’t conflict but an imbalance of power and an overall feeling of unfairness in the relationship.
Understanding love languages is wonderful. It’s especially wonderful when it leads us to reach out to others in ways that truly mean something to them. It’s possible, though, that even love languages have a dark side.
For the record, I’m a Quality Time person. The obvious dark side to this is that I don’t see the point of perfunctory daily check-ins. People whom I consider to be close friends may not hear from me for a year. If they’re also Quality Time people, they may be fine with that. I’m pretty sure I’ve lost friends who had expected more from me.
Really, though, does anybody really want to see someone else every single day??
“What’s new with you?” “Nothing, absolutely nothing.”
I happen to be really, really good at Words of Praise. For me it’s effortless to give out a glow-up and only slightly more work to write a letter of reference. One of our protégés just got his dream job after eleven years of preparation, and I’m sure my recommendation letter helped seal the deal. These are great things. On the other hand, I personally dislike words of praise aimed at myself. It makes me uncomfortable at best and feels slimy at worst.
This is what made me start to think that there are certain problems with love languages.
There seems to be a vulnerability to people whose prime love language is Words of Praise. A skilled manipulator can take advantage of this trait. Out of all the love languages, this one seems to come from the deepest hunger. Young people seem to be more susceptible to the desire for praise and validation.
Talk is cheap, though! I keep hearing from young people who genuinely believed an interviewer or landlord’s promise to “get in touch” or whatever formulaic “please leave now” phrase they used. Weeks later, this poor person will still be hanging on to a thread of hope. No amount of circumstantial evidence will convince this person that what they really heard was a brush-off. It’s worse in the dating world, although there’s nothing more like dating than a job hunt.
What are this person’s actions saying? Does the reality of their behavior match the words that have come out of their mouth?
Gifts are, in my opinion, even worse. Anyone can give someone something. In my work with clutter and organizing, I’ve seen several “gift closets.” These are common features of upper-middle-class homes. Someone will buy a bunch of generic items like candles, wine, lotion, and trinkets, then wrap them and attach a temporary label with the contents. It’s the opposite of personal. Also in my work with clutter, I find homes filled with gifts still in their original bags. An emotional attachment is created around the gift-giving occasion, even though the recipient doesn’t like the item and even though their main issue in life is having 10x too much stuff.
It’s more common than not that the same family that constantly criticizes my client for hoarding will be the same family that constantly brings over generic or inappropriate gifts. The next step is to suss out whether the gift is being used and ask after it. I WANT YOU TO WANT THIS. Grateful or else!
As far as gift clutter, in my professional opinion it is often a method of emotional control. It can also be a sort of pressure valve. A compulsive accumulator who has already filled (her) own house can then use gift purchases as an excuse to continue a recreational shopping habit. Not only that. Hoarders tend to see other people’s homes as part of their own territory. (Family, tenants, maybe friends, possibly neighbors). They believe that they have a perfect right to pack other people’s rooms with their personal belongings, and once they get one item in the door, they’ll keep going until they’re forced to stop. It’s not that they want to give someone a gift so much as that they became attached to some item they saw, and they want it around where they can admire it for their own personal reasons.
One day, maybe there will be a program for AR goggles that allows my compulsive accumulators to wander among hologram versions of every cool item they ever saw. They can virtually wander tight aisles and goat paths between giant haystacks of clutter bags, when in reality their rooms are safe and clean.
Touch is another potentially problematic love language. I’m a hugger, I’ll just put that out there in case you haven’t seen me in my FREE HUGS t-shirt, and I’ve misinterpreted signals and given inappropriate hugs before. Once in dance class, my partner meant to swing me out in the waltz, and when he threw his arm out, I read it as “BIG HUG” and rushed in for an embrace. That was a quarter-century ago, so hopefully he’s over the awkwardness by now. Not sure I am! Out of all the love languages, touch is the one with the worst consequences when mishandled.
There could be rings for this. That’s what I think. Like a wedding ring. Huggers could wear a special ring, and anyone who isn’t wearing the hugging ring would be automatically hands-off.
Acts of Service would seem to be the hardest to mess up, but that’s the whole problem with the dark side of love languages. We can’t assume that we know what other people will appreciate. We have to communicate and we have to be willing to take NO or NOT RIGHT NOW or NOT LIKE THAT for an answer.
I’m a big Acts of Service person, and I’ve been told off for doing something small like wiping down someone’s countertop. Left to my own devices, if I stayed over at someone’s place, I would probably wind up cleaning their entire house top to bottom while on the phone or finishing a chapter in my audio book. Nothing personal; I probably wouldn’t fully realize I was doing it. Note: people do not like this! I finally understood what it was like when my in-laws came to stay, and pruned our roses and replaced the air filter in our furnace. Without asking. Thanks guys!
Another issue with Acts of Service is that people who are not on that wavelength will accept the effort without reciprocating. No amount of chore-doing can buy someone’s gratitude or affection, any more than any other misapplied love language.
I’ve found that I prefer to be the giver, and that I’m happier focusing on my own loving gestures than on wishing and hoping for the perfect form of affection to meet my standards. It’s nobody else’s job to read our minds or get our preferences exactly right. The best we can do is to communicate clearly and treat others the way they say they wish to be treated.
I married a jocknerd. Then I became one. I may well be married to the only aerospace engineer / football player / ice hockey player / ex-lumberjack in the galaxy. When I was young, I was such a snob that my top two criteria for a boyfriend were 1. Can beat me at Scrabble and 2. Does not watch football. My identity as an intellectual included a sizable chunk dedicated to Not Being an Athlete. As usual when I based my decisions on resistance and rejection, I had no idea what I was talking about. I didn’t have to sacrifice any of my alignment with books or other brainy pursuits in order to inhabit my body more fully. I didn’t have to feel like a spy crossing over hostile enemy territory. All I had to do was to embrace the fact that being a nerd and being a jock are not mutually exclusive. It turns out that there are many jocknerds among us.
The nerd life chose me. Due to my July birthday, I was always one of the youngest, smallest kids in my grade. That weird policy of putting kids in school based on one chronological deadline means that some kids in the same classroom may be nearly a year apart in age. Those kids who were a few months older than me were also larger and more coordinated. Then, in second grade, I was placed in a split classroom with both second- and third-graders. The school approached my parents about having me skip a grade, but it was decided that this would be too hard on me socially. TRUE! Being both small and smart set me up for some hassles. I was also awkward and clueless about the rules of team sports. P.E. alienated me from any kind of physical activity until I was over thirty.
If I had the chance, I’d offer a symposium of advice for physical education teachers who wanted to reach all the uncoordinated shy kids. 1. Offer more options that teach proprioception and spatial awareness rather than having bigger, tougher kids crash into everyone, throw balls at heads, etc. 2. STEP IN when you even suspect bullying. 3. Encourage and never, ever tease shy kids. What worked for your personality won’t work for everyone.
Now that I’m a small adult, I understand that my tiny frame gives me some major advantages. My height-weight ratio allows me to carry disproportionate amounts of heavy weights, such as an expedition backpack. I have an easier time hoisting my own weight, such as when I want to climb a rope, do a pull-up, climb a fence, get back into a sea kayak, or complete an obstacle course in an adventure race. My metabolism suits me for endurance racing and long backpacking trips. I’m great at yoga. I wish they’d told me any of this when I was a little kid, rather than forcing me to play dodgeball with aggressive boys twice my size.
As a grade schooler, I used to fantasize that I was in a prison camp, and try to imagine whether I could withstand torture. I pictured having my fingernails ripped off, and whether I would faint from the pain or just refuse to give up state secrets. There was a tough person inside of me. It says a lot that my POW daydreams seemed ever so much more appealing than going to gym class.
One day in eighth grade, a boy came up behind me in gym class and pulled a pair of boy’s underwear over my head and face. Did the teacher do anything? I’ll give you three guesses.
Ugh! This post wasn’t going to be about trauma, but I guess it is. Only those who have suffered it understand just exactly how deep the aversion to physical activity can go. Our picture of “move your body” is the picture of public humiliation and shame that we endured as an educational requirement in school.
What I learned through the patient tutelage of my now-husband is that it’s different for adults. We choose when and where we come and go. We choose our own training schedules. We pick out our own equipment. We can change gyms and trainers and routines any time we want.
I also learned that I LOVE working out. I love it. Building muscle and cardiovascular endurance takes me to places that books never did.
I also learned that nothing is mutually exclusive. I can and do read while working out. What I also learned is that there are a lot of jocknerds out there, because physical culture is a fascinating area of research in its own right. People you might have been taught to think of as “dumb jocks” know tons of stuff about sports physiology, nutrition, physics, first aid, history, game theory, and of course mundane topics relating to current events, their careers, and more. Middle-aged athletes tend to be high achievers in all areas of life. I never would have guessed it, but the jocknerds I have met tend to be smarter than the bookish sedentary people I always would have chosen before.
“Going to the gym” is a totally different experience for adults than it is for kids. We’re mature! Everyone in the gym is just trying to fit a workout into a busy schedule. There are grandparents, young moms, business executives, college students, and all sorts of distracted people who have no time to stare at you. Nobody cares. Nobody is looking at anybody. We’re watching our form, listening to podcasts, reading magazines, sometimes messing with our phones. You’re allowed to wear a stained t-shirt with holes in it, drip sweat, and have messy hair. You’re even allowed to maintain your self-image as whatever you want, mentally holding yourself above it all. You don’t even have to be a jocknerd to go to the gym; you can just be a regular nerd. Welcome to the adult playground, the one with no dodgeballs.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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