Dedication to the discipline of Inquiry includes scrupulous honesty. We’ll lie to ourselves worse than we would ever dream of lying to anyone else. It’s human nature. I have a Dostoyevsky quote scrawled in the front of my journal, and it goes like this: “Keep watch on your own lie and examine it every hour, every minute.” I could profitably have rephrased it: “Keep watch on your own pie” (and maybe stopped examining it every hour; if a pie is leaving my kitchen, it’s going one forkful at a time). Lying to ourselves includes our secret motives, our true priorities, our intentions, what we eat, how much we exercise, how much money we give to charity, how much we save, and how much time we spend on various activities. If we can catch ourselves in the act even occasionally, we can start getting better results in building a life we want.
I read that women over-report how much time they spend on housework by 68%. Don’t laugh. The same study indicates that men over-report how much time they spend on housework by 150%. I know how much time I spend on housework because I use the Hours app on my phone, and I clock in and out of various activities every day. Since I work for myself, there is no built-in structure to my day other than whether it’s daylight or dark, or whether I’m hungry or not. I wanted to make sure I was really spending as much time writing as I thought I was. (It’s more). I got curious about all the other things I did during the day, including my foreign language study, pleasure reading, and sleeping. Tracking my time carefully has revolutionized several things in my life, such as dealing with my parasomnia issues. It’s also made me aware of the fact that I spend more minutes per day on “personal care” (bathing, personal hygiene, grooming) than I do on housework. That was an eye-opener. Now, rather than feeling resentment or counting brownie points against my husband, I’ve turned my chores into a game of efficiency and beating the clock.
I use a fitness tracker because I realized that I had no better idea of how much I exercise than I would have a chance of estimating the number of pennies in a jar. I’m hopeless. There are three ways of getting around this: 1. Do it every single day, 2. Develop an intensely alert self-awareness, or 3. Get a robot to track it for you. I’ve proven to myself quite conclusively that the first two are never going to happen in my life, not with an unassisted human brain, anyway. I can’t lie to my Apple Watch; it’s not impressed by being waved back and forth in the way that my first pedometer was. I have failed to impress it even by jumping up and down, doing jumping jacks, hiking 4000 feet of elevation, and jogging laps around a parking lot. If my heart rate isn’t elevated high enough for long enough, it doesn’t count. (The nice thing is knowing I can hike up 4000 feet (slowly) without my heart rate going up. Pretty fit, hey?)
I keep a food log. I have different reasons now than I did when I started two years ago. At first, I wanted to prove that there really was no reason for me to need a food log, because “I eat nothing but health food.” Then, I wanted to finish getting to my goal weight, and I realized that I needed the discipline of becoming more aware of what I ate and being meticulously honest about portion size. It turned out that the amount I ate varied wildly from day to day, making it impossible to find a trend line or to see if any changes I was making were having an effect. Scientific rigor in weighing and measuring and recording helped me learn to eyeball and guesstimate more accurately. After three months, I understood why I always tended to gain weight. After six months, I understood how much extra I could/should eat on workout days. After a year, I discovered that I was deficient in a key micronutrient, and everything changed. I started keeping the food log to make sure I was getting the right nutrition. I still keep the food log, because I find it amusing to calculate everything I ate over an entire year, measured in gallons of broccoli, kale, cabbage, etc. During my marathon training, my waffle count alone was hilarious.
I use a personal finance app, Mint, although I don’t know whether other finance apps would do an equally sufficient job. I’m not a habitual spender; I’m more of an under-buyer. I find it interesting, though, to be able to pull up data on how much we spend at particular stores, how much we spend at the movie theater or on gas, what we spend on utilities, etc. One of my financial disciplines is to try to pay everything possible with my debit card, so there is a data trail of everything. Before I started keeping a food log, the only times my weight ever dipped downward even slightly were when I was following a strict budget. Keeping track of money matters has ripple effects in other areas of life.
I’m data driven. I believe in using metrics whenever possible, because I want to know what I’m actually doing as opposed to what I’m pretty convinced I’m doing. I weigh in every day, in the same way that I use a clock, an oven timer, and a speedometer. I log my workouts. I log what I eat. I log my spending. I log the time I spend doing different things. I check off a list of various habits, and I can see my stats on those. Everywhere I have applied some basic arithmetic and some objective criteria, I have been able to measure an improvement. It’s really helpful, on days when it feels like we’re stuck in the doldrums, to look at a trend line on a spreadsheet and SEE that the change is really happening.
Not everything can be quantified, though. Can we count how often we blame other people for things we had a part in? Can we count how often we call ourselves rude names or mentally beat ourselves up? Can we – do we? – count how often we hurt other people’s feelings, rather than how often they hurt ours? Can we count how often we have been unfair or selfish or overly critical? Is there a way to count how often we’ve been there for others when they need us? Is there a way to measure how attentively we listen or how considerate we are? Would we want to see these metrics?
I want to know. If there was a Rude-o-meter, I would buy one and wear it. Every time it ticked upward, I would slap myself right in the face. Until that day, though, I have to keep watch on my own lie and just try my best to catch myself not quite living up to my own standards.
We can’t quantify our character traits, not yet, anyway. If we could, I’m guessing the first measure available would be tracking which people in the conversation spent how much time talking vs. listening. It would work like a chess clock. Maybe it could also track tone of voice and tell whether we were being gentle or mocking or defensive. We would know ourselves for the complainers and blamers we are, and we’d understand why we never feel like anyone is listening as much as we do. (Hint: probably almost nobody is listening to anyone, ourselves included). When I was a little girl, I was fascinated by the story of Anubis weighing the hearts of recently dead people against a feather. I committed that I would do whatever it took to keep my heart light, lest it be eaten by the crocodile-headed demon Ammit. Whatever happens on the other side, whether there is an afterlife of any kind or not, it is often said that our lives flash before our eyes when we die. I worry that my movie will be full of embarrassing moments when I was thoughtless and inconsiderate, and I do what I can to mitigate that.
I quantify what I can quantify, because I know that inside myself is a greedy little liar. My ego always wants to be right. My ego wants what it wants, and that means dominating every conversation, making myself look good, and rendering myself blameless in every interaction. My ego wants everything that winds up ending badly; it wants to sit and eat without limits, to trade sleep for cheap entertainment, to procrastinate anything that doesn’t have chocolate in it, to shop ‘til it drops, to blather on endlessly, to ignore boundaries. Every time I turn around, there it is again, talking with its mouth full and accidentally elbowing people in the ribs. I throw numbers at it. I show it what we ate (“No I didn’t!”) and what we spent (“No I didn’t!”) and how much time we spent idly sitting around (“No I didn’t!”). The interesting thing is that my ego has its way of taking ultimate credit, no matter what I do. I reached my goal weight, so now my ego is proud of that, rather than being too proud to admit the shape we were in. I paid off my consumer debt, so my ego is proud of that, rather than demanding to buy things we couldn’t afford. I ran a marathon, and of course my ego thinks it’s responsible, rather than the self-discipline it was too proud to exert for so long. I’m trying to train it to respond to metrics in the same way that Pavlov taught dogs to salivate at the ringing of a bell.
A moral hazard is something that tends to lead us down the dark path of self-interest. It’s anything that tends to make us complacent or entitled. An example would be playing Scrabble with my Alzheimer’s-diagnosed grandmother, and helping her make a higher-point play that “coincidentally” opened up a higher-point play for me on my turn. A key part of living an ethical life is to try our best to spot moral hazards, and observe ourselves dispassionately. What do we actually do? What choices do we actually make? How do we actually spend our time? When we learn to be accurate observers of our behavior, we have the power to make informed changes. While they always redound to our own benefit, they tend to benefit everyone else around us even more.
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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.