Clutter blindness is the root of clutter. We stop noticing it. This is a spooky, Twilight Zone kind of a feeling. Imagine waking up one day and realizing that you've been living in an alternate dimension! You have no memory of it ever happening. How did you get here? Where are you? Where are your keys? How do you get out of here?? Living with clutter can be like living in an animate, brain-eating fog. I call it... the Blurry Zone.
Memories are not always made. This is a great blessing. Imagine remembering every single step you ever took, every single word you ever heard or read, every bad smell you ever smelled, and having that web of memories get thicker and stronger with every passing millisecond. Confusing! Exhausting! The earworms alone would drive you over the brink of sanity. Living in the moment is much easier. It generally takes something significant to cause the creation of a memory. Where I last set down my keys, my teacup, or my book is evidently not the type of thing that leads to memory formation. I've lost so many items of various description on the bus alone that I can confirm this. Hats, umbrellas, gloves and mittens, scarves, a cell phone, a library book once or twice... Fortunately, the many times I've left my day planner or my wallet, people have been kind enough to call me and make sure I got them back. It's a testament to the power of forgetting that I can't even call up a full inventory of all the stuff I lost because I didn't make a mental note when I set them down.
Just like we don't always form memories, we also don't notice everything that surrounds us. Living with animals can make this pretty clear. My dog notices when people are walking on the other side of the athletic field of the school across the street, a full block away. My parrot notices when jets are flying overhead so high that I can barely make out a tiny metallic speck. He will bark at a squirrel on the back fence and she will imitate a starling that is calling from a tree at the end of the street. They notice things because their vision and hearing are keener than mine. They also notice things because they have no distractions, not that I can tell. They can't read, they don't have jobs, they're oblivious to gossip, and they have no awareness of current events, unless you count the eventful lives of starlings and squirrels.
My clients are often mystified by their own surroundings. When we work together, we find things in their homes and they can't explain how they got there! Half the time, they'll recognize the item as a friend's sweater, book, or board game. The other half of the time, they have no idea where these things came from or whom to ask. We find forgotten money, uncashed checks, and gift cards. We find things they recognize as their own personal belongings, but that they forgot they had, which is why part of the clutter involves stockpiles of supplies of multiple extra redundant copies of backups. The number 55 comes up a lot: fifty-five t-shirts on the floor, fifty-five coffee mugs stacked all over the kitchen. An entire drawer full of mechanical pencils and dried-up pens. Did I... intentionally bring home all these things? Why? I must have had a reason, surely? Past Self wasn't returning Future Self's calls. The two great questions are:
Why Do I Have This?
What Was I Thinking?
It's harder for my squalor clients. As far as I can tell, they have no sense of smell. I have a cast-iron stomach, but I have had to fight the urge to vomit on the job before. My eyes have watered. I have had sneezing fits so strong that I've had to run out to the driveway until they stopped. Yet there is the family, living in a miasma that is close to assuming corporeal form, and they seem happy enough. Mold, sour milk, rotting compost, and pet waste all mixed together, the smell you can taste. How can they not notice it? It's called olfactory fatigue. After a while, you just stop smelling it, the way that I forget how awful our tap water tastes until I've been on a trip somewhere else. The human brain is perfectly capable of ignoring anything it finds irrelevant, and ceasing to notice bad odors makes even more sense than becoming blind to stacks and piles.
The process of awakening and starting to notice our blurry surroundings is a gradual one. First, we start to train ourselves to pay attention to things that previously escaped our notice. It's totally Zen. Second, we gradually start to introduce systems that enable us to maintain mental clarity. A functional system means we don't have to rely on memory. I always put my keys back in my bag, so I always know where to find them. My teacup and book are on the end table, because there isn't really another logical place to put them. If something is not in use, and it goes straight back to where it belongs, then there are no mysterious way stations where things can be absorbed back into the cloud of unknowing.
Clutter contributes to more clutter, and systems lead to more systems. When something doesn't work, it's really hard to make it start working, like when someone misfiles a paper or shelves a book in the wrong place in the Dewey Decimal System and it starts to get recursive. Horrors! The converse of that is that when a system is well-designed, it advertises itself. You can go to someone else's house and figure out where to find the hand soap and the trash can. Order and disorder are spirals. Anything we approach with the goal of mental clarity will quickly become organized, while any place we inhabit in a state of confusion, distraction, or overwhelming emotion will most likely become disordered. Mess can happen in seconds. It can also be set to rights in moments, when it is clearly inharmonious and does not match the mental or emotional state of the humans in the room.
The key is to acknowledge that we have the power to control our own surroundings. We can decide what we want from a space. So often, we associate order and organization with nit-picking and criticism, but it doesn't have to be that way. It can be calm, or warm and welcoming, or strikingly stylish, or whatever we want. What we want is to live intentionally. What we want is to have our outsides reflect our insides, and vice versa. If we're going to have any blurry zones, let them be around the areas of bad memories or our friends' flaws.
Pay off debts - and then what? What comes next? What number comes after zero? (Answer: infinite rational numbers). Paying off debt is exactly like clearing clutter or losing weight. We tend to make much faster progress when we realize that these goals are not ends in themselves. They are states of being. They are introductory goals. Paying off debt, like these other minor goals, is a new baseline. It becomes the new normal. What we do when we're planning for Future Self is to imagine that we've already reached the new baseline, and then to choose what our goals will be from that starting point. When we're climbing the stairs, we know what floor we're trying to reach; when we drive, we look up the road more than a few yards. We need to know where we're trying to go if we ever want to get there.
Financial education has three problems. First, what we learn from our parents, relatives, neighbors, and friends may be the opposite of helpful. Second, even if we're taught personal finance in school, we learn it at an age when it doesn't feel relevant. Third, almost all of the financial advice we receive as adults comes from marketing for products that benefit the seller, not necessarily the buyer. Whose advice are we supposed to take? We can choose from a bunch of people who don't know what they're doing, earnest educators who earn a teacher's salary, or predatory professionals who want a piece of our assets. This is why finance is exactly like fitness. It's like trying to sort advice from our fellow fat people, the gym teacher, or manufacturers of snake-oil weight loss pills.
Start with what you want. Not what someone else wants. Not everyone wants or needs to plan to buy a house or start a family. People who live alone with no dependents don't need life insurance. Some people would rather have job security, while others would rather live on the edge and be their own bosses. Some people love school and want advanced education, while others find it irrelevant. Some of us are ambitious and know we'll never be satisfied, because there's always more to learn and more to do, so how can there ever be an end goal?
What if your first problem is just knowing where your grocery money is coming from by the end of the week? Been there, done that, tried to sell the shirt at the consignment shop. Being hungry makes it really hard to concentrate on stuff like retirement planning. It also makes it hard to get through a job interview without your hands shaking. Getting a good job takes confidence that it's really hard to summon up when you're in dire straits. It takes faith that you have the power to work hard, contribute at a higher level, earn more, and get your feet back under you.
Since I've been there, let me share the rungs of the ladder, from flat broke to financially savvy.
1. Stockpiling a few days' worth of food. You have to learn to cook and how to bulk shop. For the cost of a Big Mac, I can make a pot of split pea soup and a loaf of homemade bread that will feed four people. Or I can buy five pounds of potatoes.
2. Building your reputation as a reliable worker. If you show up on time and work hard, people will set you up with opportunities to earn extra money. I was always able to find someone who would pay me ten bucks to clean their bathroom. I babysat, house sat, sewed buttons and did mending, hemmed pants, painted, and at least half a dozen other odd jobs and side hustles throughout my twenties.
3. Educating yourself. Everything I ever learned about finance, I learned from reading library books and personal finance websites. If you want better results than other people have, you have to know more than they do.
4. Getting ahead. First a week ahead, then a paycheck ahead, then a month ahead. This means you put money aside before your bills are due, instead of trying to pay after the statement comes. When I got my first job after I graduated from college, I slept on an air mattress for two months. When I got my first apartment, my living room was empty for two months while I saved for a couch. This is because I put my financial goals before physical comfort, much less entertainment or leisure. I wouldn't call this savings. It's just operational expenses. This money sits in your checking account, where the goal is never to go below the minimum balance.
5. Sock money. Cash that you hide in your house. Never tell anyone where it is, or look at it or touch it while someone can see you. Pretend you don't have it and that it doesn't exist. This is the money you rely on when you're really, really in trouble, for groceries or a cab to get the heck out of there. I have a jar of pennies I found on the street that now has over fifty bucks in it. That's separate from what I keep in my go bag for evacuating from natural disasters.
6. Emergency savings. An emergency savings account will most likely be depleted over and over again. That's why it's there. It's a buffer that keeps you from needing to put surprise expenses on a credit card. (Automotive repair, plane tickets for a funeral, co-pay on a root canal, etc). The only reason to use a credit card is to get reward points, but it's cheaper to buy the "rewards" directly than to carry a balance on a credit card. Emergency savings is not the same thing as retirement savings. Keep it in a regular savings account where you can withdraw it quickly if you need to.
7.Discretionary savings. This is not the same thing as emergency savings, and it's also not counted toward retirement. This is where you save for something like a new vehicle, furniture, orthodontia, or the deposit on a new apartment. Discretionary savings can go in a CD or "holiday and taxes" account that earns a little interest, but makes you wait before you can make withdrawals.
8. Investing. When I started investing for retirement, I had a quarter-time job and I was living in a dorm. It just happened. My job classification was suddenly eligible for retirement contributions. The money came out of my checks before taxes. It was a hard emotional choice, but whenever I would get a new job, I would immediately fill out the HR paperwork and make the maximum contribution eligible for the company match. I would put aside the maximum even if there wasn't a match. Future Self always got her chunk. I was still quite broke for the first five years after I started investing.
9. F.U. Money. "Forget yoU." This is when you have enough financial security that you can exit a dissatisfying situation. Quit a bad job, move away from a cruddy neighborhood, break a lease, leave an unhealthy relationship. If I had had F.U. money in my early 20s, I wouldn't have married my first husband in the first place, much less stayed with him. It's sad to realize that.
10. Planning for financial independence, or FI. Eff Eye. Being financially independent means that you have enough money coming in to afford your lifestyle without a paycheck. It's roughly equivalent to retirement, except that not everyone who "retires" is financially independent, and not everyone who is FI quits working. This can be achieved in several different ways. Most people have a mix, because it's safer and easier to diversify. There might be rents from properties like a rental house or apartment building. There might be dividends or interest from a portfolio of stocks and bonds. There might be passive income from one or more businesses, website ads, etc. There might be royalties from books, music, or recorded performances like TV commercials. There might be income from a family trust. Note that none of these means of earning income are taught in high school personal finance classes. Also, there is no specific amount of money required for financial independence; it depends on where you live and what your expenses are. Some people would rather quit working as soon as possible and live marginally, while others would rather keep going and live abundantly.
Note that I did not include a category for paying off debt. That's because debt is unnecessary - and irrationally expensive. Yes, it's hard to get an advanced education without debt, but it can be done. Yes, it's hard to buy a house without debt, but it can be done, too. For instance, my husband got his BS, and then the company that hired him paid for his Master's. I worked full-time during my freshman year while taking a full course load of 14 credit-hours, and I paid cash for my tuition and books each term. I was on the Dean's List, too. As for housing, more and more people are building tiny houses without a home loan, and there are distressed areas of the US where it's currently still possible to buy a house for one dollar. The debt we're talking about generally means consumer debt, and we like to be defense lawyers for ourselves when it comes to how necessary our credit card expenses really were. Consumer debt means we didn't have enough in our emergency funds and we didn't put away enough in discretionary savings, either.
The fastest, easiest way to reach financial goals is to earn more money. This usually means paying out of pocket and spending nights and weekends to earn credentials for a new career. Sometimes it means working 80-hour weeks for several years to start your own business, which may or may not succeed. Most people either don't realize there's another way, don't have the desire or energy to try any other ways, or simply lack the imagination to see more intriguing possibilities. We do what everyone else does, which is to live out the status quo and then feel extremely surprised and disappointed when we reach our sixties and understand what "retirement" really looks like.
Setting financial goals past the point of "debt free" involves doing unfamiliar things that the majority are not doing. This makes it uncomfortable, confusing, and sometimes scary. It takes faith. It can be like hiking a mountain trail in the dark with just a flashlight, climbing and climbing, twisting and turning, only able to see a few feet ahead of you, but believing that this trail leads somewhere. Then, suddenly, you find yourself at a higher elevation, and the sun rises on a new day with a vantage point you can't believe you're really seeing. With planning and preparation and training and effort, you got there.
Two Awesome Hours goes directly to my list of Where Were These Books Twenty Years Ago? For anyone who struggles with mental bandwidth, chronic disorganization, procrastination, or attention deficit issues, this book contains absolutely vital information. It's concrete, easy to understand, and based on actual research. I highly recommend Josh Davis's brief book. Even a single chapter can turn your day around.
I'm convinced that most chronic procrastinators simply don't know how to shift into the type of concentration required for deep work. We are right in suspecting that other people know how to do something we don't know how to do. Two Awesome Hours offers tangible things we can do to help set us up for this type of concentration, none of which were obvious or intuitive to me. For instance, I was fascinated to learn that background noise may be helpful or distracting depending on decibel level!
Another common issue is scattering attention between multiple tasks, and avoiding work on the highest priority by focusing on lesser tasks. I see this with my chronically disorganized clients. They have a lot of trouble making decisions, partly because they keep switching focus between multiple items. A huge amount of time can be burned in indecision mode, like when you realize you've spent twenty minutes looking at your movie queue instead of watching something. This is another area where Two Awesome Hours offers specific techniques to fight this time-wasting tendency.
What I liked best about Two Awesome Hours, besides all the under-reported research it shares, is the way that Davis ties everything to emotional states. This is why we need to know this information. It's not just about being more efficient or about being expert at time management. It's about feeling better! Two Awesome Hours can make you feel triumphant, relaxed, competent, and all sorts of positive states that don't come from disorganization or distraction.
Quitting is highly underrated. The desire to complete every single thing we start is a neutral trait. It's purely negative when it keeps us tied to irrelevant past decisions. Sometimes, following through is simply a bad idea, a waste of time, energy, and money. The art of doing what you want includes the art of making executive decisions, and that means knowing when to quit. Quit something for the New Year. Quitting something may free up enough energy and mental bandwidth to start something better.
Quit watching TV series that aren't living up to your expectations. For the sake of all that is holy, please quit watching episodes that you've already seen.
Look at all your books. If there are any that you quit reading, and then moved on to read something else, just quit. Give them away or put them in the recycle bin.
Open your fridge and your kitchen cupboards. Anything you bought as a taste test that you can't make yourself eat should just go straight into the compost. Owning a bunch of kale that you aren't planning to learn to cook is just going to turn into brown pudding.
Go through your drawers and your closet. Anything in there that doesn't fit today should go into a trash bag. Haul it all off to the Salvation Army as soon as you're done. If you're ever going to transform your body, it ain't going to be because you're haunted by your old skinny jeans.
Look around for the relics of old projects. Craft projects. Shop projects. Electronics projects. Language learning projects. Musical instruments. If you weren't working on it yesterday, you're not into it. If there's dust on it, well, dusted is busted. You don't love it anymore. Quit and move on.
Quitting done properly should bring a sense of relief. Just because Past You made a time commitment on your behalf does not mean that you are obligated to fulfill it. Past You probably thought you'd have time in this life to audition for Cirque du Soleil, become a surgeon, and learn to communicate with dolphins, just as soon as you finish becoming a master chef and winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. Not happening. Present Self likes to do the same stuff that Past Self did, like watching TV, playing with your phone, and eating brownie bites. Future Self is going to carry on the old family tradition.
Acceptance of reality is a necessary part of self-compassion. Look around and say, IT IS WHAT IT IS. Here you are, today, in the home that you have, the career path that you have, with the education that you have, the bank account that you have, and the body that is you. Better than it might have been, perhaps not as good as it could have been, but, here it is. Current state of affairs.
Is this what you want?
All we get is default mode. Whatever we structure into our daily routine, that's what our lives will be. Every minute that we spend doing one thing is a minute that we can then never spend on something else. Every object that surrounds us takes up a spot in the physical universe where another object can't be. Every penny we spend is gone, never to be spent on something else, such as retirement. These are the choices we made. When our choices are intentional, we shape our world to our liking. When we cruise along on autopilot, we may not always stop to realize that we haven't been setting intentions. That means we are not choosing, we are not deciding, we are not exerting free will. Things happen to us when we could be happening to things.
Commitment means what you think it means. If you make commitments lightly, with only mild interest and vague intentions, then the results of your commitments will be unimpressive or nonexistent. Gradually, the halfhearted, lackluster nature of the commitments begins to pile up. Magazines we thought we'd read one day, mail we intended to sort, classes we planned to take, projects we wanted to finish, messes we meant to clean up. We wake up one day, realizing that we're broke, out of shape, and surrounded by clutter. It's because we never stopped to make executive decisions and quit anything. We don't like to stop and declare something DONE, either because we're quitting or because we followed through until it was finished. Our dance cards are full.
Making a total commitment can transform your life. Your word becomes your bond. You know you will follow through unless you are forced to quit. When I signed up for my marathon, my brother asked me if I thought I'd make it. "Oh, I'll make it to the finish line. I'll make it if I have to drag myself by my chin. The question is WHEN I'll make it." It took over seven hours, and I had to drag my leg for the last eight miles due to an injury. They rerouted the end of the course. I had to go on the sidewalk and wait for stoplights. But I made it to the finish line, and I was still vertical. That's what commitment looks like. It's not always pretty and it's not even always a good idea. But breaking promises to yourself is what happens when you make them too readily. Only commit, only make that inner promise, when you know it really matters to you.
A commitment is a tradeoff. It means you're spending your time and treasure on it instead of something else. Accepting one job offer means that you reject the others. An RSVP to an event means declining other opportunities. In our world, this idea is falling away. We think we can multi-task, to the point that we try to text and drive. We think we can have it all, and we think we can have it all at the same time. This is why we only have what we already have. This is why our reality so rarely matches our fantasies. Doing what we were called to do means quitting everything else that is taking up our time and attention.
When I was fat, I didn't think I was fat. I thought I was average to thin. I did not think my health issues were connected in any way to my size, my habits, or what I ate. I thought I ate a healthy diet. I thought my health problems were fate, and that everything else in my life stemmed from that, rather than the reverse. I thought I was doing pretty well, considering my family tree in general. I had always been told that I had "birthin' hips" and so, if I had a big butt, it was the fault of my skeleton. Darn you, bones, always getting me into trouble!
Now that I'm thin, nobody believes I was ever heavier. I tell them I lost 35 pounds, and the reaction is almost like reading off a script. "I can't picture that at all." "I don't see it." The skeletal structure is the same, but nobody says I have "birthin' hips" anymore.
Now that I'm healthy, I see everything differently. I see that I ate what I would now consider a dessert 3-5 times a day. I see that I ate more sugar than vegetables. I see that I was deficient in key micronutrients over a period of decades. I see that fixing my diet fixed my parasomnia disorder and my migraines, and that the excess weight was simply one more symptom. Now that I'm a marathon runner, I see my thyroid disease in a different context, as something that could have been managed through activity level. I can feel it now, when I haven't been able to work out for a while, and I start feeling chilly and lethargic again. Yes, the migraines, the thyroid disease, and the parasomnia disorder came from genetic tendencies, but that does not mean they are fixed, irreversible traits. It simply means I have those underlying traits instead of something else, and thus my focus should be on managing them instead of something else. Isn't it weird, though (she said ironically), that making one change fixed several problems at once??
I bought into a mindset that I now recognize in many people. I didn't think I was fat, statistics be damned, and that's because almost everyone I knew was bigger than me. I thought that any suggestion that women should be a certain size was fundamentally misogynist, part of a marketing conspiracy to brainwash women into hating their bodies and buying more clothes and cosmetics. I thought I was the size I was due to family legacy and health problems. I thought weight loss required hours at the gym. I thought every time I ate something healthy, it somehow canceled out anything else I ate, like eating a quarter cup of broccoli would erase a can of cola. It's like matter and anti-matter! I thought thinking about weight loss would lead directly to neurotic body image problems, and that it was a foolish distraction from intellectual matters. The gym was for people who weren't smart enough to read a book. I didn't know anyone who could be described as an athlete. I figured I was doing just fine, so why change?
Now I think that obesity is a natural consequence of the Standard American Lifestyle. I think that what is really bad for women's body image is not feeling strong and physically capable, that contemporary body image dogma overlaps perfectly with pre-feminist Victorian ideals of passivity and exaggerated curves. I consider myself an athlete, which I NEVER thought I would say, and the athletes I have met tend to be smarter and more interesting overall. Athletes are certainly better informed about nutrition and physiology than the average layperson. As I have learned more about health and fitness, it has become easier to BE fit and healthy. I talked myself into it first, and started seeing results afterward. I now want to find out just how much I can do, just what exciting new horizons of performance I can coax out of myself, how awesome and trend-setting I can be as an elderly lady.
When I think about the habits I had when I was fat, it makes me want to stamp my foot. Oh, Past Self, you stubborn little ninny!
Some things change and some things don't change. I read more than I ever did, only now some of it is on the elliptical and some of it is via headphones. Some of my reading material is skewed toward medical journal articles. I eat as much as I ever did, only now I cook more of it myself and more of it is skewed toward vegetables. I don't think as much about body image, because I have nothing to prove and nothing to gain from that kind of conversation. I don't really get sick anymore and I am pain-free as a general rule. In many ways, I look and feel younger than I did 15 years ago. It's hard to look back and recognize that my Past Self would have been mentally locked down against anything I had to say about what I have learned.
I didn't think my body mattered because I identified with my head. I was like a floating speech balloon or thought bubble in a comic strip. Or the operator of a giant mecha-robot. I drove my body like a car... kind of a junker car, but an impersonal vehicle nonetheless. Most of the time, I didn't pay attention to my body at all, unless I was in pain or had a physical need I couldn't ignore. I sat perfectly still for long periods, often until my foot fell asleep, and I would swing between mindless snacking and going too long between meals. If I'd treated a child the way I treated myself, I would have been in big trouble. I just didn't think my behavior had anything to do with my physical self.
I still don't think much about my activity level or my diet, because now I know what to do. I know how to cook basic meals that take half an hour and meet my nutritional needs. I have an inner sense of when I need to get up and move around. I have several types of workouts that interest me, and I can do them while reading or letting my mind wander. I don't give much thought to my physical needs, not because I'm pretending I don't have any, but because I know how to meet them with a simple routine. I still don't think I'm fat, only now this belief meets scientific consensus.
I prefer my body the way it is now, and I'd rather be 40 than 20 if it meant the twenty-year-old I actually was. Being strong and active satisfies my mind. Physical vigor allows me to do unusually interesting things. I still do what I did before, in terms of academic pursuits and pleasure reading, and I've added more. Now I can hike up to a Neolithic cave site instead of reading about it. I can spend hours walking around a museum or archaeological site and not get too tired or collapse with a migraine. Now my body can keep up with my mind.
Goals are for amateurs. This is true for many reasons, and one of them is that goals usually aren't ambitious enough. Making goals can be like adding a minor chore to your to-do list just for the satisfaction of crossing it off. We give ourselves the feeling of forward motion in life, without acknowledging that we're deliberately going as slowly as possible. Usually, when we think about going bigger, there's no reason why we couldn't. We balk because we can't imagine what comes next, and we'd rather control our rate of risk exposure.
Another problem with goals is that they aren't always the right goals. We choose worthy goals in order to disguise the fact that the really juicy ones are being studiously ignored. We feel resentment, confusion, or anxiety about particular goals, so we put a big mental 'N/A' over that sector. We don't know what to do, or we don't want to, so we do nothing, even if this would be the area of greatest benefit in our lives.
Probably the worst flaw in goal-setting is that we don't plan what we'll do after we reach the goal. WHY are we setting this particular goal? This is part of why we don't make progress more quickly. Lack of vision for the far horizon keeps us focused on the middle distance. Often, we reach our goals, only to backslide all the way to where we started, or farther. The goal itself hasn't satisfied the inner need and is then discarded.
This is how it works for the Big Three:
Lose Weight. Worst goal parameter ever. Why? How? How much? Then what?
Get Organized. What does this mean to you? What does it look like? How do you do it? How do you know when you're done? What comes next?
Get Out of Debt. Great, good job. Now you're only spending 100% of what you earn. What next?
This came as a big surprise to me, but: Successful people don't think about these goals. Elite athletes don't think about weight loss; they think about performance metrics specific to their sport. Accomplished people (artists, entrepreneurs, athletes) don't think about getting organized; they think about making art, making money, or setting records. Wealthy people don't think about getting out of debt; they think about getting rich. They don't have weight to lose, clutter to clear, or debt to repay. What we're doing when we set these "goals" is rolling the dice to get our pawns onto the first square of the game board. We're not at the end of the game, we're at the beginning!
Lose weight WHY? Get organized BECAUSE WHY? Get out of debt AND THEN WHAT?
Clarifying what would be More Awesome Than This can unleash a massive amount of energy. Suddenly we understand that the sooner we get this over with, the sooner we can move forward into an enchanting new chapter of life.
I lost and gained the same 15 pounds at least six times. Unfortunately, at the low end of that range I was still 18 pounds overweight. When I finally made the decision to find out what it felt like to be at the "healthy weight for my height," curiosity drove me. The excess weight I had carried since I was a teenager was gone in four months. The last time I weighed what I weigh today, I was 12 and not yet at my full height. Of course, at 12 I couldn't run a marathon or climb a rope like I can as an adult. My REASONS for maintaining an athletic fitness level are that I can hike to staggeringly beautiful places that are only accessible on foot, keep going all day when I travel, and avoid canceling my plans due to migraine. At this point, I don't have to think about it anymore, because the way I eat and plan my day to support my new physique feels natural. I feel like myself, like the old me wasn't the Real Me.
Getting organized was always really tough for me, and I didn't figure out why until I was out of college. I read through a description of ADHD and realized that I checked almost every box. Aha! It was so liberating and validating. I wasn't alone, I wasn't defective, and I wasn't lazy! I read some books on attention deficit and started getting a handle on it. Now I stay "organized" because it helps me think straight and enables me to do fun things. I organize my luggage, my camping gear, my writing projects, and the occasional big party as part of the process of awesomeness.
I paid off my consumer debt in my early 30s. That was a big victory. Suddenly the money I had freed up enabled me to buy a new couch, go on vacation, and move to a nicer place. I maxed out my retirement contributions at work. Ten years later, I'm starting to realize that saving at that rate is not the only option. A trend line can be predicted for different ages, different savings rates, and different rates of monthly expenditure. Another way to put that is, how much Yee-hah do I want when I'm too old to work? Now my focus has nothing to do with getting out of debt. It has everything to do with not having to eat ramen when I'm 86.
Do it for Future Self. The thing about our Future Selves is that we create ourselves by aiming in particular directions. Or not. Many of the things that happen to us as we get older are the result of not planning to avoid them. I have to plan to avoid losing my umbrella because my tendency is to leave them all over the place, like Johnny Umbrellaseed. Likewise, we have to plan NOT to be poor, sedentary, overweight, or cluttered. Not very interesting in the long run, though. We have to plan TO create a real legacy: close friendships, admiring students, a thriving business, a body of work. Poetry doesn't write itself. Let's get over the speed bumps that are minor goals and start moving toward our real destinies.
Perfectionism is the enemy. Resolutions are about transformation, not about getting an A+ on our report cards. A quarter of people who make New Year's Resolutions quit after the first WEEK. Is this because we chose things we didn't really want for ourselves, or because we thought we have to do it perfectly every single day as soon as we set the goal? Either way, there are better, more fun ways to approach this obstacle.
What we're trying to do is to make something worthwhile into something that becomes a natural part of our lives. Once upon a time, we had trouble eating with a spoon and putting our own socks on. Those are great resolutions for a baby! We master them and take these challenging new abilities completely for granted. The same thing can be true for anything we want to do, whether that's playing guitar, riding a horse, or learning to cook. What we're doing is figuring out how to redistribute our attention and our time to include the new thing. We're telling new stories about our identity. "I am the kind of person who X," with X representing "COMMITS AWESOMENESS." This is about changing our minds. With certain habits, that can happen in an instant, like when we have a bad experience and know we'll never eat at a certain restaurant again. With other habits, it takes much longer to catch ourselves in the act and redirect toward a habit we like better. If it's really worth it, then we should be willing to give it as long as it takes.
Take a resolution like learning to speak a foreign language. This is the most commonly kept resolution, one that people like well enough to carry on with it. How do we check the box and say we've completed this resolution? For me, the first moment was breaking the ice and speaking any word at all to a native speaker. I ordered food in a Mexican restaurant, and when the waitress said, "Buen provecho," I was so happy I almost cried. IT WORKED! I spoke a foreign language and someone understood me! I even got the right dish! Then we went to Spain and I was able to negotiate train tickets. Not only did we get to the correct destination, but the agent even told us about a cheaper fare and we got a 40% discount. If we can forgive ourselves for being beginners, if we can give ourselves the A+ for EFFORT and not for perfection (which does not exist, by the way), then the momentum will carry us along. Learning new things is exciting.
There is no "done" with the best resolutions. We're not going to learn to do something like playing a musical instrument and then quit just when we're getting good. Or are we? Many resolutions have to do with resuming things we used to do, things that we already know how to do. Artists who haven't picked up a sketchbook since before their kids were born may resolve to start drawing again. Singers may look for a choir or sign up for serious voice lessons. High school athletes may head back to the pool, join an intramural league, or sign up for a triathlon. When we take this approach, we're reclaiming part of our schedule and saying, I am allowed to do things for myself. I don't need permission. I'm setting a good example for my kids (or other parents).
Where we get into trouble is when we choose a major transformation without really knowing how to go about it. This is why I think resolutions are better than goals. We can choose a recurring action that doesn't have a deadline, and work it into our schedule without a specific goal attached. When we choose a specific goal on a deadline, and we don't reach it for some reason, it can be so demoralizing that we quit. We never thought about what 'done' looks like, we don't know what steps to take, we refuse to ask for help, we thought we would get results faster than everyone else does, and we insist on believing in willpower and motivation. Sometimes we know what to do, but we don't like that idea, and we want to try to reinvent the wheel and do things our own way. A way that doesn't work. Especially in the arena of New Year's Resolutions, we are conditioned to not only accept, but to expect failure. It's a low-stakes commitment. It's easier to let ourselves off the hook than it is to have to change our minds and realize that we have to do what works, even if the way that works is the way we don't like.
It's better to accept reality before we start. A 'stop' goal like nail biting or smoking is simply going to take multiple attempts. The average smoker tries to quit three or four times before succeeding. Weight loss typically happens at a rate of about 1.5 to 2 pounds a week. There's an urban myth that it takes 21 days to form a habit, but that has been debunked. In reality, some people make changes instantly, like the moment they find out they're going to have a baby. The more accurate figure is 66 days. That's well over two months. It's a marathon, not a sprint, and since I mentioned it, marathon training schedules are spread over four months. It would be nice if we could just snap our fingers and be transformed. I won't even rule that out. Our habits, what we think of as our personalities, have been built over time, and thus they'll only be reconstructed over time.
The secret to success is to pick the right time for the right resolution, and structure it in a way that makes it really hard to lose. An awesome goal like "visit all 50 states in the US" can be scheduled as a madcap summer vacation, or spread out over 25 years. There's no real reason that we have to fit everything into one calendar year, and in fact the really ambitious stuff takes multiple years to complete. The main thing is not to rely on memory or the spur of the moment. We have to get out our 2017 calendars and figure out EXACTLY WHEN we are going to fulfill our resolutions. Expecting a perfect streak starting on 1/1 is setting ourselves up for a loss. Half of those who make resolutions have given up within six months. We didn't make backup plans for what we'd do when the weather changed, when we got sick or injured, when we went out of town, when we had to work overtime, or when we just didn't feel like and weren't in the mood.
We still know how to feed ourselves with a spoon and put our socks on when we're not in the mood. We just learned to do these things long ago, made them part of our identity, and moved on. What we have to learn is how to fit new habits into our lives in the same way. Eventually we'll do them no matter how we feel or how much we'd rather be doing something else. It takes time, many, many, many failed attempts and forgetful moments, forgiving ourselves, picking ourselves up, and starting over.
I recommend that we just skip January entirely. Make January the month when all we do is watch videos of people doing the thing we want to do. Interview people who do the thing and ask them how they do it, what they like about it, how they get over the hard parts. Read articles or books about doing the thing. Figure out some strategies. Come up with some backup plans. Figure out how we're going to fit it into our lives during non-routine situations. Schedule things we're going to do related to the thing every month. Imagine how it will look when we're successful at the thing sometime after Thanksgiving. A year is really a pretty long time. January represents only 11% of the year. There's still time to earn a B+ even if we blow off that month entirely. Skip January and think more about December.
Year of Yes is a concept that can take over your whole life. It's also a great example of the way that resolutions are so much more powerful than goals. I had no idea who Shonda Rhimes was, but I'm a fan now. In fact I might even think of her as a guru. This book made me laugh out loud, and it also made me pause and recognize my own resistance, fears, and stubbornness. What better time to read it than at the turning of a New Year?
The thing about Shonda Rhimes is that she has what a lot of us think would solve all of our problems. She has a loving family, a fascinating and fun job, money, fame, and the ability to call the shots in most situations. Yet there she is, doing what we all do, which is to manufacture our own problems. As the book begins, her sister calls her out for always saying NO to opportunity. Where the natural reaction would be to get angry and tell the sister to mind her own business, Rhimes lets the criticism filter through. She resolves that for a year, she will say YES to everything. That's when it starts to get crazy.
Resolutions are great because we have no way of knowing how they will turn out. Resolutions can be terrifying for the same reason. We have such a strong desire to control our lives and manage risk that we will say NO to almost everything. We'll even reject many things in advance, on the off chance that they might happen. There's a common pattern of talking about what we DON'T WANT, rather than what we do want. It makes us feel discerning, like we are exerting our great taste and driving the bus of life. Saying yes to things and declaring what we want can get awfully specific. Suddenly we're rocketing past our comfort zones so fast we can't even imagine what comes next.
When the resistance goes, a lot of things go with it. The unintended consequences that follow Shonda Rhimes and her decision to live a Year of Yes make the book that much funnier. Her willingness to examine herself and let go of her desire to stay in the comfort zone ripple outward into areas she never expected. It is impossible to read this book without at least a few moments of rueful agreement. Yep, me too, me too. That's me, right there. Say Yes to a Year of Yes and see what happens.
Resolutions fail so often because we are too vague about the details. We might really want to do the thing, we might really be able to picture ourselves doing the thing, we might even make a public commitment to do the thing. Then we stop. We blame ourselves for lacking motivation or willpower. We think we're procrastinators. We beat ourselves up for being lazy losers or for always failing at our resolutions. Really, all that happened was that we skipped a step. If it doesn't get scheduled, it doesn't happen.
WHEN am I going to do it? Say I'm planning to go to the gym. What time of day? Which days? What are my backup plans?
HOW am I going to do it? Say I choose a resolution like 'Spend more quality time with family.' On December 31, 2017, how am I going to know whether I kept this resolution or not? What does 'more' mean?
WHY am I doing it? Do I truly care about this resolution more than I care about my default behavior? Am I curious about it? Does it sound so fun and exciting that I want to jump up and down? Do I involuntarily break into a grin every time I think about it? Or does it sound like duty, obligation, and boredom?
As an example, last year I had an extremely boring goal. I wanted to digitize all my paper notebooks. Some could be scanned and some would have to be typed up, because my handwriting was too faint. This was THE MOST BORING RESOLUTION IN THE WORLD. I thought I might actually die doing it and that cobwebs would grow from my skull to the keyboard. All together, it took me weeks scattered throughout the year. I could have finished it in a month if I'd really knuckled down. It took me until the last week of December. I only finished by forcing myself. Now I'm really pleased with the results, because all this information is instantly available on my phone, instead of sitting in a closet where it was vulnerable to damage. There was nothing about it that would make me want to do it; it sucked. A reminder would show up in my phone and I would go "UUUUHHNNNNNNG." I just had to keep reminding myself that once I was done, I was done, and I'd never have to do it again. Thanks, Past Self!
Recognizing the emotions that are brought up by goals and resolutions can be a huge help in meeting them. If I feel guilty every time I think about scheduling family phone calls or visits, it's going to make me want to avoid this, even though I love my family and enjoy spending time with them. If I feel angry every time I think about going to the gym or losing weight, I'm never going to do it, unless of course I discover kickboxing. If I feel depressed and overwhelmed every time I think about getting organized, I'm probably going to be in the same state next year as I was this year. This is why it helps to make resolutions around how you want to feel.
I resolve to go to the gym at least three times a week, because when I come out of yoga class I feel the way I wish I would feel every minute of every day. When I don't go, my neck gets all stiff. I'll go Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, and if I miss one of these days, I'll go to the noon class on Saturday.
I resolve to set a bedtime alarm Sunday through Thursday, because I love how it feels when I sleep 8 hours and wake up without an alarm.
I resolve not to drink caffeine after noon, because I hate feeling irritable and snappy and then not being able to fall asleep that night.
Temporary mood repair is THE reason we do things that we recognize are a bad idea. Procrastinating, emotional eating, setting stuff in a pile to deal with "later," yelling at our kids, complaining, gossiping, binge-watching TV, obsessive gaming, and sleep procrastinating all have to do with mood repair. It's called "giving in to feel good." We reward ourselves for skipping what we "should" be doing to do what we LIKE doing. It's like giving your dog a cookie for biting you. Instead of going to the gym, I'll go straight home and drink wine! Yay!
We wait until we'll "feel like it" or until we're "in the mood." What this means is that we always feel like the same stuff we always do, we never feel like doing anything we aren't already doing, and we're never in the mood for anything not-fun. When we let our moods dictate what we do and don't do, we'll continue to get the results we always get. Resolutions are about DOING STUFF, regardless of what mood we're in.
The great thing about this is that pushing ourselves to do things, even when we're not in the mood, can eventually create that missing mood. I'm never in the mood to put on workout clothes and go out the door to the gym, especially if the weather is bad. But once class starts, and my gimpy neck starts relaxing, I remember how much I love this class. I feel great afterward. I have to try to recall this great post-yoga feeling every time I start talking myself into skipping class.
The point of resolutions is a lifestyle upgrade. We want to have fewer unpleasant experiences and more awesome experiences. We want our most boring day to be a little closer to our ideal routine. Making this happen requires focused attention, action, backup plans, and catching ourselves when we revert back to default.
"Lose weight" is not just the most commonly failed New Year's Resolution. It's probably the single biggest reason that people don't believe in resolutions, period. I can speak to this. I lost 35 pounds and kept it off. That's a lot for a 5'4" person! I've maintained my goal weight for three years. Before I lost my weight, I probably believed every possible wrong thought about weight gain and weight loss. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. Usually, when I lost any weight at all, it was by accident. Given my experience, my opinion is that most people fail at weight loss because we set the stakes too high. Try to do too much, on too tight a deadline, without knowing exactly what you're doing, and failure is guaranteed.
Guaranteed failure can be reassuring because we can shrug it off. Oh well, I tried. We can even try something else and then say, I'VE TRIED EVERYTHING AND NOTHING WORKED!
I say, just lose three pounds. Three is plenty, and I'll tell you why.
Three pounds is the difference between pants that won't zip, and pants that will zip.
Three pounds is the difference between tight and comfortable.
Three pounds is the difference between not being able to use your pants pockets, and being able to put your phone in them.
Three pounds is just enough to maybe start noticing a difference in knee pain, ankle pain, foot pain, or back pain.
Three pounds is just enough to prove that hey, it is actually possible to lose weight.
Three pounds is enough to reverse the tendency to gain weight without noticing it, and bring focus and attention to your body. Not gaining for a year is a victory.
Three pounds over a year is a quarter-pound a month.
Three pounds is manageable enough that, if you feel stymied and that this is an impossible goal, it's a solid indicator that your real issue is trusting in your own self-efficacy. Do you believe you have the power to make any meaningful change in your life?
Three pounds is enough that, if you do it every year, then you'll be down thirty pounds in ten years. Think of yourself as ten years older and ask whether Future You would appreciate this. (I know that if I'd asked 19-year-old me if I would want to be 35 pounds heavier at 29, plus chronically ill, single, and lonely, Younger Me would have burst into tears).
What would it take to lose three pounds? It starts with writing down your starting weight. This can be regarded as exactly like looking at your credit card balance if you are worried about money. Knowing the truth can feel panicky. Knowing the truth can make you want to berate yourself and call yourself a loser or various other horrible names. It is what it is, though. Reality is easier to live with when we acknowledge it. I would say we should all feel excited about high starting numbers and super-unflattering Before photos, because they'll be all the more impressive when we put them up next to our After photos. But nobody realizes that until later. I don't even have any pictures of me from my top weight.
First there's the initial weigh-in. Then there are follow-up weigh-ins. Then there is an ongoing plan to keep tabs on it and preserve that victory. At Curves, they weigh in on the same day every month. At Weight Watchers, they weigh in every week. I weigh in every day, unless I'm on vacation and don't have access to a scale. I bought a scale for $25 and I'm still using it a decade later.
Keeping a resolution or reaching a goal requires some kind of reminder system. The default is to make commitments and then gradually forget about them. The more people in your social circle who are not goal-setters, the more likely that is. Many people will actively sabotage someone else's goal, I guess because they have nothing better to do. Losing three pounds, though, is a small enough goal that you can keep it to yourself and they might not even notice. It can be private. Just schedule a reminder in your phone to weigh in on a predictable basis.
Three pounds is a small enough amount that making any one change will probably work. Stop eating bagels. Don't carry cash at work so you won't buy things from vending machines. Switch to a smaller size of drink. Change your evening snack from cheese and crackers to something else. Quit buying food when you stop for gas. Don't eat in your car. Don't eat on the couch. Eat a half-cup of vegetables at dinner every night. Something. If it comes from a gas station or a bakery, or it involves booze, sugar, or cheese, you're probably on the right track. Pick one change and remind yourself, the goal is three measly pounds.
Lose three pounds. If you don't like it, you can always gain it back. You don't even have to tell anyone. Losing three pounds doesn't require changing your self-image or changing what other people think of you, either. Try it and see if you like it.
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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