Cal Newport is back to help us think clearly. It’s no surprise that the author of the incredible and essential Deep Work would bring us a thoughtful, well-researched book like Digital Minimalism. Let’s pause a moment and consider whether our use of electronic devices and social media is intentional.
Newport makes a compelling case that our digital lives have become pervasive without our really realizing it. We never planned to be checking our phones so often; it just happened. Further, this unintentional creeping was deliberately designed by tech companies. They manipulate our attention, using intermittent rewards to keep us hooked and using their products as many minutes a day as possible.
What should we do? We should protect how we spend our time. We should make those decisions based on our deepest personal values and the activities we enjoy the most. Digital minimalism is making sure that our social media use, streaming content, gaming, and other uses of our time provide massive value. It’s also making sure that our digital lives aren’t completely crowding out delights like playing music or visiting friends face-to-face.
There’s a “new economics” that shifts the unit of measure of value from money to time. Many of us feel that we don’t have enough time, no matter how much money we have. Minimalism is a way of reclaiming our time from cultural default activities and rededicating it to people and activities that are truly important to us. Newport cites the financial independence community and Mr. Money Mustache as examples.
Intention over convenience is the goal. Are we actually choosing how we spend our time, and are we respecting our own priorities? Hacks are insufficient for reining in digital consumption, though people have tried. Newport advises a detox, a thirty-day digital declutter, during which we can rediscover all the things we love to do but forgot about, because we always have our phones in our hands. We can then gradually reintroduce digital content, remembering that permanent transformation is what we need to get our lives back.
Other people have done it and we can use their example. Digital Minimalism has many examples of digital minimalists who started painting and reading again, among other things. We can use the internet in service of a “leisure renaissance,” learning to do new things, connect with people who share our interests, and find out about events and activities.
Digital Minimalism offers a Seasonal Leisure Plan, which can be built either around the academic calendar, quarterly business cycles, or anything else that the individual prefers. Newport also has a plan for Slow Media, a good idea for news junkies like me. We can continue to engage in social media, though most people can get their needs met in 20-40 minutes of use per week!
This is a provocative and interesting book. I read it after realizing that I had been filling far too much time reading news articles, and making the resolution to be more aware of my news consumption. I decided that the easiest way to deal with this was to focus on reading full-length books instead, like I’ve done most of my life, and using my devices to support that. It has been wonderful! Why read a bunch of clickbait instead of novels and fascinating books like Digital Minimalism? Now that warm weather is coming, I’m going to sit myself down and think about all the fun things there are to do outdoors, with my phone zipped into my pocket.
For many people, their compulsive phone use papers over a void created by a lack of a well-developed leisure life.
Solitude Deprivation: A state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds.
As I’ve learned by interacting with my readers, many have come to accept a background hum of low-grade anxiety that permeates their daily lives.
After crunching the numbers, the researchers found that the more someone used social media, the more likely they were to be lonely.
Here’s my suggestion: schedule in advance the time you spend on low-quality leisure.
Lemme tell ya a few things about research. First, you shouldn’t listen to anything I have to say, because I’m a blogger and you have no means of verifying any of my stated credentials. The only thing I can guarantee to you is that “my opinion” may or may not accurately state my actual opinion on any topic.
I may or may not be who I claim to be. I may in fact be an AI, a person who looks just like me and has my same name, or an unusually bright magpie that likes keyboards.
Now that we have that cleared away:
I have a bachelor’s degree in history. I “research” things all the time, because it’s how I like to spend my time. I’m motivated by curiosity. What I’m doing falls under different categories. They have official terminology.
“Gathering string”: Reading and skimming a bunch of stuff at random, not knowing where it might lead, and possibly finding an interesting pattern. This is a lot like looking through your fridge and cobbling together a dinner out of leftovers, or shopping at a thrift store. What am I going to find? Dunno, but let’s keep looking! Gathering string doesn’t work as well if you have a specific outcome in mind.
“Looking something up”: Checking information, like whether there is a location of a particular business nearby, or what restaurant options there are in a city we’re planning to visit. I might also look up the date that something happened, which historical figure invented something, or other verifiable data.
“Reading”: Reading things that other people wrote.
“Studying”: Trying to learn about something. For instance, recently I did a speech on Ignatz Semmelweis for my public speaking club. I wouldn’t claim to have done “research” because I don’t speak German and I lack expertise in medicine or public health. What I did do was to read half a dozen articles about Semmelweis and look for images from his time period. Most people would probably consider the work I did on this report to be “research,” but I would refer to it as “reading up on” something or “putting it together.”
“Reporting”: Investigative journalism, such as finding out that someone lied about their credentials or accepted funding unethically. Reporting is based on verifiable information that is not readily available, possibly because someone is motivated to hide that information.
“Original research”: Most of what I do as an historian is NOT original research. I know what it is, I know how to do it, and yet I generally have not done, nor claimed to do, original research.
What would be an example of original research?
Let’s say that I am extremely interested in the history of conspiracy theories. I am putting together a biography of Sir Edmund J. Whackaloon, noted conspiracy theorist. His chief claim to fame is the factual statement that “the Moon is made of green cheese.” (A factual statement says that something is a fact, even if that statement is demonstrably false. It has to be something that can be proved or disproved).
While researching Sir Whackaloon, I note that a collection of his personal letters and diaries was donated to the Noted Archive as part of the Eminent Library. It’s been catalogued, but as far as I can document, nobody has actually read anything in this collection. *OOOOOOOOH*
I ask for permission and go in to look over the special collection. While reading through it, I discover that Sir Whackaloon has kept a secret diary discussing his theories on performance art and mass hysteria. Over a period of eleven years, he had been pulling an elaborate prank, pretending to believe that the Moon is made of green cheese, just to see whether he could get anyone to believe him. Astounding!
What I’ve done is to consult primary source documents, discover new information, formulate my own version of events based on this evidence, and make it public. Once my paper is edited, published, and peer-reviewed, it’s up for debate. Naturally, other Whackaloon scholars are going to dispute my formulation and try to refute it, and that’s all part of the game.
Sir Whackaloon’s letters and journals are the primary source.
My academic paper referring to this collection of letters and journals, that’s a secondary source. Someone might rely on my research because the materials I referenced have not been published and are not publicly available.
A magazine article discussing the controversy over my research and that of other Whackaloon scholars, that’s, well, maybe you could call that a tertiary source.
If someone then blogs about that article, and then several people comment about it, whatever the name is for that, it’s a separate category. One could do original scholarly research on blog comments and trolling, if one wore a respirator, gloves, and protective clothing.
Primary sources generally are not available to the public. The vast majority of people do not conduct original research, unless we count whatever they’re growing on the leftovers they deposit in the office fridge. This is part of where the confusion about “research” comes in. Reading stuff off the internet is probably only going to count as research if you are *researching* the internet. Sociology, right?
I have a few topics that I follow, such as robotics, medical innovations, and autonomous vehicles. I don’t research those things. I read articles about them. I have my own opinions and my own guesses about trends in those areas, but I wouldn’t consider myself an expert and I know that my reading isn’t the same thing as research.
I also have an investigation underway, a hypothesis about my personal health. I have some sleep issues, and I’m playing around with my behavior and my home environment to see if I can get some improvement. Even if I succeed, I can’t really call that “research” because it only applies to me. Whatever I come up with, it might be a starting point for someone else’s research, and that would have to involve at least a few hundred people to really count. It just isn’t a good idea for anyone to extrapolate and base their decisions on the personal opinion and anecdotal evidence of one single person.
Especially without really knowing anything about who - or what - that person is. Researcher, crook, fabulist, actor, novelist, artificial intelligence, alien invader, bright magpie, or even a web-savvy Sasquatch.
A friend of mine happened to mention that she was just diagnosed with fibromyalgia. This came as a huge surprise to me, because we talk for hours every week and she had never mentioned that she had been seeing all sorts of doctors. She always looks fresh and lovely. I had no idea.
I told her, “I was diagnosed when I was 23. We should talk.”
“Okay!” She seemed excited.
Then I gave it some thought. What would I tell her? She wasn’t doing any of the things that I was doing when I got sick.
I shared a bed with my first husband, a man who snored heinously all night long. (My symptoms dramatically decreased after our divorce). My friend is single.
I was obese. My friend is fit and works with a trainer.
I drank soda every day. My friend never does.
My diet was generally poor; I ate a lot of sugar and vending machine snacks, and I rarely ate vegetables. My friend eats clean.
My symptoms started after I took a bad fall. My friend’s symptoms seem to have popped up on their own.
I thought back to how cruddy I felt as a 23-year-old, and how much better I feel now. Twenty years have gone by and I feel like I’ve aged in reverse. I would be in so much pain sometimes that I’d need help sitting up in bed.
Now I train in martial arts, and we routinely do “sprawls” and “breakfalls” where we throw ourselves to the ground and pop back up over and over.
I remember the morning after I did a half-day counter-abduction workshop. I had been elbowed in the face a few times, among various other indignities. I was bashed and bruised on every limb. I used to feel that way all the time, for no reason, with no bruises to show for it.
That’s how I knew I would know what to say to help my friend. I understood how she felt. I could listen empathetically. I could give her advice on how to talk to her doctors without them treating her like a malingering mental case.
I’ve talked to other friends and acquaintances who have been diagnosed with fibromyalgia. It usually doesn’t go well. They will still say “You don’t know what it’s like” even though I demonstrably do! Like I would lie about having experienced chronic pain. Why? What would possibly be the motive of pretending you were ill and in pain?
[Getting away with things? Social loafing? Thinking that other people find it more interesting than any other topic of conversation? *shrug*]
The sad truth is that saying, “I used to feel the same way you do, and you don’t have to be in pain like that forever,” can come across as cruel. Why, I’m not sure. I only know it does.
My friend and I sat down to dinner. We talked about a bunch of other things. Then I brought the topic back to her. As a modest person, she found this uncomfortable. I told her I was worried for her and I wanted to help if I could.
I shared my experience from the mid-nineties, when a doctor told me that fibromyalgia was considered a “wastebasket diagnosis” and a psychosomatic illness. They only started to take it seriously when a medication was developed that could treat it, because hey, Big Pharma.
I shared all the factors I thought contributed to my illness, that did not affect my friend. That seemed to help her feel a bit better about her situation, that at least she didn’t have a thyroid nodule, that she didn’t have thirty-five pounds to lose. That she had health insurance!
I explained that having one frustrating diagnosis did not preclude having one or more other things going on as well. For instance, it was entirely possible to have fibromyalgia AND a food sensitivity AND a thyroid issue. It might be worth getting checked out for those. I have a friend who is allergic to onions and garlic, and another who is allergic to yeast and corn. Both of those conditions led to years of confusion, testing, and misdiagnosis, because there are a lot of symptoms that can indicate literally dozens of possible problems.
I talked her through how I tracked various metrics. This is because it can help to reveal patterns, and also because showing a doctor your metrics will grab their attention in a way that nothing else will. It says, “I believe in the scientific method” and it says “I want to get better” and it says “I will work hard to do anything that you prescribe.”
It also tends to solve problems when doctors won’t or can’t.
The last time I talked to a doctor about fibromyalgia, she said, “Well, you must have been misdiagnosed, because people with fibromyalgia don’t get better.” She tried to prescribe me anti-anxiety medicine. I suppose that’s because feelings of strength and fortitude from overcoming adversity somehow qualify as anxiety?
Whatever doctors are telling you, they aren’t talking to people/patients like me. If they’re talking to us, then they aren’t listening. I would think the obvious response to meeting a former fibromyalgia patient who does adventure races and martial arts, who has run a marathon, who goes on backpacking expeditions, I would think the response would be, “Hmm. Interesting.” Study me, I’m game!
There’s money in prescribing drugs to people. There isn’t really any money in “patients” who don’t take prescription medication and basically never need to visit a doctor. Just saying.
I told my friend that what she was experiencing is as bad as it gets, at least with this illness. She describes a feeling of broken glass under her skin. Nod, nod. It’s bad, but you’ve already lived through the worst. It’s not a wasting illness. It’s not like tuberculosis or MS or cerebral palsy. It sucks, sure! But it won’t put you on an oxygen tank and you won’t wind up in a coma.
Most importantly, I talked to her about the importance of high-quality sleep in becoming pain-free and eventually recovering. I shared all the things I do to set up my bedroom and sent her links to my preferred eye mask and white noise generator. At this point, I probably know more about sleep than her doctors do, since doctors aren’t really allowed to sleep. Whatever else happens, at least there’s one cost-free thing she can try to do that has zero side effects.
(Never mind that it’s the hardest one!)
What I gave my friend was information that has worked for me over the last twenty years. More than that, though, I gave her caring, understanding, and the knowledge that she can always come and complain to me. I share her sense of unfairness at the way illness can strike for no reason. I share her frustration with busy, condescending doctors who have no real answers. I share her desire to live a full life without the distraction of chronic pain. I can give her compassion. More than that, I hope I can give her a sense that it gets better.
The best way I could describe how I was feeling, six months ago, was that a steamroller was coming downhill and I was trying to outrun it.
I had taken on a year-long commitment without realizing exactly how complicated it was. It was taking about quadruple the amount of time and concentration that I thought it would. I had information coming at me any time between 5:30 AM and 12:30 AM. Email, text messages, phone calls, more email in another account, binders and calendar updates and meeting requests and attached files and polls and votes and RSVPs and paper notes. Seven days a week!
As soon as I pictured a steamroller coming at me, downhill, fast, I understood.
Somebody had better be driving that thing!
Someone who knows how to drive a steamroller!
The good thing about earth-moving equipment is that it doesn’t need a key. If you know what to do, you can basically climb up in there and get it going. My background is such that I know I should be wearing a hard hat and steel-toed boots. I’m ready to get muddy.
How ready to get muddy am I?
I’m a backpacker, adventure racer, and marathon runner. I’ve trained in hail, snow, ice, rain, and mud. I’ve waded chest-deep through brown water. I’ve hurdled over open flames. I can carry over 50 pounds up a hill for eight hours and pitch my own tent afterward. (Consider that I’m 5’4” and I weigh a buck thirty. I’m basically an ant). I also hold belts in two martial arts. I’ve been elbowed in the face, been stepped on and smacked in the mouth and punched in the nose and hit in the eye and tagged in the throat. I routinely fight five people in the shark tank.
So, what? I’m feeling a little dread and anxiety over... some texts and emails?
Is a deadline going to kick me in the stomach? No.
Is a deadline going to come up and shove me in the back while I’m blocking a strike to the face?
Is a deadline going to give me a black eye or a fat lip? No.
This is what stress inoculation can do for you. It reminds you that you’ve survived worse. If the scariest thing you can imagine is a physical attack or survival in natural disasters, then there is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING in the business world that should feel all that intimidating.
As soon as I realized that I felt like I was about to be crushed by a steamroller, I determined to get in and drive.
I needed to get out of reactive mode and start taking the initiative. I needed to be the one making the plans. I needed to be the one looking a few weeks or months down the timeline and anticipating questions that would come up. If there was a steamroller to be driven, and anyone was going to drive it, then I wanted it to be me.
It turns out that nobody cares who is driving the steamroller, as long as the right stuff gets flattened.
What a steamroller does is to smooth the path for heavy traffic. It eliminates bumps and fills in potholes.
That’s management. Find the road that handles the most traffic, the one that’s in the worst condition, and pave it. Roadwork is stressful but it needs to get done. The longer it’s delayed, the worse the conditions, until traffic eventually grinds to a halt.
People don’t like uncertainty. They don’t like feeling uninformed. They especially don’t like the feeling that nobody is in charge and that nobody is addressing their complaints or suggestions. Whenever someone steps up and says, “Let me find out and I’ll get back to you,” or “Let’s fix this,” there’s an audible sigh of relief. Finally!
The first time you claim that you’re handling something, and then you handle it, you find yourself behind the controls of that big old steamroller. At least for that day. The second time you do it, you find that others expect you to operate it. The third time, well, guess what. Your name is painted on the side.
You’d better like driving steamrollers!
As a more, ahem, “concrete” example, I was having an issue with evening meetings. Stuff kept being scheduled that conflicted with EVERY SINGLE THING IN MY LIFE. I started missing classes at my gym and feeling like I never got to see my husband or eat dinner at a normal time.
Then it occurred to me that if I went first and suggested the meeting time, maybe it would work for everyone else. Sure enough, I was the one with the most complicated schedule. I didn’t have to say why. All I had to do was say, “How about 6:30?” Not only did I get what I wanted (having it all, my way), but I took a task upon myself that other people no longer had to do.
Once I started visualizing myself driving the steamroller, everything got easier. I created enough cushion in my schedule that I could do more strategic planning. That helped me on my quest to always be ahead and on top of everything. I finally started to feel like I knew what was going on.
The most important thing about driving a steamroller is to make sure that nobody is standing in front of it. The point of the steamroller is to pave nice, flat roads. The steamroller is there to make it clear which direction to go, and to make it easier to go that way. If I found myself running from the steamroller, it was only because I found myself on the correct roadway, a little farther along where it still waited to be paved.
My first gray hair showed up at age seventeen. That’s typical in my family, and I wasn’t surprised. I was surprised when my younger brother would come up behind me and pluck gray hairs from the back of my head, but not when I saw them in the mirror. I associated the salt-and-pepper look with maturity and gravitas.
People assumed I was much younger than I was through at least my mid-thirties. In my early twenties, I feel like it was a huge hindrance in my career. At forty-two, I was suggested as a mentor for another woman who protested that she was hoping for someone older. “How old do you think I am?” I asked her. “Thirty?” she guessed. “I’ll be forty-three next month,” I confided, at which point she accepted the match.
I’d been hanging onto my gray because I felt like it was my best hope for being heard and taken seriously. Apparently it wasn’t working.
I have a small frame and a high voice.
Inside me is a sword-swinging hairy beast of a warrior poet, unfortunately trapped in the body of a girl with doll hands.
First impressions are stupid. They’re usually wrong. I have had to correct my erroneous first impressions of other people many times, which is great, because they usually turn out to be much more competent, bright, and easy to work with than I had guessed. Do other people put in the thought and focus to revise their first impressions favorably? Hard to say.
I had a funny moment at a panel interview recently. They told me I could make an opening statement. “In that case,” I said, “let’s get started.” I stood up and took off my cardigan, revealing my arms, and - I am not joking - everyone sat back and a few people said WHOA. I’m not jacked like Madonna or anything, but I do have some muscle definition from boxing.
I guess nobody expects that small girl with doll hands and the high voice to have these triceps or these trapezius muscles.
There are other ways of carrying gravitas, it turns out, than just gray hair.
Three years ago I set out to master my stage fright and become a confident public speaker. Somewhere along the way, it started to work. Then it seems that it started to work everywhere in my life. When I walk into a room, I know why I’m there and I know what I want to accomplish. I’m not looking for permission.
Permission? Permission to go into a shop or a cafe or a restaurant, where they are seeking my custom? Permission to go into a conference room where I am an invited guest? Permission to run a meeting that I scheduled?
I can’t quite figure out why I used to be so shy and nervous. I remember that I was, but I don’t remember why.
People are grateful to have someone in charge who has a plan. Most people hate making decisions. They want nothing to do with being in the spotlight, speaking in front of groups, or being held accountable for budgets and deadlines. They actively run screaming from evaluations. They’ll tolerate taskmasters and harsh disciplinarians, so long as it’s clear what they need to do. If someone who is actually a nice person steps up and shoulders those burdens, they’ll cheerfully cooperate.
When I was younger, I never felt that anyone would listen to me. It drove me crazy. I would have a good idea and I would share it and everyone would ignore it. On rare occasions, I would say something and the person next to me would repeat it, word for word, only louder. That person would get the credit. My ex-husband used to repeat my jokes that way, but it happened at work, too. I couldn’t figure out what to do to get people to listen to me.
I set out to earn credentials. Dean’s List in college. Race medals. Best Speaker ribbons. I put on my profile that I’m a marathon runner, a Mensan, and I study two martial arts. What does it take to intimidate people, anyway?? It’s not so much that I need to be the best; I don’t. I’m not all that competitive. It’s a matter of people not assuming that I’m the receptionist or customer service everywhere I go.
What I was looking for was something called ‘executive presence.’
Some of this gravitas known as executive presence comes from formal authority. If you’re the boss, you get introduced as the boss. Some of it comes from earned authority, as you gradually earn the respect of the people who know you. That comes from how you behave and how you communicate. What I’ve started to realize is that a major component of executive presence comes from external appearance.
I might have been able to get my ideas across as a younger person if I had realized how much I was communicating (or miscommunicating) through my wardrobe and general grooming.
I thought it was my age, my voice, my small stature. Maybe that played a part, but most of those factors are still the same. I thought aging and graying would help, and maybe they did, but also maybe not as much as I used to wish.
I hung onto my gray hair until I felt like I didn’t need it anymore. I’m finally the age that I always wanted to be.
Gretchen Rubin comes through my part of the world fairly often, and I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to go to a few of her readings and meet her. First of all, SHE IS SO NICE. The other thing that stands out, after her talk on Outer Order, Inner Calm, is how much the audience responds to this material. I’ve always thought she has delightfully subversive things to say about happiness and human behavior. It’s what she has to say about order and clutter that really seems to click with people the most.
When Gretchen asked how many people in the room make their bed every morning, nearly every hand went up. In fact I’m pretty sure they all did; I’m just hedging. Where else would this be true? Then she asked how many people make their bed even when they stay in a hotel, and everyone laughed because only a few hands went up. (Including mine!) I do it because it helps me make sure I haven’t lost anything in the bedding, like clothes, an eye mask, a pen, or my AirPods. Making the bed is part of my five-minute “perimeter check,” the way I’ve finally stopped losing objects when I travel.
For me, outer order is about mental bandwidth, not so much calmness as simply being able to think straight and remember what I’m doing. When the bed is made, I don’t need to worry about it. When my desk is clear, I don’t need to worry about it. When the counters are clear, I don’t need to worry about them. In a split second, I can glance around and know, there is nothing I need to do here. Now I can focus.
It does make relationships calmer. My husband prefers outer order as well, although for different reasons. I honestly believe he could concentrate on his work in the midst of a tornado or a kindergarten. For Upholders like him, an orderly environment just makes sense. There are no reasons to have things any other way. This is very helpful for me, because I work at home and I don’t need either the mess or the inevitable discussions about the mess!
I started reading this book on the bus on the way home from the Outer Order, Inner Calm event, and I hadn’t even finished it before I had cleared and reorganized an area. I live in a studio apartment with another human, a dog, and a parrot, and even though we own relatively few things, almost all our stuff is on open display at all times. Clearing even one square foot makes a noticeable difference. Not everyone feels it as quickly, though, when most people are used to living in a larger home with more things around them.
Here are some of the ideas that stood out to me:
“Use a photograph to evaluate clutter.” This definitely works. I do photo evaluations with clients all the time.
Choose a “flavor of the month.” Focus on sorting through only one category of object for a month. I need to do this again with my books. How about you?
Assign each day its own task. This also works well for me, since I keep a slightly different schedule every day of the week. I also combine errands because I don’t have a car.
Is your clutter backward-looking or forward-looking? How great a question is this? In my experience, almost all of my chronically disorganized clients are forward-looking types, who let old things go easily but hang on tightly to things like unused craft supplies and unread books.
The holiday rule: Something you want, something you need, something to wear, and something to read. Yes, please! Huge gift explosions at holidays have never made much sense to me. If this happens several times a year, where the heck does it all go??
This book is designed to be read in bursts. The sections are short and punchy. You can read a single page and find yourself jumping up to clear an area. As an organizer and someone who has been reviewing organizing books for years, I still found fresh insights and material that I’ve never seen anywhere else. Especially for Gretchen Rubin fans, Outer Order, Inner Calm is the perfect book to keep beside you as you start spring cleaning!
We want to cherish our possessions and we also want to feel free of them.
Working is one of the most dangerous forms of procrastination.
What would you accomplish with a magic task - a task that got completed overnight with no work from you?
Nothing is more exhausting than the task that’s never started.
I’m a Questioner. The day I found that out, so many things clicked into place for me. Like many of my kind, I learned about something new (the Rubin Tendencies), and it took hold of me and I started thinking about it (and talking about it) constantly. I dragged my Upholder husband along with me. After a few years of this, we probably have our own parallel universe based around someone else’s original idea.
[If you follow Gretchen Rubin, my husband and I are the exact opposite of Gretchen and Jamie. I’m an upholdery Questioner like him and my husband is a questiony Upholder like her].
I’d like to share a little perspective on what romance is like from the perspective of a Questioner.
For starters, let me share that my first husband was undoubtedly a fellow Questioner. We drove each other crazy, divorced after three years, and we haven’t seen or spoken to each other in, what, fifteen years? I have plenty of Questioner friends, but I don’t think I could ever be romantically involved with one again. Writing someone off based on a random character trait is exactly the kind of thing one of us would do.
As a Questioner, I am constantly revising my personal philosophy, engaging with various books and viewpoints and trends, and then shaking them off once I’ve finished exploring them. Books are my first love, my own creative work is my second, and maybe I’ll fit you somewhere onto the list if you’ve caught my attention.
It’s not you I’m evaluating so much as your perspective, your thoughts and opinions, or your ability to hold your own in our discussions.
I’m not wrong here, annoying as it might be. It’s my life and it’s up to me who captivates me or sparks my interest. I can’t just make myself love or like someone.
This is, I think, part of what drives Obligers crazy about Questioners.
Obligers will give their undying loyalty and affection out quite freely. Then they are hurt when those incredibly special feelings are not automatically reciprocated. Why can’t you love me the way I love you?? It takes another Obliger to do that, though.
You can’t buy someone else’s love, affection, and loyalty just by choosing them. It’s not quid pro quo.
What’s funny about this whole thing is that Obligers often find Questioners irresistible. I’ve been the unrequited crush for several Obligers over the years. Then they want to know, why can’t I fall for them, after all the times they cooked for me/baked me vegan chocolate chip cookies/followed me around/did me favors/bought me presents?
Do you really want me to answer that?
I know an Obliger woman who is constantly annoyed that nobody at work will eat her lovingly prepared homemade baked goods. She keeps doing it even after being rejected for years on end. (NB: they’re not rejecting her, they just aren’t into eating snacks at work, and she refuses to accept that, which is neither loving nor generous).
We’re all amazing for our own reasons. Upholders are amazing for their reliability and principles. Obligers are amazing for their incredible devotion. Rebels are amazing for their iconoclasm and willingness to take a stand over anything at any time.
Questioners? We’re the ones you all come to for recommendations. What should we eat for dinner? Which movie should we see? What are we reading next? Where should we go for vacation? Bangs or no bangs?
I kind of feel like my family thinks I’m full of [it], with the sole exceptions of restaurant recommendations and recipes. I’ll take them somewhere, and they’re still eating there ten years later.
I get asked for recommendations for book clubs that I’m not even in.
Advice is the main way my friends relate to me, and it makes perfect sense from my perspective!
Just asked my husband what he thinks about all this. What makes Questioners attractive? The first thing he said was “ideation.”
“In romance?” Honestly this was the last thing I would have expected him to say.
“We tend to re-evaluate what we do constantly. Are the things we’re doing still working for us? If they’re not, change it!”
What he’s talking about is our annual review process and our weekly status meetings. What, do other couples not do this? Next you’re going to tell me that you don’t even have a formal grievance procedure.
Also, I take dictation on my tablet keyboard while my husband is talking to me. Quite often.
It’s probably not surprising that an engineer would find a Questioner woman attractive.
Upholders run well together. They approve of each other’s methods. I went on vacation once with my husband, mother-in-law, and stepdaughter, all of whom are early-rising Upholders. Their modular suitcases fit perfectly in a row in the back of the vehicle. They each woke up promptly at 5:59 AM every day. They cheerfully got to venues half an hour before they opened and sat obediently in the chilly parking lot. Guess who made all the travel plans, mapped out all the attractions, chose all the restaurants, accommodated everyone’s food preferences, and was extremely tired the whole trip?
Pop culture is tough on my kind. We’re the Steve Urkels and the Hermione Grangers and the Sheldon Coopers. Find an irritating character in a movie or TV show, and guess what? It’s probably someone with strong Questioner traits. I get it, I actually do; I’ve been made to via decades of social exclusion. It’s tougher on a female. We’re supposed to be Obligers and we’re sometimes allowed to be Upholders. We’re not supposed to make other people uncomfortable by analyzing the status quo.
If you can appreciate us, though, we make for pretty interesting friends and fun romantic partners. In my marriage, I’m the one who plans the vacations. I introduced my husband to Indian, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Ethiopian, Afghani, and Korean cuisine, and if I remember right I also taught him to eat with chopsticks. I got him into public speaking and kickboxing and taught him ballroom dancing. I’m the one who suggests and plans our backpacking trips, even though he’s much more experienced and has better wilderness survival skills. If he had married anyone else, he probably would have spent all those years watching TV with his perfectly adequate, perfectly ordinary wife, as they both lived in the same house, worked the same jobs, and ate the same meals, year after year. He never would have known what he was missing.
If you have the great good fortune to win the love of a Questioner, here’s what you do. Whenever we annoy you, put your rebuttal in the form of a question. Are you sure you’re right? What if everyone thought that way? Cite your sources, and will you forward them to me? Make sure we spend plenty of time with our Questioner friends, send us out on fact-finding missions, and keep us well stocked with blank journals (electronic or otherwise). It’s a heavy burden to be the sole sounding board of a busy Questioner, so make sure you spread that around. In return we’ll keep your life interesting, if only you can keep up with us.
It happened again. For the second time in three months, I had a night terror episode. I thought I had this thing beat - it had only happened once in the last few years. Now that I’m wearing a sleep tracker to bed, I have more information, and some validation about what happens during night terrors.
Other than this particular night, I’ve had night terrors twice in the last few years. Once was at the end of a two-week experiment I was doing, to “give myself jet lag” in advance of a trip to Europe. The other was after a women’s counter-abduction workshop. These make sense to me for different reasons.
The jet lag experiment involved trying to shift my schedule by half an hour every night, so that I was closer to the schedule I’d be living during two weeks in Europe. It totally worked! It worked except for the last night, when I ran around trying to close down the house and put off eating dinner too long. I’d been messing with my sleep schedule for weeks, then I ate a full meal and tried to go to bed ninety minutes later.
Result: Woke up standing in my bathroom, shaking and crying. Decided to end jet lag experiment a day early.
The problem with the counter-abduction workshop was probably threefold. One, PTSD, enough said there. Two, I was bruised up and very stiff and sore. Three, I had a huge meal after the workshop. My working hypothesis is that blood sugar is key to night terrors, and I definitely threw it off that weekend. The night terror episode happened the second night after the workshop, so it’s somewhat surprising that it was delayed a day.
When it happened the other night, I felt really stupid, because it clicked into place what I had done.
I drank an 8-ounce glass of juice right before bed.
I fell asleep and woke up standing in my living room, heart racing. “A spider” had been “crawling on my husband.” I looked at the clock on the microwave and felt very annoyed that I’d only been asleep for about 35 minutes. Then I went back to bed.
[I’m not really all that bothered by spiders during the day. They’re purely an issue of my sleeping brain, probably a limbic system thing].
BOOM, it happened again. “The same spider” was “crawling on the wall” on my side of the bed. I looked at the clock on my phone. Are you kidding me??? Thirty-five minutes!
Usually night terrors seem to happen within the first 90 minutes of the sleep cycle. It was a little weird for my personal experience to have them that soon after I drifted off to sleep. I blame the juice, though.
The reason I was drinking juice right before bed is that I was recovering from a stomach bug, and the juice has probiotics. I hadn’t quite hit my hydration goal for the day and it seemed like a good idea.
I got sick at the tail end of a week and a half of intensive event planning, a week in which I got very little sleep. Stress was high and I ate dinner after 9 PM a few nights.
What seems to be going on is a combination of stress level and blood sugar. I’ve had sleep issues since I was seven, and there may be some kind of genetic propensity toward this condition. I’ve been managing ever since I made the connection between blood sugar and sleep, and started timing my meals.
My main goal is to stop eating three hours before I go to sleep. I am not always able to avoid this, and eating closer to bedtime does not automatically trigger night terrors. The rare occasions that I’ve had them, though, are connected to eating or drinking something closer to the time I fall asleep.
I first became aware of this connection after going on a very strict three-month calorie restriction diet. My “reward” for making my weight goal was to eat a chocolate truffle. I saved it for after dinner, and I savored it. Then I had night terrors for the first time in months. I immediately blamed the candy, because chocolate had been on my list of possible triggers for some time. Then I thought a bit more and put some ideas together.
I had been tracking my metrics for years, looking for an answer. I kept a detailed food log, which is how I found out that paprika triggers sleep disturbances for me. I logged all my exercise. I kept a spreadsheet with all my sleep disturbances, including whether I screamed, jumped out of bed, crawled on the floor, opened doors, and/or ran through the house sound asleep in the dark.
The connection: When I went on my strict diet, I quit eating my late-night snack. I had been in the habit of eating something before bed, usually either a large bowl of cereal or a can of peaches. Whatever I had, it was always sweet and in the range of 500 calories.
A friend who works with dementia patients confirmed that many of them experience night terrors, and that it’s widely recognized as a blood sugar issue. I wish I’d known that sooner, although I probably wouldn’t have made the connection to my own eating habits.
I don’t think it has as much to do with *what* I eat as with *when* I eat. I eat candy and desserts, and they only seem to cause night terror episodes if I eat that stuff after dinner, not in the afternoon. Same with paprika: I can eat it, just not late in the evening.
Obviously people who do not have problems with night terrors (aka pavor nocturnus) can eat whatever they want. There are likely to be a lot of different triggers for night terrors besides blood sugar or meal timing. Maybe various medications, trauma, dementia, or other health conditions are factors. For me, meal timing has made a proven difference.
I just need to put a sticker on my juice bottle reminding me of that.
If all of your projects were cats, what would your house look like?
I have no idea, because I have a parrot and a dog, and that’s probably more along the lines of where my project list is right now. A bizarre menagerie that somehow manages to play together, however unlikely it might sound! Imagine, though, the muddy paw prints, the loose feathers, the shredded newspaper and chewed toys that come from these two curious beasties.
That’s the thing about projects, and why they are like pets. They are entities unto themselves, they deserve respect, they require constant care and feeding, and they... they generate unpredictable messes.
One cat. One cat can jump up on counters, claw furniture, tear up carpet, knock things over, wake everyone up in the middle of the night yowling for no discernible reason. One cat is always, always on the wrong side of the door. One cat makes sure everyone knows there IS a cat, a pouncing bouncing flouncing cat. One cat!
That’s your one project.
Two cats! Two cats either like or dislike one another. I had roommates, once upon a time, and they had two cats. One was a shy black cat and the other one was a drama queen tortoiseshell with an over-the-top silent meow. At some point, they were best friends and they would nap together and bathe each other. Then, they quit getting along. They managed to lock themselves into the upstairs bathroom in a chase game. One knocked the other’s front tooth out. That’s the kind of thing that can happen with two cats.
That’s also the kind of thing that can happen when you have two projects. You don’t foresee, when you adopt them both, that they might start to have conflicts. The presence of one irritates and annoys the other. They get in each other’s way. Then the fur starts to fly.
That’s when you have two projects.
They start to add up, don’t they? When there are two cats, there can just as easily be three. After that, the more porous the boundaries of the household, the more likely there are to be more and more.
More and more projects.
At a certain point, nobody can count them. Then you find a surprise basket of frail blind mewling baby projects hiding behind the dryer. Where did they come from??
Projects that demand food. Projects that knock things over. Projects that wake you up at all hours. Projects that make a mess. Projects that take over your entire house. Projects that somehow seem to reproduce behind your back. Projects that generate surprising expenses. Projects that may still be around 20 years from now!
This metaphor, cat = project, makes a lot of sense to me right now. That’s because I’ve become the neighborhood Crazy Project Lady.
What does this look like in action?
I’m constantly moving one on and off my desk.
They demand my attention at any time between 6:00 AM and 12:30 AM. Avoid making eye contact! Pretend to be asleep! Oh, yes, yes, you’re starving, you can’t possibly wait until breakfast time, I get it.
Every time I think I’ve found a home for one, another one shows up.
That’s how my parents wound up with their third cat several years ago. Suddenly this mysterious creature they had never seen was using the litter box. Their second cat befriended her and ushered her in. She and First Cat became inseparable, so what were they supposed to do? And a ten-year commitment was made.
That’s what happens with your projects when it doesn’t occur to you to say a clear and firm UM, NO.
What kinds of projects are going on, O Crazy Project Lady?
Volunteering for an office,
Which leads to
Joining a committee,
Which leads to
Chairing a committee,
Which leads to
Running an event
Which leads to
Being nominated for a higher-level office
Which leads to
Being volunteered for more committees
Which leads to...
Once upon a time, the projects were things like “knit booties before baby shower” and “plan vacation” and “plan Thanksgiving menu” and “send New Year’s cards.” Now most of those projects are STILL ON THE LIST and there’s another basket of little blinking new projects behind the dryer. The big one is carrying a little one by the scruff of the neck.
At a certain point, either you realize that your house is full of projects - striped projects, calico projects, orange projects and gray projects and black projects and white projects - or someone points it out to you. At some point, you either need to shut the door and quit bringing home new projects, or start finding homes for them. There has to be an exit strategy.
In my pet life, I learned early on that I needed to practice planned parrothood. I LOVE BIRDS and at least once a year, someone asks if I can give a “forever home” to another one. If I had said yes to all of these birds, parrots that can live for thirty years or more, I’d have to have a bird sanctuary out in the countryside. You’d be able to hear the squawking from five miles away. And I’d have to do it as a single woman because that’s an extremely specific life path, the kind of thing you don’t just sneak past a husband. My choice was one parrot, one husband, because the alternative would be infinite parrots, no husband.
It’s sort of that way with any tendency to collect projects. There has to be room for the rest of your life. An accounting has to be made of your schedule, your finances, your sleep, your housekeeping, the other projects you have already adopted, and, of course, the feelings and needs of the other members of your household.
That’s what’s crazy about the Crazy Cat Lady, just as with the Crazy Project Lady. We’re talking about a person who does not know how to say no. A person who does not know how to set boundaries, a Crazy Project Lady may be saying YES to adopting every cute project that shows up crying at the door, even at the expense of everything else in her life.
This is what I’m doing now. I’m standing at my threshold, peeking out the door and blocking it with my body. No, no, I can’t possibly take in any more, my house is already full of these darn things. Thanks for thinking of me!
“Your paycheck is your thank-you.” Every manager and employer seems to think this. Almost no employees agree. This is a huge mystery to me, partly because it takes a split second to say “thank you” and it costs nothing. Why would this be so hard to do? Check the box! Even the brattiest four-year-old is capable of begrudgingly grinding out a forced thank-you. Just say it. Geez. It’s basic good manners.
Beyond gratitude, I’m starting to find that there is one more free thing that most people find terrifically motivating, and that is praise. Even the tiniest amount of praise! It’s hard to come by in this world and people are hungry for it. They may not even realize that they’re orienting their entire lives around a chance to hear a few words of approval.
The art of the extremely specific compliment is something I’ve been honing for years. I’ve found that if you say something true and positive that is not necessarily obvious, you can utterly transform someone’s attitude. You can sometimes also transform their self-concept. They won’t be able to stop thinking about what you said.
I’ve heard from people years after the fact, that they remembered something I said about them, something I don’t even remember having said. That’s partly because I do this all the time. It’s a routine, like leaving a tip or waving goodbye.
When I started learning to give evaluations in Toastmasters, it amplified this art of the extremely specific compliment. It’s fairly easy to give someone one sentence about something they did well. Try extending that to two or three minutes, and it takes more thought.
It’s possible to give the same piece of advice in multiple ways. Say your feedback is that someone [isn’t talking loud enough] because [nobody can hear them in the back of the room]. Honestly that comes across as criticism. To a vulnerable novice who is feeling extremely nervous and inadequate, that feedback can be devastating! One piece of relatively mild critique instead of effusive support and praise can stop that person from ever trying again.
Slip that critique in between four or five compliments, and it’s easier to take.
Phrase it instead as helpful advice, something that explains how to fix the issue, and you have their attention.
“You can work on projecting by aiming your voice at the back wall. [Demonstrate posture and voice projection]. That will start to happen as you feel more comfortable.” Nothing about this comes across as a critique, because it isn’t.
THEN include the praise, support, and encouragement.
My goal is to mention at least twelve things the person is doing well. I also look for something unique, a special talent that this person may not realize is hidden in there, in amongst the insecurity and inexperience. I sometimes run out of time to point out all the things the person is doing well, so if I think of more, I’ll pull them aside and tell them afterward, or write them a note later.
This works. No fewer than four of mine just won first place in different speaking contests. If I had been more critical and less supportive, they might not be there at all.
I WAS RIGHT. My praise was technically accurate, precise, and correct. They knew it. They rose to the level of my expectations, which is what people always do.
This is what happens when you make a habit of lavish praise. People notice. They take it in. Their eyes glitter. The next time they see you, they sit up straight and wave. Make people feel seen in the best way, and they’ll never forget you.
Why can’t people do this at work?
There’s another trick that can be added to this art of the extremely specific compliment. That is to praise someone who isn’t there. If you’re consistently heard “spreading gossip” of the positive variety, it becomes clear that this is your pattern of behavior. It reinforces this concept that your praise is to be believed. If someone hears you say something positive and true about another person, and they agree with your assessment, it helps them believe the nice things you had to say about them, too.
People usually don’t believe it when someone pays a compliment. We’re taught to brush it off. We expect all performance evaluations to be negative and painful. Why, though?
It’s entirely possible to hold people accountable for their performance without going negative. If you get the motivation and incentives down right, though, you don’t usually need the accountability.
What’s wrong with the work world for a lot of people is that they’re expected to comply with someone else’s strict rules and regulations. They’re only really noticed if they mess up, by coming in late, missing a deadline, or doing a task imperfectly. They start to feel flinchy about even walking in the door. They start to wake up with dread in the pit of their stomach. They start feeling depressed all day on their day off, unable to stop thinking about how much they hate going in to work.
What does that do to performance? Seriously? How can that kind of emotional environment possibly motivate people to work harder or do a better job?
This is why I talk about the praise engine. When people are noticed for doing well, when they are praised for bringing something special, when it’s clear that they’re offering something unique and valuable, then they associate the work with their identity. They start working for pride and personal satisfaction. At that point you don’t need to motivate them to work - you need to motivate them to take breaks and go home, because otherwise you can’t stop them.
Not only that. When you start up the praise engine, other people start to learn to operate it. They learn by your example. You start hearing other people give evaluations and teach methods in your style. You realize you’ve created a culture that propagates itself.
Get yourself a praise engine. It fuels itself. It costs nothing to run. It builds copies of itself and does its own maintenance. It’s also a lot easier and cheaper than having to continually replace all your unmotivated, demoralized staff.
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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