It’s funny to talk to Millennials about what technology was like in the 1980s. They are a sensitive generation, and these things make them turn pale. “When we were kids, if someone called you on the phone, you had to answer because you wouldn’t have any idea who it was! Then you had to talk to them in the living room! Out loud! And everyone in the room would listen! But if they called and you weren’t home… you’d never know!” As I write this, I realize that there are probably young people in a 20th century revival enclave somewhere, using rotary phones in the same way that they have started lugging typewriters down to the coffee shop. We do have to admit that the reception is clearer on a landline.
The thing about contemporary tech is that it allows us a type of privacy never before known in human civilization. Anyone who comes from a small town can tell you that everyone always knew your business, through a combination of gossip, noting your whereabouts, and familiarity with the multi-generational lineage of every member of your social group. That stuff is probably still true. For more urban people, however, something new is going on.
My husband and I have been married for six years. We have our own bank accounts, our own credit cards, our own retirement accounts, our own email addresses, our own cell phones, our own desks, and even our own bathrooms. We only have one vehicle, but realistically, many people also have their own private cars. We can sit side by side and listen to different music or watch different movies. In a very real way, we live parallel lives that overlap only in certain areas. We share what we’ve chosen to share.
There are certain ramifications to this new privacy. Either of us could be getting up to all sorts of shenanigans without the other having any idea. A suspicious person could be driven around the bend by this. The other night, my husband was watching TV in our hotel room, and a commercial for Ashley Madison came on. I explained what it was (a dating website for married people to have affairs), and his first reaction was that it had to be a joke. This is our world. People can and will do exactly what they want.
Now, I believe people should do exactly what they want – as long as they are not negatively impacting anyone else. The “what they don’t know won’t hurt them” argument is complete and utter BS. The first test of a potential moral hazard is, Does my ethical position magically match up with everything I want to do? If so, it might need more work. There is no reason why people who prefer no-strings relationships should feel stuck in committed monogamous relationships, since there are so many other people available who feel the same way. If the main reason to drag out the fake committed relationship is to avoid disrupting a beneficial financial/living situation, well, that’s pretty unsavory.
Oddly, the new privacy adds a certain cachet to romantic commitment. We’re together because we want to be. There are no major social pressures. We could choose to live alone, have roommates, “shack up,” or get married, and we didn’t have to ask for anyone’s permission. We paid for our own wedding. Our union is entirely what we’ve made from personal preference.
The funny thing about the new privacy is that we’ve voluntarily chosen to ditch certain aspects of it. Most prominently, there is “the dot.” We’ve shared our location data with each other, and at any moment, we can check our phones and see that dot that signifies whether he’s at work or I’m at the coffee shop. I sometimes set a notification to tell me when he’s leaving work, so I know to be home when he gets there. I can also watch as that dot moves up the freeway when he comes home from a business trip. It’s really convenient and cute. We regard it affectionately. It’s a level of intimacy and trust that was never possible before this current iteration of pocket technology.
We can share what we choose to share: not just our thoughts, like the public diaries that are our blogs and social networking posts, but pretty much everything. We can share our playlists and pinboards and location check-ins. We can share news articles and comments and photos. Apparently we can even share our heartbeats, if we wear the right wristwatch. We can offer each other a window into everything that enters our awareness every day. We can know each other at a new level. The paradox is that the new privacy creates a new intimacy as well.
Sarah Lewis’s lapidary prose gave me actual goosebumps. It makes me wonder something about PhD candidates, which she was at the time she wrote this book. Do they simply start out with the requisite talent and intelligence, or does the discipline itself make people smarter? Or is it both? That’s a question at the crux of what makes creativity happen, or not happen, and that’s also the subject of the book. What is mastery, how is it attained, and what part does failure play in that process?
There are few books that I think deserve multiple readings, and this is one of them. It’s beautiful, and it’s the sort of book you can flip open at random for inspirational bursts. Lewis presents a series of profiles of people who became successful in various fields via unconventional means. She mentions that she interviewed nearly 150 people for the book. This is the kind of tantalizing tidbit that raises the question, can we have access to some of these interviews? I think we’ll reach a point in the near future when nearly every creative project will have supplementary material online for those who wish to delve further.
The Rise has the capacity to induce a total paradigm shift about creativity, innovation, and their associated work products. The vision is one of fearless exploration, willingness to play and bounce back cheerfully from failure, and true grit. Lewis makes a compelling case that this is really how things get done.
My favorite quote from the book is by Franklin Leonard. “I’ve learned that there is absolutely no value in pessimism.”
When I was a teenager, I would break up Double Stuf Oreos and put them in my Froot Loops for breakfast. I have used a Red Vine as a soda straw. I can’t buy rainbow-colored candies – not because they make you gay, but because I have to keep eating them until there are the same amount of each color, and by then I might as well finish them and call it a day. There has never been a yogurt top that I haven’t licked. I once retrieved a can of chocolate frosting out of our kitchen trash. It had a lid on it, but still. My name is Jessica and I am a sugar addict.
Recognizing the fact that sugar is addictive and that all my food choices revolved around getting a sweet flavor was a game-changer for me. I used to work at a drug rehab center, and the phrase that was used was “drug of choice.” The behaviors of our clients were basically the same regardless of their drug of choice. Mine was legal, and it would take a lot longer to kill me. But the cold, hard truth was that I had arranged my life around getting it and nothing was going to stop me.
The thing is, I didn’t realize how much sugar I was eating at the time. I never exactly put my daily dose in a big pile and ate it at one sitting. I have been known to eat cake, pie, or chocolate chip cookies for breakfast – basically any time I had cake, pie, or cookies I was going to be eating them for breakfast. But if I had a 650-calorie Costco muffin, I thought that was a very healthy choice. I didn’t know it might be double the calories of the slice of pie. If I had, I wouldn’t have understood how that calorie count related to anything I ate later that day, or later that week. (That muffin is about 30% bigger than my typical dinner and has as much sugar as two cans of Coke).
The other thing is that I fully believed I ate health food. At least, I never ate fast food, and I only drank one can of soda a day. I actually ate vegetables and fresh fruit and whole wheat bread. I bought organic and I shopped at little hippie co-ops with bulk bins. Therefore, when I bought “all natural” cookies and “naturally sweetened” sodas and a billion trillion bushels of breakfast cereal, it was healthy. This is called the “halo effect.” If I drink a soda and eat a salad, the soda is cancelled out. Right? Also, I have it on good authority that nothing has calories if you eat it standing up. Or if you forget that you ate it.
It’s been my personal experience that sugar cravings diminish as consumption of cruciferous vegetables goes up. Unfortunately, high sugar consumption makes cruciferous vegetables taste disgusting. Sugar is not necessary for survival, and it may not even be biologically appropriate for humans. But I’ve met a lot of people who drink more soda than water (because “water tastes bad”) and eat more dessert foods than vegetables. We’re not hummingbirds. We don’t do well on that stuff. Yet it’s quite common for people to physically gag at the taste of – not just vegetables, but any food that contains fiber. The American diet is notoriously deficient in fiber, potassium, and magnesium, and that’s because we replace vegetables with stuff we’d rather eat. I mean, vital micronutrients? Bleah! Pass the frosting.
Last year, I trained for a marathon. I thought I was in heaven. I could run as much as I wanted and also eat as much as I wanted. Add an audio book and I was doing my three favorite things every day! I bought a bigger fanny pack so I could jog around town with a pouch full of vanilla fig bars. (She said “bigger fanny.”) I would eat three waffles for breakfast and two separate lunches. In spite of my all-consuming appetite, I started finding the taste of sweets unappetizing. Cookies started tasting like sweet lard. Donuts started tasting like stale duck bread with Pixy Stix on top. Finally, even dried fruit with added sweetener got to be too sweet. I have no idea how it happened, but becoming a marathoner permanently changed my ability to enjoy dessert foods – the exact opposite of what I would have expected.
For those who are struggling to eat healthier food, it’s an uphill battle as long as we cling to our “treats.” We have to stop seeing sugar as a reward. My dog is a good little boy, but that doesn’t mean he “deserves chocolate;” chocolate could send him to an agonizing, convulsive death. Sugar is the obstacle. Sugar makes us want to eat more sugar and it makes us hate eating the things our physical organisms need to be eating. Sugar makes everything else taste bad in comparison. It seems hard, but cutting out sugar makes everything else easier.
I have mixed feelings about the term ‘hoarder.’ It’s kinda pejorative, and most of the people who refer to themselves by it aren’t really hoarders. But everyone knows what it means. There isn’t much terminology for this sort of thing yet, because it has only recently come to the attention of the mental health/medical community. My people often have such a deep sense of shame around their physical environment that they won’t breathe a word about it. They don’t know – most people don’t know – that it’s honestly very common. I would estimate at least 20% of households in our culture have issues with squalor, chronic disorganization, and/or hoarding. There are three that I know of within a stone’s throw of my house.
There is endless fascination for me in this scenario. None of these families know about me and my work. How could they? I can’t very well walk up to the front door, knock, and point out that their problems are obvious from across the street. Also, I don’t advertise. I only take on a job when I feel like the household is at least a 2 out of 5 on the readiness scale. That tends to rule out cold calls. It’s grueling work and it can be demoralizing, even for a gold-star optimist like me. I figure I can help more people by making my writing available to a receptive audience.
The first house is one of a typical pattern. They’re an older couple who appear to have a pretty busy social life. The house and yard are well kept. The living room curtains are almost always open. The garage door is often open, too, and that’s how I know there’s a clutter issue. It’s stacked floor to ceiling, wall to wall, with boxes and loose items. Most people wouldn’t even consider this a hoarding situation because at least 2/3 of American households keep their garages this way. Households in this category sometimes have a ‘junk room’ or a guest room that takes a couple of days to clear when there are impending overnight guests. There is always at least one closet that is packed completely full; sometimes all the closets and cabinets are. This isn’t really a big deal, and the only reason it’s any of my business is that, well, clutter is my business. There’s just that nagging possibility of undetected water leaks, electrical fires, or vermin – issues that do affect neighboring homes. Otherwise, hey, it’s a free country. If you want to build your own Minecraft maze out of boxes, whatevs.
The second house is less common, but of the type that is identifiable from Google Earth. There are at least two truckloads worth of tubs and boxes stacked in the front and side yard and in front of the garage. Some of them are covered with sheets. An upholstered chair and an old TV were left out on the front curb for several weeks. (In many neighborhoods, these items would have been collected by some random passersby, but that doesn’t seem to happen on our street). We occasionally see a fit-looking man doing some kind of work out there, but it’s not clear whether he’s helping clear it away or just adding to it. Is the hoard in the yard expanding, or is it just evidence that the inside is slowly being emptied out? It has all the characteristics of the former, but the chair and TV removal are hopeful signs. I wish them well.
The third house is probably the most interesting, because I actually met the occupant and we had a real conversation. She was holding a yard sale. The offerings consisted almost entirely of floor looms, spinning wheels, and other specialty craft equipment. It turned out that we both had connections to the same social club, and I offered to advertise her equipment to my friends as a favor to all concerned. I gave her my email address, and she was supposed to send me a link with pictures, prices, and contact info. It never happened. As far as I could tell, by the end of the “sale,” none of the items had actually been sold. They were in fine condition, but priced high enough that it was clear she was reluctant to let them go. (This is a common attribute of antique shop owners and rare book sellers). It was also clear, based on the sheer volume of stuff and the square footage of her house, that the place would have been packed to the gills, even if nothing else was inside. The second clue is that the windows are mostly covered with sheets, curtains, and the sort of metallic reflectors often seen on car windshields. They may be energy-efficient in our climate, but they’re also effective screens against looky-loos (such as myself).
To round up my neighborhood assessment, there is a house with an immaculate yard and a PODS unit perennially standing in the driveway. There is at least one “project car” that, judging by its tarp and baggy tires, has not run for far longer than the two years we’ve seen it parked. On my running route, there is a house with a permanent yard sale. The condition of the houses and yards varies from one to another. If you put all the inhabitants together in a focus group and showed them slides of each other’s homes, they would probably all find something to scoff at. The person with the sheet-covered bins might laugh at the PODS renter’s profligacy, while the PODS renter might be mortified by those bins. The “project car” guy might wonder why the stacked-garage family doesn’t clear out a decent work space, while they in turn might wonder why he keeps a car that doesn’t run. There is no universal standard for what makes a house a home, or what makes a possession truly valuable.
These aren’t moral issues. Well, okay, it would be a moral issue if there were children whose health and safety was put at risk. Or other dependents. Or if someone was doing something deliberately to spite the neighbors or the landlord. Or if one of the occupants was struggling with a mental health issue and everyone ignored it and let them suffer alone. Or maybe other scenarios I can’t imagine, but might next time I walk by. Anyway, clutter is a logistical issue. The reason it’s a problem is that it interferes with daily life. It can get out of control while we’re not paying attention. It can hide other problems, like structural damage, that can be expensive and dangerous. Otherwise, it’s a matter of personal preference. It’s not that I judge my neighbors, it’s professional interest. I’m curious, and I care what happens to them, and I’m ever so interested by whether any evidence turns up that someone has had an epiphany. Let’s get rid of it all and put in a nice rose garden instead. Or a robot workshop. Or a home CrossFit box. Or…
I’m on the platform, sweaty and out of breath. I just missed my connection. My phone isn’t picking up a signal. There’s no printed schedule down here. All I can do is wait. I’m not doing anything productive. I can’t leave because there’s somewhere specific I’m trying to go. I’m not making any progress toward my destination, though. I know it’s possible to get there; I just watched loads of other people speeding off in that direction. Something happened and I wasn’t able to get on board with them. Now all I can do is torture myself with thoughts of how late I’m going to be. I just wish I knew how long I’ll have to wait. Time seems to have no meaning here.
This is the feeling of procrastination. It’s a haunted, stressful place. We’re stuck in limbo. We can’t make ourselves do what we’re supposed to be doing, but we can’t enjoy ourselves by doing anything else, either. There is nothing but looming dread, guilt, anxiety, and negative self-talk. It’s gray and dimly lit. It’s a prison of our own creation.
We believe that we could do what needed to be done if only we were motivated or in the mood. What we’re looking for is a flow state. We’re capable of working for long stretches, and even losing track of time entirely. In fact, this often happens with the alternatives to work that we allow ourselves as diversions. We just don’t know how to turn on this flow state at will.
One of the ways to avoid finding ourselves at Procrastination Station is what I call bustling. We use physical momentum to carry ourselves from one activity to another. The important thing is to complete one task and move onto the next without stopping to think or make decisions. For instance, when I step into the shower, I wash my body in a particular order, dry off, comb out my hair, and put my clothes on. It’s called a routine for a reason. The more elements of the day we can make into an automatic routine, the more we can get done by bustling. I’ve made a continuous flow of routine tasks from grooming to exercise to housework to handling the day’s mail. Every day, I can get enough done to keep my life running smoothly, without entropy causing too many problems.
A lot of people procrastinate on small things, which can become chaotic in mere days. Laundry and dirty dishes and junk mail and dust never stop coming. It’s like turning your back on the ocean until the tide crashes into you. Chipping away at it a little every day is the easiest way to manage, if we can keep ourselves bustling. We just have to recognize that even though we find these chores unpleasant and irritating, they will become more so the longer they are put off. Do it now before it gets worse.
The rest of us procrastinate on big things. We may be impeccable in our surroundings, but lacking direction or initiative on more abstract missions. Starting a business, resolving a health issue, losing weight, getting fit, saving money, going back to school, traveling the world… The most commonly procrastinated tasks are not washing dishes or sorting junk mail, but rather planning for retirement and getting in shape. This is probably because it’s not obvious what to do. We don’t have enough information, we’re not sure whom to ask, and we don’t know where to start.
It’s possible that some of us procrastinate on the small stuff to disguise the fact that we’re really procrastinating on the big stuff. We dither around, making lists and sorting socks and reading articles about time management and getting organized, so we won’t have to face our fears about releasing our creative projects into the world, facing our own mortality, or failing and looking foolish. What are we displacing? What would we do the day after everything was crossed off the last to-do list?
We hate being beginners. We hate feeling awkward. We hate accepting critique and not getting an A+ on everything. We want to wait until we’re “ready.” Sometimes we hold back because we don’t want to be told that “I told you so.” What we do is stagnate. Today I do everything perfectly that was hard for me at 5 years old, like tying my own shoes and writing in cursive. I’m not satisfied being a perfect 5-year-old, though, or even a perfect 30-year-old. Being perfect means never changing or growing or learning anything new.
The only way out of Procrastination Station is to accept that there is nowhere where the clock stands still. We can’t hide from the passing of time. We acknowledge our anxiety. Yes, this is something I am resisting. No, I don’t feel like it right now. No, I don’t want to do it. I don’t know what to do next. I don’t know where to start. I’m going to get started anyway. I can break it down into smaller steps and make progress on something. I can do the hardest part first and slay the dragon. I can release myself from the ominous feeling of looming dread, and just finish it. I can give myself the gift of getting it over with and moving forward.
Linguistics class was where I first learned about top-down versus bottom-up processing. When we hear unclear speech, we can use top-down processing to figure out what someone probably said based on context. We sometimes use bottom-up processing instead, transferring sounds into words that sound close. The result is the basis of the game “Telephone.” It’s also responsible for the phenomenon of misheard song lyrics, like Jimi Hendrix’s “’Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy” and the CCR classic “There’s a Bathroom on the Right.” My family calls it “creative hearing.”
It just hit me that there are lots of areas where we resort to bottom-up processing, for lack of a better idea. Then we learn about a new approach that changes our perspective. An example would be watching The Dog Whisperer and suddenly seeing patterns in canine behavior that we never saw before. Another would be the day we watched a video about a better way to cut open a pomegranate. It’s the great Aha!
Clutter. We keep trying to GET ORGANIZED and it never seems to work. That’s partly because all those magazine articles keep showing us ways to shift all the stuff around in different stylish arrangements. Ever price some of the gorgeous organizing gear they show? $200 for a sliding pot rack? I ask of you! They never seem to show rooms that could have come from any of the cruddy little apartments I’ve lived in. The bottom-up approach is to try to figure out what to do with all the stuff in the house. We can make room for it under the bed! Extra shelves! Furniture and staircases with hidden storage! Tack strings into the ceiling and tie stuff up there! The top-down approach is to ask: What do we truly need, where is the best place to put it, what’s it costing to keep it, and can it be cleaned?
Money. “I can’t be overdrawn; I still have checks left!” It’s so easy to get behind financially. It seems like whenever anything extra shows up, an unanticipated expense comes right behind it, like a guy walking a goat on a leash, and the goat eats dollars and poops bills, and the guy is just there to, like, break your water heater or something. The problem with that analogy is that when the goat showed up, it didn’t bring any bonuses with it. That’s because that’s what life is like. It’s just this goat making your tires go bald and wearing out your kids’ shoes, endlessly. So anyway. The bottom-up method is to constantly run up debt, because it’s always one dang goat after another. The top-down method is to work out a budget that includes saving for that stuff, and trying to be at least a month ahead instead of a month behind.
Food. I’ll just speak for myself, here. I used to be chronically ill. I’m not anymore, but it took years to stumble across behavior changes that worked. From the perspective of a fit, healthy person, I was doing a lot of ineffective things that could have been resolved quickly and easily through minor changes. One of those changes was to consider what I ate on a daily and weekly basis, collectively, rather than item by item. While I would read food labels to avoid certain ingredients, I had no real idea what the calorie counts meant. I didn’t realize that a portion doesn’t always mean EAT THE WHOLE PACKAGE. There was no overall context in my mind. Now, I set out to meet my micronutrient targets over the course of each day. I choose whether to “treat myself” based on what I’ve eaten that week, rather than that afternoon. I have a top-down plan rather than an endless stream of individual, bottom-up factors.
What I’ve learned is that everything in life is easier with a system. I’ve also learned that other people have usually already done the work involved in coming up with such systems. All I have to do is experiment with them and keep the winners. Even a few minutes of top-down planning can change everything. I’ve followed a system to stay free of consumer debt, to train for a marathon, to lose weight and keep it off, to keep my house clean, to get at least 8 hours of sleep a night, to train my parrot, to travel with just one bag, to stop having night terrors… When I list it off like that, I remember how chaotic and exhausting it used to be, trying to juggle what felt like a million little details. Like you walk into your kitchen and it’s full of goats and they keep trying to chew on your pants, and every time you push one away another one stretches its neck out and takes a bite. Which explains all the distressed denim I’m seeing these days. The next time, you just take away their key and tell them they’ve lost Internet privileges. A top-down plan is in place.
Keeping a food log is one of the most unappealing, aversive weight loss tools. If I had to pick just one method I thought was most important for successful weight loss and maintenance, it would be keeping an accurate food log. Unfortunately, it’s also the one thing people are least likely to try. I get asked about my weight loss journey all the time, and people who otherwise claim “I’ll do ANYTHING” stop short of this. They just won’t do it. It’s even worse than trying to get people to calculate how much money they should save for retirement. Don’t feel pressured. Most people are more likely to cancel their cable TV subscriptions or clean out their storage units than they are to attempt this. This post is purely for educational purposes.
The only reason I started recording my food intake was that it was still January, and I had made a vow to Do the Obvious all year. I had committed to make a sincere effort to do anything that was widely regarded as “the correct way.” As a Questioner, this was challenging, because I was asking myself to accept received wisdom at face value. I tried to see it as a scientific experiment. I had read that insight follows experience, and it resonated with me. We automatically reject ideas that don’t fit our mindset, even though the information may be the only thing that will resolve our problems! I believed that I only ate health food and that there was nothing wrong with the way I ate. I was struggling to lose the 17 pounds I had gained in the previous year, though, and I accepted that perhaps some of my beliefs were incorrect. When a friend suggested that I start a food log, I was offended and annoyed. Ah, but that was my ego talking. I started the food log right then and there, loathsome as it was. My friend was right.
After three months of frustration, and a few tears, I had dropped the excess weight. I had to replace 80% of my wardrobe. I’ve been a size zero for the last year and a half. (This is somewhat hateful to me because it’s very challenging to find clothes in this size). I still keep my food log. My original motivation has shifted from solving my mysterious weight gain, to eliminating my night terrors, to monitoring my micronutrient intake. I discovered that, like 98% of Americans, my diet was low in potassium. I’m still learning how to find potassium-rich foods away from home. This may sound silly or boring, but to me it’s an interesting challenge. The other advantage is that I have this increasingly valuable resource if it’s ever necessary to share with a medical team.
How does it work?
People panic over the idea of keeping a food log. One common objection is that they can’t write down the information, because they don’t have a smartphone, they can’t carry paper and pen with them, and/or they just find the idea so repugnant that even trying it for three days would make their heads explode. Another common objection is to the atrocious, intolerable idea of weighing or measuring portions. Yet another is that it’s too hard to estimate what’s in the food when it’s either from a restaurant or it’s cooked by someone else. These are all perfectly valid concerns, but they are reflective of a paradigm that will never result in weight loss and will most likely continue to result in weight gain. Basically, if you eat the Standard American Diet and follow the Standard American Lifestyle, you will be overweight, especially if you’re male. Move to Iceland or Japan and it’ll work itself out, but if you do what your friends, family, neighbors, and fellow citizens do here in the US, you’re hosed.
I generally do log my meals as I eat them, but I don’t have to, because I eat the same few things for breakfast, lunch, and snacks every day. I always have eaten this way, because I like what I like. The trick during my three-month diet was to figure out what portion of each meal option I could eat on a daily basis and maintain my goal. (It was about 30% less than I had been eating). The other element of predictability is that all my kitchen things are modular. All my plates, bowls, glasses, and food storage containers match, and I only have one ladle. I used a measuring cup and measured the volume of the ladle, the bowl, the glass, and the containers – once. I know if I’m eating soup that it’s two cups. I know if I’m scooping anything onto a plate that it’s one cup per scoop. That’s portion control. I don’t have to make decisions or calculate or put any thought or effort into this, because I already spent a couple of minutes on it in January 2014. When I’m eating away from home, I can use my fist as a visual size reference. (One of my fist’s many super powers).
But… what do I do about food that’s off plan?? What if someone makes me a cake with my name written on it in frosting?? *shrug* Eat it. I eat donuts and pancakes and cake and pie and brownies and cookies and all that stuff. I just don’t eat them nearly as often. The main reason for that is that meeting the recommended daily allowance of micronutrients basically eliminates food cravings. I’ve found that eating a healthier diet also means higher-quality sleep, more energy, clearer skin, and the disappearance of the dark circles I had under my eyes for decades.
This is how I eat. Breakfast: Packet oatmeal with dried blueberries and an added 2 tablespoons of raisins. (I don’t really like raisins all that much, but they’re high in potassium, they’re cheap and easy to find, and they’re not actively gross to me). Lunch: veggie sausage and a big baked potato, which is 1/3 my daily potassium requirement and also deeply satisfying. Snack: usually a Builder Bar and a piece of fruit. If my weigh-in was up, I just eat the fruit. On vacation I skip the snack, leaving about 300 calories of leeway for the day. Dinner: the variable. We usually eat about 2-4 cups per person of kale, chard, collard greens, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, or bok choy as part of the meal, and about once a week we have a dinner salad. Restaurants: after the first six months or so of keeping the food log, I have developed a pretty good sense of what I can order in particular cuisines. I don’t usually order rice, bread, or pasta. Sometimes we split an entrée and/or dessert. We tend to walk a minimum of five miles a day on vacation, and that helps, but not nearly as much as one would hope!
The other thing I found was that I was only drinking about ¼ the appropriate amount of water. It took weeks to train myself to be able to drink the right amount and at the right times of day. My weight loss had plateaued, but when my water consumption was on target, it fell right off. This is really important for athletic performance and sleep quality. It also makes it basically impossible to drink calories, because your kidneys are like, “I can’t even.” Sweet drinks don’t satisfy hunger; all they do is cause weight gain and sugar cravings and dental problems and diabetes. When I think about all the years I drank soda, I want to beat my head on the wall. For many people, cutting soda (or booze) would be the only step they needed to take to gradually level out at a healthy weight.
So that’s it. I eat a predictable quantity of food and drink predictable amounts of water at predictable times of day. There is still art and passion and music and color in my life! Rather than feeling stressed and oppressed by strict rules, I feel it more as a comfortable structure. Like the Dewey Decimal System. It’s one more thing I no longer have to worry about. I also feel like my body got a couple of massive system upgrades.
Here is the most boring video of all time. I waited until the end of the day to log all my meals, and had my husband record me talking to myself while I typed it in. We timed it. At two minutes a day, it takes less time than flossing and brushing my teeth each day.
I started to write about what percentage of marital arguments are about housework, versus everything else. While researching statistics, I stumbled across a meme that I had to text to my husband, and it was so funny watching him laugh that it got me laughing all over again, until tears squirted out of my eyes, and I got completely derailed. Anyway. It looks like housework is indeed pretty high on the list, along with miscommunication, unmet expectations, and blame, all of which can certainly include cleaning, unless these are really euphemisms for “Why can’t you be more like Gomez Addams?” Or Grizzly Adams, for that matter.
Probably the reason so many people fight about housework is that, while we’ve done a fair-to-middling job of revamping traditional gender roles, we haven’t necessarily replaced them.
We live in the 21st century now, a time of flux and rapid transition. We don’t have to accept any of the old ways of doing things, not if we don’t want to. This is partly because we are rational beings, and partly because ROBOTS.
Defined roles help streamline things. One person drives the car and one person rides shotgun. One person takes the orders and the other is the barista. He’s the DJ, I’m the rapper. Fifty years ago, it was obvious to everyone that people with two X chromosomes made dinner, and people with a Y chromosome sat back and read the newspaper. We can skip all that, unless we’re into Mad Men-era cosplay, but it does help to come up with something so we don’t have to negotiate and renegotiate every time anything needs to get done.
· Appliances. Whenever there is an appliance available to take over a job, get one and use it. This should theoretically work, yet for some reason, people still quarrel about unloading the dishwasher or putting away nice, clean, fluffy laundry.
· A maid service. These are cheaper than a lot of people realize. Some people pay for fluff ‘n’ fold laundry drop-off or catered meal delivery as well. If you are a high earner or prefer working at your job to pay for someone else to work at your house, there are options available.
· Games. My ex and I used to play poker for chores. There are web-based games such as Chore Wars that allow people to accrue points for housework.
· Assigned tasks. My husband unloads the dishwasher every morning, and I make the bed. We take turns making dinner, so one cooks and the other cleans the kitchen. I do the laundry. The only real reason we chose these particular chores is that he gets up first and I insist on having my clothes folded a certain way.
· Children. My dad always used to say that the reason he had kids was so he didn’t have to do chores anymore, because he did so many when he was a kid. The first chore I remember is sorting socks, when I was still too little to fold them. My brothers and I washed dishes, polished furniture, vacuumed, took out the trash, pulled weeds, prepared simple dinners, mowed the lawn, washed windows, etc. etc. etc. Training kids to do chores, and managing them, can feel like more work than doing the job yourself. But it’s how we prepare children to become adults. Self-esteem comes from self-efficacy.
· Teamwork. Sometimes my husband and I cook a meal together, usually because it’s getting late. One of us will wash produce and the other will get out pans and utensils. We have extra bowls and knives and cutting boards and vegetable peelers. This is a situation where keeping counters clear translates to having extra work stations. We also clean house as a team when we’re preparing for guests.
· Personal responsibility. People who live together are roommates, regardless of whether they are also romantic partners or relatives. We can wash our own dishes, wash and put away our own laundry, wipe down surfaces we have used, and corral our own possessions. We can acknowledge when we are being unfair and abdicating responsibility.
· Money. If your roomies won’t clean up after themselves, raise their rent and explain why. If you’re married, offer to take over a chore for a financial inducement.
· Boundaries. My husband has a laborrrrratory, as every mad scientist should, and I stay well away from it. There are highly calibrated instruments, magnifying lenses, a soldering iron, and a bunch of tiny electronic things. There are also handwritten notes and schematics. My desire to dust things and stack them and line them up and file them is not consistent with his ability to work on projects. Everyone is entitled to a private area to be messed up or decorated at will. We just have to remember that common areas are not private areas, and refrain from cluttering up places like the kitchen counters, tables, or bathroom.
My policy is to clean house the same way I would whether I lived alone or with others. I’m not going to have cobwebs or dirty floors or a dirty bathroom, end of story. I keep a schedule. The amount of extra effort involved in cleaning a surface that is used by multiple people is not really noticeable. If I want someone to pitch in, I simply ask. Usually, the act of cleaning common areas signals to other people to get up and do the tasks they’ve been meaning to do. They start putting their things away, loading the dishwasher, or plugging in the vacuum. Most people never got any formal training in how to keep house; they’re not lazy or unwilling, they just don’t know what to do. “Our friends are coming for dinner and I want to start cooking at 5. Will you wipe down the bathroom mirror and empty the wastebaskets while I finish mopping?” Be specific, ask nicely, and say thank you.
Housework is a persistent problem, just like paying the bills, preparing meals, automotive maintenance, and yardwork. One of my goals in life is to avoid persistent problems. Life is full of unpredictable problems, so why make it worse by adding in a bunch of totally predictable hassles? We can’t eliminate the need to manage a household, even by living in a tent, but we can at least try to eliminate the associated arguments and resentments and hurt feelings. Find a workable system that everyone involved can agree to follow.
The desire to save things “just in case” is one of the major root causes of clutter. We can always think of many reasons why any individual object might come in handy. Even when we’re actively in the process of trying to cut back on the amount of stuff we have, we decide to keep almost everything. We’ll even go out and get it back out of the donation bag or carry it back inside from the yard sale table. What if we need it and it isn’t there?
This is anxiety talking. Our primal brains revert to the worst case scenario. This is perfectly natural; the impulse to hunt and gather and preserve useful items is what built civilization. What’s funny about it is that almost all of the stuff that we save would be no good to us in an actual crisis. What’s scary about it is that our impulse to collect things against future calamity may be taking up all the space we need for things that would get us through that calamity.
My pantry is full of stuff we’ve canned. It looks glorious. There are our own garden tomatoes and collard greens and dilly beans and pickles and jam and soup stock, in my mother-in-law’s legacy jars. The entire closet probably adds up to about 1000 calories. Realistically, my canning pantry is nothing more than a set of attractive accessories for whatever else we will hopefully have on hand during any kind of emergency.
Once upon a time, my house was full of hundreds of books, boxes of papers and memorabilia, and so many clothes that my closet rod snapped. I didn’t want to get rid of any of it because I thought it would be useful at some point. None of it ever has been. I have about 20% of the volume of stuff I used to have, and it’s plenty.
What I have now includes: a fire extinguisher; several first aid kits, including a first responder kit; at least three days’ emergency water supply; go bags for us and our pets; flashlights and backup batteries; and enough complete meals to get us through at least a week without power. It’s an ordinary part of my household routine to rotate through the food and water rations. We hope we never need these things, while remembering my husband’s experience of the 1994 Northridge Earthquake.
For most of my life, I “knew” what to do to be prepared for an emergency, in the same way that we “know” how to organize our finances before Tax Day or floss more than two nights before going to the dentist. In other words, all I would be able to do during a crisis would be to kick myself, cry, and hope someone else was better organized than me. All the space that is currently used for emergency preparedness in my home would formerly have been full of stuff like old magazines and balls of yarn.
I’m a firm believer in emergency preparedness as a civic virtue. We’ve done what we can to be self-sufficient and not be burdens to anyone else. Further, we’ve done what we can to be able to lend a hand to at least a few other people, if necessary. Not everyone can be self-sufficient, including the elderly, injured, or disabled. Taking emergency responder classes and learning to operate a fire extinguisher are interesting skills to have. Making an escape plan and making sure emergency supplies are fresh and accessible are basic common sense. We can channel our anxious feelings of wanting to hang onto stuff and focus on the things that might be most useful of all. Recycling an old magazine probably won’t be a matter of life or death. Being able to find a fully stocked first aid kit might be.
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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