I was never an athlete until I turned 35, but The Champion's Mind is one of the most incredible books I have ever read. In a way, it almost makes me a little sad, because I feel like only people who are interested in team sports would be drawn to read it, and the majority of us will continue to have no idea how much we are missing. Think of it as a thinly veiled philosophy book or entrepreneurial motivational firehose. Jim Afremow writes keenly precise prose, and I think I bookmarked nearly every page.
I'm a distance runner. Although all of my experiences with team sports were uniformly awful, I found that 98% of the motivational material in The Champion's Mind felt deeply relevant to solo endurance sports as well. Those of us who are late to the game of physical culture can try out a bit of this collected wisdom. Would I think this way all the time if I had recognized my inner athlete decades earlier? Would I have been more receptive to coaching in my youth? (Probably not...)
One of the most useful concepts I took from The Champion's Mind was the idea of countering a Mental Error (ME) with a Mental Correction (MC). In my professional work with hoarding, squalor, and chronic disorganization, almost all of the work is in identifying and grappling with the extreme negative stories my clients tell about themselves. This made me think of my work as existing on the farthest possible end of the philosophical spectrum from athletic excellence. Sad to say, my people probably spend as much time accumulating and churning their physical possessions as Olympians do training and winning medals. Same twenty-four hours every single day.
Afremow recommends that athletes spend 30 minutes a day organizing and cleaning their personal space. Indeed. That's really about all it takes if you do it every single day. He also discusses social loafing, the phenomenon in which people on a team slack off because they believe their teammates will work hard enough to cover them. If this isn't relevant to family housekeeping, I don't know what is.
I'm going to keep coming back to this book again and again. Some of the mantras are going on the lock screen of my phone. Think It, Then Ink It! Own Your Zone! Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Gold In, Gold Out. Sustained Obsession. If these sorts of thinking tools have helped professional athletes to overcome major injuries, surgeries, and personal trauma, they can certainly help an ordinary person like me to get through the day.
Favorite quote: "The present is always the present, and it's all that ever is; the past and future exist only in your imagination."
We knew it was going to happen, but that didn’t stop it from being annoying. The power company would be turning off our electricity from 6 PM to 6 AM on a weeknight. No electricity, no wi-fi, no internet - which, in our building, means no phone. No lights. My husband wouldn’t be home from work until after 6, and we wouldn’t even be able to cook dinner. No stove, no microwave, no dishwasher. No washing machine, no clothes dryer. In other words, we’d be doing a dry run of what hundreds of thousands of people are doing in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Jose. We might not have internet for a night, but at least we wouldn’t have to evacuate.
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of emergency planning. If you have a plan and a few contingency plans, all you have to do is rehearse them occasionally and look for blind spots. If you have no plan, then you’re relying on the plans of others. Whenever there’s a natural disaster or a crisis, there will always be bright spots, incredible acts of heroism and generosity. There will also be devastating tragedies, many of which might have been avoided (who knows?) with some contingency plans and more resources. I like to think that we’re making our emergency plans as strong as possible so that we can find a place on the rescue squad and help those who can’t do it on their own.
If you have no phone and no internet, how will you know what to do and where to go?
If you live with others, and a natural disaster happens while you’re separated, how will you find each other if the phones don’t work?
If you have to evacuate your home and you’re separated from your family, how will you send each other messages?
If you have pets, what will you do with them? Can you get them out?
What information will you need if you lose your phone and wallet and your house is gone? How are you going to access that information?
I don’t have answers for you, by the way. How would I? The answers to those questions are personal to you and your situation.
These are horrible things to think about. Granted. So is death. How much more horrible if the disaster actually happens and you never bothered to spend five minutes thinking about it? Problem-solving is learned by solving problems. In crunch time, there won’t be any review sessions or time to go to the disaster survival textbook.
My husband and I live in a disaster-prone area. Earthquakes! Landslides! Wildfires! Flash floods! Riots! Our last house put us within walking distance of the territory of a real live (radio-collared) mountain lion. Our current apartment is on a marina, downhill a quarter mile from the typhoon warning signs. Things to think about.
Our Plan A is to hunker down at home and stay out of the way. A couple of weeks ago, there were wildfires very near our old house, close enough that a friend messaged me to ask if we were okay. Thirty miles, hon, we’re fine, thanks for asking. There were wildfires thirty miles from us and we didn’t even know! I have disaster alerts set up on my Watch and my phone, assuming they work. At least in an urban area, usually the best thing you can do is to stay home and give the emergency responders room to do their work.
Plan B, we know we need to evacuate and we have at least a few hours’ notice. Acquire transportation and depart for our planned destination. We’ve chosen somewhere a few hours away, in a different geographical area, assuming that if they also have a natural disaster, it won’t be the same one going on in our town. This is how my husband and his young family dealt with the aftereffects of the Northridge Earthquake. They drove out of the area for a few days until the water, power, and sewer were functional again.
Plan C, worst case scenario, something happens while my husband is at work and I’m at home with our pets. The phones don’t work, there’s no internet, and we don’t get a chance to touch base. Ugh, it gives me the chills just thinking about it! Plan B is for me to stay put and for him to get to us. His work is five miles away. Assuming he had to walk the whole way on technical terrain with weather complications, he could get home in 2 to 5 hours. (He thinks faster, but I know from technical terrain, and one mile an hour is plausible).
We plan around not having access to a vehicle because that’s what planning means. You have to assume that the weather is setting historical records, that you and someone else in your party are injured, that your supplies have been lost, that all the obvious routes home are blocked, that your vehicle has been destroyed, and that the roads are impassable anyway. THEN you get to start contingency planning.
Plan D: We’re separated, we have no means of communication, and I have to evacuate with our pets. There are index cards, markers, and masking tape in my go bag so I can try to leave him a note saying where we’ve gone. He’s going to have to assume we’re heading to higher ground, followed by the nearest Red Cross disaster shelter.
What if there isn’t one?
My husband and I both have years of experience in the outdoors. This is recreational, but it’s also practical. How far can we walk? How much can we carry? What do we do if we get blisters or minor injuries? How long can we exert very strenuous effort without food? What kind of climbing can we do? If we’re separated, well, he’s an emergency medical responder and an Eagle Scout, so he can take care of himself. For myself, I have to count on my inner reserves of grit and the physical strength I’ve built as a marathon runner and adventure racer. We spent three days off-grid in Iceland and got each other across a few thigh-deep river crossings. We’ve tested our ability to work together under arduous conditions, keeping our heads clear and solving problems together.
Like, for instance, the problem of having NO INTERNET FOR TWELVE HOURS! We couldn’t charge our devices or anything! *swoon* I know, I know. How did we survive??
I made sure the day’s laundry was out of the dryer well before the shutoff. We met for dinner at the burrito bar, where I had already checked to make sure they were out of the shutoff zone. That meant we wouldn’t have to open the fridge or freezer and our food could stay fresh. I had fresh batteries for the battery-powered lantern, plus candles and a headlamp, and the solar lantern was charged. The fire extinguisher was ready under the sink just in case. All our devices were charged to 100%. I even got us fresh new library books. We lounged around reading, went to bed early, and when we woke up in the morning, the power was back on.
If we’re lucky, this will be the toughest crisis of our year. There’s enough to do in trying to help with hurricane recovery efforts in any way we can.
I’m writing this on the treadmill at our apartment gym. This gym was one of the top three reasons we were willing to downsize from a house with a garage. I figure, if I don’t use it as much as possible, then we’re not getting full value from our rent. It has a much nicer view with its floor-to-ceiling windows than our apartment, which looks onto the parking garage of the neighboring building. It has no fewer than three big-screen TVs, one of which is hanging directly in front of me. I’m ignoring it, though, because it’s always tuned to a news channel. I’m here for entertainment.
Let the truth be known: I hate working out. It’s boring as all get out. If I had to run on a treadmill with nothing to stimulate my brain, I’d quit in about four minutes. In fact, I did quit. I quit the gym we had four years ago because I hated running on the treadmill and they kept playing “Teenage Dream” every single time I was there. What gets me through my workouts is that I anchor exercise to entertainment. There are certain fun things I do that I only allow myself to do when I’m doing cardio.
It started before the days of smartphones and tablets. I joined the gym across the street from my work, and I would do my workout while I waited for traffic to die down. This meant I had the delayed reward of a breezy freeway commute, often as the only car visible on the road. Ah, but that was dessert. The immediate reward was the pot-boiler. I would have a book I couldn’t stop thinking about, and I only allowed myself to touch it if I was actually on the treadmill. It just lived in my gym bag. Not only did this work, but the suspense tended to make me move faster. I graduated from 2 mph on the treadmill to 4.5 mph on an incline. Then I upgraded to the bike, then the elliptical. I lost 15 pounds at that gym.
When I took up running outdoors, the treat was audio. Either podcasts or audio books. It got to where I had to pick out the longest books I could find, because on Fridays I would run for four hours and I didn’t want to have to mess with the app. I remember that I listened to all of Cloud Atlas while training for my marathon. My must-listen podcasts were for training days only.
This gym I’m in has seven cardio machines. Most of the time when I show up, I have the entire room to myself. I’ve been here at all hours between 6 AM and 8 PM. It’s predictably busier in the early morning, but even at its most crowded, at least three or four of these machines are available. To be considerate, I have fallback plans. I do different types of things depending on which machine I’m on. I’ve set my expectations so that I don’t have a “favorite” or a sense that “that’s MY” machine.
On the elliptical, I can only really use my three-year-old tablet, an obsolete yet indestructible beast that I got for free the last time I upgraded my phone. That’s where I try to catch up with my news queue. I have a couple of e-books downloaded on it. The elliptical is also where I read paper magazines.
On the recumbent bike, there’s nowhere to prop reading material. This is a tough machine for me right now, because I haven’t trained on a bike in many years, but it’s good for my hip flexors and quads and I need it for cross training. I’m trying to build up my tolerance gradually. This is where I read through email newsletters and articles with a lot of illustrations on my iPad.
On the treadmill, where I am now, I can actually prop up my iPad keyboard and type! I’m only going 2.4 mph. There’s a fan in the machine that blows on my face, which is quite nice. What I’ve done in this session has been to watch a 20-minute video, read a silly article about the Mayweather-McGregor match, and write this piece. I realized only today that this is a place where I can actually watch my endless queue of “Watch Later” YouTube videos. I can’t stop myself from saving them but I get too restless to watch them while sitting still. Anyone who was into that sort of thing could also watch TV episodes with a setup like this.
A friend of mine used to play video games on the recumbent bike. In those days, it was a game console. Now anyone could do this with a smartphone.
Do I worry about breaking my gadgets? Yes, very much so. That’s why I use the devices I do on the machines that I do. There’s no way I’d ever consider bringing my iPad onto the elliptical machine. It wouldn’t be possible for me to type on the recumbent bike due to its layout. I also wouldn’t do everything with the iPad on the treadmill, because it’s not nearly a hard enough workout. What I do is to dither around clearing tabs in my browser, doing a brain dump, and maybe scanning some email in a desultory fashion. Then I stop the treadmill and move over to another machine. Honestly, I haven’t broken a sweat.
I don’t think my treadmill entertainment “counts” as a workout. I might burn 100 calories, about equivalent to an apple. The thing is that I’m associating the habit of passive entertainment with physical activity. I’m also associating this habit with this location. Over time, my mind will expect that I “do this sort of thing” at the gym. I look forward to walking over here, because it’s when I can read police procedurals or mindless celebrity gossip or BuzzFeed articles. Before I know it, it’s time to hop on the elliptical and really get to work.
Oh crud! I’ve already been on here for 74 minutes! Bye!
Most of the stuff in the universe is not in my apartment. I’m pretty sure I don’t have any of your stuff, although if I do, please remind me… I’ve written in the past about how I don’t have a nightstand or a coffee table. Another conventional item that I don’t have is a filing cabinet. This is pretty common amongst the chronically disorganized, and it’s a good tool for making sense out of scattered stuff. It’s possible, though, to graduate past the need for a physical file cabinet. Not having a filing cabinet is one of the many ways that I make my life easier.
There are three levels of filing:
Not having a filing cabinet means I need to be strategic about how information flows through my life. I need to plan my finances and my infrastructure. This strategic planning is how I control the flow of papers so I can always find what I need. It also keeps unwanted papers from taking over our house.
The first thing is to default to NO when it comes to papers. Refuse all brochures, pamphlets, flyers, newsletters, catalogues, business cards, menus, free newspapers or anything else that is thrust out. Any information I need, I can look up online. There is no reason for contact information to be collected in paper form. The other advantage of this is that I’m in control of the research. Anyone who wants me to take papers from them is marketing something, which means they’re looking after their advantage, not mine. This is contrary for compulsive accumulators, who get swirly eyes every time they think they’re getting something for free.
Junk mail is in a category of its own. Opt out. Get your name off the lists. This can be hard to do in the case of postcards from local dentists or other businesses, but they usually only reach out once. Regular offenders catch my attention, and I go to their website and figure out how to get my name taken off their mailing list. After opting out, the second most important way to fight junk mail is to ruthlessly process it every day. When either of us brings in the mail, we’ve already sorted through it by the time we get to our front door, and all the junk goes into the recycling bin.
These two gates, resisting papers and eliminating junk mail, eliminate at least 80% of the burden of paper sorting. This is why they are so essential to the process. There’s plenty to sort when it comes to the relevant stuff, the papers we actually need. Having them mixed in with bags and bags of unsorted junk mail makes the process almost impossible.
What about the stuff we do need? As often as possible, we sign up for paperless billing. Almost all the time, we just use auto-pay. This is another area that is very contrary for my people. Even direct deposit for paychecks is too much for them; it makes them feel paranoid. I used to feel that way. At some point in the late Nineties, I changed my mind. Never once, not a single time, have I ever had a problem with direct deposit or automatic billing. Of course that’s not going to matter to those who are afraid of electronic banking. For those who just feel overwhelmed and dread the thought, it’s even more important to control the flow of paper, because there’s going to be at least ten times more of it.
Guess what? Once you’ve paid a bill, you no longer need to keep the billing statement. Or the envelopes, or the brochures. Any of it. You don’t need to keep paper copies of bank statements, either. We haven’t kept any for our entire marriage. This is why we don’t have a filing cabinet, because either we don’t keep these papers or we don’t generate them on paper in the first place.
We also don’t keep academic papers. My husband is active in his field of aerospace engineering, and his student work wouldn’t be all that relevant to what he does today. I haven’t needed or used any of my papers, either, although I did scan the ones I wanted to keep. They take up a small amount of space in my cloud storage. Most people keep old school papers because they miss being students.
What do we keep?
Our passports, social security cards, and marriage license are in the fireproof safe.
I have a red Manila file folder labeled PENDING that has certain papers that are necessary for the short term. For instance, I had a four-year battle with the City of Los Angeles, trying to tax me for income I didn’t earn even when I wasn’t a resident. I saved all the correspondence from them. That was about a dozen sheets. At some point, I’ll scan them and shred the originals. I just looked through this folder and pulled out an invitation to a party I attended and instructions for an eye ointment I no longer need. Then there’s a flyer from our apartment complex about repaving the parking lot this month. Well, I’m certainly not putting it on the fridge!
We have a cardboard file box. It measures ten inches deep. This is downsized from our previous file box, which was about twice as big. I keep it in the linen closet, where there’s room for it because we don’t keep threadbare old towels or wrong-size sheets. I just flipped through it. The majority of it is only in there because of how long it would take to scan it, and because if we get rid of another inch of papers, I’ll have to find a different storage solution. They’re holding each other upright. You know all those pictures on Pinterest of cute desks with decorative storage boxes on the shelves? Something like that would work.
What’s in our file box? School pictures of my stepdaughter. Instruction manuals, which I include with items that I resell when we’re done. Tax returns, of course. Race bibs from the different races I’ve run. A bunch of schematics and notes about various inventions, mine and his. Veterinary records, which, come to think of it, our vet has on file anyway. Essentially what we have is there due to entropy, not because we need to use these papers for reference. (The invention stuff should certainly be scanned). The only ones we’re legally mandated to keep are the tax returns, a file that’s about 1/8” thick. It could go in the safe and then we’d be done.
Papers, like many other objects, tend to be kept because we don’t believe we have permission to get rid of them. What do you want to bet that almost everyone reading this still has the tags hanging off their mattress? How many people have stuff in their house that was left behind by previous tenants? Why do we always keep all the spare hardware that’s left over after assembling something? It takes a certain amount of moxie to seize the initiative and make executive decisions about stuff. Do a little research and decide that there’s an entire category of papers you no longer need to keep.
First there’s the underwear money. Then there’s the go-bag money. Then there’s the money in the safe. Then there’s the change jar. Then there’s the actual savings account. If you can keep track of all that, then great! You absolutely have the aptitude for financial independence.
When you’re broke, saving money isn’t always possible. I’ve been in the unenviable position of having two roommates and still paying more than half of my income in rent. In fact, in the first month of my life as an independent adult, I earned $300 net and my rent was… $300. Tricky. Why I still love potatoes and oatmeal is something of a mystery. The most important two things when you are that broke, potato-with-no-butter broke, are to keep planning for an easier future and to figure out some side gigs.
When you’re broke, it’s even more important to plan for the future than it is for everyone else. Why? Because if you always live hand to mouth, if every penny is already claimed before you even earn it, then there’s nothing left for Future You. Future You will be exactly like Present You, except old and exhausted and probably unemployable and also probably frail and ill. Imagine being so tired you physically can’t even get up a flight of stairs, and then imagine that Present You plans to force Future Old You to commute to work every day. Come on. That’s not going to work. Saving money is not optional. You have to figure it out.
Okay, let’s cheer up a bit and assume that you already are prosperous enough to be able to save some money. The great thing is that the more you learn about finance, the more money you wind up having, and the easier your life gets. The more money you have, the more nice things you can do for other people. Yay money!
Savings is a cushion. The main purpose of a savings account is to have money ready for an emergency. Interestingly enough, the way we define “emergency” tends to change depending on circumstances. New tires? A new transmission? Veterinary surgery? The goal is to have enough of a savings cushion to avoid putting unanticipated emergency expenses on a credit card.
A shocking survey came out in 2016 indicating that nearly half of Americans couldn’t come up with $400 in an emergency. That was true for me up until, say, 2005. I wouldn’t even have been able to do it with a credit card prior to 1997. I completely get what it’s like to be flat broke. It sucks. Stop doing it.
I started working for money when I was 10 years old. The lightbulb went on. If I took the opportunity to babysit or do any other random cash-generating activity I could think of, I could BUY THINGS. The first time I bought myself my own restaurant meal, I took $5 down the street to Charburger and bought a cheeseburger, fries, a drink, and a hot fudge sundae. It was magnificent. I couldn’t do algebra yet, but I could earn nice green dollars and use them for lifestyle upgrades. I used to have a little tin with a cat on it where I stashed my babysitting money. I was poor for a long time, but I did always believe in that power to go out and hustle up small amounts of cash.
The only problem was that it never occurred to me to wonder whether there was an upper limit. What if I could earn… more?
This is where the concept of saving comes in, as opposed to “savings.” A process, not a specific amount in a sock.
Those of us who are savers have generally been taught frugality, either through positive or negative examples. Some of us were trained to respect the power of money, while others stood by and watched some outrageous nonsense and learned about the perils of scarcity mindset through others’ mistakes. Usually, we have not been taught the more abstruse and complicated ways of finance. Personal finance classes in high school do not teach investment as a skill. Apparently many of us aren’t even getting the basics of consumer finance, like how to balance a checkbook or plan a budget. Much less are we taught how to build a financial empire.
The difference between “saving” and “savings” is that “savings” means whatever specific dollar amount you have put away. For many people, there’s an explicit goal. If I have X amount, then we’re okay, and if we need to spend it for some reason, then we need to tighten our belts for a while until we build it back up. This is great. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always include the sense that this savings cushion can and should be steadily increasing. A savings cushion doesn’t always include the idea that we can and should only live on a certain percentage of our earnings, setting aside as much as we can for Future Us.
Most people don’t spend every penny they earn. They spend every penny they earn AND a bunch of what they think Future Self will earn! If stuff is getting put on a credit card, then we’re spending the future.
It’s kind of like this.
Spend 101% = debtor
Spend 100% = accident waiting to happen
Spend 90% = keep going
Spend 65% = my husband and me
Spend 37% = Mr. Money Mustache
Having a savings account is fantastic. If you have one at all, good. Apparently, if you have $400 in it, you’re already better off than half of your fellow Americans. You like that savings account? It makes you feel a sense of security and satisfaction? Nice? Nice? Okay, let’s peek ahead and see how many other kinds of savings accounts there are. I know you’ll like them, too.
Scattered coins all over the place. You’re “one of mine” and your finances are a disaster.
Change jar. The secret code that tells me your household makes too many cash purchases that aren’t being tracked.
Underwear money. The place where you hide cash in your house for just in case.
Savings account. Basically a way to protect yourself if you overdraw your checking account. If you’re earning as much as 1.5% interest in your savings account, that’s amazing but wow, can we do better than that.
Holiday and taxes account. I had one of these at my credit union when I got divorced, and I had literally forgotten about it because it only had quarterly statements. When I realized I had another $1200 put away, I almost fell over in the street. It’s a kind of account where you can only take the money out twice a year, and it earns more interest than a regular savings account.
CD, or certificate of deposit. Funny how many people have actual CDs, or compact discs, but not “the good kind.” Rates vary depending on how much you’re saving and how long you’re planning to leave it in the account, but basically you can get 2% interest. Some people make a “ladder” out of CDs that come due at different dates.
IRA, or individual retirement arrangement. (Trust me, I looked it up just now). This is a way to save money for retirement. There are two kinds, one where you put in the money pre-tax and pay taxes when you take the money out, and the other where you take it out of your net income so the taxes are already paid. Not everyone can use IRAs because there’s an earnings cap. Basically, you can do $5500, more if you’re over 50. That’s about $100 a week. You don’t have to have the full $5500 to do it, though. Even if you can only save $100 a year, you can still open an IRA account. There aren’t any requirements that you keep putting money in or anything like that. This is a way to put money in the stock market.
401(k) or whatever. This is the retirement savings they set up for you at work. It’s the way most people start investing in the stock market. Some companies offer a match up to a certain percentage of your income, and there are a lot of wild and crazy, spontaneous party animals out there who turn their noses up at this free money every year. “We’ll give you thousands of extra dollars if you fill out this form and get slightly less in your net paycheck.” “NO”
There are tons of other financial investment vehicles out there. If you get to that point, study carefully, because everybody wants to get their beak wet. All that nice money, and someone always wants to carve out a percent for themselves. Although, of course, that’s certainly a poor reason to avoid saving and investing.
Saving money means trust in a better future. It means I don’t have to spend every penny today, because there will be plenty more in the future. I’m not missing out on anything, I’m gaining, because my money will get together in the dark with all the other money (just like wire clothes hangers) and start getting friendly. The reason more people don’t save and invest is because we think it’s just sitting there, like pennies in a jar. We’d be more excited about it if we realized that investment is more like Tribbles or dandelions. Every time you turn around, it’s turned into more and more.
Letting Go: Confessions of a Hoarder is the real thing. Corinne Grant is an Australian stand-up comic who has had a successful television career. You’d never know that from her book, though. She scarcely mentions her work, which may be due to tall-poppy modesty, or maybe because she’s just that well known to the Australian audience. Either way, it’s a testament to the power of her story. Hoarding makes life difficult no matter how well everything else might be going. What could have been a depressing story turns into a laugh riot, as Grant examines her emotional relationship with her stuff with humor and self-compassion.
Anyone who is ambivalent about keepsakes, memorabilia, souvenirs, and other emotional minefields will relate to this book. Grant has powerful emotional ties to almost every last thing she owns. She’s unable to get rid of a single item without agonizing over it, including the dried-out stems of an old bouquet, which she photographs for posterity. There are scenes of her weeping, arguing with friends who try to help her move, hiding stuff she wants to keep, and rescuing things she had planned to donate. Like I said, this book is the real thing.
It’s Grant’s ability to laugh at herself that saves her. While it doesn’t make the process any easier, she’s able to recognize when she is being irrational. She enlists the support of a friend who also hoards, and the progress really gets going when they start telling each other the truth about their fraught ties to their possessions. This is where the title comes in. These really are Lessons in Letting Go. How exactly do I convince myself to let go of a sentimental old t-shirt or a broken appliance? She shares her emotional homework, explaining the back story of specific objects, such as an unsent childhood love letter to Bruce Springsteen, and how she talked herself through the decision to let each one go.
The work proceeds gradually, in fits and starts. She’s able to make breakthroughs after some major life events, including a trip to Bali and a visit to a refugee camp in Jordan. At one point, she asks a group of refugees what it was hardest to lose, thinking they’ll say something like their photo albums or baby shoes. They all say “stability” - and she suddenly sees her personal memorabilia in a new context. Each time she comes home, she’s able to process another layer of her stuff.
Lessons in Letting Go is full of happy endings. One of the biggest surprises for me was that Grant is able to tally up all her stuff at the end of the book. She’s kept 24 boxes and gotten rid of enough to fill 20. I feel the need to say that an American hoarder with this level of emotional entanglement would have had far, far more stuff than this! I’ve talked to professional movers who have pulled 100 boxes out of a single bedroom. My husband and I moved six months ago, into a one-bedroom, 680-square-foot apartment with a single closet, and we had 64 boxes between us. That includes one box of my husband’s memorabilia that I made him keep (trophies, medals, Scouting stuff) while Grant claims she’s saved a few boxes of her own school memories. I suspect we just have more housewares, because at least a third of our boxes consist of kitchen hardware and appliances. I only had two boxes of books. You know what? I’d pay to see a catalog of those remaining 24 boxes and what was in them!
I laughed out loud at several places in this book. Lessons in Letting Go felt true to me. Grant is hysterical, ribald, and honest about her struggles in a way that’s entirely relatable. I kept laughing as I put the book down, culled a sack of clothes and a bag of books, and carried them out the door to donate.
“Nothing meant anything if I kept it all.”
“I was a hoarder, I dreamed of living unhaunted.”
“It struck me that the difference between a hoarder and a non-hoarder was not how much of their lives they had failed at, but how many reminders they kept of those failures.”
We sold our car back to the dealership in March. Living in Southern California without owning a car has been much easier than we had anticipated. We’re leveling up our skills by setting out on a backpacking expedition without organizing transportation from the airport to the park. Yes, it’s those crazy Denhams doing the wing-it method again.
My husband and I are very efficient with our travel anxiety. That is to say, we worry about completely different things. My major area of worry is cleaning our place top to bottom before we leave. His is wanting to be at the airport three hours early. My second worry is what we’re going to eat, and his is figuring out how to find our destination on the map.
On this trip, we have a couple of extra complications. None of the campgrounds accept reservations, and we haven’t booked a way to cover the 45 miles from our hotel in Jackson Hole to our desired campsite in the Grand Tetons, Colter Bay. I think we’ll be fine because if the campsite is full, we can always just get a backcountry permit. He thinks we’ll be fine because we can just take a Lyft.
We’re both wrong.
We have no trouble getting a shuttle from the airport to our hotel. There’s one waiting outside. We inquire whether the shuttle service might take us to Colter Bay the next day, and take their business card just in case our ride-sharing plan doesn’t work out. Prescient.
When we check in, almost two hours late due to our plane being stuck on the tarmac, we find that we’re only about a mile from a natural foods store. We’re able to walk there and pick up the next day’s lunch and some tea and trail mix before they close for the night. We’ve brought oatmeal packets for breakfast and freeze-dried meals for lunches and dinners. If all else fails, we have enough calories for the week, but we’re hoping to supplement our meals with fresh produce from the campsite general store.
The next day I am exhausted and refuse to follow the plan of waking up at 6 AM to get to the campsite as early as possible. Whether this is a disastrous mistake or not would be hard to say.
For all my skill with travel logistics, I’m so useless, slow, and dopey in the morning that I’m surprised nobody has left me behind yet.
We dress quickly and haul our forty-pound hockey bags down the hotel stairs. No Lyfts answer our call. This makes sense, because a Lyft driver would be stuck with a 45-mile return trip and basically zero chance of picking up fresh passengers. We’re left with the shuttle service we used the previous night. They quote us $120, which is fine.
We could have rented an economy car for as low as $108 a week, assuming no surge pricing, but we would have had to pay insurance and gas as well. Since we got rid of our car, we also got rid of our car insurance. I once paid for supplemental insurance on a rental car, and it cost equally as much as the daily rate for the car. That’s when I actually carried my own car insurance. We don’t have roadside assistance anymore, either. We’re heading into bear country, probably on non-sanctioned terrain, so who knows what fine print we might be activating. We have basically no trust when it comes to businesses that make so much of their revenue off the dingers and add-ons and surcharges.
There are externalities to renting a car, just as there are to owning one:
Picking it up and dropping it off
Gassing it up before drop-off, which in this case would mean an extra 16-mile round trip, or paying a surcharge
Risk of collision. Greater than zero probability, non-trivial amount of hassle for out-of-state travelers
In comparison, there are side benefits to hiring a driver:
More experienced driver operates the vehicle
Knows where everything is in the area
Can offer advice and recommendations
Points out wildlife and scenic attractions
Shares local gossip and cultural context
In case of collision, driver does the paperwork
Ditto traffic citations
(I have a thing about jobs that allow the employee at least some agency, like having control over their schedule or not having a dress code).
We need to pick up some bear spray, and the driver obligingly swings by the outdoor store (which would not have been open if we had woken up on schedule, just saying…) It’s a breathtaking $40, but it costs $50 inside the park, and that’s still a lot cheaper than a new cranium or a skin graft.
When we arrive at the entrance to the National Park, there’s a $30 fee, which we pay. A short time later, we arrive at the Colter Bay campground, only to find a sign that says FULL. Uh-oh. There are two men in uniform blocking the road and waving people on. The shuttle driver is understandably nervous.
WELCOME TO THE PLACE OF UNCERTAINTY!
We ask the driver to wait while we go to the campsite office. Not only is Colter Bay full, but… every campground for forty miles is full. In other words, the entire National Park is full. Yay. We ask about backcountry permits, my hole card. It turns out that I have completely misunderstood how this works. My impression has been that if you are backpacking, and you have a permit, you can put your tent down anywhere that makes sense. The purpose of the permit is to limit the number of people inside the park at any one time, while also providing a record of your presence in case you fall into a crevasse or something.
Ignore everything I just said, because I am ignorant and my brain is full of… soggy bow tie pasta.
Evidently, in Grand Teton National Park, a backcountry permit allows a limited number of people to camp within the confines of a primitive campsite, many miles away from where we are currently standing. We could get the permit, we could go, but we’d have to hike ten miles in (and out), and we’d be on our own in grizzly territory. The other option is to drive 25 miles and camp in the nearby National Forest, where the rules are different.
My husband turns to me. “We’re screwed.”
This is totally, 100% my fault. I’m the one who did the “research” on this. At this point, I’m the one with more backpacking experience in multiple states (and countries). I’m the one who insisted on lounging around like a primadonna when we should have gotten up early like we planned. This is the moment in the Place of Uncertainty when I start the internal wail, “I WANT MY DAAA-AAAA-AAAAAD!” (A dad who would have exactly no sympathy for a problem created by my sleeping in and lack of punctuality).
We trudge back to the van, preparing to negotiate with our mostly-patient shuttle driver.
One of the three women from the information booth runs out after us. She wants to brainstorm with us a bit more. Once we put it out there that we are backpackers who arrived in a taxi, we have buy-in. We’re morons, but we’re sympathetic morons. At least we have novelty value.
It turns out that we’ve all been speaking at cross purposes. What we want is known as a “hiker-biker” spot, which is available to us because we don’t need to park a car. This is a totally different beast from the “backcountry permit” we were requesting. Somehow the part about “it’s just us and these backpacks” fell through the cracks. Jargon. The website also uses the term “walk-in,” which I assume means the same as “hiker-biker” rather than the occult meaning of a spirit taking over someone’s body. Which, hold that thought while I take notes, because that would make a rad horror film. “Walk-In of the Woods.”
We go back to the driver to keep him updated, and my husband trots off to talk to the campsite road block crew. I run after him, struggling to keep up in my new boots.
THE SIGN IS GONE.
Check-out time is 11 AM, and some of the campsites that were full when we arrived are now available.
We’ll never know now whether we would have had a simpler time by arriving an hour earlier or arriving half an hour later.
We merrily book our campsite for six days, planning to check out the morning after the eclipse. Campsites can be booked for 14 days. We can’t know for sure, but it’s highly likely that if we had waited even one more day, we wouldn’t have been able to get in. We pay $30 a day, which is pretty darn cheap for a vacation.
We send the driver home. He’s added an extra $20 for the side trip to the outdoor store and the half-hour wait at the campsite. We tip him an additional $20, for a total of $160. We confirm that we can call someone to drive back and pick us up on Tuesday.
The campsite at Colter Bay! We have wi-fi. We have electrical outlets. We have showers with no shower timers. We have laundry facilities. We have campfires. The general store has actual fresh cruciferous vegetables - and guacamole - and cashew ice cream. The only thing that qualifies this trip as “camping,” besides sleeping in a tent, is that a mosquito bites me on the butt the minute we walk into our campsite.
We have a magnificent time, a topic for another post. We see the eclipse in a cloud-free sky. We pack up to go home. We give the unused $40 bear spray to a lucky contestant who is checking in. We try to pay a couple of guys $100 to ride back to town with them, but one is going the wrong way and the other only has two seats. The shuttle driver shows up about two hours after we call. The trip back costs $150. Total: $310.
Would we have saved money by renting a car rather than paying a shuttle service? Probably. It depends on the insurance question and the gas mileage. Would there have been any rental cars available? Who knows? Would we have been able to get a campsite at Colter Bay if we had brought a car? No, definitely not. I’m going to claim that we broke even. Considering that the hotel and the plane tickets only cost us reward points, we’d rather splurge and not have to bother with the rental car hassle. Oh, and there’s that whole thing about no longer paying $600/month to own our own vehicle…
We were able to do this trip for a bunch of serendipitous reasons. I stumbled across an article about the eclipse about a year in advance, and since my husband happened to be sitting right there, I asked him what he thought about it. The date fell near our wedding anniversary, so we agreed that a trip to see the totality would be fun. It was too soon to book tickets, so I set a reminder to buy them in January. On New Year’s Day, we spent about an hour planning the trip. We were able to book plane tickets AND the bookend hotel dates using reward points. Get this. I got THE LAST available room at the Hampton Inn. That was how we determined the start date of our trip. We had no idea that Jackson Hole, Wyoming in general and the Grand Tetons in particular would be such a popular viewing location for the totality. It’s basically unfair that we were able to get in. That we paid for it with points is… well, that part is gloat-worthy.
So, we did it. We took a taxi to the wilderness and back again. We’ve been car-free for six months. We have no plans to buy a replacement vehicle at this time. It’s unlikely we’ll rent a car, either. Now that we’ve pulled off this caper, we’re broadening our expectations of what we can do and where we can go, leaving the driving to someone else.
I do it to myself just often enough to remind myself why I walk the line the majority of the time. What do I do? I relax, I push my limits, I convince myself that I’m just a regular robust person who can do everything without boundaries. There’s a grace period. Then it catches up with me. Maybe I notice when I slip into Yellow. Usually I ignore the warning signs until I’m back in Orange. Then I go into panic mode, because I still do remember what it’s like to spend every day in Red.
What am I talking about? I'm talking about chronic pain and the various oddball symptoms that I experience along with it. What is true for me probably is not true for most people. What is true for me probably also is not true for other sufferers of chronic pain and fatigue, because not all of us have the same conditions or the same symptoms. My recommendation is always to track metrics, to keep careful records, so that you can find patterns and change your inputs to attempt to mitigate your results. I think that if even .0001% of my experience can be influenced by my behavior, then it’s worth the attempt.
Yellow: I get a headache, or I stay up a few hours late, or I overeat past a 7 out of 10 on the hunger scale, or my weight goes up more than 2 pounds, or I catch a cold
Orange: I get headaches more than one day in a week, or I get a migraine, or I have shooting pains, or I experience fragrance sensitivity, or my weight goes up more than 4 pounds, or I feel full-body aches consistent with my fibromyalgia days, or I start feeling chilly all the time and I can’t warm up, or I have a night terror
Red: Symptomatic nearly every day, migraines on a regular basis, night terrors on a regular basis, lethargic, dizzy spells, get sick and seem to get sick with something else days after I thought I was better, often simply bedridden with pain and exhaustion, too tired or ill to read, lose a patch of hair on my scalp an inch across
Right now, I’m back in Orange and I’m really angry with myself. Sure, I have plenty of reasons. We went on two vacations in a row, we went camping and slept on the ground in the cold, I carried 40 pounds of luggage around for a few days, we changed time zones, I got bitten by insects. These are problems that I can ordinarily correct by sleeping an extra hour or two per night for a few days after a trip.
Ah, but this time, it seems that I pushed a little too far for a little too long.
Whether it’s a cause, a symptom, or both, my body weight is perfectly correlated with my various other symptoms. It’s something I have to watch. Again, whether this is or is not true for other people is up to them to discover for themselves through meticulously tracking their own health metrics. It’s not a body image thing, it’s not a self-esteem thing. For me, for me personally, it’s a functionality thing.
We came back from Wyoming, the camping part of our vacation, and I was right at the weigh-in I had before the trip, within two-tenths of a pound. Despite all the sleeping on the ground in the cold and all the carrying of the forty-pound backpack and the fifteen-mile hike, I felt fine.
Then we went to Las Vegas for three nights. I came back four pounds heavier, and I was a mess.
How’d I do it? I Ate All the Things. In Wyoming, we were eating a lot of starchy backpacking food, but the portions were controlled and we had crucifers every day. In Las Vegas? Vegas, well. I think I had a half-cup of broccoli. Other than that, it was all stuff I almost never eat: Airport food! Potato chips! Salty mixed nuts! French fries! Hot chocolate! Cookies! Juice with HFCS! Appetizers! Huge portions! Desserts every day! We even had “chicken and waffles” with syrup at VegeNation. No schedule whatsoever. You can start to see where those four pounds came from.
Four pounds doesn’t sound like much, does it?
If you can gain four pounds and not notice, good for you. If you can gain four pounds and not feel immediate adverse health effects, good for you. That’s awesome. If that is true in your life, by all means, celebrate in a way that is meaningful to you. But please don’t tell me about it. I’ve had more than my fill of conversations where other people brag to me about their resilience in these matters. I’m a fragile person and I have to walk a fine line.
I gained four pounds, and what happened?
Shooting pains from my heel to my thigh, triggering my restless leg syndrome to the point that my husband noticed from across the room
Low-grade headache every day for four days straight
Weirdly sensitive to fragrance - I smelled someone’s nail polish outdoors and it seemed like I was “still smelling it” an hour later. Then it was someone’s body spray. This hasn’t been a problem for me for about a decade.
Waking up twice a night
Constant feeling of irritability
One full day of “brain fog” in which I struggled to stay awake, much less do any work
Welcome to Orange.
I’m handling this state of affairs aggressively. First, I’m tracking what I eat and making sure my meals are consistent in schedule and portion size each day. So far I’ve dropped 1.8 pounds in a week, which means I have at least another week of Orange to go. Second, I’m eating four cups of cruciferous vegetables a day. Third, I’m taking melatonin on a schedule. I’m still waking up a couple of times a night, and waking up too early, but at least I’m falling asleep on a reasonable schedule. Fourth, I’m exercising an hour a day. In Orange, I can still get a couple of hours of blessed analgesic effect after my workout.
No naps. No anti-inflammatories.
I have strong suspicions that all of my weird symptoms are tied to thyroid function. I had a thyroid nodule when I was 23 that was thought to be cancerous. All the symptoms of disrupted sleep, parasomnia problems, migraine, weight gain, lethargy, brain fog, pain, fatigue, low body temperature, and fragrance sensitivity were fully in place at that time. They’re my flags, indicating that something is off in my world. This is why I make exercise my major priority when I start to slip through Yellow. It’s the one thing that reliably seems to reverse the trend.
When I work out, I don’t feel as cold all the time, the headaches and night terrors disappear, I can sleep through the night and wake up feeling rested, and my energy level goes from a 6 to a 9. I feel like every hour I work out buys me two pain-free hours and an extra hour of solid sleep. That’s why I do it, even when I feel physically horrible and it’s the last thing “my body wants.” I push through and do it because I know I’ll get worse if I don’t.
I’m back in Orange, but I feel like I’m inching back toward Yellow every day. Here’s hoping that if I stay on track, I’ll be back out of crisis mode by the end of the month. It’s my wish that sharing my experiences might be of help to someone else in my situation who is desperately searching for answers. Track everything, be consistent, and keep holding on in the belief that a 1% improvement is always possible.
Every flat surface is going to get covered with stuff. It’s a universal law. Just like a cat will always find an empty box and my dog will always find the snacks in my purse, flat surfaces are an irresistible attraction. This is how entropy happens. If I have stuff in my hands and I think Future Me will have more fun dealing with it than I would right now, I’m going to put it on the nearest flat surface I can find. For later. Eventually, this is going to include the floor. While a lot of this stuff is going to include dirty dishes, dirty laundry, and a general excess of objects, for most people the surface clutter is made of paper. We turn every possible place we can find into an auxiliary desk.
Not everyone has a desk, of course. They don’t always fit. I currently don’t have a desk; I work either at the dining table, in an easy chair, at the public library, in a cafe, or in my lap on the bus. Of course, I did all of those things when I did have a desk. The entire world is my backup workspace! The major drawback to this is that, while I am paperless as much as possible, tangible material objects do keep inserting themselves into my mental bandwidth. I have to put them somewhere. They wind up either in my work bag or in a stack on the entertainment center. This drives myself crazy.
Mail to process
Receipts to process
Bound manuscripts and screenplays
Stacks of index cards
As soon as every book ever written is available electronically. As soon as we have wireless power. As soon as everyone agrees to switch to electronic billing and electronic receipts. As soon as the entire world catches up to the 21st century, I can stop having this annoying stack in my brain space. Until then, I’m looking for a design solution. I have the luxury of caring about a single square foot of chaos in my home.
There’d be plenty of room for this stack if I got rid of another shelf of books.
Most of my people do have desks. Some have more than one. There’ll be a computer desk, often used by the entire household, and then an older desk that is covered with papers. The drawers will be full of random stuff. If there are shelves, which there often are, they will be filled with stuff, too. In most cases, these desks are like historical archives, where time came to a standstill at a certain state of fullness, and everything shifted to the next auxiliary desk.
First it’s the desk. Then it’s the dining table. Then it’s the kitchen counter.
Then mail starts getting stuffed into crevices all around the house. Sideways between books in the bookcase. Stacked horizontally on top of books or other objects. Wedged under something that’s supposed to hold it in place. Strewn across the coffee table. Piled on top of the microwave or the fridge. Hidden in a drawer. Used as a bookmark. Stuffed into a tote bag, backpack, purse, briefcase, or all of the above. On the nightstand. In the passenger seat of the car. On the dashboard until it all slides off. In clipboards and pinned to bulletin boards. On the windowsill.
This is what chronic disorganization looks like. It looks like someone made a scale model of a distracted, overwhelmed human brain and put a lot of effort into making it as 3D as possible.
Really, I blame junk mail for all of this. The trouble with paper is that almost all of it looks alike. It comes in faster than we can process it, and missing a single day exacerbates what is already a significant externally imposed interruption. Every piece of paper we didn’t ask for sits there calling HEY! HEY HEY HEY HEY HEY. Every single time we look at it, each piece again triggers that mental HEY. We learn to blur over it and stop seeing it. It’s the only way our attention can possibly survive in this world of a million words.
Go outside. Tally every time you see an advertisement, a bulletin board, a bumper sticker, a corporate logo, a sign for a yard sale or a lost pet, a t-shirt or tattoo with writing on it, a piece of discarded food packaging. There are a million billion things crying for our attention all the time, everywhere we go. That’s not even counting our phones and all their alarms and reminders and ringtones and notifications. Our simple primate brains were not designed for all this stimulation!
This is the argument for a streamlined work area at home. Your home is your private retreat. It should be a place where you can escape the demands of the outside world, pause, and remember who you are. It should not be yet another arena of distraction.
The point of a desk is to have somewhere to sit and think. Everyone needs a quiet place to step away and do strategic thinking. Everyone needs a clear flat surface to be able to work. Whether that’s creative work, household bureaucracy, or simply poring over a coloring book, even the smallest home should have at least a single square foot of bare, empty surface to work.
Yes, a clear spot on the kitchen counter to cook. Yes, a clear spot on the bathroom counter to get ready for the day or for bed. Yes, a clear spot somewhere to put your feet up. Hopefully, most of all, a clear spot to think and plan. If we have to commandeer auxiliary desks off-site, at libraries and coffee shops, we have permission to do this while we get our heads straight.
The only way to start sorting through multiple auxiliary desks is to create a command central. One spot to rule them all. Somewhere to sit down and make decisions about today. Deal with the incoming mail and receipts that have come from today. Accept or decline the invitations that came in today. Try out the recipes you chose today. Recycle and shred the junk of today. Stop adding to the chaos and entropy - today. As this becomes a habit, gradually start weeding through the junk of yesterday and the expired invitations of yesterday and the filing and shredding of yesterday.
Don’t let random papers invade your peace of mind. Fight the tide. Decide that you are going to reclaim some space and peace and quiet. Create a space for yourself where you can sit and think whenever you like.
Guess what? Chris Guillebeau has a new book coming out! I got an advance copy for attending World Domination Summit this year, which was quite gracious. It’s called Side Hustle: From Idea to Income in 27 Days. If you’re a fan like I am, you already know that Chris started a daily podcast this year called Side Hustle School. While the podcast features brief profiles of successful side hustlers, the book is more of a handbook on how it’s done.
What I like best about the Guillebeau approach is that he focuses on the practical rather than the merely motivational. People are doing this, they’re doing it every single day, and it’s easier than we think. We just need to implement our ideas. “Inspiration is good, but inspiration with action is so much better.”
Side gigs are everywhere these days. Recently, I’ve paid side hustlers to drive me through Lyft, let me sleep at their house through AirBnB, and deliver my groceries through Instacart. We were just in Jackson, Wyoming, where we used a shuttle service run by a group of young Ukrainian guys who like to ski. It’s a double-edged sword; in one sense, it’s scary to think how little some of these gigs must pay, but in another sense, it’s also exciting to think how low the bar is for someone to just wake up one morning and decide to start bringing in more money. What Side Hustle can do is to teach someone to think of more and better ways to bring in more and better money.
I started babysitting when I was ten, and it didn’t occur to me that I could quit until I was in my mid-thirties. While I was in college, I also cleaned houses, took in mending from other students, edited papers (for trade), house-sat, took notes for a deaf student, did transcriptions, dealt in consignment clothes and used books, and of course I had a work-study job on top of my regular quarter-time job. I used to say I had five streams of income in school, and I just realized it was actually more! When you’re in the hustle mindset, you just step up and act on whatever money-making propositions cross your mind.
When you’re rich, they call it “multiple streams of income.” When you’re poor, it’s just your reality. I’ve learned that middle-class people are the only people who rely on one single job. That always felt precarious and threatening to me, the thought that if I got laid off, I wouldn’t be able to make my rent. Side hustles, as Chris frequently emphasizes, are a way to spread that risk and generate independence and security.
This is an approachable, straightforward, well-tested book. Every step has an example of a real person or couple who did it, what the side business is, and how much money it made. There are examples ranging from a few hundred dollars a year to a hundred thousand or more. Side Hustle has something for everyone, and for those of us who want more, there’s the Side Hustle School podcast as a companion.
Side Hustle launches on September 19.
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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