Tara Mohr’s book affected me so much that I almost want to pretend I didn’t read it. I recognized myself so many times. “Chapter 1: The Inner Critic” ought to offer you a hint. Playing Big is about all the many ways that we let fear hold us back, especially when it comes to the most important things, such as finding our true calling and contributing at the highest level of which we are capable. This is one of the best of the genre.
There were several stand-out concepts for me in this book. One of the biggest was learning to identify two types of fear, based on two separate Hebrew words. Pachad fear “is the fear of projected or imagined things.” The other is called yirah fear, and this is how Mohr describes it. “1. It is the feeling that overcomes us when we inhabit a larger space than we are used to. 2. It is the feeling we experience when we suddenly come into possession of considerably more energy than we had before. 3. It is what we feel in the presence of the divine.”
What if we’re scaring ourselves with the sheer and stunning enormousness of our destiny? What if what we’re feeling is closer to awe than anxiety?
I always feel so keyed up the night before a foot race that I can’t sleep. On the morning of my first 5k, I was so “out of it” that I managed to put my underwear on sideways. I’ve felt the same way before leaving for long trips. Even though it’s something I really want to do, something I’ve planned and researched, even when I know I’m as prepared as I’ll ever be, I still feel anxious. Now I understand that this is a different type of anxiety from the “bad things might happen” worrywart kind. (As I was typing “bad things might,” I automatically typed “happy.” Interesting).
Another section that really made me think was the chapter about “Unhooking from Praise and Criticism.” I had never considered the two in the same context before. Many of us have a tendency to want to get the A+ and ask for extra credit. We’ll do whatever it is that looks like the way to earning positive feedback, even if that has nothing much to do with our calling or our priorities. It’s much harder for us to feel like we are venturing into the unknown or making our own rules.
(Here is your permission to go and do whatever you want without asking for permission).
Playing Big is a fascinating, thought-provoking book. It would be a fantastic choice for a book club. There are visualizing and journaling exercises in each chapter, and they are worth careful consideration. The topic of why we downplay our natural talents, hold ourselves back, and stop before playing big, is one that deserves examination on a societal level. How we can start Playing Big is the most interesting question of all.
I don’t think motivation really exists. I’ve written a lot about this, and I’m sure I’ll keep writing more, because as far as myths go, the motivation myth is seriously entrenched. Why do I have such a problem with this concept, around which an entire industry is built? It makes me sad to think of all the people out there who are waiting to Feel Like It before they go on to do things that are decaying on their to-do lists. All this wasted human potential is swirling around the drain of I Wish I Had Your Motivation. Those of us who get things done don’t concern ourselves with motivation. What do we do?
Everyone has at least one thing that gets done, day in and day out, that feels simple and easy, yet would require massive willpower for someone else. For instance, drinking a cup of coffee every morning is something I would only do for charity. Triple dog dare? *shrug* You win, bro. On the other hand, I floss my teeth every night, because not to do so feels crawly and disgusting. Nothing would motivate me to do the one; nothing could stop me from doing the other.
I’m a Questioner, and I’m driven by curiosity. The minute I learn about something that is an improvement over something I already do, I’m hooked. My motto is: “Do things that are a good idea. Don’t do things that are a bad idea.” I used to be completely sedentary, because I thought fitness was pointless. (That would make a catchy t-shirt slogan: FITNESS = POINTLESS. Or maybe FITNESS = WITLESS). Then I started questioning my attitude, and that led to research, and that led to losing 35 pounds and running a marathon. I used to be chronically disorganized, and I thought it was simply part of my nature, but, as is my wont, I started questioning my attitude. Gradually, I learned to think and behave like an organized person, which I find significantly more efficient. I have changed my initial skepticism about all sorts of things, from cooking to making my bed to using direct deposit to reading e-books to owning a smart phone. Once I see the point of something, I just start doing it, because it makes sense. Unfortunately, there have always been a lot of obviously smart things I wouldn’t do, because I didn’t see the point yet.
My husband is an Upholder, and his kind believe there is a Right Way to Do Things. If it is on their Upholder flow chart, they do it. If not, they don’t. Upholders tend to overlap in their attitudes about many things, such as punctuality, but there is no universal Upholder handbook. They have a plan, they follow it, they appreciate it when others follow it, and that’s all they need to worry about. I lean heavily in the direction of Upholder, so much that it’s really a secondary characteristic, but I’ve never been able to stop updating the manual. I also find it fascinating when I meet people who operate out of a different manual, which can be stressful for true Upholders.
Achievers have different driving forces, most of which probably appear to resemble ‘motivation’ to outsiders. Athletes cannot bear to remain sedentary; an excruciating physical restlessness builds up, and that’s why we have to fight the tendency to play while injured. Entrepreneurs can’t stand following orders or doing pointless make-work, they don’t feel the hours passing, and work is their happy place. They run the risk of damaging personal relationships because they don’t come equipped with an off switch. Organized people feel the same pain that natural editors feel; when an object or punctuation mark is out of, place it bothers them. (BWAHAHAHA! *evil laugh*) Dancers love dancing over all other activities, and they usually don’t care whether they are dancing alone, in a group, or in front of an audience. Artists have visions that push to be born into the world. What all of these disparate groups have in common is that they know how to enter the FLOW STATE. They crave it. The more time they spend in the flow state, the better they get at inducing it, and the longer they can keep the flow going.
This is the secret behind what ordinary mortals call “motivation.” Those practitioners of whatever it is are in an altered state of consciousness. They are experiencing non-obvious, uncommon emotions. This is part of why some prodigies excel in multiple fields. They know what Doing It Right feels like. They know how to learn, they know how to structure their schedules, and they recognize when they feel the inclination that is needed to commit to a new practice. This is part of why some people who excel in a particular area will suddenly quit. Once they pass the point of mastery, the challenge is gone. They aren’t interested in showing off; they want to do whatever it is that feeds the feeling of continual improvement. This is also part of why musical geniuses persist in putting out strange, experimental albums. They’re not doing it for the attention or the critical acclaim or the awards. They’re doing it because it is what they must do. They want to do it, so they do.
I don’t think motivation exists. I think people feel natural inclinations toward certain things, and then they make those things a part of their routine. For instance, once I tried backpacking, I loved it, and I will take any opportunity to go, as long as I don’t have to go alone. The inclination to change, to adopt a new habit or skill or practice, generally comes after a mental adjustment of some kind. We become curious after watching a video or meeting someone who does something we didn’t know about. We feel in sync with others in a crowd, who naturally absorb us into their CrossFit or horseback riding or wine-drinking habits. We have an inner resonance with a state of affairs, such as an orderly home or a well-groomed appearance or a parrot on the shoulder, and we arrange our lives around maintaining that energy. It’s just a thing we do.
It would take me a lot of “motivation” to play a video game, watch network television, eat bacon, drink a beer, get a tattoo, or wear three-inch heels. That’s motivation I just don’t have. I do have the “motivation” to stay fit, keep my house clean and organized, eat vegetables, go to bed at a consistent bedtime, and all sorts of other things that most people believe require motivation. This is because I’ve lived both ways, with and without the habit, and I’m fully convinced that there is a payoff involved. I know what’s in it for me. When we haven’t experienced the benefits of something such as being able to run long distances, have clean countertops, or go paperless, it’s hard to feel any kind of interest or inclination. The best way to develop that kind of inclination is to learn more about why other people do it, and then try it, in the spirit of true inquiry. The distance between “interesting” to “good idea” to “automatic part of my life” is shorter than it looks.
Sweat is dripping out of my hair. I’m hidden from prying eyes in the back bedroom of a ranch house that has seen better days. Now would not be a good time to call. You see, I’ve just performed an exorcism. On myself. On my treadmill.
There are various moods that take hold of me from time to time. Some of them are mildly amusing, such as when I talk to myself in research mode or start singing mock opera lyrics when I’m trying to resolve an argument. “What… does it mean to youuuu… when my mouth is moving and sounds are coming oouuuutttt?” Most of my moods are disagreeable, to others, but also to me. I don’t want to hang out with myself. One of these moods is “the snit.” This is when I feel irritable, like there is a stress hormone saturating my body. (This is probably true, and it’s probably cortisol). The snit is nobody’s fault, but if I don’t steer clear of other humans, some of it may splatter on them like hot grease. Another disagreeable mood is the way I feel on a cloudy day, when I’ve burned through too much unstructured time and started to feel listless and bored. Too much sitting tends to make me headachy, and thus, grouchy.
One of the biggest surprises of my life was learning that exercise is a reliable mood elevator. It always works. It works in the rain, it works when I’m sleep deprived, and it’s even worked when I started out with a headache. I have gone to the gym so tired I could barely put one foot in front of the other, and emerged after a full cardio workout feeling like a million bucks. When I work out strenuously several days a week, my resting mood is about a 9 out of 10. This is why cranky people hate athletes. We’re so cheerful you want to kill us all. It’s like we’re having better sex (true) or enjoying how we look in workout clothes (probably false) or like being fit actually feels that much better (true). The trouble is that it’s easy to adjust to this super-excellent feeling. Then, if anything happens and you can’t work out for a few weeks or months, you start reverting to your baseline mood. It’s like the last third of Flowers for Algernon.
Experiencing this spectrum of baseline moods is a sort of metaphysical puzzle. Which of these is the real me? Is it true what they say, that the runner’s high is just like any other drug? (One of the most absurd fallacies ever). In a sense, it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that I know which behavior packages result in which states of being. If I can choose between chronic pain and fatigue with misery, acceptance with fortitude, or happiness with enthusiasm, then I can make an informed choice. I can realize that it is a choice, that I have a choice. I didn’t consciously choose chronic pain or illness, but I do choose when I am blissed out.
I don’t enjoy being in a snit. I don’t enjoy feeling crabby or cranky or irritable. I don’t enjoy that restless, mopey, cabin-fever feeling. I lived alone for years, and I didn’t enjoy those feelings when I was by myself. Now I’m married, and I have to multiply my emotional environment by someone else’s. A snit is no longer just a snit; it’s a 2x snit, or more if we have guests. Negative moods become more costly, to myself and to others. I’d rather not… inflict myself on other people. The prospect is even more unnerving when I consider that other people are just as entitled to their own snits as I am to mine. It becomes a scenario of exponential growth.
“Normal me” has a baseline mood of about 7 out of 10, while Workout Me hits a 9. Past Self of the fibromyalgia, four-day migraines, and thyroid disease lived at around a 4. At that time, I thought perky people were dumb and annoying. Honestly, I feel like becoming an athlete has made me smarter. I sleep better, and it may be nothing more than that. I can definitely attest to improved concentration sustained over longer periods. I’m better organized and more productive, measured by projects completed. I’ve become someone whom my own Past Self would totally hate. All I can do is look back at her and ask, “So, how’s that working out for you?” I’ve exorcised that dissatisfied, jealous, irritable, sarcastic version of myself, jettisoned in the same way I’ve eliminated my credit debt and cleared my clutter. I have everything she ever wanted, which of course is why I would annoy her so much.
The best thing about a treadmill exorcism is that it only takes 30 minutes. Walk in feeling bad, walk out feeling fantastic! The endorphins are great and the natural analgesic effect is even better. The time and effort involved are pretty minimal. I went to the garage and cut out a board to put across the arms, so I can prop up a book or my laptop. Sometimes I watch true crime shows or skim Facebook. Usually I read a library book. In other words, I do exactly the same things I would have been doing if I were lounging around on the couch. The only discernible difference to me is that doing the treadmill barefoot makes your feet all black, so I have to wear shoes. Better to tie on my shoes, though, than to be in such a snit that I want to throw them at someone.
My dog is like the avatar of attention deficit. When I started running with him, it occurred to me that he was trying to write me a message in cursive, and it would take a time-lapse camera to read it. First he was racing off ahead. Then he would smell something, stop, and fall behind. He would run side to side in a sine wave that must have added at least 50% to his distance over mine. I want to get him a collar with a pedometer and see how many steps he takes. Over time, though, (and I’m talking about three years and hundreds of miles), he learned to stay with me. He ignores other people and animals. He pulls to the side of the trail and sits when bicyclists ride by. When he sees other enticingly small dogs that he really wants to meet, he speeds up, as though getting the temptation out of the way. He also speeds up for hill climbs. It’s amazing how much he can do for a 20-pound terrier. He has his own agenda: perimeter checks throughout the day and plenty of naps. I’ve learned a lot from him about managing my own wandering mind.
I was born too early for a diagnosis of ADHD, although I’m sure I would have been labeled that way. I had to retake a standardized test in second grade because I started coloring, forgot to finish, and got the score of… probably a pet rock. They tested my vision and hearing and made me retake the test with a proctor staring at me. I spent the next 25 years constantly losing my keys, gloves, scarves, hats, umbrellas, day planners, wallets, ATM cards, bills, and library books. I locked myself out of my apartment twice in the same day, after climbing in the window, only to find after the second time that I’d left a burner on high until it was red-hot and the apartment was heated to 85F. I used to lock myself out of my car so often that the guys in the shop made me my own slim jim. I’m the poster child for chronic disorganization. That’s why it’s so important to me to keep my house clean and organized. I’ve found it’s the only way I can think straight and get anything done.
There is a lot of skepticism, nay cynicism, toward the idea of keeping things tidy. I’ve seen umpteen pillows, samplers, and refrigerator magnets trumpeting slogans such as “dull women keep immaculate houses” and “excuse the mess, but we live here.” I would prefer to see something more along the lines of “ROBOTS keep immaculate houses” or “Welcome Friends.”
Yeah, I make my bed. Because I’m neurotic and have nothing better to do? No, because it only takes 45 freaking seconds. I’ve read through several anti-housework discussion threads in which multiple people spent longer than that describing why they don’t make their beds. I make my bed while I’m not even fully awake. For the rest of the day, I can glance in my bedroom and know it’s checked off. There are no books or journals or pens or phones or charging cables or socks or whatever lurking in the covers. This is important because I’ve had so many dozens of “where is my Bluetooth?” episodes. I used to hang out in bed quite a lot as an invalid, and I now hate that feeling. Two-thirds of the time, my bed is just this flat surface, fluffily waiting for me to get in and do fun, healthy, free things with my husband, such as sleeping or making up alternate song lyrics.
I keep my dining table clear, because we eat at least three meals a day there. I’ve eaten thousands of meals while hunched over a coffee table, and it is really inconvenient! I eat at the table because there’s somewhere to put my glass and my fork and my plate and the salt and all that stuff. I can eat without spilling in my lap and having to change my pants. I can eat without my dog snarfing anything. Afterward, it takes another 45 seconds to wipe down the table. For about 22 hours a day, my dining table stands ready for any purpose. I shoot many of my illustrations there. Sometimes I set up my laptop and write there. If I use my sewing machine, that’s where I set it up, and where I cut fabric. I can’t think of a single good reason to leave stuff on my dining table when I’m not using it; it would interfere with my work, my art, and my hobbies, as well as my relationship. The table is one more blank slate, like my bed, that I can mentally check off with a single glance.
I keep my kitchen counters clear for similar reasons. We take turns cooking. We cut up a lot of melons there. I open packages on my counter. We slice the dog’s pills there. The kitchen counters are clear about the same 22 hours a day, reliably available when they are needed. It’s another area that does not drag at my mental bandwidth.
Sometimes I leave stuff out on my desk. That’s a sign that I need to deal with it. We’re mostly paperless, though, meaning we pay bills and manage our finances electronically. I am usually at Inbox Zero. We also schedule appointments that way and share a digital calendar. There are very few papers we need to track in a physical manner. We don’t have a paper calendar and we almost never need to use checks or postage stamps anymore. I have dozens of reminders set up in my phone, from my chore rotation to reserving a table for our wedding anniversary, so between reminders, my mind is free. Whenever possible, let an artificial brain track those details.
I don’t keep a to-do list. There are two types of tasks: recurring and non-recurring. I don’t use a list for the recurring tasks. I either do them on autopilot, like showering, or put them on my schedule, like checking our go-bags twice a month. For one-shot tasks, if it can be done in 5 minutes, I just do it immediately. Most things can be done over the web or via email, so there’s no reason to wait. If I have a lot going on, I aim to do three things a day. One day a week (Tuesdays) I have a Power Hour, when I push through any nagging administrative calls or letters. I don’t accumulate project supplies that I think Future Self will want; I only plan to make something if I know I’m going to start as soon as I get the materials in the door. I’ve worked hard to close the books on Past Self and her issues; now I work hard to give Future Self the gift of peace of mind.
The key to regaining mental bandwidth is to live in the now as much as possible. We are trying to induce a flow state. Stress, clutter, sleep deprivation, multi-tasking, interruptions, and distractions interfere with this flow state. Many of us only feel it when we are reading, staring at a screen, or playing a video game, which is why these activities are so attractive. In my experience, exercise and creative effort are superior ways to fuel the flow state; once you learn how to induce it, nothing else satisfies. I keep things tidy and organized because it’s faster, easier, and preserves vital workspace for the things I want to do. It also means I’m surrounded by “done” and have no need to concentrate on anything other than real work. The only way to find out what it’s like is to try the experiment. Clear the slates, jettison the clutter, set some boundaries, and see what happens.
Planes have been held for me. Librarians at two different branches have invited me to parties at their homes. Without asking, I have been upgraded to business class, got a 50% discount on a hotel room, and got a free room upgrade two rungs nicer than what we paid for. I’ve been hugged by clerks at two stores in the same day. At least a dozen baristas know not only my drink, but my cup, and they often have my order ready before I have a chance to pay. Sometimes they undercharge me or give me freebies. Believe me, you want to know all my secrets.
A coffee shop is a laboratory of human behavior. Hang around long enough, even in one afternoon, and you’ll see the complete gamut of introversion and extroversion, study habits, flirtations, arguments, parenting styles, gait and posture, facial expressions, body language, vocal tones, grooming and hygiene, and of course, manners. That’s why I go. I can certainly make my own tea at home, and I usually do, but there is no substitute to eavesdropping for a budding novelist. Unfortunately, most of the vignettes that capture my attention involve rude, entitled, or completely mystifying shabby behavior.
The woman who shouted at the entire staff at top volume, then walked away and came back to do it again a total of three times. In front of her small child. Over a $4 drink that was replaced.
The woman who shouted throughout the store, on her path out the door, that the barista who didn’t put on the caramel drizzle was deliberately mean to her child. “YOU NEED TO BE NICE!”
The woman who insisted on four Frappucinos being remade because the whipped cream didn’t go to the very top of the lids, then demanded that it be squirted down the straw hole.
(Why does it always seem to be women?)
I’ve also seen a grown man lay his head on a countertop, cry, and beat his fist because he didn’t want to pay the fine to retrieve his dog that was picked up by Animal Control. Similarly, I’ve seen a man shout loudly enough to clearly reach the back wall of a large open-plan office building because he didn’t want to pay his property taxes. I’ve seen a man walk into a store with his family and loudly demand a personal shopper because “we don’t have much time.” At Sax Fifth Avenue? At Nordstrom? No, at Ross Dress for Less.
There are people who seem fixated on bad customer service. They seem to have a persecution complex over why they can never get their needs met. You know, the type that are always sending their plate back at restaurants. We have a joke about this. You didn’t get “bad customer service.” You got “BAD CUSTOMER” service! Lack of manners and protocol can turn what should have been ordinary, and could have been fantastic, into something stressful and disappointing. The sad part is that these people have no idea that they are creating their own worst nightmares.
My husband and I live in Easy World. Part of our bond is that we are both cheerful people who like chatting up taxi drivers, hotel clerks, waiters, cashiers, or anyone else we meet. I mean, the reason we got to know each other is that he always makes a point of befriending the office assistants wherever he works. (Luckily I was a special case amongst my tribe). We glide along getting that extra-special treatment that money can’t buy, because we make ourselves easy to please. We’re good customers. In fact, just a few weeks ago we were told, “You guys are the best customers we’ve had in a month!” – based on our conversation, not our purchase.
It’s a game. I started playing it when I was about 8. The game is, “Can I get this person to give me a genuine smile?” Usually all you have to do is smile at them and they smile right back. I’ve seen the crabbiest-looking faces completely transformed by bright-eyed, beaming grins. The other thing is to never, ever miss a chance to say Thank You. I want to be the nicest, most memorable transaction of someone’s day. I may be the only person to have held a door for someone, made eye contact with them, smiled at them, or said Please, Thank You, You’re Welcome, or even Hello – maybe today, maybe this year. Working in social services taught me that there are more lonely, hard-up people in the world than you would ever guess. Manners cost nothing. Manners are the happy way of doing things.
Another key is to have appropriate expectations. When you’re in a hurry, you go to certain places. When you want a special atmosphere, you go to different ones. You have to start out with a realistic picture of what various employees are empowered to do. The person on the other side of the counter or the other end of the phone line is your ally, not your enemy. Anyone who has ever worked in retail or food service or phone support knows this down to the marrow. Start out with patience and sympathy. In certain areas, such as airport ticket counters, you will often be the only nice, patient customer. Ask my husband about his last trip to the DMV and how he got waved into the appointments-only line. The expectation is that we will have a standard experience, with standard service, at a standard price, for that venue. Anything better = YAY! If something goes wrong, the expectation is that it was an accident, a mistake, or something that started further up the line. The waiter is not the one who overcooked the food; the cook is not the one who forgot to put in the order for your fries. The way we handle issues is to 1: apologize for the hassle, and 2: point out the issue matter-of-factly. Like this: “I’m so sorry, I asked for no cheese but this has parmesan.” I imagine myself in the position of the waiter who has to deal with me twice even though I may not be seated in his section and they may be in the weeds and down two cooks. I do feel bad! It gets handled. The more gracious I am, the more gracious they are. This helps in a way that being a big tipper doesn’t, because they don’t know that about you on your first visit.
Once I stood in line at the post office. A woman cut to the front of the line and started bawling out the available staff, making a huge scene. It turned out she was there to do something involving a locked office, the key to which was in possession of the manager, who was not in the building at that time. She had come at a time that was not within the window of availability she had been offered over the phone. What started out as one individual’s problem, perhaps exacerbated by inefficient management, thus became multiplied by two unempowered employees (one to attempt to placate her, the other to scramble around the back) and a dozen innocent bystanders. The rest of us did not deserve to be kept waiting by this person’s problem. She may or may not have experienced bad customer service – come on, it’s the post office we’re talking about – but she had no right to cause bad customer service for others. There is a mathematical formula here. “Am I making $100 of stress out of a $4 beverage which will be replaced anyway?” “Is five minutes of my time equal to (5 minutes) x (12 people)?” “Is this a shouting-in-public issue?” (Crime, fire, shark attack?) Get back in line and wait your turn, lady.
Whenever the topic of bad customer service comes up, someone will always leap forward with an anecdote about a horrible waiter or rude clerk. More often than not, it sounds to us like this person is a bad customer, getting the same treatment that bad customers always get. “Bad customer” service. The hypothesis can be tested quite simply. Start behaving sweetly to service people, like it’s their last day on earth or you just found out they saved a service dog from a burning building. Watch what happens when you decide to live in Easy World and doors start being held for you.
This book deserves to be considered a classic among marriage manuals. Karl Pillemer interviewed a diverse group of hundreds of senior citizens to ask what advice they would give to younger people about marriage and romance. Some of the advice is about what not to do, or what unhappily married people wished they had done differently. Most of the advice, though, can’t help but give a warm, snuggly feeling about growing old with that special someone.
One of the most interesting things about Pillemer’s research was that there were couples who were unhappy together for many years, only to find each other somehow and build a happy relationship in spite of their past. It seems that with long-term relationships, it’s part choice of partner and part attitude. Often, that transition from annoyance to love comes when one partner chooses to drop a resentment.
The thing about marriage manuals is that people wait to read them until they have a problem. I see them as entertainment. Most of the case histories are baffling. How can two people who loved each other enough to get married let themselves irritate each other so much? How can we let ourselves get so sloppy that we are just mean to each other? Generally, when I read a marriage book, I’ll find a story to share with my husband, and we both stare at each other incredulously. You guys got together on purpose, right? Have you tried talking to each other? Respectfully?
My husband and I both have parents who are still married and have never been married to anyone but each other. Although he and I have both been bitterly divorced, this family history is part of why we believe in marriage. Statistically, remarriage is a very poor gamble. We like each other, though. We talked openly about what didn’t work in our prior marriages. We shared our philosophical positions on sharing a home, a life, and a bank account. We met in the workplace, so that helps us to be businesslike about practical matters. Why fight about something when you can simply make a policy to address it?
We went through a few relationship books before we got married. It was interesting, and it helped us to iron out our ideas about what we both wanted in our life together. Now that I know about 30 Lessons for Loving, I would have been pleased to add it to that stack.
My mother used to make a to-do list every night. It was a ritual. It seemed to help her wind down after the cares of the day. She would make a list when we needed to go to the mall, writing out each item she planned to buy, and working out the optimal parking spot for the fastest route through the stores. When we were old enough, she would write a to-do list for each of us and tape it to the front door of our apartment. We weren’t allowed to go out to play until everything on the list was crossed off. (The loophole in this plan was that we didn’t necessarily mind staying indoors in our pajamas, watching TV all summer, if it meant we didn’t have to make our beds or vacuum or take out the trash). In spite of my mother’s example, organization didn’t take with me. I didn’t really start being mentally organized until I hit about 30. I was more of a journal-filler. The point of this story is that there is more than one way to get one’s thoughts squared away, whether on paper or some other medium.
One of the tools I use with my clients is something I call the “101 List.” The goal is to write down every single task that needs to get done, and have it all in one place. The assignment is to try to hit a hundred and one individual tasks, because that usually requires a trip through every room in the house and results in a thorough brain dump. Later, I discovered that this echoes the core practice of Getting Things Done (GTD). We start to gain mental clarity as we trust that all the details we need to manage are recorded in one place. The 101 List should not include recurring tasks, even if there is an immediate need to do them, because they can never be crossed off. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but there will be more dirty dishes and laundry every single day, just as we continue to need to brush our teeth and eat meals. Sad but true. Darn it. We can include things like “get flu shot” or “renew driver’s license” because they won’t be coming up again for quite a while. Just don’t put down anything that needs to get done more than once a week, or the list will be trailing after you until your dying day.
When I first started doing the 101 List for myself, I could usually hit 101 items in one burst. Then I would do a time estimate. I could highlight items that had things in common, such as phone calls or errands, and blast through a bunch of things that usually took 1-5 minutes each. Gradually, it dawned on me that most of the stuff I tended to procrastinate was in fact quick and easy, once I decided to quit fighting it and just get it done. I started trying to do the 5-minute things as they came up. (GTD calls it the “two minute rule” but I set my own schedule, and I’d rather err in favor of having a shorter mental list). The last few times I’ve tried to write a 101 List, I could only reach about 35 items. I just did one, out of curiosity, and I hit exactly 35 again, 15 of which need to be done by the end of the week, 6 of which are specific to preparing for a road trip, such as “check weather forecast.” I set a timer and did 13 of the tasks in one hour and 20 minutes. There seems to be a mental “set point” at which we start feeling scattered and overwhelmed. Practice has taught me to get my thoughts straight at about 1/3 of the hassle level I once tolerated.
Another type of brain dump comes from the work management process known as scrum. There are two lists in scrum: a “product backlog” and a “sprint backlog.” The product backlog is a list of desired items, many of which may never be incorporated into reality. The sprint backlog is a list of what everyone on the team has decided can and should be completed in a two-week sprint period. I have started following this practice, and I really like it. My first sprint was pretty unrealistic, but that is part of the process. The idea is to learn what you can accomplish in a given time period, and start scheduling around that. For instance, I learned from keeping a time log that it takes me roughly 40 minutes every day to shower, get dressed, and do my hair. I can get out the door in 10 minutes, if I need to, but it feels like a shortcut, and I might as well plan for the average day rather than the unusual day. With my writing and business plans, I want to include every single idea for a potential project, while knowing and hoping that some of them won’t happen for perhaps three years. The product backlog is the opposite of the 101 List in many ways. It’s not a list of delayed tasks or procrastinated duties; it’s a list of future awesomeness. My goal with the 101 List is to keep beating it back until it’s as short as possible. My goal with the product backlog is to keep expanding it until it’s as long as possible, including more possibilities than I could ever possibly execute. Fewer distractions, more creative options. They go together.
I have a specific list called Topic List. Whenever I think of an idea for this blog, I write it down. Almost everything on the list is just a title, but on rare occasions I add a note so I will remember what I was thinking. After I’ve written the post, I delete the title from the list. At the moment, this topic list stands at 167 items. Often, I wind up writing something as soon as it crosses my mind, without adding it to the list. The list keeps getting longer. I can coast along for several months with no new ideas, if I ever reach that point, and decide what to do if I ever get “caught up.” If anything, the ideas seem to appear at a faster rate, of their own volition. The funny thing about this is that I originally started the blog as a place to post stuff I had written over the last two or three years. All of that material is still sitting in a folder, waiting to be edited and illustrated. The habit of keeping a running list to capture our mental traffic becomes a skill that results in creative inspiration.
Another type of brain dump that I do is called Ten Ideas. A lot of entrepreneurial types talk about this daily practice. The idea is to come up with at least ten ideas every day, on any topic, and write them down. “Good ideas come from the same place as bad ideas,” I often remark, “but the bad ideas are all on top.” Even if 90% of the Ten Ideas are stupid – I mean really, really stupid – at the end of a year, there will still be 365 good ideas. Most of them would not have been thought of by someone else. James Altucher always uses examples involving toilets, to emphasize that we shouldn’t be afraid to write down things that sound dumb. The example I share off my own list is the “singing whisk.” It’s like a singing saw, but it makes a different musical note depending on how fast you whisk. I told someone about the singing whisk, and she said she thought it would actually sell. If you make one, please tell me about it, although don’t expect me to buy one! The Ten Ideas practice is where I turn up many of my ideas for blog posts, as well as wacky inventions, though much of the time it turns into brainstorming for my daily life. Like the product backlog and the topic list, the Ten Ideas list is fun to watch as it expands.
I keep a reminder list on my phone for recurring tasks. The more I use it, the more useful it gets. I follow a housekeeping schedule that takes zero brainpower. My phone reminds me which day to vacuum my bedroom or clean my bathroom. I turn on a podcast and clean whatever room came up. Each one takes in the range of 12 to 20 minutes. There are other reminders that come up more rarely, such as checking our go bags, washing the dog’s bedding, or making reservations for our anniversary. As anything comes up that could use a reminder, I add it to the list and forget all about it.
My oldest brain-dumping habit is keeping a journal. I burned all my old journals a few years ago, and I honestly don’t miss them. The reason is that I would turn to a blank book whenever I was anxious, depressed, overwhelmed, stressed, panicking about money, or moping about a bad romance. Those books were radioactive with dark emotional energy! I would free-write for as long as it took to feel like I had figured something out. I write more than I did then, and I feel better about it, because I don’t mind if anyone else reads my musings. At that time, my journals were a way to do strategic thinking. Root cause analysis. “I feel bad. Why? What’s my plan?” Once I started a journal entry about trying to get someone to go out with me again, wound up writing three versions of it in a row, and finally realized FORGET HIM! I’ve resolved more of my problems and baggage by working out my emotions on paper than I have by making to-do lists of practical tasks. Now, I keep a five-year diary, with only the briefest of notes of what happened in my family today. Sometimes I will see an entry from today’s date a year or two ago, and my husband and I will dissolve in laughter at the memory that otherwise would have been lost. This is a useful type of brain dump!
I almost never write paper lists or journal entries anymore. Everything goes on my phone, on my laptop, or on my dry erase board. I like this because it’s so much easier to keep a running list. I don’t have to transcribe old items onto new lists anymore. I learned that the stuff that hung around long enough to need to go on a new list could either be dropped permanently, or that I needed to be a real samurai and just get it over with already. Usually those items belonged more properly on my product backlog, where they might or might not get done, depending on how important they were compared to my other projects. Basic life administration tasks are the ones to watch. As we get into the habit of tracking all our mental clutter, working to eliminate it, and creating a routine, the list gets shorter and life gets easier.
Sometimes I get mad at my body. I expect all my body parts to work together as a team, but every now and then, one of them quits on me. “Traitor!” I say to my ankle. “You need to get with the program!” After over a year of rehabbing and resting and generally depriving myself of any athletic outlet, my ankle finally felt ready to run again. Almost immediately afterward, I tripped and fell on the sidewalk and ripped the skin off my knee. (Well, both knees, both hands, and an elbow). This happened five days before a hiking trip 900 miles away, for which I had already bought my plane ticket. I went on the trip, bringing a fully-stocked first aid kit for my still-bloody knee, and came home with blisters under both my big toenails. At this rate, I’ll be lucky if I’m running by Thanksgiving. I can’t even wear pants or proper shoes right now. Body, why can’t you just give me what I want all the time?
Sometimes I feel panic when I consider my body. Sunburns are one of these times. I still have a brown tiger stripe across my lower back from a second-degree sunburn I got there over a year ago. (A tough area to keep covered, since it is so hard to find pants small enough to stay up where they belong). About once a year, I am careless with the sunblock, and I get a bad burn on my chest. There is a mole there where there wasn’t one ten years ago, and every morning, I examine it fretfully, afraid it will turn on me. My gums. Oh, my gums. I may be aging in reverse in many ways, but my receding gums are the bane of my life. Thirty years of grinding my teeth, chewing through four mouth guards, wearing through amalgam fillings in 18 months… I wish I could start over. I’d go through teething like a baby if only I could have a fresh new mouth. I look at myself, with my stretch marks and spider veins and my one Rasputiny chin hair, and I sigh with disappointment.
Sometimes I wish I was better looking. Other times, I feel like that would be an irritating complication in my life. The dream of invisibility is more compelling for me than the dream of physical beauty.
I used to be fat – significantly fatter than I thought I was. I have stretch marks on my calves, knees, thighs, hips, and butt. In some ways, I carry them as tangible proof that I used to live on an alternate timeline, in a parallel universe. In other ways, they crush my spirit. They’ll never go away. They don’t itch anymore, the way they used to when they were still stretching, and they’re not purple anymore either. Still, I’m disappointed when I see them.
When I was at my heaviest, I used to play with the fat roll on my belly. I addressed it affectionately as my “jelly roll.” I would grab a handful and hang on to it. It interested me. It was comforting. I didn’t think I “looked fat” – I was smaller than most of my friends, and I thought of myself as “average.” I had seen a statistic about the proportions of the average American woman, and I was marginally taller and weighed slightly less. (Or thought I did. I hadn’t weighed in for quite a while and I know I would have been surprised if I knew the truth). I had nothing to worry about. I felt attractive to men. I never felt the body shame that so many women seem to feel.
I’ve been angry with my body. I used to ride my bike around, swearing to myself. “F.U., thyroid gland! You can’t do this to me!” When I would get migraines, I would cry into my ears, in fits of rage and humiliation that my body once again insisted on being so demanding. It wanted something, I knew not what, and I felt helpless and powerless against it. I would wake up in my dining room or living room or standing in the middle of our mattress, shaking and crying, heart hammering, with no memory of how I got there. These moments were the worst: Mortification that my body ran around with screams coming out, while I was sound asleep and unable to control it. Deep fear that I had started opening doors during my night terrors, and that I would run out into traffic one night and be killed, the way others with my condition have. Disquiet that I might attack my husband and that I would have to start tying myself to the bed, the way others have. I would like a new body, please, and a new brain, too, if one is available.
Fortunately, I’m on top of it. I haven’t had a pavor nocturnus episode in about a year, and it’s been longer than that since I had a migraine. My thyroid nodule went away many years ago. I’m at a healthy weight. I may not have all the skin on my knee that I want right now, and I have no idea how long it takes a blister under a nail to go away. Generally, though, my body is fit and healthy and ready to go. I would be in better shape if I had a longer attention span and if I stayed more alert to my physical parameters. I’m always pushing at the limits, trying to go farther and faster, and pushing myself 1% too far.
It’s hard to miss the epic levels of shame that people are feeling toward their bodies. Someone shares an article about it nearly every day. I don’t identify with this feeling, though. When I was heavy, it was pretty obvious to me that my life wasn’t working. Fibromyalgia, migraines, mysterious hair loss… The more I learned about nutrition (and applied it), the better I slept, the more active I got, the better I felt. My annoying health problems pulled the carpet out from under me less frequently. I started to realize that significant time had elapsed since the last time I had had X or Y problem. I felt and looked stronger. I began to trust my body more. My thighs and abs look amazing. I like my body more at 40 than I have at any time in my life. I feel like what people are interpreting as a negative emotional reaction to external forces (such as “the culture”) is ineluctably tinged with an interior dismay that various internal systems are out of balance. There is a sense of rightness inside the body when it is well rested, fully hydrated, fed the proper amount of micronutrients, and allowed to move as much as it wants. I am not sure how someone could feel that rightness in a state of chronic sleep deprivation, nutritional imbalance or deficiency, dehydration, weak muscles contributing to bad posture contributing to constant aches and pains, and/or a chronic health condition. I certainly never did. When I was sick, I didn’t care how I looked; I went to the movies once in my nightgown, with my hair unbrushed, because DEAL WITH IT. I wasn’t ashamed, I was just ill. Now that I’m healthy, I wouldn’t care if I grew a tail and everyone stared at it, because I’m grateful and I feel good for once.
It is possible to wake up and feel glad to start a new day. It is possible to see yourself naked in the mirror and think, “AWW YEAH!” It is possible to wrestle chronic illness to the ground and put your boot on its neck. It is possible to feel triumph rippling through your body. I believe that in many ways, I am aging in reverse, and that I will be physically stronger, faster, and more agile in ten years than I am today. I believe I will look better at 60 than I did at 30. I’m proud of my body now. I appreciate my resilience and strength and grit. When people stare at my body, as they do sometimes, I square my shoulders and hold my head up. This is what a marathoner looks like. (Well, a slow one). This is what a survivor looks like. Body, you disappoint me sometimes, but we’re still a team, and a good one. Now, about this knee…
Mental bandwidth is how much attention we have available. We might imagine an air traffic controller at one end of the spectrum, and a meditating monk at the other. Many of us are trying to blast past the air traffic controller by pretending we have six arms and three brains, juggling everything on our to-do lists at once. I’ve seen people driving in rush hour traffic with a newspaper spread across the steering wheel, which may be less distracting than texting and driving. We don’t even know how to concentrate on one thing at a time anymore. It’s my contention that clutter is a further drain on our mental bandwidth.
Research has shown that multi-tasking, or switching back and forth between tasks, is counterproductive because it takes time for us to regain focus on the first task. Usually, the initial task is not resumed after an interruption at all. Many tasks involve physical objects, such as mail, laundry, dishes, jackets, bags, shoes, dog leashes, Nerf guns, etc. Sometimes we set stuff down while we’re in the middle of something, because the phone rang or Ed McMahon came to the door. Other times, we put something aside because we’re not ready to deal with it right now. Laundry and dishes are chief among these. “Oh, I really don’t want to do this, and it will be so much worse if I put it off until later, so I’d better just put it off until later. FU, Future Self.” There are enough physical manifestations of all the stuff circulating in our poor overloaded brains that one day is plenty long enough to result in total chaos. Maybe even one hour.
Let’s say I’m listening to a podcast and cleaning the bathroom while simultaneously doing laundry. Someone knocks on the door to deliver a package, and my dog starts barking. Then my phone rings. Now, in just ten seconds, I am aware that I have to try to take off my soapy gloves, deal with the phone call, and get the package while protecting the delivery person from my hypervigilant rat terrier. Inevitably, at this very moment, the load in the washing machine will become unbalanced. This is nothing compared to a typical hour in the life of an office assistant.
Extending the example scenario, let’s say I also have to wend my way through three loads of dirty clothes strewn on the hallway floor. On my way to the door I knock over a bunch of random stuff on a table. By the time everything has settled down, I’m feeling overwrought and tense. I probably yell at my dog. I go back to cleaning the bathroom, but by the time I’m done, my momentum has totally vanished. It’s all I can do to get the wet laundry into the dryer. I open the package but set aside the box and the packing material to deal with later. The rest of the overdue laundry doesn’t get done that day. The next time I’m trying to get caught up, it’s that much harder. And the beat goes on.
Now, let’s run through a few more scenarios.
It’s Monday morning and I have to get the kids ready for school before I go to work. There are missing shoes, incomplete homework, an unsigned permission slip, a damp soccer uniform, not enough clean bowls for breakfast, lunches to pack, we’re out of bread, and I just tore my tights. By the time I get to work, I feel like crying.
My in-laws have invited themselves to stay for the weekend, and it’s already Wednesday night. At minimum, I want to clear out the guest room, make the bed, and clean the bathroom. But we’re also behind on dishes and laundry and the floors and there’s a sewing project in progress on the dining table, plus we need to go grocery shopping. Can we get through this week without a fight?
Our landlord just informed us that he’s selling our house, and we have thirty days to find a new place, pack, and move. We never finished unpacking from last time, and none of the boxes are labeled.
Nightmares! Just writing this stuff is stressing me out!
Now, let’s do a counterexample from my life. The other day, someone knocked on the door. The conversation went like this:
“Hi, I’d like to buy your truck for $X.”
“Okay!” …”Babe, where’s the pink slip?”
“In the file box.” (found 2 minutes later)
Fast forward two hours. Truck is being towed away by new owner, DMV paperwork is already filled out, cash is in hand. All righty then!
(Yes, at our house, Opportunity literally knocks at our door).
Learning how to stay organized really does work. It’s not often that someone unexpectedly comes to the door wanting to make a significant business deal, and we couldn’t have anticipated that happening. But we were prepared when it did. We’ve also been prepared for surprise overnight visits from friends, sudden business travel, and two occasions when we had to relocate within two weeks. We know where our passports are. We don’t have piles of incompleteness distracting us everywhere.
Every object and unfinished task is tied to our minds by an invisible mental thread. The more there are, the more threads there are. The more threads there are, the greater the chance that they will get tangled. Constant nagging thoughts pull at our focus, often to fade away, only to return again just as we’re trying to fall asleep. Scattered objects are minefields, accidents waiting to happen. If there is a spill, it will stain the most important object available. If something gets broken, it’s either going to be the most prized object or the one that makes the biggest mess. In any conglomeration of clutter, the most important object will be the one to get buried under something. Why do we do this to ourselves? We do it unintentionally, because we have so little mental bandwidth left to deal with it. We aren’t familiar with the peace of mind that comes from an orderly environment. If we were, we’d drop everything until we could create this mental space for ourselves.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes change so difficult. It seems like the default setting for humans is to never change, even when the status quo is painful. Information has never been so easy to find at any point in history. It takes less than one minute to find step-by-step instructions for everything from making ink to shrunken heads, and surely the steps for quitting smoking, getting organized, losing weight, or starting a business are even easier to come by. There is even a market for various devices to help us stay focused on our intentions, from fitness trackers to a scary thing that lets you give yourself a mild shock whenever you feel the desire to step off track. If we want to change anything, anything at all, the information and support are readily available. There’s still time in these last 13 weeks of 2015 to do anything. Register for classes. Get a business license. Unclutter a house, garage, and storage unit. Lose 20 pounds. Pay off a credit card. Make that pesky doctor or dentist appointment. Learn a couple dozen healthy recipes. Learn to play a song on an instrument. A busy person could do all those things in the next 13 weeks.
Probably it won’t happen, though. Almost all of us will still be procrastinating on the same stuff we were last year, next year. Why is that?
I’ve come to believe that there are two main reasons why we don’t change, even when we have formed the intention to do so. The first is that we have contempt for people who do the thing, whatever it is. The second is that we are skeptical of the supposed benefits. We just don’t believe it is really as awesome as everyone says it is. We see change in terms of giving something up. We don’t change unless we want to change, but we don’t even want to want to change.
Maybe other people don’t feel as contemptuous as I did, but it was huge in my life. I absolutely knew that people who go to the gym are vapid and vain. Likewise, I knew that fashionable, attractive people were not just vapid and vain, but also bullies. I knew that rich people were evil. When I would see people jogging in place at intersections, I would sneer at them, “Oh, SHUT UP!” (Now I’m the one jogging in place at intersections). I had this magical ability to read everyone’s mind and size up people’s character at a glance. It was marvelous. Have you ever noticed that, the more successful people are, the more critics they have? Olympian athletes, famous musicians, writers, actors, political figures… Why is this? Yeah, schadenfreude, I know. Where does it come from, though? Still working on this one.
This is part of why we are so easily able to convince ourselves that change isn’t worth it. No need to be extreme. I’m real. I’m awesome the way I am! Wouldn’t want to get carried away, now. Other people will always back us up on this. When I was losing my weight, I got told over and over again, by people who didn’t know each other: “Be careful.” Nobody ever said to be careful when I was gaining weight, just like nobody went with me to the hospital to get my thyroid scanned and find out whether that nodule was cancerous. A little too much truth in hospitals. Change bothers everyone. Change too much and it affects the balance of power. “You’re making the rest of us look bad.” If you really want to see that effect in action, try increasing your productivity at work.
Change is too hard, it doesn’t work anyway, and if it did work, well, it makes you all full of yourself and arrogant and stuff. It may have worked for you, but I’m certain it won’t work for me. I’ve checked a bunch of boxes demonstrating that I did try to change, and look at what it got me. I missed out on my routine and I have nothing to show for it. Better save your energy and just stay the same.
My people have a lot of negative opinions about organization, tidiness, and cleaning. They tend to have a single image of what “clean and organized” means, and it’s always sterile and ugly. Why not a comfortable, beautiful environment that is simply missing the dirt and clutter? Surely at least a few iterations of that are possible? It turns out that my squalor clients don’t really believe in germ theory. They can’t smell bad smells anymore. They scoff at other people’s overly fussy ideas about cleanliness. Meanwhile, I’ve never worked in a squalid house in which all the occupants were not chronically coming down with one respiratory issue after another. Headaches, poor sleep, skin problems, digestion issues… Often the pets have problems, too. The humans don’t see the connections, though. The framework is that “I’m sick, therefore I can’t clean” rather than “biofilm on everything in my house is making me ill.” I’ve come home from several intensive jobs and been sick in bed for a week. Often I have sneezing fits so bad during squalor jobs that I have to step outside for a few minutes. The question of whether a squalid environment contributes to poor health could be resolved scientifically, but many people would wave off the suggestion of such a thing as “not that big a deal.”
Smokers obviously know that smoking is bad for you (and expensive). The warning labels keep getting bigger and bigger, for one thing. For another, it’s not like they haven’t been nagged about it many times. It’s about rebellion as much as anything. “Every time someone told me to stop smoking, it added a year to how long I smoked.” Most smokers will say they have tried to quit – honest, committed efforts too – and they just can’t. Millions of people have quit! There are tons of ways to do it. In some areas, you can even get the patch for free. Heck, if you want to quit smoking and can’t afford the patch, PM me and I’ll pay for it. But it comes down to personal sovereignty, like most things. I’m not doing it unless it was my idea. “Don’t judge :) ” – right? They see it as giving something up; that is, until they realize how much extra money they have and how much better food tastes. They see it as a relief from stress, reverting the moment anything unusually dramatic happens, discrediting the fact that most people use a variety of coping mechanisms that are not nicotine. They haven’t seen their personal lungs or arteries, and underneath it all, they truly aren’t fazed by the purported health risks.
One of the toughest ones at this cultural moment is overweight. There appears to be an inverse relationship between how heavy someone is and how much that person endorses basic concepts of physiology and nutrition. I’m afraid to even put that into print because the Body Image Mafia will show up on my lawn. On two occasions, I have overheard a conversation in which someone says, “My doctor told me I was obese!” (Once with a man and once with a woman). Everyone gasps in incredulity. “He can’t talk to you that way! You should report him!” A credentialed health expert has just given a clinical diagnosis, and everyone takes it as an appearance-based insult. “I’m afraid your leg is broken.” “*gasp* Doctor! How dare you shame my femur that way! I’m perfect just the way I am!” I know more people with sleep apnea and diabetes than I could fit in my house, and even after coping with these conditions for several years, almost none of them are even talking about thinking about losing any weight. Not even ten pounds. We can’t even buy into the concept that being able to breathe without a machine would be worth making a change. We’ve read the brochures and we are not impressed.
I’m an activist for personal change because I’ve experienced so much of it. Anyone would agree that being debt-free is more fun than being in debt. Most would agree that it’s also more fun to be free of chronic pain and fatigue than to suffer it. Many would go so far as to concede that being organized makes life easier than being chronically disorganized, at least if you have the sort of attention issues I did. Few are willing to consider the idea that going from obese to athletic is even possible, much less healthier, and certainly not worth the bother of trying. All I want is to help others to struggle less than I did, with problems I found very frustrating. Once my problem goes away, though, I cease to be a sympathetic character and become the enemy. Get organized and you’re not the ADHD person anymore; you’re Martha Stewart. Get better from fibromyalgia, and you’re not ‘one of us’ anymore; you’re Jillian Michaels. “You don’t know what it’s like.” We write off the very idea that someone in our situation changed and eliminated the problem. It can’t possibly be everything it’s cracked up to be. Can it?
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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