It’s that time again! Goals and resolutions time! This year we’re doing our annual review and planning session on the Las Vegas Strip, because we’re party animals and because planning leads to awesomeness.
This is the mistake so many people make, to choose a “resolution” that is grim and dire, the kind of thing that any sensible person would of course immediately want to sabotage. Get out of here with your “drink more water” and “Get Organized” and “lose weight,” just crumple all that into a ball and toss it over your shoulder, and let’s do this with a little more anticipation and delight, okay?
I’ve been interviewing various Las Vegan personages and asking them to tell me their “New Year’s wish.” Everyone had one. EVERYONE! A TSA agent: “To get paid.” A dreadlocked young fellow: “Growth and prosperity.” A balding guy, blushing: “A new baby.” A bearded kid: “To go back to school.” Wanting something better for the New Year is the driving force behind all human progress.
Personally, I don’t stop at one, because there is no upper limit on wishes. It’s also a technicality, because if you make a longer list, then your chances of succeeding at least once are increased. I’ve been doing this process in one form or another since I was nine years old, and each year’s failures and near misses have simply made me better at formulating my plans. First I’ll share how I did last year, and then I’ll go into my plans for 2019, because publishing my quarterly results keeps me accountable.
These were my goals and resolutions for 2018:
Personal: Explore a martial art - SUCCESS+
Career: Launch a podcast - SUCCESS
Physical: Run Shamrock Run 2018, build a daily stretching routine - SUCCESS
Home: Lower our rent - SUCCESS
Couples: Go on an international vacation together - POSTPONED
Stop goal: Stop losing focus on incomplete projects - SUCCESS
Lifestyle upgrades: Upgrade laptop - SUCCESS?
Do the Obvious: Speak more slowly, with more pauses - SUCCESS
Quest: Travel in Asia / a fifth continent - POSTPONED
Wish: To find an amazing pet sitter - SUCCESS
Mantra: PAUSE AND BREATHE - SUCCESS?
I’m making some changes to my template this year. First, I tried doing a mantra for two years, and both times it wound up feeling like I somehow managed to troll myself. Dropping that. If I do one, it will be to come up with a word or phrase at the end of the year instead of the beginning. Instead, I’m publishing the metrics I plan to track. What gets tracked gets managed. I’m also being more careful about not trying for a twofer, because then if it doesn’t happen for some reason, it screws up two categories instead of one. Another thing is that I realized I keep screwing up my “couples goal” because it IS a goal, rather than a resolution, and goals are much less likely to lead to long-term success.
Goal: a specific outcome. Resolution: an implementation intention. Project: a planned piece of work with a specific purpose. Plan: the part most people leave out of their resolutions!
Personal: My personal project is typically something on what I call the Challenge Path, the specific purpose of which is to push my limits drastically and force me to run full speed in the direction of my greatest fears. Contemplating these projects in advance always makes me queasy. At some point within the first three weeks (aka The Gauntlet), I tell my husband I’m going to quit because it’s too hard and I’m wasting everyone’s time and I don’t belong there. Then I stay with it and within three years I’m as good as anyone. This time it’s to submit a book proposal to a publisher. I keep telling myself that I’m going to do many of these and that they will eventually become a regular, predictable part of my life, but bawkbawk-baGAWK! [chicken sounds]
Career: See above. Also, I’m in the final stages of completing the work for my Distinguished Toastmaster. If I can hold the line on all the projects I’ve been doing over the last six months, I can finish this by June 30. If I slip on anything, it will take an entire extra year. The further I go in Toastmasters, the more I see how directly relevant these skills are to what I want to do with my life. That being said, the DTM represents a massive amount of work. It will take the majority of my focus for the first half of the year.
Physical: My fitness resolution is to work on hip openers. If this works the way I want it to, it will help me with my roundhouse kick, my goal of doing the splits, and maybe even my heartfelt desire to turn a cartwheel. Currently I have the ludicrously tight hips of any distance runner and I’m ready to leave that behind. There are a LOT of people in Las Vegas who can do the splits, and most of them can do them while doing a handstand on one hand. This is possible.
Home: My home project is to set up an outdoor writing area. I spend a lot of time on our tiny patio, so my parrot can get some nice daylight, but it makes us visible to a steady stream of foot traffic. We get interrupted a lot by looky-loos. I’m going to set up a folding screen so the wandering public don’t have line of sight with my chair.
Couples: Our couples resolution is to do bulk meal prep. We’ve been taking an evening kickboxing class together, and because it runs from 7-8 it has been making weeknight dinnertime and cleanup complicated.
Stop goal: Every year, I think of a way I’ve been annoying myself (and usually others) and decide to stop doing it. It’s always something I have no idea how to handle, or I would have already done it. Spending an entire year examining my worst character flaws and most obnoxious habits helps me to figure out how to work on them, at least a little. This time, I’m trying to figure out how to clear up the wreckage of my poor health from 2018, a year of chronic colds and the worst sleep I’ve had in fifteen years. Waking up crouched on my living room floor, crying from a night terror that lobster-sized scorpions were crawling on the bed, was the last straw. In 2019 I resolve to stop being sick and tired.
Lifestyle upgrades: My lifestyle upgrade resolution is to buy a new desktop computer. I should have freaking done it last year, after I decided I didn’t want another laptop, but I’m such a tightwad that few forces on Earth can convince me to spend money on myself.
Do the Obvious: “Do the Obvious” is my thing, because as a divergent thinker one of my best skills is overcomplicating things without even realizing it. It means looking at something so commonplace, such a routine keystone habit, that even a stranger on the street could point it out within five minutes of meeting someone. This year it’s to schedule a time block for everything, every last single thing I want to be a part of my life. I’ll write more about this as I work it into practice. Basically it means I need to have an extra “power hour” every week for random tasks that don’t seem to fit into any other category. I also need to be more protective of my writing time.
Metrics: I track a lot of stuff. It’s what helped me figure out how to eliminate my migraines, for one thing. I track my hydration, I wear a fitness tracker, I record all the books I read, and I follow a budget. This year I’m going to try out gear to track my sleep metrics. I’m going to track specific HIIT exercises, because it will be funny to know how many burpees I do in a year. I’m going to track how many martial arts classes I attend, and I’m going to track how many speeches I give. A big one is that I’m going to track how many news articles I read, because that trend line should be going down. I’m also going to track my daily word count. A whole page of metrics! If I make a project of it I’m more likely to catch everything.
Quest: My quest this year is to pursue a Sleep Project and figure out how to get more and better-quality sleep. I’m enlisting the assistance of my husband, who is willing to apply astrophysics-level mathematical analysis to my metrics, just as he did to help me finally reach my goal weight.
Wish: My wish is to be signed by a literary agent. Did I just say that out loud?
Personal: Book proposal
Career: Distinguished Toastmaster
Physical: Hip openers
Home: Outdoor writing area
Couples: Meal prep
Stop Goal: Stop being sick and tired
Lifestyle Upgrades: New desktop computer
Do the Obvious: Schedule time blocks
Metrics: Sleep, fitness, reading, writing, speaking
Quest: Sleep Project
Wish: To be signed by a literary agent.
It’s annual review time! Time to compare my sparkly new goals and resolutions of January with the tawdry, musty reality of the rest of the year. How did all of those shiny promises pan out? What happened that I didn’t plan? (Hint: most things)
First, the bad stuff. These are the unforeseen obstacles and fate’s dirty tricks, the kind of things that tend to stall most people out on our goals. There were some rough ones this year.
There was a death in my family, a really devastating loss that has been eating me alive for months. Also, our poor dog was diagnosed with an inoperable liver tumor. The second half of my 2018 played out against gray wallpaper, let’s just put it that way.
I got bit by a dog, a spider bit me on the butt, and I got my first black eye.
We moved to a new apartment, and I basically didn’t sleep for three months. I thought our previous upstairs neighbors’ morning housekeeping habits were extreme... I started having precursor night terror episodes again for the first time in years. Then I kept getting sick. I had the common cold no fewer than eight times, coughed until I dislocated a rib, and lost nearly 20% of the year to being sick in bed. My hubby started traveling for work, and at one point we only saw each other for 2.5 days out of four weeks. That’s hard when you’re sick, grieving, and caretaking a sick animal as well, shaking in the rain at 5:30 AM...
It’s important to keep goals and successes in context. There’s this natural human tendency to compare ourselves to one another - I do it too - but we have to remember that we can’t cherry-pick each other’s highlights. If you want anything off my goal table, you have to take from my buffet of sorrow as well. Feel triumphant and confident, mixed with sad and alone and ill at the same time. What I accomplished is the result of a lot of planning, focus, structure, self-discipline, many years of practice at goal-setting, the continuation of prior years’ work, and the learned skill of turning to work as an emotional outlet when life feels difficult.
Also, I don’t choose goals or resolutions that require a “perfect streak.”
I finally paid off my student loan!
I leveled up in Toastmasters: an Advanced Leader Bronze, Advanced Communicator Bronze, Advanced Communicator Silver, a Triple Crown for 2017-2018, Pathways Level 1, and Area Director. All in one calendar year!
I got an orange belt in Krav Maga and an orange belt in Muay Thai.
My friend and I walked across the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time.
My husband and I went paddle boarding for the first time.
I learned to do a headstand for the first time in my life.
I can do fifty pushups without kneeling.
I got my bike tuned up and started riding again.
I launched my podcast.
I read 187 books.
My husband filed his first patent.
Then he got Gold Status on his preferred airline.
We went to World Domination Summit together for the third time.
We went on vacation to Las Vegas twice.
We befriended a habituated squirrel that comes to our porch every day.
My dad got a puppy for the first time in forty years.
Our city banned leaf blowers!
Our apartment complex remodeled our gym.
Personal: My personal goal was to explore a martial art. I choose my personal goal for each year based on what will feel extremely challenging, scary, unnatural, and contrary to my personality. Previous years were running and public speaking. When I set my goal, I didn’t even know which martial art I would study; by the first week of January I was leaning toward jiu jitsu. I wound up doing Muay Thai along with Krav Maga based on a school tour and the available class schedule. This was a huge success. I’ve made so many friends and pushed my physical limits in ways I never knew would be possible at age forty-three. I really enjoy the structure, combined with the immense variety and unpredictability of each class. I see no reason not to continue all the way to black belt and beyond.
Career: My career goal was to launch a podcast, which I did. This was orders of magnitude more complicated than launching a blog. I had to figure out what gear to buy, how to set it up and adjust it, how to use the software, how to troubleshoot the myriad settings when something didn’t work, as well as planning and creating content. It’s really challenging for me to SHIP IT when I feel like a beginner and I want to be an expert. The lesson is to JUST GET STARTED knowing that it will take three years of consistent effort to reach your standards.
Physical: My physical goals were modest, because my personal goal for the year revolved around fitness. I ran the Shamrock Run with my brothers, and I set a PR even though I hadn’t really been running for a few years. I also set out to build a stretching routine, and discovered how to address my occasional problems with plantar fasciitis. I appear to have gotten rid of my lifetime problem with needle reaction. I wanted to gain fifteen pounds of muscle and I managed to put on ten. This has been a record-setting fitness year for me.
Home: Our home goal was to lower our rent. This was a success, one we locked down early in January. When it came time to renew our lease, they offered us the same rent we’ve been paying all year, instead of trying to increase it $200 a month like usual.
Couples: Our couples goal was to go on an international vacation together. We had planned to book the tickets this year and do the trip at some point between January and March 2019. Then our dog got diagnosed and my husband’s previously nonexistent travel schedule for work got really complicated. Instead, we’re taking kickboxing classes together, nothing like a vacation but still a way for us to have fun together. We did two Vegas trips instead.
Stop goal: I choose a “stop goal” for something I want to stop doing, especially if I’m not sure how. This time it was to stop losing focus on incomplete projects. What I learned in contemplating this is that I do much better with open-ended projects like running a blog or a podcast or going to the gym than I do with specific, time-bound goals that have deadlines. I also need to have regular decision points when I firmly close the books on a project, whether I’ve finished it or simply decided that I no longer want to do it.
Lifestyle upgrades: My lifestyle upgrade was to upgrade my laptop. I realized during the research phase that I don’t like using laptops due to the keyboard setup, and that what I really need is to go back to a desktop. I doubt I’ll ever really use a laptop again. We set up our shared desktop with a soundboard and microphones, something I couldn’t do with either my old laptop or my iPad.
Do the Obvious: My Do the Obvious goal was to speak more slowly, with more pauses. This was extremely difficult for me because I’ve talked really fast my entire life. Public speaking and podcasting have helped. What especially helped was to get an evaluation from a Sri Lankan friend who told me it’s hard for him to follow English at my speed. I try to reframe not as “I talk fast, so sue me” but as “my friends are translating me in real-time.”
Quest: My Quest for the year was to travel on a fifth continent. This has been postponed to a different year for a variety of reasons, most of them disappointing. The one good thing is that my hubby has been earning so many reward miles that our eventual trip will probably be free.
Wish: My wish was to find an amazing pet-sitter. We were really lucky in this; not only did we find one, but she became a friend. She introduced our dog to her dog-walking pack and now he has a dozen dog friends.
Mantra: PAUSE AND BREATHE. This marks two years in a row that my mantra wound up feeling stupid and unlucky. Pause and breathe, indeed! I spent about 20% of my year “pausing” in bed and focusing on breathing more than I ever have in my life. At this point I’m afraid of choosing a mantra in advance; maybe I’ll try to pick one in retrospect, at the end of the year, as a theme?
Personal: Explore a martial art - SUCCESS+
Career: Launch a podcast - SUCCESS
Physical: Run Shamrock Run 2018, build a daily stretching routine - SUCCESS
Home: Lower our rent - SUCCESS
Couples: Go on an international vacation together - POSTPONED
Stop goal: Stop losing focus on incomplete projects - SUCCESS
Lifestyle upgrades: Upgrade laptop - SUCCESS?
Do the Obvious: Speak more slowly, with more pauses - SUCCESS
Quest: Travel in Asia / a fifth continent - POSTPONED
Wish: To find an amazing pet sitter - SUCCESS
Mantra: PAUSE AND BREATHE - SUCCESS?
The thing about goals is that they’re usually much too modest and too ordinary to generate much passion in the goal-setter. For the purposes of this discussion, that would be you. Maybe you’ve been getting stuck on the same goals for so many years because they bore you. Maybe it’s because you secretly resent being held to humdrum societal expectations. Maybe you don’t like the way magazines always use the imperative command: LOSE WEIGHT while trying this brownie recipe! GET ORGANIZED while buying a few sacks full of these objects in our advertisements! I’m tired of it, too. That’s why I’m so proud to share that there are sneaky and cost-free ways to beat the system. Here are some cheats for common goals.
Goal: DRINK MORE WATER. I struggled with this for almost twenty years. It was closely linked to my cola addiction. Advertisers will try to sell you all sorts of special bottles and jugs and jars and hydration systems and custom artisanal additives. What’s the cheat?
Cheat: STRENUOUS EXERCISE. If you haven’t been working out, and you start, one of the first things you’ll notice is that your thirst begins to take over your life, and for once Idris Elba isn’t involved. In marathon training, I found that I could drink 80 fluid ounces on one training run. In martial arts classes, I can empty a 20-oz bottle in two gulps. The concern shifts from “I should probably get around to this one day” to “maybe I shouldn’t shove people away from the drinking fountain?”
Goal: GET ORGANIZED. This is my wheelhouse, because I work with chronically disorganized people, and I know from experience that it can take three months just to have one square foot of space consistently clear. Our culture makes time scarce and material objects plentiful. As of the mid-twentieth century, it’s possible to live in clutter and disorganization the likes of which humanity has never known. What’s the cheat?
Cheat: DOWNSIZE YOUR LIVING SPACE. My husband and I rented a typical suburban house when we first got married. Three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a two-car garage, living room, family room, laundry room, dining room, and the biggest kitchen I’d ever had. We now live in a 612-square-foot studio apartment. Our dining table is stored flat under our bed. Getting an offer for the Epic Dream Job meant we had just eleven days to downsize all our stuff and relocate to a new city. The differential between a higher income on one hand, and lower rent plus no vehicle expenses on the other hand, means we could handily replace every object we downsized with plenty to spare. This is somewhat of a simplified version of a ten-year process, but this style of downsizing is not rare or radical by any means.
Goal: TOO BUSY AND TOO TIRED. Does this apply to everyone, or what? Being too tired to think straight is probably the biggest killer of goals and resolutions aside from the humble donut. This situation should not be tolerated. Even if you never make another goal or have any other aspirations in your life, finding a way to regain your energy level and get some peace of mind should matter to you. It’s the best reason to do anything. But how is it possible to get everything done without cutting back on sleep? What’s the cheat?
Cheat: GET RID OF YOUR CAR. Believe it or not, getting rid of our car two years ago was one of the most surprising and most effective ways to introduce leisure into our schedule. It takes longer to get places, and this has led to three things. One, we make fewer trips because it’s a bigger deal, so we consolidate or delegate errands. Two, we each have a BMW (Bike Metro Walk) which automatically adds more exercise, more time to listen to podcasts and audio books, and more time to sit and chill. On the bus (or rideshare, occasionally) you can text your friends, play games, read a novel, watch a TV episode, browse recipes, stare out the window, or set an alert and just nap out. Driving means that every minute, you’re either battling traffic, looking for parking, or wondering how you’ll ever find time to clean out your car. Wouldn’t you rather have that time for aimless entertainment instead? Oh, and the third thing is that because we moved and got rid of our car, we are now able to save 40% of our income, which has solved not just our leisure constraints but our financial issues as well!
What we’re talking about is how radical change can quickly and easily resolve challenges when making tiny tweaks to the standard-issue lifestyle cannot. Standard behavior includes standard problems. In our culture, those are stress, chronic sleep deprivation, clutter, money worries, sedentary behavior, and excess adipose tissue, commonly referred to as body fat.
Radical change does not have to be shocking or difficult. For instance, going to bed an hour earlier might be revolutionary for a lot of people, and it costs nothing and requires no extra equipment. All it takes is a willingness to say, I am tired of annoying myself, I am tired of facing the same issues year after year, and now I’m making the executive decision to put a stop to it. Being tired all the time is boring. Being broke all the time is boring. I don’t want the quest to remind myself to “drink more water” be my main purpose besides commuting and working at my job.
The real cheat for common goals is to wipe them off the board. Substitute some uncommon goals and see what happens.
Coming right up is a fresh start, a brand new year. This is a tested and well-researched method that really works for a lot of people who want to crush their goals. Unfortunately, beginners tend to choose great goals but match them with the wrong methods. Then they blame themselves and their lack of “motivation” or “willpower” or “passion,” the unholy trinity of the fixed mindset. Please don’t let that happen to you. Don’t get suckered by cheap marketing tactics or lame magazine articles. Especially one thing: Don’t join that gym!
Don’t get me wrong, either. I am a total gym rat - or at least, I am now. Like many people, though, I’ve wasted hundreds of dollars on gym memberships I didn’t use, DVDs and VHS tapes I didn’t watch, fitness books I didn’t read, and equipment that sat around until it got dusty. Please learn from the ghost of what used to be my nice flat green American dollars. Don’t join that gym! (Or buy that DVD or that book or that gigundous vat of indigestible protein powder).
Let me go back to what I said earlier about the unholy trinity of motivation, willpower, and passion. Those things don’t exist, not like you think they do. Unless your excitement at eating hot breadsticks, your ability and determination to stay up past midnight binge-watching entire seasons of TV shows, or your fervent desire to own a hundred pairs of hurty shoes qualify. You only feel those feelings toward things that are already familiar to you, that you already love so much that you’ll build your entire life around them. The confusion here is that it’s impossible to feel that kind of drive around the unfamiliar.
That comes with time. It does, but only after you’ve gone completely through the beginning stages of uncertainty, distaste, embarrassment, and feeling like you don’t belong. Being a beginner at anything feels gross and annoying. That’s why the better you get at other stuff, like dipping mozzarella sticks, the bigger the gap is between where you are now and novice level at anything else.
This is important, okay? Because there are two ways you can go with your curiosity about the fit life and your willingness to make a physical transformation. One harnesses the cute habits you already have, and the other instead uses your proven ability to learn to get into other stuff that is completely unlike going to the gym. If you do choose to join a gym, a basic and inexpensive commodity gym, make sure you have the right reinforcements first. (The schedule, the daily fourth meal, the entertainment options, the triple-quadruple backups for when your schedule changes or you’re not in the mood).
When I say not to join a gym, what I’m talking about are the cheap gyms with room for a hundred people. The pricing structure of those gyms depends on the majority of people paying and not showing up. It’s a rip-off! They know full well that at least 80% of their customers will waste money, feel hopeless, and blame themselves. They’re selling false hope just like a liquor store sells booze in paper sacks down on Skid Row. Physical transformation absolutely is possible - people are doing it every day, every hour, right this minute. For it to happen at a standard cheapie gym, though, takes education that novices simply don’t have.
What you want, if you really want results and you know you can’t get them at home, is a highly specific gym. Most people truly will not work out alone in their garage or bedroom or living room, with just a book or a training plan. Nothing personal! Just ask yourself for a moment, what else in your life do you do that you learned entirely alone, at home by yourself? Even gaming you probably learned at the side of a friend or sibling. Most things that you do, you probably learned in some more formal manner, from your schooling to your job to driving a car. You can use that framework when you commit to train. Think of it as “training” in the same way you would at your job. You know how to learn, you know how to follow a class schedule, you know how to respect a teacher, and you know how to go from “zero knowledge” to “some knowledge.” Right?
The first “gym” I joined was a ballroom dancing school. I adored it. It cost me $200 a month that I really couldn’t afford, but I found a way. I basically lived there. I almost never missed a class. Now I can say I’m a “competent social dancer.” They clear the floor for us when we dance at holiday parties and weddings. I haven’t paid for ballroom dance classes in many years, but then, I don’t need them. I kept the ability and moved on to something else for training purposes.
Right now I’m enrolled in a martial arts school. It costs four times as much as the cheapie gym membership I used to have. Unlike that cheap commodity gym, though, I can credit my martial arts gym for making me the fittest I’ve ever been. It has also brought me a passion I’ve never known, which is my newfound obsession with knife fighting. (Doesn’t knife fighting make any other gym seem positively comfortable and relaxing? Thought so. That’s why I said it).
My expensive boutique gym still costs less than pay cable. Since I don’t have cable TV, I’m spending less money than most people, I have all the time I need to train, and I can also walk around at night without feeling all that nervous. I truly can’t imagine giving up my gym just to sit around watching TV five hours a night. Ugh, why?
Pay more, if you’re going to join a gym. Make a serious commitment. Show up and be awkward for a few weeks. If you hang around long enough to get your money’s worth, you’ll start making friends. Everyone will know your name. Not only will you finally get the transformation you always wanted, but you can transform your social life, too. It could wind up being one of the most fun and interesting things you’ve ever done.
Don’t join that generic gym. If you’re going to bother at all, shift some things around and join the specific gym, the one that focuses on something that really speaks to you.
No matter the cultural tradition, this is a time of year when token gifts are exchanged. How fun is that? It’s great if your love language is giving gifts. For the rest of us, it can fall a little flat at best, or disrupt our entire year’s finances at worst. For my people, it’s another major funnel of extra clutter that they find emotionally befuddling. I’ll still be finding gifts in their original gift bags years later, still in their original tissue paper and their original plastic packaging. All this trading of material objects can maybe detract from the real reason we all get together, which is to greet the long, dark winter nights with hope and hospitality. That is why I say, open your unopened gifts, both material and immaterial.
Open the gift bags from last year and the year before. They might come in handy if you get invited to a white elephant exchange. You can reuse the gift wrap, too. They may also put this year’s gifts into context, a handy meter for what is realistic to expect out of a little glitter and plastic.
There is a certain paradox in the holidays, because the more anticipation and excitement there is, the more there can be an emotional letdown when it’s all over. I’ve always thought the big parties should be in midwinter, not near the solstice, because it’s hard knowing there are so many months of horrible weather and darkness still to come. Once all the parties are over and everyone has gone home, there’s nothing but a pile of wrapping paper and trinkets to get us through. Not a few kids will build a reputation for throwing tantrums or openly weeping because they didn’t get their heart’s desire.
A pony. A piano. A Pretty in Pink Barbie. A parrot.
A dirt bike. A rifle. Roller blades. An electric guitar.
Ask anyone of any age, and they’ll recall with perfect clarity the Gift That Got Away. Then ask if they have one now. It’s funny that most of us can afford anything in the range of the budget for a children’s toy, yet we don’t buy these things for ourselves. That’s because it’s not the material object that we really miss. It’s the feeling of innocent hope and fervent wishing, the sparkly feeling of infinite possibility that is continually dashed in the face of cold reality.
The things we did get that didn’t live up to the hype: sea monkeys, x-ray glasses, a supposed all-day lollipop, the triple-scoop ice cream cone that fell on the sidewalk directly outside the ice cream shop.
(As I wrote this, the squirrel that lives outside our front door came too close and my dog ALMOST got him).
How many times have we been fooled by prank gifts? White elephants, oversize boxes and trick packaging designed to hide the modest item inside.
Many of us have mixed feelings about going to holiday parties. Shyness and social anxiety, family dysfunction and trauma, tenuous recovery tested by ever-present intoxicants, the endless aggravation of forced cheer in traffic. Explain why you’re still single. Pretend you’re straight. Act perky about your job hunt. Struggle to cram in every social obligation around the few traditions that actually mean something to you. Stop your cat from eating all those ribbons.
What do we miss? What falls by the wayside because it’s so hard to put into material form?
Storytelling. For every argument or failure of simple tact, there’s an untold story that somebody could have, might have, maybe should have drawn out of someone else. A lot of grumpy people have fascinating stories buried somewhere under all the crankiness. With a little skill and attention, someone could have turned complaining into entertaining.
Connection. When we sit down to write out cards, it can come as a shock to realize that it’s been an entire year since we last reached out to dear friends who live far away. Are we really making the connections and staying engaged with the people we like the best? How long has it been since we even heard each other’s voices? How did those kids get so big? Where did the last five years go?
Neighborliness. In the past, people did a better job of getting to know their neighbors. Gatherings were probably more formal, but the rote phrases and stilted, scripted conversations gave people a framework for how to interact. I started making more of an effort to get to know my neighbors when I realized the man next door was 96. Was anyone looking after him?
The last time. The sad truth is that we never know when it will be the last time we see someone. Could be... could be tonight. There are few regrets as bitter as knowing you could have called someone or gone to see someone, but you let the opportunity pass and later find out it’s too late. One regret that’s worse is knowing that the last time you spoke, you exchanged harsh words and never made up.
Among the unopened gifts, the silly bric-a-brac and the trivial treats, there are others that can’t be shaken out of the wrapper. Those are the simple and timeless human gifts of attention, patience, forgiveness, advanced hospitality, and emotional engagement. Let’s put down our phones and our shiny sacks for a few moments and give a moment to opening our hearts to one another.
Read this book even if you have no particular curiosity around the practice of bullet journaling. Read The Bullet Journal Method, because it happens to be one of the greatest productivity books ever written. Ryder Carroll makes a truly compelling case for why Getting Organized can be so transformative for so many people, whether their struggles are with attention deficit, PTSD, or, memorably, talking to emergency medical responders while a child is having a seizure. This book has so much to offer that the artistic aspects are really just a side bonus.
I use a paper day planner with bullet journal techniques even though I also use a tablet and a smartphone. Writing longhand really does work to help focus, think clearly, and remember details. Another benefit that Carroll describes is differentiating between our memories of what happened and what actually happened; we may have positive memories of something negative and vice versa. Writing down accurate details can help us see the truth that a job or relationship isn’t going quite the way we thought it was. This is why a written journal is so instrumental in spotting patterns and deciphering mysterious health problems.
Part of the practice of bullet journaling is the daily reflection. Carroll points out that it’s better to spend even one minute a day on this, as long as it’s done every day, because that is more valuable than longer but more sporadic sessions. He says he usually spends 5-15 minutes per daily session, and I can back this up. With a clear system in place, it takes very little time to maintain. More, it becomes a pleasure, even a stolen thrill, rather than a chore. This is where the beautiful artwork and hand-lettering of so many BuJo aficionados begins, because it’s a treat we give ourselves.
Productivity is all about gamification, or how we choose the metrics that will measure our success. Carroll includes some very interesting ways to gamify goals, including the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 exercise, which I haven’t seen anywhere else. (Set some goals for five years, four months, three weeks, two days, and one hour). He also teaches Agile methods, Sprints, and the Five Whys, which transfer readily between the home and the workplace: my husband relies on this system as an aerospace engineer, and we use it in our marriage as well.
The examples of problem-solving that come up in The Bullet Journal Method say everything about how universally useful it is. Everything from how to plan a vacation to I CAN’T PAY RENT is in here somewhere. Carroll writes lucidly about self-compassion, gratitude, mindfulness, and all those catchphrases that seem so abstract, until we see how directly they apply to daily life. This is a remarkable book that far exceeds its remit, turning “productivity” into pure poetry about how to live life well, even amid the massive jumble of it all.
Few things are more distracting than the cruel stories we tell ourselves.
Often all it takes to live intentionally is to pause before you proceed.
If everything is a priority, nothing is.
Yes means work, it means sacrifice, it means investing time into one thing that you can no longer invest into another.
Productivity is about getting more done by working on fewer things.
News junkies like myself often have a lot of trouble constraining our news consumption. That’s because the news cycle has been deliberately designed to hook users. It sells advertising and bumps up ratings. (“Ratings” as defined by number of viewers or readers, not by quality the way we rate other products). Constant news engagement is stressful and often pointless, since it’s planned around program schedules rather than merit or relevance. There’s a better way to stay informed. More books, less news, might be the answer to reclaiming some perspective and mental bandwidth.
‘More books, less news’ is not the same as recommending a complete news blackout. Not at all! The premise is to limit news time to a pre-defined chunk of the day. This is much easier to do when the first priority is to read a book. Headlines can be fit in the time that’s left.
At some point during 2018, I realized that I had only been reading maybe half the number of books I did in the past several years. I knew exactly where my time had gone, and it made me disappointed with myself. Five years from now, I probably won’t remember how many versions of speculation and guesswork I read about the latest hurricane or whether various royals might be expanding their family. I probably will remember the novels and non-fiction books I chose instead. I can stay informed on current events without sacrificing my lifelong reading habit, as long as I keep my book nearby.
An extra hour of news consumption a day is likely to raise my blood pressure, give me a headache, or make me want to crawl into my closet and hide. An extra hour a day of long-form reading is likely to keep me both informed and relaxed.
Choosing the right book is key to this enterprise. Sometimes certain books can only be appreciated in the right mood, and other times a poor fit can stall a reader’s progress for weeks or months. Don’t feel obligated to finish a book that isn’t working for you. Maybe it will seem like the perfect choice a couple of months from now. Something suspenseful or funny may remind you just what it was that you always loved about reading.
Books have, dare I say it, a shelf life. I’ve found that buying too many books in advance can put me off ever cracking a certain cover. If a particular title has caught my attention, I like to use that curiosity to get me into the book right away. If I set a stack aside, I might not touch it again until the next time I pack up my bookshelves to move to a new place. When that happens, I might as well give up. What was once an enticing treat somehow becomes boring homework.
Some people are devoted re-readers. I am not one of those people. Every time I have re-read a book, I’ve found that it ruined my first impression and spoiled my memory. I’ve never liked a title as much the second time around. This is why my book collection continues to shrink, as I move more toward e-books and sell off the hard copies I have finished reading. I share this because anyone who does love reading the same book over and over will be so offended and protective of these cherished favorites that it might inspire a mass re-reading marathon.
Shared reading is something I enjoy very much. My husband will occasionally read a book with me, if it interests both of us, and he prefers hard copies. He does a lot of business travel and it’s a good habit for the long flights and the endless waiting. He has this bizarre habit of picking up a book and starting to read it the very day he brings it home. This keeps me on-trend, reading our shared books while they are still fresh enough in his mind that we can discuss them. (A point of contention in the past is that I would foist a book on him and then not get around to it for several years). These hard copies often get passed around at his work when we’re done. It can be really exciting to sit down to dinner with friends and find that everyone has just finished a book we have in common. Discussions about a book tend to be much more interesting, nuanced, and provocative than discussions about current events.
(Particularly when the discussion veers off into professional sports, and not everyone knows anything about that sport or those teams...)
Books are great in so many ways and so many formats. I like reading in dark mode while my hubby is sleeping next to me. I like reading a hardcover library book on the elliptical. I like reading an audiobook while I do the laundry or walk around town doing errands. I like reading in the comfy chair while my hubby stretches out on the couch, and our poor dog has to decide who has the snuggle token for the day. It’s one of the best things to do when daylight is scarce and the weather is icky.
Reading is contagious, like most social behaviors. When one person turns on the TV, all heads swivel toward it. When one person whips out a smartphone, everyone else uses the opportunity to do the same. When one person curls up with a book, somehow it looks so cozy that others want to join in. Then, when everyone is done, all that’s needed is to swap books and begin at the beginning again.
My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 was to study a martial art. Every year I take on a personal goal that involves doing something I find scary, awful, difficult, totally unnatural and unsuited to my personality, and otherwise irresistible. This is where the utmost growth happens, from expanding into totally unknown areas. Previous goals included running and public speaking, although the hardest thing I ever did was to get my driver’s license. If you’re good at any or all of these things, good for you; now go away. And by “go away” I mean that you should go out and find a goal that is challenging to you in the way that getting punched in the mouth is for me.
When I started out, I knew so little that I didn’t even know which “martial art” I wanted to do. I didn’t even know how many there were. All I really knew was that I’d seen The Karate Kid umpteen times and that Jo from the Nancy Drew books knew judo.
January is for research. I made a plan as part of my New Year’s goal-setting. I would ask people about martial arts and solicit their advice. (People love that!) I would read a few articles online. I would find area martial arts schools and visit them. I would compare them, choose one, and sign up for lessons. I would acquire the gear.
What I did not do, which is rare for me, is to read a foot-high stack of books. I also didn’t watch any videos, which I guess sets me apart from Millennials, who often teach themselves crazy stuff like baby sign language or advanced stage makeup techniques by video.
I bumped into a personal trainer and we had a conversation about goal-setting. He signed up for my public speaking club, showed up three times, and vanished. That was long enough for me to absorb his advice, which was to try jiu jitsu because it’s designed for small people to fight off larger people. Then I bumped into a guy in line at Starbucks who was wearing a jiu jitsu t-shirt, and I asked him a bunch of questions.
I visited three schools, all extremely different, which made my choice easy. One was harder to get to, a better gym overall at the same price, but the “beginner” class looked like intermediate-plus from my perspective and the class schedule was less convenient. The third was closer but more of a club than a school. The second school was “just right.” I signed up for a free class the very next day, took the class, put on my shoes, and walked into the front office to sign the contract and buy my equipment. I came home with a big bag of gear, unsure what it all was or how to wear it.
Two belts, a t-shirt, boxing gloves, tape, shin guards, and MMA gloves, so stiff they would barely bend.
I didn’t understand the belt system. I didn’t know anything about international standards, or competition, or the history of these sports. I’d never seen a ring match. Empty cup, in other words.
So I guess I’m studying Krav Maga and Muay Thai kickboxing?
Showed up the first morning and, to my great surprise, the very first thing we did was: PUSH-UPS. Push-ups?!? But when do we learn to punch?
Found out I could not do a push-up.
A minute later, found out I could not do a sit-up either. Grabbing onto my thigh and trying to haul my sorry self up.
Next, ten jump squats. What the heck is that? Normal people do not do this.
If I had had any idea how many thousands of push-ups, sit-ups, and jump squats I would do in 2018, I most likely would not have signed the contract. I would have “studied a martial art” in a workbook and maybe a documentary film. I would not have committed my self or my nice flat green American dollars to dripping sweat upon an athletic mat for a hundred hours.
Instead, I found myself transforming in ways that would only seem to apply to students at Hogwarts.
My shoulders and arms changed. My feet changed. My posture changed.
I quit bruising and skin quit peeling off my knuckles.
It basically quit hurting if I got punched in the nose, the eye, the mouth (most of which strikes I inflicted upon myself). My pain threshold climbed and climbed.
I quit feeling skittish when Rude People and belligerent street folk accosted me. Instead I thought to myself, “Yeah, come at me.” I learned that people almost never actually do anything other than say rude things or make faces. Pfft.
I got an orange belt in Krav Maga and then an orange belt in Muay Thai. I understand the belt system and the stripes now and I’ll totally tell you all about it if you want.
I got a surprise flu shot and realized, and nothing in my life has ever astonished me quite this much, I realized that I no longer get needle reaction. This was confirmed when I had blood drawn months later and didn’t feel woozy at all. I think I might even try giving blood one of these days.
I found that I had a new ability to fight my lifelong tendency toward procrastination. When the resistant feeling rises up, I simply shake it off and say, “You’re doing this.”
The battle magic itself is the best. Learning to get out of chokeholds, learning to wrestle someone twice your size and prevail, learning to throw people onto the mat, it’s fun! Learning to knife fight and do gun disarms, well, that’s more magical than anything really. It’s a bit like ballroom dance school but with heavy metal.
I can fight five people in a shark pit, now. How crazy is that? I can fight with a bag over my head and I can fight with my hands taped together. I can do a couple of things that I’ve never even seen someone do in an action film.
My gloves are finally broken in. My shin guards probably need replacing. I know how to shape and how to wear a mouth guard. I’m not great... I’m a lightweight, I’m not fast, I’m not particularly gifted, it takes me lots of tries to learn new moves, and I look goofy when I shadow-box. My training partner is thirteen and she’s ten times as good as me. I’m not really a beginner anymore, though.
There were few things less likely for someone like me to try, when I first signed up and didn’t even know how to pronounce the names of my new sports. Couldn’t do a push-up, couldn’t do a sit-up, couldn’t throw a jab properly. I’m a nerdy middle-aged woman, a spelling bee champion, birdwatcher, and Scrabble enthusiast. How does this work? Now I’m also a boxer and a badass, unafraid of your common street scoundrel or your garden-variety riff-raff.
I’ll continue to train. I’ve realized that the major difference between me and a sixth-degree black belt is the duration of their training. They got a head start and they might go to class more often than me, that’s all. Five years from now, I might be quite good indeed. It’s interesting enough on so many levels that I feel like I’m barely getting started at battle magic.
We could probably use more school bells, don’t you think? Once upon a time, a bell or buzzer sounded at the end of each class period, and you got to get up and leave. No more math problems, no more P.E., at least for that day.
Sometimes it would be nice to have a bell go off to get you out of traffic or boring conversations.
On the other hand, there’s a built-in end to nice things, too. Whether you want the bell to ring or not, sometimes it’s time to get out of the bathtub or quit licking the ice cream spoon. Or both; I don’t know your life.
Accepting these natural rhythms is part of living a full life. It’s also a big part of living in the time dimension, figuring out how to get to places and get things done without all the extra stress, strain and confusion of being late and disorganized. It’s time to go. The bell has rung.
This phrase can be a big help in shifting paradigms. Those of us who don’t work well in the time dimension tend to get into the zone and want to keep working on one thing as long as we can. This is how we “lose track of time.” We’ve stepped right out of the river, so of course we can’t feel time flowing on the way that everyone else seems to. Even when we use alarms and reminders and alerts, they don’t always solve the problem, because it’s still up to us to estimate when those alerts need to go off.
When the bell has rung, it’s time to quit doing what you’re doing and move down the hall. There’s something else that needs your attention, something else that you’ve chosen as a part of your day. You’ll be back again soon enough, maybe even tomorrow.
This is a transition that feels familiar and natural. It divides the workday/school day into equal units of time with established breaks. A lot of us were more comfortable in school, when we knew what the expectations were and we knew how to get those A’s. Others feel like we’d like another bite at that apple and we know we’d get better grades this time around. We can take consolation in the fact that in many ways, the working world is easier and less time-consuming than school.
Just like we probably don’t think about the academic work of third grade too often anymore, we can look at this time in our lives as just one grade level. This is just one level, not as interesting as future levels still to come. We’re learning and preparing for the next level, and in retrospect this one will feel a little too basic and uninspiring.
Looking at time like part of a school year also fits well into sprints. We can structure our projects by quarter or semester, we can set milestones like we had with exams and papers, and we can even build in extended breaks and vacations. This works just as well for athletic training as it does for art projects, writing, marketing campaigns, space clearing, landscaping, interior design, and self-directed educational projects.
As a runner, I had to learn to accept that if I try to run for distance all year, inevitably I will wind up on the couch, swearing at my ice massage cups. Every year, 80% of runners are sidelined at least temporarily by injury. It pays to plan around an off-season and to cross train. Burnout applies to everyone, everywhere. Push too hard on your goals without a break, and you’ll develop frustrating health problems. Train sensibly, and you start racking up the PRs.
Seasons are great for ambition when we can put our goals in the context of an otherwise long timeline. Yes, I’m training hard for a belt promotion in martial arts, and no, that doesn’t mean I will immediately lose interest next week. There’s just another belt, another symbol of advanced knowledge, effort, and ability. A goal without the context of a timeline is a lonely goal, a goal that probably never will be beat. It’s a snapshot when a movie would be more interesting. The bell has rung, the match is over, the scores are largely irrelevant because we’ll be hitting the mats again on Monday.
In this context, the ringing of the bell is nothing more than a marker.
In the classroom, we might be studying something incredibly absorbing, yet still have a bad class period. Maybe we can’t focus because we didn’t get any sleep, we’re fighting the flu (in which case, GO HOME), or that just wasn’t the best organized lecture. That doesn’t mean we don’t love the class and it doesn’t mean we’ll walk away with a bad grade. Maybe we still get that A. Maybe we continue to be absorbed by that topic for our entire lives. We can accept that today was a write-off and that the bell has rung.
This phrase has been a big help for me as I learn how to navigate in this, this most unfamiliar and awkward Time Dimension. It’s how I get so much done: three projects that I put out five days a week, including a newsletter, a blog, and a podcast; martial arts training; working on my Distinguished Toastmaster credential and supervising five clubs; coaching; travel; my main writing projects. Work on one until the bell has rung. Switch projects until the bell has rung again. Even when I’m writing hot and I don’t want to quit, I remind myself that the bell has rung and my other projects will suffer if I don’t pick up my books and shuffle out.
The bell is about to ring on another calendar year. This is a massively important time in my personal year, a time when I focus on how my life and my relationships and my work and my finances are going. I accept that whatever I did or did not manage to do, this year will soon be gone. It’s going to be rolled away and stored. Anything I want to happen in my life will now have to happen Next Year.
The bell has rung. It’s time to put things behind us and move on.
How much can a person do in three years? I’d like to present a study in transformation that involves overcoming a phobia, learning a new art form, and racking up credentials.
I had an intense fear of public speaking. It was so bad that simply walking into a room where I knew I would have to stand up and say something would make me break into a sweat. People who have met me refuse to believe this. That’s because I’m a shy extrovert, and talking to people I already know in a social setting does not provoke this phobia.
Now, when I speak or perform, people will come up and exclaim over how great I was. They say, “You sound so natural up there.” How dare you? How dare you say such a cruel and heartless thing? I want to ask. Nothing was more unnatural than this! Of course there’s no way for them to know how hard I worked over the course of three years to battle one of the biggest issues in my life.
I can honestly say that getting punched in the mouth is easier for me than the work I did to get over my fear of public speaking. I can say that because I set a personal goal every year to overcome something that scares me, and after I did public speaking, I went on to martial arts. I promoted up a belt level in two different forms in one year, and that’s another example of how much is possible in a given time period.
All it takes, all it takes to reach any goal, is to show up over and over and over again. Chip away at it in small, measurable increments. Usually these increments are one hour in length.
I made a public commitment in December of 2015 that I would confront my phobic reaction to public speaking by joining Toastmasters. It took me three weeks to force myself to go to an actual meeting. My membership was officially processed on February 1, 2016.
I planned to go to meetings for a few weeks or months or millennia and sit by as a wallflower, watching and listening and learning. Instead, I walked in and several people came up to introduce themselves and shake my hand. Then, moments after the gavel, I was asked to stand up, give my name, and explain how I heard about the club.
I THOUGHT I WOULD DIE. PHYSICALLY DIE.
That inner feeling of panic is a purely physical sensation. It is the secretion of adrenalin by the adrenal gland, a little bean that sits on top of the kidneys. It is not the boss of me. Further, it is the same little bean that sends excitement when I get a check in the mail or open a gift. My job is to use my left brain and verbalize thoughts in reaction to these physical sensations. “You are not dying, body of mine, you dumbass. Stay put.”
I joined Toastmasters, not realizing that I had stumbled into one of the very best clubs in the known world. I wasn’t to know that most of the people in the room that day would still be there three years later, my good friends and colleagues and lunch buddies.
I shook like a leaf when I got up to speak. It would start with my hands, rattle down my arms, and spread through my torso until I felt like I straddled a tectonic fault. One afternoon I went up there, gave a one-minute speech, and almost collapsed on the way back to my seat, as my legs gave out. I’ve run a marathon and I was very disappointed in my hamstrings that day.
Toastmasters is designed to teach leadership and communication skills. Everyone in the club has fought the same problems: being nervous, forgetting chunks of a speech, stammering, flubbing a punchline, losing the point, organizing thoughts poorly. We’re encouraging and compassionate because we’ve all taken our turn to fade at the lectern. We physically know how it feels.
The weirdest thing is that it’s almost impossible to tell, as an audience member, when the speaker is nervous. I’ve said it and I’ve heard it, but the truth is that it’s really hard to tell when someone’s hands are shaking, or even if they’re dripping sweat up there. It never looks even 1% as bad as it feels on the inside. People are listening for the message, that’s all. They’d care if you told them someone’s lights were on in the parking lot, and they’ll care when you share something else with them, whether it’s your life story or a few minutes about golf.
Usually all we’re asking is five minutes of someone’s time, and that’s not much to ask.
It took four months for me to force myself to give my first speech. It was predictably awful. My remit was to give an ice breaker, or talk about myself for four minutes. I ran out of material at about two and a half.
Anyone else would have quit.
I kept showing up, though. I forced myself. There are two me’s, the me that you see and the phantom me, walking behind me with a firm grasp on the back of my neck, frog-marching me hither and yon. When I’ve made a public commitment I follow through.
I gave ten speeches that first year. I took on a club office.
The next year, I earned my Competent Communicator and Competent Leader. I joined a second club.
In 2018, I earned my ACB, ALB, ACS, and a Triple Crown. I served as Area Director and Club Coach.
In the course of three years, I’ve earned five educational awards, held two offices, entered two competitions, been a test speaker, and won a bunch of ribbons for Best Speaker, Best Evaluator, and Best Table Topics. I keep them in a paper lunch sack because they outgrew an envelope.
If all goes according to plan, I’ll be a Distinguished Toastmaster next year, not quite three and a half years after joining as a knock-kneed stress case.
I know I can hold a room. I know that when I walk up to the lectern, people are atingle with anticipation. I look around and I can see their eyes glitter. I can make them all suck in their breath at once. I can make them laugh on command. They’re mine. I’m not a quivering jelly of panic and terror anymore. I’m a star. Not a superstar, just a small one, but I’m sparkling nonetheless.
It wasn’t me, it was the program. It was the support of my club members, who encouraged me and led me by the hand and cheered and hugged me - and convinced me that I’m funny, that I should go out and do improv comedy. I never knew. I never knew I could do all of this.
I did know that I could stay the course, that I have it within me to force myself to do things. I knew I could hold steady and complete three years of work on one goal.
As I near the ultimate goal, I have my eye on that little gold DTM pin. After that, though, what’s next? What will be my next three-year goal?
How about yours?
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.
This website uses marketing and tracking technologies. Opting out of this will opt you out of all cookies, except for those needed to run the website. Note that some products may not work as well without tracking cookies.Opt Out of Cookies