The way I deal with stress is to look ahead five years into the future.
This was challenging when I was sick with COVID-19, because I wasn’t even sure I had five days in my personal future. Even at the time, though, I was positive that the pandemic would be over by then. Maybe things would end badly for me, but it was likely that my friends and family would be doing okay in five years.
A lot can happen in five years. It seems like a long time to a kid, but the older you get, the more you start to realize that what adults have always told you is true. Time passes more and more quickly, or at least our subjective, experiential sense of it.
I just had a conversation with my boss in which I mentioned possibly going back to school in academic year 2022. That seems like a minute from now, because I know from past experience that the application deadline for that year will come up so quickly that I’ll barely have a year to study for the GRE. It seems entirely likely that it will take five years or more to get my PhD, and that doesn’t even feel like a big deal. At 45, I know that I’ll either be five years older anyway... or I won’t. Might as well plan for what is the most likely future.
A lot can happen in five years. I started running as a complete amateur and non-athlete, unable to run around one block in my neighborhood without stopping to walk. Four years later I was chugging along in my first marathon. It never even occurred to me to aim for such a thing when I started. All I wanted to do was to run a two-mile loop, and I thought it would take me all year to train for it.
Five years is a long enough span of time that conditions can completely change. I met my ex-husband, moved in with him, married him, and signed the divorce papers in less time than that. I haven’t laid eyes on him in twenty years now. What was once the epic drama of my life is something that I now rarely think about at all.
What else has happened within five years? In a five-year span, I dropped five clothing sizes. Within five years, I paid off two credit cards and my Pell grant.
In five years, a new baby could be conceived, born, and grown enough to ride a bike with training wheels and write her own name.
It took our dog four years to learn to roll over. But by then, he could also do a bunny hop in a circle and play Red Light, Green Light.
I keep reminding myself of these things because sometimes, looking backward is soothing. In retrospect it’s often easier to recognize good times of relative peace and tranquility. In the moment, any kind of stress or drama feels major. Looking back makes it clear which were high mountain peaks and which were merely mild rolling hills.
Looking forward involves more guesswork. We aren’t always very good at that.
The thing about predicting the future is that some things will remain precisely the same - like my parents’ dining room table; I’m pretty sure that will be the same in another five years, just like it was five years ago. Other things will change in a radical way that we never could see coming.
Some of these changes from my own lifetime include voicemail, racecar-shaped VHS tape rewinders, refrigerators with ice makers, Wikipedia, Twitter, streaming Netflix, Crocs, the Instant Pot, and a commercial space industry.
We won’t be able to predict everything about daily life five years from now, in 2025. We can, though, do a lot to predict our own daily lives, by making decisions about how we will live them. This is why I like the five-year span, because it’s long enough to be ambitious but near enough that Future Me +5 is somewhat recognizable.
I can ask myself, what is Future Me 50 going to be like if I do this, that, or this?
If I choose to go to bed now or two hours from now, night after night? If I choose to eat more greens or more sweets? If I schedule that dentist appointment, or not? If I save this amount or if I spend it all on random stuff from Amazon?
Is Future Me +5 going to fit in these clothes I’ve been saving, or not? Is she going to want to wear them at all? Is that version of me ever going to [clear out the storage unit or keep paying for it] or [pay off that credit card or not] or [finish my degree or not] or reach Inbox Zero or go on the vacation I dreamed about in high school?
Most things happen to us when we live in default mode. I recognize this tendency in myself, to hold my phone in my hand and scroll, scroll, scroll. Fortunately, I set my algorithms to include a lot of reptile news, so I probably read more about gator-related events than a lot of people. How many hours of my life, though, am I going to fritter away getting three-minute updates?
When we’re distracted in this way, we forget to reset our strategies for all the major things in life. Are we going to keep working at the same job, train for something else, change careers? Are we going to stay at the same address or pack and move? When are we going to retire? Do we have backup plans for when our parents or kids reach a certain age? Are we ever going to finish our passion projects - or start them?
It’s a mistake to get sucked too much into current events, passive entertainment, and shopping. What I mean by that is that research shows that it doesn’t make people any happier. It also doesn’t change a single darn thing. It’s up to each of us to find interesting and constructive ways to spend our time.
My recommendation is always to look ahead five years and ask, if things keep going along like this, what is likely to happen? Is that what we want for ourselves? Or is it not? And if not, what are we prepared to do about it?
I had flashbacks when I overheard his phone conversation. “I lost the key.” Being within unintentional cellular eavesdropping range has been a feature of public life for twenty years; it just stood out more because it hasn’t been happening as much during lockdown.
My husband and I were sitting at a concrete picnic table in our local park, masks on, reading. We had both noticed the daddy with the tiny daughter, maybe three years old. He had been letting her play with his keys and now it looked like that wasn’t such a great plan. We watched as they started wandering around, looking at the grass.
This was really a high drama day at the park. Only moments after we sat down, a little boy fell out of a tree a few hundred yards away. An emergency crew came, and he eventually walked away with his arm in a temporary sling.
All this is to say that it wasn’t the best day for concentrating on a book. I kept looking up to see how it was going with No Keys Daddy. I felt for him.
I dropped my keys down an elevator shaft one night. It’s been fifteen years and I’m still scarred. See, I had locked my phone and my purse inside my car while I made a quick trip to my storage unit. (This is also part of why I hate storage units). I got someone to let me use their cell phone to call the number on the elevator, but it was after hours and nobody answered.
I tried slipping various objects under the crack in the elevator door at the bottom of the shaft, including a yardstick and my unrolled yoga mat, to no avail.
I considered walking across town to go home, but my roommate worked evenings and nobody would be there to let me in. I would still be stuck with the problem of my locked car sitting in front of my storage unit. I’d have to figure out how to get to work the next morning and then come back and figure out how to get my keys during business hours.
There was plenty of time to think just how much depended on this one small object, my keychain.
And then the succession of other important objects. My keychain, my phone, my wallet (to pay for a cab). Without my phone I didn’t even have a way to call anyone, because I quit memorizing phone numbers back around 1995.
I sat in the cold, with a full bladder, waiting to get the attention of the facility manager who had a little house onsite. I waited there for 45 minutes. But she did arrive, and she did drive right up to me to see what I needed, and she did unlock the door and help me get my keys.
After that night, I got together every object I had that resembled or would attach to a keychain, including a bottle of hand sanitizer, until my keys were about the size of a soda can. Every time I walked by a storm drain or anything else with a crack, I gripped my keys until my knuckles turned white.
Now I have them clipped to a large carabiner. I clip that to my bag. It’s convenient, I always know exactly where my keys are, and I can use the clip to punch elevator buttons.
I thought about all this while I watched the daddy wandering around looking for his key.
It was easy to see what was happening. He couldn’t get into his car, so he was waiting for his wife to finish work and come pick them up. He seemed to be taking it well... the little girl was happily romping in the grass, no stress in her young life!
I’m really good at finding things, so I discreetly got up and wandered around for a bit where these two had been playing. Maybe I could find the key?
The grass had been freshly mowed, it was quite short, and it didn’t take long to realize that if there were keys here, they would be easily visible.
Not outside the realm of possibility that a crow flew off with them?
Then I wondered. He did say ‘key,’ not ‘keys.’ Was it possible that this man just put a single key in his pocket? And left the house that way?
I saw him glancing into his backpack. He did not do what I would do, which is the method I teach my students when they can’t find their stuff.
Sit down and spread out a piece of fabric, a towel or even a shirt. This is so nothing gets lost (loose pill, earring backing) or bangs up the furniture. Then methodically take out each object in the bag, one at a time, and lay them out in a grid. Throw away any trash. When the bag is empty, turn it upside down and shake all the crumbs out.
What usually happens is that the lost object is loose in the bag. Every single time, *every* single time, my person will say, “I already looked in there twice!” Yet there is their missing ID, parking lot voucher, or whatever else they thought they had lost.
This is what I thought: I bet the key is in the bag somewhere. I also thought: He’s been a daddy long enough to realize that tiny kids are predictable in a lot of ways. If you give them scissors, they will either cut off a chunk of their hair, or someone else’s. If you give them crayons, they’ll scribble on the wall. If you give them chocolate, they will smear it. Why would you give your keys to a chaos muppet?
At the park?
I thought about dropping my keys down an elevator shaft, and how that cost me an entire evening of complications, and yet how much easier they were to find than they would be in five acres of greenery.
This is why Being Organized is so much better than the default.
Literally one single habit - keeping your keys on a clip - can prevent untold hassles over and over again.
This sort of habit is much more important for parents of young kids, who probably haven’t gotten a decent night’s sleep in several years and who can hardly be blamed for the full spectrum of shenanigans each day.
Ultimately, though, as adults we can keep it all in perspective. The little girl was fine, unlike the boy who fell out of the tree and wound up in a sling. They were a little family, able to call for help and know they would be taken care of. The tiny tot will probably remember nothing more than a warm fuzzy blur of going to the park with daddy, no inkling of the havoc she had wreaked.
Why let a paltry missing object disrupt all that?
(Which is why I have my keys on a clip, the end).
I’m playing around with a bit of reverse psychology right now. The idea is that I can’t have a backlog of anything anymore. If anything has been hanging around in my backlog for longer than, say, three days, I need to either deal with it or decide that I never will, and
This is something I have tested over and over again on my clients, and it makes steam come out of their ears. There’s a glinting ember of something in here that really has my attention. Why are we so bad at letting things go even when they drive us crazy?
My case is unusual in that I thought I was dying only a few months ago. I spent days in bed, too ill to sit up, too weak to hold my phone to my head. All I could think about was all the things I’d never said, the things I’d never done, and the stupid remnants of my life that my poor husband would have to sort when I was gone.
It was sad, but it was also embarrassing and annoying. I got really frustrated with myself.
This? This was going to be my dying epiphany? That I should have enjoyed life more and lived in the moment and not procrastinated so much?
When it was starting to look like I was going to make it (before the next lung infection that challenged that idea), I understood that I had a chance to use this suffering for something. I did two things. I decided to treat myself as Version 2 and act as though I had physically died and started over as a new person. I let go of anything from my “previous life.” I gave myself permission to shrug off any residual feelings about that stuff.
(Confession: I never finished reading The Aeneid in my summer Latin class, even in English, so that happened).
The second thing was that I mulled over what I wanted to do with my new chance, my second bite at the apple. That was that I wanted to get a day job again and then go to grad school.
Spirit acts fast sometimes. The opening for the job that I have now showed up in my husband’s email that same week. Everyone who has heard about my desire to get a fellowship and work on my PhD has been encouraging.
I’m very lucky in this new job. Most of the people in my department are morning people; quite a lot of them clock in at 6:30 AM. We’re on 9/80s so we work long days. I worked it out with my partner that she does mornings and I do afternoons, so I work 8-6, and then we alternate Fridays. The two of us can cover nearly twelve hours a day, five days a week. This has built in at least an hour a day, and a full day every two weeks, when almost nobody is around. I can tie up any loose ends from the day, and then from the week. I’m almost always able to start Monday with a clean slate.
It’s a nice feeling, something I’d like to get used to.
Now that I’m gradually recovering and approaching my baseline energy level, I’m steadily working on things that didn’t get done while I was ill. This is where the reset comes in.
The world shut down quite suddenly, as I’m sure you recall. Probably like most people, I had various things in progress that simply stayed that way, on hold. It’s a bit like those mystery stories where the people leave with half-eaten meals still on the table.
A bag of stuff to take to the donation center, pictures to hang, that sort of thing.
While I made a magical decision on what I thought was my deathbed, it didn’t magically whisk anything away. Everything I had thought about was still in the same condition as it had been in March. The major difference was that my email and DMs had continued to accumulate.
This is where we get to the technicalities of this whole “Do it or dump it” idea.
We start with two rough personality sorts.
There are three main phases of action: initiation, maintenance, and completion. Most people tend to prefer one of these phases and dislike another one.
There are two main moods of clutter: looking forward and looking backward. Some people prefer to anticipate the future and others cling to the past.
Put these together in various combinations and see if they remind you of anyone you know.
Are they stuck in a rut because they can’t get started, or because they don’t want something to end? (Not launching a business vs. not finishing their degree).
Do they have a thousand projects because they like starting something new, but then get bored? Or are they surrounded by heirlooms and unsorted boxes because they can’t let go of the past?
“Do it or dump it” applies to clutter like this. If you haven’t used it in the last year, ask for help and get rid of it. End of story. This applies equally to unfinished craft projects, unread books, clothes that don’t fit, broken stuff that you haven’t fixed yet, workout equipment, untested recipes, and supplies for remodeling or baking or whatever.
I sorted my physical clutter long ago. Now I’m down to digital clutter - mainly email newsletters and [checking] 45 GB of podcast episodes - and pending projects.
Here, “do it or dump it” means deleting anything over a certain age (or size, or from a certain source, or whatever works), or canceling something. I will never finish that illustrated “Bride of Godzilla” story I wanted to do because after I started the sketches, I learned about aggressive copyright protection.
What is it that makes some of us cling to old, outdated stuff for so long, even after we’ve already demonstrated that we aren’t interested enough to engage with it? What are we thinking? Why do we do this to ourselves?
I’ll share my motivations, which may or may not overlap with yours. I get attached to the potential of various future versions of myself - a version of me who can, for some reason, speak several languages while playing ukulele on a unicycle - and I don’t like admitting that some of it will never happen. Also, I have serious FOMO about anything I haven’t read but wanted to. Whenever I think about not having time to read every book in the world, my eyelid starts twitching.
There are people who are quite good at the “do it or dump it” philosophy. For instance, I once worked with a young woman who had an empty email inbox 99% of the time. She said that she found having even a single message sitting in her inbox annoying. My husband is the same way with having a packed closet. When he gets a new shirt, he - I am not making this up - immediately gets rid of an old shirt.
If you know someone like this, or even someone who has a different pattern of attachment than you do, there’s a simple solution. Go to this person and tell them about your predicament. “I can’t stop saving old receipts because I keep thinking I’m going to categorize them in my finance app one day.” The incredulous gaze of this unattached person should be very helpful in giving you the motivation to go ahead and either do it, or dump it.
Or ask them to do it for you. They’ll probably think it’s funny. Then you’ll be free to do whatever you want - as free as, in fact, you already are.
Doomscrolling is that thing where you keep flicking your phone, reading scary news, and you can’t seem to stop, even if you’re already in bed and tired and you know you’d be better off sleeping.
One of my heuristics is to ask myself what the opposite of something is. It can often be pretty funny. For instance, if my natural reaction to something is to think “I hate it here!” I can pause and ask, what would be the opposite of hating this right now? One day, the answer might be to get a burrito, while another day, the answer might be to talk to my brother.
Obviously when I think of doomscrolling, I’m going to have to ask myself, what is its opposite?
Assuming we don’t want to simply engage in another activity, what if there were another kind of ‘scrolling’ that was not full of doom and gloom and dread?
This is part of what led me to doing my tech newsletter.
There isn’t a name for it yet, although don’t worry, I may come up with one before this is done, but I guess what I’m doing is more like optimism-scrolling.
I think that for some weird reason, we have collectively decided to ignore all the fabulous things that have been happening in favor of all the crud. As an historian, this is confusing and strange. I know too much about the past and the daily lives of early people to have any interest in reverting to any of that. This is what drives my interest in futurism.
What I see is that we have vast amounts of knowledge, resources, and talent that could easily be put to work replacing our most pressing problems with amazing things -
Quick example: turn unemployed people into a (well-compensated) labor source for massive infrastructure upgrades, something I thought we would have been several years into by now -
And that doing this work would quickly return positive reinforcement, adding momentum as we start to realize that it doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t have to sit and watch as the world falls apart, witnesses to systemic collapse. There are things that we could be doing.
Guess what? Of course it turns out that there are plenty of people doing constructive things while the rest of us are scrolling our way through the dark of night.
I get just as wound around the axle about politics and current events as anyone else. Perhaps more so, since I have that degree in history and all... I only share my bleakest projections with my nearest and dearest, because nothing says ‘I love you’ like ‘gather nigh while I proclaim my grim forecasts.’
The best way I have found to deal with this is to gradually crowd out the current events with what I think of as Future Events.
In other words, innovation.
For instance, there is an entire sub-thread about engineers donating their time to make custom prosthetics and special mobility devices for disabled children. This is beautiful stuff.
It turns out that most people will bend over absolutely backwards to do something altruistic for someone, if they know how. This is even more true if the recipient is a total stranger to them. This is another sub-thread that I follow, call it Acts of Heroism, and there is news in this category every day. A few days ago I watched a video of a man pulling an unconscious man out of a burning car on the freeway while his son watched. Everyone emerged unscathed and now the two men are entering a mentoring relationship.
Are they getting a reality TV show? No? Why not?
Passively absorbing the doom and gloom is unavoidable, sure. I mean, it’s hard to do anything constructive to help if you have no idea what the problems are that need solving. But again, letting your morale be crushed and destroyed by things you feel that you have no control over? How is that constructive in any way?
I often think of stories from my reading in Acts of Heroism when I need a boost. I think, if that man was brave enough to risk his life rescuing someone from a fire, why am I not brave enough to at least make this phone call/send this email/tell someone how I feel? It’s aspirational. I hope that if the moment ever comes, I’ll do more than stand around flapping my hands and screaming. Moral rehearsal.
Doomscrolling is an intervening opportunity. If you’re like me, you have this device with you almost every minute, and sometimes you open it and don’t even remember why, or you set out to do one thing and forgot and started doing something else. Probably you made no conscious decision to start doomscrolling. Probably it was not your intention. Yet it seems to keep happening??
We rarely set as many clear intentions as we could.
Once upon a time, I used to spend hours a day on Facebook. This was before I read the research that about 30% of people’s “friends” are people they follow because they enjoy being annoyed by them. I would post all sorts of articles that interested me, maybe 5% of my total reading, and I would then get pushback from people who would have been better off unfollowing me. I never would have known. Come on, though. Isn’t it more fun to upbraid, chastise, and admonish people who irritate you than to just focus on the people you like?
I took all that energy and put it toward something else. I had this deep desire to connect with people over all the exciting things I was reading, and quite honestly, I wasn’t going to find them anywhere on Facebook. Instead, I started putting together what became my tech newsletter, and that got me my new job, and now a bunch of people with PhDs read it and discuss it with me. For money.
Doing the opposite of whatever can be a fun thought exercise. It can also change your life.
There are an infinite number of things you can do with your time besides doomscrolling - sleep is just one of them - and if you write up a list, it may remind you that you used to do all sorts of great stuff with your time. If you do like reading on your phone for hours, though, try to target your reading time more toward your personal interests and less toward disaster, doom, and gloom. Who knows what you may find?
I ordered some breathing apparatuses and they were delivered today. As a COVID-19 survivor who is currently trying to recover from bacterial pneumonia, I want to improve my breathing. Like, a lot. I’m starting from a knowledge base of zero and trying to figure it out as I go. What are these things, how do they work, and can I actually start breathing normally again one day?
The first thing I can tell you is that if I get arrested in the near future, it will be because a police officer saw one of these things and assumed it was a weird futuristic vaping tool. I can about guarantee that an airport security guard somewhere in the world would confiscate it. I want to put a tag on it that says ‘NOT DRUG PARAPHERNALIA.’
The other thing looks and acts like a children’s toy.
Actually they both look like children’s toys, in their own way, which is great because I can use some fun in my life.
Relaxation techniques always tell you to focus on your breathing because they assume that is universally relaxing. I’m here to tell you that it would be more relaxing if I could stop focusing on my breathing for a while. It shouldn’t take this much effort. It shouldn’t be in question. I shouldn’t be wondering so much about how long I’ll be doing it or if I’ll accidentally quit while I’m asleep.
I first learned about breathing exercises as a tiny tot, when my mom was in labor with my brother. I remember I kept trying to lean over the seat and help her do her Lamaze breathing, and my dad kept snapping at me to sit down. (We didn’t have car seats in those days). I associated special breathing with the magic of a new baby popping into existence.
The next time was in kundalini class in college, but that’s a story for another time.
I had a less exciting lesson in breathing when I got the respiratory infection that followed me out of university. A nurse had me breathe into a spirometer to measure my lung capacity (52%). This memory is what gave me the idea to buy a device of my own, and that’s what triggered the idea that I could find a gadget to measure my improvement.
The device that the nurse used on me had me exhale as hard as I could into a tube. Apparently what she was measuring was Forced Vital Capacity. When I found out about incentive spirometers, this is what I thought I was getting.
The device I bought (for $9 US) has you inhale through the tube as slowly as you can while trying to keep a little ball suspended in a tube. It’s the exact opposite of what I thought.
What I was hoping for was a percentage capacity measurement like I had 16 years ago. For one, I wanted to compare it to how I measured when I was younger. For another, I wanted a baseline. I’ll admit, though, partly I wanted to show off just what bad a shape I’ve been in.
What I’ve learned, while scouring the internet, is that I would need a trained nurse to do this properly. I can’t really make any official medical claims because I don’t have the proper training and because I don’t even know where to find the correct device, which I might not be able to afford.
All I can do are three things. I can start with a baseline; I can train and compare my later results with this baseline; and I can compare myself with my friendly local husband.
(I had him test everything out before I put my mouth on it. I’m not great at reading instructions at the best of times and he happens to be an engineer).
We both tried the incentive spirometer. After we figured out how it’s supposed to work, and by ‘we’ I mean ‘he,’ we timed each other. Then he did the calculations.
He was able to keep two of the three balls in the air for 9 seconds. (The third ball isn’t supposed to go up).
I was able to keep the first ball in the air for 3 seconds on the first try, and 4 seconds on the second try. No second ball. My head was spinning afterward.
I’m super competitive about this stuff, though. Ordinarily I have the attention span of a... sorry, ran out of analogies. But when I’m fixated on something, I’m like one of those squirrels that never quits going after the supposedly ‘squirrel-proof’ bird feeder. There is now no way I will quit practicing with the incentive spirometer until I can keep the ball up for 10 seconds.
What the times supposedly mean, if we have any even remotely accurate idea of what we’re doing, is that my lung capacity is like 2400 CCs and his is like 5400. The trouble is that we have no idea what’s normal. Also, he is a tall man with a large build, a lifelong athlete who joined the swim team at age 4 and who also played the tuba. I, on the other hand, am of average height with a small frame. I had COVID-19 all through April and I’ve been fighting pneumonia for a week.
The other device that I bought is a special breathing trainer that has apparently been in use since 1980. I can tell you right now, if this was designed in the late Seventies then there’s about 100% chance it was inspired by a hash pipe.
Me: “Do you think you could make this into a bong?”
Him: [glances over] “It is a bong.”
Note: We are straight-edge people by inclination and by profession, and also we plan to retire early so we save our money. But also we live at the beach and that kind of thing is recreationally legal here.
The “Breather,” as it is known, now comes with an app and a training plan. I set it up, but for some mysterious reason it gave me today as an off day, so I don’t know what the exercises are like yet. All I know is that it believes age, height, weight, and gender are relevant. Well, that, and the positive reviews included athletes as well as people with various medical issues.
I’m a diligent person. It makes sense to me to follow medical advice, especially when I paid for it and took time out of my schedule to hear it. I’m the kind of person who carries dental floss in my purse. (Right next to the Blow Pop, the dog clicker, and whatever else I have in there...) I have the patience and the persistence to sit down with these new gadgets and test myself, day after day.
Because if the alternative is to keep being as short of breath as I am today, almost anything is worth trying.
I always wanted a chauffeur. That used to be something high on my outrageous dreams list. I’ve always hated driving, I’m a terrible navigator, I’m definitely the kind of person who forgets where she parked, and I saw the whole thing as a chore.
That’s why going car-free has been so great for me.
Honestly I feel like I’m getting away with something by not driving. Most of what I do in my neighborhood, I do on foot, and it feels like I’m on vacation. A little outing most days of the week gets me out in the fresh air. Sometimes I take the bus, something we also do on vacation. It’s when I get a rideshare driver that I really feel like I’m living the dream and having a chauffeur - except that I didn’t have to become a millionaire before it happened.
Why do other people drive so much? I’m not totally sure, since driving was only a regular part of my life for a few years, but I think it’s almost entirely 1. work commute and 2. errands.
Oh, and driving kids around, for those who have them, but we can get to that later.
When I talk about not having a car, especially in Southern California, people get very fidgety. It’s one of those topics that falls under the category of “preachy” for some reason, like eating enough dietary fiber or voting in midterm elections. Ugh, stop pressuring me, I don’t want to spend my social time talking about this!
It’s like people have a conversational filter, and a huge number of topics gets caught in that filter, because we make automatic assumptions about WHY someone would do something.
The only reason someone like me would quit driving - well, I can’t understand it - but surely it absolutely must be something preachy. Saving the environment or something. Ugh. *eye roll*
On the contrary, I don’t drive because I’m spoiled!
Why any middle-class person would do their own errands is beyond me. I for one am way too busy! There is no way I’m going to give up any time on my evenings or weekends to drive around in circles, looking for parking, and wander from place to place doing a bunch of unpaid labor.
That’s what errands are. Unpaid productivity.
Let’s go through the errands point by point.
(If you have kids, hear me out, because my mom did all these things with three small children *by bus* all the time when we either had only one vehicle, or our car was broken down. Riding herd on small kids is even more reason to want to avoid doing your own errands!)
Again, I see errands as an annoying chore that disrupts my precious free time.
Groceries. There is a grocery store across the street from my apartment that is open from 5 AM to midnight, every day. We’re also a ten-minute walk from a Trader Joe’s and a ten-minute bus ride from two different Whole Foods locations. We almost always walk to pick up groceries, or grab a bag as part of another trip. I’ve also paid to have groceries delivered, and for $6-7 plus tip it’s definitely worth saving 1-2 hours of my time.
When would I have groceries delivered? When I’m prepping for a dinner party, once when I was wearing an ankle brace, and another time when I had the flu and my hubby was out of town. If I had little kids, I’m telling you, I wouldn’t do my own grocery shopping again until the littlest one went off to college.
Pharmacy. Every pharmacy I have seen encourages mail delivery. I switched to this because they obviously prefer it, and also because I’ve picked up a cold at least twice when I went to the pharmacy in person.
Dry cleaning. Um, we don’t use a dry cleaner… Maybe once every year or two. I learned how to use those dry cleaner kits you can put in the dryer at home. To me, this would not rate as a good enough reason to own and operate a car. I can walk to a dry cleaner five minutes from my apartment.
Doctor/dentist/veterinary appointments. To me, these aren’t errands, they are appointments. I usually ride the bus, but this is one category where we both tend to use rideshare. We’ve never had a problem bringing our dog or our parrot with us; in fact, often the driver asks to take a photo with my bird.
Beauty treatments. I get my hair done across the street. My hubby goes to a place across the street from our favorite cafe. I’m not interested in stuff like nail art, and I have no idea how many other types of beauty treatments there are, but I imagine most of them could be combined in one full-service location? Again, this wouldn’t be a good enough reason for me to make myself drive anywhere.
Random stuff. Shoe repair - I had to take my hubby’s dress shoes in when my parrot climbed into the closet and chewed on them. It was on the bus route to one of my clubs. I have no idea what type of random things other people are doing, but how many of them involve car-related things like oil changes?
“Shopping.” What do we mean when we say “shopping”? I mean groceries, because personally I hate shopping for clothes almost as much as I hate driving. My hubby and I don’t shop for entertainment. We usually tie in something like buying new shoes or pants along with a trip to the movie theater, and we go there by city bus. I do one major clothes shopping trip a year, usually on vacation, when I make my hubby help me pick out all my stuff.
Outings. I think a lot of people come up with “reasons” to do errands because they include outings, like getting ice cream, going through the drive-thru because they secretly love it and despise cooking, or stopping at the craft store or other favorite shop. Just admit that you are in the mood for an outing and go on the outing. You don’t need to tack a chore onto it because you don’t need to justify your desire to have fun.
Here is where I might add that we used to spend $700 a month owning a car. We got rid of it three years ago. My hubby’s bus fare is paid for by his employer, and he’s learned to prefer playing games and saving money to fighting freeway traffic for 40 minutes every night.
I realize that many people don’t live in a walkable neighborhood. Neither did I during the first five years of my marriage. We sat down and consciously strategized about how we could relocate to a walkable neighborhood. It meant downsizing and being willing to fit into a smaller house… and that in turn meant way less housekeeping and zero yard work!
Since we started living the way we do, we’ve been able to live off half our income. We never fight about money. We also never fight about chores because there’s almost nothing to do, and we’ve automated most of it. When other people are out fighting rush hour traffic to do their own errands, we’re lounging around our living room, talking about stuff like what we would do with our time during the rocket trip to Mars, or why the students at Hogwarts still walked to the candy store even though they had magic.
Well, obviously it’s because walking around town is fun! Stop driving around doing errands all the time and start feeling more leisure in your life.
Unbelievable! I thought when I saw this book. The great and powerful BJ Fogg has finally written a book!!! This guy’s research on habit formation is mentioned constantly by other writers, and I used to wonder how they were able to get this special access. How Tiny Habits finally got written is addressed in the book, and it’s like meta-proof that this stuff works.
Of course habits have nothing to do with how fascinating, moving, and endearing this book is.
Personally I’m pretty good at starting and stopping habits, as soon as I realize what it is that I want to do. Tiny Habits had an interesting explanation for why that might be. I often do a little dance, make up a little song, jump up and down, or otherwise physically express how excited I am that I did a small thing, like hitting Send on an email that I struggled to write. Apparently this is the key to building a habit, teaching the brain that YES, this is the right step. Then I realized that I picked up this habit from my mom and it cheered me right up.
This book is loaded with diagrams and exercises that I found truly helpful. It’s designed for someone to learn it and also teach it to others, such as a team at work. I particularly liked the brainstorming method of the Swarm of Behaviors. The lists of sample habits aimed at people in different situations is terrific, and I think the list of little ways to celebrate is best of all.
Tiny Habits is based on years of extensive research, and it’s been tested on real people with real, shall we say, situations. It works on the tough stuff, like caregiving, grief, parenting for special needs, and health issues. It also works on the more light-hearted stuff, like wanting to eat ice cream every night. Amazingly, Fogg even includes research on how to help other people build their habits.
It is no surprise that Tiny Habits hit the bestseller list. I fully expect this book to stay in print for many years, to go through multiple editions, and to help millions of people create positive changes in their lives. Starting with me, and, I’m hoping you’re next!
There’s nothing wrong with taking bold action. Life and happiness occasionally demand it. But remember that you hear about people making big changes because this is the exception, not the rule.
One of my personal themes for the last year has been to “strengthen others in all my interactions.”
Right around now, everyone deflates. Aw geez, I had all these great feelings on New Year’s Eve and now they’re gone. There was only one magic moment to make the perfect wish, but I didn’t have a tidal wave of motivation, I broke my only chance at a perfect streak, and now it’s too late for me.
I wish we all had this feeling around the entire concept of the perfect streak. Aw, gee, it sure had us all fooled. What a con job. Disappoint.
What is true is that we all have a tendency to let consensus opinion influence what we do or don’t do.
EVERYBODY KNOWS that resolutions don’t work, therefore I can only do an extremely narrow set of activities for the rest of my life no matter what.
Part of a resolution really does work, and it’s confirmed through research. That part is the ‘implementation intention.’ State the thing you plan to do. Most of us do it all the time, routinely. “I’m going for a coffee, care to join me?” “I can’t wait for the new episode.” “Going to Costco to eat all the free samples.”
All of these are clear and bright implementation intentions.
Does anyone doubt that these are going to work? Do we doubt that someone is going to go out for coffee, feeling convinced that they’ll come back with zero coffee every time? Do we doubt that someone is going to finish watching their favorite show? Do we doubt that Costco will continue to hand out free samples?
What’s the difference between these classic, common, and practical implementation intentions, and our New Year’s Resolutions?
Answer: they know HOW, they know WHEN, they know what to do if Plan A doesn’t work out, they’ll keep trying because any obstacle would feel like an anomaly, and they probably don’t have any naysayers. Unlike, in every way, all our shiny new resolutions.
I don’t know if you remember the first time you ever ordered your own meal, either from a restaurant or at a food counter. I do. It was hard! When I was a senior in high school, I decided to learn how to take myself out for lunch. I went to a cafe at the mall and I got a bagel sandwich. I sat down and ate it and read a book, and then I sat there for another 25 minutes because I didn’t understand what happened next. Do you wait until the server comes back to the table and brings you the check? Do you go up to the counter? How can you tell which kind of place is which? What do they do with your change? I felt very alone and young and dumb and incompetent, that is until I pulled up my socks and went to the counter. I FIGURED IT OUT! All by myself! I even left a tip!
The point of this is that at one point, every single thing that we think is easy, routine, or obvious was a part of the unknown.
What that means is that everything we’re unsure about today, is something we are still able to learn how to do. There are other people who know how, just like we know things that are confusing and unfamiliar to other people.
The question is really when.
When are we going to do all these great things?
The middle of January is when most people tend to give up on their resolutions. I think that’s because they realize they haven’t really made much progress yet. We often feel locked in to one single version of something, and if we can’t make it work then we think we’re just not cut out for it. Some very common examples are trying to wake up earlier (rather than go to bed earlier), trying to do one specific kind of workout, or trying to go from “zero to sixty” and become an instant expert.
It’s the new me! I wake up at 4:45 AM every day from now on, so I can run uphill in sleet and hail in the pitch dark, and then at the end of the day I cook gourmet meals entirely from scratch. Perfection or bust.
The vision that we have is a fictional character from a movie that nobody would watch.
Personally, I am useless in the early morning and I know it. I have been on the receiving end of absolutely dozens upon dozens of lectures about early rising, and always being early for things, and sleep hygiene. I don’t care because of three reasons: 1. I know what pavor nocturnus is like and I know that they don’t, because if they did they would definitely say so; 2. I’m probably more productive than this person and I have no shame around my schedule; and 3. I don’t care if other people disapprove of my habits in general. If you have the time to lecture me, that is proof that you have nothing better to do, which then automatically invalidates your opinion.
You know who sleeps from midnight to 8:00 AM? Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and moi. Billionaire hours.
The first answer to the question of when is, when do you feel the best and when do you feel the worst? What time of day are you more likely to be in the mood to do things?
Where we mess up is in punishing ourselves, trying to frame our desires in terms of willpower and motivation and moral fiber. What happens then is a series of fashion don’ts: feeling cruddy, not doing the awesome thing, and being less likely to attempt awesomeness the next time.
What works is to focus on how appealing you find the thing, whatever it is. Remind yourself what you like about it, what makes you curious, and why you’re drawn to it. Play around with it, exploring and learning before you attempt any kind of actual commitment.
Then, ask yourself, what time of day are you most likely to do this little experiment? For instance, if you want to learn hula hoop tricks, are you more likely to play with the hoop in the morning, at lunch, after work, right before bed? On the weekday or on the weekend? At a party or alone in your living room?
It really is that simple. If you aren’t sure what time of day you might do something, then you probably won’t do it until you can see yourself fitting it in somehow. No doubt you’ve always spent all twenty-four hours of every day of your life. You’ve spent them somehow. The question is when you’re going to take hold of your hours and use them toward what you want the most.
I still haven’t done anything so far this January! I’m proud of this because sometimes it’s a difficult commitment to keep. It’s more important to me to work my goals ten months of the year than it is to try to maintain some kind of “””perfect””” “””streak””” starting on Day One. Because January is a basically impossible time of year to do anything, other than maybe sleep more or spend less money.
The one thing I have done is to reframe one habit by thinking of it as something else entirely. That’s where the News Machine comes in.
I have a terrible habit - actually many of them - and I also have a good habit, or at least one that I can invoke from time to time. This is part of my secret of habit change and personal transformation, the discovery that a good habit can be harnessed to flip over a bad one.
It’s called “anchoring.”
Peanut butter and... jelly.
Socks and... shoes.
Floss and... brush your teeth.
Trampolines and... ice cream cones. (Ooh, messy).
There is a reverse of this, as there is of most things, and that is when two bad habits are anchored together, or when a good habit triggers a bad one. If a pattern like this is recognized, then it’s time to brainstorm and figure out how to separate the two things. Like, every time I walk into the craft store I spend $40, or, every time I get a coffee I also get an ooey gooey pastry.
Usually the “bad” habit is the thing that we feel is an intrinsic part of our very personality. I quite literally AM an ooey gooey pastry! On the molecular level! I don’t ever want to be the kind of person who is not that!
This is why I usually refer to them as cute habits. Not “bad.” We weren’t born bad, we were born interesting!
Okay, so, confession: my cute habit is that I’d rather be reading than doing basically anything else. And the bad version of that habit is that the more I read, the more I bookmark, and the longer my “to read” list gets. The reason this is bad is that it interferes with my enjoyment. I start to think of my favorite thing as a must-do. Rather than having 100% fun, I start to feel like I “need” to get “caught up.”
Do you ever feel that way?
Crafty people often start to feel like they “need” to “finish” projects, like they’re “behind” on scrapbooking or “finishing” a quilt. What is supposed to be nothing at all other than a relaxing hobby somehow transmogrifies into a guilt machine. I promised! I owe! It’s late! Those emotions come from anchoring the hobby to something else, like giving gifts, showing affection to friends and family, trying to save money, or earning approval. The pressure also comes from shopping for materials, where the more focus there is on the hobby, the more accumulation of materials, and the more space they take up in the home. We think the only ways to relieve those practical and social pressures are to craft faster, rather than to stop buying supplies and stop trying to create 100% handmade gifts. Get back to making it about relaxation!
That’s turning into an entire separate piece, but I’m not going to claim that I’ll ever write it because I’m trying to reframe my personal concept of procrastination.
Why do I feel like I’m procrastinating on personal projects? Why do I sometimes feel this way even when there’s no deadline, nobody is asking for anything from me, and literally nobody cares but me?
Is this true for you, for anything in your life?
As with a lot of things, it’s easier to just go with it than it is to try to change the emotion. I recognize that I feel “behind” on my reading, and I figure out what I can do with that feeling that will lead directly to a positive action.
In my case, I use it to work out on the elliptical.
There! I said it!
I lied, I cheated! I’ve actually been crushing it this month down in the workout room!
I just didn’t want to admit it while talking about New Year’s Resolutions, because it makes other people feel bad. Like my weird little goals have anything to do with anyone but me...
I’ve found that I seem to read faster when I’m on the elliptical for some reason. It makes the time pass quickly.
I’ve tried other types of habits to keep me working out. I tried running on the treadmill, and it makes me feel like my brain is slowly dying. (Current gym does not have a treadmill). I tried the exercise bike but it makes me sore and I don’t think it gives me any results. I tried watching TV shows on the elliptical, but it makes me feel like every minute is really 18 minutes. The thing I’ve settled on is that I can read through news articles.
I can’t emphasize this enough. If you think in terms of “supposed to” and “because” and “everyone else” and “not doing it right” and “fail,” you’re stopping yourself before you start. Try thinking in terms of “works for me” and “not sure why, but” and “for some reason.” You like what you like and you’re allowed to like it.
This is why I’m not thinking about my workout as a workout. I’m thinking about it as the News Machine. When I change clothes, I’m thinking about how many articles I’m going to read, and *that* is my personal burn rate. My metric is that I started out with nearly 400 articles in my news queue, and now I’m down to 120. Yay!
After that, there’s my *other* news queue, and then my “read at leisure” email folder, and then my open tabs...
According to my phone, I’m burning 18% more calories per workout after only two weeks. That comes from the feeling that I call “getting the lead out.” Like I threw off some lead weights. If my starting goal had been to “burn calories” or “move faster” I’m sure I would have been discouraged and I would already be feeling like I aimed too high.
Instead, I’m really just excited about finally feeling that elusive satisfaction of being “all caught up.” I can see it, a month or two from now. If I can keep reading this fast, if I can keep getting a spot on the News Machine...
I’ll probably just keep adding more stuff and making my list longer. Because who would I be without a to-do list or a never-ending stack of things to read?
I’m working on my procrastination tendencies, and something struck me. There are basically two types of procrastination: letting yourself down or letting other people down.
The most commonly procrastinated tasks are financial planning and dealing with health issues. Those come from a lack of urgency, because we can’t imagine Future Self. When we think of an older version of ourselves, the one who will be suffering the consequences of our delays, it lights up in our brains as “a stranger.” Old Me? I don’t know her.
Other than these Future Self types of problems, most of the things we procrastinate affect other people. In this light, suddenly procrastination is less about our to-do lists and more about how we show up for others.
It’s one thing to put off making a dentist appointment. It’s my mouth, after all. It’s another thing to put off doing something when someone else is counting on it.
Not returning calls, texts, voicemail, emails, skywriting, singing telegrams, or whatever is not a task, not in the way that filing taxes is a task. It’s a refusal to engage. It’s a missed connection, a ringing phone that is never picked up, to put things in 1980’s terms.
Maybe that’s the difference?
In the Eighties, most of our missed connections would literally be a ringing phone or a knock on the door. We spent time together face to face. This is hard to imagine, but kids would walk over to each other’s apartments, knock on the door, and ask whoever answered, “Can So-and-So come out to play?” We’d call each other’s homes and literally anyone in the family might answer, because the phone was an object that sat in the kitchen or living room.
Now, a huge amount of our communication is textual. Social media, text messages, email. It feels much colder and more removed. The expectation may be that we do *not* reach the other person directly, that the response will be time-delayed.
While this may work well for most people, for others (including me) I think it makes it feel more abstract. Just a few letters of the alphabet, probably on a piece of glass, rather than another human face and voice.
When we think of a task in the abstract, it’s easy to forget that our participation matters to someone. The act of setting a bowl in the kitchen sink, wandering away, and leaving it there feels like something other than “I hereby choose to proactively annoy my coworkers/roommates/spouse who have already told me that they hate having dirty dishes in the sink.”
Maybe sometimes that act is done specifically because it bothers other people? Maybe we don’t feel so much like “putting this in the dishwasher takes five seconds, I can do it faster than I can actually make the decision” but rather “I DO WHAT I WANT.”
Is what we do, or avoid doing, built around asserting our autonomy?
Personally I feel that my autonomy is a resolved state of affairs. There is no debate around whether I do what I want all the time or not. Putting my bowl in the dishwasher is a way of marking my territory, and it’s the same if I wash up after someone else. This is *my* kitchen and *I* make the rules in this room. Or, I clean up after myself in other people’s homes because I affirmatively build my reputation as a do-er and person of action. If people are going to gossip about me, I want it to be about something far more interesting than whether I am a lazy dish-leaver.
For me, physical tasks are the easiest.
I like mindless chores because I can knock them off while listening to a book. I am good at practical things like sewing buttons, assembling furniture kits, or adjusting the brakes on my bike. I do these things because they make good puzzles and I’m a physically restless person. Whether I’ve made someone else happy by doing these small jobs is mostly beside the point.
There, I fixed it!
Where I have more trouble is in communication chores. I tend to convince myself that I need to choose the perfect time to have a conversation with someone. I’m going to write that response when I can really concentrate and get the details right. The longer I delay, the more it turns into a big deal, which makes it feel like it needs even more bells and whistles.
If you are my friend and you haven’t heard from me in a year, it probably means I really like you!
It seems like maybe there are two sides to this coin. Maybe there are people who would have an easier time doing abstract chores, like taking out the trash, if they realized that it really matters to someone else. It could be a gift. Not “I am doing this annoying chore” but “So-and-So will be pleased if I do what I said I would do.”
On the other side of that same coin, maybe people like me (and are there any?) would have an easier time following through on communication if we saw it more as a task to get done. Maybe thinking of a pending call or message as a loose button or a dirty dish would make that crucial difference.
Usually when I finally get back to someone, all they wanted was to touch base and say Hi. It didn’t need to be a huge emotional breakthrough, just a one-minute “thinking of you.”
How weird would it be if my various casual friends and acquaintances knew it’s easier for me to do something like, I dunno, cleaning out a drain than it is to just say HI back?
All of this probably comes back to our tendencies, to how likely we are to meet internal vs external expectations. In my case, I know that I will do anything if I’ve decided it’s a good idea. What is it that I’m telling myself when I put off responding to text messages? How can I convince myself to see this type of communication as a simple, straightforward social task?
How about you? What type of procrastination are you prone to? Would it be easier for you to get it done with someone else to keep you company? Or are you more of a lone wolf?
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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