If you call it a to-do list, you might be doing it wrong.
Might be working on the wrong stuff
For the wrong reasons
At the wrong times
For the wrong people.
This is something I’ve been wrestling with lately. My task list has grown lately to the point that I’m exploding out of a textbook-sized day planner with pages for twenty distinct projects. Unlike my pants, it even has pockets.
These are the problems of the multipotentialite. Everything sounds good and everything seems possible. It IS, it is, just maybe not all at the exact same minute.
Darn you anyway, Time Dimension.
I’m working on a particular project, something big. It’s the kind of thing that takes six months to plan. I’m doing it because it fits into a larger plan that is really important to me. I’m doing it because the skills involved are directly relevant to my interests. I’m doing it because it gives me the chance to work with a good friend. I’m doing it because that friend really needs my help and I want to be reliable for her.
Other than that, everything about it is driving me up the wall. The WHY is perfectly in place, the HOW is a continual stream of hassles and frustrations.
Meanwhile, I have another set of potentially extremely interesting projects that I really want to do instead.
Just like the frustrating project, these interesting projects involve a lot of steps that are the kind of task I don’t like.
Focusing on only one thing at a time!
Reading complicated instructions in fine print!
Filling out applications!
Putting dates in a calendar!
Choosing photographs of myself! *ugh*
Why can’t there be a super-interesting, super high-value project that involves me sleeping late, reading in the bathtub, and eating cookies?
What I’ve found out so far about GETTING WHAT I WANT is that it almost always involves my three least-favorite things:
Travel. Foot races. Trainings. Workshops. Hikes. Even a panel interview I did recently - yep, Saturday.
Why isn’t there more worthwhile stuff to do late in the afternoon??
Poor me, highly ambitious person, born into the body of a night owl. (Note: owls do not usually wear shoes) (Also note, not one minute after I wrote this, a child walked into my cafe wearing an OWL HAT and RAIN BOOTS)
I’m doing what I can to cope with all of this. Not the owl hat, the burgeoning project list. Try to stay focused.
The first thing is to always subvert the project in some way. That means I look at the desired results and ask, is what I’m being asked to do really the smartest way to achieve these results?
Surprisingly often, it isn’t! Perhaps more surprising, my ideas for ways that I’d prefer to do these things, my ways are often accepted or regarded as an upgrade. The trick to getting this across is first to explain that you want the same thing as everyone else, the highly valued end result. Also compliment specific things that are going well and thank everyone for hearing you out.
Each instance in which you save other people time, money, or resources is an opportunity to build a reputation as a solver of problems and an idea-generating machine. (Problem: then they bring you more of their problems to solve).
The second thing is that if you can’t subvert the project in tangible ways, you can still do it privately.
There might be a requirement to do certain things or take certain steps toward your desired end result, things that you have no interest in doing. There is not, however, a requirement that you refer to them as ‘tasks’ or ‘chores’ or ‘to-do’s’ or ‘honey-do’s’ or what-have-you. You can call them whatever you want.
You can also abandon ship and abdicate on the project, if you really hate it that much.
As an example, I simply would not do something if it “required” me to wear high heels, cancel my travel plans for my wedding anniversary, work in a room with cigar smoke, or probably a bunch of other things. Nope nope, that’s a big nope.
What I’ve been doing lately is to shift more and more of my focus to the desired end results, while I try to forget that I am often doing annoying things early in the morning when I’d rather be sleeping.
This is why I call my “to-do list”:
JUICY PROJECT OPTIONS!
There’s something that I do that most people don’t, and that is to remind myself that I have control over how I spend my time. It’s my choice whether to work on something or not. I didn’t feel that way when I worked at a convenience store, but I did start to feel that way as a young office temp. I was broke as could be, I didn’t have two nickels until I was thirty, but I always felt that I had the power to walk away from a truly cruddy job or a bad boss.
I often did!
I figured, if I was going to be broke one way or another, at least I could choose the job with the least-bad boss and the least-worst commute. So I did.
It’s my sense of power, control, and high agency that has brought me forward, onward and upward.
One of the saddest things in the world is untapped human potential. It’s deeply sad when someone with massive gifts feels trapped, forced into a power struggle with a bad boss for low pay. Sometimes, of course, that is literally true - modern slavery is one of the all-time biggest targets for people with great gifts to tackle, should anyone be looking for a worthy project. Mostly, though, we are dragged down by the power struggle, to the point that we utterly forget about our ability to imagine something better into being.
This is why it is so vital that we reimagine what we are doing. This is why we need more... JUICY PROJECT OPTIONS.
There are two types of procrastination:
Either way, procrastination is default mode. Not doing something is the natural state of affairs. It’s taking action that is unusual, getting the thing done that takes planning and effort. That’s why we shouldn’t let it get to us. It’s normal and everyone does it.
The thing is, default is not the same as stasis, or maintenance. Not doing something is not a valid way of keeping everything the same. The universe doesn’t work like that. Entropy is coming for us, and coming for us, and coming for us, and coming for us. Ignoring and avoiding something means that, as time goes by, the situation is getting worse.
That suspicious container in the fridge? It’s going to be oh-so-much scarier a week from now.
That nagging issue, that medical thing, the “you should probably get that looked at” thing? Possibly it’s going away on its own. But do we really want to gamble on that?
That laundry pile. Laundry is like the ocean - never turn your back on it.
That credit card balance. Fines, fees, finance charges, extra swipes, duplicate charges we could have noticed but didn’t, because we were afraid to check. If anything in this world builds up on us, it’s debt.
We often feel like we’re procrastinating about things that aren’t actually tasks. We’re not always necessarily responsible for everything. Not everything counts. When I work with chronically disorganized people, we often assign equal valence to everything. A list of movies to watch feels like it’s of equal importance to an email backlog and a stack of unsorted, unpaid bills. False! We have to build our skills of discernment and rational thought. We have to assess whether a particular job is important and whether it’s urgent. The lists of books to read and podcasts to check out, those are entertainments and rewards to keep us company while we take care of business.
For most things, it genuinely doesn’t matter if they never get done at all.
Craft projects, for instance.
Guess what else? You don’t have to clean anything. There are people in this world who don’t own any kitchen implements. They use their kitchens to store books, or leave them empty. Never a dish to wash. Shower at the gym every day and you may never need to clean your bathroom again. I knew a guy in my dorm building in college who slept on a bare mattress. Uncomfortable, in my opinion, but then I didn’t sleep in that bed. Not my problem. Your problems stem directly from your standards for yourself. Drop the standard, drop the task.
I’m going further. We don’t have to fold laundry. For most people, for most clothes, it doesn’t matter at all. The only reasons to fold things are 1. So they don’t get wrinkly and 2. So they’ll fit better in the drawers. If you hang everything up on hangers, boom! No folding! If you get rid of 80% of your heaps of clothes, boom! Enough space to just toss things in! I learned about the “no folding” method from my stepdaughter. She took her socks, t-shirts, pajamas, et cetera and simply tossed them in her drawers. I was so astonished when I found out that I just sat on the floor for a while with my jaw hanging open.
We don’t have to cook, we don’t have to clean, we don’t have to fold clothes. Heck, come to think of it, we don’t even have to WEAR clothes! That’s basically a “remain gainfully employed” and/or “avoid indecent exposure charges” kind of a question.
One thing I know is that if we don’t open the mail, we’ll get more. Not paying a bill on time may wind up costing more, it may damage your credit for several years, but it’s not really a permanent problem to avoid opening the mail. Stuff it all in sacks and shred it or burn it, and the important stuff will soon show up again in a different-colored envelope.
Same thing with any truly important phone call or email. Ignore it and the sender will try again, working harder to get our attention.
I’m sort of joking here. Personally, I’ll do almost anything to avoid getting extra mail or phone calls. I like to head that stuff off in advance. I love sleeping on crisp clean sheets as much as I loathe stacks of dirty dishes, drifts of unopened mail, and piles of smelly old laundry. The pleasures of doing a few small routine tasks everyday are many. This message is really for the rebels.
A secret root cause of procrastination is the simple desire for autonomy. I DO WHAT I WANT! NOBODY TELLS ME! I DON’T HAVE TO!
Right, of course! Of course you do what you want! Of course you don’t have to do anything! You can strip naked and go lie out in the road right now if you like. My dad always told me that I could do anything I want, as long as I’m prepared to accept the consequences, and it would be better if I knew what the consequences were in advance. For instance, cheat on your taxes, get audited. Don’t pay your bills, get collection notices and have bad credit. Be bad at your job, get laid off. We do, though, always have complete power and control over whether we choose to act in positive or negative ways.
Procrastination is default. It puts us among the majority. Through procrastination we become mediocre, or less than mediocre. We become predictable, boring, uninteresting. The drama that is created through chronic procrastination and disorganization is not beautiful or fascinating drama, it’s just traditional, ordinary, tawdry old regular drama.
What we really could be asking ourselves is, if not this, then what? If we were relieved of this responsibility, if this task was removed from our balance sheet, what would we then be doing? If we were free of these duties, where would we be putting our energy? What could we be doing that is better than the default?
Time debt is something I’m thinking about a lot lately. I’m trying to learn more about working in the time dimension, which probably means that my concept of time is different than most people’s. Well, okay, I know it is. What I’m developing right now is an idea that time debt is the same as financial debt, physical clutter, and excess adipose tissue, commonly known as body fat. They’re all alike because they all reflect something we’re doing on a daily basis that is not working for Future Self.
Spend too much in relation to income, and Future Self will be broke.
Buy too much stuff with nowhere to put it, and Future Self will be sitting in a pile of junk.
Eat more than you need, and Future Self is the one who will have to deal with it.
Put things off, and Future Self will be frantically fighting deadlines.
Whoa. Now that I lay it out like that, I think I’m onto something!
This is the sort of stuff that can happen when we think of Future Self as some kind of evil villain. Who does that? We wonder. What else would you call it, though, if you work steadily from day to day to make things harder for your own Future You?
Over the years, I’ve taught myself how to take Future Me seriously, how to see her as a close friend or dear relation. Sometimes I think of Future Me doing something funny, like wearing a lavender wig and a tiara at age eighty, and I just love her. Future Me is a hip granny!
Because of this affectionate relationship that I’ve visualized, I feel excited when I look forward. I think of all the ways that Future Me will have a better life than Today Me. For one thing, she’ll be a better cook! I like sending her money and trying to help her become a hip granny who can do the splits.
I also try to think of Future Me - Stardate: Next Year, and even Next Month Me.
This is where time debt comes in.
I’ve gotten pretty good over the years at following a radical budget, balancing my activity level with my nutrition, and keeping my physical space clear. Where I still struggle, and struggle mightily, is in understanding how long it takes to do things and when I’ll be done with a project.
Part of this is because I’m more attracted to endless projects than I am to projects with clearly defined boundaries. I’m more likely to run a blog or volunteer for something than I am to make a physical object or turn something in on a deadline.
I have a type of project that I call Do the Obvious. It’s part of my annual review and future planning. This year, my Do the Obvious is to schedule time blocks. What this means is that I try to set aside two to four hours a day for projects that need deep focus concentration and System II thinking, like writing and strategic planning. I want to limit other activities so they don’t accidentally eat my whole day. Key among those day-eaters are email and reading the news.
What I’ve found is that I have a backlog of fairly random things that I never fit into my daily routine. These things are relevant, things I can’t delegate, but also things that aren’t urgent and are thus easy to put off.
Um, there’s a name for that. We call it procrastination.
Is it, though? Is it procrastinating to put off doing something that isn’t urgent?
That depends on your individual judgment. It’s legit to delay something less important in favor of something urgent or more important. Not only is it legit, it’s the only rational way to behave!
I don’t want to reach a point where I’m polishing the inside of my medicine cabinet, alphabetizing my socks, and other entirely trivial tasks that feel lovely but accomplish nothing.
For myself, I want all of my powers of focus and attention directed the same way. I want my concentration to be 100% available for the projects that matter to me. That means I want to finish everything that can be finished. I want to close every loop that can be closed. I want to feel satisfied that I am entirely DONE with anything that can be considered done.
I know I need to dedicate time every day to work, meals, personal hygiene, taking care of my pets, cleaning house, checking my mail, flagging spam, blocking robo-calls, and going to the gym. I’m okay with that. When else am I going to listen to my audio book?
Where I tend to struggle is with the non-routine stuff and with the nice-to-have “round tuit” kind of stuff. “When I get around to it.”
Now that I’m working on time blocks, I’ve realized that I can use a calendar month as its own type of time block. I’m thinking of my backlog of weird, non-urgent tasks as a list of bills that need to be paid. They could also be thought of as bags of trash to be carried out. How many “bags of trash” do I really need cluttering up my mental living room??
When I consider my backlog list, I tell myself, don’t carry it forward another month. How much of this stuff that I knew I wanted to do at the beginning of January do I still want to have on my list in February?
February is the shortest month. In the northern hemisphere, at least, the weather tends to be cruddy. How much is on your list that you don’t want to carry forward as a time debt?
Don’t carry it forward another month. Set yourself up for a relaxing spring and a fun summer.
The 5-Second Rule is the sort of book that makes people pop up and exclaim, “LOVE IT!!” (That’s an actual quote from one of my mentees). It’s fair to say that this book changes lives, and the reason is that it includes dozens of real-life examples. The format includes screenshots of comments, text messages, and emails from people who have used the 5-second rule to transform their most difficult problems.
These problems include everything from basic procrastination and hitting the snooze button too many times, to battling addiction and suicidal ideation. No matter what’s weighing on your mind, there’s someone in this book who has confronted a similar type of trouble.
There are so many great things to love about this book. One is that it’s research-based, and Mel Robbins introduces techniques and terminology that are not just helpful, but also fresh and hard to find mentioned elsewhere. An example is anxiety reappraisal, such as explaining to yourself that you’re not scared, you’re excited! I’ve been teaching that in Toastmasters without realizing that there was a formal name for it in psychology.
Another great feature of The 5-Second Rule is that its design allows for dipping in and out. Even one page of this book could provide an emotional lift for someone who was feeling stuck. I’d go so far as to say that even the cover would make a good touchstone, a reminder to apply the 5-second rule to any situation.
This book feels like the missing piece to so much of what I teach. I work with chronic disorganization and hoarding, and I wish I had known about The 5-Second Rule much sooner. I absolutely know that it would be so helpful to so many people. I started using it myself before I had even finished reading the book. Pick it up for yourself and see if it works the same way for you.
“Change comes down to the courage you need every day to make five second decisions.”
“You are one decision away from a completely different life.”
“Procrastination is not a form of laziness at all. It’s a coping mechanism for stress.”
Volcanic Momentum is the sort of motivational book that you don’t put back on the shelf when you’re done. You leave it out where you can see the cover, because just reading the words VOLCANIC MOMENTUM puts you in the right frame of mind. Jordan Ring has ‘it,’ ‘it’ being the mysterious factor that can transform a self-described overweight, broke gamer into a veritable productivity machine.
A lot of motivation and productivity books speak in the abstract. An example would be a single person giving parenting advice, or someone who has always been athletic offering diet advice. We believe Jordan when he talks about the “sugar dragon” or procrastination or wasting time because it’s clear he’s been there. He is us.
The heart of Volcanic Momentum is its deep focus on meaning and purpose. Why are we doing what we are doing, and who are we doing it for? This is part of what makes the book stand out. That, and it somehow feels lived-in. Some of the productivity advice is a little quirky, like having whiteboards in the living room, but we can believe that it actually works. It would make a particularly great companion for an active journal-keeper, as it provides pages of excellent journal prompts.
This book busted me up. There were several points where I snorted, laughed out loud, and at one point couldn’t stop giggling through two pages. Something to do with eating a pizza over the sink like a rat. Jordan Ring has a gift for highly relatable and somehow stealthy humor. Volcanic Momentum is approachable, surprisingly comprehensive for its length, and, best of all, really fun to read.
What we do in this life really matters.
There’s no harm in asking, other than hurt pride and a few wasted minutes.
Admit that you are probably not living out your maximum potential right now.
Everyone is called to do more than they already are.
Just thought I’d put that out there. I’m so inspired by the idea that There are No Overachievers that I just want to sing it right out. WOO!
WOO stands for ‘windows of opportunity.’ Brian D. Biro teaches how to recognize WOO and create more. This type of possibility thinking is uncommon, something that most people aren’t taught and do not naturally revert to. As a default state, it makes a massive difference between one person’s results and another’s. Why do some people seem to have it so easy? Because they understand the WOO.
There are a million things to love about this book. One that stood out to me is the concept of the ‘eager meter.’ What if, rather than being willing to do things, we actually felt eager to do them? I’m writing this one on my hand so I can see it all day.
Another concept that clicked with me was that Biro refers to ‘breakthrough targets’ where most of us would say ‘problems’ or ‘issues’ or ‘obstacles’ or ‘personal failings.’ One of mine is failing to respond to social connections. This has been making me feel like a bad person and a bad friend. When I thought of it in the sense of a breakthrough target, it was like the sun burst through the clouds. This could be a goal rather than a flaw! Goals I know how to handle, my personal failings not so much.
The premise that There are No Overachievers is that we’re all actually underachievers, that we have so much more potential within us. It’s only that we’re so tired and uninspired and conditioned to look for the risks and reasons to avoid things, that we don’t realize we could be living out our dreams. It’s terrifically motivating, a very upbeat book, and I won’t hesitate to say that I loved it.
You never know if the next idea that pops into your head or the next choice you make may change your life.
...Look for the WOO instead of the woe.
Be easy to impress and hard to offend.
You should have done it already. You know you should have. It’s lurking there, like a swamp thing at the bottom of a murky lake. Waiting for you. It will never let you have a moment’s peace until you deal with it, but you just can’t seem to make yourself. You can’t seem to make yourself open that envelope, listen to that voicemail, make that phone call, schedule that appointment, get that thing repaired, fill out that application, have that awkward conversation, turn in that assignment. WHY? Why do you keep doing this to yourself?
You’re not alone. Everyone procrastinates. Sure, some people claim they don’t, but the two most commonly procrastinated tasks are planning for retirement and dealing with health issues. Mention that if anyone tries to grief you about this.
Procrastination is a secret shame. There are a lot of different kinds. Don’t stress out about it. Imagine being a hit and run driver who never told anyone. (If that’s you, well, heck. Tell someone). Procrastination is really pretty mild in the grand scheme of things.
Whenever you have a secret shame, it’s the shame and the secrecy that are the real problems. Everything else is generally a simple matter of routine work.
An unpaid bill is just cash.
Something broken is just a repair.
A stain is just a stain.
An incomplete task is just something that could be finished.
It’s never the thing itself. It’s always the feelings of shame, guilt, incompetence, dread, anxiety, confusion, and What If that are the real problems.
Most of the time, it isn’t too late. Whatever is being procrastinated, the deadline hasn’t passed yet. There’s still time. Even knowing that, it can still feel impossible to just get started. Just start. Just start. Why aren’t you starting?
All it takes is to tell someone. Tell someone you know and trust. Tell someone you don’t know, like a stranger in line behind you at the post office. Tell someone anonymously on the internet. Tell a crow in the parking lot. Tell the Great Pumpkin. Just tell someone.
Give a name to what’s bothering you. Describe it. This helps to put some boundaries around the nameless ick that is destroying your peace of mind.
“I never sent those thank-you notes.”
“I’ve had this overdue library book for eight years.”
“The floor is ruined and I’m afraid to tell my landlord.”
“I’ve been getting calls from collections agents and I’m not even sure how much I owe.”
“The quarterly report is due and I haven’t even started yet.”
“I’m supposed to get a biopsy and it’s been over a year and I still haven’t made the appointment.”
(That last one was me BTW).
If you’ve picked the right person, you’ll probably hear a similar story in return. Everyone but everyone has done something like this. I accidentally melted a chocolate Rollo candy into my roommate’s couch. (So that’s where that went!). People procrastinate and make foolish mistakes and do embarrassing stuff all the time. That’s why it’s so funny and such a huge relief to hear that someone else is doing it, too.
Many people who have trouble working alone will push through for hours without a break if they have someone to sit with them. It’s a well-known phenomenon. The companion is called a “body double” or “shadow.” I think the lack of a buddy is the root cause of procrastination for a lot of people. (Probably most of them are Obligers). This is part of why it helps to tell someone when you feel like you’re in trouble and unable to face a problem by yourself. If all you need is someone to keep you company, that’s really a very minor favor to ask of someone.
Who could you get to sit with you?
A business partner? Your neighbor? Your kid? Your spouse?
A fellow procrastinator?
There are all kinds of book clubs, right? (I used to belong to three at one point). Lots of people play racquetball or tennis together. Bowling leagues. Choirs. You get where I’m going here? Why shouldn’t you have a partner or a club to help you focus and get stuff done? It’s entirely possible that someone among your friends or acquaintances is in just such a situation as you are. That person would probably be thrilled to have some help. You both just sit down together and make a pact that you’ll work on your secret shame until it’s done.
The backlog of unbalanced bank statements (which someone at your bank will do with you). The 30,000 unopened emails. The grocery sack full of unopened envelopes, which I guarantee are almost entirely junk mail. The incomplete expense reports. The blank thank-you notes. Whatever it is, it’s not exactly movie-of-the-week material, now, is it?
The funny thing is, it’s possible that you and your friend have non-overlapping projects, as well as non-overlapping skill sets. For instance, I absolutely hate driving, but I’m really quite good at organizing and I don’t mind disgusting cleaning tasks. I would totally trade someone a job like mending or scrubbing out a gross fridge for driving me around on some errands. Other jobs I hate that might make a good trade are wrapping gifts or giving my dog a bath.
It’s also not morally wrong to just hire someone. Hire a local high school kid. Hire someone through Craigslist or something similar. Calculate a subjective estimate of the cost of this looming dread that’s constantly hanging over your head, and then how much you’d be willing to pay to be rid of it. Is this a $25 stress? A $200 stress? A $20,000,000 stress? For instance, I can wash a pretty vast pile of laundry at the laundromat for about $8, but when it’s piled up that much, it feels like at least a hundred-dollar annoyance. (Would it cost $100 to buy a top-to-toe outfit if I ran out of clean clothes?). For a lot of people, putting a price on something can help to rank it and compare it to other problems. It can also be a motivator for getting it done rather than spending that kind of money.
Dread and procrastination and secret shame will destroy your peace of mind like nothing else. Life is too short to feel that way another day. Tell someone and don’t suffer alone.
Overpacking isn’t just something to do with a suitcase. It’s also something metaphorical that we do with our schedules. Every time I get ready to go on a trip, I tell myself all sorts of fantasies, from “You’ll definitely finish reading that, you should really pack at least two extra books just in case” to “What email backlog? You’ll just breeze through it at the airport on the way home.” HAhahahaha! One of the many myths I hypnotize myself into believing is that I’m totally going to work out on vacation. Yeah! In fact, maybe I’ll upgrade! Yeah! I’ll try out all these Olympian core workouts and go home with side abs!
In reality, what happens is that I forget to apply sunblock to key areas, I don’t get enough sleep, I barely read a page a day, I eat dessert once or twice a day, I bring five pounds of extra stuff I never use, and, of course, I don’t work out at all.
Well, that last part isn’t completely true. We walk a lot.
It never ceases to amaze me, the beautiful and sweet optimism of people who think they can erase ten years of recreational eating habits by walking half an hour a few days a week. Wouldn’t that be nice? What I know is that we typically walk 8-10 miles a day on vacation, and I can gain anywhere from two to eight pounds anyway.
Being able to walk long distances is great. Travel is a good enough reason to stay fit all by itself. Walking ten miles, including about twenty flights of stairs, while carrying a backpack all day is no joke. There are also those special moments of horking your suitcase up into the overhead rack.
Sadly, though, even ten miles a day is no match for vacation food. Someone of my size only burns about 70 calories per mile. If a slice of cake is about 500, sure, maybe I’ve managed to burn off an extra dessert every day. The cake, but not the sweet drinks, the appetizers, the snacks, or any of the restaurant portions. My husband and I can easily gain enough extra weight from our vacation eating habits that it takes the rest of the year to burn it off again. If we do.
Of course, it isn’t just the food. It’s the break from routine. Daily reality is suspended. When we get home, it’s like we’ve gone through a wormhole, and everything looks similar, yet weirdly different. The apartment smells like paint. The dog has forgotten some of our hand signals and a couple of his new tricks. There’s an empty place in the schedule where “go to the gym” used to be.
This summer, we left town for a week, and got back just in time for my gym to close for five days for Independence Day. It just so happened that I had been down for a week with a stomach bug, trained for a week, left town, and then missed classes during the closure. Suddenly I was back at it, having only trained three days over the previous month. I had only two opportunities to prepare for belt promotion, and here I was still in vacation mode.
It’s not completely true to say that I didn’t train. I kinda did. It just wasn’t anywhere remotely approaching what I do on an ordinary weekday. Instead of an hour of high-intensity interval training, kicking, punching, and grappling, plus five miles of bicycling and 3-6 miles of walking, I did... I did less. I worked on my headstand for about five minutes a day, I walked, and a few days I did ten burpees.
I packed my jump rope. I had the best of intentions and it was small and lightweight. Did I use it? Not once. Course not. Anyone who does a serious workout on vacation has more discipline and strategic mindset than I do, and that’s actually saying quite a lot.
My first day in class, I actually crushed it. I did two back-to-back classes. I surprised myself by being able to get down and crank out thirty standard pushups, no problem. Thank the burpees for that. I had walked six miles earlier in the day and I rode my bike to class, too. If it weren’t for the belt promotion and my need to go to enough classes to earn my third stripe on my white belt, I never would have done it. I walked in sleepy and nervous, and walked out with my head held high, feeling much better about my prospects for the upcoming three-hour workout.
Exercise without a schedule, without deadlines, without specific performance goals has an annoying tendency to fade away into nothing. The best-made intentions are vapor. There’s no such thing as willpower or motivation anyway, and weight is definitely not lost at the gym, so it’s best to let those fantasies go. The work is still worth it, though, and it pays off. Being fit and strong makes daily life easier. Every hour of suffering and sweat is a force multiplier, leading to better posture, more energy, sounder sleep, clearer skin, better balance, more muscle and bone density, mood repair, confidence, mental focus, pride, and, if you do it right, friendships. Keep going, definitely keep going.
Vacation ate my workout. Two weeks away led to feeling slow, floppy, tired, unfocused, and out of form. Paradoxically, this reminded me of how far I had come, and that I used to feel that way (or worse) all the time. Why would I let my gains drift away into nothing? Class is back in session, so let’s get back to work.
If there’s one thing we’re good at, it’s imagining bad outcomes. We get spun up over this all the time. For every conversation, there are probably twelve sad, scary, or alarming versions that never happened. Every job interview really lasts for eighty hours, seventy-nine of them imaginary. Anxiety and pessimism are survival traits. Worry and dread have gotten us through fire, flood, famine, siege, animal attack, and all the rest. This is probably why avoidance goals work slightly better than approach goals.
An avoidance goal is phrased in a way that anticipates a negative outcome. “Don’t forget your glasses.”
An approach goal is phrased in a way that anticipates a positive outcome. “Remember to wear your glasses.”
It’s possible that certain personality types lean more toward one goal type or the other. An optimist will naturally prefer an approach goal. It’s also possible that certain types of goals are better suited for one format or the other. A personal experiment should make this clear. Are we getting the results we want in the areas that are important to us?
I’m an extreme optimist, an enthusiast by nature. I love working on annual, quarterly, monthly, and sometimes even hourly goals. My plans tend to be both broad and specific. I would have thought I made almost entirely approach-oriented goals. Then I read a blog post by a guy who made two goals and then compared his adherence to them based on whether he focused on approach or avoidance. He did better with avoidance. It made me realize that I follow a lot of avoidance-based goals throughout the day, almost automatically. I think of it as “common sense,” although of course “common sense” is never all that common.
Every single time I use a knife, I think, “Okay, now don’t cut yourself.”
Every single time I go down a flight of stairs, I think, with every single step, “Okay, now don’t slip.”
When I pack a suitcase, I bustle around my apartment, talking to myself. “Don’t forget your tickets. Don’t forget your back-up battery. Don’t forget your” endlessly, all the way up to the jetway.
There’s a distinct, gear-shifting feeling between this constant internal nattering and the aerial view, grand strategic plans that I normally think of as goal-setting.
Maybe one of the reasons that avoidance goals work better is that we can only plan them when we actually believe that the negative outcome is a firm possibility. I think that is very much not the case for a lot of common “goals.” Further, I think it’s common to “choose” a mainstream “goal” as a smokescreen, a pretend Potemkin intention, to protect our tendency to do what we want without criticism. Hey, I tried, what more do you want from me??
Research shows that we’re really poor at thinking of future versions of ourselves. We think of Old Me as a total stranger. Hey, Future Me, have fun paying off all this debt and picking up my socks! Ha, Future Me is such a sucker. We can’t really believe in a universe in which “I” am an elderly person. Surely I have better taste than to age and grow old! I’m much too smart for that! If we can’t believe in a frail, elderly, poor, and ill version of ourselves, then we have no intrinsic motivation to save money, eat healthy foods, and be more active. We do, however, believe in such things as cutting a finger or falling down the stairs. “Don’t cut yourself” is a much more believable imperative than “don’t get osteoporosis.”
My major fitness motivation is “Avoid getting Alzheimer’s.” This is a truly terrifying outcome. Why simply sit around and be afraid of something, though? That would be sacrificing all the good years for what may or may not turn out to be the bad years. It’s a logical fallacy. How can undirected anxiety possibly do me any good? That just means I suffer Alzheimer’s PLUS decades of dread. If I’m right, if my thesis is correct that Alzheimer’s is at least a little bit susceptible to lifestyle inputs, then I must do every last single thing in my power to avoid it. If I’m wrong, and I’ve done all of these actions over the years for no reason, if my efforts have been futile, I still benefit in three ways.
I could use an approach-oriented framework and tell myself “Eat healthy food” and “Get plenty of exercise.” Arguably, I do both of these things. They’re extremely vague, though, so vague as to be almost meaningless. That’s another reason that avoidance goals work a little better, because they’re unfailingly very specific.
It’s easier to “stop drinking soda” or “stop eating bagels” or “don’t eat high-fructose corn syrup.” Those are specific and simple to understand, and any of them could result in an easy ten-pound weight loss over a year.
I’m always going to make wildly positive, outlandishly optimistic goals and resolutions. It’s fun and it works much better than pop culture would lead us to believe. Past Me would have had a lot of trouble believing in my future ability to run a marathon, manage an investment portfolio, cook Thanksgiving dinner for two dozen people, buy train tickets in Spain, or lots of other things I’ve done. How would a negative version of those goals even be phrased? “Don’t screw up”? I will, however, continue to use avoidance goals when they seem helpful.
Here are some avoidance goals that I use, by category:
Don’t be in debt
Don’t carry a credit card balance
Don’t pay finance charges
Don’t buy on impulse
Don’t buy anything unless you know where you’ll put it and how you’ll clean it
Don’t outgrow your clothes, they’re expensive
Avoid getting a migraine - (body weight, dehydration, poor sleep quality)
Don’t get Alzheimer’s
Don’t trigger your night terrors - (eating after 8 PM)
Don’t run out of clean underwear
Don’t make extra work for yourself
Don’t leave crusty dishes
That needs to get eaten up before it gets wasted
Don’t criticize unless you’re open to being criticized
Don’t be a caricature
No double standards
Don’t be like his ex
Don’t do his pet peeves
Don’t be a pushover or a victim
Don’t be a flake
Don’t be a freeloader
Don’t associate with gossips
Don’t stand by and let other people be bullied
“Don’t do anything illegal, immoral, or just plain stupid.” - My Dad
“Never go viral for the wrong reasons.” - Anonymous
“Do things that are a good idea, and don’t do things that are a bad idea.” - Me
Why do we do what we do? What’s the emotional reward supposed to be at the end? Everyone is looking for something, whether that’s safety, respect, revenge, approval, power, or proving a point. We tend to see the end game as something less abstract: a group of friends, money, a sexy body, a big house, fame, that special someone saying, “I admit it, I was wrong.” It can be fun to simply acknowledge these desires, name them, and see if maybe they’re attainable.
Complicated, ill-advised, over-rated, we don’t really know until we’ve spent a little time indulging in these common fantasies.
Me, I’ve always just wanted to get into the room with the smart people.
That’s my motivation. I want to produce something, at some point, that is so cool that the thought leaders I respect will want to meet me and hang out.
My idea of fame isn’t about adoring crowds. It’s about walking up to a small gathering of people I admire and having them turn and say, “Hey, there you are!”
What I’m working for isn’t just a seat at the table. You can get that seat if you’re willing to take dictation and you can type fast enough. I don’t even want to be acknowledged as a peer. I want to be over there cracking jokes!
I’ve met a couple of these specific individuals already. You can do that if you go to their public appearances and stand in line long enough. You can also capture their attention simply by saying, “Thank you for coming to our city.” Nobody really does that, apparently.
There you have it, my dirty little secret. I don’t work for money or fame. I’m essentially just curious whether I have it in me to put something big into the world and then use it as a passport into a new social group.
Wanting to be in the room with the smart people is broader than that. It’s a general life philosophy. If I’m the smartest person in the room, then I’m in the wrong room. I always want to be in a position where I’m learning as much as I can. I want to push my limits. I want to surround myself with people who are achieving various things at a much higher level, whether that’s fellow home cooks or fitter people in my gym class. Ideally I’m not only avoiding being the smartest people in the room - ideally I’m the LEAST smart person in the room!
By “smart” I mean “knowing things I don’t know” and “proficient at things I can’t do.” Not native intelligence in the sense of IQ - that I’ve got covered. By “smart” I mean savvy, skilled, clever, wise, and focused.
My main drive here is curiosity. What are you like? What do you know that I don’t know? What projects are you working on? What do you think about all day?
Second to that is a moral conviction that I should do the most I can with my life. I should always be trying to learn more, do more, and love more. That includes making new friends and being a bigger part of my community, even when I feel shy and don’t want to talk to anyone. Like, ever.
Whether it’s moral or not, I’m not totally sure, but I do have another conviction that I should keep myself humble. It just seems like a good idea. Reminding myself that I have yet to contribute to society in any meaningful way, that I’ve barely done anything with the talents and resources that I have, that everyone around me has something interesting to teach, gives me a sense of urgency. Without that, I have a tendency to sit around my house reading and eating cookies, a tendency that I find makes my life fundamentally boring.
I made a tough decision two years ago, to take up public speaking. I would snap awake on Wednesday mornings in a cold sweat, knowing I’d have to walk into that meeting room later in the day. Sometimes I would procrastinate and not go because I had made myself late. It was physically and emotionally difficult for me in a way that’s hard to describe without using the phrase “projectile vomit.” I did it, though. I kept going until I started winning award ribbons, and then I was chosen as vice president of the club. I knew I was in the room with the smart people. I was the least among them, shaking like a leaf, barely able to stand up and speak my own name. They let me stay. They let me take a seat at the table and keep coming back until I got better. Now I’m one of them.
This year, I did it again. I signed up for martial arts lessons. I couldn’t do a proper sit-up on the first day. I can barely tell my left from my right. I have a bad tendency to step forward when I ought to step back. Sometimes I would throw a punch and miss the practice pad entirely. I’m more dangerous on accident than I am on purpose. When I showed up, I was definitely the slowest, weakest, and least coordinated. Now I can crank out thirty pushups and throw a spinning back elbow. Oh, and I got my orange belt.
The respect that I have in these two wildly different groups comes from my complete willingness to put myself out there, be terrible at something, and cheerfully keep trying. I’m genuinely grateful to receive advice because I see it as a gift. I’m in the room with the smart people, and that proximity is a privilege. Please, by all means, tell me everything I’m doing wrong! I’ll get it eventually.
Ultimately I want to be a cool old person. I want to meet Old Me, the Future Me who knows the most, the version of me who has seen the most of the world and met the most interesting people. Hopefully Old Me has made good use of our time in this world. Hopefully she’s in the room with the smart people. Which ones, though, and what are they doing?
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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