It was brought to my attention how much apps run my life when I found myself awoken by my alarm on a work holiday. Why, I thought, can’t there be an AI that notices when there is a holiday and reminds me to turn off my alarm?
This is something I think about a lot. When will artificial intelligence be able to take over more of my mental bandwidth, and what would it look like when it does?
Right now the focus seems to be on consumer habits and passive entertainment. Whatever algorithms are in place right now, they do a decent job. I actually like it when an ad for something I’ve bought recently, like a bedspread, follows me around the internet for months. It then displaces whatever advertisements might have filled that spot and enticed me to buy things I didn’t know existed.
The algorithms in my news reader are fantastic. It hasn’t taken me long to get all the gator news a girl could ever want. I also use this as a source for my little tech newsletter, which not only makes me look awesome at work but probably got me the job in the first place.
If there were ever one solitary thing that artificial intelligence improved in my life, it would be this. I can find an endless supply of articles about robotics and drones and other tech innovations while scarcely lifting a finger.
On the other hand, this constant access to valuable information is like drinking from a firehose. I realized some time ago that scrolling through my technology newsfeed has become my default mode, eating far more of my day than I ever intended. What did I do about it? Why, I turned to an app!
I went into the settings on my phone and set a one-hour time limit on my news app. This has been in place for one day and I already feel like I am levitating against a glass ceiling. I also expanded the quiet hours on my phone, so not only will it not ring or show me text messages, but I can’t open most apps after 10:00 pm.
It is helping but also it is really not helping
What I’d really like is for AI to help with more of my day-to-day. I lost an hour of sleep because I set up an automated alarm clock and neither I nor my electronic backup brain realized that I should temporarily turn it off. In how many other areas could I be living a more optimal existence with a little artificial assistance?
One of the biggest and most obvious ones, to me, is the gathering of the stuff. Is there an app yet that reminds people to put certain objects in a pile and make sure they are carried out the door? This would be one of the greatest memory aids of all time.
I think I’ve actually figured out a way to do this, although if it works the way I think it will, it’ll take a bit of setup.
I went to a grocery store in person the day I wrote this. Trader Joe’s! Why do you not work with delivery services! Because you don’t have to, okay, I get that! But still! Anyway, I was quaking in my shoes but I figured, with careful planning, I could do a “smash and grab” speed run and spend fewer than 15 minutes in the store.
(I was right, because I am a logistics master and an experienced trail runner and also because I felt the hounds of hell breathing down my neck the whole time).
I used a paid app called Morning Routine. Normally I use it in the morning and at bedtime, so I remember all the dumb things I normally forget, like locking the door and turning on the dishwasher. You can add items to a list and give each a time limit, and then the app runs the timer for each task and switches to the next task when the time runs out. If you’re skillful about your time estimates, this timer will keep you on track. The key feature is that you can set it to read each new item aloud.
I made my shopping list, with each item listing the item I wanted followed by the next item, so the app would read both. For most people this might look like: “front door to bread, bread to eggs, eggs to milk, milk to cereal, cereal to toothpaste.” Since I knew the layout of the store, I was able to do this in the most streamlined path between items, and I had everything on my list in six minutes. The list is still in the app if I find myself having to go in again.
(In two masks and a plastic face shield)
I think the Morning Routine method would work for getting ready for work, loading kids’ backpacks, packing for a trip, and generally getting out the door. If you take the time to keep tweaking it, and actually listen to it, it will keep you from flitting back and forth between rooms. You can keep adding items as you remember them, from sunblock to permission slips to bridge toll. The app then becomes like a butler or personal assistant.
It’s a short jump from that to an actual robot that tootles around the house, loading your suitcase for you and carrying it to the car.
Eventually it will happen. Within our lifetimes, I bet it will. The potential payout is so, so high, and once one person has one, it’ll be like smartphones all over again. Everyone will want one to the point that people will camp out overnight in a tent in order to be first in life.
Until, that is, our robots can go out and do that for us.
The question, whenever we welcome new tech into our lives, is whether we’ll allow it to be a boon or a curse. Will we use it to free up our time and mental bandwidth, giving ourselves an overall lifestyle upgrade? Or will it just be a monkey on our backs?
This is why I pause every now and then to ask, if apps run my life - which obviously they do - which ones are in charge this week? Is this what I would have wanted? Can I make adjustments so that I am impressed with the results?
What did you do over the weekend? (Take ‘weekend’ to mean ‘day off from work’ - not that everyone has that as an option).
Among other things, my hubby had to spend about two hours talking to tech support, using my phone because his wasn’t working. While he was doing that, I ordered groceries and produce delivery, negotiating several products that weren’t available.
This is a reflection that technology makes our lives easier with one hand, and more complicated with the other.
Another example of this is that our bathtub faucet suddenly started dripping. I emailed our landlord about it, as part of a thread about the ceiling lights that suddenly quit on us and whether it might be an electrical issue. Due to COVID, we mutually agreed not to fix the faucet until “all this is over.”
It turns out that people have more to do than people of our same age did twenty or thirty years ago. That’s mostly because commerce has offloaded more and more tasks onto the end user, and it’s crept up on us, and we’ve barely noticed.
How much of our time is spent on things we didn’t have to do in the past, like updating passwords?
I’ve been noticing this sort of thing more, because I got a new job last year and we work 9-hour days. Since I work 8-6, almost everything is closed when I get off work, and a lot of it is closed during my lunch break as well.
The alternatives here are either to do these things during my off Fridays, or try to cram them into my breaks.
It’s amazing how quickly a free Friday can disappear into shadow labor.
I’ve decided that the only way to cope is to tag these shadow labor tasks, calling them out for what they are, and divvy them up so that I never have to do more than one or two per day.
One piece of shadow labor that I do every day, without fail, is to unsubscribe from whatever has infiltrated my email that day. For some reason, there are often as many as half a dozen new impertinences to fend off.
Another, similar task is to block spam phone calls. If you don’t get on them right away, they’ll just keep calling, sometimes four times in a row.
Yet another, similar task is to sort and toss junk mail from the mailbox. Same problem, different form factor.
Don’t we all have a fundamental right to privacy? And yet why are there marketers constantly coming at us from all sides demanding our attention? Why can’t we make it a single hour without getting an unwanted phone call, email, or piece of glossy unrecyclable mail thrust at us? At least they aren’t leaving as many on our doorknobs these days.
While I strongly resent having to attend to these things each day, I also recognize that my life is easier if I do. I can bundle these mindless activities and blast them off my mental bandwidth while listening to a podcast.
Technically, they barely count anymore.
The goal with mental bandwidth is to save room for two things: System II thinking and high-quality leisure time.
Ideally we want at least a four-hour uninterrupted chunk for the HQLT.
Deep thought, the kind of concentration you need to do something like your taxes, depends on the person. People with attention deficit issues might want to start with a short chunk like 15 minutes, and gradually work up to maybe two hours without a break. People like my husband, who is a sort of swami at this stuff, can go ten hours at a stretch. It’s nuts.
Yet something to aspire to.
What we’re looking for are as many things that we can do with as little concentration as possible, so that we can free up time in as large a chunk as we can.
I finish work at 6 pm every day, for instance, so there isn’t very much time between then and bedtime. A whole evening can vanish before I know it. If I tried to do an uninterrupted four-hour block, I’d pop my head up at 10 pm and realize I hadn’t eaten dinner, exercised, or anything else.
What I want to avoid doing is spending my evening on hold with customer service somewhere, paying bills, emailing my landlord, or otherwise dealing with administrivia or life maintenance.
It turns out that most of these things can be done in five minutes, and almost all in under 15.
I paused while writing this, and hit another shadow labor moment that is quite funny in retrospect.
We were renting a movie, and for whatever reason, iTunes wouldn’t load, so I decided to try to rent it through the Apple TV app. Because I hadn’t done this before, I had to enter my iTunes password with the remote. This is slow and complicated and I should probably figure out how to do it on my phone, except that’s yet more shadow labor.
Just as I was about to enter the last character, I accidentally scrolled too fast and clicked ‘Cancel.’
I started making incoherent blithering sounds and punching the air, as one does.
Then I started laboriously entering my password again - and I accidentally hit cancel *again.*
At that point I gave up and rented the same movie through Amazon Prime.
I had to remind myself that if we weren’t doing this, in this bizarro world that we all currently inhabit, then we would have been at the movie theater, trying to buy a ticket from a glitchy kiosk, or waiting in a long line, or getting our seats kicked by someone’s child. The shadow labor of not shouting at a person.
It’s always something.
Sometimes it seems like if we could just have one easy day, one day without friction, then everything would be perfect. The catch is that whenever friction is removed from one area, it becomes more noticeable in another. The game will never be over.
Focus on focusing. Focus on lengthening the amount of time you can concentrate, and also focus on the amount of leisure time that you have to lounge around doing nothing, thinking nothing at all.
I haven’t finished my New Year’s planning yet.
This is the first time this has happened that I can think of. Usually I spend all December working on my goals and resolutions. Now that I have a day job again, I’m super busy.
I figured it would be fine if I did the rough sketch, then spent New Year’s Day and the rest of the weekend filling in my bullet journal, making my goal board, and all that stuff.
Instead I wound up sleeping all day on the first. By “all day” I mean that I woke up in the morning, ate breakfast, and fell asleep for an hour and a half. Then I woke up again just enough to waddle to the bedroom and pass out again until 4:00 pm. I slept an average of 11 hours a day all weekend and barely did a thing.
I felt pretty bummed that I had slept all day, when I hadn’t finished all my goal stuff on New Year’s Eve either.
By the end of the weekend, when I still had basically nothing done, I thought, Oh no, the magic moment has passed.
It hasn’t, though. In one way, every day is like every other day. We each get 24 hours, and that’s the one and only thing that everyone has in common.
What I did, rather than write up all my plans like normal, was try to fit in the few things I had determined I would do. Mini actions. These are also known as ‘habits’ but I think that the word ‘habit’ has negative connotations. Action, maybe not so much.
One thing I did was to order a new Apple Watch to replace my old one, which is now over five years old. I’ve managed to crack the screen (ask me about my outrageously aggressive arm-swinging habits, which also involve having punched a fire hydrant). It’s also going dim in the middle, so that it doesn’t really serve as a watch anymore. Mainly I use it to unlock my computer in the morning.
It’ll take two weeks to get here, but that’s okay. In a way it gives me a fresh new start on trying to rebuild my baseline fitness. The only thing I really want this year is to feel that I’ve totally recovered from coronavirus.
Another thing I did was to start a new foreign language app (Speakly) and start doing 5-minute Italian lessons. If you’ve been following along, I was going to learn Dutch last year, but this app doesn’t have Dutch lessons, so *shrug* whatever. Next on the list.
This has been so much fun and so instantly rewarding that I’ve maintained a perfect streak so far. Normally I advocate for avoiding streaks in all situations (and I mean all) but especially in the sense of trying to attain instant perfection. Whatever we do, it’s more valuable if we do it 45% of the time than if we get discouraged and quit after skipping a couple days.
Io non parlo inglese!
In the app world, I also started logging my hydration and food intake again. It turns out I’ve been relentlessly dehydrated during the day. Logging my water helps me remember to make sure to drink water - it shouldn’t be 3 pm before I grab a glass. I’ve also had basically instant success with the food log, which is uplifting.
I took care of setting up a few appointments and ordering some stuff, since we were running out of shampoo and a few other things. I did manage to get the case of prescription parrot kibble, so that’s a relief. It’s hard to say what a big deal it feels like to do these 5- and 10-minute tasks when things are popping so much at work.
Sometimes it feels like a big deal just to start the robot mop, and how dumb is that?
Something that happened last year that I didn’t like was that the blog started to fall apart. I was posting more regularly when I was desperately ill than I have been since I got my job. This task that I can never quite seem to get to is to write up a list of topics and then schedule a few posts in advance, the way I used to do for years.
Part of the problem has been feeling like I’ve run out of things to talk about. It’s hard to figure out ways to talk about my cool new job without, you know, talking about it.
This is part of what I love about New Year’s. I have all these shiny new projects that I’d like to do, and I finally have enough energy recovered to attempt them. It gives me plenty to think about, and thus plenty to write about.
Not everyone likes making resolutions or having goals or projects. In fact, it seems like most people don’t, because they get so discouraged when they quit. I think this is because of unhelpful framing, lack of planning, and probably having a dark concept of what resolutions are for and how they work.
For me, it’s the light of my life.
When I was lonely and single after my divorce - I had a plan. I made over my bedroom to make space for a new love, and I started learning to cook - and then I got married again.
When I was flat broke and desperate - I had a plan. I went back to school, and I got a cruddy job, and I determined that I would focus on that job even if all I did was work, eat dinner, and go to bed. I paid off all my loans years early and the degree paid for itself the first year.
At a certain point, I didn’t have as many immediate fixes any more. I had more room to want to play around, go on adventures, and learn new things. This is of course when I started forcing difficult challenges on myself. Those have probably paid off most of all.
Could it be that I’m procrastinating on my big new personal challenge of beating my math anxiety? Perhaps.
Failing to live up to our own standards isn’t the end of the world. It’s the beginning. It’s recognizing that it’s better to have values and desired end goals than not to. It’s a reminder, one of many in a series, that we’ve chosen these purposes for reasons that are valid.
I haven’t finished all my planning for the year, even though it’s one of my favorite things, and that’s okay. The year is still pretty much brand new and we haven’t even cut the tags off yet.
A lifestyle upgrade is anything that makes your life better, easier, more comfortable, more interesting, more fun - or anything else that you decide is an improvement over whatever you had before.
This idea totally turned around how I think about my New Year’s planning. When other people hear ‘resolution’ they tend to think of something like “quit biting your nails.” I think “lifestyle upgrade.” What am I going to do next year that will be better than what I did this year?
Lifestyle upgrades can come in many forms.
You can get rid of an annoyance, and that will be a lifestyle upgrade.
You can change something you’re doing, even in a small way, and that could be a lifestyle upgrade.
You can replace an object or rearrange a room, and that could be a lifestyle upgrade.
You can learn to do something new, and that might be a lifestyle upgrade.
You can make a new friend, and that would most likely be a fantastic lifestyle upgrade.
It’s possible you could spend money and buy something that might be a lifestyle upgrade - but most of the best ones don’t cost anything at all. Some lifestyle upgrades can actually come from spending less money than you were before.
(An example of that might be learning to make better coffee at home instead of paying more for a to-go cup).
(But then again, if it streamlined your morning, spending more for the to-go cup each day might be the real upgrade).
The most important feature of a lifestyle upgrade is that it improves *your* life. It’s not necessarily something trendy that works for other people.
It’s not something you do in service to someone else, unless you truly thrive on that and it ripples back to you in some way.
A lifestyle upgrade is not something you feel like you “should” do to get an A+ on your report card.
The way you know you’ve hit upon a lifestyle upgrade is that you just really dig it. It becomes a habit almost immediately, because you realize you like it so much better than what you were doing before. An example would be throwing away your old flat brown pillow and replacing it with a new one that fits you exactly right.
If lifestyle upgrades cost anything at all, it’s funny how often it’s under $10. Like a new kitchen sponge.
I like focusing on lifestyle upgrades, because it’s the most upbeat and fastest way to demonstrate the value of doing an annual review, planning, and making resolutions.
These are some of the lifestyle upgrades that my hubby and I implemented in 2020.
We decided to only watch movies if they rated at least 70% on Rotten Tomatoes. There were just too many occasions when we watched something with a good preview, and it turned out to make no sense or have giant plot holes. Then it would turn out that this great movie we had been so excited about only rated a 55%. It is crazy how much of a lifestyle upgrade it is to quit watching lame movies.
We also decided to watch a documentary once a week. Usually the documentary is both funnier and more interesting than whatever fictional film we’ve chosen. Documentaries are usually also short.
I learned to cut my hubby’s hair, and then I learned to cut my own. Surprisingly satisfying.
We switched to a new boarder for my little gray parrot. They’re closer, better organized, nicer, cleaner, and they do a better job on grooming. My bird is much less stressed when she goes over there. I think they’re also maybe a dollar cheaper.
We gave away a bunch of stuff, including two tables, a box of wooden hangers, some books for the Little Free Library, and a distressed plant.
We rearranged the stuff on our tiny balcony and put up a planter and a hummingbird feeder. (Anniversary gift). This completely transformed, not just the outside space, but our living room too. Now we get three species of hummingbirds and four other species of passerines coming by from sunrise to sunset.
We started using a humidifier next to the bed at night. Almost instantaneously we both stopped having sneezing fits. It’s hard to say whether it was the dry air, distant wildfire smoke, or smog, but we hadn’t realized how bad it had gotten until it went away.
I moved our whiteboard to the hallway and hung it on the wall, instead of having it stand on a bookcase. It looks better where it is, it’s easier to use, and the space where it used to be looks much better without it. Moving it took a total of 15 minutes.
I rearranged the cabinets under the kitchen sink and the bathroom sink, the linen closet, and the fridge. Same space, same dinky apartment, totally new satisfaction when looking for stuff that is now easy to find.
We started getting produce delivered again, through the same service we’ve used off and on for ten years. Better for the farm, marginally less expensive, and it cuts our grocery trips in half. Hopefully that is safer for the grocery clerks, the delivery driver, our community - and us, of course.
We built Noelie a cardboard box fort. It started as one box, then two, then three. Now it’s four stories high and has six “rooms.” This has been a massive lifestyle upgrade for her, but also for us. It’s stupidly entertaining and it takes little more than assessing boxes while we sort the recycling.
We started going to a local park on the weekend when the weather is nice enough. This park is big enough that we can pick a spot to sit away from the paths, and nobody comes within thirty feet of us. It’s about a three-mile round trip. Hanging out there helps us feel like we got out and did something, and helps avoid the feeling that the walls are closing in. Since we started doing these walks, we’ve seen a few hawks, a coyote, and an owl.
We decided to stretch out our holiday meals and only cook a couple of dishes each night, rather than spend all day trying to replicate a buffet. Magic. We are definitely doing it this way forevermore.
I got a job! My first formal day job in over ten years. I knew I would want, no, NEED something to do during isolation, which I thought might last three years. It would give me a social outlet too. It has felt great to be back in the game, I’ve made friends, and it’s psychologically really meaningful to me to have life insurance on myself. I’m very busy and often pretty tired, but overall, getting a new job has probably been the biggest lifestyle upgrade of them all.
Notice that almost everything we did as a lifestyle upgrade is free of charge. A couple of things wound up saving us money, like going to the park on weekends instead of the movie theater. (Although that is a side effect of the same 2020 that everyone else has been having). The few things we bought, like the hummingbird feeder and the humidifier, can be purchased for under ten bucks).
Part of my New Year’s planning is to think of more lifestyle upgrades for the upcoming year. What lifestyle upgrades are you going to make?
I came up with a new idea for Thanksgiving, and it worked out so well that I thought I’d share.
Or maybe other people have been doing this forever, and I was just the last to hear about it?
Anyway, it was just my hubby and me this year, after many years of either traveling or hosting large, elaborate parties. We were reciting all the delicious things we wanted to cook, and we realized:
THAT IS A LOT OF FOOD FOR TWO PEOPLE
Suddenly it struck me: What if we cooked all of it, and we just drew it out over the entire four-day weekend?
As soon as I had the idea, it clicked into place. Less cooking each night. Less cleanup. More space in the fridge.
We had already succeeded in eating up most of the contents of our freezer that month, and we had plenty of space. I had the additional idea that if we cooked Thanksgiving foods every night, we could box up some of the leftovers and make full fancy meals to save for later!
The idea sounded almost too good to be true. We could cook a fairly normal-sized dinner each night, just like normal, and we would get at least seven nights’ worth of dinners from cooking for four nights.
I’m here to report that it totally worked!
On Wednesday, my hubby made two berry pies. He’s the pie baker in the family. It is his considered opinion that fruit pies are better when they’ve had a day to rest. Also, it’s less work when the pies are the only thing going on in the kitchen. He was able to roll out the dough on a bare countertop with nothing and no one in his way.
There is something about the presence of home-made pies in the kitchen, waiting to be enjoyed, that makes everything else seem like less work.
On Thursday, we both cooked, and we were able to take turns to an extent. We haven’t had a kitchen that was big enough for both of us to cook at the same time in at least five years. I made cornbread and Brussels sprouts, and he made mashed potatoes and gravy. We also had store-bought cranberry sauce.
On Friday, we both cooked again. This time I made a double batch of green bean casserole and he made biscuits. We had leftovers of everything from Thursday, including plenty of pie.
On Saturday, we had eaten up all the mashed potatoes, so he made mashed sweet potatoes. Neither of us likes the kind with brown sugar or whatever. We still had leftovers of everything else from both Thursday and Friday at this point, including pie, and it was quite the spread!
By the time Sunday rolled around, the fridge and freezer were pretty full and we had at least half a dozen separate dishes to simply heat and eat.
You’re probably curious what were the main entrees, and that is something of a moot point, but we did it all vegan. The first night we made a Gardein holiday roast, and there was plenty for leftovers on Friday and one set of boxed dinners. The third night we made the regular Gardein turkey cutlets with gravy, cooking up a second bag so we could freeze a set of leftovers. The fourth night I made marinated tempeh and we froze our last set of boxed dinners.
We have a set of divided glass containers that I bought a few years ago. They have three sections, one larger and two a bit smaller. That works out to a main and two sides, though we were able to also fit in a little piece of cornbread in each one. We had three separate pairs of meals put away, and one night when we were very busy, we just whipped some out and microwaved them.
Arguably, that is both faster and tastier than ordering a pizza and standing on the sidewalk waiting for it. (We live in a city apartment).
It’s hard to say what the best part was about slow-walking our Thanksgiving. By Saturday we basically had a buffet of leftovers, just like most people do on Thanksgiving Friday. But we didn’t really do any more cooking or cleanup any night all week. We were able to fit everything in the dishwasher each night and easily wipe down the counters.
The only mistake I made is that I waited too long to go shopping, and when I went to buy myself a jar of cornichons, they were completely sold out. FAIL. Never fear, though, I learned from my error and restocked the next time I went in.
We’re definitely repeating our slow holiday feast. The only difference is that I think next time we’ll make cinnamon rolls for breakfast, too.
* Note: I also gave a little extra to the food drive that week.
Everyone I know seems to be thinking of one thing right now, which is pine-scented and red and green and has a bunch of tinsel hanging off it. Me, I’m thinking about how close we are to the New Year! There are only two weeks until New Year’s Eve and I am oh so ready for it.
Is it just me, or is saying goodbye to 2020 going to feel much more jubilant than other years?
It is hard to express just how seriously I take the transition between the new year and the old. For years, all the biggest and most interesting stuff I have done is because of intentions that I set formally at the new year.
Some of what I am doing over the next two weeks, traditionally, is digging out whatever I wrote down the previous year and checking to see if I’ve done it. If not, do I have time to check it off?
(Goal-setting and success are really technicalities. They’re measurements that you choose for yourself and decisions that you make about what is important to you. Therefore, just pick things you want to do and make rules that get you a win!)
What I’m going for is a sparkling feeling of starting the new year off with a clean slate. Part of how I do that is to try to make sure that I don’t drag anything from the old year that is unfinished.
No unfinished books, or maybe just one
Clean fridge and freezer
Donations dropped off
No worn-out socks, underwear, t-shirts etc with holes
No pending notifications on my phone, which is something I struggle with
Nothing expired, whether food, medications, or whatever
Current on doctor, dentist, haircut, vet, whatever appointments (although this year exceptions have been made on the haircut front)
No dried-out pens, broken pencils, etc
I am consistently doing drawer and closet purges throughout the year. That makes it easy to do the big year-end roundup. I physically walk around my apartment, scanning over every shelf in every cupboard and asking, Is it obvious why I have this?
In a small place, this can be done in well under an hour, even if there are a lot of inventory decisions to be made. Examples would be whether the clothes in our go bags still fit or whether all the bandages in the first aid kit are still sealed.
What tends to take longer is digital clutter. Do I really use all the apps on my phone? (No, of course not, but am I ready to do anything about that?) How close am I to the storage limit? Do I really need to save a dozen copies of a photo I accidentally took in burst mode?
Something that I do every month is to change the wallpaper and the lock screen on my phone. This is fun, and it also reminds me that time is passing and the seasons are changing. I like the image I choose for January to be something upbeat and bright, unlike, say, the weather. (This is in contrast to what I choose for October, which tends to be dark and spooky).
Another big deal is the choosing of the new day planner. I love them all. In theory I like the idea of having a neat row of matching planners, but in practice, I prefer swapping them out. It wouldn’t be beyond me to get a new yearly planner every month. A silly waste, not Organized at all, but a fun and frivolous idea nonetheless.
The most important thing that I do during this time, while I am winding down, is to think about what has become the default setting for my life. How am I spending most of my time? Where is my attention going? Who am I spending time with, and is that a coincidence? What does my home look like on an average day, and am I happy with that?
These, to me, aren’t really answers that I can jot down in an hour or two of New Year’s Eve planning. I find it better to let them settle so that I’m sure I have a true sense of where my time is going and how I feel about that.
Usually I come to the same conclusions: That I don’t get enough sleep, that I should probably try to relax more and be more social, that we could use more art on the walls, that I should be listening to music more often, that my wardrobe is shifting back toward more somber colors again, that I could probably spend a bit more time doing things I enjoy, like solving cryptograms or reading poetry.
Then we all launch into the New Year and, like everyone else, my good intentions start to dissipate, to vanish into the atmosphere until I am back on my BS.
Why do I seem to keep voluntarily choosing to be a stress case?
This year my self-care goals are perhaps more important than they’ve ever been. At this time last year, I was recovering from a minor surgery after a life-threatening infection. Just a few months later I got COVID-19. I’ve never been so tired for so long, and it’s really challenging sometimes just to drag myself through the day.
This annual planning, though, is perking me up. It’s helping me to remember who I am, and it’s helping me to imagine a time a year from now when I might not feel unwell any more.
These two weeks are my pre-planning phase. These are the things I do before the big night. On New Year’s Eve, my husband and I sit down together and make goals for the year to come. We talk about where we’d like to go on vacation and how we might want to spend our wedding anniversary, that sort of thing.
This year, it’s going to be so much more exciting than usual. This is the year that we may get our vaccines. This is the year that everything has a chance to go back to normal. Normal never sounded so good.
It came up in casual conversation that my friend’s purse weighs over six pounds. The only reason she knows this is that she is recovering from major surgery and she is not supposed to lift anything that weighs more than... five pounds.
“What do you even have in there?”
“Everything! I’m like a Boy Scout - except I was never a Boy Scout - be prepared, right?”
“My husband is an Eagle Scout and he doesn’t carry a six-pound purse.”
Everyone knows that it’s a little silly to carry a huge, heavy purse. That’s fine - I am a big proponent of silly, as my sock drawer will attest. The main reason not to carry that big of a bag is that it can lead to chiropractic problems and chronic neck and shoulder pain.
Or at least it used to be.
The main reason not to carry a big, heavy purse now is that everything in it is vulnerable to contamination from coronavirus.
It also raises a few pertinent questions.
I happen to know that my friend still goes to church almost every day of the week. Physically. There are undoubtedly hundreds of thousands of people doing this, which makes me really sad, because I was under the impression that church is about love and caring and having a close community. In my mind, that means protecting each other from deadly infections at the bare minimum!
Let’s change that subject, though, and talk a bit more about the whole “being prepared” aspect of scouting. I know a bit about it because I’ve been trekking for weeks on end with my husband, the Eagle Scout. It drives me crazy with envy that he got to do that, since girls are still not allowed, and I was obsessed with survivalism when I was around 12.
You mean to tell me you know how to build an actual snow cave?? And start a fire without matches??
This is why my hubby doesn’t carry a six-pound purse - or any purse. As long as I have known him, he carries:
...and, now, his eyeglasses and a mask.
I have learned this, having absorbed these lessons through proximity. And distance running. On the vanishingly rare occasions when I leave the apartment, I bring:
...and two fabric masks and a plastic face shield.
I bring my phone and keys even when I take out the trash, because I have to let myself back through the security system. One night I forgot, and I wasn’t able to go back up the elevator, and then the call box no longer worked due to a security upgrade. I had to call my hubby to come downstairs and let me in. Good thing he doesn’t go on travel anymore!
What a big purse is about is not really being prepared - it’s feeling like you can handle anything that might come up.
Is that actually true?
My friend mentioned that she carries a sewing kit. Yeah, me too. I have a sewing kit in my expedition backpack and another one in my suitcase. How would I deal with it if I... had a sewing emergency while I was outside somewhere??
...I... look over my clothes when I fold the laundry?
I have owned a sewing kit since at least the age of ten. I have used one several times. Not once have I needed it while doing errands or out for a run. Why not just keep it in the car?
There is one “emergency” item that I keep in my work bag - a bag that currently resides inside my bedroom closet - and that is a backup battery for my phone. I used to use it at least once a week, since I spent a lot of time on the bus, going to club meetings, or writing for hours in a cafe. (Remember when?) Then it turned out that I almost never needed it, because I got a phone upgrade and the battery life was better.
Why carry such a relatively heavy item everywhere I went?
My friend evidently feels safe and prepared because she has a sewing kit, among nameless other items, in her six-pound purse.
In reality, she is endangering her health post-surgery, causing herself actual physical pain by carrying so much.
She is also endangering her health by continuing to leave her house and socialize with people in enclosed indoor spaces, like she used to do before the pandemic.
Look, I know a lot of people are still gallivanting around because they believe they have evaluated the risk and made a conscious, adult decision. I know that. One of them had a phone conversation with me last week, wanting to know why I hadn’t made a bigger fuss about how serious my COVID symptoms were, because if she had realized she might not have traveled with three other families who all wound up getting sick.
What I’m talking about is how people make decisions, and how we evaluate risks, and what we do to mitigate those risks.
I changed a few things after I got sick with COVID. One of them was to reevaluate who I accept into my social group. One of my close friends is a loving, giving person who tolerates a wide spectrum of behavior in her friends that I don’t really tolerate in mine. I don’t trust her friends, and therefore I won’t socialize with my friend until the pandemic is over. Afterward, well, I’m still going to reevaluate.
We had a quaranteam buddy for a while. That ended a few months ago for a variety of reasons.
My husband and I now socialize with zero people in person. The only people we see are our inconsiderate neighbors who refuse to wear masks in our building lobby, laundry room, elevator, etc. We are physically afraid to open our front door, much less go anywhere.
That’s why neither of us will be found carrying a six-pound purse. Carry it where?
This is the best, most important book on paper organizing that I have yet read. The reason is that Lisa Woodruff focuses on the papers we all should keep, and why.
To wit: Disaster preparedness and financial security.
Woodruff shares how she got started. Her paper organizing system was born in chaos, debt, and depression. She also has special needs kids. Her system helped her resolve her financial issues, advocate for her children, and build a business that helps others do the same.
More importantly, Woodruff’s clients have been able to grab their important documents while escaping from natural disasters. This gives me life!
The revolutionary feature of The Paper Solution is that certain specific papers should be consolidated for action and reference. These are what I would call ‘action items’ and ‘reference.’ Woodruff’s Sunday Basket system would be a huge help for anyone who has a lot of paper in their life or especially anyone with little kids.
I can share from my experience working with hoarders and the chronically disorganized that my people struggle to think of things in categories or systems. The Paper Solution would be a very good choice, because Woodruff teaches in meticulous detail how to set up and use a streamlined, effective system.
“I feel like I’m getting back my house.”
“I have made my feelings about filing cabinets known. Get them out of your house!”
I have to know. After all this, have you set up a desk yet?
Desks have always interested me, because in my experience most people don’t really use them. Desks are chosen more for their aesthetics than whether someone actually wants to sit in front of them and do stuff. Now that so many of us are stuck at home, when we never planned to be, I’m getting very curious how it’s all working out.
How many people live at your place? How many of them are studying or working from home? And how many have a physical desk?
The amazing thing to me, in my work with hoarders, has always been the way that stuff takes over areas that are no longer useful. Even when a certain space would be perfect for something that someone likes to do, that activity isn’t getting done because the stuff is in the way. The baker can’t bake, the crafter doesn’t have any flat surfaces to lay anything out, the writer has nowhere to write, the dancer can’t dance.
This is why I wonder. Now that the world has changed, are people changing the way they live amongst their stuff?
One of my friends has recently made a huge change. She has been dealing with chronic disorganization at least as long as I’ve known her, enough so that she’s been evicted at least twice over it. All of a sudden, she reached out and took me up on my offer to coach her. We talked on the phone for an hour - ONE HOUR! - and she’s spent the last several weeks clearing out her place. She sends me video updates from time to time and it’s incredibly dramatic.
Underneath all the piles, there emerges a fine design sensibility and some very graciously appointed rooms. Who knew?
My friend runs her own business, but it is in no way paperwork-related. I don’t think she has a desk at all, and if she did I have no idea what she would do at it. She’s all phone, all the time. She remains my only client who has no issues with paper clutter.
I think a lot of people have a desk because it was given to them at some point, possibly in high school, and they just move it from place to place. They may never have stopped to ask whether they even like it, much less want it, use it, or need it.
Others probably have a “computer desk” that they picked up in the time when we all used desktop computers with a bunch of peripherals and disks. They may not have noticed that at some point they pivoted to doing almost everything on their phone or a tablet.
Most of my people have desks that are basically just another flat surface for piling mail and other papers. The dining table and the kitchen counters are basically the same way. When I do home visits, (or used to), we would whip through the papers at lightning speed because almost none of them were useful. It would be 90% junk mail, restaurant menus, catalogues, coupons, and random stuff they never asked for. Most of what was left was redundant, stuff we don’t need to keep, like utility bills and grocery receipts.
This is what I wonder. How likely is it that people are still hunched over, working or studying in some uncomfortable position all day, when all that unsorted paper is still piled up doing nobody any good?
I think about it a lot, because I started a new job not long after the stay-at-home order, and I wasn’t ready. I didn’t have a decent office chair. I was using a wooden folding chair, one with slats that I never realized were so cruel. In all the time I had used this desk, I’d never sat at it for more than maybe two hours at a time. It actually made my butt go numb.
After two months of nine-hour days, I was ready for a proper ergonomic chair, ugly as it is. I assembled it at 10 pm because there was no way I was waiting another day. After a bit of time sitting in my lovely new chair, I bought a velvet seat cushion and I never looked back.
Life is too short to be hunched over and giving yourself back, shoulder, and neck pain at some makeshift pretense of a work station. Or to put your legs to sleep because you’re sitting in a slatted folding chair.
I know I’m not the only person who was doing this because I found out my work partner was using the exact same type of chair. It would be an extremely weird coincidence if we were the only two people on Earth who were doing that to ourselves.
I realize that money is tight or nonexistent for a lot of households right now. I also know that a lot of people habitually give their stuff all the best real estate and furniture in the house, and leave only little slivers for themselves. For many people, what they need to do in order to be more comfortable is to remove things, not buy or add things.
In the past few months, I’ve given away a lot of things to various strangers in the neighborhood. This has caused me to notice how much other stuff people are giving away, and that oddly seems to include a lot of desks, bookshelves, and chairs. It’s probably a combination of people relocating, and upgrading to newer furniture when they realize that what they had in February 2020 wasn’t working after the world changed. It’s entirely possible to take a look at the listings and realize that you’d be doing someone a favor by taking your perfect desk off their hands. Help them make some space.
Make yourself some space.
A question that is always helpful to ask is, If not now, when? What’s the exit strategy for what I’m doing? When will I want to do something else instead? The way we arrange our rooms is part of that, that sense that it’s good to change things from time to time. It’s good to make sure that our stuff serves us, and make sure we are not at its mercy.
Take a moment to look around and ask yourself, if you’re working from home: Is it time to set up a real desk? Maybe something different, maybe in a different spot? Is it time to finally sort out some stuff and let it go?
Best of luck to you, and I hope your chair is as good to you as you deserve.
I’m tossing around a concept presented by Barry Davret that is really blowing my mind right now. Never get ready.
What does this mean?
The idea is that most of us spend a lot of time doing a lot of stuff that doesn’t actually help our situation. We burn energy “getting ready” to do whatever the thing is, energy that would better be used for doing that actual thing.
I think this is both true and untrue, depending on how the point is taken. As a poster or a slogan on a coffee mug, it might be very helpful for some and for others, it might simply make a great excuse.
Let’s look at some examples.
Someone who is trying to start a business, who puts tons of effort into building a social media presence, choosing logos, fussing over a website - and does not actually make any sales.
Someone who is “getting ready” to go out, who puts on and takes off several outfits, throwing them on the bed and the floor, and then leaves various bottles and jars strewn all over the bathroom counter. This person may feel nervous and self-conscious throughout the event, tugging garments into place and forgetting to actually have fun. (“This person” is probably every single middle-school student).
Someone who is getting ready to make a craft project, who shops for materials and buys books and chooses patterns, who has a half a dozen projects in progress, but then never actually finishes anything. (Me 1997-2009)
Someone who is getting ready to start dating, who signs up for an app, looks at tons of profiles, maybe even starts talking to people, but then never actually meets anyone in person.
One of the classics that I see in my work with chronically disorganized people is the sheer quantity of little tasks they will do before they walk out the door to go anywhere. Take the date-night “getting ready” aesthetic jitters, and add half a mile of pacing back and forth looking for objects or finishing little chores. It’s exponentially harder with small kids.
I used to be this way myself, until I acknowledged that I didn’t want to leave at all and I was coming up with reasons to stay in my apartment as long as I could.
This is what Davret is driving at with the exhortation to “never get ready.” Just jump in and do the thing, whatever it is.
I agree with him 99%.
The 1% of hesitation is that a certain amount of preparation is necessary in order to get straight to the target action. This is what we mean by Getting Organized.
For instance, I keep a shower kit packed at all times. When I want(ed) to go on a trip (before COVID), I would simply grab it and put it in my suitcase. I have another little pouch with a charging hub, backup batteries, adapters, and extra cables, including one for my Apple Watch. I have recorded myself packing for a trip in under five minutes. I put four changes of clothes, pajamas, and a pair of shoes in a suitcase that fits under an airplane seat. This is how I have managed to be a one-bag traveler for many years, even overseas.
In this sense, I can do what I want and “never get ready,” because I am always ready!
In another sense, there is a sort of carefree interpretation of “never getting ready” that would not benefit from my system. Sure, it’s possible to get on a plane with nothing but a passport and a credit card, and why not? I’ve thought about it quite a bit, in fact. It’s through the experience of nearly 40 years of travel that I’ve chosen to bring a certain amount of excess, like a blister stick and some headache tablets, because it makes my life easier and it saves time.
Let’s do another example. I took up public speaking several years ago, because it made me miserable and I was terrible at it. All you can do is improve, right? When I started out, I would spend a week working on a five-minute speech, and an entire day memorizing it. The good news is that I learned I am really good at memorization. The bad news was, whenever I would lose my spot, I would vapor-lock and have no idea what to say.
My friends in the club finally convinced me to start winging it and quit trying to memorize my stuff. “It’s your own story and you know what’s going to happen,” they said.
It didn’t take long before I started winning Best Speaker ribbons for impromptu speaking. Now I rarely do any preparation for a speech at all. I might read a couple of articles, but usually my material arises naturally out of whatever I’ve been reading and thinking about that week. I never get ready any more because I’ve reached a state of constant readiness.
What the desire for getting ready and feeling prepared comes from is anxiety. Perhaps there’s a mix of impostor syndrome in there, along with an intolerance for being in the Place of Uncertainty.
The question is: Can I handle this?
The answer, most of the time, is: Of course I can.
Of course you can.
There are a bunch of specific skills that tend to give someone a feeling of being better prepared for the weirder events of life. They should be advertised this way.
Basically it feels like this: I have a go bag, I can talk my way out of most situations and maybe buy my way out of others, if it all starts to go sideways I can fight melee, and after that I can patch myself up and maybe hide out in the woods for a while. Anything that doesn’t fit these parameters shouldn’t affect my self-esteem too much anyway.
In one sense, it’s true, we should probably never get ready. We should just focus on doing whatever it is that is truly important to us. In another sense, maybe we should focus more on being ready for anything.
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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