What is the thing that you would protect at all costs?
I’m not talking about your phone - although honestly, that’s the obvious one - or your kid or your cat. I’m talking the secret little thing that you do, the part of your life that you will make happen no matter how weird things get.
Morning cup of coffee?
Afternoon chocolate bar?
Reading a little before bed?
Everyone has something. One of mine is taking pictures of trash. My hubby knows I may suddenly stop in the middle of the sidewalk, even when we’re on vacation, or go back several paces so I can get my shot. It’s just part of the deal.
We know how to protect our assets when they’re important enough to us.
I was reading a time management article in Fast Company that introduced this concept in the sense of time management.
Ah yes, I thought, that is a brilliant way of looking at it. For instance, I will not go anywhere without breakfast, preferably a hot one. Doesn’t matter if we’re on the way to the airport for a redeye flight, preparing to drive a moving van several hours, or even if we’ve spent the night in the emergency room at the hospital. I am going to eat breakfast so don’t even argue.
Then I realized that this concept of protecting the asset is the difference between tidy people and... my people, the chaos club.
It’s a matter of mindset, like most things.
Many of my people associate cleaning up and getting organized with punishment and trauma. They never learned to do these things the easy way, it could never feel like a natural part of their life because it only ever happened under high-stress, emotional conditions.
On the other hand, the sort of people whose homes look like they could be on the cover of a magazine? The HGTV people? They don’t think this way at all.
What is going through their minds is more like “let’s make this pretty.” Or “I’m framing this shot so the composition is not disrupted.” They’re not focused on the drudgery at all - they’re simply restoring their environment so that it more closely matches their aesthetic vision.
...I know, right??
It actually irked me when I learned that chefs clean their own kitchen area every night. Argh, I thought, don’t let my husband read this! I was firmly of the opinion that after I slaved away over a hot pan, someone who was not me should do the cleanup.
(We’ve gone back and forth on that over the twelve years of our marriage. Some years, one of us cooked and the other cleaned, and then we would trade the next night. A few of these stints, we’ve done both the cooking and the cleaning on the same night, which is where we are now, and we still trade nights).
As my cooking improved, though, I started to feel it. I started to feel that resonance with the kitchen counter and the sink and stove as my work area, my artist’s palette. As I wiped things down, what I’d be thinking about was the next recipe I wanted to try, and how much easier it always is to walk into a spotless kitchen and get started.
Who was I doing it for? Myself.
Protecting the asset is, in one sense, my gleaming sink.
In another sense, it’s the precious bubble of my desire to compose delicious meals. For myself, and, incidentally, my husband, or sometimes my family or friends as well.
This is the biggest difference between me and a burned-out stay-at-home mom.
Well, besides the facts that 1. I can’t have kids and 2. Most 45-year-olds don’t have little kids at home.
I know that no matter who lives with me, I live there too. No matter who else is eating, this is my meal. This is my own lifestyle.
My asset, in this sense, is my sense of my own home, my household, my lifestyle, my daily routine. I live the way that I choose to live, and unfortunately that takes a certain amount of labor.
Some are willing to put nearly infinite time into their hair, their eye makeup, their nail art, their fashion choices, maintaining their shoe collection. Others put that time into gaming and creating a virtual universe for their avatars.
This is an affirmation that whatever it is that we truly love to do, we should raise it up and enjoy it. Own it, declare it - in the secrecy of our own hearts if we don’t literally feel like telling anyone else about it.
What I’ve learned to love are fine home-cooked meals and an intentional living environment.
One of those is a sort of natural outgrowth of loving a parrot.
She’s a whirlwind of loose feathers, shredded cardboard, and nibbled kibble that she’s somehow flung six feet in every direction. She is so unfathomably messy that it’s impossible to coast along and ignore it. My fluffy little gray asset.
The other thing about choosing to accept domestic scutwork with good grace is that it helps to hide my little secret. That secret is that I live for books, always have, always will. Scooting around cleaning is my way of ensuring that I have at least a little time to myself to get into my audiobook.
The asset, the asset. If I didn’t have a certain amount of private time to read every day, I would lose my mind. I honestly don’t know how other people survive without it.
This idea, of framing things as assets and putting the focus on that - rather than problems - can change your life if you let it.
The assets of mental bandwidth
The assets of relationships and long conversations
The assets of the physical environment - the soft bed, the sparkling kitchen, the reading chair, the indulgent bathtub, the desk where interesting things happen
The asset is anything you want it to be, anything that you choose for yourself. There’s no reason to limit yourself to just one. What if it was an asset of entitlement to something like privacy or creative expression or advanced education?
It’s only been two weeks, and the results are indisputable. I made a minor tweak on my phone, it led to a pretty major behavior change, and now I’m sleeping almost two hours more per night on average.
I can’t believe it worked that well and that fast.
It’s actually a little embarrassing.
Not everyone feels this way, but for me, I feel like, if I was able to sleep then I obviously needed it. Not only will I refuse to apologize to anyone for sleeping, but if another person is actively interfering with my sleep, I will put them on blast and deal with it.
You! Have you ever woken someone else up because you were annoyed that they were sleeping? And they weren’t behind the wheel of a moving vehicle? Then you should probably reconsider what the heck is wrong with you.
Sleep is free and healthy. When other people are sleeping, you are then free to read or enjoy your alone time. So make the most of it.
Anyway. I sleep a lot because I’m a COVID survivor and I also have a parasomnia disorder. Sometimes I have issues sleeping, even with various OTC sleep aids, and I can struggle for weeks or months in this way. Being chronically sleep-deprived is bad for my productivity at work. So it’s quite a pleasant surprise when I’m able to sleep a lot.
This year I started to notice that I was sleep-procrastinating, which is staying up too late even when you’re tired because you’re so desperate for downtime. It’s a way for Night-Me to “get revenge” on Daytime-Me. You know, for having a job and responsibilities and stuff.
Sleep-procrastinating is a pernicious habit because the rewards are immediate. Look at me! Reading late at night! In my pajamas in my bed where I am so cozy! This is my favorite activity of all time!
Then there is Daytime-Me, crabby and irritable and tired, oh-so-tired, until it’s bedtime again and Night-Me gets this big ear-to-ear grin and starts the whole cycle over again.
I had a solid idea of what was behind this. My news queue. I knew without having to track metrics that my default mode was skimming my news app. I also knew that I was most likely to get myself into trouble with this after I was already in bed.
I made three tweaks, all of which work together.
First, I set up a bedtime routine in my Morning Routine app. It turns out that it takes me forty minutes to get ready for bed, partly because I see a periodontist now and I may have some of the most elaborate oral hygiene practices on the planet. So whenever I start that app, add at least forty minutes before my head hits the pillow.
To me, a bedtime routine is the number one keystone habit. It determines whether the household is always on time, early, or late. It determines quite a lot of health results. And it definitely determines whether everyone is fighting or basically getting along.
My bedtime routine is elaborate because I like to sleep until 7:30 am for an 8:00 am start at work. The more I do before bed, the less I have to do in the morning. Basically throw on clothes, straighten my hair, and make my tea.
Anyway, I had been using the bedtime routine app with some success, but then when I was finished, I would flop down and start skimming the news again. This practice was indeed streamlining my morning and making sure I remembered to start the dishwasher. But it wasn’t really helping me fight the bad habits and self-destructive tomfoolery of Night-Me.
Don’t feel the mogwai after midnight
I happened to stumble across an article that indicated I could customize my access to specific apps on my phone. As soon as I knew it was possible, I knew I wanted to do it.
This sort of thing only works if you trust yourself to be your own advocate. My superego is pretty good at driving the bus around here. I am not particularly vulnerable to psychological reactance, where we get mad at ourselves for setting limits. I just shrug and say to myself, Ah yes, I remember that I decided that was the best idea. Questioner Power.
Tweak One was setting up a bedtime routine that is gamified with a timer.
Tweak Two was setting a bedtime on my phone. Almost all apps are unusable between 10pm and 7am, which is a moot point since I’m still asleep at that time. I had to go back and add in a few apps, like the Morning Routine, that I use after 10.
Tweak Three was to set a one-hour time limit on my News app.
It turns out the third tweak was the biggest deal. I am now quite aware that every minute I skim through the news queue takes away one minute from reading that app during my workout.
There are a lot of ways to cheat; for instance, I can open an article in my browser instead and read it outside of the one-hour limit. This is perfectly fine by my standards. In fact, most of the news that I consume is through my speed-reading audio app anyway.
Because I also have the 10:00 pm shutoff, most of the time that I would have idly been reading news articles would be in the time between 10 pm and, on weekends, 1:00 am. As long as I’m not browsing in that three-hour window, any amount is probably fine.
My new setup started working the very first night. I picked up my phone, saw that it was shut down for the night, shrugged, and started getting ready for bed. I’m “allowed” to read books on my phone after 10, just not the news or email, and it turned out that I was asleep before midnight.
As time has gone by, I seem to be falling asleep a few minutes earlier each night.
Part of my higher weekly average is that I take three-hour naps on the weekend, but then, I was doing that before I set up these time boundaries on my phone. Almost all the increase in my average sleep time has just been going to bed earlier and falling asleep earlier during the week.
I have the power to change what I’m doing any time. I can turn off these settings on my phone. I can also start getting ready for bed even earlier and see what happens. It is pretty interesting to be able to track my metrics at a glance.
How do I feel? I feel great. I also feel like I could easily take a second nap each day on the weekend, but I haven’t yet. Daytime-Me keeps thinking there are “things I should be doing.”
But... are there?
We played hooky.
By that I mean, I went to the dentist, and my hubby drove, and he used comp time and I used two hours of vacation.
I was supposed to take the whole day off. I just couldn’t quite bring myself to do it.
All the same, what we managed to do with a fairly brief window of time off duty felt like a vacation day. Properly planned, it doesn’t take very much.
The first thing that made this day feel like a vacation day is that neither of us had to sign on at a particular time. I blew off my morning stand-up meeting since I had already written up and submitted a status report. Delayed delivery is our friend!
More of us should start taking it seriously when we say “this meeting could have been an email” - and actually write the email and then cancel that meeting.
I did have a meeting scheduled that I had forgotten about when I asked for the day off. I wanted to keep it, though, and we wound up finishing our discussion in under fifteen minutes. Whether “work” feels like “work” depends almost entirely on how much agency you have around your project. It doesn’t even have to be interesting or challenging if you feel like you are the boss of getting it done.
Since I had this meeting that I wanted to keep, I made an intuitive decision that I would put in a certain amount of a proper workday, and that I would do it sub-rosa. I simply wouldn’t log in or talk to anyone else, and I would get some stuff off my backlog.
This was a little nutty but it totally worked. It felt like I got two days off in one - the equivalent to my working Fridays, when nobody else is around and I can be 3x as productive - plus a fun outing.
It turned out my hubby also had a morning meeting that he had forgotten about, even though he, too, scheduled a day off. His was a little later than mine, so I used the time to get some stuff done. We both left feeling productive.
We took off, having temporary use of our friend’s car. (Everyone loves you when you have your own personal parking spot in a secured garage, at least when that spot is empty).
We drove to our old town, where neither of us can quite bring ourselves to break up with our dentist, even though it’s quite a haul. The truth is that trips to the dentist also make room for a quick tour around our old stomping grounds, and we still enjoy that, so much so that we keep talking about moving back.
(That is, until we drive home again and realize all over again how untenable the commute would be, even for a day).
While I had my appointment, my hubby sat outside our favorite old Starbucks, drank tea, and read a book.
One important secret to playing hooky is to do it during a season when you really appreciate the weather. Some people are going to want a snow day, some people are going to choose rain rolling down the window, and we of course are going to choose hot summer weather.
This is really the ingredient that made our day special. Half an hour of driving was like fast-forwarding from spring to summer. It was about 15 F hotter in town than it was at home. I wore a sleeveless top and a skirt, while I’ve been wearing sweaters for months.
It’s not quite enough to forget that one is wearing two masks plus a face shield, but maybe it’s as close as one can get right now.
I went to the dentist, and the news was not good, and I sometimes wonder what I have done to have this sort of saga visited on me. On the other hand, it does mean I’m going back again, and I have another appointment to look forward to, and I can try to think of all the fun parts of that day rather than dental implements.
After my appointment, I had a nice sunny walk down what used to be one of my favorite parts of town. I remembered all the times I went into the bookstore that was now open for curbside pickup only. I remembered past years when I had bought Girl Scout cookies from a table on the sidewalk, right at that corner. I remembered living there and having no idea that 2020 was coming and just swinging my arms and having a bare face.
Then I saw my hubby sitting at his little outdoor table. It has been a very long time since I was just able to walk up on him from a distance and see him from that vantage. I like to pretend sometimes that he’s just a random single boy and I’m a single girl and that I’m going to try to chat him up.
He told me a little about his book, which I imagine he would have done if I were flirting with him, because that would totally work.
We ordered sandwiches from what used to be our favorite sandwich shop. Sometimes we would eat there and then go see a movie. This time, we got our food in a bag and drove across town and went to a park.
Eating a meal in a park, when you haven’t done that for a long time, can feel like a vacation in itself.
It was such fine picnic weather. I saw a yellow-rumped warbler and a black phoebe and a very saucy squirrel. We ate potato chips and drank lemonade and felt that we had the entire day to do whatever we liked.
Then, of course, we realized that we really needed to get a move-on if we were going to beat traffic, and remembered all over again what it’s like to drive on a six-lane freeway, and why we decided never to have a freeway commute again, and why we got rid of our car.
We were back before 4:00 pm. It was a coin-toss whether I would log back on and work a bit more, or not. But it was too late to take a nap, and I had to sign my timecard anyway, and I realized I wanted to get stuff done. So I worked another two hours. But it felt like nothing.
The best parts of the day were enjoying the fine summer weather and having hours together to chat casually about whatever. In every respect, it was like a vacation day.
Except that I only had to take two hours of vacation to pull that off.
I’m sad to say that if I had taken the entire day off, like I originally planned, I probably would have spent a lot of the day thinking about work. I would have worried about what was lurking in my email and I would have stressed about how much more I would have to do the next day. This is definitely something that I need to work on - and a lot of people in our culture should probably join me. I will give myself credit for taking a part of a day and using it recreationally, which is what vacation time is for.
How about you? Are you leaving comp time or vacation time on the table? When is the last time you took an afternoon off, or even took a long lunch?
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’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.
She’s suffering. She’s sleep deprived. She’s got stuff going on at work. She’s the only one of my friends with fibromyalgia who actually wants advice from me. This is what I tell her.
You can get through this and you need more sleep!
When I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia back in the Nineties, nobody knew much about it. One of my doctors called it a “wastebasket diagnosis.” Another said I should only join a support group “if you want to have it forever.” (I didn’t join). It was obvious everyone thought it was psychosomatic, which is what they always think before they understand what something is. They used to say that Lyme disease and multiple sclerosis were psychosomatic, too. Then someone started marketing a pharmaceutical to treat it, and suddenly, fibromyalgia was “real.”
I never got any prescriptions - I had figured out how to manage it on my own long before I found out there was finally a treatment. Other than a couple of brief flare-ups, I haven’t had symptoms in many years.
The golden key to my recovery was to improve the quality and quantity of my sleep.
My friend is caught in the cycle of sleeplessness, then finally taking a nap in the middle of the day when she feels like she can. Her eating schedule is completely thrown off.
I tell her that if she can make herself eat on a normal schedule, her sleep hormones will start to adjust.
Nobody wants to hear advice just fired at them - who needs it? What haven’t we heard already? - so I keep reminding her of how I was in the same position that she’s in, that I remember how awful it feels, that this was the only thing that finally worked for me.
Eat on a schedule and quit taking naps, cold turkey.
One of the worst feelings is to be badly sleep deprived, finally feel like you can take a nap, and then have to fight that feeling for six hours or more until you can go to bed at a normal time. It’s entirely contrary to nature.
Unfortunately, it’s part of the cure.
What we’re trying to do is to align the hormones that make us sleepy and the hormones that cause us to wake up, so that we can feel tired and go to sleep at bedtime, and then wake up naturally when it’s time to get up.
When we eat and nap at inconsistent times, our sleep hormones get spun up. This is why we can fight exhaustion all day, only to snap awake as soon as we get in bed.
It feels extremely unfair, but the brain wants what it wants. It just doesn’t know how to ask for it politely.
What I do when I need a “reset” is to force myself to stay awake until 9:00 pm. Whether that means splashing cold water on my face, walking miles out in strong sunlight, standing up and sitting down a lot, or any other method I can imagine, I’ll do it. I keep reminding myself that I can make a trade. I can have either this one day of sleep hell, or at least three weeks of sleep disaster day after day.
My hubby and I use this technique when we travel, and we’ve found that we can now adjust to a new time zone in a single day. Just try to get on the new time zone’s meal schedule as soon as possible. Sometimes this means eating a small meal when you’re not very hungry at all. Other times it means waiting and being famished for a few hours, depending on the airport and arrival times. Step one, get on the local meal schedule. Step two, stay awake until an appropriate bedtime on the first night.
It can be done. It can be done if you have full faith and trust that one day’s suffering will pay off quickly.
The alternative is to give in to the day’s overwhelming physical signals, still feel cruddy and low-energy, and essentially punch Future You in the face over and over again.
I don’t tell my friend this part, because she isn’t ready to hear it, but my food intake is squeaky clean. I don’t drink alcohol or coffee and I don’t eat junk food or fast food. I avoid desserts because I have about a 1/4 chance of launching out of bed with screaming night terrors a few hours later. I eat more vegetables than the typical family of four.
It’s another category of information that feels cruel and judgy, but in practice is one of the few things that actually helps.
What happened when I quadrupled my vegetable consumption? My night terrors went away, and so did my migraines.
There’s something else I need to tell my friend about my experience with fibromyalgia. It basically overlaps with my first marriage. My first husband snored quite badly, and he would snort me out of a sound sleep several times a night. When he divorced me, my life was shattered - but my fibromyalgia symptoms went away. Without him by my side, I could actually sleep through the night.
I tell her that her job is starting to sound a lot like my ex-husband.
She shouldn’t be on work calls at midnight. She should be able to use her vacation time. She should be able to take weekends off without getting dragged in to handle some crisis or other. It’s a golden-handcuffs job, but the price she is paying is too high at this point.
She comes back and tells me that she emailed her boss, then went to bed at 9 PM and slept for 14 hours. She feels guilty.
Why? I say. Let’s reframe this. You can only be a peak performer when you’re healthy. Working until you are burned out is not optimal. Burning out is lose-lose. High performance means being well rested, and that’s win-win.
Chronic pain often overlaps with feelings of being trapped in an unhappy situation. The common perspective on this seems to be that emotions cause physical pain. I actually think it’s the exact opposite! Chronic pain makes it hard to think clearly, to make strong and bold decisions, to set boundaries, to feel anything other than sad and hopeless.
This is our motive to keep careful records, to take note of our own patterns. As we make changes to our surroundings and our behavior, we can notice gradual, incremental improvements. We can document those improvements and show them to our doctors. Sometimes, like I did, we can move forward and put our days of fatigue and illness behind us completely.
This is the secret to “doing it all” when you’re really too busy to do any of it.
Simply: don’t do most things on most days.
This is a corollary to the idea of only doing one thing at a time. Choose the most important thing you think you could be doing, and do that. Even more importantly, consciously choose to not do certain other things.
This is how I finally started being early to things, instead of late. I made a list of all the stuff I would try to do in the mornings before I left, and I decided to quit doing those things. I allowed myself to:
If I wanted to do additional things such as bathe or eat breakfast, I had to count backward and make sure I got up earlier. Those were my incentives. Otherwise I was going to be eating a protein bar out of my purse. Which is fine! And certainly better than the sick, hurried feeling I would have been getting by running out the door late.
The idea was to replace that lateness feeling with some kind of reward. What I realized was that if I got somewhere a few minutes early, I could just sit and read something on my phone. Relaxation instead of consternation.
Let’s transfer that idea to other things such as errands, paperwork, and chores.
I’m a fussy housekeeper, and I clean things when I’m stressed out. This can snowball quite badly when you suddenly find yourself under a kind of house arrest for several months. I can’t document this? But I’m pretty sure it’s not a legal requirement to dust your baseboards every day. I knew I was going to need to set limits or I would be doing circuits around my house like a cuckoo in a clock.
My main goal in housekeeping is to only do it on weekdays. I like to know that I can kick back for a three-day weekend and not feel like there’s something I should be doing. Other people might like to bang it all out in one day, which is a perfectly valid system in its own right. Personally I just don’t want to spend four hours doing housework unless someone is handing me an envelope full of cash afterward.
Competing with this minimalist system is my other goal, the subconscious one that keeps overriding the sensible one. That is to have every surface 100% tidy and speck-free at all times. That way lies insanity.
One of the areas that I could be cleaning perpetually is the bathroom counter, including the sink and mirror. If I started doing it every day, how long would it take to morph into twice a day? It has its designated cleaning days, and the rest of the time, the rule is: Don’t do that today.
I remind myself of all the other things I want to do, and that I never feel I have time to do. Reading! Learning to draw! Lounging around listening to music and learning the lyrics!
Granted, I don’t always do those things, because I am a restless spirit, but at least I don’t waste all my time doing housework.
There is an opposite extreme here, the end of the spectrum that would rather live in a certain amount of chaos than, again, waste all the time doing housework. That is legit. At a certain point it also makes life more complicated. I would list off here: respiratory issues, any kind of trip hazard, not being able to find stuff, paying late fees, being late everywhere or missing appointments, relationship stress, and generally being unhappy and dissatisfied with the results.
Entropy is not the same thing as inspiration or creativity.
Three things happened when I decided that I just wasn’t going to do most things on most days.
One, I just... worked 44 hours a week and collected my paychecks.
Two, I started reading a bit more again.
Three, and unexpectedly, when I would go around to do whatever the day’s thing was... it would sometimes... already be done?
I created space for someone else to step in and do things.
The problem with being super-organized and efficient is that everyone in an ever-broadening gyre around you starts to relax and abdicate more. It’s not necessarily that anyone in the circle is unwilling or unlikely to do these things... They’re just not going to be the first person to do these things.
Unless you step back and make space for that to happen.
Most individual chores only take 2-5 minutes. Wiping down a countertop or squeegeeing a mirror. Taking out a bag of trash. Wiping down a shelf in the fridge. Putting a load of laundry in the dryer. Et cetera. I know this is true because I spent a couple of weeks running around timing everything I did with a stopwatch. The only exception is folding laundry, which is more like 10-12 minutes per basket.
When someone around you starts to realize that a 2-5 minute contribution will be noticed and appreciated, it starts to happen more often.
These are the goals:
Keep weekends chore-free
Do laundry once a week and don’t do it the other six days
Grocery shopping no more than two days a week
Automate everything possible.
Automate, delegate, eliminate!
Then what do you do with the remainder of the time? Where do you put the former feelings of habitual stress, worry, anxiety, or resentment?
My recommendations would be along the lines of: relaxing, making something beautiful, going back to get your degree, training for a marathon, or writing a book. That’s where the flip side of my directive comes in. Definitely do that today!
I snapped awake. It was still dark outside. 4:11 AM. I had been asleep for four hours.
Why does this happen?
It’s a mystery why a tired person who isn’t sleeping well will still wake up in the middle of the night, wake up too early, or struggle to fall asleep. I know it’s a mystery because I’ve been reading everything I can find on the topic for twenty years.
Another mystery is what I would have done with my life by now if I hadn’t had so many disrupted nights.
I had plans for the day. Doesn’t everyone? I lay awake until 6:30 AM, turning off my alarm, since I wouldn’t be needing it. I was finally feeling sleepy again just as I had planned to be waking up and getting ready.
Decision point. Do I:
Get up and struggle through a long day on four hours of sleep;
Fall back to Plan B, see if I can sleep another two hours, and rearrange my schedule;
I went to Plan B. Again, I snapped awake before the alarm. I was so groggy and I felt so terrible that the will to launch simply snuffed itself out.
The worst part about this is that I structure my own schedule. I have no real reason for struggling with sleep, no caretaking responsibilities, no duty to unlock a door or turn the lights on. My income does not depend on a requirement that I get out of bed at a specific time. This was, of course, fallout from my parasomnia disorder.
Why some people voluntarily deprive themselves of sleep is beyond me. Staying up late to play games, surf the internet, or binge-watch anything, only to get up early the next day and be exhausted, is a pattern I don’t really understand. You mean you would be able to sleep, you just don’t feel like it? What must that be like?
The last couple of years that I worked a traditional day job, I had some very rough days. If I only slept for two or three hours, I would still have to get up and get dressed and commute and drag myself through my workday. I used to go into the ladies’ room every 90 minutes or so to splash cold water on myself or slap myself in the face a couple of times. I used to pinch my upper thigh between my fingernails until the pain jolted me briefly into alertness.
There were times when I barely made thirty hours of sleep for the week.
It was the same in college, when at least I could take naps between classes. I trained myself to sleep in 45-minute increments, folded onto one sofa cushion in the student lounge.
During that era, most of my work occurred outside the time dimension. I could read my assignments and write papers at any time of day or night. While I was a Dean’s List student, this was somewhat of a disaster, because it shattered my circadian rhythms.
It was probably inevitable that I would cut the cord of the traditional day job schedule as soon as I was able. I’m worthless when sleep deprived. Can’t concentrate, lose objects, get physically lost, speak slowly, read the same paragraph over and over. Probably there are high-functioning alcoholics and addicts who get more done at work than I did after a week of poor sleep.
What I didn’t expect was that I would have some of the same problems when I had nobody to report to but myself.
Over the years, I’ve figured out a lot of inputs that affect my sleep and allow me to get enough rest 80-90% of the time. I haven’t figured out how to deal with external noise past a certain decibel level. I’m struggling right now because the apartment beneath ours is being remodeled, and there are saws, drills, hammers, and who knows what else going on ten or eleven hours a day, six or seven days a week. Naps are off the menu. Until when? How would I know? How long does it take to completely overhaul a 650-square-foot apartment?
This is a difficult world for parasomnia. If I knew of a quiet place, I would already be living there, but the countryside isn’t much better. My sleep has been disrupted by anything and everything including garbage trucks, loud motorcycles, helicopters, slamming doors, domestic arguments, barking dogs, ice cream trucks, roosters, other people’s phones, crying children, jackhammers, drunken singing, and even misdelivered packages. Some of these happen between the hours of midnight and 4 AM, because why would the world ever quit being loud?
What I’m trying to learn to do is to fit in an acceptable level of productivity around all of it, somehow. I have to accept that there will never be anywhere in the world, or any time in the day, when I can go off somewhere and never experience disruption. It’s built into the system. If I check into a hotel room, people will persist in talking and laughing loudly in the hallway outside my room every single hour of the day and night. If I move somewhere, the adjacent space will almost immediately undergo renovations.
As I write this, a car alarm is going off in the parking lot next door.
I don’t even own a car, much less a car alarm.
I’ve tried white noise generators and high-end noise canceling headphones and fans and double-glazed windows. I’ve tried every sleeping pill on the market, both prescription and OTC. I’ve tried massage and hot baths and essential oils and meditation. I’ve spoken with doctors and even a psychiatrist. I’m an edge case. I’ll never stop trying things, because I’m curious and because I’ll never give up hope that I can beat this dumb problem, one way or another.
In the meantime, most of the stuff I do that happens on a schedule happens in the afternoon.
I always wanted a chauffeur. That used to be something high on my outrageous dreams list. I’ve always hated driving, I’m a terrible navigator, I’m definitely the kind of person who forgets where she parked, and I saw the whole thing as a chore.
That’s why going car-free has been so great for me.
Honestly I feel like I’m getting away with something by not driving. Most of what I do in my neighborhood, I do on foot, and it feels like I’m on vacation. A little outing most days of the week gets me out in the fresh air. Sometimes I take the bus, something we also do on vacation. It’s when I get a rideshare driver that I really feel like I’m living the dream and having a chauffeur - except that I didn’t have to become a millionaire before it happened.
Why do other people drive so much? I’m not totally sure, since driving was only a regular part of my life for a few years, but I think it’s almost entirely 1. work commute and 2. errands.
Oh, and driving kids around, for those who have them, but we can get to that later.
When I talk about not having a car, especially in Southern California, people get very fidgety. It’s one of those topics that falls under the category of “preachy” for some reason, like eating enough dietary fiber or voting in midterm elections. Ugh, stop pressuring me, I don’t want to spend my social time talking about this!
It’s like people have a conversational filter, and a huge number of topics gets caught in that filter, because we make automatic assumptions about WHY someone would do something.
The only reason someone like me would quit driving - well, I can’t understand it - but surely it absolutely must be something preachy. Saving the environment or something. Ugh. *eye roll*
On the contrary, I don’t drive because I’m spoiled!
Why any middle-class person would do their own errands is beyond me. I for one am way too busy! There is no way I’m going to give up any time on my evenings or weekends to drive around in circles, looking for parking, and wander from place to place doing a bunch of unpaid labor.
That’s what errands are. Unpaid productivity.
Let’s go through the errands point by point.
(If you have kids, hear me out, because my mom did all these things with three small children *by bus* all the time when we either had only one vehicle, or our car was broken down. Riding herd on small kids is even more reason to want to avoid doing your own errands!)
Again, I see errands as an annoying chore that disrupts my precious free time.
Groceries. There is a grocery store across the street from my apartment that is open from 5 AM to midnight, every day. We’re also a ten-minute walk from a Trader Joe’s and a ten-minute bus ride from two different Whole Foods locations. We almost always walk to pick up groceries, or grab a bag as part of another trip. I’ve also paid to have groceries delivered, and for $6-7 plus tip it’s definitely worth saving 1-2 hours of my time.
When would I have groceries delivered? When I’m prepping for a dinner party, once when I was wearing an ankle brace, and another time when I had the flu and my hubby was out of town. If I had little kids, I’m telling you, I wouldn’t do my own grocery shopping again until the littlest one went off to college.
Pharmacy. Every pharmacy I have seen encourages mail delivery. I switched to this because they obviously prefer it, and also because I’ve picked up a cold at least twice when I went to the pharmacy in person.
Dry cleaning. Um, we don’t use a dry cleaner… Maybe once every year or two. I learned how to use those dry cleaner kits you can put in the dryer at home. To me, this would not rate as a good enough reason to own and operate a car. I can walk to a dry cleaner five minutes from my apartment.
Doctor/dentist/veterinary appointments. To me, these aren’t errands, they are appointments. I usually ride the bus, but this is one category where we both tend to use rideshare. We’ve never had a problem bringing our dog or our parrot with us; in fact, often the driver asks to take a photo with my bird.
Beauty treatments. I get my hair done across the street. My hubby goes to a place across the street from our favorite cafe. I’m not interested in stuff like nail art, and I have no idea how many other types of beauty treatments there are, but I imagine most of them could be combined in one full-service location? Again, this wouldn’t be a good enough reason for me to make myself drive anywhere.
Random stuff. Shoe repair - I had to take my hubby’s dress shoes in when my parrot climbed into the closet and chewed on them. It was on the bus route to one of my clubs. I have no idea what type of random things other people are doing, but how many of them involve car-related things like oil changes?
“Shopping.” What do we mean when we say “shopping”? I mean groceries, because personally I hate shopping for clothes almost as much as I hate driving. My hubby and I don’t shop for entertainment. We usually tie in something like buying new shoes or pants along with a trip to the movie theater, and we go there by city bus. I do one major clothes shopping trip a year, usually on vacation, when I make my hubby help me pick out all my stuff.
Outings. I think a lot of people come up with “reasons” to do errands because they include outings, like getting ice cream, going through the drive-thru because they secretly love it and despise cooking, or stopping at the craft store or other favorite shop. Just admit that you are in the mood for an outing and go on the outing. You don’t need to tack a chore onto it because you don’t need to justify your desire to have fun.
Here is where I might add that we used to spend $700 a month owning a car. We got rid of it three years ago. My hubby’s bus fare is paid for by his employer, and he’s learned to prefer playing games and saving money to fighting freeway traffic for 40 minutes every night.
I realize that many people don’t live in a walkable neighborhood. Neither did I during the first five years of my marriage. We sat down and consciously strategized about how we could relocate to a walkable neighborhood. It meant downsizing and being willing to fit into a smaller house… and that in turn meant way less housekeeping and zero yard work!
Since we started living the way we do, we’ve been able to live off half our income. We never fight about money. We also never fight about chores because there’s almost nothing to do, and we’ve automated most of it. When other people are out fighting rush hour traffic to do their own errands, we’re lounging around our living room, talking about stuff like what we would do with our time during the rocket trip to Mars, or why the students at Hogwarts still walked to the candy store even though they had magic.
Well, obviously it’s because walking around town is fun! Stop driving around doing errands all the time and start feeling more leisure in your life.
Right around now, everyone deflates. Aw geez, I had all these great feelings on New Year’s Eve and now they’re gone. There was only one magic moment to make the perfect wish, but I didn’t have a tidal wave of motivation, I broke my only chance at a perfect streak, and now it’s too late for me.
I wish we all had this feeling around the entire concept of the perfect streak. Aw, gee, it sure had us all fooled. What a con job. Disappoint.
What is true is that we all have a tendency to let consensus opinion influence what we do or don’t do.
EVERYBODY KNOWS that resolutions don’t work, therefore I can only do an extremely narrow set of activities for the rest of my life no matter what.
Part of a resolution really does work, and it’s confirmed through research. That part is the ‘implementation intention.’ State the thing you plan to do. Most of us do it all the time, routinely. “I’m going for a coffee, care to join me?” “I can’t wait for the new episode.” “Going to Costco to eat all the free samples.”
All of these are clear and bright implementation intentions.
Does anyone doubt that these are going to work? Do we doubt that someone is going to go out for coffee, feeling convinced that they’ll come back with zero coffee every time? Do we doubt that someone is going to finish watching their favorite show? Do we doubt that Costco will continue to hand out free samples?
What’s the difference between these classic, common, and practical implementation intentions, and our New Year’s Resolutions?
Answer: they know HOW, they know WHEN, they know what to do if Plan A doesn’t work out, they’ll keep trying because any obstacle would feel like an anomaly, and they probably don’t have any naysayers. Unlike, in every way, all our shiny new resolutions.
I don’t know if you remember the first time you ever ordered your own meal, either from a restaurant or at a food counter. I do. It was hard! When I was a senior in high school, I decided to learn how to take myself out for lunch. I went to a cafe at the mall and I got a bagel sandwich. I sat down and ate it and read a book, and then I sat there for another 25 minutes because I didn’t understand what happened next. Do you wait until the server comes back to the table and brings you the check? Do you go up to the counter? How can you tell which kind of place is which? What do they do with your change? I felt very alone and young and dumb and incompetent, that is until I pulled up my socks and went to the counter. I FIGURED IT OUT! All by myself! I even left a tip!
The point of this is that at one point, every single thing that we think is easy, routine, or obvious was a part of the unknown.
What that means is that everything we’re unsure about today, is something we are still able to learn how to do. There are other people who know how, just like we know things that are confusing and unfamiliar to other people.
The question is really when.
When are we going to do all these great things?
The middle of January is when most people tend to give up on their resolutions. I think that’s because they realize they haven’t really made much progress yet. We often feel locked in to one single version of something, and if we can’t make it work then we think we’re just not cut out for it. Some very common examples are trying to wake up earlier (rather than go to bed earlier), trying to do one specific kind of workout, or trying to go from “zero to sixty” and become an instant expert.
It’s the new me! I wake up at 4:45 AM every day from now on, so I can run uphill in sleet and hail in the pitch dark, and then at the end of the day I cook gourmet meals entirely from scratch. Perfection or bust.
The vision that we have is a fictional character from a movie that nobody would watch.
Personally, I am useless in the early morning and I know it. I have been on the receiving end of absolutely dozens upon dozens of lectures about early rising, and always being early for things, and sleep hygiene. I don’t care because of three reasons: 1. I know what pavor nocturnus is like and I know that they don’t, because if they did they would definitely say so; 2. I’m probably more productive than this person and I have no shame around my schedule; and 3. I don’t care if other people disapprove of my habits in general. If you have the time to lecture me, that is proof that you have nothing better to do, which then automatically invalidates your opinion.
You know who sleeps from midnight to 8:00 AM? Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and moi. Billionaire hours.
The first answer to the question of when is, when do you feel the best and when do you feel the worst? What time of day are you more likely to be in the mood to do things?
Where we mess up is in punishing ourselves, trying to frame our desires in terms of willpower and motivation and moral fiber. What happens then is a series of fashion don’ts: feeling cruddy, not doing the awesome thing, and being less likely to attempt awesomeness the next time.
What works is to focus on how appealing you find the thing, whatever it is. Remind yourself what you like about it, what makes you curious, and why you’re drawn to it. Play around with it, exploring and learning before you attempt any kind of actual commitment.
Then, ask yourself, what time of day are you most likely to do this little experiment? For instance, if you want to learn hula hoop tricks, are you more likely to play with the hoop in the morning, at lunch, after work, right before bed? On the weekday or on the weekend? At a party or alone in your living room?
It really is that simple. If you aren’t sure what time of day you might do something, then you probably won’t do it until you can see yourself fitting it in somehow. No doubt you’ve always spent all twenty-four hours of every day of your life. You’ve spent them somehow. The question is when you’re going to take hold of your hours and use them toward what you want the most.
I'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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