I’m starting this year with a mix of pessimism and optimism, both because I can’t help it.
I’m pessimistic about the pandemic and the vaccine rollout. I think it will happen very slowly, partly because it already has and partly because there are just so many people to vaccinate. Israel is crushing it, with 10% of their population vaccinated in just two weeks - but that means it will take 5 months to reach everyone. My county happens to have roughly the same population as Israel, meaning if we were extremely efficient, I could have my vaccine by June.
Therefore, I’m accepting that there may be another lost year, another year when we can’t safely travel or visit people in person. This sucks, but not as much as dying of COVID-19. (Or COVID-21?) I’d rather assume that 2021 will be more of the same, and be wrong, than get my hopes up and have to keep resetting expectations.
The optimistic part is that I’m still alive, and there don’t appear to be any vaccine refusers in my immediate family. That means all I have to worry about this year is staying safe and keeping busy enough to manage my disappointment.
Making my goals and resolutions is my favorite part of the entire year, even when I don’t reach them all. Many years I’ve hit all of them, or 90%, and that’s enough reason to keep trying and keep planning even when the outside world is a mess.
I have some hunches this year. I have a super strong hunch that we’re going to wind up moving. There is a non-zero chance that we will wind up relocating for work at some future point, and it’s absolutely impossible to guess when that might be, but this year is more likely than last year. I dreamed I was driving again, so I think it will be outside of SoCal. (Several years ago I had a premonitory dream that we moved to Sacramento, and then we did).
Some people would be horrified at the prospect of moving, especially a sudden move to a new city. For me, at this point, in many ways it’s less hassle than packing for a camping trip or... going to Costco. Mainly this possibility will inform whether I hang stuff on the walls or make bulk purchases.
I also think this might be the year I manage to get back into school in some way. This would impact whether I commit to any other large-scale projects. I’d like to keep my dance card open.
Now for my 2021 goals:
Personal: To expel my math anxiety. [uggggghhhhhh] Every year I like to take on a massive personal challenge, something that intimidates me to the point of making myself a little ill. It started with running, then public speaking, then martial arts, and now I don’t have all that much left that freaks me out! The only thing that really and truly gives me dread and trepidation now is mathematics, by which I mean, algebra and beyond. The deal here is that I want to go to grad school, which likely means the GRE, which means I have to master calculus, and that is something I’ve never done. I did a math placement test that had me stuck on some 5th-grade math things, so I guess this fits the bill. Try to always work on something that keeps you humble and it can help from having your ego balloon out of control.
Career: Become a futurist. It’s plausible that I can move in this direction without grad school, and it’s also plausible that this can happen through my current job. I really love the company where I work, and there’s nowhere else I’d rather be right now, so I’m going with it. This promises to be a very lively and intriguing year at work.
Physical: Back to my goal weight. I was shooting for this last year, but I got COVID instead. I’m at the point where I feel like my weight gain is actively interfering with my respiration. Strangely, I was in the same position in 2004-5, so I have reason to believe this will work. It’s not that I regret learning to box, but the weight I put on that year has been disastrous for my health and energy level.
Home: Probably move to a larger home. We’re waiting until the pandemic winds down, because it just doesn’t make sense to move right now. But we are ready for a place with a washer and dryer and a proper kitchen. Probably also a second bedroom, so we can shut a door between us when we’re both on conference calls.
Couples: Save for a house. We’ve decided that if we buy a house here, where we currently live, it would have to be after a slightly improbable series of events. (Start our own company etc). Maybe we’ll buy a house elsewhere. We’re learning a bit about remodeling and interior design, trying to figure out what style of place we would like.
Stop goal: Stop hoarding reading material. Okay, this one is painful but I feel it has to be done. My husband looked at me and asked, “Including digital?” I nodded and he winced. It is a key part of my job to Read All the Things, but I don’t really need to have absolutely thousands of articles in my queue. Do I? I don’t even know how to do this goal other than to quit putting library books on hold. The point of all these goals and resolutions (this is a resolution, BTW) is to explore and learn new ways of doing things.
Lifestyle upgrades: New bed. Our bed went like this: Years 0-10, glorious. Year 10, lumpy. Year 11, terrible. If only we’d known to replace it before the pandemic...
Do the Obvious: Assume another year of WFH. I might work from home forever and I like it that way.
Ultralearning: Data visualization - Tableau, Excel, etc. This is a goal that is inevitable, due to my job responsibilities, so I might as well give myself credit for it. By this time next year, I’ll know all sorts of things that I don’t know right now.
Quest: 50 for 50 ultramarathon (2025). A quest is quixotic and I’m not ready to let this one go. If I can ever run any decent distance again, I’m sure I’ll cry so hard I’ll soak my shirt.
Wish: To visit my family safely!
Personal: To expel my math anxiety
Career: Become a futurist
Physical: Back to my goal weight
Home: Probably move to a larger home
Couples: Save for a house
Stop goal: Stop hoarding reading material
Lifestyle upgrades: New bed
Do the Obvious: Assume another year of WFH
Ultralearning: Data visualization - Tableau, Excel, etc.
Quest: 50 for 50 ultramarathon (2025)
Wish: To visit my family safely
Categorizing these, the math anxiety thing is a challenge; the futurism career is a mission; reaching my goal weight again, moving to a larger home, saving for a house, and getting a new bed are goals; and it is a resolution to stop hoarding reading material. Ultralearning is a project. A quest is something big that probably takes more than a year to do, and a wish is something that you can’t simply make happen through an obvious action. I like to be clear with myself about how I’m going to go about making something happen in my life. That’s all this is: pick something and do it!
Choose a resolution you can finish in one day, and you automatically get the same bragging rights as the people who choose something more complicated. If you never make resolutions because you “know” you’ll let yourself down, change the rules! You are invited to look over this list of one-day resolutions. Pick one if you think it could make your life better, easier, more fun, or more interesting.
Get your flu shot.
Apply for a passport.
If you already have a passport, get it out and check the expiration date.
Change all your passwords and find out where you can use dual authentication.
Go around and set all your clocks, including the microwave and the dashboard in your vehicle.
Throw out everything in your kitchen that is past its expiration date.
Throw out any expired medications.
Throw out worn-out socks and underwear.
Cash in your change jar.
If you haven’t already, find out if you can open an IRA account at your bank.
Make an appointment to get your teeth cleaned if it’s been more than 6 months.
Make sure you’ve had a tetanus shot booster within the last 10 years.
Pull out your driver’s license and check to see when it expires. Is it this year? Oh snap.
Give back anything you borrowed from someone else.
If you have overdue library books, return them. A lot of libraries no longer charge overdue fines!
If you quit reading a book because you lost interest, let it go. Give it away or trade it in.
Match up the lids with all your pots, pans, travel mugs, and plastic containers.
Make a “dump run” and get rid of the broken junk from your garage, yard, or anywhere else it’s piled up.
If you have a mending pile, look it over right now and decide to fix it or throw it away.
Increase your retirement contribution 1%.
Get a free copy of your credit report and check it for errors.
Fill out a living will and have it witnessed.
Set a reminder to sign up for a first aid/CPR certification class (maybe this fall).
Set a timer for one hour and spend it cleaning or filing.
Go through your email inbox and unsubscribe to as much as possible.
Delete some apps.
Reconsider your social media engagement.
Call an old friend and say hello.
Apologize to someone.
If you have your own URLs, look them over and decide whether you still want them all.
Look through your queue of movies and TV episodes and delete anything that no longer interests you.
Look at your keys. Are there any you don’t need any more that you can get rid of? Mystery keys you don’t even recognize?
Think of any task you’ve been procrastinating for longer than a year. Make the decision to do it this month or let it go.
Read The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield.
Make a vow not to make negative comments about other people’s resolutions.
This was the year that I almost died, but that’s no excuse for skipping the annual review. In many ways, this is the weirdest and thus most interesting year I have had since I started publicly sharing my yearly progress report.
My husband had a severe eye injury, we had to put our dog down, and then I got COVID-19. It’s hard to believe that all of that happened before the shutdown.
I haven’t seen my family in over a year now.
2020 has been sad, confusing, infuriating, boring, frustrating - yet on a personal level, it’s been strangely great.
Here are some things that happened in our 2020:
My husband did not lose sight in his eye
I did not die of COVID-19
I got my dream job, despite doing the panel interview with a secondary lung infection
I gave a virtual presentation at work that was featured on our webpage and 80 people came
We doubled our savings
I started donating 1/4 of our grocery budget to the food bank
Also funded the planting of 40 trees
I learned to cut hair, both his and mine
We got our own personal hummingbird who lives three feet from the feeder; we call him Brownie and he is a rufous hummingbird and he is a little savage
We commissioned our first artwork, a piece from a local photographer
Noelie is working on whistling the Addams Family theme song
We saw an owl
My personal goal for the year was supposed to be getting my weight back down and recovering my health, after a year when I got a cold or the flu easily a dozen times. I said I wanted to “get my body back.” Then I got COVID and my whole “body transformation” / “get my body back” goal became a little too on-the-nose.
My career goal was to learn how to do webinars. Another goal that was a little on-the-nose. I sometimes spend over six hours a day on camera having meetings now. I’ve used, as far as I know, every available virtual meeting platform. I know how to make recordings, change my background, and all sorts of other tricks. More to the point, I got a full-time day job for the first time in over ten years, sort of stumbling into a goal 10x bigger than the one I had set.
My physical goal was to get my weight back to 125 lbs. (I’m 5’4”).
Lost 5 pounds, got coronavirus, gained 10.
(Probably five of that was pills)
My home goal was to continue our home automation project, which is related to the book I was writing when all this went down. 2020 was a great year to choose to do this, because two people who work from home for an engineering company are well positioned to automate everything in their place up, down, and sideways. Most of what we did was to organize cabinets and streamline surfaces, but we did upgrade our ailing Roomba for the fancy self-emptying one. It’s rad. Next is the window-washing robot, whenever they start shipping them again.
Our couples goal was to build an app together. That did not happen. What did happen was that my hubby saved my life, nursing me through six weeks of coronavirus. Isolating together and beating a deadly illness has brought us closer than I ever could have imagined. Crossing rivers together in the interior of Iceland did one type of thing for our marriage; 2020 did something else. I would do anything for this man and I already know he would do anything for me, because he has.
Oh, and then I got a job at the same company where he works. Our living room is now a sort of... field office. It’s like we’ve come full circle from when we first met.
My “stop goal” was to stop procrastinating on text messages and voicemail. I still sometimes feel resistance around this, but I’m so busy now that it’s quit being a problem. I simply don’t have time to psych myself out. Also half the time it’s my boss.
My lifestyle upgrade was possibly going to be getting gum surgery, since I maxed out my dental benefits last year and I had to wait. My periodontist (welcome to middle age, chica) - my periodontist put me through several invasive white-knuckle procedures, but he says I don’t need skin grafts yet, so that’s good news. The moral of the story is, if your dentist tells you to wear a night guard because you grind your teeth, pay attention.
Instead of gum surgery, my lifestyle upgrades were actually good. I had the idea of making Noelie a box fort, which rapidly expanded into the four-story folly that she has now. Extremely fun. We put up a plant stand and a hummingbird feeder on the porch. There were others, as I outlined earlier this week, but either of these things would count as a significant improvement over gum surgery, am I right?
My “Do the Obvious” was to plan around constant travel, since my hubby was on business travel over 50% of 2019. We sort of got the exact opposite of that. Very funny, 2020. The Do the Obvious that we actually did was to stay indoors, distance from people, and wear our masks.
My ultralearning project was to learn Dutch. That went to the same place that many people’s 2020 goals went, which was into a puff of vapor. Strangely, I did wind up doing a huge ultralearning project, which was to get up to speed on several software titles for my new job. I had to learn how to use VPN, learn all the new versions of the Microsoft Office software I hadn’t really used in a decade plus Teams, learn to administer our SharePoint sites, learn to use the video editing software, learn Jira and Confluence, and of course all the procedural things like our timecard system. Next year will be much more of the same, as I’m slated to learn a bunch of advanced Excel features, Tableau, data visualization, Microsoft Project, and that’s just first quarter. This place moves fast. (Take notes if you’re looking for a job; I’ve just listed off a bunch of hot skills that you can study at home).
My quest was to start training for the ultramarathon I want to run at age 50. After COVID-19, I may never run anywhere ever again. Hard to say. I am more motivated than I was before, though, because running even a mile would mean I can get my lungs back.
My wish was to get a publishing deal. I fully believe I could have pulled this off. Other people did even though there was a global pandemic, so I can’t even use that as an excuse. Will I ever do this, now that I have a regular-people job again? No idea. I still want to but I don’t see how I could fit it around my current schedule.
I had just finished putting together my ten-year goals for the first time, and I was pretty excited about them. They all seemed so, so possible on January First of 2020. Looking them over after this strange year that we’ve all had, they don’t actually seem completely IMpossible... I think ten years from now, all this pandemic stuff will be behind us. (Maybe we’ll have a different one between now and then, but hopefully everyone will have learned from the experience and we’ll be smarter and more careful). Anyway, in spite of it all, in spite of isolation and our tiny apartment and everything else, we did manage to put in a garden. That’s one ten-year goal, nine years ahead of schedule. Go us.
Personal: Body transformation - lol
Career: Learn how to do webinars - SUCCESS
Physical: Weight at 125 lbs. - FAIL
Home: Automation project - SUCCESS
Couples: Build an app together - NO PROGRESS
Stop goal: Stop procrastinating on text messages and voicemail - SUCCESS
Lifestyle upgrades: Probably gum surgery - SUCCESS+
Do the Obvious: Plan around constant travel - lol
Ultralearning: Dutch language - NO PROGRESS
Quest: 50 for 50 ultramarathon! (2025) - NO PROGRESS
Wish: Publishing deal! - NO PROGRESS
2030 - Ten Year Goals and Resolutions
Personal: Silver Fox project
Career: Published author
Physical: 50 for 50 ultramarathon!
Home: Buy a house to live in
Couples: Camping, hiking, backpacking, and bicycling together
Stop goal: Stop procrastinating in general
Lifestyle upgrades: A garden - SUCCESS
Do the Obvious: Plan around constant travel
Ultralearning: Write screenplays
Quest: Visit Antarctica
Disrupt yourself or be disrupted. This is something I think about all the time. It’s probably more obvious, after this year of grace 2020, that it really does apply to everyone.
Whatever you’re doing, whatever your default mode is, something about it may be permanently affected by external circumstances.
This can be good or bad.
The same event may devastate one person, and it may be the making of someone else.
I’ll use myself as an example. I got COVID-19 early, before the shutdown, and it ruined my life. I’m still having heart arrhythmia and shortness of breath eight months later. On the other hand, I applied for my dream job while I was still sick, and now I’m making 50% more than I did at my last job.
There is something about feeling your life force draining away, feeling like you will probably be dead within two days, that has a tendency to reset your attitude toward life.
Not that this was a good thing, not at all. Being that ill was profoundly depressing. I felt that my death would be a sad and pointless waste, that I would leave my husband a widower for the dumbest possible reason. I went to brunch and then I died at age 44.
The world would simply go on without me and my existence would barely have mattered.
That was when I started wondering what I would do differently if I managed to survive. If I got up out of the bed and started feeling healthy again, what would I do?
Would I just forget it had ever happened?
Or would I use this terrible experience as some kind of pivot point?
The same can be true of anyone, about any awful thing.
We all have the power to determine our own attitude.
We don’t have the power to prevent terrible events. We can’t stop tornados or landslides or earthquakes or volcanos or hurricanes. We’re all, in some ways, at the mercy of economic, political and cultural forces.
For instance, nothing in my power was able to prevent the advent of leggings worn as pants.
I can’t do much about my slow healing process, either. I have spent most of this year trying to get better, resting and eating lots of cruciferous vegetables. It’s taking the time that it takes.
What I did was to ask myself, Can I handle working while I don’t feel very good?
If I felt tired and low-energy for the rest of my career, could I still do it?
It feels unfair to me to be in this position, but the answer is, Yes. I can get through a workday even if my energy level is like a 4 out of 10.
What changed after my brush with death is that I understood, in a deep way, how much more useful I am than a dead person. As a cadaver, I could not update spreadsheets or help people edit their technical papers. As a living person, even a low-energy living person, there were things I could DO. That was what I wanted for myself, to contribute in a way that a corpse could not.
See, I’m a whole body donor? But after COVID my poor organs are probably too chewed up and drooled on to be suitable as a gift to someone else. I didn’t have the consolation of feeling that my corneas might live on.
My mind would have to live on instead.
Not everyone will have my reaction, of course. By the end of this, probably at least two million people will have died of coronavirus around the world. Others have had limbs amputated, lost their hearing, had psychotic breaks, and all sorts of other side effects that are far worse than mine.
Arguably there are all sorts of things that are worse than being deathly ill for a month. I would never contest that.
For me, the perspective is, it’s bad enough that the terrible event happened. I had to give it what it demanded. After that, I’m reclaiming my time. It’s up to me to do whatever I can now.
Nothing specific about that word “do.”
Not “doing whatever I can” about my health, or converting COVID skeptics, or anything else specific. My position is simply to DO. To do anything a living person can do that a dead person cannot do any longer.
When I lay in my sickbed, I fantasized about being able to stand up and take a shower every day without leaning on the tiles. I fantasized about being able to get dressed and put on my socks without having to rest and catch my breath for two hours afterward. I fantasized about being able to make myself a sandwich.
I’m there now. I have those victories.
It’s a surprisingly cheerful place to be.
The novelty has not worn off yet. I’m still grateful to be able to shower and dress and make my own lunch.
I never thought I would be grateful about logging in to work and doing projects on a deadline. But I see it differently now. I still see it as my ability to contribute something and help other people get things done. Whenever someone thanks me for doing even a minor thing, there is still that little sparkle, that I did something a ghost could not.
Other people have had terrible experiences during this sad and terrible year. Others have lost close family members. Others have lost their jobs. Others have been evicted. Others are homeless. I would hesitate to give advice to anyone in one of those circumstances, but I would not hesitate to hear them out if they wanted to talk.
I’m also not sure if this would be helpful to anyone who is going through a hard time, even the same hard time that I had, because we all have different perspectives and different moods and different emotional settings. I would say, though, that it’s helpful to me to remind myself of all the problems I do not have.
In comparison, I have never managed to think of a hard circumstance that I would choose over my own hard circumstance.
I guess all I really wanted to say is that hard times don’t have the right to destroy us.
There’s got to be at least a little small part of a person that can remain bright and untouched, no matter what happens.
For me, that was the desire to be of service, to feel that I had done something to contribute to something larger than myself. I wanted to be back in the game and be a part of something. COVID-19 tried to take that away from me, but it failed.
What is that thing for you?
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?
Don’t worry, I’m not putting actual financial numbers out there!
The most important thing I could probably say right now is, remember April You? The version of you that is in a blind panic over the deadline to file your taxes? Right now you have an opportunity to send that Future You a very thoughtful gift. You can start getting organized now, a little bit at a time, and then April 15 You can maybe go for a walk and watch the sunset.
That never works, though. There is nobody we will ever treat as cruelly as Future Myself.
I like to take a little time every December to imagine Future Me of different ages and ask what she is doing with her time. I like to imagine that she is comfortable, that all she really has to do is eat her oatmeal and do cryptograms all day. I would never want her to worry as much about money as Young Us did, because Young Us could go to work to earn more, but Old Us probably can’t.
Let’s face it, unless you’re already 80, it’s easier to earn money now than it will be then.
This is why it’s helpful to do a financial review. If not in December, then when?
Seriously. Pick a month. Draw a month out of a hat so it’s different every year, if that’s what it takes.
I was poor until I was 30, and going over my finances used to make me cry. It basically went like this:
There was a time in my life when my rent was 80% of my income. And I had roommates.
It was only by keeping a keen eye on my (lack of) money that I started to be able to make changes.
I would read personal finance books, and there were not just chapters but entire sections that applied to financial vehicles I did not have. I didn’t have a 401(k) because my job didn’t offer one. I didn’t have an IRA because I didn’t have enough saved to open an account. I tried to have a savings account but I kept having to use it (all) to pay bills.
There was also a time when I had no credit score because I had no credit.
Credit cards used to be hard to get. I had a store offer to set me up with a store credit card, and the clerk was telling me all about how single moms with no job could get one. I was declined.
When I finally managed to get a credit card, my limit was $250. It was still $500 when I turned 30.
Although, pro tip here - credit doesn’t matter if you don’t use it. If you never carry a balance it doesn’t matter what your credit limit is, and it also doesn’t matter what your percent interest is.
When I was young, working as an office temp, sometimes I could only think about one week at a time. I might have an assignment that only lasted a day, and then I’d have to get another assignment. My commute was all over the place. I didn’t have a car, nor could I imagine having to buy gas. I would ride the city bus, sometimes two hours each way for a job that might only last three days. It was a mess.
I had no debt, but I had nothing else either. No savings, usually no more than $30 in my checking account, usually not enough change in my pocket to use a phone booth. My roommate kept stealing my laundry quarters.
How could I do a financial review? The answer was the same, for years: Try not to get overdrawn.
I knew it would help if I earned more, but I didn’t know how to find a better-paying job. I didn’t know what I wanted to do or how to get credentials. It didn’t help that I looked young for my age, and I could pass for a teenager into my early 30s.
It’s different now!
99% of my thoughts about money used to be not thoughts, but feelings. Dread, anxiety, panic, stress, irritation. There wasn’t much room for much else.
What goes where the stress about bills and debt used to go?
We’ve been living on half our income, or less, for years.
We’ve been debt-free for years.
We probably have six months’ living expenses saved up - possibly more - but why bother counting it out? When in doubt, shrug and save more.
We’ve maxed out our retirement funds at work. Did you know there’s actually a maximum amount that they let you save?
Everything is automated. Each week, money is deducted and put into our 401(k)s and set aside for our IRAs, and we only have to think about it when we move the IRA money at tax time.
All our bills are automated.
We are big users of reward points, so we put all our expenses through our credit cards, but we pay off whatever balance week by week.
It is hard to overstate what a major emotional difference it makes to be debt-free and have a high savings rate. On one side of the divide is an ocean of tears with thunderstorms of splitting headaches. On the other side, it’s just... mild and sunny.
We never argue about money because what is there to argue about?
I don’t want to brag. That is not why I’m sharing this. I want to bring hope to other people who are as flat broke as I was all those years. It is possible to get out. It is possible to move past it completely and just never feel that way again.
It takes focus, though. Once a year is a good start, although monthly is better, and weekly is even better when things are really tough.
Make a list of every account you have. If you forget some, that’s okay, just add them as you run across them. Or set up a financial tracking app, if you’re brave.
Total up everything you owe and everything you have.
Start putting together an estimate of your monthly expenses, plus the weird quarterly and annual ones like car insurance.
Find a book or a podcast or a website or a radio show or a friend that will teach you basic personal finance skills. If you didn’t get a personal finance class in high school, shrug it off, because that information is wasted on teenagers anyway. You can learn today. Maybe start with a search for “financial independence retire early” and see what you find.
Our way is a radical way. We decided to live on half our income and save the rest. We got rid of over 80% of our stuff, and we live in about 1/4 the space we had when we were newlyweds. We haven’t had a car in nearly four years. Literally anyone can do what we did, which is to cut expenses, live in a small apartment, and not own a car. It sounds shocking, until you try it and realize that it’s not a big deal at all.
Maybe once a year, pull back and spend a day thinking about where your money goes, where it comes from, and what things might be like if you made some changes. Maybe even radical changes?
The first time, I did it for money.
I was 29, I had just started my first full-time job after college, and I was flat broke. When I heard there was a contest at work with a pool of money involved, I didn’t care if it meant jumping off a roof or shaving off my eyebrows, I was getting that money.
I didn’t think I was overweight; it was more like I didn’t mind potentially being underweight for a week or two if necessary. $100 was that valuable to me at the time.
The truth was, I was obese and didn’t know it.
I wound up losing 11 pounds in 3 months (not quite a pound a week), I got my cash, and I did it again a year later. I went from a size 14 to a size 6. During the time I worked at that place, I made something like $225 in these weight loss contests.
Probably more importantly, I learned my way around a gym, built up my base fitness level, and started to understand how the bag of cookies in my desk drawer contributed to whether my pants fit or not.
2020 has been tough on me, partly because I almost died of COVID-19, and partly because my ego is crushed. This was going to be the year I turned around all the weight I gained in 2019. Instead I’m up 10 pounds from January 1st.
On me - and I don’t know what it’s like on other people because I have only one body - on me, I can directly correlate extra body weight with migraine and night terrors. This was just as true when I was boxing four days a week and doing fifty burpees as it was when I was a size 14 and seeing black spots when I climbed a flight of stairs. I don’t know why this is. All I know is I don’t do well when my body weight hits a certain specific number.
I have the intrinsic motivation to do whatever I can to regain my health in 2021.
I thought, it’s the right time of year. What if I bring everyone else with me?
A fitness contest was the first time I ever really took the initiative to do anything specific for my physical health. I was motivated by cold hard cash, and it worked. I visualized having to pay out $50, instead of receiving a payout, and every day that drove me to push a little harder.
This is the only way that competition really works on me. If I can imagine a negative outcome on a specific date, I will work very hard to avoid that negative outcome.
“I am not going to be that person” who has to pay $50 because I wouldn’t stop buying cookies to keep in my desk.
Being the organizer of a contest is exactly that type of motivation that works on me. Imagine being the person who brought up the whole thing, and then publicly failing.
I reached out to our human resources person to run the rules of the contest by her, the one that we had successfully done in the past. It had been fifteen years since I first heard about it, and I figured that the zeitgeist had probably changed since then. Better safe than sorry.
I try to live by the rule NEVER GO VIRAL FOR THE WRONG REASONS, and part of that is to never come to the attention of HR for the wrong reasons either.
The way the contest originally worked, everyone would weigh in once a week and a non-contestant would observe and record the weights. It was all private. Participants pledged $50 each, and the money went into a kitty. At the end of the 13 weeks, whoever didn’t make their goal forfeited their $50, and whoever made their goal split it. It usually worked out about 50/50, which tended to mean you either paid $50 or got someone else’s $50.
The goal was to drop a percentage of your body weight in 13 weeks, same percent for everybody. I can’t remember what it was but I want to say 6%.
If everyone made their goal, we would all just keep our money. If nobody made their goal, everyone had to pay up and the money would go to charity. Neither of those eventualities ever happened.
It turned out that the pooling and splitting of the money was the problematic part. Possibly it touches on some kind of state law about raffles or sweepstakes.
I had figured it would be more of a problem with the “weight loss” part, since apparently admitting that you want to lose 10 or 15 pounds makes you some kind of baby-eating demon.
I had a plan for that part, though, because I still have every intention of running some kind of fitness challenge for 2021. It needs to result in me fitting back into my work pants, in case we start working on site again, or otherwise I will have to show up in my pajamas.
The first place where I worked had an average employee age of around 53. There were several diabetics, and most people had the type of lifestyle-related health problems that are typical of people in their fifties.
At this place, there is a much higher proportion of early-career people, including high school and college interns. There are more athletes; my boss recently took a meeting on his exercise bike. The majority of people who might be interested in a fitness challenge, then, don’t really have any weight to lose.
What I’m proposing is much more complicated.
Athletes all do different stuff, so how do you compare between, say, a swimmer and a power lifter?
I’m aiming for total miles, total exercise minutes, and total weights moved across departments.
This makes for a lot more metrics to track, but that also allows for more exploits, a nice feature of any game that draws people’s attention. How do I find a loophole so my team can win?
My plan is to try to use this as a learning opportunity for myself. I want to learn to make different dashboards and data visualizations, and these are the type of numbers that I understand.
If this all works out, it will give us something interesting to do during the final months of isolation. I’ll learn more about data science and hopefully fit back in my work wardrobe. Some people’s dogs will get out more. We’ll all feel more like a team. And anyone who doesn’t want to play can just ignore us.
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.
If there is one single piece of advice that is true for all fields, it is:
Be as specific as possible about what exactly you want to do.
I heard this as a young person, and it was not helpful at all, because I had no idea what I wanted to do! It turns out, over 25 years later, that the reason for that is that my ideal job did not yet exist.
But now it does.
The next most valuable piece of advice is to always learn as much as possible.
Even if you hate your job - even if you feel like you’re working for the worst company, in the worst field, in the worst company culture, with the meanest boss, the most awful coworkers, and the worst commute - learning new things is the only way to get out and do something else.
Another way to look at that is that if you’re going to work at a terrible job that doesn’t pay, make sure it’s in a field that you find interesting.
And if you’re not sure what that is, you’re just sure it’s not where you are now, then learning new things will help you figure it out.
I’ve started to look at my job as a kind of internship where I am continually paid to build skills.
I started a new job in May, and it is not an exaggeration to say that I have been learning new things every single day. I don’t know if I’ll ever be “caught up.” As a person who is motivated by curiosity, this is great news, because it means I’ll never have a chance to be bored.
I hadn’t had a traditional day job in over ten years. I knew all the basic enterprise software; in fact, I’d been a trainer for some of it. In the meantime, I hadn’t had much cause to use this stuff, and it turns out that a lot of features had popped up that were unfamiliar to me.
My first order of business was to reacquaint myself with all the basic Microsoft Office tools. For those of you who haven’t had to use these things on the job, that means Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook. I also had to bone up on SharePoint.
Next, I had to get used to using videoconferencing tools. We use all of them. We were using Skype, until a few months into my new job, when it was announced that Skype will be discontinued and we will be moving to Teams. I might use Skype, Teams, Zoomgov, and something like GoToMeeting on the same day, and then my boss will FaceTime me.
Then I had to get up to speed on a bunch of corporate tools, including our timecard system. I have payroll-adjacent duties, so I have had to learn to adjust other people’s timecards as well.
Right now I’m learning how to edit videos in Camtasia and upload them to Microsoft Stream.
I’m also learning more advanced Excel skills that I never had to use before. Those include conditional formatting, pivot tables, macros, and a bunch of new formulas.
For 2021, I’m going to learn Tableau. This is the most complicated new tool on my list. What it really means is not the technical aspects of the software, but data visualization in general. An easy way to stand out in a data-driven field is to be even marginally better at presenting the story behind the data. Or: can you make boring things interesting?
When I first joined Toastmasters, everyone said that presentation skills will help you in your career. I didn’t care about that - I was just done with my intense public speaking phobia and I wanted liberation. A few years down the road, with a DTM under my belt, I know it’s true. A lot of brilliant people are terrible presenters. Even a couple of months of coaching could lead to an almost magical transformation, but nobody wants to do it.
These are my broader work goals: To be seen as a go-to person for solving problems; to be regarded as a dynamic presenter; to observe and absorb what it takes to go to the next level in my organization.
Broad goals can either be very useful, or not useful at all, depending on what you choose.
I find broad goals most helpful if I am having a crisis or a low-energy day. I just remind myself of what I’m trying to accomplish by the end of the year, and it helps to put it into context. “Remember, you said you wanted to be a go-to person, and this is probably what that looks like.”
A goal that is too broad or vague, though, won’t get anybody anywhere. This is why it’s helpful to have a list of very specific things to learn, like “Excel filters.”
Some of our goals come down from the top level. We have division goals, and subdivision goals, and department goals, and goals that are assigned to us by our boss. I love this! If I’m going to “check the box” on a goal, I want to make sure it’s the thing that matters most to my superiors.
Rule Number One: Make your boss look good. Even if your boss doesn’t deserve it, even if your boss is an orc, everyone else probably knows that. It’s good for your reputation if you show that you can do a good job getting along with a cave troll.
People are the biggest issue in most jobs. That means it’s not usually a specific individual person who wakes up every day ready to cause friction and deliberately be irritating. Usually it’s some kind of systemic issue that, if discovered, could help everyone get along.
The best way to have people like you at work is to be good at your job. Get stuff done and be responsive.
I have worked with people who didn’t wash their clothes, had plumber’s crack, or fell asleep on the job. In each case, they continued on for years and years, because they were good at what they did. Also in each case, if they fixed that one little problem (doing laundry, wearing a belt, getting a standup desk?), their reputations would have been all the better.
For the brave, ask someone else what your work resolution should be for the New Year. Put an anonymous suggestion box out. Actually that might be the worst idea for the worst reality TV show of all time, but it is an interesting thought exercise. What would you wish other people around you to be doing differently, and what do you think they would ask of you?
Just because something is a great song doesn’t make it automatically a great idea.
I remember New Year’s Eve, the last day of 1999, and of course we all had a party and played the song and danced around to it. We were all at least halfway convinced that the Y2K bug was going to cause mass havoc. People were going to get stuck in elevators all around the world, the power grid would shut down, and nobody would be able to pick up their prescriptions. Chaos and mayhem!
Many of us at that time were discussing what we would do when we received confirmation that It’s the End of the World As We Know It. (We played that song too, of course). Several of us had it in mind that we would drive up to the rural property of a certain prepper guy we all knew. We were young and it didn’t occur to us that he had already watched that movie all the way to the end and we hadn’t.
It’s strange to look back at those days, not least because I was still with my ex-husband. I hadn’t gone back to school yet, I still couldn’t drive, I was still living in Oregon, I hadn’t yet discovered my love of distance running or backpacking, I had only been outside the country once.
Twenty years ago, almost nothing that is important in my life today was anywhere on my mental radar.
If I could have seen what my life would be like twenty years later, would I have danced harder? Or not?
There are a lot of other differences between 1999 and now. It’s hard to even remember, but a lot of what we consider everyday things were entirely absent then. Not just smartphones and texting - my ex-husband actually had A PAGER when we met, and I would text him codes on it and he would call me back on a landline. In those days, most people didn’t even have email, not even at work. No Google, no Wikipedia, no YouTube, no memes, no “social media” other than BBSs. We still occasionally used floppy disks. I had a physical answering machine. Amazon had only recently branched out from books to things like shampoo, which I thought was dumb as heck.
In many ways, our world really was coming to an end in 1999. That was the world we knew, a 1980s-tinged world. Our fashions and music would carry on, along with, apparently, a bunch of our workout videos? But many of the social, cultural, and technological norms would completely change.
Do I miss those days? Having lived through them? Nah.
The truth is that I can easily download all the music I remember from that time. The rest of it, who cares?
Food is better now. Not just restaurant food, or the fact that we can get all sorts of things delivered, but grocery store selections as well. Keep in mind, in 1999 we did not have Hot Cheetos. (I’ve never had one but I hear they’re quite popular).
Consumer items are cheaper and more widely available, whatever that might mean.
We have streaming. Streaming what? Why, everything, of course.
There are a few things about our current moment - other than the pandemic, of course - that are really annoying. I don’t mean “microplastics in the ocean” annoying, I mean “constant text message spam” annoying. What is interesting, though, is to watch these sorts of things come and go as someone or other innovates around them.
In 1999, I was 24. One might think that I would look back with nostalgia and miss my youth, especially now that I’m still recovering from almost dying of COVID-19. As much as I enjoyed dystopian film and fiction back then, it never occurred to me that I personally would feel like a character in The Stand at some point in my adult life.
I wouldn’t go back and relive that time in my life for a million dollars.
I’m thrilled to be here in 2020, moments away from 2021. Might actually go out and try to set a fire in a dumpster just for the feels. (Actually no).
On New Year’s Eve in 1999, we were able to talk about the world coming to an end as something of a mood, an abstract concept. We did genuinely have plenty to worry about. We were still not just pre-COVID, but pre-9/11 as well. It didn’t occur to us how very innocent we were, how little we understood of paranoia or even irony, though we thought we did.
In so many ways, though, our daily lives are almost immeasurably better.
One very real improvement that we have now is that we can communicate with friends and family all over the world, as long as we want and as often as we want, basically for free. The standards in those days were pay-by-the-minute long distance, and photographs you had to pay to have developed and then put in the mail.
We didn’t have crowdfunding, either, an innovation that I think will probably always be a part of our culture, but not something we even thought to do twenty years ago.
When I think ahead to 2040, I hope I’ll still be here. I have reason to expect that I probably could. I do wonder what things will be like.
On the crest of major change, it always feels at least a bit scary. We don’t know what’s coming, and we hate and despise uncertainty, so we catastrophize. Even as terrible things often happen, and some situations persist for years or decades longer than they should, amazing and incredible things happen, too. It’s just that we don’t tend to notice those trends or patterns because we aren’t looking for them.
Times are hard right now. We’re still in the global pandemic that had already begun by this time last year, we just didn’t know it yet. We may still have another year to go. That doesn’t mean that better times are not coming.
As we all look forward to 2021 and years beyond, let’s remember that the future doesn’t exist yet. There are no predetermined outcomes. We’re still here, so let’s take the opportunity to look forward with some anticipation. What if we all party like it’s 2039?
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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