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Post image for The Art of Looking Like a Fool

You’ve probably experienced a phenomenon we could call the “Spiral of Delay”. You put off an obligation repeatedly, until it seems so stupid that you haven’t done it yet that the thought of doing it becomes almost humiliating. So you delay a little longer.

You can’t always know what costs you’ll face in embarrassment and penalties to, say, renew your tenant insurance eleven weeks late, but we all know that those costs can only get larger when you make it into sixteen weeks, or six months. Yet, so often we procrastinate anyway, for a very predictably worse outcome.

I suppose some of you do everything more or less on time, and don’t know what I’m talking about. You can click away now if you like, or you can continue to read, out of curiosity about what’s quietly tormenting many of your fellow humans.

From the emails I get, I know that many of you are horrendous procrastinators like I am, and that for you, having something on your to-do list that’s two months or two years overdue is totally normal, if not exactly comfortable.

Part of what we procrastinators worry about is that everyone will find out we aren’t really adults. We avoid a task for the usual reasons at first—we can’t find a good time this week, we need to look something up before we do it. But once we’ve delayed six weeks or six months or six years on it, we start avoiding it for a different reason: because doing it so absurdly late is revealing to the world (and maybe confirming for ourselves) that we are failed adults, incompetent people all around.

About a year ago I realized it had been about a year since I paid my yearly fee for my PO Box. I’m not sure what else happened that day, but I definitely didn’t go down to the post office.

I remembered it again three months after that. I knew it had almost certainly lapsed by then, and it needed to be sorted out. But already I felt dumb for not having acted when a responsible person would have. By that point, doing the task wasn’t just an annoying prospect, it was embarrassing one.

The usual rationalizations surfaced—they hadn’t phoned yet; maybe I had inadvertently paid for two years? Knowing I’d feel sheepish and stupid no matter when I went, it seemed not entirely unreasonable to do it later.  Read More

Post image for How Pop-ups are the Doorway to Evil and the End of the World

It is probably my least favorite information-age experience. I’ve clicked through to an article and I’m reading the first few sentences. Then, for a few seconds it seems like my computer is crashing. My ability to scroll down is taken away, the screen goes grey, and a pop-up text box appears, asking me to sign up for more articles like this one that I have not yet been allowed to read.

Sometimes they also offer a free ebook, given that obviously I’m such a fan already that I can’t wait to read more, as well as tell them how to contact me.

Everyone hates these things, so why would anyone use them? It seems like using a pop-up box to collect emails is about as smart a business move as flinging a pie at the head of every customer who enters your restaurant, asking if they’d like to try the key lime after their entree, which they may only receive once they order the dessert that’s presently hanging off their face.

Well, these sites do it because it works, by which I mean it increases weekly newsletter signups. For the online marketer—and anyone making a living online is an online marketer of some sort—income generally scales with the size of the mailing list.

If I ever add popups to this site you should shoot me. I can’t imagine I would ever be tempted, but I can see how an otherwise good person could succumb to it. Implementing them will almost always give a site owner a higher income, which is something human beings are not accustomed to saying no to.

However, the coldly pragmatic business philosophy behind implementing pop-ups on your website also inevitably results in mass extinction, global warming and a general creeping apocalypse. The connection might not be obvious so I’ll explain.  Read More

Post image for Getting What We Want Isn’t What We Really Want

There was a fascinating piece in The New Yorker recently about a man who, in the 1960s, bought a motel just so he could spy on his guests. He had always been captivated by other people’s private moments, by how differently they behave when they think they’re alone. He admits he also wanted to see them have sex.

The article is fascinating for many reasons (check it out here). But perhaps the owner’s most interesting discovery was that human beings are quite typically miserable on vacation.

Alain de Botton has written about this phenomenon: that our vacations never actually resemble the week of bliss and relaxation we expect them to be. In his short documentary The Art of Travel, he describes the hilarious—and all-too-familiar—way in which his long-awaited Mediterranean cruise unfolds as a parade of mild disappointments, even though there was nothing particularly wrong with any of it.

Getting what we want, or think we want—in those brief moments when we actually do—always seems to be more complicated and fraught than what we pictured.

But maybe getting what we want isn’t really what we want in life.  Read More

Post image for The Case For Real Smiles

If people in the far future were to unearth troves of 20th and 21st-century photographs, the first thing they might ask is “Why are they always smiling?” It would look as though something happened around 1920 that made people perpetually giddy, or even loopy.

On closer inspection, though, the researchers would realize that most of those smiles weren’t genuine, and perhaps were the product of some kind of oppressive force in 20th century society. Maybe an eccentric monarch demanded everyone appear elated all the time, not unlike how North Koreans were clearly afraid to be seen not crying at Kim Jong-Il’s funeral.

Our compulsively smiley photo culture isn’t quite as totalitarian as North Korea, but if you ever assert your right not to smile in a group photo you will definitely be viewed as a subvert. The camera operator, and maybe your fellow subjects, will scold you for trying to ruin the photo by letting it capture your actual face.

My mother is always telling me to replace my unsmiling social media photos with smiling ones. It is a permanent point of contention between us. I’ve been told I look “psychotic” when I’m not smiling, but that’s just my everyday face, and I have faith that future archaeologists studying those photos will recognize me as the sane one.

I understand why people like smiles. I like them too. They’re pleasant, reassuring, and attractive. Smiling people are more approachable. Smiles have genuine social value.

And that’s exactly why I don’t like this custom of mandatory smiling: because I love smiles, and I love that they have meaning. A human smile is one of the most beautiful sights in nature.

Their naturalness is what makes them special, and natural smiles—real smiles—are fleeting. They’re a momentary, involuntary broadcast of intense joy, goodwill or gratitude. How great they are when they’re real.  Read More

Post image for Camp Calm Returns

Finally, registration is open for season two of Camp Calm.

Those of you on the mailing list have probably heard everything I’m about to say now, and some of you have been waiting since December (!) to register. So if you already know you want to do the camp, you can register here right now.

For those who don’t know, Camp Calm is a 30-day virtual workshop for learning the basics of meditation and mindfulness, conducted mainly through email. There’s a daily lesson, a short reading, and a daily practice. There are audio components too on some days—guided meditations and now some audio essays.

Everything included, it requires 20-30 minutes a day in total, split up throughout your day as you choose. The goal is to develop a modest but consistent meditation practice that works with your lifestyle and your preferences.

Meditation now has a huge presence in pop culture. Nobody hasn’t heard of it, and almost nobody hasn’t heard of its purported benefits: reduced stress and anxiety, better sleep, improved confidence in social situations, greater openness to beauty and creativity, better habit management, and improved overall quality of life.

But so many people remain at that “interested, but not actually doing it” stage. The goal of Camp Calm is to ease you into a daily practice, where you are actually doing it. It’s all done with simple sessions of just a few minutes, removing the confusion, the sternness, and the mysticism. It will become very clear to you why people meditate, and how it can improve your own life.

Even a modest meditation practice develops mindfulness, a skillful type of attention that you can use to bring clarity and ease to virtually any moment of your life. It’s a tool that will never cease to be useful, and will never fade with age. Meditation sharpens this tool, and also helps us cultivate other healthy qualities: wisdom, patience, confidence, and calm, to name a few.  Read More

coffee on the counter

Lots of the things we spend our energy on are worthwhile, but some are a better deal than others.

The benefits of my weight routine, for example, are worth much more than the effort it takes, but that effort is still pretty significant. You have to lift a two-hundred pound barbell quite a few times for anything good to happen.

There are a few things I do (and sometimes still fail to do) that take almost no effort, and somehow make my life significantly better. As far as I can tell, these four small things are the best deal going.

1. Shining the sink before bed

I don’t know where or when, but I remember reading about someone who swore that her habit of shining her sink before bed was the linchpin of her productivity and well-being. I have tried it and can corroborate her ridiculous claim. [Readers have since pointed out this is from the FlyLady].

Making your morning coffee beside a shiny sink is an empowering, self-affirming experience. Making coffee beside a dull sink, containing even a single dirty fork sitting in a puddle, is comparatively draining and dehumanizing. Add a stray, bloated noodle or two and it becomes strangely life-destroying.

In my experience, one of two different people emerge from that coffeemaking process, depending on the condition of the sink. One of them is sharp and ready for life. The other must fight his way to his desk from under some great existential weight, some grimy psychic debris that’s inseparable from the marooned soup remnants that greeted him this morning. The Sun is his enemy, not his ally, and all his work will be uphill today.

Different sinks probably need different techniques. Mine is stainless steel, and I use one of those magic white pads with a bit of Comet and water. Wipe down the rim and any chrome fixtures with spray and a dry cloth. Takes 40 seconds. Might change your life.  Read More

me with friends

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a man takes his son on a seventeen-day trip from the American Midwest to the California coast. He tells the son the trip is just a vacation, but reveals to the reader that he thinks of the journey as something called a chautauqua.

The basic idea of a chautauqua is to create a kind of “meeting of minds”, an educational travel experience where people gather at some geographical destination, usually in a natural setting, with the goal of exchanging ideas about how to live better lives. Typically, a few speakers give presentations on lifestyle, health, work, personal well-being, or other big-picture topics to get the discussions going, and the rest of the time everyone gets to know each other well enough to talk about what’s important to them, in a relaxed and supportive setting.

Two years ago I was invited to speak at a modern-day chautauqua in Ecuador, and it was a fantastic experience. The event was organized by Cheryl Reed, who started holding these retreats in Ecuador a couple of years ago. Cheryl’s an American who fell in love with Ecuador when she first visited in 1997. She bought a small farm there in 2002 and spends half the year living there.

We’re having another chautauqua this Fall (from October 29th to November 5th) and we’d love to have you if you can make it. The overall theme is “Happiness, Mindfulness, and Living a Full Life”.

There will be four presenters. Aside from Cheryl and myself, award-winning personal finance blogger J.D. Roth will be returning to talk about creating confidence and personal freedom. And this year we’re thrilled to have Leo Babauta from the enormously popular blog Zen Habits. I’ve been a fan of Leo’s for years and I’m excited to meet him.

After everyone meets up in the capital city of Quito, we’ll spend the retreat at a secluded little resort called El Encanto. It’s set into the side of a mountain in the cloud forest, the temperate rainforest at the foothills of the Andes. A dozen or so dwellings surround a main courtyard, where there’s a pool, hot tubs, and a big balcony that overlooks the valley. We’ll eat together at a big long table every night, have wine on the balcony, relax, chat, and go for hikes down to the river, spotting toucans and some of the craziest looking insects you’ve ever seen.  Read More

Post image for Where the Wealth Was All Along

I keep having this idea, not that I think it’s true, that when you die you appear in a talk show studio, and everyone is clapping. A host shakes your hand and asks you to sit down, and the both of you go over how you think you did.

On a large screen, they play a long montage containing some of the more significant moments in your life. You and the host, along with the audience, look on as you make pivotal choices, overcome dilemmas, and meet the people who would become your friends and partners.

The film includes a lot of personality-defining moments, such as when you made the choice to embrace what became your art or your calling, if you had one, or when you took on a long-term responsibility that became a part of who you were. You also get to see, for only the second time, the moments in which your most important relationships went from superficial to true. Everyone in the studio is moved.

The members of the audience have seen many episodes of this show, and were once on it themselves. The overall tone of the production is quite pleasant and earnest. Clearly everyone is happy for you, celebrating your life rather than judging it, and probably remembering similar moments from their own reel.

The montage also covers things you missed—many of of the experiences and relationships that didn’t happen, but could have, if you had accepted or extended a particular invitation, if you had made a particular effort at small talk instead of sinking into another painful silence, if you had bought that piano after all, if you had attended the indoor climbing center’s open house instead of telling yourself you’d go next year.

Of all the missed possibilities, the missed human connections stand out above the other kinds—the missed career and travel opportunities, cultural experiences, even the creative achievements—because by the end of your life the only thing that seemed relevant was the people you loved, or ended up loving. When you died all the value in your world resided there, in the simple and all-important fact that you really knew other people and other people really knew you.   Read More

Post image for Life is Looking Out a Window

The other day my friend noticed aloud that she probably knows my face a lot better than I do. I suppose it’s true—I only see it a few minutes a day in the mirror, or occasionally in a photograph. But she sees it almost every time either of us says anything to each other.

Of course, I’ve been seeing my face my whole life, much longer than any of my friends have been around. But our faces are constantly changing, and we only see them in certain contexts: primping, shaving, examining blemishes, checking for cars behind us. A person’s direct experience of their own face is surprisingly limited.

Yet, if you’re like me, you think you see your face all day long. Somehow, I feel like I know what mine looks like at nearly every instant. It seems like I can actually see it when I’m conversing with someone, or when I’m sitting at a computer typing, even though I’m not sure I’ve ever actually seen myself doing those things.

It’s a strange hallucination, this impression that I’m always seeing my face. I’ve tested it by making a face and then checking it in a mirror against what I think it looks like, and it’s always wrong. Try it yourself.

Our faces seem like an essential part of who we experience ourselves to be, yet they’re much more familiar to the people who know us than to ourselves.

And we see our own faces much more often than most of history’s human beings. With the exception of the last two hundred years, there were no cameras, and few households had mirrors. Unless you were a debutante, or had Narcissus’s habit of gazing into a ponds and rain barrels, it’s hard to see how your face would become a big part of your experience.  Read More

full moon

I’ve remarked before how strange it is that one of the conditions of being human is that we have to collapse into unconsciousness for a long stretch of each day.

This condition non-negotiable. If we try to ignore this basic requirement, we quickly become dull and irritable, and eventually start hallucinating and going mad. Even though we can’t opt-out of the need to sleep, we often shrink it, delay it, shave it down at either end, or complicate it with drugs and artificial light.

Everyone has their own private relationship with sleep. For some people, slipping into unconsciousness is the easiest and most gratifying part of everyday life. For others it’s a confoundingly difficult thing to do—stress keeps you awake too long, and staying awake too long makes you stressed. Some people go to sleep easily but wake up at 3:40am, alert as a hawk, and know that’s all the sleep they’re getting that day. Others espresso their way through the workweek on four or five hours a night, and sleep till 1pm on the weekends.

Our relationship with sleep is central to our lives, yet for many of us it’s a neglected or strained one. Unlike many other kinds of relationships, we can never walk away from it. Our only option is to improve it.

I just read Patricia Marx’s article “In Search of Forty Winks” in which she and several sleep-dysfunctional colleagues auditioned over a dozen increasingly ridiculous commercial sleep aids. They tried a FitBit-like device that’s supposed to mildly electro-shock you into a relaxed state; a set of earplugs meant to mask your partner’s snoring with a waterfall sound; an “ostrich pillow”—a stuffed, balloon-shaped garment which fits over your head like a swollen medieval cowl (with mouth holes of course); and a battery-powered face-vibrator that reduces the appearance of your dark circles when all of these sleep aids inevitably fail.  Read More

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