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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

Post image for The Art of Letting Others Be Right

My brain, like all brains, houses an unbelievable quantity of remembered information, and a huge amount of that information is stuff I’ve watched on television. I always hated Star Trek, and frequently said so, but whenever I catch a clip of The Next Generation, somehow I’ve seen that episode before.

I was also never exactly a fan of The Oprah Winfrey Show, but I’ve surely seen several hundred hours of it. For years after it went off the air, I kept remembering a particular insight Oprah shared once. I forget the context, but Oprah was amazed to realize that she didn’t have to answer the phone just because it was ringing.

It was a significant insight to me too, not because answering the phone is a particularly difficult task, but because it meant there was an invisible freedom there, which I somehow didn’t realize I had. Even if I still answered every call, it felt like a choice. Before that, it had been a kind of a master-slave type relationship, in which some remote person could push some buttons and force my body up onto its feet (perhaps tearing me away from a Star Trek rerun).

I am slowly grasping another overlooked freedom, which is the freedom to let people be right (or at least feel right) even though I think they’re wrong. When someone tries to tell the world that Crash is a brilliant film, or that evolution is “just a theory”, I forget that I am free to let them continue to think so.

I gather I have a long history of arguing my views, even when I’m not sure why I’m doing it. One time I was respectfully disagreeing with a coworker about something, and after a particularly good point I made, his tone went from sporting to angry and he said, “Damn, you are one argumentative person!” I told him he was wrong, but later wondered for a few seconds if I was indeed argumentative. No, he was the argumentative one. Otherwise he would have realized I was right.

And this was before the internet was omnipresent in our lives, before it started joining us in the bathroom, back when “going online” was still just an activity you did for part of the day, rather than an additional mode of global perception we can activate at any moment. The typical person experienced far fewer moments in which it felt appropriate to argue a point beyond what politeness allows.  Read More

Post image for A Brief Visit to the End of the World

People mostly want the same thing, and many of us already have it, but we don’t really notice it.

I have no way of confirming this, but I bet that if you could interview people across different centuries and cultures, asking them what they wanted most, you would notice a distinct theme in their answers.

Some people would want great riches or power. Others would say they want something very specific: to invent a particular thing, or for a particular person to love them, or to win a gold medal or give an Oscar speech.

But I suspect most of them would say they want something like this:

I want to be able to do my work and spend time with my friends and family, free to live my own values in relative peace. I just want a fair chance to pursue love and happiness, and a stable, humble life.

You could call this “The Peacetime Dream”, a life with the normal share of ups and downs—necessarily including heartbreak, health issues, setbacks and disappointments—but which isn’t defined by war or persecution. Almost universally, people want basic stability and basic freedom, and to someone who doesn’t have those things they are clearly the best things in the world.

But to someone who does have those things, their greatness is not so clear. It’s easy to forget, or never notice at all, that many or most of us already have this state of affairs, more or less—certainly most people who read blogs in their spare time.

It’s also easy to forget that many (or most?) of history’s humans never had the Peacetime Dream. I wonder how many billions of individual human lives have been lived under tyrannical regimes, forced servitude, or during a war or a plague, or maybe all of those things.

I don’t know what your everyday worries are about, but I often worry about things like my work being criticized, the difficulty in making friends post-high-school, the ease of putting on weight at Christmas, the advance of age, the murkiness of our tax laws, and the declining quality of consumer products.  Read More

Post image for Thank You

One day back in 2009, I was overcome by gratitude and published a short, gushing post thanking various strangers, teachers, family members and cats for what they had done for me.

I also thanked my small but growing audience for coming here. Raptitude was just over a month old and already it felt quite amazing that there were people I didn’t know who wanted to hear what I had to say.

This blog will be seven years old next month, and I can’t believe I’ve let so much time go by without directly thanking you for reading and sharing Raptitude. I try to tone down the sentimentality on this blog, but I honestly can’t tell you how much it means to me that you come here to read my long-winded reflections about self-defeating habits, existential absurdity, imaginary time travel and human frailty.

I’ve watched the audience grow from a size that could sit around a boardroom table to one that could fill a couple of Greyhounds, then a large high school, then a large concert hall. Today, the subscribers alone couldn’t fit into even the largest NHL arena, and it’s all because so many of you have told your friends about this little corner of the internet. Thank you so much for doing that.  Read More

bike shadow

A few weeks ago, a neighbor I had not yet met knocked on my door to tell me that her storage locker in the basement had been broken into, and so had mine.

I went down there. The locker door was hanging open, and my bike was gone. They hadn’t cut the lock, but had instead crowbarred the hardware entirely off the plywood door, which building management had attached with four of the tiniest screws I’d ever seen.

My initial feeling was the rush of violation and dirtiness that everyone feels when they see the mess left by a thief. They touched my stuff, and now some of it is at their place.

But I ran out of indignation pretty quickly. The normal victim feelings gave way to a feeling of, “Wow, I’m really glad I’m me.”

I can afford a new bike. I’ve never felt a desire to steal from people. Aren’t I lucky that I don’t know what it’s like to enter a building illegally, and rifle through someone else’s belongings, hoping to find something I can sell for fifty bucks? I would rather lose all my possessions than be that guy. I’m also glad to know that the locker was so insecure before I put anything irreplaceable in there. Read More

Post image for The Great Myth About Getting in Shape (and Every Other Goal)

I wasn’t going to write about this topic this week but it could be somewhat urgent for some of you. Mid-January is a critical time for the fate of many annual goals, and I’m sure a lot of people are already making a particular mistake that kept me stumbling for years. In fact, I’m convinced most failed goals fail for this exact reason.

This time next week, 2016 will be 5% finished. So if you’ve got goals this year, you should be around one-twentieth done by then.

If your goal is to be a regular gym-goer, for example, then you’ll want to have two full weeks of gym-going under your belt. If it’s already a grind, then you’re probably not going to make it.

There’s an interesting paradox when it comes to fitness in America. There is a tremendous demand for this thing called fitness, and yet only a fairly slim minority end up actually making it a part of their lives. Visiting aliens would be confounded that we appear to worship this particular quality yet don’t usually embody it.

It’s not a matter of not knowing what to do. In the internet age, anyone can find, for free and in only a few minutes, dependable step-by-step instructions on how to get to whatever kind of fitness that’s humanly possible: marathon runner, bodybuilder, yoga adept, martial artist, or anything else. The same is true for all kinds of other goals: making more money, starting a website, learning French or piano or calligraphy.

What do you really have to do to get into shape? Join a gym, find a well-regarded program online, and do what the program says. We know what we have to do, and we want the rewards of doing it, so why don’t we just do it?

Often we begin well enough, but the different aspects of our lives have a way of competing with each other, and a month later we’re barely holding it together, and two months later we barely remember that we tried.

The typical refrain, from both the achievers and the non-achievers of a particular goal, is “You have to want it badly enough.”

We hear this message all the time. If you’re within a decade or so of my age you probably spent much of your schooling in classrooms whose walls were plastered with a certain kind of inspirational poster, often featuring cute animals or Einstein, and preaching about persistence and dedication. These might look familiar:  Read More

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