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Post image for Making Peace With the First Moment of the Day

I’m not the type to sleep late—seven o’clock is late for me—but I don’t like waking up. Being pulled from the womb of sleep by an alarm clock is almost always a jarring and disorienting experience. Unfortunately, almost every day, it’s the first thing that happens.

Each day begins in a small cloud of mild existential confusion, as it takes a few seconds to remember where this morning fits in the context of my life—what day it is, what happened yesterday, and which of my apparent life circumstances were just dream figments. Oh good, I didn’t ruin my laptop in a bubble bath yesterday. Oh right, I didn’t co-host a dinner party with Patrick Stewart last night. *This cloud of confusion can be almost comically extreme for me; optional anecdote in footnote.

Each day begins with two simultaneous upsetting developments. Not only does the glorious experience of sleep come to an end, but you’re summoned to the captain’s chair of waking life at the exact time your mind and body are least interested in the job. In a flash, the comfort and freedom of sleep transmute into the thankless conundrum of being a person who has work to do and responsibilities to attend to, the first of which is getting your groggy body to its feet.  Read More

Post image for How to become aroused by yourself (in 20 minutes or less)

I started cooking around 5, unaware it would start an argument. I was in Auckland, running out of money, overwhelmed by the prospect of a job search with no contacts in a foreign country. My whole life, job searching had terrified me at the best of times. This was not the best of times.

I’d been loafing in the same K-Road hostel for about three weeks, and with both my cash and confidence dwindling, the best part of my day had become the hard-boiled egg with spaghetti and pesto I had for every dinner.

“Dinner at 5? Not very sexy!” the Italian girl said, hovering behind me somewhere. I didn’t disagree, but I don’t eat dinner to be sexy. Before I could think of something clever to say, the middle-aged Bostonian appeared at the counter.

“Oh, we know, you Europeans are very uptight about appearing relaxed, and so you eat when the people you think you’re superior to are thinking about going to bed. Americans eat at six o’clock.” He looked to me and nodded.

“Five is too early. Six is too early,” said Tommy, the Irishman who funded his travels by live betting on soccer and cricket. He was glued to the TV but listening.

“I’m hungry,” I explained.

I could hear Alessandra roll her gigantic eyes. The American repeated himself, this time thumping his fist on the counter for each word. “Americans eat at six o’clock.”

Alessandra flung her hands up in the air and called us “Fucking yankees,” which was the second of three times I would be called a fucking yankee on that trip.

“I’m Canadian,” I said. “But I eat when I’m hungry, which is usually six o’clock.”

She started into it again and I left it to the the Bostonian. In the ensuing argument a whole list of stolen Italian cultural icons came up from both sides: espresso, gelati, mafia archetypes, Christopher Columbus, sports cars. I wished they would leave. They were ruining the best part of my day, which was already pretty bleak.

This inane, inter-cultural debate was the last thing I remember before I was struck with what might have been the biggest revelation of my life. I remember tuning out the arguing, and staring into my pesto, and having an extremely dark thought: after I ate my dinner, the best part of my day would be over, and it was all shit until the next time I made dinner.

The thought made me so sad I felt dizzy. I went out on the balcony even though it was grey and drizzling. I breathed and reminded myself just to watch my breathing and let my thoughts talk themselves in circles if they wanted to.

In a minute or two, (or ten?) the jabbering of the argument in the kitchen seemed like a long time ago and the ambient sound of the city took over. Cars driving on wet streets, distant honking, wind.

My mind was clear and I could see that the look and sound of the city represented the facts of things, and the mess of fearful thoughts that had momentarily left me represented the negative spin I habitually put on all of it.

I had always assumed I was an optimist, because I was so hopeful. But clearly I was preoccupied with the negative side of everything and had been all my life. This was a shock to me but it sure explained a lot.  Read More

Post image for There are no clean slates, and you don’t need one

If you’re already going strong on a New Year’s resolution, then good for you. Run with it. Don’t let me get in your way.

If you didn’t get around to making one, you didn’t miss anything. In fact you might have dodged a bullet. I’ve made a lot of resolutions that did work out, but none of them began on a January 1st. I figure just about any other day is a better day to make a real change.

The problem with New Years-ing your resolution is that it gives undue weight to the idea of a clean slate. It seems like January first really does reset something, and that it’s important to harness that rare chance.

But of course, it’s just another tomorrow. There are no clean slates. Past failures will still visit you in your head, from whatever year. Bad internal dialogues will still occur, and you’ll still have the same preconceptions about yourself and the kinds of outcomes you can create.

All of this stuff is real, and it doesn’t respect the Gregorian calendar. The glowing Times Square Ball doesn’t have any special powers to obliterate your weaknesses. Making a change must include confronting certain patterns and personal liabilities. You have to take them on willingly as a part of the deal — you can’t trick yourself by pretending they only exist in 2011.

So if you think you need a clean slate to make a change then you’re going to have trouble once you realize a new calendar year doesn’t really clean anything. Self-doubt will appear in 2012 too.

Most people use January 1st because it seems worthwhile to exploit whatever whiff of an advantage it seems to offer. They gravitate towards it as if they recognize that their chances aren’t so good to begin with. Admit you don’t need it, and pick a different day. Pick one that has no sentimental significance, no false help. Don’t even use a Monday.

Of course, if you’re serious about making a change, you know that it isn’t a matter of improving your chances. It’s all up to you, not the fates, so you don’t need to line up your plastic trolls and rabbit’s feet like the old ladies at bingo. You’re much better off if you don’t hang your hopes on anything you don’t plan to control.  Read More

Post image for Procrastination: The Finale

Now and then I do habit experiments here on Raptitude, usually trying something out for a month or two to see what happens. See them all here.

It’s about time I got around to wrapping up my procrastination experiment.

A quick recap:

Over three months ago, I recognized that my problem with procrastination was, in a way, threatening my life. Deep-rooted avoidance habits were keeping me from making any meaningful ground towards my goals. Days, weeks, and months would go by with lots of busyness but no real progress. It felt like it could continue that way until I was suddenly eighty, with none of my aspirations having materialized.

So I posted an official experiment on my experiments page, and immediately launched into the three most productive days of my life. After that I just kept falling a little bit shorter every day, and the momentum faded. Soon I wasn’t really doing anything resembling an experiment, just bumbling along as usual.

What went wrong?

Well, I’m not about to say the experiment has been a failure. Life is different now in a good way. But I quickly ran into a stalemate with the rules I had set for myself, and after a few weeks I no longer had a real idea of what I was doing, until I wasn’t really doing anything.

The premise was pretty simple, with three rules:

1) Check in with myself at the end of every day — Get clear on the plan for the next day. Make a to-do list on an index card. Put away anything left out in my house.

2) Check in at the end of every week — Tie up all loose ends by emptying all inboxes and deciding what I’m going to do about everything that has come up. Get all my concerns on paper and set reminders for anything I need to be reminded of.

3) Put a stop to aimlessness the moment I notice it — Recreation is fine, breaks are fine, as long as I always do what I’ve decided to do, and I know when I’m going to get to work again. Whenever I notice I’m being aimless, I decide what to do right then.

The problem was the third rule. Read More

Post image for Progress is the Only Protection

Last week’s post on the roots of procrastination has evidently motivated a whole slew of procrastinators to focus at least long enough to comment or email me to say that they feel like the post was describing their own lives.

I knew a lot of people would identify with it, but I didn’t realize quite how pervasive procrastination is in people. I thought I was particularly neurotic in this regard and it brings me a selfish sort of comfort to know that many of you are suffering in the same boat. Misery loves company — welcome aboard.

As promised, today I’m going to outline my plan for taking on the procrastination monster, with my 11th Raptitude experiment. I have a lot to say about this topic, so if you’re about to fret over how long it is in this high-speed age of 600-word blog posts, then take a break in the middle and get back to it later. Have a nap if you need to. I’m confident that in the long run reading it will give you an outstanding ROI for your time.

Ok, here goes. First things first:

Pitfalls to be aware of

As with all my experiments, the broader purpose is to learn more about how my mind and my habits operate in order to better know how to contend with them. In the two weeks since I decided it was time to tackle my procrastinatory tendencies, I’ve been studying the patterns and pitfalls in my behavior that continually lead me to procrastinate. Time will tell, but at least right now I have an idea of what I’m up against.

Here are what I suspect will be the greatest dangers:

Disorganization – Being disorganized leads to overwhelm and indecisiveness. So there are a few fundamental minimums for organization that will need to be met in order to lessen the threat of losing track of my commitments. Once you lose track of the finite list of responsibilities you’ve taken on, they appear to the mind as one big insurmountable entity. I don’t want to let it get to that point. The more organized I am, the better I can see the proverbial forest for the trees. Planning the next day is most important. If I do not have a plan I don’t know where to start, and if I don’t know where to start I don’t start. It’s that simple.

Perfectionism – If you read last week’s article, you know that an intolerance for errors and mistakes pretty much guarantees procrastination. No matter what rules or intentions I set for myself in this experiment, I cannot depend on being able to execute them perfectly. I must be able to botch one of my agreed duties now and then and not have the whole effort collapse. I must be forgiving, and carry a spirit of “No matter what happens I will not make a total loss out of this moment, this hour or this day.” Mistakes are fine. Writeoffs are not. Read More

Post image for Procrastination is Not Laziness

I was going to tackle my procrastination problem last weekend but I never got around to it.

By Sunday at 5:48 pm I realized I had blown it again. Throughout the week I feel like I barely have enough time to cook, eat, tidy up, write an article and do the odd errand. I lean towards the weekend, when I have two whole days to finally get some work done. To improve my blog, to catch up on my correspondence, to get some monkeys off my back like fixing things that need fixing, organizing things that need organizing, tackling things that need tackling.

But the weekends go by and I never catch up. I don’t use the time well. Time is not what I’m short on, even though that’s what I tell myself all week.

Sometimes I do sit down early in the day and pound something out, but then I give myself a well-deserved break and that’s usually the end of any productivity. I end up clicking around on the internet, then clean up, then cook something, then watch a bit of a documentary online, then try to work again, then get distracted. Then I decide to wait until after supper to do some work, then I start reading something after supper, then if I’m still home, it’s already after 9:00 so I decide I’ll get an early start the next day.

I avoid taking on the real important stuff. I create work of secondary importance so that I never really have to confront the really worthwhile things. When I get on a roll, I back off and stay backed off. I take breaks that turn into written-off days. I am addicted to hanging it up for the night, to letting myself off the hook.

The important stuff doesn’t get done, at least not before my procrastinatory tendencies have created an obvious, impending consequence of not doing it, like incurring a fine, really letting someone down, or getting fired.

So much of what I want to do isn’t terribly difficult and wouldn’t take a lot of time to get done. Looking at my projects list now I have items like: book an appointment for X, send in that change of address form, phone so-and-so about Y, write a short piece for Z. And many of them have been sitting there for weeks or months. I have the most bizarre aversion to tackling things. Read More

Post image for What I Discovered When I Went Vegan for 30 Days

Author’s note: As some readers have rightfully pointed out, “going vegan” is not just a matter of diet. This post, and the experiment it describes, pertains only to animal use as it relates to food.

This is the second experiment in two months that has made a dramatic difference in how I live and how I feel on a day-to-day basis. Last time I stripped my life of unnecessary and unused possessions, and this time I stripped it of animal foods.

I ate 100% vegan for 30 days, primarily to see what effects it had on my health and my self-discipline when it comes to eating. I found I took to it very easily, and my body felt like it had been waiting for me to make this change for a long time.

What I discovered

It wasn’t hard.

I listed my seven main reasons for never considering veganism before, and the main one is that I thought it would be too hard. I’m not sure what I thought would be hard about it: craving foods I couldn’t eat, finding something interesting to eat, having to read labels… none of it presented any real difficulty. Once I found how well my body fared without cheese and meat it really didn’t appeal anymore.

The hard part was finding stuff to eat in social situations. Most restaurants will offer the token veggie meal and not put much thought into it. Usually is just one of their other dishes, with tofu or veggies replacing the meat. It wouldn’t take much effort to add one inspired vegan dish to a menu. Not enough of a market for it yet I guess.

There is a great support network of restaurant reviews and forums set up to make this part of it easier for fellow vegans. That was a particularly cool part of this experiment — discovering that there’s a super-helpful vegan subculture out there making life easier for others.

I ended up expanding the palette of foods I ate, rather than restricting it.

The thought of removing several broad categories of foods from the picture made me expect to feel restricted to a few familiar dishes, and I’d already been feeling a bit of a lack of variety.

The opposite happened. I ended up experimenting with new recipes a lot more and eating foods I wouldn’t have tried otherwise. I learned quite a few new recipes and my culinary life is more vivid and interesting than ever. Food is more exciting to me now, and I honestly expected it would have to become a less gratifying part of my life.

I did spend more time cooking, trying a few new recipes a week. I love cooking so I didn’t worry too much about trimming my cooking time but I definitely could streamline it pretty easily if I had to.

I felt awesome physically, and right away.

Within a few days, I began to feel unusually light and alert. Everything seemed to require less effort and I had very little mental resistance to the prospect of doing things. Simple tasks like getting out of a chair or clearing up my dishes seemed to lose some vague character of annoyingness I didn’t realize they used to have.

Psyching myself up to exercise was much easier. There was no heaviness after I ate, no recovery period. My morning grogginess went away much quicker. There was no 3 o’clock wall. I didn’t get tired until bedtime. Read More

Post image for Everything in its Place, Finally and Forever

Every morning, I wake up to a home with nothing out of place. I’ve never been a Neatness Nazi and I still am not, but I’ve set things up so that my place just doesn’t get messy.

Every object in my house has a home of its own now. A little over a month ago, I vowed to eliminate homelessness from my home. My reasoning was that if I can’t be bothered to give my possessions a proper place to sleep at night, then I own far too much. I don’t want to own anything I don’t use or don’t appreciate. I don’t want stuff any more, only things.

“A place for everything, and everything in its place” is an ancient platitude that we’re all familiar with, but don’t think I have never been in the home of someone truly living it. I suppose in ancient times most people only owned a few dozen possessions so it wasn’t so hard.

But in our culture it’s perfectly normal for one person to own thousands of objects, far more than they could ever remember they own, let alone make use of or keep organized.

I insisted on finding out what it’s like to live this dream. In thirty days my lot has gone from chronically disorganized to nearly immaculate, by making one simple but drastic change:

I won’t own anything I can’t give a home to.

After a lot of tossing, selling and donating, everything I own now has a place where it is properly, officially away. A place where:

I always know where it is I don’t have to move a bunch of crap to get to it It doesn’t look ugly or get in the way I can put it away in less than ten seconds

At the end of the day I take five minutes and put everything that’s still lying out where it belongs. There’s usually about ten or twelve items that aren’t already in bed, and the apartment quickly becomes hotel-room tidy again.

I used to live in perpetual untidiness. It wasn’t disgusting, but it wouldn’t be odd to find, say, notes and receipts on my kitchen table, a stack of library books on my coffee table, a jacket draped on a dining chair, and a hot sauce bottle stranded on my mantel — and that’s when it’s “clean.”

There was never a time when it looked good, except the hour immediately following the five-hour cleanup I would do every other Saturday when it got too bad to take.

And how could it look good? Since many things had no proper home, there was no “base” arrangement where things were exactly where they were supposed to be. I could hide messes, but the simple fact was that I had more things than I could care for. Most people do.

I had to reduce my possessions quite dramatically to get to be able to adequately house everything I chose to keep, but I still have quite a bit. Only once or twice have I wanted to use something that I’d gotten rid of, and it never was a big deal. There is an indescribable weight on your conscience that is released when you give something up. Every item you get rid of frees you, it really does.

I will never go back. There is just zero advantage to keeping more stuff than you can properly care for, even though it’s the normal thing to do. And it’s easy to maintain. I won’t buy anything I’m not prepared to give a home to. For once I am committed to really owning everything I have. Read More

Post image for 7 Reasons I Never Went Vegan

At its simplest level, the notion always made some sense to me: we hurt and kill animals for our pleasure and convenience, and we don’t have to.

But I’ve always held so many levels of resistance to veganism. Surely it’s not that simple.

I bring up the topic now because I’m about to give it a whirl, not as a response to any kind of ethical crisis, but instead as a health experiment. My diet has been without any hard edges for a long time. Nothing has been off limits, and as a result I’m steadily gaining the 1-pound-a-year perma-fat that the experts say will continue to bog down the typical adult until they die.

I ate about nine chicken taquitos at a get-together not long ago, and I think it was a cry for help. I want to put some strict boundaries onto my diet, if only so I become more conscious of what I eat and so I can practice that “just say no” reflex. Just for a month, to see what happens.

I was going to do the paleo diet, since that’s the thing these days, but to be honest the “on-limits” foods instantly depressed me. I don’t want to eat shrimp and avocado omelets, with berries and balsamic as a snack. Paleo looked like it would prescribe an increase in the animals foods that have had me feeling a bit, uh… clogged these days.

So I’m going the other way, and swan-diving into the plant kingdom. Besides, I’ve had it on my bucket list for a while now: try out a vegan diet for 30 days.

But what about the social ickiness I’ve always felt about veganism? Well I went over my long-standing reasons for steering clear of it, and I have to admit they’re looking a bit wilted since I last checked:

1) It’s too hard.

I know more former vegans than vegans. The unwillingness to live a cheeseless life seems to be the primary reason my once-vegan acquaintances quickly backpedaled to the more moderate vegetarian camp.

Usually restaurants have between zero and one vegan dishes, so that’s what you get. The world is made for omnivores, so you’re painting yourself into a pretty tiny corner if you only allow plants into your body.

While researching this post I kept running into the same surprising anecdote: when people go vegan, they typically wind up expanding their palette. They end up doing a lot more cooking, trying a lot more different goods, and learning a lot more about nutrition in the process. After the initial restocking of the fridge, and a crash course on vegan staples, finding something to eat isn’t so hard.

Ok, so it’s harder than what I’ve been doing, which has basically been doing whatever’s easiest and most gratifying to me. Maybe “hard” is just “harder than the easiest possible approach.”

2) It’s too idealistic.

Oh, I don’t want to hurt anything, so I’ll only eat plants. While I’m at it, I’ll never get angry. I’ll never drink. I’ll never swear. I’ll never take a pen from work or listen to burned CDs.

Life feeds on other life, and that’s a reality we all have to accept. Animals kill animals. We’re animals. We kill other animals too, and we couldn’t have gotten to where we are today without doing a lot of killing and dismembering of animals that really didn’t want to get killed or dismembered. Yes, it’s ugly, violent, bloody. It’s nature.

This was another argument I’ve used to veto the idea of going vegan. Just because I find nature’s violent side a little disturbing sometimes, does that mean it’s wrong to kill animals for food? Mother Nature creates horror on a daily basis. The spectacle of a predatory cat ripping its prey apart while it’s still alive is something most people would hide from their children. Most nature shows won’t even show it. Just because it’s unappetizing and disturbing, does that make it bad or wrong? Read More

Post image for I Don’t Want Stuff Any More, Only Things

I have been a bad parent. I only did what I knew, but I can no longer deny it: I never gave them a good home. I never made them feel useful or showed them any respect.

Today I dropped off hundreds of former possessions at the Goodwill shop. Maybe they’ll find adoptive parents who will be better than I have. I don’t even remember ever deciding to take them on as my dependents. They just happened. But somewhere along the line, all those things became stuff, and lost my respect.

Most of us live amidst stuff. We do have a few things too — well-used, well-enjoyed, and well-respected items that have an established place in our lives. But most of it is stuff.

Stuff makes us feel bad. It fills the mind with fading hopes about what we might one day do with it, taunts us with our obvious inability to manage it, and gives us the ominous sense that we’re losing track of something crucial, either in the physical mess of stuff itself, or in the mental mess it creates in our heads.

I don’t want stuff anymore, only things.

My black, square coffee table in the center of my living room is a thing.

My set of puke-green plates, which sit on the shelf above the nice white plates I actually use, are stuff.

My stainless steel water bottle, only four weeks old but already a close companion, is a thing.

My Beatles Jigsaw puzzle, which I got as a gift and immediately loved the idea of — but never assembled — is stuff.

I donated about a hundred pounds of stuff today. Sometimes it’s sad to get rid of some items, particularly if you had high hopes for them, if they were a gift, or if you associate them with someone you miss.

But how much sadder is it to hoard something in your home for years for some inane psychological reason, without actually putting it to use or giving it a proper place?

If I’m going to own an item, the least I could do is be a good parent to it. And the most fundamental responsibility of a parent is to give your children a decent home.

Stuff doesn’t usually have a home. Items of stuff are transients, surviving day-by-day in a temporary stack somewhere, leaning sadly against a garage wall, or sleeping in the darkness of a junk drawer, never sure of their fate or purpose. A particularly fortunate piece might get a chance to hibernate in a half-full cardboard box in the storage room, with some other hard-luck outcasts.

Nor do they have jobs. Just ask my broken acoustic guitar. Sorry, pal, but as a chronically disabled possession I just can’t keep you busy here. But feel free to mill about the closet behind the well-employed shirts and pants. I’m too insecure and sentimental to boot you out, but maybe one day, by some unlikely turn of events, you’ll become relevant again. Read More

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