Jane Austen’s Fight Club

I love it when two great (but unrelated) things get mashed together. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Jane Austen’s Fight Club.

It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty damn close. (For those of you who need some context: Fight Club is one of my favorite movies, and not because of the fighting — it’s about much much more than that. I think you can figure the Jane Austen stuff out for yourself.)

Downshifting: The first day of the rest of my life

“This is it,” I told my wife last Monday.

“This is what?” Kris asked.

“This is the first day of the rest of my life,” I said. She knew what I meant. For the past few years, I’ve been living in a self-created whirlwind of busy-ness. I know a blog like this often seems calm and quiet on the surface, but underneath there’s usually a flurry of turbulent activity.

“Look,” I said, showing her my calendar. “As of today, I have nothing major scheduled. I don’t have any book deadlines, I don’t have any speaking engagements. I don’t have anything at all.”

When Money Meant More Than Time

Before I started Get Rich Slowly in 2006, I had a lot of free time. After I got home from my job selling custom boxes every day, I could do whatever I wanted. I could read comic books, play videogames, work in the yard, watch old movies with Kris, or hang out with my friends. Financially, I was deep in debt, but I had a vast surplus of time.

When I started this blog, one of my goals was to use some of this surplus free time to make more money. In a way, I wanted to convert time into cash. During the past four years, I’ve gradually taken every spare moment I once had, and now use that time to read and write about money. This happened slowly, of course, but by January of this year, the change was complete. I lived and breathed money.

But you know what? I found that having a high income and no free time was just as frustrating as having lots of time and a pile of debt. A life out of balance is a life out of balance.

The side effects of my life with no spare time haven’t been pretty:

  • Our home and yard began to fall into disrepair.
  • I haven’t had time to watch TV, play videogames, or read my comic books.
  • I didn’t even read for pleasure anymore.
  • My friendships have faltered.
  • Even my relationship with Kris has seemed rocky at times.

For years I’ve been promising Kris that, “As soon as this project is over, my schedule will loosen up.” But something new has always come up. My schedule is always full, and I never have any time for the important things in life.

Things came to a climax during the book project. While I was writing and promoting Your Money: The Missing Manual, I had zero time for anything else. (Even Get Rich Slowly took a backseat to the book!) As I’ve mentioned many times, I was so stressed that I ate all of the time, gaining 20 pounds in four months. Yikes!

After I turned in the final book edits in February, Kris and I took a vacation to Belize. I needed a few days to unwind, but once I did, I realized my life was out of control. I remembered what the old J.D. used to be like: relaxed, friendly, and easy-going. Now I was highly strung. Surely there was some sort of middle ground between between time and money?

Committed to No Commitments

Over the past few months, I’ve gradually reduced my obligations. The last major thing I had on my schedule was speaking at the Savvy Blogging Summit. Now I’m intentionally not doing things:

  • I’m not starting a second book, despite interest from another publisher.
  • I’m not pursuing other speaking engagements.
  • I’m putting off a blog I really want to launch (Success Daily) until January 1st. (Well, if that ends up being our case-study blog for the GRS blogging project, it’ll launch sooner.)

I’ve managed to cut my commitments to the basics; I have no large projects looming on the horizon. Along with some other behind-the-scenes changes (including the addition of the staff writers last year), I now should have some big chunks of free time.

What will I do with this new-found temporal wealth? I’ll spend a lot of it with my wife: We’ll work in the yard, watch old movies together, and go on a couple of trips. I’ll exercise in the morning, and I’ll practice my French in the afternoon. I’ve already begun to dig into my comic book collection, and that’s been a blast. Plus, Starcraft II comes out in a couple of weeks, which should provide hours of fun

And, oh yeah! I’ll also be able to spend more time writing articles for GRS — articles like this one.

Big Rocks

The transition won’t be immediate, of course; it’s going to take effort to change my workaholic mindset. But I’m intent on insuring that the turbulent activity beneath the surface of this blog doesn’t drag my life along with it again. I’ve set up systems to solve the problem. In other words, I’m striving to find balance. Instead of letting my life be only about money, I’m going to make room for other priorities, too.

In Work Less, Live More (still one of my favorite personal finance books), Bob Clyatt offers a simple metaphor for making room in your life for the important stuff. The secret, he says, is prioritizing:

Imagine you have an empty jar, a collection of a few large rocks, and several handfuls of gravel. Your task is to put all the large and small rocks into the jar. One approach would be to pile all the gravel first, but doing so would leave room for only one or two of the large rocks; you wouldn’t get everything to fit. Switch your approach and put the large rocks in first, and you’ll find that the gravel will all fit nicely around the empty space. If a bit of gravel doesn’t fit at the end, you’ve not lost much.

Let too many little things take priority, and there never seems to be time for the big things. Consider the Big Rocks to be really important things you want to accomplish in life, the things that define you. Get the big things in first, work on the right projects and priorities, and let the little stuff fit in around the edges. Let your Big Rocks be non-negotiable priorities in your weekly calendar — and learn to say “no” when other things begin to intrude. Then fit those other things in where you can.

So if running makes you happy, schedule your runs — and then fit the rest of your life around them. Don’t ignore your obligations, but make the stuff you have to do fit around the stuff you want to do, not the other way around.

Make an appointment with yourself. I’ve learned that if I really want to make something a priority, I sometimes have to schedule it. Because fitness is so important to me this year, for example, I’ve intentionally blocked off time on my Google calendar to exercise. Is it before 9am on Sunday through Thursday? Sorry. I can’t do what you’re asking. I’m busy. I have an appointment with myself at the gym or on my bike. Is it between four and five on a weekday afternoon? Sorry. I’m studying French.

As much as I love Clyatt’s analogy, there’s just one problem. Most of us start with our jars already full of rocks. How then do we find room for the stuff we want to do?

You don’t necessarily need to drop your current obligations, but as they end, don’t add more. Drop things (and let things end) until you are easily able to fit the Big Rocks into your schedule. Once you’re sure that everything fits, and that you have enough time for yourself, it’s okay to add something else to the jar. But only add one thing at a time. If you can handle that, then add something else.

Rich in Time

Last month, I wrote about the rewards of thrift. By being frugal, I said, and by saving my money, I’m able to spend money on the things that are important to me. GRS reader Dink left an insightful comment on that article:

There’s no need to worry about getting “rich” either slowly or quickly; if you’re rich in time, and comfortable financially, you’re better off than most people, poor or wealthy. Time is the real currency. Just look at what J.D. is showing…his time to cycle, his time to go to his gym, his time to travel. Freedom of time is what I personally strive for, where I can wake up one day and be my own master. While I’m lucky that I both enjoy my job and get paid well, it’s a complete time-suck. All I want is to reclaim my time.

I love the notion of being “rich in time”. I’d never though of it that way before, but now I can see that this idea has been a huge motivating factor for me over the past year. Sure, I’ve been able to create monetary wealth for myself, but I’ve done so at the expense of time. Because of this, in some ways I’ve felt poorer. These past few months have been all about me re-learning what it feels like to be rich in time.

I’ve been looking for balance, and — at last — I think I may have found it.

Why I Love Crossfit (part 3)

All my life, I’ve been the proverbial 98-pound weakling. I’m still no great shakes (something like a 185-pound weakling, I guess), but Crossfit has made me stronger than I’ve ever been in my life.

Just now, as I was outside mowing the lawn, I decided to do some push-ups. Usually when I try to do push-ups, I can do three. Tonight I busted out twenty good push-ups in a row, stood up, and walked to the mower without breaking a sweat.

I love Crossfit because it’s making me a stronger man than I ever thought I could be.

Yes, I know. Twenty push-ups is nothing to some of you. That’s fine. As I say, to me, twenty push-ups is amazing. And to do twenty without stopping? Unbelievable. I know a lot of people don’t like Crossfit because they think it’s too hard-core, etc. I don’t care. To me, it’s an amazing regimen that is helping me build strength and confidence.

Three months ago, I couldn’t do a pull-up. I could only do thee push-ups at a time. I weighed 203+. Today, I can almost do a pull-up (I need the blue band to assist me). I can do twenty push-ups at a time. And I weigh 185. (Actually, I weighed in at 183.2 this morning, but I think that was an anomaly.)

Have I turned into a Crossfit evangelist? If so, it’s only because it works. After I finish mowing the lawn, I’m going to jump rope — just for fun.

The Value of Relationships and Experiential Truth

Sometimes Kris wonders why I’m so easy-going, or why I don’t care passionately about politics like she does. Or a blog reader will wonder why I don’t get uptight about a comment. Or a friend asks why I don’t stand up for what I believe in. I’ve never been able to articulate it until now.

Colinmarshall recent posted this (awesome) Ask Metafilter question:

What in life did it take you a surprisingly long time to realize you’ve been doing wrong all along?

This question generated 750 responses from all over the map, both practical and philosophical. The response that resonated with me — the one that clarified for me why I’ve come to value relationships more than being right, than finding Absolute Truth — comes from joost de vries:

What I used to do wrong when I as younger is that I thought Truth was much more important than it is.

Yes, I could demolish a lot of positions by holding them up to the harsh glaring light of objective eternal truth. Hardly anything measures up actually. But then nothing much is left.

My discovery was that I realized that for me this seeking of ‘eternal truth’ had emotional and social underpinnings. Being happy and engaged with people would obviate the paramount need for logical truth.

Another take on this is that logic shows inconsistencies perhaps but can’t say anything about what is of value. What is of value is necessarily founded on subjective emotion and experience and thus inextricably linked with dependent truth, inconsistencies, experiential truths. Those people whose logic I criticized were much better in reasoning in this experiential logic than I was. I came to the conclusion that this kind of reasoning is an essential life skill to have a fulfilling life and that I had a lot to learn.

In other words: It’s better to be happy and have friends than it is to be right. Especially if what is “right” changes as you age.

This is why my personal motto is do what works for you. I really don’t believe there’s One True Way to anything. If you want to be Christian, be Christian. If you want to be Muslim, be Muslim. If you want to be atheist, be atheist. Choose the political party that makes you happy.

It saddens me when people feel the need to evangelize their positions, especially to the point that they say and do hateful things. What’s the point? What does that add to life?

The older I get, the more joy I get out of personal interaction, out of spending time with people of all ways of thought. What does it matter if my personal convictions are different than theirs? I can still learn from them and laugh with them. And it’s the learning and laughing that are important.

My Life as a Blogger

I’m in Breckenridge, Colorado this weekend, high in the Rocky Mountains. I’m presenting at the Savvy Blogging Summit, which is a gathering of ~65 amazing women bloggers (and Alex, the token man). I’m honored to have been asked to present on Building Community and Effective Monetization. I also gave the keynote talk last night, and though such a thing is far outside my comfort zone, I had fun. Here’s the written version of the talk (which is a bit different than the version I gave).

I started my first blog on 16 August 1997. I didn’t call it a blog — that word hadn’t been invented yet — I called it a web journal. I’d been reading other web journals for about a year, and I’d had a personal web page since 1994. Because I was a young man who wanted to be a writer, and because I was a young man who loved computers, starting a web journal seemed to make perfect sense.

The Olden Days

For two years, I participated in what is now a sort of blogging joke: I wrote about what I ate for lunch. And for dinner. And for breakfast. I used my web journal to track my fitness. Then, as now, I struggled with my weight, and I figured a web journal might provide some accountability. It worked. Even though my web journal only had a handful of readers, they’d e-mail me to comment on my progress. Using this web journal, I lost 40 pounds.

I kept a web journal on and off for the next couple of years. Gradually, I wrote less and less about diet and exercise, and more and more about my daily life. I found that I enjoyed writing for the web, and other people seemed to like what I wrote.

It was tough going, though. In the olden days, we didn’t have blogging tools like WordPress and Moveable Type. If we wanted to keep a web journal, we had to update it by hand. Today, we just type in our text, press “publish”, and we’re golden. But back then, we had to write the HTML to format every page. We had to build our archives by hand, and update them every day. It was a lot of work, and it was a colossal pain in the butt! How many of you would like to hand-update your blogs every time you upload a post?

Fortunately, some folks in San Francisco saw a business opportunity. A company called Pyra came along and created a tool called Blogger, which people could use to automatically update their weblogs. And what were weblogs? Nothing more than web journals!

Blogger was clunky and prone to crashes, but it sure beat updating a web journal by hand. So, on 16 March 2001, I made my first Blogger account and I used the software to start my first weblog.

Continue reading

Jessica the Hippo

My cat Max is gigantic. He’s huge. First of all, he’s been eating his sister’s food. Because Toto is slowly dying, we’re indulging her by feeding her ocean whitefish and tuna, her favorite canned wet food. But her appetite is declining — and Max is pushy — so that big meatball is getting a lot of her food. Plus, I think maybe he’s eating at another house in the neighborhood.

Whatever the case, Max is fat. Like a hippo.

Speaking of hippos, here’s a crazy story about a domesticated hippo, one who thinks she’s a member of the family:

That story is crazy! From everything I’ve ever heard, hippos are Not to Be Messed With. They’re big, mean, and ugly, and they’re perfectly happy to squish you to a pulp. But apparently not Jessica. She just wants to be fed.

Too bad Jessica doesn’t live around here. I could introduce her to our hippo, Max.

Coffee with Lord Vader

Oak Grove was once — long ago — a thriving community. Back when the trolley line ran through the “downtown” area, the neighborhood supported a number of businesses. Many of those storefronts still remain, but since the trolley left in 1959, Oak Grove has struggled to keep the businesses around. Folks head out to the Superhighway (as 99e was once known) or into downtown Milwaukie.

Kris and I like to support the handful of businesses that do try to make it in downtown Oak Grove. I’m a too-frequent customer at the convenience store on the corner of Arista, where the owner Joe and I chat about books and politics as I buy my diet soda and sugary candy. And Kris loves the Oak Grove Coffeehouse, the neighborhood’s only real business of character.

Jason started the Oak Grove Coffeehouse a couple of years ago, and though business seems tepid at times, it seems to be enough to keep the doors open. I think it helps that Jason and his staff have become sort of community hubs. The coffehouse puts on “open mic” nights, hosts art shows, and more.

For reasons that are opaque to me, the Oak Grove Coffeehouse hosted a fund-raiser last Saturday. Okay, the fund-raiser part I understand; it’s the type of fund-raiser that baffles me. On Saturday, the OGCH held a Star Wars-themed barbecue. Seriously.

Kris and I didn’t stop by, but because we’re fans of the store on Facebook, I was able to see photos of the event, including this one, which cracks me up:

Such a hilarious photo. I’m not sure how Darth Vader is going to get that coffee through his ventilator, but it sure looks like he’s going to try!

Six Months of Fitness

On January 1st, I set just one goal for 2010. (I don’t do resolutions.) I vowed to lose 50 pounds by the end of the year. To that end, I dubbed 2010 The Year of Fitness.

Losing fifty pounds in 52 weeks is ambitious but doable. Nutrition and fitness experts suggest that losing a pound a week is a sustainable weight-loss goal. (Some even say that two pounds a week can work.)

In 1997, I dropped from 200 pounds on May 6th to 160 pounds on Halloween, so I know I have the mental toughness to do this. And make no mistake — losing weight like this takes a lot of hard work, yes, but it’s mostly about psychological strength. It’s about dedication.

I’m now six months into The Year of Fitness. How has it gone? Let’s review.

Continue reading