If you want to change, change today — not tomorrow

Every year as December winds to a close, I think about all of the things I’d like to change in my life. I think about how I’d like to lose weight, stop wasting money on stupid stuff, and — especially — learn to use my time wisely.

Some years (and this is one of them), I make grand plans to change my habits.

Recently, for instance, I purchased a five-year journal. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a lovely little book that includes space to make entries for each day from 01 January 2021 until 31 December 2025.

Hobinichi 5-year planner

In my mind, it’d be awesome to commit to keeping this journal for five years. And I really really want to do it.

But here’s the problem. Often, these grand plans aren’t rooted in reality. They’re based on some idealized picture of who I want to be, not who I am. As a result, I don’t follow through. (Fortunately, my intended journaling routine is aligned with who I am.)

Here’s a real-life example.

I’ve struggled with my weight all of my life. There have been periods where I’m fit and healthy, but there have also been periods during which I indulge myself indiscriminately. I gain weight. My blood pressure soars. My mental health suffers.

Eventually, I decided I need to get fit again. When this happens, I take one of two approaches.

  • The first approach is to adhere to some sort of regimented diet. Maybe I decide I’m only going to eat vegetarian. Or, usually, I aim to stick to a high-protein menu. Plus, I’ll exercise every day! As you can probably guess, this doesn’t usually work. (Sometimes it does but not usually.)/
  • The second approach is to allow myself to continue eating and doing the same things I’ve been eating and doing, but to do so at a reduced level. I don’t deny myself anything that I enjoy (hello, Hostess Sno-Balls!) but I eat the stuff less often.

This latter method is aligned with who I am. It doesn’t operate on the assumption that I will suddenly become a different person. It accepts my quirks and works with them.

Like I say, I have a much higher success rate when I opt to make changes that come from a place of intrinsic motivation.

There’s nothing revelatory here. Psychology shows that changes are more likely to stick if we’re intrinsically motivated rather than pursuing something because somebody is making us do it (or we think we ought to do it). We have to want the change for the change to occur.

I know this, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to adopt habits that are completely foreign to my mental make-up. I think we all do this.

There’s another problem with deciding, “Oh, I’m going to suddenly be a different person on January 1st.” When I decide to adopt resolutions on some meaningful date — the first of the year, my birthday, various anniversaries — they rarely stick. Maybe I adhere to the new behavior for a day or two, but then I forget (or fail) and it makes me feel shitty. I feel ashamed. I feel like a failure.

I have much, much better success if I do not aim to adopt new habits on some meaningful date. I get better results when I decide to start now.

Again, let’s use my fitness as an example.

I frequently try to start fitness programs at the first of the year. Or on my birthday. But during my 51+ years on earth, this has never worked. Not once.

What has worked, however, is starting immediately.

If I want to lose weight and get fit (and I’m serious about doing so), then the most effective thing is to begin this very moment, not wait for some arbitrary date in the future. I have the motivation now. I have the desire now. If I start when I’m motivated, I’ll build momentum. If I wait until a future date, I may or may not have the desire at that time.

In 1997, for instance, I hit 200 pounds for the first time in my life on May 6th. After I stepped on the scale and saw that number, I decided then and there to lose weight. Over the next six months, I lost forty pounds. (And it was this weight-loss journey that led to my first blog. Neither Folded Space nor Get Rich Slowly would be here today if I hadn’t made that decision!)

In 2010, I resolved to lose weight starting January 1st. It didn’t happen. But I did get fit after a similar “come to Jesus” moment in early April. (That instance led to me losing forty pounds again and achieving the best fitness of my life.)

And this year? This year, I hit my limit on July 28th. I resolved to lose thirty pounds in six months. It now looks like I’ll miss my target by a week or two — but I’m still going to shed that thirty pounds. (And more.) Then, I’ll start working on exercise to boost my overall fitness.

In each of these three cases, I started when I was inspired to start. I didn’t wait for some date in the future.

I went alcohol-free from July 5th to October 29th of this year using the same method. I simply said, “Enough.” I made the decision to stop drinking, and I followed through. I’m ready to resume sobriety starting tomorrow, even though I know have a lousy track record of doing things when I pick a “magic” date. If I was serious, I’d start today. I’d let Kim enjoy champagne tonight and I’d celebrate sober.

Anyhow, none of this means that I shouldn’t try to make changes in the new year. It’s always good to pursue self improvement. But I need to be realistic about the likely results. And I need to recognize that my true successes come when I make changes immediately, when I’m motivated, instead of waiting for some magical time in the future.

Yacht rock

Often during the summer, I find myself drawn to Yacht Rock. This is the smooth, breezy music of folks like Christopher Cross, Michael McDonald, Steely Dan, and Kenny Loggins. It’s the kind of stuff my parents used to listen to on AM radio during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

But the term “yacht rock” — which, admittedly, is still relatively obscure — was never used to describe this music. It’s the silly invention of a guy named J.D. Ryznar (and his friends).

On 26 June 2005, Ryznar and company debuted the first episode of their Yacht Rock web series.

Funny, funny, low-production-value stuff that’s often deliberately bad and deliberately offensive. But it hooked me and many others. Plus, it led me to embrace this musical style that I used to hate! That first episode was followed by eleven more over the next few years.

And, as time went on, the Yacht Rock web series caught on with bigger and bigger names. Like Drew Carey.

And here we are at the end of 2020. What started as a joke project to make fun of a particularly dated style of music has actually helped to popularize that music! Reportedly, Daryl Hall (of Hall and Oates) has credited this video series with reviving his band’s career. Crazy.

Ryznar and friends have parlayed their yacht rock joke into a 15+ years of “work”. They have (or had) podcast, a blog, and an Instagram account. They even came up with a rating system to determine which songs qualify as yacht rock — and which do not.

As for me, on occasion I find myself in the mood to listen to yacht rock. And my favorite song of the genre? It’s gotta be “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty. So smooth. So cool. So awesome. According to the “Yachtski Scale”, “Baker Street” doesn’t actually qualify as yacht rock. I disagree. Regardless, it’s a great song — one of my favorites from the 1970s.

True story: I love to listen to “Baker Street” on repeat at full volume. And, also true story, I believe it sounds twice as good on vinyl.

Let’s do this thing!

On July 29th of last year (2019), I proudly proclaimed that this site, Folded Space, would soon return, rising like a phoenix from the flames.

Ha ha ha ha.

I was wrong, obviously. Although I was well-intentioned, life got in the way. Soon after I made that announcement, Kim and I took a long vacation in Europe. Then we spent a week in Washington, D.C. for the annual financial blogging conference. Then I returned to Europe to present at the annual F.I. chautauqua. Then I flew to Joshua Tree to present at Camp FI. Then I returned home, where I sunk into a pit of despair. (My depression really sucked last year.)

This year, things were more or less the same.

From January through May, I was hard at work writing and recording an audio course on financial independence and early retirement. That project, a joint venture between Audible and The Great Courses, hasn’t been published yet (tentative release date is February). When that work was done, I turned my attention to Get Rich Slowly.

Get Rich Slowly, you see, is a mess. When I re-purchased it in 2017, there were over 5000 articles at the site. Everything was in disarray. I spent three years floundering, trying to figure out what to fix first. It was all so overwhelming! But at long last, Tom and I began to tackle things during the second half of 2020. We’ve made good progress and have a plan for how to implement things in the years to come.

And one thing we need to do in order to make things work at Get Rich Slowly? Well, we need Folded Space to be functional once more.

There are a lot of great stories at Get Rich Slowly that don’t belong at Get Rich Slowly. That’s a blog about personal finance. It oughtn’t be a place where I rant about, say, how much I hate to use the telephone. Folded Space, however, is a great place for rants like this.

Our recent content audit at GRS revealed approximately 150 articles (out of 2500) that ought to be moved over here. But in order to begin moving things, I had to do some work on Folded Space!

So, that’s what I’ve been doing for the past week.

  • I’ve moved from my outdated (and broken) layout to a modern (but simple) design.
  • I’ve updated some of the static admin pages.
  • I’ve activated a security certificate.
  • I’ve re-activated the mailing list and changed it to weekly (instead of “post by post”).
  • I’ve revamped the blogroll to include only other folks who are still writing personal blogs (if only irregularly) after all of these years.
  • I’ve incorporated links from my Pinboard feed. This is a popular feature at Get Rich Slowly, and I think it’s a fun thing to include here.

There’s still plenty to do, but as of this moment I feel like Folded Space is finally ready to actually rise from the ashes. I can resume posting regular updates on all things nerdy. The other maintenance tasks can be finished as time allows.

So, there you have it. Exactly 17 months after promising that I was going to start write here again, I’m really ready to start writing here again.

I realize that, for a little while at least, I’ll probably only be writing to myself. I’m fine with that. I’ve sorely missed having Folded Space as an outlet. I process my thoughts and feelings through writing, and I haven’t really been doing that while this site has been on hiatus.

Plus, I’m fed up with Facebook. Facebook (and other platforms) killed the personal blog. Most of the things that I used to write here, I’ve been writing at Facebook. But that simply feeds the Facebook empire. Fuck that. I don’t want my writing to support any empire (unless it’s my own).

Let’s do this thing!

The clean slate

I’m pleased to report that seventeen days into 2020, my mental health seems to be making some marked improvements. I’m happy, engaged, and productive. I’m not ready to claim victory over my anxiety and depression, but the changes I’ve been making — more exercise, zero alcohol, separating work life from home life — all seem to be helping me get back to normal.

“Let’s talk about your anxiety,” my therapist said to start our session a couple of weeks ago. “You say that you’ve always had depression but that the anxiety is relatively new. Why do you think that is?”

“I’m not sure,” I said. “Kim and I have talked about it. We know it wasn’t there when we started dating in 2012. In fact, I didn’t have trouble with anxiety until sometime after we returned from our RV trip in June 2016.”

“And after you returned, you made some big life changes.”

“Right,” I said. “We moved from the condo to our current country cottage. I repurchased Get Rich Slowly. My exercise declined and my drinking increased.”

“All of those could contribute to anxiety,” my therapist said. “And taken together as a whole, it’s not surprising that you might be struggling.”

“I get that intellectually,” I said, “but it still sucks on a day-to-day level.”

“When do you not feel anxious?” she asked.

“That’s a great question,” I said. “I don’t feel anxious when it feels like there aren’t any expectations on me. I don’t feel anxious when I’m in the middle of social situations.” (We’ve established that although I think I’m an introvert, I’m actually an extrovert. I feel recharged when I get to hang out with people.) “And you know what? I don’t feel anxious when life is stripped back to basics.”

“What do you mean?” my therapist asked.

“Take the RV trip, for instance. On that trip, Kim and I lived with the very basics. Before we set out, we had to be very deliberate about the things we brought with us. We just didn’t have a lot of room. The RV was a clean slate, and we had to be careful about what we put there. Does that make sense?”

“Of course,” she said.

“When we got home, we were both overwhelmed. We were overwhelmed by how much Stuff we had. We were overwhelmed by how many obligations we had. We were overwhelmed by the sheer pace of life. We tried to figure out how to subtract some of the the things we had around us. That’s part of why we moved. We were trying to downsize, trying to simplify.”

“Your new office is like a clean slate too,” she said.

My office at this very moment, as I write this article

“Yes,” I said. “Exactly. And I love it. I’ve spent the past week setting up my space, trying to make it cozy and productive. It is like a clean slate. I’ve tried to be intentional about every object I’ve brought into the room. I’m not just hauling over everything from the house. I’m picking and choosing what I allow in the office, from the big stuff like furniture to the smallest detail.”

“Such as?” she asked.

“Such as paperwork, for example. I have stacks and stacks of papers at home. In the past, I’d simply haul the stacks with me wherever I go. The stacks never get smaller. They only get larger. But the stacks are overwhelming. I told Kim the other night that I want to do things differently this time. This time, I’m bringing over one stack at a time. After you and I finish talking, for instance, I’ll drive to the office and I’ll tackle the one stack of paper I have there. I’ll sort through every single piece of paper — each one — and decide what to do with it. When I’m finished with that stack, I’ll bring over another one. I don’t want to have any loose ends. The office started as a blank slate; when I’m finished moving in, I want it to be organized, efficient, and useful.”

“And what about the website?” my therapist asked. “You told me that overwhelms you too.”

“It does,” I said. “Get Rich Slowly is like a ginormous house filled with crap and clutter from decades of living. It’s a mess. It’s intimidating to think about. When I started my second money blog in 2015, I started from scratch. Everything was simple. Again, it was like I had a blank slate. I could be very deliberate about what I added to the site. When I bought back Get Rich Slowly, though, it was as if I’d purchased chaos. There were nearly 5000 articles from over a decade of publishing.”

“Why can’t you make Get Rich Slowly a blank slate?” she asked.

That one stumped me.

“Well, I can’t just wipe everything out and start over,” I said. “That doesn’t make sense.”

“But you’re not happy with how things are,” my therapist said. “It’s as if you’re dating your website but you don’t even like it. You don’t want to be together with it anymore.”

“Huh,” I said. “I hadn’t thought of it like that. But it’s true.”

“How can you achieve a clean slate with Get Rich Slowly?”

“I don’t know,” I said, sipping my coffee. “I don’t know.”

I thought for a moment. “I guess there are a few things I could do. For one, I could finish the goddamn redesign that I’ve been working on for two years. That’d help. I guess I could consider removing comments from the website. That’d help too, although it’d also have some downsides. And maybe there’s a way that Tom and I could manually create the idea of a clean slate by gradually curating which articles we’d like to keep from the archives.”

The more I thought about this, and the more I talked about it, the more excited I got. I could feel myself becoming energized. What if I did somehow approach Get Rich Slowly as a clean slate? How would that work? I don’t know for sure, but it’s something to explore over the next few days and weeks and months.

Meanwhile, I’m enamored with the idea of The Clean Slate.

I’ve always loved the excitement and possibility of fresh beginnings: heading to college, moving to a new house, starting a new job, diving into a new year. Whenever I start over, I have an opportunity to iterate, to do things better than I did before.

Over the two weeks since this conversation, I’ve thought about it a lot. (Perhaps too much!) Why is a clean slate so appealing to me? (And to many other people, as well.) What is it about fresh starts that makes them so invigorating? I think I’ve found a common thread:

  • When I practice ultra-light packing, spending 20 days on the road with only a 19-liter pack, I feel in complete control.
  • When I set up this office, carefully choosing what I allowed into the space, I felt in complete control.
  • When Kim and I took our RV trip, our entire life was confined to the motorhome. And, you guessed it, I felt in complete control — even when things went wrong!

When I pare my life to essentials, I feel more in control. When I feel in control, I’m happier and more productive. This reminds me of the “locus of control” concept that’s a core part of my financial philosophy.

In personality psychology, the term locus of control describes how people view the world around them, and where they place responsibility for the things that happen in their lives. Though this might sound complicated, the concept is actually rather simple.

  • If you have an internal locus of control, you believe that the quality of your life is largely determined by your own choices and actions. You believe that you are responsible for who you are and what you are.
  • If you have an external locus of control, you believe that the quality of your life is largely determined by your environment, by luck, by fate. You believe that others are responsible for who you are and what you are.

This isn’t an either-or proposition, obviously. Locus of control exists on a continuum. But many people tend to favor one side of the continuum over the other.

[Circle of Concern vs. Circle of Control]

With a clean slate — or a 19-liter backpack or a new office — I’m able to limit my environment. There are fewer things to keep track of and worry about. I know where everything is. I am in control.

But when I look at my email inbox or think of all the chores to do at Get Rich Slowly or look out at the jungle that is our backyard, I get overwhelmed. There’s so much going on and it just won’t stop. I feel powerless, as if I have no control.

So, I’ve had a flash of insight, a look into how I work — and many other people work too. At times, we get overwhelmed. When we get overwhelmed, we feel out of control. Each of us responds to this differently. (I tend to turtle up and practice what my therapist calls “productive procrastination”.)

When I’m able to achieve a blank slate, I feel great. I feel in complete control. I’m happy.

I think this is why I (and so many others) find the simplicity movement so attractive. With simplification comes control and power. This also explains why I’ve always been drawn to “additive” budgeting rather than “subtractive” budgeting.

  • When many people try to get their finances under control, they start by trying to decide what they can cut from their budget: cut cable, cut dinners out, cut the gym membership. But this approach leads to a feeling of deprivation. This is subtractive budgeting.
  • With additive budgeting, on the other hand, you start with a clean slate. You start from zero. (And, in fact, that’s what most people call this: zero-based budgeting.) You start with assumption that you don’t need anything and you’re not spending on anything. Then, each day and each week as expenses arise, you analyze them: Do I really want to spend money on this?

After one month of subtractive budgeting, most folks feel icky. They feel like they’re being restricted. And they don’t have a clear idea of what’s essential and what isn’t. But after one month of additive budgeting, you know what expenses bring value to your life and what expenses can be eliminated. It doesn’t feel as frustrating.

In the past, I’ve told Kim, “I wish we could just erase everything and start over from scratch.” I see now that what I’ve been wishing for is a clean slate, the ability to gain more control of my life. Now that I have this insight, I just need to figure out what to do with it!

For five years now, I’ve had the book Essentialism by Greg McKeown in my to-read stack. Maybe it’s time for me to read it. The book jacket says: “[Essentialism] is a systemic discipline for discerning what is absolutely essential, then eliminating everything that is not, so we can mek the highest possible contribution toward the things that really matter. Sounds like “mindful spending” but with time and energy instead of money, doesn’t it?

My 2019 year in review

On a cold first of December 2000, my car was totalled during morning rush hour. I was cruising along in the slow lane — I drive like an old man — when a tractor-trailer rig changed lanes into my Geo Storm. According to the guy behind me, the car spun around twice (although that seems unlikely) before slamming into a guardrail and coming to a stop.

The entire accident probably took all of five seconds but it seemed more like five minutes in subjective time. From the moment I felt the first jolt, my mind entered a state of hyper awareness. I could see everything happening around me — the truck looming to my left, the airbag deploying, the chaos as the car whirled about, the traffic in other lanes — but I was powerless to do anything about it.

When my vehicle came to a stop, witnesses pulled over and rushed to see if I was okay. I was stunned, but I was fine.

Over the next couple of hours — and then days — I went about picking up the pieces. The accident itself had been chaos, as I said, and it left a bit of a mess to clean up afterward. I had to have the car towed. The insurance company had to evaluate it. They had to issue me a check. I had to buy a new car. And so on.

Five seconds of chaos, five weeks of picking up the pieces, and then life settled into a new normal.

The left side of my Geo Storm (after accident)

My 2019 felt much the same, my friends. I’m not trying to be overdramatic (or to catastrophize), but for a lot of the past twelve months, I’ve felt as if I’m stuck in a spinning car, clearly able to see what’s happening but powerless to stop it.

This is, of course, a product of my anxiety and depression. Objectively, my life is fine. Great, even. Subjectively, everything’s been spinning and the airbag has deployed. I know this is all in my head, but that doesn’t make it any better.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that I believe — hope, maybe? — that the wreck has come to a halt. The car that is my life has stopped spinning. Over the past month, I’ve been “assessing the damage”. Things are messy, sure, but they’re not as bad as they might have been. Now, I’ve slowly begun to pick up the pieces, to work toward a new normal.

Fortunately, nothing’s totalled. It’s a mess, but there’s nothing that cannot be repaired. Continue reading