The epiphany

I had an interesting insight during the dog walk earlier this week, and I want to set it down before I forget it.

Tuesday was a good morning. I felt confident (which is unusual for me in recent years) and I was productive. I got stuff done.

During the dog walk, my mind started to wander. I have a mind forever voyaging to different places. My thoughts are rarely solely in the here and now. I usually have two or three or four different thought processes going on in my head at once.

I don’t know if this is normal. Maybe it is. Do other people have heads filled with a million billion jumbled thoughts? Or is this indicative of my ADHD? Is my brain wired differently than other people? I have no way to tell. (And I really wonder if all of this is related to my chronic depression!)

But some days are different.

Overanalytical Man

On the days I take my ADHD meds, a calm settles over me. I often describe it like this: It’s as if normally there’s a (metaphorical) swarm of bees in my head. They’re buzzing and flying and everything is chaos. But when I take my Vyvanse (which I don’t do often), those bees settle. They calm down. They stop buzzing about for a few hours and instead settle in a clumpy mass on a tree branch. It’s still a bit chaotic, but it’s calm chaos. Does that make sense?

Then, as the Vyvanse fades, the bees begin buzzing about again.

That’s life inside my head.

It’s important to note that one of the bees (perhaps the queen?) is this judgemental little motherfucker that’s always picking things apart. Sometimes it’s picking apart whatever it is I’m watching or reading or doing. Sometimes it’s picking apart the people I’m with. But usually? Usually this little bastard is picking me apart. My head is filled with constant negative self-talk.

I’m constantly asking myself, “Do I look okay? Did I do that right? Did I say the right thing? Was that a mistake? Do I dare publish this? I’m too fat. Remember that time you fucked up at the FI chautauqua?” And so on.

Inside my mind, there’s this constant monologue that runs parallel to my regular thought processes. Sometimes I’m able to suppress this. Normally, however, I can’t. (And with certain strains of marijuana? Yikes! It’s bad news because for whatever reason, they magnify this dark voice from a whisper to a scream.)

When we were married, Kris used to call me Overanalytical Man. We’d laugh about how I overanalyzed everything. I never thought much about it outside of being a joke, though. Now, though, I’m starting to realize that Overanalytical Man is like my nemesis. He’s the recurring super-villain of my life. Overanalytical Man is the guy who prevents me from enjoying anything, from relaxing, from just being myself.

So, let’s get back to Tuesday’s dog walk.

Walking the Dog

Left to her own devices, Tally wouldn’t really go for a walk. Instead, we’d pick a place or two and just sniff and dig for an hour. Or a day. That’s what she wants. But I want the exercise. I’m trying to kill two birds with one stone. I want forward motion. Our dog walks are mostly a compromise between me wanting to be in motion and the dog wanting to plant in place.

Tuesday, for whatever reason, I decided to let the mountain beagle have her way. When she wanted to stop to sniff and dig, I let her stop to sniff and dig. She loved it. And instead of resenting our lack of forward motion, for once I tried to pay attention to what Tally was doing. I tried to be in tune with her.

This is something I’ve been working on for a couple of weeks now.

During the nearly five years Tally has lived with us, Kim has always had this sort of natural intuitive communication with her. (She has this ability with all animals, actually.) I, on the other hand, only pick up on the dog’s broadest cues. And when I try to communicate with her, I’m usually very forceful: loud commands, leash tugs, very obvious hand signals.

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed that for whatever reason I was picking up on some subtle cues from the dog. It was as if I could read her mind. (I wasn’t reading her mind, obviously. I was just taking time to pay attention to her face and her body language.)

Since then, I’ve been actively striving to better communicate with the hound. The results have been remarkable. She’s more compliant. She comes to me more often during the day to ask for things. And we’re having better walks together.

Tuesday, I actively tried to put myself in her paws. I was trying to imagine what it was like to be a dog as she sniffed about and rooted with her nose and dug in the holes she found. And you know what? It was like I actually felt like what it was to be a dog. For five or ten minutes, I was completely in the moment. I wasn’t analyzing anything about the situation.

It was amazing.

For just a few minutes, I forgot everything else in the world.

That constant narrative in my head? It disappeared. The swarm of bees vanished. Overanalytical Man was nowhere to be found. There was no judgemental, negative self-talk. (There wasn’t any self-talk at all!) There was just me and the dog on a foggy morning in Portland digging in the muddy earth. It was magical.

Then the reverie was over.

The Power of Now

“I wonder what it would be like to always be in the moment?” Overanalytical Man thought as his normal state of constant reflection returned. “Are there other times that I’m more present than others?” Yes, there are times I’m more present than others. There absolutely are.

Kim and I just returned from vacation, for instance. Most of the time we were gone, I was in a good head space. I didn’t spend time judging myself or others. The swarm of bees in my head took a vacation too. For a week, I just existed in the moment. On the beach. With Kim’s family. It was fun!

I realized that this is usually the case when I travel. When I travel for work I’m my normal self, but when I travel for pleasure I let go and am completely in the moment. Not 100% but most of the time. And maybe this is one of the reasons I especially love travel — because it frees me from my inner demons. Overanalytical Man isn’t present on these trips. (He’s only there when I travel for work.)

I thought back to the 15-month RV trip that Kim and I took across the United States. I frequently say that this was the best experience of my life. And it was. But why was it the best? I think I enjoyed it so much because we were literally living in the moment all of the time. We deliberately tried not to plan ahead. We made things up as we went along. Literally. Often we’d be driving down the highway at four in the afternoon with zero idea where we’d park the RV for the night.

This is similar to the best vacations I’ve experienced. When my cousin Nick and I went to Turkey in 2012, we had some waypoints planned, but we made things up in the middle. Kim and I did the same when we visited France and England in 2013. We rented a car in London and just drove. Nick and I did the same during our last two trips to Europe: We just made things up as we went along.

Life Without Judgment

Now, there’s another important aspect to these moments I’ve enjoyed most in life. They’re moments without judgment. I’m doing the things I want when I want to do them, and I’m not judging myself. Nobody else is judging me either. (Or if they are, I don’t know about it and it doesn’t matter one whit.)

As I thought about this fact on Tuesday, I realized that perhaps part of my current struggles are precisely because I put myself in situations that allow others to judge me.

  • I write for the internet.
  • I write books.
  • I make YouTube videos.
  • I post on Facebook.

All of these actions invite judgment from others (in the form of likes and comments and shares and so on). And as much as I say that I don’t care what other people think of me, I obviously very much do care.

And that is the root of the problem.

I have inadvertently created a life built around external validation. Maybe my life has always been built around external validation. I don’t know. Did I get good grades in school because I was smart and applied effort? Or did I do well in order to obtain the approval of my parents and teachers?

Improving My Mental Health

I let the dog continue to dig as I thought more about this notion. I’ve been blogging for over twenty years now. I’ve been on social media for roughly fifteen years. During this time, my self-esteem — never great — has sunk to new lows.

My mental health did make a resurgence from 2012 to 2015, however. I’ve always attributed that to shifting my focus to taking care of my mental, physical, and emotional health. I’m sure that’s part of it. But that’s also the period in my life during which I was least present on the web. I had sold Get Rich Slowly and resigned as editor. I was posting less on social media. I was more present in the here and now.

In 2015, I started Money Boss. This brought back a bit of the pressure, but the real stress didn’t reappear until 2017 when I repurchased GRS. This pressure (which is one of the reasons I sold the blog in the first place) is largely self-induced, and I know it, but a lot of it comes from constantly putting myself out there, leaving myself open for others to judge. (And let’s not forget that with each thing I produce online, I’m adding bees to the swarm buzzing around my head!)

Have you heard about the young actors from Game of Thrones? Nearly every one of them has struggled with mental health issues and/or addiction as a result of achieving fame at a young age.

Now, I’m not trying to compare myself to a movie star. (See, even writing that sentence is my internal voice attempting to counter possible external judgment before it occurs!) I’m trying to point out the pressures of living a life that’s open for others to judge, the stress of being in a spotlight — even a small blogger-sized spotlight.

Everything you do, you ask yourself, “What will others think of this?” That’s what Overanalytical Man does, anyhow.

Thinking Different

At times like this, I wish I weren’t Overanalytical Man. I wish I were more like my friend Pete (a.k.a. Mr. Money Mustache). Pete doesn’t give a fuck what other people think. (Or that’s my impression, anyhow.) He believes what he believes and he does what he wants to do. To hell with the judgment of others!

Apparently, I’m not wired that way.

But could I be wired that way? Could I change how I think?

For years, counselors and friends and romantic partners and business associates have encouraged me to pursue meditation. I’ve never done it. I talk about doing it. I buy fancy meditation cushions. I download meditation apps. But I never meditate. How do I force myself to start? And would it help?

I’ve also had many people recommend that I read The Power of Now, which is all about living in the present (instead of the past or the future). I’ve started the book dozens of times. What I’ve read of it, I like. Sure, it’s mystical and fuzzy at times, but that’s okay. Again, maybe I should force myself to follow through with this, to finish the entire book.

And you know what? Maybe I should take a deliberate forced vacation from the internet. Maybe I should take a month (or three) off from all of the things that invite the judgment of others. No Facebook. No Twitter. No YouTube. No blogging. If I did this, what would happen? What would I feel like?

Again, during the dogwalk on Tuesday I realized that this sort of internet sabbatical is exactly what I enjoy when I’m traveling. When I travel, I’m living in the moment, yes, but I’m also completely (or mostly, anyhow) divorced from my life online.

All or Nothing

I have a bi-weekly call with my friend Diania. Ostensibly, these chats are to plan the next EconoMe Conference. In reality, we spend the bulk of our time building each other up, talking about our current struggles (my mental health, her job), then offering insights and solutions. I love these calls.

This week, I told Diania about my Tuesday epiphany. “I’m thinking about giving it all up,” I told her. “I’m thinking about just walking away from the internet.”

Diania laughed.

“You’re like me,” she said. “You’re an all or nothing person. And you’re trying to be all or nothing with this, but I don’t think you need to be. You don’t have to give it all up. You don’t have to go on a three-month sabbatical. There are other solutions.”

“Like what?” I said.

“Well, you could take a short sabbatical every single day. Fifteen minutes. An hour. That’s what meditation is for,” she said. “Or you could look for a balance point.”

I nodded. Her advice made sense.

“What you’re describing is the human condition. We all experience this,” Diania said. “We’re never going to escape the depression and anxiety. You and I are wired for it. We can’t avoid it. What we can do is mitigate it. When it comes, we can do things to cope with it.”

Diania has some very valid points. I am an all or nothing guy. I know this. And yes, there probably is a way to achieve balance without completely giving up the internet.

But what would that balance look like?

The Epiphany

I’ve spent most of this week thinking about my present and my future. For once, I’ve actually sought out the advice of my friends and family too. (And I intend to seek the counsel of other friends in the coming weeks.)

On Thursday night, I tried a thought exercise. “What if,” I thought, “I didn’t have any online obligations whatsoever? What if I used the internet only as a tool, not a platform for writing and sharing myself?”

I put myself in that mindset. And, no joke, it was instantly as if a weight lifted from my shoulders. I felt that “unbearable lightness of being”. I looked around at this old house, at Kim, at our animals. I smiled. I was content. I was happy. Everything felt amazing.

And I realized that the last time I truly felt this way was 1997 or 1998, back when Kris and I still lived in our first house with two cats and zero responsibilities. I had a static website but I didn’t yet have an active blog. There was no social media. Email was novel. YouTube didn’t exist. I chatted with my friends on the phone and I saw them in real life. Life was grand.

I also thought about the first few years that Kim and I were dating. I had sold Get Rich Slowly — and I eventually gave up any writing or editing duties at the site. I was working on World Domination Summit, but eventually shed that responsibility too. I was focused solely on self improvement: exercise, language learning, reading, writing, my mental health. We bought the RV and went on our roat trip. Life was grand.

This thought exercise led to an epiphany, to a personal “thought singularity”. All of the stuff I’ve been reading about and thinking about and writing about for the past six months came to a head. I had clarity. In this moment, during this epiphany, I had a vision of the correct path before me. But choosing that path seems scary.

Very scary.

People Who Know Me

After sitting alone with this epiphany for twenty or thirty minutes, I went to find Kim. “Do you have time to talk?” I asked her.

“Sure,” she said. “What’s up?”

“What would you think if I just gave up my on-line life? How would you feel if I were to give up Get Rich Slowly completely? And Facebook. And Twitter. And everything else? What if I just walked away and spent my time on you and me and the house and the animals?”

Kim smiled. “I think that’s a great idea,” she said. “In fact, this is what I’ve been trying to tell you to do for years. You could write a novel. You could volunteer. You could spend more time with friends. You could do lots of things.”

Last night, I chatted with my cousin Nick. (He goes by Duane at Get Rich Slowly, for those of you who also read that site.) I told him that I was considering giving up my online life. I told him that I’d come to the conclusion that my internet world was responsible for many of my mental health problems, for my unhappiness.

“J.D.,” he said, echoing Kim, “I’ve been trying to tell you this for years. You are a lucky man. You’ve put yourself in a position where you can do almost anything you want. I don’t know why you choose to do anything you don’t want to do. I don’t know why you choose to do things that bring you stress and anxiety. It doesn’t make any sense.”

An Uncertain Future

So, that’s where I am at the moment. I haven’t made any decisions about what I intend to do moving forward. I’ve sketched out several possible futures, each with a different degree of involvement on the internet.

Broadly speaking, options include:

  • Zero online creative production. No blogging. No social media. No YouTube videos. No email newsletters. None of it. Just quit cold turkey and walk away. I am 95% confident that this would relieve me of my anxiety. But I have a small bit of worry that I’d miss having an outlet for my writing. I love to write. I’ll always do it. It’s nice to have a forum like this to share some of that writing.
  • Minimal online creative production. Because I do like having an outlet, maybe it would be best to instead alter my expectations. Maybe I should keep this blog, for instance, but remove analytics, kill the mailing list, and avoid a schedule. Just write when I want.
  • Moderate online creative production. And what if I simply chose to cut back on my current expectations, made them super easy to meet? Maybe commit to only one GRS post per month. And one GRS email per month. Meanwhile, post here and at YouTube whenever I feel like it. Could I commit to that and adhere to it without feeling pressure to produce more?
  • Maximum online creative production. At the most extreme level, I thought that maybe I could keep doing what I’m doing, but simply cut back a little. Remove the things that cause the greatest stress but keep everything else. This is a slippery slope, though. It doesn’t feel like any kind of real change.

Right now, this morning, I have no idea what I’m going to choose to do. My heart says to give up everything completely. My brain says, “No no, dude. Keep some of it.”

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll talk to my business partner and additional friends. I’ll explore possibilities. I’ll try to spend some time acting as if I had really given everything up already to see what it feels like.

Actually, I’ve been practicing this mindset for the past two days. I already know it feels amazing. The other night, after my epiphany, I had this warm glow for several hours. I felt happy and confident and secure. I was 100% present in the moment, in the now. The bees in my head? They were gone. For a short time, my mind was completely at ease. It felt brilliant. I felt in control of my life. And I liked it.

Then again yesterday afternoon, I had the same experience: present in the moment, confident, in control of my life. No bees. Again, I liked it.

I want more of it. Yes indeed, I certainly do.

Further reading related to this meditation:

And for those who like video, here’s a YouTube version of that “Lazy” essay…

The clarity of purpose and perspective that comes from taking time off

I’m currently on vacation with Kim’s brother and his family. We’re enjoying a much-needed beach retreat.

Before we left for this trip, I felt overwhelmed. I was overwhelmed by U.S. politics. I was overwhelmed by my work at Get Rich Slowly. I was overwhelmed by the things that needed to be done around the house.

Now that we’ve been away for a few days, though, none of the things that had been weighing on my mind before I left take even a bit of mental energy. I made it through all of yesterday without an inkling of concern over all of the chores that I was worried about last week.

This is nothing new.

I’ve noticed that same thing happens whenever I take an extended vacation. Up until the last minute, I’ll be frantic trying to get things done. As we leave the house and head to the airport or drive to our destination, I’ll still be upset at myself for not finishing more of the tasks I had set for myself. During the first night, I’ll still be thinking about my unfinished work.

Then, gradually, my problems fade from my mind. I forget about them. I shift my attention to living in the moment. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I value vacation so much: It’s the only time that I allow myself to be fully present in the moment. Most of the time in daily life, I’m too caught up in fretting over the past and worrying about the future.

From past experience, I know that this shift in attitude sticks with me for a few days (or a few weeks sometimes) after we return home. The vacation grants me perspective. I’m able to view my to-do list with greater clarity. I make better decisions after a trip than I do before a trip. Then, slowly but surely, I revert to my default mindset. I become overwhelmed again.

I wish there were a way to somehow capture this mindset in a bottle. I would love to be able to take a pill or to sip something that grants me this insight, if only for an hour each day. I think it would help me be a happier, more capable human being.

Never Give Up: In Praise of Failing Forward

I was interviewed this morning for a segment on Yahoo Finance. It didn’t go nearly as well as I had hoped. I was nervous. I fumbled when I spoke. I couldn’t remember what I wanted to say, even though I was speaking about my own experience.

Preparing to be filmed for Yahoo Finance
Here I am, talking to thin air…

As I stumbled — stopping and re-starting my sentences again and again — I began to panic. What was happening? I’ve been interviewed dozens of times in the past year, and I’ve interviewed dozens of people myself. I never have problems. I’ve had several interviewers praise my poise recently, but poise was nowhere to be found today.

Searching for Answers

While driving home, I tried to figure out what went wrong. Jeremy, the producer, had been friendly and organized and very clear about what he wanted. I spent plenty of time reviewing the topic we’d be covering (my tax audit in 2014) and I felt comfortable with the material. When I reached the television studio where we filmed the segment, I spent half an hour chatting with the woman who was managing things on our end. Everything should have gone great!

But it didn’t.

“You know, I always suck at television interviews,” I thought. But I know that’s not true. Sometimes I kill it when I’m on TV. Sure, I’ve had several bad experiences before, but it’s not true that I always suck at television interviews.

So, what makes some of my TV interviews go well and others poorly? Was there a common thread? I tried to find a common thread.

“Well, my favorite TV segments have been the ones where I’m actually talking with a live person,” I thought. I remembered a bit I did on DIY Christmas gifts a few years ago. For that, I stood in a local TV studio and joked around with the program’s host. That was fun. Or once in Denver, I did a segment about Fincon where I chatted directly with the news anchor. That went well too.

But what about the times I’ve sucked? There was the time I did a piece for a station in Miami. I sat in a local TV studio and talked to empty air, staring directly at the camera. I bumbled my way through that one too. At the time, I attributed my poor performance to the fact I had a high fever, but looking back I now see similarities to today’s situation. In both cases, I was talking to nobody — looking into empty space while trying to act like I was an expert.

“Aha!” I thought. “This is similar to my public speaking problems. When I’m on stage speaking to an audience, trying to play the expert, I don’t do well. I get nervous. I stumble and lose my way. But when it comes time for questions and answers, I shine. I do great when I’m interacting with somebody, when there’s a give and take, a conversation. It’s tough for me when I’m left to ramble on my own.”

After experiences like this, there’s a part of me that wants to pack it in. I want to decline all future interview opportunities. But you know what? I’ve spent the past decade learning that in order to grow, in order to enjoy life, in order to become a better person, I have to do the things that scare me. I have to face my fears and act despite of them. Will I fail? Absolutely! Sometimes I’ll fall flat on my face. Other times, like today, I’ll shuffle and stumble and be awkward. But in the long run, these failures make me better. I improve by looking at what went wrong and trying to correct it the next time.

Never Give Up

Before the interview this morning, I was thinking about the notion of never giving up. My thoughts were prompted by a trivial experience.

Over the past few months, I’ve been playing a bit of Hearthstone, which is an online card game. I like to play in the Arena, which means I pay two bucks create a deck from random cards and then am matched against random opponents. I can continue playing until I’ve lost three games.

During my Hearthstone games, it’s common for me to fall behind early. It looks like I’m going to die an early death. It would be easy to quit when my opponent is crushing me after only a few turns. But here’s the thing: My style of play is slow and methodical. Despite falling behind early, I often rally to take control of the match. Longer ago, I did concede matches if I fell behind, but now I know never to give up. There’s a good chance I’ll rally for victory.

This “never give up” attitude applies to the game at another level. Sometimes when I build a deck, I’ll lose my first two matches. In the past, I’d just throw in the towel. I wouldn’t play a third match but would instead scrap the deck and build a new one. Not anymore. I’ve learned that even when I start 0-2, I can often finish with three or four or five wins. Yesterday, for instance, I almost gave up after being crushed in my first two matches with a new deck. Instead, I gave the deck another chance. I won. Then I won again. And again. In fact, I won six straight games, which earned me enough in-game currency to build a new deck for free. But I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I’d given up after losing my first two games.

“Never give up” is a common admonition in game and sports. “It’s not over until the fat lady sings,” we’re told. As many of you know, I’m a big fan of The Amazing Race. After watching 25 seasons of the show, I’ve learned a couple of things about the competition. The first rule of the Race is to always read your clues. (It’s mind-boggling how many people lose because they didn’t follow instructions.) But the second rule of the Race is to never give up. No matter how wrong things seem to have gone for a team, there’s always a chance they’ve been worse for somebody else.

In Praise of Perseverance

This “never give up” attitude is applicable to the real world too, of course, and in non-trivial ways. During the 1990s, when I was buried in debt, I wasn’t good at persevering. I’d spend a month or three trying to pay down my credit cards, but then give up at the first sign of adversity. I did the same thing with my fitness. I’d lose a few pounds but then return to my gluttonous ways at the first temptation.

It’s trite, I know, but when I look at the people in my life who have been most successful — by whatever means you want to define that word — they’re the folks who don’t let setbacks rule their lives. They fail forward, using mistakes and adversity as a launching pad to self-improvement. It’s all to easy to use mistakes and setbacks as an excuse to not achieve the things you want; but it’s better to take the tougher route, to wrestle with these obstacles and overcome them.

I’m curious to see how this morning’s Yahoo Finance interview comes together. Maybe the final product really will suck. Maybe I was so nervous and incoherent that the producer won’t be able to create anything worthwhile from the footage. On the other hand, it’s possible that there’s enough material there for him to make me look charming and insightful (ha!).

Regardless, I know one thing: I’m not going to give up. The next time an opportunity comes along to do a television interview, I’m going to do it — even if it means I’m talking to empty space again. Someday, once I do this enough, once I fail enough, I’ll be just as good at giving TV interviews as I am at writing blog posts.

A New You

Nearly seven years ago, I wrote a longish post at Foldedspace lamenting that I wasn’t the man I want to be. Here’s the advice I gave myself in 2004:

Happiness comes from within. If you’re not happy with the man you are, then be the man you want to be. If the man you want to be writes when he gets home from work, then write when you get home from work. If the man you want to be is fit, then be fit. If the man you want to be is not a smart-ass, then don’t be a smart-ass. If the man you want to be doesn’t watch TV, then do not watch TV. Read. Listen to classical music. Cook. Keep the house clean. Form deeper relationships with your friends. Be the man you want to be.

I’ve undergone a massive transformation since writing those words. Seven years ago, I suffered from depression. I had neither goals nor direction. I worked at a job I hated. I was fat. I was deep in debt. My life seemed pointless.

Today, things are different. I haven’t followed my own advice to the letter — I still crave deep connections with friends and haven’t done enough to make that happen — but I’ve followed much of it.

I actually feel younger at age 42 than I did at age 35. I’m certainly fitter and healthier. I’m in better financial shape. I have a sense of purpose. Best of all, I’ve learned the power of being true to myself and others. It benefits no one to put on a false face and pretend to be someone I’m not. I used to make decisions based on what other people would think, not based on what I wanted. Today, I do my best to be friendly and nice, but ultimately what matters most is that I make decisions that reflect my authentic self.

Note: I can’t believe I just wrote “authentic self”. I’ve always hated that sort of New Age claptrap. But the things is, I’m learning that being true to my authentic self is the key to happiness.

I’ve spent the past seven years on a relentless quest for self improvement. Now here we are in 2011, and I like who I’ve become. But the trouble is that this New J.D. is living a life designed by the Old J.D. I have to tell you: I’m not a fan. It’s like I’ve been living in the Matrix, or like I’ve been chained inside Plato’s cave. Now that I’m free, I want a different lifestyle.

What do I mean?

Well, perhaps unsurprisingly, I want to travel. (Several times a day, I think of George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life: “I’m shaking the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world!”) I want to meet new people and see how they live. I want to see natural wonders — and man-made wonders, too. I want to try new food. I want jump out of airplanes and swim with the sharks, trek over mountains and get lost in the jungle. (But not too lost.) I want to taste the world.

Note: One problem I have is that there’s simply too much I want to see and do. For example, I’ve carved out three periods for travel later this year, but I can’t decide where to go. I want to see everything! How can I possibly choose?

There’s no way to know what I’ll truly enjoy until I get out there and try things. The issue isn’t so much what I’m going to do. There are many options, and I’m willing to experiment until I find something that works for me. The issue is how do I make enormous life changes without severing past ties completely. Is it even possible? I don’t know.

Take our house, for instance. When we bought it in 2004, it was my dream house. That’s not true anymore. Now I feel like it’s burden. It’s too much space for two people. The yard requires constant maintenance. I don’t like the location. And so on. But Kris loves the place. It’s still her dream house. Is it fair for me to ask for change when she’s happy where she is?

It’s going to take a while to figure out this stuff. I’m pleased with who I am but not where I am. I guess that’s one part of the process of change, right? My life isn’t just good — it’s amazing. And I plan to make it more amazing. But the adjustments are going to take some time.

xkcd is awesome
xkcd, nailing the way I feel…

Toto – Africa

I’ve had a rough 48 hours. Toto’s death has affected me more than you can probably guess. I knew it would. That cat was like a piece of me, and I feel her absence acutely. It hurts.

“It always amazes me how emotional you are,” Kris told me last night at dinner. “You’re so much more sentimental than I am about this stuff.”

“I know,” I said. “I can’t help it.”

I’ve always had a lot of empathy for those around me, whether human or animal, but especially for those who are close to me. In many ways, Toto was the creature I’ve been closest to in my entire life. Her death hurts me more than Paul’s did, and even more than my father’s.

On Friday, Jen (a trainer at my gym) wished me bon voyage by sending me a link to a music video: Africa by the group Toto.

“I felt so bad,” Jen said at the gym yesterday morning, after she learned I’d just had Toto put down. “I didn’t know your cat’s name was Toto, and there I sent you the video to that song.”

“That’s okay,” I said. “I liked it.”

And I did. It’s a strange, strange coincidence, but now that song will forever remind me of this weekend. It forms a bridge between the bad — saying good-bye to Toto — and the good — my first trip to Africa. With its melancholy melody, it fits my mood perfectly.

I’ll do what I can to update this blog from the road, but no guarantees.

Temptation and Permission

I’ve struggled with my diet over the past six weeks. Part of this is because I’ve intentionally tried to move from “weight-loss” mode to “stasis” mode. Finding balance has been more difficult than I anticipated. But most of the problem has come from the constant temptations around the house.

First, there was the holiday season, which was filled with cookies and candy and all sorts of other good stuff. For a time, I exercised a bit of restraint. And I had no problem eating modestly when we went to holiday parties. Eventually, though, my willpower at home collapsed, and I started sneaking food I knew I oughtn’t. We had a bunch of cheap root beer left after Christmas, for example, and I’ve spent the last two weeks drinking the rest of it.

This recent bout with temptation has simply reinforced what I already knew: I can’t allow crap in the house. If there’s bad food here, I’ll eat it. Instead, I need to train myself that cakes and donuts and the like are only for special occasions: for dinners out, for parties, and so on. It’s not wrong to have junkfood now and then, and I don’t want to practice complete self-denial; I just want to be sure I’m not constantly exposing myself to temptation.

As part of my attempt to wean myself from the junk I crave so much, I’m going to implement a policy I used last spring. I’m going to give myself permission to eat anything I want, as long as it’s healthy for me.

Note: When I say “healthy for me”, I mean healthy by my current definition. Because my diet philosophy is constantly evolving, “healthy” will gradually change. Also, my healthy may not be the same as your healthy.

I’ve been going to the corner market for candy bars lately, for example. Because I’ve been hooked on the junkfood at home, it’s just too easy to rationalize junkfood at the office, too. To thwart this, last week I went to the store and bought 20+ packages of “simply natural” fruit cups from the refrigerator case.

Yes, I know that actual fruit would be cheaper. At $1 a pop, these fruit cups aren’t very cost effective. However, it’s too easy for me to rationalize not eating actual fruit. It rots too quickly. I have to peel it. And so on. I just make excuses. I can’t make excuses with the fruit cups, so it removes some passive barriers.

I view the fruit cups as a transition from the candy bars to real fruit. And so far, they seem to be working.

I’m also giving myself permission to eat expensive cuts of meat for dinner. This keeps me away from the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and other crap that I’ve been drawn to lately. And I bought a liter of grapefruit juice to stand in for root beer. Etcetera, etcetera.

My hope is that by removing the temptations from the house (and from my office — I threw out a bunch of junkfood yesterday), and by granting myself permission to spend on whatever healthy food I want, I’ll be able to feel good about my fitness again.

“I feel fat,” I told Kris yesterday. And while it’s true that I’ve gained half an inch to my waistline this month, my actual weight (based on my weekly average) is the lowest it’s been since I started this fitness regimen a year ago. In other words: Things are fine, and I’m just obsessing. That’s just what I do.

My Goals for 2011

Earlier this week, I wrote at Get Rich Slowly about how to set New Year’s resolutions you’ll actually keep. My number-one tip? Make just one major goal every year, and treat that as your top priority.

I’m about to be a hypocrite.

Major Goals for 2011

I’ve thought a lot about my goals for 2011. For once, I’m entering a year without anything HUGE that needs to be fixed in my life. I have lots of little things that need work. Instead of taking on too much at once, I plan to set three main goals (and they’re “main goals” only because it’ll take all year to complete them), and then have a series of small “serial goals” to tackle in my spare time.

My main first main goal for 2011 is again a physical goal. I want to drop from about 23% body fat to 15% body fat. As a side effect of shedding forty pounds this year, I also dropped from 35% body fat to 22% body fat. Rather than focus on losing my last few pounds (my target weight is 163), I’m going to shift my attention to body composition. I want to lose fat and build muscle.

My second main goal is to read one non-financial book every week. By this, I actually mean I want to read 52 books this year. (There will be weeks where I read zero, but there should also be weeks where I read three.) As I mentioned yesterday, a decade ago, I was reading nearly 100 books a year. Last year, I maybe read 25. Time to boost that number. I’m reading four books at the moment — True Grit, Born Free, The Covenant, and Citizen Vince — so I’m off to a good start. (Audiobooks count, by the way.)

My final main goal? I want to write 250 posts for Folded Space. That’s right. I intend to post here an average of five times per week — just like in the Olden Days. That’s triple the rate I’ve posted over the past two years. Don’t think I can do it? Just watch.

Minor Goals for 2011

Those three goals will require year-round attention. They can’t be completed all at once. But I have a series of quarterly goals that I hope to pursue in my spare time. As I complete one, I’ll move on to another. They are:

  • During the first quarter of the year, I want to resume an old habit. My financial goal is to track every penny I spend. After several years of tracking my spending, I let go of this habit last spring. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but I don’t like how this makes me feel like I’m out of touch with my spending. As I wrote recently, I plan to get back to basics.
  • Once I’ve resumed this habit (which shouldn’t be difficult), I’ll move on to a second small goal. I want to rejuvenate our yard and garden. For too long, I’ve been lackadaisical about completing projects and chores around the house. I plan to spend much of this spring outside, pruning and planting.
  • After I’ve spruced up the yard, I want to spruce up my on-line world. For years, I’ve scattered my writing across a half dozen blogs. This summer, I want to move all of my non-financial writing to Folded Space.
  • Finally, when autumn rolls around, I want to turn my attention to book #2. I’m proud of Your Money: The Missing Manual, and I think it’s a great summary of the best personal finance advice from many experts, but it’s not the “J.D. book”. Now that I know I can actually write a book, I’d like to write that J.D. book, one more in the style of Get Rich Slowly, one with more personal stories, from myself and others. Next fall, I plan to complete a book proposal for a Get Rich Slowly book.

Last week, I met Adam Duvander for lunch at Milo’s City Cafe. We chatted about life (we both attended good old Willamette U.), blogging, and more. Adam mentioned having seen my list of 101 things I wanted to do in 1001 days. I may revisit that later this year (because it was a fun project). For now, though, I think these seven goals are plenty. Especially since I believe strongly that one goal per year is best.

2010: Year in Review

Back in the olden days, when Folded Space was new, I used to post annual reviews. Okay, maybe I only did this twice three times: in 2002, 2003, and 2006. But I always liked the idea, and I always meant to continue it. So, after a seven-year hiatus, I’m going to do another year in review.

This past year was one of the best in my life. It didn’t start out that way, though. On 01 January 2010, I was fat, tired, and unhappy. Let’s look at what changed me into a happier and healthier man.

Your Money: The Missing ManualThis was a great year on a professional level. At my personal-finance blog, I completed the shift from being the single author to instead being head editor with a staff of writers. This is very important. I was headed for burn-out at Get Rich Slowly, and if I hadn’t found some sort of solution, the blog would have fizzled. I still write several times a week, but now I have other people sharing the burden. (I happen to think this makes the blog more interesting, too.)

Meanwhile, I published my first book: Your Money: The Missing Manual. Your Money: The Missing Manual. This isn’t the “J.D. book” I’d hoped to produce, but in a way that’s fine. I got a chance to learn how the publishing process works, so that when I do write the J.D. book, I’ll do a better job. Besides, I’m proud of Your Money; I think it distills a ton of information into a minimum of space.

Finally, at the end of the year, I picked up a monthly feature in Entrepreneur magazine. I’ll be writing the “Your Money” column starting with the January 2011 issue (which is out now). I look forward to seeing where this takes me.

All the same, I have no professional goals for 2011. I’m ready for a year without ambition!

A year ago, I dubbed 2010 my personal Year of Fitness. Though I was slow to start, I followed through with this promise. Once my book was finished, fitness became my top priority, and has remained that way for nine months.

Because I’m J.D., I’ve tracked copious amounts of fitness data over the past year. Yesterday, I spent some time compiling all of this info into monthly and quarterly summaries. Here’s the quarterly table:

J.D.'s fitness stats for 2010

A few explanations may help interpret this. Most of the numbers are quarterly averages. The chest, waist, and hip measurements are end-of-quarter numbers. (And I’ve been measuring my hips wrong. Now that I know how to measure them, I can say that my current hip measurement is 37 inches, not 36 inches. I’ll change methodology for 2011.)

I have a fancy scale that sends an electrical impulse through my body to make estimates regarding fat and muscle composition. That’s where those numbers come from. VF and Age are also from the scale. VF is “visceral fat”, a numeric representation (with no unit of measure) of how much fat I have between organs. Age is my “body age”, an estimate of how old my body is (kind of like in Wii Fit). “Rest” tells how many calories my scale thinks I burn for basal metabolism.

My Body Bug also measures some interesting data. The burn column represents the number of calories it believes I’ve burned during a day. Sleep is how many hours it thinks I slept. MA and VA measure my daily minutes of moderate activity (walking) and vigorous activity (running), respectively.

Of course, fitness isn’t just about the numbers. Sure, I’ve lost weight, but more than that, I’m faster, stronger, and healthier than I’ve ever been. It’s awesome. I hope to continue this trend into 2011.

But plenty of people (including Kris) are tired of me talking about fitness. So, let’s move on to another area of my life…

Kris and I were bitten by the travel bug during our 2007 trip to England, Ireland, and New York. We’ve been meaning to do more of it, but it wasn’t until this year that we were actually able to follow through.

As soon as I turned in the final manuscript for Your Money: The Missing Manual, we flew to the jungles of Central America, where we spent a week in Belize.

Cave tubing in Belize

In April, I spent a long weekend with Chris Guillebeau. I got a lightning tour of Chicago, then spent 48 hours riding across the U.S. by train.

Geeks on a train

Mac joined me in May to journey north to Alaska, where we spent ten days plying the Inside Passage with my neighbor, John. We caught fish and shrimp, stole crabs, soaked in a hot spring, and had close encounters with whales. Nature is amazing.

Boating in Hobart Bay and Tracy Arm

In July, I spent a weekend outside of Denver, Colorado, where I was the keynote speaker for a small blogging conference. I didn’t get to see enough of the surrounding area, but that’s okay: I had a great time meeting the other bloggers.

J.D. speaking at the Savvy Blogging Summit
Photo by Debba of Girlfriendology.

Our big trip came at the end of the year. Kris and I flew to Europe for nearly four weeks of touring France and Italy. That was too long. We had a great time — and I look forward to seeing more of Italy in the future — but it was certainly good to get home.

Lunch in Paris

On top of all this, I enjoyed several weekend vacations, including the annual trip to Sunriver, the annual hiking trip to Opal Creek, and the first annual book group weekend at the Sylvia Beach Hotel. Based on my rough calculations, I spent 56 nights away from home this year. I wonder if I can get a discount on the mortgage…

Note: With so much time spent away from home, it’s no wonder that Kris and I have become obsessed with travel gear. We’ve learned that traveling light is the only way to go. We’re constantly searching for smaller luggage and lighter clothes. We both now use just one carry on, and that’s smaller than the size limit. (We each have a small personal bag, too.) And I’m seriously debating whether to take just one pair of pants and one button-down shirt for our three weeks in Africa. I can’t see any reason to take more…

What does 2011 hold for us? Soon we’ll leave for safari in southern Africa. In July, we’ll spend a week in Alberta, Canada. And later in the year, I may or may not fly to Abyssinia (again with Chris Guillebeau), or there’s a chance I’ll hike England from coast to coast. We’ll see. (Looking even longer term, Kris and I want to visit Patagonia before long, and I hope to take another trip to Europe with my cousin Nick.)

In past years, I haven’t just rounded up my activities. I’ve also charted various stats and trends in my life. Here are a few for which I could find lots of past data.

Weight on December 31st
173 (2010), 213 (2009), 199 (2008), 195 (2006), 199 (2003), 198 (2002), 198 (2001)
I covered this in detail above, so I won’t dwell on it. It’s interesting to note that my weight last year would have been about 193 if I hadn’t gained 20 pounds while writing the book. Let’s see if I can remain disciplined and not allow myself to balloon back to the mid-190s in the future…

Books read
~25 (2010), ~40 (2006), 43 (2003), 56 (2002)
Ah, but this is a sad category. Consider that I read 90 books from mid-September 1997 to mid-September 1998. But that was back before I lived my life on a computer. Still, I think can do better than just 25 books in a year. I’m not foolish enough to aim to read 100 books in a year like Trent (who I think doesn’t realize how much time that’ll take), but I could certainly try to read one book per week. Maybe this should be a resolution?

Favorite Books
2010: Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson, Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry, and Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
2003: Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust, H.M.S. Surprise by Patrick O’Brian, and I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
2002: Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey, Moby Dick by Herman Melville, and The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean

Weblog entries (Folded Space only)
87 (2010), 87 (2009), 123 (2008), 200 (2007) 214 (2006), 261 (2005), 289 (2004), 329 (2003), 203 (2002), 74 (2001)
I’ve been writing Folded Space for nearly a decade. Clearly, I used to write much more. In fact, I was writing about six times a week in 2003. Even as recently as 2007, I wrote here about every other day. Though it seems like the numbers are in decline, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Over half of this year’s 87 posts at Folded Space have come in the past ten weeks. In fact, since the middle of October, I’ve resumed a pace similar to the Olden Days. At this rate, I’ll make about 237 posts in 2011. You know something? I’m committed to doing it, too!

Expensive Toy
iPad (2010), Nintendo Wii (2006), Nintendo Gamecube (2003), Apple iBook (2002)
Every year, I fall sucker to some expensive gadget or other. This year, it was the iPad. I have mixed feelings about the device. At first I couldn’t find a good use for it. I’ve since found a use, but that use is non-productive: It’s a great machine to play games on. I’m inclined to get rid of my iPad (and my iPhone, actually), but Kris has asked me to keep them, so I won’t. Yet.

Favorite Film
2010: True Grit (I didn’t see much else this year, but this was great)
2003: Spellbound (a little-known documentary)
2002: Amélie (which my brother Jeff hates)

I could keep writing this year-end review for hours, apparently. I’ve already been at it for two. I’ll let it go.

How was your 2010? Did you accomplish everything you wanted? Have you made progress in important parts of your life? What were your favorite memories from the year?

Junk Food: A Character Flaw

I have no self-control.

This is the fundamental reason that for so long I was fat, in debt, and unable to do anything productive. Instead of doing what I ought to do, I always chose what I wanted to do. These rarely overlapped.

When I decided it was time for me to get out of debt, I had to find ways to short-circuit my lack of self-control. That meant setting up automatic payments and deposits, whenever possible. That meant finding ways to make frugality fun. That meant removing temptation when I could.

For example, I cut up my personal credit card. Without the ability to spend charge my purchases, I was less inclined to buy on credit. (I still found ways, but they took work.) And one of the best methods I found to stop spending on stupid stuff was to steer clear of the stores where I was most likely to do so. For a long time, I wouldn’t go into a comic shop, for instance, because I knew that doing so was dangerous.

Another example: I have no self-control when it comes to videogames. If they’re installed on my computer, I will play World of Warcraft or Starcraft II to the exclusion of all else. In fact, I wasted much of this past August playing Starcraft II for 6+ hours each day. How do I stop? I have to uninstall the games. Lately, I’ve been playing iPad games 1-2 hours per day. To short-circuit this lack of self control, I’m taking my iPad to the office and leaving it there.

The same problem holds true with food. I have no self-control when it comes to sweets. If there are cookies or candies in the house, I will eat them — sooner rather than later. And I have a tendency to indulge every craving my body has. Hungry for donuts? Boom! Have three! Want some cookies? Bam! Here’s a package of Oreos.

I’ve lost forty pounds this year. That’s great, but the truth is, I could have lost fifty with ease. How? Exercising self-control.

Last week, Kris bought two packages of Oreos to re-purpose for Christmas truffles. (She makes an Oreo truffle that everyone loves.) I found these cookies, and I couldn’t help myself. I had nine Oreos and a glass of milk. Thirty minutes later, I had another nine Oreos and a glass of milk. Before the end of the day, I had another nine Oreos and a glass of milk.

This isn’t healthy, but it’s how I operate. And I know it.

Because I know my self-control is weak, I’ve taken steps to thwart myself. Since I can’t be disciplined on a micro level, I try to be disciplined on a macro level. Translation: Since I know I’ll eat the Oreos if they’re in the house, I try not to have Oreos in the house. Or breakfast cereal. Or ice cream. Since starting my diet in April, I’ve done my best to keep the house junk-food-free.

That doesn’t mean I don’t have junk food. I do. I just don’t have as much.

I often think of the conversation I had with Sally Parrott Ashbrook when she came to town in 2007. (She and her husband were the first GRS readers that Kris and I ever met.) She had recently begun her regimen of “self-care”, and as part of that, she was trying to give up junk food, too.

“I try to tell myself that I don’t need this cookie or ice cream,” she told me. “If I really want ice cream, I remind myself that I can have any ice cream in Atlanta.” What she meant by this was (I think): Instead of keeping store-bought junk food in the house, she gave herself permission to occasionally go out and buy some good junk food. So, instead of having always-on-hand ice cream, once in a while she could go get the best ice cream in town. Or the best cookies. Or the best cake. The key was to ditch the everyday temptation.

That’s what I’ve tried to do this year. For the most part, it’s worked.

Mind Games

Here’s one way I’ve made this work: Whenever I have the urge to eat junk food, I try to tell myself that I can eat anything I want. If I’m driving home from Crossfit and I crave donuts (which happens often), I consciously think to myself, “J.D., you don’t have to eat that shit. You can stop now and buy any food you want, as long as it’s healthy.” So I do.

My definition of “healthy” is broad in this instance, but it rules out breakfast cereal, cookies, cakes, donuts, chips, and soda. It includes fruits, vegetables, cheeses, and meats. As a result, instead of donuts for breakfast, I’ll often eat a $15 filet mignon. No joke. Yes, it’s expensive, but I’m okay with that.

The point is, I’m trying to train myself to forget about the shitty food and eat stuff that’s better for me. When I remember to do this, it works like a charm. (But I’ve been forgetting recently.)

Why this rant about self-control? Because my friends and family have unknowingly sabotaged me this Christmas. They’ve kindly given me Life Savers and jelly beans and candy bars and cookies and, best of all, a giant Godiva brownie containing over 5,000 calories. I’m grateful for these gifts, but I have no defense against them.

I see the jumbo bin of jelly beans, and I grab a handful. I eat them mindlessly. By the end of the day, I’ve had three or four handfuls, for about about 500 calories of pure sugar. And so on.

As I say, I have no self-control.

A part of me wants to keep this food around the house because my family and friends have given it to me. To show my appreciation, I want to eat it. But I can’t. I have to draw a line. I sent some of it to work with Kris on Tuesday. She took the big barrel of jelly beans today. All that’s left in the house is the gigantic brownie — and soon that will be gone, too. (But that’s because it’ll all be in my belly, not because I’ve magically developed self-control.)

Maybe someday I will have enough discipline to not eat the junk food in the house. But that day isn’t today. And it won’t be tomorrow, or anytime soon. It’ll probably take years. I’m okay with that. For now, I’ll continue to exercise self-control on a macro level since I don’t have it on a micro level. We won’t have junk food within easy reach. When I crave junk food, I’ll give myself permission to have anything healthy that I want. And if I absolutely have to have it, I’ll let myself go buy the best ice cream (or candy or cookies) that I can find in Portland.

For now, though, I’m going to go pour myself a glass of milk. There’s one last brownie to be eaten.

To Blog or Not to Blog

Man, I’m wishy-washy sometimes. “I’m going to re-boot Animal Intelligence!” “Wait, no I’m not!” “I’m going to start a blog about awesome people!” “Wait, no I’m not!” Etcetera. Etcetera.

After talking with Kris and Paul Jolstead, however, and after thinking about what my life goals are, I’m coming down on the “No I’m not” side of things again. Besides, I’m having a lot of fun doing and writing about lots of different stuff. I might as well be sharing it here.

Sometimes I get discouraged that the readership at Foldedspace has dwindled to nothing, but what can I expect? Yes, this site used to get 40,000 visitors a month, but that’s back before I had a money blog, back when I was posting every day. And it took me five years to reach that level.

Nowadays, Foldedspace is lucky to get 4,000 visits per month, but maybe if I spend some time actually, you know, writing here, I can bring those numbers up. What do you say we give it a shot? Maybe in five years, I can be back to the 40,000 visits a month I used to have.

So, here are my goals for this site:

  • I want to move all of the old, archived entries from the previous site over here, either with or without comments. (I prefer “with”, of course.) I think my soon-to-be brother-in-law has agreed to help me write a script to parse the old posts. (If that’s not true, Paul, just say so.)
  • I want to write more about my daily life. Most of it’s boring — “I worked out at Crossfit, I went to the office and wrote all day, I watched Glee with Kris” — but there’s still some fun stuff that happens from time to time.
  • I want to take all of these billions of blog ideas I have, and just write about those topics here. Comics? Here. Animal intelligence? Here. Awesome people? Here. Basically, Foldedspace can once again be a place where I write about my many passions.

I know I’ve made several false starts to resume regular blogging here, but I do hope this time will be different. I just have to remind myself that even if nobody else seems to be reading, at least I’m having fun.

I used to write for this site as if nobody were reading it. Lately, I’ve been writing as if everyone were reading it. Doing the latter makes me feel cramped. I’m going to let loose, I think, and just be myself. If that pisses some people off, so be it. And if others are bored by the cats and comic books, that’s fine too. I’ll just make this a blog that I want to read.