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.

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.

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?

How I’m fighting chronic depression and anxiety

Hello, friends! I have four money articles in progress, plus I’m editing several guest posts for future publication. But today I want to give a brief update on my mental health. My depression and anxiety have been tough this year but it feels like I’ve turned a corner, and I want to share what’s helped.

Each week when I go to therapy, I complete a survey regarding my recent mood and attitude. It’s about what you’d expect. There’s a list of maybe a dozen statements, and for each I fill in a bubble indicating how strongly I agree (or disagree) based on my experience during the previous seven days.

From memory, sample statements include:

  • I feel nervous and/or my heart races.
  • I feel anxious in social situations.
  • I have friends and family I can ask for support.
  • I have trouble finding motivation to get things done.
  • I’m able to complete everything I want to do.
  • And so on.

At my first therapy session in April, my score on this assessment was awful. I felt anxious all of the time. I was having trouble with increased heart rates. (Thanks, Apple Watch, for constantly flagging that.) And by far my biggest problem was getting done everything I wanted to get done. I wasn’t doing anything. I was too deep in my anxiety and depression.

Last week, I visited my therapist for the first time in a month. As always, I completed the mental health inventory before our appointment started.

“Whoa!” my counselor said when she saw the results. She pulled up my past scores on her computer. “This is the best you’ve been since we started working together. You marked that everything’s fine except for your ability to get work done. That’s great. What happened?”

“What happened is that I got out of my routine,” I said. “I’ve been on vacation. Plus, I’ve been doing a lot of the things you and I have talked about. They’ve helped. Right now, the reason I can’t get done everything I want to do has nothing to do with depression and anxiety. It’s just that I have so much on my plate that I can’t figure out how to prioritize it!”

During our time together, my therapist and I have explored a variety of steps I can take to improve my mental health. When I actually implement these things, life is great. (I have a tendency to talk about making changes without actually doing so. This was especially true early on.)

Here are three changes that have helped me cope with my depression and anxiety. Continue reading

Getting started with gratitude — a 30-day challenge for the new year

Bring GratitudeIt arrived. I opened the box and held it up to enjoy it. It was a new wireless speaker. It was solid black, a beautiful piece of technology. I couldn’t wait to listen to it.

I plugged it in and for some reason I couldn’t connect my phone to it. I googled it. I found out I needed to update the software. It took almost an hour to figure out the issue. When I updated the software, it worked!

I played “Stray Cat Blues” by The Rolling Stones. It sounded pretty good, but as the song played I felt a pang of regret. I had an older speaker that didn’t sound quite as good…but it was good enough. I didn’t really need the new speaker.

I’ve seen this habit surface again and again. I’ve gotten better, but it’s a daily struggle: Why can’t I be happy with what I have?

Bring Gratitude

A few years ago, I put myself on a mission to be more grateful for the small things in life. It’s done wonders for my mindset. As I continue to grow and improve my practice, I’m more aware of my internal dialog:

  • I “need” a new speaker.
  • I “need” a new bike.
  • I “need” a new jacket.

The reality is none of these are needs. My old speaker was fine. My old bike is okay. My old jacket can be cleaned.

As I listen to my internal dialog, I’ve noticed my desire to want more things and newer things. The awareness helps. This is not who I want to become. Besides, it costs me too much money.

I’m working on appreciating what I already have instead of wanting to buy something to replace it.

That’s why gratitude is so important. Gratitude helps us shift our mindset to enjoying what we have instead of wanting more. Do you ever struggle with the desire to get that new gadget or another pair of shoes?

Those are two of my main vices that I turn to when I’m feeling down. It’s why I wanted the new speaker. I wanted that feeling of having something new. I thought it would make me feel better.

I’m not perfect, but I’ve learned a lot over the past few years. I keep a daily gratitude journal and it’s done wonders for helping me appreciate what I have instead of focusing on buying that next thing on my list.

The Gratitude Journal

I’m always surprised that it took me so long to keep a gratitude journal. Perhaps the most powerful mindset tool that we have is gratitude!

I’m really big into self-help books and learning new things, but I always consumed instead of taking action. I think it’s this attitude that also encouraged me to collect new gadgets instead of appreciating what I had or knowing that I didn’t really need to buy anything new.

In one book, Why We Do What We Do, researcher Edward Deci explains that when someone has six positive interactions to one negative, they are 31% more productive.

When you have positive thoughts and interactions, it’s easier to focus on what matters. That may be spending time with your family, traveling, or writing. Positive interactions free you up to have the energy to do what matters to you.

One terrific way to foster positive thoughts and interactions is to deliberately and consciously bring gratitude into your daily life. For me, keeping a gratitude journal serves this purpose.

Great Questions

I believe everything starts with our internal dialog. If we let our negative inner voice dictate our happiness, then we’ll constantly feel like we’re not enough. That we don’t have enough.

Next time you are stuck in a difficult situation, watch how you talk to yourself.

Do you ask yourself things like:

  • “Can this person be more boring?”
  • “Why is this taking so long?”
  • “What do I have to do to get noticed?”

Try switching this inner dialog on its head. Try tapping into your curiosity to see if you can ask questions that help you see the interesting parts of the situation.

  • “What am I learning in this situation?”
  • “How did I get so lucky to be in this warm environment?”
  • “What do I notice about this situation that is interesting?”

Great questions help you focus your attention. They enable you to fuse gratitude onto your attitude. Exploring questions like these in your a gratitude journal can help you discover your mindset and motivations.

Keeping a gratitude journal

Start Small

If you’re like me and sometimes get jealous of what other people have, this envy can be a great place to start appreciating what you currently have. As you become better at appreciating what you have, move on to appreciating the people and situations in your life.

Explore these emotions in your gratitude journal. You can start by making gratitude entries about what you appreciate. You could start with looking around your home and being grateful for the kitchen table or your shoes that fit comfortably.

You’ll probably notice what entries energize you, and then you can continue down this path for a few days.

For seven days, try writing what you’re grateful for and why. Start small, and if it feels good then keeping going. I suggest something like this:

  • “I’m grateful for my shoes because they are so comfortable.”
  • “I’m lucky to have a phone that can call my mom, brother, friend, etc.”
  • “I’m grateful for my coworker because she is always willing to listen and help.”
  • “I’m grateful for my ability to dance in my car seat when I’m stuck at a traffic light because it allows me to release my stress.”
  • “I’m grateful for my pets because they make me feel loved and needed.”

The key component here is your why. It’s important because it helps deepen the gratitude journal experience. Within just a few days you’ll probably notice an improvement in your attitude.

If you’re interested, you can join the free 30 Day Bring Gratitude Challenge (running January 1st thru 30th) to help you strengthen your mindset. Come join us and you’ll get email updates and a private Facebook group. If you have any questions, I (Karl Staib) am available seven days a week.

Moving from emotional to analytical (with finance and fitness)

This morning, for the first time in more than eight years, I weighed in at 200 pounds.

I am not proud of this fact but it’s the truth. I own it. I got to this point through my own actions, not because some cruel tormenter force-fed me cheeseburgers and beer.

When I’m overweight, I tend to internalize the problem, which generally leads to a vicious cycle of overeating, shame, and self-loathing. While I’m older now and more aware of my mental processes, I still struggle with self-defeating thought and behavior. (This is exacerbated, of course, by my recent battle with depression. In fact, I suspect the depression has a hand in my life-long weight issues. The onset of both seem to be correlated.)

Being fat affects my self-confidence and self-esteem. I’m less likely to be social. When I do go out and see people, I’m less engaging (and I know it). Right now, my weight is actually hindering my work too. In April, I started a Get Rich Slowly channel on YouTube. My goal is to produce a couple of videos per month — but I’m not willing to put myself on camera at the moment.

In short: Like many people, I allow my physical make-up to dictate my mental make-up.

People are funny like that. We internalize stuff that ought not to be internalized. When we do, it becomes much more difficult to do the right thing, to make the changes that need to be made.

Take money, for instance.

Net Worth Is NOT Self-Worth

People allow their net worth to dictate their self-worth. This is true at every level of wealth.

At one extreme, you have folks like the guy in the video below who — because they’re rich — believe that they’re better than everybody else, exempt from the normal rules of society:

On the other end of the spectrum, you find folks who feel terrible about themselves because they’re buried under a mountain of debt.

In my personal life, I’ve seen tons of examples of how folks conflate net worth with self-worth. Heck, I’ve done it myself!

  • Back when I was trying to figure out how money worked, my debt made me feel like I was drowning, like I could not catch a breath. I felt miserable. I felt like I’d never amount to anything, as if my debt were an accurate measure of who I was as a person.
  • My father — who would have turned 73 yesterday — internalized money too. For most of my childhood, my parents struggled to make ends meet. Dad often told us that he felt like a failure because he couldn’t give us everything he wanted to give us. When the ladies from church brought us food, he was mortified. Mom and dad rarely had people over to the house because they were ashamed that we lived in a run-down mobile home.
  • More recently, my little brother (who, at 45, isn’t exactly “little” anymore) went through some rough times. A decade ago, he lost two homes to foreclosure. He declared bankruptcy. He moved his family to Seattle to make a clean start, but he couldn’t find work. “I don’t feel like a man,” he told me at the time, unknowingly broaching an interesting issue of gender dynamics. “I can’t provide for my family. My wife is the one earning money. It’s killing me.” (I’m pleased to report that Tony has managed to turn things around and seems to be doing well these days.)

In some ways, it’s natural that we internalize factors like our fitness and our finances. They are, after all, scorecards of sorts. When I weigh in at 200 pounds, that’s an objective reflection of everything I’ve done to my body during my 49 years on this planet. My net worth is an objective reflection of every penny I’ve earned or spent during my life.

Caveat
Both weight and net worth serve as a scorecard for how well we’ve managed our fitness and finances, but they’re not complete measures. That’s why we use other numbers, such as BMI and muscle mass (for fitness) or saving rate and income (for finance).

Plus, it’s important to note that while for most of us, most of our weight and/or net worth is a result of the quality of our decisions, chance does play a role. Some folks are born into better situations than others. And some people suffer misfortune (or enjoy lucky breaks) that drastically affects their situation.

If I believe we shouldn’t internalize factors like weight and net worth — and I do believe that — what then is the alternative? Continue reading

The death of Anthony Bourdain: Thoughts on productivity, pleasure, and depression

Warning: This is a rare GRS post that contains salty language. If you don’t like salty language, don’t read this article.

Anthony Bourdain killed himself Friday morning.

“So what?” you might be thinking. “He’s just another fucking celebrity who didn’t know how good he had it.” Maybe you’re right. But his death has weighed heavy on me all weekend.

On Friday morning, as I wrote the weekly Get Rich Slowly email, I thought about Anthony Bourdain. On Friday afternoon, as Kim and I worked in the yard, I thought about Anthony Bourdain. On Friday evening, as we soaked in our new hot tub with a friend, I thought about Anthony Bourdain. Yesterday, I thought about Anthony Bourdain. Today, I thought about Anthony Bourdain.

Now I’m writing this article as an act of catharsis. Maybe it’ll help me to stop thinking about Anthony Bourdain.

The Depression Trap

I believe Anthony Bourdain’s death touched me deeply for a couple of reasons.

  • I was a huge fan. Since listening him read the audio version of Kitchen Confidential a decade ago, I’ve loved his work. Parts Unknown was probably my favorite travel show: raw and real — and filled with food. Bourdain connected with everyone he met. His joy for life was contagious and his mind was sharp.
  • Like Bourdain did, I struggle with depression. All my life, I’ve experienced periodic descents into darkness. The first time this happened, I missed five weeks of sixth grade. In the nearly forty years since then, I’ve developed a variety of coping mechanisms but they don’t always work. In recent months — since the middle of March — the darkness has deepened and I don’t know why. (And just as I missed five weeks of school back then, I’ve been unable to get my work done in the present.)

Let me make it clear that I am not suicidal. Right now, the biggest symptom of my depression is my inability to get shit done. But whereas suicide seems strange and senseless to most everyone else, depressives understand the appeal — even if we’d never consider it personally.

One of the many stupid things about depression is that the condition doesn’t care how awesome your life is. It doesn’t care how successful you are. It doesn’t care how much money you have. Depression is not rational. If it were, it’d be easy to think your way out of it.

Paula Froelich, one of Bourdain’s ex-girlfriends, put it like this:

Tweet about Anthony Bourdain's suicide

Bourdain’s death didn’t just make me introspective. It also led to a couple of interesting conversations about pleasure and productivity — and about what really matters in life. Continue reading

Just solve the problem!

While the contractors were working to replace the siding on our new home last summer, they discovered a termite infestation outside the bathroom.

Termites

Further investigation revealed that the floor under the tub was not only wet and damp, but had actually completely rotted. So, we hired somebody to repair the damage. On the first day he was here, I went into the bathroom barefoot. Oops. I stepped on a shard of glass tile. That splinter was stuck in my foot for weeks.

At first, it didn’t really affect normal activity. If I wore sneakers and socks, I barely felt it. But if I wore sandals, I got a sharp stabbing pain in the side of my left foot. If I tried to run, the same thing happened. And forget about going to the gym!

Now, the obvious response here is, “Why didn’t you remove the sliver from your foot?” Great question!

On the very first night, Kim did try to remove the sliver, and we thought she got it. But the next morning when I took Tally for a walk, I realized the sliver was still there. But I didn’t do anything about it. I lived with it for weeks, a constant source of low-grade irritation.

This, my friends, is a perfect example of a couple of things.

  • First, it’s my family’s mentality in action. For some stupid stupid reason, we Roths don’t like dealing with medical issues. When we’re sick, we suffer for days (or weeks) before going to a doctor. When we’re hurt, we just suck it up. When I was young, my mother sprained her ankle. She limped around for months before seeking medical attention. In college, I broke a finger playing touch football over Thanksgiving. I dealt with the intense pain until Christmas break, at which time I finally decided to see a doctor.
  • Second, this a perfect example of putting up with a problem instead of finding a solution. Most people — myself included — are willing to tolerate a great deal of dissatisfaction and discomfort before deciding to remedy whatever is wrong in their lives. I’m not sure why this is the case, but it’s true.

With the glass shard in my foot, most of the time I barely noticed. But sometimes the pain was especially bad. I remember one morning while walking the dog, it felt like somebody was stabbing me with a needle. “I just need to solve the problem,” I thought to myself — and that reminded me of some wise advice I once received.

Just Solve the Problem

About a decade ago, I worked with a life coach. Each week, we’d have an hour-long phone conversation about the ways I was trying to become a better person. I made great progress in some areas, but little progress in others.

One day, we were talking about my inability to eat a healthy breakfast. I’ve always been the sort of guy who knows he should eat a nutritious breakfast but doesn’t actually do so. My coach had been encouraging me to make this a habit in my life, but I kept complaining about all the reasons it wasn’t possible. Eventually, she’d had enough.

“J.D., you’re being ridiculous,” my coach said, exasperated. “This isn’t rocket science. Millions of people eat a healthy breakfast every day. You can too. You need to stop making excuses. You need to identify the problem and solve the problem. Just solve the problem!” Continue reading

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

As Kim and I slowly make our way across the United States, we’re learning a lot, both about ourselves (individually and as a couple) and about others. We’re spending extended time with family and friends, and we’re meeting strangers in the places we stay. Through this constant exposure to a diverse population of people, we’ve come to realize how each of us tends to live out the stories we tell ourselves.

Many people we’ve met, for instance, are living a story in which taking a year off to travel is impossible. It’s not that taking a year off to travel is actually impossible for them, but that these folks believe it’s impossible, and that’s the story they live.

At the same time, there’s a small handful of people who decide to live a different story. We met a man near Sedona, Arizona who had been living the “I can’t travel” story but decided to re-write the ending. He quit his corporate job on the east coast and moved to Arizona with only the vague outline of a plan. He’s now giving donation-based tours of the Sedona area while maintaining a modest lifestyle. He decided to live a different story, one that (so far) has a happier ending.

We don’t just tell ourselves about travel. We tell ourselves stories about every aspect of our lives — and most of these stories can be changed, if we have the guts and gumption to change them.

  • We all know folks who live stories in which they are the victim of circumstances, in which fate has laid them low. My mother is a prime example. Ever since she was a girl, she’s told herself a story in which her mother didn’t like her and favored her siblings. She’s allowed that story to dominate her life, to define her as much at sixty as she did at sixteen. My father tried for decades to get her to live a different story, but he failed.
  • My ex-wife lived a story in which she hated camping. She didn’t want to spend the night outdoors in a tent or a camper or anything else. In this story, camping was a bother. Now, thanks in part to her current boyfriend, she’s re-written this small part of her life. Today, Kris enjoys camping and how close it brings her to the outdoors (especially birds!).
  • As part of the story I told myself, I was an introvert. I didn’t like meeting new people. I couldn’t make small talk and I was overwhelmed by crowds. But in discovering the power of “yes”, I changed the story I was telling myself. I discovered (decided?) that I enjoyed chatting with strangers, that meeting new people was part of playing the lottery of life. Now I’m happy to make new friends.

Generally speaking, no one story is more true than any other. Each tale is simply a different way of viewing our life. If one story makes us unhappy or uncomfortable, it’s possible to tell ourselves a different version of the story, one that creates a more positive experience. (It’s like the story of the blind men and the elephant.)

My mom’s story that her mother treated her poorly didn’t have to dominate her life for fifty-plus years. At any time, she could have chosen to live a different story. But she didn’t. Now it’s probably too late.

Similarly, I know folks who’ve struggled with family members or former friends. They’ve fought over something and the relationships have suffered as a result. These folks tend to tell themselves stories in which they cannot repair the relationships because the other party has made it impossible to do so. But again, that’s just a story. In almost every case, it’s possible to write a different ending, one in which the person repairs his relationships by choosing to tell himself a different ending.

A few years ago, I had a conversation with my friend Tyler Tervooren. He and I were both going through a lot of life changes, and we were each trying to re-write parts of the stories we’d been telling ourselves. Tyler shared a technique he was using to change his belief systems.

“I have a list of qualities I want in myself,” he told me. “I’ve written them on index cards in a specific format and I read these to myself every day.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, “one card might say, ‘I am the sort of man who always keeps his promises.’ Another might say, ‘I am the type of man who makes exercise a priority.’ I have about twenty of these cards, and I review them every day. This is a way for me to stay focused on what’s important to me, and to remind myself of my values.”

What a great idea!

The bottom line is this: If you don’t like the story you’re living, only you can change it. You are the author of your own life. You didn’t write the beginning of the story, but you have the power to choose the ending. In so many ways, life is like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Choose an adventure you love instead of one that makes you unhappy.

I know, I know. All of this is easier said than done. Once you’re thirty or forty or fifty years old, you’ve had decades to tell yourself certain parts of your story. You may have written yourself into a corner. Changing plotlines can be difficult. Still, it is possible — and nobody else is going to change the storylines for you. It’s up to you to live the story you want.