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?

39 Replies to “The clean slate”

  1. Jamie says:

    Since you still have the comments, I figure I’ll use them… 😉

    Great post, rings too true for myself. I think it’s easy to lose control, in the metaphorical sense, in literally every facet of one’s life in this busy age. At my age, I’m running a business, own a home, trying to raise my daughter almost completely solo, it’s totally possible for every area of life to be lacking in simplicity which is stressful and leads to more stress and anxiety.

    Anyway, really made me think about how I need to figure out how to simplify myself.

  2. J.D. Roth says:

    It just occurred to me that this concept — the clean slate — is related to the paradox of choice. People believe they want more options, but more options actually lead to “analysis paralysis”. What people actually prefer is fewer choices, curated choices. I think this is because we get overwhelmed with too many options…

    • Tom Murin says:

      J.D., I think you are on to something. It’s better when the decision is made for you. For example, you had to be minimalist with the RV – because you didn’t have any other option. Pretty much the same thing with ultra-light packing for the trip. You really couldn’t pack heavy.

      I’m glad you’re feeling better this year and everything looks to be on track!

  3. El Nerdo says:


    So, a question/suggestion/insane brainstorm.

    What would happen if you sold your house and moved into a city rental where everything would be taken care of by management, and you could walk or bike to most places, and you wouldn’t have space to keep a bunch of stuff so you just wouldn’t?

    I know you said before you’re not a minimalist, but it seems that you’re happier when you’re not so overwhelmed with possessions.

    So… maybe you’re a natural minimalist like you’re an extrovert, i.e. you are/does you good, but weren’t aware of it?

    Ok I leave that as a thought… [insert dynamite stick emoji]

    Ha ha, but seriously. You had that conversation with Kim a while ago about you being happier in the city.

    But this time… maybe just rent instead of buying?

    Simpler, and you can change your mind later… No? Buying real estate is such a huge deal. Leasing is just 12 months, sometimes less.

    If you stay there, after all: LOL backyards. Hire a landscaper and worry no more. This is one chore my wife and I do not want, and I can sympathize with feeling overwhelmed by greenery. Let someone else deal with it. Maybe this is all you need right now so it can be out of your mind.

    • J.D. Roth says:

      Renting a place in the city isn’t a terrible idea, and Kim and I have talked about how — if where we live really is affecting my mental health and things don’t improve — moving again is something to consider eventually. However, we love many things about our home. We want to make it work. We’re actively looking for ways to do that. Once the weather warms (and dries haha), I’ll bike and/or walk to the office, for instance. Also, I no longer hate yard work, as I did when Kris and I had our big house. I actually kind of like it. It’s meditative. Plus, it’s an opportunity to do what I call “Crossfit in real life”: hauling heavy shit around, getting exercise in a way that’s actually productive on another level. The real issue is that there’s just so much yardwork to do!

      I’ve told Kim (who doesn’t find this amusing) that if she and I were to split up, I’d probably rent the smallest place I could find in a big city. Maybe New York? This is yet another example of my “clean slate” thinking. I imagine (whether correctly or not) that by moving someplace tiny, I’d force myself to start over from scratch.

      • El Nerdo says:

        Yeah I get how you want to make the place work, but I also see you coming back to the idea that you have less anxiety with fewer things, and also are happier around more people. I get the conflict. Myself, I’m full of contradictions. Everyone is. This isn’t new–Hegel worked out a whole philosophy of everything out of just that fact. So, just keep working it out–as a couple.

        I also get the pleasure and the zen of outdoor exertions. I do. Seriously. I did it for years. Built fences, dug ditches, fell trees with an ax, chopped wood… all great. Problem is, I didn’t get a lot of return on the effort except for the “pleasure” of it.

        Working on the land takes a big chunk of time, adds a lot of complication and expense, and without good tangible returns it begins to feel like a waste of time. I spent years doing that. Did I learns something? Sure. I learned that I don’t want to do that, ha ha ha haaaaa…. Anyway, I’m sure you guys can sort out your point of diminishing returns on this.

        Last, responding to your disclosure–the way you told Kim about your ideas is of course not the right way to communicate your needs to your partner. Of course she’s not amused.

        My wife and I have started from scratch every number of years, but we always work things out together. Just last year we moved because of her work and are setting up a new life right now. Yes, it takes time and effort, but that’s what relationships are.

        From what you have written before I think she might understand what you need better than even you are willing to recognize, and I think she’d work with you to make whatever necessary change to your live. You just need to work on your (terrible, plenty of room for improvement, lol) sales pitch.

        Also! You might want to read and discuss the Heath Bros. “Decisive” together. I think you already have but I don’t know about her. We listened to the audiobook version on a long road trip many years ago, and we always refer back to it when we’re sorting out what to do. Plenty of good strategies there, and it’s good to have a common methodological ground that allows for mutual understanding.

        OK! Best wishes.

    • dh says:

      Problem is, if JD had a clean slate again and lived in a minimalist condo, it would not be long before he got bored and wanted more. Always more. It’s fundamentally a spiritual problem and a psychological problem. And that’s okay. We all have our problems. I don’t see the new office so much as a “clean slate.” Instead, I see it as the ever-growing accumulation of MORE. Now he has another space to deal with, to pay rent on, call the landlord when there’s a leaky roof, etc. Another place to accumulate papers (but wisely chosen papers!), books, pictures on the wall, furniture, dust. It’s the disease in action.

      • J.D. Roth says:

        You’re making me weep, Hatch! 😉

        • dh says:

          Truly, it’s the disease’s way of perpetuating itself and assuring it’s survival. It’s like a parasite living off of you. You didn’t really want another office or house in the country, the disease did. I fight this type of disease myself on a daily basis. 😉

      • FrugalStrong says:

        Whoa, this analysis seems spot on!

      • JoDi says:

        I’m not sure it’s the disease of MORE so much as it’s the disease of thinking that the condition we’re not currently in will make us happier. We have a bunch of stuff that stresses us out so we decide getting rid of it will make us happier, and then we get bored and accumulate more (but likely different) stuff, and eventually we get sick of all the stuff and want to get rid of it again. Rinse and repeat through a lifetime whether it’s stuff, where we live, relationships, etc. The cure is learning contentment – not complacency – but learning to appreciate what you have and where you are and understanding that once basic needs are met, happiness does not depend on these things.

        • dh says:

          It’s the disease of thinking, period. Roughly 99% of human thoughts are completely useless — or even worse than useless because they are destructive, negative, worrisome, etc. See my YouTube link for further insight. But you’re on the right track.

  4. Torrie @ To Love and To Learn says:

    Essentialism was life-changing for me—my husband and I regularly refer to a diagram in the book, where he has one arrow going out in one direction on one side and a lot of arrows going out into lots of different directions on the other (you’ll see what I mean when you read it). I still am not totally sure how to apply its concepts to our personal/home life, but for business and work prospects (or for big life goals), the ideas are golden.

  5. Anne says:

    Love today’s subject. We ( 2 of us) downsized some years ago from four bedrooms to a retirement house with only two bedrooms. This is absolutely my favorite house of the four we have owned. I would have been happy to only have one bathroom, but couldn’t find such a house.

    My point is those extra bedrooms haunted me. They needed to have a purpose but they didn’t. There was even two living rooms. Yikes! What for?

    I have also been a declutterer all my adult life. Maybe there is a personality trait that would explain overly responsible adults. We can’t just let things BE, we have to be working on them and that’s why we need less stuff on our plates.

    Just a theory that occurred to me.

  6. Carol says:

    Please don’t get rid of the comments! I look forward to them.

    • J.D. Roth says:

      Don’t worry, Carol. It’s highly unlikely that comments will go away. I like them too. But there might be certain articles — old and new — on which I close comments. We’ll see. I value the community here, and I think it’s important to foster it. Comments are the primary way of doing that.

  7. Bob says:

    JD – I might suggest you read “The Enchanted Gardener” by Sid Banks. Before I retired my Company invested heavily in Leadership Development based on Sid’s insights. How would you like to be one thought away from the innate wisdom that lies within you, de-clutter your mind, and unlock the happiness and creativity that lies within your consciousness? I was an introverted, skeptical, analytical, stressed out executive until I applied Sid’s concepts and retired early. Of course as an analytic type, I just had to better understand the underlying psychology of Sid’s teachings, so I read George Pransky’s “Rennaissance of Psychology” – both you and your therapist might find it calming! All the best to you!

  8. Patrick says:

    Have you considered hiring someone to organize and archive your old GRS articles? It seems to be a constant theme in your anxiety. Clearly, you value the work you have done (as you should, not everyone has a bibliography to look back on and be proud of) and it would IMO be a tragedy if you just tossed it aside, but you also see the task of organizing it as too large and overwhelming. If you contracted someone to take all your archived work and create the “GRS Repository” it would cost some money but you may feel very good about the outcome.

  9. Teinegurl says:

    I look forward to the comments as well. I might not comment all the time but I read them all on almost every single article. I say why do you have to do a redesign of Get rich Slowly or the archives? What’s wrong with leaving things the way it is.

    • Janette says:

      I totally agree. Why redesign it?
      Consider leaving the comments but don’t do emails?
      My grandfather was a printer’s son. He got degrees in finance and law. He owned a large company and had many fine things. He had a library, but it was not in his office. Office? a large desk with comfortable chair, lots of paper in drawer, a lamp from WWI (he served), many fountain pens and a typewriter. He used to say, “I take plenty into my office.” I never really understood (or thought about it) until today.

    • El Nerdo says:

      Why redesign?

      Top of my head: it’s outdated, doesn’t work on mobile, the latest headline sends older articles into oblivion (which puts pressure on publishing frequency), Spare Change is a massive resource that gets little attention… I could keep going.

      To compare, check out MMM’s site, which features multiple points of access to content, and continuous commentary in older articles accessible from the home page.

      Look also at ERE, which uses an old design and hasn’t posted new content in a long time, but older posts keeps circulating.

      It shouldn’t be a huge project or take forever though. I would assume WP templates have kept up with the times.

  10. Shelley says:

    Thanks so much for another post that really speaks to me as I sit here with piles of papers around me — it’s time to think about how to create a clean slate at home and at the office without changing my apartment or job.

    • El Nerdo says:

      Shelly, GTD is a great system to create a clean slate.

      Might take you a couple of days of full time work, or even a week, depending on your level of clutter, but GTD will get you back to zero.

      Please read the actual book, not someone else’s interpretations of the system, so you don’t end up at the wrong end of the old “broken telephone” game.

  11. Luke says:

    Anxiety coming down to control resonates with me (at least what can be control – i.e. spheres of influence). My family thinks my budgeting and goal planning spreadsheets are nutty and overly manual, but keeping track of every, tiny detail gives me the same feeling of control. Maybe transparency is a better word… in that we are aware of all the variables whether or not I desire to control them…

    Anyway… thanks for the note on the zero-based budget. I’d never heard of it before. I’ve had some lifestyle creep since we’ve kept our savings goals pretty unchanged but have had a slight uptick in income. If I look down my budget categories, I get defensive and feel like i’ve somehow “earned” this level of frivolity… I think this new perspective will be AWESOME and hopefully help me rope back in spending in a few places, not because I need to but because the lifestyle might be becoming wasteful.

    thanks as always for the insightfulness!

  12. Fred says:

    Interesting. I’m not saying this is good, bad, or mixed. GRS is being transformed from a financial themed blog to a personality blog. Visitors are as likely read about how JD is doing, as reading a money article. You’re an appealing person and I suspect many loyal readers are checking in the see how you’re doing. I’m curious what the analytics reveal about first time visitors. I don’t think GRS would’ve been as popular without your personality showing through. Will more personality mean more viewers or less?

    • J.D. Roth says:

      Haha. This is true right now, but I *want* for it to get back to money, not to focus on my and my issues. My hope is that as I turn things around, I’ll be able to publish more of the money stuff. 🙂

      • Lisa says:

        Weren’t you going to write more non-money content on Folded Space? Is that still an option to share how you’re doing?

        • J.D. Roth says:

          Funny you should mention that, Lisa. Folded Space has been down for unknown reasons for several weeks. Just this morning (before readinjg comments here), I went there to get things fixed up so that I can post more over there. 🙂

    • El Nerdo says:

      Themes are great, but the trick of the thing is that humans like stories.

      One way or another, this blog has always been about the story of J.D., from his struggles with debt to his financial independence and then aftermath.

      Finance was always a big part of that story, but it seems to me that people keep coming back for more story, and we keep discussing money in the process.

  13. One Frugal Girl says:

    What? Remove comments. After fourteen years of reading your blog I just started leaving comments. Don’t get rid of them now 🙂

    I completely understand your desire for a clean slate. As someone who also created a blog back in the dark ages I have a lot of crap on it that I should get rid of, but cleaning up stuff is never as fun as creating it. Having said that you’ve mentioned the redesign a bunch of times in your recent posts, so it’s clear this task is weighing on you. Maybe you could dedicate an hour a day to making the changes? Each hour will take you further along in the process and maybe that will be enough to spur your momentum to get the job done? Maybe? It might be worth a try.

    Also, have you considered converting your papers into a digital format so that you don’t have the physical clutter weighing on you? We digitized all of our papers and files years ago and removed an entire filing cabinet from our house. It was unbelievably uplifting for me to get rid of the physical documents.

  14. Megan says:

    From one business owner to another, I think you should consider spending some money on establishing a clean slate for Get Rich Slowly. Pay someone to complete the redesign. Pay a virtual assistant to deal with / delete / archive / whatever everything except the list of most useful past blog posts you’ll make. (See how that’s additive style rather than subtractive style?)

    It sounds like the improved mental health and productivity will cause enough additional profit that the expense will very quickly be worth it. That makes it an investment rather than an expense, which means you should do it as soon as possible, rather than allowing a second more time to pass with your valuable resources (time and mental health) burning a hole in your pocket / being wasted

  15. Ardiver says:

    Thank you so much for your blog.

  16. JoDi says:

    This explains why the Marie Kondo method really appealed to you and worked for you and a lot of others. She uses a clean slate method and adds things back in with thoughtful consideration. Could you “Marie Kondo” the website? Not wipe everything clean and add back articles over time, but do it in chunks working from the beginning of the archives to the point where you bught the site back. Divide the task into monthly, quarterly, or 6 month chunks, mentally delete all the articles, and consider which ones to add back, then literally delete all the others. If you want a quick feeling of accomplishment, start by deleting all the articles from the years you didn’t own the site. Seriously. You’re welcome. ?

  17. Joe says:

    Seems like the therapist is helping a lot. I hope your well being continues to improve this year. Good luck!

  18. Sara says:

    I really enjoyed this post and as a long time work from my home person who also suffers from anxiety, have been enjoying the recent series of posts where you get into the nitty-gritty overlap of mental health/personal freedom/personal finance. I have the type of job where my to-do list can quickly get up to 40-50 things on a given day, and that list will not even include long term projects. Just Tasks. My slate is never clean! One thing that helps me get out of my own head is my “Do 5 Things Now!” list. I just make a new list of only five things (usually easy things). And then I do them. Sometimes I take another new sheet of paper and write a second group of 5 things if I finish the first five. The trick is to only write five tasks at a time and often a clean sheet of paper. The big list is paralyzing, the 5 list is doable over and over. It is weird, and I know I still have 50 things to do, but when I’m in a rut, doing 5 things helps me get more done.

  19. Jordan Burnett says:

    Great article JD! I just wrote a similar article the other day about an investor’s “sphere of influence” or “sphere of control” which can be limited to just a few things (with regard to passive index investing). There are so many things outside of our control which are primarily the focus of CNBC and other news stations. I think people spin their wheels way too much when thinking about investing from a reactive mindset. I really had to start over with a new mindset as well with regard to investing after reading JL Collins The Simple Path to Wealth. It’s easy to overanalyze and seems the more I learn the more I think “maybe I should follow MPT, add more small-cap, place more in REITs, etc.”

  20. Stephanie says:

    Generally good practice to accept the things you cannot change, but it is a privileged position to not worry about war, politics, or natural disasters. Millions of people’s lives are drastically affected by these things all the time.
    Maybe rather than idly worry about some of them, you can choose to devote energy to helping change them.

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