How to Live in a Dying World


So on Monday I wrote about Seth Godin’s distinction between problems and boundary conditions (problems have solutions, problems with no solutions are boundary conditions you have to live with) and asked what it implied if certain large-scale global problems were, in fact, boundary conditions.

On Tuesday I wrote about the specific boundary condition of human aging, and whether knowing we might not be able to do our best work in the future should affect the work we try to do now.

Today I want to share what I learned from two books I read last week: Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End and Roy Scranton’s We’re Doomed. Now What?

Because in addition to researching the human aging process for NEXT BOOK, I’ve also been researching the planet’s aging process, specifically vis a vis the anthropocene and climate change.

And before you’re all “well, the planet wouldn’t have aged if humans hadn’t ruined it,” well, yes and no. It’s clear that humans have drastically affected the planet and are rapidly accelerating the rate at which it might become uninhabitable. It’s also clear that — and I figured this one out in second grade, the very first time we did Earth Day at school — even if every human only created one tiny piece of non-biodegradable trash in their lifetimes, something as large as the palm of your hand, the earth would still eventually be covered in garbage. This was my version of Thomasina’s second-law-of-thermodynamics discovery in Arcadia, aka “the moment I realized the world had been dying since before I was even born.”

If you still aren’t convinced, here’s a song by George Hrab and Phil Plait that explains how our planet’s death is a mathematical inevitability:

So. We’re all older than we’ve ever been and now we’re even older, to quote another group of musicians, and we are all going to die.

Also the whole earth is going to die.

Interestingly, both Atul Gawande and Roy Scranton offer the same advice:

Focus on what makes life worth living. Do that. Avoid activities or interventions that take away from that.

This advice holds up a little better in Gawande’s book than it does in Scranton’s; Gawande is coming from the perspective of a surgeon who has seen many patients through the dying process, and his suggestion that people accept death and create a hospice plan that allows them to remain at home and participate in life for as long as possible, vs. refuse to accept death and endure ever-more-expensive interventions that might postpone the end of life while significantly reducing its quality, makes sense on the individual level.*

Scranton also advises us to accept both our own death and our planet’s death, and to use our remaining time on this earth to “reflect consciously on the ways we make life meaningful — on how we decide what is good, what our goals are, what’s worth living or dying for, and what we do every day, day to day, and how we do it.”

For example: he understands that every plane flight kills the planet a little faster, but he also values building a relationship between his daughter and her grandparents.

To which I respond: this advice is all very well and good right now, if you’re a person who has access to plane flights and daughters and grandparents. It’s going to get a lot trickier as resources become more and more depleted. We’re already in a situation where someone’s good day means someone else’s bad one, and I do not see the entire world joining forces to accept the earth’s death while forging new communities with people who need spaces to live, food to eat, etc. because those people’s former homes were the first parts of the globe to become completely uninhabitable.

Plus there are going to be a lot of people who are going to want to fight for the planet even as other people and corporations work to deplete it, and there’s going to be even more fighting once we realize we lost the fight, everything from wars to last-ditch “what if we blast a hole in the moon to change the earth’s orbit” kind of things, because that’s just how people are.**

Anyway. I have to wrap this up because it’s time to move on to Billfold work, even though there’s no way to wrap this particular discussion up and never has been.

But I highly recommend Being Mortal, if you’re the type of person who asks yourself both what makes a good life and what makes a good death.

Unfortunately, I doubt that the earth’s death process will be “good.”

*I know that the hospice system is not always what it should be, and some people who want hospice are not able to access it.

**Now I’m really curious about whether it would be possible to mitigate the effects of climate change by changing the earth’s orbit, though I don’t think blasting a hole in the moon is the way to do it.


When Life Gets in the Way

I’ve had a really nasty cold since last Friday.

Technically, I’ve only had the nasty part of the cold since Tuesday; the first few days were what I usually expect from a cold, i.e. a steadily dripping nose and a general malaise, but instead of getting better the whole thing got worse, and at this point I’ve coughed so much I’ve lost my voice. It’s a throat cough (there are boogers) and not a chest cough so it’s not bronchitis, and if it isn’t better by Monday I’ll see a doctor.

I already work from home, so that hasn’t been a problem, and I took “half days” on Tuesday and Wednesday to get some rest in the afternoons — and by “half days” I mean “just Billfold stuff and I’ll take care of my other freelance work over the weekend when I assume I’ll be feeling better.”

Which, yeah, working on the weekend will be a drag, and the constant laundry I’ve been doing over the past few days has been a drag, and the fact that I’ve been eating my way through my freezer’s supply of homemade soup that I stashed in there for just this type of occasion but will have to remake and restash after this is all done will be a drag, in the sense that the work never ends.

Or, more specifically: taking a break doesn’t make the work disappear. It just lets it pile up.

But it’s no big deal, right? This week I have a grody-odie cold, and when it’s done I’ll spend a few days cooking and cleaning and catching up on freelance stuff and then everything will be back to normal.

Except the week before the cold, my sister and her family were in town, and I was spending most nights over at my folks’ place visiting with them, and that wasn’t “normal.”

And the week before that was Christmas, and that wasn’t “normal.”

And the month before that, a few people I care about got ill back-to-back-to-back, so I spent time hanging out in emergency rooms and helping them recover, and that wasn’t “normal.”

And right before that was the five weeks I spent on that exhausting project, and that wasn’t “normal.”

I think you see where I’m going with this.

(I’m also starting to wonder if that isn’t part of why I got this cold right now, and such a bad one.)

So, yeah. Things get in the way.

What do we do?

See what you choose when your choices are limited

Right now I have to (or am choosing to) devote several hours of my day to “lying on the couch and coughing boogers into tissues.” (I’m counting this as a choice because I could also choose to power through it! I’m hoping this choice will get me well faster, even though it means having to devote future hours to all of the work I’m currently leaving undone.)

Last week I chose to spend most of my free time with the fam.

But last week I also chose to continue going to my Les Mills classes at the YMCA, even though I could have given those hours to FAM TIME.

And this week, even though I could have given this hour to BOOGERVILLE, I am sucking down cough suppressants to write this post.

What did I give up instead? Playing my piano. Cooking meals (well, I technically cooked the food I am pulling out of my freezer and reheating, but you get the point). Reading, beyond the reading I needed to get done for a book club. The leisure stuff.*

This week, I also gave up outlining/planning/thinking about the novel I hope to start drafting in February, simply because I don’t have any extra brain to put there. (One of the things that happens, when life gets in the way, is that all the extra background thought that might go into solving a creative problem goes towards solving the life problem. I’m going to do a whole post on that idea later, because it’s so important — and it’s a creative struggle I don’t know how to solve.)

When your life stops being “normal,” what do you choose to maintain and what do you give up?

Remember the Sheelzebub Principle

I’ll quote Sheelzebub again:

Can I live with this for another month? Another year? Another five years? Ten years? The rest of my life?

Excerpted from Sheelzebub’s comment on Captain Awkward #353 & #354: Bathrooms, Butts, and Boundaries.

If the way that life is getting in the way isn’t working, figure out what you need to do to change it. This is incredibly difficult work, because it often involves saying no to people you care about, ending relationships, changing jobs, etc. etc. etc.

It can be even harder if you don’t have resources to help you make the change: money, a network of contacts, a couch you can crash on, an affordable babysitter or day care service, an elderly parent willing to work with a home care aide who isn’t you, etc. etc. etc.

I have done the hard work of ending things I can no longer live with (and the equally hard work of postponing that ending because maybe things will get better and I won’t have had to say no?), but every time I realize I’m going to have to set a boundary or make a change it is still just as hard.**

Look for people who are going through what you’re going through, and see how they do it

If I were to type some yip yip about how of course you can find the time to do THE WORK you want to do while also having small children/eldercare responsibilities/a day job/a chronic illness/etc. you could rightfully say shut up Nicole, you have none of those things so you don’t know what you’re talking about.

(I would argue that I do have a day job and family responsibilities, but I understand all too well how freelance work is different from employee work, and how being a daughter who lives near her parents is different from, say, actively parenting a toddler.)

However, there are plenty of people who are both making incredible creative work and writing about the process of making that work while balancing their day jobs or health issues or parenting/caretaking responsibilities.

Go see what they have to say about it.

I don’t want to make a list of recommendations because that feels like using people as INSPIRATION PRAWNS, which, gross, they’re people.

But I will share this video from Mikey Neumann of Movies With Mikey. Although he did not create it so it would fit exactly in this blog post, he did create it to share “how life-threatening challenges have shaped him and his work,” so I’m hoping he won’t mind my sharing it with you.

That video’s almost a half-hour long, so I’ll end here.

There’s always going to be life getting in the way of our ideal (or even our “normal”) life. It is our challenge and our joy to keep making choices that bring us closer to THE LIFE we want, and to prioritize THE WORK we want to do. ❤️

*But I’m also watching the new Vanity Fair miniseries during BOOGERTIME, so maybe that counts as leisure? Painful, have-to-sanitize-my-laptop-afterwards leisure, but still.

**Sometimes I wonder if my ability to successfully set boundaries and change certain aspects of my life just means I haven’t really faced anything truly hard yet.

Your Choices Limit Your Choices (and That’s a Good Thing)

One of the great things about running a personal-finance website that publishes stories at 8 a.m., 10 a.m., noon, and 2 p.m. Eastern is how it effectively limits my choices until about 1 p.m. Central.

No, I can’t do interviews in the morning.

No, I can’t attend that networking breakfast.

Sorry, I can’t do revisions on this piece until the afternoon — will that work for you?

You can see how I might frame these responses differently depending on whether I’m RSVPing to an invite or replying to a freelance client’s email, but the decision is the same either way.

I already have responsibilities that take up this particular chunk of time, so I cannot give that time to anything else.

Obviously there are exceptions. Of course there are exceptions. Sometimes the interview can only be conducted in the morning because the other person is in Europe and that’s how time zones work. Sometimes a freelance client will email to say “I’ll pay you extra if you can rework this piece in the next 30 minutes,” and I am not one to turn down extra money (nor am I one to turn down the chance to become That One Reliable Freelancer).

But 90 percent of the time, the answer is no.

When the answer is yes, btw, I still have to figure out when I’m going to complete the work that I would have completed during that time slot. Luckily, I can schedule Billfold posts in advance — so if I know I’ll be doing an interview at 9 a.m. Central, I can make sure the post that’s scheduled to go up at noon Eastern gets done the day before. This is also why I try to schedule overflow time into every workday; so I don’t have to do this work after hours (even though sometimes it still happens after hours).

I know that most people don’t have the type of workday that lets them put such clear boundaries around their time. I spent four years working as an executive assistant (a job where the boundaries are set by the person you’re assisting),* and prior to that I was a telemarketer and a church organist and a dog sitter and a booth babe and… you know what, I wrote a piece for The Billfold about every job I’ve ever had, go read that if you’re curious.

But we can — and I’d argue we should — put those types of boundaries around our life, especially if we’re trying to get it closer to THE LIFE we want, and especially-especially if we’re hoping to make time in our life to do THE WORK.

When I decided to set my “tonin alarm” at 9:30 p.m., I thought “well, I guess I can only go to matinees now”

Last week I told you the story of how I saw Jonathan Coulton open for They Might Be Giants and decided I wanted to learn guitar and try singer-songwriting.

I didn’t tell you the part where I, like Jonathan Coulton, committed myself to writing/recording/posting a song a week.

I still had the executive assistant job, so this work had to be done after hours. About halfway through the project, I started recording both a song and a vlog each week and called them Song Tuesday and Vlog Thursday.

This meant that I knew exactly what I was doing on Tuesdays and Thursdays after work.

Yes, I could record a song or a vlog early if I knew I’d have another truly important commitment on a Tuesday or a Thursday (and then schedule the song/vlog to post to YouTube on the appropriate day).

But making that choice successfully limited the opportunities available to me on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and I say successfully because I did in fact publish a song a week for 100 consecutive weeks. (I stopped doing the vlog component before then, but it was never part of my initial goal; it was always the accompaniment.)

When I drafted The Biographies of Ordinary People, I set myself the goal of completing two chapters a week. I knew, because of how I wanted to structure the book, that each volume of Biographies would contain two parts, each part would contain 35 chapters, and each chapter would be roughly 1,200 words.

I also knew, from my experience as a freelancer, that it generally took me about an hour to write 1,200 words — so if I wanted to complete two chapters a week, it would make sense to block off two writing chunks of at least 60 minutes each but probably closer to 90.

I don’t know yet what structure the novel I hope to draft this year will take — and I plan to write about structure/style and the way it both limits and guides you** soon, maybe next week — but I do know that I’m probably going to set aside two 90-minute writing sessions per week. Maybe one after work and one on the weekend.

Plus a third session that could serve as a backup if something very important came up during one of the usually scheduled writing times. (That’s what I did when I drafted Biographies.)

Once again, this decision will limit the other choices I can make. I’ve been invited to participate in this thing, for example, that I am going to say no to because I can’t do the thing and give two 90-minute sessions to writing and do Les Mills classes at the YMCA and be part of this choir that I’m scheduled to audition for and keep some time set aside for parents and friends and keep some time set aside for just me and have enough time left over for the all-important non-sleep rest.

I’m also really curious how this decision will limit the amount of travel I’m doing this year, because I’ve already been approached by multiple people about TRIPS TRIPS TRIPS and I know that each trip will get in the way of novel-writing time.***

Which, again, some of these trips (for both business and pleasure) might be important enough to take. But I’ll need to be judicious, and understand how my choices will limit my other choices.

I need to stop this now because it’s time to move on to The Billfold, but I’m fairly sure I’ve made my point. If you’d like additional reading, or if you’ve read this far and are thinking “but I already have too much after-hours social and family stuff to set aside time to do THE WORK,” I recommend my Lifehacker post on social budgeting:

Like a financial budget, a social budget allocates your available time towards both pre-determined commitments and “discretionary experiences,” and helps you determine how to spend your time in accordance with your values. Even if you’re pretty happy with the way your social life is going, a social budget can help you make more time for the people you want in your life, while spending less time on social events that leave you feeling bored or drained.

I also recommend entrepreneur Derek Sivers’ post “No “yes.” It’s either “HELL YEAH” or “NO.”

When you say no to most things, you leave room in your life to really throw yourself completely into that rare thing that makes you say “HELL YEAH!”

Every event you get invited to. Every request to start a new project. If you’re not saying “HELL YEAH!” about it, say “no.”

If you like that post, you can also read Sivers’ book Anything You Want, which includes similar inspirational maxims.

Tomorrow I’ll go into what happens during the periods of life when you have less control over your time and/or don’t have as many choices as you hoped you would. ❤️

*Both of the people I assisted were great and had really strong work/life boundaries, which I know isn’t always the case when you’re an assistant. I am very lucky/grateful to have worked for them.

**Do we see a theme here? I see a theme.

***Trips also tend to require me to prep a week or so of The Billfold in advance, which generally means after-hours work — and if that work plus the travel schedule gets in the way of sleep and non-sleep rest and everything else, HERE COMES BURNOUT.

How I Made the Time to Write This Daily Post

To continue this week’s discussion of building THE LIFE we want, making time for THE WORK we want to do, and avoiding burnout, I wanted to take you through the steps of how I made the time to write this daily post.

(And all of the daily posts. Monday through Friday.)

You might think “well, you’re a freelancer, you can just write whenever you want.” In my case, this isn’t true. As the owner/editor of The Billfold, I need to make sure that new posts run at 8 a.m., 10 a.m., noon, and 2 p.m. (Eastern) every weekday. I don’t have to write all of these posts (many of them are written by freelancers, and we just ran a new call for pitches so PITCH US), but I have to make sure they are edited and that the writers have signed off on the edits and that everything runs on time and gets crossposted to social media.

Although I could theoretically do that work “whenever I wanted,” I’ve found that it’s a lot easier to create and stick to a schedule. I won’t go into the details, but I block off certain hours every day for editing, for writing my own posts, for reaching out to sponsors, and for doing Billfold administrative work (like paying our writers).

I also block off certain hours to complete my non-Billfold freelance writing, such as the pieces I write for Bankrate, and do the related administrative work.

When you add in a little bit of overflow time, because there’s always going to be something that takes longer than you expect, this work fills a standard 8-hour workday.

So. How do you fit in another 1,200-word blog post, Monday through Friday?

In my case, I used the old trick of “getting up earlier.”

But — and here’s the key — I combined it with “going to bed earlier.”

I swear half of burnout is “not getting enough sleep AND non-sleep rest,” I do not have the science to back this up but I bet someone else does

So this past fall, I was doing this after-hours creative project that ended up taking all the hours. I would work until 5 and then need to be on the bus by 5:15, and then I wouldn’t get back to my apartment until about 11 p.m.

By the end of the five-week commitment — and it is hard to believe it was only five weeks — I was burned out. I think I’ve mentioned that I keep this Daily Spreadsheet where I track my moods and foods and sleep and stuff, and the spreadsheet went from “Health: Well; Mood: Excited; Energy: High” to “Health: Tired; Mood: None; Energy: Tired.”

(Yes, I count “tired” as a health descriptor. I wasn’t sick, after all — but I wasn’t well.)

The interesting thing was that I was still getting around seven hours of sleep a night. In fact, most days I was getting closer to seven-and-a-half.

But I wasn’t getting any non-sleep rest.

So I was still tired, all the time — and eventually my spreadsheet shifted to “Health: Exhausted; Mood: Broken; Energy: Exhausted.”

I am going to recommend reading Dr. Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams if you currently feel like you are getting less sleep than you need. This book changed my life, and I should really just buy a copy at this point because I have checked it out of the library multiple times.

But we need more than just sleep. We also need time to rest, or just be, or relax, or breathe, or however you want to put it.

So I kept that in mind when I decided not to take on creative commitments like that in the future — and I also kept it in mind when I decided to take on this new project.

Giving time to the work you want to do means giving less time to something else (and sometimes that’s a good thing)

In order to write this daily blog post, I started going to bed a half-hour earlier and waking up a half-hour earlier.

But it takes more than a half-hour to write this.

So where did that extra time come from?

Well… my typical morning routine used to go something like this:

I’d wake up, use the toilet, and then cozy up on my couch with my coffee and breakfast and Daily Spreadsheet and Fitbit and YNAB. I’d do the administrative stuff first (filling out my spreadsheet, checking my budget) and then I’d start reading my Feedly and checking Twitter and seeing what everyone was talking about online.

I’d tell myself that this whole process should only take a half hour, and that I should go right into yoga-shower-get-ready-for-work, but I’d just had this coffee and this breakfast and I kinda wanted a second cup and the couch was so cozy and there was so much on the internet to read and I’d just click one more link and so on.

Some days I would make myself late to my own freelance job, which means I’d use up my overflow time before the workday even started.

So I switched it up. I made the routine “toilet, yoga, shower, dress, then coffee and breakfast,” and I also did the coffee and breakfast at my desk instead of on the sofa.

Suddenly I had this whole hour back, and when you combined it with the “waking up earlier” thing it was like I was even further ahead, and since I was at my desk and dressed and stretched I was less inclined to “slowly ease into the day” by reading one billion internet because, at this point, the day had already started.

Which meant that it was time to do the Daily Spreadsheet, check the budget, do a quick pass of the news and the email, and start writing this post.

I also changed up my evening routine. I now have a “tonin alarm” on my Fitbit watch, and when it goes off I take my melatonin pill, brush my teeth, get into my pajamas if I’m not already wearing them, turn off all the lights except for a sleep-friendly booklight, and read quietly until I’m ready to fall asleep. Thanks to the melatonin, I can generally only read for about fifteen minutes before it’s one-more-toilet-and-sleep-time. (I try to stick to old favorite books that I’ve read a hundred times before.)

This also shortened the bedtime routine by, like, half, because it used to be “click one more internet, think about getting up to take the melatonin, couch is too cozy, blanket is too warm, internet is too internet…” and even though I knew I did better with eight hours of sleep instead of seven-and-a-half, I’d still end up dinking around and using up that extra half hour of sleep scrolling through Page 4 of Reddit’s “Explain Like I’m Five.” (Did you know that nobody really knows why our fingernails grow faster than our toenails?)

And getting better sleep turned out to get me better non-sleep rest, because I wasn’t so tired that I was trying to mine dopamine from blinking screens. I could spend more time doing generative resty things like reading new books or going for walks or watching movies with friends.

I want to keep going and discuss how making choices like this, that get you closer to THE LIFE you want, both limit and improve subsequent choices — but this is already long enough and it’s time for me to start working on Billfold stuff, so that’ll be for tomorrow. ❤️

(And if you’re thinking “but what about the times when you can’t go to bed when you want to, or do the other stuff that you want to do, because of XYZ?” that’ll be for Thursday.)

THE LIFE Takes Work

I remember exactly where I was (in my dorm room, in college) when I realized that sending a birthday card was not a single-step task.

First, you needed a birthday card. A blank card could do in a pinch, or a thank-you card with the words “thank you” crossed out and the words “happy birthday” written instead, if you were the kind of person who could pull that off; you could even fold a piece of printer paper in quarters and draw your own card, but you’d still need an envelope to put it in.

Then you needed to write the message.

Then you needed to address the card, which — if you didn’t have the address immediately at hand — could become a step of its own. You might have to dig your address book out of the back of a desk drawer (after searching two other desk drawers first, also, I went to college in the year 2000 when people still used address books). You might have to call your mom to get the address, which meant setting aside an hour for the chat that would come afterwards.

Then you needed to put a stamp on the card. If you were the kind of think-ahead person who bought stamps in books, you might already have one; if not, you’d have to go to the post office or to a place that sold stamps (and although drugstores and grocery stores do occasionally sell stamps, they don’t advertise it; you have to go to the special customer service desk and ask).

Then you needed to find a mailbox. I don’t remember exactly where the mailboxes were in college, but when I lived in Seattle the nearest blue mailbox was a half-mile away (which meant that mailing a letter involved a 20-minute walk; also no, there wasn’t any place to leave letters in my janky dump of an apartment) and the nearest post office was two miles away. (There were a few third-party “Sip and Ship” services that were closer, but there are some things you can only do at a USPS.)

So sending a birthday card, if you were willing to pay extra to buy the card at the post office, and if you had the address close at hand so you could write it on a scrap of paper before you left for the post office, could take a single 40-minute trip. (The extra minutes are for waiting in line at the post office to buy the stamp, or book of stamps if you’re feeling flush.)

But it would more likely be three individual tasks: the procuring of the card, the writing and addressing, the stamping and mailing.

I currently have a box of 50 blank cards in assorted designs (though there are probably only 30ish cards left), and although I have three cards that need to be sent out this week, I’ve used up my most recent book of stamps. So instead of being able to write the cards and drop them off in the mail slot at my current (non-janky) apartment, I’ll need to block off 30-40 minutes to go to the post office.

I could order stamps online, but when I tried putting them in my cart and checking out, the USPS said I needed to create an account first, and I instinctively noped out of the tab even though I’m sure creating yet another account for yet another retailer would be fine, just fine.

Except it’s supposed to rain all day today, and tomorrow we’re scheduled for 40 mph winds. (I should mention that I don’t own a car; I walk, bike, bus, and take occasional rideshares.)

Which means I might need to order the stamps online after all.

I’m telling you this story because I, like most of the internet I follow, read Anne Helen Petersen’s How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation this weekend — and in my case I didn’t identify with it quite as much as everyone else on the internet seemed to.

Like, I get that something like “mailing a birthday card” is a task that your brain thinks should take five minutes, so you keep putting it off until the next day because it’ll only take five minutes, except when you finally think “I should write that birthday card” you realize you don’t even have a birthday card to write on, and then you think about the amount of steps it requires to get the card and the stamps and the rest of it and it feels overwhelming so you don’t do it.

I get that.

And part of me wants to say “well, if you implement a system like David Allen’s Getting Things Done then you can identify the birthday card task as three discrete tasks and schedule them as such, ask me how I know,” but I also know that isn’t what Petersen is really writing about here.

She’s writing about the fact that work and life both take work, and that sometimes the work of work and the work of life are so much work that there isn’t any time left over for the actual life.

I’m not capitalizing work or life in these instances because neither are THE WORK or THE LIFE as defined in last Friday’s post — that is, Petersen’s not writing about the work we’d like to be doing or the life we’d like to be living, she’s writing about the work and life we’re stuck with, partially due to economic crises and late-stage capitalism and the increase in shadow work and smartphones keeping us tethered to our jobs and so on and so forth.

I actually liked Petersen’s post on how she wrote the burnout piece a lot better than the burnout piece itself, in part because it included details like (paraphrased) “maybe the reason why we hate running errands is because they take longer than they used to, thanks to companies cutting staff and forcing us to wait in ever-longer lines, etc. etc. etc.”

But the response to the burnout piece made me want to write about the idea that THE LIFE, and this time I mean the capitalized ideal LIFE you’d like to have, where there’s time to do the work you need to do (capitalized or not) and manage your responsibilities without feeling constantly burned out, takes work to create.

In fact, you could call THE LIFE a creative project of its own.

So that’s what I’m going to focus on this week: how to make active choices about THE LIFE we want, regardless of whether we’re “creative people who want to make art” or not.

Because getting THE LIFE we want takes work, though unlike burnout-making work, it’s generally the work of joy.*


Two things that are going to come up right away, so let’s deal with them:

ONE. I don’t mean this as “well, I’m not burned out, and I make active choices about my life, so if you’re burned out you must not be making active choices about your life.” That’s your bog-standard logical fallacy, and also I got pretty bogged down in a creative project last year that took me very close to burnout, so not all of my active choices are great! (We’ll discuss later, though what you need to know now is that I ended up making the difficult choice to not do projects like that in the future.)

TWO. It’s going to be hard to discuss the idea of making active choices that lead you closer to THE LIFE without getting into who has the capacity (which we can also call “privilege,” if you like) to make those choices.

I have a lot of freedom right now to make choices about my life, and some of that freedom derived from circumstances outside my control (getting my first entry-level job in August 2007 instead of January 2008,** for example). Some of my freedom probably comes from having built a successful freelance career (and I teach classes on how to do that if you want to learn). Some comes from my decision to embrace spinsterhood, which means I can make choices like “time to move to an affordable Midwestern city to be closer to my parents” without considering how it might affect a partner or children.***

But if you are currently thinking “I can make zero choices about my life right now, thanks Nicole,” I will suggest two pieces of reading, both from Captain Awkward:

First, the Sheelzebub Principle: Originated by Captain Awkward commenter Sheelzebub, this principle acknowledges that some situations feel optionless. In that case, ask yourself:

Can I live with this for another month? Another year? Another five years? Ten years? The rest of my life?

Excerpted from Sheelzebub’s comment on Captain Awkward #353 & #354: Bathrooms, Butts, and Boundaries.

Invoking the Sheelzebub Principle forces your hand, as it were. Maybe it turns out that you have to live with the terrible optionless situation for another six months (I’ve been there), but you can start making choices about what you want to happen afterwards. Maybe you don’t know when the optionless situation will end — which might mean that if you want it to change, you’re going to have to be the one that does the changing (and boundary-setting and job-hunting and relationship-ending and time-reclaiming and the rest of it).

I also suggest reading the Captain Awkward guest post Breaking the Low Mood Cycle, by ElodieUnderGlass.

(In fact, I suggest everyone go read that post just because it’s so great.)

If you’d like some additional reading, I recommend Malcolm Harris’s Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, which goes into the socioeconomic reasons why many Millennials are feeling burnt out (and which Petersen references in her piece), as well as Craig Lambert’s Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day, which explains why everyday errands have become so time-consuming and frustrating.

We’ll continue this discussion tomorrow. ❤️

*Or, at least, the work of hope.

**The Great Recession hit in December 2008.

***Either the ones that might have existed now or the ones that might have existed in the future.

THE WORK and THE LIFE Are Two Separate Things

I’m going to start today’s post where I ended yesterday’s: with the idea that THE WORK and THE LIFE are two separate things.

Quick definitions, to catch everybody up:

THE WORK: literally your life’s work, although you can think of it as “the current creative project you want to complete” if you want to keep things simple. The stuff you’d like to be working on, during an ideal day.

THE LIFE: the way you’d like your ideal day to proceed. Maybe you want to rise with the sun and walk along the river that runs behind your home. Maybe you want to sleep in and do a couple hours of work before meeting a friend for lunch. Maybe you want a leisurely breakfast with your family. Maybe you want to wake up and do yoga and fill out your Daily Spreadsheet and look for cause-and-effect relationships between your food and sleep and mood and everything else (hey, that one’s me).

The trouble we get into — and I get into this trouble all the time — is thinking that we can’t have THE LIFE until we complete a certain amount of THE WORK. When we are THE FAMOUS, for example, we’ll be able to take those morning walks, because then we won’t have to deal with our current morning rush because we’ll be famous.


As I wrote yesterday, it’s a lot easier to figure out how to take those walks now.

Don’t let your desire to buy plants convince you that you need to write a successful young-adult series

So I mentioned the other day that I spent part of this year (way too much of this year?) wanting my career to be like Maggie Stiefvater’s, because then I could have an office with a bunch of musical instruments and plants in it.

There was actually a second reason I wanted that type of career, and we’ll get to that, but let’s start with the office. Go take a look at this post on Maggie Stiefvater’s Tumblr, and you’ll see why I was suddenly asking myself whether I should try a young-adult series like The Raven Cycle. Because maybe that would make me MORE SUCCESSFUL, and if I were MORE SUCCESSFUL I could have more plants… and I was back in the trap again.

Turns out you can just buy more plants. They are relatively inexpensive! (It’s the pots that cost money.) I also bought a piano, which was… not inexpensive.*

And there I was, with THE LIFE I had been dreaming about.

Now I had to figure out what type of work I wanted to do next.

Sometimes the work and the life do correlate

Just over a decade ago, I saw Jonathan Coulton open for They Might Be Giants. I did not know who Jonathan Coulton was at the time. (This would change.) I did know that I was watching this guy sing and play guitar and talk to the audience when he wasn’t singing or playing, and I also knew that I wanted to do that.

So I got myself out of debt as quickly as I could,** and then I bought a guitar (and I probably could have bought the guitar before I got out of debt, but I am an orderly sort) and then I taught myself how to play (it helped that I grew up in a family of musicians and that my undergrad degree is in music composition) and then I started looking into how to book shows.

Two years later I was singing and performing for a room full of fans and friends on the Jonathan Coulton Cruise.

I wasn’t an official cruise performer; I was part of what was called the “shadow cruise,” where attendees created their own slate of performances.

Still. I wanted to be onstage with a guitar, singing and talking to an audience, and doing THE WORK made that happen.

I spent just over a year as a full-time performing musician, during which I got myself back into debt (to the tune — pun intended — of $14,000) and realized that THE LIFE I had created through this work wasn’t working.*** Meanwhile I was picking up these writing gigs, and people were asking me to do more freelance writing work, and that was making a lot more money than the music, and… well, I ended up making a career change.

But the point I’m trying to make is that sometimes you have to do THE WORK to get THE LIFE you want, in the sense that if you want to be onstage performing for people, you have to have something worth performing.

But you don’t have to become THE FAMOUS first, and you don’t even have to hide in your apartment until you write the perfect song. You can go to open-mic night two weeks after you get your new guitar, and you can perform for people. (Ask me how I know.)

I’ve gotten to a lot of places by seeing someone else doing something I wanted to do and then asking myself how I could do it. I watched TED Talks and then started volunteering to be on panels at local SF&F conventions. I read Casey Johnston’s Ask a Swole Woman columns and then got into powerlifting (for about six months before switching to the YMCA’s Les Mills classes, which I liked a lot better).

I started this blog because — well, did you actually go read the Maggie Stiefvater post I linked to earlier? It wasn’t just the home I wanted. It was also the ability to talk freely about THE WORK and, honestly, THE SELF, which is something I don’t always get to do in my current career as a personal-finance writer (who’s also authored a couple of books).

I want to be inspiring and transparent and helpful. I know I’m a particular type of person (INTJ: I see the world through a systems-and-patterns lens) so my particular brand of inspiration might not apply to everybody. But you’re here reading this now, and I hope you come back on Monday for the next post. ❤️

*Yes, we’re going to discuss the way money fits into all of this, because it’s a huge part of both THE WORK and THE LIFE (and while I want to say that you can do a lot of THE WORK on “very little money,” because I did, I also know that my definition of “very little money” is around $20K/year, which is well above the federal poverty line for a single person, and I also had the type of minimum-payment-every-month good credit that allowed me to get into $14K of credit card debt, so yes, money plays a huge role in all of this, we will discuss).

**Oh look it’s the money connection again.

***I am well aware that one of the reasons people aspire towards so-called “creative careers” is because the life they have created through their current work isn’t working; I also know from experience that quitting your executive assistant job to become a full-time performing musician can change your life, so I’m not going to say this is a bad idea, just remember that you can also go for a walk or play your guitar at the open mic without quitting your job, and if you do want to change your work to change your life, remember that THE WORK takes work.

The Work Takes Work

So I want to spend the rest of this week discussing two things: THE WORK and THE LIFE.

These are both topics that will take more than two days to discuss, of course, so I will undoubtedly come back to them in the future — but I want to start the conversation now because I just read this Man Repeller article titled Freelance vs. Full Time and BELIEVE ME IT IS RELEVANT.

Actually, it’s relevant in more ways than one. The piece is a discussion between freelancer Meghan Nesmith and full-timer Logan Sachon, both of whom were former colleagues at The Billfold (Logan being one of the original Billfold founders).

So I hope they won’t mind that I hinge this blog post on a quote from Logan, about what she initially thought freelancing could be:

The dream was to go on a long walk in the middle of the day, to meet friends who are also freelance in the middle of the day, to not get out of bed until the middle of the day, to knock off for happy hour at 4PM. (To not … work?) Whenever someone Instagrams from Central Park in the middle of the day, or posts a picture of a cake they just baked to procrastinate for a few hours — that’s the stuff that makes freelancing really attractive.

If you read the whole piece, you’ll understand that both Logan and Meghan immediately disavow this “dream” of the no-work freelance life — because, of course, it is completely unrealistic. Freelancers work very hard. (Ask me how I know.)

But I want to call your attention to the disparity between “the dream” and the work of doing your work.

If you want to bake a cake, you don’t need to become a freelance writer first.

When I teach my writing classes (and by the way, you can sign up for my next online class RIGHT NOW, it starts Jan 12) I ask my students to spend some time writing about their ideal workday. Where would they sit? What would they wear? Would there be a cup of tea nearby? What sounds would they hear (and/or block out)?

This is a super-common workshop activity — I first learned about it from Barbara Sher’s book Wishcraft — but I add a twist. I ask my students to consider their ideal workdays in conjunction with their other responsibilities.

That was the part I hated most about the Wishcraft exercise; Sher shares all of these ideal days from workshop participants, and very few of them involved any work. They slept in and baked cakes and met friends for lunch. One woman, who claimed to want to start a family, described her ideal day as being alone, on a horse, while pregnant.

You get where I’m going with this. If you say you want family but your ideal day is spent alone, or if you say you want the freelance life but your ideal day is spent not freelancing, well… I think the thing you want is not what you say you want.

Same goes for whatever big creative project you dream about doing. Do you want to make the project, or are you making the project because you hope that when you’re done, your life will look more like your ideal day?

If you want to bake more cakes, you can just bake more cakes.

And if you want to start a freelance career or complete a big creative project, you’ll need to figure out when you’re going to do the work.

This is why I ask my students to imagine their ideal workday in conjunction with their current responsibilities. First, it acknowledges that the work is work, and second, it acknowledges that you probably already have a bunch of stuff chomping at your time.

(Later in my class I give students a grid with a week’s worth of hours in it, ask them to block off all of the hours they already have committed to other responsibilities including commuting/hygiene/sleep/family/etc. and ask them how many of those remaining hours they want to commit to THE WORK. It’s kind of a sobering exercise, unfortunately — and you can do it at home, here’s your grid! We’ll discuss time management and how to find more time for THE WORK at some point, because it is a super-important topic.)

Don’t let your fantasies about THE LIFE get in the way of THE WORK.

I know I know, it’s like day two and I’m already lecturing, but I fell into this trap myself over the past year, even though I know better, because it is a very powerful trap with a really big gravitational pull. (More on this tomorrow.)

Let me quote Logan again:

I don’t even know if I have a dream job. I think if I’ve ever had one, it would be being like, a New Yorker writer who works on long stories, like Kathryn Schulz or Ariel Levy or Elif Batuman. 

I know I know I know I am pulling the dreamiest quotes out of what is a very practical interview about the realities of freelancing (which you should GO READ and then DISCUSS IN THE COMMENTS), but I’m doing this because I spent the past year telling myself I wanted to be like such-and-such a person* and I wanted their level of fame or whatever, and when I asked myself why it was because I saw a photo of their office and it had musical instruments and plants in it.



And then it was like well, that problem’s solved, now I actually have to think about what work I want to do with the rest of my life.

(Obligatory yes I know not everyone can just buy a piano.)

That’s where I’m going to begin tomorrow, if you’re interested in following along. ❤️

*okay okay it was Maggie Stiefvater, go read her commandments of life and then tape them to your desk if you find them as inspiring as I do