A Manifesto for Maintenance

This isn’t really a manifesto but sometimes you come up with a title so good you can’t not use it.

One thing quarantine is bringing into focus is the small but constant recurrences of life. Eating, showering, sleeping, hydrating, movement. Reality is just energy and entropy, and we live our lives according to its edicts. So many of my friends, and so many strangers online, seem to be having such a hard time coping with this, resenting their bodies for becoming hungry and thirsty, their homes for getting dirty.

I guess I’m a little lucky to be ahead of the game here since the base treatment for a mood disorder is sleep, food, water, and exercise. I’ve spent a lot of time working on these.

Honestly though, I do occasionally get frustrated with the act of having to maintain myself as a living being. I could get into the social frameworks that divorce us from our bodies, that treat it as something to overcome and surpass, or at the very least loathe and punish and demand better of. I could also get into the frameworks that make this work seem lesser and beneath us. But to keep this from turning into a real manifesto, I’ll just focus on one source, and that’s our past experiences with these sorts of chores, and the homes we might have grown up in.

Before diving in, I want to be clear that I don’t want to get prescriptive on a solution here. I think everyone has their own issues with the rote duties of life, that can spring from a thousand different directions.

Mostly I’m going to focus on the effects of our histories with these sorts of tasks, and how we can transform the way we see this work.

I’ll use the example of cleaning. I suspect I’m not alone in this: as a child, I often had to clean my room before I could go have fun. And I suspect I’m not alone in being punished for failing to clean my room. I suspect I’m also not alone in cleaning being used as punishment. Furthermore, I don’t even remember being taught how to clean; just figure it out, and if you don’t, then you’re grounded. Many household chores were placed as a barrier to happiness, and failure to satisfy the requirements led to punishment.

Framing it this way, I think it’s pretty clear why we might resent these sorts of tasks.

To me, I don’t think adulthood is at some arbitrary age, or life marker such as marriage or having kids, or financial marker, such as buying property. I think adulthood is when we finally realize we must parent ourselves, and we begin the journey of doing so. And one of those things is teaching ourselves how to abide these chores, and perhaps eventually how to enjoy them.

There are a lot of tactics for how to do this. Mindfulness is a big one. I’ve also found that timeboxing can help take the sting out of chores — saying I only have to clean for five minutes is very tolerable, and I can get a shocking amount done in that time. (This is a tactic I actually got from UfYH which I highly recommend.) The key though is to change your relationship to these tasks, to the way you approach them, to the mindset you enter this work with.

As independent adults, we have an opportunity to begin to rewrite the narrative for ourselves around these tasks. It’s going to take time and effort, but as someone who’s put in that work and seen the rewards, I’ll say that it’s definitely worth it.

I’m still trying to figure out how to not hate laundry though. If you have suggestions, please let me know.

BTW, the other suspects in why we might loathe these maintenance chores are (1) sexism (2) racism (3) capitalism. I don’t think I really have to expand on this.

Habit Circle

Habits are pretty hard. Forming them is hard. Maintaining them is hard. The only thing easy about habits is breaking them.

There’s tonnes to be read about habits. I think one of the better books I’ve read on the topic is Atomic Habits by James Clear. I’ve taken a lot from this book about how I try to form healthy, foundational habits in my life. I think the concept of habit stacking is probably the biggest takeaway I had from this book.

(The tl;dr of habit stacking that instead of treating each habit as an individual unit, try to stack them together, such that one habit flows into the other. For instance, instead of “washing the dishes” and “wiping down the counters” being two separate habits, just say “after I’m done washing the dishes, since everything is wet, I have to wipe down the counters.” Stack the habits.)

Recently I’ve come up with something for myself that I’ve been using for a few weeks now and it seems to be working. I can’t necessarily say I invented it, but haven’t seen it talked about elsewhere.

I’m calling it the Habit Wheel.

Basically, I have several things I want to get done every morning. I want to meditate. I want to journal. I want to work out. However, I have a hard time waking up in the morning, and I don’t always get the same amount of time each morning, so I can’t get everything done. On top of that, I live in an area that is under shelter in place orders, and grocery shopping is quite difficult, so I try to get to stores when they open on a weekday, to minimize that stress. On those mornings, I can’t get my morning habits done at all.

For awhile I was trying a specific order every morning. But all that resulted in was the first habits on the list being consistently managed, and the latter habits on the list being dropped altogether. This felt like failure, and it discouraged me from even maintaining the habits I was able to keep up with.

So I decided to change it up and think of it as a wheel of habits. Whatever habit I “left off” on in the previous morning would become the first thing for the next morning. So if yesterday, I managed meditation and journaling and nothing else, then today I’d work out first, then go for meditation. And if I didn’t manage journaling, then tomorrow’s first habit would be journaling.

While doing it this way didn’t ensure I’d be doing every habit every day, it ensured I was consistently doing healthy habits throughout the week. This put me in a mental space of succeeding rather than falling short, and doing these habits semi-daily means still I get their benefit, because mostly is better than not at all.

The Habit Wheel is a great tool for me. The work is to figure out what habits go in the habit wheel. So far I’ve liked the habits I’ve put in there. I’ll be continuing to fine-tune them and work towards that well-lived life I’m seeking.

The Simple Art of Living Well

This is something I’ve been obsessed with lately. For some time now.

I’ve read so many books about habits, about life optimization, about organization, success at work, curating an ideal wardrobe, an ideal sense of self, and over the years all of these methods and studies and anecdotes have been percolating in the back of my brain. I’ve realized that what I’m really looking for here is an answer to the question, “What does it mean to live well?”

A lot of these books and articles and videos have been incredibly prescriptive about what living well means. Getting up at 4am. Having a beautifully styled home. Landing the perfect job. Attaining the perfect body. But in almost every single one of these narratives, I feel like I’ve had to peel back a layer. I’m not entirely certain what the layer is — perhaps confidence that theirs is the right and only way to live, or perhaps insecurity and an attempt to convince others that theirs is the right and only way to live — but beneath it I found something that seemed to be at most mentioned, and often almost entirely unsaid.

It seems that the first step to living well is to figure out what that means for yourself.

It’s deeply individual, and for me it requires living in an unobserved way. No judgements, no critiques, no praise. Only in moments where I feel completely free of the opinions of others can I figure out what truly elevates me.

And honestly, I think we only figure out what elevates us by thoughtful trial and error. Not just trying random things and dropping them, but by carefully considering what we invite into our lives, and inspecting our own response to it. It’s important that we consciously engage with the events and objects and people in our lives, and sort out what helps us live well and what detracts from a life well lived.

I’m not fully sure what a well-lived life looks like for me just yet, but I’m working on it. I hope to use this space to publicly share my thoughts on the matter, and to help me process exactly what it means to live well.