Contextualizing money

I'm bad with money.  And I don't want to think too hard about that, because it makes me feel sad and overwhelmed.  So I'm going to talk about food instead for a little bit, then circle back.

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This is a Ze Frank video, about cholesterol.  It's called Cholesterol.  In it, Ze talks about the impulse that persuades him to make bad food decisions, and has put him in a state of health that reduces his projected lifespan substantially.  He describes a voice inside his head, that decides what's going to happen ("He'll tell you not to have the sandwich.  And we've already established, that's happening." [emphasis mine]) even though it directly contradicts the advice on healthy eating he literally just got, in the building he was walking out of at that moment.

I used to have a problem with healthy eating.  I mean, I still do.  I ate an entire Ben & Jerry's ice cream today.  But I've got my problem in control to a level where I'm pretty healthy -- two years ago, my weight fluctuated between 240 and 260 pounds.  I'm 5'9", so that's not healthy.  And if you're thinking, "The BMI is total crap, it's possible to be healthy at that weight!" -- you're right.  But I'm not a weight lifter.  None of that extra weight was muscle.  I wasn't healthy.

But my mental block about dieting was so massive that I could barely even begin to do anything about my health.  The only times I ever lost any was when I got dumped, and I'd drop twenty or thirty pounds because I wasn't eating because I was sad.  Or, when I was working every day around the holiday season, and barely eating enough to keep myself from passing out at work, where I was standing up for eight hour shifts every day.

And I didn't decide to eat healthy.  That never happened.  What I decided was to switch my lifestyle around food.  I took up Weekday Vegetarianism. ([TED talk] [Vlogbrothers video])  That worked, for several reasons:

(1.) Meat is bad for you, and eating substantially less of it significantly improved the quality of my diet.

(2.) There are several reasons for doing Weeekday Veg, so it was easy for me to avoid annoying self-justification arguments about whether I should make that decision, both with myself, and with people whom I didn't want involved in my dietary choices.

(3.) It created a concrete, easy to follow commitment that allowed me to limit my consumption without thinking too hard about why I was doing it.

(4.) I was doing it for myself, on my own terms, so I didn't feel like I was doing it just because people expected it of me.

My weight dropped at a healthy, steady rate of about 2 pounds a week, until I leveled out at 195, which is where I've been for, so far, all of this year.  I'm still not skinny.  I'm not the embodiment of any ideal of beauty in Western culture.  But I'm not unhealthy, in the way I was before, and I feel ethically better about my eating decisions than I did before.

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Now, I said earlier in this post that I had a whole Ben & Jerry's ice cream.  Which is fine.  I do that sometimes, and I'm not worried about it, because it's not my whole diet and it's not every day.  Reasonably frequent bowls of ice cream have still been better for my health than reasonably frequent burgers, chicken and steak.[1. Especially considering that I didn't skip the ice cream when I was still eating meat every day.]

But I bought that ice cream.  And if you've been following my blog, you know I'm in quite a lot of debt.  But I had some money, so I ended up spending it.

I hate having money.  It makes me feel uncomfortable, unsafe and guilty.  Having money, and relying on money, always implies that I risk losing that money, or losing access to money.  I hate having bills, too, for the same reason.  I hate that money is a thing, though I recognize and acknowledge its utility.

I hate money like I love steak, and I don't know any easy way to control my spending.  If I could, I'd just give all my money away to charity, but while that solves the problem of having it, it doesn't solve any of the problems of not having it.  I haven't yet figured out any way that better spending can be a lifestyle choice, the way Weekday Veg is.  People's advice for lifestyle changes with money generally seem to be, "Be better with money."  It's not that easy, and that approach has never worked for me, with anything.

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Sometimes, I hear people talk about a "Welfare state," like it's some sort of evil system that only people who want to lay around all day and not do anything would want.  But when I think about my money problems, I tend to find myself fantasizing about exactly that kind of system.  I would happily work a full-time job, doing whatever the government decided I was needed for, as long as I didn't have to end up with money as a consequence.  I want a place to sleep, food to eat, the freedom to do and say what I want in my free time, to possibly earn enough admiration in an artistic field to shift into doing what I want to do for my living, and access to the resources like libraries and workshops in which I can do and say those things I want to.

don't want to have to be an accountant.  I don't want my success in the world to be contingent, not just upon my talents and dedication within whatever field in which I might excel, but also my talent at keeping track of finances and spotting good deals and financing plans.

When I think too much about money, I get wrapped up in that daydream, and anger at the unfairness that the system in which we live artificially enhances the success of people who are good at money over people who are good at anything else, like engineers and teachers and medical workers.[1. Until they're making enough to hire someone good at money.]  And that anger makes it difficult for me to accept the world I do live in, and makes it difficult for me to explore solutions to my financial problems that don't rely on the civilization I live in being fundamentally different.

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So, that's it.  That's my money problem, wrapped up in a neat little psychological, socialist-idealist bow.  I'm hoping that having this out of my system and up on the internet will free up the mental space necessary to work with the capitalist environment I've got [1. Which has loads of advantages, don't get me wrong, and I do see the practical and theoretical problems with my socialist fantasy too -- I'm talking about my fantasy here, not making a serious Utopian proposal.  Please don't jump down my throat about being a commie pinko fascist.] instead of getting angry, daydreaming, and stress-spending fifty bucks on scratch tickets and booze.

Methodological Structures (2)

Yesterday I wrote about my own methods for structuring my life.  Now, I want to look into some of the reasons I've had to think so much about this, when it comes naturally to most people.

Religion

With all its ritual and taboo, religion is a fantastic source for lifestyle structure, if you're not too worried about the consequences of that structure.

With most major religions, varying levels of commitment allow you to take as much structure from it as you need, and let the rest slip away.  You can either be devout, going to Church every Sunday or eating Kosher or Halal, or you can celebrate the high holidays and keep a rough sense of moral expectations while you fit into the structures of your industry or community.

The main problems with religious structure are:

(a.) It has a false center of purpose -- the rituals aren't for god, they're for the institution, or the community from which they originated, or they're just OCD-style quirks that found their way in through the early years of the religion.  But they claim to be designed to please a god, so there's no way to check if they're working, or if you even want to be accomplishing the end they actually serve.

As a consequence, (b.) most of the rituals have long outlived their benefits, and even the ones that work are less than ideal.  In the bronze age, the dietary restrictions of a religion were good ways to keep from dying, and rituals like confession or prayer for others are good bronze-age substitutes for therapy and conflict resolution skills.

Government

Law provides a structure for a lot of behaviors, if you want to toe the line.  The main problem with getting your guidance from the government is that it's mostly restrictive -- laws tell you what not to do, not what you should be doing.

Society

Society has elaborate structures set out for everyone, and it's impossible not to pick up at least some of your lifestyle, probably most of it, subconsciously from the world around you.

The main problems is that they're invisible -- you don't tend to be conscious of your conditioning, and they're not organized around your own priorities.  Societal conditioning is where most racism, sexism and other isms.

Coming up with your own

Personally,  I think this is the way to go.  It's an excellent route to self-improvement, and it lets you maximize your realistic adherence to your own moral values.

The main trouble is that it's hard.  And it makes you seem weird.  And it requires that you study sociology and postmodernism to learn how to unpick all the values and structures that have been instilled in you over the course of your lifetime.

But, hey, that's fun, right?

Methodological Structures (1)

It's 11pm and I haven't gotten around to coming up with an idea for a Srs Bsns post.  Or, that's not true.  I spent about an hour brainstorming earlier today, and I'm sure I had a good idea.  But I can't remember what it was. So, instead, I'm going to write about the methodological structures I use to maintain my life -- what they are, what it's like when they work, what it's like when they fail, and what it's like when I'm trying to do something without a structure.

What they are

A methodological structure is a broad category I just pulled out of my ass to attempt to capture the spirit of a variety of things I do to force myself to get work done.

Vows

Vows are my favorite form of methodological structure.  These are things I'm required to do, but for which there's no specific consequence for failure.  I have a few incomplete vows, but none in which I have officially failed.  (I have missed a couple of deadlines in the past, but I always caught up, and usually did extra work to make up for it.)

The main benefit of vows is that I haven't ever really failed at them, and I know that, when I vow something, I can make myself stick to it.  I don't vow things lightly, but I do it a lot when it comes to my writing.  It's good for projects where I know I'm going to lose my resolve at some point, because it forces me to keep going for the sake of the vow, even if I (temporarily) don't believe in the project.

Bets

Bets are like vows, except that I'm allowed to fail, but there's a consequence if I do.  I've found these to be a lot less effective than vows, because if it ever becomes particularly daunting, I always have an out -- the bigger the bet, the harder it is to rationalize failure, but if I'm in a really bad place, I can convince myself that it's not worth it.

One of the main advantages of these structures is that they give me the ability to plan around my predictable failures.  Bets aren't actually very good at doing that, and I should really stop using them.

Lists

To-do lists are a great form of structure when putting together complicated plans on short notice.  I generally make them when I start to feel overwhelmed by the amount of work I have to do, but still have enough energy to do something.  I find organizing your time in a list can make completing tasks energizing, rather than draining, as long as I don't think too hard about why I'm following the list -- I trust the judgement of my list-making past self, and zone out into the task.

What it's like when they work

I've finished three novels, kept this blog going since September, and maintained reasonably good grades in school using these methods.  They're the primary means by which I feel capable of achieving self-improvement.

What it's like when they fail

Today is a good example of what happens when they fail.  My current structure for blogging involves three scheduled days a week, but there's no structure in my life outside that to prepare me for the work that's coming.  I don't start the Srs Bsns blogs until Wednesday, sometimes not until 11pm.  A few of the Africa posts were researced and written all in one day.

I need to improve the structures I use to compel myself to write well for this blog, but I don't know exactly where to start.  It's difficult to fit things like brainstorming and drafting into my turbulent daily schedule and I don't know how to make clean, coherent vows out of them.  Tasks with no clearly defined end-point are hard to plan for, so I need to learn some new time management techniques to improve in that area.

Trying to do things without structure

I haven't yet found something I can really succeed in without some kind of structure to it.  But I think that's true of everyone -- in many ways, structure is built into every element of our society.

But I grew up with almost no structure at home, and poorly enforced structure at school.  It wasn't until I hit my twenties that I started to seriously work towards creating something resembling a lifestyle -- a word I'd like to explore more later.

I'm going to continue this section of the post tomorrow, exploring how structure is embedded in human cultures, religions and governments, and some of the reasons to shirk that structure and attempt to construct your own.

Remember what I said yesterday about sleep?

I woke up at midnight; about 12am today.  So, I've been awake for about 20 hours, and I'm tired.  I've been pretty tired generally lately, but I wanted to struggle through until I made it around to a relatively normal time to go to sleep. The upside of this was I had a lot of free time to do with what I wished.  The downside to that free time was that I've been exhausted all day.  I have tried three times to seriously consider the film Pulp Fiction, but it's just not coming together.  So my Philosophy through Film post is going to have to wait until tomorrow.  Teasers:  I'm going to revisit my theory from two years ago that it follows Kantian morality, if the presumed universal law allows for violence, and explore crime as a detrimental label for a variety of variously harmful activities.

In other news, I finished season 7 of the Office about 10 minutes ago, and I'm looking forward to finding out who they ultimately hire.  (I think that's sufficiently vague to not qualify as a spoiler.)

Sorry my blogging hasn't been great the last few days/weeks/forever, depending on your qualitative judgement of my work.  If you think the past few days have been the best I've ever done, let me know so I can consider whether to pursue different styles.  Or sleep less.

I'm going to go lie down, possibly for several hours.  During this time, I may become paralyzed and begin to hallucinate.  Do not be alarmed.

Thinking in straight lines: a favorite Pratchett quote

On page 52 and onto page 53 of the American mass market paperback of Terry Pratchett's book "Moving Pictures" (a specific detail I just laboriously discovered via flipping,) there's a quote, that reads:

Cut-me-own-Throat Dibbler was one of those rare people with the ability to think in straight lines.

Most people think in curves and zig-zags.  For example, they start from a thought like:  I wonder how I can become very rich, and then proceed along an uncertain course which includes thoughts like:  I wonder what's for supper, and:  I wonder who I know who can lend me five dollars?

Whereas Throat waas one of those people who could identify the thought at the other end of the process, in this case I am now very rich, draw a line between the two, and then think his way along it, slowly and patiently, until he got to the other end.

Not that it worked. [...]

It's for pages like this that Terry Pratchett is one of my favorite authors -- and, indeed, this quote comes back to me every once in a while, though I've only just now finally gotten around to digging it out again.

And I think he's right.  I know people who think -- er, I know one person who thinks -- in straight lines, the way Pratchett is describing, and he is, generally, quite a lot better off than a lot of the other people I know.

I also know that I don't have that talent, myself.  I'm very much the type of person whose train of thought contains, in one sitting, "I want to be famous" and "This small craving for avocado seriously needs to be addressed."

And I think much of my self-improvement work has been centered around developing work-arounds for this shortcoming.  (One of the best ones is, if thinking it through isn't working, don't think it through at all -- one is more likely to succeed striking out wildly in the general direction of the goal than deciding to have lunch instead.  This is how my better drafts get written.)

So, that's my inspirational advice for today.  Don't pay too much attention, and read more Pratchett.

Talk to you tomorrow.

Useful procrastination

I go back and forth, in periods of months or seasons, between being very productive and being basically useless.  Lately, I sense that I'm on the upswing towards greater productivity, and I'm hoping that trend persists. One of the things I've been trying to do, as a sort of lifelong meta-project, is isolate the contributing habits, so that I can try to learn how to put the breaks on before I burn out when I'm 'up,' and break the vicious cycles of counterproductivity when I'm 'down'.

And one of the big differences I've noticed between my 'up' state and my 'down' state is the quality of my procrastination.

Since the start of winter break, I've been doing a lot better about filling my spare time with projects that are important to me.  I've been working on my novel, and I think I should be finished the first draft by the end of the month -- I'm aiming for the Twentieth, but it might take as long as the Thirty-first.  I've also been blogging, and while I haven't updated Bathetic in a while, I've been doing a lot of sketching, and trying to fit in some art study.  That project is not abandoned.

But more than that, I've been better about what I'm doing when I'm not working on those things.  I've been reading a lot of books.  I've really been keeping up with the blogs I read, not just skimming past most of the posts.  (Still haven't caught up on Charlie's Diary yet, though.)  And I've been doing better about multitasking my timewasting -- I play Tetris when I'm watching Youtube videos, mostly lectures.  I play Minecraft when I'm listening to podcasts.

Other forms of useful procrastination that I've employed either lately or in the past:

  • Cleaning/straightening up
  • Doing laundry
  • Researching topics on Wikipedia relevant to my current work
  • Writing poetry
  • Writing short stories outside my current projects
  • Experimenting with cooking
  • Going for walks
  • Actively engaging in my social life

And, some of the less useful forms of procrastination:

  • Re-watching sitcoms
  • Sleeping
  • Trying to sleep
  • Snacking
  • Watching frivolous youtube videos
  • Browsing Reddit
  • Contemplating the ultimate insufficiency of all information to produce certainty
  • Otherwise angsting

Now, this isn't a defense of procrastination.  I do think it's important that I actually get the things I intend to get done, done.  But if we take it as read that a certain amount of procrastination is going to happen, if I use that time to do the things on the top half of the list, I end up putting myself in a much better space to work later.  The bottom half of the list, on the other hand, tends to just make things more difficult.  It's honestly harder to work on a novel when your desk is covered in junk food wrappers than it is when it's clean.  And there's really no point in worrying about the problem of radical doubt, because there's no conceivable solution that doesn't contain within itself the premises for its own undoing, so the only solution ever available to settle upon is "Eh, close enough."  (Or "God did it," but I'm skeptical about the legitimacy of that claim.)

And ultimately, what's important is that my work exists in harmony with the rest of my life -- I think the characteristic difference between the two forms of procrastination is that the useful kind produces a gradient, offering me more gates through which my intellectual life and the rest of my life can cooperate and intermingle, where the unproductive sorts of procrastination offer more opportunities to develop gaps, isolating the various aspects of my life and making fluid transition between states difficult.

Now, I haven't slept yet today, so I'm going to wrap this up here.  (The importance of sleep, as a health need rather than a pastime, is a topic for another day.)

Pants

It's almost 3 in the afternoon, and I've just put on pants. This isn't a first step into a shift towards super-voyeuristic blogging about the minutiae of my daily life. But it is the second day of my vacation, and I've already managed to make it to a weekday on which I don't get dressed until mid-afternoon.

I'm not thrilled about this, for a few reasons.

One, because I don't want to totally destroy my sleep schedule this winter.  Getting dressed at 3 implies the also-true reality that I got out of bed after noon.

Two, clothing, and the state of one's clothes, has a big psychological impact on a person.  Or at least it does on me.  I suspect that I wouldn't have spent the first two hours of today listening to podcasts and playing Minecraft if I'd gotten dressed first thing out of bed.  I suspect I would have already blogged.

And it's not just the fact of wearing clothes, but the quality of those clothes.  I get a lot more done on days when I feel good about how I look, even if I'm not going to be seen by anyone that day.  I know it sounds woefully conformist and buying-into-the-mainstream, but putting in the effort really does help kickstart a day towards much greater productivity.

But, then, putting in the effort doesn't have to mean looking like you belong in an office in a bank.  Personally, when I'm at my best, or when I'm dressed the way that makes me feel I'm at my best, I look like I could fit in at a formal engagement, but that anyone overly worried about social norms would be annoyed that they couldn't find anything technically wrong with my outfit.  You could certainly go more formal, conservative or conventional with that, but you can also go much farther off the stylistic deep-end, and still get that kickstart that you get from starting your day off making yourself look like the person you want to look like.

Finally, I need to start getting myself into better personal organization habits.  Next semester is going to be a busy one, and I really need to hit the ground running.  I'm taking a full courseload and I have a novel to finish.

Talk to you tomorrow.