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Five Quick Things You Can Do To Improve Your Life

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So I’ve been doing some thinking recently about certain attitude changes that I’ve made and seem to have helped me considerably. Since I’m not shy about sharing things, I thought I might type them up here. Partly because somebody might get some benefit out of it, and partly because I believe when you write something down it solidifies it for you. It makes it “more real,” as opposed to leaving it swirling around in the weird miasma of thoughts inside your head. And I don’t know about you, but my skull is crowded. So being able to get some things out of it is never a bad thing.

Now, very quickly: an explanation and a footnote. First, the explanation: there’s a reason the title refers to “quick” and not “easy.” These things are quick to do once you’re ready and able to do them…but getting in the right headspace to do them or remember to them is the difficult part. The worthwhile things are seldom easy. So bear that in mind. Also footnote is: bear in mind that these things may not work for you. This is just what works for me. And these things may also be so blindingly obvious that you wonder why I’m bothering. But if websites didn’t occasionally catalog blindingly obvious things, a good 60% of the lists that get mad hits online wouldn’t exist. So.

#1. Accept What You Are and Stop Being Surprised. No, no. Now don’t run away. This isn’t some sort of new age-y bullshit. Let’s give out a practical example:

So Tired

I sleep like hell. And it’s not because of caffeine intake or anything like that. (Secret: I don’t consume as much as you think I do. Honest.) It’s because I’ve never slept well, always suffered (enjoyed? embraced?) insomnia and it doesn’t matter if I sleep two hours or twelve, I will wake up tired until momentum kicks in and carries me through.

So what’s there to accept? Well, I found myself surprised when I would wake up late or have trouble waking up at all. Seriously, I acted like it hadn’t been demonstrated for years before that this was the case. And as a result, I wouldn’t take steps to alleviate the issue–or I would take lame steps–and, bang, next day same problem. Finally, I accepted the fact that I sleep like hell. And when I do sleep, I go into very deep sleep and need to be beaten about the head with a boot in order to wake up. So I have the use of multiple alarm clocks and other tricks to try and get myself up. I haven’t found the optimal solution yet, but I am looking for one instead of just acting surprised.

[ad#longpost]Here’s another example you might be able to relate to better: ever lose things? Your keys? Your wallet? Other things that you need in order to walk out the door and face the world? Ever spend five minutes wandering the house going, “Dammit, where is that thing?” Yeah, I did too. So I have a basket by the door. When I walk in the door, I take the stuff out of my pockets and put it there. So it’s there when I get ready to leave again. I know–sounds blindingly obvious to some of you, but I’m sure some others among you are nodding your heads thinking, “Yeah, I never can remember where I put that damn thing either…”

That’s what I’m on about. When you recognize a pattern that you can’t do anything about (or at least, for the moment can’t do anything about–I’m sure when I lose this excess weight I’ll probably sleep better) then accept the pattern and do something about it. But make sure you can’t do anything about it first. Because…let’s just say there is a subtle difference between settling and accepting. I do not advocate simply putting your head down and suffering through unless you have no other choice. But when you accept the pattern of your behavior (or even the behavior of others), then see if it can be changed. See if you can change the situation. If you can’t change it, see if you can escape the situation. If you can’t, take steps. But the main point is you can’t even begin to fix the problem until you accept that it needs fixing.

#2. Do the Little Things Now. I’ve heard a version of this in other Getting Things Done type of scenarios. But this is something I needed to figure out for myself. Here’s a practical example–and perhaps this is an example of a pattern you can fix. I had something I wanted to change in my email sig. It was a tiny thing but every time I put my sig into an email it was a little nag of “Oh, yeah, I need to do that.” But I told myself, “Not now. Later. It’s not important and I’m busy.” But I send a lot of emails over the course of a day. And every time it was “Oh yeah, I need to do that.” That doesn’t sound like a big deal but these days, everything is grinding on us. So anything we can do to alleviate any grind…I think it helps. When I stopped and thought about it–it would take three minutes to solve. So I just did it–end of issue.

Dr. Logan/Frankenstein from Day of the Dead
Dr. Logan is a man who understands what I'm talking about: shooting one zombie in the head = little thing. Shooting a few billion in the head = big thing.

There are plenty of examples I have witnessed with my own eyes that other people are just tolerating instead of actually fixing the issue because they think they’re saving themselves from hassle. The key on that keyboard sticks. The remote control on the television only works when I bang it on the table. Yeah, it always takes about five times for me to hit disconnect on my phone before it realizes I actually want to do that.

Seriously, fix it. Throw out the keyboard–they’re cheap, replace it. Get a universal remote or check the batteries. They sell them at Radio Shack. And are you sure you don’t have the phone I just replaced?

Take care of the little problems. They add up. And when you have it taken care of, I promise you: some part of you will breathe a sigh of relief.

#3. Lessons Learned. Another thing I accepted–and found a fix for–is that my memory is terrible. Again, issues with having a cluttered skull. So what if it’s remembering to do something? And not just to go and pick up milk on the way home? Or to set an alarm clock? In other words, what if I need to remember something that can’t be fixed with a simple post-it note at the right time and in the right place?

Lesson Learned
Lesson Learned: Signs are usually there for a reason.

Let me give you an example: Ken gave me a great solution to a problem we all face. You fly someplace for a visit–doesn’t matter the reason–and you inevitably end up with more crap than when you arrived. Especially if you’re getting a little something for family members or that awesome t-shirt you found in that store you don’t have where you live–or even just the shampoo and lotion in the room that’s free for the taking. (Oh come on, you don’t take that stuff? What are you, nuts? You paid for it! Take it!)

Ken’s idea was simple: ship it back to yourself. You do the math: the cost of UPS Ground vs. the pain in the ass of hauling that stuff back on the plane. Especially these days, when air travel is even less fun and takes hours–and that’s just before you get on the plane. It’s a liberating feeling to get on the plane going home with less stuff than when you started for a change.

Now, that’s not even the example. Here’s the example: I went on a trip and booked my trip home without considering that the time I had booked it would have made it a tight squeeze to get to the UPS Store and do the shipment. Oh sure, it wasn’t like I was sprinting from place to place, but it was still a pain. So I thought to myself, well, next time I’ll make sure I have enough time to do this.

Next trip, big surprise: totally forgotten. Found myself in even more of a time crunch. And it wasn’t even like I could just brush it off: because I had had it in my head I was shipping stuff back, I had more stuff than I could carry-on the plane. (Check luggage? These days? What are you, nuts?) So there I was again, thinking: yeah, next time I won’t do this.

Then I stopped myself: I’ve been here before, so I obviously can’t be trusted to simply will myself into not doing it again. You’re talking to a guy who, when he lived in an apartment, had trouble remembering to dump the trash in the dumpster without driving out the gate with it. That was a space of maybe 150 feet and two minutes. And here I was expecting my Memento-stricken ass with remembering something that I would only need to apply once or twice a year.

So I created a file on my hard drive called: Lessons Learned. It’s where you store all of the wisdom you’ve acquired that is good, but not necessarily good enough to stay in your brain where it belongs. It’s where you can write notes to your older self, who is far removed from whatever you’re undergoing now. So the first entry in my file reads:

TRAVEL: When booking your return flight, make sure you think through the time you’ll need to check out of the hotel, ship your stuff back, and get to the airport.

It’s like that because when I go to travel, I can just do a search on “Travel” and hit all the things I’ve learned and put them back into my short term memory while I’m prepping for said Travel. Not only do I get the benefit of not making the mistake again, but we all know that “Geez I’m an idiot” feeling of being in the same situation again–it’s never pleasant. In my case, it’s not the way I want to start a day when I’m probably already tired, dreading the air travel back, and about to make the long laborious trek to the airport to be bombarded with radiation and generally treated like crap. So no, prepare ahead of time and don’t force yourself to learn your lessons twice.

#4. Things You Will Forget. This is another file that I created and it’s similar to Lessons Learned but has a different purpose. Who here has lost something because they put it in a place where they knew they wouldn’t forget where it was–and then promptly forgot where the hell they put it? Show of hands. Right. I accept the fact (See #1) that I’m going to forget this stuff, so I created a file.

Widge vs. fluorescent bulb
Wrong wattage! Wrong wattage!!

Perfect example: we bought fluorescent bulbs for the light in our kitchen. We needed one but they came in a two-pack. Show of hands again: how many people have bought something you already owned because you bloody well forgot you owned it? In this case, I put the spare bulb downstairs in the basement (it’s one of those long damn ones that are too big to simply leave lying about and you sure as hell don’t want to break one–trust me). However, as I was doing so, having accepted the fact that I have a head like a sieve, I realized: the next time I need a bulb, I’m going to stupidly buy another one. Which in this case isn’t just me buying something I already have…it’s buying something that no doubt will come in another two-pack. And so I can easily see my house slowly accumulating single fluorescent bulbs over the years. No thanks.

As a result, the first line in the file says:

10/27/10: The spare fluorescent tube for the kitchen is located in the downstairs utility closet where the water heater is

Again, I know that if I start to do something and I get that nagging suspicion I’ve been there before, I can go to my file and look. Same thing with stashing anything someplace. It’s like a book with passwords in it, but instead of passwords it’s a map to where you’ve left stuff.

But as you can see, where I stashed a spare bulb is not a “Lesson Learned,” so hence the demarcation.

I guess the bottom line for these two ideas about making these files is: make notes to yourself. Your older self already has a lot on their mind, don’t expect them to remember everything without your help.

#5. Spend a Little Extra (If It Makes Sense). And finally, here’s something else I realized: once you’re spending money, sometimes it makes sense to spend a little more. Again, let’s lead off with an example. We were shopping for a hotel for a trip. And again, this might sound simple, but bear with me. I don’t remember the numbers, so I’m making this up: getting a hotel that was just bare bones was going to be $90. Now I don’t mean completely bare bones–but let’s just say the ones left once you’ve eliminated all the hotels that have reviews like…

Mints are nice though. 1 out of 5 stars.”

Still life with psycho and taxidermy
Trouble is: any joke I make with this picture in this context turns into a Travelocity ad.

But I started looking and thought, well, once I’m at this level–what’s the next level up? And with a little hunting, I found for an extra $20 a night, we had a much nicer and bigger room at a different place. Plus it was better located to where we were trying to get to. So then the question is: is the step up worth $20? In this case, it was. Will I feel better coming back to this room and passing out as opposed to the cheaper room? Yes.

Now the answer’s not always yes. And hey, you may not always have that $20. But I guess my point is: ask the next question. Sometimes isn’t not inexpensive, it’s cheap. And enjoying yourself more and having a better experience is sometimes worth the little extra. And if you can’t find a better deal for a little extra, you’ll at least have asked the question.

Let me give you a more common example. By my house there’s two gas stations. The one on the other side of the street is usually about three to five cents cheaper. I know we’re all keen on not spending more on gas than we have to. You see, I remember, children, when gas was less than a dollar a gallon. And people with even grander beards than I can tell you of the time when dragons still walked the earth and we had even cheaper gas. And get off my lawn.

Anyway, the trouble is this: getting across this five-lane road can be a pain in the ass at times. So when I did the actual math–if I deal with getting through traffic to the place across the street and then have to work my way back, what am I saving? I hardly ever let my tank get too empty (if the zombie apocalypse comes, etc.–you all know what I’m talking about) so let’s assume it’s ten gallons I’m putting in there. What’s the difference? Thirty to fifty cents. So I then look across the street and think, “Fifty cents? I used to shovel that into Dragon’s Lair for ninety seconds of playtime. Screw it.”

Does that make sense? Are you spending more in inconvenience and hassle than you would spend to just pay a little bit more and get a better product/service? Perspective is very important. Remember that your time and effort should be factored into everything you start to spend money on. You’ll probably be a lot happier.

Is this all blindingly obvious? Perhaps. But sometimes things make sense if somebody else shows up and puts them down on paper. It might unclutter your skull a bit as well. And we could all use some of that.


  • May I add a hardy “BRAVO” to #5? No, well, I did anyway. :)

    Your thoughts are true, Widge, on that one especially. I’m not talking about having champagne tastes on a beer budget but seriously? Live a little. Make your life easier, if you can. There are times when it doesn’t matter and there are times when it does. Want to be able to sleep at a sci-fi convention? Spend more for the nicer hotel (and then request a high floor). Don’t want to feel like complete ass and have a headache the next day after having a glass of red wine? Then don’t by the $3 buck chuck at TJs and go for the $7 bottle – yes, there is a difference (it’s about tannins and aging and other things).

    As you said, find out what matters to you, do your own math on it (for me? I’d yell at the traffic for the 50 cent cheaper gas :) ) and then go which way is best for you. In the long run, the money you save on blood pressure medication makes it all even out.

  • I like the ideas for text files for your future self. Remembering to use them might be difficult, but I think I might explore the possibilities. :)

  • Annodoom: Hey–yeah, well, that’s why I wanted to make it clear the ideas aren’t easy. The good news it’s easier to remember “Check the file” before you do something than having to remember a very specific thing that is in the file. It’s less skull stress IMO. Good luck! Let me know how it works for you!

  • I got sick of always a) leaving home and forgetting to set the dishwasher, b) going to bed and forgetting to set the dishwasher, and c) getting home from somewhere and forgetting to do laundry. So I started putting the dishwasher detergent RIGHT in front of the front door when I thought about it during the frenzy before leaving, or RIGHT in the path to the bedroom during the evenings when I thought to myself, I need to do this tonight. It works every time, and it’s also pretty funny. Ditto with the laundry detergent — now it’s like the dog when I come home, right there in front of the door, “hello, do the laundry!” I like stuff like this, good advice.