Get Your Sh*t Together: A (Very Rambling) Book Review

Warning: there is benign & perhaps humorous swearing in this post. Also, this post is not about gardening.

Sometime after the Marie Kondo craze began and everyone started eyeing their socks and asking if those socks sparked joy, I encountered Sarah Knight’s The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck. I read it. I thought it was hilarious, and also incredibly on-target. It wasn’t so much making fun of Kondo’s book, as turning it into a metaphor for gently, thoughtfully, and with much profanity letting go of the elements of one’s life about which one did not, in all sincerity, give a f*ck. I considered which of my friends should receive this book as a present. I tried to read bits of it aloud to my husband, but was hampered in this by laughing too hard to speak coherently.

This brings us to 2020. 2020 has been a year when it seems impossible not to give, to borrow a phrase, way too many f*cks. 2020 has been a year that vastly overspent far too many people’s f*ck budget, including mine. Early December, and I at least cannot remember the last time I felt this exhausted.

A couple of weeks ago, I was eyeing my bookcase, looking for something suitably lightweight. Did I have any humorous graphic novels I hadn’t read? No – but I did have Knight’s second book, Get Your Sh*t Together, and it caught my eye. I took it off the shelf. I read it mostly sitting in the backyard under a tree, moving the chair around as needed to catch the sun. And once again, I kept trying to read bits of it to my husband, but found myself laughing too hard to be able to get all the way through a sentence.

Partly Knight’s writing is just funny. Partly she’s about my age, and so her jokes referencing cultural miscellanea from earlier decades just make sense to me (also the one about remodeling a house, which ends with: “buy a throw pillow. Throw it at your contractor.”). And partly –

Partly she’s right.

I’m overwhelmed. I’m tired. But the stupid thing is, I’m tired based on dilemmas and problems of my own d*mn making. Is my to-do list too long? Fine. I am a grown-up. Either I can make a plan to do the things on the list, or I can decide they don’t need doing. Use a must-do list for the things that have to be done today. Do just those things, and then move the f*ck on.

The profanity helps.

All of this is a long way of saying: the book is funny. If you’re in your early forties and you share at least some of the author’s cultural context, it might be extra funny – but I suspect it’s funny either way.

On top of that – and this is the part I hadn’t quite expected, but I live in hope and in this case it actually paid off – the book is also useful. I found myself staring at my to-do list earlier today, muttering “strategize, focus, commit.” Then I made a list of things to do, and then I did them.

And then I was done, and I stopped working for the day, and went and ate an ice cream bar.

Also known as, and for the last phrase-borrowing of this post, winning.

I recommend the book.

Peace and planning in 2020

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Hiking at the Pinnacles, Dec 2020

A few weeks back I re-read Getting Things Done. It’s a classic of productivity, and I’d been feeling overwhelmed: not by big things, which happily have settled down, but by daily life’s minutia. I needed to wrangle things into place, and make space to move forward.

Getting Things Done is interesting. The core idea involves capturing all the things, getting them out of your head and into some other system so you can free up your brain for other tasks. This resonates with me. I tend to shy away from looking at what I’ve signed up for – I just don’t want to know. But really, I do know, and that knowing drags at me.

As I made my list, beginning to clear the clutter in my head (and make things actionable: it’s not “clean up office,” it’s “put away shoes & makeup”), I started to think about how similar the ideas are to other practices of mental clarity. From Marie Kondo’s “does this spark joy?”, to the early Arts & Crafts movement & William Morris’ “have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful,” to traditional rhythms of spring cleaning or breaking or burning possessions at various celestial or cultural milestones, to cleaning up one’s desk before beginning work – the notion of streamlining, getting things in order, creating a fresh start by creating a fresh sense of place is fundamental. As humans, we tell ourselves this story, these instructions, over and over again.

And so. It’s New Year’s. I don’t have New Year’s resolutions; I’ve learned I don’t think in years. Instead, I have a short list of goals for January and some habits I’m banking on to get me there. I’ve cleaned out my closet and the pantry, and detailed out the spreadsheet that tracks the house remodel. Tonight I’ll celebrate with hot cider and fairy lights on a rosemary tree, and watch my breath steam up in the outdoor cold.

What does your fresh start look like?

Process vs outcome

If you’re stuck on a project and not making progress, ask yourself whether you’re focused on the process – or the outcome.

During any interview with someone who’s accomplished something impressive – published a book, won a major sports competition, started a company, and so on – someone always asks about process. “What’s a typical day like for you?” “How often do you practice? When?” “Do you write/paint/design on a computer, or on paper?”

It’s always interesting to glimpse into someone else’s life, especially a life that is just familiar enough to imagine, but not quite familiar enough to imagine accurately, but I think there’s more to this question. This question is also about success. If I, sitting in the audience or listening to the interview, can figure out how you, a successful person in an industry I’m interested in, achieved success, then maybe by replicating your process I can succeed as well.

I often work with new college graduates, just beginning professional careers, and this idea shows up there too. “What’s the right way to write this document?” someone might ask, or, “How much time do you spend on email?” Learning to work effectively is a key skill, and yet – embedded in this is that same assumption that identifying and replicating process will lead ultimately to success.

But what if it won’t?

Of course, in many contexts process is necessary. If you want to become an outstanding baker, you need to learn what’s involved in creating that perfect loaf of bread. If you want to sing opera, voice exercises can improve your technique. Success in many fields requires expertise; expertise requires practice; figuring out what to practice and how to do so makes sense.

And yet.

Process can also be a distraction.

Going back to the published author example: one person’s process might include writing for 45 minutes, every day, first thing in the morning. But if the outcome you’re looking for is to get published, writing daily won’t get you there unless you also write things a publisher might want, figure out who those publishers are, and send your work to them. In terms of getting published, it doesn’t matter how much or how perfectly you write if that’s all you do.

Similarly, if as a new hire you create a perfect document, but the team you’re working with prefers collaborative whiteboard sketching – well, whatever your perfect document was intended to achieve it likely didn’t.

And for one more example: if you want better physical fitness, and you go to the gym three times each week, and while you’re there you take a lot of stretching classes… you’ll likely get more flexible, but not stronger, or less out of breath when walking up large hills.

Process can help you achieve an outcome – but it’s rarely an outcome in itself. It may even get in your way, either by giving you a false sense of progress (“I’m writing every day, this is totally going to work!”), or by obscuring shortcuts that could lead to faster success (if your goal is “be able to do 20 pushups,” you probably don’t need to drive to the gym).

When a project is challenging, it can be tempting to think, “If I figure out how to work on this, everything will all work out!” But that’s often not the case.

Better to pause, take a step back, and ask: “Wait, what am I aiming at?”

And go from there.