The clean slate

I’m pleased to report that seventeen days into 2020, my mental health seems to be making some marked improvements. I’m happy, engaged, and productive. I’m not ready to claim victory over my anxiety and depression, but the changes I’ve been making — more exercise, zero alcohol, separating work life from home life — all seem to be helping me get back to normal.

“Let’s talk about your anxiety,” my therapist said to start our session a couple of weeks ago. “You say that you’ve always had depression but that the anxiety is relatively new. Why do you think that is?”

“I’m not sure,” I said. “Kim and I have talked about it. We know it wasn’t there when we started dating in 2012. In fact, I didn’t have trouble with anxiety until sometime after we returned from our RV trip in June 2016.”

“And after you returned, you made some big life changes.”

“Right,” I said. “We moved from the condo to our current country cottage. I repurchased Get Rich Slowly. My exercise declined and my drinking increased.”

“All of those could contribute to anxiety,” my therapist said. “And taken together as a whole, it’s not surprising that you might be struggling.”

“I get that intellectually,” I said, “but it still sucks on a day-to-day level.”

“When do you not feel anxious?” she asked.

“That’s a great question,” I said. “I don’t feel anxious when it feels like there aren’t any expectations on me. I don’t feel anxious when I’m in the middle of social situations.” (We’ve established that although I think I’m an introvert, I’m actually an extrovert. I feel recharged when I get to hang out with people.) “And you know what? I don’t feel anxious when life is stripped back to basics.”

“What do you mean?” my therapist asked.

“Take the RV trip, for instance. On that trip, Kim and I lived with the very basics. Before we set out, we had to be very deliberate about the things we brought with us. We just didn’t have a lot of room. The RV was a clean slate, and we had to be careful about what we put there. Does that make sense?”

“Of course,” she said.

“When we got home, we were both overwhelmed. We were overwhelmed by how much Stuff we had. We were overwhelmed by how many obligations we had. We were overwhelmed by the sheer pace of life. We tried to figure out how to subtract some of the the things we had around us. That’s part of why we moved. We were trying to downsize, trying to simplify.”

“Your new office is like a clean slate too,” she said.

My office at this very moment, as I write this article

“Yes,” I said. “Exactly. And I love it. I’ve spent the past week setting up my space, trying to make it cozy and productive. It is like a clean slate. I’ve tried to be intentional about every object I’ve brought into the room. I’m not just hauling over everything from the house. I’m picking and choosing what I allow in the office, from the big stuff like furniture to the smallest detail.”

“Such as?” she asked.

“Such as paperwork, for example. I have stacks and stacks of papers at home. In the past, I’d simply haul the stacks with me wherever I go. The stacks never get smaller. They only get larger. But the stacks are overwhelming. I told Kim the other night that I want to do things differently this time. This time, I’m bringing over one stack at a time. After you and I finish talking, for instance, I’ll drive to the office and I’ll tackle the one stack of paper I have there. I’ll sort through every single piece of paper — each one — and decide what to do with it. When I’m finished with that stack, I’ll bring over another one. I don’t want to have any loose ends. The office started as a blank slate; when I’m finished moving in, I want it to be organized, efficient, and useful.”

“And what about the website?” my therapist asked. “You told me that overwhelms you too.”

“It does,” I said. “Get Rich Slowly is like a ginormous house filled with crap and clutter from decades of living. It’s a mess. It’s intimidating to think about. When I started my second money blog in 2015, I started from scratch. Everything was simple. Again, it was like I had a blank slate. I could be very deliberate about what I added to the site. When I bought back Get Rich Slowly, though, it was as if I’d purchased chaos. There were nearly 5000 articles from over a decade of publishing.”

“Why can’t you make Get Rich Slowly a blank slate?” she asked.

That one stumped me.

“Well, I can’t just wipe everything out and start over,” I said. “That doesn’t make sense.”

“But you’re not happy with how things are,” my therapist said. “It’s as if you’re dating your website but you don’t even like it. You don’t want to be together with it anymore.”

“Huh,” I said. “I hadn’t thought of it like that. But it’s true.”

“How can you achieve a clean slate with Get Rich Slowly?”

“I don’t know,” I said, sipping my coffee. “I don’t know.”

I thought for a moment. “I guess there are a few things I could do. For one, I could finish the goddamn redesign that I’ve been working on for two years. That’d help. I guess I could consider removing comments from the website. That’d help too, although it’d also have some downsides. And maybe there’s a way that Tom and I could manually create the idea of a clean slate by gradually curating which articles we’d like to keep from the archives.”

The more I thought about this, and the more I talked about it, the more excited I got. I could feel myself becoming energized. What if I did somehow approach Get Rich Slowly as a clean slate? How would that work? I don’t know for sure, but it’s something to explore over the next few days and weeks and months.

Meanwhile, I’m enamored with the idea of The Clean Slate.

I’ve always loved the excitement and possibility of fresh beginnings: heading to college, moving to a new house, starting a new job, diving into a new year. Whenever I start over, I have an opportunity to iterate, to do things better than I did before.

Over the two weeks since this conversation, I’ve thought about it a lot. (Perhaps too much!) Why is a clean slate so appealing to me? (And to many other people, as well.) What is it about fresh starts that makes them so invigorating? I think I’ve found a common thread:

  • When I practice ultra-light packing, spending 20 days on the road with only a 19-liter pack, I feel in complete control.
  • When I set up this office, carefully choosing what I allowed into the space, I felt in complete control.
  • When Kim and I took our RV trip, our entire life was confined to the motorhome. And, you guessed it, I felt in complete control — even when things went wrong!

When I pare my life to essentials, I feel more in control. When I feel in control, I’m happier and more productive. This reminds me of the “locus of control” concept that’s a core part of my financial philosophy.

In personality psychology, the term locus of control describes how people view the world around them, and where they place responsibility for the things that happen in their lives. Though this might sound complicated, the concept is actually rather simple.

  • If you have an internal locus of control, you believe that the quality of your life is largely determined by your own choices and actions. You believe that you are responsible for who you are and what you are.
  • If you have an external locus of control, you believe that the quality of your life is largely determined by your environment, by luck, by fate. You believe that others are responsible for who you are and what you are.

This isn’t an either-or proposition, obviously. Locus of control exists on a continuum. But many people tend to favor one side of the continuum over the other.

[Circle of Concern vs. Circle of Control]

With a clean slate — or a 19-liter backpack or a new office — I’m able to limit my environment. There are fewer things to keep track of and worry about. I know where everything is. I am in control.

But when I look at my email inbox or think of all the chores to do at Get Rich Slowly or look out at the jungle that is our backyard, I get overwhelmed. There’s so much going on and it just won’t stop. I feel powerless, as if I have no control.

So, I’ve had a flash of insight, a look into how I work — and many other people work too. At times, we get overwhelmed. When we get overwhelmed, we feel out of control. Each of us responds to this differently. (I tend to turtle up and practice what my therapist calls “productive procrastination”.)

When I’m able to achieve a blank slate, I feel great. I feel in complete control. I’m happy.

I think this is why I (and so many others) find the simplicity movement so attractive. With simplification comes control and power. This also explains why I’ve always been drawn to “additive” budgeting rather than “subtractive” budgeting.

  • When many people try to get their finances under control, they start by trying to decide what they can cut from their budget: cut cable, cut dinners out, cut the gym membership. But this approach leads to a feeling of deprivation. This is subtractive budgeting.
  • With additive budgeting, on the other hand, you start with a clean slate. You start from zero. (And, in fact, that’s what most people call this: zero-based budgeting.) You start with assumption that you don’t need anything and you’re not spending on anything. Then, each day and each week as expenses arise, you analyze them: Do I really want to spend money on this?

After one month of subtractive budgeting, most folks feel icky. They feel like they’re being restricted. And they don’t have a clear idea of what’s essential and what isn’t. But after one month of additive budgeting, you know what expenses bring value to your life and what expenses can be eliminated. It doesn’t feel as frustrating.

In the past, I’ve told Kim, “I wish we could just erase everything and start over from scratch.” I see now that what I’ve been wishing for is a clean slate, the ability to gain more control of my life. Now that I have this insight, I just need to figure out what to do with it!

For five years now, I’ve had the book Essentialism by Greg McKeown in my to-read stack. Maybe it’s time for me to read it. The book jacket says: “[Essentialism] is a systemic discipline for discerning what is absolutely essential, then eliminating everything that is not, so we can mek the highest possible contribution toward the things that really matter. Sounds like “mindful spending” but with time and energy instead of money, doesn’t it?

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