Tricks to help me be more chill about life
November 3, 2016 9:36 AM   Subscribe

I have identified in myself the unfortunate habit of seeing 'general life things' and 'other people' as obstacles on my path to optimisation. I'd like to be less anal about things. Please help? (examples inside)

It is in my nature to optimise things. This is of course a good thing in my professional life (yes, I work with computers, why do you ask?), and improving process also scratches a personal itch so it makes me happy. (These can be really stupid things, like preparing my morning oatmeal in the most efficient manner so that I use as few utensils as possible, or thinking through my cooking process so that I can reuse pans, or having a certain way to hang out washing to dry, etc.)

So far so good, but I get into trouble when these little process I've envisioned get disturbed by others, not because they're jerks but because they are human beings who, let's say, get their joy from other things in life, like walking through the supermarket very slowly. :) The problem is that I tend to get annoyed. Now, when strangers block my optimal path and it annoys me, that's just my problem and while I would like to be less, or ideally not at all annoyed, I can live with the annoyance because that's just my own stupid fault.

But I am also married to a wonderful man who is not that bothered about life optimisation. If he's putting the kitchen in order while I am making my oatmeal, he might put the spoon I had 'saved up' for a later time in the oatmeal preparation process in the sink. Or he might hang a sheet to dry in what in my anal mind is clearly 'the wrong way'. And I desperately do not want to be annoyed when that happens, because he is fantastic and I love him and he doesn't deserve me being vaguely grumpy because of these things. I especially do not want to look at, say, the way he has buttered his toast, and think 'why on earth would you put a lump of butter on one end and just squash it so that you cover only a third of your toast'. (Note: I don't nag him about the way he butters his toast, I just *think* it!) (Okay, I asked him once, out of interest, and he said I severely underestimated his laziness.) What I want is for me to think nothing at all about his toast and just eat my own optimally buttered toast and have a morning where thoughts about difference in toast buttering do not come up.

Or my mum calls to ask for computer help and then in the middle of explaining what the issue is veers off and starts talking about something else ('hello child, I can't transfer the pictures from my phone to my computer' 'ok mum, let's check that out right now' 'thanks... it's such a drag because these pictures are from that great walk I did with x, when we went to y and saw that z ...' (me, annoyed:) 'please let me fix the issue first and then you can tell me all about the walk, okay?')

In short (omg longest question ever, sorry) - I want to keep being anal in the way that I enjoy, but I want to be less optimization-minded when I interact with others. Afterwards I always know what I should have said, but in the moment I never seem to be able to let go. Does anyone recognise this? And if you do, have you been able to change? How?

PS: my husband is - this will not surprise anyone - very chill and can mostly laugh about my ways, but still - I want to be future proof.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (24 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Think about what you are needing, or think you need, in yourself about being "optimized" in your life. What does that really mean to you?
Then once you have peeled that back, you can put that belief on a boat and watch it float downriver.
posted by jtexman1 at 9:51 AM on November 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Can you find a way to distract your mind away from optimization when it's not helping? For example, watching him butter his toast, have optimization thought, take a deep breath and remember that you love him for his warmth, not his toast-buttering skill, focus on the warmth instead? Or come up with a brief mantra to tell yourself in that moment, like "oh, human differences are a rich tapestry!" and then move on to something else?

One thing I've mentioned doing on metafilter before is trying to find something beautiful about the people around me when I start getting annoyed. So note that you like your husband's hair, or that the slow person at the grocery has fun shoes on, or that the laugh lines on the cashier are really nice. That helps me to a) appreciate more, b) distract my grumpy mind, and c) put more positivity into the world.
posted by ldthomps at 9:54 AM on November 3, 2016 [7 favorites]

Can you think of it as him optimizing for something else? Like, least cognitive load?
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:57 AM on November 3, 2016 [31 favorites]

You know the four things you need when you pay a bill? You need a stamp, an envelope, the checkbook, and a return address label? Well, my wife keeps them in four separate drawers in her desk. Drives me insane, it does. I tried to call her out on it as being inefficient, but she says it's a system that works for her.

It works for her. Because in her mind it's the most optimal system, or she's just lazy, I don't know. But it works for her.

Accept that things work differently for other people. There is not a single path to optimization.

And then remember this: Letting these thoughts stew in your head is the least optimal way of accepting and loving those you want to accept and love.

Is it more important that your husband optimize his toast buttering, or that you optimize your love and acceptance for him?

Holy shit I could have written this post a couple of years ago but I've (mostly) come to terms with these little things and have managed to let most of them go.
posted by bondcliff at 10:00 AM on November 3, 2016 [9 favorites]

I struggle with being highly reactive in times of stress, and I've been trying to use Mindfulness Meditation to create a space in which to acknoweldge my feelings without letting them get me down. It seems to be helping a little, and I'm hoping with practice that it will help a lot.

So maybe try Mindfulness Meditation (or Lovingkindness Meditation). The irritants are not going to change, so perhaps looking at ways to forgive yourself for your reactivity and learning to choose to react differently might be an option for you.

Data point: It's much harder for me to be mindful when I'm tired/hungry. Address those needs first.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 10:15 AM on November 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

This is me! I sort of thought about it this way. All these efficiencies are nominally saving me time/effort, but what am I saving that time/effort FOR? I had quality of life issues that needed addressing.

If I optimized my life for me (and I want to so badly! it makes me feel calm, feel in control) it would be dull. Other people bring joy, and yes, randomness, into my life and if this means putting up with some sort of behavior I can't understand, that is okay. I don't need to, indeed CAN'T understand everything and so I can have boundaries around the things I want to be a certain way (if I am unloading the dishwasher, I get a say in how it's loaded, otherwise no) and let the rest go. I also am dating a supremely chill man who is great and has a hard time understanding me but doesn't mind that now he gets everywhere on time and has other good side effects from dating a non-chill person.

Meditation helped me be better around letting go. it feels suspiciously like giving up and so I am skeptical about it but all of the things I did in order to lower stress and relax (the usual stuff - eat better, exercise more, sleep well, watch caffeine/drinking) also helped with the "GAH everyone else needs to be different!" sputtering I'd have. I can go to the supermarket now and not really flip out about other people shopping differently. It's nice.
posted by jessamyn at 10:44 AM on November 3, 2016 [8 favorites]

One thing that my wife and I have found helpful is looking at our family origins and seeing whether there were things that came over into adulthood because they were modeled for us in a certain way when younger, especially in result to stress. I think my wife would admit that she thought in similar ways to you for awhile, and two of the things that she realized are that 1) her mother would often step in and try to optimize situations if she felt that they weren't being done correctly; and 2) she tapped into this pattern to deal with her feelings of lack of control in life, as it's something she could manage. When we try to learn early on how to manage an unpredictable life, sometimes we take cues and patterns from the examples around us about how to feel about obstacles in the world, and then how to respond to them. I don't know if this is helpful, but it's been super helpful for us. (I bring along a whole bag full of issues, by the way, but I tend to be on the "who cares about butter" side of life. However, my follow-through on things that need to get done in better ways has its own family history, and it's been good to figure that out.)
posted by SpacemanStix at 10:52 AM on November 3, 2016 [5 favorites]

"No harm, no foul" is an important mantra for me. Is a small "mistake" something that actually caused harm, or that can't be easily corrected so that it's almost like it never happened? Then it's not worth getting upset about.
posted by Juliet Banana at 10:54 AM on November 3, 2016 [4 favorites]

I think being aware of your mental values which aim you down this path can be helpful in itself. For example, I notice that I struggle with striving towards the ideal, and ideal workings, in my relationships with others, and I find often it is because I know it can or could be better if such-and-such were the case. Now, while we might react differently to this – you seem more extrinsically-focused, and I'll more often internalize it against my own actions – I'd say that the solution is similar, or the same.

If you are able to catch yourself 'optimizing,' double-check yourself on what really might be solved by needing it a 'better' way. For me, more often than not, I can weigh the strain of needing it to feel better, against just simply letting it go, relaxing my shoulders and my mind a little, and smiling at the minor struggle of that present moment, as a good churning, learning exercise. This allows me to center in and coexist a little bit more peacefully, and allows them to be more entirely themselves with me.
posted by a good beginning at 11:00 AM on November 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Spend less time with people who annoy you. Much less. At some point you'll either get lonely enough to appreciate other people and their dumb habits, or you'll be happily solitary. Either is fine.

The "live together, woman beats herself up if she doesn't love every second of it" norm is so depressing IMO.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 11:14 AM on November 3, 2016 [5 favorites]

It doesn't have to be extreme, either. I would just stop eating toast with my SO if I was bothered by their toast situation.

Your preferences have value and I would try to respect that it is ok to have totally arbitrary preferences. That is what it means to be an individual.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 11:14 AM on November 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Wow, I can completely relate to this. I also want to problem-solve and optimize my spouse's experience, though unsurprisingly, it's not always welcome.

However, I've gotten very good about letting it go with strangers. In part because there's nothing I can say to them, and partially because I try to give reasons in my brain why they're going slow. Or I remember back to that one time I was browsing through the grocery store, taking my sweet time, and there was probably someone behind me wondering why I was being a slow a**.

I read something on Ask where someone basically said "We're all pulling our own little red wagon the best way that we can." That really resonates with me. I can picture it, and try to accept that I know I'm not perfect, so I have to accept imperfection in others.

Found the comment. Maybe you'll find that post helpful.
posted by hydra77 at 11:35 AM on November 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

Yeah, this is definitely my default mindset. Other drivers are the worst - how can you take up space on the road so inefficiently?! Why do you not innately understand this as a flow system that can be more or less optimal depending on the behaviour of system users?!

Realising it was paralysing me in places was helpful - it got to the point where my mental optimisations were kinda too daunting to carry out. I have some pain and fatigue issues, and I'd sit around desperately needing to pee but not wanting to because I also had to take my cup out to the kitchen and pick up the pile of mail that was in the way and take laundry upstairs because it would be inefficient not to. But that sounded way too hard to do, so I just sat there needing to pee instead of being willing to de-optimise this process into several trips.

I wasn't making my life more optimal at all - I was making myself actively physically uncomfortable and stalling all the things I needed to do because I couldn't face not doing them in the most logical order possible.

Having pain and mobility issues was helpful in terms of getting less frustrated with things like slow walking, because now I'm a slower walker and I hear the frustrated tuts and angry body language, and feel the barges, and get shoved into the road by people who can't handle not walking at their fastest possible pace all of the time. I'm still one of them! In the street or in a car. But it sucks to be on the receiving end of if you have an invisible disability, and that's helped me have more empathy for other people.

Sure, some people being irritatingly inefficient are probably idiots who aren't paying attention (oh, so you want to drive in the fast lane but you also want to cruise like half a mile behind the guy in front while the slow lane is all backed up with trucks, do you? while talking on your phone?), but plenty of them are either doing the best thing for themselves or can't be as efficient as the angry person would like for reasons of health or circumstance. Like, to some extent there is privilege in being this way because it makes getting by in life (keeping jobs, managing finances, etc.) easier than for people who are more inherently chaotic. I try to keep that in mind and show compassion. Not everyone got the really good education I did, where these skills were valued and honed.

This behaviour is in my mental box of "ways in which humans can be wired differently" these days (like capacity for religion or political spectrum leanings), instead of optimisation being the One True Way and some people were just blind idiots and non-believers. I'm a real uptight perfectionist type of person and it's helpful sometimes (managing projects! delivering a great piece of work with high attention to detail!), but it's also harmful sometimes (not peeing when I need to pee, and at its worst these tendencies were a strong contributing factor in my eating disorder).

It's not a truth or an only-way kind of thing. What's optimal for you isn't gonna be optimal for someone else. It has both positive and negative implications in the optimiser's life. It's not better, it just is.
posted by terretu at 12:26 PM on November 3, 2016 [4 favorites]

There is a great book called Better than Before by Gretchen Rubin that discusses how to process optimize through habit building. What made me think of this book when I read your question is how you sound a lot like her and her husband a lot like your husband. She is very aware of her tendencies and how other people are not like her, and that is just great. She goes on about how different personalities are motivated for very different reasons and there is a path for everyone. Hearing solid argument that one process isn't the only or best way may help you relax on this a bit. Not understanding someone else's process really got my attention when my daughter got ready for school. Talk about driving me bonkers with massive time wastage, illogical sequences and inefficiency I'm pretty sure I lost my mind. She survived it fine.
posted by waving at 12:28 PM on November 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Oh hey, I could have written this except for the being married part. (And now I kind of want to know what your job is because it sounds like a potential long-term career goal for me, ha.) I agree with the suggestion of mindfulness. Mindfulness isn't just something that you practice when you are meditating, it's something that you can incorporate into everything you do. So instead of impulsively correcting it when other people do things in a way that isn't 100% optimized, mindfulness can make you better at taking a step back and saying "what do I want to do here? Do I want to optimize or do I want to give this other person space to do things their way, and just let it go?"

I get that that sounds like "thinking more to think less" but I think it's something you have to train yourself to do. (And as evinced by my first sentence, which I'm still working on myself.) One of the mindfulness meditation exercises I've done is one where every time you have a distracting thought, you briefly acknowledge it rather than forcing it away. "Ah yes," in your mind, "That was a thought." But then let it drift away and move back to your focus.
posted by capricorn at 12:30 PM on November 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

Anon, I wish you were not so, for you are one of my people. You have even managed to be married to Mr. Motion. A man who believes that it does not matter how long one steeps a cup of tea for, a supposedly thinking person who sees no reason why going to the Target with the non-standard layout could affect the grocery shopping experience in any way. The love of my life.

As stated above, mindfulness helps. Help get yourself to the point where you can realize that you are getting annoyed and that being annoyed is never optimal, and yet, the annoyance remains and fighting it is even less optimal.

Some of it comes from acceptance. As cheesy as the serenity poem is, the best way for me to deal with, for example, Mr. Motion's decision to drive the route with all the stoplights instead of the right one is to remember that he's the one who has to deal with the stoplights, I can just sit there and stare out the window. It's just not something I can control, so I don't try.

Another way of looking at it is that other people are doing things that are optimal for them. Your mom doesn't care about the pictures as much as she cares about telling you the story. So you listen to the story. If/when the pictures are really important to her, she will give you what you need to be able to do the fixing.

Finally, it's not out of bounds for you to declare that some things just need to be the way you want them to be. But you need to communicate it: "Mr Anon, I have purchased this special and gaudy mug into which I will place my oatmeal spoon for future reuse. Please do not move any spoons that have been placed in the mug."
posted by sparklemotion at 1:52 PM on November 3, 2016 [10 favorites]

Part of the way that I addressed this internally involved spending time around another couple (okay, my inlaws) who both had a deep-seated need to be doing things The Right Way (you have to say "The Right Way" like a radio announcer). Something about the experience of how exhausting it was to be around, not only hearing them correcting each other, but my internal mental game of trying to predict what actions had a Right Way and what that Right Way might be, and seeing how different my Right Way was from their carefully optimized Right Way. This all eventually led me to see that it was largely arbitrary.

Even if doing something The Right Way is my personal choice because it results in one fewer dirty spoons in the sink, there is nothing that actually makes my personal choice any better or any more valuable than anybody else's personal choice. In fact my Right Way is someone else's Wrong Way, because my spoon-sharing leads to dipping a hot coffee spoon into the brown sugar container when I cook oatmeal and I am ruining everything. Or maybe it's just too much mental energy to plan ahead in the morning. Or maybe they have carefully considered the tradeoffs and decided that washing the dishes is easy compared to remembering where the spoon got to. So I'm content to do things in my right way and while starting to allow other people's right ways, and lose the capital letters.

It sounds like things are different for you, living with a non-optimizer. My spouse is a borderline-optimizer, mostly by heredity, but doesn't care too deeply himself.

We now have slogans:
"The driver is always right!" meaning that unless he asks how to get from here to there, his route is the right one, and if I wanted to go the longer way with no traffic lights I should have taken the car keys.
"But this is not The Best Way!" (best pronounced in confusion, with a faint German accent) said to make fun on one's self or one's partner for feeling indignant about another person's methods.
"Maybe you can do it that way for me next time" i.e. mind your own business while I'm doing my things, but if it's really important to you I will let you do it.
posted by aimedwander at 2:53 PM on November 3, 2016 [17 favorites]

It sounds like very mild obsessive-compulsive behavior. You can work on managing your thought-behaviors. You start to think about how you were going to reuse that spoon from your coffee to eat your oatmeal. Husband puts it in the sink, in a dirty mug of coffee. You feel mildly annoyed and anxious and recognize that it's a bit obsessive.
1. Take a deep breath, let it out and consciously relax your shoulders and body.
2. Silently give thanks that you chose a chill, nice partner.
3. Say to yourself, It's just a spoon, not at all a big deal. I can let go of this thought.
4. Pick up the newspaper, turn on the radio, start a conversation, supplanting the annoying thought with an interesting thought.

Your recognition of your thoughts will really hep you manage this.
posted by theora55 at 4:30 PM on November 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

Mindfulness. It's completely ok to feel annoyed. You shouldn't try to control your feelings and I think your goal of never feeling annoyed about these things is possibly unattainable and may just lead to you feeling guilty and upset about feeling annoyed.

Mindfulness is the practice of allowing yourself to feel anything you're feeling, knowing that there is nothing wrong with your feelings, and moving past those feelings when you're ready. So for example, when you see your husband's inefficiently buttered toast, you can acknowledge that feeling of annoyance to yourself, let yourself be annoyed, and don't judge yourself for it.
posted by a strong female character at 5:13 PM on November 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm like this too. Thanks for asking this question!

I've found this quote really useful:

That when you go out into the woods and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You appreciate it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree.

The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying “You’re too this, or I’m too this.” That judging mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.

If you can do this with a tree, that means you already have the skill. Now you just need to practice this skill in a new context (like when your husband is buttering his toast).

One of the things I notice about tree-mind vs. optimizing-mind is that tree-mind doesn't have expectations. Tree-mind is just trying to observe, with curiosity, as many details as it can. What is the color of this tree? What is its shape? Is it rough or smooth, sunlit or in shadow? Are its leaves rustling? Does it have a bird's nest at the top? The more tree-mind observes, the more it can enjoy and appreciate walking in the forest. In other words, tree-mind is just gathering data.

There is a lot more to explore here. The Buddhist ideas of non-striving and letting go of attachment might be useful.
posted by danceswithlight at 6:13 PM on November 3, 2016 [21 favorites]

Honestly, this is probably gonna cause a lot of raised eye brow action (or not, i dunno), but i would just recommend you find a way to spend time with anyone outside your own ethnic group. like a bunch of filipinos or any islanders (Vanuatu, Fiji), for that matter, and just let go. Learn from them the art of chillage. On rough days, instead of taking my lunch inside and frown deeply into my food, I'd head out and go weed or prune some bushes with these gardeners who came from everywhere – Cameroon, Ghana, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, The Philippines. And never regretted that decision. man, does their banter take a load off. Its been years but i still miss 'em and miss those little alternative lunch breaks.

I read this beautiful thing about how westerners are always running around to cram as much as they humanely can to get all the things done in time, while in some areas in Africa they simply frame it more like creating time for the things that matter.

I find older peeps (as well as kids) have a little bit of this effect on me, they help me choose to switch gears. like even though I'm dying to just go upstairs and get started on dinnerdishescleankitchenwalkdogfoldlaundryfinishreportworkoutshoweretcetc I choose to actually stay and say hello to my elderly neighbor when i see him, ask about his day and he'll tell me about some unique species of mushroom he's located around the corner and how he's gonna email a colleague about it ..and its been 10 minutes or so. I could have spent that watching useless youtube videos. its a small chunk of time, but it actually has value.

I understand your yearning for a streamlined life, but while necessary in some things, you can miss a lot of beauty, and those happy little accidents, like discovering a fantastic new brand of peanut butter while waiting to pass a group of gossiping ole ladies in some aisle.
posted by speakeasy at 2:10 AM on November 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

It seems like you're mostly thinking about this in terms of its effect on your husband - he doesn't deserve for you to be grumpy, it's not fair to him, etc. And that's a good and kind impulse, and bodes well for your ability to manage this. But it's not quite working in order to help you make the change you want to. Instead, you might want to think about this in terms of its effect on you. You're causing yourself so much needless daily aggravation (and yes, you're causing it, not the people who walk slowly or butter their toast wrong). I would suggest stopping yourself when you get annoyed and really noticing how bad you feel - is your heart racing, your jaw clenching, are your shoulders tight? Try to let go of the bad feeling because it feels bad - and start with the physical (relax your jaw etc).

If it helps, think of it as another kind of optimization - you're practicing being laid-back!
posted by Ragged Richard at 7:31 AM on November 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Ha, you sound like my daughter. She has asperger's (may or may not be relevant).

As I was trying to explain to her the other day, when she complained that I had missed when throwing a ball of paper at the bin, she doesn't know what I am aiming for. Actually I was consolidating a trick I'd just taught the dog (to pick up the paper and put it in the bin for me).

Your husband wants fast toast. His toast is faster than yours because he didn't faff about getting butter into every corner. You are guessing, incorrectly, the motivation of the other person and becoming irritated at their poor process because you don't understand their true intention. YOU want completely and evenly buttered toast. He just wants any toast but ASAP and with minimum effort.

I am walking slowly in the supermarket because I have many children, several with autism (which is great and interesting but also hard and exhausting) and it is my statutory break, alone in the supermarket. Would you go to the break out area in work and tell everyone to take a break faster? No, because you understand their motivation better.

I am hugging the dashed line and hanging back from the guy ahead of me in the road because I drive this route every day and I know round the next corner a white van is ALWAYS double parked and the guy ahead is going to have to slow down and swerve out abruptly.

I am putting the cutlery in the wrong places in the dishwasher because my almost non-verbal son likes to unload it and I hope to shock him into verbalising something (this is also why I read books upside down and put socks on his hands).

Realise you have absolutely no idea what experiences, desires, skills or distractions are directing the decisions or actions of others. Realise you cannot live someone's life better for them than they themselves can live it. And you will be free.
posted by intergalacticvelvet at 5:15 PM on November 4, 2016 [8 favorites]

intergalacticvelvet (great username!) said it better than I was going to say, but, yes, you need to work not just on accepting that other people do things differently and that's ok, but that other people have different priorities than you and that's ok. More than ok! People having different needs and priorities and ways of doing things means that we live in a richly textured world with lots of options for all sorts of different people, and a world that's full of creativity because of the interactions between and among people with different needs and priorities and ways of doing things. Work toward celebrating those differences, even the tiny seemingly inexplicable differences, rather than just tolerating them.
posted by lazuli at 7:12 AM on November 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

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