Reduce Debt

You can’t always get what you want.
You can’t always get what you want.
You can’t always get what you want…
But if you try sometimes,
You just might find
You get what you need.
– The Rolling Stones

Forget that old-time religion. This Stones song is one of my favorite scriptures ever.


Debt. Financial debt, technical debt, social debt, sleep debt.

The third and final guiding principle that I’ve adopted for this year of pursuing an elegant life is to Reduce Debt:

  1. Debt: “Something that is owed or that one is bound to pay to or perform for another” (via Debt is a very large umbrella. Credit cards live under it; so do social favors, buggy code, unwashed dishes, and parties you promised to go to. Debt is any place you’ve traded something you want today for something you must do tomorrow.
  2. Reduce: I deliberately didn’t say “eliminate.” With a definition as broad as mine, it’s defeating the purpose to try to eliminate debt entirely. Instead, I want to focus on reducing the excess debts I have: financial, yes, and also projects I’m behind schedule on; favors I’ve promised; exercise I’ve skipped; a thousand other ways I’ve pre-allocated my future time and energy.

Finances are the first thing that spring to mind when we say “debt,” but I’m not terribly interested in financial debt at the moment. It was foremost on my mind until I got my finances into better shape; now that my debt reduction plan is on track, I have the energy to look at debt in a broader sense. And I begin to see the more fundamental pattern, which is what led to my financial debt in the first place. I’ll repeat my definition of debt:

Debt is any place you trade something you want today for something you must do tomorrow.

So what does “reducing debt” look like for me this year?

  • Washing my bowl. Yes, it’s a Zen slogan; it’s also quite literally an important habit for a person who loves oatmeal with flax seed for breakfast. Have you ever tried washing a bowl with caked-on oatmeal and flaxseed? This stuff could be used for industrial construction. Wash the damn bowl right away.
  • Making promises judiciously. And by “judiciously,” I mean “not unless it’s life-threateningly necessary.” Making promises is a horrible form of social debt with me. The trade-off: I want a person to like me / respect me / think I’m a good person / think I’m a competent person / just not hate me for dropping the ball on my last promise. So I make a promise. Usually ill-considered. And usually I’ll then drop the ball on that promise, leading to promise inflation. It’s exhausting. I don’t want to do it anymore.

And that’s it. Those are the two focal points. Doing things that need to be done, the moment they need to be done; and ditching the habit of mortgaging my future energies.

Easier said than done, as with most things (with the possible exception of visiting a Welsh village). But I’m counting on cultivation of attention and releasing obstacles as powerful allies in changing those old habits.

The biggest challenge for me is making promises. This is such a sneaky form of debt. “I’ll get that to you by the end of today.” “Sure, I can help you with that.” I want people’s good opinion, or I want to get off the hook of doing something now by promising something bigger later, or I want to avoid the acute discomfort of saying “no.” No I’m not capable, no I don’t want to spend my time on that, no I don’t really want to do that.

As with any debt reduction program, the first step is to stop the bleeding. I’ve already got a pile of things I’ve promised to do and failed to deliver; fine. I can continue working on delivering (late) or renegotiating the agreement. In the meantime, every time I’m tempted to promise something, I stop and ask if the commitment is truly necessary.

Just this morning I wrote an email and was tempted to say I’d send a follow-up report on Monday. Then I realized: that’s not necessary. Either send the follow-up report on Monday, or don’t. But you don’t need to create a debt by promising it. Backspace backspace backspace.


Back to Mick’s sage words: “You can’t always get what you want… but if you try sometimes, you just might find… you get what you need.”

That song has always spoken to me at a basic level. Even when it’s incredibly painful to not get what I want, this song reminds me of the cosmic inevitability of disappointment, while carrying a subtext that not getting what you want really isn’t the worst thing in life.

For years, I’ve been trading what I need — my deepest desires — for what I want — the things that feel good (or dull the pain) in the moment.

This year, it’s time to flip the ratio.