Everyone can do better at meeting goals by listing what we think we’re doing wrong. It’s because the pessimists of the world are more realistic. They accomplish more in life. Not that optimists want to accomplish more. They don’t. They are just happy where they are. But whatever. There is no place for someone like that on my blog.

So here’s my list of everything I’m doing wrong in my life right now.

1. The most recent bad decision I made is one second ago, when I decided that I would not write this blog post about Esther Williams. For those of you who don’t know, I used to sign autographs for her. I played volleyball in the day and signed fan mail at night.

Now that Esther is dead I can tell you that her accountant gave me the work, and her accountant was a drug addict, and she kept using the money for stamps for drugs so we were always really behind in sending out the signed photos.

Melissa was so sure that I’d write about Esther when she died, that Melissa emailed me this present. A photo of Esther Williams, cropped perfectly for the blog.

Every time someone asked Esther what her favorite book is, I would write back Great Expectations, by Kathy Acker. The book is inscrutable feminist metafiction and even my love for the concept of the book did not make me able to actually read the book. Only the commentary on the book. For those of you who worry that I write posts just for search engine traffic, now you can be sure I don’t, because I missed a chance to put Esther Williams in the title.

2. The next bad decision I’m making is not using a to do list. This is a picture of Matthew’s to do list.

He makes one every day. And he does stuff on it. I make one every day by moving all my emails from my in box to my to do list. Because I read Getting Things Done and I’m convinced it’s the right way to manage one’s day.

So then I have a gorgeously empty in box. Except that I never look at the list again, so it’s like I take all my to do items and throw them out.

This is not Getting Things Done.

It’s messed up. But, like most messed up things, I like making the bad decision every day. I like messing things up more. I don’t know why. Don’t ask me. I can’t have insight for every bullet.

3. Another thing I am doing that’s bad: inviting too many people to the farm. Here’s a photo of the view out the window of our guest bedroom.

It’s easy to get people to come to the farm because it’s heaven in the summer. Well, it’s heaven if I don’t have to talk to people. It is super stressful for me to have unstructured conversations. Coaching calls are great. I get to talk to interesting people, and we have a common goal: to solve a career problem. And there’s an end point so we have to stay focused.

If someone comes to visit, it’s not like that. When Ian came to visit I worried about the time in between working where we were sort of working and sort of not working. It turned out fine. We worked most of the time. But there are all these other people coming to visit. And I have anxiety. I hate visitors. I have a guest bedroom but I’m scared to use it.

When I am inviting people to come visit, it sounds so fun: gather eggs! feed goats! hear the breeze! see the stars! but the day before they are going to get here, I want to die. I panic that I won’t have any alone time. I panic that there will be obligatory social skills moments that elude me. I worry the guest will never want to go to sleep. But I keep inviting people. It’s messed up.

And what’s really messed up is that I usually like having them here. Once they’re here. But the anxiety I have before they get here is so high that it’s probably not worth it.

But I wonder: is the bad decision to invite people or is the bad decision to write this on my blog and offend everyone who is coming anyway?

4. I am gardening too much. This is not going to help my life. It’s obsessive. And I am becoming an addict, I think, because if I don’t have something new to plant each day then I start moving stuff I’ve already planted. Matthew says I build my garden like it’s made of Lego.

I got a bid for someone to do hardscaping in a new part of the yard. And the bid was $15,000. So I did it myself. For like $4000. And forty million hours of work. I tell myself to do computer work and then the garden. And I don’t do that. I tell myself I have to get the kids to bed before 9:30pm but I can’t do it because the last hour of sunlight is such a nice time to garden.

Also, if I keep putting photos of my garden on my blog then the men will think it’s not a blog for men, and they’ll stop reading. And it will be no fun. It’s no fun without the men.

5. There should be a fifth photo here. People like odd numbered lists. I am not putting one.

So listing things that you are doing wrong is a great exercise. Because then you can decide, will you change it or will you continue? And if you continue it’s not wrong. It’s something that, given the circumstances, is best for you now.

Like it’s better that there is not a fifth photo. I’m at 1000 words. You don’t want to read any more than that. Go make your own list of bad things you are doing.


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  1. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    You make me laugh. It’s very refreshing to hear career advice from someone who admits to not having it all figured out themselves. It also somehow makes me feel more motivated. We are all making mistakes and doing things we “shouldn’t” (your gardening is my cooking) but we can still move forward.

    I know the people that don’t admit it still don’t have it all figured out, but I would trust them less to have good judgment much less express it honestly. And people who say they’ve got it all figured out are annoying, anyway.

    Also, allude should be elude.

  2. Jenna Higgins
    Jenna Higgins says:

    I love this – you are so introspective, which is fabulous! I always like something new to think about, that involves me of course! We are all just works in progress, but also as our own best puzzle – that seemingly never gets solved. But, still we try…

  3. Jenn-ski
    Jenn-ski says:

    I just uninvited my mother to spend the weekend with me because the night after I invited her I tossed and turned that I did not have enough time to clean and shop for the ‘correct nutritional food’ that she expects to see in my refrigerator. Oh, and to retrain the cats to not jump on the kitchen counters.

  4. Jim
    Jim says:

    Bad things I do #1 at the moment: surf the Net during work hours when my summer intern sits right behind me and can see what I’m doing. But I hit the wall and need a break and this is seriously how I am as productive as I am. He’s probably reading this over my shoulder right now.

  5. Plato
    Plato says:

    What kind of drugs did Esther Williams’ accountant take? Did EW know about it? Do you have any?

  6. Ian
    Ian says:

    can’t optimists who are happy where they are hang out on your blog just to admire your writing and photography and harbor passive celebrity crushes on you?

    • Jess
      Jess says:

      That’s what I was thinking. By the way Penelope, you were in my dreams the other night. We were hosting an event for kids together. You were running around trying to control everything and I was calmly watching you. And enjoying it. Ha.

  7. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I think what’s hilarious is you’ve done a blog post which is one of the items not checked off on Matthew’s to do list!

  8. Ian
    Ian says:

    (P.S.: i love that picture of your garden. kitty!!! *pet pet pet*)

    okay, i’ll shut up now, i promise. maybe.

  9. Justin
    Justin says:

    LOL – the bad thing I’ve been doing is not reading your blog until today. So much catch up to do. :-D

    p.s. I’m male and garden.

  10. Marie
    Marie says:

    This may be annoying but you might want to remove the banner ad for the Make your 20s Count seminar from your blog…it’s over now.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Oh. Thanks for telling me this, Marie. You can still buy it and download. I should put that on the banner. The number of details involved with the seminars is way more than I’d ever predict.


  11. Done by Forty
    Done by Forty says:

    I also have crazy anxiety about having folks over, but keep doing it, two or three times a week. The pattern is the same: I stress, freak out while cleaning, then the doorbell rings and everything is fine as I’ve again worried over nothing. Lather, rinse, repeat.

  12. Alexis
    Alexis says:

    I love this. Can I jump in too? Is #baddecisionsiammaking trending on Twitter yet?
    – Spending time on a grant proposal I know I won’t get because I’m unmotivated to do real work
    – Getting sucked into busy work instead of important work
    – Talking about my health/fitness goals rather than actually accomplishing them
    – Spending my summer reading shameful bodice rippers (don’t judge me!)
    – Reading about writing instead of actually writing
    – Eating way too much grilled meat.
    – Ending my list with filler so that it will be an uneven number!

  13. Katybeth Jensen
    Katybeth Jensen says:

    ” People like odd numbered lists. I am not putting one.” Laughed hard. I’m sure the guests are a little scared too so you’ll have that in common right away.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That’s so interesting. It never occurred to me that they are scared too. But maybe you’re right. I am going to watch more closely. I’m trying to decide if that makes it better or worse…


    • tpcelt
      tpcelt says:

      U.S. Grant made a similar comment about opposing generals in battle…that it was a confidence-robbing mistake to assume that the opposing generals weren’t scared also.

  14. Steve Mielczarek
    Steve Mielczarek says:

    Penelope works undercover for The NSA and other U.S. military cryptanalysis agencies. She then hacks into my Twitter feed and posts blog updates that she makes look like I’m re posting them. I don’t know how she does it, crafty girl. But she does do it, I don’t. But that’s OK. She has fun, informative secret agent intelligence. Missive statements. Intelligence, secret data from The Man from Uncle; Thrush too. She may or may not, in fact, be a double agent

  15. Gary
    Gary says:

    If you faithfully executed all your lists, I would not have your blog to read, because it wouldn’t exist. You would be way up the food chain somewhere, in a posh office, in a very tall building. You are you. You can no more not be you than a tufted titmouse can not be a tufted titmouse. You can pretend, for a while, but it will never work. As Mister Rogers liked to say, you’re special; you’re the only you there is…? Something like that, it’s been a long time, ja? KOKO, G

  16. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    ENTJs under stress (from your link http://psy.rin.ru/eng/article/31-101.html)
    “If stress continues… they engage in compulsive behaviors to preoccupy their time… Ironically, these all-consuming distractions are the very behaviors that prevent ENTJs from fulfilling their basic need for achievement and improvement. ”

    But you already knew that.

    It also says you’re more likely to cause others to be affronted… so best keep the invite list to those familiar with myers-briggs, or those you don’t want to see again ;-)

  17. Dawn
    Dawn says:

    I think that I would rather read another person’s list of bad decisions than make a list of my own. Procrastination and also avoidance tactics. That being said, I do get my days where I constantly beat myself up over bad decisions too. I keep things in my head too much. I do enjoy your blog tremendously – it really brightens my day when I see a new post from you in my email.

    Thank you for that.

  18. Carmen
    Carmen says:

    Hindsight is the best part of decisions. Now that I have my own place to list my own bad decisions, it makes reading yours much easier.

  19. fred doe
    fred doe says:

    Making lists is bullshit. Unless your going to the grocery store. Pessimistic, optimistic, Is same as the glass is half empty or half full. Also bullshit, the f**king container is twice the size that it needs to be! Laid back optimistic people do go on to be successful. Look around you, no worry, no fear. From now on my name will not be fred doe it will be Polly, Polly Anna and i’ll still read and comment on your blog so there Trunk:-) But I would put castrating that boar number one on the list if I where Mark. I’ll come stay on the farm and give a hand ( you need to paint that f**king barn) and i’ll not talk to you. I promise!!!!

  20. zan
    zan says:

    okay, i will visit you under two conditions: we can only talk about work, after which you’ll leave me alone to think and walk among the flowers and critters, which i don’t get to do in downtown los angeles. moving here, btw, was one of my bigger bad decisions.

  21. Sydney Jane Baily
    Sydney Jane Baily says:

    The restraint you showed to stop at five is commendable. My list would be very long indeed. And I’m sure the birds think that placing a cat’s giant water bowl in the garden was a colossal mistake!

  22. mbl
    mbl says:

    Holy smokes! I just moved 26,000 emails (18,000 unread) out of my inbox which is now a glorious sight to behold.

    Decisions, decisions, do I click “notify me of followup comments”…

  23. Rebecca@MidCenturyModernRemodel
    Rebecca@MidCenturyModernRemodel says:

    I think email is a tremendous waste of time and DO NOT believe in Getting Things Done anymore. I get too much email to sort it and categorize it and tidily delete it. That would mean I have to read it. Reading email is all about selectively processing. I do think this is an amazing suggestion about the list. Will try it. But not in public like others. :)

  24. Laura
    Laura says:

    This is the first to-do list I’ve ever read with “castrate boars” as an item. Wouldn’t a productivity expert advise him to break the process down into multiple steps, because “castrate boars” sounds pretty intimidating? And who wouldn’t procrastinate about such a line item? I would definitely keep moving that one to the bottom of my list.

    And this is hilarious. Thank you for the laugh!!

    “(Optimists) are happy where they are. But whatever. There is no place for someone like that on my blog.”

  25. ZipStyle Seattle
    ZipStyle Seattle says:

    I like how you titled this post in the present tense “am making” instead of “made” Usually people write about mistakes that made and spin in a positive way. Nice to hear of current mistakes

  26. Ann Stanley
    Ann Stanley says:

    Hey, that was great! I made my list straight away and as soon as I wrote the things down I disagreed with them. Loved the quirkiness of this post Penelope. Embrace it all. All of it!

  27. jeanette
    jeanette says:

    In his book Bill Clinton said that his psychiatrist told him that he made bad decisions to feel normal because he had a screwed-up childhood. So being successful and stuff didn’t feel normal, but screwing up did.

  28. Jay
    Jay says:

    I really enjoyed reading your blog, very funny and refreshing. It’s great that you’re so honest and I can certainly relate to feeling anxious at the thought of not having any alone time. Even at Christmas I feel anxious of the thought of being surrounded by family for days on end… I hope that doesn’t make me a bad person, but it’s great to finally admit it!

    Also, the photo of the cat you’ve featured is beautiful! Thanks

  29. Chris
    Chris says:

    It is a bad decision, or maybe just an impossibility, to think that you have to have a good reason for doing things.

    I tackle things and get things done (from a to-do list or from guilt or from others requirements) because I FEEL LIKE IT, as much as from having a good reason. And I stand by that: that I have to be “in the mood” in order to get things done. It is not a decision. It is as uncontrollable as an ocean wave.

    It is a big problem if you have regrets about big decisions you have made, such as choosing a mate or having a child or choosing a career path and then feeling stuck. Yuck.

  30. Mark
    Mark says:

    Actually, Penelope, the most recent bad decision you made was to defame Esther Williams’ accountant. Unless the accountant is also dead, in which case you might be OK. Of course, truth is a defence against defamation. If you can prove it’s true.

    Now, pass me the pipe…

  31. Pete
    Pete says:

    I do that too– obsess over my inbox. Not badly, though, because I realize there are other things going on and it’s not my only to-do list. I did go on a terror a few months or so ago, though, and cut it hardcore from about 400 E-mails down to 200. (It’s funny how some things take care of themselves over time, or somehow become dated/less relevant. All those sayings about time fixing things have a point.) I’d love to get this inbox down to 25 ultimately, but I know I’m kidding myself. It’d be huge just to get it down to 100.

  32. J.E.
    J.E. says:

    Could it be that you like making bad decisions and messing things up more because otherwise you might have the happy life that isn’t exciting and you have said you want interesting? Just curious, but to you does happy = boring and uninteresting? Some feel that unless there’s some kind of drama going on, they’re just stagnating, but I’m the opposite. I guess I’m one of those optimists who doesn’t have a place on your blog :-)

  33. karelys
    karelys says:

    The optimist cavemen ate their food and didn’t go hunting until they were starving. The pessimist cavemen decided they’d run out of food and then they’d be hungry again and regardless of how comfy they were they got up and made a plan to go hunting again. Some of them decided to plant a garden.

    The pessimist survived one more day.

  34. Jill
    Jill says:

    It’s a great idea, but I fear that I’m acutely aware of the bad decisions I am making and don’t need a list. How about a list of good decisions?

  35. mh
    mh says:

    1. I love piecing quilts — fun and creative. I hate quilting quilts — hot and aggravating. I promised myself I would complete one quilt per month this year. Now I hedge. If I make two pieced quilt tops and put them together, I only have to quilt them ONCE, but I end up with TWO creative sides! And I count that as TWO quilts. Bad?

    2. Got back from long vacation to find the PILES of books I told myself to read before homeschool in the fall, so I can give my older kids some direction. Dusted the piles, turned them spine-sideways. Still ignoring them.

    3. Promised self I would not get all hot and drowsy in the sun while children swim, but instead would use the valuable child-free time to do something. DO SOMETHING, you understand? (Possibly read the books in bad habit #2?) It turns out, watching the children play in the water and swim like otters and learn new tricks and teach their friends how to do flip turns wins every day. Sigh.

    4. Have not called my mum since she returned from her trip to France (yesterday). Do I really want to hear?

    5. Have not written sent you notes to gracious hosts for our vacation. If I don’t thank them, it is possible they will never invite us again. Then I would have to make new friends, or else vacation with relatives. Perish the thought!

  36. Sandra
    Sandra says:

    That was fucking fun-nee! Starting with the picture.

    I first read about Kathy Acker by reading Angry Women (RE/Search Publications) http://www.researchpubs.com/books/angrprod.php many years ago. There’s some funny stuff in that book.

    My whole department has the book Getting Things Done. I think it’s been at least a year since anyone has used it. I write a to do list about once a week. I don’t do it more often because some of the stuff that needs to get to done, I don’t really want to do and I don’t want to look it. Anyway, I just read somewhere recently about a Not To Do list and liked that better.

    One more thing, if you’re having anxiety about inviting people over. Think about inviting more introverts to visit. I know that might seem counter intuitive, but at least they’ll probably just want to go and be by themselves when they’re visiting you.

  37. emily
    emily says:

    My Own Damn List of Mistakes So Far Today

    1. Reading this blog before writing
    2. Writing a comment before writing.
    3. Linking the comment to a blog I sometimes but rarely update
    4. Changing my mind and adding a link to writing about writing
    5. Taking your prompt to literally.

  38. cortney
    cortney says:

    telling esther williams fans that her favorite book is by kathy acker is the fucking funniest thing in the world, and the closest thing to what i’d want to do professionally if i had any balls (though i was more into confusing myself with blood and guts in high school, personally).

  39. Melanie Chisnall
    Melanie Chisnall says:

    That’s the exact same reason why we don’t have a guest bedroom…other than the fact that we use each one as a home office / computer game room! I live for structure and planning and feel completely out of it when I don’t have a To Do list next to me. And it can’t be on the computer screen, it must be in pen on paper so that I can cross it out when I’ve done it. So silly, but I love it.

  40. Gary
    Gary says:

    Wow, I never realized how many anal retentives are out there! Or maybe, P, you just attract them… uh, US, I guess, haha. I am no lister, though, my first wife was a rabid lister, and I probably developed an aversion to it. Wife 2.0 is a lister, too, so maybe it’s me? Wow.

  41. Dannielle
    Dannielle says:

    Hey Penelope,

    When you live by the lists you miss all the good stuff, right?

    Interesting, this post and the previous one. For you there always has to be drama. Even the drama of making a list, then not following it.

    I was talking to someone about this. Because really I am a process person and a creative person at the same time. On the process side I do have my lists, and stick to them. On the creative side things always come up, and it seems important to follow them.

    So I get that tension between wanting the structure and wanting to break out of the structure.

    If you ever have time you may want to read “The Conflict Of Modern Culture” by Georg Simmel (written a century ago) basically talking about how modern society is about the rebellion against structure itself. It’s online at http://condor.depaul.edu/dweinste/theory/CoMC.html.


  42. Lara
    Lara says:

    C’mon, Penelope. That’s a lame list. You are better than that. You do things extraordinarily wrong all the time! And that’s why we read you. We love you for it! And you make us feel so much better for all the things we’re doing screwing up. But this is lame. This is hardly anything really “wrong” with maybe the exception of the to-do list.

    Next blog title: What I’m REALLY Doing Wrong

  43. Coco
    Coco says:

    “But, like most messed up things, I like making the bad decision every day. I like messing things up more. I don’t know why. Don’t ask me. I can’t have insight for every bullet.”

    No doubt. Most of the minor day-to-day bad decisions don’t matter. Sure maybe they do in the short term to the person who is making them, but long term: a funny story at a BBQ. They also shape us much better than good decisions, we grow from these mistakes. Sure maybe we repeat them time after time, but again, does it really matter? There are so many battles a body will go insane trying to win them all.

    Also, let’s face it, a bad decision can be so much fun.

  44. Bruce Hoag
    Bruce Hoag says:

    You can’t possibly be old enough to sign autographs for Esther Williams!

    For the benefit of those who don’t know, her film career (and therefore her fans) spanned the 40s and 50s.

    You weren’t even born yet, right? :)

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