My partner and I stood 25 yards away from the first truck as it rumbled through the bay doors and hit the rubber barrier. One worker hopped out of the cab as the other unlatched the trucks doors. They helped the truck vomit its contents into bags.
Dirty pants, shirts, floor mats, towels, mop heads, and other grime-soaked cloths spilled out.
Their job was to empty the truck. After they swept the inside and drove it to our station, our job was to load it.
This meant waiting at least fifteen minutes before our first truck arrived, starving and ready to consume some clean clothes. Instead of sitting around, my partner grabbed some nearby clipboards listing everything we had to load. One of the trucks required 300 towels in 30 bags.
“Let’s go,” he said.
We found the giant basket holding the towels – white with two green stripes – and we grabbed rolls of plastic bags, oversized versions of what you’d yank on in the produce section of a grocery store. As we waited for the first truck, we stuffed and stuffed, tossing the towel-filled bags into a pile that grew to the size of a couch.
Later that night, when the truck requiring 300 towels arrived, we threw the bags in, which took less than 30 seconds. Because my partner had planned ahead, we used our time efficiently.
A few weeks later, I switched positions in the warehouse and joined the team that unloaded trucks. As I tipped over baskets, plunged my arms inside them, and tossed all the clothes onto a conveyor belt, I glanced 25 yards to the right – to the loading team where I’d worked before.
The guys sat there, arms crossed, staring at me.
One of them took the occasional swig of Mountain Dew.
Ten hours later, around midnight, my partner and I finished unloading the trucks.
Our boss approached us. “Hey, uh, the loading team could use some help if one of you wants to stay.”
Overtime. I volunteered and raced to that side of the warehouse. The guys were barely halfway through loading the trucks. I grabbed towels, bagged them, stuffed them into barrels, threw them into the trucks, hauled over racks of mats, flipped them in, and slid mop heads on top of the bars near the truck’s roof.
Close to 5AM, we slammed the door shut on the last truck.
Then, like raccoons getting caught eating out of a garbage can, we scattered. Clocking out, we ran to our cars. Engines turned on around me and headlights beamed through my windshield, whipping in circles and fading away. I put my key into the ignition and twisted it. A faint, halting whirr whirr sputtered from my dashboard, like it had emphysema.
Oh no. Oh no.
Dead battery. I jumped back outside. The street was dark. Even the sounds of the other cars had faded away.
What could I do?
Maybe it’s a loose cable?
I sprinted back into the warehouse, thinking it’d be locked but, because the night shift had worked so late, the morning shift had already started to arrive.
I found someone who didn’t speak English, mimed using a pair of pliers, and he handed me a pair. If this didn’t work, I figured I could sleep in the break room until the afternoon shift started again.
I popped the hood, tightened the cables, turned the ignition again, and the engine roared to life.
Handed back the pliers. “Thank you! Thank you!” Screeched home and slept.
Shifts were supposed to end at midnight and every action in the warehouse was meticulously designed to maximize efficiency. An operations specialist would probably salivate over the system the same way most do when watching The Food Network.
But we had to work until 5AM because the loading team sat on their asses when they could have been hustling.
I couldn’t be that upset about this and not just because I got overtime pay. I ended up working that truck-loading job, going bankrupt, and wasting a decade of my career, because I ignored the most basic bullshit things, like not wasting time. Older me would love to swat younger me upside the head, but I don’t yet have my time machine.
Rewind eight years before this truck-loading job. I lived in Clearwater Beach, Florida, and thought I’d soon be a gazillionaire, even though I spent most of my day surfing the web or putrefying on the couch, watching TV. Bills arrived in the mail. I tore open an envelope for a credit card bill, saw the $39 minimum payment, put the papers down, and went back to the couch. Next month, a bigger minimum payment. More red ink. Did I not pay? I guess not. Sometimes, I paid. Other times, I put the bill back on the table because, hey, I can always do it tomorrow, right?
Two years later, debt collectors began calling me.
Four years later, bankruptcy. It started because I was too mentally jacked up to cut a check for $39. Those monthly $39 specks snowballed into a debt avalanche.
Why did I ignore the minimum payments? Two reasons. First, because I was meant to ignore them, create years of financial suffering for myself, and come out the other end with a good story to pass onto you. Call it karma if you want but, either way, you’re welcome. Second, because I was an avoider, an intermediate avoider working my way toward expert status. It usually comes with a trophy, but the winner’s never around for the ceremony.
The 60 seconds of agony required to write a check and apply a stamp – not even the kind that need moisture but the pre-sticky kind – was too much for my brain to handle.
And my brain didn’t much care about the pain waiting further down the road. Too far away. Too nebulous.
But loading trucks until 5AM has a way of mashing the pain into the forefront of your consciousness. So now I get it. Do the important things ahead of time.
Some of the most fulfilling things you can do have no due dates. You won’t get a Final Notice in the mail that you need to start writing that book or taking those daily walks. You won’t feel the pain of working to 5AM if you avoid them. Instead, you’ll get the pain of regret… when it’s too late.
“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”
According to my brief search online, that’s a Chinese proverb, which probably means it was first written on some Usenet network, but whether it was first said by a sage thousands of years ago or in 1990 by a bored programmer in New Jersey, it’s still brilliant.
What trees did you wish you’d planted 20 years ago? What can you do today, to start?
When I was 20, I avoided taking a small action and it blossomed into a bankruptcy. I avoided other actions that could have made me the millionaire I so desperately wanted to be. Almost two decades later, I push myself to do the important things now. If they’re so boring that my brain can’t handle the idea of doing them, I’ll push myself to take a bite out of the process with a single action-step.
I look for trees to plant – the kind I wished I’d planted 20 years ago.
I put three times as much money into investments as my mortgage payment.
To build the habit of a new meditation, I practice for roughly 60 seconds per day. I’ll do more later, but I’m rewiring my brain now. In the spirit of this article, I’m going to tackle something I’ve been avoiding. I’m going to print a form for closing a corporation in Maryland, fill it out, and mail it. At least, I’m going to get it printed – my first bite. What tree are you going to plant? What bite are you going to take?