When I saw that Marie Kondo had a new book out, I knew I would have to read it right away. We are both clutter consultants, so it’s incumbent upon me to maintain familiarity with other professionals in the field. People are constantly asking me about The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Mostly, though, I wanted to see if her second book was as kooky and impractical as the first.
Don’t get me wrong: I agree with KonMari on many important points. We agree that people keep too many physical possessions and that they hold us back in life. We agree that being organized makes for a better life. We agree that a clean and tidy home is a fine thing to have in its own right. We agree that doing a thorough space clearing can be completely life-changing. If you love the KonMari Method, and it is helping you clear your clutter, by all means, keep going.
My main issues have to do with the time-consuming nature of the KonMari folding method; the encouragement to think of inanimate objects as sentient beings with personalities and, well, it sure sounds like she thinks they have souls; and a certain amount of idiosyncratic “advice.” Some examples:
Wrapping electrical cables in fabric – complete with detailed illustration. THIS IS A FIRE HAZARD.
Folding irregularly shaped objects: “If you come across an odd-shaped one, take a deep breath and remain calm.”
Folding parkas – complete with detailed illustration. Probably the least efficient way to store a bulky item. I have a parka but it wouldn’t fit in a drawer no matter how I fold it.
“Balling your socks and stockings, or tying them into knots, is cruel. Please put an end to this practice today.” Can we take that focus on “cruelty” and redirect it toward, say, the campaign to end human trafficking?
Getting rid of a hammer with a worn-out handle and using a frying pan to hammer nails instead.
“While I have very few interests other than tidying,” (Chapter 2)
“…it reminds me of myself as a high school student when I was so obsessed with tidying that I had a nervous breakdown.” (Chapter 10)
Here is my position on clutter: Stuff is meant to be used. We become emotionally attached or cathected to inanimate objects when there is something awry with the way we form emotional attachments to other humans. We fill our personal environments with THINGS to the point that it is impossible to maintain basic safety and cleanliness, and it affects our health, starting with the respiratory system. Treating THINGS as though they have FEELINGS makes it that much harder to get rid of them. The priority is to maintain a functional (safe, healthy, efficient) living environment with the absolute least amount of effort, so we can spend the majority of our time living our true purpose and communing with loved ones. By “loved ones” I mean PEOPLE, not collectibles or books.
As an organizing consultant, I think much of KonMari’s folding and storage methodology is inefficient. Please, please don’t spend that much time folding your laundry! I’m perfectly fine with my people keeping loose, clean garments in laundry baskets if that’s what works for them. Also, for the love of all that is holy, please don’t wrap your electrical cables in fabric. Spark Joy, but don’t spark a fire.
“Go to your room and think about what you’ve done.” This is a classic in the Parental Playbook; it is illustrated with its own full-color plate. It’s the one of a pouting child sitting on a bed underneath a banner that reads WE ARE DISAPPOINTED IN YOU. I realized one day that I had never finished the book. I was still sitting on the bed. I had no idea what came next. Sitting on my bed and thinking about what I had done was the only thing I really knew how to do well.
Perseverating can go in one of three directions. It can eventually lead to valuable introspection and personal growth. It can resolve into a regular writing practice. Unfortunately, most of the time it just hardens into a tendency to ruminate and second-guess oneself into a life of analysis paralysis. We sit and stew, not even realizing how many opportunities are passing us by, because opportunities never plop down on a pillow next to us.
Nests come in many shapes and forms. They can often be spotted by the permanent depression they leave. (See what I did there?) My nest was the middle of my bed, where I always retreated when I felt too ill or exhausted to meet my daily responsibilities. Other popular nesting locations are a couch, chair, or computer desk. They can be identified by their squashed cushions amid a clearly defined ring of small objects. We default to our chosen nesting spots, and we feather them with favored items. There are usually empty and full drinking vessels, whether those are soda cans or cups, teacups, coffee mugs, water bottles, or a disquieting number of alcohol containers. There are likewise usually dirty bowls, plates, food wrappers, or pizza boxes. There’s a high likelihood of papers, mail, and reading material. Thirty years ago, there likely would have been an ashtray; now, it’s probably a laptop, tablet, or smartphone. Other detritus winds up in the nest, in the same manner that corvids collect shiny objects: nail clippers, sewing needles, coins, stray earrings. Scattered nearby will be anything else that was carried there, used there, and remains there until we somehow reach escape velocity and manage to get out of our own gravitational field.
This is part of how hoarding happens. The tendency to sit in the nest becomes stronger and stronger, and the nest becomes larger and deeper. A nest begins as a comforting retreat, a safe place to hide away and regroup. The more comfortable the nest, the less reason there ever is to leave it. Many of us struggle to get out the door with enough margin to arrive at our commitments on time, and a key factor behind this is the desire to stay in the nest. The more stress and anxiety we feel upon leaving, the more attractive the nest, and the better it feels to return to it and sit in it. If we feel like we are getting negative feedback about the nest (for bird nests are usually messy, smelly places, if warm), we then feel the need to protect it from criticism or rejection. The more feathers in the nest, the less likely anyone else will want to come over and sit in it. Squalor in particular can be expressed as an overt, fully conscious “F You” to specific individuals. “Excuse the Mess But We Live Here” is perfectly equivalent to “Sorry Not Sorry.”
A certain portion of the contents of every hoard I have seen is made up of genuine trash, just for volume, because we can only afford so much packing material. Stuff has insulating qualities. It deadens sound. It makes a room smaller and cheaper to heat. It creates obstacles that keep people from reaching us. It marks our territory. It preserves the illusion that time is not passing.
For many years, I had a rickety floor-to-ceiling bookcase made of wooden crates, boards, and concrete blocks. It was a safety hazard and it looked terrible. I packed it full of secondhand books, some gifts, some that I had picked up at library fundraisers or thrift stores. Most people seem to keep books they have read and enjoyed; I buy books that I seem to believe I will read one day, but then almost never do. At least 80% of the books I stacked along my wall never got read. As I was collecting them, I was checking out and reading library books. I had no need to purchase or collect books. It hit me one day, as I was sitting in my nest in the middle of my bed and staring at that wall of books, that I had started putting it up between me and whatever wall of my bedroom adjoined the loudest, most populated room of the house. I started downsizing when I began living alone for the first time and no longer had anyone to block out.
I started leaving my nest more and more often, as I felt better and as I had better things to do. I’m fortunate that I tend toward curiosity and wonder; my drive to research and explore and travel and go on Fact-Finding Missions has usually surpassed my drive to chillax in my nest. I started to realize that a higher activity level improved the quality of my sleep and decreased my level of chronic pain. Hunching over a book or a keyboard or a sewing project or a screen tended to do the opposite. At this point in my life, I’ve completely flipped my ratio of nest time to active time. I sit only rarely, when I’m working, and I tend to pop up and down between work sessions. I feel confined when I spend too much time indoors or at home. I feel too physically restless to sit. I can’t even sleep in anymore. When I’m up, I’m up. I’ve been sleeping 8-9 hours a night for so long now that I don’t have any extra snoozling ability.
Nests are meant to be temporary. Pelagic birds such as the puffin live at sea, coming to shore only for the brief periods necessary to lay a clutch of eggs and raise the hatchlings. The rest of the time, they’re out and about this vast blue ball called Earth. I can identify with this. When I go to sleep in my little backpacking tent, it looks and feels the same, even when I’ve had to pack it up each morning and pitch it in a different spot each night. It’s even round and yellow. My carry-on suitcase has a similar nesting feel. I pack the same items in the same pockets no matter where I’m going. My laptop is another type of nest. I sit at it and hatch one egg after another. Fly free, little birdies!
There is a type of nest that is comfortable for good reasons. That is the nest we make when we’re snuggling with someone lovely. In cold weather, we get out an old quilt, and the ritual of Couch Time commences. Our dog fusses at the quilt until he can get underneath. The parrot waits impatiently while he turns around and gets comfortable. As soon as he stops fidgeting under the blanket, she rushes over and stands on him. (She’s gone in there with him, but the dog fort is too hot for her). The four of us nestle together, two of us working or reading or watching a movie, the other two sharing body heat while pretending they aren’t. Our Couch Time nest is a part of our family romance. There is nothing wrong with the natural urge to nest, as long as it leads to a bigger life and more love in the world.
Once upon a time, I had this bright idea involving donuts, as so many of my bright ideas seem to do. I had a new job, and on my break I had walked over to the grocery store down the street. As I walked through the bakery, I happened to notice the display case of baked goods. I remembered that my supervisor had mentioned apple fritters once. I felt a warm, generous feeling, and I picked one out for her. I carried it back in its own little bag, still exuding heat from the oven. I felt lit up by this gift and how it was going to cheer up this nice, friendly woman.
Note a few interesting things about this apple fritter.
This experience gave me pause. I had often felt that after I made a decision, my willpower would be tested afterward, immediately and repeatedly. I always thought that this happened just because I started becoming more aware of things that were always present, in the same way that we tend to notice cars of the same color, make, and model as ours. After a breakup, suddenly every song on the radio seems to be about breakups (or people in love). Someone who wants a baby will start seeing babies and pregnant women everywhere. It’s just a natural tendency to notice certain things and tune out others that are irrelevant at the time. Right?
Suddenly, though, it seemed I might be a character in a larger drama, something with real purpose behind it. It was true that my sweet-natured boss was probably going to start seeing treats and goodies everywhere. There was no help for it, not for a mom of young children, not for someone who worked in a building with dozens of other people and multiple refrigerators and vending machines. The weird thing about it was that I felt this strange, inner compulsion to bring a huge lump of sugar, fat, and white flour directly to her, when I had never felt such an impulse before. What was my role in this?
I suspect there may be something visible in our faces, our eyes, our posture, that suggests certain energetic states. It sounds loopy, but let me relate another anecdote. I had a week-long temp assignment at the reception desk of a social services center. My desk sat in the lobby beside two vending machines. Both clients and staff would filter past me throughout the day, attracted to this altar of treats, and they would usually stand there in contemplation for a minute or so as they chose something. I could see them, but not what they were looking at. After the first day, I started to realize that I could predict, with almost perfect certainty, whether someone was going to choose something sweet or something salty. Once, I couldn’t tell, and the selection process took longer than usual. That particular man wound up buying two items, one of each! A couple of clients came in one day and got some corn chips. I laughed, and they asked what was funny. I told them I could guess what people were going to choose, and that as soon as I saw them “I knew you were salty.” They laughed uproariously and said, “Yeah! We’re sal-tay!”
It’s pretty easy to tell when someone is exhausted or in pain, especially if we know them well. My experience is that we can also tell when someone is hungry. So that’s one thing. We live and work in a rhythm. Yawns are contagious, basically because everyone in the room is in the same situation, and if one person is tired or bored or experiencing a blood sugar crash, chances are that others are too.
That’s the other thing. We live in a culture where food is omnipresent. Note that, when I bought the mystical apple fritter, the man who wound up eating it was utterly unsurprised to be offered a free donut. In the US, three-quarters of men and two-thirds of women are overweight. We eat at our desks and in our cars. We eat on the couch and we sometimes even eat in bed. I have food in my laptop bag, and I have even been known to find popcorn in my bra. I mean, it’s everywhere! For the first time in history, we no longer have to be preoccupied with whether this year’s harvest will get us through the winter. We’re less hunter-gatherers, searching for every calorie that will help us survive, than avoider-removers, caught in a futile pattern of overeating and then trying to get rid of the evidence. Clearing our pantries of all the sweets and salties, the cookies and chips and crackers, is a common act that would have been unthinkable even a century ago.
What probably happened when I bought that illicitly tempting apple fritter was something perfectly ordinary. I had just gotten my own weight back below the threshold of obesity into mere overweight. I was still in my largest clothing size. I walked into a grocery store that had freshly baked bready things, as it usually does, and I smelled it and thought about food. I am a food-pusher and feeder by nature, wanting my dinner guests to clear their plates, flattered when they eat thirds. I had good reason to want to impress my new boss at this temp assignment, and my attention naturally turned to food, rather than to a card, or flowers, or simply doing my job like a rock star.
It still seems, though, that something strange was going on that day. Someone made a commitment to make a major change. Almost immediately, I, a near stranger, showed up to distract her and interfere with her plan. I was going to sabotage her progress before she even began. She made a decision and I came along to disrupt it. Why?
Whether or not there is something mystical going on, we can be assured that willpower will always be tested. That’s the nature of willpower. We’re like Odysseus, asking to be tied to the mast because we know we’ll never be able to resist the song of the Sirens. Except we hold our wrists sideways so we can later slip out of our bonds, because, well, Sirens! We don’t need willpower to do things that aren’t a temptation. I don’t need willpower not to smoke cigarettes, because I never started smoking and there is nothing about the idea that attracts me. We don’t need willpower to bathe or brush our teeth, because these are things we just do. We do most things automatically, and if we don’t do them, we feel uncomfortable until we can do them again.
The trick to willpower is never to need it. We have to accept that something (smoking, overeating, etc.) is not working in our lives, and that we’ll be better off as soon as we trade it in for something better. We have to talk ourselves into some better versions of the plan. We have to come up with multiple backup plans, and figure out what we’re going to do in every inevitable situation when we can’t follow Plan A. Stand-up comedians practice heckling their own work, and that’s what we have to do. We have to punch holes in our own plans. We have to stop looking at it as a moral issue or a personal failing or a character flaw. Instead, we have to see it as one of many paradigms, one that is like the cheap motel with a 70s bedspread, when we’d rather be in the five-star luxury resort. We have to look around for people who are succeeding at what we want to do, and meticulously copy what they did to get there. Being offered a grocery-store apple fritter shouldn’t be any more compelling than being flagged down by a row of hucksters who want to offer you brochures or sell you a time-share. Certain things are simply irrelevant to our interests. We know what little they have to offer. There is no need to feel “deprived” or like we are missing out on something that is not really an opportunity after all.
Clearing clutter can feel like it will take forever. Almost nobody has steely enough nerves to truly get rid of it all in one pass. We keep going through the same boxes and bags and stacks and piles, gradually eroding them, feeling mentally and emotionally taxed by the effort of making all those choices. It can feel like pure drudgery combined with an emotional maelstrom that includes genuine grief. I submit that the process of clearing clutter can be treated and experienced as a game instead.
Picture a floor plan of your house. Better yet, draw a picture of it! I do this with clients all the time, and it works best at a neutral location where we can’t actually see our beloved stuff. Draw the floor plan and then scribble in areas that are cluttered. If you sent it to me, I could most likely freak you out with an eerie analysis of what is going on in your life. This drawing is for you, though. It’s your game board.
It’s the game of Clue. Where did this mess come from? I did it in the Dining Room with the Sewing Machine! My dog did it in the Living Room with his Muddy Paws! Colonel Mustard did it in the Kitchen with Every Pot and Pan in the House! Who are the usual suspects in my house? Not so much the players, but the rooms and the “weapons.” What tends to make my house look like a crime scene? Which room needs a chalk outline? Which objects are on the checklist of Instruments of Destruction? (Laundry, dishes, books, homework, shopping bags, toys?)
It’s the game of Monopoly. Which squares are the most valuable? Which strips of properties do you pray you’ll roll past? Does your house have a Jail where nobody wants to spend a turn? Which squares are controlled by which player? Which squares are filled so that no more houses or hotels can be added? Does anyone have any money, or are we about to be wiped out? Will anyone trade a square with anyone else, so a more valuable area can be completed? Are any squares generating rental income? (A functional work space for a home business, an Air B&B room, a kitchen that makes us want to cook at home more often…?)
It’s a checkerboard. You have to hop from square to square if you want to get across the board. You’re the last remaining red checker, and the black checkers are piles of laundry, boxes, toys, projects, or whatever else keeps you from simply walking through the house.
It’s a Scrabble board, filled with words. There are books and magazines and newspapers and newsletters and recipes and patterns and printouts everywhere. The further you get into the game, the fewer spaces are left to make any new words.
It’s a Go board. You are trying to capture territory, just as your opponent (the clutter) is trying to claim it and fill it with stones. Sometimes you think you’ve made an astute play, only to realize that you were playing right into the clutter’s best interests after all. (Bringing home “organizers” that prove to be unsuitable, bringing home materials for home improvement projects and then never using them). If only you could take the opposing stones and pitch them out the window!
It’s the game of Risk. You own a certain amount of territory, and the other people in the house are continually trying to take it over, because that’s how they roll. You thought you had Bedroom, but somehow it has filled up with laundry, and now Bathroom is as well. You really want Dining Room, but you’ll have to claim Kitchen and Living Room before you can even make an attempt at it. You’ve claimed territory at Storage Unit that isn’t even on the right continent. Every time you try to reclaim an area, there’s a conflict. Sometimes people aren’t speaking to each other by the end of someone’s turn.
What game is being played at your house? The game of mutual irritation? The game of waiting for the right mood? The game of fatigue or chronic illness? The game of scarcity? The game of resentment? Is this game fun for the whole family? Is it time to switch to a different game, such as lightheartedness, change, or passion?
The idea of clearing clutter is to make space for living. If it’s well organized, it gets used, and daily life is better with it than without it, it isn’t clutter. It’s clutter if there is too much of it, it’s in the way, you can’t find it when you need it, it isn’t functional (broken, stained, etc.), you don’t use it or need it, or just looking at it drains your energy. One way of dealing with it is to completely, completely, thoroughly clear an area, until it is exactly the way you want it. Then preserve that area of the game board and start working on the next one. Use your floor plan drawing as a way to keep score. Room after room, your territory expands, and your opponent’s area contracts. Before you know it, the entire board is clear, and you’ve won the game.
Why is it so hard sometimes to do things we know we should do? Why is it so hard sometimes to do things we want to do? There is a gap between desire and fulfillment, intention and action. We get stuck in procrastination and we don’t know why. We don’t know how to snap out of it and just do the things. This is part of why there is such a thing as New Year’s Resolutions, and also part of why most people believe they don’t work. We have pure intentions in one hand and the capability to act on them in the other hand. What we don’t seem to have is the ability to clap our hands together and catalyze action and intention into a single substance.
Some people have an easy time of it. They get to all their appointments on time. They’re organized. They’re physically fit. They seem to be able to get from place to place without static-clung underpants falling out of their sweaters in the middle of the day. Unlike me, when they put their sunglasses on their head, they don’t then knock the second pair that were already up there onto the floor. They’ve got it together. However many ducks they have, they’re lined up in a neat little row.
Obviously, I don’t see myself as one of these people. I might look like One of Them to you, if you didn’t happen to see me trying to wear two pair of sunglasses at once, putting a second pencil behind my ear, or putting a second earring in the same hole. I lived my life as a chronically disorganized person with some attention deficiency. With considerable focus and effort, I have gotten fit and organized, and I’m even on time to appointments about 80% of the time. It turns out that it makes life much easier. Every crisis of entropy tends to knock over a series of other dominoes, causing additional problems. When I can tiptoe through the array without kicking any of them over – dominoes I know full well are staged and ready to tip – I can breathe easy, knowing how much trouble I’ve saved myself. So, I think I have attained some insights into why everything seems easy for certain people, and challenging-to-impossible for others.
Those who seem to have it easy have acquired what the rest of us have to learn. The best analogy for this is the study of foreign languages. We acquire our mother tongue, and perhaps 1-4 additional languages, depending on where we live in the world. After a certain age, we learn other languages in a classroom. Some people acquired habits by a sort of osmosis, and they never had to go through a questioning period of evaluating whether what they were doing was efficient or effective or not. When things work, it’s self-explanatory. They acquire habits of getting ready and getting out the door quickly. They acquire habits of eating healthy foods and not eating unhealthy foods. They acquire habits of putting things away and cleaning up. They walk around in this world that is missing the obstacles and mini-disasters the rest of us keep tripping over.
The difference between the Easy Habits people and the rest of us is that their threshold of action is in a different place. They notice things earlier in the timeline. For instance, someone who never started smoking will never have to quit. Someone who never gets a cavity will never have to get a filling. Someone who never makes a late payment will never have to pay a late fee. Someone who never gains excess body fat will never have it to lose. Someone who never has an issue with chronic disorganization or compulsive acquisition will never have clutter to clear. These aren’t moral issues. Entering adulthood with a full portfolio of Easy Habits just means life is easier. It’s just an easier way to do things. It doesn’t mean someone is bad, good, or neutral – just more efficient.
That leaves the rest of us. We wrestle with issues that don’t seem to respond to our efforts. We promise ourselves we’ll “be better” or “do better,” once again framing a matter of efficiency into an epic moral battle of Good and Evil. The question is not whether it’s “good” or “bad” – or whether I myself am “good” or “bad” – it’s whether it WORKS or DOESN’T WORK. Was it effective or ineffective? Were the results desirable or undesirable?
There are a lot of obstacles on the path to learning new habits.
Say the issue I want to work on is being chronically late. “I don’t want to be late all the time.” The first thing we want to do is to reframe what we DON’T WANT into what we DO want. I don’t want people judging me and lecturing me about punctuality. Well, that’s still not what I do want. What do I want? I want to have the reputation of a punctual person. I want to arrive with enough time for peace of mind. I want to be free in my heart. Anxiety, get out of my life! Wait, back to what I DO want. I want to be on time for everything with enough margin or space cushion to relax and enjoy myself. That sounds good.
Okay, next step. What do I think is causing my problem? What do I think will work in getting to my goal? The problem and the solution may have little or nothing to do with one another.
I’m late because my sense of time passing is different from others’ sense of time passing. Research supports this: Punctual people estimate one minute as 58 seconds in duration, while chronically late or disorganized people have an internal feeling of one minute as lasting the duration of about 90 seconds. We think we have 50% more time than we do, and the punctual people around us can smell it! In exactly one minute, they intuitively know that we are One of Those People and we’re going to make them late. And they’re right.
I’m late because I sleep too late for the amount of time it takes me to get ready, because I’m tired, because I’m a sleep procrastinator. I think it takes me 10 minutes to take a shower, but really it takes 17. I know what I want to wear, but I don’t realize until I’m partway assembled that some of those garments are in the wash, or I’m missing one of the shoes. I haven’t given myself enough time for my basic routine on the best possible day, and I DEFINITELY haven’t left enough of a buffer for the least little interruption or issue.
I’m late because I’m chronically disorganized. I’m perpetually running out of groceries. Half of my wardrobe is on the floor because I can’t/don’t keep up on the laundry. I might be out of gas. I can’t find my keys or my gloves or the papers I needed to bring. I have emergency errands that should/could have been done days ago. My kids need something. My pets are making an unholy mess. Every time I go out the door, a to-do list as long as my arm trails after me. I walk in a cloud of anxiety and dread, a day late and a dollar short.
I’m late because it’s okay with me to be late. It’s part of my identity. I’ve become highly skilled over the years at giving a sincere, heartfelt apology. I believe that people should lighten up and let go and forgive me. There are worse things to do than to be late. I’m not there for the time everyone else has spent stewing and wondering if I’m okay and waiting on me, and I don’t have to feel compassion for their inconvenience. I let them down and I don’t truly care enough to make a change. I let myself off the hook.
If I want to be on time, there are a lot of potential places to start. I can start with organizing and clearing the space by the front door and going through my daily bag. I can start with a nightly bedtime ritual that includes writing a to-do list, checking the weather report, laying out tomorrow’s clothes, packing a lunch, and preparing a breakfast. I can start by going to bed 5 minutes earlier every night until I’m getting enough sleep. I can start by standing in front of a mirror, looking myself in the eye, and saying ENOUGH NOW.
What we’ve seen by dissecting one desire for change is that it touches on every area of life. Punctuality involves getting enough sleep, using a timer to figure out how long it takes us to do things, planning the day ahead of time, having the stuff we need where we need it and removing stuff that’s in the way, and having a routine for things like buying groceries, doing laundry, and filling the gas tank. Success at the punctuality habit is going to take more than just deciding to be on time, a.k.a. making a resolution. It takes focus and dedication and inquiry and a certain amount of research and experimentation.
Punctuality is one example of a complicated problem with multiple inputs. There is a long list of Perpetual Problems, at least one of which everyone who ever lived has faced at one time or another. Financial problems. Career problems. Romance problems. Parenting problems. Weight management problems. Physical fitness problems. Chronic pain or illness problems. Organization problems. Pet training problems. A problem in any area ripples outward until it impinges on other areas. The reverse of that is that resolving any problem in any area also creates unexpected side benefits! For instance, a nutritional deficiency might cause sleep loss, chronic pain, distraction, poor workplace performance, weight gain, and low energy, resulting in a messy, disorganized house and cash flow problems. “Getting organized” can result in weight loss, debt repayment, improved credit score, improved punctuality, more sleep, and smoother relationships. Resolving any issue tends to lead to greater peace of mind. It also results in transferrable skills, a new mental framework that usually proves effective in the context of other problems. Budgeting skills lead directly to food log skills. Meditation skills lead directly to anger management skills and strategic planning skills. Body awareness leads directly to personal environment awareness. It ripples outward, resonating throughout our world, rippling onward to the worlds of those around us.
We reach the threshold of action when we start to understand what to do. We start to realize that action is a good idea. We feel impatient to start. We want to rush to the improved outcome. As we sample and test out new ways of thinking, planning, and doing, their benefits become obvious. We start to internalize these new behaviors. They form a new foundation on which we can build additional helpful habits. We stop seeing these habits as boring, restrictive, depriving, onerous, and distasteful. We start to feel them as attractive, useful, even natural. We act because we finally want to take action.
This was an amazing, fascinating, and fun book. The author, Bruce Grierson, follows nonagenarian Olga Kotelko around the world as she competes in track-and-field events. She also participates in various scientific studies aimed at finding out why she has been able to set so many world records at her age. Spry is not the word.
What Makes Olga Run?, indeed? It appears to be based more on her character than her genes. She had a hard-scrabble childhood and a bad marriage. What makes her tick? Grit and determination. Optimism. Refusal to sit around being bored. The book spends a lot of time explaining the science of longevity research, but Olga’s personality shines through just as much. She sounds like she would have been a lot of fun.
Olga Kotelko is not the only lady of advanced years in Grierson’s book. In fact, there might not be anyone younger than 40. Grierson frequently compares his own fitness level to this 90+ years young woman, to his detriment. It’s clear that hanging around these masters class events is humbling for him. It turns out that the majority of the competitors were inactive for decades on end, resuming a former athletic career as senior citizens, or in some cases, trying it out for the first time. The message that it’s never too late is underscored with every cameo by the many mature competitors.
When I started running, it was because I wanted to do what I could for my future self. I was already 35 and I had never been remotely close to athletic in my life. I knew there was no more time for fooling around; if I were ever going to “do something about it” and learn about physical fitness, I couldn’t procrastinate any more. I learned that there was a centenarian marathon runner with a white beard longer than my hair. Thus began my love affair with elderly athletes. I never worry what people in their 20s are doing, what records they’re setting or how they look. I know that if I keep going, I’ll be a real contender in my 60s! I’m very glad I didn’t read What Makes Olga Run? sooner, because it probably would have relaxed my vigilance and convinced me I could keep waiting another decade or two.
Clothes are the biggest clutter issue for almost everyone I’ve ever worked with. This is really interesting to me, because for most of human history, most people didn’t own a change of clothes. Later, when humankind became comparatively wealthy, people did start having clothing to store, but not much of it. The house I live in was built in 1939, and the bedroom closet rod is 40 inches long. That’s for sharing between two people. I’m talking about the TWENTIETH CENTURY. My grandparents could have bought this house as newlyweds. Our closet problems and laundry problems are very, very, VERY new innovations.
I set out to purge my closet for three reasons. 1. My stuff barely fits since our recent move; 2. A postcard came in the mail announcing a charity pickup; 3. January is a fantastic time for such a project, at least in the Northern Hemisphere. The weather is dreary, it gets dark early, everyone is broke, and many of us are still in the Resolutionary frame of mind. What else are we going to do this month? What other month could possibly be better?
I’ve done many closet purges over the years, and I know how overwhelming and draining it can be to make all those decisions. Don’t go it alone!
I opened my blinds and put on a cheerful, funny podcast. It’s better to have physical company, another person to kick back with a beverage and offer opinions: thumbs up, thumbs down? Better still, kick back yourself and have the friend hold everything up.
The toughest thing about clothing purges is the desire to come up with reasons to keep each item. This is natural. We wouldn’t have it if we hadn’t chosen it or received it as a gift (or shoplifted it, I suppose, in which case, isn’t it time to free yourself from that burden of guilt?). When we’re doing a closet purge, it’s best to focus on reasons to get rid of each item. Make it fight for you. Put it on the witness stand, swear it in, and make it justify its existence. I make you look great! I work well with your other clothes! Anything less is not good enough; even five-star, perfect items sometimes need to go when there are just too many of them.
Why do we keep stuff?
It doesn’t fit, but we want it to
It doesn’t fit, but it’s insurance in case it does again
We love the fabric
We love the color
We love the pattern
We love the brand name
It was expensive
It was a gift and we’re required to keep all gifts until we die, in which case we pack them and take them with us to the afterlife
The very thought of making one permanent decision and putting something in a bag feels as exhausting as radiation sickness
We need lots and lots and lots and lots of extras because we’re always behind on the laundry, because we have enough clothes to leave five loads on the floor at all times
Our clothing size fluctuates dramatically
We feel nostalgic about the time when we used to wear it
It has costuming potential
The closet is big enough, so why not?
Two years ago, I had to declare wardrobe bankruptcy. I had lost a bunch of weight, and 80% of my clothes no longer fit. I work at home, but I didn’t even have adequate clothing for that. I went to Goodwill and tried to cobble together a wardrobe that would stay on my body. Then I dropped another size and had to go back. After I had been at my new size for a year, I finally started to trust that I really had figured this stuff out, that it was okay to pay retail and get full value out of new garments. As I set about this closet purge, I know that nothing has been there longer than two years. The goal is to free up enough space for the hangers to slide back and forth, at least a fraction of an inch. I estimate that I need to remove at least four hangers for this to happen.
I use wooden hangers, because they give more space for each item to avoid being crumpled and because they don’t tangle together like wire or plastic. Due to their bulk, they also limit how much excess can build up in the closet. I used to pick up a set of 5 every time I went to IKEA.
What did I get rid of, and why?
There wasn’t anything from my closet purge that I wouldn’t wear right now, depending on weather. Making more space is more important to me than keeping specific things, though, and I’ve gotten my money’s worth out of them. I have a “$1 per wear” guideline. If I pay $10 for something and wear it 10 times, or $50 for something that I wear 50 times, I’m good. The Goodwill clothes mostly cost between $3 and $7. They tend not to match with as many things as the clothes I’m keeping, and they’re not nearly fantastic enough to earn special status as singletons.
Two skirts, four dresses, two pairs of shorts, a tank top, a t-shirt, a long-sleeved shirt, two sweaters, a cardigan, a pair of old sandals, a pair of dress shoes.
One skirt wrinkles badly every time I wash it. One skirt is too loose, getting threadbare, and is a different color scheme from my core wardrobe. One dress is too big; one is too tight in the sleeves; one has a weird pattern I’ve started to dislike; one has simply had its day. One pair of shorts is a bit tight at the hem, compressing my big hamstrings. The other pair of shorts is loose and getting threadbare. The tank top can only be worn over another tank top with a built-in bra. The t-shirt only goes with a couple of things (that are in the purge pile) and I was never completely sold on the color or the neckline. The long-sleeved shirt is a little tight in the bust. One sweater always rides up above my waistline in the back. One sweater has a fussy bustline that always needs adjusting. The cardigan has useless pockets and doesn’t work well with my other clothes. The sandals have already been replaced, and I’m not sure why I still had them. The dress shoes gave me blisters on the top of my foot the last time I wore them.
There are some commonalities between some of these garments that I only notice now that they are stacked up together. Everything I had in the aqua, teal, or turquoise range has gotten pulled. It’s not a color I would choose if I were paying retail. Everything in the pile is from Goodwill except the shoes. Six items are here because they don’t fit quite right and are distracting to wear. Six are here because I like the brand; I see them as well-made and durable, even if they aren’t working for me. Eight items only went with something that’s in the pile. Most of these clothes are neutral or pastel. Only two have pockets that would hold my phone. If I were to design my dream wardrobe, none of these things would be in it, neither for color nor fit nor fabric. I won’t miss them. The longer I sit with them, the more they start to look frayed, shabby, undesirable, and mismatched. Clearly they aren’t doing me any favors.
Now I do an inventory. What’s left? 9 skirts, 2 shorts, 2 Capri pants, 6 jeans, 13 dresses, 2 jackets, 2 short-sleeved button-down shirts, 4 long-sleeved button-down shirts, 3 sleeveless blouses, one tunic, one gorgeous suit that makes me want to give a speech. 5 sweaters, 7 cardigans. 27 t-shirts, tank tops, and various other tops. One bikini and one beach cover-up. That’s 114 total items, although I think technically the swimming clothes fall into the same category as underwear, pajamas, and workout clothes, i.e., they don’t have to count. Mysteriously, I have 18 bottoms and 52 tops. If everything was interchangeable (which it isn’t), that would multiply out to 949 different combinations of outfit, including dresses, OR, something different every day for 2.6 years. And that doesn’t include accessories. I definitely don’t need everything I have left. Realistically, I should ditch some of the t-shirts and get more pants. Mine is an optimistic, sunny-day, warm weather wardrobe.
I’ve removed eight hangers, measuring five inches in total width. Now I can shift things back and forth. I have enough to fill a grocery sack of donations for the charity drive. I’m aware that if I am attracted to any new garments, something I have right now will have to go. I could easily fill a second bag and still have plenty to wear. Mischief managed!
I go through my closet every season, and I skim it every time one of these neon postcards comes in the mail announcing a charity pickup. Clothes come and go. They’re not designed to last forever. Our bodies change, the weather changes, people will insist on honoring us with lovely gifts. We have to make room somehow. We remind ourselves that we have plenty to share and that someone else may get some use out of what is no longer useful to us, at this moment. If we save only what fits today, looks great today, and works with all our other clothes today, we’ll still have more than enough.
I’m not losing weight anymore. Diet industry, die in a fire, and I don’t say that lightly.
Of course, I don’t have any weight TO lose anymore. I used to be obese. Now I’m at the actuarially endorsed “healthy weight for my height.” My BMI is 21 and I’m at 22% body fat. I wear a size zero. I’m 40, but men turn their heads when I walk by in a bikini. I ran a marathon. I could probably run 5 miles barefoot right now if I wanted. I’m stronger and more physically fit than I was at 15 or 25. That’s important to me, because I spent so many years battling one chronic illness or another. In my life, excess body fat and physical pain go together, like a right hand and a left hand.
I did not go on a brand-name diet. I did not try meal substitution shakes, bars, powders, pills, teas, juices, smoothies, coffee with butter, Paleo, gluten-free, cleanses, or whatever else the $20 billion diet industry is constantly trying to sell us. (Compare to $30 billion for the self-storage industry; this is why I talk about clutter more than I do about health and fitness). I did not eat extra protein or fewer carbohydrates or even track my macros. What I did do was to use a scale, a measuring tape, and the MyFitnessPal app. I followed the app’s recommended calorie intake and logged everything I ate for three months. Then I kept going, not because I needed to lose more weight, but because I wanted to track my micronutrient consumption. My food log could one day be a valuable source of information if I need medical attention for some complicated health problem. (Like my cancer scare or the time I got a bald patch). I learned how much, and what, I could eat to maintain my new physique.
I did not lose the weight at the gym. I didn’t even GO to a gym, and I haven’t stepped foot in one in years. Over the past two decades, I have had several gym memberships, been an avid bicycle commuter, taken dance, yoga, self-defense, water aerobics, and other exercise classes several days a week, and trained for a marathon. (In between years-long periods of illness when I did nothing at all). Working out is great fun and it feels good, once you get through the first three awful weeks of pain and Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. Working out has about zero to do with weight loss. I gained 8 lbs while I trained for my marathon because I kept cramming my little chipmunk cheeks with cookies, trail mix, and stacks of waffles. Diet for short-term weight loss, work out for long-term maintenance and pleasure.
I love my body, but I have a lot of anger about weight loss. It goes in two opposite directions. On the one hand, there’s the stupid diet industry that tricks people out of their money and makes them feel defeated, hopeless, and like they lack “willpower” or “motivation.” On the other hand, there are all the defensive fat people who can’t pass up an opportunity to naysay every person who tries to lose weight, fit-shame anyone who’s Not Fat Enough (an actual acronym some acquaintances use), and spend their time trying to debunk or discredit peer-reviewed clinical studies. From time to time, I am fit-shamed by someone who didn’t know me when I was fat. I explain that I used to be obese, that I had thyroid disease and a cancer scare and fibromyalgia and migraines and a parasomnia disorder (and I can keep going if you’re interested). “Oh,” they say. Nobody has ever apologized for the fit-shaming, for calling me a bitch or telling me to F off. I suppose it’s assumed that I understand, because “real” thin women deserve such treatment, and I was simply collateral damage.
I’m also mad because the process is completely different for men than it is for women. My husband used to weigh 305 pounds, and he was still over 270 when we met. He taught me everything I know about weight loss. He taught me to track metrics, and he’s even helped me set up mathematical models to figure out patterns. We’ve lost 100 pounds between us, and most of it, we lost as colleagues, partners, and gym buddies. BUT. Every step of the way has been different. People constantly told me to “be careful.” Nobody said it to him. A shop clerk pantomimed vomiting, suggesting I must be bulimic to wear the size I do. “Um, I’m a marathoner,” I replied, horrified to my core. I tried to make myself vomit once, when I was 12 and accidentally ate a bug, but I couldn’t do it even then. I don’t hate my body. I’m also sane. Does anyone understand how rude it is to joke around or hint that someone is mentally ill? Men who decide to lose weight don’t get lectured by their friends about body image and anorexia and fashion and celebrity obsession. My man is “big.” He’s been a football player, a lumberjack, and a hockey player. He doesn’t get told to “be careful” – even when he’s sharpening a chainsaw or lighting stuff on fire. He’s strong enough to lose weight if he wants, to “train” – but women aren’t strong enough to be strong. I’m supposed to be passive, curvy, and feminine, not active, muscular, and sweaty.
I’ve had a foot in both worlds. Incontrovertibly, being fit is better than being unfit. It’s useful and convenient and it’s far more physically comfortable. The comparison is precisely the same as having money vs. being poor and in debt. Why would anyone ever go back? At 22% body fat, why would I want to be 35% body fat again? It’s not something I would set about to do on purpose, in the same way that I would not set about accruing $20,000 of debt. Weight gain is basically something that “just happens,” and we accept it, in the same way that debt tends to “just happen.” The same way that health problems tend to “just happen.” The same way that clutter “just happens.” Fitness levels like mine don’t happen by accident. It’s intentional, the way I do most things in my life intentionally.
We don’t know what we don’t know. I never knew I could be as strong as I am now. When I asked doctors what I could do differently, they replied, “I don’t know what to tell you.” There weren’t any athletes in my family. I didn’t really know any fit people. I assumed that the thin people I saw just came that way, in the same way that jays are blue and sparrows are brown. I shut down a few conversations over the years, suggesting that I try losing weight or going to the gym, because what I had been told about thyroid disease and fibromyalgia said that I couldn’t do either. I’ve heard other people say that it is “physically impossible” for them to lose weight, and in my mind, it wasn’t even a question. I just was the way I was. Past Self never would have believed a word I have to say about health, fitness, or weight loss. “Past Self, being fit feels like being a millionaire.” “F Off, Future Self.”
This is what I think. I think it’s a thousand times easier to change your body than to change your body image. I think the sense of disappointment and dissatisfaction we often feel toward our bodies comes from a feeling of being physically off in some way. Maybe it’s being constantly sleep-deprived or dehydrated, having imbalanced gut flora, a micronutrient deficiency, overloading our organs with too much sugar, too many calories, too many food additives, straining joints from excess body weight, relying on pharmaceuticals to deal with the side effects of our biologically inappropriate diets. If a single one of those factors applies, why blame that off feeling on magazine photos? There is no way to objectively quantify how someone will feel when beholding a fashion model of any size or appearance. We can objectively quantify what we eat and analyze a wide range of health metrics with laboratory tests. Given our society’s mortality statistics and reliance on prescription drugs, anyone under 35 should take this under consideration. Anyone over 35 already knows that the older we get, the more we start to suffer the side effects of our lifestyle preferences.
I stopped losing weight. I made a decision. “I tried being fat but I had to quit.” Nothing about being “curvy” worked for me. I chose a path, an uphill and muddy path. I shook off everything holding me back, from ignorant doctors to inherited family beliefs to expectations of appropriate female behavior to food preferences. I quit drinking soda and eating breakfast cereal. I paid attention to my habits and became more aware of my body. I quit planning my vacations around what restaurants to try. I quit insisting on ordering two appetizers and a dessert. Very little remains the same in what I eat, where I eat, how often I eat, or how much I eat. I divorced Past Self and Past Self’s destructive, short-sighted habits. I made a radical change. I decided that I wouldn’t be fat anymore, that I would be at least a little stronger every year. Two years in, I’ve maintained that. I only wish I’d known to try it sooner.
Women’s magazines want us to do two things: LOSE WEIGHT NOW and GET ORGANIZED. I have some problems with this. First, we’re expected to look at widespread cultural problems as personal failings. Second, the exact same magazines that exhort us to lose weight will have frosting-covered desserts on the cover, and sell this image of ‘organization’ alongside numerous ads for THINGS to clutter up our homes. (Not to mention the magazines themselves; from the way my people hang on to old magazines, one would think they were priceless illuminated manuscripts). I’m a minimalist, both in home furnishings and in physique, but I think almost all the advice we’re fed by the popular press is misguided and ineffective. Don’t organize it. Get rid of it!
The mass-market way to “get organized” is to ADD STUFF. I haven’t had a client yet who didn’t have unopened organizing doodads and gizmos still in the package. We have no idea how to approach our excessive, disorganized possessions. That’s why there are so many books and articles on the clutter crisis. That’s also why there are entire retail chains based on drawer dividers, tubs, totes, bins, boxes, trays, and containers of every size, pattern, color, and description. I’ve fallen for the seductive call of shiny new organizing gewgaws many times. I once bought two sets of magnets with the days of the week printed on them, and I’m not sure why. I suspect these things outgas a hypnotic dopamine-stimulating aerosol.
Here’s the deal about getting organized. It’s a state of mind. We feel anxious and unsettled when we’re late, can’t find important items, and have unmet obligations. Chaos is stressful. What we’re looking for is a sense of mastery and preparedness. Just once, we’d like to get out the door in the morning and have everything go smoothly. Every time something falls through, like a late bill, an overdrawn account, an unplanned trip to the gas station or grocery store, or a missing form, it’s like an individual papercut on the brain. There truly is a difference between organized people and disorganized people. It took me about 30 years to figure out. Organized people have systems and mental templates. They can turn disaster into sense almost effortlessly. It’s not genetic. If a chronically disorganized, ADHD-natured person such as myself can learn it, by gosh, anyone can, and I’m not kidding.
The core element is to have a clear vision of How Things Should Be. Organized people keep their personal environments a certain way. It’s a tired cliché that less orderly people will move the possessions of organized people, then laugh when they immediately notice and put them back where they were. When we see order and routine as boring, OCD, or anal-retentive, we fail to see anything that organized people have to teach. Surgeons, NASCAR pit crews, CSI detectives, and top chefs are all orderly, organized people. What we’re all looking for in our home environments is a way to relax without the constant interruptions of lost, overdue, or spilled things demanding our attention. That’s what ‘organized’ means. It doesn’t have to mean everything we own is alphabetized and displayed at 90-degree angles.
What needs to get organized? The key elements are finances, appointments, information, essential daily items, and work areas. We pay bills on time and maintain a savings cushion, because the alternatives are fines, fees, bounced checks, higher interest rates, and damaged credit. That’s obvious. Everyone likes money. We manage our time so that we can get to work and appointments as agreed, because the alternatives are being late, having a reputation for unreliability, having to hear the word ‘tardy’ (and you think ‘moist’ is bad), a sense of anxiety and dread, and a karmic ripple. The benefits and drawbacks of managing things the same way we manage money and time may be a little hazier. In my mind, they are all interlocking. When our homes and desks are cluttered and disorganized, it can easily result in wasted time and money. We’re late because we can’t find things or we have to clean up a clutter-generated mess. We waste money when we have to buy extras because we couldn’t find the first one when we needed it; we’re paying for a storage unit (or two) every month; we’re throwing out spoiled food; we’ve bought things we don’t have the room to use; we’ve bought yet another magazine on HOW TO GET ORGANIZED THIS WEEKEND.
It’s actually not that hard. We need:
A list of contacts (maybe)
A meal plan and a grocery list
A daily bag with keys, glasses, lip balm, tissues, ball peen hammer, etc.
A household routine
A few dedicated work areas
A spending plan
That’s it. Everything else about getting organized is basically about building a retaining wall to hold back the tidal wave of unnecessary material objects with which we surround ourselves. Get the stuff away from the front door, off the dining table, off the desk, off the bed, off the nightstand, off the bathroom counter, and off the kitchen work surfaces. The rest of it doesn’t matter. All we really need is to be able to come and go, maintain personal hygiene, dress appropriately for the weather and our continued employability, prepare and eat meals, pay our bills, manage our personal bureaucratic infrastructure, and find certain magical objects such as keys, glasses, and pens.
Alas, there are no easy answers for where to put the rest of our stuff. Our homes were not designed around the number of small appliances and consumer electronics that we use every day, much less the masses of clothes, craft supplies, collectibles, books, decorations, and holiday ornaments we acquire. The money we would need to buy nice furniture to “organize” these things has been spent on the stuff itself. The space we would use to put said furniture is likewise filled with stuff. One thing every interior design and curb appeal show on HGTV has in common is that there is no clutter. The rooms and furnishings speak for themselves. Our ordinary, cluttered homes are more along the lines of trying to wear all our clothes, jewelry, and hair clips at the same time. We’d do better to edit. There truly is no way to “organize” triple or quadruple the amount of stuff a house was designed to hold.
What constitutes clutter? Junk mail. Paperwork that needs to be processed but hasn’t been. Anything involved with a procrastinated task or project. Reading material we’ve assigned to Future Self. Things we meant to return, whether to a store or a person from whom we’ve borrowed. Gifts we haven’t put away because there is no ‘away’ to put them. Bushels of clean and dirty laundry that won’t fit in the available closets, drawers, and hampers. Likewise, clean and dirty dishes that won’t fit in the available cabinet or sink space. Dozens or hundreds of individual objects that are, strictly speaking, unnecessary and homeless. It’s pretty obvious where to put a toothbrush, a fork, or a pair of socks. It’s not so obvious where to put hundreds of pounds of loose randomness.
Much of what we keep has to do with postponed decisions and with future aspirations. We know we don’t need all of it, but we’re not sure which ones to keep or cast aside, and we don’t have the mental bandwidth to make a firm choice. We don’t have any kind of system. We’re going to use it or wear it or read it, one day, really, not today but eventually. We like all of it and we feel deep emotional attachment to these ever-so-attractive things that will never like us back. We don’t like it at all, it pollutes our space with toxic memories and emotions, but it’s all cursed and releasing it would deflate our very souls. Time does not pass while we regard our things. We step into an enchanted cave somewhere outside temporality. It starts to feel like insulation.
What we do is to start to wake up. We gather our wits about us. We claim power to make executive decisions about our lives, our surroundings, and our stuff. We put up a flag to mark our territory, starting with one square foot. We clear a space. We mark it out as hallowed ground. Any unnecessary object that wanders into that cleared space is summarily removed. (A rabid skunk that wandered onto the lawn of a preschool comes to mind; Animal Control was called). As any area of our lives starts to make more sense, to be more streamlined, it starts to be a little more obvious what can be done in another area. I clear the bathroom counter and make a bedtime routine. I realize that I could clear a bit of kitchen space to pack a lunch and get my breakfast ready. My morning starts going more smoothly, and I see how clearing a bit of space in my closet would be nice. I stop feeling so frantic. One day, I come home with a little extra mental energy, and I clear a little space on my desk. Time passes. Another day, I come home, and there is nothing that needs doing other than eating a fine hot meal and chillaxing all evening.
This is the story I tell myself. I go to bed at a particular time because I love sleeping 8-9 hours a night. If I stay up too late, the world starts getting too noisy before I’m done dreaming. I wake up well rested and share breakfast time with my parrot, which, if you met her, you would definitely want to do as well. I work, because I like it and it’s my calling. I do about 40 minutes of housework and putting away laundry, five days a week, because that means my weekends are free and my house never has time to get messy. I do anything that can be done in under 5 minutes as soon as it comes up, because I hate having the dread of incomplete tasks hanging over me. Every object I bring home has to have a specific place where it will be stored and an obvious way to be cleaned, or it’s not crossing my doorstep. The only time I really worry about “getting organized” is either when I’m writing, as I try to explain how it’s done, or when I’m planning a big trip somewhere, because it’s annoying to forget important details. Much of my life is spent reading, wandering around the neighborhood taking pictures, playing with my pets, or generally being indolent and doing whatever I want.
Everyone gets the same 24 hours a day. Some of us spend most of that time feeling frazzled and burned out. Others spend their free time laughing, talking to friends, cooking, and making art. Some of us spend our time in a futile search for missing paperwork or shoes or prescription bottles. Others never do. I believe it takes about the same number of minutes to cook a healthy meal as it does to wait in line at a drive-thru and unwrap all the excess packaging. I believe it takes about the same number of minutes per day to clean an orderly house as it does to search for lost things and shift piles back and forth. Washing dishes at each meal takes documentably less time than letting them crust up and congeal first. “Getting organized” seems like a grueling ordeal, when viewed from the bottom of the well, but it’s really the fastest and easiest way to live life.
What helps is to stop thinking about “getting organized” and instead think about what comes next. Get organized why? Get organized because what? I want my time back. I want to be able to lose myself in leisure and recreation without feeling guilty or harried. I want space to get ready in the morning, to cook meals, to work on projects. I want to feel like a competent adult. I want a promotion. I’m smart enough to pull this off. I can cut away anything that is unnecessary. I can make room in my life for what is important, for what I value most. I can learn what it feels like to manage the flow of information and stuff in my world, and still have personal essence left over for myself.
I am hereby declaring the Monday after New Year’s Day to be PROJECT JUBILEE. A jubilee is a festival, but traditionally it referred to emancipation, forgiveness of debt, and pardoning of sin. We’re going to take this day and clear the decks of old projects. You are now free, officially FREE, from obligations that Past Self tried to assign to you.
There are real obligations that should be upheld. We are obligated to respect other people’s boundaries, follow the law, care for our bodies and our personal surroundings, return books we’ve borrowed, and accept the consequences of our action and inaction. Universal laws apply to us. That being said, we tend to feel a lot of guilt, shame, defensiveness, and stuckness about our unfulfilled commitments, most of which are figments of our imagination.
You never have to finish a book that bores you.
You never have to “catch up” on reading old magazines.
You never have to test every recipe you save.
You never have to finish every craft project you start.
You never have to repair anything you aren’t using.
You never have to use all the materials you chose.
You never have to make anything just because you chose the pattern.
You can rip out yarn and use it for a different project, or give it away.
You can THROW AWAY incomplete cross stitch projects – the materials are only a couple of dollars.
You never have to make a quilt, crochet an afghan, or knit a sweater if you don’t want to.
You don’t have to finish projects you chose for yourself. You also don’t have to do projects you promised you would make for anyone else, especially if they were planned as gifts. Nobody wants a gift that felt like a depressing burden to create. Nobody wants to feel tainted by the funk of procrastination. Nobody wants to be emotionally linked to guilty or pressured feelings. Do a favor for everyone involved, release yourself from the project, and just get together and do something fun with that person. You can explain the concept of the Project Jubilee. Or, of course you can skip that, because your chosen person may never have known that you obligated yourself to that project. Let it go. Maintain the relationship, talk, laugh, spend time together, and let the mythical handmade gift fade back into the ether.
A couple of people have promised to make things for me that never materialized. I don’t mind. It’s true that I’d feel better off if I never heard about these plans. Then I’d never be the wiser. I’d never know what I was missing. If one of these kind folks did make something for me, while working in secret, I’d be elated! It would be a massive surprise. Promising a project in advance eliminates that potential for surprise. It also expands the risk of disappointment.
Past Self had a lot of fantasies about Present Self. Past Self thought we’d like things we never really did wind up liking. Past Self was terrible at estimating how long things would take and how we would prefer to spend our time. Past Self always thought we would be more interested in anything boring, messy, or difficult. Past Self loved to dump the debt, cleanup, and healthier behaviors on us. We can forgive Past Self, move past it, and try to be kinder to Future Self.
The illustration for this post – take a look at it. Cute, isn’t it? I inherited it from my Nana. In the same closet was about 80% of a child’s sweater in peach yarn. I was the only granddaughter, and I’m pretty sure that sweater was meant for Past Jessica 1979. Judging by the pattern on this tea towel (and its cultural insensitivity), it’s significantly older than that. Perhaps having five children and eight grandchildren had something to do with the small stash of unfinished projects. I don’t judge. If the tea towel had been finished and used, it would surely have been worn to a rag and thrown away by now. If the sweater had been finished, I would have worn it and outgrown it within a year. Finding those projects made me feel a strong family connection; what I really inherited was the desire to start making more things than I could finish. Or wanted to.
How do we evaluate our incomplete projects? I once finished a knitted toy for a child who wasn’t even born until I’d already been stuck in the pattern for a few years. The child for whom it was originally intended had long outgrown it. I didn’t realize it would take weeks of work. I also knitted about half a sweater for myself before losing 25 pounds. That one I ripped. We can pause and ask:
Would I have chosen to start this project from scratch today?
Do I feel excited about working on it RIGHT NOW?
Can I finish it by the end of the month?
What is my track record of finishing projects?
Would I be better off if I shifted my focus toward something else, like my finances, my health, or my living situation?
I changed my relationship toward unfinished projects. I looked around and realized that my crafting was taking over my living space. I decided to quit starting new projects or buying new supplies, materials, books, or patterns until I was done with everything I had begun.
It took 10 years.
I wound up giving away all my knitting and crochet stuff. I gave away some cross stitch kits, still in the package. I let go of the fantasy that I would ever make the time to learn to weave or make lace. Instead, I reached my goal weight, ran a marathon, wrote some books, and learned to play the ukulele.
I could get up and acquire everything I need to start a new project, today, because I still have all the skills. What I’ve done is to let go of the clutter, the guilt, the looming deadlines, and the shopping trips. I’ve gained peace of mind, extra closet space, and room in my life for fresh possibilities. I declared my own Project Jubilee, and now I pass it on to you. How does freedom taste?
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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