My first gray hair showed up at age seventeen. That’s typical in my family, and I wasn’t surprised. I was surprised when my younger brother would come up behind me and pluck gray hairs from the back of my head, but not when I saw them in the mirror. I associated the salt-and-pepper look with maturity and gravitas.
People assumed I was much younger than I was through at least my mid-thirties. In my early twenties, I feel like it was a huge hindrance in my career. At forty-two, I was suggested as a mentor for another woman who protested that she was hoping for someone older. “How old do you think I am?” I asked her. “Thirty?” she guessed. “I’ll be forty-three next month,” I confided, at which point she accepted the match.
I’d been hanging onto my gray because I felt like it was my best hope for being heard and taken seriously. Apparently it wasn’t working.
I have a small frame and a high voice.
Inside me is a sword-swinging hairy beast of a warrior poet, unfortunately trapped in the body of a girl with doll hands.
First impressions are stupid. They’re usually wrong. I have had to correct my erroneous first impressions of other people many times, which is great, because they usually turn out to be much more competent, bright, and easy to work with than I had guessed. Do other people put in the thought and focus to revise their first impressions favorably? Hard to say.
I had a funny moment at a panel interview recently. They told me I could make an opening statement. “In that case,” I said, “let’s get started.” I stood up and took off my cardigan, revealing my arms, and - I am not joking - everyone sat back and a few people said WHOA. I’m not jacked like Madonna or anything, but I do have some muscle definition from boxing.
I guess nobody expects that small girl with doll hands and the high voice to have these triceps or these trapezius muscles.
There are other ways of carrying gravitas, it turns out, than just gray hair.
Three years ago I set out to master my stage fright and become a confident public speaker. Somewhere along the way, it started to work. Then it seems that it started to work everywhere in my life. When I walk into a room, I know why I’m there and I know what I want to accomplish. I’m not looking for permission.
Permission? Permission to go into a shop or a cafe or a restaurant, where they are seeking my custom? Permission to go into a conference room where I am an invited guest? Permission to run a meeting that I scheduled?
I can’t quite figure out why I used to be so shy and nervous. I remember that I was, but I don’t remember why.
People are grateful to have someone in charge who has a plan. Most people hate making decisions. They want nothing to do with being in the spotlight, speaking in front of groups, or being held accountable for budgets and deadlines. They actively run screaming from evaluations. They’ll tolerate taskmasters and harsh disciplinarians, so long as it’s clear what they need to do. If someone who is actually a nice person steps up and shoulders those burdens, they’ll cheerfully cooperate.
When I was younger, I never felt that anyone would listen to me. It drove me crazy. I would have a good idea and I would share it and everyone would ignore it. On rare occasions, I would say something and the person next to me would repeat it, word for word, only louder. That person would get the credit. My ex-husband used to repeat my jokes that way, but it happened at work, too. I couldn’t figure out what to do to get people to listen to me.
I set out to earn credentials. Dean’s List in college. Race medals. Best Speaker ribbons. I put on my profile that I’m a marathon runner, a Mensan, and I study two martial arts. What does it take to intimidate people, anyway?? It’s not so much that I need to be the best; I don’t. I’m not all that competitive. It’s a matter of people not assuming that I’m the receptionist or customer service everywhere I go.
What I was looking for was something called ‘executive presence.’
Some of this gravitas known as executive presence comes from formal authority. If you’re the boss, you get introduced as the boss. Some of it comes from earned authority, as you gradually earn the respect of the people who know you. That comes from how you behave and how you communicate. What I’ve started to realize is that a major component of executive presence comes from external appearance.
I might have been able to get my ideas across as a younger person if I had realized how much I was communicating (or miscommunicating) through my wardrobe and general grooming.
I thought it was my age, my voice, my small stature. Maybe that played a part, but most of those factors are still the same. I thought aging and graying would help, and maybe they did, but also maybe not as much as I used to wish.
I hung onto my gray hair until I felt like I didn’t need it anymore. I’m finally the age that I always wanted to be.
Gretchen Rubin comes through my part of the world fairly often, and I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to go to a few of her readings and meet her. First of all, SHE IS SO NICE. The other thing that stands out, after her talk on Outer Order, Inner Calm, is how much the audience responds to this material. I’ve always thought she has delightfully subversive things to say about happiness and human behavior. It’s what she has to say about order and clutter that really seems to click with people the most.
When Gretchen asked how many people in the room make their bed every morning, nearly every hand went up. In fact I’m pretty sure they all did; I’m just hedging. Where else would this be true? Then she asked how many people make their bed even when they stay in a hotel, and everyone laughed because only a few hands went up. (Including mine!) I do it because it helps me make sure I haven’t lost anything in the bedding, like clothes, an eye mask, a pen, or my AirPods. Making the bed is part of my five-minute “perimeter check,” the way I’ve finally stopped losing objects when I travel.
For me, outer order is about mental bandwidth, not so much calmness as simply being able to think straight and remember what I’m doing. When the bed is made, I don’t need to worry about it. When my desk is clear, I don’t need to worry about it. When the counters are clear, I don’t need to worry about them. In a split second, I can glance around and know, there is nothing I need to do here. Now I can focus.
It does make relationships calmer. My husband prefers outer order as well, although for different reasons. I honestly believe he could concentrate on his work in the midst of a tornado or a kindergarten. For Upholders like him, an orderly environment just makes sense. There are no reasons to have things any other way. This is very helpful for me, because I work at home and I don’t need either the mess or the inevitable discussions about the mess!
I started reading this book on the bus on the way home from the Outer Order, Inner Calm event, and I hadn’t even finished it before I had cleared and reorganized an area. I live in a studio apartment with another human, a dog, and a parrot, and even though we own relatively few things, almost all our stuff is on open display at all times. Clearing even one square foot makes a noticeable difference. Not everyone feels it as quickly, though, when most people are used to living in a larger home with more things around them.
Here are some of the ideas that stood out to me:
“Use a photograph to evaluate clutter.” This definitely works. I do photo evaluations with clients all the time.
Choose a “flavor of the month.” Focus on sorting through only one category of object for a month. I need to do this again with my books. How about you?
Assign each day its own task. This also works well for me, since I keep a slightly different schedule every day of the week. I also combine errands because I don’t have a car.
Is your clutter backward-looking or forward-looking? How great a question is this? In my experience, almost all of my chronically disorganized clients are forward-looking types, who let old things go easily but hang on tightly to things like unused craft supplies and unread books.
The holiday rule: Something you want, something you need, something to wear, and something to read. Yes, please! Huge gift explosions at holidays have never made much sense to me. If this happens several times a year, where the heck does it all go??
This book is designed to be read in bursts. The sections are short and punchy. You can read a single page and find yourself jumping up to clear an area. As an organizer and someone who has been reviewing organizing books for years, I still found fresh insights and material that I’ve never seen anywhere else. Especially for Gretchen Rubin fans, Outer Order, Inner Calm is the perfect book to keep beside you as you start spring cleaning!
We want to cherish our possessions and we also want to feel free of them.
Working is one of the most dangerous forms of procrastination.
What would you accomplish with a magic task - a task that got completed overnight with no work from you?
Nothing is more exhausting than the task that’s never started.
I’m a Questioner. The day I found that out, so many things clicked into place for me. Like many of my kind, I learned about something new (the Rubin Tendencies), and it took hold of me and I started thinking about it (and talking about it) constantly. I dragged my Upholder husband along with me. After a few years of this, we probably have our own parallel universe based around someone else’s original idea.
[If you follow Gretchen Rubin, my husband and I are the exact opposite of Gretchen and Jamie. I’m an upholdery Questioner like him and my husband is a questiony Upholder like her].
I’d like to share a little perspective on what romance is like from the perspective of a Questioner.
For starters, let me share that my first husband was undoubtedly a fellow Questioner. We drove each other crazy, divorced after three years, and we haven’t seen or spoken to each other in, what, fifteen years? I have plenty of Questioner friends, but I don’t think I could ever be romantically involved with one again. Writing someone off based on a random character trait is exactly the kind of thing one of us would do.
As a Questioner, I am constantly revising my personal philosophy, engaging with various books and viewpoints and trends, and then shaking them off once I’ve finished exploring them. Books are my first love, my own creative work is my second, and maybe I’ll fit you somewhere onto the list if you’ve caught my attention.
It’s not you I’m evaluating so much as your perspective, your thoughts and opinions, or your ability to hold your own in our discussions.
I’m not wrong here, annoying as it might be. It’s my life and it’s up to me who captivates me or sparks my interest. I can’t just make myself love or like someone.
This is, I think, part of what drives Obligers crazy about Questioners.
Obligers will give their undying loyalty and affection out quite freely. Then they are hurt when those incredibly special feelings are not automatically reciprocated. Why can’t you love me the way I love you?? It takes another Obliger to do that, though.
You can’t buy someone else’s love, affection, and loyalty just by choosing them. It’s not quid pro quo.
What’s funny about this whole thing is that Obligers often find Questioners irresistible. I’ve been the unrequited crush for several Obligers over the years. Then they want to know, why can’t I fall for them, after all the times they cooked for me/baked me vegan chocolate chip cookies/followed me around/did me favors/bought me presents?
Do you really want me to answer that?
I know an Obliger woman who is constantly annoyed that nobody at work will eat her lovingly prepared homemade baked goods. She keeps doing it even after being rejected for years on end. (NB: they’re not rejecting her, they just aren’t into eating snacks at work, and she refuses to accept that, which is neither loving nor generous).
We’re all amazing for our own reasons. Upholders are amazing for their reliability and principles. Obligers are amazing for their incredible devotion. Rebels are amazing for their iconoclasm and willingness to take a stand over anything at any time.
Questioners? We’re the ones you all come to for recommendations. What should we eat for dinner? Which movie should we see? What are we reading next? Where should we go for vacation? Bangs or no bangs?
I kind of feel like my family thinks I’m full of [it], with the sole exceptions of restaurant recommendations and recipes. I’ll take them somewhere, and they’re still eating there ten years later.
I get asked for recommendations for book clubs that I’m not even in.
Advice is the main way my friends relate to me, and it makes perfect sense from my perspective!
Just asked my husband what he thinks about all this. What makes Questioners attractive? The first thing he said was “ideation.”
“In romance?” Honestly this was the last thing I would have expected him to say.
“We tend to re-evaluate what we do constantly. Are the things we’re doing still working for us? If they’re not, change it!”
What he’s talking about is our annual review process and our weekly status meetings. What, do other couples not do this? Next you’re going to tell me that you don’t even have a formal grievance procedure.
Also, I take dictation on my tablet keyboard while my husband is talking to me. Quite often.
It’s probably not surprising that an engineer would find a Questioner woman attractive.
Upholders run well together. They approve of each other’s methods. I went on vacation once with my husband, mother-in-law, and stepdaughter, all of whom are early-rising Upholders. Their modular suitcases fit perfectly in a row in the back of the vehicle. They each woke up promptly at 5:59 AM every day. They cheerfully got to venues half an hour before they opened and sat obediently in the chilly parking lot. Guess who made all the travel plans, mapped out all the attractions, chose all the restaurants, accommodated everyone’s food preferences, and was extremely tired the whole trip?
Pop culture is tough on my kind. We’re the Steve Urkels and the Hermione Grangers and the Sheldon Coopers. Find an irritating character in a movie or TV show, and guess what? It’s probably someone with strong Questioner traits. I get it, I actually do; I’ve been made to via decades of social exclusion. It’s tougher on a female. We’re supposed to be Obligers and we’re sometimes allowed to be Upholders. We’re not supposed to make other people uncomfortable by analyzing the status quo.
If you can appreciate us, though, we make for pretty interesting friends and fun romantic partners. In my marriage, I’m the one who plans the vacations. I introduced my husband to Indian, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Ethiopian, Afghani, and Korean cuisine, and if I remember right I also taught him to eat with chopsticks. I got him into public speaking and kickboxing and taught him ballroom dancing. I’m the one who suggests and plans our backpacking trips, even though he’s much more experienced and has better wilderness survival skills. If he had married anyone else, he probably would have spent all those years watching TV with his perfectly adequate, perfectly ordinary wife, as they both lived in the same house, worked the same jobs, and ate the same meals, year after year. He never would have known what he was missing.
If you have the great good fortune to win the love of a Questioner, here’s what you do. Whenever we annoy you, put your rebuttal in the form of a question. Are you sure you’re right? What if everyone thought that way? Cite your sources, and will you forward them to me? Make sure we spend plenty of time with our Questioner friends, send us out on fact-finding missions, and keep us well stocked with blank journals (electronic or otherwise). It’s a heavy burden to be the sole sounding board of a busy Questioner, so make sure you spread that around. In return we’ll keep your life interesting, if only you can keep up with us.
It happened again. For the second time in three months, I had a night terror episode. I thought I had this thing beat - it had only happened once in the last few years. Now that I’m wearing a sleep tracker to bed, I have more information, and some validation about what happens during night terrors.
Other than this particular night, I’ve had night terrors twice in the last few years. Once was at the end of a two-week experiment I was doing, to “give myself jet lag” in advance of a trip to Europe. The other was after a women’s counter-abduction workshop. These make sense to me for different reasons.
The jet lag experiment involved trying to shift my schedule by half an hour every night, so that I was closer to the schedule I’d be living during two weeks in Europe. It totally worked! It worked except for the last night, when I ran around trying to close down the house and put off eating dinner too long. I’d been messing with my sleep schedule for weeks, then I ate a full meal and tried to go to bed ninety minutes later.
Result: Woke up standing in my bathroom, shaking and crying. Decided to end jet lag experiment a day early.
The problem with the counter-abduction workshop was probably threefold. One, PTSD, enough said there. Two, I was bruised up and very stiff and sore. Three, I had a huge meal after the workshop. My working hypothesis is that blood sugar is key to night terrors, and I definitely threw it off that weekend. The night terror episode happened the second night after the workshop, so it’s somewhat surprising that it was delayed a day.
When it happened the other night, I felt really stupid, because it clicked into place what I had done.
I drank an 8-ounce glass of juice right before bed.
I fell asleep and woke up standing in my living room, heart racing. “A spider” had been “crawling on my husband.” I looked at the clock on the microwave and felt very annoyed that I’d only been asleep for about 35 minutes. Then I went back to bed.
[I’m not really all that bothered by spiders during the day. They’re purely an issue of my sleeping brain, probably a limbic system thing].
BOOM, it happened again. “The same spider” was “crawling on the wall” on my side of the bed. I looked at the clock on my phone. Are you kidding me??? Thirty-five minutes!
Usually night terrors seem to happen within the first 90 minutes of the sleep cycle. It was a little weird for my personal experience to have them that soon after I drifted off to sleep. I blame the juice, though.
The reason I was drinking juice right before bed is that I was recovering from a stomach bug, and the juice has probiotics. I hadn’t quite hit my hydration goal for the day and it seemed like a good idea.
I got sick at the tail end of a week and a half of intensive event planning, a week in which I got very little sleep. Stress was high and I ate dinner after 9 PM a few nights.
What seems to be going on is a combination of stress level and blood sugar. I’ve had sleep issues since I was seven, and there may be some kind of genetic propensity toward this condition. I’ve been managing ever since I made the connection between blood sugar and sleep, and started timing my meals.
My main goal is to stop eating three hours before I go to sleep. I am not always able to avoid this, and eating closer to bedtime does not automatically trigger night terrors. The rare occasions that I’ve had them, though, are connected to eating or drinking something closer to the time I fall asleep.
I first became aware of this connection after going on a very strict three-month calorie restriction diet. My “reward” for making my weight goal was to eat a chocolate truffle. I saved it for after dinner, and I savored it. Then I had night terrors for the first time in months. I immediately blamed the candy, because chocolate had been on my list of possible triggers for some time. Then I thought a bit more and put some ideas together.
I had been tracking my metrics for years, looking for an answer. I kept a detailed food log, which is how I found out that paprika triggers sleep disturbances for me. I logged all my exercise. I kept a spreadsheet with all my sleep disturbances, including whether I screamed, jumped out of bed, crawled on the floor, opened doors, and/or ran through the house sound asleep in the dark.
The connection: When I went on my strict diet, I quit eating my late-night snack. I had been in the habit of eating something before bed, usually either a large bowl of cereal or a can of peaches. Whatever I had, it was always sweet and in the range of 500 calories.
A friend who works with dementia patients confirmed that many of them experience night terrors, and that it’s widely recognized as a blood sugar issue. I wish I’d known that sooner, although I probably wouldn’t have made the connection to my own eating habits.
I don’t think it has as much to do with *what* I eat as with *when* I eat. I eat candy and desserts, and they only seem to cause night terror episodes if I eat that stuff after dinner, not in the afternoon. Same with paprika: I can eat it, just not late in the evening.
Obviously people who do not have problems with night terrors (aka pavor nocturnus) can eat whatever they want. There are likely to be a lot of different triggers for night terrors besides blood sugar or meal timing. Maybe various medications, trauma, dementia, or other health conditions are factors. For me, meal timing has made a proven difference.
I just need to put a sticker on my juice bottle reminding me of that.
If all of your projects were cats, what would your house look like?
I have no idea, because I have a parrot and a dog, and that’s probably more along the lines of where my project list is right now. A bizarre menagerie that somehow manages to play together, however unlikely it might sound! Imagine, though, the muddy paw prints, the loose feathers, the shredded newspaper and chewed toys that come from these two curious beasties.
That’s the thing about projects, and why they are like pets. They are entities unto themselves, they deserve respect, they require constant care and feeding, and they... they generate unpredictable messes.
One cat. One cat can jump up on counters, claw furniture, tear up carpet, knock things over, wake everyone up in the middle of the night yowling for no discernible reason. One cat is always, always on the wrong side of the door. One cat makes sure everyone knows there IS a cat, a pouncing bouncing flouncing cat. One cat!
That’s your one project.
Two cats! Two cats either like or dislike one another. I had roommates, once upon a time, and they had two cats. One was a shy black cat and the other one was a drama queen tortoiseshell with an over-the-top silent meow. At some point, they were best friends and they would nap together and bathe each other. Then, they quit getting along. They managed to lock themselves into the upstairs bathroom in a chase game. One knocked the other’s front tooth out. That’s the kind of thing that can happen with two cats.
That’s also the kind of thing that can happen when you have two projects. You don’t foresee, when you adopt them both, that they might start to have conflicts. The presence of one irritates and annoys the other. They get in each other’s way. Then the fur starts to fly.
That’s when you have two projects.
They start to add up, don’t they? When there are two cats, there can just as easily be three. After that, the more porous the boundaries of the household, the more likely there are to be more and more.
More and more projects.
At a certain point, nobody can count them. Then you find a surprise basket of frail blind mewling baby projects hiding behind the dryer. Where did they come from??
Projects that demand food. Projects that knock things over. Projects that wake you up at all hours. Projects that make a mess. Projects that take over your entire house. Projects that somehow seem to reproduce behind your back. Projects that generate surprising expenses. Projects that may still be around 20 years from now!
This metaphor, cat = project, makes a lot of sense to me right now. That’s because I’ve become the neighborhood Crazy Project Lady.
What does this look like in action?
I’m constantly moving one on and off my desk.
They demand my attention at any time between 6:00 AM and 12:30 AM. Avoid making eye contact! Pretend to be asleep! Oh, yes, yes, you’re starving, you can’t possibly wait until breakfast time, I get it.
Every time I think I’ve found a home for one, another one shows up.
That’s how my parents wound up with their third cat several years ago. Suddenly this mysterious creature they had never seen was using the litter box. Their second cat befriended her and ushered her in. She and First Cat became inseparable, so what were they supposed to do? And a ten-year commitment was made.
That’s what happens with your projects when it doesn’t occur to you to say a clear and firm UM, NO.
What kinds of projects are going on, O Crazy Project Lady?
Volunteering for an office,
Which leads to
Joining a committee,
Which leads to
Chairing a committee,
Which leads to
Running an event
Which leads to
Being nominated for a higher-level office
Which leads to
Being volunteered for more committees
Which leads to...
Once upon a time, the projects were things like “knit booties before baby shower” and “plan vacation” and “plan Thanksgiving menu” and “send New Year’s cards.” Now most of those projects are STILL ON THE LIST and there’s another basket of little blinking new projects behind the dryer. The big one is carrying a little one by the scruff of the neck.
At a certain point, either you realize that your house is full of projects - striped projects, calico projects, orange projects and gray projects and black projects and white projects - or someone points it out to you. At some point, you either need to shut the door and quit bringing home new projects, or start finding homes for them. There has to be an exit strategy.
In my pet life, I learned early on that I needed to practice planned parrothood. I LOVE BIRDS and at least once a year, someone asks if I can give a “forever home” to another one. If I had said yes to all of these birds, parrots that can live for thirty years or more, I’d have to have a bird sanctuary out in the countryside. You’d be able to hear the squawking from five miles away. And I’d have to do it as a single woman because that’s an extremely specific life path, the kind of thing you don’t just sneak past a husband. My choice was one parrot, one husband, because the alternative would be infinite parrots, no husband.
It’s sort of that way with any tendency to collect projects. There has to be room for the rest of your life. An accounting has to be made of your schedule, your finances, your sleep, your housekeeping, the other projects you have already adopted, and, of course, the feelings and needs of the other members of your household.
That’s what’s crazy about the Crazy Cat Lady, just as with the Crazy Project Lady. We’re talking about a person who does not know how to say no. A person who does not know how to set boundaries, a Crazy Project Lady may be saying YES to adopting every cute project that shows up crying at the door, even at the expense of everything else in her life.
This is what I’m doing now. I’m standing at my threshold, peeking out the door and blocking it with my body. No, no, I can’t possibly take in any more, my house is already full of these darn things. Thanks for thinking of me!
“Your paycheck is your thank-you.” Every manager and employer seems to think this. Almost no employees agree. This is a huge mystery to me, partly because it takes a split second to say “thank you” and it costs nothing. Why would this be so hard to do? Check the box! Even the brattiest four-year-old is capable of begrudgingly grinding out a forced thank-you. Just say it. Geez. It’s basic good manners.
Beyond gratitude, I’m starting to find that there is one more free thing that most people find terrifically motivating, and that is praise. Even the tiniest amount of praise! It’s hard to come by in this world and people are hungry for it. They may not even realize that they’re orienting their entire lives around a chance to hear a few words of approval.
The art of the extremely specific compliment is something I’ve been honing for years. I’ve found that if you say something true and positive that is not necessarily obvious, you can utterly transform someone’s attitude. You can sometimes also transform their self-concept. They won’t be able to stop thinking about what you said.
I’ve heard from people years after the fact, that they remembered something I said about them, something I don’t even remember having said. That’s partly because I do this all the time. It’s a routine, like leaving a tip or waving goodbye.
When I started learning to give evaluations in Toastmasters, it amplified this art of the extremely specific compliment. It’s fairly easy to give someone one sentence about something they did well. Try extending that to two or three minutes, and it takes more thought.
It’s possible to give the same piece of advice in multiple ways. Say your feedback is that someone [isn’t talking loud enough] because [nobody can hear them in the back of the room]. Honestly that comes across as criticism. To a vulnerable novice who is feeling extremely nervous and inadequate, that feedback can be devastating! One piece of relatively mild critique instead of effusive support and praise can stop that person from ever trying again.
Slip that critique in between four or five compliments, and it’s easier to take.
Phrase it instead as helpful advice, something that explains how to fix the issue, and you have their attention.
“You can work on projecting by aiming your voice at the back wall. [Demonstrate posture and voice projection]. That will start to happen as you feel more comfortable.” Nothing about this comes across as a critique, because it isn’t.
THEN include the praise, support, and encouragement.
My goal is to mention at least twelve things the person is doing well. I also look for something unique, a special talent that this person may not realize is hidden in there, in amongst the insecurity and inexperience. I sometimes run out of time to point out all the things the person is doing well, so if I think of more, I’ll pull them aside and tell them afterward, or write them a note later.
This works. No fewer than four of mine just won first place in different speaking contests. If I had been more critical and less supportive, they might not be there at all.
I WAS RIGHT. My praise was technically accurate, precise, and correct. They knew it. They rose to the level of my expectations, which is what people always do.
This is what happens when you make a habit of lavish praise. People notice. They take it in. Their eyes glitter. The next time they see you, they sit up straight and wave. Make people feel seen in the best way, and they’ll never forget you.
Why can’t people do this at work?
There’s another trick that can be added to this art of the extremely specific compliment. That is to praise someone who isn’t there. If you’re consistently heard “spreading gossip” of the positive variety, it becomes clear that this is your pattern of behavior. It reinforces this concept that your praise is to be believed. If someone hears you say something positive and true about another person, and they agree with your assessment, it helps them believe the nice things you had to say about them, too.
People usually don’t believe it when someone pays a compliment. We’re taught to brush it off. We expect all performance evaluations to be negative and painful. Why, though?
It’s entirely possible to hold people accountable for their performance without going negative. If you get the motivation and incentives down right, though, you don’t usually need the accountability.
What’s wrong with the work world for a lot of people is that they’re expected to comply with someone else’s strict rules and regulations. They’re only really noticed if they mess up, by coming in late, missing a deadline, or doing a task imperfectly. They start to feel flinchy about even walking in the door. They start to wake up with dread in the pit of their stomach. They start feeling depressed all day on their day off, unable to stop thinking about how much they hate going in to work.
What does that do to performance? Seriously? How can that kind of emotional environment possibly motivate people to work harder or do a better job?
This is why I talk about the praise engine. When people are noticed for doing well, when they are praised for bringing something special, when it’s clear that they’re offering something unique and valuable, then they associate the work with their identity. They start working for pride and personal satisfaction. At that point you don’t need to motivate them to work - you need to motivate them to take breaks and go home, because otherwise you can’t stop them.
Not only that. When you start up the praise engine, other people start to learn to operate it. They learn by your example. You start hearing other people give evaluations and teach methods in your style. You realize you’ve created a culture that propagates itself.
Get yourself a praise engine. It fuels itself. It costs nothing to run. It builds copies of itself and does its own maintenance. It’s also a lot easier and cheaper than having to continually replace all your unmotivated, demoralized staff.
This is the book for those who haven’t gotten very far with clearing clutter by focusing on one item at a time. Joshua Becker offers a better way with The Minimalist Home: A Room-by-Room Guide to a Decluttered, Refocused Life. Focus on the space and how you use it, not the items that are in it. Having lived this process, Becker shares how minimalism can change your relationships, your emotions, and ultimately your entire life.
Clutter causes a lot of problems that we might not realize until we start thinking about it. Resentment is the biggest one. We think of our own stuff as “valuable” and that of our housemates (partners, kids) as “clutter” and “junk.” Everything would be fine if only I had the entire house to store MY stuff! YOUR mess is messing everything up! Becker points out that minimalism is not only easier to keep neat, it also saves time and money. What else do people quarrel over if not those three areas?
The best reason to consider this process is the “minimalism dividend.” Refocus your time, space, energy, and finances around the way you want to live your life. If you feel like you don’t have “enough” (time, money, space) to adopt a child, relocate, go back to school, train for a marathon, or whatever else is your dream, why is that? Becker offers examples of readers who have transformed their lives even under serious constraints, like illness or having seven kids. He also shares that he and his wife started a charitable foundation after they became minimalists.
The hands-on chapters are very practical, clear, and specific, with checklists for each room. There is a method for setting goals, working with other household members, and moving from one room to another. Becker suggests starting with the living room because that’s the area where most people spend the most time, and it’s the first place that guests see. Household members should clear their own personal areas, and may take the initiative after seeing how well it’s going in the rest of the house.
The Minimalist Home draws attention to how we use rooms and how they make us feel. Hospitality is one characteristic on the list. Do guests feel welcome when they visit? Do we ourselves feel welcome in our own homes? I always think of that common saying, found on so many fridge magnets, signs, and pillows: “Sorry for the mess but we live here.” Um, did you want me to come back another time? Or we could meet at the park? Whatever we feel when we’re at home, “defensive” or “resentful” hopefully don’t come up too often.
Becker cites research, statistics, and reader feedback to back up his points about minimalism. For instance, hoarders have worse sleep, and the more cluttered their homes, the more likely they are to have a sleep disorder. (My parasomnia disorder is a major reason I moved toward minimalism, because it’s so dangerous to have stuff in the way when I sleepwalk). The average large kitchen typically has over a thousand individual items, and even a small one has over six hundred, which is hard to believe until you actually try to count up all the utensils in a single drawer. Sometimes a single data point can help to put things in perspective, reminding us that we are part of an era and that our stuff problems are shared, cultural problems.
One of the benefits of minimalism is being able to pay off debt and save money toward other goals. My husband and I did this a few years ago, and we agree with Becker that minimalism makes it possible to move to a smaller, yet nicer, home. We’re in one-quarter of the space we had as newlyweds, we saved 48% of our net income last year, and we travel all the time. We look forward to discussing our finances because we’re almost always doing better than we had planned. It helps us to feel closer to each other. We could expand back into a larger home with more stuff anytime, but why would we, when it would just mean less vacation money and more time doing housework?
Don’t focus on holding up one item at a time and asking how it fits into your life. Pull back and look at your home, your daily life, your relationships with everyone in your household, your finances, and whether you are all living your dreams. Not this shirt, but whether your wardrobe makes you feel fabulous. Not that book, but whether you feel rested and that you have plenty of time to do everything you want to do. Not this cute little decoration, but how you and your partner feel about your finances. Not that kitchen canister, but whether your social life is working for you. Why focus on one consumer item at a time when every other part of your life is more valuable?
Give yourself the house you’ve always wished you had. You’ve already got it! It’s hidden underneath all your stuff.
Not every possession is a belonging.
One underappreciated benefit of minimalism is the ability to walk confidently through your bedroom with the lights off.
Think less about who you were. Focus more on who you are becoming.
Decisions, decisions. What is it about decisions that is so difficult for people? We’d rather suffer than have to make a choice that involves a tough decision. Avoiding these choice points has a tendency of adding up, and that’s where decision debt comes from.
If you hate your job, why are you still there?
If you’re unhappy in your relationship, why are you still together?
More to the point, how many times do I have to get bangs before I finally realize that I can’t have bangs?
Decisions are easy for me because I enjoy change for the sake of change. I’ve moved over two dozen times, for instance, and I’ve literally tried every flavor of every brand of toothpaste at my store. Even apricot. Frame decisions rather as a series of experiments, and it feels less like risk and more like... fun.
Go to a restaurant and make a point of trying every dish at least once, unless of course you realize you don’t care for their food. Maybe make a point of going to every restaurant in your neighborhood instead. There was a Mensa group in my old city that had spent over a decade attempting to sample every single Chinese restaurant in the greater Los Angeles area. Fun, right?
Under those circumstances, getting the occasional uninspiring dish can be funny, rather than disappointing.
Maybe that’s one of the big problems with decisions? Being afraid that it won’t work out well? But then, what happens after that? Time continues to travel onward and other decision points continue to turn up, right?
The haircut grows out, there’s another lunch and another dinner tomorrow, there are more jobs to be had, and there will always be another musician to date.
When you’re driven by curiosity, it takes a lot of the dread out of decisions, because you can’t wait to find out what’s going to happen next! When you’re eager for the result, the decision is no more of a big deal than flipping a switch or fastening a button. It’s just a small piece in an overall grand plan.
As an example, when my husband got his dream job, a whole series of decisions popped into position. In under two weeks, we had given away or sold almost everything we owned (including OUR CAR) and moved into a tiny apartment at the beach. Other people might have agonized over whether to keep or get rid of each and every tiny item, from a pancake flipper to a pair of pants, and wept bitter tears. We were so fired up about DREAM JOB + LIVE AT THE BEACH that we couldn’t throw stuff over our shoulders fast enough.
Decisions are easier when there’s a total paradigm shift. First there was “the time we lived in the North Bay and went running together a lot.” Then there was “the time we lived in the Sacramento area and did a lot of gardening and canning.” Then there was “the time we moved south and I finally lost my weight.” After that there was “the time we got rid of everything, went car-free, and moved to the beach.” Very different lifestyles in each case, same people, same marriage, different home, different stuff.
We don’t tend to build up much decision debt because we do a lot of strategic planning.
Every New Year, we spend at least the few days around New Year’s Eve going over the past year and making plans. What worked well? What didn’t? What do we want to change? Where do we want to go on vacation? Do we need to save more money or cut back on the french fries for a while? We check in every weekend at our breakfast status meeting. It’s fun because these are our plans, plans that we made in order to have more fun and a better quality of life.
Decisions are lifestyle upgrades!
I keep an actual list, a page in my day planner called DECISIONS. They go in the format “which,” “when,” or “whether to.” I write out the decision, and then I put a check mark next to it once I decide what to do. Later on, these decisions always seem hilarious to me because they’ve worked out, like when I couldn’t decide to upgrade my desktop but it turned out to cost half of what I had expected. Sometimes the passing of time makes the decision for me.
I’ve just checked my decision list, and the undecided decisions all have to do with time-consuming activities. These are things I really want to do, but realistically, I’m overextended already. If I had the time to do them, they’d already be in my calendar. Calling them ‘decisions’ is a way of saying “I’m too busy but I don’t want to rule this out.” For a lot of people, decision debt may be more of a question of time debt, or even financial debt.
A case could be made that both time debt and financial debt are also cases of decision debt.
At some point, a strategic decision needs to be made, because at some point, being too busy and overbooked can make you ill. Being overextended financially can lead to progressively more expensive problems. Something’s got to give.
Making a decision list can be a big help in paying off decision debt. It makes the choice point real in your mind. Secretly writing something like “whether to stay in this relationship” or “when to see the doctor” is a way of admitting that the current situation is not your ultimate fantasy.
Why not be working at your dream job? Every day you stay at a job you hate is cheating both your employer and yourself, not to mention your clients, customers, and anyone who depends on you.
Why not be in your dream romance? Every day you stay in a relationship that has died for you, you’re cheating your partner and yourself, not to mention the other people you could both be with instead.
Why not be thrilled and blissed out by your life? What would have to happen in order to feel that way, to be in love with how lucky you are?
What decisions do you need to make? How much decision debt do you have to pay off in order to move forward?
First off, don’t get in the van. This is an R-rated post about physical danger and self-defense. When you read the phrase “Get in the van,” hear it in a grim and menacing voice, the voice of a highly trained sadist and criminal who intends to do you great harm.
If you’re looking for motivation, here is your motivation.
Someone might try to throw you in a van one day. Worse, they might grab a child, your child, your friend’s child, and throw the kid in the van right in front of you. What are you prepared to do about it?
I train in Krav Maga, a system of martial arts designed for smaller, weaker people to fight larger, stronger people. A core training goal is the fighting mindset, to continue to fight when you are physically exhausted and confused and demoralized and experiencing a massive adrenalin dump. Part of our discipline is to vividly imagine specific physical threats and then confront them.
As a result, I have practiced several ways of getting out of chokeholds and wrestling my way out from under attackers. I have practiced gun and knife disarms. I have practiced fighting with knives, hammers, screwdrivers, and ink pens. I can throw eight different kinds of elbow strikes, and that’s just to the rear. I have fought five people at once. I have fought with my hands duct-taped together. I have fought in the dark. I have fought with a sack over my head.
(You have to pay extra for that, though).
The owner of our school is a man so physically imposing that it’s impossible not to notice. He trains police officers and soldiers and military contractors. He has the natural ease and stance of pure confidence. It’s arresting. He holds the room effortlessly. This is what he has to say about training in self-defense.
There are predators in this world. They’re angry because they didn’t get what they wanted in childhood and they’re looking to take it out on someone. They pick on women because we’re easier targets. We’re smarter, but we’re smaller and weaker and we don’t have the same drive for aggression. We’re also distracted by our constant multitasking, and that makes us easy marks.
We should be on the lookout, aware at all times of who is within fifty feet of us. We should have our eyes up and our hands free. We should hold our keys so that we’re ready to unlock the door, not to fight with them, because punching with keys hurts and because you might break your keys. You need them to get away.
Even though intellectually we know that we should be alert, rather than distracted, we let ourselves get distracted. We’re distracted by our phones, our music, our to-do lists, our many bags, our children, and all the other things that distract the typical multitasking, busy woman. We don’t look up even when we know we should, and we have our eyes down when we don’t even realize we’re doing it.
That’s one takeaway. No matter how else you feel about anything else I write, please take away that anyone is capable of being more alert. At least a minute or two each day, keep your eyes up and your hands free when you’re going between your door and your vehicle.
Let’s think about predators and prey. What do prey animals do? How does a predator choose its prey?
Prey are weaker. Slower, older, younger, less physically capable. A predator cuts them away from the safety of the herd and takes them to a secluded area. A predator is excited when the prey animal runs faster, getting tired and further isolated.
How do we stop acting like prey? Stay alert, yes, but what else?
Take care of ourselves.
In the context of self-defense, this should not be considered controversial. It is a basic, quantifiable measure. Fitness literally means the ability to physically survive. By definition it is a biological survival trait. It applies to a vole or a sparrow just as it applies to us.
When someone yells RUN FOR YOUR LIVES, can you? (Wildfire, flash flood, gas leak, tsunami, tornado, terrorist, bomb threat, active shooter, home invader, serial rapist, murderer). How far can you run? When is the last time you tested that ability in yourself?
How much of what we do is visualization, the momentary excitement of watching a tense sequence in an action film? How much of what we do is physical, real action in real conditions?
I know how fast I can run up a flight of stairs because I run up flights of stairs every week. I know how fast I can sprint down the street because I sprint down the street. I know I can fight five people because I train it in class. I don’t have to imagine what it’s like to get my wrists taped together because I just did it.
I do have to imagine someone trying to kidnap a child right in front of me, because fortunately that has not happened. I have, though, had to sprint to grab a child (more than once) because little kids suddenly try to run out in the street or into danger. If I were slower I can’t say what might have happened.
This doesn’t have to do with body image. I don’t concern myself much with that. If I did, I wouldn’t be able to leave the house with a black eye and a big bruise on my face. People Will Think: my husband did it, I have no self-esteem, anything other than “she is a kickboxer.” It’s none of my business what other people think about my body and what my body looks like. If they notice me at all, they must have nothing better to do, and that’s boring and sad.
What I do concern myself with is what my body can do. How much energy do I have? How capable do I feel? The feeling of “no, no, I can’t” extends everywhere, into every part of life.
No, no, I can’t try for that promotion.
No, no, I can’t update my resume.
No, no, I can’t afford X, Y, or Z.
No, no, I can’t get sweaty or dirty.
No, no, I can’t set boundaries with other people.
No, no, I can’t make a fuss or inconvenience anyone.
No, no, I can’t make a mean face.
No, no, I can’t raise my voice and yell BACK OFF.
No, no, I can’t make a fist.
When someone yells at me to get in the van, I’ll get in the van, and there I’ll join the endless parade of dead women, made beautiful in their final photo, sainted and martyred by senseless violence. Even better, the photo of the little lost child who was stolen right in front of me, that photo will look great on the news. It’ll be a movie of the week.
“There was nothing I could do,” I’ll say, weeping prettily, because I never knew I could. I never knew there was something I could do.
That’s a visual that is motivating to me. I run through pictures in my mind, images of children who are important to me, laughing and happy, and then I picture the hands of an experienced predator grabbing at them. It gets my blood up.
There’s another visual that is motivating to me. It comes from horror films and it’s reinforced by true crime. I sometimes watch movies or TV episodes before I go to class, while I’m eating the large, heavy meals I eat before I train. A man, a scary man. Chases a woman, grabs a woman, chokes a woman. Stabs a woman. Pop culture runs almost purely on images of vulnerable femininity, and this is useful for training purposes. Picture that it’s you. Picture that it’s your friend. Notice a pregnant woman out in the world, and picture yourself standing between her and danger. I got you, honey, now RUN!
The fastest I ever ran was out with my husband, trail running in our favorite park at sunset. I slapped his butt and took off, and he sped up and came after me. I imagined he was an axe murderer, coming at me through the trees as the sun went down. It was exhilarating. I could hear his heavy tread behind me, his big boots thudding as we both ran as fast as we could. He couldn’t catch me and I got away. When I explained later what I was doing, he laughed and shook his head. “Whatever it takes,” he said.
I don’t give a damn about body image. If I do, it’s because I like to make people flinch when they see my big arms. I can ballroom dance backward in high heels, I can bring a crowd-pleasing lasagna to a potluck, I can plan a wedding, I can carry a child to bed without waking her up. I can also fight five dudes with my hands taped together. All of these images are consistent with womanhood. It is a core duty of an adult female to protect children, and fighting like a crazy bitch from hell can easily be integrated with that.
I hope at least one thing I have written here makes you angry. I hope it gets under your skin and that you can’t stop muttering about it. I hope it gets your attention enough that you make a change to your default behavior, and that if you pick only one, it is to keep your eyes up and your hands free.
I also hope it gives you cause to reconsider your relationship with your physical energy level and your body image. Come join me and lace up your gloves. You can hit me first if you want, I don’t mind.
Where do you start? This is the most common question about anything, any time. In chaos, it’s even harder to know where to start. Where does it end and where does it begin?
The secret is, it doesn’t matter where you start if it’s all going to get done eventually. When you’re trying to dig out clutter in the home, it’s really about what matters the most to you. Suggestions of where to start are probably just going to make you think of all the reasons why that is actually the wrong place to start.
Fine, then start somewhere else!
In my mind, though, for most people it’s going to be paper. I’ve never met anyone who was 100% on top of their paper piles. Even people who are into electronic everything tend to have issues with paper. It’s okay!
This is why I suggest that you get an empty laundry basket and throw your mail into it. Carry it around, or have someone carry it for you, and consolidate all your papers. Then, if you need to look for it, you’ll know that it’s somewhere in that basket.
Some of you are already thinking that there’s no way one laundry basket will be enough. True. I’ve seen a lot and I believe you. There are two ways you can do it:
Every cluttered home is different. Some are spotless and magazine-ready except for one terrible, scary room. (Scary because the inhabitants live in fear that someone will find out their Secret Shame). Others are mildly lived-in, with a small amount of clutter in every room. Yet others are utterly filled, chaos everywhere, and those are the rooms that belong to my people.
I like to encourage my people to reclaim areas, one square foot at a time. Eventually an entire table or countertop might be bought back. Then an entire room is done. (It can happen!). Working a little bit here and there means there’s never really much to show for all that effort.
If the major problem in the home is mail and other papers, then dealing with the papers is going to have the biggest impact. That’s an instant visual impact and it’s also going to affect mental bandwidth. Get the papers out of the way, and what’s left might be a totally normal, functioning room!
It all starts to feel more manageable.
The thing about paper is that almost none of it is really necessary. At least 80% of it you’re never going to look at again. That means it’s just taking up space and making everything confused. When you can’t find the one thing that you really do need, it’s because it’s buried in with all the unimportant stuff. If you know it’s somewhere in one stack, one filing cabinet, or one laundry basket, then you can find it.
You can even show someone else the basket and ask them to look in it.
What’s standard in the homes of my chronically disorganized people is that there are papers everywhere. Papers in the windowsills, on the bookshelves, on the dressers and nightstands, in drawers, in backpacks and purses and briefcases, in cubbyholes, and definitely on the dining table. Every single room has important papers in it, mixed in with piles that are useless.
Stress tends to make us pace back and forth and keep checking the same spots over and over again, even when we’ve already checked and we know the item isn’t there. (Sometimes it actually IS there and our stress levels were so high that we didn’t notice it or realize what it was). This is why it’s so helpful to go around and gather all the papers from every room, and instead make sure they’re all in one spot.
Ahh, but what if there are 87 million metric tons of paper? What then??
This is the other purpose of the laundry basket for gathering and consolidating papers. It’s a unit of measure. If you’re trying to sort, file, archive, shred, recycle, or toss papers, the only way to do it all at once is via arson, which I don’t advise as it is a potentially lethal crime. A laundry basket load is really quite a lot of paper to sort. Even if it’s entirely filled with magazines or newspapers, it’s a lot.
Maybe do one laundry basket load a week, or a month? Or ask someone who enjoys this sort of thing to help out.
Oddly, papers are one of the fastest and easiest categories to sort when I do home visits. That’s because they’re confusing, but they’re usually not important for emotional reasons. It’s very easy for me to sort through piles of unopened mail, for instance, because it’s usually just 2-3 years’ worth of mail from the same dozen organizations. The logos all match and the envelopes are the same size. It’s no harder than sorting through a stack of playing cards. The client then shrugs and shreds entire stacks at a time.
Meanwhile, sorting a laundry basket load of baby clothes can take a million years, because each piece has so many memories. The client feels like sharing those clothes with a new mom and a new baby is tantamount to throwing away her own child. No, no, I can’t let go of this one. Craft supplies, same struggle, different reason. I was going to USE that! (Three years ago).
Nobody ever says, Oh, I can’t possibly shred that three-year-old electric bill, oh, my heart!
All you really need is your identification, a list of account numbers, and your tax returns. Any accounts that you have, if you owe them money, they’ll find you, and they’ll keep contacting you. Never worry about that. All the truly necessary and important papers generated by one person over one lifetime should easily fit in a fireproof safe. That’s a lot smaller than a laundry basket.
Throw your mail in a laundry basket. Tape a sign to it with the date that you put it in. Then wait and see how much time goes by before you actually need anything from that basket.
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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