Some people are natural minimalists. They can look around, decide that it’s time to make a change, and get rid of virtually everything they own in a weekend. These are the people who travel the world with one carry-on bag, or relocate to a new city with only what will fit in the back seat of a compact car. Then, there are the rest of us.
It’s easy to stuff things in a box or closet or storage unit and forget about them for months or years on end. Then we see those things again and remember why we wanted to keep them. This stuff is awesome! We get caught up in how much we like the individual object and lose sight of the fact that we have 10x more of these objects than we need. If the stuff was not awesome, it would be easy to get rid of it, right?
One strategy that can help is to make a game out of it. The goal is to reduce net clutter. Sometimes we find ourselves in a situation in which the house is full of stuff, but there’s a bunch of stuff we want and don’t have yet. We know we’re going to cave in and buy the new stuff. How can we do this without eventually being buried under it all?
One solution is to trade old things for new things. Any time one object comes into the house, at least two objects have to go out. If an object of a certain size comes in, a combination of objects that takes up a greater amount of space has to go out. Let’s say I really want a set of ice traction devices for my hiking boots. They are not big or heavy. I can choose to get rid of a board game or a couple of paperback books, or anything else that is larger than the new thing. I can also quibble with myself over whether the traction devices count as one thing or two, since they are a pair. So maybe I throw out an old pair of worn-out socks too. Another approach is to raise the money for the new item by selling other things. The ice traction devices cost $15, and it’s surprising how much it takes to raise that kind of cash through a yard sale or secondhand website!
In the pantry: Cook a recipe that uses up at least one container or package before replacing it. Set a goal to use up anything over a year old.
In the closet: Wear every item at least once in the appropriate season. Keep only items that can be worn in at least two combinations of outfits. Trade singletons for more versatile pieces.
On the bookshelf: Read and pass on two books for every new book that comes in.
Following this method may be a way to sustain motivation to go through truly valueless clutter, like piles of junk mail, old catalogs, or boxes that have remained sealed across multiple moves. Getting rid of this useless old stuff can be a nice excuse for splurging on a new treat that will actually get used.
(with apologies to Meghan Trainor)
Because you know I’m all about that mess
‘Bout that mess, Hey rebels!
I’m all ‘bout that mess, ‘bout that mess, Hey rebels!
I’m all ‘bout that mess, ‘bout that mess, Hey rebels!
I’m all ‘bout that mess, ‘bout that mess
Yeah it’s pretty clear, I ain’t no Martha Stew-
Art, don’t want to decorate it like I’m “supposed to” do
‘Cause I got a junk room, out of storage space
All the right junk in all the wrong places
I got the magazines, I’m like my own thrift shop
And every inch of it is cluttered
From the bottom to the top
Yeah, my momma she told me they don’t give a housework prize
She says, don’t worry ‘bout it more than if we were guys
You know I won’t be no domestic pre-feminist hausfrau,
So, if that’s what you’re into then go ahead and get out now
I’m bringing duty back
Go ahead and tell them neat freak bitches Hey
No, I’m just playing I know you think you’re slobs,
But these aren’t women’s jobs,
Everybody delegate them from the basement to the shop
Yeah, my momma she told me don’t tolerate lazy guys
She says, don’t date men who are little boys in disguise
You know I won’t be no scullery, trying to do it all
So, if that’s what you’re into then hang up and please don’t call
For some reason, I’ve been fixating on going back to school lately. It makes me think back to my non-traditional path to university, and how many things I learned the hard way. (I learn pretty much everything the hard way; it tends to stick in your memory longer…)
I got accepted to my first choice school, based entirely on my then-boyfriend’s help with applications, scheduling the SAT and ACT, giving me rides, tutoring me in math, etc. (He has a PhD now and he wound up marrying a molecular biologist). The acceptance letter came, and with it, a financial aid package that did not account for a fairly significant chunk. I had no idea what to do next. I’d never had a real job and I didn’t know how to drive or how I would get to Illinois. I didn’t go. (Past Self, you should have taken the letter to the guidance counselor, where you would have found out how to apply for a student loan).
At 22, I got married, partly because I had it in my head that being married would mean I wouldn’t have to report my parents’ income on the financial aid application. (True, but a decision with dire consequences). At some point, I rode the bus to PSU and picked up a course catalog, because I didn’t know much about the Internet back then. We still used floppy disks! I think it was several months later when I applied, because I didn’t know that you can start any term you like – there’s no need to wait for September. I had also read a huge stack of books and written a research paper because I thought you had to write an essay. (I never showed it to anyone).
I was working full time, so I would ride my bike to campus, shower at the gym, and take a morning class. Then I would ride my bike to work and put in my eight hours, taking a short lunch. At the end of the day, I would ride my bike back to campus for my afternoon and evening classes. All I knew about credit-hours was that the more you took, the cheaper they were per unit. There was nobody to tell me that 14 credits and a full-time job is a pretty heavy load. I would ride my bike home in the dark and rain and settle in to do my homework, then go to bed for 3-4 hours of sleep. I just paid my tuition every quarter and bought my books with cash.
I didn’t know that ‘undergrad’ or ‘undergraduate’ meant what you do before you get your bachelor’s degree. I didn’t know what grad school was. I thought those ‘101’ numbers before classes referred to the floor of the building, or maybe a geographical sector of campus, which is how I found my freshman self struggling to pull a B in a 400-500 level course on neurolinguistics.
I made the Dean’s List. I didn’t know what that was either.
In my sophomore year, I started collapsing on the floor a lot. I fainted at work and I fainted at the grocery store. I got put on beta blockers. The tech who did the ultrasound on my heart, after the ECG, told me about her experience in medical school and why her hair was prematurely white. Something to do with being “Type A” and too ambitious and not sleeping enough? Pfft, I dunno. I dropped out in my first term. Then I got divorced and found myself couch-surfing in Eugene.
I wanted to apply to school again after taking a year off. Once again I got hung up on wanting to start in the fall and missing an application deadline, and I wound up waiting an extra year. Then it turned out that, as a transfer student, I was supposed to have a particular math credit, which I did not. I went to the community college to take a placement test, but the class I needed was impacted, and I showed up to find I was quite a ways down the waiting list. This would not do. I took the bus to the university to ask what to do next, feeling very brave and headstrong. Much to my surprise, the drop-in guidance counselor went down the hall, asked a senior adviser, and came back with my math requirements waived! I spent a grand total of one day in math class my entire time in college. It made me start to take seriously the idea of asking for advice sometimes!
I got my dorm assignment before I got my acceptance letter or financial aid package, and I remember feeling stymied about whether I would actually get in. A hugely pregnant friend helped me move all my belongings to my fourth-floor walk-up. Somehow I figured out how to get around campus, how to find my textbooks, how to use the reserve library, how to use my dining hall card, how to get a locker at the rec center, how to get a work-study job… I got on the Dean’s list again, every term except for the one when I missed being academically disqualified by a fraction of a grade point. I graduated a few weeks shy of my 29th birthday and my whole family drove down to watch me walk.
I changed my major four times. Evidently my high school self thought she was going to become an English teacher, a job that now holds no interest for me whatsoever. A wiser person would have just been ‘undeclared’ and taken generic pre-requisite courses for the first two years. Freshman me wanted to teach English overseas and chose to major in Linguistics, after a kerfuffle about a TESOL certificate. Junior me wanted a degree in Classics and thought it would be a great idea to study Latin and Attic Greek, even though nobody seemed to know what ‘Classics’ were and nobody living spoke those languages. (I could learn to pronounce ‘baccalaureate’ and ‘cum laude’ and maybe figure out what they meant, too). Senior me was starting to feel frantic about graduating and realized we had somehow racked up almost enough voluntary history credits to qualify, so History is what I wound up with. My starting hypothesis, that getting a degree in anything would improve my job prospects and draw a higher income, and that nobody would actually care what I studied, proved true. The degree paid for itself the first year with the increased income I pulled down. As pieces of paper go, it’s worth more than any of the paper in my wallet…
I had a lot of advantages as a returning student. I was fully committed. I knew how to keep house and shop for groceries and pay bills. I didn’t care about partying. I was street smart. I loved school and I loved being in the library and I loved reading my assignments and I loved writing papers. I could type nearly 100 words per minute. There was a guy in my Greek class who was about 80, and a 40ish guy living in my friend’s dorm with a family he saw on weekends, so I didn’t even feel that old. I went to school with single moms and wondered how the heck they did it. I went to class with unmotivated 19-year-olds and wondered why they did it. Going to school for me was a bit like starting out as a bowl of cherries and a bag of flour, and coming out the other side as a pie.
One of the major advantages of aging is that more of life becomes predictable. Twenty years ago, I would have been horrified at myself for feeling this way. Now I understand that so much of life’s drama and fuss and bother can be avoided. If I go to Costco on Saturday afternoon, I can predict that it will be much busier than a weekday evening. If I stay up until 2 AM, I can predict that I will be exhausted and out of sorts the next day. X behavior generates X results. When we get into trouble is when we keep indulging in X behavior and anticipating Y results. “This time I will eat the entire two-pound chimichanga and not feel like a beluga.” “This time I will get back with my ex and it will finally work out.” What we haven’t tried is giving half the chimichanga to the ex in return for his promise not to call anymore. We really want the Y results but we don’t really know the corresponding Y behaviors to get them.
X behavior is the default. This is the way we always act, because it’s what we were taught, it’s what everyone else we know does, and it’s what comes naturally. We may not even realize there are other ways to do things. This is why travel can be so mind-blowing. (Did you know Cadbury eggs are sold year-round in New Zealand?) Generally, when we see people who are getting Y results, it feels unfair. They are gifted. They have all the luck. It’s genetic.
The other reaction we have when we encounter Y results is repulsion. “I could never do that.” “That’s not me.” “I don’t want to be one of Those People.” We make all sorts of unwarranted assumptions about the inner lives of people who act in these unnatural ways. Grinds who study too hard. Wet blankets who won’t have a drink or party with us. Narcissists who go to the gym. Obsessives who clean too much. Thin people who have fast metabolisms or anorexia. We don’t really have a sense of people who are exactly like us but simply do different things with their time. We prefer friends we can relate to, who act like we do.
Live the Standard American Lifestyle, get standard American results. That would be: consumer debt, a cluttered house, a 69% chance of being an overweight adult, a 70% chance of being on prescription medication, and a 50% chance of chronic illness. These are X results.
Y behaviors are simple. Track your spending and live beneath your means. Buy only what you need, and have a place to put it. Be active and eat healthy food. Basically, Y behaviors involve being proactive, planning, preventing issues before they start, and doing things that have been modeled successfully by other people.
Y behaviors are also easier than X behaviors. The transition requires an extra level of focus, attention, and effort, so making a change can feel difficult. Then the payoffs start to reveal themselves. Being debt-free means no interest payments, fines, or fees. A clutter-free house is 40% easier to clean, and everything is easy to find. Being fit means having a higher energy level and greater ability to do daily tasks, from opening windows to climbing stairs to carrying laundry and groceries. Preventing chronic health conditions is probably a thousand times easier than trying to manage them.
I spend about 40 minutes each weekday doing housework and putting away laundry. I haven’t had to spend a weekend cleaning house in years. Most days I walk for 30 minutes and do one pull-up and 15 leg lifts. (The other days I do nothing). I spend about two minutes updating my food log. My bills are on auto-pay. These are Y behaviors. I know my Past Self would look at my Y results (clean and organized house, defined abs) and form a lot of baseless opinions and inflated time estimates. I look back at Past Self and wish I could share how much harder life is in default mode.
I read this book as part of the massive data-gathering and synthesizing that I always do when I embark on a new quest, or even a relatively minor project. I’ve coined the term “loremonger” for myself. This time, the quest is to turn my lifelong interest in linguistics into the more practical skill of becoming a conversational polyglot. Fortunately, reading Michael Erard’s book on polyglots was a real pleasure.
The book was published in 2012, meaning that Erard’s research happened before the first Polyglot Conference and before Fluent in 3 Months was published. It seems that all the best-known polyglots who are active online now must have been flying under the radar just a few years ago, because none of them appear in this book. None of the websites or TED talks or podcasts or how-to programs are discussed. Can all these materials really have popped up so quickly? It’s like trying to remember life before Google or Wikipedia, even though all that came along well into adulthood for me.
The premise of the book is to get at the truth of multilingual ability. How many languages can one person learn? How many alleged polyglots are actually frauds? How is linguistic ability best evaluated? Is it nature or nurture?
I learned that knowing more than one language would have been a drawback in many cultures throughout history, because it would make that person look like a spy whose loyalty could not be trusted. I learned that it’s quite common for people in many parts of the world to know anywhere from 4-7 languages, and use them routinely in daily life. ‘Polyglot’ is to ‘multilingual’ what ‘expat’ is to ‘immigrant.’ I learned that polyglots can be regarded as a “neural tribe” of people with similar neurochemistry, and perhaps measurable neuroanatomical differences. That was all I needed to know. If I feel a thrill when I hear foreign voices or see foreign script, that’s enough indication that I will probably find socializing with polyglots to be fun and interesting. I won’t worry so much about my relative lack of expertise because everyone has to start somewhere.
This book is fascinating and even suspenseful. I recommend it for the casual reader, whether you have an interest in language study or not.
I coined a phrase! The word ‘loremonger’ popped into my mind the other day. I was thinking about my tendency to do absurd amounts of research when I start something new. My house is still stuffed with books, even after a steady effort over the past three years to downsize, and I was pondering whether I use this as a form of procrastination.
Then I realized that I generally act on new information. For instance, I had a bizarre whim, truly out of nowhere, to start running in the fall of 2010. I was terrible at it. Couldn’t run around the block on my first day and barely had the breath to cuss out my husband. My distance pace is 12-minute miles on a good day. Ah, but. Penguin that I was, I huffed and puffed my yardage, while continually studying running lore. I read websites and blogs and handbooks. By the time I ran my marathon, I felt intellectually prepared to do an ultra, and my friends were suggesting that I write my own running book. Without the support of all this research material, I doubt I would have kept going past my first week.
I started learning to cook in a serious way long after I realized I had accumulated over a hundred cookbooks. I sat at the dining table and stared down my collection and realized that illiterate peasants over the millennia had attained better cooking skills than me by actually cooking. I was taught that my great-grandmother always said, “If you can read, you can do anything,” and I certainly had the materials. It wasn’t long before I could prepare a decent meal, and not much longer than that before I was cooking for groups of 12-20 on a weekly basis. I finally hit the point when I could look at a spread of ingredients and make something nice out of them without a recipe. At that point, I started feeling like I could pare down my cookbook collection.
It took years of reading organizing and time-management and decluttering books before I understood that the name for people like me was “chronically disorganized,” and that I wasn’t anymore. Then I went through a productivity binge, until I started being productive and realizing that I was no longer encountering information I hadn’t already internalized. I also read stacks and piles of nutrition and fitness books before I reached the point where I am now, one of the tiny margin of people who routinely eats the recommended amount of micronutrients. Now I’m continuing to work on minimalism, since there’s still an imbalance between my vision of myself and my surroundings. About a year ago, I started studying languages again after a long hiatus, and now I’m in the “drinking from the firehose” stage of serious loremongering.
Literacy is a powerful tool. An entire lifetime would not be long enough to read through a list of mere titles of all the books and articles in print. We have the Internet, the most impressive invention of all time, and it’s chock full of free material explaining everything from windsurfing to how to preserve a shrunken head. Any common problem can most likely be tackled with readily available information. The trick is to look it up and start processing it with an aim to using it for some interesting purpose.
Idiomatic expressions have become more interesting to me since I got more serious about my foreign language studies. The idea that “you can’t get there from here” is pretty silly, because you can get anywhere from anywhere if you have the inclination, the money, and the time. Ah, but the world of metaphors operates under different rules. There really are places you can’t get from here, depending on where “here” is.
Watching TV. You can’t get anywhere by watching TV. It’s a great way to lose years of your life and have nothing to show for the time spent but mild interest in passive consumption of entertainment. Watching TV as an active part of a workout routine or a language learning program may get you somewhere. Using TV as a temporary diversion for young children may also get you somewhere. When I was a nanny, I allowed one hour of TV a day, and that was the time I used to load the dishwasher, start laundry, wipe down the table, etc. If you can stand to be in the same room as an episode of Teletubbies, my blessing upon you.
Playing games. You can’t get anywhere by playing games. Playing games in a group will at least get you a social life. Playing specific games could potentially be a way to improve your touch-typing abilities, learn a language, study geography, etc. Not to disparage the entire gaming industry, because, like other forms of entertainment, it provides tens of thousands of jobs. I’m just personally mystified by the attraction, but then I already have carpal tunnel syndrome.
Complaining. Complaint to the wrong person or complaint without an action plan will not get you anywhere. After a while, the audience starts heading for the exits. Love it or change it.
Everyone has a hidden dream. It’s been my experience that these dreams are always simple, straightforward, and readily attainable. There are even actual instruction books for most of them. For instance, I ran a marathon. I couldn’t run around the block on my first day, and I didn’t even intend to run more than 2.5 miles my first year. I kept building my cardiovascular endurance, and after three years, I got a training chart and started following it. I paid my entry fee and got a plane ticket and packed my snacks. I made it to the starting line on time, and then I just put one foot in front of the other until I got to the finish line. If I wanted a horse instead, I would have started by asking around and finding a horse barn where I could trade chores for time with someone else’s horse. Then I would start learning everything I could find out about how to care for horses. If I decided to go back to school and get a master’s degree, I would go online and start researching application deadlines and study guides. What I would not do in any of these examples would be to quit thinking about it or distract myself doing anything other than getting my questions answered.
Does what I’m doing right now have a reasonable chance of contributing toward reaching my dream? Can I get there from here?
Glenn Miller is “In the Mood,” just like I am whenever I hear Big Band music start up. Wouldn’t it be great to be in the mood for everything all the time? I’d never procrastinate because I’d always feel like doing whatever needed to get done. Glenn Miller must have been the same way. I bet his frying pan was always scoured and his bathtub was always sparkling. Obviously he was always in the mood to woodshed his instruments (cornet, mandolin, and trombone) because you don’t get that good without a lot of practice.
The trouble is that there are a lot of aversive tasks that need to be done, but the mood to do them is never going to come because frankly, they suck. I’m pretty sure nobody is ever in the mood to scrub a toilet. If anyone ever feels like scouring an oven, I’m not one of them (although with a silicon oven liner, it may not be necessary anyway). There has never been a morning when I woke up, leapt out of bed, and shouted, “TODAY is the day I’m going to remove the mildew from the grout in the shower!” Come to think of it, there has never been a morning when I woke up and leapt out of bed, end of story.
I don’t feel like it right now. I’m never going to feel like it, either, not in this lifetime and not in infinite reincarnations. The very thought that I might one day go around “feeling like” doing a bunch of boring, icky things is a little depressing. I don’t think I even want to find out what being in the mood for scutwork feels like. If there is a pharmaceutical intervention that makes cutting the hair out of my vacuum sound like fun, I don’t want it. I just want to get all those things done as quickly as possible. Once I get it over with, I can focus on things I do feel like doing, possibly with a Big Band soundtrack in the background.
Mt. TBR is a term of endearment. If you haven't heard it, the acronym means “Mount ‘To Be Read.’” It's the stack of books that accumulates on the nightstand. It's the shelf of books in the living room. It's the book on the dining table. It's the book in the bathroom cabinet. It's the list of books to be read in the future. It is the spreadsheet with multiple lists of award winners and other books to be read in the future. It probably amounts to more inches in height than you do. (64" in my case). [Digression: The photo shows me standing next to the stack of unread books in my house, not including virtual reading commitments or books I intend to keep but not read].
I haven't read most of the books in my house. Once I read them, I lose my attachment and let them go. My intention has always been to read everything that I own. I just can't seem to manage it. I've set a resolution to change my relationship with books, and I've spent all of this year so far trying to climb my personal Mt. TBR. I've got the oxygen canisters and the dehydrated meals and the crampons and everything.
The trouble is that I seem to have two personas, who are both interested in lots and lots of books. There is the me who buys books, and then there is the me who goes to the library for books. Neither seems to be aware of the other. What happens is that I always read the library books, and never finish the books that I buy. The result is that I read during all the time available, spend money on things I don't use, and fill up my house with unread books.
Then there is the third me, who is constantly saving links to articles to read later. I could read for eight hours a day, and perhaps finish my backlog in three weeks.
What I am doing is making commitments for Future Self. It appears that I think Future Self will be more likely to find the time to read these things than I will today. Present Self is already listening to audiobooks and podcasts on 2x speed. Present Self is already using the ReadQuick app. There is no margin here! Present Self seems to think that nothing interesting to read will ever be published again, and we can somehow catch up to the present date.
The funny thing here is that I have been writing a book for the past four years. My available reading time is about 20% of what it used to be. I seem to be choosing reading material based on my prior quantity of free time.
The other funny thing is that I am very interested in learning foreign languages. It is the nature of the beast that I will have to give up at least some of my English-language reading material to make room for this. If I don't have enough time to keep up with my English-language reading material now, it will be that much more difficult when I am also trying to read everything in several other languages.
There are several approaches to my dilemma:
1. Stop going to the library.
2. Delete the entire reading queue and start from scratch.
3. Donate every book I own and have not read for at least a year.
4. Read only foreign-language news sources.
5. Don’t read anything at all until my book is published.
6. Estimate how much I can read in a week and accumulate only 80% or less than that amount.
7. Realize none of these things are going to happen in the long term, and maybe aim for the short term?
We took this photo and went to a large bookstore a couple hours later. I came out empty-handed. Maybe there’s hope for me yet.
I feel frantic when I contemplate changing my ways. My reading habits are the core of who I am. I tried giving up reading for a month once just to see what I would do. It was SO depressing. I cheated. I read the newspaper during my lunch and I started playing audiobooks. I finished a lot of projects and did a lot of cooking, and my apartment was never cleaner. But it was sad. Did I then start reading through my backlog of books? What do you think?
The paradox is that I want to read what I want, when I want. Yet I keep assigning reading homework to Future Self. I don't want to shut down the possibility of ever reading a particular book; I just don't seem to want to read it right at this very moment. The longer a book sits around, the less appealing it seems to be. It's like stale bread.
Genius tends to stand out. There are a handful of authors whose work has instantly impressed me as genius, and from that moment on, I’m a fan. I’ll read anything they write. Now, this does not mean I endorse everything they write, say, or do. It means they have my attention. I can count on them to be original and to make me think. James Altucher has just made my short list. I’m feeling frantic right now because I only found out who he was within the last couple of weeks, and his first dozen podcast episodes have apparently vanished off the Internet, and I fully intend to binge-listen through the whole series until I’m caught up. If you already knew who he was, why didn’t you tell me??
Okay, about the book: Choose Yourself!. I love this book and I wish I had written it myself. It’s about how to make a good life out of the shrapnel of failure and loss and pain and suicidal ideation and all that fun stuff. Altucher knows what he’s talking about. Also, he’s a millionaire and he doesn’t need the money – to the point that he offered to refund the purchase price for everyone who bought it during its first three months of publication. The other thing you have to know is that he’s hilarious and he has some great stuff to say about trampolines and Superman and wacky inventions. If you like anything I write, you’ll probably like his stuff at least twice as much.
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.