The more I think about clutter, the more I realize how much it has in common with two other near-universal issues, which are financial debt and excess adipose tissue, also known as body fat. In a way, all of these are forms of debt, the result of expecting Future Self to do things that we don’t feel like doing today. One of these things is handling paper clutter. Paper clutter is a form of debt.
Paper debt is what piles up when we have more paper coming in than we do going out, and we have no plan for it.
Just like the money kind of debt, paper debt comes from a variety of sources. There’s the kind that’s hard to avoid, like unexpected medical expenses or car repairs, both of which generate a huge amount of paperwork. There’s the kind that adds no value to our life but just gets in the way, like junk mail and mail addressed to previous tenants. There’s the aspirational kind, like jeans that will never fit, shoes we’ll wear once, and magazines we’ll never read. Then there’s the kind that we keep for sentimental reasons, even though we never use it and probably never will.
All of these types of paper clutter represent time commitments.
Financial debt is a way of saying, “I’ll take this now and Future Me can pay for it later.” Paper debt is a way of saying, “I’ll set this down here for now and Future Me can deal with it later.”
Future Me will totally read that later.
Future Me will totally file that later.
Future Me will totally decide what to do with that later.
Meanwhile all of it is getting buried under a tidal wave of junk mail.
In a way, junk mail is like the finance charges and interest that build up on credit card debt. Every day it adds up, just a little at a time, making the job harder to do and almost guaranteeing that this problem will never be solved.
Just like other forms of debt, if paper debt continues to come in faster than it goes out, it will snowball.
Also like other forms of debt, it can start to fade into the background and feel like wallpaper. It Will Always Be This Way. This is How It Has Always Been.
Paper debt eats things. Just like regular debt, it can take over and you can lose your home to it.
Junk mail is the worst offender here, though it’s not the only one. Important mail can get shuffled into it. Stacks of it can tip over, knocking over other items and hiding things like keys. Paper debt can start to push more and more into time debt.
When we start showing up late or paying bills late or filing taxes late because we simply couldn’t find things, that’s time debt in action.
It can happen so quickly. Go on one vacation and wind up still owing for it six months later. Go a little crazy eating sugar cookies in December and gain four pounds that are still hanging around six months later.
Set down a stack of junk mail on the dining table or the kitchen counter, and it’s still there six months later.
All my clients have paper debt. It’s everywhere. It’s on the kitchen counter and the dining table, it’s on chairs and in windowsills, it’s on the floor of the car and it’s tucked sideways in bookshelves. It’s in purses and backpacks and laptop bags. It’s been on the desk so long that there may never have been a single productive day in that desk’s existence.
By “productive” we mean: doing awesome stuff that we enjoy doing. Sketching? Journaling? Scrapbooking? Working on a thesis? Racing wind-up toys? Anything, anything at all other than looking at (or ignoring) stacks of ugly ol’ boring ol’ mail?
It tends to be hard for people to imagine what they would do with their time if they were financially independent. “Debt-free” is as far as we can imagine. Then what? It’s the same with paper debt. What would we do with all that free space if all that paper was finally sorted out? What would an ordinary day feel like without that background hum of annoyance?
I can speak to that. I keep clear counters because I don’t really have a choice. In a tiny studio apartment, a pile of junk on the kitchen counter means there’s nowhere to make a slice of toast, much less cook a nice dinner. I can’t leave things on the dining table because our dining table is stored on its side in our bedroom closet and the legs are under our bed. What am I going to do, dump piles of paper on my bed?
I say that like it’s irrational and unlikely, but I’ve seen it. My people do crowd themselves out of their own beds with piles of stuff, from papers and backpacks to food wrappers, clean and dirty laundry, and stacks of books.
HEY: You deserve to stretch out and sleep comfortably.
It’s your bed, not your stuff’s bed. It’s your desk, not your paper’s desk. It’s your kitchen, not your mail’s kitchen.
The first priority should be for humans in the home to do what they want to do. Sleep, bathe, cook and eat meals, lounge around reading or doing whatever. That’s why it’s so sad when we accumulate paper debt and erase our own living space with piles and drifts and stacks of inanimate objects. That stuff doesn’t pay rent here, now does it?
What to do with it all, though? Spend years painstakingly eliminating it, one little bit at a time? Ask for help? Consolidate it, also known as “Scoop and Stuff”? (Toss it all into plastic shopping bags that then get piled somewhere or crammed in a closet).
Imagine it gone. That’s the first step. Get into elaborate and thrilling detail about all the ways you’ll use your space once you’ve evicted the junk mail and paid off your paper debt. That should make it easier to simply recycle big stacks of it as fast as you can go. Put your foot down and stop allowing it in your door. Say goodbye to paper debt and say hello to freedom.
The concept of an inheritance is, I think, becoming dated and antiquated. It’s something of a Baby Boomer thing. Those of us who are younger probably understand that the world works differently now. Still, it’s worth talking about. There is a vague dream of a someday inheritance, a financial windfall, that will somehow eliminate all our problems. This is not just a dangerous illusion, but an illusion that can poison ambition and domestic contentment. Kill your inheritance, and kill it in self-defense.
Now, it’s a good thing to think of a legacy in non-material terms. We can be proud of what we’ve inherited from our family when it comes to values and character traits. Hospitality, sense of humor, frugality, ingenuity, a gift for storytelling, grit and fortitude, these are the sort of gifts we should be proud to carry on. This kind of gift is non-zero-sum, meaning it never runs out. The more you share, the larger it grows. You can roll it out and make enough room for spouses, kids, and friends.
All of that goes completely out of the window when we start talking about money, real estate, and material goods.
In my work with clutter, I have seen it over and over again. People will quit talking to each other over a photo album, a single ring, some old furniture, or a stupid teacup. Unbelievable. You’re saying you’d TRADE your blood relation for a piece of scrap that wouldn’t sell for fifty dollars in a pawn shop? A lot of this stuff couldn’t be sold for a bent nickel.
The problem is that grief makes people temporarily insane. It’s understandable. With time and some healing, we’re sometimes able to get enough emotional distance that we can recognize our own irrationality from our own mourning periods. Not likely in the heat of the moment, though. Whatever it is about the old, I dunno, the old 8-track player or the blurry slides from 1958, it seems to activate everyone’s feelings of thwarted power and desire from earliest childhood. GIMME! It’s MINE! Like fighting over the last popsicle.
Then we get to the house and the money. That sweet, sweet munnah.
Back in the bad old days, the land was almost the only thing a family owned. Material goods were expensive and hard to make, and people had very little in terms of clothes, furniture, and housewares. Property went to the oldest son, and the rest of the family had to make do or beg for a place at the table. Imagine being an unmarried adult daughter and having to wheedle your big brother for a chance to stay on and do all the cooking and laundry, because it was that or panhandle in the road.
Then property started to be divided between descendants. Probably more fair, but fast-forward a couple of generations. The first block is divided between four kids. Then they each divide their share between their five or six kids. Then each of those grandchildren has eleven or twelve grandchildren. It doesn’t take long before the tiny slivers that are left are too small to support a family. Or the global economy changes in response to technological advancement, and the world moves on. But somewhere inside all of us is a glimmer of ancestral memory, when our family several generations back were higher in the societal pecking order.
Those photo albums and rings and teacups and old furnishings remind us of a vanished time, a time that we partly believe is our true place.
I have copies of old family pictures from the Civil War through the Victorian era. Look, they’re wearing suits, and fancy hats, and dresses with bustles! Never mind that they probably owned only one or two changes of clothes. I DESERVE.
Some of that genteel feeling, we could easily get back. We could get it by hand-tailoring our clothes in our own living rooms, the way earlier generations did. We could get it by speaking more formally, using appropriate terms of address and ritual politeness formulas. “Good day to you, sir.” It’s not money that they had, so much as stricter rules for social decorum. We’d probably find it unbearably stuffy and restrictive. Personally, I prefer modernity with its electronics, egalitarianism, and endless options.
One of the most dramatic changes of our era is our incredible longevity. Human lifespan has basically doubled in the last century, certainly within the last two hundred years. I’m forty-three and it wouldn’t have been at all uncommon for a woman my age to be gone already. Now it’s not uncommon for a woman to still be up and doing at eighty-six, double the age I am today.
What this means is that our old structure of “inheritance” is going to have to change, the same way the way we think of “retirement” has to change. It was different when the retirement age was sixty-five and most people died by sixty-three. Now a lifetime’s savings and investments will be needed for the next twenty or thirty years of life. A house that would have lasted thirty years, enough time for a young family to grow up and for the owners to age properly, will now be worn out and needing major repairs just in time for that retirement. Buy a house at 35, and at 65, guess what? It’s going to need a new roof, all the appliances are going to wear out, maybe even the foundation, plumbing, wiring, windows, and floors will need to be redone.
How will there be any money left for the adult children after funding the retirement needs of advancing longevity? How can someone fund such a long retirement, working 30 or 35 years to pay to retire for 20 or 30 years or more? How could it be done at all, much less debt-free? How could it be done in perfect health, much less after funding decades of ill health, medications, medical appliances, and surgeries?
If anything, these trends are going to be even more pronounced over the next few decades. At some point, the finance industry will figure out a way to rig new mortgages and consumer debt loads. Individuals will adjust their expectations for their personal longevity, how old they want to be when they give up on their physical health, and how they intend to pay for their retirement. Family arrangements will start to look markedly different. We’ll probably move back to having multiple generations under one roof, and in that case, an “inheritance” might just look like redecorating a bedroom so the sixties-aged kids can move back in to assume caretaking responsibilities, for their eighties-aged parents and their grandparents who are still here as centenarians.
Expecting an inheritance, according to research, tends to lead to more debt and less career success. Today’s reality is that whatever investment money and home equity are there, will most likely be consumed by the daily living expenses of unprecedented old age. This is fantastic, if you actually love your relatives and cherish having more time with them. It’s a bummer, if you’ve always had this lingering hope that they’d shuffle off this mortal coil and leave you enough to pay off your credit cards.
I’m very fortunate to have young parents. They’re still working, and I’m middle-aged, well aware that I need to plan for my own old age. When I “retire,” they may still be spry enough that we can go on vacation together. All I want for them is that they have enough saved to take care of themselves and preserve their independence as long as possible. The inheritance that I desire is a legacy of strength and savvy, and perhaps the secret to a seventy-year marriage.
Cozy Minimalist Home is the book I wish my clutter clients would all read. I’m always trying to get them to consider how they use their space rather than how they feel about each and every single object they own. This lavishly illustrated book shows us how it’s done. Myquillyn Smith explores how to design cute, comfortable, stylish rooms that focus on function rather than tons of decorative items. She suggests that it’s better to focus on the room as a whole, rather than specific objects. The results are charming and convincing.
We really can have “more style with less stuff.” Smith suggests that we start by creating one sane space for the household to hang out and relax, even in the midst of large remodeling projects. No matter what else is going on in the other rooms, there needs to be somewhere for regular daily life to go on.
Moving and redecorating are serious undertakings, rife with pitfalls. Smith finds a lot of comedy here. “This is real life. There would be no buying all new furniture like they do on TV.” She deals with the realization that she’s been dragging a lot of decor through multiple moves, only to find that it isn’t doing her home any favors. The money she had spent on small things could have been saved up for larger pieces she would have liked better.
Smith is relatable and really funny. She voices so many contradictions and frustrations: wanting to streamline and wanting to shop; feeling attracted and repelled by the same style; aiming for domestic harmony and hospitality while wanting the home done her way. She doubts her own design choices, and even her decision to buy a house that she doesn’t absolutely love.
How to deal? Smith becomes Chief Home Curator. Like most of us, she has to solve problems of her own creation, sorting through a mountain of stuff that she herself chose and brought home. She learns to “quiet the room” and scrap previous design attempts before finally working out something that she and her family can love. Generally, what they like has greater design impact while using and displaying far fewer things.
One of the best and most endearing features of Cozy Minimalist Home is the appendix with Before and After photos of Smith’s rooms. She shares what was going on behind the scenes as photos were staged for the book. This focus on process is so helpful for readers who don’t know where to start in their own homes, making the endeavor feel more possible.
Cozy Minimalist Home is a very practical book. It teaches the fundamentals of design, starting with what order to paint, buy furniture, choose window treatments, and hang pictures. For absolute beginners, there are useful discussions on how to discover your own style, create pinboards, and plan rooms. This is a beautiful and useful book that can build confidence and a sense of possibility in even the most nervous novice.
Just because we know perfection isn’t the goal doesn’t mean we don’t long for—and need—function and beauty.
My dirty little secret was that my stuff was draining me.
If I was so good at finding great deals, why didn’t I trust that I could find them a year or two later and not lug all that cute stuff with me from house to house?
Doesn’t an empty kitchen counter seem like the most extravagant luxury?
Conversation the other night between myself, a Twitch streamer, and a stand-up comic revolved around trolling and how to deal with criticism. These conversations are more interesting when everyone involved represents a different decade of age and experience. Older people tend to forget just how devastating criticism is to young people. I think about it all the time, and this is what I had to share with my younger friends.
There are seven billion people in the world who will never know who I am or care about what I do. That’s liberating.
If someone hate-reads my work, great! It just improves my stats.
My work won’t matter to most people who ever lived or ever will. My fans are a statistical anomaly out of the population of the world. To those few thousand people, though, my work matters. I can’t allow the negative opinions of even a billion people to stop me from creating anything, because they’re not my audience.
Trolls are doing nothing but attacking other people’s work. If that is the only thing they have to contribute, then their opinion is worthless. Anyone can do it and it has no value.
Trolls! Go do something with your life. Donate blood. Shelve books at the library. Walk dogs at the animal shelter. Pick up litter.
See, that message is going to go nowhere because as far as I know, trolls don’t read my blog. That’s probably because I don’t allow comments, and I never have.
It’s not that I’m trying to stave off criticism. Critique is always welcome if it comes from a valid source. I am constantly getting evaluated in public speaking, and I understand that it’s necessary for anyone who wants to improve.
That’s not the same, though, as accepting any and all negative comments from any and all sources.
There’s nothing easier to find in our world than a one-star review. Only rarely have I ever found a one-star review of any product, service, or location to have any value. It winds up being annoying. One-star reviewers are usually venting anger about something irrelevant, like how long something took to ship, rather than anything that would matter to me as a customer or client.
You have that much pent-up anger about the world? Try kickboxing.
People should work harder at seeking out things they are likely to enjoy, or learning to enjoy new things, rather than constantly being disappointed by everything they watch, read, eat, and do.
Anyway. I don’t give it a lot of thought because I don’t really encounter trolling or random criticism in my life.
The first thing I did was to drop out of a social organization that was no longer on my wavelength.
The second thing I did was to quit Facebook.
The third thing I did was to join a club that is very focused on a single activity.
What happens when you and the people around you are focused on something positive that you all voluntarily chose to do? What happens is that you see each other as natural allies, colleagues, neighbors, and friends.
Almost all my social interactions now are face to face. That changes everything!
If I’m texting with someone, it’s probably someone I’ve seen within the last couple of days or will be seeing soon. The exceptions are family members.
How to deal with criticism from family members: Only tell them about stuff after you’ve already done it. People who know you well are always going to try to talk you out of doing things like changing careers, relocating, traveling, or training for anything physical. Either they’ll list off a bunch of scary stories of all the ways it’s gone wrong for other people they know, or they’ll tell you all about your deep-seated character flaws and why you’ll always fail at everything.
Why? Nobody knows.
Actually we do know. It’s because we can quit talking to naysayers if we’re not related to them. Family gets a free pass on behavior that strangers never could get away with, like borrowing money and not repaying it, making a scene at parties or weddings, or calling you nicknames from when you were eight.
Why would you accept advice and criticism from people with no relevant experience or credentials? Genetics?
The difference between criticism and critique is that critique is specific, constructive, and relevant, and it comes from someone whose job it is to provide that critique. You should look forward to it because you genuinely know that it will help you solve a problem and improve at what you’re doing.
Criticism, on the other hand, would be vague, irrelevant, personal, and unhelpful, and it would come from someone who has no business offering an opinion on that topic.
For instance, if someone wanted advice on how to get their cat to quit clawing their couch, I would have no business offering my opinion because I don’t know the answer. All I’d be able to say is, I have a dog and a parrot and they don’t claw the furniture. How would that be helpful? It’s my job to save my breath, or maybe connect that person with a cat lover who has more experience.
For whatever reason, people love running their mouths, and I think we don’t always realize what we’re saying. No filter. Critical people think they’re being helpful, and they also think they’re funny and interesting. If they understood the effects their words were having, that would just give them one more thing to criticize.
That’s why the secret to dealing with criticism is to, first, find a way to either ignore it or integrate it despite how sloppy it might be. Then simply align yourself with people who share a common purpose, and only ask for advice and input from them. The people in your life who aren’t on that wavelength can then focus their negativity on the shows they’re hate-watching, foods they don’t like, and anything else they want to criticize.
Almost everyone’s a critic, and anyone can do it. Look for people who are better at giving constructive feedback, and learn from them how it’s done.
In the past week, I have:
Left my coat on a plane and had to run back for it twenty minutes later
Spilled half a bottle of water into my suitcase by carrying it upside down
Worn a one-inch hole in my reusable shopping bag because I didn’t notice I was dragging it
Left town and forgot to pack deodorant
Dropped my sleep tracker on the bedroom floor and convinced myself I somehow lost it in a public restroom, then found it the next day and forgot to charge it
Put an important appointment in my calendar an hour late
Dropped my sweater on the sidewalk and kept walking, causing a passing driver to honk at me
Forgotten to auto-schedule a day’s content on my blog
Forgotten to lock our dog in his crate, risking another barking-related citation
I also gained four pounds, which I believe consists almost entirely of cortisol and bitter unshed tears.
What’s my problem? One of three things:
The last time I was this tired, my upstairs neighbor was a crackhead who would smoke crack on the porch in the afternoon, play guitar above my bed in the early hours of the morning, and bust up furniture in the evening. My hair started to fall out in patches then, just as it’s doing now.
Nobody cares about one person who is tired. The reason I talk about this stuff is that a lot of people are voluntarily running around in a state similar to mine. It’s a lot like being drunk, or snoring. Drunk people don’t think they’re drunk, and people who snore refuse to believe that they snore, sometimes even if you play them a recording of their 70dB clamor.
If you’re chronically sleep-deprived, you’re screwing up. Somehow. You’re stumbling around and making preventable errors. If you’ve done it for a long enough time, you might even think it’s just part of your personality, like Bella from Twilight always talked about how clumsy she was.
(Why is that supposed to be an endearing quality in female characters? I sure don’t find it endearing in myself).
Making silly mistakes is fine. It’s not the end of the world if you have, like I have, pumped liquid soap onto your toothbrush, only put deodorant under one arm, or walked around with a pair of nylon underpants hanging out of your sweater through the pernicious powers of static cling. Stuff happens.
We just have to ask ourselves how often it happens when we’re well rested, rather than when we’re really tired.
Why am I so tired? Because my upstairs neighbors do a lot of loud stuff between 5 and 7 AM every day.
What are they doing? Some guesses:
Training a donkey to tap dance
Three-legged race promoting Dutch clogs
Why don’t I just go to bed earlier? I have, oh, I have. It’s annoying to have to shift your schedule by three hours to accommodate someone else, for one thing, but it’s also only somewhat possible. The same people who are up banging around at 5 AM are also up and around at 12:30 AM, not to mention our other neighbors and passersby on the sidewalk. The rest of the world isn’t all that interested in facilitating some cranky middle-aged woman’s need to go to sleep at 9 PM.
9:00 PM bedtime: the ultimate luxury!
It makes me crazy to think of other people indulging in sleep procrastination, choosing to stay up late when they don’t have to. Oh, you’re not using your nice quiet bed? Can I come over? You can stay up and binge-watch TV episodes that will still be there tomorrow, even though you have to get up and go to work. Meanwhile I will try to sleep enough that my eyelid will stop twitching.
Twenty years ago, I would stay up until 4 or 5 AM for the occasional party, just because that’s where the action was. I’ve never been a drinker. I just wanted to socialize and eat chips and hope something interesting would happen. It took years to realize that these are my same friends from daylight hours. They weren’t going to, say, transmogrify into a wolf or a bat or anything. Now the idea of being awake until 4 AM strikes fear into my heart.
Out of all the persistent problems in the world, a sleep issue is in the top ten. It’s not like a messy garage that you can cheerfully ignore for ten years. It’s not like having a pet that isn’t housebroken, where you might swear a lot and go through a gallon of carpet cleaner. It’s not even like debt, although debt and sleep loss do tend to go together. Being exhausted follows you all day, every day.
Yawning through movies. Blanking out on chunks of conversation. Leaving a trail of lost items behind you everywhere you go.
Generally not doing anything with full engagement.
Getting headaches, getting sick all the time.
Desire to kick in neighbor’s door and ask, “What are you even DOING???”
I was talking to a young friend who just got his dream job after eleven years of planning. I asked what he was going to do next, and he promptly shared his five- and ten-year goals. Later I thought about my own goals and realized that they now consist of: Sleep twelve hours every day for a week.
If you’re out there being all tired and clumsy and stuff, pause for a moment. Ask yourself whether you could possibly find a way to sleep more every day. If not, is there somewhere else you could go? If so, would you tell me where that is?
We keep forgetting that we’re living in the future. It’ll probably take about two generations before we start to figure it out.
This is the argument that I use when setting policy with my husband about our domestic arrangements and mental bandwidth. How would this be different if it were automated? If it were engineered out of existence as a problem? Offload it, sure, abdicate it, absolutely. Tell Siri, though, not me.
We’ve had a lot of success with delegating household chores to “the robots,” as we call them, and now I’m trying to teach him to do it with the administrative stuff.
The thing is, like a lot of people, we each have a smartphone in our pocket. Along with all the many other features of these incredibly powerful computers, which are far and away better than what was used to get the first rocket up to the Moon, there is a voice assistant. It can do stuff, and, arguably, it should.
Check the weather
Read off lists
Probably a million more things that we haven’t realized it can do
We both grew up with moms who were traditional in most ways. We both had the kind of mom who did most or all of the cooking and housework, the kind of mom who knew how to sew and make Halloween costumes, the kind of mom who basically ran the household while the dad did the fix-it stuff. We both had a certain internalized expectation that the woman of the household is also the secretary and receptionist of the household.
But then, we met each other in the workplace.
I literally WAS his office assistant.
It literally was my job to take notes at his meetings, sort his mail, make his photocopies, and copyedit his technical documentation. (He was one among a staff of 75 others).
This probably helped when we got married years later. It helped to make clear that certain types of tasks were PAID and, thus, valuable. As an engineer, my husband understood full well exactly why these low-level administrative tasks are delegated down. It’s a silly drain on the mental bandwidth of a professional who has more interesting things to do.
He gets it that if these random and small interruptions keep popping up for me to handle, then it interferes with the headspace I need as a writer.
I can either be a full-time stay-at-home spouse, maintaining the perfect household and cooking great meals from scratch, OR. Or I can be something else, something more interesting and fulfilling that also generates a higher income. Both are valid paths to lifestyle upgrades for both of us. One is depressing, boring, and annoying (for me at least), and the other is awesome.
More to the point, why should a human (including me) do something when a robot or an artificial intelligence can do it?
Back to the robots.
We have a Roomba and a countertop dishwasher. We also have a robot mop, but we currently aren’t using it because our kitchen floor is about the size of a beach towel. Once upon a time, we had a washer and dryer. We “start the robots” before we go to the movies, and we come home to a clean apartment. The only things “the robots” don’t do (yet) are to knock down cobwebs, dust surfaces, clean the bathroom, put away laundry, and make the bed. We sort laundry by having a hamper with two detachable bags, one for lights and one for darks. That’s not robotic, but it is based on principles of lean engineering.
This is the premise on which I am building my empire, my Kingdom of Mental Bandwidth.
The goal is for both of us to have as much high-quality uninterrupted System 2 thinking time as possible. I’ve made my case for how much I do to support him as he works on his third patent, and he appreciates that this takes care and focus. This has helped me make the case that I, too, need help protecting my thinking-cap time.
As an engineering principle, our household should be as well-maintained as possible with the least amount of effort as possible. This is known as “low-side compliance.” It’s extremely important in engineering, because an engineer’s time is expensive, and even an extra hour putting in an extra feature might blow both the budget and the production schedule. Low-side compliance helps avoid “scope creep,” which is what happens when the specifications of the product keep expanding. Scope creep makes everything more expensive and complicated, and also more vulnerable to failure.
Running a household is the classic example of scope creep. It’s also a stupid place to put that kind of cognitive and emotional focus.
Together, we’ve worked out a way to automate, systemize, or eliminate as many household tasks as possible. This includes chores and errands. The next step is to automate more administrative tasks like ordering dog food, scheduling appointments, and booking travel.
Another horizon would be keeping track of where things are. I have what amounts to a 3D mental hologram of every object in our home, as well as several other homes of family and friends. My superpower does not, though, make me responsible for keeping track of other people’s stuff! One day, an AI will have this ability and then it will make sense to interrupt *it* instead of me.
Since this function would be so valuable in manufacturing and inventory management, it WILL eventually arise and become widely available.
The household of the future will run itself. It will clean itself, schedule its own maintenance, stock itself with supplies, and track the location of objects, maybe even uninvited insects. With 3D food printing, everyone can have a personalized meal on demand, including guests. The house and the computer will effectively merge. Household chores and errands will become as antiquated for the average suburban family as churning butter and trimming lantern wicks are today.
We’re already at the point where commonly available software can track our budgets, order groceries and other household supplies, schedule appointments, and even suggest entertainment options. Not that far into the future, there will be nothing left to argue about except whose job it is to give the cat a pill, unless of course it’s a robot cat. We might as well get started on figuring out what to argue about next, and maybe the voice assistant of tomorrow can mediate.
If success is a ladder, and if you are standing on a rung of a ladder, then it is time to climb up a rung. Otherwise, you are blocking the way up for the person on the rung beneath you.
This is a personal philosophy that my husband and I share, and it’s something we tell our protégés all the time. We’ve found it to be motivating for ourselves and also for others. This is partly because it reflects a growth mindset and partly because it puts our own efforts into a larger, social context.
Moving upward is one way to help others.
“Success” is personal. Are you successful at being there for your loved ones? Are you successful at being a good listener? How about living up to your own standards? Keeping promises to yourself? Contributing to your community or family in some way?
All of these are important. We have to admit that the work we do is also important, that our efforts matter to something larger than ourselves. This is where the sense of a “career ladder” comes in.
Take the example of the manager of our local cafe. We spend a lot of time there, and we know a bit about most people on the staff. This particular woman is a major Upholder, and her work ethic clearly aligns with my husband’s. (Too bad she isn’t interested in engineering...) She’s been working full time while trying to finish her master’s degree, and criticizing herself for not being able to juggle the demands of both.
She got the Ladder Speech.
As not just a capable but an excellent store manager, she has trained her team well. She knows they can cover for her when she isn’t there.
If she doesn’t do as well as she could in school because she’s overextended, then her grades won’t be what they could be. This will lessen the value of her degree. She won’t get the maximum out of her classes, which is cheating herself of the time, money, and effort she is putting in. She might find that it takes longer to find employment in her chosen field.
(It’s something so cool that I wish I were doing it myself, although, as we always say, you can’t do everything. At least you can’t do everything at the same time).
Meanwhile, she’s blocking the ladder.
While our friend is standing on her rung of the ladder, managing schedules and ordering coffee beans, she’s blocking the climb upward. All the capable people she has trained are lined up below her, losing patience and waiting for her to climb up.
Get out of the way already!
Years have gone by while she’s been standing on the same rung.
Years have gone by while she’s been:
Too busy to date
Too busy for a social life
Too busy to take a full course load
Too busy to graduate
Too busy to start the new career she chose years ago
Too busy to move to a new apartment, even though she can afford it
Meanwhile, she’s Perfect while she stands on her current rung. She nails all her goals because she’s been doing the same job for so long that she could sleepwalk through it. She knows every single step inside and out. She only feels like she’s pushing herself because she has a lot of responsibilities and her schedule is completely full.
She’s not pushing herself by making herself emotionally uncomfortable. (See: dating, relocating, changing careers, possibly starting a family).
She’s not pushing herself by putting herself in situations where she doesn’t always know precisely what to do.
She’s not pushing herself by risking failure.
She’s not pushing herself by entering situations where she is the least experienced person instead of the most experienced person.
She’s also not pushing her staff. She’s not giving them any room to do more than they are doing, because she is in their way. The only ways upward for them are either to leave and start working somewhere else, or to in fact take her position. To do her job, the job she won’t leave.
She’s blocking that ladder and she’s going to keep on blocking it.
These are fairly common Upholder problems. Upholders feel a strong sense of duty, responsibility, and obligation. They prefer to be in situations where they can make sure everything meets their internal standards. They pride themselves on their reliability, as well they should.
They should also examine that sense of pride and ask, well, couldn’t they feel the same feeling of satisfaction at a higher level? Managing more, and doing it for more people? Doing more, but maybe for a more compelling cause?
There’s nothing unimportant about a neighborhood coffee shop, mind you. I’m in there often enough that I know a few of the services it provides besides steaming beverages. It’s an entry-level position for young people to learn valuable customer service skills. (I often tell them, after witnessing a nasty customer transaction, that if they can smile sincerely in the face of rudeness like that, then they can be successful at any job anywhere). It’s a safe space for the high school and middle school kids who swarm in every day at 3:00. Kids get tutored there, business deals are transacted there, blind dates are had there. Contracts are signed and performance reviews are given. Our entire community is represented. It’s a little bright spot in the world, and it’s a perfectly fine place to be proud to work.
It’s not, however, the biggest, brightest, or best.
Our friend finally agreed about the whole ladder thing. She tormented herself over the decision, but finally she made up her mind. She’s going all in at school. She’s finishing her degree and moving up that ladder.
For those of us who are farther along in our careers, a bit older and more experienced, this comes as no surprise. Of course the most driven and ambitious person at the local cafe is eventually going to go back to school or get a better job somewhere else! It happens every day, because it’s the natural order of things.
The only thing I’m trying to figure out is: who’s next? From my perspective, at least four of the employees who were so carefully trained by our ambitious friend are qualified and ready to take over. Which one will it be?
How long will that person stand on that rung of the ladder, before moving upward?
How about you?
Life Admin is a wonderfully clarifying book about where the heck all our time goes. In my case, it’s blocking spam phone calls and unsubscribing from email to which I never subscribed in the first place. Elizabeth Emens gives us a new framework for discussing how we divide work in our personal, business, social, and academic lives. Reading this book should cause a lot of heads to pop up amid a chorus of voices calling, “Same!”
What is life admin? Some people call it ‘administrivia.’ Emens provides a Venn diagram showing how it overlaps with chores and childcare. We’re talking about things like managing schedules, making appointments, filling out forms, handling finances and insurance paperwork, planning parties and travel, and knowing where everything is. For some reason, almost all of this work seems to be invisible, and thus people task each other with it all the time.
I don’t think I’ve gone a single day in the last fifteen years without at least one person emailing, texting, calling, DMing, or asking me in person to research something they could have Googled all by themselves. (In less time!) Send me a link, plan my trip, give me a recommendation, be my uncompensated accountability coach. They don’t even realize that just asking me these questions impacts my mental bandwidth as a writer, nor could they have any idea that they rank among dozens who see me as their private unpaid secretary in this sense. To the endless list of life admin I might add ‘making decisions.’ Almost everyone on Earth wants to outsource this to someone, anyone else.
Life Admin is the armor we need to start fending off these demands, to start making this work more visible and valued. I’m considering making a keyboard shortcut for my phone that says “I will do this for you if you first donate $5 to charity:water” and see how many people (probably 100%) snippily write back “never mind.”
Most people probably have a bigger issue with negotiating life admin at home than they do between friends. Emens gives reasons for this, for instance that a landlord might only contact one roommate about repairs even if there are four adults living in the house. A lot of the division of life admin is accidental and arbitrary. It can also be hard to categorize, or to tally up the work when it consists of a variety of dozens of recurring tasks that might take one minute or might take all week.
The fact that life admin involves a lot more than the distribution of household chores has always been clear in my marriage, because I was an administrative assistant when I met my husband. We talk about it in terms of ‘mental bandwidth’ and we formally negotiate it during our weekly status meeting. He books airline tickets and hotel rooms while I plan our activities on the trip. He pays most of the bills, sorts the mail, and does the taxes, while I’m the one who deals with maintenance people. He does most of the repair jobs while I handle most of the mending and weird stains. He does the grocery shopping, I do the laundry. Over our decade of marriage, we’ve passed some of these jobs back and forth. The responsibilities seem to morph and fluctuate as we relocate or change schedules. The pressure valve is for one of us to say, “Will you do X while I’m doing Y, or would you rather switch?” (Cook dinner while I do laundry, etc). It’s entirely possible to negotiate life admin respectfully without it turning into a huge deal.
This is one of the great strengths of Life Admin. Emens offers categories of “admin personalities” and ways that each might have a useful strategy for reducing life admin. For instance, rebelling might benefit others in the workplace by restructuring or eliminating bogus tasks. The book also offers ways of reframing life admin by making it pleasurable or seeing it as a way to, say, choose a mate, give better gifts, or get better service. One of the best and coolest of these ideas is to have an “Admin Study Hall” and sit in a group with other people for company while getting some of this stuff done.
Life Admin is the kind of book, like Gemma Hartley’s Fed Up, that has the potential to really stir the pot. It’s so important to be clean and clear in our negotiations and power dynamics, though. Bringing these issues to light is the first step in fairness and happier relationships, whether personal or business.
Having a hundred admin tasks that each take one minute feels heavier than having a single admin task that takes a hundred minutes.
Who has time for admin-redistribution admin?
...many people seem to assume that the topic of life admin is of interest mainly, or only, to women.
What I would do to figure it out is the same thing you would do to figure it out yourself.
There was a baby shower. I had nothing to do with it. My husband chose the gifts, ordered them, and picked up a package of diapers on the way. He went to the baby shower and he played shower games. By all accounts, he had fun.
This story might be shocking to some, which is why I share it. The way I was brought up, doing everything related to this baby shower would absolutely be my responsibility. I’M THE WOMAN. Right?
Not only would I have done all the shower gift stuff, but I might have hosted it, probably would have helped plan it, and most likely would have baked cupcakes or a pound cake. I also might have been on the hook for making a handmade gift, cooking for the new mommy, visiting her in the hospital, and offering free babysitting on demand.
I used to do that stuff. I’ve crocheted blankets and baby booties and knit caps and poseable toys for various babies. I’ve visited plenty of new babies in the hospital.
This time was different, and I’ll tell you why.
My only contribution in the preparation for this baby shower was to answer my husband’s question about what to wear. He was planning to go in a t-shirt, which probably would have been fine. I pointed out that this would be a major photo opportunity for the family baby album, and he changed into a polo shirt.
When he came home, he told me that the family all dressed up, and the work colleagues all wore casual clothes. He would have been fine either way.
It was fine, either way.
If I’d gone, if I hadn’t been sick, I would have known how to behave myself. I would have congratulated the mother-to-be and learned everyone’s names. I would have put myself to work helping arrange the food table and I would have stayed at the end to help clean up. The women of the family probably would have felt obligated to try to shoo me off and do it all themselves. There’s always that tension between “hosts do it all for the guest” and “guests shouldn’t wear out their welcome” that makes me want to be in the kitchen both as hostess and as guest. A dumb double-standard, isn’t it?
One day robots will do it all and we can kick back and have another cupcake.
I’m a little bummed that I missed the party. The weather was nice and it certainly sounded more fun than passing out sweatily in bed with my mouth open.
There’ll be another party, though. The baby will have a first birthday, or a baptism, or something. There will be a company picnic in the summer. I’ll meet the baby and hold the baby and smooch the baby. I’ll hand the baby back to New Mommy, a woman I like just fine and whom I also respect as both a shy person and an introvert.
There’s no pressure here, not unless I look for it.
I’ve gone to so many baby showers, and they’re bittersweet for me. Time and again, when I place my carefully wrapped gift and card on the table, it’s a goodbye gift. The baby shower is the last time I ever see the new mom. Even though we were friends before, her entry into motherhood is the last time she’ll call me, or return my calls, or write back to my emails. She won’t come to parties.
One of these friends? The next time I saw her, the incoming baby had a baby of her own on the way. There were five additional kids I’d never met, didn’t even know their names. I hadn’t seen a photo and I hadn’t been invited to any of their baby showers. I would have gone, I would have brought gifts. I would have sent graduation gifts, too, as the little ones grew up.
There’s no pressure here, not on my end. Just a willingness to have been there.
I’ve tried taking my mom friends out. I hear a lot about how desperate new parents are to get a break, to have an adult conversation, to remember that they have interests beyond Pat the Bunny. (Not that I have any issues with Pat the Bunny, personally). I’ll pick up the check and say, Here is your opportunity to talk about anything you like. Your thesis, the book you’d like to write, new research in your field... I’ll even read up on it if you want. Somehow the conversation keeps reverting to diaper rash. I don’t mind. It just feels like an opportunity lost.
Parenthood is like going through a security checkpoint or an airlock. You go through, and you’re on the other side, and everyone else is still over there were you used to be. Only the people on your side of the airlock understand what it’s like.
The same is true of other transitions, of course. Students talk the same way about finals week and ex-convicts talk the same way about prison. It’s not that other people haven’t literally been there or cognitively can’t imagine what it’s like. They simply are *not* currently there. Their emotional reality is different.
That’s why I’m perfectly content to let my husband manage the shower gifts for his work colleagues. It isn’t the first time. I’m not a part of the inner circle, and I don’t need to put social pressure or emotional labor on this particular lady. I’m a plus-one, if that, and I’m sure that suits everyone just fine.
If there’s one thing I don’t understand, it’s why people keep eating something even after they realize that it always makes them ill. Total. Mystery.
I was talking to someone earlier who claims that she receives Tums as gifts and keeps backup supplies at the homes of friends and family. Why? Because she keeps eating pizza with red wine and it always makes her sick.
Never in my life have I eaten that as a meal???
Why would you eat something over and over again if you knew it made you feel horrible?
It’s a luxury, in a way, but we’ll get to that.
I used to have this thing with salt-water taffy. Every time I would go to the beach, I would get super excited about the presence of salt-water taffy. I would go into a candy store and spend twenty minutes picking out a bunch of flavors to try. Then I would eat a bunch of it and make myself completely ill.
It took about twenty years to realize that I actually don’t even like salt-water taffy!
I realized that I have a major weakness for things that come in varieties, or especially in rainbow colors. It’s like it sends my brain into freak mode and all I can think is ONE OF EACH. Doesn’t matter what it is, beads, socks, fishing lures, things I don’t even want. Whoa there, I think now, look out, rainbow alert!
I used to get a tub of something like gumdrops or jelly beans that came in multiple colors. I would sort them by color. If I ate one, I “had” to then eat one of each color, which was a real problem if there were disproportionate amounts.
Total productivity killer right there.
Now I only do that on Halloween. Just go on a major candy bender and watch horror films all day. That tends to get it out of my system. I always wake up the next day with the horrible feeling of “Halloween mouth” and vow not to do it again for 364 days.
I have no self-control around certain things, rainbow-colored objects being just one of those categories. I recognize this. Because of this known tendency, I find it easier to simply not buy certain things rather than try to monitor myself or rein myself in.
Anything I want is available 24/7 and I can probably get it delivered. I can always change my mind later.
I have to take the urgency out of the decision. I don’t like the idea that an inanimate object can just push my buttons and make me behave contrary to my best interests.
This is much easier to do once I make the connection between a certain thing and a certain negative result. For instance, lanolin makes me break out in huge itchy welts. It’s not that common an ingredient and it’s pretty easy to avoid. There’s nothing about it that makes me weep with longing. Lanolin = BYE FOREVER. No hearts broken.
It would be a lot harder if I found out I had a sensitivity to, say, onions and garlic. A couple of friends of mine have gotten that as a diagnosis, and, I confess, I would struggle mightily with it. I’d be like, is there a surgery for this? If onions and garlic made me sick, though, I’m sure I’d just be glad I finally knew the answer and had constructive action I could take.
Apparently not everyone feels this way.
I heard the story of a woman who suffered from migraine about twenty days a month. My lifetime record for a migraine is four days, and that was bad enough! If I were in that woman’s situation, I would sign up for every study under the sun and I’d see as many doctors from as many disciplines as I could find. Whatever it takes.
In this woman’s case, she wound up quitting alcohol, caffeine, and sugar. She hasn’t had a migraine in three years.
The way it was expressed to me, “she had to give up alcohol, caffeine, and sugar.”
I said, “It sounds like what she really gave up was headaches!”
Myself, I don’t drink alcohol at all and I hate coffee. I would struggle for a while with the sugar thing, although it would tend to save me from my rainbow candy problem. But the first time I ate dessert followed by a migraine, I would draw a big skull and crossbones on that day in my calendar. NO MORE.
I know so, so many people who suffer from their favorite foods but continue to torture themselves with them. A man with a diagnosed dairy allergy who eats a large bowl of vanilla ice cream every night. A woman diagnosed with celiac disease who keeps eating wheat bread. Funny, you don’t hear about this behavior pattern in people with a true food allergy to, say, shellfish or peanuts. We won’t do it if it will kill us or make our throats swell closed, but we will if “all it does” is give us severe nausea or incapacitating headaches.
I have some guesses about why people persist in eating food that makes them ill.
I was pretty happy the day I realized I didn’t have to drink alcohol unless I wanted to, which I don’t. It’s gross to me and I suspect I don’t react to it the way other people do. Other people are often frustrated by this and will persist in offering me drinks, I think because they’re embarrassed to draw attention to how much they consume in a day. They also tend to get very distressed when they realize there won’t be wine at dinner, because waiting a couple hours is too hard? Because carrying mini bottles in your purse is a step too far? This is an example of how something that is an issue for one person won’t be for someone else. This is why we have to make our own rules and decide for ourselves whether eating or drinking something is a good plan.
If you feel like you need permission, I hereby grant you permission by the power vested in me. You have the power, the right, and the privilege to refuse to eat anything that makes you ill. If someone tries to pressure you into eating something that you really don’t want, either it’s all in your head or that person is not your friend. Why would they care? More for them, right?
We’re lucky to be able to pick and choose what we do or don’t eat. We’re lucky that we have the natural intelligence and discernment to know the difference between what is good for us and what is basically poison for us. We’re lucky that we can still be friends with people even if we eat or drink different things. We’re lucky to be able to reject food that is really a frenemy, not a friend. Because it’s the people around us that matter, not their opinion on what we do or don’t eat.
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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