This is one of the best decluttering books out there, and I can tell for two reasons. One is, obviously, that I read it. The other is that mixed in with the reviews are a few talking about how incredibly helpful it is, and at least one by someone who has read it three or more times, working slowly through the chapters and then starting over again. Andrew J. Mellen is a professional organizer, and this book really can help you to Unstuff Your Life!
What makes Unstuff Your Life! different from other organizing books is that Mellen pauses frequently to address hypothetical responses, criticisms, naysaying, and pushback from the reader. A book with every possible negative and resistant response would be a million pages long, and new pages would be added as fast as they could be typeset. I can always tell when someone is too far down the Readiness Scale to work with me when I start hearing the monologues I call "let me explain in meticulous detail why this could never conceivably apply to me."
At the beginning of the book, Mellen addresses the problem of why we can't find things, and the process of wandering around and setting something somewhere without creating a memory. Good stuff. He also goes into the nature of procrastinating by not understanding that time applies to our plans, and explains the thinking errors behind "bargain" shopping that leads to consumer debt. So much of what we do as organizers is not emotional work, but mental homework, explaining the difference between default thinking and organized thinking. Mellen includes several lists of questions to delve into this mental homework. "What's the difference between an excuse and an explanation?" "Does your stuff seem to have a life of its own?"
Another thing that Unstuff Your Life! does very well is to teach how to categorize objects and make decisions about them. This always sounds obvious to organized people, but I can tell you that it feels like mysticism to my people. The intellectual failings behind hoarding are being unable to see individual items as a group or a room, and being unable to devise functional systems. I say this because my people are extremely intelligent and creative, and they like to see themselves as A students. It helps to frame "being organized" as an academic skill well within the reach of anyone who has a solid grasp of grammar and punctuation (and, frankly, most who don't).
The truly best parts of the book are when Mellen shares conversations he has had with his organizing clients, or, in one instance, his own mother. In one, he walks a client through why she would keep an expensive jacket, but not an ex-boyfriend, even though he was "expensive" too. In another, he talks a client through the painful realization that the broken clock she inherited from her father is not actually her father. These are bittersweet, funny, and entirely relatable.
Unstuff Your Life! can teach you how to do everything. Sort your mail, make emotional decisions about old magazines, calculate the cost of your storage unit, figure out what does and does not go on your kitchen countertop, set up a sorting area, define 'trash,' sort photos and sentimental items, and know for certain which papers to file, shred, or recycle. Most of us were never formally taught how to "be organized" or clean house, and this is where Andrew Mellen comes in. This book is something rare, a readable and amusing unstuffing manual.
Favorite quote: "If everything is precious, nothing is precious."
We'll lie to ourselves a thousand times worse than we would ever lie to anyone else. One of the many types of those lies is the lie of omission, of deliberately obscuring information. We want no part of knowing our true motivations. That's what creates the Secret Shame. Even worse than the Secret Shame is the thing we refuse even to acknowledge to ourselves. The dark pool at the bottom of the chasm. What do I not want to know about myself? What am I avoiding?
Simply put, what we're avoiding is always a bad feeling. I don't want to think about X because if I do, I'll feel sad, scared, lonely, incompetent, unlovable, dumb, ugly, guilty, dirty, weird, angry, or otherwise awash in icky emotions. Whatever it is, whether it's a work project, a debt, a health issue, or a cleanup job, it's really just a thin coverup for a bad feeling, a feeling that probably pops up in all sorts of situations. Or wants to.
This is the root cause of procrastination.
Procrastinating is caused by 'temporary mood repair.' That means we'll do something other than the thing we believe we should be doing because we want to bury the bad emotion and, at least briefly, replace it with a positive one. I'm going to take I CAN'T HANDLE THIS or I DON'T KNOW WHAT TO DO and put them in a shoebox while I generate feelings of good cheer and elation by playing Candy Crush or watching a capybara video.
Okay, actually watching capybara videos is my purpose in life.
I've talked to people who claim that they never procrastinate. This can cause hilarity of truly epic proportions when it's someone you know well. Oh yes? Then when were you planning to deal with your: long-term unemployment / hoarded garage / consumer debt / sleep apnea / non-viable relationship / total lack of retirement savings / 150 pounds of excess body fat? Procrastination refers to the big stuff, not the piddly little things like making a business call, sewing a button, or filing your papers. I'll go so far as to say that you don't have to file your papers at all; you can leave them in a stack, and it'll take you just as long to find something on the off chance that you need it. You can also take that garment with the missing button and throw it in the trash, because if you haven't been wearing it, you aren't going to miss it. Immediately take your to-do list in one hand, a thick permanent marker in the other, and strike out any minor chore that you see. Or ball up the list entirely and give it to your cat. You're not avoiding that stuff, you just understand that it's irrelevant to your life.
What is really relevant? That's really up to you, and whether you want your life to stand for something. What memories you want to have when you draw your final breath.
"I did exactly what I want, and anytime someone tried to tell me what to do, I didn't. Mission accomplished." Fair enough. The point is not to have any regrets, not to wish we had done things that we never made the time to do. Whatever that means to you is your personal choice, based on your personal values. If your only value is autonomy, hey, whatever works for you.
Living in accordance with our own values is far more challenging than it should be. We love nothing more than to criticize other people for things they are doing, assuming they know better, but then letting ourselves off the hook for the things that we do or don't do. HE did that because he's an idiot / selfish / jerk, but I did this because I was busy / distracted by something important / had mitigating circumstances. It's called fundamental attribution error. Gossiping over the failings of others is fun. Looking down the well and facing our own failings, the deep ones, is dreadful. Why is it that we choose our own values, and yet we don't like holding ourselves to our own standards?
What am I avoiding?
Personal connections. Cutting the cord on personal connections I no longer want. Facing my fears of rejection or intimacy. Working harder. Pushing myself in my career and then finding that I'm not as good as I thought I was. Realizing what I thought was my fantasy doesn't really interest me all that much, and that I don't have anything to replace it with. Finding out how much I really will have to change if I want what I say I want. Missing out on a slice of cake even one time. Admitting to myself that I am creating the majority of my own problems. Revealing to myself that I have the ultimate power to make myself start doing or stop doing whatever I decide, but also realizing that I don't want to. Admitting how much I hate Future Me and want to make her life as difficult as possible. Acknowledging that I can't actually read every book in the world. Scrapping a project I sunk so much time into and either starting again with something else, or saying, I was never going to be this or do this. Living a bigger life and finding that it's yet again time to do more and be more vulnerable to public scrutiny. Facing my own mortality. Opening myself and my work to criticism. Yanking my floating brain back into my meat-body and realizing that yes, I live here full time, and yes, this really is me. Making eye contact with my own dark side.
Who knows what else?
Usually we're avoiding very specific things. I don't want to think about these papers. I don't want to wash these gross dishes or bag up this gross trash. I don't want to update my resume. I don't want to make that phone call or read that email, much less reply to it. I don't want to have that conversation. I don't want to get my heart rate up or get sweaty. I don't want to eat any nasty old vegetables. I want to watch this show or play this game or read this paragraph without having to do something else that is less fun or interesting, regardless of what it is. I don't want to fold this laundry or put it away. I'd rather sit in a room with this long list of dumb five-minute mindless chores clouding my mind than get up and do annoying tasks. In this case, we're avoiding the uncomfortable knowledge that most of a good and happy life consists of routine maintenance. That most of what can improve our day-to-day or bring us toward our goals has no intrinsic thrills in the action, only in the accumulated effects of the routine actions.
There are three possible reactions to the knowledge that we are avoiding something. 1. Keep avoiding it. 2. Admit that we're never going to do it and move on. 3. Face it and deal with it. I try to choose "face it and deal with it" as often as possible. This attitude increases my ability to handle things in all situations, expanding the possibilities in my life. I want to avoid being idle or missing opportunities, shrinking my life because I only ever chose the small and easy choices.
Most days I don't work out. It's true. I don't work out AT ALL. This is the exact kind of thing a thin woman isn't allowed to say. Like I'm going to sit in a restaurant, throwing a giant chimichanga down my gullet and talking very loudly about how I can eat whatever I want, and then they find my body in a back alley because someone in ketosis couldn't bear to listen to another word. Anyway. The entire reason I would talk about something like this is that it touches on so many major fallacies about fitness and weight loss.
First among these is that there are "naturally thin" people. I've even been told that I am one of these fabled creatures, and I laugh because I know differently. The difference between "naturally" thin people and the rest of us is that they acquired habits early in life that the rest of us have to learn as adults. Often, they aren't even fully aware that they do anything different. They eat and move a certain way, as do most or all of their relatives, and they think what is habitual to them is genetic, or a part of their personality. Why should we think differently when even they themselves don't realize the truth?
The answer I most did not want to hear about weight loss is that it's absolutely 100% about what I eat. I had thyroid disease, and I was still able to lose weight by changing my diet, whereas I gained 8 pounds while training for my marathon. Work out because you love it and you want to be strong, not because you have any illusions about weight loss happening at the gym.
Weight loss doesn't happen at the gym! We go to the gym to LIFT weight, not to lose weight.
Or, of course, we don't go to the gym at all.
Don't get me wrong; I love going to the gym. I have several different workouts that I enjoy, and I'll cheerfully choose one based on whether someone is in my way or hogging equipment that I like. I'm always game for learning a new exercise or training with someone else who can teach me something. It keeps things fun. I go through phases of being at the gym for up to 90 minutes at a time, most nights of the week.
And then, of course, I get into long ruts of not going. Like everyone.
What do I do to continue fitting in the same clothing size then? I claim that it's not genetics, so what's the secret?
The secret is, like I said, that weight maintenance is 100% about food, not exercise. I can eat an extra 500 calories in five minutes - it's called 'cake' - and it would take me at least 90 minutes on the elliptical to burn it off. This is partly unfair, because I am a short person with a small frame, so the standard slice of cake is meaner to me than it is to most people. The inverse way to look at this is that, since distance running is my preferred workout, the more I run, the more cake I can burn off. OR, the more cake I eat, the farther I can run!
What if you didn't have a sweet tooth, so much as that you have a previously undiscovered mutant power of endurance sports? Worked for me. *shrug*
The other thing about not working out is that we don't think of our background activity level as "a workout," although IT IS. It most definitely is. For instance, I spent most of the day I wrote this nursing an eye injury and sitting in a waiting room in urgent care. According to my activity tracker, I walked 4.5 miles and climbed five floors' worth of stairs. I was like, "What stairs? Did I climb stairs?" We got rid of our car, so we just walk everywhere, and I don't think of it as working out. Why? Because it's not hard anymore. I get sweaty pretty easily, so if I don't break a sweat, I don't feel like it counts. It's only "a workout" if I feel like I'm pushing myself.
My background activity level is far, far different than it was when I was fat. How so?
I walk about 50% faster
I walk 4-10x farther every day than I did 10 years ago
Six miles in a day is fairly common for me now
I climb stairs faster and far more often
I "bustle" around the house
My range of motion is much broader: reaching up, crouching down, climbing on stuff
I carry heavier weights more often
I do strenuous tasks myself that I used to ask A Man to do for me
I make a point of avoiding sitting down
I sleep about 50% more
I don't use my activity level as an excuse to "earn" "treats" (if I want to eat something, I just put it in my pie hole and eat it)
I eat basically the same stuff every day, so my intake is predictable while my activities are variable
What I learned the year I ran my marathon was that it takes me 38 miles of running to burn off one pound of fat. It "should" only take 35 miles, which means either I run too slow, or I burn fewer than 100 calories per mile because I'm both slow and small. Either way, it's a moot point. I'm more interested in doing things efficiently because I have a short attention span. Also, once I get curious about what someone else is doing differently than me, I can't let it go; I have to find out.
What is it like to feel strong, fast, and athletic? I wanted to know before I die. I figured I could always change back.
Pushing my physical limits to do an adventure race, go on a multi-day backpacking trek, and run a marathon changed everything I felt about being inside my body. I now know things about my capabilities that I can't un-know. I can eyeball something and know I'm strong enough to pick it up. I look at a map and think of walking somewhere (or running) and I know from experience that I'm quite capable of getting there and back without getting tired. I do things routinely that in the past I wouldn't do under any circumstances.
I used to spend quite a bit of my time nursing a migraine or otherwise experiencing too much fatigue or background pain to do much besides lie in bed trying not to move my forehead. After losing the 35 pounds and learning to eat sufficient micronutrients, suddenly my sleep problems and the migraines just... went away. A certain amount of my background activity level is just reclaimed from former "out of spoons" days. Again, that was 100% dietary.
As a newly athletic person, I now feel that most of my chronic pain and fatigue problems came from chronic sleep deprivation, micronutrient deficiency, and general lack of physical fitness. My body composition included very little muscle. My cardiovascular fitness was very poor. Of course I felt tired and cruddy even on my best days! I get tired just picturing my own posture from that time. I try to send little love messages to Past Me from time to time, but it just annoys her and hurts her feelings. She isn't ready to listen to me yet. I try to tune in more to Future Me, the Elderly Me, and hear what advice she has. It always seems to include getting stronger, building bone density and muscle, and retaining my ability to sit on the floor. Hopefully that won't feel like a workout.
Okay, come on, admit it: we live in the future. We have a space station, robots, self-driving cars, and special glasses for color-blindness. That's why I want to know why everything so far available for an automated home is irrelevant to my interests, and why I can't buy any of the stuff I really want in a smart home.
I didn't have a dishwasher as a kid. My husband had to teach me how to use one: how to load it properly, how to choose cycles, and what was this mysterious substance known as "rinse aid." When I was a child, we visited my grandparents, and I asked my mom where to put the quarters in their washer and dryer. I've come a long way since those days. We have not just a dishwasher and a microwave and a washer and dryer, but also a robotic vacuum and a robotic mop and a battery-powered hand-held scrubber. I've already decided that anything fully automated that hits the market is coming home with me straightaway. Maybe I'll order it by drone and it can let itself in while I'm out.
What's on the market in smart homes right now? It looks like you can automate your door locks, security system, thermostat, fans, window treatments, lights, coffee maker, and entertainment system. You can set up a video doorbell and a nanny cam. You can buy a pet feeder with a timer. You can buy a virtual assistant in a "talking can" like the Amazon Echo.
I just watched the commercial for the Apple HomeKit (disclosure: I not only own some Apple stock but also a metric load of Apple products. Oh, and some iRobot). The actor in the commercial is clearly a smart, successful single woman. All the features of the HomeKit revolve around her preparing for her workday and relaxing afterward. Awesome!
Where is the stuff for a family, though?
My husband and I were cracking up laughing the other day about this tweet saying that 90% of marriage is checking whether the dishwasher is clean. SO TRUE. Dishwashers come in all ages and levels of technological sophistication. Wouldn't it be great if there were a sensor that could be installed on an existing, analog dishwasher and keep our phones informed of its status?
Likewise, what I need the most is a sensor telling me whether one of us (*cough*) has left a load of wet laundry in the washing machine. There are all-in-one machines that wash and dry in the same barrel, without the need to switch machines, but apparently they take at least three hours and the dryer load can't be as big as the washer load, because that makes perfect sense. Can we fix this? Maybe we should focus on building a Martian colony first. Wait, what am I saying? What does humanity really need the most?
Take your flying car and... I dunno, go fly it somewhere. I'm not leaving until I get a robot that folds laundry.
Another really awesome thing would be if new products came with some sort of RFID tag or other type of sensor, so their location could be tracked anywhere in the home. The signal would only need to transmit for a few yards if there was a receiver in every room. You could find out whether your missing shirt was hanging in the closet, buried in the bottom of the hamper, or quietly stewing in a musty washing machine. You would always know where your reading glasses or scissors were, or if the remote got wedged in between the sofa cushions, or if the dog buried your cell phone battery in the yard. The tricky part would be retrofitting and trying to stick these tags on the 10,000 things you already own. Lost LEGO? You're on your own, kid.
There totally needs to be an automated LEGO vacuum. It could have sort of horizontal windshield wipers that sweep small toys into its maw and spit them into a container in the back. Be scared if they come out built into something, like, say, a ray gun.
A refrigerator that reads your body fat percentage when you grasp the handle, and opens or locks down particular drawers based on your personal settings. It should also know the insert date of every item you put in it, so it can tell you not to eat the leftovers that are about to pop spores, or to remove the old lettuce before it turns into that special brown pudding.
Can there be a sensor that tracks every time a dog barks and reports it directly to Animal Control if it reaches a certain frequency? Asking for a friend.
Out of all the things we need in a smart home, what we need the most is the ability to check hot things and turn them off remotely. I'm talking about stove burners and irons. Every type of iron: steam iron, curling iron, flat iron, pumping iron, Iron Fist, whatever you may have left lying around. Anything from the Mad Science laborrrratory, anything like that.
I need to get pinged on my phone if the power goes off in my fridge or freezer. It would be great if I could also get a notification about burst pipes or dripping faucets. Once a large terra cotta tile fell off our roof while we were away, and if it had been a solar cell, that would be good to track remotely. Once we came back from vacation and our neighbor had backed a van over our mailbox, but maybe asking for a mailbox inbox is one reach too far.
Could there be any kind of vermin detector? It would be interesting if the house knew it had termites...
We live a pretty easy, futuristic life. My husband and I refer to housekeeping as "starting the robots." We find it amusing to take the dog for a walk while running the washer, dryer, and dishwasher, and having one of the robots clean our floors. Perfection would be if we could also have a robot wiping down countertops, crawling around vertically and scrubbing the shower surround, or washing windows. Being able to control the stove and the dog door remotely would be amazing. Knowing with one glance at an app whether there was anything in the dishwasher or washer, you know what? Knowing that could save some marriages. I'm sure it could.
The toy vacuum could save a life. At least the lives of a few little action figures.
I firmly believe that all innovation starts as the wacky idea of a science fiction writer or futurist. I also believe that good ideas come from the same place as bad ideas, except that all the bad ideas are always packed on top. I'm an idea-generating machine, and I share my futuristic fantasies in the hope that someone will read one and invent it for me. I'll be your best beta tester ever, I swear! It also is not wrong to spend a little time appreciating the futuristic modern conveniences that we already have. An electric box that washes dishes? Get out of here, you whack-a-toon! Twenty years from now, we'll look back and ask ourselves how we ever managed without these laundry-folding robots.
Money is life energy. This is a concept articulated in great detail in the fabulous, must-read book, Your Money or Your Life. We earn money by going to work and doing things. Most of us don't particularly enjoy our jobs, our commute, our bosses, our coworkers, our customers, the interior design of our workplace, or, well, anything else about working. We do it because we don't have a choice. Work is the price of the ticket. If we want to live here on this earth, we have to eat, and if we want to eat, we have to figure out some way to get the food. Food, clothing, transportation, shelter, wifi, and all the rest. What we spend our money on is a direct tradeoff for whatever we had to do to get that money.
Calculate how much you have to show after working for an hour. This formula also comes from the YMOYL book. Look at your take-home pay after taxes and anything else that is withheld from your paycheck. This is not your true net pay. You next subtract anything you spent in that pay period that you would not have spent if you didn't have to work for a living. Commute, bridge toll, parking, any snacks or adult beverages (including coffee) that you only buy as compensation for how much you hate your job. THEN divide that sorry amount by how many hours you actually spend on your job, including work hours, overtime, commute, lunch, breaks, and any "free time" you spend thinking about or complaining about your job.
The first time I did this, my true hourly wage was about $3.75.
Now that you've calculated what you actually earn for an hour of your precious life spent at your cruddy job, what does it cost you to buy stuff?
Frugal people do this kind of calculation routinely. If I buy this on a regular basis, it's $X per week, roughly $4x per month, $52x per year. Variation: That would cost me a day's pay, a week's pay, a month's pay. Variation: If I invested that much and it earned a 4% rate of return compounded annually, it would be worth this much when I retire, or, conversely, spending this amount regularly would require this much capital investment. If your eyes just glazed over, that's totally okay! These mental calculations don't snap into place automatically unless you're already quite good with numbers and comfortable with math. For most of us, it's much simpler:
When I buy this, it means I paid for it with time in the saddle at my wretched job.
If we're in debt, it means more:
When I buy this, and I didn't save for it, and I'm already in debt, it means I expect Future Me to pay for it. Also, I want Future Me to have to pay interest on the debt.
When we buy stuff, we're buying it with after-tax money. Most of us are also paying sales tax on most items. When we buy stuff on credit, we're then adding interest and fees on top of everything else. It's variable depending on what you earn and where you live, but you can estimate. To buy a $100 item on credit, you would have to earn $169. (Assuming 25% withholding, a 10% sales tax and a 15% interest rate on a credit card that you didn't pay off for a year. Oh, and not including tip).
Okay, enough with the math already, it's making my head spin. My husband is helping me with this and he just pointed out that due to our tax bracket, we effectively have to earn $2 for every $1 we spend. Me: "We can never go to Starbucks again"
Another calculation that frugal people use is to compare the price of one thing to the price of another version of it, and ask whether this makes sense. For instance, I can pay $8 for a bucket of movie theater popcorn, or I can pay $5 for a 12-pack of microwave popcorn. Is the experience of eating stale popcorn during the movie really 20x better than the hot, fresh 42-cent bag I can make at home? If I'm buying jeans, is the $100 pair twice as good as the $50 pair?
This calculation can be used in a similar way to compare distinct objects and experiences. Is $1.99 for chips equally as good as $1.99 for kale? (Yeah, yeah, yeah, but consider the difference between both choices compounded over ten years).
Another calculation is any monthly expense, or what we refer to as a "dinger." Like a cash register going DING! A dent in a car is also referred to as a ding. Most people are not in the habit of doing this, but the results of this exercise can be impressive. Multiply any regular monthly cost times twelve months of a year. Would the monthly cost of a storage unit really and truly add up to the cost of a round-trip plane ticket anywhere in the world? (Answer: if it's $100 a month, then yes. Cable TV, same answer).
A dollar is worth exactly one dollar, no matter who is spending it or what it's buying, just like everyone gets the same 24 hours in a day. Intentional living means we are spending our hard-earned dollars in the ways that we intend. We are getting the most value for our effort. We are avoiding expenditures that don't mean all that much to us, and instead using the money to buy our heart's desire. We're making sure the pittance we earned during our worst hour on the job was really worth the trouble it took to earn it.
When people say, "I wish I had your willpower," or "where do you get the motivation?" I think the quality they're actually imagining is grit. Grit is the ability to do things you don't want to do, when you don't feel like it and you're not in the mood, even when it's really hard - and to keep on doing those difficult things over and over again for as long as it takes. Authors Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Kovel bring us Grit to Great, an approachable book filled with real-life examples of people who used grit to accomplish the seemingly impossible.
Grit makes a handy acronym for the traits of Guts, Resilience, Initiative, and Tenacity. Just reading these words makes me sit up a little straighter. You have to be brave enough to face things that scare you, flexible enough to deal with all the unpredictable frustrations that come up, bold enough to pursue your own ideas, and stubborn enough to never, never quit. The image from Grit to Great that brings this home to me the most is the story of James Henry, an illiterate fisherman who decided to learn to read at age ninety-two. If you're reading this, imagine not being able to. Suddenly life seems pretty cushy.
High IQ is not a significant predictor of success. Grit will outdo intelligence every time. People with higher education tend to be outperformed by less-educated entrepreneurs over and over again. The smarter we are, the more likely we are to find reasons to talk ourselves out of doing things. The larger problem is that of the fixed versus growth mindset. When we've always been told that we're smart, that we're good students, that we're well-behaved, etc, we tend not to push ourselves as hard. Expanding out of our comfort zones puts us at risk of failure, of challenging that image of the perfect A+ student. People with grit never quit. The desire to always be learning and improving and meeting new challenges means more failure on the small scale, but ultimately more success over a broader range.
I got a lot out of this book. I'm a big believer in the power of grit, but I hadn't realized all the ways that this quality is expressed. It made me determined. The example of Nick Wallenda caught my attention. He practiced walking a tightrope in 90-mph winds to prepare to cross the Grand Canyon on a tightrope. I also took heed of Jia Jiang's practice of Rejection Therapy, and Lee Yoon-Hye, a petite axe-wielding flight attendant who carried passengers to safety on her own back. These are the kinds of brave people I think about when I have to do something really hard, like fold laundry or wait in line. I can make my bed every morning, just like a Navy SEAL! (Except probably not as flat).
"If you want your dreams to become reality, wake up already."
"Happiness is not the absence of problems. It's the ability to deal with them." - Behavioral scientist Steve Maraboli
I do what I want in all situations. This is because I believe in free will. I happen to things. I may not be able to control everything that befalls me, but when events occur that I did not initiate, I still have the option to do what I want. Doing what I want doesn't always mean that I get what I want, although I usually do eventually. Doing what I want means that I recognize my ability to catalyze, initiate, maintain, or exit situations. I expand my center of power. I am the decider. I am the boss of me. The woman who does what she wants has a different experience of life than people who do not realize they have permission to do the same.
Ethics are a natural law. Whatever we do has ramifications. Consequences may be instantaneous, they may be delayed, they may build up over time, and they may be disproportionate to an action. I do what I want, recognizing that constraints apply to me. If I want to breathe underwater, I'll need to bring equipment. If I want my knees to bend backward like a perching bird, I'll need to use photo-editing tools. If I want total freedom to do what I want in society, I'll need to do it in the most effective way, which means abiding by applicable laws and regulations. I respect natural limitations because it's more convenient. Doing what I want means doing it over the long term. No fines, no fees, no asterisks.
I follow the categorical imperative. This means that anything I do should be something I would approve as policy if everyone else in the world did the same. I aim to treat others with civility. I clean up after myself. I work to increase my self-discipline, because it increases my personal power overall. Doing what I want does not mean being rude to other people, disrespecting boundaries, or taking things that don't belong to me. I don't need any of that anyway. My power comes from myself and my abilities, not from diminishing anyone else or misappropriating resources. It isn't necessary.
Doing what I want has almost nothing to do with anyone else.
I eat what I want, sleep when I want, wear what I want, and go where I want. I read what I want and listen to what I want. I definitely think whatever I want. How does a single one of these things impact anyone but me? I say what I want, which is not at all the same as saying whatever I think, and other people are free to react however they want. I associate with whoever I want, presuming the feeling is mutual.
I'm married. I married a man who appreciates that I do what I want. He does the same. He has always supported my endeavors and encouraged me to push my boundaries and abilities. It pleases him when I do well and learn new things. This is mutual. I inform him when I'm going to leave town, and he returns the favor. We ask before we use each other's tools. We teach each other things. We are friends and allies, like we were before we developed romantic feelings for each other. We talk and spend time together because we want to. We're in a committed, exclusive relationship because we want to be. Not everyone who has been in a relationship for over a decade can say the same.
There is a certain amount of naysaying around the idea of women doing what we want. Doing what we want is selfish; we're only allowed to put others first. Which others? All seven billion, of course. The second level of naysaying is that it's dangerous and we must Be Careful. I'm careful enough or I wouldn't still be here. I travel alone. I walk and run at night. I go on backpacking expeditions where I encounter potentially dangerous wild animals and fresh bear scat. I light fires and use power tools and sharp instruments. I know what I'm doing. Pretend I have a Y chromosome if that will make it easier for you to watch me doing what I want. The third level of naysaying is that women with children cannot do what they want. Please don't do this to your kids. Children need a grasp on reality to operate, and eventually they will discover the existence of women who do what they want, including moms. This will break their hearts because they'll feel that they stole your freedom and gave you half a life. Do what you want for yourself, for your kids, for your marriage, and for the rest of humanity. You're allowed to do things alone, to do things with only one child at a time, to do things with your friends, and to do things alone with your partner. If you can't bring yourself to do what you want, at least stand back and accept that others can and will. Doing what you want allows you to release your loved ones to do what they want.
I do what I want as a gift. When I am out and about in the world, I am available to make myself useful. I have helped people who have fallen on the street, I have called 911, I have stood up for people who were being bullied, I have chased after people with dropped mittens and wallets, I have grabbed kids who were running toward physical danger. It is a natural impulse. If I stayed at home feeling trapped and complaining about my life, I would not have been there to do any of those things for other people. I want to exert altruism. I want to collect heartwarming experiences of human connection. I have a custom FREE HUGS t-shirt that I wear on special occasions, and another that says LET'S MAKE FRIENDS. I want to rebuild the world my way, and that means taking the risk of trust. Trusting strangers.
I do what I want because it is nobody else's business but my own. If I want to make art, I decide whether it is art. Other people can think whatever they want about it. If I want to relax, I decide what I'm going to read or play and where I'm going to go. It's unlikely that anyone else will notice or care. I dress however I want, knowing that other people will have their opinions and that those opinions will all differ. Trying to please everyone means pleasing no one. I clean my house and exercise however I want, knowing that opinions vary about what is the correct way to do these things, and not caring. If I want to publish a book, I publish a book. If I want to go on a trip or run a race, I book the tickets and sign up. Again, most people will not notice. If I wanted to study martial arts, buy a horse or a house, start a new business or take voice lessons, I would, and someone would step forward to provide these services to me for an appropriate fee. Doing what I want is good for the economy if it affects anything or anyone at all.
I do what I want. I don't get a lot of complaints. This is because I don't wait for approval. Whatever you do in this world, someone will be interested and someone else won't. It's not their life. If I am bored or dissatisfied, I have only myself to blame. If I fail at doing what I want, it's good information for the next time I do what I want. I do what I want, and I think you should do what you want, too.
Let's start by saying that obviously, all living creatures need to eat food to survive. Wild animals eat biologically appropriate foods in sufficient quantities; otherwise, they don't live long. Domesticated animals such as ourselves very likely don't eat with the same combinations, quality, quantity, or frequency that we would in a state of nature. One of the reasons that we eat dysfunctionally in our culture is to express our perceived identity.
As an example, many of us have a signature beverage. Go to a cafe or a bar and watch this in action. We often have opinions about what kind of person drinks certain drinks or brands, like they're some kind of personality index. We wear beverage logos on our clothes. Our favorite beverage is probably the first thing we think of when we imagine ourselves with time off.
We have brand loyalties, a 20th-century phenomenon that has carried forward. The industry term "heavy user" refers to a patron who visits a particular restaurant chain several times a week, perhaps more than once a day. We don't just love our favorite brands, we may also scoff at those who prefer a rival brand, to the great delight of advertisers.
Some of us identify as A Good Cook or as never cooking, refusing to cook. That always seems like leaving yourself at the mercy of other people's indifferent or nefariously bad cooking, but hey. There seem to be a lot of people who derive their identity from having a special, secret recipe. Personally, I like sharing great recipes because maybe sometimes someone else will cook it and I can enjoy it without doing the work!
We also tend to define ourselves based on things we refuse to eat. A quick, surefire way to make a new friend is to share about how much you hate eating something and then discuss it with someone else who also hates it. Kale, for example. People absolutely love talking about their most loathed vegetables for some reason.
Food taboos. A common ethnic slur across epochs and cultures is to say that another group of people eats disgusting, inappropriate foods. A classic example is dog meat. Objectively, pigs test as more intelligent than dogs, and from a neutral, space-alien perspective, it's wasteful to euthanize stray dogs rather than using that perfectly edible dogmeat for our caloric requirements. Still, we tend to find the idea pretty horrible, just as we probably wouldn't eat horseflesh or rat meat either. Part of our cultural identity includes eating certain animals for food but not others.
Bacon was such a major food trend for a while there that it got into everything. Bacon maple bars. Candied bacon ice cream topping. Bacon t-shirts. Bacon band-aids. Even bacon underpants. This is weird to me because I have thought bacon was repulsive and smelly since the very first time I tasted it, at age 6 or 7. The thing about bacon is that predominantly Christians (and atheists and Satanists, I guess) eat it. It's a reliable way to weed out Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and various health nuts in one fell swoop. Sort of the opposite of a food taboo - a food gauntlet? Eat Bacon or You Can't Sit With Us.
There's probably a lot of Red State/Blue State stuff in there, too, but I promise not to go there. Gawd do I hate talking politics.
Most of what we eat, most of the time, is probably very similar to what we ate as children. We eat what our family of origin ate. There is a "correct" menu for Thanksgiving dinner, for example. Many of us eat the same dozen dinners over and over again. Why would we change? This is how we roll. We eat the good stuff, not the yucky stuff.
How much of what we eat is based on the deliciousness of it, as distinguished from the habit of it, as opposed to feeling disgust toward other options?
Most social occasions revolve around food. Can it be a birthday without cake? Thanksgiving without turkey? Halloween without candy? Food is the most obvious way we know how to celebrate, followed by booze. Food connects us. Sharing meals brings us closer to our family and friends.
This is one of the reasons why permanent changes in food intake and body image are so hard. Making these changes causes us to separate from our food tribes. Those closest to us feel that our changes are really about them. Eating together validates and legitimizes our food choices. Our peers feel that when we decide to eat differently, we are challenging the way they eat, causing them inconvenience, asking for special treatment and attention, and setting ourselves apart as "better than" or "holier than thou." How selfish!
If you're diabetic or in recovery from an addiction, too bad. That's your problem.
We don't always accommodate others very well when the Standard American Diet isn't working for them. WHY CAN'T EVERYONE JUST EAT WHAT'S ON THEIR PLATE AND SHUT UP?? This is because it's not just about food units but about WHOSE SIDE ARE YOU ON?
Eating what's in front of you - you'll eat it and you'll like it, or else - can feel like being correct, dutiful, respectful, responsible, frugal, mature, sensible, and simply common sense. Other reasons to eat a certain way might be because we feel that it's fun-loving, "real," and expressive of our independence. Nobody Tells Me What to Whatever. I'm eating this because I'm a free thinker, just like everyone else here at this table. We're authentic! The big thing is to definitely not cross over and start eating like one of Those People.
Those People might include Health Nuts. So extreme. Eating based on nutritional guidelines, especially if it includes more vegetables, is loopy, almost certainly fad-based and unhealthy, probably indicative of an eating disorder. What next, pyramid power or chanting or something?
I'm a Questioner, and I'm naturally drawn to investigate anything with taboo power. Why do people care so much about [whatever topic]? Hmm, how interesting. Why is [whatever] so controversial? Can actual objective facts be determined here, or has any real research been done? This part of my personality can often rub people the wrong way. Sorry! I just have to know. When I realized as a teenager just how much juice there was in people's attitudes toward food, I couldn't leave it alone. It led to basing my own eating habits on research, not exactly a party-friendly trait. My identity includes eating rationally, based on nutrition and dietetics. This is why it surprises me so much that most people seem to deliberately avoid eating healthily, because doing so would violate their self-image as well as group status.
Who am I if I start eating differently? How many meals does it take before I change into someone else? Or do I? Can I still feel like the same person if I eat certain things instead of others? Can I still fit in with my friends and family if I add and subtract certain foods from my plate? What would it be like if I based more of my identity around other values, rather than food items?
I only found it because I dropped something behind a shelf. Moving a storage tin to reach it, I discovered a very large black spider in its web. Compounding this moment of surprise was the fact that I was talking to my mom on the phone. The conversation went something like this: "Blah blah blah BLEARGHughohmygahhhh sorry what?" Then I had to wind it up because I really wanted to take a picture of the nefarious interloper, but I needed my phone camera. Sorry, Mom, that's really interesting but there's this spider to investigate...
Years ago, I decided to start carrying spiders and insects outside rather than crush them. The main reason is that they leave horrifying greasy smears on the wall. The whole time I'm wiping them away with my Magic Eraser, I'm thinking "spider guts bug guts spider guts..." There's also that gruesome crunch of the exoskeleton being cracked, or eight spider eyeballs popping off, or whatever. The occasional extra leg joint left behind on the floor. If I wanted to do crime scene cleanup, I would - I hear there's good money in that. I'm not squeamish, I'm... KIND! Yeah, that's right. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
My husband happened to be home, so I let him carry out the big scary black spider. He caught it in a plastic container, because it has a lid, and examined it out on the balcony.
"Um, babe? It has a big red hourglass on its belly."
We agreed to crush it, rather than release it to get back into our apartment, or one of our neighbors' apartments.
We had only lived in our new apartment for three weeks. We had carefully unpacked and set up each and every item from every box. If there had been a giant hairy black spider in any of the boxes, presumably we would have found it. It had to have come in either through the front door or the sliding patio door, since we don't actually have any windows. Either that, or it got in somewhere when it was tiny and then began growing when it was comfortably hidden away. None of these options are very reassuring.
Our dog has a habit of picking up spiders with his mouth, tossing them around several times, smacking them with his paw, and then wiping his cheek on the remains. Not great if this ever happens with a venomous spider like a black widow. I did some research, and venomous spider bites can cause paralysis and death in dogs and cats.
Here's the thing: spiders get in. They like nice, warm, dry hiding places. There is probably at least one spider in everyone's home at all times. Almost all spiders are totally harmless, and even beneficial. There are a few, though, that do bite humans, causing wounds that you probably don't want to see in Image Search. I have a relative who needed emergency treatment after a bite from a black widow spider. We need to discriminate about whether we tolerate spiders in our homes, and which type they are.
My clients tend to be very laissez-faire about, well, a lot of stuff, but particularly about spiders and vermin. Almost all of them will point out spiders in the cobwebs on their ceiling and say, "That's my pet." Believe it or not, it's also quite common for my people to tolerate mice and rats in their homes, even though I can give you at least fifty reasons why this is a horrible idea. They tend to be skeptical about mainstream health and safety information in general. Fire safety, germ theory, vermin... *shrug* Whatevs.
On the other extreme are the sensitive souls who are so alarmed by the prospect of finding a spider that they use it as an excuse to avoid moving anything. There might be a spider in that closet! There are definitely spiders in the shed/garage/attic/basement... There might be a spider behind that box! Or IN that box! Cue full-body shudder.
This, to me, is the best possible reason to clean up. There might BE a spider in there. Better find it before it carries your cat into its web! If there's a spider anywhere in my home, I'm going on a search and destroy mission and I'm not stopping until I find it. Spike is right there with me, sometimes dispatching the poor creature before I can get it into the Eviction Container. I'm not waiting around until it crawls into my bed, which has happened more times than I care to share.
One morning I woke up and saw a pretty darn big spider crawling on my sheets. Not fully awake, I reached my arm out and crushed it with my finger. I felt it squirm. THEN I woke up all the way.
I first went camping at age two. Part of the wilderness lore I was taught included always checking your shoes before you put them on. When I'm camping, I stuff my socks into my shoes or boots after I take them off, to discourage any spiders, scorpions, or anything else from crawling inside. At home, I keep all my footwear in a hanging shoe rack, where I hope it would be a great deal of trouble for some crawly thing to discover them and try to make a home inside one. I still check, every shoe, every time. Once I left my shoes on the floor and found a cat toy inside, presumably from my roommate's cat. Gee, uh, thanks?
I also make sure to put my laundry in the hamper, again because I don't want to create an enticing new home for anything that has more legs than I do.
I would no sooner dream of putting on clothes I had left on the floor overnight than I would eating leftovers out of someone's fridge blindfolded. The idea of pulling on a pair of pants with a spider hidden inside one leg is scarier to me than... now that I think about it, it's literally scarier to me than walking down a dark alley alone.
The main difference between my home and the homes of my clients is that I have a lot of visible bare wall. I don't have stacks or piles or box towers for stuff to hide behind. I don't have a lot of bulky furniture. Even though our apartment is under 700 square feet, we have plenty of breathing room around our stuff. I was able to find the big black widow spider behind our shelves because those shelves are for active use storage. Nothing sits in one place for very long before it is taken out, used, and put back.
My contention is that we should be intentional about our homes. Everything we own, everything that comes through our doors, and the way everything is arranged should be exactly as we choose it to be. Sometimes we are temporarily beset by unintentional additions, such as junk mail, fruit flies, or the occasional still-mobile creature carried in by one of our pets. Part of our plan for intentional living should be to figure out what to do with unwelcome interlopers, removing annoyances as they come up. Hopefully we won't have to smear them on the wall.
If everything in your house cost one dollar, how much did you spend on it?
How many individual items do you own? Dozens? Hundreds? Thousands?
The premise here is that for many of us, our "net worth" consists of our personal belongings plus debt. This is a classic symptom of scarcity mindset that often leads to broke people having far more possessions than wealthy people do. Examining how much hidden abundance we actually have in our lives is the first step toward feeling our way into actual abundance.
Now, let's start looking around. Those of us deep in scarcity mindset are going to be pretty well convinced that we don't spend money on anything. Our focus will immediately turn to those things we received as gifts, salvaged, bought at a thrift store or yard sale, built ourselves, or that we have had so long they have fully depreciated. There may well be someone reading this who has transitioned to full money-free living, and if so, by all means please send me a note! I'd love to hear from you! The rest of us, well, we probably do have at least a trickle of money coming into our lives, and it's likely trickling right back out in one form or another. Rent, utilities, food, debt payments, and other expenses do occur that we feel are locked in to our scarcity lifestyle.
It also tends to go to items we feel like we can afford. Snacks and sodas. Discount and sale items. Used books. Inexpensive holiday decorations. We're more likely to feel we can "afford" items that cost under a certain dollar amount than we are to consider our expenses as a total annual cost. I realized at one point that I was spending $300 a year on vending machine snacks, when I never would have dreamed of spending that identical $300 in a lump sum on something like a dining table, a vacuum cleaner, or a fridge.
Another hallmark of scarcity mindset is never feeling like we have ENOUGH of something. When everything we own is sub-optimal in some way, we're always questing for something better. That tends to result in, say, five pairs of $10 shoes that fit poorly rather than one pair of $50 better-quality shoes. Same fifty bucks! The difference is that the scarcity purchasing leads to constant discomfort and a bulging closet, while the abundance purchase of the single, actually-good-enough pair leads to satisfaction. Multiply by every category of possession and a scarcity house will have 5x more stuff than an abundance house for the same number of total dollars.
The attention, focus, and awareness we place on bargaining and negotiating to get our material needs met can also be applied to finding ways to increase our earning power. The better we are at functioning on an extremely low income, the better use we would make of a higher income. We can only cut our expenses down to zero, but there IS NO UPPER LIMIT to how much we can earn. There is a finite lower limit but an infinite ceiling. Can I say that in other ways that make more sense so it will sink in? It is much easier to think of many ways to bring in more money than it is to think of even one more way to save money.
Cash flow is very abstract, while our possessions are very concrete. I can hold this stuffed animal in my hand, while I can't guarantee that this supposed earning power really exists, or will continue to exist next year. I'm already doing everything I know how to do - I simply can't imagine myself in a position that could bring in a higher income. I have no idea what would be different about my life if my income were that much higher. I don't know what I would buy or not buy. What I do know right now is that this is my life, this is my home, these are my things, and this is all I have. I have enough problems without foolish fantasies and woo-woo thinking exercises.
My clutter clients have an astonishing amount of stuff. Even for single people who live alone, each room can easily have double to 5x more items than most homes would have. There are sometimes entire closets or rooms that are packed solid. A closet will have stuff poking out the bottom of the door, or a room cannot be entered because even the doorframe is full from top to bottom and from side to side. Even discounting the paper clutter, gifts, and hand-me-downs, there is plenty of stuff that cost the owner money at some point. Sometimes it's duplicate items that arose from chronic disorganization, like pens, shopping bags, or an extra case of paper towels. Sometimes it's the result of compulsive accumulation, like magazines, cosmetics, holiday decorations, or shoes. It almost always includes books, clothes, and stockpiles of extra food. I NEED THIS BECAUSE I HAVE NOTHING.
Thrift stores can be an irresistible attraction when we're poor, or when we feel like we are poor, which is more important than actual cash flow in terms of mindset. Surely nothing I bought in the $1-$5 range actually counts, does it? Well, yes. When there's so much stuff in a house that it has to be piled, when there are so many clothes that they can cover the floor in even one room, it adds up. The cost adds up. A hundred $1 items, fifty $1.99 items, twenty $5 items, perhaps some of each, represent not just clutter but the absence of $100 or $200 or $300 of emergency savings. It isn't much, but often even that $100 can make the literal difference between a bill getting sent to collections or not. An envelope with even the smallest amount of emergency savings can represent peace of mind in a way that no physical possessions can.
The question is, what do we have to show for all our hard work and all the bitter tears we've wept over our financial desperation? How much is in our various bank accounts (and envelopes) as opposed to spread out on every flat surface, including the floor? If we could wave a wand and have a dollar bill instead of any and every possession of our choice, how quickly would we be out of debt? How many lifestyle upgrades could we suddenly afford? We want to look at our financial outlay as buying the best quality of life we can get for our hard-earned money. There are very few material possessions that can contribute as much as savings, investments, and confidence can.
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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