The main visible difference between a child’s bedroom and an adult’s bedroom is that kids leave stuff strewn all over the floor. Adults have stepped on enough LEGO and other small toys that we prefer an open field. We appreciate the luxury of walking barefoot across a room without getting punctured by a tiny plastic accessory. Children use these items to mark their territory, assert their aesthetics, avoid boring chores, and also because they don’t know how to do otherwise.
“The floor is lava” is a game we used to play as kids. It’s the sort of thing one child teaches another, like all the rude little verses we call back. “I’m rubber, you’re glue.” The point of “the floor is lava” is that you have to jump around on the furniture, and if you touch the floor, then you fell in the hot lava. It’s a really exciting excuse to hop on the couch. One of the reasons kids will tolerate having stuff all over the floor is that they are nimble enough they don’t really need a floor at all. In a narrow enough hallway, they’ll crawl up the walls.
Another reason kids tolerate having a messy floor is that they have a lot of really small toys. This is a function of culture, of what’s available to buy and own. It’s also a problem created almost entirely by adults. Kids don’t have any money and they can’t drive. All of their stuff, their messy messy stuff, came from THE PARENTS and their ilk. Yes, kids will bring home pebbles and pine cones, but it’s a duty of parenting to explain why that stuff belongs in the natural world and why it isn’t fun to step on stuff barefoot in the dark. It’s also up to the parents to be a filter between affordable materialism and a livable space in the home.
If you don’t want your kids to make a mess, quit bringing them tiny toys. Set boundaries with the grandparents. Sit down with them and sort and purge a few times a year. Teach them what the heck is meant by the mysterious directive, “Clean your room.”
What children have in common with my people, the adult chronically disorganized folks of the world, is that they all struggle with categorizing things. Sorting and grouping is challenging for them. They don’t know what to do or how to do it. They have no idea what ‘done’ looks like. This is something they can learn, but not something they can ever be expected to figure out on their own. That’s where an organizer like me comes in. I understand that they have all the creativity, intelligence, and desire to please that they could ever need. All they need is someone to patiently walk them through how to sort things into categories, many times, many times, until they start to understand. They also start to be supported by a visible, clearly marked system. The room itself starts to show what to do and how to do it.
My people tend to have stuff on their floors, just like little kids do, because of a series of reasons. They don’t see it - especially in the bathrooms, where most people with vision problems are not wearing their glasses or contact lenses. They aren’t looking for it, because “bare floors” is not a metric in their world. There may be a lot of boxes and large furniture and stacks and piles obscuring the small objects that have fallen to the floor. They may have cats or other pets who climb and jump and knock things to the floor and carry things off in their naughty mouths. They may have physical issues, like knee or back pain, that prevent them from bending or kneeling. They may simply be struggling with depression. Mostly, though, they’ve just reached adulthood without anyone teaching them the painstaking process of categorizing the small items.
Since the floor is always scattered with small objects, it never gets vacuumed. Because it never gets vacuumed, cleaning the floors is never a task on the schedule. Because cleaning the floors is never on the timeline, every object that hits the floor stays there. This is how the problem compounds over time.
My people tend to be bright and creative, yet also pessimistic and prone to fatalism. Their reaction to stress and drama is not “time to do something about this” but rather “oh well, oh dang, not again, why me.” My people tend to catastrophize and make problems seem worse than they are because they believe they are powerless. This mindset is compounded by the chaos in their physical surroundings. They are unskilled at estimating how long it takes to do things. They often see chores and other aversive tasks, like financial planning, cooking, or exercising, as moral issues or personal failings or character flaws rather than simple practical jobs to be done. They’ll cling to the same housekeeping techniques their grandparents used. In their minds, “cleaning” or “housework” takes days, it’s physically exhausting, it’s incredibly boring and humiliating, and it must be done alone, in deep silence.
(When I was a kid, housework meant we had company coming later in the day, and that meant party food. It wasn’t that we liked dusting or cleaning our rooms, it was that we knew the clock was ticking toward chips ‘n’ dip or pizza and movie time).
Another way to look at it is that tiny toys and other objects don’t need to be picked up one by one, while crawling on your hands and knees. There are three fast and easy ways to do it, if you do it yourself.
One is to stand up and use the top edge of a mop to scrape all the stuff into a pile. (You can also buy an object called a “toy rake” to do this job).
Another way is to kneel on the floor with a magazine or a child’s board book in each hand. Use the bindings as scraper tools, like windshield wipers, and scoop all the tiny toys toward you.
The third way is to buy a robot vacuum and let it pick up the tiny toys in its ashtray, so you can shake them out afterward.
With kids involved, you can set a timer and make toy pickup into a game.
It’s also important to have a sorting system that is clear and obvious, a system they can reach and that they are old enough to easily understand. Praise the behaviors you want, reward the results that you like on a regular schedule, support the system so it continues to work, but understand that punishment, lectures, and blame are demotivating for children and exhausting for you.
With a bare floor, you can do a lot. You can dance around and do the Sound of Music twirl. You can play and wrestle with your pets and your kids. You can get down and relax with some yoga stretches. You can pace back and forth. You can stumble around at night without hurting your foot in the dark. If you drop an earring or an aspirin, you can spot it and pick it up. A bare floor is an asset, something that it’s easy to take for granted. If the floor is lava at your house, start imagining how you can start walking on it again.
The problem with this whole idea of Getting Organized is that it feels like work. It’s all about duties, responsibilities, aversive tasks, and backlogs. What fun is that? For chronically disorganized people, it’s hard to imagine how nice it will feel to have more mental bandwidth, to be able to relax while knowing there’s nothing else we “should” be doing. It all just feels like a giant boring chore. This is why I think we should link chores to fun stuff. Every day, let it be something fun and something done.
How does this work?
Let’s start with folding laundry. This is my most personally loathed chore. I often use a stopwatch to gamify my housework and fit it in between other things, and that’s how I learned that it takes about twelve minutes to fold and put away one load of laundry. That’s almost as long as it takes to clean my entire bathroom! I use that time to listen to podcasts. Sometimes I also find new combinations of outfits through the serendipity of everything being swirled together in the basket.
Email is another chore that really gets on my nerves. Every single day, I find that I have to unsubscribe from several unwanted, unasked-for lists and process a bunch of junk mail. There also tends to be stuff that deserves a considered reply, and the moment it appears is usually not the moment to write back. I deal with this by subscribing to several newsletters that I really enjoy! Every day there’s something I really look forward to reading, so that my email is about half fun stuff. I tend to go through it at breakfast and lunch, and I can bang out replies to important stuff while riding that swell of enjoyment.
Errands are outings. Any time I “have” to go somewhere, I make sure to do at least one fun thing on the same trip. That’s because we got rid of our car and it saves a lot of time to combine things in the same area. For instance, I often stop by the library on the way to or from the grocery store. Not my jam, but I notice a lot of people out there still playing Pokémon Go, and you can hatch a lot of eggs by walking around town. Riding a bicycle also has its way of making any trip feel like fun.
Kitchen cleanup is something I do while fixing meals. Most kitchen chores can be done in one or two minutes, if they’re done regularly. I might scrub the sink or wipe down the fridge door while waiting for the microwave. We were just given a countertop dishwasher, and I unload it while I’ve got stuff cooking on the stove. The anticipation of hot food on the way helps make these quick tasks feel like part of the game.
Cooking is something I’ve learned to enjoy, although I used to hate it. Knowing how to cook means you can make your favorite foods, exactly the way you like them, any time you want. Why wouldn’t anyone want to be able to do that? I think the major reasons why people don’t enjoy cooking are when they’re expected to do it by ingrates, and when the kitchen is so cluttered and gross that it has to be cleaned both before and after making a meal. 1. Don’t cook for ingrates; make them do it. 2. Get rid of half your kitchen stuff and just eat the backup food from the pantry until it’s used up. Or donate it to the food bank. Cooking can feel exciting if you let it.
Sometimes something pops up that isn’t fun at all, but can’t be avoided, like surprise tax correspondence or an unpleasant doctor visit. I try to have that be the only chore-like thing I do that day, my one-and-done. The last time one of these doctor visits came up, we went across the street to the park and watched ducks swimming in the pond for a while, then went out to lunch.
One of my all-time worst, most procrastinated tasks is making business calls. I just kinda have to force myself to do it. If I’m going to have to wait on hold for a while, I use that time to look at cute animal photos or read an article. If I’m calling for information about something, I’ll use that same block to check movie times, reserve a library book, or download an app or a podcast episode.
In the background of almost all my chores and dreaded tasks, I’ve got a podcast or audio book playing in my ears. Sure, sometimes I get stuck doing something really gross, like cleaning gum out of the treads of my shoes or dragging soapy hair out of the shower drain. I also have a parrot, and I’d rather not talk about what it’s like to regularly clean a bird cage. (She’s worth it, but). It’s not like pairing something fun with something unfun really takes away the inherent ick factor. It just helps to make it more bearable.
We’re talking about two things right now. One is the strategy of anchoring. Socks and shoes, peanut butter and jelly, burgers and fries, chores and games. Doing one thing helps you remember to do the other thing you’ve anchored to it, like flossing before you brush your teeth, or putting the heartworm pills next to the dog food. Anchoring chores to a favorite music playlist or errands to a favorite shop can help make the boring stuff more upbeat.
The other thing is that life can and should be more fun. Add more celebration, gratitude, and delight wherever you can. Why ever not? Life is 80% maintenance. Without the routine errands and chores and hygiene and repair and maintenance, we’d soon find that we couldn’t really even do the 20% of things that are more fun and meaningful. Let’s do whatever we can to keep things running smoothly. Something fun, something done.
The thought of introducing myself to potential new clients by leaving a business card on their door was something I smacked down almost as soon as it entered my mind. As obvious as these homes are to me, it’s equally obvious that their inhabitants would be horrified that anyone could guess how they live from the street. The entire point of hoarding is emotional insulation, to create a barrier that blocks this secret world from the outside.
Doesn’t work, though. Like it or not, we’re stuck participating in this world. People can see us. Worse yet, they’d help us if we’d let them in.
That would be defeating the purpose, because isolation is the purpose as well as the cause.
What is it that I can see from the street? What makes “one of mine” stand out?
The windows are always covered, even on the brightest summer day. Curtains, blinds, sheets, blankets, cardboard, car window shades, even a sheet of plywood in one case. You can tell that it’s been this way for a long time because often objects are visible, either between the covers and the glass, or pressing the curtains into weird shapes. DON’T LOOK IN.
The front door is obscured in some way. Maybe there are a bunch of boxes stacked out there, or bags of recycling, or dead potted plants. Anything that might have said, “Welcome Friend” is noticeable in its absence. DON’T COME INSIDE.
Usually there’s a large amount of visible clutter outside. You can see it in the side yard, or poking over the back fence, or strewn in the yard or driveway. We used to have a neighbor across the street who kept dozens of rubber storage tubs stacked up in front of the garage door. When this happens outside an American-standard suburban ranch house, it says one or both of two things. 1. The inside of the house is already full and/or 2. Nobody is helping to take care of things here. DON’T OFFER.
Of course I’ve been allowed inside dozens of cluttered homes in the course of my work. I’ve worked with extreme hoarding and squalor. What you see on the hoarding shows on TV? That’s about five times more common than I think people realize. There are also a LOT of people living with a level of clutter not too far above that point. Sure, a lot of my people are overwhelmed by chronic disorganization, and they can quickly “get organized” once they’re taught what to do. I think the majority are having more trouble managing their emotions than they are their stuff.
The Anger House is the most common. This is what happens when nobody has ever worked out the power dynamics of who does what. People snap at each other every day. Who ate it? Who left it there? Who took it? Where is it? Whose turn is it? The kitchen looks like a bomb hit it because the thought of washing everyone else’s dishes touches off a radioactive cloud of resentment, grudges, quarrels, and previous fights. Doing laundry or cleaning the bathroom are battle-worthy premises, usually not worth the effort. In the Anger House, someone is often shouting first thing in the morning, before work or school have even started. Every single task is politically charged; you can’t pick up a sock without making some kind of statement.
The Sorrow House is usually a scene of mourning. Hoarding is almost always triggered by a death in the family, and sometimes a series. If there are grief boxes of the possessions of the departed, that will virtually always touch it off. The first time I saw this in action, the adult daughter had filled her entire living room, dining room, and kitchen four feet high with boxes of her deceased parents’ housewares. There was a narrow path from room to room, and she had saved herself one of three sofa cushions. (The other two? Boxes!). She would come home, weave through the box barricade, and nestle into that one available soft spot, where she had sat for several years. I can’t help but think of how deeply saddened her parents would have been, to think that this was the life she chose. Parents like to think our kids will do better than we did, that they’ll have better lives than ours, and certainly we want our kids to go on to live many happy years after we leave this world. It’s a conversation we should be having while all parties are still among the living. Our culture’s distinct lack of burial rites and formal mourning rituals leads us to these bizarre, unhelpful states of limbo. For lack of a cenotaph, we’ll pay thousands of dollars for storage units we’ll never visit, so we never have to face the sorrow of throwing away our parents’ old pot holders and dish towels.
A Sorrow House is often the result of a restructured family. Maybe divorce or separation, maybe an empty nest from whence the grown children have flown. Living alone and rattling around a big old empty house? It IS sad! I just really wish more people would shrug it off and choose to live like the Golden Girls, finding a way to be relatively cheerful with roommates rather than lonely with a television.
Maybe I should use the term ‘anxiety’ instead, but maybe it’s helpful to call things by their names and label the Fear House for what it is. Because a Fear House doesn’t feel scary to the occupant, it feels safe. In the Fear House, it just feels safer not to venture outside to take out the trash right now, or return those purchases, or run those errands. In the Fear House, there are always a million and five reasons to delay going out the door and just stay home a few more minutes. It always feels better to do the coping mechanism than to do anything else.
I teach that we should evaluate our homes by the use we get out of the space. Home should feel welcoming, a place of peace, warmth, safety, and hospitality. Kitchens for cooking, dining tables for meals, beds for sleeping, desks for creative projects. We can also go through and evaluate what emotions rise up in different areas. What parts of the home are evidence of unresolved power struggles? Unprocessed grief? Loneliness? Anxiety, stress, or boredom? What would it look and feel like if it were instead to be a happy, cheerful, joyous home?
I wish there were a better euphemism to use for translating the Swedish word döstädning than the phrase “death cleaning.” Okay, that may be the most metal thing of all time, but it may cast an unfairly gloomy pall over what is really a very charming and sweet book. Maybe let’s call it... life sifting. Then let’s move on and talk about how this is just the best book, one that deserves worldwide success.
The author, artist Margareta Magnusson, claims to be “somewhere between eighty and one hundred.” She put together The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning while sorting her own belongings. She did the same process after the deaths of her mother, her husband, and her mother-in-law, among others, and she points out that this work usually falls to the women in the family. She says: “I have death cleaned so many times for others, I’ll be damned if someone else has to death clean after me.” One of the reasons for doing this work ourselves, Magnusson says, is to prevent fights between family members. For instance, rather than have her five kids quarrel over an heirloom bracelet, she sold it! In my work, it is more common than not for my adult clients to have siblings, aunts, uncles, and sometimes parents or kids who have not been on speaking terms in years over some piece of jewelry or furniture. If death cleaning can prevent these stupid materialistic arguments and keep families together, that is reason enough to do it.
The other reason is that as far as I can tell, the majority of bereavements result in grief clutter that is still hanging around, years or decades later. Almost every storage unit I’ve encountered in my practice includes boxes of the ordinary domestic wares of a relative who has passed on. Often, the boxes are stacked up in the adult child’s home. There has never yet been a time when anyone has been “ready” to process and clear this type of grief clutter. I know of one home with three generations’ worth. Clearly our culture is in need of some new mourning rituals and traditions. Swedish death cleaning, why not?
My beloved mother-in-law did this process after her fifth lymphoma diagnosis. She spent the last months of her life systematically sorting through all her things. She had a lifetime’s worth of wacky costumes, hats, costume jewelry, and stuffed animals, including all sorts of prizes and joke gifts from her different clubs. She invited her friends to visit, one by one, and had them choose things that spoke to them. She sorted through every shelf and closet. When she was done, she taught her husband how to cook all of his favorite recipes. I believe this methodical clearing work helped my mother-in-law to make her peace, while also pacing those inevitable goodbye visits that might otherwise have been overwhelming. She wasn’t Swedish, but that process is reflected in this book, which even closes with some bonus recipes.
The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning is a light-hearted, breezy take on a situation that could really use it, viz. mortality. The author’s illustrations add just the right note of whimsy. Read it, share it, bring it to book club, and give out copies to everyone in your family. Then let’s all push up our sleeves and get started.
Perfectionism is stupid. It’s stupid! Perfectionism keeps you from getting anything done, it annoys other people, it usually leads to zero results, it keeps you from being able to relax, and, did I mention, it annoys other people? I say all this as a recovering perfectionist. (I just totally typed that as ‘perfectionism’ and then I wrote ‘taht’ and it’s all getting marked down in my book of karma to work off in the afterlife). One of the many ways I try to trick myself out of this pernicious character flaw of perfectionism is to focus on output and results: quantity, not quality. Completion, publication, finishing, being on time. Another way is to adhere to my 80/80 rule. Eighty percent right, eighty percent of the time.
Why 80/80? Personally, I think it’s easier to manage than 100/50. 100/100 is foolishly impossible. The only thing I should do to 100%, 100% of the time, is to maintain my integrity. My punctuation and spelling are not a part of that.
80% clean, 80% of the time. That’s my rule for housekeeping. I do one room every weekday, and if that room gets messed up at some point during the next six days, I’m ignoring it. I clean the bathroom on Thursdays. If there are a few specks on the mirror or a few hairs in the bathtub, they can wait until next Thursday. A few specks and a few hairs may take my bathroom down from 100% clean (Thursday afternoon) to 98% clean (Wednesday). It’s not worth my time or attention. Even if we leave town or I get sick, and the bathroom gets skipped for a week, it’s still only going to be down to 80% clean by then. Come to think of it, cleaning the bathroom once a week may mean that it’s usually cleaner than 80% clean, more often than 80% of the time. Since it only takes me 15 minutes to clean my bathroom, I don’t really care to put more thought into it.
That’s the goal of having rules, guidelines, and policies. It means we don’t have to MAKE DECISIONS. Decisions drain mental energy. Decisions draw drama. Decisions make something emotional when it could be purely rational. Always save decision-making bandwidth for the truly major stuff, like whether to relocate, rather than the minor stuff, like whether to have cake for breakfast. Because guess what? If you’re deciding, then you’re going to eat the cake for breakfast. And by “you” I mean “I.” I am going to eat the cake for breakfast.
80% nutritious, 80% of the time. That’s my rule for food. Basically it means that my regular weekday meals need to be nutritious and not include junk or treats, unless we’re on vacation. On the weekends, I’m still eating nutritious main meals, but there’s also a little room for something like popcorn, hot chocolate, or breakfast out. The reason I don’t splurge more often than that is that I know full well what my physical tolerances are. I’d eat way more junk if I could get away with it. I’m the one who has to live with the consequences when I give myself a headache or night terrors from eating too much of the wrong food at the wrong times. Well, me, and anyone within whining range of me, like when I’m curled into a ball after eating too many curly fries at the fair.
The reason I respect my physical limits and plan what I eat is that it makes my life easier. I know I have zero willpower. I know I’m always going to eat one too many cookies. I know I’m going eat the whole portion when I could have saved half, even when I hit two-thirds and tell myself I know I’m full. I know I’m going to let my weight creep up until all my waistbands get tight and I stop being able to button my pants. I know all of this about myself. That’s why I have to set policies to stop myself. It’s like I’m really two people, Past Self, who knows the bitter truth, and Present Self, who has swirly eyes over some pastry case. Present Me always wants to disregard past data. Future Self, however, has some opinions about that.
80% good enough is usually good enough. Most routine things really are not urgent or important. They only start to get that way when conditions slip. For instance, most of the time, it probably doesn’t matter what your home looks like. It becomes urgent when you’re looking for your keys or your glasses and it’s time to leave. It becomes urgent when you get a surprise inspection notice from the landlord, or a maintenance person is coming over. It becomes important when it strains relationships with other people who live with you. It becomes important when it makes your life more difficult in any way. Being late all the time, bungling your commitments, feeling miserable, all are great reasons to start to picture what eighty percent looks like.
We’re only really happy when we’re living up to our own values. Our values are standards we set for ourselves, and if there’s a mismatch between our values and our behavior, then we have only ourselves to blame. The way we treat our bodies and our personal living environments are reflective of what we value. Whatever other values we might choose, at the very least, we’re saying, “This matters to me” or “This right here does not matter to me.” If our bodies don’t matter and our personal living spaces don’t matter, then what does?
This is how it went:
December. Decide we want to move to a place with lower rent. Coincidentally get notice TWO HOURS LATER that our rent will increase $200 a month. Shrug.
January. Negotiate lower rent with property manager. Spontaneously decide to look at a “junior one bedroom” unit and realize we like it better. Apply for a unit and get it. Give notice.
Two months after we decided we wanted to move, we were sleeping in our new, cheaper apartment.
Two weeks elapsed between when we started packing our old place to when we finished unpacking in our new place.
I packed four boxes a day for the three days before the move. We could have done more, but in a 680-square-foot apartment, there isn’t very much room for a staging area to stack boxes.
My husband has alternate Fridays off, and we spent a couple of hours packing on the Friday before the move. Then we took off to run some errands and see a movie.
Moving Day was a Saturday. We had breakfast around 8 AM. Then we spent an hour filling out paperwork in the rental office before we could pick up our keys. A friend came over to help us move at 10 AM. He left around 1 PM. We were done packing, hauling, and cleaning at 11 PM, including two meal breaks.
Because we moved from one unit to another within the same apartment complex, there was no way for us to use a moving van. Both units are down a walkway from the parking lot. We had to use a dolly and a rolling skidder, or simply hand-carry everything. The move would have gone much faster if all we’d had to do was to load and unload a van.
By mid-afternoon, the place was already livable. We had set up and made the bed, hung the shower curtain, loaded the fridge and freezer, unpacked the medicine cabinet and all the bathroom cabinets and drawers, put away most of our clothes, set up the couch and the pet crates, and unpacked the kitchen drawers. From that point it was possible to go to bed; wake up, shower, and dress; and make breakfast. We carried on hauling boxes.
On Sunday, we finished unpacking our clothes. I set up the entire kitchen while my husband set up his work station. We unpacked all but a small stack of boxes. We cooked dinner for the first time in our new home.
Monday and Tuesday were ordinary workdays. We unpacked the remaining 20% and found spots for everything.
On Wednesday, I waited around for the internet installer and caught up on laundry.
On Thursday, we left town for the weekend.
On Sunday afternoon, we made a to-do list. We gave away some furniture and the now-empty moving boxes.
We kept the rental car an extra day, since Monday was a holiday, and dropped off a load at Goodwill. We also picked up a few things at IKEA and the Container Store.
Now all that’s left is to hang pictures! We’ve found that it’s best to save the final decorating touches for at least a few days, while we get used to the space and the light levels. Sometimes we change our minds about where furniture will be, and it makes more sense to get that settled before pounding nail holes in the walls.
Because we didn’t have very much stuff to move, we were able to take our time. We had photos and measurements from our first viewing of a similar unit, and we’d spent time at our weekly status meeting drawing out diagrams and figuring out what went where. Many of the early loads got unpacked directly into their place, partly because we needed to reuse the empty moving cartons. I had a small “box of holding” that I used to do each kitchen and bathroom drawer separately, while carrying a small backpack with stuff from the fridge and freezer. I would walk over, unpack the box into its new drawer, unload the backpack, and do something like hang up the shower curtain or put sheets on the bed. This meant about a ten-minute turnaround. With this method, we eliminated the middle stage of a dozen box towers, all labeled ‘MISC.’ It was like magic!
Just as we’ve done every time we’ve moved, we’ve gone through two stages. We got rid of a bunch of stuff that we knew wouldn’t fit before we even started packing. We had a pretty solid estimate of how many boxes we’d need, and we bought sixteen small book boxes and ten large boxes. It would have helped to have another half-dozen small boxes, but we were fine without them. After the move, we had another round of culling to do. Even on the first day, we knew that our next move will involve even less stuff than this one did.
The point of minimalism is to focus on what is most important to you in life. Experiences, not things, and it should also be emphasized that the experience of daily life is most important of all. We prefer to live in a streamlined space where we have room to relax, room to cook, room to live. The better we get at this, the more we can enjoy fringe benefits, such as an efficient, straightforward minimalist move.
Note: I continued my twenty-five-year streak of getting my full cleaning deposit back. This amount was roughly equivalent to what I spent buying myself a nice new wicker easy chair for the front porch.
Ooh, have I got some hot gossip for you! Just as I typed that, my little parrot said, “WHEW!”
Building maintenance just dropped by for a scheduled “pre-move-out inspection.” We’ve lived here for ten months and they’ve already had two inspections, supposedly to test the smoke detectors. This particular maintenance guy has been in our place a couple additional times, most recently when our neighbor’s sink backed up into ours and nearly flooded our kitchen with filthy brown water. Since we have a nodding acquaintance, I thought I’d take the opportunity to interview him a little.
He had a clipboard, and I could hear him scribbling notes. I was basically exploding with curiosity. What was he checking? Was he doing what I thought he was doing?
You know I spent an extra hour on housework this week, just to get ready. I think it would be easier for me to go out naked in public than to have my home inspected. The thought makes me completely paranoid. Are they going to check my linen closet and see if I’ve rolled all my towels in the same direction? Are they doing a white-glove check and making sure I’ve dusted the slats in the heat registers? Will they be pulling out the crisper drawers in my fridge?
I didn’t want to dump all this anxiety on the poor guy, who reminds me quite a bit of my brothers. I just wanted to open the door to chit-chat and hear what he had to say.
“Are you checking the power outlets or something?” I had heard him turning light switches on and off, and it would make sense that the electric outlets would be on the list.
He showed me the form and gave me a copy, explaining that we would get a rundown of the charges after we move out. They’re looking at whether they need to paint, shampoo the carpet, repair the kitchen countertops, or do any other obvious repairs. Fair enough.
Then I leaned in. “I work with hoarders? So I was just curious. A few of my clients have been evicted for hoarding at some point.”
Maintenance Guy grinned. He told me that the biannual “smoke detector inspections” are really “habitability checks.” They specifically do it to check for mice, rats, cockroaches, and any other vermin that would affect other tenants in the building.
He also told me that his dad used to hoard and that they worked on it together.
I KNEW IT!!!!
I freaking knew it.
Our complex purports to be a “club” and touts its resort-like setting. What that means is that due to the grounds, the amenities, and the location, they can charge top-end rents for what would be a sad shoebox anywhere else. These are tiny, dim rooms with low popcorn ceilings, shag rugs, ailing old plumbing, and no air conditioning. We like to think it’s to encourage everyone to hang out by the pool and avoid being indoors. All that being said, the owners clearly understand the value of beachfront real estate, and they protect their investment.
I guarantee that a hoarding or squalor case would not make it in this building past the six-month mark.
I have indeed worked with a few clients who have been evicted for hoarding. One of them has had it happen at least three separate times. It’s happened to a few people in my social acquaintance as well. While it is very sad, we have to understand that games have rules. We have to use our powers of discernment and do things that make sense in empirical reality.
Hoarding doesn’t just attract vermin. It can also damage the infrastructure of the building. Our apartment has three floors with eighty units, and probably a hundred tenants, plus a couple dozen dogs, cats, and my parrot Noelle. There’s a garage underneath. The floors of any building are only rated to support a certain amount of weight. Hoarding can stress joists and cause a floor to collapse. Maybe a home owner who lives alone can decide that that’s okay, a risk she’s willing to take. When you live with a hundred other people, you do not have the right to risk other people’s safety, or the physical integrity of a building that does not belong to you. So that’s one thing.
Stacks and piles can also obscure serious problems, such as water leaks and black mold, not to mention evidence of vermin infestation. Each of these is a problem that can and will affect neighbors, their pets, and their homes and possessions.
The scariest thing about hoarding, though, has to do with fire safety. A room that is packed with things (any kind of things) has a lower flash point. The flash point is the temperature at which the air in a room basically ignites. It can create a massive fireball. Now, the problem gets more complicated. A fire is going to start faster and spread faster in a hoarded room. That will be compounded if a lot of the material in the room is combustible, like cardboard boxes, books, magazines, papers, shopping bags, food packaging, and fabric. Even before adding thick, black smoke to destroy visibility, it’s going to be hard to get across a hoarded room and reach a door or window. The weight load will cause the floor to collapse more quickly. Add it all together, and it’s almost like someone deliberately set a boobytrap to kill firefighters and emergency workers. Oh, and neighbors.
I said that about a hundred people live in my building. About 3-5% of the population hoards, so we can guess that without the “habitability check,” three to five of my neighbors would be serious hoarders. Several of my neighbors are smokers, too.
There are a lot of buildings in this complex, and we’re packed pretty tightly together. We live in an extreme drought area, and it’s been this way for several years now. We had a dry winter. A fire that started in one building would put at least 1500 people at immediate risk. That doesn’t include any of the tourists or workers at the marina or the beach or the wedding facility or the hotels or restaurants directly adjacent to us. Only two months ago, my commute was delayed due to the Skirball Fire. We could smell and taste smoke from the wildfires while sitting in our living room. We made evacuation plans. Fire is not a hypothetical risk for us.
It’s hard to write about this topic, because I know from my work that hoarding and squalor are intertwined with toxic shame and trauma. My desire is to encourage readers to find the courage to rise up and break free of hoarding. You deserve better, and so do your neighbors. I just wish there were a guaranteed way to talk about distressing ideas, also known as “reality,” without possibly triggering someone into a shame spiral.
The thing about hoarding is that unlike many other struggles, it’s possible to do the external, visible work rather quickly. You can basically erase all traces of hoarding, unlike, say, cutting behaviors or track marks from IV drug use. Just release the excess stuff, do a deep clean, or maybe relocate. A property manager or developer can come in and repair flooring, walls, window frames, or any other damage. Good as new! For all I know, the person who lived in my current apartment before me did just that.
I like to celebrate the New Year by cleaning my place, top to bottom. On New Year’s Day, I can sleep in, wake up to a gleaming apartment, drink tea, and read a book. I love that feeling of a fresh start. No loose ends or unfinished business from the previous year. Nothing but exciting new goals and plans and projects and trips! The unlocked potential of a new day!
Also, the weather is usually lousy at this time of year and there’s not much better to do. Cleaning up is a way to beat the post-celebration blues, creating anticipation for something new and different.
Cleaning marathons are easy for me. I’ve run an actual marathon, and it doesn’t take nearly that long to clean my house! I can still walk afterward and I don’t have to scoot up stairs backward on my butt. Cleaning marathons are also easy because I’ve moved so many times that there isn’t much buildup, and because I’ve been doing this on a regular basis for many years. I’ll demonstrate my minimalist method, and then I’ll describe how I’d do it if I were one of my chronic disorganization clients.
The minimalist way: Start the laundry. Strip the bed. Take a dust cloth and some canned air and wipe down all the surfaces in my 680-square-foot apartment. Get a chair and wipe down the ceiling fan blades and the top of the fridge. Use a bottle of white vinegar, an old toothbrush, and a squeegee to wash our two windows and the mirror. Check the fridge for anything old. Wipe down the fridge racks and shelves. Wipe out the inside of the microwave. Wipe down the kitchen counters, the stove top, and the sink. Clean the bathroom sink, the toilet, and the bathtub. Take a shower. Put the laundry in the dryer and put the sheets in the washing machine. Get dressed. Take out the garbage and recycling. Start the robot vacuum. Read a book. Later, put the fresh sheets on the bed.
I’m not kidding. I can deep-clean my entire apartment in a couple of hours.
The reason it’s easy to clean a minimalist home is that it operates on a system. My people tend to mix up ‘cleaning’ and ‘tidying’ and ‘organizing.’ Cleaning means removing dirt from surfaces. Tidying means putting things away, which you don’t have to do if there’s no extra stuff and everything is already put away. Organizing means creating a system, and that only needs to be done once if it’s a system that works well.
This is why my chronically disorganized people have to do all three things over and over again. Clean, tidy, organize, in no particular order.
Okay, let’s assume I’m doing a house that hasn’t really been “done” in, oh, ten years. It’s a standard American disorganized maximalist house. I’m going to say it’s about 2000 square feet, three bedrooms, two baths, a double car garage, front and back porch, with two adults, two kids, a hairy pet, and two vehicles. It’s driving everyone crazy. Living there has stopped being fun.
A large, disorganized house doesn’t have to take forever to dig out. It’s about decisions, systems, and policy. Not everyone wants to spend forty minutes a day on maintaining a clean, organized home. Not everyone wants to live in or look at a clean, organized home! To some people, it will feel sterile, boring, strict, strenuous, and depressing. I say it doesn’t have to mean plastic slipcovers or lace doilies. Your home can be whatever you want, whatever feels like home to you. It’s possible, though, that doing a little every day will feel easier than having to do an epic, revolutionary, top-to-bottom cleaning marathon.
Think what it could look like a week from now, though! Think of how it would feel to start the New Year in a sparkling clean, organized home. Decide what you want for yourself and just get started.
Books are my life. Actually what I typed there was ‘books ate my life,’ which was a typo but may be more accurate. I have fallen up a flight of stairs because I was reading a book while walking. I read while I brush my teeth. I’m not going to apologize for my reading habits. On the contrary! Reading so much has helped me bridge my way into other positive habits. If you love to read, you can use it as a tool to reward yourself and keep yourself company while getting other things done.
Audio books were the big revolution for me. Well, not exactly. Back in the bad old days, when they came on cassette tapes or CDs, they were pretty annoying and high maintenance. Library audio CDs especially would tend to skip and stall due to their many scratches. Digital audio solved those problems. Digital audio plus headphones! No longer would I draw curious stares and commentary when reading while walking; nobody would have to know. I haven’t fallen up a flight of stairs in years now.
There are three major things I do while listening to audio books:
Basically every aversive task can be improved with the addition of a book.
Let’s face it. The real reason most people don’t reach goals is that they involve boring, tedious, repetitious tasks, self-discipline, and time robbed from leisure pursuits. The most boring thing I can think of is running on a treadmill with no entertainment or distractions. On the other hand, I’ll run for miles in the rain and snow if I can do it outdoors while listening to a good book. It’s the same with housework. Ten minutes of folding and putting away laundry is, to me, like forty minutes getting my teeth drilled (except without the comfy reclining dental chair). With audio, folding laundry is just one ten-minute activity I do while blasting through a new chapter on 2x speed.
There are other mindless tasks I do while listening to a book. I skim through email, remove my name from mailing lists, categorize receipts, save news articles to Pocket, format my website, make illustrations, maybe fill out web forms or window-shop online.
The one thing I don’t generally do is to sit still and just listen to a book at natural speed. I’m so conditioned to be up and moving around while the book plays that my dog even jumps off the couch when he hears a narrator start talking.
It’s not all about the audio, either. I still read text books, as opposed to textbooks. That’s my husband over there reading another robotics textbook. I read hardcover library books and ebooks. Don’t care much for the paperback format. I’m still reading my way through the backlog of books I had bought and stuffed into my bookcase “for later.” I like library hardcovers for reading on the elliptical, because they have a plastic jacket and because they stay open. The pages don’t have to be turned as often as an ebook, due to the form factor of my tablet. I’ll also grab a hardcover if I see it sitting on the shelf at the library and the waiting list is too long for the ebook.
These are things you can do with a serious reading habit:
Clean your house
Cook healthy meals
Mend and iron your clothes
Sort and shred piles of junk mail
Give yourself a manicure
Experiment with cosmetics or hairstyles
Finish all your craft projects
Wash your windows
Clean your oven
Distract yourself from pain or illness
Clean out your fridge
Wipe down your cabinets
Groom your pets
Weed the yard
Dust chair rails and other fussy details
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My husband and I sold our car last spring, so we walk or take the bus almost everywhere. My daily mileage has gone from three to over seven miles on average. I walk to the grocery store, the library, the coffee shop where I sometimes write, and of course all the bus stops. My shoes are my car. Naturally a book accompanies me with every step.
Most audio books are under eleven hours. On 2x speed, that’s 5.5 hours. Spend forty minutes a day doing housework, half an hour cooking dinner, and an hour exercising, and that’s over two hours of reading time. Add in another hour of miscellaneous activities like getting dressed and fixing lunch, and you can blast through a book in two days.
When I was young, I could thank my obsessive reading habit for a lot of negativity. I always had a book in my lap or my hand. It reinforced my tendency to procrastinate. I was almost completely sedentary, which exacerbated my problems with chronic pain and fatigue. I felt chilly all the time. My apartment was a cluttered mess and I was a terrible cook. Sure, I’d read everything, which makes me fascinating (mmhmm) and gives me an ever-expanding vocabulary. I didn’t have much else to show for my vast erudition, though.
Now that I’m almost constantly listening to a book, I can look around and see the magical effects of literature. My apartment is clean and tidy. I’m fit. I’m always on the move instead of huddled in a blanket. I don’t have a backlog of unfinished craft projects. I enjoy cooking, partly because it means I can sneak in another chapter even when my husband is home. “It’s not you, darling, it’s Chapter Five.” All the stuff I never wanted to do before is now done, and it feels like nothing more than a way to pass the time while listening to talented voice actors.
If you love to read, you can use it to improve your life in additional ways. Whether you want to transform your house, your paper piles, your craft basket, your kitchen, or your body, you can read your way to it. What are you going to read first?
I can be in a bad mood with a dirty tub or I can be in a bad mood with a clean tub. That’s how I see it. When I get into a snit for some reason, I need something physical to do or I’m going to start volcanically spewing hot lava and unprintable verbiage all over the nearest innocent bystander. I have two choices: clean my house, or exercise. One night I took a hammer out into the back yard and hammered a hole in the dirt, but when I saw it in broad daylight I realized that I had beaten a foot-wide bald patch into the lawn. That’s why I try to keep it constructive. Angry cleaning is great because it’s a harmless way of burning up angry energy, and it’s also a fantastic source of psychic fuel for the grodiest, worst scutwork and most boring chores.
Learning to harness various feelings is a key part of emotional homework. We tend to say that we’ll do things when we feel like it and when we’re in the mood. That’s for amateurs! Personally I have never been in the mood to scrub a toilet, and I hope I never will be. This is my one and only life, and the day I “feel like” kneeling on the floor with a toilet brush in my hand would be so out of character that I’d have to wonder if someone had been gaslighting me. I get these things done by following a schedule, distracting myself with audio books, and pretending I’m doing something else. If I’m lucky enough to be wound up and angry about something, then I can use that to get the gross stuff done. I’m certainly not going to waste a happy feeling or a good mood on cleaning my apartment.
Happiness is for enjoying. A happy feeling should go toward making art, talking to people, dancing, making meals, and doing fun stuff. When the happy feelings come, use them wisely and remind yourself of all the nice things you like to do.
Sadness? Sadness is no good for cleaning. Cleaning when we’re sad tends to make us feel sorry for ourselves. Woe is me! I wore these socks and now I have to wash them AND put them in the dryer AND fold them AND put them away! It never ends. Sigghhhhhh. Doing chores when we’re sad can add to feelings of resentment, futility, or hopelessness. The human condition of having everyday, quotidian practical needs suddenly seems like a requirement that we build pyramids or dig trenches in the rain. Sadness is a time to ask for a hug.
The difference between anger and sadness has to do with feelings of control. We tend to get angry when we feel that someone else has intruded in our territory, broken the rules, failed to keep an agreement, violated a contract (written or unwritten), or otherwise messed with us. We tend to feel sad when something has happened that we think we can’t do anything about. We’ve lost something, we regret something we can’t change, we’re stuck or trapped, we’ve failed, everything bad is permanent and pervasive. This is why angry cleaning is helpful. It’s a statement that THIS PLACE IS UNACCEPTABLE! I WON’T HAVE IT! Whatever else is going on in this dumb old world, at least I can control my own personal environment.
Talk about spheres of influence always riles people up. If there is one thing that people love to explain in painstaking, minuscule detail, it’s the precise, annotated list of reasons why they in fact do not have control, power, or free will over some specific situation. Oh, I see. You’ve fallen under a curse and that’s why the rules of life are different for you than for every other person. Astrological influences prevent you from having power in the ways that other people accept that you should. By all means, please, tell me more about why you personally can’t... have a clean house?
Wherever you live, you have the power to clean up your personal space.
Even prisoners have that power!
Clean for revenge. Clean up as a way of saying that other people can’t mess up your life, no matter how epically bad they have been at being your roommates.
Clean in hostility. Clean as a sarcastic way of proving that you are a person of refinement and that other guy is a barbarian.
Clean in white-hot rage. Stomp around, move furniture away from the walls, get behind stuff, and scrub until the paint starts coming off.
Clean in resentment. Clean because you want your cleaning deposit back, because who does that landlord think he is? Clean because you’re tired of your family taking you for granted. Clean because you’re sick and tired of junk mail and excess packaging and the million toys and prizes that have somehow infiltrated your nice home.
Clean to prove a point. You’re the one with standards. You’re the one who knows how it’s done. You’re the one who takes action while other people just sit around complaining.
Think of everything that anyone has ever done to you, get so fired up that your nostrils flare, and grab a sponge.
Use that furious energy to haul and toss donation bags into your trunk.
The truth is that our living environments affect us more than we think. I believe it’s impossible to feel a sense of domestic contentment in a messy, dirty, disorganized space. I believe that there is a direct link between disorder and dissatisfaction. The more crowded and cluttered the room, the higher the background level of stress. It’s certainly still possible to be angry in a streamlined, clean home, but at least domestic disasters aren’t adding to the list of things to be angry about. We deserve better. We deserve to live in homes where we can feel serene and supported, places where we can retreat until we’re ready to face the world again. When we have everything the way we like it, if we feel overwhelmed again by anger, we can then turn that into the process of building muscle. Or remodeling.
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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