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’ll tell you how it’s done. I’ll tell you what to do when you’ve invited people over and you’re afraid... AFRAID THEY’LL SEE YOUR HOUSE!
The House of the Black Lagoon
Revenge of the House
The Evil House
Et cetera. Just say it looks haunted and leave it at that.
All that’s happening is anxiety. Anxiety over anticipated conversations that haven’t actually happened (yet?). Anxiety over feared criticism and contempt. Anxiety about spending time with people you don’t really want to spend time with, people you don’t realize you’re allowed to uninvite. Maybe there’s also some shame, for whatever reason, and guilt that you haven’t lived up to some standard you think you’re supposed to care about more than you do. You don’t have to do this - you can just throw your hands in the air and say, “[***] it!” (Insert interjection of choice).
If the rigors of hosting a major holiday are too much stress for you, a simple way to get out of it is just to revolt. Answer the door in your jim-jams, hair unbrushed, and offer to order pizza. If everyone wants to come back next year, that’s good information. If they don’t, hey, freedom!
You’re doing it, though. You’re going to run around, feeling the delightful terror of the looming deadline, and you’re going to commit to the FRANTIC CLEANING!
Where do you start?
What I’ve just described is the genesis of squalor and chronic disorganization. A traumatic experience, such as relocating to a new home, results in a frantic round of “scoop and stuff.” (Grab everything within view and stuff it into plastic grocery bags). Often there’s a physical rebound, like a headache or a cold. The aftermath of the frantic cleaning becomes the new background, invisible to the occupants. Nobody ever goes back and sorts out the papers or “catches up” on the laundry. Each traumatic event, injury, illness, visit, or whatever creates a new layer. It’s hard. It’s hard to force yourself to start digging out. Anyone would think so! The home environment becomes a visible manifestation of psychic pain. Just looking at it makes everything feel worse.
Wherever you live, it’s your home. If you were a wild beast, it would be your nest, your burrow, your warren, or your den. You’re entitled to feel comfortable and safe there. Your home isn’t a social display, not unless you want it to be. You don’t have to arrange it for status or prestige. You should, though, feel that sense of comfort and safety. If you don’t like the feeling of being in your home, do what needs to be done, and do it for yourself. Imagine the gift of looking around and liking everything you see.
Just... imagine it while you’re cleaning! Now, hop to it! Best of luck to you.
Happiness. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
Happiness comes in many varieties, not all of which have names, and it’s a fun exercise to try to catalog the nameless flavors. The satisfaction of a stretch so deep that it stretches itself. The smugness of giving a proper scratch or belly rub to an animal that rolls around in uncontrollable bliss. The delight of running into an old friend in an unexpected location. A happy life may include moments like this, but it’s domestic contentment that is the bedrock.
Let’s distinguish a little further. A life of purpose and meaning may not feel like a “happy” one. Passion is another driving force that may make life interesting, yet not “happy” necessarily. Challenge, that’s yet another theme that may not particularly lead to happiness. Happiness isn’t everything! When we set about seeking something that we feel is missing, we have various paths before us. Happiness is one of those paths, one among several that may bring a sense of having lived a life worth living.
The first obstacle to domestic contentment is being bored at the thought of domestic contentment.
It’s not for everyone. I’m a restless person. When I’m at home, I want to travel, and when I travel, I still want to be somewhere else the next day. Still, what my husband and I have worked out as our own custom blend of domestic contentment is something portable. We have our routines even when we’re on the road. We have a gift for gratitude and satisfaction, noticing what there is to like about any situation, even though it might be annoying in one way or another. Hopefully the annoying stuff can be turned into a funny story. Then, inevitably, we miss our own big comfy bed and our pets, the only aspects of domestic contentment that we can’t fit in a suitcase.
We can deal with annoying circumstances on the road because we know we’ll be leaving them behind. At home, if there’s an annoying circumstance, we’re going to deal with it directly. Obstacles to domestic contentment are to be considered as a high priority. It’s the little things that are actually the big things, because once they’re multiplied by the hundreds and thousands of moments they occupy, they can be seen as the huge problems they really are.
Take a dripping faucet. Maybe, on a scale of one to a thousand, each drip is a one. Ah, but how many drips? If each drip is one point, and the unnecessary increase in your water bill is one point per dollar per month, and any stain or mineral deposit in the sink is several more points, it adds up. Then multiply by every single other minor annoyance.
Domestic contentment is basically just the feeling that you like being at home. When you walk in the door, you feel relieved. You open up like a flower in the rain. It’s your place, where you can do what you want and make your own rules. Home is the place where you don’t have to wear pants. Play the music that you want, eat the meals that you want when you want them, arrange your stuff in whatever way works for you, sleep peacefully as much as you need, think and plan and strategize and dream up great new things to do. Home is your secret superhero cave.
Or, at least, it could be. Probably should be.
My people don’t experience domestic contentment. When I explain that home should be a place where you sigh happily when you walk in the door, they always look surprised, like this had genuinely never occurred to them before. It’s simple, but it’s only simple if it isn’t complicated.
The simple version: I woke up when I had had enough sleep (it was 7:30). I had breakfast with my pets and read the news. I went to the gym and worked out. I showered, walked the dog, and caught the bus. On the way home, I stopped at the store and then caught the bus again. When I got home, I walked the dog again, started laundry, and vacuumed. Then my husband came home and we talked for an hour before dinner. Simple! Uncomplicated!
The complicated version: Wake up to a blaring alarm, exhausted, hit snooze as many times as you can get away with. Try to get dressed and realize that half of what you want to wear is in the laundry. Too late to eat anything for breakfast. Run out the door and get to work late because you had to stop for gas/coffee/couldn’t find a parking spot. Come home exhausted and flop on the couch. Eat whatever. Watch TV/check social media. Stay up too late even though you’re so tired, because that’s your only private time. Repeat. Add in extra complications like lost objects, constantly forgetting things, quarreling with housemates over chores and money, and a constant background of piles of unsorted papers, dirty dishes, and dirty laundry. Complicated! Frustrating! Annoying!
Domestic contentment might seem boring, but at least it isn’t the chronic disappointment and chaos of domestic DIScontent.
All it takes is one obstacle, one persistent problem, to have a perpetual state of domestic discontent. Usually, though, there are several, and most people have all of them. Why? Because tolerating one persistent problem is the same attitude that leads to tolerating any and all persistent problems. Feeling that you don’t have the power or agency to make changes. Defining yourself by your lowest points, your weakest moments, or your least inspiring character traits (which comes from thinking they are your personality rather than a pattern of behavior). Not knowing what to do or how to do it. Lacking examples of serenity or tranquility. Fixating on things outside of your sphere of influence. Any or all of these attitudes can create a lifetime of discontent built on obstacles that could feasibly have been removed.
Want some obstacles? They’re free! Help yourself to as many as you want.
Aggrieved entitlement. If there is one happiness strangler, it is this, the feeling that something should have been yours and was somehow taken from you. You have the right to something you are not getting, such as an inheritance or someone else to cook for you, wash your dishes, and scrub your toilet.
Resentment and grudges. You keep a tally of all the ways people have offended or disappointed you. You hate that you’re expected to do stuff that benefits others. (There’s probably a more resentful way to put that. Let me try again. Ahem. DO I HAVE TO DO EVERYTHING AROUND HERE??)
Failed perfectionism. If I can’t do it exactly right, I’m doing nothing. If you were such a supposed perfectionist, wouldn’t you care more about your visible results? [*wink*]
Social comparison. Actually, social comparison works great if you compare downstairs, but it’s a human failing to always compare ourselves to people who look like they have it better. Compare yourself to a medieval peasant in a hut and suddenly your life doesn’t look so bad.
Complaining. Having a legitimate complaint means one thing. It means it’s time to DO SOMETHING. Handle it. Set boundaries. Have whatever confrontations are necessary. Complaining merely dissipates the energy you need to resolve the situation, exhausting you (and your patient friend) and leaving you with the exact same problem you started out with.
Lack of systems. No strategy, no policies, no plans, no improvement.
Oh, and the practical stuff. Debt, clutter, lifestyle-related health issues. These problems feel complicated, and they are, but the solutions are simple. Earn more money, cut your expenses, open and sort all your mail immediately, get rid of every single object that gets in your way, pack your lunch, cook your own dinner, and go to bed a little earlier. See, that’s not so complicated.
Domestic contentment is its own reward. It also advertises itself. When your cooking skills are good enough, you want to eat your own cooking all the time. When you make your home cozy, you want to be there, enjoying your own personal brand of comfort. When you’re with your favorite people and animals, you want to hang out with them all the time. Whatever it takes to nourish yourself, give yourself a satisfying personal environment, and create supportive relationships, do those things, and remove anything that gets in the way.
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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.