No matter how many moving boxes I get, I always run out. I have tried and tried and tried to learn to estimate correctly, and I always round up on the most I think I'll need, and I'm always still short. This time it was only by five small boxes. The trouble is that five small boxes of small items can represent dozens of things scattered in every cabinet and drawer. As usual, it's the fiddly bits. For most people, the fiddly bits turn into MISC (the dreaded misc). Don't leave them alone in the dark.
What happens is that we have a moving van that is 90% packed, it's getting late, we have an appointment to hand over the keys, and we're scrambling to fit in the last of the fiddly bits. No more boxes and no time to go find some. We wind up with paper and plastic grocery bags full to bursting and ready to tear or tip over. This time we even had to use a plastic bag from our dinner delivery. It's no fun to pack this way, and it's even less fun to unpack the van this way. After collecting everything that has rolled out, it takes a half hour of extracting the fiddly bits before we can start unloading the boxes and larger items.
With this move, I finally decided to get to the bottom of the problem. I realized that I always had fiddly bits left over because I clean the house top to bottom when I move out. We couldn't pack the cleansers until last. I had never taken the time to evaluate whether I really needed every single bottle at the last minute, or how much space they take up. It turns out to be exactly one box for laundry stuff, and one apiece for the cabinets under the kitchen and bathroom sinks. Gee, that's not so hard!
A household move is often the culprit behind a cluttered, disorganized house. There will be boxes taped shut from previous moves, and sometimes for several moves before that. What happens is the standard plan:
1. Household cannot deal with the upcoming move
2. Nothing is packed, cleaned, or organized until the last possible minute
3. Not enough boxes
4. Friends, family, or professional movers help by tossing anything that will fit into any box they can find
5. Every single box is appropriately labeled 'MISC'
6. It's impossible to find things when it's time to move in to the new place
7. No way will everything fit anyway
8. Repeat with next move, only it's significantly less organized than the previous move
The natural tendency is to blame the movers and carry a grievance, while drastically underestimating how much free labor was supplied. Nobody owes anyone free moving help! Pizza and beer are not enough. I priced movers in my area and they earn a rate of $30-60/hour per person. Essentially, if we have boxes of MISC packed for us by our friends, we should feel incredibly grateful, and even more so if they gave up precious free time on their days off.
We've done our last two moves alone, partly because I now have a profound distrust of professional movers packing my things, and partly because we can move ourselves. It's cheaper. We're strong enough. Everything fits in a 20' van. We have a really hard time moving our Cal-King mattress, but that's ten minutes of intense struggle, and we can handle it. Even the time I nearly knocked myself unconscious by smacking my head on the doorframe.
What the heck are people moving? For most households, the kitchen is the problem area. Lots of tiny, sharp, and/or fragile things with odd shapes and accessories. I freely admit that our kitchen is not minimalist. I still have the material capacity to cook and serve a meal for a dozen people. That's down from two dozen. We used to have two dining tables, and we filled them every week. I miss those days, but downsizing has helped me to realize that, guess what? That's what restaurants are for! If we have another get-together for two dozen people, we can rent a picnic area at a park. We keep questioning what we are keeping and what we can let go. Keep the friends, let go of the extra stuff.
Furniture and appliances are big and easy to track. They tend not to be the problem, although certainly they're the last things most people will consider letting go. Most people seem perfectly eager to keep every appliance and large piece of furniture they've ever had, and somehow try to wedge themselves in around the bulk. The fiddly bits tend to consist of:
Paper (junk mail, advertising circulars, catalogs)
Children's/pet toys (LEGO, crayons, tiny accessories like Barbie shoes and action figure weapons)
Office supplies (pens, pencils, paperclips, tacks)
Bits of hardware (nails, screws, nuts, bolts, washers, mystery hardware from various products)
Clothes on the floor in various rooms (laundry area, every bedroom, every bathroom, most hallways, many living rooms and kitchens)
Decorations by the dozens
Every object left on every flat surface (every table, every countertop, every desk, every windowsill, every toilet tank, every refrigerator, every dryer lid, many stair steps, most chairs, some couch cushions)
A box of MISC (the dreaded misc) may thus contain some plastic food storage containers, a handful of junk mail, a child's sock, a paperclip, some pennies, and a book. This box will never be unpacked. It will never be unpacked because just opening it and looking inside could give anyone a bad case of swirly eyes. Nobody is going to spend the five minutes to carry this box from room to room, sorting out the fiddly bits and putting them away.
Thus we start to see that the fiddly bits have never been put away. They can't get unpacked in a new home because they were never unpacked in the original home. They can't get put away because there's no 'away' to put them. How can a friendly mover pack them "correctly" when nobody has ever known where they should go?
The only solution for the fiddly bits is to treat them like weeds. Decide whether this is going to be a showpiece garden, a casual yard, or a nice setting for a haunted house. Then spend a certain amount of time every week scouting around and controlling the overgrowth to the degree that is acceptable for your standards, whether aesthetic or functional. When it comes time to move out, the results of this regular maintenance will be readily apparent, one way or another.
The first thing we did when we found out we were moving again was to start sorting the kitchen. Literally. We had a brief conversation, and then we walked into the kitchen together and started opening cabinets.
Most people probably would not do this!
Moving is different when you've done it so many times that it's made you into a minimalist. This will be our sixth move as a married couple, and we haven't even had our eighth anniversary yet. We've downsized each time. Now, every time we prepare to move again, we just have to ask ourselves, "Have we used this since we moved here?" If not, out it goes.
We started with the kitchen because it's the most complicated area of the house. This is true for most people. All those drawers and cupboards are deceptive! We forget that each shelf and each drawer represents its own moving box. Half the stuff is either fragile or sharp. There are a lot of nesting items that don't look like they take up much volume, until they have to be packed, that is. There are also a lot of things with lids, or things that used to have lids, or lids that used to have things. There is a reason why so many horror movies have a scene in which a poltergeist makes all the cupboards open at once and all the utensils fly into the air. Although, a lot of kitchens look like that most days of the week...
Most people's kitchens are overwhelming on most days. It is the home of the domestic power struggle. A sink and countertops loaded with dirty dishes, sometimes overflowing onto the floor. Trash, recycling, and compost waiting to go out. A fridge full of spoiling food and scary leftovers. Sometimes there is a backlog of at least three hours' hard work before any packing could even be done. THIS IS RELEVANT. If ever there were an area of the home in need of systems, the kitchen is that place. Lack of a system coupled with clutter and excess is the recipe for disaster. Add in food hoarding, and we're back to the horror movie theme again.
We started with the kitchen. We started with the kitchen BECAUSE it's the hardest room in the house. We started with the kitchen because it's the heart of our home. We started at 6 PM, and we were done in time for my husband to cook dinner and wash dishes afterward. By 'done' I mean that the countertops were clear and nobody would have known we were planning to move.
All right, what is it that we did?
We started with a strategy. What do we do in our kitchen and what stuff do we need? When we first got married, our house was bigger than both our bachelor houses put together. The kitchen was ridiculously huge. We both moved in our full bachelor kitchens, and found that there was still space left over. (I filled it). We also had open shelving in the garage, and a bunch of stuff went out there. Partly because we had so much room and so much kitchen capacity, we entertained a lot. We would have as many as twenty people over every week. We wound up accumulating a lot of serving platters, extra utensils, and extra cutting boards, potato peelers, and the like so that guests could cook with us if they wanted. We had two dining tables and enough chairs for everyone, except for the night we had to put a couple of people on our camping coolers.
Then we moved.
I was really emotional about wanting to hang onto all our stuff for entertaining. Just because the dining table filled the ENTIRE dining room from wall to door didn't mean we couldn't still have big dinner parties! Then we moved again, and my ten-top table physically would not fit in our house. Not unless we wanted to sleep on it at night, anyway. I had to adjust my emotional attachments.
Time went by. I started looking at all this stuff with a more analytical eye. I realized that, even when we had two dozen people one Thanksgiving, I still had more serving containers than we needed. What if I only kept enough so that everything we had was in use? Did I really need three gravy boats? We had the space, and most of these things were stored in high cabinets where I didn't see them on a daily basis, but I let them spin in the back of my mind. When we went into the kitchen preparing for our next move, the emotional homework was already done.
I stood on a chair and handed things down to my husband. It went like this:
I decided that we didn't need the majority of our plastic food storage containers. He was relieved. We have various shapes and sizes of glass and ceramic baking dishes with lids that can do the job. We also have dozens of Mason jars for canning that can certainly hold leftovers.
We realized we didn't need four muffin pans, three corkscrews, seven mismatched ramekins, and various other redundant redundancies.
We both pulled out personal items we knew we weren't using, such as my old work Thermos and a coffee mug that was a gift from his ex-wife.
I got down all of the big platters and serving dishes I'd decided to let go, plus a vase and other random items. Most of that stuff was there because 1. We had it and 2. It fit there.
We decided we needed to replace our knives and the pancake flipper.
I pulled out a set of little bowls I use for mise en place, because I have two sets, and he convinced me to keep them because I use them every week.
Suddenly we turned around, and the entire counter was covered with stacks of excess kitchen clutter!
The weird thing about space clearing in a kitchen is that you can usually remove a truckload of stuff, and it won't look like anything is missing. Our kitchen is definitely still functional - we cook together when we're backpacking, and we can do everything we need to do with a pot, a pocketknife, and a portable propane stove. We still have silly things, like an angel food cake pan and a skull-shaped cookie cutter, that we virtually never use. All we did was to get rid of the 10-20% we knew we didn't use at all. It took 35 minutes.
This was the first pass. We do the second pass after we move into a new place, when we are confronted with the configuration of a new kitchen. So far, we've always found at least a few more items that won't fit, and we've never once missed any of them.
Our kitchen system works like this: Six large plates, six small plates, six nesting bowls. Eight drinking glasses. A dozen sets of flatware. Teacups. That's all we need for eating meals. All of these items come from matching sets, so they're all the same size for portion control purposes, they nest, and they all fit into one dishwasher load. This is key. When the dishwasher is full, the cupboard is empty. We run it at night and he unloads it first thing in the morning.
We have a set of pots and pans, one of each size. When one gets used, it gets washed right after dinner, it sits in the drying rack overnight, and it gets put back in the cupboard the next morning. Weird, huh? Three dishwasher-safe cutting boards. A stack of nesting food storage containers in two sizes, for leftovers, but no more than would fill the freezer. Once the containers are full, something needs to get eaten up or there's nowhere to put any further leftovers.
We take turns cooking and cleaning the kitchen. We used to alternate, but recently we agreed to trade nights and do our own cleaning, mostly because I cook much more elaborate dishes and he was getting stuck with more of the cleanup. If there are leftovers, either the other person will cook them on their night, or they will sit until the second night. About once a week, one or the other of us will root around in the fridge and freezer, planning a meal with the goal of finishing off a container of something. A condiment, a leftover, half a cabbage, or whatever is there. We've been on a conscious plan of culling our pantry, where most things aren't replaced after they are used up, because we don't need to have 175 different flavors in our pantry every day of the year. They call it a 'store' because it 'stores' things.
The week that we pack and move, we won't cook. We have part of a package of paper plates and bowls hanging around, and we'll use those. We have some compostable forks. I have three days' worth of backpacking meals, and we'll microwave those. We could always go out, but I hate that feeling of having cardboard particles in my hair, being totally exhausted and grubby, and wandering into a restaurant looking like I got trapped in a warehouse overnight.
We're moving again. We started with the kitchen, because every other room looks easy in comparison.
I don't have a table next to my bed. This is more interesting than it sounds. It's a conscious decision, just like the fact that I refuse to have a coffee table because I hate stubbing my toe.
I had a bedside table as far back as I could remember. Usually it was a makeshift item in some way. For a while, it was a vintage sewing machine in a cabinet. I've also had an old suitcase, an IKEA nightstand I assembled myself, a dresser, and a floating shelf. I had to have something, because otherwise, where would I put my books?
Books, a lamp, water glasses, a box of tissues, lip balm, hand cream, more books, my journal, a pen, hair ties, scented candle and matches, etc etc etc.
One night, when I was in high school, I had what I did not realize at the time was a night terror. I yelled, flung my arm out in my sleep, and knocked over the two-foot-high stack of library books on my nightstand. They toppled into my wastebasket, knocking over a plastic Super Big Gulp cup of water, which spilled all over my face and chest. The entire family woke up and started shouting at me. I woke up soaking wet, freaked out, angry, and confused. As usual, when my habits resulted in annoyance and inconvenience for myself and others, I ignored it and carried on with those same habits.
Why did I have a two-foot-high stack of library books next to my bed? 1. I guess I thought I could read them all at once, 2. I guess I thought the library would close or all the books would vanish, 3. There was no room on my bookshelves. Clutter expands to fill the space available.
The result of having a nightstand, for me, is reading in bed. That works great for a single person, or for someone who shares a bed with another nighttime reader. I'm a night owl married to a lark, though, and it's unfair for me to keep the light on. It's also a bad idea, because my bedtime starts shifting later and later and I can't sleep well during the day. The first time I stayed up until 6 AM, I was twelve. I heard my dad's alarm go off for work during my summer vacation, and I thought "UHOH!" The next night, I melted the shade on my plastic book light.
The great sorrow of my life is that I can't read 24 hours a day. I can't seem to read any faster, either. I will die not having read anywhere near one percent of all the books ever written. If there is any justice in this world, heaven is a library.
I actually have found a way to read more, which is to listen to audio books while I do chores and cook and exercise and walk to the store. Often I am on my feet longer than I would have planned, because I want to finish a great read and sitting makes me restless. This has been a really effective trade for reading in bed at night. Sometimes, if I can't sleep, I keep listening to my book until I get drowsy. No light to keep me awake or bother my honey. I keep my phone in my pillowcase, which I would do anyway in case of emergency.
Why don't I have a nightstand anymore? Three reasons. The first is that our current house was built in 1939, and the bedroom barely fits our California King mattress. There's just no room. My side of the bed abuts the doorframe. If we tried to put some kind of shelf or storage headboard up, there would be no room to walk around the foot of the bed. It's cozy, but there's no room for extra storage, so we try not to need it. The second reason, of course, is that I want to discourage myself from my counterproductive bedtime reading habit of yore.
The third reason has to do with what happened on my side of the bed when we first got married.
I've moved nearly thirty times in my adult life. My mom was always big on rearranging the furniture when I was a kid. Due to this, I hadn't really experienced what happens when furniture is left in the same position for more than a year. Dust accumulation. I had started having respiratory issues, sneezing, coughing, and wheezing when my husband and stepdaughter weren't having any problems. It got marginally better when I found and removed a coating of dust on top of the kitchen cabinets, closets, and and exposed beams in the house. Then I took a closer look at my nightstand. It had two shelves and a drawer, and the contents thereof would have filled two moving boxes. I started going through it and realized that the entire thing was coated with dust, as was the carpet underneath and the wall behind it. I wound up getting rid of the whole thing and replacing it with a one-foot-square floating shelf. There was only enough room for my phone and a box of tissues, and that was enough. The Roomba could vacuum underneath it - problem solved. I haven't had a wheezing, sneezing problem in any of the years since.
Everything that I used to keep in my nightstand is still accessible to me. I just interact with it before bed. Lotion stays in the bathroom. I write in my journal in the living room. I try to drink two-thirds of my water before lunch, and avoiding water at bedtime helps me sleep through the night. I read before bed, but there's no reason I can't continue doing it on the couch. When I go to bed, I'm going to bed.
Since I got rid of my nightstand, I sleep about two more hours per night. There are several other factors involved, but it's definitely salient to the transition. Sleep procrastination is an issue for a lot of people, and staying up to read ONE MORE CHAPTER ONE MORE CHAPTER can be a big part of this. It's hard to accept that we'll never have time to read everything we would like to read, but the lifestyle upgrade of getting significantly more sleep is worth it.
I don't miss having a nightstand. Even if I had the space, I wouldn't get another one. I see it now as an attractive nuisance, an irresistible clutter magnet. It's one more surface to gather dust and piles of stuff. It's a place to bonk my head and a place to knock over toppling towers of stuff. It's a way to mess up my photos. It's one more item to pack and haul the next time we move. For some people, it's one of the few private spaces where they can store personal belongings in a crowded house. Acknowledging this, I choose to make the space next to my sleeping head a free space, and to claim personal territory elsewhere in the house.
Clutter blindness is the root of clutter. We stop noticing it. This is a spooky, Twilight Zone kind of a feeling. Imagine waking up one day and realizing that you've been living in an alternate dimension! You have no memory of it ever happening. How did you get here? Where are you? Where are your keys? How do you get out of here?? Living with clutter can be like living in an animate, brain-eating fog. I call it... the Blurry Zone.
Memories are not always made. This is a great blessing. Imagine remembering every single step you ever took, every single word you ever heard or read, every bad smell you ever smelled, and having that web of memories get thicker and stronger with every passing millisecond. Confusing! Exhausting! The earworms alone would drive you over the brink of sanity. Living in the moment is much easier. It generally takes something significant to cause the creation of a memory. Where I last set down my keys, my teacup, or my book is evidently not the type of thing that leads to memory formation. I've lost so many items of various description on the bus alone that I can confirm this. Hats, umbrellas, gloves and mittens, scarves, a cell phone, a library book once or twice... Fortunately, the many times I've left my day planner or my wallet, people have been kind enough to call me and make sure I got them back. It's a testament to the power of forgetting that I can't even call up a full inventory of all the stuff I lost because I didn't make a mental note when I set them down.
Just like we don't always form memories, we also don't notice everything that surrounds us. Living with animals can make this pretty clear. My dog notices when people are walking on the other side of the athletic field of the school across the street, a full block away. My parrot notices when jets are flying overhead so high that I can barely make out a tiny metallic speck. He will bark at a squirrel on the back fence and she will imitate a starling that is calling from a tree at the end of the street. They notice things because their vision and hearing are keener than mine. They also notice things because they have no distractions, not that I can tell. They can't read, they don't have jobs, they're oblivious to gossip, and they have no awareness of current events, unless you count the eventful lives of starlings and squirrels.
My clients are often mystified by their own surroundings. When we work together, we find things in their homes and they can't explain how they got there! Half the time, they'll recognize the item as a friend's sweater, book, or board game. The other half of the time, they have no idea where these things came from or whom to ask. We find forgotten money, uncashed checks, and gift cards. We find things they recognize as their own personal belongings, but that they forgot they had, which is why part of the clutter involves stockpiles of supplies of multiple extra redundant copies of backups. The number 55 comes up a lot: fifty-five t-shirts on the floor, fifty-five coffee mugs stacked all over the kitchen. An entire drawer full of mechanical pencils and dried-up pens. Did I... intentionally bring home all these things? Why? I must have had a reason, surely? Past Self wasn't returning Future Self's calls. The two great questions are:
Why Do I Have This?
What Was I Thinking?
It's harder for my squalor clients. As far as I can tell, they have no sense of smell. I have a cast-iron stomach, but I have had to fight the urge to vomit on the job before. My eyes have watered. I have had sneezing fits so strong that I've had to run out to the driveway until they stopped. Yet there is the family, living in a miasma that is close to assuming corporeal form, and they seem happy enough. Mold, sour milk, rotting compost, and pet waste all mixed together, the smell you can taste. How can they not notice it? It's called olfactory fatigue. After a while, you just stop smelling it, the way that I forget how awful our tap water tastes until I've been on a trip somewhere else. The human brain is perfectly capable of ignoring anything it finds irrelevant, and ceasing to notice bad odors makes even more sense than becoming blind to stacks and piles.
The process of awakening and starting to notice our blurry surroundings is a gradual one. First, we start to train ourselves to pay attention to things that previously escaped our notice. It's totally Zen. Second, we gradually start to introduce systems that enable us to maintain mental clarity. A functional system means we don't have to rely on memory. I always put my keys back in my bag, so I always know where to find them. My teacup and book are on the end table, because there isn't really another logical place to put them. If something is not in use, and it goes straight back to where it belongs, then there are no mysterious way stations where things can be absorbed back into the cloud of unknowing.
Clutter contributes to more clutter, and systems lead to more systems. When something doesn't work, it's really hard to make it start working, like when someone misfiles a paper or shelves a book in the wrong place in the Dewey Decimal System and it starts to get recursive. Horrors! The converse of that is that when a system is well-designed, it advertises itself. You can go to someone else's house and figure out where to find the hand soap and the trash can. Order and disorder are spirals. Anything we approach with the goal of mental clarity will quickly become organized, while any place we inhabit in a state of confusion, distraction, or overwhelming emotion will most likely become disordered. Mess can happen in seconds. It can also be set to rights in moments, when it is clearly inharmonious and does not match the mental or emotional state of the humans in the room.
The key is to acknowledge that we have the power to control our own surroundings. We can decide what we want from a space. So often, we associate order and organization with nit-picking and criticism, but it doesn't have to be that way. It can be calm, or warm and welcoming, or strikingly stylish, or whatever we want. What we want is to live intentionally. What we want is to have our outsides reflect our insides, and vice versa. If we're going to have any blurry zones, let them be around the areas of bad memories or our friends' flaws.
The closer we get to the New Year, the more wound up I get. This is partly because I'm a summer person, and I need things to do during the dreary, cold, wet, dark days of winter. I'd rather do house-related projects now so that when summer comes back, we can take off for the beach. Another factor is that when we receive gifts, sometimes space needs to be created so they have somewhere to go. One of the things I do in the last week of the year is a perimeter check of my house, garage, and yard. It's part of my closing of the metaphorical books for the year.
My dog Spike is an American Rat Terrier. That's a "vigilant" breed. It means he barks when someone comes to the door, sure. It also means that he gets up periodically and checks around the back yard. He cruises around every room of the house at least once a day, even in the dark. This is part of how he finds every single crumb of bird kibble that hits the floor, and eats it, even if it's basically microscopic and burns more calories to find than it contains. It's his job. I call him Roomba Two. In his doggy brain, two or three minutes of snuffling and looking around helps to ensure that all is well in our world. No wolves, no pumas, no hidden dog treats. Okay then. At least once a year, I can be like my little buddy Spike and check all the nooks and crannies. In fact, he always goes with me, because you never know when a bucket of racquetballs might pop out.
My goal is to glance at every single item in our home for at least a nanosecond. I'm just walking around, opening cabinets and drawers and looking at what's in them. I'm going for a big picture, negative space kind of scan. What stands out? Is there a creak? Is a drawer or a door sticking? Am I seeing sawdust or a water leak or cobwebs or a trail of insects or a forgotten bag of moldy potatoes? When I open a door, does a scary smell waft out? Does this area look orderly or messy? Would I be comfortable sharing a photo of it or would I want to manipulate the scene a bit first?
I do like to clean the entire house top to bottom before the New Year, partly for good luck, but mostly so that I can lounge around and be a total hedonist on New Year's Day. 1/1 is just for fun! The perimeter check is done before the cleaning, in case I spot something that needs extra work or in case I spill something.
One room per day is plenty. There's no hurry. Since I do this exercise at least once a year, there's never really all that much to do. I keep in mind that I've already moved something like 28 times as an adult, and that anything I get rid of now means one less box to move next time. You're welcome, Future Me.
I look around the living room, asking myself whether any of the furniture or artwork has had its day. Right now there is a compatibility issue with the Roomba and our one end table, and I make a note to figure out how to raise the legs a quarter inch. I look at the books and DVDs and ask whether we are going to consume them or whether they've passed their use-by date.
I go into the bathroom, looking at all the bottles in the shower and asking whether they are getting used. I look at everything in the medicine cabinet, checking expiration dates, since I know someone who was hospitalized from expired anti-inflammatories once. I crouch down and open the cabinet under the sink, looking at all the cleansers and asking whether I use them all. Are we running low on anything? I throw out the old sponge. I open the drawers and look over all my little travel bottles, throwing away stretched-out hair elastics and broken hair clips.
I go into the bedroom. I open the closet and start with the top shelf. Am I wearing all these clothes? The end of a season is the best time to purge the past season's clothes. I ask myself whether I really think I'll be wearing these sundresses, tank tops, shorts, and sandals next summer. Three years is about the amount of wear I tend to get out of clothes before they start getting threadbare. My closet rod is only four feet long, so there's a constant process of examining what's on the hangers and making it fight for its place. My real problem area is with my collection of athletic shoes. I am really tough on shoes, since I walk three to six miles a day, even in Vegas when I'm wearing rhinestone heels. It's hard for me to say goodbye to my running shoes or hiking boots even when layers of the soles have worn off and you can almost poke your finger through them. Like other people, I keep things in my bedroom closet that are not clothes, such as my yoga mat and my race medals. I force myself every year to look at these objects and consider whether they are still relevant to my life. For instance, there's a buckwheat travel pillow in there that I really don't use.
I go into the office. Out of all the rooms in our house, this is the most stuff-saturated. Most of what's in here represents information, and it can be hard to assess and make decisions. Two bookshelves! A box of paper files! Our desktop computer is nearly eight years old, and the peripherals are, too. We're considering all our storage media, like CDs, thumb drives, and the external hard drive, and imagining what we're likely to be using in another eight years. Most likely it will all be cloud storage. I've been scanning my paper files and notebooks all year. Still, this room is a complicated one. Since we share the desktop and the file box, we'll spend a few hours together going through everything and deleting or shredding as needed. I see that I'm close to being able to downsize one bookcase, and I plan to do that at our next move.
I go into the kitchen. This is complicated in different ways than the office. Not so much information in here, but I love to cook and I was once obsessed with obtaining every possible kitchen gadget and small appliance. I even have a restaurant-grade French fry cutter. There are two areas to assess: the food and the utensils. I try to have everything in the fridge and freezer consumed by New Year's Eve so that we can start the New Year with a totally clean fridge. Nothing scary left over from who knows when. Right now there are three bottles of salad dressing, a jar and a half of capers, and two jars of mustard, so this should be interesting! I'm also looking at everything in the pantry and targeting anything that is almost used up. I plan recipes around these ingredients. Again, I want to make sure we're getting our money's worth out of what we spend on groceries, and that we're not wasting food. Overbuying is wasting.
I go out to the garage. I want to turn right around and go out again. I have a resolution to clear up the garage in 2017, and I want to keep this fresh in my mind. A job of great magnitude! It's not that bad, not really. We can and do actually use the workbench, and I work out on the elliptical out here several days a week. But there are a half-dozen storage shelves full of stuff we rarely or never use. It's time to process it and figure out whether we're really going to keep hauling it around for another eight years. It's about two orders of magnitude bigger than the old desktop computer, so this is a decision with impact. It's also a huge favor we can do for Future Us. The next time we move, we'll be high-fiving and laughing.
We'll go through our earthquake supplies together. Time to swap out the water jugs and rotate the emergency food in our go bags.
I look around the front and back yard. Uh-oh, the leaves on the rose bush are turning yellow. I'm looking for anything out of place or anything that is not turning out to be as weather-proof as I might have thought. I also like to look at all the windows and the fence and see if anything is going on. We're renters, but I still like including the structure and landscaping in my perimeter check. It helps me to feel like I have an accurate mental picture of where we live. Any surprises in our life should not be coming from the house itself.
One thing I pick up from my perimeter check is that I'm really a pretty good housekeeper. Even my baseboards are dusted. "Clean the entire house top to bottom" is going to be a matter of about two hours, and that's the once-yearly deep clean. The main thing I'm noticing is how many of our belongings really represent a data stream, such as books and CDs, that can now be digitized. How much of our stuff is useful and how much is just there because we don't really notice it anymore? How much more do we really need than a soup pot, a couch, and wi-fi? Does our home environment reflect the way we actually live, the way we wish we lived, or both?
Clutter comes from somewhere. At some point, a building stands empty. Then occupants move in, and with them, their stuff. Then they carry more stuff in. At a certain point, if more flows in than flows out, the house becomes cluttered. Understanding stuff as an energy current is the first step to eliminating clutter. One in, one out, rather than one in, none out. Or worse: many in, none out.
In a house like a steel trap, almost everything that goes in the door is never coming out again. This includes things that other households would treat as compost, recycling, or trash. The most interesting thing to me about working with clutter and hoarding is that the root cause is different for every household. Completely different personalities, life stories, and emotional atmosphere, yet visually similar results. It's when we get into the reasons behind the clutter that we start figuring out where it came from.
The trap metaphor suggests that someone purposely set out to attract and keep clutter. That's definitely true, and these are the hardest cases to help. People without more advanced financial knowledge can become hooked on the idea that personal belongings store cash value. Watching too much Antiques Road Show, perhaps, or watching too many advertisements in general. Some of our things are bought because we're simply captivated by them and find their presence comforting. More, though, are bought or acquired out of the fantasy that they were a bargain or that they can later be resold. Almost all of my clients have a stash of yard sale stuff or things they were planning to list on eBay. Sadly, some of these are paying steep rents every month on a storage unit so that they can maintain that stash, the one that never goes anywhere or turns into cash.
Cash, not stash!
In a surprising amount of cases, the clutter originally belonged to someone else. When we talk about clutter, we're excluding anything useful, such as vehicles, appliances, furniture, or electronics that are actually being used. What we're talking about are the boxes of grief clutter. The first time I saw grief clutter, it was contained in large moving boxes, stacked to shoulder height, filling the entire living room, dining room, and part of the kitchen. There was only a goat trail free to shuffle sideways between rooms. The owner, a grieving adult daughter of grandmother age, would come home every night and sit on the couch among these boxes. There was exactly enough room to see the TV. Half of the couch had things piled on it. Her parents died and her life effectively ended, too, when she built this cardboard monument to them in her formerly functioning home. I've seen similar cases in which one or more of the adult children move in to the estate and leave it as-is. Parents, imagine your children living this kind of half-life after you go. Heartbreaking, isn't it?
What's in the boxes? Your guess is as good as mine. I'm guessing there would be photo albums in there, which is horrifying because photos do not survive long when stored in cardboard. Paperwork and files that may well be hiding urgent and important information. Mostly, though, it's probably garden-variety housewares. Linens, dishes, bric-a-brac, things that we remember from our childhood kitchens. Nostalgic tablecloths and tea towels. Things that would be much more effective as stores of memory if we put them out and used them the way they were meant to be used. I did that with my grandmother's orange pot holders for several years.
Other cases of houses as clutter traps come from simple anxiety. It's more common in single people. We're afraid to go out after dark and haul out the trash. We don't like driving, or leaving the house at all. We feel overwhelmed by the process of clearing closets, bagging up our excess, and hauling it to a donation center. We aren't great at making decisions and we don't always know what to do. We shut down and seek out distractions rather than make those decisions and take action. Chronic procrastination falls into this group. Given any crux point, we will choose delay and temporary mood repair every time. We'll only do things when we're "in the mood" or when we "feel like it," which means virtually never.
Depression and illness are other reasons. This is one of the saddest reasons a house stays cluttered. I know I'm not alone in being "the kind of person" who would come over and clean for someone who is ill. I have ridden my bike in the rain to bring fresh, homemade soup to a friend who was recuperating from surgery. Caring for the sick is a time-honored tradition of charity and good works. We worry and we want to make sure you're okay. It's hard for most people to reach out and ask for this kind of help, though. We always want to be the givers, not the receivers. Depression seems to rob its victims of the ability to take any kind of positive action at all, and social isolation is the rule of the game.
Probably one of the most common sources of clutter is clutter-blindness. People quit seeing it, or never saw it. A certain percentage of my people, maybe 20%, were raised in a hoarded environment. They never learned any other way to manage a household. Most people do not receive any formal training in how to keep house, sometimes because the parents believe in a dream of childhood innocence that does not include chores, a.k.a. adult life skills. Sometimes they themselves never had the skills to teach. Most of my people seem to lose their sense of smell somewhere along the way, and they can't detect odors like spoiled milk, rotting garbage, mold, or pet waste. If I hadn't been there so many times, I wouldn't believe that could be possible, but it is. How can you live like this?? Answer: Like what?
A house is only a house when its main function is as a storage warehouse. A house is a home when it's there for love, affection, friendship, and cheerful daily routines. All of these are much easier to attain when there is enough space for them. None of them require very many material objects. Let's return our focus to creating comfortable, welcoming homes and removing whatever physical things get in the way of that.
Thanksgiving in T-minus 15 days! This is a great time to start clearing space in preparation for the great Thanksgiving Fridge Tetris Tournament. We need room in the refrigerator, we need room in the freezer, and we need all the food storage containers, too. Anything in there that is trying to evolve into intelligent life needs to get its spore-covered self out of there. Otherwise, where are we going to put the PIE?
I've started a new tradition, which is that on New Year's Eve anything left in the fridge gets emptied out. I have found five-year-old mustard in the door before. Those shelves are like the kind of cavern where a shepherd stumbles across lost ancient manuscripts. Except those jars are priceless and mine are pointless. Why do I have two jars of capers? Now that I'm asking, why do I have seven flavors of salad dressing? Hopefully the stockpile in my fridge won't take more than two months to consume, but November and December are such busy holiday months that we should be able to do it. That especially includes the perishables.
Cleaning out the produce bins can be an exercise in guilt. Aha, so this is why I can't button my pants. The ice cream is at eye level and the vegetables are down by my shins. Come on. Whose idea was this? I solved that problem by breaking the rules. The lowest produce bin is for the goodies. The middle section is for the fresh produce, including the Watermelon Shelf. The eye-level shelf is for stuff that Needs to Get Eaten Up (a top frugality concept). Whenever I meet people who claim to "hate leftovers," I know for a fact that they have debt and money troubles. If you hate leftovers, you're not eating the right stuff, because a lot of things are best on the third day. Pot pie! Lasagna! Soup! At this time of year, if you claim to hate leftovers, well, that's just not even patriotic. What kind of American doesn't prolong Thanksgiving at least through Saturday? Leftovers are the reason for the season!
The other thing about the scary produce drawer is that it has hidden lessons. I need more recipes for this vegetable. I need to make a meal plan. I need to pack a lunch and snacks. How is it possible that I can spend so much at the grocery store, let most of the produce spoil, and then waste all this money on vending machines and drive-thru? The secret behind this depressing pattern has to do with blood sugar levels. When we're hungry, our minuscule amount of willpower becomes entirely depleted and we can no longer make decisions. We fall back to the default. Then we reward ourselves for bad choices and quit taking any calls from Future Self. "Hey, Past Self, what are you thinking? You're already in debt and your freaking pants won't fit, and so your big plan is to spend money you don't have on junk food? Nice. Thanks for nothing." This is why I think we need a national plan for nap breaks and an official high tea. I mean, at minimum. At my house I have both second breakfast AND second lunch, and that's why I work for myself.
Thanksgiving tends to make me go a little nuts. I will cook for three days. I've been known to prepare more dishes than there were guests. This is why I've pushed back my planning time further and further. I can't bear having to make (and eat) the same menu every year, so I do a deep dive into my vast cookbook collection and try to narrow it down to my top 25 picks. I have a steamer table, a set of extra burners, an ice cream maker, and a crock pot that all wind up getting put to use. Seriously, it's out of control, and that's not even including the trifle. I know I'm going to need every cubic inch of space in my fridge, and that's why I'm starting to clear it out now. That way, when I start hearing the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy playing in the background, I'll know I'm going to win the Fridge Tetris Tournament.
Every so often, it happens. I find myself stuck in a negative habit pattern, and, despite the fact that I know I am annoying myself, I can't seem to turn it around. This is when I do a "reset." I make a firm decision that enough is enough. Then I go through a brief, concerted period of focus until I'm back where I want to be. This particular time, I needed to reset my sleep habits.
I identify as a night owl. I started having insomnia problems at age seven. It's always been a struggle for me to wake up early, and I'm slow and dopey for the first couple of hours after I wake up. Still, sleeping during the day is not a viable lifestyle for me, even though I set my own schedule. It's hotter and brighter, and the leaf blowers and lawn mowers start up early. At my current house, I live across the street from a school. When my natural tendency to stay up late starts creeping up on me again, I wind up sleeping about three fewer hours per night. Enough to get by, but not enough to make me sleepy enough to go to bed earlier. Hence, the need for the reset.
I had been up until 4 AM and hadn't been able to fall asleep easily. My husband wakes up at 5, so clearly it was high time for me to do the reset. I set the alarm for 8:30 AM and made myself get up. The priority at this point is to STAY AWAKE until at least 8 PM. Taking even a brief nap spoils the reset, meaning I have to try it again.
Note that a reset for any habit will only work when you are fully convinced that you are DONE with the self-annoying habit. This is not a willpower thing. It's a decision thing. Gradual transitions don't work well for me; I get too impatient. I'd much rather push myself hard and get something over with quickly, like ripping off a bandage.
When my alarm went off, I was so tired I felt nauseated. This seems to be a blood sugar thing for me; I started having it when I was maybe six years old. I know it goes away, though, so I got up and had some tea. I was fine for a few hours.
There are two methods to fight drowsiness: physical activity and natural sunlight. I have been known to walk as much as seven miles on a reset day, just to keep moving and be out in daylight. For a sleep pattern reset, outdoor natural lighting is a major factor in regulating sleep and wake hormones. Given adequate nutrition and hydration, hormones will get the job done, unless, like me, you are a Type A workaholic who has trouble deciding to shut down at the end of the day.
As far as physical activity, I always use a reset day to do low-level tasks. This includes regular housework, but also nitpicky details like wiping down baseboards, dusting the tops of door frames, and wiping down cabinets. The common reaction is to believe (not just say, but believe) that I Am Too Tired For That. I look at it from the contrarian perspective that I Will Not Waste a High Energy Day on Scutwork. I do at least minimal housework even when I have the flu. No matter how sick or tired I am, I can still drop clothes in the hamper, I can still put a dish in the dishwasher, and I can still put things in the recycling bin or trash can. On days when I'm feeling great and bursting with creativity, I can put all my focus on that and have fun, because nothing else needs to get done. Why on earth would I spoil a day when I'm feeling good with a backlog of chores?
Part of this involves differentiating between System One and System Two types of tasks. My work is almost entirely System Two, needing to concentrate hard and not being able to work with distractions. I need to beat back the System One tasks so they don't drain my mental bandwidth. System One includes all housework, most mending and repair work, almost all mail, most filing, some phone calls, and a surprising amount of computer work. In my case that means skimming email, updating spreadsheets, organizing photos, formatting images, loading stuff on my blog, bookmarking news articles, and several other routine tasks. If I can listen to a podcast and do the task effectively at the same time, it's System One.
The great thing about a reset is the day after. I wake up well rested at a reasonable hour. That's reason enough to do the reset. Ah, but then there are the bonus externalities. My house is gleaming. The weird little tasks on my 101 List are caught up. I've even blasted through my podcast queue. I've chosen one of two possibilities.
What comes naturally. Fall into a rut and get stuck there. Feel a very, very low level of energy. Be distracted by things I wish didn't annoy me, but they do. Feel like every day is like yesterday and that tomorrow will be more of the same. Start to doubt my ability to do anything in life. Feel sorry for myself. Wish I hadn't been "born this way" or that this hadn't "happened to me." Ah, me, what am I to do?? This is the fixed mindset trying to hypnotize me into a lesser life.
Bias toward action. Know that nobody but me can do anything about this situation. Probably nobody other than me cares, either. Get up and move my body. Take even the tiniest actions that will improve mine or anyone else's life in even the smallest way. Feel convinced that I have the power to control my attitude, my behavior, and my personal environment. Feel proud of my stamina and drive, both of which I am strengthening by facing challenges. Give thanks to my mentors for all the memoirs and biographies from which I have drawn examples. Look for the "level-up." I didn't "feel like it" and I wasn't "in the mood" - but I DID IT. I got through it. I've done it before, in fact I've been through worse, and I can do it again if I need to.
Resets can be useful in many situations. Another sleep-related one is taking NyQuil during a cold; I have trouble sleeping for two or three days after using NyQuil for even one night. Other reset opportunities include overeating (skip breakfast, drink water, eat vegetables); stomach bug (take probiotics for ten days); jet lag; messy house (turn on radio, clean all day); clearing out a storage unit; or breaking a dependency on a pharmaceutical (nasal spray, maybe?). Not all resets can be done in one day, but many can. A short reset can be good psychological preparation for a longer reset. (Weight loss, demolishing debt, remodeling a room).
The point of a reset is that I feel like I need one. A secondary benefit is that a reset reminds me that I don't need perpetual problems in my life. Almost all problems can be dealt with cleanly and quickly. Tolerating a lower quality of life means that I GET a lower quality of life. I won't settle for annoying myself or disappointing myself. Let's get started and get this over with quickly.
In my professional work with hoarding and squalor, I have seen a lot. I can't say I've seen everything, though, because I know there's one thing I've never seen. I've never been in a home with an empty closet.
The paradoxical thing about closets is that they're meant to hide things, yet they are usually so full that most of the stuff that they're meant to hide has to be left out in the open. We use our closets to store things we never use. Then the space isn't available for our "real" stuff when we want to put it away. There's no away to put it.
The clothes we really wear are either in the laundry basket, on top of the dresser, draped on a chair, or in the dryer. Meanwhile, the closet and dresser are full of clothes that don't fit or that we forgot we even owned.
The coat closet is so full of random junk that there's no room for coats or backpacks.
The kitchen cabinets are so full of mismatched plastic containers and travel cups with no lids that there's no room to put all the dishes away.
We rent storage units we can't truly afford because we think we don't have enough space. We use them to store stuff we can't bear to get rid of, that we think we really love, and we demonstrate that by keeping it away from our house and never using it.
I live in a 728-square-foot house that was built in 1939. All the houses in our neighborhood are about the same size - or smaller - because that was the norm back then. The bedroom closet rod is four feet long, and that's supposed to be for two people. There is no coat closet. Even though this house is half the size of the house we moved into when we first got married, there's plenty of room. It turns out that even the tiniest studio apartment has room for the true necessities: toiletries, linens, a functional kitchen, enough changes of clothes for two weeks, some books, and a file of important papers.
There isn't as much room for things that didn't exist in 1939, like a large-screen TV, a desktop computer, a set of every small kitchen appliance ever made, or my hula hoop collection. When our house was built, people had an average of nine outfits. They didn't have massive inventories of craft supplies or holiday decorations like we do today. Kids only had a couple of toys each. Stuff cost more and most people didn't have access to credit. People believed in these mysterious things called "nest eggs" and "life savings." They got their sense of security from their family, friends, jobs, pantries, and savings accounts, not a thick insulation of material goods.
Most of us live in homes that were built more recently than the 1930s. Living space has expanded over the years, adding roughly three hundred square feet per decade. As of 2013, the average was 2600 square feet, which is more than triple the size of the house I rent today. What the heck are people doing with all that space? How do they clean it all? How can they afford the heating and air conditioning? I'm starting to think the answer is that we can't keep up with the cleaning, and it's stressing us out. We can't afford the heating and cooling, either, or the mortgage, and that's stressing us out even more. We think we need all the space, though, because it's the cultural norm and because WHERE ELSE WOULD WE PUT ALL OUR STUFF? We live in historically unprecedented ginormous houses and yet we still think we need storage units.
What if we started prioritizing the home itself over the stuff it contains? What if we paid more attention to the experience of living where we do? How much of our time do we spend looking for lost items, arguing over housework, fretting over money, or grumbling about the laundry? Home should be a sanctuary. It should be a place of comfort and relaxation. Our living space should reflect our personal tastes and show that YES, this is how I choose to live! This is intentional! I have one place in all the world that I can shape to reflect my preferences. In this little corner of the world, everything is exactly the way I want it.
That can't be the case when our closets are bulging and our dresser drawers are cracking. I should know; my closet rod snapped under the weight of all my clothes one day. There can be no tranquility or serenity in a cluttered, grubby house full of power struggles and money worries. The structure of the home itself teaches us that there are natural physical limits. Just as we have physical limits for sleep deprivation, thirst, and excess food consumption, our homes have limits for how many objects they can logically contain. We start by looking at the available space and using it for the obvious: our practical needs. Anything that doesn't fit and isn't a practical necessity is under suspicion for getting in the way and lowering our quality of life.
A clean house is a sign of a wasted life. It’s also the sign of a sick mind, a broken computer, a broken sewing machine, no Internet, a boring life, a dull life, and a dull woman. I love Pinterest; whenever I want to talk about a pre-feminist, belligerent, misguided, dumb meme, I can always find plenty of examples. Basically, if you clean your house at all, nobody is allowed to be friends with you. It’s like the episode of The Twilight Zone when everyone shuns the man except the blind guy at the soup kitchen, and even he is informed that he needs to sit at a different table. NO CLEANING, EVER!
You know what I think is the sign of a wasted life? Talking about things you don’t like. If you don’t want to clean your house, just don’t clean it. Don’t put up signs or fridge magnets or throw pillows or coffee mugs making statements about it. Just do all those fascinating things you’re doing that are the opposite of wasting your life.
What is wasting your life? Resentment. Regret. Envy. Distraction. Procrastination. Settling for less. Negativity and pessimism. Snarky gossip. Dissatisfaction. Missed opportunities to make real emotional connections with friends and loved ones. Letting years go by without pursuing your dreams.
What else is wasting your life? Looking for things you can’t find, like a missing shoe, or the outfit you really wanted to wear that is marinating in the laundry hamper. Wasting money on fees and fines and late payments or items that never got returned as planned. Buying things that never get used, because money is really life energy and you worked hard to earn it.
Wasting your life is constantly complaining.
Wasting your life is living among dirty dishes and dirty laundry and garbage every day.
Wasting your life is always having dirty floors and dirty counters and moldy tubs.
Wasting your life is being surrounded by clutter at all times.
Wasting your life is fighting with other people about housework. Ever.
Wasting your life is buying into the story that society demands that only women do housework, and that a smart way to rebel is to live in mild squalor.
Apparently, I’ve wasted my life, because I like to live in a clean house. I’ve wasted my life getting married to my best friend. I’ve wasted my life going into business for myself. I’ve wasted my life traveling on four continents and counting. I’ve wasted my life learning to read music and play two instruments. I’ve wasted my life writing a novel, writing and producing amateur plays and a musical, and learning to draw cartoons. I’ve wasted my life studying foreign languages and learning to write in six different writing systems, seven if you count the International Phonetic Alphabet. I’ve wasted my life learning ballroom dance. I’ve wasted my life taking showers with my parrot. I’ve wasted my life riding a mechanical bull. I’ve wasted my life on all those overnight backpacking trips. I’ve wasted my life marching in eight parades. I’ve wasted my life learning to spin two hula hoops at the same time. I’ve wasted my life running a marathon. I’ve definitely wasted my life translating We are the Champions into Latin and singing it while a crowd of people held up their lighters.
Thank goodness I’m an organ donor, because otherwise my life would have no point at all.
The reason I write about housework is because I think people have gotten wound around the axle unnecessarily. Life is easier in a clean house. It is a one-time deal to get uncluttered and implement a housekeeping system. I don’t think it’s a woman’s job, unless she lives alone, in which case it would also be her job to decide whether to do it herself or contract it out. These rancid anti-housework memes just perpetuate the outdated, hateful stereotype that scutwork is women’s work. Negotiate with the people who share your home, get some robots, or figure out a way to streamline it and make it easier. Throw out your dishes and use paper plates. Rip out the carpets. Move to a smaller place, such as a treehouse. Earn more money and hire a cleaning service. Managing a home is certainly no more complicated than managing a business, which many of us do. In fact, I think it’s a great practice run for entrepreneurship. Test out various schedules and incentive systems and see what has staying power. Practice your negotiation, communication, and managerial skills. Delegate.
I advocate for cleaning the house because it enables a fascinating life. It cuts away distractions, like finding mysterious stains on things you wanted to wear, or being constantly unprepared, distracted, and late. Opportunities are missed. Irritations build. Marriages slowly, gradually disintegrate. A clean house may not guarantee a happy life, but a dirty house prevents one. How can anyone be completely fulfilled, satisfied, passionately engaged in life, and living a dream while surrounded by grime and postponed tasks? How can anyone have a happy marriage in the midst of unresolved quarrels or power struggles? Does anyone really think that a grubby house is an absolute requirement of good parenting? Who is teaching the kids the basic administrative tasks of life?
Yeah, I clean my house. I cleaned it when I worked full-time and when I was unemployed. I cleaned it when I was chronically ill and I cleaned it on rest days when I was training for my marathon. I cleaned it when I was a nanny of preschoolers and I cleaned it when I had teenagers in the house. It’s not that big a deal. I do a little when I’m on the phone; I do a little when stuff is in the microwave; I do a little while listening to a podcast or audio book. I do a little during cooldown after my workouts. I do my share and my husband does his. Most of it we delegate to labor-saving appliances, the price of which is amortized by not having pay cable. Almost all individual housekeeping tasks take 5-10 minutes. I’ve read anti-housekeeping threads on social networking that obviously took more time than that.
Housework is exactly like physical fitness, nutritious food, and following a budget. They are necessary parts of life. Respecting their necessity is the only way to get the best possible results. Paying attention to these areas on a daily basis leads to significantly less effort than ignoring them until they get out of hand. I’m busily wasting my life being healthy and fit and debt-free in my nice clean house, because maintaining these states is like coasting downhill on a bike. You only have to pedal a little every now and then to keep going. My goal is mental clarity and as much free time as possible. Keeping a clean house makes it easier to get my real work done, find things when I need them, and focus on the most important relationships in my life.
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.