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.
Before we begin, allow me to state again for the record that motivation doesn't really exist. We'll do anything as long as we WANT TO and we KNOW HOW. Otherwise, forget it. Not happening. The only trick is to figure out how to convince yourself to want things you don't already want. This can be done, yes, and it's a major secret to success. Easier, though, is to figure out how something actually does get you something you want, in ways you didn't realize before. You can be motivated by things you already find motivating. For a lot of people, a party or social gathering is one of the most powerful and delightful motivators.
When I was a kid, we often had people over. My parents and their friends were all in their twenties, and they hung out a lot. Sometimes we would all go to a park and toss a Frisbee and have a barbecue, with chips and soda. Sometimes a bunch of us would go camping. Mostly, though, various friends would come over for spaghetti and garlic bread. I remember that we had a party when Michael Jackson's Thriller video first premiered, because we were the only ones in the group who had MTV. Another time, we had friends over for pizza and we rented Roadhouse on video. Awesome, right? What we always did before these informal parties was to clean the entire place top to bottom.
Dust and vacuum! Polish everything with Lemon Pledge! Take out the trash! Wipe down the mirrors! Make the beds! Mom would scrub the bathroom until it sparkled, because that was a grownup job. We all ran around doing chores and checking the clock. Then the really great part happened: the FOOD. Mom would always make clam dip and we would have a bag of Ruffles potato chips. For the really big stuff like Tupperware parties, there would be deviled eggs. On birthdays, the birthday person got to choose what to have for dinner and what flavor of cake and frosting to get. (I liked strawberry shortcake with whipped cream). Days when we knew we had company coming were filled with mounting excitement, topped by certain party foods that we only, only ate on special occasions.
When in doubt, link to a food reward.
(Incidentally, I just figured out that my dog is just as happy to get an ice cube for tricks as he is to get a cookie).
The real reward for all our dusting and polishing was the fun of having people over. The hugs, the new jokes, the laughter. Watching new movies. Playing cards or board games. Telling stories. The time would fly by. Before we knew it, it would be time to say goodnight. Then it would be just us.
Those of us who live alone often don't feel any pressing need to clean up after ourselves. We're not hurting anybody, right? We can start to feel lonely and isolated. This is especially true if we have had roommates we really liked, or if we hate to be alone, or if we're single and not loving it. I admit it; I've cried at night, crying myself to sleep because I was new in town, with no friends and nobody to love. WHERE IS EVERYBODY?
I kept my place clean, though, because that's a luxury to me. I can't think straight when I have papers and stuff everywhere. It depresses me to have sticky floors or crumbs on the counter. I've had several extremely messy roommates, including a Rebel who later made the local news for hoarding and squalor. My motivation for cleaning is that I like it clean. Given a choice between living alone or living in a mess, I'd choose to live alone. A lot of people feel the way I do, but most don't. Most people would rather have a lively, full house with a lot going on, and not care all that much about a bit of mess.
These are questions of degrees. What is a 'mess' to one person is the 'after' photo to someone else. What it looks like after a full day of cleaning may still be 'messy' by other people's standards. How we feel about mess is one way we sort ourselves into social groups. The ideal is to settle into what makes us happy and proud, and also makes our friends feel relaxed and welcome. What that looks like is up to you, and it's up to them. Get it right, and they start coming over and hanging out all the time.
No matter how your place looks, people need somewhere to sit (or at least stand). When I was a kid, adults sat on the couch and chairs, and kids sat on the floor. I still sit on the floor, because I still can! The majority of my clients have so much stuff in stacks and piles that even sitting on the floor is a challenge, because there just isn't enough room. Goat trails from one room to another. For a lot of my people, it's a major victory just to clear enough room to open the front door all the way, with nothing behind it. Then at least people can come to your door to pick you up without seeing your secret shame.
The next area to tackle is the bathroom, or at least the bathroom closest to the front door. Even someone who is just knocking on your door to pick you up may surprise you with a sudden request to use your bathroom. It'll go better if the fixtures are clean and there's hand soap and a clean hand towel.
If you want people to come over and hang out, they'll need not just a clean bathroom and somewhere comfortable to sit, but also somewhere to put their stuff. Bags, coats, potluck dishes, whatever else they may be bringing.
If you want people to stay long, they'll probably want to eat, and that tends to mean somewhere to put food. Whether that's bags of chips and snacks, pizza boxes, a potluck, or a full fancy sit-down dinner is up to you.
This kind of visualization can help to motivate even the biggest cleanup job. We can imagine a pool of acceptability spreading from the front door through the entire home, whether that's a tiny apartment or a huge house. It also helps to realize that we don't have to work on basements, attics, sheds, storage units, bedrooms, cabinets, closets, or other hidden areas before starting to have social gatherings. We only have to focus on visible areas first.
The thing about isolation and shame is that they feed on themselves. It's our awkward, weird, lonely feelings that create the problem. Being honest and revealing the secret shame to someone can be a huge breakthrough, as long as it's a nurturing rather than critical person. You may well know someone who will come over and sit with you while you sort out your stuff and get your place ready for company. Or you can just print out a picture of someone you admire and tape it to the wall. Oh my gosh! Chris Pratt and Adele, you made it! Thanks so much for coming over!
A party doesn't have to be anything fancy. You can have a board game night, dance battle, LAN party, lip sync battle, coloring night, crafting, a movie marathon, or whatever you want. You can invite one person over, or ten, or however many will fit. I used to have an open house one night a week, and friends would bring friends of friends. People came over to our place because we had plenty of room, they didn't have to RSVP, and we didn't care if they brought five friends. We frequently had twenty-odd people over. (How many of them were 'odd people' is a matter of debate). In the first two months that we lived in our new place, we had three visits from various friends from out of town. That feeling that my place is always company-ready is a friendly feeling. It's all about the atmosphere, demonstrating that you're glad to see everyone and you want to make sure they know their visit matters to you.
Coming home to a paper stuck in your front door can be chilling. I always think it’s an eviction notice, even though there is no rational reason for me to think this. This time, it was a notice that we are having our bi-annual apartment inspection. It was dated the previous day - clearly false - but it probably was left within the 24 hours mandated by law. The trouble was, we didn’t see it until the end of the workday. Someone would be coming between the hours of 9 and 4:30.
It’s 6 PM and an inspector is entering your home tomorrow at 9 AM, whether you’re home or not. Are you ready?
What do you suppose I did when I came home at 6 and saw this notice?
Some of my people have been evicted due to squalor and hoarding. A couple of them have had it happen more than once. It’s extremely shaming and traumatic. Games have rules, though. If you enter into a contract with someone, you either uphold your end of the contract, or you break it, and if you break your contract, you pay the penalty. It is a simple and harsh truth. If you want to be free to live how you want and interact with your stuff however you want, you have to own your own place. Even then, there are community standards.
This is me we’re talking about, though. I saw the notice, and this is what I did.
Start the Roomba in our bedroom, because that was the chore of the day
Start a load of laundry
Finish making dinner
Put Roomba back on the charger
Sit around relaxing with my husband for three hours
Put the fresh sheets on the bed that I had washed that morning
Go to bed at 10
Wake up at 7:30
Clean bathroom, because that was the chore of the day
Take out the garbage and recycling
Wash my breakfast dishes and wipe out the microwave and sink
Then it was 9:00 AM. What did I do next?
Start another load of laundry
Dust the entertainment center while making a business call
Note that it was 9:30 AM
Sit around for the rest of the day waiting for the inspector to show up.
What would have happened if I hadn’t done any of those chores?
Well, we would have eaten dinner and breakfast regardless. We would have made the bed together, because sleeping on a bare mattress is not our idea of fun. If I hadn't done any of the chores, there would have been a full laundry basket, the garbage and recycling containers would have been full, there would have been dust on the toilet tank and hairs in the tub, the entertainment center would have been a little dusty, and the inside of the microwave would have had some food splatters. All of this would have been acceptable. Cumulatively it would have been acceptable!
The worst-case scenario would have been a dirty, sticky oatmeal bowl sitting in the sink. But why would I ever leave a crusty oatmeal bowl as a booby trap for Future Me to clean up? Past Me has washed several thousand oatmeal bowls over the years. It’s about 10% of the effort to just do it right away.
The point of this anecdote is that doing a few chores every weekday pays off. Our place never really gets dirty. The laundry and dishes and garbage never really build up. There are never really stacks or snowdrifts of papers piled up. I spend about 40 minutes every weekday doing chores, so I always have weekends free, and when we leave for a trip, it’s not a big deal. I don’t like coming home to a messy house; it’s a lame ending for a vacation!
Also, legally, our property management company can send an inspector or repair person inside our apartment with 24-hour written notice. Even if we’re not here to see the notice. This is what I would want if, say, our upstairs neighbor left the tub running and the water burst through our ceiling.
We have a week-long trip planned next month. Our pets will be boarded, so we wouldn’t have to worry about our dog being surprised by a man in uniform, which would presumably entail a lot of barking. We wouldn’t know to get ready for an official representative of the landlord, though. However we had left the place would be the way it looked upon inspection. That means JUDGMENT AND CRITICISM with potential legal and financial ramifications.
I clean my house because I know how, because I don’t think it’s a big deal, because it doesn’t take very long, because my husband and I both like it better, because I was taught to believe that it is a form of hospitality and welcome to guests, because happy people don’t live in a big depressing mess, because my reputation is involved, because it’s faster than leaving things to wait, because it makes my life easier, because I choose not to live the alternatives, and, lastly, because not cleaning my house could cause me significant hassle and inconvenience. These hassles include eviction and losing my cleaning deposit, among who knows what else.
Someone known to me wound up on the local news due to squalor. It happens. If I wind up on the news (again), I would hope it would be for something positive I did. Never go viral for the wrong reasons.
I freaked out a little when I saw the inspection notice, even though I know that I didn’t really have anything to worry about. I had no idea what to expect or what the inspector would be inspecting. Inside the cupboards and cabinets? Inside the appliances? Under the sinks? Would they be looking for specific things like water damage or insects, and would I have any idea what kind of inspection that would involve? What was bothering me was WHAT I DIDN’T KNOW, which is always a trigger for thinking I CAN’T HANDLE IT.
The truth is that we can all handle just about anything except for uncertainty. The Place of Uncertainty is not supposed to create a mini-vortex inside my own apartment!
What really happened was that the inspector knocked at 3:10. The dog barked and I put him in his crate, and then I opened the door. The inspector asked to come in. He went straight to the smoke detectors, checked them, and left.
I’m not even sure he was here for a full 60 seconds.
It’s possible that if our place had been fully hoarded, the inspector might have said something. I talk to a lot of repair people, delivery people, construction workers, landscapers, movers, and first responders, and they all say they’ve seen it all. They definitely do notice. In the case of apartment dwellers, it’s a question of whether they are asked or required to report anything like that to the property management company. Probably not. There is an extremely broad range of mess that is just considered standard in our culture, and that’s fine.
As for me, I’m relieved that my biggest annoyances with the inspection process were the false date, having to wait around, and having my dog bark. I can go back to chilling out in my nice clean (and tiny) apartment for the next six months.
I was talking to myself on the bus, and this lady got up and changed seats. Oh, neat! I've reached the stage in life when I am virtually indistinguishable from either a crazy person or a person in an advanced state of inebriation. Another interpretation would be that I was quietly rehearsing a speech. I'm drunk on public speaking! I'm crazy about... oh, never mind. The point is that talking to yourself can be useful, and even more useful if you do it in the privacy of your own home. If you're not already into talking to yourself, it can help to learn the difference between different types of self-talk.
The most common type of self-talk is hateful, sarcastic, critical self-talk. "Nice job, idiot!" If you talk to yourself like that, I have a suggestion for you. Get some broccoli. Take the big, thick rubber band off of the broccoli stalk. Eat the broccoli, obviously, but then save the rubber band. Put it on your wrist. Every time you hear yourself saying something to yourself that you would never say to anyone else, pull the band as far as it will stretch and then let it go. SNAP! If you're going to hurt yourself, might as well make it physical. When you see how much your skin gets marked up, you'll have a graphic representation of what you've been doing to your own heart and spirit.
More helpful is motivational self-talk. "You can do it! Great job!" Research indicates that motivational self-talk is the most helpful for endurance athletes, like marathon runners and cyclists. I can speak from experience and say that this feels true. I give myself motivational speeches when I run all the time. "You got this, you're crushing it, up up up up that hill!" Of course, I also mix the motivational self-talk quite freely with self-insults and boot camp-style smack talk. "Are you quitting on me, Private Pyle? Are you quitting on me?" This serves three purposes: distraction, humor, and reminding myself that I COMMIT, NEVER QUIT. I guess it also serves the purpose of inuring myself to rude language, so that when I chance to overhear it, it doesn't bother me as much. I might hear an insult from someone and think to myself, "Oh, good one. I can use that later." The important point is for me to keep going, keep going, develop more grit, and keep going. The less I like doing it, the more important it is for me to do it, whatever it is, because it builds the "don't feel like it" muscle.
What we're going to focus on now is instructional self-talk. This is when you explain what you're doing to yourself in technical detail. Many of us may have turned to this type of self-talk while learning to drive, reminding ourselves to check the mirrors, release the parking brake, etc. Research shows that this type of self-talk is helpful for sports with intricate physical skills, such as tennis or golf. "Roll your shoulder forward." As I learned this, I realized that I talk myself through things all the time, especially when it's something I don't like doing or when I'm trying to focus my mental bandwidth. "I'm checking that the dog door is closed and the heater is off and I'm putting the tickets in this pocket and my keys are going on the clip" and on and on. A recording of me might sound like pure lunacy, but it would also be a good transcript of exactly what I was doing on the small stage of my tiny apartment.
Working with chronic disorganization, hoarding, or squalor requires learning a lot of new skills. Fortunately or unfortunately, these are very repetitive skills, and thus they're ripe for instructional self-talk. I am holding my breath and I am picking up this dripping bag of trash and I am walking it out to the curbside bin and I am throwing it away and I am patting myself on the back and GASP breathing fresh air! I am folding this shirt and I am folding this other shirt and I am folding this shirt and I did not actually die and my arm didn't fall off. Good job, me. You're welcome, Future Me, you ingrate. It's boring and I hate it but I'm doing it and I'm getting it done and look at that! It was the longest 12 minutes ever but now I'm done and I can go watch otter videos.
Sorting and letting go of excess clutter requires its own motivational and instructional self-talk. I am looking at this and remembering that I really, really liked it when I brought it home, but I never use it, and even though it's cute, it doesn't look cute ON ME, and I'm ready to pass it on to someone else. I want to be able to use this room and fit everything in this closet and only one dresser, and that means half of this stuff has to go no matter how much I like it. I'm trying this on and acknowledging that it isn't doing me any favors. I am reminding myself that I care more about my friends and my pets and reading and listening to music and eating nice meals than I do about some old shirt. I am not my stuff, and my stuff is not my personality. I'm talking myself through this awkward, time-consuming process of releasing myself from my emotional attachment to mere material possessions. There will always be plenty more in my life and Future Me will be just fine if I let this go today. I am not losing anything and I am not missing out - I am using my imagination and working to make a more inspiring space. I am focusing on all the things in my life that are more important than a bunch of old stuff.
Not everyone is going to get much use out of verbal, out-loud self-talk. Some of us are more suited to journaling, which is really self-talk on the printed page. The process of writing in longhand seems to do something positive in the mind. We talk our way or write our way to a new way of thinking, convincing ourselves as we go. Some of us, the rare few, will simply be able to sit back with an epiphany, a new realization that everything is different from here on out. Now that I've seen a different way of seeing, I can never fall back to sleep and start seeing things the old way any more. I've taught myself how to change, and I've changed.
Okay, come on, admit it: we live in the future. We have a space station, robots, self-driving cars, and special glasses for color-blindness. That's why I want to know why everything so far available for an automated home is irrelevant to my interests, and why I can't buy any of the stuff I really want in a smart home.
I didn't have a dishwasher as a kid. My husband had to teach me how to use one: how to load it properly, how to choose cycles, and what was this mysterious substance known as "rinse aid." When I was a child, we visited my grandparents, and I asked my mom where to put the quarters in their washer and dryer. I've come a long way since those days. We have not just a dishwasher and a microwave and a washer and dryer, but also a robotic vacuum and a robotic mop and a battery-powered hand-held scrubber. I've already decided that anything fully automated that hits the market is coming home with me straightaway. Maybe I'll order it by drone and it can let itself in while I'm out.
What's on the market in smart homes right now? It looks like you can automate your door locks, security system, thermostat, fans, window treatments, lights, coffee maker, and entertainment system. You can set up a video doorbell and a nanny cam. You can buy a pet feeder with a timer. You can buy a virtual assistant in a "talking can" like the Amazon Echo.
I just watched the commercial for the Apple HomeKit (disclosure: I not only own some Apple stock but also a metric load of Apple products. Oh, and some iRobot). The actor in the commercial is clearly a smart, successful single woman. All the features of the HomeKit revolve around her preparing for her workday and relaxing afterward. Awesome!
Where is the stuff for a family, though?
My husband and I were cracking up laughing the other day about this tweet saying that 90% of marriage is checking whether the dishwasher is clean. SO TRUE. Dishwashers come in all ages and levels of technological sophistication. Wouldn't it be great if there were a sensor that could be installed on an existing, analog dishwasher and keep our phones informed of its status?
Likewise, what I need the most is a sensor telling me whether one of us (*cough*) has left a load of wet laundry in the washing machine. There are all-in-one machines that wash and dry in the same barrel, without the need to switch machines, but apparently they take at least three hours and the dryer load can't be as big as the washer load, because that makes perfect sense. Can we fix this? Maybe we should focus on building a Martian colony first. Wait, what am I saying? What does humanity really need the most?
Take your flying car and... I dunno, go fly it somewhere. I'm not leaving until I get a robot that folds laundry.
Another really awesome thing would be if new products came with some sort of RFID tag or other type of sensor, so their location could be tracked anywhere in the home. The signal would only need to transmit for a few yards if there was a receiver in every room. You could find out whether your missing shirt was hanging in the closet, buried in the bottom of the hamper, or quietly stewing in a musty washing machine. You would always know where your reading glasses or scissors were, or if the remote got wedged in between the sofa cushions, or if the dog buried your cell phone battery in the yard. The tricky part would be retrofitting and trying to stick these tags on the 10,000 things you already own. Lost LEGO? You're on your own, kid.
There totally needs to be an automated LEGO vacuum. It could have sort of horizontal windshield wipers that sweep small toys into its maw and spit them into a container in the back. Be scared if they come out built into something, like, say, a ray gun.
A refrigerator that reads your body fat percentage when you grasp the handle, and opens or locks down particular drawers based on your personal settings. It should also know the insert date of every item you put in it, so it can tell you not to eat the leftovers that are about to pop spores, or to remove the old lettuce before it turns into that special brown pudding.
Can there be a sensor that tracks every time a dog barks and reports it directly to Animal Control if it reaches a certain frequency? Asking for a friend.
Out of all the things we need in a smart home, what we need the most is the ability to check hot things and turn them off remotely. I'm talking about stove burners and irons. Every type of iron: steam iron, curling iron, flat iron, pumping iron, Iron Fist, whatever you may have left lying around. Anything from the Mad Science laborrrratory, anything like that.
I need to get pinged on my phone if the power goes off in my fridge or freezer. It would be great if I could also get a notification about burst pipes or dripping faucets. Once a large terra cotta tile fell off our roof while we were away, and if it had been a solar cell, that would be good to track remotely. Once we came back from vacation and our neighbor had backed a van over our mailbox, but maybe asking for a mailbox inbox is one reach too far.
Could there be any kind of vermin detector? It would be interesting if the house knew it had termites...
We live a pretty easy, futuristic life. My husband and I refer to housekeeping as "starting the robots." We find it amusing to take the dog for a walk while running the washer, dryer, and dishwasher, and having one of the robots clean our floors. Perfection would be if we could also have a robot wiping down countertops, crawling around vertically and scrubbing the shower surround, or washing windows. Being able to control the stove and the dog door remotely would be amazing. Knowing with one glance at an app whether there was anything in the dishwasher or washer, you know what? Knowing that could save some marriages. I'm sure it could.
The toy vacuum could save a life. At least the lives of a few little action figures.
I firmly believe that all innovation starts as the wacky idea of a science fiction writer or futurist. I also believe that good ideas come from the same place as bad ideas, except that all the bad ideas are always packed on top. I'm an idea-generating machine, and I share my futuristic fantasies in the hope that someone will read one and invent it for me. I'll be your best beta tester ever, I swear! It also is not wrong to spend a little time appreciating the futuristic modern conveniences that we already have. An electric box that washes dishes? Get out of here, you whack-a-toon! Twenty years from now, we'll look back and ask ourselves how we ever managed without these laundry-folding robots.
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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.