“Happy families are all alike,” claims Tolstoy, and it’s fair to say that organized people are all alike as well. Chaos, though, is personal.
This is the fascinating thing about working with the chronically disorganized. Their living and work spaces may have a lot in common, as far as the stacks and piles and dust. But the reasons they have for letting things get to that state are all distinctly individual.
The family with small kids and the confirmed bachelor. The teenager and the retired lady. They are only alike in that they can’t figure out what to do about their personal chaos.
You’d think, from all those squalor-sploitation reality TV shows, that all my people make the same mess. They don’t, though. Most of my people are not true hoarders, even though they think they are. They’ll cheerfully get rid of truckloads of stuff and never look back. They just need someone there to help them figure out what to keep and why.
There are usually isolated islands of calm amidst the chaos.
The one who owns a carefully curated capsule wardrobe with plenty of space between hangers
The one who keeps an immaculate living room
The one who is always photoshoot-ready (outside the home, anyway)
The one who lets go of hundreds of books but keeps expired food
Chaos is personal because stories are personal. We live the way we do because we’ve internalized messages about how the world works. We explain things to ourselves, or memorize the way others have explained them. Sometimes we even talk to ourselves, convincing ourselves all over again, in the sense of “how dare they!”
The one who had more stuff than any of my other clients, but somehow managed to keep a nice living room: I want it to look good when my friends come over.
The one whose hair, makeup, and wardrobe are always on point: I could never let myself go.
The one who hoards food but not books: I already read that and now it can go to someone else.
That one is fascinating because it posits that books are consumable, that they come and go, but that food belongs to some kind of longterm storehouse. It’s perfectly fine to read a $25 book once and then donate it, but it is never okay to throw away a five-year-old bag of pasta that cost $1.99.
In my fantasies, the ones I indulge when I’m working through a particularly gross and smelly forgotten area, in my fantasies I host a symposium of chronically disorganized people. They debate amongst themselves whose stories make the most sense.
Often I find myself challenged by these stories, because they don’t match mine, and sometimes my client has a point. For instance, the one who would never, ever leave the house without perfect hair and makeup. I’m more or less the opposite. I’ve left the house in my nightgown because I wasn’t feeling well, but I would never let my HOME go.
The first sign that something is wrong with me is when I somehow “don’t feel like” making the bed. This happens two or three times a year, and without fail, it means I’m either getting a migraine or coming down with a cold.
My client’s story is that the way you present yourself says everything about you. It makes or breaks your reputation.
My story is that I’m not going to bend over backwards to impress other people, and if they require me to look photo-perfect before they’ll talk to me, then I don’t want them for a friend anyway.
My client believes that real friends will accept your home in any state, that they come over to see you, not your house.
My story is that since I work at home, I need and want it to be orderly. I clean my house for myself, not for anybody else. My story is that my home reflects my mental state and my self-respect.
What if we’re both right?
What if everything about us has the opportunity to make a first impression? What if we’re better off attending to both our personal appearance and our homes?
I sure don’t want that to be the answer!
On the other hand, what if we’re both wrong? What if our real friends don’t care if we look a little sloppy OR if our living rooms do?
There’s no right answer here. It depends entirely on whether you care more about your own inner standards or about the judgments of others. It’s also true that people are different, our situations are different, and the values and opinions of our friends vary person to person.
People are often afraid to have me over, because they know about my work. There are people I’ve known socially for many years who have never allowed me to visit them at home. It’s ironic because out of everyone, I’m the *least* likely to judge! I have seen it all and I have smelled it all and I have climbed over it all. I know that people rarely manage to keep up with their own image of what they wished their homes looked like.
Part of what fascinates me about working with chronically disorganized people is that learning about them helps me to learn about myself. Every time I come back from a home visit, I get rid of stuff. I recognize that my clients’ daffy stories about why they “need” to keep certain things sound... hauntingly familiar.
So much of it is aspirational. I’ll wear that one day, I’ll read that one day, I’ll learn how to do that one day, I’ll file that one day, I’ll fix that one day, I’ll sell that at a yard sale one day, I’ll eat that one day.
What about today?
What are we doing about today?
If my stuff doesn’t match my routine, then why? Why am I not taking advantage of these opportunities that I’ve provided myself? Why do I plan to do one thing and then spend my time doing something else instead?
Only one thing is guaranteed. The stories I tell myself about why I’m doing one thing instead of something else are not obvious to anyone but me. My story is my own, and my chaos is my personal chaos.
It was certain doom when we realized we were both marching band geeks. My husband and I still sometimes go around whistling Sousa marches together. He played tuba and I played (but you knew this) clarinet. Therefore we can do a reasonable rendition of Fairest of the Fair.
Our musical training also helped when I taught him various ballroom dances. He knew what I meant when I taught him to swing dance and suggested we try double time.
Then, triple time!
I kinda do everything triple time now.
I just discovered that one of the library smartphone apps I use offers a higher playback speed than the other one. For the enthusiasts, that’s Hoopla vs. OverDrive. Although I was in public at the time, I bounced in my seat and let out a little ‘woohoo!’
Earlier this year, I finally figured out the secret of how to input ebooks into my speed-reading app, Outread. Depending on what it is, I can read at triple or quadruple speed.
This is probably why I have little patience for TV or movies. Sometimes I want to watch something terrible purely for pop culture reasons, and I feel stuck at regular playback. It creates a weird paradox, where it takes me longer to absorb something that doesn’t really interest me than it does to indulge in something I enjoy.
Note: I have seen some unbelievably, staggeringly bad horror films...
...a genre which, at high speed, might quickly morph into screwball comedy.
It often does at my house, because my little parrot likes to walk behind me on the couch, making smooching sounds and imitating games of ping-pong.
Doing things faster is funny. Sometimes, when I bust through my chores, I think of Lucille Ball stuffing chocolates into her mouth.
The way we look at our daily routine is entirely our own choice. It’s equally as possible to take great pride in drudgery as it is to resent even the lightest duties. That’s because we don’t necessarily care about the nature of work; we care about whether we feel like it’s our choice or someone else’s.
Example: I find nail art mystifying. I utterly cannot understand it. I once had to wear a coat of clear nail polish for a gig, and I was counting the hours until I could remove it, because I couldn’t escape the smell. If I had some job where I was forced to sit still and have nail polish applied on a regular basis, and then wear it all day, I’d be climbing the walls. Yet a lot of people wear it for fun. Go figure.
We should all be more aware of what we enjoy for its own sake and what we’d rather trade off for something else.
I like hustling and bustling around, getting things done. It doesn’t even really matter what I’m doing, because I’m listening to a book. Might as well keep busy.
Often, I play Beat the Clock, trying to get a set number of tasks done before a timer goes off. That’s because I no longer have a washer and dryer.
Don’t get me wrong - there’s little that annoys me more than folding laundry. Carrying fifteen pounds of sweaty workout clothes across the apartment complex, and back again when it’s clean, is not my idea of a fun time. Sixteen washers and dryers are shared by 332 units, which is probably 400-500 tenants. This creates some interesting constraints, and constraints are all you need to make up an interesting game.
Can I find a block of time when two or three machines are available? How much can I get done in 28 minutes while waiting to put the wash into the dryer? How much can I get done in 44 minutes while waiting for the dryer to finish?
Part of my game is refusing to do housework on the weekend, and that includes Fridays. I try to avoid Mondays as well, because several holidays include a Monday. And I’m busy on Wednesdays.
Okay, to tell the truth, I only really do housework on Tuesday and Thursday.
Most of it on Thursday.
My game of doing things on triple time means that five or six days a week, I don’t have to do anything but walk the dog. No laundry, no errands, nothing!
Imagine that. Five or six days a week, I have zero stress about cleaning my apartment.
Oh, but you don’t have kids, I hear. Yeah, I’m about to turn 44. Most people don’t have little kids around at my age. Also, both of my parents saw children as little mini chore machines. My mom would tape a chore list for each of us on the front door every morning. We weren’t allowed to go out and play until our chores were done, and this started at kindergarten age. We were gradually considered competent to do every single household task except cleaning the bathroom, and I took that over in high school. I won’t claim that my brothers and I looked forward to doing chores more than any other kid, but I will certainly say that we did our share.
If you live in a home, and your chores stress you out, well, it’s your own home. You’re in charge of creating the rules there. If you insist on burnout, resentment, and annoyance, that is your seigneurial right. Far be it from me to tell anyone to quit being irritated or exhausted if they want to be.
There are lots of games that can be played with task lists. Chores can be regarded as claiming or expanding territory. There can be a race between players or against a timer. There can be bonus points for one thing versus another. Something like a list of business calls can be regarded as a treasure hunt or Mission: Accomplished. Kids are great for this as well, because their ability to continually generate new games is more or less infinite.
Triple time is irresistible to me. It puts a spring in my step. It adds a bit of interest and excitement to what could easily be a boring, routine day. It’s not for everyone, obviously, but... why not one and a quarter time?
We keep forgetting that we’re living in the future. It’ll probably take about two generations before we start to figure it out.
This is the argument that I use when setting policy with my husband about our domestic arrangements and mental bandwidth. How would this be different if it were automated? If it were engineered out of existence as a problem? Offload it, sure, abdicate it, absolutely. Tell Siri, though, not me.
We’ve had a lot of success with delegating household chores to “the robots,” as we call them, and now I’m trying to teach him to do it with the administrative stuff.
The thing is, like a lot of people, we each have a smartphone in our pocket. Along with all the many other features of these incredibly powerful computers, which are far and away better than what was used to get the first rocket up to the Moon, there is a voice assistant. It can do stuff, and, arguably, it should.
Check the weather
Read off lists
Probably a million more things that we haven’t realized it can do
We both grew up with moms who were traditional in most ways. We both had the kind of mom who did most or all of the cooking and housework, the kind of mom who knew how to sew and make Halloween costumes, the kind of mom who basically ran the household while the dad did the fix-it stuff. We both had a certain internalized expectation that the woman of the household is also the secretary and receptionist of the household.
But then, we met each other in the workplace.
I literally WAS his office assistant.
It literally was my job to take notes at his meetings, sort his mail, make his photocopies, and copyedit his technical documentation. (He was one among a staff of 75 others).
This probably helped when we got married years later. It helped to make clear that certain types of tasks were PAID and, thus, valuable. As an engineer, my husband understood full well exactly why these low-level administrative tasks are delegated down. It’s a silly drain on the mental bandwidth of a professional who has more interesting things to do.
He gets it that if these random and small interruptions keep popping up for me to handle, then it interferes with the headspace I need as a writer.
I can either be a full-time stay-at-home spouse, maintaining the perfect household and cooking great meals from scratch, OR. Or I can be something else, something more interesting and fulfilling that also generates a higher income. Both are valid paths to lifestyle upgrades for both of us. One is depressing, boring, and annoying (for me at least), and the other is awesome.
More to the point, why should a human (including me) do something when a robot or an artificial intelligence can do it?
Back to the robots.
We have a Roomba and a countertop dishwasher. We also have a robot mop, but we currently aren’t using it because our kitchen floor is about the size of a beach towel. Once upon a time, we had a washer and dryer. We “start the robots” before we go to the movies, and we come home to a clean apartment. The only things “the robots” don’t do (yet) are to knock down cobwebs, dust surfaces, clean the bathroom, put away laundry, and make the bed. We sort laundry by having a hamper with two detachable bags, one for lights and one for darks. That’s not robotic, but it is based on principles of lean engineering.
This is the premise on which I am building my empire, my Kingdom of Mental Bandwidth.
The goal is for both of us to have as much high-quality uninterrupted System 2 thinking time as possible. I’ve made my case for how much I do to support him as he works on his third patent, and he appreciates that this takes care and focus. This has helped me make the case that I, too, need help protecting my thinking-cap time.
As an engineering principle, our household should be as well-maintained as possible with the least amount of effort as possible. This is known as “low-side compliance.” It’s extremely important in engineering, because an engineer’s time is expensive, and even an extra hour putting in an extra feature might blow both the budget and the production schedule. Low-side compliance helps avoid “scope creep,” which is what happens when the specifications of the product keep expanding. Scope creep makes everything more expensive and complicated, and also more vulnerable to failure.
Running a household is the classic example of scope creep. It’s also a stupid place to put that kind of cognitive and emotional focus.
Together, we’ve worked out a way to automate, systemize, or eliminate as many household tasks as possible. This includes chores and errands. The next step is to automate more administrative tasks like ordering dog food, scheduling appointments, and booking travel.
Another horizon would be keeping track of where things are. I have what amounts to a 3D mental hologram of every object in our home, as well as several other homes of family and friends. My superpower does not, though, make me responsible for keeping track of other people’s stuff! One day, an AI will have this ability and then it will make sense to interrupt *it* instead of me.
Since this function would be so valuable in manufacturing and inventory management, it WILL eventually arise and become widely available.
The household of the future will run itself. It will clean itself, schedule its own maintenance, stock itself with supplies, and track the location of objects, maybe even uninvited insects. With 3D food printing, everyone can have a personalized meal on demand, including guests. The house and the computer will effectively merge. Household chores and errands will become as antiquated for the average suburban family as churning butter and trimming lantern wicks are today.
We’re already at the point where commonly available software can track our budgets, order groceries and other household supplies, schedule appointments, and even suggest entertainment options. Not that far into the future, there will be nothing left to argue about except whose job it is to give the cat a pill, unless of course it’s a robot cat. We might as well get started on figuring out what to argue about next, and maybe the voice assistant of tomorrow can mediate.
It all started when I set out to clean the oven at our rental house. I had a joke from one of my clients: “Oven’s dirty, time to move!” I was starting to learn about “ask, don’t task” and realizing that it can be very useful to have an engineer around. I thought out how to reframe my problem of DIRTY OVEN.
That’s what I did. I outlined the problem. I reminded him that when he helped me move out of my apartment after two years of dating, it had taken me three hours to clean the oven. I estimated how much it would probably cost to hire a cleaning service, many of which will not clean ovens just as they won’t wash windows. I believed there had to be a better way. Take off the oven door, maybe?
“Hold on,” he said.
He went out to the garage, a promising sign.
He came back out with... the cordless drill. He attached a scouring pad to it, an abrasive tool that was designed for shop use. He got some cleanser out from under the sink.
He pulled out the oven racks.
He pulled up the wooden step stool that I use to reach high kitchen shelves and he sat on it. He turned on the drill and started scouring the black volcanic mess that was our oven.
Fourteen minutes later, that oven was showroom clean.
“That should do it,” he said, and he took the drill back out to the garage.
I was still standing there with my jaw hanging open when he came back.
(Then I found a silicon oven liner for $20 and we’ve never looked back).
We’ve spent a considerable amount of time since then (2010), talking about how engineering could solve so many scutwork problems, if only someone were to bring them to the attention of an engineer. In the years since, we’ve seen various solutions hit the market, and I own some of them.
Drill attachments specifically for tough housework jobs
Power scrubbers with extension poles for jobs like scrubbing bathtubs
Window-cleaning robots in two types, suction and magnetic
A robot vacuum that picks up pet hair (but not feathers, hint hint)
A robot mop
Robot lawnmower? A joke that I made in 2010, it’s now a reality
I’m still holding out for a toilet-cleaning robot ($500, nowhere to store it) and a laundry-folding robot, once they become efficient enough to be worth the effort.
We have a joke about “starting the robots” when we leave our apartment. We spend about five minutes crating our pets, picking up the dog dishes, and checking for charger cables on the floor. Then we turn on the countertop dishwasher and the Roomba. We also used to have a washer and dryer. We would go to the movies, laughing about how robots were doing our housework and speculating on what we could delegate next.
There’s another thing that we do, something that feels like a total impossibility for most households. That is to live in a deliberately small space and own few material objects.
Sing HEY! for minimalism!
It doesn’t take us long to clean because there isn’t much to clean. You can almost reach every surface of our kitchen or bathroom by standing in one spot. We can’t keep a lot of stuff out on countertops because we don’t have much counter space. We can either preserve one square foot of countertop for cooking meals, or we could put one thing on it.
Which one thing is more valuable than the ability to prepare meals? A stand mixer? A cookie jar? A pile of junk mail?
I’ve found in my work with clutter clients that the more they wish for old-fashioned home cookin’, the more stuff they have in their kitchens, and the less they actually cook. Any professional chef would tell you that you can do it all with one good knife, a cutting board, a large bowl, a spatula, and a pan.
My people keep more than that stacked up in their sink, much less the entire room.
What crushes me about all of this is that almost all my people have a functional dishwasher. I grew up without one. In point of fact, my husband had to teach me how to load a dishwasher because I made it into my thirties without really knowing how they work. It takes four minutes to unload a clean dishwasher. Unload it once a day and spend 10 seconds put dirty dishes directly into it after each meal. It’s like a miracle! Yet you’re all out there weeping bitter tears about how much work it is. Are you kidding me with this???
The truth is that it’s entirely possible to cook nutritious, balanced meals in a microwave in under ten minutes and then spend about 90 seconds cleaning up afterward. I cannot cognitively fathom why there is so much angst over kitchen work. But then microwaves and dishwashers feel like the Star Trek future to me, and garbage disposals do, too.
So much of this is about how we internalize what we perceive as social expectations, and how we react emotionally to those expectations.
Breaking down these tasks as engineering problems is a way to distance them from the emotional landscape. Would I feel resentful and burdened about this if a robot was doing it? If it never even became a problem? The first time I shook off some blackened spilled pie filling from our $20 oven liner, I also shook off some mid-20th-century expectations. I’m ready for my 21st-century kitchen and wondering what else I can pawn off on household robots.
Secrets to getting things done:
Nobody likes to be micro-managed, and it should be obvious why. The time that the micro-manager spends leaning over someone’s shoulder is time that they could be doing something at a much higher level.
Example: a top-level manager literally leaning over my shoulder and watching me update page number formatting on a document while paying me overtime and making me miss the gym. If anyone had bothered to delegate the task to me days or weeks earlier, it would have taken me ten minutes and never hit this person’s radar. Instead, the company winds up paying this taskmaster to do nothing more than annoy me. How much does this guy make per minute, and why is he wasting his time on this?
That happened fifteen years ago and it still annoys me.
Asking someone to do some something specific is a task. That’s true whether it’s your employee, your kid, your roommate, your romantic partner, or yourself. I tried asking my dog to bring me some tea but honestly he’s not very good at that kind of thing.
CLEAN YOUR ROOM
STOP THAT BARKING
LEARN TO DRIVE, LOSER
Asking someone to do a task is always going to generate a power struggle. If this person (or animal) had any desire to do that task, they would have done it already without your input. They probably have a violent desire to NEVER do that task, and they’ll fight it with every last fiber of their being. Just like my clients do when I suggest that maybe they consider possibly letting go of some of their expired food.
Try it another way, maybe?
Reframing a task as “a problem” or “a situation” is completely different. I’ll offer some examples.
Sitting on my porch, I want to charge my phone and my tablet. There are no electric outlets outside like there have been in previous places we’ve lived. I don’t want to leave the door open for an extension cord because we have a mosquito problem. What am I going to do?
Use a back-up battery
Do only non-electronic things outside
Charge one device at a time inside, and go back and forth retrieving them
Install a power outlet outdoors
Ask my husband to apply his engineering expertise to my problem
My husband and I have a running joke, dating back to our backpacking trip to Iceland. It goes like this: “YOU’RE the man, FIX THIS!” The truth is that if I asked him to do something very specific, like “save me from this hornet,” I know he would drop everything and rush to my aid. In the case of the missing power outlet, I don’t know what to ask for. If I had a solution, I most likely would have done it myself. I’m not going to TASK my husband, I’m going to ASK my husband.
What I mean by this is that I’m going to pose the problem to him and see what he would do. I believe that he will find a different way to solve the problem, something I would not have thought of, and I believe this because he’s done it a thousand times. Part of why we got married is that we have a lot of non-overlapping skills. Rather than berate him for not being good at the same things I am, I praise him for being good at all the things that I am not.
The vocal tones and facial expressions involved in asking someone for their opinion and advice are extremely different than those of someone who is demanding that someone else complete a task.
I tell my husband how much I love working on the porch. I point out what a beautiful day it is and how happy our pets are, dozing in the sun. I say I wish I had a way to charge my devices. I suggest digging out the dog door insert and setting it up so I can run a cord through the dog door.
Approximately four minutes later, he pops up with an extension cord. He rocks the screen door up slightly on its little roller wheels and slides the extension cord under it, then settles it back in position.
I’m so happy I surprise myself by bursting into tears, which completely freaks him out. I then have to explain exactly how much this means to me. I’ll be able to work outdoors all day, all spring and summer long! His solution to my problem is the ergonomic equivalent of adding an entire room to our apartment, a very nice one.
He nods and shrugs and goes back to reading his robotics textbook.
Another example: I want to celebrate my brother’s fortieth birthday. I task him with telling me when he is going to have his party so I can buy my plane tickets. This does not work. Back to the drawing board. I ask our other brother to talk to him. This does work, because they have different planning styles, but it does not result in firm plans.
I change the task to an ask. I tell my brother that he deserves to do something fun and special for his birthday. He says he is fun and special every day. I ask if he would be willing to cooperate with a surprise party, if we plan something for him and just tell him what to wear and what to pack. He’s fine with that. I figured he would be. Then I ask our other brother to help with something mutually fun and weather-appropriate. We work out in about 20 minutes what I couldn’t make happen in three months by tasking someone.
Notice the difference between “MAKE PLANS AND TELL ME ASAP” and “How can we make your birthday something fun and special?”
It’s just like the difference between “STOP NAPPING AND GET YOUR TOOLS” and “Can you help me make this area into a lifestyle upgrade?”
I’ve found this method really useful in motivating volunteers, also. Rather than ask people to do something specific, explain what it is that you’re trying to do. Every single time, without fail, people will step up with better, quicker, and easier ways to get stuff done. Often they’ll enlist other people you didn’t even know and get them to help. Sometimes they’ll point out that the job has already been done and share materials with you. This is why telling people what to do is pointless: your way is probably the worst way!
There are lots of ways to solve persistent problems if you “ask, don’t task.”
Get your kids to clean up: Plan a party or game night and say you want to make it special. Rather than nagging everyone to pick up after themselves, set a timer, put on some music, and race to “get ready.” What does “get ready” mean? More than you thought, probably! My mom used to do this and I would do extra stuff like making hand-drawn place cards. I still associate parties and housework.
Get your partner to help with yard work: Find out their vision for their ultimate dream yard and get them talking about it. Hammock for napping? Yard parties? Climbing roses? Wood-fired hot tub? Vegetable garden? Home roller coaster? Walk them out to the yard and stand there together while they get rolling.
What’s going on here is a shared vision that is communicated clearly. If other people dislike your vision, they will reject it, and they will fight you til the bitter end. If nobody is on board with your vision, why is that? Are you willing to do the work yourself if you have to? Have you given thought to other approaches? Are you simply in the habit of feeling stressed out, resentful, and irritated?
What would it take to turn the energy around this from “WHY WILL NOBODY DO MY BIDDING” to “hey, you know what would be fun?”
Ask, don’t task, and see if you can find out.
It’s that time of year and spring is coming!
Spring announced itself in my neighborhood with a mass butterfly migration. I guess they all woke up and decided it was time to move, based on warmth, sunshine, and presence of flowers. There are few things more joyous than being surrounded by hundreds of butterflies everywhere you go for days on end, and noticing your neighbors notice.
Spring is here, summer is coming, and planning can help us make the most of it. How long has it been since you:
Had a picnic
Threw a Frisbee
Went to the beach
Played in a sprinkler
Napped in a hammock
Rode a bike
Laid down a blanket for stargazing
...and how much of your warm-weather-related outdoor equipment is buried in a garage, shed, storage unit, or other impossible mound of junk?
I like to do semi-major cleaning jobs on a quarterly basis. This is partly because there’s no way I would want to save it up and do it once a year. It’s also because it’s my way of declaring that I’m taking the next few months off.
Yes, I’ll do laundry and cook meals and wash dishes and clean the bathroom. No, I will not be doing any major clutter clearing, sorting of closets, or moving of furniture.
I AM TAKING TIME OFF!
I fully intend to spend the six warm months of our region out playing and having fun.
I’m going to go for walks and ride my bike with my husband.
I’m going to lounge around in my favorite chair on our tiny patio with the parrot and the dog.
I’m not going to wear socks. So ha.
In December, I deal with my severe cabin fever by sorting stuff and purging files. I love starting the New Year with a clean slate, and I really have this huge thing about getting our apartment ready. All surfaces should be dusted and polished. That’s how I celebrate, by making an area look pretty and ready for guests.
I like to go through every single cupboard and cabinet and drawer, getting rid of anything that has served its purpose. Things have a certain specific useful lifespan, whether they are lightbulbs or pasta noodles or socks or serving platters. Material objects are designed to be used in certain ways, and if they are truly useful then they eventually get worn out. Just like the Velveteen Rabbit.
Sometimes the useful lifespan of an object is just the time that it was useful to me and my household. I can pass it along, where it can become useful to someone else.
It’s not up to me to find out who that person might be. I send things back to the Stuff Place, where they rejoin the current of usefulness. In my home, they would get in my way and sit around, drained of meaning, while that other person would have to do without.
Almost everything, as far as I’m concerned, should remain in the Stuff Place. I don’t need things until I need them. I don’t like the feeling that I am surrounded by mysterious “supplies” that might or might not “come in handy” for some future disaster. I need my space for my personality and my thoughts. I need a little bit of blank wall and a little bit of room to expand, just in case I want to.
When I pass things on and send them back to the Stuff Place, it makes room. It creates breathing space in my home. I have space to live. Why should a bunch of random material objects have more of a claim on my home than I do? Than my husband and my pets and my friends do?
I can fill my space with friendship, music, conversation, laughter, thoughts and plans and dreams.
Or I can fill it with STUFF.
One of the things I do when I shake down my house, at the change of the seasons, is to look at how I’ve been spending my time. One of the areas that gets the most attention is the kitchen, because we cook differently in cold and warm weather. In the winter, I want the soup pot and the big baking pans. In summer, we do a lot more dinner salads.
Another area that gets extra focus is the bed, because we swap out our bedding too. That’s as good a time as any to think about what we want near us when we sleep. In the past, we both had cluttered nightstands, and that tends to generate dust. It’s nice not to have to worry about that.
Then there’s the area where we both get ready, which in our current studio apartment consists of the bathroom and walk-in closet. What’s going on in the shower rack? How many partial bottles of dog shampoo do we need, really? I clear out my one get-ready drawer next to the sink. I look at my sandals - wait, I don’t seem to have any sandals - and my warm-weather clothes.
My husband wears the same clothes all year, and therefore spends the time I am sorting through my closet... napping on the couch with the dog. Behold: minimalism.
I have a bag to donate and another bag to take to the clothing recycling bin. (If you’re crafty and you have tons of “cabbage” in the form of fabric scraps, you can recycle that too).
You know what I ought to do? I ought to take a few more books off the shelf and plan to read them out in the sun, in the park or next to our apartment pool. I just realized that one of my unread books has passed its ten-year anniversary, because I bought it on a trip with my brother and that was before I got married.
Isn’t it crazy, when we realize that some of our stuff has been with us longer than our relationships with mates or pets or even siblings?
I love summer. I associate it with a lot of summery activities that, often, I haven’t actually done in years. Maybe decades. I haven’t made the time to do them. Summer comes every year, and then it goes. It goes whether I’ve gone on a picnic, or held a sparkler, or eaten a root beer popsicle, or rollerbladed along the beach... or not.
No matter what time it is, now is the time. At this moment, it’s time to plan for fun, and make sure it happens!
The main visible difference between a child’s bedroom and an adult’s bedroom is that kids leave stuff strewn all over the floor. Adults have stepped on enough LEGO and other small toys that we prefer an open field. We appreciate the luxury of walking barefoot across a room without getting punctured by a tiny plastic accessory. Children use these items to mark their territory, assert their aesthetics, avoid boring chores, and also because they don’t know how to do otherwise.
“The floor is lava” is a game we used to play as kids. It’s the sort of thing one child teaches another, like all the rude little verses we call back. “I’m rubber, you’re glue.” The point of “the floor is lava” is that you have to jump around on the furniture, and if you touch the floor, then you fell in the hot lava. It’s a really exciting excuse to hop on the couch. One of the reasons kids will tolerate having stuff all over the floor is that they are nimble enough they don’t really need a floor at all. In a narrow enough hallway, they’ll crawl up the walls.
Another reason kids tolerate having a messy floor is that they have a lot of really small toys. This is a function of culture, of what’s available to buy and own. It’s also a problem created almost entirely by adults. Kids don’t have any money and they can’t drive. All of their stuff, their messy messy stuff, came from THE PARENTS and their ilk. Yes, kids will bring home pebbles and pine cones, but it’s a duty of parenting to explain why that stuff belongs in the natural world and why it isn’t fun to step on stuff barefoot in the dark. It’s also up to the parents to be a filter between affordable materialism and a livable space in the home.
If you don’t want your kids to make a mess, quit bringing them tiny toys. Set boundaries with the grandparents. Sit down with them and sort and purge a few times a year. Teach them what the heck is meant by the mysterious directive, “Clean your room.”
What children have in common with my people, the adult chronically disorganized folks of the world, is that they all struggle with categorizing things. Sorting and grouping is challenging for them. They don’t know what to do or how to do it. They have no idea what ‘done’ looks like. This is something they can learn, but not something they can ever be expected to figure out on their own. That’s where an organizer like me comes in. I understand that they have all the creativity, intelligence, and desire to please that they could ever need. All they need is someone to patiently walk them through how to sort things into categories, many times, many times, until they start to understand. They also start to be supported by a visible, clearly marked system. The room itself starts to show what to do and how to do it.
My people tend to have stuff on their floors, just like little kids do, because of a series of reasons. They don’t see it - especially in the bathrooms, where most people with vision problems are not wearing their glasses or contact lenses. They aren’t looking for it, because “bare floors” is not a metric in their world. There may be a lot of boxes and large furniture and stacks and piles obscuring the small objects that have fallen to the floor. They may have cats or other pets who climb and jump and knock things to the floor and carry things off in their naughty mouths. They may have physical issues, like knee or back pain, that prevent them from bending or kneeling. They may simply be struggling with depression. Mostly, though, they’ve just reached adulthood without anyone teaching them the painstaking process of categorizing the small items.
Since the floor is always scattered with small objects, it never gets vacuumed. Because it never gets vacuumed, cleaning the floors is never a task on the schedule. Because cleaning the floors is never on the timeline, every object that hits the floor stays there. This is how the problem compounds over time.
My people tend to be bright and creative, yet also pessimistic and prone to fatalism. Their reaction to stress and drama is not “time to do something about this” but rather “oh well, oh dang, not again, why me.” My people tend to catastrophize and make problems seem worse than they are because they believe they are powerless. This mindset is compounded by the chaos in their physical surroundings. They are unskilled at estimating how long it takes to do things. They often see chores and other aversive tasks, like financial planning, cooking, or exercising, as moral issues or personal failings or character flaws rather than simple practical jobs to be done. They’ll cling to the same housekeeping techniques their grandparents used. In their minds, “cleaning” or “housework” takes days, it’s physically exhausting, it’s incredibly boring and humiliating, and it must be done alone, in deep silence.
(When I was a kid, housework meant we had company coming later in the day, and that meant party food. It wasn’t that we liked dusting or cleaning our rooms, it was that we knew the clock was ticking toward chips ‘n’ dip or pizza and movie time).
Another way to look at it is that tiny toys and other objects don’t need to be picked up one by one, while crawling on your hands and knees. There are three fast and easy ways to do it, if you do it yourself.
One is to stand up and use the top edge of a mop to scrape all the stuff into a pile. (You can also buy an object called a “toy rake” to do this job).
Another way is to kneel on the floor with a magazine or a child’s board book in each hand. Use the bindings as scraper tools, like windshield wipers, and scoop all the tiny toys toward you.
The third way is to buy a robot vacuum and let it pick up the tiny toys in its ashtray, so you can shake them out afterward.
With kids involved, you can set a timer and make toy pickup into a game.
It’s also important to have a sorting system that is clear and obvious, a system they can reach and that they are old enough to easily understand. Praise the behaviors you want, reward the results that you like on a regular schedule, support the system so it continues to work, but understand that punishment, lectures, and blame are demotivating for children and exhausting for you.
With a bare floor, you can do a lot. You can dance around and do the Sound of Music twirl. You can play and wrestle with your pets and your kids. You can get down and relax with some yoga stretches. You can pace back and forth. You can stumble around at night without hurting your foot in the dark. If you drop an earring or an aspirin, you can spot it and pick it up. A bare floor is an asset, something that it’s easy to take for granted. If the floor is lava at your house, start imagining how you can start walking on it again.
The problem with this whole idea of Getting Organized is that it feels like work. It’s all about duties, responsibilities, aversive tasks, and backlogs. What fun is that? For chronically disorganized people, it’s hard to imagine how nice it will feel to have more mental bandwidth, to be able to relax while knowing there’s nothing else we “should” be doing. It all just feels like a giant boring chore. This is why I think we should link chores to fun stuff. Every day, let it be something fun and something done.
How does this work?
Let’s start with folding laundry. This is my most personally loathed chore. I often use a stopwatch to gamify my housework and fit it in between other things, and that’s how I learned that it takes about twelve minutes to fold and put away one load of laundry. That’s almost as long as it takes to clean my entire bathroom! I use that time to listen to podcasts. Sometimes I also find new combinations of outfits through the serendipity of everything being swirled together in the basket.
Email is another chore that really gets on my nerves. Every single day, I find that I have to unsubscribe from several unwanted, unasked-for lists and process a bunch of junk mail. There also tends to be stuff that deserves a considered reply, and the moment it appears is usually not the moment to write back. I deal with this by subscribing to several newsletters that I really enjoy! Every day there’s something I really look forward to reading, so that my email is about half fun stuff. I tend to go through it at breakfast and lunch, and I can bang out replies to important stuff while riding that swell of enjoyment.
Errands are outings. Any time I “have” to go somewhere, I make sure to do at least one fun thing on the same trip. That’s because we got rid of our car and it saves a lot of time to combine things in the same area. For instance, I often stop by the library on the way to or from the grocery store. Not my jam, but I notice a lot of people out there still playing Pokémon Go, and you can hatch a lot of eggs by walking around town. Riding a bicycle also has its way of making any trip feel like fun.
Kitchen cleanup is something I do while fixing meals. Most kitchen chores can be done in one or two minutes, if they’re done regularly. I might scrub the sink or wipe down the fridge door while waiting for the microwave. We were just given a countertop dishwasher, and I unload it while I’ve got stuff cooking on the stove. The anticipation of hot food on the way helps make these quick tasks feel like part of the game.
Cooking is something I’ve learned to enjoy, although I used to hate it. Knowing how to cook means you can make your favorite foods, exactly the way you like them, any time you want. Why wouldn’t anyone want to be able to do that? I think the major reasons why people don’t enjoy cooking are when they’re expected to do it by ingrates, and when the kitchen is so cluttered and gross that it has to be cleaned both before and after making a meal. 1. Don’t cook for ingrates; make them do it. 2. Get rid of half your kitchen stuff and just eat the backup food from the pantry until it’s used up. Or donate it to the food bank. Cooking can feel exciting if you let it.
Sometimes something pops up that isn’t fun at all, but can’t be avoided, like surprise tax correspondence or an unpleasant doctor visit. I try to have that be the only chore-like thing I do that day, my one-and-done. The last time one of these doctor visits came up, we went across the street to the park and watched ducks swimming in the pond for a while, then went out to lunch.
One of my all-time worst, most procrastinated tasks is making business calls. I just kinda have to force myself to do it. If I’m going to have to wait on hold for a while, I use that time to look at cute animal photos or read an article. If I’m calling for information about something, I’ll use that same block to check movie times, reserve a library book, or download an app or a podcast episode.
In the background of almost all my chores and dreaded tasks, I’ve got a podcast or audio book playing in my ears. Sure, sometimes I get stuck doing something really gross, like cleaning gum out of the treads of my shoes or dragging soapy hair out of the shower drain. I also have a parrot, and I’d rather not talk about what it’s like to regularly clean a bird cage. (She’s worth it, but). It’s not like pairing something fun with something unfun really takes away the inherent ick factor. It just helps to make it more bearable.
We’re talking about two things right now. One is the strategy of anchoring. Socks and shoes, peanut butter and jelly, burgers and fries, chores and games. Doing one thing helps you remember to do the other thing you’ve anchored to it, like flossing before you brush your teeth, or putting the heartworm pills next to the dog food. Anchoring chores to a favorite music playlist or errands to a favorite shop can help make the boring stuff more upbeat.
The other thing is that life can and should be more fun. Add more celebration, gratitude, and delight wherever you can. Why ever not? Life is 80% maintenance. Without the routine errands and chores and hygiene and repair and maintenance, we’d soon find that we couldn’t really even do the 20% of things that are more fun and meaningful. Let’s do whatever we can to keep things running smoothly. Something fun, something done.
The thought of introducing myself to potential new clients by leaving a business card on their door was something I smacked down almost as soon as it entered my mind. As obvious as these homes are to me, it’s equally obvious that their inhabitants would be horrified that anyone could guess how they live from the street. The entire point of hoarding is emotional insulation, to create a barrier that blocks this secret world from the outside.
Doesn’t work, though. Like it or not, we’re stuck participating in this world. People can see us. Worse yet, they’d help us if we’d let them in.
That would be defeating the purpose, because isolation is the purpose as well as the cause.
What is it that I can see from the street? What makes “one of mine” stand out?
The windows are always covered, even on the brightest summer day. Curtains, blinds, sheets, blankets, cardboard, car window shades, even a sheet of plywood in one case. You can tell that it’s been this way for a long time because often objects are visible, either between the covers and the glass, or pressing the curtains into weird shapes. DON’T LOOK IN.
The front door is obscured in some way. Maybe there are a bunch of boxes stacked out there, or bags of recycling, or dead potted plants. Anything that might have said, “Welcome Friend” is noticeable in its absence. DON’T COME INSIDE.
Usually there’s a large amount of visible clutter outside. You can see it in the side yard, or poking over the back fence, or strewn in the yard or driveway. We used to have a neighbor across the street who kept dozens of rubber storage tubs stacked up in front of the garage door. When this happens outside an American-standard suburban ranch house, it says one or both of two things. 1. The inside of the house is already full and/or 2. Nobody is helping to take care of things here. DON’T OFFER.
Of course I’ve been allowed inside dozens of cluttered homes in the course of my work. I’ve worked with extreme hoarding and squalor. What you see on the hoarding shows on TV? That’s about five times more common than I think people realize. There are also a LOT of people living with a level of clutter not too far above that point. Sure, a lot of my people are overwhelmed by chronic disorganization, and they can quickly “get organized” once they’re taught what to do. I think the majority are having more trouble managing their emotions than they are their stuff.
The Anger House is the most common. This is what happens when nobody has ever worked out the power dynamics of who does what. People snap at each other every day. Who ate it? Who left it there? Who took it? Where is it? Whose turn is it? The kitchen looks like a bomb hit it because the thought of washing everyone else’s dishes touches off a radioactive cloud of resentment, grudges, quarrels, and previous fights. Doing laundry or cleaning the bathroom are battle-worthy premises, usually not worth the effort. In the Anger House, someone is often shouting first thing in the morning, before work or school have even started. Every single task is politically charged; you can’t pick up a sock without making some kind of statement.
The Sorrow House is usually a scene of mourning. Hoarding is almost always triggered by a death in the family, and sometimes a series. If there are grief boxes of the possessions of the departed, that will virtually always touch it off. The first time I saw this in action, the adult daughter had filled her entire living room, dining room, and kitchen four feet high with boxes of her deceased parents’ housewares. There was a narrow path from room to room, and she had saved herself one of three sofa cushions. (The other two? Boxes!). She would come home, weave through the box barricade, and nestle into that one available soft spot, where she had sat for several years. I can’t help but think of how deeply saddened her parents would have been, to think that this was the life she chose. Parents like to think our kids will do better than we did, that they’ll have better lives than ours, and certainly we want our kids to go on to live many happy years after we leave this world. It’s a conversation we should be having while all parties are still among the living. Our culture’s distinct lack of burial rites and formal mourning rituals leads us to these bizarre, unhelpful states of limbo. For lack of a cenotaph, we’ll pay thousands of dollars for storage units we’ll never visit, so we never have to face the sorrow of throwing away our parents’ old pot holders and dish towels.
A Sorrow House is often the result of a restructured family. Maybe divorce or separation, maybe an empty nest from whence the grown children have flown. Living alone and rattling around a big old empty house? It IS sad! I just really wish more people would shrug it off and choose to live like the Golden Girls, finding a way to be relatively cheerful with roommates rather than lonely with a television.
Maybe I should use the term ‘anxiety’ instead, but maybe it’s helpful to call things by their names and label the Fear House for what it is. Because a Fear House doesn’t feel scary to the occupant, it feels safe. In the Fear House, it just feels safer not to venture outside to take out the trash right now, or return those purchases, or run those errands. In the Fear House, there are always a million and five reasons to delay going out the door and just stay home a few more minutes. It always feels better to do the coping mechanism than to do anything else.
I teach that we should evaluate our homes by the use we get out of the space. Home should feel welcoming, a place of peace, warmth, safety, and hospitality. Kitchens for cooking, dining tables for meals, beds for sleeping, desks for creative projects. We can also go through and evaluate what emotions rise up in different areas. What parts of the home are evidence of unresolved power struggles? Unprocessed grief? Loneliness? Anxiety, stress, or boredom? What would it look and feel like if it were instead to be a happy, cheerful, joyous home?
I wish there were a better euphemism to use for translating the Swedish word döstädning than the phrase “death cleaning.” Okay, that may be the most metal thing of all time, but it may cast an unfairly gloomy pall over what is really a very charming and sweet book. Maybe let’s call it... life sifting. Then let’s move on and talk about how this is just the best book, one that deserves worldwide success.
The author, artist Margareta Magnusson, claims to be “somewhere between eighty and one hundred.” She put together The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning while sorting her own belongings. She did the same process after the deaths of her mother, her husband, and her mother-in-law, among others, and she points out that this work usually falls to the women in the family. She says: “I have death cleaned so many times for others, I’ll be damned if someone else has to death clean after me.” One of the reasons for doing this work ourselves, Magnusson says, is to prevent fights between family members. For instance, rather than have her five kids quarrel over an heirloom bracelet, she sold it! In my work, it is more common than not for my adult clients to have siblings, aunts, uncles, and sometimes parents or kids who have not been on speaking terms in years over some piece of jewelry or furniture. If death cleaning can prevent these stupid materialistic arguments and keep families together, that is reason enough to do it.
The other reason is that as far as I can tell, the majority of bereavements result in grief clutter that is still hanging around, years or decades later. Almost every storage unit I’ve encountered in my practice includes boxes of the ordinary domestic wares of a relative who has passed on. Often, the boxes are stacked up in the adult child’s home. There has never yet been a time when anyone has been “ready” to process and clear this type of grief clutter. I know of one home with three generations’ worth. Clearly our culture is in need of some new mourning rituals and traditions. Swedish death cleaning, why not?
My beloved mother-in-law did this process after her fifth lymphoma diagnosis. She spent the last months of her life systematically sorting through all her things. She had a lifetime’s worth of wacky costumes, hats, costume jewelry, and stuffed animals, including all sorts of prizes and joke gifts from her different clubs. She invited her friends to visit, one by one, and had them choose things that spoke to them. She sorted through every shelf and closet. When she was done, she taught her husband how to cook all of his favorite recipes. I believe this methodical clearing work helped my mother-in-law to make her peace, while also pacing those inevitable goodbye visits that might otherwise have been overwhelming. She wasn’t Swedish, but that process is reflected in this book, which even closes with some bonus recipes.
The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning is a light-hearted, breezy take on a situation that could really use it, viz. mortality. The author’s illustrations add just the right note of whimsy. Read it, share it, bring it to book club, and give out copies to everyone in your family. Then let’s all push up our sleeves and get started.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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