No matter the cultural tradition, this is a time of year when token gifts are exchanged. How fun is that? It’s great if your love language is giving gifts. For the rest of us, it can fall a little flat at best, or disrupt our entire year’s finances at worst. For my people, it’s another major funnel of extra clutter that they find emotionally befuddling. I’ll still be finding gifts in their original gift bags years later, still in their original tissue paper and their original plastic packaging. All this trading of material objects can maybe detract from the real reason we all get together, which is to greet the long, dark winter nights with hope and hospitality. That is why I say, open your unopened gifts, both material and immaterial.
Open the gift bags from last year and the year before. They might come in handy if you get invited to a white elephant exchange. You can reuse the gift wrap, too. They may also put this year’s gifts into context, a handy meter for what is realistic to expect out of a little glitter and plastic.
There is a certain paradox in the holidays, because the more anticipation and excitement there is, the more there can be an emotional letdown when it’s all over. I’ve always thought the big parties should be in midwinter, not near the solstice, because it’s hard knowing there are so many months of horrible weather and darkness still to come. Once all the parties are over and everyone has gone home, there’s nothing but a pile of wrapping paper and trinkets to get us through. Not a few kids will build a reputation for throwing tantrums or openly weeping because they didn’t get their heart’s desire.
A pony. A piano. A Pretty in Pink Barbie. A parrot.
A dirt bike. A rifle. Roller blades. An electric guitar.
Ask anyone of any age, and they’ll recall with perfect clarity the Gift That Got Away. Then ask if they have one now. It’s funny that most of us can afford anything in the range of the budget for a children’s toy, yet we don’t buy these things for ourselves. That’s because it’s not the material object that we really miss. It’s the feeling of innocent hope and fervent wishing, the sparkly feeling of infinite possibility that is continually dashed in the face of cold reality.
The things we did get that didn’t live up to the hype: sea monkeys, x-ray glasses, a supposed all-day lollipop, the triple-scoop ice cream cone that fell on the sidewalk directly outside the ice cream shop.
(As I wrote this, the squirrel that lives outside our front door came too close and my dog ALMOST got him).
How many times have we been fooled by prank gifts? White elephants, oversize boxes and trick packaging designed to hide the modest item inside.
Many of us have mixed feelings about going to holiday parties. Shyness and social anxiety, family dysfunction and trauma, tenuous recovery tested by ever-present intoxicants, the endless aggravation of forced cheer in traffic. Explain why you’re still single. Pretend you’re straight. Act perky about your job hunt. Struggle to cram in every social obligation around the few traditions that actually mean something to you. Stop your cat from eating all those ribbons.
What do we miss? What falls by the wayside because it’s so hard to put into material form?
Storytelling. For every argument or failure of simple tact, there’s an untold story that somebody could have, might have, maybe should have drawn out of someone else. A lot of grumpy people have fascinating stories buried somewhere under all the crankiness. With a little skill and attention, someone could have turned complaining into entertaining.
Connection. When we sit down to write out cards, it can come as a shock to realize that it’s been an entire year since we last reached out to dear friends who live far away. Are we really making the connections and staying engaged with the people we like the best? How long has it been since we even heard each other’s voices? How did those kids get so big? Where did the last five years go?
Neighborliness. In the past, people did a better job of getting to know their neighbors. Gatherings were probably more formal, but the rote phrases and stilted, scripted conversations gave people a framework for how to interact. I started making more of an effort to get to know my neighbors when I realized the man next door was 96. Was anyone looking after him?
The last time. The sad truth is that we never know when it will be the last time we see someone. Could be... could be tonight. There are few regrets as bitter as knowing you could have called someone or gone to see someone, but you let the opportunity pass and later find out it’s too late. One regret that’s worse is knowing that the last time you spoke, you exchanged harsh words and never made up.
Among the unopened gifts, the silly bric-a-brac and the trivial treats, there are others that can’t be shaken out of the wrapper. Those are the simple and timeless human gifts of attention, patience, forgiveness, advanced hospitality, and emotional engagement. Let’s put down our phones and our shiny sacks for a few moments and give a moment to opening our hearts to one another.
There are two ways to take the urgency out of shopping with swirly eyes. One is to cut off the part of you that wants to buy things. The other is to replace it with the feeling that you can have whatever you want, whenever you want it, and that most things aren’t really worth bringing home because they don’t meet your standards. One can lead to either contentment or an intensified scarcity mentality. The other can lead to either mad materialism or placid abundance. This is what I mean when I say you can buy with your eye.
As a young person, I learned to have a certain amount of contempt for people with more consumer power than I had. I thought the fashions and hairstyles looked stupid. I thought the advertisements were annoying. It was a sour grapes problem. I’ve never worn Crocs or Ugg boots, I didn’t have a Tamagotchi or a Beanie Baby or a My Little Pony, yet I was still highly aware of the brands and the majority of their product lines. I might even have been more materialistic in the sense of envy and thwarted desire than the trendsetters who owned those things.
One day in my early thirties, I saw an IKEA catalog for the first time. This was not a store that existed in my previous region, and I had no idea what kind of place it was. I leafed through the pages, because I kinda enjoy scoffing at extremely expensive design collections. Two thousand dollars for a coffee table?! That kind of thing.
Suddenly I realized that for the first time in my life, I could afford to buy something I wanted that would make my life easier.
Thus began a five-year love affair with IKEA furniture. I would pick up a piece a few times a year and spend the evening assembling it. Again, a new experience: not just being able to afford something, but being able to choose something that matched my other stuff.
At a certain point, I felt like my apartment was ‘done’ and that I had everything I needed. Most of the stuff in the store did not suit my tastes and I didn’t have room for more. I felt pretty darn satisfied to have a dining table with matching chairs, a couch with no stains on it. That’s the level of emotion I want to have after I spend money on a consumer object. I use it all the time and it meets my needs.
Why would I buy something I didn’t use? Why would I buy something I didn’t need? Especially, why would I buy something if I didn’t like it?
Why would I buy anything at all when I could just be at home, enjoying my couch and reading a book?
This is the feeling that goes along with a debt-free life. Having the financial means to buy something IF you need or want it takes away that inner drive, unless you are somehow stimulated by the recreational aspects of shopping, which not everyone is. It means circling around looking for parking, it means waiting in line, it means getting there and finding out that location is out of stock on the item you wanted, it means foot-long receipts and yet more plastic bags, it means crying kids, it means a lot of hassle. How do people forget all the hassle and keep lining up for more?
I know people are doing it for the thrill and not for the object because all my clients have unopened shopping bags, still full of items with the tags still on. Sometimes these bags are three years old or more.
I also know that some of the people doing it aren’t even buying things for themselves. They’re buying gifts for others. Often they buy random objects without a specific person in mind, or multiples of the same item, and then they’re tasked with figuring out who might not ‘object’ to such a gift. This is one of the main sources of the unopened gift bags that I keep finding. Anonymous gifts bought for anonymous people, unwanted, unneeded, cluttering up everyone’s homes forevermore. Shopping for the sake of shopping.
What if we just bought with a thought? Mentally considered the object and then left it there? Walked away, knowing it will still be available if we change our minds and buy it later?
I have a gift in mind for my dad when he retires. I’m not buying it yet. I’m not sure which specific store or which color, but I’ll know it when I see it. When the time comes. When the time comes, in fact, I’ll probably wind up buying a nicer one than I would buy today, because a nicer one will be available and because I’ll have been saving for it for a few years. There’s no hurry. This is why I would never consider buying an anonymous gift and keeping it in a closet in case I ‘need’ a gift.
If I don’t know someone well enough to know exactly the kind of thing they’d love to have, then we aren’t on gift-exchange terms. If some extreme situation came up, I would donate to a charity in their name. Boring, sure, but at least it would be more useful than a gift card that never got cashed or an anonymous gift that sat in the bag.
There are, of course, things I choose for myself. I don’t buy them, either. I might think, oh, I like those earrings, and then realize I’m not wearing earrings that day because I only put them on a few times a year. Oh, I love that painting - and it’s too large a format to physically fit in my living room. Oh, I love that bedspread, and I already have a bedspread. I don’t have anywhere to store an extra one and I still love the one that’s on my bed right now. I can feel a brief attachment to something beautiful, something I really like, and acknowledge it and let it pass.
In the moment I buy with my eye, I own that object. It becomes a part of the fantasy me that floats in a castle in the sky, one with infinite closets and an unlimited floor plan. I have no interest in mopping that castle in the sky, and that’s why I don’t live there. In the sky castle, I can dance around in a hundred wedding gowns, because in reality I have no interest in ever planning another wedding. Fantasy Me can wear chunky bracelets and liquid eyeliner, because Reality Me knows better. Reality Me is really good at translating the moment’s impulse into practical terms. Just because I think it’s pretty for ninety seconds does not mean I really actually want to wear or use such a thing.
What I like better than the myriad things is the financial power to ignore them. I’d rather brag that we save 40% of our income than boast about where I bought this or that.
The other thing about buying with your eye is that you can imagine yourself buying much more expensive things. You can walk through a gallery or a store outside your price range, and you can still mentally shop there. This helps build that denial muscle, that refusal to waste a dollar here or five dollars there on poorly-made disposable junk that will fall apart a year later.
Learn to buy with your eye. It will save money, save time, and result in less housework. In the end, you’ll have more fun and the few things you do buy will delight you more than you realized they could.
As a longtime frugalite, I use a lot of techniques to keep my spending aligned with my future plans. It often amazes me to shop with friends who have swirly eyes. Most people don’t seem to have many defenses against the onslaughts of consumer culture. As a result, debt is rampant, retirement plans go unfunded, and financial anxiety stalks the earth. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can control our behaviors and our emotional reactions. Let’s look at some ways to slow down a shopping habit.
Avoid stores. This sounds dumb, or impossible, but really it’s key to the whole enterprise. Just do other stuff instead. Go to the park one day a week, go to the public library one day, do your laundry and clean house one day, catch up on email and phone calls one day, go to bed super-early one night a week, do some bulk cooking one night, and have a card party one night. All of a sudden, your free time is full of interesting things to do every night of the week. Shopping becomes a necessary annoyance that requires shuffling your schedule around.
Don’t buy anything until you’ve used everything else you’ve bought at least once. This might also sound dumb. However, every single one of my clutter clients has had a problem with shopping bags and gift bags that were never opened. There also tends to be a problem with unworn clothes in the closet that still have their tags. How much value can you possibly be getting out of buying things if you don’t use them?
Don’t order anything if you are waiting for other items to show up. This not only slows down your shopping, but it also helps to keep track of orders that may be lost or incorrect.
Don’t go to the store if you’re waiting on a package, either. Except for the grocery store.
Don’t keep a “pantry.” Food hoarding tends to happen on accident, because it’s technologically possible and affordable. People in the past could not go out and buy fifty cans of green beans on sale. They had to grow them, preserve them, and then eat them during the winter, when not much other food was available. Accumulating a lot of food packages leads inevitably to food waste, because it’s impossible to keep track of expiration dates. That’s where the brown sludge in most people’s vegetable crispers comes from.
Take an inventory of everything you own. Haha, mostly kidding! Nobody does this, but maybe we should. Pausing to examine and analyze all of your possessions will shed a light on what you buy and why you buy it. Nothing better to do, therefore wandering around looking for excuses to buy things, therefore unused items with ‘sale’ stickers on them. Tons of ‘beauty’ products, self-image problems. Tons of clothes, indecisive. Tons of books, procrastinator. Not saying anything here is true, mind you! I don’t know your life. Just guessing.
Balance your bank statements. This is another thing that many people don’t do, and it’s part of how we get into trouble with debt. If you haven’t done it in a few years, it can certainly fill up several days or weeks. If you’ve never done it at all, you can wander down to your local bank branch and ask one of the tellers to help you.
Deep clean your house. This is an opportunity to, among other things, realize how many duplicate gallons of cleansers have been reproducing under your sink. Of course it will also reveal how many weeks of food supplies are filling your cabinets, how many weeks of complete wardrobe changes are filling your closets, how many months of entertainment options are stacked up on your shelves, and all that sort of thing. Maybe during the process, you can get a sense of what it will take for you to feel the domestic comforts and tranquility you have been lacking.
Change sizes. When you’re in size transition, it’s really challenging to guess what you’re going to be wearing three months from now. I had been hanging onto my size 8s for many years, only to blip past that size in only a couple of weeks on my way to my goal weight. Now I only have one size in my closet, instead of six sizes.
Get into the metrics. Nothing will slow down your shopping quite as much as having a strong financial goal. Just like most people won’t eat a whole pizza an hour before Thanksgiving dinner, it’s possible to use the desire for a big purchase like a vacation or a motorcycle to put some restraints on your recreational shopping.
Use a time limit when shopping in stores that you find irresistible or problematic. For instance, I categorically do not “go shopping” for clothes as a pastime. I hate it and I find it deeply annoying and frustrating. I will set out to buy a specific item, like a pair of boots or a cardigan, with a 20-minute time limit. The way I do this is to have my husband buy movie tickets, and then get to the mall just a little early. Often, I can’t find anything tolerable in the store I’ve chosen, and we go to our show without my purchasing anything. Twenty minutes is enough time to try on a pair of shoes in two sizes, or to try on three or four sweaters.
Try on everything you buy and inspect it carefully. I typically try on five or six items for every one that I buy. I’m not just looking at the label for the care instructions, I’m also inspecting the garment for quality. Are the seams well sewn? Are all the buttons present and accounted for? Are there any spots, stains, or threadbare spots? I can fix most of that stuff, but it isn’t worth my time in most cases.
Only buy items that rate a four or five out of five. This is part of a personal rating system. For instance, I wear a size 7.5 shoe, and I learned through stupid experience that I can’t wear a size 5 shoe, even if I can somehow cram my foot inside it. Those shoes should have rated a one out of five for not fitting, no matter what they look like. Clothes should fit well today, look attractive, go with at least three other items, and work for your climate.
What if you had only one of everything? One frying pan, one place setting, one pair of jeans? What parts of your life would be easier? (Dishes yes, laundry...maybe?).
Ultimately, anyone who is into recreational shopping might be better off becoming a stylist, designer, or personal shopper for others. Earn money and build a career off something that might otherwise become a constant source of debt. Remind yourself of what you want out of your life. Is your life’s purpose and meaning really to buy things, eat things, stare at screens, and poke your phone? Maybe? Guaranteed, there are more interesting things to be doing with your time than shopping, if you’ll give yourself enough time to discover what they are. With the money you save, you can put yourself through school, start a business, or make all sorts of other dreams come true.
Shh, shh, it’s okay. I won’t tell anyone. Look, this is a nearly universal problem. Papers everywhere. Even people who don’t have any other clutter problems have a problem with paper. It’s a sign of our times, that paper is so cheap and plentiful, people will not only send it to us for free, we can’t even get them to stop. They’ll send so much we can’t even read it all, much less figure out how to sort through it. I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault; it’s a cultural issue. Twenty years from now it won’t be a problem anymore. For now, here we all are, buried in junk mail and coupons and flyers and menus we never asked for. Makes it awfully hard to find the important stuff, and that’s why it all gets jumbled together.
Does this sound familiar?
Unopened mail by the front door
Unopened mail on the coffee table
Unopened mail on the kitchen counter
Unopened mail on the dresser
Unopened mail on the bookshelves
Unopened mail on the desk
Plastic grocery bags filled with mail, some junk, some important
Boxes and bags filled with those mail-stuffed plastic bags
A filing cabinet with an empty drawer
A filing cabinet vertically stacked with unsorted papers
An outer envelope stuffed with various papers from different accounts
Mail and papers mixed with 3D objects, anything from a flashlight to a package of gum
Papers tucked away somewhere “obvious” where they will never see the light of day
Important papers mixed with expired coupons, menus to restaurants that closed, and invitations to events that have already passed by
Stacks of papers all pointing in different directions, so that it’s more like “52 Pickup” than a “stack” per se
Papers on the floor of the passenger side in the car
Papers under the passenger seat
Plastic bags with mail and papers in the trunk of the car
And, of course, the backpack or purse stuffed with mixed mail and papers
All of these are common signs. About one in five people are chronically disorganized, which simply means that they don’t have a system. Papers everywhere? That’s the default, natural state of the systemless. Papers in the wild!
People tend to feel guilty or ashamed when these papers start taking over. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s your own home, after all. Your own home, your own vehicle, your own desk, your own bag. Shouldn’t you be more... irritated that outside agents keep pelting you with unwanted junk? Shouldn’t you feel... annoyed that every time you turn around, someone else is trying to get you to take more papers home?
When I think about junk mail, I just feel angry. In other countries, it isn’t like this. It’s an American problem. In New Zealand, for instance, you have to sign up to opt in for what we call junk mail. Some people do, because they can get free shampoo samples or whatever. Everyone else is free, free from invasions to their privacy, personal space, and mental bandwidth.
Alas, this is the world we live in. Papers, papers, trying to get in every door and window, just like an invasion of ants or fruit flies.
I don’t blame people for creating little nests of papers. It makes sense in a way. “These are important, I don’t want to lose them in the tide, I’d better put them... [looks around]... HERE so I don’t lose track of them.” Except that there are always like 18 “here’s” with VIPs (Very Important Papers) stuffed in them.
The only people who can actually manage to Get Organized and stay that way are those who understand how much time it takes to process this stuff on a routine basis. The only ones who are Organized are those who understand how to set up and maintain a filing system. The only Organized People who have it easy are those of us who have joined the ranks of the Paperless. Just stop it before it starts.
If you want to start reclaiming your space and your mental energy from scattered paper, this is what I would do.
The most important part of filing is to GET RID OF the 80-90% of junk papers that are irrelevant to your life. All they do is create a fire hazard, draw mold and dust and insects, and, worst of all, obscure your important stuff.
What do you do with your action items? We handle ours as we get them, because my husband and I both despise paper clutter, but other methods work for other people. Clipboards are good, or a file folder that stands out in a vivid color, like red or neon orange. Some people tape them to the front door where they won’t lose them. When I was single, I would use the big counter at the post office to handle stuff when I collected my mail, so it was done before I even left the premises. If it wasn’t mail, I’d usually put it in my purse and handle it during my lunch break at work. As often as possible, try to keep papers from getting into your home, and if you have to bring them in, try to process and get them back out again in as few hours as possible.
If you do have unsorted bags, boxes, and stacks of papers, breathe easy. Start with five minutes a day, processing just the day’s new mail. Set a timer. If you have a little time left over, grab from the nearest stack and do a little out of that. All of those stacks and bags and boxes are good, because they are natural sorting units. You can just do one at a time until it’s emptied out. Each box and bag and stack represents another cubic foot of relaxation that you’ve just bought yourself.
It’s here, it’s here! I finally got my new podcast set up. Are you excited? I’m excited!
The idea behind the show is help listeners to get organized and clear clutter in just a few minutes a day. Rather than read something and then have to get up and take action, now you can listen and work at the same time.
I have three different episode lengths planned.
The five-minute version is free to the public. The longer versions are available to Patreon subscribers.
Why am I doing it this way? Almost all of my work is already free to the public, including over two thousand pages of writing on this blog alone, not to mention all the accompanying illustrations. Now, in addition, there will also be free podcast episodes. Those who are willing and able to pay a couple dollars a month will have more, just as they would have more if I published a book and they bought a copy. The main difference is that doing a podcast requires additional equipment and software. As much as everyone in the known universe enjoys having free entertainment of every medium, it’s not free to produce.
Enough about that. The point is, hey, I have a new show! Please pop on over and check it out. You can even catch a glimpse of my spokesmodel Noelle in the video.
Thanks as always for your support.
Information is not motivation, and common knowledge is not common action. Basically this means that we know everything we need to know in order to get started, but it isn’t enough. No matter what it is that we’d like to do, for some reason, we aren’t doing it. Maybe we just aren’t juiced up enough about the benefits of change. Maybe we’re unsure about how getting the goal will change our relationships. Probably it’s different for every person and every situation. One thing that seems to be working for me is the contrary approach of imagining the worst version of something. How is what I’m doing as bad as it could be, and how could it be worse?
Let’s say I’m thinking about my car. I don’t actually own a car right now, so this is purely a figment of my imagination. The worst version of “my car” would be: unsafe, unreliable, smelly, dirty, filled with trash, and expensive. I’m picturing something that’s burning oil, with a black smoky cloud pouring out from behind me. The brakes are failing! The “check engine” light constantly flickers on and off. The body is rusting out, I have a broken tail light, one of the side windows is broken and replaced with cardboard and tape, and the passenger door lock doesn’t work. The interior smells like spoiled milk, the floors are covered with wrappers and food crumbs of every color, and there’s a suspicious stain on the seat. It gets 16 miles to the gallon and I’m still making payments. The glove compartment is so full of unpaid parking tickets that it won’t close.
Want me to swing by and pick you up?
Honestly, thinking about this “worst version” of a car makes me feel really smug about walking everywhere. I pulled that description from actual vehicles in which I have ridden. I could make this worst version slightly worse, although less realistic, by adding more broken windows or engine problems. At the point at which it is no longer operational, it stops being a “vehicle” and transitions to “junk.” Perhaps junk that is more valuable than other junk, like a broken and obsolete washing machine, but junk it still is.
This worst version method can be applied to other things.
Worst job: Underpaid, no benefits, unethical business practices, mean and domineering boss, unsafe working conditions, long commute, rude customers, no path to advancement, no social contribution
Worst relationship: Dishonest, dysfunctional; partner is contemptuous, hypercritical, and unpredictably disappears or cuts communication for no obvious reason. Can I say that if it’s violent then it isn’t a relationship, it’s a slow-motion crime?
Worst desk: Can’t work there, just looking at it stresses me out, covered with clutter, uncomfortable to sit there, poor lighting, not enough power outlets, other people dump their stuff on it
Worst shoes: Give me blisters, wearing them for more than an hour makes me walk with a limp, only match one outfit (or zero)
Worst lunch: Diet Coke and a bag of microwave popcorn
Worst cat: Actually an opossum
There are two benefits to using the worst version method. First, when things are bad, it can help to get at least a weak chuckle by imagining how they could be worse. Second, it can draw attention to ways we’ve been tolerating the intolerable. That perspective can be the jolt that we need to get moving, to take action and set limits.
Worst neighbor: Accidentally shot out our living room window, their dog got loose and attacked our dog
Worst landlord: Lived next door, had chronic domestic disputes
What do we do with this information? OKAY, TIME TO MOVE
Complaining is of very limited use. Its purpose should be to clarify our true desires. If not this, then what?
I had a silverware sorter in chrome. I thought it looked great. Then one day, one of the wires came loose and I managed to ram it under my fingernail. Bled everywhere. TIME TO GO! We shouldn’t be assaulted by our own stuff.
When we’re clear and certain about what we find unacceptable, we can rule it out. Nothing that makes us bleed, et cetera. It’s that response of OH HECK NO that abruptly puts a stop to ruts and habitual behavior that doesn’t serve us.
If not this, then what?
Ask that again and again.
If not this job, or one just like it, then what? How would we define a “good” boss or a “reasonable” commute?
If not this relationship, then what? Taking some time to be alone for a while, that might be good. What does “good communication” sound like? What does “functional” feel like?
If not this financial problem, then what? What will it take to reach a place of peace and clarity here?
If not this persistent physical annoyance, then what? What do we want for our bodies? Agility, symmetry, high energy, supple muscles, speed, power, strength, clear skin, a strong immune system? What specifically?
If not this room, then where? What would a dream office/bedroom/kitchen/living room look like? How would it feel to inhabit this space?
Most of all, what is the worst version of myself? When am I at my lowest? Selfish, inconsiderate, bored, envious, whiny, unproductive, not contributing or doing anything interesting, too much unstructured time, out of physical balance, no direction or purpose, making life difficult for other people, stuck and unhappy. What else?
Let’s not be our worst selves. Let’s not live the worst version of our lives, okay? If we’re ever going to make the world a better place, we’ll do it by always looking up to at least a slightly higher standard.
Downsizing is like dieting. You can only cut your calories so much, and you can only get rid of every single thing you own. It stops at zero, or close to it. The other thing that dieting and downsizing have in common is that they shouldn’t be done in perpetuity. The goal is a temporary, radical refocus. Transformation can happen quickly, or it can turn into a process that grinds on for years - or forever. I’m down with downsizing, in the sense that it can be revolutionary in its positive effects. I also say, “Down with downsizing!” We should be done with it. Once we make the decision to streamline our possessions, it’s best to do it quickly and get it over with.
Focus on what you want for your personal living space. Focus on the emotions and the experience of living in it, not on the stuff. One person will want a lively social space, and another will want a tranquil hideaway. One person will want a formal and elegant showpiece, while another will want a warm and kooky reflection of idiosyncrasy. It’s awfully hard to pull off all of these looks in one room.
What I want in my space is something comforting, welcoming, functional, and geared toward maximum mental bandwidth. This is easiest with bare surfaces and a comfy couch. We don’t need much in the way of decorations or knickknacks. There’s something about a dog chasing his tail and a parrot tossing things on the floor that does a pretty good job of conveying a relaxed atmosphere.
We live in a shoebox. Not a literal shoebox, of course! Many people, both men and women, have so many pairs of shoes that parts of their homes could fairly be described as a shoebox. What else is the purpose of such a space? In our culture, most people’s rooms are chock-full of stuff. Kitchen stuff! Garage stuff! Clothes stuff! Bulk stuff! Paper stuff! Stuff and stuff! This is the natural result of shopping and buying anything that seems like a good idea. Flip it around and start with the empty room. What do you intend to do in this room? How about this one? Add only the furniture and items that directly serve that purpose. Then stop. This is how two people and two messy pets can manage to live comfortably in a 612-square-foot studio apartment with a single closet.
In a very full, extremely maximalist, cluttered standard American home, assume that all of it is completely unnecessary. Set your heart on eliminating all of it. All of it. The pieces that really need to stay will argue for themselves. You could downsize to the point that you would be done, and with the right mindset, you could be done in a long weekend.
I’ve written before about how a friend of mine just took the few things he needed for his new apartment, and then advertised on Craigslist for people to come and carry away everything that was left over in his old place. He was done in half a day.
There’s actually a huge amount of stuff in my apartment. If I took a complete inventory, it would number in the thousands. Clothes and towels and tools and textbooks and kitchen gadgets and cleansers and clothespins and rubber bands and paper sacks and pens. If I took everything that belongs to the dog and the bird, it would fill the trunk of a car. What makes it work is that almost every object we own fits in a cabinet or a drawer. We don’t “stock up” on stuff anymore. Most people’s clutter and extra stuff consists of mountains of clothes, drifts of unnecessary paper, stockpiles of food, and stacks of entertainment media. Buy groceries for just a week at a time, go paperless, digitize everything, and keep just enough clothes for two or three weeks. Suddenly truckloads of stuff seem to vanish.
It’s literally truckloads, if you don’t already know this. When I used to do home visits, we’d get rid of six truckloads on the first day. It used to astonish me the way that this happened over and over again. Then I realized that that’s just how much extra stuff can fit in a typical suburban house. That’s how much can accumulate in roughly ten years, ten years when nobody is doing regular clutter purges or letting anything go.
Living with tons of extra, unnecessary stuff is like trying to participate in three conversations at once. It’s like watching a movie with the radio on in the background. It’s like eating two dinners in one sitting. You can, but why would you want to? Living in a space that’s always full, a space with no clear surfaces or free shelf space, is a constant energy drain. Every time you want to make toast or set down a shopping bag, there’s something in the way. It’s like driving around town with a Christmas tree in the back seat, limbs and needles poking into the front seat. You get used to it and forget that these objects are just temporary interlopers. They can go out as easily as they came in. They’re here to be used, used up, and passed on.
Embracing minimalism is a one-time decision. You just sit up, realize that life could be easier, and look around. Almost everything you see is sitting there, mutely declaring its irrelevance to the simple, straightforward life you wish you had. Why do I even HAVE this? You start to realize how nice it would be to have all the money you ever spent on stuff you wound up ignoring, not using it because you never even really wanted it. It’s just there.
If I had it all to do over again, I’d start with my plans for my money and my time. I’d spend more time talking to friends, reading, sleeping, doing yoga, trying new recipes, and maybe learning a new language or musical instrument. That’s time I’d reclaim from shopping or sorting and “organizing” my stuff. I’d spend less time crying about my bills and my finances, because the stuff I never bought would have given me a respectable buffer of cash. If I had it to do all over again, I would say, “Down with downsizing!” I’d never have needed to do it because I never would have had too much. All we ever really need is love and peace of mind, and those are two things we would never want to downsize.
Clothes piled on the bed, shoes kicked across the floor, already late for the event, and still you feel: I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO WEAR! Relatable? This is a very common issue. Uncertainty about what to wear on different occasions leads directly to accumulating more clothes, which only makes the situation more complicated next time. Let’s get into what we’re signaling with our wardrobes, and how we can feel more confident in our choices.
We’re most likely to get spun up about what to wear when we’re going to meet unfamiliar people, in an unfamiliar setting, and perhaps at an unfamiliar type of event. Why, though? If these are people we aren’t going to see often, a place we might never visit again, or a type of event we don’t usually attend, then why would it matter? We allow ourselves to fret about WHAT THEY’LL THINK (whoever ‘they’ are) because only after the event is over will we know how we fit in.
I once attended an evening wedding in New York. It had ice sculptures. I dressed up, making my best effort in a floral-print linen sundress with sandals. As soon as I walked in, I understood that I’d gotten it wrong, because the other women were in evening looks with satin dresses and heels. I had no idea what a blowout was, nor was I wearing makeup. What happened? I shared a table with my date and a nice couple who kept us laughing all night. The bride and groom are still my close friends, and we’ve been on vacation together a couple times. (In fact even my date has been out to visit, because we’re still in touch). As far as I know, I never saw any of the other guests again.
I walked away with a pretty clear image of how to dress for a formal evening occasion. I knew right away that I could have picked up an appropriate dress at Goodwill for $15, and nobody would have known. In fact, I can repeat a special-occasion outfit at multiple events, because my husband doesn’t care and nobody else will notice.
The longer we take to get ready, the less satisfied we are with our appearance. That’s what research says, anyway. It makes sense to me. It takes me about ten minutes to “get ready” and leave the house, half an hour if I’m doing the full Las-Vegas-nights routine. If someone doesn’t like how I look, then great! Someone that shallow and superficial will stay clear of me, leaving me free to have interesting conversations with people who have their priorities straight. People value my company for my sense of humor, storytelling, and ability to be a good listener. None of those qualities has anything to do with physical appearance. On the contrary. If I looked too polished, maybe nobody would believe I could be a good listener or a funny storyteller.
What are we signaling with our clothing choices?
Friendly / aloof?
Relaxed / fussy?
Competent / wacky?
Professional / casual?
Married / single?
Stressed / happy?
It seems like one of the strongest style statements that many people make with their casual wardrobe is what type of music they’re into. Rocker, country, punk, skater, raver, goth, and I’m sure many others I’m too tragically unhip to recognize. We know who we are when we put on casual clothes. We’re only wearing the stuff we trust to fit and be comfortable. We’re signaling a bit about ourselves, enough that someone who’s into the same style might approach us and strike up a conversation. That’s how I met a guy at the cafe who was willing to answer a few questions about jiu jitsu for me - his t-shirt advertised it. Maybe it doesn’t matter at all what you wear on casual days; I’ve seen people out in public wearing everything from pajamas to bikinis to, a couple times, nothing at all.
We feel more out of our depth when we’ve been invited to a wedding, party, or job interview, am I right?
This is what people do to make their clothing choices more difficult.
Keep everything, even when it doesn’t fit
Keep everything, even though it NEVER fit and the tags are still on it
Keep everything, no matter how old it is
Keep everything, even if it’s stained or full of holes and the unworn clothes aren’t
Keep everything, even if it’s scratchy or uncomfortable
Keep everything, even if it doesn’t go with a single other item and there’s no way to wear it
Keep shoes that cause blisters and actual bleeding
Buy things because of their price, not how they fit or how they look
Buy things out of obligation or guilt, not wanting to disappoint the sales clerk
Decide on garments individually, not on how they play into the wardrobe as a whole
Having hundreds of garments in every cut, style, color, and print, and several sizes, can only send inconsistent signals. Wearing clothes that don’t fit, or combining items that are too tight and too loose, doesn’t send a clear signal, except maybe [does not use a full-length mirror]. Limping from impractical shoes, tugging things into place over and over, makes people worry if you’re okay. Showing up late because of one too many head-to-toe outfit changes makes you look, at best, frazzled, and at worst, inconsiderate. All you really need is something clean and a warm smile.
My entire wardrobe fits into two suitcases. This is because I only feel like I need a few changes of clothes for each of my different roles. Casual summer, casual winter. Business casual summer, business casual winter. Workout summer, workout winter. Camping clothes. A few cocktail dresses. Boom, done. When I get tired of something or it gets worn out, I replace it with something else. I had to replace my entire wardrobe when I reached my goal weight, and since I’ve settled into one clothing size, I’ve been able to figure out how a capsule wardrobe works. Every single thing I own:
Works with at least three other items
Can be machine-washed and, mostly, machine-dried
This is why I’m confident when I walk out the door. I’ve made my choices in advance, and I’m wearing things I’ve worn many times. I also choose where I go or don’t go, and it’s very rare that I would feel obligated to go somewhere where I wasn’t sure how I fit in. Mostly, I feel confident enough in my social skills (now) that people are a lot more likely to remember what I said than how I looked.
I’m trying to send a few clear messages with my wardrobe
OMG A GUY JUST LEANED OVER AND TOLD ME: “YOU LOOK GREAT”
(I’m married, and not looking for male attention, but it was funny that it happened while I was writing about clothes and appearance).
I’m trying to send a few clear messages with my wardrobe, namely: Married, friendly, competent, smart, entrepreneurial. There are other signals I can’t do much about, such as: middle-aged, fit, Western, distractible, more eccentric than I wish I were. When I decide whether to buy new clothes, I can ask, Does this send the message I want to send?
I look like myself, just like you probably look like yourself. (Unless you’re trapped in a work uniform). Sooner or later, the people around us will figure out what we’re like. Core personality shines through eventually. We should focus more on what kind of friendship we can offer and what roles we’d like to play in life, and less on WHAT THEY’LL THINK about how we look.
‘Radioactive’ is definitely how I would describe my inbox some days. You know when you’re trying to get caught up, and every time you delete something, the window refreshes and three more messages come in behind it? It’s metastasizing! I set a date to fight my way back to Inbox Zero, and this image came to me. In the endless search for a form of novelty that will inspire me through another day of drudgery, I came up with a little game.
Look at the total number of messages in your inbox. Write it down.
Vow that you’ll cut that number in half over the next hour. What will that number be?
In the next hour, you’ll cut it in half again.
In the next hour, you’ll cut it in half yet again.
(My husband points out that with a half-life, you never really get to zero, but let’s call it close enough).
Start with the easy stuff, just like you answer the easy questions first on a timed test. Gradually work your way through the middle, and save the complicated stuff for last. The easiest decisions get the least time, and the tougher stuff that needs your full concentration gets the most.
The logic behind this is that not all messages are equally salient, even though they look like they are. One of the worst features of email is that everything gets an identical line, no matter how long the message is, who it’s from, how important it is, how many attachments it has, or how long it’s been hanging around. It’s not obvious which messages are most deserving of our attention. The bulk junk buries the valuable stuff, just like junk paper mail can pile up and obscure our bills, checks, and gift cards.
The half-life method presumes that the more messages you have, the more likely the majority of them are relatively unimportant. If they really were both important and urgent, the senders would have found another way to track you down, either by phone, certified mail, or Men in Black knocking on your door.
Let me pause and say that it’s pretty common these days for people to have thousands of unopened emails. I’ve heard numbers above ten thousand from several people. Not only that, but those with the largest backlog tend to have extra accounts which are also filling up. It’s like maxing out a credit card and opening a new one.
Back in the Nineties, if you had more than a certain amount of email in your inbox, it would FILL UP. Anyone who sent you anything would get a message that it had bounced back. Two things fixed that problem: social media, and the advent of ludicrous amounts of free storage. You can have a gigabyte of mail now, no problem. That was technologically impossible twenty years ago.
Also back in the Nineties, if you got email at all, it was almost guaranteed to be from a personal friend. You looked forward to it. Maybe, every now and then, there might even be an attached digital photo, just for you.
Now, almost all mail is bulk junk. Every possible brand wants you to sign up at every possible transaction. They try to bribe you with a discount or a coupon. Then, each and every one of them sends you at least one message, each and every day.
The worst are the political lists that will send fundraising email as often as three to five times a day.
Everyone is battling for the top spot in your mental bandwidth, trying to flag down your attention, not realizing that they’re contributing to the problem. It’s like when one person stands up at the stadium and blocks the view of everyone in the back.
Here’s how to blast through the detritus:
If you can’t bring yourself to unsubscribe or delete thousands of messages, you can move them to a folder for “later.”
An overflowing inbox is solid proof that you’re receiving more than you can process.
I do my daily unsubscribe while paying attention to something else, generally an audio book or podcast. Along with that, I get several news roundups. I go through those by clicking the links and bookmarking the relevant articles, then deleting the email.
This is where the second round of processing starts. The easiest layer to eliminate is stuff that’s expired. In my inbox, that’s coupons from Lyft and a couple of restaurants, notifications of upcoming concerts, and invitations to other events that I won’t be attending. Next are things that are relevant and interesting, but don’t need a response. Usually we’re saving them because we need to record a piece of information.
See that it takes slightly longer to do this administrative stuff, but it often can be done while doing something entertaining in the background.
After this second layer, there will start to be messages that deserve a response. They can be complicated for several reasons. It can actually help to sort these by WHY they need more time and effort:
Often, with the difficult under-layer, it can help to switch channels. Just because a message came through email does not mean an email response is required. Much of the time, it can be easier to pick up the phone and have a discussion. What might have taken half an hour by email, resulting in half a dozen messages back and forth, could often be resolved with a three-minute phone call. Of course, many of us dread business calls even more than we dread email. The impending threat of a phone call, in this case, may be enough to motivate us to type out a reply. Anything to avoid voice contact, or, worse, a voicemail.
When I don’t know what to do or how to handle a question, like in a stuck plot point, I will write a list of what I don’t know. What piece of information would make this clear? It’s totally fair to reply to a confusing message with a question, or even a bullet-pointed list of questions.
It’s also legit to dash off a quick reply to someone, saying, “I miss you. Sorry I haven’t written back.” If you have a social email from someone you want to stay in better touch with, maybe write back in a format that you prefer. Text message? Chat? Meet in person? Remember that “the phone works both ways” and if this person has been content to wait weeks, months, or years without hearing from you, then maybe they haven’t been sobbing through a roll of paper towels awaiting your reply. Lower the emotional bar if that makes it easier.
The last-ditch method for dealing with an out-of-control inbox is to tell someone. Find a buddy. Agree that you and your accomplice will sit together and blast through your backlogs together. Maybe you can even switch seats and write some of each other’s replies, or help identify obsolete stuff.
There’s also always “email bankruptcy.” Just delete everything and email everyone you know, asking to re-send anything that was truly important. Many of us feel like we could never get away with that, but honestly, is it worse for your reputation than ignoring unopened messages entirely?
My rough bottom-of-the-barrel day started with sixteen messages. Using the half-life method, that would be eight in the first hour, four in the second hour, and two in the third. About eight minutes per message in the first round, fifteen minutes per message in the second round, and half an hour for the last two. Considering that these messages included forms, polls, spreadsheets, slide shows, meeting invites, and a list of phone calls, it worked out that this was a pretty solid estimate.
If only I hadn’t received eleven more messages during that time slot...
The reason there aren’t more chronic procrastinators is that we tend to fall into one of three categories when it comes to projects. Finishers, maintainers, and initiators, we tend to fit in one of these groups the majority of the time. The Finishing Game is aimed at initiators because we’re the fun ones.
Finishers like to get things done. They chase the feeling of accomplishment. Finishers will add an item to a to-do list just to feel the satisfaction of crossing it off, even if the item was extremely minor and inconsequential. Finishers also like to boss other people around, trying to get them to finish their projects, even if those projects are nowhere near the circle of influence of the finisher. A finisher may feel organized and in control - because that’s the central goal, after all - while never really moving forward in life or doing anything cool. Finish alphabetizing your socks, and then what?
Maintainers like to get through the day on autopilot. There’s a comfort in routine. I have a friend who has turned down opportunities for promotions at work (read: tens of thousands of dollars of extra income) because his current position allows him to listen to podcasts while he works. I have also had coworkers who would get marked down every year in their annual review because they had no goals for advancement. One wailed, “I don’t want a promotion! I just want to come in, work, and go home for the day.” It’s pretty common, and smart, for someone to realize that a promotion would result in a lifestyle downgrade. When you’re salaried, you usually don’t qualify for overtime. Is it worth giving up your weekends? That’s a question of overall life philosophy. A maintainer at home is likely to be more interested in the process of a hobby than in the finished product. Not so much “I want a knit cap” as “I love to knit.”
My own knitting languished at the same level for several years, until I forced myself to learn to understand knitting diagrams and teach myself at least one new stitch for every project. Suddenly I vaulted from basic k1 scarves to hats, socks, and pose-able toy animals.
Initiators like three things: planning projects, shopping for materials, and learning new things. As soon as we see a path to completion, we tend to lose interest. The vast scale of our daydreams quickly turns into the harsh realization that we’ll be working on this darn thing for months, maybe years! Actually finishing one of our grand creative edifices also eats into the time we’d set aside for our other 87 projects. Finishing all of them? ALL of them?? Why, that would take up years! Years I fully intend to spend dreaming up yet grander, wilder, fancier projects!
The truth is that we’re not obligated to finish past projects. We’re not obligated to finish every book we’ve started or purchased. We’re not obligated to pick out stitches for hours and re-do our work. We’re not obligated to finish projects, even when we’d earmarked them as gifts, especially when those gifts are ages past the occasion for which we’d planned them.
I bought materials for a dollhouse once. I relocated with those materials SIX TIMES before leaning on my husband to help me build it. The kids who were supposed to get it were near college-age at that point. It went to a child who had not even been born when I first saw the plans. (Fortunately, I never told the other kids, or their parents, that I was planning this awesome gift for them).
As dreamers, we’re most into the process of exploration. We’re planners and designers more than we are artisans or producers. The architect, not the carpenter; the engineer, not the mechanic. We’re never going to stop learning new skills, improving our abilities, refining our aesthetic. Because of this, guess what?
A lot of our earlier project “commitments” aren’t worth finishing.
Just because we once decided that something would be a good idea to make, does not mean that this is still true.
Just because we’ve put hours of work into something, does not mean that it would be worth finishing.
Just because an idea once popped into existence somewhere in the ether, does not mean it’s worth bringing it into physical form.
An example of this would be a wedding sampler I began for a dear old friend. I made a mistake on it and put it aside, planning to pick out those stitches on another day. Years later, it still hadn’t gotten done. But guess what? That marriage didn’t survive. When I was culling my old projects, I realized that that $1 piece of aida cloth had about 50 stitches on it, and the design was seriously dated. I threw it in the trash.
Yep. I really did. I threw an unfinished craft project IN THE GARBAGE.
It was biodegradable. It turns out we can do this. There are no project police. Nobody comes for you and hauls you to a dungeon if you quit working on something. You don’t even have to declare bankruptcy if you trash $5 worth of materials.
Culling old projects that have become irrelevant or have lost their luster is the only way to reclaim the energy to finish the good ones. Beyond this, it turns out that waking up to a clean slate with no unfinished projects unleashes an astonishing wave of creative energy and power. No guilt, no boredom, no nagging reminders, nothing. We don’t owe any of our free time to anyone. To ourselves we owe the ability to live in the present moment, without bits of our attention snagged on obsolete past choices.
At some point in the year 2000, I decided to use up all of my accumulated materials and try to finish my existing projects before starting anything new. I wasn’t perfect in implementing this, but I did stop buying attractive yarn or fabric or kits without a very specific project in mind. I went through my stockpile several times, giving away bags of stuff, throwing away bits and scraps, questioning whether I still wanted to make stuff that had appealed to me years earlier. I chose to finish many of the projects in my burgeoning work basket.
IT TOOK TEN YEARS.
Now I’m still crafty. I still have all the skills I ever had. If I wanted to make a pair of baby booties, I could do it this week. I just don’t have any yarn or knitting stuff in my home anymore, not so much as a pair of straights or a set of DPs. As a writer, I can go through my folder of notes and start on anything in there at any time, in the full knowledge that I already have too many ideas to complete in one lifetime. Inspiration is not obligation. This one lifetime is for me to live and enjoy, not to thrash myself because I am more likely to invent new ideas than to carve them into reality.
The Finishing Game works like this:
What will you do when you’ve finished everything? What will you do when you no longer have a towering pile of incompletion in your life? What I did was to run a marathon and learn enough of a foreign language to travel around, buying train tickets and getting directions. What would be more interesting, more challenging, and more fun than the never-ending to-do list?
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.
This website uses marketing and tracking technologies. Opting out of this will opt you out of all cookies, except for those needed to run the website. Note that some products may not work as well without tracking cookies.Opt Out of Cookies