“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.
As a news junkie, I’ve noticed that news consumption increases to fill the time available. I would find myself reading the news over breakfast, over lunch, or even while brushing my teeth. The more I read, the more important it felt to read yet more. No matter how many sources I followed or how many versions of a story I read, I never felt like I knew enough about whatever it was. It never stopped, it never even slowed down. It took a week of vacation to step back and realize that this wasn’t a positive habit. What I needed was a news upgrade.
There are lots of approaches to upgrading a news habit. One is to replace it with something entirely different, like a cooking class or an extra hour of sleep. Another is to switch to books. Often reading a non-fiction book about a topic can bring clarity to a subject in a way that a dozen news articles never could. (A biography, the history of a particular country or region, an explanation of the stock market or self-driving cars, any number of topics could be an improvement over a news habit). One of the easiest ways is to upgrade the news itself.
What I did was to rearrange my news sources. I did this in several ways.
I have a side project, a tech newsletter that I put out on weekdays. This requires me to stay current in a few fields that are outside my area of expertise. The advantage of my layman’s perspective is that I bring in a broader range of material in adjacent subjects. I’m stronger in trend analysis than I am in STEM. Working in this field reminds me that ‘trend analysis’ is valuable and interesting in its own right, and it helps me to reinterpret what is meant by ‘current events.’
What do I cover? Robotics, astronomy, biomimicry, technology, and science news are my working categories. All of these fields are booming. Usually it feels like I can barely keep up, that there’s too much happening to fit within my remit. As with everything else, the more I know, the more I want to know, and the more I get out of what I read. Often, I’m reading about things that were pure science fiction in my childhood. I’ll think, “Wasn’t this a movie back in the Eighties, but now it’s real?”
Admittedly, science news is often over my head. That’s why I married an aerospace engineer, so he can interpret this stuff for me. (Joke). I can only handle so much in a day. That’s where the news aggregators come in.
A news aggregator pulls news on various topics from multiple sources. I simply made sure that mine included more non-current-events, non-political topics and more neutral sources.
Some of my topics? Dinosaurs, archaeology, ornithology, longevity, tiny houses, and Alzheimer’s research, among other things, fill out my news feed. For some reason, I also get quite a lot of articles about snakes and alligators.
Pulling news from international sources can be intriguing, especially when it’s health news. I’ve found that the British or Australian take on health research can be really punchy compared to the mainstream American perspective.
I read plenty of political news, and I certainly follow the headlines, but I’ve found that it isn’t productive to let this dominate my news consumption. I utterly refuse to discuss modern US politics. The reason is that it tends to destroy friendships. We have this absurd idea in our culture that “a debate” is the only appropriate format for a political conversation, and I can’t seem to dispel this notion. I don’t owe anyone a debate on any topic, from whether I have the right type of phone to whether tights qualify as pants. If I talk about politics with people who agree with me, it reinforces what I (and they) already think. If I talk about politics with people on “the other side” (as if there were only two sides, which is too silly for words), they always want to argue. I say, fine, I’ll talk pre-Industrial politics with you. Which do you prefer, antiquity, the Dark Ages, the Reformation? When someone asks which way I’m voting, I say I’m voting for myself as a write-in candidate. When in doubt, go with theater of the absurd.
What we do well to remember is that passive news consumption isn’t actually doing anything about anything. Arguing with our friends, relatives, neighbors, and colleagues doesn’t move the needle. Getting worked up about a topic and ranting about it all around the house doesn’t even qualify as a good workout. Staying informed is only useful if we do something with that information.
It also helps to remember that everything humans are doing, in every sphere of activity, qualifies as ‘current events.’ An invention that helps people with paralysis to walk, or congenitally deaf children to hear, is relevant. These advances are more likely to change the course of history than most election results. Every day I see news about archaeology or paleontology that claims to be one of the most important finds of the last hundred years, and that’s relevant too. I see news about space exploration and technological innovations that about blasts me out of my chair. The world is going to be nearly unrecognizable in twenty years once all these trends combine along their current arc. It’s relevant, it’s newsworthy, but are we noticing it? Or are the settings on our news feed causing us so much stress and distraction that we develop a misleading picture of the world? Upgrade your news habit and find out.
I’ve been noticing something these days. Any time I see someone else’s home screen on their phone, they have a badge on their email app. The number on the badge is always something greater than 3500. That’s a lot of unread messages! It also seems to be the standard these days, and that makes me nervous.
What are the possibilities here?
They read and respond to all their mail, then mark it Unread
...because having a high number makes them feel loved and special
Inbox is full of irrelevant junk
...and the number is therefore meaningless
Inbox is entirely full of important messages
...and the number represents power and influence
Inbox is a mix of some important messages and a lot of junk
...and the number represents existential despair
Why 3500? That would be not quite 10 unread messages a day for a year.
What if one of them is extremely interesting and important??
Once upon a time, I was a corporate trainer. My job was to go around and teach people how to use the new email system. It was easier in those days, because junk mail usually stopped at the firewall, and almost everything that came through had an actual business purpose.
The rest of y’all are on your own!
My own mail is probably 20% important, 5% junk that made it through the filters, 5% coupons I generally disregard, and 70% newsletters or aggregations of articles. I spend a few minutes every day unsubscribing from at least half a dozen sources of fresh hell, flagging junk, clicking relevant links, and moving stuff to my ‘Read at Leisure’ folder. As a result, my inbox stays pretty manageable.
Also, I turned off my badge.
I hate badges.
Why would I need a notification to remind me to check a folder that I look in a couple of times a day? It’s not like I’m going to forget.
My rule on badges is: NO
I only have a notification or a badge on something if I really need a reminder and I wouldn’t check otherwise. For instance, I can go days without getting a text message. Otherwise, I get into a situation where even looking at my phone makes me want to avoid it.
Many of these badges come from apps that want a response that serves them, not me. For instance, my vet just sent a request for a review. I might do that to be nice, but I don’t owe them, and as a policy I’m not going to give a review for every single product or service, even though they all ask. Some of them will ask three times or more. Check your email because a lot of it is going to be this type of request!
Or, don’t check your email. Ever.
I think it’s fair to simply not have an email, or not use it, and tell people that. Just delete the whole thing!
At least, that’s true of a personal email. I once worked with a man who refused to accept a paycheck and insisted on receiving his pay in cash. It was complicated and annoying but he actually got away with it. Therefore it’s plausible that someone might be able to throw down an email embargo at work. If that’s the fight you want to be known for, have fun.
I have a voicemail message that says my phone reception is really bad (it is) and to just text or email me and I’ll call back. It seems to work. This is a better solution than the many times I’ve been sitting in my living room, waiting on a call, and my phone never rings, which is sad when I’m holding it in my hand and staring at it expecting my hubby to call on business travel.
Ironically I can only really get phone calls when I’m not home.
Is this the problem with email, though? Is it a problem of being accessible to people we want to hear from? Or is it something else?
I suspect the majority of mail that is blocking people’s inboxes is actually commercial in nature. It’s daily coupons and sales alerts from a multitude of sources. Every store and restaurant and website will offer some kind of discount, or just ask for an email, with the sole purpose of these daily bombardments. It goes like this:
“Please let us reach you by email, sending you so many messages that your inbox therefore becomes nonfunctional and you don’t even see them.”
This is what’s going on when I unsubscribe from things every day.
I was on daily mailing lists for stores where I actually do shop on a regular basis. I unsubscribed from all of them, every single one! What am I missing?
Say I get a 20% coupon once a year and I spend it on a $100 item. I’ve saved $20, except that half of it goes toward sales tax. Is this worth the drain on my attention every single day? Is it worth not being able to use my email inbox? For the equivalent of 3 cents a day?
But then I virtually never use coupons of any kind because I don’t feel that they are even remotely worth my mental bandwidth. That’s not how my husband and I save half our income.
I would ask any extreme couponer who adores coupons but has a constantly full email inbox:
How’s that working out for you?
Are you getting promoted at work?
Are you organized and stress-free at home?
Are you debt-free?
Are you saving and investing?
Could you be getting a 100x return on your time and attention by focusing on other things?
If you really want to carry around 3500 emails telling you about sales that have already passed, knock yourself out. If that isn’t the reason your inbox is so full, then why? If you can figure out the root cause, then you can fix it.
Stuff you want to read? Guess what, you aren’t reading that much and the entire internet will still be there tomorrow.
Heartfelt personal letters demanding your response? Looks like maybe you don’t really feel the same way about that person? If you really care, ask them to communicate with you a different way.
Important business messages that need your attention? Change careers, ask your boss to switch to Slack or have stand-up meetings, negotiate for an assistant, or ask the I.T. person to help you set up some filters.
Having an extremely full email inbox with a big badge on it is a little weird. It’s like having a physical mailbox stuffed with coupon circulars when you can’t find your bills. It’s like carrying around a duffel bag full of laundry all day. It’s like filling your fridge with dead leaves. It’s like coaxing a flock of pigeons into your living room. It’s like...
It’s like a blip on the cultural radar that will soon pass, because what’s happening right now doesn’t work for most people.
If your email inbox makes me nervous, I’m sure email marketers are noticing too. Time for a change.
I found them after five days. My husband’s keys. First he was convinced he left them in our apartment, and I couldn’t go anywhere until he got home so I didn’t lock him out. Then, after I searched everywhere, he figured he must have left them on his desk at work. On Monday he went back to work, and his keys weren’t there after all. I helped him work out a plan of which Lost and Found numbers to call.
Then I checked his coat pocket in the bedroom closet, where they had been, of course, since Thursday morning.
This is one of the many benefits of marriage: you have someone to look after you and help you in your weak areas.
I sympathize because I also used to have a similar problem with lost objects.
I once locked my keys inside my apartment twice in the same day, once with a burner on the stove left on High. Another time I had a candle burning. I’ve dropped my keys down an elevator shaft, locked them in my car, and thrown them in the trash. I have also lost untold numbers of gloves, hats, scarves, library books, and umbrellas, most of which I never got back, and purses, day planners, checkbooks, and wallets, most of which people were kind enough to return to me.
Like I said, I’ve had issues with lost objects, as well as my other distraction issues.
I lean ADHD, and what I do has worked for me. I also teach these methods to my chronically disorganized students and clients.
Pay attention to TRANSITIONS between one scene and another, one activity and another, one time of day and another.
Pause and look around every time. Pause when you get ready to leave for work. Pause again when it’s time to come home. Pause when you stand up after a movie. Pause when your bus pulls up to your stop. Pause, and check. Pause, and check.
When it’s a habit, it only takes two seconds.
I often talk to myself while I am doing this. I have my keys, my wallet, my sunglasses. The reason I do this out loud is that it often triggers my companions to remember their own stuff.
Before we leave for a road trip, I always recite a list of stuff. Often my buddies have to get out of the car and go back inside for something. Wallets, passports, phones, chargers, hats, gloves, scarves, boots, medication, socks, underwear... I can’t wait for the day when a smartphone will remind us of these things automatically.
When I leave a hotel room, I do a perimeter check. Check the shower and the bathroom, check the closet, check each drawer. I do the same when we move, and I take a quick video of all the empty rooms. The hotel check takes two minutes, and the empty apartment check takes less than ten. Peace of mind!
Other than the transition ritual of pausing and checking, it helps to have clear surfaces in the home.
This one is almost impossible for my clients. The more I try to teach them to focus on their living space and the functions of different work surfaces, the harder they cling to their ten-times-too-many belongings. Yes, of course I’d rather have three hundred pounds of old clothes than the ability to use my tables and countertops!
Have a clear area near your front door, like a table. Never put anything on it but your significant daily objects.
Have a clear area next to your bed.
Have a clear area in your kitchen.
Have a clear area next to where you sit to relax, like an end table.
Have a clear area at your desk, if you have one.
Have a clear area in your car, like a cup holder organizer.
Carry less stuff around in general. The less you have to track, the easier it is to track it all.
When you have a clear area next to you, it’s easy to check at a single glance and make sure you have everything. It should be completely empty when you’re not using it. Completely empty 90% of the time!
A flat, clear surface makes it easy to see your phone, your pen, or whatever else you carry around.
It’s easier to keep surfaces clear when you have the right catch-all.
We have drawers in our bathroom, desk, and of course the kitchen. The purpose of the drawers is to hold important stuff that we use all the time, every single day. The purpose of the drawers is not to store stuff that we forgot was in there!
We also use small baskets. There’s one next to the front door for my keys, the garage door opener, and the laundry card. There’s one on the dog crate for his leash and treats and toys. My hubby has one for his daily objects.
I have my work bag, and it hangs on my desk chair. I often get things out of it and put them back in, several times a day. My stuff “lives” there and I simply don’t allow myself to put it anywhere else when I’m done.
Never set anything down “just for now”!
It’s either in its parking spot or you are using it.
Think of the spot for this item as a cute little cozy little house. Like a kitten in a basket or a birdie in a nest. This object likes it there. If you set it down somewhere else, it will be cold and lost and alone, shivering and crying, Why don’t you love me??
Actually don’t do that. Thinking that your stuff has emotions is one of the major reasons that my clients have so much stuff in the first place. But if it does help, then go for it.
If you have tons and tons and tons of stuff, don’t despair. It’s a lot easier to clear a single square foot and keep it clear than it is to sort everything first. Just clear the area and put the stuff that doesn’t belong there in a box. Yeah, you’ll probably still have that unsorted box three years from now, but at least you have a chance of using your nice clear flat surface.
Clear surfaces seem sterile and boring and ugly to most of my people. In reality, they are in constant use throughout the day. Our clear kitchen counters have meal prep going on in bright colors at least four times a day. Our clear bathroom counters have bright, colorful containers on them every morning and evening while we get ready. Our clear desktops are scattered with brightly colored objects while we’re working on projects.
What really fills a home? Laughter, conversations, music, the cheerful business of life. When a home is cluttered and people are always losing track of things, what could be a happy place is instead filled with stress, confusion, and harsh words.
Clear your space, make a home for all your significant daily objects, and use the time you save to read, take a nap, or hug someone.
The more I think about clutter, the more I realize how much it has in common with two other near-universal issues, which are financial debt and excess adipose tissue, also known as body fat. In a way, all of these are forms of debt, the result of expecting Future Self to do things that we don’t feel like doing today. One of these things is handling paper clutter. Paper clutter is a form of debt.
Paper debt is what piles up when we have more paper coming in than we do going out, and we have no plan for it.
Just like the money kind of debt, paper debt comes from a variety of sources. There’s the kind that’s hard to avoid, like unexpected medical expenses or car repairs, both of which generate a huge amount of paperwork. There’s the kind that adds no value to our life but just gets in the way, like junk mail and mail addressed to previous tenants. There’s the aspirational kind, like jeans that will never fit, shoes we’ll wear once, and magazines we’ll never read. Then there’s the kind that we keep for sentimental reasons, even though we never use it and probably never will.
All of these types of paper clutter represent time commitments.
Financial debt is a way of saying, “I’ll take this now and Future Me can pay for it later.” Paper debt is a way of saying, “I’ll set this down here for now and Future Me can deal with it later.”
Future Me will totally read that later.
Future Me will totally file that later.
Future Me will totally decide what to do with that later.
Meanwhile all of it is getting buried under a tidal wave of junk mail.
In a way, junk mail is like the finance charges and interest that build up on credit card debt. Every day it adds up, just a little at a time, making the job harder to do and almost guaranteeing that this problem will never be solved.
Just like other forms of debt, if paper debt continues to come in faster than it goes out, it will snowball.
Also like other forms of debt, it can start to fade into the background and feel like wallpaper. It Will Always Be This Way. This is How It Has Always Been.
Paper debt eats things. Just like regular debt, it can take over and you can lose your home to it.
Junk mail is the worst offender here, though it’s not the only one. Important mail can get shuffled into it. Stacks of it can tip over, knocking over other items and hiding things like keys. Paper debt can start to push more and more into time debt.
When we start showing up late or paying bills late or filing taxes late because we simply couldn’t find things, that’s time debt in action.
It can happen so quickly. Go on one vacation and wind up still owing for it six months later. Go a little crazy eating sugar cookies in December and gain four pounds that are still hanging around six months later.
Set down a stack of junk mail on the dining table or the kitchen counter, and it’s still there six months later.
All my clients have paper debt. It’s everywhere. It’s on the kitchen counter and the dining table, it’s on chairs and in windowsills, it’s on the floor of the car and it’s tucked sideways in bookshelves. It’s in purses and backpacks and laptop bags. It’s been on the desk so long that there may never have been a single productive day in that desk’s existence.
By “productive” we mean: doing awesome stuff that we enjoy doing. Sketching? Journaling? Scrapbooking? Working on a thesis? Racing wind-up toys? Anything, anything at all other than looking at (or ignoring) stacks of ugly ol’ boring ol’ mail?
It tends to be hard for people to imagine what they would do with their time if they were financially independent. “Debt-free” is as far as we can imagine. Then what? It’s the same with paper debt. What would we do with all that free space if all that paper was finally sorted out? What would an ordinary day feel like without that background hum of annoyance?
I can speak to that. I keep clear counters because I don’t really have a choice. In a tiny studio apartment, a pile of junk on the kitchen counter means there’s nowhere to make a slice of toast, much less cook a nice dinner. I can’t leave things on the dining table because our dining table is stored on its side in our bedroom closet and the legs are under our bed. What am I going to do, dump piles of paper on my bed?
I say that like it’s irrational and unlikely, but I’ve seen it. My people do crowd themselves out of their own beds with piles of stuff, from papers and backpacks to food wrappers, clean and dirty laundry, and stacks of books.
HEY: You deserve to stretch out and sleep comfortably.
It’s your bed, not your stuff’s bed. It’s your desk, not your paper’s desk. It’s your kitchen, not your mail’s kitchen.
The first priority should be for humans in the home to do what they want to do. Sleep, bathe, cook and eat meals, lounge around reading or doing whatever. That’s why it’s so sad when we accumulate paper debt and erase our own living space with piles and drifts and stacks of inanimate objects. That stuff doesn’t pay rent here, now does it?
What to do with it all, though? Spend years painstakingly eliminating it, one little bit at a time? Ask for help? Consolidate it, also known as “Scoop and Stuff”? (Toss it all into plastic shopping bags that then get piled somewhere or crammed in a closet).
Imagine it gone. That’s the first step. Get into elaborate and thrilling detail about all the ways you’ll use your space once you’ve evicted the junk mail and paid off your paper debt. That should make it easier to simply recycle big stacks of it as fast as you can go. Put your foot down and stop allowing it in your door. Say goodbye to paper debt and say hello to freedom.
The concept of an inheritance is, I think, becoming dated and antiquated. It’s something of a Baby Boomer thing. Those of us who are younger probably understand that the world works differently now. Still, it’s worth talking about. There is a vague dream of a someday inheritance, a financial windfall, that will somehow eliminate all our problems. This is not just a dangerous illusion, but an illusion that can poison ambition and domestic contentment. Kill your inheritance, and kill it in self-defense.
Now, it’s a good thing to think of a legacy in non-material terms. We can be proud of what we’ve inherited from our family when it comes to values and character traits. Hospitality, sense of humor, frugality, ingenuity, a gift for storytelling, grit and fortitude, these are the sort of gifts we should be proud to carry on. This kind of gift is non-zero-sum, meaning it never runs out. The more you share, the larger it grows. You can roll it out and make enough room for spouses, kids, and friends.
All of that goes completely out of the window when we start talking about money, real estate, and material goods.
In my work with clutter, I have seen it over and over again. People will quit talking to each other over a photo album, a single ring, some old furniture, or a stupid teacup. Unbelievable. You’re saying you’d TRADE your blood relation for a piece of scrap that wouldn’t sell for fifty dollars in a pawn shop? A lot of this stuff couldn’t be sold for a bent nickel.
The problem is that grief makes people temporarily insane. It’s understandable. With time and some healing, we’re sometimes able to get enough emotional distance that we can recognize our own irrationality from our own mourning periods. Not likely in the heat of the moment, though. Whatever it is about the old, I dunno, the old 8-track player or the blurry slides from 1958, it seems to activate everyone’s feelings of thwarted power and desire from earliest childhood. GIMME! It’s MINE! Like fighting over the last popsicle.
Then we get to the house and the money. That sweet, sweet munnah.
Back in the bad old days, the land was almost the only thing a family owned. Material goods were expensive and hard to make, and people had very little in terms of clothes, furniture, and housewares. Property went to the oldest son, and the rest of the family had to make do or beg for a place at the table. Imagine being an unmarried adult daughter and having to wheedle your big brother for a chance to stay on and do all the cooking and laundry, because it was that or panhandle in the road.
Then property started to be divided between descendants. Probably more fair, but fast-forward a couple of generations. The first block is divided between four kids. Then they each divide their share between their five or six kids. Then each of those grandchildren has eleven or twelve grandchildren. It doesn’t take long before the tiny slivers that are left are too small to support a family. Or the global economy changes in response to technological advancement, and the world moves on. But somewhere inside all of us is a glimmer of ancestral memory, when our family several generations back were higher in the societal pecking order.
Those photo albums and rings and teacups and old furnishings remind us of a vanished time, a time that we partly believe is our true place.
I have copies of old family pictures from the Civil War through the Victorian era. Look, they’re wearing suits, and fancy hats, and dresses with bustles! Never mind that they probably owned only one or two changes of clothes. I DESERVE.
Some of that genteel feeling, we could easily get back. We could get it by hand-tailoring our clothes in our own living rooms, the way earlier generations did. We could get it by speaking more formally, using appropriate terms of address and ritual politeness formulas. “Good day to you, sir.” It’s not money that they had, so much as stricter rules for social decorum. We’d probably find it unbearably stuffy and restrictive. Personally, I prefer modernity with its electronics, egalitarianism, and endless options.
One of the most dramatic changes of our era is our incredible longevity. Human lifespan has basically doubled in the last century, certainly within the last two hundred years. I’m forty-three and it wouldn’t have been at all uncommon for a woman my age to be gone already. Now it’s not uncommon for a woman to still be up and doing at eighty-six, double the age I am today.
What this means is that our old structure of “inheritance” is going to have to change, the same way the way we think of “retirement” has to change. It was different when the retirement age was sixty-five and most people died by sixty-three. Now a lifetime’s savings and investments will be needed for the next twenty or thirty years of life. A house that would have lasted thirty years, enough time for a young family to grow up and for the owners to age properly, will now be worn out and needing major repairs just in time for that retirement. Buy a house at 35, and at 65, guess what? It’s going to need a new roof, all the appliances are going to wear out, maybe even the foundation, plumbing, wiring, windows, and floors will need to be redone.
How will there be any money left for the adult children after funding the retirement needs of advancing longevity? How can someone fund such a long retirement, working 30 or 35 years to pay to retire for 20 or 30 years or more? How could it be done at all, much less debt-free? How could it be done in perfect health, much less after funding decades of ill health, medications, medical appliances, and surgeries?
If anything, these trends are going to be even more pronounced over the next few decades. At some point, the finance industry will figure out a way to rig new mortgages and consumer debt loads. Individuals will adjust their expectations for their personal longevity, how old they want to be when they give up on their physical health, and how they intend to pay for their retirement. Family arrangements will start to look markedly different. We’ll probably move back to having multiple generations under one roof, and in that case, an “inheritance” might just look like redecorating a bedroom so the sixties-aged kids can move back in to assume caretaking responsibilities, for their eighties-aged parents and their grandparents who are still here as centenarians.
Expecting an inheritance, according to research, tends to lead to more debt and less career success. Today’s reality is that whatever investment money and home equity are there, will most likely be consumed by the daily living expenses of unprecedented old age. This is fantastic, if you actually love your relatives and cherish having more time with them. It’s a bummer, if you’ve always had this lingering hope that they’d shuffle off this mortal coil and leave you enough to pay off your credit cards.
I’m very fortunate to have young parents. They’re still working, and I’m middle-aged, well aware that I need to plan for my own old age. When I “retire,” they may still be spry enough that we can go on vacation together. All I want for them is that they have enough saved to take care of themselves and preserve their independence as long as possible. The inheritance that I desire is a legacy of strength and savvy, and perhaps the secret to a seventy-year marriage.
Cozy Minimalist Home is the book I wish my clutter clients would all read. I’m always trying to get them to consider how they use their space rather than how they feel about each and every single object they own. This lavishly illustrated book shows us how it’s done. Myquillyn Smith explores how to design cute, comfortable, stylish rooms that focus on function rather than tons of decorative items. She suggests that it’s better to focus on the room as a whole, rather than specific objects. The results are charming and convincing.
We really can have “more style with less stuff.” Smith suggests that we start by creating one sane space for the household to hang out and relax, even in the midst of large remodeling projects. No matter what else is going on in the other rooms, there needs to be somewhere for regular daily life to go on.
Moving and redecorating are serious undertakings, rife with pitfalls. Smith finds a lot of comedy here. “This is real life. There would be no buying all new furniture like they do on TV.” She deals with the realization that she’s been dragging a lot of decor through multiple moves, only to find that it isn’t doing her home any favors. The money she had spent on small things could have been saved up for larger pieces she would have liked better.
Smith is relatable and really funny. She voices so many contradictions and frustrations: wanting to streamline and wanting to shop; feeling attracted and repelled by the same style; aiming for domestic harmony and hospitality while wanting the home done her way. She doubts her own design choices, and even her decision to buy a house that she doesn’t absolutely love.
How to deal? Smith becomes Chief Home Curator. Like most of us, she has to solve problems of her own creation, sorting through a mountain of stuff that she herself chose and brought home. She learns to “quiet the room” and scrap previous design attempts before finally working out something that she and her family can love. Generally, what they like has greater design impact while using and displaying far fewer things.
One of the best and most endearing features of Cozy Minimalist Home is the appendix with Before and After photos of Smith’s rooms. She shares what was going on behind the scenes as photos were staged for the book. This focus on process is so helpful for readers who don’t know where to start in their own homes, making the endeavor feel more possible.
Cozy Minimalist Home is a very practical book. It teaches the fundamentals of design, starting with what order to paint, buy furniture, choose window treatments, and hang pictures. For absolute beginners, there are useful discussions on how to discover your own style, create pinboards, and plan rooms. This is a beautiful and useful book that can build confidence and a sense of possibility in even the most nervous novice.
Just because we know perfection isn’t the goal doesn’t mean we don’t long for—and need—function and beauty.
My dirty little secret was that my stuff was draining me.
If I was so good at finding great deals, why didn’t I trust that I could find them a year or two later and not lug all that cute stuff with me from house to house?
Doesn’t an empty kitchen counter seem like the most extravagant luxury?
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!
Gretchen Rubin comes through my part of the world fairly often, and I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to go to a few of her readings and meet her. First of all, SHE IS SO NICE. The other thing that stands out, after her talk on Outer Order, Inner Calm, is how much the audience responds to this material. I’ve always thought she has delightfully subversive things to say about happiness and human behavior. It’s what she has to say about order and clutter that really seems to click with people the most.
When Gretchen asked how many people in the room make their bed every morning, nearly every hand went up. In fact I’m pretty sure they all did; I’m just hedging. Where else would this be true? Then she asked how many people make their bed even when they stay in a hotel, and everyone laughed because only a few hands went up. (Including mine!) I do it because it helps me make sure I haven’t lost anything in the bedding, like clothes, an eye mask, a pen, or my AirPods. Making the bed is part of my five-minute “perimeter check,” the way I’ve finally stopped losing objects when I travel.
For me, outer order is about mental bandwidth, not so much calmness as simply being able to think straight and remember what I’m doing. When the bed is made, I don’t need to worry about it. When my desk is clear, I don’t need to worry about it. When the counters are clear, I don’t need to worry about them. In a split second, I can glance around and know, there is nothing I need to do here. Now I can focus.
It does make relationships calmer. My husband prefers outer order as well, although for different reasons. I honestly believe he could concentrate on his work in the midst of a tornado or a kindergarten. For Upholders like him, an orderly environment just makes sense. There are no reasons to have things any other way. This is very helpful for me, because I work at home and I don’t need either the mess or the inevitable discussions about the mess!
I started reading this book on the bus on the way home from the Outer Order, Inner Calm event, and I hadn’t even finished it before I had cleared and reorganized an area. I live in a studio apartment with another human, a dog, and a parrot, and even though we own relatively few things, almost all our stuff is on open display at all times. Clearing even one square foot makes a noticeable difference. Not everyone feels it as quickly, though, when most people are used to living in a larger home with more things around them.
Here are some of the ideas that stood out to me:
“Use a photograph to evaluate clutter.” This definitely works. I do photo evaluations with clients all the time.
Choose a “flavor of the month.” Focus on sorting through only one category of object for a month. I need to do this again with my books. How about you?
Assign each day its own task. This also works well for me, since I keep a slightly different schedule every day of the week. I also combine errands because I don’t have a car.
Is your clutter backward-looking or forward-looking? How great a question is this? In my experience, almost all of my chronically disorganized clients are forward-looking types, who let old things go easily but hang on tightly to things like unused craft supplies and unread books.
The holiday rule: Something you want, something you need, something to wear, and something to read. Yes, please! Huge gift explosions at holidays have never made much sense to me. If this happens several times a year, where the heck does it all go??
This book is designed to be read in bursts. The sections are short and punchy. You can read a single page and find yourself jumping up to clear an area. As an organizer and someone who has been reviewing organizing books for years, I still found fresh insights and material that I’ve never seen anywhere else. Especially for Gretchen Rubin fans, Outer Order, Inner Calm is the perfect book to keep beside you as you start spring cleaning!
We want to cherish our possessions and we also want to feel free of them.
Working is one of the most dangerous forms of procrastination.
What would you accomplish with a magic task - a task that got completed overnight with no work from you?
Nothing is more exhausting than the task that’s never started.
This is the book for those who haven’t gotten very far with clearing clutter by focusing on one item at a time. Joshua Becker offers a better way with The Minimalist Home: A Room-by-Room Guide to a Decluttered, Refocused Life. Focus on the space and how you use it, not the items that are in it. Having lived this process, Becker shares how minimalism can change your relationships, your emotions, and ultimately your entire life.
Clutter causes a lot of problems that we might not realize until we start thinking about it. Resentment is the biggest one. We think of our own stuff as “valuable” and that of our housemates (partners, kids) as “clutter” and “junk.” Everything would be fine if only I had the entire house to store MY stuff! YOUR mess is messing everything up! Becker points out that minimalism is not only easier to keep neat, it also saves time and money. What else do people quarrel over if not those three areas?
The best reason to consider this process is the “minimalism dividend.” Refocus your time, space, energy, and finances around the way you want to live your life. If you feel like you don’t have “enough” (time, money, space) to adopt a child, relocate, go back to school, train for a marathon, or whatever else is your dream, why is that? Becker offers examples of readers who have transformed their lives even under serious constraints, like illness or having seven kids. He also shares that he and his wife started a charitable foundation after they became minimalists.
The hands-on chapters are very practical, clear, and specific, with checklists for each room. There is a method for setting goals, working with other household members, and moving from one room to another. Becker suggests starting with the living room because that’s the area where most people spend the most time, and it’s the first place that guests see. Household members should clear their own personal areas, and may take the initiative after seeing how well it’s going in the rest of the house.
The Minimalist Home draws attention to how we use rooms and how they make us feel. Hospitality is one characteristic on the list. Do guests feel welcome when they visit? Do we ourselves feel welcome in our own homes? I always think of that common saying, found on so many fridge magnets, signs, and pillows: “Sorry for the mess but we live here.” Um, did you want me to come back another time? Or we could meet at the park? Whatever we feel when we’re at home, “defensive” or “resentful” hopefully don’t come up too often.
Becker cites research, statistics, and reader feedback to back up his points about minimalism. For instance, hoarders have worse sleep, and the more cluttered their homes, the more likely they are to have a sleep disorder. (My parasomnia disorder is a major reason I moved toward minimalism, because it’s so dangerous to have stuff in the way when I sleepwalk). The average large kitchen typically has over a thousand individual items, and even a small one has over six hundred, which is hard to believe until you actually try to count up all the utensils in a single drawer. Sometimes a single data point can help to put things in perspective, reminding us that we are part of an era and that our stuff problems are shared, cultural problems.
One of the benefits of minimalism is being able to pay off debt and save money toward other goals. My husband and I did this a few years ago, and we agree with Becker that minimalism makes it possible to move to a smaller, yet nicer, home. We’re in one-quarter of the space we had as newlyweds, we saved 48% of our net income last year, and we travel all the time. We look forward to discussing our finances because we’re almost always doing better than we had planned. It helps us to feel closer to each other. We could expand back into a larger home with more stuff anytime, but why would we, when it would just mean less vacation money and more time doing housework?
Don’t focus on holding up one item at a time and asking how it fits into your life. Pull back and look at your home, your daily life, your relationships with everyone in your household, your finances, and whether you are all living your dreams. Not this shirt, but whether your wardrobe makes you feel fabulous. Not that book, but whether you feel rested and that you have plenty of time to do everything you want to do. Not this cute little decoration, but how you and your partner feel about your finances. Not that kitchen canister, but whether your social life is working for you. Why focus on one consumer item at a time when every other part of your life is more valuable?
Give yourself the house you’ve always wished you had. You’ve already got it! It’s hidden underneath all your stuff.
Not every possession is a belonging.
One underappreciated benefit of minimalism is the ability to walk confidently through your bedroom with the lights off.
Think less about who you were. Focus more on who you are becoming.
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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