I'm a one-bag traveler. This only really matters when I travel, which is four or five times most years. On a daily basis, though, having only one bag is the absolute essence of minimalism. A single daily bag becomes a reliable tool for consolidating the gear and information that are most important in daily life. A single bag is vital to the holy grail that is Being Organized.
This doesn't necessarily mean that I OWN only one bag. It means all my DAILY STUFF is in one bag.
I currently have one work bag, two daytime purses, three evening purses, and a beach tote. This is because I haven't gotten around to getting rid of the two purses that are getting shabby after ten or so years. To me, having extra bags leads to guaranteed confusion, lost objects, and late departures. No bag ever made is pretty enough, or even useful enough, to make up for unnecessary hassle and irritation.
For local trips, I often just put my wallet and keys in my pocket, like a man, if I actually have pockets, because women's fashion is a conspiracy.
Ideally, my purse and work bag would be one and the same. In practice, I need a larger bag two days a week, and I don't like lugging it around more than I must. It's like when the rocket boosters separate from the space shuttle.
Purse: Wallet, phone, keys. Pen. Sunglasses. Lip balm. Tissues. Hair tie. Coin purse.
Work bag: Backup battery, adapters, and headphones. I carry sunblock and deodorant because of the climate where I live, and a small vial of Aleve because I'm superstitious. Mini emergency toothbrush, a wet wipe, and a stain treatment pen. Protein bar, and emergency sandwich if I'm flying. Folding grocery bag. Sweater. This is the maximum amount of paranoia gear I carry in my work bag, in addition to my tablet and phone. The most important object in this cavernously large bag is the EXTRA SPACE it provides for me to run errands.
I timed myself transferring items between bags. It took 57.71 seconds.
My husband commutes via bus, and he carries a backpack. It has his laptop and charger, glasses case, sunglasses, wallet, keys, phone, backup batteries and adaptor, headphones, and pen. Today, it also had a notebook, textbooks, and calculator because he's studying for a new professional certification. The most important feature of his backpack is the EXTRA SPACE it has for his lunch or a stop at the grocery store on the way home. I just asked him, "You don't have any receipts or anything in there?" He shook his head no, casually, like if I asked him if he ever debated what color of socks to wear with his outfit.
Parents whose kids are still at home will probably be thinking, "Easy for you, but we have kids." I know this because parents use this reply in every possible situation. The truth is that people who travel in packs have even more reason to organize and streamline their daily stuff. If you don't like dealing with tears in the morning, assuredly, your kids don't either. Checking kids' school bags and resupplying diaper bags in the evening prevents a lot of frustration before it has a chance to derail your family life.
Now that we've done the exposition, the key to Single Bag Theory is the strategic loading and unloading of the bag. The bag is Command Central. Since I don't need my wallet, keys, or sunglasses inside my home, they just stay in the bag. I never have to look for them. I know where the bag is because I always put it in the same spot when I get home. If I need to take something somewhere, like outgoing mail, I put it directly into the bag. This way I don't need a container or flat surface or special furniture; our apartment is so tiny that we don't have a foyer or hallway or mudroom or any of that. If we didn't have a system for our daily bags, then we would have a nonfunctional kitchen with counters covered in junk. That's just an objective fact.
Unloading the bag means making decisions. What am I carrying at the end of the day that is not strictly necessary to my next trip out the front door? Generally it is groceries or sundries I bought, receipts, mail, extra paper napkins, and the occasional piece of trash or recycling. Most of us carry receipts more out of habit or concern about identity theft than because we actually DO anything with the receipts. I try to avoid having receipts printed out at the check stand whenever possible. I do categorize my expenses in my finance app, but I only save the receipts with split expenses. This means that if I went to a restaurant, clothing store, bookstore, or other place with only one category of expense, I don't need the receipt for my purposes. If it's something expensive like electronics, I'll save it until I'm sure the item works properly. Most of our mail is junk mail, and almost everything that's left is outer and inner envelopes, brochures, and other useless inserts. We pay our bills electronically. Process and shred or recycle. Most of my trash sorting happens while I'm waiting at bus stops. When I check the contents of my bag at the end of every day, it only takes a quick glance and a few seconds to pull out anything weird or silly. I'm weird and silly enough without giving myself chiropractic problems lugging extra junk on my neck.
My smartphone takes the place of many of the items I used to carry. I no longer need a bulky paper day planner or address book or notebook or calculator. I no longer have tons of scraps of notes, phone numbers with no name on them, shopping lists, directions, or map printouts. I've developed the habit of setting alarms and time- and location-based reminders, because otherwise I know the fallibility of my ADHD mind. I need to be wondering about stuff like whether crows can be trained to pick up litter or whether there will ever be a wall-climbing scrubbing robot, not whether I've forgotten to order parrot kibble or where I put my keys. That's the point of all this, the point of Being Organized. We have more important things to do and more interesting things to think about than our daily stuff.
Having only a single bag has a magical way of making us more organized. Suddenly we know where our keys, phone, and glasses are. Suddenly we know where to look for our little scraps of notes. We start to be less late, and finally on time for things, because we can just sling the bag over one shoulder and go straight out the door. All the little rays of wandering attention we have aimed all over the place start to merge into a thick beam of focus. Having one bag can help us both look better and feel smarter, and what a magical bag that is!
Coming from a minimalist nomad, it may sound strange to advocate for domestic contentment. Aren't you all about getting rid of your stuff in favor of traveling the world? Well, yes and no. Minimalism is about focusing on whatever is most important to you and jettisoning anything that gets in the way of that. Not everyone likes traveling. Most people do, however, have a taste for mundane delights that is not being fully realized in their day-to-day. Domestic contentment is within reach of anyone at any budget.
When I was a kid in grade school, I read the story of the Greek philosopher Diogenes. He was known for living in a barrel in the marketplace, aside from his reputation as a wise man. Alexander the Great came to visit him and wanted to give him a gift, as much to demonstrate his own largesse as because this guy obviously could have used a pillow or blanket or something. He asked Diogenes if he wanted anything. Diogenes replied, basically, "Yeah, move over, you're blocking my sun." This made a huge impression on me as a child, and I spent a lot of time wondering about the drawing of the philosopher in the barrel, wondering what he ate and that sort of thing. These days, we would call Diogenes "homeless."
Whether someone can feel happiness and contentment while living on the margins of society probably depends as much on the society as on that particular individual.
It's not about the possessions or the dwelling, though. What makes the difference between absolute penury and contentment is access to a support network. Health care, physical safety, money, secure banking, food, bathing and laundry facilities, a soft warm bed, entertainment, and a social network of friends and family. Someone with access to all of that could probably live pretty cheerfully in a hotel with wi-fi, and be content with little more than a shower kit, a week's worth of clothes, and a smartphone.
Some of us only really wear a week's worth of clothes, anyway, because none of our other stuff fits right now, or the rest is waiting in front of the washing machine.
This is where we start to touch on the LACK of domestic contentment.
What I see in my work is that most people have a perpetual backlog of chores. There are dirty dishes in and around the sink at least 80% of the time. Likewise, there is almost always spoiled food in the fridge. There is always at least one load of laundry waiting to be washed or folded or put away, and often as many as ten. The bathroom is almost always grimy, the carpet is almost never vacuumed, the floors are almost always sticky, and there is almost always a full bag of trash waiting to be taken out. What the household feels about this state of affairs can most likely not be described as 'contentment.' Words that come to mind might be: frustration, resentment, despair, anger, depression, guilt, shame, blame, annoyance, or confusion.
This total lack of domestic contentment can and does lead to divorce. It's tough on kids. It can consume years that could otherwise have been pretty nice. Who wants to waste years or decades being chronically irritated almost every day?
My contention is that it's not housework in itself that causes this constant level of background annoyance. Rather, there is no vision of how good things could be and what domestic contentment actually feels like.
There's also the matter of... the stuff. Clutter causes housework to take 40% longer. Everything has to be moved out of the way to clean around it, under it, or behind it. Every single item in the house gathers dust or needs to be washed at some point. The more stuff there is, the harder it is to clean up, even if it's cute or valuable or it gets used every day. Crowded equals high maintenance.
What tends to happen is a gradual feeling of defeat. The more crowded and cluttered the house, the harder it is to keep it clean and stay on top of everything, the less often it gets done, the worse it gets, and the harder it is to get it to look clean at all. We resign ourselves to it. After a while, olfactory fatigue sets in, and we can't even smell it. Somewhere along that continuum, it's far easier and more pleasant to stay away, and any excuse to be out shopping or running errands starts to look attractive. Contentment can only be found elsewhere.
There's a close link between this pattern and a reliance on takeout food, pizza delivery, restaurants, convenience foods, or eating cereal for dinner. Who wants to cook in this kitchen??
A well-run kitchen is central to domestic contentment. After I finally learned to cook, I wondered what I had been thinking. Why would anyone not want to know how to cook? You can cook all your favorite stuff exactly the way you like it, anytime you want. I make a lot of stuff I would never be able to get in a restaurant - anywhere, not just in my neighborhood. I'd rather eat my own cooking than what I could get in about 3/4 of restaurants. If you've ever had a greasy or disappointing meal out, you know what I mean. A functional kitchen makes it possible to experiment and constantly improve your culinary skills, and that pays off in better and better meals. It's also cheaper and healthier.
I take notes on various recipes, quoting the compliments my husband or family members or guests make about the food. It's encouraging.
As much as we love travel, my husband and I would really rather be home than just about anywhere else. It's where our pets are. Our bed is more comfortable than any other bed. We have everything we need, we know where it is, and we have the space to use it. Thanks to our practice of minimalism, cleaning house takes very little effort. Laundry and dishes aren't that big a deal when they get dealt with every day: about five minutes per meal for dishwashing, five minutes per day to put away clean dishes, five minutes to run the washer and dryer, and ten or fifteen minutes to fold and put away laundry. It's hardly worth thinking about. The rest of the time, we're working on projects, playing with our pets, walking around the neighborhood, or lounging around talking. Our apartment is tiny, but it's big enough to do all of that.
Start by thinking of your default emotional state and whether you like it that way. Imagine how you'd prefer to feel. Contentment is not the same as elation, bliss, ecstasy, or hysterical laughter; it's sustainable and lower-maintenance. It's a feeling of "yeah, I dig this." Gaining a base level of contentment is often as simple as removing any obstacles between you and it. Remove any irritants and annoyances, resolve any backlog of tasks that lead to power struggles or a drain on mental bandwidth. Then sit back, smile, and sigh. How much more do you need?
When it starts cascading onto the floor, it's only a matter of time. Sometimes it's a slow trickle; other times it pours. Gradually it forms pools and puddles. Then it's wall to wall. Then the level rises, sometimes to the ceiling. It's not water; it's clutter. Clutter gets backed up and starts filling the house when it flows in faster than it flows out. Draining the house is what we do when we finally realize we're in too deep.
In the normal state of affairs, stuff comes in and stuff goes out. Buy a bunch of bananas, eat them, and compost the peels. Buy a bag of new socks, wear them until they're threadbare, and throw them out. One in, one out. If stuff goes out at the same rate that it comes in, then there's never any buildup. The only need to drain the house is the periodic carrying out of garbage and recycling and donations to charity.
The outflow is faster than the inflow under certain conditions. Moving away. Hopefully the truck is getting loaded faster than anyone is carrying in new shopping bags! Having a yard sale, many of the contents of which may originally have come from someone else's yard sale. Declaring laundry bankruptcy and spending an afternoon at the laundromat. Major space clearing, when we realize that the house needs to be fully drained.
Usually, stuff flows into a house at a faster rate than it flows out. This is the nature of the vast material wealth of our society. Paper that would have been precious to the ancients is foisted upon us in endless drifts of junk mail and coupon circulars. Entire stores specialize in selling goods for one dollar. Others sell recycled/donated items they collected for free. Others are known for handing out free samples. Things are so upside down in our time that poor people can wind up having more stuff in their houses than wealthy people do.
What I tend to find in my work is:
Laundry carpet - so many clothes that they are strewn across the floor, and the flooring itself is invisible. Carpet? Tile? Hardwood? Who knows?
"Why is there a pot on the floor?" - so many dirty dishes piled in the sink and on the counter that there isn't enough room, so some have to go elsewhere. On the floor? On the dining table? In the oven?
Mail blizzard - so many papers that they cover every flat surface, sometimes to be moved into bags and boxes so the surfaces can be covered again, like bailing out a boat
Cupboard explosion - so many plastic food storage containers/coffee mugs that the cupboards are too full even when the majority of items are waiting to be washed. So many food packages that cases of food are stacked on the floor for lack of storage space.
Bags in a box in a stack on a pile - so many items of every description that they can't even be stacked anymore. This is when the level starts to climb past three feet or higher.
No free space, either vertical or horizontal - everything flat has a pile on it, unless it's vertical, in which case it's covered by a bookcase or a stack of bins or a bunch of refrigerator magnets. Not so much as a single square foot of blank space to rest the eyes.
The worse it gets, the worse it gets. The deeper the accumulation of dirty dishes, the more dishes are "needed" so that there will still be a clean one, somewhere. The wider the stream of dirty clothes on the path toward the washing machine, the more clothes are "needed" so there will be something somewhat clean to wear, somewhere. The more papers there are, the more magazines with articles on Getting Organized are "needed" to add to the stack. The less comfortable it is to live amongst the rising floodwaters of clutter, the stronger the need to be out somewhere, away from it all, which usually means a manufactured need for a shopping trip. Every trip outward, escaping the mess, tends to result in at least one shopping bag that comes in. Nothing is going out. The floodwaters continue to rise.
A house won't drain itself. Usually it is only initiated by unfortunate external events, like an eviction or a natural disaster. Once I saw a photo some acquaintances had posted of their kitchen after a major earthquake. Quite honestly, it took me a minute to realize that anything had happened, because it looked like any other messy kitchen with greasy cobwebs. "This place looks like a tornado hit it." Mean, but sometimes true. When the piles of clutter get too high and too deep, it becomes impossible to tell if real disaster is going on underneath, whether that's a hidden water leak, toxic black mold, or an infestation of vermin. Then the clutter becomes the least of the problems.
Draining the house voluntarily is a very brave decision. It's hard work. The accumulation of years won't disappear overnight. Usually it starts to look worse for a while even after a lot of strenuous work has been done, exactly like rebuilding after a flood. The detritus has to be cleared away. Usually it reveals stained carpet and damaged flooring, marks on the walls, and damage to various fixtures. Years of deferred maintenance start to reveal themselves. That's why we remind ourselves that we don't have to do it alone. Rebuilding is done in groups. Drain the floodwaters, and ask for help so you don't get in over your head.
It's a mystery to me why some people like to shop. I hate it. It's not just the odious clouds of perfumes or the bad lighting or the "music" or the people accosting you from kiosks. It's not just that I'm alienated by almost all patterns and most fashion colors, or that I'm more utterly befuddled by cuts and styles with every passing season. I just hate spending money. It makes me break out in hives sometimes. All of these reasons combine to make me an under-buyer. That's why my only bag threatened to disintegrate before I deigned to replace it.
The irony here is that in my work with compulsive accumulators and chronic disorganization, all of my clients, universally, have uncountable numbers of bags. Shopping bags, gift bags, plastic bags, paper sacks, tote bags, purses and messenger bags, bags of every description. The reason is that they always have piles of unsorted stuff skewed everywhere, and bags are irresistible "temporary" sorting depositories. Some of my people will cast off previous handbags, like a snake shedding its skin, when they get too full of receipts and other detritus to use anymore. The more I see this in my work, the more I respond by swinging to the other extreme and avoiding bags in general.
The lining of one section of my particular bag had been ripped out for at least a year. This regularly resulted in stuff migrating from one section to another. I put a new bag on my wish list last year. This is a convenient custom in my family; you make a wish list of stuff you want in various price ranges, and if someone is assigned to get you a gift for some reason, they can choose something off your wish list and still surprise you. My husband is relieved by this tradition and finds it useful. It wasn't so useful when the bag I had chosen, after looking at dozens, turned out to be back-ordered. Then the back-order was canceled and the price was refunded. But! THAT was my bag! What am I supposed to do, pick a different bag? I remembered this as Christmastime, but it was really my birthday, which means I already knew my work bag was falling apart nearly a year ago.
Then I noticed that one end of the strap was tearing loose.
Here is where I confess that I bought the darn thing at the Hollywood Goodwill for $7 in the first place. In my defense, it still had the original tags on it...
I'm not a purse person. What baffles me the most is the appeal of all these brown-and-tan bags with logos on them that don't match anything else in the known universe. Unless it's bags that cost more than a car. I went a long stretch without carrying any kind of handbag; I could just put my wallet and keys in my pocket. Then the stuff started to catch up to me. Wallet, keys, phone, sunglasses. If I wanted one single additional item, like lip balm or tissues, it started to get more complicated not to carry a bag. Then I got my iPad and started writing anywhere and everywhere, and I had to carry that, too.
Where it really starts to get complicated is when you don't have a car. Long hours on public transportation tend to attract additional stuff. Consolidating errands tends to mean there's always at least one small extra item to carry. Today it was business envelopes, as shown in the embarrassing photo above. I realized how frustrating it would be if this strap finally came loose while I was still two hours from home. As much as I hate carrying a bag that crosses the line from 'purse' into 'luggage,' it was time. My purse is my car now. I went into Ross and came out with a $20 commuter bag that has lots of inner pockets. I transferred my stuff into it and threw the old bag in the trash, right outside the store.
I walked in the door with the new bag, and my husband looked right at me and didn't notice. I did a little curtsy and moved my arm to draw attention to it. Still didn't notice. That's a sign that you've picked a sufficiently utilitarian bag, when your pet engineer is unable to detect it.
The first thing I did was to sit down and pull some things out of the bag. That's because I need them. The envelopes went with the other office supplies. I took out my charger and plugged it in. There's a daily homecoming ritual of pulling out the flotsam and jetsam of the day, the receipts and paper napkins and earrings and whatever other stray items find their way inside. It only takes a minute - literally like 60 seconds. The absence of that homecoming clear-out ritual is what leads to Bags Everywhere.
Bags Everywhere. We've got the shopping bags with items still in them, tags still on, receipt still inside. We've got the donation bags that are now mixed in with the keepers again. We've got the plastic bags filled with random stuff, usually car clutter that got scooped up and carried in, mostly including junk mail and coupons. We've got the purses, each partially filled with a combination of receipts, mail, hair ties, coins, and useful stuff we can't find. We've got the gift bags from various occasions with the gifts still inside. Then we have the boxes with a couple of bags inside, like Russian nesting dolls. Then there are the piles, usually laundry, with bags on top. That's the nature of my work. We gradually go through the bags, one by one, recycling all the junk mail and the excess bags, realizing that there really isn't all that much in these bags after all. I guess bags are just so friendly that they like being surrounded by others of their kind.
I can accept that it's useful to have a bag. I can even accept that I'm allowed to have more than one bag, or to buy one before the previous one turns into shreds and scraps. In the same way, my clients can accept that their lives would be easier if they had fewer bags to manage. Every day is simpler when you know where all your most important daily stuff is. Streamlining your daily bag, whether you're an accumulator or an under-buyer, is one of those small projects that can have disproportionately awesome effects.
Hoarding is a lot more common than people realize. That's because people hide anything having to do with shame. I've worked with hoarding, squalor, and chronic disorganization for twenty years, and at this point I think it affects roughly 20% of the population. Here in the US it does, anyway. Some cultures seem to be somewhat immune to it. It's just so easy for us to bring home excess stuff that it's almost harder to avoid it. I just see it as a sign of the times, that we have food excess and debt excess and entertainment excess and texting-while-driving excess and, also, clutter excess. I don't blame anyone. It just interests me. It's a problem I know how to help solve. So when I find out someone hoards or has an organization problem, I'm never surprised.
Don't feel judged. My friends do, even after I've talked to them about it. Honestly, nobody you will ever meet will be more sympathetic and less judgmental about a little mess than I am. I have seen it all and smelled it all. Granted, if you're suffering, I don't want to see you live that way, but it's not like I'm going to climb in your window and start alphabetizing your socks. I'm here to help, not to boss someone around. I don't even boss myself around.
I'm not the kind of organizer who teaches you to use a perfect little label maker and make perfect little bulletin boards and perfect little... I dunno, terrariums or something. I'm not a Pinterest princess. I can't even really wrap a gift or frost a cake. Everything I try to make turns out lumpy. What I try to do is to find the pain point and remove it. That's all.
What's a pain point? A pain point is the thing that bothers you the most. Shame, anxiety, depression, sure. I probably can't do much about those, but I can help you do something about the situation surrounding those states. Practical philosophy. Also, if you're ashamed of, say, a hoarded room, it's hard to feel that way once the room is just a regular room again. If you're ashamed of an unpaid debt, pay the debt and the shame can go away, like fog burning off in strong sunlight.
Everyone has something, a secret shame. Often it manifests as a stack or a sack, like a bag of receipts and unbalanced bank statements, or an incomplete baby album, or a package of blank thank you notes. Alas, the people who most should be suffering from shame apparently don't feel it at all. Those are the people who wantonly go through life being nasty and hurting people just for the entertainment value. Casters of insults and spreaders of false gossip. They're out there. Think of whatever shame you feel and just mentally wad it up and toss it through the ether toward one of those people. You have more than you need, so just share a little, huh?
I'm never surprised by a hoarded house, just as I'm never surprised by grief or shame or anxiety or depression or any of that. That's because those feelings are nearly universal. All of us are the walking wounded, doing our best to get through the day and feeling alone. Oh, gee, obviously I must be the only one who can't cope. We see so many photographs these days of other people turning cartwheels on the beach or having a big ol' free hugs party, and we wonder what's wrong that we aren't feeling this constantly perfect joy and elation. Well, guess what? Those photos are staged. Personally, I've never turned a cartwheel in my life. If I do have a free hugs party, by all means, drop on by. If you know a hundred people, and each one shares the one perfect photo of the best moment of the best day they've had all month, it does prove that there's fun to be had, but it does not prove that everyone else is having it in a constantly running scintillating stream. Just like a clean house does not prove that other people don't have to wash pots or fold laundry.
I know who you are. If you refuse to let people in your house, you're one of mine. If you refuse to ever open your drapes, you're one of mine. If you offer someone a ride and then frantically try to scramble around clearing off the passenger seat, you're one of mine. The problem here is not what you think it is. The problem is that feeling of embarrassment, guilt, anxiety, and trying to hide the evidence. Your making it a big deal is what makes it a big deal. Remove the shame, and the situation becomes easy to resolve. You could simply ask for a little help, and one of your friends most likely would step in and help. Some of your friends may just be waiting to be asked. The guilty feeling of being helplessly trapped in procrastination is the thing that separates us. I recognize this feeling the instant I see it, and the only thing that surprises me about it is the strength of its force.
Mess is surely no worse than other common things people do, like drunk driving or bouncing checks. The natural reaction when we don't feel like we measure up is to isolate ourselves to keep the secret. The more we feel like we're in trouble, the less likely we are to speak up and say we can't handle it alone. Sadly, the wider the gulf between our perceived results and those of the people around us, the more likely it is that they know a simple solution to our problems. If it looks easy for them, maybe we just need to ask how they do it. Nobody would want someone to suffer alone, wallowing in bad feelings. Tell the truth about your life and you may find that nobody is surprised.
Now that you have it, what are you going to do with it?
An exit strategy is a plan for what to do in a given situation when the circumstances change. For instance, say I have a job. I'm not going to work there for infinity years. At some point, I know I'm either going to retire, quit, get laid off, get fired, or die with my face planted in my inbox. Even if I get promoted, I still have the same set of options. It's the same thing with my car. At some point, I'm either going to sell it, trade it in, or donate it, or it will get totaled. Same idea with my house. At some point I'm going to move, because I'm a renter and I know we won't retire here. Nothing lasts forever. That includes our stuff.
Most of us never think about exit strategies for most of our possessions. It just doesn't cross our minds. Every brand-new, fluffy sock will one day either lose its mate or become threadbare. How lonely and tragic. Ever gotten a blister from wearing a worn-out sock one too many times? Things are made to be used, and at a certain point, they get used up. We give worn-out socks to our dog as a toy, and it's not long before they're too torn up even for that. Into the trash they go.
Our culture generates more material artifacts than any culture in human history. We number our garments and books and action figures in the hundreds. We have dozens of copies of things that never even existed in the recent past. For instance, my household contains an entire box of power strips, chargers, connector cables, and backup batteries. Remote controls, headphones, splitters, tablets, phones, protective cases, electronic equipment I'd have trouble explaining to a child. What does this do? No idea, honey. I think it has electrons in it. We have all this stuff, and where is it going to go? Into a museum? Maybe not if there exist hundreds of millions of iterations of it, and a new version is coming out this November.
The Beanie Babies alone could make an extremely weird monument if they were all gathered together in one place. A desert pilgrimage site, perhaps. Living wild animals could hop up and curiously take a sniff. Birds could nest in it. Otherwise what are we going to do with them all? Do we really, truly think that people a century from now are going to want millions upon millions of disintegrating stuffed toys?
There are three reasons why the people of antiquity created small midden piles instead of landfills that can be seen from outer space. One is that they used things until they wore out, and then had a secondary market for the broken stuff. There was an entire profession of "rag-pickers" who would repurpose worn-out clothes and linens. Old newspapers, letters, and sheet music were used to wrap fish and meat. The other reason is that people have had an enduring, millennia-old tradition of ritual bonfires. You had a holiday full of revelry and a big fire, with a need for things to stuff in it. That's where you sent your snapped chairs and other dangerous old junk. Of course, by far the most important reason that people of the past did not generate landfills is that they didn't make, own, or waste even a tiny fraction of the stuff that we do.
One day, we'll be able to feed our friable old plastic junk into a 3D printer or a home power generator. We'll mine our landfills for more materials. Hopefully. What else are we going to do with cracked plastic buckets, stained food storage containers with melted lids, and warped lawn furniture that won't support a person's weight? Times a hundred million?
Many of us experience strong feelings of sadness, nostalgia, and regret when we think of the fate of unwanted or useless stuff. Jigsaw puzzles with missing pieces. Worn-out shoes. Scary space heaters with frayed cords. Ugly lamps. Close-up photographs of a million thumbs. Engraved decorations from the weddings of divorced couples. Broken Christmas ornaments. THIS USED TO BE COOL! I think we sometimes project our own feelings of rejection onto misfit material items. Sure, I'm a little funky, but can't you love me anyway? Deep inside, we truly believe that physical objects have souls and emotions, that they suffer when they aren't polished or displayed in some way. We demonstrate that by bringing them home and storing them in mildewed, crumbling old cardboard boxes.
Many of my clients are compulsive accumulators. Some shop as a hobby, whether online or in stores. Others will cheerfully accept limitless amounts of bags and boxes of other people's castoffs, stacking them up and never using them, but resting peacefully in the sense that they have "saved" these items. Books that will never be read again. Torn or stained garments that will never be remade. Fabric scraps that will never be used. We can't accept the fact of ruin. We can't face the pressure of a world of seven billion people that seems to require the manufacture of trillions of small, consumable objects and the waste of 40% of our food production. We never spare a second thought to what will happen to these objects after they come in our front doors.
We probably don't spend enough time sitting around and crying about it. Suppressed grief over our lost loved ones. Suppressed grievances over lost glories of the past. Suppressed disappointment over the way our lives have failed to live up to our dreams. Suppressed sorrow over the state of the world. Wasting today fussing over yesterday, rather than making tomorrow happen the way we'd prefer. Living in a personal landfill rather than accepting that our existence adds to collective landfills.
The only way out is a grand exit strategy. A policy decision to quit buying so much stuff. To put our attention on food and energy waste rather than the fate of a couple hundred pounds of random objects. We waste far more when we throw away spoiled groceries week after week than we do by junking old junk. If we stacked up all our single-use packaging for a year, we'd quickly see that it adds up to far greater volume than any amount of old furniture and knickknacks.
My husband and I are continually divesting stuff from our household. We've realized that there's no point in keeping anything we don't use. It's expensive to rent a bigger house just to provide shelter for more stuff we don't even need. It all tends to get banged up when we move. What really makes our life together is our habits: our inside jokes, our favorite recipes, our conversation, our shared presence. The more we downsize, the smaller the house we rent, the nicer the neighborhood we can suddenly afford. Our bills get smaller and we spend less time cleaning house. In light of all these benefits, the stuff we still have has to justify itself more and more.
A lot of things go when you realize you don't need or want a car anymore. The car itself. The car payments. The garage. The insurance policy. The roadside assistance account. The automotive tools and various bottles of chemicals. The shop rags. The extra shopping bags. The special electronics and adapters for riding in the car. Then you start to realize, more and more, how much of your stuff and your lifestyle is built around access to your own personal car. One of these things for us is our Costco membership, which we decided to keep.
The thing about big box stores is that they normalize massive volumes of stuff. "Family-size" looks like normal size. This is like that point in the mid-Eighties when 64-oz drink cups came out, and what used to be a "large" cup was suddenly a "small," while "small" was "child size." That's back in the day when a can of soda was supposedly 2.5 servings, and my two brothers and I would share one on road trips. Stuff used to be smaller.
Buy large packages of stuff when you shop, and you need a bigger vehicle. Buy large packages of stuff and drive a large vehicle, and you need a bigger house and garage. I don't know of any single person who parks in the garage. Even though our vehicles are our most valuable possessions aside from the house itself, we will leave them out in the elements while we fill our garages with stuff. A lot of that stuff originally came from the big box store.
It's not mandatory, though. It's not required any more than we're forced to buy the $10 butter at Whole Foods Market. It's not where you shop, it's how you shop, what you buy, and how you store it once you get home.
We just moved into a tiny apartment. It comes with an itty-bitty kitchen with a small fridge that has a tiny freezer. As a result, we don't buy bulk groceries anymore. Have you ever brought one of those sleeping bag-sized bags of tortilla chips to a party? No amount of people can ever finish one of those off. A lot of super-ultra-plus-sized groceries wind up getting thrown away when they go bad. The only reason we buy this stuff in the first place is that it looks normal now. We still think we're saving money even when we're throwing away as much as 40% of the food we buy.
Beyond the sheer waste, a lot of people fill their kitchens up with so much food that the kitchen itself is barely usable. Every cabinet full to bursting. Countertops covered with food packages and collectible canisters. Boxes of cereal on top of the fridge. Cases of soda stacked on the floor. Second fridges with accompanying chest freezer. I've even known of people who store food inside the oven for lack of space. Houses were not built with the infrastructure to handle this kind of volume.
The last time we had a Costco trip, my husband went on the bus on his way home from work. He bought: shampoo, conditioner, a quart of minced garlic, and a bag of dried blueberries. He put them in his backpack and got back on the bus.
This is going to sound absurd, and it is, but our minced garlic consumption pays for our membership. I go through that stuff in greater volume than we do ice cream, breakfast cereal, booze, or coffee (none of which we buy). It comes in tiny containers at the grocery store for $2.99, or we can buy it in big ol' garlicky tubs and I can ladle it out with an ice cream scoop, which, now that I think about it, is a great use for our ice cream scoop.
We also buy fresh fruit and vegetables at Costco from time to time. This works for us because we're into juicing, and in fact we bought our Vitamix blender at Costco. We also eat massive amounts of vegetables, and we rotate through them quickly. In fact, the only vegetable in my fridge right now is a head of cauliflower, which is basically emergency rations and means I have to go to the store.
Sometimes we buy stuff at Costco from the fridge or freezer, although this tends to get us into trouble. We can't be trusted near that much hummus.
I don't buy clothes there, because they start at a size 8 for women, and I haven't been an 8 since 25 pounds ago. I can't even buy my underwear there. My husband will buy stacks of slacks and work shirts. This is crazy-making for me. Imagine a world where women can flip through a stack of pants, pull out our size, and know they will fit without having to try them on!
What we will continue to buy in addition to shampoo and garlic are dog cookies, software, and the occasional vitamin or pharmaceutical. We'll probably buy sheets and towels like we have before. We might buy electronics or patio furniture, although now that we don't have a car this will involve a Lyft. Mostly, our trips to Costco are going to be a thin disguise for my husband's desire to get more blueberries.
What I like best about box stores is that purchasing decisions are simplified. They're only going to buy something if it's widely satisfactory. I haven't had any bad experiences that led to buyer's remorse, other than perhaps the five-pound sack of baking soda I'm still trying to use.
Okay, full disclosure, I own some Costco stock, and also some Whole Foods. I figure if I shop somewhere, I know enough about it to have a reasonable sense of how the company is doing. I like Costco because of how they treat their employees, and I have friends and family members who have worked there, or still do. Just because I don't buy King Kong portions of crackers, cake-sized muffins, or barrels of mixed nuts doesn't mean I don't appreciate them as an entity.
The thing about minimalism is that we try to be as intentional as possible about daily life. We want to choose what we want for ourselves. We want to spend our money consciously and create a living environment that we find enjoyable, relaxing, and inspiring. This can include visiting the monuments of hyperconsumerism, consuming them rather than finding that they've consumed us.
An elliptical trainer
A stair stepper
A ten-top dining table
Ten dining chairs
A ten-foot ladder
Five sets of garage shelving
A shop vac
A circular saw
A metal bandsaw
A hydraulic jack
A weed whacker
A set of sawhorses
A fire extinguisher (we kept one)
Various scrap lumber
An insulated lunch bag
A travel mug
A salad bowl
A box of plastic food storage containers
Three potholders, two made by me
A coffee mug
A gravy boat
Three muffin pans
A glass baking dish
A roasting pan
A metal breadbox
A cake rack
A butter dish
A pasta maker
Four drinking glasses
Eleven wine glasses
A bottle of wine
Two tea balls
Three kitchen knives
A pasta server
Two sets of tongs
Three sets of measuring cups
A kitchen timer
A bag of refrigerator magnets
Two kitchen aprons
A dust mop
A plastic dish tub
A shelf organizer
An old jacket
A travel pillow
A set of colored pencils
A box of crayons
Three packages of index cards
A package of Post-It notes
A roll of wrapping paper
A stack of blank books and sketch pads
A box of CDs and DVDs
A CD organizer
Five thumb drives
A box of photographs (digitized and stored in the cloud)
A bulletin board
Three picture frames
A set of flannel sheets
Two bedspreads with pillow shams
Two bed pillows
Four throw pillows
Five small moving boxes full of fabric
Two sewing machines
A rotary cutter and cutting mat
A set of pottery tools
Two embroidery hoops and an embroidery frame
A set of gouache paints
A bag of paintbrushes
Three folding tables
Three milk crates
An extension cord
A coil of rope
A set of closet rod hardware
A package of wall hooks
A set of gardening gloves
A bag of seed packets
A set of loppers
A 12-pound sledgehammer
A pick hoe
A weeding fork
Two toy crossbows
A box of sprinkler heads
A box of drip irrigation hoses and supplies
A box of PVC fittings
A dryer duct cleaning kit, still in the package
A box of wooden hangers
A pair of rubber boots
A set of camping mugs
A set of tomato cages
A hummingbird feeder
A computer keyboard
A wicker hamper
Five wicker baskets
A set of wooden drawers
A wooden trunk
A plastic drawer organizer
A small jewelry box
A ten-foot shelf
Four board games
A bag of old shoes
A bag of old clothes
A box of sequined fruit
No idea how many books
Three potted plants
A bag of paper grocery sacks
Everything in our fridge and freezer
Sixty-two moving boxes
I've been posting free stuff on Craigslist. We got rid of our car, and taking donations to a thrift store has become a bigger deal than it used to be. Also, there are certain things they won't accept that people are still eager to acquire. I realized one evening, though, that I am pretty wide open about interactions with strangers.
I told my husband.
"I just literally brought a coil of rope and a roll of construction-grade garbage bags out to a strange man in a van who has our home address and my cell phone number."
It was fine, of course. He was an average suburban dad who just wanted some free stuff for his garage.
What was he going to do, grab my cell phone out of my hand and stuff me in his van, in broad daylight, with bystanders watching? Okay, the thought did cross my mind. I've taken self-defense classes. Also I've read way too many true crime books. I probably know more about the biographies of the dozen most famous serial killers than I do about the dozen most famous pop singers right now.
People are trustworthy. In many ways, I think strangers are more trustworthy than the people we're closest to. For instance, if I told a complete stranger a secret, he or she might be mildly interested, but probably wouldn't tell anyone else. If they did, it probably wouldn't be anyone who could or would trace it to me. Whereas! If I told the same secret to any of fifty people in my inner circle, they most likely would tell everyone, assuming it was available as general knowledge. Another example would be eating my snacks. Chances are pretty high that a friend or family member would help themselves, while most strangers would be wary about eating strange food.
If you tell strangers your goals, they'll not only be encouraging and supportive, they'll most likely try to connect you with someone they know who could help you in some way. If you tell someone close to you, they'll most likely tell you all the reasons why it's a horrible idea.
Since we moved, we've been exploring the sharing economy in a big way. As we were waiting for our car buyback appointment, we started having our groceries delivered. It was great! We used GrubHub for the first time on moving day, and that was great too. We stayed at an Airbnb for the first time, and, hey, it was great. Then my husband tried Lyft for the first time, and that was great as well. It turns out that it's a fun way to have brief interactions with strangers, who probably have just as much reason to be afraid of us as we do of them. They probably share their own safety and self-defense tips. Their moms are probably really nervous about their whereabouts after dark every night.
The interesting thing about the sharing economy is that we haven't had any of the unpleasant transactions we've occasionally had at chain stores. Adding in that element of personal rating really does something. I rate you, you rate me. That's not happening at the pharmacy or the grocery store, or certainly not at the airport. My goal in every business transaction is to get a smile out of the other person, and extra points if I make them laugh. I'm easy to please. It always surprises me when someone is crabby, impatient, or rude after dealing with me, partly because it happens so rarely. Add in some tips and a star rating system and the dynamic changes, doesn't it?
We're not done yet. Living in a tiny apartment tends to bring attention to the background possessions we have just because we have them. Every time something goes out the door, everything else gets to scooch over a bit. Many things can go to Salvation Army or Goodwill, but not everything. We gave away a fire extinguisher, five sets of plastic storage shelving, a set of foam mattress pads, some extra cleaning supplies, and all our moving boxes, none of which Goodwill would take. They also wouldn't take a pop-up canvas closet or a set of glass shelves. Whether they'll take furniture or electronics depends on the store, and some won't take clothes hangers or other arbitrary things. I went this weekend and they sent me away, saying they weren't accepting any donations at all that day. That's where we are now. Our hyperconsumerist material culture is overloading even businesses that rely on donated goods to make their profit. You can't sell it and you can't give it away. That is, you can't give it away anonymously.
We're neighbors and we help each other out. That's how society was built. If we see a stranger in trouble, we rush to call for help. We buy and sell from each other. We hire each other. We live next door to each other, because it's so much more convenient than the alternative. The great thing about living in a city is that I can give away a coil of rope and a roll of industrial trash bags, and someone will show up, unafraid, to claim them.
We set a new record. From the day we got the moving van until the day we finished moving in, two weeks elapsed. The fastest I've ever done it before was three weeks. This is a great argument in favor of minimalism! Anyone who has ever lived amongst boxes for a prolonged period, unable to find important things like, say, the forks, knows how annoying it is. It's such a relief to be able to relax on your own couch, looking around and not seeing any boxes to unpack. Normal and boring can be so satisfying. It's quite common, though, for most people to have boxes that never get unpacked at all. In that case, living with boxes becomes the new normal.
Why can't we unpack any faster?
We probably could have pushed through and finished our place in four or five days. By 'finished,' I mean that all the pictures are hung on the walls and everything has its own designated spot. All the boxes have been given away or recycled. All the packing material is gone. The staging area of pens and tape dispensers and razor knives has been redistributed and put away. Anyone coming over for the first time wouldn't know that someone had just moved in.
Experience has shown that it's better to live in the new place for at least a week before installing hooks or extra towel rods or that sort of thing. It can take a bit of time to figure out the best placement for the furniture, and that means the pictures have to wait. There's a brief buffer period where the place shifts from "just moved in" to "living in a mess." That feeling of messiness is the feeling of settling in, developing a comfort level and an intuitive sense of where everything works the best.
Or, it can just stay messy forever...?
After the first big push of our move-in weekend, we elected not to do very much on weekdays. We needed a break. It also gave time for the parts that take more mental bandwidth. It's really obvious how to unpack certain things, but others take more creativity and System 2 planning. For instance, the area under our kitchen sink is configured in such a way that it was really challenging to find space for everything I wanted to put under there. That was the only thing I did about moving in on that particular day. It sounds dumb when I put it like that, but kitchen real estate is really valuable. Getting it right can make the difference between a functional kitchen or a dysfunctional kitchen. If people aren't comfortable cooking most nights of the week, if there are almost always dirty dishes in and around the sink, if the fridge almost always has spoiled food in it, then something is wrong. A system isn't working right and the house is the boss of the people. Living with a dysfunctional kitchen is expensive and it causes a lot of arguments. This is why I put in so much thoughtful planning when we first move in - so that we can get back to living and cooking and eating and enjoying life the way we prefer it.
The kitchen is the heart of the house, and that's what I always unpack first. It's a good sign that it's working well when I find myself cooking more elaborate meals. A tiny kitchen can be nice, because you can reach almost everything simply by turning back and forth! The secret is to get rid of absolutely anything in order to maintain clear countertops. I have a two-foot-square countertop in this kitchen that has nothing stored on it, and it's just big enough to cook anything I like. Two square feet isn't very much, but it's more than almost every cook manages to keep clear.
The next most important area is the bathroom. This is the second most likely area of the house to cause arguments, because it's the area that relates to getting places on time. It's also the second most difficult area to keep clean. A dank, moldy bathroom filled with funky towels and damp laundry all over the floor is just a sad, scary kind of a place to start your day. A countertop covered with bottles and stuff makes it hard for everyone to get ready. Inevitably something is going to get knocked into the toilet. I am obsessive about keeping my bathroom countertop clear, even more than in the kitchen. When you have the smallest possible bathroom, with basically no counter and a minuscule medicine cabinet, then choices have to be made. Almost everything gets stored in the linen closet or the bedroom instead. Otherwise, it just gets cut out of our lives. How many lotions and potions and bottles and jars does one household need?
I realized that I am giving the bedroom short shrift. That's because the bed is literally the first thing we set up in a new place, and then we're done. We figure out which direction the head will be; we set up the frame; we drop the box springs into place; we drag the mattress on top. We make the bed in five minutes, the same way we do every time. Then we realize we haven't made enough room to plug in the lamp, and the outlet is always blocked by the mattress, and we have to drag it askew and deal with that. The blanket chest goes at the foot of the bed, the extra blankets go in it, the two small dressers get walked into place, and we're done with the entire room in maybe half an hour. Unpacking all our clothes takes maybe another half an hour. It's really not a big deal, although it would be if we had more stuff, I guess.
That's what it all comes down to. The more stuff you have, the longer it takes to unpack. The greater the proportion of non-essentials, the easier it is to leave them taped inside boxes. When you don't have much, and almost all of it is necessary to a functional home, then it tends to get unpacked quickly. What are we going to do without for a month: towels? Kitchen knives? The dog bed? I know from experience that what most people have in those perennially packed boxes consists of extraneous stuff like books, old school papers, junk mail, ornaments, toys, memorabilia, and gift bags with the tags still on them. Some people will take the big step of just walking those boxes out to the trash and dumping them, without even bothering to look inside, because they finally realize that if they've lived without it for that long, then they really don't need it. I think a better rationale is that the house is functioning fine, we're surrounded by everything we need, and we're enjoying living so comfortably that anything else is just extra.
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.