Most of the stuff in the universe is not in my apartment. I’m pretty sure I don’t have any of your stuff, although if I do, please remind me… I’ve written in the past about how I don’t have a nightstand or a coffee table. Another conventional item that I don’t have is a filing cabinet. This is pretty common amongst the chronically disorganized, and it’s a good tool for making sense out of scattered stuff. It’s possible, though, to graduate past the need for a physical file cabinet. Not having a filing cabinet is one of the many ways that I make my life easier.
There are three levels of filing:
Not having a filing cabinet means I need to be strategic about how information flows through my life. I need to plan my finances and my infrastructure. This strategic planning is how I control the flow of papers so I can always find what I need. It also keeps unwanted papers from taking over our house.
The first thing is to default to NO when it comes to papers. Refuse all brochures, pamphlets, flyers, newsletters, catalogues, business cards, menus, free newspapers or anything else that is thrust out. Any information I need, I can look up online. There is no reason for contact information to be collected in paper form. The other advantage of this is that I’m in control of the research. Anyone who wants me to take papers from them is marketing something, which means they’re looking after their advantage, not mine. This is contrary for compulsive accumulators, who get swirly eyes every time they think they’re getting something for free.
Junk mail is in a category of its own. Opt out. Get your name off the lists. This can be hard to do in the case of postcards from local dentists or other businesses, but they usually only reach out once. Regular offenders catch my attention, and I go to their website and figure out how to get my name taken off their mailing list. After opting out, the second most important way to fight junk mail is to ruthlessly process it every day. When either of us brings in the mail, we’ve already sorted through it by the time we get to our front door, and all the junk goes into the recycling bin.
These two gates, resisting papers and eliminating junk mail, eliminate at least 80% of the burden of paper sorting. This is why they are so essential to the process. There’s plenty to sort when it comes to the relevant stuff, the papers we actually need. Having them mixed in with bags and bags of unsorted junk mail makes the process almost impossible.
What about the stuff we do need? As often as possible, we sign up for paperless billing. Almost all the time, we just use auto-pay. This is another area that is very contrary for my people. Even direct deposit for paychecks is too much for them; it makes them feel paranoid. I used to feel that way. At some point in the late Nineties, I changed my mind. Never once, not a single time, have I ever had a problem with direct deposit or automatic billing. Of course that’s not going to matter to those who are afraid of electronic banking. For those who just feel overwhelmed and dread the thought, it’s even more important to control the flow of paper, because there’s going to be at least ten times more of it.
Guess what? Once you’ve paid a bill, you no longer need to keep the billing statement. Or the envelopes, or the brochures. Any of it. You don’t need to keep paper copies of bank statements, either. We haven’t kept any for our entire marriage. This is why we don’t have a filing cabinet, because either we don’t keep these papers or we don’t generate them on paper in the first place.
We also don’t keep academic papers. My husband is active in his field of aerospace engineering, and his student work wouldn’t be all that relevant to what he does today. I haven’t needed or used any of my papers, either, although I did scan the ones I wanted to keep. They take up a small amount of space in my cloud storage. Most people keep old school papers because they miss being students.
What do we keep?
Our passports, social security cards, and marriage license are in the fireproof safe.
I have a red Manila file folder labeled PENDING that has certain papers that are necessary for the short term. For instance, I had a four-year battle with the City of Los Angeles, trying to tax me for income I didn’t earn even when I wasn’t a resident. I saved all the correspondence from them. That was about a dozen sheets. At some point, I’ll scan them and shred the originals. I just looked through this folder and pulled out an invitation to a party I attended and instructions for an eye ointment I no longer need. Then there’s a flyer from our apartment complex about repaving the parking lot this month. Well, I’m certainly not putting it on the fridge!
We have a cardboard file box. It measures ten inches deep. This is downsized from our previous file box, which was about twice as big. I keep it in the linen closet, where there’s room for it because we don’t keep threadbare old towels or wrong-size sheets. I just flipped through it. The majority of it is only in there because of how long it would take to scan it, and because if we get rid of another inch of papers, I’ll have to find a different storage solution. They’re holding each other upright. You know all those pictures on Pinterest of cute desks with decorative storage boxes on the shelves? Something like that would work.
What’s in our file box? School pictures of my stepdaughter. Instruction manuals, which I include with items that I resell when we’re done. Tax returns, of course. Race bibs from the different races I’ve run. A bunch of schematics and notes about various inventions, mine and his. Veterinary records, which, come to think of it, our vet has on file anyway. Essentially what we have is there due to entropy, not because we need to use these papers for reference. (The invention stuff should certainly be scanned). The only ones we’re legally mandated to keep are the tax returns, a file that’s about 1/8” thick. It could go in the safe and then we’d be done.
Papers, like many other objects, tend to be kept because we don’t believe we have permission to get rid of them. What do you want to bet that almost everyone reading this still has the tags hanging off their mattress? How many people have stuff in their house that was left behind by previous tenants? Why do we always keep all the spare hardware that’s left over after assembling something? It takes a certain amount of moxie to seize the initiative and make executive decisions about stuff. Do a little research and decide that there’s an entire category of papers you no longer need to keep.
Letting Go: Confessions of a Hoarder is the real thing. Corinne Grant is an Australian stand-up comic who has had a successful television career. You’d never know that from her book, though. She scarcely mentions her work, which may be due to tall-poppy modesty, or maybe because she’s just that well known to the Australian audience. Either way, it’s a testament to the power of her story. Hoarding makes life difficult no matter how well everything else might be going. What could have been a depressing story turns into a laugh riot, as Grant examines her emotional relationship with her stuff with humor and self-compassion.
Anyone who is ambivalent about keepsakes, memorabilia, souvenirs, and other emotional minefields will relate to this book. Grant has powerful emotional ties to almost every last thing she owns. She’s unable to get rid of a single item without agonizing over it, including the dried-out stems of an old bouquet, which she photographs for posterity. There are scenes of her weeping, arguing with friends who try to help her move, hiding stuff she wants to keep, and rescuing things she had planned to donate. Like I said, this book is the real thing.
It’s Grant’s ability to laugh at herself that saves her. While it doesn’t make the process any easier, she’s able to recognize when she is being irrational. She enlists the support of a friend who also hoards, and the progress really gets going when they start telling each other the truth about their fraught ties to their possessions. This is where the title comes in. These really are Lessons in Letting Go. How exactly do I convince myself to let go of a sentimental old t-shirt or a broken appliance? She shares her emotional homework, explaining the back story of specific objects, such as an unsent childhood love letter to Bruce Springsteen, and how she talked herself through the decision to let each one go.
The work proceeds gradually, in fits and starts. She’s able to make breakthroughs after some major life events, including a trip to Bali and a visit to a refugee camp in Jordan. At one point, she asks a group of refugees what it was hardest to lose, thinking they’ll say something like their photo albums or baby shoes. They all say “stability” - and she suddenly sees her personal memorabilia in a new context. Each time she comes home, she’s able to process another layer of her stuff.
Lessons in Letting Go is full of happy endings. One of the biggest surprises for me was that Grant is able to tally up all her stuff at the end of the book. She’s kept 24 boxes and gotten rid of enough to fill 20. I feel the need to say that an American hoarder with this level of emotional entanglement would have had far, far more stuff than this! I’ve talked to professional movers who have pulled 100 boxes out of a single bedroom. My husband and I moved six months ago, into a one-bedroom, 680-square-foot apartment with a single closet, and we had 64 boxes between us. That includes one box of my husband’s memorabilia that I made him keep (trophies, medals, Scouting stuff) while Grant claims she’s saved a few boxes of her own school memories. I suspect we just have more housewares, because at least a third of our boxes consist of kitchen hardware and appliances. I only had two boxes of books. You know what? I’d pay to see a catalog of those remaining 24 boxes and what was in them!
I laughed out loud at several places in this book. Lessons in Letting Go felt true to me. Grant is hysterical, ribald, and honest about her struggles in a way that’s entirely relatable. I kept laughing as I put the book down, culled a sack of clothes and a bag of books, and carried them out the door to donate.
“Nothing meant anything if I kept it all.”
“I was a hoarder, I dreamed of living unhaunted.”
“It struck me that the difference between a hoarder and a non-hoarder was not how much of their lives they had failed at, but how many reminders they kept of those failures.”
Every flat surface is going to get covered with stuff. It’s a universal law. Just like a cat will always find an empty box and my dog will always find the snacks in my purse, flat surfaces are an irresistible attraction. This is how entropy happens. If I have stuff in my hands and I think Future Me will have more fun dealing with it than I would right now, I’m going to put it on the nearest flat surface I can find. For later. Eventually, this is going to include the floor. While a lot of this stuff is going to include dirty dishes, dirty laundry, and a general excess of objects, for most people the surface clutter is made of paper. We turn every possible place we can find into an auxiliary desk.
Not everyone has a desk, of course. They don’t always fit. I currently don’t have a desk; I work either at the dining table, in an easy chair, at the public library, in a cafe, or in my lap on the bus. Of course, I did all of those things when I did have a desk. The entire world is my backup workspace! The major drawback to this is that, while I am paperless as much as possible, tangible material objects do keep inserting themselves into my mental bandwidth. I have to put them somewhere. They wind up either in my work bag or in a stack on the entertainment center. This drives myself crazy.
Mail to process
Receipts to process
Bound manuscripts and screenplays
Stacks of index cards
As soon as every book ever written is available electronically. As soon as we have wireless power. As soon as everyone agrees to switch to electronic billing and electronic receipts. As soon as the entire world catches up to the 21st century, I can stop having this annoying stack in my brain space. Until then, I’m looking for a design solution. I have the luxury of caring about a single square foot of chaos in my home.
There’d be plenty of room for this stack if I got rid of another shelf of books.
Most of my people do have desks. Some have more than one. There’ll be a computer desk, often used by the entire household, and then an older desk that is covered with papers. The drawers will be full of random stuff. If there are shelves, which there often are, they will be filled with stuff, too. In most cases, these desks are like historical archives, where time came to a standstill at a certain state of fullness, and everything shifted to the next auxiliary desk.
First it’s the desk. Then it’s the dining table. Then it’s the kitchen counter.
Then mail starts getting stuffed into crevices all around the house. Sideways between books in the bookcase. Stacked horizontally on top of books or other objects. Wedged under something that’s supposed to hold it in place. Strewn across the coffee table. Piled on top of the microwave or the fridge. Hidden in a drawer. Used as a bookmark. Stuffed into a tote bag, backpack, purse, briefcase, or all of the above. On the nightstand. In the passenger seat of the car. On the dashboard until it all slides off. In clipboards and pinned to bulletin boards. On the windowsill.
This is what chronic disorganization looks like. It looks like someone made a scale model of a distracted, overwhelmed human brain and put a lot of effort into making it as 3D as possible.
Really, I blame junk mail for all of this. The trouble with paper is that almost all of it looks alike. It comes in faster than we can process it, and missing a single day exacerbates what is already a significant externally imposed interruption. Every piece of paper we didn’t ask for sits there calling HEY! HEY HEY HEY HEY HEY. Every single time we look at it, each piece again triggers that mental HEY. We learn to blur over it and stop seeing it. It’s the only way our attention can possibly survive in this world of a million words.
Go outside. Tally every time you see an advertisement, a bulletin board, a bumper sticker, a corporate logo, a sign for a yard sale or a lost pet, a t-shirt or tattoo with writing on it, a piece of discarded food packaging. There are a million billion things crying for our attention all the time, everywhere we go. That’s not even counting our phones and all their alarms and reminders and ringtones and notifications. Our simple primate brains were not designed for all this stimulation!
This is the argument for a streamlined work area at home. Your home is your private retreat. It should be a place where you can escape the demands of the outside world, pause, and remember who you are. It should not be yet another arena of distraction.
The point of a desk is to have somewhere to sit and think. Everyone needs a quiet place to step away and do strategic thinking. Everyone needs a clear flat surface to be able to work. Whether that’s creative work, household bureaucracy, or simply poring over a coloring book, even the smallest home should have at least a single square foot of bare, empty surface to work.
Yes, a clear spot on the kitchen counter to cook. Yes, a clear spot on the bathroom counter to get ready for the day or for bed. Yes, a clear spot somewhere to put your feet up. Hopefully, most of all, a clear spot to think and plan. If we have to commandeer auxiliary desks off-site, at libraries and coffee shops, we have permission to do this while we get our heads straight.
The only way to start sorting through multiple auxiliary desks is to create a command central. One spot to rule them all. Somewhere to sit down and make decisions about today. Deal with the incoming mail and receipts that have come from today. Accept or decline the invitations that came in today. Try out the recipes you chose today. Recycle and shred the junk of today. Stop adding to the chaos and entropy - today. As this becomes a habit, gradually start weeding through the junk of yesterday and the expired invitations of yesterday and the filing and shredding of yesterday.
Don’t let random papers invade your peace of mind. Fight the tide. Decide that you are going to reclaim some space and peace and quiet. Create a space for yourself where you can sit and think whenever you like.
I just got back from my fifth trip this summer, and the fourth flight this month. Even though I have various systems in place, I still feel really keyed up every time I pack for a trip. I can choose to interpret this keyed-up feeling as excitement, or as anxiety, and either way, the result will be that I'm physically restless and looking for things to do to keep me busy. Distance running is always a great way to dump that excess adrenalin. With time constraints, another way to do it is to make packing into a game.
What's the game? PACK... THAT... BAG!
How do you score?
Bring everything you need: 100 points
Fit everything you need in carry-on baggage only: 100 points
Fit all your carry-ons under the seat in front of you: 100 points
Get to your destination at the time your travel partners wanted to get there: 100 points
Add one point for every minute you were early.
Subtract 1000 points per travel companion for being the reason you missed your flight.
Subtract 100 points for each bag you need someone else to carry.
Subtract another 100 points for each bag you need someone else to lift into the overhead bin.
Subtract 100 points per bag for exceeding the airline's weight allowance.
Subtract one point for each item you brought that you did not use on the trip.
Add one point for every item you forgot that did not significantly affect your trip.
Subtract one point for every item you purchase or add during your trip.
Subtract 10 points for each item you tried to smuggle into someone else's bag.
Subtract 10 points for any item that leaked or got damaged due to your poor packing job.
Subtract 10 points for each item that you lose or leave behind.
Let's do a run-through, using a real trip that I really went on before I learned to pack like a minimalist. I was going to New Zealand for three weeks. I would be staying with a family in their home, where I would have access to a washer and dryer. I packed 18 changes of clothes and 7 pairs of shoes.
I started with two suitcases. The handle snapped off of one, so I repacked almost all of the contents into one bag. In the airport parking lot, the handle snapped off the other bag! When I checked it, it was overweight, and it got slapped with a huge sticker. It evidently popped open at some point, because when I retrieved it from the luggage carousel, half my bra was hanging out... Score so far: -120 points for overweight bag and two damaged suitcases.
During the trip, I bought souvenirs: a gift for my mom, a gift for my roommate, two dozen postcards, and several items for myself, including books. I kept every plane ticket, brochure, receipt, plastic shopping bag, and even food packaging as memorabilia. The postcards would not count, since I didn't technically bring them home, but I'm guessing I had at least -50 points from all that.
I gained so much weight during the three weeks that I couldn't button my pants on the trip home. How many points is that??
Now, I'll compare these decidedly amateurish results with my most recent trip.
Fit everything in carry-on baggage, under the seat in front of me: 200 points
Brought everything I needed: 100 points
Got to airport when hubby wanted to be there: 100 points
Brought items I didn’t wear: -6 points
Total: 394 points
In comparison, my hubby forgot he had a wrench in his carryon bag, earning a free bonus secondary search from TSA, which is its own punishment and thus has no negative point value. He also bought six items, so we have a matching -6 points for extra stuff.
Total: 194 points
He’s doing better, though; the first time we went on vacation together, he brought an entire duffel bag full of shoes. Men and their shoes, I tell ya.
Overpacking stems from 1. Lack of systems 2. Anxiety 3. Inexperience and 4. Indecision. Systems that are well designed can defeat anxiety, inexperience, and indecision. Build the system around these pain points. If you trust your car to run when you fill the gas tank, if you trust your refrigerator to keep your food fresh, if you trust your grocery store to stock food, you can also learn to trust that you put the right things in your suitcase. Try to have a sense of humor about this.
The worst-case scenario if you under-pack is that you will arrive at a social event wearing inappropriate clothing. Either you're underdressed, overdressed, stained, torn, smelly, or mismatched in some way. Self-consciousness makes this scenario humiliating and awkward for all concerned. A sense of humor and adventure can make the identical scenario hilarious and endearing. For instance, I once arrived at a party wearing an animal nose and white gloves, like a cartoon character, only to find out after I walked in the door that everyone else had changed their minds about this theme. Cry or laugh? Be a cautionary tale or walk with your head held high like the legend that you are? All the best characters have animal noses.
What do you really need to pack in a suitcase? Clothing, toiletries, medication and/or medical devices, a snack, enough entertainment for the duration of travel, small bills and coins, and chargers for all your devices. How complicated is that? Not very.
How many days is the trip? One outfit per day, plus extra socks and underwear just in case. If you're traveling for more than four days, just go to the laundromat or use the hotel laundry facilities.
How many hours of travel will there be? Divide reading, viewing, and listening material by number of hours. Double it if you need a security blanket. Personally, I can read about 50 pages an hour, 30 for dense technical material and up to 100 for YA or pot-boiler suspense fiction. Thus, a 4-hour flight with an hour of gate time is just barely enough time for me to read through a typical 250-page book. I used to bring a book per day plus two for a buffer, and it took about 15 years to finally admit to myself that this was unnecessary.
Stop worrying so much about the STUFF you plan to bring, and start focusing more on the EXPERIENCES you are going to have. Who are you going to be with? Where are you going? What are you going to see? What will you learn? What is different (and better) than your neighborhood? What will you do? You can play with your clothes and accessories and books and suitcases and handbags at home. You can worry about whatever you want back at home. For this brief window of time, you're GOING SOMEWHERE! Make the most of it. Keep reminding yourself of why you're on this trip. Do it often enough, and you may even be able to make it ten minutes without thinking about your physical belongings. That's what I call winning the game.
Happiness. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
Happiness comes in many varieties, not all of which have names, and it’s a fun exercise to try to catalog the nameless flavors. The satisfaction of a stretch so deep that it stretches itself. The smugness of giving a proper scratch or belly rub to an animal that rolls around in uncontrollable bliss. The delight of running into an old friend in an unexpected location. A happy life may include moments like this, but it’s domestic contentment that is the bedrock.
Let’s distinguish a little further. A life of purpose and meaning may not feel like a “happy” one. Passion is another driving force that may make life interesting, yet not “happy” necessarily. Challenge, that’s yet another theme that may not particularly lead to happiness. Happiness isn’t everything! When we set about seeking something that we feel is missing, we have various paths before us. Happiness is one of those paths, one among several that may bring a sense of having lived a life worth living.
The first obstacle to domestic contentment is being bored at the thought of domestic contentment.
It’s not for everyone. I’m a restless person. When I’m at home, I want to travel, and when I travel, I still want to be somewhere else the next day. Still, what my husband and I have worked out as our own custom blend of domestic contentment is something portable. We have our routines even when we’re on the road. We have a gift for gratitude and satisfaction, noticing what there is to like about any situation, even though it might be annoying in one way or another. Hopefully the annoying stuff can be turned into a funny story. Then, inevitably, we miss our own big comfy bed and our pets, the only aspects of domestic contentment that we can’t fit in a suitcase.
We can deal with annoying circumstances on the road because we know we’ll be leaving them behind. At home, if there’s an annoying circumstance, we’re going to deal with it directly. Obstacles to domestic contentment are to be considered as a high priority. It’s the little things that are actually the big things, because once they’re multiplied by the hundreds and thousands of moments they occupy, they can be seen as the huge problems they really are.
Take a dripping faucet. Maybe, on a scale of one to a thousand, each drip is a one. Ah, but how many drips? If each drip is one point, and the unnecessary increase in your water bill is one point per dollar per month, and any stain or mineral deposit in the sink is several more points, it adds up. Then multiply by every single other minor annoyance.
Domestic contentment is basically just the feeling that you like being at home. When you walk in the door, you feel relieved. You open up like a flower in the rain. It’s your place, where you can do what you want and make your own rules. Home is the place where you don’t have to wear pants. Play the music that you want, eat the meals that you want when you want them, arrange your stuff in whatever way works for you, sleep peacefully as much as you need, think and plan and strategize and dream up great new things to do. Home is your secret superhero cave.
Or, at least, it could be. Probably should be.
My people don’t experience domestic contentment. When I explain that home should be a place where you sigh happily when you walk in the door, they always look surprised, like this had genuinely never occurred to them before. It’s simple, but it’s only simple if it isn’t complicated.
The simple version: I woke up when I had had enough sleep (it was 7:30). I had breakfast with my pets and read the news. I went to the gym and worked out. I showered, walked the dog, and caught the bus. On the way home, I stopped at the store and then caught the bus again. When I got home, I walked the dog again, started laundry, and vacuumed. Then my husband came home and we talked for an hour before dinner. Simple! Uncomplicated!
The complicated version: Wake up to a blaring alarm, exhausted, hit snooze as many times as you can get away with. Try to get dressed and realize that half of what you want to wear is in the laundry. Too late to eat anything for breakfast. Run out the door and get to work late because you had to stop for gas/coffee/couldn’t find a parking spot. Come home exhausted and flop on the couch. Eat whatever. Watch TV/check social media. Stay up too late even though you’re so tired, because that’s your only private time. Repeat. Add in extra complications like lost objects, constantly forgetting things, quarreling with housemates over chores and money, and a constant background of piles of unsorted papers, dirty dishes, and dirty laundry. Complicated! Frustrating! Annoying!
Domestic contentment might seem boring, but at least it isn’t the chronic disappointment and chaos of domestic DIScontent.
All it takes is one obstacle, one persistent problem, to have a perpetual state of domestic discontent. Usually, though, there are several, and most people have all of them. Why? Because tolerating one persistent problem is the same attitude that leads to tolerating any and all persistent problems. Feeling that you don’t have the power or agency to make changes. Defining yourself by your lowest points, your weakest moments, or your least inspiring character traits (which comes from thinking they are your personality rather than a pattern of behavior). Not knowing what to do or how to do it. Lacking examples of serenity or tranquility. Fixating on things outside of your sphere of influence. Any or all of these attitudes can create a lifetime of discontent built on obstacles that could feasibly have been removed.
Want some obstacles? They’re free! Help yourself to as many as you want.
Aggrieved entitlement. If there is one happiness strangler, it is this, the feeling that something should have been yours and was somehow taken from you. You have the right to something you are not getting, such as an inheritance or someone else to cook for you, wash your dishes, and scrub your toilet.
Resentment and grudges. You keep a tally of all the ways people have offended or disappointed you. You hate that you’re expected to do stuff that benefits others. (There’s probably a more resentful way to put that. Let me try again. Ahem. DO I HAVE TO DO EVERYTHING AROUND HERE??)
Failed perfectionism. If I can’t do it exactly right, I’m doing nothing. If you were such a supposed perfectionist, wouldn’t you care more about your visible results? [*wink*]
Social comparison. Actually, social comparison works great if you compare downstairs, but it’s a human failing to always compare ourselves to people who look like they have it better. Compare yourself to a medieval peasant in a hut and suddenly your life doesn’t look so bad.
Complaining. Having a legitimate complaint means one thing. It means it’s time to DO SOMETHING. Handle it. Set boundaries. Have whatever confrontations are necessary. Complaining merely dissipates the energy you need to resolve the situation, exhausting you (and your patient friend) and leaving you with the exact same problem you started out with.
Lack of systems. No strategy, no policies, no plans, no improvement.
Oh, and the practical stuff. Debt, clutter, lifestyle-related health issues. These problems feel complicated, and they are, but the solutions are simple. Earn more money, cut your expenses, open and sort all your mail immediately, get rid of every single object that gets in your way, pack your lunch, cook your own dinner, and go to bed a little earlier. See, that’s not so complicated.
Domestic contentment is its own reward. It also advertises itself. When your cooking skills are good enough, you want to eat your own cooking all the time. When you make your home cozy, you want to be there, enjoying your own personal brand of comfort. When you’re with your favorite people and animals, you want to hang out with them all the time. Whatever it takes to nourish yourself, give yourself a satisfying personal environment, and create supportive relationships, do those things, and remove anything that gets in the way.
I need something to read and I need it immediately. I’m wandering around the aisles of Barnes & Noble, our closest physical bookstore, and I’m desperate. We’re going camping for a week. I love camping, but I’m feeling really emotional about not having backup ebooks, electrical power, or wifi. Anything I’m going to read is going to have to be on paper. Paper! I ask of you! Bulky, heavy, and incapable of being reloaded. The only thing a physical book does better than an electronic book is insect control. There’s another problem: I’ve basically read everything already.
What I’m looking for is what I call a BFB, or Big Fat Book. I can generally read a 250- or 300-page book in a day. I want something in the 600- to 800-page range that a) has a great reputation and b) has not already been feverishly consumed by Past Me. Past Me is extremely selfish about hogging all the good books.
I look at a table, thoughtfully labeled “Must-Reads.” I have read all but two books on the table, both of which are in the 180- to 200-page range. I’d stand here and read them right now, but I’m still in search of something for our trip.
I go to my husband, who is carrying a fantastic large book that I have, um, already read. He can tell I’m panicking. “What do I do after I’ve read ALL THE BOOKS?”
“That won’t happen.”
“I kind of think it already HAS happened!”
I start methodically winding through the aisles of Fiction/Literature, looking at everything thick, and big, and complicated like trig. Several of these books I read as ebooks, and I was a bit staggered to see how long they are. You could build a nice little igloo out of these things. There are some sentimental moments, moments when I see something I loved reading, and I want to shake Past Me for not waiting just a little longer. I’m promising Future Me that I won’t read any more BFB’s during daily life; I’ll save them for times when I need to read something in-tents.
I wind up with a copy of The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen. This cheeses me off a little, because I know it’s available as an ebook. I somehow restrain myself from opening it on the bus ride home.
There is nowhere to put this one-pound, inch-thick paperback book when we get home to our 680-square-foot apartment. Well, technically there are several very inconvenient places to put it, such as on the bed, on the kitchen counter, or on the dining table. That would last for possibly as long as two hours. Why not put it on a bookshelf?
Well, um, you see, about that…
I’ve been consciously trying to divest myself of books for the past four years of our marriage. We move a lot, we’ve been downsizing, and books are really inconvenient (autocorrect suggests ‘inconsiderate’ and ‘inconsistent,’ the latter of which is demonstrably false because I have consistently always had too many books). I’ve sold some and donated some and given some away. They just keep getting in!
There are two types of book hoarders: the type who keep everything after they read it, and the type who accumulate unread books, often on the bedside table. I have no bedside table, so my unread books are in the bookshelves. Once I’ve read something, it goes into a box, to be evacuated as soon as possible. Right now, I’ve got this double-parking situation going on. It looks terrible and it’s driving me crazy. I’d get rid of them right now, except for the sad fact that these books aren’t available digitally. Can someone explain to me how this is even possible? With all of the spam email in the world, there is obviously plenty of text available.
The question being raised here is, if my house is so full of unread books, why can’t I simply bring one of them on our camping trip?
What are you implying? That I can just grab any old book that happens to be there, and just… just start reading it? Right now? Pfffft.
By number and mass, most of “our” books are my husband’s aerospace and robotics engineering textbooks. If you think I’m bad, look at him. I can’t even understand the titles of most of his books; I thought “Theory of Wing Sections” was an ornithology book, and by gum, it should be.
My books almost entirely consist of cookbooks; fitness reference manuals; business reference books; foreign language dictionaries; birding guides; and, yes, two novels I haven’t read yet, one in the 1000-page range and the other in two volumes at 2500+ pages. I can almost hear them chanting “NERDS! NERDS! NERDS!”
I had this idea of printing classic, pre-copyright books in tiny font on biodegradable toilet paper. Then you could take it backpacking, read it, and use it (AS KINDLING, OF COURSE) bit by bit. It is stunning to me that nobody is doing this, but possibly because someone typed Moby-Dick onto TP and it took four rolls. If someone could please take this on, I will be your first customer.
Most book lovers want to be surrounded by books at all times. We like to look at them and carry them around and surreptitiously smell them. Books are how we recognize one another. Although, how can I be friends with someone who is reading on the bus and refusing to hold the book at such an angle that I can clearly read the spine or cover? Come on! Inquiring minds want to know! We go to each other’s homes and turn our heads sideways, looking at each other’s shelves and noting which books we have in common. This doesn’t really work at my house. I’ve moved 28 times since 1993 and I’ve read over 4500 books in my life so far. If you want to know what I read, follow me on Goodreads or LibraryThing because I ain’t carrying those cartons up and down stairs just to satisfy your curiosity. This is my other invention: a custom poster with thumbnail icons of my top 500 favorite books. I can tape it to my wall, like, THERE! I just saved 300 pounds and half a moving van, while avoiding a herniated disc, and you can still find out that we both like Harry Potter. Like that was ever a question. You won’t even have to turn your head sideways.
One day there will be some kind of tiny device that stores books in a skin patch or something. It will run on body heat or the kinetic power generated by my pacing back and forth in a bookstore, assuming they still exist. I’ll be able to read just by staring at the palm of my hand and watching the text projected out of a ring or watch. And I won’t be able to use it because I will already have read everything.
I have a mental exercise that I never do. Every single time I’ve suggested it to myself, my response has been to take action in a completely different way, which is fine, because any action has more information to reveal than a state of inaction. At least I can learn from mistakes, whereas the status quo never has anything to teach whatsoever. This exercise that I keep refraining from doing is to take a total and complete inventory of all my personal possessions.
I have this idea that an inventory of my belongings could be revealing in some way. Maybe I’d learn something about myself. Maybe I could publish it. Maybe I could illustrate it and market it as a book for insomniacs, who would surely fall asleep by the fourth sock photo, although considering my sock collection, which includes some profanity, maybe not so much on the socks. Maybe more on the glass baking pans? Really, my ideas of having a stuff inventory come from a mild paranoia that I might need it to Prove Things to our rental insurance provider.
Mmhmm, yes, I definitely owned some towels and a spatula. Can we get on with the compensation part, please? Because I’m finding that a life with no towels and no spatulas is an inconvenient sort of life. How hard is it to do comedy with no towels (see the complete Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) or spatulas (see the classic Weird Al movie UHF)?
There’s a paradox here. What is the point of owning so much stuff that we can’t realistically keep track of it all? We’re so attached to it, we feel so completely saturated with emotions when we even consider releasing any of it, but why? Can we really be so connected with inanimate objects when there are more than we can count or name?
Here’s an exercise for you. First, go to a neutral second location. A coffee shop, the library, the backwoods, your friend’s house, anywhere other than, say, an underground parking lot, because creepy. Sit there with a notebook and a pen. Try to write a list of everything you own. Okay, too hard. Pick one category of things that you own, and try to write a list of just those things. Shirts? Books? Stuff in your purse? Stuff in your medicine cabinet? Stuff in your kitchen utensil drawer? If you’re artistic, make a drawing. I surely would like to see it.
Make this list a numbered list. Quickly start to see how many, many, many objects there are in your world.
Why number and list things? What’s the point? The point is that it’s really hard to get a neutral, objective perspective on our surroundings. We start to take our background wallpaper for granted. This is how clutter blindness develops. It’s also how life blindness develops. Years can pass and we won’t realize that things have Happened to us. That’s where three-foot-high piles of laundry come from - from the Happening. That’s how we’re able to lose our keys. That’s how we’re able to dig deeply into debt, gain disguising* amounts of weight, and discover that somehow, somewhere, we seem to have misplaced our passion and sense of purpose. We have to find a way to puncture our unawareness, to snap ourselves awake, to sit up into alertness. Any kind of metric, a self-imposed metric, can be a way of injecting some rational thought and structure into this dizzy miasma of vagueness.
Touch everything you own. Touch it once and consider it. Where did it come from? Do you remember? How much did it cost? Was it a gift? How long have you had it? Why do you have it? Do you use it? Do you like it? Is it getting shabby? Does it smell weird? Would you buy it again today at full retail price? What is the name of the feeling you feel when you think about not having it anymore? (Grief, loss, anger, panic, confusion, relief, gratitude, disgust, longing, hunger, numbness, a combination of factors, something?)
Ideally, you touch everything you own almost every day. Hopefully, you’re surrounded by comforts, useful things that make your life easier and happier every day. The finer things in life are really pillows, towels, soap, toothbrushes, bowls and spoons, pots of oatmeal, chairs and tables, floors and ceilings and windows. The more time you spend living in a tent and sleeping on the ground, the more aware you are of these truths. It’s the stuff we add on top of the basic comforts that has the potential to pass the threshold of comfort. It’s when we have so many clothes that it’s physically impossible to keep up on the laundry, when we have so many dishes and plastic containers that we can’t use our kitchen counters, so many papers that there’s nowhere to sit and sort through them, it’s at those times that we realize our stuff is not helping.
The exercise I do instead of inventorying my stuff is to just get rid of more of it. This works in the exact way that a food log works. If I don’t want to admit to it by writing it down, I just skip eating it. Never do anything you’re ashamed of, or, putting it more positively, only do things that make you feel proud. We can also say about our stuff that we keep only things we use, things we like, things that reflect our values. Hopefully those values include interacting with people more than interacting with our favorite inanimate objects. Touch everything you own, but first, hug everyone you love.
* I just realized this might look like a typo for ‘disgusting’ but I really did mean ‘disguising.’ As in, looking like one is wearing a disguise, being unrecognizable, or like one’s original appearance has been disguised and hidden.
Before we begin, allow me to state again for the record that motivation doesn't really exist. We'll do anything as long as we WANT TO and we KNOW HOW. Otherwise, forget it. Not happening. The only trick is to figure out how to convince yourself to want things you don't already want. This can be done, yes, and it's a major secret to success. Easier, though, is to figure out how something actually does get you something you want, in ways you didn't realize before. You can be motivated by things you already find motivating. For a lot of people, a party or social gathering is one of the most powerful and delightful motivators.
When I was a kid, we often had people over. My parents and their friends were all in their twenties, and they hung out a lot. Sometimes we would all go to a park and toss a Frisbee and have a barbecue, with chips and soda. Sometimes a bunch of us would go camping. Mostly, though, various friends would come over for spaghetti and garlic bread. I remember that we had a party when Michael Jackson's Thriller video first premiered, because we were the only ones in the group who had MTV. Another time, we had friends over for pizza and we rented Roadhouse on video. Awesome, right? What we always did before these informal parties was to clean the entire place top to bottom.
Dust and vacuum! Polish everything with Lemon Pledge! Take out the trash! Wipe down the mirrors! Make the beds! Mom would scrub the bathroom until it sparkled, because that was a grownup job. We all ran around doing chores and checking the clock. Then the really great part happened: the FOOD. Mom would always make clam dip and we would have a bag of Ruffles potato chips. For the really big stuff like Tupperware parties, there would be deviled eggs. On birthdays, the birthday person got to choose what to have for dinner and what flavor of cake and frosting to get. (I liked strawberry shortcake with whipped cream). Days when we knew we had company coming were filled with mounting excitement, topped by certain party foods that we only, only ate on special occasions.
When in doubt, link to a food reward.
(Incidentally, I just figured out that my dog is just as happy to get an ice cube for tricks as he is to get a cookie).
The real reward for all our dusting and polishing was the fun of having people over. The hugs, the new jokes, the laughter. Watching new movies. Playing cards or board games. Telling stories. The time would fly by. Before we knew it, it would be time to say goodnight. Then it would be just us.
Those of us who live alone often don't feel any pressing need to clean up after ourselves. We're not hurting anybody, right? We can start to feel lonely and isolated. This is especially true if we have had roommates we really liked, or if we hate to be alone, or if we're single and not loving it. I admit it; I've cried at night, crying myself to sleep because I was new in town, with no friends and nobody to love. WHERE IS EVERYBODY?
I kept my place clean, though, because that's a luxury to me. I can't think straight when I have papers and stuff everywhere. It depresses me to have sticky floors or crumbs on the counter. I've had several extremely messy roommates, including a Rebel who later made the local news for hoarding and squalor. My motivation for cleaning is that I like it clean. Given a choice between living alone or living in a mess, I'd choose to live alone. A lot of people feel the way I do, but most don't. Most people would rather have a lively, full house with a lot going on, and not care all that much about a bit of mess.
These are questions of degrees. What is a 'mess' to one person is the 'after' photo to someone else. What it looks like after a full day of cleaning may still be 'messy' by other people's standards. How we feel about mess is one way we sort ourselves into social groups. The ideal is to settle into what makes us happy and proud, and also makes our friends feel relaxed and welcome. What that looks like is up to you, and it's up to them. Get it right, and they start coming over and hanging out all the time.
No matter how your place looks, people need somewhere to sit (or at least stand). When I was a kid, adults sat on the couch and chairs, and kids sat on the floor. I still sit on the floor, because I still can! The majority of my clients have so much stuff in stacks and piles that even sitting on the floor is a challenge, because there just isn't enough room. Goat trails from one room to another. For a lot of my people, it's a major victory just to clear enough room to open the front door all the way, with nothing behind it. Then at least people can come to your door to pick you up without seeing your secret shame.
The next area to tackle is the bathroom, or at least the bathroom closest to the front door. Even someone who is just knocking on your door to pick you up may surprise you with a sudden request to use your bathroom. It'll go better if the fixtures are clean and there's hand soap and a clean hand towel.
If you want people to come over and hang out, they'll need not just a clean bathroom and somewhere comfortable to sit, but also somewhere to put their stuff. Bags, coats, potluck dishes, whatever else they may be bringing.
If you want people to stay long, they'll probably want to eat, and that tends to mean somewhere to put food. Whether that's bags of chips and snacks, pizza boxes, a potluck, or a full fancy sit-down dinner is up to you.
This kind of visualization can help to motivate even the biggest cleanup job. We can imagine a pool of acceptability spreading from the front door through the entire home, whether that's a tiny apartment or a huge house. It also helps to realize that we don't have to work on basements, attics, sheds, storage units, bedrooms, cabinets, closets, or other hidden areas before starting to have social gatherings. We only have to focus on visible areas first.
The thing about isolation and shame is that they feed on themselves. It's our awkward, weird, lonely feelings that create the problem. Being honest and revealing the secret shame to someone can be a huge breakthrough, as long as it's a nurturing rather than critical person. You may well know someone who will come over and sit with you while you sort out your stuff and get your place ready for company. Or you can just print out a picture of someone you admire and tape it to the wall. Oh my gosh! Chris Pratt and Adele, you made it! Thanks so much for coming over!
A party doesn't have to be anything fancy. You can have a board game night, dance battle, LAN party, lip sync battle, coloring night, crafting, a movie marathon, or whatever you want. You can invite one person over, or ten, or however many will fit. I used to have an open house one night a week, and friends would bring friends of friends. People came over to our place because we had plenty of room, they didn't have to RSVP, and we didn't care if they brought five friends. We frequently had twenty-odd people over. (How many of them were 'odd people' is a matter of debate). In the first two months that we lived in our new place, we had three visits from various friends from out of town. That feeling that my place is always company-ready is a friendly feeling. It's all about the atmosphere, demonstrating that you're glad to see everyone and you want to make sure they know their visit matters to you.
Minimalism is an intentional lifestyle. It means we choose to focus our energy, attention, awareness, and money on what is most important, according to our own values. Quality over quantity. Paradoxically, the less we have, the more we appreciate it, and the less we buy, the more we can afford to spend. Minimalism is cheaper overall.
Too much is never enough. This is the major drawback of scarcity mindset. When I feel that I Can't Afford things, I have a constant feeling of deprivation. I am Missing Out. Therefore, I have an inner drive to buy as much as I can of what I do feel I can afford. That means I may be buying all sorts of two- and three-star items instead of one four- or five-star item. Not only am I spending significantly more time, space, and money on items I don't like as much, but it often turns out that I actually could afford the one five-star item I really wanted all along.
100 items at $50 each costs less than 300 items at $20 each. If you can't imagine someone having a cumulative 300 t-shirts, sweaters, tank tops, pants, shorts, tights, skirts, dresses, purses, shoes, earrings, necklaces, rings, bracelets, scarves, hats, pajamas, socks, etc, come with me on a home visit and prepare to be amazed.
My people have tons of everything. That is, they have so much of certain items that they can't find their favorite, most important stuff. They also tend not to have certain other items that most of us would consider necessities. Stacks and stacks of old magazines but no passport or first aid kit. Tubs and tubs of yarn but no kitchen sponge. Piles and piles of clothes strewn everywhere, but only two pairs of pants and three shirts that fit today. A house chock-full of stuff of every description, but not a single clear flat work surface and no savings. Books everywhere, but good luck finding that gift certificate before it expires or that missing bill before it turns into a final notice.
We can learn to focus on experiences rather than possessions. That includes the felt experience of daily life. Key to a constant background hum of contentment is a set of systems. We are able to relax and feel satisfied and grateful for life when everything is functioning well. This is much, much easier with few, easily managed possessions than it is in a burgeoning maximalist house.
I feel relaxed when I can get out the door with plenty of time to spare. That is easier when my important daily items are always in my daily bag, and there is no excess of stuff piled around my closet or my front door.
I feel happy when my husband and I are eating dinner at our dining table. We talk longer, like we did when we were dating and we would linger over a restaurant table. This is easier when we can use our kitchen countertops to cook and when we can set our plates down without having to move anything first.
I feel inspired when I can sit down to work with a clear desktop. I can do this when I'm processing information as it comes in and when I prioritize my use of the work space rather than storage space.
I feel content at the end of the day when I can climb into bed with the knowledge that I have plenty of time to get 8-9 hours of sleep. This is actually possible when I've written down all my nagging tasks and appointments, when there's no laundry piled on my bed, and when I don't feel like I'm missing out on anything by going to sleep.
Extra stuff interferes with all of these desired emotional and mental states.
When I feel deprivation or envy or boredom, I want to shop. Retail therapy helps me tune out, distract myself, get pampered by customer service, and give myself treats. I'll worry later about where I'm going to put one more shopping bag or where I'm going to somehow fit more clothes. Result: accumulated clothes, shoes, accessories, makeup, decorations, or other lifestyle upgrades.
When I feel confused or overwhelmed, I want to distract myself. I want passive entertainment. I want to veg out watching TV or playing with my phone. I definitely don't want to do any strategic thinking or planning, especially with my finances or career ladder. Result: accumulated electronics, books, music, movies, magazines, games, toys, craft supplies, coloring books, etc.
When I'm burned out and exhausted, I don't want to cook, I want to go out or get takeout. I don't want to eat leftovers, clear out my fridge, make a shopping list, or plan meals around what I already have in the pantry. Result: magical exploding kitchen.
I can change my attitude toward shopping when I realize that I can afford to spend 5x more if I buy 20% of the amount I used to buy. I can start to see my home itself as a desirable product. I can see my lifestyle as a unit. Physical space is valuable to me. Work surfaces are valuable to me. Mental bandwidth is valuable to me. Functioning systems are valuable to me. I'm going to get a lot more out of a smoothly operating, comfortable living space than I am out of any given consumer item. Even more so, waking up in a high-energy, fit, well-rested and well-nourished body gives me a feeling of general well-being that money can't buy.
Estimates are that Americans waste 40% of our food supply. That will vary from household to household, but it's such a huge number that we'll be wise to figure out our own cost and plan around it. Spending less time on multiple shopping trips per week frees up time to cook at home, and maybe even learn enough skills to actually start enjoying it.
The toughest discipline for me has been to read through all the books I already own before buying anything new. What I thought would take months is actually taking years. The truth is that I have plenty to keep my mind occupied. What will it cost to keep me supplied with reading material once I'm caught up? That's hard to say, but I do know I'll be more likely to buy the new book I really want in hardcover rather than to settle for an older discount paperback. That's minimalism right there: I'll buy what I really want, if and when I really want to buy something, because I didn't waste my time or money buying lesser items more often.
The more I delve into minimalism, the more obvious it seems that owning less is the easiest, most satisfying way to live. Stuff is a poor substitute for a satisfying life.
Clutter is just a speed bump. It’s important to remember that when we actually start rolling up our sleeves and sorting it out. This isn’t meant to be a new hobby! It’s something we can do over a brief period of time, and once we’ve gotten it over with, we can move on to things we like better. All the things we couldn’t do when our homes were full of extra stuff… The point of space clearing is to make room for life to start happening again.
There’s a phenomenon that I call “churning.” This is when someone starts constantly rearranging and reorganizing and purging and shopping and reorganizing stuff yet again. The reason for this is that many of us strongly prefer interacting with stuff over interacting with other humans. This is why I discourage people from looking to their stuff to “spark joy.” Stuff shouldn’t spark joy; people should spark joy. Living a life filled with purpose should spark joy. Dance and music and art and nature should spark joy. Joining the great conversation should spark joy. Instead, culturally, we’ve traded in almost all of that for screen time and cheap consumer goods.
Maybe that’s too much to ask, though. Maybe we’re far enough gone that most of us can’t reach the threshold for pleasant interactions, due to a general societal lack of civility and kindness. If the choices available are sorting through a stack of books or a tub of craft supplies, or trying to have a conversation with someone who is sarcastic or belligerent, it’s easy enough to see why so many of us are turning to coloring books or games instead. If the main point of space clearing is to have a home suitable for informal gatherings of family and friends, maybe we just have to shrug that one off and move further down the list.
The point of space clearing is to have a functional personal living environment that supports the things you want to do. A bedroom for sleeping, a bathroom for bathing, a kitchen for cooking, a dining table for eating meals, a living room for relaxing. If this all sounds perfectly obvious to you, then you probably don’t have a clutter problem.
This is what I see in my work:
Bedrooms full of dirty and clean laundry
Dressers and closets full to bursting, partly with clothes that don’t even fit
Kitchen sinks full of dirty dishes
Kitchen counters covered with dirty dishes, packages of food, mail, and random objects
Refrigerators full to the gills, mostly with stuff that has expired
Bathroom counters covered with bottles and random grooming tools
Desks buried under drifts of mail and other papers
Garages full from wall to wall
Uncashed checks and unused gift cards
(Sometimes) “craft rooms” too full of materials to actually make anything
The point of space clearing is to get these systems up and running. Systems, you say? Yes. The missing piece in all the homes where I have worked is that they don’t really have any systems. Material objects come in the door and they never go out again. Without any overall system, stuff gets left wherever, and when it can’t be found, sometimes it’s replaced, adding to the overall stuff problem. Default patterns that contribute to this are buying things on sale, “stocking up,” recreational shopping (such as yard saling), and poor boundaries with friends and relatives who are compulsive accumulators. A lot of people use gift-giving as an excuse for compulsive acquisition. “I saw this and I bought it, and I’m not sure why exactly, but here, you take it.”
Putting some systems in place can prevent clutter and chronic disorganization from getting worse. Space clearing usually needs to happen at some point, though, for things to really start working.
Get rid of anything in your kitchen that gets in the way of actually preparing simple meals.
Get rid of anything on your dining table that gets in the way of sitting down to eat.
Get rid of anything on your desk that prevents you from sitting there to work.
Get rid of anything in your bedroom, bathroom, or entryway that slows you down when you get ready in the morning.
Get rid of anything, anywhere, that you might trip over or step on.
Get rid of anything in your garage that prevents you from reaching your cool stuff, whether that’s a workbench, a kayak, an air hockey table, your bike, or anything you like more than boxes.
Get rid of anything you think is ugly, broken, depressing, or smelly.
Get rid of anything that makes you want to turn around and leave the room. Include your front and back yard in that assessment.
Get rid of everything in your storage unit, unless of course you’re independently wealthy.
We tend to get caught up in the many fascinations and charms of an individual object, such as a tomato-stained spatula, a dusty wicker basket, any object shaped like any animal, or anything that could loosely be described as “cute.” We hold things up and we set them right back down. We get distracted and wander off. It’s hard for us to learn to think in terms of an entire room rather than one silly little material object. Thinking in terms of systems is harder still. We aren’t sold on the advantages.
Am I having fun?
How do I feel when I walk in my door at the end of the day? Relieved, happy, satisfied…? Or bummed out, drained, resentful…?
Am I getting where I need to be, on time, all the time?
How are my finances? Do I actually know or am I intimidated by this thought?
Can I move freely through my home or is it easier to sit down and stay put?
Can I easily put together a meal, an outfit, and a financial statement?
Am I a good roommate to myself?
Do I like my life?
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.