Free isn’t free. It’s better to understand that going in. Anything you take, any object that you handle, has strings attached.
One of the great paradoxes of clutter is that it’s usually harder to get rid of “free” stuff than things that we bought at retail price. Why? No idea, I just know that it’s true.
We had a give-away party after our last move, and one of the items in the pile was our last set of plastic shelving from when we had a garage. We were 100% sure the shelves would go, and we were astonished when they didn’t. The other half-dozen sets had so much traction on Craigslist that we probably should have sold them for cash.
We don’t look at it that way, because we don’t necessarily want to advertise our home as a place full of valuable stuff. (It isn’t). Giving something away attracts gratitude, while selling something seems to activate scarcity mindset in everyone involved. Do I really want to spend my free time dickering over $20? Do I really want a lot of random strangers driving to my specific home address, wondering what else I have?
The thing about shelves in particular is that they have no intrinsic value. They are not beautiful to look at, and their only use consists in storing and/or displaying other items. Nobody just wishes for a house full of empty shelves, and then leaves them that way.
I had a good laugh the other day because one of the apartment units in our building is visible from the pool. What we could see from our perspective was a wall of built-in shelving with about a dozen paperback books on it. There was room for several hundred and they looked a little lonely, all on their own.
This is dangerous, an attractive nuisance. Nature abhors a vacuum and for this reason, empty shelves attract clutter like nothing else.
Once clutter is stored or displayed on a shelf, it never leaves. It merges with the shelving unit and becomes an unremovable part of the whole. It becomes impossible to imagine the object and the shelves separately.
The strangest thing about shelves is that they tend to be inexpensive and easy to find. Yet the people who need them the most never seem to have any. I have a theory about this.
When my eldest nephew was a little boy, we had a conversation about money and stuff. He came running in breathlessly asking to get into his piggy bank because a neighbor kid was willing to sell him a plastic truck for ten dollars. What the heck?? [insert static noise] I told him that sounded way too expensive and that he’d have to ask his dad. Then I gave him a homily about how we save money so we can get something really cool later.
“I like to buy lots of small stuff and then I don’t have to wait,” he replied.
Yeah, you and all my hoarding clients, I thought.
My people, caught in scarcity mindset, all share a knee-jerk reaction that goes NO I CAN’T AFFORD THAT. They are unable to process the idea that a $40 set of shelves costs the same amount as ten $4 items or forty $1 items, which I can clearly see scattered, stacked and piled all over their home.
I “can afford” infinite amounts of $1 and $5 items. Never in life, in no alternative universe, could I even hypothetically afford any item over $X.
That’s the line. That’s how it works. In the scarcity paradigm, there is a permanent cutoff of any price tag over a certain amount, forever and always, for all time, the end.
The other issue with something like a set of shelves is that it needs to go somewhere. Any set of free shelving is virtually guaranteed not to match either the existing furniture or the dimensions of the room. In a cluttered room with a lot of big furniture, it’s never obvious where such a thing could go.
Our utilitarian beige plastic shelving wouldn’t look good anywhere except for a garage, and none of our friends has a garage, because few of the homes in our region do. We live in small apartments or condos because that’s mostly what is available. Who wants to live in a small place dominated by an ugly set of shelves? We all operate under the assumption that our homes should be comfortable and reasonably attractive.
My people, on the other hand, plan everything around THEIR STUFF, what they already have and whatever else they might carry in.
How could I set up these shelves? I’d have to move all these bags and boxes first.
The free shelves that are easy to get are only free because there’s something wrong with them. Either they are rickety or unappealing, or the original owner tried them and found that they didn’t do the job. They’re designed for a purpose. Our shelves are designed to hold medium-sized moving boxes or storage tubs. They work great for that, but they’re too tall for most stuff, either in the garage or indoors. Other “free” shelves might be designed specifically for DVDs or paperback books or some other standard size unit.
A standard shelf will either attract more items that fit it, because it feels right, or it will fill with random clutter that has nowhere else to go. It’s either manifest destiny or lebensraum.
Ideally, a shelf empties and refills. Clean dishes, clean towels, fresh groceries, they’re all supposed to come and go. It’s hard to tolerate clutter on shelves that are constantly in use, because anything that isn’t being used is always in the way. That’s what clutter IS, of course. So what is it that we think we’re doing with any shelf if it’s filled with stuff we don’t use?
The goal is always to be intentional. With something like shelving, it should be clear what is being stored, why, where, and for how long. Then it’s simple enough to find a set of shelving of the right size and dimensions. Maybe sell off some existing clutter to pay for them, thereby solving two problems: too much stuff, and nowhere to put what’s left. Good luck finding any free shelves that will magically do that job.
This summer has really done a number on our waistlines. We went on three trips out of town, adding up to over a month. Between that, moving, and my series of oral surgeries, there hasn’t really been a normal day for us in months. Like most people, that means we haven’t been eating normal meals, either. We’re in our new place, which has a mirrored door on the bedroom closet, and we’re thinking, Oh dear.
Note that I said “normal” meals, not “regular” meals. This isn’t about missing any mealtimes, oh no. It’s more about restaurant food, eating at the airport, and half a metric ton more French fries than we’d normally eat in a year.
This is what happened. We moved into our new apartment, literally were unpacking boxes until 11:00 PM the night before we went to the airport, and then left the country. When we came home, it was a lot like walking in the door of our new home for the first time.
We walked in, and we were both at our highest weight of 2019.
Not everyone cares about this, and if you personally don’t have to care for health or financial reasons, well bully for you. In both our cases, we’re at the point where we either need to replace our ENTIRE WARDROBES or we need to slow our roll.
Since we just moved and went on vacation, we’re not in any hurry to spend money on anything that isn’t a strict necessity.
I don’t enjoy the feeling of the waistband of my pants trying to do stage magic and saw me in half, so the sooner we can make some changes, the better.
The good news is that we’re benefitting from three things. One, we both know we want to have good news to report in four months for the New Year, so we’re intrinsically motivated. Two, we’ve collectively lost 100 pounds and we know what to do. Three, and probably most important, we are structurally supported by our new kitchen.
One of the main reasons we moved is because we were both sick and tired of the tiny kitchen in our old studio apartment. We could only be in the room one at a time. We had one square foot for meal prep. It was hard to reach anything and removing one item, like a bowl or a pan, required moving other stuff out of the way. As a consequence, we started relying on a lot of frozen food.
The new kitchen is woefully short on drawers, there is only one cabinet deep enough to hold a lot of bigger stuff like baking pans, and we still don’t have enough space for a pantry cupboard. The spice rack is on top of the fridge. BUT!
There is plenty of counter space, it has a full-size dishwasher, the sink is deeper and it has a sprayer, it’s better lit, and it looks much nicer all around. We basically went from 1980s kitchen to modern overnight.
For the first time in our marriage, my husband can find ingredients and utensils without having to ask me where they are. That is momentous.
He cooked a proper meal the second night. I had already unpacked the kitchen well enough that it was functional. In fact I had managed to heat up a can of soup for lunch while the movers were still hauling things in. We were both more interested in getting the kitchen in order than we were in anything else, at least once the bed and shower were operational.
When you enjoy cooking, it’s relaxing and fun. When you walk into an inviting kitchen space, the first thing you think is, What would I cook in here? I often cook at my parents’ house and sometimes I cook with friends, too. It’s a lot like how musicians display their instruments, and sometimes their friends ask to pick one up. It’s also a lot like Sewing Room Envy.
We were still in the unpacking process and we were already stacking carefully labeled leftovers in the freezer.
There is nothing like eating home cooking after a long absence. DANG this is good!
We had been consciously eating down our provisions for a couple of months before the move, planning to avoid leftovers and finish off containers without replacing them. Our fridge and freezer were almost completely empty the day of the move. This left us with a more or less clean slate in the new place.
Right now the fridge is full of a bunch of chard, a head of cauliflower, and the biggest cabbage that we’ve ever seen, almost the size of a watermelon! When I say “full,” I mean that the main compartment is mostly produce. This is fairly typical for us; we’ll eat the chard and the cauliflower over two meals. The cabbage might take three.
What happens when two good cooks share a kitchen is that they start working to outdo one another. A particularly fine meal inspires a follow-up. As bachelors, we both would occasionally eat cereal for dinner, and of course we could do that any time we like, but it seems really depressing now. Why settle when you have the time, space, and resources to make something better?
We were at the grocery store, stocking up, when I noticed a new kind of frozen pizza. I pointed it out. We both shook our heads, Nahhh. We also walked right past the mini corndogs.
Most people don’t have functional kitchens. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the main three are: at least twice as much stuff as necessary, power struggles, and lack of a system. People with far larger and better equipped kitchens than ours are not appreciating them at all! My suggestion would be to rate your mood and energy level against what meals are actually emerging from your kitchen, and then reevaluate all the stuff on your countertops.
It doesn’t take actually relocating to get yourself both a new kitchen and a new dinner!
It’s that time again, time to move! We’ve been eating up what we have on hand, and this has led to some interesting revelations. What are we doing when we’re coasting along in default mode, and how does it compare to what we would rather claim to be doing on some sort of survey?
Our freezer is almost completely empty right now. We decided to get ready to move immediately after coming home from vacation, when we hadn’t been shopping yet. That was the first disruption. HALT! Eat what we have and try to avoid bringing home anything new.
The second disruption happened when I also skipped my occasional “stocking up” trips. One of our frugality tricks is to wait until certain staples go on sale, and then buy as much as we can fit. Since we haven’t had a pantry for the past couple of years, this means freezer stuff. It keeps, it’s at eye level, and it’s a very limited space, so we know we can’t overdo it.
This would definitely be the point when I would plan to fill up the freezer with entrees to last 1-2 weeks.
The third disruption was when we noticed we were running out of oatmeal and declined to go to Costco. There is truly no point to going to a warehouse store immediately before loading a moving van, especially when you plan to live closer to said warehouse store afterward.
As with any area of complexity, there are multiple inputs here, all with different causes and all with different effects.
As our freezer has gradually and steadily emptied out, it is becoming apparent that I harbor some major fantasies about leisurely hot breakfasts. Now more than half of what is left in there consists of breakfast foods. That does sort of solve the low oatmeal reserve problem.
It has also become apparent that we tend to eat certain foods more quickly than others, and some orphans have been hanging around. I discovered, much to my surprise, that there are two containers of homemade soup in the freezer, and one of a special katsu sauce that I batch-cook because it is incredibly messy.
This makes it theoretically possible to eat an actual “home-cooked” meal in our new place the very night we move in!
Something else came up in the surprise pantry assessment. My hubby found my carefully hidden, freezer-burned non-dairy chocolate brownie ice cream. It’s probably been in there, what month is it? Six months or more? It was under my stash of vegan white chocolate chips from New Year’s Eve 2017.
Yes, it’s true, no matter what I eat or claim to eat, I always have a stash of dessert foods hidden away somewhere. Twenty-five years ago it was a bag of Pepperidge Farm cookies in the back of my desk drawer, kept at work so I wouldn’t have to share with my boyfriend. Now it’s - well, it’s whatever I feel like - considerately hidden from my abstainer husband.
Abstainers have to avoid temptations entirely, because otherwise they will immediately cave in. Moderators like me prefer to have the temptation on hand, just to know it’s there, like a fire extinguisher. It’s just as unfair for me to prominently display treats around my husband as it is unfair for him to require me not to keep any in the house.
I learned to be a moderator from my dad, incidentally. He would get three Cadbury chocolate bars for Christmas, one plain, one with dried fruit, and one with nuts. They lived in a desk drawer next to his favorite chair. Sometimes, while reading a book, he would unwrap one of these, snap off one rectangle, and nibble at it. Just one. Not every day. Those chocolate bars - you can imagine how I knew, a little kid staring at candy - would last him for months. I learned to associate moderation with higher-quality candy! That’s probably why, in our fruit bowl, I still have a few pieces of candy left over from Halloween, over nine months ago.
What else do we have in our pantry, now that we’re aiming for nothing?
A dozen or so jars of homemade soup stock, canned four years ago when we had a much larger kitchen. Likewise home-grown and canned tomatoes and collard greens. Are we going to cook from scratch more when we move to a new place and have a conventional kitchen again?
A few different kinds of flours and sweeteners, kept in the fridge for lack of space. Again, bought when we had a bigger kitchen and more counter space for baking. Are we going to do more of that, or are we wasting money by buying more than we use?
Condiments, so many condiments. We seem to keep accumulating mustards and capers and barbecue sauce and salad dressings, no matter where we live or what we’re doing. At least they are current, since we definitely started from zero when we moved to this region.
Behavioral research indicates that moving is the best time to start new habits. Thinking about when we first moved to this apartment, things have been different. We’ve eaten a lot more prepared foods and we’ve done very little cooking. We’re fitter, though, because we started taking classes at a gym instead of leaving our workouts up to fate. We used to alternate which one of us cooked, but it’s been very haphazard in this tiny studio kitchen.
Now what we want to do is to set careful intentions about our new place, because if we don’t, we will certainly fall into default behavior. We’ll have our first grocery shopping trip to fill up our ghostly, echoing fridge. What’s going in the basket? What will we bring home, what will we cook, what will we eat?
Most importantly, where will I hide my treats?
We’re moving again. When? I dunno. I just know that this is not the place where we are going to retire. Our lease is up this fall and I want to go sooner rather than later. This is the method that I use when I want to shake things up a bit.
Most people don’t plan their moves. In my experience, this is one of THE most commonly procrastinated human activities. I know it because when I do home visits, there are universally always boxes still sealed from the last move, often many years in the past. Nothing personal. People just suck at moving.
One thing I know is true. If something stays sealed in a box, then nobody needs it.
If they did, they would have found it and opened the box and gotten it out.
I’ve moved, I think, 27 times as an adult. Add to that all the people who I have helped pack or move or unpack, and all the clients I have helped do space clearing years after the fact. It’s a lot.
Working with hoarders has been a great refresher for me. Every single time I come home from a home visit, I get rid of another bag of stuff. I even start thinking about my own belongings while I’m still on site. Why do I have so many books I haven’t read? Why do I insist on keeping certain garments even when they’re threadbare and it drives my husband nuts to see me wearing them?
I don’t have much as a general rule, because I formally downsize on a regular basis. Even so, I’ve found that moving requires a culling both before and after a move. First there’s all the stuff you shouldn’t pack in the first place, like empty paper sacks, and then there’s all the stuff that won’t work in the new place, like furniture that won’t fit.
The difference between me and most people is that I actually DO the work that should be done here. I actually DO go through my stuff and get rid of a bunch of things before we move. Then I DO go through it the second time while I’m unpacking.
This has been made easier by our tenuous existence inside of a 612-square-foot studio apartment over a year and a half.
When we first moved into this unit, we had three boxes left over that had nowhere to go. It was mostly pantry food (and, as it turns out, the sewing machine). I had them stacked up next to our dining chairs, and they were unbelievably annoying.
Too stubborn to throw them away, though!
(Many types of food can’t be donated to the food bank, such as flour in a canister, homemade soup stock, or anything in a container that has been opened).
I finally managed to unpack those last three boxes one day while my husband was at work. Let me tell you, he noticed the moment he walked in the door.
It’s easy to be a minimalist in a normal-sized suburban home. That’s because they tend to have tons of closets and cabinets, and you can hide all your stuff.
In a studio where almost all the available storage is on open shelving, suddenly you don’t look like such a minimalist any more! Anyone who comes over and uses our bathroom is going to get a view of our closet, with almost all our worldly goods, not to mention our laundry hampers.
I’m determined to get ready to move, and I want the unpacking process to be even easier than it was last time.
The last time we moved, I unpacked a lot of stuff as we went. We had a friend - a truly amazing person to whom we owe a major debt - come over and help us hand-carry our stuff from one building in our apartment complex to another. Every time I would bring over a load, I would put it where it belonged, starting with the shower and the fridge. By the time we finished late that night, the bathroom was completely unpacked, the bed was made, all our clothes were set up, and the kitchen was half done. We were able to get up the next morning, shower, dress, and make breakfast like nothing had happened.
The main area where I’m focusing as I manifest our next relocation is the kitchen. I’m planning around eating up everything in our fridge and freezer, including condiments. This means the only grocery shopping we’ll really be doing is to buy fresh vegetables. I always wonder how we wind up with so many different flavors of mustard and salad dressing, and that continues to be a question that will probably never be solved.
Doing the closet is a fairly quick job. It takes my husband ten minutes because he’s all about the capsule wardrobe. It will probably take me more like an hour. Then maybe a half hour for the bathroom cabinets.
The other big challenges are our paper file box and the books.
At some point in our relationship, I seem to have passed the baton of book collecting to my hubby. Almost all my reading is digital these days, while he has been doing an unprecedented amount of business travel, which generates a lot of paperback books. Books add bulk and weight to the moving boxes more quickly than anything except clothes, so it’s worth putting in extra focus here.
As for papers, we try to be paper-free as much as possible, yet still they tend to accumulate. I keep hoping that one day we can scan and shred what’s left and be done with it entirely. Papers tend to take the most concentration, and the more they pile up, the harder the job is. That’s why I insist that we purge the file box every year. I refuse to spend more than an hour at a time on this odious task.
I’ll do an inventory of household cleansers and all the random boxes, bags, and bottles that our pets generate.
This time, we’re hiring professional movers again, at my husband’s insistence. I know the job will be easier for them if everything is orderly and streamlined when they arrive. I also know they’re going to unpack in the most random way possible, so the less we have, the better.
Watch this space as I demonstrate how quickly I can manifest a nicer apartment, or maybe even a house!
“Happy families are all alike,” claims Tolstoy, and it’s fair to say that organized people are all alike as well. Chaos, though, is personal.
This is the fascinating thing about working with the chronically disorganized. Their living and work spaces may have a lot in common, as far as the stacks and piles and dust. But the reasons they have for letting things get to that state are all distinctly individual.
The family with small kids and the confirmed bachelor. The teenager and the retired lady. They are only alike in that they can’t figure out what to do about their personal chaos.
You’d think, from all those squalor-sploitation reality TV shows, that all my people make the same mess. They don’t, though. Most of my people are not true hoarders, even though they think they are. They’ll cheerfully get rid of truckloads of stuff and never look back. They just need someone there to help them figure out what to keep and why.
There are usually isolated islands of calm amidst the chaos.
The one who owns a carefully curated capsule wardrobe with plenty of space between hangers
The one who keeps an immaculate living room
The one who is always photoshoot-ready (outside the home, anyway)
The one who lets go of hundreds of books but keeps expired food
Chaos is personal because stories are personal. We live the way we do because we’ve internalized messages about how the world works. We explain things to ourselves, or memorize the way others have explained them. Sometimes we even talk to ourselves, convincing ourselves all over again, in the sense of “how dare they!”
The one who had more stuff than any of my other clients, but somehow managed to keep a nice living room: I want it to look good when my friends come over.
The one whose hair, makeup, and wardrobe are always on point: I could never let myself go.
The one who hoards food but not books: I already read that and now it can go to someone else.
That one is fascinating because it posits that books are consumable, that they come and go, but that food belongs to some kind of longterm storehouse. It’s perfectly fine to read a $25 book once and then donate it, but it is never okay to throw away a five-year-old bag of pasta that cost $1.99.
In my fantasies, the ones I indulge when I’m working through a particularly gross and smelly forgotten area, in my fantasies I host a symposium of chronically disorganized people. They debate amongst themselves whose stories make the most sense.
Often I find myself challenged by these stories, because they don’t match mine, and sometimes my client has a point. For instance, the one who would never, ever leave the house without perfect hair and makeup. I’m more or less the opposite. I’ve left the house in my nightgown because I wasn’t feeling well, but I would never let my HOME go.
The first sign that something is wrong with me is when I somehow “don’t feel like” making the bed. This happens two or three times a year, and without fail, it means I’m either getting a migraine or coming down with a cold.
My client’s story is that the way you present yourself says everything about you. It makes or breaks your reputation.
My story is that I’m not going to bend over backwards to impress other people, and if they require me to look photo-perfect before they’ll talk to me, then I don’t want them for a friend anyway.
My client believes that real friends will accept your home in any state, that they come over to see you, not your house.
My story is that since I work at home, I need and want it to be orderly. I clean my house for myself, not for anybody else. My story is that my home reflects my mental state and my self-respect.
What if we’re both right?
What if everything about us has the opportunity to make a first impression? What if we’re better off attending to both our personal appearance and our homes?
I sure don’t want that to be the answer!
On the other hand, what if we’re both wrong? What if our real friends don’t care if we look a little sloppy OR if our living rooms do?
There’s no right answer here. It depends entirely on whether you care more about your own inner standards or about the judgments of others. It’s also true that people are different, our situations are different, and the values and opinions of our friends vary person to person.
People are often afraid to have me over, because they know about my work. There are people I’ve known socially for many years who have never allowed me to visit them at home. It’s ironic because out of everyone, I’m the *least* likely to judge! I have seen it all and I have smelled it all and I have climbed over it all. I know that people rarely manage to keep up with their own image of what they wished their homes looked like.
Part of what fascinates me about working with chronically disorganized people is that learning about them helps me to learn about myself. Every time I come back from a home visit, I get rid of stuff. I recognize that my clients’ daffy stories about why they “need” to keep certain things sound... hauntingly familiar.
So much of it is aspirational. I’ll wear that one day, I’ll read that one day, I’ll learn how to do that one day, I’ll file that one day, I’ll fix that one day, I’ll sell that at a yard sale one day, I’ll eat that one day.
What about today?
What are we doing about today?
If my stuff doesn’t match my routine, then why? Why am I not taking advantage of these opportunities that I’ve provided myself? Why do I plan to do one thing and then spend my time doing something else instead?
Only one thing is guaranteed. The stories I tell myself about why I’m doing one thing instead of something else are not obvious to anyone but me. My story is my own, and my chaos is my personal chaos.
As a news junkie, I’ve noticed that news consumption increases to fill the time available. I would find myself reading the news over breakfast, over lunch, or even while brushing my teeth. The more I read, the more important it felt to read yet more. No matter how many sources I followed or how many versions of a story I read, I never felt like I knew enough about whatever it was. It never stopped, it never even slowed down. It took a week of vacation to step back and realize that this wasn’t a positive habit. What I needed was a news upgrade.
There are lots of approaches to upgrading a news habit. One is to replace it with something entirely different, like a cooking class or an extra hour of sleep. Another is to switch to books. Often reading a non-fiction book about a topic can bring clarity to a subject in a way that a dozen news articles never could. (A biography, the history of a particular country or region, an explanation of the stock market or self-driving cars, any number of topics could be an improvement over a news habit). One of the easiest ways is to upgrade the news itself.
What I did was to rearrange my news sources. I did this in several ways.
I have a side project, a tech newsletter that I put out on weekdays. This requires me to stay current in a few fields that are outside my area of expertise. The advantage of my layman’s perspective is that I bring in a broader range of material in adjacent subjects. I’m stronger in trend analysis than I am in STEM. Working in this field reminds me that ‘trend analysis’ is valuable and interesting in its own right, and it helps me to reinterpret what is meant by ‘current events.’
What do I cover? Robotics, astronomy, biomimicry, technology, and science news are my working categories. All of these fields are booming. Usually it feels like I can barely keep up, that there’s too much happening to fit within my remit. As with everything else, the more I know, the more I want to know, and the more I get out of what I read. Often, I’m reading about things that were pure science fiction in my childhood. I’ll think, “Wasn’t this a movie back in the Eighties, but now it’s real?”
Admittedly, science news is often over my head. That’s why I married an aerospace engineer, so he can interpret this stuff for me. (Joke). I can only handle so much in a day. That’s where the news aggregators come in.
A news aggregator pulls news on various topics from multiple sources. I simply made sure that mine included more non-current-events, non-political topics and more neutral sources.
Some of my topics? Dinosaurs, archaeology, ornithology, longevity, tiny houses, and Alzheimer’s research, among other things, fill out my news feed. For some reason, I also get quite a lot of articles about snakes and alligators.
Pulling news from international sources can be intriguing, especially when it’s health news. I’ve found that the British or Australian take on health research can be really punchy compared to the mainstream American perspective.
I read plenty of political news, and I certainly follow the headlines, but I’ve found that it isn’t productive to let this dominate my news consumption. I utterly refuse to discuss modern US politics. The reason is that it tends to destroy friendships. We have this absurd idea in our culture that “a debate” is the only appropriate format for a political conversation, and I can’t seem to dispel this notion. I don’t owe anyone a debate on any topic, from whether I have the right type of phone to whether tights qualify as pants. If I talk about politics with people who agree with me, it reinforces what I (and they) already think. If I talk about politics with people on “the other side” (as if there were only two sides, which is too silly for words), they always want to argue. I say, fine, I’ll talk pre-Industrial politics with you. Which do you prefer, antiquity, the Dark Ages, the Reformation? When someone asks which way I’m voting, I say I’m voting for myself as a write-in candidate. When in doubt, go with theater of the absurd.
What we do well to remember is that passive news consumption isn’t actually doing anything about anything. Arguing with our friends, relatives, neighbors, and colleagues doesn’t move the needle. Getting worked up about a topic and ranting about it all around the house doesn’t even qualify as a good workout. Staying informed is only useful if we do something with that information.
It also helps to remember that everything humans are doing, in every sphere of activity, qualifies as ‘current events.’ An invention that helps people with paralysis to walk, or congenitally deaf children to hear, is relevant. These advances are more likely to change the course of history than most election results. Every day I see news about archaeology or paleontology that claims to be one of the most important finds of the last hundred years, and that’s relevant too. I see news about space exploration and technological innovations that about blasts me out of my chair. The world is going to be nearly unrecognizable in twenty years once all these trends combine along their current arc. It’s relevant, it’s newsworthy, but are we noticing it? Or are the settings on our news feed causing us so much stress and distraction that we develop a misleading picture of the world? Upgrade your news habit and find out.
I’ve been noticing something these days. Any time I see someone else’s home screen on their phone, they have a badge on their email app. The number on the badge is always something greater than 3500. That’s a lot of unread messages! It also seems to be the standard these days, and that makes me nervous.
What are the possibilities here?
They read and respond to all their mail, then mark it Unread
...because having a high number makes them feel loved and special
Inbox is full of irrelevant junk
...and the number is therefore meaningless
Inbox is entirely full of important messages
...and the number represents power and influence
Inbox is a mix of some important messages and a lot of junk
...and the number represents existential despair
Why 3500? That would be not quite 10 unread messages a day for a year.
What if one of them is extremely interesting and important??
Once upon a time, I was a corporate trainer. My job was to go around and teach people how to use the new email system. It was easier in those days, because junk mail usually stopped at the firewall, and almost everything that came through had an actual business purpose.
The rest of y’all are on your own!
My own mail is probably 20% important, 5% junk that made it through the filters, 5% coupons I generally disregard, and 70% newsletters or aggregations of articles. I spend a few minutes every day unsubscribing from at least half a dozen sources of fresh hell, flagging junk, clicking relevant links, and moving stuff to my ‘Read at Leisure’ folder. As a result, my inbox stays pretty manageable.
Also, I turned off my badge.
I hate badges.
Why would I need a notification to remind me to check a folder that I look in a couple of times a day? It’s not like I’m going to forget.
My rule on badges is: NO
I only have a notification or a badge on something if I really need a reminder and I wouldn’t check otherwise. For instance, I can go days without getting a text message. Otherwise, I get into a situation where even looking at my phone makes me want to avoid it.
Many of these badges come from apps that want a response that serves them, not me. For instance, my vet just sent a request for a review. I might do that to be nice, but I don’t owe them, and as a policy I’m not going to give a review for every single product or service, even though they all ask. Some of them will ask three times or more. Check your email because a lot of it is going to be this type of request!
Or, don’t check your email. Ever.
I think it’s fair to simply not have an email, or not use it, and tell people that. Just delete the whole thing!
At least, that’s true of a personal email. I once worked with a man who refused to accept a paycheck and insisted on receiving his pay in cash. It was complicated and annoying but he actually got away with it. Therefore it’s plausible that someone might be able to throw down an email embargo at work. If that’s the fight you want to be known for, have fun.
I have a voicemail message that says my phone reception is really bad (it is) and to just text or email me and I’ll call back. It seems to work. This is a better solution than the many times I’ve been sitting in my living room, waiting on a call, and my phone never rings, which is sad when I’m holding it in my hand and staring at it expecting my hubby to call on business travel.
Ironically I can only really get phone calls when I’m not home.
Is this the problem with email, though? Is it a problem of being accessible to people we want to hear from? Or is it something else?
I suspect the majority of mail that is blocking people’s inboxes is actually commercial in nature. It’s daily coupons and sales alerts from a multitude of sources. Every store and restaurant and website will offer some kind of discount, or just ask for an email, with the sole purpose of these daily bombardments. It goes like this:
“Please let us reach you by email, sending you so many messages that your inbox therefore becomes nonfunctional and you don’t even see them.”
This is what’s going on when I unsubscribe from things every day.
I was on daily mailing lists for stores where I actually do shop on a regular basis. I unsubscribed from all of them, every single one! What am I missing?
Say I get a 20% coupon once a year and I spend it on a $100 item. I’ve saved $20, except that half of it goes toward sales tax. Is this worth the drain on my attention every single day? Is it worth not being able to use my email inbox? For the equivalent of 3 cents a day?
But then I virtually never use coupons of any kind because I don’t feel that they are even remotely worth my mental bandwidth. That’s not how my husband and I save half our income.
I would ask any extreme couponer who adores coupons but has a constantly full email inbox:
How’s that working out for you?
Are you getting promoted at work?
Are you organized and stress-free at home?
Are you debt-free?
Are you saving and investing?
Could you be getting a 100x return on your time and attention by focusing on other things?
If you really want to carry around 3500 emails telling you about sales that have already passed, knock yourself out. If that isn’t the reason your inbox is so full, then why? If you can figure out the root cause, then you can fix it.
Stuff you want to read? Guess what, you aren’t reading that much and the entire internet will still be there tomorrow.
Heartfelt personal letters demanding your response? Looks like maybe you don’t really feel the same way about that person? If you really care, ask them to communicate with you a different way.
Important business messages that need your attention? Change careers, ask your boss to switch to Slack or have stand-up meetings, negotiate for an assistant, or ask the I.T. person to help you set up some filters.
Having an extremely full email inbox with a big badge on it is a little weird. It’s like having a physical mailbox stuffed with coupon circulars when you can’t find your bills. It’s like carrying around a duffel bag full of laundry all day. It’s like filling your fridge with dead leaves. It’s like coaxing a flock of pigeons into your living room. It’s like...
It’s like a blip on the cultural radar that will soon pass, because what’s happening right now doesn’t work for most people.
If your email inbox makes me nervous, I’m sure email marketers are noticing too. Time for a change.
I found them after five days. My husband’s keys. First he was convinced he left them in our apartment, and I couldn’t go anywhere until he got home so I didn’t lock him out. Then, after I searched everywhere, he figured he must have left them on his desk at work. On Monday he went back to work, and his keys weren’t there after all. I helped him work out a plan of which Lost and Found numbers to call.
Then I checked his coat pocket in the bedroom closet, where they had been, of course, since Thursday morning.
This is one of the many benefits of marriage: you have someone to look after you and help you in your weak areas.
I sympathize because I also used to have a similar problem with lost objects.
I once locked my keys inside my apartment twice in the same day, once with a burner on the stove left on High. Another time I had a candle burning. I’ve dropped my keys down an elevator shaft, locked them in my car, and thrown them in the trash. I have also lost untold numbers of gloves, hats, scarves, library books, and umbrellas, most of which I never got back, and purses, day planners, checkbooks, and wallets, most of which people were kind enough to return to me.
Like I said, I’ve had issues with lost objects, as well as my other distraction issues.
I lean ADHD, and what I do has worked for me. I also teach these methods to my chronically disorganized students and clients.
Pay attention to TRANSITIONS between one scene and another, one activity and another, one time of day and another.
Pause and look around every time. Pause when you get ready to leave for work. Pause again when it’s time to come home. Pause when you stand up after a movie. Pause when your bus pulls up to your stop. Pause, and check. Pause, and check.
When it’s a habit, it only takes two seconds.
I often talk to myself while I am doing this. I have my keys, my wallet, my sunglasses. The reason I do this out loud is that it often triggers my companions to remember their own stuff.
Before we leave for a road trip, I always recite a list of stuff. Often my buddies have to get out of the car and go back inside for something. Wallets, passports, phones, chargers, hats, gloves, scarves, boots, medication, socks, underwear... I can’t wait for the day when a smartphone will remind us of these things automatically.
When I leave a hotel room, I do a perimeter check. Check the shower and the bathroom, check the closet, check each drawer. I do the same when we move, and I take a quick video of all the empty rooms. The hotel check takes two minutes, and the empty apartment check takes less than ten. Peace of mind!
Other than the transition ritual of pausing and checking, it helps to have clear surfaces in the home.
This one is almost impossible for my clients. The more I try to teach them to focus on their living space and the functions of different work surfaces, the harder they cling to their ten-times-too-many belongings. Yes, of course I’d rather have three hundred pounds of old clothes than the ability to use my tables and countertops!
Have a clear area near your front door, like a table. Never put anything on it but your significant daily objects.
Have a clear area next to your bed.
Have a clear area in your kitchen.
Have a clear area next to where you sit to relax, like an end table.
Have a clear area at your desk, if you have one.
Have a clear area in your car, like a cup holder organizer.
Carry less stuff around in general. The less you have to track, the easier it is to track it all.
When you have a clear area next to you, it’s easy to check at a single glance and make sure you have everything. It should be completely empty when you’re not using it. Completely empty 90% of the time!
A flat, clear surface makes it easy to see your phone, your pen, or whatever else you carry around.
It’s easier to keep surfaces clear when you have the right catch-all.
We have drawers in our bathroom, desk, and of course the kitchen. The purpose of the drawers is to hold important stuff that we use all the time, every single day. The purpose of the drawers is not to store stuff that we forgot was in there!
We also use small baskets. There’s one next to the front door for my keys, the garage door opener, and the laundry card. There’s one on the dog crate for his leash and treats and toys. My hubby has one for his daily objects.
I have my work bag, and it hangs on my desk chair. I often get things out of it and put them back in, several times a day. My stuff “lives” there and I simply don’t allow myself to put it anywhere else when I’m done.
Never set anything down “just for now”!
It’s either in its parking spot or you are using it.
Think of the spot for this item as a cute little cozy little house. Like a kitten in a basket or a birdie in a nest. This object likes it there. If you set it down somewhere else, it will be cold and lost and alone, shivering and crying, Why don’t you love me??
Actually don’t do that. Thinking that your stuff has emotions is one of the major reasons that my clients have so much stuff in the first place. But if it does help, then go for it.
If you have tons and tons and tons of stuff, don’t despair. It’s a lot easier to clear a single square foot and keep it clear than it is to sort everything first. Just clear the area and put the stuff that doesn’t belong there in a box. Yeah, you’ll probably still have that unsorted box three years from now, but at least you have a chance of using your nice clear flat surface.
Clear surfaces seem sterile and boring and ugly to most of my people. In reality, they are in constant use throughout the day. Our clear kitchen counters have meal prep going on in bright colors at least four times a day. Our clear bathroom counters have bright, colorful containers on them every morning and evening while we get ready. Our clear desktops are scattered with brightly colored objects while we’re working on projects.
What really fills a home? Laughter, conversations, music, the cheerful business of life. When a home is cluttered and people are always losing track of things, what could be a happy place is instead filled with stress, confusion, and harsh words.
Clear your space, make a home for all your significant daily objects, and use the time you save to read, take a nap, or hug someone.
The more I think about clutter, the more I realize how much it has in common with two other near-universal issues, which are financial debt and excess adipose tissue, also known as body fat. In a way, all of these are forms of debt, the result of expecting Future Self to do things that we don’t feel like doing today. One of these things is handling paper clutter. Paper clutter is a form of debt.
Paper debt is what piles up when we have more paper coming in than we do going out, and we have no plan for it.
Just like the money kind of debt, paper debt comes from a variety of sources. There’s the kind that’s hard to avoid, like unexpected medical expenses or car repairs, both of which generate a huge amount of paperwork. There’s the kind that adds no value to our life but just gets in the way, like junk mail and mail addressed to previous tenants. There’s the aspirational kind, like jeans that will never fit, shoes we’ll wear once, and magazines we’ll never read. Then there’s the kind that we keep for sentimental reasons, even though we never use it and probably never will.
All of these types of paper clutter represent time commitments.
Financial debt is a way of saying, “I’ll take this now and Future Me can pay for it later.” Paper debt is a way of saying, “I’ll set this down here for now and Future Me can deal with it later.”
Future Me will totally read that later.
Future Me will totally file that later.
Future Me will totally decide what to do with that later.
Meanwhile all of it is getting buried under a tidal wave of junk mail.
In a way, junk mail is like the finance charges and interest that build up on credit card debt. Every day it adds up, just a little at a time, making the job harder to do and almost guaranteeing that this problem will never be solved.
Just like other forms of debt, if paper debt continues to come in faster than it goes out, it will snowball.
Also like other forms of debt, it can start to fade into the background and feel like wallpaper. It Will Always Be This Way. This is How It Has Always Been.
Paper debt eats things. Just like regular debt, it can take over and you can lose your home to it.
Junk mail is the worst offender here, though it’s not the only one. Important mail can get shuffled into it. Stacks of it can tip over, knocking over other items and hiding things like keys. Paper debt can start to push more and more into time debt.
When we start showing up late or paying bills late or filing taxes late because we simply couldn’t find things, that’s time debt in action.
It can happen so quickly. Go on one vacation and wind up still owing for it six months later. Go a little crazy eating sugar cookies in December and gain four pounds that are still hanging around six months later.
Set down a stack of junk mail on the dining table or the kitchen counter, and it’s still there six months later.
All my clients have paper debt. It’s everywhere. It’s on the kitchen counter and the dining table, it’s on chairs and in windowsills, it’s on the floor of the car and it’s tucked sideways in bookshelves. It’s in purses and backpacks and laptop bags. It’s been on the desk so long that there may never have been a single productive day in that desk’s existence.
By “productive” we mean: doing awesome stuff that we enjoy doing. Sketching? Journaling? Scrapbooking? Working on a thesis? Racing wind-up toys? Anything, anything at all other than looking at (or ignoring) stacks of ugly ol’ boring ol’ mail?
It tends to be hard for people to imagine what they would do with their time if they were financially independent. “Debt-free” is as far as we can imagine. Then what? It’s the same with paper debt. What would we do with all that free space if all that paper was finally sorted out? What would an ordinary day feel like without that background hum of annoyance?
I can speak to that. I keep clear counters because I don’t really have a choice. In a tiny studio apartment, a pile of junk on the kitchen counter means there’s nowhere to make a slice of toast, much less cook a nice dinner. I can’t leave things on the dining table because our dining table is stored on its side in our bedroom closet and the legs are under our bed. What am I going to do, dump piles of paper on my bed?
I say that like it’s irrational and unlikely, but I’ve seen it. My people do crowd themselves out of their own beds with piles of stuff, from papers and backpacks to food wrappers, clean and dirty laundry, and stacks of books.
HEY: You deserve to stretch out and sleep comfortably.
It’s your bed, not your stuff’s bed. It’s your desk, not your paper’s desk. It’s your kitchen, not your mail’s kitchen.
The first priority should be for humans in the home to do what they want to do. Sleep, bathe, cook and eat meals, lounge around reading or doing whatever. That’s why it’s so sad when we accumulate paper debt and erase our own living space with piles and drifts and stacks of inanimate objects. That stuff doesn’t pay rent here, now does it?
What to do with it all, though? Spend years painstakingly eliminating it, one little bit at a time? Ask for help? Consolidate it, also known as “Scoop and Stuff”? (Toss it all into plastic shopping bags that then get piled somewhere or crammed in a closet).
Imagine it gone. That’s the first step. Get into elaborate and thrilling detail about all the ways you’ll use your space once you’ve evicted the junk mail and paid off your paper debt. That should make it easier to simply recycle big stacks of it as fast as you can go. Put your foot down and stop allowing it in your door. Say goodbye to paper debt and say hello to freedom.
The concept of an inheritance is, I think, becoming dated and antiquated. It’s something of a Baby Boomer thing. Those of us who are younger probably understand that the world works differently now. Still, it’s worth talking about. There is a vague dream of a someday inheritance, a financial windfall, that will somehow eliminate all our problems. This is not just a dangerous illusion, but an illusion that can poison ambition and domestic contentment. Kill your inheritance, and kill it in self-defense.
Now, it’s a good thing to think of a legacy in non-material terms. We can be proud of what we’ve inherited from our family when it comes to values and character traits. Hospitality, sense of humor, frugality, ingenuity, a gift for storytelling, grit and fortitude, these are the sort of gifts we should be proud to carry on. This kind of gift is non-zero-sum, meaning it never runs out. The more you share, the larger it grows. You can roll it out and make enough room for spouses, kids, and friends.
All of that goes completely out of the window when we start talking about money, real estate, and material goods.
In my work with clutter, I have seen it over and over again. People will quit talking to each other over a photo album, a single ring, some old furniture, or a stupid teacup. Unbelievable. You’re saying you’d TRADE your blood relation for a piece of scrap that wouldn’t sell for fifty dollars in a pawn shop? A lot of this stuff couldn’t be sold for a bent nickel.
The problem is that grief makes people temporarily insane. It’s understandable. With time and some healing, we’re sometimes able to get enough emotional distance that we can recognize our own irrationality from our own mourning periods. Not likely in the heat of the moment, though. Whatever it is about the old, I dunno, the old 8-track player or the blurry slides from 1958, it seems to activate everyone’s feelings of thwarted power and desire from earliest childhood. GIMME! It’s MINE! Like fighting over the last popsicle.
Then we get to the house and the money. That sweet, sweet munnah.
Back in the bad old days, the land was almost the only thing a family owned. Material goods were expensive and hard to make, and people had very little in terms of clothes, furniture, and housewares. Property went to the oldest son, and the rest of the family had to make do or beg for a place at the table. Imagine being an unmarried adult daughter and having to wheedle your big brother for a chance to stay on and do all the cooking and laundry, because it was that or panhandle in the road.
Then property started to be divided between descendants. Probably more fair, but fast-forward a couple of generations. The first block is divided between four kids. Then they each divide their share between their five or six kids. Then each of those grandchildren has eleven or twelve grandchildren. It doesn’t take long before the tiny slivers that are left are too small to support a family. Or the global economy changes in response to technological advancement, and the world moves on. But somewhere inside all of us is a glimmer of ancestral memory, when our family several generations back were higher in the societal pecking order.
Those photo albums and rings and teacups and old furnishings remind us of a vanished time, a time that we partly believe is our true place.
I have copies of old family pictures from the Civil War through the Victorian era. Look, they’re wearing suits, and fancy hats, and dresses with bustles! Never mind that they probably owned only one or two changes of clothes. I DESERVE.
Some of that genteel feeling, we could easily get back. We could get it by hand-tailoring our clothes in our own living rooms, the way earlier generations did. We could get it by speaking more formally, using appropriate terms of address and ritual politeness formulas. “Good day to you, sir.” It’s not money that they had, so much as stricter rules for social decorum. We’d probably find it unbearably stuffy and restrictive. Personally, I prefer modernity with its electronics, egalitarianism, and endless options.
One of the most dramatic changes of our era is our incredible longevity. Human lifespan has basically doubled in the last century, certainly within the last two hundred years. I’m forty-three and it wouldn’t have been at all uncommon for a woman my age to be gone already. Now it’s not uncommon for a woman to still be up and doing at eighty-six, double the age I am today.
What this means is that our old structure of “inheritance” is going to have to change, the same way the way we think of “retirement” has to change. It was different when the retirement age was sixty-five and most people died by sixty-three. Now a lifetime’s savings and investments will be needed for the next twenty or thirty years of life. A house that would have lasted thirty years, enough time for a young family to grow up and for the owners to age properly, will now be worn out and needing major repairs just in time for that retirement. Buy a house at 35, and at 65, guess what? It’s going to need a new roof, all the appliances are going to wear out, maybe even the foundation, plumbing, wiring, windows, and floors will need to be redone.
How will there be any money left for the adult children after funding the retirement needs of advancing longevity? How can someone fund such a long retirement, working 30 or 35 years to pay to retire for 20 or 30 years or more? How could it be done at all, much less debt-free? How could it be done in perfect health, much less after funding decades of ill health, medications, medical appliances, and surgeries?
If anything, these trends are going to be even more pronounced over the next few decades. At some point, the finance industry will figure out a way to rig new mortgages and consumer debt loads. Individuals will adjust their expectations for their personal longevity, how old they want to be when they give up on their physical health, and how they intend to pay for their retirement. Family arrangements will start to look markedly different. We’ll probably move back to having multiple generations under one roof, and in that case, an “inheritance” might just look like redecorating a bedroom so the sixties-aged kids can move back in to assume caretaking responsibilities, for their eighties-aged parents and their grandparents who are still here as centenarians.
Expecting an inheritance, according to research, tends to lead to more debt and less career success. Today’s reality is that whatever investment money and home equity are there, will most likely be consumed by the daily living expenses of unprecedented old age. This is fantastic, if you actually love your relatives and cherish having more time with them. It’s a bummer, if you’ve always had this lingering hope that they’d shuffle off this mortal coil and leave you enough to pay off your credit cards.
I’m very fortunate to have young parents. They’re still working, and I’m middle-aged, well aware that I need to plan for my own old age. When I “retire,” they may still be spry enough that we can go on vacation together. All I want for them is that they have enough saved to take care of themselves and preserve their independence as long as possible. The inheritance that I desire is a legacy of strength and savvy, and perhaps the secret to a seventy-year marriage.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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