I was talking to myself on the bus, and this lady got up and changed seats. Oh, neat! I've reached the stage in life when I am virtually indistinguishable from either a crazy person or a person in an advanced state of inebriation. Another interpretation would be that I was quietly rehearsing a speech. I'm drunk on public speaking! I'm crazy about... oh, never mind. The point is that talking to yourself can be useful, and even more useful if you do it in the privacy of your own home. If you're not already into talking to yourself, it can help to learn the difference between different types of self-talk.
The most common type of self-talk is hateful, sarcastic, critical self-talk. "Nice job, idiot!" If you talk to yourself like that, I have a suggestion for you. Get some broccoli. Take the big, thick rubber band off of the broccoli stalk. Eat the broccoli, obviously, but then save the rubber band. Put it on your wrist. Every time you hear yourself saying something to yourself that you would never say to anyone else, pull the band as far as it will stretch and then let it go. SNAP! If you're going to hurt yourself, might as well make it physical. When you see how much your skin gets marked up, you'll have a graphic representation of what you've been doing to your own heart and spirit.
More helpful is motivational self-talk. "You can do it! Great job!" Research indicates that motivational self-talk is the most helpful for endurance athletes, like marathon runners and cyclists. I can speak from experience and say that this feels true. I give myself motivational speeches when I run all the time. "You got this, you're crushing it, up up up up that hill!" Of course, I also mix the motivational self-talk quite freely with self-insults and boot camp-style smack talk. "Are you quitting on me, Private Pyle? Are you quitting on me?" This serves three purposes: distraction, humor, and reminding myself that I COMMIT, NEVER QUIT. I guess it also serves the purpose of inuring myself to rude language, so that when I chance to overhear it, it doesn't bother me as much. I might hear an insult from someone and think to myself, "Oh, good one. I can use that later." The important point is for me to keep going, keep going, develop more grit, and keep going. The less I like doing it, the more important it is for me to do it, whatever it is, because it builds the "don't feel like it" muscle.
What we're going to focus on now is instructional self-talk. This is when you explain what you're doing to yourself in technical detail. Many of us may have turned to this type of self-talk while learning to drive, reminding ourselves to check the mirrors, release the parking brake, etc. Research shows that this type of self-talk is helpful for sports with intricate physical skills, such as tennis or golf. "Roll your shoulder forward." As I learned this, I realized that I talk myself through things all the time, especially when it's something I don't like doing or when I'm trying to focus my mental bandwidth. "I'm checking that the dog door is closed and the heater is off and I'm putting the tickets in this pocket and my keys are going on the clip" and on and on. A recording of me might sound like pure lunacy, but it would also be a good transcript of exactly what I was doing on the small stage of my tiny apartment.
Working with chronic disorganization, hoarding, or squalor requires learning a lot of new skills. Fortunately or unfortunately, these are very repetitive skills, and thus they're ripe for instructional self-talk. I am holding my breath and I am picking up this dripping bag of trash and I am walking it out to the curbside bin and I am throwing it away and I am patting myself on the back and GASP breathing fresh air! I am folding this shirt and I am folding this other shirt and I am folding this shirt and I did not actually die and my arm didn't fall off. Good job, me. You're welcome, Future Me, you ingrate. It's boring and I hate it but I'm doing it and I'm getting it done and look at that! It was the longest 12 minutes ever but now I'm done and I can go watch otter videos.
Sorting and letting go of excess clutter requires its own motivational and instructional self-talk. I am looking at this and remembering that I really, really liked it when I brought it home, but I never use it, and even though it's cute, it doesn't look cute ON ME, and I'm ready to pass it on to someone else. I want to be able to use this room and fit everything in this closet and only one dresser, and that means half of this stuff has to go no matter how much I like it. I'm trying this on and acknowledging that it isn't doing me any favors. I am reminding myself that I care more about my friends and my pets and reading and listening to music and eating nice meals than I do about some old shirt. I am not my stuff, and my stuff is not my personality. I'm talking myself through this awkward, time-consuming process of releasing myself from my emotional attachment to mere material possessions. There will always be plenty more in my life and Future Me will be just fine if I let this go today. I am not losing anything and I am not missing out - I am using my imagination and working to make a more inspiring space. I am focusing on all the things in my life that are more important than a bunch of old stuff.
Not everyone is going to get much use out of verbal, out-loud self-talk. Some of us are more suited to journaling, which is really self-talk on the printed page. The process of writing in longhand seems to do something positive in the mind. We talk our way or write our way to a new way of thinking, convincing ourselves as we go. Some of us, the rare few, will simply be able to sit back with an epiphany, a new realization that everything is different from here on out. Now that I've seen a different way of seeing, I can never fall back to sleep and start seeing things the old way any more. I've taught myself how to change, and I've changed.
This is one of the best decluttering books out there, and I can tell for two reasons. One is, obviously, that I read it. The other is that mixed in with the reviews are a few talking about how incredibly helpful it is, and at least one by someone who has read it three or more times, working slowly through the chapters and then starting over again. Andrew J. Mellen is a professional organizer, and this book really can help you to Unstuff Your Life!
What makes Unstuff Your Life! different from other organizing books is that Mellen pauses frequently to address hypothetical responses, criticisms, naysaying, and pushback from the reader. A book with every possible negative and resistant response would be a million pages long, and new pages would be added as fast as they could be typeset. I can always tell when someone is too far down the Readiness Scale to work with me when I start hearing the monologues I call "let me explain in meticulous detail why this could never conceivably apply to me."
At the beginning of the book, Mellen addresses the problem of why we can't find things, and the process of wandering around and setting something somewhere without creating a memory. Good stuff. He also goes into the nature of procrastinating by not understanding that time applies to our plans, and explains the thinking errors behind "bargain" shopping that leads to consumer debt. So much of what we do as organizers is not emotional work, but mental homework, explaining the difference between default thinking and organized thinking. Mellen includes several lists of questions to delve into this mental homework. "What's the difference between an excuse and an explanation?" "Does your stuff seem to have a life of its own?"
Another thing that Unstuff Your Life! does very well is to teach how to categorize objects and make decisions about them. This always sounds obvious to organized people, but I can tell you that it feels like mysticism to my people. The intellectual failings behind hoarding are being unable to see individual items as a group or a room, and being unable to devise functional systems. I say this because my people are extremely intelligent and creative, and they like to see themselves as A students. It helps to frame "being organized" as an academic skill well within the reach of anyone who has a solid grasp of grammar and punctuation (and, frankly, most who don't).
The truly best parts of the book are when Mellen shares conversations he has had with his organizing clients, or, in one instance, his own mother. In one, he walks a client through why she would keep an expensive jacket, but not an ex-boyfriend, even though he was "expensive" too. In another, he talks a client through the painful realization that the broken clock she inherited from her father is not actually her father. These are bittersweet, funny, and entirely relatable.
Unstuff Your Life! can teach you how to do everything. Sort your mail, make emotional decisions about old magazines, calculate the cost of your storage unit, figure out what does and does not go on your kitchen countertop, set up a sorting area, define 'trash,' sort photos and sentimental items, and know for certain which papers to file, shred, or recycle. Most of us were never formally taught how to "be organized" or clean house, and this is where Andrew Mellen comes in. This book is something rare, a readable and amusing unstuffing manual.
Favorite quote: "If everything is precious, nothing is precious."
If everything in your house cost one dollar, how much did you spend on it?
How many individual items do you own? Dozens? Hundreds? Thousands?
The premise here is that for many of us, our "net worth" consists of our personal belongings plus debt. This is a classic symptom of scarcity mindset that often leads to broke people having far more possessions than wealthy people do. Examining how much hidden abundance we actually have in our lives is the first step toward feeling our way into actual abundance.
Now, let's start looking around. Those of us deep in scarcity mindset are going to be pretty well convinced that we don't spend money on anything. Our focus will immediately turn to those things we received as gifts, salvaged, bought at a thrift store or yard sale, built ourselves, or that we have had so long they have fully depreciated. There may well be someone reading this who has transitioned to full money-free living, and if so, by all means please send me a note! I'd love to hear from you! The rest of us, well, we probably do have at least a trickle of money coming into our lives, and it's likely trickling right back out in one form or another. Rent, utilities, food, debt payments, and other expenses do occur that we feel are locked in to our scarcity lifestyle.
It also tends to go to items we feel like we can afford. Snacks and sodas. Discount and sale items. Used books. Inexpensive holiday decorations. We're more likely to feel we can "afford" items that cost under a certain dollar amount than we are to consider our expenses as a total annual cost. I realized at one point that I was spending $300 a year on vending machine snacks, when I never would have dreamed of spending that identical $300 in a lump sum on something like a dining table, a vacuum cleaner, or a fridge.
Another hallmark of scarcity mindset is never feeling like we have ENOUGH of something. When everything we own is sub-optimal in some way, we're always questing for something better. That tends to result in, say, five pairs of $10 shoes that fit poorly rather than one pair of $50 better-quality shoes. Same fifty bucks! The difference is that the scarcity purchasing leads to constant discomfort and a bulging closet, while the abundance purchase of the single, actually-good-enough pair leads to satisfaction. Multiply by every category of possession and a scarcity house will have 5x more stuff than an abundance house for the same number of total dollars.
The attention, focus, and awareness we place on bargaining and negotiating to get our material needs met can also be applied to finding ways to increase our earning power. The better we are at functioning on an extremely low income, the better use we would make of a higher income. We can only cut our expenses down to zero, but there IS NO UPPER LIMIT to how much we can earn. There is a finite lower limit but an infinite ceiling. Can I say that in other ways that make more sense so it will sink in? It is much easier to think of many ways to bring in more money than it is to think of even one more way to save money.
Cash flow is very abstract, while our possessions are very concrete. I can hold this stuffed animal in my hand, while I can't guarantee that this supposed earning power really exists, or will continue to exist next year. I'm already doing everything I know how to do - I simply can't imagine myself in a position that could bring in a higher income. I have no idea what would be different about my life if my income were that much higher. I don't know what I would buy or not buy. What I do know right now is that this is my life, this is my home, these are my things, and this is all I have. I have enough problems without foolish fantasies and woo-woo thinking exercises.
My clutter clients have an astonishing amount of stuff. Even for single people who live alone, each room can easily have double to 5x more items than most homes would have. There are sometimes entire closets or rooms that are packed solid. A closet will have stuff poking out the bottom of the door, or a room cannot be entered because even the doorframe is full from top to bottom and from side to side. Even discounting the paper clutter, gifts, and hand-me-downs, there is plenty of stuff that cost the owner money at some point. Sometimes it's duplicate items that arose from chronic disorganization, like pens, shopping bags, or an extra case of paper towels. Sometimes it's the result of compulsive accumulation, like magazines, cosmetics, holiday decorations, or shoes. It almost always includes books, clothes, and stockpiles of extra food. I NEED THIS BECAUSE I HAVE NOTHING.
Thrift stores can be an irresistible attraction when we're poor, or when we feel like we are poor, which is more important than actual cash flow in terms of mindset. Surely nothing I bought in the $1-$5 range actually counts, does it? Well, yes. When there's so much stuff in a house that it has to be piled, when there are so many clothes that they can cover the floor in even one room, it adds up. The cost adds up. A hundred $1 items, fifty $1.99 items, twenty $5 items, perhaps some of each, represent not just clutter but the absence of $100 or $200 or $300 of emergency savings. It isn't much, but often even that $100 can make the literal difference between a bill getting sent to collections or not. An envelope with even the smallest amount of emergency savings can represent peace of mind in a way that no physical possessions can.
The question is, what do we have to show for all our hard work and all the bitter tears we've wept over our financial desperation? How much is in our various bank accounts (and envelopes) as opposed to spread out on every flat surface, including the floor? If we could wave a wand and have a dollar bill instead of any and every possession of our choice, how quickly would we be out of debt? How many lifestyle upgrades could we suddenly afford? We want to look at our financial outlay as buying the best quality of life we can get for our hard-earned money. There are very few material possessions that can contribute as much as savings, investments, and confidence can.
Some time ago, I wrote about not having a nightstand on my side of the bed. This generated a reader letter full of inquiries and guesses about my weird lifestyle, like how I "must not wear a watch." I am still laughing about this. I often forget how contrarian my domestic arrangements are. One of these strange choices is to never have a coffee table.
I HATE COFFEE TABLES. There, I said it. I also hate lamps and glass furniture. I mean, I'm sure all your lamps are gorgeous, but for my own home, I want nothing to do with floor lamps or table lamps. We actually have a piece of glass furniture right now, the stand for the TV, and it starts visibly collecting dust as I'm in the process of dusting it. If I weren't such a tightwad, I would have replaced it already. My main criterion for furniture and decor is its functionality. If it annoys me, it's toast.
What is the deal with coffee tables? I've stubbed my toe many times in my life, and I'm pretty sure it's been on the leg of a coffee table every time. They just sit there, taking over the center of the living room, lying in wait for my poor vulnerable bare feet. They're like alligators. I've also bruised my shin on them, and when I was about four years old, I tripped and smacked my head on one. All of these were different tables, which is proof that either there is a conspiracy or they come from the devil.
The other problem with coffee tables is that they are clutter magnets. The only time they get cleaned off is if, like, the in-laws are coming over or something. The rest of the time, they're generally buried under various food containers, mail, books, action figures, craft supplies, nail polish, pet toys, and who knows what else. Whatever we're interacting with during screen time, there it lands and there it stays.
When I got my own apartment for the first time in, what, twelve years? I refused to have a coffee table. My living room was really small, and it's not like I was missing anything. When I upgraded my couch a year later, I got... an ottoman! This to me is luxury. There's always somewhere big and foofy to put my feet up. If I have a lot of people over, it can be pulled aside and used as an extra chair. Because it has a squishy soft top, the only thing I'm ever tempted to leave on it is, at most, a book.
After I got married again, I merged households with my husband, my stepdaughter, and their dog. We added a second couch with its own ottoman. Years later, it turns out to be one of the dog's favorite cozy spots. He will stare at you soulfully, with his snoot in your lap, until you invite him up and spread a blanket over him. He will stretch out on the ottoman, hugging your leg, and fall asleep and start twitching his feet. You should try it sometime on a damp, chilly night.
Okay, we can all agree on the delights of the ottoman as a home furnishing. Can't we have them and still have coffee tables? Well, sure, why the heck not. If you want one, you go right ahead. Knock yourself out. I hope that doesn't literally happen when your coffee table jumps out at you with mutiny on its mind.
Where do we put our coffee, though? I dunno. My husband and stepdaughter and I all hate coffee, and we certainly don't give it to the dog. A rat terrier on caffeine is, besides being veterinary malpractice, an extremely alarming prospect. We'd have to hang a safety net over our balcony so he didn't bounce out. Three of the four bipeds drink tea. We just drink it at the table, or stand up and carry our empty teacups into the kitchen.
What do we do with all the other stuff that tends to wind up strewn all over most coffee tables? Let's see. We read our news digitally, so we don't have physical newspapers or magazines. We eat at the dining table, so we don't have plates or bowls to leave out in the living room, and we don't really eat snack foods. If I paint my nails, I do it sitting on the bathroom floor, partly because I can sit on the floor (and intend to retain the ability) and partly because I've been known to spill. When we work on craft projects, we have to put them away between sessions, because neither of our pets are at all trustworthy around these things. I distinctly recall spending twenty minutes gathering knitting yarn that Spike: Puppy Version carried out the dog door and wound around every bush and shrub in our yard. One of my birds actually flew off with a crochet hook. Come to think of it, the main reason we avoid clutter in our home is because almost everywhere is Pet Zone.
You know a bit about my living situation now. I don't have a coffee table or a nightstand or a floor lamp or a coffee maker or a recliner or holiday decorations or a wall clock, all because of reasons. I do have a robotic mop and a robotic vacuum cleaner and a battery-powered scrubber for my bathtub, also because of reasons. My home is my castle, the place where I spend the majority of my time, and also the line item where we spend the majority of our money. Look around your own home and consider whether you have all the attractions you want, and whether anything is there simply due to tradition and entropy.
I'm a one-bag traveler. This only really matters when I travel, which is four or five times most years. On a daily basis, though, having only one bag is the absolute essence of minimalism. A single daily bag becomes a reliable tool for consolidating the gear and information that are most important in daily life. A single bag is vital to the holy grail that is Being Organized.
This doesn't necessarily mean that I OWN only one bag. It means all my DAILY STUFF is in one bag.
I currently have one work bag, two daytime purses, three evening purses, and a beach tote. This is because I haven't gotten around to getting rid of the two purses that are getting shabby after ten or so years. To me, having extra bags leads to guaranteed confusion, lost objects, and late departures. No bag ever made is pretty enough, or even useful enough, to make up for unnecessary hassle and irritation.
For local trips, I often just put my wallet and keys in my pocket, like a man, if I actually have pockets, because women's fashion is a conspiracy.
Ideally, my purse and work bag would be one and the same. In practice, I need a larger bag two days a week, and I don't like lugging it around more than I must. It's like when the rocket boosters separate from the space shuttle.
Purse: Wallet, phone, keys. Pen. Sunglasses. Lip balm. Tissues. Hair tie. Coin purse.
Work bag: Backup battery, adapters, and headphones. I carry sunblock and deodorant because of the climate where I live, and a small vial of Aleve because I'm superstitious. Mini emergency toothbrush, a wet wipe, and a stain treatment pen. Protein bar, and emergency sandwich if I'm flying. Folding grocery bag. Sweater. This is the maximum amount of paranoia gear I carry in my work bag, in addition to my tablet and phone. The most important object in this cavernously large bag is the EXTRA SPACE it provides for me to run errands.
I timed myself transferring items between bags. It took 57.71 seconds.
My husband commutes via bus, and he carries a backpack. It has his laptop and charger, glasses case, sunglasses, wallet, keys, phone, backup batteries and adaptor, headphones, and pen. Today, it also had a notebook, textbooks, and calculator because he's studying for a new professional certification. The most important feature of his backpack is the EXTRA SPACE it has for his lunch or a stop at the grocery store on the way home. I just asked him, "You don't have any receipts or anything in there?" He shook his head no, casually, like if I asked him if he ever debated what color of socks to wear with his outfit.
Parents whose kids are still at home will probably be thinking, "Easy for you, but we have kids." I know this because parents use this reply in every possible situation. The truth is that people who travel in packs have even more reason to organize and streamline their daily stuff. If you don't like dealing with tears in the morning, assuredly, your kids don't either. Checking kids' school bags and resupplying diaper bags in the evening prevents a lot of frustration before it has a chance to derail your family life.
Now that we've done the exposition, the key to Single Bag Theory is the strategic loading and unloading of the bag. The bag is Command Central. Since I don't need my wallet, keys, or sunglasses inside my home, they just stay in the bag. I never have to look for them. I know where the bag is because I always put it in the same spot when I get home. If I need to take something somewhere, like outgoing mail, I put it directly into the bag. This way I don't need a container or flat surface or special furniture; our apartment is so tiny that we don't have a foyer or hallway or mudroom or any of that. If we didn't have a system for our daily bags, then we would have a nonfunctional kitchen with counters covered in junk. That's just an objective fact.
Unloading the bag means making decisions. What am I carrying at the end of the day that is not strictly necessary to my next trip out the front door? Generally it is groceries or sundries I bought, receipts, mail, extra paper napkins, and the occasional piece of trash or recycling. Most of us carry receipts more out of habit or concern about identity theft than because we actually DO anything with the receipts. I try to avoid having receipts printed out at the check stand whenever possible. I do categorize my expenses in my finance app, but I only save the receipts with split expenses. This means that if I went to a restaurant, clothing store, bookstore, or other place with only one category of expense, I don't need the receipt for my purposes. If it's something expensive like electronics, I'll save it until I'm sure the item works properly. Most of our mail is junk mail, and almost everything that's left is outer and inner envelopes, brochures, and other useless inserts. We pay our bills electronically. Process and shred or recycle. Most of my trash sorting happens while I'm waiting at bus stops. When I check the contents of my bag at the end of every day, it only takes a quick glance and a few seconds to pull out anything weird or silly. I'm weird and silly enough without giving myself chiropractic problems lugging extra junk on my neck.
My smartphone takes the place of many of the items I used to carry. I no longer need a bulky paper day planner or address book or notebook or calculator. I no longer have tons of scraps of notes, phone numbers with no name on them, shopping lists, directions, or map printouts. I've developed the habit of setting alarms and time- and location-based reminders, because otherwise I know the fallibility of my ADHD mind. I need to be wondering about stuff like whether crows can be trained to pick up litter or whether there will ever be a wall-climbing scrubbing robot, not whether I've forgotten to order parrot kibble or where I put my keys. That's the point of all this, the point of Being Organized. We have more important things to do and more interesting things to think about than our daily stuff.
Having only a single bag has a magical way of making us more organized. Suddenly we know where our keys, phone, and glasses are. Suddenly we know where to look for our little scraps of notes. We start to be less late, and finally on time for things, because we can just sling the bag over one shoulder and go straight out the door. All the little rays of wandering attention we have aimed all over the place start to merge into a thick beam of focus. Having one bag can help us both look better and feel smarter, and what a magical bag that is!
Coming from a minimalist nomad, it may sound strange to advocate for domestic contentment. Aren't you all about getting rid of your stuff in favor of traveling the world? Well, yes and no. Minimalism is about focusing on whatever is most important to you and jettisoning anything that gets in the way of that. Not everyone likes traveling. Most people do, however, have a taste for mundane delights that is not being fully realized in their day-to-day. Domestic contentment is within reach of anyone at any budget.
When I was a kid in grade school, I read the story of the Greek philosopher Diogenes. He was known for living in a barrel in the marketplace, aside from his reputation as a wise man. Alexander the Great came to visit him and wanted to give him a gift, as much to demonstrate his own largesse as because this guy obviously could have used a pillow or blanket or something. He asked Diogenes if he wanted anything. Diogenes replied, basically, "Yeah, move over, you're blocking my sun." This made a huge impression on me as a child, and I spent a lot of time wondering about the drawing of the philosopher in the barrel, wondering what he ate and that sort of thing. These days, we would call Diogenes "homeless."
Whether someone can feel happiness and contentment while living on the margins of society probably depends as much on the society as on that particular individual.
It's not about the possessions or the dwelling, though. What makes the difference between absolute penury and contentment is access to a support network. Health care, physical safety, money, secure banking, food, bathing and laundry facilities, a soft warm bed, entertainment, and a social network of friends and family. Someone with access to all of that could probably live pretty cheerfully in a hotel with wi-fi, and be content with little more than a shower kit, a week's worth of clothes, and a smartphone.
Some of us only really wear a week's worth of clothes, anyway, because none of our other stuff fits right now, or the rest is waiting in front of the washing machine.
This is where we start to touch on the LACK of domestic contentment.
What I see in my work is that most people have a perpetual backlog of chores. There are dirty dishes in and around the sink at least 80% of the time. Likewise, there is almost always spoiled food in the fridge. There is always at least one load of laundry waiting to be washed or folded or put away, and often as many as ten. The bathroom is almost always grimy, the carpet is almost never vacuumed, the floors are almost always sticky, and there is almost always a full bag of trash waiting to be taken out. What the household feels about this state of affairs can most likely not be described as 'contentment.' Words that come to mind might be: frustration, resentment, despair, anger, depression, guilt, shame, blame, annoyance, or confusion.
This total lack of domestic contentment can and does lead to divorce. It's tough on kids. It can consume years that could otherwise have been pretty nice. Who wants to waste years or decades being chronically irritated almost every day?
My contention is that it's not housework in itself that causes this constant level of background annoyance. Rather, there is no vision of how good things could be and what domestic contentment actually feels like.
There's also the matter of... the stuff. Clutter causes housework to take 40% longer. Everything has to be moved out of the way to clean around it, under it, or behind it. Every single item in the house gathers dust or needs to be washed at some point. The more stuff there is, the harder it is to clean up, even if it's cute or valuable or it gets used every day. Crowded equals high maintenance.
What tends to happen is a gradual feeling of defeat. The more crowded and cluttered the house, the harder it is to keep it clean and stay on top of everything, the less often it gets done, the worse it gets, and the harder it is to get it to look clean at all. We resign ourselves to it. After a while, olfactory fatigue sets in, and we can't even smell it. Somewhere along that continuum, it's far easier and more pleasant to stay away, and any excuse to be out shopping or running errands starts to look attractive. Contentment can only be found elsewhere.
There's a close link between this pattern and a reliance on takeout food, pizza delivery, restaurants, convenience foods, or eating cereal for dinner. Who wants to cook in this kitchen??
A well-run kitchen is central to domestic contentment. After I finally learned to cook, I wondered what I had been thinking. Why would anyone not want to know how to cook? You can cook all your favorite stuff exactly the way you like it, anytime you want. I make a lot of stuff I would never be able to get in a restaurant - anywhere, not just in my neighborhood. I'd rather eat my own cooking than what I could get in about 3/4 of restaurants. If you've ever had a greasy or disappointing meal out, you know what I mean. A functional kitchen makes it possible to experiment and constantly improve your culinary skills, and that pays off in better and better meals. It's also cheaper and healthier.
I take notes on various recipes, quoting the compliments my husband or family members or guests make about the food. It's encouraging.
As much as we love travel, my husband and I would really rather be home than just about anywhere else. It's where our pets are. Our bed is more comfortable than any other bed. We have everything we need, we know where it is, and we have the space to use it. Thanks to our practice of minimalism, cleaning house takes very little effort. Laundry and dishes aren't that big a deal when they get dealt with every day: about five minutes per meal for dishwashing, five minutes per day to put away clean dishes, five minutes to run the washer and dryer, and ten or fifteen minutes to fold and put away laundry. It's hardly worth thinking about. The rest of the time, we're working on projects, playing with our pets, walking around the neighborhood, or lounging around talking. Our apartment is tiny, but it's big enough to do all of that.
Start by thinking of your default emotional state and whether you like it that way. Imagine how you'd prefer to feel. Contentment is not the same as elation, bliss, ecstasy, or hysterical laughter; it's sustainable and lower-maintenance. It's a feeling of "yeah, I dig this." Gaining a base level of contentment is often as simple as removing any obstacles between you and it. Remove any irritants and annoyances, resolve any backlog of tasks that lead to power struggles or a drain on mental bandwidth. Then sit back, smile, and sigh. How much more do you need?
When it starts cascading onto the floor, it's only a matter of time. Sometimes it's a slow trickle; other times it pours. Gradually it forms pools and puddles. Then it's wall to wall. Then the level rises, sometimes to the ceiling. It's not water; it's clutter. Clutter gets backed up and starts filling the house when it flows in faster than it flows out. Draining the house is what we do when we finally realize we're in too deep.
In the normal state of affairs, stuff comes in and stuff goes out. Buy a bunch of bananas, eat them, and compost the peels. Buy a bag of new socks, wear them until they're threadbare, and throw them out. One in, one out. If stuff goes out at the same rate that it comes in, then there's never any buildup. The only need to drain the house is the periodic carrying out of garbage and recycling and donations to charity.
The outflow is faster than the inflow under certain conditions. Moving away. Hopefully the truck is getting loaded faster than anyone is carrying in new shopping bags! Having a yard sale, many of the contents of which may originally have come from someone else's yard sale. Declaring laundry bankruptcy and spending an afternoon at the laundromat. Major space clearing, when we realize that the house needs to be fully drained.
Usually, stuff flows into a house at a faster rate than it flows out. This is the nature of the vast material wealth of our society. Paper that would have been precious to the ancients is foisted upon us in endless drifts of junk mail and coupon circulars. Entire stores specialize in selling goods for one dollar. Others sell recycled/donated items they collected for free. Others are known for handing out free samples. Things are so upside down in our time that poor people can wind up having more stuff in their houses than wealthy people do.
What I tend to find in my work is:
Laundry carpet - so many clothes that they are strewn across the floor, and the flooring itself is invisible. Carpet? Tile? Hardwood? Who knows?
"Why is there a pot on the floor?" - so many dirty dishes piled in the sink and on the counter that there isn't enough room, so some have to go elsewhere. On the floor? On the dining table? In the oven?
Mail blizzard - so many papers that they cover every flat surface, sometimes to be moved into bags and boxes so the surfaces can be covered again, like bailing out a boat
Cupboard explosion - so many plastic food storage containers/coffee mugs that the cupboards are too full even when the majority of items are waiting to be washed. So many food packages that cases of food are stacked on the floor for lack of storage space.
Bags in a box in a stack on a pile - so many items of every description that they can't even be stacked anymore. This is when the level starts to climb past three feet or higher.
No free space, either vertical or horizontal - everything flat has a pile on it, unless it's vertical, in which case it's covered by a bookcase or a stack of bins or a bunch of refrigerator magnets. Not so much as a single square foot of blank space to rest the eyes.
The worse it gets, the worse it gets. The deeper the accumulation of dirty dishes, the more dishes are "needed" so that there will still be a clean one, somewhere. The wider the stream of dirty clothes on the path toward the washing machine, the more clothes are "needed" so there will be something somewhat clean to wear, somewhere. The more papers there are, the more magazines with articles on Getting Organized are "needed" to add to the stack. The less comfortable it is to live amongst the rising floodwaters of clutter, the stronger the need to be out somewhere, away from it all, which usually means a manufactured need for a shopping trip. Every trip outward, escaping the mess, tends to result in at least one shopping bag that comes in. Nothing is going out. The floodwaters continue to rise.
A house won't drain itself. Usually it is only initiated by unfortunate external events, like an eviction or a natural disaster. Once I saw a photo some acquaintances had posted of their kitchen after a major earthquake. Quite honestly, it took me a minute to realize that anything had happened, because it looked like any other messy kitchen with greasy cobwebs. "This place looks like a tornado hit it." Mean, but sometimes true. When the piles of clutter get too high and too deep, it becomes impossible to tell if real disaster is going on underneath, whether that's a hidden water leak, toxic black mold, or an infestation of vermin. Then the clutter becomes the least of the problems.
Draining the house voluntarily is a very brave decision. It's hard work. The accumulation of years won't disappear overnight. Usually it starts to look worse for a while even after a lot of strenuous work has been done, exactly like rebuilding after a flood. The detritus has to be cleared away. Usually it reveals stained carpet and damaged flooring, marks on the walls, and damage to various fixtures. Years of deferred maintenance start to reveal themselves. That's why we remind ourselves that we don't have to do it alone. Rebuilding is done in groups. Drain the floodwaters, and ask for help so you don't get in over your head.
It's a mystery to me why some people like to shop. I hate it. It's not just the odious clouds of perfumes or the bad lighting or the "music" or the people accosting you from kiosks. It's not just that I'm alienated by almost all patterns and most fashion colors, or that I'm more utterly befuddled by cuts and styles with every passing season. I just hate spending money. It makes me break out in hives sometimes. All of these reasons combine to make me an under-buyer. That's why my only bag threatened to disintegrate before I deigned to replace it.
The irony here is that in my work with compulsive accumulators and chronic disorganization, all of my clients, universally, have uncountable numbers of bags. Shopping bags, gift bags, plastic bags, paper sacks, tote bags, purses and messenger bags, bags of every description. The reason is that they always have piles of unsorted stuff skewed everywhere, and bags are irresistible "temporary" sorting depositories. Some of my people will cast off previous handbags, like a snake shedding its skin, when they get too full of receipts and other detritus to use anymore. The more I see this in my work, the more I respond by swinging to the other extreme and avoiding bags in general.
The lining of one section of my particular bag had been ripped out for at least a year. This regularly resulted in stuff migrating from one section to another. I put a new bag on my wish list last year. This is a convenient custom in my family; you make a wish list of stuff you want in various price ranges, and if someone is assigned to get you a gift for some reason, they can choose something off your wish list and still surprise you. My husband is relieved by this tradition and finds it useful. It wasn't so useful when the bag I had chosen, after looking at dozens, turned out to be back-ordered. Then the back-order was canceled and the price was refunded. But! THAT was my bag! What am I supposed to do, pick a different bag? I remembered this as Christmastime, but it was really my birthday, which means I already knew my work bag was falling apart nearly a year ago.
Then I noticed that one end of the strap was tearing loose.
Here is where I confess that I bought the darn thing at the Hollywood Goodwill for $7 in the first place. In my defense, it still had the original tags on it...
I'm not a purse person. What baffles me the most is the appeal of all these brown-and-tan bags with logos on them that don't match anything else in the known universe. Unless it's bags that cost more than a car. I went a long stretch without carrying any kind of handbag; I could just put my wallet and keys in my pocket. Then the stuff started to catch up to me. Wallet, keys, phone, sunglasses. If I wanted one single additional item, like lip balm or tissues, it started to get more complicated not to carry a bag. Then I got my iPad and started writing anywhere and everywhere, and I had to carry that, too.
Where it really starts to get complicated is when you don't have a car. Long hours on public transportation tend to attract additional stuff. Consolidating errands tends to mean there's always at least one small extra item to carry. Today it was business envelopes, as shown in the embarrassing photo above. I realized how frustrating it would be if this strap finally came loose while I was still two hours from home. As much as I hate carrying a bag that crosses the line from 'purse' into 'luggage,' it was time. My purse is my car now. I went into Ross and came out with a $20 commuter bag that has lots of inner pockets. I transferred my stuff into it and threw the old bag in the trash, right outside the store.
I walked in the door with the new bag, and my husband looked right at me and didn't notice. I did a little curtsy and moved my arm to draw attention to it. Still didn't notice. That's a sign that you've picked a sufficiently utilitarian bag, when your pet engineer is unable to detect it.
The first thing I did was to sit down and pull some things out of the bag. That's because I need them. The envelopes went with the other office supplies. I took out my charger and plugged it in. There's a daily homecoming ritual of pulling out the flotsam and jetsam of the day, the receipts and paper napkins and earrings and whatever other stray items find their way inside. It only takes a minute - literally like 60 seconds. The absence of that homecoming clear-out ritual is what leads to Bags Everywhere.
Bags Everywhere. We've got the shopping bags with items still in them, tags still on, receipt still inside. We've got the donation bags that are now mixed in with the keepers again. We've got the plastic bags filled with random stuff, usually car clutter that got scooped up and carried in, mostly including junk mail and coupons. We've got the purses, each partially filled with a combination of receipts, mail, hair ties, coins, and useful stuff we can't find. We've got the gift bags from various occasions with the gifts still inside. Then we have the boxes with a couple of bags inside, like Russian nesting dolls. Then there are the piles, usually laundry, with bags on top. That's the nature of my work. We gradually go through the bags, one by one, recycling all the junk mail and the excess bags, realizing that there really isn't all that much in these bags after all. I guess bags are just so friendly that they like being surrounded by others of their kind.
I can accept that it's useful to have a bag. I can even accept that I'm allowed to have more than one bag, or to buy one before the previous one turns into shreds and scraps. In the same way, my clients can accept that their lives would be easier if they had fewer bags to manage. Every day is simpler when you know where all your most important daily stuff is. Streamlining your daily bag, whether you're an accumulator or an under-buyer, is one of those small projects that can have disproportionately awesome effects.
Hoarding is a lot more common than people realize. That's because people hide anything having to do with shame. I've worked with hoarding, squalor, and chronic disorganization for twenty years, and at this point I think it affects roughly 20% of the population. Here in the US it does, anyway. Some cultures seem to be somewhat immune to it. It's just so easy for us to bring home excess stuff that it's almost harder to avoid it. I just see it as a sign of the times, that we have food excess and debt excess and entertainment excess and texting-while-driving excess and, also, clutter excess. I don't blame anyone. It just interests me. It's a problem I know how to help solve. So when I find out someone hoards or has an organization problem, I'm never surprised.
Don't feel judged. My friends do, even after I've talked to them about it. Honestly, nobody you will ever meet will be more sympathetic and less judgmental about a little mess than I am. I have seen it all and smelled it all. Granted, if you're suffering, I don't want to see you live that way, but it's not like I'm going to climb in your window and start alphabetizing your socks. I'm here to help, not to boss someone around. I don't even boss myself around.
I'm not the kind of organizer who teaches you to use a perfect little label maker and make perfect little bulletin boards and perfect little... I dunno, terrariums or something. I'm not a Pinterest princess. I can't even really wrap a gift or frost a cake. Everything I try to make turns out lumpy. What I try to do is to find the pain point and remove it. That's all.
What's a pain point? A pain point is the thing that bothers you the most. Shame, anxiety, depression, sure. I probably can't do much about those, but I can help you do something about the situation surrounding those states. Practical philosophy. Also, if you're ashamed of, say, a hoarded room, it's hard to feel that way once the room is just a regular room again. If you're ashamed of an unpaid debt, pay the debt and the shame can go away, like fog burning off in strong sunlight.
Everyone has something, a secret shame. Often it manifests as a stack or a sack, like a bag of receipts and unbalanced bank statements, or an incomplete baby album, or a package of blank thank you notes. Alas, the people who most should be suffering from shame apparently don't feel it at all. Those are the people who wantonly go through life being nasty and hurting people just for the entertainment value. Casters of insults and spreaders of false gossip. They're out there. Think of whatever shame you feel and just mentally wad it up and toss it through the ether toward one of those people. You have more than you need, so just share a little, huh?
I'm never surprised by a hoarded house, just as I'm never surprised by grief or shame or anxiety or depression or any of that. That's because those feelings are nearly universal. All of us are the walking wounded, doing our best to get through the day and feeling alone. Oh, gee, obviously I must be the only one who can't cope. We see so many photographs these days of other people turning cartwheels on the beach or having a big ol' free hugs party, and we wonder what's wrong that we aren't feeling this constantly perfect joy and elation. Well, guess what? Those photos are staged. Personally, I've never turned a cartwheel in my life. If I do have a free hugs party, by all means, drop on by. If you know a hundred people, and each one shares the one perfect photo of the best moment of the best day they've had all month, it does prove that there's fun to be had, but it does not prove that everyone else is having it in a constantly running scintillating stream. Just like a clean house does not prove that other people don't have to wash pots or fold laundry.
I know who you are. If you refuse to let people in your house, you're one of mine. If you refuse to ever open your drapes, you're one of mine. If you offer someone a ride and then frantically try to scramble around clearing off the passenger seat, you're one of mine. The problem here is not what you think it is. The problem is that feeling of embarrassment, guilt, anxiety, and trying to hide the evidence. Your making it a big deal is what makes it a big deal. Remove the shame, and the situation becomes easy to resolve. You could simply ask for a little help, and one of your friends most likely would step in and help. Some of your friends may just be waiting to be asked. The guilty feeling of being helplessly trapped in procrastination is the thing that separates us. I recognize this feeling the instant I see it, and the only thing that surprises me about it is the strength of its force.
Mess is surely no worse than other common things people do, like drunk driving or bouncing checks. The natural reaction when we don't feel like we measure up is to isolate ourselves to keep the secret. The more we feel like we're in trouble, the less likely we are to speak up and say we can't handle it alone. Sadly, the wider the gulf between our perceived results and those of the people around us, the more likely it is that they know a simple solution to our problems. If it looks easy for them, maybe we just need to ask how they do it. Nobody would want someone to suffer alone, wallowing in bad feelings. Tell the truth about your life and you may find that nobody is surprised.
Now that you have it, what are you going to do with it?
An exit strategy is a plan for what to do in a given situation when the circumstances change. For instance, say I have a job. I'm not going to work there for infinity years. At some point, I know I'm either going to retire, quit, get laid off, get fired, or die with my face planted in my inbox. Even if I get promoted, I still have the same set of options. It's the same thing with my car. At some point, I'm either going to sell it, trade it in, or donate it, or it will get totaled. Same idea with my house. At some point I'm going to move, because I'm a renter and I know we won't retire here. Nothing lasts forever. That includes our stuff.
Most of us never think about exit strategies for most of our possessions. It just doesn't cross our minds. Every brand-new, fluffy sock will one day either lose its mate or become threadbare. How lonely and tragic. Ever gotten a blister from wearing a worn-out sock one too many times? Things are made to be used, and at a certain point, they get used up. We give worn-out socks to our dog as a toy, and it's not long before they're too torn up even for that. Into the trash they go.
Our culture generates more material artifacts than any culture in human history. We number our garments and books and action figures in the hundreds. We have dozens of copies of things that never even existed in the recent past. For instance, my household contains an entire box of power strips, chargers, connector cables, and backup batteries. Remote controls, headphones, splitters, tablets, phones, protective cases, electronic equipment I'd have trouble explaining to a child. What does this do? No idea, honey. I think it has electrons in it. We have all this stuff, and where is it going to go? Into a museum? Maybe not if there exist hundreds of millions of iterations of it, and a new version is coming out this November.
The Beanie Babies alone could make an extremely weird monument if they were all gathered together in one place. A desert pilgrimage site, perhaps. Living wild animals could hop up and curiously take a sniff. Birds could nest in it. Otherwise what are we going to do with them all? Do we really, truly think that people a century from now are going to want millions upon millions of disintegrating stuffed toys?
There are three reasons why the people of antiquity created small midden piles instead of landfills that can be seen from outer space. One is that they used things until they wore out, and then had a secondary market for the broken stuff. There was an entire profession of "rag-pickers" who would repurpose worn-out clothes and linens. Old newspapers, letters, and sheet music were used to wrap fish and meat. The other reason is that people have had an enduring, millennia-old tradition of ritual bonfires. You had a holiday full of revelry and a big fire, with a need for things to stuff in it. That's where you sent your snapped chairs and other dangerous old junk. Of course, by far the most important reason that people of the past did not generate landfills is that they didn't make, own, or waste even a tiny fraction of the stuff that we do.
One day, we'll be able to feed our friable old plastic junk into a 3D printer or a home power generator. We'll mine our landfills for more materials. Hopefully. What else are we going to do with cracked plastic buckets, stained food storage containers with melted lids, and warped lawn furniture that won't support a person's weight? Times a hundred million?
Many of us experience strong feelings of sadness, nostalgia, and regret when we think of the fate of unwanted or useless stuff. Jigsaw puzzles with missing pieces. Worn-out shoes. Scary space heaters with frayed cords. Ugly lamps. Close-up photographs of a million thumbs. Engraved decorations from the weddings of divorced couples. Broken Christmas ornaments. THIS USED TO BE COOL! I think we sometimes project our own feelings of rejection onto misfit material items. Sure, I'm a little funky, but can't you love me anyway? Deep inside, we truly believe that physical objects have souls and emotions, that they suffer when they aren't polished or displayed in some way. We demonstrate that by bringing them home and storing them in mildewed, crumbling old cardboard boxes.
Many of my clients are compulsive accumulators. Some shop as a hobby, whether online or in stores. Others will cheerfully accept limitless amounts of bags and boxes of other people's castoffs, stacking them up and never using them, but resting peacefully in the sense that they have "saved" these items. Books that will never be read again. Torn or stained garments that will never be remade. Fabric scraps that will never be used. We can't accept the fact of ruin. We can't face the pressure of a world of seven billion people that seems to require the manufacture of trillions of small, consumable objects and the waste of 40% of our food production. We never spare a second thought to what will happen to these objects after they come in our front doors.
We probably don't spend enough time sitting around and crying about it. Suppressed grief over our lost loved ones. Suppressed grievances over lost glories of the past. Suppressed disappointment over the way our lives have failed to live up to our dreams. Suppressed sorrow over the state of the world. Wasting today fussing over yesterday, rather than making tomorrow happen the way we'd prefer. Living in a personal landfill rather than accepting that our existence adds to collective landfills.
The only way out is a grand exit strategy. A policy decision to quit buying so much stuff. To put our attention on food and energy waste rather than the fate of a couple hundred pounds of random objects. We waste far more when we throw away spoiled groceries week after week than we do by junking old junk. If we stacked up all our single-use packaging for a year, we'd quickly see that it adds up to far greater volume than any amount of old furniture and knickknacks.
My husband and I are continually divesting stuff from our household. We've realized that there's no point in keeping anything we don't use. It's expensive to rent a bigger house just to provide shelter for more stuff we don't even need. It all tends to get banged up when we move. What really makes our life together is our habits: our inside jokes, our favorite recipes, our conversation, our shared presence. The more we downsize, the smaller the house we rent, the nicer the neighborhood we can suddenly afford. Our bills get smaller and we spend less time cleaning house. In light of all these benefits, the stuff we still have has to justify itself more and more.
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.