There are some predictable moments in working with people who are chronically disorganized. They never believe me, even when I tell them in advance, and they’re quite sure it won’t happen to them, until it does.
What’s the deal with keeping stuff even when it’s gross? Even when it obviously hasn’t been used and isn’t necessary to begin with?
There are a lot of reasons behind this. One of these reasons is enough, but often several of them come into play.
Lack of situational awareness; clutter blindness. My people stop seeing their surroundings and genuinely don’t realize how it looks or smells anymore. It’s like they’re going through life with a blindfold on and just peeking through the gaps by their nose.
Disbelief in germ theory. Even when they’re clearly suffering with constant respiratory problems, lethargy, sleep problems, low immune system, or mysterious gastric symptoms, my people don’t make the connection with their personal environment. Of course the wet black mold can’t have anything to do with my breathing problems! Of course the scary fridge can’t have anything to do with my chronic stomach problems! Just because you walked in and had a ten-minute sneezing fit doesn’t mean the dust is affecting any of us who live here. What my people think is that their state of poor health keeps them from doing any housework, rather than the reverse, which is that their home is making them ill.
Grief. People who are grieving often stay stuck that way for years or decades on end. Anything in the home that was associated with the bereavement will stay that way. Gifts from the deceased, unsorted boxes from the home of the deceased, entire chronological layers from that time period, all will stay the way it was left in that bad year. Touching or moving any of it will set off a fresh wave of grief. Grief is usually what sets off hoarding.
Scarcity mindset. The desire to be constantly surrounded by as much stuff as possible, because it feels like this is all we’ll ever have. We can’t get rid of anything, even expired food we’ll never eat or expired cosmetics that would cause a skin infection, because it’s wasteful. Spending more than we can afford on more than we can use perpetuates that feeling of being broke and deprived.
Emotional attachment. The item represents a memory or a relationship. Getting rid of anything that represents a memory is like deleting the memory... isn’t it? Won’t I immediately forget everything associated with this if I ever let it go? This was a gift! Isn’t letting go of it exactly like permanently severing the relationship?
Anthropomorphism, or, believing deep down that inanimate objects have souls and emotions. Getting rid of something will hurt its feelings. What an unforgivable insult! Subconsciously, lonely people identify with their stuff as neglected and unwanted, therefore deserving of sympathy.
Simple greed and materialism. This is where what I call stuff-stroking originates. Pretty, pretty, shiny! Ooh, all my nice nice things. Many people have an easier time interacting with stuff than they do other human beings, and certainly many of us have an easier time interacting with animals.
Rebellion. Keeping all my stuff is a way of setting boundaries and demonstrating my autonomy. If you suggest that I get rid of something, and I do it, that’s like being your slave and making you the boss of my life. The only way I can prove I’m in charge of my life is by doing the opposite of what anyone asks me to do, even if it makes my life more difficult. Every hill is the hill I want to die on!
Indecision. The worst thing is that feeling of cutting off options. Deciding is like death. WHAT IF I need it later?? I’m so mentally overwhelmed right now, I need a break, and maybe we can make all these decisions later. Or never. Never would be good, too.
Not knowing what to do next. A clear-out is complicated and tends to have a lot of moving parts. Working alone is something I’ll never do. Once you go home, O Organizer, that’s it, this process is grinding to a halt.
Low physical energy. Getting rid of stuff means bending and twisting and lifting. It means looking around and finding things. It means rounding up bags and boxes. It means carrying heavy bags and boxes out to the car or the curb. It means unloading stuff at the donation center. I’m tired, I’m so tired. I can’t.
I’ve seen people keep a lot of gross and weird things. A couch so infested with fleas that nobody would sit on it. Rusted-out leaking cans of expired food. Soggy old phonebooks. It’s very mysterious. It feels like my people genuinely believe this stuff is more important than their own home life. That their weird old stuff is more deserving of space and resources than they are themselves. What I’d like to see is that all of us have enough space to live out our dreams, that we all have enough breathing room. I’d like us to care more about our friends and loved ones than about a bunch of objects.
There are three signs that tip me off, the notifications that the time for fall organizing has arrived. 1. The special aisle of back-to-school supplies; 2. That first breath of cool air showing that the summer heat has broken; 3. The knowledge that THE HOLIDAYS ARE COMING. Getting Organized in September is naturally the thing to do.
Back in the bad old days, everyone focused on spring cleaning because it was too disgusting not to. All winter, heating with coal would leave black dust on everything. You had to wash your actual walls. As soon as the outside temperature got warm enough, everyone would open all the windows, drag the furniture out, beat the rugs, wash the curtains, and wipe down every surface. Imagine everything you own being covered with a film of filth. Ugh. This is one of the many ways in which 21st century life is so much easier.
What most of us have to deal with are simply:
If you have kids (or pets), then there’s also the issue of
[If you don’t have kids, go ahead and skip the next three paragraphs].
If you do have children, back-to-school time is a good marker of a transition in age, size, and activities. Time to go over their clothes, school supplies, books, toys, and maybe even the decorations in their room.
It’s best to start by explaining the concept that things come and go. We use things for a while, and then we can give them away to make room for different things. Our old clothes don’t fit anymore, so we put them in a bag and take them away, and then smaller kids can have a chance to wear them. We don’t play with our baby toys anymore, and so we trade them for big kid toys. Otherwise there wouldn’t be any room! In my experience, children are expert at letting go of stuff they don’t need. Parents *actively train them* to hang on to stuff, to attach emotional significance to things they genuinely didn’t care about. Worse, parents inevitably refuse to let their children get rid of stuff they didn’t want, forcing them to feel guilty for wanting to discard things that were only ever important to the parents and other adults in their life.
It’s unfair to lecture and punish a child for “not cleaning your room” on the one hand, and then refuse to let the child have control over their own possessions and living space. If you want to force them to keep things and live in a guilt museum, then YOU clean their room.
For the rest of us, how much easier it must seem to only have to organize our own stuff! How much easier it is to organize when it’s just adults. How much easier when there are no children’s bedrooms, when nothing needs to be explained or taught to a young person.
What needs to get organized? What does Get Organized even mean, anyway?
This depends on the individual. Most people are disorganized in at least one area, even if they don’t think they are, because that’s the default state when we’re trying to avoid or ignore something important. Mail, finances, writing a will, going to the dentist, car maintenance, finding a new job, sleep schedule, cleaning out the fridge, fitness, electronics, sorting papers and setting up a filing system - any and all of these areas may be chronically disorganized for one person or another.
Getting Organized means having a strategy for your life and setting up your personal environment to support your plans. That’s all.
You’re spending your time doing what you need and want to do. You can get where you need to be a little early each time. You know where all your stuff is. Boom, done.
If you’re a castaway on a deserted island, you’re probably spending all your time looking for fresh water and food, avoiding sunburn, and signaling passing ships. You probably know where your pile of coconuts is. In a survival situation, surely you’re finally Organized at last?
If you’re a modern person living a comfortable life, you’re probably not organized, although there may be coconut products involved. Your car is probably full of clutter and wrappers, you probably have drifts of papers scattered around, your closet is ready to pop, and you probably have shopping bags sitting around with stuff that never got unloaded. It’s just a function of living with all the material objects that are produced in our cultural moment.
You can do the first half of Getting Organized with just a sheet of paper and a pencil. Maybe you can even do it during the process of drinking one beverage of your choice.
To-do lists are more or less useless when they are nothing more than an outlet for mood repair. Making the list is not the same as getting anything done. In fact it’s probably a better idea for most people to do a two-minute task first rather than writing a list. Having a block of time for Getting Things Done, even when those things are unspecified, is better because there’s always something to do. Every day, there are going to be chores of some kind, whether that’s taking out the trash, folding laundry, or handling mail. Doing a little every day means that eventually, you don’t even need a to-do list; you just know what to do, and you do it.
Getting Organized is exactly like Paying Off Debt or Losing Weight in that sense. These are time-limited, finite projects. Eventually they’re done, and you never have to do them again.
If you start at the beginning of September, and you work on one area at a time, a little each day, you can be done before the winter holidays begin. What does “done” mean to you? For me, it would mean being able to host a family meal for Thanksgiving and feeling proud of how pretty everything looks. It always means looking around on New Year’s Eve at a glittering home, and feeling like I have a fresh start on the morning of New Year’s Day. There are four months between now and the New Year, and that’s plenty of time for even the most neglected home to start feeling more like it serves and suits you.
One way to define the word ‘organize’ is in the radical, political sense. It can help to keep this in mind while contemplating Getting Organized in the women’s magazine, top-down, social trend manner. The point of Getting Organized is to focus your energy, clear your mind, and introduce enough structure in your life that you actually do everything you intend to do. Harnessing your rebellious streak is one way to take ownership of this process. Remind yourself that power is not given, it’s taken. Agency and initiative are yours to command, but nobody is going to hand them to you.
Here are some orders against which you can rebel.
GO TO BED EARLIER. If you’re tired and burned out, if you never feel like you have anything other than low energy, then getting better quality sleep is mandatory. However! Sleep procrastinators are staying up late to try to gain more personal time and assert some autonomy. If you do insist on staying up late, why not use that time toward Getting Organized? Late at night, you can still make a strategic plan, write a comprehensive to-do list, clear your inbox, shut off notifications, hunt for a better job, update your resume, study for an advanced degree, write a book, delete and cull and sort and file. You can even aggressively clean your house if you have some resentments and anger to direct at your partner, housemates, kids, or neighbors.
GET RID OF STUFF. It probably would make your life easier to edit your possessions. A lot of people, though, are using their piles of stuff to set physical boundaries when they aren’t sure how to negotiate emotional or social boundaries. Taking up space in a psychological sense, in a way that makes a huge and measurable impact on the world, would probably take more ACTION and less stuff-stroking. Until that point, why not hang on to the objects that you own and instead journal, meditate, or do some deep inner work on your emotional reality?
EXERCISE. I always associated society’s demands that I sit still, keep my frilly clothing immaculately clean, and passively maintain a sweat-free ladylike demeanor as Victorian social control. Girls of my generation were barred from participating in sports and strongly discouraged from being physically active or getting dirty. As an adult, I choose to do mud runs and obstacle courses, put on boxing gloves, and train in martial arts because **** YOU I DO WHAT I WANT. Sitting, though, is a time-honored tradition of political resistance and civil disobedience. Maybe the time I spend kicking and punching things, you instead spend mobilizing a campaign. *shrug* Working out can be a great way to release stress and tension, but maybe you need to retain that tension to fuel your cause?
SAVE MONEY. There are only a couple of things more empowering than financial independence, and knowing where your money is going can be a great source of clarity and resolve. This can be approached in other, bolder ways. It’s a common entrepreneurial strategy to “burn your ships” and know that you will have to push yourself hard to earn enough to reach your stretch goal in a short time period. I talked to a client after we spent three weeks sorting through piles of unpaid bills, collections notices, speeding tickets, overdue rent, and back taxes. She asked how much she owed, and I didn’t want to tell her, but I did, because knowledge is power and the truth will set you free. “Ten thousand dollars, is that all?” She basically marched out and landed a better job, feeling that it was easier and less stressful to “just earn ten thousand dollars” than to painstakingly negotiate repayment plans or follow a meticulous budget. Go big and go home.
EAT BETTER. Most people seem to experience keeping a food log or watching what they eat in any way as a soul-destroying prison. I found it fascinating and terrifically empowering, as I was finally able to assess the root cause of my migraines and night terrors. I weigh in every day because I’m working to put on fifteen pounds of muscle in a year, and how else will I know if I’m gaining enough? As a backpacker, marathon runner, boxer, and all-around endurance athlete, if I don’t make sure I get enough calories and micronutrients, I’m going to bonk. Ingredients lists, nutritional information, food logs, scales, measuring tape, and body fat monitors are tools for massive strength, power, and a BACK OFF, BUDDY attitude from the eighteenth dimension. If you want them to be, they are.
LIVE YOUR BEST LIFE. Honestly, if you’re an observer of pop culture, you’ll see that living your worst life and being your worst self is likely a quicker path to fame. It’s an undeniable way to differentiate your brand. Who wants the pressure of living your best life? Sounds like a lot of work. I think it might be more interesting and productive to define your most mediocre life and try to nail that first.
Ultimately, if you’re not the boss of you, then nobody is, and that’s something unique and particular in its own way. Wild tangle of brambles, you do you. Rebellion can be intriguing, it can set your world on edge like nothing else, and is it burning your flame in the most gorgeous way possible? A flame with a constraint can send a rocket into space. Where is your rebellion taking you?
Avoiding malls is one of the main tenets of my lifestyle, but recently I had occasion to visit a couple for the purpose of buying clothes. It only took about five minutes to remind me why I hate malls so much. They have so, so many problems. They are not responsive to what people want from them. The troubles that they are having now are mostly the same problems they were having twenty years ago, when they first started really annoying me. Shopping malls deserve to die off.
Here are my issues with shopping malls, in ascending order:
10. Wi-fi barriers. Ask for every scrap of my personal contact information so I can have temporary access to extremely low-bandwidth wi-fi. This is how you compete with my ability to buy everything that ever existed online, in my home, 24/7?
9. Car-centric design. I don’t drive, and trying to get from a sidewalk to the actual mall building is a nightmare. As a user of alternative transportation, I am stuck carrying my bags around with me, whether to a restaurant, movie theater, or additional stores. Lockers would be nice. I’ve actually been hassled by theater ushers because they thought I had too many shopping bags. So, yeah, drive me away and prevent me from spending more time and money at your facility.
8. Other shoppers. Leaving their drinks on shelves, dropping garments on the floor, walking one mile an hour, blocking aisles with huge carts, ignoring their children for extended phone stroking breaks. When I last walked through a mall, a fight was being broken up between a pit bull and a German Shepherd, neither of which presented as service animals.
7. Seasonality offset. By the time I want to buy sandals, they’re sold out in my size in every style. When I want to buy sweaters and a new jacket, I’m looking at spring dresses. Huh?
6. Food courts. Very predictable offerings, virtually nothing for anyone who follows any kind of alternative diet. What’s the matter, don’t you want my money?
5. Email bombardment. Every single store wants my email address, because every single one of them intends to send me email every single day. Why on earth would any brand think that this is a good idea? How incredibly short-sighted and rude.
4. The clothes. I’m a middle-aged woman of almost precisely average height, average shoe size, and textbook-indicated body weight. Almost nothing fits me. Most mall stores don’t carry my size at all, even online. All I want out of clothes are that they cover my body, fit my frame, and have pockets that hold my phone. I want them to play nicely with the washer and dryer without leaching dye on my other clothes. I want shoes I can walk comfortably in for twelve hours a day. Apparently zero of these characteristics are permissible. Instead we get weird embellishments, mysterious cutouts, mystifying care instructions, three-inch heels, and almost nothing a mature person can wear in a business environment.
3. The perfumes. They are probably gross and overwhelming to most people. To a fragrance-sensitive person like myself, perfumes are a minefield. I have walked into a shopping mall before, trying to get to a specific store, and had a migraine before I made it three minutes down the hall. One scent would be bad enough, but the miasma of all of them combined makes it a major obstacle.
2. The kiosks. Most annoying thing ever. Do not make eye contact with me, do not approach me, do not speak to me, do not interrupt my conversation with my friend, definitely never follow me as I rush past you. Whoever approved this sales model obviously does not care how loathsome it is to the majority of people trying frantically to get away.
1. Malls are designed around what brands want to SELL, not what people want to BUY. We want to buy practical things that serve a specific purpose. We want things that are easy to maintain and that last a long time. Often, in my case, I want something specific that either doesn’t exist or that isn’t in stock. Meanwhile I find myself surrounded by tens of thousands of things I do not want and never will want.
Note that I use the word ‘people’ rather than other terms like ‘shoppers’ or ‘consumers.’ I despise the idea that my core identity is ‘someone who consumes,’ which would be a grievous insult to most people throughout human history, akin to calling someone a ‘useless eater.’ A taker, not a giver; a user, not a producer. I also reject the idea that my mission in life is to ‘shop’ or buy things. I’m a person. I’m a person whose purpose in life is to love my friends and family, be a part of my community, create art, solve problems, think original thoughts, and appreciate nature. Sometimes I do chores, and occasionally replace my shirts, but these are externalities.
What will happen to these immense buildings after the retail apocalypse has continued wiping out storefronts, brands, and entire retail complexes? What will happen to all that commercial real estate after shopping malls have died off? I think they’ll be filled more and more with community gathering places such as various types of gyms, or offices for social services. Otherwise, unfortunately, these temples to consumerism will probably turn into desolate ruins, and all because they can’t get it together and figure out how to respond to what people want from them.
Technically everything is in my living room. I found myself explaining this to a new friend the other day. She was trying to visualize what it’s like to live in a studio apartment. Our front door is our bedroom door as well as our kitchen door. We don’t have a back door; we’re built into a hill. While we do have a bathroom door, when you’re in there you’re also in our closet. Almost all our belongings are on view at all times. It really tends to bring home the message of minimalism! Living in a studio is a great demonstration of the value of evaluating our stuff by room, not by individual object.
Our stuff should argue for itself. It should be obvious why we have what we have. Everything we own should serve a purpose, and its existence in our personal space should be self-explanatory.
If this seems simple and easy to understand, let’s extend it. Each room in the home should also explain itself. We should be able to use every part of our personal space in the way that is most helpful.
I wake up in the morning, having spent the night in my bed, with my head on my pillow and my body under the covers. I walk into the bathroom, where I shower with soap and dry off with a towel. I go to the closet and put on clothes. I go into the kitchen (area), get a bowl and a spoon, and make myself some oatmeal for breakfast. These are easy, obvious parts of my day. My morning is supported by my environment and by my possessions. Boring, right?
Let me just say that none of those steps are obvious, simple, or easy for chronically disorganized people.
My people might:
Not always sleep in their bed, even though they have one
Sleep on a bed that is partly covered with non-bed stuff
Sleep on a bed without sheets, a pillow, or blankets
Have closets with no clothes hanging up, and clothes all over the floor
Shower irregularly and be out of soap and clean towels
Not have a shower curtain
Have broken plumbing that hasn’t worked for months
Not have any clean dishes in the kitchen
Be out of their favorite breakfast food
Have no morning routine to speak of
What makes life hard for my people is that they can get very caught up with individual possessions, and they have trouble categorizing. The house might be full of stuff, yet they might be missing a lot of the “obvious” necessities that keep a household running.
Basically my people can be relied on to have lots and lots of books, clothes, decorative items, and packaged food. Most of the time they have true hoards of craft supplies and holiday decorations. They’ll have lots of stuff they never use, because it’s there, like sheets that don’t fit any mattresses in the house, or washcloths, or booze bottles when they don’t even drink alcohol.
Look a little closer, and they don’t have stuff like a kitchen sponge, can opener, working lightbulbs, an extension cord or a hammer or a first aid kit or a fire extinguisher. There might not be curtains on the windows. They may have bought stuff they needed, then left it in the package, and in fact it may still be in the original shopping bag months later.
This is why I talk about evaluating by the room, rather than by the thing. Individual objects are not useful if they’re still in the package or the bag, if they’re not stored near where they get used, if they’re buried under piles of other stuff. Individual objects are not useful, of course, if they’re not actually useful things. I’ve known two bachelors who constantly had a wet towel on the floor because they’d never gotten around to installing a shower curtain. “Wet floor” isn’t exactly something you can hold in your hands and ask if it sparks joy, am I right?
This is what our rooms should be doing for us.
A bedroom should facilitate restful sleep. The bed should be warm and comfortable. If the room is too bright, an eye mask should be ready to use. It should be as quiet as possible, and if not, a fan or white noise can help.
A closet or dresser should store clothes so they’re ready to wear. It should be easy to put together a matching outfit that fits. There should be enough room to easily take items out and put them away again later. Anything that won’t fit in the available storage space should probably be bagged up and eliminated.
A bathroom should facilitate personal hygiene and grooming. All the plumbing and lighting should work.
A kitchen should facilitate meal preparation. Anything on the counters or the floor that gets in the way of meal prep should be questioned.
A dining table should facilitate eating meals or doing other projects. Anything that makes a table unusable should be questioned. A table is not a permanent storage option for piles of things.
A couch is for sitting. Why would anything be kept on a couch or chair that prevents someone from sitting there or stretching out and taking a nap?
That’s the basic idea. Whatever living areas we have, we should be able to use them. A bed is for sleeping, a kitchen is for cooking, a table is for using, a chair is for sitting. Whenever we have any kind of stack or pile of stuff, it’s detracting from our ability to use our space. We’re paying rent for it, but our stuff is not. If it isn’t earning its keep, get rid of it. What’s the point of storing so many cans and packages of food that you can’t cook any of it? What’s the point of owning so many clothes that you can’t fit them in your closet and you can’t find anything to wear? What’s the point of having tables and counters so covered with things that they can’t be used?
Many of us have an unfulfilled dream of something we’ll do “someday.” So much of the time, it turns out that the reason we aren’t already doing it is that we don’t think we have the space. This is why I do my headstand against the door every night, because I don’t have any blank wall space that’s wide enough. How much would we all be doing or making if we had clear tables, clear desks, clear floor space? How many parties and gatherings would we have if we felt like we had enough room to host? Let’s think first of what we would ideally do on our best days, and then arrange our living space to allow these dreams to come true.
A Life Less Throwaway is a manual for how to shift focus from the materialism of our consumer society to a life of meaning, purpose, and connection. It’s thought-provoking, funny, and full of practical steps. Tara Button presents a vision of mindful curation, which, while overlapping with the goals of minimalism, does not need to result in a minimalist home to be successful.
Button worked in the advertising industry for ten years, and she gives us a peek behind the scenes, showing how marketing shapes our desires in ways we might not realize. As an example, they filmed children enjoying a treat, but the commercial secretly used the competing brand because the kids were spitting out the one they were supposed to be advertising. Another example would be the notion of a diamond engagement ring, which was invented by a diamond company. I wonder what would happen if someone started advertising engagement tacos instead?
Research and statistics back up many of Button’s points. Something I found interesting was that the longer people spend getting ready, the more negative they feel about their appearance. Advertisers harp on this dissatisfaction to convince us that we need to buy clothes, accessories, and beauty treatments. Probably we would enjoy our lives more if we instead focused on other qualities, such as our friendships. This is where A Life Less Throwaway stands out, by offering tangible ways to disrupt these marketing messages and remember our true purpose.
An area where most households can benefit from A Life Less Throwaway is by editing their clothes closets. There is quite a bit of material here. Button points out that the average woman buys sixty-seven articles of clothing a year, while in 1930 the average woman owned only nine outfits. The book includes worksheets on how to choose a personal style and weed out garments that don’t suit that look. It also has reasons why someone might want to keep something that isn’t being used, such as that someone complimented it one day. These are very relatable chapters!
A Life Less Throwaway has some great ideas for teaching kids to be less materialistic, also. One example was to have them write advertisements for the fun toys they already own and then act them out. Another exercise that kids might find funny is to look at an ad with a celebrity showcasing a product, and then swap that person out for another famous person you don’t like as much. This is introduced as a mental visualization, but it could be done with art supplies or software, just saying. The concept of the ‘unwish’ list is also very useful, and something I’ve done myself.
Following the principles of A Life Less Throwaway can lead to greater life satisfaction, better friendships, more savings, happier holidays, and less housework. I can attest to that because a lot of these ideas are a natural outgrowth of a frugal, minimalist lifestyle. In general, adding more shopping means more debt, more housework, less free time, and more quarrels. If we aren’t recreationally shopping, then what are we doing with our time? Button’s book is a solid choice as a handbook for a better, more meaningful life, A Life Less Throwaway indeed.
“Overbuying habits are often linked to low self-worth.”
“We look forward to experiences more than to buying material things because they create happiness even when they’re not happening.”
Less: A Visual Guide to Minimalism is for those of us who are still bound to our stuff and not sure what to do with all the clutter. Rachel Aust’s stylish book reminds us of the point of minimalism, which is that everything really can be simple and streamlined. It really is possible to relax in a personal environment that is “done,” where nothing is missing and nothing is demanding attention. This is the next level beyond all of those organizing books. See it, imagine it, believe it. Photos of interiors like those in Less make it look possible.
Flow charts appear throughout the book, demonstrating how to make decisions about what to keep and what to eliminate. A couple of these made me grin, as I realized how they would look to my chronically disorganized clients. “Am I keeping this for sentimental reasons?” Um, not sure? Is it sentimental if it only brings up bad memories, but I still feel obligated to keep it? There’s a list of “25 Things You Can Trash Without Even Thinking.” It includes “old notebooks,” “unused craft supplies,” and “unfinished projects.” Wow! I mean, technically she is correct, and life will go on without these things, but my people are only going to be able to bring themselves to let go of these categories of their possessions under great strain. It’s a telling example of how we create our own problems and make our own lives more difficult.
My motivation for getting rid of my own old notebooks was that if they only existed in a single paper copy, then they were vulnerable to ruin or loss. I also couldn’t search them, and it was nearly impossible to track down information I needed. Now they’re digitized and backed up, and that makes them safe and useful. I “trashed” the old notebooks while keeping the important part, which was their informational content.
Aust does include some excellent thinking exercises on how to make decisions and emotional adjustments around letting things go. For instance, if this were stolen, would you actually replace it? Are you keeping it for its actual value in your life, or only its monetary value?
Stuff isn’t “worth” what we think it is. We fall for the “endowment effect,” meaning that we believe things are valuable because they belong to us, and it’s hard for us to realize that nobody on earth would pay the price we would demand for our old junk. How is it worth anything if it just sits there, literally gathering dust?
Minimalism isn’t practical for everyone, and Aust acknowledges that. She also points out that we can’t go minimizing other people’s possessions. From my work in this field, I can tell you that the person most likely to bring me in is usually the real hoarder in the home! This person is frustrated that other people are storing their stuff in areas they want to use for their own personal items. With all your stuff in the way, I can only bogart 90% of the common areas! We certainly both agree that minimalism starts with oneself and one’s own belongings.
There’s a 30-day minimalism challenge in Less that I really like. Most of my people would need to spend more than a day on some of these, but it’s still a great starting point. I’m particularly impressed that the challenge includes finance, information management, and meal planning. There’s even a social media cull, and therein we discover the time we need to carry out the rest of the challenge!
One of the major strengths of the book is the section on capsule wardrobes. Most Americans have a crazy amount of clothes, and this will be the area to see the fastest results. If you can’t figure out where to start, start here.
As for the interiors, Aust reminds us that we don’t need to keep things just because it’s “expected” if they aren’t useful to us. I’m living proof; I hate coffee tables, so we have an ottoman instead. My dresser has a footprint of only about two square feet, so it stays in the closet. “The Only 45 Items You Need in Your Home” may be a bit on the luxe side, because I don’t have a bedside table, a bath mat, or a washing machine, and I got rid of the iron and ironing board the last time we moved. I generally don’t keep any of the suggested pantry items on hand, either. The “20 Essential Cooking Tools” were right on target, though. There are very few kitchen items I use on a weekly basis that fall outside that grid.
Different styles of decor are included, indicating that not everyone has to go for the hard-edge version that appeals to me. What should be apparent is that stacks and piles of clutter never add anything positive to a room; we can add charm and warmth with color, music, and friends rather than STUFF.
As a tiny-house, debt-free person, I can state for the record that Rachel Aust’s approach works. Personally, I’m more minimalist than the book in several ways, but extremely maximalist in others. There’s still room for a parrot, a unicycle, and a set of hula hoops in a 612-square-foot studio apartment. I like the connections that Less makes between a structured, simple interior, an organized calendar and to-do list, minimal cleaning, financial freedom, and peace of mind. I’m going to set about having Less right away.
One of the many paradoxes of clutter is that it can be harder to let go of stuff we got for free than stuff we bought retail. Why is this? Free stuff can range from free samples to gifts to items picked up at the curb to website giveaways. It edges up to yard sale bargains, thrift store finds, and anything from the sales rack. A lot of us get swirly eyes when we see a FREE sign, and some of us would want to take the sign as well!
Every single thing we own has several types of costs. One, it takes up physical space. I’m hyper-aware of this because my husband and I share a 612-square-foot studio apartment with a dog and a mid-size parrot. If we bring home so much as an extra can of soup, it’s a storage issue. People tend not to think of how much their rent or mortgage costs per square foot, which can be a huge financial pitfall, because rent is usually our largest budget item by far. When we downsized from a one-bedroom to the studio, the amount we cut in rent was almost equivalent to what we were spending on a car. A new car!
How much is free stuff really worth, if by avoiding it you could have cut your rent by 20% or more?
Another underrated way that stuff costs money is when its owner pays for a storage unit. It is truly appalling how much my people spend on storage, when in every case, they genuinely can’t afford it. When I find out they’re putting it on a credit card every month, I want to cry. Someone I know has spent a full TEN THOUSAND DOLLARS maintaining a storage unit over the years. I know what’s in there because I helped pack. It’s just generic housewares, like an old couch and kitchen stuff, all of which could have been replaced for under a thousand dollars.
In fact, most people could probably replace a full set of household items by asking their friends and acquaintances. I’ve seen it happen at least a dozen times. Someone has to start over, and within a week they’ve got beds, a couch, a dining table, pots and pans, everything you could want. Granted, it might not all match, but then the original stuff probably didn’t, either! Think of the fun of watching all that FREE STUFF being carried in the door.
See how this works, though. Rather than put your stuff in storage indefinitely, spending hundreds or thousands of dollars to not use it and not look at it, you can give it away to someone who needs it. Then, when you’re ready to set up housekeeping again, you simply put out the call, and the loose free stuff of the world starts flowing in your direction again. Or, if that doesn’t feel magical enough, you can put what you would have spent on storage in the bank, and use the proceeds to buy new and improved versions.
The reason a lot of stuff is “free” is because it’s dated or obsolete. I’m thinking of a lot of stuff I’ve given away over the years, as we downsize our way to financial independence. The big red sectional couch that went to a mover, because it literally wouldn’t fit in our new living room. (It cost half what we paid for our current couch). The entire kitchen’s worth of pots, pans, dishes, and utensils we gave to a halfway house when we first got married. A carload of small appliances. Older phone models. After we upgrade, we tend not to care about the previous version, because we’ve extracted full value from it through daily use.
Say you buy something for $100 and use it for ten years. It then cost $10 per year. This type of value calculation can be done quickly on anything. If I buy a dress shirt for $50 and wear it 50 times, then it cost a dollar a wear. That’s about once a week for a year, or twice a month for two years. My wardrobe is small enough that that’s a good estimate. It’s why I’m willing to spend $50 on a single garment, because it’s cheaper that way than buying five $10 tops that fall apart in the wash, or even three $20 tops I don’t like as much and won’t wear as many times.
There are other reasons why free stuff isn’t free.
I’ve known people who have brought home a ‘free’ couch, mattress, or chair and found that their home was instantly infested with bedbugs or fleas. I’ve also known people who had a hard time getting rid of headlice or scabies. Hey, it happens. This type of thing is miserable, expensive, and incredibly frustrating and time-consuming to defeat.
Since we downsized into a tiny home, we don’t spend much time shopping or procuring things. We already know there’s nowhere to put it. If anything, we should be getting rid of two things for every one thing that comes in the door, because our space is a little crowded and chaotic with almost everything we own visible at all times. What we do spend time on happens to be ‘free stuff.’ Conversation, making art, hanging out with our friends and our pets, walking around the neighborhood, watching the sun set. Try to spend less time bargain hunting and more time simply being.
Cutting off options is one of the worst feelings. This is why so many people hate making decisions; ‘decision’ means “to cut off.” It’s also a major reason why we procrastinate (or feel like we do), and it’s one of the major root causes of clutter. We like to feel surrounded by possibilities and potential. We like it even when maintaining that illusion of options is precisely what’s holding us back.
This is why I recommend choosing and focusing on a primary project.
It came to me just now, while I was brushing my teeth, in fact. I’m writing this at what is technically past my bedtime, because I know otherwise I’ll toss and turn writing it in my head. This is how we like to think of inspiration, as this external, spiritual force that strikes us like a lightning bolt from an ethereal weather system. We like it, even though when it actually happens it’s terribly inconvenient! We like it, even when it tends to result in years stacked upon many years of unproductive dallying and lack of any measurable result.
This is the year I’m dedicating to tying off old cords, closing open loops, and deciding once and for all whether to finish certain projects, schedule them, or jettison them entirely. Supposedly that is my primary project. It’s the middle of the year and I haven’t actually finished anything.
These are the projects that, if asked, I would have to define as “current”:
A novel; a non-fiction book; yet a different novel; the new podcast; a cross stitch that is maybe half done; an attempt to learn to juggle/ride a unicycle/solve a Rubik’s cube/do the splits/this is getting embarrassing, but the gear is everywhere; clearing the data off my old phone so I can sell it; getting an orange belt in Muay Thai; finishing my Advanced Communicator Silver in Toastmasters; putting together a workshop; this blog of course
Of COURSE there are more. It’s so much worse than it looks.
The trouble with being a multi-potentialite is this tendency to have eighty things going at once, making 1% progress on all of them. It means we never finish anything, we never build a reputation (or at least not one we’d want), we have no legacy, we blow people off and we flake out.
All the time I seem to want to prioritize on learning circus tricks is time taken away from a bunch of finite projects, many of which are at the 80-90% mark.
Why wouldn’t I want to finish them? It’s not like I’m in any danger of running out of ideas, foolish, impractical, brilliant, fun, interesting, or silly as they might be.
I’m better than I used to be. That’s the whole and entire point of a growth mindset, right? To be better than we used to be, and to strive for more? I do pride myself on publishing a blog post every business day. I’m also making steady, measurable progress in both public speaking and martial arts. That’s three things! If I continue to do those three things, then eventually I’ll be a sixth-degree black belt, a Distinguished Toastmaster, and author of a blog that just keeps going and going.
This is what we always have to ask ourselves about our projects. Why are we doing them?
Is it just to have something to keep our hands busy? In that case, we’re ever and always going to have some knitting or crochet or embroidery or hand-stitching or beading or sanding or what-have-you. If the goal is to fill the days and evenings, then we might as well finish our projects one after another. We might as well start trying to make a dent in our accumulated supplies and materials (even though, honestly, we have enough for three lifetimes divided between four people). We could even, dare I say it? We could even finish ALL OF IT. We could wake up one fine morning with zero supplies, zero materials, zero patterns, zero plans, and we could simply wander around the craft store and come home with something new.
There’s no risk in finishing anything!
Are we doing projects as proof of concept? Demonstrating that we have a clear intention of mastering a particular art? Writing, painting, dancing, sculpting, carving? In that case, it’s perfectly fine to have more false starts and bits and pieces of something than we do actual finished work. We simply have to accept that we’ll never impress ourselves, we’ll never reach a point of satisfaction with our own work, because true artists pretty much never feel that way. Never being quite as good as your interior vision is the mark, after all. That’s exactly what sets us apart. We have to ask whether anyone is ever going to see our work, which is really asking if we care about making something that matters. To anyone.
What I’ve just distinguished is the difference between an art and a craft, between an artist and an artisan, or perhaps a hobbyist. All of them are fine but they do have different goals and different processes.
I’m also distinguishing between the finite and the infinite. The finite project is the specific book; the infinite project is to write. The finite project is the afghan; the infinite project is, from what I’ve seen, to collect yarn. Wait, um? Have I ever asked myself to identify my infinite project?
Most of my projects are signs of curiosity. I get interested in something and I want to dive in and immerse myself in it. My interests tend to layer themselves; I rarely drop them. That’s why I have a parrot, and a twenty-year-old bicycle that I still ride, and a vast recipe collection, and a tub full of backpacking equipment. I also tend to have a certain amount of random books and objects that signal my intention for future use. I drive myself crazy doing this, yet I do it.
I have all this stuff, but what I don’t have is a published novel. I don’t have a workshop on the calendar. I don’t have a podcast episode recorded. I don’t necessarily have to choose between these distinctly different projects; I do have to make some solid choices about where I’m putting my primary focus most days of the week. Do one until it’s done, and then do the other until it’s done, and then pick something else. Inexperience with this condition is probably why there are six juggling balls on my desk. What’s going to be my primary project for the next month? What will I have to show for the next three months?
We’re leaving for a trip tomorrow. There are three ways to go about this.
Freaking out is a common reaction. Most people manage their anxiety about change and transition by trying to over-plan and overpack. Just bring everything you can possibly carry, and most eventualities will be covered, right?? This attitude guarantees that you’ll have the maximum weight and bulk to drag around, which multiplies the hassle and planning time that you’ll need. The longer you spend worrying and fretting about what to bring, the more ideas you have of more stuff to cram into the suitcase.
The way I used to pack was basically, Look around at every single thing I own, exclude as few things as possible, and try to bring it all. Like, okay, I probably don’t need to bring the furnace but maybe it will fit? Do they have ovens where I’m going?
Harness this overthinking energy. It’s a rational, logical way to deal with uncertainty, and that rationality can be used more efficiently.
Start with the minimum. What if I just went in the clothes on my back, and all I had was my wallet and phone? Worst case scenario, my outfit would get smelly. Maybe I’d wash it and I’d have to borrow a towel to wear while it was being laundered. Second worst case, maybe I’d have to stop somewhere and buy a new shirt and pants. If that happened, I could bring the new clothes home and install them in my regular wardrobe rotation.
My hubby once grudgingly spent $80 buying a simple fleece pullover at a gift shop on a motorcycle trip. It was LUDICROUSLY overpriced. He loves it, though, and he’s still wearing it nine years later. It’s amortized down to less than $9/per year of ownership, and it still fits and looks great.
All we’re doing is taking that “WHAT IF?????” feeling and welcoming it, taking it seriously. Okay, what if?
What won’t happen is that we won’t vaporize or suddenly find ourselves in the eighth dimension. We won’t swap personalities and find ourselves suddenly in a different body. We won’t forget the names or faces of everyone we’ve ever known. All that happens is that we go somewhere else for a while, sleep in a different bed for a while, meet some new people, and, if we’re lucky, eat some different food a few times.
This is my method.
Pack four outfits and one extra pair of shoes.
Literally, that’s it.
I don’t fold them or roll them, either. I lay out the four distinct outfits on my bed, so I make sure that they match and I have the correct undergarments. In the past, I’ve often forgotten to pack socks, and this “stack for each day” method has helped with that.
Next, I take one garment at a time and lay it in the suitcase, matching the shoulder seams and waistbands to the edge of the bag. Pant legs, skirts, et cetera, are laid out flat, stacked one on another. When they’re all matched up, I fold over all the legs and skirts. Socks, underwear, and swimsuits get stuck in the corners and along the edges. Then I zip it closed. The extra shoes and my shower kit go in another compartment. It takes five minutes.
I’m able to do this because I just pack my regular wardrobe. These are the clothes I wear all season long. I know they go in the washer and dryer. I know they fit. I know they mix and match because I plan ahead and buy things that go together. I don’t tolerate singletons and I remorselessly ditch any odd garment that isn’t earning its space in my closet. My clothes serve me, period. I’m not a museum curator and I don’t run a boutique. I don’t owe a piece of fabric anything, anything at all. I’m not going to be the defense lawyer for something if it isn’t already obvious why I should bring it. No threes, no maybes, no almosts. Just four outfits.
If my trip is longer than four days, then I simply do a load of laundry during the trip. I’ve done it at hotels, I’ve done it at campsites, and of course I’ve done it at my parents’ house.
I have had a couple of trips over the years where the weather suddenly turned, and it was much hotter or colder than the forecast. The way I deal with that is to allow one extra garment for the off chance, like a tank top or a layer of thermal underwear. It’s not the end of the world.
What about all the other stuff? All the special travel gadgets and pillows and what-not?
I like to buy travel doodads for the same reason that I like to buy kitchen utensils. They look cool! Then I inevitably realize that I don’t need them and I never use them.
My priority when I travel (and remember, priority is singular) is to bring only one bag that fits under the seat.
To that end, I bring only what I feel that I really, really want during the flight. I wear a heavy cardigan because I always feel cold on a plane. Wallet, obviously. Phone, tablet, charger, backup battery, headphones. Light snack. Hand lotion and lip balm. That’s it. Why would I need more than that?
The thing to remember is the reason for the trip. MY STUFF is never the reason for a trip! I’m traveling to be with specific people and to go to a specific location. I’m only there for a limited window of time. I can worry about MY STUFF when I’m home again, assuming I want to spend my precious life thinking about and stroking material objects. I want to channel my feelings of elevated adrenalin and remember, That’s excitement!
Now it’s time to chill out and pack. Remember, everything can be bought 24/7 and objects are consumable. Bring the minimum, remind yourself what you’re doing on the trip, and, yes, chill out and pack.
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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.