Coming home from a vacation should count as part of the vacation. End on a high note. Coming home late, exhausted, and knowing you have to get up early to go back to work is bad enough. Add the suitcases full of dirty laundry. THEN add the disaster area that was created while you tried to pack. No thank you! Planning in advance prolongs the excitement and anticipation of the trip. Planning meals around using things up can be part of this fun, and it can also help to defray the cost of the trip.
There are two main ways to use up food in advance of a trip. One, just eat the stuff. Two, cook it and put it in the freezer. (You can also ask some friends or roommates if they want it, but chances are that they’ll just wind up throwing it away).
We decide which way to use stuff based on how well it freezes. Once I tried putting a bag of carrots directly into the freezer, and let’s just say that didn’t work out very well! Right before a trip is no time to be experimenting on novel food preservation methods. Let’s just do things that we already know how to do.
Eat it now: Salad greens, leftovers, fresh fruit, anything you can juice
Freeze it: Anything that could go in a soup, pot pie, or stir-fry. Any bread or baked goods.
It took me forever to learn to do this, but I now plan meals over a 3-5 day time period. I buy frozen entrees for more like 1-2 weeks at a time, and canned foods for a few days, but the fresh produce circulates over a much briefer period. There are three reasons for that. Our fridge is small, I have to carry all our groceries over my shoulder while walking half a mile, and, most importantly… there’s no need for me to buy more. They call it a “store” because it “stores” things.
My previous method of shopping involved buying stuff out of curiosity when I didn’t actually know how to cook it, buying stuff I did know how to cook without having a meal plan, buying stuff on sale, and generally feeling like there was a “right amount” of food to buy. The result was more or less chaos. A kitchen full of every possible spice, herb, condiment, shape of pasta, and random item like umeboshi plums or canned chestnuts… but nothing that would actually represent A DINNER. As it turns out, the vast majority of stuff we buy for flavor has few to no calories. That sense of safety and security that comes from stockpiling food is a false sense of security. In crisis conditions, it won’t fuel us for very long. Thus, if we’re saving extra food at the behest of anxiety, we should be making sure that it represents whole meals in the least perishable format possible.
That’s a lesson for a different day.
What we’re focusing on right now is the OPPOSITE of crisis conditions. We’re focusing on being AWAY from home, on NOT having a stockpile of supplies. What we want is to avoid coming home to a bunch of moldy, spoiled food, all of which represents\ both a waste of money and a cleanup hassle.
Once I came home from a trip and I was talking on the phone with the man who is now my husband. Clearly I was not thinking about how long I had been away. (I think it was Thanksgiving weekend). I grabbed a container of soy milk out of the fridge and started to take a swig. Instantly my honey was subjected to a stream of swearing and gagging. The soy milk had gone bad. Approximately a single molecule of it touched my tongue, and I learned that the major function of the taste buds is to protect us against being poisoned. This is some limbic-system, deep survival stuff right here. I was scrubbing my tongue with a toothbrush and gargling with mouthwash. Then I poured out the offending container and everything in it came out in chunks. And that is the story of how I started meal planning before trips away from home.
The steps involved are simple.
Don’t go to the grocery store if you can avoid it. Definitely do not go until after you have taken inventory of the perishables in the fridge.
Try to use up all the perishables. That means “things that go bad.”
If your fridge is empty the day before you leave, great. Just get tacos that night or something.
A lot of typical American households have enough food in the kitchen to last for at least a month. Many frugalites and debt-payoff champions have proven this hypothesis by eating only the food supplies they have on hand until they run out. This can be harder to do when you realize that your stockpile includes three jars of mustard and five separate salad dressings. Also, how does someone wind up with two jars of capers?
One thing I like to do is to make a pot of soup and put it in freezer containers for the night we come home. The soup simmers while we pack our suitcases. Then we don’t have to stress out about what we’re going to eat when we get home, either. We can put off grocery shopping until the next day. We can also splurge on grocery delivery, which we used to do when our grocery store was more than half a mile away.
Travel anxiety is hard. I have found that it really eases my mind to take out the trash before I leave for a trip, and then do a final perimeter check. I can lock the door behind me, carrying the image of my clean and tidy apartment, with clear visuals in my mind that show I haven’t forgotten anything, and we won’t be coming home to a mess. Nothing but fun times ahead!
Ready for a fiesta of gender stereotypes? We’re packing for a trip, and I asked my husband if he would be willing to be my test subject. I’m setting a timer so I can find out how long it takes him to pack. I want to know the secret of how to pack like a man. I’m going to pack my own bag right alongside him. Here we are in the time dimension. Ready? Three, two, one, and GO!
Okay, no, wait. He’s saying something really interesting!
“If it took me half an hour to decide what to take on a trip, it would be crazy! I mean, seriously, I could pack all the clothes in my closet in my big international bag and just check it, and I would have all my clothes. I don’t know if it would necessarily fill all that bag up. What filled it up on the trip to Hamburg was that I was taking my big heavy coat.” - My hubby, spontaneously writing half of this post for me
He’s onto something there. As an aerospace engineer, he’s expected to dress professionally, but not exactly in a fashion-forward, on fleek kind of a way. He used to buy his pants in a stack at Costco, until he figured out that he can get them on Amazon Prime. Likewise, if his shirt collars start to fray, he wanders into the nearest men’s clothing store and comes out with a few replacements. The main considerations are 1. Size and 2. Whether he already has a polo shirt in that color. He maintains a specific number of pants and shirts: 6 pairs of work pants, 3 weekend pants, 5 short-sleeve work shirts, 3 long-sleeve work shirts, and what he describes as a “glut of t-shirts” at 8 total. His “thing” is having a lot of empty space between hangers. Now can you start to see why packing a suitcase is not difficult for him?
I start the timer. He gets out his suitcase, which is stored inside that big international bag he mentioned. He makes neat stacks of his shirts, pants, socks, and undergarments. He puts them in the suitcase. He goes into the bathroom and comes back with his shower kit. “Okay, done.” I pause the timer. 7:33.
SEVEN MINUTES AND THIRTY-THREE SECONDS!
I ask him, “So you’re probably not even going to give that bag another thought until we leave, right?” He nods, and then says, “Well, I’ll probably look in it again the night before and make sure I have everything.”
Okay, halt. That’s the exact opposite of what I do! My method of “making sure I have everything” is to do a complete perimeter check of our apartment, opening and shutting every single cabinet and drawer and looking to see what’s there. Of course I also do that because when we’re going to be away for a while, I want to make sure there aren’t any loose ends or open loops around the place. I’m far more concerned about the state of our home than I am about what’s in my bag. The logic behind that is that I can always get anything I need on a trip, but I can’t do anything about our apartment remotely. (Not yet, anyway). I want to walk in the door on our homecoming and know that all I have to do is unpack.
I start the timer again. While my pet engineer has been packing his suitcase, I have been wandering in and out of the closet, pulling things out, counting, and wandering back in to hang things up. In the time it has taken him to pack his suitcase, I have chosen everything I’m going to wear… but it’s strewn on the bed. Our packing methods are different. Also he was sort of dominating the suitcase-packing station, also known as “our bed.”
I load up my suitcase, zip it up, wander out to the living room to retrieve my sandals, load up the shoe section, get my shower kit, and zip up. Stop the timer. 10:33.
This is the difference between us: I spent 50% more time packing because I was in the Place of Indecision, fussing over what to wear.
Why’s that? Why does it take me longer to decide?
I’m like, the weather forecast predicts temperatures ranging between 50 and 85. He’s like, *SHRUG*
I can’t stand having my bra straps show. Him: Not Applicable
I have more than one color range in my wardrobe. He doesn’t, and that’s by design.
My main secret to packing light is that I plan everything around bringing as few pairs of shoes as possible. I want to spend the majority of my time in sneakers, or at the very least, I want to bring a pair so I can sneak off to run (or at least walk fast). Whatever dressier shoes I’m bringing, I want to keep it to one pair, so it’s either going to be black, brown, or metallic. That tends to minimize wardrobe choices. I have a strong suspicion that many of my sisters in luggage try to bring as many shoe options as possible, so they don’t have to decide.
The irony here is that if you refuse to make decisions at the packing stage, you’re then forced to make them every time you get dressed. On a lot of trips, that’s going to mean one set of decisions in the morning, another in the evening, and possibly a third set in the afternoon. Personally, if I want to play dress-up, I can do it at home without having to lug a huge heavy suitcase everywhere. When I’m traveling, it’s all about the DESTINATION and the EVENTS, not what I’m wearing.
I care about whether I’ll be cold. I care about whether my straps show. I do NOT care what other people think about my outfit. Anyone who is going to judge me by my clothes is going to find a lot more not to like! It’s a highly efficient way of weeding out potential non-friends. Although honestly, I think most people are oblivious to what others are wearing; we’re just trying to look right for our next selfie.
I can actually pack my suitcase in five minutes. I took a video of myself packing the last time I went on a trip. That time, it took me about forty minutes to decide what to wear and get everything ready before I started. I was dressing up more, and there were finicky tasks like picking out earrings. That was a four-day trip, while this is an eight-day trip. I’m thinking that five minutes of decisions and five minutes of packing is pretty good!
Why am I relatively fast at packing? Like my engineer husband, I start with a system. I only buy things that fit me and that fit into my plan. My fitness regimen keeps me in one clothing size, the same as it’s been for the last three years. At least 80% of my wardrobe consists of business casual clothes that I wear almost every day; they’re appropriate for most occasions. I limit myself to six main colors, and any variables in those colors are going to be expendable garments like tank tops, workout gear, or sleep clothes. I don’t keep a single thing that I feel “iffy” about. NO THREES! On a scale of one to five, I’m only going to wear fours and fives. Why would I wear anything other than comfortable, flattering clothes that fit and are easy to wash? I’m not going to play defense lawyer for garments that don’t do anything for me.
I’m still putting way more thought into it than the man in my life puts into what he wears. We’ve talked out the option of my simply getting the same haircut he has, and mimicking his wardrobe, but we both rejected that plan. I’m still 50% higher maintenance, by mutual agreement. Still, ten minutes to pack a suitcase is pretty good… she looks around and whispers… “for a girl.”
Usual disclaimer: This post will contain foul language, and I’m assuming that if you’re put off by that kind of thing, you quit reading when you saw the text on the book cover. The rest of you, since you’ve kept reading, fuck yeah! Let’s do this. Read this book. You’ll love it. Mark Manson is one of the smartest people on the internet, one of the few writers who reliably floors me and fascinates me. There are other books about learning how not to give a fuck, but The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life is a book of a higher order. Original thoughts FTW.
BTW: For at least a year, I thought ‘FTW’ meant “Fuck The World” rather than “For The Win.” I’d keep reading statements like “Nachos FTW!” And I’d be like, “Well, it can’t be all that bad, at least you have nachos.” That’s what happens when you put fucks where they don’t belong.
Where do I even start with this book? It’s full of truth bombs, for one thing. If you can read it unflinchingly and recognize yourself in even one chapter, if you can say, Ah, yes, so this is the name for my problem, then you can walk away with total freedom. Another interesting thing is that, for a book with so much cursing, drugs, sex, nihilism, and poor choices, it has a secret upbeat message, like the core of a Tootsie Pop, except that the lollipop is glass and you don’t get the candy until the middle.
Stop caring about stuff. Accept your flaws. Admit it when you’re being selfish. Life is pain and most goals won’t get us what we really want.
I often measure my interest in a book by how many pages I’ve bookmarked. I counted, and I averaged one every two pages for The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. I can’t not give a fuck about this book! It’s so quotable. There could/should be a cottage industry of Mark Manson shirts and coffee mugs. (I checked and I’m not coming up with anything, except that apparently a few people have searched on ‘Mark Manson shirtless.’) This could be because Manson is a confirmed minimalist. The thought of one’s personal philosophy generating a bunch of clutter is sort of crazy-making, like marketing Happy Meal toys from the movie Wall-E.
“Practical enlightenment” is the message. It’s easy to take because Manson makes it so funny, provocative, and totally compelling. He walks us through the process of choosing our values and setting boundaries. He clarifies some of the most confounding problems of philosophy, such as how to find meaning in suffering and whether we are responsible for everything that happens to us. This is a topic that tends to lead to a lot of wrong thoughts, and I found Manson’s take to be refreshingly mature and nuanced. More like this, please.
I highly endorse this book and I wish I’d written it. Instead, I’ve made this little drawing of Disappointment Panda as a tribute to Mark Manson.
Some favorite quotes, but not all of them, because SPOILERS:
“…negative emotions are a call to action.”
“…the more uncomfortable the answer, the more likely it is to be true.”
“With great responsibility comes great power.”
“…there is little that is unique or special about your problems.”
Coming home to a paper stuck in your front door can be chilling. I always think it’s an eviction notice, even though there is no rational reason for me to think this. This time, it was a notice that we are having our bi-annual apartment inspection. It was dated the previous day - clearly false - but it probably was left within the 24 hours mandated by law. The trouble was, we didn’t see it until the end of the workday. Someone would be coming between the hours of 9 and 4:30.
It’s 6 PM and an inspector is entering your home tomorrow at 9 AM, whether you’re home or not. Are you ready?
What do you suppose I did when I came home at 6 and saw this notice?
Some of my people have been evicted due to squalor and hoarding. A couple of them have had it happen more than once. It’s extremely shaming and traumatic. Games have rules, though. If you enter into a contract with someone, you either uphold your end of the contract, or you break it, and if you break your contract, you pay the penalty. It is a simple and harsh truth. If you want to be free to live how you want and interact with your stuff however you want, you have to own your own place. Even then, there are community standards.
This is me we’re talking about, though. I saw the notice, and this is what I did.
Start the Roomba in our bedroom, because that was the chore of the day
Start a load of laundry
Finish making dinner
Put Roomba back on the charger
Sit around relaxing with my husband for three hours
Put the fresh sheets on the bed that I had washed that morning
Go to bed at 10
Wake up at 7:30
Clean bathroom, because that was the chore of the day
Take out the garbage and recycling
Wash my breakfast dishes and wipe out the microwave and sink
Then it was 9:00 AM. What did I do next?
Start another load of laundry
Dust the entertainment center while making a business call
Note that it was 9:30 AM
Sit around for the rest of the day waiting for the inspector to show up.
What would have happened if I hadn’t done any of those chores?
Well, we would have eaten dinner and breakfast regardless. We would have made the bed together, because sleeping on a bare mattress is not our idea of fun. If I hadn't done any of the chores, there would have been a full laundry basket, the garbage and recycling containers would have been full, there would have been dust on the toilet tank and hairs in the tub, the entertainment center would have been a little dusty, and the inside of the microwave would have had some food splatters. All of this would have been acceptable. Cumulatively it would have been acceptable!
The worst-case scenario would have been a dirty, sticky oatmeal bowl sitting in the sink. But why would I ever leave a crusty oatmeal bowl as a booby trap for Future Me to clean up? Past Me has washed several thousand oatmeal bowls over the years. It’s about 10% of the effort to just do it right away.
The point of this anecdote is that doing a few chores every weekday pays off. Our place never really gets dirty. The laundry and dishes and garbage never really build up. There are never really stacks or snowdrifts of papers piled up. I spend about 40 minutes every weekday doing chores, so I always have weekends free, and when we leave for a trip, it’s not a big deal. I don’t like coming home to a messy house; it’s a lame ending for a vacation!
Also, legally, our property management company can send an inspector or repair person inside our apartment with 24-hour written notice. Even if we’re not here to see the notice. This is what I would want if, say, our upstairs neighbor left the tub running and the water burst through our ceiling.
We have a week-long trip planned next month. Our pets will be boarded, so we wouldn’t have to worry about our dog being surprised by a man in uniform, which would presumably entail a lot of barking. We wouldn’t know to get ready for an official representative of the landlord, though. However we had left the place would be the way it looked upon inspection. That means JUDGMENT AND CRITICISM with potential legal and financial ramifications.
I clean my house because I know how, because I don’t think it’s a big deal, because it doesn’t take very long, because my husband and I both like it better, because I was taught to believe that it is a form of hospitality and welcome to guests, because happy people don’t live in a big depressing mess, because my reputation is involved, because it’s faster than leaving things to wait, because it makes my life easier, because I choose not to live the alternatives, and, lastly, because not cleaning my house could cause me significant hassle and inconvenience. These hassles include eviction and losing my cleaning deposit, among who knows what else.
Someone known to me wound up on the local news due to squalor. It happens. If I wind up on the news (again), I would hope it would be for something positive I did. Never go viral for the wrong reasons.
I freaked out a little when I saw the inspection notice, even though I know that I didn’t really have anything to worry about. I had no idea what to expect or what the inspector would be inspecting. Inside the cupboards and cabinets? Inside the appliances? Under the sinks? Would they be looking for specific things like water damage or insects, and would I have any idea what kind of inspection that would involve? What was bothering me was WHAT I DIDN’T KNOW, which is always a trigger for thinking I CAN’T HANDLE IT.
The truth is that we can all handle just about anything except for uncertainty. The Place of Uncertainty is not supposed to create a mini-vortex inside my own apartment!
What really happened was that the inspector knocked at 3:10. The dog barked and I put him in his crate, and then I opened the door. The inspector asked to come in. He went straight to the smoke detectors, checked them, and left.
I’m not even sure he was here for a full 60 seconds.
It’s possible that if our place had been fully hoarded, the inspector might have said something. I talk to a lot of repair people, delivery people, construction workers, landscapers, movers, and first responders, and they all say they’ve seen it all. They definitely do notice. In the case of apartment dwellers, it’s a question of whether they are asked or required to report anything like that to the property management company. Probably not. There is an extremely broad range of mess that is just considered standard in our culture, and that’s fine.
As for me, I’m relieved that my biggest annoyances with the inspection process were the false date, having to wait around, and having my dog bark. I can go back to chilling out in my nice clean (and tiny) apartment for the next six months.
Just for laughs, I pulled out my phone and looked up property values next door to our new apartment. My husband and I decided early in our marriage that we wouldn't bother with home ownership. This has gotten easier in our local housing market, because you can buy an entire neighborhood in some places for what it costs to get a little shack here. When I say 'shack' I'm not even exaggerating. We got our apartment because one of the three available rental houses in our city literally did not come with a heater, much less air conditioning. There are "houses" here with bedrooms that can't physically accommodate a king-size mattress. Originally built as vacation bungalows, they now cost more than what would qualify as a mansion in other markets. Now that I've set the scene, do you want to know what the houses near us cost? Do you? Do you really?
One point eight million dollars for a two-bedroom. Just over 2000 square feet. The estimated mortgage is $6700 a month. This is the single-family home closest to our apartment.
The two next door to it cost four million and eight million, respectively. It's like a Monopoly board over here! Of course, that's because we literally have a boardwalk, because we live on the coast. These million- and multi-million-dollar homes look directly on the Southern California beach, with yellow sand close enough to have in your carpet and your sheets at all times.
Why should I care how much some rich person's house cost? I know that lifestyle is out of my reach. I also know it's totally irrelevant to my interests. Anyone who comes to our place to socialize is presumably more interested in our conversation and our charming pets than our comparative wealth or networking abilities. Visiting the Denham Ranch isn't going to get you any introductions to famous people or a chance to get your screenplay read. Check that. Of course I'll totally read your screenplay. I just don't know anyone useful to whom I can give it next.
I care about how much the houses near us cost, because we're benefiting from the same neighborhood, the same geography, the same climate, the same restaurants, the same delivery options, the same customer service, the same public infrastructure, and all the other amenities that they have. We're just doing it at a far lower cost.
Oh, but equity! you say. You're throwing your money away on rent! This is exactly what your realtor wants you to say. Excuse me, Realtor. You have to capitalize it to show that it's a real profession, in the exact precise way that a doctor, a lawyer, a professor, a surgeon, or an astronaut never do. For legitimacy. I don't doubt for a moment that a Realtor can tell me all sorts of things about the housing market, and help me to find a house that's perfect for me. One that will develop just as many wiring problems and plumbing problems and roofing problems and extermination problems and mold problems and slipped foundations and cracked walls and loose windows as every other house. Now that I'm to be a homeowner, all of these expenses can be my responsibility - the American Dream!
I'm just as comfortable allowing my landlord to cash in on that particular Dream. Reason being, the stock market out-performs real estate as an investment.* If making money is what I want to do, there are tons of ways to earn a higher return than there are in speculating on a primary residence. If I want to own something that gives me pride of ownership, I can own my own business, and the bar to entry is much, much lower than the down payment that would be necessary where I live.
The cheapest property for sale where I live is a mobile home that costs over $400,000. Nearly half a mil for a trailer!
Why not just live somewhere less expensive? Somewhere where I don't want to live and don't know anyone? Somewhere that lacks the career opportunities we have here? My husband is an aerospace engineer, so surely we'd be better off in a cheaper housing market nowhere near space industry firms? High rent is the price of the ticket. Sure, we'll move somewhere cheaper, when he decides to retire. Somewhere where a fixed income will stretch farther. In the meantime, it makes sense to chase down the highest income possible, putting away more cash at the same savings rate, possibly earning a higher payment if social security survives another twenty years.
We live in a stupidly expensive area. Price per square foot is, I think, around that of my parents' and both of my brothers' homes put together. It has its advantages, though. We were able to ditch our car (and accompanying payments) because transit is so good here and because everything we need is within walking distance. A bunch of stuff is weirdly cheaper. Our internet is half what we were paying in our last place, and our dog's expensive monthly shot is also half-price. Our entire monthly utility cost is under $100 a month. My husband gets his bus pass reimbursed at work, so his transportation cost is zero. Due to his schedule, we get a three-day weekend on alternate weeks. Since our place is right on the beach, we're essentially on beach vacation all the time. We refer to our tiny apartment as "the room" because it feels better to think of it as a big hotel suite than as a micro-apartment. A 680-square-foot room can be either big or small depending on how you look at it. We're starting to understand why retirees who downsize are so relaxed - they don't really have to do any housework.
Walk out the front door. Turn left and go down the hallway. Open the outer door. Now you're on the staircase landing. From here, you can watch the sun set as the sailboats and rental canoes come in to harbor. Often you can hear the sea lions from out on the rocks. Walk down the stairs and along the path for a few yards. Go down the stairs. Look, you're on the marina! Walk south another couple hundred yards and check that out. Sandy beach sand. People come here on vacation, and it's basically your yard. This is what we can access with our monthly rent, and all we had to give for a down payment was a month's rent, rather than, say, $200,000.
Figuring out whether a house is a good investment for you is a mathematical exercise. It has actual numerical, objective answers. There are handy calculators* out there where you can put in various factors and learn whether this little building you're looking at really qualifies as a sound investment. It wouldn't for us, even if we knew we could stay for more than five years, although I haven't lived in one home for more than five years since 1990. We understand the stock market. Honestly, we can outdo the housing market as an investment just by striving for raises and bonuses at work. Other people may get a warm and fuzzy feeling from "owning" a house, which is the shorthand we use for "the bank owns this house and I pay them for the privilege of pretending it's mine." We'd rather collect on the experiences of living in a particular place than in a particular building, especially when considering the cost per square foot.
This is for all the people who get worked into a tizzy when it's time to pack.
That used to be me. I get so starry-eyed about traveling anywhere, including a run to the town dump, that my first impulse is to start running around and trying to get ready. In my mind, my packing list includes every single item I own, subtracting only the things that won't fit, like my bed and my stove. Stuff I have hanging around that I never use suddenly seems to be a prime candidate for cramming into my suitcase.
Dumb things I have packed on multiple trips even though I never, ever used them: plus-size Super Scrabble board; buckwheat travel pillow that I finally realized I hate; eye mask that always winds up turning into a headband; luggage theft siren; hardcover travel journal I never wrote in; entire cookbooks; money belt; phrase books; luggage locks. There's something so bewitching about travel doodads and travel gadgets. It's almost as bad as the kitchen widgets aisle.
The more experienced a traveler I become, the more I realize that you really just need yourself, enough ID to get through customs, enough clothing to not die of exposure or violate local sumptuary laws, and enough money or credit to get yourself from here to there, and possibly to get out of trouble. I think it's possible to go anywhere with just the clothes on your back, your phone, your passport, and a credit card (hopefully one with travel rewards). In a few years, you won't even need the passport OR the credit card; you'll just walk through various doorways, and you won't even need to blink or wave your hand.
Ah, but we live in the now-future, not the then-future. In the now, we still need a certain amount of STUFF. We still WANT a certain amount of ADDITIONAL stuff, for comfort and for emotional security and to quiet the demands of the anxiety-gnomes that live in our bellies.
I'm going on a trip, arriving past bedtime Friday night and getting home at dinnertime Monday evening. That's three nights, two event days, and two travel days. In the world of logic, this implies pajamas, toiletries, and three changes of clothes. Even a tiny child can count to three outfits. They may not match, but even a child can put together three pairs of underpants, three pairs of socks, and three sets of tops and bottoms. Why is this so much harder for adults?
It's hard because when we feel anxiety, we pay attention to it. We listen to the anxiety-gnomes. We let the anxiety-gnomes start making the rules. Every single weird idea that pops into our heads, fed to us by these mischievous creatures, suddenly seems brilliant. The later at night or the closer to departure time, the more compelling these anxious thoughts will be.
The visceral cord is pulled at midnight. "HEY! You know what would be the best idea? Find 18 more things to put into that suitcase that you already had to sit on to zip shut!"
The sooner I start packing, the more stuff suddenly acquires a magical, numinous glow, practically demanding that I bring it with me. I won't just cram it into my suitcase; I'll cradle it in front of me, like a capybara I've dressed in a cunning little outfit. Look at all my extra shirts! Look at all my extra jewelry! Look at all my extra shoes! I have packed multiple backup redundancies, but they are the best ones!
WHAT IF I get invited to a totally unexpected social occasion at the last minute?
WHAT IF I change my mind and want to wear something I didn't bring?
WHAT IF the weather is completely different from the forecast?
All right, what if? What happens to you when these things pop up at home? You HANDLE IT. You DEAL WITH IT. You GET THROUGH IT SOMEHOW. Or, nobody even notices and it's totally not a problem and you can't believe you went through such a big fuss.
The reason I can pack lightly with little to no packing anxiety is that it's the confluence of multiple systems, created carefully by me for this precise reason. I live lightly with few possessions because I desire to remain mobile. I want to be flexible enough that I can do those last-minute social occasions. I want to have enough grit to deal with emotional challenges. I want to be decisive enough that minor kerfuffles don't distract me.
Big stuff: critical, urgent, emergency. These things tend to involve first responders. My job in these situations is to avoid being the cause of the emergency, help if I can, and stay the heck out of the way if I can't. Nothing of this caliber has ever happened to me or any of my companions on a trip.
Medium stuff: My brother constantly seems to sprain his ankle when we go on vacation, and then he stubbornly limps around on it. This is concerning but not trip-canceling.
Minor stuff: I once got billed over $400 for a casual meal for three, and it took 20 minutes to straighten out. Annoying, but not even worth Facebooking.
Beneath notice: Minor stains and clothing repairs; being put on hold; having to change rooms; long waits in restaurants; loud neighbors; socks don't match; run out of shampoo; etc. etc. etc.
Back to the systems. I have a capsule wardrobe. This means that I only own clothing that fits today, that I like wearing, that I wear often enough that I know exactly how functional it is. Almost all of it is washer- and dryer-safe. Everything I own has to go with at least three other things in my wardrobe. I basically wear six colors (black, gray, navy, white, red, and purple). I can fit an entire seasonal wardrobe in my larger suitcase. Packing clothes is easy for me because I'm just bringing stuff I wear at home.
Also, I don't really care what other people think about what I'm wearing. If you don't like how I look, I'm sure you'll get over it eventually.
Other systems that I have in place undoubtedly include a few I don't recognize as systems. I plan my wardrobe before I go to the store. I have a chore rotation, so my laundry is always caught up and my apartment is clean, one room per weekday. I have a grocery system, so there's always something in the kitchen that I can eat on my trip. I have a cash flow system, so almost all of my travel is paid for by reward points, and I can afford to pay for the occasional travel snafu. I have a fitness and nutrition system, which is why I've remained in the same clothing size for the past three years, and I don't have to maintain a buffer of larger and smaller clothing sizes. I have a sleeping system, so I can handle occasionally waking up at 4 AM to make a cheaper flight. I have a system for getting ready, so I know I need 40 minutes. For all the anxiety that we feel when it's time to pack, there are equal portions to feel for scheduling, money, meals, getting the house ready, and generally feeling like we can handle a greater load on our mental bandwidth.
Anxiety is cumulative. Every system we put into place creates a thread of reliability, something that can ease a fevered brain when it's time to sleep. Organizing our thoughts also organizes our emotions. Knowing what we want helps us to make firm decisions, and those decisions help us to focus on experiences and logistics rather than equipment. We can call those nervous feelings by name, bringing them forth from the shadows, and get down to the business of simply packing one outfit per day. We can remember that we're traveling for a purpose, and keep our attention on that purpose and nothing more.
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."
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?
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.