For a minimalist, I sure have a lot of luggage. That’s because I travel a lot, and what is ideal for one trip is a poor choice for a different trip. I’ve tended to think of my suitcase as the city bag, and my backpack as the camping bag. On our most recent trip, my husband convinced me that we should bring backpacks instead of suitcases, and it turns out he was right.
Suitcases are probably the root cause of many travel problems.
See, a backpack is a constant reminder that you will be carrying the weight of everything you put in it. Unlike a suitcase, it’s shaped around your body. You can’t not think about your back and shoulders.
A suitcase can be sat on. Cramming in more stuff seems like it might be a good idea, because you can sit on it when it’s too full to pull the zipper closed.
Most people probably only own one suitcase, or share a set among a family. That means they’re always bringing the same size of bag for every trip, no matter where they’re going or how long they’re staying. That leads to bringing the same amount of stuff whether anyone needs it or not.
Everyone I know who goes backpacking owns two or three bags of different sizes and use cases. Day pack, expedition pack, hydration pack, maybe even a doggy backpack.
I knew I didn’t want to bring my expedition pack on this trip, because we wouldn’t be camping and I wouldn’t need to bring bedding, a tent, a first aid kit, a cookpot, or any of that type of gear. If I had the big bag, I’d be tempted to fill it with ten changes of clothes and four pairs of shoes. I could hear Future Me cussing myself out.
THEY HAVE LAUNDRY ROOMS IN OTHER PARTS OF THE WORLD
I can be a flaming skinflint at times, and it’s tough for me to lay down the money on something expensive like a new backpack. There’s a part of me that still thinks $40 is a lot of money, the part that still thinks in 1980s prices, and anything more than that goes down the mental CANNOT AFFORD oubliette.
We amortize these things, though. When we spend money on things we actually use, they pay for themselves. It’s the stuff we buy and don’t use, like clothes we never wear or groceries that we throw out uneaten, that costs us. My husband pointed out, when we were buying our camping gear for our big Iceland trip, that we would save so much money by not renting a car or staying in hotels that the gear would pay for itself several times over. We could literally leave it all in a pile before we got on our plane home and still save money.
Instead, every single piece of it is still in active use several years later.
Not only does buying high-end gear pay for itself over time, it changes the nature of how we spend our time. Investing in a bunch of backpacking gear made us think of ourselves as backpackers. We went on to save money traveling in Spain the same way.
Part of why suitcases lead to worse travel experiences is that they leave open a lot of default behavior. Overpacking is a “stuff problem” and it is also a time problem. Choosing and folding and packing more stuff takes longer. That’s part of where people start pushing the limit on how late they can leave for the airport. It’s hard on the way there, and it’s even harder on the way back, because time packing is time robbed from the trip itself. We cut the time table too close, and then we’re throwing things over our shoulder into the gaping maw of the huge bag.
It never fits as well the second time!
When I use a suitcase, I don’t fold or roll my clothes and I don’t use packing cubes, either. I line up the shoulders and waistbands with the edge of the suitcase, then fold in the sleeves and pant legs and hemlines. Smallclothes like socks fit around the edges. I know it will all fit because I only bring four changes of clothes. (Often the same stuff I wore last time I went somewhere). I can pack my bag in under five minutes.
I can pack in under five minutes because I have experience, and also because I have discipline. I can play dress-up in my closet at home any time. I don’t want to spend time on my trip, expensive time I might add, with my finger on my lip musing over what to wear. We’re essentially paying by the minute when we’re traveling, and I can watch the dial on that mental meter spinning and spinning.
A funny moment came up on our last day in London that proved my husband’s point about the backpacks. We had decided to visit the British Museum, conveniently near our train station, and we had already checked out of our hotel. We took the Underground and walked several blocks.
NO ROLLER BAGS ALLOWED
We paid to check our backpacks at the coat check. Five pounds each, the most expensive end of the rate schedule. Bags over 8 kg not permitted. They have a big scale embedded in the countertop, and they weigh all the bags to see how much to charge. My husband’s bag hit 8 kg precisely. Mine was 9.5! I quickly estimated what I would need to remove, and got out a bottle of water, my iPad, a book, and my bag of Starburst. 8.1 but they let me check it at that point.
The moral: if we had brought roller bags, or heavier backpacks, we would have had to leave the museum and find a locker at the train station, then come back. It would have cost us an hour of precious time. For what? Another change of clothes that we won’t even remember wearing?
(Incidentally, 8 kg is a little over 17 lbs and 9.5 is 20 lbs).
A backpack is superior to a suitcase in most situations, whether they are stairs, cobblestones, museum coat checks, or a sprint through a terminal. If this backpack, like ours, fits in the overhead bin or under the seat, it can also rule out waiting at baggage claims, searching for lost bags, or paying overweight luggage fees.
Now that I have this new bag, I’m going to have to figure out more trips so I can continue to amortize the investment. My hubby said so.
We’re going on an international trip, and you can trust this advice on packing, because I am literally typing it up in the back of a Lyft on the way to the airport. I finished using this method under two hours ago and there’s no time to change my mind.
That’s what it all comes down to, isn’t it? Changing your mind? Like, packing in a rational manner based on experience and real world activities is excruciating and unfair? All that really matters on this trip is that I feel that I have at least twelve separate cute outfits to spread around the room?
I don’t get it. To me, underpacking would be a fabulous excuse to go out and shop. Not that I enjoy shopping, but there is that possibility that a foreign store might have some kind of exotic garment I would cherish forever.
If I overpack, there will be no opportunity or space for such a magical item. Aren’t I then missing out more by overstuffing my bag than I would be by leaving things behind?
I did buy something like this once. We were in Akureyri, and there was a super cute vintage boutique, and we went in because I had lost so much weight backpacking around Iceland that I needed a belt. Someone had put up a collection of locally designed t-shirts, and I bought one with a white raven on it. I loved that shirt and wore it probably once a week for two years. Now it’s in my go bag, where I see it now and then when I check inventory.
(The belt got worn until eventually it was recycled).
Backpacking is how I learned how many changes of clothes to bring on a trip. Four days are my limit for a camping expedition, based on how much food I can carry. It turns out that’s the outer limit for a damp microfiber towel as well. Therefore, I know four changes of clothes will fit in my bag and I know to plan a trip to the laundromat by the fourth day.
“But I can still fit more in my bag!” Great, then your bag won’t weigh as much and you have room for souvenirs. Or you can switch to a smaller bag, or share one large bag with your travel buddy, or stop needing a checked bag. Unlike packing piles of extra clothes, going minimalist actually does result in endless options.
Wear one, pack four. Simple. It solves so many problems.
The “wear one” is the travel outfit. I have two reliable travel outfits, depending on the weather. Whichever one I wear, it’s mostly irrelevant to the rest of the trip. I’m wearing it both directions. I know that what I will be wearing has pockets and layers and that it’s stain-resistant.
Most trips are going to be short enough in duration that it doesn’t matter if the individual garments mix and match. I can fit four changes of clothes and at least two pairs of shoes in my carry-on. It can get tight if it’s heavy winter and I need thermal underwear, but it still works.
For advanced travelers, there is this concept of the capsule wardrobe, where almost every garment goes with almost everything else. I decided to extend this idea to my everyday wardrobe, and not worry about having special vacation outfits. This has definitely helped to ramp down my packing anxiety.
“But but but... what if Lawrence of Arabia and Antonio Banderas show up to take me out in their limo and I need a BALL GOWN with a CRINOLINE???”
Well then. I’m sure when that happens there will be a fancy outfit laid out for me when they show me to my changing room. In the meantime, I’m going to assume that this trip isn’t going to be that type of movie. While I do live in a musical, borne out by the fact that our Lyft driver was singing along with “Hey There Delilah” on the way here, so far it hasn’t required much in the way of full costume changes.
I don’t wait for adventure to happen to me. I bring my own.
What about the “pack four” outfits?
It literally doesn’t matter which four outfits I pack. They don’t have to mix or match. Sometimes if they do, it causes confusion, or I stain something and the whole edifice comes crashing down. I just lay them out across the bed, A B C D, making sure each stack has the appropriate socks etc.
The other trick is to make sure everything goes with one or the other of two pairs of shoes. Wear one, pack one. Ideally you will be wearing the bulkier, heavier pair on the plane, unless they are very fancy boots with lots and lots of eyelets to unlace at security.
This trip, just like our last trip, is going to involve a combination of hot weather and cold, rainy weather. This is annoying, but it isn’t changing my formula. I’ve simply packed two hot weather outfits and two sets of cold weather outfits. We have already planned to do laundry at our hotel on two occasions during the trip. Since we’ll be going different places every day, it’s not like anyone will notice or care that we’re repeating the same outfits.
It seems like there might be another advantage. When we go through our photos after the trip, it will look like we’ve been very very busy and that we’ve seen a bunch of tourist attractions on the same day. Wow, you guys really get around!
We’re in the lounge right now, as I finish this up, and I’m proud to say that I can pick up my travel backpack with one hand and hoist it onto my shoulder. We were able to carry all our stuff up flights of stairs and walk quickly. We haven’t had to squabble about luggage and we haven’t had to pay extra. We both agree on the policy of Wear One, Pack Four, and I’m pretty sure it will work for anyone
I went back to the Twentieth Century today. It was a nice little visit and it reminded me of how much I love living here, 20% of the way through the Twenty-First Century. The dioramas are excellent and the docents really put their hearts into it.
Actually what happened is that I wound up crying in the parking lot of the Department of Motor Vehicles and had a major bummer of a day, but I’m trying to find some humor in it. Maybe some self-improvement, too. Otherwise I fear I shall spend my afterlife in Limbo, in a gray cubicle where I face an endless line of the dissatisfied, disgruntled, and perturbed.
I set out with great intentions. I would wait at the DMV for about an hour, get my drivers license updated before it expired later in the month, and then head to the movie theater. Hooray!
For an orderly person, this should have posed no problem, and I am considered by many to be just such an orderly person. I alphabetize my spice jars, I sort my clothes by color, I’m a paperless minimalist, by Jove!
That’s where everything started to go sideways. I’ve lived in the Future for so long now that I forgot the customs and traditions of the pocket of time where I started, the time of rotary phones and phonograph records and paper calendars.
I had a couple of false starts involving my dog’s peculiar habits - he will only eat if I stand three feet away, facing away from him at a 15-degree angle and studiously ignoring him - and the local bus timetable. I’d made it all the way to the bus stop when I realized that I had forgotten the four separate forms of identifying documents I needed!
By the time I made it back to my apartment, the morning cloud cover had burned off and I discovered I had completely sweated through my shirt. Not only did I have to find my documents, I also had to change clothes, a consequence of trusting the weather app on my phone.
My passport and drivers license were already in my bag. My social security card was in the fireproof safe, like I thought, but it had gotten flipped upside down and buried under another document. I have used it for literally nothing whatsoever in the ten years since I remarried and took my husband’s name. While I was leaning over looking for it, I smacked my head on the wall, giving myself a nice goose egg. Then I needed to find two other paper documents, such as a utility bill, bank statement, lease agreement, or change of address form from the post office.
I had to dig stuff out of the recycling bin, because we do all that stuff digitally and have for a decade.
I finally got my act together, or so I thought, and looked at the bus timetable. For the third time that day, I had missed a thirty-minute bus by one minute, so I elected to call up a ride share. For the first time in the two years we have lived here, I was unable to get a signal on my phone, and spent the next five minutes wandering around trying to load the app. Finally I had to cross the street.
Last century I would have owned a car and driven it. Why would I try to use my phone outside??
When we pulled up at the DMV, the driver started laughing, because the line wrapped around two sides of the building. It was 3:00 PM, though, and I figured I still had plenty of time to do this and catch my show.
*muffled sound, whether chortle or sob to remain unknown*
After fifteen minutes in the baking sun, a gentleman came out and asked for everyone’s attention. He said the day’s appointments were already overbooked and that there would be no time for the non-appointment line. He had all the gravitas of a man who has heard every possible complaint, excuse, and grievance, legitimate or not, and faced them down as a stoic must. Civil service will be the making of you, or the undoing.
Maybe six people left, not including me, because I am an optimist, she cried!
Just because I couldn’t find an appointment slot at any DMV within thirty miles of me within the three-month available booking window, and had just been lectured for a systemic problem that was not my fault, did not mean I should give up!
I checked the movie schedule again, and the bus schedule, and figured I might as well stay another ten minutes. I could make it to the lobby and at least find out what forms I needed to fill out.
A helpful young lady came out with a rolling cart and asked if anyone was applying for a Real ID. As the only one who said yes, I got her undivided attention. She looked at all my documents and approved of them. Then she gave me a slip of paper with a QR code that guided me to an online form. If this sounds like Future Tech, well, welcome to 1994.
This was all looking great! I had my sheaf of pre-approved documents, I had the web form all filled out, the line was moving, I had missed my movie but it looked like I might actually get my stuff done. Not too shabby! I even made it inside the building, where, after 75 minutes of waiting, another employee waved me over, looked through my papers, and gave me... a number!
With seven minutes to spare, I got to the window. The finish line, closing in, oh my gosh I think we’re going to make it...
Then we had a dispute over my lease agreement, that went like this for four bars.
“There’s no signature” [pointing to blank line on form]
“It’s a digital signature” [pointing to digital signature line on the same page]
I fished out another document from my folder, and that satisfied the clerk, much in the manner that Cerberus exhibits a taste for honey cakes.
Time to pay. I put my debit card in the reader and I entered my PIN.
Fail. Oh drat. Fortunately, I carry a backup, so I tried that. Fail.
Who uses a debit card? I realize I haven’t touched either of these cards in at least three years.
It all came crashing down. I don’t carry cash, as a rule, and I didn’t have 38 cents, much less 38 dollars. I got rid of my checkbook several years ago when I realized that my first name was the only correct information on my checks, and my online bank doesn’t offer such a bizarre relic. These are the only three methods of payment that are acceptable, because of course nothing else exists in this, the Twentieth Century.
They don’t accept:
Credit cards or Apple Pay or Venmo or Square Cash or PayPal or... anything.
I call my bank and, of course, they are unable to tell me my PIN. They suggest using my account number and routing number, which are also unacceptable. At this point it’s after 5 and I’m starting to realize that this transaction may not work.
I come up with a Hail Mary. I’m surrounded by fellow time travelers who understand my culture. I’ll break character and ask one of them for help, or the abort code. I’d really like to get back to my ship now.
I ask no fewer than seven people if they’ll cover me and let me Venmo them, on the spot. I’ll even pay them extra for the service. $50 for $38. Every person says No and looks at me like I’m insane, or a scam artist.
Oh no! I’m not just trapped in the Twentieth Century, I’m in a low-trust zero-sum zone!
This is particularly depressing, having just left World Domination Summit, where I’m quite certain every person in the building would have teamed up to find an easy way to resolve this silly and trivial dilemma.
Instead I was sent away empty-handed, to come back and start from scratch another day. Another two hours in line just to start the transaction, where the same papers would be professionally assessed for a fourth time.
I still had stitches in my mouth and I was tired. I had a splitting headache. I had worked so hard to be cheerful and kind, and I had heard so many rude people being rude, and now I’d have to come back and repeat the entire experience, and I cried.
Then I managed to get on the wrong bus (and does it matter if it’s 18 minutes late, if it’s the wrong bus?) and I didn’t get home until 7:30 and I was cold and I had to pee.
What did I learn?
My systems check, much like a gravity check, had failed. I need to find out why there are problems with two of my bank accounts and why I couldn’t use my debit cards. I should probably start carrying cash again. I need to audit my files and my banking data. I need more practice figuring out what to do if I can’t use my phone. I need to practice complicated transactions like this ahead of time because I don’t need to be spending six hours this way. I also need to make sure I have my ducks in a row before I leave for the airport for my first international trip in a few years. I need to remember my history lessons before I go to Twentieth Century places like the DMV or the IRS.
Most of all, I need to appreciate just how great it is to live in the Future.
I’ve been noticing something these days. Any time I see someone else’s home screen on their phone, they have a badge on their email app. The number on the badge is always something greater than 3500. That’s a lot of unread messages! It also seems to be the standard these days, and that makes me nervous.
What are the possibilities here?
They read and respond to all their mail, then mark it Unread
...because having a high number makes them feel loved and special
Inbox is full of irrelevant junk
...and the number is therefore meaningless
Inbox is entirely full of important messages
...and the number represents power and influence
Inbox is a mix of some important messages and a lot of junk
...and the number represents existential despair
Why 3500? That would be not quite 10 unread messages a day for a year.
What if one of them is extremely interesting and important??
Once upon a time, I was a corporate trainer. My job was to go around and teach people how to use the new email system. It was easier in those days, because junk mail usually stopped at the firewall, and almost everything that came through had an actual business purpose.
The rest of y’all are on your own!
My own mail is probably 20% important, 5% junk that made it through the filters, 5% coupons I generally disregard, and 70% newsletters or aggregations of articles. I spend a few minutes every day unsubscribing from at least half a dozen sources of fresh hell, flagging junk, clicking relevant links, and moving stuff to my ‘Read at Leisure’ folder. As a result, my inbox stays pretty manageable.
Also, I turned off my badge.
I hate badges.
Why would I need a notification to remind me to check a folder that I look in a couple of times a day? It’s not like I’m going to forget.
My rule on badges is: NO
I only have a notification or a badge on something if I really need a reminder and I wouldn’t check otherwise. For instance, I can go days without getting a text message. Otherwise, I get into a situation where even looking at my phone makes me want to avoid it.
Many of these badges come from apps that want a response that serves them, not me. For instance, my vet just sent a request for a review. I might do that to be nice, but I don’t owe them, and as a policy I’m not going to give a review for every single product or service, even though they all ask. Some of them will ask three times or more. Check your email because a lot of it is going to be this type of request!
Or, don’t check your email. Ever.
I think it’s fair to simply not have an email, or not use it, and tell people that. Just delete the whole thing!
At least, that’s true of a personal email. I once worked with a man who refused to accept a paycheck and insisted on receiving his pay in cash. It was complicated and annoying but he actually got away with it. Therefore it’s plausible that someone might be able to throw down an email embargo at work. If that’s the fight you want to be known for, have fun.
I have a voicemail message that says my phone reception is really bad (it is) and to just text or email me and I’ll call back. It seems to work. This is a better solution than the many times I’ve been sitting in my living room, waiting on a call, and my phone never rings, which is sad when I’m holding it in my hand and staring at it expecting my hubby to call on business travel.
Ironically I can only really get phone calls when I’m not home.
Is this the problem with email, though? Is it a problem of being accessible to people we want to hear from? Or is it something else?
I suspect the majority of mail that is blocking people’s inboxes is actually commercial in nature. It’s daily coupons and sales alerts from a multitude of sources. Every store and restaurant and website will offer some kind of discount, or just ask for an email, with the sole purpose of these daily bombardments. It goes like this:
“Please let us reach you by email, sending you so many messages that your inbox therefore becomes nonfunctional and you don’t even see them.”
This is what’s going on when I unsubscribe from things every day.
I was on daily mailing lists for stores where I actually do shop on a regular basis. I unsubscribed from all of them, every single one! What am I missing?
Say I get a 20% coupon once a year and I spend it on a $100 item. I’ve saved $20, except that half of it goes toward sales tax. Is this worth the drain on my attention every single day? Is it worth not being able to use my email inbox? For the equivalent of 3 cents a day?
But then I virtually never use coupons of any kind because I don’t feel that they are even remotely worth my mental bandwidth. That’s not how my husband and I save half our income.
I would ask any extreme couponer who adores coupons but has a constantly full email inbox:
How’s that working out for you?
Are you getting promoted at work?
Are you organized and stress-free at home?
Are you debt-free?
Are you saving and investing?
Could you be getting a 100x return on your time and attention by focusing on other things?
If you really want to carry around 3500 emails telling you about sales that have already passed, knock yourself out. If that isn’t the reason your inbox is so full, then why? If you can figure out the root cause, then you can fix it.
Stuff you want to read? Guess what, you aren’t reading that much and the entire internet will still be there tomorrow.
Heartfelt personal letters demanding your response? Looks like maybe you don’t really feel the same way about that person? If you really care, ask them to communicate with you a different way.
Important business messages that need your attention? Change careers, ask your boss to switch to Slack or have stand-up meetings, negotiate for an assistant, or ask the I.T. person to help you set up some filters.
Having an extremely full email inbox with a big badge on it is a little weird. It’s like having a physical mailbox stuffed with coupon circulars when you can’t find your bills. It’s like carrying around a duffel bag full of laundry all day. It’s like filling your fridge with dead leaves. It’s like coaxing a flock of pigeons into your living room. It’s like...
It’s like a blip on the cultural radar that will soon pass, because what’s happening right now doesn’t work for most people.
If your email inbox makes me nervous, I’m sure email marketers are noticing too. Time for a change.
I found them after five days. My husband’s keys. First he was convinced he left them in our apartment, and I couldn’t go anywhere until he got home so I didn’t lock him out. Then, after I searched everywhere, he figured he must have left them on his desk at work. On Monday he went back to work, and his keys weren’t there after all. I helped him work out a plan of which Lost and Found numbers to call.
Then I checked his coat pocket in the bedroom closet, where they had been, of course, since Thursday morning.
This is one of the many benefits of marriage: you have someone to look after you and help you in your weak areas.
I sympathize because I also used to have a similar problem with lost objects.
I once locked my keys inside my apartment twice in the same day, once with a burner on the stove left on High. Another time I had a candle burning. I’ve dropped my keys down an elevator shaft, locked them in my car, and thrown them in the trash. I have also lost untold numbers of gloves, hats, scarves, library books, and umbrellas, most of which I never got back, and purses, day planners, checkbooks, and wallets, most of which people were kind enough to return to me.
Like I said, I’ve had issues with lost objects, as well as my other distraction issues.
I lean ADHD, and what I do has worked for me. I also teach these methods to my chronically disorganized students and clients.
Pay attention to TRANSITIONS between one scene and another, one activity and another, one time of day and another.
Pause and look around every time. Pause when you get ready to leave for work. Pause again when it’s time to come home. Pause when you stand up after a movie. Pause when your bus pulls up to your stop. Pause, and check. Pause, and check.
When it’s a habit, it only takes two seconds.
I often talk to myself while I am doing this. I have my keys, my wallet, my sunglasses. The reason I do this out loud is that it often triggers my companions to remember their own stuff.
Before we leave for a road trip, I always recite a list of stuff. Often my buddies have to get out of the car and go back inside for something. Wallets, passports, phones, chargers, hats, gloves, scarves, boots, medication, socks, underwear... I can’t wait for the day when a smartphone will remind us of these things automatically.
When I leave a hotel room, I do a perimeter check. Check the shower and the bathroom, check the closet, check each drawer. I do the same when we move, and I take a quick video of all the empty rooms. The hotel check takes two minutes, and the empty apartment check takes less than ten. Peace of mind!
Other than the transition ritual of pausing and checking, it helps to have clear surfaces in the home.
This one is almost impossible for my clients. The more I try to teach them to focus on their living space and the functions of different work surfaces, the harder they cling to their ten-times-too-many belongings. Yes, of course I’d rather have three hundred pounds of old clothes than the ability to use my tables and countertops!
Have a clear area near your front door, like a table. Never put anything on it but your significant daily objects.
Have a clear area next to your bed.
Have a clear area in your kitchen.
Have a clear area next to where you sit to relax, like an end table.
Have a clear area at your desk, if you have one.
Have a clear area in your car, like a cup holder organizer.
Carry less stuff around in general. The less you have to track, the easier it is to track it all.
When you have a clear area next to you, it’s easy to check at a single glance and make sure you have everything. It should be completely empty when you’re not using it. Completely empty 90% of the time!
A flat, clear surface makes it easy to see your phone, your pen, or whatever else you carry around.
It’s easier to keep surfaces clear when you have the right catch-all.
We have drawers in our bathroom, desk, and of course the kitchen. The purpose of the drawers is to hold important stuff that we use all the time, every single day. The purpose of the drawers is not to store stuff that we forgot was in there!
We also use small baskets. There’s one next to the front door for my keys, the garage door opener, and the laundry card. There’s one on the dog crate for his leash and treats and toys. My hubby has one for his daily objects.
I have my work bag, and it hangs on my desk chair. I often get things out of it and put them back in, several times a day. My stuff “lives” there and I simply don’t allow myself to put it anywhere else when I’m done.
Never set anything down “just for now”!
It’s either in its parking spot or you are using it.
Think of the spot for this item as a cute little cozy little house. Like a kitten in a basket or a birdie in a nest. This object likes it there. If you set it down somewhere else, it will be cold and lost and alone, shivering and crying, Why don’t you love me??
Actually don’t do that. Thinking that your stuff has emotions is one of the major reasons that my clients have so much stuff in the first place. But if it does help, then go for it.
If you have tons and tons and tons of stuff, don’t despair. It’s a lot easier to clear a single square foot and keep it clear than it is to sort everything first. Just clear the area and put the stuff that doesn’t belong there in a box. Yeah, you’ll probably still have that unsorted box three years from now, but at least you have a chance of using your nice clear flat surface.
Clear surfaces seem sterile and boring and ugly to most of my people. In reality, they are in constant use throughout the day. Our clear kitchen counters have meal prep going on in bright colors at least four times a day. Our clear bathroom counters have bright, colorful containers on them every morning and evening while we get ready. Our clear desktops are scattered with brightly colored objects while we’re working on projects.
What really fills a home? Laughter, conversations, music, the cheerful business of life. When a home is cluttered and people are always losing track of things, what could be a happy place is instead filled with stress, confusion, and harsh words.
Clear your space, make a home for all your significant daily objects, and use the time you save to read, take a nap, or hug someone.
This is what I know about travel. It’s easier when you don’t bring very much.
This is why I’ve been walking around with fifteen pounds of sand in my backpack.
We’re planning another adventure, this time an urban trip, and I’m buying a sub-40-liter pack because my 65-liter expedition pack is too big. I don’t need room for all the things I usually bring, like the sleeping bag and the space blanket and the double set of thermal underwear and the first aid kit and the cooking pot and the stove and the fuel and the solar lantern and the folding chair and the, I might as well just admit to it, the entire two-person sofa that I pack around.
Go ahead and laugh. My expedition pack still weighs less than the clothes, shoes, and toiletries that most people bring on trips.
I went on a weekend trip with a couple of old friends. The wife had a shower kit that was half the size of my entire suitcase, and then she had a second one! “You brought full-size bottles of shampoo?” I told her it looked like she had a “just in case” bag, and that she’d just grabbed everything from her bathroom that she thought she might need. She nodded, of course, that’s exactly what I did.
I showed her my TSA-approved shower bag, and explained that I start with that. If it doesn’t fit, then it can’t come, because I don’t check my bag. Everything I bring fits under the seat on the plane. Start with the container, not the stuff.
The way I deal with my desire for a wide selection of shower products is that I have a bunch of 2-oz bottles. You can go even smaller with a few contact-lens cases.
The other thing to keep in mind is that... they HAVE SHOWER STUFF in other countries. You can buy toothpaste and soap and deodorant and shampoo. You don’t even have to if you’re staying in a hotel. Not only is it safe to forget stuff or finish it off before you go home, but it’s a shopping opportunity to test out something that may be better quality than what you get at home.
People overpack out of insecurity, anxiety, and indecision.
This can ruin the trip.
The heavier your bag is, the more miserable you’ll be at the airport. Oops, did I say ‘bag,’ singular? I mean, the heavier your multiple unnecessary bags are. You’re doing it to yourself.
I’ve seen people travel with suitcases so big that they could crawl inside. In one case, there was nothing really in it except a set of swim fins and some stray towels, and I know that because the owners had it open on the airport floor while they frantically searched for something.
Why would someone bring towels on vacation??
The more stuff you bring, the harder it is to tell if you’ve forgotten something important.
The only truly important things to bring on a trip are your ID, because you can’t get through otherwise, and a way to pay for things. You can do the whole thing with a passport and a credit card.
Arguably the next two important things are vaccinations and a plan for the trip, although the travel arrangements can also be skipped if you feel ready for the Wing-It Method.
I utterly can’t understand why people insist on bringing so many extra duplicate redundant backup changes of clothes. Really? I’m paranoid about getting cold and even I don’t let that trick me into overpacking.
I have a points system. I lose one point for every item that I bring on a trip and don’t use. The only exceptions are the first aid kit, which I hope not to need, and extra underwear, because they’re small and lightweight.
What’s the point of bringing anything that you don’t use? If you don’t use it, then it is by definition useless. The extra stuff you insisted on dragging around is no more use to you than a fifteen-pound bag of sand.
Oh, I suppose a bag of sand could potentially be useful. You could drop it out a window and stop a robbery. You could cut it open and shake the sand out if you needed traction. You could pour it out on the airport floor if there’s a delay and invite other stranded passengers to create a meditative sand mural. You could put it in your bag to weigh it down and deter thieves.
Because if even you don’t want your stuff enough to actually use it, then why would anyone else?
I walk around with a bunch of sand in my new backpack because I’m testing it out. I’m checking how the load risers are adjusted. I’m reminding myself how tiring it is to climb a flight of stairs with an extra fifteen pounds on your hips and knees and feet. I’m also reminding myself what it felt like to weigh this much without the backpack!
I do this a lot. Now that I’m stronger and more active, I travel more, and I have more fun doing it. My husband and I typically walk or hike 8-10 miles a day, including elevation gain and many flights of stairs. We’re strong enough to see everything we want to see without being utterly wrung out and exhausted at the end of the day.
I can go three weeks with only four changes of clothes. They, um, they have laundromats.
Who cares what you’re wearing? Honestly?
You do, or at least you will if you insist on wearing hurty shoes and limping around with bleeding blisters. If you insist on wearing a sundress when it’s really too cold. If you’re so worried about looking cute that you’re late getting ready every day. I know because I made all those mistakes when I was young, and it really got in the way of enjoying travel. Not just for me, but for everyone else on my trip.
There is no adventure in bringing a bunch of stuff from your house with you everywhere you go. You already know all about your stuff. If you’re leaving the house at all, it’s to see things and have experiences and meet people. Remember why you’re packing and try not to bring fifteen pounds of sand.
The concept of an inheritance is, I think, becoming dated and antiquated. It’s something of a Baby Boomer thing. Those of us who are younger probably understand that the world works differently now. Still, it’s worth talking about. There is a vague dream of a someday inheritance, a financial windfall, that will somehow eliminate all our problems. This is not just a dangerous illusion, but an illusion that can poison ambition and domestic contentment. Kill your inheritance, and kill it in self-defense.
Now, it’s a good thing to think of a legacy in non-material terms. We can be proud of what we’ve inherited from our family when it comes to values and character traits. Hospitality, sense of humor, frugality, ingenuity, a gift for storytelling, grit and fortitude, these are the sort of gifts we should be proud to carry on. This kind of gift is non-zero-sum, meaning it never runs out. The more you share, the larger it grows. You can roll it out and make enough room for spouses, kids, and friends.
All of that goes completely out of the window when we start talking about money, real estate, and material goods.
In my work with clutter, I have seen it over and over again. People will quit talking to each other over a photo album, a single ring, some old furniture, or a stupid teacup. Unbelievable. You’re saying you’d TRADE your blood relation for a piece of scrap that wouldn’t sell for fifty dollars in a pawn shop? A lot of this stuff couldn’t be sold for a bent nickel.
The problem is that grief makes people temporarily insane. It’s understandable. With time and some healing, we’re sometimes able to get enough emotional distance that we can recognize our own irrationality from our own mourning periods. Not likely in the heat of the moment, though. Whatever it is about the old, I dunno, the old 8-track player or the blurry slides from 1958, it seems to activate everyone’s feelings of thwarted power and desire from earliest childhood. GIMME! It’s MINE! Like fighting over the last popsicle.
Then we get to the house and the money. That sweet, sweet munnah.
Back in the bad old days, the land was almost the only thing a family owned. Material goods were expensive and hard to make, and people had very little in terms of clothes, furniture, and housewares. Property went to the oldest son, and the rest of the family had to make do or beg for a place at the table. Imagine being an unmarried adult daughter and having to wheedle your big brother for a chance to stay on and do all the cooking and laundry, because it was that or panhandle in the road.
Then property started to be divided between descendants. Probably more fair, but fast-forward a couple of generations. The first block is divided between four kids. Then they each divide their share between their five or six kids. Then each of those grandchildren has eleven or twelve grandchildren. It doesn’t take long before the tiny slivers that are left are too small to support a family. Or the global economy changes in response to technological advancement, and the world moves on. But somewhere inside all of us is a glimmer of ancestral memory, when our family several generations back were higher in the societal pecking order.
Those photo albums and rings and teacups and old furnishings remind us of a vanished time, a time that we partly believe is our true place.
I have copies of old family pictures from the Civil War through the Victorian era. Look, they’re wearing suits, and fancy hats, and dresses with bustles! Never mind that they probably owned only one or two changes of clothes. I DESERVE.
Some of that genteel feeling, we could easily get back. We could get it by hand-tailoring our clothes in our own living rooms, the way earlier generations did. We could get it by speaking more formally, using appropriate terms of address and ritual politeness formulas. “Good day to you, sir.” It’s not money that they had, so much as stricter rules for social decorum. We’d probably find it unbearably stuffy and restrictive. Personally, I prefer modernity with its electronics, egalitarianism, and endless options.
One of the most dramatic changes of our era is our incredible longevity. Human lifespan has basically doubled in the last century, certainly within the last two hundred years. I’m forty-three and it wouldn’t have been at all uncommon for a woman my age to be gone already. Now it’s not uncommon for a woman to still be up and doing at eighty-six, double the age I am today.
What this means is that our old structure of “inheritance” is going to have to change, the same way the way we think of “retirement” has to change. It was different when the retirement age was sixty-five and most people died by sixty-three. Now a lifetime’s savings and investments will be needed for the next twenty or thirty years of life. A house that would have lasted thirty years, enough time for a young family to grow up and for the owners to age properly, will now be worn out and needing major repairs just in time for that retirement. Buy a house at 35, and at 65, guess what? It’s going to need a new roof, all the appliances are going to wear out, maybe even the foundation, plumbing, wiring, windows, and floors will need to be redone.
How will there be any money left for the adult children after funding the retirement needs of advancing longevity? How can someone fund such a long retirement, working 30 or 35 years to pay to retire for 20 or 30 years or more? How could it be done at all, much less debt-free? How could it be done in perfect health, much less after funding decades of ill health, medications, medical appliances, and surgeries?
If anything, these trends are going to be even more pronounced over the next few decades. At some point, the finance industry will figure out a way to rig new mortgages and consumer debt loads. Individuals will adjust their expectations for their personal longevity, how old they want to be when they give up on their physical health, and how they intend to pay for their retirement. Family arrangements will start to look markedly different. We’ll probably move back to having multiple generations under one roof, and in that case, an “inheritance” might just look like redecorating a bedroom so the sixties-aged kids can move back in to assume caretaking responsibilities, for their eighties-aged parents and their grandparents who are still here as centenarians.
Expecting an inheritance, according to research, tends to lead to more debt and less career success. Today’s reality is that whatever investment money and home equity are there, will most likely be consumed by the daily living expenses of unprecedented old age. This is fantastic, if you actually love your relatives and cherish having more time with them. It’s a bummer, if you’ve always had this lingering hope that they’d shuffle off this mortal coil and leave you enough to pay off your credit cards.
I’m very fortunate to have young parents. They’re still working, and I’m middle-aged, well aware that I need to plan for my own old age. When I “retire,” they may still be spry enough that we can go on vacation together. All I want for them is that they have enough saved to take care of themselves and preserve their independence as long as possible. The inheritance that I desire is a legacy of strength and savvy, and perhaps the secret to a seventy-year marriage.
Cozy Minimalist Home is the book I wish my clutter clients would all read. I’m always trying to get them to consider how they use their space rather than how they feel about each and every single object they own. This lavishly illustrated book shows us how it’s done. Myquillyn Smith explores how to design cute, comfortable, stylish rooms that focus on function rather than tons of decorative items. She suggests that it’s better to focus on the room as a whole, rather than specific objects. The results are charming and convincing.
We really can have “more style with less stuff.” Smith suggests that we start by creating one sane space for the household to hang out and relax, even in the midst of large remodeling projects. No matter what else is going on in the other rooms, there needs to be somewhere for regular daily life to go on.
Moving and redecorating are serious undertakings, rife with pitfalls. Smith finds a lot of comedy here. “This is real life. There would be no buying all new furniture like they do on TV.” She deals with the realization that she’s been dragging a lot of decor through multiple moves, only to find that it isn’t doing her home any favors. The money she had spent on small things could have been saved up for larger pieces she would have liked better.
Smith is relatable and really funny. She voices so many contradictions and frustrations: wanting to streamline and wanting to shop; feeling attracted and repelled by the same style; aiming for domestic harmony and hospitality while wanting the home done her way. She doubts her own design choices, and even her decision to buy a house that she doesn’t absolutely love.
How to deal? Smith becomes Chief Home Curator. Like most of us, she has to solve problems of her own creation, sorting through a mountain of stuff that she herself chose and brought home. She learns to “quiet the room” and scrap previous design attempts before finally working out something that she and her family can love. Generally, what they like has greater design impact while using and displaying far fewer things.
One of the best and most endearing features of Cozy Minimalist Home is the appendix with Before and After photos of Smith’s rooms. She shares what was going on behind the scenes as photos were staged for the book. This focus on process is so helpful for readers who don’t know where to start in their own homes, making the endeavor feel more possible.
Cozy Minimalist Home is a very practical book. It teaches the fundamentals of design, starting with what order to paint, buy furniture, choose window treatments, and hang pictures. For absolute beginners, there are useful discussions on how to discover your own style, create pinboards, and plan rooms. This is a beautiful and useful book that can build confidence and a sense of possibility in even the most nervous novice.
Just because we know perfection isn’t the goal doesn’t mean we don’t long for—and need—function and beauty.
My dirty little secret was that my stuff was draining me.
If I was so good at finding great deals, why didn’t I trust that I could find them a year or two later and not lug all that cute stuff with me from house to house?
Doesn’t an empty kitchen counter seem like the most extravagant luxury?
We keep forgetting that we’re living in the future. It’ll probably take about two generations before we start to figure it out.
This is the argument that I use when setting policy with my husband about our domestic arrangements and mental bandwidth. How would this be different if it were automated? If it were engineered out of existence as a problem? Offload it, sure, abdicate it, absolutely. Tell Siri, though, not me.
We’ve had a lot of success with delegating household chores to “the robots,” as we call them, and now I’m trying to teach him to do it with the administrative stuff.
The thing is, like a lot of people, we each have a smartphone in our pocket. Along with all the many other features of these incredibly powerful computers, which are far and away better than what was used to get the first rocket up to the Moon, there is a voice assistant. It can do stuff, and, arguably, it should.
Check the weather
Read off lists
Probably a million more things that we haven’t realized it can do
We both grew up with moms who were traditional in most ways. We both had the kind of mom who did most or all of the cooking and housework, the kind of mom who knew how to sew and make Halloween costumes, the kind of mom who basically ran the household while the dad did the fix-it stuff. We both had a certain internalized expectation that the woman of the household is also the secretary and receptionist of the household.
But then, we met each other in the workplace.
I literally WAS his office assistant.
It literally was my job to take notes at his meetings, sort his mail, make his photocopies, and copyedit his technical documentation. (He was one among a staff of 75 others).
This probably helped when we got married years later. It helped to make clear that certain types of tasks were PAID and, thus, valuable. As an engineer, my husband understood full well exactly why these low-level administrative tasks are delegated down. It’s a silly drain on the mental bandwidth of a professional who has more interesting things to do.
He gets it that if these random and small interruptions keep popping up for me to handle, then it interferes with the headspace I need as a writer.
I can either be a full-time stay-at-home spouse, maintaining the perfect household and cooking great meals from scratch, OR. Or I can be something else, something more interesting and fulfilling that also generates a higher income. Both are valid paths to lifestyle upgrades for both of us. One is depressing, boring, and annoying (for me at least), and the other is awesome.
More to the point, why should a human (including me) do something when a robot or an artificial intelligence can do it?
Back to the robots.
We have a Roomba and a countertop dishwasher. We also have a robot mop, but we currently aren’t using it because our kitchen floor is about the size of a beach towel. Once upon a time, we had a washer and dryer. We “start the robots” before we go to the movies, and we come home to a clean apartment. The only things “the robots” don’t do (yet) are to knock down cobwebs, dust surfaces, clean the bathroom, put away laundry, and make the bed. We sort laundry by having a hamper with two detachable bags, one for lights and one for darks. That’s not robotic, but it is based on principles of lean engineering.
This is the premise on which I am building my empire, my Kingdom of Mental Bandwidth.
The goal is for both of us to have as much high-quality uninterrupted System 2 thinking time as possible. I’ve made my case for how much I do to support him as he works on his third patent, and he appreciates that this takes care and focus. This has helped me make the case that I, too, need help protecting my thinking-cap time.
As an engineering principle, our household should be as well-maintained as possible with the least amount of effort as possible. This is known as “low-side compliance.” It’s extremely important in engineering, because an engineer’s time is expensive, and even an extra hour putting in an extra feature might blow both the budget and the production schedule. Low-side compliance helps avoid “scope creep,” which is what happens when the specifications of the product keep expanding. Scope creep makes everything more expensive and complicated, and also more vulnerable to failure.
Running a household is the classic example of scope creep. It’s also a stupid place to put that kind of cognitive and emotional focus.
Together, we’ve worked out a way to automate, systemize, or eliminate as many household tasks as possible. This includes chores and errands. The next step is to automate more administrative tasks like ordering dog food, scheduling appointments, and booking travel.
Another horizon would be keeping track of where things are. I have what amounts to a 3D mental hologram of every object in our home, as well as several other homes of family and friends. My superpower does not, though, make me responsible for keeping track of other people’s stuff! One day, an AI will have this ability and then it will make sense to interrupt *it* instead of me.
Since this function would be so valuable in manufacturing and inventory management, it WILL eventually arise and become widely available.
The household of the future will run itself. It will clean itself, schedule its own maintenance, stock itself with supplies, and track the location of objects, maybe even uninvited insects. With 3D food printing, everyone can have a personalized meal on demand, including guests. The house and the computer will effectively merge. Household chores and errands will become as antiquated for the average suburban family as churning butter and trimming lantern wicks are today.
We’re already at the point where commonly available software can track our budgets, order groceries and other household supplies, schedule appointments, and even suggest entertainment options. Not that far into the future, there will be nothing left to argue about except whose job it is to give the cat a pill, unless of course it’s a robot cat. We might as well get started on figuring out what to argue about next, and maybe the voice assistant of tomorrow can mediate.
It all started when I set out to clean the oven at our rental house. I had a joke from one of my clients: “Oven’s dirty, time to move!” I was starting to learn about “ask, don’t task” and realizing that it can be very useful to have an engineer around. I thought out how to reframe my problem of DIRTY OVEN.
That’s what I did. I outlined the problem. I reminded him that when he helped me move out of my apartment after two years of dating, it had taken me three hours to clean the oven. I estimated how much it would probably cost to hire a cleaning service, many of which will not clean ovens just as they won’t wash windows. I believed there had to be a better way. Take off the oven door, maybe?
“Hold on,” he said.
He went out to the garage, a promising sign.
He came back out with... the cordless drill. He attached a scouring pad to it, an abrasive tool that was designed for shop use. He got some cleanser out from under the sink.
He pulled out the oven racks.
He pulled up the wooden step stool that I use to reach high kitchen shelves and he sat on it. He turned on the drill and started scouring the black volcanic mess that was our oven.
Fourteen minutes later, that oven was showroom clean.
“That should do it,” he said, and he took the drill back out to the garage.
I was still standing there with my jaw hanging open when he came back.
(Then I found a silicon oven liner for $20 and we’ve never looked back).
We’ve spent a considerable amount of time since then (2010), talking about how engineering could solve so many scutwork problems, if only someone were to bring them to the attention of an engineer. In the years since, we’ve seen various solutions hit the market, and I own some of them.
Drill attachments specifically for tough housework jobs
Power scrubbers with extension poles for jobs like scrubbing bathtubs
Window-cleaning robots in two types, suction and magnetic
A robot vacuum that picks up pet hair (but not feathers, hint hint)
A robot mop
Robot lawnmower? A joke that I made in 2010, it’s now a reality
I’m still holding out for a toilet-cleaning robot ($500, nowhere to store it) and a laundry-folding robot, once they become efficient enough to be worth the effort.
We have a joke about “starting the robots” when we leave our apartment. We spend about five minutes crating our pets, picking up the dog dishes, and checking for charger cables on the floor. Then we turn on the countertop dishwasher and the Roomba. We also used to have a washer and dryer. We would go to the movies, laughing about how robots were doing our housework and speculating on what we could delegate next.
There’s another thing that we do, something that feels like a total impossibility for most households. That is to live in a deliberately small space and own few material objects.
Sing HEY! for minimalism!
It doesn’t take us long to clean because there isn’t much to clean. You can almost reach every surface of our kitchen or bathroom by standing in one spot. We can’t keep a lot of stuff out on countertops because we don’t have much counter space. We can either preserve one square foot of countertop for cooking meals, or we could put one thing on it.
Which one thing is more valuable than the ability to prepare meals? A stand mixer? A cookie jar? A pile of junk mail?
I’ve found in my work with clutter clients that the more they wish for old-fashioned home cookin’, the more stuff they have in their kitchens, and the less they actually cook. Any professional chef would tell you that you can do it all with one good knife, a cutting board, a large bowl, a spatula, and a pan.
My people keep more than that stacked up in their sink, much less the entire room.
What crushes me about all of this is that almost all my people have a functional dishwasher. I grew up without one. In point of fact, my husband had to teach me how to load a dishwasher because I made it into my thirties without really knowing how they work. It takes four minutes to unload a clean dishwasher. Unload it once a day and spend 10 seconds put dirty dishes directly into it after each meal. It’s like a miracle! Yet you’re all out there weeping bitter tears about how much work it is. Are you kidding me with this???
The truth is that it’s entirely possible to cook nutritious, balanced meals in a microwave in under ten minutes and then spend about 90 seconds cleaning up afterward. I cannot cognitively fathom why there is so much angst over kitchen work. But then microwaves and dishwashers feel like the Star Trek future to me, and garbage disposals do, too.
So much of this is about how we internalize what we perceive as social expectations, and how we react emotionally to those expectations.
Breaking down these tasks as engineering problems is a way to distance them from the emotional landscape. Would I feel resentful and burdened about this if a robot was doing it? If it never even became a problem? The first time I shook off some blackened spilled pie filling from our $20 oven liner, I also shook off some mid-20th-century expectations. I’m ready for my 21st-century kitchen and wondering what else I can pawn off on household robots.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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