Free isn’t free. It’s better to understand that going in. Anything you take, any object that you handle, has strings attached.
One of the great paradoxes of clutter is that it’s usually harder to get rid of “free” stuff than things that we bought at retail price. Why? No idea, I just know that it’s true.
We had a give-away party after our last move, and one of the items in the pile was our last set of plastic shelving from when we had a garage. We were 100% sure the shelves would go, and we were astonished when they didn’t. The other half-dozen sets had so much traction on Craigslist that we probably should have sold them for cash.
We don’t look at it that way, because we don’t necessarily want to advertise our home as a place full of valuable stuff. (It isn’t). Giving something away attracts gratitude, while selling something seems to activate scarcity mindset in everyone involved. Do I really want to spend my free time dickering over $20? Do I really want a lot of random strangers driving to my specific home address, wondering what else I have?
The thing about shelves in particular is that they have no intrinsic value. They are not beautiful to look at, and their only use consists in storing and/or displaying other items. Nobody just wishes for a house full of empty shelves, and then leaves them that way.
I had a good laugh the other day because one of the apartment units in our building is visible from the pool. What we could see from our perspective was a wall of built-in shelving with about a dozen paperback books on it. There was room for several hundred and they looked a little lonely, all on their own.
This is dangerous, an attractive nuisance. Nature abhors a vacuum and for this reason, empty shelves attract clutter like nothing else.
Once clutter is stored or displayed on a shelf, it never leaves. It merges with the shelving unit and becomes an unremovable part of the whole. It becomes impossible to imagine the object and the shelves separately.
The strangest thing about shelves is that they tend to be inexpensive and easy to find. Yet the people who need them the most never seem to have any. I have a theory about this.
When my eldest nephew was a little boy, we had a conversation about money and stuff. He came running in breathlessly asking to get into his piggy bank because a neighbor kid was willing to sell him a plastic truck for ten dollars. What the heck?? [insert static noise] I told him that sounded way too expensive and that he’d have to ask his dad. Then I gave him a homily about how we save money so we can get something really cool later.
“I like to buy lots of small stuff and then I don’t have to wait,” he replied.
Yeah, you and all my hoarding clients, I thought.
My people, caught in scarcity mindset, all share a knee-jerk reaction that goes NO I CAN’T AFFORD THAT. They are unable to process the idea that a $40 set of shelves costs the same amount as ten $4 items or forty $1 items, which I can clearly see scattered, stacked and piled all over their home.
I “can afford” infinite amounts of $1 and $5 items. Never in life, in no alternative universe, could I even hypothetically afford any item over $X.
That’s the line. That’s how it works. In the scarcity paradigm, there is a permanent cutoff of any price tag over a certain amount, forever and always, for all time, the end.
The other issue with something like a set of shelves is that it needs to go somewhere. Any set of free shelving is virtually guaranteed not to match either the existing furniture or the dimensions of the room. In a cluttered room with a lot of big furniture, it’s never obvious where such a thing could go.
Our utilitarian beige plastic shelving wouldn’t look good anywhere except for a garage, and none of our friends has a garage, because few of the homes in our region do. We live in small apartments or condos because that’s mostly what is available. Who wants to live in a small place dominated by an ugly set of shelves? We all operate under the assumption that our homes should be comfortable and reasonably attractive.
My people, on the other hand, plan everything around THEIR STUFF, what they already have and whatever else they might carry in.
How could I set up these shelves? I’d have to move all these bags and boxes first.
The free shelves that are easy to get are only free because there’s something wrong with them. Either they are rickety or unappealing, or the original owner tried them and found that they didn’t do the job. They’re designed for a purpose. Our shelves are designed to hold medium-sized moving boxes or storage tubs. They work great for that, but they’re too tall for most stuff, either in the garage or indoors. Other “free” shelves might be designed specifically for DVDs or paperback books or some other standard size unit.
A standard shelf will either attract more items that fit it, because it feels right, or it will fill with random clutter that has nowhere else to go. It’s either manifest destiny or lebensraum.
Ideally, a shelf empties and refills. Clean dishes, clean towels, fresh groceries, they’re all supposed to come and go. It’s hard to tolerate clutter on shelves that are constantly in use, because anything that isn’t being used is always in the way. That’s what clutter IS, of course. So what is it that we think we’re doing with any shelf if it’s filled with stuff we don’t use?
The goal is always to be intentional. With something like shelving, it should be clear what is being stored, why, where, and for how long. Then it’s simple enough to find a set of shelving of the right size and dimensions. Maybe sell off some existing clutter to pay for them, thereby solving two problems: too much stuff, and nowhere to put what’s left. Good luck finding any free shelves that will magically do that job.
It’s that time again. We’ve just moved, and there’s a big pile of random stuff in our dining room, staged and ready for our next give-away party. Invites have already gone out.
What is a give-away party?
It’s a social occasion where anyone who is invited can look through the pile and take stuff home.
Why do we do it?
There’s a built-in deadline for us to finish sorting stuff and moving in. Also, we can give away things that we can’t donate. Stuff we don’t need circulates back to the Stuff Place. We continue to live with the expectation that we keep only what we actively use, so that we can keep our expenses and home maintenance as low as possible.
In my work with hoarding and chronic disorganization, almost everyone struggles with letting go of stuff. One of the few things that will break up this pattern of emotional attachment is to feel that something is going To the Right Person. I’m “saving it” for “someone who might need it.”
The paradox behind this is that 1. We believe there is someone who truly needs this thing, although obviously we do not need it ourselves, AND YET 2. We are keeping it in the only way that absolutely guarantees it WILL NOT go to anyone who needs it.
It’s like if I had a ham-and-cheese sandwich and I put it in my fridge, even though I’m a vegan, because “it shouldn’t go to waste,” but I didn’t tell anyone I had it. Who did I think was going to come knocking, asking if I happened to have an extra ham-and-cheese sandwich sitting around?
What we are doing is hosting a housewarming, but instead of bringing us a bunch of potted plants or candles, our guests can just bring snacks. Actually it’s a reverse housewarming, in the sense that we expect people to take things home rather than add to our inventory.
It’s surprising how many things can’t be donated, like garage shelving or glass furniture. A lot of thrift stores won’t take furniture of any kind.
We’ve always given away a lot of stuff over Craigslist or Freecycle. It can be complicated because it’s a toss-up whether someone will actually show up to take what they claimed to want. I can’t count how much time I’ve spent hanging around, waiting for a call that never came, then having to re-post something and go back and forth for eight emails. I gave away our moving boxes after this move and it took nearly an hour for the guy to get through traffic and find our address.
What most people will do when they realize they no longer need something is to leave it in place for a long time, and then maybe carry it off to the garage or a junk room. When asked, people will claim they’re “going to have a garage sale” or they’re “going to sell it on eBay.” That day never comes. The next time it comes up, they double down, and all that happens is that they feel more intensely annoyed, defensive, or anxious. The stuff is still there, radiating complications.
We quit having garage sales when we realized it took two of us an entire summer Saturday to make $150. We made less than minimum wage. We would have been better off financially if one of us got a part-time job at Taco Bell and the other literally beat all the yard sale stuff into smithereens with a big mallet.
Check my math: ($150/2 people)/(12 hours)=($75)/(12)=$6.25/hour
(Also no free tacos)
A give-away party takes the financial aspect out of consideration.
What we’re doing is showing magnanimity. When we give away something like our first blender to an intern, we’re giving that person a chance to make blender drinks and still pay down their student loan. Rather than spend all the time and mental bandwidth trying to sell a used blender that cost $25 new, we can maximize our mental efforts doing something else. We set an example of generosity that will be paid down the line over time.
“We were broke at your age, and now it’s our turn. When you’re our age you can pick up the check.”
We accept that The Blender Cost $25. That money is gone now. We are not buying into the sunk cost fallacy. We paid $25, we got (by definition) $25 worth of use out of it, and now it goes back to the Stuff Place.
We value our time at $X/hour, and evening time at $2X/hour, and weekend time at $10X/hour. It would be absurd at the deepest level to value our free time at pennies on the hour.
It’s entirely possible that nobody who comes to our party will take anything out of the give-away pile. We’re certainly not forcing anyone! We simply want to set the example that stuff comes, stuff goes, and what is truly important is friendship.
Maybe we’ll be left with a big box of empty canning jars and a set of plastic shelving and some random housewares. That’s cool. At that point we will do what we have always done and set about advertising this stuff to the community. Please, take it off our hands.
The result of a minimalist lifestyle that involves regular give-away parties is that we have minimized our rent and maximized our savings. We might have given away “hundreds of dollars’ worth” of stuff, but in the process we have saved TENS OF THOUSANDS of dollars in rent. We’re maximizing our retirement portfolio, rather than maximizing a giant pile of junk in a garage full of black widow spiders and mice. Or, worse, a storage unit, doing nothing but eating money month after month and not even contributing to our home equity.
What we’ll remember about our give-away party is seeing our friends, eating snacks, laughing, talking, and playing games. If asked to make a list of all the stuff we gave away, we won’t be able to remember it all. That’s fine, because almost everything that exists can easily be found in the Stuff Place, and when we need anything, we can easily get it. There is plenty and there will always be plenty more.
It comes up a lot. People generally can’t believe that a married couple our age are voluntarily choosing to rent instead of own a home. One of our young ones came over on open house night, and blurted out, “You guys RENT??” Like it had completely violated his impression of us or something!
That’s generally how you know you’ve hit upon a truly contrarian position. Nobody understands it or why you’re doing it. Young or old, rich or poor, artist or business professional, nobody gets it.
You don’t... own... a car?
You... don’t... drink coffee?
You... actually like... the middle seat?
Personally, I do weirder things, like using chopsticks with my non-dominant hand, and nobody notices that stuff at all. Most of the time people are just thinking about themselves, that or their phone.
You can get away with A LOT in plain sight. People may give feedback in one form or another, but that doesn’t mean you have to pay attention or base your major strategic decisions on their opinion. Especially if you think the common denominator isn’t working for most people.
Default: tired, broke, cluttered
To sum up, our strategy is to rent a tiny apartment, use public transport, and max out our retirement contributions. Literally anyone in the world can live in a small space and not own a car. This is not elitist. It’s about the complications you are willing to tolerate.
What are the three basic home-owning strategies?
Ideally we would love #1. We live in Southern California right now, and we agree that it’s paradise. It’s a combination of a beautiful place with a great climate, ready access to fascinating work opportunities, and a culture that suits us. Unfortunately, buying an amazing house where we live costs about 4x as much as the same house somewhere else.
We understand #2, and we know precisely how to do it. We are both tool-oriented DIY types, part of our initial attraction to one another. One of our few continual quarrels revolves around who gets to assemble new furniture. The problem with this strategy is that all your free time, evenings, weekends, and holidays, goes to fixing up the house. It becomes your only hobby, that and accidentally breaking some drywall.
#3, geographic arbitrage, is something else we understand. Pack up and go somewhere else, like... Belize? Our biggest problems with this strategy are 1. Jobs, 2. Our pets, and 3. Choosing one place. Quite frankly we would only go in this direction at the point of retirement, and neither of us really believes in retirement as a thing.
Oops, another hot take! Let’s save that one for a different day.
The biggest problem with owning a house is that nobody wants to talk about the externalities.
The closing costs, the annual maintenance costs, the higher utility bills and other hidden costs, the extra chores of yard work and housework, the risk position, the house becoming a character in your story and demanding things, like extra furniture.
Risk position! There are NO GUARANTEES that you won’t need extensive wiring work, plumbing repairs, and a new roof, just as you find out you have a cracked foundation... and then you get hit with a major natural disaster shortly after finishing it all. When you own a house the buck stops with you.
People will try to talk you into home ownership in the same way they try to talk you into having children, or adopting a cat. They won’t talk about all that stuff like burst pipes, teething, or the cat barfing on your bedspread. “It’s different when they’re yours!” Yep, my point exactly.
The main reason that my husband and I haven’t bought a house is the way mortgages are structured. The loan is front-loaded, and almost everything you pay for the first five years is interest. You aren’t building equity. Due to our strategic position on career growth, we haven’t felt that we could guarantee we would stay in one city for five years. We decided that before we got married, and in point of fact, we were right.
If we had chosen the house over the career opportunities, we would have had to pass up several promotional choice points. We’d be making 50% less money, and, to be honest, I would probably be tired of the house and constantly being in Remodel Purgatory.
It’s my nature. If I lived in the fanciest house on the entire planet, there would be something I didn’t like about it, and I would want to either rearrange all the furniture or remodel something. I don’t have it in me to just fall in love with one specific building and want it to never change.
There are other home-ownership strategies out there, and probably room for more, because anything can be modified or disrupted. For instance, a lot of people live with their parents and save money, and someone could probably do something similar while house-sitting. Another common one is to live in a granny unit or put in a garage or basement apartment, get tenants for the main house, and use their rent to pay down the mortgage. Or get a job that includes housing, like working on a cruise ship or at a fire watch tower, and save as much money as possible.
One day, we might buy a house. We’d do it when we had fallen in love with that city, when we had a sense of knowing about that property, when we had nothing better to do with our copious spare time. When that will be, only time will tell. In the meantime, yeah, we rent. What’s it to you?
This summer has really done a number on our waistlines. We went on three trips out of town, adding up to over a month. Between that, moving, and my series of oral surgeries, there hasn’t really been a normal day for us in months. Like most people, that means we haven’t been eating normal meals, either. We’re in our new place, which has a mirrored door on the bedroom closet, and we’re thinking, Oh dear.
Note that I said “normal” meals, not “regular” meals. This isn’t about missing any mealtimes, oh no. It’s more about restaurant food, eating at the airport, and half a metric ton more French fries than we’d normally eat in a year.
This is what happened. We moved into our new apartment, literally were unpacking boxes until 11:00 PM the night before we went to the airport, and then left the country. When we came home, it was a lot like walking in the door of our new home for the first time.
We walked in, and we were both at our highest weight of 2019.
Not everyone cares about this, and if you personally don’t have to care for health or financial reasons, well bully for you. In both our cases, we’re at the point where we either need to replace our ENTIRE WARDROBES or we need to slow our roll.
Since we just moved and went on vacation, we’re not in any hurry to spend money on anything that isn’t a strict necessity.
I don’t enjoy the feeling of the waistband of my pants trying to do stage magic and saw me in half, so the sooner we can make some changes, the better.
The good news is that we’re benefitting from three things. One, we both know we want to have good news to report in four months for the New Year, so we’re intrinsically motivated. Two, we’ve collectively lost 100 pounds and we know what to do. Three, and probably most important, we are structurally supported by our new kitchen.
One of the main reasons we moved is because we were both sick and tired of the tiny kitchen in our old studio apartment. We could only be in the room one at a time. We had one square foot for meal prep. It was hard to reach anything and removing one item, like a bowl or a pan, required moving other stuff out of the way. As a consequence, we started relying on a lot of frozen food.
The new kitchen is woefully short on drawers, there is only one cabinet deep enough to hold a lot of bigger stuff like baking pans, and we still don’t have enough space for a pantry cupboard. The spice rack is on top of the fridge. BUT!
There is plenty of counter space, it has a full-size dishwasher, the sink is deeper and it has a sprayer, it’s better lit, and it looks much nicer all around. We basically went from 1980s kitchen to modern overnight.
For the first time in our marriage, my husband can find ingredients and utensils without having to ask me where they are. That is momentous.
He cooked a proper meal the second night. I had already unpacked the kitchen well enough that it was functional. In fact I had managed to heat up a can of soup for lunch while the movers were still hauling things in. We were both more interested in getting the kitchen in order than we were in anything else, at least once the bed and shower were operational.
When you enjoy cooking, it’s relaxing and fun. When you walk into an inviting kitchen space, the first thing you think is, What would I cook in here? I often cook at my parents’ house and sometimes I cook with friends, too. It’s a lot like how musicians display their instruments, and sometimes their friends ask to pick one up. It’s also a lot like Sewing Room Envy.
We were still in the unpacking process and we were already stacking carefully labeled leftovers in the freezer.
There is nothing like eating home cooking after a long absence. DANG this is good!
We had been consciously eating down our provisions for a couple of months before the move, planning to avoid leftovers and finish off containers without replacing them. Our fridge and freezer were almost completely empty the day of the move. This left us with a more or less clean slate in the new place.
Right now the fridge is full of a bunch of chard, a head of cauliflower, and the biggest cabbage that we’ve ever seen, almost the size of a watermelon! When I say “full,” I mean that the main compartment is mostly produce. This is fairly typical for us; we’ll eat the chard and the cauliflower over two meals. The cabbage might take three.
What happens when two good cooks share a kitchen is that they start working to outdo one another. A particularly fine meal inspires a follow-up. As bachelors, we both would occasionally eat cereal for dinner, and of course we could do that any time we like, but it seems really depressing now. Why settle when you have the time, space, and resources to make something better?
We were at the grocery store, stocking up, when I noticed a new kind of frozen pizza. I pointed it out. We both shook our heads, Nahhh. We also walked right past the mini corndogs.
Most people don’t have functional kitchens. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the main three are: at least twice as much stuff as necessary, power struggles, and lack of a system. People with far larger and better equipped kitchens than ours are not appreciating them at all! My suggestion would be to rate your mood and energy level against what meals are actually emerging from your kitchen, and then reevaluate all the stuff on your countertops.
It doesn’t take actually relocating to get yourself both a new kitchen and a new dinner!
We just celebrated our ten-year wedding anniversary. According to those ridiculous gift-giving charts, while some milestones get very fancy symbols like gold or silver, “ten” is the “aluminum” anniversary.
What’s that supposed to look like? Exchanged beer cans? Tinfoil hats at dinner?
Instead my husband got me one of the most romantic gifts I could imagine: a double hammock.
I cried all over myself, of course, which probably wasn’t the effect he was expecting.
Thirteen years we’ve been together, long enough to bore each other or drive each other nuts. Instead he’s telling me that we’re upgrading to a family-size hammock.
We used to have a single hammock. I bought it for him when we first started dating, as a souvenir from my trip to Cancun with my brothers. He stayed behind and did my taxes for me and I figured he deserved a nice present.
That hammock got a lot of use. We used to take turns in it. Our dog learned to jump up in it, where he would stretch out on someone’s torso and try not to stick his feet through the holes. One or the other of us would swing and read in the back yard, parrot on her perch nearby, the crazy-fast respiration of the dog’s chest making it very hard to believe he was relaxing.
Doing this separately has its own special cachet. There’s a message in there, one that I find extremely important in a long-term relationship. That message says that each party has the right to relax and do nothing on a regular basis.
HQLT. High Quality Leisure Time.
The secret to a happy relationship is to maximize your partner’s HQLT and facilitate it in any way possible. This is usually wildly different from any experience they’ve had in the past. In return, they can be taught to do the same for you.
Hammock time is sacred. There are almost no emergencies dire enough to demand an interruption of hammock time, and almost all of them can be seen from the hammock anyway:
Squadron of UFOs overhead
Sudden appearance of DeLorean vehicle racing down the street with flaming tire tracks behind it
I’m the one who messed it all up, of course. The hammock was getting a little musty from spending so much time outside, and I thought it would be a smart idea to run it through the washing machine.
It wasn’t. Never do that.
I spent quite a bit of time trying to detangle it before realizing too many of the strings had come untied. Oh well. That was fun while it lasted.
Then we moved, and most of the time since then, we haven’t had a yard. Instead we occasionally bring out the inflatable camping couch, also mostly a single-player experience.
Having a hammock again is very suggestive of one day having our own yard again. It also hints at retirement.
The double hammock? Have we even both been in a double hammock together?
We tend to value experiences more than things, but a hammock is the kind of “thing” that is really an experience in itself. Even looking at it strung up, with nobody in it, can be a bit of a moment. We used to walk past a neighbor’s yard that had a fancy hammock. Nobody ever seemed to be in it, but it turned a fairly ordinary yard into a romantic image. Conspicuous leisure, remember that?
Now all that’s left is to wander our new neighborhood and see if we can find somewhere to test out this fancy contraption. May it put some ideas into people’s heads about leisure time and comfortable companionship.
Here we go again. We’re planning a trip and that means certain assumptions. The more we do it, the truer it becomes.
I will deal with my travel anxiety by trying to add even more to my task list than I usually do, rather than less
My husband will deal with his travel anxiety by waking up two hours early
Traffic on the way to the airport will be incredibly heavy
But we’ll arrive with plenty of time anyway
I will be “randomly” selected for secondary search even though I’m a Trusted Traveler
People will constantly get between my husband and me in line or in crowds
Our gate will be changed at least once
Maybe our type of plane will change too, and suddenly we’re both in middle seats
Or our seats will be changed without notice so we aren’t even sitting together
There may be a five-hour delay some time on the trip
We are probably going to be hungry, like crazy hungry
It will rain, no matter where we go or what time of year
I will always be freezing in a hotel room and he will be hot
One of us will get a working key card and the other won’t
Whenever I leave any room, I will turn the wrong way and head the wrong direction
A lot of people will take these opportunities, and more, as reasons to complain. Complainers have no idea they’re doing it. It’s like sports commentary, like a golf announcer only less interesting.
Experienced travelers will accept that there are natural constraints, and work around them.
Because I know that my travel anxiety makes me delusional about how much I can or should get done, I acknowledge that I will always try to do a deep clean of my house or revamp my filing system, and I work around it. I have started leaving myself notes in my reminder app that pop up a few days before a trip.
Dear Future Me, quit wigging out. Love, Past Self.
Because I know my husband can only be happy if we’re at least a few minutes early, we talk through our agenda together. In the world of engineering, they may literally bill their time in 7.5-minute increments. “When you say ‘leave by,’ do you mean we’re walking out our front door or do you expect us to be driving away in the Lyft?”
We know our trips are always subject to constant gate changes, seat changes, and inexplicable delays, so we plan around it. Bring extra food and backup batteries, and shrug.
We know to check the map constantly, because I have the directional sense of a fig beetle.
We also have rules about how many attractions we try to see in a day, how often we stop to eat, and how many days we spend in a city. There is a constant temptation to try to fit in too much, and then feel frantic instead of relaxed. If we let FoMO take over, it will destroy any sense of fun. Any anti-anxiety policy is a good policy.
At this point, we’re getting it down. We do the one-minute perimeter check when we leave a room, so we aren’t forgetting stuff. We check the map so we aren’t going in the wrong direction. We help each other cross-check our luggage so we don’t forget anything.
Probably the most important thing we do is to pause and make eye contact and smile at each other. We remind ourselves that THIS IS SUPPOSED TO BE FUN!
We travel under the assumption that travel itself is inherently annoying and exhausting. The better we get at anticipating these minor annoyances, the more we can avoid them. The better we get at monitoring our energy level and emotional responses to whatever situation, the better we get at knowing when to take a break.
When we come home, it will be the fascinating stuff that we remember, not the petty complaints. We also recognize that the biggest hassles make for the most interesting traveler’s tales. We never know when it will be our last trip together and it’s our job to make the most of it.
This is an instructional post about how to inventory your stuff while you pack for a move. I’ve done this a bunch of times and it’s what works for me. I based it on the concepts from the Paper Tiger, a justifiably famous book about a system for filing papers.
The basic principle is this:
Put a number on a box. Write down the contents under that number.
Move on to the next box and repeat.
Don’t worry about - and this is the hard part - don’t worry about any more complicated system. The only things you have to worry about are making sure you don’t duplicate numbers and that anyone else who packs with you is on board with the system.
There is only one Box #1. There is only one Box #19.
It doesn’t necessarily matter if a box has logical categories of contents. The idea here is that if you’re looking for something specific, you can figure out what box it’s in. If the boxes are clearly labeled, then you have a good chance of finding that box and getting your precious thing back out.
If the boxes have been packed in roughly the order that they were numbered, then you probably even have a rough idea of where each box is!
Also, if you’ve packed in one direction, from one end of your dwelling to another, then the boxes probably got loaded into the truck in the opposite direction. What was first shall be last, and what was last shall be first.
When the boxes are unloaded into the new place, the direction reverses.
Your numbered order is, then, roughly the same all the way through.
This is pure mysticism. Don’t try to understand it, just accept it and meditate on it. Or visualize someone pulling into a parking space and then backing out again.
Moving is often the catalyst for chronic disorganization. A household is moving and they fall victim to the Planning Fallacy. This is the basic cognitive inability of the human brain to accurately estimate how long it takes to do complicated things. Everything is behind schedule and over budget because even highly trained experts and professionals are subject to the Planning Fallacy. No escape.
The household that has not planned the move with expert precision suddenly finds itself in panic mode. Every spare person who can be enlisted to help shows up and starts throwing things into boxes. I can tell you from experience that professional movers will put full wastebaskets into boxes and tape them closed. Same with wet laundry, according to lore. Random friends, relatives, and neighbors can be expected to have even less experience. They just want to get it over with and go home.
The result is a bunch of randomness multiplied by randomness. Fifty cardboard boxes of different size, dumped in whatever room had the most space, all labeled MISC (the dreaded misc).
Trying to settle into the new house feels like a disaster. Every box has items that properly belong in different rooms. Every box has loose hardware, coins, crayons, bits of small toys, and office supplies. Every room is likewise full of similar boxes of MISC (the dreaded misc). Where to start??
Most of these boxes will still be sitting in their miscellaneous form until the next move, which will be even more disastrous than the last.
Living in this kind of cardboard chaos is demoralizing in the extreme. It’s like being surrounded by Dementors. I know it because I can feel them flying out when I show up to help, and it isn’t even my stuff.
The Box Tiger method works because you can read through an inventory as you plan to unpack. You can pull a specific box because you know you need those items and you know where you are going to put them.
Box Tiger also works if you are able to maintain the placid mindset and take the extra few minutes to write down what’s in each box. Everything is under control, you breathe, and tomorrow will come. Soon this chaos will be whipped into shape by the strength of the orderly, problem-solving human mind.
I can imagine this into shape, and since I can imagine it, I can make it happen.
I can look at other people’s pinboards for inspiration.
A lot of people fantasize about having a sewing room one day, or a canning room, or a mud room, or something cool like a guitar-making workshop. What is so appealing about all these visions is that they reflect order, an ability to find the right tool for the right purpose on demand.
A whole house can be this nice.
Know where everything is. Do it one item at a time.
Box Tiger is easier for me for a few reasons. One, it’s my own system, I like it, and I’ve put it into practice. I trust it. I trust it because I’ve used it to find important items during a move, and that feeling is a huge sigh of relief and a two-inch dropping of tense shoulders.
Two, Box Tiger is easy for me because I’m a minimalist and I purposely don’t have much stuff. Why would I? Stuff I don’t use and don’t need? It doesn’t look cute and it just gets in my way.
Three, Box Tiger works well because my home works well. Keep things near where they are used, that’s the basic rule, and when we do this it makes it easier both to pack and unpack. Towels in the bathroom, towels in one box, towels in the new bathroom. Put in the extra 10% effort to carry small items to the room where they make the most sense, and that pays off in a more streamlined move.
Leave random items skewed and scattered everywhere, and that effect is multiplied with each move. Total disorganization reigns supreme and everything is hard to find.
Rationally, if something is important and useful to me, I should be able to find it and use it. If I love it and I love looking at it, then it should be easy to see as often as possible. I can’t make a case for not being able to find or see my stuff.
Box Tiger is the reason I’m able to finish unpacking 95% of my stuff in three days. I can make a move as streamlined as possible and go back to our regularly scheduled programming.
It’s also worth mentioning that minimalism enables us to fit in smaller homes, pay less rent, and live in more desirable neighborhoods where standard-size homes are unaffordable for most people. Every time we move, we downsize a little bit more, because it has always paid off.
It’s that time again, time to move! We’ve been eating up what we have on hand, and this has led to some interesting revelations. What are we doing when we’re coasting along in default mode, and how does it compare to what we would rather claim to be doing on some sort of survey?
Our freezer is almost completely empty right now. We decided to get ready to move immediately after coming home from vacation, when we hadn’t been shopping yet. That was the first disruption. HALT! Eat what we have and try to avoid bringing home anything new.
The second disruption happened when I also skipped my occasional “stocking up” trips. One of our frugality tricks is to wait until certain staples go on sale, and then buy as much as we can fit. Since we haven’t had a pantry for the past couple of years, this means freezer stuff. It keeps, it’s at eye level, and it’s a very limited space, so we know we can’t overdo it.
This would definitely be the point when I would plan to fill up the freezer with entrees to last 1-2 weeks.
The third disruption was when we noticed we were running out of oatmeal and declined to go to Costco. There is truly no point to going to a warehouse store immediately before loading a moving van, especially when you plan to live closer to said warehouse store afterward.
As with any area of complexity, there are multiple inputs here, all with different causes and all with different effects.
As our freezer has gradually and steadily emptied out, it is becoming apparent that I harbor some major fantasies about leisurely hot breakfasts. Now more than half of what is left in there consists of breakfast foods. That does sort of solve the low oatmeal reserve problem.
It has also become apparent that we tend to eat certain foods more quickly than others, and some orphans have been hanging around. I discovered, much to my surprise, that there are two containers of homemade soup in the freezer, and one of a special katsu sauce that I batch-cook because it is incredibly messy.
This makes it theoretically possible to eat an actual “home-cooked” meal in our new place the very night we move in!
Something else came up in the surprise pantry assessment. My hubby found my carefully hidden, freezer-burned non-dairy chocolate brownie ice cream. It’s probably been in there, what month is it? Six months or more? It was under my stash of vegan white chocolate chips from New Year’s Eve 2017.
Yes, it’s true, no matter what I eat or claim to eat, I always have a stash of dessert foods hidden away somewhere. Twenty-five years ago it was a bag of Pepperidge Farm cookies in the back of my desk drawer, kept at work so I wouldn’t have to share with my boyfriend. Now it’s - well, it’s whatever I feel like - considerately hidden from my abstainer husband.
Abstainers have to avoid temptations entirely, because otherwise they will immediately cave in. Moderators like me prefer to have the temptation on hand, just to know it’s there, like a fire extinguisher. It’s just as unfair for me to prominently display treats around my husband as it is unfair for him to require me not to keep any in the house.
I learned to be a moderator from my dad, incidentally. He would get three Cadbury chocolate bars for Christmas, one plain, one with dried fruit, and one with nuts. They lived in a desk drawer next to his favorite chair. Sometimes, while reading a book, he would unwrap one of these, snap off one rectangle, and nibble at it. Just one. Not every day. Those chocolate bars - you can imagine how I knew, a little kid staring at candy - would last him for months. I learned to associate moderation with higher-quality candy! That’s probably why, in our fruit bowl, I still have a few pieces of candy left over from Halloween, over nine months ago.
What else do we have in our pantry, now that we’re aiming for nothing?
A dozen or so jars of homemade soup stock, canned four years ago when we had a much larger kitchen. Likewise home-grown and canned tomatoes and collard greens. Are we going to cook from scratch more when we move to a new place and have a conventional kitchen again?
A few different kinds of flours and sweeteners, kept in the fridge for lack of space. Again, bought when we had a bigger kitchen and more counter space for baking. Are we going to do more of that, or are we wasting money by buying more than we use?
Condiments, so many condiments. We seem to keep accumulating mustards and capers and barbecue sauce and salad dressings, no matter where we live or what we’re doing. At least they are current, since we definitely started from zero when we moved to this region.
Behavioral research indicates that moving is the best time to start new habits. Thinking about when we first moved to this apartment, things have been different. We’ve eaten a lot more prepared foods and we’ve done very little cooking. We’re fitter, though, because we started taking classes at a gym instead of leaving our workouts up to fate. We used to alternate which one of us cooked, but it’s been very haphazard in this tiny studio kitchen.
Now what we want to do is to set careful intentions about our new place, because if we don’t, we will certainly fall into default behavior. We’ll have our first grocery shopping trip to fill up our ghostly, echoing fridge. What’s going in the basket? What will we bring home, what will we cook, what will we eat?
Most importantly, where will I hide my treats?
We’re moving again. When? I dunno. I just know that this is not the place where we are going to retire. Our lease is up this fall and I want to go sooner rather than later. This is the method that I use when I want to shake things up a bit.
Most people don’t plan their moves. In my experience, this is one of THE most commonly procrastinated human activities. I know it because when I do home visits, there are universally always boxes still sealed from the last move, often many years in the past. Nothing personal. People just suck at moving.
One thing I know is true. If something stays sealed in a box, then nobody needs it.
If they did, they would have found it and opened the box and gotten it out.
I’ve moved, I think, 27 times as an adult. Add to that all the people who I have helped pack or move or unpack, and all the clients I have helped do space clearing years after the fact. It’s a lot.
Working with hoarders has been a great refresher for me. Every single time I come home from a home visit, I get rid of another bag of stuff. I even start thinking about my own belongings while I’m still on site. Why do I have so many books I haven’t read? Why do I insist on keeping certain garments even when they’re threadbare and it drives my husband nuts to see me wearing them?
I don’t have much as a general rule, because I formally downsize on a regular basis. Even so, I’ve found that moving requires a culling both before and after a move. First there’s all the stuff you shouldn’t pack in the first place, like empty paper sacks, and then there’s all the stuff that won’t work in the new place, like furniture that won’t fit.
The difference between me and most people is that I actually DO the work that should be done here. I actually DO go through my stuff and get rid of a bunch of things before we move. Then I DO go through it the second time while I’m unpacking.
This has been made easier by our tenuous existence inside of a 612-square-foot studio apartment over a year and a half.
When we first moved into this unit, we had three boxes left over that had nowhere to go. It was mostly pantry food (and, as it turns out, the sewing machine). I had them stacked up next to our dining chairs, and they were unbelievably annoying.
Too stubborn to throw them away, though!
(Many types of food can’t be donated to the food bank, such as flour in a canister, homemade soup stock, or anything in a container that has been opened).
I finally managed to unpack those last three boxes one day while my husband was at work. Let me tell you, he noticed the moment he walked in the door.
It’s easy to be a minimalist in a normal-sized suburban home. That’s because they tend to have tons of closets and cabinets, and you can hide all your stuff.
In a studio where almost all the available storage is on open shelving, suddenly you don’t look like such a minimalist any more! Anyone who comes over and uses our bathroom is going to get a view of our closet, with almost all our worldly goods, not to mention our laundry hampers.
I’m determined to get ready to move, and I want the unpacking process to be even easier than it was last time.
The last time we moved, I unpacked a lot of stuff as we went. We had a friend - a truly amazing person to whom we owe a major debt - come over and help us hand-carry our stuff from one building in our apartment complex to another. Every time I would bring over a load, I would put it where it belonged, starting with the shower and the fridge. By the time we finished late that night, the bathroom was completely unpacked, the bed was made, all our clothes were set up, and the kitchen was half done. We were able to get up the next morning, shower, dress, and make breakfast like nothing had happened.
The main area where I’m focusing as I manifest our next relocation is the kitchen. I’m planning around eating up everything in our fridge and freezer, including condiments. This means the only grocery shopping we’ll really be doing is to buy fresh vegetables. I always wonder how we wind up with so many different flavors of mustard and salad dressing, and that continues to be a question that will probably never be solved.
Doing the closet is a fairly quick job. It takes my husband ten minutes because he’s all about the capsule wardrobe. It will probably take me more like an hour. Then maybe a half hour for the bathroom cabinets.
The other big challenges are our paper file box and the books.
At some point in our relationship, I seem to have passed the baton of book collecting to my hubby. Almost all my reading is digital these days, while he has been doing an unprecedented amount of business travel, which generates a lot of paperback books. Books add bulk and weight to the moving boxes more quickly than anything except clothes, so it’s worth putting in extra focus here.
As for papers, we try to be paper-free as much as possible, yet still they tend to accumulate. I keep hoping that one day we can scan and shred what’s left and be done with it entirely. Papers tend to take the most concentration, and the more they pile up, the harder the job is. That’s why I insist that we purge the file box every year. I refuse to spend more than an hour at a time on this odious task.
I’ll do an inventory of household cleansers and all the random boxes, bags, and bottles that our pets generate.
This time, we’re hiring professional movers again, at my husband’s insistence. I know the job will be easier for them if everything is orderly and streamlined when they arrive. I also know they’re going to unpack in the most random way possible, so the less we have, the better.
Watch this space as I demonstrate how quickly I can manifest a nicer apartment, or maybe even a house!
Trip planning is nuts. Every single detail is important. Anything you forget to pack has the potential to mess up your trip, and I know, because someone in my traveling party has forgotten everything including: passport, wallet, car keys, glasses, prescription meds, and hiking boots. There’s even been more than one ticket booked to an airport in the wrong city. Rigor in travel planning is rarely wasted.
The first law of trip planning is: NO CHECKED BAGS.
[The only exception to this is a wilderness trip, because our expedition packs are too big to fit in the cabin, they weigh too much, and we sometimes want to pack liquids].
Personally, I expect the entire sum total of my luggage to fit under the seat in front of me, and usually that’s where I put it.
Why hand luggage? Because you always know where it is, and because you can make connections after a flight delay when others can’t. It also gives you far more options for layover adventures when you don’t have a big wheelie bag - they aren’t even allowed in all places, and you don’t want to find that out the hard way.
NO CHECKED BAGS - NOT JUST A PHILOSOPHY, BUT A RELIGION.
The second law of trip planning: THREE DAYS PER CITY.
We break this rule all the time in small ways, but it is the true foundation of a trip. Three days is enough time to thoroughly explore most cities - too long in my home city, unless you love napping on the beach! Any city that requires more than three days to explore, like London or New York, probably deserves multiple trips. It might also be a good candidate for a hub city.
As an example, we love O’Hare Airport so we route international trips through there whenever we can.
The third law of trip planning: ONE HIGHLIGHT EACH.
A “highlight” is the “swear I’ll never ask for anything else as long as I live” part of someone’s trip. Everyone gets one. The rest of the group better be either ride or die, or they’re going off alone for their own highlight at the same time.
Examples: I rode the London Eye with my husband because it was his highlight, even though I freaking hate Ferris wheels. I owe him for all the times he’s bushwhacked with me in search of, say, the tricolored blackbird, and don’t even ask him about Mandarin ducks.
[Note: I don’t think Mandarin ducks are real. I think they are the Sasquatch of the birding world, added to birdwatching guides as a prank].
Ideally, everyone gets a highlight each day of the trip. Usually they are something small like “buy a bag of Starburst” or “walk across this famous bridge.” In museums, it’s good for each person to pick a room, because the biggest and best museums can’t be covered adequately in a single day anyway.
These are the three laws. They may be amended only after discussion and official approval.
My husband and I also have a policy that we take turns choosing the destination of our trip. We’ve agreed that we would both like to visit every country on Earth, so it’s somewhat arbitrary in which order we see them.
This is when the true trip planning starts.
The very first thing that we do is to check the weather history during the time of our trip. This tends to rule out a lot of ideas. Our wedding anniversary is in late August, which just happens to be a terrible time to travel in large sections of the world. It’s our personal choice to avoid the rainy season, partly because inclement weather means more clothes and bulkier bags.
Next we look at the country’s “national day” and any other major festivals. Usually we are trying to avoid these. They make everything cost 3x as much and almost universally result in large drunken mobs. It can be really fun to see a country decorated for celebration, though.
My next pass - and this falls to me, because I’m the one with the dietary constraints - is to look up as many suitable restaurants as possible. I search for “vegan restaurant” [city] and cross-reference with Happy Cow. Then I mark them all as a favorite on Apple Maps. This is huge because we often wind up in parts of town that we had never anticipated, and we can often find a place to eat nearby without standing on the sidewalk searching for half an hour. Many parts of the world have better options and labeling for gluten-free, vegan, or other preferences or sensitivities than we do in the US. Others do not. It can ruin a trip to discover that the only places with real options for a meal are already closed for the day.
Another vital part of trip planning is to look up “[city] in 24 hours” and “must-see [city]” and “don’t miss [city].” Most of those attractions usually don’t interest either of us at all. A few of them will turn out to be the major highlights of the trip. Sometimes we hadn’t even realized that that attraction existed, and it changes our goals for the trip entirely. I mark all of these in Apple Maps as well.
Once our key attractions and a bunch of restaurants are marked, we zoom in on the map together and browse around. This helps us to get acquainted with the layout of the city in advance. It tends to be pretty obvious that certain places are grouped near each other, and we can spend a day in each area. Other attractions are so far afield that we cross them off our list, not wanting to spend half a day or more on a tour bus unless it’s truly epic.
London wound up happening in pie wedges, with Waterloo as the center of the pie. Iceland happened in loops, starting and ending in Reykjavik.
Spending a few weeks planning a trip adds to the anticipation and extends the fun. It also helps to avoid pitfalls such as showing up on the day that a destination is closed, or arriving so late that we can’t buy a ticket.
Policy is part of trip planning for us. We have a weekly status meeting, where we’ve worked out policies for all aspects of our marriage, and our travel policies have become a friendly, efficient way of having fun together without annoying each other. (Much). The better we get at planning, the more fun we have, and the more we can anticipate our next trip.
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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