Everyone has a dirty secret. Jessie Sholl’s Dirty Secret is that her mother is a compulsive hoarder. This memoir shares an inside look at what it’s like to deal with a parent’s hoarding as an adult, as well as recollections from childhood. Sholl is a professional writer with a background in health articles, and she artfully weaves the occasional tidbit from her research into the narrative. This book is a must-read for children of hoarders. It would be a particularly fantastic read for those who struggle with attachment to stuff, because of the insight it gives into how it affects family members.
Sholl begins by quoting her mom, who asked that this book be written with radical honesty. She says that her mother read most of it before publication and enjoyed it. This is important to know going in, because many people feel intense shame around hoarding and squalor. Sensitive readers might worry about guiltily consuming an “unauthorized biography” type of book. This was written with love and respect.
Also annoyance, frustration, and the full range of emotions anyone experiences in a complicated, challenging relationship with a parent.
I work with hoarders, and Sholl’s description of her mom’s hoarded house sounds pitch-perfect to me. The enthusiasm with which my people acquire craft supplies, books, clothes, and random treasures shows here, as well as the chronic inability to keep any of it organized or complete the projects that had been initiated. There’s the same fixation with buying “gifts” for various people, gifts that rarely manage to be sent. Compulsive accumulators poignantly interpret their feelings of affectionate regard through purchases. The warmth I feel toward this object is a feeling I associate with you, so I’ll get it for you, even though you probably won’t understand why when you see it (if ever). Hoarding is a really lonely issue to have.
It shouldn’t be, though; it’s a lot more common than people seem to realize. Sholl herself may not have known this yet when she wrote the book. She was very surprised to learn that a couple of her friends also had hoarders in the family. Based on my gut instinct and experience, I think it affects about one in five households in the US to some degree. Hoarding is so prevalent that there must be literally millions of people who grew up in a hoarded home. Many of my people are buried in clutter basically because that’s how they were raised, and it never occurred to them that there was any other way.
Sholl rebels against her childhood by moving frequently as an adult. She’s also a compulsive minimalist. She describes purging objects so ruthlessly and so frequently that she may have thrown away her grad school diploma. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat while reading this; Sholl and I are the same age, have the same first name, and yeah, we both tend to move our furniture around a lot and feel allergic to clutter. My interest in minimalism has renewed and deepened every time I’ve done a photo consult, much less a home visit. Just reading this book made me grab a donation bag and start chucking things into it. Our restless desire for clear surfaces and white space is probably similar to a hoarder’s preference for a crowded nest.
Sholl asks her mother what it feels like when she buys something new. She describes it as feeling like this particular object might change her life. I call it ‘swirly eyes.’ Maybe that’s the same feeling many of us chase as we strive for a pure minimalist aesthetic: the feeling that if we can get the space designed just right, it might change our life, too. Ultimately, we can only change ourselves.
I found this book gripping, disquieting, provocative, and sometimes pretty funny. It was particularly funny when I read through certain scenes and started scratching at myself, feeling like my skin was crawling! It’s a good read, one that would make a solid introduction to hoarding for the uninitiated. There’s an extensive bibliography, as well as a reader’s guide. Dirty Secret may well be the definitive guide to having a parent who hoards.
One of the first things I noticed when I started doing clutter work was a strong correlation between space clearing and weight loss. Why is this? The reasons that people clutter up their homes are as many and varied as the reasons that people gain and lose weight. These are both very broad cultural problems that affect almost all of us, problems that people of the Dark Ages didn’t have. They couldn’t afford either the extra food or the extra stuff; material goods were expensive for most of human history. Only now do we have the luxury of having both more food and more stuff than we know what to do with! Perhaps the first reason that clutter work tends to trigger weight loss is that it causes us to pause and ask ourselves, Is this what I want for myself? Did I do this with my life intentionally?
Clutter has some common causes, all of which can also be seen as common causes of weight gain:
Consumer culture / recreational shopping and eating
Perception of busy schedule
Depression, anxiety, other mental health issues
Addressing any one of these issues has a ripple effect, where resolving the problem also resolves other symptoms of the problem. As an example, getting a handle on chronic disorganization may result in a better financial outlook as well as more time to cook at home. Going for the root cause always leads to unanticipated positive side benefits. Often we find ourselves saying, “If only I’d known this would happen, I would have done it sooner!”
Most of my clients don’t cook. This is reflective of our cultural moment, as statistics show that Americans now spend more at restaurants and bars than we do on groceries. When we cook at home, most of us are buying packaged and prepared foods, not cooking from scratch. You know what I think? Based on what I’ve seen, I think one of the main reasons that most people don’t cook is that their kitchens are too... Um... How do I put this? Basically I would hesitate to pop a slice of toast in most of my clients’ kitchens. It’s pretty common for people to stock up on what I would consider to be three months’ worth of food, and try to pack it into the kitchen space with double or triple the amount of hardware that will fit. Nobody is going to cook if the sink and counters are constantly full of dirty dishes and there’s no available counter space.
Making a stand about clutter will eventually affect the kitchen. When the kitchen is reclaimed, when the kitchen starts to be used in the way it was designed to be used, we start eating more rationally.
Intensive space clearing takes time. It shakes up whatever was the default schedule, a schedule that may have been consistent for many years. We snap out of whatever dream we’ve been in, we look around, and we realize that entropy has been happening all around us. Many of us work in a near frenzy, finding energy we never knew we had, sometimes having trouble stopping even when it’s late on a work night. We can spend hours without realizing that time is passing. These are the same blocks of time that we might have spent on screen time, perhaps snacking because that’s what we’ve always done. Changing our default activities tends to change our eating patterns, too.
Even my clients who live alone report power struggles over how they keep their space. Friends and family members want to stick their oars in. Space clearing is often the first time that someone has taken initiative in life, effectively saying, “I make the rules around here now.” This is major, because we give ourselves permission to say both No and Yes. Unintentional weight gain often comes from adopting the eating habits of our nearest and dearest, who are usually surprisingly insistent that we not change or reject food offerings. We have to eat the way that they do, or they won’t feel like they have permission to eat that way anymore! Put your foot down and say, “This isn’t working for me,” and all sorts of things happen.
Of course, sometimes both clutter clearing and weight loss are just natural side effects of recovery from an emotional crisis or a period of mental health issues. As we start to feel better, we start wanting better for ourselves, and that includes our living environments as well as our bodies.
Honestly, I think there’s a bit of woo-woo behind it. Just because we can’t objectively measure a subjective emotional experience doesn’t mean it isn’t real. There is something about the inner decision that It’s Time Now. When we feel the deep sense that change is necessary and obvious, it changes everything. We just feel different. We start to approach everything we do with a new awareness. As we start taking more initiative and agency, reclaiming our personal power, and reflecting this newfound strength in our external circumstances, it spreads. It does things. Little tweaks and adjustments happen without our always realizing it right away. How can this not permeate all our choices, food included?
My graduates report back some amazing changes. They fall in love, relocate across the globe, go back to school, change jobs, and take up old abandoned hobbies. Physical transformation is just another routine extraordinary process. Ultimately space clearing is an external manifestation of internal awareness. It’s one sign among many of an end to chronic procrastination and the beginning of a new drive toward creative action.
You know you live in Southern California when you realize you don’t have any shirts with sleeves.
You know it’s autumn in SoCal when you have to wear socks.
We moved suddenly in March. Like every time, we went through all of our stuff while we were packing, because there’s no point in buying boxes to pack stuff we know we’ll never use again. Everything went either to Goodwill, a charity rummage sale, or our half-day yard sale. This included any and all clothes that didn’t fit, had problems like stains or holes, or that we just weren’t interested in wearing anymore.
The result of this clothing purge was that I moved with one long-sleeve button-down shirt, three long-sleeve t-shirts, three cardigans, and five sweaters.
The plan was to wait until the weather turned in autumn and then go out and buy whatever I needed. Changing regions tends to mean a change in microclimate. We moved in early spring, and we found that it was cloudier, cooler, windier, and more humid near the coast than it was in the hot, dry city we were leaving. I could have bought more cool-weather clothes then, but I wanted to feel like I understood what the weather would be like first.
Planning a wardrobe, as opposed to the entropy method, involves the experience of wearing the clothes. Not how cute they are, not what we had in mind when we bought them, not how much we wish they suited us. The experience of actually wearing clothes in the time dimension! HOW do they FEEL? HOW do they FIT? HOW do they LOOK? Today?
When am I going to wear this?
Where will I be?
Who will I be with?
What will the weather be like?
What will I wear with this thing?
One person will need to plan around a dress code at work. Another person will need to plan around bending, lifting, and carrying toddlers. Someone else will need to plan outfits that merge well between work and social events. Those points are for those people. My points are different.
My two big factors are:
I walk anywhere from 5-12 miles a day;
I have trouble regulating my body temperature.
Thus, I plan my outfits around comfortable, flat shoes and extra layers. I want to plan my outer garments and my footwear first, and then coordinate other clothes around that. In fall, my look is a boots-and-jacket look. In winter, it’s hat, scarf, coat, boots, sweater, thermal underwear.
(We don’t really have a winter where I live, but my family and my in-laws both get snow).
Let’s say that autumn lasts for three months. Before that, it’s too hot to wear long sleeves and long pants. After that, it’s too cold for shirts and blouses without an extra layer. My seasons are going to be sleeveless, long sleeve, and sweater seasons. I need clothes to wear for twelve weeks. What do I do with my time during those twelve weeks?
On weekends, I want something cute and casual for going out with my husband. We’ll probably go to the movies, get some burritos or falafel, and maybe hang out at the bookstore or go to the dog park. He’ll only notice if I wear something strange, so this “look cute” rule is for me. Do I need twelve separate outfits, so that every single weekend I’m wearing something totally different? Do I need thirty-six separate outfits, so I have something different for every single Friday, Saturday, and Sunday? *snort*
Excuse me while I fall about laughing.
I probably need four casual outfits. That means I have something different each weekend, and then if I start the cycle again, I’m wearing each outfit three times that season. Right? Four times three equals twelve? On the off chance that someone at the mall is stanning me, it’ll be a month before they see me wearing the same top. On the casual, lounge-around day of the weekend, it doesn’t matter what I wear. Isn’t that the entire point? Comfortable, familiar, low-maintenance.
What else do I do with my time?
I go to two meetings every week. They’re both Toastmasters meetings, one at my husband’s work and the other in our old city. I like to dress up a bit for these outings, something business casual. These are the types of outfits I also wear when I travel, go to a book signing, or most other social events. Basically 80% of my wardrobe is in the range of business casual. It has to be machine washable, go in the dryer, and not require ironing or the wearing of pantyhose. I buy my business casual stuff in a narrow range of colors; my pants, skirts, and sweaters are always in solids. (Black, navy, gray, white [not cream or beige], red, purple, and maybe hot pink). Bright colors and patterns are for casual or more transitory items, like sundresses, halter tops, and tank tops.
What about the other 20%? That consists of workout clothes, t-shirts, a couple of pairs of shorts, sundresses, and dresses that I only wear for special occasions. This is the opposite of many maximalist wardrobes, when people find it impossible to let go of special occasion clothes even though they never wear them. All my clients except for one have had at least fifty shirts! It’s totally okay to have only one go-to dress to wear to weddings or surprise invitations. If you really desperately need something you don’t own, first consider whether this is really your type of event. Second, just go out and buy something when the specific occasion comes up. Not the “what-if” occasion but the real-life actual occasion. That’s why I no longer own an interview suit.
Let’s say I need four business casual outfits. By ‘outfit,’ I really mean ‘top’ or ‘blouse,’ because nobody is going to remember whether I wore pants or a skirt and what color they were. I can wear the same range of stuff to both meetings, because their membership doesn’t overlap, and nobody but me will know what I wore to the other meeting. If I wear a different top each time, it will be a month before I cycle through again, and I can wear a different necklace or combination of garments if I like. With these four outfits, I can take off for a long weekend trip and have a full travel wardrobe.
Boy, was that a revelation and a surprise to me. All the pinboards I saw with travel capsule wardrobe layouts? They didn’t have to be for the trip. They could actually represent a person’s entire seasonal wardrobe!
One of the factors I consider when planning a wardrobe is how much laundry I have to do and how often. I’m never going to stop at four changes of clothes, because that would mean I had a laundry emergency every three days. That also means the clothes wear out faster, which means I’d have to shop more often, and that’s simply not happening. I am, though, going to stop at a certain limit. I don’t want a bulging closet, I don’t want to fret when I choose what to wear, I don’t want to haul suitcases that are heavier than necessary, and I don’t want to spend money on extra clothes that I could be spending on travel or upgrading my electronics.
Let’s just say I can add four casual tops and four business casual tops, which will probably last for the next three years, and keep what I still have from previous years. I have pants in black, navy, and gray. I have blue and black jeans. I have a black skirt and a navy blue skirt that I can wear with tights. I have several t-shirts that I can wear with a cardigan when I’m working at home. If I buy eight tops, and it isn’t enough, I can go out and buy a few more. After the first month I’ll have a sense of what I really need, rather than what I imagine or fear I might.
I’m an under-buyer. This means that I hate shopping and spending money so much that I’ll wait too long to replace things, even when they wear out. I won’t buy things, even when I need them. That’s what’s so great about minimalism. It’s like a makeover. Before: Tightwad. After: Minimalist! Before: Shabby. After: Frugal! I’m forever going around with a bag that has straps nearly sheared off, underwear with popped elastic, and an upside-down shampoo bottle draining that precious last teaspoon into the cap. Once I was considering whether to darn a pair of socks for the fourth time, when I realized that I had completely worn out the heel. It’s silly. What I’ve found is that minimalism can help to resolve conflicts around extreme frugality, hoarding, and desire for peace of mind.
The premise of minimalism is that we only have possessions that improve our lives. For instance, I don’t need a wedding ring, but I love that it’s a symbol of my marriage. I’ve never taken it off. It’s also really useful as a social signal, representing tons of conversations about romantic availability that I never need to have. I don’t wear any other rings because I’m generally not into jewelry. Less to buy, less debt to pay off, less to store, less to clean, less to insure, less to worry about.
I trust myself not to waste money. This is true even though I occasionally suffer through fits of buyer’s remorse. What I have to learn to do is to trust that I’m only going to buy things that add value to my life. I have to trust my own judgment that I’m going to extract full value from my purchases.
I’ve had a rough guideline for twenty years: $1 per wear. A dollar per wear means that if I spend $50 on a pair of jeans, and I wear them fifty times, then they’ve fully amortized. That’s basically once a week for a year, which is plausible for jeans. Now, if I spend $50 on a sequined top, wear it once and realize it’s itchy and I have to keep yanking it into place, and then wear it once more and ruin it in the wash, I’ve paid $25 per wear. I probably loved the experience of wearing the comfy, flattering jeans and hated the experience of wearing the expensive, annoying, high-maintenance sequined top. For clothes, I’m going for the experience of how they feel on my body, not the photographic record. Why would I pay 25 times more for the discomfort of wearing the sequins, compared to the reliability of the jeans?
On the other hand, I once spent $80 on a new suit to wear to a job interview, and I got the job. I think I wore that outfit as a suit maybe four times. I might have worn the skirt by itself another half a dozen times before I changed sizes. That suit came nowhere near a dollar per wear, but it paid itself off the first day of that new job.
As an under-buyer, I resisted buying that $80 suit. I actually left the store without it and went back to look at it again. Three separate times. If I paid myself by the hour during my free time, which is a fantastic minimalism tool, then I would have wasted far more than $80 of my time fretting and fussing over it.
The sandals that I bought this summer barely lasted three months. I got two pair at $30 each, and one pair is destroyed. I found a chunk of the sole on the floor and realized that they don’t even qualify as shoes anymore. The second pair are probably only a few miles of walking away from that fate. I’m mad at myself, because I really wanted to splurge on a new pair of Birkenstocks and I cheaped out at the last minute. My first pair of Birks survived being re-soled twice. When I finally let them go, they were ten years old. I paid significantly more per mile walked on the cheap sandals I bought online than I would have for what I already knew was a quality shoe. My average miles walked have increased this year from three miles a day to seven. Maybe it’s wrong to expect more than two hundred miles of use out of a pair of discount summer sandals. My shoes are my car, and I have to recondition myself to expect to go through them more quickly than I did in the past.
The point of minimalism is to place our priority on what matters most. Priority is singular. After working on our purpose in life and valuing our loved ones, there is only so much attention and mental focus left for material possessions. What we buy, what we use, what we keep, should add value to daily life. If it isn’t obvious why we have it and what we do with it, it’s up for review. Why take up time, space, or money with stuff we don’t need? The flip side of this philosophy is that there are things that we do legitimately need, want, and use. Because these things argue for themselves, because these things justify their existence in our lives, it’s fine to spend on quality.
We splurged when we bought our bed as newlyweds, because we knew we’d spend a third of our lives on that mattress. The cost per year and cost per day is not extravagant. That purchase was a gesture of hope and commitment. That mattress is over eight years old now, and when we replace it, it’s going to feel in some ways like a renewal of our marriage vows. You and me and the box springs, my dear, and another thousand iterations of changing the fitted sheet together.
I’m starting to realize that it’s a little weird, the way my spending habits reflect my strange notions of frugality. I will happily pick up the check for lunch with a friend but flinch when it’s time to replace my socks. I’m trying to rejigger my preferences. I don’t need to underbuy the basics because we already save so much of our income and because there are so many categories of things we don’t buy at all. It’s okay to have new socks and underwear and a work bag that doesn’t have parts falling off! The objects we use the most often are the objects that are, by definition, the most valuable to us. A splurge on an item of daily use will have a far lower impact on the bank balance than a similar splurge on a luxury item. There is no reason why we can’t surround ourselves with functional routine objects. Everything that we use on a daily basis can be replaced or maintained in good working order, allowing us to live in domestic contentment, in comfort, and even in style.
If there was a way to describe a ‘budget’ of any kind without actually calling it a budget, I’d use it. Any kind of structure or boundary can be perceived as a limitation. A budget, a diet, a schedule, whatever. Really, these things are types of policy, ways to make life easier without having to make tons of decisions all the time. With enough structure in place, we can spend the majority of our time doing whatever the heck we want. The necessities start to feel like they are running on autopilot. A space budget is a way of defining how much room we have for ourselves versus how much of our living space we are going to allow to be swallowed up by our material belongings.
Ten gallons in a five gallon bucket. I’ll leave the contents to your imagination. Ten gallons of what? Gold coins? Laundry? Kitty litter? Rum punch? The point is that without opening some kind of wormhole into an alternate universe, a given volume of stuff will only fit into a certain amount of physical space. This includes a house, an apartment, a room, a sink, or a purse. It also includes parking spaces for compact cars, even when someone insists on parking an SUV in one.
As an organizer, I can walk through a door and see at a glance how much the room is over capacity. Double, triple, quadruple, quintuple the amount of stuff that belongs in a room of that size. I’ve talked to professional movers who say it’s not uncommon for them to remove one hundred boxes of stuff from a standard bedroom. It’s our job. People like us have been in so many homes and packed so many boxes of stuff that we have the skill of eyeballing it and estimating how much is there.
My chronically disorganized clients, my compulsive accumulators, my squalor survivors... they don’t have this skill.
Beyond that, my people reject any kind of limitations. In their world, what could be perceived as helpful guidelines (how often to go to the grocery store or do laundry) come down as tyrannical edicts or impossible fantasies. There is no such thing as a space budget. There’s no such thing, because they’ll find a way to cram stuff into places that were not designed to store anything. Inspirational! Creative! Clever!
Maybe not organized, or beautiful, or easy to live with, but clever, sure.
Nobody really cares how you live or what you do with your stuff. Your landlord, maybe; other people you live with, probably. Your neighbors will care if you leave a bunch of stuff out where it’s visible from the street. Other than that, if people nag you, you can stop inviting them over. The idea of a space budget is to help you. It helps when you’re looking for stuff, it helps when it’s time to shop or not shop, it helps when it’s time to clean, and it definitely helps when it’s time to move.
A refrigerator and a freezer can only hold so much before the door will no longer close. This is a hard limit. Trying to fit more would result in the door cracking open and the food no longer staying cold. We can accept this. The question is how close to this limit we are comfortable getting. If the fridge or freezer is less than completely full, do we feel uneasy? How often do we clean out the contents and throw out spoiled and expired food? How much are we throwing away? What’s the trigger?
It took me a long time to learn this, but it’s possible to eat well with only a week’s worth of groceries at a time. We clean out the fridge every week, in tandem with grocery shopping. That’s how we know what to buy. It’s also fine to have only one bottle of salad dressing, one jar of jam, etc. Just get a different flavor when the current one is empty.
Just as the fridge can only hold so much, each cabinet and drawer can only hold so much. We had to have a piece of drawer hardware replaced a few weeks ago because we had overloaded that drawer with all the metal serving utensils we own. It all fit, but it was too heavy. After the repair, I took out all the dinner party stuff and moved it into a lidded container in a cupboard. It’s not what we OWN that triggers what goes where; it’s what the infrastructure of the building will hold.
Even the tiniest studio apartment with an efficiency kitchen will hold enough pots, pans, dishes, and utensils to cook regular meals. If anything won’t fit in the available cupboards and drawers, if the countertops or dining table are being used for extra storage, then there’s probably too much stuff for the available space budget.
Closets are another area of defined space budget. My current apartment has one closet. It has to hold two people’s complete wardrobes, exercise gear, luggage, extra blankets, and anything else we don’t want to look at every day. That’s the limit. If it doesn’t fit in the closet, either we get rid of it or it’s in the way. Our place is too small to have stuff lined against the walls; we’d trip over it.
My husband and I now live in about a quarter of the square footage that we had when we were newlyweds. We’ve been able to do this because we have steadily downsized, year after year. Every time we relocate, we choose a new place to live based on the neighborhood and how much we like the place. Each time except for once, this has meant a smaller home with less storage. First we move in, then we figure out what will fit, and then we get rid of everything that’s left over with no permanent spot of its own.
Square footage is the utmost boundary of a space budget. People often start hoarding when they find that the space is available for the first time. The appearance of a garage, guest bedroom, bonus room, or extra closet just seems to invite stacks and piles. These are places of indecision. After a while, piles and stacks start to look normal. We’re able to blur them out of our situational awareness. We stop seeing them, and we forget they’re there.
These are some ways I’ve set a space budget:
When the bookshelves are full, either I get rid of some books or I can’t have any more.
When my hangers are all in use, either I get rid of some clothes or I can’t have any more.
When the kitchen cupboard is full, either we eat some of the food or we don’t buy any more.
Countertops are not storage.
Tabletops are not storage.
Windowsills are not storage.
The floor is not storage.
My work bag needs to be small enough not to hurt my shoulder when it’s full.
Our homes and possessions should be in our service. They should make our lives easier, more comfortable, and more beautiful. Anything that gets in the way, anything that causes a distraction, anything that makes life unpleasant should be up for review. Why do we put up with stuff that creates obstacles? Why do we allow our stuff to be so high maintenance? A space budget is a way of saying, “I make the rules around here, not some random pile of inanimate objects.”
This book is a work of genius. Sometimes I think I’ve read every organizing book ever published, and most of them are great, but they all tend to sound alike. Organizing Solutions for People with ADHD is actually full of original, contrarian ideas that suit the ADHD style. It even has copious amounts of illustrations. These are real rooms. Rather than a Pinterest palace, unattainable for 99% of us, these rooms designed by a professional organizer are feasible and practical. They’re even exciting!
The day I realized that I fit the criteria for ADHD was a wonderful day. I was in my late twenties, born a little too early to have a name for whatever I am. I was reading through a bulleted list of symptoms as a way of getting to know an acquaintance, and with each point, I felt a deepening sense of recognition. AHA! Suddenly, it wasn’t just me. I was just one of many, a type, a tribe member. I wasn’t even bothered by the idea that maybe there was something dysfunctional about me; heck, I already knew that. Rather, I was thrilled to see that along with the chronic disorganization came a lot of truly excellent qualities. Creativity, originality, curiosity, enthusiasm, hyper-focus, high physical and mental energy. Everything snapped into focus for me. If I could learn some practical ways to Get Organized, I could mitigate my weak points while amplifying my positive points.
It worked, too. Year by year, one issue after another, I finally did Get Organized, earn my degree, get on top of my finances, nail my nutrition and hydration, lose the weight, get fit, get rid of most of my stuff, learn to cook, and remarry. Getting my stuff and my information stream organized enabled me to start living the life of my dreams.
It would have happened a lot faster if I’d had this book!
Organizing Solutions recommends avoiding shopping in order to avoid impulse purchases. Agreed. It recommends limiting what you buy or keep to only the available storage. Agreed. It recommends taking your donation items straight out to the car where they will annoy you until you drop them off. Agreed. Get rid of excess stuff on a regular basis so there’s less to clean. Agreed. I had to figure all this stuff out for myself. In fact, the only thing I don’t agree with in this entire book is the thing about reusing towels and wearing clothes multiple times. That may be fine for most people, but I personally am very tough on clothes and our climate is too humid. Instead, we’ve started using hand towels rather than full-size bath towels, and they don’t get funky.
There’s some great advice in Organizing Solutions on how to make decisions about memorabilia, children’s artwork, toys, et cetera. There’s a discussion about how to confront the chilling prospect of identity theft and how that impacts the way we process papers. Susan Pinsky clearly understands her audience. I recognized myself all over this book, and I recognized my organizing clients even more.
As a group, we tend to prefer initiating things to finishing things. We’re more comfortable having tons of projects going on than we are winding any of them up, feeling like we’ve closed off options or that we’ve “finished” something before it reaches its apotheosis of perfection. It can be hard for us to feel like we know where to start, and we infinitely prefer research or planning or daydreaming to action. Take it from Susan Pinsky: start with your home and work from there.
“Inventory shouldn’t just conform to storage but should be less than storage, so that it never requires a multi-step dance to put things away.”
“...any well done organizing job should result in the re-acquisition of a few mistaken discards. It is proof that you applied the Brutal Purge sufficiently enough to make a difference.”
One of the many paradoxes about clutter is that it’s often those of us who reject materialism who have the most stuff. We can develop this idea that collecting objects is frugal and good for the environment. There are a number of flaws in this hypothesis. One is that in some cases, the older version is significantly less ecologically friendly. Another is that the example we set for others is cautionary, rather than inspirational. Trying to keep things out of the landfill can, in a way, land us in a scale-model home landfill. Perhaps most of all, being constantly surrounded by things sends the message that we need them, that there are no viable alternatives to the consumerist hedonic treadmill. It’s hard to reject materialism while clinging to material objects, no matter where they came from.
Lightbulbs and refrigerators are two examples of things that are better to buy new. The older versions draw so much power compared to new energy-efficient models that it even cancels out the materials used in production. New versions also last significantly longer. Hanging on to an older, less efficient appliance is not frugal, it’s false economy. Another example of this phenomenon is a recurring argument I have had with a frenemy who insists that electric dishwashers are less energy efficient. Every time this comes up, I share articles demonstrating that hand-washing dishes uses more water and more electricity, to no avail. Frugalites such as myself are often guilty of clinging to contrarian positions because they fit our identity. We’re the ones who are willing to bend over backwards, heroically doing what nobody else will do, because we alone care enough to save the world from its own idiocy! It’s awfully hard to admit it when the mainstream actually gets it right. It’s hard to update our standards and practices. If we’re serious, though, we must.
We should make it easy for others to agree with us. That’s true in general. Reduce the distance that someone has to travel to come to our position. Why would someone meet us halfway, when that person has no particular ambition to head in our direction? Use arguments and examples that are relevant to that individual, not the arguments that we ourselves would find convincing. “You should fill your kitchen with empty bottles, jugs, and jars that need to be washed and recycled” isn’t going to win many converts. “Cooking from scratch is easy and it tastes better” is a more convincing angle than “Thou shalt reduce packaging waste.” “This canvas bag is a superior product and plastic hurts your fingers” generally works better than “Think of the sea turtles!”
I don’t have to do it for economic necessity anymore, but I still shop at Goodwill. It’s the thrill of the hunt. It’s also emotional for me to buy new clothes, thinking of sweatshop labor and factory fires. I buy used because I’m a tightwad, but also because it’s good recycling. A few times other women have asked if I’ll teach them, and we have a fun outing, because it feels like retail therapy at bargain prices. Look: vintage! Look: couture! Look: major fashion-victim retail brands! The more flattering and stylish the look, the broader the net we cast. Nobody wanted to go thrifting with me when I LOOKED like I went thrifting.
My apartment is a teeny little shoebox, smaller than some hotel suites we’ve stayed in. It speaks for itself, though. The dining table and the couch are always open for guests to sit. The kitchen counters are always clear and ready for meal prep. The bed is made, and that’s pretty much the only thing in the bedroom. There isn’t even any room in the bathroom for anything other than soap and a towel rack. After a quick glance around the place, I usually take friends down to the pool, where it looks less like we live in a dorm and more like we live in a resort hotel. Hopefully our visitors come away with the sense that it’s possible to have fun and relax without being surrounded by tons of personal belongings and possessions. (Which is true!).
What is there to do besides shop several times a week and hunger for things we don’t yet own? Oh, everything really. Watch the juvenile night heron groom himself. Read. Have lengthy conversations about which super powers we don’t actually already have. (Hint: I can fly through the air and I also have the power of invisibility). Learn to draw. Take naps. Try to teach the dog to roll over to the right instead of just the left. Write an epic poem. Go for long walks. As far as I can tell, the main tradeoff for material objects is conspicuous leisure. Less to buy, less to carry, less to clean, less to worry about.
We don’t necessarily need to keep using worn-out, rickety, threadbare, or stained objects to live lightly. What I’ve found is that the majority of the time, I can do without that object entirely! Discarding the sense of responsibility for every single button, spatula, pot, or piece of paper that comes through our door has enabled us to downsize to a small and cozy space. If you saw our utility bills, I don’t know if you’d laugh or cry. The same creativity we use to recycle worthless old junk can be used toward solving our tangible problems with alternative methods. Doing more with less should look like something fun and interesting. We can set an example and reject materialism simply by demonstrating that life is easier and more relaxing without it.
It’s autumn, it’s Fourth Quarter, and the freaking holidays will be here before we know it. I’m not excited about this. Sure, I’m thrilled about Halloween, which I adore, and I’m already feeling a little frisson of excitement about the New Year, my favorite day. It’s just the icky part in between, when the weather is terrible, the lines are long, and the traffic is brutal. I spend the four or five weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas holed up at home, trying to avoid a single note of Christmas music or having to look at any combination of red and green. Fall is the time of year when I focus on getting things done. This is the time for the great Project Burndown.
I started doing this when I realized that I kept having to make the same New Year’s Resolutions over and over again. It was supposed to be New Year’s Day, not Groundhog Day! I either needed to get over these goals and let them go, or I needed to figure out how to do them. Was I ever really going to drink more water, get more sleep, lose 10 15 20 25 30 35 pounds, or learn to speak Spanish? Was I always going to have an entire closet dedicated to unfinished craft projects? Was I always going to have an entire bookcase full of books I’d bought but never read? Was I ever going to scrape the last few tasks off the bottom of my to-do list? What would Future Me do without any of these past goals and commitments to distract her?
Project Burndown is about completing old commitments. It’s about fulfilling obligations. It’s about restoring scattered mental bandwidth. Project Burndown is about closing the books and preparing for a fresh start. It’s what we have to do to prove to ourselves that we can keep our private agreements, that we can trust ourselves to only make contracts that we truly desire to fulfill. Project Burndown is about turning around and facing forward, rather than walking backward through life.
What kind of commitments do we tend to make and then not complete? Reviewing this says a lot about how we see ourselves and how we wish to be seen by others.
Promising handmade gifts. We think we can make up for our lack of physical or emotional presence by giving our time, crystallized in the form of a handmade gift. I quit doing this the year my nephew took one look at the superhero cape I’d made for him and threw it over his shoulder to move on to the next gift. Gift-giving should reflect the interests of the recipient. See: The Five Love Languages.
Unmade phone calls, unwritten letters or cards, unsent packages. We think our desire to be close to this friend or relative counts, even when that person has no way of knowing how often we think about reaching out. It’s possible they wouldn’t even want to talk to us as long or as often as we think they would. After all, you can call people from your pocket on accident now, and the phone works both ways.
Reading or watching everything. We think we can somehow consume all the information on the entire internet. We think not only that we can keep up with today and with the entire backlog, but that we’ll also be able to stay caught up with everything that will be released tomorrow. Everything is a tradeoff. The hour that is spent doing one thing is not available for doing anything else. We can’t read one book with each eye; believe me, I’ve tried.
Finishing craft projects. Only when we admit that we prefer shopping and collecting materials to actually using them can we get our heads around this. Shopping is not a hobby; shopping is a way of filling our homes and closets with bags of stuff we’ll never use. Shopping for recreation is a way of wasting money we could have spent on travel or cooking lessons. Or Future Self’s retirement.
Sorting stuff and “getting organized.” Getting organized starts with a vision of an easier life. Organize what? For what purpose? Sorting stuff requires the ability to make a firm decision. I’m done with this and out it goes. I’ll never use this, and out it goes. I never did use this, and I’m over it, and out it goes. Sorting stuff is a job that will never end, unless it ends in carrying bags out the door and dropping them off somewhere.
Physical transformation. I wrestled with my own desire to transform my body for many, many years. I didn’t believe it could be done due to “genetics” or whatever. I thought I was trapped in chronic illness. Then I decided to empty my cup and assume that every single thing I thought I knew was incorrect. Clean cup! I was able to reach my goal weight in just four months. I ran a marathon. Not only have I maintained my goal weight for nearly four years, but I also haven’t had a migraine in that entire time. Once I made a true decision and brought clarity to my goal, it turned out to be quite simple and straightforward. (Not “easy,” just simple).
Learning a new skill. Learning new things is one of the greatest joys in life. It keeps things exciting. We have to make time to concentrate and focus, though. Learning a new skill or a new language, taking a class, means cutting something else out of the schedule. For a lot of people, this could easily be done by cutting loose a TV show. For others, it requires the ability to put your foot down and say, “You watch the kids, order a pizza or whatever, I’m going to class every Tuesday and Thursday.”
I like to start each New Year with a clean slate. I like to wake up on New Year’s Day with a sparkling, immaculate house. I like to have my goals for the year written out in an attractive format. I like to throw out my old socks and underwear and donate a few bags of stuff I’m done with. I like to make sure we’ve eaten up all the leftovers in our fridge and freezer. I like to look over my projects and goals from the previous year and push through to finish them. I like to read through my news queue and close out all of my open tabs. I’m five years in and not done yet, but I’m working on reading all the books in the house and not stacking up unread material. Project Burndown is my time to do this.
One year, I’ll start out on January First with a totally clear slate. I’ll wake up with some kind of epic goal and nothing unfinished to stand in my way. One year I’ll slam the door on Past Me without any tendrils of past projects trying to reach through and grab my ankle. Every time I do a Project Burndown, I get a little closer to that day.
When it comes to stuff, most of us have more that we don’t use regularly than stuff that we do. Our vital, infrastructural stuff such as keys and forks tends to speak for itself. It’s obvious why we have it and how we use it. The other stuff tends to sit around, waiting for us to notice it and bodily protect it, acting as its defense lawyer. We keep it because we intend to use it. One day. When we change our lives in the way we fantasized we would when we bought the darn thing, that’s when we’ll use it. This is when it helps to ask ourselves whether that day will ever come. There it is, sitting there, staring beseechingly at you, because of course it has a soul and a personality. Ah, but... how long have you had it?
The stuff we don’t use can be readily divided into Past and Future. The Past stuff, we keep to represent memories, heritage, legacy, and what we think of as our identity. Without my stuff, who would I even be? I still have my Self-Manager badges from the 4th, 5th, and 6th grades. If I throw them away, how will anyone know I was a self-manager?? (Nobody knows about them but me, or likely cares). The Future stuff is anything we’ve bought and carried around that we haven’t yet used. There’s no way to prove that we never will! Future Self just called and says we’re going to! Totally! One day!
Future stuff falls into categories.
Supplies. We are CONVINCED that we need to stock up on stuff, to keep certain levels of supplies on hand. I used to be, too, until I wound up downsizing from a house with a two-car garage to an apartment about a quarter of the size. Now we don’t even stock up on toilet paper! We live a quarter-mile from the grocery store, and there’s a pharmacy in the same strip mall. When we get down to the last roll of paper towels, last sliver of soap, or last serving of dishwasher detergent, et cetera, we just pick up a replacement later that day. We’re at the store three times a week anyway. It’s easier than figuring out what we could get rid of to make room for something. Most Americans have more than one closet and significantly more kitchen storage than we do, so they fail to recognize that we literally, actually, factually do not need to “stock up” on household supplies.
Craft supplies. Now this is different. It’s different because we crafty types are viscerally certain that our yarn, fabric, paint, scrapbooking, or whatever supplies are more vital than the cleansers, canned foods, and other pantry staples. Those supplies are optional. Craft supplies are NEEDS. They are! If I don’t have at least an entire closet filled with completely unused, untouched craft supplies, I might physically die. We’re never going to admit that our true hobbies are 1. Shopping for it and 2. Stroking it.
Reading material. Guilty as charged. There are nearly 1600 books and audio books currently on my library wish list. I have thirty-four unread physical books on my shelves, although I’ve been consciously trying to read through and cull my collection for the last eight years. I typically have at least two hundred news articles bookmarked, even though I am constantly reading through that queue. What does it mean when my “to be read” list represents more than a quarter of the amount of books I have read in my entire life? That I’ve marked out my next ten years’ reading already? Or that I think I can suddenly start reading 10x faster?
Aspirational. The category of aspirational items has no limits. We can decide that Future Self is totally going to want this particular item about absolutely anything. Future Self is going to want to read this! Future Self is going to want to cook this! Future Self is going to want to try this complicated recipe! Future Self is going to decorate in this way, dress that way, and behave in this way. Future Self will act differently than me, exercise differently, eat differently, and do all the cool stuff I’m not actually willing to do today. It’s like we think Future Self wants to do Present Me’s scutwork (washing dishes, creating a filing system, organizing photographs, etc) while also somehow finding time for the awesome stuff. Future Me is going to file those tax papers while climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. Future Me is going to clean out the pantry while learning to speak French. Future Me is going to lose the weight and be delighted to wear these ten-year-old unstylish jeans I’ve saved for so long.
The reason it’s relevant to ask how long you’ve had something is that it’s a check on those aspirations. Aspirations are great. They make life interesting. They pull us forward into being better people than we are today. Yet - if these aspirations are so meaningful to us, why don’t we start on them today? This very hour? Are the aspirations actually better than the way we’ve currently dedicated our time?
How long have I had this skein of yarn?
When did I buy this unread book?
What is the date on this unread magazine?
(UGH! If I have three pet peeves in this line of work, one of them is the stacks of unread magazines that people insist on saving). (The other two are anything with DNA, like old teeth or cat whiskers, and anything at all that a parent has hoarded in a child’s bedroom).
Picking up an item and really asking how long you’ve had it can be really enlightening. Sometimes the question answers itself; for instance, I often use bookstore receipts as bookmarks. Magazines have dates, and food packaging has dates, and unused purchases are often still in the original shopping bag, complete with receipt. It’s archaeological.
Another aspect of this sorting technique is to ask yourself how long the item takes to use. I can knit up a skein of yarn in two or three nights. A complicated cross stitch might take me three months of working for three hours a night. I read about 50 pages an hour, or I can read an issue of a particular magazine title in 40 minutes. A bag of flour is enough for X number of cakes, batches of muffins, or loaves of bread, which I might prepare X number of times per month. Other than decorative items, which I usually tire of after several years, I’ve found that everything in my home has a natural expiration date. Almost everything is consumable, in that it’s designed to be used. Clothes, linens, reading material, toothpaste, dog food... it’s all created to be here, to be used, and eventually to be gone.
When we keep things that were designed to be used up within a week or a month or a season, and they’re still in the closet or on the shelf ten years later, what does that say? Do we really prefer having our lives mapped out that far in advance? What’s our track record here? Have we actually done a good job of predicting what Future Self was going to want?
I have to tell you this story. My husband is an aerospace engineer, right? He has this highly idiosyncratic engineering system for his clothes. He came in and shared an anecdote, and it made my jaw drop open, and immediately I realized I had to write it up. This thing has layers!
First off, we keep different schedules. He’s an extreme lark and I’m a night owl. How larkish is he? He once woke up randomly at 4 AM, couldn’t fall back to sleep, and just shrugged and went to work early. I’ve shifted my natural schedule back about four hours to overlap with his more. I’m not allowed to get up with him on weekdays, though, because he says it makes him want to hang out with me. How sweet is that??
(Although actually the real reason is that he has his morning routine worked out to the minute, and even a brief chat with me would throw him off. More on this later).
Another piece to this story is that in our new apartment, we share a clothes closet. In our past three houses, he kept his clothes in his office closet. The reason for this is that he doesn’t want to wake me up, out of consideration for my parasomnia disorder. (Possibly also because if I do wake up, I have a strong desire to tell him my creepy dreams, which… RUN AWAY!). A key piece in his morning routine is to get across the bedroom like a ninja and open the door as soundlessly as possible. I’d say that 90% of the time, he nails it. What a guy, huh?
Okay, so. For some reason, dear hubby forgot to lay out his clothes the night before. He had to re-enter our boudoir, open the closet, and choose a work outfit. This put him a mere three feet from my sleeping face. At this time of year, it’s still pitch dark at 5:45 AM. Without turning on a light, without waking me up, he was able to reach out and grab a matching shirt, pants, socks, and shoes. Because he has a system.
I had no inkling of any of this. We’ve been together for eleven years and I had no idea. I mean, I knew parts of it, because honestly his side of the closet is distinctive, but I had no idea how intentional it all was.
If he hadn’t told me that he chose his outfit in the dark, I never would have guessed. All I noticed is that he was wearing a new shirt for the first time, one that I helped him pick out, and that it really brings out the color of his eyes.
Stop for a moment and ask yourself: On any given day, could I walk up to my closet and choose a matching, flattering, seasonally appropriate outfit in the dark?
It turns out that he’s practicing Six Sigma and using kanban. Everything has a place and everything is in its place. He has precisely eight polo shirts in a variety of colors. He has six identical pairs of black pants (and one pair in khaki, which I suspect he’s just keeping until they wear out). Clean shirts get hung up on the right, and he always draws from the left, so the shirts get worn out at an equal rate. “You have to wear the shirt that you don’t like, as much as your favorite shirt; otherwise your favorite shirt doesn’t last as long.” Since he has eight shirts and there are five weekdays, the shirts show up on different days, adding a little variety to the system. They all go with the black pants, which also go with the socks and shoes. There are three long-sleeved shirts for less casual work settings, but, I am not kidding, he wears the same clothes whether it’s 40 degrees out or 110.
For casual clothes, he has two pairs of “adventure pants,” two pairs of shorts, and ten t-shirts, which he feels is too many. Should only be seven.
What’s the deal with this hyper-rational system?
Are you believing all of this??? I mean, I’m married to him and I’m dumbfounded.
Let’s contrast the engineer-style capsule wardrobe with the opposite extreme, the chronically disorganized maximalist artistic woman’s wardrobe. Because honestly, I think most of us would freak if we felt we had to limit ourselves to eight tops and six identical pants.
Mathematics could provide an answer to how many potential options there are in a given closet, but it would be a complicated problem to set up, because not all the pieces fit in one data set. It’s easily going to be in the thousands, though.
The typical maximalist wardrobe is, according to my hypothesis, a major root cause of morning stress and chronic lateness. Multiply it by the wardrobes of any young children in the family. Multiply that by lack of a laundry system and the product is endless chaos, distraction, and frustration.
I once worked with a talented department manager who had a capsule wardrobe, although I didn’t know the term at the time. She wore a series of virtually indistinguishable dresses, same style, same color. Every day, though, her shoes were different: Three-inch heels in an endless variety of colors and patterns. She continued to climb the corporate ladder; last I heard, she was a VP. In the heavily male-dominated world of tech, there are a few likely possibilities. 1. Literally none of the engineers noticed; 2. They noticed and approved; or 3. She was actually evaluated based on her work output, and what she wore was irrelevant.
I checked with my husband, who also knows her, and he said definitely #3.
I think we should evaluate our wardrobes based on functionality. This is how my husband organizes his. Do I look like a professional? Can I reliably get to work on time? Can I get ready with the absolute minimum amount of fuss? Am I comfortable? Is everything machine-washable? I’m telling you, I’ve been aware of the concept of the no-decisions uniform for over twenty years, and if I’d ever found a single garment or shoe that I liked that much, I’d be wearing it every day. Maybe this is why I’m married to an aerospace engineer and I myself am not one.
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.