This is what I know about travel. It’s easier when you don’t bring very much.
This is why I’ve been walking around with fifteen pounds of sand in my backpack.
We’re planning another adventure, this time an urban trip, and I’m buying a sub-40-liter pack because my 65-liter expedition pack is too big. I don’t need room for all the things I usually bring, like the sleeping bag and the space blanket and the double set of thermal underwear and the first aid kit and the cooking pot and the stove and the fuel and the solar lantern and the folding chair and the, I might as well just admit to it, the entire two-person sofa that I pack around.
Go ahead and laugh. My expedition pack still weighs less than the clothes, shoes, and toiletries that most people bring on trips.
I went on a weekend trip with a couple of old friends. The wife had a shower kit that was half the size of my entire suitcase, and then she had a second one! “You brought full-size bottles of shampoo?” I told her it looked like she had a “just in case” bag, and that she’d just grabbed everything from her bathroom that she thought she might need. She nodded, of course, that’s exactly what I did.
I showed her my TSA-approved shower bag, and explained that I start with that. If it doesn’t fit, then it can’t come, because I don’t check my bag. Everything I bring fits under the seat on the plane. Start with the container, not the stuff.
The way I deal with my desire for a wide selection of shower products is that I have a bunch of 2-oz bottles. You can go even smaller with a few contact-lens cases.
The other thing to keep in mind is that... they HAVE SHOWER STUFF in other countries. You can buy toothpaste and soap and deodorant and shampoo. You don’t even have to if you’re staying in a hotel. Not only is it safe to forget stuff or finish it off before you go home, but it’s a shopping opportunity to test out something that may be better quality than what you get at home.
People overpack out of insecurity, anxiety, and indecision.
This can ruin the trip.
The heavier your bag is, the more miserable you’ll be at the airport. Oops, did I say ‘bag,’ singular? I mean, the heavier your multiple unnecessary bags are. You’re doing it to yourself.
I’ve seen people travel with suitcases so big that they could crawl inside. In one case, there was nothing really in it except a set of swim fins and some stray towels, and I know that because the owners had it open on the airport floor while they frantically searched for something.
Why would someone bring towels on vacation??
The more stuff you bring, the harder it is to tell if you’ve forgotten something important.
The only truly important things to bring on a trip are your ID, because you can’t get through otherwise, and a way to pay for things. You can do the whole thing with a passport and a credit card.
Arguably the next two important things are vaccinations and a plan for the trip, although the travel arrangements can also be skipped if you feel ready for the Wing-It Method.
I utterly can’t understand why people insist on bringing so many extra duplicate redundant backup changes of clothes. Really? I’m paranoid about getting cold and even I don’t let that trick me into overpacking.
I have a points system. I lose one point for every item that I bring on a trip and don’t use. The only exceptions are the first aid kit, which I hope not to need, and extra underwear, because they’re small and lightweight.
What’s the point of bringing anything that you don’t use? If you don’t use it, then it is by definition useless. The extra stuff you insisted on dragging around is no more use to you than a fifteen-pound bag of sand.
Oh, I suppose a bag of sand could potentially be useful. You could drop it out a window and stop a robbery. You could cut it open and shake the sand out if you needed traction. You could pour it out on the airport floor if there’s a delay and invite other stranded passengers to create a meditative sand mural. You could put it in your bag to weigh it down and deter thieves.
Because if even you don’t want your stuff enough to actually use it, then why would anyone else?
I walk around with a bunch of sand in my new backpack because I’m testing it out. I’m checking how the load risers are adjusted. I’m reminding myself how tiring it is to climb a flight of stairs with an extra fifteen pounds on your hips and knees and feet. I’m also reminding myself what it felt like to weigh this much without the backpack!
I do this a lot. Now that I’m stronger and more active, I travel more, and I have more fun doing it. My husband and I typically walk or hike 8-10 miles a day, including elevation gain and many flights of stairs. We’re strong enough to see everything we want to see without being utterly wrung out and exhausted at the end of the day.
I can go three weeks with only four changes of clothes. They, um, they have laundromats.
Who cares what you’re wearing? Honestly?
You do, or at least you will if you insist on wearing hurty shoes and limping around with bleeding blisters. If you insist on wearing a sundress when it’s really too cold. If you’re so worried about looking cute that you’re late getting ready every day. I know because I made all those mistakes when I was young, and it really got in the way of enjoying travel. Not just for me, but for everyone else on my trip.
There is no adventure in bringing a bunch of stuff from your house with you everywhere you go. You already know all about your stuff. If you’re leaving the house at all, it’s to see things and have experiences and meet people. Remember why you’re packing and try not to bring fifteen pounds of sand.
Travel planning, isn’t it the worst?
My hubby and I are going on a trip two months from now, and we’ve already booked everything. We have our plane and train tickets, we have our hotel rooms, and we even know where we’re going to eat at the airport. This is the sort of thing that happens to you when you marry an engineer.
(Not a locomotive engineer, no. He doesn’t even have a stripy hat).
None of this advance planning is natural to me. I’m a wing-it person. I grew up in the travel industry, and I started flying alone at age seven. That’s over thirty-five years, and I’ve never missed a flight. I feel justified in my visceral certainty that flexibility and brainstorming are better than rigid planning and punctuality.
Last November, due to a dumb scheduling snafu, I got to the airport just ten minutes before my flight was scheduled to depart. I didn’t even realize it until I was washing my hands in the restroom a hundred yards away. I hadn’t even been through security yet!
Against all odds, not only did I catch that flight, but I had to stand around waiting before my boarding group even got in line.
I’ve been delayed by everything from snow to a plane with a flat tire to a presidential motorcade. I have always caught my flight.
The trouble is that ordinary travelers do not have my decades of freak blunders and delays on which to draw. Most people have an emotional need for a greater sense of urgency than I can provide. Don’t go places with me if you’re tense about being hours early for everything, let’s just put it that way.
Here’s another thing: I know how to pack.
I’m a minimalist single-bag traveler, and I have been for years. I can cover unlikely distances in an improbable span of time because I can grab my luggage and sprint. I’m halfway there before you have all your straps over your shoulders.
There is a group of people who are very organized about time and calendars and schedules. Then there is a group of people who are very organized about objects and spatial relations. These tend not to be the same group. My husband belongs to the first group, and I belong to the second.
I’m the one who put the flight time down wrong in my calendar. He’s the one who put his passport on a chair and then lost track of it when it fell to the floor. We can both look at each other and legitimately think, Okay, that would never happen to me.
We make a good match. I taught him the virtues of one-bag travel, and he taught me how many more options are available for awesome things when you plan months in advance.
For instance, we got the last available hotel room on points in Jackson Hole for the solar eclipse because we booked in January. More than six months in advance. That’s due to him.
We were able to grab one of the last first-come-first-served campsites in the Grand Tetons, same trip, because we brought our backpacking gear. That’s due to me.
This all started on our honeymoon. We checked into our room in a four-star hotel, right down the hall from another couple. We could safely assume they were married because only a married couple could possibly hate each other so much. They roared at each other for two days.
What KIND of PERSON... LEAVES... a BAG???
I SWEAR... I WILL NEVER... GO ANYWHERE... WITH YOU... AGAIN!!!
These are touchstones for us, inside jokes that still have us shaking with laughter ten years later. Long after that couple have probably divorced, married other people, and gone on to divorce them as well.
How can you leave a bag behind when you each only have one bag, and they’re both lined up neatly by the front door the night before the trip?
Don’t people know how to do a proper perimeter check?
Why would you even think of marrying someone if you couldn’t travel well together? What are you going to do, stay home every single day for the rest of your life?
The truth is that travel can be extremely stressful, especially for people who only do it once every few years. People leave their medications and their glasses behind. They wind up in shoes that make their feet bleed. They set up schedules where they’re standing or walking all day, even when they think one mile is a long distance and they get tired walking through Target. Lack of planning guarantees a miserable trip.
That’s why we plan months in advance. Two months is actually pushing it for us.
Do we need visas?
Do we have the transport and lodging confirmed?
What’s the weather like that time of year?
What’s closed on Sundays?
Where are we going to eat, and what’s on the menu?
Is our ID going to expire?
Suitcase or backpack?
Do we need new clothes or shoes?
What kind of electric outlets do they use?
What are we going to read on the flight?
Where are we going and how long will we want to be there?
This used to feel like a dreary amount of work. Then, after a few trips with my esteemed life mate, I started to realize how well it paid off. Not only did it make the trip easier in every way, but it also extended the fun of anticipation.
The last time we traveled together, at the New Year, I spent two weeks laying out every meal and every show and attraction in advance. I put it all in the TripIt app and shared it with my hubby. He was elated! Each day laid out in advance, every address and name of venue neatly lined up on a schedule, nothing to do but whip out his phone and show it to a cab driver. We got everywhere on time and enjoyed ourselves immensely.
We forgot one thing: to argue about how late we were and all the stuff we left behind.
The point of planning far in advance is to make life easier for Future Us. Boring Old Today Me can spend fifteen minutes here and twenty minutes there, putting together a fun and relaxing trip. Future Me reaps the rewards of having no decisions to make. Future Me flits from attraction to attraction, with plenty of time to spare, plenty of naps, and no straps digging into my shoulder. The point of the trip isn’t what we’re wearing or what we’re eating, it’s the memory that we’re creating.
The last person to arrive at the meeting was the person who called it. She texted to say she’d be ten minutes late, and arrived twenty minutes late. Nobody was surprised.
What did surprise us was when she pulled out a fancy new day planner. Time to turn over a new leaf? “Ooh,” we said, all dedicated day planner enthusiasts. It came in its own special box. We would have cheerfully spent five minutes fussing over it, the same as we would have if she’d carried in a little purse dog or an engagement ring.
“My friend got me this,” she said, obviously flipping through it for the first time. “Why is it so complicated?”
During the course of that meeting and the next dozen, we never saw the new planner again. It didn’t seem any more helpful than the laptop, the iPhone, or the numerous folders and stacks of papers had been.
Getting Organized is a sort of secular religion along the lines of Buddhism or yoga. It’s not for everyone, not that that ever stopped anything from becoming a cultural mainstay. Just because our colleague got a nice day planner as a gift did not obligate her to use it.
I mean, of course not. I’m not giving up my Cossac planner just because someone gets me a different one.
What’s important here is that this person was notorious for being chronically disorganized. It impacted other people, not just occasionally but daily. Our colleague was constantly pushing for extensions on deadlines while supposedly working from early til late. She lost track of objects and information, missed key details, forgot to attend her own meetings, dropped the ball on important tasks, and spent about as much time apologizing for not doing something as she did actually doing something.
She was mad as heck when she didn’t get the promotion she wanted.
That day planner? It wasn’t just a perfunctory gift. It was a thoughtful gift, and also a barely disguised coded message, a tactful one. YOU NEED THIS. Not using it was along the lines of turning down a breath mint.
Um, are you trying to tell me something?
Just the other day, a friend leaned over and told me, “I love you, you have something in your teeth.” Kale salad, Y U hate me? This really is what friends are for, to save us from ourselves and help us see what we can’t see on our own. We need each other for perspective.
Professional colleagues are under no such obligation of friendship. In many fields, work is a zero-sum arena of combat, where every bonus and promotional opportunity is desired by many and available to few. The only things that are widely available in the working world are cheap pens and layoffs.
That makes it even more valuable when a colleague reaches out with helpful advice.
Most of the things that top performers do are unusual. They’re often also guild secrets. You only start to find them out after you’ve demonstrated that you’re ready to listen and learn, that you’re worth the time.
One of my work buddies has a mastermind call every morning at 6:00 AM, including most holidays.
Most of my professional friends go to conferences and read business books on their own dime.
My husband buys and reads robotics textbooks cover to cover.
I’ve only recently started to find out how common it is for women in my sphere to hire style consultants to help with their wardrobe, hair, and makeup. It is vanishingly rare to get a recommendation to one of these folk, because they tend to have months-long waiting lists.
Gradually it starts to become obvious that the top performers are doing a lot more than “networking” to get ahead. They’re operating in a different world with different priorities, because they understand that the real game isn’t the game everyone else is playing.
My colleague remained scattered rather than use her new day planner. She probably didn’t see it as a conscious choice. She probably just felt “too busy” to take even half an hour to try using it. What she would have found was that if she started taking a break to get her thoughts on paper, she could have bought herself a bit more mental bandwidth. She could have gotten her most conspicuous issues under control. Maybe she could have quit texting and driving. Maybe she could even have started getting to meetings on time.
Maybe she would have gotten her promotion.
Anyone who uses a planner for peace of mind would understand this automatically. It’s a container for your thoughts in the same way that a grocery bag is a container. It’s easier to put all your apples and potatoes in a bag, and it’s easier to write down everything you need to do on a list. It’s also easier to take the hint when someone goes out of their way to give you that hint, easier than fighting against the current. Easier than fighting your own worst tendencies.
A day planner might easily seem like homework, like one more onerous task. Who has the time? For those who use them, though, it can be like gaining an extra brain. Suddenly you don’t have to make extra trips to the store or miss appointments. You quit running out of your dog’s pills. You start to have all the phone numbers you need. Not only are you getting stuff done on time, but sometimes you get a chance to work ahead a bit. You can go on vacation and not have to check your email. You start to feel like you actually know what you’re doing.
The best thing about Getting Organized is that it gives you time and breathing space to raise your head and look around you. It gives you the pause that you need to pay attention to what your friends and colleagues are doing. That’s when you start to notice small ways that you can connect with other people and make their lives easier. Burnout can get in the way of being present and emotionally available. It can make you feel isolated and alone. Maybe you don’t even realize that others are right there beside you, reaching out and trying to help.
The more I think about clutter, the more I realize how much it has in common with two other near-universal issues, which are financial debt and excess adipose tissue, also known as body fat. In a way, all of these are forms of debt, the result of expecting Future Self to do things that we don’t feel like doing today. One of these things is handling paper clutter. Paper clutter is a form of debt.
Paper debt is what piles up when we have more paper coming in than we do going out, and we have no plan for it.
Just like the money kind of debt, paper debt comes from a variety of sources. There’s the kind that’s hard to avoid, like unexpected medical expenses or car repairs, both of which generate a huge amount of paperwork. There’s the kind that adds no value to our life but just gets in the way, like junk mail and mail addressed to previous tenants. There’s the aspirational kind, like jeans that will never fit, shoes we’ll wear once, and magazines we’ll never read. Then there’s the kind that we keep for sentimental reasons, even though we never use it and probably never will.
All of these types of paper clutter represent time commitments.
Financial debt is a way of saying, “I’ll take this now and Future Me can pay for it later.” Paper debt is a way of saying, “I’ll set this down here for now and Future Me can deal with it later.”
Future Me will totally read that later.
Future Me will totally file that later.
Future Me will totally decide what to do with that later.
Meanwhile all of it is getting buried under a tidal wave of junk mail.
In a way, junk mail is like the finance charges and interest that build up on credit card debt. Every day it adds up, just a little at a time, making the job harder to do and almost guaranteeing that this problem will never be solved.
Just like other forms of debt, if paper debt continues to come in faster than it goes out, it will snowball.
Also like other forms of debt, it can start to fade into the background and feel like wallpaper. It Will Always Be This Way. This is How It Has Always Been.
Paper debt eats things. Just like regular debt, it can take over and you can lose your home to it.
Junk mail is the worst offender here, though it’s not the only one. Important mail can get shuffled into it. Stacks of it can tip over, knocking over other items and hiding things like keys. Paper debt can start to push more and more into time debt.
When we start showing up late or paying bills late or filing taxes late because we simply couldn’t find things, that’s time debt in action.
It can happen so quickly. Go on one vacation and wind up still owing for it six months later. Go a little crazy eating sugar cookies in December and gain four pounds that are still hanging around six months later.
Set down a stack of junk mail on the dining table or the kitchen counter, and it’s still there six months later.
All my clients have paper debt. It’s everywhere. It’s on the kitchen counter and the dining table, it’s on chairs and in windowsills, it’s on the floor of the car and it’s tucked sideways in bookshelves. It’s in purses and backpacks and laptop bags. It’s been on the desk so long that there may never have been a single productive day in that desk’s existence.
By “productive” we mean: doing awesome stuff that we enjoy doing. Sketching? Journaling? Scrapbooking? Working on a thesis? Racing wind-up toys? Anything, anything at all other than looking at (or ignoring) stacks of ugly ol’ boring ol’ mail?
It tends to be hard for people to imagine what they would do with their time if they were financially independent. “Debt-free” is as far as we can imagine. Then what? It’s the same with paper debt. What would we do with all that free space if all that paper was finally sorted out? What would an ordinary day feel like without that background hum of annoyance?
I can speak to that. I keep clear counters because I don’t really have a choice. In a tiny studio apartment, a pile of junk on the kitchen counter means there’s nowhere to make a slice of toast, much less cook a nice dinner. I can’t leave things on the dining table because our dining table is stored on its side in our bedroom closet and the legs are under our bed. What am I going to do, dump piles of paper on my bed?
I say that like it’s irrational and unlikely, but I’ve seen it. My people do crowd themselves out of their own beds with piles of stuff, from papers and backpacks to food wrappers, clean and dirty laundry, and stacks of books.
HEY: You deserve to stretch out and sleep comfortably.
It’s your bed, not your stuff’s bed. It’s your desk, not your paper’s desk. It’s your kitchen, not your mail’s kitchen.
The first priority should be for humans in the home to do what they want to do. Sleep, bathe, cook and eat meals, lounge around reading or doing whatever. That’s why it’s so sad when we accumulate paper debt and erase our own living space with piles and drifts and stacks of inanimate objects. That stuff doesn’t pay rent here, now does it?
What to do with it all, though? Spend years painstakingly eliminating it, one little bit at a time? Ask for help? Consolidate it, also known as “Scoop and Stuff”? (Toss it all into plastic shopping bags that then get piled somewhere or crammed in a closet).
Imagine it gone. That’s the first step. Get into elaborate and thrilling detail about all the ways you’ll use your space once you’ve evicted the junk mail and paid off your paper debt. That should make it easier to simply recycle big stacks of it as fast as you can go. Put your foot down and stop allowing it in your door. Say goodbye to paper debt and say hello to freedom.
Life Admin is a wonderfully clarifying book about where the heck all our time goes. In my case, it’s blocking spam phone calls and unsubscribing from email to which I never subscribed in the first place. Elizabeth Emens gives us a new framework for discussing how we divide work in our personal, business, social, and academic lives. Reading this book should cause a lot of heads to pop up amid a chorus of voices calling, “Same!”
What is life admin? Some people call it ‘administrivia.’ Emens provides a Venn diagram showing how it overlaps with chores and childcare. We’re talking about things like managing schedules, making appointments, filling out forms, handling finances and insurance paperwork, planning parties and travel, and knowing where everything is. For some reason, almost all of this work seems to be invisible, and thus people task each other with it all the time.
I don’t think I’ve gone a single day in the last fifteen years without at least one person emailing, texting, calling, DMing, or asking me in person to research something they could have Googled all by themselves. (In less time!) Send me a link, plan my trip, give me a recommendation, be my uncompensated accountability coach. They don’t even realize that just asking me these questions impacts my mental bandwidth as a writer, nor could they have any idea that they rank among dozens who see me as their private unpaid secretary in this sense. To the endless list of life admin I might add ‘making decisions.’ Almost everyone on Earth wants to outsource this to someone, anyone else.
Life Admin is the armor we need to start fending off these demands, to start making this work more visible and valued. I’m considering making a keyboard shortcut for my phone that says “I will do this for you if you first donate $5 to charity:water” and see how many people (probably 100%) snippily write back “never mind.”
Most people probably have a bigger issue with negotiating life admin at home than they do between friends. Emens gives reasons for this, for instance that a landlord might only contact one roommate about repairs even if there are four adults living in the house. A lot of the division of life admin is accidental and arbitrary. It can also be hard to categorize, or to tally up the work when it consists of a variety of dozens of recurring tasks that might take one minute or might take all week.
The fact that life admin involves a lot more than the distribution of household chores has always been clear in my marriage, because I was an administrative assistant when I met my husband. We talk about it in terms of ‘mental bandwidth’ and we formally negotiate it during our weekly status meeting. He books airline tickets and hotel rooms while I plan our activities on the trip. He pays most of the bills, sorts the mail, and does the taxes, while I’m the one who deals with maintenance people. He does most of the repair jobs while I handle most of the mending and weird stains. He does the grocery shopping, I do the laundry. Over our decade of marriage, we’ve passed some of these jobs back and forth. The responsibilities seem to morph and fluctuate as we relocate or change schedules. The pressure valve is for one of us to say, “Will you do X while I’m doing Y, or would you rather switch?” (Cook dinner while I do laundry, etc). It’s entirely possible to negotiate life admin respectfully without it turning into a huge deal.
This is one of the great strengths of Life Admin. Emens offers categories of “admin personalities” and ways that each might have a useful strategy for reducing life admin. For instance, rebelling might benefit others in the workplace by restructuring or eliminating bogus tasks. The book also offers ways of reframing life admin by making it pleasurable or seeing it as a way to, say, choose a mate, give better gifts, or get better service. One of the best and coolest of these ideas is to have an “Admin Study Hall” and sit in a group with other people for company while getting some of this stuff done.
Life Admin is the kind of book, like Gemma Hartley’s Fed Up, that has the potential to really stir the pot. It’s so important to be clean and clear in our negotiations and power dynamics, though. Bringing these issues to light is the first step in fairness and happier relationships, whether personal or business.
Having a hundred admin tasks that each take one minute feels heavier than having a single admin task that takes a hundred minutes.
Who has time for admin-redistribution admin?
...many people seem to assume that the topic of life admin is of interest mainly, or only, to women.
What I would do to figure it out is the same thing you would do to figure it out yourself.
There was a baby shower. I had nothing to do with it. My husband chose the gifts, ordered them, and picked up a package of diapers on the way. He went to the baby shower and he played shower games. By all accounts, he had fun.
This story might be shocking to some, which is why I share it. The way I was brought up, doing everything related to this baby shower would absolutely be my responsibility. I’M THE WOMAN. Right?
Not only would I have done all the shower gift stuff, but I might have hosted it, probably would have helped plan it, and most likely would have baked cupcakes or a pound cake. I also might have been on the hook for making a handmade gift, cooking for the new mommy, visiting her in the hospital, and offering free babysitting on demand.
I used to do that stuff. I’ve crocheted blankets and baby booties and knit caps and poseable toys for various babies. I’ve visited plenty of new babies in the hospital.
This time was different, and I’ll tell you why.
My only contribution in the preparation for this baby shower was to answer my husband’s question about what to wear. He was planning to go in a t-shirt, which probably would have been fine. I pointed out that this would be a major photo opportunity for the family baby album, and he changed into a polo shirt.
When he came home, he told me that the family all dressed up, and the work colleagues all wore casual clothes. He would have been fine either way.
It was fine, either way.
If I’d gone, if I hadn’t been sick, I would have known how to behave myself. I would have congratulated the mother-to-be and learned everyone’s names. I would have put myself to work helping arrange the food table and I would have stayed at the end to help clean up. The women of the family probably would have felt obligated to try to shoo me off and do it all themselves. There’s always that tension between “hosts do it all for the guest” and “guests shouldn’t wear out their welcome” that makes me want to be in the kitchen both as hostess and as guest. A dumb double-standard, isn’t it?
One day robots will do it all and we can kick back and have another cupcake.
I’m a little bummed that I missed the party. The weather was nice and it certainly sounded more fun than passing out sweatily in bed with my mouth open.
There’ll be another party, though. The baby will have a first birthday, or a baptism, or something. There will be a company picnic in the summer. I’ll meet the baby and hold the baby and smooch the baby. I’ll hand the baby back to New Mommy, a woman I like just fine and whom I also respect as both a shy person and an introvert.
There’s no pressure here, not unless I look for it.
I’ve gone to so many baby showers, and they’re bittersweet for me. Time and again, when I place my carefully wrapped gift and card on the table, it’s a goodbye gift. The baby shower is the last time I ever see the new mom. Even though we were friends before, her entry into motherhood is the last time she’ll call me, or return my calls, or write back to my emails. She won’t come to parties.
One of these friends? The next time I saw her, the incoming baby had a baby of her own on the way. There were five additional kids I’d never met, didn’t even know their names. I hadn’t seen a photo and I hadn’t been invited to any of their baby showers. I would have gone, I would have brought gifts. I would have sent graduation gifts, too, as the little ones grew up.
There’s no pressure here, not on my end. Just a willingness to have been there.
I’ve tried taking my mom friends out. I hear a lot about how desperate new parents are to get a break, to have an adult conversation, to remember that they have interests beyond Pat the Bunny. (Not that I have any issues with Pat the Bunny, personally). I’ll pick up the check and say, Here is your opportunity to talk about anything you like. Your thesis, the book you’d like to write, new research in your field... I’ll even read up on it if you want. Somehow the conversation keeps reverting to diaper rash. I don’t mind. It just feels like an opportunity lost.
Parenthood is like going through a security checkpoint or an airlock. You go through, and you’re on the other side, and everyone else is still over there were you used to be. Only the people on your side of the airlock understand what it’s like.
The same is true of other transitions, of course. Students talk the same way about finals week and ex-convicts talk the same way about prison. It’s not that other people haven’t literally been there or cognitively can’t imagine what it’s like. They simply are *not* currently there. Their emotional reality is different.
That’s why I’m perfectly content to let my husband manage the shower gifts for his work colleagues. It isn’t the first time. I’m not a part of the inner circle, and I don’t need to put social pressure or emotional labor on this particular lady. I’m a plus-one, if that, and I’m sure that suits everyone just fine.
It’s that time of year and spring is coming!
Spring announced itself in my neighborhood with a mass butterfly migration. I guess they all woke up and decided it was time to move, based on warmth, sunshine, and presence of flowers. There are few things more joyous than being surrounded by hundreds of butterflies everywhere you go for days on end, and noticing your neighbors notice.
Spring is here, summer is coming, and planning can help us make the most of it. How long has it been since you:
Had a picnic
Threw a Frisbee
Went to the beach
Played in a sprinkler
Napped in a hammock
Rode a bike
Laid down a blanket for stargazing
...and how much of your warm-weather-related outdoor equipment is buried in a garage, shed, storage unit, or other impossible mound of junk?
I like to do semi-major cleaning jobs on a quarterly basis. This is partly because there’s no way I would want to save it up and do it once a year. It’s also because it’s my way of declaring that I’m taking the next few months off.
Yes, I’ll do laundry and cook meals and wash dishes and clean the bathroom. No, I will not be doing any major clutter clearing, sorting of closets, or moving of furniture.
I AM TAKING TIME OFF!
I fully intend to spend the six warm months of our region out playing and having fun.
I’m going to go for walks and ride my bike with my husband.
I’m going to lounge around in my favorite chair on our tiny patio with the parrot and the dog.
I’m not going to wear socks. So ha.
In December, I deal with my severe cabin fever by sorting stuff and purging files. I love starting the New Year with a clean slate, and I really have this huge thing about getting our apartment ready. All surfaces should be dusted and polished. That’s how I celebrate, by making an area look pretty and ready for guests.
I like to go through every single cupboard and cabinet and drawer, getting rid of anything that has served its purpose. Things have a certain specific useful lifespan, whether they are lightbulbs or pasta noodles or socks or serving platters. Material objects are designed to be used in certain ways, and if they are truly useful then they eventually get worn out. Just like the Velveteen Rabbit.
Sometimes the useful lifespan of an object is just the time that it was useful to me and my household. I can pass it along, where it can become useful to someone else.
It’s not up to me to find out who that person might be. I send things back to the Stuff Place, where they rejoin the current of usefulness. In my home, they would get in my way and sit around, drained of meaning, while that other person would have to do without.
Almost everything, as far as I’m concerned, should remain in the Stuff Place. I don’t need things until I need them. I don’t like the feeling that I am surrounded by mysterious “supplies” that might or might not “come in handy” for some future disaster. I need my space for my personality and my thoughts. I need a little bit of blank wall and a little bit of room to expand, just in case I want to.
When I pass things on and send them back to the Stuff Place, it makes room. It creates breathing space in my home. I have space to live. Why should a bunch of random material objects have more of a claim on my home than I do? Than my husband and my pets and my friends do?
I can fill my space with friendship, music, conversation, laughter, thoughts and plans and dreams.
Or I can fill it with STUFF.
One of the things I do when I shake down my house, at the change of the seasons, is to look at how I’ve been spending my time. One of the areas that gets the most attention is the kitchen, because we cook differently in cold and warm weather. In the winter, I want the soup pot and the big baking pans. In summer, we do a lot more dinner salads.
Another area that gets extra focus is the bed, because we swap out our bedding too. That’s as good a time as any to think about what we want near us when we sleep. In the past, we both had cluttered nightstands, and that tends to generate dust. It’s nice not to have to worry about that.
Then there’s the area where we both get ready, which in our current studio apartment consists of the bathroom and walk-in closet. What’s going on in the shower rack? How many partial bottles of dog shampoo do we need, really? I clear out my one get-ready drawer next to the sink. I look at my sandals - wait, I don’t seem to have any sandals - and my warm-weather clothes.
My husband wears the same clothes all year, and therefore spends the time I am sorting through my closet... napping on the couch with the dog. Behold: minimalism.
I have a bag to donate and another bag to take to the clothing recycling bin. (If you’re crafty and you have tons of “cabbage” in the form of fabric scraps, you can recycle that too).
You know what I ought to do? I ought to take a few more books off the shelf and plan to read them out in the sun, in the park or next to our apartment pool. I just realized that one of my unread books has passed its ten-year anniversary, because I bought it on a trip with my brother and that was before I got married.
Isn’t it crazy, when we realize that some of our stuff has been with us longer than our relationships with mates or pets or even siblings?
I love summer. I associate it with a lot of summery activities that, often, I haven’t actually done in years. Maybe decades. I haven’t made the time to do them. Summer comes every year, and then it goes. It goes whether I’ve gone on a picnic, or held a sparkler, or eaten a root beer popsicle, or rollerbladed along the beach... or not.
No matter what time it is, now is the time. At this moment, it’s time to plan for fun, and make sure it happens!
The best way I could describe how I was feeling, six months ago, was that a steamroller was coming downhill and I was trying to outrun it.
I had taken on a year-long commitment without realizing exactly how complicated it was. It was taking about quadruple the amount of time and concentration that I thought it would. I had information coming at me any time between 5:30 AM and 12:30 AM. Email, text messages, phone calls, more email in another account, binders and calendar updates and meeting requests and attached files and polls and votes and RSVPs and paper notes. Seven days a week!
As soon as I pictured a steamroller coming at me, downhill, fast, I understood.
Somebody had better be driving that thing!
Someone who knows how to drive a steamroller!
The good thing about earth-moving equipment is that it doesn’t need a key. If you know what to do, you can basically climb up in there and get it going. My background is such that I know I should be wearing a hard hat and steel-toed boots. I’m ready to get muddy.
How ready to get muddy am I?
I’m a backpacker, adventure racer, and marathon runner. I’ve trained in hail, snow, ice, rain, and mud. I’ve waded chest-deep through brown water. I’ve hurdled over open flames. I can carry over 50 pounds up a hill for eight hours and pitch my own tent afterward. (Consider that I’m 5’4” and I weigh a buck thirty. I’m basically an ant). I also hold belts in two martial arts. I’ve been elbowed in the face, been stepped on and smacked in the mouth and punched in the nose and hit in the eye and tagged in the throat. I routinely fight five people in the shark tank.
So, what? I’m feeling a little dread and anxiety over... some texts and emails?
Is a deadline going to kick me in the stomach? No.
Is a deadline going to come up and shove me in the back while I’m blocking a strike to the face?
Is a deadline going to give me a black eye or a fat lip? No.
This is what stress inoculation can do for you. It reminds you that you’ve survived worse. If the scariest thing you can imagine is a physical attack or survival in natural disasters, then there is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING in the business world that should feel all that intimidating.
As soon as I realized that I felt like I was about to be crushed by a steamroller, I determined to get in and drive.
I needed to get out of reactive mode and start taking the initiative. I needed to be the one making the plans. I needed to be the one looking a few weeks or months down the timeline and anticipating questions that would come up. If there was a steamroller to be driven, and anyone was going to drive it, then I wanted it to be me.
It turns out that nobody cares who is driving the steamroller, as long as the right stuff gets flattened.
What a steamroller does is to smooth the path for heavy traffic. It eliminates bumps and fills in potholes.
That’s management. Find the road that handles the most traffic, the one that’s in the worst condition, and pave it. Roadwork is stressful but it needs to get done. The longer it’s delayed, the worse the conditions, until traffic eventually grinds to a halt.
People don’t like uncertainty. They don’t like feeling uninformed. They especially don’t like the feeling that nobody is in charge and that nobody is addressing their complaints or suggestions. Whenever someone steps up and says, “Let me find out and I’ll get back to you,” or “Let’s fix this,” there’s an audible sigh of relief. Finally!
The first time you claim that you’re handling something, and then you handle it, you find yourself behind the controls of that big old steamroller. At least for that day. The second time you do it, you find that others expect you to operate it. The third time, well, guess what. Your name is painted on the side.
You’d better like driving steamrollers!
As a more, ahem, “concrete” example, I was having an issue with evening meetings. Stuff kept being scheduled that conflicted with EVERY SINGLE THING IN MY LIFE. I started missing classes at my gym and feeling like I never got to see my husband or eat dinner at a normal time.
Then it occurred to me that if I went first and suggested the meeting time, maybe it would work for everyone else. Sure enough, I was the one with the most complicated schedule. I didn’t have to say why. All I had to do was say, “How about 6:30?” Not only did I get what I wanted (having it all, my way), but I took a task upon myself that other people no longer had to do.
Once I started visualizing myself driving the steamroller, everything got easier. I created enough cushion in my schedule that I could do more strategic planning. That helped me on my quest to always be ahead and on top of everything. I finally started to feel like I knew what was going on.
The most important thing about driving a steamroller is to make sure that nobody is standing in front of it. The point of the steamroller is to pave nice, flat roads. The steamroller is there to make it clear which direction to go, and to make it easier to go that way. If I found myself running from the steamroller, it was only because I found myself on the correct roadway, a little farther along where it still waited to be paved.
Gretchen Rubin comes through my part of the world fairly often, and I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to go to a few of her readings and meet her. First of all, SHE IS SO NICE. The other thing that stands out, after her talk on Outer Order, Inner Calm, is how much the audience responds to this material. I’ve always thought she has delightfully subversive things to say about happiness and human behavior. It’s what she has to say about order and clutter that really seems to click with people the most.
When Gretchen asked how many people in the room make their bed every morning, nearly every hand went up. In fact I’m pretty sure they all did; I’m just hedging. Where else would this be true? Then she asked how many people make their bed even when they stay in a hotel, and everyone laughed because only a few hands went up. (Including mine!) I do it because it helps me make sure I haven’t lost anything in the bedding, like clothes, an eye mask, a pen, or my AirPods. Making the bed is part of my five-minute “perimeter check,” the way I’ve finally stopped losing objects when I travel.
For me, outer order is about mental bandwidth, not so much calmness as simply being able to think straight and remember what I’m doing. When the bed is made, I don’t need to worry about it. When my desk is clear, I don’t need to worry about it. When the counters are clear, I don’t need to worry about them. In a split second, I can glance around and know, there is nothing I need to do here. Now I can focus.
It does make relationships calmer. My husband prefers outer order as well, although for different reasons. I honestly believe he could concentrate on his work in the midst of a tornado or a kindergarten. For Upholders like him, an orderly environment just makes sense. There are no reasons to have things any other way. This is very helpful for me, because I work at home and I don’t need either the mess or the inevitable discussions about the mess!
I started reading this book on the bus on the way home from the Outer Order, Inner Calm event, and I hadn’t even finished it before I had cleared and reorganized an area. I live in a studio apartment with another human, a dog, and a parrot, and even though we own relatively few things, almost all our stuff is on open display at all times. Clearing even one square foot makes a noticeable difference. Not everyone feels it as quickly, though, when most people are used to living in a larger home with more things around them.
Here are some of the ideas that stood out to me:
“Use a photograph to evaluate clutter.” This definitely works. I do photo evaluations with clients all the time.
Choose a “flavor of the month.” Focus on sorting through only one category of object for a month. I need to do this again with my books. How about you?
Assign each day its own task. This also works well for me, since I keep a slightly different schedule every day of the week. I also combine errands because I don’t have a car.
Is your clutter backward-looking or forward-looking? How great a question is this? In my experience, almost all of my chronically disorganized clients are forward-looking types, who let old things go easily but hang on tightly to things like unused craft supplies and unread books.
The holiday rule: Something you want, something you need, something to wear, and something to read. Yes, please! Huge gift explosions at holidays have never made much sense to me. If this happens several times a year, where the heck does it all go??
This book is designed to be read in bursts. The sections are short and punchy. You can read a single page and find yourself jumping up to clear an area. As an organizer and someone who has been reviewing organizing books for years, I still found fresh insights and material that I’ve never seen anywhere else. Especially for Gretchen Rubin fans, Outer Order, Inner Calm is the perfect book to keep beside you as you start spring cleaning!
We want to cherish our possessions and we also want to feel free of them.
Working is one of the most dangerous forms of procrastination.
What would you accomplish with a magic task - a task that got completed overnight with no work from you?
Nothing is more exhausting than the task that’s never started.
Where do you start? This is the most common question about anything, any time. In chaos, it’s even harder to know where to start. Where does it end and where does it begin?
The secret is, it doesn’t matter where you start if it’s all going to get done eventually. When you’re trying to dig out clutter in the home, it’s really about what matters the most to you. Suggestions of where to start are probably just going to make you think of all the reasons why that is actually the wrong place to start.
Fine, then start somewhere else!
In my mind, though, for most people it’s going to be paper. I’ve never met anyone who was 100% on top of their paper piles. Even people who are into electronic everything tend to have issues with paper. It’s okay!
This is why I suggest that you get an empty laundry basket and throw your mail into it. Carry it around, or have someone carry it for you, and consolidate all your papers. Then, if you need to look for it, you’ll know that it’s somewhere in that basket.
Some of you are already thinking that there’s no way one laundry basket will be enough. True. I’ve seen a lot and I believe you. There are two ways you can do it:
Every cluttered home is different. Some are spotless and magazine-ready except for one terrible, scary room. (Scary because the inhabitants live in fear that someone will find out their Secret Shame). Others are mildly lived-in, with a small amount of clutter in every room. Yet others are utterly filled, chaos everywhere, and those are the rooms that belong to my people.
I like to encourage my people to reclaim areas, one square foot at a time. Eventually an entire table or countertop might be bought back. Then an entire room is done. (It can happen!). Working a little bit here and there means there’s never really much to show for all that effort.
If the major problem in the home is mail and other papers, then dealing with the papers is going to have the biggest impact. That’s an instant visual impact and it’s also going to affect mental bandwidth. Get the papers out of the way, and what’s left might be a totally normal, functioning room!
It all starts to feel more manageable.
The thing about paper is that almost none of it is really necessary. At least 80% of it you’re never going to look at again. That means it’s just taking up space and making everything confused. When you can’t find the one thing that you really do need, it’s because it’s buried in with all the unimportant stuff. If you know it’s somewhere in one stack, one filing cabinet, or one laundry basket, then you can find it.
You can even show someone else the basket and ask them to look in it.
What’s standard in the homes of my chronically disorganized people is that there are papers everywhere. Papers in the windowsills, on the bookshelves, on the dressers and nightstands, in drawers, in backpacks and purses and briefcases, in cubbyholes, and definitely on the dining table. Every single room has important papers in it, mixed in with piles that are useless.
Stress tends to make us pace back and forth and keep checking the same spots over and over again, even when we’ve already checked and we know the item isn’t there. (Sometimes it actually IS there and our stress levels were so high that we didn’t notice it or realize what it was). This is why it’s so helpful to go around and gather all the papers from every room, and instead make sure they’re all in one spot.
Ahh, but what if there are 87 million metric tons of paper? What then??
This is the other purpose of the laundry basket for gathering and consolidating papers. It’s a unit of measure. If you’re trying to sort, file, archive, shred, recycle, or toss papers, the only way to do it all at once is via arson, which I don’t advise as it is a potentially lethal crime. A laundry basket load is really quite a lot of paper to sort. Even if it’s entirely filled with magazines or newspapers, it’s a lot.
Maybe do one laundry basket load a week, or a month? Or ask someone who enjoys this sort of thing to help out.
Oddly, papers are one of the fastest and easiest categories to sort when I do home visits. That’s because they’re confusing, but they’re usually not important for emotional reasons. It’s very easy for me to sort through piles of unopened mail, for instance, because it’s usually just 2-3 years’ worth of mail from the same dozen organizations. The logos all match and the envelopes are the same size. It’s no harder than sorting through a stack of playing cards. The client then shrugs and shreds entire stacks at a time.
Meanwhile, sorting a laundry basket load of baby clothes can take a million years, because each piece has so many memories. The client feels like sharing those clothes with a new mom and a new baby is tantamount to throwing away her own child. No, no, I can’t let go of this one. Craft supplies, same struggle, different reason. I was going to USE that! (Three years ago).
Nobody ever says, Oh, I can’t possibly shred that three-year-old electric bill, oh, my heart!
All you really need is your identification, a list of account numbers, and your tax returns. Any accounts that you have, if you owe them money, they’ll find you, and they’ll keep contacting you. Never worry about that. All the truly necessary and important papers generated by one person over one lifetime should easily fit in a fireproof safe. That’s a lot smaller than a laundry basket.
Throw your mail in a laundry basket. Tape a sign to it with the date that you put it in. Then wait and see how much time goes by before you actually need anything from that basket.
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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