I knew something was wrong the moment I walked in the door. I had about three steps in the hallway to feel that sense of impending dread, and then I saw him.
My husband was sitting on the couch, head hanging down, eyes closed, with his hands in his lap. He was holding a napkin. I knew he was hurt. Because of the napkin, I assumed it was his hand. “What happened? Did you tear off your thumbnail?”
“No, it’s my eye,” he replied, and it was almost like a lever switched over inside me into Action Mode.
There were just a few problems: I was pouring sweat because I had just come back from my workout; it was dinnertime; and our dog had apparently been extravagantly sick in the bathroom.
The other set of problems: I was scheduled to teach back-to-back workshops at a conference the next morning, and I had planned to spend the rest of the evening running through my slides.
What I do in crisis situations like this is to start talking to myself. I ran through the next obvious steps and made sure I had them in order. Call advice nurse. Find health insurance card. Take dog out. Give him a dose of metronidazole. Cut the pill in half. Clean up disaster on bathroom floor. Microwave quick dinner, feed man. Take shower and get dressed. Write down instructions from nurse. Make sure we both have our wallets, keys, and phones. Call Lyft. Most of those steps hit the list in random order, as I thought of them, and I mentally shuffled them into their correct place in the task list. Somehow I had accomplished all of it during the 40-minute hold for the advice nurse.
I did a perimeter check and two bag checks, grabbed a protein shake for myself, and we were off to the emergency room.
My husband was effectively blind. He couldn’t even open his eyelid, it was so swollen, and if he tried to use his good eye, the injured eye tracked with it. When the admittance nurse asked him to rate his pain, he gave it an 8. “He has a very high pain threshold,” I added, because we had both had a casual discussion about the pain scale recently and we agreed that a 9 was “involuntary screaming.” I knew he would never claim an 8 unless he had to.
We got to the ER at 9:00 PM, in the midst of flu season. An injured woman took one look at my husband, leapt up, and offered him her seat. I found us two adjacent seats around 12:30 AM. Until 2:00 AM, I was still thinking about how I was going to make use of this experience as an anecdote to introduce my workshop on “The Organized Leader.” We got to see a doctor at 4:30 AM.
By that point, my dreams of glory had been let go. I was prepared for a series of outcomes, including an admittance to the hospital; emergency surgery; the loss of my husband’s eye; and permanent damage to, or loss of, his vision. I had run through fallback plans for each of these, thinking of next steps and calls to make. Of course I had the good sense not to tell him any of that. I know him well enough to know that he was doing the same, and also thinking, of course I would never tell my wife any of this. We wouldn’t want to scare each other.
We’ve both learned many of these planning skills together, through life lessons and by seeking out information for the advanced scenarios. We spent three weeks backpacking through Iceland together; we took first aid and CPR classes together; we went to martial arts classes together. We both recognize ourselves as leaders, and leadership only really matters in emergencies, such as Someone Might Lose an Eye Tonight.
It turned out okay. My husband had a corneal abrasion, quite large, and I got to see it enhanced with glow-in-the-dark dye under the special lamp. Oddly, both our dog and I had had the same type of injury in the past couple of years! What I had, compared to my husband’s, was like a small paper cut versus scraping all the skin off one’s knuckle. Our dog had to wear a cone for a week. In this situation, I had true empathy, because I had literally shared his experience.
It helped me deal with the frustration of having to let go of my big opportunity.
We got home at 7:00 AM. The sun was already up. I helped my temporarily blind husband up the steps and got him home, just in time to take our dog out again. The veterinary medicine had worked, so at least we had that going for us. Then I emailed everyone on my team and texted my director to alert them that I wouldn’t be attending the conference. We finally got into bed at the time I would have been finding my seat for the keynote.
I knew I would be missing a lot. I had scheduled a planning meeting and a group photo with my team, all of whom were volunteering in various slots. My workshops were the result of a month of campaigning to include a new category of topics on the slate. Not only had I succeeded in making my case, but I was chosen to teach them myself. Plausibly I would be called onstage for a minute for one reason or another. It was the four-year anniversary of my foray into public speaking, and I had looked forward to celebrating this, vanquishing a fear and turning it into a strength. I’d stride confidently into a ballroom and deliver the material I had been polishing all week. I’d change lives! I’d send my audience out, transformed and inspired to tackle tougher problems!
Instead, I graduated into a new level of leadership. I passed the test. I demonstrated the value of everything I had put into my slides. It’s not our stuff or our calendars that we are “organizing.” It’s our relationships and our values. I was able to keep my head on straight and get us to the hospital largely because I keep an orderly home and manage my mental bandwidth. I strengthened my marriage. I even remembered the dog.
One day, I’ll present my workshop. Maybe I’ll be asked to teach it more than once. The material will only be improved by this experience, and my motivation will only have intensified. Being organized isn’t about making pretty binders or choosing just the right paperclip tray. It’s not about getting promoted. It’s about mastering the situation, about knowing what to do even when everything feels impossible. Leadership is about realizing the infinite power you have to help others and work toward a better outcome.
Choose a resolution you can finish in one day, and you automatically get the same bragging rights as the people who choose something more complicated. If you never make resolutions because you “know” you’ll let yourself down, change the rules! You are invited to look over this list of one-day resolutions. Pick one if you think it could make your life better, easier, more fun, or more interesting.
Apply for a passport.
If you already have a passport, get it out and check the expiration date.
Change all your passwords and find out where you can use dual authentication.
Go around and set all your clocks, including the microwave and the dashboard in your vehicle.
Throw out everything in your kitchen that is past its expiration date.
Throw out any expired medications.
Throw out worn-out socks and underwear.
Cash in your change jar.
Make an appointment to get your teeth cleaned if it’s been more than 6 months.
Make sure you’ve had a tetanus shot booster within the last 10 years.
Pull out your driver’s license and check to see when it expires. Is it this year? Oh snap.
Give back anything you borrowed from someone else.
If you have overdue library books, return them. A lot of libraries no longer charge overdue fines!
If you quit reading a book because you lost interest, let it go. Give it away or trade it in.
Match up the lids with all your pots, pans, travel mugs, and plastic containers.
Make a “dump run” and get rid of the broken junk from your garage, yard, or anywhere else it’s piled up.
If you have a mending pile, look it over right now and decide to fix it or throw it away.
Increase your retirement contribution 1%.
Get a free copy of your credit report and check it for errors.
Fill out a living will and have it witnessed.
Sign up for a first aid/CPR certification class.
Set a timer for one hour and spend it cleaning or filing.
Go through your email inbox and unsubscribe to as much as possible.
Delete some apps.
Reconsider your social media engagement.
Call an old friend and say hello.
Apologize to someone.
If you have your own URLs, look them over and decide whether you still want them all.
Look through your queue of movies and TV episodes and delete anything that no longer interests you.
Look at your keys. Are there any you don’t need any more that you can get rid of? Mystery keys you don’t even recognize?
Think of any task you’ve been procrastinating for longer than a year. Make the decision to do it this month or let it go.
Read The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield.
Make a vow not to make negative comments about other people’s resolutions.
I love the feeling of starting over with a clean slate. The truth is that the majority of stuff we beat ourselves up about doesn’t really affect anyone else; it only matters to us. That means we can look at it as a pure gift to ourselves, no pressure, no deadlines.
For me, though, my absolute favorite thing is to wake up on the morning of New Year’s Day and feel like I have a whole fresh calendar, no weird leftovers from the previous year.
This is what I like:
My place - the cleanest it will be the entire year
A basically empty fridge and freezer, no scary leftovers or containers with no expiration date
A clear desktop
Empty email inbox
No notifications pending on anything, anywhere
Some space on my shelves, some empty hangers, and room in my cabinets
No fines, fees, or borrowed items waiting to go back
Pets bathed, trimmed, etc.
The great thing about this fresh-start feeling is when you have the day off for the New Year. It means you have absolutely no chores to do and you can lounge around quite shamelessly, enjoying all the gleaming surfaces before everyone else messes it up.
*gives side-eye to flying feather duster and Mr. Muddy Paws*
I look at December and January both as buffer months. They don’t really count toward resolution time, most especially for fitness or body transformation purposes. December is my month for planning, and January is my grace period for finishing off any loose ends from the previous year.
Those loose ends usually mean closet-purging and other organizing projects, and books I was reading that I left off partway. Every single year I resolve to quit doing this, and every single year I somehow find myself midway through a dozen or more books. This probably started around the time I got into chapter books...
The goal around all this tying of loose ends is an emotional state. The idea is to avoid any kind of feeling of MUST or SHOULD or HAVE TO. We want to be fully aware of what we choose and what we do because it makes our lives easier - like paying taxes, staying out of traffic court, and maintaining a comfortable living environment.
Wouldn’t it be nice to feel that way close to 100% during our off hours?
I’ll share an example of a “clean slate” project that I’m focusing on this month. It’s honestly the dumbest thing I can think of, something that almost all sane people would think is beneath their attention, and they’re correct in that.
Our new apartment has glass shower doors. Unlike every previous set of shower doors I’ve ever had, these are not frosted, pebbled, textured, or coated in any way. This makes it obvious that there is some kind of grimy build-up. I have tried SO MANY different cleansers and approaches to getting this stuff off, and at this point it’s part intellectual puzzle and part battle of wills. What is this muck and filth??
I’m a “daily squeegee” person so it’s even more infuriating.
I’ve tried: white vinegar; white vinegar mixed with dish soap; CLR; Lime-A-Way; rubbing alcohol; Bon Ami; and each of these with a battery-powered scrubber with two different scrubbing heads.
Whatever it is, it evidently isn’t soap scum, calcium, limescale, or ordinary dirt. I suspect sorcery.
Nobody on earth could conceivably care about these grubby water droplets on my shower doors as much as I do. No way. Most people in my age group probably wouldn’t even see them without their glasses on. This has nothing to do with external pressure, social rules, feeling judged, or guilt or shame or whatever. It’s just a challenge. GAME ON.
A clean slate is what we need when something keeps clutching at our attention.
If we can’t convince ourselves to quit caring, and we don’t plan to remove ourselves from the situation entirely, then it’s time to vanquish it, whatever it is.
Stuck drawers, loose buttons, scuff marks, stacks and piles, the trunk that’s so full it can’t be used - anything that simply bothers and annoys and distracts us is a candidate for the clean slate.
There are several approaches to determining what projects to tackle for your clean slate. What works depends on your situation, your mindset, and even your daily mood.
One, the brain dump. Write out a list. This can be really fun because there are few delights quite like the satisfaction of crossing stuff off a list. If you share your household with others, you can tape the list to the inside of your front door and let everyone else compete for most items completed.
Two, the perimeter check. Start at the front door and work your way clockwise through the room, then clockwise to the next room. Either handle stuff as you come across it, or take notes and move along with your clipboard. This is a good method if you have a fix-it person under your roof who can barter peace of mind for pure action - and a little quid pro quo. There must be something this person would love for you to finally get done that would feel like a fair trade.
Three, the hot spot. Start with whatever is bothering you the absolute most. Even if that’s the only thing you do, at least you are free at last.
Four, the comfort zone. Start with the area that is most important to you and do everything that needs doing in that area. It might be the inside of your car, or the area around your bed, or your dining table. Imagine your dream version of that space and see if you can come up with an upgrade.
For me, the biggest question is always, would I choose this? Was it intentional? I don’t ever want to feel like I am tolerating a perpetual problem if I have the ability to do otherwise.
The next question is, when you’ve finished liberating your mental bandwidth, what are you going to do next?
I caved. I looked at too many fridge pinups and I ordered some fridge organizers. For years I’ve thought this was one of the dumbest interior design trends of the century, a frivolous waste of time. Really, who is looking in our refrigerators besides the people who live here?
Then I realized that I’m the only one who always knows where everything is, and that I could automate away the necessity of giving fridge directions to anyone. Where is the margarine? Why, it’s on the top shelf behind the chard, of course!
In honor of Thanksgiving, I thought I would redo our fridge as a nice little surprise for my husband. As an engineer he finds this sort of thing more compelling than I do.
November and December are the months when I try to plan meals around what we already have on hand. A lot of the jars that find their way into our fridge come without expiration dates. If I don’t write the date of purchase on them, which I rarely do, then I am unlikely to remember how long they’ve been in there. Having an almost entirely empty fridge on New Year’s Eve means that at least nothing is older than a year.
I work with hoarding and squalor, and I’ve helped to clean out fridges where scary things came out. “Do you want some hummus from 2005?,” I text my husband, and he replies in a way that I can’t share here. There are often jars and bottles seven years old or more.
Separated salad dressings. Runny mustards. Olives with suspicious films floating on top. Crispy soy sauce. White celery and brown lettuce. Rare and special shades of aqua and pink and orange.
My people don’t believe in germ theory, but I do. I can’t help but make the connection between their invariably poor health and the fact that almost all the food hoard in their kitchens is old, old and expired, old and expired and often leaking. They haven’t eaten it yet and they never intend to, but they’ll never get rid of it. They need a sort of barricade as the wallpaper to their lives. Once it’s in place they can safely ignore it.
If you are alive right now, I tell them, then you have always had absolutely everything you needed. QED. You made it. You survived.
We all try to argue against this but we can’t. We have survived as well as or better than the sparrows in the parking lot. We’re still here. If we’ve managed to do it without having to open our stores of expired food, then we don’t need them. If we’ve managed it without opening our various boxes of clutter, then we don’t need them either.
But my anxiety! What am I supposed to do with that?
Live with it, I suppose?
I have a jar, my fairy jar. In it is the sum total of all the pennies and other coins I’ve picked up in the past 15 years. There’s about $200 in there now. I used to struggle with wanting to keep a lot of extra food in my pantry, but now I just keep the fairy jar. I know if an endless series of crises came to our home, and all our savings disappeared, and we had both been out of work for months, I know we could open the jar and use the contents to buy a carload of fine groceries.
24/7. There are groceries available near me every minute of the day, even on holidays.
I don’t have to keep a bulging pantry any more. It’s okay for my fridge to be empty sometimes. Every time that has happened, I’ve been able to go out and fill it back up.
Well, every time in the past 15 years, anyway...
This is part of what bothers me about the expired food hoards that I keep finding, home after home. A month or two before the expiration date, that household could have donated all of those packaged nonperishables to a food pantry. They could have been distributed and eaten by people who really don’t have enough to get by. I’ve been there myself and I know that even a single can of soup can make a difference.
Instead they will eventually, inevitably, get thrown out. I’ve had to throw out rusty food cans and dissolving cardboard food packages lots of times, when we’re clearing out storage units or space clearing unusable kitchens. Such a waste.
This is why I’ve finally given in to the trend of extreme fridge organization. It’s a simple way to avoid wasting food.
Most households have pretty scary fridges. Perfectly lovely restaurant leftovers wind up getting thrown out instead of becoming someone’s nice lunch. Expensive condiments spoil and get rinsed down the sink. Households like mine wind up with two open jars of capers, three mustards, and five salad dressings.
Then, when it comes time for any holiday, but especially Thanksgiving, we can’t find anywhere to put the leftovers. It adds another layer of hard labor to what could have been fairly straightforward.
I’m cheating this year, like I did for the last two. I ordered a meal with all the sides from a restaurant. All we have to do is pick up two paper bags, empty them into the fridge, and then heat them up on Thursday when we’re ready to eat. I can picture just what this looks like, and I know how much space we’ll need.
The truth is that all our meals are really this predictable. We eat pretty much the same dozen meals over and over again, and the portions are pretty much the same every time. This is why our refrigerators could easily be as orderly as anything else in our lives.
Why have an appliance in our homes that is reliably full of dubious food and bad smells? Why have to dig around and hunt for stuff when we want it? Why not take a little time and find some fridge freedom for ourselves?
Giving each other thinking space starts right as you walk in the door. This has nothing to do with the time of day or whether it’s a weekday or the weekend. If someone has just come in from somewhere, even a quick walk to the mailbox, this is when it starts.
Don’t say anything except “hi” for the next five minutes.
That’s it. If you only have one rule, let it be that one.
Five minutes is enough to start if anyone in the household ever feels burned out, frustrated, distracted, sad, angry, ill... really any other feeling than ‘elated’ or ‘enthused.’
Not everyone does this. It actually boggles my mind all the time, how I might be hanging out with someone in their home, and someone else comes in, only to be immediately barraged with a tidal wave of news and complaints and task assignments.
Whoa! I think. Do you people do this to each other all the time?
The answer is always yes. A household that doesn’t understand or respect transitions probably has no idea how it feels, or that there’s another way to do things.
Why is this important?
When we first see each other after an absence, even a brief one, we have no idea what the other person has been doing. We have no information on their state of mind or their physical sensations, and vice versa. It’s a bit like a poker game. Your news update might well be a four of a kind, but theirs might well be a royal flush.
I don’t know about everyone else, but when I walk in my front door, I usually have a lot going on. I have my keys in one hand, a dog leash in the other, a bag over my shoulder (and sometimes two), I’m listening to something on my headphones, and I probably have to pee. Anyone who is trying to get my attention is simply going to have to wait while I:
Unclip the dog
Turn off my audio
Put my keys in my bag
Set my bag down
And only THEN leave the room for ninety seconds.
Can’t you wait for two minutes??
That’s on a normal day. I may also need to turn around and leave for another appointment and have barely 20 minutes to get ready. It’s not that you’re not fully entitled to my attention, it’s just that I can’t give it to you. Not yet. I have none to give.
What we need is a buffer, a way to pause between one phase of the day and another. We need to make a mental and emotional transition, not just a physical one where we move from one location to another. Just because my body is in the room does not mean my attention is!
A five-minute pause is respectful. It says (without saying): I acknowledge you and your day. You have obligations other than me. You have the perfect and absolute right to collect your thoughts, put your stuff down, make a quick phone call, listen to the end of a song, take an aspirin, sort the mail, tap dance, get mud off your pants, or whatever else you need to do in order to feel ready to interact with me.
The reward for this natural pause is that your friend is now able to give you their full focus and attention. (Child? Roommate? Spouse? I hope you’re friends, in any case).
This pause may not always be reciprocated, because the other person may not realize you’re doing it. It can take time. You may have to spell it out, say, “Give me a minute,” and then explain why you were distracted. Like several hundred times. Eventually, gradually, anyone can be taught. Even pets.
Our rat terrier used to jump up on everyone, as a puppy and a young dog. After much practice, he started crouching next to someone instead. He could then avoid getting in trouble and simultaneously invite a nice rubdown. It’s pretty similar with people. If you start giving them a few moments to shake off the day, when they come in, it gives them time to want to come over for a hug.
There are a few other guidelines for giving and getting more thinking space. None of these are universal by any means.
One, no yelling from room to room. If you want to talk to someone, go to the room that they’re in. I don’t know about you, but if I’m in the next room, I can’t even hear or understand what someone else is trying to say. Raised voices are pointless. It’s worse when the person you’re calling turns out not to be there at all, or they’re on the phone with someone from work.
We avoid raised voices partly because we have both a parrot and a dog, and it tends to give both of them the wrong idea. She’s internalized this idea that there is a Quiet Time and a Noisy Time, so if you’re quiet then she’s quiet, too. But if you’re trying to watch a movie or talk on the phone then that is obviously Noisy Time. A free-for-all. She starts running through her full discography of electronic sounds, and then he stands underneath her and starts howling.
You think your house is loud...
Two, set aside your administrative discussions and do them all in bulk. This eliminates so, so much tedious daily choremastering. A lot of this can be done without discussion at all. For instance, I bought a four-way dishwasher magnet and we haven’t had to ask each other whether the dishes were clean or dirty ever since. (Clean/dirty/running/empty). We also have a shared grocery list on our phones. We do a status meeting every week to go over finances, travel plans, etc.
The idea here is that most of your conversations should be interesting, fun, relaxing... something other than vexing, boring, or infuriating. The time that was formerly taken up by discussions about the dishwasher or what to have for dinner is then freed up. Everyone can finally have a moment to think. This is how we build space in our lives for daydreaming and peace of mind.
What to read next? This is a question that crosses my mind every day, yet not for long. That’s because I have a never-ending book list. This list is a key to my productivity, because I use my reading habit as a tool. Reading entertains me while I do boring drudgery, like housework and exercise, and it’s also my reward when I want to relax. More people should be spending more time relaxing, in my opinion, and what better way to do it than with a book?
We’re fortunate to live in a time when books are everywhere and you can even get them for free. A thousand years ago almost nobody was literate, and even two hundred years ago a lot of people couldn’t even sign their own name. Now you can trade books back and forth with your friends by the grocery sack load. You could probably go a year reading only books you got for free.
A lot of us could go a year reading only books we already have waiting on the shelf...
This is why I emphasize having a never-ending *list* rather than a never-ending *stack.* In my opinion, a stack of books is intimidating. It can’t help but look a little like homework. It’s that much worse when even one of them is a loaner book or a book club pick, when the pleasure of reading is tainted by social pressure.
This is why I haven’t finished reading the Game of Thrones series yet, although I’m sure I would have whipped through them in a couple of weeks if I felt like they were my little secret.
Being given books by other people is one of two pitfalls of being a constant reader. The other is having your books “borrowed” only to never see either the book or the borrower again. I have no idea why this is so hard to get right; it just is. Reading ebooks has mostly solved this problem for me, because I no longer have visible books in my living room to tempt my guests.
I still want to “help” my friends and family by curating book lists for them. This is one of my worst habits. I’m sure I’ll never stop, though. I convinced both of my parents to let me add books to their library wish lists, and honestly there are probably enough titles on there to keep them both busy for three years.
See, once you get into the habit of creating a never-ending (auto-correct just changed this to nerve-rending) book list, it’s easy to spawn more.
What goes into it, though?
It starts with knowing your own tastes. This is surprisingly uncommon. I am friends with a couple who are perpetually watching two-star movies and then being disappointed. Don’t you read the reviews? I ask. I could have told you from the description that you weren’t going to enjoy this. Chances are, I have a better handle on their viewing preferences than they do, which is bonkers. Recognizing genres and plot patterns can help here.
I personally find stories with a kidnapping theme to be totally uninteresting. Doesn’t matter what genre. This is a problem, because I’m drawn to thrillers, and they often revolve around kidnappings. I also can’t stand stories about extramarital affairs. Everyone has something - several people I know can’t handle ghost stories or anything spooky in any way - and the first step to building a book list is to make sure that nothing on it actively repels you.
The list itself, there’s a point. I am a big believer in using a list, rather than actively buying books more than a few days ahead. One of the reasons is that sometimes a new edition comes out before I manage to get to a title, and it will often include new material. Mainly, though, I find it oppressive to have an unread stack of books staring me down. It’s a distinction between feeling like there is a buffet of options, versus feeling like there is a syllabus.
I use my library apps as a working list. When I hear about a book that I want to read, I add it to the list. If it’s new and popular, I will put it on hold right away. This generates a steady feed of hot new titles, and probably 80% of my reading material is thus automatically queued up for me.
Once upon a time, I had a spiral notebook filled with titles I wanted to read. I had started it in ninth grade, so it was mostly of the college prep / “100 books to read before you die” variety. When I would read one, I would check it off the list. I threw it out a few years later, after my boyfriend found it and told me it was “crass.”
I wish I had it back. It’s one of the few things I’ve ever regretted downsizing. I no longer feel like it’s crass to want to track what I read, or to feel like I’m keeping up with a great conversation and staying involved with pop culture. Instead I feel like a dunce for letting some dumb pretentious boy influence my choices.
He did, though. That boy influenced what colors I wore, which cuisines I would eat, what music I listened to, what movies I watched, and indeed what I read. The stream did not flow in the opposite direction. I doubt he even knew what I would have chosen when I wasn’t actively trying to impress him.
My list is mine, and your list should be yours, something personal and private, a secret delight.
Where do the titles come from?
Those “most-loved books” lists
Books that I see other people carrying around
Newsletters from various bookstores, Goodreads, etc.
Reviews from selected sources (bloggers, podcasts, news articles), which I only read *after* I’ve finished the book because SPOILERS
‘Recommended’ placards at indie bookstores (which is why I go to them)
My favorite literary website, The Millions (themillions.com)
Have you ever found out, years later, that one of your favorite authors had a new book out? This doesn’t have to happen if you can find a way to stay in the loop. If you’re lucky, your favorite authors will each put out a new book at least once every few years, and your never-ending book list will continue on and on.
Open loops are distracting. That’s their nature. An ‘open loop’ is the term for unfinished business, according to Getting Things Done. Sometimes that open loop is a task that needs to be done just once, sometimes it’s a persistent problem, and I think sometimes it’s also a philosophical quandary.
This is why we can get resolution on situations even when they will never change.
I work with chronically disorganized people. The two main things they struggle with are making categories and choosing priorities. This is why they always feel like they don’t know where to start. They’ll cheerfully follow orders, as long as someone is standing in the room with them, and they have no problem getting rid of things or cleaning up really distressing messes. As soon as they’re alone, though, they spin out. They no longer know what to do.
Almost everyone gets into a state like this at some level, tolerating a persistent problem, not knowing where to start or what to do next. We can ignore things that would drive someone else crazy, and vice versa.
The most obvious example of this is someone who clearly needs a new prescription for glasses. We see them scrunching up their foreheads, leaning forward and squinting. They don’t realize they’re doing it, even if they’ve worn glasses for decades and had to change prescription several times in their life.
Another classic is the person who comes to work, even though they’re obviously near death’s door with the flu or a bad cold. Go home! Get out of here before you get everyone else sick, you plague rat!
It’s when we’re struggling that we lose perspective on our problems.
We also lose perspective when life is coming at us from all sides. The harder things get, the less focus we have for what would normally be routine issues. The common cold is an example here, as well. We’re feeling low and only a few days later, the laundry is piled up, the fridge is empty, the sink is full of dirty dishes, the trash is overflowing, the nightstand is covered with bottles, and there are mugs and plates scattered everywhere.
We can use this as an analogy. Has anything been going on lately that is comparably disruptive, anything that has messed with our routines the way the common cold does?
When I come in to work with a client, I expect that almost nothing is working well. Their cars are full of clutter, usually including coins and cash on the floorboards. They have at least a three-day backlog of dishes and laundry. Unopened mail is everywhere. Their bathrooms are terrifying. They usually don’t have enough cleaning supplies, such as a total absence of a mop or even a sponge. They have health problems, their vehicles are breaking down, and if they’re employed then they’re often on the naughty list for being late all the time.
These things work like magic in my own life, because I have systems in place, so I barely have to think about them.
It’s an unfair comparison. The fewer problems you have, the easier it is to deal with them. You can tackle one at a time, especially when they only come at you one at a time!
For a chronically disorganized person, everything feels like it’s happening at once because everything is associated with a constant need.
This is one of the widest open loops. We have to have some kind of philosophical reckoning with the necessity of putting a large quantity of energy and focus toward boring drudgery. Every day.
My people tend to subscribe to the idea that: Why should I make my bed, when I’ll just have to do it again the next day?
The same exact thing could be said for eating meals, bathing, or brushing our teeth. We just keep having to do it over and over and over again!
Most of us eat because food tastes good to us, we bathe because it feels good, and we brush our teeth because minty fresh is better than filmy yuckmouth. We understand the connection between these things we do every day and the positive results we feel.
We can’t feel those positive results for things that we do not do on a routine basis.
It feels fantastic to be confident about your finances and your health, to have a solid reputation for being on time, to relax in an attractive home.
Meanwhile it feels dreadful to experience the anxiety of:
Missing important appointments
Paying unnecessary fines and fees
Getting in trouble at work
Rushing and being late all the time
Frantically searching for lost objects, or wasting hours looking for something
Not being able to get something fixed because your landlord might find out how messy your place is
Those of us who aren’t in that deep should take a moment to pause and feel grateful. As annoying as we might find it to do chores when we’d rather be doing something else, it could certainly be worse. Most of us don’t have problems with our executive function. We can make decisions and take action.
We can, but we don’t always want to. We feel that the annoyance of working on something is not worth it, not equal to the feeling of freedom that comes from a closed loop.
The most commonly procrastinated tasks are writing a will, planning for retirement, and dealing with health issues. This is because we aren’t very good at imagining older versions of ourselves or feeling compassion toward Future Self. Instead of thinking decades ahead, though, we can start by thinking a week ahead, or a day ahead.
Instead of asking ourselves, Why should I have to do this? we can ask ourselves, will I feel better tomorrow if I get this out of the way today?
What would it be like if I was confident about my health and my finances? What would it be like if I spent most of my time in a smoothly running home? Would I feel happy and relaxed if I dealt with my most obvious problems, or would I find a way to continue to feel anxious and distracted no matter what I do?
Action is usually easier and faster than we think. It usually takes us less effort to fix our problems than we thought. Once we finally get started, we’re halfway there. We deal with our routines ten minutes at a time, after all. At least when we are taking action, we can allow ourselves a sense of pride and satisfaction that we are doing something for ourselves.
Close a loop today, and find out how it feels.
Once a year I write about something morbid, and that day is Halloween. Every spiritual tradition has beliefs about acknowledging our mortality in order to appreciate the life that we have today. I have always found this to be both comforting and inspirational, so I am making the most of the opportunity. Previously I have written about being a full-body donor and writing your advance care directive.
This year I’d like to ask you to consider making an escape plan.
Several of my friends in different parts of California have had to evacuate their homes due to wildfire, both within the last month and over the last few years. To us this is a daily reality, and much more so in October. One of my close friends is currently changing AirBnB’s every ten days because her house burned up, and that was an ordinary house fire, not even a natural disaster. They had to put her little kitties on oxygen and they barely made it.
A football field every three seconds. That’s how fast these fires move.
To make matters worse, a lot of people wind up with no power before the fire reaches their area. There have been situations when they did not receive evacuation alerts, because:
Nobody has a landline
No electricity = no wifi
No wifi = no cell service (for a lot of us)
No cell service = no calls
The first they know that they need to run for their actual lives, it’s when police cruise down their street yelling out of a bullhorn, even though they assume that sector has already been cleared. A mere formality, but a smart one born of experience.
Have you ever had a firefighter beat his fist on your front door because your apartment complex is on fire? I have.
I was sleeping on an air mattress only ten feet from the door, and I didn’t hear it. I have sleep issues, and even as a kid in grade school I couldn’t guarantee to you that anything will wake me up. This includes having popcorn dropped into my slack sleeping mouth. Fortunately my entire family was home and someone was able to physically drag me out of bed and haul me to my feet. WAKE UP!
Wake up. It’s time to get ready.
We know neither the day nor the hour. That means our time could come tonight.
We’re not really sure yet what we would do if a fire comes to our new place. There are a lot of factors in play.
1/3 chance it would happen while we are sleeping (8 hours out of 24)
5/7 chance that if it happens during the day, my husband will be at work several miles away
Non-zero chance he will be on business travel or airborne in a plane
It’s statistically unlikely that we would be in the same building when the snit hits the fan. Therefore we have to have a plan for how to find each other, and that plan has to assume that phones and internet are down across our region.
There are two other confounding factors for our household. They may or may not apply to yours.
We have two pets
We live on the top floor of a pretty big apartment building.
I’ve practiced putting on my go bag, getting my animals out of their crates, and getting them out of the door. My husband says “you could get out of here in one minute” but I know better. Even without smoke, it’s a bit complicated. Get a flapping, panicking parrot into a box and then clip a leash onto a struggling, wriggling dog.
Next step. I have to choose between either the elevator (BAD IDEA), three flights of stairs with three doors, or trying to lower everyone out of a fourth-floor window. Um...?
There are other natural disasters that might come for us besides fire. Tsunami? This is the only one where living on the top floor is actually an advantage. Earthquake? You feel it more on the top floor, but we will probably be fine unless it’s well above a 6.0. Our building is old enough to have been through a few rumbles. Fire is the one that demands quick thinking and preparedness.
Plan A is just to stay put. Chances are that we’ll be fine and so will our neighborhood. We don’t need to be blocking the roads or getting in the way of emergency services if it isn’t necessary.
Plan B, I stay put and my husband tries to get home to me. In a rough scenario, if he had to walk in bad conditions, it could take three hours, assuming a walking speed of one mile per hour. He is a certified emergency medical responder, so if he was late I would assume he was helping other people.
Plan C, I take our animals to the nearest Red Cross shelter and he has to figure out where that is.
If we can’t get through to each other by phone, we can call each other’s parents. If we can’t do that, we can find internet somehow and send each other email. If we can’t do that, I have index cards, pens, and masking tape in my go bag. If I have to leave, hopefully I have an extra 60 seconds to tape a note on the door before we go.
Everything we own can burn. It’s okay. We can always replace our passports and those are the only really important physical possessions we have. I would walk without a second thought. I need the time to be able to help my neighbors, not save my... what? Leftovers out of my fridge? Socks?
To be able to keep our heads clear in a crisis, we have to practice. We have to understand on a gut level that “losing everything” is just stuff. We have to get ourselves out because if we dawdle and try to lug a bunch of suitcases, an emergency responder might die trying to come after us.
We have to GET OUT and we have to do it on our own.
Please, after all the costumes and decorations have been put away and all the candy has been eaten, please extend your role-playing just a bit longer. Take a few moments to visualize how you are going to get yourself and your household OUT OF THE HOUSE in case of emergency. Especially if you have kids. Draw pictures. Set a timer and practice. Make sure all your doorways and hallways are clear. Make sure you and yours can get out if you need to.
As much as I like sweaters and boots, there are three things heralded by the arrival of fall that I don’t enjoy, and those are:
and weight gain.
I should say ‘candy’ because it’s alliterative and probably more honest, but I do enjoy candy and of course that’s my problem. There happens to be a bag of rainbow-colored candy in my otherwise empty fruit bowl right now.
I’m also fighting a cold. Since I live in Southern California, the weather is glorious, as it usually is in October, and I can’t complain about that. It seems to add some extra poignancy to be bundled on the couch, seeing the cloudless blue sky and infinitely preferring to be outdoors.
As far as I know, I’ve had a cold at least once every year of my life. Since there are supposed to be roughly 200 varieties of the common cold, I should be immune to them all in roughly 150 years, which will be fantastic. Until then, it’s become a predictable part of our lives to the extent that we just bought cold medicine in bulk at Costco. Two weeks before I got sick.
Given its predictability, we can plan around it to an extent.
To me, one of the worst things about getting sick is the week afterward. You’re still feeling low and your place is full of dirty laundry and empty of groceries. Dragging around feeling like it will never end, taking out the trash in the rain. Why do people like fall again??
This is why I become vigilant this time of year. I don’t generally believe in “stocking up” but I do check our quantities of a few things.
Pet food. Mucinex. Canned soup. Also my special jar of Super Bio Veg, aka “bouillon cubes” due to its striking taste of mushrooms and garlic.
The best thing about living in the 21st century is grocery delivery through an app. Last winter, I got sick while my husband was out of town, and I was able to order all the soup, juice, and cough drops I could ever want straight to my front door. The only issue with this is that only a portion of a store’s inventory is available online, and you can’t always get what you want.
[insert appropriate guitar lick]
Along with predictable inventory issues, we can predict that our households will probably be out of commission for at least a week every fall and winter. Think back a few years. I’ve known families with little kids in which the whole lot of them seem to be down three weeks a month. They basically put up an alert on social media saying DON’T COME OVER.
What does this mean? What can we do?
We have to take advantage of the time we have available when we are feeling relatively energetic and vertical. That’s what we can do.
Here is an exercise. Join me over here on the couch, if you will, and lie down. That’s it. Close your eyes. Now take a deep sigh and open your eyes and look around the room. If you see anything that annoys you or makes you feel glum, pop up and take care of it. I can tell you from down here, as soon as you get your first cold of the year, you’re going to be spending a lot of time looking at it, and you’re certainly not going to enjoy it any more when you’re ill than you do today.
In my case, the objectionable item happens to be my P90X DVDs, taunting me by reminding me how far I am from peak energy level right now.
For others, depending on where their couch is, it might be a pile of laundry, or a bunch of donation bags that haven’t gone out, or a stain on the carpet, or a desk covered in papers. Who knows. I don’t but I bet you do.
I have a lot of sympathy for Sick Me because her days are difficult and boring. From a distance it can seem cozy. Oh yeah, it will be great, I’ll just catch up on reading and have some naps. In reality, I can never concentrate on a book when I’m ill, and I seem to have a lot of legendary nightmares. Attacked by crocodiles that have hatched in the living room, hair full of spiders, all that good stuff.
If only our sick time could be a happy kind of downtime, a sweet staycation full of dancing around the living room and picnics on the lawn.
It can be very difficult for us to imagine Future Self and use that image as motivation to make our future lives easier. Yeah, sure, like I’m really going to “save money” for that crazy old bat. Who does she think she is? Well, me I guess. Future Me is me.
I think, though, that most of us can call up an image of being down with the flu or a pernicious case of the common cold. We can remember the last time, what we did that week (cough cough), and how it felt. We can use this image for a little extra boost of inspiration. Negative inspiration, yes, but many of us do better with a pushing-away image than we do with a pulling-toward.
Please, Past Self, save me from having to do three weeks of laundry while getting over the flu! You’re my only hope.
The truth is that I’m not really all that sick. Not compared to previous iterations. Sick enough to need two two-hour naps a day, sick enough that it’s a struggle to bring my dog downstairs in the elevator for a potty break. Sick enough that I need to lie down for a while if I’ve been vertical for ten minutes. But, no respiratory symptoms, no cough, no fever. I’m hearing that whatever is going around seems to cause laryngitis, and I certainly don’t have that. I can feel my immune system doing its job. Moral: zinc works.
The point of my story is that most of the work we do, we do for our own selves. We’re always trying to give ourselves a soft landing. A little extra for Future Self. Let’s all take a moment to show compassion for Future Sick Self and prepare a little while we’re up.
Here’s my wish that this year, you make it through unscathed.
I just moved, and this book was a big help to me. What Your Clutter is Trying to Tell You, sometimes, is “either pay for a bigger apartment or get rid of some stuff!” Unlike most clutter books, this one focuses more on the inner work and less on the routine organizing aspects of space clearing. In this sense, it’s a better pick for those of us who sometimes struggle to let go.
Q: Why is my house so full of stuff?
A: I have no idea!
Kerri L. Richardson gradually downsized from a 2,000 square foot house to 500 square feet. I’ve done a similar process, and I can verify that this experience definitely clarifies what you do and don’t need! On the other hand, I’ve also found that when people discard a lot of stuff in a short period of time, they can feel so distraught that it becomes traumatic.
This is exactly why it’s so important to focus on the emotional aspects of why we care so much about our stuff.
What Your Clutter is Trying to Tell You covers everything, from sorting through clothes and books and papers to setting boundaries with people. This is a very rich topic, because so often a person’s family members have made more choices about the stuff in the home than the owner has.
Richardson’s book is an excellent companion for the intense work of space clearing. If you’ve been feeling stuck or struggling with why you can’t seem to motivate yourself to get rid of clutter, maybe you should find out What Your Clutter is Trying to Tell You.
I define clutter as anything that gets in the way of living the life of your dreams.
What am I tolerating in my life?
Organizing your mental clutter begins the process of establishing realistic expectations.
Once my clutter is gone, I’ll be able to _______________.
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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