This is how it went:
December. Decide we want to move to a place with lower rent. Coincidentally get notice TWO HOURS LATER that our rent will increase $200 a month. Shrug.
January. Negotiate lower rent with property manager. Spontaneously decide to look at a “junior one bedroom” unit and realize we like it better. Apply for a unit and get it. Give notice.
Two months after we decided we wanted to move, we were sleeping in our new, cheaper apartment.
Two weeks elapsed between when we started packing our old place to when we finished unpacking in our new place.
I packed four boxes a day for the three days before the move. We could have done more, but in a 680-square-foot apartment, there isn’t very much room for a staging area to stack boxes.
My husband has alternate Fridays off, and we spent a couple of hours packing on the Friday before the move. Then we took off to run some errands and see a movie.
Moving Day was a Saturday. We had breakfast around 8 AM. Then we spent an hour filling out paperwork in the rental office before we could pick up our keys. A friend came over to help us move at 10 AM. He left around 1 PM. We were done packing, hauling, and cleaning at 11 PM, including two meal breaks.
Because we moved from one unit to another within the same apartment complex, there was no way for us to use a moving van. Both units are down a walkway from the parking lot. We had to use a dolly and a rolling skidder, or simply hand-carry everything. The move would have gone much faster if all we’d had to do was to load and unload a van.
By mid-afternoon, the place was already livable. We had set up and made the bed, hung the shower curtain, loaded the fridge and freezer, unpacked the medicine cabinet and all the bathroom cabinets and drawers, put away most of our clothes, set up the couch and the pet crates, and unpacked the kitchen drawers. From that point it was possible to go to bed; wake up, shower, and dress; and make breakfast. We carried on hauling boxes.
On Sunday, we finished unpacking our clothes. I set up the entire kitchen while my husband set up his work station. We unpacked all but a small stack of boxes. We cooked dinner for the first time in our new home.
Monday and Tuesday were ordinary workdays. We unpacked the remaining 20% and found spots for everything.
On Wednesday, I waited around for the internet installer and caught up on laundry.
On Thursday, we left town for the weekend.
On Sunday afternoon, we made a to-do list. We gave away some furniture and the now-empty moving boxes.
We kept the rental car an extra day, since Monday was a holiday, and dropped off a load at Goodwill. We also picked up a few things at IKEA and the Container Store.
Now all that’s left is to hang pictures! We’ve found that it’s best to save the final decorating touches for at least a few days, while we get used to the space and the light levels. Sometimes we change our minds about where furniture will be, and it makes more sense to get that settled before pounding nail holes in the walls.
Because we didn’t have very much stuff to move, we were able to take our time. We had photos and measurements from our first viewing of a similar unit, and we’d spent time at our weekly status meeting drawing out diagrams and figuring out what went where. Many of the early loads got unpacked directly into their place, partly because we needed to reuse the empty moving cartons. I had a small “box of holding” that I used to do each kitchen and bathroom drawer separately, while carrying a small backpack with stuff from the fridge and freezer. I would walk over, unpack the box into its new drawer, unload the backpack, and do something like hang up the shower curtain or put sheets on the bed. This meant about a ten-minute turnaround. With this method, we eliminated the middle stage of a dozen box towers, all labeled ‘MISC.’ It was like magic!
Just as we’ve done every time we’ve moved, we’ve gone through two stages. We got rid of a bunch of stuff that we knew wouldn’t fit before we even started packing. We had a pretty solid estimate of how many boxes we’d need, and we bought sixteen small book boxes and ten large boxes. It would have helped to have another half-dozen small boxes, but we were fine without them. After the move, we had another round of culling to do. Even on the first day, we knew that our next move will involve even less stuff than this one did.
The point of minimalism is to focus on what is most important to you in life. Experiences, not things, and it should also be emphasized that the experience of daily life is most important of all. We prefer to live in a streamlined space where we have room to relax, room to cook, room to live. The better we get at this, the more we can enjoy fringe benefits, such as an efficient, straightforward minimalist move.
Note: I continued my twenty-five-year streak of getting my full cleaning deposit back. This amount was roughly equivalent to what I spent buying myself a nice new wicker easy chair for the front porch.
We’re moved into our new “junior one bedroom” apartment. That’s real-estate-ese for “studio apartment that costs more.” There are a lot of legal restrictions in real estate that encourage truth in advertising, but in reality, you have to check it out for yourself. Beware the “peek view,” for instance. Lean over and see it for yourself before you pay a significant markup. We’re much too frugal to ever take a hotel room with a view, and daily living at home can cost even more. Anyway. Suffice to say that our studio isn’t a “studio” because it comes with a room divider. It’s missing a lot else, almost all of which is kitchen storage.
What I’m going to do is to break down the numbers behind the decision to let go of what can be very emotional attachments to very aspirational kitchen items.
Aspirational items are things we buy because they symbolize a better life. Often, they never get used; they just sit there, trophies toward an image of ourselves that we don’t like enough to live it out every day. Aspirational kitchens are so full of stuff that very little cooking goes on in them. They’re like showrooms.
A stand mixer is the big one for a lot of people. By “big,” I mean physically big, because these things are almost always too tall for the available cabinets. They live on the countertop. This is part of why they’re aspirational. They’re designed to be seen and admired. The stand mixer symbolizes a capital investment in that kitchen. I BAKE. These things are expensive for most people, and the decision to let one go would be emotionally impossible for many.
I never bought one.
I could have a stand mixer if I wanted, sure. I could buy one today. I just refuse to give up that much countertop space. The other reason is that if I baked often enough to justify the kitchen real estate it would require, my husband and I would both probably gain 15-30 pounds the first year. When we choose where to live, we can base the decision on a kitchen without needing to accommodate the huge, expensive, weight-gain-inducing stand mixer of the aspirational kitchen.
Moving right along!
What are some other large, aspirational kitchen appliances?
Instant Pot: $80-$150.
Espresso maker: $35-$700 (!?!)
Bread machine: $60-$100.
Pasta maker: $25-$160
Food processor: $30-$200
Note that we decided we would keep our Vitamix even if we went full nomad and lived out of hotels. We use it every day. I’d get rid of a bunch of shoes before I’d get rid of my fancy-dancy blender, because it argues for itself through constant use.
There are tons of other kitchen appliances, of course. They’re popular gifts. I’ve given several of them myself. Ice cream makers, deep fryers, grills, waffle irons. The more of them there are in a kitchen, the harder they are to store. (Kitchens are designed around contemporary trends, and those trends change every decade). The harder appliances are to store, the harder they are to remove and use. The harder they are to use, the less they get used, adding to the feeling of FoMO and the sense that no, I can never let go of anything, because I haven’t gotten my money’s worth out of it.
IT’S WORTH SOMETHING!
This is the funny thing. I just gave away some kitchen appliances I had owned for years, over twenty years in one case. When I looked up what it would cost to replace these things, many of them cost less now and have more features. This happened with a hand-me-down microwave oven that my brother passed on to me during my first marriage. It was almost the size of a dishwasher, it had a dial, and it cooked really slowly. It’s hard to say no to “free.” We did, though, after a year or so. We gave away the free microwave, and I’m sure the next owner also gave it away, because you couldn’t sell that thing. Maybe in 1987 you could have. Now, in 2018, if that thing is still around, you’d probably have to pay someone to take it.
We downsized and accepted a kitchen downgrade because we crunched the numbers. We’re saving over $400 a month on rent. If we’d stayed in the unit where we lived last year, we would have had to pay an additional $200 a month. That’s a LOT of money just to hang onto a few appliances, even if we used them all day, every day. Which we didn’t.
We let go of a blender, a crock pot, a rice cooker, a bread machine, and a bunch of canning jars. For our purposes, it’s irrelevant what they originally cost, because what matters is their replacement cost. (If we don’t miss them and we never replace them, then the replacement cost remains zero). We’ll pretend we’d just buy them all over again.
Replacement kitchen appliances: $30 + $30 + $30 + $100 + $25 = $215
Time to amortize through lower rent: Two weeks
In reality, we’ll never replace that old blender because we already did, with a nice Vitamix. I was only keeping the old, cheap blender because I had a spice grinder attachment. We’ll never buy another crock pot or another rice cooker because we’d just upgrade and get an Instant Pot. We probably won’t buy another bread machine because my husband enjoys making bread. (It was something I used because kneading bread aggravates some problems in my wrist). These were things we had because we had them. Our ability to recognize the difference between the lifestyle we actually live, and the aspirational lifestyle we wish we lived, helps us to save the money that could one day bridge that difference.
Would I know what to do with a huge, expensive house in an expensive neighborhood? Sure I would! I’m quite sure I’d be just as good at shopping and buying and choosing high-end, high-price items as anyone else. I just couldn’t bring myself to go into debt to do it. The decision to make temporary changes for a better strategic position is an easy decision, when it’s obvious what the tradeoffs are. I’m not “giving up” my nice kitchen appliances for a kitchen downgrade. I’m TRADING what are really some fairly trivial items in order to save thousands of dollars on rent for a certain specific period of time.
Most important of all, I’m always going to value my ability to cook in my kitchen and make use of my space. There are no items, no matter how aspirational or expensive, that are valuable enough to clutter up my work area or my countertops.
Most people are never going to voluntarily move to a smaller house or apartment just to save money. Streamlining the existing kitchen so that it can actually be used can feel like a major lifestyle upgrade. Eat through the majority of the pantry stores, get rid of most of the dishes or plastic storage containers, or reevaluate the appliances and other kitchen accessories. Create clear counter space and focus more on the meals than the hardware. The point of a kitchen is to cook in it, not to have a kitchenwares museum.
We moved this weekend. This takes up a lot of mental bandwidth, which is okay, because the thought and strategy that we put in has made it easier each time. Most people move frantically, procrastinating until the last possible minute, and then keep a bunch of unsorted boxes labeled MISC until the end of time. This is an expensive, time-consuming, distracting, maximalist way to do things. We do it in two phases.
In the first stage, we’re looking at all of our stuff and asking it to justify its existence. Why does this object need to be in our home? Is it worth the space? It’s our policy to live with a short commute, and that usually means a smaller living space. More square footage is the compensation that builders offer in exchange for spending your free time on the freeway.
Here are the assessment questions:
That first question is revolutionary, because at some point we realized that we could offload the cost of ownership of almost everything we possess. We need A bed, but we don’t necessarily need THIS bed, or our OWN bed. What would happen if we got rid of everything? We’d live in a hotel and stop owning furniture or housewares. No big deal really. In fact, we kinda talked about it on our honeymoon. The only real reason that we don’t do it is that hotels discriminate against parrots. Can’t imagine why! *wink*
Second question: Do we use it every day? This is somewhat subversive, because we often keep things that we think we SHOULD use every day, like a yoga mat. Asking the question reminds us that sometimes it’s better to rearrange our stuff and our schedule to accommodate the neglected item, the lifestyle upgrade.
Third question: Would we inevitably have to buy it again? For instance, we originally bought backpacking gear for our Iceland trip, even though we already owned quite a lot of car-camping equipment. The trip fully amortized the cost of the backpacking gear, but we continue to use it several years later. We could technically buy a new $250 backpacking tent and spend maybe a thousand dollars on new backpacks, sleeping bags, and gear every time we went on a trip. If getting rid of it all means we can afford a smaller apartment, and we save more than $100 a month on rent, then it costs us to keep it. Another way to frame this is, would it be cheaper or easier to, say, give away our bed/couch/whatever and order a new one to be delivered to the new place? Usually no but sometimes - YES!
Fourth question: Have we used this since the last time we moved? If the answer is no, then we’re virtually required to get rid of it. If the answer is no, we also have to ask, how about the move before that? When WAS the last time we used this thing? With each pass, fewer things get through the filter.
Fifth question: Will it fit in the new place? I had a lot of resentment and sadness about giving up my ten-top dining table, and the first time we moved it, you couldn’t open the front door all the way because the darn thing filled our entire dining room. Then we lived in that house for six months and had to move again. I hadn’t had a single dinner party and we hadn’t needed the table at all. I found acceptance and remembered that I can always buy another one for $400 at IKEA. Or we can rent a picnic area or take people to a restaurant.
Sixth question: How much would it cost to replace? We won’t live in a studio apartment forever. Well, maybe we will if Godzilla arises from the sea and steps on our building on the way to raze Los Angeles. One day, we’ll have a larger home and we’ll put more stuff in it. Probably. Getting rid of something now is just... for now. For this year. Every single thing that we have ever owned has cost less than what we’d pay in additional rent to keep it all. We’re saving over $8000 in rent this year due to our move, and that covers a lot of objects.
Seventh question: Is it going to survive the move? This question is why we avoid keeping sentimental objects. It’s simply too crushing and heartbreaking to watch something get smashed or ruined. Professional movers broke the teapot my grandmother made and they gouged a four-inch scar into the surface of my dining table. They’ve crumpled my original artwork, scattered my manuscripts and notecards, and generally caused me to swear off of professional movers entirely. I’d rather live out of a suitcase than pay people to wreck my favorite stuff. Which means if something is my favorite, I can’t keep it. Does that make sense? I have to preemptively detach my emotions from inanimate objects because they die on me.
Eighth question: Has it outlived its natural lifespan? A pair of socks is only good for so many wears. A spatula can only cook so many meals. Stuff is consumable. Moving is when we hold things up and assess them. Broken! Threadbare! Dangerous! Stained! Energy inefficient! Separated from its accessories! Past Me called and she wants her jeans back.
That’s the first stage of space clearing. We’ve basically gotten rid of everything that’s irrelevant to the way we live today.
Stage Two: Does it fit?
Stage Two is pretty straightforward. We have drawer dividers that don’t fit in the new drawers and shelf organizers that don’t fit in the new shelves. We have furniture that won’t fit due to door and window placement, ceiling height, or smaller rooms. We have power strips and lamps we don’t need anymore. We have art or decorations or throw pillows or other housewares that now clash with the paint and countertops. As we put things away, we set aside a staging area for stuff that doesn’t work. Sometimes it gets repurposed, like a plastic storage container that goes into a different room with a different category of contents. Usually, we find that we’re fully ensconced in the new place and there are a couple of bags’ worth of “organizers” we don’t need. We’re not emotionally attached to this type of object, so when we realize it won’t work in our newest home, we shrug and donate it.
As minimalists, we tend to see our stuff as a potential obstacle as much as anything else. Throughout the year, we’re culling and setting aside and pulling out various things. The cracked coffee mug, the shirt with the stretched neckline, the uncomfortable pants. Our baseline stuff has argued for itself. What may sound like a complicated process really isn’t, because 80% of our stuff is obviously necessary to a comfortable, efficient life. The two-stage moving process merely serves to slough off the excess. We stay light and unencumbered, focusing on the life we want to have, rather than the stuff we want to have.
Ooh, have I got some hot gossip for you! Just as I typed that, my little parrot said, “WHEW!”
Building maintenance just dropped by for a scheduled “pre-move-out inspection.” We’ve lived here for ten months and they’ve already had two inspections, supposedly to test the smoke detectors. This particular maintenance guy has been in our place a couple additional times, most recently when our neighbor’s sink backed up into ours and nearly flooded our kitchen with filthy brown water. Since we have a nodding acquaintance, I thought I’d take the opportunity to interview him a little.
He had a clipboard, and I could hear him scribbling notes. I was basically exploding with curiosity. What was he checking? Was he doing what I thought he was doing?
You know I spent an extra hour on housework this week, just to get ready. I think it would be easier for me to go out naked in public than to have my home inspected. The thought makes me completely paranoid. Are they going to check my linen closet and see if I’ve rolled all my towels in the same direction? Are they doing a white-glove check and making sure I’ve dusted the slats in the heat registers? Will they be pulling out the crisper drawers in my fridge?
I didn’t want to dump all this anxiety on the poor guy, who reminds me quite a bit of my brothers. I just wanted to open the door to chit-chat and hear what he had to say.
“Are you checking the power outlets or something?” I had heard him turning light switches on and off, and it would make sense that the electric outlets would be on the list.
He showed me the form and gave me a copy, explaining that we would get a rundown of the charges after we move out. They’re looking at whether they need to paint, shampoo the carpet, repair the kitchen countertops, or do any other obvious repairs. Fair enough.
Then I leaned in. “I work with hoarders? So I was just curious. A few of my clients have been evicted for hoarding at some point.”
Maintenance Guy grinned. He told me that the biannual “smoke detector inspections” are really “habitability checks.” They specifically do it to check for mice, rats, cockroaches, and any other vermin that would affect other tenants in the building.
He also told me that his dad used to hoard and that they worked on it together.
I KNEW IT!!!!
I freaking knew it.
Our complex purports to be a “club” and touts its resort-like setting. What that means is that due to the grounds, the amenities, and the location, they can charge top-end rents for what would be a sad shoebox anywhere else. These are tiny, dim rooms with low popcorn ceilings, shag rugs, ailing old plumbing, and no air conditioning. We like to think it’s to encourage everyone to hang out by the pool and avoid being indoors. All that being said, the owners clearly understand the value of beachfront real estate, and they protect their investment.
I guarantee that a hoarding or squalor case would not make it in this building past the six-month mark.
I have indeed worked with a few clients who have been evicted for hoarding. One of them has had it happen at least three separate times. It’s happened to a few people in my social acquaintance as well. While it is very sad, we have to understand that games have rules. We have to use our powers of discernment and do things that make sense in empirical reality.
Hoarding doesn’t just attract vermin. It can also damage the infrastructure of the building. Our apartment has three floors with eighty units, and probably a hundred tenants, plus a couple dozen dogs, cats, and my parrot Noelle. There’s a garage underneath. The floors of any building are only rated to support a certain amount of weight. Hoarding can stress joists and cause a floor to collapse. Maybe a home owner who lives alone can decide that that’s okay, a risk she’s willing to take. When you live with a hundred other people, you do not have the right to risk other people’s safety, or the physical integrity of a building that does not belong to you. So that’s one thing.
Stacks and piles can also obscure serious problems, such as water leaks and black mold, not to mention evidence of vermin infestation. Each of these is a problem that can and will affect neighbors, their pets, and their homes and possessions.
The scariest thing about hoarding, though, has to do with fire safety. A room that is packed with things (any kind of things) has a lower flash point. The flash point is the temperature at which the air in a room basically ignites. It can create a massive fireball. Now, the problem gets more complicated. A fire is going to start faster and spread faster in a hoarded room. That will be compounded if a lot of the material in the room is combustible, like cardboard boxes, books, magazines, papers, shopping bags, food packaging, and fabric. Even before adding thick, black smoke to destroy visibility, it’s going to be hard to get across a hoarded room and reach a door or window. The weight load will cause the floor to collapse more quickly. Add it all together, and it’s almost like someone deliberately set a boobytrap to kill firefighters and emergency workers. Oh, and neighbors.
I said that about a hundred people live in my building. About 3-5% of the population hoards, so we can guess that without the “habitability check,” three to five of my neighbors would be serious hoarders. Several of my neighbors are smokers, too.
There are a lot of buildings in this complex, and we’re packed pretty tightly together. We live in an extreme drought area, and it’s been this way for several years now. We had a dry winter. A fire that started in one building would put at least 1500 people at immediate risk. That doesn’t include any of the tourists or workers at the marina or the beach or the wedding facility or the hotels or restaurants directly adjacent to us. Only two months ago, my commute was delayed due to the Skirball Fire. We could smell and taste smoke from the wildfires while sitting in our living room. We made evacuation plans. Fire is not a hypothetical risk for us.
It’s hard to write about this topic, because I know from my work that hoarding and squalor are intertwined with toxic shame and trauma. My desire is to encourage readers to find the courage to rise up and break free of hoarding. You deserve better, and so do your neighbors. I just wish there were a guaranteed way to talk about distressing ideas, also known as “reality,” without possibly triggering someone into a shame spiral.
The thing about hoarding is that unlike many other struggles, it’s possible to do the external, visible work rather quickly. You can basically erase all traces of hoarding, unlike, say, cutting behaviors or track marks from IV drug use. Just release the excess stuff, do a deep clean, or maybe relocate. A property manager or developer can come in and repair flooring, walls, window frames, or any other damage. Good as new! For all I know, the person who lived in my current apartment before me did just that.
T minus eleven days and counting. We’re moving again! Probably time to start kinda thinking about packing. Eh, or not. Moving only has to be a big hairy traumatic hot mess if you have a lot of stuff to pack.
I’ve helped out on several moves when the household had barely started to pack and it was already moving day. This is how it normally works. Nobody has done much of anything because they’ve all fallen victim to the planning fallacy, which is that humans are extremely poor at estimating how long it will take to do something. There aren’t enough boxes; maybe there are no boxes at all yet. Any time someone got up and started thinking about maybe finally getting around to doing some packing, 80% of the time was consumed in helplessly standing around, arms hanging down, gawping at random corners of the room, and then wandering off. Nobody counted on how much stuff was hidden from view in closets, cupboards, and drawers. This is all before factoring in the cleaning. Then the helpers show up, thinking all that’s being asked of them is to carry neatly taped cartons out to a van. HA.
Our last move took the two of us eight hours, and that’s what fits in a 680-square-foot one-bedroom apartment. When we moved out of our newlywed house, it took a team of four professional movers three days.
I singlehandedly packed an office during a certain person’s move. (Not a client; clients pay me!) After three months’ notice, nothing had been done in what was the most disorganized, crowded room of the entire house. An entire wall of bookcases, photo albums, VHS tapes, and various binders. Two desks. A computer and all its multifarious peripherals. Art on every wall. Various tchotchkes and conversation pieces. Snowdrifts of unsorted papers. It took me three hours. If it had been my own stuff, I’m sure I could have spent three years fondling it and fussing with it.
Most of us do.
When it’s someone else’s stuff, it’s fairly easy. We look at it and estimate its weight and volume. Professional movers are great at this; they do it all day, every day and they know how many dishes or books fit in a carton. We can scan someone else’s personal belongings and visualize them going out the door, up the ramp, into the van, and back out again. We know full well that we’ll still be working at 10 PM because there’s a LOT.
When it’s our own stuff, we can’t see it as bulk, as mere dross to be measured and analyzed. It’s our stuff! It’s... it’s ourselves, really.
This is because the majority of our belongings stand in for the intangible. Our stuff isn’t stuff to us, not at all. It’s our aspirations, our character and personality and intentions. Stuff is one of the many ways that we try to exist outside of the time dimension.
The clothes that don’t fit, that don’t match any of our other clothes, especially the clothes we’ve never worn even once - they stand in for our image of a possible future. The unused fitness equipment that stands in for our intention to make a total physical transformation. Even the vegetables spoiling in the fridge, they represent ideas and possibilities.
There are three types of things:
In the first category, I include art. A planned room, a room of comfort and fun and relaxation and purpose, tends to look intentional. It says, this is our taste and this is how we like a room to look and feel. That’s awesome. It’s exciting to step into a room like this, even when it expresses a wildly different taste unlike my own.
In the second category are all sorts of things. They hang around mostly due to inertia, because we haven’t taken the time to assess and realize that we don’t need, want, or like them anymore. Sometimes, the stuff we no longer use is kept because we use it to store our memories. We’re surrounded by the past, not always even our own past, but our family’s past. Legacy and heritage. We may have no idea of what our own taste might look like because we believe we have to keep and display the stuff that was handed down to us. Keeping things we don’t use is a way of living in the past, outside of the time dimension.
In the third category is aspiration, stuff we still think we’ll get around to using one day. It also includes a certain amount of guilt and shame over money and time we’ve wasted, over our bodies that fail to magically transform, over our total misunderstanding of how goals work and how habits are changed. We also fall victim to the sunk cost fallacy, thinking that we should keep stuff because of what it cost, not realizing that keeping things incurs a carrying cost. Keeping things we believe we’ll use eventually, despite the evidence of today, is a way of living in the future, while also preventing that future from materializing.
When I accustom myself to living in rooms filled with things I don’t use, they become wallpaper. I quit seeing them. They aren’t on my to do list, they aren’t on my agenda, they aren’t blocked in my calendar. I exist on one timeline, and my things exist on another. It’s almost like they live in an alternative dimension that I can’t visit.
The gift of the nomad is that a relocation stops the clock. Time’s up! We evaluate every piece of furniture and all our individual housewares. Moving frequently really makes clear that stuff is a hassle. I don’t feel like cleaning and wrapping and packing and hauling and unwrapping and wiping down and organizing anything unless it’s worth it to me. Sometimes, at some point after the sixth time I’ve handled such an item, I’m just done. I can’t even.
Why do I have a pepper mill? Do I even grind pepper? Does this thing even work anymore?
What would happen if I got rid of it?
That’s the first question. It goes like this:
Do we use it every day?
If not every day, would we need to buy it if we got rid of it?
Have we used it since the last time we moved?
Will it fit in the new place?
How much would it cost to replace?
Is it going to survive the move?
Has it outlived its natural span of use?
In the time dimension, we can always buy stuff for Future Self later. It’s senseless to carry around aspirational “one day” items we don’t use now, because at that future point on the timeline, the one we would actually use may be of better quality or a different nature entirely. Like when I Finally Lost the Weight and the aspirational size eights I had kept for all those years were too big.
In the time dimension, we don’t keep things that belonged to Past Self. Past Self used them, and the maximum value was extracted. It cost what it cost. Maybe Present Self is more frugal and gets a lower cost per use, and when that’s true, it’s because of lessons that Past Self paid for. Stuff we aren’t using anymore was the cost of tuition. Let it go back to the Stuff Place.
Time’s up. The day has passed, the week has passed, the month is almost up. This is how the years go by. At any given moment, we’ve been surrounded by a different assortment of objects that properly exist along a continuum. Baby Self had a crib and a stroller and a high chair. Grade School Self had a child-size bicycle and child-sized clothes and shoes. Twenties Self had rickety mismatched furniture and obsolete electronics. Today Self carries the memories of those rooms, those scenes, those times. Today Self just doesn’t want to carry them all up the ramp into the moving van.
I’m about to mess with your head in a big way. What would happen if you *gasp* *clutch the pearls* considered getting rid of a bookcase?
Okay, okay, I get it. Being a reader and book lover is a huge part of your identity. Mine, too. I read over three hundred books last year. I like hiding in the aisle of a bookstore and sniffing pages just like anyone else. I’ve gone on many trips where my carry-on was heavier than my suitcase because I brought more books than clothes. Just because my entire life is built around books does not mean that I need to demonstrate that by showcasing a bunch of them in my home.
Yes, and you’re going to continue to do that at your place. Granted. I hear you! Nobody is going to come and make you give up your books. Just hear me out for a minute.
What would you do with the space where your books are now, if you could put them somewhere else? Hypothetically speaking... what if you pushed on your bookcase, and it suddenly swung aside and there was a secret room or tunnel back there? Then what would you do?
What I literally did was to get rid of a bookcase and use the space to put a desk. You have already cleverly grasped this from the title of this post, of course, so let me elaborate.
My apartment is small. Not the smallest space I’ve ever lived in, no, but 680 square feet for two adults, a dog, and a parrot is pretty modest. We had to get rid of a bunch of furniture and other stuff when we moved in, because even though we wanted to keep it, there simply wasn’t a way to make it fit. My husband is an engineer and we literally drew schematics of alternative floor plans. Having a bookcase was a firm tradeoff for other uses of the same space.
Why not keep it? You can put almost anything in a bookcase, right?
First of all, I don’t have a lot of other stuff. I’m not a keeper of tchotchkes or collectibles. My life is my husband, my electronics, and my little parrot whose beakie I kiss throughout the day. Also the dog, who needs enough space in our living room to chase his tail in both directions.
I was annoyed with this particular bookcase. The Roomba won’t fit under it and Spike keeps throwing his ball under it. One day, a lizard got in and hid out back there, much to the consternation of the dog... It’s old and scuffed up, and it comes from my bachelorette days, when all my furniture matched. Over the years of marriage, merging households, relocations, and furniture upgrades, it is now the lowest-quality, oldest, and most worn out furnishing we own. Since we’ve downsized, it also has to be in the same room as our couch and dining table, when in the past it could be in a room where it didn’t clash. In short, the bookcase I assembled myself with so much excitement has now become an eyesore.
But the BOOKS!!!!!!!!
Look, I read constantly. Like most people, what is in my bookcase is not actually representative of what I actually read. Most people use their bookcases to display books they read IN THE PAST. The active reading is usually on the nightstand, the coffee table, or perhaps the top of the toilet tank. My grandma buys purses based on whether they’ll fit a thick paperback. My dad keeps his daily read in the cargo pocket of his pants. Me? Almost all of my reading is either digital, or it’s a library copy. The books I have in my bookcase are books I bought and put away without reading them. It’s an anomalous and foolish habit. I hang onto them, moving them from house to house, packing and unpacking them, because they’re not available as digital copies, the library doesn’t stock them, and I can’t bring myself to give them up.
Can’t seem to bring myself to read them, either.
This is a project I’ve been working on for the past five years.
What finally happened was that the desk I’ve had my eye on since last August went back on sale, after a price increase of $70. I bought it and called a Lyft to bring it home, even though I knew I wasn’t done with the bookcase downsizing project yet. My mounting frustration with my lack of a desk led me to the breaking point. Time to find a way. I want a desk more than I want two feet of unread paperback books.
My husband thoughtfully dropped everything and helped me. When he came home, he culled his own bookcase, freeing up a full quarter of the available space so I could have my own shelf. He also assembled the desk and helped me rearrange all this heavy stuff. His bookcase went two feet further along the wall, and the new desk sits exactly where my old bookcase used to sit.
That very evening, I pulled up a chair and set to work. Almost immediately, it became my favorite spot in our apartment. While my husband sits at his desk, a combination of soldering station, robotics workshop, and auxiliary workstation, I have somewhere to sit and work on my own projects. We both got a massive lifestyle upgrade.
What would be different for you if you did something similar?
What this is about is a focus on creation instead of consumption, making a work space for something you do rather than a storage and display area for things that you have. (Don’t argue with me; when they’re on a shelf you are not interacting with them or reading them, unless you have laser eyes). This is about stasis versus motion, your home as wallpaper and decoration rather than your home as a place where you live, work, create, and do things. Does your space serve you and your interests, or is your stuff physically blocking and preventing you from doing that?
Could you really use a space to spread out and make things? A work table? What would you do there? I can think of quite a list:
Making armor for your cat
Finishing your thesis
Writing a book
Playing a keyboard, piano, or organ
Labeling and shipping products for a side hustle
A lot of people have garage space that they have theoretically dedicated to a craft. This works better for a lot of projects that involve grease, wood dust, metal shavings, loud noise, fumes, shop tools, or special power outlets. In practice, garage workspaces usually have poor lighting and they’re either too cold in winter or too hot in summer, so they wouldn’t get used even if they were empty. The sad reality is that nearly all would-be project spaces are packed full of boxes or sporting equipment, mostly belonging to the kids or the romantic partner. The space can never be used because it’s being bogarted by someone else, and that’s a conversation/confrontation that will never happen.
Now hold that example in your mind: the would-be workspace that is unusable because there’s stuff in the way. Do you see how that can apply to having a bookcase where a desk or art space could be instead?
Most desks, in practice, aren’t functional desks either. The desk itself is there because it was inherited, because of inertia, or because it suits the decorating style of the owner. The reality is that its style doesn’t suit its supposed function. The knee well is too narrow or shallow. The drawers are heavy and they stick, and they’re the wrong dimension for what would logically go in them. They face a wall in an isolated room where the owner does not like to work alone. The lighting is, again, not good enough. Mostly, the desk is buried under depressing stacks and piles of papers and other objects. It’s not a functional workspace, it’s a storage area for stuff that has nowhere else to go. It’s like a kitchen for cooking boring things that taste bad. Making a desk into an art space would seem to require many hours of hard focus and concentration.
At my home, I no longer had a desk at all. This is why my battle was not between the desk-that-was and the art-that-could-be. It was a battle between the books-I’m-not-reading and the writing-I-do-every-day.
You can, as usual, do whatever you want. I encourage it. Do what you want! While you’re busy doing what you want, also pause for a moment and consider whether you are also getting what you want. Do you have adequate space to actively work on all your favorite hobbies? Are you getting to do what you want to do in the space that you have?
The bar for productivity books has just been raised. Erin Falconer’s book How to Get Sh*t Done has the potential to transform lives. Drop that label maker and forget about alphabetizing your socks. Things are about to get real. Let’s read on and find out Why Women Need to Stop Doing Everything So They Can Achieve Anything.
Erin Falconer is a classic Type A hyper-super-mega-overachiever. When she tells you how to go about becoming successful at living your dreams and your passion, take her seriously. A big part of this is thinking strategically about your vision. The first half of the book, BEING, addresses what you want and why it’s so hard to figure that out when you’re busy doing everything for everyone else all the time. It’s not until the second half, DOING, that the getting done of the sh*t starts to happen.
One of the strongest features of the book has to do with negotiating and setting boundaries. How we perceive others’ expectations, and how we react to those perceived expectations, dictate the bulk of how we spend our time. How we spend our time determines whether we ever get around to fulfilling our dreams. Starting that business, going back to school, pushing for that promotion, making art, all tend to feel out of our reach when we feel that we are too busy. We often feel that we need permission as well. What’s strange is that making the major strategic decisions can tend to create both the time and the money that we never thought we had. Sometimes, it can even lead to the grudging approval from others that we never thought we’d feel.
There are some truly excellent questions in each chapter that are perfect for journaling. If you struggle to know what you want or what to do next, putting some thought into this type of personal homework can bring some clarity. The book also includes numerous recommendations for apps, websites, and services that can bring those visions and insights into reality. First, figure it out, and second, go out and get that sh*t done.
How to Get Sh*t Done is an amazing book. If you always wanted a productivity manual that tells you to get more sleep and go on a real vacation, this is that book. Not only that, it can teach you how to say no more often and ‘sorry’ less often. Quit apologizing for not living up to external expectations of perfection all the time, and start creating something that matters to you.
It’s that time of the year. The winter holidays are officially over, giving us nothing but actual winter to think about until mid-March. Epiphany has passed, so Christmas is officially done. I’m talking to you, retail establishments I visited this weekend that still have fully trimmed Christmas trees on display. All the other holidays took their decorations down! It’s time to put all that stuff away. By “all that stuff,” I mean, of course, all the gift bags that are sitting around with their contents back inside, all the goodies that are still set temporarily on tables and counters and the fronts of bookshelves, and definitely all the packaging. How do we make room for all the new material objects that have come to stay?
When I do home visits, it never fails to amuse me that we find so many intact gift bags with the tags still on. Usually you can tell what year or what occasion they arrived, because there’s a card. It’s like an archaeological dig. We find stacks of unspent gift cards. We find ornaments and decorations. We find white elephants and gag gifts. We even find candy and other food! Sometimes the unused gifts are quite nice, and my client will exclaim over them. When you forget that you got something, and then rediscover it, is it twice as fun?
There are a lot of different reasons for why my people don’t open and use their gifts. It depends on the person and on the situation.
Got distracted and forgot all about it
Planning to use it “soon”
Felt guilty about receiving something nice
Felt ashamed for not having reciprocated the gift, or some other reason
Conflict with the gift-giver
Dislike of the gift
Disappointment at not receiving that year’s heart’s desire
“Saving it for later” because it feels so special and valuable, too nice to actually be used
Creating a time capsule to preserve the memories of the special occasion
No idea of where to put the new gift or how to use it
Want to get rid of the gift, but don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings
Lost it somewhere in a pile
Allergic to money and can never just cash a check, use a gift card, or put cash in a wallet
Got sick and lost a few weeks
Regardless, having unopened gifts years after the occasion in question is almost never anyone’s intention. The gift-giver wants to make you happy, or, at least, remember you and make you feel included. Even if it’s an obligation, at least you were on the checklist. When you receive a gift, if you like it, you should use it and enjoy it, because that honors the giver and it was the purpose of the gift. If you don’t like it, then why are you keeping it?
Unwanted gifts are a potent symbol of failed communications.
In my family, we make wish lists. If someone wants to upgrade an appliance or something, we spread the word, and then others in the family can pool resources and buy it. We’ve given each other everything from stoves to doors to fruit trees. There isn’t much room for silly gifts, because we’ve always focused on the practical stuff. Unwanted gifts often come from the giver’s total lack of ideas of what you might want.
Sometimes unwanted gifts come from the giver’s desire to push something on you. This is very mysterious, but common. I want you to decorate for this holiday - why won’t you do it my way? I want you to eat these foods - why won’t you? I want you to dress this way - why can’t you look like my image of you? I want you to have hobbies I understand and live out my values. Use these gifts so you can be the way I want you to be.
Sometimes, the gift was the most the giver could afford. Their desire to please you and delight you involved things that were outside their price range, so they did as well as they could.
I sometimes imagine what it would look like if various forest animals brought me gifts. This can be blamed on a children’s book I made my mom read to me over and over again when I was four. (The Party That Grew). A parakeet had a party, and the other birds brought stuff for a potluck. Mayhem ensued when the owl showed up! I imagine that a squirrel might bring me a pinecone, a Stellar’s jay might bring me a blue feather, and a raccoon might tear up my tent and steal my breakfast. Maybe it can help to look at the gift-giving process as a way that various people just demonstrate their innate characteristics, something they do that reflects almost entirely on them and not on you, or even their relationship with you.
What do we do with it all, though? Where do we put it? What do we keep and what do we... thoughtfully regift?
I used to take any random silly gift that I might have gotten, say from an office “Secret Santa,” and bring it to my in-laws’ white elephant exchange.
Sometimes I would have a “free box” that I would put out if a group of friends were coming over. It might include random gifts, a book I had finished, nail polish that turned out not to be my color, a seed packet, or who knows. This is similar to a “Naked Lady” party where a group of friends-of-friends meet to trade clothes and accessories.
I might also unload stuff I wasn’t going to use at a charity rummage sale, or give it to a friend’s child.
Giving gifts is THE END of our power and control over the gift. We don’t get to say that other people have to keep stuff in their house. We can’t force people to like things, or to be grateful, or to feel more affectionate toward us. Not with gifts, or love, or money, or sweet words, or magic spells, or hot fresh pancakes, or anything. All we can do is give. Hey, and, that works both ways. We accept the gesture graciously, we work on our inner feelings of regard toward the giver, and our work is done. The object that remains is just that, an object.
This time of year, it can be fun to go through the house and make space for new things. A new book takes the place of a book we got bored and quit reading. A new pair of socks take the place of an old, threadbare pair, like the rainbow-striped pair I just discarded with the hole in the heel. The cycle of seasons and ritual gift-giving reminds us that sometimes, it’s good to evaluate what we already have. Out with the old and in with the new.
PS Those expired gift cards? They aren’t really expired. You can call up the retailer and have the amount reinstated with a new expiration date. It doesn’t even cost anything. Go out for the day and use them up on things you’d like, or donate them to a cause you care about.
I put a bunch of habit-tracking apps on my phone and tried them out so you don’t have to.
The first thing about habit trackers is that you should only use them for habits that matter to you. Habit tracking is a habit in itself!
Also, it’s best to add just one or two new habits at a time. Maybe something fun that you look forward to, alongside something you do to annoy yourself that you want to quit. A common pitfall is to stop tracking all the habits because you don’t want to admit to yourself that you aren’t doing one of them right now.
Next stipulation: Make sure the habit you are tracking is the habit you actually want to track. Your metrics may lead to one objective when your real objective was something else entirely.
I’m the sort of person who gets very hooked on metrics and analytics. I will basically lose my mind at the prospect of breaking a streak. Imagine rage-quitting a meditation app at midnight and you start to get the picture. If you’re an alpha type personality, a habit tracking app may turn into a negative for you. The app should be a value-add to your life, something that feels emotionally neutral while supplying valuable information.
I’m using an iPhone X. Almost all of these apps were first installed on my iPhone 6, and a few I’ve had since the iPhone 4S. Sorry, Android users - I also have a tablet that runs Android and I simply don’t like it as an operating system, on its own merits, much less in comparison to iOS.
In alphabetical order:
Countdowns. I really love this app for reminding me that an important date is coming up. New Year’s Eve, race day, a party, anything exciting that I’m planning. I put the widget in my Today screen so I see it all the time.
Days Since. The opposite of Countdowns. I mainly use it to show how many days have elapsed in the current year. There’s something compelling about seeing that it’s Day 200 of a year!
Done. This app allows you to track whether you want to build or quit a habit and at what frequency you’ll do it. You can write your own motivational statement for each habit, choose the color, and whether you want a reminder.
Goalmap. I like this app because it has two different types of goal-setting features. You can set reminders for habits you want to track on both a daily and weekly timeframe. You can also choose “aims.” I have one for reaching a particular net worth by a particular date, and it shows my percent complete. I have another for “complete world tour” by 2035. Seeing it reminds me that Future Me said to travel more. There is also a ‘Motivation’ section that has inspiring quotes, videos, and silly poems.
Habits. This app is really pretty! It opens to ‘Ideas,’ a bunch of floating colored bubbles that each contain a new habit to try. The color corresponds to whether the habit is physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual. You can set a daily reminder and choose the days of the week you’ll do the habit. It starts with a 21-day challenge. There are some fun ideas like ‘go barefoot’ and ‘kind deed for stranger.’ You can also create your own habits and track your streaks.
Mint. This app changed my life. I’ve used it for years. Just link all your bank accounts, credit cards, investments, student loan, and any other accounts, and you can see your financial picture at a glance.
MyFitnessPal. When I first downloaded this app, I deleted it. I realized it was a food log, rather than an exercise app, and I thought it was dumb. Then I logged everything I ate for a year, focusing on micronutrient intake, and it was revolutionary in my life. Cured my migraines and my night terrors.
Remente (came up in spell checker as Revenge). The reminder hoots like an owl! This app tracks goals along with your mood and life balance. If you like life wheels, this is the one to get.
RunKeeper. I used to use MapMyRun but it started to get glitchy. I love that RunKeeper tracks elevation, splits, and how many runs I’ve done over the years. I don’t love it when I forget that the narrator voice is on and it starts shouting my stats over my audio book.
Streaks. This app is really stylish and simple to use. If you want to set up a streak and “not break the chain,” Streaks is a great choice. For someone like me who obsesses about habit streaks to the point of disrupting vacations, it’s good to evaluate whether we want to open that door.
Things 3. I finally bought into the hype and discovered that this IS the best planner app of all time. “Expensive but worth it.” I adore being able to put in tasks by date that don’t demand a reminder at a specific minute. The ‘Anytime’ and ‘Someday’ sections are magic to me, and I also love the concept of sorting by ‘Areas’ as well as projects and tasks.
WaterMinder. I paid for this app a few months ago and it’s saving me. When I don’t drink enough water early in the day, I start getting irritable, and if I don’t make my hydration goal, I wake up in the middle of the night with cotton mouth. Also has a useful widget, although it gives the message ‘Unable to Load’ if you haven’t made an entry for the day yet.
Way of Life. This is my favorite habit tracker for tracking multiple habits. Being honest about whether I did it or didn’t, and using the ‘skip’ feature, gives a trendline. I can really evaluate whether I’m keeping my commitment or whether I need to adjust my schedule... or my expectations.
My best advice for using habit tracking apps is to consider how you respond to notifications. If they keep popping up at inconvenient times, or if you’re getting the sound effects AND the banners AND the badges, pause and adjust the settings. Choose a time during the day, like while you’re getting ready for bed or while you have your first coffee, when it’s convenient to check in. Habit tracking is a parallel habit that can either help your focus or drive you batty by draining it. Pick something that delights you visually. There are so many beautifully designed apps that it’s easy to pick one with a color scheme or icons you really like.
Best of luck with your new habits in 2018!
I like to celebrate the New Year by cleaning my place, top to bottom. On New Year’s Day, I can sleep in, wake up to a gleaming apartment, drink tea, and read a book. I love that feeling of a fresh start. No loose ends or unfinished business from the previous year. Nothing but exciting new goals and plans and projects and trips! The unlocked potential of a new day!
Also, the weather is usually lousy at this time of year and there’s not much better to do. Cleaning up is a way to beat the post-celebration blues, creating anticipation for something new and different.
Cleaning marathons are easy for me. I’ve run an actual marathon, and it doesn’t take nearly that long to clean my house! I can still walk afterward and I don’t have to scoot up stairs backward on my butt. Cleaning marathons are also easy because I’ve moved so many times that there isn’t much buildup, and because I’ve been doing this on a regular basis for many years. I’ll demonstrate my minimalist method, and then I’ll describe how I’d do it if I were one of my chronic disorganization clients.
The minimalist way: Start the laundry. Strip the bed. Take a dust cloth and some canned air and wipe down all the surfaces in my 680-square-foot apartment. Get a chair and wipe down the ceiling fan blades and the top of the fridge. Use a bottle of white vinegar, an old toothbrush, and a squeegee to wash our two windows and the mirror. Check the fridge for anything old. Wipe down the fridge racks and shelves. Wipe out the inside of the microwave. Wipe down the kitchen counters, the stove top, and the sink. Clean the bathroom sink, the toilet, and the bathtub. Take a shower. Put the laundry in the dryer and put the sheets in the washing machine. Get dressed. Take out the garbage and recycling. Start the robot vacuum. Read a book. Later, put the fresh sheets on the bed.
I’m not kidding. I can deep-clean my entire apartment in a couple of hours.
The reason it’s easy to clean a minimalist home is that it operates on a system. My people tend to mix up ‘cleaning’ and ‘tidying’ and ‘organizing.’ Cleaning means removing dirt from surfaces. Tidying means putting things away, which you don’t have to do if there’s no extra stuff and everything is already put away. Organizing means creating a system, and that only needs to be done once if it’s a system that works well.
This is why my chronically disorganized people have to do all three things over and over again. Clean, tidy, organize, in no particular order.
Okay, let’s assume I’m doing a house that hasn’t really been “done” in, oh, ten years. It’s a standard American disorganized maximalist house. I’m going to say it’s about 2000 square feet, three bedrooms, two baths, a double car garage, front and back porch, with two adults, two kids, a hairy pet, and two vehicles. It’s driving everyone crazy. Living there has stopped being fun.
A large, disorganized house doesn’t have to take forever to dig out. It’s about decisions, systems, and policy. Not everyone wants to spend forty minutes a day on maintaining a clean, organized home. Not everyone wants to live in or look at a clean, organized home! To some people, it will feel sterile, boring, strict, strenuous, and depressing. I say it doesn’t have to mean plastic slipcovers or lace doilies. Your home can be whatever you want, whatever feels like home to you. It’s possible, though, that doing a little every day will feel easier than having to do an epic, revolutionary, top-to-bottom cleaning marathon.
Think what it could look like a week from now, though! Think of how it would feel to start the New Year in a sparkling clean, organized home. Decide what you want for yourself and just get started.
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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.