It’s here, it’s here! I finally got my new podcast set up. Are you excited? I’m excited!
The idea behind the show is help listeners to get organized and clear clutter in just a few minutes a day. Rather than read something and then have to get up and take action, now you can listen and work at the same time.
I have three different episode lengths planned.
The five-minute version is free to the public. The longer versions are available to Patreon subscribers.
Why am I doing it this way? Almost all of my work is already free to the public, including over two thousand pages of writing on this blog alone, not to mention all the accompanying illustrations. Now, in addition, there will also be free podcast episodes. Those who are willing and able to pay a couple dollars a month will have more, just as they would have more if I published a book and they bought a copy. The main difference is that doing a podcast requires additional equipment and software. As much as everyone in the known universe enjoys having free entertainment of every medium, it’s not free to produce.
Enough about that. The point is, hey, I have a new show! Please pop on over and check it out. You can even catch a glimpse of my spokesmodel Noelle in the video.
Thanks as always for your support.
Halloween is the best time to talk about our mortality. In the past, I’ve talked about becoming a whole-body donor and about the importance of the advance care directive. This year I’m going to talk about what happens if you die without a will. Two-thirds of people do. It’s very high on the list of most commonly procrastinated tasks. Who wants to think about dying? Who cares what happens afterward? Rather than let that type of passivity run your life, take a day and make the arrangements properly. Then you can move forward and never think about it again.
Most people probably don’t need a will, not really. If you don’t own a house and/or you don’t have any kids, go in peace. Both of those conditions apply to me. I have an adult stepdaughter, sure, but she’s responsible for herself. If I go before my husband does, then all of my money and property become his. That’s how I’d want it. I don’t have life insurance because there would be no need to replace my income. I also don’t really own anything, not a car, not real estate, not expensive jewelry or furs or whatever. The only things I care about after I go are who would take care of my little parrot Noelle, and what happens to my blog when my domain name expires.
People don’t think about that kind of thing often enough. Who takes your kitties? What if you’re just in the hospital for four days, does someone water your plants?
When you die, everything becomes someone else’s problem. What exactly happens, though?
Your mail continues to show up at your mailing address until someone notifies the post office and/or the senders that you are deceased.
Your bills continue to accrue in your name. Someone has to call all of your utility providers and banks, one by one, and let them know you have passed on. They will wait a certain amount of time and then start calling again, wanting the estate to pay off all the account balances. This process will be ongoing long before the courts have made things official on their end.
The hospital has to issue a death certificate. This can take weeks or months and is subject to mystifying delays.
Then, if there is no will, someone has to be appointed as executor or personal representative. This is another process that takes an unfathomable amount of time. None of the bills of the estate can be settled until this is done.
If there is a spouse, the estate goes to that person, even if you’ve separated and you hate each other, unless divorce papers were filed. EVEN THEN! If you had any insurance policies or old accounts with that person recorded as beneficiary, even from decades ago, that person gets your money.
If there is no spouse but there are kids, they stand equal as next of kin. This can be complicated, because most likely they will start squabbling over who gets to make which decisions, what you supposedly said you wanted, and who gets what goodies. Your procrastinating on writing a will may be the single reason that all your kids stop being on speaking terms for the rest of their lives.
If you have a house, and you also have unpaid bills, and not enough money in your accounts to pay them all, then the house must be sold. No matter who lives in it. In the meantime, if the mortgage doesn’t get paid, then the bank can move along toward foreclosure. Probate is not protective against foreclosure.
What happens to your stuff? Someone has to go through it all and throw it away, donate it, sort it out to make sure it’s given to the “correct” recipient, sell it, or, most likely, pay for a storage unit and keep it all in boxes forever and ever. Precisely zero of my clutter clients have ever gotten rid of any of their grief boxes. They’ll save your old potholders, your jigsaw puzzles missing a piece, your dentures, all of it. I’ve seen hairbrushes saved for several years with the hair still in them.
The more complicated your affairs, the more likely that at least one of your loved ones will never get past it. They’ll never move on. Your passing will be the wound that never heals.
The more I work with clutter, the more of it I expel from my life. Every time I do a home visit, I come home and get rid of another bag of stuff. I’ve sworn off home visits entirely, but it seems impossible to quit for my inner circle. For myself, I can’t have it. We are given neither the day nor the hour, and I might leave this world this very afternoon. That’s why I’ve already put most of my affairs in order. I burned my old diaries, I scanned my photos, I filled out an advance care directive and had it witnessed, I made arrangements to be a whole body donor and I am constantly showing the card to people. It’s the orange thing in my wallet in front of my driver’s license. The toll-free number is on the emergency alert section of my phone. I don’t even have any house plants.
One day, there will be the sad task of scraping away my few personal effects. I may pay someone to do it in advance. Throw away my toothpaste and my leftovers from the fridge and my socks and underwear. Hopefully the stuff I’ve left behind is the least of me.
What we’re called upon to do in this world and this lifetime is to love one another. Love each other, that’s all. Mostly we should do this in the present moment, today, and today, and today again, because today is all we really have. Another way to love our loved ones is to straighten out our affairs as well as possible. The legacy we leave behind should be one of love, of unforgettable words of kindness, of great stories, of friendships that stood the test of time. Let what we leave behind be impossible to ever put in a box.
Clothes piled on the bed, shoes kicked across the floor, already late for the event, and still you feel: I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO WEAR! Relatable? This is a very common issue. Uncertainty about what to wear on different occasions leads directly to accumulating more clothes, which only makes the situation more complicated next time. Let’s get into what we’re signaling with our wardrobes, and how we can feel more confident in our choices.
We’re most likely to get spun up about what to wear when we’re going to meet unfamiliar people, in an unfamiliar setting, and perhaps at an unfamiliar type of event. Why, though? If these are people we aren’t going to see often, a place we might never visit again, or a type of event we don’t usually attend, then why would it matter? We allow ourselves to fret about WHAT THEY’LL THINK (whoever ‘they’ are) because only after the event is over will we know how we fit in.
I once attended an evening wedding in New York. It had ice sculptures. I dressed up, making my best effort in a floral-print linen sundress with sandals. As soon as I walked in, I understood that I’d gotten it wrong, because the other women were in evening looks with satin dresses and heels. I had no idea what a blowout was, nor was I wearing makeup. What happened? I shared a table with my date and a nice couple who kept us laughing all night. The bride and groom are still my close friends, and we’ve been on vacation together a couple times. (In fact even my date has been out to visit, because we’re still in touch). As far as I know, I never saw any of the other guests again.
I walked away with a pretty clear image of how to dress for a formal evening occasion. I knew right away that I could have picked up an appropriate dress at Goodwill for $15, and nobody would have known. In fact, I can repeat a special-occasion outfit at multiple events, because my husband doesn’t care and nobody else will notice.
The longer we take to get ready, the less satisfied we are with our appearance. That’s what research says, anyway. It makes sense to me. It takes me about ten minutes to “get ready” and leave the house, half an hour if I’m doing the full Las-Vegas-nights routine. If someone doesn’t like how I look, then great! Someone that shallow and superficial will stay clear of me, leaving me free to have interesting conversations with people who have their priorities straight. People value my company for my sense of humor, storytelling, and ability to be a good listener. None of those qualities has anything to do with physical appearance. On the contrary. If I looked too polished, maybe nobody would believe I could be a good listener or a funny storyteller.
What are we signaling with our clothing choices?
Friendly / aloof?
Relaxed / fussy?
Competent / wacky?
Professional / casual?
Married / single?
Stressed / happy?
It seems like one of the strongest style statements that many people make with their casual wardrobe is what type of music they’re into. Rocker, country, punk, skater, raver, goth, and I’m sure many others I’m too tragically unhip to recognize. We know who we are when we put on casual clothes. We’re only wearing the stuff we trust to fit and be comfortable. We’re signaling a bit about ourselves, enough that someone who’s into the same style might approach us and strike up a conversation. That’s how I met a guy at the cafe who was willing to answer a few questions about jiu jitsu for me - his t-shirt advertised it. Maybe it doesn’t matter at all what you wear on casual days; I’ve seen people out in public wearing everything from pajamas to bikinis to, a couple times, nothing at all.
We feel more out of our depth when we’ve been invited to a wedding, party, or job interview, am I right?
This is what people do to make their clothing choices more difficult.
Keep everything, even when it doesn’t fit
Keep everything, even though it NEVER fit and the tags are still on it
Keep everything, no matter how old it is
Keep everything, even if it’s stained or full of holes and the unworn clothes aren’t
Keep everything, even if it’s scratchy or uncomfortable
Keep everything, even if it doesn’t go with a single other item and there’s no way to wear it
Keep shoes that cause blisters and actual bleeding
Buy things because of their price, not how they fit or how they look
Buy things out of obligation or guilt, not wanting to disappoint the sales clerk
Decide on garments individually, not on how they play into the wardrobe as a whole
Having hundreds of garments in every cut, style, color, and print, and several sizes, can only send inconsistent signals. Wearing clothes that don’t fit, or combining items that are too tight and too loose, doesn’t send a clear signal, except maybe [does not use a full-length mirror]. Limping from impractical shoes, tugging things into place over and over, makes people worry if you’re okay. Showing up late because of one too many head-to-toe outfit changes makes you look, at best, frazzled, and at worst, inconsiderate. All you really need is something clean and a warm smile.
My entire wardrobe fits into two suitcases. This is because I only feel like I need a few changes of clothes for each of my different roles. Casual summer, casual winter. Business casual summer, business casual winter. Workout summer, workout winter. Camping clothes. A few cocktail dresses. Boom, done. When I get tired of something or it gets worn out, I replace it with something else. I had to replace my entire wardrobe when I reached my goal weight, and since I’ve settled into one clothing size, I’ve been able to figure out how a capsule wardrobe works. Every single thing I own:
Works with at least three other items
Can be machine-washed and, mostly, machine-dried
This is why I’m confident when I walk out the door. I’ve made my choices in advance, and I’m wearing things I’ve worn many times. I also choose where I go or don’t go, and it’s very rare that I would feel obligated to go somewhere where I wasn’t sure how I fit in. Mostly, I feel confident enough in my social skills (now) that people are a lot more likely to remember what I said than how I looked.
I’m trying to send a few clear messages with my wardrobe
OMG A GUY JUST LEANED OVER AND TOLD ME: “YOU LOOK GREAT”
(I’m married, and not looking for male attention, but it was funny that it happened while I was writing about clothes and appearance).
I’m trying to send a few clear messages with my wardrobe, namely: Married, friendly, competent, smart, entrepreneurial. There are other signals I can’t do much about, such as: middle-aged, fit, Western, distractible, more eccentric than I wish I were. When I decide whether to buy new clothes, I can ask, Does this send the message I want to send?
I look like myself, just like you probably look like yourself. (Unless you’re trapped in a work uniform). Sooner or later, the people around us will figure out what we’re like. Core personality shines through eventually. We should focus more on what kind of friendship we can offer and what roles we’d like to play in life, and less on WHAT THEY’LL THINK about how we look.
What day is it? What time is it? Were we going to do anything today?
One of the common traits of my people is the ability to live completely outside the Time Dimension. This is of course a good thing, as long as we can move back into the Time Dimension on demand. Most of my people struggle with this. As a result, we miss out on a lot. Too late, brunch is no longer being served. Too late to get seats together. Too late, sold out. Too late, already closed for the day. All of that can seem like a fair tradeoff if the reward is the perpetual and endless morning.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the endless morning is that it can be declared and perpetuated by an unlimited number of people. A single person living along can do it forever. An entire household of roommates can string it along from [early] to [late]. What’s more, a Time Dimension-oriented person is usually powerless to disrupt an endless morning. You can’t even do it with hand clapping or banging a spoon on a pot.
How do you do it? How do you create an endless morning?
The first step is to make it unclear whether you are up for the day or not. It is vital to maintain the possibility that some or all of the people present may be going back to bed at any time. It’s best when these sleeping segments are staggered. For instance, one person gets out of bed while someone else is asleep. Someone else gets up, and someone else goes back to bed. At some later point, when the last person gets up, the first person should be heading back for a nap.
Showering is another aspect of the endless morning, or, rather, the scheduling thereof. Everyone involved has an interior trigger that is programmed to wait to bathe until someone else bathes first. Thus, everyone is wearing pajamas, which is of course necessary to set up the infinite back-to-bed/nap loop.
Then there’s ‘breakfast’ or facsimile thereof. What do you call a meal if there are multiple people eating different foods at different time slots? What’s more relevant, the type of food or the time of day? Is it ‘breakfast’ if it’s French toast at 10 PM, or is it ‘breakfast’ if it’s cold pizza at 10 AM?
Also key to the endless morning is that time of day, meals, showers, and plans should be left as vague as possible. Nobody is to broach the topic or risk puncturing the endless morning.
I’m down for this, by the way. I have a pretty cozy, dozy image of myself dressed in squirrel pajamas and snuggled up with my phone for the duration. Far be it from me to be the ender of the previously endless morning.
As a frequent traveler, I encounter every type of household. Both my parents and my in-laws are early birds. My FIL has been retired for many years, yet he gets up at 5 AM, seven days a week, to have coffee with his friends at the grocery store cafe. When I visit this sort of home, I make sure to shower and dress as soon as I get up, because I’m usually last and everyone is waiting on me. I’m most likely to cook dinner in an early-bird home.
At the other extreme are my many endless morning friends. These are the homes where I’m more likely to be the one cooking breakfast. I like a big, fancy breakfast, and I’ll fix one for myself, but it takes a crowd before I’ll bother to do certain things like pancakes or desserts. To my way of thinking, if you’re the first one up on a weekend, you have three options. 1. Entertain yourself very quietly until others start to stir; 2. Wait until a decent hour and then cook breakfast, the aroma of which will wake everyone; or 3. Leave silently and come back at noon. At least one day a week of completely unstructured time is, I believe, a basic human right.
Endless mornings are great, am I right?
There’s a time and a place for everything, though. For instance, we don’t do endless mornings on vacation, because, well, we can do them for free at home. What’s the point of hanging around in a hotel room all day? We’re more likely to sleep in a bit, get a late breakfast, and then have endless pool time. I’m also a big fan of the two-hour vacation dinner.
Some of my friends have an endless morning basically every day. There are some telltale signs that go with this. Chronic sleep issues. Weight gain. Clutter. Why do they go together? After many years of investigating my own parasomnia disorder, I’m pretty sure that it has to do with hormone regulation. Not having a regular and predictable meal schedule disrupts hormones. This, in turn, disrupts sleep patterns, which is a vicious spiral. Lack of sleep and meal patterns means less predictable exposure to natural sunlight out of doors. That again contributes to further hormone disruption. My people tend to eat very late at night, especially right before bedtime, and this alone will lead to weight gain. The clutter, of course, comes from lack of systems in general. How do you know when it’s ‘time’ to do something (vacuum, laundry, meal prep, dishes) when there is no real ‘time’ for anything?
I’m writing this midway through a bad cold. In some ways, being sick is an endless morning, because you’re in bed in your pajamas. In other ways, it isn’t. My pets still need care, and believe me, nobody around here is going to let a mealtime pass by unnoticed. Having a dog brings a certain amount of natural daylight into the routine. I’m not going to punish Future Me, who is recovering nicely, with a pile of trash and laundry and dirty dishes. I can certainly still put dishes in the dishwasher and garbage in the trash can. The day I can’t manage five minutes of basic daily chores is the day I call the nurse hotline. More importantly, I’m still on the same meal schedule as any other day, and going to bed at the same time, even though I’m napping a lot. I put years of effort into syncing up all my physical systems, and I’m not letting that go without a fight. Mealtimes and bedtimes mean I can do my life without constant disruption from migraine and sleep problems.
I’m still a big respecter of the endless morning. I did one recently with a fancy breakfast for all. Then, when the nap dominoes started to topple, I had some nice private time to finish reading a novel and then play with my phone. It’s like living in a parallel universe, where you can see everyone else but they can’t see you. Being able to step in and out of the Time Dimension on demand is a minor and underrated super power.
‘Radioactive’ is definitely how I would describe my inbox some days. You know when you’re trying to get caught up, and every time you delete something, the window refreshes and three more messages come in behind it? It’s metastasizing! I set a date to fight my way back to Inbox Zero, and this image came to me. In the endless search for a form of novelty that will inspire me through another day of drudgery, I came up with a little game.
Look at the total number of messages in your inbox. Write it down.
Vow that you’ll cut that number in half over the next hour. What will that number be?
In the next hour, you’ll cut it in half again.
In the next hour, you’ll cut it in half yet again.
(My husband points out that with a half-life, you never really get to zero, but let’s call it close enough).
Start with the easy stuff, just like you answer the easy questions first on a timed test. Gradually work your way through the middle, and save the complicated stuff for last. The easiest decisions get the least time, and the tougher stuff that needs your full concentration gets the most.
The logic behind this is that not all messages are equally salient, even though they look like they are. One of the worst features of email is that everything gets an identical line, no matter how long the message is, who it’s from, how important it is, how many attachments it has, or how long it’s been hanging around. It’s not obvious which messages are most deserving of our attention. The bulk junk buries the valuable stuff, just like junk paper mail can pile up and obscure our bills, checks, and gift cards.
The half-life method presumes that the more messages you have, the more likely the majority of them are relatively unimportant. If they really were both important and urgent, the senders would have found another way to track you down, either by phone, certified mail, or Men in Black knocking on your door.
Let me pause and say that it’s pretty common these days for people to have thousands of unopened emails. I’ve heard numbers above ten thousand from several people. Not only that, but those with the largest backlog tend to have extra accounts which are also filling up. It’s like maxing out a credit card and opening a new one.
Back in the Nineties, if you had more than a certain amount of email in your inbox, it would FILL UP. Anyone who sent you anything would get a message that it had bounced back. Two things fixed that problem: social media, and the advent of ludicrous amounts of free storage. You can have a gigabyte of mail now, no problem. That was technologically impossible twenty years ago.
Also back in the Nineties, if you got email at all, it was almost guaranteed to be from a personal friend. You looked forward to it. Maybe, every now and then, there might even be an attached digital photo, just for you.
Now, almost all mail is bulk junk. Every possible brand wants you to sign up at every possible transaction. They try to bribe you with a discount or a coupon. Then, each and every one of them sends you at least one message, each and every day.
The worst are the political lists that will send fundraising email as often as three to five times a day.
Everyone is battling for the top spot in your mental bandwidth, trying to flag down your attention, not realizing that they’re contributing to the problem. It’s like when one person stands up at the stadium and blocks the view of everyone in the back.
Here’s how to blast through the detritus:
If you can’t bring yourself to unsubscribe or delete thousands of messages, you can move them to a folder for “later.”
An overflowing inbox is solid proof that you’re receiving more than you can process.
I do my daily unsubscribe while paying attention to something else, generally an audio book or podcast. Along with that, I get several news roundups. I go through those by clicking the links and bookmarking the relevant articles, then deleting the email.
This is where the second round of processing starts. The easiest layer to eliminate is stuff that’s expired. In my inbox, that’s coupons from Lyft and a couple of restaurants, notifications of upcoming concerts, and invitations to other events that I won’t be attending. Next are things that are relevant and interesting, but don’t need a response. Usually we’re saving them because we need to record a piece of information.
See that it takes slightly longer to do this administrative stuff, but it often can be done while doing something entertaining in the background.
After this second layer, there will start to be messages that deserve a response. They can be complicated for several reasons. It can actually help to sort these by WHY they need more time and effort:
Often, with the difficult under-layer, it can help to switch channels. Just because a message came through email does not mean an email response is required. Much of the time, it can be easier to pick up the phone and have a discussion. What might have taken half an hour by email, resulting in half a dozen messages back and forth, could often be resolved with a three-minute phone call. Of course, many of us dread business calls even more than we dread email. The impending threat of a phone call, in this case, may be enough to motivate us to type out a reply. Anything to avoid voice contact, or, worse, a voicemail.
When I don’t know what to do or how to handle a question, like in a stuck plot point, I will write a list of what I don’t know. What piece of information would make this clear? It’s totally fair to reply to a confusing message with a question, or even a bullet-pointed list of questions.
It’s also legit to dash off a quick reply to someone, saying, “I miss you. Sorry I haven’t written back.” If you have a social email from someone you want to stay in better touch with, maybe write back in a format that you prefer. Text message? Chat? Meet in person? Remember that “the phone works both ways” and if this person has been content to wait weeks, months, or years without hearing from you, then maybe they haven’t been sobbing through a roll of paper towels awaiting your reply. Lower the emotional bar if that makes it easier.
The last-ditch method for dealing with an out-of-control inbox is to tell someone. Find a buddy. Agree that you and your accomplice will sit together and blast through your backlogs together. Maybe you can even switch seats and write some of each other’s replies, or help identify obsolete stuff.
There’s also always “email bankruptcy.” Just delete everything and email everyone you know, asking to re-send anything that was truly important. Many of us feel like we could never get away with that, but honestly, is it worse for your reputation than ignoring unopened messages entirely?
My rough bottom-of-the-barrel day started with sixteen messages. Using the half-life method, that would be eight in the first hour, four in the second hour, and two in the third. About eight minutes per message in the first round, fifteen minutes per message in the second round, and half an hour for the last two. Considering that these messages included forms, polls, spreadsheets, slide shows, meeting invites, and a list of phone calls, it worked out that this was a pretty solid estimate.
If only I hadn’t received eleven more messages during that time slot...
Self-discipline has a bad rap. For one thing, it’s boring. There’s just nothing sexy about saving money, eating healthy, being organized, or going to bed early. (Well, maybe that last one). We tend to feel constrained by these external expectations, that the outside world is constantly pressuring us to quit having fun and give up our independence. There isn’t really a model showing self-discipline as an active, creative choice. We can choose self-discipline as a powerful means of personal and artistic expression. We can choose self-discipline as an endlessly regenerating act of love. Self-discipline is kindness, both to self and others.
It doesn’t take much time in the company of small children to realize that discipline usually comes in when kids are either doing something dangerous, or being mean to each other. Hey, no biting! Stop grabbing stuff from other people. Don’t chase the cat. Look out! I’ve had to run full speed after little kids who were about to walk into traffic, toddle into the ring during sports matches, or nearly stumble into a swimming pool or fire pit. Lack of discipline is hard to do without annoying other people or stressing them out. That’s because our actions don’t occur in a vacuum.
This is where we start to realize that our own lack of self-discipline and self-control makes life difficult for others around us. When we’re late and our coworkers have to cover for us. When we don’t pack lunch or a snack, and then get hangry and start snapping at people who have done nothing to deserve it - again. When we allow our standards to slip and drive distracted, endangering everyone around us.
Then there are people like the guy in my building who likes to get drunk in the afternoon, week after week, and sing along to the same The Police Greatest Hits album off his balcony. Live your best life, my dude, but could you do that maybe in the shower instead? Otherwise you’re setting yourself up for an uncredited appearance on my podcast.
I’ve had many, many roommates and neighbors over the years. Some of them have been legends for all the right reasons, and others for all the wrong ones. The ones who steal your leftovers or your laundry quarters. The ones who leave giant wads of hair in the shower drain. The ones who run up your phone bill, and then move out with no notice and no forwarding address. The ones who never, ever do a fair share of housekeeping, the ones who can’t seem to live a single hour with a dish-free kitchen sink. It all comes down to a basic disagreement about where the line ends between our behavior and other people’s rights. When my freedom interferes with yours, then it’s not my freedom any more; it’s my unfairness.
There are also all the ways that my lack of self-discipline is unfair to me, myself. Sometimes Today Me is very selfish and works hard to create problems for Future Me. Tomorrow Me is constantly being expected to pay my debts, sort my papers, and wash my dishes. Past Me, why you so lazy?? It takes a while to realize that if I take action right now, it’s faster and easier and costs less than if I dump it all on Future Me. I do all my housework on weekdays so that Saturday Me can lounge around, sleep late, and do nothing. I do forty pushups so that Next Month Me can do fifty, and so that Summer Me can have awesome-looking biceps. Gifts for Future Me, a Future Me who is hopefully feeling very smug right now.
When I look back at Twenties Me, I usually feel very aggravated. Twenties Me had almost every possible bad habit. She was late everywhere she went. Her bag always weighed ten pounds and she always had neck and shoulder pain because of it. Her desk was always covered with papers and unopened mail. She was always flat broke and devastated by money worries. She didn’t know how to cook, she was as much as thirty-five pounds overweight, and she had constant problems with migraines and chronic pain and fatigue. Forties Me sees almost all of these issues as a lack of self-discipline (although, more charitably, it was a lack of knowledge).
When I get plenty of sleep, it helps me to show up on time, keep my commitments, and treat others with patience and respect.
When I nourish my body with healthy food and plenty of exercise, it helps me to have a high energy level and physical strength and stamina. I’m able to contribute when it’s time to move furniture and do the heavy lifting. I’m more likely to help others in a crisis, when in the past I might have *been* the crisis.
When I’m organized, I meet my deadlines and fulfill expectations. I even have a chance to exceed them, set higher standards, and build my reputation. I don’t waste other people’s time by being late, asking for extensions, needing other people to cover for me, or failing to follow through on what I said I would do. I can take my time and create something amazing.
When I feel like I am accountable for my life, it helps me to manage my commitments. I can pledge my time and attention, knowing I will show up and keep my agreements. I can rely on my resources and energy level because I know what I’m capable of. I never have to inflict my panic or burnout on others.
When I am in charge of myself, when I use self-discipline skillfully, then I know I can be fully present for others. I take care of my own needs and I have responsibility for my own enjoyment of life. Also, I have the room and the means to listen wisely and well. I have space in my life and my heart for those I care about the most. When others need me, I know I can be there. Self-discipline is kindness, to myself and others.
The reason there aren’t more chronic procrastinators is that we tend to fall into one of three categories when it comes to projects. Finishers, maintainers, and initiators, we tend to fit in one of these groups the majority of the time. The Finishing Game is aimed at initiators because we’re the fun ones.
Finishers like to get things done. They chase the feeling of accomplishment. Finishers will add an item to a to-do list just to feel the satisfaction of crossing it off, even if the item was extremely minor and inconsequential. Finishers also like to boss other people around, trying to get them to finish their projects, even if those projects are nowhere near the circle of influence of the finisher. A finisher may feel organized and in control - because that’s the central goal, after all - while never really moving forward in life or doing anything cool. Finish alphabetizing your socks, and then what?
Maintainers like to get through the day on autopilot. There’s a comfort in routine. I have a friend who has turned down opportunities for promotions at work (read: tens of thousands of dollars of extra income) because his current position allows him to listen to podcasts while he works. I have also had coworkers who would get marked down every year in their annual review because they had no goals for advancement. One wailed, “I don’t want a promotion! I just want to come in, work, and go home for the day.” It’s pretty common, and smart, for someone to realize that a promotion would result in a lifestyle downgrade. When you’re salaried, you usually don’t qualify for overtime. Is it worth giving up your weekends? That’s a question of overall life philosophy. A maintainer at home is likely to be more interested in the process of a hobby than in the finished product. Not so much “I want a knit cap” as “I love to knit.”
My own knitting languished at the same level for several years, until I forced myself to learn to understand knitting diagrams and teach myself at least one new stitch for every project. Suddenly I vaulted from basic k1 scarves to hats, socks, and pose-able toy animals.
Initiators like three things: planning projects, shopping for materials, and learning new things. As soon as we see a path to completion, we tend to lose interest. The vast scale of our daydreams quickly turns into the harsh realization that we’ll be working on this darn thing for months, maybe years! Actually finishing one of our grand creative edifices also eats into the time we’d set aside for our other 87 projects. Finishing all of them? ALL of them?? Why, that would take up years! Years I fully intend to spend dreaming up yet grander, wilder, fancier projects!
The truth is that we’re not obligated to finish past projects. We’re not obligated to finish every book we’ve started or purchased. We’re not obligated to pick out stitches for hours and re-do our work. We’re not obligated to finish projects, even when we’d earmarked them as gifts, especially when those gifts are ages past the occasion for which we’d planned them.
I bought materials for a dollhouse once. I relocated with those materials SIX TIMES before leaning on my husband to help me build it. The kids who were supposed to get it were near college-age at that point. It went to a child who had not even been born when I first saw the plans. (Fortunately, I never told the other kids, or their parents, that I was planning this awesome gift for them).
As dreamers, we’re most into the process of exploration. We’re planners and designers more than we are artisans or producers. The architect, not the carpenter; the engineer, not the mechanic. We’re never going to stop learning new skills, improving our abilities, refining our aesthetic. Because of this, guess what?
A lot of our earlier project “commitments” aren’t worth finishing.
Just because we once decided that something would be a good idea to make, does not mean that this is still true.
Just because we’ve put hours of work into something, does not mean that it would be worth finishing.
Just because an idea once popped into existence somewhere in the ether, does not mean it’s worth bringing it into physical form.
An example of this would be a wedding sampler I began for a dear old friend. I made a mistake on it and put it aside, planning to pick out those stitches on another day. Years later, it still hadn’t gotten done. But guess what? That marriage didn’t survive. When I was culling my old projects, I realized that that $1 piece of aida cloth had about 50 stitches on it, and the design was seriously dated. I threw it in the trash.
Yep. I really did. I threw an unfinished craft project IN THE GARBAGE.
It was biodegradable. It turns out we can do this. There are no project police. Nobody comes for you and hauls you to a dungeon if you quit working on something. You don’t even have to declare bankruptcy if you trash $5 worth of materials.
Culling old projects that have become irrelevant or have lost their luster is the only way to reclaim the energy to finish the good ones. Beyond this, it turns out that waking up to a clean slate with no unfinished projects unleashes an astonishing wave of creative energy and power. No guilt, no boredom, no nagging reminders, nothing. We don’t owe any of our free time to anyone. To ourselves we owe the ability to live in the present moment, without bits of our attention snagged on obsolete past choices.
At some point in the year 2000, I decided to use up all of my accumulated materials and try to finish my existing projects before starting anything new. I wasn’t perfect in implementing this, but I did stop buying attractive yarn or fabric or kits without a very specific project in mind. I went through my stockpile several times, giving away bags of stuff, throwing away bits and scraps, questioning whether I still wanted to make stuff that had appealed to me years earlier. I chose to finish many of the projects in my burgeoning work basket.
IT TOOK TEN YEARS.
Now I’m still crafty. I still have all the skills I ever had. If I wanted to make a pair of baby booties, I could do it this week. I just don’t have any yarn or knitting stuff in my home anymore, not so much as a pair of straights or a set of DPs. As a writer, I can go through my folder of notes and start on anything in there at any time, in the full knowledge that I already have too many ideas to complete in one lifetime. Inspiration is not obligation. This one lifetime is for me to live and enjoy, not to thrash myself because I am more likely to invent new ideas than to carve them into reality.
The Finishing Game works like this:
What will you do when you’ve finished everything? What will you do when you no longer have a towering pile of incompletion in your life? What I did was to run a marathon and learn enough of a foreign language to travel around, buying train tickets and getting directions. What would be more interesting, more challenging, and more fun than the never-ending to-do list?
Churning is a favorite activity of my people, the chronically disorganized and the compulsive accumulators. What it means is that someone is constantly sorting, handling, relocating, or “organizing” their possessions. Often this is done under the guise of downsizing, minimalism, or frugality. Churning might involve donating a lot of bags of stuff to the thrift store, and then going inside and buying more. It can look like someone is making serious efforts to streamline their home. What’s really going on is a cover story, a reason to spend even more time interacting with physical objects than usual.
The root of hoarding is the deep-seated belief that stuff is “worth something.” Some of it is there because there’s a story behind it; it represents a memory or a relationship. Some of it is there because the owner really likes it, likes to look at it or play with it. Some of it is there out of scarcity thinking, the belief that “I can’t afford” to wait and buy something later, that “they don’t make them like this anymore,” or fear of not having enough. Some of it is there because it represents the owner’s self-image, something flattering like ‘artist’ or ‘intellectual’ or ‘thrifty homemaker’ or ‘chef.’ Underneath all of this is a fundamental preference for interacting with inanimate objects rather than human beings.
Churning isn’t obvious or overt. Someone doesn’t tend to say, I’m going to spend the day touching and playing with my craft supplies or my clothes. We say it’s time to get organized, or we think we’re doing the “full KonMari.” In fact, my people tend to adore the KonMari method because it means more time folding tea towels or rolling socks, and that’s more time in Stuff Land. My stuff, my stuff, all my great stuff!
From the minimalist perspective, you only really need to Get Organized once, when you move in to a new place. Everything you own is there for an obvious reason, and it’s obvious where to put it. There’s plenty of room because when you don’t shop for recreation, you don’t need much. Kitchen utensils and dishes go in the kitchen. Towels go on the shelf, for those of us who don’t have a linen closet. Clothes go in the closet. After you’ve figured out how to align your furniture, well, you’re done.
Then you eventually move to a new place. It’s time to pack. You look around at your stuff, realize there are things you haven’t used since the last time you moved, and you get rid of some more. Maybe 10% per move? Then you pack everything up and move it into the new place. As you unpack, maybe a few things don’t fit, like a picture that doesn’t match the new color scheme or an appliance that won’t fit in a cabinet. You shrug and dedicate a few moving boxes to charity. Out it goes, and now you’re living in a new home with even less stuff than you had before. The less you own, the less time you spend interacting with your things.
What do you do instead of churning your stuff? Talk to your friends, spend time in nature, play with your pets or your friends’ pets, get to know your neighbors, go to community events, volunteer, take up new hobbies, work out, make art, get promoted at work, lie on your bed listening to music, or whatever you want to do.
As an example, the kitchen in my studio apartment is stupidly small. I have one square foot of counter space for cooking and only half the cabinet space I’ve ever had before. We don’t even have a cupboard for food; we keep flour and other pantry staples in the refrigerator. There’s one lonely can of soup in the half-cabinet above the microwave, where we keep our cooking oil and salt. I still have a set of baking pans from our newlywed house. They have to fit in the cabinet above the refrigerator, though! Neatly stacked up there are all the cake pans, muffin tins, loaf pans, sifter, and even the electric mixer. I used to always use that space for holiday stuff like my cake stand, gravy boat, and platters that only came out for Thanksgiving. In the past, I had to ask myself why I would keep anything that only gets used three or four days a year. Today, well, keeping anything like that isn’t even an option.
Churning tends to happen when there is more stuff than storage space. People are often churning their stuff to try to make room. Take the average bookcase. Who do you know who is an avid reader, who also regularly unloads books to have an empty shelf? Nobody? I do know readers who will take a carload to the used bookstore now and then, but it tends to bring their shelf capacity from, say, 150% to 100%. It’s only when they start getting double-parked (or should I say, double-BOOKED) on the shelves, or stacked up on the nightstand and the floor, that urgent action feels required.
Personally, I like to have a free shelf available for library books.
Here are some questions to ask if you realize you’ve been spending your one precious life churning your stuff over and over:
What does ‘done’ look like?
What do I want for this room, for this space?
When will this be done?
What do I spend more time doing, making crafts or shopping for craft supplies?
Do I have a free shelf?
Do I have a free workspace with at least one square foot available at all times?
Can I use all my counters, tabletops, and chairs?
What would I do with my time if I won the chance to live rent-free for life in a five-star hotel, never had to cook or clean again, but everything I brought had to fit in two suitcases?
I’m about to churn my stuff again. We’re heading into autumn, and I always go through every shelf and cabinet before the New Year. Our lease will also be up in a few months, and as usual, they’re going to try to raise our rent. A move is probably in our near-term future. I’d like to bring as few things with us as possible. As it turns out, we need and use very little. If we spend most of our time either working or being together with our pets, friends, and family, why would we think we need so much stuff? Let what we have serve us, rather than the reverse. Let it stand at the ready, with no demands on our free time to clean it, organize it, move it, or especially not churn it.
I used to live in Santa Rosa. Areas where I lived, worked, rode my bike, ate lunch, and visited friends burned flat last year, and the same region recently came under threat again. The photos and videos of devastation are heart-wrenching and chilling. Whenever something like this happens, there are two things we can do. We can try to help, and we can review our emergency preparedness. Every person who gets out quickly is one less person for emergency responders to rescue, and one more person who can volunteer. Channeling our feelings of helplessness and sorrow into a plan of action may never be truly necessary - but it might.
One way of doing this is to make our emotional decisions now, while everything is fine, so that if a crisis does happen, we’re not distracted into foolish or deadly attempts to save our stuff.
People, then animals, then things.
Not everyone made it out of the Sonoma County fire alive. That’s because the fires sprang up so quickly and spread so far and fast that not everyone could outrun them. If you’ve ever spoken with someone who fled a wildfire, there is no time. THERE IS NO TIME. There is no time to wander around flapping one’s hands and trying to load up a bunch of bags and boxes of memorabilia. Every single time there is a natural disaster or catastrophe of some kind, people panic and start trying to bring all their favorite stuff. Just assume that if you do this, a firefighter will die. Let it go.
Most of us are in a good enough headspace that we can accept that yes, we might lose our homes and appliances and all our worldly goods. Some of us have already lived through such an event. A trauma like that is often a moment of crux, when we realize that we really are lucky to be alive and that if our loved ones are okay, then we’re okay. We realize that stuff is just stuff, and that we’re fine without it. Others go through a trauma and “lose everything” (read: material goods) and become ultra-attached to their belongings from that point forward.
What does it mean to “lose everything”? This expression makes me think of Alzheimer’s disease. You lose your memories, you lose your ability to recognize even your closest friends and relatives, you lose all your skills. You lose your vocabulary and your ability to read. You lose your ability to care for yourself or be safely alone even for brief periods. You lose your ability to understand what’s going on, so that even a routine doctor visit becomes confusing and terrifying. This is my definition of “losing everything.” I think about it a lot because it runs in my family and I worry it will happen to me.
This is when I start thinking about photographs. When my Nana was in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s, old photographs were one of the few things she still understood. Pictures can have meaning.
Not just photos, really, but other memorabilia, too. Anything that exists as only one copy, anything that is richly saturated with memory and legacy, anything that rightfully “belongs” to an entire family. These are items that can be preserved and stored in multiple copies in case anything happens.
Anything: anything at all. Fire, flood, mold, theft, termites, anything.
Not every photo is deeply meaningful. I tend to keep a dozen nearly identical versions of family photos, deleting only the ones in which someone’s eyes are closed. I must have thousands of family photos from the advent of the digital camera. No, I know I do! I have thousands per vacation or wedding! Many of these are landscape shots. Back in the days when we bought film by the roll, a dozen photos might cover a period of two or three years. Preserving photos takes some curation and editorial decisions, especially because we probably have more photographs than the rest of our possessions combined.
The best way to do this is to send digital copies of important family photos to every family member. Then it’s a simple matter of sending copies back if someone’s hard drive crashes or a hotel sprinkler goes off.
Older, print photos can be scanned too. My husband’s photo albums from the Seventies have started to deteriorate; the glue on the pages has become brittle and the photos have started to fall out. Others have stuck to the pages or to the glass of picture frames, causing them to tear if we try to remove them. In my organizing work I’ve seen entire bags of photographs pancaked and stuck together by moisture, moldy and ruined. Photographs do not last forever. The work of redundancy may do more to protect photos against ordinary entropy than against catastrophic loss.
Many people find that taking a picture of a sentimental item creates enough of a record to allow the original item to be released. Children’s artwork, trophies, worn-out concert t-shirts, lucky running shoes, old quilts or afghans, all of this stuff could potentially be digitized. The memory is preserved and the relic can be let go for recycling.
As an historian, the idea of families recording the artifacts of their daily lives is really interesting. I’d love to see decades’ worth of family albums recording the layout of furniture in each room, pictures of favorite family meals, pet beds, and all the other stuff that usually fades into the background. What I would not want to see would be family genealogies recording the deaths of people who ran back into a burning house in a foolhardy attempt to drag out a paper photo album.
Fall and winter are good times of year to sort and scan photos. At least in the Northern Hemisphere, the weather is cold and wet and the days are shorter. We can bundle up, drink cocoa, and look through old prints. As the various holidays come up, we can share albums with friends and family. We can do the emotional homework of detaching from material objects and making stronger connections to our beloved people and pets. Let us be grateful that we have these bright spots in our lives. Let us be grateful that we have the comfort and leisure to preserve our memories today.
I realize that this is equivalent to a full season, over a quarter of the year, but still. There’s something exciting about a countdown, isn’t there? Today is a Monday, and we now have one hundred days until New Year’s Day. How are we going to use the time?
I’ll tell you what I’m going to do, because I’m obsessed. I do almost all my planning around the New Year, and it’s a major milestone for me. Almost anything fun or interesting that I do is a result of this regularly scheduled strategic session. Working backward from there, I also get really into Thanksgiving meal planning, and I spend the full month of October wallowing in Halloween everything. Planning ahead is a way to remind myself to make time for celebration.
Also, I hate cold weather. The only advantage I see is that it’s finally cool enough to use my kitchen. Planning is a way to see myself through to sunshine.
I’ve come around to the idea that the main function of a calendar is to make sure the positives happen. Somehow or other, we’re going to get groceries and do laundry and clean hair out of the drain. All the crises, bills, chores, interruptions, and urgent demands see to themselves. Then time passes, and we realize we’ve gone at least a year without going to the beach, or three months without touching base with a friend, or that we can’t even remember the last time we made cinnamon rolls.
I’m “naturally” a wing-it kind of person. I’m a night owl, I lean toward ADHD, I’m a right-brain creative, and I’ve spent much of my life chronically disorganized. I have basically no concept of time and I’m useless with maps. I started picking this stuff up from my husband, who is an engineer and the kind of person you can literally set your watch by. While I’ve helped bring some spontaneity and flexibility to his life, he’s taught me that there are advantages to this clock-oriented, calendar-focused mentality. Plan ahead and you get the good seats. Show up early and you have plenty of time for the extras, like dessert. Book in advance and you get everything before it’s sold out.
There’s a whole new category of life that’s available to the advance planners. I had no idea. Restaurants you can never try if you wait until that night. Shows you can never see unless you’re willing to wait three years. Hotel rooms that are booked a year ahead. It’s an even bigger deal than the day I figured out how to put books on hold at the library.
That reminds me. I need to make some dinner reservations.
Let’s work backward, shall we?
We’re tentatively planning a vacation in spring, so we leave March and April open. That means it’s important not to put any boring stuff in for those months. We can use February as a “get it done” month, with vacation anticipation as our motivation. (How’s that for syncopation?)
Also, our lease is up in January, and more likely than not, we’ll be moving. As a favor to Future Us, we’ll push any “get it done” stuff further back. We know not to inflict anything like that on ourselves from mid-November through the New Year, because of weather, finances, and holiday traffic. This is how we start to realize that it actually matters what we do in autumn. We have the power today to make our upcoming move a little less shambolic, with the reward of a smoothly planned vacation to follow.
October is my Halloween Month. This began with an all-day Halloween horror binge, and gradually extended because I couldn’t contain myself, couldn’t force myself to wait until the 31st. Because this is super-fun for me, I can use it as both a deadline-enforcing tool and a reward system. If I know I’m going to treat myself to a scary movie or dole out episodes of a show like American Horror Story, I can assign myself an obnoxious chore earlier in the day. Maybe I’m down on the floor, grumbling and organizing the cleansers under the sink. Before I know it, I’m done, everything is wiped clean, it really only took eight minutes, and I’m wrist-deep in a bag of candy, frightening myself half to death. Yay!
Let’s run through a sample countdown. These are just ideas, many of which won’t be relevant to anyone other than me. Use it to spark your own list, and make sure you fit in plenty of time for fun and celebration, okay?
100. Make list of celebrations, traditions, and fun stuff for the rest of the year
99. Write down spring and summer highlights and wistfully missed opportunities for next year
98. Round up all unread books-in-progress
97. Clean out pool bag
96. Inbox Zero
95. Throw out old, partial bottles of sunblock
94. Write third-quarter 2018 progress report
93. Start a Halloween entertainment list, reserve and download as appropriate
92. Plan costume, convince hubby to wear couples theme costume. Squirrels??
91. Try on winter coats and jackets; check pockets for surprise cash
90. Sort through scarves, hats, gloves, and umbrellas
89. Sort through sock drawer
88. Shop for cardigans
87. Look through digital photo album on phone
86. Go through phone and delete unused apps
85. Trade in old phone (and PREVIOUS old phone, *blush*)
84. Sort through chargers, cables, and backup batteries
83. Practice a new hula hoop trick
82. Sort through pet travel bag
81. Sort and clean costume jewelry
80. Wipe down shelves in medicine cabinet
79. Try a new soup recipe. Tortilla soup?
78. Confirm plans with Halloween party committee
77. Trade in bag of books at used bookstore
76. Work on costumes
75. Make special dessert for party tomorrow
74. Costume party!
73. Make pot pie
72. Wash pillows and summer bedding
71. Sort cabinet under kitchen sink
70. Track down hubby’s favorite candy rarity as a Halloween surprise
69. Sort cabinet under bathroom sink
68. Cull summer clothes
67. Costume party!
66. Go out for hot cocoa
65. Personal candy shopping for Halloween candy bender
64. Go to movie theater and watch a horror movie
62. Kitchen inventory; start using up contents of fridge and freezer
61. Try a new soup recipe. Maybe pho?
60. Book tickets for Thanksgiving visit
59. Put heated mattress pad on the bed
58. Vacuum out kitchen drawers
57. Mushroom barley soup
56. All-candle evening
55. Museum field trip!
54. Watch The Princess Bride for special project
53. Acquire cranberry sauce for sandwiches
52. Make stew with dumplings
51. Plan a New Year’s Resolution workshop
50. Drink chai tea while gazing out the window
49. Pull together vacation ideas for our next status meeting
48. Visit a library branch where I’ve never been
47. Make some cornbread
46. Plan our vacation for next year
45. Try to teach my dog to jump rope again
44. Trade foot massages
43. Come up with my next ten speech topics
42. Last day to shop before holiday shopping moratorium. Need anything?
41. Thanksgiving Day
40. Family board game marathon
39. Put together my holiday wish list for hubby
38. Come up with gift ideas for hubby, who is hard to shop for
37. Go to parking garage and practice unicycle
36. Learn about palmistry because why not?
35. Sort and back up digital contacts
34. Purge/transfer files on old laptop
33. Curate/transfer digital photos from old laptop
32. Panini for lunch!
31. Start writing down pent-up New Year’s plans for 2019
30. Start accumulating list of 2018 highlights
29. Round up list of unread books in any series I’d like to finish
28. Make a lasagna
27. Drop off pre-New Year’s Eve dry cleaning
26. Annual file box purge
25. Scan and shred relevant paper documents
24. AC/DC and Van Halen Appreciation Day
23. Secret craft project marathon day 1
22. Secret craft project marathon day 2
21. Secret craft project marathon day 3
20. Secret craft project marathon day 4
19. Secret craft project marathon day 5
18. Secret craft project marathon day 6
17. Lounge around reading all day long
16. Practice a new updo for New Year’s
15. Work on vision board/planner for 2019
14. Breakfast for dinner
13. Tabs Zero - what are all these webpages and why did I open them?
12. Inbox Zero - hopefully enough to coast through until the New Year
11. Festivus - feats of strength
10. Festivus - airing of grievances
9. Do some cryptograms
8. Make cinnamon rolls
7. Sew buttons back on fancy winter coat
6. Pack clothes and planner for New Year’s trip
5. New Year’s trip travel day
4. Talk about highlights of the year with hubby
3. Write up New Year’s blog post
2. Confirm New Year’s goals and resolutions
1. HAPPY NEW YEAR! Start as you mean to begin! In other words, sleep in, lounge around in pajamas reading, and put off all your self-improvement projects until tomorrow.
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.