Empty shelves two weeks in. Our grocery situation here in Southern California is gradually improving, but there are still large blank sections in even the best-stocked stores. If your situation is like ours, you’ve already been putting together some pretty ad hoc meals. For those who have never experienced food insecurity before, this is probably stressful, until you learn to accept it and get creative.
I’ve been here before, and this is my advice. Eat the weird stuff first.
My husband and I ventured out on a supply run this weekend. We went to a grocery store about a quarter mile from our apartment. There was plenty of produce... but almost nothing else. It basically had: some dog food, wine, honey, maple syrup, one can of pumpkin, Maine lobster juice, and a single bottle of raspberry pomegranate açaí cultured goat milk kefir.
They did have disinfectant wipes when you walked in, though!
What struck me about that bottle of kefir was that someone had obviously bought the rest of the bottles off the shelf at $8 each.
I’m a weird-groceries person, which I think the popular name for that is “foodie.” I’ve always enjoyed trying new things. In fact this is part of how I hooked my husband. He’s from a semi-rural area and his town had no fast food, much less anything more exotic than spaghetti. I took him to a Nepalese restaurant, introduced him to Vietnamese cuisine, and by the time I got him into an Ethiopian place the ring was on my hand. I feel very fortunate that we are both intrigued by novelty, especially now.
That’s how we’re framing this. It’s a grand culinary experiment and the prize is: dinner.
There are no picky eaters in my family. It’s a cultural thing for us. I can share a few of our family guidelines, if you’re not always getting buy-in with what’s available that night.
If we didn’t like something, we would tell each other, “Just wash it down.” Usually with milk.
“How do you know you don’t like it until you try it? It might be your new favorite.”
“Three more bites.”
All of these ideas are helpful for the hungry backpacker. Food discipline is fundamental for any expedition. If you eat everything in your pack, guess what. You’d better be good at foraging and hope that everything you recognize is currently in season or you’re going to wind up like that guy in Into the Wild. Start with portion control or you simply can’t go as far or have as much fun.
One time our car broke down on the way to camp. We had been planning to stop at the little general store in town before the turnoff. All we had was whatever was in the bottom of my dad’s pack. Because my dad is a genius at improvising and because we had been trained to eat whatever was on offer, we did okay. Trout for dinner and... instant-mashed-potato/whole wheat pancakes with trail mix for breakfast. Delicious? Infamously no. Enough to fill our bellies until we got home? Yup.
This is a wacky time to be hunting for provisions, when it’s easier to find expensive luxury goods like swordfish, oysters, chocolate, kale chips, and organic raspberries than it is to find beans, rice, or tortillas. At least for now. It’s almost precisely the opposite of what everyone had during WWII rationing.
This is why I say, eat the weird stuff first. Whatever you have that’s been hanging around in your fridge, freezer, and cabinets since... since when exactly? Certainly anything you know you did not buy in 2020 should go first.
I work with hoarders, and almost every single one of my people is a food hoarder. Some of them do it by accident, such as the households that have a full wet bar even though none of them drink alcohol, or the ones who keep finding ketchup packets mixed in with their mail. There will be things like jars of gifted jam, cake mix for a potential special occasion, or other holiday foods like a single can of cranberry sauce.
My friends who cook play a home version of Iron Chef. Pretend it’s that.
The idea is to take something like that can of cranberry sauce, and think of ways to use it, then build around it. Divergent thinking, brainstorming. Creativity. Gamification. Because the alternative is to eat through all the default stuff and then find yourself with a bunch of random ingredients that, try as one might, can’t be fitted into an appetizing meal.
I have a game that I call Freezer Surprise. It’s a little inside joke amongst our closest friends. Normally I like to go by the book and follow recipes meticulously, because that’s how I learn new cuisines. The first time I ever had risotto was after making it from a cookbook with no photos. When I do Freezer Surprise, I’m improvising with whatever I happen to have on hand. One night I made this absolutely insane pot pie with some leftover roasted vegetables, homemade vegan sausage crumbles, and a dab of gravy that had been in the freezer since Thanksgiving. It was outrageously good... and I have no idea how to ever repeat it.
Freezer Surprise is a great game for confident cooks, but probably not for the beginner. When I started learning to cook, I could ruin literally anything, from instant macaroni to frozen pizza. I even made an inedible peach pie.
Fortunately, one thing that we do have in lavish abundance is advice. We can look up hundreds of millions of recipes on the internet, and we can even use recipe generators based on whatever specific ingredients we type in. We can ask our friends, What would you make with this? We can let our mealtimes bring us together. We can even turn on our cameras and cook and dine together. Kinda.
What I gained from my experience with long-term food insecurity was an immense, endless gratitude for basic weekday dinners. I have the ability to eat anything without complaint. I know how to make dozens of variations of inexpensive meals. I’m a frugal shopper, alway have been. I never thought I’d need those skills again. Turns out it’s like eating a bicycle; you never forget how.
What do you have on hand right now, and what do you wish you had? It’s time to take inventory and learn how to repurpose stuff and get creative.
One of the reasons that people go out on panic buying sprees is that they don’t have a solid grasp on what they need or how long their supplies will last. We’ve already seen instances where people went to Costco to buy up everything they could see… then changed their minds, tried to return it, and got sent away. This can be a real problem for people who spend all their liquid cash and still fail to buy things that they would have actually used.
Learning basic inventory standards and practices can help with this.
My first inventory job was at a 7-Eleven. I was assigned the cereal aisle, because there was a big markup on that product category and not much turnover. Once a week I would go down one side and up the other with a clipboard in my hand, tallying how many of each item were in stock. Then I would make an executive decision on what to replace and what not to. If something like Cool Ranch Froot Loops sat on the shelf for eight months, maybe we didn’t need any more.
The basic concepts that I learned, over the two months I spent on that job, could be mastered by any ambitious 8-year-old:
Shelf by category. Put all the matching stuff together. All the beverages go in one section, then divide by alcohol vs. non-alcoholic, then by brand, then by flavor, etc.
Face outward. A big part of our job was to continually move products to the front edge of the shelf and adjust them so that the labels lined up.
Standard Rotation. Put the oldest stuff in the front and use it up first.
Another thing we did all day, every day, was to wipe down the counters. People were constantly spilling everything from nacho cheese to pickle relish to coffee and malt liquor. This is where many of us develop the keen eye for splotches and smears.
When I went on to work with people who live in squalor, it amazed me how quickly everything can turn to chaos without those few constant daily habits. My people don’t generally have daily tidying habits, partly because they don’t see things in categories. This is why they may not notice that they have 55 cans of green beans in the cupboard, five pounds of black bananas on the dining table, but nothing to make for dinner.
Some of my people have a lot of everything. Others have a lot of certain types of things, but none of other categories. As an example, one person might have cases upon cases of canned foods, soda, laundry detergent, etc. stacked up in the garage due to compulsive accumulation. Another might have a lot of books or craft supplies, but very few clothes or groceries, because they are deeply interested in a hobby but absent-minded about self-care. Some people are just low in situational awareness, and their surroundings tend to blur in their mind, so that they don’t really notice what’s around them. That’s called ‘clutter blindness.’
Taking inventory, or trying to do a little bit, is a great way to start to pick up these skills of sorting things into categories.
We can skip entire categories of stuff right now, as we take inventory, because we’re really focused on just a few things:
When we take inventory of the food, we want to start with the stuff that goes bad quickly. Bananas and avocados are top on that list, and canned foods are last.
Start with what is out on counters, the dining table, the top of the fridge, and anywhere else in the house where someone might be storing food. Throw away anything that is too scary to eat, so that any mold or insects don’t spread to the fresh food.
Next, look in the fridge. It’s a good idea to throw away anything that is spoiled in there, too, partly so it doesn’t affect any more of your groceries and partly to make space when you need it.
If the freezer needs to be defrosted, this would be a good time to do that.
There might be stuff in your supplies that was put there by someone else, like a guest or former roommate, and you know you are not going to use it. Throw it away or, if it’s still edible and sealed, pass it on to someone else.
You might have stuff that you bought and didn’t like. Get rid of that, too. Don’t feel guilty. Space is at a premium now and you don’t have to apologize for prioritizing.
Usually there will be containers that only have a tiny amount of something, like a teaspoon of jam. Focus on using up these foods first, so you can get rid of the containers and make room for fresh food. There may also be several open containers of the same thing, like juice or mustard. Check the expiration dates, throw out any that are suspicious, and then use them up one at a time.
After taking inventory of the food we have on hand, we check our supplies of any medications, including prescriptions, pain relievers, ointments, saline solution, or anything else we might need in the next couple of months. We also want to take care to throw out expired medication, because it can undergo chemical changes over time that make it ineffective or dangerous.
Then we check our inventory of soap, shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant, and anything else we need to feel clean. This is the time to look at all those shampoo bottles with only a quarter cup left. Shampoo that nobody likes is still perfectly good for washing hands or cleaning other things, like a muddy bike.
The reason we take inventory is so that we can delay shopping trips, save money, and take note of stuff that nobody in the household will use. We focus on buying only what we need and like, and then using it while it is still fresh.
If we’re confident that we have enough food, soap, and other essentials, we can then focus on taking inventory of other things, like books and hobby supplies, reminding ourselves to spend at least a little time relaxing.
There are two main settings for people at work: Always available, or mainly concentrating. Those of us who need helmet time to get anything done are starting to realize that almost nobody else has the luxury of signaling, “I need to focus so come back later (or not).” Now that many of us are working from home, sometimes for the first time, we’re going to have to design a new set of signals to communicate our availability.
If you have kids at home, teach these concepts as a game. Kids tend to be hardcore rules lawyers, especially the little ones, and there’s always one who loves being the warden or bad cop. Choose your little Enforcer and have fun.
The #1 best respected signal in the tech world is: headphones. Wearing headphones signals to everyone that you are doing deep work. Interrupting someone who is working with headphones on is discouraged and should only be done if it’s truly urgent.
Note: discuss with all members of household a painstakingly precise definition of what “urgent” means. May vary by household.
Again, former nanny here, kids like structure. They like to know how to get a win and they like being able to predict important things, like How do I get him in trouble? and When is the next snack time, it’s been 18 minutes already. Many colleagues and roommates are pretty much the same as preschoolers, only taller.
I normally work at home with my parrot, who is much shorter than a preschooler but also more devious, louder, messier, and more inclined to chew through things such as metal, or the baseboards. Birds are very into elaborate protocol. Cats, I dunno, you’re on your own as far as setting cat guidelines.
My husband has been sent home to work with us. He is on teleconferences anywhere from 3 to 8 hours a day.
Did I mention that our apartment is 650 square feet? And there is no wi-fi elsewhere in the building?
Since we are both often on overlapping calls, our first priority is making sure we don’t interfere with each other’s audio. This unfortunately includes both our work, and ordinary household tasks like fixing lunch or running water in the sink.
After a week of turning our little shoebox into a coworking space, we’ve used our understanding of lean manufacturing principles and business productivity to devise a system. The goal is to communicate without communicating. Just like a hotel might ask patrons to signal the state of their towels by either leaving them on the floor or hanging them up, we want something that we can check at a glance.
This is what we’ve come up with:
A whiteboard with a basket of colored dry erase markers, an eraser, and a spray bottle of cleaner. I set it up in the living room in landscape format, and drew a line down the middle. We each write our call schedule in blue ink, with red ink available for important notes.
The first day we did this, we realized that all his calls were in the morning and most of mine were in the evening, so one or the other of us would need quiet for over twelve hours straight.
Four colored manila folders that I dug out of our file box. I cut them in half along the fold so we each have a matching set of green, yellow, and red. The other color is orange.
Green: Working, but open for conversation
Yellow: Deep work, do not disturb
Red: On a call, quiet please
He displays his cards at his desk, where he does most of his work. I put mine on my side of the whiteboard since I tend to range from room to room.
The orange folder is to slide under the bedroom door to say it’s safe to come out. (I take calls in the bedroom, but we also sleep different hours, and I don’t want to suddenly burst out the door and unintentionally interrupt a presentation).
The idea with using all this visual communication, rather than texting, is that we’re often doing stuff on our devices and a text message can be disruptive. Visual signals are faster and easier.
Signals also work for little kids who can’t read yet.
If someone in the household turns out to be color-blind, or not everyone in the room speaks/reads the same language, a similar effect can be produced using shapes or objects. Maybe a favorite stuffed toy faces the room for an all-clear, but faces the wall when... ugh that’s creepy, never mind. Ask your kids what they suggest.
This type of flag is called an ‘andon.’ They are used with great efficiency in manufacturing environments, and they work well at home too. For instance, if there is an empty bottle of shampoo, the last person to use it puts the empty bottle on the counter, and the person who makes the shopping list sees it and makes a note. Even pets can learn to communicate this way, like the dog who picks up her leash with her mouth, or the cat who stands next to the empty bowl.
We’ve found that using workplace practices at home helps us to feel more respectful of each other. We are able to run our household with few or no conversations about who does which chore. These practices have helped us have more fun on vacation, too.
When our daughter was at home, the three of us could work quietly together for hours at the same table. I would write, my husband would write code or review drawings, and she would study. It was a very cozy feeling. No doubt it served her well when she went off to college and had to share space with three roommates in one apartment.
The thing about quiet time vs. the usual free-for-all is that there’s no reason to ever stop. Everyone deserves to be able to concentrate or take an important call. Everyone should be able to read quietly or take a nap without being disturbed. Respect is like anything else: give what you wish to receive.
Organized people usually don’t understand why other people struggle to be organized. Punctual people not only can’t grasp why other people are late; they take it as a personal attack and some kind of moral crime. I see both as missed opportunities.
If you’re always on time, maybe you can help teach other people your secrets. If you’re organized, maybe you can help others.
Or maybe it’s harder than it looks? Maybe we start to realize, when we try to help, that what comes easily to us isn’t necessarily easy at all?
If you do want to help someone else, the first step is to learn how to be a good body double.
A body double is someone who sits with someone else.
It sounds simple, and it can be, but there are also a million ways to mess it up!
There are a lot of reasons why someone might be chronically disorganized. Many of them are situational, such as working twelve-hour shifts, having the flu, or raising tiny kids. The person knows what to do, but there’s too much going on at the moment. Help with even one single chore or errand can help this kind of person get it back together. Sometimes we can help just by taking over for a couple of hours while they take a nap.
For others, it can be more complicated. Some of my people come at the puzzle of organization from the perspective of autism, attention deficit, baby brain, remission from cancer, or simply having no idea what to do.
(Has anyone ever mentioned that by 21st-century marketing standards, probably 80% of people are “disorganized”?)
For most people, the answer is stunningly simple.
They can’t work alone.
A lot of people suffer under the delusion that a desk or office will help with their organizational difficulties. They may spend quite a bit of time and treasure setting up such an area, only to find it impossible to sit there and get anything done.
The real problem is that if they’re alone in a room, they shut down. They can’t work in isolation.
This is where a good body double comes into play.
This is what I think, although I can’t prove it without specialty equipment. I think that when two people are working side by side, they can amplify their ability to focus. I think it’s related to how birds and animals will take turns keeping watch while the rest of the group eats. In one way, we can relax when we have social proof that it’s okay, that nothing alarming is going on. In another way, I think it has to do with how people start to walk in step, or how singers can harmonize. Entrainment.
It’s worth trying, if you have roommates, colleagues, etc who aren’t much for taking the initiative to clean up. Often one person cleaning will spark others into pitching in. Rearrange chairs, wipe down a counter, or start putting things away, and others may silently participate. This works best if you treat it like a butterfly resting on your knee. Appreciate it, but don’t startle it.
This phenomenon, like many others, can be quickly destroyed by a single unrestrained facial expression or sarcastic remark.
This is another unheralded issue between the “organized” or “punctual” person and everyone else. Criticism. What might never have become an issue is now an area of perpetual power struggle, simply because the “good one” won’t leave it alone.
Sometimes people need a little time and space to get started.
I stay out of it. As an organizer, I’m learning more from my people than they are learning from me. It always amazes me how singular each person’s situation is. Sure, they have things in common, like unsorted bags or scattered coins, but otherwise their personal distribution of space versus stuff is completely unique.
I’m good at what I do partly because I approach my work with gentle curiosity and compassion. I’m also good at it because I know how to sit quietly for many many hours and keep my opinions to myself.
Sometimes, yes, I am thinking to myself GROSS! HOW CAN YOU LIVE LIKE THIS?? I recognize this voice, though, as a troll’s voice. One. Single. Comment. Can permanently etch someone’s confidence or willingness to tackle a difficult project. Let it never come from me.
I only act as a body double when it’s clear that my person is working confidently. What I’ve found is that most people can work for hours on end, skipping meal breaks, not even wanting to stop for basic biology. They’ll go for twelve hours if the mood is right.
They just won’t do it on their own and they won’t do it in a room by themselves.
I like these quiet times. Very little is asked of me other than to 1. Avoid critical comments or facial expressions and 2. Sit quietly, exuding companionship and concentrating on my own stuff.
I can catch up on so much reading!
It doesn’t work as well if I get up and actually start working on something else. If I’m sitting four feet farther away, working at my keyboard, the spell is broken.
What works is for me to sit there, meek as a little mouse, simply available.
I can hold my phone, or maaaaybe a book or my tablet. Usually I sit somewhere that seems temporary, like the floor, or the edge of a chair.
The goal is to create a sort of timeless fog. Nothing is happening. Nothing is going on. Nobody is doing anything. No seagull incursions or distractions of any kind. Nothing to do but sort this box, sort these papers.
When there are simply two adults in the room, this is easy work, and it can carry on uninterrupted for many hours. When there is even one little kid involved, it can go completely haywire. Kids can sense when someone’s attention is elsewhere. They need to feel like someone is WATCH THIS or YOU KNOW WHAT at all times. Here, the body double needs to be able to reassure the child without distracting the working adult. Can there be a third party who is responsible for entertaining the little one(s) for half a day? A weekend?
The great thing about sorting and organizing is that once a working system is put into place, the work doesn’t need to be repeated. A good system explains itself and becomes its own reward. Having, or being, a good body double can be a key part of this kind of automatic system.
We prepped before we even heard that someone on the West Coast had died from COVID-19. It went like this:
Hubby: I think we should get ready for this thing to spread.
Me: I agree with you.
*five minutes later*
Me: Here’s a kit. If they have it on Amazon it could be here tomorrow.
*ten minutes later*
Risk mitigation is something that, the smarter and/or wealthier someone is, the more they do it. We are already prepped for a number of things, because we have this sort of conversation on a regular basis and also because we have watched a darn lot of zombie movies.
The funny thing about zombies is that almost anything you could do to prepare for a “zombie apocalypse” is also a thing that is smart to do to prepare for earthquakes, flooding, wildfire, any other natural disaster, or, of course, pandemic illness.
The nuances are a bit different, which is why this is worth talking about. The more people who take the time to prepare, the fewer people there are who need serious rescuing - and, more importantly, the more people who are able to do it. When you see yourself as a first responder, the last thing you want is to be a casualty on someone else’s to-do list. Better for both of us to be up and doing, so the responder who would have been helping us is instead off helping someone else.
We have go-bags in case we need to evacuate. This is quite a real issue for people in our region. I have no fewer than five friends who have had to evacuate for wildfire, one of them twice in the same season, and they all live in different cities. We have had smoke visible from our apartment and we sometimes see firefighting helicopters pass over our building.
This is basically the opposite scenario from an epidemic. We can almost think of it as a lever that slides from ‘evacuation’ on one end to ‘quarantine’ on the other.
What if we were advised to stay home for as long as three weeks? What would we do?
On at least two occasions, I have picked up a cold or flu because I went to a pharmacy for an ordinary prescription. One time, I went to get my prescription, got the flu shot, and caught the common cold on the bus the same day. Ugh. If only the flu shot covered every possible airborne illness!
Our first priority is now to avoid going to 1. Pharmacies 2. Hospitals and 3. Grocery stores as much as possible. I would be mad as heck if I ran out of toothpaste and this led me to be exposed to some gnarly virus.
This is why our goal was to stock up in such a way that we could comfortably lock ourselves into our apartment for weeks at a stretch.
We are experienced backpackers, so, weirdly, we are better prepared for extreme situations than we are for hanging out in our own home! We have two separate water purification systems, two types of portable stove, and of course the ability to hike ten miles a day if we need to evacuate on foot. We have training in advanced first aid. We’d be fine living in the bushes, if that were the scenario.
The irony here is that we have no space for a pantry in our apartment. We’ve trained ourselves to deliberately avoid stocking up on anything, because there’s nowhere to put it. We would have had to spend an extra $1000 a month or more to rent a two-bedroom, and even if we had chosen a $250/month storage unit, what good would that do us in this scenario?
We keep all our extra food in the fridge, with the single exception of canned soup. We have half a shelf for that. Let’s face it, half a shelf of canned goods could vanish in two days.
What we elected to do was to buy a kit of freeze-dried backpacking food. Actually, we reconsidered and bought two. While we have a dehydrator, it would take us weeks to prepare this quantity of dried food ourselves. With this thing constantly in the news, this creepy coronavirus, we really wanted results on a faster timeline.
Where this strategy can backfire is that people want to throw money at a problem, rather than thinking their way out of it. We like the idea that we can buy a piece of equipment or a box of supplies and then “check the box.” Okay, good, that’s done, time to sit back and forget about this particular stressor. This makes us sloppy.
The result of sloppy thinking is default behavior. The default of having supplies on hand is that they eventually expire. Usually people do not notice while this is happening.
You know I work with hoarders? One constant among my crowd is that they like to stockpile vast quantities of food, almost all of which winds up being expired. I have seen a lot of rusted-out cans that are unsafe to use. You think zombies are scary; how much do you know about botulism?
The other thing that food hoarders tend to have in common is that we (yeah, recovering food hoarder here) tend to stockpile a completely different kind of food than what we actually like to eat or know how to cook. We’ll buy either what was on sale or what looks like what our family kept on hand. Because there is almost no overlap between Food I Buy and Food I Consume, all these cases of green beans and packets of gravy are just sitting in there getting old and funky.
This is why my husband and I felt fine about buying freeze-dried backpacking food: We actually go backpacking and eat backpacking food. It is useful to us to have lightweight foods like this. We even have a trip planned.
Because we are frugal by nature, the ownership of a small stockpile of backpacking food is going to lead us to think continuously about backpacking. This leads us to two possible outcomes:
The horror movie alternate ending of this is that some lucky survivors find our supplies and it cheers them right up.
We ordered our supplies on Friday. They were supposed to arrive on the following Wednesday. To our surprise, they arrived on Saturday, the day after our order. Hooray!
On Sunday, we had some visitors on their way between the port where they got off a cruise ship, and the airport, where they are heading home to a small semi-rural town. This will be interesting, considering that they just visited no fewer than four countries during their trip. They’ll have a lot to talk about. One topic of conversation will be where exactly he picked up that nasty cough.
Time to go. I need to double-check our inventory of cough medicine.
The reason there is still a market for books on clutter-clearing is so many people are still buried in clutter. There’s another reason behind that, and that is that most of these books are written by methodical people who think the process is simple. Just get four boxes and start sorting! Tracy McCubbin knows better. Making Space, Clutter Free arose from years of working directly with people and understanding why almost everyone finds the process so emotionally challenging.
Making Space, Clutter Free is built around seven “Clutter Blocks.” I have seen all of these in play with my own clients (and many of them I have experienced myself). No amount of physical effort, no amount of bins or tubs or boxes, no approach is going to work until these blocks are identified and acknowledged.
The good news is that, in my experience, this emotional work can be done anywhere, at any time, and you don’t have to have a duster in your hand to do it. It’s much easier to do the inner work and go in prepared, having developed the interior certainty that it’s definitely time for this stuff to go.
Making Space, Clutter Free is the book to read if you’re still stuck, if you’re working through someone else’s things, if you’re having power struggles with your family, basically in any situation in which the whole “spark joy” thing isn’t working.
We use shopping as a shorthand for doing the work.
We imbue objects with tremendous power.
“I can love and hold their memory and still let go of their things.”
Instead of thinking of buying the item, think of buying the option of that item.
Invariably, these people are kicking the clutter can down the road because they don’t trust their judgement.
None of us want to be contributing to landfills, but that is no reason to let your home become one.
Don’t give your power away by thinking you need someone else to show up and get this done.
He opened the box. He closed it again. He opened it. He closed it.
This went on, from time to time, for nearly ten years.
I barely gave it any thought. When the box turned up in our lives, we had tons of storage. Not only did we have a walk-in closet, we had an office and a two-car garage with a loft. I doubt I even knew where this box was kept.
It wasn’t until we downsized for the fourth or fifth time that the box had nowhere to go. It sat in our bedroom for months. I had to move it over and over again just to clean the floor. Time to do something.
Normally I wouldn’t interfere. Someone else’s box of memories is their business, not mine (unless they ask me for help). Sometimes this stuff takes time to process. In this case, though, I knew the box was full of medals and ribbons and other marks of achievement. I truly couldn’t understand why anyone would hesitate to “deal with” what looked very much like a box full of success.
I asked him about it.
“It feels like a moral hazard,” he said.
What, to acknowledge that you worked really hard for several years? That participating in these things built you into the person you are today? That the values that earned you these trophies are values you still hold forty years later?
It’s okay to admit that you worked hard and you did a good job!
This whole situation was hilarious to me. I work with chronically disorganized people, and almost always their situation stems from accumulated trauma. They have trouble sorting their stuff, partly for cognitive reasons, partly because it physically wears them out, but mostly because it’s sad.
I share some of this to help people see their issue from a more clinically removed perspective. Putting things in the third person or giving some other type of emotional distance can often help them to make decisions. It can be easier if you see yourself as Someone, a generic person facing a slightly more abstract dilemma. Hmm. What should Person X do about Box Y and Box Z?
I also like to try to help my people see themselves as the endearing characters they so often are.
Here before you is a grown man, afraid that admitting he was once pretty good at swimming might turn him arrogant or vain.
Usually, when I start probing into how someone feels about a particular box of clutter, I’ll venture a version that doesn’t quite fit. I might share how I think I might feel in that situation, or I might mention a different client’s situation. The reason I do that is that it helps the person in front of me right now to get more specific. No, what I said isn’t how they feel at all. It’s actually...
Something quite unique, as it turns out!
The reason someone keeps a fork or a pencil or a set of keys is pretty consistent. “I need it.” If we get rid of these utilitarian objects, we’ll just have to replace them. We don’t have to explain why we have towels, unless we have like a thousand towels.
It’s much more interesting when someone explains why they have something that nobody else has, or why their emotional reaction is different than anyone else’s.
Do other people have boxes full of trophies or medals or ribbons or newspaper clippings of all the times local reporters interviewed them? I sure don’t! I only won my first trophy a little over a year ago.
It turns out that the reason the box was so hard to open was because of where it came from. My mother-in-law presented it to my husband a few years before her death, when her cancer came back. It was impossible to detach the contents of the box from their archivist.
She was so proud of you, I said. She must have shown all of this stuff to all her friends.
I was wrong about this box and its contents. It wasn’t entirely full of ribbons and medals. There were also quite a lot of photos, some of them framed. And? Homework and artwork from first grade on.
A lot is happening during the sorting of an archive like this. There are the rushes of various emotions, with the knowledge that at least some of them will be surprise sneaker waves. There are policy decisions: what to keep, what not to keep, and what do we do with it all? Where does it go?
What do we do with the stuff we want to keep? Frame or display it? Scan it? If we digitize it, do we also keep the originals?
Is there anything we should send to someone else? (Example: a funny newspaper photo attributing my husband’s name to another boy).
What do we do with the stuff that’s going away? Recycle it? Throw it in the trash? Shred it? Burn it?
The main thing I recommend, after sorting it all, is to set it aside until the next day, when all the emotions that have been stirred up have time to settle a bit.
My position on my husband’s box of stuff was that he should keep most of it, at least long enough to show his interns. They would really get a kick out of the pictures of him with a mullet! I also recused myself, because I had sorted, scanned, and burned my own stuff several years prior.
(That’s the problem: the two of us did that ritual together, going through stuff from our divorces, but this box wasn’t around at the time).
This is what he actually did. He kept the photos and the ribbons and medals. He elected to throw out the homework, with one exception.
Apparently, at some time back in the 1970s, my man had set aside a brain teaser and never finished it. Never mind that he has a master’s degree. He wasn’t going to let this incomplete homework assignment hang on as an open loop. He sat back and figured out the puzzle.
It took him ten minutes, which to me legitimated how challenging the question was. It seemed fair to me that a child would struggle if an adult aerospace engineer did.
“You know you’re allowed to have been a kid, right? You can’t blame yourself for not being grown up yet.”
I get it, though. Few of us can forgive ourselves for being young and making a young person’s mistakes. We judge our child-selves for not being adults yet, for not knowing how to make the decisions we would make today.
This is why it’s so hard to let go, because we can’t forgive ourselves even for being little children. We can’t be proud of ourselves even when we win.
Start Now. Get Perfect Later. This is such an effective book that the title alone is its own philosophy. The cover could be posted on the wall above a lot of desks. While the rest of us are contemplating our personal struggles with productivity, Rob Moore has probably already submitted the outline for his next book.
What differentiates SNGPL from other books on procrastination is that it focuses a great deal on how to become more decisive and how to think strategically. This is a very intriguing take. Procrastination research in the academic world right now is revolving around mood repair and recognizing the emotional roots of resistance. Moore is sharing his approach, what worked for him, and I think it would also be an improvement for many of us fellow procrastinators.
Rethink what you are doing and why you are doing it. Teach yourself to be more confident in your decisions.
I’m with him on this, and I think I have a similar mindset. There is a stripe of person, the natural entrepreneur, who is full of ideas and drive but needs a certain amount of structure in order to get anything done. Not just building systems, but learning what is involved in creating an effective system in the first place, that’s the missing piece.
This book has the ring of truth. Bias toward action is the premise behind the exhortation to Start Now, Get Perfect Later. I can attest to much of this material from experience, which is motivating me to pay close attention and try the rest. Peek into the mind of someone who is doing things a bit differently, and ask yourself, wouldn’t it be better just to start now?
Delaying general admin and jobs with no financial or residual benefit, in favour of the most important or highest-value task, is just plain smart.
Even procrastinating is a step into the unknown, as you don’t know what will happen when you put off a decision.
As you make faster, better and harder decisions, you get better at making faster, better and harder decisions.
Problem solvers rule the world.
Nobody seems to know how to cook anymore, and that makes meal planning even more complicated when people’s schedules and requirements don’t line up. What if you’re eating different things, at different times, for different reasons, and you have different needs?
The second reason for a trashed, messy kitchen is when there are multiple people sharing it who eat meals at different times. It means the kitchen is almost continually in use, and that means nobody thinks that wiping down counters or scouring the sink is “their job.” (The first reason is that the home is ruled by Not Me).
Bulk cooking is one way around this. People can take turns being the bulk cook, or trading off between shopping, cleanup, and meal prep.
The other way is something that I just figured out.
A lot of families are out of sync because there are multiple adults (or teenagers) working various shifts, going to classes, or fitting in sports and other events. There can also be an issue with people fixing meals and then carrying them off to other parts of the house, leaving dirty dishes, smears, napkins, food packaging, and crumbs all over the place.
Fortunately for us, we don’t have this problem!
We have two problems: one, when his business travel and evening gym classes either do or don’t line up with nights when I have meetings; two, when one of us is cutting calories and the other is trying to bulk up.
Why are our fitness routines always out of sync? Who knows? It just seems to happen that way.
He’s on a diet; I’m training for a marathon.
He’s training for his blue belt; I’m trying to drop fifteen pounds.
One of us is recovering from a sports injury and the other has a full plate in one hand and a smoothie in the other.
We have a deal set up where we take turns cooking throughout the week. My nights are Monday, Wednesday, and Friday because those are his gym nights, especially on Friday when he does sparring and class back to back. Then he does Tuesday, Thursday, and whichever weekend night we don’t go to the movies.
The main complicating factor is that I often have a meeting on Wednesday nights, and also a teleconference on Mondays right in the middle of the cooking window.
The other is that I’m in a two-month window of cutting calories.
We have a set of six meal prep containers. Last year, we were bulk cooking and keeping these full. We would plan what we wanted in them, and we would each cook part of it. Maybe he would make five gallons of mashed potatoes and I would chop the vegetables, or he’d chop and I’d make a pan of cornbread. Even with both of us taking turns in our miniature kitchen, because we couldn’t both fit in there at the same time, we could turn it around in under an hour. That means one evening of cooking for four nights’ meals: that night plus the six servings that went into the freezer.
This only works if we’re eating the same things.
Or so I thought.
Suddenly it occurred to me that I could continue to hold my end up, cooking on the nights that are my turn, even if the meal that I’m cooking for someone who just did a two-hour workout is not the meal that I plan to eat.
It goes like this:
Cook two servings of ordinary dinner. Serve one steaming hot. Put the other into the meal prep container with its three neat divisions. Put the lid on it, label it, and put it in the freezer. Eat whatever is on the alternate plan.
The next night, he can make whatever he wants, with the option of freezing half.
Within six to twelve nights, all the meal prep containers are full, labeled, and stacked up in the freezer.
There are huge advantages to this method. On busy nights, you can grab a meal prep box and microwave it, or even bring it with you. If one of you is out of town, the other can enjoy a nice home-cooked meal without having to cook or clean up.
An under-appreciated aspect of rotating meal prep is that the containers are almost always either in the dishwasher or the freezer. That means you don’t need to set aside as much space in the kitchen cabinets to store them.
Another under-appreciated factor is that this method generates much less trash than buying packaged meals. The busier the household, the less likely anyone is to feel like they “have the time” to take out the garbage or sort recycling. Less trash, less squabbling.
Any system that makes sense will reduce chaos. Each system that a household puts into place eliminates a persistent problem, and usually a bunch of them. For instance, an evening routine makes an easier morning routine, and giving each person a get-ready chair makes it easier to find the most important objects. Having a meal prep routine simplifies the one thing that is most likely to happen when people are hangry and tired, which is trying to figure out what to eat for dinner. Last-minute hangry, tired meal planning has about a 99.9% chance of leading to unintended consequences, such as me trying to eat in a car and getting ketchup all over myself.
The single greatest question to ask when you are trying to Get Organized is, will this make life easier for Future Me or harder for Future Me? Often the thing that you do now to make life easier for yourself tomorrow only takes two minutes. Bulk cooking and meal prep take a little bit more planning than that, but they can support the utmost in complicated and busy lives. It’s possible to use this method even for a household of multiple adults who are constantly traveling, taking night classes, working overtime, and doing body transformation - even all at the same time.
Disaster struck my little household a week or so ago. It was like an earthquake, short in duration but dramatic in impact. Just like an earthquake, we got through it more easily because we were prepared. Out of everything else we organize, our ability to come and go quickly is perhaps the most important.
I happened to be working on a presentation about “getting organized” when my husband suddenly got a severe eye injury. This is why it was on my mind. There’s a lot of Hurry Up and Wait in any crisis, and an overnight in an emergency room includes many hours of time for reflection.
I work with people who are chronically disorganized. What would any of them have done in a situation like this?
Imagine you walk into your front door covering your face because you’ve hurt your eye, and you can’t see. What do you do?
Can you easily open and walk through the front door?
Can you make it to a chair, or somewhere to sit?
Do you have a first aid kit? What’s in it? How long does it take you to get to it?
(A first aid kit was actually not helpful in this case; nor was ice, although my hubby was able to put together a baggie of ice cubes for himself. In case of a corneal abrasion, just go to urgent care or the ER as soon as you can).
The tricky thing about our situation was not so much that we each had to know where our own stuff was. I had to be able to find *his* stuff. In particular, I needed his wallet and his health insurance card. It’s easy to imagine the reverse situation, where he would have to get into my purse.
Not being able to find your identification is one of the endless hassles of the chronically disorganized. Photo ID? Social security card? Birth certificate? Often what could have been a simple bureaucratic chore can take weeks, because my person has to go back and fill out forms and pay extra fees for additional copies of documents that they already have. Somewhere.
Our stuff is either in our wallets or in the fireproof safe. Simple. I knew right where to go.
Some people can get deep into the weeds of organization. I call it “alphabetizing your socks.” The goal is perfection. Really, the goal is efficiency: Can you get what you need the moment you need it? Like when you need emergency instructions on how to save someone’s eye?
This is why we called the advice nurse rather than rushing straight out the door. First, we needed to know if there was something we could quickly do at home to help the eye. Second, it turns out my hubby was worried that if we went to the ER without the proper authorization, we could wind up on the hook for thousands of dollars of bills. We talked about it later and realized that if we had been on vacation when this happened, it could easily have been financially ruinous.
(Here we were lucky. A corneal abrasion is off-the-charts painful, and it can indeed result in permanent vision damage, but with the right treatment it can heal in 24 hours. Because of the type of injury, we could afford to delay).
It turned out we had about forty minutes to DO ALL THE THINGS while on hold for the advice nurse. My temporarily blind husband sat with the phone on hold, since he was in too much pain to do much else anyway. Every other thing that I did to get ready involved... stuff.
Basically the level of organization of our entire apartment.
Needed the insurance card. It was in the drop zone, right where it belonged.
Needed to make a quick meal for hubby and grab something for myself. Fridge and freezer were stocked. I was able to throw something in the microwave and grab a clean plate and fork with about five seconds of conscious thought.
Needed to clean up after our sick dog. Had gloves and enzyme cleaner right where they were supposed to be.
Needed to give a pill to the poor sick dog. Knew where it was and which bottle it was in. There was a trick here, because they have to be cut in half and I had to do it with a knife. Apparently our pill slicer had broken and been thrown out without being replaced. Who would have thought something this minor would ever be a matter of urgency?
Needed to take the dog out. His leash and baggies were right there in the drop zone. He had his harness on and he knows the drill. Good boy.
Needed my keys, since we live on the fifth floor. Yet another item that was right in the drop zone.
Needed to get out of my workout clothes, shower, and throw on something for cold weather. This was another sticking point, because we were planning to do laundry the next day and I only really had one clean outfit. But all I needed was one.
When it was finally time to go, I did a bag check on both our bags. Usually I only need my own bag, with my phone, purse, wallet, and keys. This time I also needed to track someone else’s stuff. It was all there... right in the drop zone.
A drop zone, if you haven’t figured it out, is the area where everyone in your home drops their stuff when they come in. For chronically disorganized people, there is no drop zone. It might be different every single day. Each person might drop certain items (shoes, backpack, glasses, inhaler, hoodie) in different rooms. Someone else might kick something under a table, or drop something on top of it. Nobody knows where anything is because nobody formed a memory when the thing got dropped. When the entire house is a drop zone, nobody can ever find anything truly important, like the keys, the health insurance card, or the first aid kit.
It feels simple and easy to drop stuff “wherever,” and that’s why it is such an easy habit to develop. In reality, having no drop zone can create endless chaos. Designing a drop zone and training everyone in the house to use it, including young kids, can feel like running up the down escalator. After that, though, the most important stuff is streamlined. Getting ready to go somewhere is a matter of minutes, and nobody cries.
Our drop zone is the top of a bookcase, as close as we could get to the front door. There’s a wooden crate, and my hubby literally drops his stuff into it when he comes in. I keep my stuff in my bag and hang it on the chair by my desk. That’s all. Nothing fancy. One chair, one flat surface.
It’s true that this particular disaster of an evening involved several housekeeping systems. The kitchen, the bathroom, the linen closet, the laundry and the groceries and even our dog’s few possessions were all involved. We could have figured out how to get around a systemic failure in any of these areas. The really important things were the wallet with that pesky insurance card, the phone, and the keys.
The art of the drop zone can transform any home, no matter how many people live there, whether it’s a tiny apartment like ours or a sprawling five-bedroom. Try it, and then make a game out of practicing your emergency preparedness skills.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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