We tried an experiment on this, our most recent move. If I'm counting right, this is the sixth time we've moved in eight years of marriage. The idea was to track what is in each box so that we could find anything we needed. We've never done anything like this before, so I thought I'd report back on how it worked out.
Answer: It was AWESOME! Still is, in fact, because we started unpacking on Saturday afternoon and we only have seven boxes left. That means we're already 90% done!
It worked like this. We went around the house, visually estimating how many boxes we would need of each size. This worked really well; we were short about five small boxes at the very end, but otherwise we nailed it. Then we set up a numbering system so that we could both number boxes while working independently. My series started at zero and his started at 100.
We didn't do anything about trying to keep boxes of the same size together. We didn't stage them in numerical order. They didn't get loaded on the van or stacked in storage by numerical order. They were simply numbered and labeled. My husband taught me to write the number on all three corners on the same side of each box, so they would be visible from the top, front, or side.
The labels are the most important part, aside from the inventory list. We started with the ROOM and then a few of the key items in the box. Such as: BEDROOM, machete, yoga mat, ukulele. Getting the boxes staged in the appropriate room in the new house is the most important part. This is why I don't believe in the concept of 'miscellaneous,' also known as MISC (the dreaded misc). Everything is "a thing I use in this room." If the room a thing belongs in is not clear, then it is probably a useless thing.
The inventory is the slightly more complicated part. It's especially complicated when you accidentally delete it off your phone and then have to hunt it down. (Don't do that). It could easily be done with paper and pencil; index cards might be useful. We only had about 70 boxes, so even a handwritten list would not have been unmanageable. I dictated our list because my phone has speech recognition. I would list the number of the box and then list off the contents in detail - more detail than we wrote on the box itself. For instance, Box 106 included a pair of ski gloves. I was able to indicate that the base of the blender went into one box, while the pitcher went into another box of more fragile items. Like that.
Having this inventory while we unpack has been incredible. It is SO helpful to know what you're getting into before you open a box. There have been several occasions when we needed something specific and were able to go right to it, such as the dog's bowls, the mattress pad, and the power strips. In some cases, we were even able to figure that certain boxes could go on the bottom of a stack with more urgent boxes on top.
Almost everything on this move was boxed up. In previous moves, we have always wound up with a lot of loose items. Last time, we made a couple of trips per night over about a week, and I hand-carried the most fragile stuff, one load at a time. That method makes it really challenging to estimate how many boxes you'll need, and thus there are never enough. The van winds up being full of all kinds of loose items, like garden hoses and lamps, and it's really hard to unload. All the loose things are much harder to unload than they were to cram into every available nook and cranny of the moving van. I am now a total convert to boxing every possible thing, even myself if that means I can hide and avoid having to carry another mattress down a ramp.
We have had professional movers twice, once when they stored everything for three weeks between homes. While professional movers are incredibly hard-working people with great spatial skills, I would rather avoid ever having to hire a service to do this job again. After a certain point, they just start carrying things in and setting them down wherever they fit. Last time, we had a floor lamp next to the toilet, because, isn't that where everyone puts their lamps? They even pack wastebaskets with stuff still in them. I can honestly say that with this move, we were more organized than professional movers. That is when minimalism really starts to pay off.
We got rid of three carloads of stuff before our move, after holding a yard sale and eliminating roughly another carload. After we saw our new apartment, we realized that a lot more would have to go, and we dropped off the equivalent of another pickup load, mostly consisting of plastic garage shelving. By far the easiest way to take inventory and pack up for a move is to get rid of as much stuff as possible first! Start with the fragile stuff and continue with anything irregularly shaped or hard to pack. Fill grocery bags with as many small items as you can bear to eliminate. When you are twelve hours in on moving day and haven't had dinner yet, you will thank yourself.
Moving does not have to be a horror show. The better organized and the more streamlined, the easier it is, and the sooner we can all get back to relaxing and playing with our phones, the ultimate proof that we don't use, need, or even enjoy most of our possessions anyway.
Things get complicated. Life itself gets complicated all the time, of course, and the things in our lives can add to that complication. An example of this is when my husband got an offer for his dream job, and we had TWELVE DAYS to move or accept a four-hour daily commute. This is when theory meets practice.
We had three things to do. The priority was for my husband to fill out the numerous Human Resources forms for the new job. Second was to find a new place to live. Third was to pack our stuff and vacate our house. Oh, and the timing just happened to fall during the same week we were getting rid of our car. The game was to balance the schedule, the finances, the transportation, the pets, and the material goods in the optimal way.
Bonus rounds: try to get a refund of prorated rent from our current landlord if he can get a new tenant in early; find a new home with mass transit access; find a new home that does not cost more than the current place but also takes exotic pets.
Due to the tight timeline, we realized that we simply wouldn't be able to pack up the house and look for a new place at the same time. There was just too much to do and it was too far to commute to screen new places. We made the unconventional decision to move our stuff twice, using a storage unit as a temporary stopping point and sleeping at an Airbnb. If we owned as much stuff as the standard American household, this would have been crazy talk.
Everything we own fit in a 20' moving van.
The next constraint was that we were moving to the beach, and there are two basic choices in our price range. A sad shack with no garage or yard, or a relatively nice apartment. There were very few houses available at any price, and they included: two that were only available for a 3-5 month lease; one with NO HEAT that recommended using space heaters in the actual ad; one with a bedroom too small to contain a king-size mattress. The standard seemed to be original 1960's linoleum, no dishwasher, and sub-600 square feet. Meanwhile, the apartments all included gyms and a long list of amenities, some of which were nicer than a few hotels where we've stayed. Hmm. Depressing hovel, or permanent vacation? Apartment it is!
A 680-square-foot apartment at that. A two-car garage is 400 square feet if that tells you anything.
I should take a moment to talk about the dream job. Space mechatronics. My husband is an aerospace engineer, and after 24 years, he's finally getting the chance to work on what he wanted to do when he was still in school. He's so excited it's completely adorable. Honestly I think he would sleep under his desk if that's what it took to get this job. Living in an apartment instead of a house is a perfectly reasonable tradeoff, especially an apartment on the beach.
The standard response to most unconventional choices is I COULD NEVER DO THAT. That statement is never literally true. It's only emotionally true. Anyone CAN move to a new place. Anyone CAN get rid of physical possessions. It's not complicated. We decided several years ago that we would relocate anywhere for the right job. We also decided that our lifestyle was more important than our stuff.
This is how it worked out:
Got boxes at 6:30 PM on Tuesday
Picked up moving van at 10 AM Friday
Finished loading van AND doing full move-out house-cleaning by 8:30 PM Friday
Moved entire contents of van into storage unit between 12 and 5 PM Saturday
Found and applied for apartment on Sunday
Started new job on Monday
Reserved rental van on Tuesday
Picked up keys for new apartment on Friday
Picked up van at 8:30 AM on Saturday and returned it at 9:30 PM
Unpacked from 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM on Sunday
Dropped: one bedroom, two-car garage, laundry room, yard, 48 square feet of living space
As of right now, the bed, couch, and dining table are set up. I was able to cook a proper meal in the kitchen. We still need a shower curtain, but over the weekend we turned an empty apartment into an 80% functional, messy home.
We were able to accept the job offer and relocate in only twelve days because we had the savings to cover double rent, move-in fees, and a security deposit, pet boarding, two van rentals, and a storage unit; the credit scores to get accepted in the new place; the physical ability to pack and haul our own stuff twice in the same week; and the emotional wherewithal to downsize and get rid of an entire garage's worth of tools. Yes, we get to live our dream life and play on the beach now. It came as the result of being stringently frugal savers and yet profligate in donating and giving away anything that wouldn't fit in a 680-square-foot apartment.
If you could live your dream life, what would you keep and what would you give away?
Do you have a dream life?
Which do you spend more time thinking about: your stuff or your life?
No matter how many moving boxes I get, I always run out. I have tried and tried and tried to learn to estimate correctly, and I always round up on the most I think I'll need, and I'm always still short. This time it was only by five small boxes. The trouble is that five small boxes of small items can represent dozens of things scattered in every cabinet and drawer. As usual, it's the fiddly bits. For most people, the fiddly bits turn into MISC (the dreaded misc). Don't leave them alone in the dark.
What happens is that we have a moving van that is 90% packed, it's getting late, we have an appointment to hand over the keys, and we're scrambling to fit in the last of the fiddly bits. No more boxes and no time to go find some. We wind up with paper and plastic grocery bags full to bursting and ready to tear or tip over. This time we even had to use a plastic bag from our dinner delivery. It's no fun to pack this way, and it's even less fun to unpack the van this way. After collecting everything that has rolled out, it takes a half hour of extracting the fiddly bits before we can start unloading the boxes and larger items.
With this move, I finally decided to get to the bottom of the problem. I realized that I always had fiddly bits left over because I clean the house top to bottom when I move out. We couldn't pack the cleansers until last. I had never taken the time to evaluate whether I really needed every single bottle at the last minute, or how much space they take up. It turns out to be exactly one box for laundry stuff, and one apiece for the cabinets under the kitchen and bathroom sinks. Gee, that's not so hard!
A household move is often the culprit behind a cluttered, disorganized house. There will be boxes taped shut from previous moves, and sometimes for several moves before that. What happens is the standard plan:
1. Household cannot deal with the upcoming move
2. Nothing is packed, cleaned, or organized until the last possible minute
3. Not enough boxes
4. Friends, family, or professional movers help by tossing anything that will fit into any box they can find
5. Every single box is appropriately labeled 'MISC'
6. It's impossible to find things when it's time to move in to the new place
7. No way will everything fit anyway
8. Repeat with next move, only it's significantly less organized than the previous move
The natural tendency is to blame the movers and carry a grievance, while drastically underestimating how much free labor was supplied. Nobody owes anyone free moving help! Pizza and beer are not enough. I priced movers in my area and they earn a rate of $30-60/hour per person. Essentially, if we have boxes of MISC packed for us by our friends, we should feel incredibly grateful, and even more so if they gave up precious free time on their days off.
We've done our last two moves alone, partly because I now have a profound distrust of professional movers packing my things, and partly because we can move ourselves. It's cheaper. We're strong enough. Everything fits in a 20' van. We have a really hard time moving our Cal-King mattress, but that's ten minutes of intense struggle, and we can handle it. Even the time I nearly knocked myself unconscious by smacking my head on the doorframe.
What the heck are people moving? For most households, the kitchen is the problem area. Lots of tiny, sharp, and/or fragile things with odd shapes and accessories. I freely admit that our kitchen is not minimalist. I still have the material capacity to cook and serve a meal for a dozen people. That's down from two dozen. We used to have two dining tables, and we filled them every week. I miss those days, but downsizing has helped me to realize that, guess what? That's what restaurants are for! If we have another get-together for two dozen people, we can rent a picnic area at a park. We keep questioning what we are keeping and what we can let go. Keep the friends, let go of the extra stuff.
Furniture and appliances are big and easy to track. They tend not to be the problem, although certainly they're the last things most people will consider letting go. Most people seem perfectly eager to keep every appliance and large piece of furniture they've ever had, and somehow try to wedge themselves in around the bulk. The fiddly bits tend to consist of:
Paper (junk mail, advertising circulars, catalogs)
Children's/pet toys (LEGO, crayons, tiny accessories like Barbie shoes and action figure weapons)
Office supplies (pens, pencils, paperclips, tacks)
Bits of hardware (nails, screws, nuts, bolts, washers, mystery hardware from various products)
Clothes on the floor in various rooms (laundry area, every bedroom, every bathroom, most hallways, many living rooms and kitchens)
Decorations by the dozens
Every object left on every flat surface (every table, every countertop, every desk, every windowsill, every toilet tank, every refrigerator, every dryer lid, many stair steps, most chairs, some couch cushions)
A box of MISC (the dreaded misc) may thus contain some plastic food storage containers, a handful of junk mail, a child's sock, a paperclip, some pennies, and a book. This box will never be unpacked. It will never be unpacked because just opening it and looking inside could give anyone a bad case of swirly eyes. Nobody is going to spend the five minutes to carry this box from room to room, sorting out the fiddly bits and putting them away.
Thus we start to see that the fiddly bits have never been put away. They can't get unpacked in a new home because they were never unpacked in the original home. They can't get put away because there's no 'away' to put them. How can a friendly mover pack them "correctly" when nobody has ever known where they should go?
The only solution for the fiddly bits is to treat them like weeds. Decide whether this is going to be a showpiece garden, a casual yard, or a nice setting for a haunted house. Then spend a certain amount of time every week scouting around and controlling the overgrowth to the degree that is acceptable for your standards, whether aesthetic or functional. When it comes time to move out, the results of this regular maintenance will be readily apparent, one way or another.
As we finish our first week of the nomad life, I think it's fair to say that we've passed novice level. The difference between 'nomad' and 'vacationer' is that you're trying to do your regular workweek without your regular home environment as a support system. That infrastructure tends to fade into the background until it is disrupted. What have we learned?
Power outlets are far more important to our marriage than we had realized. We're staying in a room with only one wall outlet, two phones, three tablets, a laptop, and a Bluetooth. Plus it took my husband until the fifth day to remember where he put his backup battery. Thank goodness for the travel splitter. Electricity is the new coffee.
No matter how carefully you try to prepare and bring all the important stuff with you, there will always be something in storage that you had no idea you would need. This time it was our marriage license. If you can't tell we're married by looking at us, wait twenty minutes. Nobody can fake a long marriage.
Sleeping in a bed two sizes smaller than your customary mattress = challenge. Welcome to the game of blanket tug-of-war!
Cooking in someone else's kitchen is almost as weird as sharing a bathroom with total strangers.
Cooking without access to a fridge takes some imagination. Planning not to have leftovers is a totally different chapter of home economics than our usual methods. We never realized how much we rely on condiments that require refrigeration until now.
The only truly hard part is missing our pets, wondering what they are doing, hoping they are sleeping okay. We could probably never be "real," full-time nomads because there's no way we could bring our critters on the road without living in an RV. Our goal in life is less driving, not more, so that isn't going to happen.
What do we truly need during an average workweek? Not as much as one would suppose.
Work clothes with matching shoes
Phones and chargers
Something fast and easy for breakfast, like protein bars
Warm pajamas, at least when you're used to a million blankets at home
Our own pillows, because SPOILED
As it turns out, the biggest challenge we've had has been access to important documents. They're the only things you can't just replace at the store. Our desktop computer is boxed up in our storage unit, so we've been fortunate that various information we have needed has been available in our cloud storage. We're getting better at this. I had a copy of my previous marriage license, but not the current one. Revision control fail! The desktop is 9 years old now, and we're getting ready to upgrade to a laptop, especially since the hard drive crashed right before the move and we had to pay to get our data backed up. (Then it magically started to work again, go figure). It's weird how much more important our virtual, intangible, non-physical stuff is than our actual stuff-stuff.
What about all our stuff???
Living with almost every single thing we own in a storage unit for a week and a half has been an eye-opener. We're supplied with furniture and appliances and housewares, as we're in someone else's home, and it turns out that it doesn't matter so much which bathtub or vacuum cleaner or microwave you have. As long as they're functional, they're basically interchangeable.
What about entertainment? Sure, we have some books, DVDs, board games, and sports equipment in storage. It turns out, though, that we haven't missed them at all. Almost everything we do for casual weeknight entertainment involves the internet. As long as we have wifi, we can get almost any book, movie, TV show, or lizard video we could ever want.
What the heck is in the rest of the boxes? Take away the furniture, sheets and towels, dishes and pots and pans, cleansers, power strips and extension cords, and all the things that make a house impersonally functional, and it really depends on the person. What makes our home into our home is:
Our taste in art and music
In a lot of households, those core elements are represented by hundreds or thousands of individual items. A lot of them are decorations, a lot of them are books, a lot of them are clothes, a lot of them are souvenirs and photos. It's not so much the types or categories of things as the quantity of them. How much do we feel we need in the pantry to truly feel nourished and supported at home? How much do we feel we need in the clothes closet (and on the floor) to feel that we truly have options in self-expression? How many books, magazines, etc do we feel we need to truly feel content that we will never be bored? How many of our memories do we feel need to be represented in a physical format? How many projects do we feel we need to have in progress to truly feel that we will never die? How much of our stuff insulates us from uncomfortable emotions?
Here are some uncomfortable emotions that come up during the nomad life:
Anxiety about misplaced objects
Awkwardness around strangers
Nervousness about one's habits, noises, and smells bothering others
Annoyance when others' habits, noises, and smells bother us
Jealousy over scarce space, power outlets, countertops, blankets, etc.
Strong desire for more privacy
Desire to cook soup and sleep in one's own bed as new ultimate fantasy
Mysterious realization that there is nothing to do "around the house" but relax and read
When we get the keys and drive the moving van up to our new home, we'll be doing it with a new perspective. We had a yard sale and gave away three carloads of stuff afterward. Already we have a list of more things that won't fit or that we won't need. We're learning with every trip that we really need very little to feel like ourselves, to feel at home in this world. Very little but a larger mattress and more power outlets.
I am so tired that I am sitting on the couch and I just realized I was staring into space with my mouth hanging open. It's after 10 PM. Now commences the battle between self-care for Present Me versus compassion for Future Me: Stardate: Tomorrow Morning.
Now Me: I schleepy
Tomorrow Me: Get up off your lazy butt.
Now Me: I ti-ewed
Tomorrow Me: Do you really want to get up at 6 AM?
Now Me: I go bed now
Tomorrow Me: Landlord is coming at noon and you haven't even done the floors yet.
Now Me: It's NOT FAIR!
Sometimes Future Me sounds like a cross grandparent. Future Me has this annoying tendency to be right, though. I fully recognize that I will be much happier tomorrow morning if I work for another hour tonight before I go to bed.
My house right now is a strong argument in favor of minimalism and good organizing skills. What that means is that it's a total disaster. There are open boxes in three out of five rooms; there'd be one in the bathroom as well but our bathroom is too small for those kinds of shenanigans. The kitchen cabinets are 95% empty, packed up, and wiped down, but you can't tell because the counters are covered with packing materials, rolls of tape, cleansers, and the last few scattered items that need to be put in boxes. All that's left are decisions.
As we all know, quality decisions are much harder to make in a state of physical exhaustion. Physical fatigue and decision fatigue chase each other around, like a squirrel teasing a dog until they both collapse.
The decisions before me right now are as simple as this:
Pick up item
Put item in remaining space at top of open box
Tape box shut
Write label on box
Each item that is waiting to be packed would take at most 60 seconds. There is nothing difficult about it. It's not physically taxing, it's not mentally taxing, it's not emotionally taxing. Not in itself. Even a tall kindergartener could come in here and accomplish this, and probably with better handwriting than I am demonstrating right now. It's not the task, it's THE TIRED.
I think about this and I remember what it was like to fight chronic pain and fatigue every day. When cooking dinner or washing dishes or folding a load of towels seemed like swimming across the Pacific Ocean. Can't be done. Nope. Sorry. I did it, though. I can't stand being surrounded by dirt and mess. It's depressing. It amplifies those feelings of hopelessness and weariness. From where I am sitting right now, it feels like there will ALWAYS be scattered boxes and I will NEVER be done. Just like it felt like I would ALWAYS be ill and in pain and I would NEVER be free.
I am free, though.
I'm a marathon runner and backpacker!
In my defense, though, I've been on my feet for 26 out of the last 48 hours, which is much more than I did during the marathon, not to mention a through hike.
I have it in me to stay the course. I have it in me to stand up and finish the work I set out to do. I will do it for my husband, who has done twice as much as I have today. I will do it for Future Me, because I have a perfect record for always getting my cleaning deposit back, and I intend to carry that streak forward. I will do it for Future Me, who can go to bed early tomorrow night if I push a little harder tonight. I will do it for Future Me, who can sleep in until 7 AM if I just try. I will do what I have always done, which is to remind myself that it's easier to work hard in the present moment and reap the benefits later, because 'later' starts with tomorrow morning.
This is going to be a busy, weird weekend. We're taking a Lyft to drop our animals off at boarding, picking up and loading the van, cleaning the house, doing the final walk-through with our landlord, driving to a new city, staying in an Airbnb, and looking for an apartment. The room is booked through the following weekend. Technically we'll be...homeless! We are entering The Place of Uncertainty. This level of detail management is taxing our combined mental bandwidth somewhat, and I recognize that this contributes to my exhaustion and confusion right now. By this time tomorrow, though, I'll be snug in (a) bed, thanking Past Me for working her caboose off today.
We're halfway through packing up our house. This house is 728 square feet, with a detached garage and laundry room, meaning it's about half the size of our previous house. We've downsized quite a bit. Now seems like as good a time as any to try out an experiment in organizing our stuff for the move. I have no idea whether this will turn out to be a good idea or not! This is a peek into our thought process and the way we tackle our strategic planning.
I had the idea of doing a running inventory as we pack. The idea was to number each box in the notepad app on my phone, with brief notes about the contents. That way we could theoretically track down specific items while we are unpacking. This is more relevant than usual for us during this particular move, because (spoilers) we will be living in The Place of Uncertainty for a week or two, and all of our stuff will be in storage. There is a slight, but real, possibility that we might have to bust into the storage unit in frantic haste, and I'll be darned if I'm going to scramble around untaping 65 boxes to find whatever it might be.
(What could such an item be? Something that can't be simply bought at a store or accessed locally in a short enough time frame? A passport or some other vital piece of paperwork maybe. I dunno. The point is just to test out this system).
The first issue I had with my box inventory idea was that we would be working independently in different rooms. Our house is small, and it's physically challenging for both of us to be in the same space while any boxes are on the floor. How could we number the boxes without duplicates? I suggested that we split by odd and even numbers. It turns out that there is actually a computer science solution to this!
"You start with one and I'll start with 100."
"But there are 65 boxes... Yeah, I guess that'll work."
[I think he means he'll work backwards from 100, which he doesn't realize, because 'ludicrous' doesn't come naturally to him]
We eventually clarify that he is working forward from 100, 101, and so on. Then he comes back and tells me that actually, I should start with Box Zero. I am humoring him because I figure other people will know what he is doing with these arcane things called numbers.
The box numbers are written at all three corners on one side, so that they are visible from the top, the front, and the side. They are labeled with the destination room.
We have something like five different sizes and shapes of boxes. Most of them stack, which is helpful. While we have been packing and assigning numbers, we have used whatever box was the most appropriate size, so there is no muss or fuss over packing in any kind of order. The boxes are being stacked in the garage staging area by size, and roughly by number.
There are two more organizing points still ahead of us. One is the order in which we load the boxes onto the van. The next is the order in which we unload the boxes into the storage unit. Anything we want to go into the front of the storage unit will need to be loaded into the back of the van, meaning it goes on first. It's like a train car going one direction up the track, then reversing and going the other direction on the track. ON with the important stuff, followed by the caboose. OFF with the caboose, followed by the important stuff, right behind the rolling storage unit door.
We are working out the next point as we go, which is, How do we know which boxes are important?
Answer: ALL of the boxes should be important, or why do we even have them?
That is not so helpful from an immediate, Where IS That Thing? standpoint, though. We can go in any of several directions, but first we need to figure out what we need on Day One in the new place. This is going to vary depending on your situation - our hypothetical was a family with six kids and three dogs, and the kids need to be ready for school first thing Monday morning.
Beds and bedding. Towels and shower stuff. Clothes and shoes. First aid/meds. Pet supplies. Breakfast box with bowls and spoons. Dish soap, sponge, and dish towels. Toilet paper and hand soap.
We have solved most of this for our own move using kanban. We can tell at a glance where our most important stuff is, because it's visually distinct from the packing boxes. We have both already packed our clothes for the week in our suitcases. My husband has his work backpack with important papers for his first day at his new job. I have my own work bag, a bag for shower stuff, and another bag I am referring to as my pacifier. It's full of books and will undoubtedly have more random, useless stuff in it by moving day, none of which I will use at all, but at least I won't be climbing the walls wishing I had it.
There will be a few VIP boxes for our first day in the new place. The bedding - the comforters and pillows are in two of the three wardrobe boxes, which are much larger than the other boxes. We will want to mark the box with the bowls and plates, and another box for sheets and towels. We can do this with any combination of colored ink, stickers, a symbol (like a star), stacking them in a separate staging area, or possibly with box tape designed for the purpose. (There are sets marked with the different rooms of the house, like Caution tape, which frankly some houses could use throughout the year...)
When it comes down to it, almost everything we own is either there because we have room for it, or for comfort. We aren't really emotionally attached to such things as laundry detergent or ice cube trays, we just use them. The more often we move our household from place to place, the fewer the things we want around us, because it turns out that there is a shocking amount of stuff to haul, even for basic comfort purposes! Sheets and towels and plates and bowls and forks and spoons and spatulas and extension cords and cleansers and sponges and mops and brooms and a dish rack and a fan and dog shampoo and ye gads, where did all this stuff come from??
Usually we are unpacked and settled in within about three weeks after a move. This means no lingering cardboard boxes. No MISC (the dreaded misc). This time, so far, looks like the most organized we have been, and this is our sixth move together. Soon we will find out whether this system has any merit, and whether we can unpack in any less time.
Garages are for cars. Did you know that? Weird, huh? That's like someone claiming that dining tables were originally designed for eating meals. It's bananas. About two-thirds of people who have a garage don't park their car inside it, and 90% say they only would if someone had tried to steal their car. It's funny that other than the house itself, most people's most valuable possession is their car, and yet we leave them outside while making room for boxes of old high school yearbooks and holiday decorations we bought for 99 cents. In our case, there are two reasons we don't park in the garage: 1. Someone carpeted it, and 2. We no longer have a car. That's a post for a different day. Let's go back to the process of packing and moving all the junk from a garage, since it's a near-universal conundrum.
Why do we have so much stuff and not enough room for it? What is it about garages that makes them like the Bermuda Triangle of clutter?
Garages are not fun places to work most of the time. Usually they are not insulated, which means they are too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer. Usually they are very dim. Usually they have lots of holes to the outside, which you can plainly see if you stand in your garage during daylight with the doors closed and the lights turned off. That means bugs, spiders, and sometimes bigger and creepier things. These are reasons not to go in the garage at all, much less to use it as a fabulous workspace. If you wonder whatever happened to your former passion for a neglected hobby, the poor ergonomics of your garage may be to blame. It's definitely one of the major reasons any given garage is a mess. Who would want to go out there, for even an hour, and when would they do it?
There is never a good time for space clearing. It's never going to be fun and you're never going to be in the mood. It's just a question of having a pressing reason to do it by a certain deadline - such as relocating.
Every garage is a tangle. Ours is like many - a combination space. It had:
A laundry area
Old paints and brushes
Winter storage (coats, scarves, gloves, etc)
Bicycles and a unicycle and a tub of motorcycle gear
Lots of shelving units of different styles and materials
Stuff the previous tenants and the owner left here
Boxes of memorabilia
Yard sale/eBay stuff
Empty shipping boxes
Empty product boxes we planned to reuse
Stuff that didn't fit in the house (like a too-big dry erase board)
Artwork we weren't decorating with in this house
Stuff we didn't know what to do with
Stuff that needed repairs
Materials that We Might Need One Day
Stuff we didn't know how to get rid of
I see the garage as a Man Cave, even though I can and do use shop tools, fix things, build things, and do garagey-type stuff. I just never had my own personal garage until after my husband and I got married, and I'm used to doing my projects on the back porch or wherever. My husband is an engineer and ex-logger - think TOOLS and lots of them - and he has a lot of gear-intensive hobbies like hockey that demand storage space. I figured I would give him the garage as a hands-off interference-free zone. That's why I had no sympathy when it came time to sort the garage. Have fun with that, babe! [runs off chortling]
I told him I would do the kitchen. I'm sweet that way.
The first thing we did was to hold a one-day yard sale. There was zero traffic for most of the day. We only sold maybe 1/3 of what we put out, and we only made $146. That was it for us. We had already tried and failed to sell a bunch of stuff on eBay, even for 99 cents. We decided that it simply wasn't worth any more of our time to try to extract a few dollars from the things we had left. We made up our minds to donate everything to a charity rummage sale, and we did that in two trips. These included a few items we had already moved as many as six times, without using them, and we know we won't be missing them. Little emotion here other than relief, and feeling silly that we hadn't done it sooner.
The second thing was to make some strategic decisions, like so:
Are we going to have a garage in our next place? In perpetuity?
What about a storage unit? For how long? Where?
How are we going to spend our time at the new place? After that?
What hobbies are important to us now, versus 10 or 20 years ago?
We're moving to the beach (spoilers) and almost none of the listings we have seen include garages. It also turns out that the nearest storage facilities are in other towns entirely. Also, (more spoilers) we just got rid of our car. So if we kept too much stuff, we would find ourselves in the position of having to pay $200-$300 a month to store things, take a cab to go to the next town (and back) to get stuff (assuming it would fit in a cab), and do it again to put it back. The prices were shocking. When we listed off what we thought we might not be able to fit in a small home, it seemed dumb to pay to store it.
Backpacking gear (fits in a closet, because we carry it all on our backs)
Tools (what if a pipe bursts late at night?)
Guest bedding (for those prices, we'll get you a hotel)
Stuff we never use - what, with our vacation money? I think not
Due to our major lifestyle policy changes and strategic decisions, we knew we could get rid of whole categories of things. Gardening tools. Automotive repair tools. Shop tools. The ladder. Materials for things we "might make one day" that we never did in our last eight years together. We estimated the replacement prices for these items, some of which we sold, and realized that it wasn't a big deal to us to buy a new one if we needed to. It would be less expensive to replace ALL OF IT than to rent a storage unit for one year. Six months, actually.
Storage units are emotional decisions, not logistical decisions, and almost never financial decisions.
We looked at our hobbies and our new region, and realized there were certain things we would probably do more often. My husband has a wetsuit I've never known him to wear once, but he used to, and now it's plausible that he will again. It still fits. We have bikes that we haven't ridden together in a long time, but now that we are car-free they are suddenly relevant. The dog has a floaty vest that my dad got him, and suddenly that seems like a really key item to have. Thanks, Dad!
The poor hubby set to work. I helped to come in from time to time and bring mental bandwidth. There were some decisions that felt a bit overwhelming. Decision fatigue leads almost immediately to physical fatigue, and sorting through MISC (the dreaded misc) can feel like trudging through waist-deep molasses. We got through it, though, and found that we had enough room to set up a staging area for our moving boxes. It took about three hours.
Imagine having less in the garage than you do in your house. Imagine being able to use your garage space - for any purpose at all.
Imagine if you actually DID all the aspirational activities that are represented by the clutter in your garage.
Imagine if your honey-do list no longer included 'clean the garage' and you could just sleep in every weekend and go to the park instead. Or the beach!
The first thing we did when we found out we were moving again was to start sorting the kitchen. Literally. We had a brief conversation, and then we walked into the kitchen together and started opening cabinets.
Most people probably would not do this!
Moving is different when you've done it so many times that it's made you into a minimalist. This will be our sixth move as a married couple, and we haven't even had our eighth anniversary yet. We've downsized each time. Now, every time we prepare to move again, we just have to ask ourselves, "Have we used this since we moved here?" If not, out it goes.
We started with the kitchen because it's the most complicated area of the house. This is true for most people. All those drawers and cupboards are deceptive! We forget that each shelf and each drawer represents its own moving box. Half the stuff is either fragile or sharp. There are a lot of nesting items that don't look like they take up much volume, until they have to be packed, that is. There are also a lot of things with lids, or things that used to have lids, or lids that used to have things. There is a reason why so many horror movies have a scene in which a poltergeist makes all the cupboards open at once and all the utensils fly into the air. Although, a lot of kitchens look like that most days of the week...
Most people's kitchens are overwhelming on most days. It is the home of the domestic power struggle. A sink and countertops loaded with dirty dishes, sometimes overflowing onto the floor. Trash, recycling, and compost waiting to go out. A fridge full of spoiling food and scary leftovers. Sometimes there is a backlog of at least three hours' hard work before any packing could even be done. THIS IS RELEVANT. If ever there were an area of the home in need of systems, the kitchen is that place. Lack of a system coupled with clutter and excess is the recipe for disaster. Add in food hoarding, and we're back to the horror movie theme again.
We started with the kitchen. We started with the kitchen BECAUSE it's the hardest room in the house. We started with the kitchen because it's the heart of our home. We started at 6 PM, and we were done in time for my husband to cook dinner and wash dishes afterward. By 'done' I mean that the countertops were clear and nobody would have known we were planning to move.
All right, what is it that we did?
We started with a strategy. What do we do in our kitchen and what stuff do we need? When we first got married, our house was bigger than both our bachelor houses put together. The kitchen was ridiculously huge. We both moved in our full bachelor kitchens, and found that there was still space left over. (I filled it). We also had open shelving in the garage, and a bunch of stuff went out there. Partly because we had so much room and so much kitchen capacity, we entertained a lot. We would have as many as twenty people over every week. We wound up accumulating a lot of serving platters, extra utensils, and extra cutting boards, potato peelers, and the like so that guests could cook with us if they wanted. We had two dining tables and enough chairs for everyone, except for the night we had to put a couple of people on our camping coolers.
Then we moved.
I was really emotional about wanting to hang onto all our stuff for entertaining. Just because the dining table filled the ENTIRE dining room from wall to door didn't mean we couldn't still have big dinner parties! Then we moved again, and my ten-top table physically would not fit in our house. Not unless we wanted to sleep on it at night, anyway. I had to adjust my emotional attachments.
Time went by. I started looking at all this stuff with a more analytical eye. I realized that, even when we had two dozen people one Thanksgiving, I still had more serving containers than we needed. What if I only kept enough so that everything we had was in use? Did I really need three gravy boats? We had the space, and most of these things were stored in high cabinets where I didn't see them on a daily basis, but I let them spin in the back of my mind. When we went into the kitchen preparing for our next move, the emotional homework was already done.
I stood on a chair and handed things down to my husband. It went like this:
I decided that we didn't need the majority of our plastic food storage containers. He was relieved. We have various shapes and sizes of glass and ceramic baking dishes with lids that can do the job. We also have dozens of Mason jars for canning that can certainly hold leftovers.
We realized we didn't need four muffin pans, three corkscrews, seven mismatched ramekins, and various other redundant redundancies.
We both pulled out personal items we knew we weren't using, such as my old work Thermos and a coffee mug that was a gift from his ex-wife.
I got down all of the big platters and serving dishes I'd decided to let go, plus a vase and other random items. Most of that stuff was there because 1. We had it and 2. It fit there.
We decided we needed to replace our knives and the pancake flipper.
I pulled out a set of little bowls I use for mise en place, because I have two sets, and he convinced me to keep them because I use them every week.
Suddenly we turned around, and the entire counter was covered with stacks of excess kitchen clutter!
The weird thing about space clearing in a kitchen is that you can usually remove a truckload of stuff, and it won't look like anything is missing. Our kitchen is definitely still functional - we cook together when we're backpacking, and we can do everything we need to do with a pot, a pocketknife, and a portable propane stove. We still have silly things, like an angel food cake pan and a skull-shaped cookie cutter, that we virtually never use. All we did was to get rid of the 10-20% we knew we didn't use at all. It took 35 minutes.
This was the first pass. We do the second pass after we move into a new place, when we are confronted with the configuration of a new kitchen. So far, we've always found at least a few more items that won't fit, and we've never once missed any of them.
Our kitchen system works like this: Six large plates, six small plates, six nesting bowls. Eight drinking glasses. A dozen sets of flatware. Teacups. That's all we need for eating meals. All of these items come from matching sets, so they're all the same size for portion control purposes, they nest, and they all fit into one dishwasher load. This is key. When the dishwasher is full, the cupboard is empty. We run it at night and he unloads it first thing in the morning.
We have a set of pots and pans, one of each size. When one gets used, it gets washed right after dinner, it sits in the drying rack overnight, and it gets put back in the cupboard the next morning. Weird, huh? Three dishwasher-safe cutting boards. A stack of nesting food storage containers in two sizes, for leftovers, but no more than would fill the freezer. Once the containers are full, something needs to get eaten up or there's nowhere to put any further leftovers.
We take turns cooking and cleaning the kitchen. We used to alternate, but recently we agreed to trade nights and do our own cleaning, mostly because I cook much more elaborate dishes and he was getting stuck with more of the cleanup. If there are leftovers, either the other person will cook them on their night, or they will sit until the second night. About once a week, one or the other of us will root around in the fridge and freezer, planning a meal with the goal of finishing off a container of something. A condiment, a leftover, half a cabbage, or whatever is there. We've been on a conscious plan of culling our pantry, where most things aren't replaced after they are used up, because we don't need to have 175 different flavors in our pantry every day of the year. They call it a 'store' because it 'stores' things.
The week that we pack and move, we won't cook. We have part of a package of paper plates and bowls hanging around, and we'll use those. We have some compostable forks. I have three days' worth of backpacking meals, and we'll microwave those. We could always go out, but I hate that feeling of having cardboard particles in my hair, being totally exhausted and grubby, and wandering into a restaurant looking like I got trapped in a warehouse overnight.
We're moving again. We started with the kitchen, because every other room looks easy in comparison.
It's a mystery to me, but there is something about the Perfect Day exercise that utterly stumps my clients. They'll do everything else for me, from handling bags of wet trash to sorting stacks of dusty papers to opening boxes that make them cry. But when I ask them to imagine their version of a perfect day, they can't do it. What do you like best? What do you want the most? What's your idea of fun? Nothing. No idea. It finally occurred to me that maybe we should try a more oblique approach. What's your most imperfect day?
We don't want to call it the Worst Day, obviously, because that brings up connotations of calamity, grief, and disaster. My people have always had plenty of that. In fact, it's far easier for them to imagine horrible things happening than pleasant or kinda okay things. Much less perfect or exhilarating or delightful things!
It's really the difference between pessimism and optimism. It's the indicator of depression and anxiety. Imagining a positive future is extremely difficult from these positions.
As an optimist, I reflexively find the positive spin on everything. I woke up one day at 6 AM, while I was still really tired, but then I looked out my back window and saw an Audubon's Oriole perching in my yard! First and only time in my life, and it was only a few yards away! Then its mate came and flew around! Another exhausted person with a parasomnia disorder might not have bothered to look out the window, or might have seen a brown and yellow bird and not cared. Most people in that situation would definitely have complained about their tiredness for the rest of the day. I am sure I was just as tired as anyone else would have been - but I really, really loved seeing those orioles. It made me feel lucky for waking up too early. If I was going to talk about my morning with anyone, that would have been what I talked about. For me, any day that involves a rare bird sighting is a Perfect Day. Optimism involves looking for the bright side. It also involves curiosity, awe, and wonder.
What did you get out of that story? Crazy birdwatching lady. There were no details in there whatsoever about: what I looked like or what I was wearing. My house, what it looked like, where I lived, or what stuff I had. How much money I had. Who was with me. What kind of car I drove. What job I had. That story was about me loving something that is easily available to most people: observing nature. It was about my EMOTIONAL STATE. Awe, delight, and gratitude. THAT is what makes a Perfect Day.
Okay, now that we've got the spoilers out of the way, let's get back to the Imperfect Day exercise. What makes an imperfect day?
There are so many more negative emotional states than there are positive emotional states!
The thing about the Imperfect Day exercise is that you don't have to imagine something beyond your experience. You don't have to make anything up. My 'Perfect Day' always seems to involve room service breakfast, an infinity pool, and a hot stone massage for some reason, which is bonkers because I've never experienced a single one of those things. BUT, everyone has had an imperfect day. A day when we wish we'd just stayed in bed. A day when we are so miserable we want to change our names and enter the Witness Protection Program just to get away. When was that?
Waking up almost too exhausted to hit Snooze again
Stepping barefoot on something sharp or wet
Realizing you're out of something: coffee, gas, toilet paper
Getting dressed and then immediately spilling on yourself or tearing your tights
Not being able to find your keys, your phone, your shoe
Showing up late to work and getting a dirty look or a comment from someone
Oh my gosh. That's just the morning!
Getting a headache at work
Thinking a bag of microwave popcorn and a diet soda qualifies as a "lunch"
Being too busy to stop and pee
Two hundred emails
Dealing with rude customers, rude coworkers, a mean boss
Feeling resentment, annoyance, discouragement, fear of layoffs
All that before even commuting home.
Having an altercation
Eating cereal for dinner
Feeling overwhelmed and hopeless about everything that needs to be done
Just wanting to escape
Staying up too late trying to get some High Quality Leisure Time.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
Problems have solutions. They're not always the solutions we would want, and they're almost never the solutions we would have thought of. Recognizing our problems, though, is the way we know where to start. We have targets. A list of problems can be a to-do list of actions that can make our lives noticeably better - or at least less annoying and disappointing.
Many of us make goals like 'get organized,' not realizing the true transformative power that this has. We think 'get organized' means something like 'put all our stuff in little modular bins' or 'wear a stopwatch around our necks like Flavor Flav.' What it really means is that we learn to think strategically and avoid the most predictably frustrating parts of our daily lives. We look for patterns. We take charge. We spend at least a few minutes every day doing something nice for Future Self.
Dear Tomorrow Me, I stopped after work and filled up the gas tank so you wouldn't have to do it in the morning. I started a shopping list so you'll have something for breakfast and lunch every day this week. I looked at the weather report and laid out something for you to wear to make your morning easier. Have a great day! - Love, Today Me
Stored food tends to expand to fill the space available. Then it tends to exceed that space. My clients tend to have food stored on their countertops and stacked on the floor. That's because the available cabinets, cupboards, and shelves are already full. Many of my people also have extra food stacked up in the garage. When the kitchen is the heart of the home, it's a beautiful thing, with family and guests laughing and gathering around bounteous meals. When the kitchen is more of a vortex of spoilage and confusion, it helps to take another look.
One night, I was making a casserole. I needed a can of tomato paste. I reached into the cabinet, pulled out a can, and started to open it. As soon as the can opener cut into the top, the tomato paste started spurting out. Um, that's not good. It kept squirting out and making a little tomato paste fountain. I checked the expiration date, and it had expired three years earlier. I about died of embarrassment. Evidently I don't cook with tomato paste as often as I thought I did... The risk of botulism is far greater than the cost of a fifty cent can of tomato paste, so I threw it out.
Then I checked the rest of the cans in that cupboard.
Then I started pulling everything out of the cabinets.
Then I started asking myself a lot of questions about meal planning, grocery shopping, kitchen storage, and our food budget.
It's human nature to store food and plan for harsh winters. That's also why we have a hard-wired craving for sugar and fat. We intend to survive famine conditions that may never appear during our lifetimes. The results of this drive for survival may be... somewhat... unintentional.
I think we should respect our anxiety and urge to preserve food. We should do it with care and consideration. Having a full pantry of expired, spoiled food is worse than having nothing, because you can make yourself and your family sick, and you can also lull yourself into a false sense of security. It's like making a Potemkin village out of cans. Illusion in the face of crisis is the last thing we want. When our concern is emergency survival, we need to be firmly footed on a basis of reality.
This is a problem that needs a system.
There are two ways to go about it, as there are with everything: bottom-up and top-down. Bottom-up means looking around at what you have right now and asking, What do I do with this stuff? How do I get more storage? Top-down means starting with the system requirement and asking, What do I need? What do I have to change to make the situation match requirements? In most cases, that means getting rid of a bunch of stuff. Back to the drawing board!
Most kitchens are full of stuff that would be more or less useless during a genuine crisis. One kitchen that comes to mind had 55 cans of green beans. Green beans are great and all, but they're 31 calories per cup. That means they're better as a weight-loss food than as a high-energy survival food. A kitchen full of stuff like tortilla chips, cookies, cases of soda, and jars of spices will look reassuringly full, but it's not full of nourishment. What we want is a certain number of dinners.
How much food do you need to have on hand? Start with the number of people and multiply by how many days you want to be prepared. Most households make 3-4 trips to the grocery store every week. If that's the habit in your household, it means you could free up a lot of time by planning meals by the week. It also means that due to the lack of a system, you may only have enough complete meals for a day or two. Consider that most grocery stores have enough food supplies for the neighborhood for three typical days, days when people are not frantically trying to stock up on emergency supplies they could have bought the month before.
The first thing you should eat if the power goes out is the contents of your refrigerator. The goal is to eat anything before it spoils. Next would be the contents of the freezer, which may stay cold enough for slightly longer. Only then do we concern ourselves with the cupboards.
Let's say the power is off in your neighborhood. You don't know it yet, but it's going to take a week before emergency crews get it running again. You have leftovers and sandwich fixings in the fridge, and you eat that the first day. Then let's say the freezer stays cold enough for one more day, and you feed your family lunch and dinner out of that, finishing by power-slamming a pint of melted ice cream. That means you need enough for five days' worth of meals from the dry goods in your cupboards.
If you think about it, that's not really very much food. Even if you have six kids and a cat, you can probably fit five days' worth of meals in one ordinary kitchen cabinet.
What we do with our natural, innate urges to accumulate and store food is to gather it on auto-pilot. We see stuff on sale, or we get ahold of some great coupons, and we throw it all in the cart. Multiplied on a national scale, this is part of why 40% of the food we produce gets wasted. If what's true on average is true for us, that implies that we're wasting 40% of our grocery money on stuff that we don't use or need.
(As a side note, it's funny to me that most people are perfectly willing to throw away wilted, scary produce or moldy dinner leftovers month after month, but will eat stale cookies or freezer-burned ice cream any old time).
When I found the secret tomato paste fountain in my kitchen, I committed to cook up and eat all the stuff from my cabinets before buying more. It took months. Not days, but months. More interesting than that, I'm 41 and I've never gone a day in my life when the grocery store was closed for an emergency. My power has never been out for more than about two hours. I still believe in emergency preparedness, of course, and part of that means being more aware of the shelf life of my food supplies.
When we confront our anxiety and dread about scarcity, disaster, and worst-case scenarios, there are actions we can take. Having a sensible pantry system is one of those actions. It's helpful and smart to take some of that worried energy and use it to develop skills and strategic plans. An emergency plan! Pediatric first aid and CPR skills! Planning and packing a Go Bag! Learning where and how to shut off the gas and water valves at your house! Supplies are often an emotional substitute for skills. Greater knowledge, competence, and preparedness are much more comforting than any amount of cans of green beans.
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.