Over the lips and through the gums, look out, Stomach, here it comes! It’s the biggest eating marathon of the year. If you’re like me and you completely lack willpower (because it’s a total fairy tale), you’re likely to wind up sprawled on the floor, moaning, “I swear I’ll never eat this much ever again!” Let’s get real about it and plan the debauchery.
There are two pieces of information that really helped me on the path to losing 35 pounds. (That was 23% of my body weight).
These two things were far more helpful to me than anything else I learned about nutrition, keeping a food log, exercise, or weight loss. They’re also why I’m comfortable following the One Plate Rule.
The Hunger Scale is a subjective measurement of how hungry or full you are, on a scale of 1 to 10. A five is ‘just right.’ A one would be fainting from lack of food, while a ten would be like the infamous Mr. Creosote scene in the Monty Python movie, The Meaning of Life. Ideally, we would spend almost all our time between a 4 and a 6.
Me? I would routinely eat to a 7, an 8 at restaurants, a 9 on holidays, and definitely a 10 on Thanksgiving.
Since it takes about twenty minutes for the brain to receive a signal from the stomach, it’s easy to snarf down a huge amount of food before you even realize you’re full. Or too full. Or WAY too full.
Or, in my case, still too full to eat at noon the following day!
I’ve learned that a 7 on the Hunger Scale is physically uncomfortable. That’s already the level where I want to loosen my waistband. That’s the level where I might actually get a headache from overeating.
It’s also the level that Past Me would have taken as a signal to get seconds, and then a slice of pie.
This is where the knowledge about the volume capacity of the stomach comes in.
Thirty-two ounces is like a large drink cup. It’s possible to put more food than that on a single plate, sure. You can game it. The idea here is to do a favor to yourself, to make your own life easier, to enjoy yourself to the max without paying a price later.
The thing is, when there’s a huge amount of food available, there are also going to be leftovers. When I go to a restaurant, I can eat a fantastic dinner AND save half for lunch the next day. That more than doubles my pleasure. Two great meals, AND I don’t have to feel short of breath or leave big red welts around my waist from my tight pants. On Thanksgiving, my family is easily still eating leftovers on the third, maybe the fourth day.
I AM NOT MISSING OUT ON ANYTHING!
My dinner isn’t going to run away. Nobody is going to put all the food into a catapult and launch it over the neighbor’s roof. It’s not going to vanish into the 23rd dimension. It will still be there! Also, I have access to 1. All the recipes and 2. A 24-hour grocery store. If I really want to eat more of this stuff after the leftovers run out, I can make it whenever I want. I eat cranberry sauce all the time.
This is my deal. I can eat whatever I want, in whatever quantity, as long as it all fits on one plate. Then I can push my physical limits by eating a slice of pie about two hours later.
The more dishes there are, the more emotional this can be. Buffets are the worst. There are 47 dishes here and I want to try all of them! But if I only use one plate, I can only have a teaspoon of each one!!! I try to lean toward the vegetables and salads, being more selective about the denser stuff. I’m not fussy about various foods blending and touching each other, but I do think about whether the flavors sort of match. For instance, I probably wouldn’t choose both curry and pizza for the same plate, although I love them both.
First, I fill my plate. If I’m getting any kind of roll or bread, I choose one and stick it on the side. It has to fit on the plate without falling off the edge! In my experience, if I mix starches, it makes me really sleepy after the meal. It messes with my sleep all night, gives me cottonmouth, and tends to add a full pound to my weigh-in the next day. If there are breads, rice, pasta, and potatoes available, I choose just one of them.
Back to how rules work. These rules are my rules. I choose them. I choose them because when I break them, I experience negative side effects. Every time I wake up in the middle of the night because I overate, every time I give myself a headache or a bellyache from overeating, I am reminded of why I structure my eating behaviors.
I’m totally going to go crazy this weekend. I’m going on an epic food bender. I’m going to eat all sorts of stuff that I only eat once a year. I’m also going to plan around it, enjoying myself without making myself ill.
This is my eating-marathon schedule:
For the last several years, I’ve tended to LOSE WEIGHT over Thanksgiving weekend. That’s partly because I deep-clean my house a week in advance and spend three solid days cooking. I don’t eat while I cook because I’m hustling too fast. I also tend to lose weight over the holiday because I’m eating more vegetables and because I’m too full to snack like normal.
I’ve maintained my weight loss for nearly four years now. There’s no reason to scrimp and scrape on holidays or special occasions. There are no rules other than What Works For Me. I enjoy myself more now that I know how to eat everything I want, and I can do it without acting like a human garbage disposal.
Let’s savor the moment, taste at least a bite of everything, and have a great holiday without groaning afterward.
I’ll tell you how it’s done. I’ll tell you what to do when you’ve invited people over and you’re afraid... AFRAID THEY’LL SEE YOUR HOUSE!
The House of the Black Lagoon
Revenge of the House
The Evil House
Et cetera. Just say it looks haunted and leave it at that.
All that’s happening is anxiety. Anxiety over anticipated conversations that haven’t actually happened (yet?). Anxiety over feared criticism and contempt. Anxiety about spending time with people you don’t really want to spend time with, people you don’t realize you’re allowed to uninvite. Maybe there’s also some shame, for whatever reason, and guilt that you haven’t lived up to some standard you think you’re supposed to care about more than you do. You don’t have to do this - you can just throw your hands in the air and say, “[***] it!” (Insert interjection of choice).
If the rigors of hosting a major holiday are too much stress for you, a simple way to get out of it is just to revolt. Answer the door in your jim-jams, hair unbrushed, and offer to order pizza. If everyone wants to come back next year, that’s good information. If they don’t, hey, freedom!
You’re doing it, though. You’re going to run around, feeling the delightful terror of the looming deadline, and you’re going to commit to the FRANTIC CLEANING!
Where do you start?
What I’ve just described is the genesis of squalor and chronic disorganization. A traumatic experience, such as relocating to a new home, results in a frantic round of “scoop and stuff.” (Grab everything within view and stuff it into plastic grocery bags). Often there’s a physical rebound, like a headache or a cold. The aftermath of the frantic cleaning becomes the new background, invisible to the occupants. Nobody ever goes back and sorts out the papers or “catches up” on the laundry. Each traumatic event, injury, illness, visit, or whatever creates a new layer. It’s hard. It’s hard to force yourself to start digging out. Anyone would think so! The home environment becomes a visible manifestation of psychic pain. Just looking at it makes everything feel worse.
Wherever you live, it’s your home. If you were a wild beast, it would be your nest, your burrow, your warren, or your den. You’re entitled to feel comfortable and safe there. Your home isn’t a social display, not unless you want it to be. You don’t have to arrange it for status or prestige. You should, though, feel that sense of comfort and safety. If you don’t like the feeling of being in your home, do what needs to be done, and do it for yourself. Imagine the gift of looking around and liking everything you see.
Just... imagine it while you’re cleaning! Now, hop to it! Best of luck to you.
Change Your Day, Not Your Life. That's a tricksy kind of a claim. How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives, as Annie Dillard reminds us. Thinking about this too hard can be really intimidating and discouraging - unless, that is, you start reading Andy Core. He has a way of making change seem easy and worth doing.
Part of how Core approaches the problem of change is by identifying why we don't do what we know we should do. He has a master's degree in the science of human performance, and he spends his days coaching the reluctant, the burned-out, and the frustrated. He's heard it all. We recognize ourselves on the very first page, when he presents the idea of "Motivational Amnesia," which is when our motivation seems to appear and disappear of its own accord. I know I often ask myself why I chose to go on this run or this hike, usually when my last meal starts wearing off.
Change Your Day, Not Your Life has a lot to say about managing your energy level. Anyone who feels too tired and stressed out to make any positive changes should really spend some time with this book. There are lists of things all of us could be doing to feel better and have more energy every day. I liked the idea of calling your workout "appointment with Jim" instead of "go to gym." Then nobody has to know. We don't do these things to impress other people, anyway; we do it for ourselves.
There are some very simple, embraceable ideas here. For instance, split your lunch in half and save half of it for late afternoon. Quit hitting the snooze button, because snoozing just makes you more tired and groggy. Lay out your morning stuff the night before. Dance with your kids right when you get home. These are EASY ideas, people! We have to ask ourselves why it's so hard to implement changes that take five minutes or less - or we can just read Change Your Day, Not Your Life.
One of the most useful concepts I took from this book was the idea of the "junk hour." Oh no. I will never be able to shake that phrase out of my mind. The next time I find myself scrolling through icons from my various bookmarks, queues, and playlists, not realizing how much time is passing, the words "junk hour" are going to go floating through my mind. The ways we spend our junk hours are infinite, but the hours themselves... are finite. Alas.
The freakiest thing I learned was that only one percent of people surveyed actually love their jobs. ONE PERCENT! Maybe we torture ourselves, doing things that lower our energy level, because we feel trapped by work? Or maybe we wouldn't mind our jobs so much if we did better at managing our energy level.
Andy Core has written a funny, surprising book about how things can be a little easier than we think. He emphasizes that we focus less on self-criticism than on action, that we forgive ourselves, that we remind ourselves to stay in today. This is how you can Change Your Day, Not Your Life.
Favorite quote: "Make a quality decision to change."
It’s possible I have a problem. A little one. I’m getting ready to upgrade my electronics, and in the process, I’m realizing that there’s an awful lot to migrate between devices.
...sorry, where was I? I just stopped to download another ebook I had on hold. Oh, yes! Information hoarding! Let’s see some metrics.
6,152 photos and 56 videos at 5.81 GB
14 ebooks checked out and 42 on hold
A wish list of 1,693 books between five libraries
20 audio books at 12.16 GB
795 podcast episodes at 35.89 GB (I played through an entire episode while counting)
574 bookmarked articles
69 open tabs
The most interesting thing about this list is that it’s all basically imaginary. Well, everything we think we have to do, use, consume, read, or otherwise perform is imaginary. It’s in our heads. I’m not going to cease to exist if I skip a podcast episode. The point is that my information hoarding does not take up any more physical space than the confines of my phone. It doesn’t weigh any more just because I’m using over 100 GB of data. It doesn’t cost any more, either. As far as indulgences go, it’s pretty tame.
Information hoarding usually does take up space, and quite a significant amount. I started realizing this when I started digitizing everything. It occurred to me that almost everything I own can be digitized:
Movies, TV shows, and workout programs
Business cards and address books
Check registers, bank statements, receipts, all other financial info
Keepsakes and mementos in photographic form
Almost all office supplies
All I really need is basic furniture, clothing, housewares, cleansers, and a week’s worth of groceries. Oh, and some power outlets, of course.
My chronically disorganized clients struggle with information management more than anything else. It starts with the junk mail. My clients “scoop and stuff” on a regular basis. They’ll have boxes full of plastic grocery bags, and at least 80% of the contents of the bags will be junk mail and those stupid coupon newspapers. This wouldn’t really be a problem, except that about 20% of the contents of those bags consists of truly important, urgent mail and papers. It’s hard to find the important stuff when it’s surrounded by junk that should never have been brought through the door. The junk mail is disinformation, actively detracting from the value of the good stuff.
Indecision is a huge part of chronic disorganization and hoarding. My people have a lot of trouble deciding whether or not to go to social functions or accept invitations. Due to this, they’ll keep all the invitations, calendars, flyers, and other papers on their bulletin boards, or scattered on the countertops, until the date has passed. They won’t realize that these notifications can be discarded once they’re obsolete, because those papers will have already been buried under a snowdrift of new paper.
The junk mail and pending invitations are unintentional information hoarding. It’s the intentional stuff that’s particularly stubborn.
Magazines. If you carry all your old magazines out to the recycling bin and dump them tonight, PM me and I’ll feature you in an article. Photos please! My people refuse to get rid of old magazines, whether they’ve read them or not. For some random reason, old magazines are perceived to be the most valuable type of object. They’re heavy, they’re half-full of advertisements, nobody ever reads them, and they smell like mildew. WHY do you people love them so much?? You can get them at the library or online anyway! That’s especially true of that particular yellow geography magazine, the complete archives of which are available in full color on their website.
Books. Lord love a duck. I read at least as much as the next person, but I don’t see why we need to keep so many physical books around. If you haven’t read it, then you don’t get any credit for owning it. If you have read it, then you don’t need it anymore. I say this just to taunt people, because I know how sacrosanct the books are. You don’t have any free shelf space, there are probably books piled all over your bedside table, and yet you’ll never be satisfied and you’ll always think you can fit another sack of books into your house. Have it your way.
Old notebooks. People freak out about their old school notes, even if they haven’t touched them since graduation and they’ll never read through them again. I just scanned all mine and recycled them years ago. On the rare occasions when I feel inspired to pop open one of those files, I’m mostly embarrassed at my relative ignorance and poor writing skills. I got my degree in history, and I’ve read far more about history since graduation than I ever did beforehand. Education is the beginning, not the end. It’s just supposed to be training for a life of learning. I think most of us keep our school notes because that’s our identity. When we’re not challenged in our jobs, when we’re not satisfied in our careers, we cling to that time when we felt supported in our intellectual self-image. It’s easy to figure out how to get good grades, but not so easy to figure out how to take initiative and shape a professional career.
Recipes. I’m worse about this than most people and I’ll freely admit it. I’ve been digitizing my recipe collection for five years. I just checked, and I have... over 18,000 recipes in my collection. There are still half a dozen cookbooks to go, too. Am I ever going to feel like I have enough? No, I’m sure I won’t. This is true even though I have enough recipes to cook three new meals a day for 92 years. I’ll just clone myself 91 times, and then each of us can cook three new meals a day for a year. How many more recipes will we have collected by the end of the year, if each clone also likes to save recipes?
To-do lists. List makers! Why do we add stuff to our lists just to cross it off? If we love crossing things off of lists so much, why do we always wind up with old lists with incomplete tasks on them?
Little notes. Buying a smartphone changed my life. I started recording all my random little notes into my phone instead of writing them on paper. Gradually, as I started to trust the system, I started recording more of my old notes and digitizing them, too. My desk used to be constantly covered with stacks of notes, plus several inboxes and sorting mechanisms. Now I don’t have a desk at all; it all lives in my pocket.
There’s a manuscript in our fireproof safe. It’s an obsolete version of my novel-in-progress. I think I’ve gone through at least three major plot shakeups since then. I don’t even work on paper anymore! It’s only still in there through entropy.
I have over 100 GBs of information hoarded on my phone. If this existed in physical form, I’d be in trouble. Fortunately, through consistent effort, I’ve managed to keep it all down to one file box that measures 11”x15” and three shelves of books measuring 55 inches.
I’m trying to reframe my information hoarding in two ways. One: How likely am I to need this information? Do I want it for active reference, for future entertainment, or am I keeping it due to inertia, FoMO, or pure anxiety? Two: How long will it take to consume this information? How many hours of podcasts are these? If I read fifty pages an hour on average, how long will it take me to read through this stack of books? What’s my track record of actually reading through these queues? Does the list stay about the same, or has it consistently been growing longer?
The thing about information is that it doesn’t exist until we have it processed into our brains. I mean, just because I have internet access doesn’t mean I’ve memorized the entire internet. It was already humanly impossible to look at every photograph ever taken or click through every page of every website twenty years ago. More is uploaded in a single day than we could ever hope to skim in a lifetime. We have to let go of the idea that we can somehow “keep up” with everything. We can’t watch every video, listen to every song, read every article and every book, or watch every movie. We can’t even do it if we cut out all the other categories completely and focus on just one.
Far better would be to see it all as a massive buffet. There is plenty and there will always be plenty more. I’LL NEVER BE BORED! Pay attention now, Future Me, because we’re going to have to chillax about all of this. It’s okay not to read every single thing. It’s okay because every time we finish reading something, there’s something else waiting. Our favorite artists will put out more books and albums and shows in more formats. If we aren’t ever going to get through this playlist or all of these bookmarks, we can at least slow down the rate at which we add more.
Thanksgiving is coming, in case you forgot. It’s easy to miss. Where I live, Christmas decorations overlapped with Halloween, a puny pumpkin showing up underneath a fully decorated Christmas tree. Hey! What happened to Thanksgiving? Where’s my pumpkin pie? It’s my personal mission to make sure that we continue to have at least one holiday completely dedicated to the cooking and consumption of food. Sixteen days and it’s on.
Thanksgiving is the holiday of adulting. The better you are at cooking, event planning, logistics, cleaning, ironing, decorating, menu planning, and entertaining, the more fun you can have. Thanksgiving is a time when you can really go all out. It’s sort of like a marathon for domestic demigods, except that I’ve run a marathon and I can tell you that doing Thanksgiving properly actually takes a lot longer.
When my husband and I first got married, I hosted our family’s Thanksgiving for the first time. It felt like being crowned Mrs. America. I just reached out and grabbed the ladle, and everybody let me! My parents, my brother and his girlfriend drove all day to come and stay for the weekend. I spent about three weeks getting ready. It was great, because the more people you have over, the more dishes you can make. Go ahead and try to cook twelve dishes for two people and then find room in the fridge for the leftovers. Better just to invite more friends.
Now, we live in a tiny little shoebox of an apartment. Our ten-top dining table (plus backup table) went away. Now we have a little bistro table that barely fits four chairs, and then only if it’s hauled into the middle of the living room. We don’t host anymore.
That doesn’t mean I’m not cooking! It just means I have to wait to get started until after I get to my parents’ house. In a lot of ways, this means more planning. I’ll have to do all my menu planning in advance but all of my shopping has to happen in one trip. I also have to fit myself into a kitchen where at least three other people will be trying to prep their contributions. Iron Chef, here we come.
These are the things I would start doing now, if I lived in a house and I was hosting and cooking the Thanksgiving meal.
Do a perimeter check of the house and see what needs decluttering and cleaning
Start eating up everything in the fridge to make room for the party food
Start eating up everything in the freezer as well
Clear out the dining room and find homes for everything on the dining table
Clear off the kitchen counters and deep-clean
Wipe down the stovetop, inside of the microwave, and fridge shelves
Plan my menu
Rehearse intervention strategies for awkward conversations and family squabbles
Clean the bathrooms
Track down the tablecloths, themed napkins, serving platters, et cetera
Avoid desserts and snacks, because I know I’m going to gain three pounds anyway
Figure out what I’m going to wear
As a more seasoned hostess, I’ve become more pragmatic in my planning. The truth is that everybody just wants to have an enjoyable day off. Your guests want to feel welcomed and they want an edible meal. While they might feel annoyed by a cluttered, dirty house and burnt food, they’re not going out of their way to look for things to criticize. They won’t notice half of what you do, perhaps not even ten percent.
Guess what? You’re not statutorily required to cook any of the food yourself. A host provides a meal, not necessarily home cooking.
You don’t have to use cloth tablecloths or cloth napkins.
You don’t even have to use real plates or cutlery.
Okay, granted, I do all of that stuff, but that’s because I enjoy it. I do it for myself. I also do it because it feels like race day, like I’m wearing a race bib and keyed up at the starting line, ready to run a marathon. Can I clean my entire house top to bottom and have it all sparkling on the same day? Can I coordinate all the dishes so they’re ready to eat at the same time? Can I get the food on the table on schedule? Can I orchestrate a conversation that has everyone laughing and nobody throwing the gravy boat through a window?
I like planning the Thanksgiving dinner because I want to eat what I want to eat. I hate stuffing, so I never make stuffing. I’ve always thought there should be soup and salad at Thanksgiving, but nobody ever, ever makes soup or salad, so I do it. I like my brother’s cranberry sauce recipe, but I also like mine, and since the whole family eats cranberry sauce we can do both. As a side note, my parents and I are vegan and one brother is vegetarian, so we kind of already do Thanksgiving our way.
I love holidays because they give us a chance to elevate ourselves above the everyday. When else are we going to do special things like use cloth tablecloths or eat by candlelight? Why else do we save and store silly things like massive platters or punch bowls? These are the days with the best photo opportunities. Even if the specific memories might involve some troubled conversations or awkward moments, the pictures can make up for it. Planning ahead helps to make the big day run more smoothly. We still have over two weeks to get ready. Let’s make it something to be thankful for.
You know you live in Southern California when you realize you don’t have any shirts with sleeves.
You know it’s autumn in SoCal when you have to wear socks.
We moved suddenly in March. Like every time, we went through all of our stuff while we were packing, because there’s no point in buying boxes to pack stuff we know we’ll never use again. Everything went either to Goodwill, a charity rummage sale, or our half-day yard sale. This included any and all clothes that didn’t fit, had problems like stains or holes, or that we just weren’t interested in wearing anymore.
The result of this clothing purge was that I moved with one long-sleeve button-down shirt, three long-sleeve t-shirts, three cardigans, and five sweaters.
The plan was to wait until the weather turned in autumn and then go out and buy whatever I needed. Changing regions tends to mean a change in microclimate. We moved in early spring, and we found that it was cloudier, cooler, windier, and more humid near the coast than it was in the hot, dry city we were leaving. I could have bought more cool-weather clothes then, but I wanted to feel like I understood what the weather would be like first.
Planning a wardrobe, as opposed to the entropy method, involves the experience of wearing the clothes. Not how cute they are, not what we had in mind when we bought them, not how much we wish they suited us. The experience of actually wearing clothes in the time dimension! HOW do they FEEL? HOW do they FIT? HOW do they LOOK? Today?
When am I going to wear this?
Where will I be?
Who will I be with?
What will the weather be like?
What will I wear with this thing?
One person will need to plan around a dress code at work. Another person will need to plan around bending, lifting, and carrying toddlers. Someone else will need to plan outfits that merge well between work and social events. Those points are for those people. My points are different.
My two big factors are:
I walk anywhere from 5-12 miles a day;
I have trouble regulating my body temperature.
Thus, I plan my outfits around comfortable, flat shoes and extra layers. I want to plan my outer garments and my footwear first, and then coordinate other clothes around that. In fall, my look is a boots-and-jacket look. In winter, it’s hat, scarf, coat, boots, sweater, thermal underwear.
(We don’t really have a winter where I live, but my family and my in-laws both get snow).
Let’s say that autumn lasts for three months. Before that, it’s too hot to wear long sleeves and long pants. After that, it’s too cold for shirts and blouses without an extra layer. My seasons are going to be sleeveless, long sleeve, and sweater seasons. I need clothes to wear for twelve weeks. What do I do with my time during those twelve weeks?
On weekends, I want something cute and casual for going out with my husband. We’ll probably go to the movies, get some burritos or falafel, and maybe hang out at the bookstore or go to the dog park. He’ll only notice if I wear something strange, so this “look cute” rule is for me. Do I need twelve separate outfits, so that every single weekend I’m wearing something totally different? Do I need thirty-six separate outfits, so I have something different for every single Friday, Saturday, and Sunday? *snort*
Excuse me while I fall about laughing.
I probably need four casual outfits. That means I have something different each weekend, and then if I start the cycle again, I’m wearing each outfit three times that season. Right? Four times three equals twelve? On the off chance that someone at the mall is stanning me, it’ll be a month before they see me wearing the same top. On the casual, lounge-around day of the weekend, it doesn’t matter what I wear. Isn’t that the entire point? Comfortable, familiar, low-maintenance.
What else do I do with my time?
I go to two meetings every week. They’re both Toastmasters meetings, one at my husband’s work and the other in our old city. I like to dress up a bit for these outings, something business casual. These are the types of outfits I also wear when I travel, go to a book signing, or most other social events. Basically 80% of my wardrobe is in the range of business casual. It has to be machine washable, go in the dryer, and not require ironing or the wearing of pantyhose. I buy my business casual stuff in a narrow range of colors; my pants, skirts, and sweaters are always in solids. (Black, navy, gray, white [not cream or beige], red, purple, and maybe hot pink). Bright colors and patterns are for casual or more transitory items, like sundresses, halter tops, and tank tops.
What about the other 20%? That consists of workout clothes, t-shirts, a couple of pairs of shorts, sundresses, and dresses that I only wear for special occasions. This is the opposite of many maximalist wardrobes, when people find it impossible to let go of special occasion clothes even though they never wear them. All my clients except for one have had at least fifty shirts! It’s totally okay to have only one go-to dress to wear to weddings or surprise invitations. If you really desperately need something you don’t own, first consider whether this is really your type of event. Second, just go out and buy something when the specific occasion comes up. Not the “what-if” occasion but the real-life actual occasion. That’s why I no longer own an interview suit.
Let’s say I need four business casual outfits. By ‘outfit,’ I really mean ‘top’ or ‘blouse,’ because nobody is going to remember whether I wore pants or a skirt and what color they were. I can wear the same range of stuff to both meetings, because their membership doesn’t overlap, and nobody but me will know what I wore to the other meeting. If I wear a different top each time, it will be a month before I cycle through again, and I can wear a different necklace or combination of garments if I like. With these four outfits, I can take off for a long weekend trip and have a full travel wardrobe.
Boy, was that a revelation and a surprise to me. All the pinboards I saw with travel capsule wardrobe layouts? They didn’t have to be for the trip. They could actually represent a person’s entire seasonal wardrobe!
One of the factors I consider when planning a wardrobe is how much laundry I have to do and how often. I’m never going to stop at four changes of clothes, because that would mean I had a laundry emergency every three days. That also means the clothes wear out faster, which means I’d have to shop more often, and that’s simply not happening. I am, though, going to stop at a certain limit. I don’t want a bulging closet, I don’t want to fret when I choose what to wear, I don’t want to haul suitcases that are heavier than necessary, and I don’t want to spend money on extra clothes that I could be spending on travel or upgrading my electronics.
Let’s just say I can add four casual tops and four business casual tops, which will probably last for the next three years, and keep what I still have from previous years. I have pants in black, navy, and gray. I have blue and black jeans. I have a black skirt and a navy blue skirt that I can wear with tights. I have several t-shirts that I can wear with a cardigan when I’m working at home. If I buy eight tops, and it isn’t enough, I can go out and buy a few more. After the first month I’ll have a sense of what I really need, rather than what I imagine or fear I might.
If there was a way to describe a ‘budget’ of any kind without actually calling it a budget, I’d use it. Any kind of structure or boundary can be perceived as a limitation. A budget, a diet, a schedule, whatever. Really, these things are types of policy, ways to make life easier without having to make tons of decisions all the time. With enough structure in place, we can spend the majority of our time doing whatever the heck we want. The necessities start to feel like they are running on autopilot. A space budget is a way of defining how much room we have for ourselves versus how much of our living space we are going to allow to be swallowed up by our material belongings.
Ten gallons in a five gallon bucket. I’ll leave the contents to your imagination. Ten gallons of what? Gold coins? Laundry? Kitty litter? Rum punch? The point is that without opening some kind of wormhole into an alternate universe, a given volume of stuff will only fit into a certain amount of physical space. This includes a house, an apartment, a room, a sink, or a purse. It also includes parking spaces for compact cars, even when someone insists on parking an SUV in one.
As an organizer, I can walk through a door and see at a glance how much the room is over capacity. Double, triple, quadruple, quintuple the amount of stuff that belongs in a room of that size. I’ve talked to professional movers who say it’s not uncommon for them to remove one hundred boxes of stuff from a standard bedroom. It’s our job. People like us have been in so many homes and packed so many boxes of stuff that we have the skill of eyeballing it and estimating how much is there.
My chronically disorganized clients, my compulsive accumulators, my squalor survivors... they don’t have this skill.
Beyond that, my people reject any kind of limitations. In their world, what could be perceived as helpful guidelines (how often to go to the grocery store or do laundry) come down as tyrannical edicts or impossible fantasies. There is no such thing as a space budget. There’s no such thing, because they’ll find a way to cram stuff into places that were not designed to store anything. Inspirational! Creative! Clever!
Maybe not organized, or beautiful, or easy to live with, but clever, sure.
Nobody really cares how you live or what you do with your stuff. Your landlord, maybe; other people you live with, probably. Your neighbors will care if you leave a bunch of stuff out where it’s visible from the street. Other than that, if people nag you, you can stop inviting them over. The idea of a space budget is to help you. It helps when you’re looking for stuff, it helps when it’s time to shop or not shop, it helps when it’s time to clean, and it definitely helps when it’s time to move.
A refrigerator and a freezer can only hold so much before the door will no longer close. This is a hard limit. Trying to fit more would result in the door cracking open and the food no longer staying cold. We can accept this. The question is how close to this limit we are comfortable getting. If the fridge or freezer is less than completely full, do we feel uneasy? How often do we clean out the contents and throw out spoiled and expired food? How much are we throwing away? What’s the trigger?
It took me a long time to learn this, but it’s possible to eat well with only a week’s worth of groceries at a time. We clean out the fridge every week, in tandem with grocery shopping. That’s how we know what to buy. It’s also fine to have only one bottle of salad dressing, one jar of jam, etc. Just get a different flavor when the current one is empty.
Just as the fridge can only hold so much, each cabinet and drawer can only hold so much. We had to have a piece of drawer hardware replaced a few weeks ago because we had overloaded that drawer with all the metal serving utensils we own. It all fit, but it was too heavy. After the repair, I took out all the dinner party stuff and moved it into a lidded container in a cupboard. It’s not what we OWN that triggers what goes where; it’s what the infrastructure of the building will hold.
Even the tiniest studio apartment with an efficiency kitchen will hold enough pots, pans, dishes, and utensils to cook regular meals. If anything won’t fit in the available cupboards and drawers, if the countertops or dining table are being used for extra storage, then there’s probably too much stuff for the available space budget.
Closets are another area of defined space budget. My current apartment has one closet. It has to hold two people’s complete wardrobes, exercise gear, luggage, extra blankets, and anything else we don’t want to look at every day. That’s the limit. If it doesn’t fit in the closet, either we get rid of it or it’s in the way. Our place is too small to have stuff lined against the walls; we’d trip over it.
My husband and I now live in about a quarter of the square footage that we had when we were newlyweds. We’ve been able to do this because we have steadily downsized, year after year. Every time we relocate, we choose a new place to live based on the neighborhood and how much we like the place. Each time except for once, this has meant a smaller home with less storage. First we move in, then we figure out what will fit, and then we get rid of everything that’s left over with no permanent spot of its own.
Square footage is the utmost boundary of a space budget. People often start hoarding when they find that the space is available for the first time. The appearance of a garage, guest bedroom, bonus room, or extra closet just seems to invite stacks and piles. These are places of indecision. After a while, piles and stacks start to look normal. We’re able to blur them out of our situational awareness. We stop seeing them, and we forget they’re there.
These are some ways I’ve set a space budget:
When the bookshelves are full, either I get rid of some books or I can’t have any more.
When my hangers are all in use, either I get rid of some clothes or I can’t have any more.
When the kitchen cupboard is full, either we eat some of the food or we don’t buy any more.
Countertops are not storage.
Tabletops are not storage.
Windowsills are not storage.
The floor is not storage.
My work bag needs to be small enough not to hurt my shoulder when it’s full.
Our homes and possessions should be in our service. They should make our lives easier, more comfortable, and more beautiful. Anything that gets in the way, anything that causes a distraction, anything that makes life unpleasant should be up for review. Why do we put up with stuff that creates obstacles? Why do we allow our stuff to be so high maintenance? A space budget is a way of saying, “I make the rules around here, not some random pile of inanimate objects.”
This book is a work of genius. Sometimes I think I’ve read every organizing book ever published, and most of them are great, but they all tend to sound alike. Organizing Solutions for People with ADHD is actually full of original, contrarian ideas that suit the ADHD style. It even has copious amounts of illustrations. These are real rooms. Rather than a Pinterest palace, unattainable for 99% of us, these rooms designed by a professional organizer are feasible and practical. They’re even exciting!
The day I realized that I fit the criteria for ADHD was a wonderful day. I was in my late twenties, born a little too early to have a name for whatever I am. I was reading through a bulleted list of symptoms as a way of getting to know an acquaintance, and with each point, I felt a deepening sense of recognition. AHA! Suddenly, it wasn’t just me. I was just one of many, a type, a tribe member. I wasn’t even bothered by the idea that maybe there was something dysfunctional about me; heck, I already knew that. Rather, I was thrilled to see that along with the chronic disorganization came a lot of truly excellent qualities. Creativity, originality, curiosity, enthusiasm, hyper-focus, high physical and mental energy. Everything snapped into focus for me. If I could learn some practical ways to Get Organized, I could mitigate my weak points while amplifying my positive points.
It worked, too. Year by year, one issue after another, I finally did Get Organized, earn my degree, get on top of my finances, nail my nutrition and hydration, lose the weight, get fit, get rid of most of my stuff, learn to cook, and remarry. Getting my stuff and my information stream organized enabled me to start living the life of my dreams.
It would have happened a lot faster if I’d had this book!
Organizing Solutions recommends avoiding shopping in order to avoid impulse purchases. Agreed. It recommends limiting what you buy or keep to only the available storage. Agreed. It recommends taking your donation items straight out to the car where they will annoy you until you drop them off. Agreed. Get rid of excess stuff on a regular basis so there’s less to clean. Agreed. I had to figure all this stuff out for myself. In fact, the only thing I don’t agree with in this entire book is the thing about reusing towels and wearing clothes multiple times. That may be fine for most people, but I personally am very tough on clothes and our climate is too humid. Instead, we’ve started using hand towels rather than full-size bath towels, and they don’t get funky.
There’s some great advice in Organizing Solutions on how to make decisions about memorabilia, children’s artwork, toys, et cetera. There’s a discussion about how to confront the chilling prospect of identity theft and how that impacts the way we process papers. Susan Pinsky clearly understands her audience. I recognized myself all over this book, and I recognized my organizing clients even more.
As a group, we tend to prefer initiating things to finishing things. We’re more comfortable having tons of projects going on than we are winding any of them up, feeling like we’ve closed off options or that we’ve “finished” something before it reaches its apotheosis of perfection. It can be hard for us to feel like we know where to start, and we infinitely prefer research or planning or daydreaming to action. Take it from Susan Pinsky: start with your home and work from there.
“Inventory shouldn’t just conform to storage but should be less than storage, so that it never requires a multi-step dance to put things away.”
“...any well done organizing job should result in the re-acquisition of a few mistaken discards. It is proof that you applied the Brutal Purge sufficiently enough to make a difference.”
It’s autumn, it’s Fourth Quarter, and the freaking holidays will be here before we know it. I’m not excited about this. Sure, I’m thrilled about Halloween, which I adore, and I’m already feeling a little frisson of excitement about the New Year, my favorite day. It’s just the icky part in between, when the weather is terrible, the lines are long, and the traffic is brutal. I spend the four or five weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas holed up at home, trying to avoid a single note of Christmas music or having to look at any combination of red and green. Fall is the time of year when I focus on getting things done. This is the time for the great Project Burndown.
I started doing this when I realized that I kept having to make the same New Year’s Resolutions over and over again. It was supposed to be New Year’s Day, not Groundhog Day! I either needed to get over these goals and let them go, or I needed to figure out how to do them. Was I ever really going to drink more water, get more sleep, lose 10 15 20 25 30 35 pounds, or learn to speak Spanish? Was I always going to have an entire closet dedicated to unfinished craft projects? Was I always going to have an entire bookcase full of books I’d bought but never read? Was I ever going to scrape the last few tasks off the bottom of my to-do list? What would Future Me do without any of these past goals and commitments to distract her?
Project Burndown is about completing old commitments. It’s about fulfilling obligations. It’s about restoring scattered mental bandwidth. Project Burndown is about closing the books and preparing for a fresh start. It’s what we have to do to prove to ourselves that we can keep our private agreements, that we can trust ourselves to only make contracts that we truly desire to fulfill. Project Burndown is about turning around and facing forward, rather than walking backward through life.
What kind of commitments do we tend to make and then not complete? Reviewing this says a lot about how we see ourselves and how we wish to be seen by others.
Promising handmade gifts. We think we can make up for our lack of physical or emotional presence by giving our time, crystallized in the form of a handmade gift. I quit doing this the year my nephew took one look at the superhero cape I’d made for him and threw it over his shoulder to move on to the next gift. Gift-giving should reflect the interests of the recipient. See: The Five Love Languages.
Unmade phone calls, unwritten letters or cards, unsent packages. We think our desire to be close to this friend or relative counts, even when that person has no way of knowing how often we think about reaching out. It’s possible they wouldn’t even want to talk to us as long or as often as we think they would. After all, you can call people from your pocket on accident now, and the phone works both ways.
Reading or watching everything. We think we can somehow consume all the information on the entire internet. We think not only that we can keep up with today and with the entire backlog, but that we’ll also be able to stay caught up with everything that will be released tomorrow. Everything is a tradeoff. The hour that is spent doing one thing is not available for doing anything else. We can’t read one book with each eye; believe me, I’ve tried.
Finishing craft projects. Only when we admit that we prefer shopping and collecting materials to actually using them can we get our heads around this. Shopping is not a hobby; shopping is a way of filling our homes and closets with bags of stuff we’ll never use. Shopping for recreation is a way of wasting money we could have spent on travel or cooking lessons. Or Future Self’s retirement.
Sorting stuff and “getting organized.” Getting organized starts with a vision of an easier life. Organize what? For what purpose? Sorting stuff requires the ability to make a firm decision. I’m done with this and out it goes. I’ll never use this, and out it goes. I never did use this, and I’m over it, and out it goes. Sorting stuff is a job that will never end, unless it ends in carrying bags out the door and dropping them off somewhere.
Physical transformation. I wrestled with my own desire to transform my body for many, many years. I didn’t believe it could be done due to “genetics” or whatever. I thought I was trapped in chronic illness. Then I decided to empty my cup and assume that every single thing I thought I knew was incorrect. Clean cup! I was able to reach my goal weight in just four months. I ran a marathon. Not only have I maintained my goal weight for nearly four years, but I also haven’t had a migraine in that entire time. Once I made a true decision and brought clarity to my goal, it turned out to be quite simple and straightforward. (Not “easy,” just simple).
Learning a new skill. Learning new things is one of the greatest joys in life. It keeps things exciting. We have to make time to concentrate and focus, though. Learning a new skill or a new language, taking a class, means cutting something else out of the schedule. For a lot of people, this could easily be done by cutting loose a TV show. For others, it requires the ability to put your foot down and say, “You watch the kids, order a pizza or whatever, I’m going to class every Tuesday and Thursday.”
I like to start each New Year with a clean slate. I like to wake up on New Year’s Day with a sparkling, immaculate house. I like to have my goals for the year written out in an attractive format. I like to throw out my old socks and underwear and donate a few bags of stuff I’m done with. I like to make sure we’ve eaten up all the leftovers in our fridge and freezer. I like to look over my projects and goals from the previous year and push through to finish them. I like to read through my news queue and close out all of my open tabs. I’m five years in and not done yet, but I’m working on reading all the books in the house and not stacking up unread material. Project Burndown is my time to do this.
One year, I’ll start out on January First with a totally clear slate. I’ll wake up with some kind of epic goal and nothing unfinished to stand in my way. One year I’ll slam the door on Past Me without any tendrils of past projects trying to reach through and grab my ankle. Every time I do a Project Burndown, I get a little closer to that day.
Guess what? I made a workbook! For today only, I’m doing a special promotion. You can get the workbook and a little something extra, something that will not be available to future purchasers. At the end of this post, I’m also making an announcement.
Here are the details:
The workbook includes over fifty pages of text, quizzes, and exercises about space clearing, minimalism, and getting organized. It comes as a PDF.
As a bonus, I’ll include five coloring book pages, hand-drawn by me. If this goes well, I’ll consider putting out an actual coloring book at a later date.
What’s the catch?
The catch is that I’m trying to reach a fundraising goal for my charity: water campaign and it’s about to expire.
If you would like to order my Curate Your Stuff workbook and get the today-only bonus coloring book pages, please donate $25 through my charity:water page. Then go to my Contact page and send me an email, and I’ll reply with the PDFs attached. They’ll go out on Saturday. (If you have already been so kind as to support my campaign, ping me and I’ll send you your copies).
If you donate $50 or more, I will give you, in addition to the workbook and the coloring book pages, a free photo consult on any one room of your home. (You send me photos of a problem area and I send back my written recommendations). This is not a service that I offer to the general public, and the offer will not be repeated.
100% of donations to charity: water go to actual clean water projects. Funds for administration are raised through another branch. Note that this means I am donating my work today and I won’t receive a penny, because that’s how I roll.
Now, it’s time for the announcement!
If we reach my charity: water goal before the campaign expires, I will commit to launch my new podcast in October 2017. Otherwise I’ll be all sad and stuff, and it probably won’t happen until next year.
The other thing is that the workbook won’t be available for download for a while after today. I have to set up the website to support file downloads and accept payments, which is part of my plans for a general overhaul of the blog. That will happen at some point before the end of the year.
Thank you for hearing me out. Also, thank you, Dear Reader, for visiting me today.
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.