We’re going on an international trip, and you can trust this advice on packing, because I am literally typing it up in the back of a Lyft on the way to the airport. I finished using this method under two hours ago and there’s no time to change my mind.
That’s what it all comes down to, isn’t it? Changing your mind? Like, packing in a rational manner based on experience and real world activities is excruciating and unfair? All that really matters on this trip is that I feel that I have at least twelve separate cute outfits to spread around the room?
I don’t get it. To me, underpacking would be a fabulous excuse to go out and shop. Not that I enjoy shopping, but there is that possibility that a foreign store might have some kind of exotic garment I would cherish forever.
If I overpack, there will be no opportunity or space for such a magical item. Aren’t I then missing out more by overstuffing my bag than I would be by leaving things behind?
I did buy something like this once. We were in Akureyri, and there was a super cute vintage boutique, and we went in because I had lost so much weight backpacking around Iceland that I needed a belt. Someone had put up a collection of locally designed t-shirts, and I bought one with a white raven on it. I loved that shirt and wore it probably once a week for two years. Now it’s in my go bag, where I see it now and then when I check inventory.
(The belt got worn until eventually it was recycled).
Backpacking is how I learned how many changes of clothes to bring on a trip. Four days are my limit for a camping expedition, based on how much food I can carry. It turns out that’s the outer limit for a damp microfiber towel as well. Therefore, I know four changes of clothes will fit in my bag and I know to plan a trip to the laundromat by the fourth day.
“But I can still fit more in my bag!” Great, then your bag won’t weigh as much and you have room for souvenirs. Or you can switch to a smaller bag, or share one large bag with your travel buddy, or stop needing a checked bag. Unlike packing piles of extra clothes, going minimalist actually does result in endless options.
Wear one, pack four. Simple. It solves so many problems.
The “wear one” is the travel outfit. I have two reliable travel outfits, depending on the weather. Whichever one I wear, it’s mostly irrelevant to the rest of the trip. I’m wearing it both directions. I know that what I will be wearing has pockets and layers and that it’s stain-resistant.
Most trips are going to be short enough in duration that it doesn’t matter if the individual garments mix and match. I can fit four changes of clothes and at least two pairs of shoes in my carry-on. It can get tight if it’s heavy winter and I need thermal underwear, but it still works.
For advanced travelers, there is this concept of the capsule wardrobe, where almost every garment goes with almost everything else. I decided to extend this idea to my everyday wardrobe, and not worry about having special vacation outfits. This has definitely helped to ramp down my packing anxiety.
“But but but... what if Lawrence of Arabia and Antonio Banderas show up to take me out in their limo and I need a BALL GOWN with a CRINOLINE???”
Well then. I’m sure when that happens there will be a fancy outfit laid out for me when they show me to my changing room. In the meantime, I’m going to assume that this trip isn’t going to be that type of movie. While I do live in a musical, borne out by the fact that our Lyft driver was singing along with “Hey There Delilah” on the way here, so far it hasn’t required much in the way of full costume changes.
I don’t wait for adventure to happen to me. I bring my own.
What about the “pack four” outfits?
It literally doesn’t matter which four outfits I pack. They don’t have to mix or match. Sometimes if they do, it causes confusion, or I stain something and the whole edifice comes crashing down. I just lay them out across the bed, A B C D, making sure each stack has the appropriate socks etc.
The other trick is to make sure everything goes with one or the other of two pairs of shoes. Wear one, pack one. Ideally you will be wearing the bulkier, heavier pair on the plane, unless they are very fancy boots with lots and lots of eyelets to unlace at security.
This trip, just like our last trip, is going to involve a combination of hot weather and cold, rainy weather. This is annoying, but it isn’t changing my formula. I’ve simply packed two hot weather outfits and two sets of cold weather outfits. We have already planned to do laundry at our hotel on two occasions during the trip. Since we’ll be going different places every day, it’s not like anyone will notice or care that we’re repeating the same outfits.
It seems like there might be another advantage. When we go through our photos after the trip, it will look like we’ve been very very busy and that we’ve seen a bunch of tourist attractions on the same day. Wow, you guys really get around!
We’re in the lounge right now, as I finish this up, and I’m proud to say that I can pick up my travel backpack with one hand and hoist it onto my shoulder. We were able to carry all our stuff up flights of stairs and walk quickly. We haven’t had to squabble about luggage and we haven’t had to pay extra. We both agree on the policy of Wear One, Pack Four, and I’m pretty sure it will work for anyone
There must be people cooking out there, but who, and where are they? Everyone I know seems to be scrambling between protein bars and stale sandwiches. Who is going to cook a nice dinner when it’s often nearly 8 PM before they get in the door?
This is where I advocate for Dinner One and Dinner Two.
It’s true that nobody has the time for anything. Actually it totally isn’t. Everyone gets the same 24 hours. Good person, bad person, busy, not busy, nobody gets any more time and nobody gets any less. We just use it up while we try to pour it from one bucket into another.
I started to realize how much time I could reclaim when my husband I were first dating. He preferred, over what I always saw as the enticing reward of weekend brunch, actually cooking a hot breakfast at home? Why? Who on earth doesn’t like to go to brunch? He pointed out that it involved driving across town, putting your name on a list, standing around for an hour waiting for a table, finally getting seated, waiting twenty minutes to order, waiting half an hour or more for the food, and then waiting another twenty minutes to get the check.
If he made the breakfast, we could eat, clean up, and take a nap in the same amount of time.
He sealed the deal and proved his point by making massive hubcap-sized waffles.
I started cooking dinners from scratch around the same time. I had grown bored of the selection of frozen dinners available to me, and I also realized that I really wanted two of them. I would always be hungry afterward and round out my meal with a large bowl of cereal. If I started buying double meals, I’d double my grocery bill, and also my trash. What if I tried cooking, making some soup or something?
It took so long, though! I didn’t like having to go directly to the kitchen when I got home from work, and then, because I was new to cooking, have to work for ninety minutes before I could eat.
That was the beginning of Dinner One, Dinner Two.
I would come home and cook something quick and easy, one of the microwave meals on which I had been subsisting. I would eat it, and only then would I get started on the real meal, Dinner Two.
Dinner Two was fancy. Dinner Two would be something I really wanted to try, something I’d look forward to. Since I had already eaten, I could take my time and enjoy myself. I found that I liked cooking for myself as long as I wasn’t hangry!
When you’re only cooking for yourself and yourself alone, it can be miserable or it can be fantastic. The misery is when you just aren’t motivated and you find yourself eating directly out of a can, or shrugging and eating a bowl of cereal and then just going to bed. As a bachelorette, I ate meals alone that I would never, ever feed to a guest.
The fantastic part of cooking for yourself and yourself alone? Actually there are several. One. If there is a mess in there, it’s your mess and you have nobody else to blame. If you keep it clean, it stays that way. Two. You can make whatever you like, and nobody else will complain. Three. You get all the leftovers. If you stock something, it’s still there later.
(The trick to that last, if you have roommates, is to hide special leftovers in ugly containers. Wrap it in foil, use old stained and melted plastic containers, or reuse a frozen okra bag as a sleeve. Hide it behind the spinach. Write up a label reading ‘CABBAGE STEW.’)
It was cooking Dinner Two while listening to audio books that convinced me I could learn to be a good cook. I would eat a small serving when it was ready, because I was never satisfied by my cardboard-encased frozen meals. Then I would portion out the rest in containers, some for lunch and some for dinner.
Depending on the recipe, I would have anywhere from 3-8 servings.
If you have a small freezer, it will fill up with leftovers very quickly. After the third time I did Dinner Two, I didn’t have enough room (or containers) to fit any more. As I ate servings from earlier batches, I would free up more space, and that helped to add more variety. My goal was to have at least six different kinds of leftovers stored in there, which was about the same as the frozen aisle at my grocery store.
Bringing homemade lunch was fun. I would carry it in still frozen, and by lunchtime it would have defrosted. I would heat it up, and people would wander into the break room, sniffing, saying, “That smells good!” A far cry from the microwave popcorn/diet cola “lunches” of my friends. Our office park was too far from civilization to go to a restaurant for lunch, and the cafeteria served the singularly worst sandwiches I had ever tasted. Nothing I made could be had locally at any price. Conspicuous consumption!
Dinner Two bought me time. Every batch meant I traded one evening of cooking and cleanup for roughly two additional dinners and three lunches. In a sense, they pop magically into existence. They seemed to stack up at a rapid rate. A couple of times I even managed to feed a friend who dropped by for a surprise visit.
With time, I learned to be faster at food prep. I invested in better knives, bigger pots, grander glass pans. Not only could I cook more, faster, I also found a bunch of recipes that took less than half an hour. A few dinners in my repertoire can be on the table in ten minutes!
I prefer cooking for a family or a dinner party to cooking for myself alone. It gives me a reason to get fancy. I eat better, and certainly I eat more fresh vegetables. It doesn’t hurt to have extra hands to help with the cleanup, and someone else to trade nights. In that sense, Dinner One and Dinner Two can represent an alternating schedule.
Cooking from scratch and cooking in batches has a lot going for it. It saves money, tastes better, and frees up all the time everyone else is spending waiting in line, waiting for a table, waiting for delivery of what is so often disappointing and unsatisfying. The more you do it, the easier it gets and the more variety you have on hand. In another way, Dinner One, Dinner Two is a form of time travel, a way to send gifts, money, and time to Future You.
I went back to the Twentieth Century today. It was a nice little visit and it reminded me of how much I love living here, 20% of the way through the Twenty-First Century. The dioramas are excellent and the docents really put their hearts into it.
Actually what happened is that I wound up crying in the parking lot of the Department of Motor Vehicles and had a major bummer of a day, but I’m trying to find some humor in it. Maybe some self-improvement, too. Otherwise I fear I shall spend my afterlife in Limbo, in a gray cubicle where I face an endless line of the dissatisfied, disgruntled, and perturbed.
I set out with great intentions. I would wait at the DMV for about an hour, get my drivers license updated before it expired later in the month, and then head to the movie theater. Hooray!
For an orderly person, this should have posed no problem, and I am considered by many to be just such an orderly person. I alphabetize my spice jars, I sort my clothes by color, I’m a paperless minimalist, by Jove!
That’s where everything started to go sideways. I’ve lived in the Future for so long now that I forgot the customs and traditions of the pocket of time where I started, the time of rotary phones and phonograph records and paper calendars.
I had a couple of false starts involving my dog’s peculiar habits - he will only eat if I stand three feet away, facing away from him at a 15-degree angle and studiously ignoring him - and the local bus timetable. I’d made it all the way to the bus stop when I realized that I had forgotten the four separate forms of identifying documents I needed!
By the time I made it back to my apartment, the morning cloud cover had burned off and I discovered I had completely sweated through my shirt. Not only did I have to find my documents, I also had to change clothes, a consequence of trusting the weather app on my phone.
My passport and drivers license were already in my bag. My social security card was in the fireproof safe, like I thought, but it had gotten flipped upside down and buried under another document. I have used it for literally nothing whatsoever in the ten years since I remarried and took my husband’s name. While I was leaning over looking for it, I smacked my head on the wall, giving myself a nice goose egg. Then I needed to find two other paper documents, such as a utility bill, bank statement, lease agreement, or change of address form from the post office.
I had to dig stuff out of the recycling bin, because we do all that stuff digitally and have for a decade.
I finally got my act together, or so I thought, and looked at the bus timetable. For the third time that day, I had missed a thirty-minute bus by one minute, so I elected to call up a ride share. For the first time in the two years we have lived here, I was unable to get a signal on my phone, and spent the next five minutes wandering around trying to load the app. Finally I had to cross the street.
Last century I would have owned a car and driven it. Why would I try to use my phone outside??
When we pulled up at the DMV, the driver started laughing, because the line wrapped around two sides of the building. It was 3:00 PM, though, and I figured I still had plenty of time to do this and catch my show.
*muffled sound, whether chortle or sob to remain unknown*
After fifteen minutes in the baking sun, a gentleman came out and asked for everyone’s attention. He said the day’s appointments were already overbooked and that there would be no time for the non-appointment line. He had all the gravitas of a man who has heard every possible complaint, excuse, and grievance, legitimate or not, and faced them down as a stoic must. Civil service will be the making of you, or the undoing.
Maybe six people left, not including me, because I am an optimist, she cried!
Just because I couldn’t find an appointment slot at any DMV within thirty miles of me within the three-month available booking window, and had just been lectured for a systemic problem that was not my fault, did not mean I should give up!
I checked the movie schedule again, and the bus schedule, and figured I might as well stay another ten minutes. I could make it to the lobby and at least find out what forms I needed to fill out.
A helpful young lady came out with a rolling cart and asked if anyone was applying for a Real ID. As the only one who said yes, I got her undivided attention. She looked at all my documents and approved of them. Then she gave me a slip of paper with a QR code that guided me to an online form. If this sounds like Future Tech, well, welcome to 1994.
This was all looking great! I had my sheaf of pre-approved documents, I had the web form all filled out, the line was moving, I had missed my movie but it looked like I might actually get my stuff done. Not too shabby! I even made it inside the building, where, after 75 minutes of waiting, another employee waved me over, looked through my papers, and gave me... a number!
With seven minutes to spare, I got to the window. The finish line, closing in, oh my gosh I think we’re going to make it...
Then we had a dispute over my lease agreement, that went like this for four bars.
“There’s no signature” [pointing to blank line on form]
“It’s a digital signature” [pointing to digital signature line on the same page]
I fished out another document from my folder, and that satisfied the clerk, much in the manner that Cerberus exhibits a taste for honey cakes.
Time to pay. I put my debit card in the reader and I entered my PIN.
Fail. Oh drat. Fortunately, I carry a backup, so I tried that. Fail.
Who uses a debit card? I realize I haven’t touched either of these cards in at least three years.
It all came crashing down. I don’t carry cash, as a rule, and I didn’t have 38 cents, much less 38 dollars. I got rid of my checkbook several years ago when I realized that my first name was the only correct information on my checks, and my online bank doesn’t offer such a bizarre relic. These are the only three methods of payment that are acceptable, because of course nothing else exists in this, the Twentieth Century.
They don’t accept:
Credit cards or Apple Pay or Venmo or Square Cash or PayPal or... anything.
I call my bank and, of course, they are unable to tell me my PIN. They suggest using my account number and routing number, which are also unacceptable. At this point it’s after 5 and I’m starting to realize that this transaction may not work.
I come up with a Hail Mary. I’m surrounded by fellow time travelers who understand my culture. I’ll break character and ask one of them for help, or the abort code. I’d really like to get back to my ship now.
I ask no fewer than seven people if they’ll cover me and let me Venmo them, on the spot. I’ll even pay them extra for the service. $50 for $38. Every person says No and looks at me like I’m insane, or a scam artist.
Oh no! I’m not just trapped in the Twentieth Century, I’m in a low-trust zero-sum zone!
This is particularly depressing, having just left World Domination Summit, where I’m quite certain every person in the building would have teamed up to find an easy way to resolve this silly and trivial dilemma.
Instead I was sent away empty-handed, to come back and start from scratch another day. Another two hours in line just to start the transaction, where the same papers would be professionally assessed for a fourth time.
I still had stitches in my mouth and I was tired. I had a splitting headache. I had worked so hard to be cheerful and kind, and I had heard so many rude people being rude, and now I’d have to come back and repeat the entire experience, and I cried.
Then I managed to get on the wrong bus (and does it matter if it’s 18 minutes late, if it’s the wrong bus?) and I didn’t get home until 7:30 and I was cold and I had to pee.
What did I learn?
My systems check, much like a gravity check, had failed. I need to find out why there are problems with two of my bank accounts and why I couldn’t use my debit cards. I should probably start carrying cash again. I need to audit my files and my banking data. I need more practice figuring out what to do if I can’t use my phone. I need to practice complicated transactions like this ahead of time because I don’t need to be spending six hours this way. I also need to make sure I have my ducks in a row before I leave for the airport for my first international trip in a few years. I need to remember my history lessons before I go to Twentieth Century places like the DMV or the IRS.
Most of all, I need to appreciate just how great it is to live in the Future.
“Happy families are all alike,” claims Tolstoy, and it’s fair to say that organized people are all alike as well. Chaos, though, is personal.
This is the fascinating thing about working with the chronically disorganized. Their living and work spaces may have a lot in common, as far as the stacks and piles and dust. But the reasons they have for letting things get to that state are all distinctly individual.
The family with small kids and the confirmed bachelor. The teenager and the retired lady. They are only alike in that they can’t figure out what to do about their personal chaos.
You’d think, from all those squalor-sploitation reality TV shows, that all my people make the same mess. They don’t, though. Most of my people are not true hoarders, even though they think they are. They’ll cheerfully get rid of truckloads of stuff and never look back. They just need someone there to help them figure out what to keep and why.
There are usually isolated islands of calm amidst the chaos.
The one who owns a carefully curated capsule wardrobe with plenty of space between hangers
The one who keeps an immaculate living room
The one who is always photoshoot-ready (outside the home, anyway)
The one who lets go of hundreds of books but keeps expired food
Chaos is personal because stories are personal. We live the way we do because we’ve internalized messages about how the world works. We explain things to ourselves, or memorize the way others have explained them. Sometimes we even talk to ourselves, convincing ourselves all over again, in the sense of “how dare they!”
The one who had more stuff than any of my other clients, but somehow managed to keep a nice living room: I want it to look good when my friends come over.
The one whose hair, makeup, and wardrobe are always on point: I could never let myself go.
The one who hoards food but not books: I already read that and now it can go to someone else.
That one is fascinating because it posits that books are consumable, that they come and go, but that food belongs to some kind of longterm storehouse. It’s perfectly fine to read a $25 book once and then donate it, but it is never okay to throw away a five-year-old bag of pasta that cost $1.99.
In my fantasies, the ones I indulge when I’m working through a particularly gross and smelly forgotten area, in my fantasies I host a symposium of chronically disorganized people. They debate amongst themselves whose stories make the most sense.
Often I find myself challenged by these stories, because they don’t match mine, and sometimes my client has a point. For instance, the one who would never, ever leave the house without perfect hair and makeup. I’m more or less the opposite. I’ve left the house in my nightgown because I wasn’t feeling well, but I would never let my HOME go.
The first sign that something is wrong with me is when I somehow “don’t feel like” making the bed. This happens two or three times a year, and without fail, it means I’m either getting a migraine or coming down with a cold.
My client’s story is that the way you present yourself says everything about you. It makes or breaks your reputation.
My story is that I’m not going to bend over backwards to impress other people, and if they require me to look photo-perfect before they’ll talk to me, then I don’t want them for a friend anyway.
My client believes that real friends will accept your home in any state, that they come over to see you, not your house.
My story is that since I work at home, I need and want it to be orderly. I clean my house for myself, not for anybody else. My story is that my home reflects my mental state and my self-respect.
What if we’re both right?
What if everything about us has the opportunity to make a first impression? What if we’re better off attending to both our personal appearance and our homes?
I sure don’t want that to be the answer!
On the other hand, what if we’re both wrong? What if our real friends don’t care if we look a little sloppy OR if our living rooms do?
There’s no right answer here. It depends entirely on whether you care more about your own inner standards or about the judgments of others. It’s also true that people are different, our situations are different, and the values and opinions of our friends vary person to person.
People are often afraid to have me over, because they know about my work. There are people I’ve known socially for many years who have never allowed me to visit them at home. It’s ironic because out of everyone, I’m the *least* likely to judge! I have seen it all and I have smelled it all and I have climbed over it all. I know that people rarely manage to keep up with their own image of what they wished their homes looked like.
Part of what fascinates me about working with chronically disorganized people is that learning about them helps me to learn about myself. Every time I come back from a home visit, I get rid of stuff. I recognize that my clients’ daffy stories about why they “need” to keep certain things sound... hauntingly familiar.
So much of it is aspirational. I’ll wear that one day, I’ll read that one day, I’ll learn how to do that one day, I’ll file that one day, I’ll fix that one day, I’ll sell that at a yard sale one day, I’ll eat that one day.
What about today?
What are we doing about today?
If my stuff doesn’t match my routine, then why? Why am I not taking advantage of these opportunities that I’ve provided myself? Why do I plan to do one thing and then spend my time doing something else instead?
Only one thing is guaranteed. The stories I tell myself about why I’m doing one thing instead of something else are not obvious to anyone but me. My story is my own, and my chaos is my personal chaos.
You know what’s weird? What’s weird is how much time we’re willing to waste to get a bargain or “save money,” even though time is limited and money is not. We sometimes say that “time is money,” but that’s only true in a very constrained and specific way. Time is the only thing that money cannot buy. Time is the only thing we cannot replace. This is why it can be helpful to think of time in financial terms.
What if we thought of time spent as a tax on our resources?
Which it is, of course!
Being busy costs extra time, and that’s a tax. Extremely busy people feel that they don’t have time to do certain things, such as calling ahead to find out if a store is open or if they have something in stock. Lack of focus on preparation and organization leads directly to wasted time.
I was a witness to this recently. One of those so-busy-we-suspect-drugs people picked me up on the way to a meeting. We were already late. My ride felt a level of time pressure that can only be described as Warp Speed Desperate Frantic Urgent Emergency. The reason? Trying to buy an item that wouldn’t be needed for 18 hours. We made the stop, we asked two employees, we looked all around the store, and the item was not in stock. My ride bought another unrelated product and we stood in line for it.
When we got to the venue for the meeting, half an hour late, it turned out that both items were already on hand. Both the one we were looking for and the one we stood in line to buy.
Not only did we drive around like bats out of hell, showing up late and scattered and frantic, wasting time and money for things we didn’t really need. We also wasted the time of no fewer than eight other people.
Multiply half an hour times ten people (us and the eight others) and that is FIVE HOURS. Five person-hours that could have been used to do other things. What can be done with over half an entire business day? Who knows? We could start, though, by making a list of all the things we “never have time for.” Writing a major report, holding a planning meeting, catching up on email, taking inventory of the supply closet, conducting a training, finally learning to set up the A/V equipment or use an advanced feature in the software... anything other than having eight people stand around waiting on the most chronically disorganized person.
The busy one.
The worst part of this is that a person who is capable of this kind of thing, is capable of doing it more than once. It becomes habitual, as certain as death and taxes.
Having your time taxed by a professional superior, a person whom you can’t disobey, is taxation without representation.
I’m in a situation in which I am often waiting on other people. This is pretty typical in the business world. My dentist is one of the few professionals I know who is always ready on time; my boxing instructor, on the other hand, often starts early. Everyone else, who knows what on earth they’re up to. This creates a lot of predictable time gaps, a tax on my time.
What I do about this is to try to be prepared. This is equivalent to calculating your withholdings ahead of time, so you don’t have to write an unexpected check.
I prepare by keeping a small backlog of minor organizing tasks reserved. When someone makes me wait, it’s not like I’m going to leave for a five-mile run or start watching a movie. I know it’s probably only going to be a few minutes. I can do a lot with five minutes, and every time I do, it makes my to-do list that much shorter.
Do a brain dump and put things on my to-do list
Add something to my online shopping cart
Update my hydration app
Check movie times
Look at my calendar for the week and the month
Unsubscribe from spam email
Delete unwanted email
Read a few messages
Research vacation activities
Read a short article
Curate recent photos, which means deleting most of them
Delete apps off my phone
Honestly, there’s no way I ever feel like I have enough “free time” to do all of these things in a big block. It’s boring.
More importantly, large blocks of uninterrupted time are hard to come by. This is partly because we’re affected by the disorganization of others around us. That, in turn, is why there are so many professionally printed signs on display in businesses around the world that say “Your problem is not my emergency.”
When an uninterrupted block of time does pop up, it can be used for something constructive, like taking a long nap, reading a novel, clearing space for an awesome new project, or going for a walk with a friend.
Time should be ours to do with as we will. It’s taxed at a pretty high rate for the demands of living. Try as we might, we can’t completely avoid the pragmatic needs of eating, bathing, cooking, housework, and dumb administrative tasks. Which reminds me, it’s almost time to renew my drivers license, and hopefully get a much worse photo than I’ve ever had before.
The best we can do is to avoid taxing ourselves. We can be organized enough to prevent that frantic sense of scurrying around, making multiple trips, losing track of things, forgetting appointments, and creating situations where we need to put in double the effort. Every time we have to apologize for screwing up, every time we have to fix problems that we created, every time we have to redo our work, that is a tax we pay for being too busy.
Let’s reclaim our time and focus. Let’s start treating our time like it’s more valuable than money, which, of course, it is. Down with the busy tax!
I’ve been noticing something these days. Any time I see someone else’s home screen on their phone, they have a badge on their email app. The number on the badge is always something greater than 3500. That’s a lot of unread messages! It also seems to be the standard these days, and that makes me nervous.
What are the possibilities here?
They read and respond to all their mail, then mark it Unread
...because having a high number makes them feel loved and special
Inbox is full of irrelevant junk
...and the number is therefore meaningless
Inbox is entirely full of important messages
...and the number represents power and influence
Inbox is a mix of some important messages and a lot of junk
...and the number represents existential despair
Why 3500? That would be not quite 10 unread messages a day for a year.
What if one of them is extremely interesting and important??
Once upon a time, I was a corporate trainer. My job was to go around and teach people how to use the new email system. It was easier in those days, because junk mail usually stopped at the firewall, and almost everything that came through had an actual business purpose.
The rest of y’all are on your own!
My own mail is probably 20% important, 5% junk that made it through the filters, 5% coupons I generally disregard, and 70% newsletters or aggregations of articles. I spend a few minutes every day unsubscribing from at least half a dozen sources of fresh hell, flagging junk, clicking relevant links, and moving stuff to my ‘Read at Leisure’ folder. As a result, my inbox stays pretty manageable.
Also, I turned off my badge.
I hate badges.
Why would I need a notification to remind me to check a folder that I look in a couple of times a day? It’s not like I’m going to forget.
My rule on badges is: NO
I only have a notification or a badge on something if I really need a reminder and I wouldn’t check otherwise. For instance, I can go days without getting a text message. Otherwise, I get into a situation where even looking at my phone makes me want to avoid it.
Many of these badges come from apps that want a response that serves them, not me. For instance, my vet just sent a request for a review. I might do that to be nice, but I don’t owe them, and as a policy I’m not going to give a review for every single product or service, even though they all ask. Some of them will ask three times or more. Check your email because a lot of it is going to be this type of request!
Or, don’t check your email. Ever.
I think it’s fair to simply not have an email, or not use it, and tell people that. Just delete the whole thing!
At least, that’s true of a personal email. I once worked with a man who refused to accept a paycheck and insisted on receiving his pay in cash. It was complicated and annoying but he actually got away with it. Therefore it’s plausible that someone might be able to throw down an email embargo at work. If that’s the fight you want to be known for, have fun.
I have a voicemail message that says my phone reception is really bad (it is) and to just text or email me and I’ll call back. It seems to work. This is a better solution than the many times I’ve been sitting in my living room, waiting on a call, and my phone never rings, which is sad when I’m holding it in my hand and staring at it expecting my hubby to call on business travel.
Ironically I can only really get phone calls when I’m not home.
Is this the problem with email, though? Is it a problem of being accessible to people we want to hear from? Or is it something else?
I suspect the majority of mail that is blocking people’s inboxes is actually commercial in nature. It’s daily coupons and sales alerts from a multitude of sources. Every store and restaurant and website will offer some kind of discount, or just ask for an email, with the sole purpose of these daily bombardments. It goes like this:
“Please let us reach you by email, sending you so many messages that your inbox therefore becomes nonfunctional and you don’t even see them.”
This is what’s going on when I unsubscribe from things every day.
I was on daily mailing lists for stores where I actually do shop on a regular basis. I unsubscribed from all of them, every single one! What am I missing?
Say I get a 20% coupon once a year and I spend it on a $100 item. I’ve saved $20, except that half of it goes toward sales tax. Is this worth the drain on my attention every single day? Is it worth not being able to use my email inbox? For the equivalent of 3 cents a day?
But then I virtually never use coupons of any kind because I don’t feel that they are even remotely worth my mental bandwidth. That’s not how my husband and I save half our income.
I would ask any extreme couponer who adores coupons but has a constantly full email inbox:
How’s that working out for you?
Are you getting promoted at work?
Are you organized and stress-free at home?
Are you debt-free?
Are you saving and investing?
Could you be getting a 100x return on your time and attention by focusing on other things?
If you really want to carry around 3500 emails telling you about sales that have already passed, knock yourself out. If that isn’t the reason your inbox is so full, then why? If you can figure out the root cause, then you can fix it.
Stuff you want to read? Guess what, you aren’t reading that much and the entire internet will still be there tomorrow.
Heartfelt personal letters demanding your response? Looks like maybe you don’t really feel the same way about that person? If you really care, ask them to communicate with you a different way.
Important business messages that need your attention? Change careers, ask your boss to switch to Slack or have stand-up meetings, negotiate for an assistant, or ask the I.T. person to help you set up some filters.
Having an extremely full email inbox with a big badge on it is a little weird. It’s like having a physical mailbox stuffed with coupon circulars when you can’t find your bills. It’s like carrying around a duffel bag full of laundry all day. It’s like filling your fridge with dead leaves. It’s like coaxing a flock of pigeons into your living room. It’s like...
It’s like a blip on the cultural radar that will soon pass, because what’s happening right now doesn’t work for most people.
If your email inbox makes me nervous, I’m sure email marketers are noticing too. Time for a change.
I found them after five days. My husband’s keys. First he was convinced he left them in our apartment, and I couldn’t go anywhere until he got home so I didn’t lock him out. Then, after I searched everywhere, he figured he must have left them on his desk at work. On Monday he went back to work, and his keys weren’t there after all. I helped him work out a plan of which Lost and Found numbers to call.
Then I checked his coat pocket in the bedroom closet, where they had been, of course, since Thursday morning.
This is one of the many benefits of marriage: you have someone to look after you and help you in your weak areas.
I sympathize because I also used to have a similar problem with lost objects.
I once locked my keys inside my apartment twice in the same day, once with a burner on the stove left on High. Another time I had a candle burning. I’ve dropped my keys down an elevator shaft, locked them in my car, and thrown them in the trash. I have also lost untold numbers of gloves, hats, scarves, library books, and umbrellas, most of which I never got back, and purses, day planners, checkbooks, and wallets, most of which people were kind enough to return to me.
Like I said, I’ve had issues with lost objects, as well as my other distraction issues.
I lean ADHD, and what I do has worked for me. I also teach these methods to my chronically disorganized students and clients.
Pay attention to TRANSITIONS between one scene and another, one activity and another, one time of day and another.
Pause and look around every time. Pause when you get ready to leave for work. Pause again when it’s time to come home. Pause when you stand up after a movie. Pause when your bus pulls up to your stop. Pause, and check. Pause, and check.
When it’s a habit, it only takes two seconds.
I often talk to myself while I am doing this. I have my keys, my wallet, my sunglasses. The reason I do this out loud is that it often triggers my companions to remember their own stuff.
Before we leave for a road trip, I always recite a list of stuff. Often my buddies have to get out of the car and go back inside for something. Wallets, passports, phones, chargers, hats, gloves, scarves, boots, medication, socks, underwear... I can’t wait for the day when a smartphone will remind us of these things automatically.
When I leave a hotel room, I do a perimeter check. Check the shower and the bathroom, check the closet, check each drawer. I do the same when we move, and I take a quick video of all the empty rooms. The hotel check takes two minutes, and the empty apartment check takes less than ten. Peace of mind!
Other than the transition ritual of pausing and checking, it helps to have clear surfaces in the home.
This one is almost impossible for my clients. The more I try to teach them to focus on their living space and the functions of different work surfaces, the harder they cling to their ten-times-too-many belongings. Yes, of course I’d rather have three hundred pounds of old clothes than the ability to use my tables and countertops!
Have a clear area near your front door, like a table. Never put anything on it but your significant daily objects.
Have a clear area next to your bed.
Have a clear area in your kitchen.
Have a clear area next to where you sit to relax, like an end table.
Have a clear area at your desk, if you have one.
Have a clear area in your car, like a cup holder organizer.
Carry less stuff around in general. The less you have to track, the easier it is to track it all.
When you have a clear area next to you, it’s easy to check at a single glance and make sure you have everything. It should be completely empty when you’re not using it. Completely empty 90% of the time!
A flat, clear surface makes it easy to see your phone, your pen, or whatever else you carry around.
It’s easier to keep surfaces clear when you have the right catch-all.
We have drawers in our bathroom, desk, and of course the kitchen. The purpose of the drawers is to hold important stuff that we use all the time, every single day. The purpose of the drawers is not to store stuff that we forgot was in there!
We also use small baskets. There’s one next to the front door for my keys, the garage door opener, and the laundry card. There’s one on the dog crate for his leash and treats and toys. My hubby has one for his daily objects.
I have my work bag, and it hangs on my desk chair. I often get things out of it and put them back in, several times a day. My stuff “lives” there and I simply don’t allow myself to put it anywhere else when I’m done.
Never set anything down “just for now”!
It’s either in its parking spot or you are using it.
Think of the spot for this item as a cute little cozy little house. Like a kitten in a basket or a birdie in a nest. This object likes it there. If you set it down somewhere else, it will be cold and lost and alone, shivering and crying, Why don’t you love me??
Actually don’t do that. Thinking that your stuff has emotions is one of the major reasons that my clients have so much stuff in the first place. But if it does help, then go for it.
If you have tons and tons and tons of stuff, don’t despair. It’s a lot easier to clear a single square foot and keep it clear than it is to sort everything first. Just clear the area and put the stuff that doesn’t belong there in a box. Yeah, you’ll probably still have that unsorted box three years from now, but at least you have a chance of using your nice clear flat surface.
Clear surfaces seem sterile and boring and ugly to most of my people. In reality, they are in constant use throughout the day. Our clear kitchen counters have meal prep going on in bright colors at least four times a day. Our clear bathroom counters have bright, colorful containers on them every morning and evening while we get ready. Our clear desktops are scattered with brightly colored objects while we’re working on projects.
What really fills a home? Laughter, conversations, music, the cheerful business of life. When a home is cluttered and people are always losing track of things, what could be a happy place is instead filled with stress, confusion, and harsh words.
Clear your space, make a home for all your significant daily objects, and use the time you save to read, take a nap, or hug someone.
This is what I know about travel. It’s easier when you don’t bring very much.
This is why I’ve been walking around with fifteen pounds of sand in my backpack.
We’re planning another adventure, this time an urban trip, and I’m buying a sub-40-liter pack because my 65-liter expedition pack is too big. I don’t need room for all the things I usually bring, like the sleeping bag and the space blanket and the double set of thermal underwear and the first aid kit and the cooking pot and the stove and the fuel and the solar lantern and the folding chair and the, I might as well just admit to it, the entire two-person sofa that I pack around.
Go ahead and laugh. My expedition pack still weighs less than the clothes, shoes, and toiletries that most people bring on trips.
I went on a weekend trip with a couple of old friends. The wife had a shower kit that was half the size of my entire suitcase, and then she had a second one! “You brought full-size bottles of shampoo?” I told her it looked like she had a “just in case” bag, and that she’d just grabbed everything from her bathroom that she thought she might need. She nodded, of course, that’s exactly what I did.
I showed her my TSA-approved shower bag, and explained that I start with that. If it doesn’t fit, then it can’t come, because I don’t check my bag. Everything I bring fits under the seat on the plane. Start with the container, not the stuff.
The way I deal with my desire for a wide selection of shower products is that I have a bunch of 2-oz bottles. You can go even smaller with a few contact-lens cases.
The other thing to keep in mind is that... they HAVE SHOWER STUFF in other countries. You can buy toothpaste and soap and deodorant and shampoo. You don’t even have to if you’re staying in a hotel. Not only is it safe to forget stuff or finish it off before you go home, but it’s a shopping opportunity to test out something that may be better quality than what you get at home.
People overpack out of insecurity, anxiety, and indecision.
This can ruin the trip.
The heavier your bag is, the more miserable you’ll be at the airport. Oops, did I say ‘bag,’ singular? I mean, the heavier your multiple unnecessary bags are. You’re doing it to yourself.
I’ve seen people travel with suitcases so big that they could crawl inside. In one case, there was nothing really in it except a set of swim fins and some stray towels, and I know that because the owners had it open on the airport floor while they frantically searched for something.
Why would someone bring towels on vacation??
The more stuff you bring, the harder it is to tell if you’ve forgotten something important.
The only truly important things to bring on a trip are your ID, because you can’t get through otherwise, and a way to pay for things. You can do the whole thing with a passport and a credit card.
Arguably the next two important things are vaccinations and a plan for the trip, although the travel arrangements can also be skipped if you feel ready for the Wing-It Method.
I utterly can’t understand why people insist on bringing so many extra duplicate redundant backup changes of clothes. Really? I’m paranoid about getting cold and even I don’t let that trick me into overpacking.
I have a points system. I lose one point for every item that I bring on a trip and don’t use. The only exceptions are the first aid kit, which I hope not to need, and extra underwear, because they’re small and lightweight.
What’s the point of bringing anything that you don’t use? If you don’t use it, then it is by definition useless. The extra stuff you insisted on dragging around is no more use to you than a fifteen-pound bag of sand.
Oh, I suppose a bag of sand could potentially be useful. You could drop it out a window and stop a robbery. You could cut it open and shake the sand out if you needed traction. You could pour it out on the airport floor if there’s a delay and invite other stranded passengers to create a meditative sand mural. You could put it in your bag to weigh it down and deter thieves.
Because if even you don’t want your stuff enough to actually use it, then why would anyone else?
I walk around with a bunch of sand in my new backpack because I’m testing it out. I’m checking how the load risers are adjusted. I’m reminding myself how tiring it is to climb a flight of stairs with an extra fifteen pounds on your hips and knees and feet. I’m also reminding myself what it felt like to weigh this much without the backpack!
I do this a lot. Now that I’m stronger and more active, I travel more, and I have more fun doing it. My husband and I typically walk or hike 8-10 miles a day, including elevation gain and many flights of stairs. We’re strong enough to see everything we want to see without being utterly wrung out and exhausted at the end of the day.
I can go three weeks with only four changes of clothes. They, um, they have laundromats.
Who cares what you’re wearing? Honestly?
You do, or at least you will if you insist on wearing hurty shoes and limping around with bleeding blisters. If you insist on wearing a sundress when it’s really too cold. If you’re so worried about looking cute that you’re late getting ready every day. I know because I made all those mistakes when I was young, and it really got in the way of enjoying travel. Not just for me, but for everyone else on my trip.
There is no adventure in bringing a bunch of stuff from your house with you everywhere you go. You already know all about your stuff. If you’re leaving the house at all, it’s to see things and have experiences and meet people. Remember why you’re packing and try not to bring fifteen pounds of sand.
Travel planning, isn’t it the worst?
My hubby and I are going on a trip two months from now, and we’ve already booked everything. We have our plane and train tickets, we have our hotel rooms, and we even know where we’re going to eat at the airport. This is the sort of thing that happens to you when you marry an engineer.
(Not a locomotive engineer, no. He doesn’t even have a stripy hat).
None of this advance planning is natural to me. I’m a wing-it person. I grew up in the travel industry, and I started flying alone at age seven. That’s over thirty-five years, and I’ve never missed a flight. I feel justified in my visceral certainty that flexibility and brainstorming are better than rigid planning and punctuality.
Last November, due to a dumb scheduling snafu, I got to the airport just ten minutes before my flight was scheduled to depart. I didn’t even realize it until I was washing my hands in the restroom a hundred yards away. I hadn’t even been through security yet!
Against all odds, not only did I catch that flight, but I had to stand around waiting before my boarding group even got in line.
I’ve been delayed by everything from snow to a plane with a flat tire to a presidential motorcade. I have always caught my flight.
The trouble is that ordinary travelers do not have my decades of freak blunders and delays on which to draw. Most people have an emotional need for a greater sense of urgency than I can provide. Don’t go places with me if you’re tense about being hours early for everything, let’s just put it that way.
Here’s another thing: I know how to pack.
I’m a minimalist single-bag traveler, and I have been for years. I can cover unlikely distances in an improbable span of time because I can grab my luggage and sprint. I’m halfway there before you have all your straps over your shoulders.
There is a group of people who are very organized about time and calendars and schedules. Then there is a group of people who are very organized about objects and spatial relations. These tend not to be the same group. My husband belongs to the first group, and I belong to the second.
I’m the one who put the flight time down wrong in my calendar. He’s the one who put his passport on a chair and then lost track of it when it fell to the floor. We can both look at each other and legitimately think, Okay, that would never happen to me.
We make a good match. I taught him the virtues of one-bag travel, and he taught me how many more options are available for awesome things when you plan months in advance.
For instance, we got the last available hotel room on points in Jackson Hole for the solar eclipse because we booked in January. More than six months in advance. That’s due to him.
We were able to grab one of the last first-come-first-served campsites in the Grand Tetons, same trip, because we brought our backpacking gear. That’s due to me.
This all started on our honeymoon. We checked into our room in a four-star hotel, right down the hall from another couple. We could safely assume they were married because only a married couple could possibly hate each other so much. They roared at each other for two days.
What KIND of PERSON... LEAVES... a BAG???
I SWEAR... I WILL NEVER... GO ANYWHERE... WITH YOU... AGAIN!!!
These are touchstones for us, inside jokes that still have us shaking with laughter ten years later. Long after that couple have probably divorced, married other people, and gone on to divorce them as well.
How can you leave a bag behind when you each only have one bag, and they’re both lined up neatly by the front door the night before the trip?
Don’t people know how to do a proper perimeter check?
Why would you even think of marrying someone if you couldn’t travel well together? What are you going to do, stay home every single day for the rest of your life?
The truth is that travel can be extremely stressful, especially for people who only do it once every few years. People leave their medications and their glasses behind. They wind up in shoes that make their feet bleed. They set up schedules where they’re standing or walking all day, even when they think one mile is a long distance and they get tired walking through Target. Lack of planning guarantees a miserable trip.
That’s why we plan months in advance. Two months is actually pushing it for us.
Do we need visas?
Do we have the transport and lodging confirmed?
What’s the weather like that time of year?
What’s closed on Sundays?
Where are we going to eat, and what’s on the menu?
Is our ID going to expire?
Suitcase or backpack?
Do we need new clothes or shoes?
What kind of electric outlets do they use?
What are we going to read on the flight?
Where are we going and how long will we want to be there?
This used to feel like a dreary amount of work. Then, after a few trips with my esteemed life mate, I started to realize how well it paid off. Not only did it make the trip easier in every way, but it also extended the fun of anticipation.
The last time we traveled together, at the New Year, I spent two weeks laying out every meal and every show and attraction in advance. I put it all in the TripIt app and shared it with my hubby. He was elated! Each day laid out in advance, every address and name of venue neatly lined up on a schedule, nothing to do but whip out his phone and show it to a cab driver. We got everywhere on time and enjoyed ourselves immensely.
We forgot one thing: to argue about how late we were and all the stuff we left behind.
The point of planning far in advance is to make life easier for Future Us. Boring Old Today Me can spend fifteen minutes here and twenty minutes there, putting together a fun and relaxing trip. Future Me reaps the rewards of having no decisions to make. Future Me flits from attraction to attraction, with plenty of time to spare, plenty of naps, and no straps digging into my shoulder. The point of the trip isn’t what we’re wearing or what we’re eating, it’s the memory that we’re creating.
The last person to arrive at the meeting was the person who called it. She texted to say she’d be ten minutes late, and arrived twenty minutes late. Nobody was surprised.
What did surprise us was when she pulled out a fancy new day planner. Time to turn over a new leaf? “Ooh,” we said, all dedicated day planner enthusiasts. It came in its own special box. We would have cheerfully spent five minutes fussing over it, the same as we would have if she’d carried in a little purse dog or an engagement ring.
“My friend got me this,” she said, obviously flipping through it for the first time. “Why is it so complicated?”
During the course of that meeting and the next dozen, we never saw the new planner again. It didn’t seem any more helpful than the laptop, the iPhone, or the numerous folders and stacks of papers had been.
Getting Organized is a sort of secular religion along the lines of Buddhism or yoga. It’s not for everyone, not that that ever stopped anything from becoming a cultural mainstay. Just because our colleague got a nice day planner as a gift did not obligate her to use it.
I mean, of course not. I’m not giving up my Cossac planner just because someone gets me a different one.
What’s important here is that this person was notorious for being chronically disorganized. It impacted other people, not just occasionally but daily. Our colleague was constantly pushing for extensions on deadlines while supposedly working from early til late. She lost track of objects and information, missed key details, forgot to attend her own meetings, dropped the ball on important tasks, and spent about as much time apologizing for not doing something as she did actually doing something.
She was mad as heck when she didn’t get the promotion she wanted.
That day planner? It wasn’t just a perfunctory gift. It was a thoughtful gift, and also a barely disguised coded message, a tactful one. YOU NEED THIS. Not using it was along the lines of turning down a breath mint.
Um, are you trying to tell me something?
Just the other day, a friend leaned over and told me, “I love you, you have something in your teeth.” Kale salad, Y U hate me? This really is what friends are for, to save us from ourselves and help us see what we can’t see on our own. We need each other for perspective.
Professional colleagues are under no such obligation of friendship. In many fields, work is a zero-sum arena of combat, where every bonus and promotional opportunity is desired by many and available to few. The only things that are widely available in the working world are cheap pens and layoffs.
That makes it even more valuable when a colleague reaches out with helpful advice.
Most of the things that top performers do are unusual. They’re often also guild secrets. You only start to find them out after you’ve demonstrated that you’re ready to listen and learn, that you’re worth the time.
One of my work buddies has a mastermind call every morning at 6:00 AM, including most holidays.
Most of my professional friends go to conferences and read business books on their own dime.
My husband buys and reads robotics textbooks cover to cover.
I’ve only recently started to find out how common it is for women in my sphere to hire style consultants to help with their wardrobe, hair, and makeup. It is vanishingly rare to get a recommendation to one of these folk, because they tend to have months-long waiting lists.
Gradually it starts to become obvious that the top performers are doing a lot more than “networking” to get ahead. They’re operating in a different world with different priorities, because they understand that the real game isn’t the game everyone else is playing.
My colleague remained scattered rather than use her new day planner. She probably didn’t see it as a conscious choice. She probably just felt “too busy” to take even half an hour to try using it. What she would have found was that if she started taking a break to get her thoughts on paper, she could have bought herself a bit more mental bandwidth. She could have gotten her most conspicuous issues under control. Maybe she could have quit texting and driving. Maybe she could even have started getting to meetings on time.
Maybe she would have gotten her promotion.
Anyone who uses a planner for peace of mind would understand this automatically. It’s a container for your thoughts in the same way that a grocery bag is a container. It’s easier to put all your apples and potatoes in a bag, and it’s easier to write down everything you need to do on a list. It’s also easier to take the hint when someone goes out of their way to give you that hint, easier than fighting against the current. Easier than fighting your own worst tendencies.
A day planner might easily seem like homework, like one more onerous task. Who has the time? For those who use them, though, it can be like gaining an extra brain. Suddenly you don’t have to make extra trips to the store or miss appointments. You quit running out of your dog’s pills. You start to have all the phone numbers you need. Not only are you getting stuff done on time, but sometimes you get a chance to work ahead a bit. You can go on vacation and not have to check your email. You start to feel like you actually know what you’re doing.
The best thing about Getting Organized is that it gives you time and breathing space to raise your head and look around you. It gives you the pause that you need to pay attention to what your friends and colleagues are doing. That’s when you start to notice small ways that you can connect with other people and make their lives easier. Burnout can get in the way of being present and emotionally available. It can make you feel isolated and alone. Maybe you don’t even realize that others are right there beside you, reaching out and trying to help.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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