I have to tell you this story. My husband is an aerospace engineer, right? He has this highly idiosyncratic engineering system for his clothes. He came in and shared an anecdote, and it made my jaw drop open, and immediately I realized I had to write it up. This thing has layers!
First off, we keep different schedules. He’s an extreme lark and I’m a night owl. How larkish is he? He once woke up randomly at 4 AM, couldn’t fall back to sleep, and just shrugged and went to work early. I’ve shifted my natural schedule back about four hours to overlap with his more. I’m not allowed to get up with him on weekdays, though, because he says it makes him want to hang out with me. How sweet is that??
(Although actually the real reason is that he has his morning routine worked out to the minute, and even a brief chat with me would throw him off. More on this later).
Another piece to this story is that in our new apartment, we share a clothes closet. In our past three houses, he kept his clothes in his office closet. The reason for this is that he doesn’t want to wake me up, out of consideration for my parasomnia disorder. (Possibly also because if I do wake up, I have a strong desire to tell him my creepy dreams, which… RUN AWAY!). A key piece in his morning routine is to get across the bedroom like a ninja and open the door as soundlessly as possible. I’d say that 90% of the time, he nails it. What a guy, huh?
Okay, so. For some reason, dear hubby forgot to lay out his clothes the night before. He had to re-enter our boudoir, open the closet, and choose a work outfit. This put him a mere three feet from my sleeping face. At this time of year, it’s still pitch dark at 5:45 AM. Without turning on a light, without waking me up, he was able to reach out and grab a matching shirt, pants, socks, and shoes. Because he has a system.
I had no inkling of any of this. We’ve been together for eleven years and I had no idea. I mean, I knew parts of it, because honestly his side of the closet is distinctive, but I had no idea how intentional it all was.
If he hadn’t told me that he chose his outfit in the dark, I never would have guessed. All I noticed is that he was wearing a new shirt for the first time, one that I helped him pick out, and that it really brings out the color of his eyes.
Stop for a moment and ask yourself: On any given day, could I walk up to my closet and choose a matching, flattering, seasonally appropriate outfit in the dark?
It turns out that he’s practicing Six Sigma and using kanban. Everything has a place and everything is in its place. He has precisely eight polo shirts in a variety of colors. He has six identical pairs of black pants (and one pair in khaki, which I suspect he’s just keeping until they wear out). Clean shirts get hung up on the right, and he always draws from the left, so the shirts get worn out at an equal rate. “You have to wear the shirt that you don’t like, as much as your favorite shirt; otherwise your favorite shirt doesn’t last as long.” Since he has eight shirts and there are five weekdays, the shirts show up on different days, adding a little variety to the system. They all go with the black pants, which also go with the socks and shoes. There are three long-sleeved shirts for less casual work settings, but, I am not kidding, he wears the same clothes whether it’s 40 degrees out or 110.
For casual clothes, he has two pairs of “adventure pants,” two pairs of shorts, and ten t-shirts, which he feels is too many. Should only be seven.
What’s the deal with this hyper-rational system?
Are you believing all of this??? I mean, I’m married to him and I’m dumbfounded.
Let’s contrast the engineer-style capsule wardrobe with the opposite extreme, the chronically disorganized maximalist artistic woman’s wardrobe. Because honestly, I think most of us would freak if we felt we had to limit ourselves to eight tops and six identical pants.
Mathematics could provide an answer to how many potential options there are in a given closet, but it would be a complicated problem to set up, because not all the pieces fit in one data set. It’s easily going to be in the thousands, though.
The typical maximalist wardrobe is, according to my hypothesis, a major root cause of morning stress and chronic lateness. Multiply it by the wardrobes of any young children in the family. Multiply that by lack of a laundry system and the product is endless chaos, distraction, and frustration.
I once worked with a talented department manager who had a capsule wardrobe, although I didn’t know the term at the time. She wore a series of virtually indistinguishable dresses, same style, same color. Every day, though, her shoes were different: Three-inch heels in an endless variety of colors and patterns. She continued to climb the corporate ladder; last I heard, she was a VP. In the heavily male-dominated world of tech, there are a few likely possibilities. 1. Literally none of the engineers noticed; 2. They noticed and approved; or 3. She was actually evaluated based on her work output, and what she wore was irrelevant.
I checked with my husband, who also knows her, and he said definitely #3.
I think we should evaluate our wardrobes based on functionality. This is how my husband organizes his. Do I look like a professional? Can I reliably get to work on time? Can I get ready with the absolute minimum amount of fuss? Am I comfortable? Is everything machine-washable? I’m telling you, I’ve been aware of the concept of the no-decisions uniform for over twenty years, and if I’d ever found a single garment or shoe that I liked that much, I’d be wearing it every day. Maybe this is why I’m married to an aerospace engineer and I myself am not one.
Most of the stuff in the universe is not in my apartment. I’m pretty sure I don’t have any of your stuff, although if I do, please remind me… I’ve written in the past about how I don’t have a nightstand or a coffee table. Another conventional item that I don’t have is a filing cabinet. This is pretty common amongst the chronically disorganized, and it’s a good tool for making sense out of scattered stuff. It’s possible, though, to graduate past the need for a physical file cabinet. Not having a filing cabinet is one of the many ways that I make my life easier.
There are three levels of filing:
Not having a filing cabinet means I need to be strategic about how information flows through my life. I need to plan my finances and my infrastructure. This strategic planning is how I control the flow of papers so I can always find what I need. It also keeps unwanted papers from taking over our house.
The first thing is to default to NO when it comes to papers. Refuse all brochures, pamphlets, flyers, newsletters, catalogues, business cards, menus, free newspapers or anything else that is thrust out. Any information I need, I can look up online. There is no reason for contact information to be collected in paper form. The other advantage of this is that I’m in control of the research. Anyone who wants me to take papers from them is marketing something, which means they’re looking after their advantage, not mine. This is contrary for compulsive accumulators, who get swirly eyes every time they think they’re getting something for free.
Junk mail is in a category of its own. Opt out. Get your name off the lists. This can be hard to do in the case of postcards from local dentists or other businesses, but they usually only reach out once. Regular offenders catch my attention, and I go to their website and figure out how to get my name taken off their mailing list. After opting out, the second most important way to fight junk mail is to ruthlessly process it every day. When either of us brings in the mail, we’ve already sorted through it by the time we get to our front door, and all the junk goes into the recycling bin.
These two gates, resisting papers and eliminating junk mail, eliminate at least 80% of the burden of paper sorting. This is why they are so essential to the process. There’s plenty to sort when it comes to the relevant stuff, the papers we actually need. Having them mixed in with bags and bags of unsorted junk mail makes the process almost impossible.
What about the stuff we do need? As often as possible, we sign up for paperless billing. Almost all the time, we just use auto-pay. This is another area that is very contrary for my people. Even direct deposit for paychecks is too much for them; it makes them feel paranoid. I used to feel that way. At some point in the late Nineties, I changed my mind. Never once, not a single time, have I ever had a problem with direct deposit or automatic billing. Of course that’s not going to matter to those who are afraid of electronic banking. For those who just feel overwhelmed and dread the thought, it’s even more important to control the flow of paper, because there’s going to be at least ten times more of it.
Guess what? Once you’ve paid a bill, you no longer need to keep the billing statement. Or the envelopes, or the brochures. Any of it. You don’t need to keep paper copies of bank statements, either. We haven’t kept any for our entire marriage. This is why we don’t have a filing cabinet, because either we don’t keep these papers or we don’t generate them on paper in the first place.
We also don’t keep academic papers. My husband is active in his field of aerospace engineering, and his student work wouldn’t be all that relevant to what he does today. I haven’t needed or used any of my papers, either, although I did scan the ones I wanted to keep. They take up a small amount of space in my cloud storage. Most people keep old school papers because they miss being students.
What do we keep?
Our passports, social security cards, and marriage license are in the fireproof safe.
I have a red Manila file folder labeled PENDING that has certain papers that are necessary for the short term. For instance, I had a four-year battle with the City of Los Angeles, trying to tax me for income I didn’t earn even when I wasn’t a resident. I saved all the correspondence from them. That was about a dozen sheets. At some point, I’ll scan them and shred the originals. I just looked through this folder and pulled out an invitation to a party I attended and instructions for an eye ointment I no longer need. Then there’s a flyer from our apartment complex about repaving the parking lot this month. Well, I’m certainly not putting it on the fridge!
We have a cardboard file box. It measures ten inches deep. This is downsized from our previous file box, which was about twice as big. I keep it in the linen closet, where there’s room for it because we don’t keep threadbare old towels or wrong-size sheets. I just flipped through it. The majority of it is only in there because of how long it would take to scan it, and because if we get rid of another inch of papers, I’ll have to find a different storage solution. They’re holding each other upright. You know all those pictures on Pinterest of cute desks with decorative storage boxes on the shelves? Something like that would work.
What’s in our file box? School pictures of my stepdaughter. Instruction manuals, which I include with items that I resell when we’re done. Tax returns, of course. Race bibs from the different races I’ve run. A bunch of schematics and notes about various inventions, mine and his. Veterinary records, which, come to think of it, our vet has on file anyway. Essentially what we have is there due to entropy, not because we need to use these papers for reference. (The invention stuff should certainly be scanned). The only ones we’re legally mandated to keep are the tax returns, a file that’s about 1/8” thick. It could go in the safe and then we’d be done.
Papers, like many other objects, tend to be kept because we don’t believe we have permission to get rid of them. What do you want to bet that almost everyone reading this still has the tags hanging off their mattress? How many people have stuff in their house that was left behind by previous tenants? Why do we always keep all the spare hardware that’s left over after assembling something? It takes a certain amount of moxie to seize the initiative and make executive decisions about stuff. Do a little research and decide that there’s an entire category of papers you no longer need to keep.
Every flat surface is going to get covered with stuff. It’s a universal law. Just like a cat will always find an empty box and my dog will always find the snacks in my purse, flat surfaces are an irresistible attraction. This is how entropy happens. If I have stuff in my hands and I think Future Me will have more fun dealing with it than I would right now, I’m going to put it on the nearest flat surface I can find. For later. Eventually, this is going to include the floor. While a lot of this stuff is going to include dirty dishes, dirty laundry, and a general excess of objects, for most people the surface clutter is made of paper. We turn every possible place we can find into an auxiliary desk.
Not everyone has a desk, of course. They don’t always fit. I currently don’t have a desk; I work either at the dining table, in an easy chair, at the public library, in a cafe, or in my lap on the bus. Of course, I did all of those things when I did have a desk. The entire world is my backup workspace! The major drawback to this is that, while I am paperless as much as possible, tangible material objects do keep inserting themselves into my mental bandwidth. I have to put them somewhere. They wind up either in my work bag or in a stack on the entertainment center. This drives myself crazy.
Mail to process
Receipts to process
Bound manuscripts and screenplays
Stacks of index cards
As soon as every book ever written is available electronically. As soon as we have wireless power. As soon as everyone agrees to switch to electronic billing and electronic receipts. As soon as the entire world catches up to the 21st century, I can stop having this annoying stack in my brain space. Until then, I’m looking for a design solution. I have the luxury of caring about a single square foot of chaos in my home.
There’d be plenty of room for this stack if I got rid of another shelf of books.
Most of my people do have desks. Some have more than one. There’ll be a computer desk, often used by the entire household, and then an older desk that is covered with papers. The drawers will be full of random stuff. If there are shelves, which there often are, they will be filled with stuff, too. In most cases, these desks are like historical archives, where time came to a standstill at a certain state of fullness, and everything shifted to the next auxiliary desk.
First it’s the desk. Then it’s the dining table. Then it’s the kitchen counter.
Then mail starts getting stuffed into crevices all around the house. Sideways between books in the bookcase. Stacked horizontally on top of books or other objects. Wedged under something that’s supposed to hold it in place. Strewn across the coffee table. Piled on top of the microwave or the fridge. Hidden in a drawer. Used as a bookmark. Stuffed into a tote bag, backpack, purse, briefcase, or all of the above. On the nightstand. In the passenger seat of the car. On the dashboard until it all slides off. In clipboards and pinned to bulletin boards. On the windowsill.
This is what chronic disorganization looks like. It looks like someone made a scale model of a distracted, overwhelmed human brain and put a lot of effort into making it as 3D as possible.
Really, I blame junk mail for all of this. The trouble with paper is that almost all of it looks alike. It comes in faster than we can process it, and missing a single day exacerbates what is already a significant externally imposed interruption. Every piece of paper we didn’t ask for sits there calling HEY! HEY HEY HEY HEY HEY. Every single time we look at it, each piece again triggers that mental HEY. We learn to blur over it and stop seeing it. It’s the only way our attention can possibly survive in this world of a million words.
Go outside. Tally every time you see an advertisement, a bulletin board, a bumper sticker, a corporate logo, a sign for a yard sale or a lost pet, a t-shirt or tattoo with writing on it, a piece of discarded food packaging. There are a million billion things crying for our attention all the time, everywhere we go. That’s not even counting our phones and all their alarms and reminders and ringtones and notifications. Our simple primate brains were not designed for all this stimulation!
This is the argument for a streamlined work area at home. Your home is your private retreat. It should be a place where you can escape the demands of the outside world, pause, and remember who you are. It should not be yet another arena of distraction.
The point of a desk is to have somewhere to sit and think. Everyone needs a quiet place to step away and do strategic thinking. Everyone needs a clear flat surface to be able to work. Whether that’s creative work, household bureaucracy, or simply poring over a coloring book, even the smallest home should have at least a single square foot of bare, empty surface to work.
Yes, a clear spot on the kitchen counter to cook. Yes, a clear spot on the bathroom counter to get ready for the day or for bed. Yes, a clear spot somewhere to put your feet up. Hopefully, most of all, a clear spot to think and plan. If we have to commandeer auxiliary desks off-site, at libraries and coffee shops, we have permission to do this while we get our heads straight.
The only way to start sorting through multiple auxiliary desks is to create a command central. One spot to rule them all. Somewhere to sit down and make decisions about today. Deal with the incoming mail and receipts that have come from today. Accept or decline the invitations that came in today. Try out the recipes you chose today. Recycle and shred the junk of today. Stop adding to the chaos and entropy - today. As this becomes a habit, gradually start weeding through the junk of yesterday and the expired invitations of yesterday and the filing and shredding of yesterday.
Don’t let random papers invade your peace of mind. Fight the tide. Decide that you are going to reclaim some space and peace and quiet. Create a space for yourself where you can sit and think whenever you like.
The “wing-it method” is what we call taking off on a trip with no plans. We did this on our trip to Spain last year. Landed in Barcelona with no transportation, no lodging, no food, no propane for our camp stove, no reservations for anything, no recommendations, not even any friends, acquaintances, or internet contacts. There was a stressful ten minutes while we figured out how to take a bus to the nearest campsite, but other than that, we were able to navigate a foreign country with our novice command of the language for two weeks. We didn’t even get deported. This ability to tolerate being in the Place of Uncertainty for even brief periods is vital to enjoying travel when things keep going wrong. Like our vacation.
It started with the first leg of our flight. We boarded the plane, only to find out that there was a mechanical failure with the de-icing equipment on the wing. We sat out there on the tarmac for an hour while it was repaired. This was actually pretty great! I like it when they discover these issues on the ground, the nice hard ground, and fix them without making us all get out. The same thing happened once when my plane ran over a screw and got a flat tire. Our only plans for the rest of the night were to get groceries for our camping trip, and we were still able to do that before the store closed.
The next issue was getting a campsite. We went to the Grand Tetons to see the eclipse in its totality. They don’t take reservations unless there’s a group of at least six people, so we were winging it. I had done the research and I figured we could always get a backcountry permit if they were out of campsites. WELL! We got up there, every single campsite for FORTY MILES was full, and ‘backcountry’ does not mean what I thought it meant. I understood it to mean that you could just find a spot and throw down your tent, which may or may not be true in other countries or in National Forests, but emphatically is not true in a National Park in the US. Especially not in grizzly bear territory. We had a literal taxi waiting for us (topic for another post) while we tried to figure out what to do. It turned out there was a miscommunication of terminology and that we were eligible for a ‘hiker/biker’ spot because we didn’t bring a car. It also turned out that campsite checkout happens at 11 AM, and a few spots freed up while we were standing there trying not to hyperventilate. We got our spot and tipped the cabbie an extra $20 for waiting.
Then we walked up to our campsite, threw our packs down, and a mosquito bit me right on the caboose before I even had time to put on bug spray.
We spent a week camping, a last night in Jackson WY, and then flew home for one night, before turning right around and going to Las Vegas for our wedding anniversary. At some point we’ll have a personal relationship with all the Lyft drivers who are willing to go to the airport.
We were physically in the jetway, lined up and ready to board, when the pilot came bustling out. He came back again about two minutes later. Then he came out again. OUR PLANE HAD BEEN STRUCK BY LIGHTNING and the flight was canceled. In 35 years as an air traveler, I have never had to do this, but we all turned our conga line around and walked back out of the gangplank. We wound up being delayed four hours. This is by no means uncommon, and it’s hardly our longest delay, but it sucks when the flight was only 45 minutes and it’s possible to drive a car to your destination faster than the next plane could arrive. I’m never sure, but: is that irony?
The hardest part for me of having a flight delay is that there are rarely food options in an airport terminal that are acceptable to me. LAX in particular is trapped in the 80s. You can get anything you want as long as it’s pizza or a burger, coffee or beer. Honestly it’s easier for me to find food in a mall food court. We were scheduled to land in Las Vegas at 5:30 PM, meaning we could have checked into our hotel and had dinner on our normal schedule. Instead we landed at 9:30 and wound up eating at 11. What would have been “dinner and a show” was swallowed up by a long evening in our home airport terminal. But hey! At least it’s Vegas, where dinner at 11 is not much of an ask.
That weekend, every single time I tried to book a show, it was already sold out. We did have some nice dinners, though.
Travel is a luxury. We have to remind ourselves of that, even when all the logistics are going wrong. Either it’s fun or it’s a story. When you’re traveling with someone you like, you have time to chill out and enjoy each other’s company. Sometimes lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of time. Sometimes, when things go wrong, you even get $200 in future flight vouchers out of it. We wing it because it keeps things interesting, and also because so much of the time, winging it is the only option.
Clutter is just a speed bump. It’s important to remember that when we actually start rolling up our sleeves and sorting it out. This isn’t meant to be a new hobby! It’s something we can do over a brief period of time, and once we’ve gotten it over with, we can move on to things we like better. All the things we couldn’t do when our homes were full of extra stuff… The point of space clearing is to make room for life to start happening again.
There’s a phenomenon that I call “churning.” This is when someone starts constantly rearranging and reorganizing and purging and shopping and reorganizing stuff yet again. The reason for this is that many of us strongly prefer interacting with stuff over interacting with other humans. This is why I discourage people from looking to their stuff to “spark joy.” Stuff shouldn’t spark joy; people should spark joy. Living a life filled with purpose should spark joy. Dance and music and art and nature should spark joy. Joining the great conversation should spark joy. Instead, culturally, we’ve traded in almost all of that for screen time and cheap consumer goods.
Maybe that’s too much to ask, though. Maybe we’re far enough gone that most of us can’t reach the threshold for pleasant interactions, due to a general societal lack of civility and kindness. If the choices available are sorting through a stack of books or a tub of craft supplies, or trying to have a conversation with someone who is sarcastic or belligerent, it’s easy enough to see why so many of us are turning to coloring books or games instead. If the main point of space clearing is to have a home suitable for informal gatherings of family and friends, maybe we just have to shrug that one off and move further down the list.
The point of space clearing is to have a functional personal living environment that supports the things you want to do. A bedroom for sleeping, a bathroom for bathing, a kitchen for cooking, a dining table for eating meals, a living room for relaxing. If this all sounds perfectly obvious to you, then you probably don’t have a clutter problem.
This is what I see in my work:
Bedrooms full of dirty and clean laundry
Dressers and closets full to bursting, partly with clothes that don’t even fit
Kitchen sinks full of dirty dishes
Kitchen counters covered with dirty dishes, packages of food, mail, and random objects
Refrigerators full to the gills, mostly with stuff that has expired
Bathroom counters covered with bottles and random grooming tools
Desks buried under drifts of mail and other papers
Garages full from wall to wall
Uncashed checks and unused gift cards
(Sometimes) “craft rooms” too full of materials to actually make anything
The point of space clearing is to get these systems up and running. Systems, you say? Yes. The missing piece in all the homes where I have worked is that they don’t really have any systems. Material objects come in the door and they never go out again. Without any overall system, stuff gets left wherever, and when it can’t be found, sometimes it’s replaced, adding to the overall stuff problem. Default patterns that contribute to this are buying things on sale, “stocking up,” recreational shopping (such as yard saling), and poor boundaries with friends and relatives who are compulsive accumulators. A lot of people use gift-giving as an excuse for compulsive acquisition. “I saw this and I bought it, and I’m not sure why exactly, but here, you take it.”
Putting some systems in place can prevent clutter and chronic disorganization from getting worse. Space clearing usually needs to happen at some point, though, for things to really start working.
Get rid of anything in your kitchen that gets in the way of actually preparing simple meals.
Get rid of anything on your dining table that gets in the way of sitting down to eat.
Get rid of anything on your desk that prevents you from sitting there to work.
Get rid of anything in your bedroom, bathroom, or entryway that slows you down when you get ready in the morning.
Get rid of anything, anywhere, that you might trip over or step on.
Get rid of anything in your garage that prevents you from reaching your cool stuff, whether that’s a workbench, a kayak, an air hockey table, your bike, or anything you like more than boxes.
Get rid of anything you think is ugly, broken, depressing, or smelly.
Get rid of anything that makes you want to turn around and leave the room. Include your front and back yard in that assessment.
Get rid of everything in your storage unit, unless of course you’re independently wealthy.
We tend to get caught up in the many fascinations and charms of an individual object, such as a tomato-stained spatula, a dusty wicker basket, any object shaped like any animal, or anything that could loosely be described as “cute.” We hold things up and we set them right back down. We get distracted and wander off. It’s hard for us to learn to think in terms of an entire room rather than one silly little material object. Thinking in terms of systems is harder still. We aren’t sold on the advantages.
Am I having fun?
How do I feel when I walk in my door at the end of the day? Relieved, happy, satisfied…? Or bummed out, drained, resentful…?
Am I getting where I need to be, on time, all the time?
How are my finances? Do I actually know or am I intimidated by this thought?
Can I move freely through my home or is it easier to sit down and stay put?
Can I easily put together a meal, an outfit, and a financial statement?
Am I a good roommate to myself?
Do I like my life?
Coming home from a vacation should count as part of the vacation. End on a high note. Coming home late, exhausted, and knowing you have to get up early to go back to work is bad enough. Add the suitcases full of dirty laundry. THEN add the disaster area that was created while you tried to pack. No thank you! Planning in advance prolongs the excitement and anticipation of the trip. Planning meals around using things up can be part of this fun, and it can also help to defray the cost of the trip.
There are two main ways to use up food in advance of a trip. One, just eat the stuff. Two, cook it and put it in the freezer. (You can also ask some friends or roommates if they want it, but chances are that they’ll just wind up throwing it away).
We decide which way to use stuff based on how well it freezes. Once I tried putting a bag of carrots directly into the freezer, and let’s just say that didn’t work out very well! Right before a trip is no time to be experimenting on novel food preservation methods. Let’s just do things that we already know how to do.
Eat it now: Salad greens, leftovers, fresh fruit, anything you can juice
Freeze it: Anything that could go in a soup, pot pie, or stir-fry. Any bread or baked goods.
It took me forever to learn to do this, but I now plan meals over a 3-5 day time period. I buy frozen entrees for more like 1-2 weeks at a time, and canned foods for a few days, but the fresh produce circulates over a much briefer period. There are three reasons for that. Our fridge is small, I have to carry all our groceries over my shoulder while walking half a mile, and, most importantly… there’s no need for me to buy more. They call it a “store” because it “stores” things.
My previous method of shopping involved buying stuff out of curiosity when I didn’t actually know how to cook it, buying stuff I did know how to cook without having a meal plan, buying stuff on sale, and generally feeling like there was a “right amount” of food to buy. The result was more or less chaos. A kitchen full of every possible spice, herb, condiment, shape of pasta, and random item like umeboshi plums or canned chestnuts… but nothing that would actually represent A DINNER. As it turns out, the vast majority of stuff we buy for flavor has few to no calories. That sense of safety and security that comes from stockpiling food is a false sense of security. In crisis conditions, it won’t fuel us for very long. Thus, if we’re saving extra food at the behest of anxiety, we should be making sure that it represents whole meals in the least perishable format possible.
That’s a lesson for a different day.
What we’re focusing on right now is the OPPOSITE of crisis conditions. We’re focusing on being AWAY from home, on NOT having a stockpile of supplies. What we want is to avoid coming home to a bunch of moldy, spoiled food, all of which represents\ both a waste of money and a cleanup hassle.
Once I came home from a trip and I was talking on the phone with the man who is now my husband. Clearly I was not thinking about how long I had been away. (I think it was Thanksgiving weekend). I grabbed a container of soy milk out of the fridge and started to take a swig. Instantly my honey was subjected to a stream of swearing and gagging. The soy milk had gone bad. Approximately a single molecule of it touched my tongue, and I learned that the major function of the taste buds is to protect us against being poisoned. This is some limbic-system, deep survival stuff right here. I was scrubbing my tongue with a toothbrush and gargling with mouthwash. Then I poured out the offending container and everything in it came out in chunks. And that is the story of how I started meal planning before trips away from home.
The steps involved are simple.
Don’t go to the grocery store if you can avoid it. Definitely do not go until after you have taken inventory of the perishables in the fridge.
Try to use up all the perishables. That means “things that go bad.”
If your fridge is empty the day before you leave, great. Just get tacos that night or something.
A lot of typical American households have enough food in the kitchen to last for at least a month. Many frugalites and debt-payoff champions have proven this hypothesis by eating only the food supplies they have on hand until they run out. This can be harder to do when you realize that your stockpile includes three jars of mustard and five separate salad dressings. Also, how does someone wind up with two jars of capers?
One thing I like to do is to make a pot of soup and put it in freezer containers for the night we come home. The soup simmers while we pack our suitcases. Then we don’t have to stress out about what we’re going to eat when we get home, either. We can put off grocery shopping until the next day. We can also splurge on grocery delivery, which we used to do when our grocery store was more than half a mile away.
Travel anxiety is hard. I have found that it really eases my mind to take out the trash before I leave for a trip, and then do a final perimeter check. I can lock the door behind me, carrying the image of my clean and tidy apartment, with clear visuals in my mind that show I haven’t forgotten anything, and we won’t be coming home to a mess. Nothing but fun times ahead!
Ready for a fiesta of gender stereotypes? We’re packing for a trip, and I asked my husband if he would be willing to be my test subject. I’m setting a timer so I can find out how long it takes him to pack. I want to know the secret of how to pack like a man. I’m going to pack my own bag right alongside him. Here we are in the time dimension. Ready? Three, two, one, and GO!
Okay, no, wait. He’s saying something really interesting!
“If it took me half an hour to decide what to take on a trip, it would be crazy! I mean, seriously, I could pack all the clothes in my closet in my big international bag and just check it, and I would have all my clothes. I don’t know if it would necessarily fill all that bag up. What filled it up on the trip to Hamburg was that I was taking my big heavy coat.” - My hubby, spontaneously writing half of this post for me
He’s onto something there. As an aerospace engineer, he’s expected to dress professionally, but not exactly in a fashion-forward, on fleek kind of a way. He used to buy his pants in a stack at Costco, until he figured out that he can get them on Amazon Prime. Likewise, if his shirt collars start to fray, he wanders into the nearest men’s clothing store and comes out with a few replacements. The main considerations are 1. Size and 2. Whether he already has a polo shirt in that color. He maintains a specific number of pants and shirts: 6 pairs of work pants, 3 weekend pants, 5 short-sleeve work shirts, 3 long-sleeve work shirts, and what he describes as a “glut of t-shirts” at 8 total. His “thing” is having a lot of empty space between hangers. Now can you start to see why packing a suitcase is not difficult for him?
I start the timer. He gets out his suitcase, which is stored inside that big international bag he mentioned. He makes neat stacks of his shirts, pants, socks, and undergarments. He puts them in the suitcase. He goes into the bathroom and comes back with his shower kit. “Okay, done.” I pause the timer. 7:33.
SEVEN MINUTES AND THIRTY-THREE SECONDS!
I ask him, “So you’re probably not even going to give that bag another thought until we leave, right?” He nods, and then says, “Well, I’ll probably look in it again the night before and make sure I have everything.”
Okay, halt. That’s the exact opposite of what I do! My method of “making sure I have everything” is to do a complete perimeter check of our apartment, opening and shutting every single cabinet and drawer and looking to see what’s there. Of course I also do that because when we’re going to be away for a while, I want to make sure there aren’t any loose ends or open loops around the place. I’m far more concerned about the state of our home than I am about what’s in my bag. The logic behind that is that I can always get anything I need on a trip, but I can’t do anything about our apartment remotely. (Not yet, anyway). I want to walk in the door on our homecoming and know that all I have to do is unpack.
I start the timer again. While my pet engineer has been packing his suitcase, I have been wandering in and out of the closet, pulling things out, counting, and wandering back in to hang things up. In the time it has taken him to pack his suitcase, I have chosen everything I’m going to wear… but it’s strewn on the bed. Our packing methods are different. Also he was sort of dominating the suitcase-packing station, also known as “our bed.”
I load up my suitcase, zip it up, wander out to the living room to retrieve my sandals, load up the shoe section, get my shower kit, and zip up. Stop the timer. 10:33.
This is the difference between us: I spent 50% more time packing because I was in the Place of Indecision, fussing over what to wear.
Why’s that? Why does it take me longer to decide?
I’m like, the weather forecast predicts temperatures ranging between 50 and 85. He’s like, *SHRUG*
I can’t stand having my bra straps show. Him: Not Applicable
I have more than one color range in my wardrobe. He doesn’t, and that’s by design.
My main secret to packing light is that I plan everything around bringing as few pairs of shoes as possible. I want to spend the majority of my time in sneakers, or at the very least, I want to bring a pair so I can sneak off to run (or at least walk fast). Whatever dressier shoes I’m bringing, I want to keep it to one pair, so it’s either going to be black, brown, or metallic. That tends to minimize wardrobe choices. I have a strong suspicion that many of my sisters in luggage try to bring as many shoe options as possible, so they don’t have to decide.
The irony here is that if you refuse to make decisions at the packing stage, you’re then forced to make them every time you get dressed. On a lot of trips, that’s going to mean one set of decisions in the morning, another in the evening, and possibly a third set in the afternoon. Personally, if I want to play dress-up, I can do it at home without having to lug a huge heavy suitcase everywhere. When I’m traveling, it’s all about the DESTINATION and the EVENTS, not what I’m wearing.
I care about whether I’ll be cold. I care about whether my straps show. I do NOT care what other people think about my outfit. Anyone who is going to judge me by my clothes is going to find a lot more not to like! It’s a highly efficient way of weeding out potential non-friends. Although honestly, I think most people are oblivious to what others are wearing; we’re just trying to look right for our next selfie.
I can actually pack my suitcase in five minutes. I took a video of myself packing the last time I went on a trip. That time, it took me about forty minutes to decide what to wear and get everything ready before I started. I was dressing up more, and there were finicky tasks like picking out earrings. That was a four-day trip, while this is an eight-day trip. I’m thinking that five minutes of decisions and five minutes of packing is pretty good!
Why am I relatively fast at packing? Like my engineer husband, I start with a system. I only buy things that fit me and that fit into my plan. My fitness regimen keeps me in one clothing size, the same as it’s been for the last three years. At least 80% of my wardrobe consists of business casual clothes that I wear almost every day; they’re appropriate for most occasions. I limit myself to six main colors, and any variables in those colors are going to be expendable garments like tank tops, workout gear, or sleep clothes. I don’t keep a single thing that I feel “iffy” about. NO THREES! On a scale of one to five, I’m only going to wear fours and fives. Why would I wear anything other than comfortable, flattering clothes that fit and are easy to wash? I’m not going to play defense lawyer for garments that don’t do anything for me.
I’m still putting way more thought into it than the man in my life puts into what he wears. We’ve talked out the option of my simply getting the same haircut he has, and mimicking his wardrobe, but we both rejected that plan. I’m still 50% higher maintenance, by mutual agreement. Still, ten minutes to pack a suitcase is pretty good… she looks around and whispers… “for a girl.”
Coming home to a paper stuck in your front door can be chilling. I always think it’s an eviction notice, even though there is no rational reason for me to think this. This time, it was a notice that we are having our bi-annual apartment inspection. It was dated the previous day - clearly false - but it probably was left within the 24 hours mandated by law. The trouble was, we didn’t see it until the end of the workday. Someone would be coming between the hours of 9 and 4:30.
It’s 6 PM and an inspector is entering your home tomorrow at 9 AM, whether you’re home or not. Are you ready?
What do you suppose I did when I came home at 6 and saw this notice?
Some of my people have been evicted due to squalor and hoarding. A couple of them have had it happen more than once. It’s extremely shaming and traumatic. Games have rules, though. If you enter into a contract with someone, you either uphold your end of the contract, or you break it, and if you break your contract, you pay the penalty. It is a simple and harsh truth. If you want to be free to live how you want and interact with your stuff however you want, you have to own your own place. Even then, there are community standards.
This is me we’re talking about, though. I saw the notice, and this is what I did.
Start the Roomba in our bedroom, because that was the chore of the day
Start a load of laundry
Finish making dinner
Put Roomba back on the charger
Sit around relaxing with my husband for three hours
Put the fresh sheets on the bed that I had washed that morning
Go to bed at 10
Wake up at 7:30
Clean bathroom, because that was the chore of the day
Take out the garbage and recycling
Wash my breakfast dishes and wipe out the microwave and sink
Then it was 9:00 AM. What did I do next?
Start another load of laundry
Dust the entertainment center while making a business call
Note that it was 9:30 AM
Sit around for the rest of the day waiting for the inspector to show up.
What would have happened if I hadn’t done any of those chores?
Well, we would have eaten dinner and breakfast regardless. We would have made the bed together, because sleeping on a bare mattress is not our idea of fun. If I hadn't done any of the chores, there would have been a full laundry basket, the garbage and recycling containers would have been full, there would have been dust on the toilet tank and hairs in the tub, the entertainment center would have been a little dusty, and the inside of the microwave would have had some food splatters. All of this would have been acceptable. Cumulatively it would have been acceptable!
The worst-case scenario would have been a dirty, sticky oatmeal bowl sitting in the sink. But why would I ever leave a crusty oatmeal bowl as a booby trap for Future Me to clean up? Past Me has washed several thousand oatmeal bowls over the years. It’s about 10% of the effort to just do it right away.
The point of this anecdote is that doing a few chores every weekday pays off. Our place never really gets dirty. The laundry and dishes and garbage never really build up. There are never really stacks or snowdrifts of papers piled up. I spend about 40 minutes every weekday doing chores, so I always have weekends free, and when we leave for a trip, it’s not a big deal. I don’t like coming home to a messy house; it’s a lame ending for a vacation!
Also, legally, our property management company can send an inspector or repair person inside our apartment with 24-hour written notice. Even if we’re not here to see the notice. This is what I would want if, say, our upstairs neighbor left the tub running and the water burst through our ceiling.
We have a week-long trip planned next month. Our pets will be boarded, so we wouldn’t have to worry about our dog being surprised by a man in uniform, which would presumably entail a lot of barking. We wouldn’t know to get ready for an official representative of the landlord, though. However we had left the place would be the way it looked upon inspection. That means JUDGMENT AND CRITICISM with potential legal and financial ramifications.
I clean my house because I know how, because I don’t think it’s a big deal, because it doesn’t take very long, because my husband and I both like it better, because I was taught to believe that it is a form of hospitality and welcome to guests, because happy people don’t live in a big depressing mess, because my reputation is involved, because it’s faster than leaving things to wait, because it makes my life easier, because I choose not to live the alternatives, and, lastly, because not cleaning my house could cause me significant hassle and inconvenience. These hassles include eviction and losing my cleaning deposit, among who knows what else.
Someone known to me wound up on the local news due to squalor. It happens. If I wind up on the news (again), I would hope it would be for something positive I did. Never go viral for the wrong reasons.
I freaked out a little when I saw the inspection notice, even though I know that I didn’t really have anything to worry about. I had no idea what to expect or what the inspector would be inspecting. Inside the cupboards and cabinets? Inside the appliances? Under the sinks? Would they be looking for specific things like water damage or insects, and would I have any idea what kind of inspection that would involve? What was bothering me was WHAT I DIDN’T KNOW, which is always a trigger for thinking I CAN’T HANDLE IT.
The truth is that we can all handle just about anything except for uncertainty. The Place of Uncertainty is not supposed to create a mini-vortex inside my own apartment!
What really happened was that the inspector knocked at 3:10. The dog barked and I put him in his crate, and then I opened the door. The inspector asked to come in. He went straight to the smoke detectors, checked them, and left.
I’m not even sure he was here for a full 60 seconds.
It’s possible that if our place had been fully hoarded, the inspector might have said something. I talk to a lot of repair people, delivery people, construction workers, landscapers, movers, and first responders, and they all say they’ve seen it all. They definitely do notice. In the case of apartment dwellers, it’s a question of whether they are asked or required to report anything like that to the property management company. Probably not. There is an extremely broad range of mess that is just considered standard in our culture, and that’s fine.
As for me, I’m relieved that my biggest annoyances with the inspection process were the false date, having to wait around, and having my dog bark. I can go back to chilling out in my nice clean (and tiny) apartment for the next six months.
This is for all the people who get worked into a tizzy when it's time to pack.
That used to be me. I get so starry-eyed about traveling anywhere, including a run to the town dump, that my first impulse is to start running around and trying to get ready. In my mind, my packing list includes every single item I own, subtracting only the things that won't fit, like my bed and my stove. Stuff I have hanging around that I never use suddenly seems to be a prime candidate for cramming into my suitcase.
Dumb things I have packed on multiple trips even though I never, ever used them: plus-size Super Scrabble board; buckwheat travel pillow that I finally realized I hate; eye mask that always winds up turning into a headband; luggage theft siren; hardcover travel journal I never wrote in; entire cookbooks; money belt; phrase books; luggage locks. There's something so bewitching about travel doodads and travel gadgets. It's almost as bad as the kitchen widgets aisle.
The more experienced a traveler I become, the more I realize that you really just need yourself, enough ID to get through customs, enough clothing to not die of exposure or violate local sumptuary laws, and enough money or credit to get yourself from here to there, and possibly to get out of trouble. I think it's possible to go anywhere with just the clothes on your back, your phone, your passport, and a credit card (hopefully one with travel rewards). In a few years, you won't even need the passport OR the credit card; you'll just walk through various doorways, and you won't even need to blink or wave your hand.
Ah, but we live in the now-future, not the then-future. In the now, we still need a certain amount of STUFF. We still WANT a certain amount of ADDITIONAL stuff, for comfort and for emotional security and to quiet the demands of the anxiety-gnomes that live in our bellies.
I'm going on a trip, arriving past bedtime Friday night and getting home at dinnertime Monday evening. That's three nights, two event days, and two travel days. In the world of logic, this implies pajamas, toiletries, and three changes of clothes. Even a tiny child can count to three outfits. They may not match, but even a child can put together three pairs of underpants, three pairs of socks, and three sets of tops and bottoms. Why is this so much harder for adults?
It's hard because when we feel anxiety, we pay attention to it. We listen to the anxiety-gnomes. We let the anxiety-gnomes start making the rules. Every single weird idea that pops into our heads, fed to us by these mischievous creatures, suddenly seems brilliant. The later at night or the closer to departure time, the more compelling these anxious thoughts will be.
The visceral cord is pulled at midnight. "HEY! You know what would be the best idea? Find 18 more things to put into that suitcase that you already had to sit on to zip shut!"
The sooner I start packing, the more stuff suddenly acquires a magical, numinous glow, practically demanding that I bring it with me. I won't just cram it into my suitcase; I'll cradle it in front of me, like a capybara I've dressed in a cunning little outfit. Look at all my extra shirts! Look at all my extra jewelry! Look at all my extra shoes! I have packed multiple backup redundancies, but they are the best ones!
WHAT IF I get invited to a totally unexpected social occasion at the last minute?
WHAT IF I change my mind and want to wear something I didn't bring?
WHAT IF the weather is completely different from the forecast?
All right, what if? What happens to you when these things pop up at home? You HANDLE IT. You DEAL WITH IT. You GET THROUGH IT SOMEHOW. Or, nobody even notices and it's totally not a problem and you can't believe you went through such a big fuss.
The reason I can pack lightly with little to no packing anxiety is that it's the confluence of multiple systems, created carefully by me for this precise reason. I live lightly with few possessions because I desire to remain mobile. I want to be flexible enough that I can do those last-minute social occasions. I want to have enough grit to deal with emotional challenges. I want to be decisive enough that minor kerfuffles don't distract me.
Big stuff: critical, urgent, emergency. These things tend to involve first responders. My job in these situations is to avoid being the cause of the emergency, help if I can, and stay the heck out of the way if I can't. Nothing of this caliber has ever happened to me or any of my companions on a trip.
Medium stuff: My brother constantly seems to sprain his ankle when we go on vacation, and then he stubbornly limps around on it. This is concerning but not trip-canceling.
Minor stuff: I once got billed over $400 for a casual meal for three, and it took 20 minutes to straighten out. Annoying, but not even worth Facebooking.
Beneath notice: Minor stains and clothing repairs; being put on hold; having to change rooms; long waits in restaurants; loud neighbors; socks don't match; run out of shampoo; etc. etc. etc.
Back to the systems. I have a capsule wardrobe. This means that I only own clothing that fits today, that I like wearing, that I wear often enough that I know exactly how functional it is. Almost all of it is washer- and dryer-safe. Everything I own has to go with at least three other things in my wardrobe. I basically wear six colors (black, gray, navy, white, red, and purple). I can fit an entire seasonal wardrobe in my larger suitcase. Packing clothes is easy for me because I'm just bringing stuff I wear at home.
Also, I don't really care what other people think about what I'm wearing. If you don't like how I look, I'm sure you'll get over it eventually.
Other systems that I have in place undoubtedly include a few I don't recognize as systems. I plan my wardrobe before I go to the store. I have a chore rotation, so my laundry is always caught up and my apartment is clean, one room per weekday. I have a grocery system, so there's always something in the kitchen that I can eat on my trip. I have a cash flow system, so almost all of my travel is paid for by reward points, and I can afford to pay for the occasional travel snafu. I have a fitness and nutrition system, which is why I've remained in the same clothing size for the past three years, and I don't have to maintain a buffer of larger and smaller clothing sizes. I have a sleeping system, so I can handle occasionally waking up at 4 AM to make a cheaper flight. I have a system for getting ready, so I know I need 40 minutes. For all the anxiety that we feel when it's time to pack, there are equal portions to feel for scheduling, money, meals, getting the house ready, and generally feeling like we can handle a greater load on our mental bandwidth.
Anxiety is cumulative. Every system we put into place creates a thread of reliability, something that can ease a fevered brain when it's time to sleep. Organizing our thoughts also organizes our emotions. Knowing what we want helps us to make firm decisions, and those decisions help us to focus on experiences and logistics rather than equipment. We can call those nervous feelings by name, bringing them forth from the shadows, and get down to the business of simply packing one outfit per day. We can remember that we're traveling for a purpose, and keep our attention on that purpose and nothing more.
There are a million parallels between money and body weight (and clutter, when it comes to that). Anything we learn about one usually works as a useful thinking tool for the other. One of these tools is to use our metrics to calculate a trend line, using our past behavior to predict our future results. When we want to take better care of Future Self, it is helpful to evaluate by the month, not the day.
Why by the month and not the week? Most of our bills occur monthly. Rent or mortgage, car payment, student loan, electric bill, gym, internet, cable, storage unit, phone bill, all that stuff shows up monthly. We can break down our quarterly or annual bills, like car insurance or roadside assistance, and plug in a monthly cost for these as well. It gets tricky when we have to work out an estimate for our variable weekly and daily expenses over a month, because we usually don't like the answer.
I think some of this attitude comes from having an allowance as a child. We want to feel like we can have fun with as much of our money as possible. We work so hard and we're so tired so much of the time, and we have to drive in traffic and follow a dress code... surely we're entitled to splurge and have a treat from time to time? This is all well and good for Present Self, but not very kind to Future Me. We don't realize how much we're sacrificing to preserve that sense of fun and freedom.
The emotional comfort of having "enough" savings is something I wish I could bottle, so people could get spritzed and have a whiff. One waft of that fragrance would be a major motivating force. There is such a huge psychic difference between having a major, unexpected expense with no savings, or having a savings cushion and then having an extended run of good luck. It starts when you realize that you already have enough in your checking account to pay all of your rent and bills this month and next month, with some left over.
There's always something. I personally have been laid off, had major medical expenses while uninsured, received erroneous tax bills, been billed for equipment I had already returned, had engine failure on road trips (more than once), had the primary vehicle die, and I don't even want to talk about how many veterinary emergencies. There is a guarantee for expensive disasters that is much stronger than the guarantee of finding cute shoes or a "can't miss" sale. It feels so unfair and boring, when what we want to feel when we spend money is the internal fireworks of delight and dopamine.
The trouble is that spending money in search of that fun, exciting feeling doesn't always deliver the desired emotional payoff. That's true even today. Then there's the deferred sinking feeling of dread when we realize we've been overspending. We never see it coming, because the last thing most of us are going to do with our free time is to estimate our monthly spending on a graph.
I know exactly how I would do it. I'd start out with a $5 green tea soy latte and a $3 pastry, plus tip. Then I'd have an $18 lunch, sometimes more because I really should be eating more salads. Then I'd do a little shopping and spend $70 on books, plus tax, and maybe a new top. Ooh, I'm so busy, better text my honey and convince him to take a Lyft over to meet me for sushi and a movie! I could happily spend every day like this, much less spreading it over a week or two. It would feel so natural and easy, I wouldn't even realize that my burn rate was roughly $200 (a week? A day?), not including rent, utilities, vacations, gifts, debt maintenance, or special occasions. My daily splurges almost automatically become routine daily requirements. Then I'm chasing my tail, trying harder and harder to get that feeling of luxury and sparkle. I feel deprived when I have to "skip" what I can't afford in the first place. This is why scarcity mindset is so much more expensive than abundance mindset.
Planning for the future is a gift to myself. It takes imagination, especially because most people don't bother to do it, but I can get emotional juice out of putting money aside for Future Me: Next Year and Future Me: Age 60 and Future Me: Age 80 and Future Me: Who Even Knows. It also takes imagination to find comfort and excitement in the routine. There is no specific price tag on a sense of abundance, just as there is no upper limit to the amount that still will not satisfy a sense of deprivation. I can be cheerful eating homemade lentil soup, and bored and resentful at a five-star restaurant. I can sit with the realization that none of the tinsel and glitter I see are really going to satisfy me the way the actors in the commercial look satisfied. Nothing I have ever bought has ever made me jump into the air with my knees four feet off the ground and my arms in the air, I can say that much for sure.
Extrapolating my habitual activities over a month prevents me from fooling myself about "unusual" days or weeks. It's harder to write off my behavior as anomalous or claim it doesn't count for some reason. All the birthday cake and candy I had this month counts, just as I probably don't eat broccoli or cabbage as often as I mentally tally it. All the trinkets and treats I buy count, just as all my unfair bills and fines do, and I probably don't save money at nearly the rate I'd like to believe. I'm just trying to live in reality, to understand my own proclivities, and to make sure I'm really living up to my own standards and preferences.
An underrated advantage of estimating our monthly expenses is that it enables us to estimate our annual expenses. The reason we do this is that we can then estimate how much we would need to maintain our current lifestyle if we were financially independent. What seems impossible today can, with sufficient data, seem nearly inevitable four or ten or fifteen years down the road. Extrapolating into the future induces optimism.
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.