By this time of year, almost nobody is talking about New Year's Resolutions anymore. We still have more than half the year left, but usually we've already given up on ourselves. Caroline Arnold has a better idea in Small Move, Big Change: Using Microresolutions to Transform Your Life Permanently. We can make the changes we really want to make by focusing on tinier, faster, easier steps.
It isn't always obvious how to go about breaking a big project or life change into smaller, more manageable pieces. If we had the idea, we'd be doing it, right? Small Move, Big Change has countless examples of microresolutions that real people have used. Simply reading them has a tendency to spark connections and clicks that make these changes seem easy and manageable. Because they are personal, they're memorable in a way that boilerplate advice often is not. The book covers such a huge range of topics that there is bound to be at least something transformative for everyone.
Arnold starts with sleep as the best area to start making microresolutions. I couldn't agree more. Most of our failure to have perfect "willpower" (a fantasy creature that only exists in storybooks) is due to tiredness. Too tired to even get ready for bed! As she picks apart her own issue with sleep procrastination, we can't help but compare her routine with our own. A busy, married working mom with a young child, Arnold's struggles are totally relatable.
Small Move, Big Change can help us get more sleep, save money, be on time, get organized, get fit, lose weight, and get better performance reviews at work. Best of all, there are ideas for how to transform relationships with our romantic partners, family, friends, bosses, and colleagues. We start to feel like maybe we can handle this pesky old Resolution thing after all. Small Move, Big Change is definitely a path in the direction of greater happiness.
Coming from a minimalist nomad, it may sound strange to advocate for domestic contentment. Aren't you all about getting rid of your stuff in favor of traveling the world? Well, yes and no. Minimalism is about focusing on whatever is most important to you and jettisoning anything that gets in the way of that. Not everyone likes traveling. Most people do, however, have a taste for mundane delights that is not being fully realized in their day-to-day. Domestic contentment is within reach of anyone at any budget.
When I was a kid in grade school, I read the story of the Greek philosopher Diogenes. He was known for living in a barrel in the marketplace, aside from his reputation as a wise man. Alexander the Great came to visit him and wanted to give him a gift, as much to demonstrate his own largesse as because this guy obviously could have used a pillow or blanket or something. He asked Diogenes if he wanted anything. Diogenes replied, basically, "Yeah, move over, you're blocking my sun." This made a huge impression on me as a child, and I spent a lot of time wondering about the drawing of the philosopher in the barrel, wondering what he ate and that sort of thing. These days, we would call Diogenes "homeless."
Whether someone can feel happiness and contentment while living on the margins of society probably depends as much on the society as on that particular individual.
It's not about the possessions or the dwelling, though. What makes the difference between absolute penury and contentment is access to a support network. Health care, physical safety, money, secure banking, food, bathing and laundry facilities, a soft warm bed, entertainment, and a social network of friends and family. Someone with access to all of that could probably live pretty cheerfully in a hotel with wi-fi, and be content with little more than a shower kit, a week's worth of clothes, and a smartphone.
Some of us only really wear a week's worth of clothes, anyway, because none of our other stuff fits right now, or the rest is waiting in front of the washing machine.
This is where we start to touch on the LACK of domestic contentment.
What I see in my work is that most people have a perpetual backlog of chores. There are dirty dishes in and around the sink at least 80% of the time. Likewise, there is almost always spoiled food in the fridge. There is always at least one load of laundry waiting to be washed or folded or put away, and often as many as ten. The bathroom is almost always grimy, the carpet is almost never vacuumed, the floors are almost always sticky, and there is almost always a full bag of trash waiting to be taken out. What the household feels about this state of affairs can most likely not be described as 'contentment.' Words that come to mind might be: frustration, resentment, despair, anger, depression, guilt, shame, blame, annoyance, or confusion.
This total lack of domestic contentment can and does lead to divorce. It's tough on kids. It can consume years that could otherwise have been pretty nice. Who wants to waste years or decades being chronically irritated almost every day?
My contention is that it's not housework in itself that causes this constant level of background annoyance. Rather, there is no vision of how good things could be and what domestic contentment actually feels like.
There's also the matter of... the stuff. Clutter causes housework to take 40% longer. Everything has to be moved out of the way to clean around it, under it, or behind it. Every single item in the house gathers dust or needs to be washed at some point. The more stuff there is, the harder it is to clean up, even if it's cute or valuable or it gets used every day. Crowded equals high maintenance.
What tends to happen is a gradual feeling of defeat. The more crowded and cluttered the house, the harder it is to keep it clean and stay on top of everything, the less often it gets done, the worse it gets, and the harder it is to get it to look clean at all. We resign ourselves to it. After a while, olfactory fatigue sets in, and we can't even smell it. Somewhere along that continuum, it's far easier and more pleasant to stay away, and any excuse to be out shopping or running errands starts to look attractive. Contentment can only be found elsewhere.
There's a close link between this pattern and a reliance on takeout food, pizza delivery, restaurants, convenience foods, or eating cereal for dinner. Who wants to cook in this kitchen??
A well-run kitchen is central to domestic contentment. After I finally learned to cook, I wondered what I had been thinking. Why would anyone not want to know how to cook? You can cook all your favorite stuff exactly the way you like it, anytime you want. I make a lot of stuff I would never be able to get in a restaurant - anywhere, not just in my neighborhood. I'd rather eat my own cooking than what I could get in about 3/4 of restaurants. If you've ever had a greasy or disappointing meal out, you know what I mean. A functional kitchen makes it possible to experiment and constantly improve your culinary skills, and that pays off in better and better meals. It's also cheaper and healthier.
I take notes on various recipes, quoting the compliments my husband or family members or guests make about the food. It's encouraging.
As much as we love travel, my husband and I would really rather be home than just about anywhere else. It's where our pets are. Our bed is more comfortable than any other bed. We have everything we need, we know where it is, and we have the space to use it. Thanks to our practice of minimalism, cleaning house takes very little effort. Laundry and dishes aren't that big a deal when they get dealt with every day: about five minutes per meal for dishwashing, five minutes per day to put away clean dishes, five minutes to run the washer and dryer, and ten or fifteen minutes to fold and put away laundry. It's hardly worth thinking about. The rest of the time, we're working on projects, playing with our pets, walking around the neighborhood, or lounging around talking. Our apartment is tiny, but it's big enough to do all of that.
Start by thinking of your default emotional state and whether you like it that way. Imagine how you'd prefer to feel. Contentment is not the same as elation, bliss, ecstasy, or hysterical laughter; it's sustainable and lower-maintenance. It's a feeling of "yeah, I dig this." Gaining a base level of contentment is often as simple as removing any obstacles between you and it. Remove any irritants and annoyances, resolve any backlog of tasks that lead to power struggles or a drain on mental bandwidth. Then sit back, smile, and sigh. How much more do you need?
I'm still totally not over United Flight #3411 yet. I wasn't even there and I can't get over it! I've been flying alone since I was 7 years old, and I've been a frequent air traveler ever since. So many changes have happened in the industry since that time that it's barely recognizable. I remember when there wasn't even a gate around the metal detector, just a person with a chair who sat next to it and waved you through. There was never even a line. I remember in-flight meals, magazine racks, free decks of playing cards, and many occasions when I had nearly an entire plane to myself. You could basically bring infinite checked bags and carry-ons of any size. I wear business casual when I fly, but back in those days everyone wore their Sunday-go-to-meetin' best. Now there's no dress code, everything but everything has an added fee, and it appears we're not even guaranteed a seat if we've paid for our tickets and boarded the plane. Times have changed. When times change, strategize. Make a policy decision for what you'll do when and if you get bumped.
A policy decision means no further decisions without game-changing new information. For instance, as a policy decision, I like walnuts in my cookies even though not everyone does. Most frequent travelers have policies. I am a one-bag traveler, by policy, and it would take very special circumstances for me to check a bag. I have a couple of weather-tested travel "uniforms" that I wear. Other policies might have to do with how early you plan to arrive before each flight, or whether you use your flight time to work, sleep, or catch up on reading. Making a policy about getting bumped is just one more aspect of this overall strategic plan.
I decided some time ago that I would volunteer to give up my seat if a volunteer were needed. This is partly because I am naturally altruistic, partly because I usually travel alone, partly because my schedule is flexible, and mostly because I freaking love money. A cash prize would be the best, of course, but I would actually use flight vouchers. Just don't try to buy me off with drinks coupons, because I don't drink. Last year, I had a layover at McCarran, and the ticket agent announced that they needed a volunteer. Woohoo! Four hundred dollars and possibly a night in Vegas? I'm in! Unfortunately, before I could finish standing up to claim my prize, a bearded guy in a tie-dyed t-shirt had bounded over to the counter. Clearly I am not the only person lying in wait for the golden ticket.
The scenario changes when I am flying with my husband. Unlike me, he has a normal office schedule, or more so, because he works 9/80s. It's a big deal for him to get time off. We would be unlikely to volunteer as a unit unless the conditions were optimal. Maybe we'd be on the last leg of a flight with no connections to make and the payout sounded attractive enough. This is somewhat of a moot point, though. The salient feature of a getting-bumped scenario is that we may not have a choice. What if one of us got bumped and the other didn't? We talked it out and decided that we stay together, so if one of us gets bumped, we both disembark. Other couples might go the other way, figuring that it's better for one person to arrive on schedule. One of you might volunteer as tribute. Some couples might have a multi-faceted policy that factored in multiple inputs. It's much easier to do these calculations in advance than to try to figure it out in a crisis moment, when you're both exhausted.
Consider Flight #3411 again. Here is this poor elderly doctor, traveling with his wife. He says in one video that he's been traveling around 24 hours. These are hardly optimal conditions for making difficult decisions. Then she agrees to depart, changing the nature of the stakes for his own decision and adding to his stress level. Quite frankly, most travelers would not have found vouchers for $800 and a night in a mediocre hotel to be enough enticement to get off a plane, fearing the loss of their bags, and cancel their plans. Cold hard cash, hand-carried valet service for the luggage, and a suite at a high-end luxury hotel, plus limo to the runway and Michelin-starred restaurant vouchers? Then we're starting to talk. Then we're getting to the stampede-to-the-counter level of incentives. All of that still would have been significantly cheaper than an international public relations disaster. Don't hold your breath waiting.
Until we're collectively willing to pay higher ticket prices, seat availability is going to get tighter and conditions are going to deteriorate. We might as well accept that one of these days, we're going to wind up in an unfortunate scenario. I've sat out five-hour weather delays more than once, usually when all food service in the terminal has closed for the day. Stuff happens. While advance planning can't make these problems go away, it does help to have some idea of what we would choose to do if they happen to us.
Why is it that, as soon as the technology became available, so many of us started working around the clock? Between email and cell phones, 'evening' and 'weekend' barely exist anymore. Carson Tate wants to help us to Work Simply and reclaim our free time.
The first chapter introduces us to "The Myth of Time Management." It really isn't about doing everything more efficiently; we've all tried that by now. This is strategy. For instance, one of the most helpful ideas I found in the book was to get your manager to define what constitutes an 'emergency.' So much of "time management" is really about "manager management."
Tate provides a quiz that distinguishes four different types of organizers, and offers custom tips that will appeal to each type. This includes software, physical changes, and negotiating tips for the other types. I found myself identifying various people I know as one type or another. I'm a Visualizer and my husband is a Prioritizer. I suspect that a good chunk of chronically disorganized people like my clients are Arrangers, who have a greater need for social connection. Understanding the type of your boss is perhaps even more useful than understanding your own type.
Work Simply offers the suggestion to think of time as money. Calculate your hourly rate and then figure out how much fifteen minutes of your time is worth. In many situations, we would never give someone cash outright but we will squander our time, paying for it later with long days and late nights.
This book is a product of the modern corporate workplace. It deals frankly with problems like working so much your kids prefer the other parent, having a boss with no sense of priorities, or being too busy to use the restroom. Mastering these issues is the only way we can reclaim our time and mental bandwidth and find room to breathe again. In the words of Carson Tate, "Work simply to live fully."
Things get complicated. Life itself gets complicated all the time, of course, and the things in our lives can add to that complication. An example of this is when my husband got an offer for his dream job, and we had TWELVE DAYS to move or accept a four-hour daily commute. This is when theory meets practice.
We had three things to do. The priority was for my husband to fill out the numerous Human Resources forms for the new job. Second was to find a new place to live. Third was to pack our stuff and vacate our house. Oh, and the timing just happened to fall during the same week we were getting rid of our car. The game was to balance the schedule, the finances, the transportation, the pets, and the material goods in the optimal way.
Bonus rounds: try to get a refund of prorated rent from our current landlord if he can get a new tenant in early; find a new home with mass transit access; find a new home that does not cost more than the current place but also takes exotic pets.
Due to the tight timeline, we realized that we simply wouldn't be able to pack up the house and look for a new place at the same time. There was just too much to do and it was too far to commute to screen new places. We made the unconventional decision to move our stuff twice, using a storage unit as a temporary stopping point and sleeping at an Airbnb. If we owned as much stuff as the standard American household, this would have been crazy talk.
Everything we own fit in a 20' moving van.
The next constraint was that we were moving to the beach, and there are two basic choices in our price range. A sad shack with no garage or yard, or a relatively nice apartment. There were very few houses available at any price, and they included: two that were only available for a 3-5 month lease; one with NO HEAT that recommended using space heaters in the actual ad; one with a bedroom too small to contain a king-size mattress. The standard seemed to be original 1960's linoleum, no dishwasher, and sub-600 square feet. Meanwhile, the apartments all included gyms and a long list of amenities, some of which were nicer than a few hotels where we've stayed. Hmm. Depressing hovel, or permanent vacation? Apartment it is!
A 680-square-foot apartment at that. A two-car garage is 400 square feet if that tells you anything.
I should take a moment to talk about the dream job. Space mechatronics. My husband is an aerospace engineer, and after 24 years, he's finally getting the chance to work on what he wanted to do when he was still in school. He's so excited it's completely adorable. Honestly I think he would sleep under his desk if that's what it took to get this job. Living in an apartment instead of a house is a perfectly reasonable tradeoff, especially an apartment on the beach.
The standard response to most unconventional choices is I COULD NEVER DO THAT. That statement is never literally true. It's only emotionally true. Anyone CAN move to a new place. Anyone CAN get rid of physical possessions. It's not complicated. We decided several years ago that we would relocate anywhere for the right job. We also decided that our lifestyle was more important than our stuff.
This is how it worked out:
Got boxes at 6:30 PM on Tuesday
Picked up moving van at 10 AM Friday
Finished loading van AND doing full move-out house-cleaning by 8:30 PM Friday
Moved entire contents of van into storage unit between 12 and 5 PM Saturday
Found and applied for apartment on Sunday
Started new job on Monday
Reserved rental van on Tuesday
Picked up keys for new apartment on Friday
Picked up van at 8:30 AM on Saturday and returned it at 9:30 PM
Unpacked from 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM on Sunday
Dropped: one bedroom, two-car garage, laundry room, yard, 48 square feet of living space
As of right now, the bed, couch, and dining table are set up. I was able to cook a proper meal in the kitchen. We still need a shower curtain, but over the weekend we turned an empty apartment into an 80% functional, messy home.
We were able to accept the job offer and relocate in only twelve days because we had the savings to cover double rent, move-in fees, and a security deposit, pet boarding, two van rentals, and a storage unit; the credit scores to get accepted in the new place; the physical ability to pack and haul our own stuff twice in the same week; and the emotional wherewithal to downsize and get rid of an entire garage's worth of tools. Yes, we get to live our dream life and play on the beach now. It came as the result of being stringently frugal savers and yet profligate in donating and giving away anything that wouldn't fit in a 680-square-foot apartment.
If you could live your dream life, what would you keep and what would you give away?
Do you have a dream life?
Which do you spend more time thinking about: your stuff or your life?
Every time I have a yard sale, I swear I'll never do it again. It tends to take about five years to forget how dumb I think yard sales are, and then I hold another one and remember. I'm in the middle of one right now, so I'll share how it's been going. I have plenty of time, because only one person has come in the last hour and a half.
We've made $109 in three and a half hours so far. That works out to $31.14 an hour.* Divide that by two people, why don't you? This has been the first really beautiful sunny spring weekend of the year, and we could be walking our dog at the duck pond, but instead we're both hanging out in the driveway trying to sell our old junk.
I put up ads on Craigslist and Nextdoor, plus a couple of big neon poster board signs on the corners near our house. The ads listed roughly the categories of stuff we were selling: tools, housewares, kitchen stuff, games, fabric and crafts. I clearly wrote '10-5' on the signs and put 'please, no early birds' in my ads. This means that people started coming only a little over an hour early instead of 7 AM. By 10:00 there were about eight people lined up at our gate waiting.
What this means for you is that you should have price tags on every single item before going to bed the night before your sale. We started setting up at 8:30 and it really wasn't enough time to haul everything out and set up tables. Plus, we were constantly being interrupted by people calling questions from the gate. (They are looking for specific things like furniture, electronic games, baby stuff, or collectibles, and if you don't have what they want, they'll leave).
Until I finally shut the garage door, every single person who came wanted to look around in the garage. This is a universal law. People will make insultingly low offers for the stuff you actually use, such as your appliances, vehicles, bikes, tools, camping equipment, and, of course, the folding tables you are using for the sale. Har de har har.
I priced almost everything at one dollar. A few larger items were marked at $2 or $3, and my husband priced out his shop tools and garden tools, mostly in the $5 and $10 range. At these prices, some people were still willing to walk away empty-handed even after showing interest. Don't expect to make more than 1970's yard sale prices for your stuff. We had three large boxes marked 'FREE' and most of that stuff is still sitting there. You can hardly give it away. When people make an offer, we say yes.
Our motivation for holding a yard sale is that we're moving. We're also (spoiler alert!) getting rid of our car later this week. We didn't want to have to pack, haul, store, and unpack extra boxes of stuff, much less buy the moving boxes for the extra stuff. Anything that anyone buys (or takes away for free) is one less item we have to arrange to discard. I got a message about a church fundraiser for a cause I support, which is building housing in the Third World, and we can drop off anything that's left over afterward. Hopefully there will only be one carload by then.
A few things on the tables right now are items that failed to sell on eBay for 99 cents.
The thing is, our stuff isn't worth anything. Neither is yours - no offense. Everyone already has four houses' worth of stuff crammed into one house already. Everyone already HAS a kitchen full of stuff they don't use, a garage full of stuff they don't use, and closets full of stuff they don't use - some of which they bought at someone else's yard sale. You almost have to pay people to take it.
Material possessions tend to be surrounded by fallacies and cognitive bias. We fall for the 'sunk cost' fallacy every time, paying higher rents to continue to store stuff we don't use because we can't bear to let it go. We think the stuff we own has appreciated but that other people's virtually identical stuff is worth only those 1970s prices. I'll sell you my old coffee mug for $12.99 but I'm not paying more than fifteen cents for yours, buddy.
The only thing that is true is that stuff is worth its usefulness to us. If we are not using it, it has zero worth. If we are paying for a storage unit, or for a room in our house that is only used to store junk, then our stuff has a NEGATIVE VALUE. When we found that we would have to pay an extra thousand dollars a month in rent to get a place with a garage in our new city, we understood that it was time to downsize. Even the garage. Even tools. Even stuff we like and use that's in great condition. We're not going to have a yard anymore, not for the foreseeable future, and storage units in our area are going for $200-$300 a month. Eff that. That's our vacation money!
We're in a 728-square-foot house already, one that came with a garage and a laundry room. We'll most likely wind up in a little condo or apartment. That's what it's like when you want to live near the beach. Many people would say (even if nobody is asking them) that I COULD NEVER DO THAT. We believe we can't live in a small space because we think our material possessions are actually body parts. They are organs that we need in order to biologically function. We cannot cognitively process the effort of imaging ourselves without our clutter, stuff, and junk. The reality is that we really only need a bed, a couch, a functioning kitchen, some towels, our electronics, and three weeks' worth of clothes for each season. I say 'functioning' kitchen, but most people's kitchens are not functional at all. Rate your home by whether your meal prep, laundry, housework, and financial systems are working in your life, not by how much you think your belongings are 'worth.'
Grand finale: Between 2 and 3 PM, only one person came by, and he spent $1. Not a single person came between 3 and 5. We made a total of $146 in 7 hours, for a return of $20.85 an hour, again divided by two people. Considering what we both earn per hour in the marketplace, it was sheer unadulterated lunacy for us to waste our weekend on this kind of activity. Price your free time at double the rate you earn at your job, unless of course you hate having free time.
If we had this sale to do over again, for the purpose of having fewer donations to pack into our car, we would have run it from 9 AM to noon and quit after that. We only made $37 in the three hours between 2 and 5. We could have had our sale, dropped off donations, and gone to the park for the rest of the day, or lounged around reading, or really anything other than wishing and hoping someone would come and pay us for our old junk.
We did donate a carload of stuff to the charity rummage sale, and no, not everything fit in one load. We'll take another one or two carloads over tomorrow before we get rid of our car. It's time to shift gears from 'how much could we get for this' to 'they need it more than we do.'
I am so tired that I am sitting on the couch and I just realized I was staring into space with my mouth hanging open. It's after 10 PM. Now commences the battle between self-care for Present Me versus compassion for Future Me: Stardate: Tomorrow Morning.
Now Me: I schleepy
Tomorrow Me: Get up off your lazy butt.
Now Me: I ti-ewed
Tomorrow Me: Do you really want to get up at 6 AM?
Now Me: I go bed now
Tomorrow Me: Landlord is coming at noon and you haven't even done the floors yet.
Now Me: It's NOT FAIR!
Sometimes Future Me sounds like a cross grandparent. Future Me has this annoying tendency to be right, though. I fully recognize that I will be much happier tomorrow morning if I work for another hour tonight before I go to bed.
My house right now is a strong argument in favor of minimalism and good organizing skills. What that means is that it's a total disaster. There are open boxes in three out of five rooms; there'd be one in the bathroom as well but our bathroom is too small for those kinds of shenanigans. The kitchen cabinets are 95% empty, packed up, and wiped down, but you can't tell because the counters are covered with packing materials, rolls of tape, cleansers, and the last few scattered items that need to be put in boxes. All that's left are decisions.
As we all know, quality decisions are much harder to make in a state of physical exhaustion. Physical fatigue and decision fatigue chase each other around, like a squirrel teasing a dog until they both collapse.
The decisions before me right now are as simple as this:
Pick up item
Put item in remaining space at top of open box
Tape box shut
Write label on box
Each item that is waiting to be packed would take at most 60 seconds. There is nothing difficult about it. It's not physically taxing, it's not mentally taxing, it's not emotionally taxing. Not in itself. Even a tall kindergartener could come in here and accomplish this, and probably with better handwriting than I am demonstrating right now. It's not the task, it's THE TIRED.
I think about this and I remember what it was like to fight chronic pain and fatigue every day. When cooking dinner or washing dishes or folding a load of towels seemed like swimming across the Pacific Ocean. Can't be done. Nope. Sorry. I did it, though. I can't stand being surrounded by dirt and mess. It's depressing. It amplifies those feelings of hopelessness and weariness. From where I am sitting right now, it feels like there will ALWAYS be scattered boxes and I will NEVER be done. Just like it felt like I would ALWAYS be ill and in pain and I would NEVER be free.
I am free, though.
I'm a marathon runner and backpacker!
In my defense, though, I've been on my feet for 26 out of the last 48 hours, which is much more than I did during the marathon, not to mention a through hike.
I have it in me to stay the course. I have it in me to stand up and finish the work I set out to do. I will do it for my husband, who has done twice as much as I have today. I will do it for Future Me, because I have a perfect record for always getting my cleaning deposit back, and I intend to carry that streak forward. I will do it for Future Me, who can go to bed early tomorrow night if I push a little harder tonight. I will do it for Future Me, who can sleep in until 7 AM if I just try. I will do what I have always done, which is to remind myself that it's easier to work hard in the present moment and reap the benefits later, because 'later' starts with tomorrow morning.
This is going to be a busy, weird weekend. We're taking a Lyft to drop our animals off at boarding, picking up and loading the van, cleaning the house, doing the final walk-through with our landlord, driving to a new city, staying in an Airbnb, and looking for an apartment. The room is booked through the following weekend. Technically we'll be...homeless! We are entering The Place of Uncertainty. This level of detail management is taxing our combined mental bandwidth somewhat, and I recognize that this contributes to my exhaustion and confusion right now. By this time tomorrow, though, I'll be snug in (a) bed, thanking Past Me for working her caboose off today.
Stored food tends to expand to fill the space available. Then it tends to exceed that space. My clients tend to have food stored on their countertops and stacked on the floor. That's because the available cabinets, cupboards, and shelves are already full. Many of my people also have extra food stacked up in the garage. When the kitchen is the heart of the home, it's a beautiful thing, with family and guests laughing and gathering around bounteous meals. When the kitchen is more of a vortex of spoilage and confusion, it helps to take another look.
One night, I was making a casserole. I needed a can of tomato paste. I reached into the cabinet, pulled out a can, and started to open it. As soon as the can opener cut into the top, the tomato paste started spurting out. Um, that's not good. It kept squirting out and making a little tomato paste fountain. I checked the expiration date, and it had expired three years earlier. I about died of embarrassment. Evidently I don't cook with tomato paste as often as I thought I did... The risk of botulism is far greater than the cost of a fifty cent can of tomato paste, so I threw it out.
Then I checked the rest of the cans in that cupboard.
Then I started pulling everything out of the cabinets.
Then I started asking myself a lot of questions about meal planning, grocery shopping, kitchen storage, and our food budget.
It's human nature to store food and plan for harsh winters. That's also why we have a hard-wired craving for sugar and fat. We intend to survive famine conditions that may never appear during our lifetimes. The results of this drive for survival may be... somewhat... unintentional.
I think we should respect our anxiety and urge to preserve food. We should do it with care and consideration. Having a full pantry of expired, spoiled food is worse than having nothing, because you can make yourself and your family sick, and you can also lull yourself into a false sense of security. It's like making a Potemkin village out of cans. Illusion in the face of crisis is the last thing we want. When our concern is emergency survival, we need to be firmly footed on a basis of reality.
This is a problem that needs a system.
There are two ways to go about it, as there are with everything: bottom-up and top-down. Bottom-up means looking around at what you have right now and asking, What do I do with this stuff? How do I get more storage? Top-down means starting with the system requirement and asking, What do I need? What do I have to change to make the situation match requirements? In most cases, that means getting rid of a bunch of stuff. Back to the drawing board!
Most kitchens are full of stuff that would be more or less useless during a genuine crisis. One kitchen that comes to mind had 55 cans of green beans. Green beans are great and all, but they're 31 calories per cup. That means they're better as a weight-loss food than as a high-energy survival food. A kitchen full of stuff like tortilla chips, cookies, cases of soda, and jars of spices will look reassuringly full, but it's not full of nourishment. What we want is a certain number of dinners.
How much food do you need to have on hand? Start with the number of people and multiply by how many days you want to be prepared. Most households make 3-4 trips to the grocery store every week. If that's the habit in your household, it means you could free up a lot of time by planning meals by the week. It also means that due to the lack of a system, you may only have enough complete meals for a day or two. Consider that most grocery stores have enough food supplies for the neighborhood for three typical days, days when people are not frantically trying to stock up on emergency supplies they could have bought the month before.
The first thing you should eat if the power goes out is the contents of your refrigerator. The goal is to eat anything before it spoils. Next would be the contents of the freezer, which may stay cold enough for slightly longer. Only then do we concern ourselves with the cupboards.
Let's say the power is off in your neighborhood. You don't know it yet, but it's going to take a week before emergency crews get it running again. You have leftovers and sandwich fixings in the fridge, and you eat that the first day. Then let's say the freezer stays cold enough for one more day, and you feed your family lunch and dinner out of that, finishing by power-slamming a pint of melted ice cream. That means you need enough for five days' worth of meals from the dry goods in your cupboards.
If you think about it, that's not really very much food. Even if you have six kids and a cat, you can probably fit five days' worth of meals in one ordinary kitchen cabinet.
What we do with our natural, innate urges to accumulate and store food is to gather it on auto-pilot. We see stuff on sale, or we get ahold of some great coupons, and we throw it all in the cart. Multiplied on a national scale, this is part of why 40% of the food we produce gets wasted. If what's true on average is true for us, that implies that we're wasting 40% of our grocery money on stuff that we don't use or need.
(As a side note, it's funny to me that most people are perfectly willing to throw away wilted, scary produce or moldy dinner leftovers month after month, but will eat stale cookies or freezer-burned ice cream any old time).
When I found the secret tomato paste fountain in my kitchen, I committed to cook up and eat all the stuff from my cabinets before buying more. It took months. Not days, but months. More interesting than that, I'm 41 and I've never gone a day in my life when the grocery store was closed for an emergency. My power has never been out for more than about two hours. I still believe in emergency preparedness, of course, and part of that means being more aware of the shelf life of my food supplies.
When we confront our anxiety and dread about scarcity, disaster, and worst-case scenarios, there are actions we can take. Having a sensible pantry system is one of those actions. It's helpful and smart to take some of that worried energy and use it to develop skills and strategic plans. An emergency plan! Pediatric first aid and CPR skills! Planning and packing a Go Bag! Learning where and how to shut off the gas and water valves at your house! Supplies are often an emotional substitute for skills. Greater knowledge, competence, and preparedness are much more comforting than any amount of cans of green beans.
It's all because of the paper towels. We have an unshopping list, just like I have a To-Don't list. When I first met my husband, we were platonic friends, and he had me come over to help declutter his garage. I sat on the washing machine, pointed, and asked questions. He would look surprised, realizing some of the funny stuff he had, and generally decide to get rid of it. During this process, we found no fewer than FOUR CASES of paper towels. We laughed when we found the second one. By the fourth, we were in hysterics. Later that week, he found a FIFTH case of paper towels hidden by something else. It turns out that when you shop at the big box store without a list, certain items just jump in the cart on every trip unless you remind yourself to take them back out. Paper towels are hardly the only things in life that turn up, unwanted, on autopilot. We have to plan to avoid certain things. If we don't plan not to have certain things happen, they will happen.
If you're eating an ice cream cone and you're sitting next to a dog, you have to plan not to have the dog steal a lick of your ice cream.
If you know you can sleep through your alarm, you have to plan not to turn it off in your sleep and be late to work.
You have to plan not to have a sunburn.
You have to plan not to get gum disease.
Alas, as much as we don't want dogs stealing our ice cream, these situations don't always seem obvious until afterward, when our friends are laughing at us. Well, nobody really laughs at gum disease. But you get the picture.
What we should be doing is building a better life for Future Self. What we actually do is usually to make our own Future Life more difficult all the time. We treat Future Self like an adversary. "Hey, Future Self! You suck! I just spent all your money and now I'm going to eat an entire extra large pizza with thick crust, just so YOU will have a bigger butt! None of your pants are going to fit! Oh, and? AND? I'm going to stay up late binge-watching Golden Girls episodes so you'll be exhausted at work tomorrow! If you try to complain about it, I'll give you a HANGOVER! BWAHAHAHAHA!!!"
This is where self-compassion comes in. I try to think of Future Me with the same tenderness I feel toward my grandma. I try to do what I wish for my own parents, which is to save for retirement and eat healthy. I just imagine that I am them. This helps to inspire me to offer to do things for them when I visit, like changing lightbulbs in the ceiling fixtures and carrying heavy objects. Not that they can't do these things, just that it's much easier for me. At this time in our lives, we probably feel exactly as nervous as one another when contemplating the other standing on a chair. Be careful!
What sorts of things should we plan not to have happen?
Some things are easy. I planned not to smoke, and I never did, and thus I've never had to quit smoking. It's a lot easier to plan not to shoot heroin than it is to go to rehab. Planning never to commit a crime is a lot easier than going to prison. Planning not to get a tattoo while drunk is a lot easier than paying for laser removal.
Not to say that I've never done anything wild, crazy, or outrageous. It just seems to me that these things make better stories when there were no major negative consequences. I have: ridden a mechanical bull, marched in a parade, been on TV, been in the newspaper, done live improv comedy in front of an audience, gone downtown in a FREE HUGS t-shirt, and had my toes sucked on stage in a movie theater, among other things. We want to focus on maximum fun with minimum downside. This idea that all future planning is joyless and strict is a false dilemma.
In fact, if we want to have maximum fun, we should plan more. Don't make any plans for the weekend and you'll probably spend it on the couch. In this case not planning to have fun is planning not to have fun. Peak experiences usually take advance plotting, scheming, and machinating. As an example, I got concert tickets for my husband for our wedding anniversary, and it took signing up for alerts when the band did not even have plans for further tours, waiting over a year, and getting up early to buy the tickets six months in advance. He was pretty impressed when he realized we were sitting in a sold-out show. That made it three experiences: enjoying the band, gloating that we were enjoying the band, and feeling extra loved because I went to so much extra effort. Anything for you, babe.
This is an area that is not fun to talk about, but divorced people will understand and nod along. You have to plan not to get divorced. Everyone plans to be happily married, but we can't all pull it off. That's because we're more likely to get divorced because of the things that are going wrong than we are to stay married because of the things that go right. All you have to do is cheat once, or run up secret debt once, or be physically abusive once, or tell a lie once, and the love flies right out the window. Cheaters always say it "just happened." Well, plan for cheating not to happen. If you meet someone hot, immediately put your finger in your nose so they'll stay away from you. That's what I always do.
Well, not really. But I am a divorced person who married another divorced person, and we both talk frankly about such issues.
There are two other areas where we fail to plan not to have bad things happen. Those areas have to do with our health and our finances. These are the two most commonly procrastinated goals. In the regrets of the dying, people consistently say they regret not having taken better care of themselves. They also consistently say that they wish they had saved more for retirement, and they worry about whether their loved ones will be okay financially. My clients have a bizarre trait in common, which is that they all think they'll die young. This pessimism can be a good thing if it inspires us to tell people how much we love them and to work as hard as we can to leave a legacy. It's a terrible thing when we're completely wrong and wind up living many years longer than we had supposed, fearing every minute of it. I have a family member who was given "six months to live" over fifteen years ago. Living a long life should be a beautiful blessing, for oneself, but mostly for the loved ones who don't want to say goodbye. Living a longer life while destitute is a challenge for all parties. It also means uncountable missed opportunities.
We have to plan not to be broke when we're old. Lifespans keep increasing, and it's almost humanly impossible to truly believe that we will reach such advanced ages. In 1919, when my grandmother was born, the lifespan for women was 56. For men it was only 53.5. Yet my grandfather lived to be 75 and my grandmother lived to be 86. They were quite frugal all their lives, like most people of their generation, but they probably assumed that they would have enviably long lives and pass in their early 60s. It's hard to plan how much to save when you have no way of knowing that you're going to live THIRTY YEARS LONGER than the statistical probability. It's also difficult to image how much things are going to cost when you can remember going to the grocery store with a dime.
This is why I plan. I became aware of my grandmothers' major concerns in my thirties, when I had begun to do things like plan my retirement account and set up an advance health care directive. It is all too real to me. All elders say that they don't feel old, that they still feel like young people inside. I do, too. But I know I'm likely to be an old person on the outside one day, and that includes my wallet and the bills on my desk.
I was born in 1975, and as of that year, the lifespan for women was 76.6. Even my great-grandmother who smoked lived about that long. To plan not to be poor when I'm old, I have to assume that I am going to live to be *at least* 86, and then tack on 15 years for good measure. In 2014, there were over 72,000 living centenarians in the US. If I plan for that and my money outlives me, great! What I have left can go to my family, or to charity. I have all kinds of great plans for when I'm an old lady. I'll wear rainbow tie-dyed shirts, whack people with my umbrella, and take my dentures out at night so I can eat candy in bed. It'll be awesome. It'll be even more awesome if I'm wealthy enough that my young relatives feel motivated to come and visit me. Eh heh heh.
Skeptics, relax. Technically, this book does not require anyone to get up early. Hal Elrod's thesis is summed up with the title and subtitle of The Miracle Morning: The Not-So-Obvious Secret Guaranteed to Transform Your Life Before 8 AM. He acknowledges that not everyone keeps the same schedule. The point of the book is not when specifically we wake up, but what we do first thing in the morning, and whether we are taking initiative in our lives. We should listen to him because he clinically died, spent six days in a coma, and had a shattered pelvis, yet went on to, well, LIVE and run an ultra-marathon. If nothing else, this book is worth reading for the description of his survival after a drunk driver hit his car head-on. When someone with that many causes for complaint tells me that something is a good idea, I pay attention.
I am not a morning person. Neither is Hal Elrod. "Being a morning person" is a fixed-mindset concept, as though what we do in the morning is affected by our astrological sign or genetics. I have a major parasomnia disorder, so I know everything I want or need to know about having sleep issues and being chronically exhausted. I agree with Elrod that our attitude toward sleep deprivation has everything to do with how we react to it emotionally. We can convince ourselves that we're tired no matter how many hours of sleep we get, as Elrod demonstrates by experimenting on himself. We can also push through and get things done no matter how many hours of sleep we get. I'm here to say that we can also fix our chronic sleep problems if we decide to try. If I could beat night terrors, virtually everyone can beat other sleep issues and function in the morning.
What we need is a reason. That's what The Miracle Morning is really about. "When you delay waking up until you have to - meaning you wait until the last possible moment to get out of bed and start your day - consider that what you're actually doing is resisting your life." Hitting snooze is what we do when we don't want to get up, and we don't want to get up unless we think there's something worth getting up for, like changing the world. If the answer to that is bacon or coffee, then one would think that OMG YAY COFFEE or whatever would be one's first waking thought. (If I thought I had to get up, drink coffee, and put bacon anywhere near my mouth first thing tomorrow morning, I'd already be working on my escape plan, but that's just me). The first thing I do when I wake up is to get my parrot out of her sleeping cage, and the first thing she does is to stretch out and give me a kiss. Sometimes, when she hears me coming, she whistles or calls out "Hurry!" She's working on "Good morning!" I start my day half-dead from cute.
The Miracle Morning involves creating a routine for self-improvement. Cynicism is the knee-jerk reaction to this idea for many people who don't understand that self-improvement is world-improvement. When I direct my focus to trying to be a better listener and stop interrupting people, that makes me less annoying to others. When I work on organizing my schedule and my stuff with the specific purpose of not being the last one to get ready, especially on group backpacking trips, that makes me less annoying to others. If you want me to keep interrupting you and making you late, by all means, be a naysayer and tell me not to work on my self-improvement goals! Personal accountability is the keystone of Elrod's morning plan.
A morning plan ideally includes a routine for when to get up, what to eat and drink first thing, what to wear, and what to do before the regular workday. Meditation, inspirational reading, visualization and goal-setting, exercise, journaling, and gratitude practice are some examples from the book. Another keystone habit is the concept of "eating the frog," or getting the most important or dreaded task of the day out of the way before doing anything else.
I set my alarm to play "Sexy and I Know It" because even the first couple of notes make me laugh. What would make you start the day laughing? What could you do every morning that would make you feel, Hey, my favorite! What's on the list of things that get you out of bed with a smile even when you're really tired? What kind of morning would make other people jealous? Not everyone has a red-tailed, silver-feathered, golden-eyed Noelie to wake up to every day, but you probably have something. Or you could, if you visualize it and prioritize it.
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.