Happiness. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
Happiness comes in many varieties, not all of which have names, and it’s a fun exercise to try to catalog the nameless flavors. The satisfaction of a stretch so deep that it stretches itself. The smugness of giving a proper scratch or belly rub to an animal that rolls around in uncontrollable bliss. The delight of running into an old friend in an unexpected location. A happy life may include moments like this, but it’s domestic contentment that is the bedrock.
Let’s distinguish a little further. A life of purpose and meaning may not feel like a “happy” one. Passion is another driving force that may make life interesting, yet not “happy” necessarily. Challenge, that’s yet another theme that may not particularly lead to happiness. Happiness isn’t everything! When we set about seeking something that we feel is missing, we have various paths before us. Happiness is one of those paths, one among several that may bring a sense of having lived a life worth living.
The first obstacle to domestic contentment is being bored at the thought of domestic contentment.
It’s not for everyone. I’m a restless person. When I’m at home, I want to travel, and when I travel, I still want to be somewhere else the next day. Still, what my husband and I have worked out as our own custom blend of domestic contentment is something portable. We have our routines even when we’re on the road. We have a gift for gratitude and satisfaction, noticing what there is to like about any situation, even though it might be annoying in one way or another. Hopefully the annoying stuff can be turned into a funny story. Then, inevitably, we miss our own big comfy bed and our pets, the only aspects of domestic contentment that we can’t fit in a suitcase.
We can deal with annoying circumstances on the road because we know we’ll be leaving them behind. At home, if there’s an annoying circumstance, we’re going to deal with it directly. Obstacles to domestic contentment are to be considered as a high priority. It’s the little things that are actually the big things, because once they’re multiplied by the hundreds and thousands of moments they occupy, they can be seen as the huge problems they really are.
Take a dripping faucet. Maybe, on a scale of one to a thousand, each drip is a one. Ah, but how many drips? If each drip is one point, and the unnecessary increase in your water bill is one point per dollar per month, and any stain or mineral deposit in the sink is several more points, it adds up. Then multiply by every single other minor annoyance.
Domestic contentment is basically just the feeling that you like being at home. When you walk in the door, you feel relieved. You open up like a flower in the rain. It’s your place, where you can do what you want and make your own rules. Home is the place where you don’t have to wear pants. Play the music that you want, eat the meals that you want when you want them, arrange your stuff in whatever way works for you, sleep peacefully as much as you need, think and plan and strategize and dream up great new things to do. Home is your secret superhero cave.
Or, at least, it could be. Probably should be.
My people don’t experience domestic contentment. When I explain that home should be a place where you sigh happily when you walk in the door, they always look surprised, like this had genuinely never occurred to them before. It’s simple, but it’s only simple if it isn’t complicated.
The simple version: I woke up when I had had enough sleep (it was 7:30). I had breakfast with my pets and read the news. I went to the gym and worked out. I showered, walked the dog, and caught the bus. On the way home, I stopped at the store and then caught the bus again. When I got home, I walked the dog again, started laundry, and vacuumed. Then my husband came home and we talked for an hour before dinner. Simple! Uncomplicated!
The complicated version: Wake up to a blaring alarm, exhausted, hit snooze as many times as you can get away with. Try to get dressed and realize that half of what you want to wear is in the laundry. Too late to eat anything for breakfast. Run out the door and get to work late because you had to stop for gas/coffee/couldn’t find a parking spot. Come home exhausted and flop on the couch. Eat whatever. Watch TV/check social media. Stay up too late even though you’re so tired, because that’s your only private time. Repeat. Add in extra complications like lost objects, constantly forgetting things, quarreling with housemates over chores and money, and a constant background of piles of unsorted papers, dirty dishes, and dirty laundry. Complicated! Frustrating! Annoying!
Domestic contentment might seem boring, but at least it isn’t the chronic disappointment and chaos of domestic DIScontent.
All it takes is one obstacle, one persistent problem, to have a perpetual state of domestic discontent. Usually, though, there are several, and most people have all of them. Why? Because tolerating one persistent problem is the same attitude that leads to tolerating any and all persistent problems. Feeling that you don’t have the power or agency to make changes. Defining yourself by your lowest points, your weakest moments, or your least inspiring character traits (which comes from thinking they are your personality rather than a pattern of behavior). Not knowing what to do or how to do it. Lacking examples of serenity or tranquility. Fixating on things outside of your sphere of influence. Any or all of these attitudes can create a lifetime of discontent built on obstacles that could feasibly have been removed.
Want some obstacles? They’re free! Help yourself to as many as you want.
Aggrieved entitlement. If there is one happiness strangler, it is this, the feeling that something should have been yours and was somehow taken from you. You have the right to something you are not getting, such as an inheritance or someone else to cook for you, wash your dishes, and scrub your toilet.
Resentment and grudges. You keep a tally of all the ways people have offended or disappointed you. You hate that you’re expected to do stuff that benefits others. (There’s probably a more resentful way to put that. Let me try again. Ahem. DO I HAVE TO DO EVERYTHING AROUND HERE??)
Failed perfectionism. If I can’t do it exactly right, I’m doing nothing. If you were such a supposed perfectionist, wouldn’t you care more about your visible results? [*wink*]
Social comparison. Actually, social comparison works great if you compare downstairs, but it’s a human failing to always compare ourselves to people who look like they have it better. Compare yourself to a medieval peasant in a hut and suddenly your life doesn’t look so bad.
Complaining. Having a legitimate complaint means one thing. It means it’s time to DO SOMETHING. Handle it. Set boundaries. Have whatever confrontations are necessary. Complaining merely dissipates the energy you need to resolve the situation, exhausting you (and your patient friend) and leaving you with the exact same problem you started out with.
Lack of systems. No strategy, no policies, no plans, no improvement.
Oh, and the practical stuff. Debt, clutter, lifestyle-related health issues. These problems feel complicated, and they are, but the solutions are simple. Earn more money, cut your expenses, open and sort all your mail immediately, get rid of every single object that gets in your way, pack your lunch, cook your own dinner, and go to bed a little earlier. See, that’s not so complicated.
Domestic contentment is its own reward. It also advertises itself. When your cooking skills are good enough, you want to eat your own cooking all the time. When you make your home cozy, you want to be there, enjoying your own personal brand of comfort. When you’re with your favorite people and animals, you want to hang out with them all the time. Whatever it takes to nourish yourself, give yourself a satisfying personal environment, and create supportive relationships, do those things, and remove anything that gets in the way.
I have an acquaintance who told me something funny. She said she always tells people that she’d be vegan if I cooked for her. This is funny for several reasons. One, we don’t know each other well at all, so the idea that I’d drop everything and cook all her meals is kind of bananas. I mean, is she planning to come over and walk my dog every day or what? Two, it’s hilarious that my cooking would be such an enticement for a radical lifestyle change, rather than, say, my visible results. Three, it’s funny that anyone would claim to want a chef, because guess what? You can be your own chef! The greatest mystery to me is why anyone would refuse to learn to cook. It’s like willfully denying yourself the magical power of satisfying your taste buds three times a day, every day.
I have another friend who actually just said, “I’d eat healthy if I had a chef.” It’s true. I’m pretty sure she would. One of the major reasons that people eat the Standard American Diet, in spite of its many major flaws, is that they gag on the taste and texture of healthy foods. My friend was cheerfully eating kale with quinoa. She doesn’t have any food dislikes that I know of. If the only thing that’s standing between her and a healthier diet is her refusal to cook, hey! That’s a problem that can be fixed!
Another reason that a lot of people refuse to cook healthy food - or to cook any meals at all - is that their kitchens are cluttered and dirty. They can’t resolve the power struggles with their housemates (spouses, kids, parents, roommates) over who does the dishes. There’s mail all over the counters and the table. The counters are full of appliances and canisters and cookie jars and cookbooks, to the point that there’s no room to cook, even on a good day. All that stuff is out on the counters because the cupboards are chock-full of plastic cups and containers, preposterous amounts of mugs and plates and bowls, and expired canned foods. I wouldn’t want to cook in there either! The thing about chefs is that they do their own washing up. It’s a matter of professional pride.
Let me go over that again. Chefs do their own dishes and wipe down their own counters. Part of this is that they take full mastery of their work area. The kitchen is their professional territory, and they design it how they want it. It’s their happy place. They have a few high-quality implements like a favorite knife. They know how to turn simple ingredients into deliciousness because they’ve spent so much time and focus on building their skills. It’s also true that wiping down an uncluttered kitchen only takes a couple of minutes. A chef is going to wipe down the same area over and over again, because cleaning as you go is the only way to keep the cooking surfaces available for the next plate.
Most of us have kitchens the exact opposite of what a real chef would want. We have tons and tons of unnecessary stuff. We let our excess kitchen hardware encroach on work surfaces. We let those surfaces get greasy and grimy. We leave our sinks constantly full of pots and pans and dishes. We “stock up” on more food than we can eat, so the ingredients are never fresh basically by definition. We look at cooking as an unfair, unrealistic chore. We refuse to put in the time to learn proper knife skills or how to prepare basic ingredients, even though it would pay off immediately in faster prep and better-tasting food.
My friend has a perfectly adequate kitchen. Granted, it’s a bit small, but so is mine. So is the working area of most professional chefs in restaurant kitchens. My friend doesn’t have an issue with food hoarding (like I have had) and she doesn’t have tons of excess dishes or other hardware. If she wanted to learn to cook, she could start today. She could find a new recipe and be sitting down to something surprisingly good half an hour later.
I’m a good cook, but most nights I just make something quick. My husband and I trade nights, and we have a thirty-minute rule. If one of us (okay, me) wants to make something fancier or more time-consuming, then it needs to be on the weekend. Too many times I’ve decided to try a new recipe and we’ve wound up eating dinner at 9:00. If I want to play, I need to start in the afternoon. On an average night, we might well be eating something that takes only ten or fifteen minutes.
What we know that most people don’t know is this: almost all vegetables only take five minutes to cook.
You can do it even faster than that if you eat bagged salad. Just buy a bag and make sure you eat the entire thing that night. If you live alone, you’re totally allowed to eat it all by yourself. Just watch out for the dressing.
We literally will eat a microwaved vegetable with… whatever. The important thing is that we eat our cruciferous vegetables. We’ll have a head of broccoli one night, and we chop the whole thing up, microwave it for four minutes, and eat it. Probably I eat one-third and he eats two-thirds, which makes sense because he’s twice my size. Another night we’ll do the same thing with a head of cauliflower at seven minutes. When we get cabbage, it lasts for two or possibly three nights. Sometimes we’ll just eat it shredded raw as a salad, but usually I sauté it for about four minutes. Bok choy, kale, chard, collard greens, all about four minutes. (It averages out with that naughty seven-minute cauliflower). Almost all the time, whatever vegetable we’re eating cooks faster than whatever we’re eating it with, and that includes pizza pockets.
I hear a lot of people talking about how they’re trying to eat less processed food. Whatever they think that means, it seems to include depressingly long periods of kitchen prep. To my mind, chopping up a cabbage and sautéing it for four minutes is about as unprocessed as you can get. You can even cook it in water if you don’t want to eat oil. The only way to transition into eating healthier is to make that transition gentle and straightforward. Heap up a bunch of expectations of perfection and purity, and it’s simply too hard to keep the commitment.
The main differences between me and my friend who doesn’t cook are that I’m not obese anymore and she still is. We’re both married, we both live in apartments (hers is bigger), and we’re close in age. I like to cook because I like cooking whatever I want to eat exactly how I like it, and then eating it whenever I want. Anyone can quickly learn the skills and find the recipes to give that gift to themselves and others. I like to cook because cooking is its own reward, but I also like that cooking my own meals gives me the body I want to have. Healthy food freed me from the prison of four-day migraines, night terrors, and chronic pain and fatigue. Healthy food gives me the energy level I need to live a happy life. It got me my marathon medal. Sure, yeah, healthy food helped me lose 35 pounds and keep it off. That’s just a side effect.
Being a good cook comes from cooking a lot. Maybe some people who are super-learners could simply observe a chef very closely for a couple of meals, and then walk away with elite cooking skills. Not me. I did find that when I committed to just one hundred hours of deliberate practice, my cooking was already significantly better only ten hours in. That’s a couple of weeks of making thirty-minute dinners. Truly, truly not a big deal. I keep trying to come up with an analogy of something that’s as easy to learn as cooking, with as big a payoff, and I can’t think of one. It’s easier than learning to drive, at any rate. If you agree with the statement that you’d eat healthy if only you had a chef, you could be that chef. Your own personal chef could be yourself.
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.”
We’re halfway through 2017. Do you know where your New Year’s Resolutions are?
I like to go through my yearly goals at least once a quarter, because I am the boss of my life and this is how I make sure to get what I want. Nobody else is going to come along and lob my goals and character improvements at me. If I want positive changes in my life, I’m going to have to make them happen by myself. I do that by deciding what I want and figuring out how it’s done.
So far, my 2017 has shaped up to be radically different in every way from my 2016.
My quest for the year is to BE RIDICULOUS. This started out feeling like a terrible idea, because we had a lot of ridiculous-in-a-bad-way. I continued this thread by cutting my eyeball on a plant. Yes, it’s true, I got a scleral abrasion off a bird-of-paradise. Surely there’s a metaphor there. My eyesight measured at 20/40 in that eye, and I had to get a tetanus shot, and my vision was blurry for over a week, and I had to take these horrid eye drops o’ hellfire four times a day, and I really thought I had permanently damaged my vision. The miracle of healing transpired the way that it does, and my eye is now back to 20/20. Artificially induced gratitude. THE GIFT OF SIGHT!!! I have some positively ridiculous projects simmering right now, and I’m starting to take myself and my goals less seriously and just seeing how much I can accomplish through outright hilarity.
My major personal goal for the year has been to follow a set schedule. I chose it because I try to seek and destroy things that are difficult for me, things that do not come naturally, things I’m bad at, things that I kinda sorta hate. The reason is that deciding to turn around my attitude toward the most negative has been like rocket fuel in my life. A year ago, I felt nauseated when I thought about public speaking. Now I love it and I’m getting pretty good. What would be different if I actually LOVED what I HATE? Well, I really am learning to love having a schedule. The way it’s working out, I dedicate specific days of the week to different projects. I always know the best day of the week to set appointments. The amount of time each day that I spend on chores has contracted. I just realized that instead of cleaning one room per weekday, I really only have three rooms now… I like waking up early in the morning and seeing how much I can accomplish before lunch.
Career goals are chugging along. Right now we’re slowly but steadily filing papers for our LLC and waiting on the geological time scale of bureaucracy. Moving forward feels like moving backward. I’ve expanded my coaching business in the meantime, and it’s been fun to add some new clients.
My physical goals have been in a holding pattern. I’ve only been out running twice so far this year. I’m walking so much more since we moved that it has displaced my goal of running. I’ll simply have to accept that I have to add my running mileage to my walking mileage (currently 4.6/day) if I want to start running again. Also, I wasn’t doing P90X because our new apartment is so small, but we just rearranged the living room furniture and suddenly it looks like there might be enough room. Now to figure out how to connect the DVD player - the sort of stupid, small obstacle that one might easily use as an excuse to procrastinate on a major goal.
Our home goal of “digitize, downsize, minimize” continues, even after our dramatic “move twice in 12 days” downsizing move back in March. Living in a small space makes it really obvious when unnecessary objects are getting in the way. Also, turning paper into digital information makes life so much easier that it is its own reward.
Our couples goals are coming up in July… World Domination Summit, and hopefully making some pickles! We have two additional trips together scheduled in Third Quarter. When we moved, we decided to Say Yes to Everything, in terms of social invitations and anywhere we could expand our career options. The result of that is that now we’re both holding an office in our respective Toastmasters clubs, and I’ve been mentoring him by adding his club meetings to my schedule. This has given us a lot to gossip about together.
As for lifestyle upgrades, I went out and bought a new $20 work bag when the strap on my old bag started shearing off. This has been transformative. It’s weird how much an organized bag helps one to follow a schedule and be early, rather than late, for everything. Grab bag, go out the door. Now I’m saving money toward my other lifestyle upgrade goal of getting the new iPhone when it comes out at the end of this year.
I have already transformed my appearance, as my Do the Obvious goal, and I made such a big change so early in the year that I’ve had some time to get used to it. Now it just feels like the real me. (What a weird concept. As though a ‘fake me’ would not still be the ‘real me’ in the background). It’s occurred to me that the most obvious physical transformation I could make now would be in the form of bodybuilding. If I do get down with the P90X, I could be looking pretty alarmingly fit by the end of the year… This is the sort of thought that gives one pause. How exactly do I want to look? Do I resist certain physical changes because I’m concerned about how others would react and judge changes in my appearance? In fact, if I change my body composition in the direction of more muscle than I currently have, it would be hard for other people to complain to me with a straight face. Mostly they would only catch sight of my arms, and a little more bicep is not a crime. So I get more muscle in the midriff, and someone sees me in my swimsuit. I’m already at the “you bitch” level of visible abs. I can shrug that stuff off. Will I move forward in this direction? Will I?
I have not yet done my stop goal of being the last person to pack up my tent. My husband and I are going camping this summer, so that will be an opportunity to test myself. This reminds me that I still need to replace the mesh tent window that the raccoon tore up last year!
I have not done my wish of paying off my student loan yet. Now that the balance is below $5000, it’s starting to feel possible. The real problem is figuring out what to wish for after that!
This is the short version of my 2017 goals, resolutions, quests, wishes, etc.:
Personal: Follow a set schedule
Physical: P90X, run five miles
Home: Digitize, downsize, minimize
Couples: WDS, homemade pickles
Stop goal: Stop being the last person to pack up my tent
Lifestyle upgrades: Phone and work bag, tent
Do the Obvious: Transform my appearance
Quest: BE RIDICULOUS
Wish: Pay off my student loan.
Decisions are everything. The more I make them, the more I realize it's true. Being strategic means that we periodically have to go back and revisit our earlier decisions, checking in with ourselves, examining our results, and making sure these decisions are still what we want. Revisiting decisions may mean canceling them, sustaining them, or redoubling our commitment. Cutting off expired decisions frees up energy and focus for those that we find significant today.
Most of life should ideally consist of routines, systems, policies, and any other ways we can find to put the boring stuff on autopilot. You only decide to brush your teeth once. After that, you just do it. You brush your teeth because you know how, because it's easy, because not doing it feels gross, because nobody will kiss you otherwise, because walking around with stuff in your teeth ruins your selfies, because honestly you don't even think about it any more. The more basic things you can treat the way you treat your dental hygiene, the more mojo you will have for making the fascinating, cool decisions.
Routines would include your job, your commute, your morning and bedtime rituals, your housekeeping, your bill-paying, grocery shopping, exercise, and anything else you want to make sure you do on a regular basis to make your life easier. Please don't waste decision-power on whether to unload the dishwasher or take out the recycling.
Systems are for anything you need to streamline. That might include packing your luggage, storing stuff, figuring out when to delegate certain things, planning your goals for the year, and anything else that doesn't necessarily happen on a routine basis. Anything that takes more mental effort than folding laundry probably needs a system rather than a routine.
Policies include the social, ethical, and moral realms. You might have a policy about not hurting animals or dating married people, a policy about littering, a policy about distracted driving, a policy about whether to vote in mid-term elections. Policies are how we behave consistently with our values. Setting an internal policy about something makes it more likely you'll be proud of your choices, without arriving at the choice point unprepared and making a willpower-depleting decision.
I don't have a policy of eating cake for breakfast; I DECIDE to eat cake for breakfast.
Now we circle back to revisiting decisions. We can revise our policies, we can revamp our systems, we can reset our routines. But then it's set-it-and-forget-it. I only need to set a policy once to avoid cannibalism or choose whether I think tights are pants. Decisions are for the one-offs. A decision should be for a special circumstance.
Often, decisions did not appear to be decisions at the time that they were made. I could list off a bunch from the land of squalor and chronic disorganization that would be pretty surprising. For instance, I don't think anyone *decides* to cover half their own bed with dirty laundry and food packaging. I think it "just happens" in a headspace of distraction that does not include decision-making, and usually does not include memory formation either. It's the sort of thing that happens when we experience ourselves as floating brains that do not truly exist on the material plane in the time dimension.
We don't need to forgive ourselves for this. There is nothing to forgive. We simply notice, Hey, I actually think of myself as a floating brain, and then we try to pull on the balloon string and get the head to come back. Come back to the room, to this moment in time, and try to pop back inside this body. This is really really hard with a helium balloon because it keeps wanting to float back up and out. Also, the room and the clock-time and the body may feel uniformly terrible. This is a place from which any decision at all will probably be an improvement.
Decisions are where change comes from.
The first step in revisiting decisions is to canvas yourself and your situation. Where are the pain points? What around you have you chosen, and what just sort of happened, and what do you feel was chosen for you by someone else? Where do you feel that you have the power to exert your gift of free will, and where do you feel that you do not have free will at all? Are you correct?
The second step is to pick at least one area and ask yourself, Hey, Self? WHAT DO I WANT?
In my professional experience, most people don't know what they want. It hasn't always even occurred to them to want anything at all.
What do you want? More sleep? A vacation? Lots of money? Side abs?
Usually when people start trying to figure out how to want things, they can only come up with things they DO NOT WANT. This is a great start, a way to tune in and check with yourself. It's only a starting place, though. Don't think about a polar bear. Tell your cat you want it to stop doing bad things to your carpet. See, it doesn't really work. Think of what you DO want, always what you DO WANT. Sometimes the opposite of what you do not want is still not the thing that you do want.
The next step after figuring out what you want is figuring out how to make that happen. Sometimes you'll find that you're still stuck on figuring out what you want. Sometimes this is because you've been focusing on the wants and needs of other people for so long. You have to differentiate for yourself what you want versus what they want, and understand that these things are not mutually exclusive. It's not zero-sum. Nobody has to lose out on anything if you start getting more sleep or paying your debts down. If you want side abs, you can even keep them private and just flex them when you're alone. Allow yourself to want things and to have ownership over your own life.
It's the midpoint of the year. This is a fabulous time to revisit decisions. If you're in the habit of planning the New Year at the end of the calendar year, you can just schedule it and do it now. If not, you can use the momentum of others and experiment with it, just this one time. That's an example of a decision you can revisit. Are you living in harmony with your own values? Do you approve of your own behavior? Are you proud of the results you are getting in your life? Do you feel close connections with the people you love the most? Are you excited about your contribution to the world and the new things you are learning? What can you change to remove the most annoying three things in your day? What can you change so that you are enthusiastic about something? Revisit your decisions and find out.
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.
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.
Okay, come on, admit it: we live in the future. We have a space station, robots, self-driving cars, and special glasses for color-blindness. That's why I want to know why everything so far available for an automated home is irrelevant to my interests, and why I can't buy any of the stuff I really want in a smart home.
I didn't have a dishwasher as a kid. My husband had to teach me how to use one: how to load it properly, how to choose cycles, and what was this mysterious substance known as "rinse aid." When I was a child, we visited my grandparents, and I asked my mom where to put the quarters in their washer and dryer. I've come a long way since those days. We have not just a dishwasher and a microwave and a washer and dryer, but also a robotic vacuum and a robotic mop and a battery-powered hand-held scrubber. I've already decided that anything fully automated that hits the market is coming home with me straightaway. Maybe I'll order it by drone and it can let itself in while I'm out.
What's on the market in smart homes right now? It looks like you can automate your door locks, security system, thermostat, fans, window treatments, lights, coffee maker, and entertainment system. You can set up a video doorbell and a nanny cam. You can buy a pet feeder with a timer. You can buy a virtual assistant in a "talking can" like the Amazon Echo.
I just watched the commercial for the Apple HomeKit (disclosure: I not only own some Apple stock but also a metric load of Apple products. Oh, and some iRobot). The actor in the commercial is clearly a smart, successful single woman. All the features of the HomeKit revolve around her preparing for her workday and relaxing afterward. Awesome!
Where is the stuff for a family, though?
My husband and I were cracking up laughing the other day about this tweet saying that 90% of marriage is checking whether the dishwasher is clean. SO TRUE. Dishwashers come in all ages and levels of technological sophistication. Wouldn't it be great if there were a sensor that could be installed on an existing, analog dishwasher and keep our phones informed of its status?
Likewise, what I need the most is a sensor telling me whether one of us (*cough*) has left a load of wet laundry in the washing machine. There are all-in-one machines that wash and dry in the same barrel, without the need to switch machines, but apparently they take at least three hours and the dryer load can't be as big as the washer load, because that makes perfect sense. Can we fix this? Maybe we should focus on building a Martian colony first. Wait, what am I saying? What does humanity really need the most?
Take your flying car and... I dunno, go fly it somewhere. I'm not leaving until I get a robot that folds laundry.
Another really awesome thing would be if new products came with some sort of RFID tag or other type of sensor, so their location could be tracked anywhere in the home. The signal would only need to transmit for a few yards if there was a receiver in every room. You could find out whether your missing shirt was hanging in the closet, buried in the bottom of the hamper, or quietly stewing in a musty washing machine. You would always know where your reading glasses or scissors were, or if the remote got wedged in between the sofa cushions, or if the dog buried your cell phone battery in the yard. The tricky part would be retrofitting and trying to stick these tags on the 10,000 things you already own. Lost LEGO? You're on your own, kid.
There totally needs to be an automated LEGO vacuum. It could have sort of horizontal windshield wipers that sweep small toys into its maw and spit them into a container in the back. Be scared if they come out built into something, like, say, a ray gun.
A refrigerator that reads your body fat percentage when you grasp the handle, and opens or locks down particular drawers based on your personal settings. It should also know the insert date of every item you put in it, so it can tell you not to eat the leftovers that are about to pop spores, or to remove the old lettuce before it turns into that special brown pudding.
Can there be a sensor that tracks every time a dog barks and reports it directly to Animal Control if it reaches a certain frequency? Asking for a friend.
Out of all the things we need in a smart home, what we need the most is the ability to check hot things and turn them off remotely. I'm talking about stove burners and irons. Every type of iron: steam iron, curling iron, flat iron, pumping iron, Iron Fist, whatever you may have left lying around. Anything from the Mad Science laborrrratory, anything like that.
I need to get pinged on my phone if the power goes off in my fridge or freezer. It would be great if I could also get a notification about burst pipes or dripping faucets. Once a large terra cotta tile fell off our roof while we were away, and if it had been a solar cell, that would be good to track remotely. Once we came back from vacation and our neighbor had backed a van over our mailbox, but maybe asking for a mailbox inbox is one reach too far.
Could there be any kind of vermin detector? It would be interesting if the house knew it had termites...
We live a pretty easy, futuristic life. My husband and I refer to housekeeping as "starting the robots." We find it amusing to take the dog for a walk while running the washer, dryer, and dishwasher, and having one of the robots clean our floors. Perfection would be if we could also have a robot wiping down countertops, crawling around vertically and scrubbing the shower surround, or washing windows. Being able to control the stove and the dog door remotely would be amazing. Knowing with one glance at an app whether there was anything in the dishwasher or washer, you know what? Knowing that could save some marriages. I'm sure it could.
The toy vacuum could save a life. At least the lives of a few little action figures.
I firmly believe that all innovation starts as the wacky idea of a science fiction writer or futurist. I also believe that good ideas come from the same place as bad ideas, except that all the bad ideas are always packed on top. I'm an idea-generating machine, and I share my futuristic fantasies in the hope that someone will read one and invent it for me. I'll be your best beta tester ever, I swear! It also is not wrong to spend a little time appreciating the futuristic modern conveniences that we already have. An electric box that washes dishes? Get out of here, you whack-a-toon! Twenty years from now, we'll look back and ask ourselves how we ever managed without these laundry-folding robots.
I'm standing in my kitchen, shaking and crying in my underwear. Why? I just woke up and I can't figure out how I got here. My poor husband has had to chase me down because I have this annoying tendency to run through the house screaming in my sleep. This has been going on for years and I have no idea what to do. Guilt crashes over me. I've woken up my life mate on a work night yet again. He doesn't deserve this. What is wrong with me? WHY THIS?
If you ever get caught up by worries late at night, believe me, I know what you mean.
Fortunately, I figured out that my problem was pavor nocturnus. Through diligent, meticulous tracking of every health variable I could think of, I learned that my problem was manageable mostly through timing when I eat. It's best if I don't eat within three hours of bedtime, and I try to avoid overeating at dinnertime. Running and intense, strenuous cardio, with a minimum duration of 45 minutes per session, also really helps. In nearly three and a half years, it's only happened twice. Another factor has to do with the things that tend to preoccupy me late at night.
My husband and I share certain alerts and reminders on our phones. One of them is a chime that comes up at 9 PM. It comes with a reminder that reads: "Moratorium on news or household business."
The reason for this is that if I start thinking about these topics after this time of night, I get completely wound around the axle. Usually I won't be able to fall asleep until 2 or 3 AM. Often I wind up thrashing and moaning in my sleep throughout the night, flailing my arms and reminding my husband yet again why we have this conversational boundary. Once my sleep starts to deteriorate, it rapidly declines. The worse it gets, the worse it gets. Without discipline, my stress levels make life very hard for both of us.
Why news? That should be somewhat obvious. Almost anything considered newsworthy is either alarming, dark, depressing, scary, bloody, explosive, or otherwise intellectually stimulating. If I want to read or discuss the news late at night, it needs to be restricted to tested topics that work for me. That includes tech news, medical innovations, good news, humor, and anything to do with cute or funny animals. Anything else, we're postponing until daylight. I'm a total news junkie and I trust myself not to miss anything. My awareness of it just needs to be restricted to the hours of 7 AM to 9 PM.
Why household business? I will get completely spun up about anything I can't handle immediately. Making phone calls, scheduling appointments, making travel arrangements, any kind of noisy cleaning or home repairs, all fall under the category of Can't Do at Night. I like to get things done as soon as they hit my to-do radar, especially if they can be done in under five minutes, so I can preserve my precious mental bandwidth. When I start thinking about stuff I need to do at a time when I can't move forward and get it done, for some reason, it eats me alive. I'm efficient enough that there's no reason to discuss this stuff after 9 PM. Assuredly, it can wait.
We're middle-aged empty nesters. It's pretty easy for us to maintain a rhythm in our daily life. At the end of the work day, we both do a total brain dump, sharing every interesting thing we heard, saw, or read all day. We text and email each other off and on all day, every day, sometimes even when we're sitting right next to each other. At dinner, we do our gratitude practice. We talk about future plans, travel, upcoming visits from friends, and projects we want to do. On Saturday, we have Status Meeting. That's when we deal with anything business-related, like moving money between accounts, booking tickets, or other annoying bureaucratic details of life. We basically never stop talking to each other. That's why we need this reminder to pop up that certain topics are now canceled until tomorrow.
Mental bandwidth is the entire key to feeling in control of your life. It's really stressful to feel burned out, confused, frantic, overwhelmed, and dissatisfied all the time. What we want is peace of mind. There can be no true peace of mind for a person who is chronically sleep deprived. Take it from me, the crazy girl crying in her nightgown because she can't figure out how she wound up four rooms away from where she went to sleep. Sleep is something you want in your life, the more the better!
How do we restore mental bandwidth and find that elusive peace of mind? A big part of it is feeling that we can trust our own mind to handle everything that needs to be handled. For this, I recommend what I call the "101 List." This is doing a brain dump on paper. Write down every last single minor tiny thing that you can think of that needs doing. Whether that's mailing a letter, scheduling an appointment, cleaning out your car, or oiling a squeaky hinge, write it all down. Keep this list, and continue to add anything else to it that pops into your mind later on. Over time, you can gradually learn to trust this list to retain everything you used to have to try to memorize. The other piece of this, besides just tracking all the details of your life, is to TAKE ACTION and get some of this stuff handled. I try to do at least one non-routine task every day to keep it from building up. Really, almost all of this stuff can be handled in under ten minutes, and some can be delegated. There's no reason to let it all clutter up our poor worried minds.
Another piece of mental bandwidth has to do with settling emotional conundrums. So much of our nightly tossing and turning has to do with upsetting events we can't seem to resolve. DO NOT DO THIS AT NIGHT. Try to figure it out during daylight hours, out of doors and in motion if you can do it. Everything seems a hundred times worse late at night. Why this is, I don't know, but it's true. Don't do that to yourself. Build some kind of routine where you are only chasing your own tail about dark emotional stuff while... going for a walk, listening to cheerful music, scrubbing the bathtub, or something else physical and constructive. It really helps.
There you have it. If you get worried at night, the reason is almost entirely because you worry AT NIGHT. Catch yourself in the act. Bring your attention to it. You're not alone; this is a near-universal problem. When you get in bed, think hypnotic words to yourself such as SLEEPY, DROWSY, COZY, CUDDLE, SNUGGLE. Right before bed, look at cute photos, maybe of sleepy baby animals. Fill your mind with things that make you smile. Sufficient unto the day is the bad news thereof. As your sleep quality improves, it becomes easier to relax and let go of the torments of worrying at night.
I'm a one-bag traveler. This only really matters when I travel, which is four or five times most years. On a daily basis, though, having only one bag is the absolute essence of minimalism. A single daily bag becomes a reliable tool for consolidating the gear and information that are most important in daily life. A single bag is vital to the holy grail that is Being Organized.
This doesn't necessarily mean that I OWN only one bag. It means all my DAILY STUFF is in one bag.
I currently have one work bag, two daytime purses, three evening purses, and a beach tote. This is because I haven't gotten around to getting rid of the two purses that are getting shabby after ten or so years. To me, having extra bags leads to guaranteed confusion, lost objects, and late departures. No bag ever made is pretty enough, or even useful enough, to make up for unnecessary hassle and irritation.
For local trips, I often just put my wallet and keys in my pocket, like a man, if I actually have pockets, because women's fashion is a conspiracy.
Ideally, my purse and work bag would be one and the same. In practice, I need a larger bag two days a week, and I don't like lugging it around more than I must. It's like when the rocket boosters separate from the space shuttle.
Purse: Wallet, phone, keys. Pen. Sunglasses. Lip balm. Tissues. Hair tie. Coin purse.
Work bag: Backup battery, adapters, and headphones. I carry sunblock and deodorant because of the climate where I live, and a small vial of Aleve because I'm superstitious. Mini emergency toothbrush, a wet wipe, and a stain treatment pen. Protein bar, and emergency sandwich if I'm flying. Folding grocery bag. Sweater. This is the maximum amount of paranoia gear I carry in my work bag, in addition to my tablet and phone. The most important object in this cavernously large bag is the EXTRA SPACE it provides for me to run errands.
I timed myself transferring items between bags. It took 57.71 seconds.
My husband commutes via bus, and he carries a backpack. It has his laptop and charger, glasses case, sunglasses, wallet, keys, phone, backup batteries and adaptor, headphones, and pen. Today, it also had a notebook, textbooks, and calculator because he's studying for a new professional certification. The most important feature of his backpack is the EXTRA SPACE it has for his lunch or a stop at the grocery store on the way home. I just asked him, "You don't have any receipts or anything in there?" He shook his head no, casually, like if I asked him if he ever debated what color of socks to wear with his outfit.
Parents whose kids are still at home will probably be thinking, "Easy for you, but we have kids." I know this because parents use this reply in every possible situation. The truth is that people who travel in packs have even more reason to organize and streamline their daily stuff. If you don't like dealing with tears in the morning, assuredly, your kids don't either. Checking kids' school bags and resupplying diaper bags in the evening prevents a lot of frustration before it has a chance to derail your family life.
Now that we've done the exposition, the key to Single Bag Theory is the strategic loading and unloading of the bag. The bag is Command Central. Since I don't need my wallet, keys, or sunglasses inside my home, they just stay in the bag. I never have to look for them. I know where the bag is because I always put it in the same spot when I get home. If I need to take something somewhere, like outgoing mail, I put it directly into the bag. This way I don't need a container or flat surface or special furniture; our apartment is so tiny that we don't have a foyer or hallway or mudroom or any of that. If we didn't have a system for our daily bags, then we would have a nonfunctional kitchen with counters covered in junk. That's just an objective fact.
Unloading the bag means making decisions. What am I carrying at the end of the day that is not strictly necessary to my next trip out the front door? Generally it is groceries or sundries I bought, receipts, mail, extra paper napkins, and the occasional piece of trash or recycling. Most of us carry receipts more out of habit or concern about identity theft than because we actually DO anything with the receipts. I try to avoid having receipts printed out at the check stand whenever possible. I do categorize my expenses in my finance app, but I only save the receipts with split expenses. This means that if I went to a restaurant, clothing store, bookstore, or other place with only one category of expense, I don't need the receipt for my purposes. If it's something expensive like electronics, I'll save it until I'm sure the item works properly. Most of our mail is junk mail, and almost everything that's left is outer and inner envelopes, brochures, and other useless inserts. We pay our bills electronically. Process and shred or recycle. Most of my trash sorting happens while I'm waiting at bus stops. When I check the contents of my bag at the end of every day, it only takes a quick glance and a few seconds to pull out anything weird or silly. I'm weird and silly enough without giving myself chiropractic problems lugging extra junk on my neck.
My smartphone takes the place of many of the items I used to carry. I no longer need a bulky paper day planner or address book or notebook or calculator. I no longer have tons of scraps of notes, phone numbers with no name on them, shopping lists, directions, or map printouts. I've developed the habit of setting alarms and time- and location-based reminders, because otherwise I know the fallibility of my ADHD mind. I need to be wondering about stuff like whether crows can be trained to pick up litter or whether there will ever be a wall-climbing scrubbing robot, not whether I've forgotten to order parrot kibble or where I put my keys. That's the point of all this, the point of Being Organized. We have more important things to do and more interesting things to think about than our daily stuff.
Having only a single bag has a magical way of making us more organized. Suddenly we know where our keys, phone, and glasses are. Suddenly we know where to look for our little scraps of notes. We start to be less late, and finally on time for things, because we can just sling the bag over one shoulder and go straight out the door. All the little rays of wandering attention we have aimed all over the place start to merge into a thick beam of focus. Having one bag can help us both look better and feel smarter, and what a magical bag that is!
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.