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.
We're halfway through packing up our house. This house is 728 square feet, with a detached garage and laundry room, meaning it's about half the size of our previous house. We've downsized quite a bit. Now seems like as good a time as any to try out an experiment in organizing our stuff for the move. I have no idea whether this will turn out to be a good idea or not! This is a peek into our thought process and the way we tackle our strategic planning.
I had the idea of doing a running inventory as we pack. The idea was to number each box in the notepad app on my phone, with brief notes about the contents. That way we could theoretically track down specific items while we are unpacking. This is more relevant than usual for us during this particular move, because (spoilers) we will be living in The Place of Uncertainty for a week or two, and all of our stuff will be in storage. There is a slight, but real, possibility that we might have to bust into the storage unit in frantic haste, and I'll be darned if I'm going to scramble around untaping 65 boxes to find whatever it might be.
(What could such an item be? Something that can't be simply bought at a store or accessed locally in a short enough time frame? A passport or some other vital piece of paperwork maybe. I dunno. The point is just to test out this system).
The first issue I had with my box inventory idea was that we would be working independently in different rooms. Our house is small, and it's physically challenging for both of us to be in the same space while any boxes are on the floor. How could we number the boxes without duplicates? I suggested that we split by odd and even numbers. It turns out that there is actually a computer science solution to this!
"You start with one and I'll start with 100."
"But there are 65 boxes... Yeah, I guess that'll work."
[I think he means he'll work backwards from 100, which he doesn't realize, because 'ludicrous' doesn't come naturally to him]
We eventually clarify that he is working forward from 100, 101, and so on. Then he comes back and tells me that actually, I should start with Box Zero. I am humoring him because I figure other people will know what he is doing with these arcane things called numbers.
The box numbers are written at all three corners on one side, so that they are visible from the top, the front, and the side. They are labeled with the destination room.
We have something like five different sizes and shapes of boxes. Most of them stack, which is helpful. While we have been packing and assigning numbers, we have used whatever box was the most appropriate size, so there is no muss or fuss over packing in any kind of order. The boxes are being stacked in the garage staging area by size, and roughly by number.
There are two more organizing points still ahead of us. One is the order in which we load the boxes onto the van. The next is the order in which we unload the boxes into the storage unit. Anything we want to go into the front of the storage unit will need to be loaded into the back of the van, meaning it goes on first. It's like a train car going one direction up the track, then reversing and going the other direction on the track. ON with the important stuff, followed by the caboose. OFF with the caboose, followed by the important stuff, right behind the rolling storage unit door.
We are working out the next point as we go, which is, How do we know which boxes are important?
Answer: ALL of the boxes should be important, or why do we even have them?
That is not so helpful from an immediate, Where IS That Thing? standpoint, though. We can go in any of several directions, but first we need to figure out what we need on Day One in the new place. This is going to vary depending on your situation - our hypothetical was a family with six kids and three dogs, and the kids need to be ready for school first thing Monday morning.
Beds and bedding. Towels and shower stuff. Clothes and shoes. First aid/meds. Pet supplies. Breakfast box with bowls and spoons. Dish soap, sponge, and dish towels. Toilet paper and hand soap.
We have solved most of this for our own move using kanban. We can tell at a glance where our most important stuff is, because it's visually distinct from the packing boxes. We have both already packed our clothes for the week in our suitcases. My husband has his work backpack with important papers for his first day at his new job. I have my own work bag, a bag for shower stuff, and another bag I am referring to as my pacifier. It's full of books and will undoubtedly have more random, useless stuff in it by moving day, none of which I will use at all, but at least I won't be climbing the walls wishing I had it.
There will be a few VIP boxes for our first day in the new place. The bedding - the comforters and pillows are in two of the three wardrobe boxes, which are much larger than the other boxes. We will want to mark the box with the bowls and plates, and another box for sheets and towels. We can do this with any combination of colored ink, stickers, a symbol (like a star), stacking them in a separate staging area, or possibly with box tape designed for the purpose. (There are sets marked with the different rooms of the house, like Caution tape, which frankly some houses could use throughout the year...)
When it comes down to it, almost everything we own is either there because we have room for it, or for comfort. We aren't really emotionally attached to such things as laundry detergent or ice cube trays, we just use them. The more often we move our household from place to place, the fewer the things we want around us, because it turns out that there is a shocking amount of stuff to haul, even for basic comfort purposes! Sheets and towels and plates and bowls and forks and spoons and spatulas and extension cords and cleansers and sponges and mops and brooms and a dish rack and a fan and dog shampoo and ye gads, where did all this stuff come from??
Usually we are unpacked and settled in within about three weeks after a move. This means no lingering cardboard boxes. No MISC (the dreaded misc). This time, so far, looks like the most organized we have been, and this is our sixth move together. Soon we will find out whether this system has any merit, and whether we can unpack in any less time.
Garages are for cars. Did you know that? Weird, huh? That's like someone claiming that dining tables were originally designed for eating meals. It's bananas. About two-thirds of people who have a garage don't park their car inside it, and 90% say they only would if someone had tried to steal their car. It's funny that other than the house itself, most people's most valuable possession is their car, and yet we leave them outside while making room for boxes of old high school yearbooks and holiday decorations we bought for 99 cents. In our case, there are two reasons we don't park in the garage: 1. Someone carpeted it, and 2. We no longer have a car. That's a post for a different day. Let's go back to the process of packing and moving all the junk from a garage, since it's a near-universal conundrum.
Why do we have so much stuff and not enough room for it? What is it about garages that makes them like the Bermuda Triangle of clutter?
Garages are not fun places to work most of the time. Usually they are not insulated, which means they are too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer. Usually they are very dim. Usually they have lots of holes to the outside, which you can plainly see if you stand in your garage during daylight with the doors closed and the lights turned off. That means bugs, spiders, and sometimes bigger and creepier things. These are reasons not to go in the garage at all, much less to use it as a fabulous workspace. If you wonder whatever happened to your former passion for a neglected hobby, the poor ergonomics of your garage may be to blame. It's definitely one of the major reasons any given garage is a mess. Who would want to go out there, for even an hour, and when would they do it?
There is never a good time for space clearing. It's never going to be fun and you're never going to be in the mood. It's just a question of having a pressing reason to do it by a certain deadline - such as relocating.
Every garage is a tangle. Ours is like many - a combination space. It had:
A laundry area
Old paints and brushes
Winter storage (coats, scarves, gloves, etc)
Bicycles and a unicycle and a tub of motorcycle gear
Lots of shelving units of different styles and materials
Stuff the previous tenants and the owner left here
Boxes of memorabilia
Yard sale/eBay stuff
Empty shipping boxes
Empty product boxes we planned to reuse
Stuff that didn't fit in the house (like a too-big dry erase board)
Artwork we weren't decorating with in this house
Stuff we didn't know what to do with
Stuff that needed repairs
Materials that We Might Need One Day
Stuff we didn't know how to get rid of
I see the garage as a Man Cave, even though I can and do use shop tools, fix things, build things, and do garagey-type stuff. I just never had my own personal garage until after my husband and I got married, and I'm used to doing my projects on the back porch or wherever. My husband is an engineer and ex-logger - think TOOLS and lots of them - and he has a lot of gear-intensive hobbies like hockey that demand storage space. I figured I would give him the garage as a hands-off interference-free zone. That's why I had no sympathy when it came time to sort the garage. Have fun with that, babe! [runs off chortling]
I told him I would do the kitchen. I'm sweet that way.
The first thing we did was to hold a one-day yard sale. There was zero traffic for most of the day. We only sold maybe 1/3 of what we put out, and we only made $146. That was it for us. We had already tried and failed to sell a bunch of stuff on eBay, even for 99 cents. We decided that it simply wasn't worth any more of our time to try to extract a few dollars from the things we had left. We made up our minds to donate everything to a charity rummage sale, and we did that in two trips. These included a few items we had already moved as many as six times, without using them, and we know we won't be missing them. Little emotion here other than relief, and feeling silly that we hadn't done it sooner.
The second thing was to make some strategic decisions, like so:
Are we going to have a garage in our next place? In perpetuity?
What about a storage unit? For how long? Where?
How are we going to spend our time at the new place? After that?
What hobbies are important to us now, versus 10 or 20 years ago?
We're moving to the beach (spoilers) and almost none of the listings we have seen include garages. It also turns out that the nearest storage facilities are in other towns entirely. Also, (more spoilers) we just got rid of our car. So if we kept too much stuff, we would find ourselves in the position of having to pay $200-$300 a month to store things, take a cab to go to the next town (and back) to get stuff (assuming it would fit in a cab), and do it again to put it back. The prices were shocking. When we listed off what we thought we might not be able to fit in a small home, it seemed dumb to pay to store it.
Backpacking gear (fits in a closet, because we carry it all on our backs)
Tools (what if a pipe bursts late at night?)
Guest bedding (for those prices, we'll get you a hotel)
Stuff we never use - what, with our vacation money? I think not
Due to our major lifestyle policy changes and strategic decisions, we knew we could get rid of whole categories of things. Gardening tools. Automotive repair tools. Shop tools. The ladder. Materials for things we "might make one day" that we never did in our last eight years together. We estimated the replacement prices for these items, some of which we sold, and realized that it wasn't a big deal to us to buy a new one if we needed to. It would be less expensive to replace ALL OF IT than to rent a storage unit for one year. Six months, actually.
Storage units are emotional decisions, not logistical decisions, and almost never financial decisions.
We looked at our hobbies and our new region, and realized there were certain things we would probably do more often. My husband has a wetsuit I've never known him to wear once, but he used to, and now it's plausible that he will again. It still fits. We have bikes that we haven't ridden together in a long time, but now that we are car-free they are suddenly relevant. The dog has a floaty vest that my dad got him, and suddenly that seems like a really key item to have. Thanks, Dad!
The poor hubby set to work. I helped to come in from time to time and bring mental bandwidth. There were some decisions that felt a bit overwhelming. Decision fatigue leads almost immediately to physical fatigue, and sorting through MISC (the dreaded misc) can feel like trudging through waist-deep molasses. We got through it, though, and found that we had enough room to set up a staging area for our moving boxes. It took about three hours.
Imagine having less in the garage than you do in your house. Imagine being able to use your garage space - for any purpose at all.
Imagine if you actually DID all the aspirational activities that are represented by the clutter in your garage.
Imagine if your honey-do list no longer included 'clean the garage' and you could just sleep in every weekend and go to the park instead. Or the beach!
The first thing we did when we found out we were moving again was to start sorting the kitchen. Literally. We had a brief conversation, and then we walked into the kitchen together and started opening cabinets.
Most people probably would not do this!
Moving is different when you've done it so many times that it's made you into a minimalist. This will be our sixth move as a married couple, and we haven't even had our eighth anniversary yet. We've downsized each time. Now, every time we prepare to move again, we just have to ask ourselves, "Have we used this since we moved here?" If not, out it goes.
We started with the kitchen because it's the most complicated area of the house. This is true for most people. All those drawers and cupboards are deceptive! We forget that each shelf and each drawer represents its own moving box. Half the stuff is either fragile or sharp. There are a lot of nesting items that don't look like they take up much volume, until they have to be packed, that is. There are also a lot of things with lids, or things that used to have lids, or lids that used to have things. There is a reason why so many horror movies have a scene in which a poltergeist makes all the cupboards open at once and all the utensils fly into the air. Although, a lot of kitchens look like that most days of the week...
Most people's kitchens are overwhelming on most days. It is the home of the domestic power struggle. A sink and countertops loaded with dirty dishes, sometimes overflowing onto the floor. Trash, recycling, and compost waiting to go out. A fridge full of spoiling food and scary leftovers. Sometimes there is a backlog of at least three hours' hard work before any packing could even be done. THIS IS RELEVANT. If ever there were an area of the home in need of systems, the kitchen is that place. Lack of a system coupled with clutter and excess is the recipe for disaster. Add in food hoarding, and we're back to the horror movie theme again.
We started with the kitchen. We started with the kitchen BECAUSE it's the hardest room in the house. We started with the kitchen because it's the heart of our home. We started at 6 PM, and we were done in time for my husband to cook dinner and wash dishes afterward. By 'done' I mean that the countertops were clear and nobody would have known we were planning to move.
All right, what is it that we did?
We started with a strategy. What do we do in our kitchen and what stuff do we need? When we first got married, our house was bigger than both our bachelor houses put together. The kitchen was ridiculously huge. We both moved in our full bachelor kitchens, and found that there was still space left over. (I filled it). We also had open shelving in the garage, and a bunch of stuff went out there. Partly because we had so much room and so much kitchen capacity, we entertained a lot. We would have as many as twenty people over every week. We wound up accumulating a lot of serving platters, extra utensils, and extra cutting boards, potato peelers, and the like so that guests could cook with us if they wanted. We had two dining tables and enough chairs for everyone, except for the night we had to put a couple of people on our camping coolers.
Then we moved.
I was really emotional about wanting to hang onto all our stuff for entertaining. Just because the dining table filled the ENTIRE dining room from wall to door didn't mean we couldn't still have big dinner parties! Then we moved again, and my ten-top table physically would not fit in our house. Not unless we wanted to sleep on it at night, anyway. I had to adjust my emotional attachments.
Time went by. I started looking at all this stuff with a more analytical eye. I realized that, even when we had two dozen people one Thanksgiving, I still had more serving containers than we needed. What if I only kept enough so that everything we had was in use? Did I really need three gravy boats? We had the space, and most of these things were stored in high cabinets where I didn't see them on a daily basis, but I let them spin in the back of my mind. When we went into the kitchen preparing for our next move, the emotional homework was already done.
I stood on a chair and handed things down to my husband. It went like this:
I decided that we didn't need the majority of our plastic food storage containers. He was relieved. We have various shapes and sizes of glass and ceramic baking dishes with lids that can do the job. We also have dozens of Mason jars for canning that can certainly hold leftovers.
We realized we didn't need four muffin pans, three corkscrews, seven mismatched ramekins, and various other redundant redundancies.
We both pulled out personal items we knew we weren't using, such as my old work Thermos and a coffee mug that was a gift from his ex-wife.
I got down all of the big platters and serving dishes I'd decided to let go, plus a vase and other random items. Most of that stuff was there because 1. We had it and 2. It fit there.
We decided we needed to replace our knives and the pancake flipper.
I pulled out a set of little bowls I use for mise en place, because I have two sets, and he convinced me to keep them because I use them every week.
Suddenly we turned around, and the entire counter was covered with stacks of excess kitchen clutter!
The weird thing about space clearing in a kitchen is that you can usually remove a truckload of stuff, and it won't look like anything is missing. Our kitchen is definitely still functional - we cook together when we're backpacking, and we can do everything we need to do with a pot, a pocketknife, and a portable propane stove. We still have silly things, like an angel food cake pan and a skull-shaped cookie cutter, that we virtually never use. All we did was to get rid of the 10-20% we knew we didn't use at all. It took 35 minutes.
This was the first pass. We do the second pass after we move into a new place, when we are confronted with the configuration of a new kitchen. So far, we've always found at least a few more items that won't fit, and we've never once missed any of them.
Our kitchen system works like this: Six large plates, six small plates, six nesting bowls. Eight drinking glasses. A dozen sets of flatware. Teacups. That's all we need for eating meals. All of these items come from matching sets, so they're all the same size for portion control purposes, they nest, and they all fit into one dishwasher load. This is key. When the dishwasher is full, the cupboard is empty. We run it at night and he unloads it first thing in the morning.
We have a set of pots and pans, one of each size. When one gets used, it gets washed right after dinner, it sits in the drying rack overnight, and it gets put back in the cupboard the next morning. Weird, huh? Three dishwasher-safe cutting boards. A stack of nesting food storage containers in two sizes, for leftovers, but no more than would fill the freezer. Once the containers are full, something needs to get eaten up or there's nowhere to put any further leftovers.
We take turns cooking and cleaning the kitchen. We used to alternate, but recently we agreed to trade nights and do our own cleaning, mostly because I cook much more elaborate dishes and he was getting stuck with more of the cleanup. If there are leftovers, either the other person will cook them on their night, or they will sit until the second night. About once a week, one or the other of us will root around in the fridge and freezer, planning a meal with the goal of finishing off a container of something. A condiment, a leftover, half a cabbage, or whatever is there. We've been on a conscious plan of culling our pantry, where most things aren't replaced after they are used up, because we don't need to have 175 different flavors in our pantry every day of the year. They call it a 'store' because it 'stores' things.
The week that we pack and move, we won't cook. We have part of a package of paper plates and bowls hanging around, and we'll use those. We have some compostable forks. I have three days' worth of backpacking meals, and we'll microwave those. We could always go out, but I hate that feeling of having cardboard particles in my hair, being totally exhausted and grubby, and wandering into a restaurant looking like I got trapped in a warehouse overnight.
We're moving again. We started with the kitchen, because every other room looks easy in comparison.
Guess what? You'll never guess. Actually, you probably will, if you've followed my exploits for more than a year. Surprise, we're moving again! Cue party noisemakers and confetti. This will be our first move in... *counts on fingers*... fourteen and a half months. This is why we're minimalists, and getting to be more so every year. I'll be writing about this process over the next few weeks, as we strategize, pack, move, unpack, and get settled in.
We decided not long after we got married that we will probably never own a house. The reason for this is that mortgages are structured in favor of the bank, and the interest and fees are front-loaded. If you aren't completely positive that you'll still be living in the same house at LEAST five years from now, it's financially extremely risky. You are almost guaranteed to lose money. If you're underwater on your home loan and you're forced to sell, you're sunk. We looked at our situation after the crash of 2008, realized that we were unlikely to spend THREE years in one house, much less any longer, and accepted the nomadic life. Now, when my husband gets an enticing job offer, it's a simple matter for us.
Accept offer. 2. Give notice to landlord. 3. Order moving boxes. 4. Reserve moving van. 5. Pack. 6. Move to whatever new city has the latest most awesome job opportunity.
We did the first four of these steps in about an hour. Two days later, we advertised a yard sale. Now, we're still waiting for the delivery of the moving boxes. We're not sweating it, though, because our house is only 728 square feet. We can fit both our entire wardrobes in a pair of large suitcases. We've scheduled three days to pack so that we can take breaks.
I plan to use a stopwatch when we pack each room, so I can get an estimate of how long packing really takes. This is one thing I've never done before. I've counted the number of moving boxes we've used before, which is 100, but I haven't tallied them by room yet. I have a strong suspicion that we won't be needing 100 moving boxes this time.
Minimalism is all about strategy. We made a policy decision not to buy a house. We made a policy decision not to spend more than a certain percentage of our income on rent. We made an aesthetic agreement that we prefer small houses, and for comfort, we both prefer putting our bed in the smallest bedroom.
When my husband began his job search, we understood that we had about a 5% chance of being able to stay in the same neighborhood. Another of our policy decisions is that it's not worth it to us for him to have a long commute. We'd rather spend one week packing and unpacking than have him sitting on the freeway for five hours or more every week in perpetuity. I married him and I kinda like seeing his face from time to time.
The clock started ticking two months out. We started planning meals around what we had in the fridge, freezer, and pantry. Points for every meal that finishes off a container of something. The last time we had professional movers, we learned that they would not take certain items overnight, including food, any kind of liquids or chemicals, explosives, firearms, plants, live animals, and various other items. We wound up with an entire truckload we had to haul ourselves, partly consisting of our suitcases and the crates for our pets, but mostly made up of pantry boxes. I was very embarrassed and annoyed, and made an effort from that point forward to eat it up and buy less. That is another policy decision: a streamlined, minimal pantry.
Every time we've moved, we've wound up in a smaller house with a smaller garage and less kitchen storage. We wind up downsizing twice: first, before we move, and second, after we try to unpack in the new place and realize that certain things just won't fit. This will be our sixth move in eight years, and we're much more serious about it this time. Anything we don't use physically, literally, every single day, is under scrutiny. Even some of the things we DO use every day are subject to analysis.
We base our plans around our emotional experience of life. What do we do in our living room? We lounge around relaxing with our pets. What do we do in our kitchen? We cook a lot and we like to talk at the dining table. What do we do in our office? We like to work on our passion projects. We plan what we keep in each room based around how we are using the room. Heaps of junk mail, mounds of dirty laundry, stacks of dishes, and piles of random, unsorted stuff are not on any of our lists for Favorite Use of Space. Knowing how we like to spend our time at home is a big help when we start scrolling through pictures of dozens of houses and hundreds of rooms, looking for our new place.
The less stuff we have, the smaller a place we can fit in. The smaller our home, the better the neighborhoods we can afford. We have found that our quality of life improves immeasurably when we can live close enough to work for a short commute. That often means fitting in a really small home. It's not just about high rents: a lot of areas don't even have large homes at any price. We learned that a 1500 square foot home in our current city would cost $1000 a month more in rent, and I don't know about you, but... yeah, no. Most people probably would choose the larger house with the longer commute explicitly so that they can keep all their stuff. We're the opposite. Calculate your hourly wage including your commute time, and then go and get your crying pillow, because you're going to need it.
At time of writing, we have a moving van to pick up on Friday, a storage unit reserved for our stuff, and a pending Airbnb reservation. What we don't have yet is anywhere to live in April, because WING-IT METHOD. Watch this space for exciting dispatches from the Place of Uncertainty!
I had the good fortune to hear Jonathan Fields speak at World Domination Summit 2016. I love his podcast, The Good Life Project, and the more I get to know his work, the more I want. How to Live a Good Life is an excellent book, one that arises from many years of exploration of that topic. I think we can safely say that if there is a textbook for such a thing, this is the one. How to Live a Good Life is for people who are looking for something more, and are starting to feel skeptical or disappointed because they haven't figured out their "passion" or "purpose" or what happiness means to them.
The core of the book is that there are three metaphorical buckets in life, and we can only be happy if we distribute our energy between them. The buckets are Vitality, Connection, and Contribution. This translates to physical health and well-being, social relationships, and work, which I always use in the sense of both vocation and avocation.
How to Live a Good Life is designed to be read and worked through in brief sections. It's the ideal kind of book to dip into, doing one "day" at a time. Some of the exercises may feel obvious to one person, while creating a real epiphany in someone else, and that will undoubtedly vary from one reader to another. One of the three buckets will likely stand out as having the lowest level. I really liked this image, and the sense that all of my buckets could be filled, or that maybe I could even get bigger buckets!
One of the stand-out moments for me in How to Live a Good Life was Jonathan's discussion of The Five Love Languages with his wife. They came to realize that they were both wrong about her primary love language. My husband and I also loved reading that book together, and this inspired me to revisit the concept, wondering if either of us had changed over the years, too. I really enjoyed this book and found it very approachable, inspiring, and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny.
Perfection doesn't exist, first off. Let's make that clear. The only place anything perfect can be found is in the Platonic ideal, floating around in our minds somewhere. More importantly and more interestingly, perfection is pointless. It's a boring, static concept with nothing to offer. No thrills, no party, no memorable stories, no laughs. Perfection isn't funny.
My future husband picked me up at work one day. We were just falling in love and we had a big date. He walked in, we made eye contact, I stood up to greet him - and I stepped on my skirt when I was only partway out of my chair and fell over sideways. Vanished behind my desk. Truly one of my finer moments. I don't know if I've ever laughed harder in my life. "You disappeared!" he said. Imperfect but hilarious. If I had just sat there without a hair out of place, he wouldn't have learned anything about my personality (assuming I had one) and I would have had to live up to that smudge-free image. Forever.
I married someone who knows the real me. The real me does not have the attention span for the pursuit of perfection. The real me is frequently driven to do things like hula hoop while reading, try to teach the dog to jump rope, make up alternate song lyrics, or write an eighty-line epic poem about a shoe. The fruitful pursuit of hilarity is much more interesting than the futile pursuit of perfection.
As a general rule, care more about how something feels than about how it looks. Experience, not image. This is why I wear comfortable shoes. It's also why I'm in a marriage where we laugh a lot, not one where we take selfies a lot. Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's just that for me, trying to capture a moment in a photograph usually ends with me stressing out about how weird I looked, spoiling the memory and making me self-conscious. Maybe we should get some horse-head masks...
We have a pretty little parrot. Sincerely, she is cuddly and friendly and adorable. She also likes to pick her nose with her toe. I'm constantly battling the feathers and shredded chew toys and dog hair and muddy paw prints and other unspeakable messes. The bird likes to throw food to the dog. Sometimes he catches it in mid-air, but usually not. There is nothing perfect within eight feet of the bird perch, let's just make that clear. But, they make us laugh every day. There are many sweet moments when they smooch each other or take naps together, but usually the moment has passed in a split second. Whenever I get my camera out, they freeze and look at me like NO, DON'T YOU PERFECT ON US. We live in the now, bow wow.
Perfection is about criticism. It starts with self-criticism and quickly leaks out and starts staining everything and everyone in sight. Perfection is about shame. If criticism is a stain, shame is mustard gas. Shame kills. Perfection is about social comparison and envy. Nothing good can come of that. Looking for the humor is looking for the recognition, the surprise, the affection. Funny is endearing. When we add hilarity, we bring connection and understanding. The friendship that can't be made through perfection can be made in an instant through a shared laugh.
When we let go of the nonsensical hunt for perfection, we can relax, and we can free others from our sometimes unfair judgments and standards. Self-compassion ripples outward. We understand that others are no more able to be perfect every single second than we are. One thing I'm working on right now is to catch myself whenever I judge someone else for anything I myself have done. It turns out that that's nearly everything. There are a lot of jokes to be found with this material. Criticism, shame, and perfectionism aren't really all that funny. We can let it all go, and let ourselves go.
Skepticism is the natural and appropriate reaction to a proposed change. Critical thinking skills for the win! Alas, it seems that there is a curious relationship between skepticism and success. What is straightforward and obvious to one person (go to the gym, buy groceries once a week) can be convoluted and complex to someone else who has spent more time thinking about it. We succumb to analysis paralysis because we really can't believe things could be that simple. We want proof before we commit. Perhaps more importantly, we just can't identify with ourselves as Version 2.0.
Nope. That's just not me. This is just how I roll.
A really common talking point I hear from people who are no further than a 2 on the Readiness Scale is that "I'll still be the same person." This feels important. It's not so much that we love Current Self so very much, because often we don't. It's the feeling of supreme contempt and annoyance toward Those People. Those uppity, snooty, snobby, irritating darn people who are daring to live my dream. I kind of feel this way about people who are good at wrapping gifts. I once played a game at a holiday party that involved wrapping presents one-handed with a partner, and I swear it looked better than what I normally do with two hands. What kind of person would I have to be to show up with perfect packages? Someone with weird priorities? I am sure, though, that if I did wrap pretty gift boxes I wouldn't think it was all that big a deal. Would I "still be the same person"?
Physical transformation is the biggest change of all. It's much different from other major changes like going back to school or changing socioeconomic status. At least when you have more education or more money, you still look basically the same when you look in the mirror. Physical change can be so dramatic that you sincerely don't recognize your own reflection at times.
Physical change isn't always about weight loss. Obviously, it could include scar tissue or health issues. Sometimes it's as trivial as a new hairstyle. When weight loss is the proposed change, it feels somehow more voluntary than a new hair color, and yet emotionally heavier in many ways than adjusting to a new health status. There's just something about deciding to lose weight or "get in shape" that feels like capitulating, like giving in or giving up. I know I felt that way at first.
I considered thin, fashionable, conventionally attractive women to be bimbos. That, and probably also "mean girls." I considered jocks and athletes to be dumb. I thought the whole thing was a tool of the advertising cabal to convince us to spend vast amounts of money on the weight loss and beauty industries. I was too smart to fall for any of that.
The thing about skepticism is that we tend to be swayed by empirical evidence. Certain trends get harder and harder to ignore. The data start to pile up. In my case, that builds curiosity. At a certain point, I have to find out for myself. What does this button do? How does that work? What happens next? I made a decision to experiment on myself and change my body, just because at that point I needed to know for myself what it was like.
What I found was that all my assumptions about what goes on in the minds of people who look a certain way were completely unfounded. Almost everything about the way I experience the world radically changed. I started to see things in the context of how much physical energy I had, things like how much I wanted to socialize or how willing I was to initiate and follow through on projects. I started sleeping better, and my food cravings changed. Now I wonder why I wanted to stay "the same person" so much, because "the new me" is so much more fun to be.
Ultimately, what we realize when we start to develop a growth mindset is that we are never stuck. We can try out different things, see how we like them, and then go back to default if we prefer it. We're only committed if we feel committed. We can change our schedules, we can redecorate and get makeovers, we can test out new recipes, and, of course, we can reshape our bodies. Then we can go back and do it all over again. It's not like teleporting onto a new planet. It's not like a tattoo, although people usually have a much easier time emotionally with the permanent commitment of a tattoo than they do with the temporary changes of weight loss and strength training.
It's weird, but true, that we can cheerfully, creatively play around with almost every aspect of our physical appearance except actual body image. Hair cut, style, and color! Manicure! Tattoos and piercings! Clothes, shoes, jewelry, and accessories! An infinite variety, sure to elicit compliments galore from everyone who digs that particular look. Change your proportion of muscle to body fat, however, and all bets are off. Perhaps this is why I have it backwards; I find exercise is for hedonists and that beauty treatments are exhausting, where most people seem to feel the opposite. It takes time before a new habit becomes a part of your identity, whether that's straightening your hair or straightening your posture.
What if changing your body image was really as simple and transitory as getting a new haircut? What if you just looked different every few years? What if it turned out to be really interesting and absorbing to go through that process of physical change? What if it was a lot like the mental effort and inherent fascination of reading a long series of novels? Changing your body can be just as separate from your core identity as reading a book or wearing a particular color of shirt can be. Maybe you like it, maybe you don't, but it's worth a try. You can always go back.
I don't have a table next to my bed. This is more interesting than it sounds. It's a conscious decision, just like the fact that I refuse to have a coffee table because I hate stubbing my toe.
I had a bedside table as far back as I could remember. Usually it was a makeshift item in some way. For a while, it was a vintage sewing machine in a cabinet. I've also had an old suitcase, an IKEA nightstand I assembled myself, a dresser, and a floating shelf. I had to have something, because otherwise, where would I put my books?
Books, a lamp, water glasses, a box of tissues, lip balm, hand cream, more books, my journal, a pen, hair ties, scented candle and matches, etc etc etc.
One night, when I was in high school, I had what I did not realize at the time was a night terror. I yelled, flung my arm out in my sleep, and knocked over the two-foot-high stack of library books on my nightstand. They toppled into my wastebasket, knocking over a plastic Super Big Gulp cup of water, which spilled all over my face and chest. The entire family woke up and started shouting at me. I woke up soaking wet, freaked out, angry, and confused. As usual, when my habits resulted in annoyance and inconvenience for myself and others, I ignored it and carried on with those same habits.
Why did I have a two-foot-high stack of library books next to my bed? 1. I guess I thought I could read them all at once, 2. I guess I thought the library would close or all the books would vanish, 3. There was no room on my bookshelves. Clutter expands to fill the space available.
The result of having a nightstand, for me, is reading in bed. That works great for a single person, or for someone who shares a bed with another nighttime reader. I'm a night owl married to a lark, though, and it's unfair for me to keep the light on. It's also a bad idea, because my bedtime starts shifting later and later and I can't sleep well during the day. The first time I stayed up until 6 AM, I was twelve. I heard my dad's alarm go off for work during my summer vacation, and I thought "UHOH!" The next night, I melted the shade on my plastic book light.
The great sorrow of my life is that I can't read 24 hours a day. I can't seem to read any faster, either. I will die not having read anywhere near one percent of all the books ever written. If there is any justice in this world, heaven is a library.
I actually have found a way to read more, which is to listen to audio books while I do chores and cook and exercise and walk to the store. Often I am on my feet longer than I would have planned, because I want to finish a great read and sitting makes me restless. This has been a really effective trade for reading in bed at night. Sometimes, if I can't sleep, I keep listening to my book until I get drowsy. No light to keep me awake or bother my honey. I keep my phone in my pillowcase, which I would do anyway in case of emergency.
Why don't I have a nightstand anymore? Three reasons. The first is that our current house was built in 1939, and the bedroom barely fits our California King mattress. There's just no room. My side of the bed abuts the doorframe. If we tried to put some kind of shelf or storage headboard up, there would be no room to walk around the foot of the bed. It's cozy, but there's no room for extra storage, so we try not to need it. The second reason, of course, is that I want to discourage myself from my counterproductive bedtime reading habit of yore.
The third reason has to do with what happened on my side of the bed when we first got married.
I've moved nearly thirty times in my adult life. My mom was always big on rearranging the furniture when I was a kid. Due to this, I hadn't really experienced what happens when furniture is left in the same position for more than a year. Dust accumulation. I had started having respiratory issues, sneezing, coughing, and wheezing when my husband and stepdaughter weren't having any problems. It got marginally better when I found and removed a coating of dust on top of the kitchen cabinets, closets, and and exposed beams in the house. Then I took a closer look at my nightstand. It had two shelves and a drawer, and the contents thereof would have filled two moving boxes. I started going through it and realized that the entire thing was coated with dust, as was the carpet underneath and the wall behind it. I wound up getting rid of the whole thing and replacing it with a one-foot-square floating shelf. There was only enough room for my phone and a box of tissues, and that was enough. The Roomba could vacuum underneath it - problem solved. I haven't had a wheezing, sneezing problem in any of the years since.
Everything that I used to keep in my nightstand is still accessible to me. I just interact with it before bed. Lotion stays in the bathroom. I write in my journal in the living room. I try to drink two-thirds of my water before lunch, and avoiding water at bedtime helps me sleep through the night. I read before bed, but there's no reason I can't continue doing it on the couch. When I go to bed, I'm going to bed.
Since I got rid of my nightstand, I sleep about two more hours per night. There are several other factors involved, but it's definitely salient to the transition. Sleep procrastination is an issue for a lot of people, and staying up to read ONE MORE CHAPTER ONE MORE CHAPTER can be a big part of this. It's hard to accept that we'll never have time to read everything we would like to read, but the lifestyle upgrade of getting significantly more sleep is worth it.
I don't miss having a nightstand. Even if I had the space, I wouldn't get another one. I see it now as an attractive nuisance, an irresistible clutter magnet. It's one more surface to gather dust and piles of stuff. It's a place to bonk my head and a place to knock over toppling towers of stuff. It's a way to mess up my photos. It's one more item to pack and haul the next time we move. For some people, it's one of the few private spaces where they can store personal belongings in a crowded house. Acknowledging this, I choose to make the space next to my sleeping head a free space, and to claim personal territory elsewhere in the house.
It took $40,000 before I finally believed that investing actually works. It was something I knew in my mind, but not something I really understood or felt to be true. As with most things, we don't understand until long after we've taken action. We have to see it to believe it.
When I started investing, I was a broke student with a quarter-time job. I was living in a dorm that was exactly nine feet across - three feet for my bed, a three-foot gap, and then three feet for my roommate's bed. I'd say I had nothing, but I had a lot less than that. I was generating a student loan debt that I am still paying off sixteen years later. I didn't own a car; I didn't even have a driver's license. Everything I owned fit into that tiny dorm room, either in the built-in closet or under my bed. I was 26, divorced, and owned no appliances, no furniture, no housewares, no tools. I didn't even own my own sheets. The only thing about investing that made any sense in my situation was that I had nothing to lose.
I never would have done it on my own, because I was still deep in scarcity mindset and investing for the future does not fit with that. I owe my start in investing to an older mentor who looked out for me. The rules changed at my job, and my job classification was suddenly required to contribute to the retirement plan. Unbeknownst to me, my mentor realized that this mandatory contribution would eat a huge chunk of my paycheck, and she negotiated a raise for me that would cover the difference. I barely knew this woman. She did for me what she would have done for herself or for her own daughter. I would love to pay this forward and know that anything I said helped one single person to start preparing for retirement.
The first time I got a retirement statement, I didn't even have a hundred dollars in my account. The next quarter, I called out, "Three figures, woo hoo!" I joked that I now had enough to retire for a full day.
Fast forward a few years. I was working at my first post-college job. I was sleeping on an air mattress in a rented room. I had two maxed-out credit cards, two student loans, a couple of personal debts, and about twelve hundred dollars in my retirement account. My net worth was about negative $25,000. The first thing I did at my job was to sign the forms for the maximum contribution to my 401(k). The second thing I did was to make a spreadsheet with one tab for my monthly expenses and another tab for my debts. Then I set about hustling.
My priority was to work as hard as I could every single day, learn as much as I could, get allies, and become indispensable. I needed a rock-solid reference and I wanted a promotion and a raise. Check, check, and check. That was my hobby, my entertainment, and my recreation. Tiny sums of money trickled into my investment account, while I went home, read library books, went to bed early, and finally paid off all my personal and consumer debts. I paid off one of the student loans six years early. No concerts, no alcohol, no coffee, no hair coloring, no tattoos, no piercings. I was too busy sawing the shackle of debt off my ankle.
I'm ascetic by nature. I will routinely go a month without spending on myself, just to keep my self-discipline up and running. I've never had a professional manicure or pedicure. Saving money is no big deal. Investing, on the other hand, was never a part of my world. I didn't know anyone who did it. I associated it with stockbrokers in 1929 jumping out of their office windows. I thought it was exactly like going to a casino. I had developed the habit, though, of reading personal finance books, and they always discussed investing. I went on to read several investment books. I saw that these wealthy, famous investors had different philosophies and that they sometimes gave completely contrary advice. Above my pay grade, I thought. Better stick to what I know.
There was this 401(k) money, though. In my mind, I was forcing myself to save part of my paycheck in a way that would keep me away from it. I really, really wanted to get out from under my debt load. I hated owing personal debts, and I hated having this student loan that was more than my annual salary, and I hated credit card debt most of all. It made me break out in hives just thinking about it. I mean, actual literal physical hives. If I hadn't put the 401(k) money aside, it would have vanished down the drain of debt. As soon as I was debt-free, I would have relaxed and spent it on lifestyle upgrades like moving to a safer neighborhood.
I didn't really believe that the pre-tax money going into that 401(k) account meant anything. There sure wasn't much in there. I'm a serious student, though. I had read so, so much about how investing works. I scoffed at it, I thought that almost everyone got duped and lost all their money, but I figured I might as well perform due diligence. I would pick some investments, move my money, and wait and see. I spent a couple of days reading prospectuses (brochures explaining what a fund does) and reviewing advice on how to allocate my money. Then I spent maybe an hour filling out forms, and I took the emotionally challenging step of sending them in.
One fine day, my $1200 had somehow magically turned into $40,000. That was the day I truly realized that investing is different from saving.
I get "advice" all the time. Financial "advisors" want to take over my accounts and plan my investments for me - for a fee... My husband offered to do the same at one point, until he realized that I seem to know what I'm doing and started buying some of the same stocks that I do. Various acquaintances have tried to explain that my investment strategy is "how people go bankrupt." Um, I'm not buying futures! Show me your portfolio and then I'll be happy to sit through your advice.
To tell the truth, I'm really not very good at math. I can't even calculate a tip unless I have total silence. Investing isn't about math skills; it's about trend analysis. I only buy when I understand how the company makes its money and what its future plans are. I read a lot of business news, biographies and memoirs, and various business books. I find them entertaining, so sue me. I don't take other people's advice on investing because I understand how other people make their decisions. There are few things that make me smile quite as sincerely as when I look at my accounts and see that I've doubled my money on a pick that someone tried to talk me out of.
A correction will come soon. In fact, I'll bet you a shiny new nickel that a major crash will also come at least once in the next 25 years. Possibly three or four crashes. My accounts will decrease, and all my little dead presidents will have tiny copper and zinc tears trickling down their noses. Well, I assume so. During the last crash I made a quarter of a percent. I know that the performance of the market is stochastic, meaning that there are no predictable trends or patterns. I know better than to think that my rows of green ink are enough for me to relax and stop fussing over Future Me. What I also know is that I have a better understanding of how investing works than at least eighty percent of the adult population. My experience has convinced me that if I study hard and work hard, I can learn everything I need to know. That has been great for my self-confidence. My personal power bubble is much larger than it used to be.
The major difference between me and the average person is that I think about Future Self every single day. I *am* the Future Me that Past Self 2001 was thinking about when she moved into that tiny dorm. Past Me was willing to deprive herself so she could take care of me, knowing that she would be me one day. I carry that torch. I know that Future Me 2050 is going to need all the help I can give her. She would want me to keep learning and challenging myself, and she most especially would rather I eat the ramen than force her to. You're welcome, Future Self.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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