This is the book for those who haven’t gotten very far with clearing clutter by focusing on one item at a time. Joshua Becker offers a better way with The Minimalist Home: A Room-by-Room Guide to a Decluttered, Refocused Life. Focus on the space and how you use it, not the items that are in it. Having lived this process, Becker shares how minimalism can change your relationships, your emotions, and ultimately your entire life.
Clutter causes a lot of problems that we might not realize until we start thinking about it. Resentment is the biggest one. We think of our own stuff as “valuable” and that of our housemates (partners, kids) as “clutter” and “junk.” Everything would be fine if only I had the entire house to store MY stuff! YOUR mess is messing everything up! Becker points out that minimalism is not only easier to keep neat, it also saves time and money. What else do people quarrel over if not those three areas?
The best reason to consider this process is the “minimalism dividend.” Refocus your time, space, energy, and finances around the way you want to live your life. If you feel like you don’t have “enough” (time, money, space) to adopt a child, relocate, go back to school, train for a marathon, or whatever else is your dream, why is that? Becker offers examples of readers who have transformed their lives even under serious constraints, like illness or having seven kids. He also shares that he and his wife started a charitable foundation after they became minimalists.
The hands-on chapters are very practical, clear, and specific, with checklists for each room. There is a method for setting goals, working with other household members, and moving from one room to another. Becker suggests starting with the living room because that’s the area where most people spend the most time, and it’s the first place that guests see. Household members should clear their own personal areas, and may take the initiative after seeing how well it’s going in the rest of the house.
The Minimalist Home draws attention to how we use rooms and how they make us feel. Hospitality is one characteristic on the list. Do guests feel welcome when they visit? Do we ourselves feel welcome in our own homes? I always think of that common saying, found on so many fridge magnets, signs, and pillows: “Sorry for the mess but we live here.” Um, did you want me to come back another time? Or we could meet at the park? Whatever we feel when we’re at home, “defensive” or “resentful” hopefully don’t come up too often.
Becker cites research, statistics, and reader feedback to back up his points about minimalism. For instance, hoarders have worse sleep, and the more cluttered their homes, the more likely they are to have a sleep disorder. (My parasomnia disorder is a major reason I moved toward minimalism, because it’s so dangerous to have stuff in the way when I sleepwalk). The average large kitchen typically has over a thousand individual items, and even a small one has over six hundred, which is hard to believe until you actually try to count up all the utensils in a single drawer. Sometimes a single data point can help to put things in perspective, reminding us that we are part of an era and that our stuff problems are shared, cultural problems.
One of the benefits of minimalism is being able to pay off debt and save money toward other goals. My husband and I did this a few years ago, and we agree with Becker that minimalism makes it possible to move to a smaller, yet nicer, home. We’re in one-quarter of the space we had as newlyweds, we saved 48% of our net income last year, and we travel all the time. We look forward to discussing our finances because we’re almost always doing better than we had planned. It helps us to feel closer to each other. We could expand back into a larger home with more stuff anytime, but why would we, when it would just mean less vacation money and more time doing housework?
Don’t focus on holding up one item at a time and asking how it fits into your life. Pull back and look at your home, your daily life, your relationships with everyone in your household, your finances, and whether you are all living your dreams. Not this shirt, but whether your wardrobe makes you feel fabulous. Not that book, but whether you feel rested and that you have plenty of time to do everything you want to do. Not this cute little decoration, but how you and your partner feel about your finances. Not that kitchen canister, but whether your social life is working for you. Why focus on one consumer item at a time when every other part of your life is more valuable?
Give yourself the house you’ve always wished you had. You’ve already got it! It’s hidden underneath all your stuff.
Not every possession is a belonging.
One underappreciated benefit of minimalism is the ability to walk confidently through your bedroom with the lights off.
Think less about who you were. Focus more on who you are becoming.
Decisions, decisions. What is it about decisions that is so difficult for people? We’d rather suffer than have to make a choice that involves a tough decision. Avoiding these choice points has a tendency of adding up, and that’s where decision debt comes from.
If you hate your job, why are you still there?
If you’re unhappy in your relationship, why are you still together?
More to the point, how many times do I have to get bangs before I finally realize that I can’t have bangs?
Decisions are easy for me because I enjoy change for the sake of change. I’ve moved over two dozen times, for instance, and I’ve literally tried every flavor of every brand of toothpaste at my store. Even apricot. Frame decisions rather as a series of experiments, and it feels less like risk and more like... fun.
Go to a restaurant and make a point of trying every dish at least once, unless of course you realize you don’t care for their food. Maybe make a point of going to every restaurant in your neighborhood instead. There was a Mensa group in my old city that had spent over a decade attempting to sample every single Chinese restaurant in the greater Los Angeles area. Fun, right?
Under those circumstances, getting the occasional uninspiring dish can be funny, rather than disappointing.
Maybe that’s one of the big problems with decisions? Being afraid that it won’t work out well? But then, what happens after that? Time continues to travel onward and other decision points continue to turn up, right?
The haircut grows out, there’s another lunch and another dinner tomorrow, there are more jobs to be had, and there will always be another musician to date.
When you’re driven by curiosity, it takes a lot of the dread out of decisions, because you can’t wait to find out what’s going to happen next! When you’re eager for the result, the decision is no more of a big deal than flipping a switch or fastening a button. It’s just a small piece in an overall grand plan.
As an example, when my husband got his dream job, a whole series of decisions popped into position. In under two weeks, we had given away or sold almost everything we owned (including OUR CAR) and moved into a tiny apartment at the beach. Other people might have agonized over whether to keep or get rid of each and every tiny item, from a pancake flipper to a pair of pants, and wept bitter tears. We were so fired up about DREAM JOB + LIVE AT THE BEACH that we couldn’t throw stuff over our shoulders fast enough.
Decisions are easier when there’s a total paradigm shift. First there was “the time we lived in the North Bay and went running together a lot.” Then there was “the time we lived in the Sacramento area and did a lot of gardening and canning.” Then there was “the time we moved south and I finally lost my weight.” After that there was “the time we got rid of everything, went car-free, and moved to the beach.” Very different lifestyles in each case, same people, same marriage, different home, different stuff.
We don’t tend to build up much decision debt because we do a lot of strategic planning.
Every New Year, we spend at least the few days around New Year’s Eve going over the past year and making plans. What worked well? What didn’t? What do we want to change? Where do we want to go on vacation? Do we need to save more money or cut back on the french fries for a while? We check in every weekend at our breakfast status meeting. It’s fun because these are our plans, plans that we made in order to have more fun and a better quality of life.
Decisions are lifestyle upgrades!
I keep an actual list, a page in my day planner called DECISIONS. They go in the format “which,” “when,” or “whether to.” I write out the decision, and then I put a check mark next to it once I decide what to do. Later on, these decisions always seem hilarious to me because they’ve worked out, like when I couldn’t decide to upgrade my desktop but it turned out to cost half of what I had expected. Sometimes the passing of time makes the decision for me.
I’ve just checked my decision list, and the undecided decisions all have to do with time-consuming activities. These are things I really want to do, but realistically, I’m overextended already. If I had the time to do them, they’d already be in my calendar. Calling them ‘decisions’ is a way of saying “I’m too busy but I don’t want to rule this out.” For a lot of people, decision debt may be more of a question of time debt, or even financial debt.
A case could be made that both time debt and financial debt are also cases of decision debt.
At some point, a strategic decision needs to be made, because at some point, being too busy and overbooked can make you ill. Being overextended financially can lead to progressively more expensive problems. Something’s got to give.
Making a decision list can be a big help in paying off decision debt. It makes the choice point real in your mind. Secretly writing something like “whether to stay in this relationship” or “when to see the doctor” is a way of admitting that the current situation is not your ultimate fantasy.
Why not be working at your dream job? Every day you stay at a job you hate is cheating both your employer and yourself, not to mention your clients, customers, and anyone who depends on you.
Why not be in your dream romance? Every day you stay in a relationship that has died for you, you’re cheating your partner and yourself, not to mention the other people you could both be with instead.
Why not be thrilled and blissed out by your life? What would have to happen in order to feel that way, to be in love with how lucky you are?
What decisions do you need to make? How much decision debt do you have to pay off in order to move forward?
First off, don’t get in the van. This is an R-rated post about physical danger and self-defense. When you read the phrase “Get in the van,” hear it in a grim and menacing voice, the voice of a highly trained sadist and criminal who intends to do you great harm.
If you’re looking for motivation, here is your motivation.
Someone might try to throw you in a van one day. Worse, they might grab a child, your child, your friend’s child, and throw the kid in the van right in front of you. What are you prepared to do about it?
I train in Krav Maga, a system of martial arts designed for smaller, weaker people to fight larger, stronger people. A core training goal is the fighting mindset, to continue to fight when you are physically exhausted and confused and demoralized and experiencing a massive adrenalin dump. Part of our discipline is to vividly imagine specific physical threats and then confront them.
As a result, I have practiced several ways of getting out of chokeholds and wrestling my way out from under attackers. I have practiced gun and knife disarms. I have practiced fighting with knives, hammers, screwdrivers, and ink pens. I can throw eight different kinds of elbow strikes, and that’s just to the rear. I have fought five people at once. I have fought with my hands duct-taped together. I have fought in the dark. I have fought with a sack over my head.
(You have to pay extra for that, though).
The owner of our school is a man so physically imposing that it’s impossible not to notice. He trains police officers and soldiers and military contractors. He has the natural ease and stance of pure confidence. It’s arresting. He holds the room effortlessly. This is what he has to say about training in self-defense.
There are predators in this world. They’re angry because they didn’t get what they wanted in childhood and they’re looking to take it out on someone. They pick on women because we’re easier targets. We’re smarter, but we’re smaller and weaker and we don’t have the same drive for aggression. We’re also distracted by our constant multitasking, and that makes us easy marks.
We should be on the lookout, aware at all times of who is within fifty feet of us. We should have our eyes up and our hands free. We should hold our keys so that we’re ready to unlock the door, not to fight with them, because punching with keys hurts and because you might break your keys. You need them to get away.
Even though intellectually we know that we should be alert, rather than distracted, we let ourselves get distracted. We’re distracted by our phones, our music, our to-do lists, our many bags, our children, and all the other things that distract the typical multitasking, busy woman. We don’t look up even when we know we should, and we have our eyes down when we don’t even realize we’re doing it.
That’s one takeaway. No matter how else you feel about anything else I write, please take away that anyone is capable of being more alert. At least a minute or two each day, keep your eyes up and your hands free when you’re going between your door and your vehicle.
Let’s think about predators and prey. What do prey animals do? How does a predator choose its prey?
Prey are weaker. Slower, older, younger, less physically capable. A predator cuts them away from the safety of the herd and takes them to a secluded area. A predator is excited when the prey animal runs faster, getting tired and further isolated.
How do we stop acting like prey? Stay alert, yes, but what else?
Take care of ourselves.
In the context of self-defense, this should not be considered controversial. It is a basic, quantifiable measure. Fitness literally means the ability to physically survive. By definition it is a biological survival trait. It applies to a vole or a sparrow just as it applies to us.
When someone yells RUN FOR YOUR LIVES, can you? (Wildfire, flash flood, gas leak, tsunami, tornado, terrorist, bomb threat, active shooter, home invader, serial rapist, murderer). How far can you run? When is the last time you tested that ability in yourself?
How much of what we do is visualization, the momentary excitement of watching a tense sequence in an action film? How much of what we do is physical, real action in real conditions?
I know how fast I can run up a flight of stairs because I run up flights of stairs every week. I know how fast I can sprint down the street because I sprint down the street. I know I can fight five people because I train it in class. I don’t have to imagine what it’s like to get my wrists taped together because I just did it.
I do have to imagine someone trying to kidnap a child right in front of me, because fortunately that has not happened. I have, though, had to sprint to grab a child (more than once) because little kids suddenly try to run out in the street or into danger. If I were slower I can’t say what might have happened.
This doesn’t have to do with body image. I don’t concern myself much with that. If I did, I wouldn’t be able to leave the house with a black eye and a big bruise on my face. People Will Think: my husband did it, I have no self-esteem, anything other than “she is a kickboxer.” It’s none of my business what other people think about my body and what my body looks like. If they notice me at all, they must have nothing better to do, and that’s boring and sad.
What I do concern myself with is what my body can do. How much energy do I have? How capable do I feel? The feeling of “no, no, I can’t” extends everywhere, into every part of life.
No, no, I can’t try for that promotion.
No, no, I can’t update my resume.
No, no, I can’t afford X, Y, or Z.
No, no, I can’t get sweaty or dirty.
No, no, I can’t set boundaries with other people.
No, no, I can’t make a fuss or inconvenience anyone.
No, no, I can’t make a mean face.
No, no, I can’t raise my voice and yell BACK OFF.
No, no, I can’t make a fist.
When someone yells at me to get in the van, I’ll get in the van, and there I’ll join the endless parade of dead women, made beautiful in their final photo, sainted and martyred by senseless violence. Even better, the photo of the little lost child who was stolen right in front of me, that photo will look great on the news. It’ll be a movie of the week.
“There was nothing I could do,” I’ll say, weeping prettily, because I never knew I could. I never knew there was something I could do.
That’s a visual that is motivating to me. I run through pictures in my mind, images of children who are important to me, laughing and happy, and then I picture the hands of an experienced predator grabbing at them. It gets my blood up.
There’s another visual that is motivating to me. It comes from horror films and it’s reinforced by true crime. I sometimes watch movies or TV episodes before I go to class, while I’m eating the large, heavy meals I eat before I train. A man, a scary man. Chases a woman, grabs a woman, chokes a woman. Stabs a woman. Pop culture runs almost purely on images of vulnerable femininity, and this is useful for training purposes. Picture that it’s you. Picture that it’s your friend. Notice a pregnant woman out in the world, and picture yourself standing between her and danger. I got you, honey, now RUN!
The fastest I ever ran was out with my husband, trail running in our favorite park at sunset. I slapped his butt and took off, and he sped up and came after me. I imagined he was an axe murderer, coming at me through the trees as the sun went down. It was exhilarating. I could hear his heavy tread behind me, his big boots thudding as we both ran as fast as we could. He couldn’t catch me and I got away. When I explained later what I was doing, he laughed and shook his head. “Whatever it takes,” he said.
I don’t give a damn about body image. If I do, it’s because I like to make people flinch when they see my big arms. I can ballroom dance backward in high heels, I can bring a crowd-pleasing lasagna to a potluck, I can plan a wedding, I can carry a child to bed without waking her up. I can also fight five dudes with my hands taped together. All of these images are consistent with womanhood. It is a core duty of an adult female to protect children, and fighting like a crazy bitch from hell can easily be integrated with that.
I hope at least one thing I have written here makes you angry. I hope it gets under your skin and that you can’t stop muttering about it. I hope it gets your attention enough that you make a change to your default behavior, and that if you pick only one, it is to keep your eyes up and your hands free.
I also hope it gives you cause to reconsider your relationship with your physical energy level and your body image. Come join me and lace up your gloves. You can hit me first if you want, I don’t mind.
Where do you start? This is the most common question about anything, any time. In chaos, it’s even harder to know where to start. Where does it end and where does it begin?
The secret is, it doesn’t matter where you start if it’s all going to get done eventually. When you’re trying to dig out clutter in the home, it’s really about what matters the most to you. Suggestions of where to start are probably just going to make you think of all the reasons why that is actually the wrong place to start.
Fine, then start somewhere else!
In my mind, though, for most people it’s going to be paper. I’ve never met anyone who was 100% on top of their paper piles. Even people who are into electronic everything tend to have issues with paper. It’s okay!
This is why I suggest that you get an empty laundry basket and throw your mail into it. Carry it around, or have someone carry it for you, and consolidate all your papers. Then, if you need to look for it, you’ll know that it’s somewhere in that basket.
Some of you are already thinking that there’s no way one laundry basket will be enough. True. I’ve seen a lot and I believe you. There are two ways you can do it:
Every cluttered home is different. Some are spotless and magazine-ready except for one terrible, scary room. (Scary because the inhabitants live in fear that someone will find out their Secret Shame). Others are mildly lived-in, with a small amount of clutter in every room. Yet others are utterly filled, chaos everywhere, and those are the rooms that belong to my people.
I like to encourage my people to reclaim areas, one square foot at a time. Eventually an entire table or countertop might be bought back. Then an entire room is done. (It can happen!). Working a little bit here and there means there’s never really much to show for all that effort.
If the major problem in the home is mail and other papers, then dealing with the papers is going to have the biggest impact. That’s an instant visual impact and it’s also going to affect mental bandwidth. Get the papers out of the way, and what’s left might be a totally normal, functioning room!
It all starts to feel more manageable.
The thing about paper is that almost none of it is really necessary. At least 80% of it you’re never going to look at again. That means it’s just taking up space and making everything confused. When you can’t find the one thing that you really do need, it’s because it’s buried in with all the unimportant stuff. If you know it’s somewhere in one stack, one filing cabinet, or one laundry basket, then you can find it.
You can even show someone else the basket and ask them to look in it.
What’s standard in the homes of my chronically disorganized people is that there are papers everywhere. Papers in the windowsills, on the bookshelves, on the dressers and nightstands, in drawers, in backpacks and purses and briefcases, in cubbyholes, and definitely on the dining table. Every single room has important papers in it, mixed in with piles that are useless.
Stress tends to make us pace back and forth and keep checking the same spots over and over again, even when we’ve already checked and we know the item isn’t there. (Sometimes it actually IS there and our stress levels were so high that we didn’t notice it or realize what it was). This is why it’s so helpful to go around and gather all the papers from every room, and instead make sure they’re all in one spot.
Ahh, but what if there are 87 million metric tons of paper? What then??
This is the other purpose of the laundry basket for gathering and consolidating papers. It’s a unit of measure. If you’re trying to sort, file, archive, shred, recycle, or toss papers, the only way to do it all at once is via arson, which I don’t advise as it is a potentially lethal crime. A laundry basket load is really quite a lot of paper to sort. Even if it’s entirely filled with magazines or newspapers, it’s a lot.
Maybe do one laundry basket load a week, or a month? Or ask someone who enjoys this sort of thing to help out.
Oddly, papers are one of the fastest and easiest categories to sort when I do home visits. That’s because they’re confusing, but they’re usually not important for emotional reasons. It’s very easy for me to sort through piles of unopened mail, for instance, because it’s usually just 2-3 years’ worth of mail from the same dozen organizations. The logos all match and the envelopes are the same size. It’s no harder than sorting through a stack of playing cards. The client then shrugs and shreds entire stacks at a time.
Meanwhile, sorting a laundry basket load of baby clothes can take a million years, because each piece has so many memories. The client feels like sharing those clothes with a new mom and a new baby is tantamount to throwing away her own child. No, no, I can’t let go of this one. Craft supplies, same struggle, different reason. I was going to USE that! (Three years ago).
Nobody ever says, Oh, I can’t possibly shred that three-year-old electric bill, oh, my heart!
All you really need is your identification, a list of account numbers, and your tax returns. Any accounts that you have, if you owe them money, they’ll find you, and they’ll keep contacting you. Never worry about that. All the truly necessary and important papers generated by one person over one lifetime should easily fit in a fireproof safe. That’s a lot smaller than a laundry basket.
Throw your mail in a laundry basket. Tape a sign to it with the date that you put it in. Then wait and see how much time goes by before you actually need anything from that basket.
Ulterior motives are where I start. I’ve found that telling people directly about my plan, and my selfish reasons behind that plan, is a way of building trust. What you see is what you get. No guessing games with me.
I’ll go so far as to say, “My ulterior motive is to make myself indispensable so I can be where the action is happening.”
The next piece of my plan is to always be willing to do the scutwork. I scrubbed a lot of toilets to put myself through school, and I changed a lot of diapers in high school to supplement my wardrobe. Nothing I do in the world of business is anywhere near that gross. I’m willing to do any amount of honest labor to get what I want.
Here’s an example:
I worked in an office with a director who was almost never there, because he spent the majority of his time getting grants for our program. Rainmaker extraordinaire! I didn’t know him well, but I did know that he’d built his department from himself plus one assistant, to a full staff of seventeen, in just a few years. I also knew how many people we were helping, and that almost all our funds came directly from his work. I admired him.
One day he asked if someone would help him carry his stuff out to the parking lot.
I leapt at the opportunity. Yay, scutwork!
What I did: carry a three-pound briefcase for ten minutes.
What I got out of it: a ten-minute conversation with the smartest person I knew. The chance to get face time, so this man could put my name with my face.
Finally, five years later: the best job reference I ever had. The hiring manager told me about it. He called to check my reference and talked to this director. As soon as he heard my name, he shouted into the phone: “HIRE HER!”
Bless that man, and his kindness, and his long memory, and his fundraising, and everything else he ever does.
I have used this strategy over and over again, to similar effect. It’s a signal.
Setting up and tearing down, when it’s not expressly your job, says a lot about you. It says you’re willing to work hard. It says you care about the event. It says that this window of time is your priority for the day.
If you do it right, it can also show that you get along with others, think quickly on your feet, that you have good ideas and that you can be trusted to oversee a team.
Cleaning up shows that you notice the details and that you have certain standards. If those standards are shared by even one higher-up, you’ve caught their attention.
I’m working on event planning right now, and I had a delicious opportunity to do scutwork for a speaker I admire. Menial tasks: handing out forms, making sure people had pens. Suddenly we found out that we had to switch rooms, with only a very short break to clear the space and bustle off across the building. Geez, thanks for the advance warning!
The moment I heard, I started going up and down the rows, picking up people’s abandoned water bottles and other detritus. I did a perimeter check and made sure we had everything we needed, and then helped coordinate getting everything down the hall. We were set up with minutes to spare.
Nobody could have done that alone. Good preparation for the day when I’m that great speaker! These are the sorts of details I need to know in order to be prepared and versatile. This is what helps me to build my mental checklist. It’s the difference between the experienced person and the blinking ingenue.
The result of this single day spent room-running is that I’m often the first person this speaker greets at events. He knows he can rely on me; therefore, I have his total attention. I’ve never asked him for anything, but one day I might. An introduction? A word of advice? A reference? Whether he’s willing or not depends on his impression of me, on the reputation I’ve built with him.
Others are watching, they always are. The reputation you build with one person, you often build with all the people.
Of course, I also benefited simply from being in the room with a very experienced speaker. How does he do what he does? Watching someone work from the perspective of a student, protege, or evaluator is completely different from the perspective of an audience member. I don’t have to pay attention to the material as much as the delivery.
Every transaction should be mutually beneficial in some way. Give a hug, get a hug. Be a friend, have a friend. What’s funny about doing scutwork for smart people is that it’s almost impossible to even out the balance. The trivial things I do are nothing compared to what I get from my mentors.
THEY DON’T EVEN NEED TO KNOW THAT I SEE THEM AS MENTORS.
Another thing I do that serves to get me noticed is to always say thank you. 1. Express gratitude. 2. Give a compliment, a highly specific compliment. Other people tend to talk about themselves, such as “I was so excited when I heard you were coming to town.” Um, that’s half a compliment and half talking about yourself. Say something like, “Thank you so much for visiting our city, your work is incredible,” and you’ve stood out.
When you surprise them, you get to see their faces light up. Selfish, selfish, I know.
You have the power to make a single statement that will be unforgettable, possibly even life-changing, for that person. People don’t always realize that they’re doing something impressive or that their work truly matters to someone. You can be the one to tell them.
When someone is really good at something, they might be able to give the gift of an incredible insight or piece of advice in just one sentence. One comment, one remark. Sometimes even one gesture or facial expression. AHA! So that’s the secret! This is why it’s worth doing the scutwork, to get close enough to pick up that one gesture or remark.
I found this book originally under the title The YOLO Budget. Jason Vitug reminds us that living a life of meaning and purpose involves money. This perspective might help to make financial education more appealing, especially for Millennials, whose economic reality is different than that of previous generations. What’s true for them is true for all of us: We’ve lived through the financial meltdown of 2008, we need to plan further in advance for longer lifespans and longer retirements, we’re overwhelmed with information overload, and we’re learning that experiences are more fulfilling than material things. It’s time to adjust our attitude toward money.
Why aren’t people able to apply simple financial advice to their own lives?
It starts with awareness. Vitug gives the example of a man who claimed to check his bank balance every day, yet believed, incorrectly, that he wasn’t paying any fees on his account. Another man claimed that he knew exactly where his money was going, but admitted that he didn’t actually track his expenses. Another said he was “on a budget” but turned out not to have one in place. Specific terminology can mask vagueness. It’s possible to have a high degree of certainty without it being based on reality. This can be amplified by being organized, in the sense of paying bills online, checking account balances, and other activities without any real strategy behind the efficiency.
Why don’t people like budgets? Vitug says they can be reminders of past mistakes, that they can reveal there isn’t enough money for current spending habits, and that ultimately people feel that they aren’t necessary. I would have guessed (based on my own life) that the main reasons might be feeling too busy, not being all that great at math, and feeling annoyed at the “preachy” aspects that make budgeting feel similar to dieting. The difference is that Vitug actually traveled around and talked to people about their emotional connections with money, so his work is based on data, not guesswork or intuition.
Vitug saved $35,000 and took two years off to backpack around the world. The realizations and habit changes that paid for his trip are what inspired him to try to help others fund their own dreams. A big part of this comes from challenging people’s perceptions of their situation and whether they are really fulfilled by their choices. We can make emotional choices that make us happier when we are more aware of what it is that we really want. After all, You Only Live Once, and if you do it right, once is enough.
Here are some key questions from the many in the book:
We should prioritize spending on things that contribute to our quality of life and help us progress toward our goals.
She stopped by to pick up some moving boxes. About thirty seconds later, she launched into her story, and twenty minutes later, she was still talking. My husband came out to find out what was going on.
“She just joined the divorce club,” I said, and he laughed and joined in.
When a breakup is hot and fresh, it’s the only thing someone can talk about. My husband was still in that state when I met him. Still actively consulting lawyers about the custody schedule and who got holidays and weekends. I got it, but only because my own divorce had been pretty brutal. Seven years later, I didn’t really think about it that often.
After enough time has gone by, you’re genuinely thrilled not to be with that person anymore.
It takes quite a while to realize that, though! This is why it’s so helpful to do your divorce burn book.
You write it down as evidence, because these thoughts tend to pop up late at night or at random times, and if you’re still not over your ex, it’s easy to wave them away. If you write them down in a big list, or even a big thick notebook, then you start to see how many pages are filling up. The act of writing inspires yet more writing, more memories, more evidence that the two of you weren’t meant to be.
What goes in the divorce burn book?
Every mean thing he ever said
Every nasty facial expression he ever made, not just at you but at anyone
Every stupid argument you ever had, especially the ones where you were right
All his bad habits
Anything about his personal taste that you didn’t like: dumb music, ratty old shirts, gross meal concoctions, anything.
Go deep. Go wide. Go shallow. Get as petty as you need to. You really want to make this burn book smolder and smoke.
The time he claimed that David Lee Roth wrote the original “California Girls.” The time he put a tablespoon of sugar in his scrambled eggs. The disturbing road rage incident. The time he rolled his eyes at you.
What you’re doing is lancing the boil. You’re exorcising the demon. You’re getting rid of any lingering feelings of attachment you had for this person. You’re making sure you don’t take him back, or anything else dumb like that. Whatever reason you broke up, if you ever get back together, breaking up is then a new part of your history. If it happens twice, then it’s a pattern. It’s just one more thing to fight about.
The goal here is to learn the lessons that you can from this relationship, and then start fresh with someone else. You should be better at communicating after every relationship, and that should help you attract someone else who is also better at communicating than your ex. You won’t have the same issues. (Your ex gets a chance to start fresh, too, not that you care!).
Part of why you won’t have the same issues is that you are older and more mature now than you were when you met your ex. Probably so is your new love. The fights that people have at thirty are not the same fights that they have at twenty.
(By the time you get to forty, hopefully you’ve got your preferences figured out and you don’t really have to fight much at all).
The other thing is, of course, that you need to be clear about your dealbreakers and your non-starters. If something drives you crazy, it will drive you crazy in every relationship, no matter who is doing it. You need to make sure you don’t accidentally snare someone who has the dealbreaker, and then fall for him.
Some friends were trying to convince me to date a guy once, the brother of one friend. “Oh, I didn’t even know he likes me,” I said, truthfully. This guy and I had zero in common other than that we are both mammals. “I don’t date smokers,” I said. Mic drop. What? What do you mean you don’t date smokers? “Cigarette smoke gives me nosebleeds,” I replied. How are people not clear on the idea that you are entitled to your own personal tastes? That you would simply not be able to fall in love with someone whose behavior grossed you out?
There are plenty of people who believe you should always give everyone “a chance.” Maybe you’ll fall in love so deeply that it won’t matter.
THIS IS B.S.
First of all, there are over seven billion people in this world. We don’t have time to give everyone a chance!
Whatever people think “falling in love” means, if it ends in cohabitation then behavior matters. Anything that annoys you will annoy you much more often if it happens while you live together, go to restaurants, go on road trips, or do anything together. We’re not talking about a pretty iridescent heart-shaped soap bubble. We’re talking ROOMMATES. Roommates who share a bank account.
Oh, while we’re on the topic, you can go ahead and add an appendix to your burn book. Start with the breakup section, and then you can add a section for roommates, maybe another one for houseguests, and if you’re ambitious, one for annoying coworkers or customers. Let it be a comprehensive list of everything that ever annoyed you.
Sometimes, as time goes by and it stings a little less, you can look over past events and past quarrels and realize that maybe you had your own part to play. When that starts to feel true, then you’re ready for the second phase of breakup recovery. That’s the “My Part in This” section.
What was it that made this obnoxious person attractive to you? Why did you like him? Why did you put up with him for so long? Was there anything you wish you had known? Red flags that you didn’t notice at the time, but now you know you would?
Was there anything you might have done or said that you would maybe do differently next time?
It does help to feel like you know more and that you have better standards after a breakup. People say there are “two sides to every story” (which is not very imaginative; isn’t there at least one side for every person living, plus anyone from the past and everyone from the future?). The truth is, though, that not everyone is equally self-aware or accountable for their behavior. Not everyone is trying equally hard. Not everyone is at the same stage in life. It’s fair to expect that your partner is there for you, reaching out toward you and equally committed to being a good partner.
The divorce burn book is a way of calibrating your expectations. When you’re clear about what you don’t want, it helps you to be more appreciative when you meet someone who might not normally be your type. As long as they don’t have any of your dealbreakers, maybe it’s worth giving them another look.
Maybe you can both become better people together, better together than you were alone.
Have you ever looked in the mirror and freaked out? Has your morning face ever made you recoil, perhaps because you didn’t know you had blue ink on your mouth? (Just asking).
I woke up, wandered into the bathroom, and thought, “What have I done? I’m orange!”
A friend talked me into getting a makeover. This is probably something that most people did at some point as teenagers, or maybe even grade-school kids. Playing dress-up, trying new hairstyles, playing with makeup - none of that was really a part of my life. I’m honestly more comfortable looking at car engines than I am standing in front of a cosmetics counter.
Has anyone thought about this? I’ve done mise-en-place for four-course meals that had fewer ingredients than the number of bottles, jars, and palettes that some people have for their makeup routine. It’s terrifying!
Let’s not even talk about all the mysterious weirdness of getting... [looks up how to spell] balayage for the first time.
Confusion, intimidation, stretches of boredom, curiosity, anticipation, utter lack of idea what to expect - that’s me in a chair with a bunch of plastic wrap on my hair.
I thought getting my hair colored would mean going dark. I had nearly black hair when I was younger, in Oregon in the winter at least. It turns out that dark hair dye is really high maintenance because you wind up with a high-contrast gray stripe on top of your head every six weeks. I don’t care about having naturally gray hair, I don’t care about that at all, but I do care about adding one more recurring appointment to my calendar.
Apparently you get to an age where you don’t really get to be a brunette anymore. Either nature takes care of it for you, or you color it, and if you try to keep the dark locks of your youth then it gets to be progressively more complicated. Brows, lashes, skin tone. Eh, let it go.
If I had to choose, I’d probably opt to go silver or white or even iron-gray all over rather than Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, with pale roots.
Maybe it’ll be a thing. I probably won’t notice because I don’t spend much time clocking in as the Fashion Police.
After three hours, I got the reveal on the hair. Certainly not black, not silver, not the strawberry-blonde (???) suggested by the colorist, but... bronze? It looked amazing. A professional blowout is generally going to look amazing.
It looked so good that I got to meet the salon owner and we took pictures together.
Then we went down the street to the cosmetics counter, where I had a genuine makeup artist choose products and do my face. They wouldn’t let me look at myself until she was done.
When I turned to the mirror, I started crying. I didn’t look that good at my wedding. Or my other wedding.
“I look like Christie Brinkley!” I cried, “Don’t tell her I said that!”
Here’s what’s funny about this whole thing. I’m a size two. I can rock a bikini and get entire groups of middle-aged men to turn their heads as I walk by, not that I care, because I’m married and I’m not there for them. I do, though, have an enviable fitness level, especially for a woman my age. I know because I sometimes catch other women giving me dirty looks. I’ve been cussed out by friends. I’m like, I’ll work out with you any time you like, it’s not zero-sum. If you want to do two hundred squats or pushups with me at our next martial arts promotion, come on down. This is not genetic.
I have seen my physique as something I’ve earned through focus and hard work. I’ve seen my body as the battleground of several health issues, and the muscle I have now is the sign that I’m winning. I’m not robust enough to live the Standard American Lifestyle with the Standard American Body. I didn’t put all these years in or do all these pushups on my fingertips out of vanity but out of necessity.
The cosmetic stuff? That feels completely different.
You can run a marathon in less time than it takes to get balayage on your hair.
If you spend even twenty minutes a day on hair and makeup, that’s enough time to do a very professional, knee-wobbling HIIT workout and run a mile.
The time that goes in to applying perfect eyeliner, it all gets wiped off and washed down the drain twelve hours later.
That’s more or less what happened overnight, after all the hugging and crying and picture-snapping.
I looked lovely as a flower for a couple of hours, and then I woke up. Then I woke up and looked just like my normal self, only with bedhead and a radically different hair color.
There is a certain adjustment to radically changing your physical appearance. For a while, you might catch sight of yourself in a window reflection and think it’s someone else. Sometimes, when I first lost my weight, I would catch sight of myself and think, WHOA. I kept gravitating to the size tens and twelves on the clothing rack, years after they no longer fit (as a fourteen, and also going the other direction). The “real me” got to wear a certain style of clothes and look a certain way.
What happens to the “real me” that was? What happens when, objectively, the “real me” looks like a different person from outside?
“It’s the new you!” People kept telling me that. Um, no, you can’t just go to a salon and buy a new personality. Same me, different hair. Same me plus some eye shadow.
I came home to my husband with my salon makeover. He’s an engineer and I think he saw it as a sort of chemical, industrial process, like powder coat or electroplating. He commented that it looked more natural than my ordinary hair, which is usually reddish at the last two inches and three shades of gray on top. He’s right, and I can quit complaining about how it looks when I clip it up now. “It’s not orange,” he says (you dolt), “it’s auburn.”
After waking up in distress at the aftermath of my radical new look, I pulled my socks up and got it together. I styled my hair and tested out my new makeup samples. I am by no means an expert at that sort of thing, but it worked. I felt normal-looking again. I went out and did four pitch meetings and got everything I asked for and more.
It annoys me that most people seem so very responsive to physical presentation. That a kind-hearted person might be overlooked in favor of a rude but attractive person, that someone polished might go farther than someone brilliant. But then, how brilliant is it of me to ignore something so obvious? To disregard something that is a relatively uncomplicated technical skill? I got better results in life when I started working out, I got better results when I really learned to cook, and now I suppose I’ll get better results in life by learning what other people consider to be a basic life skill. I’ll get used to how it looks eventually, just like I got used to my gradually graying hair and my gradually firming arms and shoulders.
Productivity articles tend to sound alike, partly because there are a million ways to be unproductive and only a few ways to get things done. Or so they claim. The truth is that whenever you look at the specific habits of famously productive people, they’re always weird, offbeat, and often superstitious. Connect that with the obvious fact that sorting your office supplies probably is not a direct path to fame and cultural relevance. This is why there’s a lot of mainstream productivity advice that drives me up a tree.
(Which is a great place to be productive)
Here are a few of the most common bits of productivity advice that I find counterproductive.
Practice your negotiating skills by asking for a 10% discount on your coffee!
Ugh, really? There are two problems with this common advice. One, dozens or hundreds of people are going to try it, giving these benighted baristas a strong, deadpan NO reflex. Two, it’s a quick way to burn your social capital for pennies. I get free refills and extras at my cafe all the time, not because I ask but because I literally never would. I get freebies because THEY LIKE ME. I’m low-maintenance and cheerful. Once I put together a travel itinerary as a favor for one of my favorites, and now the entire staff knows my name.
Sure, you can get discounts when you ask for them. I’ve gotten a 10% discount on things in several ways many times. Pay in cash, pay in advance, order by the case, put together a group order... I don’t see the point of flexing for a couple of coins once per location, though. Build actual relationships with people you see all the time, give first, be generous, and not only do you get a sincere smile from people, you can get years of A-list service and the occasional free thing.
Pick up the phone instead of using email!
Nooooooo! Do not do that!
On my top-ten list of reasons I finally quit my day job and started working for myself was the tendency of people to call or come to my desk and say, “Did you get my email?” What, the one you sent forty-five seconds ago? This was even more obnoxious when I HAD already read it and was actively responding to it. One of the most annoying ways that one person’s behavior can impact the productivity of others is to constantly interrupt them, and another is to send the same signal through multiple channels. It takes extra time, it’s distracting, and it makes you look dumb.
True, most people are perpetually behind on their email. Therefore, never do anything that wastes other people’s time. If they’re not reading or responding to your email, it might be because they’re inefficient. It might also be because you’re asking for something that you shouldn’t be; that you have the wrong person; that your messages don’t make sense; that you’ve once again abused Reply All; that the recipient doesn’t realize you meant them specifically; that your headers are unclear; that they still have plenty of time and they’re planning on dealing with you tomorrow; or that seeing your name makes them cringe and they’re deliberately avoiding you.
As with most things, if you treat other people like friends and allies, they are more likely to do what you want. That’s because you’ve figured out how to consistently help them get what they want. Everything should be mutually beneficial. If you’re doing it right, people will actively look forward to hearing from you. Sometimes they’ll surprise you by taking the initiative to ask others to help out. Every now and then, they’ll really surprise you by asking if others can join your project, as a favor, because what you’re doing is cool and interesting.
In short, if nobody is responding to you with the alacrity that you desire, question your approach. Question your relationships and your communication style. Question whether your emails are longer than one or two sentences. Maybe even go to your reluctant correspondents and ask them for help in calibrating yourself.
Get up at 5:00 AM!
Please don’t do that. Please don’t do that, upstairs neighbor who works at world-famous tech company and keeps waking me at up 4:30 AM.
I have grievances with this early-rising advice. The first is that it definitely won’t work for everyone. So many people who are successful in the corporate world wake up at that time because it’s the only way they can get two hours to themselves. They’re able to do it because they have hired help, because they can afford to set up their lives exactly the way they like, and because anyone who would complain is probably beholden to them financially.
They never talk about what these early-rising habits do to the productivity habits of the people around them.
My neighbor is up and around between 4:30 and 7:00 every day of the week. Ask me how I know. His stay-at-home wife does laundry every morning at 8:00 (ask me how I know) and that’s only because we complained when she was doing it at 6:00. Have you ever slept under a washing machine on spin cycle? Or a running vacuum cleaner, on Christmas morning?
The early-rising neighbor has next-door neighbors on two sides, and his plumbing runs down the walls between three downstairs units. His early habits are definitely affecting his wife’s productivity - rumor has it that he wants her to get a job and go back to work. His kid is in middle school; I dunno about her grades but I was chronically tired at that age. He’s also affecting the other five households that share his walls. That’s before he even gets out of the shower each morning! This is the power that one individual has to negatively impact [counting...] a minimum of ten family members and neighbors each and every single day, including weekends and holidays.
What time a person wakes up and what time someone accomplishes sixty minutes of work is completely and entirely neutral. If they’re effective, efficient, and keeping up on their production schedule, how could it possibly matter whether they’re doing something at 6 AM or at 3 PM? Why is it so impressive just to wake up very early? Bragging rights, that’s all. Nobody brags that “I personally exhaust and devastate the productivity of ten people a day.”
Thirty-five people report to me. I make it a point to let them do it on their own time. As a result, they’re responsive. They come to me when they have issues. I don’t feel the need to micromanage them or insist that they work at specific times of day; frankly, I don’t have the time for that and I don’t see how other people do. I also tend to sleep until 8 AM.
Here’s my productivity advice:
Build relationships and treat people with respect and dignity, like allies and colleagues.
Give what you wish to receive.
Make sure you’re working on the right things. If your vision is clear and appealing, others will want to get in on it. You yourself will only need the occasional refresh on your vision, and that will be enough to keep you going.
I got a makeover. A pretty major one, this is a makeover of such a scale that it’s really messing with my head.
How is it that changing something about your external appearance can make such a huge difference in how other people see you, and in how you see yourself?
“You look thirty years younger!” cries the cosmetics artist. Thirty, really? I’m forty-three! That would imply that I’ve been going around looking older than my chronological age. Either that, or I now look like a middle-schooler, in which case I’m going to have to start listening to much peppier music.
I relish my privacy and, as a writer, I like to think of myself as invisible. I’ve felt that it pays to be modest, maybe even inconspicuous. I can walk around the city and get a free pass from panhandlers, who nod courteously as I go by.
Invisibility, though, isn’t our choice.
My friend and mentor tells me, in no uncertain terms, that just because I feel invisible does not mean I am. “People notice you and make judgments about you, whether you realize it or not.”
This is a harsh truth, but I am a proponent of radical honesty and I take it in.
Whatever was true for me at other stages of life, today I am forty-three. I have aspirations that will not be met at my current level. If my goal is to perform in front of an audience, then I need to look suited to the task. I need to be stage-ready, and, arguably, I am not.
The whole point of my existence up to this point has been about avoiding attention and staying out of the spotlight. Changing my look is letting go of that sense I have had, that feeling that I have the option to hang out in the shadows and be a passive observer.
It’s been hard enough dealing with the physical changes I made as I became a midlife athlete. I went from a size fourteen to a size two. I can get away with wearing a bikini in public. When I do, I feel like I’m adopting a temporary persona: Vacation Pool Babe. Wearing a bikini in public in Las Vegas is not the same as wearing business casual at home.
That’s my avenue to adjusting to my new post-makeover look. I can pretend that I’m someone else. I need a stage-ready persona that helps me feel like these are mere surface-level changes, that I have gained rather than lost options.
I can still find privacy when I need it. I don’t have to physically be on stage and in front of people every minute of the day. There are no requirements to this new look other than maintenance a few times a year.
Well, that, and the not inconsiderable technical skills involved in applying cosmetics.
I remind myself that men wear stage makeup, too. Some men wear cosmetics every day, because they like it. I remind myself that a lot of people think this is fun!
Honestly, having fun and looking pretty both feel like work to me. That might sound sad. What I mean is that when these come down as external requirements, it becomes self-conscious. It’s supposed to be “fun” to go to nightclubs, or watch team sports, but neither of those fun things are my style. I find myself asking, “Am I doing this right?”
I’m more comfortable doing things that probably sound un-fun, like mud runs, martial arts, or public speaking. It’s definitely better not to wear makeup in martial arts, since it gets in your eyes, although I have worked out in a cocktail dress and a rhinestone bib necklace, and a stiletto heel can make a respectable improvised weapon. Not in the mat room, though.
I remind myself that I wasn’t comfortable when I started any of those things, either. Surely eyeliner is no worse than a real black eye! Hair color is no worse than surfacing out of a water obstacle, dripping with mud. Public speaking as a hobby is what got me into this whole mess.
The point of the first impression is that it carries so many unspoken messages. Did you show up prepared and on time? Do you look glad to be there? Do you know how to shake hands properly? Is your hair three colors of gray on top, but reddish at the tips for some unknown reason? Now I have to accept the reality that I’m also being evaluated on not just my clothes and shoes, but my hair and makeup as well.
The terrible thing about all this is that I look fantastic. Objectively. My husband loves it. My best friend started squealing and hugged me. Even my barista noticed.
Once upon a time, I was a chronically ill, broke, overweight, underemployed, divorced, sad brunette who lived in a cold, rainy climate.
Now I’m a successful, fit, happily married... attractive redhead? Does “auburn” make you a redhead?
Nearly twenty years later, I look younger than I did at twenty-five. This hair color makes my eyes look enormous, which is disconcerting, a feature that should properly have gone to an extreme extrovert who loves attention. My big blue eyes have always felt like something of an unfair burden, traits that I can’t put away or hide on demand. I myself can’t hide on demand, not really.
I’m a writer transforming into a public performer. Many performers would like to go the other direction, developing their skills as lyricists, poets, playwrights, or memoirists. They can’t just put on glasses and some kind of special writer hat and make it happen. (If there were a special writer hat, I would definitely be wearing one, even in the shower). I remind myself that I’m lucky that all I really have left to do is to learn to live up to this made-over image.
With the image reset comes the attitude reset. Can I inhabit the body of an objectively attractive person? Can I learn to handle the constant 21st-century expectations of photography and video, the headshots and the spontaneous selfies?
We’re here to participate in the culture of our time. I want a meaningful existence in which I can contribute at the highest possible level. I want my legacy to be bigger than myself. If I have to be better-looking for that to happen, I suppose that’s a sacrifice I’ll have to make.
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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