Something occurred to me recently about why chronically disorganized people live the way they do. Often it’s because they are suspicious about things, and these suspicions keep them from relying on the same systems that ordinary people use.
This sounds bonkers, and it sort of is, but I think this is a missing piece in the puzzle of why some people struggle so much with basic life infrastructure.
Take banking and bill-paying, for example. This is something that I think about maybe 5-10 minutes a week. My paychecks are automatically deposited, and expenses like our phone bill are automatically deducted. I only have to mess with this system when I pay a one-off like a dental copay. I don’t mind doing this over the phone because I like to chat with the receptionists at my various dental offices.
What is simple in my life is extraordinarily complicated for all of my people. Every single one of them. They all have massive paper problems due to a combination of problems, but certainly one of the root causes is a complicated, 1970’s-level bill-paying system.
Another common, perhaps universal, feature that my people have in common is that they will lose track of uncashed checks. Then we will find them years after they should have been deposited. Sometimes the same checks will turn up in more than one session, because my people can never stop punishing themselves for neglecting to get that money.
Whenever I try to explain my simple system (“automate everything and do it electronically”) my people all start violently shaking their heads back and forth. Literally they all do it.
Under no circumstances are they ever going to trust direct deposit
Absolutely not, no, they are not going to set up automated billing and have a single penny deducted from their accounts, not by anyone
They are suspicious, pure and simple. They don’t trust the system and they are not the kind of people to trust anything quickly - or slowly - even if everyone they know is doing it.
Does this remind you of anything? Any vaccine-hesitant people you know, perhaps?
It’s not just electronic banking, something that has been in use since the 1990s. I get that one because I, too, had to be convinced to give it a chance. By more than one person. I think it took two or three years of hearing the same testimonials from people who didn’t know each other at different workplaces. Aha, I thought, I guess I must be the last person in the world who isn’t in on this. What finally caught my attention was that I could get my money sooner each week.
But then I’m susceptible to that type of argument: that something is more convenient or cheaper.
Suspicious people are not convinced. In fact, the juicier the benefits, the more they feel that they are being bamboozled.
Another area where I think this natural suspicion comes up is in the most deep-set type of disorganization of all, food hoarding.
My people absolutely do not believe in the concept of expiration dates.
They also do not believe in germ theory.
Now, this one is emotional for me because I used to have a strong impulse to hoard food. It was painful for me to throw stuff out. I did draw the line, though, at anything visibly moldy, discolored, or otherwise spooky.
My people don’t. If someone else suggests that maybe it’s time to throw away something with blue fuzz on it, they will react as though someone is emptying out their bank account.
How dare you!
It doesn’t usually get you very far to make a direct challenge to a hoarder’s general policies and principles. Food hoarders, far more so. It’s not like nobody has ever told them that there are biological limits to how long a former foodstuff can be absorbed by the human body, or that nutritious content has a time limit. They know better.
Oh, they know all right. They just vehemently disagree.
These so-called “expiration dates” are just part of the plot. THEY are trying to trick you and make you spend money on stupid things like fresh, tasty, nutritious new food.
As a hint, abundance mindset would teach rather that we all deserve to get maximum enjoyment out of our meals, that there is plenty to go around, and there will always be plenty more.
I have had some mighty fine meals as a broke person, eating with other broke people, when we did potluck or stone-soup together. There are a lot of ways to get fed even if you are in debt and/or don’t have a job.
A large quantity of expired food says a lot of things. It says there was enough to share with others, except that nobody did. It says that there was plenty for the household to eat, and evidently more than they needed. It also says nobody is in charge of closing the loop - making sure that stuff gets finished up while it’s still good, that stores are being rotated, that someone is in charge of getting maximum value out of that pantry.
Similarly, stacks of unsorted papers say a lot of things, too. They say that someone is overwhelmed and confused. They suggest that someone is nervous about what might be in all those unopened envelopes. They also say that someone isn’t ready or willing to field-strip the mail as it comes in, because for whatever reason, they think it will need more mental energy to process than that.
There can be an element of suspicion in all of this. Suspicion that the world is going to fall apart and we’ll need every one of those boxes and cans - and isn’t it time to reevaluate all that stuff, a year and a half into this global pandemic? Suspicion that someone is going to steal my identity, and therefore I need to carefully shred every scrap of paper that comes in my door, only I don’t have time right now.
Some of this same suspicion and scarcity mindset is behind a lot of people’s so-called “yard sale” piles as well. I really need to get maximum value out of this stuff and I need to hang onto it until I can put enough time and attention into it. Otherwise people are going to try to bargain me down.
Meanwhile, the uncashed checks remain buried in the pile, and the food supplies are aging, and the yard-sale stuff is gradually becoming more dated and less valuable.
The punchline to all of this is that my people are unlikely to accept help when it is offered, and why? Because they don’t trust anyone’s motives and they don’t trust anyone to do it right.
Suspicion will keep you disorganized. It’s only when you start to examine the emotions behind why you do what you do, that you can gradually start to consider making your life easier.
There are lots of ways to do things. If something works for someone else, isn’t it possible it might work for you too?
Something that I learned from doing space cleaning with clients is that the root cause of most hoarding is grief and trauma. A lot of people were orderly their entire lives until one of their parents died, and that is usually the trigger. While that tends to be the major one, there are of course a million sadnesses that we mourn.
In all the home visits I ever did, I never once knew anyone to sort through or get rid of a single box of grief clutter. As far as I know it can’t be done.
This is because our culture does a very sparse job of acknowledging the dead. We don’t really have monuments or altars the way that a lot of other cultures have always done. Our funerary rites aren’t completing the work.
Right now I can personally identify with the idea of wearing black from head to foot, covering myself with a knee-length veil, and putting a dry dark wreath on my door so people know to stay the heck away from me with their pat phrases.
You Can Always Get Another One
Maybe You Can Clone Her
And the enduring winner, Did You Keep Her Wings?
Those of you who are mourning humans, I certainly hope nobody has said these things to you about your person, and if they have, send me a note and I will go throw rocks at their house for you.
Never forget, whatever is the worst thing you could possibly think for one person to say to another, someone will say it to you while you are grieving - and then someone else will invent a newly horrid way to express something yet worse and allow those words to pass their lips as well.
Grief makes us exquisitely sensitive, such that, even if someone somehow knew the “right” thing to say, it would only remind us of our loss. There’s no way through it without supreme irritability because our skins have just been flayed loose.
We don’t know what to do about death and loss and grief. Somewhere after the First World War, we lost the plot. The Victorians, now they knew how it was done.
I would humbly submit that keeping a catacomb of cardboard boxes would not be the most stately means of honoring our dearly departed.
Something that I try to express, while tiptoeing around grief, is that you probably know what your person would have wanted.
And it probably isn’t this.
I’ve written about this before, but if I died suddenly and my personal effects were distributed, I would be horrified if someone were to just keep a box of my random goods sitting in a closet or a storage unit. That is on my list of worst nightmares. I dedicated much of my adult working life to helping people learn to do space clearing, and thus a lingering crate of my own clutter would be like an anti-memorial. The exact opposite of everything I ever stood for.
I told my Nana once that I had every greeting card she had ever sent me. She looked appalled. “Why??” she wailed. “Throw that stuff away!”
What would your person say about those boxes?
What would be the memorial they would actually find touching?
This is actually a question worth asking of people who are still here, and certainly one worth asking of yourself.
My husband and I were sitting in a little park one afternoon in Spain, and I saw a plaque dedicating the park to the memory of a woman who had died nearly 150 years before. It was a really, really nice little park, with mature trees and plenty of benches. This is something to which I aspire. I’d like there to be a little park when I go, nothing too terribly morbid, but somewhere where young people would fall in love and families would push strollers and old-timers would sit and read.
That - not a stack of dusty old boxes, please!
We’ve been working on our grief cleaning for five days already, a little each day.
We had a bit of advance notice that the terrible day was coming, and we had already made a few decisions about where things would go.
Unfortunately, the work has been compounded a bit, because we didn’t really completely finish the job when our dog had to be put down last year. Now there are “perfectly good” items for both a dog and a parrot that really need to be heading out the door in one form or another.
Every single particle of them has memories wrapped around it.
It’s hard with a parrot because little downy feathers keep blowing out. I absolutely know that I will not be able to find them all, no matter how hard I try, and that at least a few more will swirl out of another dimension the next time we pack to move.
I know because I’ve been here before, exactly here. More than once. Turned inside out with the loss of a beloved pet and companion of many years. Undone by a floating feather.
Why we keep doing it to ourselves I don’t know. We must somehow forget what it is like to be gutted anew each time, at least enough to lose our hearts to yet another short-lived creature, and we set ourselves up for yet another heartbreak.
I wonder if Chewbacca felt this way about Han Solo.
We have to tease ourselves a bit because as real, heavy, and solid as our grief is, it only lasts forever if we let it. It only paralyzes us when we forget that our departed ones would never have wanted this for us.
I’m going to take the toys and perches and dishes and carriers and - oh lord - the sleeping cage. I’m going to somehow get them into a sad little mound in my dining room. Then I’m going to call around and find a bird sanctuary that can make use of them.
This work has already begun. It feels like my limbs are wading through quicksand as I do it, but I’m doing it. I can’t bear it, not in the least, but I am somehow bearing it, even as I definitely can’t.
How about you? Where are you keeping the grief clutter in your life? Are you going to do anything with it?
What is the thing that you would protect at all costs?
I’m not talking about your phone - although honestly, that’s the obvious one - or your kid or your cat. I’m talking the secret little thing that you do, the part of your life that you will make happen no matter how weird things get.
Morning cup of coffee?
Afternoon chocolate bar?
Reading a little before bed?
Everyone has something. One of mine is taking pictures of trash. My hubby knows I may suddenly stop in the middle of the sidewalk, even when we’re on vacation, or go back several paces so I can get my shot. It’s just part of the deal.
We know how to protect our assets when they’re important enough to us.
I was reading a time management article in Fast Company that introduced this concept in the sense of time management.
Ah yes, I thought, that is a brilliant way of looking at it. For instance, I will not go anywhere without breakfast, preferably a hot one. Doesn’t matter if we’re on the way to the airport for a redeye flight, preparing to drive a moving van several hours, or even if we’ve spent the night in the emergency room at the hospital. I am going to eat breakfast so don’t even argue.
Then I realized that this concept of protecting the asset is the difference between tidy people and... my people, the chaos club.
It’s a matter of mindset, like most things.
Many of my people associate cleaning up and getting organized with punishment and trauma. They never learned to do these things the easy way, it could never feel like a natural part of their life because it only ever happened under high-stress, emotional conditions.
On the other hand, the sort of people whose homes look like they could be on the cover of a magazine? The HGTV people? They don’t think this way at all.
What is going through their minds is more like “let’s make this pretty.” Or “I’m framing this shot so the composition is not disrupted.” They’re not focused on the drudgery at all - they’re simply restoring their environment so that it more closely matches their aesthetic vision.
...I know, right??
It actually irked me when I learned that chefs clean their own kitchen area every night. Argh, I thought, don’t let my husband read this! I was firmly of the opinion that after I slaved away over a hot pan, someone who was not me should do the cleanup.
(We’ve gone back and forth on that over the twelve years of our marriage. Some years, one of us cooked and the other cleaned, and then we would trade the next night. A few of these stints, we’ve done both the cooking and the cleaning on the same night, which is where we are now, and we still trade nights).
As my cooking improved, though, I started to feel it. I started to feel that resonance with the kitchen counter and the sink and stove as my work area, my artist’s palette. As I wiped things down, what I’d be thinking about was the next recipe I wanted to try, and how much easier it always is to walk into a spotless kitchen and get started.
Who was I doing it for? Myself.
Protecting the asset is, in one sense, my gleaming sink.
In another sense, it’s the precious bubble of my desire to compose delicious meals. For myself, and, incidentally, my husband, or sometimes my family or friends as well.
This is the biggest difference between me and a burned-out stay-at-home mom.
Well, besides the facts that 1. I can’t have kids and 2. Most 45-year-olds don’t have little kids at home.
I know that no matter who lives with me, I live there too. No matter who else is eating, this is my meal. This is my own lifestyle.
My asset, in this sense, is my sense of my own home, my household, my lifestyle, my daily routine. I live the way that I choose to live, and unfortunately that takes a certain amount of labor.
Some are willing to put nearly infinite time into their hair, their eye makeup, their nail art, their fashion choices, maintaining their shoe collection. Others put that time into gaming and creating a virtual universe for their avatars.
This is an affirmation that whatever it is that we truly love to do, we should raise it up and enjoy it. Own it, declare it - in the secrecy of our own hearts if we don’t literally feel like telling anyone else about it.
What I’ve learned to love are fine home-cooked meals and an intentional living environment.
One of those is a sort of natural outgrowth of loving a parrot.
She’s a whirlwind of loose feathers, shredded cardboard, and nibbled kibble that she’s somehow flung six feet in every direction. She is so unfathomably messy that it’s impossible to coast along and ignore it. My fluffy little gray asset.
The other thing about choosing to accept domestic scutwork with good grace is that it helps to hide my little secret. That secret is that I live for books, always have, always will. Scooting around cleaning is my way of ensuring that I have at least a little time to myself to get into my audiobook.
The asset, the asset. If I didn’t have a certain amount of private time to read every day, I would lose my mind. I honestly don’t know how other people survive without it.
This idea, of framing things as assets and putting the focus on that - rather than problems - can change your life if you let it.
The assets of mental bandwidth
The assets of relationships and long conversations
The assets of the physical environment - the soft bed, the sparkling kitchen, the reading chair, the indulgent bathtub, the desk where interesting things happen
The asset is anything you want it to be, anything that you choose for yourself. There’s no reason to limit yourself to just one. What if it was an asset of entitlement to something like privacy or creative expression or advanced education?
I had another iteration of a conversation I have had with several people. Someone tries to convince me that they are lazy, after I’ve gotten to know this person and have every reason to think of them as highly productive.
“You are NOT lazy,” I will say, already knowing how the conversation will go.
“I totally am,” they will say, and then proceed to argue all the reasons why they are so lazy.
There is a quote out there that goes “never argue for your limitations”
[pause to find out who said that?]
[Richard Bach: “Argue for your limitations, and sure enough they’re yours.”]
...but I don’t necessarily think that’s what people are doing when they claim to be lazy.
Something complicated is going on here.
I’ve done it myself, even though I don’t really believe in laziness as a thing that exists, and I’m not even sure what I’m trying to accomplish when I’ve said it.
There are a couple of arguments I could make in favor of my own purported ‘laziness.’
For instance, yesterday I made canned soup for dinner and just chopped up some collard greens to throw into it. I have a robot vacuum cleaner and sometimes I just brush crumbs onto the floor so the robot can get them later.
Another person who read that, knowing more details about my life, might say, Yes, but that’s farm-fresh organic collards from the community-supported agriculture collective. And you only have a robot vacuum because you’re a neat freak; I’ve seen your apartment.
It appears that “laziness” is a matter of perspective.
Chances are high that I know too much about the housekeeping and productivity habits of most of my friends.
The last person to claim to me that she is lazy - “SO lazy” - is an especially comical case. This particular person is one of the two individuals I have ever met who keeps Inbox Zero as a default. Both are basically allergic to having an email in their inbox for more than five minutes after they’ve spotted it. Same thing with having a to-do list. Anything that can’t be handled immediately feels stressful and draining to this type of person.
That is true about procrastination: it does feel stressful and draining. Yet those of us who are prone to procrastination will do it anyway. We can’t even figure out why we are tormenting ourselves by dragging out how long we will have the task breathing down our necks.
It’s a funny thing. It’s hard to tell the truth and say, “I need help! I’m stuck procrastinating on this thing and I don’t know why and I can’t seem to get started.” Yet almost anyone will claim, “I’m lazy, so lazy, no, you don’t even understand how impossibly lazy I am” even when every detail of their life is immaculate.
It seems like there are two parts to this:
One, the virtue-signaling of acknowledging a high standard - for productivity, fitness, home-making, maybe grooming, but probably not personal hygiene;
And two, also signaling an approachable and friendly level of relatability.
Because think of the alternative. What if we all were as busy and productive as our wildest dreams, or maybe even a little more so?
And what if we met, and judged each other for it?
And nobody ever had any fun because we were just chasing each other in circles with our clipboards stuffed full of checklists?
Loose thread, check. Speck of dust, check. Nope, sorry, you simply are not perfect enough to have coffee with me. And besides, I’m much too busy to consume coffee in a sitting position. I drink it iced because it works better in my hydration pack. Onward!
I’m starting to think we should flip this standard the other way.
Lounge around as the default, occasionally do something, and then brag about how hard we worked.
I’m saying this because I’m sort of mad at myself and I’m not sure what to do. I have alternating three-day weekends, and I keep trying to set aside that block of time for lounging and relaxing, yet I keep finding myself doing housework.
On Saturday I was going to read a book, and instead I found myself reorganizing my linen closet.
Why?? It’s not like anyone is coming over???
I bought my husband a neck massager. It’s shaped sort of like a scarf. You drape it over the back of your neck and put your hands through the stirrups, and you can pull down on it to decide how much pressure. He says it’s already fixed neck problems that he’s had for years, and now he’s encouraging me to use it.
I’ve tried it: twice.
I keep finding myself sitting next to the magical neck device, setting up calendar appointments or making grocery orders or... or something. And then suddenly it’s bedtime and I haven’t done the neck massage.
Tell me, if you identify with any of this at all, do you think it’s some kind of perceived moral hazard?
That if we relax we might actually become lazy?
That we’ll fall off the tightrope and wake up to find ourselves living in complete squalor?
I asked my husband, Do men do this? Do men ever tell each other how lazy they’re being? He said yes, and he’s done it himself. Turns out this isn’t a gendered thing, it’s a ‘productive people’ thing.
I was going to tat up this lace tablecloth before you all came over, but I was being lazy and I didn’t finish.
I was going to bake 27 dozen cookies for the school fundraiser, but I was too lazy.
I’ve been trying and failing to think of something that I would consider genuinely lazy. (At least, not when someone else does it. Everything I do is obviously lazy to the extreme). I could tell you a lot of stories about hoarding and squalor, for instance, yet I know the backstories and I don’t believe laziness is implicated there. Not in the slightest.
What is lazy, exactly?
Can someone tell me? Because I’m starting to think maybe I should actually try it. At least for an hour or two on the occasional holiday weekend.
The grass is green where I am sitting right now. It’s 65 degrees, someone is throwing a frisbee, and a local school is holding a masked rehearsal for a musical. Spring is here and most likely, it will reach you where you live soon.
Spring cleaning this year is so much more optimistic than most years.
So much to look forward to! Already 1 in 6 American adults have been vaccinated. One day I had three friends from different parts of my life getting their shots on the same day. My bestie got hers (for reasons that do not make me jealous whatsoever). It seems likely that many or most of the people we know are obediently going to get their shots.
...and then, a million years from now, when we get our turn...
And then we can all hang out!
It’s this fantasy of being able to have our one friend over that is motivating me this year. My bestie is only two and a half weeks away from getting her second shot. We live within walking distance of each other. It is entirely plausible that this summer, we’ll be able to safely invite her over.
And what will she see?
This is a visualization game that I’ve done with so many of my hoarding clients, when they’ve started to make real progress but there is still so much to do. There are probably loners who hoard, but everyone I’ve worked with is excited by the idea of having people over. So we go into it in detail, the more the better.
Who will you invite?
When was the last time they were here, and what did you do?
What will you eat?
What music will you play?
For one person it was going to be a board game night. For another it was going to be a barbecue.
The last time, for us, it was birthday cake out on the rooftop deck of our apartment building.
I try to look at our tiny apartment with the fresh eyes of someone who has never seen it before. It’s small, all right. Nothing to be done about that. There certainly is a live parrot sitting at the focal point of the room, in front of the only window. If I’m new to her, then her little belly feathers are trembling with excitement, and that does tend to divert from any lack of design elegance.
The windows need washing again
There is bird kibble strewn across the floor, as usual
Plus shredded cardboard
A small apartment has the advantage of being relatively easy to clean. It has the disadvantage that every area is high-use, especially when the occupants are home 99% of the time.
And one of them sheds feathers.
I feel fortunate that technology has developed to the point that it has. We have actually discovered a brand of handheld vacuum that picks up down feathers rather than blowing them sideways on contact.
This is one of the few things that can make housework mildly interesting: enlist power tools and robots that feel more like toys and less like traditional drudgery.
Another way to gamify the experience is to play Beat the Clock. There are several ways to do this:
One, race your roommate. This requires full buy-in from the other party (or parties) and is thus unlikely to happen. Basically if you mention cleaning to another person they will think you are bossing them around and thus loathe you, or feel suddenly unable to do what they otherwise would have done simply because you brought it up.
Two, set a timer and try to finish everything in X amount of time. In the before-times you could base this deadline around something like the start of a TV show, or having to leave for the movie theater. Now the best you can probably do is order food delivery and try to finish before your meal arrives.
Three, run all your devices concurrently and try to time them together. This is what I like to do.
Start the laundry. If you are fortunate, someone who is not you can do this. Then put up the dining chairs, check for cords, and start the robot vacuum. While those machines do those jobs, you can:
Dust the ceiling fan
Dust everything else
Wipe down the counters
Scour the sink
Clean out the fridge
Break down boxes
Take out the garbage and recycling
...but then, you can do all that every week, and perhaps you do. What makes this different from deep cleaning?
What you have to do for spring cleaning depends on a lot of factors, like how big your place is, what kind of flooring you have, whether you have a yard or a garage, what kind of bedding you have, when is the last time you sorted out your closets, whether you have storm windows, and a bunch of other things.
The key is to go around, while you are doing basic chores, and notice.
When is the last time anyone moved this piece of furniture and cleaned under and behind it?
How many dead flies are in the tracks of the windows?
When is the last time anyone checked to make sure none of the sinks are leaking into the cabinet?
...Is that... algae... growing on the bottom of that faucet??
There is something about that fully inspected, freshly polished and scoured atmosphere of a deep-cleaned room that really gives a sense of accomplishment.
Or at least it’s something to do while we all wait to get the go-ahead to hang out together in person.
While I get my apartment ready, I’m thinking about three things. What will I feed everyone? What month will it be? And how do I tactfully ask our friends to see their proof of vaccination?
Time to spring clean! This year should be much more exciting than other years, because it’s entirely possible that we’ll all be able to get our COVID-19 vaccines soon and commence socializing in person.
If you don’t like hosting at your place, maybe you can get excited about going to someone else’s freshly spring-cleaned place?
Or maybe the prospect strikes dread in your heart because you have no idea what ‘spring cleaning’ means or how to do it?
Or maybe you know full well, and it just seems like when you finally start, it will take three years?
That’s okay. You don’t have to actually do anything this year, or any year. You can just eat snacks and read this and imagine it, the same way I used to watch Richard Simmons workouts from the comfort of my couch when I was a little kid.
What’s unfailingly interesting to me about helping others clean house is what their homes reveal about how they spend their time. Clean houses are all pretty similar - you can find the forks, you can find the laundry soap, you can find the spare towels, you can find a pen - yet messy houses are all messy in their own particular way.
To an outsider, there are always immediate questions:
How long has it been since you could use this door?
Why is there a pot on the floor?
You didn’t know about this leak, did you?
But where do you sleep??
I’d like to remind everybody that our homes are supposed to serve *us*. We are not their servants. What we do, we do to make ourselves more comfortable and to make our lives easier. One day robots will do it all and we won’t even realize how much effort went into it, just like I have no idea what is involved in getting electrical current into my outlets.
Beds are for sleeping. Bathrooms are for personal hygiene. Kitchens are for preparing food. Living rooms are for relaxing.
When you are no longer able to do these functions, something has taken over, and that is either clutter, deferred maintenance, or a problematic roommate.
Physical bottlenecks are easy to spot. A door that can’t be opened, a table or countertop that is unusable, a bed that is buried under piles of stuff, an area where someone has to turn sideways to get through.
Sometimes the bottleneck is being unaware of your surroundings. Not just clutter blindness, but a blind spot about relationships and power dynamics.
Sometimes the bottleneck is fear of calling the landlord or a repair person. Sometimes it’s shame.
Sometimes the bottleneck is lack of money, coupled with a lack of knowledge of how to solve problems without money, which usually involves at least rudimentary negotiation skills.
Usually, though, a bottleneck has to do with a routine - or lack of routine - and the way that stuff tends to accumulate in certain parts of the home. These bottlenecks often have to do with tight schedules and multiple people.
For reference, I would say that only about 10% of people keep their homes staged and photo-ready most of the time, 80% of people are basically at least a little messy, and about 20% of people are at least at first-degree squalor. It’s more common than you would think.
Let’s cover a few areas that tend to be full of clutter, not just in my clients’ homes, but in most people’s.
The car. When I meet someone with kids, I’m willing to bet a flat green American dollar that their vehicle is messy. Most people have junk in their cars. Why? Because when they get home, all they want to do is go inside. Also, a lot of the time, when they are exiting the car it is dark outside.
Area around the front door. (Or whichever door people are using, sometimes the door between the kitchen and garage). This is where people dump their stuff when they come in, and there it stays, usually because there’s nowhere else for it to go. Most homes do not accommodate a landing station.
Dining table. Also kitchen counter. This tends to be overflow for mail, kids’ school papers, menus, coupons, and any other papers that come in. This tends to be an extension of two other problems: 1. If there is a desk, it’s also covered with papers, magazines, catalogues, books, packages that need to be returned, bills, tax documents, and whatever else. 2. The lack of a designated place to dump stuff after coming home.
I can fix all of these problems basically by waving my hand. This is because I’ve found the bottleneck, which is the transition between coming home from wherever, and settling in to relax. Once awareness is brought to this, a person who is highly fed up with a clutter-filled life can make a simple change.
THIS IS A TRANSITION
One of my clients solved several clutter problems by hanging a reusable shopping bag on his doorknob. He kept having to buy these shopping bags, his house and car were full of them, each bag was partly full of mail, and they were also getting expensive.
We talked through his new habit. He would bring one bag out to the car with him in the morning, he would put his mail and whatever needed to come back into the house in the bag as he went through his day, and then he would carry the bag back in. He would call a friend and spend five minutes emptying the bag while he chatted, and then he would hang the empty bag back on the doorknob.
(The phone call to a friend is the most important part of this; Obliger types will do anything if they can hear a friendly voice and basically nothing if they are lonely).
If you think to yourself, Right now I am spending the five minutes that will stop my annoying problem, it can give you a sense of purpose. It also starts to pay off quickly so that you can see how well it is working.
Okay, so here are some of the most common habits that lead to bottlenecks:
Going from the car to the house basically empty-handed
Opening the door and setting stuff down “for later” - especially mail
Going back out to the car basically empty-handed
Wandering away from the kitchen after eating
Those habits alone can quickly lead to a cluttered car, a dirty kitchen, and mail and papers on every flat surface in the house. If you’re ambitious you can do this in just days.
The exact reason why someone suddenly decides to make a change will vary from person to person. (For me it’s usually doing a photo consult with a client or watching a hoarder show). Not just the reason for change will be unique, but the exact spot where someone starts will be unique too.
One person will be motivated to start with their bedside table. Another will start with the medicine cabinet. Someone else will clear out the trunk of their car and presto, there’s enough room to start hauling off bags of donations.
Where will you start? Where will your spring cleaning begin?
Don’t overthink it - just start somewhere!
We got a new robot. It washes windows.
It is very hard for me to believe that this is a readily available consumer appliance that is cheaper than many a vacuum cleaner.
I remember reading a “visionary tech” type article just a few years ago, saying that one of these was in development. Obviously as soon as I knew there was a robot that could climb vertical surfaces, I had to have one - but at the time, it only existed as a prototype.
Oh well, I thought, I’ll just file this away with all the other incredible prototypes that never come to market, like the laundry-folding robot. By “never” I mean we’ll have to wait anywhere from 10-25 years.
This time, though, I was caught wrong-footed. I went to check on this supposed window-washing robot, as part of a discussion about the innovation curve - and discovered that there are actually several different styles put out by multiple robotics companies. They sell in the $200-500 range.
The one I bought, based on reading a bunch of reviews, turns out to be the least expensive one on the market.
I’m going to pause for a moment here and say that the main reason we can afford to buy robots like this is that we have chosen not to own a car for the past four years. What I spent on this robot is significantly less than our car payment used to be, and not much more than what we paid for car insurance per month. A lot of families could drop a vehicle without too much inconvenience and suddenly discover a distinct lessening of pressure in the finance area.
Okay, so what does it do?
I decided to find out. It can clean glass windows. Can it clean other stuff, too?
There are other types, one based on magnets, but the style we got works on vacuum suction. You hold it in place and turn it on, it revs up and makes a whirring sound like a vacuum cleaner (which technically it is), and then you can let go of it. It stays sucked onto the glass and then it can drive around.
I didn’t figure out until the second time I used it that if you push the button twice, it will scoot around by itself, find the edges of the frame, and clean the whole window itself.
It also comes with a remote control. If you are very careful, you can use it on glass without an edge, like a shower door. If you are not careful, it will start to go off the edge, lose suction, and fall off.
The window-washing robot has two tethers. One, the power cord must be attached for it to work. At this stage of development I don’t think there’s a way to make them rechargeable and also lightweight enough to do the job. Two, there is a cord with a carabiner on one end. It can be knotted through an aperture on either end of the robot.
What did I do when I found that I was supposed to belay the bot to keep it from crashing to the floor?
Why, I asked my Eagle Scout husband, of course!
He worked out a complicated rigging system on the curtain rod. It took a bit of finagling to make sure that the cord was short enough for it not to hit the floor - but then this made it impossible for the bot to reach the bottom of the window.
I did the exteriors on the balcony the next day. There was no curtain rod outside, of course, and in fact I couldn’t figure out where else I would tie the safety cord. I decided to wing it and just watch carefully.
It was fine.
Then I did the same thing on the bathroom mirror, and when it reached the bottom right corner, it managed to hit the frame, unsuck itself, and fall off. Fortunately it was only about a one-foot drop to the counter, and it survived intact.
The test with the glass shower doors was tricky. I did have to watch carefully while I used the remote. It is not advised to use the window-washing robot on any glass with no edge. I always read the instructions carefully, but that doesn’t mean I always wind up following them!
Our robots have names, because now we have three of them and there are reasons to disambiguate. This one is now Squeeg-Bot, since I also have several squeegees and don’t want to confuse things.
Unlike the other robots, Sucky and Swiffy, Squeeg-Bot can’t be trusted to work alone. On the other hand, he works quickly. The sliding glass doors only took about 15 minutes, which is, believe it or not, faster than I do it with a squeegee and a bottle of glass cleaner.
I have lived in apartments and houses where I doubt I washed the windows once the entire time I lived there, or at least not until the day I moved out. I am a bit obsessive about always getting my cleaning deposit back.
In this apartment, though, we only have two windows, one in the bedroom and then the slider in the living room. That slider is essentially our only source of natural daylight. In addition to this window we have a small gray parrot who loves to pulp fruit and throw it everywhere.
This is why I feel the need to clean the window so often - because my beloved, spoiled little parrot is a filth machine and because this window is visible on-camera all day while I’m at work.
I still have some games to play with this new device. I haven’t tried it out on the inside of the shower yet, because it needs a dry surface and that means a bit of prep work. I haven’t tried it on the fridge, although I will because it gets smudgy. I also haven’t tried it on a plain old painted wall, and again, I will eventually because it is fun to play with robots.
I told my husband, This is like driving an RC car! When I was a kid, I never got to play with remote-controlled cars because they were evidently not for girls. So I went out and bought my own remote-controlled robot, and now I can play with it as much as I like.
We went for a walk and vacuumed at the same time. This isn’t all that interesting in itself; we’ve had a robot vacuum for over a decade now, and we almost always run it while we’re off doing something else so we don’t have to listen to it.
What was different this time was that I realized I had forgotten to move something out of its way. I was able to whip out my phone, pause it from a quarter mile away, and mark off the area as off-limits.
(It turned out not to work, but that’s a story for a different time).
This is a feature that I used to joke about, and now it’s real. (Kinda?) I also used to joke about it emptying itself, and now that’s a real feature, too.
Yet another robot joke I used to make was about getting a robot lawnmower. We don’t have a lawn anymore, because we live on the 5th floor, but that is indeed a robot that somebody can buy now.
What I’ve learned is that I am really, really good at predicting consumer tech that will be available in the 5-10 year range.
(Now if I can just learn to design and sell it, we’re all set...)
The obvious question is raised. What else could a home robot do if we let it?
The case for robot vacuum cleaners is very strong, from my perspective, which is why it is a total mystery to me that so many people resist the very idea. Well what if someone gave you one?? Would you totally refuse to use it?
They’re cost-competitive with other vacuums, they go under the bed and the couch, and if something like a Lego or an earring accidentally gets picked up, you can get it out with much less mess than a traditional vacuum. The only real issue is that you have to go around and arrange your cords and cables in advance.
The robot mop is a little higher maintenance, in that it can’t drive itself on and off the charger, but it is much faster and quieter and doesn’t try to eat the bath mat, so that tends to make up for it.
Talking about chores in terms of robots was good for our marriage. We could play a game - “We live on a space station with robots” - rather than argue about housework. Because of this, we refer to dishwashers and washing machines and dryers as robots, too. Dishbot! Washbot! Drybot!
We would stroll out the door on the way to the movie theater, chortling about how All the Robots were Doing All the Chores. Laundry, dishes, and floor all at the same time.
There’s a natural transition from this concept to the question of what else a robot could do to help.
For us, the next natural transition was, how many of these features could be built into a home’s infrastructure?
My dearest wish has been to have a robot that can fold the laundry. I didn’t even care whether it put the laundry away somewhere, I just wanted the socks all matched up. It turns out that this is on the very far end of difficulty for an AI. Something that a preschooler can do - match socks - can defeat the same robot that can play chess and solve differential equations.
By the time a home robot can fold and put away laundry, it will basically be capable of doing everything.
Not just everything around the house, but basically everything a person can do.
It’s obvious why robots should do certain things instead of people, like sanitizing public restrooms or washing adult diapers. What isn’t so obvious yet is all the things that will be automated, say, fifty years in the future.
Dude! Did you know the dishwasher was first patented in 1850???
And it took 120 years before they were common in the suburbs?
The microwave oven was invented in 1946, but wasn’t all that common until the 1980s. At that time, they cost an average of $425, which is like $1300 now.
The reason all this matters is that anything a machine can do frees up a person to do something else.
You can go ahead and mock me for my foo-foo robot mop, but it is one of the reasons that I will be able to go back to school for my doctorate.
Other people will unblushingly share that they have a maid/housekeeper/cleaning service come in. But hey! That is also a person who could be doing something else! I cleaned houses once upon a time, too, and I’m a Mensan, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.
Coming back around to the problem of the missing laundry-folding robot, there are actually a bunch of different ways to get around this problem. 1. Reintroduce the lovely and flattering toga. 2. Do everything virtually with an elegantly dressed avatar, and just walk around nude. 3. Buy only wrinkle-free fabrics and some extra laundry baskets, and just shake everything into them. 4. Have only one outfit, like a space unitard, and have it sanitized while you sleep. 5. Print outfits on demand, then drop them back into the unit to be melted down into something fresh for the next day. 6. Spray-on body paint.
Probably more also. In the meantime, folding laundry takes 15 minutes per load, and when else would we listen to podcasts?
Something I learned when I was working with hoarders is that a lot of people are conceptually married to the idea that you do chores the 1920s way. Grimly, no music, no modern cleansers or tools, for your sins. It astonishes me to this day how resistant people are to changing up their routines. Rather than gratefully accept modern improvements, it’s more likely that people will quit doing it entirely.
Is some of this financial? Sure, of course. At the same time, the robots that I’m talking about are in the same price range as the gaming consoles and stand mixers that I often see. They’re also far cheaper than automobiles, a modern convenience that we have chosen not to own for four years now.
The question behind the question “Could a robot do this?” is, Is there a better way to do this? The question behind *that* is, If this didn’t have to be done personally by me, what else would I be doing with my time?
It’s a week from Thanksgiving. No matter what you’re doing or with whom you are doing it, I’m pretty sure you’re probably planning to eat something. Care to join me in the annual fridge and freezer clear-out?
The reason I do it a week early is to make room for all the leftovers. We have this thing I like to call Fridge Tetris, where all the containers have to fit just so. There is no way I’m going to hang on to some sketchy old jars if they’re going to block my nice pan of cornbread. Out they go!
I used to be terrible about this, because I have food hoarding tendencies. As I resolved to change my ways, I picked up a pro tip from someone else in an organizing article. She said she likes to clear out her entire fridge at the New Year so she knows nothing in there is older than that point.
One thing I can tell you from working with the chronically disorganized is that fridges? Tend to be the most squalid places of all. I have literally found condiments, tahini, salad dressing, etc that are over a decade old.
Halt! If you’re muttering to yourself “so what” then I challenge you to open your fridge, take a picture of it, and post that picture to your social media. No staging no edits.
I say it with love because I have fought that fight with my own self.
Hold onto your old friends, hold onto your memories, but please don’t hold onto your ancient mustards.
There is another thing I picked up from someone else, and that is the concept of the “silly amount.” A silly amount is whatever is left in a container that is smaller than a serving, like a quarter teaspoon of jam or a dribble of milk. It’s silly to let a whole huge container take up space waiting for someone to be disappointed by this sad smidge. The rule with the silly amount, then, is to either finish it off on the spot or throw it out.
My husband caught me doing this once with dry beans. I was saving something like eight dry beans in the bag because I had already measured what I needed. He looked at me, utterly incredulous. What are you doing?? I explained my reasoning and he explained his, that adding the extra few beans wouldn’t be noticeable in my gallon soup pot. Aha. I froze in place, stunned at how much sense that made and wondering how much of my life I had spent dealing with silly amounts of food.
Those silly amounts add up, you see. Maybe the exact same amount is spent on groceries, down to the penny, and in one household the foods are eaten when they are fresh. In another, the silly amounts add up and start to get stale or moldy or runny. Kitchen One is spotless and full of fresh things. Kitchen Two is scary and full of hidden oozes. Both may operate on the edict to Save Money and Don’t Waste Food.
Gives you chills, doesn’t it??
Here’s another thing we do. This is a tradition of my own, and I call it Freezer Surprise. It’s a little running joke. I reached a point in my cooking abilities where the stuff I threw together on a whim started to be better than what I made by strictly following a recipe. The idea is to look at whatever random things in the fridge or freezer Need to Get Eaten Up, and then try to cobble them together into a pleasing meal.
Between Thanksgiving and the New Year, my goal is to finish off as many tubs, jars, bottles, or other containers in our kitchen as possible. This doesn’t necessarily include pantry items like canned soup, especially this year, but it definitely includes anything that has been opened. Better to eat it now than to discover it’s full of weevils a year from now.
Usually this has been a more straightforward goal, because we often travel for at least a week in November or December. Coming home from vacation to a fridge full of turquoise leftovers is not my idea of fun. It’s easier to run a little lean for a couple of weeks, eating up what’s on hand and then restocking in January.
This year is going to be different, since we’re staying home for the first time in a long time, and we’re going to be sad to miss out on being with family. On the other hand, since we aren’t traveling, we have more time to focus on things like cleaning out the fridge.
It’s a time to remind ourselves how lucky we are that we have maybe a little too much, rather than too little. We can nudge ourselves with haunting memories from March 2020, when entire aisles were completely empty in every grocery store for two towns in any direction. Yes, we’re keeping more food supplies at hand now, but no, that doesn’t mean that a single smear of something in the back of the fridge is what’s going to save us.
Cleaning out the fridge is a sign of abundance. It’s a way to anticipate nice meals, a way to bring a little peace of mind into a home that could probably use more. It’s also a way to remember, oh yes, I was making my own wild bread yeast earlier this year and maybe I can let that go.
As I clear out our fridge and freezer before Thanksgiving, I plan our meal. I think about what I’m going to cook for my family the next time we’re all together. (Yeah, yeah, the stuffed mushrooms, I gotcha). I also plan my gifts to the food pantry and the soup kitchen. May all be fed.
This is the secret to “doing it all” when you’re really too busy to do any of it.
Simply: don’t do most things on most days.
This is a corollary to the idea of only doing one thing at a time. Choose the most important thing you think you could be doing, and do that. Even more importantly, consciously choose to not do certain other things.
This is how I finally started being early to things, instead of late. I made a list of all the stuff I would try to do in the mornings before I left, and I decided to quit doing those things. I allowed myself to:
If I wanted to do additional things such as bathe or eat breakfast, I had to count backward and make sure I got up earlier. Those were my incentives. Otherwise I was going to be eating a protein bar out of my purse. Which is fine! And certainly better than the sick, hurried feeling I would have been getting by running out the door late.
The idea was to replace that lateness feeling with some kind of reward. What I realized was that if I got somewhere a few minutes early, I could just sit and read something on my phone. Relaxation instead of consternation.
Let’s transfer that idea to other things such as errands, paperwork, and chores.
I’m a fussy housekeeper, and I clean things when I’m stressed out. This can snowball quite badly when you suddenly find yourself under a kind of house arrest for several months. I can’t document this? But I’m pretty sure it’s not a legal requirement to dust your baseboards every day. I knew I was going to need to set limits or I would be doing circuits around my house like a cuckoo in a clock.
My main goal in housekeeping is to only do it on weekdays. I like to know that I can kick back for a three-day weekend and not feel like there’s something I should be doing. Other people might like to bang it all out in one day, which is a perfectly valid system in its own right. Personally I just don’t want to spend four hours doing housework unless someone is handing me an envelope full of cash afterward.
Competing with this minimalist system is my other goal, the subconscious one that keeps overriding the sensible one. That is to have every surface 100% tidy and speck-free at all times. That way lies insanity.
One of the areas that I could be cleaning perpetually is the bathroom counter, including the sink and mirror. If I started doing it every day, how long would it take to morph into twice a day? It has its designated cleaning days, and the rest of the time, the rule is: Don’t do that today.
I remind myself of all the other things I want to do, and that I never feel I have time to do. Reading! Learning to draw! Lounging around listening to music and learning the lyrics!
Granted, I don’t always do those things, because I am a restless spirit, but at least I don’t waste all my time doing housework.
There is an opposite extreme here, the end of the spectrum that would rather live in a certain amount of chaos than, again, waste all the time doing housework. That is legit. At a certain point it also makes life more complicated. I would list off here: respiratory issues, any kind of trip hazard, not being able to find stuff, paying late fees, being late everywhere or missing appointments, relationship stress, and generally being unhappy and dissatisfied with the results.
Entropy is not the same thing as inspiration or creativity.
Three things happened when I decided that I just wasn’t going to do most things on most days.
One, I just... worked 44 hours a week and collected my paychecks.
Two, I started reading a bit more again.
Three, and unexpectedly, when I would go around to do whatever the day’s thing was... it would sometimes... already be done?
I created space for someone else to step in and do things.
The problem with being super-organized and efficient is that everyone in an ever-broadening gyre around you starts to relax and abdicate more. It’s not necessarily that anyone in the circle is unwilling or unlikely to do these things... They’re just not going to be the first person to do these things.
Unless you step back and make space for that to happen.
Most individual chores only take 2-5 minutes. Wiping down a countertop or squeegeeing a mirror. Taking out a bag of trash. Wiping down a shelf in the fridge. Putting a load of laundry in the dryer. Et cetera. I know this is true because I spent a couple of weeks running around timing everything I did with a stopwatch. The only exception is folding laundry, which is more like 10-12 minutes per basket.
When someone around you starts to realize that a 2-5 minute contribution will be noticed and appreciated, it starts to happen more often.
These are the goals:
Keep weekends chore-free
Do laundry once a week and don’t do it the other six days
Grocery shopping no more than two days a week
Automate everything possible.
Automate, delegate, eliminate!
Then what do you do with the remainder of the time? Where do you put the former feelings of habitual stress, worry, anxiety, or resentment?
My recommendations would be along the lines of: relaxing, making something beautiful, going back to get your degree, training for a marathon, or writing a book. That’s where the flip side of my directive comes in. Definitely do that today!
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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