Everyone I know seems to be thinking of one thing right now, which is pine-scented and red and green and has a bunch of tinsel hanging off it. Me, I’m thinking about how close we are to the New Year! There are only two weeks until New Year’s Eve and I am oh so ready for it.
Is it just me, or is saying goodbye to 2020 going to feel much more jubilant than other years?
It is hard to express just how seriously I take the transition between the new year and the old. For years, all the biggest and most interesting stuff I have done is because of intentions that I set formally at the new year.
Some of what I am doing over the next two weeks, traditionally, is digging out whatever I wrote down the previous year and checking to see if I’ve done it. If not, do I have time to check it off?
(Goal-setting and success are really technicalities. They’re measurements that you choose for yourself and decisions that you make about what is important to you. Therefore, just pick things you want to do and make rules that get you a win!)
What I’m going for is a sparkling feeling of starting the new year off with a clean slate. Part of how I do that is to try to make sure that I don’t drag anything from the old year that is unfinished.
No unfinished books, or maybe just one
Clean fridge and freezer
Donations dropped off
No worn-out socks, underwear, t-shirts etc with holes
No pending notifications on my phone, which is something I struggle with
Nothing expired, whether food, medications, or whatever
Current on doctor, dentist, haircut, vet, whatever appointments (although this year exceptions have been made on the haircut front)
No dried-out pens, broken pencils, etc
I am consistently doing drawer and closet purges throughout the year. That makes it easy to do the big year-end roundup. I physically walk around my apartment, scanning over every shelf in every cupboard and asking, Is it obvious why I have this?
In a small place, this can be done in well under an hour, even if there are a lot of inventory decisions to be made. Examples would be whether the clothes in our go bags still fit or whether all the bandages in the first aid kit are still sealed.
What tends to take longer is digital clutter. Do I really use all the apps on my phone? (No, of course not, but am I ready to do anything about that?) How close am I to the storage limit? Do I really need to save a dozen copies of a photo I accidentally took in burst mode?
Something that I do every month is to change the wallpaper and the lock screen on my phone. This is fun, and it also reminds me that time is passing and the seasons are changing. I like the image I choose for January to be something upbeat and bright, unlike, say, the weather. (This is in contrast to what I choose for October, which tends to be dark and spooky).
Another big deal is the choosing of the new day planner. I love them all. In theory I like the idea of having a neat row of matching planners, but in practice, I prefer swapping them out. It wouldn’t be beyond me to get a new yearly planner every month. A silly waste, not Organized at all, but a fun and frivolous idea nonetheless.
The most important thing that I do during this time, while I am winding down, is to think about what has become the default setting for my life. How am I spending most of my time? Where is my attention going? Who am I spending time with, and is that a coincidence? What does my home look like on an average day, and am I happy with that?
These, to me, aren’t really answers that I can jot down in an hour or two of New Year’s Eve planning. I find it better to let them settle so that I’m sure I have a true sense of where my time is going and how I feel about that.
Usually I come to the same conclusions: That I don’t get enough sleep, that I should probably try to relax more and be more social, that we could use more art on the walls, that I should be listening to music more often, that my wardrobe is shifting back toward more somber colors again, that I could probably spend a bit more time doing things I enjoy, like solving cryptograms or reading poetry.
Then we all launch into the New Year and, like everyone else, my good intentions start to dissipate, to vanish into the atmosphere until I am back on my BS.
Why do I seem to keep voluntarily choosing to be a stress case?
This year my self-care goals are perhaps more important than they’ve ever been. At this time last year, I was recovering from a minor surgery after a life-threatening infection. Just a few months later I got COVID-19. I’ve never been so tired for so long, and it’s really challenging sometimes just to drag myself through the day.
This annual planning, though, is perking me up. It’s helping me to remember who I am, and it’s helping me to imagine a time a year from now when I might not feel unwell any more.
These two weeks are my pre-planning phase. These are the things I do before the big night. On New Year’s Eve, my husband and I sit down together and make goals for the year to come. We talk about where we’d like to go on vacation and how we might want to spend our wedding anniversary, that sort of thing.
This year, it’s going to be so much more exciting than usual. This is the year that we may get our vaccines. This is the year that everything has a chance to go back to normal. Normal never sounded so good.
It came up in casual conversation that my friend’s purse weighs over six pounds. The only reason she knows this is that she is recovering from major surgery and she is not supposed to lift anything that weighs more than... five pounds.
“What do you even have in there?”
“Everything! I’m like a Boy Scout - except I was never a Boy Scout - be prepared, right?”
“My husband is an Eagle Scout and he doesn’t carry a six-pound purse.”
Everyone knows that it’s a little silly to carry a huge, heavy purse. That’s fine - I am a big proponent of silly, as my sock drawer will attest. The main reason not to carry that big of a bag is that it can lead to chiropractic problems and chronic neck and shoulder pain.
Or at least it used to be.
The main reason not to carry a big, heavy purse now is that everything in it is vulnerable to contamination from coronavirus.
It also raises a few pertinent questions.
I happen to know that my friend still goes to church almost every day of the week. Physically. There are undoubtedly hundreds of thousands of people doing this, which makes me really sad, because I was under the impression that church is about love and caring and having a close community. In my mind, that means protecting each other from deadly infections at the bare minimum!
Let’s change that subject, though, and talk a bit more about the whole “being prepared” aspect of scouting. I know a bit about it because I’ve been trekking for weeks on end with my husband, the Eagle Scout. It drives me crazy with envy that he got to do that, since girls are still not allowed, and I was obsessed with survivalism when I was around 12.
You mean to tell me you know how to build an actual snow cave?? And start a fire without matches??
This is why my hubby doesn’t carry a six-pound purse - or any purse. As long as I have known him, he carries:
...and, now, his eyeglasses and a mask.
I have learned this, having absorbed these lessons through proximity. And distance running. On the vanishingly rare occasions when I leave the apartment, I bring:
...and two fabric masks and a plastic face shield.
I bring my phone and keys even when I take out the trash, because I have to let myself back through the security system. One night I forgot, and I wasn’t able to go back up the elevator, and then the call box no longer worked due to a security upgrade. I had to call my hubby to come downstairs and let me in. Good thing he doesn’t go on travel anymore!
What a big purse is about is not really being prepared - it’s feeling like you can handle anything that might come up.
Is that actually true?
My friend mentioned that she carries a sewing kit. Yeah, me too. I have a sewing kit in my expedition backpack and another one in my suitcase. How would I deal with it if I... had a sewing emergency while I was outside somewhere??
...I... look over my clothes when I fold the laundry?
I have owned a sewing kit since at least the age of ten. I have used one several times. Not once have I needed it while doing errands or out for a run. Why not just keep it in the car?
There is one “emergency” item that I keep in my work bag - a bag that currently resides inside my bedroom closet - and that is a backup battery for my phone. I used to use it at least once a week, since I spent a lot of time on the bus, going to club meetings, or writing for hours in a cafe. (Remember when?) Then it turned out that I almost never needed it, because I got a phone upgrade and the battery life was better.
Why carry such a relatively heavy item everywhere I went?
My friend evidently feels safe and prepared because she has a sewing kit, among nameless other items, in her six-pound purse.
In reality, she is endangering her health post-surgery, causing herself actual physical pain by carrying so much.
She is also endangering her health by continuing to leave her house and socialize with people in enclosed indoor spaces, like she used to do before the pandemic.
Look, I know a lot of people are still gallivanting around because they believe they have evaluated the risk and made a conscious, adult decision. I know that. One of them had a phone conversation with me last week, wanting to know why I hadn’t made a bigger fuss about how serious my COVID symptoms were, because if she had realized she might not have traveled with three other families who all wound up getting sick.
What I’m talking about is how people make decisions, and how we evaluate risks, and what we do to mitigate those risks.
I changed a few things after I got sick with COVID. One of them was to reevaluate who I accept into my social group. One of my close friends is a loving, giving person who tolerates a wide spectrum of behavior in her friends that I don’t really tolerate in mine. I don’t trust her friends, and therefore I won’t socialize with my friend until the pandemic is over. Afterward, well, I’m still going to reevaluate.
We had a quaranteam buddy for a while. That ended a few months ago for a variety of reasons.
My husband and I now socialize with zero people in person. The only people we see are our inconsiderate neighbors who refuse to wear masks in our building lobby, laundry room, elevator, etc. We are physically afraid to open our front door, much less go anywhere.
That’s why neither of us will be found carrying a six-pound purse. Carry it where?
This is the best, most important book on paper organizing that I have yet read. The reason is that Lisa Woodruff focuses on the papers we all should keep, and why.
To wit: Disaster preparedness and financial security.
Woodruff shares how she got started. Her paper organizing system was born in chaos, debt, and depression. She also has special needs kids. Her system helped her resolve her financial issues, advocate for her children, and build a business that helps others do the same.
More importantly, Woodruff’s clients have been able to grab their important documents while escaping from natural disasters. This gives me life!
The revolutionary feature of The Paper Solution is that certain specific papers should be consolidated for action and reference. These are what I would call ‘action items’ and ‘reference.’ Woodruff’s Sunday Basket system would be a huge help for anyone who has a lot of paper in their life or especially anyone with little kids.
I can share from my experience working with hoarders and the chronically disorganized that my people struggle to think of things in categories or systems. The Paper Solution would be a very good choice, because Woodruff teaches in meticulous detail how to set up and use a streamlined, effective system.
“I feel like I’m getting back my house.”
“I have made my feelings about filing cabinets known. Get them out of your house!”
I’m hoping everyone is being smart about Thanksgiving plans this week, you know, making sure we’re all still here to do it properly next year. It’s been on my mind a lot. I thought, what could we all do with the extra time off if we aren’t either traveling or getting ready for guests?
(Obviously I know not everyone gets Thanksgiving off - my family has eaten our meal on the Friday for over 30 years due to work schedules. Something to keep in mind, this year more so than others: what a luxury it is to be with family, even if you have mixed feelings about it).
The thing I came up with was to sort out all the rarely-used platters and serving dishes and kitchen gizmos that are only used on special occasions.
There are three things to do in the kitchen when it comes to this stuff.
One is to ask if you even want it, much less use it at all.
The second is to get rid of, fix, or reunite the pieces of anything that has issues.
Third is to rearrange everything based on whether you wish you used it more often or whether it’s driving you nuts and getting in the way all the time.
There is literally never a good time to do this kind of chore. If it were easy and obvious, it would have happened already. I’ve been asking myself this question about my book collection:
If I’m not going through it in 2020, of all years, when will I ever??
Clutter can be a minor tragedy. We tend to gather objects that represent a wish, something we would ideally like to be doing or to have as part of our lifestyle. The accumulated stuff then fills up the *space* we would need to actually do that thing.
Examples: The garage so full of tools and supplies that it can’t be used as a workspace. The sewing room so full of fabric that nothing can be made. The shed (and yard) so full of stuff that no gardening is being done.
And, of course, the kitchen so full of stuff that nobody can cook.
My available counter space is typically about 2’x3.’ That because we have lived in tiny apartments for the past five years. There’s nowhere to put anything like a kitchen island or a butcher block or a rolling cart or a baker’s rack. The space we have is the space we have, and that’s why I keep our pantry staples in the fridge.
What do I keep on my counter?
Other people keep astonishing amounts of stuff on their counters and dining tables. This is what I usually see:
A cookie jar
A stand mixer
Both a toaster and a toaster oven
A crock of utensils
Soda cans or bottles
Cooking oil, spice jars, etc.
A coffee maker, sometimes two
Dirty dishes, of course
Random junk that wandered in from elsewhere
Four of those items I don’t even own, but the rest can indeed be found in my tiny little kitchen that has only two dinky drawers.
This is because my husband and I take turns cooking, and the focus for us has always been having enough space to actually make the food.
We’re maniacs. We make our own jam. We have a couple dozen canning jars in our kitchen. The canning equipment stays on a high shelf in the linen closet, because it only gets used a few days a year. This is an important principle: Store things based on how often you use them, not necessarily “where they fit.”
What goes where?
We have a cabinet above the fridge. It always fascinates me what people keep up there, because that space is so challenging to reach. That is where I keep all our baking equipment, including various sizes of muffin tins, loaf pans, a Bundt cake pan, springform cake pans, pie pans, and even a cupcake caddy. Most people keep their baking stuff in a low cabinet, where it’s easy to reach, but how often are most people baking fancy desserts on the average weeknight?
I keep my serving dishes in the same cabinet where we keep the plates, bowls, and glasses. All our plastic storage containers and their lids are there, too, basically because we only have two cabinets. Same stuff as everyone else, just less of it.
In most kitchens, there are plenty of cabinets, but they are chock-full of coffee mugs and plastic cups and plastic travel coffee cups. This has always mystified me. Cupboards go to things that are almost never used, so stuff that does get used has to sit on the countertop instead.
What if I told you there was triple the amount of stuff in your kitchen than it was designed to hold?
Not everyone has the problem with the unintentional multiplication of plastics. For some, it’s more of a shopping hobby that got out of hand. That shopping hobby might be their own, or it might be someone else’s, someone who uses gift-giving as a sort of pressure valve for their own habit. For some reason, this category of person often fixates on holiday decorations and special occasions. Anything holiday-related becomes instantly full of special spiritual qualities that mean it must be kept forever.
This is why Thanksgiving is such a good time to reevaluate all the fancy cooking gear. Can it all realistically be used at one meal?
Another thing to reevaluate at the time of cooking fancy foods is the recipe collection. I’m willing to bet that the majority of home cookbooks have never been used at all, and almost all the rest are kept for one or two specific recipes. Scan the ones you use and get your counter space back.
Not sure who needs to hear this, but: You don’t have to keep any of it. Not everyone cooks at all. I read about a woman who used her kitchen cabinets to store her books; she didn’t even own any pots or pans because she never cooked at home. It’s not against the law. You can do that.
The emphasis on any holiday should be on enjoying yourself and doing the things you like to do to relax. If one of those things is cooking, then is your kitchen serving you? Or is it really a kitchen-shaped storage unit?
Whatever else you do this week, keep the focus on what works for your household and take a moment to reconsider what doesn’t.
Stay safe, be well, and start planning now for Thanksgiving 2021!
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 not the first time this has happened by any means, but I recently had a conversation with someone who had stuff in a storage unit for ten years.
You already know what I’m going to say about this.
What in the Sam Hill could possibly be valuable enough to keep it for ten years without using it??
Stuff sits in storage mostly out of inertia. Out of sight, out of mind. Many people probably feel that it’s worth paying the rent every month simply for the luxury of not having to expend effort to deal with the situation.
When is it ever a good time to get a truck, spend half a day clearing out a storage unit, and then figuring out what to do with all that stuff?
Since I talk to people about clutter all the time, I do get to hear these stories occasionally. Sometimes, yes, people do get tired of paying money for nothing and they go and clear out their storage units.
(Yes, it’s not uncommon for someone to have two separate units, although most people can’t afford three).
What do they do with the stuff?
Move it into a garage, shed, or “spare” room!
It’s almost unheard of for people to get rid of all of it, to just say, You know what? I haven’t missed any of this stuff, I’ma go drop it off.
If you do have a storage unit, at least know that you’re not alone. There’s a reason why it’s so easy to find storage units in the US - it’s a multi-billion dollar industry. (I literally just mis-typed that as “in dusty”!)
Having a storage unit doesn’t particularly have a cost in terms of mental bandwidth. Probably a lot of people continue to pay that bill and almost never think about what items are actually in there. That’s the whole point.
Most people do not like to make decisions.
The cost of indecision, here, is a financial one. I did the math with one of my friends, several years ago, and she had spent TEN THOUSAND DOLLARS on her storage unit. I am not kidding.
Do you have an extra $10,000? I don’t.
This is where we take a moment to talk about the difference between an “asset” and a “liability.” An asset has value and generates value. A liability costs money.
It’s hard to come up with something that is truly an asset, because there are so many misconceptions here. A lot of things that seem to be assets are actually liabilities. Understanding the difference can be like flipping a light switch in the perception of one’s household finances.
A toolbox. We’ll go with that. If you use tools at your job every day, then those tools are helping earn your paycheck. At a certain point, their cost was fully amortized, maybe even the first week.
I cut my husband’s hair today, for the third time ever, and that was when the clippers and scissors I bought paid themselves off. We would have spent more at the barber for three haircuts than what the equipment cost. Now those clippers are an asset that can save us about $100 a year.
If we had a storage unit, the clippers would not be in storage, because it would be too annoying to go dig them out every time my man started complaining about his bangs getting too long.
If we had a storage unit, we would have two options: One near us at $250 a month, or one across town at $150 a month. I know because I looked into it when we were first planning to move here and debating whether we should really get rid of 80% of our stuff. This means we would have spent either $3000 a year for a unit we could actually get into, or $1800 a year for one that would have required us to either get a car, pay for a rideshare, commute farther to work so we could be near the cheaper storage, or pester other people to give us rides to go get random stuff when we needed it.
Or of course pay $1800 a year - the cost of a mighty fine vacation, by the way - just to ignore all that stuff we weren’t using.
Now let’s multiply that by five years, and we get: $15,000 OR $9,000 + externalities.
Let’s game this out and try to come up with what kinds of possessions it would actually be worth more than $9,000 to store.
Business equipment! If we were professional landscapers or event planners, for example, our expensive storage unit could actually help us to earn money. In fact the facility we used for a month when we moved was full of units like that, for professional contractors, painters, landscapers, and others who, like us, would be hard pressed to find a house with a garage out here.
We aren’t, though. We don’t own a business. Like most people, what we would have kept in that unit would have been stuff we didn’t have time to deal with during the move, or stuff we felt was Worth Something (TM), and we wouldn’t have realized that five years were going to go by without us making a decision.
But storage doesn’t cost that much where we live, you say.
Sure, okay, but then what is your exit strategy? Have you sat down and opened the calculator app on your phone and figured out what you have already paid on this liability that is your storage unit?
Oh, but it’s not actually my unit, you say. It’s actually So-and-So’s. I know for a fact that other people love to spend their money helping me solve my problems!
(Or not, cough)
I’m willing to venture that a lot of storage units have stuff belonging to more than one person, and that is part of why nobody has said, I am no longer going to pay this bill. I’ve heard of parents paying for kids’ storage, siblings storing each other’s stuff, and of course people getting stuck with things that belong to an ex, or an old roommate. There are a lot of “watch my dining table for me while I”... have no intention of ever dealing with it.
Whose dining table is worth $9,000 anyway?
If your parents are storing your stuff - think about whether they’re going to be able to make ends meet on a fixed income. Would you rather they pay for your storage if it meant they have to come live with you when they turn 80?
If anyone else is storing your stuff, pull up your socks and go deal with it.
If you’re storing someone else’s stuff, this might be a good moment to ask yourself whether this is what is holding you back. You can go over to your unit, look it all over, and take care of your own stuff, then call that person and tell them it’s time to make arrangements with the storage company. Chances are greater than 1% that they will decide it isn’t worth their bother.
We did the seemingly impossible. We gave away or sold 80% of our stuff when we decided to take the dream job and move to the beach. Looking back, we made so little at our one-day garage sale that we wish we had simply donated everything and spent that day relaxing. Have we missed any of the stuff we got rid of, like our ladder and our wheelbarrow? Nope. Could we go to Home Depot with the thousands of dollars we saved on not having a storage unit and replace all of it? Yes, and then some!
Like most people, what we would have spent on a storage unit over five years would be more than all our furniture and wardrobes combined are worth.
Do you have a storage unit? Why? What the heck is in there? Why are you keeping it? When do you think you will actually use it again? Have you decided yet? How much is that indecision costing you?
I have to know. After all this, have you set up a desk yet?
Desks have always interested me, because in my experience most people don’t really use them. Desks are chosen more for their aesthetics than whether someone actually wants to sit in front of them and do stuff. Now that so many of us are stuck at home, when we never planned to be, I’m getting very curious how it’s all working out.
How many people live at your place? How many of them are studying or working from home? And how many have a physical desk?
The amazing thing to me, in my work with hoarders, has always been the way that stuff takes over areas that are no longer useful. Even when a certain space would be perfect for something that someone likes to do, that activity isn’t getting done because the stuff is in the way. The baker can’t bake, the crafter doesn’t have any flat surfaces to lay anything out, the writer has nowhere to write, the dancer can’t dance.
This is why I wonder. Now that the world has changed, are people changing the way they live amongst their stuff?
One of my friends has recently made a huge change. She has been dealing with chronic disorganization at least as long as I’ve known her, enough so that she’s been evicted at least twice over it. All of a sudden, she reached out and took me up on my offer to coach her. We talked on the phone for an hour - ONE HOUR! - and she’s spent the last several weeks clearing out her place. She sends me video updates from time to time and it’s incredibly dramatic.
Underneath all the piles, there emerges a fine design sensibility and some very graciously appointed rooms. Who knew?
My friend runs her own business, but it is in no way paperwork-related. I don’t think she has a desk at all, and if she did I have no idea what she would do at it. She’s all phone, all the time. She remains my only client who has no issues with paper clutter.
I think a lot of people have a desk because it was given to them at some point, possibly in high school, and they just move it from place to place. They may never have stopped to ask whether they even like it, much less want it, use it, or need it.
Others probably have a “computer desk” that they picked up in the time when we all used desktop computers with a bunch of peripherals and disks. They may not have noticed that at some point they pivoted to doing almost everything on their phone or a tablet.
Most of my people have desks that are basically just another flat surface for piling mail and other papers. The dining table and the kitchen counters are basically the same way. When I do home visits, (or used to), we would whip through the papers at lightning speed because almost none of them were useful. It would be 90% junk mail, restaurant menus, catalogues, coupons, and random stuff they never asked for. Most of what was left was redundant, stuff we don’t need to keep, like utility bills and grocery receipts.
This is what I wonder. How likely is it that people are still hunched over, working or studying in some uncomfortable position all day, when all that unsorted paper is still piled up doing nobody any good?
I think about it a lot, because I started a new job not long after the stay-at-home order, and I wasn’t ready. I didn’t have a decent office chair. I was using a wooden folding chair, one with slats that I never realized were so cruel. In all the time I had used this desk, I’d never sat at it for more than maybe two hours at a time. It actually made my butt go numb.
After two months of nine-hour days, I was ready for a proper ergonomic chair, ugly as it is. I assembled it at 10 pm because there was no way I was waiting another day. After a bit of time sitting in my lovely new chair, I bought a velvet seat cushion and I never looked back.
Life is too short to be hunched over and giving yourself back, shoulder, and neck pain at some makeshift pretense of a work station. Or to put your legs to sleep because you’re sitting in a slatted folding chair.
I know I’m not the only person who was doing this because I found out my work partner was using the exact same type of chair. It would be an extremely weird coincidence if we were the only two people on Earth who were doing that to ourselves.
I realize that money is tight or nonexistent for a lot of households right now. I also know that a lot of people habitually give their stuff all the best real estate and furniture in the house, and leave only little slivers for themselves. For many people, what they need to do in order to be more comfortable is to remove things, not buy or add things.
In the past few months, I’ve given away a lot of things to various strangers in the neighborhood. This has caused me to notice how much other stuff people are giving away, and that oddly seems to include a lot of desks, bookshelves, and chairs. It’s probably a combination of people relocating, and upgrading to newer furniture when they realize that what they had in February 2020 wasn’t working after the world changed. It’s entirely possible to take a look at the listings and realize that you’d be doing someone a favor by taking your perfect desk off their hands. Help them make some space.
Make yourself some space.
A question that is always helpful to ask is, If not now, when? What’s the exit strategy for what I’m doing? When will I want to do something else instead? The way we arrange our rooms is part of that, that sense that it’s good to change things from time to time. It’s good to make sure that our stuff serves us, and make sure we are not at its mercy.
Take a moment to look around and ask yourself, if you’re working from home: Is it time to set up a real desk? Maybe something different, maybe in a different spot? Is it time to finally sort out some stuff and let it go?
Best of luck to you, and I hope your chair is as good to you as you deserve.
Something I have learned from working with chronically disorganized people is that they don’t tend to think in terms of categories. My people are fun to work with because they tend to be exceptionally nice and creative. It’s also funny to surprise them with patterns they hadn’t noticed until you point them out.
Others may ask, “Why are they doing that? How can they live that way?”
I know that the answer is, “It hasn’t occurred to them yet that it might be a problem.”
Why is there a pot on the kitchen floor?
Why doesn’t he have a shower curtain?
Why are there things behind the door so it can’t open all the way?
Organizing books and techniques tend to focus on the items in a home and where to put them. I prefer to focus on the living space itself, which is usually the absence of any and all items, and whether my person has room to do anything.
Can you sleep in the bed? ...The whole bed?
It’s surprising how common it is for my people to pile clutter of all types on their beds, and then sleep on only a narrow little sliver of mattress. Or the couch, or a chair.
Can you open all the doors? All the way?
Again, incredibly common for stuff to be piled behind doors. It may have fallen back there. Maybe nobody noticed. There may just be so much stuff that it’s the only space left. My people don’t tend to realize that they may be subconsciously blocking their doors for protection, a barricade that insulates them in their comfort zone.
Can you walk safely up and down the stairs?
I try not to be judgmental in my work, because people are entitled to arrange their personal space however they see fit. I do set the boundary early on that I ask people not to keep “anything with DNA” and to please fix obvious safety hazards. Storing stuff on the stairs is one of them. Putting fabric like dish towels on top of the stove is another.
Can you use the shower, sink, and toilet?
I have been in a lot of homes with nonfunctional plumbing. These are usually the “ones” on the Readiness Scale, the people who are absolutely not ready to do the work. They are fine with the way things are. I don’t work with them - they wouldn’t want me to - but they do make great case histories for my twos and threes.
Note: Any professional who does home visits, whether it’s a mover, a cable installer, an exterminator, a plumber, electrician, or whoever, has seen it all. Every single day. (I know because I always ask them for stories). Don’t be embarrassed to call and get something repaired. Your place probably won’t be the worst they’ve ever seen, and it might not even be the 500th worst. The only thing I’ll say is that an exterminator will charge more to service a place that is packed with stuff than they will for a more streamlined home.
Are you constantly annoyed by rodents, bugs, mold, or broken stuff?
See above. Please take action and take care of yourself. You deserve to be safe and comfortable.
Some of you may be reading along and thinking, Whoa, maybe I’m not as bad off as I thought. Probably true! Pop culture has developed an awareness of hoarding, squalor, and chronic disorganization - although it doesn’t distinguish between them - but it isn’t well-known how very common it all is. I would estimate that maybe 10% of people are so clean and tidy they could do a magazine shoot, while 80% are basically messy most of the time. The bottom 20% are totally like what you’d see on TV. Yes, I said 20%!
Almost all of them either think it’s their dirty little secret, or they don’t care at all and they’re essentially rebelling against what they think other people think.
The truth is that most people are too busy worrying about how they themselves are being judged to worry much about anyone else. They’re not thinking about you, they’re thinking about themselves.
For those who are more in the middle, there are more practical questions to spot issues that could be fixed by Getting Organized.
Are you often running out the door late, in a panic?
If you have kids, does someone start crying in the morning more than one day a week?
Do you have to go to the grocery store more than twice a week?
Can you remember the last time your car ran out of gas?
Can you remember the last time you had no piles of laundry, either clean or dirty?
Can you eat at the table if you want to?
Would it take you more than five minutes to find: your keys, driver’s license, phone charger, prescriptions, passport, umbrella, or a postage stamp?
Most of these issues reveal the lack of a system. That’s all. Often one simple change can get rid of a whole series of hassles. For instance, out of the above list, most of those items in my home are within ten feet of each other.
Organizing issues aren’t graded. There isn’t a report or an audit. (Unless you’re in an apartment or townhouse, in which case you might have 24 hours to prepare for a habitability check).
What it really comes down to is your tolerance for a background level of stress, anxiety, or confusion.
Where most of my people have issues, besides not being highly skilled at putting things in categories, is that they are reluctant to ask for help. They’re embarrassed, they don’t know where to start, they don’t even know whom to ask. They blame themselves for “being lazy” or “procrastinating” when the real issue is that they have no idea what to do. How is that someone’s fault?
One way to approach it is to collect stories. Simply ask other people what they do in a certain situation, like whether they have trouble getting themselves and their kids out the door on time. Maybe they’ll share similar stories and you can laugh about it together. Maybe they have some tricks that would work for you, too. Just don’t go it alone, and please, don’t keep tolerating baseline misery. You deserve better.
For complicated reasons, we had brief access to a car. We were going to have to return it, obviously, and I wanted to use the opportunity to drop off some donations at Goodwill. There is one about a half mile from our apartment, quite close in walking terms, but only if you’re not lugging a 15-pound box of stuff.
I checked the website in advance, because these places are notorious for having different hours and rules of operation. Five p.m. Great. It was not quite three.
We pulled up at 3:05 pm. I got out with my basket.
Apparently the donation hours had changed the day before and they were now closed at 3:00 pm.
Uh, but, I’m standing right here, and the door is still open, and it’s now 3:06?
I felt wilted and humiliated and frustrated. Now what was I supposed to do??
Of course none of that was the fault of the young employee who relayed this message. It was probably not her policy and she was probably quite tired of getting pushback from people about things that were outside her control.
I’ve been that person, berated by hoi polloi because I wouldn’t sell them alcohol during prohibited hours or take returns without a receipt, among other crimes against humanity. Far be it from me to ever be the worst transaction of someone’s day.
Still I was pretty cheesed off.
We wound up still having access to the car the next day. I thought, what the heck, let’s give this another shot. I have zero closet space, and this box is taking up valuable real estate in my tiny apartment. I recalled the hours of drop-off as 10 to 3, so I called ahead to triple-check.
Oh, we close at 1:00.
What?? Okay, seriously.
I kept those thoughts to myself and simply asked, “Is that every day?”
It was noon, so we hustled it over there, hauling the big clunky box back down the elevator for the second time in under 24 hours. We weren’t convinced they would actually take it off our hands until the trunk was slammed shut, at which point we did a victory dance.
Then we took the borrowed car down the street and had it washed and vacuumed, because that’s how we roll.
It remains a mystery how these charities that exist on donated goods and volunteer labor can pick and choose what they take and when they take it. This experience of being sent away with my attempted donation has happened more than once, in multiple cities. That’s why it’s good to do a bit of research ahead of time. Who takes what?
There are some surprising items that most charities won’t accept.
Plastic garage shelving
Furniture of any kind - depending on location - but especially not glass furniture
Baby stuff like high chairs, cribs, or strollers
Electronics - and this completely depends on size and type
We tend to give things away rather than sell them, even if they might fetch a decent price, because my patience has been completely worn away by dickering with cheapskates. I mean, I’m a tightwad, but there is an ethical code to this stuff. Don’t ask for an 80% discount on something that is already 80% cheaper than retail.
I’ve used Freecycle, Craigslist, and Nextdoor to give stuff away. Each of these services has resulted in a barrage of frantic emails and texts asking if they can get whatever it is, only to ghost and not pick it up. After a certain amount of time, I’ll move on to the next person. It has taken as many as four tries to get someone to actually pick up the thing they wanted. This is true when it’s listed for free, and it’s also true when it’s something for sale. I can only guess that some people get that eBay-type thrill of winning an auction, without any real desire for the item in question.
There’s a limit. There are only so many individual listings that I have the patience for. I’ll usually only do it for large items I know I can’t donate, like a table or a box of Mason jars.
That leaves smaller, random things. Clothes, old housewares, maybe books. I’m not going to sit around waiting for my neighbors to finish fighting over a lamp we bought at IKEA for $10.
It would be nice if there were somewhere in the neighborhood where we could exchange stuff. We have a few “little free libraries” where the trade in used books is brisk. They really aren’t big enough for other types of items.
In other neighborhoods, people have been known to leave free stuff on the curb, or set it on the ground next to the dumpster. Neither of those things are an option where we live right now. Logistically I can’t imagine where we would host a yard sale, either, even if it weren’t a pandemic and even if I hadn’t sworn off them several years ago.
Throwing stuff in the dumpster and sending it to the landfill, when there’s nothing wrong with it and someone could still use it, is the line I just can’t cross. Landfills are a pretty extreme problem even when they’re filled only with useless trash - why make it worse?
Also, I remember the long years when thrifting was my best option. I wonder what all the young families and student households would do if there were no thrift stores?
Things are weird due to the pandemic. There are millions of people looking for work who will be feeling the financial effects for years to come. There are also tens of thousands of people who have used the stay-at-home order to declutter their homes and garages. News reports have shown donation centers packed full with lines of cars waiting to drop stuff off. It will take a while before it starts flowing out again at the rate it went in.
In the meantime, I’m thrilled to have two square feet of space back in my little apartment. Here’s hoping I won’t have to arrange another drop-off until the next time we move.
So far I have failed to make it past the first episode of any organizing show other than Hoarders. I keep thinking I’ll find them motivating, or that they’ll teach me something new about coaching clients. This time, I might keep going, because The Home Edit is good for my marriage.
I turned to my husband after watching the show and somehow not noticing the transition to Episode Two.
“Do you know why I foisted this on you?”
He paused for a beat and then said, “Because you don’t have any of that stuff.”
“Got it in one!”
The Home Edit seems to find time to help two households per episode with one area of their home. The first episode happened to include two women’s closets, and then the second episode had... a woman who needed help with her closet.
There are a lot of things I like about the show and about The Home Edit in general. I love that it’s a woman-owned business and that they’ve done so well for themselves, moving from consulting to the book to a product line to their own television show. I love the rainbows. I also went so far as to organize my own refrigerator based on their methods.
(My husband loves it, by the way - it’s the only organizing job I’ve ever done that he has particularly noticed or commented on more than once).
There are some things that I think are funny across the Home Edit universe:
The pantries in these homes are the size of what used to be big walk-in closets.
The closets in these homes are the size of... literally my entire bedroom.
People are paying big bucks to professional organizers to sort things that I don’t even own.
I thought about this a lot because my holdout friend finally called me for help. I have a local friend who I knew immediately was “one of mine.” I told her about my work and offered to come over and help her for free - because I love her and I’m nice that way. She wouldn’t even let me see her place, much less accept my help. (And then she got evicted twice in a row, from two different apartment complexes, for failing the habitability check). We talked on the phone for an hour, and then she sent me photos. Level 2. Then she busted her butt like a maniac, all by herself, and got rid of 80% of the hoard in her living room - in like five days.
I think about people like her when I see these shows that celebrate standard consumerism. For my people, the chronically disorganized and the compulsive accumulators, it tends to lead to even larger hoards. They believe that buying more stuff - organizers, matched sets - will solve their problem. Then they find out the hard way that they have 10x more stuff than will fit in the organizers.
Every time I did a home visit, I would fit “organizers” with the price tags still on. Bins, tubs, boxes, drawer units, and definitely clutter-busting books!
Getting Organized is aspirational. I didn’t realize, when I started, that what I really hankered for was an upper-middle-class lifestyle in an upper-middle-class home. My tiny, dark apartments were never going to look like the spacious, well-lit houses in those photos. There’s a reason a celebrity like Reese Witherspoon has multiple closets the size of my living room, and it’s because she can afford them.
Ever go around The Container Store and price out your ultimate shopping list? For most homes, it would easily be a couple grand. Not everyone is going to be able to spend $200 on organizers for their fridge and pantry, or specialty hangers and storage boxes for their ultra-closet.
Maybe spend that on new furniture instead, if you can?
There are two reasons my holdout friend finally started getting rid of her hoard. The first was love - her dad was coming to visit for the first time in many years and she was beyond excited to see him. The second was money - she started her own business and she’s probably earning at least triple what she was when we met. Those simple shifts, from isolation to hospitality and from scarcity to prosperity, are very powerful and effective.
I wonder if now my friend will take an interest in things like The Home Edit?
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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